To Feel Freedom
Chapter 2: No Epectations
For a while we circle the field where the horses are tied. People keep coming from the village of tents, spilling into the lines of horses and eventually joining us in a wide slow circuit of the field. Ever so slowly the tied horses diminish, shifting into the ever growing crowd of rider-bearing mounts.
The whole field is awash with color; every rider bearing a different shade. No two are alike; just as the horses vary in the color of their coats, manes, and tails. It is a staggering sight, to say the least.
Finally, the last horse is saddled and the last rider is mounted. We mill around for a few moments in the field, settling into our saddles and getting a feel for how the horses are behaving. And then one rider splits off; a tall young man in bright ruby red atop a shining white gelding. He breaks away from the main group, heading for the line of trees that is opposite the one that separates us from the village of tents, and the rest of us form up to follow. We are now a long line, shifting and flowing along behind the foremost rider; a living river of horses and riders.
He leads us through the trees and I find myself growing nervous again. There is something special that is to happen and my mind is running circles. It cannot quiet, it seeks to find answers and the only kind that it seems to find are not of the pleasant sort. I fidget with the reins and glance about in growing fear. I am not used to riding. I have only ridden a few times in the last several years. My skills with horses are limited, I am used to working with them with my feet still on the ground, or from the end of a long rein while seated in a wagon.
I am not ready.
Mara seems to notice that I am on edge, for she suddenly appears at my side. Sadira is prancing and sidling in excitement and Mara struggles to keep her even with my own mount.
"You will be alright," she says. "Magnus will take care of you. He was chosen for you for a reason. I beg of you, go into this with no expectations. Seek only the moment that is directly in front of you. I will be beside you the whole time."
I look at her with a curious expression. "No expectations?"
"None," she says with a nod. "Just feel it. You need do nothing else."
I turn away and drop my head, pulling a deep breath in through my nose and then letting it out in one long exhale through my mouth. I feel my muscles beginning to relax and Magnus seems to sense my release in tension for he tosses his head with a soft whicker.
"No expectations," Mara repeats when I look at her again.
I give her a brave smile and nod. "Seek only the moment. Questions only distract."
She smiles back and then returns her gaze forward.
We have now reached the end of the trees. I can see that the land opens up not far ahead. Yet another expanse of grass stretches out before us as we file out of the trees. We are at the bottom of a valley, a vast bowl of grass that ripples and shudders in the cool spring breeze. I am thankful for the cloak that is wrapped around my shoulders since the wind still has a chill to it and it nips at my exposed ears. It is mostly irritating, but without the cloak it would be much more uncomfortable.
Ahead of us the line of horses and riders is shifting into another formation. They are turning and stopping, settling themselves side by side and facing down the long corridor made by two intersecting hills. I watch for just a moment before I truly realize what is happening, and then it washes over me like a wave.
This will be too much.
I cannot do it.
Beneath me, Magnus has come to a halt. Confused by my sudden tension and fear of what lies ahead. He believes it unsafe and stops, unwilling to take me any further since I am already too scared. The other riders steer around us and flow along at my left side, several concerned glances cast in my direction as they pass.
Then there is movement at my right and a hand appears on my arm. I turn wide and frightened eyes to see Mara peering at me.
"I cannot," I say. "I… I have never done this before."
Mara looks at me long and hard and I can feel the way that she is studying my tenseness. She is feeling out my mood and recalling my past experiences. I know this, because it is what she always does whenever I am afraid.
"Do you trust me?"
I am somewhat taken aback, for of course I trust her. She has always been there, always shown me the respect and kindness that I needed.
"Yes," I say softly.
"I would not ask this of you if I did not think you capable," she says. "Magnus has done this every spring for many years. He will know what to do. Just wait for the signal, hold tight, and then enjoy it for what it is. You will not regret it."
"I am used to draft horses," I reply, still convinced that I cannot do what is being asked of me. "I do not have enough experience."
"You have done this before."
"No. Nothing like this."
"It does not matter," she says. "There is only one long slow turn, and what you have done with me was much more complicated. You are a natural, I have seen it. Do not doubt. We shall remain at the back until you are comfortable. You can join with the others when you are ready."
