The Scorpio Races

By: Maggie Stiefvater


It is the first day of November and so, today, someone will die.

Even under the brightest sun, the frigid autumn sea is all the colors of the night: dark blue and black and brown. I watch the ever-changing patterns in the sand as it’s pummeled by countless hooves.

They run the horses on the beach, a pale road between the black water and the chalk cliffs. It is never safe, but it’s never so dangerous as today, race day.

This time of year, I live and breathe the beach. My cheeks feel raw with the wind throwing sand against them. My thighs sting from the friction of the saddle. My arms ache from holding up two thousand pounds of horse. I have forgotten what it is like to be warm and what a full night’s sleep feels like and what my name sounds like spoken instead of shouted across yards of sand.

I am so, so alive.

As I head down to the cliffs with my father, one of the race officials stops me. He says, “Sean Kendrick, you are ten years old. You haven’t discovered it yet, but there are more interesting ways to die than on this beach.”

My father doubles back and takes the official’s upper arm as if the man were a restless horse. They share a brief exchange about age restrictions during the race. My father wins.

“If your son is killed,” the official says, “the only fault is yours.”

My father doesn’t even answer him, just leads his uisce stallion away.

On the way down to the water, we’re jostled and pushed by men and by horses. I slide beneath one horse as it rears up, its rider jerked at the end of the lead. Unharmed, I find myself facing the sea, surrounded on all sides by the capaill uisce — the water horses. They are every color of the pebbles on the beach: black, red, golden, white, ivory, gray, blue. Men hang the bridles with red tassels and daisies to lessen the danger of the dark November sea, but I wouldn’t trust a handful of petals to save my life. Last year a water horse trailing flowers and bells tore a man’s arm half from his body.

These are not ordinary horses. Drape them with charms, hide them from the sea, but today, on the beach: Do not turn your back.

Some of the horses have lathered. Froth drips down their lips and chests, looking like sea foam, hiding the teeth that will tear into men later.

They are beautiful and deadly, loving us and hating us.

My father sends me off to get his saddlecloth and armband from another set of officials. The color of the cloth is meant to allow the spectators far up on the cliffs to identify my father, but in his case, they won’t need it, not with his stallion’s brilliant red coat.

“Ah, Kendrick,” the officials say, which is both my father’s name and mine. “It’ll be a red cloth for him.”

As I return to my father, I am hailed by a rider: “Ho, Sean Kendrick.” He’s diminutive and wiry, his face carved out of rock. “Fine day for it.” I am honored to be greeted like an adult. Like I belong here. We nod to each other before he turns back to his horse to finish saddling up. His small racing saddle is hand-tooled, and as he lifts the flap to give the girth a final tug, I see words burned into the leather: Our dead drink the sea.

My heart is jerking in my chest as I hand the cloth to my father. He seems unsettled as well, and I wish I was riding, not him.

Myself I am sure of.

The red uisce stallion is restless and snorting, ears pricked, eager. He is very hot today. He will be fast. Fast and difficult to hold.

My father gives me the reins so that he can saddle the water horse with the red cloth. I lick my teeth — they taste like salt — and watch my father tie the matching armband around his upper arm. Every year I have watched him, and every year he has tied it with a steady hand, but not this year. His fingers are clumsy, and I know he is afraid of the red stallion.

I have ridden him, this capall. On his back, the wind beating me, the ground jarring me, the sea spraying our legs, we never tire.

I lean close to the stallion’s ear and trace a counterclockwise circle above his eye as I whisper into his soft ear.

“Sean!” my father snaps, and the capall’s head jerks up quickly enough that his skull nearly strikes mine. “What are you doing with your face next to his today? Does he not look hungry to you? Do you think you’d look fine with half a face?”

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