Rain hammered the roof, echoing down through the rafters to fill the otherwise-silent house with an endless muffled hiss. Two less-than-pleased night patrolmen dragged me into the common room and deposited me in a sodden heap at my father’s feet. Their manners were markedly less gentle than usual, likely a result of the vigorous chase I’d led them on through the deluge outside. All three of us were soaked to the skin, the soot that had originally disguised me in the dark all but washed away.
“Took one of the cart horses this time, my lord,” one of the cavalrymen reported.
“The sorrel again?”
Father replied without words, both acknowledgement and disapproval wrapped into a single short grunt.
I looked up at him from my puddle on the polished hardwood floor, nothing but the drip-drip-drip of rain slipping from my tangle of sable hair to fill the sullen silence. There was no doubt in my mind that another solid lashing awaited me. Oh, I felt the sting of fear tugging hard at my chest, but I was young and proud and stubborn – gifts of my lineage, or so I’ve been told – so I hurled my insolent gaze up at him and refused to blink first.
“This is your doing,” my mother scolded mildly from her place in the shadows behind him, slender arms crossed over her night robe and a scowl painted on her face. “I told you not to take her to the training fields.”
He didn’t reply, holding my stare with that deadpan look of disapproval, fully aware of my silent challenge.
“We should take her back to the city,” she added. “Find her a governess.”
“She’s a Lazerin. She belongs here.” His deep voice reverberated through the heavy beams far overhead.
In a swirl of dark silk, my mother turned to leave, waving a frustrated hand our way. “Then check her, Damien, or she’ll be the end of this House. She has too much of you in her.” With that, she was gone, retreating back up the stairs toward their quarters and leaving my father and I to our staring contest. After a long, silent battle, he yielded, heaving a sigh and rubbing at dark-ringed eyes.
My small victory abruptly withered in my chest. Heavy footsteps approached and I couldn’t help but glance toward that all-too-familiar whip hand. Stiff-backed and stone-faced, the captain of our house guard posted up behind my right shoulder, his aging physique no less intimidating as it cast its burly shadow over me. His empty left sleeve was pinned up, as usual, the arm itself lost in battle during the War of Crowns long before I was born. By all accounts, he’d been a fierce and capable commander in his youth, but the King’s army has no use for a crippled captain. My father had taken pity on him, offering Samson a position with our House after his commission had been terminated at the end of the war.
Unfortunately, the old bastard was right-handed and took no pity on me.
Father dropped his hand from his face, deep evergreen eyes fixing on mine once more. This time, it was resolve I saw in them.
“How many times has the night patrol caught her?”
“This makes fifteen, my lord.”
“A Lazerin, outridden.”
Armor creaked as Samson tensed behind me, but my father’s loyal captain kept his thoughts to himself.
“I’ll not suffer this embarrassment any longer,” Father added with stern finality. “Take her to the stables in the morning. See that she learns to ride properly.”
“…Properly, my lord?”
Father tilted his head at me and raised his brows in silent query, inviting me to break my long, careful silence. The words practically leapt from my mouth.
“Like the cavalry!” I blurted. “Like the men do!”
He lifted his chin a fraction, unable to completely conceal the conspiratorial grin that tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“Astride, then.” His eyes drifted to my pilfered trousers and vest, which were many sizes too large. “Though I think we’ll need to find you something a bit more suitable to wear.”
Samson met me in the courtyard the next morning, grim and clearly annoyed at his new assignment. I squared up before him, solemn as a soldier, and weathered his disapproving assessment with little more than a silent scowl. My new breeches and tunic, which fit me far better than the ones I’d stolen from the cook’s closet, seemed particularly offensive to him.
“Roll up yer sleeves,” he growled, grabbing at my thin arms and examining my soft hands. Dirt yet lingered beneath my nails from scrapping with the stable boys the day before. He muttered something rather unflattering about a lady’s place, but I held my tongue and he eventually released me to obey his command.
“Bloody ridiculous, the lot of it,” he grumbled under his breath. “This is no ladies’ outing, ye hear?”
I fought the urge to look at his empty left sleeve as I rolled up my own. “Yes, sir.”
He leveled a threatening glare at me and laid out his terms in succinct measures. “No whinin’. No cryin’. No poutin’. No backtalk. Any such nonsense and I’ll tan yer hide same as any lad.”
“You’ve earned as much a dozen times over already, by my measure. Switch is too soft for the likes of you. A proper thrashing’d put ye back in yer place.”
Those cold dark eyes glared down at me for a long moment, daring me to protest. When I offered nothing but a tight-lipped silence in response, he turned abruptly on his heel and started for the stables.
“Hop to, horse thief. Haven’t got all day.”
Those first two weeks, Samson taught me nearly everything imaginable about horses – everything except riding. I picked hooves, polished tack, and cleaned stalls. I hot-walked and lunged yearlings, and checked for swollen joints on a beige mare we had pastured after her prime breeding years. I sat with the farrier while he re-shoed one of our carriage horses. I hauled water and scrubbed troughs and spread armfuls of straw.
I had been around horses my whole, short life – it was my family’s livelihood – but I had never been required to do menial tasks reserved for servants and stable hands. Despite my young age, I knew one thing for certain: noble ladies do not pick stalls and polish saddles. Samson was taking advantage of my apprenticeship to humiliate me as much as possible. Though it burned my pride, I had enough sense to keep my mouth shut and obey without complaint. Eventually, he had to do as my father commanded. Until then, I wouldn’t give him any just cause to end my hard-won lessons.
