In the Land of Ever After

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Chapter 6 - The Riding Lesson

They need to go down to the valley, but first John has to get his prince on a horse.


That afternoon, Adam came into the office wearing a puzzled look. “John, Cogsworth said I’m scheduled to meet with you now?”

“You…oh yes, that. We can do it now, of course.” John carefully put his pencil away and moved a book to hold down his papers, then stood up. “I was just going to exercise Sven, I told him I’d take you with me.”

“Sven?”

“Princess Elsa’s horse.”

Adam turned a funny color. “I…”

“Have to learn to ride with confidence, Your Highness – or at least give the appearance of it,” John told him. “We have to go down into the valley to talk to Master Beauchard, remember? It’s much too far to walk, and not far enough for a carriage.” He circled around the desk and, taking a chance, patted the other man’s arm. “Prince Adam, I’m not all that good with horses myself, but I was able to teach the princess how to manage one. And Sven is a fine horse but quite lazy, he wouldn’t bolt if you told him to. Now if you’ll come with me, we’ll see about getting a treat for him from the kitchen and then we’ll take him out.”

The prince was mostly agreeable to that, so John led the way to the main kitchen, steeling himself for another round of scolding from Mrs. Potts. If Cogsworth had heard ‘rumors’ about the state of his clothes, there was no way she hadn’t. Hopefully she would just be pleased that he was going out again – or even better, perhaps she’d just not be in the kitchen at all.

She was there, of course, and very near the door as well, and he held back a sigh and bowed. “Mrs. Potts, might we get a few apples for the horses?”

“Horses?” Oh thank goodness, she’d been distracted from the scold he’d known was coming by the prince, who was trying to look like him going to visit the horses was nothing unusual – and failing rather miserably. “Oh, Your Highness…”

Adam rolled his eyes. “I’m told I need to learn to be more confident on a horse, so Cogsworth arranged for me to go with John when he exercised the princess’s horse this afternoon.”

She immediately raised an eyebrow at John, who held up his hands to ward off the scold he was sure was coming. “Sven is a very docile creature, Mrs. Potts. I taught the princess to ride him – she adores him, she even named him. And I thought half an apple might convince some of the other horses in the stable to look forward to seeing the prince. They react to someone being nervous in their presence by becoming skittish themselves, but they’ll ignore that if he feeds them something they like.”

The eyebrow stayed up. “Is that how you did it?”

John nodded. “That’s how a courier showed me, yes. Apparently they’re frequently asked to ride strange horses, so most of them carry something just for winning one over.” The eyebrow went down, and he did not quite sigh in relief. “The apple basket? I’ll pick out some bruised ones, the horses don’t know the difference.”

She waved him across the kitchen, and he made for the basket. When he got near to it, however, he frowned. The apples were a deep, beautiful red, and the way the light from the hearth fire played over them made them look almost faceted…he had to catch himself by grabbing the edge of the worktable when a spike of pain shot through his head. He heard the prince and the cook both exclaim in alarm, and then a strong hand was on his arm. “John!”

He waved his hand toward the basket. “Apples…the rubies, Your Highness, they’re…”

The next spike of pain almost made him cry out. “Stop thinking about it!” Adam ordered; he sounded pained as well, and his grip on John’s arm had become almost bruising. “It’s the curse, Mrs. Potts – the one that gives us all a headache when we try to put a name to our kingdom. This is how it protects itself. He must have had a thought which came very close.”

John forced his thoughts away from rubies and apples with an effort, slumping against the table in relief when the pain stopped. “I’m sorry, Your Highness, I just saw them and…”

“Don’t think about it,” Adam warned. He had a hand pressed to the side of his head. “My god, that felt like someone had stabbed me in the eye. We’ll have to be more careful. Should we feed the horses something different, John?”

John shook his head, only betraying a slight wince. “It was just…the way they looked in the light just now that made me think of it. I eat apples all the time.”

“Yes, you eat them instead of eating real food,” Mrs. Potts scolded, and John winced again, but for a different reason this time. To his surprise, though, she patted his shoulder. “Let me get you a few bruised ones for the horses. If you’re sure you’re able to go out?”

John straightened away from the table, taking a deep breath and smoothing the lapels of his jacket. “Yes, I’m fine now, thank you. The…effect stops straightaway once you think on something different.”

“It does,” Adam confirmed when she looked to him for confirmation of that. “We figured that out yesterday.” This time he was the one who put up his hands to ward off the scold. “Quite by accident, I assure you. We’d all known about the headache, but I hadn’t known the curse could do worse than that until yesterday when I was speaking with John about it.”

She gave them both a very long look, and then she shook her head and huffed. “Boys! Always getting into some sort of trouble, even when they aren’t trying to.” She got two slightly bruised apples for them, and even cut the apples in half and wrapped them in a napkin. “There, go play with the horses. It’s a lovely afternoon for it, and it’s about time His Highness learned to not treat the creatures like they were dragons wanting to eat him.”

