TQ- A little insight thrown in for you toward the end of this one- if I may.

A million valid life points to anyone who can guess which world famous 27-year-old Californian baritone Erik is based on in all of my stories... It does account for a thing or two in this chapter.

As usual, reviewers get very special -glomps- by me. Let me know what you think: it's much easier and less tormentous than filling out a comprehensive survey!

Chapter 15: Shall We Dance?

Perched atop their little white mounts, each with reins in hand and the dainty skirts of their frocks draped over one side, the children could only gawk as they followed my lead in awestricken silence. The Count had to be a full sixteen hands of solid muscle and sinew. This combined with sound legs, massive head and neck, unpredictable hooves and teeth which could tear flesh from bone in but a single swift movement made for a walking death sentence one could, in far-fetched theory, attempt to ride. Before, this beast seemed only capable of unharnessed rage, though he was as beautiful as he was dangerous.

To watch him follow me step by step like a faithful hound at its master's feet through an open, fenceless field without a single command, rope or restriction was beyond bizarre for these girls who had witnessed only conformity to normalcy throughout their lives. Certainly any sensible trainer worth his pay wouldn't dream of even considering to try such a thing. It wasn't plausible. Well, my dear reader, I am conceited enough to say that the implausible is my specialty.

Every inch of this animal shuddered as he went along. I did not turn to watch him but could feel that huge, masterfully sculpted head and muzzle mere inches behind. My simple presence seemed to be a shock to his system. This horse was sensitive underneath his exterior, a promising quality, and apparently pliable. If our session shaped up properly this would work out better than I thought.

Perhaps, I thought, there was more that could be done with him than just to ride. He was far too willing, even out from under my hand, to be underestimated. What I had in mind would test his intelligence and strain his newly acquired trust to the brink. The very brink.

"Come along!" I urged the girls as they lagged, unlatching the gate to the paddock. The Count kept close to my side when we entered together and nearly pinned me clean against the whitewashed fence-post. I whistled sharply just once to remind him to keep his space.

In a split instant the horse shot out into the open paddock, tearing around and throwing himself in all different directions as if the single high pitched noise had unsettled something terrible within him. Lather soon began to glisten on his coat of flawless ebony and a foam flew from the corners of his mouth when he began to swing his head in wild, disturbing motions.

I shook my own head piteously as I leaned on the still opened gate, waiting for the girls to hurry their ponies along and for the stallion to become quite finished with his temper tantrum.

Soon both children joined me, with a fair amount of convincing, inside the paddock. The two miniature nags looked as nervous as they did to be in the same vicinity as the flailing ball of pent up aggression piling from one side of the little field to the other at a breakneck gallop.

Before Soisette and Elyssa could dismount I instructed them to stay in their saddles.

"If I'm going to waste time breaking an already flawless specimen then I should like to make something useful out of this...a lesson."

It was such an outright bluff. I was loving every minute of this.

"Flawless?" Soisette wrinkled her nose. "He looks like he's trying to tear himself apart."

"Just watch and try to follow along. I think you'll catch on to what I mean...Consider this a schooling session in the traditional 'haute école' style of riding."

Again I halted the creature in his paces, stepping boldly into the center of the paddock to stop him on his heels and lock gazes once again, clearing his mind from the fear and distrust he was unleashing through whatever sort of attack had a hold of him. When The Count stood before me it was with his legs in a perfect square as if someone had glued him evenly to the ground. Hostility melted from his posture and the fire fled from his eyes. Within moments this raging beast was as docile as a newborn lamb. Not even the anxious scuffling about of the girls' ponies phased his focused state of mind. I had him in a trance. Perfect.

Soisette kept her distance from us and so felt the need to shout, "When are you going to-?"

I shot up a stern hand in her direction, ordering silence without even turning my attention from my subject. His ears had flattened the moment her shrill voice reached him. The tremble returned to his ankles and front fetlocks as if his own weight were too great a load to carry.

While soothing him with the sound of my voice, I reached out slowly from my waistcoat pocket with a fresh cut of apple in hand. This method of attraction seemed to work well enough. Inch by inch The Count drew nearer, ignoring every other noise or action that surrounded us. The promise of that sweet, succulent fruit filled up the total capacity of what his simplistic animal senses could register at once.

