The Hollow Woods were cool in the late afternoon. Probably because of all the trees blocking out the sun. Louisa shivered and pulled Lisa’s hoodie tighter around herself.
“Are you cold?” asked Lisa, pulling her girlfriend closer to her. Louisa nodded, smiling and playing with the zipper of the hoodie.
“I probably should’ve worn something warmer,” said Louisa, eyeing the other riders all rugged up in comfy jackets and long pants. Despite the name, the Winter Master trousers certainly wouldn’t see her through the winter if they were failing to keep her warm in autumn.
“Yeah, that probably would’ve been a good idea,” said Lisa. “But I can keep you warm.” Louisa blushed as Lisa kissed the top of her head. Then, she looked out at the other riders again.
“Keep an eye out for a girl on a Friesian and a guy on a Lipi,” said Louisa. “It’s a white Lipi and the guy has blue hair, so they should be easy to spot.”
“Yeah, blue and white really stand out in a forest,” said Lisa. “I can still see Starshine, and he’s over by the water mill.” Sure enough, Louisa looked and he was standing over there on the beach.
“What’s he doing over there?” asked Louisa.
“Probably keeping an eye out for your friends,” said Lisa.
“Well, he’s on the wrong side of the river, Zelda just texted and said she finally managed to pry Jack and Ydris apart,” said Louisa, looking up from her phone. “They’ll be on their way from the circus tent, which is on this side of the river.”
“I’m glad that you made friends while I was away,” said Lisa. “Well, more friends anyway.”
“We mostly talk online,” said Louisa, tapping her fingers on her phone.
“Is this the first time you’ll be meeting them in real life?” asked Lisa.
“No,” said Louisa. “Jack had me doing archaeology for him for a few days, and I saw Zelda once when I went to check up on Justin.”
“Good, so this won’t be too awkward, then,” said Lisa. She grinned and buried her nose in Louisa’s hair. “My shy girlfriend is making friends.”
Jack rode a little behind Zelda through Moorland, feeling cold without his boyfriend’s embrace, but he picked up speed and rode ahead of her once they passed the crowds of newbie riders.
“I hope this is worth it,” said Jack. “You know I don’t like being around other people, and this mounted orienteering is new so you know there’ll be a lot of other people there.”
“We’ll be with a friend, at least,” said Zelda, urging Phantom to go a little faster to keep up with the Lipizanner and his rider.
“That’s the only reason I’m doing this,” said Jack.
“Aw, c’mon, dad, don’t be a grumpy old man,” said Zelda, riding alongside him.
“Young whippersnapper,” said Jack, and they both laughed.
Louisa got to her feet when she saw the two riders approaching along the forest path.
“There they are,” said Louisa, putting her phone away and stretching.
“Starshine!” Lisa called. Her horse hopped the river in one quick leap and galloped over to his rider, then stood still while Lisa mounted him.
“Now I’m gonna feel extremely short,” said Louisa. “I have also misplaced my horse.”
“He’s right there,” said Lisa, pointing to a tree not far away. The dark little Icelandic had blended in with the shadows, but his silver mane and tail were quite easy to see. He got to his hooves as his rider called for him and trotted over, standing still so he could be tacked up again. Louisa had taken his tack off so he could roll around and do whatever he wanted.
“I’m short,” Louisa announced when Jack and Zelda arrived. “Also hi.” She gave them a smile, but Lisa could see her hands trembling ever so slightly.
“Hi, short,” said Zelda. Louisa grinned.
“Hey, how come you were allowed to bring your girlfriend?” asked Jack.
“Because we have no idea where Alex is,” said Lisa.
“And Ydris hardly ever leaves his tent, and Justin needed some rest. Also it would’ve made the teams uneven,” said Zelda.
“I guess,” said Jack.
“Besides, we’ll probably be too distracted with each other to do well, so you have an advantage,” said Louisa.
“Exactly,” said Zelda. “You know how hard it is to work on something with your boyfriend, dad.”
“Why do you call him dad?” asked Lisa.
“I called him it by accident once and it stuck,” said Zelda.
“So, should we sign up?” asked Louisa.
“Yeah, let’s go,” said Jack.
