HALF HORSE BOOK 1
CHAPTER 2... ALL TO DO WITH RACING
Jeff was confused when he woke. He sat up slowly in bed feeling as if he was still in a dream though his eyes were wide open. The things of his dream were all around him- the white column wardrobe, the stone floor, the tubs of bitwarn vine, long black hair hanging over his shoulder- but they did not look dream like, they looked solid and real. And then he remembered the events of the previous evening and knew it was all real. This was actually happening to him.
It was early in the new day- the sunlight was barely lighting the land and Rignoh was still asleep, tangled in his blue blanket like a child's floppy, leggy puppet. When Sierra's hoofs tapped on the floor, the brown horse woke, sat up, pushed his mane out of his eyes and said, “Good morning. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you,” Sierra replied, though it was not entirely the truth. It had been a strange night. He'd gone to sleep quickly, slept deeply and woken feeling fully rested. But it was still very dark and his roommate was sound asleep so he guessed he had woken too early. For a while he lay quiet looking at the ceiling but growing bored with that he sat up and looked out through the glass wall to the moonlit scenery and the city glow, watching for signs of daylight coming. After what seemed like hours, with no sign of dawn, he concluded that his sense of time must have been thrown out of whack by the trip through the space hole. He settled down on his bed again, and after that dozed and woke at intervals for the rest of the night.
Rignoh took a blanket from the cupboard beside his bed and tossed it to Sierra. “Wrap that round yourself. The bathroom gets a bit cold in the morning.”
“Thanks. What about you?”
“I've got a robe. We can get dressed when we get back. Come on, we'd better hurry. I'm late again.”
Sierra wondered, as he followed Rignoh from the room, if he was always late for everything, or was it just that his lifestyle had been disturbed by his arrival? It made him feel like Alice chasing after a white rabbit. The passageway and washroom were deserted, but there was evidence, in the form of scattered towels and running taps, that someone had been there. Curious to see the other horses, he asked Rignoh where they were.
“Up and gone ages ago,” was the reply. “On training days they have to get up before dawn to practice while it's still cool. At least... that's what Nicoy says, but I think she likes to catch them while they're still sleepy. She can get a lot of information packed into them before they wake up enough to protest.” He nodded sideways. “Most of them will be down at the track. Cresta- the white horse I was with last night- will come later with Lyla. They live in a place down the road a bit. Lyla races for Tara Hi, so she comes here for training every day...” He fell silent as he concentrated on adjusting the taps to get a steady flow of warm water.
The bathroom was well appointed, with hot water on tap, a fragrant liquid soap, scrubbing stones, a collection of brushes of different sizes, towels galore, and powders, potions and oils for various uses. Though quinolans were owned and therefore slaves, they were obviously well cared for and keen on their creature comforts. Rignoh showered and dried himself but made no attempt to sort out the tangles in his half wet mane and tail. That, Sierra assumed, would be Pobey's task. After dressing, back in the room, they went downstairs to the empty lobby of the stable and out by the way they'd come the night before.
In the morning light the new world in which he'd found himself looked bright and pleasant to Sierra, with a small, yellow sun peeping over the trees in a sky which showed promise of turning blue and clear as the day wore on. By night, in spite of the bright moonlight, the garden had seemed grey; by day it was a riot of colour. All round, tall trees were decked out in leaves of vivid red, bright yellow, purple, blue and varying shades of green. The garden shrubs and plants were also colourful with a variety of two-toned leaves as well as many flowers. He found the scenery so absorbing he had to make a real effort to take his eyes off it to concentrate on the path, before his new, unfamiliar hoofs caught on the paving stones and sent him sprawling.
“Where will I be going this morning?” he asked as he carefully followed Rignoh between blue, ferny bushes. Unaware of his companion's walking problems, the brown horse strode swiftly through the garden toward the house.
“I'll take you to Nicoy,” he said. “She'll tell you what she wants you to do.”
They crossed a strip of lawn and went down three steps to the courtyard at the back of the house. Pobey was there, just outside the grooming room door, wrestling with a young horse in a green sirat. The colt, a red-brown like Rignoh, was kicking, swinging his arms about and squealing insults at the man who held him. The man, in turn, directed a few choice insults at the horse as he tried to get a headstrap on him. When, at last, he got the item in place, he used it to haul the colt into the grooming room.
“He must have a race today,” Rignoh remarked. “Otherwise Pobey wouldn't bother trying to put a headstrap on him. Gwanee always makes a fuss. You'd think it choked him the way he carries on.” For Sierra's information he added: “You only have to wear a headstrap if you go off your stable grounds.”
“I see. How do you know how far you can go?”
