Chapter 1--Moving In
It was near midnight when the two riders entered the town of Fuella. Both wore cloaks with large hoods that concealed their faces; their mounts plodded with the slow gait of weariness bordering on exhaustion. The riders themselves nodded and slouched in their saddles.
The horses stopped outside an inn and one of the riders dismounted. He walked over to the door and knocked loudly; presently the innkeeper opened the door, looking as though he had been asleep. "What d'you want?" he asked roughly.
"Do you have any rooms available?" the dismounted rider asked. The innkeeper shook his head. "Nope, all full. Sorry." The door closed abruptly, and the mounted rider pushed back her hood. "Rats, I was looking forward to a nice, soft bed tonight," I yawned. My brother Redwing and I had been riding for nearly eighteen hours straight and both of us were exhausted.
Redwing (who had knocked at the door) shrugged as he pushed back his own hood. "One more night sleeping outside won't matter, Erika."
"To you, maybe," I grumbled, but dismounted as well and took my gelding Alchemy's reins. "I don't see any other place than the woods."
"What about the stable?" Redwing suggested. "I'm sure they won't mind us for one night."
"Whatever," I yawned again. "I'm too tired to care at this point." I followed Redwing to a building next to the inn that smelled of horses, hay, and things not mentioned in polite conversation. However weary we were, we did make sure that Alchemy and Redwing's paint horse Tripod were untacked and brushed down before claiming spots in the haymow. I barely was able to pull my pack from under my cloak before I fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.
In the shadows I watched at the travelers untacked their horses and put them in stalls. The girl seemed to be young, late teens at the most, and the man she was with bore such resemblance in features that he could only be her brother. Both had dark brown hair and hazel eyes--how I could tell still remains to be discovered. I, the Horsemaster, am impassive, but my eyes and ears take in everything. As the sibling fell asleep I watched, face softening slightly, before disappearing into the darkness.
Something poked me in the side. "Erika?" I groaned and buried my head into the hay. The poke came again, harder this time. "Get up, you lazybones," Redwing said. "Your horse is hungry."
Instantly the sleep vanished and I sat up with a gasp. "Oh no, I completely forgot about Alchemy---"
Redwing laughed. "That always works. No, I already fed both horses and I've been to see our new home. It'll be a while before we can move in, but everything's there."
"That's good," I grunted as I took Redwing's outstretched hand and stood up. I was almost impervious to saddle soreness, but a week of constant riding can wear on the best of them. "So what's this place like, anyway?"
"Like every other small town," Redwing replied. "Small, friendly, and nosy." I nodded with a knowing grin, stretched, and began picking the hay out of my plaited hair.
"Here, let me help," Redwing said, pulling out some hay I missed. I went ahead and let him; once he was done my stomach grumbled loudly. All we had eaten on our journey was dried meat and fruit; frankly, I was ready for something else. It only took us a few minutes to walk over to the inn next door.
Inside it was crowded with people, smoke, and smells of food. Upon entering I could see that the locals seemed to regard us with a mild interest and friendliness on their open faces. We sat down at a small table and presently a pleasant-faced waitress ambled over. "What'll it be?" she asked cheerfully.
"Coffee, black," Redwing said with a roguish grin. The waitress blushed but didn't look away. I rolled my eyes; my brother was such a ladies' man. He attracted them like flies. Fortunately, although we shared similar features and characteristics I didn't attract anything except dirt. The waitress asked me without taking her eyes from Redwing, "What'll it be?" I echoed Redwing’s order, and once she left I whacked him on the arm. "You idiot! You're going to break that poor girl's heart!"
"Makes 'em more careful," Redwing replied with another grin. The waitress brought our drinks and walked away casting longing looks at Redwing. I blew on my steaming brew and glanced around the room. Most of the people seemed to be farmers, with hardened features that were browned by hours in the sun. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man, clothed all in black, with jet-black hair and dark, brooding eyes; his face was angular with a tanned ochre to the skin. But when I glanced back for a closer look he was gone, like a spectre of sorts. It was uncanny, and I shivered.
"You cold?" Redwing asked as he sipped his coffee.
"No, I just saw something rather strange..." I replied and told him of the man I had glimpsed.
"Probably the local weirdo," Redwing replied. "Don't pay him any mind."
I dearly wanted to believe my brother, but somehow I was sure he was wrong. The man I saw didn't look simple or weird at all--rather, he radiated confidence, bitterness, and something else I couldn't identify....
The inn served better food than I thought and I ended up stuffing myself. Redwing decided to stay at the inn a while longer--most likely to tantalize the female populace--but I wandered outside. I had yet to see the place where we lived and, as a result, was curious.
She had nearly seen me in the inn--she was more perceptive than I had realized. That brief moment had affixed in my mind that this wasn't like the locals with their simple ways and minds. And I could tell that she had potential to become a Horsemaster...
I followed the to a small cottage towards the outskirts of town. She entered the house for a while, heedless of I who watched from the treeline. Through a window I could see her shifting around furniture, ducking down to pick something up, reaching up to affix one of the wall hangings. I was tempted to stay and watch, but knew sooner or later she would be aware of my presence; it was best to take advantage of my stealth while I could. With a last backward glance I slipped noiselessly through the trees back towards the stables.
The house that we were to live in was small with a porch along the front, but well built and snug. I entered the house quietly, surveying the meagre pile of possessions and taking advantage of my solitude to start putting things into place.
The main room had a fireplace on the west wall, with small windows looking to the south, west, and east. Another room reached off to the east and yet another to the north; these were smaller and presumably bedrooms. Out the southern window I could see a three-sided shed, seemingly for animals, and a wooden fenceline stretching out of sight towards a well-wooded treeline. All in all, it was very pleasant and "loverly", as Redwing would put it.
I spent only a little while shifting things about; eventually I decided that it was better to be outside. Late summer was fairly mild in southern Laegna, and I loved to work with Alchemy if I wasn't riding. It was a short, pleasant walk to the stables and within ten minutes I could hear Alchemy whinnying impatiently. He didn't like stalls very much.
Inside the stable it was dimly lit from sunlight working through the dirt-caked windows. Alchemy was stomping his foot and snorting as I entered but ceased immediately upon seeing me. My copper gelding was difficult with other people but he adored me, something which was a little double-sided. He might poke his nose into whatever I happened to be working with and give a horse-laugh as I yelled at him; curiosity gets the better of him in any circumstance. Now he just snorted at me, grabbed the stall door in his teeth, and shook it ferociously.
"Yes, I know," I said aloud. One of my habits is talking around horses as it seems to calm them and helps me deal with any frustrating thing the horse in question might be doing. I let myself into the stall and rubbed his copper forelock. "I'll give you a brushing-down and then let's see about taking you out, all right?" Alchemy nodded as if he understood me completely.
In my personal pack I had a few brushes and a hoof pick for on the road; I pulled them out and gave him a brisk brushing-down. As I finished Alchemy gave a deep sigh of contentment. I grinned as I swept a bit of dirt from his coat and tied a lead rope to his halter. I hummed a common tune as I lead him outside; once there I hopped up on his back. Though my legs and seat were incredibly sore I decided it would be best to sit on his back instead of stand around while he grazed.
As I sat on his back the warm summer sun made me drowsy--I let my head sink down and closed my eyes wearily. I don't know how much time went past before Alchemy lifted his head; I could feel his muscles stiffening in surprise or interest. I shook the drowse from my head and looked up towards the stable door.
The man from earlier at the inn was standing there--he wore a dark cloak, dusky grey instead of black, over a black shirt and dark trousers. His boots, knee-high with lacing up the calf, gleamed in the sun. His skin was olive, with a full head of black hair and deep-set grey eyes.
All this I glimpsed in a moment; he saw me watching him and disappeared yet again, into the stable. But I wasn't about to let him leave.
I slipped off Alchemy's back, dropping his lead in the process. "Wait a second!" I called. I tripped over a small lip in the doorway, stumbled, caught myself and renewed my pursuit. I caught a glimpse of the cloak around a doorway, sped up even faster--
And slammed into someone stepping out of a stall. I managed to stay on my feet, but the person I ran into wasn't so lucky. A tall girl with dirty blond hair hit the ground hard in front of me, dropping an armload of hay in the process. I reeled against a doorway, wheezing out an apology, and helped her up.
"Hey, watch where you're goin'!" the girl protested.
"Sorry," I muttered again. "Did you happen to see a young man run past here?"
"No," she replied, still put out, while she gathered her dropped hay. "What did he look like?"
"Uh, black hair, dressed in dark clothes, knee-high boots, somewhat tall--"
"Oh, that's just the Horsemaster," the girl cut me off. "Don't mind him; he just keeps us on our toes."
"Come again?" I said. She was thoroughly confusing me by now. But she did seem to have forgiven my clumsiness, if her relaxed manner said anything.
"I'm Corin Reed, by the way," she said.
"Erika Coppershield," I replied. "What do you mean by a Horsemaster?"
Corin rolled her eyes dramatically. "I mean exactly what I said. He's a Horsemaster. Not much else to describe him as. He pretty much runs the place--not that that's a bad thing, mind you."
"How does he manage that?"
"Here, just a moment," Corin replied and ducked into a nearby stall. A delicate liver chestnut mare pulled a mouthful of hay from her arms with a nicker; Corin stuffed the hay into a rack and, while brushing her hands off, continued, "No one quite knows. He just...somehow makes people do what he wants." She shrugged. "To be honest I don't really know much about him; all I know is second-hand."
"Oh." Suddenly I remembered Alchemy, loose in the stable yard. "Yipe! I'll be right back!" I raced out of the stable, tripping over the lip again. I say Alchemy standing where I had left him--all the grass had distracted him enough so that he hadn't even noticed that he was loose. With hands shaking from relief I picked up his lead rope and led him into the stable.
Corin watched me with an amused grin. "You seem a bit absentminded at seeing the Horsemaster. Don't worry, he affects everyone like that."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I grumbled.
"Nothing. I take it you're new around here?"
"Just came in today."
"I can show you around if you like," Corin offered. "I know this place like the back of my hand."
"Fine with me. Just a moment..." I put Alchemy into this stall and followed Corin outside.
This was getting too close for comfort--twice she had seen me, and the second time pursued me. It was only with a little 'help' that I had gotten away without her catching up, and I had heard her conversation with the Corin. Corin is a well-meaning soul, but too mediocre and wishy-washy for my tastes.
The Horsemaster I am, my real name buried in the sands of time along with my past. My current residing place is beneath the stable, accessible only by a trapdoor. The door itself is in plain sight, but the room beneath is filled with old moldy feed sacks and such garbage. No one would even suspect that behind a pile of sacks was a cave, furnished like a normal house with such tools as the Horsemaster uses for his profession. Some terrible unknown previous life had sent me scurrying for the safety of the underground.
And now, I run the stable in a jerk-water town in the middle of nowhere: a quiet, safe, dependable existence. Until the appearance of Erika.
Chapter 4--The Horsemaster
Once outside Corin and I met Redwing exiting the inn with a flock of s waving him off. He blew several kisses at them with promises to come back and grinned at me. "Gullible bunch, they are," he said. "Who's this?"
Before I could introduce them, Corin stepped forward. "Corin Reed, at your service," she said, thrusting her hand out for Redwing to shake. "Actually I'm not at your service; just sayin' it to be polite."
"A bit upfront, aren't you?" Redwing shook her hand and turned to me. "I'm going to the house to start arranging stuff around, but we'll have to spend the night in the stable again. Turns out the innkeeper was right when he said they were full." He turned and walked down the street with that easy mile-eating stride he had; although somewhat short he made up for it by being charismatic.\
"Your brother?" Corin asked, watching him go.
"That's what they all say," I replied. "You said something about showing me around?"
"What's the hurry?" she asked dreamily.
