The stables, on the west side of the castle, were impressive structures housing four hundred stalls. As we entered, we were greeted by Master Ekial, the head of the stables. A stout, imposing man who had taught me to ride as a small child, who now ran the training program by my side, and who had a terribly mischievous sense of humor .
“Who’s your friend, Lady Serena?” Ekial glanced between us, taking in the fine quality of Lord Gareth’s attire.
“A customer, of course, Master Ekial!” I grinned, “this is Lord Gareth of House Meliorn. He is interested in purchasing a Rourke steed for his brother, as a wedding gift.”
Ekial greeted the lord and nodded respectfully before shooting a look at me. Gareth excused himself and walked toward the nearest stall.
“Interested in purchasing a steed? I’d say it looks like the horses aren't the only creatures your father has put up for sale today.” Ekial joked with a pointed look at my fancy gown, earning himself a smart slap on the arm.
“Just send me a couple grooms, Ekial!” I growled, before adding softly, "you do have to admit I look kind of nice, though right?"
Ekial gave me a genuine smile, toothy, before it turned to a smirk. "You even smell nice too, for once!" He bowed his curly, red head, still grinning, and walked off smartly, immediately barking orders at a group of stablehands lounging by a water pump.
Lord Gareth was already a quarter of the way down the barn aisle, laughing as the gelding he stood with tossed his head. As he gave the horse a few kind pats I couldn't ignore the fact that Lord Gareth did cut a fine figure standing there. I also couldn't ignore the fact that I wouldn't know what to do with a fine a figure as Lord Gareth's. Taking a deep breath, I joined Gareth and began guiding him further down the first aisle of the stable.
“Does your brother consider himself accomplished on horseback?” I inquired of Lord Gareth, my hands clasped behind my back as we strolled.
“Oh, I am positive he would say so... However, I have picked him up off the ground too many a time to agree!” He chuckled heartily and winked playfully, catching me off guard.
I smiled genuinely in response and stopped in front of a stall with a huge black gelding inside. I motioned for one of the grooms to prepare the mount for riding and turned to gauge Lord Gareth’s response to the beast.
“What do you think of Obsidian Dusk, Lord Gareth? He is quite intimidating, but a gentle giant I assure you,” I smiled at his wide-eyed appreciation for the animal as the groom lead him past.
“Impressive to say the least. I would love to put him through his paces,” Lord Gareth maintained eye contact as he spoke, in a flirtatious way that said he might love to put me through my paces. I turned away before smiling as I enjoyed the bit of coquetry and thought to myself, well, Lord Gareth, we’ll see about that, you forward rapscallion!
We moved down the corridor, greeting the various horses, Gareth asking the questions, I offering the answers. I selected another horse, a large red roan mare I thought might be suitable based on Lord Gareth's description of his brother, before bringing Gareth to the main arena where a series of obstacles were arranged. I excused myself for a moment and went to my personal tack storage where I kept spare sets of riding clothes. I quickly changed and tucked my fine dress into a trunk already stuffed with at least ten others.
When I reentered the arena, the horses were already waiting patiently with the grooms. Lord Gareth was gently stroking Obsidian’s neck as the beast nuzzled him, searching for treats. The kindness with which the lord treated the horse softened my guard a bit.
Any man who is kind to animals surely couldn’t be a terrible husband, right? I wondered as Lord Gareth turned, his eyes widening a bit in surprise upon seeing my plain tunic and jerkin.
“Lady Serena, it may be possible that you are even more lovely in men’s clothing,” he blushed. I smiled, knowing he probably enjoyed the way the new clothes hugged my tall and shapely figure. I smiled nonchalantly as I took Obsidian’s reins from the groom and mounted the beast.
“The grooms won’t be exercising the horses for us?” Gareth called up to me, clearly surprised.
“Of course not! What kind of trainer would I be if I couldn’t ride?” I grinned and signaled my steed to walk off. “Feel free to take a seat in our viewing boxes on the side of the arena there!”
Gareth glanced over at the seats, then back at me before striding over to the roan mare and mounting up. I smiled. This was a first, as the majority of potential suitors chose simply to sit and watch... those that didn’t leave after I returned in men's garments.
Gareth sat atop the horse with a natural ease that pleased me. I would have simply put Obsidian through his paces, but Lord Gareth’s playful and bold mood had inspired me.
I trotted a few patterns around the arena to warm my mount and completed a simple obstacle course showcasing the steed’s steady temperament and tolerance. The lord tracked every movement, both mine and the horse’s, with great interest. Then I signaled for the groom to open the gate to the courtyard.