He finally approached close enough to reach out to me. The moment he made a grab for it I snatched the slice away and popped it into my own mouth. The animal, if you'll take my word for this, looked positively indignant.

"You haven't done anything for me yet...nothing you're capable of," I challenged him both vocally and through dominant expression and posture. This was a creature who was not used to being challenged. I could tell.

He threw back his head, upset that he had not received what was due to him. Piqued nostrils flared and snorted. Dirt flew up when he pawed the earth before me. Throughout his loud protest I remained unmoved.

"Are you quite finished?" I spoke to him bluntly this time. The Count stopped instantly, giving me leave to move closer. He apparently realized that he had come to face an immovable force. He had come face to face with the idea that everything was under my control, even the power to reward. Everything that he was in that instant in time was mine to manipulate any way I chose.

Finally I was able to reach out and stroke the hide of his neck.

The girls' flinching could be sensed from several yards away when in the terrifying blink of an eye I swung up without warning onto the stallion's back. Elyssa let out a startled shriek. I had, apparently, lost my mind.

Without saddle nor bridle nor rein nor bit I rode out the initial shock that was leaping onto an untrained, thousand pound animal accustomed to trying to turn even the most skilled riders in the territory into runny piles of discolored pâté against the ground. I held fast around his barreled chest, gripping the mane at the base of the neck as he threw us both into a dizzying bout of rearing and kicking and general symptoms of fright. Nothing at all that severe by my standards. A seven-year-old with a little ambition could have sat it. What I found most surprising was how long it took him to return to normal...

An ungodly twenty-or-so seconds.

I thanked Providence for the sheep's hide sewn into those breeches, slicked back the tousled dark wisps of hair from my face and simply felt the rise and fall of the horse's labored breathing beneath me. I hadn't even broken a sweat myself(that is considering whatever inhuman beings tend to exude after exertion is, in fact, sweat). The Count peeked over his shoulder, utterly confounded why this fool spirit was still sitting on him after that display.

"Disappointing," I tsked painfully, letting go of his mane to tend a few 'personal' problems which are inevitable after being tossed about bareback . "I halfway expected more of a show from the 'fierce' likes of you. Hmph! 'Untamable beast' my aching...-"

My heels did the rest of the talking for me. Onward forth we went, rounding the edge of the paddock in a graceless stride I was almost ashamed to be going at. Out of the corner of my eye I spotted the girls. The tips of Elyssa's nervous white-gloved fingers were pressed against her bottom lip. Soisette, thoroughly comfortable with the distance now placed between them and The Count, clapped in mock elegance out of one palm. Her pony fed insouciantly on the turf at its feet until my mount and I approached in a zealous canter. The stocky thing nearly spooked, though the girls looked prone to any second even more-so.

"Would either of you ladies like to make a bet?" I raised and eyebrow down at them. The Count shuffled his feet and fought a bit when I tried to keep him in place.

"D'pends," Soisette checked my arrogant tone saucily. But when the great black stallion gave an unexpected kick of the hind leg she gasped and stiffened, losing her confidence and nearly her seat on the sidesaddle.

"An entire afternoon and evening to myself...if I can make this brute dance," I laughed heartily, letting The Count spin me around on his heels.

Soisette crossed her arms, cast me a stiffened glance knowing she couldn't resist this sort of challenge and stated her terms plainly, "And if you don't...you have to take off that mask."

'The devil!' I thought to myself, 'So that's what she's after.' I shuddered to think, if only in brief, what else the thankfully absent Cherise had meant by the child's nature being "in the blood".

"A bet it is then!" boasted I. We shook hands uneasily from atop our mounts before I urged The Count on again with the knob spurs adorning my boots. "Follow me three lengths behind. Let's see what this poseur can do, shall we?"

With a firmer tap of the heels the stallion sprung into a trot the second I willed him. From here I would build my spectacle.

It would be against I higher order to reveal to you, dear reader, the precise explanation for what the de Chagny children beheld before their very eyes in that very plain paddock on that very plain morning. One can be certain that it was one they would not soon forget.

Erik himself was not at all sure of how he accomplished winning their bet in such a supernatural display. But that he did and with all the skill, stamina and grace of a seasoned riding master.

With only the hair of the stallion's mane gripped between firm, gloved hands he sent them into well timed trot, urging back with his upper body while his heels signaled forward. The result was nothing short of incredible.

