Context for Today's Excerpt: Anna disguised herself as a boy, Albert, and set off looking for adventure. She found it and a job in the royal stables. Sea Sprite is an angry and dangerous horse whom the rotten head stableman, Wilhelm Bloch, uses to "punish" the stable boys. Anna has been watching the noblemen have tournaments and competitions all day long and is itching for some action, when Block decides that she needs to be taken down a peg... and he tells her to exercise Sea Sprite.
* * * * *
An Excerpt from Chapter X - Sea Sprite
(In which Anna and the meanest horse in the stable agree wholeheartedly on their next course of action....)
I REALIZED THAT I was supposed to be frightened at the prospect of riding Sea Sprite, but I could not help but be thrilled. Sea Sprite was a gorgeous horse, and I could not imagine anyone keeping such a horse at the royal stable, in a loose box no less, if he were not a great horse.
“Hi, Sprite. Want to go for a ride?” I called. Sea Sprite dashed his body against the wall and raked his teeth across the bars. Even with the solid wall between us I took a step back. Maybe I was wrong about being thrilled. Aunt Elfie always said I was too impetuous. Oh, well. I went to get his bridle and my saddle.
When I returned I thought I ought to get his bridle on him first thing so I could control him. I opened the top door of the stall and held the bridle in front of me like a shield.
Then a remarkable thing happened. Sea Sprite’s ears came up. I had never seen them up before.
He came forward and lipped the bridle, practically taking it out of my hand. That was a good sign. He liked his bridle.
He did not try to bite me at all while I bridled him, and only once when I saddled him, and that when I pulled the girth up too tight too fast. Otherwise he was very cooperative.
“You want to go, don’t ya boy,” I said, scratching his neck. I think boredom affects horses more than people. People, after all, are not usually shut up in a little stall all day. No wonder he had been so grumpy. He wanted to go.
I wanted to go too, and I have to admit, when he resisted going into the ring and pulled for the park and its long trails, I gave in to him. I did not want to ride in a boring old ring either.
I also gave him his pace, a fast, big striding trot. Even at that pace he pulled. He wanted to run. There were still a number of people in the park, so I held him back as long as I could. Then when we got into the open I let out a whoop and we charged across the field.
It was a fast full exhilarating gallop. There was a breeze off the mountains, and our speed made it seem a gale force. Wind made my shirt flap and my hair swirl. That was a good feeling, being away from the barn, and my hair was short and could not get into my mouth and eyes.
I rose out of the saddle and let out another whoop of encouragement. I grabbed a handful of mane and closed my eyes, riding on feel as we flew over the gentle dips and rises of the park. I had been right in the first place. It was thrilling to ride Sea Sprite. Even if it was foolish, it was thrilling.
I urged him on some more and opened my eyes. A small knot of people had wandered out onto the green. They were standing with their backs to us, admiring the scenery of the mountains.
I sat down hard and pulled on the reins. It made not the slightest bit of difference. Sea Sprite galloped on unchecked. Most horses avoid trampling people, but I was not certain about Sea Sprite. I let out a yell of warning and pulled on one rein, bracing my other hand on his neck, in hopes of turning him, or at least getting him off balance. It did slow him down, for two paces. He galloped sideways a moment and then shot off in a new direction.
Well. First crisis overcome. It seemed we could come to a compromise. We would go where I wanted, but at his pace. That was a relief, since I really wanted to go fast myself anyway. Unfortunately, while I made sure we trampled no pedestrians, I failed to notice where I had guided him. I looked up to see that we were but one stride from a dense bit of forest.
I flattened myself against his neck to avoid low branches and we plunged in. Something hard struck my knee, and all parts of me were whipped by leaves and branches. The denseness of the undergrowth slowed Sea Sprite considerably. He broke stride and settled into an excited trot. It was the ideal time to gain control, but I was afraid to look up for fear of the branches. It was hard to regain the reins too, since the twigs kept snatching them away, and my hands were soon covered with scratches.
I finally did get a proper hold on him, and at that moment the forest began to clear and I could sit up. We had reached one of the cross country trails. We cantered to the left, this time with me firmly in control. I wanted to be sure, however, and when the path widened out to a clearing I put him through some figures at an easy trot. Sea Sprite was no dressage horse, and he had no will to become one. Running was all he really liked to do, it seemed.
I pulled him to a halt and patted him on the neck. His ears pricked up, and he looked down the path. I heard the pounding of hooves. In a moment two horsemen, galloping neck and neck, appeared on the trail, then disappeared over a fence further on. One of them was the marquis, and the other I thought must be Captain Kohlman. The horse race. I had forgotten.
