Alton shrugged, stepping back from the perilous edge. If Velda said she could handle it, he wouldn’t argue. If his travels had taught him nothing else, it was not to judge abilities on appearance.
Noiselessly, the slender maiden dove into the icy, turbulent river. For several heart stopping moments, Alton watched without seeing her. A flicker of movement 20 yards away, near the river’s center, alerted him to her presence. Smiling, he relaxed a little. A splash and flash of silver got his attention. Was there something else in the water? Could it be Velda was under attack?
His warrior’s senses cautioned him against diving into the turgid current, but also nudged him to protect the young woman. Common sense held him back. He was not a strong swimmer, particularly in scale armor. He’d surely founder and Velda would have to save him. That scenario held little appeal.
Minutes passed slowly. Alton stood by the water, eyes examining the surface of the rapids. He didn’t lower his guard or forget his environment, but his attention was divided, or he would surely have heard the rustling in the bushes sooner. He slid into the shadows, drawing a long dagger from his boot. His dark skin lent itself to concealment. His bronze scale armor helped him blend into the underbrush. He waited, hardly breathing.
A horse in full tack, riderless, walked up to the water to drink. It was coal black with a white sock on its left foreleg. A stallion, he was kitted out for exploration with bedroll behind the saddle and small panniers on either side. He wore no colors or insignia. The saddle and bridle were unadorned. There was no visible brand on the flank.
If there was a horse, there would be a rider. Where he might be, Alton didn’t know, but intended to find out. Velda was in the water, unprotected. He was vulnerable as well. He stayed in the shadows, casting out with his energy, listening to the vibrations. At first, all was normal forest noise. There was the babble of the river, chattering of squirrels, chirping birds, the swish of a fox’s tail followed by the surprised squeak of the rabbit it caught. Leaves rustled in the gentle breeze, pine needles whispered—and someone drew breath, exhaling slowly.
Focusing on that sound, Alton heard the heartbeat tapping. It wasn’t slow, nor was it overly fast. Like his, it was strong and regular. Adjusting his reading further, Alton probed to see if he’d been spotted. The other person breathed normally. There was no scent of trepidation or fear. For the moment, he wasn’t noticed. The rider posed no immediate threat. Still, why would he stand back while his horse drank? It made very little sense to Alton.
A splash and flicker of movement told him Velda was coming back. The rider’s pulse quickened. He’d heard it too. The horse raised its head, water dripping from its mouth. Eyes as black as its hide, scanned the river with almost human perception. Ears pivoted forward, listening. It moved into the underbrush. The rider followed.
Velda rose from the water, dark blue hair plastered to her slender form, falling well below her hips. Rivulets cascaded down her body which shimmered silver in the late afternoon light. She cast about her for Alton, spotting him in the woods a few feet away. His expression kept her from greeting him. Seconds later, she saw the horse. Gasping, she backed away.
The horse trotted forward, stopping a few feet from her. It bent its front legs, bowing. The rider strode forward. Dressed in black chain mail, he wore a helmet with a white horse’s tail at the crest. His cloak was black, as were his boots and leather sword belt. He bowed deeply when he saw Velda.
Velda hesitated once more, before stepping onto the river bank. The knight offered her his hand, but she declined. Her foot slipped on the muddy bank. Alton leaped forward, grasping her arm to prevent her fall. The knight cried out, hopping away from the pair. Tripping over a rock, he sat heavily on the ground, scrabbling at a knife hilt in his boot.
Alton whirled on the man, dagger leveled. He strode forward, glittering tip aimed for the downed man’s exposed throat. The knight raised his arms to ward off the blow.
“I mean you no harm,” he cried, his voice young and high. “We come in peace. We require the Lady’s help.”
Velda dashed after Alton, grabbing his arm. She yanked him back. “No! Let the knight speak, Alton. If we can help, we must.”
“Not until he shows himself.”
“Oh, do stop being such a man,” she chided. “My lord,” she added with a toss of her head. She moved to the young knight’s side.
The youth shied away, but rallied when it became apparent that Velda, at least, meant no harm. He stood slowly, when Velda pulled at his arm. The black horse came forward, nudging the knight from behind, lending support. The knight grabbed the horse’s saddle, standing on shaking legs.
“We must have your help, My Lady. We’re desperate.”
“Who’s we? I see only you,” Alton snapped. He didn’t like this situation. Something went on that he didn’t understand. Not understanding meant he couldn’t control it. Lack of control made him angry and churlish.
Velda knew Alton’s disquiet. Truth be told, she wasn’t comfortable either, but she sensed that the knight and horse were more than they appeared. Just touching the young knight’s gloved hand, she knew a lot. Skin to skin would tell her more, but so would a reading of the face. She helped undo the clasps that held the black helm in place, lifting it away as the chin strap came free.
© 2019 Dellani Oakes