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Sport of Kings

Chapter Text

One

Considering that the fall at the fourth fence looked pretty unspectacular, the outcome was prodigious.

Orlando watched the third race of the day from Uttoxeter’s stands. Colin was on the chaser still bidding its time in fifth place and Orlando was here to show support for his best mate. In all honesty, Orlando really was just here because he couldn’t stay away. Every muscle in his body was tense, as if it was him on the chasers, flying towards the finishing line. He couldn’t wait till the season started properly.

Through his binoculars, his eyes followed not Colin but the unchallenged favourite in this two mile chase. Time Traveller and Craig Parker simply demanded attention. The big dark horse reached the fourth fence in third place, hot on the heels of an unremarkable bay. The pursued chaser jumped the fence only a fraction of a second before Time Traveller. Without preannouncement, the bay changed direction mid-jump and bumped against Time Traveller in the air. Landing, the bay went to its knees but its jockey managed to pull it back up. Time Traveller did a clean somersault and buried its jockey under its huge body.

Several punters next to Orlando groaned in disappointment over the favourite’s demise, betting tickets jittered to the ground. Orlando’s eyes searched and found Colin who steered his horse past the crash site with practiced ease. Colin immediately overtook the unremarkable bay, chased after the leading horses.

Time Traveller had gotten back up again as well and pursued the other horses with unbroken determination. He was riderless, his jockey still lay on the ground. Craig Parker was obviously alive and conscious. Orlando could tell because, equally obviously, Parker was in serious pain, clutching his oddly twisted leg. Even before the course medics reached him, Orlando would’ve bet next month’s winning bonuses that it was shattered.

He felt a pang of sympathy for Parker’s pain, but then returned his attention to the hot chase. Falls, even serious injuries were all par for the course. In the front, Colin went all out to beat his arch rival Billie Piper. He got over the finishing line a nose ahead of her, delivering a finish that pacified the crowd despite the fall of the favourite. Orlando felt the thrill of the win rushing through his veins, and all was right for that moment.

As Orlando left the grandstand to congratulate Colin, he caught a glimpse of Time Traveller’s trainer, irritably waiting for the ambulance to arrive with his jockey. In comparison to the look on Sean Bean’s face, the storm brewing over the racecourse was a mackerel sky.

According to Orlando’s Dad, there were just three types of trainers: the backstabbing boot-lickers, the loopy experimentalists and the tyrants. Orlando had heard the way people talked about Sean Bean on the track. Just recently Bean had fired two of his three stable jockeys, and rumour had it that it had just been out of a whim. Just because Bean had woken up that day with an even worse mood than he was usually in.

Orlando found that titbit of gossip pretty entertaining. But if he really gave a shit about what other people said, he’d still be stuck in his Dad’s bloodstock business. He’d still be thumbing through sales catalogues and form books instead of just trusting his gut and his stamina on horseback at 30 mph.

After the last race, Orlando tried his damnedest to drag Colin to the pub for some grub and beer. When in the car, Colin insisted that he had to be stone cold sober and in Newcastle the next day. Orlando called him a lightweight all the way back to their flat and complained that he was starving. While they were waiting at a stoplight, Colin punched him, but then let himself be talked into making dinner.

“You’ll make someone a very happy husband someday,” Orlando said as they entered the flat they shared. Colin looked like he wanted to sock him again. Orlando gave him a wide berth, flopping down on the couch in the middle of the room. “That spontaneous violence, we should work on that some more. I doubt there are many blokes who appreciate lack of restraint like that in his wife.”

Colin laughed.

“So, you’re being a pure cunt and I’m supposed to cook for you?”

Colin actually managed to sound affronted which Orlando considered quite the feat. Still, he merely shrugged and kicked off his boots.

“It’s your turn. I did yesterday –“

“What you did is grab a bunch of bananas at the petrol station. That doesn’t count as cooking.”

“It does if the alternative was eating the saltsticks buried in the couch,” Orlando said, following him into the kitchen. “And besides, I did it all week, and you never even said thank you. My feelings, mate.”

Colin’s reply was cut off by the sound of Orlando’s mobile. As he pulled it out of his jeans-pocket, Colin informed him from the kitchen that he’d spit in Orlando’s food. Laughingly, Orlando picked up.

“That’ll give it some flavour at least,” he shouted in Colin’s direction, then, quieter, answered the phone. “Hello?”

“Hello indeed,” an unfamiliar but undoubtedly mildly amused voice answered. “This is Dave Wenham.”

That came so unexpected that Orlando’s brain had serious trouble placing the caller. It took him three seconds to reply with even so much as his name.

“Orlando Bloom here,” he said then.

“So I gathered.”

Orlando shook off his confusion, found his manners (or what passed as such).

“What can I do for you?”

“I’m the assistant trainer at Greystone Stables,” Wenham said pleasantly. “I’m calling on behalf of Sean Bean. Well, Greystone’s, to be precise.” With that, Wenham paused for a moment even though Orlando was pretty sure that so far his information hadn’t been all that helpful. Wenham seemed to realise that as well and added, “Did you by any chance follow the meeting at Uttoxeter today?”

“I was there, actually,” Orlando said. “Bad luck, the fall of your horse in the fourth. I hope your jockey is alright.”

“Depends how you define alright. He broke his leg in, I think, four places.”

“Outch.”

“It’s the reason for my call, actually.”

Again, Wenham fell silent for a moment. Orlando would’ve been mildly annoyed with the rhetorical pauses, if he hadn’t been too busy battling down curiosity.

“Oh, really?” he responded, and repeated, “Well, what can I do for you?”

“You could come to Greystone first thing tomorrow morning. Say, around nine. We should’ve finished the first two lots by then and have some time at the home course.”

“Sorry?” Orlando said, intelligently. It was better than ‘what the fuck’ at least, if not by much.

Once again, he could hear the smile in Wenham’s voice as he spoke again.

“We’d like to see you ride. If you’re interested of course.”

“In a public demonstration of my skills on horseback?”

Wenham laughed.

“Well, yes, that, too. But it’s not just to take advantage of possible exhibitionistic tendencies, I assure you. As you might recall, since this afternoon, we’re one jockey short.”

Orlando blinked once, twice. Then he caught his bearing again.

“So, nine tomorrow, you said?”

When, not two minutes later, Orlando entered the kitchen, he was still staring at the phone in disbelief. Colin stood in front of the stove, the smell of grilled fish and lentils filled the air.

“I tell you something,” Colin said without turning around, picking up where they’d left of before the interruption. “I’d make an excellent house wife. I can cook and I’m extremely fit.”

As per usual, Colin looked as if he’d slept in the clothes he had been wearing for the stable all week already; his washed out jeans more grey than blue and his yellow t-shirt covered in spots of even more questionable origin than the strange goatee that had recently taken up residence on his face.

“Two things,” Orlando said. “Firstly, you’re a misogynistic twat. Secondly, you don’t know how to turn on a vac, and your cocksucking skills probably suck.”

Colin laughed at the combined force of Orlando’s pun and his applied feminism.

“Fuck off. I’m a catch, look around.”

Orlando snorted, eyes darting to the stack of filthy dishes in the tiny sink and the bare light bulb that was hanging from the ceiling, covered in a thin layer of dust. Right. Their flat clearly was destined to make it into ‘Homes and Gardens’ one day soon.

Orlando fished the least dirty of the plates out of the sink and pointed at Colin’s pan.

“Let’s have some of that. I gotta tell you something.”

Colin unsuccessfully looked around for a usable plate and put the pan down on Orlando’s side of the table.

“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant. Not again, OB.”

“First thing I do once I made champion jockey? I move out.”

“You’d never leave me. Being around me, you love it.”

Orlando got two Amstel Lights out of the fridge and put one in front of Colin before taking a deep drag from his.

“Man, I needed that after that phone call.”

Colin laughed and sat down opposite of Orlando.

“Subtle. You want to share something with the class?”

Orlando rolled his eyes at Colin’s tone of voice, but shook his head in disbelief once again.

“I got a job offer. Well, or something like a job interview, I guess.”

“As a house keeper? I can see the frilly apron working for you, if nothing else.”

For once Orlando ignored the jib.

“Bean’s assistant trainer Wenham called. You know, Bean from Greystone Stables? He’s the trainer of Time Traveller, the favourite in the fourth today.”

“I’m not senile, I know who he is. That horse really did a number on Craig.”

“He broke his leg in several places, according to Wenham,” Orlando confirmed. “Which, I guess, means they need a temporary replacement.”

“Well, I tell you one thing. I wouldn’t ride for Bean. Not if he’d train the Queen’s horses.”

Orlando piled about half of the pan’s contents onto his plate, then shoved it back to Colin.

