Posted by: Karl | December 19, 2013

Fiction – A Place To Belong

A PLACE TO BELONG

The winter rain was relentless and after six hours Herbie was thoroughly sick of it. His coat and mane were drenched, his forelock clung to his face no matter how much he tried to shake it off and the harness had become slippery and uncomfortable. Still he plodded on, his four massive hooves splashing through the puddles in the muddy lanes of England’s so-called green and pleasant land.

His relief when he finally arrived at Torrington Common was almost tangible. He unfastened the gate with his teeth and pushed through it, the wheels of the brightly-painted gypsy caravan behind him sinking deep into the mud as he dragged it across the sodden field.  Ahead, by a cluster of trees, he could see more such caravans and even through the rain he could smell other horses. He lifted his head and gave a whinny of delighted greeting.  A few heads lifted and looked towards him, though there was no reply.

With the last of his remaining strength he hauled the caravan to a spot slightly away from the others. Though a traveller too, Herbie did not belong here; he was an outsider in more ways than one, tolerated only because of family ties.

For a minute or two he just stood there, head hanging, every muscle in his massive body aching. Eventually he lifted his head and hollered, “Hey, is someone going to help me out of this damn harness?”

The colts and young stallions, quadruped and biped alike, just laughed and continued talking amongst themselves.  Herbie grumbled under his breath and considered just shifting back to biped form without waiting, but he didn’t much fancy falling face-flat in the mud with thirty kilos of collar and harness on top of him.

Eventually a young biped mare approached him, her ears pricked and an excited smile on her face.   “Herbie!” she squealed, leaping forward to throw her arms round his massive neck. “You’re back!”

Herbie looked down at her, frowning slightly in confusion. “Lily? Lily Meadows?”

“Yep!”  She made a little curtsey and pirouetted before him, showing off her flowing white tail and traditional black and white Gypsy Vanner markings.

“You’ve grown!” Herbie said, surprised. “You were barely more than a yearling last time I saw you.”

“Well, duh,” Lily replied, tossing her head. “You haven’t been back to see us in over two years.”  She started to unfasten Herbie’s harness, unhitching him from the caravan, unbuckling straps and finally, with considerable effort, lifting the heavy collar off from over his neck. He did not wear a bridle; Herbie drove himself and didn’t need one.

As soon as he was free of the encumbrance, Herbie began to shift back to biped form. It was a rare gift he’d inherited from his dam and one that had proved useful, but also was one of the features that caused distrust in others; that and his unusual blue colour which, today, was mostly hidden by mud.  The transformation took almost half a minute – it always took longer when he was tired – and when it was complete he still towered a good four or five hands taller than Lily. She hugged him again, this time her arms around his waist.  “I’m glad you’re back, Herbie, even if the others aren’t. Your mum will be too.”

Herbie smiled back, ruffled her forelock with a broad white human-shaped hand, and climbed into the caravan to get cleaned up and dressed.  This took longer than expected because he fell asleep, from sheer exhaustion, and it was almost two hours later before he awoke again.  He washed and groomed himself at the little sink, put oilskin wraps round his lower legs and threw on a long leather overcoat and a battered old broad-brimmed hat to keep the worst of the rain off him, though thankfully it had by now relented and was reduced to merely normal rain, instead of torrential.

Finally he grabbed a small sack from the table and tucked it under his arm before heading across the gypsy camp to visit his mother.  She was in her caravan, busy with an arrangement of poinsettia flowers, holly and pine-fronds. The inside of the caravan smelled of ginger and oranges and winter-blooming roses. Always roses, for Rosie.  Herbie carefully set down the sack and hugged her.  She seemed tired and much older than last time he saw her.

“Herbie, my son,” Rosie murmured, holding tight to him.

“I missed you, mum,” Herbie whispered, choking back tears. “Merry Christmas. Sorry I’m late.”

