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Chapter 1 - Families

The winged horse was covered in a layer of fine dust. It was in a corner of the crowded window of a little antique shop, where Georgia had been to look at it every day on the way home from school since it had first appeared. That was a month ago and she had saved up nearly enough money to pay the price on the little white label tied round its neck. Saving had taken a while because most of her pocket money went on lessons at the riding school, which she could afford only once every two weeks.

"Why does she have to have such an expensive hobby?" her stepfather Ralph had grumbled to her mother, when they first kitted her out with her hard-hat and jodhpurs.

"Why can't she be interested in the sort of things other girls like?"

"And you think those are cheap?" Georgia's mother had mocked, in a rare moment of taking her daughter's side. "Just be glad she doesn't want new clothes every week or make-up and mobile phones and hair dye. Besides, she pays for the lessons herself."

That had been two years ago, when Ralph had first married Maura and brought his son Russell to live with them. But at the thought of Russell, Georgia's mouth went dry and she felt her palms sweating. Quick, concentrate on the winged horse.

If you could really find a horse with wings in nature, it would be so easy to take off into the sky on its back and ride away for ever. Georgia closed her eyes and imagined the movement of a horse beneath her, the movements of changing up from walking to trotting, trotting to a canter, cantering to galloping and then, yes, why not one more shift? Like feeling fifth gear on a motorway, there would be one more smooth transition and then the beating wings would lift horse and rider away from solid ground and up where no one could reach them.

A rapping on the glass made her eyes fly open. A face with grey hair and glasses was looking at her though the window and making beckoning gestures. Georgia recognised the antique shop's owner - Mr Goldsmith, if his name was the same as the faded letters over the shop window. He beckoned again and she pushed the door open.

Paolo knew that the black filly had to be moved from the city as soon as possible. If news got out of the miraculous birth, she would be at risk from kidnappers. It was a fantastic piece of luck that this had happened to their ward of the city, the Twelfth of the Ram, and a good omen for this summer's Race of the Stars, but Paolo was adamant that it should be kept secret.

"We can't race her," he told Cesare. "We'd never be allowed to get away with such and advantage."

"But we wouldn't be able to race her this summer anyway," said Cesare, "she'll be too young."

"Don't be so sure of that," Paulo replied. "These winged ones are said not to be like other horses. They grow at a different rate." Father and son kept guard all night, rubbing down foal and mare with straw and giving them clean bedding and fresh water. It was true that the black filly seemed strong and mature within a few hours of her birth, but horses were like that anyway. It was one of the many things Cesare liked about them, the way that their babies got up and got on with life. Not like his little sisters and bothers, who needed so much of his mother's attention and took such ages to turn into proper people.

He much preferred being in the stables with his father, with the warm smell of horses, to staying in their crowded house which always seemed to be full of washing and bubbling pots of baby semolina. Besides, this was the only place where he could get Paolo to talk, to tell him about miracles like the winged horse.

"Every hundred years or so," said Paolo. "That's how often it happens in Remora. It's the first one I've seen - and it came about in our Twelfth." Paolo was jubilant. "It's the best thing that's happened to the Ram in my lifetime."

"But how does it happen?" asked Cesare. "I mean we know the sire. You had starlight covered by that Stallion from Santa Fina - what's his name? Alessandro. There's nothing special about him, is there? A great horse, of course, and he won the Stellata in '68, but just a horse - no wings."

"It doesn't work like that," said Paolo slowly, looking at Cesare thoughtfully and weighing his words carefully. "There's no way you can determine the arrival of a winged one by using a stud book. It happens when times are unstable - as indeed they are now - and it is a good omen for the Twelfth where the foal is born. But it doesn't guarantee success. And it carries it's own dangers with it."

They decided to move the mare and her filly the next night. It would be safe to take her to Santa Fina in the dark. Alessandro's owner, Roderigo, was someone they could trust and the filly could be kept hidden while she grew. If word of her presence got out, the Ram's rivals, particularly the Twelfths of the Twins and the Lady, would move heaven and earth to capture her and rob the Ram of their good luck omen. It would be safe enough to reveal her once this year's race was over.

"What shall we call her?" asked Cesare.

"Merla," said his father decisively. "Blackbird. May she ever fly true."