STORY DISCLAIMER: I do not own any of the characters or locations associated with Stardust. Neil Gaiman and Paramount Pictures do. I'm just borrowing them for a bit.
Emmeline Whyte hung up the wet saddle she'd just removed and sighed. Her dark hair, also damp, was bound in a loose bun atop her head, and she brushed irritably at the strands that had escaped to tickle at her face. Turning, she picked up a brush and moved back towards her horse. Though fairly old, Briar was still a large horse, his golden coat glossy and soft. The horse belonged to her father who, as groom of the Royal stables, had been given Briar as thanks for his years of service.
And look where it got him, she thought sadly, looking out of the window into the pouring rain. Look where it got me.
After five years assisting a travelling physician, Emmeline had received a brief but urgent message from her father, so different from the usual rambling letters she was sent periodically. She had known something was wrong right away, though the note offered no details. Saddling a borrowed horse hastily, she had left for Stormhold at first light, leaving behind the merchant caravan they had been travelling with. The ride had been no more than a few days, but to Emmeline, unaware of what would greet her at the end of her journey, the days had been like lifetimes.
And in the small quarters above Stormhold's royal stables, she had found her father bed-ridden, feverish and looking so old. It had reminded her of her mother's illness when she'd only been a girl, and all the feelings of helplessness had come rushing back when she'd first seen him. He had refused to let the royal physicians near him, wary of their new-fangled cures. Emmeline had had to pull her confidence up to nurse him, and when she managed she did her job well.
It had been a month since her arrival, and her father was slowly but surely regaining his strength. Still weak, he could not spend so much time in the stables. Emmeline, who had spent a childhood watching her father, took over most of his duties — if only to ensure he did not. Her father was stubborn, and would not listen to her constant demands for bed rest. When he did listen, Emmeline was the only one he would entrust to his precious horses in his absence.
And more fool me for that.
She felt trapped here, in the stables. As a child, she had longed to travel like the tales her father told her. When he had educated her as best he could, she had found her heart won by the stories of the lands around them, the geography of the area. Though happy in the stables as a youth, she had soon taken the horses on longer and longer rides, basking in the glory of the Stormhold countryside, those untouched woods and fields, so free and open. At the age of twenty, signing on with the visiting physician had been her freedom, her escape from the tedium of serving the royal house of Stormhold. On the road she was unrestrained from court; an educated girl was less of a scandal in the highlands, who simply needed the help wherever they could get it.
And back in the stables, she was nothing again. Not a physician. Not a traveller. Just a stable girl.
She ran the thick bristles of the brush over the horse's coat, whispering gently to him as she did so.
"There we go, Briar. Nice and shiny. There we go..."
Emmeline jumped as the stabled door slammed open, the wood cracking loudly against the stone walls.
"Whyte!" came a powerful roar. The voice was harsh and clearly belonged to a man — from the sounds of it, an angry man. A horse whinnied behind him, and she heard him curse loudly. "Where's that damned groom?"
"He's not here!" called back Emmeline, angry at whoever was calling. Their loud arrival had spooked the horses, and she clicked her tongue gently to ease Briar's alarm. The horse pawed the ground nervously, but she made her way out of the stall.
"He's not here, damn it!" Emmeline snapped as she made her way through the stable. Grabbing a rag, she wiped her hands and turned to face the door.
Tall and dark, the man who stood within the doorway was no stranger. His dark hair hung in damp straggles around his pale face. His opulent clothing underneath the battered overcoat showcased the unmistakable embroidery of a Stormhold prince, with numbering detailed on the shining buttons and rich fabrics. Two rows of buttons ran down his chest, each one with tiny silver sevens emblazoned upon it. This was Septimus, the seventh son of Stormhold. And she'd just shouted at him.
"Oh, oh— my lord, I..."
A sneer curled his lips as he looked down at her. He stood at least a head taller than her, even with his shoulders hunched against the cold.
"I didn't realise it was you..." she finished lamely, her eyes firmly on her feet.
Of course she knew the princes. She'd grown up in the stable housing, after all. When she was younger, she'd watched them coming into the stables, and clapped happily at triumphant hunting returns. She had not failed to notice their rapidly dwindling numbers, though, and the rumours that swept the castle had reached the stables too. And here was Septimus, one of only four princes left. The dark prince, they called him. She looked behind him at the horse, who was clearly distressed.
"What's wrong with your horse, my lord?"
He moved towards it then, one hand on the bridle and the other on the horse's strong neck. It was a beautiful creature, with an ebony coat and long, muscled legs. A touch of white graced its forelock. Now it moved nervously and blew air through its nose angrily.
Septimus, seventh prince of Stormhold, regarded Emmeline with a raised eyebrow.
"Are you Whyte?" he asked sarcastically.
"I'm here," she shrugged.
He regarded her with a long, even look, his face unreadable. Then he sighed and looked back to his horse.
