Dale Miller had long ago mastered the art of translating advertisements for horses. He skipped the “experienced rider only” (bucks like a rodeo bronc); “great potential” (green as grass); and “spirited but gentle” (takes treats nicely, uncontrollable under saddle), hunting for anything resembling a jumper that wouldn’t kill him at the first fence. Eventually he settled on a Thoroughbred currently owned by what sounded like a college-bound Pony Clubber reluctantly giving up childish things, which often included very good horses indeed, and dialed the number.
The owner, fortyish, male, chubby, shook Dale’s hand with a flabby, pale grip that smacked of long hours indoors. “He’s my daughter Carrie’s,” he said as they slogged out past the small metal barn to a ten-acre pasture studded with show jumps set to a respectable height. “She’s fourteen and horse crazy. She’s gung-ho on learning to jump. I know zip about horses but I think Ethan’s a little too much for her.”
Dale surveyed the chestnut gelding trotting toward them. Sixteen-two or -three, tall without being gangly, good bone, beautiful conformation, and a fine head just now turned to watch him with the “Well? You ready to go?” look of an animal that liked to work. He nuzzled Dale’s palm trustingly and stood quietly while Dale ran his hands down the fine, straight legs, hunting old injuries, splints, cracked hooves, tenderness or heat. Nothing. He stood up, pleased and a little excited.
“I’d like to try him.”
“Help yourself.” Was that relief on the owner’s face?
A little warily, Dale fetched his tack and a lunge line from his car. Ethan—stupid name—trotted and cantered and walked obediently in circles on the line, displaying beautiful gaits. Dale led him over to the nearest jump, took down the top pole, and stood it at an angle against one of the uprights so the line wouldn’t snag. He stepped back, paid out fifteen feet of the thirty-foot line, and started the horse in a circle that would take it over the three-foot jump.
The chestnut put up his ears, gave an exuberant toss of his head, and cleared the rails with feet to spare. About twelve feet, in fact. Dale stared.
“See, now that’s a problem,” the owner said behind him.
Dale reeled in the gelding, who wanted to go around and do it again. He turned, absently soothing the chestnut with one hand, rubbing his eyes with the other. Clearly he was seeing things.
The owner shrugged. “The guy we bought him from said he liked to jump. He wasn’t kidding. Carrie can’t stick on that, no way.”
Angels couldn’t stick that landing. But, oh, Dale wanted to try.
“I think I can help you out,” he said.
He dickered the father down to twenty-five hundred and a trade for one of Dale’s rejects, a perfectly respectable mare who would never jump higher than four-six nor scare young Carrie out of the joys of riding, and hauled chestnut Ethan home.
He tucked the gelding up in his new stall and retired to the house to study the papers. No horse alive could jump fifteen feet; the world record was just over eight and hadn’t been equaled in seventy years. Dale, like every serious show jumper on the planet, pursued that record with the dedication of Robert Goddard pursuing the sky. Top-class jumpers sold for half a million bucks, but like every backyard rider, he dreamed of finding a jewel in some undiscovered pasture and riding it to glory.
He had not more than glanced at the Jockey Club papers when Carrie’s father signed them, transferring ownership. Now he discovered that the gelding’s name was not Ethan, but Aethon, a distinctly un-Thoroughbred sort of name. Curious, he fired up his laptop and dug back into the online registry, growing more and more puzzled. Somehow, Aethon’s ancestors had missed out on glory, descending quietly from great Eclipse through generations of nonentities to produce a red-gold chestnut who could jump the moon. His undistinguished line of non-achievers was conspicuous only by the old-fashioned flavor of their names: Pallas. Helios. Pyrios. Phlegon. He sat back finally, defeated. It didn’t really matter; a horse was as good as he was, not as good as his ancestors were, and Aethon had monster potential—if Dale could stick that killer landing.
