Authors: Stacy Gregg
El Caballo Danza Magnifico’s flying stallions were not the only performing horses in the troupe. The Spanish school also trained Anglo-Arab mares. Issie clearly remembered the very first time she saw these magnificent dancing Arabians perform when they came to Chevalier Point, and her amazement when she discovered that her own pony, Blaze, had once been the most beloved mare of Roberto Nunez and El Caballo Danza Magnifico. Blaze’s bloodlines were shared by many of the Anglo-Arab mares here at the Spanish stables, so when Issie saw Francoise leading a liver chestnut mare down the corridor of the mares’ stables, she was not surprised to see that she was a dead ringer for Blaze.
“This is one of Blaze’s half-sisters,” Francoise confirmed. “Her name is Amira. It is Arabic for ‘princess’.”
“Hello Amira,” Issie smiled, reaching out a hand to stroke the mare’s white blaze. “I’m a friend of your big sister.”
“You will be riding Amira this evening to the harvest dance,” Francoise explained. “It is traditional for women to ride on the back of their boyfriend or husband’s horses. If a woman chooses to ride on her own horse, however, then custom decrees that she must ride a mare.”
“Do you hear that Amira?” Issie giggled. “It’s a girl’s night out! No boys allowed!”
Amira snorted, as if she found it amusing too. The mare stood patiently while Issie mounted up. Francoise, meanwhile, had gone back into another stall and now she emerged again, with yet another chestnut mare that also looked like Blaze.
“Another half-sister,” Francoise said. “This one is called Aliya.”
She mounted up. “This dress is not very comfortable for riding in. My corset is too tight!” She fiddled
with the bodice on her brilliant vermilion gown and adjusted the rose in her hair. They had all gone in to the village earlier that day to buy new flamenco dresses and Issie had picked a bright blue dress with stiff wire threaded through the ruffles of the skirt. It stuck out in enormous petals as she sat there on her horse.
“Is Mum riding one of the mares too?” Issie asked nervously. Mrs Brown might have been full of bravado about her new-found riding skills, but Issie was worried that her mother wouldn’t be able to handle a highly-strung, sensitive Arabian. These were not beginners’ horses and they required expert handling.
“It’s OK,” Francoise said, seeming to read Issie’s mind, “your mother has decided to travel to the dance in the traditional way.”
As Francoise said this, Roberto appeared on the grey stallion, Marius. Tucked in behind him, with her arm tight around his waist, was Mrs Brown. She looked a little nervous, riding side-saddle in her dark green, lacy flamenco dress, but Roberto was clearly quite happy with the arrangement and looked pleased to have a passenger on board.
“Your mother has become quite the horsewoman since she got here,” Francoise noted.
Issie shook her head in disbelief. “All these years I’ve tried to get Mum keen on horses, but there was no way. And now look at her!”
“What are we talking about?” It was Alfie, who had joined them on Victorioso.
“The incredible powers of Roberto Nunez,” Issie grinned. “He’s managed to actually get my mother on a horse – twice now!”
“My father can be very persuasive,” Alfie smiled, “and he really enjoys your mother’s company.”
Roberto and Mrs Brown looked over and spotted the other riders watching them. Issie’s mum gave them a wave. “You look lovely, sweetie!” she called out.
“Are we ready to go then?” Roberto asked.
Alfie frowned. “So Avery’s really not coming with us?”
Issie shook her head. “He says he has too much work to do, making enquiries and sorting out the paperwork for shipping Storm home.”
“What about Vega?” Alfie asked.
Francoise looked less than pleased at the mention of his name. “There is no need for us to turn up together,”
she harrumphed. “I told him he could meet me there.”
They all set off across the courtyard, the horses’ hooves tap-tapping like castanets on the cobblestones. When they reached the wrought iron gates Issie saw Francoise look back longingly at the hacienda, as if she were hoping that Avery might change his mind and come after all. But the doors of the villa remained resolutely shut.
“Come on,” Francoise sighed and gave up at last, turning her back on the hacienda. “Let’s go to the dance.”
The village square looked amazing. Streamers and fairy lights had been strung from every building and every tree. On the front of the town hall, where the dance was being held, coloured lights had been hung on either side of the ancient wooden entrance and rose petals were sprinkled over the stairs that led inside.
Since everyone was arriving on horseback this evening, there was already very little space left at the hitching posts nearest the hall. Issie and the others from El Caballo had to lead their horses all the way to the far end of the square, away from the lights and the atmosphere,
where there were spare hitching posts located under some spreading oak trees at the edge of the hilltop. It was a secluded spot that looked down over the pasture below.
