The Horse That Drinks Beer
The Oval Tournament
Parish of Perris
November 3rd, 2012 in the Year of Our Lord

To begin, you have to start at the end. It was the end of my childhood and it was a time of drought and famine. There wasnít much left in the land of plenty. I can still remember the kingís taxman with his fat fingers and grubby fists. Anything of value seemed to flow away from us to distant castles and strange wars. My father was a working class farrier and we shod horses for a living. The moneychangers took our cottage during the dark times so we traveled from faire to faire scraping by as best we could. We were headed to a great horse tournament and it was a long pilgrimage from the coastal hinterlands to the inland of the empire. We came to a great river and were camped riverside for the night waiting for the ferry. Camped next to us was a great warhorse but it was clear it was well cared for and didnít need a shoeing. As I watched from my campfire, the horseís tender took a great bucket of ale and let the horse drink deep and long. ďThereĒ he whispers to the horse, ďthatís pure barley and oats straight to the heart of the matterĒ. Hungry myself, except for a bit of dried pig that I chewed on, I marveled at a horse that drinks beer.

The festival was a cacophony of color and sounds. The rich smell of sausage and potatoes wafted deliciously through the air. More than forty warriors astride snorting steeds had stormed the parish of Perris and demanded to be entered in the Oval Tournament, a horse race so prized that most men fail their entire lives. From all corners of the kingdom they streamed in seeking the prize. RJ, the son of John comes in from the great desert. The Kaeding Clan drifts down from the Northlands. Silent Seth rides in from the unfathomable haze that veil the Sierra Nevada. The Williams, proud Lords of the County of Orange, stage a formidable entourage. From the south coast the Gaunt family crest is flying high in the fairgrounds. From the hunting grounds of the Orange Coast comes young a young knight called Fass, considered by many to be the rightful heir to the throne. He is draped in armor and weaponry by the respected merchants of Alexander and his fury in battle has become the stuff of legend. Now come the kingís men, the greatest horsemen in the kingdom: I hear a gasp from the crowd and I see a force of nature so determined and focused that sunlight flees when he rides into the arena. The people call this rider ďthe DemonĒ. Then comes another masterful rider, the veteran Sir David from the land of Dar. Thereís the queenís rumored favorite, Sir Stanbrough, silent but formidable, especially in matters of the heart. Lastly is the official emissary of the castle, the gleaming, bejeweled and deadly Duke of Clauson. Betting is brisk in the alehouses and grandstands that one of these legends of the royal court will snag the trophy and once again toss it in the back of a wagon heading east. My own father, listening to a wild-eyed oracle called Mahar, has bet our weekís earnings on the local rider. Off to the side, sitting quietly with confidence, he is the Fifth Earl of Spencer. Undisputed champion these parts; he has never won the Oval Tournament. But he is now my fatherís bet and he is our desperate hope. After years of rotting luck and misfortune, hope is all we have left. For Spencer, stung by years of losing this race, ruthless determination is what he has brought. I crane my neck around the jostling spectators at the starting line and I see the Fifth Earl is sitting on a bright red blanket. I see that blanket is squared right on the back of the horse I saw at the riverside; the horse that drinks beer.

Quick and nimble, I sneak up the back stairs of a royal grandstand and find a clear vantage. The flag flies, the rope drops and in a blistering storm of hooves and mud flying, the race is on. Tracy Hines, a masterful rider known well on every course, leaps to the lead with the Earl of Spencer quick as a rabbit after him. David of Dar and the Duke of Clauson are in close pursuit. The kingís men seem to ride stronger and the Earl of Spencer almost immediately fades to a fourth position. The crowdís heart drops while the bettors at the rail start bleating excitedly like lambs. Local strongman Sir Rutherford is forced into the wall and his steed crashes and turns, tripping others. They stop the race to clear the injured and all the tenders rush the track to care for their horses. I look over at the Earl of Spencer and there is the tender from the riverside leaning in close and talking to that horse. I listen to the chattering along the railing and I learn his name is Broom.

