One. Two. Three. Four. Five.
Quite content in the stables, Einar counted the strokes he made with the brush over Ai’s buckskin hide. Cook had been hollering about missing muffins and the man from the Mark would rather face Benjamin the Curmudgeons over Cook the Wrathful any day.
Six. Seven. Eight. Nine. Ten.
Ai let out a gentle and appreciative whinny and tossed his dark mane as he stretched his neck to watch Einar brush him.
Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourtee-
A noise from above drew the attention of both horseman and horse. The brush paused on Ai’s flank. The horse flicked his tail as though to brush it away.
Dust fell from the thick beams of the rafters. Einar blinked away the tears forming to wash it from his eyes. Then, there was the faint sound of a gasp and an object sailed down from above and a small, child-like hand just missed snagging it back up again.
Einar blinked in surprise and then calmly stepped out of the way. He reached up to catch the thing from the rafters and grunted when the soft muffin crumbled in his large hand.
“Sorry!” a voice called down to him. Einar looked up and gazed (with no surprise on his face) at Willoric Scary’s fuzzy head leaning over the rafter to peer down at him. “It slipped, only. I did not throw it at you, I swear!”
Ai stomped his hoof on the dry stable floor impatiently. He snorted at Einar and stared at him with his teeth showing. It’s just that silly half-man. Go on. Go about your business now, he said.
He is a Hobbit, Einar clarified with a look and a touch of his bare hand to Ai’s back. “Get down,” he said aloud without looking up.
“No, no, I don’t think that is all that good of an idea,” Willoric, who asked to be called Will, said. “Not until later this afternoon at the least. Then perhaps things will have blown over and I will keep my head at dinner time. What do you think Cook will serve tonight? I do hope it is a good roast chicken just dripping with herbs, or a pie like those you get down at the Flour Pot. Or like Miss Rosemead’s duck! That was delicious, was it not? I do hope she hosts another Wayfarer night again soon, don’t you?”
He does not shut up, that little one. The horse snorted with disgruntlement. His peace and quiet was being disturbed. In the next stall, Kvígr lifted his head as well. The horse’s accent made him difficult to understand at times, but Einar thought he said something about eating apples in peace.
If you just ignore him, he will go away eventually. I would wager the lad is used to it, he told them both. The horses snorted, wide nostrils flaring, and then in unison began to chew the sweet hay in the rack between their stalls.
“Einar,” Will continued without going away at all, “Einar, what do you think Cook will serve for supper tonight?”
“Food,” Einar answered and he resumed brushing Ai’s coat.
“Well, that’s helpful,” Will said in a tone that noted just unhelpful the answer was. “Are you going for a ride?” he asked to change the subject. If you wanted to get to make friends, after all, it was best to talk about topics that interested them, not you. At least, that is what his mother said.
“Perhaps.” Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen.
“Can I go with you?” From the sound of it, he had a mouth full of muffin.
“No.” Nineteen. Twenty. Twenty-one.
“Do you not like company? I had to like company, or at least get used to it. Otherwise, I would have gone mad. All my brothers and sisters and their friends. People always came to Scary, you know, to see the quarry or to court one of my sisters. Do you have sisters?” Will’s face appeared over the edge of the rafter again and he peered down at Einar curiously. When the man did not respond but kept on brushing his horse, the young Hobbit frowned and pulled back again.
“Why are you brushing your horse so much?”
“Builds the bond.” Einar switched the brush to the other hand and stroked Ai’s strong neck. You could tell him to go away, you know, Ai said with some humour in his tone. Then we can all have peace and quiet.
He is lonely, Einar replied, and correct in his assumption about Cook. She will have his head for getting into her kitchen again. He is useful in the field.
“I do not have a horse,” Will said as though Einar had asked about it. “I came here with a trade caravan by some of the coin my mother gave me. I should like one, though, only not a horse, but a pony.”
He sure does talk a lot! Ai stamped the earth again and Einar smiled. Perhaps I am the only one that has let him talk so much and it is all pouring out now.
“Would you teach me about horses should I get one?” Will’s face appeared again with hopeful, bright eyes. Einar looked up and regarded him for a time and then nodded. Will broke into a grin. “Splendid! That is truly good of you, thank you! You are from Rohan, after all, and who better to learn about horses from than one of the horselords themselves!”
Einar swore he saw Ai roll his eyes and he chuckled quietly. In the next stall, Kvígr looked up with golden hay poking out of the corners of his mouth and looked at them both critically. Having reached a hundred strokes, Einar turned to pick up the saddle blanket and saddle to strap in to place.
“Oh, are you going now?” Will peered down again. Suddenly, the lad sneezed from the dust. “Oh, bless my soul!” Rubbing his nose, he asked, “Will you be back by supper?”
“Maybe,” Einar answered as he took the reins to lead Ai out.
“Well, all right,” Will said with a little bit of disappointment. “I will see you at supper!” he added.
“See you, Will,” Einar said much to the delight of the young lad in the rafters. As he mounted Ai in the bright mid-day sun, the horse laughed. You have a new friend, he said as he started toward the gates of Durrow. Whether you want one or not.
He will get bored eventually, though. I am not worried. I’d rather have a thief on my side than against me.
As they passed through Durrow’s gates, Einar waved once to Finch. He waited until he could smell the marshlands before he nudged Ai into a gallop and the solitude of the space in-between where he could ride for hours without worry or memory.