by Sara Marian
Estella Silverling removed the advertisement once more from her reticule. Snow nestled gently against the newspaper clipping between her gloved fingers. Martin Lannahan, Proprietor of Flying Horses. And below, the address: Rear of Samuel Carrell’s Smithy, cor. Elmswitch and Water Streets.
Looking up, she regarded the warm glow through the blacksmith’s windows against the grey December day. Aware that her grandfather’s coachman awaited her instructions, an idea occurred to her.
“Jamison, perhaps you ought to have the horses’ shoes checked while we’re here. I’ll just pop in to Lannahan’s while you see the blacksmith,” the young lady said brightly.
“I believe your grandfather intended me to accompany you, Miss.”
“Well, of course, but I’ll only be next door.”
Jamison regarded the massive double-doors of the livery stable behind Carrell’s smithy. The two-story sliding panels were bracketed in black iron and decorated with Lannahan’s name in arched, faded lettering in gold and peacock blue. Within the left-hand barn door was a smaller, human-scale entrance with a knocker fashioned from an old horseshoe. “It seems odd, Miss. I don’t remember ever seeing this stable here before.”
Nor could his mistress remember any previous mention of it in the papers, but it clearly wasn’t a new business.
Estella hesitated as two strands of thought vied to direct her emotions. One was that, surely, this advertisement was a hoax, or she had misunderstood it. The other was: But what if they really can fly? She caught herself smiling privately, just at the thought of it. Estella was not in the habit of smiling involuntarily…or doing anything involuntarily, for that matter. Her only living family was her maternal grandfather, Horace Dixit, Esquire, and he was most of the time bedridden and inclined to indulge his only granddaughter’s will, since she had, from the first signs of his ill health, tended his every whim.
“Here,” he had told her earlier that afternoon, stuffing pound notes into her hand. “Buy yourself something nice for Christmas. I’d like to surprise you, of course, but I don’t feel up to deciding anything for anyone—not even myself—so you must find yourself a gift from me.” The old man’s eyes had shone as he patted her cheek. “Mind you be extravagant, now.”
Estella had felt her heart quicken as she thought of Martin Lannahan’s advertisement. She prided herself on being a practical young woman, serene in the face of life’s disappointments. Orphaned and without a dowry, her grandfather’s estate bound by law to pass to her cousin, Miss Silverling’s future most likely lay in governessing the cousin’s remarkably unpleasant children. Estella had realized at an early age that romantic notions would aid her little against these facts when taken altogether, and had adjusted her expectations and her attitudes accordingly.
But the acceptance of the frequent unfairness of life is one thing, and disillusionment and bitterness toward it is quite another. Estella could never be said to be guilty of the latter. She was too grateful for her grandfather, who gave her free reign to study what she wished in the library, to speak her opinions, and to daydream of adventure and mystery, of magic and possibilities.
“Don’t you worry about your future, my dear,” the squire would tell her from time to time with a sly smile. “I have more connections than you can imagine! You’ll be taken care of.”
Knowing her grandfather as she did, she knew he wouldn’t explain until he was ready, and by the twinkle in his eye, his plans for her must be better than servitude to a trio of spoiled children. And so, she allowed a small part of herself to hope and dream of better things.
It was this part of herself that had seized upon the advertisement and had fixated upon the idea of procuring a flying horse.
Before she could talk herself out of it, she urged Jamison on to the blacksmith’s and took up the horseshoe knocker at the stable door.
Estella rapped with the energy of nervous excitement, but composed herself during the seconds it took for the door to be opened from within.
“Yes, Miss?” The man who peered out at her was rather more shabby than respectable-looking, and a bit more crafty than she would have liked in a person from whom she wished to purchase a hat, let alone a horse. He hooked his thumb into the pocket of his embroidered waistcoat, which might once have been forest-green, but was so streaked with greasy stains that it was more blackish-grey now than anything. “Renting a horse?” he asked, sizing her up with his pale eyes. Estella noticed, as he spoke, that there was a slight, recurring twitch in the left side of his face, starting just below his mouth and stretching up into his cheekbone.
“Not renting,” she corrected. “I have it in mind to buy a horse, and I—that is, your business was…recommended to me. Are you Mr. Lannahan, sir?”
The pale-eyed man gave her a twisted grin as he pulled the door wider to admit her. “I am Mr. Lannahan’s stablemaster, Miss. Come along out of the cold.”
