Mountain Magic

mountain-horse-text2

 

MOUNTAIN MAGIC

The Wild White Horses of the Alps

A short story for children

ONE

Hans was born in St Moritz, a beautiful little town – or maybe large village – high up in the Swiss mountains.  His earliest memory was of the evening sun turning the ragged peaks a fiery gold, and of watching the mountain shadows chasing away the last of the sunshine, as night drew in.

When Hans was two years old, his father would carry him on his shoulders up the slopes to above the tree line, where they would sit and share a simple picnic, and the happy little child would giggle at the whistles of the marmots – little furry animals with big teeth, which burrowed into the hillsides.

When Hans was four, he fell into the lake around which the town nestled, and though he came to no harm as his parents were with him, his mother scolded him for not being careful.  At six he would spend whole days up in the pastures, helping his older brother tend to the family’s cows, which wandered around happily grazing, their clanking cowbells announcing their position, and providing a constant and gentle soundtrack to the mountain stillness.  At eight he was allowed to sleep on occasion in the mountain hut with his father, and he would gaze through its little window at night, astonished by the brightness of the moonlight.

By the time Hans was ten years old, he knew all the woods and pastures around his mountainside home so well that he never got lost, and what’s more – this being a simpler and safer time – he was allowed to wander freely on his own, as long as he came home in time for his supper, and took Niko, the family dog, with him on his walks.

Now much as Hans loved this dog, which he had helped to raise from a puppy, he didn’t always like being in his company in the hills, precisely because he had a tendency to chase not only cows but the wild deer that roamed the mountains, and there was nothing the young boy liked more than coming across a deer or two stepping through the woods, maybe with fawns at their side, if it was spring.

So one Saturday, after he’d spent the morning with his father up in the hut on the higher slopes, learning how to whittle wood into the shape of an eagle, he was rather pleased when his father sent him back down into the town alone, and kept Niko with him, saying that he would spend some time trying to train the naughty dog not to snap at the heels of the cattle.

Hans waved his father goodbye and set off happily along a familiar path, enjoying the view of the big lake far below him, and the beautiful mountains all around.  It was early summer and there was still some snow on the peaks.  As he walked, a bank of mountain mist rolled in and obscured his view for a moment.  But he wasn’t scared; he knew it would soon pass, and he would have found his way home blindfolded, he was sure.  Nevertheless, just as the mist cleared he thought he caught a glimpse of something white a little way away, and it made him pause and then change direction, hoping to see it again.

He walked carefully, straining to see.  Yes, there it was, a flash of something white moving between the pine trees.  He grinned to himself with excitement, thinking that it must be a white deer, something he’d never seen before.  But imagine his surprise when after a few more minutes of quiet pursuit, an unusual noise broke the stillness – a horse’s whinny.

And then came the magic moment that Hans would never forget.  From out of the mist between the trees stepped the most beautiful creature.  Not a white stag as he had thought, but a pure white horse – or rather a colt, a yearling.  Not grown to full size yet, and still with the rather long, gangly legs of a foal, nevertheless his mane had grown out and flopped on the side of his neck, and his tail was long and silvery white.

Hans stood and looked at him, enthralled.  Apart from dark eyes and nostrils, every inch of him was a flawless white.  Even his hooves were a light colour, Hans saw, when the horse raised first one foreleg then the other, as if trying to decide whether to step forward or run away.

He stared back at the boy with his own curiosity, and gradually they slowly approached each other, natural interest battling against caution.

Hans held his hand out and almost, almost touched the beautiful white colt’s soft nose – but then suddenly came another neigh from close by, and the young horse swung around and leapt away through the trees, giving an answering call of his own.

Without thinking, Hans ran after him, and finding himself in a clearing, saw clearly for a moment the white colt greeting his dam – an absolutely beautiful pure white mare, with a glorious long white mane, and a stately presence about her.  The two horses pranced around each other for a while in greeting, then dropped their heads to graze, and Hans watched in awe until suddenly the mist rolled in again, and they were snatched from sight.

When the sun broke through, the two horses were gone, and though Hans looked for them in several directions, it was as if they had completely disappeared.  In the clearing, though, there were clear hoof-prints pressed into the mountain moss, and Hans sat on a rock for a while, remembering what he had seen and memorising the place.

