The Races

Part 2

Meaningless jockeys sped by on their horses. People laughed, they cheered and hollered. Sweat trickled down my back as the sun warmed my head. The air smelled bad – the odour of many bodies sitting close together and being drenched in sweaty, wet slime. The beautifully scented ladies, possessing the perfume of blooming roses in the morning still hadn't realised that their flowers had wilted. I had gotten used to all this fairly quickly however, as I had other things to occupy my mind with rather than sitting around and making disgusted faces like Maxim was. He was slowly adding to my mother's distress by doing so.

"Stop that. It's quite rude," she whispered into his ear, her voice loud and fierce.

Our two families sat in a neat row and I found myself positioned on the very end, next to a thin timber wall. To my right was Antoinette, then Maxim, Mother, Father and finally Monsieur and Madame de Lours.

A distinct sense of anticipation was apparent amongst the stalls for virtually all of the nobles had gathered today to watch their friends and relatives compete in the private races. If I turned around, I knew I would see many excited and familiar faces.

"And now, Mesdames et Monsieurs, begin the races of the young!" yelled a brightly clad announcer whilst standing in the very front of our tribune. "From the fifteen to the twenty year olds! Could your young boy be competing right now? Or ladies, your fine beau?"

Applause and appreciative shouts from the audience as well as a few coquettish giggles from the addressed ladies. I felt a puzzling knot of dread tie itself inside me. It was a gut feeling and I reassured myself that I was just worried about Luc losing the competition. It was just that, nothing more. Yet something felt wrong.

A pistol fired, the sound ringing true and clear. Horses emerged from the painted stalls, their riders saddled and rushing to victory. I searched for my brother within the cluster of distant faces. When I had recognised all but a few, I felt a sense of relief at the fact that Luc wasn't participating in this race.

"Oh, how disappointing!" Antoinette sniffed. "I had thought that Xavier would not do so badly."

I followed her gaze and had to smile at the crimson boy whose horse was undoubtedly lagging behind. And I could see why: the rider wasn't exactly a light weight. The race was almost over before it started – the riders had finished the length of the track with ease.

"And now, our second race in this division!" exclaimed the announcer. Most knew that this division was solely intended for the young sons of nobles who competed for shallow glory.

There was a tense pause before the gun was fired and the horses began to gallop.

"There they are!" Antoinette screamed over the cheering.

My heart warmed as I saw Luc leading at the front on Robert's steed. Although I couldn't quite see his expression, I was sure it was one of absolute focus. And right behind him was Bolt, steered by Laurent. Indeed, our horse was truly agile, she was drawing closer and closer. It was evident that the two riders were the obvious lead while the rest of the group were metres behind and that some idiot was doing this on purpose, showing off tricks such as making his horse stand on its hind legs and gallop with the gait of a circus-trained steed.

Beside me, Antoinette was laughing. "He's so stupid! Can't he ever take anything seriously?"

I also grinned, turning to her, "I guess this year, Robert's not going to win."

Antoinette was back to watching the track and I noticed that her eyes had widened considerably.

"About Robert, I don't really care… But it seems that Luc just may not succeed."

My attention immediately snapped back to Luc and Laurent. There were a few hundred metres of dirt track still left to go and Laurent was slowly overtaking Luc.

"What a complete fool!" Father stood up, seething with barely suppressed anger. "He gave his horse up?!"

I watched the competition, fist clenched with worry. Come on, Luc, just a few more feet!

No, Laurent was more than half a horse ahead, the distance was too short, the race over too soon, the stress too much, Luc would never…

Suddenly, something snapped. Like a twig, an old stick. I heard it, despite the noise surrounding me. Yet the din died down before I could take another breath. There was a moment's shocked silence.

Then someone screamed.

Bolt had fallen, easily sliding on the slick, muddy earth and taking Laurent with her. She had just absolutely collapsed, her legs losing all strength and her torso trapping Laurent's body underneath from the hips down. And the blood had begun to seep…

Luc was still blatantly unaware of what was happening – he was so focused on winning his own personal battle. In a matter of seconds, he had crossed the finish line. But no-one noticed his victory. No, everyone stared in mute incomprehension at the chain of events that was unfurling painfully. The riders coming after Laurent swerved, their own horses almost falling and losing balance. Hooves clamped down beside his head, horses neighing loudly and escaping their masters' control. The riders from further behind had realised what was going on and were somehow managing to slow their horses down to a trot.

There was exactly one figure who was a picture of absolute stillness. The dappled beige Carmagais stood with an ear perked up in curiosity, the slight wind ruffling its mane. Sitting on it was Robert, mouth agape and watching the proceedings in shock.

A horse neighed and in its confused frenzy reared on its hind legs, front hooves landing a crushing blow inches away from Laurent's head moments later.

If, like Luc and Robert, Laurent had been slightly taller, then he would no longer breathe. I myself began to struggle to do so as a horrific realization dawned on me, losing control as frantic sobs racked my body. Tears were threatening to pour down my face.

And it was all because, that day, Luc could have died before my very eyes and I would have been helpless to do anything.