On quite the roll, aren’t I? I think that is because I have had enough analyzing and logic lately; I’ve been doing a little bookwork for my parents’ business, and Excel’s functions get stuck in your head after a while. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, be glad. Be very, very glad. Nah, it isn’t that bad. It just slowly sucks the soul and life out of you to be doing data entry for hours on end. This is my relaxation. Also, releasing the creative energy means I don’t have to daydream for the next two hours until I can finally fall asleep. Anyone else have that problem?
Anyway, this was another segment I got sucked into. It would be nice to go back and make foreshadowing for this sort of trouble, but what they hey? Easy revision. We’re deviating from my original timeline here, but it fits in with the plot very nicely, makes it a little more balanced, and gives the inner conflict more ammo. I almost feel bad for my Belle character. Everyone’s out to get her–the King, Hunter, the ex-prince, Momma, and now this extreme group intent on subduing all natives. The way I see it, there are three sides to every story. Two wing-nuts and the bolt in the middle. Sounds kinda like the presidential election, actually…
Politics shelved, let us get on with the tale!
Your Dearest Nicolette
The days—then weeks—passed by in a blur of chefs, talking to people on the streets about their favorite parts of the upcoming holidays, and discovering who had what food and livestock available. Hunter became a man I reported to on occasion, and the prince—he went by the name Bart now—became my second shadow. He was my appointed personal guard, and I could not think of a legitimate reason to have him switched for another, though I did try to convince Hunter that I simply found Bart irritating. Unsurprisingly, Hunter raised his eyebrow and pretended to not have heard. I decided to spare myself a scoffing reply, and let it slide.
The most annoying part was, Bart was growing on me. From before sunup to after sundown, he was cracking jokes and reciting kitchen gossip. During lunch he boasted about his swordsmanship, and I hid in the library for two hours while he went out to the training field. I was careful to not go to Momma’s again, opting instead to stay to the main strip when I went out. By now, my name and face were well-known locally, and I would be instantly recognized no matter where I was. Belle was very recovered and enjoyed an afternoon walk along the river. That is to say, I walked and she ran circles around me, going to investigate trees and rodent burrows and the fish that splashed in the water.
Bulbs stood as tall as a man’s hand, and some were starting to bloom; the trees buds were starting to open, and the King felt I needed to practice riding on horseback for parades and formal ceremonies. Though I did try to explain that I knew how to ride, he would hear nothing of it and called in a servant boy to take me straight to the stables.
I was handed a slow nag who could have been trusted with a toddler on her bare back. Bart was given a middle-aged gelding with a lame hoof.
“We can’t take that boy out on a ride, his hoof is tender.” I told the stablemaster.
“You should mind your place, Flaxen,” the foreign man said, tossing the saddle onto the horse’s back.
“I am the King’s liaison. You should watch your tone.”
He gave the horse’s girth a firm yank, but didn’t wait for him to let out his breath. The saddle would come loose as soon as the horse relaxed, but I didn’t bother to comment on this as well. “My apologies, Madam Liaison, what I meant was that you should mind what you know, and let me mind mine.”
There was an unspoken or else added to those words, but Bart took the horse and mounted before I could open my mouth again.
“Thank you, Stablemaster. Miss Belle, let us go.”
We walked the horses to the start of the river road, then I pulled up my nag short. Bart’s horse had a definite limp, and though an untrained eye wouldn’t spy it right now, that horse was going to be hurting bad by the end of the ride. Bart whirled his gelding around and came back to me.
“What is it?” His face was taut, and he had been in a vexed mood since some trainee gave him a swollen patch on his cheek; I had not asked about his swordsmanship practice. Bart had not approved of my treatment of the stablemaster, but he was accustomed to having faith in the subordinate’s ability to do their jobs.
“Bring your horse over here; I’ll tighten down the girth properly.” I said. Belle complied by coming to me as well, and his horse shied for an instant. It wasn’t that the hound frightened the horse, so much as the gelding was fighting with Bart. Bart was losing, and it took him a couple minutes to bring his horse close.
He objected as I started to swing off my horse. “Don’t do that! You’ll have a hard time getting back in the saddle. And I’m fine.”
“You’re sitting crooked already. Within a quarter mile, you’ll be riding sidesaddle, too.”
The sidesaddle did pester me, and I wished I had been allowed to wear riding breeches so I could ride in a standard saddle instead.
“What do you know about this? Get away from my leg!”
“Lift it up, and hold your horse still! I have to get under the stirrup—wriggle the saddle the other way, don’t let him walk off. Now sit square and don’t let him get the bit between his teeth, I’m almost done.”
