Kayse returned to the house, feeling a little flustered. Going upstairs to the bathroom, she rinsed her face with cold water. She paused looking back at her reflection, her hazel eyes searching themselves for ideas or answers. For some reason, she suddenly remembered what Wilhelmina had said about laying items out on Uncle Kalvin’s bed. Determined, she dried her hands and headed down the hall to the far back bedroom.
As she pushed the hardwood door, she couldn’t help but feel like she was intruding on the space. She flicked the switch by the door and the dome overhead light flickered on. The bedroom was about what you would expect from a single, well-off, old rancher. A wooden four post bed occupied one corner, made up with handmade quilts. A matching chest sat at the foot of the bed and dresser across the room. A big black gun safe sat in the corner nearest the bed. As she had said, all the items bequeathed to Wilhelmina sat on the bed: a rifle in its case, a small wooden cigar box, a couple bottles of brandy and whiskey and a photo album. Kayse briefly looked through the items. The cigar box was indeed full of cigars. The rifle case was locked up and the bottles were all labeled in foreign languages. Kayse sat on the edge of the bed and opened the night stand. She wasn’t surprised to find nothing more than a pistol, hand lotion, some over the counter pain killers and a couple old books, under the books, however, she found something she didn’t expect. A framed, candid photo of a young, dark haired man looking lovingly at the smiling face of a beautiful blond woman with sparkling blue eyes. Kayse recognised Kalvin, but the woman was a stranger to her. As she lifted the frame, she noticed a strange weight on the back and turned it around. Attached by a black ribbon to the hook on the back of the frame was a modest diamond ring. Kayse thought long and hard. She’d never seen uncle Kalvin wear a wedding band. She turned the photo back over. Maybe he never got to give this strange woman a ring. But, why?
She gently set the photo up on the nightstand, pondering it for a moment more. She turned and looked back around the room, noticing a small, red jewelry box sitting on the dresser. She crossed over and opened it slowly. There were a couple nice watches next to a collection of bolo ties that appeared to be made out of gold, silver and various stones and gems. A class ring and a few pins were the only other things in the box. Kayse recalled how the drawer in the desk downstairs had a false back and began feeling around the edges of the jewelry box. It became apparent that the box was fixed to the top of the dresser. Her efforts paid off when she found that the ring cushions in the back of the jewelry box were loose. With a little fidgeting, she found that the ring cushions raised straight up, like an upright drawer. She found herself looking a collection of pendants on key rings. At face value, they looked like just expensive key chains hanging from small hooks, as she thought about it, none too different from the keychain she had gotten from Charlie that had an “H” imprinted on it. Her excitement grew though when she noticed a gold disk with a set of casted silver bat wings applied to it. She carefully removed it from the hook, her hands shaking a little.
“What were you into?” she asked out loud, pondering why he felt the need for such security measures.
She lowered the drawer back into the jewelry box and practically sprinted back down the stairs. She peered out the front window to be sure no one was going to walk through the door before she went to the desk. Pulling the drawer all the way out, she looked at the impression on the seal and at the emblem on the key chain. Practically holding her breath, she pressed the face of the key chain into the seal, trying to turn it right and then left, feeling the metal shift under her hand she kept turning left. Metallic noises resonated from inside the wood box and with a final click the top popped open. Kayse lifted the lid cautiously. The inside of the box was metall and contained two leather bound binders. Kayse pulled them both out and set them side by side on the desk. The dark leather was embossed with gold lettering. The first was labeled “Hughes”. Kayse opened it up and found it was a meticulously kept record of the Hughes family going back hundreds of years. She shook her head in confusion. Why hide such a thing?
She looked at the other binder. The words scrolled across the front in bold, golden hand caused her breath to catch a little; “The Blank Wings Clan”.
She opened the book slowly. It was formatted strangely, appearing to combine a family tree scrolled across the top of the thick, off-white pages, with a registry of horse breedings listed down the rest of the page and ones that followed. The first name at the top of the first entry brought her pause.
“Wilhelmina Hughes,” she read aloud. “That’s one hell of coincidence.”
The horse registrations seemed to put priority on studs rather than mares. Kayse flipped to the back hoping what she hoped to find was there and indeed it was.
At the top of the page was Kalvin’s ancestry back to his great grandparents and going forward to Kayse’s generation. She recognised her name as well as some cousins she’d only met once or twice and a name she was sure no one else in the family had ever known; Victor. Every once in a while, in a drunken stooper, Kayse’s mother would tell of the baby she got pregnant with at eighteen and given up for adoption. Kayse had never given him much thought, but she found a little happiness in seeing a marriage line between him and a woman named Caroline.
