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Play the Devil by Lululuna
Chapter 13 : A Proposal and a Tumble
 
Rating: MatureChapter Reviews: 3


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Chapter Thirteen
A Proposal and a Tumble



Beautiful image by lyric at TDA.


Richard watched from his horse as Sir Anthony was crowned with a wreath of laurels as winner of the joust. It was a foolish custom, Richard thought to himself, but his friends had insisted. Laurels were for poets, for wit: not the physical arts, though Richard enjoyed a joust on a good day as much as the last man. He had been quite surprised when Rose had run off after Sir Nicholas and the two had returned breathless and laughing and chummier than ever. Richard refused to admit it, but it was possible this incident had led to him being distracted and eventually losing the joust to Anthony.

Walking Apollo out and patting the horse’s dark neck, Richard dismounted and shooed away his groom, saying shortly that he would put Apollo away himself. In the stables, he gently removed Apollo’s tack and rubbed him down, then ensured the horse’s water dish was full and the grooms were to feed him his mash in the next hour. It was hard work for his aching muscles, but Richard’s mentor, Warwick, had taught his wards how knights and noblemen must know how to care for their own mounts, not solely rely on servants. Richard himself could have used a rubdown: he was tired and sore, and sweaty, and once he got to his room he undressed quickly, though he had left his armor in the tiltyard to be cleaned and put away. He stretched out his sinewy muscles, and did a couple circles with his arms.

Nobody knew how hard Richard worked: at being strong and tough, at being a competitor on both the sports and intellectual fields, at staying strong and not letting his passions and temper get the better of him. The night before had not been a mistake: Richard would have preferred to let the jibe against his brother go. He knew Nicholas was harmless: he was a survivor, and his father was a Lancastrian, but Richard was sure Nicholas cared for little more than his own amusement and, in the grand scheme of things, keeping his head firmly on his shoulders, which was what they all cared most about. But something about Nicholas had irritated him, and there were former Lancastrians in the room. Two of his guests had fought against his family at the battle of Wakefield! It was Richard’s duty not to show weakness before anyone who could turn to be a foe. Though he had to admit that the likeness of his brother had been very skillfully illuminated. As for the surprising visitor he had received after his return to his chamber, he had hardly dared to dwell on.

Rose had caught his eye again today. The more he knew of her, the more he was sure the memory of the faerie lady who had come to him as a child was simply a story told to him by his old nurse that he had taken a liking to as a child and dreamed into existence. There was no faerie, and if there was, Rose could not be her. For Rose was as human as women came: the slightest word brought a blush to her cheeks, a giggle to her lips; she was constantly making mistakes and he sometimes thought that while she presented herself with the intelligence of a lady her father’s estate must have been extremely isolated from high society. He had written to his friends in London again to inquire after the baron Ronald, but had not yet heard back. Indeed, the lower nobility of England was full of all sorts of lowly barons cowardly enough to stay out of the quarrels between the ruling family. But Rose was charming, lovely: he almost thought they had shared a sort of moment of solitude at the feast, her head bent so close to his so that he could see the tiny freckles which rose up across her nose and on her cheekbones- most unladylike indeed, but he liked to think of her running and riding through the fields like a village girl and lying on her back to stare up at the clouds and pick out funny shapes.

And then there was the moment she had let her hair down at the joust. It embarrassed Richard to think of it but the only women whose hair he had seen down were his sisters when they were young and having it combed out. Rose’s hair had gleamed in the sunlight, making her face look even younger and more earnest.

He wished again that he knew more about her; where her family stood in his brother’s favour, whether she came with a dowry, her education… all in the name of friendly interest, of course. Seeing her laugh and place a familiar hand on Sir Nicholas’ arm, seeing her present the buffoon with her token, had been quite painful for Richard not to watch. His eyes had fought to return to her gentle face: his rationality had rebuked him sternly and reminded him of his place. There would be no more lying in the grass, no more wondering what her hair smelled like or if he could make her smile as Nicholas seemed to, so easily, or if he could place a kiss on her blushing cheek as Annie Lovell did so carefully. His companions had won her over so easily, but Richard was only the youngest son, the runt, the dark-haired changeling in a royal family of shining young knights. He hadn’t expected to win.

