I think I fell a little in love with Hunter just for his ability to say the right thing—even if he only does it on occasion.
This section rather surprised me, not only due to what happened, but due to what did not happen. This entire bit was not planned out as a major scene, but it has made itself just that. It was intended to be a sequel, and I hope that I managed to weave in enough elements. For a time, Belle is able to forget about the grand expectations of life and is thrust into sheer survival mode, finding herself worse off than she ever has been before. She is no combatant, and when she is faced with opponents, she does her best and hopes it is enough. This also amplifies her unshakable sense of responsibility, even when her life is put at risk for a creature that no one else seems to care for. In the end, this is also likely what saves her. Near the end, her interaction with the soldier makes another argument for why she should return to her roots and stop playing with politics. At the same time, Hunter’s actions are supportive and an indicator that change can happen through leadership. As a writer, I am intrigued by questioning Hunter’s motives—is he out for peace, or is he becoming protective of Belle for personal reasons? Is his own judgement clouded and confused?
The weather shifts as quickly as the mood of the story. During spring, it is often not a smooth transition from blizzards to blooms, and a sunny 50-degree day will be followed by a cold snap and snow, then back to sunny and 50-degrees again. The transition these kingdoms are going through is likewise extreme; one day, the future is looking bright, and the next day, it is questionable if war will not break out within the hour. I think that by now, Belle knows what choice she wants to make—the question more is if she has the courage to go through with it. In the coming days, the odds will be stacked higher against her, and the prospect of what she will loose will become much greater.
With that cheery and non-ominous thought, read on, dear readers!
Your Dearest Nicolette ❤
A fire would have been fantastic to have built, but I did not dare to leave any more of a trail than our footsteps. By the time we hiked to a clearing with the remnants of sunshine, both the horse and I had sores from sopping material rubbing us the wrong way; Belle limped on a front paw, and I suspected that she had stepped on a thorn. In the sunlight, I stripped the saddle and blanket off the mare, hanging it to dry as best it could. The mare I tied to a tree, and I worked on Belle’s paw, extracting not a thorn, but a horseshoe nail.
When the sun began to drop below the treeline, I tossed the saddle on the mare’s back again and hauled us out. On this side of the river, the land was contoured sharply, with many landslides and sheer drops, and the water had risen past the point of relatively smooth ground. Our still-damp trio plodded, backtracking several times during the night, shivering when a cold breeze swept up the river. The air smelled of snow, the birds had tucked away into their nests, and the dire wolves were howling and tracking our every move. Belle hackled and growled at every breaking twig and clatter of falling rocks, causing the mare to fidget nervously as I wobbled down a deer trail.
“Hush,” I scolded Belle when the mare nudged me with her shoulder and I had to grab her mane to keep from falling off the trail. “I know they’re following us, and you’re not making life any easier…if I didn’t have the feeling that she would leave us in the dust to face the wolves by ourselves, I’d let this horse go.”
If I had the courage of my father, I would cut the mare’s tendons and leave her as bait while we made safe escape. I couldn’t stand to do that, though. Perhaps I was too weak. I wasn’t ruthless enough to make that call, or perhaps I wasn’t practical enough. I had no idea where I’d gotten this sentimentality, particularly about a creature who was old, cranky, and not especially valued by its owners. My mother certainly wouldn’t have packed this horse up and down the country, and nor would any of my siblings. Sometimes, I felt I didn’t fit in with my own family.
I wondered about Hunter and the foreigners. Did I fit in with them? Was Hunter out on the road now, searching for any trace of me? Or was he safeguarding the King, or the other “Flaxens” in the castle? That made the most sense to me—there were not even any legends about someone surviving the spring flood waters, much less a wet night amongst the dire wolves, so I doubted anyone would come in search of me. Even I didn’t think that we would survive until the morning, but I had to try.
My poking stick struck empty air in front of us, and I barely stopped my troupe in time to keep from falling; I leaned forward and swished my stick as far down as I could, hoping that we had not encountered another cliff. My stick thumped off a boulder, but I couldn’t feel anything past it. For good measure, I dropped a few stones off the edge. They took an uncomfortably long time to hit bottom. I prodded along the face, hoping to be able to follow it to a reasonable pass. My prodding lead us into a circle, and I realized the only way out was the way we had come in, so it would seem we were on a plateau of sorts.
It started snowing heavy, thick flakes that melted the instant they touched skin and by the time I had found suitable footing for the horse, the ground was transformed into a mud that sucked at my boots and slowed down the horse. We were almost to main ground when I heard a growl behind us—a growl that was answered by Belle.
The horse snorted and shied, and I kept hold of her head, whistling for Belle to stand beside me. She did, and I heard the shuffle of feet closing in after her; I swung at the sound and my stick ricocheted off a wolf’s head. There was a corresponding cry, and Belle pounced on the creature. Very soon, there came a snap and a triumphant growl, and she came back to my side again. The wolves held back for a few seconds, then another one tried to attack the horse. The horse kicked out twice, and I heard a sickening crack of bones breaking. Something lunged for me. Blood coursed through my body, and I struck at noises again and again, missing more often than hitting, but as soon as they had come, they were gone in search of more vulnerable prey.