“Oh Herbie,” Rosie replied, her hands on each of Herbie’s cheeks. Like Lily and most of the other horses at the camp, she was a traditional Vanner. “You’re here at last, that’s all that matters to me.”

Herbie picked up the sack and handed it to her. “I brought you a present,” he said, smiling again.  She gave an excited giggle like a filly and hurriedly untied it, to reveal three exquisite boxes of hand-carved, polished rosewood. Each bore a word; Tea, Sugar and Biscuits.  Rosie was well-known for her sweet tooth.

“Oh, Herbie! These are beautiful! Thank you! Did you make them yourself?”  He nodded and she hugged him again.  “I have something for you too,” she said, taking a cardboard box down from a cupboard.  Herbie opened the box to find a new hat, which he put on his head right away in exchange for the old one, and underneath it an envelope with his name on it. He picked it up. It was brown and business-like.

“Open it,” Rosie said, a subtle smile on her lips.

Herbie opened the envelope and scanned the document, his eyes growing wide at the cheque stapled to it, made out in his name with an unexpectedly large amount of money.  “What’s this?”

“Your sire has gone back to Germany. Grange Farm is sold. He didn’t want you to have any of the proceeds from the sale but I insisted and he finally agreed to twenty-five percent.”

Herbie stared at the cheque for a long time. He would likely never see his father again and he wasn’t sure if that made him feel happy or sad. Happy for himself because his father had always hated his freak son, but sad because his mother loved him and he knew she would miss him terribly. And suddenly, Herbie was rich, and he had absolutely no idea what to do with this new-found wealth.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Herbie stayed with the camp for three days, spending most of the daytime with his mother and Lily, whom Rosie had more or less adopted as a daughter since Lily’s own dam had died of complications from colic the previous spring.  At night he retired to his own caravan but he barely slept, his mind was still racing from the shock of the news and his unexpected windfall.

Early on the morning of New Year’s Eve the camp broke up and prepared to move on.  It was a bright, crisp morning; the rain of the previous days had passed and there had been a frost overnight leaving the mud frozen solid and the grass sparkling white.

Rosie was in quad form, already hitched to her caravan whilst Lily, forever a biped, fussed over the harness, making sure it was comfortable. Herbie’s heart almost broke when he saw his dam like that.  He wrapped his arms round her neck and they nuzzled one another. “Don’t go with them, Mum,” he whispered. “Come back with me, we’ll buy a little cottage and settle down somewhere so you don’t have to work any more.”

Rosie shook her head. “You know that won’t ever happen, my dear,” she said quietly.  “I have the gypsy blood in my veins and so do you.”

“Where are you going?”

She shrugged. “Who knows? We follow the wind, we rest where we can. We’ll find each other.”

They nuzzled again but Herbie was interrupted by Lily tugging his tail.  “Hey, big blue. You better shift back to quad and let me harness you up before we leave, or else you’ll be stuck here with your van,” she reminded him.

He nodded and did so, backing into the shafts of his own caravan, shabby and well-weathered in comparison to the brightly-painted wagons in the rest of the camp. Lily chattered cheerfully whilst she harnessed him up but Herbie wasn’t listening. His mind was on his future but now it was an unknown road he was to travel.  He was still deep in thought when the last of the gypsy caravans pulled out of the common and into the lane.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Winter gave way to spring and the countryside came into blossom.  Woods and hedgerows became green again, filled with birdsong and the delicate scent of spring flowers. This was Herbie’s favourite time of year; full of fresh new grass and the promise of summer. His spirits were lifted but nothing much changed despite his new-found wealth.  He still led the life of a solitary tinker, travelling from village to village and farm to farm, taking whatever work he could find.  One day he might be helping to replace the roof on a barn. Another he might be pulling a plough.  And some days he worked only for himself; repairing and renovating his caravan.  But always the gypsy blood in his veins would urge him to move on and he rarely stayed in one place for more than a week. The cheque, he had deposited into a bank account and he hadn’t touched a penny of it.

