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“So,” said the squire, that voice cutting through Shem’s throbbing head with the ease of a hot blade. “This is the thieving little blighter, is it?”

Shem wasn’t sure what to say. He cleared his throat. “If’n please you, sir, I’m very grateful for your hospitality, but I—”

“The doctor said there’d be no lasting damage, so don’t think you can pull the wool over my eyes, boy. Your father might have had it away faster than we could catch him, but we have his horse, and naturally you were an accomplice to the crime.”

Shem looked down at his feet. All these books, pressing in around him, intimidating and heavy with the smell of dust and ages. Da had got away, then. That was something. And Cinderella was all right. And yet…

He glanced up. The squire leaned back in his chair, laying his palms flat to the desk as he studied Shem consideringly.

“Naturally, I should call the constable at once. I could have you subjected to the fullest extent of the law.”

Shem dropped his gaze, fixing it on the dusty toes of his boots. That was it, then. He’d be for the gaol, and that would be that. He’d die there, for he couldn’t live in a cage.

The squire’s terse sigh disrupted Shem’s visions of his grim, early death. “However, there is an alternative. Should you care to hear it?”

Shem twisted his fingers into the hem of his jacket and bit his lip. “Y’s, sir.”

“You will work off your debt in my yard. I shall keep you, and the mare, until the foal is born—if she indeed produces one. Then, I shall keep the foal. It would legally be my property, after all. You will then have license to return to your people, and you can tell them precisely what happens to thieves upon my land. I do not think that is unmerciful. Do you?”

Shem had only heard the barest shapes of what the man said, his head woolly and sounds swooping around him, unclear and yet so dreadful. Almost a year, to be caught and held here, away from his family, his home? Dizziness shook his knees, but he knew it was mercy, however much like cruelty it seemed. He opened his mouth, but he couldn’t form a reply, his thoughts on his da, his mother…what would they do? How would they know where he was?

“I will, naturally, allow you to contact your family. You may write to them,” the squire said, steepling his fat fingers and regarding Shem coolly. “Or, perhaps, dictate a letter. I’m sure they’ll be able to find someone to read it to them.”

Anger boiled in Shem, but he knew better than to speak out of turn. He bit his teeth together and said nothing.

Graves, ever his master’s faithful bulldog, cleared his throat. “Well? Say thank you, ungrateful boy!”

Shem looked between the two men, the air stifling with the smell of old, dusty pages. “’nk you, y’honor,” he mumbled.

* * * *

And so it was that Shem found himself bound to a new job, his days filled with the comforting scents of straw and manure, his billet a prickly sackcloth bed in one of the spare looseboxes. He got to know the stable staff—Graves, of course, and Mason, the trainer who saw to Royal Sharna and his jockeys, and Oldham, whose concern was the brood mares with which the squire hoped to perpetuate Sharna’s legacy.

He had little to do with the people from the big house, though in those first few, hard weeks, he caught sight of several of the maids coming down on the pretext of bringing beer or bread to the men, giggling behind their hands as they lingered to take a peep at the raggle-taggle gypsy working off his penance.

He hated it, half-tempted to feign putting a curse on the lot of ’em if it would just make them go away. The other lads were little better. To Shem, they lacked the basics of good manners and cleanliness, yet they called him a dirty pikey, and they bore him no respect.

He ate, worked, and slept alone, and was content enough by it.

Once or twice, Elizabeth, the squire’s daughter, came by to see him. She took to timing her morning rides around the estate to match his work, so he’d be there to tack up her horse—a pretty gray mare called Jemima—and take her in again when the mistress returned.

Shem liked the girl well enough for what she was, though he wished she’d stop trying to set her cap at him. Never having been in such a position before, he didn’t know how to tell her he didn’t care for women. He doubted she’d have listened, in any case. She seemed one of those types of girls to think she could change a man just by winking. A cousin of his had introduced him to a girl like that once before, and Shem shuddered at the memory. He much preferred to spend his days with the horses.

The weeks turned to months, and Shem grew used to the rhythms of the estate, the coming and goings of race people and the so-called higher class of horse dealer with whom the squire did business. He didn’t care for them. To Shem’s eyes, they were a shifty, greasy-suited bunch: flashy men with a mind to profit and only a weak judgment of horseflesh. Not like his da.

Great excitement surrounded one such man, a mealy-mouthed rat of a creature to whom—so Shem heard—the squire had paid an enormous sum of money to purchase the most rare and valuable of horses to grace his stable.

“’Tis a beautiful beast,” Graves told him, as they shared a pack of smokes in the cool afternoon, the last flares of the dying sun going down over the near paddock, touching the silhouettes of the grazing mares with shadowed gold. “Bought in from the East.”

Once he’d seen Shem work with the horses, the man’s opinion of him had improved and, for his part, Shem had to admit a grudging respect for the head groom, despite his initial distrust.

“Aye? An Arab?”

“No.” Graves blew out a stream of thin, gray-blue smoke and licked his lower lip. “Akhal-Teke. From Turkmenistan, wherever the bloody hell that is. Russian Empire, I believe. Coat like spun gold, runs like the bloody wind, boy. His lordship wants ’un for breedin’, though I can’t say I fancy the job of overseeing that malarkey.”

Shem pulled on the cigarette, missing the taste of the baccy his purodad mixed, and the smell of his da’s pipe. He leaned back against the fencepost, his body aching from a day’s long work. Midges had begun to fly in the dusk.

“Fiery, am they?”

Graves chuckled. “Aye, could say, lad. I was there when he went to see it at the dealer’s yard. Damn thing nearly kicked a hole clean through the wall. He’s arriving day after tomorrow.”

He stubbed out his cigarette and bade Shem goodnight, a few fateful words tossed carelessly over one shoulder:  “Still, you’n be there to give us a hand, won’t you?”

“Aye.” Shem nodded dubiously. He really had no choice.

The Golden Horse

Excerpt:


eBook Cover Price: 2.99

Length: 88 pdf Pages / 16487 words

Gay, Romance, Fantasy, Romany

Heat rating: 3