13:4: “The Matter of the Horses”, by Mary Soon Lee

13:4: “The Matter of the Horses”, by Mary Soon Lee
General Qiang stood in King Xau’s tent
with the king’s other generals
and the king’s advisors
and the king’s guards
and the king’s serving boy
and the king himself,
the tent crowded with men,
rank with sweat.

The young king sat on a stool,
his left arm in a sling,
a grimness about him
that matched Qiang’s own mood
though the war was over,
the victory theirs,
the king’s advisors jubilant.

Qiang hadn’t slept last night.
Had tried to sleep. Failed.
Yesterday’s battle still with him.
The horses. Mud, rain, blood.

In the tent, the talk moved
to the matter of the horses,
to how it could be exploited
for conquest.

“No,” said the king.
One word enough to quiet the tent.
“We do not crave conquest.”

“Even so,” said an advisor,
“we should test the limits
of your control over the horses,
the better to employ it for defense.”

The advisor turned to Qiang.
“General, how would you proceed?”

Qiang looked at the advisor,
a man who’d never fought a single battle,
who’d sheltered in a tent yesterday,
warm and dry,
while rain cascaded from Qiang’s saddle, his armor,
turning earth and horse-shit to stinking mud,
Qiang riding on the king’s right
(the king, injured, unable to hold a shield,
but still riding),
Qiang’s horse maneuvering beneath him
before he even gave the commands,
all the horses in perfect unison
as if they were a thousand shadows
of a single faultless form–
a thing out of legend,
out of the old times
when dragons flew to King Nariz
and demons walked the earth–
the stench,
the pounding of hooves, of Qiang’s pulse,
as he rode beside the king,
as the enemy charged full at them–

And stopped.

Every horse in the Red King’s army
rooted to the spot
though their riders kicked them.
Whereupon the Red King,
red-haired and red-handed in war,
screamed in his barbarous language.
And then the enemy had slaughtered
their own horses,
slitting their necks,
the horses foundering in blood–

Qiang looked at the advisor and said,
“If it were my decision,
I wouldn’t test the horses.
I would let them be.”

“Even if inaction now leads to defeat later?”

“Even then.”

Into the stretching silence,
the king spoke:
“What happened with the horses
is not a trick to practice and parade,
but a gift. A gift the horses gave.
A gift for which many of them died.”

The king’s gaze rested on Qiang, anchoring him.

Qiang touched his hand to his heart,
offered it palm-up to the king,
a gesture Qiang had never made before,
the sign of allegiance of warriors
in the old tales.

The tent crowded with men,
but for that moment
only the two of them.

Mary Soon Lee was born and raised in London, but became a naturalized US citizen in 2003. Her poetry credits include Atlanta Review, Apex Magazine, Dreams & Nightmares, The Magazine of Speculative Poetry, and Star*Line. More of her work-in-progress may be read at thesignofthedragon.com. She says:

I wrote “The Matter of the Horses” a year after I first started writing about King Xau. I’d been thinking about how Xau’s advisors and generals would urge him to exploit his power over horses, and how he would react to that. When I let General Qiang into the poem, it acquired its own identity.

Photograph of hoarfrost in Niedersachsen, Germany, by Daniel Schwen, is provided under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

One Response to “13:4: “The Matter of the Horses”, by Mary Soon Lee”

  1. […] member Mary Soon Lee has a poem online in Ideomancer. The poem, titled “The Matter of the Horses,” is the tenth poem to be published from […]

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