Now of course Hans had seen horses before – there were horses kept in a field at the edge of the town, and several of the mountain farms and smallholdings had stables.  But unlike the cows, horses were never allowed to roam free on the mountains.  They were too intelligent, and would wander too far and soon become lost.

So he was sensible enough to realise that he would have to report what he had seen, because it must be that these horses had got free and their owner would surely be looking for them.

When he got back to the house he told his mother about his encounter with the two white horses, but she seemed sceptical, and reminded him he was a big boy now and shouldn’t be telling stories.  His older brother accused him outright of making it all up.

When his father returned later in the evening, he listened to his son’s story careful, then asked a question.

“Did these horses have bridles, or halters on them?”

“No, father,” Hans replied.  “Nothing at all.”

“And on their hooves, did they have horse-shoes?”

“No, not that I saw.”

“Hmm, well I’ll ask around tomorrow if anyone is missing any horses, but I don’t know anyone around here who owns a pure white mare, and I’m sure I would have heard about a white colt like the one you’ve described.”

He tousled his son’s hair and sent him to sleep, but nothing more was ever said on the matter, and so Hans, who still had such a clear memory in his head of what he had seen, was forced to draw his own private conclusions on the matter.

If no-one owned those horses, they must be wild.  If there were wild deer in the woods, why not wild horses?  It was true, everyone knew about and had seen the deer, but he had never heard anyone mention wild horses.  But he had seen them with his own eyes.

And so young Hans believed that he was in possession of a big and exciting secret.

There were surely wild white horses living free in the mountain forests!

TWO

High up in a wild part of the vast woods stretching between Italy and Switzerland, up on a crag below a snow-covered peak, a beautiful young filly stepped forward, raising a forefoot and sniffing the mountain air.

If anyone had been there to see her, they would certainly have described her as white in colour, but in fact she was the lightest of light palomino, her coat an ethereal shade of cream, her mane and tail flaxen, and her delicate hooves hardly any darker than the rest of her.

Her name was Tira and she was alone in the mountains.  Her dam had perished in a dreadful rockfall, and for some months now the young horse had wandered alone and scared through the lonely hills, roughly heading north, which is where her mother had told her she had once lived happily.

She knew that she had to be very careful and to hide herself as she travelled through the mountains, but quite why, or what the threat was, she didn’t fully understand.  But it had been drummed into her during the brief time that she’d spent with her mother, that she must always move quietly and keep well hidden amongst the trees.

And so it was unusual for her to climb so high, and stand so proudly and so visibly on a rock above the forest, looking out over a vista of snow and pine and distant valleys.  But loneliness had overcome fear in her heart, and as she stood on her high ledge, her wispy mane and tail rippling in the slight wind, she could not stop herself calling out, with a long and plaintive neigh.

“I am here and I am alone,” her call said.  “Find me, help me.”

There is no echo in the mountains.  The vast space around her absorbed the sound.

She threw her head high and neighed again.  “I am here!  What shall I do?  Where shall I go?”

And then the beautiful filly’s ear twitched, and the hair stood up all over her body, for it seemed to her that she heard a reply – an answering neigh, far away in the distance.

Again she called and again the reply came, though this time she was less sure of it.  Maybe hope and need had created a phantom in her head.  Maybe it was a trick of the wind, a trick of her heart.  Nevertheless, it was at least a possibility – at least an objective.  So she set off with new purpose.  Some other horse had called to her, and maybe waited, somewhere ahead.

Down through the woodland paths Tira trotted, across grassy glades she cantered.  North, always north, towards where she thought she had heard the answering call.  Days passed and summer slipped into autumn.  But still she was alone in the forest, seeing only the occasional deer, the occasional rabbit, and the odd hawk or pigeon.

She called again, many times, but no answer came to her through the trees and she grew cautious again, remember her mother’s lessons.            But something drew her onwards – curiosity, a longing for companionship, and something more, a feeling that she couldn’t put a name to but which seemed to reverberate through every bone in her body.

And then one day, her life changed.