His servants returned, carrying large jugs of heated water which he had called for, with the explicit promise to the cooks that he would not be drinking it for its potential contamination. Another servant set up the large pewter tub, and another brought a goblet of wine. Richard thanked them stiffly, then stepped delicately into the tub. He took a breath and plunged his head under the water, running hands through his hair. It was soft beneath the water. He soaked the dirt and sweat from his body and from under his fingernails, the grime of his helmet from his scalp.

Commoners thought that baths were unhealthy and only bathed once or twice a year. At court, bathing was a little more fashionable: both Richard’s brothers, Edward and George, were quite boastful about how they preferred their women clean and fragrant. Richard himself enjoyed the cleanse of a bath: of course, in the chilly winter months he was more likely to catch a chill, but in the summer he found a certain enjoyment in dosing his entire body in the water, like a second baptism.

Some of his friends had commented that morning about the beautiful young guest whom Richard had introduced to them the night before. A few had made bawdy suggestions which Richard had immediately dismissed, and reprimanded them for speaking of Mistress Rose in such a way, who was a fine and virtuous young woman.

But they were not wrong to notice her: Rose had a certain glow about her, a certain lack of self-awareness and knowledge about her beauty that drew the eye to her. Her skin was clear, pale and pretty, so unlike the skin of other women which was so often spotted by disease or tick bites. Her teeth were white and clean: Richard had already lost one of his molars to the rot which had inspired him to take potions rumored to help with dental strength. Rose seemed so healthy, so different from other women, so alive. Richard had never seen or met anyone like her before. She wore her emotions on her face: she was constantly raising an eyebrow or biting her lip or squinted confusedly when she didn’t realize he was looking at her. She was enchanting, and even a fool would have known it. Women like Annie Lovell, for all her beauty and wit, were dimmed in the presence of Rose.

He thought again of Rose’s instant rapport with Nicholas and frowned to himself, taking a large sip of wine. The man was a bawdy fool with no sense. At least, Richard thought to himself bitterly, if they married they would at least be marrying within their station. He, Richard Plantagenet, brother of the king, would be tossed off to some greedy high noblewoman who wanted to be a duchess and sister to the king, someone who saw in the dark and shy young man a chance for social height, favour and wealth. The whole lot made him quite sick. His own brother had married the daughter of a baron and made her a queen: but he was the highest in the land and could get away with such things. The king’s brother would not be so lucky as to marry for love.

A little knock came at the door to Richard’s room: it was a servant calling timidly that the dinner would be served whenever the duke was prepared for it. Richard called back that it was to be served in half of an hour and rose from his bath, carefully replacing the silver chain which he always wore around his neck. He dressed quickly, and before going down to dinner knelt at his bed and said a short prayer asking for guidance and for his rationality to continue to curb his emotions. He thought of Plato’s horses, being reined in and controlled by their master, their passion regulated and restrained. He must be the reins which held the horses; he must not let lust – for surely it was nothing but lust and nostalgia for a childhood dream – play him for a fool. Yet he could not help but wonder if he could get away with being seated next to Rose again.

**


The company dined privately that evening: indeed, their group was much reduced, leaving only Richard, Rose, Nicholas, the Lovells, Sir William and a few others as the remnants. Richard felt a certain happiness in this degree of solitude: he appreciated the respect given to him as the host and young in their party, but at times the overflow of guests in this ancient house of his family under his watch felt a bit of an intrusion. It was not truly his house, after all: it was the property of the crown, of the York heir the king, and not exactly his own place in which to entertain.

Richard was not seated next to Rose, but next to Annie Lovell, who murmured to him about the joust and how he was the far better knight, and who put the best cuts of food from her plate to his, as he had done for Rose once the night before. Annie was a curious creature: Richard was under the impression that she acted quite foolishly and false much of the time, that there was something darker there beneath. He was no stranger to women at the court who hid cunning and mischief behind blushing, innocent faces and delicate sleeves. Annie’s dress was cut quite low over her bosom, a fact which many of the gentlemen were clearly having difficulty ignoring. Her own husband fussed over her like she was a little pet, calling her darling and his love. Richard was again reminded of how Annie had spoken to him the previous night: she had knocked at his privy chamber, alone and unescorted, and asked to be let inside. She had complained about her husband, and asked if Richard could not have a word with him about controlling his drink. Then she had put her hand on his arm, and said, a little breathlessly, that she wished now her father had waited for a more suitable and mature candidate when choosing her husband, that she might have been permitted to marry for love alone. Richard had not known what to make of her, what venom to suck from the honey in her words.

