To Play the Game of Men

I wrote a short story once, back in 2007, when my life was falling apart. Julie Czerneda asked for it. She had no idea that my life was falling apart. She might have known that I’d never published a short story before, but if she did, she didn’t let it dampen her (always indefatigable) enthusiasm. So I wrote it. And it was wondrous, going back to the Alexander the Great/short story phase I’d begun, and ended, in my teens. It was liberating, being able to assume a voice that needed to speak for only 4,000 words, not 100,000. (I was having a considerable amount of trouble with 100,000, then. Still am. Funny, that.)

I re-read it today, after I’d sent it to my husband (who hadn’t read it, and wanted to). I’d forgotten how much I liked it. So here it is.

To Play the Game of Men

 

It’s lonely, being the only horse in hell.

There are diversions, certainly. The Abyss is fairly dark, but the sounds are loud and often entertaining: The Toiler’s grunts, the faster-faster rumble of his stone, and the gusty sigh he always heaves, in the silence after its descent. The Tantalized’s infuriated shouts are so dramatic that my ears flick, and when the First Giants roll over in their sleep I actually wish for human ears, and human hands to cover them with. At least the Giants have each other. At least the Toiler and the Tantalized can shout back and forth through the gloom – even if all they ever do is whine about too much exercise and not enough food. But I’m alone. My own fault, but I’ll complain anyway.

I still have my looks, which is something. As I’ve said, it’s dark here, thanks to the smoke, and of course the three layers of night that hang over the bronze wall. But sometimes the night thins, or a gout of flame shoots up from the pit, and I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the wall. A handsome beast, even if my brown-black sides aren’t quite as glossy as they used to be. The blaze on my forehead looks wonderfully white and unsullied. You can still see why I was so popular, on the Peak.

It wasn’t just that I was handsome, though – I was also dependable. From the moment I was given my first assignment among men, I performed precisely as my divine audience expected me to. “They’ll love you,” hissed my harpy mother, tangling her claws in my mane as she always did, when she tried to stroke it. “They’ll name you and feed you and think you’re theirs,” whispered my wind father, his breath warm, and sweet as flowers. Neither of them mentioned that these men would sit on me, their bodies sharp and lumpy and ungainly, or that they’d strap me to chariots so loaded down with bronze that even I grew tired of pulling. But I was eager to please. When the Father of all Gods cried, “Lead them to glory and ruin! Make us laugh and weep!” I tossed my head and pawed at the mountain earth.

I never expected to disobey – but then, I never expected the Boy.

*

“There’s a boy,” the Judge said. Everyone squinted at her. You could only ever really see her on rainy days; in sunlight she was far too sparkly, all that armour, and the spear. “Looks promising.”

The Warrior grunted. “That’s what you said about the one who ended up goring himself on a boar. My magical hounds wasted a lot of effort on that one.”

“No,” the Judge said slowly, “this one’s different. He’s a prince. Adores his mother, hates his father. Small, but already good with weapons. Great wrestler. Thinks deep thoughts.” She turned to the Father in a blur of gold. “I say he’s next.”

I say we choose a girl,” the Huntress put in. Everyone laughed and shouted at her, and she ran down into the woods, her bow bouncing off her back. (She never could deal with criticism.)

“Very well, then,” the Mother said, shifting on her throne so that the folds of her gown rippled. “We’ve already let them figure out fire, and mining, and smelting – all very entertaining. We’ve blown their ships off course and allowed them to discover new lands. And their music and writing – we’ve done well, there. What will we have this one do?”

The Father set down his wine jug. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth, trailing a new, glistening swath of purple through his beard. “New lands.” Even when he spoke quietly, his words shuddered with thunder. “Been a long time. There’s blood, in that. Burning. Lots of ecstasy and anguish. Yes.” He nodded. His brown eyes had already turned silver with tears.

“The kid’s good with horses,” the Strongman commented. (He was spending the summer with us, even though the Mother hated him.)

Everyone turned to me. I took one more nibble of grass, trying to seem nonchalant. It had been more than a thousand years since the last War, and I was young, for an immortal: I was giddy with excitement, but too proud to let anyone see it.

“You,” the Father said. (Men give us names; we have no need of them, among ourselves.) “You’ve been idle, while your brothers have been busy below. Go” – the thunder rumbled, through wind and sunlight – “Go and make him yours, and you will be rewarded.”

I went, and even when the high, thin mountain air gave way to the oppressive sky of men, I felt light with joy and purpose.

Innocence only turns into ignorance when it’s too late to matter.

*

The Boy was small. He was twelve years old; at the same age, my former master, the Hero, had looked like a man. I wondered whether the Judge knew what she was doing, with this one.

