The Grey Horse [MultiFormat]
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eBook by R. A. MacAvoy
eBook Category: Fantasy
eBook Description: Set against the colorful and magical backdrop of Ireland, The Grey Horse chronicles a time when the Irish people suffered under harsh English overlords who sought to destroy their culture and way of life. Into the Irish town of Carraroe, a magnificent, completely grey stallion appears. The horse brings with him the promise of better times and magical happenings, for he is actually the shape-shifted form of Ruairi MacEibhir, journeyed to such a time of danger in order to win the hand of the woman he loves.
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, Published: 1987
Fictionwise Release Date: November 2001
29 Reader Ratings:
"I have been a MacAvoy fan since TEA WITH THE BLACK DRAGON. No fantasy writer working today has a defter touch with Irish magic, and I have rarely encountered a more beguiling character than Urairi MacEibhir. Not only is the story exciting, but the characters are memorable…To read THE GREY HORSE is to spend time in several magical worlds at once--that of the horse, of Ireland, and of MacAvoy's dazzling imagination."--Morgan Llywelyn, author of LION OF IRELAND
An Sruthán, or The Eddies
The sky was full of the grey scum of a soup kettle on the boil. The wind blew from the east, or the north, or south from Galway Bay; it was always changing. Anraí Ó Reachtaire came along the Cois Fhairrge Road holding his hand up against his forehead as a sort of makeshift hatbrim, equally ineffective against the pinching hail and the unexpected flashes of sunlight that made his eyes water.
Anraí's hair was thin on top, and the wind was doing its best to thin it further. It might have been that years of leaving his hat behind in places as far from home as Dublin and London had worked the damage, but the weathers of Connemara were enough cause for baldness by themselves. He was a man of approximately seventy years and had never been noted for either grace of body or beauty of feature: not even in his coming-up years. His pride in those early days had always been the length of time passed (once, five years, and another time, seven) since a horse had unseated him. At this time in his life Anraí was wary of that subject, and it was his study to get the better of the animals that were his occupation without undue risk. He always carried a rope halter concealed under his shirt, to save trips to the stable.
He had come this route last night, delivering a yearling filly to a man at Doleen Harbor, but his own mount had begun the day lame, and Anraí had decided to walk until he could catch a ride on some passing wagon. There had been no wagons and a lot of weather.
Anraí stopped to breathe, for the way from here to Carraroe was uphill, and he let the wind turn his face toward the water. He braced his feet and locked his knees.
So much activity in the air and on the ruffled water, and even grass sods being blown, root, dirt, and all, over the road... Only the granite of the hills was safe from it. Anraí found himself wishing he himself had a few more of the characteristics of stone, but as the eroded clods blew over the toes of his boots it struck him with some satisfaction that even the earth could not keep its hair on. He laughed out loud in a social fashion, as though he'd have been glad for someone to hear him.
There was someone to hear and to answer him. Anraí saw a movement of grey against grey and he heard a surprised throaty sound. He shifted his head and received a spatter of hail across his nose.
There was a bare, round hillock of stone, with sparks of quartz shining in the wet. It was thirty feet high, and the road went unambitiously around it. Anraí put his face into a squint and made out the shape of a horse or pony at the top of the hill.
A horse on a hill was as common a thing as a dog on a front stoop, but Anraí, being who he was, could never have left it alone; it was necessary he go up and see what horse it was.
The slope was slippery and gave him a twinge in the lower back. The horse looked down upon Anraí's slow progress. There was something laughable in the position of the man: hair in his face, and hands as much as booted feet scrabbling over the bright stone and oozing mud. There was also something undecided about him, for Anraí was neither looking at the beast nor approaching it directly. Despite the effort he was expending, it did not seem the man had any interest in the horse at all, but instead only wanted the small increase in view the elevation would give him.
And perhaps because of this inconsequentiality, the horse stood and allowed Anraí to scuffle up beside him, and even to use his untrimmed mane as a handhold when he painfully straightened his back. All this -- the air of inconsequentiality and seeming purposelessness -- was Anraí's art and the study of his lifetime, for a man cannot catch and hold a horse by main force.
