Ridin' the Trail

After lingering over apple pie, they sat crosslegged on the rug by the low burning fire. Rebecca spoke more of Cimarron and the Lone Pine; of Uncle T, Wyatt and his brother Zach; Sam and Zek and a half dozen others. Maggie took the quiet as a sign she could interrupt to bring Rebecca her guitar. She tsked at the fallen painting and knocked over table, but she was smiling as she collected their dishes to return to the kitchens. There was a paying customer in the room next door, so she sternly told them to keep it down for the rest of the night.

When they finally went to bed, it was to sleep. The morning sun peeking through a crack in the curtains found Finn alone in the rumpled bed. There was no sign of Rebecca, but his breakfast was on the table by the fireplace; an empty milk glass the only sign that Rebecca had been there at all.

Finn could have gotten out of the bed at the crack of dawn. He had set his internal clock to be up before sunrise when he was in the field, but after a night with Rebecca, he willfully refused to do so. On some level he sensed Rebecca rising from the bed, but he did not respond to it. He was on leave, he would sleep in, at least a little. If he were not riding out that morning, he would have been truly decadent, and slept for as long as his body allowed. As it was, the scent of breakfast eventually got him out of bed, still early in the morning, but the sun had enjoyed a bit of time warming the room where it broke through the space in the curtains. Finn smiled, he would not be surprised if both of their horses were already saddled and ready.

He ate. He bathed. He dressed. Then he organized his dishes to be taken away later, and put all of his weapons into their places. His bag had been thoughtfully brought up, and today he dressed in jeans and a simple shirt of black cotton. He slipped into a comfortable jacket that had been bundled into his kit bag, and carried his sword out of the room and down the stairs. Finn looked for Rebecca as he settled the strap of his blade over his shoulders.

The tavern was quiet at that hour. He could hear Maggie's muffled voice from the kitchen speaking to someone, and there were three people in the dining area nursing coffee. An older man near the door; silver haired and sporting an old battle scar that went from ear to chin nodded at Finn as he passed him on his way out the open front doors into the bright spring morning.

He didn't have to look far for Rebecca. She was at the end of the wooden sidewalk between the tavern and the stables. Both horses were kitted for a long trip on the trail. Rebecca was wearing a pair of faded jeans; soft and nearly the pale blue of a summer sky from wear. A plain white t-shirt was tucked into the jeans, she wore a straw cowboy hat and a pale brown leather duster was slung over Demon's saddle for the time being. Her boots looked broken in and comfortable. Her pistol was riding on one hip, and her coiled whip on the other.

When he walked up, the horses and she were waiting in companionable silence. But he got the feeling he had arrived as a conversation was being wrapped up.

"Mornin'," she smiled.

"Good Morning, Cowgirl." Finn smiled in return, amusement in his gaze. "Looks like you were busy this morning. I take it we're ready then?" He looked between the horses, and then between the horses and Rebecca. He shrugged slightly, "Shall we head out?" Finn adjusted the strap of his broadsword, and added. "I slept very well, You?"

"Like a foal after birthin'," she replied colorfully. She grinned and tilted her hat back before moving to Demon and swinging up in the saddle. "The fellas are lookin' forward ta a good gallop. Let's get the spurs on an' git outta town."

Finn chuckled and shook his head, at least he knew what that turn of phrase meant. He moved over to Blake, and after a whispered word or two, mounted up as well. "I'm sure they are, Blake certainly was. He's become — unenthusiastic about forests." He smiled and patted his steed affectionately. "Lead the way, Rebecca." Finn smiled and tightened the strap to his broadsword, so it didn't bounce against his back too freely. "At the edge of things you're going to have to get very specific about descriptions, very detailed. It will be slow at first."

Demon couldn't seem to get out of the city limits fast enough. He was clearly impatient with the pace of things. He huffed and turned off the main roads, clattering through alleys as quickly as the environment would allow. Rebecca didn't seem too fussed about it. He clearly knew where he was going.

They cleared the buildings and they picked up speed, heading for one of the side gates used by soldiers and city guards - and likely Royals trying to be sneaky. Rebecca whistled loudly as Demon picked up speed to get the guard's attention. She and Demon were easily identified even at a distance, even if they hadn't been riding with Blake.

Demon's speed doubled between steps and suddenly he was pouring it on, flying towards Arden.

