Of all the obstacles in raising a demigod son of Poseidon, in keeping his identity hidden not only from his father's vengeful brothers but also her son himself, this was not one Sally ever entertained. After all, Poseidon was first and foremost the god of the sea. Naturally, the ocean was Sally's first concern. She fretted over getting Percy even a little goldfish. Earthquakes were next, for Poseidon also was the Earthshaker. She worried about this one to a lesser degree; Poseidon assured her Percy would not be able to create even the lightest of tremors until he reached puberty. While not exactly a comfort, Sally could tuck that concern away for a couple years.
Sally never considered horses. After all, Horse Lord was rather low on Poseidon's list of domains, and a seemingly harmless one at that. Growing up, the ocean constantly called to her son, enticing and enrapturing him. She worried about that. She never worried about what else called her child.
Percy was seven when the horse ranch opened. It was outside the city, its very existence unbeknownst to Sally until after she enrolled Percy in the nearby school and got a phone call three weeks later. She was confused and then alarmed at the information given over the call. The woman on the other end sounded pleasant enough, amused actually, as she informed Sally that her son had skipped class and currently stood in the middle of her barn, petting her horses. Sally arrived at the Big Apple Horse Ranch less than an hour later.
The owner, a vibrant young woman with a twisted sense of humor, took Sally back to the barn.
"Found 'em like that when I came to clean the barn," the owner, Bree, told her with a grin. "Eatin' right outta his palm they were."
Little Percy stood on a step stool, sugar cubes in the palm of his hand, leaning over one of the stalls. The horse within, a beautiful tan creature, reached out and ever so gently took a sugar cube from his hand. Percy watched her in wonder, his eyes wide. His other hand reached out to pet her and the horse eagerly rubbed her nose against him.
"Percy," Sally called, her heart in her throat.
Her son looked so small, barely able to see over the stall door even with the step-stool, next to the majestic beast. All it took was one wrong move, one upset horse, and her baby could be seriously injured. Even as she fretted, reaching out to call Percy over to her, Sally knew she was being ridiculous. The son of the Horse Lord would never be in danger from these creatures. That probably should frighten her more.
"Mom!" Percy called, his little face lighting up in delight. "Come look! Isn't she so pretty Mom?"
The horse preened at his praise, rubbed her entire face against Percy's little chest. Percy burst into giggles, reaching out to wrap his slight arms around her neck.
"A natural," Bree laughed as Sally gently put her hands on Percy's shoulders.
"She is," Sally agreed, gently pulling on Percy's arm. "Percy dear, we need to – "
"She likes me," Percy interrupted his eyes shining.
"Oh," Bree chuckled, setting down a bucket of feed to smile down at the child, "what makes you think that?"
"She told me," Percy said matter-of-factly. Sally felt as if someone had dropped a bucket of ice water on her. The horses talked to him. And she was worried about buying him a goldfish.
"Is that so?" Bree asked, amused. Percy nodded enthusiastically. "How sweet. Why don't we just head inside and talk 'bout it over tea? Mama looks like she needs it."
He's young, Sally consoled herself as they drove away. They'll think he just has an overactive imagination.
Bree waved at them in the rear view mirror and Percy enthusiastically waved back, a grin threatening to split his face. Alongside the car, tossing their heads and whining, horses raced to keep up with them. To keep up with the son of Poseidon. Sally gripped the wheel tighter.
"I can't wait to come back," Percy gushed happily when they turned the corner and the horses disappeared from sight.
"We're not coming back," Sally told him. She hated to spoil his fun, and to see the grin drop from his face in utter confusion cut like a knife. But she had to stay firm. She could not risk anybody finding out about his true identity.
"But I promised," Percy said brokenly. "I told them I'd be back."
"I know dear but – "
"And you said we have to keep our promises," Percy pressed, tears gathering in the corner of his eyes.
Sally resisted the urge to sigh. She reached one hand out to run her fingers through his wild hair. Just like his father's, she thought sadly.
"Sometimes things happen and we can't keep our promises, no matter how much we'd like to," She told him softly. "I know it's not fair, but that's the way it is. We're not going back."
Percy's lower lips wobbled and he pulled away, so Sally could no longer reach him. She let herself sigh this time, turning her attention back to the road. It's better this way, she thought desperately, one day you'll see.
Percy was upset with her. He cried and screamed and begged to go back. He locked himself in his room and refused to come out. He brought home books on horses from school. He looked up at her with those beautiful green eyes, so much like his father's it ached. Each refusal cut more than the last, for both Sally and Percy. He could not understand why his mom would not let him go back and see the horses; Sally could not tell him why. It was a miserable few weeks.