There was room at the top of the hill for six legs, and Anraí leaned against the animal's dirty white side and waited for his heart to stop banging him. With the horse he looked out over four stone cottages -- one of which had a slate roof -- thirteen granite-piled low fences, and the little pier of An Sruthán, where one of Seán Standún's fishing hookers was tied.
It was a beautiful boat, high fronted and slim, and it rocked against the bags full of kelp that padded its contact with the stones of the pier. A man in a black guernsey and a very dirty tam was handing out fish in a wooden bucket to Seán's big, dark daughter, who took the bucket over her arm like a handbag and turned back away from the water, the weight thumping against her hip.
"It's beyond me what you find to keep you here, my lad," said Anraí, who had no maritime interest whatsoever, and he put his arm companionably over the broad back. The horse turned a huge, mild eye upon him -- mild, but ironical about the furry edges -- and in that instant the hail and wind gave up its work and the sun struck silver out of the horse's coat. Anraí lifted his eyes in astonishment to a sky gone mostly blue.
The boat was green and gold above a brilliance of water that hurt to see. Máire Standún was carrying enamelwork fishes set in with diamonds and rubies and other stones Anraí couldn't name. Her bored, sullen face lit as the sun touched it, in such a manner that Anraí did not know whether it had been a trick of light or of her own mood. The sailor put both arms to his head and tore his tam off. He shouted something Anraí could not make out, but certainly expressed enthusiasm.
"Well," said Anraí, thumping the dirty fur. "Pretty picture, isn't it? Certainly that was worth some puffing and blowing. In the winter, too." Then, having established rapport and communality of interest with the horse, he dared turn to look it straight on.
"God bless you, I don't know you at all, and if you'll take no offense by it, I'd like to have a good look now."
The horse shifted its very small ears, as though to say that no offense had been taken so far, and Anraí let his resting arm slip over the horse's withers and down the point of the brawny shoulder, for it was Anraí's habit, with winter-coated horses, to look with his hands.
It was a laudably straight and clean foreleg he felt, free from swelling or splints. The fetlock was hard and the pastern remarkably well angled and long, considering the animal's solidity. None of its other legs seemed a whit worse, and when Anraí, using a little shove and pinch, unweighted and lifted a foot, the ragged-edged hoof was as healthy and symmetrical as that of any of the ponies of Connemara. Which is to say, as perfect as can be.
His neck was long and his chest oval, and beneath a beard that might have concealed as well the head of a camel as that of a horse, he had the platter jaw and delicate face of a mountain pony. He gazed blandly at Anraí and sighed at the liberties the man was taking.
Anraí Ó Reachtaire walked a circle around the grey horse, one hand always on the beast's body, mumbling to himself. An excitement almost painful was growing on him. His heart, which had its problems, had not settled from the effort of the climb and now beat drumrolls down his legs and arms, but he did not care greatly.
It was important to him that he find something wrong with this beast, or else he felt he might die here, on top of this little mammary dome, and never see Áine or his own barns again. It had been years...
He pulled firmly on the tail of the horse, walking behind, because it was common belief that a horse would not kick one in that position. Anraí did not believe this horse had such an ungenerous intention, and he had been kicked by horses whose tails he'd been holding, but still he pulled as he stepped behind. It did no harm.
What he saw, standing behind the horse, was not a fault exactly, but it did change the complexion of the matter. This was a stallion standing alone on the hill, without hobble or halter.
There were stallions enough roaming the hills to the north, certainly. Little stallions. It was easier and far cheaper to allow it so than to try to control the breeding, for a stallion was less use and more trouble than his board was worth.
But they weren't welcome in society, as it were, and the man owning a "better" class of mare was their sworn enemy. The stallions of the improved lines were kept on straw and under roof. Thoroughbreds, Hackneys, Welsh Cobs -- and any man who desired a profitable foal took his mares to one of these.
This was a native horse, thought Anraí. As certain as he was a native man. A very perfect native horse, he thought further, and did not continue the analogy. Anraí bred Thoroughbreds and half-breds, for a man must make a living, and he understood and respected the blood horse. But as he stroked the muddy hindquarters and the very yellow tail of the horse on the hilltop, he was very glad that its perfection was clearly not due to any influx of imported blood.