He did not sleep much that night, excited as he had seldom been in his life. He had caught the horse bug bad when he was twelve, cadging lessons at local barns; fifteen years on, he was a good rider, but not yet good enough to attract the kind of sponsor who could get him past local A-system shows into the big leagues. But with Aethon in the barn…
With the sun still a sliver on the horizon he got up and slogged out to feed and muck the six horses whose training fees paid the rent. Aethon’s beautiful head came over the door as soon as he approached, greeting him with pricked ears and an eager whiffle down the nose. Dale stroked his muzzle in appreciation and managed to constrain himself long enough to let the poor beast eat breakfast before leading him out.
He rode quietly around the arena for a while, getting a feel for the big horse. Finally, keyed up and delighted to be partnered with the quivering power he could feel in every dancing step, he said, “Okay, bud. Let’s see what you’ve got. And take it easy on me, okay? No need to jump the moon.”
He kept a tight rein on the gelding’s enthusiasm by trotting the first fence, letting Aethon break to a canter only in the last two strides. The fence was three feet six; Aethon cleared a good six feet, snorting in disgust when he landed. He tried to grab the bit, his ears cocked toward the next fence.
“None of that,” Dale told him, checking him. Aethon answered with a flick of one ear and an impatient shake of his head.
“Oh, what the hell.” Dale eyed the wall in the center of the arena. Currently the fake stone stood at five feet six, just over the maximum height for Olympic fences. He rode Aethon around the arena at an easy canter, circled once, and did not let him rush the approach. One stride out he loosened the rein.
Aethon’s bunched hindquarters kicked the two of them skyward with the abandon of a missile. Dale found himself with a bug-catching grin on his face, his stomach dropping out and his heart clenching in sheer terror/delight/idiotic bliss. He caught a glimpse of the barn roof—from above—and that shocked him back to realization that this wasn’t jumping, this was flying. He committed the show jumper’s cardinal sin of looking down, and screeched in sheer surprise at sight of the ground a long way below. Aethon stretched toward landing, his front legs reaching, his body lined out cleanly under Dale, who had a sudden overpowering vision of his mount going straight over on impact, ducking his head to crash with killing force on top of his rider. He screamed, but it was already too late.
Aethon’s front hooves struck the ground like a jackhammer, catapulting Dale straight off over the horse’s shoulder. He landed with a thump he thought must fracture the earth and lay there with the smell of tanbark and dirt in his nostrils and one thought running through his head like a crazed squirrel in a cage.
That broke my back. That broke my back. Oh, God.
Aethon trotted up to him, shaking his head and snorting in high delight, his reins looping dangerously down near his knees. Afraid of getting stepped on, Dale instinctively rolled out of the way, and discovered his back was not broken. He did not even hurt. The soft footing in the arena had apparently done its job. Cautiously he sat up. It hit him then; he jerked around to stare at the big old-fashioned barn with its hayloft on the second story. Waaay too high to look down on from horseback. This horse needed an altimeter. Aethon puffed warm breath into his face, disconcerted to discover his rider on the ground. Dale kissed his soft nose and levered himself up. “I need a second opinion,” he muttered. He unsaddled Aethon and retreated to the house, leaving his new acquisition soaring happily over every jump in the arena.
It took him a while to find Jonathan’s number. After Dale got busy training and Jonathan sold the veterinary practice where Dale had worked his way through college, the long chats they had both enjoyed had dwindled to an occasional “Hi, you alive?” call. Guilt jabbed Dale as he dialed; that old man had taught him more about horses than any four of the expensive trainers he had worked with. Jonathan had treated him like a son, and like a son, Dale had managed to drift on and convince himself there would always be time to make it up to him.
“Hey, Jon!” he said brightly, and winced from the dumbfounded silence on the other end.
“Well, hey yourself,” the old voice came back presently. “This is a pleasant surprise.”
“I know. I suck at relationships. Um, you doing anything special right now?”
“Well, let me consult my social calendar. No.” In the space of about three milliseconds.
“I have a horse you need to see. I’ll come get you.”
But Dale had already hung up and was grabbing his car keys.
