Luck never gives; it only lends.
- Swedish Proverb
Once upon a time, in the days of the First Summer, when the land was rich and green three seasons out of four and winter came only for a few months, in a place not far from this one, there lived a young filly who was not so very different from you or me. She was very foolish, this young filly, and she thought this foolishness translated into bravery, so she did a great many things a wiser horse would not have done. She played Blind Man’s Bluff with wolves and leapfrog with unicorns, she teased dryads and mocked river nymphs, raced with leopards and riddled with sphinxes (and though there are no more sphinxes left today, my loves, let me tell you that it was a foolish thing to riddle with them, for they would not riddle without a wager and they always collected their forfeits).
As the years went on and the filly grew into a beautiful mare with a coat like the red dawn and a mane like fire before a wind, her antics grew more and more reckless, for she thought there was nothing she could not do. She stepped on giants’ toes and rushed away before they could catch her, she raced kelpies down the Great River, she stole gold and silver from dwarves’ forges and left it scattered across Narnia. She even let the young prince (for there were princes in these days, and there was still a king in Narnia then) – she even let the young prince saddle her and get on her back, and then she led him a merry chase across the country, from the wide eastern shore to the deep forests of the west, to the barren High Reaches of the north, to the foothills of high southern mountains. Some even say – though I do not think it true, for despite her foolery she was only an ordinary horse, not the winged Fledge of legend – that she carried the prince across the sea to the Lone Islands in the east and back again, before she at last left him to founder in the great northern marches, which were in that day no land of Narnia’s, nor friend to it either. (And that, I suppose, is no great difference from today.)
At this time, in her home herd in the south, there was a young stallion, barely more than a colt, who admired her greatly and desired her for his own. The mare did not think much of him (for he was only an ordinary horse, and ordinary things held no interest for her; she did not like to think of herself as ordinary) but she thought a great deal of being admired and so she tried especially hard to do these foolish things in front of him and his herdmates. (Which were her herdmates as well, though she did not like to admit that she was bound to a single herd, but she liked to prove to them how much of a concession she was making to travel with them from time to time.)
Sometime after the prince had been rescued from the marshes by his father, the king who ruled in the great castle of Geb Gearding which is no more (and though the White Witch – no, I must call her Queen of Narnia now – tore it down to the earth, you can still go to the land around Glasswater Bay and see the place where it once was, and even on occasion find relics of the past buried beneath the snow), the mare was wandering the high foothills of the south where her herd summered. It had been a long summer and an abundant one for the fruit-dryads in their groves, but for the mare it had seemed boring and exceptionally long, for she had done, or thought she had, everything there was to do in Narnia, and she had no interest in repeating her exploits. It chance to be that one day she wandered upon the spot where the young stallion and his friends were grazing, and thus overheard them remarking on those mares they especially admired.
One stallion boasted that his mare’s coat was like the silk spun by the great spiders of legend, that had even then disappeared and gone over the sea into Aslan’s Country, but whose silk was said to be stronger than steel and softer than a newborn’s breath. Another cried that his mare’s hooves were like the wind, that she could have raced a unicorn and won, that she could leap higher than any faun, high enough to kiss a griffin in flight. A third swore that his mare’s voice was as sweet as honey, that she could have sang a mermaid to founder upon the shore and not regret her death so long as the song hung in her ears. The fourth was the young stallion, and he swore that the foolish mare was as brave as a lion – nay, braver than any lion! Brave enough, even, to venture into the forbidden lands of the far south, across the mountains of Archenland and the desert they call the ocean of fire, and bring the feather from a phoenix’s wing. The other young stallions laughed, but the mare had heard this and set her heart upon it, for here was something she had not yet accomplished. And when the herd moved north into the valleys for winter, the mare was not among them.
For the long months of winter (yes, my loves, it was only months then), no one saw hide nor hair of the mare, and the herd leaders shook their heads and waggled their tongues, for they were certain she had failed in her enterprise. They had known her long, after all; they had seen all of her foolishness since the summer’s day (the Trickster’s day it is called in the western parts of Narnia, and perhaps that westron god thought he might play some of his mischief in Aslan’s land), and they thought it was only to be expected that something amiss would come to her at last. A few of the young stallions lamented her loss, and the stallion that had boasted of her bravery wept alone in the quiet fields of the southern valleys, for he thought his boast had led her to her death. But this was a wilder time; death came quickly and unexpectedly, and so by the time that spring came and the herd returned to the mountain foothills, she was barely a memory.
Spring passed. Summer came, and went, and the herd went again to the valleys, weathered the winter, and returned once more to the foothills for the summer. (And I know these distinctions mean little for you, my loves, you winter foals who have never known anything but snow and ice, so I will say to you that nearly two years passed, so that new foals had been born and those that had been young had grown to maturity by now.) There had been no sign of the foolish mare for a long time now, and she was nearly forgotten except as the odd memory. Even the young stallion who had admired her had found a new mare, one with less beauty but more sense, and her sides had just begun to round with his child.
And then, on the last day before they were to return to the valleys for the new winter, the foolish mare came over the foothills. She was walking slowly and a little oddly, and her sides bulged with child, and when she came close enough that she could be seen clearly, the members of the herd made out strange marks on her roan hide – long white scars on her flanks, places where the hair had been rubbed away on back and sides and face.
(I see that you are shaking your heads at me, loves, for you are a wild herd, as this one was, and you have never known saddle or bridle.) The herd came up to her, at last, and gave her water, and a place to lie down, and when she did so they saw that there were flatted pieces of curved metal hammered to her hooves, laming her; it was why she been stepping so gingerly. They waited patiently, and let her eat good Narnian grass and drink clean Narnian water, and at last she began to speak.
