Argo reviews the highs and lows of her life with the humans she adopted in “Greener Pastures: A Horse’s Tale.” There are references to several “XENA” episodes from Seasons 1-5. Thanks to Edward Mazzeri for his 2004 Whoosh! article, “Horse As House: Equine Iconography and Domesticity in XENA: WARRIOR PRINCESS,” which inspired the “A Stable Life” section of this story. - IQ
The Clanky One perches on the fence, staring at me like an old bird. He does that a lot lately. I think he knows I will not be around much longer. I do not mind. I find him comforting. No doubt we have that in common, as we are all we have of our days of glory. We are what humans call “out to pasture,” meaning in my case they put me to use I once thought myself too good for. Hauling. Breeding. Training little humans. Doing nothing at all while they gawk at me as though I am still the warhorse I once was.
He has not worn that loud armor of his for some time, not that his inability to sneak up on anyone would have helped him much. His heart as a warrior was always greater than what he could do with his hands. Perhaps I still call him the Clanky One because of the sounds I miss. I believe he does too. Of battles. My hooves beating the earth. The crackling of fire humans make. The voices of the two who gave purpose to our time. When he talks to me, he uses their names in a way he seems to think I will understand. I nod and speak in my own language to let him know I do, even though I also think of them by who they are to me.
My Warrior. She became so the moment I smelled the blood and death in her and had the feeling I would be the one to carry her through that. I did. Well, except for the time I feared I had lost her to it. I do not like to think about that. I prefer remembering how she fought herself, how we fought together against the hurt that humans do for reasons I will never understand. She was more like my kind – satisfied to take or keep or defend what was needed to survive. We did not waste bodies that meant us no harm, nor grass another could use. Maybe she did before me, but I like to think she followed my lead.
As for the Companion, I called her the Noisy One at first. I could not see what she did besides disrupt the silence My Warrior and I took for granted. But she learned to fight and survive many battles, helped protect and even save us. She differed in that her purpose seemed not to kill or die. The life she brought us was one of the few things My Warrior did not appear so skilled at doing on her own. As much credit as I give myself, I am not sure My Warrior would have fared as well without the small intruder at her side.
Being the breed I am, I accepted My Warrior could die. (Before she made a habit of coming back from the dead, that is.) I am not sure the Companion ever did. She saw more in My Warrior than blood and death. She would prod us to rein ourselves in, to do what we had not asked of ourselves before. I learned different degrees of kicking or galloping amidst our enemies. Became accustomed, like My Warrior, to allowing more of them to get up, than to taking away any chance they would ever rise from the dirt. The Companion and I had that in common – believing we could carry My Warrior beyond what we knew to be inside her, in our loyalty to keeping our noses pointed in the right direction. I will admit the Companion’s way had a certain efficiency, in that it often meant less waste.
The Companion and I drew closer that first time I thought My Warrior dead. I suspected something wrong when the Companion rode me into battle wearing My Warrior’s things. She was never as good as My Warrior – no one was – so I did not fault her for what happened. She tried to fight her captors as they tied My Warrior’s body between me and another horse. She need not have worried. I let the other horse know we would stand our ground, however much the enemy whipped us into pulling My Warrior’s limbs apart. I was as surprised as anyone when she rose and stopped them from striking me again. I should have known, as neither of us would ever let someone dishonor the other in such a way.
The second time, My Warrior was still alive when the Companion tried to save her. She took a blade in her thigh when My Warrior lay helpless from a run-in with a tree. She hitched a bed to me, to bear My Warrior toward help. She trudged through the snow of mountains, once dropping to the ground next to My Warrior as though she too would not get up. I had to prod her, but we made it to a place where a male human laid gentle hands on My Warrior and took her inside. When they carried her out, I knew it was only her shell.
The Companion tied a box behind me that I figured contained My Warrior’s remains. She seemed lifeless as well. She still moved, but without the noise that used to annoy me so. She reminded me of My Warrior when we first met – without purpose. She would throw herself on that box, making sounds my kind do when we have lost one of our own.
