Girls Horse Club Blog

Fire in the Vale

Published by • Sep 12th, 2009 • Category: 2009 Fiction Competition Winners

1ST PLACE, 12 and Younger Age Groupby Elizabeth Liberty, age 12

The stable yard of the Castle Vale was truly a magnificent place. The heavenly scent of the stalls and pasture drifted through the fresh autumn air. Leather and apples, hay and horses, moss and trees and sun on stone each added their part in the early morning breeze. The dew-covered grass sent up a clean, fresh, green perfume to waft into the noses of the stable-boys, whistling cheerful tunes as they went about their chores.The elaborately jeweled fountain sparkled and splashed, spilling tiny crystal drops of water over its many tiers and into the basin below. Lush grass, shadowed by one enormous tree, covered the ground in all directions. Huge apples nearly the size of coconuts dropped out of the branches, onto the springy turf and onto the seat of a mossy stone bench standing in the cool shade. The fruits were like great rubies with emerald settings. They were the finest to be had in those parts, and the pride of the head gardener.

The courtyard was surrounded by a wall of paneled wood, richly carved with images of flowers and fruits. The rising sun was cheerfully shining through a large archway on the east side. The wall was broken periodically by thirty-two Dutch doors, with the top halves open to the sunrise, and out of each and every door peeked a finely modeled head, ears pricked and nostrils flaring.

It was feeding time. A loud voice suddenly broke through the tranquil air. “You – you – you filthy little ruffian! Get out of my stables!”

A ragged, dirty youth of twelve darted out from behind the thick trunk of the apple tree and into the nearest stall, cradling something in his dark-brown hands. Heedlessly brushing by the horse that stood in his way, he shut the door behind him, plopped down in a corner, and covered himself with straw. He tried to polish the stolen apple on his stained and greasy shirt.

Running footsteps sounded outside, and the stall door creaked open. The boy cringed, hardly daring to breathe. Yells, curses, and clouts stuck all too well in his mind, their imprint left by his other sources of food. The door slammed shut, and the waif breathed a sigh of relief. His first bite of fruit resulted in a silent smile of bliss. His sky-blue eyes slowly drifted shut in appreciation. It never occurred to him to find a safer place to eat his spoil.

A rustle of straw in the stall made the boy freeze. His eyes snapped open, to gaze on the most beautiful filly he had ever seen. Her creamy, peach colored skin was set off by a jet-black mane, rippling down to nearly reach her knees. The tail was the same glossy color, high set and long. Striking, sorrowful brown eyes stared out from beneath the sable forelock, and the breath from her distended nostrils blew softly on the boy’s tousled hair.

The apple dropped from his hand, and rolled away on the floor.

* * * * * * * * * * *

A few years earlier, in the brightly lighted castle dining hall, the king had straightened in his chair, cleared his throat and made an announcement after the royal family was seated. The young princess Eirwyn, her older brother Artan, and their mother were shocked at what they heard.

“Your Aunt Venna, my own sister and my late mother’s last child, bless her soul,” he paused and bowed his head. “…your Aunt Venna is coming here to spend a month with us, maybe more, if all conditions are favorable.” The king looked uncomfortably at his family, who had frozen in their chairs. There was absolute stillness in the room. The sound that finally broke the silence was the sound of Artan’s knife clattering to the stone floor.

“But . . . but isn’t she a – ”

“Artan, not at the table.”

Queen Ginevra’s brown eyes flashed as she glared reproachfully at her son.

King Walter shifted awkwardly in his chair.

“I’m sorry to bring this on everyone, but I haven’t seen my sister for more than ten years. Everyone will certainly have to stay away from her room, and not touch her – luggage.”

It was Ginevra’s turn to look uncomfortable.

Artan turned to grin at his sister, but she wasn’t looking at him. Princess Eirwyn was still staring open-mouthed at her father’s face, watching his long white beard wag back and forth. She had never seen her aunt, but from the sound of things, it wasn’t going to be pretty.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The beautiful horse flung up her head, inhaling deeply. She must forget the intruder in her stall for now. Something was wrong. She went back to her window, leaving the boy to his apple. She had been right. Although the stable seemed to be the same sedate, orderly place, the other horses sensed it too. A strange smell filled the air, and the head groom, their supper, and the stable boys were nowhere to be seen.