The Boy noticed me immediately. I was making quite a show of it, of course, bucking and rearing so that the men around me scattered like frightened birds. He tugged on his father’s tunic and pointed at me.

“No,” I heard the King say, as he regarded me with his good eye (his blind one was puckered shut). “No – and how dare you bring such an unruly beast onto my grounds?” The question he addressed to the horse trader who had brought me to the palace, along with several other, more docile (and mortal) creatures. The man stammered and flushed; the King’s rages were legendary.

“I will ride him.” The Boy’s voice was as high and clear as water. The crowd was quiet, suddenly. I gave an especially piercing whinny and a snort that ruffled the hair on the nearest man’s head.

“No” – more growl than word, but the Boy’s grey eyes remained fixed on the King.

“Yes, Father. I swear by the King of all Gods that I will ride him.”

A wind from the east swirled around us all, raising dust from the riding ground. I knew the wind would carry the Boy’s words and image to the Father, and that he would laugh with delight.

The King’s hands were shaking. “You are a boy,” he said through gritted teeth. Spittle shone in his dark beard. “Do you think you will succeed where your elders have failed?”

“I do.” The Boy looked at me; a child with golden hair and a gaze like fire. Maybe it was too late for me, even then? (A sentimental thought. I have too many of these, in the Abyss, but who can blame me?)

After the King and the trader had murmured to each other, the King swept his own gaze around the assembly and gave a broad, false smile. “He costs thirteen talents, Boy. If you are unable to make good on your intention, you’ll have to pay for him yourself.”

The Boy nodded solemnly. “I accept your terms,” he said, “but only because I intend to succeed.”

The gods are going to love this kid, I thought as I wrenched my bridle away from the man who held it. The laughter that had risen after the Boy’s declaration turned to concerned muttering. He ignored everyone. He walked slowly toward me, his head high, shoulders back. I pawed sharp grooves into the dirt. I could have killed him with one blow; could have killed all of them. This knowledge had helped me endure many unpleasant interactions with men in the past.

He glanced at the ground, where my shadow shied and shivered, then back up at me. The Strongman had been right: the Boy knew horses – mortal ones, anyway, which were frequently startled by their own shadows. The Boy approached me, his face serious. “Hello, Ox-Head,” he said – and so he named me, before he had even touched me. “Ox-Head,” after the shape of the white blaze on my forehead. “You’re the most beautiful horse I’ve ever seen – do you belong to the gods?” Before I could master my surprise, he had grasped the trailing bridle and turned me directly into the sun. “Now, then,” he continued, “there’s no more shadow; nothing to be afraid of. And as you can probably see, I’m very light. My father says my sister looks like more of a boy than I do” – and he was up, somehow, mid-sentence; up, a slender shape in the air beside me; a slight but firm weight upon my back. “I’ll be a man soon, though. Let’s show him, Ox-Head.”

I let him lead, though it wasn’t hard: he was strong and sure, his knees and heels pressing just enough to direct me. (The Hero had kicked me twice, the first time he rode me. He was lucky he survived it.) The Boy and I rode in a slow, wide circle before the palace. I pretended to be restive, at first, but soon I let him feel me calming. He leaned forward, said again, “Let’s show him,” and dug his heels into my sides.

I galloped. It’s never the same, off the Peak– my earthly body is heavy, as is the air – but this time felt surprisingly close. We nearly flew – away from the palace, into a stand of trees, and then in a wide, curving arc back. The Boy’s whoops rang in my ears. You have no idea, I thought, how happy you should be. I’m yours now, and you’re already great.

The crowd cheered wildly as I reared to a stop (taking care not to unseat the Boy). The King walked over to us. There were tears trickling from his good eye, over his scar-seamed cheek. “Son,” he said, as the Boy slid from my back, “we’ll have to find a worthier kingdom. This one’s going to be much too small for you.” Man and child looked at each other and smiled, a moment I knew would play well, on the Peak. Indeed, a wind from the north brought me the gods’ voices, just as the Boy was turning back to me.

“Bravo, Ox-Head!” the Father cried, obviously relishing my new name. “You’re got him!” The Lover sighed and sniffed (her sighs and sniffs were unmistakable, even from a distance). I lowered my nose into the boy’s cupped hand, warm with a happiness that seemed simple, at the time.

My first human master had ignored me – my brother and I were just another wedding present from the gods. His son, the Hero, had reveled in my ability to make him look impressive (I wasn’t even a little sorry when the Thinker decided to let him die). These two men, who knew I was immortal, had cared little for me – but the Boy, who did not know, loved me. From the moment he turned me away from my shadow and spoke my name, he loved me. I think I knew that then, though I can name it only now.