“He does have some pretty good chasers.”

Colin made a dismissive gesture as he picked up the spatula.

“Who the fuck cares? That trainer is a prick, and for pricks I don’t ride.”

“You ride for Neeson.”

“Yeah, okay. He’s a prick too, but a different kind,” Colin shrugged, stuffing the spatula into his mouth. “Bean’s an Englishman.”

He said it with so much disgust in his voice that Orlando couldn’t help but laugh. Colin liked keeping things simple whether that concerned his riding style or how he liked to be seen, and being as Irish as a leprechaun was included.

“I’m pretty sure he’s from Yorkshire,” Orlando said mildly.

“Same thing.”

“You go ahead and tell him that. I’m sure he’ll hire you on the spot.”

“Effing vengeful Englishmen.”

“You are aware that I am one as well, aren’t you?” Orlando feigned a look of shock. “In fact, most of the people around here are. Because, gosh, we’re in ruddy England.”

Colin waved the spatula in Orlando’s face.

“Doesn’t mean I have to like it, does it.”

“Whatever. You also ride for Gleeson. And for Cox. Let’s face it. You’re pretty much a total whore and not just in that department.”

“What can I say? I am a man of many talents. Don’t be jealous.”

“Of your potential STDs? Right,” Orlando gave back, pointing at Colin with his fork. “And you know what? You’re the one being jealous. Because Bean called me and not you.”

Colin gazed at him with soulful eyes and seemed deeply wounded which was, Orlando reflected, about exactly the look that usually got him laid as fast as lightning. He just laughed at him and Colin slapped his fork aside with the spatula.

“Yeah, right, rub it in,” Colin complained, with a grin on his face. “I know you, you ambitious fucker. You’d murder to get on a good horse.” He shovelled another spatula full of lentils into his mouth. While chewing it noisily, he regarded Orlando with an expression that was far too wistful to match his lack of eating manners. “You know, I’ve no problem admitting that I am jealous of you. For a lot of things.”

“My riding skills and my huge dick?”

Colin burped at Orlando, open-mouthed and smelling of fish.

“You’re utterly delusional, for that, I’m a total sucker. But I’m not a bloody masochist, so working for Bean?” He shook his head. “Nah, thanks. I like my balls where they are. Don’t fancy being gelded by someone like him.”

“Way to make me feel psyched about this. Cheers, mate.”

“Like you need someone to feed your delusions. Please.” Colin made a dismissive gesture and then obviously considered the topic done with. “Tell me what you think of the fourth race. You think I left it too late?”

They spent the rest of dinner discussing races and (as the evening progressed) the numerous ways in which Colin hated Billie Piper and wanted to shag her at the same time. Despite the utter normalcy of an evening like that, Orlando still went to bed feeling as if he’d downed a litre of strong coffee.

In the morning, Orlando left the flat maybe a little too early. It was about the amount of nervous anticipation he allowed himself. Nervousness usually solely made an appearance just before the racing announcer called ‘and they’re off’. But seriously, who wouldn’t feel like that at the prospect of getting the chance to ride horses like Time Traveller?

The drive to Greystone Stables was a quick one. The roads were still fairly empty at this time of day. Orlando was pretty sure that almost every car he passed on his motorbike belonged to a racing person as well, given the early hours and all that. A thick layer of morning mist covered the fields and pastures, and it Orlando could only make out silhouettes of trees and horses sometimes.

Orlando pulled into the small road that led to Bean’s yard where the mist already begrudgingly dissipated. He parked in front of the old greystone house. Getting off his bike, he faced a large yard, framed by white stable buildings on three sides. Some of the stalls’ occupants looked over their dark green doors, chewing on hay. There was a general sense of early morning business about the place, even if Orlando couldn’t see anyone about.

That of course lasted only a few seconds. Then a large black horse appeared on a small path between two stable buildings. Its big frame hid whoever was leading it. But as soon as the horse stopped, Orlando could very well hear him.

"Get off, get off, dammit! Advocate, fucking hell, move!"

The horse looked threatening enough and started to shake his head as another litany of 'get off's followed. A wiry man stepped from its side in front of the horse, shoving its shoulder without much effect.

"You clumsy idiot! You, pay a bit more attention where you put your giant feet."

Advocate didn't look very apologetic. His answering snort sounded indignant more than anything else. But the lad seemed to be good-humoured about it. Stroking the large animal's nostrils with affection, he murmured, "You're a good boy, aren't you?" He turned around and finally saw Orlando standing not ten feet away.

"Oi!" he greeted and gave him a toothy smile. "You must be the new jockey, yeah? Bark's already waiting for you. He's in a bit of a mood today. Be warned."

Orlando stepped up and stroked the black gelding's broad neck.

"Bark?"

The lad’s head swirled around as if he feared someone was looking over his shoulder, then he looked at Orlando again.

"Oh, the Guv, I mean. We call him Bark because –." He stopped and gave Orlando another of those broad grins. "Well, you'll find out soon enough, I reckon. You’ll find him on the schooling ground, just round the corner. Good luck, mate. – C’mon now, Addi, time to tuck you in."

With that he led his horse off to one of the stalls, leaving Orlando to find the yard's owner on his own. That was done easily enough. Once Orlando had walked past the main stables, he not only saw another couple of buildings stretching behind them to one side, but the white railing that surrounded a schooling ground as well.

A lone figure leaned against the rail. He was dressed in a dark green Burberry coat and black cords, a flat cap shadowing his eyes. A large Rottweiler sat close by his side. A small string of horses passed Orlando in an easy canter. Their riders stood in the stirrups and chatted with each other. With his eyes fixed to the receding horses, Orlando stopped next to the trainer.

"Nice lot you got there. They all look fresh and eager."

Bean’s arms remained resting on the railing, and his posture didn’t change. He just turned his head a bit, looked at Orlando from under his worn cap. Orlando smiled and saw green eyes registering it. The trainer's expression didn't mirror Orlando’s nonverbal greeting. Instead, he held Orlando’s gaze for a moment, eyes narrowing to slits. Then he looked Orlando up and down and came to the obvious conclusion.

"Orlando Bloom."

“Nice to meet you,” Orlando said. With a bit of an effort, he bit back the 'I know' he had on his tongue. Instead, he held out his hand which the trainer shook firmly but shortly.

“Gotta wait till they finished warm up,” Bean said. “Then you can get up on Coconut Tree."

An instant mental image of tropical islands sprung to Orlando’s mind and brought a grin onto his lips. Once more, Bean obviously noted Orlando’s smile but again didn’t respond. He turned back to watching the four horses on the track.

Orlando expected some insights on the psyche of his future mount, but they didn’t come. Bean just continued staring intently at the now cantering animals as if Orlando wasn’t there. There was a bit of intentional rudeness Orlando could appreciate for its professional execution. It would have irritated him maybe just the slightest bit (you catch flies with honey, his mother loved to say), if it hadn’t been for the Rottweiler. After sparing Orlando merely a glace, a frown on its forehead, the dog licked its flews, then fixed its intent gaze on the working horses again. Bean licked his lips, eyes narrowing as the horses came closer. An exact mirror image, posture and all. Reining in his amusement once again, Orlando reminded himself why he was here and turned to look at the horses.

When the small lot reached their side of the fence again and slowed down, Orlando found out that Coconut Tree was a grey slender mare. She had slightly unsteady eyes that pranced around and looked warily at him when he stepped next to her. Her former rider, a young man with astonishingly big blue eyes, smiled down at him. As he dismounted, Orlando already stood next to the mare and the lad lightly touched his arm, recognition in his eyes as Orlando strapped on his helmet.

“Coco’s a nice girl,” the lad said quietly, his eyes automatically darting to Bean who was inspecting one of the other horse’s fetlocks. “You just need to help her. You know, with the first few fences. She’ll do the rest on her own.”

“Cheers,” Orlando thanked him, tightened the strap of his helmet and let himself be thrown onto the mare’s back while the other riders waited.

“Right,” Bean said, his deep voice not even raised. It wasn’t necessary because everyone – riders and horses alike – instantly paid attention. “Just a tidy round over the fences. No wild chases.”

Bean gave short individual instructions to the two riders closest to Orlando who merely nodded their understanding. Then his green eyes locked with Orlando’s.

"Give her an easy round with a bit of a finish. Stay close to Sandstorm."

Bean nodded at the light bay horse on the outer side of the rail. The horse looked as if it was about to fall asleep, not like a chaser ready for action. Orlando frowned a little but nodded at Bean and turned Coconut Tree around. The few yards it took for them to get in position were enough for him to get a feel for her.

And off they went.