“You'd soon see. There's a big wall all round Tara Hi. Nicoy also owns some of the slope down toward Thoje's place and the old racetrack, but it's outside the wall and she doesn't like us going there because it's gone a bit wild and there are thorn and burr bushes. They can make a real mess of our tails.”
They walked into the grooming room but Pobey had his hands full with the unruly colt so they went on, deeper into the house till they reached the kitchen. It was a vast room of scrubbed white stone and gleaming wood. Rignoh breezed in and helped himself to a handful of small biscuits from a wooden bowl.
“Breakfast,” he said, scattering crumbs as he spoke. “Help yourself.” He waved a fist at the bowl of biscuits, and other bowls containing nuggetty lumps of something that looked like a whole grain cereal, dried fruits and green vegetables. “We don't sit down for breakfast. Nobody ever does in a racing stable; there's always too much to do in the morning. We'll have a hot meal tonight. If you get hungry during the day, just come in and help yourself to whatever you find on the table here. Only don't overdo it and spoil your appetite for the meal.” Having disposed of the biscuits he stocked up on fruit and vegetables and resumed the demolition process.
“Who does the cooking around here?” Sierra asked, looking about. The cook was conspicuously absent.
“Yob,” Rignoh replied unhelpfully, scratching in the dried fruit bowl for his favourites.
When he'd eaten his fill and Sierra had taken the edge off his appetite with a cautious nibble at some biscuits, they returned to the grooming room. Nicoy was there. The soft, green gown of the night before had been replaced by a short, light brown dress belted at the waist by a dark brown leather belt. Her calf length boots were made of a white material, matching the band that held back her hair in a no-nonsense daytime style. She carried a short, leather covered stick and was tapping it thoughtfully against her leg as she spoke to the groom over the head of the copper coloured colt.
“He doesn't actually have to be at the track till around noon. I can't trust him to behave so perhaps you'd better lock him in his room till it's time to go. I'll get Zaras to take him this time I think...” She turned as the two horses came in. Pobey left with the colt. “Ah, there you are. I've been looking for you. Have you both had something to eat?” She nodded in time with Rignoh's happy nodding. “Yes, I thought the kitchen would be the first place you'd show to our newcomer.” Sierra felt as if he'd made a fool of himself somehow, but Nicoy didn’t seem annoyed- either with himself or the brown horse. “Go to my office,” she told Rignoh, “there's a money satchel on the desk. I want you to go to oku and buy a work horse. I've allowed seven hundred and fifty tevers, but you should get a good one for five hundred if you look around. Take your time but try to get back by tonight. We'll need help with Rochey away and Sierra extra. Don't forget to get the paperwork straight before you leave oku.” She looked to the black horse. “You don't need to be groomed again this morning. I'll give your mane and tail a quick brush then we'll go over to the track and you can meet the horses. After that we'll talk for a while.”
She took a brush and began to sort out the tangles in his mane. He submitted to it in silence feeling more than a little embarrassed to have a beautiful woman brushing his hair. It had seemed strange enough the night before when Pobey brushed him all over. This was worse, especially when she when she went down on her knees to comb the long hair of his tail. He was glad when it was over. Nicoy ushered him outside, steering him right from the grooming room door, across the courtyard to a low, side wall. Stepping up onto it they reached a stone path which they followed across broad lawns, below shady trees and through patches of shrubbery. At one point the path divided. Nicoy pointed to the left hand path as they took the right hand one. “That goes to the beechna courts. I don't suppose you've ever played beechna.”
“No, what is it?”
“It's a game- played with live beechna birds in large, enclosed courts. Most of my horses play.”
“No. Even with specially made wings people seem to be too heavy and ungainly to make them operate successfully.”
“Wings?” Sierra asked.
“Yes, wings. So you can fly- like a bird.” The woman gave him a playful, smiling glance. “Didn't your city wildie tell you about that?” Sierra shook his head. They continued to follow the path over gently undulating land to a destination still out of sight. Nicoy talked about beechna being a good sport for racers as it helped to sharpen their reflexes. She remarked that he would probably make a good player once he learned how, as he was strong yet light. “Don’t worry about not knowing how to play,” she went on, “one of my horses will soon drag you over to the courts to teach you the rules.”
“How many horses do you own?”
Nicoy frowned. “Eleven,” she said slowly, “including you. And I'll have twelve when Rignoh gets back.” A laugh washed away the frown. “Cotha! I had to stop and think then. So many. Dumbray also stays here, and Cresta and Lyla are here most of the time too. Fifteen horses around my feet all day.” She tossed a glance at the sky. “No wonder people say I'm beginning to act like a quinolan.”
Realising she was joking, Sierra gave a little laugh; then he asked: “Are they all racers?”
