The horse in the mirror, p.1
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       The Horse In The Mirror, p.1

           Lisa Maxwell
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The Horse In The Mirror
The Horse In The Mirror

  Lisa Maxwell

  Published by Lisa Maxwell

  Copyright 2014 Lisa Maxwell

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Table of Contents

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  About the Author

  Other works by Lisa Maxwell

  Sample Chapters from The Horse Who Walked Through Time

  Chapter 1

  Yesterday Is had been able to handle the stallion with just a rope attached to the ring of his halter. Today she would need to use a chain wrapped around his sensitive nose in such a way that it would cause some discomfort if the horse pulled against her. By tomorrow pain would not subdue the horse. It would enrage him.

  Is watched the horse circle his stall impatiently as she prepared his feed. Suddenly he snaked his neck out, raking the wall with his teeth for no apparent reason. A grim little smile stretched Is's lips. Today she would pour the feed through the slot. Yesterday she had walked into his stall carrying the feed and the horse had nuzzled her while she scratched his neck. But no more. From here on her life depended on how well she read the horse. He could kill her if she made a mistake.

  While Is poured the grain the stallion attacked. Charging across the stall, he hit the iron bars in front of her face with enough force to rattle them. Is jerked back. Those teeth would not rip like canines; they would bruise and crush. The horse was not really biting; he was punching, and a punch like he'd delivered to the bars would knock her to the ground where his hooves could kill her.

  Unable to reach her, the stallion attacked his grain. His hooves hit the wall as he lashed out savagely with both hind legs. Is had seen the work other war horses' hooves had done to those specially reinforced walls. She would probably have to replace the inside boards after this horse left too.

  Sadness threatened to overwhelm her. She had trained this horse since he was two years old, forming a deep bond with him. She had always known this day would come, but her heart had never believed it. She had loved him. But she must not give in to sadness now. Impatiently she pushed a strand of her shoulder length dark brown hair behind her ear. She was slight-built and wiry, her motions efficient and smooth. Her work with the horses left not an ounce of fat on her. Living alone as she did she was negligent of how she looked, wearing heavy-duty jeans that were none too clean and a faded blue jacket that had seen better days. In spite of that she was pretty, with brown eyes that were ever-so-slightly slanted and clear skin that was always tanned.

  She would have three days, at most, she decided, watching the horse. Then the berserker would arrive. She had trained the horse to be a weapon, while others had trained a man. When horse and man met, it would be as though she no longer existed. Even now the bond Is had with the stallion was weakening. By tomorrow he would be a weapon without a master. The next day he would meet the man who was genetically engineered to be his master. They would have a bond, instantly, that would overshadow the one Is had worked to develop since the horse had been a gangly-legged colt. The tie between horse and berserker was designed into their genes. Is had forged hers with hard work, patience and talent. It had served its purpose and now it was time to let go she told herself sternly.

  She felt the sadness that always wanted to overwhelm her when one of her horses was taken, but she put it away harshly. From here on there would be no time for emotion. Her life would be on the line every moment she was with this stallion. The day the berserker arrived to claim the horse would be the worst. Considerable tact was required to get a man, who was nearly as dangerous to her as the horse would have become by then, mounted on that horse and on their way.

  Still Is lingered, watched the stallion eating. His neck arched as he bit into the grain as though it were an enemy. His blood-bay coat, that she had spent so many hours grooming, rippled over well-developed muscles. His eye, which had looked so intelligent and kind yesterday, was hard and cold today. He struck the bars again. Wet grain splattered from his mouth unheeded.

  Is turned away. She had the rest of the horses to feed. Along with the bay stallion, she was training three younger horses. As each one matured, a berserker would come to take it. Is was not allowed to name any of the horses; she was supposed to remember they were not hers to keep. Yet the only time she remembered that was when a berserker was coming. So today while she fed "her" horses she felt the loss of all of them although only the blood-bay was leaving.

  She took time over her own breakfast. Sitting on the porch of her small house she could overlook the paddocks where the three younger horses grazed. Behind them the mountains rose in a jagged wall, green and gold and brown. She loved living here, with just her horses for company, at this final outpost before the range of mountains they called the Boundary.

  When Is returned to the barn the bay was more subdued. He came over to see her, ears pricked and eyes interested. She felt the old bond that united them. This morning would be the last time, but she shoved that thought aside. It would only lead to sadness and inattention that could get her killed.

  She was careful, reaching between the bars and snapping the lead to the horse's halter before she rolled the door open. His ears flicked back at the sound and his eyes turned hard. Quickly Is gave the lead a jerk. "Stand."

