Chapter 5: An Unexpected Encounter

Not surprisingly, Dalen was dead set against the idea of retaliation.

"D'ye 'ave a death wish or somethin'?" he demanded when she told him the next day.

"No," Lia said, annoyed. "It's just wrong to let him get away with the things he does. He should be punished."

"Leave the punishin' t' someone else, Lia. It's not worth it."

"It's about time someone stood up to him."

Dalen then gripped her shoulders and gave her a hard shake. The fury in his eyes shocked her. "Don't ye understand me? If ye want all yer limbs intact and workin', the jus' leave it alone! Gods above, are ye always this meddlin'?"

He stormed off without another word, but Lia couldn't forget the haunted look in his jade-green eyes.

Time passed in the same way, with her trying to juggle the never-ending chores as well as hassle from some of the other stablehands. Lance and his usual bunch of ape-like friends were always ready with their crude comments and the odd push or shove, but it was nothing she couldn't handle. Dalen also made things easier to bear.

She quickly learnt that while her new friend had been solemn at first, his moods swung rapidly from one to the other. At times he never took anything seriously and loved to jest, and at other times he was grim and sullen. He also had a quick temper that heated and cooled as fast as it took water to boil. Yet she found that he was generally a good person who always lent her a hand when the goings got tough. She noticed, however, that no one else seemed to speak to him, often ignoring him as if he wasn't there or else shooting him nasty looks. She couldn't understand it. He was friendly and funny, and kind as well. But afraid of appearing rude, Lia never asked Dalen why and simply continued to wonder in silence.

A couple of days later there was to be a hunting expedition in the royal forest preserve, and the stablehands were set the task of saddling the horses for the accompanying men and attendants. After the soldiers had taken their horses for training, the remaining horses were to be exercised along the bridle trails, much to Lia's delight. She hadn't ridden a horse since she had started working. Even the snide comments muttered about her riding ability couldn't dim her mood.

The bridle trails were both wide and narrow dirt paths that twisted and turned and overlapped each other. To one who wasn't familiar with them, the trails were a miniature labyrinth. It was quite easy to wander in circles for ages and not realise it, becoming hopelessly lost until it was too late. Even so, Lia rode alone. The other stablehands didn't want her along with them and she didn't want their company. She wanted time alone to think.

As she and Ferrie cantered briskly beneath the trees that arched over the paths, her thoughts constantly mulled over ways to make Lance pay. She thought hard but try as she might, Lia came up with nothing. After all, she had never had to do something like this before.

"Maybe you can just give him a kick for me," she muttered out loud to Ferrie. The chestnut mare squealed, sounding delighted, which made Lia smile. "You could probably handle him better than I ever could. At least if you kick him, he wouldn't give you a black eye in return like he'd probably give me." She sighed. "Why can't I think of anything?"

Looking around her, Lia's mood slowly turned very sour. Didn't I just pass that clump of trees a couple of minutes ago? she thought, glaring at the offending trees. She threw another sullen glance at her surroundings. It all looked the same to her.

Suddenly she became aware of another rider on the trail. Despite not being able to see them because of the bend in the trail, she could hear the other horse trotting leisurely towards her along the dirt path.

Instantly her body stiffened. If it was Lance there wasn't enough time to get off the trail and out of sight. There wasn't anywhere to go. The blonde, handsome stablehand was out riding as well, although he had gone with a group of his friends. The approaching rider was alone.

He could've separated from the others, Lia thought, her stomach flopping on its side. She was tense with expectation and dread. There wasn't anything for it - she would just have to face him.

But a moment later when the unknown rider came into view, her anxiousness vanished and was replaced with surprise.

Pip, dressed in a white shirt and sleeveless blue tunic, was the one who rounded the bend, riding a giant black horse. He was staring off into the wilderness, looking as if his thoughts were far away. A troubled frown creased his tanned face. He was so distracted that he didn't even notice her blocking the trail ahead of him.

She was so taken aback at his sudden appearance that all she could do was sit and stare. She had seen nothing of him since arriving at the palace, and now - to set eyes on him so unexpectedly - made her wits desert her. But then she recognised the horse he was riding.

It was the black horse from the fair, the unbroken one belonging to the horse trader that she had watched Pip ride. She blinked in astonishment. As wild and untamed as the stallion had been then, it was utterly docile now. His movements were strong and rhythmic, and he wasn't even giving the overseer the slightest of trouble as most newly broken equines often did. Her incredulity made her recover.

"It's only been five days since you bought him," she said sharply. "How can you have already broken and trained him so well in that time?"

