Drean and Antoni owned the fastest horses on the island. Illia just rode them.
The first time, she was five, and her father was pushing her up on a horse that was much too big for her. She clung on with hands and feet, every limb too short to lock into place, and all of them together just enough to keep her on the beast’s back. When the horse ran, she screamed. As soon as she was off its back, she couldn’t say why.
She was ten before she was finally tall enough to drop her heels all the way down to the sides of their ribs. She watched them turn her first ride out into the pastures an hour before she rode her first race. Too old, he would never be ridden again. He threw his head in a breeze she couldn’t feel, kicked and danced in a patch of dust. He was still faster than a dream. He simply couldn’t carry a man’s weight and run at the same time.
Illia watched him, and understood. She was a light thing, thin bones and wiry muscle under hair that didn’t even seem to hold enough weight to stay in a braid. And she was heavy.
She didn’t win her first race, too hesitant, hands and hips and heels too nervous to do their work on time. She didn’t win the second, or the third, or the fourth. At sixteen, she won, and she never lost again.
They asked her – her father, her mother, her brother, her cousin, her best friend – what it was like.
She rolled possible answers between her teeth, then shrugged and said, “Flying.”
And it was a lie, though she wasn’t sure even sure she understood the truth. She didn’t get lighter on a horse’s back, chin tilted down to catch air because it was too thick in front of her to swallow. Nothing floated around her, and nothing sang. Time did not flash by her.
She borrowed the weight of the horse beneath her, and knit herself to her bones. Moments stopped spinning and slowed enough for her to catch them between her fingers. She grew heavy, polished marble, and the world held her with wild, rough hands.
It was freedom, but it was binding.