And we fairies, that do run
By the triple Hecate's team,
From the presence of the sun,
Following darkness like a dream
-A Midsummer Night's Dream, Shakespeare
The strength of the storm had driven most with any sense to shelter - from the king in his castle to the peasant in his hut, and even the wild animals of field and forest huddled as far out of the rain and wind as they could. The wind lashed through the bitter night like a whip laid across the neck of a badly-treated horse - fast, cruel and drawing blood.
But there was someone out in this wild, cold night, a knight afoot and leading his terrified horse to whatever rude shelter he could find. He was a knight - a knight-captain - young for his post but acknowledged by no less than the king himself and (more importantly) the Lord-Commander of the Army as one of the kingdom's most able knights: "strong in arms, courtly in his manners, well-versed in lore and legend." Maidens sighed after him, the storied white knight astride his white steed, and squires vied for the chance to wait on him.
But if he was courteous to all he was never genuinely affectionate; and even his admirers had to admit the man (boy, really, not yet even to his full growth) was stubborn. It was that stubbornness that saw him out alone in the storm, having refused Sir Gai's offer of a night's shelter and insisting on trying to continue to Whitesun, the vast Hyuuga estate held by his uncle, Hiashi.
The Duke of Whitesun, it was well known, depended heavily on his nephew - his heir and his son in all but blood - and even that was of marginal difference, as Neji's father had been Duke Hiashi's twin brother, and Neji was the spitting image of them both. He was the only male issue of the line - the pride of House Hyuuga.
He'd received a missive from his uncle stating, simply: "Your presence at home is required." Therefore he handed command of his company to Shikamaru of Nara, his right-hand man and a brilliant tactician, and at once rode off for Whitesun. He had stopped only begrudgingly, and - it appeared - not often enough.
And now he was caught in the teeth of the most horrible storm he had ever seen. He'd had to dismount or risk being tossed by his horse, well-trained though the beast was - the lightning and thunder spooked even him. He led the straining, plunging animal at its head, murmuring as soothingly as he could, peering as best he could through the rain and searching for shelter. His head was bare and his long dark hair lay flat and rain-heavy against the cloth of his tunic. (His famous white-and-gold armor, crafted at enormous expense by a proud uncle and modeled after the suits he and Neji's father had worn as youths, lay packed away securely in the panniers on Kaiten's back. It was not good to wear armor in the rain.)
Neji cursed, though his words were snatched away by the howling winds, and tugged at Kaiten's reins. But then, abruptly, the winds stopped, the rains ceased, and he was standing in a world that was suddenly sweet and fair. Shocked, Neji dropped his horse's reins - but that was all right, because Kaiten had calmed - in fact, the charger had gone unnaturally still, great dark eyes fixed forward. Neji's own eyes, the rare and strange silver eyes of the Hyuuga - as much the symbol of his family as their crest of arms - darted about, trying to make sense of a world suddenly gone non-sensical.
The grass underneath his feet waved and made the soft whispery sound of dry blades in the wind, and the earth was firm and solid underneath his feet, rather than beaten into swampy mud by the rain. He looked skywards - the stars glittered like ground diamonds scattered across the dark velvet sweep of night; it was as clear - clearer - than any sky he had ever seen in his life. Yet he could see the boiling chaos of storm-clouds - the sky he had expected to see, the sky he had been traveling under for the past few hours - around the edges of the horizon, ringing the sky unnaturally as he had never seen clouds do before. It was too perfect a ring, raging against the borders of the clear sky as if being held back by walls of glass. The air was calm and sweet, scented by unfamiliar wildflowers he had never smelled before. He looked skywards again - the moon was out, round and white at its full, hanging low in the sky like a harvest-moon. That was the most startling thing about the change to Neji, the light - that he had stepped from storm-darkness into calm, silver-lit beauty.
He turned round in a circle, his hand falling to the sword hanging at his belt. The reins fell unheeded from his fingers, but Kaiten did not stir except to prick his ears forward - a far cry from the fear-maddened animal he had been only seconds past.
Neji's nerves had been jangling like struck bells ever since he had stepped into this strangeness. This place was not of the normal order of things; it was outside, it was set apart, it was not part of the destiny set for men, and he knew it down to his bones. It built and built in him, pricking him under his skin until he felt like he wanted to dance in place, like a skittish colt.
And then Kaiten let out a small nickering sound, something his handlers wouldn't expect of the trained warhorse, and Neji's head whipped around. The prickling increased, became a ringing hum all through his body, and then -
A lady stepped out from the shadow of a hill, and everything in Neji went absolutely still - a skip in heartbeats, a blankness of thought, an absolute cessation of anything in him that didn't have to do with looking at her.
Then she smiled at him, and he sucked in a startled breath, realizing only at that moment that he had forgotten to breathe.
She - was - lovely - the loveliest thing he had ever seen in his life. (His thoughts stutter-stepped in his head as he thought it, finished in between periods of blank wonder that such an existence was permitted in the world.)
But his command of words did not extend so far as to adequately describe her. She was simply clad in green and white, her limbs left bare, like some ancient spirit of the hunt, dressed to run and leap and fly. Her hair was up in a twist to keep it out of her face, and she was barefoot. Had he received this description of any other girl - had he SEEN any other girl in this sort of fashion, his well-bred soul would have been unimpressed - but on her they were brilliant raiment and she - she was a goddess.
A mare trotted out beside her, a small sleek palfrey with a bright bay coat and a silver mane and tail - Kaiten nickered again. The lady in green laughed (Neji fancied he'd never heard a sound so appealing) and swung up on the palfrey's bare back with a grace and ease that stole Neji's breath again. She stroked her horse's neck, and it began to move away, passaging into a gait so smooth and sweet Neji stared. Then, the next moment, he was scrambling up Kaiten's back with not half as much grace as the lady but twice as much speed, and he dug his heels into his stallion's sides as he never did. Kaiten did not seem to mind the rough treatment at all and eagerly sprang into a gallop - but smoothly, so smoothly, the mare pulled away from the straining warhorse, high-stepping and easy.
Neji bent over Kaiten's neck and set himself to the chase.
Yet another AU, inspired by things on the Nejiten FC. Luckily this one's shorter - next chapter should see this ended.