It was rare that Astor ever felt his age, and even rarer that he'd ever admit to it. But this spring had seemed determined to remind him of that, oh, so fickle thing. The weeks following Anne's rescue had been nothing short of hell itself, and, to be completely honest, he hadn’t done much healing.
Everything had sort of hit all at once. Losing Elizabeth, Via’s disappearance, Daine vanishing into the morning air.
Astor had lived a long life on this island. He’d lost far more than his fair share of people that he loved, but such was a part of life, especially one so long. It just… didn’t make any of it any easier.
Perhaps, Fripp had that much right about him. Hell, even Evergray had said it a few times. Astor cared and cared deeply, with his whole heart and soul, and it often took little for him to decide to go all in. Merlin called it his penchant for finding those in need, and that, too, was true.
When you cared so much, it was bound to hurt. And even as it had driven him away from his husband, the kids he’d come to love so much, and even his Soul Steed, he knew he wouldn’t change it for anything.
Hell, what would he do with himself then? Really be out of place, he supposed. Roaming the centuries callous and cruel had never exactly sounded enchanting. It’d always been the memories from caring that he looked back on with such fondness. It was what had gotten him through the dark times, in the end.
He toyed lightly with the Kalltic ring he now wore on his right hand, twisting it around his finger. There had been some upsides, thankfully, to the rocky start of this spring - probably the only things that had kept him going, to tell the truth. Marrying Lisa and Lousia, for example, and finding the very ring he toyed with out on the Firgrove mountain trail while riding with Merlin, from Nadia. Her name may not have appeared directly in any of the runic carvings that adorned it, but he’d know that tone anywhere, and there were few outside of the Icengate that even knew the language.
And that was saying nothing of the absolute trainwreck he’d been when Daine and Via had returned. He was quite close with most of the group, but those two were among the several that stood out. Via was, of course, his actual goddaughter (though practically just his daughter, really), and Daine, despite their sometimes incessant trade of teases and smart remarks, was practically a son.
Not to mention his almost uncanny resemblance to a certain love of his past, but that had been centuries ago… The kids had enough on their plate without him theorizing about whether or not he’d known their parents.
It’d been hard to convince him to let either of them out of his sights for a time, and he felt it was for a justifiable reason. Of course, they’d come back with smiles and smart remarks, just as they would - just as he would, and between their going missing and… everything else, suffice to say many a tear had been shed when they appeared on his doorstep.
He’d had a hard time staying in Valedale for too long after everything, and the activity with the Keepers had gone mostly quiet as everyone attempted to mourn in their own ways. Avalon had been briefly consulting with him about the best ways to go about a memorial service for Elizabeth, but neither had managed to stay on the subject for long.
It was another one of those days where Astor felt a burning need to be out of the house. He’d risen early, as usual, and busied himself with house and stable chores. Cleaning still needed taken care of, and the horses still needed watered and fed along with the small army of cats that shared house and home with him and Evergray.
He’d been anxious to get out before his husband had risen though, and that nagged at him. Merlin had expressed his own concerns over the matter, but Astor still needed time.
Some days were better than others, and today was starting as one of the worse-off ones.
Finally, he tore his gaze from the photos on the mantle. Some of them were more recent - pictures of the kids out together, some with him beside them, and others were a bit more aged, such as the photo of a familiar silver-gray then-stallion beside a red-headed Elizabeth when she was younger, when he was the teacher and she the student.
He didn’t have the heart to take it down, but it tore at him to see it every time.
He went out to the stable again, now ready to properly start his day and get out onto the island. Where to, he didn’t particularly know, nor did he have any plans for what he would be doing, especially so early. He was greeted with soft whickers and patted a couple muzzles, turning a few out to graze for the day with the herds from the Keepers and the Valedale Stables.
One mare waited patiently in her stall, stopping him with her almost expectant gaze. She was a bit older, Astor having taken her in a few months prior. She had lost a foal, and the family was relocation, and sought someone who would be able to properly attend to her, and perhaps breathe a little bit of spark back into her.
Her ears were perked forward towards him as he stared back at her for a few moments. The family had called her Sunny, and, among his own horses, he had noticed her slipping back to her motherly tendencies, especially with the nervous Coco, a Welsh Pony from the Rescue Ranch on South Hoof.
“Good morning, Sunshine,” Astor whispered finally, offering a hand out to the mare that she sniffed for a moment, then breathed quietly over, pressing her nose into his hand. It encouraged him, and he moved to rub up her face, fingers softly tracing over her golden fur, brushing her creamy white mane out of her eyes.
The newer sign on her stall read Sunbeam, but he’d always called her namesake Sunshine, too.
The mare blinked calmly at him, watching him as his hand stilled over her cheek.
