The Freedom of Princess Eribor

2024-01-28T12:00:00

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Miles, and miles, and miles. The veldt is red earth beneath my feet. I’ll never stop galloping, never stop beating the earth with my hooves, never stop fleeing.

Meerboa balanced a water urn on his head and, sightlessly, edged back to the village. The path was well trodden and smooth. His feet slid over dusty earth. The stones that remained were large enough to stay buried, or small enough to not hurt the tough skin on his soles. The urn was cool on his head.

In a nearby field a horse neighed, a plaintive, mournful sound. Probably one of Garagon’s, they always sounded sad. Rumor was she beat them when out in the running pasture, and she thought no one was watching. Maybe it was resentment that she was herding horses instead of being a gear-making apprentice in the next village like she was meant to be, before her mother’s accident.

Meerboa sympathized with his old friend. Not with beating horses, but at a future stolen before it matured beyond its chrysalis stage of promise.

He blinked, and could almost remember what it was like to have vision either side of the moment of darkness. A large twig cracked under his foot and he placed a hand up to ensure the water stayed safe. Having to make the trip twice would lead to another beating, worse if the urn broke: His arm was still weak where it had been cracked last time.

“Get a move on!”

His mother’s voice was impatient, not yet angry, but on its way there. Meerboa hurried, keeping a hand on the urn. “Sorry, Maman. I—“

“Keep your excuses. Get the water to your father. The maize is almost ground.”

Meerboa put a hand out until he touched the wall. The milling was done in an outhouse. Sighted memory helped his movement, but these days other senses were more dominant: The odor of ground maize; the tang of lime; the sound of the handstone sliding round the quern which cracked and ground the maize.

The outhouse door was open. When Meerboa entered the smell of his father’s sweat was rank in the air, pungent from the previous nights drunken binge.

“Put it down, then.” The tone was as short as mothers. Always verging on ire, ready to cross the line. Meerboa set the urn against the wall. Nothing spilled. He counted it a blessing.

“Now you’ve done that, get on with the sweeping. You’re already late.”

His father’s hand was heavy on his arm. A casual backhanded slap instead of a punch. Still, it staggered Meerboa, knocking him against the wall. His knee banged the urn, he shot a hand down to steady it and felt wet on his hand.

“Stupid boy.” His father cuffed him again, hitting his thigh. “Get out before you get the beating you deserve.”

There are other hooves behind me. They echo through the earth. These are not carefree hoofbeats, they are driven, ridden. The human savages beat, whip, and flog my fellows to unnatural exertions in my pursuit. From this I flee, I will always flee.

Garagon never came home one day. Father was asked to help round up the horses she’d abandoned. Meerboa was called to grind the corn. “Make sure it’s smooth,” father said, “and doesn’t dry out. You can manage that at least, can’t you.”

“Of course.”

His ears rang as his father hit the side of his head. “Don’t be cheeky. And your mother’ll check you do it right.”

The sun was high, turning the outhouse into a small oven, when the round up team came back. The corn was finished and Meerboa packed the last of the smooth paste into platters ready for his mother to cook. The horses clip-clopped past the house at a slow pace. Those who’d rounded them up followed quietly. Meerboa stood at the side of the house and listened, wondering why the procession was so muted.

“Get back inside.” His mother’s hand was gentle on his arm, almost tender, as she guided him to the door. “Go to your room.”

A cry rent the hot air. “My daughter! What have you done to my girl?”

Meerboa stopped, his mother’s hand still on him. “What’s happened to Garagon, mother?”

“A horse kicked her, she’s dead,” she said. Her voice hardened. “Get to your room. And the platters had better be ready for me to put in for baking.”

“They are.”

Meerboa lay on his bed and thought about Garagon. As toddlers they were often together, he had a lisp, and her hair was always full of twigs and leaves. They chased chickens round the village, splashed in the stream while water was collected. Later at the village school they learned to read from the same book; Princess Eribor and the Horse Thieves.

He’d always been jealous of Garagon growing up to work with horses. But Garagon wanted to work with machines.

“You go work with machines, I’ll look after the horses,” he'd said.

“Deal,” she'd replied.

Then Meerboa got the blindness disease, and Garagon’s mother fell from a horse and was crippled. Now Garagon was gone. Properly gone. He hadn’t seen her for five years, they’d hardly spoken for three, since becoming teenagers and starting work. Now they’d never speak again. The understanding of loss built in the way a horse moves from walking, to trotting, up to a canter, and onto a gallop - the headlong flight which makes everything in the world disappear. Tears flooded Meerboa’s cheeks as more of his world faded forever into blackness.

In silvery moonlight I slow, walk a furlong or two along a rocky river bed, and exit into the forest that rises from the edge of the veldt up the early slopes of steep mountains. The beat of my pursuers is lost. I fled. I am free.

The next day the village gathered for Garagon’s wake.

“Please can you take me to her mother,” Meerboa asked when the formal ceremony was over.