Sir Francis Lovell was barely sixteen, a year younger than Richard, though he had inherited his estates and title when his father had died in the boy’s childhood. Like Richard, Francis had been brought up at Middleham castle with other noblemen’s boys to learn the arts of swordplay and jousting as well as horsemanship and battle tactics and politics and languages on the quieter days. Richard had always thought that Francis had a tender spot for little Lady Anne Neville, the earl of Warwick’s youngest daughter, who was a frail, sweet thing and who had sometimes shared her lessons with the boys when her tutors were ill or away on business. Francis had a weakness for the mild, quiet girl, who Richard thought was rather plain in comparison to the pretty and vibrant Annie Fitzhugh. Besides, Anne Neville was one of the earl’s only two daughters, and the great man would aim higher than a mere baron for his little darling.

So a betrothal had been arranged for Francis Lovell to marry Annie Fitzhugh a few years ago. It had not taken Francis long to forget his childhood fancy and become enamored with Annie, who was a few years his senior, playful, beautiful and who knew how to use her femininity to full advantage. She would not be led about by her boyish husband, but let him think he held all the power, and this, Richard had observed, was extremely well played of her. The match had benefited Annie’s father greatly: his daughter became a baroness and a wealthy young wife to a man well favored in Edward’s court, and her father gained a powerful ally, bringing coin, estates and soldiers to his jurisdiction.

After the feast, the party again retired to the library to gamble and discuss politics. Richard noticed Rose getting tugged into the corner with Annie and Lady Mary. His heart sank a little: he had been working himself up to asking her how she had liked the feast. Deciding this could still be a successful conversation, he excused himself from Sir William and moved across the room, standing in front of the three women with his hands behind his back. They felt a little sweaty with nerves, and he resented himself for it.

“Ladies,” he said, giving a little nod. “May I ask how you enjoyed the feast this eve?” They looked up, startled; Rose sat up a little straighter, not meeting his eye, and Mary smiled up at him.

“Twas quite grand, my lord, and thanks be to you,” Mary said. Her plain face was kind and simple: he could understand why his friend liked his choice in a wife. But Annie looked up at him with a curious look in her eyes, something hungry.

“Your Grace, I have found a most unique manuscript in your collection and would like to ask you some questions about it,” Annie said, rising with a rustle of skirts and placing her hand in his arm. Richard stiffened. “Shall we go and look?” She looked up at him, all innocence and grace. Richard wracked his brain for some excuse to stay and talk to Rose, but Annie was already tugging him to an isolated corner of the library. His friend’s wife pulled him to a nook by one of the barred windows, and slid a binding at random off the shelf, opening it a little roughly, Richard thought, for books of his father’s old collection.

“Now, Richard,” she said quietly, putting her face quite close to his own as if they were poring over the meaning of a sentence. A stray strand of her dark hair, escaped from her hood, tickled his face. “Richard, darling boy, have you considered my thoughts from yester-eve?”

Richard stepped back from her. “I am afeared I do not know what you speak of, Mistress Lovell,” he said stiffly. Across the library, Rose was watching them. He looked back at her and saw her light-haired head turn away quickly. All he needed was for Francis to see his wife acting wantonly and challenge him to a duel or some other impertinence.

Annie was impatient. “Don’t play coy with me, Richard,” she murmured. “My husband and I were married too young: there is no love lost between us, no love that is not for show.” She put her pale hand on his sleeve again, and he could feel the pressure of her fingers on his forearm. She wore a thin gold band on her ringfinger. “You must know that I admire you. In a world like this, a woman cannot wait for men to give her what she wants: sometimes, she must be strong for herself and take it.”