A gray mist began to drift lazily out of the adjacent hay barn. So that was it! Fire! Where was the head groom to notice and help? In truth, he was lying in the hay, with an overturned bottle, a pipe, and a smoldering match lying by his side, sleeping soundly enough to be dead. The boy and his stolen apple were safe, but the horses were not.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The princess lay sprawled on her bed, with her blue-black hair arrayed over her shoulders. Her bright green, form-fitting dress sparkled and glistened in the light of the rising sun shining through the window. She was sketching rapidly on a paper with a blue drawing pencil. The head of a horse began to form, and then the body and legs. It was jumping over a flaming obstacle, its mane and tail flying in the breeze.

Suddenly, the steps of a cleaning maid sounded outside the door. Sitting up and looking rather alarmed, Eirwyn resorted to her simple bit of magic. She clutched the picture and whispered three words in the magic language: “Aya, Odir, Ven!”As the white-clad woman entered, carrying a laundry basket and a duster, the princess and her picture disappeared. The maid approached the bed to change the sheets, and with a gasp, Eirwyn forgot all her teaching and snatched the blue pencil off the thick quilt.

Watching the pencil vanish into thin air, the maid shook her head and sighed. The princess was a bit too timid for her own good. Prince Artan was always taking advantage of her, and had gotten her into trouble more than once with his wild dares. Muttering a few words of the magic tongue, the maid set the duster in motion while stripping the bed. Everyone was born with a bit o’ magic – hers was cleaning. The princess could fade in and out of sight at will. She was glad that the King had chosen her to work in the palace, out of all the peasant girls in the town of Vale and the surrounding countryside. With a smile, she left the shy princess to her drawing, called the duster back, and went to wash the sheets.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The air was hot and heavy with the fear-laden odor of smoke. A fog was drifting in frightful volumes out of the high window, joining the thunderclouds in the rapidly darkening sky. An orange light flickered in the hayloft, and the air in the stables grew unbearably hot. The horses were uneasy, kicking and neighing frantically in spurts of chaotic noise. The creamy filly was the most worried of all. She knew that before, she could have helped. She could have told someone, or gotten the horses out! Now, she couldn’t even open the stall door. Where were the grooms, the soldiers, the servants?

Then horror struck her, and understanding. Music floated out of the great hall, mingled with voices and laughter. The King of Vale was celebrating the anniversary of princess Eirwyn’s eleventh birthday. The King had held these feasts in memory of his daughter, after she disappeared three years past. How ironic. She could remember one of these parties very well, so long ago . . .

No time for memories. She must go to the only person who could save them now.

* * * * * * * * * * *

“Am not!”

“Are too!”

“Am not!”

“Are too. You’re a puny chicken! Bwak! Bwak!”

“Shhhh! She’ll hear you!”

Eirwyn put a finger to Artan’s lips, and motioned to the wooden door in front of them.

“From what I saw when she arrived, you want to stay on the good side of Aunt Venna. I’m glad she’s leaving tomorrow.”

“I’d say! She looked like a witch!”

“Artan! She’ll turn you into goodness knows what if she heard you! She’s probably on her way up right now, reciting her bumpiest toad spell!” Eirwyn suppressed a shiver.

“You’re avoiding my point.” Artan crossed his arms and sulked.

“I am not!”

“Are too!”

“Listen. I’m not taking another dare from you. They always end up getting me into trouble.”

“Just one more. Before she leaves. The last dare.”

“The worst one! Oh Artan, you’re hopeless.”

“You’ll do it then?” Artan wore a look of devilish glee. “For real?”

“If you’ll stop bullying me afterwards, yes. What do I have to do?”

* * * * * * * * * * *

The filly pulled on the boy’s tattered shirt. Misunderstanding her gesture, he tried to feed her the apple core. In frustration, she nipped a little harder than she meant to, and he shrank back into his little straw nest. She gently drew him out again, and led him to the window. He gulped in fear.

