Authors: Stacy Gregg
The stallion was trembling all over, nickering and stamping, flicking his head as if to say, “You’re back! Where have you been all this time? I missed you!”
At the far end of the corridor, Francoise D’arth watched this touching reunion and a faint smile crossed her lips. She had never seen a horse behave like that before, but then she had never known any horse and rider to have a bond as close as the one Issie shared with Storm. The girl loved the bay stallion and he had missed her dreadfully. But as Francoise knew only too well, it was not enough to love a horse. You must also have the skills to handle it. In the month to come, Issie would need to prove herself at El Caballo Danza Magnifico. But for now, Francoise stood back and let Isadora enjoy the reunion with her beloved horse. The girl would find out soon enough about the nature of the challenge that lay ahead.
When Storm was nothing more than a skinny-legged colt running around the paddocks at Winterflood Farm, Issie had trained him to come when she whistled. It was a cute trick to teach a foal, but it was a totally different story now he had become a fully-grown stallion.
“I’m sorry,” Issie called out to Francoise as she led Storm back up the corridor, “I can’t believe he still remembers my whistle.”
“It is my fault,” Francoise replied as she strode forward to meet them. “I should have anticipated his reaction. They say that horses do not remember as you and I do, but this is not always true. Some memories run so deep
they cannot be erased. He has not forgotten you, Isadora. That is quite clear.”
As if to confirm this, Storm gave another nicker and rubbed his handsome face up against Issie, using her as a scratching post just as he had always done in the padddock back home.
“Storm!” Francoise chastised the stallion. “Where are your manners? An El Caballo stallion doesn’t behave like that!”
Francoise took the lead rope and jiggled it to make him step back. Storm got the message and stood obediently while Francoise embraced Issie in the customary French way with a kiss on each cheek before adding a hug of her own.
“Welcome back to El Caballo Danza Magnifico, Isadora,” she smiled.
“It’s good to be back, Francoise,” Issie grinned.
Issie had been hoping that perhaps they could saddle up straight away. She was desperate to ride Storm for the first time and Francoise seemed to be reading her mind. “There will be time for riding soon enough,” the Frenchwoman said as she grasped Storm’s lead rope and began to guide him down the corridor back towards his
stall, “I don’t think Roberto would be impressed if I took his guest out for a gallop straight away. We should go back into the house and get you settled in.” She smiled at Issie. “That is, if you can possibly bear to be apart from Storm again!”
Issie laughed at this, but really she would rather have stayed out here, exhausted, grubby and jetlagged, and fallen asleep beside her horse on the straw in his stall than go to the luxury and comfort of her room in the Nunez hacienda. But Issie knew that would have sounded ungrateful, so she followed Francoise as she led the stallion back to his loose box.
“He has grown up so beautifully, hasn’t he? Look at his topline!” Francoise gestured at the ridge of muscle along the stallion’s neck just beneath the glossy, black mane. “You can see by the developing muscles that we have already begun his training in the dressage school. He is still too young for the advanced
manoeuvres. They will come later. We are taking things gradually, but already my riders think he shows great promise. Once he learns collection and paces he will be ready to progress to the ‘airs above ground’.”
Issie felt herself tense up. Francoise was talking about
Storm as if he still had more training to come. But how could that be possible when they were here to take him home to Chevalier Point? Francoise was acting as if he wasn’t actually going to leave El Caballo Danza Magnifico!
“We’ll keep training him when we get him home, of course,” Issie said, hoping that she was subtly making it clear that she expected to take the colt back with her, “but dressage isn’t really my priority. Avery believes Storm will be a great prospect as an eventer.”
Francoise looked serious. “We have had long discussions about this, Tom and I. When you first agreed to keep the colt with us, it was so that he could be schooled as a classical dressage horse. And, as I have been trying to impress upon Tom, his training has not yet finished.”
“What do you mean, he hasn’t finished?” Issie was getting edgy. “I’m here to take him home.”
Francoise frowned. “But surely you know about this? I made it clear to Avery that I could not permit you to take Storm away now. The stallion’s basic training has begun, but he has yet to learn the truly advanced moves of dressage. It would be wrong to drag him out of the best classical school in the world when you could not
possibly complete his training back home in Chevalier Point. Only an
rider will do for a horse such as Storm. That is why we came to the arrangement.”
Issie was taken aback. “Arrangement? What arrangement?” This couldn’t be happening! “I’ve come all this way and now you’re telling me I can’t take my own horse home?”