“No. Some racers, some work horses and two trainers. Rignoh and Rochey are my two work horses. Rochey's away on holiday at the moment. He's a lovely little horse, but noisy. I had to send him away for a while before we all went deaf. Then there's Burra and Coh, my only mated pair now that Gwana and Jemmer are gone. They're trainers, ex-racers, both good horses. And I have six racers. There's Moryee and Jinda, both young mares. Jinda is racing this morning, so you won't meet her till later. Then Riban Ben, Pento Ray, Porrel and Gwanee, all young males. Riban Ben was my fastest till you arrived...”
“I might not be fast,” Sierra protested, not liking her automatic assumption of his abilities- abilities not even he was sure he had.
Nicoy made a small snort of amusement and said nothing.
They reached the top of the bank surrounding the racetrack and stood looking down on an oval of dark green turf. On the trimmed strip around the edge of the oval stood the woman Sierra had seen the night before, talking to a racer in a green sirat. His body fur was the same red-brown as Rignoh's but his mane and tail were a beautiful, light cream. This same, light, clean colour made up both the fur, mane and tail of another horse on the opposite side of the track. He and a dark brown quinolan in a purple sirat were engaged in a curious performance that consisted of about six steps forward, turn and repeat, like a kind of tango.
Another horse in purple was talking to a group of horses below a tree at one side of the track. They were all dressed in green. Close by, but not part of the group was Rignoh's white friend. He alone was dressed in blue.
As soon as Nicoy walked into sight down the bank the cream-maned horse turned and walked away from the woman trainer, leaving her looking annoyed. All but one of the other horses also stopped what they'd been doing and came to stand in a jostling group before their stable owner and the new gold harnesser. They gazed at Sierra in a mixture of awe and curiosity. The one exception- a tall, brown horse- remained seated on a stone bench below a tree.
“Good morning pets,” Nicoy greeted her little herd. “I'm sorry to interrupt your training like this...” The horses all laughed and Sierra gathered they didn't mind the disruption to training in the least, “but you can make up for it tonight.” There was a flurry of manes as they shook their heads and protested. Nicoy laughed softly. “It’s all right, I was teasing. Of course you don't have to train late. You're all doing well. I'm very pleased with you. Now I'd like you to meet your new gold harnesser. I imagine Pobey's already told you a lot about him during grooming this morning.” She put one arm around Sierra's shoulders to draw him forward. “His name is Sierra. He's been Rama up till now so there are probably many things about our way of life he will not understand. I want you to give him all the help you can as well as the respect and obedience due to a gold harnesser. Is that understood?” There was a general murmur of 'yeses', then Nicoy went on to introduce each one in turn. “This is Burra.”
Burra was the big, dark brown horse in the purple sirat who had been involved in the dance sequence on the far side of the track. He stepped up and touched Sierra's shoulder in the local manner of greeting. After a moment's hesitation Sierra returned the gesture and was relieved to realise he'd done the right thing. Burra's rugged face creased into a warm smile as Nicoy explained about his being a trainer horse, and her expectation that Sierra would obey his instructions as her own if he were ever placed in his care.
“Coh is his mare, and our other trainer,” she went on, calling forward the other horse in purple. A mare with light brown fur but dark brown mane and tail stepped forward and nodded to him. Both she and Burra were older than the other horses, by quite a few years, Sierra guessed, but like a cat or a dog neither had lost their grace or beauty with age.
All the other horses were young adults. There was soft spoken Riban Ben, a two colour brown; Porrel, the tall, elegant creamy horse who had been working with Burra; Moryee, a grey mare as graceful as a deer; Pento Ray, the cream maned horse he'd first noticed; and Cresta, the white work horse. The last to be introduced was Thoje's racer, a dainty, brown filly named Lyla. As Nicoy introduced her with pride in her voice, Sierra found himself hypnotised by her beauty and soft voice. He would have liked to have talked to her, but Nicoy told them all to return to work and Coh took Lyla aside for further training. He followed her with his eyes as she walked gracefully away along the track.
“She is pretty, isn't she?” the woman asked, causing Sierra to blush. Nicoy laughed and ruffled his mane. “Don't worry about it. Half the male racers in Rynn are in love with Lyla, including Dumbray.” She nodded at the tall, brown horse who had remained aloof. He had risen from the stone bench and walked across to stand near Zaras, his owner. Nicoy regarded the pair in silence for a while then with a small intake of breath and a narrowing of her eyes which indicated decision, she set off toward the trainer. In the absence of other instruction, Sierra followed along behind and when the women met he halted a few paces distant.
“Finished your little speech?” Zaras asked sarcastically. “I hope you realise you've thoroughly messed up my training programme for the morning.”
“Oh Zaras,” Nicoy replied in a scoffing tone, “none of the horses are in strict training, except Dumbray, and you weren't working with him.”
