Alton & Velda Part 5 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smaller“We can and we will,” Velda promised. “But tomorrow is soon enough to start.”

“You ladies get some rest,” Alton said quickly. “Revanth and I can watch over you. Astrid needs a night where she’s not afraid to sleep.”

Velda smiled at her lover with a tenderness he’d never sensed before. Her blue eyes thanked him, as did her smile.

“Are you sure?” Astrid’s voice quavered like a little girl’s. “I can help keep watch.”

“Sleep,” Alton assured her, touching her brow. “This is what I do, little one.”

“Not a little one,” she mumbled, already sleepy. She leaned heavily against Velda.

The blue haired woman bundled Astrid into her cloak, laying her on a blanket that Alton spread on a thick bed of pine straw and leaves.

“Did you have to do that before she was settled?” Velda snipped playfully. “She’s a little thing, but no small weight in that armor.”

“Sorry, my love. I’ll remember, next time I take away someone’s worries, to make sure they are already lying down.”

They kissed and Velda settled beside Astrid, sleeping behind her to ward off the chill. Velda never seemed to grow cold, even in the worst weather, something Alton had appreciated more than once.

Alton banked the fire and made himself some tea. The horse, who was really a man, lay down nearby. Their connection still in place, they could communicate silently. Alton asked many questions. Revanth did his best to answer him. The two males spent the long night in silent communication, listening to one another, and learning much. The women slept deeply, the first good rest Astrid had experienced since she left her home.

“Why did you leave?” Alton asked Revanth. “Surely the safest place to stay was at your home?”

The stallion shook himself, twitching his ear.

“Oh, I see. They thought you were an enchanter, not enchanted. Awkward, to be sure.” Alton chuckled softly. “What would they think of one such as me? I can talk to the trees, read minds and take away a young girl’s fears.”

The horse snorted, flicking his tail.

“I’m sure they’d flay me before burning, but ultimately, it would come to that. You’re a brave man to take on such a journey.” He paused, listening to Revanth’s reply deep in his mind. “Aye, what can you do when you love a woman so much, it hurts? What indeed?” He shrugged. “Follow her to Earth’s end, watch her every move, and do your best to keep her safe. Along the way, catch a moment or two alone with her.” He sighed. “And hope—always—that one day she’ll notice how vast your love is, how all encompassing. So much, you’ll do anything for her.”

The horse inhaled deeply, his breath shuddering slightly. Alton and Revanth understood one another. Whatever differences they might have had in the beginning, were gone now. They were brothers, united in their quest to protect the women they loved.

Morning found a cheerful fire burning, a pot of water bubbling merrily over it waiting to brew tea. The women woke with the chirping of birds, and rustling of early morning rabbits foraging. The horse and the Wood Sprite were nowhere to be seen. Velda knew they were close, but couldn’t help wondering where they’d gotten off to.

A soft breeze caressed her cheek, leaves whispered in the wind. She heard Alton’s voice in the cadence of the leaves, assuring her they were nearby. She smiled and set about making tea. Moments later, the pair of them came into the camp. Alton was wet, Revanth laughing in his horsey way.

“The river and I came to a disagreement,” Alton said as he gave Velda a damp kiss. “It very nearly won, but Rev pulled me out before it got the better of me.”

The horse snorted again, flicking his damp tail.

“All right, I damn near pulled him in with me, but we’ve brought fish!” Alton held up a string of silvery river perch.

Velda laughed, clapping her hands in delight. Alton produced cooking utensils from his magic bag. She set about seasoning the fish before sauteing them in butter with a splash of wine. They ate with plates propped on their knees, delicately nibbling the tender bits of fish. Revanth had a bowl of fruit and vegetables, finishing his meal with some grass and wild flowers.

Alton chuckled, watching his new friend act like a typical horse. “You’ll be craving daisies when we’ve turned you back. They’ll call you the Horse King, bringing oats as tribute.”

The horse turned his rear toward the Wood Sprite, blowing less than fragrant flatulence in his direction. Alton laughed so hard, he very nearly fell off his rock. The women watched the men, rolling their eyes in silent, disgusted, amusement.