“Will the horses be all right here?” Issie asked as she undid her girth, slid Amira’s saddle off her back and slung it over the hitching rail.
“They will be fine,” Francoise said. “This is a very organised event. There are grooms that come to check on all the horses every hour or so. They will provide hay nets and water as well.”
As they walked back towards the town hall, Issie saw Francoise stiffen. There was a sullen expression on her face when Alfie pointed to the stairs and said, “I think your date is waiting for you!”
Miguel Vega was standing at the top of the steps in front of the main doors. He had dressed up for the occasion in the traditional
attire of a
– a short cropped jacket, and three-quarter length
trousers, both of which made him look even shorter than he already was. His bright purple cummerbund was fighting valiantly to contain his rotund belly, but it was losing the battle and the buttons of his lilac frilled shirt were strained to the point of popping.
Vega took a lilac lace handkerchief out of his suit pocket and mopped his perspiring brow. Then he gave a broad grin and extended his hand to a horrified Francoise. “My date is here at last!” he said rather too gleefully.
Francoise blanched, but she had no choice but to take his hand, and they walked together through the front doors.
Issie took Alfie’s hand too and they walked in together. The dance hall was even prettier on the inside, with more coloured lights and lanterns. The parquet wooden floors had been polished to a shine for dancing.
Issie and Alfie made a beeline for the punchbowl to get glasses of orange juice mixed with lemonade and ice. It was a yummy concoction.
“Do you want to dance to the next song?” Alfie asked Issie.
“Umm are they going to play any, you know, normal music?” Issie asked. “Or is it all going to be this old-fashioned stuff? Because I don’t now how to waltz or anything like that…”
“Stop making excuses!” Alfie took the punch glass off her and put it down on the table, then grabbed her by the hand. “It’s not that hard to learn. I’ll show you!”
Alfie’s dancing style wasn’t exactly traditional. He flung Issie about on the dance floor as if they were in a particularly frenetic episode of
Strictly Come Dancing
“Alfie!” Issie had a bad case of the giggles as he dipped and twisted her so vigorously that she could hardly breathe. “Alfie stop it! People are looking!” The two of them were drawing grumpy stares from some of the older dancers, who were taking their own dance moves far more seriously and didn’t approve of their comedy routine.
“Come on then,” Alfie said, grinning and puffing with exertion from their antics. “Let’s go sit down for a bit.”
On the floor in front of them, Mrs Brown and Roberto were dancing up a storm.
“I didn’t realise your mum was such a great dancer!” Alfie said to Issie.
“Neither did I!” Issie was amazed. Mrs Brown and Roberto were now doing an excellent
, the bullfighters dance, across the centre of the room. Mrs Brown was clapping in time to the music and flicking her hands up like a professional, clearly having the time of her life.
“Our parents are better dancers than us,” Alfie pulled a face.
“Maybe they’re better at this sort of dancing,” Issie reluctantly agreed, “but you should see my mum throwing shapes to my music – not such a pretty sight!”
Francoise, meanwhile, was also on the dance floor, with Miguel Vega. She had a face as sour as month-old milk, and instead of clapping and twisting to the
she stood there with her hands on her hips looking thoroughly fed up while Vega danced avidly around her, clapping and stamping, thrusting his chin out and throwing his hands in the air.
finally ended. The music changed tempo and the couples on the dance floor moved closer to each other. The men grabbed the women tightly around their waists and looked deep into their eyes.
“It’s a tango,” Alfie said. “The dance of love.”
Issie watched as Roberto did a neat bow to Mrs Brown and then whispered something in her ear as she blushed.
Issie felt a stab of panic at this intimate gesture. Could it be that Stella had a point? Was her mum really falling in love with Roberto?
!” Alfie muttered, shaking Issie out of her thoughts. “Vega looks like he has Francoise in a headlock!”
Vega had the Frenchwoman in a vice-like grip, his chubby arms wrapped around her, as he tangoed her with great determination across the dance floor. As the music swelled, Vega seized the moment. He thrust Francoise backwards in a dramatic dip which took her by surprise and threw her off-balance. Then, as he pulled her back up again, ensnaring her even more tightly in his arms, he shut his eyes and leaned in for a kiss.
“Ohmygod!” Issie squeaked in horror, “I can’t look!”
She peeked out between her fingers and saw that Vega had closed his eyes and lunged for the kiss, but his lips had missed their target. At the very last moment Francoise had been snatched roughly out of his arms and Vega was left puckering up into thin air. When he opened his eyes, there was a man standing in front of him where Francoise should have been.
“Arrghh!” Vega spat out. “What are you doing here?”
