© 2007 Seth M. Skorkowsky
Cheers from the crowd filling the streets and rooftops of Cerjintio Square melded into one unintelligible roar. Felipe wrestled with Relàmpago's reins to keep him in formation. The nervous steed had barely managed to remain steady during the procession from the gates. The bright yellow blanket and hood, as well as the charcoal paint that coated the steed's exposed silver hair and tail, only added to the horse's foul mood.
The twenty riders came to a stop beside the fountain of Rey Gaspar VI. A red-and-gold rope stretched across the lane, marking the starting point of the race. Felipe searched the crowd for his family, but they were hidden among the thousands of cheering faces.
"So, you ready?" Chale asked, steadying his horse beside Felipe's.
Felipe gave a crooked smile to his old friend. "Are you?"
Chale chuckled, patting his steed's neck. His horse, shrouded under a hood of blue and silver, snorted. Her white hair held a metallic sparkle, a trace of the ancestral blood. "No one has ever beaten any of Tormenta's descendants." The mare nuzzled against Felipe's edgy stallion.
"Then today will be an interesting race," Felipe said, before Relàmpago's uneasiness drew his attention. The horse's disposition was no more apparent than in the skies above Savrallo. In less than half an hour, the few white puffs of clouds floating in a sea of blue sky had welled into gray and black thunderheads. Many of the riders gave silent prayers for the weather to hold.
"Easy, boy," Felipe whispered patting the stallion softly on the neck. "Shh."
But the winds grew stronger, flapping flags and banners and snatching the hats off any citizens not wise enough to hold them firmly in place. Yet the mounting wind and imposing skies meant nothing to the crowd. El Colbero Race was worth even the fiercest of island storms.
A pair of boys dressed in purple-and-white tunics unfastened and coiled the rope before the horses. The riders crouched, tightening their grips on their reins. A wave of silence swept across the crowd, and for a moment even the wind seemed to still. Felipe heard the boot-steps of the royal wizard's guard approach behind the racers. He had seen the ceremony every year and no longer needed to see what was now unfolding behind him. He pushed himself lower against Relàmpago's back. The audience gasped. It meant the wizard had held aloft the golden baton above the drum. Felipe's palms began to sweat. He focused his eyes down the street ahead and held his breath. The great drum thundered, rattling windows, and shaking the earth. Relàmpago sprang forward with fear as surprise and rain exploded from the heavens. The race began.
"So what brings you to my home," Zerlina asked, offering Felipe a seat.
The tired chair creaked as Felipe sat across from the old woman, whose gray hair was tied loosely behind her. Sage smoke dust coated everything in the small, cluttered cottage.
"I have been chosen to represent our village in this year's race," he said nervously. The words felt awkward, despite the dozen times he'd rehearsed them on the way to her house.
"Sixteen years already? It seems only yesterday I helped deliver you." The old witch smiled. "Congratulations. I understand you have become quite a horseman."
Her dark eyes narrowed. "I'm sure you haven't come all this way just to tell me you're competing."
Felipe chewed his lip, avoiding Zerlina's probing gaze. "No," he coughed. "I am racing against Chale Vacello."
"Ah," she said, her thin lips curling into a smile. "The Vacellos are a noble family with a noble horse. No one has ever beaten a descendant of Lucero's steed."
"I understand you and Lucero's grandson have become quite good friends, like brothers." She drew a long breath and sighed. "And now you race against him in El Colbero. That is why you have come."
"Sì," Felipe said. "But his horse is part Mayusian, a thunder stallion. No one can beat it."
Zerlina chuckled. "You don't care about beating the Mayusian. Chale is who you're after. The wealthy son of a great family, and the prideful son of a farmer; you're jealous and wish to beat him."
Felipe swallowed, taking in the old woman's words. He was jealous, but he'd never known how much, until now. For the past nine years, Chale had everything. When Felipe's family almost starved during winter, Chale had food left on his plate. When Chale wanted new clothes, tailors came to his house and made them from the finest fabrics. And now that Chale was to represent his parents' house in the race, he inherits the fastest horse in the world.
She smiled, watching the realization fill his face. "Good. As long as you know your motivation, you have the heart to win."