Velda was pleased that Alton had found a friend. He’d been ostracized by his people, when the two of them became lovers. His were a traditional people, taking mates from other neighboring tribes. They accused her of working her wiles on him, warping his mind for her own undisclosed ends. Her people were less conservative, but Alton couldn’t survive the environment. A creature of the land, he could not live in water. They traveled the world, searching for a place they could live together, in peace.

Watching Alton, as he wandered down to the river to wash, Velda sighed deeply. Astrid stood next to her, watching Revanth walk into the water, to clean himself and get a drink.

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 4 by Dellani Oakes

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“What did she look like, this witch?” Velda demanded.

“Dark green hair, all snarled and knotted. Her skin was muddy, her eyes the color of scum on a pond….”

“Did she live in the heart of a swamp in a wretched hovel?”

“She did, yes. Her name was….”

Eleionomae,” Velda growled.

“Well, no, not precisely. She went by Eleion. Oh, I see what you mean.”

“It’s not her name, it’s what she is,” Velda snapped. “One of the Eleionomae—a swamp naiad. I’m surprised she didn’t kill you. Not known for their kindly nature, that lot. What else did she say? About me?”

“Not much. Only described you. We’ve been trying to find you for weeks, after asking about you all along the road. You’re a distinctive pair.” She smiled. “That’s why I stayed back when Revanth came to the river. He scouted ahead and I would have run for safety had there been need.”

“There is no safety in the forest from a Wood Sprite,” Alton scoffed. “No tree would hide you from me.”

“What if I’d hidden in a cave?” Astrid’s chin came up defiantly.

“Tree roots grow in soil, their roots invade caves.” He shrugged, casting off her remarks with a casual toss of his silky, golden brown hair.

“You’re being awfully mean,” Astrid said, her lips trembling.

“And you’re being awfully naïve if you think we’ll drop everything, and help you out of this mess. What are we to do?” Alton demanded.

“Kill Eleion,” Velda said. Her voice and countenance betrayed nothing.

Alton felt a shiver run down his spine. Velda rarely turned to violence, but here she was advocating murder.

“Who is this Eleion to you, Velda? Someone who wronged you?” Astrid asked.

“Who she is to me, isn’t important. The fact she’s willing to take part in a battle between humans—is. And she agreed to help you? What, exactly, did you ask of her?”

Astrid shrugged. “We asked for her help to stop the war.”

Revanth snorted, shaking his mane. He stomped the ground angrily. Velda tipped her head toward him, indicating that Alton do something. The Wood Sprite stood, dusting the seat of his pants. He walked over to the horse-man, placing a hand on the beast’s forehead. The other, he placed on the powerful chest. Closing his eyes, he slowed his breathing, casting out with his energy. The horse snorted, but stood still.

“Now then,” Alton said softly. “I want you to form pictures in your mind of what happened. Think of it as a puppet show in your mind, with talking and moving. Can you do that?”

The horse snorted, nodding.

“Well, then?”

The two of them grew silent. Alton kept his eyes shut, reacting to the images he saw. The women watched his face play through a variety of emotions, ending in deep sorrow. Astrid took a seat near Velda on the log. Alton sighed, stepping back from the horse. He patted Revanth’s shoulder affectionately.

“Well?” Velda said anxiously.

Alton held up a hand as the other went to his temple. “Give us a moment, love.” He took several deep, cleansing breaths, before speaking. “Never did that with a horse before. Yes, I know you’re really a man,” he replied as if Revanth had spoken. “But there’s horsey things in there too. Never mind all that.” He sank to the rock, holding his head.

“What he showed me,” he said quietly, “was a conversation with the witch Eleion. They didn’t ask her to stop the war, at least not specifically. The young lady asked for a means to bring an end to the war, let their families find peace, and then she asked for a way to always be together.”

“Is the war over?” Velda asked.

“It’s not entirely over, but at a standstill. His mother can hardly insist that he is still my fiancée, when he’s a horse. And my mother can’t force me to marry another, not when….”

