The Winners 2006 Under 19 Winner

“History has known many monarchs. You can look at the timeline of practically any nation, and stumble upon a succession of rulers. Most were memorable, many were illustrious, and all were united as one in terms of duty and role.” The teacher paused, having caught sight of a deftly-moving pencil at the back of the room. Abandoning her somewhat elaborate pose at the whiteboard, she let her arms fall to her sides, staring, eyebrows raised, until the blushing young culprit dropped his pencil and refocused his attention. Suppressing a knowing smile, she continued:

“These were those whom we speak of as kings. But what does ‘king’ mean? The dictionary definition of the word ‘king’ makes reference to honour, nobility, bravery and leadership. A king is one whom others are inspired to follow, one whose regal qualities set him apart, and whose desire to succeed, even in the bleakest of situations, will always surpass his need for selfish comforts. But,” she paused, aware that she had long ago lost the attention of many sat before her, and that, as the clock’s hour hand ticked its way towards three, the majority of these adolescent minds were already tiptoeing towards the intangible cartoon world they were soon to re-enter. Replacing the lid on her board pen, she looked thoughtfully round at them all. ‘Think about this one question: to how many past monarchs can we truly relate this title? What makes a true ‘king’?”

As she continued, conscious of the further-waning attention of the class, she once more caught sight of the young lad at the back of the room. Deep in thought, his pencil hovering uncertainly above a half-sketched hoof, his mind had strayed not to that world of fantasy and caricature, but to some other, darker place, a place which seemed to simultaneously bring him both solace and terror. She did not need to wonder where it was that he went, for she already knew. They all knew.

Long after the class had been dismissed, the lad remained motionless. In his bright, shy eyes, she could see his pain, could sense that in every passing footstep, he detected some far-off echo of the hoof-beats he had known and loved.

“Tell me, Miss,” he murmured softly, “Can a horse ever be a true king?”

I see him. I feel him. Every day that goes by brings him closer to me, and yet every passing hour steals him further away. In my sleep, I see him clearer than when he stood before me; when I look, I can find no trace of him. The newspapers have long forgotten him, yet his image still haunts the television screens, for there is not one contest whose history is not permanently inscribed with his name, not one trainer who cannot recall even his most trifling victory. But there again, was there ever such a thing? Nothing, not one single thing in his life can ever truly be deemed trivial. From the moment he entered the world, crumpling and thrashing upon those tiny, insignificant little limbs, to that final instant when he faltered for the last timeā€¦there was nothing insignificant. Everything had meaning. For him, there was always a purpose.

The teacher regarded him quietly, feeling his heartache as, indeed, the entire nation had felt it. Looking into his tear-filled eyes, she nodded her head. Her reply was a certainty, a surefooted statement of truth. “Yes, Timmy. I believe so.”

He was a king. He ruled our hearts as he ruled the racecourse, proving the inspiration we had sought for so long. He represented the hopes and dreams of a nation; in this magnificent, brave little horse were mirrored all the qualities of a true sovereign. He lived as a gentleman, endearing himself to the nation, and to those who were fortunate enough to have known him, he must have seemed nothing less than a saint. As a racer, he was the bravest of the brave, striving to succeed with each majestic stride, never resigning himself to failure, never once giving up. He was one with whom everyone could identify, the kind of horse whose equivalent may never be found in the human world. And until the very end, he fought.

Unwittingly, the lad’s delicate little fingers had once more found the pencil; the tip had strayed back to the stark white page. Bemused, the teacher watched him, as, stroke by stroke, the horse came trotting slowly back to life before them. There was his long, noble face, the dark, flowing forelock, the huge, deep brown pools of those beautiful eyes. He strode out from the page, free of bridle and restraint, his unshod hooves imprinting not on turf, but on wild meadow grass. A single tear fell upon the page, casting a blurred shadow upon the horse’s heart. Timmy looked up.

“If he truly was a king,” he murmured, “then why did he die as he did? Why couldn’t he have retired, like the best of them do? We’d have loved him still; if anything, we would have loved him even more! Why? Why did it just have to end?”

She watched as his head fell forward, as the memory of what he had lost once more began to tear at his soul. She could not offer him all the answers; all she knew was what her heart dictated. She lifted his chin, as he blinked back the tears. “Do you know something, Timmy? I think it’s the manner in which he died that gives us the real reason he can be considered a true king. He fought, he conquered, he was never surpassed, and his heart gave in before his mind and his spirit had the chance to do so. He could have carried on racing, as many before him have done, and succumbed to the new young challengers. He would have had to pass over his crown in the public eye, having been reduced from that all-conquering star we all loved, to a defeated shadow of his once-dominant self. And where is the pride in defeat? Many so-called kings of the past have succumbed to such challenges, and have chosen to wither away their final days in solitude, fearful of succession or confrontation. But your little horse was not just a king, he was a soldier too. And a king who embraces every soldierly duty and responsibility is a rarity. He fought on until the end, and when the end came, he accepted it with dignity, as any true soldier would.”

Timmy’s eyes, still bright with tears, now flickered with growing understanding. He nodded slowly; together, they stood up. She smiled at him gently.

“You run off home now, Timmy,” she said, “There are other horses back there waiting for you. Somewhere in those fields, there’s another would-be prince vying for his chance. It’s up to you to show him how.”

She held the door open for him, watching as he scuffled off towards the old oak tree by the school gates, pausing momentarily to give her a shy, thankful smile.

They live as kings; as soldiers, they fall.