Under the family tree was the listings of breeding years organized by stud rather than mare.
Kayse’s breath caught. She reread the date to be sure. There was no way Ember was nearly sixty. She flipped through the following pages. Two other studs, Kellen and Piran were listed in 1960 and a fourth, Shaemus joined the ranks in 1960. She continued to flip through. It seemed like the babies were listed as being born every fifteen years or so. As she reached the end of the book, she found pages for 1990. She noticed that the groups of foals were larger. Confused, she counted lines under each listed mare. There were at least five under each and, according to what she was reading, a mare named Celeste produced nine foals that year. She recalled asking Kalvin when she was a kid about twins in horses. Distinctly, she recalled him explaining that not only were they rare, but oftentimes, one of the foals or the mare would die during birth. Brows furrowed in increasing confusion, she turned to the next page. She was surprised to find that, while the bottom half of the page was blank, the genealogy at the top had already been filled in. Her own name stared back at her from the top center of the page. Her lineage back to her great grandparents to the left in smaller script, Victor and Caroline listed under her, and to the right, she was surprised to find two other names, “Kinsley” and “Frederick”. Apparently, she had a niece and a nephew and somehow - they were a part of this too?
Orion’s voice rang in her head. “Generations before him struggled to do it…Generations to come will get to see them flourish.”
Kayse flipped back through the book looking at the top of the pages. Prior to Kalvin was a Katrina Hughes, before her was Keighen Hughes. Karl. Katherine. Kendra. Kevin. She sighed and flipped back to the first page. The first page, Wilhelmina Hughes was listed top and center next to a Keonne Hughes. There was no ancestry ahead of them, but six children followed them and a whole list of grandchildren.
“What’s with the K names?” Kayse asked out loud.
She spent the rest of the night pouring over the books. As far as she could tell, Wilhelmina and Keonne Hughes’s son Korban was the father of the family line that inherited the clydesdales. There was one “K” name born every other generation at least that would come to inherit the horse. What she couldn’t make sense of was how some of the horses were literally shown as being hundreds of years old.
Her head swam as she tried to make heads or tails of the information in front of her. At some point in the long night, she succumbed to sleep at the desk. It was the sound of Orion’s obnoxiously loud engine that stirred her awake as the early morning light was just beining to color the sky outside the big bay windows. Stiff from sleeping in such a contorted possition, Kayse was still stretching herself up to a sitting position when Orion came through the front door, knocking on the frame as he stepped in.
“Yo,” he shouted up the stairs before noticing her at the desk. “Oh. Heh, Kalvin used to crash out there all the time too.” He headed into the kitchen.
Kayse squinted groggily, taken aback by his abruptness so early in the morning.
“Coffee?” Orion shouted from the kitchen.
“Please,” Kayse shouted back, perhaps a bit too curtly.
She yawned and stretched. Her eyes fell on the open books in front of her.
“You’re running with me today,” Orion informed her from the kitchen. “Gonna show you around the training operation. Willie will handle things around here.”
Kayse grabbed the binder in front of her and hurried into the kitchen. Orion was making himself quite at home, pulling travel mugs from the cupboard as he munched lazily on a donut he must have found in her snack cupboard.
“I’ll make it,” Kayse said, pausing for a moment. “I want to show you something.”
Orion turned around, his eyes landed on the book in her hands and his countenance shifted. “What’s that?”
“I was hoping you could tell me,” Kayse said, laying the book on the table.
She couldn’t help but notice a little spring in Orion’s step as he crossed the room and opened the book. His eyes skimmed the first page. He turned one page after another after another.
“Do you know what it is?” Kayse asked.
“Looks like a genealogy record for the horses and your family,” he said. “It’s cool, but I’m kind of disappointed. I was hoping it was Mr. Hughes’s journal. I know he kept one. I bet he had some great stories in there.”
“No, there’s no explanations in there,” Kayse said. “But, look, according to this, the mares only breed every fifteen years and some of them are at least two-three hundred years old. Ember alone is at least sixty. Don’t horses generally only live to about twenty or thirty.”
“Yeah,” Orion said vacantly. “You’re right. I’m not sure what that’s all about.” He cleared his throat and stood up. “Maybe Willie knows.”
He returned to the coffee pot and filled the two travel mugs, passing one to Kayse. They both prepared their cups in silence. Kayse went to the fridge, excitedly grabbing the bottle of flavored creamer she’d found the previous day. Orion leaned back on the counter watching her as she poured a generous amount of the creamer and sugar in the cup.
Kayse noticed an amused look on his face and rolled her eyes. “Let me guess, you like yours black?”
“I do,” Orion said.
