Title: Morning Ride

Author: FA Watson

Book: Flambards

Characters: Christina and Mark

Author's Note: This was originally written for Yuletide 2008.

Yuletide Request by: Ishafel

Prompt: I was a Christina/Mark shipper before I knew fandom existed (and before I read the 4th book, even), so I'd love something featuring them, as friends or lovers, and especially if it involves horses/ hunting.

Author's Disclaimer: I do not own these characters and make no profit from them.

Morning Ride

Not that old thing, again, surely? said Mark in a scoffing tone of voice as she met him at the gate to the large paddock. I should have thought you d outgrown her by now; Father bought you a decent horse.

Christina said nothing to this, but just reached forward to pat Sweetbriar s neck fondly.

Well, we d best be off. Otherwise we ll be back late and I ll miss that damned tutor. Not that I d mind that, but I d just get another swishing. Mark led off on his new horse Cherry, turning her round and jabbing his heels into her sharply so she started quickly. He led off toward the wood. Christina followed, riding confidently, urging Sweetbriar into an easy canter. She kept just behind her cousin.

It was a beautiful late summer morning. A few pale pink streaks remained from dawn. Sunshine broke through the tree tops and angled down in a clearing near the edge of the wood. The grass at the verge was damp with dew. A woodpecker could be heard tapping busily for insects in the nearby stand of beech trees. They paused for a brief moment before Mark once more headed off down one path. Christina took an extra minute before following and looked round her, smiling. She sniffed deeply. Rich scents of earth and leaves, of saddle leather and horse wafted round her. She loved the smell: home. It hadn t always been so. She remembered that first awful ride with Mark, when Treasure ran away with her. How strange and new everything had been then, with her living at Flambards only a few weeks, and so new to riding. Almost a year later, all was comfortable and familiar. She patted Sweetbriar again, and then set off after Mark, urging the horse to a fast canter to catch up.

Come on, Christina! Mark s voice called back to her as she approached the next small clearing where he had paused to wait. I did say you should have come on a decent horse, not that old pink nag.

He did not pause long. Almost as soon as he had sighted her at the clearing he led off, once more pushing his horse hard, this time into a gallop across the field before he disappeared into the trees. Christina followed, without delay, but keeping Sweetbriar to a safer pace than Mark s headlong rush. The path was a good one, but it was all too easy for a horse to trip over a tree root and be unable to recover if going too fast. She emerged at the next clearing to see Cherry effortlessly clear a high hedge. God he could jump! He might be impossible at times, but Mark did know how to ride.

Christina shifted her attention as she approached the hedge, and concentrated on steadying Sweetbriar for the jump. It was a high one for her; she was a smaller horse than Cherry. Drummer would have cleared it easily, but Sweetbriar would need to jump that bit higher to make it over. Christina kept her hands still but moved her body forward over the withers, urging Sweetbriar on. Horse and rider gathered themselves; Christina gave a little kick; they were over. It was a perfect landing on the other side and without pause Sweetbriar cantered off. She could see Cherry racing ahead of her and clearly wanted to catch up. Christina praised the horse, but her steady hands on the reins kept Sweetbriar to a fast canter.

Catch me if you can, Mark called, turning to look behind him, even as he headed his horse back into another stretch of woodland path at break-neck speed. His jeering tone of voice grated and Christina s face settled into a look of determination as she watched from behind. Talented rider he might be, but just look at him! Even in just the brief time she d been at Flambards, she d realised Mark never really got the best out of his mounts. He never learned. Twisting round in the saddle that way while kicking his horse forward was just confusing poor Cherry. As she reached the edge of the next stretch of woods a minute later Christina steered Sweetbriar to a different path from the one Mark had taken. She knew this bit well. They d hunted it a lot in the spring.

Christina emerged the other side of the woods, a few minutes later, one pace ahead of Mark. She did not pause, nor look over to him, although she was still conscious of his horse beside her. Instead she urged Sweetbriar forward. Now was the time. She let out the reins a bit, altered her seat, and pressed her leg into Sweetbriar s side, giving the command the horse had been waiting for. Sweetbriar s strides lengthened as she kept up with Cherry s gallop. It was open field ahead for a couple of miles, and then a low hedge which Christina knew Sweetbriar could take easily before the next field.

A satisfied smile spread across her face as she sailed over the hedge side by side with Mark. At the landing on the other side she ventured to turn her head to look at him, even while being careful to keep her body in its correct forward-facing position. He flashed a grin at Christina in return, gave a shout, and urged his own horse on. They raced neck-and-neck across the next field and turned into a muddy lane at the far corner. Cherry was a nose ahead.

As they raced down the lane a pheasant broke cover and flew across the path of the horses. Steady though her character was, Cherry started at the sudden movement and broke stride. Mark cursed and brought his riding crop down hard on her rump; she slipped slightly in the mud. Her large hooves dug in and she righted her balance, but Sweetbriar took the lead. Christina leant forward, eagerly urging her horse; her blue eyes sparkled with excitement and her brown hair flew behind her.

Good girl that s the way you can do it!

She knew the terrain well. This lane ended in a sharp turn before a hidden gate with common land beyond. It was an awkward approach for a jump. Christina was confident they could do it though. Her hands gathered in the reins gently, slowing Sweetbriar s pace a little, preparing for what lay ahead. Her posture in the saddle conveyed the message a jump was ahead; she needed to position Sweetbriar just right.

Hah! Got you! Mark shouted as he passed them, going flat out.

He turned the corner, and whipped Cherry again, putting her at the jump. It was a difficult angle. Her hind legs grazed the top of the gate as she went and she was off balance as she came down on the other side. In contrast, Sweetbriar jumped clear and sprinted off, in the lead once more. Christina could hear Mark cursing again behind her, as he urged his horse on. Two hundred yards ahead was the stump of an old oak tree, prominent in the pasture. Local tradition marked it as the natural end to this kind of impromptu race. Sweetbriar needed no further urging now; she was as excited and determined as her rider, enjoying the chase. The two raced as one. Cherry, however, was flagging, tired from the earlier hard ride and out of sorts with the heavy handed rider on her back. Mark shouted in angry disgust as he saw Christina reach the stump first, overshoot it slightly as she slowed her horse, and circle back towards him. He was only a minute behind, but it was a minute too long.

He didn t wait until Cherry had come to a full stop before jumping off and coming to her. Christina sat on Sweetbriar. Her glee at the victory was evident and she had reached forward to pat her horse s neck.

Good girl well done.

Her laughter was infectious. Christina gave him a triumphant grin as she looked down at Mark. He felt his bad temper dissipate as he stared back up at his cousin. By god she could ride!

Still some life left in the old pink nag yet.