Three months into his kingship,
the young king rode to claim fealty
from the horse lords.
They bowed to King Xau,
their braided hair swinging
like so many horse tails.
Though their leader bowed with the others,
Xau read in his eyes a mocking amusement.
“Such a great King,” said the horse lord,
“such fine armor, so many soldiers.
They must think you too young
to look after yourself.”
He raised a hand. “Fetch a cup
of mare’s milk to help the king
grow into a man.”
The counselor beside Xau
made the finger motion for death:
he had advised Xau again and again
to assert authority early.
Xau had but to order his archers
to shoot the horse lord,
a word, a gesture, quickly over,
but Xau said instead, “Save the milk
for your many and excellent children.
Let the two of us walk to the hills–”
“Sire!” said the counselor.
“It is their custom, is it not?”
said the king. “You taught us that.”
“It is our custom,” said the horse lord.
“Yet your father never honored it.”
“Sire!” said his counselor.
“You are the ruler of these men,
not one of them.
Their ways are not our ways!”
The king said to the horse lord,
“Before we take your horses for our wars,
we will honor your custom.”
The horse lord bowed,
and this time the king saw no sign of mockery.
They set aside their weapons, their armor,
left the king’s entourage
gabbling behind them.
They walked to the hills,
drinking from each other’s water bottles.
The king knew they might meet bears … or dragons,
that even wolves could kill them both.
He didn’t care.
He was fed up of prudence, politics, protocol,
people prostrating themselves.
A clear, cold night.
Trees silhouetted by the half moon.
No wolves howled. No bears prowled.
No dragons threatened.
But sometime after midnight
the wild horses came:
first a pounding of hooves,
then the smell, heat, breath of them:
forty, fifty, too many to count.
The horse lord knelt
while Xau went from horse to horse,
speaking to them,
laying his hands on them.
At his touch, the horses
lowered their heads.
All night, more horses came.
At dawn, the two men saw below them
the hillside covered in horses.
Eighteen hundred horses followed them back
to the other horse lords (who prostrated themselves)
and the king’s soldiers (who cheered)
and his counselors (who looked peeved).
In front of all these people
the horse lord bowed so low
that his braid brushed the dirt.
“Your horses are in our heart,”
said the king. “We will ride them to war,
but we will not squander their lives.”
And Xau gave one of the horses,
a black stallion,
to the horse lord,
who rode it and none other
for the rest of his life.