I rolled my eyes; she was afflicted with the IILWRS (acronym for I'm In Love With Redwing Syndrome). "You're a real sap. Believe me, you'll regret it." I started walking down the street on my own. In a moment Corin followed.
It was only a matter of time before I would plan my move. The girl Erika was to sleep in the stables again; it was then that I would attempt to speak with her. But I was going to have to find a way to lure her away from her brother in order to do so. That, however, is the easy part. The hard part is finding out what to say to her. She is beautiful, with a perceptive mind that obviously hungers for knowledge, but that isn't all. She is meant to become a Horsemaster. I have plenty of time to think it over, yet it is more difficult than I realized deciding what to say.
I collapsed on the hay mound with a contented sigh. Corin and I had explored the town from top to bottom, forging a rather superficial relationship. Corin offered to let Redwing and I stay at her home for the night, but I politely declined; to be honest I like stables and I didn't really trust her just yet.
Redwing should have been on his way back--I hadn't seen him since early afternoon. To be honest I didn't care. Any moment of peace and quiet was golden to me. I was just leaning my head back and closing my eyes when a voice whispered, "Erika..."
I snapped my eyes open, listening, frozen in place. With each passing second I felt myself relax; perhaps it was just in my head. But the voice whispered again, "Erika..."
"What is it?" I asked. The voice was mesmerizing, with rich undertones that both quieted and alerted me. However, I was no frightened. Rather, it seemed to comfort any fears or questions I had.
It was a few moments before the voice replied. "I am the Horsemaster."
"What's that supposed to mean to me?" I retorted. "Are you a real person?"
"To your first question, it should mean quite a bit to you. The only reason I am speaking to you is because you have potential to become a Horsemaster. And yes, I'm a real person."
I felt an insane urge to laugh; his frank words made mirth bubble up and threaten to spill over. I managed to squelch my laughter with a gulping swallow. "In that case, can I speak to you face-to-face?"
"No!" The reply was so sharp that I had to resist and urge to flinch. "All right," I replied, "I meant no offence. What do you want?"
"To offer you a chance to become a Horsemaster. To--" Whatever he was going to say disappeared in a choking cough. It sounded as if he were suppressing some great emotion. After a moment he whispered, "Do not tell anyone about me, please."
"Well, all right..." I replied. The voice left, almost audibly, but it could have been a trick on my ears. Not a minute later Redwing arrived, giving me an account of all that he had done in the house. I didn't hear any of it, though: my mind was dwelling on the mysterious Horsemaster and his offer.
The next morning dawned cloudy with the threat of rain; already there was a sprinkling that settled the dusty roads. I didn't feel like staying alone in the stable--since the Horsemaster had spoken to me I was a little wary of being unaccompanied--so I joined Redwing in putting the finishing touches on the house. That chore took only a couple of hours to accomplish, much to my chagrin. I had mixed feelings when it came to the Horsemaster: curiosity for what he might want or give, and yet a measure of fright for what he might be or do. It was a strange emotion, and all the ease and comfort I had felt the evening before was gone.
Redwing noticed my discomfiture and kept bugging me about my lack of spirits. "Off" is how it's described in a horse; I now knew what it felt like.
"If you aren't going to tell me I'll just have to guess," Redwing said as we walked back into town. "Does it involve Alchemy?"
"No," I replied, grinning despite myself. This was an old game that Redwing and I played when I was down in the dumps. It usually ended with him managing to cheer me up, no matter if I wanted to or not.
"Hmm, a difficult approach. Does it have to do with a boy?"
I scoffed loudly. "You know my approach with boys."
"All right, if you want to be that way: it's about us moving, isn't it?"
"Your imaginary person is getting squelched from a lack of repartee!"
I couldn't help myself anymore; I burst out laughing. "You're certifiable, you know that? Clinically insane."
"Not true," Redwing protested. "They haven't proved anything. Yet." He bugged his eyes out with a deranged look; I rolled my eyes and pushed him out of my reach.
I watched them as they walked back; Erika was laughing and playing with her brother. A wave of sadness swept over me. I never had any sibling and coveted the affection I could see they had for each other--I longed so much to love and be loved that a pit of aching despair was taking place deep within my chest. I was only with a huge effort that no emotion trickled onto my face other than a solitary tear. I brushed it away with a feeling of contempt for allowing even that to surface.
I had learned long ago that any emotion for myself earned only rejection and scorn; normal people don't seem to realize that ugly ones have feelings too. My own existence is solid proof that beautiful people and offensive ones don't mix. So, although I crave beauty in all forms, I have to be satisfied with animals and things. But I'm not satisfied. And I never will be, unless I can appease my longings and fulfil my infatuations...
The rain came pouring down without any pretence as Redwing and I reached the stable. I tossed my hood over my head and ran the few yards to the entrance; even with those precautions I became soaked in a matter of seconds. I shook the rain from my braid and Redwing whistled loudly. "Gives a new meaning to 'when it rains it pours', doesn't it?" he commented, watching the rain as it fell in sheets.
I nodded in agreement, subdued once inside the stable. My foreboding concerning the Horsemaster returned as quickly as it had disappeared, but I wasn't about to let Redwing know. "I'll just go check on Alchemy," I said over my shoulder as I walked down the aisle. Redwing didn't follow, choosing to sit on a bucket and peruse the still-falling rain. My brother's odd that way.
Alchemy nickered a greeting from his stall, and I rubbed his forehead. "Hey boy, how's it going," I murmured. Something caught my eye, and I saw a slip of paper wedged in a between the wooden slats. It hadn't been there when I fed Alchemy that morning; I picked it up, popped the wax seal open, and read thus:
Miss Erika Coppershield,
I apologize for the lack of thoroughness in our first meeting. I write to offer yet again that which I brought up: the chance to become a Horsemaster. If you are still wondering what that is, I hope this shall explain. A Horsemaster is one who loves the horse as a whole, not just as a work animal; a person who is willing to learn how to work with a horse, not against it; a person who wants to assist others in their understanding of the horses' ways. You are one of the rare people who shows an ability to become a Horsemaster. I hope that you will accept my proposal.
The rain persisted until streams of water flowed down the roads. Redwing finally left the stable for the inn; now was the time that I could discover just who this Horsemaster was. To my surprise I was shaking with anticipation and apprehension. I almost backed out, but curtailed my cowardly side and strode down one of the aisles of the stable. The overcast sky allowed little light through the numerous windows, which only added to my nervousness to see all the shadowy places. But after wandering down first one and then the other aisle I had to admit that I was acting rather silly to be this scared.
Something whispered behind me; I turned and jumped back with a yelp. There was the young man from earlier, standing not three feet away. At my involuntary cry he jumped back as well, seeming startled at my reaction. "I'm sorry, I didn't mean to frighten you," he apologized profusely.
I felt an insane urge to laugh; not at him, but my own idiotic behavior. "It's all right," I replied, swallowing the laughter in my throat. At these close quarters I could see him much better and now saw that the contours of his face were not natural but rather a flesh-coloured mask, covering from forehead to upper lip. His eyes, grey with amber flecks, looked through eyeholes at me curiously; I realized I was frowning in concentration as I studied his face and with an effort smoothed out my features. "Are you the Horsemaster, by any chance?" I asked.
He hesitated a second, then replied, "No, I'm the Horsemaster's intermediary, Philip."
"A pleasure, I'm sure," I muttered. Inwardly I was disappointed; I had hoped to actually meet the Horsemaster out of curiosity if nothing else. "What are you here for?" I asked.
"The Horsemaster wants me to instruct you in his ways--that is, if you desire it."
"You mean to become a Horsemaster?"
"Yes," he replied, seeming to sag with relief.
"Well, okay, I suppose," I stammered. "What exactly does a Horsemaster do?"
"A Horsemaster is multitalented," Philip replied, "working in all areas of horsemanship." He seemed more relaxed to talk about something he knew and leaned against a stall door. "They train, retrain, and work with horses, essentially."
"And he wants me to become one?" I asked. "Why?"
"He says--" Philip coughed softly--"he says that you have the potential and talent to be a Horsemaster."
I pinched the bridge of my nose; I had to think. I didn't see the harm in going along with this, but there was a bit of a problem in the form of my brother. Redwing was pretty easygoing as far as a brother goes, except for when it came to me hanging around with men by myself. He was very protective of me, to the point that it was a bit annoying at times.
I glanced up at Philip, who was waiting patiently; stared at his mask and his eyes that were wary and filled with the weight of the world. I wanted to find out more about him, yet--
Philip looked away from my gaze. "Please don't stare at me," he said quietly.
I gave a start and tore my stare from his face. "Sorry," I said. "I'll have to think about it, I'm afraid."
Philip gave a small nod. "So be it." He turned, giving a snap with the tail of his dusky-grey cloak, and vanished into the shadows.
I shook my head with a grin; whatever Philip was, he was theatrical. I turned away, my mind mulling over this strange meeting and the possibility of becoming a Horsemaster. It sounded intriguing; however, I would talk it over with Redwing before making a decision.
I watched as she walked towards the stable door, mind abuzz. I had spoken to her, face-to-face, without any terrible consequences; that in itself was amazing. I did feel a little guilty about sating that I wasn't the Horsemaster, for he and I are the same, but I didn't want to reveal too much to her at once. For now she shall think that Philip and the Horsemaster are two different people.
I marveled over how she seemed not to mind my mask; granted, she had stared a few times, but overall I could tell that she was not frightened or unnecessarily curious about it. It was a welcome relief from the attention it usually got.
Once alone in my cave belowground I removed the leather mask carefully. I didn't wear it for more than a few hours at a time if I could help it, for it tended to irritate the skin. And down below no one could be terrified by my appearance. I set the mask aside and began the preparations for Miss Erika's first lesson; she hadn't answered in the positive yet, but I had no doubts that she would. I have a tendency to get what I want, no matter what the obstacles.
I watched Redwing out of the corner of my eye. He was puttering around the kitchen looking for something to scrounge up and eat and I was mustering up the courage to ask his permission about this Horsemaster business.
Redwing wandered out of the kitchen with an apple in hand. He sat down next to the fireplace, took a huge bite out of his apple, and glanced at me. "So what'd you do today?" he asked. "It was getting lonely over at the inn."
“How could you possibly get lonely?" I retorted. "There are plenty of girls there, right?"
Redwing made a face. "Yes, but they're all superficial. All mouth and no brains."
"I'm glad to see you don't think I'm like that."
"Sometimes I wonder," he teased with a grin, taking another bite out of his apple.
I rolled my eyes, then suddenly became serious. "Actually, I met someone at the stables."
"Who, pray tell?"
I bit my lip. "His name's Philip, and he was asking if I would consider doing something for someone he knows."
The teasing light in Redwing's eye winked out instantly. Redwing sat up, staring at me intently. "What did he want?"
"He knows somebody, called the Horsemaster, who is offering me a chance to become a Horsemaster like him. It may sound a little hokey, but I'm rather interested."
Redwing relaxed slightly, setting down his apple. "You'd just work with horses, then?"
I shrugged. "As far as I know, yes." I tried to act nonchalant, but inwardly I was tensed and ready to explode with nervousness.
It seemed an eternity before Redwing picked up his apple again. "Let me meet this Philip, and I'll decide whether you can work with him or not."
I exhaled noisily, wiping mock perspiration from my forehead. "You sure do know how to make someone fidgety, don'tcha?"
Redwing nodded, the picture of modesty. "It's my job. And I know that any job worth doing is worth doing well."
"Whatever," I chuckled. All my tenseness was gone, and I picked up a book to read. Tomorrow I would speak to Philip again, or at least try to. He was hard to pin down
Chapter 8---The Meeting of Redwing and Philip
The next day I awoke early--obviously this had meant more to me than I realized. I slid out of bed and threw on a cotton shirt, pants, and placed a cloak over my shoulders. The sun was barely over the horizon and Redwing was still snoring away. I waited impatiently, pacing back and forth, sitting down and getting back up.
