Midvale was always busiest when the sun was at it's fullest. Not that Midvale was ever that busy- it was such a small town, and although it had some reputable farms in the surrounding areas, it wasn't exactly the biggest deal.
But even those smaller crowds often got to be too much for Carter to handle. He wasn't a morning person by any means, not by choice anyway. But he already had to get up to take care of the horses as the sun first peered into the sky. On days he had to go into town, he just did everything faster to beat the midday crowd.
He had been late today after one of the mares jumped the fence into the wrong pasture. Carter was just lucky she hadn't broken the fence, or he would probably still be back at his employer's farm.
Unfortunately that meant now he could hear the rising chatter from the crowds from the centre of the village, and he could feel his palms grow sweaty.
Clearing his throat as if to ward off the tight feeling in his chest, Carter turned back around. In front of him stood a tall, gorgeous mahogany bay gelding. The horse watched him with the same anxiety Carter could feel was creeping up on him.
"Do you think that- um. That anyone is going to, um, come back for him?" Carter asked without taking his eyes off the gelding.
He could see from the corner of his eyes as his best friend, Whisper, glanced up at the gelding. They stroked his neck in a reassuring manner, and the gelding curved his neck as if responding to their touch.
"No," they responded. "I don't think anyone will. Besides, even if someone was looking for him, would they know where to look? You said you thought he was a French Trotter, right?"
Carter nodded, holding out a flat palm below the gelding's nose. "Right," he said, as the gelding cautiously stretched his neck forward. His nostrils flared and Carter could feel his hot breath sweep over his hand as the gelding sniffed him.
"You know that nobody owns or breeds any French Trotters around her," Whisper pointed out. Carter finally glanced up at them, and found a smile curling at their lips. "If they did, you know that Bazzoli would make sure to be the next one to have them."
Bazzoli was Carter's...boss. For lack of a better word. And Whisper was right, Bazzoli always made sure that nobody ever had any stock he didn't.
Slowly, so he didn't scare the gelding, Carter lifted his hand to rest it on the gelding's nose. The horse watched him apprehensively with those large brown eyes of him, but he was considerably less tense then the first time Carter had done that. "You were calling him, um, Achille, right?"
Whisper hummed. Carter could feel their gaze on him. "You know, I'd like you to work with him. He's flighty and spooks a lot, but he's bored too. He needs something to do." They sent a pointed glance at the defined muscles in Achille's neck and legs, then back at Carter.
His head jerked to look at her and Carter blinked, almost reeling back in surprise. "What?" he asked, before furrowing his brow and clearing his throat again. "Why, um, why don't you? He, um, he likes you. And if you're going to, um, keep him..."
He ducked his head at the soft smile curling on Whisper's lips. "But he needs the training. I can sit on him, but you know how to ride him. He needs the exercise mentally just as much as he needs it physically."
Once again, Carter glanced back towards he road that led to the centre of Midvale. The buildings seemed to loom ominously, even with their bright, joyous colours. The cobbled street was dusty and seemed to stretch on for a lot long than Carter remembered. He could see the crowds now, milling through the markets and the stalls set up for the noon bustle.
If he worked with Achille, it meant coming into town a lot more. Maybe daily, and probably in the evening when he had a gap between his chores.
He could ask Bazzoli for a place to keep Achille, but then again, he didn't have much faith in what might happen to the beautiful gelding if Bazzoli got his hands all over him.
Not that he didn't want to work with him. Carter had never worked with a French Trotter, and Achille was a wonderfully proportioned horse. He had power, and there was nothing Carter would love more then to learn everything he could about him. But there was also nothing more Carter didn't want then coming into town more than he had to already.
"I know you hate the crowds," Whisper said softly, making Carter turn back to look at them. He fussed with his hands, rubbing at his nails to try to steady his pulse. "I can't keep him at the city hall any more anyway, that was only a temporary thing. I'll find a place to board him at one of the nearby farms. You can take Reese out then. Didn't you say you wanted to ride her around more?"
"Yeah, but-" Carter cut himself off him a sigh, looking down at his hands. His thoughts whizzed around in his mind wildly and incoherently. "Do you even have the money to do that? You already have yourself and Koshar to, um, to take care of, Winnie. It's not that I don't want to, um, I-I just-"
"-I know." Whisper took their free hand and grabbed one of Carter's hands. The touch was grounding and Carter let out a heavy breath. His thoughts eased to a less frantic racing, though he still felt jitters running through him like he's taken a dose of caffeine straight to his veins.
He didn't know what he would do if Whisper couldn't understand what Carter, especially when he was saying something without saying it. Or if they were too scared to touch him when he started freaking out.
"All I'm asking if for you to think about it," Whisper assured him, rubbing soothing circles against the back of his hand. "Ask Shiloh about it. Maybe you can work it out if you can talk to her." Whisper let go of his hand, and stroked Achille's neck again. "How is she, by the way?"