"You're a fine horse," whispered Anraí. "Please God, there's nothing wrong to say about you. And if you were with me, I'd feed you as much oats as was good for you!"
The horse cocked a listening ear, and his brown eye was warm in the sunlight. At the word "oats" he nodded his head forcefully, as a horse does when it tastes something sweet.
Anraí laughed at him. "Oats," he said once more, experimentally, and the animal gave a low rumble in its chest. "Indeed, you're no wild animal; you have the flavor of Irish speech too well. Can you speak English, too, I wonder?" He gave him the word in English as well, but the horse merely stared.
Anraí pulled on its mane in a teasing manner. "That was wasted breath. Only a Gael would keep a horse like you. You're not leggy enough for the exalted tastes of the English. You've too much brain, I bet, and not enough temperament by half!"
The sun went in at this, as though it could not endure the force of Anraí's criticism, and the grey horse (suddenly dim) took a step away from him. It occurred to Anraí that he did not, in fact, own this horse, and that he had forgotten his hat. Slipping and scuffing, he headed down the hill.
The horse stood and watched him, its head turned on its long neck and its tail swishing in an unsettled manner. As Anraí reached the road, groaned, and rubbed his spine, the horse let out a shrill, commanding whinny.
The old man had to stop and look, and he turned just in time to see the horse launch itself from the top of the hill. It jumped like a cat, with back bent and its nose between its knees, and landed in a controlled skid on the granite. Another pounce and it was on the road behind Anraí, who stood with mouth open and hand over heart. The horse danced toward him, quite conscious of the effect of its performance. Its neck was arched and its head at the vertical. With every step, it made proud little gestures with its forefeet.
"God be praised," said Anraí, on the intake of breath. But as the horse grew closer, Anraí's manner changed completely and his dry old face wrinkled in anger. "That's the way to break your feet, my lad, and when your coffin bones have come out the bottoms of your blood-red and crushed foot soles, then what use will you be, to yourself or to living man?"
Taken aback, the horse halted three paces away. It gave a disgusted snort and pounded its near forefoot against the stone of the roadway. Anraí saw that foot in the air and feared the worst. He closed the gap between them and demanded the hoof. Obediently, the horse gave it.
Anraí took a pick out of his pocket and poked the perfect horse foot with it. He squeezed and prodded, but to his surprise and secret satisfaction it seemed quite sound. "You haven't taken yourself to the knackers this time, lad," he said, and dropped the foot.
It seemed he had dropped the whole horse with it, for there was the great beast, on its front knee on the road. It looked up at him and grunted, nodding its head impatiently. Anraí blinked, but he was wary.
As a lad, he had trained a horse to bow for a lady. Once. He had vowed after that never to teach such a demeaning trick to a noble animal. A lady that couldn't mount with a block and the aid of a groom's hand might as well stay within doors. It had been many years since he had come across a beast taught in this manner.
Still the horse knelt and nodded. Anraí rubbed his hand over the bristle of his chin. "Are you soliciting me, my boy? Have you so much regard for my grey hairs that you'd sooner carry me down the road than see me walk?" He grinned at the idea, especially since the horse was at least as grey as the man. "Or is it that you want to take me at a disadvantage, and as soon as I'm up you'll fling yourself into the bay and drown me, as Other Folk do to Christian souls?"
The horse looked away. It bit a fly on its knee, lost interest in the matter, rose, and walked away, ahead of Anraí, who felt he'd been rather impolite. It took him a few minutes to catch up with the beast (without seeming to chase it) and offer a full apology.
"You see, it's a hard world, lad, and one gets more used to a neighbor's opposition than his help. It's rarely enough that one's fellow creature offers charity, and I should not have scorned you so. But you must remember that the stories are..."
As though it had been shot, the horse dropped again on the road, where it knelt, nodding. The force of Anraí's grin tickled his ears. "Well, I can't in conscience refuse again, after that, can I?" He pulled out the scapular from around his neck, kissed it, reached for the rope halter, and stepped onto the horse.
A little moment later, as the horse was rising up (very fast, as though on springs) it occurred to Anraí that the thing to have done was to put the halter on the horse before climbing on. Simple mistake. Because now that the animal had bounded off, striking sparks from the road in its flight, there really would be no opportunity to do so.
