“Priss,” I said, and the gray ears flicked forward. She knew it meant her. “It’s a good name. Much better than Dapple.”
“It is,” he agreed easily. He scratched his head again and then frowned and finger-combed his hair, pulling straw from it. “You want me to ready her for you?”
I don’t know how to ride a horse. I’m afraid of horses. I don’t even know how to get on a horse. “Yes, please,” I said, with no idea why I said it.
I sat on the edge of her stall and watched as he worked. He moved quickly but methodically, and I thought that Priss knew everything he would do before he did it. When he set the saddle on her back, it wafted her scent to me. Horse, and the oiled leather, and old sweat. I set my muscles against the nervous shiver that ran down my back. I could do this. She was gentle. Look how she stood so still for the saddle and how she took the bit and bridle with no fuss.
I clambered down from the top of the stall wall as he opened the door to lead her out. I looked up at her. So tall.
“There’s a mounting block near the front of the stable. Here. Walk beside me, not behind her.”
“Does she kick?” I asked with rising dread.
“She’ll be happier if she can see you,” he said, and I decided that might mean yes.
Clambering up the mounting block was not easy for me, and even when I stood on it, her back seemed high. I looked up at the sky. “Looks like it’s going to rain.”
“Nah. Not until evening.” His gaze met mine. “Want a boost?”
I managed a stiff nod.
He came up on the mounting block beside me. “I’ll lift you, and you get a leg over,” he directed me. He hesitated a moment, then put his hands on my waist. He lifted me, and I felt almost anger that it seemed so easy for him to do. But I swung my leg over the mare and he set me down on her. I caught my breath as she shifted under me. She turned her head to look back at me curiously.
“She’s used to me,” Per excused her. “You’d be a lot lighter. She probably wonders if anyone’s really in the saddle.”
I bit my lip and said nothing. “Can you reach the stirrups?” he asked. There was no malice in his voice. No mockery of my size. I felt with my foot. He took my ankle and guided my foot toward the stirrup. “Too long,” he said. “Let me fix that. Pull your foot up.”
I did, staring between the horse’s ears while he did something, first to one stirrup and then to the other. “Try now,” he told me, and when I could feel the stirrup under the arch of my foot, I suddenly felt safer.
He cleared his throat. “Pick up the reins,” he instructed me.
I did, suddenly feeling that I was alone and far away from all safe things. She had me now, and if Priss wanted to race off with me, throw me to the earth and trample me, she could. Then Per spoke again. “I’m going to lead her,” he said. “You hold the reins but don’t try to guide her. Just sit in the saddle and feel how it moves. Straighten your back, though. Got to sit straight on a horse.”
And that was all we did that first day. I sat on Priss and Per led her. He didn’t say much. “Back straight.” “Thumbs up on the reins.” “Let her feel you’re there.” It wasn’t a short time and it wasn’t a long time. I remember the moment when I finally relaxed and let out the bit of air I’d been holding in the bottom of my lungs. “That’s it,” he said, and that was all.
He didn’t help me get off her. He just led her back to the mounting block and waited. After I was off, he said, “Tomorrow will go better if you wear boots.”
“Yes,” I said. Not thank you. Because it didn’t feel as if it was something he had done for me. It was something all three of us had done together. “Tomorrow,” I added, and I went small and quiet from the stables.
To think about it, I went to my secret place. I wanted to be alone and think, and to check on my most prized possession. I no longer entered through my father’s study, but came and went by the hidden door in the pantry. I still dreaded rats but at least all the hammering and noise seemed to have driven them out for a time. Visiting my cloak had become routine. Daily, I ate my breakfast and then slipped away as soon as possible to gather my cloak and play with it.
I had discovered its limitations quickly. I could not put it on and parade invisibly through the halls. It took time for the cloak to mimic the colors and shadows of the place where it lay. I was careful in my experiments, for I feared that if I ever once dropped it with the butterfly side down, I’d never find it again. And so I had tested it privately, covering a tree stump in the woods, draping it over a statue in Patience’s garden room, and even spreading it flat on the floor of my mother’s room. The tree stump had become a flat mossy spot in the woods. I could feel the stump, but I could not persuade my eyes it was there. The statue had likewise vanished, and the cloak had copied perfectly the pattern of the rug I had spread it on. Folded, it made a very small packet indeed, one that I could slip under my waistband and carry with me. Today, with the cloak hidden so, I took it out to the grove of birches that overlooked the carriage drive to the main doors. I climbed one and found myself a perch overlooking the drive.