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17 Funeral I

    The mixed Arnican and Lysean parties were now traveling at a much faster speed. Prince Leal rode his horse right by the carriage window again. After their recent interactions, Hilde became more aware of this - and of the fact that he was doing it on purpose.

    Earlier, when they rose from their seats after a rushed but filling meal, she stepped subtly around the table to reach the Viscount's side. It was an instinctual reaction after noticing that Leal had made a move towards her. It seemed his intent had been to bring Hilde out of the inn the same way she'd entered it: in his arms.

    She couldn't really blame him for thinking she still needed helping. No logic in this world could explain how she'd gotten enough of her strength back that she could at least walk by herself, but she must still keep up appearances.

    "Will you please lend me your arm, Lord Viscount?"

    "Of course, of course," the elderly lord answered.

    While Hilde refused to look in Leal's direction, the Viscount had no such reservations. He slid his gaze towards the young man who had just been graciously snubbed, yet instead of looking offended, Prince Leal was smirking. The slightly narrowed eyes he trained at the Arnican princess were flashing with mirth, as if what he was looking at was the most entertaining thing he'd ever beheld.

    It was at this moment that the possibility first occurred to the Viscount.

    Could it be? Was THAT what he came here for?

    But with the way Leal's being something of an ass about it, the Viscount rather thought his young prince had no plans to succeed at this mission. He was beginning to feel that that would be a shame. He liked this unconventional princess.

    With Hilde at his side, resting her right hand lightly around his left arm, the Viscount headed out of the inn and back into the market square.

    A little over fifteen minutes have elapsed since the tense events that followed their arrival. In that time, it seemed none of the villagers had moved from their position. Eyes and faces dry, they turned at Hilde's emergence from the inn's doorway.

    She and the foreign lord paused on top of the humble platform that was the inn's entrance steps. She then took her hand back and moved forward on her own until she was near the edge. Though shocked, the Viscount did not show any outward reaction nor followed her.

    Into the expectant silence, Hilde spoke.

    "Prince Dieter..." she began but found herself unable to continue for the sudden lump in her throat. To calm her trembling heart, she took a deep breath and tried again. "My brother left behind a gap no one can fill." Her eyes roamed the unresponsive crowd one pair of eyes at a time. "He was our fiercest defender, he would have gladly died for us a thousand times over. If it was to protect Arnica from anyone who seeks to destroy her - destroy what she stands for - he would not have hesitated a moment."

    Hilde blinked and broke eye contact with the crowd. Looking at the ground, she continued, "We could not have afforded even one of those deaths... but it happened. The northerners took my brother's life because they thought - they THOUGHT-" the repeated word was suddenly whip-like, echoing within the listeners' ears "-his absence would make us defenseless."

    Eyes sharper, Hilde raised her head to meet the villagers' gazes once again. Like hers, there was now a fire behind them all.

    "Arnicans!" she called, her hands forming fists on her sides. "We are NOT! Our strength does not lie on a single person's hand, it lies on all our hands clasped!" Hilde took more steps forward, as far as the platform would allow so she could be closer to the people facing her. With all her conviction, she told them, "Hold fast, Arnicans! Hold fast! In the name of Prince Dieter and the brave men who died with him, DO NOT LET GO!"

    A powerful response erupted from the crowd as if they'd just been uncorked. Two hundred villagers screamed their throats raw in wordless answer, yet they did not fail to hear it when Princess Hilde declared: "Arnica - we fight!"

    Men and women, girls and boys, every resident who were present in this village just outside of Oste roared over and over: "FIGHT!"

    About to be overcome again but holding back her tears, Hilde descended the handful of steps by herself. The villagers met her approach and parted to let her through, only to close in again behind her. Enclosed in bodies as she steadily made her way forward, she was aiming for the black-and-silver carriage that would take her back to the capital.

    On the way, though her urgency to reach Oste was renewed, the young princess pressed the hands of those she could reach, giving strength and comfort where she could.

    Unobtrusively, the Lysean men took this opportunity to skirt the center-facing throng and reach that same carriage and horses waiting on the other side.

    Speaking under his breath in Lysean, Leal commented, "Remarkable what a full stomach can help a person accomplish."