“I hope you don’t mind,” Tom Avery said. “I’m cutting in on this dance.”
Vega’s expression changed from amorous to angry. “Mind? Of course I do! Get your hands off my dance partner,” he commanded.
“I’m afraid there’s been a mistake,” Avery told Vega.
“Francoise isn’t your partner. She was meant to be here with me.”
“She said yes when I asked her! You cannot turn up at a dance like this and take another man’s partner!” Vega fumed.
“It should be Francoise’s choice,” Avery said, “so why don’t we let the lady decide?”
He turned to her. “Francoise, I’m no good at romance. I’ve been a bachelor for so long,” Avery admitted. “I always wanted to ask you to the dance but I left it too late…”
“Yes!” Vega interrupted him. “You left it too late! She is my partner now! Step aside…”
“Wait!” Avery cautioned Vega, “I’m not finished!” He turned back to Francoise. “I’ve been a fool, I know that – partly because you’ve pointed it out to me…” he smiled at her. “But I realised tonight that I couldn’t bear the thought of another man with his arms around you on the dance floor. I love you, Francoise. Will you do me the honour of dancing with me?”
The whole room had stopped dancing. Everyone had heard Avery’s declaration of love and they were waiting to hear Francoise’s reply. She stood there in front of him,
with tears in her eyes, lips trembling. Finally she spoke, “Tom, I…”
Suddenly the front doors to the hall flew open and one of the grooms raced inside the hall, panting and wild-eyed.
“Hurry! Please! Everybody!” he shouted. “It’s the horses. They’ve been attacked!”
There was a crush at the door as everybody panicked and tried to get outside all at once. In the rush, Issie and Alfie were both pushed to the very back of the crowd. By the time they got outside it was madness. There were people racing about everywhere, trying to recapture horses that had broken loose and were running free in the square.
“This way!” Alfie grabbed Issie by the hand and led her down a side path, staying close to the walls of the houses and out of the way of loose horses and the crowds. They ran towards the hitching posts where they had left their horses, beneath the trees at the far end of the square. Avery and Francoise were already there ahead of
them. Issie could see Avery hanging on to a wild-eyed Victorioso and also trying to handle his own horse, Sorcerer, who was skipping beside him.
Francoise had Marius and was holding him tightly by his head collar.
“Where are the others?” Issie shouted out to Francoise. “Where are Amira and Aliya?”
Her question was answered a moment later when she heard the loud clarion call of a stallion and looked down the steep banks of the hill to the pasture below. In the moonlight she could see the two terrified liver chestnut mares. They were running with their ears flat back, and on either side, making it impossible for them to escape, were two stallions, the black and the dun. Leading the way across the pasture towards the gorge was a third stallion, dove grey, and even at a distance Issie could make out the strange two-tone black and white colours of his flying mane.
The bachelor stallions had staged yet another raid, and this time they had got away with not one but two of the El Caballo’s best mares. They had taken Aliya and Amira.
Roberto wasted no time once he saw what had
happened. He took control of Marius and hastily threw on his saddle and cinched the girth. Alfie meanwhile, was preparing to mount Victorioso and Avery had Sorcerer saddled too, ready to go. Francoise looked anxious as he mounted up. “Please be careful, Tom. Those stallions are dangerous and unpredictable.”
“Don’t worry,” Avery reassured her, “I’ll be back soon.”
Francoise smiled. “Stay safe,” she insisted.
Issie had wanted desperately to ride after the bachelor stallions too, but she had no choice but to stay behind. Francoise agreed that it was awful being left without a horse as they watched the men gallop off down the hill without them. They stood there in the darkness watching the riders disappear from sight.
“Well,” Mrs Brown said, “I’m not sure how well these shoes will cope with the walk home.” She lifted her Spanish skirt and peered down at her pretty high heels. “They were made for dancing the tango, not trekking the countryside! But I suppose we’ll have to give it a go.”
The walk took less time than they had thought, and Mrs Brown’s shoes survived intact. Once they were back at the hacienda, Mrs Brown went straight to the kitchen to put on a pot of strong coffee. They were only just sitting down with their mugs of latte in the front room when there was the sound of hoofbeats in the courtyard.
“They are back already!” Francoise said, looking out the window.
“Do they have the mares?” Issie asked.
“No,” Francoise shook her head. “They are alone.”
Outside in the courtyard, Roberto, Alfie and Avery were leading their horses back towards the stables.
“No sign of them?” Francoise asked as she came outside on to the steps of the hacienda.
“We gave up when we reached the other side of the gorge,” Avery said. “They were long gone by then and it was too dark to follow them, so we rode straight back.”
