“Come on, Litha, let us take to the hills! We are free!” Ferdinand cried, nudging his horse into a gallop and plunging off the road.
Litha whinnied in glee and leapt over a fence, tearing across the open fields outside Garreg Mach with abandon. Closing his eyes for a moment, Ferdinand reveled in the sensation of the summer heat competing with the sharp breeze, the scent of sun-warmed grass and the hum and chatter of crickets punctuated by Litha’s hoof beats.
A headache grown out of hours upon hours of paperwork still pounded behind his eyes but he took a deep breath of the fresh air and forced himself to ignore it. He only had an hour or two before he needed to go back to the monastery and return to the endless piles of work that war produces. Judging by how shaky his hands were gripping the reins, weariness was starting to take a toll on him and he knew he should spend this free time resting. But his spirit was even more exhausted than his body and he figured that a little bit of joy amidst this dark time would do him more good in the long run than a couple hours of sleep.
Litha needed the freedom too so instead of guiding her where to go, Ferdinand simply let her run to see where she took him. They raced for miles through the rolling hills until Litha came to a halt of her own accord at the top of one. Her ears pricked up and she stared at the road below as it disappeared into the nearby forest.
“What are you looking at?” Ferdinand asked.
She sniffed the air then snorted eagerly and stamped her foot.
“Well? What is it? Is there someone coming?”
She whinnied in response and broke into a run again, flying down the hillside towards the forest’s edge. As they rejoined the road and emerged into the cool shade of the woods, Ferdinand reined in Litha and listened. The sound of clattering hooves was coming from around the bend in the road, signaling the approach of a caravan of some kind.
“No, do not make me talk to anyone right now, Litha,” he complained. “I am at the end of my rope. I have been arguing with Edelgard all morning and I have had it with talking.”
She tossed her head impatiently but Ferdinand nudged her into a trot, guiding her away from the road and onto a deer trail alongside a stream. She whinnied in protest and he replied, “No. I am sorry, but I mean it. No people right now. Just because you care to socialize does not mean I do at the moment.”
Litha stopped arguing but slowed down from a trot to a resentful walk. With a sigh, Ferdinand turned his attention to their surroundings lest he start thinking about work again. He felt a little less free here in the shelter of the trees than he did out under the sprawling blue sky, but the forest still held its fair share of refreshing beauty. For although shadows clustered heavily in the dense thickets, shafts of clear light broke through the foliage here and there to highlight patches of grass and wildflowers and to glitter on the stream.
With an insistent snort, Litha stopped abruptly. Before Ferdinand could tell her to keep going, he saw a shimmer of magic out of the corner of his eye. Grabbing his lance, he twisted around in the saddle and brandished it, preparing for danger.
But along with the flash, two figures materialized: a tall, black-cloaked man atop a gray horse.
“Hubert!” he said in surprise.
Litha whinnied happily and trotted over to greet Hubert’s horse Mabon. Ferdinand laughed and swung down from his saddle as Hubert dismounted too.
“What are you doing here?” Ferdinand asked.
“My business in Enbarr concluded earlier than anticipated,” he said stiffly, looking away into the forest.
Ferdinand walked over to Mabon and stroked his silky forehead. “What does it feel like to be warped? Have you gotten used to it after all these years or is it still frightening?”
Mabon nuzzled his shoulder and Ferdinand smiled.
“If only people took to you as easily as horses did,” Hubert said. “Then perhaps you would be a better diplomatist.”
“I cannot help the fact that horses are much better judges of character than politicians,” he answered, continuing to pet Mabon and cooing quietly to him.
When Ferdinand finally looked over at Hubert, he saw the faintest hint of a smile tugging at the corners of his lips.
“And why are you shirking your duties here on a ride? Do you not have ways you could be making yourself useful?” Hubert asked.
“Ah, so you agree I am a useful aid to Edelgard! How kind of you to say so.”
Hubert ignored his goading comment and took the reins of his horse, turning on his heel and walking down the path away from the road.
“Where are you going?”
“Just stretching my legs. It’s been a long and tiresome journey.”
Ferdinand fell into step beside him and said, “Do you not have duties you are shirking by going for a stroll in the forest?”
“They can wait for half an hour.”
Ferdinand raised his eyebrows and Hubert huffed in annoyance. “You do not have to accompany me,” he said. “No one is forcing you to.”
“I do not need to be forced to spend time with you,” Ferdinand replied.
The sincerity of the comment caught Hubert noticeably off guard and he glanced away awkwardly. “I am not in the mood for small talk.”
“Excellent. Neither am I,” Ferdinand said.
“Then you’ll have to settle for walking in silence.”
But after less than five minutes, Hubert reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a small tin with a silk ribbon tied around it. He handed it to Ferdinand wordlessly without making eye contact.
“Is this for me?” Ferdinand asked in surprise, popping the lid off and inhaling the rich, smoky aroma of Almyran pine needles. “I still have not finished the last tin you gave me! We will have to have tea more often.”
Ferdinand stepped in front of him so Hubert was forced to see the smile he gave him. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Hubert said. “It’s no inconvenience for me to pick up some while I am in the city.”
“I can buy it from the tea merchant who passes by, but it is not the same quality. Thank you. I will pay you back somehow.”
“Don’t worry yourself about it.”
“I do not like being indebted to you anymore than you do to me.”
