A month later Eleanor sat astride Teardrop, the mare she had chosen from the three in the paddock. She was a skittish thing, named for the birthmark on her right cheek. Eleanor had been drawn to her appraising look, but the pink splotch on her face sealed the choice. The other mares seemed too perfect, and Teardrop’s birthmark reminded her of the flaw in her own eyes.
Few women ever rode unicorns, but the ones who did were permitted to wear leggings while mounted. For Eleanor, who had spent her whole life in heavy skirts, it was liberation. The soft calfskin riding pants made her silk stockings feel like sausage casings, and she rejoiced in the ease of loosening a belt and a few buttons to use the chamber pot without fear of wetting a petticoat. Riding astride was comfortable and easy after sitting sidesaddle on horseback.
Welkie had been astonished at how quickly she began an earnest communication with Teardrop. Eleanor appreciated his praise, but did not fully understand it. She found the mare’s subtle cues and nuances, along with her airy speech, obvious and easily interpreted. She simply took in the whole picture, from the set of her ears to the swish of her tail, and Teardrop’s meaning could not have been clearer had she picked up a quill and written it out. Within a week Eleanor had been ready to ride.
“Not meaning any insult, young masters,” Welkie had said to Gregory and Dorian, “but you two were plain slow compared with Princess Eleanor here, and I would have said you was some of my best students.”
As Welkie gained confidence in Eleanor’s abilities he let her ride in the ring alone. This afternoon she looked up from checking Teardrop’s lead and saw the Paladin and Dorian leaning over the paddock gate.
“Visitors,” Teardrop said. “What do they want?”
“Let’s go find out.” Eleanor dismounted and Teardrop followed her to the gate.
“Got some good news,” Welkie said. “You two are getting along right well. You ready for some new scenery?”
“Do you mean it?” Eleanor clapped. She and Teardrop were both bored with circling the ring.
“I do,” he said. “Why don’t you head out into the south pasture? There’s a nice trail back there. It passes the brook and heads out toward the Abbey. Mister Finley and Senné will join you. Make sure everything goes smooth-like.”
“Gregory stayed up a bit too late playing sharpstick with Brian, so I offered,” Dorian said. “I hope you don’t mind.”
“No, of course not.” In truth, she was genuinely disappointed Gregory wouldn’t be coming along. She hoped their shared love of the unicorns would give them something they could enjoy together. She fumbled as she checked Teardrop’s girth. The thought of spending several hours virtually alone in a field with Dorian unnerved her. The mare nibbled at Eleanor’s hair as Eleanor examined her hooves. She whispered in her mistress’s ear. “All fine.” Eleanor straightened so she could read the whole message. “We will watch over each other.”
“I know we will.”
She kissed Teardrop’s muzzle and grabbed the braided rope woven into her mane. She couldn’t reach the stirrups and swinging herself into the saddle took all her strength, but it got easier each day. She guided Teardrop through the open gate.
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