*

People think that immortal beings live lives of variety, richness and excitement. This is utterly untrue. Immortality can drag, when you’re always happy and the rain is always warm and the flowers always taste like ambrosia. (Don’t misunderstand me: I’d take this kind of boredom any day, over the dark, malodorous monotony I have to deal with now.) This is precisely why the gods were always at each other, always courting the kinds of jealousies, ecstasies and rages they so enjoyed watching men feel. It’s why they needed me, the immortal who was able, effortlessly, to go down and live among humankind, without needing to turn into a shaft of sunlight or a bull that could tread water.

I loved pleasing the gods, with my work. At first this was the only kind of satisfaction I was aware of. I’d wait for my kin the winds to bring me voices: the Father’s boom, the Mother’s regal whine, the Thinker’s clear, ringing bronze. Even the Lover’s sniffling was praise. I was lending the Boy my divine aura; I was affecting the courses of men and nations, for my masters’ diversion. It was a fine game, and I was proud of my part in it.

Things got complicated, as the Boy grew into the Great King (everyone called him this, but to me he was always the Boy). There was no reason for it: the game was going so well, had all the elements the gods so desired. The political: the Boy was a natural, intelligent, often ruthless leader, from the time he assumed his assassinated father’s throne at age 18 until he was 33, and king of the known world. The intellectual: he was insatiably curious, sent plant specimens home to his old tutor, sketched the flora and fauna he encountered in the strange lands he conquered. The emotional too, of course: he continued to be obsessed with his mother, who was overbearing even when vast distances separated them. He loved a boyhood companion, tolerated the jealousies of his two wives. Drunken murders, the burning of cities and razing of temples: he did it all, with the protection of my presence, and the gods wept and rejoiced, as he did.

But for me, it got complicated.

He talked to me. “A hard day, Ox-Head.” The darkness of a palace stable, or a tent pitched in hissing sand. “He’s angry at me; he’s thinks I’m paying too much attention to the dancing boy…” I should have been happy about this latest fodder for the Peak-dwellers – but there was the Boy’s head, heavy against my neck, and his hand wrapped in my mane. His fear and sadness dragged at me – and his joy, when the Companion called his name from the darkness outside, gave me joy.

Maybe if he had been a petulant fool like the Hero, nothing would have come of it, for me. But for every moment the Boy sulked, or declared himself a deity, or – gods forbid – called himself the Hero, there was a moment of selflessness or humor or compassion. He unsettled me so much that I forgot about the game.

“It’s me again, old friend.” Tired, smiling, brushing me until my own weariness fell away. (His long marches were exhausting, even for a supernatural being like myself.) “My men want to go home. So many of them hate what I’ve done, accepting the foreigners, adopting their dress, their ways. Marrying them to my people, so that their children will inherit my kingdom. Maybe they simply fear the strangeness of it all, and only think they hate.” More brush-strokes, and a whistled tune. He always whistled under his breath when he was worried. “They’re not ready for my vision. I’m forging one new world out of all the old ones, Ox-Head, and all they want to do is shut their eyes and run back to the memory of a place that hasn’t changed. But…” His head against my neck again. “What if they’re right? What if…I don’t know. And even though I offer prayers and sacrifices, the gods give me no guidance.”

Perhaps my doubts were born of his.

*

The order to let the Boy die came from the Warrior.

“You’re just jealous,” said the Huntress (her voice was thin, carried to me on a southern breeze).

“Ha!” the Warrior scoffed. “Never! I might just as well be jealous of you, wench” – which caused a scuffle and a yelp, and the sound of footsteps retreating into woods.

“You may be right.” The Thinker now, speaking in his careful, measured way. “He’s winning too much. He’s faced no serious trials, of late. There’s no real balance in his life.”

I gave my head a violent shake, but the wind still wrapped me in words.

“Ox-Head?” The Boy was with me. Of course, the divine conversation had to happen when he was at my side. The Companion was leaning against a tent pole, staring intently at a map, clicking his tongue against his teeth (this always made the Boy growl with false annoyance). “What’s troubling you, old man?”

I whickered to reassure him, but the words didn’t go away.

“Yes,” the Father said, “it’s getting tiresome. We’ve seen it all before. May be time to move on.”

I felt a rush of relief; after all, it had been twenty human years since I’d frolicked in the Peak’s meadows. A rush of relief, and then a rush of dread.

“Tomorrow’s battle. Do you hear me, servant? We’ll give you further orders then.”