Jonathan, still rangy and unbent for all his seventy-odd years, blew an admiring whistle at first sight of Aethon still snorting around the arena. “Nice! Where’d you find him?”
“Traded a mare to a girl who needs something quieter. A lot quieter.”
Jonathan glanced at him. “You need help with him?”
The lean old shoulders sagged a fraction. Quickly Dale added, “I do have a problem sticking on him, but it’s not his fault. It’s just easier if I show you.”
He contented himself with a halter and a lunge line. Jonathan leaned on the fence with his arms folded on the top rail, watching as Dale put the chestnut through his paces and then unsnapped the line from the halter. Instantly Aethon wheeled and charged straight for the triple bar that happened to be nearest. And cleared it by ten feet.
Jonathan jerked up straighter. Dale walked over to stand beside him, watching as Aethon tore around the whole course by himself. The ground might as well have been a springboard, catapulting him over the higher fences. He nearly came to grief on the second line, a tricky in-and-out combination not really designed for a horse that could take the whole thing at once. For three awful seconds Dale thought Aethon was going to crash nose-first into the last fence in a pile of splintered rails and broken bones, but somehow the horse stretched himself mid-air and cleared it with a hoof-length to spare.
“My God,” Jonathan whispered. He stared as Aethon made the wall look like a pole on the ground and cantered up to them, blowing and pleased with himself.
Dale ran his hand up the sleek neck. “He’s not even sweating.”
Jonathan ducked through the rails. Slowly he ran his hands over every inch of the big gelding, his face unreadable. He slid a finger inside Aethon’s mouth and pried his lips open, checking his teeth for age, and finally stood just stroking his nose with the quiet passion of a man who loves horses above all other creatures.
“I want to see his papers.”
Dale laughed. “You witness the impossible, and that’s all you can say?”
Jonathan peered around Aethon’s muzzle at him. “Just get them, please.”
Puzzled, Dale went into the house and came back with Aethon’s pedigree. Jonathan looked at the nondescript names of the sire and dam, at the slightly more esoteric grandsire, and nodded.
“What?” Dale demanded.
Jonathan looked like someone had slipped him a jolt of ecstasy in his morning orange juice. “Helios,” he murmured.
“What?” Dale had never heard of Aethon’s grandsire.
“Let’s get online,” Jonathan said abruptly.
Dale shrugged and followed him into the house. Jonathan headed straight for Dale’s battered laptop and the Thoroughbred registry. He too scrolled backward through generations of horses, and Dale sensed excitement mounting in him with every screen of obscure names.
“What do you know that I don’t?” Dell finally asked, seeing him about to implode.
“I know that pi equals three point one four one five nine. I know that a wombat is an Australian marsupial often eaten by Tasmanian Devils. I know that—”
“All right, all right!” It was an old game and he had forgotten how very quick Jonathan was. “What do you know about Aethon?”
Jonathan’s blue eyes, still bright under smoke-gray eyebrows, met Dale’s with the sort of straightforward steadiness that used to herald news an animal’s owner did not want to hear. “It’s really a shame that schools today have no notion of what a classical education means,” he said. “On the other hand, if they did, you would not have been able to trade a no-talent mare for a direct descendant of one of the horses of Phoebus Apollo.”
Jonathan sighed. “The sun god? Greek myth?”
A vague memory floated through Dale’s head. “Uh, yeah. Maybe.”
Jonathan settled back in the desk chair. “Apollo was god of the sun in both Greek and Roman culture. Also known as Helios.”
Dale sucked in a sharp breath. Jonathan nodded. “The Greeks believed Apollo towed the sun across the sky with a chariot pulled by four divine horses. Shall I tell you their names?”
A slow shiver walked up Dale’s spine. “You’re nuts.”
Jonathan pretended not to hear. “Pyrios,” he said. “Phlegon. Aeos… and Aethon.”
“Oh, come on!”
“Do you have a better explanation for a horse than can jump fifteen feet straight up and fifty feet laterally?”
