A Romany woman in a crimson gown flashes by, standing on the back of a cantering horse. Her crown of turkey feathers quivers under the burning summer sun.
"The Wild Woman!" announces the showman, flourishing a black hat.
The crowd cheers as the lathered horse picks up speed. It tosses its big head, throwing off gobs of sweat and spittle. Its tail streams, and its hooves pound the dust.
The Wild Woman puts out her hands, her diaphanous skirts billowing out behind her. Slowly, she raises her arms to the cloudless sky and shrieks a piercing war cry.
A pale girl barely tall enough to see over the rails watches transfixed, imagining her own thin arms outstretched, her own feet planted on a horse's broad back.
She presses her hands to her cheeks in wonder. Oh, the wind!
It was 1650, year eight in the reign of young Louis XIV a time of famine, plague and war. In the hamlets and caves and forests beyond, people were starving and violence ruled. The girl had just turned six.
She was small for her age, often taken for a four-year-old until she spoke, that is, with a matter-of-fact maturity well beyond her years. She wore a close-fitting cap tied under her chin with ribbons, her golden curls falling down her back to her waist. Her gown of gray serge was adorned with a necklace she'd made herself from hedgehog teeth. A pixie child, people sometimes called her, because of her diminutive size, her fair coloring, her unsettling gaze.
The girl followed the Wild Woman with her eyes as she jumped from the horse and bowed out. Waving her feathered crown, she disappeared from view. The girl pushed her way out through the crowd. Ignoring two jugglers, a clown walking on sticks, and a tumbling dwarf, she circled around to the sprawl of covered wagons on the far side of the hill. There, she found the Wild Woman, pouring a leather bucket of water over her tangled hair. The tin spangles on her gown caught the light.
"Thunder, it's hot," the woman cursed. Her horse a piebald with pink eyelids was tethered to an oxcart close by. "What do you want, angel?" she asked through dripping tendrils.
"I want to ride a horse like you do," the girl said. "Standing."
"Do you," the woman said, wiping her face with her hands.
"I'm horse-possessed," the girl said soberly. "My father says."
The woman laughed. "And where be your father now?"
The horse pawed at the dirt, kicking up clouds. The Romany woman yanked its frayed lead and said something in a foreign tongue. The horse raised its ugly head and whinnied; a chorus answered.
"They're in the back field," the woman told the child, shooing her on.
The girl crept between the wagons and tents, making her way toward a clearing where four cart horses, a donkey and a spotted pony were grazing. The tethered bell mare looked up as she approached, then returned to chewing the loaves of moldy bran bread that had been thrown down in a heap. The summer had been dry, and grass was sparse.
It was then that the girl saw the horse standing apart in the woods a young stallion, she knew, by his proud bearing. He was fenced off from the others, one foreleg bound up with a leather strap.
He was a White, high in stature. His neck was long, slender at the head, and his up-pricked ears were small and sharp. Words from the Bible came to her: I saw Heaven open, and behold: a White horse. His eyes looked right into her. Sing ye!
She thought of stories her father had told her stories of Neptune, sacrificing his Whites to the sun, stories of winged Pegasus. Worship him that rides on clouds. She thought of the King, a boy not much older than she was, stopping the riots in Paris by riding into the fray on a White. He who rides him is faithful and true.
She knew this horse: he was the horse in her dreams.
She picked her way across the clearing. "Ho, boy," she said, her hand outstretched.
The stallion pinned back his ears, threatening to strike.
Laurent de la Vallière turned his squeaky wagon into the rock-strewn field. He eased himself down off the driver's bench and straightened, one hand on the small of his back. His military hat was plumed but stained, and he wore a cracked leather jerkin with patched woolen sleeves laced on at the shoulders. His quilted knee breeches and sagging trunk hose, out of fashion for over a half-century, were well patched and darned. Booted and spurred and with a sword at his side, he had the air of a cavalry officer who had seen better days.
He tied the cart mare to a scrubby oak and headed toward the crowd in the field. At the top of the path, a big Romany woman sat on a stump: the gatekeeper, he surmised. Not all gypsies were hedge crawlers, but most were a rum lot. He patted his leather doublet, feeling for the rosary he kept next to his heart, a string of plain wooden beads touched by Saint Teresa of Avila. O God, chase from my heart all ominous thoughts and make me glad with the brightness of hope. Amen.