I am silent for a long moment and then I feel a soft determination building as I remember what she had told me earlier. I am expecting bad things to happen. I am fearful of something that may never take place. She is right. I have done something similar before. I hung on then and I can hang on now.
"No expectations," I say with a sigh.
She grins broadly and claps my shoulder several times.
"No expectations," she says.
I square my shoulders and look ahead. The line of horses is nearing completion now; a long stripe of tossing heads, brilliant colors, flashing tails, and stamping feet. The air is alive with the sounds of shrill whinnying, impatient snorts, and people chattering.
"Stay with me," I say.
"I could do nothing else."
We move forward then, reentering the line and maneuvering ourselves into position. Mara sticks close to my side and her presence soothes my lingering worries. I push them down as best as I can, but it is hard to suppress fear once it has made itself known.
To the left and right of us, people are talking. They are chattering away and laughing about things that I cannot understand. I can tell that they are familiar with each other and with the upcoming event.
"Where does it end?" I ask, peering out at the land ahead of us.
"There is a narrow river that cuts through the end of the valley," Mara says. "It runs over a sandy bottom and its waters are shallow. We stop as soon as we cross it."
I close my eyes and nod, feeling the fear well up once more, but I quickly push it aside. I can do this, my friend is at my side and I trust her.
The atmosphere around us suddenly changes and I realize that it has grown quiet. The people have stopped talking and now the only sounds to be heard are the various snorts and shuffles of the horses. I open my eyes and look to my right and left.
There are so many. I guess there to be at least a hundred, possibly closer to one hundred and fifty. It is impressive and I find my fear begin to diminish. I cannot dwell on it with such an incredible thing to behold. Beside me, Mara is shifting in her saddle. She is sliding her feet back, tangling her fingers in Sadira's mane, and leaning low over the saddle. She is preparing for a fast start.
I take a deep breath and do the same.
I cannot believe it.
This is actually happening.
Soon the horses even grow quiet, but a tension begins to fill the air. All of us are waiting and the horses can sense the excitement building. They know what is about to happen.
I clutch tightly to the reins and dig my fingers deeper into Magnus's mane. My heart is thudding in anticipation and I turn slightly to see Mara break out into a wide grin. I can feel her joy spreading from her like a blast of fresh air and I cannot hold back my own smile.
I am startled by the sudden appearance of a single voice that rings out across the field.
"Yet another year," he is saying. "Another year of us coming together as friends. There are many new ones joining us, they come to feel the joy that this event always brings. Our final count has been tallied. We now number one hundred thirty-two. May our number continue to grow as each year goes by. And now, let the fun begin!"
A loud cheer rises from the assembled riders and I feel the excitement growing inside of me. My fear has all but disappeared now and I let my own voice join in with the tremendous outpouring of elation.
The cheer quickly quiets and then the voice rings out once more. This time they are counting down.
In just a few moments we will begin.
One hundred thirty-two riders prepare.
One hundred thirty-two horses toss their heads and champ at the bit.
The final number echoes across the field.
And then everything is suddenly a blast of organized chaos.
The line of horses explodes into motion and I feel Magnus surge beneath me. I cling tightly to his back, suddenly breathless and practically bursting with pent up energy.
His stride is rough at the beginning, but it is not long before he settles into a smooth gallop. I press my cheek down alongside his neck and revel in the sudden feeling of exhilaration.
I am flying.
All around me are the sounds of pounding hooves. The air smells of horses, fresh turned earth, and the light airy scent of a fine spring day. The wind stings my cheeks and tears at my hair, but I am oblivious. I do not feel the cold. The cloak keeps most of it at bay even though it is flapping and billowing out behind me.
There is a flash of emerald beside me and I can see Mara crouched low in her saddle. Sadira is in her element, stretched out in an effortless gallop and both horse and rider seem truly content.
How could I have feared this?
I lift my head and look around. We are a mass of tossing manes and bobbing riders. Color sparks and flares as each cloak flips to show its inner lining. The horses move like flowing water, splitting and curving around obstacles. The scenery rushes by, a blur of half-seen shapes and flickering glimpses.
