The Lightning Horse

This is what it means to be a charioteer, thought Tiwatipara in awe. Not a diplomat—an emissary—but a driver of horses. A charioteer was a man who cracked the whip, and a pair of powerful, perfectly trained animals sprang forward, devouring the earth before them with a roar like a clap of thunder. How their manes streamed behind them, rippling like battle flags! How their hooves beat the black earth, throwing clods and tufts of dry grass at the spectators! Wasn’t the god of lightning, Tarhunta Pihasshasshi, the first charioteer?

The sight of a team swallowing the black earth in a furor of speed never failed to swell the heart of Tiwatipara son of Pawahtelmah. His eyes followed the vehicle as it made the turn, his father bent over the leads. “It’s like riding a lightning bolt,” he said to his friend Zidanza at his side, trying not to sound too much like the little child jumping up and down inside him. “Their power. Their nobility. You can’t imagine horses doing anything ignoble, can you? I wouldn’t be happy in any other profession.”

“I don’t know,” said Zidanza vaguely, his gaze on the galloping animals. “It’s rare that I get to take a team out, and even then, it’s only for the distance of a few ikus. But I do love being around them.” He gave his amiable grin. “Feeding them isn’t quite as dangerous as driving them.” Zidanza was a groom of the royal stables even though he was a prince of sorts, descended from the great Tudhaliya. He was a mild young man with a round face and sleepy eyes that held a curious mixture of lassitude and anxiety. By and large, he was slow moving and even lazy, which nicely balanced Tiwatipara’s crackling energy. They had been friends since childhood.

Tiwatipara dragged his eyes away from the team that thundered past him. King Hattushili was testing out the new horses he had bought from Hurrian merchants in Karkemish, and Tiwatipara’s father, the hashtalanuri—the king’s own driver—was in the box. The young man’s family had served the king in the honored post of charioteer as long as there had been a king of Hatti Land, since the first men of Hatti had come forth from Kusshara and established themselves in the old capital of their predecessors, defying the curse on Hattusha to make it the heart of a mighty empire. Tiwatipara took pride in that heritage. Only the cream of Hatti’s aristocracy could touch these priceless horses, even to serve them their mash or brush their sleek, glistening coats. A job that might seem menial became an act of high ceremony when performed for the royal horses. Many of the drivers—and even the grooms—were, like Zidanza, princes of the blood.

Tiwatipara continued to assemble the royal chariot, forcing the two tall wheels onto the axle slathered with sheep fat and hammering in the cotter pins while Zidanza held it steady. Tiwatipara dropped his mallet into the toolbox on the ground, and Zidanza pushed it aside with his foot. The charioteer laid the long draft pole, with its fixed double yoke, out before the vehicle. With one eye still on his father’s headlong course around the field, marked by a great plume of dust, Tiwatipara set the harness leathers on the floor of the box until he could bring the horses from their stalls. Not far away, their backs to him, stood a crowd of grooms, drivers, and royal princes, all watching, with excitement, the test of the first pair of horses. The king’s three oldest sons, young men about Tiwatipara’s age, were among them, including Prince Nerikkaili, the tuhkanti—or crown prince—and Tiwatipara’s employer. Hishni, the third in age, cried eagerly, “Look at those demons fly! I’ve never seen such power!” 

But Tiwatipara smiled to himself. They hadn’t seen the best team yet.

He headed back into the royal stable, and the thunder of hooves and the roar of the crowd faded. It was always quiet, hushed in a nearly religious sense, inside the long, stone-walled barns that housed the king’s horses. High-spirited lightning bolts though they might be on the field, the stallions were tranquil and well-mannered in repose—except perhaps when the mares were in heat. Pihasshasshi’s boys were so perfectly trained that Tiwatipara would have trusted them to step over his prone body. In fact, every day, he entrusted his body to them as he did now, entering the box of Storm Cloud of Tarhunta. The big beast rolled his eyes and jerked his head away but only to be contrary. He knew the appearance of a human holding a bridle signified, Go have fun. Run! Run fast!

“You know what this means, don’t you, my beauty?” cooed Tiwatipara in his horse-calming voice. He ran a hand over the horse’s dappled hide and down his muscular chest and long powerful leg, which darkened into silvery black along the cannon as it approached the hoof. The horse’s skin shivered at Tiwatipara’s touch, as if in umbrage at the familiarity, and the youth laughed, his voice rich with affection. “Yes, we’re both a little touchy, aren’t we? You’re my soul mate, young man. I may never have a chance to drive you”—not until Prince Nerikkaili becomes king, at least—“but you and I understand each other, don’t we?”

He slid the bridle into the horse’s mouth and pulled the straps back behind the animal’s head, pulling each ear through with a little felty pop. At the age of twenty-two, Tiwatipara loved everything about his life. He had worked in the royal stable since he was old enough to toddle at his father’s side with a bucket of barley, and he couldn’t imagine doing anything else. He loved the smell of horses, warm and pungent, the feel of their muscular movement through the sleek pelt, and the challenge of their often crafty intelligence—the emotional connivance that let a mere man direct these immensely more puissant creatures who were, nonetheless, fearful and in need of reassurance.