Coconut Tree tried pulling out Orlando’s arms for the first half-furlong. But after he had reined her in, she seemed happy enough to let him take the responsibility for the journey.

Orlando led her closer to the inner fence. He wanted her to stay safely behind the chestnut in front of them while he got accustomed to her motions. Her eagerness to please made her fall in line obediently.

Her easy going attitude rubbed off on Orlando, made him feel like they were on a joyride on the downs. He remembered her stable lad's advice to help her with the first fence only in the last moment. Because of that, they took it without much elegance. Orlando’s dreaminess had cost them a length at least. Pressing his eyes shut for the fraction of a second, he concentrated for real now. He blended out everything irrelevant. All that was left were the course, the next fence and speed come to life under him.

Easy.

Coconut Tree instantly sensed the change of gears. Her strides gained in precision, felt more energetic. Orlando could hear her rhythmical and determined snorting over the sound of the wind, knew they would meet the second fence just right, met the second fence just right.

Easy, easy.

Everything was simple when Orlando raced. He didn't think of anything. Impressions crossed his mind fleetingly, just like the landscape beside the track that flew past. At the same time, everything was sharp, crystal clear, definite. He knew this horse. He knew he was good at this. He knew how to change the look in Bean’s green eyes from assessment to trust. Everything was simple when Orlando raced.

He paced his horse so that she ran nose to nose with the light bay. Sandstorm surprisingly picked up speed but Orlandos still managed to keep his horse next to him. Coconut Tree let herself be reined in easily, and she was happy enough to stop and turn back. As the horses walked towards Bean, Orlando recognised the new arrival now standing next to Bean as David Wenham.

Bean and Wenham looked alike in a way, same fair hair colour, same square jaw and prominent nose, same height and build. But in contrast to Bean’s obvious reserve, Wenham seemed to invite smiles and pats on his back. Orlando supposed Bean was maybe seven, eight years older which put Wenham somewhere in his late thirties. The difference in bearing between them, however, made Wenham seem like the much younger, more carefree brother.

They reached the two trainers and Wenham commented on the horses’ performances. His assessments were dead on but spoken in a friendly and amiable way. Bean had yet to say something. Wenham gave short instructions for what was to follow and the lads listened attentively and not as wide eyed as they looked at Bean.

Bean just watched Coconut Tree's twitching ears for a few moments before he looked up at Orlando. Orlando straightened his back a little, again causing his horse to pay closer attention to his rider and staying perfectly still.

"You'll do," Bean said and nodded once. Decision made.

Orlando took off his helmet and brushed through his messy curls.

"I know," he said before he could rein himself in. With a smile he added sincerely, “I’m glad for the opportunity.”

Dismounting and patting the mare’s neck one last time, Orlando handed her to her stable lad again. Then he turned to Bean’s assistant trainer, hand held out.

“Hello, I’m Orlando Bloom.”

“I know, we spoke yesterday,” Wenham replied, repeating Orlando’s earlier words, amusement twinkling in his eyes, as he shook the offered hand. “David Wenham. But Dave’s fine.”

As they started walking back to the stables, following the lads on their horses, and neither Bean nor Dave said anything. Orlando looked around again and nodded his approval.

“That’s a really nice exercise ground you got here.”

Bean nodded without looking at him as if he considered the statement of mere facts redundant instead of complimentary. But Dave replied readily,

“It is, the other one’s even nicer. Especially since we bought the new jumps. They make individual training so much easier.”

“Cost a fortune, too,” Bean grumbled.

Dave didn’t erase the smile from his face as he added, “Wait till you see the rest of the facilities, you’re in for a treat.”

Orlando chuckled.

“Confidence is what seals the deal?”

“Yeah, but you’re not an owner. I don’t need to sweeten anything for you. It’s the simple truth.”

“Well, then I can’t wait to see the gallops.”

Once again Bean either chose to ignore the implied compliment or didn’t even hear it. Bean’s mobile rang, and as he looked at the display, he pulled a face. Dave seemed to know that particular expression because without segue he responded.

“Remember, Lee is coming over for evening stables.”

It took Orlando a second to connect the dots and identify Lee as one of Bean’s owners, as the owner of Time Traveller in fact. Bean looked at Dave with obvious disgruntlement.

“Who invited him?”

“You did.”

“I certainly didn’t. I spoke to him yesterday evening.”

“Well, he called Miranda this morning and informed her that he was showing up in person. To check up on things, I suppose.”

“The whole thing wouldn’t have happened if he’d had agreed to gelding the horse when I told him to.”

“Maybe it’s best to not tell him that.”

Bean grumbled something unintelligible. With a glance at Orlando, he said, ““Get to saddling Baylor’s Boy. Third lot leaves in fifteen.”

With that, Bean finally picked up the phone. He greeted the call in a voice only slightly less irritated and walked away without another word, his dog trailing along.

Orlando opened his mouth to call after him that it might take him a bit to even locate the horse. But Dave lightly patted his arm. He was still completely relaxed, the exact opposite of Bean. He just pointed at a short man in front of one of the stables.

“The man with the blue scarf over there? Right in front of Baylor’s box? That’s our head lad. He’s our walking inventory – any question you got, from a horse’s favourite oats to its owner’s colours, Billy knows the answer.”

“Cheers,” said Orlando, his smile coming easily in the presence of the other man. “For now, directions to the tack room and maybe a leg up is enough.”

Dave laughed again and started to follow Bean who’d already almost reached the American barn, half-hidden behind the main stables.

“You’ll do just fine here,” Dave called over his shoulder, this time quoting Bean but making it sound like a true welcome.

The man with the blue scarf and shortly cropped strawberry blond hair looked up when Orlando stepped up to him. He was short and wiry, but still his posture bore similarities to Bean, making him seem taller than he actually was. Readily, he showed Orlando the horse and the tack room, and fifteen minutes later Orlando received a leg up onto Baylor’s Boy. And just as always, once his feet had found the stirrups and his hands picked up the reins, he instantly felt the connection to the horse.

From then on, his body automatically synched itself with the animal he rode. He didn’t need to think about it. He now could focus on learning about the idiosyncrasies of the other chasers as well as their riders – Kirstin, Martin and Brittany and a couple of others whose names he didn’t catch – and he could concentrate on memorising the way to the gallops. He found himself snickering at one of Martin’s dusty dry and still filthy jokes hard enough for Baylor’s Boy’s ears turned towards him inquisitively. All of the lads were chatting away and instantly and easily included him into their conversations.

Of course that changed once they’d reached the woodchip gallop – a broad, well-kept couple of furlongs that lead slightly uphill. The chattering died down almost instantly when they reached the starting point. Orlando’s eyes spotted a Land Rover close to the track. Bean leaned against it, once again the Rottweiler sitting by his side.

Bean wasn’t a particularly tall man, was about Orlando’s height (which was a bit on the tall side for a jump jockey, granted, but utterly run of the mill in any other setting). He’d have seemed completely average if it hadn’t been for his bearing. He seemed tense in a way as if he was always ready to pounce and drag a rider off the horse in an instant if he wasn’t following orders. Well, it didn’t take a genius to name the reason for the change in the lads’ behaviour.

Billy let his horse fall into a light canter. Since he hadn’t received any specific instructions, Orlando just let his horse follow suit and cantered up the broad stretch of the woodchip gallop, perfect for working horses all around the year. Baylor’s Boy was a nice fellow, well behaved to a degree that it was bordering boring. Not that Orlando fancied getting bucked off, but if given a choice, he preferred headstrong horses to the docile ones. He’d won his first race as an amateur on a chaser that had bolted the second the bell had sounded. Best race of his life, that one, top five at least.

Orlando urged Baylor’s Boy to go a little faster, and obediently, the horse lengthened his strides. Next to Orlando, Dom struggled a bit with his overly enthusiastic horse, but all the other chasers were well-behaved. The gallop went slightly uphill, the green of the downs left and right to it, and Orlando stayed with the field in a moderate pace which – if anyone had asked him – by no means warranted the almost reverential quietness of his fellow riders.

After they returned to Greystone, he put his horse away. He was still quietly talking to the animal when it got slightly darker in the stall. Turning around to enquire what was blocking the light, Orlando found Bean leaning against the lower half of the stall’s door.

“Till the season starts properly, you’ll be joining exercise each morning. So you’ll get a feel for the horses.”

“Sure,” Orlando agreed. Even if the abrupt order in Bean’s voice rubbed him the wrong way this was exactly what he’d have suggested as well. “You want me to do some schooling in the afternoons as well?”

Bean thought about that for a moment before he answered.

“If there’s need, yeah.”

“Fine by me.” Orlando patted Baylor’s Boy’s neck as the gelding stepped past him to get to the door. “When do you make plans for morning gallops? Who rides which horse and what you want them to do, I mean?”