!” Francoise shook her head. “That is not what I am saying. Of course you will take him.” She paused. “But first, you must fulfil your side of bargain. That was the deal that I struck with Tom.”
The conversation had grown tense. Issie desperately wanted to make a childish snatch and take back the stallion’s lead rope. She was jetlagged and on the verge of tears, trying to behave like an adult. But Issie didn’t feel very grown-up. She didn’t want to be having this conversation. She just wanted her horse.
Footsteps echoed in the stable block, and Francoise and Issie both turned to see Avery walking up the corridor to join them.
Francoise emphatically slid the bolt on the door, as if to make a point that the stallion was still under El Caballo lock and key, and then turned to face Avery
with her hands on her hips. “I assumed you would have explained it to her by now. What is going on here?”
Francoise’s abruptness took Avery by surprise. “Well, bonjour to you too!” he smiled at her. “I was expecting at least a French kiss on the cheek before we started fighting.”
His amused expression seemed to infuriate Francoise. “Do not be cute with me! We made a contract. And, since it involves Isadora too, I thought you would have told her about it.”
Avery’s smile disappeared. “I did tell her. I said that we would be staying here for at least a month to fulfil the terms of the training contract.”
Francoise shook her head as if she was trying to rearrange jigsaw-puzzle pieces inside her brain. “But you didn’t tell her anything more than that?”
“Hey!” Issie was getting fed up with the to-and-fro between Avery and Francoise. “I’m standing right here! Will you please stop bickering and tell me what’s going on?”
Francoise cast a sullen look at Avery then turned to Issie. “If you want to take Storm home to Chevalier Point, you must know how to train him first.”
“I know how to train a horse,” Issie frowned. “I’ve schooled Fortune and Comet. I’m quite capable of teaching Storm the basics…”
“No,” Francoise interrupted her, “not the basics, Isadora. If you want to take Storm you must know how to continue his dressage education. You must learn the ways of classical dressage so that you can ride the
Issie was gobsmacked. “You’re kidding me, right? Francoise, I can barely get through a dressage test for a one-day event. I can’t do any fancy moves!”
“Believe me, Issie,” Avery interjected, “Francoise is only too aware of your limitations when it comes to dressage.”
“Tom has told me about your riding on the eventing circuit,” Francoise continued. “Your dressage tests are, without fail, sub-standard. This is why I insisted that you must stay and learn
“You agreed to this?” Issie was stunned. “It’s like you’re checking me into some kind of dressage rehab! You’re both ganging up on me!”
“It’s not like that,” Avery said. “You might not realise it now, but you will benefit enormously from what Francoise is suggesting.”
“You will have a month at El Caballo training in the dressage school with my riders,” Francoise explained. “The performers are all in training mode preparing their new routines for the upcoming touring season, so the timing couldn’t be better. You will train with the school as if you were one of them. It is a great honour, as I am sure you can appreciate. These riders are some of the best horsemen in the world. Their knowledge of dressage is second to none.”
Francoise was right. Her riders were amazing. The manoeuvres they could perform on their horses were nothing short of astonishing to watch. But Issie had never imagined herself in the same league. She wasn’t capable of performing this intricate ballet on horseback. She would only embarrass herself in front of Francoise’s riders. It sounded like a nightmare to Issie, but her fate had been sealed before she even set foot on Spanish soil. Avery and Francoise had agreed to this. She had to learn the
or she would not be allowed to take Storm home with her. She did not doubt that Francoise was quite serious about this. Or that Avery had agreed to it. She knew that neither of these formidable trainers would take no for an answer.
“OK, but I don’t understand how I’m going to do this,” Issie frowned. “You said a minute ago that Storm was still too young to learn
“He is,” Francoise confirmed. “You will not be riding Storm in the school. You will be riding another horse.”
Francoise turned on her heels and led Issie and Avery further down the corridor of the stallions’ stables until they reached the stall at the end. Here she swung open the top of the Dutch door to reveal the horse that stood inside.
The stallion was almost as tall as Storm, sixteen-two hands high. His face had the noble bearing of a classical Andalusian with wide-set, soulful eyes and a dark, sooty muzzle. He was a grey, but his dapples had long ago faded so he was as creamy white as parchment. His long mane was like gossamer silk and it tumbled and cascaded over his broad neck and down his powerful shoulders. Only one thing marred this stallion’s pure and exquisite beauty – on the bridge of his Roman nose, just where the noseband of a bridle rests, were tiny jagged scars where once there had been deep cuts in the stallion’s flesh. The wounds were very old now and had healed over with time. Issie knew exactly how the stallion had
received these scars – from wearing a cruel
bridle in the hands of Miguel Vega.