It took me much time to soothe the mare, and even longer to be convinced the wolves were gone for good. I tried to move us again, but I had lost my orientation and had no clue which direction to begin leading us towards; I held us in position until the mare relaxed, then shifted on her feet in dozing slumber, and Belle laid down to do likewise. I couldn’t sleep; no matter how physically exhausted I was, there was no room in my mind for rest.
When the sun lightened the mountain hours later, I saw that we were surrounded by cliffs on three sides, and not far from our resting place lay a young, black wolf with his throat ripped out and skull dented in. Despite the mare’s snort, I tossed the carcass over her shoulders and rode out on her.
Finding our way out was much simpler in the growing light, and Belle sniffed out a game trail that wrapped around the gullies. By the time the sun crested the hills, we had come onto an old logging road, and that lead us to the main path.
A light layer of snow was unmarred by any travelers, and even though the day was well underway, the sun had yet to burn through the dense cloud cover. My fingers were no longer easily warmed by holding them into my armpits, and worry shot through me about the prospect of more snow and no food besides the wolf’s carcass.
Where were the travelers? Usually there was a rush into town to get supplies before a good snowfall fell, especially one that happened during the spring when food was scarce about the country.
We came to the bridge, and I nearly fell over in relief to see tracks on the road across the river. The castle was close; just up the road and around a few bends, and I was home. The nag perked up, too, lifting her hooves quicker and twitching her ears eagerly.
No sooner had her feet made hollow echoes across the bridge than a cavalry man trotted forward from the shelter beneath a large tree.
“Halt! Return to your home.”
Though the soldier was inhospitable, the stallion flicked his ears forward and he nickered at my mare. The soldier gave his horse an irritated jerk on the reins and addressed me once more. “We are under lockdown. Travel is with papers only.”
Even if I had wanted to, I couldn’t stop the mare. She picked up the pace to a fast walk and flattened her ears towards the much taller stallion blocking our way; before I could do more than hold on tightly, she lunged forward and bit his neck. The other horse shrieked and balked, jumping backwards and hitting his rump across a tree trunk, which startled him all the more. Belle snapped at the stallion’s hooves and was rewarded by my sharp reprimand. She raced to catch up to my horse—the nag could move when she really wanted to.
Pounding hooves caught up to us. “Madam, stop! I’m putting you under arrest for breaking lockdown and poaching the King’s foxes.”
My jaw dropped, and I grabbed the stiff wolf by the scruff, shaking the head at him. “Does this look like a fox to you? What sort of education does Hunter give you clowns, a pat on the head and orders? When I get back to my post, I will make darned certain that every single idiot in the King’s Royal-Ass Armory can tell the difference between a fox and a wolf, will tighten the cinch, identify a lame horse, and give the liaison a real horse, not some broken great-grandmother who is alive by sheer and absolute stubbornness. Then, I’m going to tell the King that his cavalry is a bunch of “flaxen”-hating idiots who need to work their tiny little brains and not stand by while a blockade and assassination plan goes through without a single hitch, and then—”
A hound’s bay broke through my tirade and saved the ashen-faced foreigner from enduring any more of my ill temper. The growl I expected from Belle did not come, but rather the dog barked in excitement and jumped in place, facing behind us.
Within seconds, a man in a heavy cloak on a massive black horse broke through the treeline across the river, lead by a dark brown hound following our scent trail. While I did not recognize the horse, rider, or hound, each of my companions knew our pursuers. My nag nickered. My hound bounded forward. My idiot cavalry man about-faced his horse and saluted.
I sighed. Belle and the strange hound—a male hound, I noted without enthusiasm—greeted each other with much tail-wagging and chin-licking. Would I need to lock her up soon? The thought of sharing quarters with an in-heat dog did not appeal to me, but I couldn’t have her getting pregnant before she met Hunter’s hound—or even Bart’s. While being in the forest had not been the best time of my life, it had freed me temporarily from facing the choices I needed to make. I could postpone them a little longer.
I wanted to get home, where it was dry, where there was the prospect of hot food, hot drink, and dry clothes. I did not want to wait for another distraction; but the mare would not turn around, and so I bit my tongue and waited the few seconds for horse and rider to stop in front of us.
“Sir!” shouted the soldier. “This Flax—this citizen will not return home.”
A slow voice emanated from the hood of the man in front of me, and for a few seconds, I did not recognize the voice past the hoarseness a night in the wild gave a man. “Go to your commanding officer and report for kitchen patrol. That Flaxen is the person I have been searching for and you have bet your next three wages against. I will accompany the King’s Liaison the rest of the way.”
“…sir,” said the soldier, turning his horse swiftly and kicking up snow to get out of the way.
The black horse stepped up beside me and the rider pulled down his hood. He examined my beaten nag, my bloodied hound, my muddied clothes, and, finally, the stick clutched in my hand, sticking out at an awkward angle into the road. My shirt clung to my chest, and I was certain my hair was nothing but a solid mat woven to my head. I tried to not blush as he finished his evaluation and met my eyes. With a cocked smile, Hunter said, “Nice wolf.”