* * * * *
It's a girl. The gusting wind whips the stray bits of brown hair about her face.
He is mildly surprised. No more than fifteen, he guesses. About Bianca's age.
Her cheeks are flushed bright red from the nippy night air. Her eyes are a clear and sparkling deep grey-blue. A coarse brown cloak and hood protect her from the elements.
“Hi,” she greets, then pauses. “Oh... I'm sorry. I didn't mean to disturb the whole household... but I was just happening by with my brother and there's a horse out in the field. It's on its side... we think it's sick.”
Neal can basically hear the whoosh sound as breath is released. Although, thinks Neal, the horses were tied up in the trees, not out in the field.
“Oh!” Oriana cries. “What colour?”
“White,” the girl replies. “He was making some noises... I think he's pained.”
“A white horse?” exclaims Oriana. “That could be Giboreo, or maybe your Titan, Dame Jorien – yours is white, too, isn't it, Ishmer?”
Prince Obed looks about ready to jump Oriana in order to clamp her mouth shut, but she notices and so closes it herself. Neal sighs inwardly at her for her not-so-strategic hints of identity, but is only paying half attention to the princess. His attention is held by the girl at the door.
He doesn't like her. Something is not right with that girl. Be vigilant in retaining the royal heirs, but don't be overly high-strung, Neal, King Aaron had said. He must learn to laugh, the king had said. Oh, I'm laughing , now, he thinks. At the irony. Neal searches the girl's face, making no pretense otherwise. She smiles awkwardly at him.
“What's your name?” he asks her, a warning tone edging his voice.
“Salome,” says she.
“Show me where the horse is,” Oriana chimes, worry in her voice.
“May I have your name?” the girl asks him.
He folds his arms. Salome seems fine. There are no scars, no disfigurements.... no evil gleam in her eye. He doesn't recognize her from the royal Wemarian rank and file they've met. But why is she wandering such places so late at night?
“Salome, how did you manage to find this horse?” he inquires. Let the girl be suspicious of their suspicion. They can deal with the ramifications of that later.
Princess Oriana is grabbing her cloak and making ready to leave with Salome. Neal glances at Prince Obed to let him know that she won't be going out alone. Obed nods, but is clearly not liking the idea of Oriana leaving, even with Neal accompanying her.
Neal takes a peak at Jorien to see if he's the only one with a hyperactive imagination. Jorien meets his gaze, then breaks it off and immediately begins wrapping on her cloak. She picks up her javelin again.
“I'll accompany you,” her soft voices says. Neal notices that she smartly omitted the usual tag of “my lady”.
Grabbing his lance, Neal too, begins donning his outdoor gear. If the girl is telling the truth, it would be ridiculous for the whole lot of them to go. They would be spotted by every Wemarian from a quarter league away to the border. Still, better three fighters than two... or rather, two than one, as the princess doesn't really count.
“Oh, Sir Neal, what are you doing?” Oriana whines.
“I'm coming, too, of course,” he replies gruffly.
“Of course,” says she. “Look, Dame Jorien's coming. I'll be fine. Stay back and protect my brother.” He cringes to hear titles and job descriptions. Oh, well. It's not as if Salome hasn't noticed the weapons lying about.
Salome, being the perceptive type, senses the obvious tension in the household. “I'll wait outside,” she offers.
The princess follows her out. Jorien follows the princess. Neal grabs a lantern and walks to the door. Turning to those who remain, he lowly issues out several instructions. “Ten minutes. You hear any noise and you all come out armed.” Several nods. Baruch waves him on, and Prince Obed mirrors the motion with his spear.
Neal steps outside.
They are waiting for him. “Show us where, Salome,” he orders.
She smiles nervously and turns. “This way.”
They walk in silence. The lush grass is soft beneath their feet. The warm yellow glow of the kitchen is easily visible from outside. Where are the guards? he wonders. Maybe they were watching only the road. Salome had implied they had come from the the fields and not by the road...
Their breath is visible; four wispy puffs of white condensation.
Neal figures it would be a good time to assert his station of man-in-charge. “Salome, just wait,” he orders. “You didn't tell me how you happened upon the horse.”
