Astoria had always been fond of winged horses. Her father said she got it from her mother’s side - “Merrimac's are all horse mad,” her father would say.
When her mother’s favourite Granian stallion threw Astoria from a height of two storeys, her father banned her from riding. When her mother took the Granian stallion over the Rendlesham Forest and the stallion returned without her, her father had the stallion together with her mother’s Abraxan returned to her grandfather’s stud farm in America. Astoria didn’t really hear much about winged horses after that.
It was during 1997, after Voldemort’s takeover of the Ministry, that Astoria and horses became reacquainted. At her father’s behest, she was evacuated to live with her grandfather, and stayed with him upon her father’s death.
It seemed to Astoria that her grandfather was more preoccupied with putting his Abraxan mare to stud than dealing with a young orphaned girl. If he had noticed the quiet change in his granddaughter since her arrival, he made no comment on it.
It was during summer break that Astoria was given free range of her grandfather’s stud farm, Hartfield Stables. The staff there didn’t quite know what to make of the pale waif perched on top of the corrals, and they mostly left her be. This suited Astoria just fine, and she began to range further each day, visiting each paddock and watching the winged horses at their play.
Perhaps his granddaughter’s interest in winged horses came to Gallien Merrimac’s attention that summer - or perhaps the coincidental foaling of the dusky-grey filly was too opportune a moment to pass up. Whichever the case, Astoria’s grandfather gifted her with the filly upon her seventeenth birthday.
It was the first of many winged horses she would come to own.
”Death Toll - It’s Death Toll! Death Toll laying waste to the field here! Absolutely brilliant! He’s stampeding down the line - no one can stop him! The Joker second, Capture Strike third. It’s Death Toll in the lead, his rider is just giving him his head and - he’s won! Death Toll has won the second heat by a huge margin!”
“Shit,” said Wil. “That’ll learn me to bet against your grandfather.”
“You shouldn’t be betting at all,” Astoria retorted. “Go and get my horse ready.”
Wil jumped over the back of his seat to the empty row behind them, disappearing at the bottom of the stands.
Check Mate won the third heat before several wizards manhandled metal rings onto the track. Astoria and the spectators made their way to the second tier of stands, and watched as the rings were magicked into place, hoving static at over three hundred feet from the ground.
Wil returned as the commentators began their voiceover. “We’re good to go.”
The horses began to enter the field, beating their wings as they circled and rose to the height of the rings. Astoria raised her omnioculars and followed her little mare, Areion’s Crown, as she found her mark. She lowered the omnioculars. “She’s sitting fine.”
“She’s a little beauty,” said Wil.
The commentators were in agreement. “... little Granian,” the commentators were saying. “The American Granian you can pick out, the smallest on the field - they breed them smaller in America to slip them through the rings. This one’s from the Hartfield Stables, and just look at her! Won two American Cups this year. I tell you, they look small, but the wingspan on these American Granians is something special. Areion’s Crown is one of three that Hartfield has brought over here for the Group 1 races - two for the Rings and one on the Sprints-.”
“There’s Malfoy,” Wil interrupted. “Bet he’s here to watch Cheonma.”
Astoria turned and followed his outstretched arm, to where Draco Malfoy was making his way to the front of the owner’s box.
One of only two British Abraxan stud farms had been bankrupted five years ago, and Malfoy had bought it for a fraction of the price. Out of that bloodstock had come Enbarr, the now four year old Abraxan stallion who had won the 1,000 metre and 1,500 metre Sprints in the prestigious Rhonehill Stakes. She’d accompanied the Hartfield trio of Granian and Abraxan horses to Britain for a couple of British starts, but it looked as though Malfoy’s Enbarr was going to dominate the Sprints. Enbarr’s closest competition came from the British Granian, Choeonma, who had won Cups in both the Rings and Sprints last year. Her own Abraxan, Lucky Lamrei, had only once hit a personal best that came close to Enbarr’s flight time - but Lamrei was flying in fine form and it was Astoria’s hope that the adrenaline of the competition could lift her Abraxan’s game to the point that she became a real contender. Enbarr, Lamrei and Cheonma would meet next week for the first heats of the Sprints.
The starting wand flashed and Astoria’s eyes flicked to the field. The horses charged for the first ring, folding their wings and angling through. Areion’s rider, Jase Staple, disappeared in a mass of feathers. He reappeared as Areion cleared the first ring and stretched her wings in pursuit of the second.
In the end, Areion’s Crown pipped She’s A Star for first place in the fifth heat of the 1,000 metre Rings, to the dismay of British breeders everywhere. Wil let fly an embarrassingly loud whoop! and Astoria couldn’t help but grin. Areion had already qualified for the 500 metre Rings semi-finals, and now the 1,000 metre semi’s. Wil had flown her second Granian horse, Sky Fish, to qualify yesterday, and Hartfield now had two horses in contention.
“Hartfield’s looking strong for the finals,” Astoria said. “Let’s hope Lamrei doesn’t lower the standard.” She looked out across the field, and could see the horses fluttering toward the ground. “Let’s go congratulate Jase.”
Jase was leading Areion to the stables when they caught up with him. A Hartfield groom was dangling flight straps from his hands, advancing on the little mare so that he could bind her wings down. Wil hurried over to assist, and Astoria hung back, waiting for the groom to immobilise the horse.
They were struggling with Areion's second wing when a black Abraxan stallion was led from the stables, wings bound. From that point on, everything seemed to happen in slow motion.
The stallion’s head tossed fiercely, and the lead rope slipped from the groom’s hands. The groom dived for the rope and missed, copping a faceful of dirt. The stallion trotted forward, then broke into a canter, nickering triumphantly at the sight of the little mare. Wil and the Hartfield groom scattered as the stallion rounded on them. Jase held out a second longer before dropping the lead rope and making a dash for it. The stallion reared, covering the mare. Areion gave a piteous high-pitched whinny, as her one free wing battered out behind her -
- and the stallion’s front hoof came down, dislocating the mare’s right wing and breaking it in three places.
Areion would never race again.
Astoria took a deep breath. There were five men wrestling with the lead rope of the stallion, and a sixth was running, wand-drawn, toward Areion. A flash shot past her and the stallion froze, immobilised in a comical fashion, wings outstretched and one hoof raised inches from the face of a groom. The groom stumbled backward.
Jase was shooting daggers at the point of origin of the flash, and Wil gave a roar of Malfoy! and bulled toward her.
Astoria took another breath. The words that followed were bit from anger and promised a whole new level of torment to the subject of her question: “Who belongs to this fucking horse?”
“That would be me,” the man said behind her, sealing his fate.