Pip started in shock and looked up. Seeing Lia, his eyes widened and he stared at her for a moment, seeming agitated. But then his anxious look vanished and a grin replaced it. He pulled his horse to a stop.

"Well if it isn't Lia, the probationary stablehand, and her horse," he said, his tone light and teasing. "I was just thinking about you."

Remembering his previous distracted frown, Lia raised an eyebrow. But instead of questioning him further on that cryptic statement, she stared pointedly at his horse.

"Well?" she demanded. "How did you do it? How can you manage him so well after so short a period? And especially a stallion."

Pip gave the horse a sound pat on the neck. "Oh, I don't know," he said with a shrug. He flicked her a sidelong glance. "With Shadowdash, it's more a matter of compromise than any real managing."

Lia opened her mouth but then shut it again, unable to think of anything to say in reply.

Pip laughed at her annoyed expression. "And as to how I trained him... well, that's my secret," he teased. His grin widened when her annoyance showed even more clearly and then he laughed again. "No, it's just that I'm good with horses," he said shaking the hair out of his eyes. "I'm patient and know how to handle them. I didn't even have to break this boy into the saddle."

Lia was stunned. "He's not broken? But... why is he behaving so well?"

"Well, he probably wouldn't if, oh... say you, for example, were riding him." He patted the stallion's glossy neck. "Co-operation is the key with any horse and its rider. But I can't deny that they generally respond better to me than most."

She snorted. "Modest, aren't you?"

"Naturally."

Lia folded her arms and narrowed her eyes. "By the way, I've got another bone to pick with you. Why didn't you tell me that you were an overseer in the royal stables?" She raised an eyebrow. "I'd have thought that one who liked to boast as much as you do wouldn't waste any time in telling everyone - whether they'd be impressed or not."

Pip's winning smile faded and he gave her a measuring look. "You never asked," was his simple reply.

"But you could have said - said something!" Lia said, not knowing why she felt so furious.

"What's there to say?" he said with a shrug. He sent her a sidelong glance, smiling crookedly. "And there's nothing really for me to boast about. Being an overseer in the royal stables is hardly any different from what Jonah does in the ones you work in. Besides, does it matter?" His gaze was so direct that it unnerved her a little. "Does finding that out about me really change anything?"

Lia stared at him, thinking his words a little odd. At last she slowly shook her head. "No. I guess not."

He seemed satisfied with her answer. All at once his grin was back. "Are you by any chance lost, Lia?" He looked amused. "Is there something wrong with your sense of direction?"

"My sense of direction is fine, thank you very much," she snapped. Suddenly she felt more frustrated than irritated. "And no, I'm not lost. I'm just - well... I don't know!" She threw up her hands, making Ferrie paw the ground restlessly.

Pip's grin turned mischievous. "Admit it, Lia - you're lost."

"I'm not lost!" Lia said crossly, completely forgetting that only a few minutes ago she had been fully prepared to admit this fact. "And for your information, I know exactly where I am and where I'm going. You may have helped me get this job, even if it's only temporary, but I don't need your help in finding my way back! I can look after myself."

"Oh, come on," he said good-naturedly. "Is accepting my help really that bad? You'd just have made things more difficult for yourself if you hadn't. Besides, you're just peeved that I didn't tell you every single little detail about myself when we first met."

"I'm not peeved about that or - or anything!" Lia felt her temper begin to rise. "And of course I didn't expect you to tell me all about yourself. Like I would've cared," she added scornfully, hating the smirk on his face that was steadily growing broader.

"Really?" he said in feigned surprise. "Well then, if that's the case, I guess you'll have no trouble admitting that you're lost and then letting me show you the way home. Oh, but only after you apologise for hurting my feelings."

"And how on earth did I hurt your feelings, pray tell?" she demanded, her patience at an end.

Pip's smirk stayed smeared across his face and apparently had no intention of going anywhere. "It really pains me, Lia, that you don't care a whit about what I would tell you of myself. It hurts me deeply."

"You are indeed sadly deluded if you think that I would ever care about you, or anything you say, for that matter," she said sweetly. "As for admitting that I'm lost, well, I can't do that - because I'm not lost!"

"Fine then." Pip dismounted from the black horse in one fluid movement. His hazel eyes were challenging. "Let's just see if you're as good as your word. Try and find your way back home without my help." He tied his horse's reins to the branch of an overhanging tree and then sat down on a nearby rock. He stretched out his long legs, making himself comfortable. "But when - not if - you find your sense of direction wanting, I'll be right here waiting for your apology and admission to having lost your way before showing you the correct way home."

