It was after midnight in the stables of El Caballo Danza Magnifico, but the bay stallion was wide awake. He paced restlessly in his loose box, his noble head held high as he caught the scent on the night air, nostrils flared and muzzle quivering.
He was not like the other stallions here in Southern Spain. The Lipizzaners and Andalusians in these stables boasted famous bloodlines that could be traced back for centuries.
Valuable beyond measure, each of the stallions had been schooled in the ways of classical dressage, trained to perform the elaborate manoeuvres of the haute école. The bay stallion was leaner and more streamlined than the stocky Spanish purebreds in the stalls around him. His Andalusian blood had been mixed with Arabian and Thoroughbred, which imbued him with a rare speed and stamina that the heavy-set purebreds could never possess.
His name was Storm, and when he had first arrived at El Caballo he had been no more than a leggy and headstrong young colt. Since then he had grown strong, grazing with the herd on the upper pastures in the shadow of the mountains of the Sierra de Grazalema. The colt had become a stallion, and at sixteen-three hands high he was even taller than his sire, the great grey stallion Marius, who was currently asleep in his loose box just a few doors along.
In the still of the night, Storm could hear the sound of hoofbeats approaching at a gallop. He raised his elegant head into the air and let loose a whinny. His sharp call was a warning cry to the herd of mares grazing the pastures outside the walls of the compound. Danger was coming.
The mares heard the bay stallion’s clarion call and a moment later they too heard the thunder of hooves drawing closer.
The herd was gripped with panic and the mares and their foals began to scatter in every direction. One of the mares, Margarita, a pale grey beauty with coal-black eyes, immediately took charge of the situation. She was the alpha mare – the leader of the herd – and the others would follow her command. She acted quickly, nipping and kicking at the mares to make them do her bidding, rounding them up to move away from the approaching threat. Many of the mares had young foals at foot slowing them down, but Margarita urged them to be quick, attacking stragglers with squeals and bites, keeping the group tight so that no foal or mare would be left behind. Within seconds they were grouped together, ready to run – but where to? The gates to the hacienda had been closed for the evening so they could not come in to the safety of the courtyard.
The mares began to circle helplessly, driven into a frenzy, as Margarita fought to keep the herd together. If any foal or mare broke away now and left the safety of the herd they would be in even greater danger! Inside the stables, Storm sensed that the galloping horses were very near now, but he could do nothing to help the mares. In desperation, he rose up on his hind legs and brought his front hooves crashing down hard on the door of his stall. But the doors were made of solid oak, built to withstand a thousand strikes, and his hooves barely scratched their surface. Frustrated and helpless, the bay stallion held his head high and whinnied again. This time the piercing urgency in his cry carried through the night and reached not only the mares, but the sleeping occupants of the hacienda.
Inside the house, lights flickered on. There were shouts of confusion and a moment later three figures came out on to the front step – Roberto Nunez, the owner of El Caballo Danza Magnifico, his son Alfonso, and his head dressage trainer, Francoise D’arth. All three were still in their pyjamas and they hurriedly pulled on riding boots and raced down the steps into the cobbled courtyard. “Go and check on the stallions’ stables,” Roberto instructed Francoise. “Alfonso, put on the floodlights in the courtyard and open the gates. I’ll bring in the mares!”
As Alfonso and Francoise set off running across the courtyard, Roberto turned around and ran back inside the hacienda. When he re-emerged a moment later, he had a shotgun in his hands. If his mares were being attacked by wolves or rounded up by bandits then he needed to be fully prepared.
As soon as Alfonso switched on the courtyard lights and heaved open the heavy wrought iron gates the terrified herd of mares swung about at full gallop and headed for the safety of the compound. There was a mad clatter as the mares’ hooves struck the cobbled stone of the courtyard and they galloped in to safety, their foals running alongside them.
“Are any mares missing?” Alfonso asked his father.
There were over twenty mares gathered in the middle of the courtyard. To anyone else they would have appeared almost identical, and yet Roberto Nunez could tell them apart at a glance. His eyes flitted swiftly across the herd and he breathed a sigh of relief. All of his prized mares and their offspring were here and they were safe!
“Close the gates!” Roberto ordered. Alfonso pushed the heavy gates shut once more and then came over to join his father. “We’ll have to start bringing the mares in again at night,” he told Roberto. “I think there are wolves about.”