  As he stood, ears in neutral, eyes on her, Is breathed a sigh of relief. His training was still good this morning. No, she corrected herself. His training was still good for that moment. It could change anytime, or from moment to moment. Anything could set him off. She had not lived this long by being sloppy, but she had not stayed in this line of work by being overcautious either.

  She kept well to the side as the stallion came through the door, never presenting herself as a target. His massive shoulders towered over her as she walked beside him.

  In the aisle Is cross-tied him with a rope snapped to either side of his halter so he could not turn his head far enough to bite her. He would not allow her to groom him, twitching his skin, pinning his ears back, and stamping his hooves. He was a good seventeen hands tall, with legs like pillars and hooves the size of dinner plates. Is put the brushes away and brought out the saddle. The stallion stood like a rock while she tightened the girth. He put his head down, yawning his mouth wide to accept the bit like some kid's pony, but his head alone was as big as her torso.

  Before leading him from the barn, Is snapped a long canvas line to his bridle. She would exercise him around her in a circle on the lunge line before mounting. This would let him warm up his muscles and get rid of some of his freshness. She had another reason too. She wanted to see him one last time proud and athletic at the very peak of his power. By tomorrow it would no longer be safe to work him this way. He would attack her if he saw her on the ground. No voice commands or show of force would stop him.

  He moved off on a circle around her, trotting with his wonderful swi
nging gait. His dark red-bay coat gleamed over fluidly moving muscles. He tossed his head now and then with good spirits. Despite his size, he seemed to float over the ground. His black mane lifting from his neck caught the breeze with each stride. His black tail arched from his beautifully muscled rump like a proud flag, the end of it swaying softly in the tempo of his trot. Behind him the autumn-colored ridges and the more distant snowcapped giants of the Boundary formed a backdrop of breathtaking beauty. Is absorbed the beauty, letting it soak into her very pores. She felt her connection to this horse, this moment, this place.

  She made an almost imperceptible motion and the stallion bounded into the canter. Now he snorted rhythmically in time with his strides. The soft wuffling of his nostrils, the soft landing of his hooves was like music completing the moment.

  Is would never tire of watching and he seemed to delight in his own movement. Sadness threatened her again but she drove it away. She would not lose these precious moments to outside thoughts.

  She called him down to a halt. One moment he was bounding, the next he was standing as still as though he had been there all day.

  He allowed her to approach and remove the lunge line, but he showed an edge of impatience and Is knew better than to take too long or try to fraternize with him. Today he was the king, allowing her to mount because it suited his purposes. This day she would not delude herself into believing otherwise.

  He moved off before she signaled him but she did not dare stop him. His neck reached before her and his body was a coiled spring under her. Her heart surged with a sudden wild joy at the feel of his incredible power beneath her and she was aware that she controlled that power only because he allowed it. If she came against his will too much she would find out just how puny her human strength was against his. He could bolt and she would never be able to stop him. He could easily throw her from his back. All the years of training she had put into him were nothing to him today. He allowed her presence because it made him happy to do so.

  She had barely to think she would like to canter and he was off, bounding high and light into a slow gallop. Is's heart soared with his strides. She merely had to think what she wanted and he did it as though she was the mind and he the body. They went through all the preparatory exercises as if playing - trotting in place, turns on one spot at the canter, flying changes of lead. But this was a horse of war and these were only the preliminary exercises Is had taught him to get him ready for his real training. Now she asked him for those movements, the movements of war - rearing, leaping forward, leaping into the air, and lashing out with his hind hooves - movements of death.

  For the first time the stallion's whole heart was in these exercises. Before, he had done them out of obedience to her. Today he seemed to understand them. Today he leapt higher, kicked harder.

  Sadness struck Is like one of the horse's hooves. He was what he had been bred to be, and what she had trained him to be. He was ready. She had done her job well, but deep in her heart she knew it was wrong.

  Horses were not meant for war. Even these magnificently bred stallions would only fight because of the link they had with their berserkers. Oh, two stallions might fight, but rarely to the death and not with this kind of preparation and premeditation.

  Is quieted the stallion to a walk and when he saw they were done for the day, he relaxed, stretching his neck and striding forward. He could have been a lady's hack for all his seeming gentleness now but Is knew what lay just beneath the surface. She reminded herself of the necessity of training her stallions to this peak. Without the berserkers to drive them back, the Blueskins would come out of the Boundary and attack the farmers. Blueskins had killed her parents.