We dragged the box first in one direction, then to a place with female warriors who made a fire under it. Suddenly a male human leapt upon me, and we pulled the box to safety. Why did I obey him? I know this may sound impossible, but he acted like My Warrior. Wherever it was we ended up, whatever happened there, My Warrior sure enough came back. If you had experienced as many strange things as I, you too would put nothing past her. Her ability to conquer death even rubbed off on those of us who traveled with her.
I recall one time in particular. Actually it was many times, but they immediately followed one another and were very much like the preceding time, so that they all seemed to be the same. Except for the deaths that occurred. I saw the bodies of the Clanky One and Companion go up in flames, yet they appeared – alive – the next sun. I believed myself killed by an angry human, but there I was, back on my feet in the stables as before. Another time, none of my humans returned. I saw the Clanky One die again, now at the hand of My Warrior. I know that sounds unlike her, but by then she and I were both pretty sure her act would not prove fatal.
I do not think the other two knew what was happening. They stared at My Warrior when she threw herself about in frustration. She and I shared a special bond. She could talk to me about our situation, but had to bind and gag her humans. As usual, she figured how to move us forward so that we no longer died over and over. I cannot say that was entirely good. Many bad things happened after. I soon longed for those repeating suns that became so familiar, when I had some confidence everything would work out all right.
Death is to be expected, even for those who do not stay dead. But losing them when they are still living? I cannot count how often I had trouble finding My Warrior because of that other habit of hers – disappearing from her own body or appearing in someone else’s. Once she rode me with both her legs to one side, directing me as though we had both become creatures with no spines. She nearly took my ears off with that round weapon of hers. Brushed my tail so much as to test my patience beyond anything she had ever made me endure. The Companion seemed equally puzzled, until we realized is was not My Warrior at all, but one of many humans who looked exactly like her.
My Warrior became confused with another human who raises my hairs such that no amount of time or brushing could subdue. The Rotten One. She looked nothing like My Warrior. She did have the same smell of blood and death about her, but hers was more the stench of something decayed, past salvaging. She gloried in it as if she had no purpose other than to make the rest of us lose our oats. She certainly made it her business to bring misery to My Warrior, the Companion and me.
The worst was when The Rotten One came upon us after My Warrior had defeated her. Except she came in the shell of My Warrior. My instincts warned me. Before I had time to trust them, she had sliced me open and left me to die. Next I know, someone looking like the Rotten One is hovering over me, tending my wound, soothing me like My Warrior would. The Companion and Clanky One tried to fight her at first, then acted as if maybe she was My Warrior after all. Once I healed, she indeed traveled with us awhile, until My Warrior suddenly rejoined us as herself.
I do not believe it an accident that the Rotten One pretended to fight alongside us when I glimpsed a … Being … who this time wore the Companion’s face. Like the Rotten One, she smelled bad, but in a way that was not quite human. They all seemed headed for a large place inside which a battle took place. I do not know what happened. When My Warrior came out, I never saw the Being or Rotten One again. I thought perhaps My Warrior had killed them for killing the Companion, as she did not rejoin us either. My Warrior certainly acted so.
The stench of the Being and Rotten One lingered in our memories of what it was like having friends and enemies in the same shell. But as confusing as that was, it was not as bad as when my humans were not themselves when they were. Like the time My Warrior acted very strange, even rode me backwards for a while. Embarrassing. The Companion once suddenly developed the dead smell I had never sensed on her before – flew like a bat into a cave. Also embarrassing, although My Warrior and the Clanky One seemed to take the flying Companion seriously. Yet none of that was as bad as the time I most want to forget.
Whatever the cause, something happened between My Warrior and the Companion shortly after the repeating suns. The ease between them seemed especially unsettled since their return from one of their trips without me. They began drifting apart even when together, then one day went their separate ways. My Warrior was … beside … herself, her companion now the blood and death inside, which finally turned against her. It pains me to admit, she smelled a lot like the Rotten One.