"Monsieur de la Vallière," he said, tipping his hat. He was well respected in these parts, revered for his doctoring and charity, but the Romas were a traveling people; they would not know him. "I am looking for a girl," he said.
A sudden breeze carried the scent of urine. "A girl, you say?" The woman grinned, gap-toothed.
"My daughter." Laurent held out his hand, palm down, to indicate height.
"Fair, two front teeth missing?"
"She is here, then." Praised be my Lord. He had been looking all afternoon. After searching the manor, he had combed the barn, the dovecote, the granary, the dairy and even the henhouse. He had walked the woods and fields beyond, and fearfully paced the banks of the river before harnessing the cart mare and heading into town. It was at the dry goods store in Reugny that he heard talk of Romas with trick ponies. The girl was a fool for horses.
"She's in the far field with Diablo," the woman added with a throaty laugh.
The Devil? Laurent crossed himself and made his way over the hill and through the tented carts to the field behind. There, he spotted his daughter crouched in the dust.
"Petite," he called out. She was surrounded by heavy horses.
"Father?" She stood up. "Look," she said as he approached, pointing to a white horse at the edge of the woods.
"Where have you been?" Fear overwhelmed him, now that he knew she was safe. "You could have been " Vagrants were everywhere. Just last week, two pilgrims had been murdered on the road to Tours. He stooped beside his daughter and took her hand. O Lord, I offer my ardent thanksgiving for the grace You bestow on me. Amen. Her pale cheeks were flushed. "Little one, you must not run away like that." She was an impulsive, emotional child, full-hearted and independent, boyish in her ways. These were not qualities his wife appreciated. She was strict with the girl, making her sit for hours at an embroidery frame but what could he say? Raising a daughter was a woman's domain.
"I'm going to stand on a galloping horse," Petite lisped through the gap in her teeth. She stretched her arms out, her wide-set blue eyes luminous.
Was it the Holy Spirit shining through her, Laurent wondered or the Devil? It was easy to confuse the two.
"Like the Wild Woman," she said.
The girl's fantastical imagination was a concern. That spring, she had constructed a primitive hovel out of stones in back of the barn, her "convent" she called it. There she had nursed broken animals back to health, most recently a spotted salamander and a goshawk.
"They said they would teach me how."
"Let us go," he said, taking his daughter's hand. "I have bread rolls in the wagon." If the Romas had not stolen them.
"But Diablo," Petite said, looking back at the stallion.
"He belongs to these people here."
"They said they'd sell him cheap."
"We will go to the horse market in Tours next week. We will find you a pony, just as you have always wanted." As it was, the girl would ride anything with four legs. A year earlier, she had trained a calf to jump.
"You said the horses at the market can hardly walk. You said they are fleshless."
"It is not a good year for horses, true." Between the endless war with Spain and interminable uprisings, decent mounts were hard to find. Any four-legged beast left standing had been taken by one army or another. As well, the taboo against eating horseflesh did not apply in a time of famine. "But there is always hope. We will pray, and the good Lord will provide."
"I prayed for this horse, Father," Petite said. The stallion was standing still as a statue, watching them. "I prayed for this White."
Laurent stopped to consider. The stallion's legs were straight and his shoulders long. His head was narrow, like a ram's: perfect. Although thin, the animal was broad in the chest. Horses of that rare milk-white color were said to be like water, spirited yet tender. He would be a beauty, no doubt, once curried and combed. His daughter had an uncanny eye for a horse, in truth.
"How much did they say they wanted for him?"
It took four strong men the muscle men of the show to secure the stallion to the back of the wagon. The leg strap came loose in the tussle. "Stand back," one of the men yelled as the beast let loose, kicking out furiously.
What is wrong with that stallion? Laurent wondered. Even a horse born under a bad constellation would not have this degree of wildness. Had he been unsettled by battle? One saw that often of late, yet the White had no scars that Laurent could see, no telltale sword wounds.
