Stefan loves his horses more than he cares about the war. What he encounters while trying to keep them safe is more than he ever could have dreamed.
“The life of a real warrior doesn't begin until he dies in battle.” Stefan shook his head wearily as he surveyed the destruction all around him. If his grandfather's words were true , then heaven was about to greet a battalion's worth after such a rout.
There was green hidden beneath the smoke, a fog of battle that obscured the beauty of the valley, one that reminded Stefan of the forests of his childhood—feral, disorderly. And the villages they had passed took him back as well, with their sweet smell of woodsmoke instead of sulfurous gunpowder that suffused this battlefield. The city boys among the troops called the villagers they encountered peasants, but he far preferred the farmers with wood and iron implements to the idea-mongers who saw people as statistics and wheat fields as coordinates awaiting mortar shells.
And he preferred the company of his horses, not really his to be sure, but these broken beauties were far closer to his heart than the the vicious, clumsy steel—jeeps and tanks—squat, sluggish, indifferent vehicles that reeked of oil and smoke instead of pasture and haystack.
What an awful irony, to use his beauties to haul gasoline, oil, and spare parts, for these machines of violence. Couldn't anyone else see the incongruity?
This foolish, ugly war was as good as lost, even more so now than when it had begun. But he could not tell the idea-mongers, though he did discuss this and other complaints with the horses. Each night after Stefan staked out their temporary pasture, he would whisper to them, smoothing their agonized legs after too long days of pulling too heavy loads. He sang old songs to them, especially one ancient hymn his grandfather used to croon to his own long-ago darlings, confiscated for a previous ill-conceived conflict.
“Patriotism is for humans,” his grandfather had shouted to the helmeted soldiers going from village to village, requisitioning all the farm horses. “How will we till the fields, how will our grain ever reach you brave solders on the front?” he called, adjusting his tack.
The logic was lost to their unaffected backs.
“If God should be so good as to lend you some of his darling horses,” his grandfather would tell the teenager years later, sitting on the porch of his small cabin at the edge of the family land, “then you must give yourself to their care. Spare them nothing of yourself and they will offer you everything in return.”
And now, decades later, in the acrid aftermath of the ugliest battle of still another fruitless campaign, Stefan was finally ready to do some “requisitioning” of his own. He had overheard the head sergeant plotting with the quartermaster—more barrel than man, all mouth and stomach—looking at the horses, calling them “tomorrow's meat.” This particular pair and their band of disrepute acolytes were even worse than the idea-mongers. These men slinked through the war unmoved by its horrors, weasels hunting untended chickens. There were rumors of atrocities but Stefan never dared to investigate. He stayed with his beauties as far away from the inner workings of the brigade as possible. In fact, only one among them engendered even the slightest spark of admiration—the pilot of the small bi-wing reconnaissance plane—and even then only when he was in the air where the graceful acrobatics appeared elegant, bird-like. On the ground he was just another puffed up, arrogant patriot.
Stefan watched them from the periphery, noticing how they drank together between battles, seemed to have their own subterranean agenda—one rarely intruded on by the Colonel and his orders. And how they only engaged the enemy when forced by circumstances that couldn't be avoided.
Once, when they asked for several teams to haul some “captured munitions” out of a recently taken town, Stefan referred them to the Colonel before he would agree to hitch up the wagons. They fumed and threatened but he held firm. An hour later he saw them driving one of the flat tracks towards a devastated section of the bombed out town.
Then there was their canvas casino, card games with at least two of them in on every hand. When Stefan found out that one of the young soldiers assigned to help him with the horses had lost three months pay during one long, drunken night of poker, he paid the debt himself, then had the kid transferred back to the line. He suspected that they would attempt to leverage the debt for one of their schemes and wanted his beauties kept out of the ante.
He had seen them using farm animals for target practice, pumping round after round into the dying creatures, heard their laughter and then ugly dismay if the animal died before the sport was satisfied. But now they had their rheumy eyes on his herd, and he would not allow them their sport.
And so he launched his covert maneuver by informing the colonel, such a stupid man, that he would be moving the horses several kilometers north to better grass and water for the night.
“Just have the pullers ready for the next offensive,” the colonel said, then dismissed Stefan without another word. Pullers. Stefan resisted the urge to spit and quickly walked away, masking his disgust. The head idea-monger had more important things on his mind—like planning the unnecessary deaths of more of his men.
