So today’s rebel remount is Blossom – aka, for most of two books, The Stupid Brown Horse. Now, this is the first time any of the sixth (!!!) Uncivil Wars books has seen the light of day, and it’s quite long. But it’s set after Marston Moor, after Hollie’s beloved Tyburn has been invalided out of the Northern Horse, and it’s the first time he’s set eyes on his family in almost a year. (Thomazine is just two, at this point. You can see how this is going to pan out for him.)
Oh God but he was lame, he trotted with the tip of his off fore barely grazing the grass so that he lurched rather than the old smooth flow of water flowing downhill –
But he was still Tib, and his head came up and his ears swivelled towards Hollie with the same fierce joy as if he had four sound legs instead of a great ugly puckered scar torn across his chest and all the muscle under it in rags.
Hollie slid off the brown horse’s back and his black pearl limped those last strides to bury his head in the breast of his master’s coat. (And Hollie wept, not silently and not beautifully, but there was no one here under the shifting underwater golden light of the willow trees to know, save for the ungainly brown horse from the Yorkshire campaign.)
Tib grew bored. Someone – a number of someones, possibly – had made a pet of the black stallion, and after he had lipped Hollie’s hair with the evident satisfaction of someone who had found a thing that had been missing, he turned his back and limped away. It was not a dismissal. It was, if you liked, a confirmation. Here you are, and the world is as it should be.
Tib was steel and shadow, but the stupid brown horse stood apologetically with the tips of its ears almost touching with the earnestness of its concern, looking like a clod of earth. It wasn’t even a proper colour. It was a murky, messy, indeterminate brown.
He whistled Tyburn, and the black horse came about in a great slow circle. He’d have simply pivoted on his quarters, once. Hollie had something in his eye again. He must be touching the beast, patting and smoothing and straightening, he must be reminding his hands of the feel of a solid shoulder and the sleek of muscle and the long cobweb-drift of a mane –
A scream like a mortar-shell overhead, and he automatically stiffened, catching the horse’s head because Tib was a battle-horse, he was made to react with fire and fury to every unexpected thing, and Hollie was suddenly cold as his tiny precious firstborn went thundering under the stallion’s feet.
And that lethal battle-hardened engine of fire and fury jerked a little, but more in a sort of indulgent disapproval, and then shook his head and touched his muzzle to Thomazine’s tangled bright hair.
Exactly as he had done to Hollie. Here you are, too, and the world is as it should be twice over.
There was something stuck in his throat that refused to be swallowed away, looking at his little daughter whose arms barely reached around the stallion’s chest but who was hugging him for all she was worth. (Possibly she should prefer the society of other gently-born children. Possibly she ought to have a cap on decently and not to be covered in grass-stains and horse-slobber. Possibly she would have to be somebody else’s daughter to be any different.) “Daddy, then, does not get a hug?” he said dryly, and she managed to extract one arm and bury her face in the top of his boots, and Tyburn rumbled grumpily and limped sideways so that he was leaning against both of them.
“Who that, daddy?” Thomazine murmured. Typical of Thomazine that she considered the stupid brown horse a who, rather than a what, and he grinned into Tib’s mane for Tib was his dear and his only and the stupid brown horse was –
“Brought me from Yorkshire. Had to make do, lass.”
“What’s his name?”
The stupid brown horse did not have a name. It was too much like admitting the stupid brown horse would be staying. He turned his clumsy head towards Thomazine, stupid ears swivelling with an eagerness to please that was almost painful. “He hasn’t got one, love. He’s not mine.”
“Whose horse, daddy?” – and with a mercurial change of subject that dizzied him, “Where Uncle Lucey, daddy? Apple come home? Daddy bring Zee present?”
He had a forlorn hope that she would cease asking questions, for she barely seemed to pause for breath between them – no, nor did she wait for answers, which was a relief, for then she released both him and Tyburn and flitted over to the brown horse. “Daddy, hot!” she said accusingly over her shoulder, and before he could stop her she started to unbuckle his harness.
Every. Single. Buckle. Of every single strap, so far up as she could reach, presumably having watched Mattie Percey unharness the family’s riding-horses. And once she had dismantled the bridle – left him with his forelock looped up under the cockeyed browband, and the grassy bit pulled through his mouth – and dragged his saddle off sideways by one stirrup, the stupid brown horse stood there as naked as a foal. “You done that, daddy,” Thomazine said, glowering at him with her arms full of loose sweaty leather. “He’s hot.”
The brown horse blinked at them both, his head turning from one to another.
