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"The Horse of Another Color"

The Horse of Another Color

Chapter 1
Chapter 2
Chapter 3

This story is in progress

The sequel to this story is "The Sword and the Rose."

Part 1

The village was quiet with the silence that hung like clouds before a storm, that was found in the eye of a hurricane; an unnatural stillness that preceded danger. Nature herself sensed that something was amiss. The stars burnt in the sky, like ashes blown from a fire; guttering and flickering by a swollen moon. A gusty wind blew scraps of leaves into the village, wrapping them around feet and legs, beating with twigs against doors. To the west, the mountains hunkered - twisted, jagged shards of magma pressed through the earth like fists. The river moved darkly through the woods, sliding through trees and rocky clearings.

"He is coming." The woman whispered to the child beside her, "The mage Magnus comes tonight." Plump and rosy, she was sitting by the fire, hands moving as she sewed charms into the woollen blanket. They would protect her baby from the leBeau curse, he had told her, although they had deprived her of sufficient food for a fortnight.

"'M scared, mother."

The boy clung to her skirts, hiding between the folds of fabric as if it would save him from the Mage. She essayed a smile, attempting to comfort the child.

"No need to be as long as he gets that which he requested, lambkin."

"But, mother, he wants everything we have," her older daughter, cynical and tempestuous, commented. The younger generation had not lived through the curse, had not known how much Magnus had done for them. Scared that the Mage would hear her and withdraw his protection from her kith and kin, she slapped her quickly and efficiently across the face. The girl swore and howled, and the woman continued in a low, angry voice. "Better that than to risk his displeasure. Better that than to have those evil..."

She stopped short as a sudden flare of orange-red lit the village, blocking out the flickering stars and swollen moon. A false dawn that sillouetted the figure in billowing robes who was emerging from the sky. The Great Mage. Crossing herself surreptitiously and gathering her children around her, she walked towards the town square, whispering:

"He is come."

Mouth curling in a sneer, Magnus looked around the congregated villagers. A mass of brown and green, they milled beneath him, burdened with parcels and bundles. A low hum emanated from them, punctuated by the shrill, high mewling of an infant. In the distance, fires burnt in front of their thatched, stone houses, revealing vegetable gardens, chicken coops and flower beds. The paved streets were worn and dusty, marble showing through the mud.

Pathetic, parochial simpletons he thought, seeing their homespun clothes and broad smiles. Their hands, calloused with work and rough with the struggle of survival, were held up to him in blessing. Wanting to acheive a greater effect, he called for a light wind to blow his scarlet cloak into ripples along with his bleached-silk hair. Raising a jewelled hand so that the lamps and fires caught the ruby ring he wore on his middle finger, he relished the silence that settled over the town.

"My people, it is time." He smiled, "Bring forth your gifts to me and I shall bless you in equal proportion."

A child came - stumbling, tripping - and deposited a small bag of gold at the Mage's feet. He suppressed his distaste for the grimy, flat-faced boy, clad in rags with a pouch of charms around his neck. "For you, my lord."

He nodded, acknowledging the child's adulation. The pile continued to grow steadily until it was a glittering carpet at his feet. The tithing, of course, was more symbolic than anything else. The villagers were farmers, fishermen, carpenters - all poor, simple people who lived poor, simple lives and gave their poor, simple money so they would be free from their poor, simple curse. Absently, Magnus looked up at the villager who was paying tribute to him. At her slender body beneath the dull robe of homespun. At her emerald eyes which burned with hatred. At her brown hair with a single streak of white. No bobbing curtsies, bows or near genuflection from her; her back was straight and she met his gaze with pride. Something avaricious within him saw power within her - magic, hate or something beyond both? - and wished to own it. Possess it like a scepter or diadem; the mark of his reign. He smirked, touching her cheek.

"What is your name, woman?"

"Sabrina." She slapped his hand away from her face, glaring at him. His leer broadened.

"Most women would envy you, Sabrina," he savored each syllable of her name, "I am giving you the opportunity of a lifetime - the opportunity to become my wife."

"Never!" she spat, blood rising to her cheeks, "I'm spoken for already, and, even if I wasn't, I would never marry a sybaritic pig like you."

His grin became as cold as his steel-blue eyes as he leant forward, whispering to her with loathsome intimacy: "Fortunately for you, I like a woman with spirit."

He stood, addressing the village: "This woman shall be my next tithe or your village shall be destroyed."

Sabrina's mouth opened in a horrified circle and tears began to drip down her face, like rain down leaves. The Mage's smile became wider - his reluctant bride would learn to love him, would have to love him. He needed her. There was something ... indefinable about her that drew him to her, that necessitated his possession of her. A silver luminescence, a glitter...

"Sir." A greying man stepped forward, worry evident on his face, "Is there nothing else we can give you?"