When his exhausted helpers finished unhitching the horses, Stefan told them to kip in and get some sleep. Grateful to be released from duty so early, they didn't even ask where he wanted them to assemble in the morning. He regretted having to leave the small blacksmith cart behind as he walked toward the herd, but decided that once they got to where they were going, the horses would just have to suffer sore feet when their shoes fell off. He did take the pliers and cutter so he would at least be able to trim their hooves when needed. Slinging his pack over his shoulder, he began guiding the herd to “better grass.”
He had noted this valley when they swept through during an earlier, almost accidental string of victories, especially the narrow pass at the northern end that had necessitated a long detour because their steel boxes and rubber wheels could not navigate the narrow cut and rocky zig-zags. He and the herd faced an all-night climb but his beauties could be beyond easy reach by midday next. With no means to haul their precious fuel, the soldiers would not be able to follow in force, and he and his fugitives just might be able to wait out the end of the war within the safety of some hidden mountain village.
He staked out the pasture then took his bedroll over to one of the horses, a powerful roan gelding that had a bleeding but superficial wound. He pushed the thin canvas against the cut, stemming the flow. From his pack he took several handfuls of bullet casings collected over the past several days and scattered them around his rumpled, blood-stained bedroll. It was a shallow subterfuge, but he hoped it would look as if he had been attacked in the middle of the night and injured trying to defend his herd.
He walked up to the gray stallion with the distinctive slash of white lightning on his forehead and patted a stalwart shoulder, then guided him over to a large stump to more easily climb aboard. Nearly fifty, and worn out from six years of combat, he could no longer leap astride such a large horse as he had once done when younger. The gray seemed to sigh at the weight, but made no complaint. Then Stefan began singing the walking song. Many of the horses were deafened from the long months of bombardments and screeching bullets but those who heard shuffled in behind the gray. The deaf among them moved by instinct, following the comfort of rubbing shoulders, and the nearly blind were guided by the faint remaining smell of equine comradeliness.
All night they threaded the narrow cut, but when the sharp climb started with the first light of morning, Stefan regretted not allowing more than a little rest at an earlier stream. He knew that once they made it up to the plateau, about another five hundred meters, they would be better hidden within the trees. They could still be caught, though he doubted anyone would begin wondering about their absence for another hour. Even the idiot who led the brigade understood that the day after such a terrible battle called for rest. They would stay and lick their wounds—hopefully. Besides, there had been many dead to bury.
His grandfather hated the soldiers of his own era, calling them “pawns” for the way they allowed themselves to be marched to sacrifice. But he would have utterly despised this contemporary breed with their impersonal war at a distance—the flinging of bullets, mortars, artillery shells.
“You, your father, and I, are descended from great warriors,” he told Stefan one day as he worked the forge shaping the curved shoes. “On the steppes, it was an honor to die in battle—in real battle, not walking into pikes or bullets. Their wars were between men on horses, swirling swords, the clashing of folded steel.” He paused to pull the hot iron from the fire, then began beating it with the large hammer. “To die on such a field, defending your family, your clan, your village, was to enter a true heaven, not that pretty little place the Christians describe.”
“There's more than one heaven?”
“Each person's afterlife is shaped by their belief, boy. For the men on the steppes there were no harps, no singing angels awaiting them, only stone for sharpening their blades. These warriors saw death in battle as their entrance into an eternity of preparation.”
“Preparation for what?” Stefan asked.
“For the call.”
“To return when needed.” Steam rose when his grandfather dipped the sizzling shoes into the water. “Your forefathers never rode into battle alone, boy. The enemy would see a hundred turn into a thousand when their fierce heaven sent its reinforcements.”
The next day, Stefan let the horses rest for several hours in a small glade, edged on one side by a patch of swampy murk. He staked the gray, hoping the others would stay close to the leader while he allowed himself several hours sleep. He used the old trick of gathering moss to soften the ground and slept beneath his jacket.
On the third day of their escape, the sun was well on its downward streak to the western horizon when Stefan saw him, a young boy of nine or ten tending a small flock of sheep and goats in an unexpected break in the trees. The boy stared, first at Stefan, then at the panting horses.
“My friends here need some help. Do you understand?” Stefan asked.
The boy's eyes widened. He went on tiptoes as if looking to see who else might be coming.
“Where is your father?”
The boy shook his head.
Afraid to dismount lest his legs give out, he pointed over the boy's shoulder. “Is your village in that direction?”
Indicating to his left, the boy backed away to stand within the safety of his own herd.
“Is there grass and water near the village?”