  After their deaths Is had wished that the Alliance could send a bunch of berserkers to kill all the Blueskins. But without the Blueskins to keep them in check other terrible "things" would come out of the Boundary, killing the farmers, destroying the land, and disrupting the whole chain that allowed all the people in all the cities to exist. And so an uneasy truce had been reached. The berserkers went into the Boundary singly and engaged the Blueskins’ best warriors in battle and if the berserkers exhibited enough of the qualities that the Blueskins prized, including showing no fear of death, then the Blueskins honored the truce another season.

  When the horse was cool Is groomed him and he leaned into her currying, enjoying the massage. She spent extra time stroking his glistening coat with soft brushes and soft cloths. She could see the reflection of her own colors, her hair as dark as a shadow hidden in the rich red/brown of his coat, the oval shape of her face erased by each brush stroke and returned again as the brush passed. She could have groomed him forever, holding both of them thoughtless in the euphoria of their ride. But she had to return him to his stall before his mood changed.

  She spent the rest of the day grooming the other horses; she had no heart for working them today. The two-year-old colt was frisky and pushy in the cool autumn weather, his honey-colored coat flashing in the sun. He tossed his neck while she curried him, grabbing at anything that came near his mouth. Today it was beyond her to chastise him.

  The four-year-old was more disciplined and easier to groom. Even though Is had always given him as much love and attention as the others, he seemed to have little use for her, remaining aloof and disdainful of her ministrations. She ran her fingers through his chestnut mane losing her hand in his thick red hair, losing her thoughts in the mindless stroking of her fingers through his mane.

  She left the six-year-old for last. Whenever she glanced at him in his paddock, he was watching her with dark intelligent eyes. When the bay stallion was gone, Is would concentrate her training on him.

  His liver chestnut coat was the color of rich soil and it shone with the warm sheen of polished leather. For a while Is lost herself in grooming him. He was the most docile stallion she had ever handled and she had trouble imagining him as a fully trained war horse viciously attacking anything that came near him. But he would. It was programmed into his brain, to be triggered when he was fully mature and his berserker came. You have no choice, she told him silently. Just like me.

  She didn't dare give in to the sadness she felt. The questions she had begun to ask were more insistent now, demanding she look at them. But she could not. Not now. The next two days she had to survive.

  She heard the bay kicking during the night and incorporated the sounds into her dreams where horse after horse left her care to be killed. Some were galloped to death by their berserkers. Some were slain by weapons their hooves and teeth could not match. Some were betrayed by their riders. All were betrayed by her.

  She awoke before dawn feeling as though she had received the kicking of the horse's hooves. She lay until light came, listening to the horse attacking his stall.

  He charged the bars when she came to feed him and she did not stay to assess his temper but went back to her house and ate her own breakfast slowly, keeping her thoughts on how to exercise the horse. At this point she was always tempted to leave them in their stalls. But she couldn't. The way the stallion was acting he would damage himself in there. She could not explain to a berserker that there was no horse to carry him. The horse had to be ready.

  He tried to take her arm off when she reached between the bars to snap a lead on his halter. She snubbed him to the bars with one lead and got another one on the other side of his halter, effectively cross-tying him in the stall.

  When she rolled the door back he reared and struck out with his deadly iron-shod hooves. Is didn't even try to groom him. She held the saddle out before her so he could see that it was the one she used for galloping him. He tossed his head, ears still pinned against his neck, but he did not rear again. She moved into his stall, slowly, but not too slowly. If he sensed fear, he would attack her. She had to keep her mind on the immediate moment, every movement.

  He allowed her to swing the saddle onto his back. The girth fell twisted and she had to reach farther under his belly than she liked to straigh
ten it, but he stood. Today she put the bridle on over his halter so she didn’t have to untie him until she had the bit in his mouth.

  The moment of truth came when she unsnapped him. She undid the far side quietly with no fuss so he wouldn't take notice. Then she slid outside the stall, around the corner of the door, before unsnapping the near side. He came forward immediately. If she had been in front of him he might have attacked. She let his head and neck pass her as he came through the door. Walking at his shoulder she reached up and took the reins and some mane in her left hand, and as they approached the end of the aisle she grabbed the saddle with her right hand and jumped up. He was too tall for her to vault cleanly onto his back. She had to settle for jumping high enough to put her left foot in the stirrup and then swing over. He accepted this because they had practiced this routine in preparation for today. She never allowed herself to miss that jump.