She reached up and stroked the stallion’s soft muzzle, touching the scar tissue tenderly as she looked deep into his dark, liquid eyes.
“Hello, Angel,” she said softly to him. “It’s me. I’ve come back.”
Mrs Brown was astonished when Issie told her that dinner at El Caballo Danza Magnifico was at 10 p.m.
“But that’s the time I usually go to bed!”
“They do things differently here in Spain,” Issie told her. “There’s an afternoon siesta and then we eat dinner late.”
The Spanish afternoon siesta was the perfect way to sleep off their jetlag. Issie had been given the same room as last time, on the second floor with its own balcony overlooking the cobbled courtyard. Like the rest of the house, the room had dark-polished wood floors strewn with colourful, Moorish rugs. The walls of the bedroom were rustic plaster, tinted deep pink,
and hung with ornate mirrors. Issie had flopped down on the rainbow-striped bedspread and fallen straight to sleep. When she woke up she was utterly starving and it was nearly 10 p.m.
Downstairs the massive dining table was decorated with vases of orange roses and was heaving with food. There was ‘rich man’s paella’ made with squid and spicy sausage, served with tomato bread, olives, and a huge plate of fried calamari and salt cod. To drink there was orange juice from the El Caballo’s orchard and red wine. Roberto poured them each a drink, then raised his own glass aloft.
“I would like to welcome back old friends,” he said, then smiled at Mrs Brown, “and new ones as well.”
Mrs Brown had helped Roberto to prepare the dinner that evening, and their vigorous discussions of Spanish food had prompted Roberto to mention the
– the country fair that was being held in the village that weekend. The
was a big event for the district, with food and dancing and, of course, all the local horse breeders with their best mares and stallions on display.
“It sounds amazing!” Mrs Brown enthused. “I’d love to go!”
Roberto smiled. “Excellent. We will all ride there
together. I have a beautiful stallion, Ferdinand. He is so docile and kind he will be the perfect horse for you to ride. I shall make sure the stable hands prepare him for you.”
“All right,” Mrs Brown said nervously.
Issie gave a gasp and nearly choked on a mouthful of paella.
“What? Mum, you’re going to ride?”
“Isadora,” her mum laughed, “I’m sure if Roberto says the horse is suitable for me then I’ll be fine.”
Issie couldn’t believe it. Neither could Alfie, who was sitting beside her. “I thought your mother was terrified of horses?” he whispered to Issie.
“She is!” Issie whispered back.
“It’s nice for Dad to have company his own age,” Alfie noted. “He’s alone quite a lot, while we’re away touring with the horses.”
Roberto Nunez was a widower. Alfie’s mum had died when he was only six and Roberto had never remarried. Roberto was a bit like her mum, Issie thought. Mrs Brown had split up with Issie’s dad when Issie was nine and she had been on her own ever since, bringing up Issie single-handedly.
Issie only wished that Francoise and Avery were getting along as well as her mum and Roberto seemed to be. The trainers spent most of the dinner bickering about the smallest, inconsequential things. It had started when Avery had commented on how nice Francoise’s hair looked, swept back off her face and arranged in a twist in the Spanish style, with a large tortoiseshell comb holding it in place.
“So you do not like my hair when it is worn down?” Francoise had countered.
“I never said that,” Avery was taken aback. “I only said it looked very nice tonight.”
“You know,” Francoise said, “I did not put my hair up like this just so I could get comments from you.”
“You mean you’d prefer it if I didn’t say that your hair looked nice?” Avery was confused.
“Exactly!” Francoise said.
Roberto, meanwhile, had noticed that Issie was not her usual self. “You have been very quiet tonight, Isadora,” Roberto noted. “I thought you would be excited about beginning your
“Umm,” Issie didn’t know how to answer this. “I guess so.”
Roberto frowned. “That does not sound like enthusiasm to me.”
Issie picked at her paella with her fork. “I’m not cut out for dressage,” she admitted. “I’m more of a cross-country kind of rider, I guess.”