"With respect, Monsieur "
Laurent turned with a start. The young man behind him had a face as black as a raven's wing. His tunic was patched at the elbows and his head wrapped round with linen cloth. A Moor? A small fringed carpetbag was attached to a cord tied around his waist, but Laurent could see no sword or knife. He made a quick supplication to Saint James the Moor-killer and reviewed his state of arms: his rusty sword, the dull knife in his right boot. He breathed with relief to see a small cross around the Moor's neck.
"I advise you to be cautious," the young man said. "That stallion is uncommonly ill-tempered evil, some say, although that is not a word I care to use, at least not with respect to animals."
The stallion gave a high-pitched whinny.
"Father?" Petite said uncertainly, half-hiding behind her father's legs.
The beast lunged for one of the muscle men, teeth bared, and the man fell, his leather jerkin torn. "The Devil!" he cursed, scrambling clear.
Three urchins gathered to watch and jeer, as if the scene were a bear-baiting, part of the show.
"He has been named Diablo for a reason," the Moor said, gesturing to the lads to stand well back.
Laurent rubbed his stubbled chin, in need of its weekly shave. He was puzzled by the Moor's use of intelligible language. He'd been given to believe that pagans were more beast than human. "I gather that you know this horse," he said. Perhaps the Moor was the groom a poor one, if that was the case. The creature had not been touched for some time, to judge by his long splintered hooves and the mats in his mane.
"I am Azeem, a gentler. I train the horses."
Petite spoke up. "Did you teach the donkey to sit like a dog?"
"You liked that trick?" The gentler smiled; his teeth were white and straight.
"I taught a goat to climb a ladder," she said.
Laurent took his daughter's hand. Gentlers were born during the chime hours.
Did they not have the second sight? "This horse looks none too gentled."
"The Romas stitched his ears together when he was a colt, but it only made him vicious."
Laurent made a sound of disapproval. Stitching a horse's ears together was believed to calm the animal to keep it from kicking out while being shod, for example but there was no magic in the practice, in his view. It served only to distract the horse, give it something to think about. Tying up one hoof did the job just as well. "Vicious, you say?" The rope was cutting into the White's neck. The stallion was pulling so hard, Laurent feared the horse might break his neck.
"Aye. Bone magic is about the only thing that would turn him now," the Moor said, signing himself.
Laurent frowned. He had heard talk of bone magic. One man he knew had used it to settle his horse, but then he himself had turned crackbrained. Gone to the river, been around water and streams was how the neighbors put it, whispering among themselves. The man had only to tap on his barn door and it would fly open, as if the Devil were behind it. He claimed he saw the horse by his bed at night.
"Charlotte's father used magic on his lame Barb mare," Petite told her father.
"Monsieur Bosse?" That horse had gone on to win three purses. Not that Laurent approved of gambling.
"Water magic, but maybe that's different from bone magic," the girl said.
"Forgive me, Monsieur," the Moor said, addressing Laurent. "I should not have spoken of it in front of a child." He stooped to face the girl. "Mademoiselle, whatever it is called bone magic, water magic, toad magic have nothing to do with it. Understand?"
"We do not hold with witchcraft." Laurent pulled Petite closer, away from the Moor. The horse was tied securely now. It was time to move on.
"You are wise, Monsieur." The gentler stood and made a graceful bow from the waist, his hand pressing the cross to his chest. "It is the Devil's power, and the Devil gives away nothing for free."
Laurent's stocky mare pulled the cart down the rutted laneway. His daughter sat beside him, looking anxiously back at the recalcitrant White. At first, the horse had braced himself against the pull of the wagon, but the cart mare was strong and the ropes held. After being dragged for a time, the stallion relented and followed along.
Petite asked if she could climb into the back of the wagon. "So that he won't think God has forsaken him," she said.
"Leave the horse be," Laurent answered wearily. The stallion was a handsome creature, but his condition was pitiable. His wife would have a thing to say, that was for sure. "You will just unsettle him."
Petite sat back down beside her father and bit into a bread roll, swinging her feet. "Was that gentler a Moor?"