The entire loft was now in flames.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Eirwyn slowly descended the dark steps, shaking in fear. The stairs seemed to go on forever… to keep from fainting of fright, she reviewed the plan. She had to use her magic to disappear, then she would take a leaf off of one of the many plants in the room, placed there for use in Venna’s secret spells. Then she would return the leaf to Artan. So simple. So easy. So scary. Once more whispering the three words that made her transparent, she came within sight of the bottom of the staircase.

An eerie light greeted her. Now green, now orange, now red, constantly changing hue and shade dazzled her. She came to the doorway and peeked in.

Jars and pots filled the shelves, along with thick books holding a lifetime of evil knowledge. Plants of every kind crowded for space, sickly looking plants that seemed to gasp for sunlight and fresh air. In the middle of the shadowy room was the light source. A huge crystal globe, filled with what looked like enormous bubbles, dancing and frothing and popping against the walls. Venna herself stood there, dressed in a flowing red dress and a red cape with curling designs embroidered on it in silver thread. Her shimmering hair cascaded down her back. She was facing the princess who was for the moment petrified, and even though her eyes were closed, Eirwyn felt dreadfully exposed. Venna’s crimson lips moved silently, reciting an incantation over the glass ball. Eirwyn timidly moved into the room. As soon as the princess’ invisible foot touched the floor, Venna’s eyes snapped open. With an ominous smile, she voiced a spell in the magic language. With a cold shock, Eirwyn translated it:

“Let everything hidden be seen.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

The flames licked at the branches of the apple tree. The stable yard was lit up with the flames, and the lightning that suddenly seared the sky above. Though born in captivity, each of the horses had an instinctive fear of fire, and for a good reason. Fire is the only thing not mentioned in the ancient spells containing the boundaries of magic. The maker and breaker of all enchantments, it is sworn by and feared by all who understand it. The disastrous force crawled closer to the stable, as deafening thunder rolled. The boy undid the door latch with trembling fingers. He must get the horses out of this deadly place!

* * * * * * * * * * *

Eirwyn scrambled frantically in her mind, trying to scrape her wits together enough to say her spell and get out of this creepy place. There was a wall in her head, and behind it was a finger, probing and poking and testing. She struggled to make it go away, but Venna’s magic was too strong. She heard a cold mental voice asking pointed questions, but she was unable to answer. The princess stood as if in a trance, staring fixedly and helplessly into her aunt’s eyes, while inside a desperate battle raged. Finally all of her innermost thoughts were laid bare…. except one.

‘My horse picture.’ She would not let Venna see that thought. ‘It’s too private. Too sacred.’

Eirwyn guarded that image with all the rest of her strength, but it was not enough. With a final push, Venna’s magic broke through the frail defense and stormed in, filling Eirwyn’s thoughts to overflowing with malice and hatred. Still bearing the crushing weight of the enchantress’ gaze, she realized that she was in deep, deep trouble. She mentally translated the spell Venna was chanting.

“The last image that your mind hid from me,

shaped into that form your body shall be.

No counter, no cure, only Fire can break,

this spell which Venna of the Vale doth now make!”

Eirwyn closed her eyes against a blinding flash of light. The power that emanated from Venna was terrifying. A numbing force buffeted the girl, finally freeing her from the heavy restraint. She instantly collapsed to the cold stone floor and knew no more.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The roof was on fire.

All the horses were panicking, and screams filled the air. The creamy filly was leading a group of the more sensible horses into the neighboring pasture, and the boy was rushing to and fro, opening doors, leading horses out, and shouting, “Help! Help!”

The only horses still in the stable were the horses on either side of the elaborate archway, the ones furthest from the fire. As soon as all the calmer ones were in the pasture, the filly galloped back to get the others. As she galloped through it, the arch caught the flames from the roof and quickly became a ring of fire, dropping hot cinders and ashes onto her back. It was like one of those unbearable dreams where you know you must move faster, but you cannot.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Now let us return to the princess Eirwyn – but a princess no longer.

