Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Boss Whedon and his merry band of Mutant Enemies.
Notes: In the last issue we learned that Giles left Faith his horses. I'm a fan of horses and wanted to see what she was up to with them, especially regarding the recovery of her charge. The narrator is an OC. Sort of.
You may recognize the names of the horses from projectpara. I liked them more than anything I could think of myself, so I asked scribesds if I could borrow them.
The title comes from one version I found of the anonymous "Horse's Prayer". If you look that up, don't blame me when you get to the end and start bawling.
Two came into the stable, one of them the young female human who we had seen around lately and who always walked here from the direction of the house. It was she who got a respectful nod from our groom, and she who took Windsor's reins from him as he spoke a few words to her and left us. I remembered her, too, from a few days she had spent here once before. She had been with the good master then, but this time we waited in vain for him to return.
The other who had come in with the youth was human-shaped, but we both knew right away that he wasn't one. He made no sound but for his voice and his soft tread: no breath, no beating heart. Windsor's ears flicked back at the sight of him, but I knew from experience that such oddities wouldn't necessarily tell you anything about a rider's nature or capability. What interested me more was his smell: inhuman as well, but bearing the same host of recognizable emotion, and at the moment he was more hopelessly terrified than any rider I had ever taken. What he feared so much, I couldn't tell, but it didn't waver for an instant, and he didn't seem to be showing any other sign of it; certainly nothing a human could notice.
“So here's our boys,” said the female. “This one's Windsor, and the one you've got there is Celoso. They're both pretty chill with new people, Reynard says.”
The silent one looked me over, his hands still stuffed in his pockets. “Why are they saddled?” he asked, as if he didn't know what a saddle was for.
“Don't be braindead, Angel. You grew up when they were still inventing wheels, right? I know you know how to ride a horse. You're gonna teach me.”
He shook his head vehemently. “No. Reynard can teach you.”
The groom hadn't left me tied and nobody was holding me, and for a moment I contemplated walking out of the stable just to put a stop to the silly argument that was brewing here. Fortunately for them, the good master had never tolerated such antics, and I couldn't easily shake the habits he had instilled in me. I settled for stamping a hoof, which drew little reaction from either of them.
“That's not part of Reynard's job. Look, you don't have to ride if you don't want, but at least come outside with me and show me what I'm doing. If I'm gonna own horses, I'm gonna do more than sit around and look at them.” She turned around, leading Windsor beside her, and he cast me a wary glance as he followed her out to the fenced ring.
The silent one hesitated, but not for long. Unlike the master's young friend, he walked on my near side and held the reins in both hands, and I suspected that she was right about his equestrian knowledge. The scent of terror was still there, though.
If it were up to me I'd always prefer being ridden in the daylight, but the outdoor ring has a bright set of lights and nothing within it to trip on, and the night was clear and dry. Windsor and the female were inside the ring, and the silent one led me through the gate after them and closed it carefully behind us. He tossed the reins back over my neck almost immediately and left me unsecured again, and again I wondered why he had decided that I could be trusted to not bolt on him.
“Always mount on the left side,” he said to the female, standing close behind her. “Hold onto the reins and his withers with your left hand--”
“What's withers, yo?”
“Right here. Put your right hand on the cantle--”
“Jargon alert, level two.”
“This is the cantle. Now your left foot goes in the stirrup, but don't let it slide back too far. Get some boots with thicker heels, okay? But for now, just hoist yourself up and swing your right leg over his back-- good. That's all there is to it.”
The female was on Windsor's back, looking immensely pleased with herself, and Windsor seemed comfortable enough considering that he was bearing a novice. “Let me adjust your stirrups before you start,” said the silent one. “Sometimes the girth should be tightened after mounting, too. Hold on and I'll show you how to hold the reins.”
He kept up a steady stream of instruction while the youth found her seat and gradually urged Windsor into a walk. I was relieved to see that Windsor wasn't in a mischievous mood, as he sometimes is. It seemed that his new rider would be with us for a while, and I wanted her to succeed, even if I wasn't the one carrying her. The silent one left me in the center of the ring while he walked beside Windsor, who kept turning his head to look at me. Insofar as two geldings like ourselves could be a herd, I was our leader, and if we were together he wanted to be following me. The routine didn't work when I was riderless, though, so he would have to deal with it.
Oddly enough, the silent one seemed to notice the source of Windsor's discomfort. He was also having some difficulty keeping pace on foot while speaking to the female, and finally he sighed, told her how to stop, and turned his gaze on me.
“Looks bored, doesn't he?” the female hinted.
His eyes wandered back to Windsor. “Why did you choose this one?” he asked.
She shrugged. “He's smaller. You're bigger. You'd fit better on Celoso.”
Slowly he approached me while Windsor stood patiently where his rider had halted him. The fear in the silent one's scent spiked momentarily as he stood at my side, and then he reached out with one flat hand and stroked my neck. He didn't look away from me as he spoke again to the female: “Did Giles used to ride this horse?”
The words of human speech mean little to me, but I knew the name of the good master when I heard it. He was a strong rider, confident with a firm hand, able to command with his legs and seat and just a gentle touch of the reins. He groomed us himself and dropped chunks of apple into our grain. When he left, as he did so often and for so long at a time, he left us with the best of care, but I missed him. Windsor and I would spend months being exercised on the longe-line instead of doing the work we were meant for, and I often wondered if I was still somebody's horse, or if the good master no longer had need for one.
“You gotta stop thinking that way, Angel,” the female replied in a kind voice. “Just get on. The horse doesn't care what you've done.”
He nodded gravely and looked me in the eye, and his fear slackened just a little bit. He ran his big hand down my neck one more time and murmured, close to my ear, “Well, Celoso.” In one fluid motion he put his foot in the stirrup and vaulted into the saddle, ending in a posture that provided the final evidence that he knew what he was doing.
Feeling unexpectedly delighted that I had coaxed this strange creature into becoming a rider again, I felt it was appropriate to give him a quick test of skill, and let loose with one powerful buck. Windsor snorted and the youth on his back cried, “Whohoa!”, but the silent one kept his seat, gathered up the reins, and spun us in a tight circle. I couldn't help but flash back to the first time the good master rode me. I tested him in the same way, and he responded with the same maneuver. It was the beginning of a fair partnership, and I was then ready to obey him.
“He's a smart one,” my rider commented. “Do you want to try a trot, or anything?”
“Anything,” said the female, beaming widely. “You know I haven't heard you say this much at once since the mask came off.”
The silent one commanded me with a firm and gentle hand over to the rail to guide Windsor, saying nothing in response to the youth's remark about the mask. If I could have spoken to him, I would have liked to say that a terrified horse can do nothing but panic or flee. How a terrified man, human or otherwise, can still teach and ride and speak with confidence, I don't understand, but it's why he's the one on top and why I'll let him remain there.
I don't know if the good master will ever return. Windsor and I don't belong to ourselves; we have to take what comes and trust that those with the power over us will use it well and with benevolence. Once my life was as wisdom's steed, and now I will carry silence, and give him reason to trust me, and let him be the rider he once was.