“I don’t get the point of drinking coffee that doesn’t even taste good,” Kayse said. “I’ve rarely had the money to put much more than whole milk in my coffee, but, I absolutely love these flavored creamers.”
“I drink it for the effect, not the flavor,” Orion said.
Kayse rolled her eyes and put everything away, “okay, tough guy, let’s go.”
She rode with Orion over to the Ward ranch. As they pulled into the drive, a massive riding arena occupied one side and a barn with stables built onto the side occupied the other. A modest cabin sat at the end of the drive with an RV parked next to it.
“Which one’s your place?” Kayse asked sarcastically.
“The RV was for camping trips,” Orion said. “I’ve been staying in because, well, it seems weird staying in the house without Pops. You know?”
“I do,” Kayse said thinking about how she felt going into Uncle Kalvin’s room.
Orion pulled up to the riding arena and hopped out. “I haven’t been working these guys much lately, with everything changing around here. We’re going to take a few out at a time, walk them, run them and get them under the saddle. They’re just two years old, so they haven’t been ridden yet.”
In the arena, one side was fenced off with panels where a group of quarter horses milled about lazily. Orion pointed to a rack on the wall by the door full of lead rope. Two at a time, they caught the horses, tied them to the fence at the back end of the arena. They opened the panels in the middle of the arena and swung them open, each panel had wheels on each end making them easy to maneuver up against the original fence. Orion picked out four horses. They each took two and walked them around the arena. Orion said it was to make sure no one was “in a mood”. He walked her through ground showing exercises, having the horses walk, high step and canter and stand right without moving. He explained how each exercise allowed judges to get a good look at the form, musculature and temperament of the animal. As the day went on, Kayse found herself impressed with the raport Orion had with the animals. When she wasn’t learning by doing, she watched him. It amazed her how intently the horses fixated on him, eyes bright, ears forward, watching his every move. After each of the two year olds had gone through their exercises, Orion untied them one at a time and opened the door on the back of the arena, letting them out into the small pasture in the back.
“You’re really great with them,” Kayse said.
Orion scratched the back of his head and smiled at the ground.
“You ride, right?” Kayse asked.
“Yeah,” Orion said, “you, uh, wanna take one of these guys out for a spin? I got a few in the stables that are rock solid.”
“That sounds like fun,” Kayse said.
Across the way, in the stables, two rows of excited faces greeted them. Orion reached into a feed bag by the door, extracting a handful of cylindrical shaped treats.
“Gotta pay the toll,” he joked, passing a bunch to Kayse.
They walked down the aisle, handing treats into eagerly waiting mouths. At the end, a paint horse knickered excitedly. He was smaller than the rest of the horses and facial features seemed sharper.
“Who’s this?” Kayse asked.
“This is Soldier,” Orion said. “We didn’t breed him. I got him to spite my grandfather to be honest, but he’s the best horse I’ve ever had.”
“Why would it spite your grandfather?” Kayse asked, stroking Soldier’s face.
“He’s an arabian,” Orion chuckled. “Here,” he led her to the next stall over where a dark bay mare stood. “This is Diamond. I’ve started using her to teach youngins to ride last year because she’s such a doll.”
He took Diamond out first and walked her down to the front of the barn. He gave Kayse a little instruction as she saddled the mare. She’d done it before, but it had been a long time. She stood back and held on to Diamond as he went and collected Soldier.
Soldier was very different from the rest of the horses in behavior. He excitedly cantered down the aisle and pawed at the ground while being saddled. Orion gathered the reigns and walked the paint in a few tight circles. Finally, Soldier held still, but it was as if he had become frozen with anticipation.
Orion looked at Kayse as he stood alongside the horse. “You may want to stand clear.”
Kayse took Diamond and stepped back away from the door. Orion hadn’t even fully gotten into the saddle before Soldier bolted for the door. Kayse led Diamond out after them. Soldier was already halfway down the driveway with Orion in tow holding onto his hat for dear life. With a shrill whistle and some choice words, Orion got the spirited horse turned back around. Soldier still trotted sideways back towards the stables, as they approached, Orion forced him to stop, walk backwards several steps then turned him in tight circles one direction then the other. Kayse watched, a little star struck. She couldn’t help but notice that no matter how the arabian moved, Orion never seemed to lose balance, his dark brown eyes glowed with delight at the challenging horse. His tan, work worn hands maneuvered the reigns with a subtlety that seemed impossible for controlling a large, willful animal. She felt her face flush a little as she realized where her thoughts had wandered off to.
Orion finally brought the horse to a halt. He smiled down at Kayse, “he’s a good horse. He’s just got a lot of get up and go. And, he’s been stuck in the barn a lot lately.”