Dale sat down hard on the edge of the desk. He waggled his head in gentle denial, then found himself shaking it so hard his vision blurred. “No way. You’re crazy, Jon!”
“You explain it, then.”
A long silence stretched. Beyond the window, Aethon soared over the wall again, red tail flying. Red gold like the sun at dawn.
“What am I supposed to do with a flying horse?” Dale asked finally.
Jonathan looked at him as though he had warts for brains. “What would anyone do with a flying horse?”
“But—” Dale’s dreams of Olympic gold dissolved into a puff of technicolor dust. “I couldn’t campaign him. It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Competition isn’t always about the best horse,” Jonathan said sharply. “You let a horse rip around the course by himself and maybe one in a hundred will take it clean. The rest need a rider to tell them when to take off, to shorten stride, to turn, to switch leads, to go it anyway when the fence looks like a boogeyman. Aethon can jump, but you saw him. He hasn’t a clue how to deal with things he can’t just clear in a single bound.”
“Everybody would know!” Dale said, thinking of fifteen-foot leaps.
“Not if you teach him control. Are you a rider or a wannabe?”
Dale’s head jerked up. “Hey!”
Jonathan snorted. “Fate brings you the best horse you’ll ever ride, and you’re wondering if you ought to just fold up your tent and go find something safe to galumph around on.”
“That’s not fair!”
Jonathan started for the door. “When you’re ready to learn to ride, give me a call.”
Jonathan kept going, straight across to the arena to pat Aethon’s inquisitive nose. Dale hovered in the doorway, thinking about being banned for life from the sport he loved. If ever there was a ringer! But . . . Secretariat had raced his generation into the ground on the strength of a heart twice the size of that of a normal horse. The horse that set the world height record had never been equaled. Some horses were just better than others.
And some riders.
Dale shuddered, thinking of crashing from great heights, and went out to saddle Aethon.
Crash he did. Repeatedly. Jonathan threatened to put velcro on his riding breeches to stick him to the saddle. Aethon grew skittish, afraid of sudden downward jerks on the reins on the far side of the jump. They trotted fences until both Aethon and Dale wanted to just smash through them in sheer boredom, but Jonathan was relentless. He had trained many a jumper in his day, starting with his daughters’ backyard pets and progressing to a lucrative side business. As he once had corrected Dale’s rudimentary skills, so he now undid the conflicting advice of four ego-invested clinicians and went back to basics.
So they circled, and trotted over poles on the ground, and jumped low Xs, and taught Aethon that he did not need to expend all that glorious energy on every jump. Eventually he began to clear them by oh, ten feet, then seven, then four, then two. They left it there, because two was a comfortable margin, not flashy enough to reveal Aethon’s true nature, and Dale could stick those landings. After six months Jonathan judged it safe to maybe try a show.
Aethon, excited by the other horses, the milling crowd, and a couple of whipping flags, forgot half of everything and charged the first fence. Dale, desperate to keep him from leaping to the moon, hauled his head down as Aethon tried to bull his way over. They ended hopping through it on Aethon’s hind legs, scattering rails everywhere and tripping Aethon. Dale hit his head on a falling standard on the way down and woke up in the hospital.
They spent another four months in the indoor arena at Jonathan’s place as the rain pelted outside and Aethon slowly learned manners. Dale grew quietly desperate; an Olympic year was coming and he hadn’t even begun to qualify. They had to start campaigning right now, but Jonathan said wait.
So they waited another month until the first little Pony Club training show rolled around. Dale, nervous as a kid on a pony, nearly forgot the course when Aethon cleared the first fence and took the next two so fast they were up to the turn before Dale remembered which way they were supposed to go. They wobbled, recovered on the strength of Aethon’s lightning change of lead, and took the rest clean in a time that left the competition in the dust
“Okay,” Jonathan said, and put up the money for the first of the big qualifying shows.