Fina Way told them what to do, handed them the pieces of paper to stamp, and then wished them luck before starting a timer. The groups headed off in different directions, not wanting it to be too competitive. After all, it was a friendly round of orienteering between friends.
“I’ll take the map,” said Lisa, taking the enchanted map from her girlfriend. Orange spots glowed on the paper where the check-in points were.
“Probably a good idea,” said Louisa. “You’re always out riding in the wilderness, meanwhile I still get lost in Greendale.”
“And Goldenleaf Forest. And Dino Valley. And Mirror Marshes. And Forgotten Fields,” Lisa listed, counting the spots on her fingers. Louisa blushed but laughed.
“Yeah, don’t ever ask me for directions,” said Louisa, riding close to her girlfriend.
“Alright,” said Lisa, looking at the map. “So, the nearest spot is this way.”
“Lead the way,” said Louisa, smiling as she leaned her head on Lisa’s upper arm (she was too short on an Icelandic to reach any higher).
Jack and Zelda were having the same conversation, only slightly different.
“I’ll lead, I know these woods like the back of my hand,” said Jack.
“Or the back of Ydris’ hand,” said Zelda.
“Same thing,” said Jack.
“No, I mean, you love it so much and know it so well that you get distracted so you miss things,” said Zelda. “Not that it’s a bad thing, it’s actually really cute.”
“I do not. And I’m not cute, I’m manly as hell,” said Jack. Zelda snorted.
“Well, Mr Manly as Hell, we just passed a check-in point,” said Zelda. “Here, give me the map, I’ll find the right spots.”
“Good idea,” said Jack, willingly handing over the map. Zelda looked at it to find the closest spot and set off towards it, knowing that Phantom would carry her safely and not walk off a cliff or into a rock, wall, or tree while she wasn’t looking.
“Hmm, this one might be a bit tricky to get to, but we just have to remember to stop before we run off the little cliff. Okay, Jack? Jack?” Zelda looked around, and rolled her eyes with a smile upon seeing that Jack had found a nice spot to sit beneath a tree with Dale grazing nearby.
“Stamp,” said Louisa, grinning as Son of Coco stamped the ground while Lisa picked up the stamp from the little station.
“You know that Fina meant to stamp the paper, right?” asked Lisa, doing just that.
“Alright then, put it beneath Son of Coco’s hoof,” said Louisa.
“You goofball,” said Lisa with a giggle, and kissed the side of her head.
“C’mon, Jack, we have to find these stations and stamp the paper,” said Zelda, standing in front of her friend. He had a squirrel sniffing along his arm, a deer sniffing along his shoulders, and a bird sitting on his head.
“Shh, you’ll scare them away,” Jack whispered. The deer had looked up at Zelda’s voice, and the bird had dug its talons painfully into his scalp. Jack winced, but tried not to flinch.
“I know it’s a friendly competition but I wanna win,” Zelda whispered back. “C’mon, dad.”
“Go on without me,” Jack whispered. “I’ll catch up when the animals leave.” Zelda rolled her eyes playfully but left, taking Jack’s piece of paper with her.
Between the four of them, it took almost an hour to find all four of the orienteering spots. Louisa liked the design of the stamps, each looking like a different kind of leaf with a hoofprint on each leaf (this was definitely not because Son of Coco had been stamping the pieces of paper in his own way).
“I kinda want them to win,” said Louisa as they headed back to Fina Way with the stamped pieces of paper.
“And what are we gonna do?” asked Lisa. “Find a tree to snuggle beneath?”
“You read my mind,” said Louisa, dismounting and sitting down in a little patch of sunlight that flitered through the tree’s branches. It was so much warmer here, and, with Lisa’s arms wrapped around her, Louisa felt the last of the autumn chill ebb away. Especially when Lisa started kissing her, and Louisa could forget that they were too close for comfort to the Valley of the Hidden Dinosaur.
Zelda waited for Jack a little ways away from Fina. She knew she’d have to wait for Jack in order to finish, and hopefully soon the animals would be heading to bed. Then the nocturnal animals would come out. At least they weren’t doing this in Golden Hills or Firgrove, Jack could run with the wolves for hours in those places. She could see Lisa and Louisa smooching up a storm across the road, which was nice. Not to look at, but nice of them to let her and Jack finish first. Even if there was no exact reward except for the joy of having won. None of them would get the top score for the day, that was for sure.
