Malora sits up, her chest heaving, her hand clamped over her mouth, muffling a scream. Her rapid breathing gradually slows. She lowers her hand and looks slowly about her. She is in her cot, in her tent, next to the paddocks, in Mount Kheiron. Outside, she can hear the horses chomping on grass and, beyond that, the steady, reassuring susurration of the river flowing past. There are no voices screaming to “feed her to the Beast.” No thumping spears. No glowing eyes. She inhales, taking in the safe odors of horse and field and settling dew.
“It’s only a Night Demon,” she whispers to herself, as once upon a time in the Settlement her mother reassured her. She flops back on the sweat-soaked mattress, where sleep reclaims her almost immediately.
It is only the next morning, on her way to work, that Malora remembers the Night Demon, stealing across her thoughts. It has visited her so many times lately that recalling it no longer has the power to stop her cold. Her teacher, Honus the faun, has a theory that her dreams are part of her heightened instinct for self-preservation. As the last of the People, she must draw upon every tool she has, including dreams. “Dreams contain vital information if only we can learn to decode them,” Honus says. She has learned to decode words, but how is she to read this dream?
“Who goes there?” a voice calls out from the gatehouse, followed by a rattling of hooves.
“It’s Malora!” she calls out, thinking that they must have put someone new on the gate. Farin Whitewithers, the usual night-duty guard, not only expects her to pass through at this time, he also has a cup of wildflower tea waiting for her.
The centaur guard stumbles through the door and swings his lantern, blinding her. “Malora Victorious?” he asks, his voice filled with a stupefied wonder.
“Yes,” Malora tells him, shielding her eyes. “Mind the light.”
Vision restored, she sees that the sentry’s canine teeth are sharp--he is a Flatlander. Although she comes through these gates twice daily on her way to and from the blacksmith’s shop, this is the first time she has seen a Flatlander at the gates. Until three months ago, Flatlanders were not permitted to guard the gates or to sit in Mount Kheiron’s lawmaking body, any more than Highlanders were permitted to serve on the Peacekeeping Force. Ever since Malora won the Golden Horse for the House of Silvermane, Medon Silvermane--the Apex of Mount Kheiron--has begun to make good on his Founders’ Day promise to bring about equality between his Highlander and Flatlander subjects. And ever since Malora won the Golden Horse, she has been the object of the centaurs’ adoration.
Now her gaze rises to the top of the gate, where she sees, mounted for all to admire and claim for their own, the Golden Horse trophy she won on the day that started it all.
“And how is the Noble Champion?” the sentry inquires shyly.
Malora responds with a question of her own. “What is your name?”
Bowing, he replies, “Margus Piedhocks, at your service.”
Malora smiles. Margus’s hocks are no more pied than Farin’s withers are white or the noble centaurean families of the Mane Way possess actual manes. Centaurean names are colorful without being descriptive. “Well, Margus Piedhocks,” she tells him, “Max the Noble Champion couldn’t be happier. He has his own paddock in which he enjoys the spoils of victory.”
“I am glad to hear it, Malora Victorious,” Margus says. “Give him this token of my admiration, will you?”
Piedhocks hands her a chewy green candy in the shape of a spearmint leaf. When Malora let it be known that Max favored the taste of spearmint, the confectioners of Mount Kheiron began to produce “the Max.” Centaurs now give her these sweets whenever they see her. Slipping the candy into the pouch at her belt, she says, “Good day to you, Margus Piedhocks,” as she passes beneath the gates into Mount Kheiron.
“And the same to you, although it still looks like the nighttime to me!” he calls after her.
Margus is right, Malora thinks. Except for the dawn light quivering on the eastern horizon, the stars still pack the sky. Through mist fragrant with ripening oranges and new-mown hay, Malora makes her way up the series of ramping streets that lead to Brion’s shop on the third ring road. The windows and archways are all darkened. Her boots make no sound on the dew-slick cobblestones, boots that wrap around her calf and fasten on the side with a leather loop held by a single silver button.