To the instant displeasure of the in-crowd who had been competing against each other for years, jockeying genteelly for places on the U.S. equestrian team, Dale and Aethon placed third, knocking a rail down in the final round, to the relief of every rider in the place. Dale rode out of the arena feeling like Dr. Strangelove clinging to the outside of a rocket bound for imminent destruction.
“Relax,” Jonathan said. “Unless he suddenly takes off and flies, you’ve got it under control.”
Sponsors stepped up. Jonathan refused, managing Dale like a stage mother with the next Shirley Temple at her side. “I’ve got savings and nothing to spend them on,” he said gruffly to Dale’s protests. So they flew Aethon to Germany to the huge international show at Aachen, and won. They won again at the Olympic trials, and no one could deny them their spot on the team.
And Dale felt guilty.
“You chicken out now and I will leave you here,” Jonathan told him coldly in London.
“Do you see Aethon trying to fly? He’s sized up the competition. I wish you were as smart.”
It was true. Whether it was the grueling schedule or the mind of a equine throwback to the gods at work, Aethon had cut it close on several occasions. Was he spotting the other horses a few rails, trying not to show them up? The chestnut was scarily smart; maybe he was smart enough to make himself look ordinary.The jittery countdown to the Games ended in an interminable plane ride to Rio de Janeiro, exotic South America. Somehow Dale could not get into the Olympic experience. He still felt like he didn’t belong there. The other horses were just horses. The other riders did not have the advantage of knowing their four-footed partners were dialing it in rather than dialing it up. Ed Brown, the team captain, on his fourth Olympiad, had no way of knowing that it wasn’t fear of failing that made his newest team member so gloomy, but fear of winning.
The whole team cleared the initial rounds without trouble, advancing to the final in excellent position to win gold. For the first time Dale began to feel some of the excitement that had pulled him here. And some of the pressure. Aethon was not jumping well. He had dropped a rail in every round but the last one, coming second to a big black from Germany. Dale spent hours in his stall trying to figure out what was wrong, but Aethon kept his head averted, saving his friendly nuzzling for Jonathan.
“He’s mad at me,” Dale told Jonathan the night before the finals. “Why?”
Jonathan scratched under Aethon’s heavy red mane. The horse rested his chin on the old vet’s shoulder and sighed, his eyes half closed in content. “Don’t ask me. Ask him.”
Dale glared. “Don’t screw with me, Jon. This is too important.”
Dale nearly choked. “I thought to you. Why else did you burn through half your life savings?” Jonathan turned his head, his old eyes hard and ice-blue. “If I’m the only one who cares, let’s just pack up and go home now.”
“I care! Of course I care!”
“Then goddamn you, ride tomorrow like you mean it instead of letting Aethon do all the work!”
He slipped Aethon’s head off his shoulder and stomped out. A security guard farther down the row of stalls full of astronomically expensive horses looked around, curious. Hurriedly Dale waved, forcing a smile onto his face. After a moment the guard turned away. Dale rounded on Aethon.
“What’s he talking about, bud?”,/p>
He tried to pat Aethon’s neck; the chestnut shook his head violently, stinging Dale’s face with his whipping mane. Dale stepped back. “I haven’t a friggin’ clue what your problem is,” he flared, and stalked out of the barn.
He wandered through the stable area, shaking his head at foreign riders who smilingly stopped him to trade hat pins and souvenir flags. He ended up in the stadium, where the ground crews were setting the jumps for tomorrow. Big fences. Huge fences in colors as bright as Rio’s flamboyant heart. The course designer seemed big on oxers and verticals, double and single fences that dazzled the eye, but the wall dominated the course. Brilliant in red and gold, it looked like an Aztec fire god leering down at horse and rider, spouting flame that would consume them both. A ring of fake fire hung above it, looking like they must literally jump through fire to win.
Is that even legal? Dale wondered. Probably. The ring hung too high to do more than present a challenge in control for any ordinary horse and rider. But Aethon . . . he would see it as a challenge and try to clear it.
On any day but these Olympic days. What was the matter with the beast?