Finally I tiptoed into Redwing's room, knelt down on the floor, and began tickling his bare feet sticking out from under his quilt. This method was an old trick of mine, devised to get Redwing up when he slept in. It still worked. Redwing's foot lashed out, barely missing my head, and I jerked back with a chortle. "Rise and shine, sleeping beauty," I called from down on the floor.
After a little deliberation I managed to get Redwing up and moving; within half an hour we were walking over to the stables. Redwing commented, "Are you sure you haven't met this guy before? You seem awfully eager to see him."
"Positive," I replied. "I'd remember if I'd met anyone wearing a mask."
"Oh, secretive type, is he?"
"No..." I hesitated. "I think that it's to cover up a scar or something, because it covers his whole face." I demonstrated by gesturing from my forehead to just below my nose. "I think he's rather touchy about it, because when I stared at it he told me to stop."
"Then I shall refrain from staring," Redwing said with mock seriousness. "I don't suppose he's darkly handsome, is he?"
"Oh, be quiet," I grumbled.
"Ah, he is? Well, then it all fits."
"What all fits?"
"He's dark, mysterious, offering to teach you something--has he said anything else? Offered you his heart, perchance?"
"NO!!" I yelled. Redwing flinched. "Hey, I didn't mean anything," he protested. "I was just ribbing you a little."
I ran a hand through my loose hair, which I had forgotten to braid. "Yes, I know," I muttered. I don't know why I was so irritated, but today my brother's joking seemed especially hard to bear. Fortunately the stables were just before up and I entered thankfully. Just inside the door I halted, for in the shadows I could vaguely see the shape of a man. "Philip?" I said.
The shadow turned and froze upon seeing Redwing. "What's he doing here?" he asked brusquely.
I frowned. "He's my brother. He wanted to meet you before he'll give me permission to work with you."
Philip sighed. "Very well." He stepped out of the shadows, eyeing Redwing warily. Today he wore a black mask instead of the flesh-colored one from before and his cloak was a deep green; black leather gloves covered his hands. Apparently he believed in wearing expensive clothing, for they were of the finest material I had ever seen. But his fine clothes did not offset the suspicious look in his eyes.
I was beginning to feel decidedly uncomfortable about this whole meeting, with Philip circling my brother like a wolf going in for the kill, and decided to bring up introductions. "Redwing, this is Philip. Philip, my brother Redwing."
A grim smile creased Philip's mask. "A pleasure." By the sound of his voice it was anything but. Redwing shot a quizzical look at me that said 'and you want to work with this guy?' Before I could make another attempt at lightening the tangible tenseness Redwing stepped forward. "Now look, Philip, I'm going to have to go over a few things with you." He gave me a pointed look. "Alone."
I took the hint and walked a few steps away. Redwing then commenced to have a brief hushed conversation with Philip; I caught a few phrases that sounded like 'safe' and 'have your head'. I groaned inwardly--my brother threatening this man didn't seem like one of the smartest things he's ever done. I peeked over my shoulder to see a stormy expression on Redwing's face. Philip's mask was inscrutable, but I felt like he wasn't very pleased at being threatened.
In a minute or two Redwing stepped away, still watching Philip. "And if you don't listen to me there'll be--"
I stepped on Redwing's toes, cutting off whatever he was about to say. "So may I work with him?" I asked sweetly.
Redwing glanced at the impassive Philip, and pulled me off to the side. "I don't trust him," he murmured in my ear.
"He's really not as much of a jerk as you might think," I whispered back. "We'll be fine."
With another glance at Philip Redwing sighed. "All right," he replied. "Use your best judgment, but as soon as he tries something tell me. I'll take care of him."
"Don't worry," I said, giving him a peck on his stubbly cheek.
"I'm worried!" he cried, stepping away with a smile that seemed forced. The smile disappeared as he looked at Philip; giving a curt nod he walked away.
Philip watched him go, his lips beneath the mask curved in a sardonic grin. "A bit protective, that brother of yours," he commented. Before I could reply he turned towards me. "An admirable quality, but a little in the way."
"What's that supposed to mean?" I asked harshly. Instantly Philip turned to humble young man that he had been the day before. "I apologize," he said with a deep bow. "I know you are close to him, and I did not mean to insult you."
I frowned inwardly--these swift changes in attitude were disarming, to say the least, but I couldn't keep haranguing him when he seemed so sincere. "Apology accepted," I said warily.
Philip snapped upright, cloak swirling in the abrupt motion. "And now you are ready to learn, yes? I have everything ready for your first lesson."
Chapter 9--First Lesson
I stood in the paddock uncertainly; a bay yearling colt was watching me from the far side with a mixture of fear and curiosity. "What am I supposed to do again?" I asked Philip, who stood at the gate.
Philip gave an audible sigh. I felt that I was wearing down his patience, but he was rather vague on his intentions. He said slowly, "Your first lesson is called join-up. You are to catch this yearling and put a halter on him without his being frightened of you.”
I looked at Philip, then at the colt. The yearling had lost interest in me and was searching the ground for any renegade blades of grass. I glanced down at the halter and lead in my hand and started walking towards the horse. By towards I mean I walked in a serpentine path that would eventually take me to the colt's shoulder. But as soon as I moved the colt snorted loudly and galloped towards the fenceline; fortunately the paddock was only about fifty feet in diameter and the colt just flew in circles around me.
I shot a despairing look at Philip--I had no idea what I was to do at this point. He calmly took his cloak off, let himself into the paddock, and walked towards me. "First of all, relax. There is no point in doing this if you are tense and uptight. Second, watch what I do."
Philip took the lead from me and cast the end at the yearling, who had slowed somewhat. The colt shied from the rope and began cantering around the paddock. Every few circles Philip would have it change direction by stepping a few feet in front of it. After a few minutes the yearling seemed to relax a little, and his inside ear which had been flicking back and forth settled to focus on us in the center.
"Now we're looking for a signal that means he doesn't want to run anymore and is willing to compromise," Philip said. "That ear focused on us meaning he's listening. Soon he'll lick and chew--like that right there"--the colt began running his tongue over his lips and chewing the air--"and he'll drop his head in submission."
"What's the point of this?" I asked quietly.
"It's speaking in horse language. Horses in the wild do this all the time, like if a colt has done something wrong the matriarch drives him out and keeps him out. The fear of being out of the herd, away from its protection, drives them to want to negotiate with the present circumstances and rejoin the 'herd', or us in the center."
The colt lowered his head and slowed down until he seemed to be trying to graze at a trot; Philip immediately turned away and I followed suit. "Now what?" I asked.
I fought against the temptation to turn and see what the yearling was doing--I could hear his hoof beats slowing, and I almost felt that he was watching us. In a moment he hoofbeats began again, but this time it was towards us. In a second I could see the colt out of the corner of my eye--he walked towards Philip and nosed him in the back. Philip turned, rubbed the yearling on the forehead, and quietly placed the halter on its head without a fuss. "Now you try."
I clumsily tried to mimic Philip's actions for the whole process, but felt that I was not very good. Regardless of my rough method I managed to do nearly the same, and by the time I buckled the halter I was grinning with triumph. "How was that?" I asked.
"Good, good," he murmured, more to himself than to me. "Take the colt back and give him a good brushing-down."
"Where does he stay?" I inquired. "And aren't you coming with me?"
Philip seemed to gather his last shred of patience, and I was momentarily sorry that I asked. But he replied, "I'll show you and help you groom him." He opened the gate, allowing me to lead the yearling out, and led the way to the stable. As I walked into the stall Philip pointed out the colt sighed deeply. "Don't worry, old boy, we'll leave you alone soon," I murmured. I tied the lead to a ring on the wall and jumped as Philip accosted me.
"No! Never, ever, ever tie a horse up if you don't know if he's trained to tie," Philip snapped, untying the lead. "He could pull back, panic, and get seriously hurt along with the people around him."
"Well, excuse me," I muttered. Philip may have the patience of the world when it came to horses, but he needed to learn some people skills. With a small frown I pulled out some brushes and swept the dirt from the colt's coat.
Philip didn't seem to notice my irritation, something which irritated me further. He calmly draped his cloak across the stall door and pulled off his gloves, picked up a brush, and began assisting me. As he worked on the other side I made an attempt to squelch my anger and studied his hands intently.
They were long and thin-boned, with tiny old scars criss-crossing the skin. Callouses covered him palms and fingers, telling what a hard life he must have had. Although thin they had a surprising look of strength and dexterity; all in all, they were fascinated as far as hands go, and I could feel my exasperation seeping away.
Soon the colt was brushed and slumbering on his feet. I walked out of the stall, replacing the brushes in a small box outside the stall while Philip pulled on his gloves and cloak. Not a speck of dirt stuck to his clothing, making me feel very grimy as I looked down at my own clothes; they were covered with horsehair and streaked with dust. I brushed my clothes in an attempt to clean up, but only made it worse.
Philip turned to me and said, "Today you have completed your first join-up. That is all I expect of you and this horse for now."
"That's it?" I was mildly surprised, after all Philip had hyped up this Horsemaster business.
"Uh, no..." Philip drew in a deep breath. "I would appreciate it if you would do something for me."
"I suppose I can..."
"Good," Philip said. He started to walk past me, then turned and pressed a cloth across my mouth and nose--I struggled and coughed at the strange smell, falling into darkness.
Chapter 10, Pt. I--Abduction
I am the most terrible person to walk this earth.
How could I do this, after she had consented to work with me? I drugged her--knocked her out and took her down to my home. If only I had only asked--but I'm too much of a coward. Now she's down here, unconscious, blissfully unaware of my error. Until she wakes up. Then I'll have to explain exactly why and for what purpose I want her. If only time could be turned back; then I would have explained everything. But my stupid compulsiveness--and that confounded brother of hers will never let me near her again after this. I wish I could die of embarrassment...
I awoke to a dim light--several dim lights, a musky smell, and hard rock. A bit of grogginess persisted as I opened my eyes; I remembered the cloth, the strange smell, and then nothing.
I sat up, groaning as aches and pains sprang up across my body. Running a hand over my eyes I glanced around, seeing what looked like a sparsely furnished drawing room. Candles hung from holders, illuminating a desk, a chair, a small bookcase (filled with leatherbound books), and a corner filled with fine leather tack.
Several bridles and saddles, grooming equipment, and the like were all neatly set upon holders or boxes of sorts, and a very surreal feeling crept over me. If I didn't hurt in a hundred places I would have sworn that I was dreaming. The rock beneath my hands was very cool, and my mind functioned enough to figure out that I was underground.
I stood cautiously, looking around for any signs of life. Then I heard it--a soft intake of air. I was not alone. In the shadows a figure froze at my movement; I recognized Philip's approach instantly and a flash of anger spread in heat through my limbs. Did he really think that he could me and take me down somewhere without consequences? I marched over to the shadow, grabbing a handful of cloak. Despite his being nearly a head taller than me he went along meekly as a lamb.
"All right, buster, you have exactly three seconds to tell me what it is you want," I growled menacingly.
Philip bowed his head, obviously ashamed, but I wasn't about to be taken in so easily this time. I gave him a shake. "Well?"
He remained silent for a few moments, then pulled away from my grasp. "Don't touch me," he muttered, still staring at the floor.
"Fine," I growled. "You still haven't told me what you want."
Philip took his eyes from the floor, glancing at me in contrition, then fixed his gaze upon something off in the distance. "I don't know," he said finally. "I don't know what I want." He abruptly turned away, cloak rippling, and walked into the shadows yet again.
"You can't run away!" I shouted at his retreating back. "You obviously know what you want, you just won't tell me." My bravado was only a front; inwardly I was terrified. I didn't know what he wanted, if this was a kidnapping or what, but it was frightening.