The twin hills receded, and the bare hooves pounded over the bridge of the stream itself. Anraí sat the wild gallop of the wild horse with his hands on his lap, thinking to himself that he had done a very silly thing, for an old man.
The horse ran with his head forward and low, in relaxed fashion, and his gait was very easy to sit. For Anraí, there was nothing very disturbing in being run away with, for he was as at ease on horseback as he was on foot: more so, for on horseback his back did not hurt him, and his wind did not suffer. If the animal had a brain in its head -- if it were a Connemara horse, let's say -- it would take care of the rider as part and parcel of taking care of itself. There was the rare animal that would purposely slam its side into a wall or a tree to do a rider damage, and Anraí's experience with these had made him a spritely mover. He would have staked his winter's hay that this beast was neither homicidal nor hysterical, and so Anraí was without fear for himself. But embarrassed he was, for allowing a horse such liberties had a bad effect on its training, and therefore Anraí cursed himself roundly for a spavined, sickle-hocked, soft-pated, hammerheaded ass as the grey horse flung itself down the road.
To the right of the road lay Lochan an Bhuilín, a lake of some two dozen acres in size, circled by black winter gorse. Its waters were mirror bright now that the wind had quieted down. Straight ahead was Carraroe -- An Cheathrú Rúa, The Rough Quarter -- which was called the poorest town in the poorest parish in Ireland. The first plaster-finished stone cottage rose up on the right of the road.
Anraí Ó Reachtaire coughed into his cupped hands. "I'm sure you don't want to do this to me, my lad. Shooting me down the main avenue of the town in this unconstrained manner, like some equestrian exhibition in Galway." The horse's fox-sharp ears folded back attentively, and it made a sound of animal enthusiasm and nodded its white pony head. It gave a smooth little hop and shuffle and entered Carraroe dancing.
There was a small boy with no shoes but with a large rusty barrel hoop, which he was driving with a stick before him. He glanced appreciatively at the horse, which was large by the area's standards. Then its state of undress became obvious to the boy, and his mouth opened and puckered, and opened and puckered. The hoop got clean away from him and rolled into the middle of the street, where the cobbles set it into an awkward gyroscopic spin.
Anraí saw the hoop in front of them, and he set his legs tight and grabbed mane, for he could imagine nothing more frightening to a horse than a hoop spinning and singing in the roadway. Indeed, the horse gave a little squeal as a signal that something was about to happen, and it lifted up into the air.
Anraí hadn't been sure they were jumping until they landed on the stones beyond, and even that landing was marked by only the slightest break in rhythm. The hoop was left behind with the gawping boy, and here ahead was the shape of the church to his left and the circles of bright red that meant women walking together, past the churchyard's cowgate.
"God to you, Anraí Ó Reachtaire!" called one of them. "I have the weaving your own Áine spoke for!" Anraí stared straight ahead of him with a face of forbidding majesty and affected not to hear. One hand he carried clenched at the horse's withers, as though it held a rein of such fine and narrow leather it could not be seen from a distance, while with the other he fished in his waistcoat pocket and drew out his silver pocket watch, which he held in front of his face in a preoccupied, businesslike manner.
But this did not save him, for as he passed in front of the first hostelry on the left, a man who was resting diagonally in the doorway leaned out, pulled his cap to shade his eyes, and called out "Is it Anraí the son of Thurlaigh Ó Reachtaire riding bareback through the streets of An Cheathrú Rúa, like a petticoater on an old pony?"
Anraí would have ignored this hail as he had the other, except that the horse went into a splendid piaffe, with his hindquarters tucked under his belly and his muscular neck crested like a swan's. "God to you, Maurice," said Anraí, with great restraint.
Maurice Ó Ceallaigh stepped across the stabling yard, his cap in his hand, and his glance at Anraí was both respectful and wary. "A horse of Spanish blood, perhaps, for certainly you're teaching him the Spanish airs and dances, without so much as rope or halter on him, too."
