The last installment...
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As the wind peters down, the conversation dies beneath the shadows of the coniferous trees. Oriana sidles up to Jorien; Jorien grips her javelin even more firmly. Salome says “Almost there.”
They all hear a twig snap.
Oriana inhales sharply. Jorien lifts her javelin and pushes the princess behind her. Salome grabs Oriana's arm and whimpers.
“What's wrong?” Salome demands. “Why are you all so frightened? You're scaring me. It's likely only my brother... Isaiah?”
Oriana and Salome remain huddled together, but Jorien takes a few cautious steps toward the place of the sound. “Show yourself,” she commands, there now being no trace of a tremble in her voice. She is sick of this uncertainty. Let come what may, she will end it now. With the pointy end of her weapon, if possible.
“Isaiah?” Salome calls again. Then she mutters something about not liking the situation the moment the door was opened why did she involve herself with such shifty folk?
Another twig snaps, slightly farther off. Jorien takes a few small steps. Though she sometimes pretends, she's not a nocturnal creature, so it's difficult for her to see in the dark – particularly amongst the trees. She notes how well long shadows mess with her ability to distinguish one object from the next.
Perhaps it is only a small, furry animal – no, it would have to be a fat, furry animal – breaking twigs, but Jorien is trained to take no chances. “My lady, I'd advise you have your knife handy.”
Oriana bites her lip and pulls a knife from her boot. “I've never had to use this, you know,” she whispers. Salome eyes the knife warily.
Jorien takes a few more steps into the trees. “Speak!” she commands.
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The light from the kitchen window casts a muted orange glow over Neal's face. He is about to tread on the doorstep, cloak flapping about his legs, when a picture flashes through his mind's eye. Her face – he's placed it. When Prince Baruch was nearly done in – the man that Neal had seen slinking away through the halls – the man had tossed something to a girl in the shadows. Baruch's royal ring, they figure, and a key. Tossed it to a girl. That girl. He had seen her face in the shadows for just half a moment before he had opted to take after the would-be assassin, rather than the female, but he had seen her face, if not clearly.
He feels like throwing up, but doesn't have the time. How could he be so stupid? “HEY! HEY!” Dropping the lantern, he gives a shout to rouse those inside the house, and books it back to the princess. What has he done? How could he leave them? Feet fairly flying, Neal wishes he was one of those mythological centaurs of old, with hooves that could carry him twice as fast as he is now going.
Is that his heart or his feet?
“My lady!” he yells. “Jorien!”
The stars are still shining; the cloud still covers much of the moonlight. The air is still crisp and windy. Neal sees only one silhouette headed back toward him. Stomach churning, he hopes against hope that he's somehow miscounting.
“Where is she? Where is the princess?” he demands, grabbing Jorien by the elbows. She has dark splotches on her face, and no longer holds her javelin. Her darl hair is matted to her forehead despite the wind. “What happened?”
His star female recruit mutters something in hysterical gibberish and collapses in his arms.
“Darn it, Jorien! What happened?!” he demands again, giving her a shake.
Two gasps later she snaps out of her panic. “It was a trap!” she blurts.
“They took her! Horsemen!”
The familiar rumble of horses in gallop is audible from where they are. Five of them, each with a cloaked figure astride. Had he been an archer, they would have been in range. He really wishes now that Vivianna had come along to begin with – not only with her medical gear, but with her bow and arrows, too.
As he is thinking of arrows, one seems to materialize from nowhere and comes whistling towards him, barely missing his foot. There is a note tied to it. No doubt a ransom note, or at least a tasteless gloat of the “neener neener” sort.
He hears other people coming from the rear. They're allies because Prince Obed's voice is directing them. But the horses are gone too far by this time. Out of range, even for Vivianna, now.
Different words wish to make their way out of Neal's mouth, but they aren't noble words, so he holds them in check. Instead, only a strained “...Prince...” is released.
Obed comes to stand beside him, eyes hard. “Where is my sister?” he demands.
Neal can only gesture.
The prince looks after the rapidly distancing horsemen, mouth slightly open, then turns back to Neal. He speaks softly. “That was my baby sister, Neal.”
Neal can't answer. Prince Obed will be very, very angry with him, only not now. He's still in shock. Later.
"Ohhh...." breathes Vivianna, eyes wide.
Baruch also comes to stand beside them. He shakes his head. “Wow, hey?... Right out from under our noses...”
Neal bites his tongue.
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I hope you like cliffhangers, because that's it.
“What might have been is not what is." Charles Dickens