"I'm not running away!" he hissed, halting in the shadows.
"Fine," I muttered under my breath. "If that's how you want to be--" I sat down on the floor, curling my knees up, and stared at him. Somewhere I had heard that if you want someone to tell you something you stare at them until they feel so uncomfortable that they confront you. I didn't know if this worked, but I was willing to try it out.
Apparently whoever discovered that little tidbit of information was correct, at least in a sense. My gaze seemed to upset Philip, so much that I could hear him panting; in fear or anger he said quietly, "I told you not to stare at me." I didn't reply, just intensified my stare despite my fear. Momentarily Philip threw a glare at me and strode off to the back of the room. I stood up as he vanished into a doorway, brushed off my pants, and followed.
Chapter 10, Pt. II---Abduction
She has a right to know. She should know. But I'm too afraid of the consequences to reply. All I could do was walk away, trying to think of a response that made sense.
Blast it, she followed me! I didn't expect anything less, of course, but this could get rather tiresome. "Leave me alone!" I spat. She merely grinned at me, and I could feel my bitterness fade. Little did she know what power she wielded over me; this weakness I have, so despicably dependant in retrospect, is yet so harmless at the present. As my bitterness faded it was replaced by--what was it? Affection? Fondness? Love? I didn't know, but now I had an answer.
"Miss Erika," I began, pausing to draw some inner strength, then took the plunge. "My teaching to you is a sort of pretense, I'm afraid. I want--" I stopped as my next words seemed to stick in my throat. A look of concern crossed her face, and she stepped forward. "What is it?" she asked quietly, searching my face. I was glad for the mask, because I could feel a burning flush spreading across my face.
"I want--I want you." There. It was finally out, and I cringed inwardly, waiting for her reply.
A blank look crossed her face. "Come again?"
I didn't think that I could say it again, so I just stared down at the floor and scuffed my toe. Presently Erika, who seemed unreasonably calm about the whole business, said, "Then all that about becoming a Horsemaster was a lie, wasn't it?"
"No!" I protested, glancing at her. "I did want to teach you, I just..."
"You're the Horsemaster, aren't you?"
I nodded as well; she was still very calm but I could see a flash of wary fear in her eyes. "Why did you lie?"
I could feel my face contorting; blast it, I was going to cry if I didn't do something quick. I couldn't think of anything to stop it, so I just walked away. Thankfully she didn't follow this time, leaving me to bemoan my error.
I watched him leave, perplexed beyond belief at this new turn of events. Not only was it confusing that he had lied to me, but he said that he wanted me. I'm not sure that I wanted to find out what that meant.
After he left I ran in the opposite direction, past the sparse furniture, the tack, everything, to where I had woken up before. Perhaps I could find a way out. I picked up a thick candle and used it to get my bearings: my awakening spot was a relatively flat spot in the rough rock floor. There was a solid-looking wall directly in front and several shallow shelves of rock. Apparently this was a end.
An irrational fear gripped me: how was I to get out? This Philip, or Horsemaster, or whoever he was, was between me and my way out and I had no idea what kind of person he was other than a liar and mysterious. A sob choked me. Redwing would be frantic and then furious with me--this was a bigger mess than I had realized, and no escape in sight.
Chapter 11--The Unthinkable, Pt. 1
An indiscernible amount of time passed as I paced in the dead end. A grumble in my stomach told me it was around lunchtime--or dinnertime, depending on how long I had been out. Most of the time I was trying to screw up the courage to escape, but each time I thought I could do it I chickened out. The rest of the time I wondered what Redwing was doing and if he missed me yet.
A faint scuffle drew my gaze; Philip stood in the doorway with a tray of food and hesitated upon seeing me. "I thought you might be hungry," he said. I was still frightened, but there was no way I was letting him know that. I just stared at him levelly, hoping that he would take the hint and leave.
"You thought wrong," I said icily. Unfortunately, just then my traitorous stomach growled loudly; I winced. Philip seemed uncertain, but he set the tray of food down on the desk and withdrew.
I turned away, spitefully determined not to eat, and studied the books in the bookcase. However, the food smelled wonderful. My mouth was watering--I swallowed, cast a single glace around, and hesitantly began to pick at the food. Before long it was gone, my stomach was comfortable full, and I sat down in the chair before the desk. No sense in starving myself.
I grew drowsy; my head nodded, and I sat up with a gasp. The last think I needed to do was fall asleep in a potentially dangerous situation. I got to my feet and began pacing to stay awake. But the drowsy feeling grew stronger, and finally I had to sit down. No sooner had I sat than I slumped forward onto the desk and slept.
Chapter 11--The Unthinkable, Pt. 2
It was a pleasantly soft surface that I awoke to, a great difference from my previous surroundings. I sighed, cracking my eyes open to see the surface of a bed. I was lying on my side in a plainly furnished room, alone to my relief.
At first I was furious. Apparently Philip had drugged me again and taken me to another room; but then I admonished those angry thoughts. If he hadn't drugged me there would have been no way I would have gone anywhere with him and would have spent a very uncomfortable night on the rock floor.
Of course, whether I had slept for a night or just a few hours I didn't know. I sat up on the edge of the bed, taking stock of my surroundings as I tried to get the sleep-taste out of my mouth: I still had all my clothes on, albeit shoes. The room was ordinary in all aspects, with rock walls, a rock floor, and plain wooden furniture. My initial anger was gone, replaced with a vague sense of questioning and purpose. It was time to discover some more about Philip; to be exact, why he wore the mask and how to get back to the stable.
My boots were placed at the foot of the bed, and with a yawn I pulled them on. My mind was fuzzy with the after effects of whatever he had given me--I'm sure that I had been drugged again. I slapped myself hard across the face in an attempt to jolt out of the fog; the slap helped a little, but I still felt very heavy and fatigued as I stood up.
Upon inspection the door was not locked; I stepped out into the hall (which was almost completely dark except for a single candle) and walked down it. At the end of the hall I caught a glimpse to the left of the room I had woken up in; to the right was another candle-lit hall. With a new sense of purpose I strode to the right.
I had walked perhaps twenty feet before a whispering sound had me looking around. Philip's infamous cloak was fluttering in an invisible breeze; of Philip himself there was no sign. I shrugged and started to continue on my way--right into an unyielding surface.
I stumbled back, squinting at a black-shirted torso. My gaze traveled up, to see Philip's masked face. "Oh, there you are," I muttered, blinking stupidly. Behind the black leather mask Philip's eyes seemed annoyed; I suddenly began giggling. It wasn't funny at all that I was still in what appeared to be a hostage situation, but his annoyance was hilarious to my eyes. Great chortles shook me, and I leaned against a nearby wall weakly as tears of mirth ran down my face.
Philip seemed perplexed at my outburst, but I couldn't stop! A confused grin creased his mask, and he just watched me curiously. It was quite a while before I wound down, wiping tears of mirth from my face and snorting quietly. I heaved a great sigh, glanced at Philip, and said directly, "Now about that mask there--it has got to go. Come on, let's have it off--" In an instant I snatched the mask from his face.
With an inhuman roar Philip gave me a huge shove--in the shadows I could only see a silhouette of his bare face before I fell against the wall, mask still clutched in my hand. "Whoa, whoa--" I began.
"No, you whoa!" Philip bellowed, turning away with his back to me. "Give it back!"
"Why?" A belligerent feeling welled up, and I clasped the mask to my chest. "What am I not to see?"
"It's none of your business! Give it back!" A desperate note crept into his voice, but still I did not comply.
"Let me see first," I demanded.
Philip became rigid; slowly he turned, hands over his face. Instead of desperate he was now a hulking menace. "You want to see? Then look! Feast your eyes!" He took his hands from his face and grabbed my chin and hair, twisting my face up towards his. "See, you were curious! So look! Stare upon my abhorred face!"
I had no reply; my drug-fogged mind was struggling to take in this new horror. His face from hairline to upper lip wasn't scarred, it was terribly deformed. Both cheeks were sunken, with abnormally pale skin and criss-crossed with even paler scars. His nose wasn't there at all, but instead two blackish slits led directly into the sinuses. The eyes were deepset within dark circles; at this close range I could see that the pupils were almost like cat's eyes, vertical black diamonds set within silver-and-gold flecked spheres. But poeticism failed me now--a horrible fear drowned out everything but his terrible visage. I closed my eyes, tried to wrest away from his iron-hard grip, but it was in vain.
"You had to do it, didn't you?" By now tears were running down Philip's sunken cheeks as well. "Why couldn't you leave well alone? But you wanted to see--had to see! A woman's curiosity is a terrible thing! Ah, Erika..."
I became hysterical; against my will, which rebelled against such feminine gestures. "I'm sorry!" I cried, thrusting the mask back at him. He ignored the mask, letting it fall to the floor.
Finally he released my face and hair, stumbling against the opposite wall. I cowered where I fell, sobs of fear choking me mercilessly. Through my tears I could hear him say, "What have I done?"
I glanced up, my fear ebbing a little, to see him leaned against the hallway wall. As I watched he slumped into a sitting position, hands over his face again. His left hand groped for the fallen mask, and I pushed it into his hand, still fearful but not wanting to set him off again. He picked it up slowly, replacing the black leather over his face and tying it back on. Without a word he just sat there, shoulder quietly shaking.
Now that the storm was past a strange calm fell over us. I felt the tears on my face drying, and after a few minutes I stood up. "I-I'm so sorry," I murmured. Why I was apologizing I don't quite know, for it was he that overreacted, but he didn't seem about to speak. Before I knew quite what I was doing I walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder.
If my hand were a hot stove his reaction couldn't have been swifter. He jerked away from my touch and quickly stood. "I suppose you want to go back then," he said.
"Yes," I said. "Redwing is going to be worried sick about me--" I cut off and rubbed my temple. The nervous strength holding me up failed, and I fell from the sudden exhaustion in my limbs. Philip caught me before I hit the floor, but I couldn't care at this point. I was only vaguely aware of being lifted easily, and then I slept.
Chapter 12--Home Again
I left her in a pile of haymow, where her brother would be sure to find her. To my chagrin she had slept for almost a day and a half; the drug was more powerful than I had figured. And it will be to my eternal shame to look back on my reaction to her removing the mask. I should have expected it eventually, but it frightens me so badly to have anyone see my face.
After placing her in the haymow I looked at her for a moment; nothing in her face spoke of my terrible actions. She should recover well physically, but the emotional whiplash will take longer. Perhaps she will forgive me, someday. That's the best I can hope for.
"Wh-what?" I mumbled, pulling away from the shaking sensation. I pried my eyes open to see Redwing staring at me, worry in every line of his face. "Where have you been?" he hissed, pulling me up to a sitting position. "Do you realize you've been missing for almost two days? I've been worried sick about you!"
"I--sorry," I muttered dragging a hand over my eyes. Memories of the time belowground flooded into my mind: the candles, the room, Philip's face--I shivered as the memory of his face leapt to mind.
"You must be freezing," Redwing said, mistaking my trembling for chills. "I'll get you home."
"Wait," I said before he could lead me to the doors. "I want to see Alchemy. He probably missed me..."
"Fine, but just for a moment," Redwing said. He waited impatiently as I greeted Alchemy; the copper gelding was so excited that he practically pranced in place, nickering loudly. I stroked his neck only for a moment before Redwing insisted on going home. As we exited the stables I glanced back. Alchemy was looking over his door, watching me leave with a stricken expression. And in the shadows I could have sworn I saw a cloak--just the edge, nothing more--rippling in unseen breeze. Then I turned away, choosing not to pursue that again.
At the house Redwing wasn't satisfied until I was clean and bundled off to bed. Sometimes I resent my brother's insistence, but now I followed his instructions without complaint.
"Are you sure that you're fine?" Redwing asked for the umpteenth time.