“Thank you, son,” Stefan said. “When my friends are more rested, perhaps you would like to learn to ride?”
The boy almost smiled but there was fear in his eyes.
Smoke rose beyond the trees that surrounded a wide area perfect to allow Stefan to rest the horses, and more important—himself, before introducing themselves. Folk in such remote mountain villages were not accustomed to strangers, much less one who arrived with such an entourage. And besides, he wanted to climb down with only his beauties watching, in case his legs should falter after so three days of riding bareback.
Indeed, slipping off, he had to hang on to the gray's mane to maintain his balance, his heart pumping wildly, sending crystal shards of feeling down to his feet, which prickled at their abrupt awakening as if they had forgotten the feel of earth beneath them.
He gazed at his charges, craving sleep and rest as much as they did, but he had to walk back down the path to urge the rest of them forward, then block the path to keep them here while darkness fell. He would go to the village in the morning.
As he walked past them, he noted those that would need immediate attention, several had bleeding wounds, others staggered with problems that rest alone might not solve. His anger started to rise again, but he pushed it back, saving his energy for collecting the stragglers. It was dark before he slept, his head resting against a soft mound of moss. The last thing he heard was a soft whinny of dreaming a few meters away.
The sun found him through the trees, tickling his face at first, then increasing its heat until discomfort brought him awake. He started to stretch, but painful aches attacked from every part of his body. It took him several moments to remember where he was and why. Then he heard a soft singing, rising a bit above the stream that gurgled a few meters away. He tried to rise, but his back rebelled. He rolled onto his side, propped up on one elbow and tried to locate the source of the music.
He saw her through a maze of legs, in the middle of the herd, squatting while she applied something to the leg of one of the wounded horses. Whether she was a small woman or a large girl, he could not tell. Mustering his strength, he pushed against the aches and the ground and rolled slowly up to his feet, clinging to a tree to steady himself, cursing his age.
But what should he do now? Call out and frighten her away, or walk over slowly and scare her even more? He coughed several times, then pretending he hadn't seen her, called out with forced hardiness, “Good morning, my beauties? Did you sleep as well as I did?” He went to the stream, splashed cold water in his face, scooped a handful into his mouth and gargled. When he turned back to the herd, she was standing, still in the middle of them, looking at him evenly. She was of that age, somewhere between fourteen and twenty, that he had never been able to accurately determine.
He nodded. “Good morning.”
She nodded back. He thought of the boy from the afternoon before, he hadn't spoken either. Perhaps he had come upon a village of mutes.
“I see you've met my friends.”
Her gaze remained steady.
“They need help.”
A quiet agreement.
“I have rescued them... from the war.” He could see he wasn't telling her anything she didn't already realize. “My name is Stefan, may I inquire with whom I am speaking?”
“Did you rescue them or yourself from the war?”
He smiled. So she could speak. “I am too old for rescuing.”
“Do you have food?”
He pointed to his small pack on the ground near where he slept. “I still have several days provisions.”
“And after that?”
He shrugged. “Then I suppose, I will require rescue as well.”
Her first smile was a slow blossom, but a blossom nonetheless. The horse whose leg she was attending, nudged her with his nose. She turned, murmured something to the dark bay, then walked slowly toward Stefan, stopped a few meters away.
“We will go to the village first. There aren't many of us left, just women and a few children.” She turned to look at the herd. “If this is what war does to horses, what does it do to men?”
He did not answer, but she saw the truth in his eyes.
It took two weeks for Stefan to stop listening for the soldiers every moment, though he heard the occasional rumble of armaments echoing from a far distance. As much as he savored what surely would have been the colonel's angry and frustrated reaction, he now recognized that he had placed the village in terrible jeopardy. He had witnessed the colonel's cold brutality on numerous occasions. When it was discovered that a captured village had hidden storehouses, regardless of the amount, the colonel would order the execution of any town leaders, then make all—down the the smallest child— watch the hanging, ordering men to stay behind and make sure no one tried to cut the rope and bury the offenders.
This had not been factored in to Stefan's original plan. He had only thought of escape, of protecting his beauties, and now that he was given a small, empty cottage and regularly fed from their own meager tables, he felt the slice of guilt for not having anticipated the danger that accompanied his arrival.
The village itself was little more than a gathering of cottages notched into the high edge of the mountain. Grandmothers, mothers, daughters, and a few adolescent boys—maybe thirty in all. The silent shepherd, who was twelve, was the oldest male in the compound. Stefan had imagined at least a few grandfathers might have been left behind, but none were apparent, and he was loath to ask once he realized no one would volunteer the information.
