The fourth time she fell off, Nile didn’t bother getting up right away; it would happen, she was just taking a moment. It turned out to be a sad fact of the particular brand of immortality she’d been...given...that the bruises healed so quickly she barely noticed them, and likewise the two broken toes she’d had so briefly this morning, but the ache in her muscles was just as inescapable as it had been in Basic. At least the grass was soft and the sun was out.
Andy appeared over her, silhouetted against the bright blue sky, a halo of light on her short hair. Nile had been prepared for her to look impatient – impatience was Andy’s thing, of the four of them, she was learning that – but it was worse: she looked amused. Maybe even, hidden in the corner of her mouth and the tilt of her head, the tiniest bit sympathetic.
Nile got to her feet. “Let me guess – we go again?”
“No,” Andy said. “Here’s your next lesson about horses; they only put up with so much. We’ll walk them for a bit before you get back up there.”
Despite what she’d said, Nile’s horse made a gentle sort of huffing noise when she took the reins to lead it, and nudged her in the shoulder with its nose. It didn’t seem that put out that Nile couldn’t stay on.
“You still haven’t said why this is so important,” Nile said as they made a slow circuit around the field, Nile still not quite sure these two great beasts – horses were a lot bigger than she’d thought, close up – weren’t going to break another toe or two. “Learning to ride.”
“It’s useful. Horses don’t break down, they don’t need gas –”
“I believe you, but tell me honestly, when was the last time you needed to ride?”
“Iran, 2002.” Andy’s response was prompt and without hesitation. “Saved our asses – as much as they ever need saving.” She grinned. “Book hated it. Next time you see him, ask him about it.”
Andy kept doing that, kept telling Nile things she should ask Booker next time she saw him. Nile didn’t know what to say to any of it; what were the odds she’d remember, ninety-nine years and seven months from now? But she didn’t think Andy was saying those things for Nile, so much.
“Just so we’re clear,” Nile said, “that was eighteen years ago.”
“You never know.” Andy was firm, the tone that said you wanna argue? Go ahead, worse than any drill sergeant. “Now – get back up there.”
The first time, Andy had given her a leg up. The second and third and fourth, she’d let Nile do it on her own. The horse, Nile thought, was very patient as she scrambled and rolled onto its back. Andy, of course, sprang up from the ground like it was nothing, and sat bareback on her own horse like they were one creature.
Nile made herself hold the reins lightly. Head up, back straight, use your knees, not so stiff; she ran through the instructions in her mind. None of that made sitting astride what felt like a warm, hairy sofa any easier. It just meant she hadn’t fallen off again. Yet.
Andy patted her own horse on the neck. “Once more around, then we’re going to try going a bit faster.”
“I will fall off again. You sure about this no saddle thing?”
Andy snorted. “Saddles make you stop paying attention to the horse. You fall off, you’ll learn quicker. I don’t have all the time in the world to teach you, you know.”
She looked away after she said that, towards the trees on the other side of the field. Nile waited until she looked back. “Joe and Nicky can always show me how in a few decades. If it ever comes up and we’re not making our escape by hovercraft, or something.”
“They’ve been promising hovercraft since before you were a gleam in your father’s eye,” Andy said with the dignity and disdain of someone who’d seen a hundred futures come and go, “and Nicky still rides like he’s wearing mail.” She amended that last when Nile frowned. “Chainmail.” Then she nodded to a tree on the other side of the fence. Nile recognised it; she’d been lying in the grass next to it. “Look, all the way around and you’re still here. Time to up the ante.”
The best thing about doing this with Andy and nobody else, Nile decided, was that there wasn’t anybody else around to hear the noise she made when Andy clicked her tongue and they went faster.
When they got back to the farmhouse, after a whole lot of extra work in the stables that made Nile contemplate again how much less trouble cars were, Nicky had his sniper’s rifle stripped down on the kitchen table and was meticulously cleaning every part. Joe was chopping onions; he’d explained to Nile, a few months ago now, that Nicky loved cooking and would fight off competitors to do it, but hated chopping onions.
“Have a good afternoon?” Joe asked.
“I found out about muscles I didn’t know I had. But yeah, I think we did.”
“How many times?” Nicky didn’t look up from his work, but she could feel his attention shift.
“How many times what?” Nile said, holding on to the out he’d given her.
“Fourteen,” Andy said, shuffling through kitchen drawers and giving up in favour of opening the bottle of beer she was holding on the edge of the stone bench, a trick Nile was going to have to learn. “She fell off fourteen times. I thought it’d be a lot more,” she added, in Nile’s direction.
“There was no saddle,” Nile pointed out, for the others’ benefit. “Forget stirrups. Not even a saddle!”
“Andy thinks saddles make you stop paying attention,” the men chorused together, without even looking at each other.
“And I’m right,” Andy said with satisfaction, taking a swig of her beer. “Nile, you want one?”
“I’m gonna shower first, but thanks.” Nile made it all the way out of the kitchen before a thought crossed her mind, and she poked her head back in. “Hey, Andy says you guys are into bets. Anybody want to bet me I’m never going to need to ride a horse?”
Nicky gave Andy a quick sideways glance. “Sure. A hundred euro says you will.”
“That’s a terrible bet,” Joe chided them, sweeping a pile of onion across the chopping board with his knife, as practised as Nile had ever seen him cut a throat. “She can only lose.”
“Sounds about right to me,” said Andy. “In the long run.” She tilted her head. “It’s not that bad, right?”
“On the scale of ‘you tried to get me to jump out of a plane when we first met’? It’s not that bad. But I still say we’re gonna get that hovercraft first.”
Joe turned to frown at her. “What?”
“Ask Andy,” Nile said, with a grin, and went to have her shower.