One fine April morning Herbie drew his caravan to a halt in a lush meadow in hope of a peaceful hour or two to graze, when he heard the hoofbeats of a quad horse approaching at a canter. He looked up to see a bay of hunter type with a ragged and tangled mane, coat filthy and matted with dirt, and carrying a large bag in his teeth.  The horse stopped a few paces away, ears twitching nervously. Herbie could not tell by smell alone if it was male or female.

The bay dropped the bag and pawed the ground. “I don’t suppose you could help me?” it said, in a soft Irish accent.  “I’m lost.”  Then it sagged to the floor, shifting into biped form as it did so, and sat on the ground sobbing bitterly. Herbie could see now that the bay was a young stallion – no, a gelding, and maybe four or five years old. Herbie shivered. Such barbarity was almost unheard of these days but he knew all too well why it was done. It was only through providence that the same hadn’t been done to him too.

Herbie stepped forward and gently nuzzled the bay.  “I’ll help you,” he said. “What’s your name?”

“M… M… Mickey,” the bay replied between sobs.  “I ra… ran away and I’m lo… lo… lost.”  And he began to tell a sorry tale of how he’d been forcibly gelded and driven from his home in Ireland because he preferred the company of colts rather than fillies; how he’d stowed away on a boat for England and had been wandering the countryside ever since.  By the time he finished, his sobbing had subsided to a gentle sniffle.

“I understand,” Herbie said softly when Mickey fell silent. “I was driven away from my home farm too, for the same reason.”

Mickey looked up at him, his eyes wide. Deep brown eyes that made Herbie’s heart melt. “Did they… did they geld you too?”

Herbie shook his head. “My sire wanted to but my mother wouldn’t let him. And she’s bigger than he is, she’d have kicked his head in if he tried.”  He nudged Mickey with his nose. “Come on, get up. Unhitch me and I’ll make you a nice pot of tea.”

Mickey needed instruction on how to remove a harness and he struggled under the weight of the collar but as soon as it was off, Herbie shifted to biped form and smiled at him.  Ten minutes later the pair were inside the caravan seated on cushions, eating oatcakes and sipping hot, sweet tea from antique enamelled buckets.

“So you’re a shifter too,” Mickey said, looking curiously at Herbie, who just nodded. “Why are you blue? I’ve never met a blue horse before.”

Herbie shrugged. “Its just the way I am. I used to be able to shift colour too. I’d be brown when I was happy and blue when I was sad. After I left the farm, I just stayed blue. I don’t think I could go back to being brown again now, even if I wanted to.”

“Are you still sad?”

“Sometimes.”

“Pass me another oatcake.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Mickey had wanted to go to London to be a carriage horse for the Queen but Herbie talked him out of it. Cities were the domain of dogs and cats and foxes, they’re no place for horses, he’d said. They’re dirty and smelly and the paved roads are hard on the hooves.  Besides, Mickey could never be a carriage horse for the Queen. He had no training in harness and he’d more than likely end up a slave, hauling a coal-waggon in the East End until he dropped dead from exhaustion.  Only in the countryside could a horse be truly free.

So Mickey stayed with Herbie all that summer and they travelled, worked and slept together all across the south of England.  Wherever they stopped, Herbie would enquire about any gypsy camps that might have passed through and though there were some, none of them were the troupe to which Rosie belonged.

Towards the end of August they came to Devon and stayed a while with the wild Exmoor ponies. The Exmoors were a wild bunch who lived their lives on four hooves, shunning all modern technology; they lived and grazed on the moors in the same way that their primitive ancestors had done for fifty thousand years.  But they were an incurably cheerful tribe, always laughing, singing, with their traditional gatherings and parties often running until late into the night.

Mickey was popular with the mares because of his stunning good looks, and they were all terribly disappointed when they found out he was gelded, but after that he became the girls’ best friend, a male that they could confide in and gossip with, without any strings attached.  Herbie they treated more warily, not least because of his massive size but also because his colour was so weird, and none of them wanted to risk birthing a blue foal.  Besides, it soon became apparent to the pony herd that Mickey and Herbie were by now a couple.  And far from causing them to be ostracised, they were accepted even more warmly by the herd because of that. Perhaps, Herbie thought, because they were no threat to the lead stallion’s position and would be unlikely to try to steal the mares away.

