He led Killer up to where Ili stood on the mounting block, who smiled and said “Equus, Stand.” Killer stood next to him rock steady, ears pricked. His nostrils flared with excitement and he blew and snorted, clearly wanting to dance in place.
Ili swung his leg over Killer’s back, mounting bareback and took up the single rope attached to his hackmore and signaled Killer to walk on. The horse paced out into the ring, hooves flying out in the extended, exaggerated parade strut that looked as though he was floating and stopped in the middle of the ring.
“Gentlesers, Seras, Serins and Serinas,” Ili said. “Everyone has proven to be excellent at horsemanship.” For an instant he wished he didn't sound so young. Killer swung in a slow circle, as Ili spoke, guided only by his legs. He cleared his throat and went on. “But the Mahid horses, the war horses, are special.”
From the stable gate a number of the horse boys were carrying large boxes, fences, even flower pots and statues out and placing them into the ring. One or two had wicker baskets that they set down as well. Killer danced in place, snorting happily. “Equus! Cease!” He stood.
“I shall be demonstrating both the capabilities of the Mahid horses and the challenge I wish the competitors to undertake.” First Amitzas stirred slightly and Inensa leaned to speak into his ear. Kafiris scribbled madly in his notebook. The Mahid horses were legendary, even somewhat mythical, but no one had seen their training so openly demonstrated in this generation.
Il leapt off Killer smoothly and the horse offered him his head so he could remove the hackmore. “Equus! Crush! Apple!” The box with an apple painted on the side away from Ili and the horse, faced the spectators.
Killer leaped forward, circled the boxes at this end, wheeled and raced for the other end of the ring leaped over a low fence and charged the boxes near the door. The other boxes had other things painted on them, other fruit, human figures, other animals. He reared up and capered over the box with the apple upon it, his rear hooves kicking it squarely into the open away from other boxes. He wheeled, reared and smashed it, as fast as that; then quietly trotted back to Ili, proudly. A rustle of whispers, started all through the crowd. Ili slapped him on the shoulder. “Excellent crush apple!”
He nodded at the cowering horse boy who sat next to the nearest wicker basket, trying to make himself as small as possible. He flipped open the lid and ran for the gate. Behind him, the lid hit the sand and a ten of large black rats boiled out of it. “Get them!”
Killer barely waited for the words and bolted to where the rats scurried to hide, he snatched one where it had climbed a fence, and whipped it around to smash on the ground, stamped on two more, missed the third. He kicked over the box they were trying to hide in and hopped peculiarly when the biggest, the size of a small dog, reared up screeching at him. He flattened it with his front two feet.
He bit the head off a fifth and caught two as they climbed into a pot of flowers, smashed the pot, destroyed the flowers and killed them. Then, almost sneaking, he stepped up to another box, kicked it lightly. The last three rats bolted for the wall and he stamped all three flat in as many steps. He tossed his head and cocked his tail and pranced back to Ili, who gave him a honey drop as the audience craned to see the carnage, murmuring to each other. Sinimas and Kafiris leaned close, commenting to each other. One of the cub reporters looked ill as the smell of freshly burst-open rats wafted through the ring.
He laid his hand on Killer’s shoulder as the horseboys skittered in and removed the broken obstacles and shoveled up dead rat bits. “Equus, calm. Calm, boy. You’re good, you big moron. You did good. Good Equus!” The horse went from carefully watching the stable boys to nosing Ili’s knee, then went back to watching, for all the world like he was critiquing their work.
Ili waited for the gate to be secured again behind the boys before he tapped Killer on the shoulder. “Other end. Canter and slide.”
The horse spun and cantered toward the Emperor’s portrait and slide to a stop before the throne. In the meantime, Ili had stepped over to a set of stairs and hidden himself behind them. “Hide and Seek! Go!” As he shouted go, he ducked low and ran between a statue and an urn, dodged right and froze, hiding behind the statue.
Killer came trotting back to where he’d been, stopped, and looked around, blowing, his head moving back and forth. One step and he sniffed the sawdust. Then he walked around the fence and the statue, head sniffing. He stopped a moment when the breeze blew through but continued around the corner and when he saw Ili, he charged.