She rode me as if she had become the Rotten One. She used …. She used her … whip. On me! On the Companion! Yes, she is like a wolf when attacked or defending. She will tear her prey’s throat out if needed. But I had not known her to hurt, to hunger for the blood of, her own. Certainly not me. Perhaps it was because she knew that I would not be proud to carry her on a mission so far off the course we had dedicated ourselves to.
We arrived at the place filled with the female warriors who had been our allies before. My Warrior hurtled off my back. She snarled at and fought the warriors. Suddenly the Clanky One appeared, carrying the Companion. My Warrior hit the Clanky One. She used her whip to snare the Companion. She leapt upon another horse and raced off … dragging … the Companion behind! I could not believe my eyes! I could not believe that I had suddenly lost everything – My Warrior, my pride, my purpose. Never before or after did my head hang so low.
Just as I thought I must go on marked by The Time of The Whip, my humans returned. I saw no marks on them. From the way they acted toward each other, they had healed inside as well. I suppose it is hard to feel the quickening of blood at seeing someone unless you miss them for awhile, but that was another of my humans’ habits that no doubt hastened my trip “out to pasture.” No sooner had I begun getting comfortable, than we were nearly separated again!
It resulted from an affliction humans call “hard head.” The Companion had hobbled herself trying to imitate My Warrior. An enemy soon appeared. My Warrior ordered me to take the Companion to safety. I obeyed the Companion instead. She turned me around to help some human briefly traveling with us, only to be hurt again, this time by an arrow. My Warrior tended the Companion, but I could tell from her slumped posture on my back that the wound was bad. They argued after the other human left. As usual, I think the Companion won.
They hid in a small place. Not a good sign, considering the mounted army I sensed headed our way. My Warrior came out alone. She took off my saddle with a face that suggested she would not be needing me anymore. I accepted my humans could not always take me with them, with the understanding the separation would not be permanent. Yet once again My Warrior decided to shoo me off so they could die without me. More “hard head.”
There was no shame in my leaving as commanded. Still, I felt I had let My Warrior down. I only pretended to obey. (Perhaps I caught “hard head” from them.) I watched the riders attack – more of them than even My warrior could fight by herself. I would have chomped at the bit if she’d left me one, frightened nearly to death at the screams and weapons clashing inside, more afraid when the sounds finally ceased.
Oh, how happy I was when, sure enough, My Warrior came back out and whistled for me. She laughed when I trotted up too quickly to have gone as far as I should. I snorted a little to impress upon her my better judgment, but otherwise did not rub it in when she put her arms around my neck.
I was not so forgiving the next time. This was when I thought the Companion dead from the battle involving the Rotten One and the Being. Once more My Warrior seemed without purpose. When the fire blazed within her again, I feared it would burn her to nothing. We rode hard until we both might drop. We finally stopped in the middle of nowhere, loose dark earth stretching as far as I could see. She dismounted. To change horses. No doubt for yet another trip where she would die and did not want to take me with her.
I felt sorry for the other horse who would probably die in my place. My place. She left me without a backward glance. I know it was because she could not bear looking me in the eye, that we would both see the shame of abandoning our purpose to the unknown. I watched her make tracks away into the distance, until she disappeared. It was like the first time I had trouble sensing her, shortly before the Companion joined us. She had returned to me then, just as she returned from death later. What could I do, besides wait for her as always?
I trotted back in the direction we had come, to the place where we first found each other. I spent many suns and moons on my own there. At last I sensed her! The Companion was now with her, along with the Clanky One. I felt like a filly again, except this time I knew where I belonged. Still, My Warrior would have to win me over like before. I needed to remind her that I was the one to ride her to our deaths.
I left tracks for her to follow, let her glimpse me, pranced off at her whistle. I let one of her enemies capture me. I know he was nothing like her, but he took care of me as though he knew my worth. When My Warrior saw him mounted on me, I could tell she wore my shoes when I had to watch her choose another horse. I admit, I did not “be nice,” even as we finally stood face to face in the enemy’s camp. Even as she attempted to make peace and pull me with her. Even as she had to flee alone. I am her horse, after all. Hard as steel when called for.