She had ventured quite low, following a particularly pretty mountain stream down from higher ground.  And suddenly and unexpectedly, the mountain slope became extremely steep, dropping away almost like a cliff, down to a lower level.  Although she was in general nimble on her feet and used to rough terrain, she somehow found herself stuck, so that she dare not go forward and yet couldn’t move back.  In mounting panic, she tried to pick out a safe path, but lost her footing and began to slide and crash down the slope.  All in a frenzy, she called out, a wild neigh.  And then she heard a reply, very close by, and she realised that, amazingly, another horse was beside her, holding her up and stopping her fall.

“This way, carefully, follow me,” came the strong voice of the stranger.  “Up here across the roots, that’s it, it’s flatter this way.”

And so, struggling with all her might, and with the stranger’s help, she managed to climb up from the treacherous slope, and up to safer ground.  Only then could she properly take in her new companion, and see that he was a pure white horse, and a male horse.

“Come, we need to move higher, it’s still too steep around here.  I will lead you.  Can you go on?”

She nodded her head and followed him gratefully for some while until they came out at last on a little mountain meadow, which was nearly flat, and where they could both safely rest and recover.

Now Tira looked again at the other horse and saw that he was a stunning young stallion, his head proud, and his body supple and fit.

He turned his neck and touched her gently on the nose in greeting.

“I have been searching for you since I heard your call from the mountaintop.  It’s lucky I found you when I did, that’s a dangerous spot.”

“Thank you for saving me,” said the filly, and shyly rubbed her neck against his.

He pranced away from her, suddenly playful.  She watched him rear up before her, saw how his colour was even paler than her own, but more of a silvery grey than cream.

“My name is Lugo,” the young stallion said.  “What are you called and why are you alone?”

“I am Tira,” she replied and told him the story of her mother’s death, and her subsequent search for other wild horses.

“I think you need someone to look after you,” Lugo said, prancing around in front of her again.  “There are many dangers in these mountains – black bears in the high places, and the strange white creatures in some of the valleys.  But I will care for you, if you will let me?”

When he tossed his silver mane it was like moonlight on a mountain lake.  And when he arched his neck, his muscles rippled with strength, and she felt drawn to him in a way that she couldn’t describe and yet felt somehow very comforting, and very right.

“Will you be mine, sweet Tira?” Lugo asked, his eyes bright.

“Yes,” said Tira, trembling, and so glad to no longer be alone.

And so the beautiful white stallion and the pretty young mare galloped away together across the pasture and into the hills, and a brown lark who saw them pass rose up into the air and began to sing, as if to celebrate their newfound union.

THREE

The mountain peak right above St Moritz is called Piz Nair, and the way up to it is craggy and steep.  From the very top you can see all along the Engadin valley with its beautiful long lakes, and also the Pontresina valley which lies on the way to Tirano in Italy, and in the other direction the broad valley leading to Scuol Tarasp and then Davos.  Near the peak of Piz Nair, hidden from the town by the mountain, is a small, pretty lake, which glistens a pale blue, and standing superior nearby is the neighbouring and inaccessible peak of Piz Julier.

But below the craggy part of Piz Nair is a vast area of sloping mountain terrain, which in winter is used for skiing, but in spring and summer is lush green and covered with all sorts of colourful alpine flowers; blue, yellow, purple and the fuzzy white of that children’s favourite, Edelweiss.  It is on these pretty summer slopes that the cows graze, the marmots dig their burrows, and the mountain birds flit from stone to stone, chasing after the many insects that buzz around the mountain flowers.

And it was on these lush slopes that Elsi, a young girl from the village, walked one morning, dressed in a pretty pink smock, her blonde hair in pigtails, and a big basket in her hand, into which she was gathering tall stemmed flowers for the table.

The glorious views all around her and the beautiful blue of the sky brought a smile to her cheerful face, and it broke into an even broader grin when she recognised the young man who was striding up one of the mountain paths below her, wearing leather shorts and holding a long stick.

She put down her basket and waved to him.  “Hans!  Hans, come up here!”

He saw her and waved back, and in a few moments was at her side, panting only a little from his long uphill walk, for he was of course very fit from having always lived in the mountains.

“Hello, Elsi,” he smiled at her.  They knew each other well, having grown up in nearby houses, and were good friends.  Only very recently had their interest in each other started to have the different flavour of budding romance.  “What do you have in your basket for me?  Anything like lunch?”

“No, I’m sorry Hans,” said Elsi with regret.  “Only the flowers I have picked and one small flask of water – I wasn’t intending to stay up here long, as I have to help my mother with the baking today.”