"But his horse," Felipe reminded her. "I can't beat it."
Zerlina leaned closer and whispered, "Then you will have to capture a Mayusian of your own."
"How?" he asked. "How do you cage a horse that lives in the clouds; that makes lightning with its hooves?"
The old woman reached her wrinkled hand across the table, running a long nail softly down his cheek. "It won't be easy. It might even kill you. But if you have it in your heart, then I will tell you how."
The lane exiting the square funneled the riders to no more than five abreast down the narrow streets. Relàmpago's speed was unmatched, but his reluctance to enter the canyon-like streets was enough to allow four riders to pass. Felipe drove his heels into the Mayusian's sides and drove him faster as another shock of thunder exploded from the sky.
The rain poured harder, making the worn cobblestones difficult. Felipe leaned hard to the left as the street abruptly turned. The rider ahead screamed as his mount lost its footing and crashed into a shop front. Felipe whipped past the sprawling horse and edged forward. Only two riders remained between him and Chale.
Spectators' cheers saturated with the spattering rain and ringing of horseshoes on stone churned into a chaotic howl from all sides. Relàmpago grew more anxious and harder to control as they raced through the winding streets. The blur of blue banners from windows and balconies filled the sides of Felipe's vision; the Fisher District. The crowd's noise swelled as the riders passed the first marker. Felipe pushed the horse harder. Six more districts to go.
The rider before him hugged the inside walls of the tight turns. Felipe yanked the reins, driving Relàmpago through a widening gap inside as they swung around another turn. Rain pelted his face; hooves clattered and slipped on cobblestone. Felipe's stirrup foot brushed his opponent's. His breath caught; for an instant he thought they might go down in a tangle of horses and riders. But a burst of speed from Relàmpago and they were clear. Felipe glanced back and noticed the other rider's eyes staring at Relàmpago's hooves. Felipe risked a quick lean to see what the other rider saw.
Silver hair gleamed from Relàmpago's exposed legs. The charcoal paint had all but washed away. The dye covering the Mayusian's hooves had chipped, exposing the metallic sheen of copper beneath. It didn't matter who knew now. The race had begun, and Chale still thought he held the advantage. Felipe turned his attention back to the road just in time to dodge a jutting storefront.
The street turned again and blue gave way to green as they entered the Market District. Felipe squinted through near-blinding rain as obstacles and turns seemed to leap out from the gray haze. A numbing tingle ran through his body, and the hair on the back of his neck and arms stood on end. Relàmpago picked up speed, and they hurtled faster toward the next marker.
The stallion's excitement reminded Felipe of the night he'd captured him. He and his cousin Ignacio had gone to a mountain pool outside their village every night before a storm for three long months. On that night, during the calm before the storm, when lightning danced across the heavens, a Mayusian mare came to the pool to drink. As Felipe had readied to throw the lasso anchored to a tree stump, a stallion appeared beside the pool in a pulse of light. He stood a hand higher than the mare, his perfect wavy mane hung almost to the ground. Lean muscles glided beneath his silvery white coat.
Felipe had never seen anything so beautiful. Merciñan horses were the fastest and greatest horses in the entire world. He had seen and ridden the finest of that stock. But the grace and power of the animal before him left no doubt that they were but a shadow of their ancestors.
Chale's grandfather had only caught a mare, and it had died giving birth, as had its daughter. No one even believed male Mayusians even touched the ground. Felipe rose from his hiding behind a boulder and threw the lasso.
Relàmpago had fought hard that night. Sparks and lightning shot from his copper hooves, and a hard kick had shattered one of Ignacio's arms. Yet they'd succeeded.
With only three months till the race, Felipe spent all of his spare time breaking the Mayusian. Yet with all the frustrations and bruises, Felipe couldn't help but feel it had been too easy. Lucero had taken almost four months to break Tormenta. Stallions were always harder; why should Relàmpago be any different?
The orange banners of the Warehouse District gave way to the white as Felipe raced through the winding streets of the Peasant District. Relàmpago barely slowed through the twists and turns, closing the gap between them and the rider in green.
Felipe pulled the reins as the rider wove across the lane to stop Relàmpago's charge, but the horse didn't respond. Felipe jerked the leather straps again and they snapped; their ends charred from where they had joined the metal bit.