Ili rolled out of the way and ran into the obstacles, pursued by the horse, he ducked under rails and around boxes, flung statues down behind himself to slow the horse down. He dodged three or four rushes of the excited stallion, ears and tail flagged. He leaped over a box and crouched, the horse soared over, landed and plunged forward, stopped and turned. Ili stood up flinging both arms in the air, fists clenched. “Found me!”
Didi and Nuni both cheered and the Aitzas youngsters whistled their applause as the obstacles were re-set and Ili climbed up on the box he’d just used. Killer came and laid his nose on his shoulder.
The stable master and his boys brought four more of the Mahid horses out, Nasty, Horrid, Viper and Sting, while one boy helped Ili into a heavy, thickly padded jacket. When the herd was released from their lead-lines they began a slow canter around the outside of the ring, for all the world as if they were a predators, not herbivores.
“Antagonists!” Ili yelled as the boys withdrew and the gate was closed. “Protect!” and sat down on the box. Killer first turned sideways to the box as if to entice Ili to mount him, but Ili played injured, knotting his arms tight around his head, making himself as near a ball as he could and the horse began interposing himself between the herd of ‘attackers’ and his charge.
No one in the audience spoke as the attacking herd split and came around from two sides, Killer squealed and stamped, snapped over Ili’s head to keep Horrid, a young gelding, from getting too close, but while he did, Nasty and Sting snaked their heads under Killer’s neck, nipping, and seized Ili by the jacket, dragging him out of the scrum of other horses. “HELP!”
First Ilesias was on his feet, from his seat. “Coronet!” He was over the rail and into the ring, landing in a crouch on the sawdust dart tube coming up in his hand.
Killer jumped sideways, shoved Nasty aside with his shoulder and grabbed Ili’s jacket, pulling him out of Sting’s teeth – I’m going to have pinch-bruises, you idiots --over towards one of the fences. Ili heard someone gasp as Viper crow-hopped as if to stamp on him. The hooves pounded into the sawdust hard.
“Senior, don't shoot! I’m all right!” He crawled under the bottom rail of the fence, climbed up and flung himself on Killer’s back, still playing wounded. “Don’t stop them!”
Killer twisted where he stood, slid between Nasty and Viper, nearly smashed Horrid back on his hocks and then bolted to where the horse boy frantically waved a finish line flag. “FINISHED! Killer, you saved me! You won! You won!” He fussed over the horse and the other four slouched over to get their rewards for playing. “You will all get your rewards for being such good players,” he said quietly, as he straightened on Killer’s back.
First Ilesias ran over to where he and Killer stood, panting. “Coronet, that was entirely unacceptable! Do you wish to live out the rest of your life in a wheeled chair, or have me explain to the Imperator how you died?”
The boys scurried out to clear the obstacles from the centre of the ring, and set up three upright frames in the sand.
“Senior Mahid. I’m all right.”
“You could have had broken bones, a broken neck! You are forbidden to play that game yourself. If you need, put an okas in the padding, or a dummy!” Killer shoved First Ilesias in the chest with his nose as he scolded and he petted him absently, never taking his eyes off Ili.
“If you do that again, I shall dart the horses unconscious,” First Ilesias snapped.
That got a response. Ili’s face fell. “Don’t punish them!”
“Coronet, your discipline is outside my purview. Theirs is not.”
“I won’t do it again, Senior.” First Ilesias shook his head sharply at him and didn’t wait for the gate to be opened but swung over it and climbed the stairs, going back to his seat, radiating disapproval.
Ili raised his voice to the audience again. “This next bit is going to be their reward for playing with me,” he called. “This is one of the things they love most.”
The stable boys carried out five armoured figures, and hung three from a frame each so they were vaguely man-high, battered shields ringing and banging as they were clipped into place. The audience murmured, shaking heads. Two were flung down like wounded or injured. One had no helm, clearly showing the pig carcass that had been called to this peculiar duty.
“Equus, reverse.” Killer backed till Ili could slide off him, onto the block. He was breathing hard and completely sweat soaked and bruised up. “Equines, shield wall.”
The five Mahid horses moved to face the armoured dummies, shoulder to shoulder, poised, excited and quivering in every sinew. Foam sprang out on their necks and shoulders, and dripped from their lips as they blew, stretching their heads toward the dummies, ears back, giving them the hollow skull, snake-headed look, but they stood.
Ili slid his hands into steel gauntlets and clashed them together. “Nasty! Commander! Kill!”