“Well it’s a good thing I have some bread and cheese in my knapsack.”  Hans strode to a spot with a good view and sat himself down on the long grass.  “Come on, share it with me.”

Elsi sat down beside him, close enough that their legs touched and she could lean her head against his shoulder.  Having her next to him made Hans feel good.  He noticed a strange little tug on his heart, but was too inexperienced to identify it as love.

“So tell me again about the horses,” Elsi asked, as they ate their snack together and looked down at the familiar shape of the St Moritz lake, and the extra little lake beyond it.

Hans threw her a glance.  “You do believe me, that I’ve seen them?” he asked.

“Yes of course,” the girl replied truthfully.  “I just wish I could see them too.  Do they hide so well from us, that in all my seventeen years I have never seen one?”

“They do hide,” Hans said, “and there are not many of them, but they are here.”  He pointed across the valley to a clearing in the woods on the slopes of Piz Rosatsch.  “See there?  I saw a small herd of them right there just the other day.  Three new foals, and every one pure white, not a brown or black or dun horse amongst them.”

“How wonderful,” Elsi said.  “Will you catch one for me as a present?”

Hans snatched the piece of bread he had been handing her from her grasp.  “Never!” he said sternly.  “You must not ask that!  That’s why I don’t talk about them with anyone but you, because if more people know of them, and how beautiful they are, they will want to chase and catch them.  And surely they should remain free and wild in the mountains?”

“Yes, you are right,” Elsi replied, thinking that she hadn’t been serious about him catching one anyway.  (She had in fact been flirting, but didn’t know it.)  “But can’t you take me to see them?  We could go up there to Rosatsch tomorrow.  I promise to be quiet and not startle them.  I would so love to see the little white foals.”

She spoke with such excitement, and Hans noticed how pretty she looked when her cheeks flushed red.  How could he refuse her a visit?

“Okay, I’ll think about it,” he replied, and finished off his sandwich.

And so the next day, after they had both done their chores, they met at the side of the lake, and walked up together into the beautiful wild woods on Rosatsch.  A forest on a slope is such a different thing to a forest on the flat; there is some extra beauty to the way the trees are arranged up the incline, and an extra excitement to exploring woodland paths and occasionally coming across a spot where a break in the trees provides you with a stunning view of a lake below, or of far away mountain tops.

They talked at first, pointing out forest birds to each other, and occasional wildflowers, but then, as they climbed ever higher, grew silent.

At one point Elsi drew breath, and touched her companion’s shoulder, to indicate to him she had seen something through the trees.

But it was just some deer, crossing over the path ahead of them, and disappearing into the woods.

They smiled at each other, enjoying the shared experience of seeing wild creatures in the forest, and Hans touched his finger to his lips to indicate they should go quietly now, in the hope of seeing something even more spectacular, and even more rare, than the deer.

At last they reached the clearing Hans had been aiming for, and they stood at the edge of it in silence, peering out into the sunshine.  There were no wild horses to be seen, however, and Hans was disappointed.

He pointed to a fallen log nearby – they would sit and wait a while.

But so began for Hans a rather unpleasant experience, for although they waited patiently at the clearing and then later explored a little further and tried some other places he knew, there was no sign of the horses, and he began to feel embarrassed and worry that Elsi would think he had made the whole thing up to impress her.

All morning and most of the afternoon, they walked and sat, walked and sat in the woods, hoping to see the wild white horses of the Alps, but eventually they had to concede defeat, and set off back downhill towards the town.

Hans stomped along the path in a black and sullen mood, which was a shame because if he had been more observant, he might have noticed from the way that Elsi was looking at him, that she didn’t at all care that they hadn’t seen the horses, or indeed whether or not they really existed.  Because during that day together in the mountains, Elsi had realised that there was only one thing in the vicinity that she really cared about – and that was Hans.

But it was the day after their excursion that Hans would always remember, for that day he set out again up the mountain, but this time alone, and after a few hours, to his mixed pleasure and frustration, he came across the little white herd again, grazing amongst the trees, and with them was a lovely white stallion, who didn’t run away when he caught sight of Hans, but stepped towards him with curiosity, almost as if he recognised him.

Slowly, gently, Hans reached out to the horse, and found he was able to touch him on the muzzle, and stroke him soothingly.