Magda was the young woman's name, whose round face centered the subtle slant of eye that bespoke the mixing of ancient tribes. At twenty she was the unspoken leader in the village, apparently by proxy of two years' schooling in the county seat. Little more than an overgrown town as Stefan remembered, but the height of urbanity compared to the experiences of these villagers—most of whom had never even been down the mountain. Not that leadership was a strong prerequisite in their daily lives. They did what was obviously needed, following the subtle dictates of the season, though the others did seem to defer to Magda regarding Stefan's welfare, and he even found himself asking her advice regarding the horses.
His feelings of guilt over bringing danger to their doorstep were overridden by watching the transformation on their faces when caring for the horses. In this, Magda was a brilliant and kind general, seeming to automatically intuit which woman would relate well to which horse, which was capable of tending severe wounds, and which horse needed little more than the caresses of a palsied hand of an elderly grandmother.
“The women would like to know the names of the horses, it makes tending them more—”
“I have never named them,” he said simply. “It was difficult enough, watching what the army did to them every day, and the battles. A name would have—“
“—made it much worse?” He could not decipher what lurked in her eyes as she said this, but that was not new, she was as mysterious in thought as she was capable in action.
He knew the ministrations of the women had borne fruit the morning the big gray mounted one of the mares. Several days later, the gray went up on another mare and Stefan was smiling broadly when he turned and found Magda looking at him.
“It is a sign of healing,” he said, “when they recapture their true nature.”
“Yes, it is good that they, at least, can forget the war so quickly.” She stopped, as if about to add an afterthought, but she turned away from him abruptly.
Sometime after the second month, a number of the horses, including one of the possibly pregnant mares, prickled his instincts. Though they appeared healthy otherwise, he could feel it simmering in their guts when he caressed their necks. Colic was especially dangerous to even the healthiest of horses, causing it to founder in a day if not treated immediately. Stefan went looking for a rare herb that his grandfather had called clearheart.
“But why is it so hard to find?” The seven-year old Stefan had complained, tired of searching at the base of trees—without success.
“If it were easy to find, it would be less effective,” his grandfather had answered from behind a tree a few feet away. “Just as horses are a gift to men, so is clearheart a gift to horses. When God shows you where it hides, this means he is watching you, and that he approves of your care.”
Stefan had searched most of the areas around the village he was familiar with, but without success. He discovered a deer path that led further up the mountain and followed it through the woods until he came to a secluded clearing that he would have missed had not a rabbit darted almost between his feet and diverted his eyes. A glint of white shone through the trees and he carefully pushed aside the brush to investigate.
Before him stood the answer to mystery of the men of the village. Twenty-five wooden crosses had been erected in a seemingly random pattern. Stefan looked around the small grove, and realized with growing horror what the pattern of the crosses represented. Each man had been buried where he had been killed, and it was obvious the killers had encircled them, executing them in the most efficient manner.
There were no names on the crosses, but each was decorated differently—woven hangings, beads, and fresh flowers. As much as Stefan had been sewn into the quiet fabric of village life, he had never noticed anyone slipping away in this direction. He had been so focused on the care of the horses he hadn't paid enough attention to the people—to the women. Now that he understood what had happened, he realized how they had indicated their situation in the negative. Never had he seen one of them gazing across the hills or down the path, as if expecting a loved one to unexpectedly return. In fact, there was no sense of anticipation to anything they did. The village was surrounded by a dreadful form of an isolated now, an imprisoning present.
Perhaps that was why the boy, Andre, was so startled at his arrival. No one in the village ever expected anyone to arrive, ever again. The killers, it did not matter which side had done this, had not just killed their men, they had murdered hope and taken their sense of the future with their barbarity.
Stefan flushed with embarrassment. What must they think of him? His defiant rescue of the horses must seem to them to be the height of frivolity, an arrogance in the face of their loss.
Magda had been correct. He had survived the war thus far by staying close to the horses, trying his best to ignore the men—innocent or otherwise. He hadn't rescued the horses, they had in truth rescued him, accompanying him on this mad journey to complete his salvation. They had suffered the wounds to give him reason to bind them, their exhaustion preventing him from understanding the extent of his own weariness—of his own wounds.
And these women, these widows and orphans had joined him in his private folly. They knew all about giving their all, because they had already been forced to do so beyond the limit of self. Their emptiness was ever evident but he had been too full of himself, of his victory over the colonel and the “idea-mongers”, to see the full measure of their pain.
