Racing Hearts Go!

Entry by: Alobear

11th February 2015
Racing Hearts, Go!

The sun streamed down through the canopy, creating a dappled effect on the grass at the edge of the clearing. The roped-off area on the east side was full to bursting with the common folk, while the royals sat eagerly on the dais that had been built especially for them the day before.

The track had been painstakingly marked out, winding around the clearing in a snake-like fashion, to provide a decent length without risk of the action leaving the view of the spectators. The edges were delineated by sturdy fencing, with obstacles scattered along the route – small hedges, wide pools and a couple of ditches.

At the far end from the dais, the racing harts were gathered in a pen, waiting impatiently for proceedings to begin.

Ariella felt just as expectant, wishing she could shake her head and stamp her foot as the majestic stags were doing. They just had to complete the race, however – she would have her entire future decided by the outcome. She watched as the young men and women selected as riders emerged from a large white tent to tumultuous cheers from the crowd. They each carried a small metal heart attached to a leather thong – and each heart had inscribed upon it a name.

The riders approached the pen, and the harts’ handlers brought the animals up one by one to be claimed. Ariella knew the harts had been bred and trained from birth to accept a human rider, and that each knew their particular rider well. The young men and women had been chosen a year before, and had spent much of the intervening time training with their mounts for this day.

As they collected their stag, each rider affixed the metal heart they carried to its bridle, then led the animal away, towards the starting line. The harts were notoriously excitable, so the riders would only mount at the very last moment, in order to maintain some control over the race preparation.

There were six in all, the best hart-riders in the kingdom, four male and two female. When they had their stag settled, they each turned to another roped-off area on the west side of the clearing and raised a hand in salute to those seated within it. These spectators also numbered six and, for every rider salute, one returned the gesture with a wave of their own.

These were the suitors, whose names were etched on the hearts now carried by each stag. Ariella knew them all – by sight, background, reputation and petition – but had yet to get closer to any of them than she was now. She focused her attention on them, in an attempt to distract her anxious mind from the painstakingly slow preparations for the race.

The six suitors had all been chosen by the king and his advisors for political reasons, but the final selection could not be made by this method, for fear of offending the others. The five who were unsuccessful today would be appeased with trade agreements, territory exchange, lesser marriage contracts, or other negotiated terms. The one whose stag was victorious would be rewarded by becoming Prince Consort to the Crown Princess; in other words, by marrying Ariella.

She had tried not to form preferences among the six, but it was impossible.

Raylin, close to her own age, seemed personable enough. He liked hunting and dancing, and could probably be persuaded to stay out of state affairs. What Ariella knew about him didn’t exactly set her heart alight, but that wasn’t important here, and Raylin was unlikely to be troublesome.

Dorthan and Lectar, on the other hand, both filled her with dread, for different reasons. Lectar had a reputation for pursuing and discarding women regularly, which could cause problems if he continued those habits at court. Ariella knew enough about such things to be wary of him and to wonder what treatment might await her in private with him. Dorthan was the oldest of the group, which wouldn’t normally bother her, but he was rumoured to be ruthless and calculating, and would likely try to manipulate her to gain power.

When her father died, the crown would pass to Ariella, and her husband would officially fulfil an honorary place on the council only. But Ariella well knew how court machinations worked, and a clever man might easily find powerful allies to act on his behalf. She did not relish the idea of having wage a war of wills and wits throughout her rule.

Brandel was a homely sort, not the brightest spark by all accounts, but dependable – a safe choice.

Triffan, by contrast, was flashy and arrogant, with expensive tastes in clothes and wine. If he were to be her husband, Ariella would need to pay close attention to his access to the treasury.

And then there was Petro. With his dark eyes that hinted at deep amusement whenever she saw him, Ariella really did not know what to make of him. Everything she had learned about him suggested an intelligent, successful man. Nobody had a bad word to say about him, but their praises did not suggest exaggeration or sycophancy either. He hailed from a small but strategically important country to the south, and Ariella could admit to herself that he intrigued her. She had only viewed him from a distance, it was true, but something about him defied easy comprehension. If she was honest, she would like the chance to get to know him.

Her reflections were interrupted by a sudden fanfare blast from the trumpets. The moment had arrived; the riders and stags were all ready at the starting line, and the contest was about to begin. Ariella held her breath as the riders mounted, and the trumpets sounded again to set them off.

Ariella’s heart pounded in time to six sets of hooves, as the harts began to race.