“When what?” Velda asked sharply. “What haven’t you told us?”

“If we’re parted for more than a day, I will sicken, and probably die. We found this out shortly after he was enchanted. Revanth didn’t change right away. It was gradual. We went home, watched for events to play out. I took to my bed. When he heard, he came to me, and I revived. That night, we kissed. We were….” She blushed again.

“Doing what lovers do,” Velda finished gently.

“We were going to,” Astrid said. “But after a few minutes, he changed there in my bed chamber.”

“That must have been awful for you,” Velda said.

“Not good for Revanth either,” Alton added. “Though I suppose you can now brag you’re hung like a horse, eh?” He chuckled.

Revanth snorted. It sound for all the world as if he were laughing. They sobered when it became apparent the women didn’t share the levity.

“So, Eleion had her fun,” Velda said. “She stopped your war, and made it so you must always be together. One must always be specific with one such as she. Your request gave her too many variables to play with.”

“So we’ve found out,” Astrid said. “Can you—will you, help us?”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 3 by Dellani Oakes

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“No wonder you look so underfed and poorly rested. Alton, have you any food in your pack?”

She knew he did. Grudgingly, Alton dug around until he found the oiled skin that held his food supply. A secret magic gave it unlimited capacity. Anything that would fit through its mouth, stayed fresh until it was needed. The weight was negligible. He could carry an entire feast on his shoulder, and never tire.

Opening the pouch, he drew forth a bottle of stout, red wine. Velda uncorked it as he reached into the pouch again, pulling out three glasses and a bowl. He set them on the ground. Velda filled them, giving the bowl to the horse.

A feast of oatcakes (for the horse) and steaming meat pasties followed. Afterward, they enjoyed the crunchy sweetness of a chilled bread pudding with cream. Astrid ate as if she were starved. Velda watched her carefully, to make sure she didn’t overdo. When the meal was done, Alton loaded the remains in the pouch where they would renew and cleanse themselves for the next meal.

“Where did you get that amazing bag?” the girl asked, concealing a belch.

Alton smiled. “It was a gift from a very satisfied young woman. She was a user of magic. She gave it me after a week of love—”

Velda punched him in the chest. Choking on his words, he frowned at her.

“Enough of your tales of debauch. He stole it,” she told Astrid. “He might look and speak like a knight, but he’s got secrets that are better left undiscovered.”

“I didn’t steal this,” Alton protested. “It really was a gift. If it’s stolen, it won’t work. It’s just any old bag, then. Only the true owner can work its magic. And I paid a heavy price for it, my girl,” he directed at Astrid. “She’ll have you thinking I’m a thief and womanizer—”

“You’re that in spades,” Velda snapped. “Not a thief, so much, unless stealing a girl’s innocence ranks among the punishable laws of the land.”

“They were all willing,” Alton replied with a scowl.

The horse, Revanth, snorted, bobbing his head. He seemed to be laughing, agreeing with Alton.

Astrid frowned at him. “I suppose you think that’s great sport?” She sniffed, pouting. “I hoped you were different,” she said to Revanth.

“My lass,” Alton said quietly. “Man or stallion, I fear we’re all the same in some respects. Some behave a wee bit better than others, but we’re all wild and lusty at heart. Though I’m sure he’s a good man—when he’s a man—the chances are that he’s had his share of sport.”

“While I saved myself, waiting for you?” Astrid shoved the horse’s head away. “Don’t even try all that prettiness on me now,” she fussed. “Thank you, milord Alton, for opening my eyes.”

Alton sighed. “Lady Astrid, he’s just being a man. Find forgiveness in your heart, I beg you. I don’t want him stabbing me in my sleep, when he retakes his own form.”

Velda giggled. “It’s not the end of the world,” Velda assured Astrid. “Why, Alton has had many women, since we’ve known one another.”

“Are you married or engaged?”

Velda smirked. “Engaged, of sorts.”

“Though how we’re engaged is—”

Velda punched him again. “No one’s business.”

“Ouch, woman. Stop that.”