He grabbed a bridle from the tack room and was shortly leading her out of the stable into the low early morning light. The shadow of the night was barely starting to fade into brilliant oranges and pinks as he easily pushed onto her back from a log he used as a mounting block.
He turned the mare towards Firgrove. If they put a little speed in their step, they could make it just in time.
After letting her warm up on the trail along the Silversong River, Astor gave Sunshine a bit more rein, deciding to leave their pace up to her. Without much pause, she took it, and, soon, the crisp morning air was whipping through her mane and stinging his face. His lighter set of robes weren’t quite enough to entirely ward off the slight chill, but it was only refreshing to the duo as they set course for the winding path up the mountains.
This time, instead of setting course for the top as he had with Merlin when the Red String event had been active, he turned Sunshine left at the log and let her pick her way over the incline that took them off of the main trail.
They paused for a moment by the ancient Life Warden hidden among the early morning fog. Sunshine’s breaths puffed in steady, slow clouds in the cool mountain morning air. Astor considered dismounting to let the mare rest and graze for time, but she pressed on, having to put in a bit more work to scale the slight incline beyond the ancient tree and then cautiously selecting her footholds down the other side.
They were getting close.
The fog started to clear as they drew nearer towards the cliffs’ edge. Astor had never brought the mare up here, but he had to do little in directing her.
Dawn was just truly rising over the island as horse and rider stopped by the edge of the cliff. Astor leaned forward slightly on the mare’s neck, fingers twisting into her mane and soft fur as they watched the sun creep just above the horizon.
The familiar melody was faint at first, barely discernible from the breeze shuffling his robes and the mare’s mane and tail, but, steadily, the sound of Aideen’s harp grew stronger with the rising light.
Astor closed his eyes and released a faint breath of a laugh. The steady harp song chased away the morning chill, easing the exhaustion that had settled deep in him that was from something heavier than a simple lack of sleep. It was always warm and pleasant, like the sun’s rays cascading upon the valley below them, soothing him like few other things ever had.
Oh, Sister, the time we’ve had. The last few years had proven what he had believed true. He would know his Sister’s return to her island anywhere, no matter how long it had been. She would return, like she promised. She would not leave her island, her people, her horses, undefended.
Aideen had had blessed special riders with a special bond, and those riders were what had become the Soul Riders, but she’d known it was no easy job. That was why he stayed. Because he could, and because someone needed to make sure those young kids had the guidance, the tools, they needed to understand what was often simply laid upon them.
Magic could be a blessing and a curse. It was not always wanted, and often difficult to learn how to control and even accept. His sister had known this, had the foresight to know that times would be tough, the battles would be hard… Sometimes, everyone needed a little extra hand.
Astor eventually slid carefully off of the mare, sitting down at the cliff’s ledge, letting his feet dangle as they listened to Aideen’s song on the wind and watched the sun rise over the island. Sunshine stepped forward to join him, again blowing her breath softly over him, letting her head hang for him to pet and lean faintly into her warm contact.
“You remind me a lot of my Sunshine,” he murmured after a while. His eyes stung and a few tears glinted on his cheeks in the sunlight as his gaze fell to one of the several rings adorning his fingers. Among them today was one with the Sun Circle symbol carved with care into its surface, with runes down its side relating to its powers. “She didn’t have it easy, either, that kid… But she had a heart of gold… She struggled, but… Her heart was in the right place. Nobody’s ever perfect. Hell… I know I ain’t…”
A gentle nicker rumbled from deep within the mare as she gently nuzzled his shoulder. Astor smiled faintly, brushing a hand briefly across his face to clear it. “Yeah… I think you know…” He stroked her neck, brushing some of her forelock out of her eyes again. She blinked calmly at him. “I think you know just what you’re doing…”
They stayed there for a while longer. The morning was well and truly settled in by the time Astor somewhat stiffly rose from his seat. “What d’ya say to breakfast, hmm?” he mused to the mare. “You might have had yours, but I didn’t.”
She shook her head and then bobbed it a few times in a nod, coaxing another smile from her rider. He mounted once more and they picked their way back down the mountainside carefully. They stopped briefly in Firgrove, where Astor picked up something from the cafe before stopping by the stables for a moment, greeting the horses and Felicity, and then they were on their way once more.
This time, with nowhere in particular to go and no exact time to be there, they simply set out from Firgrove and Astor let the mare pick which way to roam.
A while later, they were crossing the bridge over to the Harvest Counties. It wasn’t often he wandered this side of the island, usually preferring the quiet and dark greens of the Valedale forests and beyond, and it didn’t help that his last memories of the far side of the bridge weren’t exactly the most pleasant.
Sunshine must have noticed his apprehension at her decision because she gave a snort, briefly peering back at him, but evidently determined to continue.
At the Inn, she picked up a trot and headed for the woods and cliffs of Greendale and the Forgotten Fields, much to the relief of Astor. The last place he wanted to be right now was near Guardian’s Dale or the Secret Stone Circle. They were far too close, and far too reminding of everything that had transpired.