“We’ll come and help you to unsaddle,” Issie offered.
But Roberto shook his head. “It is late. Go to bed, Isadora, and leave it to us. There is nothing else you can do tonight.”
Issie came downstairs to breakfast the next morning to find that Avery and Roberto were already gone again. Francoise, who was busily dishing up bacon and eggs, told her that they’d left before dawn to make one more search for the missing mares.
Despite the late-night dramas, Francoise also seemed determined that
training was to go ahead as normal. Issie finished breakfast and headed down to the stables to find Alfie saddling up one of the Andalusians ready to ride.
“You didn’t go with your dad and Avery then?” Issie asked him.
“They didn’t ask me!” Alfie looked annoyed. “They never mentioned it last night and they were gone by the time I woke up this morning.”
“Maybe they knew you couldn’t come because you had to train today?” Issie offered.
“Maybe,” Alfie said. “Or maybe my father still thinks of me as a child. I don’t suppose it helps that the last time he left me in charge of the herd Margarita was stolen!”
“That wasn’t your fault,” Issie insisted. “You know that those stallions can sniff out mares from miles away…”
Issie’s heart began to race as a thought occurred to her. “Alfie, the stallions could smell the mares last time, couldn’t they? So why don’t we use more mares to lure them back again?”
“You mean use our horses as bait?” Alfie asked. “Dad would never allow it – we’ve lost three already!”
“But this time we’ll be ready to follow the stallions when they take the mares! We’d track them down and get all the mares back again!” Issie insisted.
She took Angel by the reins and began to lead him down the stable corridor.
“Where are you going?” Alfie called after her. “We have training now!”
“I’m going to find those stallions,” Issie replied. She looked back over her shoulder. “Are you coming with me?”
Alfie sighed in resignation and picked up the reins of his Andalusian stallion.
!” Alfie shook his head and followed Issie out into the cobbled courtyard. “I must be as crazy as you are!”
The two young riders left the gates of El Caballo a few minutes later. Issie was mounted up on Angel and leading a cobra of three of the stables’ best mares. They were liver chestnut Arabians, just like Amira and Aliya, and Issie was convinced that these mares would prove to be an irresistible temptation to the bachelor stallions.
An hour later, however, Issie could feel her conviction ebbing away. They had brought the mares up through the gorge to the upper pastures and let them loose in the same spot where Margarita had been stolen. They had lain in wait behind a grove of trees and watched and waited. But the stallions had not come. It felt like they had been there forever, and there was still no sign of the bachelors.
“I’m sorry. It was a stupid plan,” Issie said. She shifted about uncomfortably in her saddle and looked at the mares grazing peacefully. “Maybe we should give up. We can’t sit here forever.”
“No,” Alfie disagreed. “They’ll come. We just have to
wait…” He suddenly stopped speaking. They could both hear the sound of hoofbeats approaching!
A few moments later, around the bend of the hill, came the three bachelor stallions. As usual, the grey Sorraia was leading the herd. Behind, flanking him to the left and right, were the big black stallion and the dun. Issie hoped that the stallions might have Margarita, Aliya and Amira with them, but they were nowhere to be seen.
The mares that Issie had chosen as bait were all Anglo-Arabs like Amira and Aliya. They were liver chestnuts as well, with white socks, white blazes and the same pretty dished faces as their stable mates. Issie watched as the dun stallion circled the three mares, nipping at them and driving them towards the Sorraia. The grey Sorraia stallion made a vicious lunge at one of the mares, biting her hard on the neck so that the mare let out an angry squeal.
“He’s hurting her!” Issie couldn’t stand to watch.
“No!” Alfie hissed. “She’ll be all right. He’s just asserting his dominance – look!”
The mares were moving in a herd now, obeying the Sorraia. As she watched the stallions manoeuvring the
mares, Issie was glad she had chosen to ride Angel this time. Nightstorm would never have been able to stand by and let the bachelor stallions steal the herd. He would have reacted the same way he had done last time, attacking and fighting back. But Angel was not like Nightstorm. He was a gentle stallion and his Iberian bloodlines made him calm and obedient. As long as Issie was on his back, he would do as she asked.
The Sorraia set off at a canter and, with the dun and the black stallion bringing up the rear, they herded the mares off around the curve of the hill.
“Wait until they are around the corner,” Issie whispered to Alfie. “We don’t want to let the stallions know we are here.”
“And we don’t want to lose them either!” Alfie was beginning to panic. “If they take another three mares my father will kill me.”
“Come on then,” Issie agreed. “Now!”