Sea Sprite jumped to go after them, and I did not hold him back. Although there were no silver spurs waiting at the end of the race, the whole day of longing to win something had got competition into my blood.
We raced after them, no question this time about control. Horse and rider both wanted the same thing. My heart seemed to pound with his hooves. I hardly noticed the first jump as we flew over. My attention was on the two tails about twenty-five paces ahead. I urged Sea Sprite on as the trail swerved left onto a downgrade. He laid himself flat out, not letting up around the curve, or even on the downslope, which said a lot for his courage. Horses do not usually like to risk going head over heels. We were closing the distance.
Near the bottom of the hill was another fence. I do not much like jumps on a downgrade—it is a little like running down stairs and skipping a step. Sea Sprite, however, took it smooth and fast. He wasted no energy jumping up, but out and long. We were at least another stride closer, and he laid himself out again.
On the flat we could not gain much, but over each jump and around each bend we shortened the distance. Sea Sprite jumped big, and long, and he threw himself around the curves. He seemed experienced at this kind of race. Soon his nose was up with Captain Kohlman’s flank, the marquis having pulled a length ahead. They both must have known that another horse had joined the race, but neither looked to see who it was.
Over one more jump and we were up with Kohlman.
“Go, Sprite, go!” I hissed and urged him on. Sea Sprite could not increase his speed much, but he tried, and we began to pull away from the captain, and up on the marquis.
We were heading back toward the palace now. There were spectators lining up in the open spaces. I caught sight of Hans and Philip up ahead, waving, or perhaps gesturing. I was not sure and had no time to notice. I was just about up with the marquis.
“Go!” I said once more to Sprite. The marquis glanced back. Then he sat up straight and looked back again, as his pace slowed and he fell back.
“Good God, it’s Albert!” he said, and he urged his horse on again. Sea Sprite was too far ahead now, though, and it was irritating that we had got there because the marquis had let up. We would have been ahead by our own efforts over the next jump, if not before.
That next jump lay ahead of me. It was a water ditch with a bank in front of it. I did not know much about the strategy of taking a water ditch. We had a creek at home and that was as far as my water experience went. Sea Sprite had seemed to know what he was doing so far, though, so I gave him his head and grabbed a handful of mane, prepared to follow whatever he did.
As we got closer I saw that the water was too broad to jump. Apparently we were to jump off the bank into the water, and gallop through. That seemed straightforward enough. I prepared myself for the downward plunge as we approached the bank.
Then something white flew by, just in front of us. A lady’s parasol, caught by the wind. Sea Sprite started sideways, but I kept going forward. I tried holding his mane and hooking my knee on the saddle, but as the momentum carried us both up the bank I found I could not stop our parting. I rolled through the air, slamming flat on my back on top of the bank and skidding over and down.
The water was muddy, and I got some in my mouth, but I could not cough. All the air had been knocked from my lungs by the impact. I struggled to my feet, wheezing a little. Hans and Philip were already there, pulling me out of the water. The marquis was just behind, flinging aside his reins and running to help.
I rolled over on the bank and lay a minute. It seemed as if the whole city were there looking at me in a crowd of concerned faces.
“Are you all right, Albert?” asked the marquis.
I was all right, perfectly all right. Never better. But when I tried to answer, the sound that came out of my throat was rather like a long dead frog’s ghostly death curse.
“Crooaakk!” I said, trying to sit up.
“No, no, no,” said the marquis. “Lie down.”
“He’s all right,” said Tybalt, casually poking his one unconcerned face in at me. “Just got the wind knocked out of him.”
I nodded and pointed to him.
“I think he’s right, your grace,” said Philip, looking me over. He started to feel my collar bone and poke my ribs.
“All right,” I said, my voice beginning to come back to normal. I pushed his hands away. “I’m all right.”
The marquis breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, Albert,” he said. “Let’s get you back to the stable.”
“Wait a minute,” said Tybalt. “He should get back on the horse and take that jump again.”
“Really, Stenbau,” said the marquis. “I think that if Albert gains a little fear from this experience, he could use it.”
“I wasn’t thinking of the boy,” said Tybalt with a grin. “It’s the horse. He’ll never take that jump again it he doesn’t go over it now.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. I was feeling a little stiff, but I could ride a horse. I could always ride a horse.
“No,” said the marquis and Philip together.
“I’m okay,” I said, getting up unsteadily. “I can ride.”
* * * * *
Tomorrow, I'll post a little more about the writing of this clip.
If you'd like to read more of The Adventure of Anna the Great, you can find it in ebook form at Amazon's Kindle Store, Kindle UK Store, Smashwords. and Barnes and Noble's Nookstore. Look for it at Apple's iBookstore, Sony, Kobo and Diesel, too.