She turns her face, the very personification of innocence, to look at him. In fact, if anything were ever more innocent, it would be so far along the scale of innocence that it would pass the final mark and being regressing. Neal couldn't pull that expression off – not if both his life and Bianca's depended on it, though it would be handy if he could. “My brother and I are heading home from Ira and Camilla's place,” she says. “I'm sure you know them. They just had a baby, you know. A darling thing. Took a shortcut through your field – hope you don't mind.” She glances back at him.
He realizes he's seen that face somewhere, before. He tries to place where.
He is about to share his opinion on trespassing, but Oriana is speaking again.
“A baby? What name?”
“Obi,” Salome says. “Have you not been to visit them recently?”
Finally Oriana wisely shuts up.
The girl turns to look at Oriana. Blast! He's seen that face somewhere before, he knows it! Well, perhaps not philosophically speaking, because his memory could be tainted, but there's the idea. Salome leads them further from the house. They have made it some way, already. In her brown cloak she is like a shadow, or rather a wisp of a shadow. Neal is the last of the four. They walk in silence for several long seconds. Corin is probably counting the seconds back in that dive of a house.
“Is he badly hurt?” Oriana asks.
“Possibly,” Salome admits. “We thought probably sick, as opposed to hurt, but I wouldn't put a wager on it.” She gives an apologetic smile, raising her eyebrows.
“Oh! Silly us!” Oriana exclaims. “If he's hurt, we need Vivianna! I'll run back and get her!”
Neal does not like that idea. His princess, who is in hiding in a hostile nation, out at night by herself? “No,” he decides. “Jorien, you return to the house and nab Vivianna. We'll wait for you here.”
Jorien obediently turns back toward the house.
“Neal,” Oriana begins again, her voice pleading, “if Giboreo is hurt, he needs help quickly! We shouldn't wait around any longer!”
He ignores her, trying not to look arrogant or jumpy, which is getting more and more difficult.
Salome shrugs and rubs her arms to keep warm.
Saith the princess: “You're infuriating, Neal.”
“Where is your brother?” he asks Salome.
“Waiting by the horse,” she replies. “Just past yonder trees.” She gracefully motions toward a black jagged line not far in the distance.
“You, see, Jorien will be able to find us,” Oriana whines again.
He sighs and calls her back. “Jorien!” The wind whips his voice away, but he still manages to get her attention.
“You go with them. I'll get Vivianna,” he says. “See to the creature. I'll catch up.”
“Sir?” Jorien's voice holds many questions, and a slight hint of a waver. Could she also be so unsettled?
He's not entirely sure himself why he's changing places with her. Perhaps he feels Jorien would be better able to soothe an injured horse than he would be able to. Perhaps he wishes for a temporary reprieve from the tension. Perhaps he doesn't like the idea of Jorien being by herself, either. At any rate, he expects his princess to be happy to be rid of her infuriating retainer for a few moments.
Salome mentions something to Oriana about the position she found the horse in. Oriana listens intently. Neal leans over and discreetly whispers something into Jorien's ear. About keeping her javelin in the ready position. She nods and whispers back, “Please be quick.”
He nods and leaves the three females. There's no sense in running. If the horse has been hurt for so long already, a few more seconds likely won't kill it. Besides, it's easier to think when walking than when running – particularly when going against the wind. Nevertheless, his attempt to make his walk look nonchalant fails miserably, but he refuses to admit it.
Oriana's bubbly voice is likely chatting with Salome by now. She appears to like her new friend. Jorien is being much more cautious. Good Jorien. He'd like to get to know her a little better, if he could. Although he's already dealing with Vivianna. Trying to add Jorien into the mix probably just wouldn't work.
Their voices grow fainter as the light from the house grows stronger. “Hey?” he calls quietly. “Where are you, men? Report.” There is no reply. What was that lad's name? “Gavin?” A queasy feeling once again hits his stomach. Where are those guards? He begins moving again. His not-quite-nonchalant walk now qualifies for a potty-dash trot.
* * * * * to be continued...
“Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.” Lewis Carrol