He did not sleep that night, and avoided his teammates in the morning, too aware of the excitement fizzing in their direction. The point standings were so close a single dropped rail or a slow round could put them out of the medals altogether.
Jonathan was already in the barn, polishing Aethon’s spotless hide with a finishing cloth. Dale had to smile at the sight of Aethon playing with him, trying to snatch the rag out of his hands. They both turned to look when Dale appeared. He blinked, for both wore exactly the same neutral expression.
“Morning,” Jonathan grunted.
“Yeah,” Dale said, hunting for something to say. What did that old man want? What did Aethon want? To win? Well, so did he.
Ed Brown spotted him and dragged him off to walk the course, pacing off the distances between jumps with his long legs, spouting advice to all and sundry. Dale tried to listen but it was his own steps he trusted, his own horse who knew more than any rider here. He memorized the course chart, listened to his competition exclaiming over the fiery wall in a dozen languages, and finally went back to the barn, his gut in a knot he could not get to unwind.
Jonathan was nowhere to be seen. Dale checked for eavesdroppers and slipped into Aethon’s stall to plead with his horse. “Aethon . . . tell me what’s wrong.”
Aethon would not look at him.
“Are you sore? Tired? Feeling sorry for the other horses?”
Aethon gave him a jaded look from one huge dark eye.
“Okay, so not the other horses. Why not? Don’t you feel just the least little bit superior?”
The chestnut stamped one front foot, hard. Abashed, Dale tried again. “You are superior, buddy. You don’t have to. . .”
What? Prove he was less, when he was really so much more?
He put out a hand, wanting more than anything in his life to just stroke that silky neck and have Aethon look at him like he used to. But Aethon edged away, disdaining his touch.
Dale stormed out of the stall and took a turn around the barn to cool off. And another. And another, caught in the throes of nervous energy he could not identify. He wanted to win. God, yes, he wanted to win. He wanted that medal on his wall. But he couldn’t, deep down, justify it. Not on a horse that could jump rings around all the rest on the strength of unnatural bloodlines. Somehow the genes had slotted themselves into the proper order to produce another horse of the gods. His horse. His flying horse.
Oh, hell, neither of them belonged here.
Depressed, he walked back to the barn. Jonathan had appeared again outside Aethon’s stall. Dale tried once more to make up with Aethon. “Please, buddy,” he whispered, as Jonathan bent to put on the splint boots. “Whatever I did, I’m sorry.”
Aethon flicked an ear. That was all.
Jonathan never said a word as they walked to the warmup arena. Aethon trudged between them with none of his usual prancing and strutting. Jonathan gave Dale a leg up and went to stand by the fence with his back to them. Bewildered, Dale walked Aethon toward the rest of the U.S. team waiting their turn at the warmup fences, a muddle of red and black coats and horses ranging from silver-gray to black.
“Hey, kiddo,” Meg Keller greeted him with a smile. A flush of excitement rode her cheeks; as old a hand as she was at the game, the Olympics were still special. Everybody wanted that medal. Preferably gold, but any color would do in a pinch. And we’re so close. And Aethon hates me.
One by one his teammates took the warm-up fences, sailing over in fine style. When his turn came Dale took a deep breath and turned Aethon out of the mindless circles and figure eights he had been doing to limber him up. The first fence was an easy vertical, barely over four feet. And for the first time ever, Aethon refused.
Dale flew over his head and hit the ground in a flat-out sprawl on the other side. Winded, disoriented, he could not at first make sense out of the babble above him until Ed Brown’s voice penetrated sharply.
“Dale! Are you okay? Can you ride?”
Experimentally Dale twitched his fingers and toes, lifted an arm, finally sat up. Meg Keller clapped her hands in sheer relief; solemn Tammy Hoad, their fourth rider, raised her face to the sky and mouthed “thank you.” Behind her, Tim O’Brien, the alternate, turned away in bitter disappointment.
He should be riding, not me. Then it would be fair.