The two riders pressed their horses into a gallop and set off in the same direction as the stallions.
As they rounded the corner of the hill the horses were nowhere in sight.
“We have lost them!” Alfie groaned.
“No!” Issie shook her head. “Listen! I can hear them. They’re just ahead of us.”
The echo of hoofbeats was coming from the dirt path ahead that led off to the left. They followed the same route, keeping their horses at a steady gallop, trying to keep pace with the stallions.
A few minutes later the sound of hoofbeats became more distant and Issie began to worry that they had taken a wrong turn and lost them this time. She was even more concerned when rocky cliffs rose up around them and there was a fork in the narrow path as it split in two directions.
“Which way?” she asked Alfie.
He pulled his horse to a halt. “If we go to the right, that path will take us back down to the olive grove. To the left, there’s a canyon; it’s a dead-end.”
As he said this, Angel raised his head and pricked his ears in the direction of the canyon and let out a whinny.
“He can hear something that we can’t,” Issie said. She pointed towards the dead-end canyon. “Come on, we’re going this way.”
“OK,” Alfie said, “but take it slowly from here,
and let me go in front. If the stallions are in this canyon then they’ll be corralled in by the canyon walls at that end. They may panic and try to get past us and I don’t want to end up with another fight on our hands.”
Issie agreed, and they cantered on in single file. As they rounded the bend, the canyon neck narrowed for a hundred metres or so, hemming them in, and then they emerged out the other side into an amphitheatre-like space, a dead-end canyon just as Alfie had said, with steep cliffs bordering it on every side. The rocky terrain was covered with trees and lantana bushes.
Alfie pointed beyond the lantana bushes. “Over there! Look!”
To the far right of the canyon Issie saw a horse moving and the dun stallion came into view. A moment later she spotted Margarita and Aliya. The mares were here too! Including Vega’s Laeticia and the three new additions that the stallions had just taken. The mares were nervously greeting each other with snorts and snuffles while the stallions stood back, looking pleased with their new harem.
“OK,” Issie whispered to Alfie. “So we’ve found them. Now what?”
“Issie,” Alfie hissed back, “this was your plan, remember?”
“OK, OK,” Issie said, “I know. Don’t rush me!” She looked down at the stallions. “If we try and get all the mares out by ourselves now, we might lose them again.”
Alfie nodded. “We need help.”
“You go back to the hacienda,” Issie told him. “Hopefully your dad and Avery will be back there by now. Get them and Francoise and some of the men. I’ll stay here and keep watch, and make sure they don’t go anywhere.”
“OK,” Alfie said. “Stay out of trouble. I’ll be back as soon as I can.”
He turned the Andalusian around and headed back towards the narrow mouth of the canyon. Issie watched him go, and then turned her attention back to the stallions and the mares.
The horses had moved away from the undergrowth to a patch of grassy flatland at the rear of the canyon. Most of the mares were grazing, but the three new mares still held their heads high and looked tense. It wasn’t
surprising, Issie thought. This morning they had been locked safely in their stalls at El Caballo Danza Magnifico. Now, here they were, being held hostage by a group of bachelor stallions.
Margarita seemed the most self-assured of the mares. She was definitely the alpha, the leader of the harem. She was also the mare that the Sorraia seemed the most interested in. Stallions often have favourite mares in a harem and it was clear that Margarita was the Sorraia’s chosen one. It was also clear that Margarita didn’t feel the same way about the Sorraia.
When the Sorraia trotted over to Margarita and began to try and affectionately groom her neck, the mare resisted, throwing up her head in defiance. The Sorraia grew angry at this. His authority in the herd was being threatened by this headstrong mare. He lunged at Margarita, his ears flattened back against his head as he tried to bite her hard on her neck. Margarita squealed and fought back, lashing out with her hind legs. The Sorraia dodged her hooves and came back at her again, plunging his teeth into the shoulder of the mare, this time drawing blood as he delivered a vicious bite. Margarita let out a heart-wrenching whinny as the
stallion bit deep into her flesh, and then another squeal as he dealt her a blow with his front hooves, striking her hard on the same shoulder. The blow caused Margarita to lose her balance and fall. As the mare went down, Issie suddenly couldn’t control herself any longer.
“No! Leave her alone!” Her voice rang out in the quiet of the canyon. The stallion stopped his attack on Margarita and looked in Issie’s direction. She froze. But it was too late. The Sorraia had seen her.
“Uh-oh…” Issie’s heart began to pound. The Sorraia still had his ears flat back and his eyes were filled with black hatred at the sight of the girl and the grey stallion. He was in battle mode, ready to strike. And Issie and Angel were his target.