© 2013 Iscah

Horse Feathers

by Iscah

CHAPTER 2

Phillip cooked eggs outside over an open fire the next morning while his father supervised. He found it curious how heat could produce such a change in things. It transformed the eggs from goop to solid food but left the frying pan unaltered. He had asked his father why once and gotten the answer some things change and some things don't, which sounded very wise but not much like an answer.

The eggs passed inspection, and they ate in silence. Even Phillip found it hard to talk when his mouth was full. They walked to the stables together and were halfway when Phillip started recounting his experience at the tavern and the meeting. They reached the stable before he could get to the part about the teacher intending to talk his father into school. There was a board inside where the day's chores were posted. Though there was seldom any change, they were expected every day to check it. Phillip's father read his chores out to him, and Phillip hurried off to work. It was his job to bring fresh feed and water for the horses each morning, and if he did it quickly enough, he could brush them a little and say hello.

While Phillip had trouble recalling the names of people he saw infrequently, he knew the names of all the unicorns and regular horses, and they knew and loved him. A brown filly named Amber actually did a little leap for joy away from her mother's side when she saw him. Phillip hugged her thick neck and talked to her for a little while before moving on to the next stall.

He was dumping a bag of feed into a trough when he heard his father call his name. This was a little unusual, as he checked his memory and did not think he had forgotten anything. He left the feedbag beside the stable and went to see what his father wanted.

He found him where the halls met, standing with his hands propped on the end of his upright shovel. His father directed his attention down the other hall with a small smirk and a nod. There were two pegasus mares being led down the far hall. Phillip felt his breath catch at the sight of them. They were dark brown with dainty bodies and large wings. He had seen a pegasus pass on occasion down the stone road, and more than anything else in the world he wanted to ride one.

"The lord is hoping to breed some winged unicorns," his father remarked. "But he'll never manage it with those two."

"Why not?" Phillip asked, almost as pleased to see his father's eyes light as to see the pegasus themselves.

"Those aren't purebred pegasus. Their wings are a bit too short for proper flight. They've been crossbred to keep them grounded. Easier to manage but less useful," his father said.

"Why bother breeding a pegasus at all, if they can't fly?" Phillip asked. His father was not a well-educated man in general, but he was a fount of knowledge on the subject of horses.

"The wings help them run more smoothly," his father explained. "The wind beneath their outstretched wings lifts them up a bit so they can glide along and more easily hop the holes in the road. A bit like chickens can manage to flutter but not true flight."

"I want a pegasus that can really fly," said Phillip eagerly, already wondering if he could talk the stablemaster into letting him ride these for practice.

His father lifted his shovel back in a working grip. "Then you should get one from Uritz where they run wild and fly between the mountain tops."

"Couldn't the lord breed some winged unicorns who can't quite fly?" Phillip asked. "I know they'd be worth less, but..."

His father shook his head, looking a little sad again. "You know how rough a unicorn birth is. Unicorns have metal in their bones. You think those dainty little pegasus mares could handle it? No, they'll deliver early and stillborn, most likely. May not be fit to breed again."

"Maybe they're for something else?" Phillip suggested optimistically. "I'm sure the stablemaster won't want to risk them. There's no profit in that."

"Maybe," his father said. "But I think it more likely the manor lord's trying to turn a profit for the least expense. He's less likely to listen to reason if he thinks he has managed to outwit nature."

"The unicorns may refuse them," Phillip said, still trying to set things right in his mind. "The unicorn mares won't accept a regular stallion. You said they were snobs."

His father actually grinned at that. "Perhaps you're right. Why don't you finish up your chores so you can get a closer look at them this afternoon."

Phillip did not need to be told twice and returned to the feedbag.

xXx

xXx

While the stablehands generally fended for themselves at breakfast and dinner, lunch was served to them at the expense of the estate. Phillip washed his hands in the soapy tub by the stable's front entrance and joined the line for a plate. No one could fault the lord for his portion sizes. They were neither excessive nor frugal. A chunk of bread, a wedge of cheese, an apple, a carrot, a slice of mutton, and a cup of milk. The estate had no shortage of milk cows. They were kept in a barn and had grazing fields beyond the horses'. The sheep were kept beyond them. The estate had its own wheat fields and orchards too. Phillip sat under the shade of a tree and chewed down his lunch.

