The Curse of Apollo

For each season there is a story. Some are more popular than others; Markos points out with a sly chuckle my expression of long-suffering when it is lambing time once more and someone begs for the tale of the boy Liberator among the king’s flocks. At any rate, tales are a more pleasant way of counting the seasons than taxes, and a few tales become so well-loved that their beginnings twine with those of the rituals they celebrate, with no endings in sight.

So it went with the story of Kharis and the Day-Maker’s keles.

Sometime between dark-sparking midnight and rosy-fingered dawn, late in the month of Poseideon, a foal was born among the herds of Lykosoura. This was as usual, for the Horse Lord’s month is favored by those who breed mares, the god being close at hand to oversee his business. A bare six weeks later, early in the month of Elaphebolion, another foal was born, its passage into the world eased by the hand of the Huntress, who also watches over children of all kinds.

These occurrences would have passed without note had not the two foals been born of the same mare.

Now twins are sacred in that part of the country, but twin horses are rarely seen, and furthermore no one had ever heard of twins separated by such a lapse in their births. The people were unsure how to proceed. Some called for the sacrifice of both foals, one for each of the altars of the deities in question. Few had ever come to harm by being too careful of gods, after all. Some argued that the foals were themselves deities in disguise, come to Earth for a time to observe and learn, and thus should be treated better than any king. Some scoffed and held forth that they were only foals, after all–see, the red one kicks her heels in a foolish manner, and the gray has fallen into the trough in his eagerness to follow his mother–and belonged in the pasture with the mare, where they would learn to be horses like all others.

The conversation grew and swelled and broke only to rise again, much as the waves cresting on Lykosoura’s southern shore.

Talk carries, and gossip moves as quickly as gold-fletched arrows. The Day-Maker’s ravens ventured into that god’s morning room, chattering of twins and deities and sacrifices, and his interest was piqued. Interest turned quickly to insult, for was he not also a twin? His sister the Huntress was one half of something greater, neither of them whole without the other, and the matter of these twin foals could not be resolved without consulting him. Yet the people of Lykosoura seemed to have forgotten this: none had sent to his oracle high in the mountains above the countryside, and his devotees in the city’s temple remained overlooked while those of the Huntress and Horse Lord scurried and ferreted in their archives and fretted. The Day-Maker’s mood grew stormy, and clouds passed over the sun as the people continued their debate.

That evening, after the people had taken to bed still murmuring over the spring’s strange events, a shadow moved across the pasture.

“A blight?” said old Kharis, chief keeper of the village’s horses, when she gazed over the fence in the morning. The grass was as she’d left it, and the rambling pines to the north as bitterly green as always, and the twenty-odd horses turned out milling and browsing about their affairs. But one of the new foals, the gray, had undergone some change: his shining pale coat was now black. Not darkest bay, nor deep earthy liver, but true black, as though his hair had been stripped away to reveal the night-colored skin beneath.

The copper filly appeared her foolish self, though Kharis felt a strange inclination to take her from her mother–wean her on pine liquor, perhaps, or chicken feed. It was quite clear that the filly could not be trusted to know her own mind.

The sight of the now-black colt startled Kharis, so that she retreated to the Liberator’s temple to seek the herbalists’ advice.

Lykosoura is a staid country, its temperament stemming, people say, from the rocks on which it grows. Though the inhabitants are dutiful to their gods, even devoted, they do not often fall into superstition. In this case, frugality won out. The sacrifice of two hardy foals, even strange ones, seemed ludicrous, an abject refusal of the gods’ gifts. Two lambs were brought to the altars of the Huntress and the Horse Lord instead, with all proper rites and adornments. The foals were left with their mother, who was a very good mare, to learn to be horses. And if people looked askance at the pair, whispered about the colt’s new, black-singed coat–

Two years passed.

In the month of Thargelion, on the sixth and seventh days, a festival was held celebrating the birth of the Divine Twins. The Huntress was lauded with a procession through the trees, her beacon lit on the tallest crag above Lykosoura as twilight melted into night and the moon rose in its slenderest crescent. Deer were slain and roasted, the goodness and wisdom of the goddess saluted with wine, and hunters brought their bows and knives and hounds to be blessed alongside the youngest children. On the following morning, while night gave way to dawn, a race would be held, to honor the Day-Maker’s horses when they drew the sun across the firmament.

This was the most hotly-contested race throughout the countryside; from every hamlet tucked into the hills people came, bringing their best horses to be tried upon a course that ranged from the lowland grasses through steepening rocks and ended at a spring nestled between peaks, where the god’s most sacred shrine was housed.