Arriving at the big stone box with wooden doors and a crude chimney coming out the top, Malora hauls open the creaking door. She loves the smell of the blacksmith shop, smoke and metal and sweat, almost as much as the smell of a stable, horse and dung and hay. She reaches over to the hook on the wall, takes down her black leather apron, and ties it on. Now that Malora knows her way around, Brion has taken to sleeping late and leaves the opening of the shop to her.
The floor of the shop is covered with a deep carpet of fine gray sand. Malora pads across to the potbellied stove, what Brion calls the red-hot beating heart of the smithy. She lays her palm against the side of the forge, which still holds the heat from yesterday’s fire. On the hearth, wrapped in burlap, is her special project.
Whistling softly, she packs wood shavings into the cavity just above the firepot, hearing Brion’s voice in her head: “Not too tight. Fire’s a living thing, Daughter. It’s got to have air to breathe.” She uses the firebrand to kindle the shavings. Once the fire has caught, she lays some sticks of oak on top of that. The oak is dense and holds the heat. When the fire grows bigger, she rakes the coke over it and works the wooden paddles of the bellows. The coke begins to glow red. She sprinkles water from the slag tub onto the edges of the coke to keep the heat from spreading.
Blacksmithing is Malora’s Hand. At the age of twelve, every centaur chooses a Hand. The Hand, according to Kheiron the Wise--the patron of centaurs--is what sets the centaur apart from the beasts. Malora, not being a centaur, wasn’t allowed a Hand when she came to Mount Kheiron at fifteen. She won the right to learn the Hand of her choice on the same day she won the Golden Horse.
Now Brion Swiftstride is teaching her the Hand of smithing. She has grown fond of him and wants to learn all she can from him, but she enjoys these times when she is alone. This is when she feels the presence of her ancestor, who--she was convinced from the moment she first visited here--worked at this very forge. She imagines that this is exactly how he started his workday, back in the time when this city was still home to the People, before the Massacre of Kamaria, when the centaurs killed off the humans and took over the city.
Malora puts on her leather gauntlets. When they were brand-new, they were stiff, fitting awkwardly over her hands and arms. Over the months the sweat of her body has broken them down into a supple and protective second skin.
“Good morning, Daughter.”
Out of the cloud of hissing steam, a bristly face emerges, and Brion’s familiar horse body lumbers into view as he comes around the pot to stand over her shoulder. Brion Swiftstride is dressed for work, his dappled hindquarters swaddled in a scorched leather wrap, his burly chest covered by an apron just like hers. He is gauntleted to his elbows and wears a hat whose brim has been gnawed away to the crown by flames.
“How goes the little knife?” he asks.
Malora says, “Brittle, I think.”
“Time to temper it, then.”
She lifts the knife out of the tub and then buries it, blade-first, on the outer edges of the fire, where there is more ash than coal.
Brion says, “Let it sit.”
While the blade heats slowly, Brion and Malora move about the shop, getting ready for the day’s work. While Malora assembles the tools they will need--chisels and punches and sets and hammers--Brion chooses stock from the pile of iron rods stacked in a wooden crib in one corner, their raw material. They get the iron from the pig-faced smelter in the Hills of Melea. The Suidean hibe, half man and half boar, are miners and smelters by trade.
Today they are filling an order for the noble House of Goldmane, a series of spindles for a balcony railing. Brion lays a bar across the fire so that the center point is resting over the heart of the coals. When the bar has gone from red to yellow, Malora takes the tongs and removes it from the fire. Brion catches one end in the vise, then grabs the other end with the pliers and gives the rod several sharp yanks, so that the molten center of the rod twists like a grapevine. After they have quenched the rod and laid it out on the hearth to cool, Malora takes the knife out of the ashes and again dunks it in the tub before reheating it. They work like this all morning.
At this midday break Brion and Malora eat outside, their gloves turned inside out so the high sun will dry the sweat-damp linings. They eat slabs of coarse bread slathered with goat cheese and date preserves.
“Your blade is well tempered now,” Brion tells her between bites.
Malora nods. “This afternoon, I will work on the tang.”
“I have been thinking,” Brion says casually, “that when you’ve finished your little knife . . . you will be done here.”
Malora lowers her bread and stares at Brion’s sooty face. “Why would you say that?” she asks. “I still have so much to learn. I must be some time away from qualifying for recognition.”
