The Master of Horses
Zofia edged her way down the ladder in total darkness, feeling her way with bare feet from step to step. She had considered turning on the lights but dismissed the notion as too dangerous. For all she knew, The Colonel was sitting at his desk right now, staring out across the courtyard. From there he would see the lights glowing in the stable block and know that she was on the move.
In the darkness, the ladder wobbled beneath her, making her stomach lurch, but she knew she must be nearly there. Only a couple more rungs and then she’d be down on ground level . . .
Made it! She felt the cold concrete floor under her feet and paused for a moment to calm her racing heartbeat. Then she continued, reaching out into the pitch black, feeling her way blindly, inching ahead with shuffling, tiny steps, until her fingertips bumped up against the wall. From here, she had her bearings and now her hands would serve as her eyes. Her fingers crept like Incy Wincy Spider along the stones until they touched the rough-hewn wood of the first door. Over the door, footsteps quickening, and then she was touching stone again, repeating the process from one door to another – one, two, three – until at last she’d reached the fourth door.
Was she certain that she had the right one or had she miscounted?
Yes – he was here! She could hear him on the other side of the door, restless and moving about.
“Shhhh,” she whispered. “It’s OK, I’m here now. I’m here . . .”
He didn’t like being alone at night. Neither did she. They always stayed together. But tonight the colonel had forbidden it. He’d taken her aside at dinner, his face very serious.
“It is important that you stay in the hayloft tonight,” he had told her. And when she’d asked him why, he’d simply replied, “Because we have visitors coming.”
Visitors. No explanation other than that. The way the colonel had said the word, letting it hang in the air, was so sinister she had known better than to ask anything more. That evening, after dinner was over and she had cleaned up the dishes after the men had eaten, she’d done as the colonel told her and had taken herself up the frail wooden ladder that led to the hayloft.
The loft was dusty and filled with cobwebs. She never came up here in the winter and with good reason – the loft was freezing! To combat the cold, she tunnelled her way into the haystack, just as a rabbit might make a burrow, then lined her cave with burlap sacks. She moved other sacks around the edge of the skylight, pushing them up against the gaps in the timber to stop the wind whistling through. Soon, though, the wind had no way inside. The falling snow had smothered the roof in such a thick blanket it had sealed off the skylight completely. It was so deep that when Zofia tried to shove the skylight open to peer out and see where these so-called visitors had got to, the weight of the drifts was too much and the window wouldn’t budge.
That had been hours ago. Midnight had ticked by and the snow kept falling and the visitors hadn’t turned up. Janów Podlaski was almost inaccessible in bad weather. And even in the very best weather, it baffled Zofia as to why would anyone would be coming all this way? The stud farm and the neighbouring village had no part to play in this war. They could hardly be considered a strategic location for the Germans, who currently occupied Poland. The big main cities, Warsaw and Krakow, were miles to the west, and it was a long and dangerous journey from there in the middle of winter to this tiny village in the wilderness by the Russian border. On a night like this the visitors must have realised how deadly the roads would be and changed their minds. Otherwise they would be here already.
Alone in the darkness, Zofia had mulled all of this over in her mind. She had got up and tried to prise open the skylight again to see out, but it was no use. She had looked at her watch and been maddened by how slowly the hands moved, and when the hands swept past midnight, and then began to edge towards the half-past mark, cold and lonely, she could take it no longer. The colonel’s orders made no sense! No one was coming. What was the harm then in her leaving this miserable icebox of scratchy hay and going back downstairs?
And that was how she had found herself wobbling down the ladder and feeling her way in the darkness, until she was finally at the fourth door.
I’m here!” she breathed through the gaps in the wood as she began to work at the cast-iron bolt. “Please. Do not be angry. It was the colonel who made me stay away from you! But now I’ve come . . .
The iron bolt protested as she tried to work the door open. Zofia’s delicate hands struggled to take a grip. She twisted her fingers around the nub of the shank, pulling with all her strength until finally the bolt was released with a dull thud.
She was inside the stall now, and so completely cloaked in darkness she couldn’t see her own hand in front of her face, let alone the shadowy form that moved around her in the stall, fretting and stamping.
