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The Best of Times Short Story Competition


Spring 2015 Results




The Gift Horse

Copyright © Edward Burger 2015


'Donít look a gift horse in the mouthí the saying goes. I couldnít if I wanted to, its mouth was so high. But I didnít need to see its teeth to tell it was constructed recently. The wood from which it was made was unvarnished yet it didnít appear weathered at all.

I found the big horse outside my front door when I stepped out first thing in the morning. It was taller than my house and stood on a platform with wheels. It had a note tacked to it that read: "Happy birthday Eddyí.

Maybe if Iíd been able to see in its mouth I would have noticed what else lurked inside. When I climbed onto the platform I could hear the sound of clanking metal. Then I noticed what appeared to be a door in its side. I knocked on it. The clanking stopped but nothing else happened. I managed to fit my fingers in the gap beneath the door and yanked it open. Inside was crowded with soldiers. There were dozens of them. It was their shields, swords and spears that Iíd heard clanking. "What are you all doing in here?" I said.

"Weíre not supposed to come out yet," said one who I figured was their commander.

"What do you mean? How long do you intend to stay in there?"

"Weíre not supposed to say."

"Look, I appreciate this gift, but it is my gift. Itís awfully odd that you now say you canít tell me why youíre here."

"But itís a surprise."

"Oh! A surprise? I hope I havenít spoiled it. What should I do?"

"Close the door and forget you saw us."

"All right." So I closed the door and went inside my house.

It was strange finding all those soldiers in the horse. And what was the surprise? Was I meant to be surprised when the soldiers came out? But why wouldnít they come out then and there? Perhaps something else was meant to happen that would be the signal for them to come out.

The fact that they were bearing arms warranted some consideration, though I couldnít think what to make of it. If theyíd been hired especially for the occasion surely they could have left their weapons at home, unless they intended to put on an exhibition of their fighting prowess. In any case, I didnít want to speculate too much or Iíd ruin the surprise.

I didnít know what Iíd do with the horse once they did come out. Perhaps it would fit into a neighbourís barn but what would be the good of that? The only use I could put it to was as firewood, though that probably wouldnít be the right thing to do. I could leave it where it stood, as a big ornament. Or maybe I could use it as a spare room, there was so much space inside. I could hitch it to a team of horses and use it as a mobile home. In any case, hopefully once the surprise was sprung I would find out who it came from and ask them what they had in mind I should do with it.

I spent my day as usual, tending my vegetable garden, slopping around in the pigsty, counting my gold, and so forth. Counting the gold was the biggest job. There was no end to it. I checked on the big horse occasionally but never saw the soldiers come out. When on Earth would they spring their surprise? Perhaps they had come out already and Iíd not seen them, but that hardly seemed likely since Iíd not been surprised yet. They might have snuck out to get something to eat. They could hardly stay shut in there all day.

Once I had finished work for the day and it was starting to get dark I went up to the horse again and had a listen. I could hear their shields, swords and spears clanking as well as the occasional grunt and groan. Sounded like theyíd been cramped in there too long. I knocked on the door. Again the clanking stopped but no one said anything. I opened the door. "Sorry to intrude again," I said. "I was just wondering how you boys were getting on. Youíve had something to eat I assume."

"Not a skerrick," said one.

"But youíre not even supposed to know weíre here," said the commander.

"I know," I said. "But I canít let you go hungry Ė not on my own doorstep. Iíll be back shortly."

I went into my kitchen, got my biggest pot and cooked up a hearty vegetable soup. I needed my wheelbarrow to carry the pot out there, it was so big and heavy. I opened the horseís door. "Hereís some vegetable soup for you." I gave them a stack of bowls and spoons, and a couple of soldiers came out and hefted the big pot inside.

"We are much obliged to you," said the commander. "But it doesnít change anything so far as the surprise I spoke of is concerned."

"I should hope not."

"So long as you know. All the same, thank you very much. It will help ensure my men are fit for the task tható

"Donít tell me anymore!" I said, covering my ears. "Youíll spoil the surprise!"

I shut the door again and went back into my house.

So the surprise was still going to occur at some stage. God knows what they were waiting for. I hoped theyíd choose a time that wasnít too inconvenient and not wait until I had gone to bed. Theyíd have to surprise me before midnight or it wouldnít be my birthday anymore. In fact, Iíd had thoughts about meeting up with some of the neighbours this evening, being my birthday and all, but that hardly seemed likely if I had to wait for this surprise to happen.