“I was trying to work with that evil-eyed wildie of yours, but he prefers to wander off and listen to you than to get down to some serious training.”
“Pento Ray is a good worker, and you know it. A little break does none of them any harm, and possibly some good. We don't all have your dedication. But that's not what I came to talk to you about.”
Nicoy paused to flick a glance round to check on Sierra's whereabouts. He was standing quietly nearby, looking past Zaras to Dumbray. She followed the gaze and also looked at the brown horse for a few moments. Dumbray's face wore its usual, placid, slightly wistful expression and she wondered how disappointed he was to see the gold harness on a stranger's back. It was a shame; he really did deserve the position; he was a true champion and had the makings of a leader; but he belonged to Zaras and Nicoy had vowed, a long time back, not to allow the woman a scrap more power than she already had within her stable. Twitching her head back to face the trainer she went on:
“Gwanee has a race today. I know I said I'd take him myself, but that was before Sierra came and I'd like some time to talk to him. You have no track appointments and Ray's training is not vital, so would you please take Gwanee to the track this afternoon? Fourth Track, second after midday. I doubt he'll win so it shouldn't occupy too much of your time.”
Zaras's response was instant and there was fire in her eyes to match the flash of fire that showed in her long red hair as she tossed her head. “What kind of a fool do you think I am?” she asked. “Do you really expect me to go off to the track with that idiot racer of yours and leave you here to try out your new hope against Dumbray while my back's turned?” Her voice shrilled unpleasantly as she ran out of breath at the end of the sentence. Nicoy had expected nothing of the kind and had not even thought of testing Sierra against Dumbray; she was at first surprised, then disdainful of the way the trainer's mind worked.
“Really Zaras,” she said in disgust. “Even if I did have it in mind, which I didn't, you know Dumbray wouldn't allow it; he's too afraid of you. However, if you're so afraid Sierra might beat him, why don't you take him with you to keep him out of harm's way?” She paused, then added: “On second thought... never mind, I’ll take Gwanee myself. I'm sorry I asked.”
Zaras had the grace to flush red. Without another word she turned, grabbed Dumbray by the arm and marched away with him. Nicoy sighed as she turned to Sierra. “I had a feeling I wouldn't be able to get out of taking Gwanee to the track today. Ah well... we still have all morning for talking.” She began to walk, across a lawn to the house.
Sierra knew, without knowing how he knew, that they were walking back toward the house, even though they were following a path different to the one they had taken earlier. The house, tucked in a slight hollow of the undulating land, was not visible from their current position, but he knew where it was all the same. He also knew the exact location, through all the trees, of the stable building, of the front gate, and of the place where he'd met Rignoh. He even knew the location of the more distant pile of rock which marked the location of the space hole. It was an odd sensation to someone who'd always had an atrocious sense of direction.
When he'd lived with his aunt in the town of Teringah, their house had been on the southern edge. In speaking of their neighbouring towns of Jimpson's Creek and Norialda, one of which lay to the north and one to the north west, he had invariably pointed in the wrong direction. And while out bushwalking he only had to turn round twice to completely lose all sense of where he'd come from. After a first, frightening experience of getting lost he'd never ventured into the bush without a compass and a map. If he'd had this quinolan sense of direction at his disposal then, he had a feeling he would have been able to find his way home from wherever he went. A cry of annoyance from the woman at his side brought him back from the hot, dry landscape of Teringah to the cool lushness of the gardens at Tara Hi.
They had reached a slight rise on the edge of the garden by the stable. Through the trees and flowering bushes he could see the slim figure of the red brown colt that Pobey had been battling with that morning. He was jumping about on the stones of a rock garden. Nicoy shook her head.
“That horse. He's supposed to be in his room, keeping clean and calm till race time. He's so disobedient. I really don't know what to do with him. His mother was Gwana, our last gold harnesser. She was a sweet, gentle horse; I was very fond of her. Unfortunately Gwanee seems to think it gives him the right to do as he likes.” She sighed. “It's a pity. He'd make a good racer if he'd only settle down and work at it. Perhaps it's my fault. I don't like to punish him because he reminds me so much of his mother.” She lifted her shoulders in a shrug and moved toward a patch of shady lawn by a red leafed tree with a startling blue trunk. “He's young, he may grow out of it yet. Come and we’ll sit down for a while and talk. For start can you tell me how old you are?"
Sierra's face was blank as he followed her toward the tree and sank down beside her on the soft, light green lawn. All about the spreading roots at the tree's base were little mounds of soil marring the perfection of the smooth carpet of turf. He wondered what kind of animal had caused them and hoped, as he moved his legs on the grass, that none would decide to come up underneath him. He really did not fancy being nipped by an alien bullant.