No other night has ever seemed longer, to me. Even now, after countless nights in hell, I can say this without exaggeration. I tried not to think, and when I did, I thought ridiculous things like, “The Reveler will get them all drunk and they’ll forget.” But they didn’t forget, and neither did I.

The Boy came to get me before dawn. The river before us was nearly invisible; lightning-shot clouds roiled above it. “The Gods’ Father speaks,” the Boy said, lifting his head to the thunder, and I wished he were wrong. He led his men and their mounts down the mud-slick bank and into the water, whose cold I hardly felt. Winds tore at my mane – the dry winds of this desert country, but others as well, which smelled of mountain spring. The Boy’s legs and hands guided me firmly, as always. He sat upon me with coiled, expectant joy, as he had before so many other battles. This one was no different, to him – except for the elephants (his army had never even seen one of these before, let alone 200), and the seven-foot-tall king who sat astride the largest of the beasts. “Look, Ox-Head,” I heard the Boy say, as the gale shrieked around us and the river rose up tall and white. “Look, but don’t be afraid. Let’s show them now, you and I.”

He did show them. From the cover of an island, he determined that a direct approach would fail, for the horses were all petrified of the elephants. (I didn’t blame them.) So he deployed a lesser force behind and around the opposing army’s right flank. He ordered this calmly, addressing several soldiers by name, smiling at them, even as the distant elephants trumpeted and stamped their enormous feet. He waited for the surprise attack to have its effect; then, as daylight broke the storm apart, he cried out and drove his army back into the river.

“Let him fall.” The Father’s voice; thunder within thunder. “Leave him, now – return to us.”

I could have obeyed my master and thrown the Boy, or pretended to stumble – something that would have left him unprotected, vulnerable to a spear or an arrow or the underside of an elephant’s foot. (I had so often saved him from these sorts of disasters, simply by bearing him.) This might have been easier for both of us. I could have sped home to the Peak; he could have died quickly and gloriously, just as the Hero had, after my brother and I removed our divine protection from him, during the War.

“The Father of all Gods commands you: Leave him now!”

I carried the Boy up the steep, muddy bank. I carried him through ranks of elephants and men, which parted before us and fell behind. The screams and clashing of metal were muffled, for although the skies of men had cleared, the storm still roared within me.

“You have one more chance to obey – one more chance, and if you do not take it, you will be punished. You cannot imagine the suffering…Look there, to your left. The Great King’s enemies retreat or die, save that one – he has an arrow, and it will fly soon. Let it find its mark. Let it find its mark.”

I did.

I reared, higher than I’d ever allowed myself to before, among men. The Boy slid and clung but didn’t fall. I held myself like this, too tall and still to be a mortal beast – held myself, until the arrow had sped past the place where his throat had been and found my own, instead.

I had been injured in battle before: slashes, stabs, glancing blows. The gods’ favor had kept me safe (though they did have me shed some blood and retain some scars, for the sake of credibility.) There was no such favor now. A maelstrom engulfed me: words and winds, agonies of mind and body. I assume the Boy cried out my name, or something of the sort, though I wasn’t sure: the gods allowed me no more time to play the game of men.

*

I know what happened, afterward. (The winds still reach the Abyss, though their news is often out of date.) The Boy won the battle and granted clemency to the giant-king. The Boy mourned me, built a city in my honour. His men mutinied. The Companion died. The Boy went mad. He fell ill in a city of gardens and then he died. His worlds fractured, and yet the one that was born was still his. The stuff, all of it, of divine desire. It must have frustrated the gods to no end that there was no divine design involved.

I protested my innocence, after the river battle. I had to: I knew where I’d end up, and I was terrified. “I was sentimental,” I stammered, hanging my head. “I was confused. I made a bad decision.” I didn’t look up at them, even when the silence stretched on.

“Down,” the Father rumbled at last.

I fell, through layers of sky and then the hard, jagged flesh of the earth. Down, down, into night and smoke and stink, until the stones of the pit broke my fall.

And now here I stand, chewing on blackened straw (though I suppose I should be grateful, listening to the Yearner’s racket, that I have anything to chew on), remembering the dew-sweet grass of the Peak and wondering, as I will for all eternity, what I was thinking. Sometimes, when I catch one of those glimpses of myself in the bronze wall, I imagine for a moment that there’s a rider on my back – a boy, a youth, a man? – and that both of us are gilded with sun. At such moments my foolishness almost makes sense.

“The Great King rode to glory,” men will say (of this, at least, I have no doubt). “The Great King rode into a new world.”

Only the world’s old winds will know the rest.

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Photo by Rebecca Springett

Release Date - October 2015

Published by: ChiZine Publications

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