Daughter of the Wolf-head
YA adventure fiction
"Princess! Are you alright?"
Kait and Pilar peered at her from way above. Kait swung her legs over the lip and slid down, her boots scoring deep lines in the side of the hill. Pilar followed close behind, sending a shower of dirt and rocks down.
"Careful," Kait snapped at her.
Pilar gave her no answer. Both rushed over to their fallen princess.
"Princess, what happened?" Kait gasped.
She loomed over Agata, peering in her face but Agata couldn't answer. She gasped and heaved, fighting for air.
"She's winded, Kait. Check her limbs."
Agata heard Pilar speak and then felt Kait's gentle, experienced hands checking her arms and then moving to her legs.
Pilar put a hand on Agata's forehead.
"Princess, I'm going to cover your eyes briefly. I need to see if your pupils dilate evenly.
"Uugh, uuggh," Agata's only response was greater huffs of painful air.
Blackness. Pilar's hand, rough from calluses but warm. Sudden light returned and she saw Pilar's anxiety turn to relief.
"Nothing broken," Kait said, "keep her still, her breath will return soon."
They sat by Agata, each clasping a hand in their own, watching and waiting until Agata's lungs inflated and her breathing steadied.
Agata sat up.
"Oh, Primavera. You gave us a fright," Pilar was choked up.
Agata laughed ruefully.
"I know. I'm sorry. The gelding lost his footing and I tumbled down but my courage feels restored."
Kait shook her head, pulling her mouth down at the corners, "You never lacked physical courage, Princess, but recklessness? You have it in plentiful supply."
Agata threw an arm around her shoulders, "You are right, Kait, but I was so afraid all night. Now I feel bold once more. I can fall and I can get up once again."
Kait sighed, "I will go and find the gelding."
"I dropped my birds," Pilar said, "shall I go back and fetch them?"
"Go, both of you. I will stay quiet until you return. Q'ursha will stay with me."
She watched them scramble nimbly up the steep side. She heard the hoof beats of Kait's horse as she headed after the gelding. She listened to Pilar squawk that her horse had wandered off. Silence fell.
Ah, how she had missed being alone in wild nature. She breathed in a deep, glorious breath, appreciating the ease of the movement. Golden sunlight lit the edges of the grasses, their ripening heads swirling under a gentle breeze. They rippled around Agata as if she were sitting in the middle of a pool of moving water.
The rhythmic beat of horse hooves reached her ears. The sounds were muffled by the thickness of the grass and the soft dusty ground beneath. Agata, sat idly gazing across the small valley into which she had tumbled. Below her the faint line of a winding track was almost hidden by waving fronds. The hoof beats came closer. Agata jumped to her feet with a start.
She'd assumed Kait or Pilar were riding back to her but the sound of horses' footfalls came from a distance below her, not above, and there were more than just two riders, leading a third, unmounted horse.
Agata drew her sword, her chest rising and falling rapidly. Her shoulder hurt from the fall.
"Q'ursha! Q'ursha. Come," she urged and wrapped her fingers around the leather band on his neck.
To her right, four horsemen emerged from the scrubby trees. They were riding along at an easy canter and did not spot her straight away. The blood thundered in her ears. Q'ursha stiffened and growled softly deep in his throat. Agata gripped her sword hilt tightly.
He glanced up at her face and although he stilled he quivered all over in excitement.
The foremost rider spotted her. He held up a hand, settled deep in the saddle and leaned on the reins. His horse, a strong, steel gray, gathered its back legs under it, tucked in its black muzzle and slid to a halt. Yells of surprise came from his companions and blades leaped into their hands.
Agata held her own sword ready, still clinging to Q'ursha's collar.
She looked down, grim and still, as the horsemen drew up below. If they swung at her she would have to leap to avoid having her feet or ankles cut.
She took a small, surprised breath. Light green eyes gazed up at her from a smooth, clear face.
"Such a fair morning and graced by an even fairer lady," a mellow baritone voice flowed between shapely lips that curved into a attractive, masculine smile.
Agata found herself lost for words as she stared at the most astonishingly handsome man she'd ever seen.
Agata shook herself mentally and lifted her sword to show that she meant business. Whether the gesture was for the stranger or for herself, she wasn't sure.
"Who are you?" she demanded, noticing the smirks on the faces of his men.
"Prince Artak, travelling ahead of my entourage and headed for the fortress of Prince Ren of Artsruni," he replied promptly.
His glance fell to the huge hound and the tendrils of red hair escaping from Agata's braid, all covered in bits of grass.
"You must be Princess Agata of Bagration."
She twisted a length of her hair and nodded.
Amusement wrinkled the corners of his eyes.
"Er, it seems that you are all alone," his eyes travelled up the dirt staining the length of her right side.
"My horse stumbled and fell. My women have gone to fetch him."
His eyebrows flew up.
"Your women? So the rumours were true."
It was more an exclamation of surprise than a question so Agata chose to ignore it. The silence stretched uncomfortably and the strangers' horses fidgeted, tossing their heads and straining at their bits. The young man leapt off his horse and landed with grace.
"I will return you to your uncle, Princess. Please," he gestured to his empty saddle.
His men protested, jumping to the ground and each offered his own horse for the princess rather than let the prince walk. Agata could see he was liked by his companions.
"Wait," she held up her hand, "my women will be here soon with my steed.
You may continue to the fortress."
"Not so, lady...er...Princess Agata," the prince corrected hastily, "we cannot leave you alone and unprotected in the mountains."
Agata grinned and ran a finger lightly down the length of her blade. She gazed up at the prince and dropped a warm hand on Q'ursha's head.
"But you see, prince, I am not alone or unprotected."
His men laughed and a smile of angelic sweetness played around Prince Artak's mouth.
"No man of honour could," he bowed and Agata knew he wouldn't change his mind.
Kait's unmistakeable bellow rang out above Agata.
She charged down the steep hillside with her sword drawn, scoring the earth with her heels. Steel grey eyes glinted in her intense face as she glared at the group of strangers.
The prince's men clustered around him, bristling but the prince stood relaxed.
Agata turned to watch Kait descend. She was an intimidating, warlike figure, swooping down like an angry eagle preparing to protect its young.
"One of my women," she murmured to the prince and he dipped his head in amused acknowledgement.
Agata met her as she reached the bottom.
"Who are these men, Princess?"
In spite of her speedy decent, Kait's breathing was even. She was ready and braced to fight.
Another voice rang out.
Pilar stood above, feet planted firmly, a quivering arrow pointed straight at Prince Artak's heart.
"I see why you sit alone and unafraid, Princess Agata," the prince said dryly.
"The gelding is completely lame," Kait whispered in Agata's ear.
"The princess will ride Tomas's horse," Prince Artak glanced at one of his men.
Without further word, the man led his horse forward.
Agata turned slowly.
"Kait, Pilar join us here and we will ride back to the fortress with Prince Artak and his men."
Kait's eyes widened. She said nothing but thrust her sword back in its sheath and began the steep climb up the slope. When Agata glanced up next, Pilar had already vanished.
Prince Artak waved Agata over and held her stirrup while she swung up onto the long legged bay.
He sprang into his own saddle and nudged the horse beside hers.
"Where is he going?" Agata twisted in her saddle, watching the prince's man turn back the way they'd come.
"He will join the others. We came ahead for fun," he smiled at her, "it's such a beautiful day. Please allow my man, Lev to lead your injured horse."
Kait and Pilar appeared with the limping grey gelding in tow.