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Girls & Horses

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Elena's fourteen and she's never met a girl – let alone a princess – who loves horses as much as she does, who rides because she wants to, not for the way it looks or for the chance to hang out with boys. Elena's never ridden this fast before, but Mithian's just ahead of her, and Mithian is fifteen and Mithian is perfect. Elena's not sure what she wants most, to catch her up and ride beside her, to pull her down and tussle with her in the tall grass, or to keep on just like this forever, breathless in joyful pursuit.

Elena's father taught her to leave grooming to the grooms, but Mithian says, "Do whatever you can to make her feel good. Does she know she can trust you?"

Mithian has a dozen different brushes and combs, and by the end of the week Elena knows how to use them all. By the end of the summer she can distinguish them not only by sight, but by the touch of their teeth and bristles on her palm, her cheek, the inside of her wrist. In the dark of the stables she shuts her eyes and shivers and says, "I know."

Elena's fourteen and she's never met a girl who told her she was good. Not you'd look nice if you'd just comb your hair stand up straight cross your legs cover your mouth, not if, only yes. At first she's not sure whether to believe it, but when Mithian smoothes her fingers through Elena's hair she feels soft, and when Mithian rubs the hard worked muscles of her legs Elena feels strong. When Mithian tells her to lie still it's easy, and when Mithian tells her to open her mouth Elena whispers, "I'm good for you," and knows it's true.

They took away Elena's toy bow and arrow when she was ten, the third time she accidentally shot her nurse.

Mithian handles a crossbow as effortlessly as she does a horse; each becomes an extension of her will.

"I can't play. I'm a lousy shot," Elena says, as ashamed as the first time her father caught her eating frogs.

Mithian shrugs. "It's boring when we all have the same part anyway." She stows the bolts but keeps her bow held high. "Here's another game. I'll be the huntress and you be the hart. Gold sovereign says I can hit you!"

"You're hit, you're hit!" Mithian calls out, and the words pierce Elena like an arrow, but instead of pain there's only sweet surrender. She collapses in the dry leaves and lies there, twitching, while Mithian rides up and dismounts.

"Be still now, I've got you."

Elena obeys, confused but somehow patient, waiting for Mithian to tell her what comes next. When Mithian lays a hand on Elena's flank she understands that that's where she was hit. She couldn't move if she tried.

"I'm yours," Elena laughs, happy and helpless as Mithian cradles her close, and silently she adds, I win.