“Oh, you beautiful horse,” Hans whispered, captivated by the experience of being so close to such an amazing wild animal.  “Yes, I’ve seen you before, haven’t I, and you’ve seen me.”  He carried on stroking the stallion’s head, and dared to move even closer to him.  “Oh, why couldn’t you have been here yesterday,” he whispered into the horse’s ear, “when my – when Elsi was here?  I would so like to have shown you to her.”

The horse seemed mesmerized by the proximity of the man, and by his gentle murmuring, and held his head still, unafraid and trusting.   And without thinking, Hans found that he could rest his head against that of the horse, that they could stand together, their cheeks touching – two different mountain inhabitants, coming together for an instant, in a strange communion.

Then one of the mares nickered, and the stallion broke away, and Hans was left standing alone in the woods, listening to the sound of twigs cracking as the horses slipped off up the mountain.

Remembering the feel of the stallion’s warm, hairy cheek against his own.

FOUR

In the Alps there are many, many mountains, and so of course also many valleys between them.  Some valleys are low and broad, some are high and narrow.  Some have only steep sides, some feature broad flat plains.  Nearly all valleys have a stream or river of water running through them, because the rain and melt water from the ice and snow run downhill off the mountains.

Now there was one valley between two tall mountains where the customary stream had split into two, and so there were two medium-sized water-courses running along the bottom of it.  And between these two rushing streams was a broad, flat stretch of ground, which was lush with good grass and wild flowers, and also had, here and there, clumps of small trees which provided good cover at night.  It was here that Lugo and Tira made their home, and here where they raised their first foal, Cela, a lovely cream filly who was now a yearling, and also cared for their second, a sprightly white colt they called Sils.

Tira was very happy living in the valley of two streams.  There was plenty of good food and fresh water, and she produced lots of rich milk to feed her young ones.  She felt safe and settled here, and often wondered whether this was the good place her mother had spoken of.  She was so glad that she had found Lugo; he always looked after his little family herd well, though he sometimes went off exploring into the mountains.  As for herself, after her long and lonely journey from the south, she no longer felt any need to roam.  All she hoped for was to stay in this comfortable valley and watch Cela and Sils grow big and strong.

But sadly life could not all be peace and quiet and comfort, and another momentous happening was about to take place.

It was a warm summer’s day like any other, and Tira was grazing happily on the meadow, her daughter Cela frolicking a short distance away from her and little Sils playing beside her, never too far from his dinner of milk.  Lugo had left them the previous day, saying he wanted to investigate tales he had heard from the eagles of another herd of wild horses living nearby.  He had promised to be back soon, and Tira had no reason to worry – or so she thought.

As the sun climbed higher above them, she saw her daughter suddenly start, raising her head, and at the same time she herself caught the scent of a strange horse on the air.  A moment later, a stallion broke out from between the trees and, leaping across a stream, came trotting towards them, his neck arched and his tail swishing.

This was not Lugo; it was a stranger.  He was a fine animal, also white in colour, though a little more of a light dapple-grey when you looked closely, and if anything he seemed a little bigger and older than her mate.

Tira was shocked – she had not seen many other horses in the mountains, though she was sure there must be more of her kind out there somewhere, and the last thing she had expected was suddenly to come across another young stallion.  She didn’t know whether to be pleased or scared, but this uncertainty was soon resolved.

“Hello,” said the strange horse, nickering at her.  “What a beautiful sight you are my dear, and how beautiful this little filly is also.”

The stallion looked towards Cela, who took a step backwards, afraid.

“Who are you?” Tira asked, “and where have you come from?”

The grey walked around her, inspecting her foal also, and then rose up on his back legs before answering.

“I am Murag and these are my mountains.  I have a herd of mares a way to the east of here – and I think you should be in it.”

Tira raised her head in defiance, but still made an effort to be friendly to the stranger.

“I am sorry, but I live here with Lugo and do not wish to leave.”

“Lugo?  Who is Lugo?  I do not see any other stallion here.”

“He will be back soon,” Tira said confidently.  “Stay and graze with us, and tell us of your herd.”

Murag reared again and then dropped his head low and came up close to her.

“Oh I’m sorry, but that’s not what I have in mind.  You – all three of you – are mine now.  And it’s time we got you moving towards your new home.”