I poked the horse behind his ribs, and with a grunt, the horse let out his breath. I tightened the cinch another three or four inches, and slid the buckle in place. As I reached to thread the spare length through a slit in the saddle, an arrow whizzed over my head, scraping Bart’s saddle, and landing in a tree behind us.
Before my mind could catch up to my actions, I had scrambled back into the nag’s saddle, somehow catching up to her as she bolted down the road. My knee swung over the notch, and I frantically seized her reins. The shoes I wore were soft-heeled and not much good for spurring on an ancient bag of bones, but I think the yells and arrows thunking into trees behind us did what my soft shoes could not. The mare ran down the road with the speed of a horse far younger than she was. Belle kept close pace, leaping over the ground with grace given to her by her blue-eyed mother.
Pounding hooves clattered behind us, a beat too solid to be Bart’s crippled gelding. My mare was holding her gait for now, but her hide was already beginning to dampen, and it would not be long before she wore down. No one was on the road. We had been set up for an ambush, and my bet was that there was a blockade ahead brimming with more arrows.
We had to get off the road, but I didn’t dare to cross the river engorged by the spring runoff water.
The person behind me was closing in, and my horse’s sides heaved with exertion.
“Death to Flaxens!” a man’s voice said.
An arrow clipped my right ear.
I whistled directions to Belle, and she shot into the brambles.
There was a corner ahead, a place where the berry bushes and roses had grown along the ridge of a bend frequently washed out by the river, and I could imagine how deep it would be today.
Heel jabbing the mare’s ribs, I slapped her flanks with my glove as we closed in on the hedge. She wanted to turn, but I kept her head locked straight. When we passed the point where we could turn, my heart fluttered and I wondered if she would take the leap. Or would she tumble into the thorns, crush me beneath her weight, and drowned me in the muddy bank of the river? If we made it over, would we be met with gravel, or would we sink into the mud, break her legs, and send my body like a ragdoll into the rocks bursting from the river’s surface? Could I stay on her back, even for a jump during ideal circumstances? I had never jumped on a horse before, and I was not confident I would keep my seat.
Two hoofsteps later, the mare gathered her strength and launched us over the hedge.
Our pursuer swore in an awed tone.
For an instant, we flew. Her hooves brushed the uppermost tendrils, a stray branch whipped my throat, then we landed back onto the ground. She rammed her feet into soft clay; I grabbed the saddle to stay put, losing my reins to the mire at her hooves.
We slid down the embankment, stopping with water up to her cannons.
Before our pursuers could find their own way past the brambles, I gave Belle a whistle. The horse tried to sidestep back up the slope, but she stumbled twice. I snared one lead when her tumble brought us close to the ground, then yanked her head out to face the water. Belle arrived and whined.
I patted on the pommel.
Belle lifted her paws in nervousness.
“Get up here, dog!” I said and patted the pommel again. The mare cocked her ears back to me, and jumped when Belle hopped for her back. I yanked on the bit with one hand and caught Belle’s hind end with the other, scooting her onto the horse in front of me.
After a brief battle with the nag, the mare gave in and began to wade into the water. Perhaps she realized she couldn’t make it back up the slope,or perhaps I had actually won our little hierarchy fight. We walked downriver until we were past the bend, then started to cross at the widest point I could see; my hope was that the wider the river was, the slower it was going to be. The current pushed us past the point I intended to land on, and eddies swirled around us; I kept Belle standing on the horse’s neck and swam with the horse, holding onto the pommel and hoping that the tales of incredibly large fish who ate swimmers was nothing more than a myth. Twice something hit my leg, and I firmly told myself it was a piece of debris or a stick.
There was a large rock just downriver, and worse than that, I could see the water swirling against it, taking a stick and sucking it straight down to the bottom as easily as the wind tumbles a leaf. It was a big eddy, and we weren’t moving out of the way fast enough.
“Come on, come on.”
A log as thick as my waist crashed into the rock, swayed to one side, then bobbed. One end started to spin, and the log did two lazy circles before getting hung up on the rock. It paused, then the end on the rock went straight into the air, and the eddy swallowed the log whole. Belle lost her footing and slipped into the water.
I grabbed her by the scruff of the neck and fought to drag her close to me as the mare yanked on my other hand. The water pried at my fingers; I gritted my teeth and squeezed my muscles, ignoring a yipe from Belle.
We were doomed.
Then, the mare’s hooves struck ground, and she heaved us out of the current. A side stream pulled me out from the main tide, bringing me close to the mare again. With two more leaps, the mare heaved me to where I could touch bottom. Belle swam to shore, reaching it before either of us. I sat on a rock for a few minutes, hoping that searchers would not spy us.
When I could no longer stand to be in the lightly forested bank any longer, I motioned for Belle and grabbed the nag’s trembling lead, taking us into the forest renown for its rainbow wood and its deadly predators.