But soon I decided to bite the bullet. I went up to the horseís door and knocked on it, though I felt guilty for disturbing them again so soon. I opened the door. "Sorry to bother you again," I said, "but I thought you ought to know that Iím going over to a neighbourís house to celebrate my birthday shortly. I donít mean to sound pushy but youíll need to either spring this surprise on me within the next half hour or wait till I get home."

"Thanks for letting us know," said the commander. "We canít tell you when the surprise is to be sprung, of course, but thank you for notifying us of your movements."

"Itís a pleasure."

"The soup is delicious, by the way."

"Iím glad you like it."

I went back into the house and prepared to head out. I felt guilty for placing such demands on the soldiers. I hoped they were alright with having to wait till I came back, thatís supposing they wouldnít surprise me before I left. It really struck home then, just how much they were inconveniencing themselves all for the sake of my surprise. Itís just as well they were soldiers or they might not have been able to endure being in such cramped quarters for so long and with so little food.

I decided not to go to my neighbourís house after all. I went out to the horse, knocked on the door and opened it. "Sorry to intrude again. Listen, chaps. I donít know when you plan to spring your surprise on me but wonít you be my guests in the meantime? I have a good stock of whisky and wine. Come inside and celebrate my birthday with me."

"Do you mean to say youíre actually inviting us all into your house?"

"Of course! Why not? Youíve certainly earned it!"

The commander commanded the soldiers to climb out of the horse. Some of them could barely walk, they had been cramped up for so long. Many were doing stretching exercises.

"Ready yourselves!" he called.

I walked over to my front door and held it open for them.

"Charge!"

Then the whole lot of them went running into my house.

"No need to run," I called but they ignored me. They went running all over the house, into every room. Only the commander stood by my side. "What are they doing, running all over the place?" I asked.

"You invited us in."

"I invited you into the lounge room, and the privy and bathroom if need be."

"But this is the surprise."

"The surprise?!"

"Yes. The surprise is to go charging through your whole house to see who else we can find."

"Well I guess that is quite a surprise. Quite funny when you think about it, particularly since thereís no one else here but me."

"Do you mean to say youíve been the only one here all along?"

"Yes. Now, isnít this funny. Iíve ended up surprising you as well."

"Very funny," he said. He had drawn his sword. He rested the tip of it against my chest.

"Watch that tip. It looks quite sharp," I said.

"It is."

"Itís lucky you fellows didnít scratch each other, being couped up in that horse so long. Itís lucky you didnít poke each otherís eyes out."

"Good idea."

He raised the tip of his sword to my right eye. "Steady on there," I said. "Itís rude to point, donít you know?"

Suddenly he turned red and furious. "Iíve had it with this charade! Donít you have any inkling why we came?!"

"Well, like you said. To surprise me."

"The surprise was that we would take over your castle! You were meant to bring the horse within your castle walls and then we would charge out and kill you all!"

"But I donít have a castle."

"I know, I know. This whole mission has been one great disaster." He lowered his sword, and his arms drooped by his sides. "I sure could use a drink."

I went down to the cellar and brought up one crate after another, filled with bottles of wine and whiskey. I passed the bottles around. There were a lot of soldiers. They filled the lounge room and kitchen and some spilled out onto the front yard. A few even sat in the horse, they were so accustomed to it. I did partake myself. It was my birthday, after all. We had a jolly good time. Soon we were all singing drinking songs.

"Youíre not a bad sort," said the commander drunkenly. "Sorry we wanted to kill you."

"Thatís all right. You didnít, and thatís the main thing."

Then suddenly there came a cry out the front of the house and the sound of clashing swords.

"To arms!" shouted the commander. In a moment enemy soldiers charged into the house, battling my comrades. Well, I called them my comrades though till recently they meant to kill me. Whether I had allegiance to any particular king was beside the point. Drinking companions formed closer bonds than any allegiance to some tax collector.

I picked out their commander, slewing my comrades left, right and centre. How dare he turn my birthday into a blood bath. I picked up my fire stoker and whacked him over the head with it. He fell to the ground and instantly all his minions became like chooks with their heads cut off. Those who werenít slain by my comrades ran for the hills.

My comrade commander came up and knelt before me. "This victory is yours," he said emphatically. "We owe you our lives, my lord."

"Iím no lord."

"But you are. You have defeated our enemyís troops." Then he stood up and raised his sword high. "All hail the new king!"

"The new king!" chorused the soldiers.

So it turned out to be quite an eventful birthday Ė one I would remember for a long time to come.