"Yes, I'm sure," I yawned. "I just need to sleep." While undressing I had found a piece of paper in my pocked from Philip; what I really wanted was to read the note. I didn't feel that Redwing need to know my real purposes.
"Well, all right," he said, exiting the room after a brief pause. I waited a few minutes, just to make sure that he was really going to leave me alone, then took out the paper. There was a simple seal, and I popped it with some foreboding.
I apologize most profusely for my behavior of before. If you don't forgive me I don't blame you at all; however I would rest easier in my mind knowing that I had made peace with you. Please give it some thought.
Chapter 13--A Brother's Wrath
I stared into the flames of the fireplace, brooding over the present circumstance before me. Erika slept in the other room, tranquilly unaware of the wrath within me; as her older brother I find it my duty to keep her safe. Rain beat against the windows--the overcast skies, grey and laden with rain, only magnified my irritation.
A knock came at the door. At first I ignored it, but after a moment it came again, more insistently. Silently I stood up and opened the door.
The young man Philip stood outside, drenched with rain; in his hand was a wide-brimmed hat. "Hello," he said.
"What do you want?" I growled.
"I-I just wanted to know if Miss Erika was recovering," he stammered, shifting the hat from hand to hand nervously.
"She's sleeping. How did you know she wasn't well?"
"I--" He faltered for a moment, then said, "I see quite a bit more than others give me credit." He hesitated. "May I see her later?"
"No!" I snapped. "Why are you so concerned anyway?"
"No particular reason."
I narrowed my eyes. Somehow I could tell he was lying: the nervous hand movements, his shifty eyes beneath that accursed mask. I didn't trust him at all. "Leave," I said through tight lips.
At first I thought he was going to refuse. His eyes flashed as he raised his chin, but instead of challenging me he turned away, replaced the hat upon his head, and strode into the pouring rain.
"Redwing?" Erika's voice came from where she had been sleeping. I turned to see her standing in the doorway. "Who was that?"
"Just--no one," I said. "Go on back to bed--you need the rest."
He thinks he can keep me away? Well, let's just see about that! I fumed as I splashed back to the stable, conveniently forgetting that I had no idea what to say or do once face-to-face with her.
The rain had trickled beneath my mask by the time I reached the stables. After a quick look around to make sure the coast was clear I ducked into a stall to dry my face. If water is left beneath the mask it makes the leather very moist and uncomfortable.
As I retied the mask a brilliant idea came to mind: create a false sense of security for her older brother, and once he relaxed I could take her for my own! The sheer genius in that narcissistic moment was astounding, and immediately I began planning my first step.
Chapter 14--What Would You Do?
It was the fourth day I had been home since my abduction, and Redwing had refused to let me out of his sight. To the stable, at the inn (surrounded by throngs of giggling girls), outside--nowhere other than my room did I have a private moment. I had told Redwing that I had no idea who my kidnapper was (pleading drug-induced amnesia), despite the guilty twinges in my chest. But for some reason I couldn't give up Philip. Somehow I knew that there was more to him than met the eye--perhaps I could help him, tame the frightened creature that he was, heal the evident emotion havoc he seemed to bear.
Alchemy seemed to miss my solitary company. I hardly talked to him anymore as Redwing's presence made it nearly impossible. If I had the opportunity I would have spilled everything to Alchemy and gotten the load off my chest.
Finally I found an opportunity to escape from Redwing's incessant watching. He had business to settle with the man whom he had bought the house from, and initially he brought me along and kept and eye on my. But after a while he spent less time watching me and concentrated on the business at hand. I stood up under the pretence that my legs were stiff, and once Redwing was thoroughly engrossed in the matter at hand I slipped out the door.
Outdoors there was a sense of freedom and relief such as I had not felt for what seemed ages. Dusk approached with marching shadows, and I set off for the stable. It was only a few minutes away; once within I made a beeline for Alchemy's stall. The copper horse had his head resting on his stall door in apparent dejection, but as soon as he heard me he jerked his head up and whinnied loudly.
I winced. "Not so loud, silly!" Alchemy shook his head with a snort.
"It's not as though anyone will hear." I blinked in surprise, then recognized the voice. "Philip?" The aforementioned detached from a deep shadow; he was dressed completely in black. Only his chin was uncovered, making it seem as if it floated above no body. The effect was eerie, and I shivered despite myself.
"Where's your brother?" Philip inquired.
"Taking care of business. If you kidnap me again he'll find you."
"I think not," Philip said. For the first time I saw a strange glint in his grey eyes, but instead of fear I felt saddened and slightly irritated that he felt it necessary to kidnap me in order to communicate his desires. "Can't you just tell me what you want?"
"I never finished your education as a Horsemaster," Philip muttered. "And with that confounded brother of yours--"
"What about Redwing?" I demanded. "He's only interested in what's best for me, not what others want."
Philip didn't reply--he shot a dirty look at me and crossed his arms over his chest. I was reminded of a child who had some long-anticipated freedom taken away. I bit my lip ferociously and regretted it as the metallic taste of blood struck my tongue.
"What does Erika Coppershield want?" Philip asked suddenly. "What does she desire for her life?"
I glanced at Philip, surprised. He stared at me levelly; I opened and closed my mouth a couple times, and sighed heavily. "I want whatever my brother thinks is best," I replied finally.
If it wasn't for her sincerity I would have laughed. Such slavish devotion is not unbecoming, however; the key is redirecting that devotion...I felt a mirthless grin on my lips as I addressed her once more. "I suppose I have no choice but to honor that decision.
"You bet you have," Erika said. A small frown seemed to pull down the corners of her mouth, which I regarded as--and it hurt to think of it--displeasure at my presence. I drew a deep breath and turned to leave.
"Philip?" Erika said softly. I paused, and she continued, "I'm sorry about--about taking your mask away. I shouldn't have done that."
Heat rushed into my face at the memory of my reaction. Why did she have to bring that up?? And why did she apologize? She wasn't the one who blew up. But words could not convey my shame, so in silence I simply walked away.
Redwing's reaction was a little less severe than I had anticipated--just a talking-to about the dangers of being alone. Philip's question kept burning into my head throughout the lecture though: what did I want for my life? Given a choice, would I just stay with Redwing, letting him decide my fate in life, or would I choose my own path? The inquiry bothered me, though I didn't really know why.
Chapter 15--A Deliberate Misunderstanding
Over the next few weeks Redwing slowly relaxed his guard over me, eventually letting me go by myself to the stables and various other places within Fuella. I didn’t see Philip any more, and had to conclude that he must have given up on me. This being my seventeenth year some of the local young (and older) men began trying their luck at wooing me. All were well-meaning, but dull and rather dumb in a way.
“I’m going to start wearing a ring so they’ll think I’m unavailable,” I grumbled to Redwing one evening after a particularly dim prospective suitor left.
“But then they’ll ask who the lucky fellow is,” Redwing said.
“I’ll tell them he’s in a different town. Far, far away.”
“Who knows, it might work,” Redwing chuckled. “I don’t really blame you--these boys are some of the inanist lot I’ve ever seen.”
“Inanist isn’t a word.”
“Now it is.”
“Whatever.” I rolled my eyes dramatically. But that evening I found a plain gold ring (snitched from Redwing), put it on a chain, and began wearing it as a necklace the next day.
Even though she is alone for the most part I still cannot bring myself to try and take her for my own. I can’t help but think that it would destroy any progress (however little) I had made with her.
For days I have seen the local men--aging anywhere from twenty to even a forty-year-old--go to her home with the obvious intent of marriage. All have left in discouragement. Part of me rejoices and part despairs, because her availability tortures me.
I watch her progress into the stables each day, and this time was no different. But as I watched a glint from around her neck caught my eyes.
I recoiled in shock as an invisible fist seemed to punch me in the stomach--no! It couldn’t be--but there it was. A ring, upon a chain around her neck…My worst nightmare was realized in one terrible clarifying moment. I had waited too long, someone else had her now, and it was too late.
I dragged myself away, feeling a huge ache materialize in my chest. The shock drove all feeling away except for that horrible ache; for a moment the sheer pain made me wonder vaguely if I was going to die. Not that I would have minded, of course, but this wasn’t exactly the best of times. By the time I made it to a secluded area I resolved that, no matter who might have taken Erika from me, nothing could stop me from taking her back.
As I led Alchemy out of the stable he seemed skittish--spooking at birds, blowing through his nose at shadows, and essentially being a ninny. More than once I jerked his lead rope in an attempt to get his attention, but it always strayed again. By the time the saddle was on his back I was more than a little mad.
“This is just not your day, is it?” I growled as Alchemy shied for the hundredth time.
“Nor is it mine,” Philip’s voice said. Alchemy and I both jumped, and I spun around to see him glowering from the stable door.
“Well, everyone around here is just a bundle of sunshine, aren’t we?” I snapped. I had no patience for Philip’s moodiness.
The glower vanished from Philip’s eyes, to be replaced by a blank, flat, emotionless cover. “Whose ring?” he asked.
“What, this?” I touched the chain around my neck. “Oh, just someone’s.”
“A special someone,” I replied with a smirk. At the word special Philip snapped; in two steps he was in front of me and had yanked the ring from around my neck. But the chain breaking didn’t surprise so much as the wounded look in his eyes. “Just because you have a lover doesn’t mean anything! You still belong to me!” Before I could react he sped away, racing back to the cover of the stables.
I touched where the chain had rested around my neck. Obviously my ploy had worked--far too well. Now I would have to explain the ring’s real purpose, that is, if I could ever find him again.
Chapter 16--An Explanation
“Erika!” Corin Reed’s voice echoed through my buzzing thoughts; with an effort I dragged my gaze around to see her leading her liver chestnut mare Jewel.
“What is the matter with you today?” Corin asked. “You seem so distant--” Suddenly her eyes lit up. “Did you accept one of those boy’s proposals?” She gasped with delight. “Is it the Ames boy? Shawn is so handsome, you’re so lucky--”
“No,” I cut through her stream of chatter. “I’m not marrying anybody. Do you see a ring?” I held out my hands, fingers splayed. “Now if you don’t mind I’d like to go for a ride. Alone.”
Corin’s shoulders sagged at the prospect of having this juicy bit of gossip snatched away from her. “Oh, well, I’ll see you later then.” She mounted Jewel and loped down the street.
I shook my head. “Such frivolity,” I muttered and swung up into Alchemy’s saddle; the copper horse snorted and sped away at a touch from my heel. Where we were going I had no idea, but anywhere to sort out my thoughts was fine with me.
I had only been riding for perhaps ten minutes when another horse’s hooves joined Alchemy’s steady lope. Being on an open plain made it easy to see the newcomer: a jet-black horse with a slim black-clad rider on its back. The pair were quickly catching up; as the rider drew closer I gasped. It was the Horsemaster.
“Hyah!” I yelled to Alchemy, who obediently increased his speed to a gallop. But either the horse was magically endowed or a racehorse, for it continued to overtake us. As they drew even closer I glanced over my shoulder to see Philip’s deadly serious expression. He came alongside, reaching for Alchemy’s right rein. Right before his fingers could wrap around the rein I pulled Alchemy’s mouth back as hard as I could. With a confused snort Alchemy threw his head up, knocking Philip’s hand away, and nearly sat down in an impressive slide. Philip shot past on the black horse, obviously surprised, but quickly recovered, pulled his horse in a circle, and stopped. Alchemy shook his head snorting as Philip jumped off the horse and walked towards me.
“This is the last straw!” I yelled. Philip stopped in his tracks. I continued in the same yelling tone, “You’ve kidnapped me, threatened and insulted both me and my brother, and taken me on wild-goose chases with this Horsemaster charade! I’ve been taken in by that--boy, was I ever!--and I’m not going to take it any more!”