The flag flies and the hunt is back on. Itís still clearly Hines, Dar and Clauson out front. But Spencer goes to the top of the track where he has open air and really puts his heels into the side of that horse. The horse responds and you sense a great surge of speed building. Skilled Hines also has no interference and builds on his lead. But Dar is under attack from Clauson and yet even Clauson is now under pressure from Spencer. Whatever Broom whispered to that horse and driver has taken hold in their hearts and against all odds they are regaining the ground they had lost. Clausonís horse clips a hoof on the mud berm and Spencer steals his spot cool as a pickpocket in the marketplace. Hines has a healthy lead but now Dar is the business in front of Spencer. Spencer leans his head forward almost flush with his horseís head and they come into the corner bottom with such speed that the front hooves arenít even touching the ground, that horse is driving hard and just to the inside of Darís steed. As these great war horses strive against each other, Spencer delicately drifts to the right and seems to confuse Darís horse and further block his advance. The raucous crowd is on their feet as the Earl of Spencer pounds down the backstretch in second place and now turns his attention to the front-runner. Hines senses the danger but the wind and the crowd are both at Spencerís back. He is coming as fast as bad news and again moves to the bottom with a burst of steely determination and slides up in front of Hinesí horse for the lead. You can hear the roar of the crowd over the snarl of the battle but there is a sudden groan. Sir VanderWeerds horse has stopped on the track and the race is again halted before Spencer has passed the leader flag. They put his horse behind Hines again for the new start with the race half run.

The crowd is delirious with anticipation. Spencer gets right back to work and Hines feels the pressure. He runs to the bottom to block so Spencer moves it back to the middle and top of the track. It is clearly the less desirable path, but Spencer canít pass if he follows. He works that middle lane as best he can and looks for another opening. Further back, the kingís men are fighting fiercely amongst themselves, fast ferocious racing, but they need a break in the action to pull back the leaders. Hineís and Spencer have captivated the moment. Itís another amazing run as Spencer and that tireless horse strive to pass the leader. Both riders move through the turns in an equestrian ballet; hooves in synchronicity as they muscle for position, steeds just inches apart yet never touching. Suddenly Hines blinks, Spencer senses an opportunity going into the turn and starts beating on the door. Hines heroically fights back and keeps it shut. Another horse goes down on the track and once again they halt the race. Tenders rush the field and again I see Broom talking to that horse. He is holding the horse by the bridal bit, he has his face right in front of the horseís face, he is talking quietly the whole time they are stopped, talking to that horse more intently than a father has ever spoken to a child.

Green flag again and the pounding of hooves is deafening as mud sprays and horse sweat is flying. Only six more laps and itís a small kingís ransom. Itís Hines in front, Spencer steadfast, Sir Stanbrough galloping in third, followed by the Duke of Clauson, Sir Dar and now all of them bedeviled by the dark prince, the Demon. I am in the royal grandstand surrounded by a rogueís gallery of personalities, wealthy patrons and members of royalty. I can see the great bard Kennedy taking notes on sheepskin for his legendary playwriting, whilst the Duke of Clausonís mother is a swirling dervish, exhorting her son and shouting for his progress. Off to the side, I can see Sir Ronald, the cheerful patron of the Earl of Spencer. His eyes are glued to his riderís efforts, but he occasionally turns away as if he canít bear the tension. Spencer quickly heads to the inside of Hines but Hines is a lap older and that much wiser. He drops down blocking neatly. No matter, Spencer hits his marks in turns one and two, coming off the top with even greater purpose and speed. The crowd has a matching surge of enthusiasm and Spencer is riding that surge around the top of three and four, by sheer heart stealing victory away from the noble but frustrated Hines. The crowd groans again as Fass has crashed but Spencer had passed the leaderís flag and will resume the final laps from the starting position. The fans are tense with anticipation because the Kingís horsemen are all coming like the four horsemen of the Apocalypse. But the Earl of Spencer seems unaffected by the pressure. He has day dreamed many times of delivering this victory to his loyal patron. But as he waits for the restart, his eyes search the grandstands for his real inspiration. There, up high, he sees his future princess and their eyes lock. When they waved that final green flag, that legendary horse took off and carried that rider like a perfectly shot arrow straight into the bulls-eye.

Iím older now. Looking back, I learned a lot from that race. Who you are counts more than where you come from. Learn to align with people that nourish you. My father cashed in big from that horse bet and we actually had a pleasant trip back to the coast. I met a French wench in the hamlet of Rubidoux who taught me some Latin words I never knew. It just seems like everything got better after that race. The kingdom is healing and trading is thriving again. Back at our village, we have built a new cottage with a stable behind it for shoeing. Many riders stop by and we often retell that race. But for all the strange and interesting things that flow through my life, Iíll never forget that night at the riverside when I first saw the horse that drinks beer.