The hills at our sides stream along and then begin to gently curve to the left. The horses follow the change in course without a second thought and we are soon formed into a long graceful arc.
I am caught up in the moment now and I am surprised that I am able to feel as free as I do. My fears have dropped away and I do not look for anything other than what is currently happening. Plans of what to do when the finish line appears are still lingering, but they are kept on hold. I can still plan for my future, but I do not need to dwell on it. I would be missing so much if I were to shift my attention to what may happen.
Now I understand why Mara said what she did.
The valley straightens again and I feel a change in the herd. There is a sudden burst of speed, all of the horses flattening out and driving forwards. We are in the final stretch.
Magnus, however, does not change his speed. I know now why he was picked for me. He is the type of horse that will only go as far as his rider is comfortable with. He is waiting for me. He wonders if I will be able to handle more speed.
I laugh out loud, for I can feel no need to hold back. I fear nothing now.
I bend low once more and shove my hands forward, giving him his head. He reads my signal without flaw and erupts into a whole new realm of speed.
Vaguely I see Mara drifting away behind me as Magnus weaves his way through the thundering mass of horses. His legs are long and his stride eats up the distance with a furious grace. I am giddy with the adrenaline rush and I shout my joy for all to hear.
So this is why Mara had asked me to join.
This is why so many have come.
They come, not to race, but to feel the freedom that riding brings.
The valley quickly widens around us and the river makes an appearance. We are racing for it at mind-numbing speed and I almost cry when I see the sparkling water laid out before us. I do not want this to end.
All too soon we are charging across it, glittering droplets of wonderfully cool water splashing over us.
The horses slow as they cross the river, the glorious feeling of unexplainable freedom fading away.
It is odd. For the feeling diminishes, yet never truly disappears. I am slow to realize that it is simply a feeling of confidence. I have faced my fear. I looked it in the eye and not only beat it, but laughed out loud while doing so. It is a new and wonderful feeling.
I am soon joined by Mara. She had been left behind when I had urged Magnus forward. Sadira may be tall, but she is just not as fast as Magnus.
Mara sees my face and I am sure that I am beaming because she can only smile and shake her head in wonder. We clasp forearms and I reach forward with my free hand to place it on her elbow. She does the same to me, even though the position is hard to maintain while perched atop horses.
"Did I not tell you that you were a natural?" she says.
I laugh, for I remember well her saying those words to me. Back when I was still filled with doubt.
"I am glad that you are my friend," I say. "Because you see the bonds that I place on myself, and you release me. Thank you, my friend, for showing this to me."
Mara nods in acceptance and we release our grasp on each other's arms.
The group mills around for several long moments, the riders taking the time to talk and express their wild delights. But, eventually, they drift away to form another line. We cross the river again and begin to walk back the way we have come.
This slower speed allows us to talk and share our experiences. It also allows the horses to cool down from their mad dash across the spring grass. The sun is drifting lazily overhead, casting wonderfully warm rays upon our shoulders and one of the riders suddenly breaks into song. The melody rises up over us and drifts along on the light breeze. It is mesmerizing in its call and we all quickly join in. Our voices rise together in song and we bask in the welcome feeling of camaraderie.
The horses continue their slow, ambling, walk and their steady hoof beats hold the rhythm, carrying it along and steadying our song.
I listen to it all and know, for a certainty, that I will be coming back again next year.
This story followed the song closer than I thought it would, once I got the prompt. It was just supposed to be about getting a group together and going for a mad dash through the spring grass. But then the prompt brought out the aspect of overcoming fears and suddenly it all meshed together.
The song is about the different seasons and how it resembles the life cycle. We are young, we grow older, we die, another is born. Spring, summer, fall, winter, spring again. In the story the main character is growing through learning. They are already well experienced in many things, but this teaches them something new. In doing so they become older, wiser. They also gain a new confidence, which is like being reborn. Suddenly you see life differently and you feel lighter, younger almost.
So the prompt took a fun story and made it so much better for me. Thank you my friend. And thank you to all who took the time to read it.