Her father, the Mage wondered, or the person to whom she was bespoken? If so, he would have to be eliminated. It would not be appropriate for his wife to moon over this senile dotard; to long for his trembling kisses and declarations of affection. Still, the Goddess of Love\Hate worked in mysterious ways ... The Mage was silent for a while, a sadistic smile playing over his thin lips. It would not do to be seen as unfair, yet he wanted to ensure that the other tribute was unattainable...

"Yes, there is one thing. The horse of another color."

"Sir, that is just a legend. We cannot give you something that does not exist."

The man was becoming angry, the Mage sensed, and he did not feel like making an example of him on the night of his betrothal. Besides, if his wife was to care for him, it might be best not to destroy her father or lover in front of her people.

"Then prepare my bride for her wedding day, for I will not take anything else." Magnus kissed Sabrina's lips. Rainbows dancing through him. The scent of rain and cedar. Swallows wheeling in an egg-shell sky. Freshness of spring. He broke off, holding her shoulders to steady himself. Who was this woman? He desperately tried to regain his composure, unwilling to let the chattel see how much she had discomfitted him. "Until then, beloved."

Smoke -- smelling of brimstone, corruption and incense -- swirled around the villagers, causing them to cough and choke. When it dissipated, and the sky was once more clear, Magnus had disappeared. Sabrina was sobbing angrily, wiping her mouth against the sleeve of her dress.

"I'm sorry, daughter." The middle-aged man put an arm around her waist, pulling her to him, "However, look on the sunny side of the Goddess's face, he is a powerful mage and more than wealthy. He will be a good husband to you and you will be happy in time. You will learn to..."

"No, daddy. He can never make me happy." She slipped out of his grasp and ran into the woods, white stripe ghost-like against the darkness. The elder man made as if to follow her, but was restrained by a twisted hand. He turned angrily to face the crone in her purple robe and silver amulets; wispy white hair floating around her sun-browned face like clouds around a mountain.

"She won't become resigned to her fate." she said, her blackened stumps of teeth bared in a smile, "I have seen her future in the stars."

"And what is that, Madame Destiny?"

" Freedom." She replied simply. "Joy and freedom."

The highwayman leaned against the gnarled trunk of the oak-tree, twirling a coin between two fingers. His horse -- a rich, shimmering bay with a white star on its forehead -- was steaming in the cold, night air as it ate mouthfuls of sweet grass. Remy sighed, looking around for his somewhat late fiancee. As always, coming to see her so close to the village was enough of a risk without her being late, he thought ruefully, wanted as he was by the Mage's guards and the Kingsmen. A twig snapped behind him and he spun around, drawing his sword.

"As always, a warm welcome, sweetheart," Sabrina quipped weakly, and he could hear an undercurrent of hopelessness in her voice. She stepped into the pale moonlight and he could see that she had been crying.

"What did that Goddess-damned Mage do this time?" he stepped forward, sheathing the sword. He was all too aware of how Magnus held the village hostage by the promise of protection; how he demanded exhorbitant tithes and tributes for his services. Remy did everything he could to alleviate some of the burden, by passing on a percentage of his takings from the rich Lords and toadies of the Mage, but it was never enough.

"You know the mage was here tonight?" he heard her voice catch.

"Yes." He grinned, removing a heavy pouch from his pocket, "If it's the money, don't worry. I lightened the pockets of a few 'gentlemen' on the way here."

"It isn't the money," she said, "Magnus gave it all back to us. To me."

"What?!" He sounded surprised, "So the old snake has a heart, after all."

"Yes, he does." he saw her carefully constructed compusure crumble, "Unfortunately, it's set on having me."

Cold dread slid down his heart, like a drink from one of the icy streams of the underworld. Knowing and not knowing, he asked:

"What do you mean?"

"He wants my hand in marriage for his next tithe, or he'll destroy the village."

"Goddess. And he won't take anyt'ing else?"

"Yes ... but ... but it doesn't even exist," she sobbed. She was a slight woman, barely reaching his shoulders, despite her forceful personality. Rumor spoke of her as a shrew in a village where women were as meek and affectionate as domestic cats. The child of a gypsy who still was governed by the moon and the wind. A changeling. A dryad. Delicate, vulnerable, she rested her streaked head against his chest and her hand on his hip. He placed an arm around her, drawing her to him, scared of losing her.

"Then we have to make it exist." He ran a hand through her hair, like coarse silk, comforting her. "What is it?"

"The horse of another color..."

"Wow." The girl whispered as she looked around the cave, "This is so incredibly beautiful."

The walls were studded with crystals, fragile, delicate, crumbling at a touch. Light caught them and refracted in dancing rainbow colors around the room. A sweep of an arm caused a frisson of color to run from wrist to shoulder; a localized rainbow rippling over her skin. As she walked, the light shifted and swayed, like an aura. From the ceiling, stalactites hung, joining with stalagmites, to form pillars and arches; gargoyles and carvings.