Dale opened his mouth to tell Ed he couldn’t ride. Aethon, standing beside Meg with his reins in her hand, suddenly ripped them loose and shoved his head into Dale’s face, scaring him backward before that hide-covered bone broke his nose.
“He was worried!” Tammy said, drawing a general laugh.
Slowly Dale got up. Warily he reached to take Aethon’s reins, but Aethon was watching the first rider on course, his head up, ears far forward.
Get with the program, Dale deduced, chilled. Or get dumped.
He looked around at the hopeful faces of his teammates. I can’t back out now. But on the other hand, if they jump clean and every other team has a fault, they can win without me.
With a tiny seed of hope sprouting in his heart, he mounted Aethon and watched the finals.
The course designer had perhaps gone overboard. The jumps were diabolical. Not one horse jumped clean. Two went down in spectacular style on the triple. The water jump piled up faults left and right. The Aztec god eliminated three outright as horses took one look and basically said “Hunh unh.” Dale had never seen so many refusals in international competition.
Ed Brown dropped one rail. Tammy Hoad’s horse put a foot in the water. The team was still tied for first. Meg Keller conquered the triple, the water, the combination, the god–and brought the crowd to its feet when she cantered home clean.
“We’re going to win!” Tammy shrieked.
Ed Brown looked up at Dale. “All you have to do is take down one rail or less,” he said, quivering with tension.
“No pressure,” Tim O’Brien said laconically.
Dale closed his eyes. He could withdraw right now and the team would still win–but Aethon was quivering under him, yearning toward the open gate into the arena. They had to ride this round to qualify for an individual medal and a chance to stand on top of the equestrian world.
Jonathan turned. Their eyes met across the twenty feet of crowded grass. Just do it, he mouthed.
Do what? Win? Ride the way Jonathan had taught him to ride? Or let Aethon be himself?
Quit leaving it all up to Aethon, Jonathan had said, the curse of bad riders on good horses. Let the poor push-button pony do it all, sit back and claim the glory.
Was that what Aethon had been trying to tell him? To get with the program? Was he putting down rails to wake his rider up? Or because he was tired of dogging it?
The ring steward was beckoning, impatient to stay on schedule. Still clueless, Dale gave Aethon his head and rode into the ring.
The stands were packed, but you could hear a pin drop. A polite crowd, as caught into this moment as any rider in the stadium. Dale let Aethon canter down to the start, and instantly regretted it.
Aethon wanted to jump. He wanted it so badly he almost tore the reins through Dale’s hands. All Dale could do was line him up and hang on. They rocketed over the first fence, raced recklessly into the second. Dale fought his horse for control, because at this rate they were going to end up jumping to the moon, and everybody on the whole planet would know he was a fraud. He managed to gather Aethon up enough to get through the combination, cleared the water jump and lined up on the triple with Aethon going like a freight train.
Aethon snorted and soared to meet it. Dale heard a gasp from the crowd but could not tell how high they had really jumped, too busy staying in his stirrups. They hit hard but Aethon recovered like the athlete he was. And there was the god breathing its circle of flame. As they closed on it Dale had an instant’s impression of a mountain looming in his face, wreathed in clouds at sunset, burning like pillars of fire.
What happened to the Aztec? he wondered dizzily an instant before Aethon’s quarters bunched and they were off, rising, rising, soaring up toward the painted flames.
And kept rising. Noooooooo! a cowardly voice screamed deep in Dale’s mind, but his stomach and his heart disagreed. A rush like the best dope ever fizzed up through his veins, unlocked his nerves and burst out through the top of his head in a gigantic burst of joy that about tore his head off. Aethon’s hooves spurned the ground, his head and neck curved in a beautiful arch, looking for the next jump from an impossible height. Below, heads tilted and mouths fell open, a wide-eyed sea of astonishment.
“We are so eliminated, buddy,” Dale muttered, and then laughed a huge laugh, because when they came down at last he never even rocked in the saddle. He was Aethon’s rider, and who the hell cared how high they jumped? They had arrived where they both belonged.
And somehow it didn’t feel like cheating.