"I believe so," Laurent said as they approached Reugny. The spire of the little church could be seen over the treetops. He wondered if there would be news. The sun was at salute level about five of the clock and the mail rider from Tours might have arrived. Last he had heard, Bordeaux, to the south, was in revolt against the Court, and the King's forces had the city under siege. If Bordeaux proved victorious, anything could happen. The King might have to retreat behind the walls of Paris and abandon the countryside to the warring princes. What was left to fight over? France was like a shattered vase. The only thing people shared was poverty. Peasants were lucky to get fifteen sous for a day's labor, the price of a basket of eggs.
How was it possible to go on living with such discord? Laurent felt for the copper coin sewn into the lining of his jerkin, the one engraved with the image of Henry the Great. That good king's death had unleashed a century of mayhem. Every night Laurent prayed that their young and most Christian King would put an end to the eternal bloodshed. The King was God's representative; that was ordained. Surely he would triumph.
"I was going to the land of the Moors," Petite said, interrupting Laurent's thoughts.
"Oh?" he replied absently, pulling the wagon into a vacant lot across from the village green. Something was going on: a crowd had gathered to one side of the hanging tree. A great laugh went up and then a hiss. A cockfight, perhaps?
"You were going to the land of the Moors this morning?"
"To be beheaded," Petite said. "Like Saint Teresa in the book. But that Moor was a gentler, and he didn't have a sword. Or an ax."
"Saint Teresa's book?" Laurent asked, confused. Over time he had acquired a small library some texts on husbandry and history, but largely religious and philosophical tracts. Among them was Saint Teresa's account of her life, a slim leather-bound volume. How did his daughter know of it? "Did Monsieur Péniceau read it to you?" His son's tutor had once been a Court scribe; he could read and write passably, but theology was certainly not his province.
"I've been reading it myself, but I'm only to page sixteen."
Laurent turned to stare at her. "You can read? "
"Some words are hard."
"Who taught you?" His daughter was precocious that he well knew but his son Jean, two years older, had yet to even learn his letters.
"I learned myself," Petite said, standing and surveying the green. "Someone's in the stocks."
"Stay with the wagon," Laurent instructed, making a mental note to inquire into this matter later. "I have to pick up some supplies at the apothecary."
"Will Diablo be all right?" Petite asked, looking back at the White.
"He cannot go anywhere." The rope was holding. "Do not let anyone near him."
Laurent had walked only a few paces when he heard "Papa!"
A strapping lad ran across the crowded square, an angle rod in one hand and a bait bag in the other.
"Jean," Petite called out to her brother.
"They've got Agathe Balin in the stocks," the boy told his father breathlessly. He turned and pointed at the crowd.
"Why?" Petite asked.
"No mind," Laurent said with a warning tone.
"For fornicating, Papa. With Monsieur Bosse, everyone's saying. Go look, Papa. She's covered in spit." Jean's freckled cheeks were flushed.
"Monsieur Bosse Charlotte's father?" Petite asked.
Laurent glared down at his son. "You are supposed to be at your lessons."
Jean threw his sack and rod into the back of the wagon. "Where'd this horse come from?" He circled around to have a look. The horse snorted, white-eyed.
"Is it wild?"
"Stay back, son," Laurent warned.
"Mother!" the boy cursed, jumping to avoid a smartly aimed kick. "That's one mean beast."
"He's mine," Petite said. "I prayed for him."
"Little one, he is not a horse for a girl," Laurent said, heading for the apothecary.
"What does 'fornicating' mean?" Petite asked, making room for her big brother beside her on the cart's bench.
"What good is a horse you can't ride or work?" Madame Françoise de la Vallière demanded, her hands bloody from killing a rabbit for Lord's Day dinner. She cut off the head and snapped the legs to remove the feet. She was a pretty woman with round cheeks and a dimpled chin. Deep frown lines separated her thin plucked brows.
"I have yet to meet a stallion I cannot ride," Laurent said with false optimism. He had needed the help of the ploughman and three field hands just to get the beast into the barn with pitchforks and the whalebone whip.
"He tried to kick me," Jean said.
"No news yet out of Bordeaux." Laurent let his running hound in by the back door. The dog hurried to her pups in the basket by the fire.
"They've got Mademoiselle Balin in stocks in town," Jean said.
Blanche, the pock-scarred kitchen maid, turned her one good eye to stare. "Agathe Balin?"