Shame burned his face and he fell to his knees to ask forgiveness—from his grandfather, from the dead men before him. But not God, not yet. He was too filled with shame and self-loathing to even approach God at this moment. And for the first time since he was a child, he wept until there was nothing left in him but sulfurous pain.
Sighing, his legs unsteady as he tried to rise, his hand hit one of the crosses, knocking it slightly askew. Horrified, he bent over to straighten it and then he saw, growing around the base—clearheart, his grandfather's herb. He rose and hurriedly inspected the others. All were circled by the dark green, prickly leaves of the remedy he sought. He stood, looked up with wonder at the small bit of sky that shone through the canopy of the trees. He had invaded the privacy of their grief by bringing the horses, how could he invade it again without opening a new wound by exposing his discovery?
Deep in thought as he returned to the village, he encountered Magda pulling water from the well in the town center. He grit his teeth, still trying to formulate a way to open the dread but necessary topic. She turned when she heard his footsteps and smiled tentatively.
She reached down to pull the bucket up and he moved to help her, but as usual, she managed perfectly by herself. Setting the pail down, she wiped her hands on her wool dress and looked at him. “Did you promise Andre you would teach him to ride?”
“I said 'maybe' when the horses were better.”
“Close enough to a promise in the ears of a boy.” The way she said 'boy' seemed to carry extra force, especially now that he knew their secret. “If he were to be hurt...”
“Tell him that we must make a saddle first, before he actually rides. That will give us some time.”
“Out of what?”
“Sheepskin is a good base, to start. We can improvise beyond that.”
“Yes, that is good.” She started to walk away.
“I am concerned for the horses.” He stopped.
“They seem to be doing well, no?”
“Better than I could ever have hoped. You... all, have...”
“What is it, Stefan?” Her eyes seemed to pierce him. “What do they need?”
He shrugged. “My grandfather told me about an herb. He called it clearheart.”
She frowned. “I do not know it, but names of plants can differ from one region to the next. What does it look like?”
A shadow passed across her face as he described it.
The task of fashioning a saddle for Andre turned out to be an unexpected pleasure. Never having married or fathered children himself, Stefan's every interaction with the silent boy exhumed bright memories of his grandfather. He now understood the old man's patience and understanding, and felt the joy at standing upon the plateau of experience and knowledge. To encourage and observe another's climb to competence in life was deeply satisfying.
He explained the purpose of the saddle, the structure that was required where man and horse came together. Normally, he would have started the boy bareback, to have him learn for himself what comforts and advantages a saddle would bring. But the warning and fear in Magda's eyes precluded those lessons. So he confined the lessons to materials that would provide sturdiness and protection to horse first, then the man. A saddle that was too soft gave no support and was worse than no saddle at all. One that was too hard, would chafe the horse's back, creating sores, often making even gentle horses buck to rid themselves of the irritant. Finding the perfect middle ground when leather was hard to come by, would take ingenuity and a great deal of trial and error.
But here again, the women of the village with their intelligent hands and sharp eyes, came to the forefront. They knew the tensile potential of weaving and could wind a multitude of cotton strands into rope that rivaled the strength of leather. Farming on the side of a mountain called for invention that flatlanders rarely required. A series of bones surrounded by skin created the soft basis for Andre's saddle. And when the day came for him to put it on the sorrel mare with the white circle on her neck, all were gathered—rightfully so, since each had contributed in one way or another.
Magda's forced smile could not hide her apprehension, but Andre was too excited to notice. The sorrel mare he chose was the most sedate of the horses, and the years of pulling had taken most of the spring out of her legs. If Andre were to fall off, it would be his lack of balance, not anything she did beneath him that would cause it.
Indeed, the moment was gratefully anticlimactic. Stefan stood close by while Andre fitted his foot into the carved wooden stirrup, then rose up in a single movement and atop the sorrel easily. There were murmurs of approval and a few sighs. Magda never took her eyes off Andre as he used the reins to guide the horse exactly as he had been instructed under Stefan's indulgent tutelage. After a half hour, it seemed as if the boy had never known the earth, so graceful was he in the mount.
“That is enough for one day, Andre,” Magda said softly, When the boy started to complain, she added, “before you tire the horse.
Andre nodded, then dismounted casually.
Stefan showed him how to unsaddle the mare, then how to brush her back. He started to repeat his grandfather's admonition about giving one's all, but stopped when he remembered the hidden grove—the boy already knew.