“No,” Roberto Nunez shook his head. “Something was out there tonight, but I don’t think it was wolves.”
“Bandits? Vega’s men maybe? ” Alfonso asked.
“Perhaps.” Roberto looked uncertain. “The question is, did they intend to steal the mares or were they after an even greater prize?”
As he said this, Francoise D’arth emerged from the stallions’ stable block and ran towards them. Although she was French, and not Spanish like Roberto and his son, she could easily have been mistaken for a member of the family with her long black hair, and lithe lean physique, earned through long hours in the saddle.
“I’ve checked the stalls,” she told Roberto Nunez. “The stallions are safe.”
“All of them?” Roberto asked nervously. “Even the Little One?”
Despite the fact that Storm was actually the tallest stallion in his stables, Roberto could not break the habit of referring to him by his nickname – Little One.
Francoise smiled. “Nightstorm is fine. He must have been the one that sensed the danger. I am certain that it was his call that woke me.”
“Well,” Roberto said, “we take no more chances. From now on the mares must be brought in again each night.”
He looked at Francoise. “Perhaps you should assign one of your grooms to stand guard by the stallions’ stables for the next few nights as well.”
“Oui,” Francoise agreed with him, “I’ll organise a roster. Meanwhile, I will stay with the horses tonight.”
Roberto seemed satisfied with this plan. “Keep a close eye on the Little One,” he told her.
“Of course I will,” Francoise nodded. She knew how important Storm was. Nothing must happen to the young stallion, especially now. In two days’ time, his mistress was arriving in Spain to claim him and take claim him.
Far away on the other side of the world, in Chevalier Point, Storm’s owner, Issie Brown, was utterly unaware of the danger her horse was in. All her thoughts were focused on just one thing – getting a clear round. The showjumping fences in front of Issie were set at a metre-twenty and it was a tough course. Thankfully Comet, the skewbald gelding she was riding, could eat jumps like these for breakfast.
A clear round was vital if they wanted to win today at the Chevalier Point oneday event.
A combined score from all three phases – dressage, cross country and showjumping – would decide the winner. Issie and Comet’s weakness in the dressage phase that morning meant they went into the cross country with a decidedly average score.
Issie wasn’t surprised, as dressage was never their forte. Instead the partnership relied on blitzing their competition on the cross country and showjumping courses to pull them up the rankings. So far they’d managed to go clear and fast around a tricky cross-country course that had got the better of many of the other riders. Providing Issie could coax Comet to yet another clear round in the showjumping phase, they had every chance of winning a ribbon.
Even though Comet was a bold cross-country ride, he was also a remarkably careful showjumper. He hardly ever scraped the rails, picking up his feet cleanly over the jumps. As they set off around the course, the skewbald felt fresh and eager despite his exertions across country just a few hours earlier. He took the first three fences with deceptive ease, jumping them as if they were no more than trotting poles. At the treble Issie tried to check the skewbald in preparation for the jump, but Comet gave an indignant snort as if to say, “Leave me alone, I know what I’m doing!” He shook his head defiantly to loosen the reins and bounded forward in a bouncy canter, popping the first fence on a perfect canter stride and then leaping to take all three fences without so much as grazing a pole!
“Good boy!” Issie gave the skewbald a slappy pat on his sweaty neck and turned him towards the spread. They took it neatly and cantered on. Only two more jumps and they would be done. The skewbald pony was now hitting his stride and he cantered towards the next fence with ears pricked forward. Issie turned Comet sharply in mid-air over the jump and by the time they landed they already had the next fence in their sights.
It was a wide oxer, and as they flew it with a huge leap the crowd broke into spontaneous applause. Only one more jump to go! At the final fence Comet stood back and jumped far too wide. This time his hooves scraped across the top rail, rocking it in its metal cups and there was a horrified a gasp from the crowd. It was Issie’s turn now to hold her breath as she waited to hear the pole fall. She was beyond relieved when she heard the audience give a whoop and break into applause once again. The pole hadn’t fallen! Clear round!
As he raced through the finish flags, Comet saluted his victory with a gleeful buck, and Issie had to grab a hank of mane to stay onboard. She was still grinning when Tom Avery, her instructor, met her at the arena gates.
“If I didn’t know better,” Issie said as she slid down from the skewbald’s back, “I would say Comet scraped that last rail on purpose, just to give the crowd a bit of drama.”
Avery laughed. “You know, I was thinking the same thing.”