Anraí cleared his throat and considered the possibility he might be able to slip down, now that the animal had ceased its forward progression. But although it is not particularly dangerous to sit a horse that is running away with you, getting off such a horse is quite hazardous, and Anraí disliked being hurt. "As all our horses in Connacht have a strong flavor of Spanish blood, Maurice, I cannot deny it in this son of the seasons. I have not gotten so far with him, however, as to be at teaching him the continental graces. In fact, if you were able to take an easy grip on his mane, there, and put a single hand gently over his nose, you'd have my share of gratitude."
Maurice Ó Ceallaigh was not a horseman by profession but a hosteler, but there was no human soul in Carraroe so ignorant of stock that he would not have been able to be of use in this situation. He reached a calm arm under the horse's jaw and grabbed a handful of mane, and he put his other beery-smelling hand over the smudged white nose.
The horse snorted what he thought of the smell, and his stationary trot exploded forward, dragging Maurice with him. With every step he nodded, pulling the tavern keeper onto his toes. "Ah, don't be that way," said Maurice in soothing tones, while Anraí leaned back hard as a signal to stop. But the horse quite calmly went on his way, as though he could drag a town along with him as easily as not.
"Let go of him, Maurice," said Anraí, disheartened. "He's determined to go, and he'll only pull you with him."
Maurice now looked up at the old man on the horse with more understanding of the problem. "Why by the grace of Jesus did you get up there, Anraí, with no halter nor bridle on the animal?" He trotted along beside, for the horse was not going at any speed. "Is it a sport or wager?"
"It is a penance for my sins," answered Anraí composedly, as the horse sidestepped around a young woman in petticoat and black shawl. The movement was as smooth as a cart skidding on ice, and it ended with a gallant genuflection toward the wearer of the shawl. Anraí felt a noticeable rising of his stomach, as the horse so unexpectedly dipped. "This animal is marvelously trained and not obedient at all," he said to Maurice.
The hosteler was dropping behind, and he looked back nervously at his untended bar. "I believe, your only sin is temper, old man, and if your rage ran away with you so gently, it would be no sin at all. God bless you, I can't keep up with a trotting horse."
"No reason why you should, Maurice. Keep you safe; I'll be all right. Unless he drops me in the ocean," he added in more private tones.
At these words the horse gave a squeal and slammed a heavy foot onto the stones. Its ribs swelled and heaved between the rider's legs. "No need for you to take offense, you great bully," Anraí told it. "This is the road to the water, after all."
But in three paces more the horse swerved right between two walls of sand-stuccoed stone and took Anraí into the backyard of Fenton the butcher, where white sheets of linen hung on the rope, still damp from the morning's shower, and equally white báinín work clothes lay stretched over the hedge of stubby fuchsia. Anraí took a handful of mane and prepared for trouble by relaxing. "It's no ghost or spirit, lad, but only the washing," he whispered. "It won't do you a bit of harm."
The horse, standing surrounded by flapping banners of white, flicked its little ears forward and back. Suddenly it gave a warlike trumpeting and assaulted the length of twine from which the sheets depended, tearing stallion fashion with its teeth. There was a musical ping, and Anraí was struck in the forehead by a broken clothespin as his dirty white horse bounded into the mass of the fresh laundry and through it.
They came out onto the sidestreet between the ironmonger's and the old convent house, dragging a double tail of ruined linen. It was the length of the street before the horse got rid of it, and Anraí could barely hear the woman chasing behind them.
"You blackhearted, scoured, foul-tailed, cow-hocked, bog-spavined, unchristian..." Anraí could not think of an appropriate noun to end the string of calumny. He rubbed his forehead as the easy rolling canter carried him out of the town and between stony fields. "What worse could you do to an old man than shame him in his life's profession that way? Cruel! Why, you might as well be my son, and there is no insult worse than that."
Now the row houses, neat as hens along a roost, disappeared from the side of the way, their places taken by cottages of unplastered stone set at every convenient angle among the strips of stone-walled fields. The horse cantered nicely, with ears reversed for listening, and but for the fact that nothing he did had any influence on the beast, Anraí could have asked for little improvement in its manners. But the quality of the horse's movement did nothing to soften Anraí Ó Reachtaire; he was very angry.
He must have been very angry to have mentioned his son.