“Weeks, I’d say,” Brion replies. “You’re a quick learner. Or perhaps it is simply a case of ironwork being in your blood.”
Malora has told him her theory about her ancestor. Far from scoffing at her, Brion showed her some ancient tools that he had found buried in the sand floor of the shop, a small hammer and a primitive pair of tongs, along with three rusted, U-shaped pieces of iron: horseshoes. In the mural on the monument to the People slaughtered in the Massacre of Kamaria, the horses are sheathed in armor and their hooves are shod with iron that looks just like these relics. Not even Malora’s father, Jayke, a master horseman, could have imagined such a thing as shoes for horses. But then, there had been no forge and no ironworking in the Settlement. What objects of iron they possessed had come down to them from the ancestors.
“Your thoughts are very far away today, Daughter,” Brion says.
Malora clears her head with a quick shake. She knows not to bring up the subject of the Massacre. Now that the centaurs know her, it shames them to think of what their ancestors did to hers. Instead, she says, “I was just thinking that after I have achieved recognition, whether it’s weeks from now or months, I will stay and work for you, in payment for your having taught me my Hand.”
“Custom doesn’t call for it,” Brion says, popping the last piece of bread into his mouth and chewing. “It’s a centaur’s obligation to teach the Hand he has mastered to whoever has gained the right to learn it. I have two young Flatlanders waiting to learn from me. As for you, you are expected to set up your own shop.” He wipes his mouth on the back of his hand, smearing soot across his cheek. The joints of his legs creak as he straightens to a stand.
Malora envisions having her own shop, on the beautiful tract of land the Apex has granted her by the river. There, she will forge shoes for her horses, whose hooves--now that they are standing around in the riverbank grass and no longer traveling across the bush every day--are softening. She has noticed the same tendency in the horses in the other stables in Mount Kheiron. Out in the bush, her horses’ hooves were hard as rock, seldom brittle or flaky. Who would have thought that life in the bush actually gave horses healthier hooves? This causes Malora to wonder: Had the bush conditioned her in a similar way? While ironwork has made her hard of body, has life here in Mount Kheiron, the Home of Beauty and Enlightenment, made her soft of spirit? Would the old Malora have let herself be spooked by a few Night Demons? In the bush, Malora rarely had bad dreams. Waking life there was so fraught with real dangers, there was no room in her head for phantasms.
As if he has read her mind, Brion asks, “Do you miss the bush?”
Malora considers her years of wandering in the wild: protecting herself and her horses from predators, having to gather her food or kill it in order to survive. The bush had moments of stark beauty, but it was a day-to-day struggle and she withstood it alone, with only the horses for company. Here in Mount Kheiron, it isn’t the glorious golden domes that sustain her. Nor is it the delightful concerts, soft and beautiful clothing, and delicious meals. She values none of these as much as the company. And it isn’t just the company of her good friends, she thinks, but the sheer number of centaurs that surround her every day, the astonishing perfection of their half-horse, half-human bodies, and the music of their voices, talking, shouting, singing, declaiming, arguing, calling out to one another and to her.
“No,” she says to Brion, “I don’t miss it.”
Malora dusts the crumbs off her hands and returns to the shop, deep in thought. It seems to her that she has both feet as firmly planted here in Mount Kheiron as they are right now in the deep sand of the smithy floor. She no longer even makes daily forays into the bush as she once did with the Flatlander Neal Featherhoof to hunt for ostrich and impala and other wild game. First it was training for the Hippodrome that kept her from it. Now it is training for her Hand. The only thing she misses, living here, is time. In the bush, there was always time enough to do everything she needed to do--groom and treat the horses, fashion tools and weapons and apparel, gather leaves and roots and wild fruits, hunt, trap, skin, and dress the game--with plenty of time left over to do nothing but lie on her back and stare at the clouds while the horses munched on grass. Here in Mount Kheiron, there never seems to be enough time to do everything she wants to do, and no time at all to lie in the grass and stare at the clouds. Civilization, she often thinks, is a greedy monster that gorges itself on time. Rousing herself from these thoughts, she goes to work on the tang of her little knife.
Copyright © 2013 by Kate Klimo. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.