Olive Branch by Melissa Mead
As the warrior guided his horse back home, she pondered what the future might hold. For the human on her back, the future was likely to be short. The Old Gray Mare could feel him swaying, hear the rasp of his breath over the rhythmic thud of her own hooves. It was an Olympian miracle he'd even gotten up there one-armed in the first place.
Even as she thought this, the man slid from her back, landing on the turf with a groan. He lay with his eyes closed, his face sweat-slicked and gray as her own hide. She nudged him with her nose until he opened his eyes and chuckled painfully.
"Ah, Lady. Not where I expected us to end up. Go home, old girl."
He meant the farm he'd taken her from two days ago, not Athens. Athens was a memory, Rome a ruin. She shook her head.
"Stubborn beast. Shoo."
Old Gray studied the man. No colt, with that gray salting his hair. Not likely to spook at the unexpected-and in no shape to bolt even if he did.
The man's eyes widened. He pushed himself up on his good elbow, and winced. "I thought it was head wounds that made a man imagine things like talking horses."
"Talking centuries-old horses," the mare corrected. "Lie still. If your arm starts bleeding again you'll bring predators."
The man started to laugh and bit down on a gasp. "Spoken like a true horse," he wheezed. "So why are you talking to me?"
"I've found that it comforts humans to have someone to talk to while they're dying."
The man's eyes widened. "Blunt critter, aren't you?"
Old Gray twitched, the nearest she could come to a shrug. "I'm a horse. We're prey from the day we're foaled, and we live with that knowledge under our skin. The best we can hope for is sweet pastures in the meantime."
The man smiled. "I'd have shown you fine pastures-and orchards of sweet apples, and a wee lass who'd have pampered you like a royal pony. It's what I gave my arm to keep." His smile turned wry. "And maybe more than my arm, the way you talk. Doesn't seem right, not to get back there after all this." He closed his eyes again.
The mare watched him breathe, troubled by thoughts she'd never allowed herself to think. "I won't see my home again, either."
He opened his eyes and looked questioningly at her.
"Shall...shall I tell you a story?"
"Been a long time since someone's done that," he whispered. "Go ahead, old girl."
"My...my home was Athens, before it was named. Have you heard of it?"
The man shook his head, gingerly.
"Zeus? Apollo? Grey-eyed Athena?" Longing made her voice more horselike than before.
"Sorry, old girl."
Her neck drooped in disappointment, but she went on in the best bardic style she could imitate. "Athens was the fairest of cities in those days, though it had no name yet, and Poseidon, Lord of the Sea and Horses, and Athena, Lady of Wisdom, both sought to claim her for their own. They decided to each give the people a gift. The giver of the best gift would become patron of the city. Poseidon created a spring."
"Wouldn't mind a taste of water myself," the man murmured, closing his eyes.
"This spring was of his own seawater. Utterly undrinkable. The Gray-Eyed Lady created the olive tree, and the people named Athens for her. Some bards mention that next, Poseidon created a horse. They don't mention that I was that horse, or that when I heard about that salt spring, well, I laughed."
The man smiled faintly without opening his eyes. "At a god? So much for horse sense."
"I was five minutes old," the mare snorted. "And I had enough sense to know that a salt spring was useless. But the Lord of Horses wasn't amused. He told me I'd wander the world until I learned compassion. I didn't realize he meant forever, while cities fell and even the gods faded. But he called me "Old Gray Mare" even then. He knew."
"Bit hard of the old heathen." The man stretched out his good hand, and the mare dropped her soft nose into it.
"Guess immortality's not the gift stories make it out to be," he whispered. "Sounds lonely."
"Makes this seem not so hard." The man's smile flickered again. "But those apple blossoms..."
The Old Gray Mare stood with her head bowed while his breaths got shallower and farther apart, and finally stopped. She nudged him, and finally pawed gently at him, but his eyes stayed closed. She turned away, and found herself confronting a tall stranger in a sea-green cloak.
"You!" she squealed. "Where were you five minutes ago? You might have done something!"
She reared to strike, but the Lord of Horses raised a hand and she dropped back to all fours.
"None of us are what we used to be, Old Gray Mare," said Poseidon gently. The mare looked up and saw tears in the old god's eyes. He watched her face and smiled. "Sometimes salt water is worth something, you know."
"But this is wrong. It's not fair. Couldn't you at least have gotten him home first?"
"I didn't take his life, my girl. His own kind did that."
"And yet you can stretch MY life as thin as watered-down porridge!" She laid her ears flat against her skull. "I wish I could give him just a handful of these useless years you've saddled me with, so he could see his own pasture again."
The Sea-god's eyes flashed. "Do you mean that, Old Gray Mare?"
"I . . . yes!"
"You would die, knowing full well this man could follow you in a few years-or weeks or days?"
"Yes-as long as he got home first."
The Lord Of Horses smiled. "You always were my best horse-even if you were so full of hubris I could never tell you that for fear you'd burst. Come here."
The former soldier sat up, grimacing at the pain where his arm used to be, and squinted in puzzlement at the tall stranger in the green coat crouched next to him.
"How are you feeling?"
The man scratched his head with his remaining hand. "Better than I should be, I think ...Lady! Where is she?"
"Your horse? Right there." The stranger gestured to where a gray mare stood shaking her head as though bewildered by a swarm of flies. "Fine horse you've got there."
"She is." The wounded man stood up, and the mare whinnied and raced to nudge her head under his arm for balance.
"Easy there, Lady. Are you all right, old girl?" The soldier looked bewildered, and his rescuer chuckled.
"Anyone would think you expected her to answer you. Let me give you a hand up. Oh, and take this." The sea-eyed stranger handed over a carefully-wrapped seedling. "For your orchard."
"Thanks." The ex-warrior frowned. "Strangest looking apple tree I ever saw."
"It's not an apple. It's an olive." Stranger and horse exchanged a glance. "An olive branch, if you will."
Lady nickered. Her rider nodded, puzzled, and turned toward home.