Lizzie had not ridden a horse since her arrival, which, despite the sunny weather must have been months ago. “A lifetime ago,” she muttered. She shifted the bag of bread and cheese on her shoulder— Bri had insisted she take provisions— and walked to the stable.
She pushed the heavy door open. It slid smoothy on its oiled castors and the sweet smell of hay and horse met her nose. For a moment she was catapulted back to her home: racing her brothers bareback across the short-cut meadow, late autumn sun on her face and cold air rushing into her streaming hair. She didn’t realize she stood with her eyes closed until she heard a whinny.
“Horse?” She peered into the dim barn. There was a shifting of weight and a knicker from the second stall on the right.
She walked up to the barred door and looked in. The black horse shone. His mane was glossy, his muscles looked as if they had been etched by a master stonemason. Lizzie sucked in her lip and considered him. He stood still, waiting.
“Are you a good horse? Are you his horse, or are you here like the rest of us— bound to a cruel master?” The only answer was the horse’s steady breathing, the wide rise and fall of his ribs. Lizzie slid open the door and stepped in.
Immediately, the horse approached her, sniffed her face and nudged at her shoulder. She froze. But then, as if in a dream, she heard Apple.
You can’t let him push you— make him back up.
“What?” The horse stepped closer and Lizzie took a step back.
Tell him to back up. Back up, back up.
“Back up. Back up, back up.” Lizzie grew firm. “Do I need to hit him? I don’t want to.” But the horse lifted his head and stepped back. She patted his neck and he studied her with a black, bottomless eye. She petted and hushed him, slid her arms across his belly and back; she checked his legs and hooves, and both girl and horse grew still. She could feel Apple— and all the others— calming, too. At last she stroked his neck and ran her hand down his long nose.
“You’ve seen strange things, haven’t you? Terrible things.” She lifted the saddle off its rack and swung it high onto the horse’s back. The horse blew out its lips but held still. She leaned her face against his flank and reached below to fasten the buckle and pull it snug.
She found the bridle and fitted it into place. “This will be different. We won’t be bringing anyone back with us.” She lowered her voice. “We have to go somewhere dangerous, somewhere that may be impossible to find, but we’re going to find his heart.” She checked the straps and stood with the horse’s face between her hands. Her voice was no more than a whisper despite her attempt at bravery. “We’re going to find his heart and we’re going to kill him, and all of this is going to go away.” She reached for the bit, and just as suddenly dropped it.
“If it’s that kind of journey you have my assurance I will go exactly where you want me to. The bit won’t be necessary.” The horse’s voice was deep but with the tremor of a whinny that made him sound as if he were only pretending to be serious and solemn.
Lizzie stared. “Did you— ? But you’re— “
The horse stared at her. “I doubt this is the strangest thing you have seen, and if we are going where I think we’re going, a talking beast is tame in comparison to what is to come. Are we leaving, Mistress?”
Lizzie swallowed and blinked hard. She reached for the saddle horn and swung herself up into her seat. “Call me Lizzie— please,” was all she could manage to say.
“As you wish, Lizzie.” The sound of her name made a buzzing shudder beneath her legs. She shook her head and smiled. She flicked the reins lightly and the horse stepped out of the stall and left the barn. Again she thought of Hescher and Jacobi; before a string of hard winters and dry summers had forced the sale of their horses they spent every evening racing or walking the cart tracks and field stone fence lines. The sway of a horse beneath her was as soothing as a mother’s embrace is to a babe. She tried out a few turns, leading the horse into a tight circle first to the left and to the right.
“I can also canter and leap hedges, if you wish,” he said. Lizzie blushed.
“I am a horse. It is my job to obey you.”
“No,” said Lizzie. “I mean, yes, it is— but my horse when I was a child was my friend, too.”
The horse cocked his ears back. “Friend? I have less practice at that than running fast.”
“Well, if the journey is long enough, perhaps you will have practice at both.” Lizzie patted his neck. A movement caught her eye. Taisia was waving from the tower. Lizzie’s heart sank— there was no time for reminiscing or practicing barrel jumping! Her dearest friends were holed up in a tower with a murderer. There was no time to waste.
She kicked her heels lightly but the horse didn’t move. “Come on, we have to go!”
His ears were cocked back, listening. “Your friend is speaking to you. She is very excited. Her heart is pounding like hooves in a race.”
“I don’t have time, I have to go—“
The horse blew out his lips and flicked his tail, and Lizzie felt the rebuke. She fell silent and listened.
“What?” Lizzie shouted.
“Tell Baba Yaga…” but the wind and the distance swallowed up the rest. Lizzie made to get off the horse; she would sprint back up the stairs and hear it all— but then Taisia whipped her head around. Her hair snapped like a pennant. And suddenly there was a glint of silver in her hand. Lizzie heard shouts.
“A struggle,” said the horse, simply.
“Oh god, Bluebeard.” At the sound of his name, a shudder ran through the horse’s body.
“Do not speak of him, if you have any love for me.”
Lizzie nodded. “But what do I do? I should help them—“ again, she made to dismount, but the horse shook his head; his mane fluttered agains her arms.
“If you stay and help them here you are still a prisoner. You might save one or two or more. But if you leave. If you do what you say you will do, you will save everyone who is to come. You can save the living and the dead. But we must leave now.”
“Now!” he whinnied. She kicked her heels and the horse took off. She threw herself into a crouch and held on. They hurtled toward the tree line; the green lawn disappeared underneath them. The horse’s voice flew back to her on the wind of their movement. “You are not meant to leave. This may be difficult, even with—“
Lizzie felt as if she had slammed into a wall. She reeled back, lost hold of the reins and just managed to grasp the saddle horn. There had been a windstorm once when she was out in the field, but this felt stronger. The trees around barely stirred but Lizzie was wrenched and ripped and pulled by a thousand unseen hands.
And then they were through. She gasped like a fish; the horse slowed to a trot and then a walk, and then he, too, stopped and shivered as if he had run a great distance. Maybe he had.
She leaned forward and hugged his neck, eyes closed. She breathed in the sweet smell of his mane. At last she sat up.
When she did she gasped again: everything was white.
“Horse— what is this?”
His voice trilled low like a bassoon. “I believe you call it ‘winter.’”
The world was cold and white. Lizzie looked behind her: the castle was gone.
Leave a comment and tell me what you like, what images stand out, or your curious questions. (No suggestions/grammar critiques, please). Thanks for supporting my work-in-progress! -Rose Arrowsmith DeCoux