Carter exhaled again, this time quietly, relieved for a change in subject. His sister was another thing that anchored him back down, even if it was just talking about what Shiloh had cooked for dinner.
"She's good." Carter glanced at Achille, who seemed a little braver now as he leaned his neck forward to sniff Carter's shoulder. Carter smiled, but it only lasted a moment before his brows knitted again. "I, um. I don't think it's anything to, um, worry about," Carter started, which was completely a lie because he was worried about it, "but she's been kinda. Um."
Whisper watched him patiently with warm brown eyes. Achille nudged his shoulder and immediately pulled back again, ears straight forward, as if testing Carter. Carter reached out to give himself something to do with his hands other then wringing them together, and rubbed Achille's nose.
"You know how, um, Shiloh's really bad about surprises and, um. Keeping them a surprise. When she gets-" Carter gestured vaguely, but Whisper nodded reassuringly.
"She's probably trying to do something nice for you. Didn't she say that her new job working with the caravans is going well?" Whisper asked, gently steering the conversation into clear waters.
A group of people walked by, and Carter suddenly realised that he had to get back to Bazzoli's, his own aversion to people or no. Bazzoli would get angry at Carter. And he'd already been mad earlier after one of his prize mares jumped the fence.
"Yeah," Carter replied absently, still petting Achille. "Um, hey Winnie, I-"
"-It's okay," Whisper cut him off, and he sent them a grateful look. "Go. I have to check on Koshar anyway. He's been pushing his limits recently. You should stop by soon, he misses you. Sometimes I think my cat loves you more than he loves me."
They gently pulled on Achille's lead rope and the gelding stomped the ground, before turning into the gesture. Carter picked up the basket full of horse feed bags and hauled it over his shoulder onto his back.
"Send Shiloh my good wishes," Whisper called as Carter turned away. He sent them a half-hearted wave.
A sort of heaviness settled over him at the thought of returning back to Bazzoli's and no doubt facing the consequences of his delay.
"Oh, Carter?" he paused to look over his shoulder at Whisper, who sent him a sweet smile that took some of the weight off his chest. "Take care of yourself."
Carter lingered for a moment, watching Whisper turn away with Achille and headed down the cobblestone road. He could hear Achille’s hooves clicking against the newly-redone street over the din of the crowd. He could see onlookers turn their hands too,
He turned back away, a strange and uneasy weight settling into his stomach. Not that it was a new occurrence, Carter always felt uneasy. But it was a different sort of feeling. He started rubbing his fingers against his nails again.
The smarter thing to do would have been to walk through the centre of town, through the markets, and walk straight to the gates of Midvale. It’d be shorter too. But of course, Carter couldn’t do anything the easy way.
It made Shiloh worry, when Carter walked through alleyways. She always warned him something was going to happen on day, when she wasn’t around to protect him. Carter just made sure she didn’t find out any more. He hated making her worry.
Besides, everyone was in the market centre today. If there were any bandits, wouldn’t they be picking pockets in the market? What good did lingering in alleys do for criminals anyway?
He knew it was dumb of him to go through the alleys, he knew the kinds of people they attracted. Especially since rumours of one of the coteries in the area had been buzzing around town. But what could a coterie want with a silly little town like Midvale?
A lump rose in his throat as he walked through the narrow path, squashed between the two-story houses and buildings. He kept his head down, as if not seeing a threat might protect him from it.
He came out on the southwest side of the market. A couple of people drifted past him, and Carter instinctively curled in on himself before glancing towards the market. He knew the best choice would be to go through the crowds, but that didn’t mean he wanted to.
But he also didn’t want to want to be later then necessary to find out how Bazzoli would react. You’re just overreacting. Nothing’s going to happen if you go through the market. Look at all the people walking through it right now. Stop being such a baby about it.
Carter picked at the edges of his fraying shirt. Did he fear the crowds more, or Bazzoli? He hunched his shoulders and pulled at a thread on the hem of the shirt. He decided that, while there was more certainty surrounding Bazzoli, there was also more fear buzzing like flies in a cloud around him.
He took a hesitant step towards the fray of stands so colourful it felt like an assault on his eyes, towards all the people of different class and colour. His heart crawled into his throat and thumped wildly, like a wild animals trying to escape.
Everything was twice as loud as he made his way through the crowd, twice as bright, twice as hot. All the different scents of all the different foods made his nose hurt, the taste of the hot and sticky air making his throat clog. He tried to swallow around it several times and failed.
His body was so tense it made his muscles ache, and Carter flinched every time someone touched him. He could see the end of the market place however. He knew that just near the eastern entrance to Midvale, his mare, Reese, waited patiently for him to return. That made him feel marginally better.
All he had to do was squeeze the rest of the way through the crowds, and then it would be all over, and he could go back to the stables and be with the horses. And then Shiloh would be home and they would have a nice dinner and Carter wouldn’t have to worry about rowdy crowds or Bazzoli’s shouting.
It would just be the two of them, just as it always was.
word count: 2,151