Each horse entered was the pride of its household or village. Folk trained up their runners from the first days of their birth, if the foal looked likely, and on the festival day each horse was groomed until it shone, manes braided with fine ribbons and tails lifted high as banners. All along the path to Lykosoura’s temple block, people admired the horses and compared their beauty to what was said of their skill, for the Day-Maker’s race was no place to test an unbroken steed, a rank stallion, a flighty youngster. It was understood, though rarely stated, that this was the test of horses already proven. It was dangerous and long, requiring speed and dexterity and wind as deep as the caverns of Khthonos. The winners each year were the ideal union of horse and rider, verging on demigods and creatures of myth, and were crowned at the god’s spring with his laurels. Since the race’s first running, its victors had produced war-steeds, the mounts of kings, and–so it was murmured–the winged horse of Hodios, upon whom the business of the gods traveled more swiftly than sunlight and more smoothly than running water.

To such a race did old Kharis lead a pair of half-wild young horses.

Lykosoura is close to the heavens, and as such inhabits a space where the veil between worlds is thin. To live in a place like that requires a sense of humor, which Kharis had in spades. What need had she for laurels and acclaim, at her advanced age? She had delivered baby horses since the age of twelve, had seen every iteration of equine beauty and folly, had wept over foals choked by their birthing-bags and breech hooves and colic. She was hale yet; she went along on the autumn’s wolf-hunt and rode each morning, and there was nothing in the by-laws governing the Day-Maker’s race, the keles of heroes, to prevent her horses from running, nor her from riding.

“What!” people said along the main thoroughfare, lined up with torches and lanterns to watch the horses proceed. “Kharis, old woman, you aim to ride them both?”

Kharis smiled, a hand on either horse’s muzzle, for neither reins nor saddles were permitted in the race, and the people’s laughter drained away to whispers. No one could deny that the twin horses looked likely: they had grown up large and fine, well-muscled, haughty-browed. The colt’s black coat gleamed as though oiled, and the red filly flirted her tail, which whipped like copper wire. It was known that many had attempted to ride the filly and that no one, even Kharis, had ever been seen aboard her. It was known also that the colt was believed cursed, for the matter of his coat shifting color had never been forgotten. Few people ventured near them in the pasture or stables, and fewer still asked after their health and training, and no one at all had ever offered to buy them.

“Well,” said Iakolanthus, and shook his coin purse. “It’s a bet only a trickster would make.”

Some people could not resist such bets, and some of those are gods. In his high places, the Day-Maker’s attention was caught and he peered down to see his images celebrated.

The horses lined up at the gate of the Day-Maker’s temple in the heart of Lykosoura, snorting and pawing the raked sand as they and their riders were blessed. The priests paused when they reached Kharis and her pair, but soon enough hands moved over the aged woman’s head and the horses’ dainty muzzles, words murmured in ritual to keep hooves sound and arms strong. Kharis fixed her eyes on the horizon, still gray with night. The peaks of Lykosoura pierced the dark sky, cradling the Day-Maker’s spring close and hidden, and the pathway snaked out in front of her, and it seemed that the sand spoke to her as it did the horses, whispering of its depth and hardness, raked and packed tight for hooves to run upon.

The riders were ready when a deep bell chimed and their mounts burst forward. All along the thoroughfare, the people of Lykosoura exclaimed, pointing and clutching one another, at the sight of Kharis balanced between the twin runners.

(Markos likes to joke, gruffly, that none shall ever see his hoplite armor aboard a horse and why should they, when Kharis can manage the whole cavalry at once?)

It was remembered, suddenly, that Kharis had been born on the plains to Lykosoura’s west, one of the horsewomen who trained mounts for battle and for mirth. It was said those women were born of mares themselves, daughters of the great mare sprung from the Horse Lord’s white-crested wave, the offspring of land and sea. They held the secrets of breeding runners and massive draft beasts and fine-boned ponies for princesses, and on a girl’s twelfth birthday she was given a brew of fermented colostrum and blood and sent out to gentle a yearling.

Given everything the people had heard of the plains women, Kharis did not seem so strange.

The colt and filly galloped strongly, even and matched in their strides, one of Kharis’s feet planted on each of their backs. She was half-crouched, fingers wrapped in their manes, steady as any of the statues on the Day-Maker’s temple porch. It did not matter that the twin horses had had no opportunity to race prior, that the people believed they were rank and feral. She had watched them and worked with them and talked to them, and she knew what she was about.

The colt’s strange coat was no fault of his; Kharis recognized the hand of a god when she saw it. He couldn’t help the darkening of his flanks and throat, any more than Kharis could help the curl of her hair or the fingers of her left hand, three of which had grown together in the womb and never separated after birth. The filly’s temperament was something to be worked with, rather than beaten away. She had a contrary way about her, such that an observer was inclined to ignore all signs the filly gave, and try their own ideas. Kharis resisted this and believed the filly when she indicated that she was hungry, or sore, or–as now–that she could run faster than Kharis had previously believed.

“Well then,” she called to the filly, and the colt picked up his heels with them.