“I don't know how to tell you my age. I don't know how to work it out in your way of marking time.” In his mind he had a vague concept of Zammoran days, weeks, years, seasons and cycles, but could not put it into any sort of order.
“Don’t worry, it’s not important. I put you down as fifty when I filled out the form for the protection tag.”
“Fifty!” Sierra could not stop himself from squawking. Nicoy did not seem to notice his surprise. She went on calmly:
“That would be about right I think. I can see you're still a colt... not yet fully mature... but on the verge of it- right?”
He nodded agreement. If in becoming quinolan he had kept his relative age then he was a youth on the verge of becoming an adult.
Before either could speak again a small volcano of soil erupted from the grass close by and a white, whiskered snout pushed out into the daylight. Quick as a flash the woman grabbed it. There was a smothered squeal, a shower of soil and a glimpse of pale colour as the rest of the animal emerged. Nicoy laughed as she held the captive creature in her hands. “Oh I haven't done that for years!” she cried. “When I was a girl I used to try to catch them- just for the fun of it at first. Then my cousins came to visit and they made it a betting game. After that I got very good at it.”
“What is it?” Sierra asked, leaning over to observe the animal. It looked like a large rat, but with black and white striped fur and long ears like a rabbit. It lay still but alert in the woman's hands, only its pink nose and stiff whiskers twitching.
“A ponnie.” she gave her head a toss in a circular motion. “There are thousands of them round here. Don't you have them where you come from?” She transferred the ponnie to one hand and stroked it with the other. It closed its eyes under the pressure of each stroke and seemed to enjoy the sensation.
“We've got nothing quite like this,” Sierra said, reaching out to touch it. Its fur was as soft and silky as that of a kitten, but cool from its underground existence.
“They burrow underground during the day and come out at night to eat. Little pests. They can make a mess of a lawn overnight. That's why we grow that dark green grass on racetracks; ponnies don't like it.” She gave the ponnie a final stroke then let it go. It sat still for a moment before dashing away. Nicoy dusted the dirt from her hands. “Now then, where shall we begin? Will you tell me about yourself, or would you like to know something about racing?”
“There's not much of interest about me, so I'd like to learn something about racing, if you wouldn't mind.”
“Do you know anything at all?” The black horse gave her a slow shrug in reply.
Nicoy thought about what she would say. She'd dealt with a few wildies before and they all seemed to know something about the Zammoran way of life, but they'd come from the hills and jungles close to Rynn, whereas this one was from the far south, so perhaps it was not surprising he knew so little. She would have to start right at the beginning. In a way it might be a good thing- he was like a blank board onto which she could write her own story.
“As you know, quinolans can run fast. They enjoy racing each other, and for as long as people have owned them they've raced their fastest against their neighbour's fastest. In time this became a national sport with proper rules and regulations and proper tracks built for the purpose.” She paused to see if he was following. He took the opportunity to ask a question.
“What was that you said to Zaras about the fourth track and second after midday?”
“It's all to do with the way the system works. Rynn has six tracks. The largest, called the First Track, is right in the heart of the city. The Second and Third Tracks are in the outer ring of the city, the Fourth a bit farther out and the Fifth and Sixth are right on the edge. They cater mainly for beginners and are rated roughly equal.
“Normally, owners send their young racers there to begin with and gradually, if they're good enough, work them up to First Track standard. So you see, a horse's ability is judged by the track he races on. There are bigger prizes at the larger tracks, and correspondingly higher entry fees. Once a horse has raced on a larger track and been accepted there, he may no longer race on a lesser track. It's obvious that a horse of First Track standard wouldn't be allowed to race at the Fourth Track and walk away with all the prizes. But a Fourth Track racer could run on the First Track if he or she wanted to.” She looked at the black horse. He nodded and seemed to understand all she was saying, so she went on:
“As for the rest of it- 'second race after midday' is just a way of naming races. Each track has a set number of races to complete in one day; as many as twelve a day on the lesser tracks to as few as six a day on the First Track. Usually they have three races in the morning, two or three in the afternoon and one important race in the evening. They sometimes have a series of night races as well.
“I'm talking about flat racing of course. All day they have races of other kinds between ours- jump races, team races and some novelty events to keep the crowd amused. They have their own way of naming races, different from ours. Gwanee is running today on the Fourth Track, second race after midday.”
“I see. It's quite simple.”
“Occasionally,” Nicoy continued with a sparkle in her eyes, “a completely new and unraced horse will start at the First or Second Track and win, without ever having laid hoof on a lesser track. This is looked on as quite miraculous, so can you imagine what people will say when you win your initial race, in the Race of the Year on the First Track?” She gave a little squeal of glee.
“Are you allowed to do that?”