"Come, child." The sorceress Ororo gestured to the girl, "I have gathered all the crystals that I need."

Her apprentice looked up at her mistress with wide almond eyes. Robed in white wool, threaded with silver and indigo, her burnt honey skin was all the more golden. Startling, blue eyes beneath a mane of pale hair crinkled at the corners in a smile.

"Coming..." She slipped a small piece of jade, which she had found lying on the floor, into her herb pouch where it sat snugly among the various packets of feverfew, bramble, lavender and verbena. It was carved roughly into the shape of a unicorn, with a spiralled horn made of diamond. Four, long legs supported a graceful, elegant body, while its mane -- frozen in stone -- blew out in ribbons. Holding it filled her with bubbles of light; with the flush and thrill of the hunt; with the balance of a well-made sword. Evidently, it was magical. Once more, she debated whether or not to show it to Ororo and decided against it. The sorceress would insist that they found the rightful owner and she was too fond of the ornament -- and the way it made her feel -- to relinquish it so easily. The sorceress had already left the cave and the apprentice ran after her with short, tripping paces. It was a long walk back to the cottage in which they lived and the sun was already beginning to tip the trees with crimson and gold. In the distance, birds chattered and scolded; a wolf lifted its snout to the moon and howled; a lazy wind blew leaves in spirals. By the time they arrived home, a silver moon hung high in the star-sprinkled sky. The sorceress unlocked the door with a small golden key and rehung it around her neck.

"Why did we need to get the crystals?" The apprentice asked.

"Patience, Jubilation. All shall be revealed." She answered distractedly, looking around the small room. "Someone has been here ... I can sense another's presence."

"Yes. And he's made himself pretty comfortable whoever he is." Jubilation commented wryly, noting the trail of mud across the woolen carpet. It led into Ororo's neat, aromatic quarters - more jungle than room with its blossoming plants and creeping vines. Entering it, she pulled the sheets down, crinkling her nose. A man was sleeping there, auburn hair dark against the white pillow. He was as handsome as any of the paintings Jubilation had seen of the twin-natured Gods in her Gramayre, with fine features and a slight build. Dark eyelashes curved against pale cheeks and his breath came slowly and regularly.

"Hey, wake up." Jubilation shook him roughly, annoyed with his intrusion into their personal space. Her hand came up red with blood, and she gasped, wiping it swiftly on her grey robes.

"I believe he is injured, child." Ororo came up behind her, "Put this compress on his wound."

She handed the apprentice a viscous mass of green leaves. They smelt vaguely astringent; the pungent odor causing her eyes to water and her throat to catch. As with all Ororo's medicines, pleasantness was secondary to efficaciousness. The man winced slightly as Jubilation applied them to the wound on the back of his head and his eyes opened. Red embers glowed in a void of perfect blackness and she started. The gramayre spoke of changelings who came from the netherworld -- Blackheart's minions -- was he one of them?

"Am I in Empyrean?"

"No. You're in the sorceress Ororo's house." Jubilation told him ironically, still pressing the sticky mess to his head.

"If you are Ororo, I need your help," he sat up, clinging to the bedpost for support. He looked weak, but sane; eyes blazing more strongly. Where he had been resting on the pillow, a spreading stain of red blood remained.

"Firstly, explain who you are and why you are in my house before you make demands," Ororo's voice was firm as she held out a glass of steaming medicine. The same bitter smell as the compress rose from them and he made a face, waving it aside. Ororo raised an eyebrow and proferred the cup again, which he finally took and drank, disgust wrinkling his nose. Finally, she picked up a small glass jar of salve from a shelf and applying it to his wound. Pale-green and oily, it smelt like thyme and was a powerful antiseptic.

"It's a long story."

"We have time," Jubilation told him, intrigued by both his arrival and appearance.

"My name is Remy du ... eh ... leBeau and I'm on a quest to find the horse of another color." The young man sighed, climbing off the bed and massaging his painful head, "I come from a little village in the mountains a couple of leagues from here. This village is 'protected' by a mage, Magnus. Every month, in return for his patronage and support, Magnus demands a tribute from the villagers. Usually, it isn't anything too unusual -- gold, silver, jewels -- but this year, he wants something different."

"Different?" Ororo asked, well-aware of the oft-times bizarre requests of the these Magicians. Power was the ultimate corrupter, and, more often than not, the frail human mind could not resist the temptation to abuse it.

"Impossible more like it." Remy leBeau said, "The mage has fallen in love with my fiancee and says that I must give her to him, unless I can find the horse of another color. "

"But that's..."

Ororo held up a hand to silence Jubilation, forehead creasing in thought. The child pouted and crossed her arms, angry at having been humiliated by her mistress.

"If you do not, Remy leBeau?"

