Aliah chewed her lips so hard she feared she’d break the skin. From the corner of her eye, she watched Sir Blane continuously try and fail to get Mad Maiden to correct her gait. The horse was a complete sweetheart, but also completely unrideable. Her sweetness was the only reason they kept her around. Distracted with thoughts of her journey while they were at Mowbray Manor, Aliah had not noticed the horse Sir Blane had chosen for her. It wasn’t until they were through the gate and she was jostling about that recognition hit. By then, she was too embarrassed to say anything, and prayed the journey would be swift. She was also mildly surprised her groomsman allowed the horse to be taken. She was actually a little put out by that thought.
But, in any case, it was rather humorous to watch him jostling about. She’d never been sick riding, unless she was on Mad Maiden.
Mortification swept through her once more, making her cheeks burn despite the chill air. Had she really gotten sick in front of Sir Blane and all of his men? That might be the most embarrassing moment of her life. Well, that wasn’t exactly true; she’d had many embarrassing moments. Perhaps this one could be classified as the most embarrassing moment in front of a man. A man she found she had particular interest in.
A man she should try to ignore for the remainder of her trip. He was no good for her, especially the feelings he stirred inside. Which was a major problem. She would have to seek a priest and confess her thoughts. She should be ashamed of how he made her feel, but instead intense curiosity filled her.
“My lady,” Sir Blane interrupted her thoughts. “I see now why you were not feeling well. This mount is positively ridiculous.”
Aliah tried not to smile. “You look as though you have her tamed somewhat.”
The knight bounced to the left and then the right. “I do not think so.”
“Will you be sick?” she asked, concerned. While it was funny to watch him on the horse, she didn’t wish nausea on anyone, and certainly not a man she hardly knew and whom she hoped would bring her safely to her family in Scotland.
“Nay. I have an iron stomach.”
Judging by his pallor that was slowly turning a shade of green, Aliah thought otherwise.
“Would you like your mount back?”
Hope flashed in Sir Blane’s eyes, but he shook his head. “Gunnar is pleased to have a lady ride him, I’m sure.”
“Aye, he is a docile animal, isn’t he?” Aliah leaned forward and stroked her hands over the horse’s soft mane and patted his neck. His skin rippled beneath her fingers, warming them with his heat.
“He is only docile with you, my lady. With me, he is every bit the warhorse.”
She flashed Blane a teasing smile and nodded toward Mad Maiden. “Whatever you say. You are quite the master of any horse, I see. Mad Maiden is clearly taken by you.” As if to confirm just that, the horse nickered.
Before they could continue on with their banter, Frosty let out a wicked howl and darted forward.
“What’s gotten into him?” Aliah asked, leaning forward to watch him dash off.
“Must be something ahead. ’Twould appear your dear wolfhound is a good guard dog after all,” Sir Blane muttered and spurred Mad Maiden jauntily forward.
Aliah tried to peer ahead, but saw nothing out of the ordinarily besides Frosty barreling into the woods.
“Frosty, wait!” she shouted, urging Gunnar forward.
“No, Aliah!” Blane called out. Veering toward her, he grasped her reins as she passed him. He pulled both their horses to a halt. His men fanned out, half staying behind with them and the others circling into the woods.
Panic seized her. Within the woods she could hear Frosty snarling madly. “We cannot let him go like that. He will be hurt!”
Using all the strength she possessed she wrenched the reins from Blane’s hands and squeezed Gunnar’s sides with her thighs. The horse flew forward, breaking through the trees. The force jolted her to the side, but she quickly righted herself, lowering close to the horse’s neck so she wouldn’t fall. Ignoring Blane’s curse and subsequent shouts behind her, she blindly followed the sound of Frosty’s growls. Pulling out her bow and nocking an arrow, she prepared to save him. When she came upon him, the animal was alone in a small clearing, surrounded by nothing but shadows. His silver coat was slick from his exertion and blood stained his snout.
Aliah hopped down from Gunnar and approached the dog. “’Tis me, sweet Frosty,” she cooed.
Frosty turned wild eyes on her, his tongue rolling out of his mouth as he panted.
“What happened, boy?” she asked in a soothing tone.
Scanning the area, she saw no movement. The only thing out of place was the blood on her dog’s face. He didn’t appear to be injured, so the blood was not his. She returned her arrow to her quiver and her bow to her back.
At that moment, Sir Blane broke through the trees with his men, glaring daggers at her.
“Just what the bloody hell did you think you were doing? You’re lucky we didn’t find your body upon the forest floor.” His voice was loud, threatening.
“I but wanted to make sure my dog was all right. You didn’t seem inclined to fetch him.”
Blane snarled. “That dog is trained to protect you. Did you not think he ran after a foe? Someone who intended you harm?”
She’d never been on a journey before, and since she didn’t believe the things Glenda said, it’d never occurred to her that the dangers her maid preached about could be true.
“There was nothing.” She twirled around indicating nothing but air. “There’s no one here. What danger could there have been?”
“My lady,” he said, sounding exasperated. “Surely you see the blood upon the hound’s snout?”
“Aye.” She’d thought Frosty simply banged it on a branch.
“There was someone here.” He pointed to the ground. “See there? The ground is all disrupted. Looks like multiple people judging from the boot tracks.”
Aliah glanced toward where he pointed. Sure enough the leaves and dirt were scattered, and deep impressions marred the earth as though a fight had occurred. Footprints and paw prints were pressed into the forest floor. And a piece of fabric. She bent down to retrieve it. ’Twas dirty and stiff, with a few drops of blood.
“May I?” Blane asked, holding out his hand.
She nodded and stepped forward, handing him the scrap. Chills swept over her. Frosty had been trying to protect her, but from who?