Soon enough, they were back under green canopy and Astor relaxed with the birds chirping overhead. Perhaps, he should have had the foresight that this would be a day’s trip and packed something along, but, even as the thought occurred to him, he shrugged it off. It was worth the ride to be out alone with the island he had called home for so long once more.
They strayed from the trail, Astor perfectly happy with the idea of conveniently getting a little lost, despite knowing the island practically like the back of his hand.
They hadn’t been wandering all that long before music started to reach them. Astor’s brow furrowed and he pulled the mare to a halt to hear better.
Was that… Lisa..?
With her ears pricked, Astor guided the mare carefully toward the source of the song.
Under the protection of a thick, aged tree, they found Starshine, Lisa, and a small black foal with a dot of blue on the end of his nose and streaks of it breaking the otherwise solid color of his mane and tail.
Lisa looked up and offered a small smile when she saw who it was, trailing off her song slowly as she stroked the small foal that was practically curled up in her lap, head rested across her thighs.
Astor dismounted carefully. “Who’s your new friend?”
“Careful,” Lisa warned. “He’s pretty shy.”
Astor nodded in agreement and approached slowly. The foal raised its head, sleepily peering at the new stranger, though there was caution there, too.
“Hey there,” Astor murmured softly, kneeling and offering a hand out.
The colt’s ears flickered back uncertainly. With a little grunt of effort, he pushed himself up and moved behind Lisa, peeking at him around her shoulder.
Lisa chuckled and Astor smiled. “Go on,” Lisa encouraged. “It’s okay. You can say hello to Astor.”
The foal remained unconvinced for a few more moments before taking a few tentative steps forward, stretching out to take a sniff of Astor’s hand. After a bit of consideration, the colt gave a tiny snort and took another step forward to bump his nose against Astor’s flat hand, and only then did Astor reach to stroke him.
This, thankfully, was received quite well. Lisa grinned at the success, releasing the breath she’d been holding. “Starshine and I found him out here all alone.” A frown quickly troubled her features with the information, which Astor reflected.
“No sign of the mother?”
Lisa shook her head. “Not that I saw, but I want to check further. There’s no way he’d just be abandoned out here.” She blinked though, as if something had just come to her. “Now that you’re here, though, could you stay with him? I’m worried about leaving him alone, and I don’t want him to get hurt again if he tries to follow me.”
Astor nodded, scratching softly at the foal’s neck. “Of course.”
Lisa nodded, releasing a decisive breath. “Alright. Starshine, can you stay with them, too? It might help to have another horse.”
I will guard them with my life, Starshine agreed with a deep, rumbling nicker.
She smiled. “Good. I knew I could count on the two of you.” She pat the foal one more time. “These guys will take good care of you, alright? I won’t be long, promise.”
The colt gave a small whinny of protest as Lisa walked away, but a gentle nicker of warning from behind them stopped him. Sunbeam had come up behind Astor quietly and now had her complete attention locked on the foal.
The foal made a small curious noise before approaching the mare, who leaned down to blow a breath gently in his face. The colt bounced playfully on his hooves before touching his nose to Sunbeam’s.
Well, perhaps, we won’t have to go as far as I thought.
Astor smiled. “It has been a long time since she carried a foal,” he warned, “but she hasn’t lost her motherly spirit.”
So I can tell, Starshine agreed warmly. I was thinking to take him to Herman. He has always been good to me and Lisa.
Astor nodded approvingly. “He’ll be in good hands at Jorvik Stables. Herman has long served us all well.”
Sunbeam, in the meantime, had taken to nuzzling the foal. The colt brushed up against her shoulder before returning to Astor, eagerly nuzzling against him and lipping lightly at the loose fabrics, earning a gentle, amused chuckle.
“Soon enough, little one,” Astor soothed, stroking his neck again.
He’s a right to be hungry, Starshine said. Despite the seriousness of the comment, Astor could hear the stallion’s gentle amusement, too. He was barely hanging on when we found him, but her healing took care of that. I’m just sorry it can’t take care of his hunger.
Again, Astor nodded, though a faint frown touched his features at the implications. “If we can’t find any sign of his mother, I’m sure we can find a home for him with Herman.”
Starshine nickered in agreement. It will mean a lot to Lisa that he’s safe.
“I think we’ve all had enough loss to last us the rest of our lifetime lately,” Astor murmured somewhat distantly.
She trusts you, you know? Starshine asked. As do I.
Astor smiled appreciatively, but they were both distracted from further conversation as the colt gave a gleeful whinny and bounded towards Lisa’s returning figure.
Lisa laughed, a light in her eyes, but a sadness, too. “See?” she asked, “I promised you I’d be back!” She stroked his forehead, much to the delight of the little colt. “Did you make some new friends?”