When I finished I was so tense and upset that I was trembling. Philip, taken by surprise by my outburst, just stood and stared at me with a peculiar expression. Alchemy, after snorting again, stood quietly and waited for my next instructions.
“Now,” I said, somewhat quieter, “I think you have some explaining to do.”
Philip snapped out of his apathy. “Me!” he retorted. “What about you? What about that ring you were wearing?”
I couldn’t help rolling my eyes. “That was a ruse to keep would-be suitors away, you ninny hammer!”
“How was I supposed to tell?” Philip yelled. “The way you were going on anybody would have thought you were--”
“That was the whole idea.” I refrained from calling him names again, but satisfied myself with mentally applying them. For a moment I thought Philip was going to explode or take off again. Instead he went back to the black horse, picked up the reins, and stepped up into the saddle. “So let me get this straight,” he began. “That was a trick to prevent men from bugging you?”
“Didn’t I just say that?”
Confusion, relief, and apprehension raced across Philip’s face. “What--what did you think I would do?”
I sighed. “To be honest, I wasn’t thinking about you at all. I suppose that’s impulsive actions for you.”
Philip sat back on the horse, silent. Then, ever so slowly, he pointed his horse away and pushed it into a trot. As he trotted back to Fuella I shook my head in confusion. Ever since the incident in Philip’s home I had known in the back of my mind that he was in love with me, but was it really that bad? So bad that he would have kidnapped me again?
Chapter 17--A Proposal
I rode back to town in a daze. The relief from Erika not having a suitor was overwhelming, yet I still felt apprehensive. She still seemed oblivious of my intentions--how she could have overlooked them was beyond me. On the other hand it was actually a good thing that she had dodged and stopped her horse instead of letting me catch her. If she had not I may have kidnapped her again, but to what purpose? If she was already betrothed how would my actions be seen except as a madman’s ravings?
The black horse I rode eased down to a walk upon reaching Fuella’s streets. I took a back way to the stable, and upon halting outside I untacked the horse and let her go. I hate to see an intelligent horse kept indoors in a stall, so I just let my black mare wander until I request her services as a ride again. As the black mare trotted off I decided there was no getting around it. If I was to ever let Erika know, I would have to tell her flat-out and to her face.
Alchemy insisted on shying at nearly everything for the rest of the ride, so I took him back to the stable after only about twenty minutes. By that time Alchemy’s behavior had nearly driven the strange meeting with Philip from my mind, and I was rather irritated by the time we arrived back at the stable. After untacking Alchemy I led him out to an open paddock, took off his halter, and watched as he kicked up his heels and galloped off to roll in the grass.
“You seemed to be having trouble with him today,” Philip’s voice said. I turned to see him standing stiffly a few feet away, eyes glued to Alchemy’s frolicking.
“Must be an off-day, I guess,” I said, taking a step back involuntarily; I didn’t trust him anymore, after his actions of earlier.
“Everyone’s entitled to one of those occasionally,” Philip said. He leaned against the fence, watching Alchemy a bit harder than I thought normal. But as he seemed to be ignoring me for now I decided to make a hasty retreat.
As I began to leave, Philip said, “Wait.” I paused, more out of habit than anything else, and Philip turned to me. His eyes were uneasy beneath the mask, glancing at me and then looking at the grass or sky.
“Yes?” I asked.
“I have something that belongs to you,” Philip burst out, digging in his pocket and pulling out the ring he had taken from me. He held it out and said quickly, “I’ll replace the chain too--breaking it was uncalled for. I am sincerely sorry for what happened earlier.”
“Don’t mention it,” I said, taking the ring from him. “The chain was cheap--it’d cost more to replace it than it was worth.”
“Oh.” Philip seemed at a loss for words as I stuffed the ring in my pocket. I gathered up Alchemy’s halter, slinging it over my arm, and Philip suddenly said, “Erika, would you marry me?”
I nearly cringed as I waited for her reply. She looked thunderstruck, and took a step back as the halter fell from her limp hand to the ground. “What?!” she gasped.
A sudden irritation at her momentary density brought courage to my heart, and I repeated easily, “I said, ‘would you marry me?’”
Erika bent over to pick up the halter slowly, and ever-so-slowly she stood back up. The startled look was gone, to be replaced by curiosity. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? I have known from the first time I laid eyes on you that if I was ever to marry, you would be the only one I could consider. I have toiled, sweated, and hoped against hope that you would not refuse me--that time in my home, I only wanted to tell you but a fear of rejection stopped me every time. Now, I am asking you for the only time: would you marry me?” My speech surprised me, as I hated to expose my feelings regarding anything except horses, but even as the words left my mouth I knew that it would never be to any benefit to hide what I felt and deny myself happiness any more.
“No, I don’t mean why do you want to marry me…” Erika twisted the halter in her hands. “I mean, why would you want to marry me? I’m not beautiful, and don’t tell me I am, because really I’m not, I’m not as good with horses as you might think, and I’ve treated you abominably numerous times.”
“I’m willing to forgive you,” I said. “Please, answer me or I will go mad.”
Erika opened her mouth--I clenched my jaw as I waited for what would determine my happiness or disappointment--and she finally said, “You know, I was scared of you, ever since I heard your voice. What makes you think I’m not scared of you now? Why would I marry you, except out of fear--”
“Don’t ask me any questions! Just answer me, please!” My voice rose in a combination of fear and anger. Erika stopped in mid-sentence, lifted her chin, and said, “May I think about it?”
I threw my hands up in defeat. “Fine. Tomorrow, I want an answer. Yes or no, just please take this load off of my mind.”
“Tomorrow it is,” Erika said. She looped the halter and lead rope over her arm and beat a hasty retreat. I watched her progress to the stable and duck within; now all I could do was wait.
Marriage?? He wanted to marry me?? My hands shook as I left Philip standing by the paddock, and a jumble of thoughts rushing through my head. I didn’t know if I loved him--all I had known around him was fright of what he might do next, his unpredictability taking away any trust I may have had in him. Redwing was the least of my worries, and chances were if I told him he would never allow me to marry someone he saw as a complete jerk. Everything in me rebelled against binding myself to this man--except a tiny fiber that had understood the expression in his eyes. The look he had given me was not one of lust, but a genuine love that I had never seen in anybody. Whether he was in love with me, or what he imagined me to be, I didn’t know, but nobody had ever looked at me that way before.
His face remained an issue as well--just to imagine what I had seen made me shudder in revulsion, much to my shame. I knew it was wrong to judge by outside appearances, but that knowledge alone wasn’t enough to take away my horror. As I stepped into the stables I hung Alchemy’s halter outside his stall; then the thought occurred to me: Redwing and I were certain to be here for a long time, and I was bound to marry sometime (out of desperation, if nothing else). Which would I prefer: the dull farmers and yeomen that seemed to dominate this area, or someone who exercised his mind and saw much that others overlooked? If he wasn’t so deformed I would leap at the second choice--
I shook my head hard. To my inward irritation I was blushing--I hated to blush. It seemed so silly to blush like a little girl, and I tried to avoid it if possible. But my flaming face seemed to have thoughts of its own and burned even hotter. I clenched my jaw, raised my blushing chin, and set off for home. If nothing else I might find a sympathetic ear with Redwing.
Chapter 18--An Answer
“He what? Proposed to you?”
I closed my eyes in exasperation. “Yes, Redwing. He wants an answer tomorrow, but I don’t know what to do.”
“Do you love him?”
“I don’t know!” I stood up and stomped my foot, angry at myself for my indecisive selfishness. Redwing had listened to my strange story with hardly a word, except for when I mentioned the proposal. He still didn’t know that Philip had been the one to kidnap me that time several weeks before, at least I was pretty sure he didn’t know, but I knew that he wasn’t very fond of Philip anyway.
“I don’t know,” I repeated. Redwing, surprisingly, didn’t have a joke or sarcastic remark and leaned forward in his chair, propping his chin up with steepled fingers.. “You should know,” he said seriously. “Are you scared of him?”
I shot a glance at Redwing--he was completely solemn, with no hint of joke in his eyes. “You can tell, can’t you?” I said.
“I’m your brother--I’ve known you for seventeen years. That’s plenty of time to learn all of your idiosyncrasies, I think.” Redwing grinned for the first time. “If you’re scared of him, why waste your time mulling over the problem? Just tell him no, you’re not interested.”
“You make it sound like he’s trying to sell me something,” I grumbled as I sat back down in my chair. My thoughts were in as much of a jumble as when Philip had first proposed to me, and my confusion was about to drive me to tears. I could feel the first pricking in my eyes, which I scrubbed furiously in an attempt to clear them.
“Here.” Redwing dug in his pocket and handed me a handkerchief.
“Thanks,” I said thickly, substituting the handkerchief for my hands.
“Listen, if it’s troubling you that much,” Redwing said, standing up and crouching down next to my chair, “you can just sleep on it. If you want my humble opinion, I’d advise you not to accept. Fear isn’t a good way to go into a marriage. But I won’t stop you if you consent.”
“You won’t prevent me from accepting?” I asked through my tears, which were now rolling out of my eyes as fast as I could sop them up.
“You’re seventeen. You’re a big girl now--and you can’t use the excuse that ‘oh, my big brother won’t let me’ any more. You need to make this decision for yourself.”
“Well, thanks,” I said sarcastically. Actually, I had secretly hoped that Redwing would put his foot down and give me a justification not to accept--but that easy escape was gone now.
“You probably aren’t hungry, are you?” Redwing stood up and walked towards the kitchen.
“Ah well, more for me.” With that Redwing left me in my indecision. It rather made me peeved that Redwing was ignoring what would possibly dictate the rest of my life, so I stomped off to my room, closed the door, and lay down on the bed. Sleep would be the only release from my indecision.
The next day I awoke with tear-stains on my face. I had had a troubling dream--the kind that I could never remember except for a feeling of fear or helpless anger. I had not bothered to undress the night before and my clothes were wrinkled. After sitting up I remembered: today I had to tell Philip whether I would marry him or not. Try as I might the only justification I really had for the latter was that his face repelled and frightened me, a very selfish reason under my harsh self-examination.
“Rrrrgh!” I yelled in frustration and punched the mattress.
“Kindly keep your early-morning noises to yourself,” Redwing’s sleepy voice called from his room; I rolled my eyes, but stopped yelling. Despite the lump that seemed to dwell in my stomach I was starved from missing supper and padded into the kitchen for breakfast. I ate quickly, washed my face, brushed my hair, and stepped outside.
The sun wasn’t even over the horizon yet, but there was enough grey light to see quite a bit. The eastern sky had pink and orange clouds hanging over it, and as I watched a ray of light shot upwards over the treeline. The sight was surprisingly relaxing, and for the next few minutes I watched until the sun was completely risen. Then, as I remembered that my boots were still inside, I went back in, fetched my boots, and pulled them on. The suspense was beginning to get to me, and I knew that I had to get to the stable and answer Philip as soon as possible.
“Today’s the big day, eh?” Redwing padded out of his room, scratching behind his ear.
I looked up from tying my boot. “Why aren’t you going to try to stop me?”
“Why should I? Tell me,” he continued, “who would you rather marry: someone you despise or have a low opinion of, like the farmers, or someone you could actually like?”
“That’s not all!” I burst out. “I’ve seen his face--beneath that mask…”
“Really?” Redwing said, curiosity lighting up his eyes. “What’s he look like?”
I could feel my stomach twist at the memory. “It’s horrible. He looks awful--his face is so sunken it looks like a skull, and he’s got no nose…”
Redwing’s eyebrows nearly disappeared in his forelock. “Does it look like someone cut it off?”
“You’re sick. No, it looks like he was born that way. And I know I shouldn’t judge by appearances, but it’s so awful.” I stopped and ground my teeth.
Redwing looked at me with a strange expression. “So the only reason you’d turn him down is because of the way he looks?”
I sputtered a little bit to deny it, but I couldn’t lie. So I nodded miserably.