“You may address me as ‘Your Grace,’ Mistress Lovell,” Richard said quietly. “And I fear that you will be disappointed, for I love my friend Francis dearly and would never ponder betraying him thus. You will be best to keep your thoughts to yourself, milady, and live your freedom within your own marriage. Francis is a good man, and he will take care of your needs.”

“My needs, but not my desires,” Annie hissed. She looked desperate, angry, and not beautiful at all, Richard thought. “Very well, Your Grace, but you resign yourself to a life of virtue and restraint, and I would not care to be in your place. Or is it that you care for another,” she narrowed her eyes, dark lashes descending over her cheekbones in shadows behind the candlelight. “That you desire another?” Her eyes seemed to travel across the room, where Rose, looking radiant in a pale blue dress, was animatedly talking in a huddle with Sir Nicholas, twirling the end of her long braid around in her fingers.

“The objects of my desire are no concern of yours, baroness,” Richard said from between his teeth. A sharp feeling of anger and hatred towards Nicholas rose up in his chest, as if there were a small fire lit within his very ribs. He suddenly had no patience for Annie: he seized her wrist and tugged her out of sight.

“Now listen to me, you foolish girl,” he hissed. “You will stay true to your husband, as is your duty: you will not involve me in your schemes or misplaced desires. The workings of your marriage are of no interest to me, and if you are to betray dear Francis with some unfortunate blind man, it shall not be me.” He squeezed her wrist harder: it was frail and thin beneath his carefully cultivated strength. “Keep to your place as a woman: you are a woman, and you have nothing of your own.”

“You’re hurting me,” Annie whispered, a little tear welling in her delicate eyes. She pouted up at him. Irritated, Richard released her, stepping back from her. He doubted his hold on her hand at hurt: it was but another pretty ploy of hers.

He stepped out from behind the bookcase and caught Rose’s eye watching him again from over Sir Nicholas’ shoulder. She quickly looked away, and so did he, though a little reluctantly. He felt quite violated by what Annie had said to him, what she seemed to be propositioning. The Lovells were due to return to their own estate in the morning: the next time he met with Francis, he would order that his friend leave his wife at home.

**


“Well met this morrow, Mistress Rose!” Sir Nicholas called gallantly from the bottom of the steps leading up to the castle keep. I was standing at the top of them, and waved down to him cheerily. We were assembled to bid goodbye to the Lovells. Annie was standing next to her palfrey, but she surged forward and gave me a kiss, promising that we would meet again soon and she would send for me to visit her at her husband’s estate, and perhaps even at court when Sir Francis – here she sent him an appraising gaze – if Sir Francis was offered a place at court come the autumn. Sir Francis himself kissed my hand gallantly, and shook Richard’s and Nicholas’: and then lifted his wife into the saddle. Her right leg was tucked delicately over the pommel, and she extended her gloved hand down for the gentlemen to kiss. Sir Nicholas gazed up at her and made a playful comment about her great beauty being like the moon, but I noticed Richard only touched her hand by the tips of her fingers and touched his lips to the air above her glove.

They rode off, followed by a slower wagon with their belongings and guided by their servants, and I felt like the air itself was a little cleaner, like a weight I had not known existed had been lifted off my shoulders. The day had the sort of comfortably stale feeling of a Sunday at Hogwarts, where there was no need to do homework or put on trousers all day. I turned to Sir Nicholas.

“It appears that it’s only you and I leftover. What shall we amuse ourselves with today? A game of chess, perhaps?”

Sir Nicholas had confided to me that he had a game of wizard’s chess pieces tucked away among his belongings. Dad had trained me early on to be a sharp and vigilant chess player: it was one of his claim to fames. Hugo was pretty useless: he worried more about capturing the opponent’s queen than their king and lost all his own pieces in the process, usually to pawns.

I had expected Richard to ignore this exchange, and run off to be in solitude with whatever occupied his time, but instead he walked with us.

“Would you care to come for a ride about the county with me?” he asked. “I should like to see my father’s old tenants, and there is a market town which I have not seen since I was a boy.”

“That should suit me very well, Your Grace!” cried Sir Nicholas. “My horse worked hard at the joust yesterday and he would like to stretch his legs, I am sure, to ensure he is not stiff or lame.”