  He broke into a trot as soon as they were through the door and Is didn't try to restrain him. If he had been on the edge of unmanageable yesterday, today he was well past any point at which she could control him. In a moment he was off in the canter and in a few strides he had extended into a gallop. Is gave him the signal to slow, which he ignored, so she crouched over his neck like a jockey and let him run. He allowed her to suggest the direction and she steered him into flat bottomland along the river. She had galloped him here frequently to condition him but this was different. Today Is had no power over him. . He ran as she had never allowed him to run before. In spite of all her years of galloping horses her heart surged with adrenaline. She had no command of his speed; his strength was unbelievable. Then suddenly she broke through her fear, enjoying herself with a fierce kind of joy that erased everything else.

  She had to let him run enough so he would be ready to let her stop him, but not so much that he would exhaust his best energy for tomorrow. She wanted to slow him to a walk long enough to arrive at the barn cooled out, but not walk so long that he might become uncontrollable again.

  Is rode him right into the barn before slipping from his back. He was relaxed and happy after the gallop, giving her a few minutes to untack him. But there was no grooming today. He had to be back in his stall before his mood swung.

  Today she did not even want to handle the other horses. Grief about losing her bay horse and fear about the berserker’s arrival warred within her. It took all her control to keep from giving in to either. Today she would do all the chores she had saved – repairing paddock fencing, digging out the run-off ditch, patching her roof. Tasks that she usually hated and would put off in favor of playing with her horses were what she needed to get through this day.

  When she let the other horses out into their paddocks, the two younger horses immediately moved off to graze. The liver-chestnut stayed, watching her expectantly with his wide-set expressive eyes until she went to stroke him. She leaned against him and without warning began to cry. She had never done that before, never, and it felt awful but she could not stop. She had no choice but to hang onto his neck while she shivered and sobbed.

  Afterward she was mad at herself. She understood the necessity for berserkers as well as anyone. Without them, innocent people would die the way her mother and father had died. It was better to sacrifice a few specially trained men and a few horses than to allow the slaughter of innocent people.

  From time to time, as she went through the mending and repairing that she'd saved for this day, she heard the bay kick. Already he was no longer her beloved companion. He wanted only to fight and he would get that wish. There was no point in mourning him. . She told herself that repeatedly.

  That night she slept lightly, waking each time the stallion's hooves hit the walls. She could almost track the berserker's progress by the restlessness of the stallion.

  By three a.m. she was too nervous to stay in bed any more. She got up and began to disguise herself for the berserker. A tight undershirt effectively bound her breasts. The heavy work shirt that went on over that was baggy and sexless and hid how slight her frame was. She twisted her dark hair into a knot on top of her head and pulled a floppy-brimmed hat low over her eyes. Heavyweight jeans, lace-up men's boots and a man's thick leather jacket finished the disguise. She looked as much like a man, or at least a boy, as it was possible to make her slender body look. There was no way to make the delicate features of her face appear masculine. There was no help for her voice either. She would simply not speak. Her best hope was to get the berserker off the horse he would be riding and onto the stallion and away as quickly as possible. Usually that was exactly what the berserkers wanted too. Her mind was filled with images of other berserkers she had handled and all the things that could go wrong.

  He came just after dawn. Is was alerted by the bay's whinny and went out to watch the man approach. The horse he rode came forward at a shambling trot, his once proud head low to the ground, his toes dragging lines of dust up from the unpaved road. He was too spent even to answer the bay's challenge, trumpeted repeatedly and interspersed with the crashes of his hooves hitting the walls.

  Is ignored the bay and watched the berserker. He spotted her standing on the porch of her house and kicked his horse toward her.

  The poor beast picked up his head and broke into a canter, unable to disregard a command from his rider. He stumbled to an exhausted halt in front of her house. Is clamped harsh control on her feelings and looked directly into the rider’s face. His eyes were glazed over and unreadable in some way that made her shudder inside. He was further gone into his trance than most who arrived here.

  He stepped down from the saddle and stood staring at her. He was at least seven feet tall, with width to match his height. The tight-fitting riding breeches he wore revealed his powerful thighs. A light mail vest exposed his bare arms bulging with well-developed muscles. His face would have been handsome except for those eyes. They stared fixedly at something Is couldn't see.

  Had he been any other person she might have assumed he was in a state of exhaustion. With a berserker it was never safe to assume anything. The blood that coursed through his veins was highly augmented with hormones to forestall fatigue, pain, and fear, and strongly laced with chemicals that could be instantly tripped into rage or lust.