“Yes, I told you, a new horse can run on any track he likes. Of course, it normally doesn't pay to give a horse his initial race on a big track because it would be a waste of money. The chances of a newcomer winning against the stiff competition are just too great to make it worthwhile, even for the prize money and the chance of picking up big money from a bet. We Zammorans love to gamble, but that's usually too much of a gamble even for us.”
Sierra found himself comparing the Race of the Year to the Melbourne Cup and imagining what would happen if a completely new and unraced horse entered it. Not only would it cause a sensation, the horse would be most unlikely to win.
“Why take the risk with me?” he asked. Nicoy laughed and said blithely:
“Oh you're quite a different matter. You're a born racer. I believe you already have the speed of a First Track champion and that with a just a short spell of intensive training to teach you a few techniques, you could match anything we have on the tracks today- even Dumbray. He's the favourite to win this year and Zaras hopes to make her fortune from it. I want you to win instead. When you do I'll be able to get rid of her, introduce you to the racing world and get my stable well known, all in one, glorious sweep!” She sighed and a dreamy look came into her eyes.
“What if I don't win?” Sierra asked bluntly. He was not happy about the idea of so much depending on him.
“Hm?” Nicoy was still lost in her dream. Suddenly she snapped out of it. “Not win?” she asked. “Of course you’ll win. I’ll accept nothing else. You must win.” Sierra felt a look of alarm forming on his face. Nicoy must have seen it because she laughed and rested back on her arms. “Oh pet, take no notice. You mustn't mind my enthusiasm. I sometimes get carried away by my dreams.” She let her gaze wander off into the unfocussed distance. “I've been thinking of nothing else since Pobey suggested it last night. Tara Hi's new gold harnesser wins, not only his initial race on the First Track, but the Race of the Year as well. It's like a story from the legends. A lovely story for a lovely horse.” She looked back at him and smiled. “You are a beautiful quinolan you know. What were your parents like?”
“I never knew my parents,” he replied truthfully.
“Have you any brothers or sisters?”
“No family at all. That's one of the reasons why I decided to come to the city.” His story about being a wildie from the south was beginning to sound more real to him all the time.
“You'll be famous you know,” Nicoy remarked. “People go mad over both black horses and Big Race winners. And when they're both the same horse... you've no idea! Col Chee was the only true black ever to run in a Big Race. He was a mediocre racer, but somehow he managed to win it. The fuss they made over him... it was incredible. Rynn celebrated for days. If you run a really good race, you'll be even more famous than he was.”
Now it was Sierra's turn to dream, but it was cut short by Cresta who had been sent to find Nicoy and tell her that Thoje and Jinda had arrived back from the track. Jinda was in her room, he reported, Thoje was on the terrace and Yob wanted to know if she had any special dietary requirements for the new horse. Nicoy thanked him for his news and told him to tell Yob that Sierra would eat the same food as everyone else, then she rose and stretched her legs. The soft material of her dress fell in smooth folds as soon as she stood and she only needed to brush off some dried grass to make it look fresh and clean.
Sierra's sirat was cut from the same cloth and he wondered, as he trotted along beside her, what it was made of. It felt like a combination of very soft leather and plastic, yet was neither. It was not thick or stiff like leather and not hot and sticky as plastic would have been. It did not appear to be woven or knotted, yet was very flexible with a slight stretchiness to it and a shining surface. In the case of his golden sirat it made the garment appear to be made of real metal.
The terrace on the northern side of the house was open to take advantage of cooling breezes, yet still well protected from the heat of the sun. Like the house it was made of stone, with a timber roof. Vines wound round its pillars and snaked across its roof beams. There was a small pond in the middle with a gentle trickle of water running constantly into it.
Beyond the low, stone wall that marked the edge of the terrace the garden sloped away in a mass of blue, green and mauve foliage, set off here and there by a splash of brilliant red or yellow. Beyond the garden the land swept away in a carpet of colour which gradually blended with the darker blue-green of the jungle and grew misty in the distance until it merged with the hazy lines of the city set below a row of red cliffs.
To the right, at the end of the terrace was a cool, vine covered grotto. The women sat there in wooden chairs to talk. Nicoy called for Sierra's attention. When he turned she waved one hand proudly at him as she asked, “What do you think of him?”
Nicoy’s friend was a young woman, with shoulder length hair of the same coppery colour as Rignoh's fur, and a pair of eyes that reminded Sierra of the blue of the Indian Ocean on a fine day.
“Beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Oh he is... beautiful. Why couldn't Cresta have brought him home to me?” She sniffed and pretended to wipe a tear from her eye. “I won't say I'm not eaten up with jealousy, but...” A smile crossed her face. “You deserve him, Nicoy.” Thoje beckoned for him to walk closer. He walked and she watched. Then she turned him round and made him walk away. “All right, come back here.” He returned and stood still while the woman ran knowing hands over his anatomy. He expected her to open his mouth and inspect his teeth too, but that was apparently not as necessary a part of inspecting half horses as it was of real horses- for which he was grateful. The examination, was thorough but gentle and not offensive.