They ran, the race’s path curving through the town and fields, growing rough underfoot when it entered the woods. The other horses frothed beside them, or fell behind, stumbled on stones not removed from the track, tossed their heads sideways to try and savage their fellows. Riders cursed at one another, pleaded with the gods, fell in exhaustion or were thrown. The joints of Kharis’s knees ached, but the sharp spring wind teased hair loose from her braid and nipped her cheeks, and she decided that she had never felt better. Whatever the origins of her horses, she loved their mother. It wasn’t the mare’s fault that her delivery had been a little faulty, and they had both done as good a job as they knew, raising the twins. No matter if they won the Day-Maker’s race, or if they were declared illicit upon winning, since to her knowledge only one horse was permitted the victory.

They were running, according to the manner of their making.

The air thinned and chilled as the race wound through Lykosoura’s mountains, and the horses’ breath fogged the path. Kharis noted that the other runners had lagged behind–or perhaps she and the twins were already beaten, and one of the other horses now knelt at the spring, draped in laurel and trodding palm underfoot. But no: the sun was inching above the peaks, and if they ran just a bit further, just a touch swifter, they would reach it. Within her breast, Kharis’s heart fluttered like a captive bird. Glory suffused her skin, her body warming as sunlight spread over the mountains. Beneath her feet the horses were warm, sweat-lathered, steam rising from their withers to match their clouds of breath. The rhythm of their hooves pounding the earth changed; no longer did the harsh impact ripple up into Kharis from below, and it seemed to Kharis that they rose, the three of them, the mountainside dropping away and the horses’ breath disappearing into thick clouds scudding through the sky.

“Well.” The voice was pleased, whoever it belonged to. Kharis had thought she knew the priesthood serving the Day-Maker at his spring, but this voice was unfamiliar, deep and bell-like, amused. “Do you seek to usurp my position, child?”

She had not been a child for long years.

“I seek nothing but the spring,” Kharis said. She slid down between the twins as the horses stilled, squinting into a scarlet dawn. “They have proved themselves, I should think, these two.”

“They have brought the sun,” the Day-Maker said, “and my own pair still dozing in their stable.” He laughed. “I would be half-inclined to surrender the sun’s business to such a set on the basis of a well-run keles.” He petted the colt’s nose, and his noble face broadened with laughter. “I remember you. How shall I forget you, with the mark of my hand upon you?” The filly whickered and tossed her wet mane, and the god nodded to her. “And you, mistress. Reminiscent of another stubborn woman of my acquaintance. It is only right that you should torment your brother, and inspire his best.”

Kharis knelt, which was relief to her joints. “The sun’s business was not my intention, my lord. We had only a race to run.” She hesitated, glancing toward where she expected to see the holy spring and its keepers. There was only a haze, red as the filly’s coat and shot through with darts of light. “Have the other horses ended where they ought?”

“What care have I for other horses?” The god studied Kharis. His eyes were startling, the searing white-gold of hottest noon. “These two have proven themselves worthier than any since Bellerophon’s steed. They are yours, correct? May I have them?”

Kharis faltered. Nothing in her raising had taught her to refuse a god. All women knew the results of the Day-Maker’s annoyance.

“They are mine inasmuch as a horse is ever a human’s.” She laid a hand on the colt’s belly, and the other on the filly’s, where the breath of each horse was beginning to slow. “They do as they will. The filly especially.”

“A good and holy appraisal,” the Day-Maker said. “I admire them, but the admiration of gods is not so specific as the love of humans. A mile wide, rather than a fathom deep. It is right they remain with you, and you with them.” A crafty smile crossed his lips. “Some slight recollection of debts owed comes to mind, and I hate to be in debt.”

Each word ground on Kharis’s senses. The roots of her hair ached. She began to feel as though she was slowly being dismantled, piece by piece. The horses remained unperturbed. “I know of no debt, my lord.”

“A petty thing and a hasty one.” Some reluctant apology entered the god’s voice, which Kharis would have chuckled over in wonder had she not been concentrating on staying upright in his presence. “It is no fault of these two, how their birth was received by humans, and you did well by them when others would not.”

Kharis bowed her head, sweat springing at her temples. She wanted to be gone from that place. Exhaustion drilled through her bones. What more was there waiting for her, in Lykosoura below, when she had ridden two horses to the solar palace?

“Perhaps you and they have not come to take over the sun’s business,” the Day-Maker said, “but still you belong in the heavens.”

So it was that Kharis and the twins entered the skies above Lykosoura: accidentally, bearing the sun to its master between them, and then purposefully, Kharis’s white hair bright between the bloody copper of the filly and the coal-fired black of the colt. They went to the stars in a tight cluster and were called the Dromeades ever after, the runners; they who appear as night drains away, the harbingers of daybreak, the Horses of the Sun.