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A Hoary Old (Horse) Chestnut

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Ah, the impetuousness of youth. Oh, the folly of youth. Ai, the sheer bloodymindedness of youth.
He was a good child, an obedient child, and a mindful child. A delight to his household carers, a ray of sunshine to the servants, and a beacon of light and love to his parents.

Sadly, those days faded into memory as he began to grow into his teenage years. His voice was as thin as his gangly body, suddenly breaking now and then as he threw a tantrum. Reckless disobedience became his watchwords.

There were even times when his instructor called him by all 17 of his given names, so exasperated did he make his teacher.

“Yes, a cat's tail is attached to its body, of course it will scratch you if you pull it!”
“Why are you climbing up that wall? Use the staircase like a normal boy!”
“No, you cannot fry fish underwater, and no, you cannot set light to a fish pond!”

He would ride his horse, but instead of learning the intricate ceremonial steps, he would attempt to leap over the water barrels stacked in the courtyard. His horse, being wiser, simply set his ears back and stopped, snorting loudly as the youth nudged him with his heels.

^^^^^

One afternoon, he was riding along, further than he'd ever been before. A mountainside welled up along his path and the sun crossed its face, slender tendrils of light reaching into nooks and crevices.

Something about one passage of light intrigued the boy, and he moved into a tight passageway of overhanging rock. The light slowly faded, replaced by an eerie glow from the rocks. Apart from the muffled clip-clop of the horse's hooves, there was dead quiet.
After a few minutes, the passage opened up to a forest, and the light returned, except it was a strange, silvery light. The boy looked over at the sun, squinting at the faded light that came from its disk. He could still feel the warmth of the sun, but it was a softer warmth, like standing under a tree on a hot day.

His horse's ears flicked back and he stopped, taking a step or two back. The boy nudged his side, “Onwards!”
The horse breathed heavily, chewing at the bridle, then took a few steps forward, only to stop again under a tree.

“Move! You want an apple? I'll give you an apple,” said the boy as he reached up and pulled a branch lower. “Ugh, this is rotten,” he said as he brushed aside a leaf.

“No I'm not!”

“Who said that? Show yourself,” cried the boy.

“He said that,” said a bird that sat on a branch.

“Yes, he said that,” said another bird that sat next to the bird that sat on a branch.

“Yes, I said that,” said the face in the apple, which turns out wasn't actually an apple, just a small head growing on the tree.
The boy stared at the head, then at the two birds, then at the tree, finally figuring out that the apples weren't actually apples, just small heads growing on the tree.

“You're a head,” said the boy in a stroke of genius insight.

“Well, you need a head to get ahead,” said the head cheerfully, sending the birds into a twitter of laughter.

“Good one!” they both giggled, their laughter echoed by all the other heads.

The boy grumbled to himself, “What sort of ridiculous tree grows gnarly old heads on it?”

“This one,” said one of the birds, as the other nodded agreement.

“Very helpful,” muttered the boy. “I'm bored already. Show me something interesting or else I'll get the groundskeeper to chop it down.”

The birds looked at each other, then one replied, “You won't chop our tree down, child. Now, let us show you something interesting.”

The birds flitted up and settled onto a higher branch, just as an ominous rumbling came from the ground. The horse stepped back with a low-pitched neigh, pawing at the ground. The tree suddenly seemed to grow, the lower branches rising up above the boy's head as he watched in confusion, then with growing fear.

The tree's roots lifted up from the soil, dead leaves and moss falling from them as they shook. Then the tree started to walk around, circling the boy as the horse stepped to the side, nostrils flaring, and snorting with terror.

“You'll make a lovely little fruit, we'll give you a spot high up so you can see your side of the world,” said one bird.

His friend answered, “We've never had a horsehead fruit before, I wonder what that'll be like?”

“Like a horse chestnut!” laughed the first bird.

A loud neigh echoed around the glen as the horse decided that he wasn't going to end up in a tree, thank you very much, and he slammed his back legs against the tree, knocking a hole in it. A branch fell as he kicked it again, and the boy started yelling and cursing. Another two kicks sent the tree tumbling over, its roots and branches flailing in the air helplessly.

The birds cried out and swooped down, talons ready to attack, but the horse was ready for them, one kick dispatching one and driving away the other.


Through sobs of terror, the boy clung onto the reins, face buried in the horse's mane as the horse took flight.

The drum of hooves and heavy breathing filled his world as he kept his eyes shut, only opening them when the horse slowed and stopped. The horse drank from a water trough, snorting to itself, as the boy slipped off and sank to his knees.

The boy splashed water over himself, pouting and crying that nobody was about to feel sorry and make a fuss over him.

He hadn't noticed the horse had moved away, and looked up as it returned. It dropped something on the ground and he reached over for it.

“An apple? Very funny,” pouted the boy.

The horse looked him right in the eye and kicked his bottom, sending him flying into the water trough. It pranced away with a loud whinny and set off to the stables for a good night's sleep.