The obsession switched rapidly when his class learned about tide pools. When Percy did not return from school on time, Sally panicked. She called the school and they told her the teacher offered to take students out to the beach to view tide pools in person after class. They were very sorry he neglected to inform her first. Sally slammed the phone down and raced to her son.
Percy was desolate when she dragged him away. His little face screwed up in anger and longing, tears rolling down his face as he cried.
"Shh," Sally told him desperately, wiping away his tears. This was the worst part, seeing Percy cry. She would do anything to make his tears go away, but the one thing he wanted she could not give him. It was too soon, he was too young.
"I just want some friends," Percy sobbed as his mother buckled him in. "The kids at school don't like me, but the fish do. They're nice and the water is nice. I just want someone to like me."
Sally's heart broke at his words. Her hands trembled as she leaned over to kiss his forehead. Percy turned in his seat and buried his face in her neck, crying noisily.
"Shh," Sally hushed, rocking her baby back and forth. She closed her eyes, smoothing his hair back and peppering his forehead with kisses. His little body shook in distress, his fingers tugging at her shirt. She could not stand to see him like this.
"Hey," she asked softly, snuggling her little boy close, "do you want to go see the horses?"
The sniffles grew softer and Percy peeked up at his mother in surprise, his red-rimmed eyes blinking almost comically.
"But you said – "
"I know," Sally said tiredly, pushing stray strands of hair from his wide green eyes, "but I've changed my mind. You did promise after all."
Percy stared at up her before the corner of his mouth turned up in a small smile. He wiped his eyes and nodded solemnly.
"I want to see the horsies."
"Let's go see the horsies," Sally echoed kindly.
As she drove, Sally tried not to worry. She firmly pushed the fears and concerns to the back mind. After all, what was more suspicious? A child with ADHD and dyslexia talking to fish and breathing underwater, or one who played with horses? At least the later did not scream SON OF POSEIDON. And, watching Percy's eyes widen as they pulled into the Big Apple Horse Ranch, it was worth it to make Percy happy. As if reading her mind, Percy looked up at her. He grinned, those troublesome green eyes filled with love and contentment. Sally could not bring herself to regret her decision.
Percy knew he was different. Deep inside, he had always known, but the horses forced him to admit it: he was different. It used to bother him, but the horses made him feel better. He knew that most people could not hear or feel the horses like he did. His mother always got nervous when he talked about it, and as he grew older even the stable hands began to give him odd looks. So Percy kept it to himself.
School was rough. Percy learned much slower than his classmates. Reading was a pain and made his head hurt something fierce. He could not stand to sit in class for hours, listening to the teacher drone on and on. The kids were worse, however. They picked on him, pushing him in the hallway and stealing his things. He always was picked last and whatever team got him always groaned and complained. Nobody wanted to sit by him. Percy kicked the ground angrily as he walked to the ranch, scowling at the dirt road. They thought his obsession with horses was weird.
Forget them, he told himself firmly. You don't need them. He had his horses after all.
Percy loved the horses and he knew they loved him as well. After school, he would race down to the Big Apple Ranch and help Bree until his mother got out of work. The arrangement worked nicely for all of them. Sally did not need to hire a babysitter, Bree got a free pair of extra hands, and Percy got to see the horses. Three years after he first discovered the ranch, Percy still faithfully visited every day. Even from the end of the ranch's lengthy driveway, Percy could feel the comforting buzz in the back of his mind from the horses. He closed his eyes and smiled at the warm embrace as their minds called out to him. His worries faded with every step he took, leaving the bad taste of school behind. He carelessly threw his backpack on the grass and hollered:
"Bree? I'm here!"
"Wonderful," came the reply and Percy spotted the ranch owner shoveling hay behind the barn. "Go ahead, I'm just finishin' up here."
Percy grinned and slipped inside the main barn, eager to see the horses. He could feel their emotions swirling around him, affection and excitement pressing close. He felt at home.
"I'm back," he called happily and basked in the warm emotions that rolled around him. Disjointed thoughts of gladness, safe, little lord has returned floated through his mind.
Horses did not think like people. Not that Percy could read human minds, but the horses' thoughts were distinctively different from his own. Percy got impressions from the horses, strong emotions mixed with vivid pictures and disjointed words. Well, they weren't really words but rather Percy's mind translating their strong instincts as words. Or whatever. He could not really explain it, he just knew what they meant. At ten years of age, Percy's head only barely peeped over the stalls. He stood on his tiptoes to reach over the stall and pet the nearest horse.