“Then quit being crude.” She turned to Astrid. “No, we’re not married, but we are lovers, when the mood strikes. Though I don’t mind his little dalliances, from time to time. I’m not his wife, so I have no real claim on his fidelity. And it’s the way of his people. I can no more put a stop to that, than he can the river’s running.”

“What are your people? Both of you?” Astrid asked innocently.

“I’m a Potamides, water naiad,” Velda replied. “And Alton is of the forest.”

Astrid turned her head, tilting one ear closer to her companions. “Of the forest?”

“I’m a Wood Sprite.”

“Really?” Astrid leaned forward, gazing at him intently. “I thought Wood Sprites were tiny, wee little girls, who flit through the trees, and scare easily.”

Alton frowned, his dark brows forming an angry V above his green eyes. “You’ve been reading the wrong books, little one. We’re no more tiny, wee girls than we are big, smelly horses.” He glared at Revanth with that remark. “I’m man sized, with a man’s same form. My skin’s not made of wood, and I don’t have sap in my veins. I bleed like you.”

“Though his blood is green,” Velda remarked with a sly grin. “And he hasn’t a hair on his body, except what you see on his head.”

“Do I tell your secrets, nymph? I do not!”

“I’m teasing. Though why he’d be ashamed of his smooth skin, I don’t know. I find it very appealing, myself.”

“I wouldn’t know about such things,” Astrid said, becoming uncomfortable. “Revanth became a horse before….”

“So, no horsing around?” Alton grinned, winking at Astrid.

“Be polite,” Velda said, threatening to hit him once more. “Your sense of humor is as lacking as your manners. She’s a fine bred lady.”

Revanth stepped forward, baring his teeth. Alton shied away, grinning.

“A jest, my horsey friend. All be it, tasteless, still a joke.”

“You haven’t told me what I can do for you,” Velda said, less than patiently.

“We were told, by the witch, that a woman, such as you, traveled around these parts, and you could help us. She didn’t explain how. She said, Find my sister with blue hair. She can break the spell. That was all. It was quite disturbing, really.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 2 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda cover smallerAlton gasped, stepping back. It was Velda’s turn to steady him, as he nearly lost his balance. Laughing, the blue haired woman admired the person standing before her. The hair was a tousled mess of dark auburn curls pulled back in a braid. No plait could hold the springy mass for long. Being under a metal helmet had done it no good at all. It stood out like a halo of dark and frizzy copper.

“You’re a girl!” Alton said. He couldn’t have been more shocked if he’d found her naked. “Yet you wear armor. You pose as a knight! How can this be?”

He strode forward, but Velda caught his arm before he could attack the young woman.

Dark golden eyes met his moss green ones, proud head rising defiantly. The girl was pretty in an angular, too slender way. She hadn’t eaten or slept well for some time, Velda noted as she watched the exchange, with eyes as deep and dark blue as ocean water. When Alton lunged for the young woman again, Velda was ready. Grabbing him in arms that were stronger than they looked, she held her angry knight firmly, gazing into his eyes.

“Let’s all have a seat,” Velda said.

Her tone and stance told Alton that Velda would not tolerate much more arguing. Having been on the wrong side of her temper before, he backed off. Velda continued to hold his arm, until they had all taken seats. The young woman sat on a rock across from them, her horse standing at her left shoulder.

Alton and Velda shared a downed log. It was covered with moss the color of Alton’s eyes and the bark was nearly the color of his dusky skin. Velda’s dress shimmered silver. Her blue hair dried quickly in the light breeze. She continued to examine the young woman with a wary intelligence that peeled back the layers.

The maiden shivered under Velda’s gaze. “Must you stare at me?” She fidgeted with her clothing, yanking at it as if it didn’t fit.

“Alton, build a fire, there’s a good man,” Velda said, patting his hand. She continued her appraisal of the woman, tilting her head from side to side. She didn’t speak again until the fire was crackling between them.