Gareth complimented his mount as we walked the horses across the cobblestone courtyard toward the gate. However, once we were through the castle lawns and had reached the track to the orchards, I urged the black gelding into a gallop, glancing toward Gareth and catching him as he set his mouth in a determined line. A joyful laugh rang from my lips as we took off, leaving Gareth and the roan mare in our dust.
We raced past the acres of orchards, down the road through the fields, toward the cliffs. The pillars of stone, which marked the safe distance from the edge, grew close and I slowed my horse to a trot. Weaving between a few of the obelisks, cooling my mount, I waited for Gareth to arrive. After quite a wild ride, I was curious to see how he had fared.
The roan mare thundered up to us, whinnying as Gareth stopped her abruptly. His hair was windblown, his cheeks pink with exhilaration, and his eyes sparkled like the deep blue ocean that formed the western border of my lands.
“That was fantastic!” he shouted, unabashedly, grinning wildly.
“I ride like this every day, if I can,” I grinned back and pointed beyond the stone pillars, to the grassy gentle slopes the cliffs overlooked. I caught his eye conspiratorially, "in fact, this is my second ride of the day!" We dismounted and walked closer to the edge.
Hundreds of horses grazed below us, their coats forming a rippling, multihued sea. Gareth let out a low whistle, clearly impressed. I straightened with pride, my chin up, face basking in the radiant warmth of the two suns. An eagle soared high above, screeching before circling to return to the stony mountains which formed the northern boundary of the Rourke lands, far beyond the castle.
I sighed as I felt my heart fill with the strange, familiar longing as I gazed out over the valley. The long grass waved, the birds sang, and the hazy mountains far to the east called as I sank to the earth with my back against one of the stone pillars. The wind flowed curiously around me and I drew strength from the adamantine boulder as I felt my magic bubbling up within me, threatening to overflow, a force simultaneously exhilarating and alarming. I closed my eyes and, breathing deeply, centered my thoughts, quieting the energy for now.
“Lady Serena? Are you feeling alright?” I found Lord Gareth kneeling at my side when I opened my eyes.
“Quite,” I forced a small smile, “the view always takes my breath away. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“Most definitely,” Gareth agreed, nodding and seating himself next to me.
We spoke of the valley and other nearby landmarks before we switched the topic to his lands, far to the south of mine, where we would all soon travel for his brother’s wedding. We talked of our families and our childhoods, our experiences at court, opinions of the royal family, and more. Lord Gareth’s eloquent speech was a delight and his sense of humor kept me in stitches. Before we knew it, the suns began to dip west and when Lord Gareth’s hunger made itself known I suggested returning to the castle with a chuckle.
We mounted up and Lord Gareth requested a different return route, assuring me he wouldn’t starve if it was a scenic one. I happily agreed, and led us toward the forest track. For the first time, I was genuinely enjoying myself with a suitor and had forgotten our time together was a product of my father's schemes of marriage. We trotted along silently for a small while, enjoying the shade and birdsong, when I spotted a large tree that had fallen across the path.
I smiled and urged the big, black horse past Gareth in a rush of hooves, onward into a canter, only reining him in slightly to signal to him to collect himself for the jump. We flew over the obstacle and thundered on, just reaching the edge of the trees when I heard a neigh of refusal from the roan mare and Gareth’s yell as he flew over the log by himself.
I wheeled Obsidian around and trotted back to the fallen tree, laughing at my suitor.
"I thought your brother was the one who couldn't keep his seat!"
Gareth lay still on the ground and panic filled me. I jumped down and rushed to his side, quickly checking his head for injuries.
I kicked myself mentally. I should have warned him. The roan mare was a heavy draft cross, impressive, intimidating, but not the most fond of jumping, even for me.
Hovering over Gareth, I groaned softly, dreading returning to the castle with Lord Gareth’s unconscious body and hearing my father’s disappointed words. Suddenly Gareth let out a hearty laugh and grabbed me, catching me off guard. I shrieked playfully, softly pushing at his powerful chest as he laughed, sitting up. Then his face became very serious and he gently brushed a lock of my hair out of my face as he covered my hand on his chest with his own.
“I have never seen eyes as green as yours, Serena,” Gareth whispered. A shiver ran over my skin and an involuntary bolt of energy shot through me. Before I could stop myself, the energy rushed through me and my hair danced with thousands of tiny flames. Gareth jumped up with a yell.
His tunic was on fire where my hand had just been.