It crossed Hollie’s mind for the first time that the brown horse was, perhaps, not stupid. Not precisely stupid, then. Timid, maybe, and confused, and missing his own place and his own people – that he would never see again, that he had been taken from untimely without knowing for what reason or to what place.
Not bright, obviously. Not like Tyburn. He would never replace Tib. Nobody would ever replace Tib.
Very warily, the brown horse who was possibly not stupid, stretched out his neck and gave himself a little shake. Thomazine grabbed a fistful of grass and held it out.
(Hollie, in nine months with the beast, had never petted it. Never given it titbits, or troubled himself to find the places where it liked to be scratched, or given it any more than the attention he gave to his sword or his carbine or his harness. Something mean in him curled up a little and squirmed at the recognition of his neglect.)
“Nice horse, daddy,” she said happily. “Zee keep him? Please?”
She was attempting, now, to rub a patch of sweat from where the saddle had been, with a twist of wet grass. If she had been one of his troopers he’d have pointed out that she wasn’t trying to get a spot of rust off a blade, and it was only by God’s grace that she had not been kicked from here to Colchester. Tib’s tolerance would not have extended so far. Not even for Thomazine. Most of the horses Hollie knew would have put her on her back by now, had she scrubbed them so.
The brown horse stood like a table, with the tips of his ears pointed together and his brow earnestly furrowed. He was not at his ease. He was stiff and uncomfortable and all four of his ungainly legs were braced for flight, and yet he stood and let this strange small person scour him as if he were the kitchen floor.
The brown horse was worse-made than Russell’s Doubting Thomas. Thomas only looked on the surface as if he had been cobbled together from three other beasts. The brown horse was swaybacked, ewe-necked, over at the knee –
“Job,” he said, for the patience of the beast, and his arm tightened around Tib’s neck I still love you the best –
“No, daddy,” Thomazine said, and the brown horse looked at her out of the tail of his eye. Not menacingly, but shyly – am I done?– and Hollie’s little daughter slapped the horse’s shoulder like an ostler born to have him stand over.
Very carefully, the brown horse walked away from them. Tyburn jerked his head up in a fractional affront, and then dismissed a badly-made gelding as below his entire masculine contempt and ambled off in the opposite direction, nosing the grass. Keeping a wary eye on the brown horse all the while, mind, just in case.
The spring grass was coming in. There were still patches of winter mud between the trees in the orchard.
Hollie wished, briefly and passionately, that Luce Pettitt was with him. (This time tomorrow, likely, after his mother had gone over him with a nit-comb and bewailed the state of his linen.) Russell would ha’ been better than nothing, though he’d have had to explain the joke three times to the marred lad. Slowly and ponderously, the brown horse lowered himself into the darkest, boggiest patch of sloppy mud and squirmed on his back, wallowing in the wan sunlight, the pale flash of his underparts bright as a guinea. Looked like a fat unhorsed officer in a buffcoat, trying to roll himself back to dignity, and God knows they’d seen enough of them throughout Yorkshire. “Goring,” Hollie suggested, thinking of that unprincipled Malignant bastard, last seen flat on the cobbles at Wakefield and cursing in all directions.
“No, daddy! A nice name!” She straightened her thin little shoulders, stuck two fingers in her mouth and whistled wetly. (Her mother was going to kill him when she got good at it, he thought wryly. The child hadn’t learned that trick by herself.) The brown horse upended himself, gave himself a thoroughgoing shake, and then came up at a lollop. “Flower,” Thomazine said, “Flower, daddy? Pretty horse.”
“A weed more like, wench. Some great raking thing that grows out of cracks where you don’t want it.”
“Blossom,” Hollie said, with his tongue firmly in his cheek. “The leaves are just on the trees, look, so it will be apple blossom time soon. What do you think to Blossom?”
“Blossom,” she said, testing the word, “Blossom.” And then a great smile spread over her fox-pointed, freckled face, “Zee’s horse, daddy! To keep? Promise?”
“Aye,” Hollie said, and he hefted her up by the waist. First time he had set his hands on the child in more than a year and he had forgot, almost, how fragile she looked and how solid she felt. All arms and legs, like a little harvestman spider.
She sat on the brown horse’s muddy back looking straight ahead of her with her hands clutching his mane and her grubby skirts kilted up around her knees, and neither of them looked as embarrassed as propriety would dictate they ought to.
“You might have to let me borrow him, lass,” he said, and she gave him a stern look.
“Look after him, daddy.”
“I know,” he said meekly, “I’ll try and remember.” He clicked his tongue and the brown horse – Blossom, who was no longer nameless, but who had a name and a place and a little girl who loved him for his kindness when her father had not – ambled into a walk. “Come on, then. Your mother’s waiting on us.”