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  1. Ashley Wilkes, dressed in civilian clothing, was sitting on a stone bench at the end of the path near the stables. He was leaning back with his legs stretched out and crossed, reading a dog-eared old text. After a moment, he turned to watch the men on the far side of the square doing jumps with weights on. He put the text down on the bench beside him and stretched his arms. This book was cheerfully borrowed from Aiden, one of his mentor’s recommendations. But either he was very stupid, or he just didn’t get it. Poems. Long, old poems. Bad old poetry, a bench in the sunlight, all in his own time. His way of escaping what he hated about his life here in the yards. He fidgeted with the book again, flipping the yellowing pages to see if its prose got any better. “Good book?” A tower guard he knew asked and paused by him. Ashley looked up. The man looked tired, his eyes still puffy with sleep, and he was trying to smooth down his hair with his fingers. Maybe he’d come straight from night sentry duty. “No,” Ashley shook his head, facing the guard. “I just don’t get it.” “You’ll need to figure it out later. You’re meant to be in the stables now." “. . . " He opened his mouth to reply and paused. He was taken aback by this news. “What’s this, it's started already?” Ashley said. “Yes, it has” said the other guard wearily, “aes sedai's time is precious, so we moved up your stable time to accommodate. Alvin can tell you more.” “I wasn’t notified.” “Ashley, it’s not your place to challenge any changes to the schedule, particularly where the aes sedai are concerned. Go care for the horses." Ashley hesitated - he had been dreading any time with horses - but the older guard walked away before he could protest. “All right,” he growled, eyes shone bright with anger. He kissed the silver leaf that hung on a chain around his neck before dropping it into his tunic and buckling up the neck of his over-jacket. Then he tucked the ragged old book inside his jacket pocket. “Ashley Wilkes?” one of the lead grooms told him as soon as he came near the stables. Ashley walked in casually and took off his jacket. “Yes, Master” he said. “I’m Alvin. There’s a lot to do and we don’t have much time. Jagen Sedai wants both her horses to get a bath, brushed down, and then saddled up after Trine. Come, this way." Ashley sighed and followed Alvin as they walked back to the front rows of stalls to where horses belong to aes sedai were kept. It was surprisingly empty. Maybe many aes sedai were outside tar valon, traveling? He looked around the stables, and felt a new stab of annoyance surge over him, as though he were a second class citizen. It was so unfair. He breathed deeply to calm the hot angry tears threatening to warm his cheeks. He raised gloved hand to take the pack indicated by the lead groom off the rack, and recklessly emptied its contents onto the floor. A brush made of boar’s hair. Bottles of scented oils. Beeswax for softening the leather bites and saddle. Soap. Sugar lumps. “Let’s begin with basics. You need to get to know this place. To learn who these horses belong to." Ashley nodded as Alvin showed him to the two horses. He sat on the bare floor of the stall and gazed at Jagen Sedai’s horses. Trainee Ashley had certainly not been designed to ride horses. But still he had not challenged lead groom Alvin’s decision to pick him for this chore. Ashley didn’t do things that way. And he knew that when the time came and he learnt more, he would be the right man for the job. But horses. Riding was a bloody nightmare. He’d never be higher than simply standing if possible. The vibration from wind, the animals’ heavy breathing and beating at the ground. It was as if the air itself didn’t want you to forget you were a few hands up thanks only to its charitable nature. Fortune prick me, he cursed to himself. He had been twitchy and already running on adrenalin from the anger. This was much worse. He felt sick as he studied the magnificent black stallion with its lush mane and the standard issue bay next door. They looked spirited. How was he to cope? He leaned forward and said, “Okay, I’ll be right back. Got to prepare your baths.” He kept his mind off the nausea as he drew water from the nearby source; Alvin watched him get used to the pump then helped him carry the two buckets. His stomach was doing flips, and all his resentment was somehow replaced by fear and worry about the struggles ahead. As per Alvin's instruction he began to work the bay's hair with his bristle-brush, gently, keeping his hands away from its mouth. Alvin handled the black stallion himself, not trusting a mere trainee with the spirited warhorse. Then came a very hard scrubbing with soap and water. And massaging oils into the muscles - this the animal seemed to approve of. Alvin then demonstrated the correct way to put the oiled leather reins and saddle on his horse, asking Ashley to do up the bay's. But before Ashley was even done with his task, Alvin tapped his shoulder and Ashley looked up. Back away from the stable groom, he saw through widened eyes the aes sedai coming, two of them. Light, was it so late already? He hastily secured the saddle and hoped he did that right.
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