Finn followed Rebecca and Demon letting Blake keep his own pace, but content with his view. He leaned forward as it became clear speed would soon be a factor, and let out an uncharacteristic whoop as they charged past the gate guards and out into the fields beyond. He smiled, feeling Blake's form surging beneath him, and doing his best to minimize his steed's prey instinct. Once on the run, Blake was likely to bring down any small game he saw move into or near his path, especially when the tiger-horse knew that discipline was on leave. The hybrid poured it on, following a few lengths behind the Cowgirl Princess, rider and steed reveling in the simple fun of it all, the sheer lack of necessity being part of their enjoyment.

Veering further from the main road, Rebecca headed them for one of the seldom used cart roads that wound through Arden. She knew where she was going, Demon was familiar with the path, so there was no need for slowing down. Julian was used to her tearing through the woods this way, but she hollered a whoop just to let the Rangers know it was just her. It was really only through the trees for part of the way — a few miles at best — before they burst out of the treeline and into an area of gently rolling hills.

Rebecca gave Demon his head and the stallion turned the speed up another notch. She laughed and held onto her hat as she looked back over her shoulder at Finn and Blake.

Finn smiled when she looked back, and tossed her a jaunty salute. He and Blake were so used to each other, they very nearly blended into one animal. The wind of their movement caught at his hair, and had him squinting slightly, but it was clear that he was enjoying himself. When Demon turned up the speed, a thought prompted Blake to do the same. The Rangers would know Blake, if not his casually dressed rider. He hollered forward, "To the Crossroads, Princess!" And then he let Blake turn slightly off the cart path, trying to find an advantage in a parallel trail. His laughter only just reaching Rebecca's ears.

Rebecca laughed again and Demon took the initiative. He knew these woods well in the short time they'd been here. Rebecca had an annoying affection for riding in the woods in the rain, or on windy days. He veered left to pick up his favorite trail that would intersect the crossroads; but not before it took him over some excellent jumping opportunities.

Like Rebecca, though Finn had no way of knowing, he gave Blake his head. He let the Tiger-Horse pick out the path, his hooves digging in for more speed and and letting loose the limitations. He had to duck low over his steed's neck to avoid being swept off his back by branches. Blake was looking forward to those open spaces, and the sooner he was free of Arden, the better. Finn laughed into the wind, and urged his old friend and steed onward as he suddenly had to lower his chin to avoid higher branches thanks to one of Blake's leaps over a deadfall. The crossroads would soon be ahead, and he was sure he could hear Demon's hooves pounding the earth somewhere to his left.

Demon sailed over a log blocked stream, Rebecca low along his neck. Ahead she spied that towering stern visage of Morgenstern just off the path. She was tempted a moment to stop, but at the speed Demon was covering ground, they would have had to double back after he slowed down, and she didn't want to slow down. She gave Julian an unrepentant grin as they flew passed his position and just waved when he yelled at her. He always yelled at her, but never said anything about later. Morganstern bellowed at Demon and the black stallion bellowed right back at him, making Rebecca laugh at the male posturing.

Finn managed to avoid Julian by letting Blake pick the path. He missed the trumpeting of Morgenstern and Demon, and kept busy holding on to Blake. He laughed, and wondered what Blake's plan was for stopping at the crossroads. As the agreed destination drew near, he began to think he knew just how he would manage it. The advantage of having an unconventional horse was that it was terribly effective in battle, Blake was carnivorous, and there were times when it showed. There was no real disadvantage, save that every now and then, he had to remember that he was not all horse. At the last possible moment, Blake leaped from the woods into the crossroads, and all but dropped his bottom to the dirt to skid to a halt, swerving almost like a wildly driven car. Finn and Blake wound up facing the direction they'd shot out from. Blake's rider just laughed, a rare free expression of his mirth that only a handful ever saw.

Through the break in the trees, they saw the crossroads ahead. Demon complained about slowing, but then Rebecca spoke an option and the stallion whinnied his agreement. A moment later — before the dust Blake had kicked up even had a chance to start to settle — the black and gold blur that was Rebecca's horse broke through the treeline and and hung a right. His hooves bit into the packed dirt of the road as he dug in to keep his speed and to minimize the slide that was invariable on a hairpin turn. Bits of dirt and pebbles flared up in his wake. On his back, Rebecca was leaning into the turn with the practiced ease of a barrel racer. She let out a whoop of fierce joy when they were again racing down the road out into Shadow.

"You two a-comin' or ya needin' a break?" she yelled over her shoulder as Demon carried her off deeper into the forest and away from the troubles in Amber.

Finn grumbled, and urged Blake on, though the Tiger-Horse did not need it. He sprang forward as if to pounce, and tried to catch up to the already racing Demon. He flattened out in his stride, and all Finn
did was hold on. He called out, "I thought we had to take our ease in the journey!?! You'd best get to some open spaces soon!" He held his head low, nearly beside Blake's neck, and laughed as they went racing through Arden, startling animals and Rangers alike.