“Why?”

Orlando managed to not roll his eyes at this utterly stupid question. Everyone knew that you could ride as well as Jonjo O’Neill, if you didn’t know your horse’s limits, odds were you’d still not be the first one over the finishing line. Still, Bean looked at him and apparently expected an answer anyway. Orlando smiled pleasantly.

“I like to read up on my rides, look at past performances and the like, keep up with the tracks. You know, the usual. I can do that afterwards, of course, or the evening before.”

Bean again thought about it for a moment, then he nodded.

“You can call Miranda, late afternoons. If you figure that’s necessary.”

Orlando heard both the offer and the slight condescension in Bean’s voice, once again noted the lack of explanation that should have come with the name.

“I’ll do that then.”

“Tomorrow morning, first lot.”

Bean stroked Baylor’s Boy’s jaw once before motioning to leave. He turned back though, like something unimportant he’d so far forgotten had just crossed his mind.

“Dom’ll show you the rest of the facilities.”

Orlando unbolted the stall’s door and was surprised to find Dom really standing right there.

“Have you been here the whole time?”

“Yeah, I was.” Dom’s nose was crooked, like he’d broken it in a fall or a brawl and just never got around to having it straightened again. “Don’t beat yourself up. About not seeing me, I mean. I’m a ninja like that.”

“Yeah, right, got you.”

“Ninja slash tour guide,” Dom specified as he started walking and Orlando followed him. ”You can call me Dom, though.”

Orlando laughed and then did a double take.

“Wait, you’re Dom Monaghan, aren’t you?" Dom gave him a surprised look and Orlando explained, "I saw you winning the Northumberland Plate last year. On Fiddler's Green."

Dom was clearly pleased to have been recognised.

“And I thought just my mum remembered that.”

“Nah, it was a pretty neat win, that one. Had me on my seat.”

Dom laughed, not really believing Orlando but taking the compliment as he would a free beer, without questions asked.

“Fiddler’s a great ride.”

“A good horse still needs a jockey to get it over the finishing line,” Orlando said with a shrug, quoting what he’d said on camera after the Welsh National. “Well, if the race is supposed to count, that is. And if you don’t fancy getting thrown in the mud which I try to avoid.”

“So, you’re like that off screen as well? It’s not just interviews?”

Orlando shrugged, not particularly sure what Dom was referring to with ‘like that’.

“If you work for what you got, you got every right to be proud of it, right?”

“You sound like Wenham, what with your fortune cookie wisdom.”

“My Mum, actually. Always such a momma’s boy, me.”

Dom regarded him for a moment, a smirk curling his lips.

“Won’t you and Bark get on like a house on fire.” Before Orlando could do more than arch an eyebrow in response, he changed topics again. “This here is the stable yard, by the way.”

“You don’t say. I’m really getting the best of the best here. You volunteered for this tour guide job?”

“Nah, got ‘appointed’,” Dom’s voice shifted to imitate Bean’s Sheffield accent, “Made an utter fool of meself during second lot.”

Orlando’s mind flashed back to the moment when Dom’s horse had lightly bumped into Baylor’s Boy just before the end of the furlong.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Bean saw that?”

“Bark sees everything, believe me,” Dom said with a grin and a shrug.

Apparently it wasn’t the first time he had gotten that kind of reprimand. And even though the harshness of Bean’s words was evident even in Dom’s imitation of his voice, Dom didn’t seem to particularly mind. He just took like a schoolboy would his weekly visit in the headmaster’s office. Water off a duck’s back, really. Orlando had his fair share of that kind of conversations himself.

Dom continued his tour by naming every horse they walked past (including nicknames and which lad looked after it) while they made their way through the yard. The main building formed a U around a generous piece of lawn and well-cared for flowerbeds. The stables presented a solid front except for a passage in the west wing that lay closest to the gallops. Dom led Orlando through that pathway, and Orlando spotted the schooling gallops again. Also, to his right side was a large barn and half behind that yet another building with stables. Orlando had been to quite a few racing yards in his time, but he had to admit that this was rather impressive.

While slowing down his steps, Dom pointed ahead of himself and explained,

“So that over there is the home gallop, you know that already. See the street right behind, over there by the oak trees? That leads to the second schooling ground. Where we do most of, well, the schooling.”

“Obviously.”

“Ah, shut up. It’s quiet and secluded, next to the woods. In the summer, it’s pretty neat for barbequing, too. Neat, as long as Bark doesn’t get wind of it.”

“Because he’s a vegetarian?”

Dom looked at Orlando with a frown. Orlando managed to keep a straight face for all of two seconds. In response to Orlando’s tell-tale smirk, Dom grinned broadly.

“Because he’d put one of us on the spit roast, mate.” Abruptly resuming his duties, Dom pointed to his right now. “That over there is the barn, obviously. We stable about a third of the horses we have there, eighty-nine total.”

Dutifully, Orlando’s gaze followed Dom’s finger pointing towards the barn and an adjoining building with yet more stables. The dark green wooden doors appeared to be freshly painted, even primer than the rest of the yard, and the whitewashed walls of the building itself looked scrubbed clean and brand new. Orlando figured, if he were a horse and had to choose accommodation, this was pretty much the equivalent to the Hilton.

“Those are the new stables,” Dom explained, seeing Orlando’s interest. “Behind that we got the indoor school and the solarium.”

“Eighty-nine horses you said?”

“We have space for more,” Dom said readily, the subliminal pride in his voice preventing him from sounding like a brochure. “One hundred and three, I think. You came up the road, right, so you’ve come past the last couple. We’ve still got a handful of the old stables behind the main house. Partly, I reckon so Miranda has something nice to look at.”

“Miranda?”

“Bark’s secretary.” Dom’s smile turned into something caught between a deliberate leer and a more natural softness, presumably telling Orlando all he needed to know about Miranda. The look was gone in a second, replaced again by Dom’s perpetual grin as he added, “Oh, and Bark lives there. In the house, not Miranda’s office, obviously.”

Dom walked on towards the barn. But even though he followed him, Orlando’s eyes automatically went back to the house in front of which he had parked his bike. It was surrounded by rose bushes and towered over the stables. Made of grey stone, it undoubtedly gave the yard its name, seemed imposing and uninviting. Orlando might have considered moving into the stables, if he ever had the misfortune of being turned into a horse. But he would prefer his own flat over this grey stone monstrosity any day. Hell, he’d prefer his parents’ house and that featured his mother and her obsessive compulsive cooking. Still, better than this. Greystone’s main building had the charms of a tomb and was obviously far too big for just a single person to live in.

“All short ways, around here,” Dom said conversationally as they obviously took another short cut. “Saves time. Mind, it’s not that Bark hasn’t already got the shortest way to work anyway.”

“I guess it’s handy at least, being always present,” Orlando said as they reached the barn. “So that’s why he knows everything that’s going on. Professional spying.”

Dom reacted nothing like Billy to Orlando’s less than favourable reference to Bean. He chortled, enjoying the idea, but then he shook his head.

“No, that’s not it. He can read minds. Trust me. Like, once we got drunk in the barn one night and we definitely got rid of all the evidence? But he still knew.”

Orlando looked at Dom with interest as Dom pushed the large door to the barn open.

“How do you figure?”

“He usually has this quiet grumbly voice, right?” Dom explained readily. “Sends shivers down your spine, yeah. But it’s not loud. Well, day after the booze up, guess who bellowed into my ear the entire morning? Gave me a right fucker of a headache.”

Orlando sniggered, slightly surprised.

“That’s quite funny, though.”

“Yeah, right,” Dom replied dryly but with good-humour.

They entered the barn which was inhabited by about thirty horses. Box stalls ran along both sides of the airy building and left a broad and impeccably tidy aisle in the middle. Instead of two part wooden doors these stalls only had a solid lower half leaving the horses free to put their heads over them. A couple of lads were busy mucking out.

Dom touched Orlando’s shoulder, the gesture a tangible indicator of a change of tone.

“Seriously now. This really is a top notch yard. Pay’s decent and we have the best horses. Bark hand-picks them. Hand-picks the owners, and he’s choosy in all regards.”

Before Orlando could reply, his stomach decided to rumble obscenely loud.

“Let me guess,” Dom mocked, “you could eat a horse?”

Orlando let out a heartfelt groan. As per usual, the mere suggestion of food turned the feeling of his ever present hunger into something resembling near starvation.

“Give me the choice between a shag and raiding a chippy without gaining weight? I swear my stomach would throttle my cock any day.”

Dom cackled with delight and slapped Orlando on the shoulder.