"And you can't cozen me into believing you felt a natural animal terror of those blowing sheets, for I know when a horse is afraid and when he has a nasty spirit in him. It was nothing but the desire to do me damage, as your own face itself betrayed to me. Well, I'm not a rich man, nor a young man, nor a healthy man, to endure being made sport of in this manner, and in the name of Christ I have had enough."
As Anraí chided, the horse's gait slowed and lost its elasticity, until by the end of his jobation it was a shuffling trot. Anraí saw his descent clear and heaved a great sigh.
"And now I'll have a miserable walk in front of me and a great apology to make, all thanks to you, you great disgrace to a fine race of beasts. And with my heart, the way it is, who knows the damage it may..."
He got no more out. Anraí had time only to slip an inch to the left on the broad white back when the horse bugled again, sank onto its haunches and leaped from a standstill off the road and over the dry stone wall, where it took off galloping over the dead sedge and glistening bog toward the north.
Its round black hooves splashed and sucked with every step, filling the air with a noise almost like bells. Sometimes one foot would slip in the standing puddles and sometimes two or three feet at once would sink into a soft spot and Anraí would prepare to be flung off. "Sweet Jesus, lad, haven't you lived in this parish long enough to keep out of the bogs?" Anraí's tenor voice cracked as he addressed the horse.
It was not personal fear that moved the old man, for although the ground was scattered with stones just fit to break a head, Anraí had fallen countless times and never broken anything more than his collarbone. A man might get stuck into the bog, certainly, but if he did he'd be more likely to die of an ague than drowning, for here there was no bog more than four feet deep.
But for a horse the story was different. The suckholes, the pools, and the hidden boulders were all designed to snap a leg like a green stick, and where was the winch and rope out here to haul to safety a helpless beast weighing a half ton?
Here was the wall that divided O'Faoilin's garden patch from the grazing. It was three feet high and held in place by briar. The white horse came blowing up to it and skidded, and from that skid it leaped the wall, its hindquarters advancing as it flew, so that it landed almost sideward and took off in another direction, over the fallen ruins of a house. Through all this, Anraí felt no jar or stumble.
That sparkle of blue at his left was Greatman's Bay, which made the west shore of Carraroe. Ahead, once again, was Lochan an Bhuilín, with the busy sky reflected in its flat waters. This time Anraí came at the lake from the other, or west, side, and the mad horse made a detour onto the stony bottom, soaking its legs up to the knees and destroying the sky picture all around it.
Anraí considered flinging himself off at this juncture, for at least the water would be soft to land in. But though he was no sailor, still he could not swim, and he was not sure about the depth of the lake. Besides, until the horse came to grief, he would be fine where he was.
It took one small fence after another and bounded from stone hummock to dry grass to dead black heath. The bog sucked at it but did not hold it or strain the cables of its swinging legs. With his eyes closed, Anraí found, he could convince himself he was hacking quietly along the road. "If you were my horse," he said under his breath -- and twin, perfectly matched impulses of fury and affection choked the horseman's breathing -- "if you were my horse, I'd do a thing or two with you."
He opened his eyes again to find he was hacking quietly along the road. In fact, they were already as far north as Drumalegaun, where two men in báinín were hurrying a donkey cart filled with milk cans down the road in the direction of Glashnacally.
Anraí automatically took a deep breath and thought slow, quiet thoughts, for horses can be funny about donkeys. But this one wasn't, it seemed, for it cantered on, looking neither left nor right, its neck at such an arch that the rider might have been restraining it with hands of iron. Neither did Anraí look around, lest he recognize the men and be recognized in his turn.
But though the horse had no objection to donkeys, this donkey did not reciprocate. Anraí glanced around in time to see the cart and milk being propelled violently off the road in reverse, while the ass wore its ears laid backward, like a frightened rabbit's.
The horse did not tire, and Anraí's great concern wore itself off. By the time the sky clouded over and the drizzle took up, they had left behind the ruination of rocks that was the peninsula, and in front of him the earth was a soft, unbroken brown of bogland, with the perfect round cones of the hills to the right, and the tall Twelve Pins, the mountains of Connemara, winking in and out of the clouds ahead.
Copyright © 1987 by Roberta A. MacAvoy