The Count, who had never before so much as allowed a man to sit him for less than twelve seconds, started into a flawless passage. Knees reached up to the chest and into the body at the hind end in a display of cadence the world's most skilled ballet dancers would have coveted; the neck arched to resemble that of a war steed's, the muscles toned and taught into folded, structured beauty along with the rest of his form. Every animated high step seemed to reach higher and higher as if the horse were preparing himself to spring into flight at any given moment. This was a maneuver which took veritable years for an animal to master with such fluid accuracy.

And this was only the beginning.

They slowed from the passage's lilting pace to a near halt. Erik gave a swift tug at the right side of the mane's part in his grasp and as if by magic the horse thrust out his front right leg instantly upon command. And then the other. And then the right again. It was a maneuver commonly seen in the bullfighting arena, used by matadors to taunt the enraged bull while on horseback. Without any other visible prompting The Count reached further out with each hoof and pawed the air before him. He came down every time stiff-legged, crossing each lengthened stride with the other which gave the impression that the horse was doing a sort of intricate Tango with himself.

Soisette and Elyssa squealed with delight. They had never imagined such a thing could be done and were right to be awed by the performance, for never before in the world had a horse learned to dance so quickly. The pair tried in vain to have their own mounts follow the example. Of course the ponies only jerked to a halt after such fierce prodding and took to feeding in the grass, much to the sisters' frustration.

Then, in a sudden jolt of power The Count and his handler sprung forth with every ounce of strength above the ground. When at the climax of the most dramatic leap which could ever be mustered, the steed kicked back with his hind quarters, as if he were trying to separate himself in half, before returning to the earth. They both met the ground startled by the feat they had just accomplished. It was over before the eyes, the pulse, the soul could register what had occurred. Not only had they danced...they had flown.

Soisette and Elyssa were breathless.

Now with blood coursing rapidly,The Count cuffed the far corner of the paddock to return to the center. Once there he did not stop to rest as expected but split off into yet another direction, carrying his rider into a series of unbelievable fluid spins in mid stride. Hoof crossed hoof in a side-winding movement from here to there and back again. The hind legs seemed to have wills of their own from that of the fronts' for as The Count's upper end carried on in one direction at a steadied high-kicking gait his back end traveled in astonishing shuffles, kicks and bounds.

Gathering again at full speed, the two ran twin figure eights before performing yet another heart-wrenching bound into the air. The children swore silently to themselves that this was no ordinary beast. What strutted with his tail high like a banner of victory and kissed the sky with the entirety of himself before them was a Pegasus flown freshly out of an ancient book of myth.

The Count tossed his head and whinnied, throwing out the powerful sound of himself into the air when he reared back to dance on his hind legs. Erik clung to his back as naturally as if he had been sewn into the very fibers of this animal's being, one with that flesh and bone and muscle and sinew. Together they were a different type of animal...apparently the type who could spring up and forth on its hooves five consecutive times, balancing over a thousand pounds of weight onto two relatively thin ankles as the impossible weight bared down in all its tremendous force and might. All of this while poised at an impeccable ninety degree angle, the glistening black tail flowing out from behind in the wild, steady breeze.

Never in the history of mankind could there have been crafted by the human hand a lasting image as full of rein-less majesty as this. For two little girls the sight of their guardian's half-concealed visage wrought with such sheer commanding power was all the excuse they needed to well up with tears in their innocent young eyes. They trembled from the outside in though they could not fully able comprehend what had shaken them so immensely nor what profound emotion what they beheld there had instilled.

This vision would be ingrained with them for the rest of their natural lives.

Then the living moment was lost forever in the blink of an eye. The creature combined of mortal and immortal returned its front half to the lowly earth which seemed now too imperfect a place for a being of such magnitude, grace and blinding essence of nobility.

Erik slipped off of the animal's back only to meet the earth in a wilted pile. His legs gave out beneath him. Every ounce of his energy had been conducted into The Count who, after the girls had sufficiently helped their dear, striking angel to his feet, was noticed to be grazing the lush forage in tranquil silence alongside the two ponies. Every inch of him was peace personified. Peace in its most beautiful form.

And so the lion settled down with the lambs. All fury and hatred and spite which burned within him had been released in that final display of fire and grit. He was at long last content with himself. With himself and the with world which turned 'round about him.