“I’m surprised at you,” he said. “I’d think that you wouldn’t let appearances deceive you--after all, if you saw a horse that had been abused and beaten you would pity it in a heartbeat.”
“He’s not a horse!”
“No, he’s a human being. And it makes more sense to accept a person than a horse.” Redwing shook his head and walked away. I glared at his back: now I felt even more miserable because of my stupid prejudice. But my pride was still intact, and for the sake of redeeming myself to Redwing I decided on the spur of the moment that I would accept.
I did not sleep, all through that long night, and instead paced aboveground. I had never actually realized that one night could last so long, and drag so slowly. But finally the grey light of predawn gave way to the rising sun in all its flaming glory. My legs were rather sore and weary with my nighttime vigil, but I paid little attention to physical discomforts. And then, I saw Erika.
Never had I seen a more beautiful sight. Her hair was loose to catch the morning breeze, her eyes were clear and bright, and her face caught the early-morning light in a fascinating way. I stepped out of the stable to meet her, and she paused upon seeing me. “Miss Erika,” I croaked, wincing at hearing my voice which had not been used for over twelve hours. As I cleared my throat Erika grinned a little at my discomfiture. I continued, “Do you have your reply?”
Her smile dimmed, and my heart plummeted. But then she raised her chin and said, “I accept your proposal.”
It felt as thought all the breath had been sucked out of my body in one second. I wanted to shout with the immense joy that I felt, to express the delight that coursed through my body. But as it wasn’t my way to act like a fool, no matter what I felt, I satisfied myself with a huge smile. Then, on impulse, I crushed her in a strong hug. Just to touch her, to know that it wasn’t a dream that she had accepted, was enough.
I released her, somewhat self-consciously, and stammered, “You have no idea how happy you have made me,”
“Don’t mention it,” Erika said and glanced down at the ground in what I took to be shyness. Suddenly I felt quite shy as well, without a single idea of where to go from here.
“So now what?” Erika said, taking her gaze from where her eyes seemed glued to the ground; she looked at me with apprehension. “I don’t know hardly anything about you, you know. And you don’t know anything about me.”
“Don’t I know it,” I muttered; I offered her my arm, as I had seen gentlemen do in my infrequent travels, and said, “I guess we have work to do, then. Shall we?”
A small smile lifted Erika’s lips, and she took my arm with a theatrical flair. “We shall,” she said, affecting the air of a snooty lady and mincing about. A chuckle escaped from my chest--my cup of joy was filled.
Chapter 19--Doubt and Philip’s History
Philip didn’t see my hand tremble upon taking his arm, and he overlooked my glancing away in guilt. He didn’t know the frantic thundering my heart made every time I thought of my pledge, made in proud selfishness and not acceptance--this pride of mine was bound to whiplash and hurt both of us. But now I had accepted, and there was no going back without deeply regretting it. To cover up my distress I began pantomiming what I thought a high-born lady might act like; Philip chuckled at my antics. I took my hand from his arm and glanced up at his face--behind the mask his eyes were, for the first time, alight with an adoration that I had never seen or even expected. At that moment I knew that there was no way I could ever let him know.
Surprisingly, Philip could be very doting, and seemed terribly eager to please, like a puppy. More than once I was embarrassed by all the attention he showered upon me and almost wished that he would be unpredictable and aloof again, because at least that was something I could expect. I didn’t know how to react to this new Philip. To drive away some of my discomfiture I suggested, “Do you want to ride?” in hopes that a horsey approach would keep his attention.
“Why not?” Philip replied. As we fetched the tack and Alchemy I was still very uncomfortably, for he watched everything I did with a piercing gaze. More than once the unnerving stare caused me to fumble with a bit of tack or trip; every time I stumbled I grinned in embarrassment and Philip just smiled. A few times I looked up to meet his gaze directly, out of curiosity more than anything else, and saw an echo of sadness in his eyes. I was feeling too nervous to confront him, so I did my best to ignore his gaze.
Alchemy stood still for once, quietly submitting to being tacked up and ignoring my nervous fumbling. Philip slipped around to the outside of the stable and entered a few minutes later followed by the black mare I had seen him riding the day before.
“Why don’t you keep her up near the stable?” I asked. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“She stays in the fields and plains around here,” Philip replied and stroked the mare’s neck fondly; the mare arched her neck and blew a breath on his arm. “I see no need to keep her cooped up in a stable.”
“Does she have a name?” I inquired, feeling a need to keep the conversation going.
“No.” He ran a gloved hand down her neck again, staring at the glossy hide. “There isn’t a name that could do her justice.”
“Oh.” That was all I could say. I noticed that he did not tie the mare up or even put a halter on her; she stood calmly in one place as he brushed her already-glistening coat and placed a light saddle on her back. She opened her mouth to accept the bit and he gently fastened the bridle around her head. Once the mare was completely tacked up he tested the girth one more time, led the way outside, and stepped up into the saddle. I followed suit and asked, “Where to?”
“Pick a direction,” he said with a small smile.
I almost protested, but swallowed the objection and turned Alchemy towards the open plains. Philip’s mare drew even with Alchemy and both horses set out with a brisk trot.
After a few minutes I ventured to ask, “Where did you come from?”
“I mean, where were you raised? Surely you didn’t come from around here.” My boldness surprised me a little, but I thought that I needed to know at least something of his origins.
“You’re right--I’m not from around here,” Philip replied. “I come from the western part of this country, from a city called Pinabel.” He gestured vaguely towards the west. “It’s one of the largest cities in Kolen.”
“I’ve been there,” I interrupted. “I couldn’t wait to get out; cities are crowded and stink of everything.”
“They are stifling, to be sure, but they are also full of opportunities. My father was one of the best master-masons to be found. My mother--” Philip broke off as a black scowl settled in his eyes. “My mother was a beautiful woman, but born and bred in the city with no sense of strength, physical or otherwise. She gave me my first mask, a covering so she would not have to look upon my face.” He brushed the leather mask involuntarily as the corners of his mouth pulled down in a fierce glower.
In a moment he continued. “My father died in a construction accident when I was four, leaving my mother and me with no financial support. By the time I was seven I was out and on my own.”
“Seven?” I inquired. “How did you survive?”
Philip snorted. “I stole. Even a seven-year-old can learn how to steal if he is desperate and hungry enough. I hid out in a stable where I first discovered horses. At night, when no one was around, I would sit in the horses’ stalls and just watch them sleeping and eating. I watched the stable boys as they worked with the horses--or rather, as they beat them into submission. It doesn’t take a huge amount of brains to figure out that horses really do not desire to work against people and like even less to be beaten to a fearful wreck.
“I eventually learned through observing the horses how to work with them in a way that could be beneficial to their life. By that time the stable owner, a man named Hale, discovered me lurking about and took me in. Hale lived by himself, a hard-bitten old bachelor but with a soft spot for kids in need. I managed to fit the description and he put me to work in the stables. He taught me nearly everything I know about horses. The only place where we differed was the method of teaching horses that he used. He didn’t try to prevent me from my methods, but he never praised them either.
“Hale Horsemaster. That was his full title, and he was the best horse-trainer in the district. He used to brag that there wasn’t a horse alive that he couldn’t break.” Philip glanced at me. “I liked the ring of the word Horsemaster, so I borrowed his title.
“As I was saying, Hale used to say that he could break any horse that was thrown at him. Well, one day he met his match. There was a prize stallion that turned ‘sour’ and started attacking his handlers. They were probably too rough with him, and he didn’t appreciate it. Anyway, when Hale was called upon to re-train this horse, it took nearly six hours just to get the stallion out of his stall. The handlers had locked him in a darkened stall for several weeks with just food and water shoved in, and he was vicious by the time Hale got to him. It took a full day, but we got him into Hale’s stable, and then he was absolutely unapproachable. No one could get within ten feet of the stall without the horse throwing a fit and flinging himself around the stall.
“Hale tried several times to get a lead rope on the stallion, but the only time he got close enough the stallion bit him so hard that he nearly tore the whole muscle out of Hale’s lower arm. While Hale was mending, I took to sitting across the stall for hours, just to get the horse used to a person’s presence. It took a few days, but eventually the horse got to the point where he would just stand and watch me the whole time instead of rampaging around. I became bolder, and by the end of a week the stallion would let me come into the stall and brush him down. Within two weeks I was working the horse from the ground and fine-tuning my own training methods.” Philip grinned a little. “Hale was astonished, to be sure, but he wouldn’t let me tell anyone about my discovery. To be honest he was worried about his reputation, but he told me at the time that I had stumbled upon something incredible and no one should know or else they might steal my technique. I liked secrets, so I believed him.”
“What happened to the stallion?” I asked.
“The stallion went back to his handlers totally changed, and went on for several years as a champion. He died when he was 14 of an accident.” Philip patted his mare’s neck. “This girl is the last foal to be sired by him. Somehow I wheedled Hale into letting me get one of his mares bred to this stallion, and he agreed. It was one of my better choices in life.”
“How old were you when you trained the stallion?” I asked out of curiosity.
“Maybe eleven or twelve,” Philip replied. “It was the first horse that I trained there.”
Chapter 20--Philip’s History, Cont.
“When I was fifteen or so,” Philip continued, “I had trained this mare here by myself as well as several other people’s for a bit of money. I saved it back, mostly because I disliked going out to be stared at by people and had no need to buy anything.
“I didn’t stay inside all the time, however. At night I would take my leave to wander around; then, I would take advantage of the darkness of evening to cover my hideousness. Even then people took me for a ghost, as I tended to move around silently and quickly. Superstition took over reason, but even so I rather enjoyed my title as a ‘ghost’. It earns one some respect easily.” Philip chuckled and shook his head at the recollection.
“Hale was getting up in his years then--he never told me his age, but I’d guess he was sixty or so. He’d had a hard life, broken several bones and experienced many bangs and bruises over the years. Directly after I turned fifteen he died.” Philip fell silent; no sadness permeated his features, but a thoughtful, grim look filled his eyes. We rode in silence for nearly five minutes before he spoke again.
“Originally I think Hale wanted me to be his successor, but after his death no will was found. Some merchants who had discovered Hale’s fortune that had been made in training horses threatened to kick me out of Pinabel if I didn’t let them have Hale’s money and property. I was young and foolish, and tried to fight them for it. In the fight my mask was torn off--it scared the living daylights out of them, for a moment. Then someone struck me on the back of the head and knocked me out.
“Somehow they sold me to a freak show that was passing through, and the gitanos who owned the show took a liking to my features. The gitanos are a wild group of people, with outlandish ways, morals, and living. They put me in a small, filthy cage, without my mask, with only the clothes on my back. I suppose I was fortunate that they left me that. I don’t think anyone could fathom the humiliation and indignity it is, to be shown like an animal, to be cursed at and spit upon and beaten just for having been born without a face.” Philip ground his teeth and punched the saddle at the memory. In a moment he continued.
“Perhaps two months I lived--if it could be called living--in that hellish cage. My catch phrase was ‘the living death’, and I’ll have to admit I was popular. People love to be frightened, it seems, and they love even more to torment their frighteners. My only comfort was that my mare was in the show train as well.” Philip suddenly looked up at me, as if he became aware of how deeply he had delved into his past. “I’m sorry,” he said, “if I am rambling. I don’t mean to burden you with my problems.”
“It’s all right,” I said. Inwardly I was horrified at how atrociously Philip had been treated--and I wondered if he was telling me this to gain my sympathy towards him. But he began speaking again.