Kayse smiled awkwardly, noticing that Soldier was still, quite literally chomping at the bit.
“Go ahead, she’ll be fine even if he acts up,” Orion said.
Kayse put her foot in the stirrup and swung up into the saddle.
The two rode down the driveway and along the road. Soldier pranced about for a while, walking sideways and stepping high. Kayse couldn't help but notice that Orion seemed to enjoy the challenge of keeping the hot blooded gelding in line. They continued along until they reached a cross road then turned around.
“Open her up,” Orion said. “Just give her a squeeze with both legs.
Kayse did as he said and Diamond picked up her pace into a smooth trot and then with a little more encouragement, a full gallop. Riding in the saddle felt a lot different from being bareback, but she still felt the familiar rush of adrenaline and the wind blew around her.
“Let her have her head,” Orion shouted as he and Soldier sped past.
Kayse let the reins go slack and, as if driven by the thrill of competition, Diamond dropped her head and picked up the pace. The two horses matched each other, neck and neck, throwing up a cloud of dust in their wake. Kayse leaned forward in the saddle, eyes locked on the orange and white reflector beside the entrance to the driveway. She glanced over at Orion to find he was watching her intently. She giggled awkwardly and verbally encouraged Diamond to go fast.
The two rounded into the driveway. Near the riding arena, Wilhelmina stood against her old truck, arms crossed watching them ride in. Kayse gently slowed Diamond down and came to an easy stop. Soldier cantered up and Orion hopped off.
“Hey, Willie,” he said breathlessly.
“This is what you call showing her the training operation?” Wilhelmina asked. “Taking a green rider out on open roads with that wild beast you collected out of a loose sale?”
“It’s Diamond,” Orion said. “She could have never rode before and had bombs being dropped around her and she’d still be fine.”
Wilhelmina sighed heavily and rolled her eyes before looking at Kayse, “you look to be having fun at least.”
Kayse nodded in agreement and stepped out of the saddle.
“Everything is looking good over at the home ranch,” Wilhelmina reported. “The girls seem to be taking well to their gentlemen visitors.”
Orion’s countenance took on a seriousness suddenly, “won’t be long until the real work begins then.”
“What work?” Kayse asked.
“Taking care of babies, of course,” Wilhelmina said with a smile.
“Hey, do you think you can handle putting these two away?” Orion asked Kayse.
“Yeah,” she answered.
Orion turned and looked at Soldier, “you be nice,” he said before passing the reins over.
Kayse walked back to the barn with the two horses. She glanced over her shoulder to see Orion and Wilhelmina talking quietly with serious expressions. She turned back around and tied the horses in the barn, unsaddling them. She peeked out the door as she put each piece of tack away. As she went to retrieve the curry comb, she noticed Wilhelmina was smiling excitedly.
Kayse brushed Diamond out first and put her back in her stall, retrieving a scoop of sweet feed as a reward and pouring it in the rubber bucket mounted to the wall. Wilhelmina and Orion were still deep in discussion when she returned to Soldier to brush him out.
“I don’t suppose you know what is going on around here?” she asked the horse. “That human of yours isn't as good at lying as he thinks he is. I think he’s too good of a person to lie well, honestly. I can’t say I’ve met many of those.”
“You flatter me.”
Kayse jumped and turned to find Orion leaning against the barn door. He walked towards her stroking Soldier’s back with one hand as he came to a stand still right in front of her.
“I feel like they like it when you talk to them,” Kayse said, feeling her face warm.
“They’re easy to talk to,” Orion agreed, taking the curry comb out of her hand gently and beginning to brush along the horse’s withers. “He likes you.”
“You think so?” Kayse asked, stroking Soldier’s neck.
“Kindred spirits,” Orion said with a gleam in his eyes. “Pains in ass…”
“Hey, now,” Kayse defended.
“High spirited, and surprisingly capable despite outward appearances,” Orion finished. “Smart too, not just intelligent, but clever- intuitive even. You know, if I’m having a bad day, he won’t put on a show like he did earlier today? He becomes as obedient and gentle as Diamond. The reason I haven’t taken him out much lately is because he reminded me that I haven’t been quite right since my Abuelo went. Been taking it easy on me. You keep doing the same thing.”
“Well, I…” Kayse looked down at her feet.
“I’m not complaining,” Orion said. “I’m just saying, for a moment, right now, stop it. Say what you gotta.”
Kayse looked up. His gaze was intense and serious, but somehow still warm.