“Where are you?” she hissed. She tried to follow the sound of him as he circled her. He was moving nearer and, instinctively, she turned, thinking that she was facing him, and then realising she’d been wrong as he took her by surprise and she felt a hard shove against the small of her back.
The blow pushed her off balance so that she fell forward into the straw on the stable floor. She still couldn’t see him in the dark but she felt his presence, standing above her.
“That is not funny,” Zofia hissed. “I am cold and tired and I am not in the mood for your humour.”
There was a soft nicker from the horse and Zofia immediately felt bad for snapping at him. He had only been playing! And she hadn’t meant it – she had just been caught off guard was all.
“I know.” She softened her tone. “I missed you too. It was freezing in that hayloft . . .”
In the blackness that cloaked them, even without her eyes, Zofia still knew by heart every groove and sinew of his body. The way the bloom of his dapples made concentric shadows against his dove-grey coat, and his soot-black stockings perfectly defined his graceful, slender legs. Prince had just turned seven, an age when there was still a smoky darkness to his colouring. Zofia was saddened to think that the pretty dapples would fade away completely in the years to come. That was how it was with horses, and she recalled how his father had been pure white in the end. His mother, whom Prince resembled in different ways, had been a blood-red bay, and everyone had wondered what sort of foal the pairing would produce. Prince had been their first and only son, and when he was born he’d been jet black. As he’d matured into a young colt, though, his black coat had become flecked with white and he’d seemed to grow lighter by the day, so that as a yearling he was steel grey. Then the dapples emerged, and his mane became streaked with silver. In the sunshine on a clear day, when he was at liberty in the yards here at Janów Podlaski, he shone and sparkled almost like a unicorn.
“I’m here now…”
Her fingers reached out to touch him and traced the solid slab of his jawbone, the way his nose did that dramatic dish as it tapered to the broad sweep of his nostrils, then widened out once more, flaring like a trumpet.
His velvet muzzle sought her out now as Prince took in her scent. The soft-palate breathing as his nostrils widened, so distinctive to Arabians, made his breath in the darkness sound like the flutter of butterflies. Sweet exhalations of warm air brushed her skin, scented like clover honey. She paused for a moment there in the dark, happy to be back where she belonged, reunited with her horse.
Her happiness, like all happiness, did not last. The soft fluttering suddenly became an agitated snort. Flashes of light outside the window startled the girl and the horse. There were headlights coming down the driveway! In the pitch black their twin beams bounced off the walls like searchlights, glancing in at the stable-block windows and illuminating Prince’s stall.
Zofia’s heart began hammering. The visitors! They were here after all! She needed to get back to the hayloft.
She waited for the headlights to flicker past. She was just about to stand up when another set of lights came shining in through the window. A second car was arriving, and then a third.
As the car doors slammed outside, Zofia crawled across the floor of the stall on her belly until she reached the wall below the window, and then, carefully, making sure that the headlights wouldn’t catch her shadow in their beam, she popped her head up just high enough so that she could see.
The three black town cars were lined up in a row in the snow. On their bonnet each car flew a tiny flag with the red, black and white symbol of the Nazi swastika. Zofia saw the symbol and felt certain now that she was in real trouble.
She should never have come down here. The Colonel had been clear in his orders to her to stay hidden and she had stupidly ignored him. Now the house lights had been turned on and in the driveway she could see the men getting out of their cars. They were not ordinary German soldiers either – their uniforms were not like the ones The Colonel and his men wore. These were special police, officers of the SS, dressed in black greatcoats and long boots, with red armbands emblazoned with swastikas, matching the flags on their cars.
She had to get out of here now! Run before it was too late and get back up the wooden step ladder into the ceiling then pull the ladder up behind her and close the trapdoor. Except such a sequence of actions in the cold silence of the night was not without risk. Even if she could make it up the ladder, she wouldn’t have time to drag it back up into the ceiling and if the officers saw it, they’d come looking maybe, knowing someone was in the loft.