“Leave her to grieve,” his mother replied. “I’ll get you a plate of food so you don’t make a mess of the food table. Don’t move from here. You don’t want to be banging into people.”

Mother never came back. Though he heard her and father get louder as they drank more.

“I brought you some food, Meerboa,” Garagon’s mother said. "No meat. Is that still your thing?"

“Yes. Thank you.” She smelt like he remembered; sage soap and horses. It took him back to being six, seven, eight; happy times when he was going to run the horses. “I’m sorry about Garagon.”

She sat on the trestle bench next to him. “I’m sorry too. I should have let her go. She really wanted to be a cog maker.”

“Actually, she wanted to make machines. Said she’d make me new eyes.”

“She told me the same thing. She was devastated when you got the disease.”

“I wanted to work with the horses. I miss the horses.”

“You’d have been great. You had the feel. Garagon never did. She grew to hate them.”

Meerboa listened to the wake. There was plenty of noise, of laughter. No one was talking about Garagon. His father was telling a ribald joke that always came out after inhibition was dissolved by alcohol.

“I don’t blame her,” Garagon’s mother said. “I should have let her go. I was scared.” She laid a hand on his arm. “You should go. You can’t stay. You’ll become like my horses, hating those caring for them.”

Meerboa laughed, a guttural thick noise lacking mirth. “I’m not the one in danger of causing injury.” He rubbed his arm where a healed break was still sore, the muscle tender.

“Maybe not now. But that’s another reason to go. Soon. I’d hate to be at a wake for you.”

The hubbub of the wake seemed to fade away, leaving a muted bubble. Meerboa still heard everything, but at a distance. His arm throbbed dully. When he spoke his voice felt small, and from far, far, away. “I don’t know where to go.” Before being blind he’d never left the village. How could he go now? Where could he go?

“Can you still make your way to my paddock?”

“Yes, I think.”

“I have a horse that needs to go to Pellrobic. The whole route’s on the King’s Road. It needs to get there by tomorrow evening. You could do it if you left by sunrise.”

“I can’t ride all that way. I don’t even know if I can ride anymore.”

“You could ride if both your legs fell off. I taught you to ride, remember.”

“It’s five years-“

“You’ve no more forgotten how to ride after five years, than you’d forget how to breath if you stopped for half-a-minute.”

Meerboa grinned at the ridiculous comparison. And he did remember. Even now he could recall the feel of a horses flanks under his thighs, responding as he twitched the reins, or pressed with his leg.

His father reached the climax of his joke. Drunken laughter flooded Meerboa’s ears. He turned to stare at where he guessed Garagon’s mother to be. He nodded. She squeezed his hand and left him to eat.

Freedom smells different, it tastes different, it looks different. No hay, no mixed feed, no reins, or paddocks, or saddles. Sometimes I run for the joy of running, or jump a hedge. Other times I chew on long grasses, or lie in the shade of trees. For I am free.

Going to bed to ensure an early start for water collection gave Meerboa a good excuse to leave the wake. His mother and father never noticed, engaged as they were in drinking and sharing unsavory stories and jokes which did nothing to honor Garagon’s life, or her grieving mother.

He lay on his straw mattress and tried to sleep. It failed to come, though he faked it when his parents stumbled in hours later. They were happily drunk, and amorous. Meerboa almost wished they’d been angry and looked to beat him, it would have felt less disrespectful to Garagon. Soon the noises stopped. Shortly after his father started snoring, then his mother did.

Time drifted by. Meerboa thought about his favorite book. Reading wasn’t really a big thing for him, but he’d learnt to read with this one, because it was about a horse. Princess Eribor was a royal horse captured by evil thieves who intended to sell her for a life hauling plows, or turning a mill. The book wasn’t big but it had plenty of pictures. He remembered the ending. Princess Eribor was free, escaped from those who would mistreat her, escaped even from a world where she’d be bound by duty.

At dawn Meerboa made his way through the still sleeping village, going from building edge to fence post with his hands, ears, and nose as guides.

Garagon’s mother waited for him at the paddock. She helped him onto the horse, a mare. Panic assailed him, could he really do this? The horse shifted beneath him and the old familiarity rose, he gripped the reins and patted her neck soothingly, calming her.

The plans for how to deliver the animal were explained and he nodded in comprehension. Finally Garagon’s mother said, “Ride steady. Did you bring clothes? Money?”

“Everything I have is with me.”

The crippled woman pressed coins into his hand. “Use these. They should have been Garagon’s. Breath of the Ancients be with you, Meerboa.” She patted the mare’s rump and it lurched forward.

“What’s she called?” Meerboa called over his shoulder.

“Whatever you want.”

Meerboa grinned and leaned into the mare’s neck. “Hello, Princess Eribor.”

text by stuartcturnbull, image by https://pixabay.com/photos/horse-stallion-equine-equestrian-6351668/ via Pixabay

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