Inspired by the young stallion’s boast, she had gone over the mountains and into the high mountain fastnesses of Archenland, but she did not even make it out of that country before the horse stealers of the wild lands found her and caught her. They put ropes around her, that held her when she fought, and tightened around her neck and made it impossible for her to breathe unless she went with them quietly. She fought – oh, how she fought! For she was a Narnian horse, and fighting is in our blood (and perhaps one day, my loves, you will fight for Narnia too, but I did not say that and you will not repeat it) – but at last she had to give up if she wanted to live, and she did. The horse stealers took her down out of the mountains and across the desert, the ocean of fire that she had sworn she’d crossed, and so she did, but this was not the way she had meant it.
They took her into a city, which is a place where many humans come together and live, crowded in amongst themselves like field mice (if you can believe such a thing, and while there are those that say that humans do not exist, we horses know better). And they took her through that city, where human beings and other creatures, more familiar to us, met and mingled and pressed in among each other, and at another time the mare might have fought back, but she did not do so now. The horse stealers took her into the city and to a place where there were many other horses, dumb animals, but none of them so tall or fast or beautiful as the mare, for no ordinary dumb horse can compare with a Narnian talking horse. They bartered there with other humans, until at last they gave the mare to a tall dark Calormene man with a curved sword, and he took the mare away, muzzling her so that she would neither bite nor speak.
And there, in his home far on the other side of the desert, he broke her. He put a saddle on her back and a bit in her mouth, he nailed iron bars to her feet, he flogged her with a whip and dug spurs into her sides, until he could make her do whatever he liked with a gesture. She nearly forgot how to speak, for she was not expected to, nor was she encouraged to. He put dumb stallions to her like a common mare, with no choice in the matter, and as time passed she bore a child, a handsome young colt that was immediately taken away from her. She carried the Calormene man about on her back, while he sawed at her tender mouth with a cruel metal bar (that is what a bit is, you see, and I pray that none of you ever see one), and when he judged the time right, he put the stallion to her again and again, until she got with child.
But this human had forgotten something of grave import. He had forgotten that the mare was no common horse, but a Narnian talking horse, and as time passed he grew lax in his keeping of her, until at last the mare saw an opportunity to escape. She had sworn to herself that she would not bear another child to be taken away from her and condemned to a life of slavery, and so to the pursuit of that end she would either escape and return to Narnia or die trying. She saw that the human’s keeping of her had grown lax, so she watched and waited (for you see, my loves, she had grown patience at last, though even her herdmates wished that she had remained the rash young mare she had been) and when the chance came to escape, she took it.
It was a hard journey for her, heavy with child, sneaking through the Calormene lands until at last she reached the edge of the desert, the ocean of fire. She had stood then on the edge of it and wondered if she could make it, and then she remembered her vow. If she failed, it was the whip and the bit for her and for her child; she could not fail. And so she started across the desert, at the narrowest point of it that can be traveled in a day, perhaps two, for a strong, fast horse. Now she was neither, but she had no choice, and so she persevered, growing thin but for the bulge of her child, until she crossed finally into the mountains of Archenland and from there into Narnia, where she had once more found her herd.
She was not a foolish mare anymore, nor a rash one. She went down into the valleys with her herd, where she gave birth to her foal only a few days after her arrival, and after her daughter had been born the foal was raised with the instructions to never leave the herd, not even for a moment. The mare never again ventured away from the herd, not even when her old friends the kelpies and the unicorns heard of her return and called for her to come and visit them. She was quiet now, as she had never been before, and often did not speak for many days, as if she had forgotten how, or had forgotten the need for it. A dwarf came from the castle and took the iron bars from her feet, but she was lamed evermore; she could not run again, nor did she ever express a wish to. And when winter ended, and spring came again, the herd did not go up into the Archen mountains, but stayed in the valleys again, weathering the heat, for the mountains, they now knew (and so we do now), abounded with danger of all forms, and none of them wished to suffer the fate that the mare had.
But none of the other horse herds, who traveled as well into the mountains in summer, did the same, and that year not one but three horses vanished, and these ones did not reappear, even after years passed and other horses disappeared – dead, some said, but the truth is that they would have been better off so, for they had been taken for the same fate that the mare had suffered, but without her luck. They could not escape.
The herds learned, at last and after many disappearances, that the southern mountains were no longer safe. For a Narnian talking horse is a rare and precious creature; humans desire us more than the dwarves desire gold or the dryads spring.
And yes, my darlings, I see that you are wondering why we are in the mountains now, if this land is so dangerous. The truth is that we must eat, and this land is not held so tightly in the White Witch’s grip; there is still grass, and something that is neither spring nor summer nor autumn, but at least there is grass, and enough that the herds may still survive, as many others have not. But I tell you now, and I press upon you to be wary of this as you are of nothing else, even the hungriest of wolves or the cruelest of the Secret Police, that although this land offers us food, it is not safe and never will be safe. So stay with the herd, my loves, never venture away from the watchers. Stay with each other and do not wander off, for I do not wish to see you beaten and broken, carrying a man on your back like a dumb horse, with metal bars on your feet and in your mouth. We will lose herdmates this year, I am sad to say, but I do not wish it to be you – no, not even you, Bree, you foolish colt! So stay with the herd, remember that these lands are not safe, remember the mare who gambled and lost, and remember that she was the lucky one.