“He can’t have worked that hard, you didn’t even survive one round,” I told Sir Nicholas snidely, raising an eyebrow. His nose was back in perfect condition: after I had performed a spell to snap it back into place and he had patted some salve bought, he explained, from a magical apothecary in London, he had been quite fit and as cheerful as ever. “Well, I suppose I’ll just sit around here and play chess with myself while you ride off and leave me alone.” Really, the concept didn’t seem as bad as that. I could go and speak with Agnes about my discovery about Sir Nicholas and maybe find some baby sheep to play with, and tease Ellyn about her misplaced love for Richard’s brother, and maybe explore some parts of the castle. I was quite eager to check out the weapons room.

“There is a horse in the stables which my mother uses when she stays here to entertain on occasion,” Richard told me. “I think you will find the mare quite calm with strangers and fit: she is exercised by the grooms along with the other horses we keep. She will do for you nicely.”

“Oh, alright,” I said quietly, a little taken aback. I had not expected him to invite me, but the thought of spending more time with Sir Nicholas, who I quite liked, and Richard, who I was rather sure had no interest in me, could prove to be interesting. Besides, it would be interesting to see more of this era in England than simply the rather dull interior of Fotheringhay castle.

Richard sent a servant to saddle our horses and I scurried upstairs to Ellyn, who outfitted me in one of the old duchess’ ancient riding habits. The thing smelled a little stale but fit decently enough, especially after I expanded the bust magically when Ellyn left to fetch me a women’s crop from the duchess’ things. I vowed yet again that if and when I ever returned home, I would go to Diagon Alley and buy a book on survival spells and DIY spells, like how to do laundry with a wand, or to conjure a toothbrush or clean drinking water. Wizards had been around for centuries and survived: there must have been someone in that time who figured these things out and put them to paper.

The day before, after the joust and Nicholas’ surprising revelation that he was, in fact, a wizard, and yes, he did attend Hogwarts, was most marvelous. I had run up to my chamber to fetch my wand and, carefully concealing it in my sleeve, had popped his nose back into place with a useful Episkey spell and healed the small cuts on his arms with another flick of my wand. Back home, I tried not to heal anyone unless it was absolutely necessary, as Madam Pomfrey, the sour witches and wizards at St. Mungo’s emergency chamber and even Mum could do a far better job, but I figured that here in the fifteenth century my rookie care was the best Nicholas could hope for.

My first question for Sir Nicholas had been how in the name of Merlin’s bedazzled pantyhose (this bit was slightly confusing to him) he had possibly identified me as a witch. The answer had been simple yet delightful: he knew of Weasley as being a magical name, having been taught at Hogwarts by a certain Professor Weasley who was the Potionsmaster, of all things. I had no idea that my last name went back this far. Sir Nicholas had explained that he had finished at Hogwarts three years ago, which justified why he may not have noticed me there- though he was quick to assure me that it would take a blind man not to notice me now, with a cheeky bow.

His proof had come with what he called my odd behaviour around the others of their company. Being a wizard, Nicholas had grown up away from the court and stayed away from the political intrigues and etiquette of the Plantagenet Muggle England. He explained to me that while some wizard nobles chose to hold their own councils and steer clear of the Muggle sphere, his father had enjoyed the wealth and favor of being at court and had ordered that his son do the same, though it had taken him a while to adjust. So Nicholas attributed my ignorance on certain Muggle customs, my confusion over sport and proper etiquette and rank, as being down to my separation from Muggles at Hogwarts, not due to my being an imposter baron’s daughter from five hundred years down the line. In his defense, the latter sounded quite improbable.

Sir Nicholas had been a Gryffindor, and the best kind: he reminded me a little of my ridiculous cousin James, who was always up for a challenge and a dare. Nicholas proved this on our ride across the countryside, when he and his spritely horse hopped neatly over every fence, ditch and stream we came across, while I very much preferred to steer my horse around these obstacles at a comfortable and stately walk.