He knew there were other children on the estate, but he saw them mostly in passing. The stablemaster was not fond of children in general, though he put up with Phillip since he never startled the horses and got his work done without coaxing. Most of the other children walked down to the village in the morning three days a week for school. He asked his father once why he was not sent with them and was told because we're poor and need your salary. Phillip thought it was more likely because he lacked a mother. Other poor families managed to spare their children three days per week, but most of them had mothers who could help their fathers out and give them company. Phillip knew his father did not spend any of his son's small salary but saved it up in a little box. You'll need it when you're older.

Most days he felt no regret over this. He liked feeding the horses. His idea of school was a vague one that seemed to involve a lot of sitting. The old teacher had never shown much interest in bringing him to the classroom, and the miller's son said it was boring. But Phillip liked this new teacher very much. However, there were pegasus at the stables now, and he found them far more beguiling than a classroom. A pegasus seemed handy for an adventure, and Phillip wanted to have adventures when he grew up.

After his own lunch, he went back to feeding the horses again, this time with carrots and apples and other appropriate vegetables. The unicorns got the lightest dusting of metal flecks in their food, usually copper, though they would mix in gold dust when it was available. It helped to keep their horns shiny and bright.

When his chores were done, Phillip went to have a better look at the two pegasus. He was not the only one. Several of the other stablehands had stopped by to admire them. The stablemaster, a tall, hefty bald man with a thick mustache, stood watching with his arms crossed. The animals looked anxious and restless to Phillip, lifting and dropping their hooves in sharp, short steps that went nowhere.

"Have they had any exercise?" Phillip asked the stablemaster.

"We're waiting for them to calm down a bit," the stablemaster said.

"They feel cramped," Phillip said, noting how one was trying to stretch her wings out but pulling them back when the tips touched the wall. "They need to go out so they can stretch fully. Can I try to take one outside for a few laps around the pen?"

The stablemaster let out a low barking laugh. "They'll jump a fence, and you'll break your neck."

"No, I won't," Phillip said dismissively.

The stablemaster rubbed his bristled chin. "All right, I was thinking I need to give them a run soon anyway. We're not built for managing pegasus, need more ropes and netting." He shook his egg-shaped head. "Hansen, take a rope. We'll see if Phillip can get a saddle on Valley, and Noose, you ride Banket." Noose was a short fourteen-year-old, nicknamed for his lasso skill, who like Phillip made for a light burden. "Burris and Swank, you get ropes to hold them and lead them out."

Phillip realized this meant they were more likely to go out for a trot than a proper gallop or short flight, but it was more than he had expected. The stablemaster ordered back the onlookers so Phillip could pass through. He climbed over the gate rather than opening it, lowered himself slowly into the stall, and stood there with one hand outstretched so Valley had a chance to approach him.

Valley took a short step back but stopped her pawing, and after a few breaths, eased forward. When she was close enough Phillip patted her nose and offered her a sugar cube he had snuck out earlier. She liked this. He took her brush and stroked her hair with it, more for the calming sensation than the need. She had been groomed already. While he brushed, he calmly explained about the saddle and that they would be going outside as soon as it was on. Valley blinked at him, and he took this as a sign of acceptance. Burris brought him the smallest saddle they had available, and Phillip managed to get it on. After he was on her back, Burris fit the bridle on, while the stablemaster commented that they should have done it the other way around. But Phillip thought it calmed Valley to feel a rider pat her mane.

Burris led them out of the stable by a long rope attached to the bridle. They took three turns around the track before Burris and the stablemaster agreed to let Phillip hold the rope. He and Valley took off across the field at a full gallop. She did not jump the fence as the stablemaster predicted, but after Phillip got her turned around, she stretched out her wings and made a rather impressive jump. The landing threatened to throw him, but Phillip managed to keep a good grip on the saddle. Valley trotted back to the stables in a much better mood, and Banket followed after.

Despite the stern look from the stablemaster, Phillip's mood bordered on giddy. After the pegasus was properly stabled again, Phillip ran to find his father and tell him what had happened. He found him near the door to the stables standing in conversation with the teacher and stopped short, for both men looked irritated.

"There's just no point in him going," Phillip's father said. "We're leaving in a few days for Tivin, and I don't plan on coming back."