When it was over Thoje sat back in her seat with a serious look on her face.
“You're right; he's nearly perfect. A little smaller than what is considered standard these days, but otherwise perfect. No brand, and not a mark or scratch on him. That’s unusual for a wildie.”
“I thought so too. Most of them are covered in scabs and scars. But we're thinking of the scruffy lot we get around here. Who knows how they live in the southern regions. Who knows even what the southern lands are like? They may be soft, gentle places to live. I'm not complaining and I'm not questioning. If the gods favour me with a gift such as this, just when I need it most, I'm not going to start wondering too deeply about it.”
“When do you plan to test his speed?”
“Tonight, if Zaras goes out. You’ll be there of course.”
“Of course!” Thoje said. “I’d be a fool to miss the first trial of a horse who will one day set the tracks on fire. History will be made tonight.”
Nicoy smiled. “I hope so. Now, tell me, what happened to Jinda?” She knew that if the brown filly had won her race she would be bouncing round the stable telling everyone all the wonderful details. Jinda tried very hard to be the very best at whatever she did, and failure- even when it was not of her own making- hit her hard.
“She came in third. It wasn't her fault. She made a good start, kept her head and did everything right, but in the second servit two big, clumsy mares closed in on her and blocked a gap she was trying to enter...” Thoje caught the look in her friend's eye and shook her head. “No. It wasn't deliberate on their part; they were simply clumsy, and Jinda miscalculated a bit. She'll win her next race, I promise you.”
“Being small too, Sierra will have some of the same problems as Jinda when he begins racing. How do you think we should teach him to handle it?”
“My father's methods are still effective, though that new trainer, Veena, has some very good ideas...”
Sierra went and sat on the terrace wall to look out at the garden as he listened to the women talk.
After a long talk on training methods and racing in general, Thoje declared she had work waiting for her at home. “I'll leave Cresta for you, to help out till Rignoh gets back with your new work horse. He can walk home with Lyla tonight. Make sure they leave before dark won't you?”
After she'd gone Nicoy joined Sierra where he sat on the wall. “I hope you didn't find our racing talk too tiresome,” she said. “Once we get started, we never seem to know when to stop.”
Sierra chuckled as he shook his head. “I found it interesting- what I understood of it. And I was enjoying the view.”
Nicoy looked out and sucked in a breath. “It is beautiful, isn't it? I've always loved it.”
“Have you lived here long?”
“Some years. But I've known this area since I was a girl. I used to come and stay with Thoje and we'd come here to visit their neighbour. This place used to be a training home for quinolans in various occupations. It was started by a remarkable woman named Azala. She was quite old when Thoje and I first met her, but so full of life and wonderful stories. We used to love coming here to visit her.” She smiled and waved a hand at the table and chairs at the end of the terrace. “We'd sit there with her, drinking warl from beautiful glass cups, eating the most delicious, dainty cakes, looking at this view and talking about everything from quinolans to the legends of Cotha. It was one of the nicest times of my childhood.”
“What happened to her?”
“She died. She was very old. It was not unexpected. She used to run this place with the help of her son and his wife. They were... cool sort of people. Thoje and I didn't like them much. We'd say terrible things about them, and make up stories about the way they kept Azala prisoner here and made her do their wishes while they spent all her money.” She made a self-disparaging snort of amusement. “Closer to the truth was that she was a tough old lady who ruled them very firmly, and they were simply too busy running the business to bother with two little girls from down the road. After she died they sold Tara Hi and moved to a more convenient location in the city. The place changed hands a number of times then I bought it.” She got to her feet. “Come on, I'll show you around the house.”
They spent the rest of the morning looking at the house. It and its contents were very interesting, especially as many items had stories attached; Sierra was not bored, yet still the morning seemed to drag on forever. His stomach, denied a decent breakfast because of his fear of the alien foods, began to grumble complaints. In the middle of a story about a book which had belonged to one of Nicoy's earliest ancestors, his innards gurgled loudly, causing the woman to glance at him.
Nicoy guessed that the horse might not have fed himself properly that morning. Either Rignoh had kept him talking when he should have been eating, or he had not fancied the foods available. She remembered the difficulty she'd had with one of her wildies. She had refused to eat almost every food they offered to her and had ended up living on nuts and one or two vegetables plucked fresh from the garden. Though quinolans did not normally eat a midday meal, she thought it might be a good idea to encourage this one to sit down and eat.