"Hey Whirlwind," he greeted, scratching the mare's nose like he knew she liked. Whirlwind neighed softly and pushed her snout against his hand. "Ready for some grooming?"
Whirlwind shook her great mane, excitement and willingness surging towards Percy. He smiled and kissed the tip of her nose. He closed his eyes and Whirlwind's thoughts surrounded him, her longing for the pleasant feeling that followed a grooming, contentment at having him near, smugness at being kissed. Little lord, her thoughts sang as he led her out of her stall.
"Percy," he felt the need to correct, even though he knew it would do him no good.
Horses could not grasp names. They associated each other with their senses, sounds and smells and memories. His mind automatically translated their thoughts into something he could understand so he heard little lord instead of all the little things that added up in their mind to recognize him. Still, he knew the horses held him in higher regard than any of the other humans which was probably why he heard lord.
"How about friend?" Percy asked Whirlwind as he set to grooming her. "Think you could manage that?"
Whirlwind tossed her head, catching his feelings of affection and comradery. But she just snorted. Little lord, her thoughts repeated, accompanied with flashes of comfort, caregiver, protector.
"Alright, alright," he grumbled. He got the feeling she was laughing at him.
"Brat," he said, giving Whirlwind a little whack. In retaliation, the mare butted her head against the bucket in his arms and water sloshed down his front. He looked down at the mess and back up at Whirlwind.
"Really?" He asked and this time he knew the horse was laughing at him.
The Big Apple Horse Ranch had twelve horses, and Percy marveled at all the beautiful creatures he got to work with. Bree's small ranch grew in size every year and he loved to watch it grow and flourish. Bree let him do almost everything on the ranch, from grooming and cleaning to training and riding. Sally had been horrified the first time she found him on a horse. Bree had to calm her down over a cup of sweet tea, soothingly assuring her that Percy was a natural and the horses loved him. Percy loved riding the most of all the activities on the ranch. Jumping was fun (even though he was not allowed to do anything more than the little jumps), as were roping, wrangling and vaulting but riding was Percy's favorite.
"Your mama said she'd be runnin' a little late today," Bree called when she joined him a while later.
"Okay," Percy said easily. He had finished grooming Whirlwind and moved onto the next horse, a pretty Appaloosa who calmly let Percy brush her coat. Contentment rolled off the mare, her eyes half shut as care, gentle, little lord floated around them.
"So you can go ahead and feed 'em tonight," Bree told him, motioning towards the bag of feed along the barn.
"Will do," Percy agreed lightly.
"You're on cleanin' duty tomorrow," Bree called over her shoulder as she led a stallion out of the barn. "So don't you be late!"
Percy just laughed. "I won't," he promised.
He finished grooming the horses and set about to feeding them. Night started to fall and Percy flicked on the lights to continue his task.
"There you are," Percy said when he finished filling the last trough.
The horse in the nearest stall rubbed his nose against Percy's cheek. Percy grinned and stood on his tiptoes to rub the horse's neck. The horses' thoughts and emotions buzzed soothingly in the enclosed area. Percy pulled up a chair and leaned back, letting the lull of the horses' minds wash over him as he waited for his mom. A rumble in the distance jarred him from his peaceful rest and he opened one eye as the horses pawed the ground.
Storm. The thought echoed around the barn. The young horses nervously paced in their stalls while the older ones barely even reacted.
"It's okay," Percy said out loud, projecting thoughts of safety and comfort. "It's just a storm."
The commotion died down, the unease dialed back to a light tremor in his mind.
"Percy?" Bree stuck her head in the barn, her sharp eyes finding him in relief. "Oh good. You're mama's almost here, but there's a storm comin'. Why don't we head inside the house and wait there yea?"
"Okay," Percy agreed. "Just let me grab my stuff."
Bree nodded and headed back to the house.
"See you guys tomorrow, and don't worry, you're perfectly safe in here," Percy called, stopping to reassuringly rub one of the yearling's neck.
He slipped out of the barn, shivering at the cold wind that sliced through the night. Thunder rolled, louder this time. A flash of lightning streaked across the sky, illuminating the empty ranch. Percy snagged his discarded backpack as rain started to fall. He covered his head with the bag and dashed inside the house.
"Looks like it's gonna be nasty," Bree commented mildly, watching as the rain came down hard. Lightning danced across the sky to the rumbling thunder. "We'll have branches to pick up tomorrow."
"Yeah," Percy agreed, shaking the rain from his hair. He felt uneasy, though. An unfamiliar mind ghosted in his head, vague thoughts and emotions niggling uncomfortably.