At this Tira panicked and reared up herself, her instinct to protect herself and the others.  “No!  I will not come!  I belong here with my Lugo.”

Murag turned an angry eye on her and snapped,  “Well then – I will take your daughter!”  And in an instant he had leaped up to Cela and by nipping her rump, had driven her into a frenzied gallop.

“No!” Tira called, galloping after them, with Sils keeping close to her side out of instinct.  And so before she knew it, all three of them were being driven by the dappled stallion along the streams and down the valley, and though she tried to break away once, calling to Cela to follow her, Murag was too fast and too strong, and forced them always in the direction he wanted, by biting their flanks and catching their rumps with his cruel and sharp hooves.

Distraught, Tira raised her head as she ran and called out to Lugo.

“Quiet!” Murag warned her, but she dared to call once more, as loud as she could and expressing all her anxiety and fear, in the hope that Lugo would hear and come to save them.

On and on the grey forced Tira and her family to gallop, all along the length of the valley and into the next one and then the next.  She began to sweat and longed for a break, but Murag drove them on with urgency, wanting to get them as far from their home and their stallion as possible.

But eventually, little Sils could run no longer, and when he stopped and dropped onto the grass with exhaustion, Tira stopped also, and held her ground when Murag tried to move her on.

“He cannot run any more!” she insisted.  “We must rest.”

And so reluctantly, Murag let them stop, and trotted around them in circles as they cowered close together.

And then, so unexpectedly that even Tira jumped with fright, there came an angry scream and another horse burst out of the woods and raced towards them.

It was Lugo, and Tira, Cela and Sils were all very pleased to see him, and nickered in welcome.

Murag though, was not pleased, and bared his teeth threateningly.  But Lugo didn’t hesitate, he charged the other stallion in fury, and a fight began at once.

Tira ushered the others to a safer distance, as the two white stallions began to rear and lunge at each other violently, striking out with their hooves and biting each other’s necks and flanks whenever they got the chance.

“You do NOT steal my herd!” Lugo roared, putting all his energy into battling the older horse.  He was not experienced in fighting, but his natural instincts took over, and he felt strong and sure of himself.  He had to protect Tira and his offspring, he had to get them back.

“Ha!” Murag laughed at him when he had a moment to draw breath.  “That’s exactly what I’ve done!”

On and on the two horses fought, screaming, biting, rearing, kicking.  They were both covered in sweat now, and some blood, where teeth and hooves had found their mark.

Tira watched with fear.  What if Lugo lost?  Perhaps she should run now, and get her young ones away while she had the chance?  But she couldn’t tear herself away from watching Lugo fight for her, and stood anxiously, hoping that he would win and that they would be together again.

Finally, Lugo got the opportunity he was waiting for, and managed to land a mighty blow with his hooves on Murag’s head, and then again on his shoulder.  The older stallion staggered, and nearly fell, and then, reluctantly but inevitably, retreated.

“You haven’t heard the last of me,” he called nastily, as he headed off, limping, but this comment infuriated Lugo, and he chased the other horse well away.

“I don’t want to ever see you again!” Lugo said.  “I have won this fight, and I will beat you every time.  Don’t dare to come near me or my herd in future!”

Tira waited until Lugo returned from having driven Murag all along the valley, then trotted up to him and touched his nose in gratitude and admiration.

“Thank you, thank you, you were wonderful, you have saved us!” she said.

And Lugo reared up and called out to the mountains, that this was his place, and his herd, and no-one was going to take them from him again.

FIVE

Hans was now an old man, with grey hair and a long beard.  Although he had travelled a little to other countries, he had remained living in St Moritz for the whole of his life, because it was without doubt, for him, the most beautiful place in the world, and he could not imagine making his home anywhere else.

He had married Elsi and had three fine children, and now also had five grandchildren, on whom he doted.  They all loved him, especially when he took them up to the mountain chalet and told them stories – often about the secret wild horses of the Alps.

On this occasion he was sitting with two of the children high on the slopes of Piz Nair, and they were eating nut cake and drinking apple juice, and he was pointing out various distant mountain peaks to them, and teaching them their names.

“And what is that mountain there called?  The one with that cloud coming towards it.”