    Overhearing this, the elderly lord beside him could not help himself. "I do hope your words were not meant as an insult... my lad."

    The Prince bowed once at that, accepting the implied admonishment. "Indeed, no, my lord," Leal answered with a tight smile. "I admit myself impressed."

    The Viscount nodded genially. "Arnican women seem to be as outstanding as reputed."

    Leal's tight smile eased and his smirk returned to replace it as he said, "Somehow I doubt she is the most accurate representation."

    The men reached their destination. While the Lysean soldiers and two other lords mounted their horses, the Prince and the Viscount stayed on the ground. Standing by the door of the carriage, they faced the direction the Princess was coming from.

    She was only halfway through the crowd, and they noticed for the first time that the Arnican captain was following close behind her. The other three soldiers formed a perimeter between the villagers and the Lyseans, their backs to the latter.

    Knowing there won't be time for a while that they could speak in private, the Viscount cleared his throat and took the opportunity to broach: "Do you mean to take her from here?"

    The question may be interpreted at least two different ways, but between them, there was no need to clarify exactly what was meant.

    Instead of answering, Leal observed, "I noticed you have formed a high opinion of her."

    "I have," said the Viscount. "But this and that are unrelated. I would not steal a statue from a garden merely because I liked it." He paused. "I might commission a portrait."

    During this exchange, neither men had taken their eyes off the young royal in the midst of a gray sea - clasping people's reaching hands, meeting as many eyes as she could, speaking affirmations whenever called for.

    Few would look at Princess Hilde's face and call it beautiful. At the most, she was pretty, but all her features somehow lacked definition. One might only notice how pleasant they were if one stared long enough.

    No, her appearance was not what stood out about her.

    Hilde was only moments away from reaching the far edge of the crowd. Her attendant stood at the point she'd emerge, waiting to assist - it seemed the maid too was far from convinced that the Princess was as recovered as she would have others believe.

    A grateful look flashed in Hilde's eyes when she spotted the older female. Pretending casualness, she took the supporting arm offered. However, instead of proceeding at once to the carriage as she seemed eager to do, Hilde paused and looked around. Spotting the captain of her escorts so close behind, her expression softened a notch.

    The Arnican party was too far for the foreign observers to hear what they were now speaking about, but from the way the captain pointed towards the three Arnican soldiers one by one and then to himself, speaking all the while, it was easy to guess.

    They then saw the captain bowing his head after Hilde told him a few words in return. When he straightened, the observers noted that his eyes were shining. It was easy to guess what that was about too.

    The Viscount suddenly let out a sigh. "On second thought," he said, "an exact replica would do even better."

    With no emotions that the older man could recognize, Leal stated, "Princesses marry, Viscount Renard. Even in this country, it is the reality." Taken aback by the bald admission of his intent, the Viscount could only take his eyes from Hilde and look at the young man's face instead. As he watched, Leal's expression hardened. "For that matter, Princes fare no better."

    It was then that Hilde's party had finally reached the carriage and the private exchange came to an end. Leal proceeded to his horse and the Viscount elected to enter the carriage first. Before its open door, Hilde paused and faced the way she'd come.

    The villagers were largely silent again, the way they'd been when the visitors arrived. But they were no longer gripped by their fears or hatred. They had found some relief from their grief, and many of them had found a purpose going forward - with lighter hearts, they now send off the person who had given them both. The villagers slowly bowed and curtseyed to the Princess.

    When they straightened, they found Hilde's smiling countenance awaiting their sights. She returned an equally slow bow of her head, then entered the carriage.

    That was all more than an hour ago. Hilde had spent a good five minutes convincing the Viscount to increase their speed. They've since passed other villages - some as large as towns, but all looking similar to the ones that came before - as well as woodlands, bridges over wide rivers, and fields that were heavy with produce.

    They stopped nowhere else, and sooner than even Hilde had anticipated, they had entered the boundaries of the capital city. When she peeked out the window, she immediately saw the Royal Palace on the hill, sitting right in the heart of Oste. Despite what she was bringing along with her and what occasion awaited her at the place, her own chest began to lighten.

    She had returned.
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