“Do you love me?” Mickey asked one evening, whilst they watched some of the ponies enacting a traditional tale about how their ancestors had come to England when all of Europe had been covered by ice.  The two horses were laid down side by side in a bed of soft heather, Mickey’s chin resting on Herbie’s knees whilst Herbie gently nibbled at the bay’s neck. He stopped nibbling and looked at Mickey curiously.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “I think…”

He lifted his head suddenly, sniffing the air. A scent was being carried in on the light breeze and it was a scent that meant trouble.

“What is it?” Mickey asked.

“Wolves,” Herbie replied grimly.  He rose to his feet and stamped a warning with a great hoof, and the dancing stopped. The ponies scrambled together in panic, mares calling for their foals and stallions standing protectively around the mares and youngsters.  Arron, the lead stallion, urged for calm but it was already too late; the whole herd could smell the wolves now and they were beginning to panic.

Herbie whispered to Mickey. “Stay with the herd,” he said. “Get Arron to lead them up to high ground, if they go down into the valley they’ll be trapped.”

“What about you?”

Herbie grinned. “I’m going to slow them down. Or stop them.”  He stamped again, and set off at a gallop, in the direction from which the wolf-scent was coming.

He was nervous, actually he was terrified.  One wolf alone could easily kill a young pony and even three or four could not bring down a horse the size of Herbie. But Herbie knew there would be more than three or four. Possibly a lot more.

Over the crest of the next rise, Herbie could see the wolves now, their fur silver in the light of the full moon. He counted at least a dozen but the sweat turned cold on his flanks when he saw the shifters amongst them, armed with spears and running as fast on two feet as their brethren on four.

Herbie thought back to his ancestors, five hundred years ago, bred for war, not the harness. With a loud cry of fury, he plunged into battle; hooves flying, moving with a speed he’d forgotten he possessed as he twisted and kicked at the hungry pack.

Three of the closest wolves turned on him, one leaping for his throat and the other two onto his back. Herbie reared up to full height on his hindlegs; the wolf that was going for his throat missed and dropped to the ground again, Herbie brought his massive hooves down onto it and it lay still. One of the others had slid over his rump and a hind-hoof sent it flying. The other bit down hard onto the back of Herbie’s neck making him squeal with pain. Still, there was not much it could do besides just try to hang on so Herbie gritted his teeth and ignored it, plunging forward again.

More wolves circled him, coming close but carefully staying out of range of his flying hooves; they were nervous after seeing two of their companions fall. The shifters called out in a language Herbie could not understand, but assumed they were instructions to the pack. Herbie was sweating and shaking with terror but he plunged forward again, this time fast enough to catch another wolf before it could back away and a third lay lifeless.

This victory, as well as the agony of the jaws on his neck, spurred him on and he leaped forward again, taking down another wolf and this time lunging for the gap in the circle and taking off at a gallop. The pack followed, as he knew they would, and he led them off in the opposite direction to the one the Exmoors had taken.  The wolf on his back let go and slid off, Herbie kicked it hard as he passed it but he did not slow to check if it was still alive.

A sharp pain in his rump caused him to stumble and he almost fell; at first he thought it was another wolf’s jaws but he caught a glimpse of one of the shifters and he realised it was a spear. He could feel it still sticking out of his haunch and every stride was agony, but he did not slow down.

How far he ran, or for how long, he could not say, but it felt like for ever. His heart was beating fit to burst but he dared not rest, and it was a sight of such immense relief when he realised he was coming to the edge of the moor and approaching the lights of a village. The wolves, fearing the presence of civilisation, howled rallying cries to each other and retreated.