Françoise raised her brows. "You don't say."
"For fornicating with Monsieur Bosse, everyone's saying."
"A married man." Françoise cut through the rabbit's groin. "That girl has had the Devil in her from the day she was born." She took out the waste tube and cut off the tail, then pulled the skin down over the body in one easy go.
"Everyone spat on her, and a dog was licking her face," Jean said as he emptied two eels out of his sack into a copper basin. "You should have heard her scream when I tickled her feet."
"Good catch," Françoise noted, gesturing to Blanche to take the eels outside to clean.
"And you should have been praying for the salvation of her soul, son, not tormenting the girl," Laurent said with a sigh.
"Everyone was doing it," Jean said, following the maid out the back door.
"He's just a lad, Laurent," Françoise said, cutting the rabbit's stomach lining and removing the innards.
"He was supposed to be studying."
"And she was supposed to be at her needlework." Françoise glanced over at Petite, who was stroking the hound by the fire. "She runs off, and the two of you come back with a horse. What kind of discipline is that?"
"A true White is rare," Laurent said. The stallion even had blue eyes, something he'd heard of but never seen. "A noble breed," he added, thinking of the ancient inscription etched over the bedroom mantel: Ad principem ut ad ignem amor indissolubilis. For the King, love like an altar fire, eternal. These were the first words he saw on waking, the last words he saw before falling asleep. It had been his family's motto for generations. His father's great-great-great-grandfather had ridden beside Jeanne d'Arc. The King could count on a Vallière in troubled times, but Françoise was not a Vallière. She was a Provost, a family that tended to profit in troubled times. She would never understand the value of a horse such as this: a true Blanchard, a beautiful cheval blanc, the mount of kings. Not everything could be measured and weighed, not everything had a price.
"And he has conformation," Petite said, nuzzling one of the pups.
"He has good conformation," Laurent corrected. His old cavalry mount Hongre could hardly manage a trot anymore. He fancied himself on the White.
"Father's going to breed him."
"It's not seemly to discuss such things with a girl," Françoise told Laurent under her breath. "As it is, she spends too much time with the horses. It's time she started acting like a lady." She plunged her knife into the breast of the rabbit, splitting it in two with one stroke.
The next morning, at the third cock's crow, Petite moved quietly out the back door, a dry crust of bread in her hand. It had rained in the night. The moon was still visible, illuminating the outbuildings, the misty kitchen gardens and the great trees beyond a silent world of half-light. The cock crowed again, answered by a chirping starling. Petite put on her wooden sabots and picked her way across the puddled poultry yard.
She pried open the barn door, taking care to lift it as best she could so that the rusty hinge wouldn't squeak. She didn't want to wake the ploughman asleep in the loft. Three swallows swooped by her. She stood in the dark, inhaling the warm scent of the horses, feeling their alert presence. Old Hongre nickered softly. The ploughman stirred, then returned to snoring.
Dim light shone through the window at the far side of the barn. A moment passed before Petite could make out the shapes of the horses and the two milk cows. On the wall above the harnesses was a silver-birch switch that kept demons from riding the horses at night.
The White's head appeared in the corner stall and then disappeared. Petite groped her way along the feed bins and woodpile to where Diablo stood facing her, a ghostly apparition. "Ho, boy," she whispered. He tossed his head. Handsome he surely was, the most beautiful creature she'd ever seen. Behold, thou art fair, she thought, recalling a line from the Song of Solomon. She longed to comb his matted mane, wash and oil his long white tail so snarled with burrs. The scabs on his haunches would clear with care, if only he would let her near him.
"Beloved," she murmured, the word dangerous and thrilling.
The horse pinned back his ears.
She tucked the crust under her armpit to give it her scent, then held it out on her palm, both offering and bribe. He turned his back to her, tail swishing.
Petite popped a bit of the crust into her mouth and crunched it noisily, watching with satisfaction as Diablo's right ear swiveled back. Patience is the companion of wisdom, her father had often told her, quoting Saint Augustine. She held out her hand yet again.
The horse twirled and lunged, teeth bared.
Copyright © Sandra Gulland Originally published in Canada in 2008 by HarperCollins