But at last Jack rode up on Dale, a fox following behind him.
“I made a friend,” said Jack.
“You’re a real little Disney Prince,” said Zelda.
“I resent being called little,” said Jack. Zelda laughed.
“Here’s your stamped piece of paper,” said Zelda, handing it to him.
“Thanks,” said Jack. “You’re the best daughter ever.”
“Well, they decided to let us win, too,” said Zelda, pointing across the road.
“Do I look like that with Ydris?” asked Jack.
“Yes, yes you do,” said Zelda.
“Yeah, well, you look like that with Justin too,” said Jack. Zelda gasped.
“I do not!” said Zelda. Jack laughed.
“Yes you do,” said Jack. Zelda’s cheeks flamed red, but she was smiling.
“Well, we all love our respective partners and there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Zelda, trotting Phantom over to Fina.
“Yay, you made it!” Fina cheered. “For a while there, I thought you got lost.”
“Nah, we just took the scenic route,” said Zelda. Jack blushed.
“Well, at any rate, you beat the other team,” said Fina. Lisa and Louisa had finally got back onto their horses and were trotting over to Fina.
“Thanks for letting us win,” said Zelda, smiling at them.
“You’re welcome,” said Louisa. “It was nice to have a little alone time with the bae.” Her face was still flushed from the kissing.
“We all know that feeling,” said Zelda. Fina took the last two pieces of paper, though she frowned a little at the hoofprint on Louisa’s.
“I had Son of Coco stamp the paper as well,” said Louisa. “After all, it is mounted orienteering, may as well incorporate the horses a little more.”
“That’s actually a great idea,” said Fina. “I was going to have a little bit of horseshoe in each stamp, but that might be a little tricky to get it in the right order.”
“All we’d need is some non-toxic ink for the horse to put its hoof in,” said Lisa. “And an inkpad that’s sturdy enough to withstand having a horse’s hoof on it.”
“We’d probably also need to test it first to see if the horse is comfortable enough to do the stamping,” said Fina. “But I’ll have a look at adding that in.”
“Cool,” said Zelda, smiling. “I’ll look forward to seeing that in the future.”
The four friends rode back towards Moorland, though that was only the destination for one of them. They talked about their day, and how they’d enjoyed the orienteering (despite the fact that one of them hadn’t exactly participated, but that was okay. At least he’d been there).
“Do you think we should try a triple date?” asked Zelda as they neared Moorland. She looked at Jack, knowing that he might not be comfortable with that arrangement.
“Maybe in the future,” said Jack.
“Yeah,” Louisa agreed. “This was fun, I liked it.”
“It wasn’t as bad as I thought,” said Jack. “Worth leaving Ydris, anyway.”
“Although I bet you’re looking forward to getting back to him now,” said Zelda.
“Yeah,” said Jack, smiling. “I’ll be off, then. Bye.” He rode over towards the circus tent while the others waved after him, and Louisa was glad to see him smiling.
“I’m glad he came,” said Louisa. “I wasn’t sure he would.”
“I wasn’t either, but I think Ydris convinced him to go,” said Zelda.
“He’s good for him,” said Louisa.
“Like I am for you,” said Lisa, wrapping an arm around her girlfriend as much as she could with the height difference.
“Am I the only one who doesn’t need someone to drag her out of the house?” asked Zelda, laughing.
“I don’t need someone to drag me out of the house,” said Louisa.
“No, you just need someone to help you associate with other people,” said Lisa. “And someone to get you to let your hair down. You don’t have to work all the time, you know, you can ride around and have fun or hang out with friends.”
“I know,” said Louisa.
“I can help you get out more,” said Zelda. “You can hang out with someone other than your girlfriend for once.”
“Yeah, by choice this time,” said Louisa. “If you can tear yourself away from Justin. Speaking of, there he is.” Zelda gave an excited squeal and Phantom galloped over to the Moorland heir, who grinned at the sight of his girlfriend.
“I wonder what Loretta thinks of that,” said Lisa, watching Justin and Zelda embrace.
“Loretta has a girlfriend now, I think she’s over it,” said Louisa.
The two remaining members of the group turned away from Moorland and rode slowly towards Fort Pinta, where they waited to catch the ferry back to the fishing village.