As she peered out over the window ledge one of the German officers looked in her direction and she ducked down, heart pounding, afraid she’d been seen. So now she couldn’t even look at them. All she could do was crouch low and listen to their voices in the cold night air, speaking to each other in clipped German.
There were more car doors slamming, and laughter, and then she heard a voice she recognised. The Colonel. Zofia took the risk, poked her head up once more and saw him on the doorstep, wearing his full German uniform. It looked strange to see him dressed like this. In the time since the German army had taken control of Janów Podlaski, she had seldom seen The Colonel in his military clothes – he usually just wore his jodhpurs, like a civilian. And when the officers saluted him, he looked distinctly uncomfortable as he saluted back, arm raised straight out into the air: “Heil Hitler.”
“Heil Hitler, Colonel,” one of the SS officers replied. “I apologise for the lateness of the hour, but the snow made it impossible for us to get to you any faster.”
“Of course.” The Colonel nodded in agreement. “Your accommodation for the evening has been prepared and there is a meal ready. I’m sure you must be hungry. The horses can wait until morning.”
“Ah,” the officer replied. “Thank you, Colonel. However, such matters are not my decision . . .”
The officer turned his gaze to the second car in the row of three and at precisely that moment the driver’s door swung open and yet another officer in SS uniform stepped out with great formality to open the passenger door.
The man who emerged was in a different uniform to all the rest of them. Bald, stout and not wearing a hat on his bare head, he did, however, wear epaulettes on his shoulders that clearly marked out his seniority. While his top half was very much dressed as a military man, on the lower he was dressed as a horseman in jodhpurs and long boots.
The Colonel looked anxious as he stepped forward and, uncertain whether to salute again, he tried to do so, and then changed his mind, did a half-salute and feebly offered his hand in greeting.
“Dr Rau,” he said. “I am delighted. It is a great honour to have you at our stables. I was just saying to your men that perhaps you might wish to eat dinner and be shown to your rooms? It is late and . . .”
But the man did not take his hand.
“I have not come all this way to enjoy your hospitality,” he said coolly. “I am here for the horses and you will take me to the stables immediately.”
“Of course,” The Colonel said. “As you wish, Dr Rau. They await your inspection.”
They await your inspection. As The Colonel said these words Zofia knew she had left it too late to run. Already the flustered Colonel, accompanied by eight SS officers, had fallen into step beside the man they’d called Dr Rau, and now they were striding briskly, making their way through the knee-deep snow to the stable door. It was too late for Zofia to make it back to the hayloft. In just moments they would be here to inspect the horses and she had no escape. She was trapped in Prince’s stall with no way out.
There was the sound of boots crunching on snow and then the heavy wooden doors were slid back at the entrance and the lights came on and Zofia was no longer in darkness. She could see. Which meant they could see her too. When they reached Prince’s stall, there was no way they would not would find her. The stall was bare except for a thin layer of straw on the concrete floor. There was nowhere to hide.
And then she looked back at Prince. The horse was wearing a dark navy woollen stable rug. He was dressed in it to keep him warm, but right now her need was greater than his. Zofia’s trembling fingers worked the front buckle and unclipped the back straps and slid the rug off Prince’s back. Then, curling herself up in a ball in the furthest corner of the stall, she draped the rug over the top of her, hoping to make it look as if it had been tossed aside by a careless groom.
She hoped she’d covered herself and that no part of her body was sticking out because she didn’t have time to adjust it – the men who’d been working their way along the corridor from stall to stall had reached Prince’s door. She heard the bolt being slid back and then, from her hiding place, she peered out at the shiny black boots of the Nazi officers, standing right there in front of her in the straw!
“So.” The voice was that of Dr Rau. “This is him, then? The one you told me about?”
The colonel cleared his throat. “Yes, Dr Rau. This is Prince of Poland. He is purebred Polish Arabian, descended from the very best bloodlines that we possess here at Janów Podlaski. He is the finest horse in these stables.”
Dr Rau gave a hollow laugh. “You are being arrogant, Colonel. You dare to tell me which is your best horse? Such decisions are mine to make and mine alone. This is why the Führer appointed me. This is why he gave me my title: Master of Horses. You understand what it means?”