"You do that." She urged Ferrie into a brisk trot as they passed him. "Just be prepared for a long night's wait because I won't be coming crying back to you. By the way, I hope you packed a blanket," she added sarcastically, "because I hear it's going to be cold out tonight."

"Suit yourself," Pip called cheerfully after her. "Just keep in mind the things Jonah would do to you if you were late in getting back to the rest of your chores!"

His whistling followed her as she rounded the bend. "The nerve of him," Lia sniffed when she was out of his sight. "Who does he think he is? I'll show him."

But upon seeing the trail ahead, she stopped in frustration. It looked exactly like the rest of the bridle paths she had been trying to navigate for the past half-hour! Lia bit her lip, looking about her uncertainly. Had she already been this way? She couldn't tell.

And what about Jonah?

Pip's last words rang in her ears. She couldn't be late getting back. Her face paled at the thought. The stablemaster would pack her bags himself the moment she put a foot wrong. She couldn't afford to take that chance, even though it wasn't his choice to make as to whether she passed the trial. It sounded, nevertheless, as if he held some influence over Pip's decision.

Lia wheeled Ferrie around so abruptly that thehorse neighed in protest and tried to bite her leg in revenge. Lia ignored the mare, gritting her teeth as she gathered up the reins. She didn't know if her dignity would survive this.

She found Pip exactly where she left him - sitting on the rock and whistling a lazy tune. He pretended not to see her, even though she was directly in front of him. It was only when she dismounted - practically on top of him - that he deigned to look up at her.

"Back so soon?" he said innocently, although his eyes glinted with wicked amusement. "Still, you held out just a tiny little bit longer than I expected you to."

"I'm glad you think so highly of me," Lia said coldly. Then she sighed. "Fine, you were right - I'm lost. Now, would you please show me the way back to the stables?" She glared at him. "Happy?"

"Ah, not quite." He smirked. "Aren't we forgetting something?"

Lia folded her arms and shot him a poisonous look. "Not that I know of."

"No?"

"No."

"You do want to get back in time, don't you," he said teasingly.

She fixed him with a very direct look, feeling very fed up. "I'm not going to apologise for something I didn't do. Now, either you show me the way yourself, or I have no choice but to find my own way back, no matter how long it takes me."

Pip raised his eyebrows. After a long pause he finally got up and dusted himself off, wiping his hands on the black breeches he wore. Being a full head taller than her, Lia had to tilt her head up to glare at him. He sent her an unreadable look in response. "Follow me and I'll have you back in no time." He turned to untie his horse's reins from the tree and mount up. "I'll forgive your rudeness, but just this once."

Lia glanced at him sharply and found that that infuriating grin - the one she was beginning to detest - was back. Rolling her eyes, she climbed back into the saddle again and followed as he led the way through the bridle paths - the opposite direction to which she had taken to get away from him.

They rode in silence for a time, although Lia couldn't tell if it was an awkward one or not. Since Pip was leading the way in front of her, she studied him. He was slouched casually into the saddle as if it were an armchair, although his back remained straight and his hands not slackening their grip on the reins, ready for anything that might go wrong. He looked completely at home on horseback.

"How long have you been riding?" she asked out of general curiosity, rather than in any effort to break the silence.

"Since I was old enough to walk," he said easily, without turning around. "Lots of time to learn all the tricks of the trade. I loved horses the moment I laid eyes on one; and I always hung around the stables when I was a boy."

Just like Dalen, Lia thought. Strange that they don't know one another, given that they're roughly the same age.

It was then that she noticed a hunting bow and a quiver of arrows tied to the saddle.

"Were you part of the hunting party that left this morning?" she blurted out in surprise.

"I was with them for a while," he answered slowly after a pause. His tone seemed guarded. "I'm just returning some things that weren't needed."

"Oh, I see." Lia sensed that he didn't want to be pressed anymore and she asked no more questions, although she wondered vaguely as to whom was the owner of the black horse. He must be important enough to have a royal overseer tend personally to his steed.

Suddenly she realised that Pip had dropped back to ride beside her instead of in front. She could feel him looking at her, although she pretended not to notice and continued to stare straight ahead. She felt a little uncomfortable.

"How much further to the stables?" she asked him at last, wishing that he wouldn't stare so.

"Not much further," he said casually. "We'll be there soon. The bridle trails aren't that confusing once you've been on them a few times. You'll get to know them soon enough."

"That's only if you let me stay on," Lia muttered to herself. "Although it's not like you would know how I was doing anyway."