Where was she?

What was she?

Eirwyn stiffly stretched, then lifted her head. It was awfully heavy…

A fly buzzed around her and settled on her leg. She moved her hand to brush it off – and there was a hoof! A cold fear seized her, and for the first time she noticed where she was lying.

On a bed of straw.

In a stall.

In the stables!

Eirwyn scrambled up and out of the open door. The other horses were contentedly grazing, but Eirwyn strode over to look at her reflection in the fountain’s basin. There was a horse staring up at her from the water. Its face wore a look of bewilderment. Even in her fear, Eirwyn couldn’t help noticing that she’s never seen a horse THAT color before. ‘It must be a flaw in the enchantment,’ she thought, shaking her ebony mane in frustration. Then, for the first time, she heard the voices.

Human voices.

“Eirwyn! Where are you? Eirwyn! Princess Eirwyn!”

“I’m here!” she cried joyfully, but it came out as a long neigh. “In the stables! Help!!” she tried again. No. It was no use. The voices were dying away. Her continued attempts at speech only set all the other horses in the stable yard to neighing. Heartbroken, Eirwyn went back to the stall.

Her stall.

* * * * * * * * * * *

The flames had spread to the roof opposite the hayloft, the square stable yard had become a courtyard of terror. The still-trapped horses were screaming in fear. The blaze crackled gleefully. The thunder and lightning had joined forces in the sky, and the humans, who had FINALLY realized that something was dreadfully wrong, were rushing to the stable to try and help. It was too late. No one save a horse could jump across the fire in the archway and expect not to land dead on the other side. The poor boy was still in the yard, and had been so busy helping the horses that he had taken no thought for himself. Now it was hopeless. The boy was trapped. Or was he? With an enormous jump, Eirwyn (for that was of course who the filly was) cleared the white-hot wall and galloped toward the human, who was still fumbling with the latch of the second-to-last stall. Eirwyn pushed him aside and grabbed the lock, sliding it aside to open the door as she did so. The metal handle burned her fingers – wait! Fingers? Eirwyn had no time to think, for the terrified horse in the stall was rushing out. She just had time to get out of the way before his sweaty body brushed by.

The boy turned to her, desperation in his eyes. He grabbed hold of her mane, and as he swung up, she ran across the smoking stable yard to the only stall left. She kicked at the door, and it splintered. A bay mare and her foal cowered in the corner. Eirwyn trotted through the doorway and herded them out. Gathering the other horse, which was running in circles around the withering apple tree, they fled to the only escape.

The burning arch.

Time slowed to a crawl.

The beat of hooves pounded in rhythm to Eirwyn’s heart. Da-da dum. Da-da dum. Da-da dum. Her mane whipped in the rising wind. In all her long years as a horse she had never been happier.

They reached the arch. Gathering the last of their scattered strength, the horses jumped over the searing flames. Eirwyn felt the boy on her back duck, out of reach of the grasping tongues of death. The foal screamed as the fire licked her belly.

As she flew through the opening, Eirwyn felt her body change. It grew smaller, and softer, and familiar. As her front legs hit the ground, they became arms. Her tail vanished, and her hair flowed back into its normal place on top of her round head. Then, as they landed, a rumble shook the ground. The archway, the stable roof, and the hayloft collapsed and disappeared. Eirwyn stumbled in her headlong dash, and SMACK! Her head hit the ground and darkness closed in.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Eirwyn was only out for a few seconds. As she groggily came to, she realized that the boy was still on top of her. She scrambled to her knees and yelled at him, “Get off me, you oaf!” Then, with a gasp, she clapped her hand over her mouth. She glanced over and saw that he was just as astonished as she. Wouldn’t you be surprised, if the horse you were riding suddenly turned into a beautiful girl who yelled at you and called you an oaf?

