As he stood before the stable gate, Qais no longer wondered at the stable-boy’s skittishness that morning. He barely recognized his palfrey. Plain as a lithe dairy cow, the gelding was no neck-turner. Women did not stop in the street to marvel at him the way they did some of the steeds ridden up from the south, broad despite the grooves worn between their ribs. He was a Bree-land breed, mostly, raised for ambling over long-distances. When the Watcher’s work took him past the Trestlespan, or on rare occasions to the Last Bridge, the beast was with him, stalwart until they reached the thick, tangled eaves that made the palfrey’s ears fret forward and his legs twitch like his hooves had grown hot.
Now, the painted gelding munched happily on his oats, enjoying a double-breakfast after the baked treats, evidence of which lay in crust, rinds, and cores, still and innocent in the fresh hay. A smile crept Qais’ face, crimping dimples under his crabapple cheeks.
“Freckles…” he said in affectionate admonishment, hoisting the latch and knocking against the stable door to alert the steed to his presence. The beast barely flicked his ear. “What have you done with yourself?”
Qais approached and raised his hand to the mane he’d only brushed yesterday, laying it beside the first flower woven there. Even from a distance the fresh bloom tinted the musk of hay and hide, the scent taking him back to his mother’s tea-parlor, to certain inns and gardens in the Shire, to healers’ homes in peace-time.
“Camellia,” he mused and walked down the horse’s length to admire the work some rogue had bedecked his horse with in the early hours. The blush-tinted flowers, their nine petals like the folds of a skirt laid out to measure and cut, formed a crown around the white ears. More drooped through the folds of his mane and tail. They were tied tight, keeping their shape even when Freckles felt a phantom fly and flicked to rid himself of its abuse.
“I am going to get...so much crap for this,” he muttered as he pressed his head against the horse’s cheek. He chuckled, feeling the rumble of Freckles’ chewing like a boat over slow rapids. “What respectable Watcher has ever ridden such a finely-dressed horse through the South Gate, hm?”
He picked up his brush and bucket, whether or not the coat needed it. He enjoyed this time alone with his friend. It was early enough his neighbors who regularly left the comfort of Knotwood would not yet saddle their steeds or hitch their carts. He could prepare for the jabs and fickle jousting the younger recruits used to keep their blood warm in winter, and hot in summer. He could assess his account of which veterans would give him what grief, which of them he could shut up with a quip and bark of a laugh, and which would be better silenced with a smile and nod.
“I should ration your sugar cubes, for allowing this to happen, hm?” He clucked his tongue, shaking his head. He’d given up brushing his own hair some time ago, but he still took comfort in soothing the brambles from the palfrey’s hide. “Maybe take them away altogether? Some Outrider, you are. Letting a villein with such intent sneak up on you…”
Qais’ gentle admonishments continued as the sun crept higher, culling the frost. He shared the news of yesterday, morsels of his dreams from the night before, but nothing so true as his troubles. Freckles had enough to bear on his back without what weighed his rider, as well.
The Watcher sighed as he tucked the brush and bucket into the corner, and only then noticed the stool was out of place. He hadn’t needed it to sit and muck the palfrey’s hooves, but it wasn’t where he’d left it. He frowned a little, a third dimple denting his brow. He thought, but nothing came to him except maybe the stable-boy had some other reason to be skittish, after all.
Qais fitted the palfrey’s quilted blanket and saddle, shabby and worn compared to his new garnish of flowers. It would only deepen his comrades’ sniggering, he was sure. When he turned to lift the bridle off its peg, he noticed a last flower, balanced with its stem through the hole that held the bit—odd, compared with how carefully the flowers had their leafy stems braided through the horse-hair. He plucked it out and moved to set it on the stall wall for whoever might pass by and want it.
Then, smiling so much he blushed, Qais fitted the sprig of camellia into the knotwork of his own curls. “Come on,” he said, fitting the bridle and slipping his hand under the chin strap to guide the gelding out. He tossed the stable boy an extra coin on his way out and led the horse by foot til Knotwood’s long road fed like a rivulet into the East Road.
“No sense in only one of us getting laughed at,” he muttered. He pressed his forehead against Freckles’ muzzle, smiled, and then hoisted himself into the saddle to chase the slow sunrise west to Bree.
Collaborative story—Part 2 of Kithri's piece Blooming Foliage on a Night Sky, both inspired by Clay's portrait of Freckles.