The Uncrowned King

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The sturdy brown pony had balked a little at being led through the passage behind the postern gate, but Rainhart managed to calm it enough to squeeze through the narrow space. Philomena and Holle followed, yawning.

While Rainhart took the pony around the the cover of the forest, the other two crept as close to the camp as they dared and slipped into the minds of the sleeping Cimbra. Leaving Holle to do her work, Philomena made her way back through the darkness until Rainhart's hiss told her of his location. 

"All well?" he breathed.

"Yes. We got into the mind of the leader, and I left Holle working on the rest. She promises to slip back to the castle before dawn, and stay glued to Tancred's side."

The pony let out a long-suffering huff when they were both mounted, but didn't seem concerned by carrying two passengers. Swathed in long black cloaks, with the bits and harness muffled by fabric, they made their way through the forest. Philomena kept her senses alert for any roving sentries.

The moon was hidden behind cloud, its diffuse light too little to see by, so once they were well away from the camp and safely hidden in the thick forest, they dismounted to wait for the sunrise.

In the darkness Philomena could hear Rainhart breathing and the occasional rustle of his cloak as he sat beside her on a fallen log. 

After a while, he spoke: "What happened at the hunt?" Then he added, "You fainted."

"I tripped on a rock," said Philomena. "Tancred caught me, and I suppose when the King turned around it looked as if I had swooned."

"Oh." Rainhart was silent for a long time. "Why didn't you correct him? And me?"

"What would that have achieved?"

A rustle of fabfic. "It would have stopped me from..." 

She remembered. You shouldn't even be here.

She heard Rainhart inhale, then release the breath. "Because you’re not some frail girl who faints with a little exhaustion," he said eventually.

She smiled. "It doesn't bother me what people think of me."

"Doesn’t it hurt your pride if people think you’re weak?" 

Tilting her head, Philomena gave this some consideration. She had snapped at Rainhart yesterday, but that had been more out of frustration. "Strength is a lot of different things. And pride is learned, not born."

"Empress of Jovan's owned you as her cousin."

"And before that, I was a chambermaid."

"There are few people on Aea who could have done what you have. I think you should have pride about that."

Philomena puffed out a breath. "Perhaps I can borrow some of yours."

Another long silence. "I want to apologise for what I said to you after the hunt. It was--you would have had a right to expect better from me."

"I am only going to allow you so many apologies, Prince Rainhart," said Philomena, clasping her hands in her lap. "Are you sure you want to use one on that?"

"Yes, I am," said Rainhart.

* * *

There was something particularly vulnerable about being perched atop a horse riding towards battle, even if one was at the back of the column. Around Philomena, the Jovanis picked their way down the track, despite the uneven ground managing to maintain the aura of disciplined violence that made the legions the terror of the continent. Philomena had a breastplate, gorget and bracers, but they would do little against a lucky arrow.

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