“Are you expecting more visitors?” Flora asks Ishandra.
“No, just you six,” replies Ishandra. “The horses are gifts for you, if that’s what you want to know. I will stable them and supply fodder but you will be responsible for being here at least one hour a day to groom and give them exercise. I will teach you all how to do that.”
“For us?!” asks Musa, surprised. “But why?”
“Because, Musa, my dear,” replies Ishandra, “you may not believe it after all the years we spent fighting each other over the Dragon’s Fire but you six Faeries have saved my life. These are but small tokens of my thanks.”
“I don’t know what to say,” stammers Musa.
“Just say ‘Thank you’,” says Ishandra.
“Thank you, Ishandra,” replies Musa humbly and the others join in with their thanks.
“Now,” says Ishandra, “let’s see who will end up with which horse.”
“We get to pick our own?” asks Stella excitedly.
“No,” replies Ishandra to the Sunshine Faerie. “It is better to let them choose with whom they want to be. All except for you, Aïsha. I have one already picked out especially for you.”
Ishandra signals Aïsha to follow and they both fly over to the horses and unhitch all but the last and then fly quickly back to rejoin the others. “Move into the courtyard and spread yourselves fairly far apart,” Ishandra orders the five remaining Faeries.
The five un-tethered horses are milling about as if wondering what to do with their sudden freedom until a black one and, possibly, the alpha mare of the group, decides that there is something very alright about Flora and gallops up to her and starts sniffing at her hair and face and starts nibbling at the top of her head.
“Hey! Hey! Hey-ee!” protests Flora, laughing. “What’s this all about?”
“That was quick,” remarks Ishandra, surprised. “There must be something special about you, Flora. Are you wearing some sort of fragrance?”
“Yes, apple blossom,” replies Flora.
“That’ll do it,” laughs Bloom. “You had better give her an apple before she decides to take a bigger bite of your head,” and everyone laughs.
“Is this what you want, sweetie?” says Flora to the mare as she summons a piece of the red fruit to her hand and offers it to her.
“Hold your hand flat!” both Ishandra and Bloom warn Flora. “She might bite off some of your fingers along with the apple if you are not careful,” finishes Ishandra.
“I’m well aware of that,” says Flora, sounding somewhat miffed. “I’ve handled dragons and know that if you are not careful when hand-feeding them you may find your hand gone at the elbow. I would imagine that it is the same for horses.”
“I will give my love an apple without e’er a core,” Bloom begins to sing.
“Say, I know that song!” exclaims Ishandra. “My father used to sing it all the time to my mother,” and sings, “My head is the apple without e’er a core.”
There is a burst of laughter when the others realize the fun being poked at Flora’s expense. “Well!” says Flora with her hands on her hips. She looks about to say more when the black mare nudges Flora’s shoulder nearly knocking her to the ground.
“You want another apple or some attention, don’t you?” says Flora to the black mare. “And I guess I will need to give you a name. I shall call you Valentina,” and Flora’s horse bobs its head up and down as if in accord with Flora’s choice.
“That’s a nice name … Ouff!” says Bloom as she nearly takes a face-fall when another of the horses quietly comes up from behind and bunts her back with its head. “Hello!” says Bloom to the chestnut mare. “I shall call you Flika.”
“Also a pretty name,” says Ishandra. “Scandinavian, I believe.”
“Yes,” says Bloom. “I believe it is Swedish for ‘little girl’. It comes from a story my mother would read me when I was a child. It is about a boy who tames a wild horse and names her Flika.”
As if this were a signal to the other horses, they start coming up to the remaining Faeries. First, a golden mare comes up to Stella who nearly squeals in delight, “You are the very one I wanted!” But when the golden mare nickers and moves away from her, Stella realizes her mistake and addresses her more gently, “Come here, my beautiful dawling. I’m going to call you Lucia and I am going to love you forever … but now, I’ll need a whole new wardrobe so I’ll look gorgeous while riding you,” and the mare comes back to her and rests her cheek against Stella’s head. Then, a pure white mare trots up to Tecna. “I shall call you Wot’a,” says Tecna which in her parlance means the ‘wise’ or ‘well-mannered one’. Finally, a dapple gray mare makes her way to Musa. “You I shall call Melodia,” says Musa.
Aïsha is standing to the side feeling ignored during all this and looking as if she were the odd Faerie out. “Come to the fore and I shall untie the last one,” Ishandra tells her. “You others, hold onto the reigns of your horses so this last one knows that you are already taken.”
Ishandra unties the last animal and, sure enough, the white and black striped mare comes right up to Aïsha. “You are beautiful!” Aïsha tells her.
Then, it suddenly hits Bloom what the nature of the creature before Aïsha really is. “Aïsha,” gasps Bloom. “That’s not a horse. It’s a zebra!”
“What’s that?” asks Aïsha.
“Oh, it’s just a horse of a different stripe,” quips Ishandra, grinning.
“Huh?” replies Aïsha, frowning and looking totally confused.
“She’s teasing you, Aïsha,” laughs Bloom. “A zebra is a kind of horse but not all horses are zebras. But, Big Sister, I thought zebras were a lot smaller, really nasty and cannot be ridden.”
“That may be true of those still living in Africa,” explains Ishandra, “but this one was born and grew up on New Witch Haven. Hundreds of years of being free to roam vast plains with ample good grazing and no real predators have allowed them to grow bigger and much of their former ornery temperament has been bred out of them.”
“I guess I should name you now,” says Aïsha to her zebra companion.
“Just do me a favour and don’t name her Stripes,” pleas Ishandra.
“Why not?” asks Aïsha. “It would seem to be a suitable name for her.”
“Yipes! Stripes!” quips Stella, laughing.
“That’s exactly why,” groans Ishandra, rolling her eyes towards the heavens.
“Well,” says Aïsha, “in that case, I shall give her one of my most favourite names which is Tsiporah.”
“That sounds like a bird’s song,” smiles Musa.
“How did you know that?” exclaims Aïsha.