Adam appeared somewhat offended by this, although not enough to do more than sulk a bit on their way out to the stables. Which only currently housed six horses: two for the royal carriage, three for riding, and Sven. Adam started when Sven spotted John and immediately neighed. “What…”

“He’s saying hello, he’s happy to see me,” John explained. “I come out to exercise him every day, and he likes that.” He fished an apple-half out of the napkin and then led Adam over to Sven’s stall. The horse tossed its head and snorted, making Adam jump. “No, that’s because he can tell you’re afraid, which makes him afraid too – not of you, of whatever it is you’re afraid of that he can’t see. He’s not going to hurt you.” He put the apple in Adam’s hand. “Now hold it out to him, keeping your hand absolutely flat, like a plate.”

Adam did, very slowly, and his blue eyes widened when the horse immediately stopped looking as nervous as he felt and started nosing at the apple instead. It then took the apple with its lips and teeth, but very delicately, and stood there chewing with what could only be described as a blissful look on its face. Encouraged by John, Adam stroked the top of the horse’s face, just above its nose. “He’s soft.”

“He gets brushed a lot. The stablemaster is using Sven to train the new boy because Sven isn’t prone to kicking or biting and he mostly just stands there and lets you do whatever you want.” John patted the horse’s neck. “He’s horribly spoiled, but still a very good horse. Now, let’s feed a few of his friends so they don’t get jealous. Which one is yours?”

“I’m told it’s that one.” Adam pointed to the last stall, where a very large black horse stood glaring at them. “I’m not feeding him. He hates me, he’ll take my hand off.”

“He might try, but that’s because he’s a stallion, Your Highness.” The stablemaster had come out, and he bowed. “He doesn’t hate you. Stallions just tend to be rather more temperamental than geldings like Sven, and more prone to react if you’re nervous around them.”

“I don’t think I blame him for being nervous around that horse, Mr. Fabron.” John made a face. “I don’t want to go near it either.”

“Geldings?” Adam wanted to know. “What does that mean?”

The stablemaster bit his lip. “Well, it’s something we do, to a foal – a very young horse – if we’re not going to use them for stud.” That got him two blank looks. “If we don’t want them getting at the mares to make foals, we…well, we take off their…you know.” Both of the younger men apparently got the idea, and looked more than a little horrified by it, and he hastened to reassure them. “It doesn’t hurt them all that much, because we do it when they’re quite young. And a gelding is much, much calmer than a stallion, and much better for regular riding because he won’t be…distracted by any mares he comes across that happen to be in season. Part of Cauchemar’s problem right now,” he said, waving at the black horse. “The carriage horses are both mares, and they were just in season. He’s already done his duty there and now they want nothing else to do with him, so he’s not very happy at the moment. Speaking of which, Your Highness, if it’s at all possible we’re going to need another team of horses for the carriage. Once the mares get farther along, it won’t be safe to have them pull it.”

“Where do we get more horses?”

“There are some farmers down in the valley who breed horses,” Mr. Fabron told him. “I’d like to get a sturdier pair anyway, we could have used them last year when the snows got deep. These two are lovely, but not right for such conditions.”

Adam nodded. “If you find the right pair, then, get them,” he agreed. “Just tell John how much so he can get it out of the treasury for you. Do we need anything else?” The black horse stamped its foot and snorted. “An iron cage, maybe?”

That made the stablemaster laugh. “Cauchemar’s really not that bad, Your Highness – although I do agree, you shouldn’t go anywhere near him. Even the stableboys don’t, I tend to him myself.” He cocked a considering eyebrow. “I could look for a more suitable horse for you when I’m looking for carriage horses, Prince Adam. We can keep Cauchemar for stud, he does bring in enough by doing that to justify keeping him. Some of the farmers pay us to let him breed their mares,” he explained so his prince wouldn’t have to ask. “Or we barter with them for the service, as improving the stock in the valley is good for all of us.”

John looked pleased to hear that, which Adam took as a sign that it was a good attitude for the stablemaster to have. “Then we should definitely keep doing that,” he agreed. “And yes, if you could find me a horse that isn’t a nightmare on four legs, I would appreciate it. Do we need a larger stable?”

“Not yet, no. Next year we might, after the foals are born if we decide to keep them.” He waved a hand at the mares. “If you’ve got more apple, those two would appreciate the treat. You’re going to take Sven out for his exercise, Mr. Kepperson?”

“And take the prince out with us,” John confirmed. “We’ve got to ride down to the valley ourselves later this week, and Cogsworth said he needed more riding practice.”

“Of course,” Mr. Fabron agreed. “You can ride one of the other horses for that, Your Highness,” he assured his prince. “That chestnut gelding over there is the one Mr. Cogsworth normally rides, he’d do nicely.” He bowed again. “Let me know if you need anything, I’ll just go back to what I was doing.”