“I escaped,” he began, “one night when the guards were drunk. They had had a good night for a show and spent all their pay on grog. As a result, they were careless in locking the door to my cage and when they became stone-cold drunk I slipped out of the cage, stole some food from their provisions in the tent, and started sneaking through the camp. I had sworn that there was no way I was leaving without this mare. I found her without incident--because she had a perfectly black coat with no white markings the gitano leader took a fancy to her, and she was well-fed and taken care of. It was a lifesaver to have a horse to ride, as I was weak from lack of food and sleep. I knew that we had to put as many miles between us and the gitanos as possible before daylight, so I pushed her hard. I still had no mask, but that was hardly a priority at that point.
“By the time morning came we had come a long way, perhaps 40 miles. I had the misfortune of meeting a poor farmer on a road. I forgot that I wasn’t wearing my mask, and tried to entreat him for help. The poor fool was frightened half to death--he probably thought I was Death himself come to take him away. His reaction was nothing I had never seen, but I realized that if I didn’t want people to tell the gitanos of my presence I had to make a mask. I fashioned a crude mask out of the rags from my shirt that helped for a while, but when I came to a town I still stayed to the outside, afraid to go in for fear someone would recognize me. I waited until dark, then crept into the town. There was a masquerade celebration that the people were attending, so I was allowed to walk the streets without much attention. I soon found a better mask, a cheap paper one that had been discarded, and with that I discovered the superiority that is felt as one wears a mask. Because no one can see your face, a person feels confident and above those without something to hide behind. It’s an interesting feeling. Later I ‘borrowed’ some leather and made my own mask, this one that you see today.” Philip trailed off and stared off into the distance. In a moment he seemed to recover and said, “So show me what this horse of yours can do.”
The ride lasted nearly all day, to my surprise. Alchemy tried to kick the mare, which developed into a lesson for horses that kick, and more than once he tried to snatch the bit or change speed without my consent. Philip turned out to be a genius when it came to dealing with horses like that. He showed me several things to do in order to develop flexibility in a horse’s body. By the time we were back at the stable my mind was swimming with new information and techniques. Otherwise, the day was surprisingly enjoyable, but although I could enjoy his company I still could not fathom being married to him.
We parted company after untacking and grooming the horses, and I slowly walked home. I glanced back a couple times, wondering if Philip was watching me still, but didn’t see him in the stable door. The few minutes it took to walk helped me to sort out my thought concerning the horses, but even as I reached the house I was still in a quandary involving Philip.
Redwing was chopping wood in the back, as evident by the ringing thwock that emanated from behind the house. I followed the sound to see Redwing swinging a heavy maul that neatly split a large log.
“So, you’re back!” Redwing commented as I walked up. He picked up one of the split halves and lined it up on the chopping block.
“Yeah,” I said. “Where’d all this wood come from?”
“This fellow, Ames, you remember him? Anyway, I paid him to help me cut some trees down and haul them back here.” He wiped a bit of sweat from his glistening face. “It’s mostly oak and walnut--I figure the chopping of this load ought to last us a day or two.”
“Can I help?”
“I thought you would want to.” Redwing gestured at a maul leaning up against the house. I picked it up and rolled out another log for a chopping block, lined up a log, and swung at it.
“So where’d you go today?” Redwing asked.
I shrugged. “Oh, here and there. Not too far, but out of town.”
I glared at Redwing, who raised an eyebrow. “I don’t know EXACTLY where. Does that satisfy you?”
“I suppose it’ll have to.” Redwing picked up a block of walnut. “I guess that means you accepted, huh?”
“Don’t remind me,” I muttered and swung the maul as hard as I could. The blade stuck in the log, and I pried it back and forth in an attempt to dislodge it.
“Would you mind repeating that?” Redwing said, cupping a hand behind his ear.
“Yes, I would mind.” I swung the maul again; the blade went a little farther in, but the log stubbornly refused to split.
“You shouldn’t have accepted if you didn’t want to.”
I forced the maul out of the log and tossed it on the ground. “Why are you so concerned anyway?” I snapped. “You didn’t see what he looked like--if I refused it would have killed him.”
“How do you know?” Redwing placed his maul carefully on the ground and stared at me. “He sounds rather dependent to me.”
I grabbed the maul up again and swung at the log, barely noticing when it split and the halves went flying. Redwing couldn’t possibly know how I knew--the way Philip had looked at me I realized that he would never recover if I refused.
“Just don’t speak to me,” I snarled at Redwing.
“Touchy, touchy,” Redwing chided.
I swung the maul ferociously and stuck the blade into the log. If I kept chopping wood while I was mad it was certain that someone was going to get hurt. That someone was mostly likely Redwing. I left the maul stuck in the log and stomped off into the house.
Once inside I slammed the door, plopped down on a chair, and promptly burst into tears. I snatched up a blanket draped over the back of the chair and buried my face in it to muffle the sobs. I half-hoped that Redwing would come in, but during my whole cry the constant ringing of the maul never stopped. Finally I was cried out and fell asleep on the chair.
Chapter 20--Shame and Redemption
After she left I was floating on air. She accepted me! She wanted to be my wife! The thought itself was dizzying. I could feel a silly grin plastered on my face, but didn’t bother to remove it. How could I desire to do so, when my dearest wish had been granted?
I wandered out to where the nameless black mare stood quietly. She didn’t like to leave without a farewell pat from me, so I absent-mindedly stroked her glossy neck. She arched her neck, blew on my arm, and trotted away. I watched her leave and started to walk back into the stable, but paused. The darkness of its interior had no attraction for me now--I had to stay outside and revel in my new-found happiness.
My feet wandered hither and thither--I paid no attention to where they went until I stood several hundred yards away from Erika’s home. I stopped suddenly, caught in an old sense of indecision. Then I thought: why should I avoid her? She was, after all, my now-betrothed. So I strode up to the house. An impression that I should not go in immediately directed me to a window to look within.
Erika half-lay in a chair, her head propped up with a folded blanket on the arm. With alarm I saw tear-stains down her face. Why had she been crying? If she was upset, what could be the reason?
The back door opened; I ducked involuntarily. I heard the door shut, then dared to peek over the edge of the windowsill. Redwing walked over to Erika and shook her gently. I saw her lift her head, glance at her brother in confusion, and burst into tears. Through the glass I could hear her say, “I can’t do it, Redwing--I can’t be his wife…”
If I had thought that the ring upon the chain had stirred up a bad reaction, this was a thousand times worse. A ringing filled my ears as the happiness within my chest snuffed out; through the ringing I could hear Redwing trying to comfort her. I heard him say, “It’s all right--stop crying, please…”
“What can I do?” Erika continued to wail. “I don’t want to hurt him…”
My vision wavered. If she didn’t want to hurt me, why had she accepted in the first place? If she wanted to save my life, the least she could have done was refuse instead of lead me along in a wild-goose-chase. The taste of bliss turned to a bitter metallic ash upon my tongue. Then my vision cleared, and I stumbled away from the house. All I could do at this point was to accept my fate. But a tiny part of me couldn’t let go so easily…I would try one more time with the power of the pen. If my desperate pleas had still fallen on deaf ears, perhaps the written word would change her mind.
Carefully, lovingly, I wrote perhaps the most straightforward, matter-of-fact note I had ever written. Just as carefully I sealed it and took it to Erika’s home. By this time night had fallen; as I stood outside on the porch I decided on the spur of the moment to place the note in Erika’s room. I quietly opened the unlocked door, crept across the unfamiliar floors, and entered her room. A lit candle softly illuminated her features; I stood in the doorway for a moment, just watching her sleep. Her face was troubled, still streaked with tears, and I was overcome with a desire to kiss her. But I restrained the urge, depositing the kiss instead upon the letter’s seal, and placed the letter upon her pillow.
I gazed one more time upon her troubled countenance and turned to leave. I opened the door, glanced back again--and something struck me full-force across the ribs. My breath whooshed out painfully as the blow knocked me down in the doorway. As I struggled to draw in a breath I looked up at Redwing wielding an ax handle and glaring at my shadowy form.
The commotion awoke Erika, who sat up in bed. “What’s going on?” she yelled sleepily.
I sucked in a much-needed lungful of air as Redwing answered, “Just an intruder.”
“Wait--” I wheezed as Redwing prepared to clonk me over the head. At the sound of my voice Erika shot out of bed. “Philip?” she cried. “What are you doing here?”
I pulled in several more breaths. “Look on your pillow,” I rasped. Redwing ceased trying to clonk me and went to fetch another candle. Erika stared at me in incredulity, but went to get the letter I had planted. She opened it and scanned the contents; after reading the first line her face paled. “You heard me?” she whispered.
“Unfortunately yes,” I replied. I struggled to my feet as she continued to read. “You didn’t think your decision through very well,” I continued. Up until this moment part of me had wanted to accuse her of anything and everything a devious woman could be capable of--but I knew now that she was just a girl. Well-intentioned, but still a foolish girl.
Erika shot a glance at me. “No, I guess not,” she murmured. I waited patiently for her to finish reading. Upon completion she looked at me with sympathy, but I stopped whatever she was going to say with an upraising of my hand. “No, I don’t want your pity. I just want you to know how much this meant to me and all that one foolish action has destroyed.” I turned to leave.
“Wait--” The shame and grief that loaded that one word stopped me in my tracks. I didn’t know if I wanted to listen, but there was no way I could walk away from that voice filled with anguish. As I hesitated in the doorway she continued, “I was wrong to lead you on like this, I know. But…”
Get on with it! my mind screamed. “Yes?” I said icily.
“I don’t--I don’ t want to call off the engagement,” she said. She walked towards me--I noticed randomly that her hair was tousled and erratic, with one long lock hanging over her eye. But the other eye that fixed upon me had pride and guilt mixed within. She stopped a couple feet away and took my cold hand in her warm one. “I don’t want to cause you any more pain,” she said quietly. And with that she kissed me.
I had spitefully wanted to pull away if she tried something like that, but I couldn’t from the astonishment that struck me. The doubt and hurt that I had felt swept away in one clarifying moment: if she really didn’t want me would she have kissed me?
A pointed cough came from the other room. Erika pulled away quickly; we both turned to see Redwing standing there with one eyebrow raised. In the light of both candles I could see Erika’s cheeks flushed crimson, and beneath my mask my face felt hot as well.
“Would you like for me to step outside?” Redwing inquired. Erika rolled her eyes as I quickly slipped past the young man to make a beeline for the door. As I opened it I heard Erika again.
“You doing anything tomorrow?” she asked. I grinned, just a little, as she continued, “I could use some help with Alchemy again.”
I turned and my grin spread wider. “I’d be delighted to help,” I replied. It wasn’t huge, but another day together was a start towards reconciliation.
I married him, a few weeks later. My pride and selfishness was my worst bane, and although Philip was somewhat shy of trusting me again after my deceit I managed to convince him, through a consistent openness of anything that troubled me, that he could trust me again.
Redwing, a year after I married Philip, settled down with a local farm girl and started a small farm. Over time his land grew, until he owned one of the largest homesteads in the area. He was blessed with a large family of nine children, who went on with his successful farming industry.
Corin Reed, momentarily crushed by Redwing’s unavailability, eloped some weeks later with Shawn Ames and the two of them moved to the coast.
As for me and the Horsemaster, we became the primary horse breeders and trainers of the area. Philip managed to develop a breed of horse that was strong enough for farm work but also even-tempered and dainty enough for riding. His training became legendary; people from all over Laegna wanted the Horsemaster’s skills and methods. Everything he knew he passed on to me, until I could train a horse as well as he. And I learned to love him back, which was more than enough in trade for him.
Was I happy with my decision? Well, not initially. My dislike for his face prevented a true love at first. But over time I knew that he was the only choice I ever could have made. I blessed him with five children, and the look on his face as he held each for the first time was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. In his old age he loved to regal his various children and grandchildren with stories of the things he had seen and done, but his favorite story was our tumultuous first meetings. He would throw his silver head back to laugh at the distant memories, reveling in the attention he held. And I would listen, and look at the rapt faces that adored this man, and know that my life had not been for naught.
Take me home!
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