“Ah yes, I have heard all about your plans to become an eventer,” Roberto nodded sagely. “When I began my riding career as an eventer I too had little regard for the classical art. But once you see the beauty of the
perhaps you will learn to appreciate it. You will certainly find that the next few months here with us will not be wasted…”
“A few months!” Issie forgot her manners once more. “How long is this going to take?”
“It takes a lifetime to master the
,” Roberto answered.
“I don’t have a lifetime. I only have five weeks,” Issie said. “I need to get back to Chevalier Point. The new season will be starting and—”
“These things cannot be rushed. You will be able to leave when you are capable of looking after the Little One and know how to train him correctly,” Roberto said firmly.
Issie began to protest, casting a pleading look at Avery,
but her complaints were cut short by a hammering at the front door.
“Are we expecting any company?” Roberto asked, looking at Francoise and Alfie. Both of them shook their heads. It was eleven o’clock at night. Even by Spanish standards, it was late for a visitor to be calling.
Roberto stood up from the table and was about to get the door when the banging stopped and footsteps echoed in the hall. The dining-room door suddenly swung open and standing there in front of them was the squat, tubby figure of Miguel Vega.
“What?” Vega demanded. “You do not answer your front door when someone is knocking?”
“You hardly gave me the chance!” Roberto Nunez replied. He was too amused by Vega’s sheer cheek to be truly outraged by his neighbour barging in. “What do you want, Miguel?”
Vega didn’t answer. His eyes had widened at the sight of Isadora.
“Aha!” he grinned like a hyena. “The chica! The little girl who beat me in the race! I should have known she was behind this!”
“What are you talking about, Vega?” Roberto Nunez
was losing his good humour rapidly. “You storm into my house and…”
“Do not try to blame this on me!” Vega shot back. “You know what you have done, Roberto. No doubt the girl was involved. Well you will not get away with it! Give her back!”
Roberto was baffled. He looked at Isadora.
“No, no!” Vega shook his head. “Not the girl. I don’t want her back. I want the mare. The one you stole from me!”
“What?” Roberto was stunned.
“Hand her back now and we will say no more about it,” Vega said. There were beads of sweat appearing in the furrows of his brow, glistening beneath the black oil slick of his hairline.
Roberto Nunez’s voice became cool. He was no longer amused. “If there is a mare missing from your herd then it is none of our affair.”
“Your land borders mine,” Vega replied. “It had to be you. I have just brought my herd in for the evening and Laeticia is gone. She was one of my favourites. A great breeding mare and I know that you have long admired her too, so do not play games with me!”
“Miguel,” Roberto said stiffly. “I think you need to leave now. To accuse a man of theft in this way is a very serious business.”
“But you accused me of it once!” Vega shot back.
“Yes,” Roberto conceded, “but then you had stolen Nightstorm, hadn’t you?”
Vega shrugged. He couldn’t argue with this logic since he had indeed stolen Issie’s colt.
“You have my word as a gentleman that I had nothing to do with your mare’s disappearance.” Roberto continued, “Our own mares were disturbed recently. Perhaps this is not an isolated occurrence. If so, then all of our horses may be in danger. Instead of charging about like madmen we should be working together to solve this problem.”
Vega’s lip curled beneath his moustache. The whole time he had been speaking, he had also been making furtive, greedy glances at Francoise, who sat silently at the table. “Perhaps you are right, Roberto,” he said with a greasy grin, “we should work together. Perhaps the lovely Francoise might accompany me on a ride around the farm in the moonlight to look for my mare?”
Francoise had long ago learned to ignore Vega’s
romantic attentions, but that never seemed to stop him from pestering her with leering stares or asking her out. She gave Vega a cool stare. “I don’t think that would be a good idea. There is no point in looking for the mare in the darkness.”
“What a pity!” Vega said, his eyes still fixed on her. “A moonlight ride is so romantic and you do look so lovely tonight, my dear Francoise. Your hair looks very nice.”
Vega gave a bow to Francoise and then a nod to Roberto as he took his leave, slamming the door shut behind him.
There was silence at the dinner table as all eyes turned to Francoise. “That is it!” she snapped. “There will be no more talk about my hair ever again!”
Issie bit her lip but it was no good. She took one look at Alfie and the pair of them collapsed into fits of giggles.
After dinner Issie went to bed, still puzzling over the mystery of the missing horse. Normally she might have considered Vega’s story to be some kind of cunning
ruse to divert suspicion. And yet she didn’t think so this time. She had seen the genuine fury on Vega’s face when he stormed through that door, and the look of concern too. Vega was jealously possessive of his horses. He was clearly worried about the missing mare, Laeticia.