Magda brought him a plate of food that night, but did not leave immediately as was her habit. Stefan motioned for her to sit while he ate but she only shook her head and remained standing.
After several bites, he looked up at her. “You have something on your mind, you might as well just say it.”
She nodded, but still did not speak. Stefan had learned to wait when it came to her. Besides, he was enjoying the company during a meal. He had eaten so many alone over the years of war, surrounded only by his beauties.
“How long will you stay?” She asked when he had just taken a bite of lamb from the bowl of stew before him.
The question was so unexpected, he was happy to chew for a few moments instead of answering. He swallowed carefully and said, “I don't know.”
She smiled. “I thought not.”
“Is there some reason... should I plan on going?”
She shook her head.
“Then why do you ask?”
“Your arrival, bringing the horses, was the beginning of hope for them.”
“Them? You are not one of them?”
A small blossom in each cheek. “I am younger...”
Now he nodded. Youth is as defined by hope as hope by youth, another grandfatherism. “What does hope have to do with whether I stay or not?”
“Everything.” She said it simply, as if it was a clear explanation. It was not. He decided to use her tack and not speak. “If you had told me you would stay a month, a year, until the end of the war... that would mean one thing.”
“And if I said I hoped to never leave?”
“Do you? Hope to never leave?”
“Do they... do you... want me to stay?”
She laughed, it was the first real laugh he had ever heard from her. And she blushed. He realized she was beautiful, though others might not think so. He had been alone, with a different definition of beauty for so long, he had no good measure, but she was beautiful in this moment.
“Have we truly helped you with your horses?” The laughter had subsided, this question was made more serious by the subsiding redness in her cheeks.
“Yes. So much so, I feel they are more yours than they ever were mine.”
“Then will you help us in return?”
“Yes.” He said it quickly.
“Without knowing in advance what that help might entail?”
“You say yes, without asking what.”
“You... the village, took me and the horses in without question. Anything I can do in return is small favor.”
Three nights later, when he arrived back at his cottage from the horses, a bucket of water warmed by the sun and a small circle of soap had been placed on the small stool by the front door, along with his dinner covered by a cloth. He was touched, once again, by their consideration and generosity. He washed himself, happy to be able to avoid the chill of the stream, and then ate before preparing for bed.
In the middle of his sleep, he was awakened by a soft caress and the realization that a someone had climbed in next to him. He started to speak, but a finger was put over his mouth, followed by the rustle of his visitor's nightdress being pulled up.
He awoke alone, not sure if he had experienced a powerful dream but for the slight perfume of a recognized reality. He would have laughed, thinking back to his conversation with Magda, but he did not want anyone to hear and perhaps misinterpret. It had been so many years, he realized, since he had felt this natural joy. As he walked outside, he noticed the bucket and soap were gone. This made him chuckle, at himself. He did spend a great deal of time with the horses, and was long past realizing how much he must smell like one of them. The generosity had not been directed at him, but at his unknown visitor.
All day he went about his tasks as normal, trying to keep his conversations with others simple and direct, and taking special care not to gaze into any one woman's eyes too long.
And so, each night he went to sleep, not knowing if he would be awakened or not. It made him restless the first few weeks, but then it became a kind of prayer. On those nights after working hard, his aching body prayed for sleep. On other nights when the day had not sufficiently exhausted him, he prayed for a visitor. He never got it right, but then again, it never felt wrong either. In one part of his mind, it was Magda every time, even though he knew it never would be her.
After four months, the nightly visits slowed and once he realized the reason, he could not help himself from stealing glances at several of the women who were being fussed over by the older women. It was about the same time he started to notice the horses had new woven halters, each a different pattern—which he thought he recognized from the hidden grove higher up the mountain. He also knew the horses had been receiving clearheart, as the subtle symptoms had subsided, though he never spoke with Magda of this.
As for Magda herself, she seemed both unchanged and at the same time, a little more remote. They still discussed the care of the horses, she brought him the occasional meal, but there was a new distance. Except when Andre rode, which he did nearly every day, and Stefan couldn't have been more proud of the boy. He displayed a natural talent, moving from the sedate sorrel to one of the younger, more powerful geldings with ease. Even Magda was more relaxed now, and once or twice Stefan thought he saw a bit of envy in her eyes. He once asked if she would like to try, but she shook her head.
Magda's question of his staying or not didn't exactly haunt him, but he realized that if he were going to stay, he needed to contribute more—and the horses, too. Of course, he discussed this with Magda first, and it was decided that the horses were surely healthy enough to pull the occasional plow and haul wood. Winter beckoned from the early edge of autumn and, with everyone's help, sufficient wood could be hauled to make their lives eminently easier through the snowy months.
