In no time the five had returned to the Sect and were back by the fountain.
“So, I guess the tour is off now right?” Mason asked. She shifted her stance and nervously rubbed an arm. “I understand if no one wants to go anywhere else. I mean, I feel like that….” And she looked it too. The Alchemist’s factory had really frightened her.
“Yes, it’s probably best that we skip the tour,” Tweedy agreed. “Once you meet one ill-tempered guard, you don’t want to meet any others. If they report you, and they always do, you’ll be branded as a troublemaker. Trust me, you do not want that title.”
“Eh, you were being a terrible tour guide in the first place,” Swish put in with a toss of her hair.
“Urgh! You’re impossible to talk too.”
While Rebekka heard and watched all of this, she didn’t quite comprehend it. To her, they all seemed to be far, far away, blurred with the other background sights and sounds. Her thoughts were elsewhere, clicking, shifting, and calculating. She didn’t even notice when Mason sat beside her.
“Rebekka are you alright?” the girl asked.
“Yes,” Rebekka replied, though unconsciously.
“Are you sure?”
“No, you’re not.”
Several seconds passed before she recognized the questions. It snatched her from her thoughts and threw her back into reality.
“What?” she asked.
“How many questions did I ask you?” Mason asked.
“… I don’t know. I think it was two.”
“No, it wasn’t. I asked you if you were alright three times before you answered.”
Rebekka sighed, suddenly feeling the toll the three-week journey to the Axon had taken on her. “I’m so sorry Mason. I was thinking that’s all. Sometimes I get a little carried away.”
“Thinking about what?”
The four of them stared at her, waiting for her answer. She opened her mouth to let the answer out, but it suddenly got stuck in her throat. At the last moment, her mind had thought otherwise. In truth, she was thinking about Acidine, but had realized that in order for her reply to make sense, she would have to explain most if not all of her thoughts. That, she was not willing to do.
“Why aren’t you wearing the regular uniform?” she asked.
“Who me?” Tweedy asked.
“Of course, you,” Swish said. “Who else isn’t out of order?”
Tweedy grinned, complete ignoring Swish’s remark, and replied, “Oh, I stole them back. Twice.”
“Not something he should be necessarily proud of,” Swish muttered.
“They have sentimental value Swish. I wasn’t going to let them go and get burned.”
“It’s not like you have to wear them either. You know they’re just going to take them from you again.”
“And I’ll just steal them back.”
“Not as hopeless as you are.”
“Mistress of darkness and all that is miserable.”
“Beetle browed bonehead.”
Before another word could be thrown, Thumble cleared his throat notably loud and crossed his arms. The bickering stopped instantly, but the two of them exchanged a pair of menacing side glances. Clearly, this wasn’t the end of it.
“So what are we going to do?” Swish muttered grumpily. “I know we aren’t just going to stand here for the rest of the day.”
“We could go and visit the stable hand,” Tweedy said and looked to Swish with a rascally grin of mischief. “We all know you’re dying to see him again.”
“Am not!” Swish exclaimed going fuchsia.
“Ohhhhh… alright. I’ll make sure to tell him the next time I see him.”
She sniffed tipping up her nose. “Go ahead. I wouldn’t care the least.”
“To the stables I go! Oh, Finch. Finchy where are you! Oh look! There he is right there!”
“What!?! Where?” Swish’s eyes went wide as she gasped.
The group turned to look. “Finch” was coming from an alleyway of the buildings surrounding the fountain. He was a dark-haired spectacled young man of tall stature. He wore a cloth and leather smock, neat and simple, and looked as though he didn’t mind the humble apparel.
“Finch, you who!” Tweedy called.
“Tweedy, what are you doing?” Swish hissed.
“Getting him to come over here. What’s it look like?”
Finch looked around for the caller of his name, spotted Tweedy and a wide smile spread across his face. He waved and started a brisk jog over.
“Oh, now l-look a-t what y-you’ve done!” Swish stammered in a full flush.
“Ooo, someone’s stuttering,” Tweedy teased. “That means your nervous.”
“Sh-shut up T-tweedy!”
Tweedy chuckled and greeted Finch with a, “Hello good chap!”
“How’s it going Tweedy?” Finch replied. “Thumble… Swish.” He gave Swish a smile that Rebekka was sure to get her flush to deepen even more if it wasn’t as red as it was already.