"Are all the horses accounted for?" Percy asked hesitantly.
"You just left the barn, you tell me," Bree said, an eyebrow raised.
"All of our horses are fine," Percy said, peering out the window. The uncomfortable feeling grew in strength; he fidgeted as he scanned the ranch. "Do we have any visitor horses?"
Bree gave him an odd look, her brow furrowed. "No. There's McClarin's farm down the road. He is missing a mare, though. Did you see a strange mare wandering?"
"I don't know," Percy said slowly. Fear that did not belong to him swelled in the back of his mind, almost choking him with its potency. "There's a horse out there."
Percy grabbed a jacket and threw it on, heading out the door before he could think twice about it.
"Percy!" Bree protested, hurrying after him. "Get back here, your mama'll kill me!"
"There's an injured horse," Percy called back, suddenly certain.
Bree called his name, but he ignored her. Percy ran into the storm, rain soaking him to the bone almost immediately. The wind blew fiercely as the rain came in sideways, threatening to knock him clean off his feet. Percy stumbled, his feet sinking into the mud as he ran. But he did not pay attention to anything other than the overwhelming fear pouring off the poor horse. It was coming from the forest behind the pasture and Percy pushed the rattling branches out of his way, grateful for the meager protection the trees offered him from the storm. Bree screamed after him, but the distressed call of the horse was louder. He fought his way through the forest until the fear felt palpable and he fell into a small clearing.
Closer now, Percy realized the call actually came from two entities, only one of them was much smaller and weaker. The larger one's fear crashed into him like waves of a hurricane; Percy actually stumbled backward from the force of his fear.
At first, Percy thought his senses were deceiving him because he only saw one horse: a tall beautiful, pure black stallion with strong muscles throwing his head in distress. But as he crept forward he saw the second horse. It was a foal, lying still on the ground. Percy gasped, about to rush to its side when self-preservation kicked in. Percy hesitated at the sight of the frantic stallion. He was a strong, sturdy horse, full of power and muscle and completely frantic. But he felt no ill-will from the stallion, only overwhelming concern and fear for the foal. His nostrils flared, eyes wide as he neighed at Percy. Help, his mind begged, foal, hurt, help.
Percy did not hesitate any longer, he stepped into the clearing and knelt by the foal. As he knelt down he noticed a prone figure in the grass. A mare laid silently in the grass by the foal's side. Her coat was totally covered in mud and filth, distorting her hair into a ghastly sight. Percy felt nothing from her, no pain, no fear, nothing. She was dead. Throat constricted, Percy placed protective hands on the foal, checking for injuries.
There was a nasty gash on the foal's leg, the laceration cut deep and long up the foal's leg and under its belly. Its breath was choppy and uneven, brown eyes wide with shock and alarm. With his hands on the foal, he could hear their thoughts more clearly, but its voice still registered terribly soft and lackluster: pain…fear…hurt.
"I know, it's going to be okay," Percy tried to soothe. Behind him the stallion whined loudly, his front hooves kicking violently. Instinctively, Percy ducked over the foal, covering its body with his own.
"Percy!" Bree's panicked voice screamed.
"Calm down!" Percy shouted, unsure who he was talking to, the horse or Bree. The stallion pawed the ground, ready to attack. Protect, foal, mine, safe.
"I know, we're trying to help," Percy told the stallion, "Calm down and we can help your foal."
Bree inched around the nervous stallion before throwing herself between Percy and the horse, her face pinched and hard.
"What were you thinking?" She hissed at Percy, grabbing him by the arm and trying to pull him away.
"The foal, it's hurt," Percy protested. Bree peered around him to stare at the wounded foal. Her eyes lingered on the bloody leg and Percy knew she would not leave it behind.
"Aw hell," Bree grumbled. "Come on, mind the stallion."
"He won't hurt us," Percy said with conviction. He looked at the frantic stallion, holding a palm out. "Stay back," he commanded, "so we can get help to your foal."
Bree watched, mouth gaping, as the stallion took a few steps backward, still pawning anxiously at the ground. Her eyes snapped back to the foal as lightning streaked across the sky; the injured foal was more of a concern then the strange command following stallion. Bree shrugged off her jacket and tore long pieces with her pocket knife.
"Here, wrap the wound with this until we can get a vet," Bree told him, passing over strips of fabric.