Estella stepped into the warmth of the barn, taking in the smell of hay and saddle soap. Tack hung neatly alongside each stable door, and an enormous Clydesdale in the first stall peered out to see the newcomer.
The stablemaster introduced himself, explained that some of the horses were in the paddock if she wished to see all of the stock, and gave her the names and qualities of those inside as she made her way down the row, which seemed to stretch on longer and longer the further they walked. There were carriage and draft horses, trotters and warmbloods, a magnificent grey Friesian, and a buckskin Andalusian stallion far beyond anything Estella would ever be able to afford.
Beautiful as the creatures were, none of them showed the least indication of being more than ordinary horses. No wings sprouted from their shoulders, no feathers fell about their hooves. Estella scolded herself for expecting such things, a heavy knot in her stomach from disappointment. Her last shred of hope was to look at the horses in the paddock—after all, winged horses would surely be most comfortable out of doors—but these, too, trod the earth like any other livestock. Her face stung from both the cold and from shame at her own absurdity. She didn’t dare make a fool of herself by asking about the wording of the advertisement.
As the stablemaster brought her back indoors, she glanced into the last stall again and realized it was not, in fact, empty. A dark face peered out at her with soft, intelligent eyes. “Oh!” she blurted as the man shut the door against the wind. “What about this poor fellow?”
It was no surprise that she hadn’t noticed the creature before. The horse was so thin and so dark that he was almost invisible in his dim wooden stall. His coat was dun-colored and dull, scored by scars, but his eyes were clear and curious. At Estella’s proffered hand, the horse stepped toward her and huffed gently, nuzzling against her glove.
The stablemaster grunted, face twitching. “Him? He’s not for sale—he’s for the knacker’s.”
“Oh, no!” Estella cried with a frown. “But is he ill? Why is he kept in such poor condition?”
“Not ill, Miss, just ugly. Nobody wants a horse looks like old Boreas.”
“Well, I’m sure he would look better if he were better treated,” Estella said hotly, cheeks flushing. “Bring him out of his stall at once.”
The stablemaster seemed unperturbed by her anger. “If you want a warmblood, Miss, you couldn’t go wrong with this filly over here—”
“I am not interested in that filly over there,” Estella said archly, drawing herself up. “I am interested in this poor creature.”
A few minutes later, Jamison observed his mistress emerging from the livery stable, her black curls wild and unruly in a sudden, icy gust. She led out a pitiful collection of bones wrapped in scarred grey-brown leather, which Jamison could not quite bring himself to think of as a horse. He sighed, privately reflecting that this was precisely the reason young ladies were not allowed to make important decisions without proper guidance.
Moreover, Miss Silverling insisted on removing her own rug from the carriage and draping it around the wretched animal for warmth. “Keep the horses to a walk, would you please, Jamison?” She fed the beast a handful of oats from a bag she’d sent Jamison to buy from a nearby shop. “I don’t wish to push this fellow too hard until he’s recovered a bit of his strength.”
Suppressing a sigh, Jamison put his collar up against the cold. “Of course, Miss.”
When they eventually returned to Windgrove Hall, Miss Silverling further exasperated the coachman by accompanying him to the stables to brush and feed her new purchase herself. Squire Dixit might own the manor and the horses, but nonetheless Jamison felt that the stables were his own domain, and disliked the idea of regular intrusions by a member of the family.
It would have taken a harder heart than Jamison’s, however, not to appreciate the interaction between the young woman and her newfound friend. The mistress spoke to the creature in soft, cooing tones as she carefully untangled his mane, rewarded by gentle nuzzles and chuffs from the patient animal.
When she had finished, Jamison raised his eyebrows with an approving nod. “He looks much the better for your attentions, Miss.”
“He looks well, doesn’t he?” Miss Silverling cast a sweet, beaming smile toward the beast, quite unlike her customary, serious expression.
Perhaps, Jamison privately conceded, even if Boreas was no prize-winner, the creature had not been a bad purchase after all.
Over the course of the next fortnight, Estella noted a remarkable change in Boreas. His skeletal frame filled out with muscle, and all the scars and dullness of his coat faded into an unblemished, coppery sheen. Though he behaved well enough for Jamison and the stable boys, it was with a reserved, cool obedience that seemed to say he was too dignified to act otherwise. However, at the sound of Estella’s voice or footstep, the animal would prick up his ears and whinny, and there was no aloofness in his comportment toward her. On the contrary, he peered around at her with open curiosity and affection while she brushed him, checked to see that all was well with her if she halted while riding, and vied for her attention if she spoke to anyone else while he was nearby.
