The bastard Valde Fitzroy has but one purpose in life: to serve his unacknowledged father, Lord Royan, by slaying his enemies. He has performed this duty for many years, amid the endless intrigues of the were-horse clans.
Yet when Lord Royan dies, Valde is left without purpose. He finds himself following his last target, Raneld Orley, the youngest son of the new king. He doesn’t understand why, nor does he understand why he alternately rages against and is drawn to the oh-so-perfect prince. But as his fate begins to unfold, the curse that drives him becomes clear.
Fate may twist in strange ways, though. So what happens when a cursed assassin comes to lust after -- and love -- his intended target?
“They don’t jump over them here,” said Raneld, sitting beside me, a leather tankard of beer in his hand. He gestured at the great central bonfire. “A human could hardly clear that.” It had been a towering inferno hours ago, and even now the heat that radiated from it was considerable. I considered it with a sudden gleam in my eye.
“A human couldn’t, but I think I could.”
Raneld’s eyebrows went up. He glanced from me to the fire and back again. The solstice fires back home were made in a kind of oblong shape, to make them practical to jump over for all but the least hale of the stallions. It was counted to one’s benefit to clear it by a good distance, but there was no danger of landing amid the flames. Here, though ... I’d certainly jumped that far -- perhaps even farther -- but the consequences for a stumble or a bad leap might be dire. Still, I was certain I could do it.
Raneld suddenly grinned. “I’m sure you can. I think I can as well. Shall we?”
I rose to my feet, matching his grin. A glance around convinced me that I wanted to retire to strip. Raneld apparently felt the same, for he rose and headed away from the fire, into the shadows amid the tents. Moments later we’d shed our clothes and our human shapes both, and trotted up side by side to the edge of the fire.
The plainsfolk stared at us. They all recognized me, and I could see a ripple of realization run over many of their faces as they saw Raneld at my side, the white forelock he had in this form matching the unusual white streak of hair his human self bore. He nodded at me to go first, and I sized up the fading fire. It was all nearly embers and coals now. I could probably survive landing near the edge without much real harm, truth be told. There were men who could walk on fire, after all, and my hooves weren’t sensitive to heat the way bare human feet would be. All the same, the length of the jump was intimidating, now that I was about to make it.
Still, I wasn’t going to back down. Not in front of Raneld and everyone else. I tossed my head, taking a step back, and then ran towards the bonfire.
A half-dozen rapid steps and I was there. My leap was good, as good a leap as I’d ever made to impress any mare. I felt the heat of the fire below me as I soared with my hooves tucked up to my barrel, and then I stretched them out to land, my hind hooves just touching the embers as I landed. I skidded to a stop and reared up, belling out a triumphant cry. I’d done it!
I heard Raneld answer me from the far side of the fire, and saw him begin his own run, the dull red light from the embers gleaming on his black coat. His leap was absolutely perfect, the takeoff smooth, the way he sailed over the coals impossibly graceful and his landing a full body-length past the edge of the fire.
I stood staring at him as he reared up magnificently and let his final challenge ring out into the night. There were cheers echoing it from the plainsmen who’d seen the feat.
I felt a confusion of emotions in me yet again. I might have cheered with the crowd. I might have screamed in rage that he had proved himself my better yet again. Or I might almost have lifted my tail for him as if I were a mare, and led him away from the fire to perform the solstice rites on the dark plain beyond. I felt myself almost a mare, looking in admiration at his magnificence as he settled back to all four hooves.
He was glorious in that moment, and I felt that however much I might hate him, I yearned towards him just as much.