The street turned sharply and the Mayusian surged forward and raced up and along the facing wall. Felipe threw his arms around the stallion's neck to stay on. Copper hooves clattered across the wooden shopfronts, shattering boards and window frames as the horse raced past his opponent. The green rider stared in awe, nearly losing control of his mount as Relàmpago swung back down to the street in front of him effortlessly.
Only Chale left.
Felipe hugged the stallion harder. He felt its hot neck even through thick doublet sleeves. Steam wisped out from under the cloth hood, and the wet cobblestones hissed under the metal hooves.
The streets opened into a straight wide lane. Chale rode only a few yards ahead. Beyond him, across the city, sat Cerjintio Square and the finish. Relàmpago gained speed, quickly catching with Chale.
Chale's eyes widened at seeing Felipe. He laughed and drove his sharp spurs hard into his horse's flank. Relàmpago snorted as if he had been done the injury. Lightning surged across the sky.
Felipe hugged the stallion harder; the hot tingling in his skin grew more intense. The yellow cowl tore and peeled back from the horse's face, releasing the Mayusian's silver mane.
Chale's horse struggled to keep up with Relàmpago. Chale slapped and spurred the mare harder. Felipe glanced over to the whiffs of steam panting from the horse's nostrils.
"Come on, Felipe," Chale screamed, barely audible over the rain, hooves, and cheering. "It's just you and me!" He kicked his horse again. A shock of thunder tore the sky.
A pulse of light came from Felipe's side. He looked to see a sliver of lightning arc from Relàmpago to Chale's horse. The steeds pushed faster toward the finish. Buildings flew past in a blur of color.
Lightning shot again from Relàmpago, joining him to the other horse. Chale fell forward in his saddle; clutched the reins as his mount sped forward as if towed by the Mayusian.
The square flew closer. Felipe squinted through wind and rain to see a golden hoop hanging from the outstretched copper hand of Rey Gaspar VI. He struggled to release Relàmpago's neck.
As the statue grew closer, he pushed aside the howls from the crowd, Chale's screams, the clanging of Relàmpago's hooves, and focused only on the golden ring. He stretched out. The statue flew past, and his hand screamed in pain as he snagged the prize. His hand was broken but he didn't care. He had it.
Relàmpago continued gaining speed. The high stone walls of Santo Greyhan loomed closer, but the Mayusian showed no intention of slowing. Without reins, Felipe yanked back on the stallion's mane with his good hand. A jolt shot through his arm, and his hand flew back, nearly making him lose his balance.
Chale's screams of terror reminded Felipe that the horses were still joined in their death-run. The cathedral tower loomed above, yet Relàmpago continued his charge. Felipe thrust his hand back into the silvery mane and pulled. Lightning danced up his arm, but he didn't release it. He screamed in pain and terror as the flat stone wall flew closer with deadly speed.
Relàmpago stopped within inches of the cathedral and reared. Momentum ripped Felipe from the stallion's back. The bones in his shoulder and arm crunched as his body slammed into the unforgiving stone. A painful shock filled the air and everything became slow. Within that long moment, Relàmpago's blanket and saddle burst into white flames and he shot toward the heavens on a column of lighting. The half-breed mare followed him up the crackling bolt, dragging Chale with her, his hands wrapped around her neck in terror.
Felipe landed on hot cobblestone with a gasp. Smoke poured from his hair and singed clothes. Every part of his body seized in pain. His head lolled to the side and he saw the black, steaming cobblestones around him. In the middle of the soot and char sat a pair of perfectly clean prints from Relàmpago's rear hooves.
Many of the crowd stood silent; their mouths agape. Others wept and screamed. Many cheered. Felipe gaze fell in and out of focus. Deep within the mass of faces he found Zerlina. The old witch smiled and faded back into the mob.
A glint of lightning crossed the sky. Within the moment before the lightning faded, he saw Relàmpago's distant form racing between the clouds. The half-breed mare ran behind the stallion. Relàmpago had liberated his cousin in bonds. He and the witch had used Felipe to accomplish that goal, and now Chale was gone. He looked down at the twisted gold hoop burning into his broken hand and wept.