“Tell you what. Some of us live just round the corner. You help me finish here? I’ll invite you for grub. We got lunch break soon anyway.”

He held out a pitchfork in Orlando’s direction, broad grin on his face.

Orlando was perfectly aware that he was being conned into stable work. He also knew that this was less instant friendship and more Dom’s usual MO to lessen his own workload. Orlando had once gone an entire summer without having to muck out a single stable, just because the daughter of the riding school’s owner fancied him, and he knew it. Shovelling shit with someone might not be as pleasant as a summer full of snogs in the hay, but it was an opportunity for bonding.

So, Orlando found himself mucking out stalls on his first day at Greystone Stables. Five minutes later, an overly cuddly horse pushed Dom into the muck. Orlando had to lean on his fork for support because he was laughing so hard.

All in all, so far Greystone Stables wasn’t bad at all. The facilites were fantastic, the lads were amicable, and the assistant trainer obviously knew what he was doing. And there were the horses, of course, God, the horses.

As for Bean? Orlando would simply deal with him the same way he dealt with his ever present hunger. Ignore it and push past it.

Easy.

After all, there weren’t many things that he wouldn’t do or endure to get on a good horse. A taciturn tyrant with a bit of a mood wouldn’t even slow him down.

***

Two

It took Sean three days to get used to seeing Bloom on his horses. Whether he was riding in the schooling area or out on the gallops, Sean had his eyes on him.

Right from the start, Bloom seemed comfortable enough around all of Greystone’s animals, however. It was something that Sean liked far better than his instant and easy familiarity with the entire staff. The amount of exuberant gestures, broad grins and lightning fast talk, all of it gave Sean headaches.

On the third day, after the fourth lot of the day, Sean returned to the yard cold and hungry. As soon as Sean had opened the door, his dog pushed past him and jogged across the hall straight into the kitchen. Sean inhaled the fresh smell of coffee, shrugged off his coat as he followed. Even before he’d reached the kitchen, he could hear someone complaining.

“Tim, bad dog! Look at you, you’re filthy!”

Sean looked behind himself. He found two sets of muddy traces leading right up to where he was standing in the middle of the hallway. When he entered the kitchen, Miranda gave him her patented reproachful look.

"Now, there's no real surprise that Tim never remembers cleaning his paws at the door. You don't set a good example,"

Tim sat down, licked his flews and looked guilty. Sean really didn't see a point in getting cleaned up and presentable. All he wanted was a quick breakfast after morning exercise, before returning to the stables. It wasn't like he had invited owners.

"Is there coffee?" he asked.

"There's always coffee."

Miranda came over to fill his cup. Aside from plates and cutlery, half of the fridge's contents stood on the table already. Sean sipped from his coffee and put two slices of bread into the toaster. He felt Tim lying down under the table, using Sean’s left foot as a pillow. Miranda started to boil water for her tea and made herself some toast.

The reason for transfer on the standing order from Sean's bank account to Miranda's said 'secretary'. But in reality, Miranda looked after the invoices, the entries, the bank accounts. She also tried to make Sean feel guilty for wearing dirty clothes inside and looked that he ate regularly. Every other day, she bought fresh flowers she thought he didn’t notice. In fact, she looked after him and the house more than the house keeper who came in five days a week to clean up and cook. In Sean’s eyes, that was about as close to a wife as it could get without registry office.

Miranda didn’t stick around once he picked up his morning paper. Sean was on his second toast and coffee when the front door was opened and closed. Boots were scrubbed carelessly on the doormat. The door to the Miranda’s office was pulled open, voices could be heard right after. Sean didn’t understand any words but noted the amiable tone.

“I really love the lilacs,” Bloom said just when he pulled the door to the kitchen open. “You brought them?”

Miranda chuckled as she walked in in front of him.

“There is nothing like fresh flowers to brighten up a place, if you ask me.”

No one had asked her, as far as Sean was concerned. It was about the third time this week that Miranda and Bloom had had that particular conversation.

“Well, that and no dirty dishes in the sink,” Bloom said. “Or – come to think of it – dirty clothes lying around everywhere.”

“Oh, don’t tell me that’s the state your flat is in,” Miranda answered in a similar tone of voice as she poured him a cup of coffee. “You shouldn’t live like that.”

Sean swallowed his last mouthful of toast and picked up his cup. He took a sip while he looked at the two of them. He registered that Bloom’s boots were far muddier than Tim’s paws had ever been. Miranda either didn’t notice or didn’t mind.

It wasn’t the first time Sean had witnessed that reaction to Bloom. Sean thought the majority of racing reporters idiots most of the time anyway, but they practically started drooling as soon as Bloom was within grabbing distance. It regularly made Sean’s disdain reach a whole new level.

Miranda pushed a cup of coffee into Bloom’s hand.

“Let this soothe your troubles.”

Bloom laughed but raised his other hand to his chest dramatically.

“Oh, you wouldn’t believe the circumstances I have to suffer. Like, believe it or not, there is absolutely no food whatsoever in my flat either!”

Manipulation came to Bloom like breathing. He probably didn’t even notice he was doing it anymore, like a cribbing horse. Miranda smiled.

"Would you like something to eat?"

She didn’t even wait for an answer but turned to the fridge.

However, Bloom’s eyes met Sean’s over the rim of his cup, apparently waiting for something. It wasn’t like him, Bloom was about as straight forward as Dom and as nosey as Miranda. On the first morning when he’d come into the kitchen, he’d spent a good ten minutes standing in front of the various newspaper clippings that Miranda had had framed and hung up on the wall. His unabashed interest in them had made Sean think that he would also joyously read someone else’s diary without hesitation.

Still, here he was, and stared at Sean like it was Sean’s job to tell him whether he was hungry or not. Sean frowned slightly. He stretched out his right foot under the table and kicked the chair opposite back as an invitation to sit.

Only then Bloom said, "I wouldn’t say no to some eggs. Cheers, love.”

He slumped down on the offered chair, crossed his legs next to the table. They were too long for a jockey, even if he rode steeplechases. Just like his face was too evenly handsome and his smiles were too quick, too broad to be genuine.

Bloom glanced at Sean’s paper, then his attention returned to Miranda at the stove. He had his right hand raised to his mouth as he nibbled on the side of his index finger and watched her fry some eggs up. Miranda handed him a full plate not much later and left the kitchen again. Bloom quickly wiped his dirty hands on his dark brown breeches and then started shovelling eggs into his mouth like he was starving. No grace to that.

Sean leaned back in his chair and used the back of his hand as a napkin.

“Absolutely no food whatsoever?” he repeated Bloom’s earlier words.

Bloom’s lips curved into a small smile around the fork that was pushed between them.

“Seems like it. I feel like I’m starving most of the day.” He swallowed audibly around his mouthful of egg. “Sometimes I daydream about chickenwings.”

Sean looked at him critically, the slender waist and broad shoulders, long arms and legs. A pre-purchase exam. Bit late.

“You’re not –“ he started, stopped. Gestured at his throat.

Bloom stopped chewing to look at Sean with eyes that were almost comically wide.

“Am I bulimic? Are you seriously asking me this?”

Sean waited. Bloom carefully laid his fork down.

“No, I’m not. And before you ask, I don’t have any other form of eating disorder either. If you don’t count being hungry all the time that is. Which I don’t. It’s part of the trade.” He wiped his hand over his mouth, then folded his hands and leaned back. “You are a tad paranoid, aren’t you?”

Sean huffed, too surprised to be irritated by the open challenge in Bloom’s voice.

“Thorough,” he corrected.

“Right,” Bloom replied with obvious amusement. “Got any other intensely personal questions for me?”

The dare was as clear in his posture as it was in his tone of voice. For long seconds they just stared at each other.

“Depends,” Sean said.

A frown appeared on Bloom’s head, his gaze grew even more sceptical.

“On?”

For a fleeting second Sean had the impression that this was a kind of discussion Bloom didn’t have for the first time. Sean still didn’t break their eyelock, was for a moment too intrigued to turn his eyes away.

“On whether you plan on daydreaming about roast and lasagne while riding my horses.”

As quickly as it had appeared, Bloom’s face lost its defiant expression. The tightness of his jaw relaxed as his lips formed his usual grin.

“I think of riding when I ride, always.”

Sean grunted and took another toast. He wasn’t a fan of absolute statements and grand promises. A chaser could look as capable as it wanted in the parade ring. What counted was how it performed in the race.

“Speaking of riding,” Bloom interrupted the silence. “I talked to Dave earlier and he said you’d already decided on your entries for the first meetings?”

“A couple. Some courses already closed their entry lists for the season openers.”

Bloom nodded. His eyes were glued to the basket of fruit standing on the table. He obviously calculated in his mind whether he could afford eating one of the temptingly red apples.