“I think Sunshine here has really taken a shining to him, no pun intended,” Astor said. As he spoke, the colt bounded back to Sunshine, tail flicking happily, and then looked back to Lisa, as if to introduce his new friend to her.
Lisa smiled wide. “I’m glad! He needs all the friends he can get.”
“No sign of the mother?” Astor asked quietly, not wanting to shatter the sliver of happiness.
Lisa shook her head, the smile fading a little.
We should take him to Herman, Starshine suggested. There’s no better place for him to be looked after.
The redhead took in a bit of a deep breath and shook her head as if to clear it before nodding determinedly in agreement. “You’re right. Herman will definitely be able to help us find him a home.”
“Mind if I ride with you?” Astor asked.
Lisa looked surprised. “Of course!” she said, as if it hadn’t even been a question in the first place. “I think he’ll really like that.”
Astor smiled almost sheepishly at that. “By the way, that song you were singing earlier…”
Lisa blushed. “I got a little lost in it, to tell you the truth…”
“It was beautiful,” he assured softly. “And I think your new friend really liked it, too.”
Lisa smiled softly. “Then I guess I’ll just have to sing it for him again.”
“I think we’d all like that.”
So off the group set, Astor on Sunbeam, Lisa on Starshine, with the little colt bouncing along between them as Lisa sang.
“Cause I will try for you,
Do what you said I could do,
And though you might never know how much I miss you,
It’s all I do,
This is for you…”
Both of them were a little misty eyed by the time Jorvik Stables came into view, but neither mentioned it to the other. Lisa thumbed away her tears and Astor cleared his throat a bit before they proceeded up the stable drive.
“Astor! Lisa! What a pleasant surprise!” Herman greeted them with a warm grin, striding towards them. “How nice of you to visit old Herman today. Shall I throw on a pot of tea?” Lisa and Astor both smiled warmly at the sight of their old friend.
“Not today, old friend,” Astor said.
“There’s actually someone else that needs you a bit more than we do today,” Lisa said.
From a bit behind them, the colt released a whinny that Sunbeam answered with a warm nicker.
Herman beamed. “What a friendly fella!” The colt inclined an ear toward him, curiously peering at the new group member.
“I may be aging, but all my horse sense hasn’t quite left me,” Herman decided after a few moments, smile softening. “You’ve gone and found yourselves a Starbreed.”
“He definitely has a blue spark to him,” Astor mused with a small smirk that got a chuckle from the trio and a light whinny from Starshine.
“We have quite a few mares that recently gave birth,” Herman said, “and I’m sure there’s at least a few that wouldn’t mind taking on another foal.”
“Astor says Sunshine’s taken a liking to him,” Lisa said.
“A lucky colt, then, indeed,” Herman smiled. “Two mommas will be all the more love for him. Speaking of, does he have a name?”
Astor and Lisa looked between one another. “Not yet. But, you found him,” Astor said to her, “Have anything in mind?”
Lisa studied the colt for a few moments. “Texas,” she decreed. “His name is Texas, like the bluebells back home.”
Astor smiled. “Texas,” he repeated as he looked at the little colt.
“Why don’t you watch after him, Astor?” Lisa asked.
Astor blinked and looked up at her in surprise, “Me?”
“Yeah,” Lisa said, “Why not? He seems to really like you and Sunshine. You could be good for one another.”
Astor caught her small, knowing, encouraging smile and released a breath of a laugh. “You know? I think you might just be right.”
“That settles it then,” Herman decreed. “Perhaps you’d even like to take him home with you when he’s a bit older?”
“We’ll see,” Astor said. “For now, he deserves to just be happy and settle in.”
“I’ll see to it,” Herman said. “It was good to see both of you!” With a wave, he led the foal away to go make some introductions.
Lisa and Astor watched him go with small smiles.
"Thank you,” Astor said quietly.
“And thank you,” Lisa replied. “It was good to ride back with someone.”
Astor gave her a nod. “See you around?”
“Yeah,” Lisa agreed with another smile. “And you better give me updates on little Texas. Louisa won’t let me hear the end of it if you don’t.”
Astor chuckled. “I’ll be sure to do that.”
Lisa gave him a final wave in parting before her and Starshine turned to head home to South Hoof.
Astor sighed quietly and stroked Sunbeam’s neck, a smile still on his features. “Well, girl, what do you say we call that a good day?”
The mare nickered in agreement, and the pair turned to head home to Valedale. They’d certainly be making plenty of trips back to Jorvik Stables soon to keep an eye on little Texas. Lisa just may very well be right. Caring for little Texas with Sunbeam’s motherly assistance could be just what he needed to get back on track.
The day had definitely turned out a whole lot better than expected, and he’d take every victory, even the small ones, now. Perhaps things were going to start really looking up, after all.