He took Comet’s reins so that Issie could undo her helmet. Comet, as usual, was refusing to stand still. He wanted to go back into the arena and show off in front of the crowds again!
“You’ll get your chance in a moment,” Issie told the pony. “We’ll have to go in for the prize-giving. That clear round has raised us up to third place!”
The skewbald gelding had his head held high and was looking around, as if waiting for more applause for his antics. Issie gave him a pat on his patchy chestnut and white neck. “He’s going to miss all of the attention once he’s turned out.”
Avery nodded. “Comet’s certainly earned the break this season.” He smiled at Issie. “As have you.”
Six months ago Issie had turned up on Tom Avery’s doorstep with a serious proposal. She told him that she wanted to become an international eventing rider – and she wanted Avery to become her trainer.
Avery had warned Issie that working her way to the top of the international circuit would be a huge commitment. He told her that there would be a gruelling physical training schedule and that a professional rider needed more than just talent. They must have absolute, unwavering dedication.
Issie replied that she understood – she was totally committed to her goal. This was all Avery needed to hear. Ever since then he had taken up the challenge without hesitation and, even though he had his hands full with both Dulmoth Park and the pony club to run, he was totally focused on turning Issie’s dream of international eventing into a reality.
“The first thing we need to do is get you a horse,” Avery had told her that day. With his new position as head of the Dulmoth Park stables, Avery could offer her the pick of the best eventing hacks.
“You can have any one you like,” Avery told Issie, “but if I were you, I would stick with Comet.”
Issie was shocked. Comet was a Blackthorn Pony, born and bred on her aunt Hester’s farm. Issie adored him and had been very successful in the showjumping ring with him, but she couldn’t believe Avery rated the fourteen-two pony above the fancy sporthorses at Dulmoth Park.
“Don’t judge him by his size or his bloodlines,” Avery told her. “Comet has proven himself a brilliant showjumper. He picks his feet up more carefully over the jumps than any horse I’ve ever met. And he’s bold and fearless, so he’ll make a great cross-country horse.”
The only problem that Avery could see was Comet’s dressage. “He’s too hot-headed,” Avery admitted. “He lacks the patience for dressage…” adding with a smile, “… and, to be honest, you’re not much better, Issie!”
She took the criticism good-naturedly. After all, her instructor had a point. Issie couldn’t deny that she found dressage schooling sessions dull. She would always find an excuse to skip the flatwork and take Comet out jumping instead. Comet was just as bad, if not worse.
The skewbald pony made it clear that he loathed trotting around the dressage arena and would act nappy and behave sluggishly. In the end, Issie would give up and they would tear off to do some cross-country jumps instead.
As a consequence, their first season together on the eventing circuit had been a series of appalling dressage tests followed by spotless clear rounds in both cross country and showjumping. Sometimes this was enough to elevate the duo in the final rankings and they would still manage to win a rosette, but Avery was still very dark on Issie about her lack of commitment to resolve her dressage schooling issues. He had pointed out to her that several times this season they had been pushed down the rankings and had ended up out of the prize money because their flatwork simply wasn’t up to scratch.
Despite the skewbald pony’s disdain for dressage, Issie knew that Avery considered him a serious eventing prospect for the future. But Comet’s future would have to wait. The eventing season in New Zealand was over for another year and Avery had decided that Comet should be spelled – turned out and left unridden for a month – to recuperate before the new season began in spring.
As the worst of winter set in, Comet would be having a horsey holiday with his paddock mates, Toby and Marmite, down at the River Paddock. Issie’s two best friends, Stella and Kate, were keeping an eye on the horses for the next few weeks. Issie, meanwhile, was about to set off for Spain to collect the horse that Avery pinned so much hope on for her international eventing career.
When Issie had told Avery her dream, he knew that she needed the right horse to take her to the top. Comet was on the list of potential mounts. But there was also another horse that Avery had in mind. Not just any horse, but the horse. If Avery was correct, this stallion would be talented enough to take Issie to the highest level, competing in international, four star events. A horse like this would normally cost a fortune but, luckily for Issie, she already owned the perfect horse. And right now he was waiting for her, far away in Southern Spain.
Issie’s bags were packed and the plane tickets were ready. Tomorrow they would board the plane to travel once again to El Caballo Danza Magnifico. There, she would be reunited with her beloved Nightstorm. And this time, they wouldn’t be separated again. This time, she was bringing him home.