Percy did as he was instructed, patching up the damaged leg the best he could. All the while, he sent soothing thoughts the foal's way, safe, warm, we help. When Bree was satisfied the foal wouldn't at least bleed to death on the way back to the ranch, they lifted the foal. It was hard work, the little horse was heavy and awkward to hold. They managed to squish the distressed animal between the two of them and painstakingly shuffle back to the ranch. Percy's arms ached and he gritted his teeth as branches slapped across his face. As soon as they broke free of the forest, they set the foal down.
"We can't carry it any farther," Bree panted. "I'll run inside and call the vet, grab something to haul it with and then we'll get them into the barn okay?"
"Hurry," Percy urged. Bree raced towards the house, leaving Percy alone with the horses. The stallion pranced nervously nearby, tossing his head in distress. In his arms, the foal grew weaker. Percy could feel its thoughts growing fainter.
"No, no, no," Percy gasped, gently shaking the tiny horse. "Stay awake, stay with me. It's going to be okay, Bree's gone to get help."
Safe, warm, help. Stay. He tried to convince the foal, rocking its head in his lap. In the distance, he heard his mother call his name and he looked up to see Sally running through the storm.
"What happened?" Sally gasped as she knelt beside him, looking at the injured foal with wide eyes.
"I don't know," Percy shouted over the storm. "We just found them. Bree's calling the vet, but we need to get them inside."
"I'll get something to carry him," Sally told him, stumbling to her feet and heading for the barn.
"See? It's gonna be fine," Percy said desperately, but the foal's thoughts were slipping away from him.
"No, no hold on," he cried trying frantically to hold onto the foal's mind. The stallion's thoughts blazed through his mind, crowding out the foal's faint voice.
"Quiet," he shouted at the stallion, leaning over the foal, pressing his ear against its chest. He could not hear anything. No disjointed words or pictures… no steady thump of a heart.
"No, no," Percy cried, pushing on the foal's chest. Tears ran down his face, the rain and wind stealing them away before they could fall. Sobs shook his body as he leaned over the foal, cradling its head as his mind reached out, frantically searching for something, anything.
A gentle hand was on his shoulder. Percy hiccuped, curling the foal closer. He shook his head, rain and tears soaking his face. Nothing. He felt nothing.
"Percy," his mother's soft voice tried again.
She wrapped an arm around his shoulder, gently untangling him from the still foal. She pulled him to his feet, her arms the only thing holding him up. He did not remember moving, but suddenly he was in the barn. The minds of the other horses reached out for him, their concern wrapping around him. Percy pulled away from the on-slaughter, whimpering.
"Here," Sally said softly, "sit down."
He sat down on one of the barn chairs and Sally wrapped a stable blanket around him. It was stiff and smelled strongly of wet horse, he realized distractedly as his mother tucked it around him.
"The s-stallion," Percy stammered, trying to block out the whirling concern and confusion around him.
He closed his eyes, pressing the meat of his hand against his eyes. Stop, he thought, just stop. For the first time in his life, he wished he could not hear the horses. He drowned in their emotions, stealing his very breath away. His chest felt impossibly tight as if the horses were physically pressing against him. He was not sure how long he sat there, vainly trying to block out the world. Voices milled around him, both equestrian and human. Hands ran through his hair and then left.
As he trembled, something cold and wet touched his forehead and Percy opened his teary eyes in surprise. Black filled his vision. He pulled back slightly to find the wild stallion peering down at him. The horse neighed softly, rubbing his nose against Percy's tear-stained cheeks, smearing tears and snot all over his face.
Safe, the stallion's oddly gentle thought called. No more hurt.
"I'm sorry I couldn't save them," Percy hiccuped, reaching a trembling hand out to pet the horse.
"I know, I'm sorry," Percy cried softly, tears rolling down his face. The horse snorted, his displeasure of the tears evident in his erratic thoughts. He pressed closer to Percy, his entire face rubbing against the child's. There was an edge of sadness in the horse's thoughts, but it faded as determination replaced it.
The thought repeated, firmly this time.
"I'm sorry," Percy whispered, but the horse threw its head back, his eyes rolling.
Percy did not understand. The stallion butted his head against Percy's chest, forcing the boy to his feet. Startled, Percy found himself standing up under the horse's urging. The stallion pushed Percy forward, who stumbled as the horse herded him over to a stall.
New foal, safe.
Percy frowned, drying his eyes with the sleeve of his dirty shirt as the stallion guided him inside the stall. The large horse corralled him into the corner, keeping close to his side. The black hair was warm and comforting; unconsciously Percy leaned against him.
"I'm not your foal," Percy tried to tell the confused horse.
New foal. The stallion insisted. He nuzzled the top of Percy's head. Percy gave up, letting the stallion curl around him.