And so it was that he and Andre were securing the ropes around a large tree trunk when a familiar buzzing sounded above them. Andre looked up with awe, following the plane's looping progress along the horizon. But Stefan loosened the rope and hurriedly began to lead the two horses toward the cover of the trees.
“Come away, Andre,” he shouted. “He must not see us.”
But Andre was mesmerized, and even waved when the bi-wing waggled at him.
For the next several days, Stefan imagined he heard the buzzing of the bi-plane, except when he cocked an ear to listen for it. Then all he heard was the chuffing of the horses, the ordinary sounds of the village. The nights were worse. He no longer prayed for or against his warm visitors, only that the small clutch of cottages on the side of the hill should remain invisible, undisturbed. His nervous behavior became so apparent that he wasn't surprised when Magda was waiting for him as he trudged home from the pasture.
“We have seen planes before,” she said, diving into the problem directly. “You have to stop worrying so, you're making everyone upset.”
He shook his head. “But I know this plane. And the pilot is from the same unit. He knows about the horses.”
“At best, he saw two horses and a young boy. That's a far cry from a herd.” She put her hand on his arm, one of the only times he could remember her touching him. “Besides, you said he... did that... thing with the wings.”
“That's friendly, yes? Perhaps the war is over, have you considered that?”
“Yes. Actually, I did consider that. But if the war is over, why is he still flying reconnaissance missions?”
She frowned. “How can we be sure?”
“There's only one way to protect you and the women, and the horses.”
“What is that?”
“I go back down the mountain.”
She shook her head vehemently. “No, you will never come back, you are... a....”
“And that is ...”
“Very bad during war. Hanging, life imprisonment, if they're feeling generous. But if they come up here...”
“So, they take the horses. That would be bad, but... we could hide you.”
“Magda.” Stefan took her hand. “I know.”
She started to withdraw her hand from his, but he squeezed and held it tight.” I know about the graves, your men.”
“I know that the women have made bridles, using the same designs as on the crosses. I know they have given the names of their dead to these horses. Beyond the fact that I would rather die that let those monsters have them back, these horses... are now as much a part of the villages as the well, as the cottages, as...”
“The unborn children?”
He was glad she had called them “the” unborn children. He was also relieved that all was out in the open now, that he was holding this child-woman's hand, that he had come here. No matter what happened now, he felt a rightness that had been missing from inside him for as long as he could remember.
“So, Stefan, what do we do?”
He rose slowly, still holding her hand. Then bent, kissed it, and started away from her.
“Where are you going?”
“There are some... people... I need to talk to.”
He found the little grove with the crosses and sat stiffly at the edge of the clearing. They were gods and fathers, brothers and sons to him. He did not speak to them, as a supplicant might at an altar, but simply sat with the question in his heart, trusting them to shine a light on the correct path. He tried opening his heart as wide as he could to collect any whisper, then cocked his head when a breeze riffled through the leaves. There was a strange emptiness to the grove, so different than his first time here. Only his grandfather's voice murmuring over and over again, “Spare them nothing of yourself.”
He trudged back down to the village, feeling sore of heart and foolish. What had he expected? Hadn't the many years of war shown him that man is ultimately alone, that the first to desert are the gods one hopes will protect against the enemy? He was halfway through the enclave of villages before he noticed, or rather didn't notice the normal activity. No women, no children. No... sounds of horses.
He ran to the pasture. It was empty. He called out, “Magda! Andre!”
He rushed back to the village, and was just about to shout again when he saw them, three men with rifles with their backs to him. He stopped short as one turned. Though he was no longer wearing his uniform, there was no doubt he was looking into the face of the brigade sergeant.
“Well, well, well,” the sergeant said with an ugly sneer. “It's our missing horseman.”
The other two turned to look. The quartermaster and one of the scouts.
“Where are they, Stefan?”
“I don't know,” Stefan said, trying to keep the panic from his voice. “Some of the village men must have stolen them while I was away.”
“Village men?” The sergeant turned to the scout. “I thought you said you got rid of them all.”
“He's lying,” the scout replied. “We wiped them all out when they wouldn't tell us where the women were hiding.”
“Where are the horses, Stefan?” asked the quartermaster. “We have need of them.”
“Wh- where are your uniforms?”
“War's over,” the quartermaster took several steps toward Stefan.