Daisy was the mare that Richard had assigned to me: she was a middle-aged beast who far preferred her quiet life munching hay in the stables than being kicked and prodded by an amateur. In fact, I had minimal experience with the art of equestrianism: when my cousin Lily and I were respectively eight and ten she had gotten it into her head that she loved horses and wanted a pony of her own: Uncle Harry had relented to the extent of signing her up for riding lessons to see how it went. Dad had thought it might be something I would enjoy to, and get me away from being holed up in my room with books, and so every Saturday we were driven to a stable outside of London, set down on two docile ponies, and allowed to ride around in circles for an hour.

The ponies were quite well-behaved and stayed on the track, with the occasional rebel who decided he was much more interested in the hay out of the horse’s tail in front of him. After the lesson, we spent an hour at the barn brushing the horse and cleaning out their stall and grumbling that our parents were throwing away a lot of money for us to be unpaid stable hands.

Riding Daisy was not so simple. She was a gray mare with keen, beady eyes and very large teeth and hooves which she was prone to stamping quite hard onto the ground. That, I could easily handle. She didn’t frighten me in the slightest. What struck terror into me as I approached Daisy was rather what was on her back: a medieval sidesaddle.

The groom who had brought Daisy out helped me up into the saddle and even adjusted my dreaded skirts for me: his bored face indicated that he was used to this part of his job. I was already vowing a hundred times over that when I escaped this, I would never wear a skirt or dress again. It would be trousers all the way: jeans, leggings, shorts… even a skort like I wore during the pre-puberty years would be acceptable.

Furthermore, the leather boots which had been supplied for me were too small and pinching my feet, and I was quite worried by the lack of a helmet particularly as falling off seemed quite probable at that point. I had no clue as to how I was going to stay on, much less control Daisy, who was swishing her tail rather furiously to keep away the flies and shaking her head though I had barely picked up the reins.

I gave her a little nudge with the foot that was against her flank, and she set forward. I wobbled a little: sitting in a proper sidesaddle was not as difficult as sitting in a normal saddle with a leg swung over the pommel would have been, as the saddle was built for this very thing, but it was still a great adjustment. Daisy veered slightly to the right: I jerked on the left rein, though the lack of having a right leg to control her was sending all those pony lessons out the window.

“Alright, Mistress Rose?” Richard called from Apollo’s back, turning his head over his shoulder to look back at me. I yelled something about being fine, and winced as Richard nodded at Nicholas and set Apollo into a brisk trot. Daisy’s eyes perked up and she followed the other two horses, moving into a quick trot. I tried my best to sit deep in the saddle and keep my hands up and heels- well, heel down, and gripped the horn even tighter with my right leg. I grabbed a large chunk of the mane with the left hand and tugged back on the reins with the other: this did not seem to calm Daisy down, but merely to throw her head into the air and chew down on the bit. I cursed quietly, feeling quite irritated at whatever had made me agree to this excursion. I would have Nicholas’ head for this.

Up ahead, the two men looked back at me, and then turned to each other. I gritted my teeth, sure they were laughing at me, or wondering why a young gentlewoman rode so poorly and ungracefully. It was a valid question: Nicholas had told me that learning with horses was an important skill at the Hogwarts of the fifteenth century. Apparently, some of his friends had snuck out to the Forbidden Forest and had a joust riding the Thestrals, who in addition to being able to fly were far more obedient and calm than the average charger. I enjoyed the thought of the ancestors of the herd of Thestrals being at Hogwarts even now nearly as much as I enjoyed the idea of a Professor Weasley, quite likely an ancestor of mine, being the Potionsmaster at my school. I had informed Nicholas that the Professor was a distant cousin of mine; I saw no reason to clarify exactly how distant.

We rode, and I seethed and held on as best I could, through the village of Fotheringhay and down the dirt road next to which I had come to the place. As we rode by Agnes’ cottage I remembered that I had left my broom, the old Comet, there when I left for the castle, and hoped that Maude was finding good use of it for sweeping her little home. I resolved to ask Nicholas about broomsticks and whether they were a common form of transportation still, and if Quidditch was quite popular. in fact, I had many questions for him.

As we got to the open road we passed through farmlands with tenants working the fields. People bowed by the roadside as they saw us passing by: I saw a few grubby little girls staring up at me, faces unashamedly open in wonder, pointing up to me and asking their mothers loudly if I was a princess. I had never experienced such admiration since coming here: it seemed that in medieval England I was a phenomena that I had never been in my own time, poor riding skills non-withstanding.