Her opponent came and climbed aboard me. I soon discovered My Warrior was our prey. Ah, but she is a smart one. She could always see through me. She planted herself, weaponless, in my path – her way I suppose of acknowledging she had learned that only I should ride her to death. I tossed her opponent over my head. I rejoiced at the feel of her on my back again, reuniting to defeat an enemy like before. But I do have my pride. Like her, I did not feel the need to explain myself. I let her think I had abandoned her for apples. Neighhhhh!
My Warrior had many faces that can fool. No fences staking out where to find her. No time when you could always guess that she would or would not appear. But when she sat astride me, there was little doubt who she was, that we were brave and fierce opponents who could stop trouble simply by standing there in its face. Any warhorse would glory in that – in the battles that bear my hoof prints, the travels I have made, the many skills required to keep up with a warrior as great as mine. I do. Yet I believe it is what I became away from the battlefield that outpaces just any warhorse.
I was more than a weapon or one big saddlebag. More than some animal that carried humans for no purpose, bound by force to whichever human survived to ride me next. I was tied to the humans who lived like me, but by heart and purpose. In our case, I served as my humans’ stable, the ground they returned to after traveling far away or being close by. Except for me, they had no other place they called their own.
Whatever my humans needed to eat, to rest, to protect or dress themselves, they stored on me. I carried the “scrolls” which the Companion used for mysterious purposes out in the open and My Warrior in the bushes. When it became dark, they would build their fire and lie down under my guard. They played in the sun and water as though my amusement or disapproval mattered. They sought my advice or to win me over for “two against one.” They often talked to and brushed me when unease grew inside or between them. I believe it calmed them to know I would be there no matter what other humans or places came and went.
A particular time did test my nerves and loyalty. It was after My Warrior and I had abandoned each other and reunited. Something seemed unsettled. Not between my humans so much, as around My Warrior. There was nothing new about the Companion acting like a bird flitting about, but My Warrior treated her like she might fly away. Sometimes it seemed My Warrior might fly away. It was if she did not know which way to go, or whether to go at all.
She and the Companion took a succession of trips. It would not surprise me if they died while they were gone, as something usually changed when they did. Like the clothes and weapons My Warrior now wore. She was herself again, though heavier than I recalled. She swayed in the saddle sometimes as though not alert. She would take food in, then lean over me and let it out. I should have guessed, being a mare, but one forgets such things living with warriors. I did not have to guess anymore, when the lump growing in My Warrior went away, replaced by a crying, kicking tiny human.
We added another to our family during this time. A young stallion we found injured. He and the Companion took to each other. Like me, he had spirit. Unlike me with My Warrior, he was not immediately certain the Companion might be worth his freedom. I could not in all honesty encourage him. Our work required skills from both rider and mount which neither of these two yet possessed. But when, on his own, he bolted from the stables to aid the Companion in defeating an attacker, I knew his heart to be a good enough match for her own. They could be taught whatever else they needed to know. As it happened, they both proved their worth sooner than I expected.
My Warrior’s tiny one meant more problems than even the Companion when she first began traveling with us. Now the Companion stood in front, fighting like My Warrior, to protect the little one before and after its birth. Our life became devoted to running from the trouble this new part of My Warrior brought with it – storms, armies, beings who could throw fire from their hands. Perhaps they are still running. If so, it has been without me, the stallion or the Clanky One.
I will never forget that day the Clanky One finally gave the stallion his freedom and took me with him for good. If it had been anyone else, I would not have consented. He too had witnessed my humans die and come back. He had braved everything I had, flicked his ears at the doubts of others – never giving up on my humans’ ability to triumph. I knew he would not abandon his search for them without sound reason. This time, the wait had gone out of him, along with his funny face and walk. He wrapped his arms around my neck. I could tell from the wetness he left on my coat that he would have to stand in for my humans.