Although she was sure that he hadn't heard her exactly, from his next words he seemed to guess her meaning. "By the way, how have you been coping with being a palace stablehand? Harder than expected?"

She turned to glare at him and Pip sent her another of his wicked grins in response. "It's hard, but I can handle it." She hesitated, about to tell him about Lance, but then decided against it at the last moment. Instead she shot him an angry look. "And I thought I was supposed to be on trial."

His eyebrows rose. "You are. What gave you the idea that you're not?"

"You." She swatted a fly away from Ferrie's sweaty neck. "How are you going to judge whether or not I've passed your stupid trial if you're never around to see how I'm handling things?"

All of a sudden Lia thought the royal overseer looked rather smug. "If I remember correctly, I simply said that you had to prove yourself. I never said anything about proving yourself to me."

She stared at him, a sinking feeling growing in the pit of her stomach. "What are you saying?"

Pip's expression turned solemn, although his hazel eyes remained amused. "If Jonah thinks that you passed the trial, and can handle a stablehand's job, then you're hired."

Her mouth fell open. She felt anger growing inside her again. "Why didn't you tell me this before?" she shouted, startling a few birds above them into flight.

The stupid smug smile was back on his face again. "You never asked."

Lia let out a growl of frustration, clenching the reins until her fingersturned white. "But he hates me!" she then wailed at last, her shoulders drooping. "He already thinks I'm useless because I'm a girl. He's already decided that he's going to fire me the moment my two weeks are up. There's no way he'll change his mind."

"Then you had better give him a damn good reason to." A funny expression then crossed his face. "But maybe it would be better that way - if he fired you."

"What do you mean?" She was so surprised at this statement that her anger vanished.

Pip looked uncomfortable. "Well... it's hard to explain. Things are a bit complicated at the moment. But I guess the main reason is just that it would have been easier and safer for you." He looked away. "Maybe I shouldn't have offered this opportunity at all."

Lia was so surprised that she couldn't speak for a few moments. "'Easier and safer' aren't always the best things," she said finally with a frown, having absolutely no clue as to what he was talking about. Suddenly she had the strangest idea that he wasn't even referring to her being a stablehand. "Besides, I am grateful for this opportunity. And who knows? Perhaps it might turn out all right in the end, although I doubt it," she finished gloomily.

Pip glanced at her, eyes unreadable once more. Finally he nodded. "Perhaps it will." The overseer looked ahead of them and grinned. "Well, I've led you back as promised. Better not keep your beloved stablemaster waiting any longer, not if you want to stay, at least."

Lia muttered something incoherently under her breath and started to urge her horse towards the palace stables. She started in surprise as Pip reached over and grabbed the reins, stopping her. She looked at him, finding that his eyes were completely serious for once, devoid of all teasing.

"But let me tell you something, Lia," he said soberly. "I've known Jonah ever since I was a boy, and I've seen basically all the stableboys that he's hired and fired. The man's an infallible judge of character. If he thought you wouldn't have been able to handle the job, he would have refused right then and there, that day he came to collect you, to bring you up here."

And then he left, leaving Lia staring incredulously after him.


A/N: Hey all! This might be the last update for a while. I'm organising a week's beach trip with friends so won't have any time to write with all the planning and stuff involved. And then I'm going back to uni a couple of days after that. I'll try and keep writing, but updating might start to get a little bit erratic.

Also, have decided to change the trial period from one week to two. This is just to allow all the stuff I've got planned for Lia to happen more naturally - soit's not all squashed up. So I hope that straightens things out if you picked up on that small change in this chapter. Thanks for reading!

Thank you's to:

RoseMcCann: I think you have to be my no. 1 reviewer! lol! Listen, thanks so much for re-reading the first chapter. I'm immensely relieved to know that you find it more plausible :) And if you were wondering where Pip went... ta-daaa! I thought you might like this chapter. He's one of my favourite characters :) Hoping to hear all about what you think of this next installment. By the way, 'The Autumn Court' update was great! Keep up the good work - and update soon lol

Reda-chan: Hey Reda! Wow, thanks so much for reading, girl. It really meant a lot. Oh, and thanks for pointing out those awkward-sounding lines there - fixed them up immediately. Will promise to try and find a spare moment to finish reading your fantastic story! Sorry I haven't been able to... but I guarantee a nice long review at the end :) Hoping to see you online again soon!

BuffLie: Oh my GOD yes! I really want to give Lance a big kick too lol! And it's always good to know that I have a temporary credible villain... and I still like the owl. Heh, don't worry - I'll get off your back about that now ;) Even more curious about Pip? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this update.