“And who are these two? Haven’t seen them around here.”
“New recruits that just came in today,” Tweedy answered. “Here’s Mason and this is Rebekka.”
“Nice to meet you two ladies. I mean, I-I really wish I didn’t because it means being here in the Axon and rathered we met somewhere else… um, different and…”
“It’s nice to meet you too,” Rebekka said. “Even if we are unfortunate to meet in an Axon.”
“Oh, Finch, it almost slipped my mind,” Tweedy said with that crafty grin on his face once more. “Swish here was just talking about you.”
“You were?” Finch asked, his brows raising in delighted surprise.
“Oh, um, yeah,” Swish said hugging herself tightly. Even though Rebekka had just met her, she could tell she was practically about to burst. “I was wondering, uh-um, about how you were doing.”
Finch deflated some. “Oh… ‘m doing fine. You?”
Behind them Tweedy rolled his eyes with a heavy sigh.
“Oh, I don’t know what’s gotten into her this morning! She’s gotten so forgetful,” Tweedy cheerfully butted in. “What about the talk of the horses Swish?”
“My horses?” Finch asked perking brightly. “What about them?”
“Ummm, I was… was wondering how far you have come on their training. Has it become, uh, easier or you know?”
“The training’s great! I’m sure they’ll be fit and ready to go for tomorrow’s recruits.” He smiled. “You know I wouldn’t be sure until I had another handler to test them out and see. How would you, your brother and friends like to come to the stables and help me out some.”
Swish didn’t answer, which got Rebekka to wondering about her, but then she noticed that Swish hadn’t been breathing. She gasped and squeaked, “Me? Why, I’d-I’d love to!”
Tweedy shook his head with a mixture of pity and relief, Thumble rumbled a chuckle and Mason giggled with excitement.
“Right this way then,” Finch said and waved Swish forward.
The group made their way to the stables and all the while, Finch talked without a pause or break in speech. Swish listened to every word as if they were the words of holy value.
“You see the Stable Manager wanted me to check the temperament of each steed imported here,” Finch was saying as they approached the worn wooden stables. “I did so but learned that those with bad temperament would be sent to the Alchemist’s factory. I couldn’t stand it, so I told the manager each of them was of good temper and worked with those with bad temper after my workday. I usually stay after anyway, so no one asked questions. Through here.”
They filed inside through the stable’s back door. Right away, Rebekka was reminded of Neidica. She missed that old gentle mare of hers. She had been in her family ever since she could remember and thought after her from time to time. She hoped she was doing well. Thinking of Neidica almost always led to thoughts of Togian, but she would sigh those thoughts away. She knew they would upset her tremendously if she allowed them to have reign.
The stable was well kept and cleaned to the point of perfection. Finch was certainly a dutiful stable hand that loved his work. The horses were brushed, manes glossy and very friendly. They nickered at the newcomers, sharing their greetings, and alerting the others to do the same. Or that’s how Rebekka saw it.
“The last three on the left had some of the worst temperament you could imagine,” Finch said. “Biting, rearing, kicking. The worst.”
Swish reached out and stroked a grey mottled one along the arch of its neck. “But all you need is a little bit of care, good treatment and patience and they always come out okay,” she said softly.
Finch smiled at her words, “Do you like him?”
“I like his colors… and it looks like he takes to me well.”
“Well he’s yours.”
“Really! Are you sure that’s possible?”
Finch grinned toothily, “Course it is! I’m in charge of making sure each new recruit has a steed that fits their needs and personality. Though most of them are trained to ride with anyone these days. Come on, let’s take him on a trot about.”
Finch fetched a saddle, unlatched the door to the stable, and after buckling the saddle onto the horse, he led him out into the corral.
“Up we go,” Finch said helping Swish mount the steed. Swish settled into the saddle with a blush and took up the reins.
“Well, what are you waiting for?” Finch asked with a jovial laugh. “Let him stretch his legs!”
Swish snapped the reins and took off in a gentle trot. After circling once around the corral, Swish spurred the horse into a light gallop.
“Look at him go…” Finch said under his breath, “So proud and majestic.” Then he sighed, “And she’s so beautiful.”
