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On the morning of my sixteenth birthday, as I doze in and out of my inner fantasies, a large gloved hand sweeps the hair from my forehead. I peek one eye open, shifting on the mattress to see who it is, and the corner of my mouth lifts.
All week he hinted he was planning something for my birthday, teasing as I followed him on his afternoon duties. And now here he is, sitting on the edge of my bed with stubble on his cheeks and a curly mess of brown hair hanging to his chin. He wears his guard uniform. He must have been relieved from duty only minutes ago, but his eyes are bright and alert with excitement.
Grabbing his arm, I curl my fingers around it, keeping it close to my body, and close my eyes once more. I don’t want to get out of bed. For one, it is ridiculously early; dawn has yet to arrive, starlight still visible and a cool spring breeze wafting through my open window. And it is my birthday. I should be able to choose when I wish to wake up.
But Richard doesn’t wait for my consent. In one big swooping motion that sets my heart beating much too fast to be normal, he lifts me from the mattress and cradles me against his armoured chest. With my boots over his shoulder and my cardigan on my lap, he carries me down the stairs, through the empty corridors of the manor. The way he holds me, snugly against his chest, fills me with his warmth. I find myself falling asleep again in his arms until the scent of the stables reaches my nose and I’m brought back to the waking world with all its smells and sights and sounds.
At the rear of the manor, the stables are dank and dark, but when we enter them I clearly spot my favourite horse, Dolly’s tawny silhouette chewing methodically while she waits outside her stall. A saddle is already strapped onto her back, the bags bulging with supplies for our ride.
Richard sets me onto a bench beside Dolly’s stall and begins lacing my boots.
“Where are we going?” I say, scrubbing at my eyes. Nothing ever happens this early in the morning. The flies that usually swarm the horses in the daylight aren’t even buzzing, though I spot a few crawling along the tops of the nearby stalls, sluggish and dismissive of Richard’s and my closeness.
Maybe he wants to show me the sunrise, though I’ve seen it many times before from my window.
Richard finishes lacing one boot and goes to work on the other, not lifting his eyes to mine, but his ears quirk under the curls of his hair telling me he’s smiling. “Have you ever heard of a surprise?”
Yes, and I despise them.
He finishes with the other boot and I slip my arms into my cardigan. Richard lifts me onto the saddle, then swings up behind me, his hands grazing my sides as he handles the reins and nudges Dolly into motion.
It starts off as a slow canter as we move away from the stables, then our speed increases to a gallop. In a dazed state, my head lolls back against Richard and I rest my eyes waiting for our motion to stop. I think of where he’s taking me. Nowhere I have not been; I have been pretty much everywhere within the priest’s property. I’ve spent almost my whole life here, after all.