I had to admit that through my physical exertion and mental annoyance at it, the Northamptonshire lands were beautiful. The cottages and farmhouses, along with the occasional public arms house or inn, were lovingly constructed of timber and stone, with thatched roofs and stone fireplaces from which smoke could be seen emerging at many hours of the day. The fields at this time of year were green and bright, but with hints of wilderness in the distance: of forests and untamable rivers which had long been conquered by the time I was born in the twenty-first century. I could understand how, in this context, England was a wondrous, mystical place of faeries and dryads and spirits of the rivers: this was a land which took care of its people, an idyllic voyage of the people’s love for that land, and myself a messenger sent to remind my own time of the wonders that land concealed. Or that was how I felt. Remember, I was young and prone to fancy imaginings.

Nicholas was quite reckless with his gelding, letting him prance and whinny. Once we reached a section of the road which passed through a small wood, the fearless knight challenged Richard and I to a race through the wood to where the trees thinned and the land became farmland again.

“Yeah, yeah, not going to happen,” I told him flatly.

Yeah, yeah,” Nicholas mimicked me. “Thy voice is rather comical to myself, Mistress Rose. Your Grace, shall we gallop?”

“Let the better man win!” I offered. Richard thought for a moment, then picked up his reins.

“Very well, on thy count, Sir Nicholas!” he called. Nicholas called that the race should begin and drove his spurs into his horse’s sides, shouting that the animal should hurry up. His horse pricked it’s ears then moved into a rapid, controlled trot and then a canter, giving a little buck of excitement.

But Richard and Apollo were the better matched team. I barely noticed Richard move at all: he seemed to shift his weight forward in the saddle, to give a little encouraging cluck of his tongue: perhaps his heel gave Apollo a subtle nudge. With a bound and rise of the great hindquarters they were off, man and horse, bending low over Apollo’s neck, his hands quiet and steady on the roots of Apollo’s mane, the large hooves turning up bits of moss and mud, horseshoes flashing in the sunlight. Nicholas raced to play; Richard only competed to win.

Unfortunately for me, I did not get to tranquilly enjoy the race for long. Daisy, pricking her ears as her equine companions galloped down the road, gave a little whinny and set off herself at a brisk trot. I had let the reins go slack in the walk, but tried to gather them up and yank up towards my chest like my riding instructors had taught me. Daisy paid no mind: her stride was quick and choppy and extremely bouncy.

“Whoa, girl,” I said, though my voice was quite frantic and almost pleading. Daisy, stubborn mule that she was, ignored me and looked around anxiously for Apollo and Nicholas’ charger, who had vanished around a turn in the road. Her quick trot became a canter, and by this time I had given up trying to slow her down and was concentrating on staying on. As Nicholas’ horse had done, Daisy let out a little playful buck: while if I had been riding astride without skirts I would have recovered fine by sitting tall and gripping with my legs and seat, I was quickly unbalanced in the saddle. “Please stop, Daisy,” I begged. But she shifted from a canter to a gallop: I could tell by the way her back legs seemed to tuck under and lift the hint, unseating me further.

I was half out of the saddle by now, my left leg still in the stirrup, which didn’t have a security elastic the way the saddles at the riding stable did to break free when the rider falls from the saddle. “Richard! Richard! Nicholas!” I shouted, but my voice got lost even to myself in the flood of wind passing through my ears and guiding my hair out of it’s tightly bound braided style. I could feel tears running from my eyes, though whether they were from the rush of air as Daisy turned the corner, stumbling a little in the soft footing, or from the feeling of helplessness and desperation which I so loathed.

It happened quite fast: Daisy pinned her ears back, tucked her head down, and kicked out behind her. This was just enough to dislodge me and, clinging to her neck, I slid off the left side of the horse. My ankle twisted horribly for a moment as it was stuck in the stirrup and then I was free and lying on the ground in a pile, dirt in my mouth and my ankle on fire and tenderness on my temple and my elbows, and listening to the sound of fading hoof beats.


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