  He looked even bigger as Is came down off the porch. He was standing on his horse's left, so Is went to the animal's right side, took the reins and started for the barn. Usually this worked.

  Sometimes the horses refused to follow her. Even as close to death as this one appeared, if his rider got mad, the horse might well attack her. Although he was a galloping horse, not a war horse, he was linked to the berserker's brain in the same way and easily had the strength and size to knock her to the ground and trample her.

  But this horse followed quietly as she led him toward a stall at the far end of the barn away from the bay's. The bay stopped his challenging when he could see the other horse. He pressed his nostrils against the bars, sniffing deeply, bowing his neck and making a rumbling sound in his throat. The horse Is was leading didn't respond. The berserker did.

  He went past her, slamming her against his old horse. The horse staggered, went to his knees, and stayed there swaying as though trying to decide whether to get up or just go ahead and fall down.

  Is overrode her feelings for the horse. If he went down, she might not be able to get the berserker's saddle off him. Quickly, while the horse was still on his knees, she undid the girth and pulled the saddle from his back. As though that gave him more will he tried to rise, but faltered, careened against the wall, scrambled a few more steps on his knees, and then somehow found his footing and stood, legs wide, head low, nostrils flared, and sides heaving.

  The berserker paid him no attention. He stopped in front of the bay's stall. The stallion had quieted and was standing with ears pricked looking at the man. If only the berserker wouldn’t open the door, or do something else stupid, Is might have a minute to deal with this poor horse.

  The horse's head hung at
her knees, his eyes sunken with dehydration. His coat had been soaked with sweat and had dried into a crusty mat. He was beginning to wobble on his widely placed legs. Not wanting him to go down in the aisle, Is gave the reins a tug. She was afraid to speak a word of command to the horse because the berserker would hear and know she was a woman.

  The poor horse lifted its tired head and staggered after her into the stall she had prepared for him. The clean straw rustled loudly as the horse dropped to his knees. Quickly Is slipped his bridle from his head. She always tried to do this before they went down. It was her way of telling the horse he had accomplished his mission, and it was the final praise this horse would get. His hind legs buckled and he fell heavily on his side.

  Is had to step over his legs to get to the door. She was careful. Sometimes the horses went into convulsions.

  At the door she looked back. The horse looked so huge lying flat out, like an already bloated corpse. His flanks heaved with the effort of breathing. Mud was caked on his legs and under his belly. A thick layer of white chalky sweat had dried between his hind legs.

  He was finer of bone than her bay, more of a galloper, while the bay with his heavier legs and bigger hooves was designed for the rigors of rearing and kicking. Is could imagine the horse that was lying before her standing, sleek and full of himself, his chestnut coat gleaming the way the trainer must have kept it before the berserker came. She could almost see him raise his head, his eyes intelligent and trusting instead of the way they were now, half-open and staring. She turned away before the questions could come, but her body shook with suppressed rage.

  The berserker's back was to her. His hands gripped the bars of the bay's stall as though he would rip them out. Muscles stood out on his shoulders, biceps, and forearms. . For a moment she was too mad to be afraid of him. A rational part of her mind knew she was in deep trouble. The augmented senses of the berserker would pick up her pheromones of anger.

  The berserker spun so quickly Is had no time to move, not that it would have done her any good. His huge hand closed on the front of her coat and he pulled her toward him. His eyes were focused now. He laughed, revealing large flat teeth that reminded her of the stallion’s. His grip constricted the coat around her torso, and she was thankful for its thick leather. It kept him from feeling the way his hand was twisting her breast. She wanted to cry out with pain but she fought to stay silent. If he didn't realize she was a woman he might kill her, but he wouldn't rape her. She tried to keep this coat heavily saturated with a man's scent by making Brandy wear it every time he visited. Now she prayed the berserker wouldn't smell her woman's fear.

  Behind him, the bay whinnied, rearing up and striking the bars with his hooves. Distracted, the berserker shoved Is away. Her feet flew off the ground as if she weighed nothing. Her back slammed against the wall across the aisle from the stallion's stall. Her head snapped back against the bars and she crumpled to the ground.

  . . . Nothing hurt. Not really, though it seemed as if something should. There was a loud ringing in her head. If it would just stop, she could find out about the rest of her body. There were other sounds too. Crashing, and the ripping of wood, like a horse kicking down a stall. But her eyes could only see black. She should move anyway. Maybe back into the dying horse's stall. Standing up seemed out of the question. Crawl. Her body had lost the technique of it. Fear hit her with a rush of adrenaline that took her over the edge of dizziness into unconsciousness.

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