“I-I meant no insult,” The Colonel stammered. “I simply meant that I think him to be my best horse.”
“Your best horse?” The Master turned this phrase over slowly on his tongue. “He is not your best horse, Colonel. He is not your horse at all. None of them are yours. I come here tonight on the instructions of Hitler himself. These horses belong to the Führer now. They are to play their part in his plan for the glory of the Third Reich.”
“I am sorry, Dr Rau.” The Colonel sounded confused. “I do not understand. I thought you were coming to inspect the stud farm. What is this plan that you speak of?”
“Ahhh.” The Master almost purred with pleasure to be in possession of such top-secret information that the Colonel clearly did not know. “You are aware Colonel, that the German army have made it part of their mission as a conquering nation to secure the very best artworks in the world? In our hands now are masterpieces by Raphael, Rubens and many more. They are works of such great beauty, the Führer demands that we ensure that they be taken by the SS and kept in secret, to ensure that when the war ends, they will belong to Germany[DT1] [SG2] .”
“But these are horses,” the Colonel objected. “They are not priceless paintings or sculptures.”
“Yes,” Dr Rau replied. “Horses are an even greater treasure. They are living, breathing art.”
Beneath her rug in the corner, Zofia saw Dr Rau shuffle his feet in the straw and take a step closer towards Prince. He had his gloved hand on Prince’s halter! Zofia’s heart was pounding.
“This horse, Prince of Poland, has all the traits of the Aryan race. In time he will be pure white like his father. And his bloodlines are impeccable . . .” The Master hesitated, seemingly unsure as to whether he should unfold the whole plan to the colonel, but was unable to resist. And so he continued.
“As we speak, my men are gathering together the very best horses in the whole of Europe – Lipizzaners[SG3] from Austria Thoroughbreds from France, and now from Poland we take these Arabians. All of them are a part of the Führer’s grand scheme. For it is not just the humans, the Aryan race, who will bring glory to the Third Reich. We will also create a new super-breed of horses.
The horses in your stables will be moved to Dresden. Here we will open a new stud farm, with all the best stallions and the very best mares from every breed. We will combine these horses and create the perfect, ultimate war horse.”
The Colonel’s voice was anxious. “You mean to say you are taking my horses?” he said. “To Dresden?”
“As I’ve already told you, Colonel,” the Master replied, “they are no longer your horses, and be calm – I do not intend to take them all. Only the best stallions will serve the purpose of the Führer.”
He stroked Prince’s muzzle.
“You were right when you said this one is the very best horse in the stable,” he said. “He is magnificent.”
Underneath the rug, watching him touch her horse like that, Zofia felt a fury that made her sick to her stomach. And then the Master continued and things became so much worse.
“Prince of Poland is truly the greatest horse in your possession,” the Master said. “So great, that he is not going with the others to Dresden.”
“But I thought you said—” The Colonel began, but the Master cut him dead.
“In the morning, he will travel with me, back to Berlin. Hitler himself has a special plan for this horse.”
The Master gave Prince a hearty slap on his neck to confirm his decision, and then he wheeled about.
“Now,” he said, clapping his hands together. “I think we are done with the inspection. I should like to eat.”
And with that, he marched back out of Prince’s stall, with his SS officers in his wake, leaving the bewildered Colonel to bolt the door behind them.
In the darkness once more, Zofia waited until her heart stopped pounding and she was certain they had gone before she emerged from beneath the rug. She was still shaking, and as she lifted her hands up to take hold of Prince’s halter, she realised just how close she had come to being discovered. At the same time, though, she knew it had been lucky that she had been in the stall to witness this, for now she knew the Master’s plan.
“Did you hear what he said?” Zofia whispered to Prince. “It is worse than we ever imagined, Prince. Hitler, the Führer himself, wants you.”
Prince’s ears swivelled as she spoke to him. He was listening intently. Did he realise the danger they were in? Zofia knew now that there was nothing else for it and no time to waste.
“When the Master comes for you in the morning, you’ll already be gone,” she said to him. “You and I, we have no choice. We must run. We leave tonight.”