The stable hands, including the young boys I knew well from our escapades about the house and grounds, tolerated my presence in their domain with a mix of amusement and sympathy. They dared not help me with any of my assigned tasks, for fear of reprisal from Samson, but they offered small gestures of solidarity whenever my ruthless overlord wasn’t looking.
At the start of the third week, I ambled into the courtyard for my daily lesson, yawning and wondering what fresh torment the commander had concocted for me that day. Instead of the usual bucket or pitchfork, his scowling visage waited with the beige palfrey in hand, fully tacked.
“Hurry up, girl,” he growled, jerking his head at the mare’s saddle.
I scrambled to obey, rushing for a nearby crate and dragging it out onto the cobblestones just as quickly as my small hands could manage. A harsh bark of laughter tore through the air, echoing off the stone around me.
“The bloody hells ye doin’, horse thief?”
I froze, blinking at him in confusion. “You told me to mount, sir.”
His smirk faded, face darkening. “Ye want a mounting box, ye can learn side-saddle like a proper lady.”
“But it’s too high,” I protested feebly.
“Ye said ye wanted to ride like the cavalry. This is how it’s done.”
“But I’m not tall enough-”
“Ye sayin’ ye changed yer mind?”
“My men haul their own carcasses into the saddle.”
He dropped the reins and stormed toward me, kicking the crate back across the stones before bending over to stick his scarred ugly mug in my face. One thick finger jabbed at my chest hard enough to hurt. His gravelly voice came out low and vicious, cold eyes gleaming.
“Ye want to know why they don’t let lasses into the cavalry? Because there ain’t no creature with a sharper tongue than a woman, but when it comes to the doin’, it’s only a man follows through to the end. Yer father might let ye play at bein’ a lordling, but ye haven’t the stones for aught else but a lady’s lot.”
I wanted to hit him. I imagined hitting him, squarely in the nose, so hard it would make his big, mean eyes water. I wanted to, but I didn’t. With my blood boiling and eyes burning, I shoved past him and approached the mare now skittering across the cobblestones, spooked by the rush of angry voices and the clatter of the crate.
It took several minutes and a good amount of coaxing before she settled enough to let me near. At nine, I hadn’t yet hit my main growth spurt of childhood, and my head barely grazed the middle of her flanks. The stirrup clanged against my chest, leaving me to despair at ever reaching the cursed thing without aid.
I tried, though. I tried for well over an hour. Samson quickly grew bored of watching me contort myself in one desperate attempt after another to lift my foot to that impossible height. I actually got my toes into the loop once, but the mare startled and sent me sprawling on my backside before I could heave myself up into the saddle.
“Call for me again when ye manage it,” Samson scoffed, his heavy boot steps receding into the manor.
I didn’t start crying until I was sure he was gone. Even as I wept in frustration, I kept at it. The mare shied at my repeated attempts and danced away from me until I finally resigned myself to a hopeless heap on the ground.
“I didn’t think you’d ever give it up!”
I turned to see a boy, only a few years older than I, leaning against the stables with a half-eaten apple in his hand, his reddish-brown hair and sparsely freckled face marking him as one of the stablemaster’s offspring. My jaw clenched, pride aching, and I wondered just how long he’d been standing there watching me make a fool of myself.
“Go away, James,” I snarled at him, quickly wiping my face on my sleeve in a futile attempt to hide my tears.
“If you wanted to learn to ride, you might’ve just asked. Erik and I woulda taught you.”
“I know how to ride,” I bit back. He raised a dubious brow at the sore pile of nine-year-old girl still wallowing on the cobblestones before him.
“This’d be an embroidery lesson, then?”
I bristled in all my youthful indignance, face flushing an alarming shade of red. “Shut up. Go away.”
“Would you like to see a trick?” he asked, ignoring my venom and gesturing to the skittish mare.
I continued glaring at him, too full of humiliated fury to reply. He waited a good long while for an answer, munching on another mouthful of apple before eventually giving up and shoving off the wall.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
Carefree steps carried him across the stones with quiet confidence, every movement tracked by the beast before us. The mare eyed him suspiciously but held her ground as he extended the remnants of his apple in one palm.
“Easy now, old girl,” he murmured.
After a brief hesitation, she toed forward and pushed her muzzle to his hand, settling into him. I put an extra bit of effort into my unimpressed snort, just to be sure he heard it. Such tricks were child’s play, common tools to calm spooked horses. I didn’t need help calming her. I needed a way to get my foot into that damned stirrup.
James moved to the mare’s side, rubbing her neck in circles and crooning in a voice so calming that I felt my own breathing slow. Deft fingers adjusted the reins higher on her neck and pulled them gently downward with a hand near her bit. The other slid to her withers, one booted foot tapping at her front hoof. I watched in astonishment as the beige mare knelt awkwardly on her front knees, blowing out her nose in soft whinnies. He rubbed her again in encouragement and climbed carefully onto her back. With a pat to her neck and a few clicks of his tongue, she stood straight again, calm as ever.
“So,” he lilted, meeting my gaping stare with the same smug grin inherent to every twelve-year-old boy. “Fancy an embroidery lesson?”