"I always love this bit," said Captain Fletcher, grinning. Lieutenant Sanders smiled and nodded. It was the first day of horse-care class for the new recruits. They stood in a disciplined line before their officers, but wobbled on legs they had had for less than three days. Around them was a corral fence. Behind Fletcher and Sanders was the door to the enclosed exercise ring, containing a careful selection of calm, sweet-tempered horses and likely-looking foals.
"Very good, gentlemen," said Fletcher, raising his voice to the public address volume. "Welcome to horse-care class. We will start easy. Today, you just meet the horses." He imparted a few basic safety rules and scanned the faces:
Big bulky Wardley and wiry little Brice, who seemed to be friends already, smiled. Wardley almost always smiled, just happy to be alive and healthy. Brice was just as cheerful and more excited; Fletcher knew from meeting the family two days back that he came from a line that had supplied horses and recruits to both cavalries for generations; he was on comfortable ground.
None of others had any experience with horses, as far as Fletcher knew—not until three days ago, when, using six magic arrows, he had given them all a life-long inside view. Grave Weldon, anxious Darneley, somber Fells, and hardboiled Carlin just waited. They had seen the horses in passing, on their first day, but Fletcher knew everyone had been confused and coping with their new bodies. Only now would they be able to focus.
A bit theatrically, Fletcher and Sanders opened the double doors. "Meet your new cousins," Fletcher declared.
The horses came out. Fletcher watched the recruits' faces. It was like dumping a box of puppies in front of a line of small boys. Smiles glowed.
Wardley held out his arms and crashed down into a sitting position, to bring his head to the level of a foal who came over to sniff him and did not shy when it got hugged.
Brice laughed aloud. A sweet old mare, who had been through this ritual many times, came up to him and laid her muzzle against his chest. He hugged her head and scratched behind her ears.
The remaining sober four were sober no longer. Even wry Carlin smiled sideways and held his hand out to a yearling as if to a dog. "C'mon, baby. C'mon, baby," he begged it. It sniffed, then skipped away but turned back to see if Carlin would follow. He tried, much clumsier on his new legs than was the colt, who had had a year to practice.
Darneley was laughing now, his eyes alight with wonder. That meant he was noticing the change within: how these horses were no longer strange, their expressions no longer blank to him. Fletcher still smiled but watched carefully. There was a slight danger that someone, most likely Darneley in Fletcher's estimation, would go into hysterics on realizing their mind was changed as well as their body. But no. Darneley seemed delighted.
Fletcher paced over to Brice instead. The old mare had passed on to pay her respects to Fells, and Brice was now petting Lummy, who was probing at his waist to see if he wore a belt that might carry treats. "How do you find it, Mr. Brice?" Fletcher asked.
"It's great, sir! It's like looking through a window that got cleaned when you didn't even know it was dirty before. It's so easy! I've known horses all my life, but I didn't realize I was working at reading them. Just a little, but working. Now I just see!" Fletcher returned his smile. "What's his name, sir?"
"This is Lummy. He works by food. You know the type?"
"Oh, yessir." To Lummy: "C'mon, cousin, I got nothin'. It's just petting today..." Fletcher smiled again and passed on.
Carlin and the colt were still playing. The colt was dancing around the new recruit, butting him. Carlin laughed back, but then said, "Hey! That was a nip, ya little gluepot!"
The colt lunged again. Fletcher leaned in and smacked him on the side of the muzzle. "Do like that, Mr. Carlin. He has to learn manners. But not hard. Just so he notices."
"Right. Mm, yessir." Carlin seemed slow to pick up the "yessir"/"no sir" form of address, but Fletcher saw no deliberate rudeness. Just as the colt wasn't being deliberately mean.
Fletcher retreated to the door, spread his legs into resting stance, and resumed watching. "Looks good," Sanders opined.
Fletcher nodded. "I was a little worried that Darneley would lose his grip. Or that Carlin would understand them well enough but not like them." Carlin was, rather, following half a length behind the yearling, doing his best to imitate the colt's playful prance, both horse and man-horse with tails up, exuberant. "But all's well."
Sanders nodded back. "A new chamber to their hearts."
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Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2017