On Christmas Eve, the servants made much fuss in decorating the house and preparing a special feast, as Squire Dixit felt well enough to leave his chambers and celebrate with his granddaughter in the dining and drawing rooms on the main floor. Beside the fire after dinner, the squire and his ward sipped mulled wine together and regarded the cheerful glow of the Christmas tree candles with admiration.
“Well, my dear,” Horace said, “are you still enjoying your present?”
“Boreas?” Estella smiled softly. “He’s lovely.”
With a canny look over the top of his glass, the squire took another sip of wine. “You know, I think I’d like to see this Boreas for myself. How about we take a little walk to the stables?”
“Really, Grandfather?” Estella’s excitement was mitigated only by concern. “Do you feel well enough to—”
“I feel quite well enough to enjoy my Christmas Eve as I see fit!” The laugh lines around the squire’s eyes crinkled and deepened. “I should like to see you ride this new horse of yours.”
An hour later, Jamison opened the stable doors and Boreas stepped out into the light of a full moon.
Estella, supporting her grandfather with one arm, was struck anew by the change in the animal. Whether because she observed him now through her grandfather’s eyes, seeing him for the first time, or because of the shimmer of the moonlight on the warm copper glow of his coat, Boreas seemed almost ethereal. Gone were any signs of abuse, age, or neglect. Before them stood a powerful creature in his prime, tossing his glossy mane as if in triumph.
“He is truly magnificent, isn’t he, my dear?” Squire Dixit breathed, squeezing his granddaughter’s arm gently. “Now, about that ride.”
Jamison helped the squire to a bench overlooking the broad expanse of the field while Estella mounted and put Boreas through a few paces. He moved so smoothly, even at a gallop she felt easy in the saddle. Her grandfather called encouragement and praise, and Jamison returned to the warmth of the stables with a light heart, glad that all had turned out well with Miss Silverling’s gift after all his own misgivings.
Estella stopped before the bench, smiling broadly, with her black curls falling loose around her flushed face. “Thank you, Grandfather. He’s everything I could have wished for!”
“Everything?” A grin tugged at the corner of Squire Dixit’s mouth.
Her face reddened further as she laughed at herself. “Well, the silly thing is….” And she confessed to her grandfather about the advertisement for flying horses. “I wonder whatever possessed them to claim such a thing?”
“Perhaps it was true,” her grandfather said, eyes gleaming. “Have you tried flying him?”
“Oh, don’t tease!” the girl laughed.
“I’m not teasing! Try!”
With another laugh and a shake of her head, Estella urged the horse back to a gallop. “Come on, then, Boreas! Let’s see you fly!” she whispered, leaning toward his ears.
And as the words left her lips, the creature’s hooves left the ground, climbing on nothing but the cold North wind toward the stars.
Estella gave an involuntary yelp as her grandfather called up to her, “Didn’t I tell you I had more connections than you could imagine?”
“But, Grandfather! What—”
“Just enjoy the ride, my dear!”
Boreas climbed higher, ran faster across the star-scattered night sky, and Estella felt the brisk, clear wind in her hair, whispering promises of adventures ahead. Watching her from the bench, her grandfather heard a wild, joyous laughter echo down from above, and smiled to himself. Beside him, Lannahan’s pale-eyed stablemaster appeared. “The girl seems pleased with her gift, Squire,” he said. “She chose well, and proved her good heart.”
“I knew she would,” said Horace Dixit with a smile.
“You were right about her.” The stablemaster inclined his head. “Her future holds better things than governessing. We’ll see to that.”
“Just as it should be, old friend.” The squire and the stablemaster shook hands, watching the girl and her horse gallop across the bright, full moon.
Sara Marian was raised in the woods by wild English teachers. She has been writing for as long as she can remember, in a variety of genres and cross-genres. Her first published novel, The Life and Death (but mostly the death) of Erica Flynn, is available from Per Bastet Publications through Amazon in both print and e-book formats. Also available on Kindle are three previously published short stories. In addition to fiction, Sara has written for the Clio guide to history online at http://theclio.com, blogs at http://saramarian.com, and works for an archaeological firm in Louisville, Kentucky.