“What’s really going on around here?” Kayse asked. “You’re lying, Wilhelmina tells half truths. My uncle’s records are clearly falsified and so are the records going back to our first recorded ancestor. I can’t make heads or tales of it. I want to run a ranch. I’m not getting involved in some criminal enterprise though if that’s what this is.”
Orion smiled. “Criminal enterprise, no. Nothing like that. Come on.”
He untied Soldier and put him away before taking Kayse back to his truck.
“I asked Willy if she’d let me be the one to let you in,” he explained as he started the engine. “You’re going to have to be a little mentally flexible, but you’re going to have to see this to believe it.”
“What are you talking about?” Kayse sighed.
Orion started down the road back towards the homestead, “your family and mine come from similar origins. Except my ancestors were originally from what is now Germany, they came to America by way of Africa and South America. Both our ancestors and several other families decided to protect a species that had been hunted to near extinction. We’ve been protecting them, facilitating their breeding and keeping them hidden from those that would still like to see the whole species wiped off the face of the earth for thousands of years. My abuelo and your tio - your uncle, met by chance in New Mexico. They raised the same breed and both sides were in desperate need of fresh bloodlines.”
“They aren’t… they aren’t just horses?” Kayse asked in utter confusion. Are the horses just a cover?”
“No,” Orion said. “It’s the clydesdales, but they aren’t just clydesdales.”
“Well, what are they?” Kayse nearly yelled, “unicorns?”
An amused smile spread across Orion’s face. “Not quite.”
Kayse felt a weird lump growing in her throat as they pulled into the drive and up to the barn.
“Just, don’t freak out,” Orion said. “Be flexible. It’s easier to explain once you’ve seen it for yourself.”
They stepped out of the truck and went into the barn. Kayse was surprised to be greeted by Ember standing in the middle of the barn with Brigid as if both were waiting for them.
“How’d she get down here?” Kayse asked.
“They’re intelligent,” Orion said. “I had Wilhelmina send for her. Figured it would be best if it was one you were close to.” He slid the double doors close and looked around the barn at the side doors and windows in the loft.
Kayse had went over to greet Ember as he secured the barn.
“So?” she asked, looking from Orion to Ember.
“Stand back,” Orion said beconning her back over to him. “Go ahead, Ember, Brigid, show her.”
Kayse watched as both horses seemed to become immaterial on the surface, like an image projected into a smoke screen. Their faces shifted, hardened and elongated. Their soft ears became hard, round, black rods that bent backwards. Their tails became solid and grew along the ground to be longer than their bodies. shining black hooves became clawed toes and great wings appeared atop their shoulders.
Kayse jumped back at the sight in front of her. Great, scaled, toothy, winged beasts now stood in the place of the horses. She let out an involuntary scream and turned on her heels towards the door only to find herself caught in Orion’s arm.
“Hey, hey, it’s ok, it’s ok,” he struggled against her. “They’re the same animals you’ve been dealing with all this year, this is just what they really look like.”
“What?” She said breathlessly.
“It’s still Ember,” Orion said. “She’s the same as she’s always been. Look.” He released her. “Look at her.”
Kayse, still hanging on to one of Orion’s arms with both hands, looked back at the monsters. On the bigger animals face, she saw the same smattering of stars she had identified Ember by in white shining scales. She released a sharp breath and a chuckle escaped her.
“Dragons,” she could hardly believe the word coming from her mouth. “They’re dragons. My uncle raised dragons.”
“Yeah,” Orion said.
“Ember?” Kayse took a half step forward.
The dragon lowered her head a little and let out a low, rumbling sound that could have been likened to a purr. Orion, seeming to sense her trepidation, took Kayse’s hand and led her up to Ember. The dragon lowered her head so that they were face to face. Her golden, reptilian eyes glowed with an intelligence that seemed almost human. Kayse cautiously reached a hand out and stroked the scaly face. She felt warm to the touch, and her scales felt like polished stone. The shock was wearing off, and even in this form, Kayse could still see her old friend, the mare she loved so much as a child in front of her. Her mind shifted back to reality and a new wave of shock took over her.
“Dragons are real?” she spun around to face Orion again. “All this time? How long have they been here? How are we supposed to take care of dragons?”
“Relax, relax,” Orion said. “Willy’s in the house, we’ll explain everything. But, we needed you to see it first, cause, face it, there’s no way you would have believed this if we just told you.”
Kayse drew a deep breath “dragons are real.” She suddenly became aware that her hand was still tightly locked around Orion’s. She quickly released it and turned to the door. “I need a drink.”
About the Creator
I'm a 27 year old wife and mom of three. Engaged. Born and raised in Montana. I've been writing since I was a kid and published a book at 17. Haven't written much in recent years, hoping to get back into it through this forum.