“Do you want to know which horses?” Sean asked after a moment.

Bloom was still staring at the apple. Like he had taken up flirting with food now.

“I’ll ride whoever you tell me to. That’s the deal, right?”

“Yes,” Sean said slowly. The evasive hesitance seemed out of place for Bloom. “But –“

“But?”

Bloom looked up, suddenly genuinely interested, as if Sean’s next words were of importance.

“You’re the one riding them,” Sean said.

“And hence I’ve an opinion?” Bloom translated, still with that curious soul-searching expression on his face.

Sean was beginning to be a bit irritated by this game he hadn’t been told the rules of.

“Well, haven’t you?”

“Oh, I got tons,” Bloom smiled broadly. “You want to hear them?”

The more frequently someone smiled, the less genuine it usually was. Sean didn’t need some golden boy of self-marketing disrupting his yard. Bloom still looked at him, still smiling, waiting for an answer to his questions.

“Opinions related to my horses, yes,” Sean said. “I want to hear those.”

Bloom snatched an apple from the basket, treating himself after a well-told joke.

“Interesting distinction.”

Sean rolled his eyes but prompted, “What did you think of Red Sun Rising then?”

Instantly Bloom’s smile broadened further. It crinkled the corners of his eyes.

“She’s golden. Bright as sunlight. She’ll read your mind and do what you want her to even before you know it! And man, she’s fast! Did you see how she tackled that last furlong?”

“She was eager,” Sean agreed, remembering his heart quickening at the sight of his mare flying up the hill.

“Eager doesn’t even start to describe it,” Bloom continued, his entire body thrummed with energy at the memory. “It was like she didn’t even try and still closed the distance on Dark Dancer like it was nothing. I nearly pissed myself with happiness.”

“I trust that you didn’t.”

Bloom chuckled but then continued with his praise.

“She’s fast as lightning, has heart and jumps like she was born to do it. I can’t wait to ride her in a race. She kind of reminds me of Traveller, you know. Only without the testosterone insanity.”

Sean snorted and Bloom took another huge bite of his apple. Around it he asked,

“Anyone ever thought about cutting him? Might do his brain some good.”

“Sir Christopher doesn’t want it,” Sean replied.

“But Morse Code belongs to him as well, doesn’t he? And he’s a gelding.”

“Different when he buys them already gelded.

“That way he’s not responsible for it?”

Bloom burst out laughing and nearly spit apple bits all over the table. His hand in front of his mouth to prevent that, he continued snickering and coughing for a moment before he was fit to reply. Sean didn’t like it – it didn’t matter that he’d argued the point with Christopher Lee repeatedly and that Sean thought the man was a stupid fool as well.

“A bit bonkers,” Orlando said with good-humour.

“Not your job to question owners.”

“Of course it isn’t, I’m sorry,” Bloom replied pleasantly. Sean knew when he was being humoured. “Besides, I wouldn’t have anyone cut off my balls either. Another bit of info for your personal file of me, that.”

“I’d rather know what you made of Darlington this morning.”

“He’s a god awful jumper, the stupid bugger.” After that spontaneous assessment he weighed his head from side to side, then added, “You have to give it to him, he is eager at least. Likes to run. And he’s quite sweet and fast.”

“He’s not the sharpest,” Sean agreed. “I was against buying him.”

“Then why did the owner?”

Sean shrugged.

“He looks fit and wasn’t too expensive.”

Bloom snorted, again intensely condescending which came almost as easy to him as philandering. Only that it now was in regards to the foolishness of owners.

“Is that it?” Sean asked. He had been interested in Bloom’s first assessment of the horse – as well as the others. But there was a difference between noticing a chaser’s weak and strong points and dealing with them sensibly.

Bloom thought about it for a moment, forehead crinkling slightly in concentration.

“I could start fresh with him. I could teach him to jump from scratch, on the schooling ground,” he then offered. “Maybe he’ll get better at measuring distances and judging his own abilities. I rode a chaser once, one that came from the flat and hadn’t seen jump in his life before. It was like he needed all of his brain to suss out the jump, like, when there was so much as a cloud in the sky or a bird chirping, he messed up, couldn’t concentrate on more than one thing. Darlington strikes me as similar. I’ll try to give him more confidence in his ability to jump. Maybe we can go from there.”

Sean nodded slowly, satisfied for now. Didn’t do much good to have a jockey who could just tell you why he lost a race. He needed to know how to win the next one.

“Alright,” he said with a nod, moving on. “What’s your opinion of Sandstorm?"

Bloom took a bite from his apple, chewed it slowly, thinking, buying time. Then he only shrugged, didn't reply but only tilted his head contemplatively.

"He seemed alright on the gallops," Sean prompted.

“He didn’t put much effort into it,” Bloom said with a dismissive shrug. “It felt like he’s not yet back from summer vacation, you know.”

"Sir Ian wants him to run in the Greatwood Handicap in Cheltenham."

Bloom pulled a face, obviously before he could help himself. He hurried to even his features again.

“Well, it’s a great meeting,” he said vaguely.

Sean agreed. It was that and the publicity Cheltenham’s opening day always inevitably gathered that had made Sir Ian McKellen choose that race, he was sure. Sean waited for a moment. Bloom didn’t add anything.

“That’s what you call an opinion?”

Bloom shrugged.

It was obvious that he wasn’t satisfied at all with the horse. Sandstorm had seemed half asleep for the better part of the gallop, just going through the motions and not the least bit interested in what was going on. His evident boredom had been a stark contrast to Bloom’s frustration that had radiated from him when he’d returned to the yard.

"Sandstorm's like a little kid, bit like the schoolyard bully, maybe," Bloom eventually said, picking his words carefully while he looked down at the apple in his hand. "He loses interest all too quickly if he isn't given sweets right the next instant.”

Sean smiled at the irony of that statement. It came from the man who currently showed more interest in fruit than the next month's races. The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ came to mind.

“He’s a good horse,” he insisted.

Bloom took another bite from the apple and looked at Sean with calculation, as if for a moment contemplating whether to suck up or to disagree. Sean wasn’t surprised at the outcome.

“Self-involved is what he is," he said with conviction and now finally sounded genuine. “He thinks he owns the trophy already one moment, doesn’t even care for it the next. I can constantly feel that shifting back and forth in his head. I feel it in the way his pacing changes. No smoothness in his motions at all.”

“That doesn’t make him a bad chaser.”

Bloom regarded him for a moment and it was absolutely apparent that he disagreed.

“If you say so.”

He mulled it over for merely another second. Then he started asking all kinds of questions about the horses’ form to at least half of which he obviously already knew the answer. For a brief instant Sean felt like the one being tested here; something he didn’t fancy one bit.

Pushing that feeling aside, he returned to the training discussion. And sure enough, Bloom continued to have passionate opinions about horses he’d only known a couple of days. With the exception of Sandstorm, they almost always fitted Sean’s own estimation. What surprised Sean even more was that Bloom never interrupted him. Sean laid out his plans for the next weeks and his assessment of the horses’ stamina and strengths and weaknesses. Bloom listened attentively, mind completely focussed on the races ahead, no nonsense.

Maybe that was something, at least.

***

As it did in any yard, business in Greystone Stables followed a strict timeline and routine. It meant fixed times for feeding, exercising, mucking out and turn-out or the additional regular appointments spread over the week like the visits of owners or the farrier or the vet.

On Thursday morning, when he returned from watching the first lot, Sean saw Viggo’s old Mercedes already standing in front of the house. He parked his Land Rover next to the vet’s car and knocked onto its roof as he walked past.

Looking up from the prescription he was reading, Viggo responded with a toothy grin. He was as per usual dressed in jeans and a thick woollen pullover (this time a dark green one with tiny black elks on it), and his hair was too long again. Sean knew that within the next two weeks or so, Viggo would shave it off radically. It would leave him nearly bald, just so he wouldn’t have to bother with the hairdresser for another year. It was the same with his scruffy beard that at the moment was obscuring most of his face. It made him look more like a homeless tramp who lived in his car than one of the best veterinarians in England.

As Viggo pushed his car door open, a dirty white Terrier and a small dachshund slipped out. They skipped around Tim in a circle while their master climbed out of his old car. Tim was slightly taken aback by the smaller dogs’ early morning energy and sought shelter with Sean and Viggo. He wasn’t usually fond of people touching him, something that Sean thought fitting for a yard dog. But from Viggo, Tim enjoyed the attention and sniffed him with even more than usual interest.

“Good morning to the both of you,” Viggo said while scratching Tim’s ears. “Good to see you.”

“Leave it, Tim,” Sean ordered, and to Viggo he said, “You carrying raw meat in your pockets?”

