Rafel guided her to the stables, a short walk from the keep proper, and an aging groomsman bowed slowly to her. “And who is this handsome fellow?” asked Talven’s daughter. Her attention made the man blush and she grinned.
“I’m Dor, doma. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
Dor escorted them into the stables, which smelled sweet, like hay and fresh oats. Horses whickered and stomped their hooves against the broad planked floor, coming to the open half-doors of their stalls. Another groom led a large roan stallion to the yard, already saddled, but paused to let Rafel run a hand along the beast’s withers.
“Is that yours?” asked Tirena, looking to the creature in amazement, for he was massive.
Rafel smiled, nodding. “Yes. That’s Toresh. Your father presented him to me when he chose me as Marshal. He fought me a bit, but now we’re well paired.”
Tirena looked at the equine heads leaned out of stalls, a little wary now.
“Don’t you worry, doma-sha. They will not fight you. You should ride a mare, not a stallion. Only the stallions tend to fight a bit.” It was Dor who spoke up, noticing Tirena’s uncertainty. She relaxed a bit then, and Rafel began to lead her around the stables, letting her meet each horse in turn. He encouraged her to speak to them, to take off a glove and touch them. She was delighted at the softness of their hair under her fingers, at the feeling of their breath on her skin, and gazed into their eyes as she spoke to them.
There were almost twenty stalls to visit, and so it took some time to see them all. When they were finished, Tirena turned to Rafel. “I don’t know how to choose one. They’re all lovely.”
Her protector smiled and helped her replace her glove, taking great care with the task. “You need not, Tirena. She will choose you,” he explained. When she naturally seemed confused at that he chuckled. “The humans have a misguided idea that they are the masters of all things. Surely you do not share that view, doma-sha.” When she shook her head he smiled. “You have introduced yourself to them. You have given them a chance to see into your heart, to feel your spirit. The one whose spirit matches yours will choose you.”
Tirena looked amazed, and a bit baffled. “But what about you and Toresh?”
Rafel nodded. “That is slightly different,” he admitted. “Toresh could choose to leave me, if he wished it. I have proven myself to him, and so he chooses to remain with me.”
It made sense to her, and she smiled, looking around at the stables. It occurred to her she had not chosen a favorite. She had admired each of the mares and fillies but had not made up her mind which one she wanted. It was at once a startling idea, and a very natural one.
Rafel smiled, and nodded to Dor, who pulled a lever which released the bottom halves of the stall doors. There was more whickering from the gentle steeds within, and some hoof stomping and scraping as they moved around. Tirena waited, hands tightly clasped, to see which one of them would choose her. When Rafel made a soft sound she turned to see a mare walking towards her slowly. She was stocky, though not massive like a stallion, a dapple grey except for her lower legs, her mane and tail which were all black. Dor clapped his hands together in delight as the mare slowly approached Tirena, breathing softly on her face and neck as she nuzzled close.
“She is beautiful, doma-sha.” Rafel’s voice was quiet, the man standing back somewhat to let the bonding continue unhindered.
“She truly is,” agreed Tirena, lifting one gloved hand to stroke the mare’s curved neck.
As Dor and another groom left to gather a riding saddle and bridle, Rafel moved to stand a little closer to his charge. “What is her name?” he asked. “Do not think, just listen, and speak her name aloud.”
The question seemed strange to Tirena, but she smiled, and looked into the mare’s dark eyes. “She is called Pasha.” Her words came easily, and when she had spoken them the mare whickered softly and bobbed her head a few times.
“Pasha has chosen you, doma-sha. She will care for you almost as well as I will,” Rafel promised, taking the young woman’s hand in his own. He looked steadily to Pasha then. “I will take excellent care of her in your absence, Pasha.” he promised to the horse, and she nudged their joined hands lightly with her head. It seemed like approval to him, and he smiled warmly.
Dor and the groom returned with a polished black saddle and bridle fitted with a riding bit. They laid a thick green blanket over Pasha’s back and then worked to fit the saddle properly, then as the young groom adjusted the saddle Dor helped Tirena sleep the bridle over Pasha’s head. He showed her the bit, how gentle it was, and that the mare wouldn’t fight it at all. “We do not mistreat our animal companions here,” he assured her, tightening the buckles to keep the bridle from chafing the mare.
Taking the reins from the groom, Tirena led Pasha to a low platform from which she could easily climb into the saddle. Rafel looked up at her with a bright smile as he fixed her skirts, her frock fashioned with extra fabric specially for riding. When she was settled he swung into Toresh’s saddle. The stallion whinnied and stomped a couple of times, and Rafel laughed. “We’re going, impatient one.”