“Won't make any difference to you unless you tell us where those horses are.” They were only twenty steps away now.
Stefan took shallow comfort in the fact that he could be clear in his answer. For he truly had no idea where the women had gone. He was only glad they were no longer here. He smiled. “I honestly don't know.”
“We don't believe you,” the sergeant offered in a sing-song voice.
Expectation and reality have such different qualities. One part of him had been expecting someone to come looking for him and the horses, and once found, he knew he would experience some kind of punishment—even hanging or the firing squad, the standard sentence for battlefield deserters. But even though he occasional dreamed of the jerk of the rope or the report of a line of rifles, there was never really any pain.
This reality was beyond his comprehension. He drifted in and out of consciousness where they had hung him, arms out to either side, wrists lashed to the cross-tie of the well. The sergeant walked over to him, lifted his chin almost gently.
“Where are they, Stefan?”
No longer able to speak, Stefan only shook his head feebly.
The sergeant took his finger and pushed it into the bullet hole in Stefan's right arm. A searing jolt brought him awake, though he wilted immediately again.
“Do the other arm,” the quartermaster told the scout, who aimed and fired with casual expertise.
Stefan screamed and thought he might fall right where he was, leaving his wrists dangling from their restraints. But he only sagged, sending more searing pain from his shoulders until he thought his heart would burst.
“We're not going to hurt them, Stefan. We know how precious they are to you.” The quartermaster leaned on his rifle. “Farmers need them as much as you do, and will pay a hefty price. If you hadn't held out on us, we might have even cut you in.”
This brought a sharp laugh from the sergeant.
“I said we might have,” chided the quartermaster.
The next shot went into the soft muscle of Stefan's right thigh. He couldn't tell if the bone was splintered, but his left leg couldn't hold the painful weight, and the pressure on his arms trebled the pain. Through the red haze of agony, he felt a pounding, a distant earthquake that seemed to be rolling towards him. Struggling to open his eyes and lift his head at the same time, he looked up, now convinced his death was near.
They were coming for him, his beauties, pounding out of the forest towards him and his torturers. No longer sick and bedraggled pullers, they had the flashing hooves, and snarling demeanor of warhorses each bedecked in they're own, unique braided decoration, and astride each was a warrior wearing the tall hat of the region, a gleaming sword upraised in readiness for battle.
He heard one, maybe two sharp rifle retorts, then just hooves pounding. And then the wind. And then he slept or died, he could not know which.
There were no flowers to be found and the little girl stamped her foot in frustration. “Mommy, I can't find any.”
“I'm almost finished. We'll go back in a minute.”
Returning to where her mother knelt in the dirt, the girl peeked over her shoulder. “What's that?”
“It's Heaven's Call, a very special plant.” Her mother wiped her hands and sat back to look at the result of her effort. “Though it is known in other places by other names.”
“What other names?”
“Well, where your father came from, it is known as Clearheart.”
“It must be a very good plant, to have such pretty names.”
“That it is, my little doll.”
“Does it only grow under crosses?”
“No, Fanya,” Her mother sighed, silently praying for her daughter to pass through the age of endless questions, though she knew each age had its challenges. “When we find it in the woods, where it grows, we ask its permission to move it here, around the crosses, so our dead will more easily hear our prayers.”
“And do they? Do they hear our prayers?”
“Sometimes, when the need is great.”
“And do they answer?”
“Yes, my little Fanya. I know for sure that they do.”
The little girl knelt next to her mother, reached out and touched the cross, then turned to her mother. “I asked father if I could—“
Her mother touched her finger to her daughter's lips. “The best prayers are not for the ears of others, Fanya.”
The girl nodded seriously.
Mother and daughter rose and walked hand-in-hand back down to the village. As they came into view of the well, Stefana saw Andre holding the reins of the colt with the white spot above his eyes. She broke away from her mother and raced towards him, leaping into his arms.
“Oh, mommy, you were right,” Stefana said,
“Right about what?” Andre asked.
Stefana whispered in his ear and he kissed her forehead. “We still need your mother's permission,” he said. “Remember, it's up to her.”
“Andre, what do you think you're doing?”
“You promised I could teach her to ride. Today seemed as good as any—“
“And you said, Mommy, you said,” Stefana repeated.
“I said 'one day' you could teach her to ride. I didn't say which day.”
“Close enough to a promise in the ears of a child, Magda.” Andre smiled and Stefana looked at her mother with eyes so much like her father's that Magda knew she could not deny them.