“I reckon your boy smells the new bitch I adopted.”

Sean rolled his eyes as he watched how Viggo crouched down, fondled Tim’s large head and ignored his own two dogs. They were already bouncing across the yard and on their way to pester the staff, no doubt.

“How many dogs do you have now? Five? Six?”

“Seven,” Viggo replied, straightening again. “All of them happy in their home at Casa Mortensen. And before you say anything else, I won’t be criticised by a man who keeps, what, 80 horses?”

“Eighty-eight. And I train them. For a living.”

“Yes, whereas I adopt my dogs out of the sheer goodness of my heart. Who is on the moral high ground here?”

“You’re scared of the woman from the animal shelter and you can’t say no.”

“That is true as well, I give you that.” Viggo’s grin as always made the admittance of defeat seem like a win.

“You are a hopeless case.”

“The way I see it, I am more like that actress, the one that keeps adopting children from all over the world.”

As they started walking towards the stables, Viggo looked at Sean as if Sean was supposed to pitch in with a name any time now. When Sean just shrugged and shook his head, Viggo didn’t seem too perturbed though. Neither by Sean’s lack of knowledge nor by the fact that one of his mutts, the white one, tried humping his leg while they walked.

“You’re encouraging this?” Sean asked, not really surprised.

“Benny’s from Spain.” Viggo nearly stumbled over the enthusiastic dog. “That’s a perfectly acceptable greeting over there.”

“When you’re born in a dustbin, maybe.”

“You, my friend, are a high-handed elitist. That sort of behaviour won’t be tolerated on my hacienda.”

“Oh, Spain it is at the moment? Your imaginary emigration destination?” Sean asked, a smile tugging at his lips. “I guess that beats Finland at least.”

“Sweden. I considered going to Sweden. Still do, actually.”

“You are mad.”

Viggo rolled his eyes, suggesting that it was a miracle that Sean even set a foot out of Yorkshire.

“As utopian settings go, some of us prefer exotic excitement and a string of pole-dancers from Rio over a picket fence and a golden wedding. It’s called having a sense of adventure, not madness.”

“No, I’m pretty sure, with you it’s madness.”

Viggo cackled and let it go.

“So, todo está bien en tu casa?”

Sean was prohibited from answering by the unmistakable sound of a large car approaching. They’d just reached the first box in the row when the new arrival drove into view, a silver Bentley that drove onto the yard with too much speed. Behind the wheel of the car (brand new and imposing, just like the man behind the wheel) sat Sir Christopher Lee. Sean watched him park.

“Nothing wrong with the horses. Got a bit of a recurring disease, though.”

“Now, Sean, it’s bad form to badmouth your owners,” Viggo chided quietly, his broad grin still in place. “Why do you invite him in the first place?”

“He invites himself,” Sean muttered through gritted teeth.

They watched Lee get out of his expensive car and walk towards them with purposeful strides. He was a man in his seventies, still tall and lean. His pointed nose as well as his piercing eyes and his long fingered hands reminded Sean of an agitated bird of prey.

“Well, you could just send him away again,” Viggo suggested.

“Could just punch you.”

“Hey, why do I get punched when it’s he who annoys you?” Viggo arched his brows and raised his hands in a mockingly pacifying gesture.

“You don’t have twenty-nine horses in my yard.”

Viggo gripped his chest in feigned heartache.

“Being your oldest friend counts less than twenty-nine horses?”

“Being you counts less than one hack,” Sean replied but couldn’t help but grin for a moment.

Their conversation was ended by Lee’s arrival. They exchanged greetings but Lee seemed as on the edge as usual. He had barely stopped in front of them when he already asked impatiently,

“When are we leaving for the gallops? I have an important lunch meeting which I can’t miss.”

Sean thought he shouldn’t have come then. He preferred doing his training without having the owner looking over his shoulder all the time. But as Miranda had reminded him yet again that morning, Lee was paying his bills on time.

“Second lot is leaving in five minutes,” Sean replied.

“Which of my horses are in it? You have the best of your riders on them, I assume?”

“Pirate King, Sure Bet and Shy Harbour.”

“Not Time Traveller? I want to make sure he’s fit for the start of the season.”

Sean felt Viggo next to him fighting to keep his amusement inside. Sean wasn’t in a laughing mood.

“Traveller was in the first lot,” he said and turned towards the stables. “I told you on the phone.”

“Well, you should’ve changed that,” Lee said with irritation, a sharp frown creasing his forehead. “I wanted to see him perform, make sure he is fit.”

“He is fit.”

Lee shook his head and still looked as if he had drunk sour wine and desperately wanted to complain to the waiter about it.

“Still, you should have waited and put him into this lot.”

“No one in their right mind puts a stallion in the middle of a string of fillies.”

“Now, listen –“ Lee started testily, but Viggo interrupted him.

“Seems like the horses are good to go!”

He pointed at Billy who was just leading his ride into the yard, followed by the others.

“We’re taking my Land Rover up to the woodchip,” Sean said and for Lee he added, “You’ll want to put boots on. Ground’s muddy.”

Lee frowned at him as if it was Sean’s obligation to hand-dry the downs when he was coming for a visit. Then, abruptly, he turned back to his car.

“You want to come?” Sean asked Viggo as they followed more slowly. “I’d like your opinion on one or two of the fillies.”

Viggo snorted good-naturedly.

“You’re a horrible liar. You just don’t want to be alone with him.”

“Do you want to come or not?”

“Sure I do. If you’re paying for my beer tonight.”

“Extortionist,” Sean grunted. But as Lee, binoculars in hand and his usual displeased expression firmly fixed on his face, turned back to them, he added, “Leave your mutts in your car.”

On the way back to the woodchip gallops Viggo’s presence already paid off. He was a vehement supporter of animal rights and talked about the latest doping cases that had hit the papers a couple of days back. Sean only listened with half an ear to Viggo’s emphatic litany but apparently Lee was captivated, even if it was just because he waited for an opening to disagree. Viggo, being Viggo, didn’t give him one. But as agitated he had been only seconds before he smiled nonetheless when Sean handed him his spare pair of binoculars as they got out of the car.

“Ah, first hand entertainment. Almost better than on the track.”

“Surely there is nothing like seeing one’s horse win,” Lee disagreed, unfolding his legs as he climbed out of the passenger seat. He looked around, frowning when he realised that the horses hadn’t arrived yet. “After all, none of this here matters if the horse doesn’t perform as it’s supposed to.”

“I firmly agree with you,” Viggo said earnestly even though Sean knew that he didn’t. “Especially when I happen to have money on it.”

Lee frowned at him for a moment then he turned back to address Sean.

“I want to run Shy Harbour in Lingham.”

Sean could barely keep himself from growling. Every single one of his owners accepted that it was him who picked the races because he was the one who actually knew whether they were fit to run. Every owner except for Lee, and Sean had lost count of the times he’d tried to get him to understand.

“If she’s ready,” he answered noncommittally.

“Well, it’s your job to get her ready in time.”

“Here they come.” Sean nodded towards the beginning of the track where the first horses had just appeared around the corner, glad for the interruption.

Lee instantly raised his own binoculars. “Where are mine?”

Sean didn’t even need to look through his binos to answer him; he might not own them but he knew all horses in his yard, could tell them apart even when they were just tiny dots on the horizon.

“Pirate King is the darkest of them.” He waited for Lee’s grunt of recognition as he found her before he continued, “Sure Bet is the one with the white head, in second place right now. Shy has the rider in the red jacket on top.”

Viggo asked, “Is that the new jockey you got yourself riding her?”

“Bloom,” Sean confirmed.

Bloom half turned on the Shy Harbour’s back to shout something to one of the lads following behind him. A grin was on his face when he settled back into the saddle a moment later. The horses were still close together, due to the lads’ desire to hear whatever Bloom was saying. There were no exuberant gestures that usually accompanied his tales, but it was still obvious that Bloom was right in the middle of one of his tall tales. Sean’s frown deepened and he huffed quietly.

“He doesn’t have his mind on the job,” Lee said disapprovingly as if he was reading Sean’s mind.

“Well, he sure seems like a sociable fellow,” Viggo commented as Bloom grinned broadly, pleased with himself, as if to agree.

“Your eyes are supposed to be on the horses,” Sean muttered quietly, not bothering to look at him.

“Yeah, as are yours,” Viggo whispered back.

“If he doesn’t concentrate, I don’t want him on my horses,” Lee decided, his expensive binoculars still firmly in place.