Eirwyn looked down at herself. She was still dressed in her royal robes. She was still Eirwyn of the Vale, though a little older. She was herself again. Human. Then she remembered the stable – and the horses. She turned, and realized that she was in a ring of stupefied soldiers, grooms, and servants. She hurriedly pushed through them and saw the stable. There was no help for it now. The tree looked like a gigantic torch in the evening light, and the entire structure was quickly surrendering to the flames.

Next to the pasture gate the horses were crowding along the fence, with very confused looks on their faces. Eirwyn collapsed to her knees and began to cry. At the sound, the bay mare and her foal trotted up. The mare nuzzled the princess’ face, and the foal gently helped the girl to her feet. Eirwyn rested her forehead against the mare’s warm shoulder and wept harder, her tears mixing with the cold rain which began to pour from the dark sky. As Eirwyn slowly regained her composure, she stood tall, facing the disaster with courage. Even though the stable had been one of her favorite places in the castle, there would be another. She would make sure of that.

She turned to the people standing around her. “Take me to my father.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

The grubby boy kicked dejectedly at the charred timbers in the foggy dawn light. It was awful to see such a splendid place reduced to rubble in only a few hours, but especially the apple tree. He looked up. All that was left was a seared trunk, the smaller branches were gone, the few leaves left were dead, and the apples had completely vanished. He sat on the blackened stone seat under the tree and put his head in his hands. Where would he go now? Back home to his sisters in Vale, but then what? He hadn’t brought home a bundle of money like he’d told them he would, that was certain. He felt a gentle touch on his shoulder. Startled, he turned to see Eirwyn standing there behind him and he hastily stood up and took off his cap.

“M-my-lady,” he stuttered.

“Oh, quit it.” the princess looked cross. “I think I would rather have stayed a horse. Sit down.”

Taken aback, the boy plopped down on the bench without another word. Eirwyn slid in next to him.

“I never got your name.”

“My name is Conrad,” he faltered, not quite sure how to act now that she was a lady and not a horse.

“Where are you going now, Conrad?”

“Back home to my sisters in Vale, I suppose,”

“Would you like to take anything with you? Money, horses, jewels?”

“Oh no, Miss. You’ve done enough already.”

“I’ve done nothing!”

His mother always told him to be polite and ask for something if ladies of distinction made this exclamation, in case he should meet any. However, here he missed his mark and nearly made the princess cry.

“If I could have anything, it would be one of them gorgeous apples, which is what I come for in the first place, beggin’ your pardon, Miss,”

“Yes,” Eirwyn whispered softly. “They were lovely.”

A tear ran down her cheek, and her voice quivered.

Conrad leaned his head against the tree, kicking himself. ‘You clumsy fool! You’re just what she called you: an oaf!’

Opening his eyes, he began to apologize, but the words stuck in his throat. Looking up into the burned branches, his sharp eyes spied a patch of green, and a tiny flash of red. He gasped. Without waiting to explain, he jumped up onto the back of the seat, and then into the arms of the tree. Swiftly, he climbed to the spot and tucked two objects in his pocket. Then he scrambled down and dropped two bright apples into Eirwyn’s lap. She gave a cry of delight, and picked up the fruit to inspect it.

Aside from a few scrapes, the apples were intact, glowing with health and potential. Eirwyn gingerly held one of them out to Conrad, and Conrad took it in trembling hands. “Th-thank you Miss!”

“Plant it in your garden, and think of me when you eat from it.” Eirwyn smiled gratefully up at him.

“Thank you,” she said, “and farewell.”

“Farewell!” Conrad clumsily tucked the apple into his shirt pocket, and strode away. He looked back only once. In that glance, he saw the Princess Eirwyn stooping over the earth beside the tree, burying something in the wet ashes.

THE END

6 Nickers »

  1. one word: GENIUS!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. This is a really good story! WOW!

  3. I really like it! Especially when the princess turned into a horse and then turned back into a princess–that part was cool.

  4. I LOVED IT!!!!! WOW!!!!

  5. Thanks so much! This is WONDERFUL!!!!

  6. I’m wondering, Leadmare, judges, or anyone who reads this, what color did you think Venna’s hair was? I deliberately left that fact hanging because I couldn’t decide what color to make it!