Utterly exhausted, Herbie staggered into the village’s main street and collapsed.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

“Try not to move,” someone was saying, in the rough voice of a dog and a rich west-country accent. “Don’t get up.”

Herbie opened his eyes. He was still laying in the road where he had fallen, only now it was almost dawn. A biped dog was leaning over him, a border collie, dressed in a brown tweed suit.  “Wolves…” Herbie managed to say. “The ponies… Mickey…”

“Shhh. The wolves are gone,” said the collie. “You’re safe now. I’m a doctor. Let me look at your wounds.”

“Mickey…”  Herbie struggled to stand but firm hands; not the collie’s but a biped cow’s, forced him to lie down again.

“Be a good lad and lay still,” the cow said softly. She had big gentle eyes, but she was strong and held him down firmly.

Herbie felt a sharp prick in his shoulder as the doctor injected him with something. A painkiller; he gradually felt himself becoming rather light-headed and his body felt distant, like it wasn’t attached to his brain any more as he slowly drifted once again into unconsciousness.

When he next awoke, Herbie was lying on a soft bed, with pillows and blankets. At first he thought he was dreaming, but he realised that at some point he had shifted back to his biped form and he supposed it must have been due to shock, or the doctor’s medicines. There was a dull ache in his right hip and another on the back of his neck, both of which had been securely bandaged.  He tried to sit but couldn’t, and fell back onto the pillows.

“Now, now laddie, no rushing.”  Herbie turned his head and saw the cow who had held him down in the lane.  She held a small bucket from which steam was rising and smelling deliciously like warm, milky tea.  She set the bucket on the bedside table. “Drink it steady now,” she warned him. “You’ve been in shock and I don’t want you throwing it back up over my nice clean linens.”

“How long have I been here?” Herbie asked, reaching for the bucket and dipping his nose into it.

“Three days,” said the cow.

Herbie spluttered into his tea and set the bucket back onto the table. “Three days! I have to go! Mickey… the ponies…”

“They’re all safe,” the cow replied with a smile. She opened the door and spoke to someone outside. “You can come in now. he’s awake.”

She stepped out of the room and Mickey came in, throwing his arms round Herbie’s neck in a hug but quickly letting go when Herbie protested. “Ow, careful! That hurts!” He smiled at the bay. “How did you find me?”

“I followed the trail of huge hoofprints and the corpses of dead wolves,” Mickey said with a grin. “You did good. The herd is calling you a hero.  They want you to stay with them.”

Herbie shook his head. “It was fun for a few weeks, but it’s too primitive and too dangerous for my taste. Besides,” he added with a chuckle, “I’m too fond of sweet tea, soft pillows and honey oatcakes.”

“Me too,” Mickey replied.

“I guess I’ll have to go back to fetch my van.”

Mickey shook his head. “One of the horses from the village brought it back for you. It’s parked up behind the pub. Besides, you can’t pull it at all until you’re healed up.”

Herbie fell silent and sucked down his tea.  “What about you?”

Mickey rested his slender hand on Herbie’s chest, gently stroking his slate-blue fur. “I want to stay with you, Herbie. When you were hurt, I was so afraid you were going to die and I couldn’t bear to lose you. Let me stay with you. Please?”

Herbie looked at Mickey for a while, then laid his big white hand over Mickey’s black one. “I never answered your question, did I?”

“What question?”

“The one you asked just before the wolves attacked.”  His eyes filled with tears and he pulled Mickey into a great hug. “Yes, Mickey, yes I do, and yes you may.”

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

 Three weeks later, when Herbie’s wounds were mostly healed and he was able to pull the caravan again, he and Mickey left the village in high spirits. Herbie didn’t run with any herd, he belonged to the open road and, at least for now, Mickey belonged with him.

The trees were turning golden-brown, heavy with fruit, the leaves in the lane crunching under Herbie’s massive hooves. And Mickey, on two feet, sat astride his back singing a song he’d learned from the Exmoors and dreaming of what new adventures might lay just ahead.

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