It was quite awhile before Demon finally slowed down. The forest had thinned when they left Arden behind, and they found themselves cantering down a tree lined road while the horses eased out of their mad racing speed to something more civilized. Rebecca was breathless, grinning and windblown and more relaxed and more truly Rebecca then she ever had been in Amber where she knew she was always been watched.

She took off her hat and ran her fingers through her hair, then leaned her head back and shook out her hair some more before putting the hat back on. "Reckon we should let the horses get a drink 'fore we go on. There's a stream up ahead."

Finn was smiling. Perhaps not a terribly remarkable thing for most people to do, but his mentor's reserve had rubbed off on him, and when he was on duty or coming off duty, it took a little while for the
'polish' to rub off. Apparently the fastest way to get it all off was to let Blake run it out of the both of them. He regarded Rebecca with more than a hint of undisguised desire in his chocolate colored eyes, a spark that just lingers in his gaze as he looked at her. He nodded slowly, and stretched his arms out, reaching for the sky.

"That sounds fine to me, Rebecca. A shame we can't run them all the way, hmm?" His smile became a grin.

Demon tossed his mane and whinnied at her. Rebecca laughed as she swung out of the saddle. "We're up fer that." Demon wandered for the stream, and Rebecca stretched, arching her back. She shook out her arms, then she shook off her duster and walked over to the side of the road to hang it over a low branch of a spreading apple tree.

Finn chuckled, and patted Blake's neck, before sliding out of the saddle. "Go hunt rabbits, there should be plenty." Blake wandered a bit into the brush, moving slowly through, clearly watchful for whatever he might spook out of cover.

When Rebecca stretched, Finn eyed her with a small smile. "You're doing that on purpose." He walked over to her, and leaned against a bough of the apple tree watching her with the same unabashed look of appreciation. "That was a great run. I think we gave a few Rangers something to talk about when they ride back in." Finn removed his sword, slid down the tree a bit, and took a seat with his back to it. He set the blade down beside him. "Must feel good to be out from under the Royal watchers eyes, yes?"

"Course I'm doin' it on purpose," she snorted. "So did you." Rebecca dug out a silver cigarette case from her duster pocket before taking a seat near Finn. "And, yeah; it is good to know there's too many folks around feelin' like they need to know what I'm doin', and they ain't here." She took a cigarette from the case and tossed the case to Finn while she lit up. "Figure one o' these days I'm gonna haveta start actin' more like a lady and less like a wrangler." She sighed and stretched her very long legs out in front of her and propped herself up with one arm. "Not fer awhile though."

Finn took out one as well, and lit it from hers when she was ready. "I might have been, but I hardly look as good doing it." He smiled and leaned back again. "Pfft. Why would you change for anyone? Eric has not asked you to, I would wager. Anyone that is watching you is doing so because you are the trend setter now, whether Florimel wishes to admit it or not. As the Crown Princess you have more influence than you think." Finn smirked, "We'll be seeing more hats in the City eventually." He chuckled, "That's when you change the trend." He smiled, "I think your honesty is refreshing, and I think that is why Eric let you loose on the Kingdom in the first place."

Rebecca shrugged and blew a stream of smoke from between her teeth. "You an' I both know none of tha hoity diplomats from the Circle honestly take me serious. Oh, they remember I'm the King's sprog — hard to let that slip by — but I ain't interested in their games. They seem ta find that a flaw in me." She gazed out across the road to where Demon was grazing. "Don't know that I can play 'em."

Finn smiled slightly, "But that's just it, Rebecca, they don't take you seriously, but that does not mean they're right to do so." He gestured at the stream. "Amber, by and large, is unchanging. It needs
fresh faces and fresh perspectives. That is why when Eric ascended the Throne, commerce and businesses that were not active before became so under his reign." Finn shrugged slightly, "Don't play their games, make them play yours — whatever that is, of course. Once you know that, the rest will be as easy as fallin' of a horse." He smirked.

She laughed and flicked ash off her cigarette. "They can play 'Dodge the Vase'. Have'ta get Flora to order in bunch that won't get her riled up like a wet cat when I break 'em."

"Maybe I should find a Shadow that is full of vases, and get someone to make you a Trump to it." Finn suggested, exhaling a circle of smoke, his expression straight.

"Reckon that sounds like a grand idea," Rebecca replied easily. "Right clever fer a stick jock."