“That’s easy,” said Dieter, his oldest grandson.  “It’s Piz Corvatsch.”

“That’s right,” said Hans.  “You’re a clever boy.  And that one there, over on the left?”

“Piz Languard!” shouted his younger brother Kristof.  “Piz Languard – we’ve been up there.”

Hans nodded, pleased to think of his grandchildren learning to know and love the mountains, as he had.

“Is that where you saw the horses?” Dieter asked, his eyes lighting up.

“Sometimes up that way.  But it’s a bit close to the town.”

“Tell us, Grandpa,” Kristof insisted, climbing onto the old man’s knee.  “Tell us about the wild horses again!”

And so, although he had done so many times before, Hans settled back happily against the slope and told them the story.

“A long time ago,” he explained, “when an ancient people were crossing the mountains with a huge army, setting out to conquer more northern lands, some of their spare war-horses escaped and ran away to the most remote forests and hillsides of the Alps, and since the army was commanded to move ever onwards, the escapees were not pursued.  These few horses found safety and peace in the wildest areas, eating the grass on the mountain pastures and valleys in the summer, and the mosses and bark in the woods in winter.

“They grew hardy, and increased in numbers over the years.  And because the high mountains were so often covered in snow, it was the white ones which survived best – the darker ones could more easily be seen and tended to fall prey to the bears and wolves that lived in the mountains at that time.

“Time passed, and though there were some people living in the Alps, there were huge areas which were wild and empty – as there still are now.  So a small population of horses was able to live successfully and secretly in the mountains, ranging all the way from Austria through Switzerland and across to France, as well as down to Italy.  They kept well away from people out of a natural caution, and were so fast and agile on the mountain slopes and knew the terrain so well, that few people ever even saw them, and they were generally safe from pursuit.  Also, the people of the Alps tended to have a great appreciation for nature and wilderness, and if they should by chance see wild horses living in the mountains, their instinct would be more to admire them and leave them alone, rather than to seek to capture and tame them.

“And so, alongside human beings and even into modern times, the wild white horses of the Alps managed to survive and thrive.  In summer they hid in the deepest forests and most remote valleys, only venturing out into the open pastures at night, where night owls watched them gallop along the high ledges in the moonlight.  In winter, well away from man’s settlements, they wandered freely across the snow and ice, enjoying their freedom.

“The stallions generally had enough space to hold vast territories of their own, so fights were rare.  But sometimes the screams of stallions fighting would disturb the mountain stillness.  The mares were strong and wily, and supported each other within their little herds, bringing up their young to be cautious and careful and wise.  The young colts and fillies grew up feeling safe and happy, and would soon come to love their mountain home – the sight of carpets of alpine flowers in spring, the tinkle of a mountain stream in summer, the beautiful colours of the trees in autumn, and most of all, the majestic beauty of the snow-covered peaks in winter, when they would run and play and chase each other in the snow, their pure white hides making them melt into the snow and mist like ethereal spirits.”

Old Hans told them more, about some of the actual horses he had seen – about the sweetness of the little white foals, cavorting in the meadows in the spring, and the beauty of the lovely mares, tossing their heads, with their long white manes flowing down over their necks.  And about the magnificent stallions, standing proud in the snow, leaping from rock to rock on the crags, as agile as mountain goats, drinking from the high mountain lakes, galloping wild and free across the high ranges.

“But Grandpa,” said the child Dieter, who had been listening with his customary fascination.  “Won’t you tell us – are these beautiful white horses real, or magical?”

“Yes, tell us,” asked little Kristof, with great seriousness.  “Do they still live here in the woods around St Moritz?  Or are they just – like ghosts?”

Hans thought back to the day when he had first encountered a curious white colt on the misty hillside, and also to that special moment years later when he had stood, cheek to cheek, with the wild white stallion that colt had become.

He looked out across the valley and let his eyes settle on a grassy spot halfway up the mountain opposite.  It seemed to him that he could just imagine a proud white stallion, stepping out from amidst the pine trees into the sunshine, and rearing up to proclaim his territory and express his joy.

“Real or magical?” he muttered to himself, over and over, with a strange smile on his time-worn face.

And though the children begged him, and tugged on his sleeve in hope of a reply, Hans did not know how to answer them.

St Moritz and Croydon

Sept/Oct 2015

white horses in dust

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