Issie lay awake for a long time thinking about this, before she eventually fell asleep. In her dreams Spanish castanets were clack-clacking away. The clacking became louder and louder and then an even louder noise jolted her out of her slumber. It was the sound of a horse whinnying. Drowsy and jetlagged, she realised that the first sound she’d heard hadn’t been castanets at all, but hoofbeats on the cobblestones directly outside her balcony window.
Issie got out of bed and padded across the wooden floor to the balcony. Down below in the courtyard, illuminated in the moonlight of this warm summer night, was a grey horse. Not an enormous elegant breed like the Lipizzaners in the stallions’ stables, but a pony. Not much more than fourteen hands high, and very old, with a sway back and just the slightest smattering of faded dapples on his rump. He had a snowy white
face and his eyes were deep black. The pony stared up at Issie expectantly, stamping and pacing. How long had he been there? She had been in such a deep sleep and now to wake and find him here once more! She felt her heart racing.
“Mystic!” she whispered down to him. “It’s OK, I’m coming!”
It took her ages to find her jodhpurs in her suitcase. As she hopped about on one foot trying to yank them on without making too much noise, Issie tried to stay calm. She needed to hurry. Mystic’s arrival must mean that something was wrong. The last time he had turned up here it was to help her save Nightstorm’s life. Did this mean that her stallion was in danger again?
Issie no longer questioned Mystic’s instinctive ability to be in the right place when trouble was brewing. The grey pony acted as a guardian both to Issie and her horses. It had been that way ever since the fateful day, almost four years ago at Chevalier Point Pony Club. Issie and Mystic had been trying to herd a group of runaway ponies back from the main road when the accident happened. Issie had risked her life to save the ponies and if it hadn’t been for Mystic rearing up to protect
her, throwing her clear of the path of the truck, she would have undoubtedly been killed. Issie had been devastated when she woke up in a hospital ward to discover that Mystic had taken the blow of the oncoming truck in her place and paid the ultimate price for his bravery.
Losing her beloved pony had left Issie’s heart shattered in a million pieces. She truly believed she would never recover. But then she was forced to pull herself together when Avery turned up with Blaze. The beautiful Anglo-Arab mare had been dreadfully mistreated and it was Avery’s job working for Horse Welfare to find the mare a good home. Issie’s heart opened up to this mare immediately. Together the girl and the horse healed each other and Issie began to ride again.
Blaze had her own secrets too. The mare had once belonged to the El Caballo Danza Magnifico and as Issie found out the truth about her, she realised just how lucky she was to have a horse as special as Blaze. As for Mystic, Issie had thought that she had lost him forever. But the unique bond that she shared with the grey pony was not so easy to break. Their destinies remained tied together and Mystic came back to her,
returning whenever Issie and her horses really needed him. Not as a ghost either, but a real horse, flesh and blood, just as he was right now outside the bedroom window.
“I’m coming,” Issie muttered to herself as she searched her suitcase for riding boots. In the end she gave up – it would be quieter to leave the hacienda barefoot anyway. She padded down the stairs and slipped out of the front door.
“Mystic!” she hissed. There was a nicker in reply. Mystic was standing in the shadow of the archway. She could see his coal-black eyes shining in the moonlight.
Issie ran down the steps to greet her pony, flinging her arms around his neck and breathing in his sweet, warm smell. She felt the coarse, ropey fibres of his long, silvery mane pressing into her cheek as she hugged him.
Mystic was agitated, pacing back and forth, anxious to get moving. Issie sensed the tension in him and didn’t waste any more time. Using the front steps of the hacienda as a mounting block, she vaulted up on to the grey pony’s back. She was accustomed to riding Mystic bareback and didn’t need a bridle. Mystic would know
where to go, all Issie needed to do was wrap her hands in the pony’s long mane and hang on.
As Mystic trotted across the cobbles, Issie thought he was taking her to the stable blocks within the hacienda compound. The stallions, including Nightstorm, were locked away in their loose boxes, and Issie was certain that Mystic was here to protect Storm from danger – perhaps the same threat that Roberto and the others had seen off just a few nights ago.
But Mystic didn’t go towards either of the stables. Instead, he trotted past the fountain, heading towards the main gate of the compound.