"I have no idea what you just called me." Finn replied with a smile. "Since we're not in a hurry -" His eyes turned to her and they traveled along her long legs and back to her eyes. "- how long should we relax here?"

She smirked. "Not that long. I am actually itchin' to get to the ranch."

"Ah, yes, the itch." Finn smiled, "Alas, poor Finn then." He exhaled a few more smoke rings, placing them with an accuracy that amused him; faster moving, smaller rings, shot through larger, slower moving ones. "What does your old Family think of your new one?"

"Haven't really met anyone but Dad," she shrugged. "Though Wyatt gets a heap o' mileage outta me bein' titled and a Princess at that." She smiled. "One o' these days I'm gonna get all dolled up th' way Flo wants an' see what he thinks 'bout that."

"Cowgirl Princess." Finn added, smirking. "Ah, that could be fun. I'd wager it would take a minute before someone realized it was you." He exhaled smoke, "It might be worth bringing a friend from Cimarron to Amber one day. At least you would have a friend in town you could trust, and it might give them perspective on why it is important that you are in Amber and not back home." He dusted off his hands, the cigarette between his lips, and rolled up to his feet. Finn looked around, and picked up a few smooth stones to skip across the water.

"Thought about it," she admitted. Rebecca watched Finn hunt for rocks. "Though I reckon my reasons are a mite more selfish. Wyatt's been my friend nearly all my life. Don' seem right not havin' with me in Amber."

Finn skipped a stone across the water, where it clattered into rocks on the opposing bank after five long jumps. "Why don't you let Wyatt judge whether or not it's selfish?" He asked, skipping another
stone against the flow of the river. "It can't hurt to have an old friend about." He looked over his shoulder with a smirk, "I'm not always around to look after you." Finn's smirk turned into a smile.
"Just a thought. If Cimarron isn't far from Amber, it'll only serve to have someone familiar with both worlds, other than yourself." He shrugged slightly and threw another stone downriver, it skipped eight
times. "Just a thought. I never did bring in anyone from Avalon myself, though I surely could have."

"Think I'll put it out there fer him to consider," Rebecca shrugged. "It'll be a big decision fer him. On th' one hand, he'd be a-leavin' ever'thin' he knows. On the other-" she grinned brightly. "-Me."

"And countless other Women that frequent your haunts. Not to mention Flora, she might take an interest. Can't be prim and proper all the time." Finn skipped first one stone, and then swiftly threw another that hit the other on the third skip.

Rebecca snorted. "Flora? I don' think so. Wyatt ain't for that type."

"What if I speak with him? Could be in the best interest of the Ranch and his people if he gets a glimpse of the thing and the way to Amber." Finn dusted off his hands, and exhaled smoke. "The best way to protect them is to inform them. Ojirasan used to say, forewarned is forearmed, or something like that."

She pushed herself to her feet, cigarette still between her teeth. "Like ta bring Uncle T. I worry 'bout him now with the Road an' all. But it'll take more then my big brown eyes ta get him ta leave the ranch."

"I can teach them how best to defend themselves, if the worst should happen, if you think it is necessary." Finn replied, picking up another couple of smooth stones. "I'm sure they're all fighters, but
if the Black Road cuts through, they'll be seeing things they've never seen before. They might be prepared for the creatures of legend that they've heard of in tales born of echoes from neighboring Shadows, but for other things…"

She field stripped her cigarette while he talked and shoved the remains in her jean pocket. "Yeah. Good thang magic is poor in Cimarron. One less thang to be worryin' on." Putting her thumb and forefinger in the corners of her mouth, she whistled sharply for Demon. When he trotted out, she swung up in the saddle. "C'mon. I've a hankerin' for Lone Pine venison, Uncle T's grilled corn on the cob, an' Maggie Mae's biscuits." She smiled then. "An' one o' Wyatt's backrubs."

Finn actually grinned, and threw his stones, "I'll take everything but the backrub." He called out for Blake, who had faded into the woods. "Blake! Stop eating the chipmunks!"

Blake trotted out of the underbrush head held high, but clearly chewing on something he soon swallowed down. He made an odd nicker that ended in almost a growl. Finn responded, "Really? Well, that's what happens when you get too curious.." He mounted up, and gave Rebecca a jaunty salute. "Lead on, Princess."

Rebecca lead him as far as she could before handing over the reins of taking them quickly though Shadow. She had spent several hours the night before going over what made Cimarron so unique and how he could find it. She gave him more as they rode until at last they were standing on a rise that showed the whole of the Line Pine spread out before them framed by a range of snow-capped mountains.

TOCWelcome to the Lone Pine

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