Tweedy sent his gaze upward and nudged Finch with an elbow. “Aye, mind if I give one a ride?”
“Hm?” Finch said startling from his daydreaming. “Oh-oh sure. Just choose one of the last two. I mean it doesn’t have to be your permanent choice, I just need those to get out and work a bit.”
Tweedy made a salute. “Understood.”
“You said this one had bad temperament?” Rebekka asked. “He looks like he came from a well-bred line.”
“My thoughts exactly,” Finch agreed. “At first he had a very nasty habit of biting. Very severe. Then I found out his trot contained a limp. The entire problem was a cracked hoof. Some would say put the animal down, but not I. I fixed him up, let him heal, and when I tested him out he had the smoothest gait I’ve come across. The biting disappeared too.”
Swish completed one more circle around the corral and even jumped over several bales of hay, before slowing back into a trot and returning over to the stables.
“He’s amazing!” she exclaimed. “He rides like nothing I’ve ever known. And he’s really sensitive around the mouth. I only have to twitch the reins and he knows what to do.”
“I’m glad you like him,” Finch replied patting the horse’s neck.
“Woah! Woah! Steady!” Tweedy exclaimed. His horse, a bold dark brown mare, came down from rearing. “Looks like she’s a wild one!”
“Which suits you just fine,” Swish added. “You two will get along perfectly.”
“Perhaps we will. Let’s see her trot.” Tweedy nudged the mare forward with a tap of his heels at her sides. They went around the corral twice before Tweedy decided to return.
“She’s a bit rough in the gait. Steps slightly too high for my liking but is very energetic.”
“She must be a young one,” Rebekka commented.
“Must be. She was broken in well…. And why haven’t you mounted up yet?” He was asking Mason this.
“Well…. I don’t know how to ride.”
Nearly everyone gasped her revelation.
Mason crossed her arms and held up her nose. “What? It’s not my fault I don’t know how to.”
“No one said that it was,” Tweedy said and alighted his horse. “But you’re going to learn today.” He held out a hand. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Mason looked back at Rebekka for approval.
“What are you looking at me for?” Rebekka asked. “Go on.”
Mason squealed with excitement and took Tweedy’s hand.
“I’ll walk alongside you and hold the reins,” he said once Mason was in the saddle. “First thing we’ll want to do is get you used to riding.”
Swish slipped off her steed, tied the reins on a post, and stood with the others to watch Mason’s first riding lessons.
“Well, that’s one thing about my little brother,” she commented. “He maybe a pain in the neck, but he’s a grand teacher. Aren’t you going to ride?”
“Oh, me?” Rebekka replied. “Maybe later. I rather watch for now.”
And watch she did.
For the next few hours, she watched Mason receive her riding lessons. Mason was a fast learner, but she lacked the nature to enforce and have strength in her choices. This only led to a confused and frustrated horse. Tweedy was very patient with her but eventually decided to take a break. The group chatted for a while after this, except for Thumble. Rebekka had learned that he didn’t speak much because he couldn’t at all. Instead he communicated with tones and a few hand gestures.
There was much talk of the horses, but that quickly shifted to the training of the next day. Finch offered much of the information in this subject; he had been living in the Axon for the last three years. He explained that the training differed from year to year, but the first day would always include a fitness test and horseback riding. Recruits would go on a five-mile hike and return to have their horses chosen for them.
The talk of training then lapsed once everyone realized what time of day it was. The sun had begun its slow descent in the sky, bathing all in a warm orange-gold. Lanterns had been lit and inhabitants were out and about to finish the last chores of the day.
“You all better get back to the garrisons,” Finch said untying the dark brown mare. “Last meal is around this time. I’ll put these up for all of you, so you won’t be late. Hope you all can visit sometime later like this. It was nice…”
It sounded like he wanted to be hopeful, but the hope was dampened by sadness. Swish took his hand before he could go.
“We’ll try when we can,” she said.
“You don’t have to,” Finch replied.
“But I want to. And… I guess until next time.” She hastily gave him a peck on the cheek.
Before Finch could say anything, Swish turned with a blush, and quickly walked to the stables. Finch touched his cheek and watched her go, oblivious to all around him. Rebekka and the others said their goodbyes to the lovestruck stable hand and followed Swish to the back door.
(to be continued…)
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