"He'll destroy the village. I came to you, because ... because I thought you might know how to find it. Madame Destiny said that you might be the only one who did, bar the Great Sorceress herself."

"Of course we'll help you!" Jubilation sprang to her feet, recovering from her earlier indignation, "Just think -- a real, live adventure!"

"Isn't an adventure, child." He looked grim, "Magnus would do just about anything to stop us; including and preferably killing us. His guards gave me this token of his affection when they found me in the forest."

He gestured at his wounded neck which had stopped bleeding. Ororo nodded in agreement. The boy was brave, honorable, but evidently ill-equipped to undertake this quest. His clothes and demeanour marked him as a highwayman, but defeating a Sorceror would require more than swordplay and wits. In accordance with her vows as a healer, she could not refuse him, because her noncompliance would lead to his death.

"So where do we begin?" The apprentice asked, rubbing her hands together.

"I shall use my scrying bowl to determine the position of this horse of another color," Ororo removed a crystal bowl from the shelf and poured a liquid into it. Purple and viscuous, it shone greasily in the light, before Ororo added a pinch of pink crystals. Suddenly, with the hiss of steam, white mist rose from the bowl; the unfocussed image within swirling, shattering and shifting.

"Rolo creh tonafo es rohem wohs."

She moved an elegant hand, decorated with a single silver band, across the smoke. It dissipated, leaving a fluid behind that was red and blue and gold all at once. Slowly, the picture became clearer and the colors came together to form a green horse with a silver horn. It neighed and stamped, before being consumed by licking flames, which metamorphosed into a bird of fire. Hooked talons grasped a branch, while a beak of burnished gold tore the sky. Its wings shimmered in the wavering air, while its tail was a trail of sparks.

"Hguo ne."

The picture vanished into the reflection of Ororo's face, which too disappeared as she turned to face the young man. Resolutely, she told him:

"We must seek the help of the Goddess of Fire."

"But ... isn't she just a legend also?"

Jubilation laughed, "And basilisks turn you into feathers when they look at you. Phoenix and Ororo are the best of friends."

"Although that is not quite the truth, I shall attempt to explain." Ororo waved her hand, forming an image within the purple liquid. The fists and fingers of the Promethean Mountain appeared, bathed in fire, like the wars of dragons. Superimposed on this panaroma, a slender red-head -- clad in rich gold and gems - spread her arms and became a phoenix; flicker and flare, "The Goddess of Fire lives within the Promethean Mountains where the magma bubbles up through the earth's crust and heats the world. It is a dangerous journey -- one which I have only undertaken once to share in the Ceremony of Balance. We were friends then."

"Why not now?" Jubilation asks, "Did you two have an argument?"

"No, child. It is far more complex than a simple misunderstanding. Like the fire, Phoenix is always changing. She exists for a hundred years then gives birth to herself before dying. At the moment, she is at the beginning of a new cycle. She may not even remember me."

"None of that matters." The young man stood, "The question is: can she help us?"

"Yes." She answered, "If we survive the journey."

"I once promised Sabrina that I'd walk through fire for her. Never thought that it would be literal."

"Then what are we standing around her for?" Jubilation jumped to her feet, scanning the room for potential travel supplies, "We've got a date with a goddess."

"You are not coming." Ororo said, grimly, "It is too dangerous."

"But I'm your apprentice..." the girl whined.

"Which is why you will stay here and go over your Gramayre while I am away."

"But ... but..."

"No arguments."

"Fine." Jubilation reluctantly capitulated, fully intending to do anything but read the musty tome which was her guide and compass. The sorceress moved briskly around the room, filling flagons with water and packing robes and food into a heavy, leather satchel. On top of the essentials, she placed a few small pouches of herbs and some brilliantly polished crystals. Satisfied with her ascetic luggage, she told the girl to prepare her horse. Still sulky, the apprentice fetched a stocky piebald from the makeshift stable around the back, saddled it and placed the haversack into the saddlepacks. "I'm afraid we don't have much time to waste," the highwayman did similarly, checking that his supplies were intact, "It's taken me a couple of weeks to find you."

"I shall take that as a compliment," Ororo said with a smile.

"The bottom line is that next tithe is in a fortnight's time. If we don't have the horse by then, I can kiss my fiancee goodbye."

"Then let us start immediately. It will probably be safer to travel by night in any event when the Kingsmen are not as alert. Or awake."

Swinging her leg over the broad side of her mare, Ororo led Remy into the forest.


Continued in Chapter Two

Disclaimer: All characters belong to Marvel, but the world is mine. <cue Pinky and the Brain themesong> Comments as always to This is a rewrite that I've been planning to do for a while, because certain parts of the story are not cohesive enough for my liking. I've taken all the accents out, because they didn't make sense in context, have expanded on descriptions and explained a few ... non sequiturs more adequately. The heart of the story is still the same, though. :)


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