“It's almost time for the midday meal,” she said, putting the precious, old book back in its protective box. “Why don't you go back out onto the terrace and relax while I get us something to eat? I've kept you occupied all morning and haven't given you a chance to go for a snack or even a drink. Here...” She handed him a slim book. “This shows many previous winners of the Big Race. You might find it of interest.”
Sierra found the book interesting. It was filled with pictures. Photography was well developed in Zammar, as was the art of printing, which in this book was done in clear, elegant print on fine quality, white paper. Papermaking had obviously reached a high stage of development as well. The Zammoran script was made up of squiggles, each one representing a syllable in the language. It looked rather like Arabic when it was all put together, though not as elegant. Sierra found he could read it with ease and felt guilty for ever thinking of John's 'gizmo' as a pile of junk. It was a miracle machine.
With Cresta's help Nicoy brought a tray of food and a large jug of cold drink to the table.
“I realise you may be unfamiliar with the kinds of food we eat, but I can assure you, none will poison you and most are delicious. Yob is a very good cook. Let me see...” She studied the tray. “This is a wholegrain bread...” In his ears Sierra heard the Zammoran word 'treff'. “This is cheese made from skeld milk. This is a spicy sauce we like to eat with it and this is a selection of chopped vegetables from the garden. Over here we have some gimmin- a hard biscuit made of nut flour, and here are some fruits- tambras, visson and roundberries. Are you familiar with any of these foods?”
“Yes I am,” Sierra replied taking a sliver of the yellow cheese. “I just know them by different names.” The cheese tasted rich and full flavoured on his tongue and his stomach growled its annoyance at being teased by tastes without a decent bite to follow. The bread tasted like bread, no more no less, and the sauce was not unlike the chutney his aunt had made one year after a neighbour had given them a surplus of tomatoes. With no more fuss he placed cheese on bread and sauce on cheese and fed his appetite.
Nicoy was pleased to see him enjoying the food. It was one less worry for her. She had feared, for a while, that she might be put in the position of having to train a racer on a severely limited diet. As quinolans did not eat meat she liked to know she could offer them a wide choice of dried seeds, nuts, cheeses and grains... all the things a racer needed to build and maintain strong muscles, and stamina. It was difficult to get a good day's racing or performance out of any horse who lived only on fruit and vegetables.
After the bread and cheese Sierra tried two of the fruits and found them both different, but delicious, then finished off the meal with a glass of the cold drink. It was lilac in colour, tasted rather like lime and being not too sweet, was therefore refreshing. Nicoy called it 'warl' and told him that it was made from the infusion of the petals of the warl tree, several specimens of which grew in their own garden.
“Not that we pick and dry our own blossoms,” she said with a laugh. “We buy it as compressed pellets, readymade for use. You can drink it hot or cold.” She got up from the table. “Well, I suppose I'd better think about getting Gwanee along to the track. It will all be a waste of time I expect, still ...” She left her sentence unfinished, picked up her leather covered stick and waved it over the table like a magic wand. “I'll get Cresta to collect all this. You relax here for a while, give your meal time to digest, then perhaps you'd like to go for a walk around the grounds.”
She began to walk away but had to stop because Rignoh suddenly appeared from the direction of the courtyard. “Back so soon?” she asked in surprise. “Did you buy a horse? How much?”
“Three hundred and ninety tevers,” Rignoh mumbled, looking uneasy. Sierra wondered why. Nicoy knew why.
“A bargain,” she said. “You bought one of the bargain line.” Rignoh nodded dumbly. “Why? What was it this time? Did she have big, soulful eyes or did he plead with you to give him a chance?”
“He... didn't say anything at all, but he's a good horse... I could see it straight away. I can tell. Here are his papers and key. He's young and strong and he...”
“Rignoh, won't you ever learn? They don't put them in the bargain line unless there's something wrong with them. I don't mind, once in a while, straightening out the faults in an otherwise good horse, but this time I sent you to get a work horse I could use straight away; a good, sound, five to seven hundred tever work horse, not one of your mean tempered, highly strung, bow legged, lazy boned bargains!” She gave a deep sigh and shrugged helplessly, knowing it was partly her fault for having sent Rignoh in the first place. She should have known he wouldn't be able to resist trying to give some hapless quinolan a good home. Perhaps it would not be as bad as she imagined. For all his impetuosity, Rignoh did have an eye for a good horse. She owed him, at least, the decency of looking at his purchase. “All right. I'll give him a try. Where is he?” she asked, accepting the papers and headstrap key.
“Pobey's tidying him up a bit,” Rignoh mumbled and Nicoy had to stoop to hear what he was saying. Suddenly she stood up very straight and tall and looked in alarm toward the archway to the courtyard for there was a terrible din coming from the grooming room.
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