“You don’t have to pay me back with gifts,” Hubert replied. “You can just…”
“I can what?”
A shadow fell across his expression which seemed so calm a moment ago. “Just walk with me for a bit. I have had a troubling journey and I find your presence strangely soothing, provided you don’t prattle on as you sometimes do.”
“Prattling? That is what you call our lively conversations?”
“Only when they are one-sided, which is often the case.”
Ferdinand scoffed and reached over to pet Mabon. “In that case, I will talk to your horse. He is much more pleasant company than you.”
“Oh? And what does he have to say?” Hubert asked.
Ferdinand whispered something in Mabon’s ear and he snorted.
“He says that he is glad I am around again because he is tired of your miserable mood,” Ferdinand answered.
Hubert opened his mouth to fire back an acerbic reply but Ferdinand shushed him and leaned his forehead against the horse’s with a look of concentration as if he was communicating with him silently. With a frown, Hubert waited for him to cease his theatrics but Ferdinand had no intention of stopping until he made Hubert laugh.
“He says that if you insist on taking him on sudden, important political missions he should be paid better with higher quality grain and a saddle that fits more comfortably. He also says that-” Ferdinand paused and gave Mabon a scandalized expression. “Watch your language! Goodness gracious.” He glanced over at Hubert and shook his head. “What are you teaching him? Horses are sensitive! You have to be mindful of the words you use around them!”
“What did he say?” Hubert asked with a long-suffering sigh.
“As a noble, it would be unbefitting for me to repeat it,” Ferdinand answered. “But the gist of it was that he is at least grateful that you were traveling with company because when you travel alone you sing to pass the time and your singing voice is… well, in his opinion, it is less than exemplary.”
“Maybe Mabon should keep his fucking opinions to himself.”
Covering Mabon’s ears with his hands, Ferdinand shot Hubert a furious look. “You are corrupting his vocabulary! How is he supposed to fit in with the horses of noblemen when he swears like a sailor?”
Ferdinand was not sure if it was his mock indignation, the general foolishness of the whole conversation or how absurd he no doubt looked trying to cover the horse’s long, scruffy ears but finally, no matter the cause, Hubert’s careful composure cracked at last. He snorted and clamped his hand over his mouth to muffle a laugh, both anger and amusement sparkling in his eyes at the same time.
Ferdinand’s heart leapt at the tiny victory and he smiled brightly. As of late, he had been able to draw that laugh from Hubert more often – not the wry, scoffing one he had heard many times before. No, this quiet, awkward one so sudden and genuine it startled Hubert every time he heard himself make the sound.
It did not seem as if Hubert had ever had anyone in his life to make him laugh. He always appeared to be a trifle confused by the whole business.
It was terribly addicting and Ferdinand found that he had started going to greater and greater lengths of ridiculousness just to provoke it. It might be a bit undignified, but in moments like this he decided that it was worth it. Bringing someone joy in no matter how small and insignificant a way was far more important than dignity.
Hubert gained control of himself again and cleared his throat gruffly. He started walking again and as Ferdinand jogged over to keep up with his long legs, Hubert said so quietly Ferdinand could barely hear him, “I’ve missed you."
Ferdinand considered telling him that he had missed him too, that the monastery somehow felt empty and quiet without him even though Hubert scarcely contributed any noise to it himself. He considered saying that even when he felt no desire to be around people, he still wanted to be around Hubert. But Ferdinand had learned that their friendship existed best when such things, no matter how sincerely felt, went unspoken.
After a moment Hubert said, “I would like to accompany you on your rides from time to time, if that wouldn’t be too unpleasant for you. It is important to clear my head when there is much that demands my attention. I’m able to focus better after a break like this.”
“You would threaten the sanctity of my afternoon rides with your gloomy presence?” Ferdinand asked, looking at him askance. “What have I done to deserve such punishment?”
Hubert faltered for a second to reply, then he realized that Ferdinand was joking and gave him a withering look. “Fine. I will ride alone. It will be far more enjoyable that way anyways.”
As Ferdinand laughed, Hubert smirked slightly.
“Now that I know you would prefer to be alone, I cannot resist the opportunity to torment you. I will accompany you on all your rides and you cannot stop me!” Ferdinand exclaimed.
Hubert swore then looked over at Mabon and said gravely, “My apologies.”
The fact that Hubert von Vestra made a joke, even if it was a small dry one, absolutely astounded Ferdinand. But he hid his shock lest he make Hubert feel defensive or vulnerable.
“Mabon is a lost cause, but Litha is still young and innocent. I suggest we change the subject before you say anything else uncouth,” Ferdinand said.
Hubert nodded, a hint of the smirk lingering on his lips. Ferdinand feared he would turn their conversation to serious matters, for he was in no mood to argue with Hubert right now. But instead Hubert asked him a casual question about a book he lent him. They turned back to Garreg Mach, knowing they could not escape from their responsibilities for too long. But as they walked back, they managed to not end up in any arguments, nor were any particularly impolite or cutting words exchanged between them.
Ferdinand even managed to make Hubert laugh once again. This time Hubert did not try to hide it with his hand. A faint flush of embarrassment tinged his sharp cheekbones but he looked slightly less alarmed and suspicious of the sound of his own laughter. And Ferdinand decided to take that as enough victory for one day.