Alton dug in his bag, found a packet of tea, and pulled out two battered tin cups. He brewed the aromatic mixture, handing one cup to each of the ladies. The armor clad stranger didn’t want to accept until she saw Velda sip from her own cup. To assure her that the liquid was safe, Alton took a sip from the other cup, wiping the rim with his sleeve.

“I’ve not got anything catching,” he snarled when she shied away. “It’s safe, young miss. Why would we poison a complete stranger?”

She accepted the cup, taking a sip to test it. She must have found the brew to her liking, for she continued to drink. Alton and Velda shared their cup equally, enjoying the sweet blend of herbs and dried flowers. The young woman visibly relaxed, and Alton knew the tea was working. It had a calming affect on him too, which he much needed at the moment.

“So, now that we’ve established that we mean no harm, perhaps you’ll tell us how we can help.” Velda’s soft, low alto voice was musical in nature. It wound around the trio, embracing them.

The horse nickered, nudging the young woman with his nose. Nodding, as if something had passed between them, she poured some of the cool tea in her hand, holding it out for him to drink. She kissed his face, patting him on the neck. It was more like a lover’s embrace, than mistress and horse.

“We heard rumors that there was a lady and her companion traveling these roads,” the young woman said softly. “We need your help so very desperately, you see.”

“Perhaps you might introduce yourself,” Velda suggested. “Then start at the beginning of your tale.”

The woman blushed, ducking her head. “I apologize, My Lady. I’m so unaccustomed to gentile company lately, I’ve forgotten my manners.” The horse nudged her again. “My name is Astrid, first daughter of King Hels and Queen Sarai of Folds Court. And this,” she patted the horse once more. “Is Lord Revanth, my affianced lord.”

Alton’s hand stopped halfway to his mouth. The cup tipped, spilling tea on the ground, but he hardly noticed. Velda smiled, her long lashes fluttering.

“I thought as much. I can smell enchantment. Who did you anger, child? And how do you think I can help?”

Astrid blushed again, relief flooding her face. “My Lady, thank you!” She knelt before Velda and wouldn’t rise until bidden.

“I can’t aid you unless I know the trouble,” Velda reminded her.

“Revanth is from a noble house, as well. His mother, and mine, sought to strengthen our houses with an alliance of marriage.”

“But not to one another,” Velda said.

“No. Though we were promised to one another at birth, his father died—who had made the deal with my father. My mother declared that made the original agreement null and void. She insisted that I marry someone else. But my heart already belonged to Revanth, and his to me. His mother grew furious with mine and a battle loomed.

“My mother hired a witch to sway the battle in our favor, but Revanth and I went to her. We begged her to help us by forging an alliance between our two houses, instead of a war. Something went wrong with the spell and Revanth became a stallion. That was six months ago. We have been looking for someone to help us break the spell ever since. We travel the back ways to avoid detection. I pose as a man, and do my best to gather food. But I am a gentle lady born. I know nothing of stealing or foraging.”

© 2019 Dellani Oakes

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Alton & Velda Part 1 by Dellani Oakes

alton and velda coverAlton 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

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Dellani’s Choice Could Use Some Love!

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Dellanis Choice iconDellani’s Choice could use some love! I share my reviews, promote other authors, post interviews and talk to other authors – all for free! I’d love to see this site expand to include more followers – readers and authors!

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Sidetracked Is Over – Welcome Alton & Velda

Sidetracked is over. A little different from my usual fare, but I hope that you enjoyed it. The next story I intend to share, is Alton and Velda – a fantasy. It’s also different from my usual books, and I hope you enjoy it, too. I had fun writing it.

Alton & Velda is set in a more Medieval world. Alton is a Wood Sprite, and Velda is a River Nymph. They travel the world, seeking a place to call home. On their journey, they meet Astrid and Revanth—a princess and a man cursed to be a horse. They set out together to find the witch who cursed him, and set him free. Sounds pretty straight forward—it’s not. Alton & Velda begins Wednesday, May 15.

alton and velda cover

TEASER FROM CHAPTER ONE

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 noticed. Kitted out for exploration with bedroll behind the saddle and small panniers on either side. It 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.

© 2019 Dellani Oakes