Shy Harbour was as docile as a lamb under Bloom who still hadn’t stopped talking to the lad riding closest to him. Calcium Connelly was so busy struggling against the reins that the grey gelding was hardly able to put one foot in front of the other. Teaching that horse how to race was once again proving to be a nightmare. Sean knew that even as the horses just cantered lightly to warm up right now.

“Why isn’t he wearing a green jacket like the rest of the riders?” Lee asked out of the blue.

“I don’t think one can judge a rider’s ability by the colour of his jacket,” Viggo said again with much more seriousness than Sean knew he felt. Before Lee could answer, he added brightly, without segue, “I’m really looking forward to opening day.”

“It’s about time,” Lee agreed grudgingly. “It’s highly annoying that I can’t see my horses run races and still have to pay for them.”

“I already fiercely miss my bookie,” Viggo said merrily.

Sean felt a smile curling his lips but he didn’t reply. With that he focused his attention on the working horses again. They had just reached the long uphill stretch. They stayed close together, riders hunched low over their necks, none of them showing signs of tiring despite the uphill direction.

“What a marvellous view.”

The almost breathless awe in Viggo’s voice was something that resonated deeply inside of Sean. It always had, ever since he’d first met him. To Viggo, it didn’t matter that this was just morning gallops, not a proper race. His adoration for these animals and their power was constant and steady. It was something that he and Sean had always shared.

“Bit hard finding that in Spain, mate,” Sean remarked quietly.

Viggo’s toothy smile made a reappearance.

“Hipódromo de la Zarzuala, my friend.”

Sean bit back a smile. Lee lowered his binos, frowned as he sceptically looked back and forth between Viggo and Sean, then decided he didn’t care.

“Shy Harbour is definitely fit for Lingham,” he announced.

Bloom was leading on Shy now. Usually she hated being out after a night of heavy rainfall. Right now, her motions were fluid and self-assured. Just as the mare reached the top of the hill a couple of lengths ahead of the others, Sean thought with bemusement that she looked downright happy. Bloom straightened a little in her saddle to look behind himself. He waved at the others, mockingly invited them to catch up.

“What is he doing?” Lee asked without lowering his binoculars. “You employed yourself a clown rather than a jockey.”

The horses had passed the furlong marker and slowed down, done with their work for today. Sean turned back to look at Viggo who grinned with amusement.

“Shut up,” Sean murmured.

“He might be a bit unconventional,” Viggo replied quietly. “But after a ride like this? I don’t see you not entering her in Lingham.”

Apparently Lee had heard at least part of it because he now turned to Sean again.

“Clearly the mare is fit enough to run, just like I said. You just have to make sure that your new,” he gestured in the air for a right word, then, with dismay, settled on, “jockey doesn’t shorten her chances of winning that race.”

Sean turned to look at the string of horses coming their way. Bloom raised his arm and waved in their direction. Viggo waved back. Sean turned to his Land Rover instead of replying.

Thankfully Lee quickly left again after they’d returned to the yard, off for his ‘important lunch meeting’. Sean had no doubt Lee would easily find other people to voice his opinion to and boss around there.

Viggo stayed and looked at a handful of horses together with Sean while Dave went out with the last lots for the day.

“That owner of yours is a bit of a handful,” Viggo commented while crouched next to Essex Escape.

“He hates the new jockey. Almost reason enough to keep Bloom.”

Viggo stroked down the gelding’s slender leg, carefully checking for heat.

“Is that the only reason why you keep him? Or is it the lack of alternatives?”

“Didn’t say that.”

“Oh, you’re not waiting for him to fuck up then?”

“I’m not waiting for anything,” Sean said with slight irritation. “Why would I?”

Without even bothering to look up from his task, Viggo had an answer ready immediately.

“Because you always are. You’re always almost relieved when someone fucks up. It justifies your general misanthropy.”

“And you are a rootless tree-hugger with a God-complex,” Sean gave back in the same tone of voice. “What is this? State-the-obvious Thursday?”

Viggo barked out a laugh, loud enough for Essex Escape to prick his ears in mild alarm. It was his standard reaction to Sean’s insults; laughing was his standard reaction to pretty much everything that should annoy him. He could be serious – hell, when it came to Animal Aid no one would dare to piss him off – and it was one of the reasons why Sean liked him, took him serious in return.

Sean patted the horse’s neck calmingly, tightened his hold on the halter.

“It’s a bother to break in a new jockey. I could’ve done without the hassle.”

Viggo got up and stepped back with his eyes still on the horse’s legs, after a moment he nodded to himself.

“Still, it’s interesting how you’re more annoyed with Bloom’s antics than with Lee’s blatant obnoxiousness.”

“You’ve seen him.”

“Yes, I did. He’s a marvellous rider.”

“He’s a show off, a clown and annoying as fuck.”

“I don’t think you being vexed is a sufficient reason to sack someone. After all, then you’d be the only one left in Greystone.”

“I pay you for being a smartarse?”

“Actually you do,” Viggo responded with a grin. “Miranda employed me to make sure you don’t irritate too many owners a day.”

“Paying well?”

“You don’t want to know.”

Viggo patted his shoulder before he refocused on the horse.

He finished his examinations and was satisfied with all chasers in training. Sean and Dave had long picked the first races to be run. The season could start.

The last weeks before opening day usually were thick with anticipation as well as worry like no other time in the year. Different from the end of the season and its big races, everyone had too much time to think on their hands. Sean knew better than to tell his staff to curb their enthusiasm. But over the last years he’d always had to put his foot down at one point or other, whenever the general nervousness annoyed him too much or, even worse, when it started to affect the sensitive animals.

This year the biggest hassle was the rainy weather. Still the lads joked about when they returned from exercise, completely soaked, but still relaxed and snickering at Bloom’s jokes. The owners who came to visit picked up on it, too – some, like Lee, with grudging impatience and others, like McKellen, with jittery excitement. Sean didn’t even intervene when Bloom talked to them with the same unnervingly exuberant enthusiasm that he was known for. It left Sean with only the frost and the state of his exercising grounds to worry about.

It was freezing out on the downs in the mornings.

With a growl, Sean shoved his hands deeper into the pockets of his padded coat. Dave agreed with an absentminded hum. Tim looked up at Sean with huge black eyes. The constant frown on his forehead deepened as if he contemplated Sean's growl. After a second, he scratched his ear with his hind leg and sat down next to him. The mist still lingered on the ground even though it was already mid-morning. The first few shy beams of sunlight just seemed to emphasise how clear and harsh the air was and would be for the rest of the day.

Risking frost bites by taking one hand out of his coat to pat Tim’s head, Sean squinted to see whether his string of horses had arrived. Both he and Dave raised their binoculars, scanned the open range for any sign of life. Sean felt more than saw his Rottweiler straightening next to his leg and knew the horses were here.

"There they go," Dave murmured in quiet anticipation and Tim yipped knowingly. Sean felt the thunder of many hooves rolling through the ground even before he heard it resounding from the all-weather track.

Time Traveller led the string with his rider glued to his back, a tiny green spot highlighting the darkness of the stallion. Traveller fought against the reins, every stride a forceful protest against being held back, but Sean had decided on a controlled canter and that was what Dom gave him.

One or two lengths behind followed the rest of this morning's third lot, too close together for them to get a proper view. Dave clucked his tongue and Sean scowled in annoyance. Even though he was too far away and the binoculars hid most of his face, it was like his displeasure was transmitted to the gallops. The field stretched when it came into closer view.

Seduction in the Street, Catch Fire and Darlington reached the first fence one after the other, the last of the three not meeting it perfectly and falling behind after landing. That horse was too dense to get over a fence properly even if his rider picked him up and carried him over the thing, really.

Calcium Connelly had been following close behind, grey against the muddy green and the red jacket clearly visible on his back. Bloom only avoided colliding with Darlington's too slow backside by changing directions while still in the air. Sean saw Calcium shift effortlessly, reacting to whatever invisible signal Bloom had given him. They landed smoothly and Bloom only so much as teased his mount with the whip to get it to speed up. With them momentarily vanishing behind Darlington and Catch Fire, Sean shortly glanced over to the rest of the string. But though the horses gave their best to realise the instructions Sean's attention was drawn to Bloom like a moth to the light.

Calcium Connelly reappeared in front of Seduction, aiming for the lead now. Sean had instructed Bloom to give Dom on Traveller a run for his money. What he hadn't told him was to make it look like the easiest thing in the world. Bloom redirected Calcium’s rampant energy into pure joy of being allowed to run and run and run. Sean hadn’t needed to say a thing. Putting Bloom on any horse recurrently had the same effect on the animals.

Sean might think Bloom taxing and unsettling in his self-confident cheeriness. To Sean, it still felt like a smokescreen for self-centred narcissism.

But the horses? They found religion and Bloom was their God.

***