I tried not to blame the little one who had brought such happiness to My Warrior. Now that I have borne my own, I understand a foal must go its own way, that you cannot always determine what that may mean. The Clanky One named my little filly “Argo” after me. She is frisky and smart. Strong. I am proud she will bear my spirit when this old frame is no more. The Clanky One and I have made sure she knows she is of good and special stock. We want her prepared in case she is called upon for greatness as was I.
My days have been brighter, recalling old times I share with my Argo. When she was younger, she liked the stories of how my humans tricked one another, fought over each other’s things, sent the poor Clanky One chasing after wild geese. As she matured, she preferred hearing of my own deeds. Her favorites are when I rushed in to get the Companion out of trouble that time she pretended to be my My Warrior, and when I helped dispatch a female human who meant to hurt My Warrior by hobbling me. She thinks it is funny that I treated the Companion like a skunk at first and that humans would say I had the most fierce warrior “eating out of my hands.”
I have taught my Argo not to judge humans by their horses. Two of the worst I encountered were light-haired female warriors with intelligent, skilled mounts. If someone else had ridden them, they might have brought honor to our kind. Instead, they did not have the heart to leave in search of the right warrior, as I did. They settled for brainless obedience, the certainty of needs without honor, the ease of wasteful victories. True, the worries My Warrior saddled me with might have broken a lesser mount. I did endure many a blood-red day and black night. Yet I knew no greener pastures. I can say I rode with the best – a true warhorse to the truest humans their kind could produce.
The Clanky One still rides off sometimes with surprising vigor, saying he may bring our humans back with him. I suspect it is more to satisfy his heart than his hope of ever seeing them again. As for me, they will always be out there frolicking in, fighting for, greener pastures. Perhaps My Warrior’s little one will come one day to claim my Argo. I hope so, as already she has standards like mine. She will not let anyone mount her. Maybe it is too late for me and My Warrior, but I believe my Argo will wait for someone as good. Her legs will bear me into the sunrise – the ending of one horse’s tale, the beginning of another’s, the continuation of a longer one that, like my humans, might just go on forever.
The Clanky One showed almost as much life as me this sun. I have never seen him prance so, certainly not since my mother fell and got up no more. I too miss her. She had taught me all she knew, but I never tired of hearing about her great deeds with Her Warrior and the Companion who traveled with them. With the Clanky One so sad, my suns have followed one another with little to keep me out of trouble.
I would be chomping at the bit, except neither he nor I will allow one near me. He lets me race around in the open sometimes. I practice the moves my mother said I would one day need for someone like Her Warrior. I wonder sometimes if he wants me to run free to find that warrior. He does not seem surprised when I always trot back. Perhaps we both believe he is the best guidepost for whatever awaits me.
All I know is that I felt the Clanky One’s excitement when he brought those two female humans to my corral. Mother always hoped Her Warrior’s little one would claim me some day. From the look and moves of the taller human, I thought maybe her dream had come true. She certainly stared at me as if she knew me. Something in my blood said she did.
In the blink of an eye, she had grabbed my mother’s old saddle, cinched it on me and jumped aboard. It did not occur to me to bolt. Instinctively I responded to her touch. We flew over the fence, galloped and circled as if with one mind. She rejoiced at how much I showed I was my mother’s foal, and I knew I had been right to wait for someone as good as Her Warrior. She is strong and skilled, has brave and commanding eyes, the hands of someone who knows how to treat a warhorse. True, I do not yet have battle experience, but I can tell from the weapons she carries that I soon will.
All the humans seem pleased by me. I believe I am the happiest of all. I have set out with them – the Clanky One, his young one and the strangers – for the wide open spaces. The Clanky One refers to the females by the names my mother said humans used for Her Warrior and the Companion. If they are the same, time has certainly been kinder to them than to my mother or the Clanky One. Perhaps they are indeed the next in line and, like me, were named after those who bore them. No matter. They smell of greener pastures and the life my mother promised me. I sense we will all bear our names with pride. All that has changed is what I call the taller one who rides me. Whoever she was before, she is My Warrior now.
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