He did go back to the tack room, where he’d been polishing a harness, but he left the door open because he really wanted to see this riding lesson. His own attempts at approaching the prince – or having Mr. Cogsworth approach him – regarding re-learning how to ride had all been dismal failures, most likely because the old groom had been so insistent that the prince should ride a stallion just like his father before him had, and that the stallion had to be Cauchemar. In fact, he’d been so insistent that Mr. Cogsworth had quietly retired him – even a steward who had very little experience with horses himself had known that putting a nervous novice rider onto the back of a high-strung, ill-tempered stallion would be tantamount to murder, and rumor had it that the old groom had apparently not been at all pleased to have spent ten years transformed into whatever it was he’d been holding when the curse had struck. Knowing the daily workings of a stable, it had almost certainly been something quite unpleasant.

John saddled Sven while Adam fed the carriage horses, and then he led both horse and prince out into the yard. Mr. Fabron watched as he demonstrated how to mount, indicating with a swish of his hand that you had to be mindful of your cloak if you were wearing one, and then had the prince try it. He stopped him halfway through the try and explained it again, and then a second time where he walked the prince through the idea that you were supposed to be swinging up, not climbing up.

The stablemaster would have been even more amused if he could have heard the conversation which was accompanying the lesson. “Your Highness, he’s not going anywhere; and even if he were inclined to, I’m holding his head.”

Adam frowned. “But what if you aren’t here to do that?”

“Then Mr. Fabron will be, or one of the stablehands. But you won’t actually need anyone to hold your horse for you once you get used to swinging up into the saddle. Now try it again, please – and remember, this should actually be easier for you than it is for me, because you don’t have to swing up quite as far.”

“I don’t, do I?” Adam got ready to try it again, but stopped when Sven looked at him sideways. “He’s mad.”

“He’s confused, because we keep going up and down but we’re not going anywhere.” John gave Sven the last piece of apple, which solved that problem. “All right, this time you’re doing it. Swing up!”

Adam put his foot in the stirrup, grabbed the saddle horn and swung his other leg over the horse’s back…and then he was in the saddle almost before he had time to think about it. He looked down at John. “That…”

“Is how you do it, yes.” John was beaming. “Now sit up straight, you’re to keep your balance with your legs, not your hands. I’m going to lead him around the yard so you can get used to the way he moves, and then we’ll try it again with you holding the reins instead of me.”

He led Sven around the yard at a very casual pace, letting Adam find his balance, and then he had the prince dismount and they did it again with Adam holding the reins for himself – although John walked next to the horse just in case. And then they did it a third time, and this time John leaned on the fence and watched. Adam dismounted without instruction this time, and Mr. Fabron was pleased to see his prince’s natural grace coming to the fore as his nerves receded. “That wasn’t hard at all!”

“Sven is a very easy horse to ride,” John agreed, taking back the reins and patting the horse’s neck. “Tomorrow maybe we can take out Cogsworth’s horse and let you ride him around the yard while I ride Sven.”

“Is he…”

“I’ve no doubt he’s almost as calm as Sven is, Your Highness. People don’t ride excitable horses in the mountains, it isn’t safe.”

“Cauchemar…”

“Is the kind of horse only a very experienced horseman can handle, but that’s not because he’s excitable or jumpy. He’s just a very large, mean horse, and if someone is going to ride him they have to have enough presence, enough confidence, to impress upon him that they’re someone he should respect. Mr. Fabron must be a very accomplished rider for Cauchemar to even let him mount.”

The stablemaster, who had been coming out to get Sven since it was obvious they were done for the day, couldn’t help but puff up a little with pride over that compliment; he bowed to John. “Why thank you, Mr. Kepperson, that’s very nice of you to say. Shall I put Sven up for you?”

“Yes, thank you. Has the princess been out yet?”

“No, but I’m sure she will be any time now.” Sven neighed suddenly, and Mr. Fabron did not quite roll his eyes. “You spoiled thing.” He waved his hand to Elsa, who was peering out of the stable, no doubt looking for her horse. “We’re out here, Your Highness! I was just about to bring him in.”

They met her halfway between stable and yard, and Sven snorted when she threw her arms around his neck. “Were you having your exercise, Sven? I’ve got sugar for you.”

Sven snorted again and nosed at her, and she gave him a sugar cube. Adam was fascinated. “He eats sugar?”

“They all do, Your Highness,” the stablemaster told him. “It’s like having a piece of candy, it’s a treat. Apples are better for them, though.”

Elsa looked around the horse’s head at him. “Sven shouldn’t have sugar?”

“He shouldn’t have too much,” Fabron clarified. “A few cubes as a treat won’t hurt him, Princess, don’t worry. I’d have told you if you were giving him too much.”

“Oh good. I like giving him treats.” Elsa hugged the horse again. “I brought a ribbon, I want to try to plait his mane again. Can I brush him?”

“Of course, Your Highness. Just let me wipe him down first, he’s sweaty from his exercise. If you’ll go get your apron on, I’ll meet you at his stall.” She hurried off to do that, and the stablemaster bowed to Adam. “If there’s nothing else, Your Highness…”

“No, I believe we’re done for the day. I’d like to try riding Cogsworth’s horse…”

“Marron.”

“Thank you. I’d like to try riding Marron tomorrow, if that would be all right?”

Fabron kept himself from smiling. The boy really had no idea that most rulers demanded instead of asking. “Of course, Your Highness. I’ll have him ready for you at this same time tomorrow.”

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