"He's been whinnying since Nettle Hill. I don't know what happened."
"Nettle Hill?" Emmeline remembered sunny summer days spent up there with her father, and smiled to herself. "The sunset's always lovely from up there."
He turned back to her, frowning, and she blushed.
"I'll take a look. Hold him steady."
She chastised herself for unthinkingly giving him an order, and looked at him nervously. It was natural as a physician, when she needed someone to help her. If he was surprised with the ease at which she ordered him about, it did not show on his face. The prince complied with her instruction.
Noticing the way the horse was avoiding putting weight on its left foreleg, she resolved to begin there. Whispering gently in the horse's ear to calm it, she bent the leg and ran a hand around its shoe.
"Ah. There's your problem."
"What?" Prince Septimus leaned forward, still holding the distressed horse steady. "What is it?"
"A thorn," she flashed him a quick smile, her confidence returning with the easy diagnosis. "There's a thorn caught under his shoe. We always get this in the summer. Do you have him?"
At his nod, she grabbed the thorn between finger and thumb. The horse reared and Septimus grabbed its neck desperately.
"Easy, Wraith! Easy, boy."
"I've got it, keep him down."
The horse bucked again, and the prince cried out. When the thorn was removed the horse quietened, and the prince stroked its flank in calming movements.
"Thank you," he said unexpectedly.
She turned to him, surprised that this much-fabled prince of Stormhold —the villian of most of the stories— had even bothered to thank her. There was a small trickle of blood on his cheekbone where the skin had been scratched.
"My lord, you're bleeding!"
He raised a hand to his cheek and frowned as his fingertips came away red.
"Ah, the saddle must have caught me when he reared. It's a scratch."
She stepped forward. "Let me." Reaching into her apron, she pulled at a handkerchief and wiped away the blood on his cheek. She pulled a small tub of ointment from the pocket and smeared some on her fingers. He stood silently, so close to her she could hear his breath just above her head. He smelt like rain and wet leaves. Reaching up, she began applying the cream gently to his cheekbone. The smell of it was sharp in her nostrils, sharper than the damp smell of the prince. He winced as she pressed too hard, and hissed through his teeth.
She finished applying the cream and stepped back. The area around the scratch was red and the skin shone from the rubbed-in ointment. Septimus's eyes were dark and unreadable.
"A groom and a physician," he observed dryly. "An unusual combination."
"I'm an unusual woman." Emmeline kept his gaze.
"Evidently," he repeated with a sly smile.
He looked to his horse. The large creature, Wraith, was still now, waiting for his master. Without another word to Emmeline, Septimus stepped back towards his horse and swung himself back into the saddle. He steered the horse back to the open door, where the rain continued. Emmeline met his gaze as he threw a final look over his shoulder at her; it was a strange, calculating look. Then he was gone, Wraith's hooves kicking up a wet dust from the cobbles underfoot. Emmeline watched him go.
"You're welcome," she said softly, to the rain.
"Did you brush Briar, Em?" asked Geord Whyte.
Emmeline looked across the room at her father, sitting with a stack of papers on his bed, and smiled as she laid a plate on the table.
"Of course I did! He was sodden, too."
Her father knocked a sheaf of papers to the floor as he moved and groaned. "You were riding?" he asked quickly, as she hurried across to pick up the fallen sheets.
"Sorry," she shrugged, placing the papers back on his bed and moving back to put down another plate at the table.
"Em, I told you not to. Not at night." Mr Whyte looked frightened as he moved the remaining sheets to the side and got out of bed. He moved to sit with her at the table. "I've told you that."
Emmeline sighed, and pushed her food around the plate, avoiding her father's eyes. "I wasn't out for long."
"It's not safe." he insisted, putting a hand under her chin to raise her gaze. "Please."
"One of the princes came in tonight," Emmeline said, pushing her father's plate toward him.
His head snapped up. "What? Who?"
"Prince Septimus. His horse was..."
"Down in the stables? You were alone?" Her father gripped at her hand.
Emmeline frowned. "Yes. It was just before I came up. I was brushing Briar, and he stormed in looking for you. His horse was hurt."
Her father was shaking his head fearfully. "I should never have let you take it on. Tomorrow, I'm doing the stables again."
"You can be on the road again, away from here. Yes, that's definitely—"
"Father!" Emmeline cut across him. "What's this about?"
He sighed. "I worry for you. That prince — I've known him since he was a lad, he's the worst of the bunch."
"Father, I've ridden with mercenaries. I can handle myself in a fight."
Her father was still shaking his head. "Em, that one's a bad apple. The king's sick, and the princes are dropping like flies. I wouldn't trust him as far as I could throw him."
"Well, you won't need to throw him," said Emmeline pointedly. "And you definitely won't be at the stables tomorrow. I forbid it."
A small smile touched her father's face. "You forbid it?"
"I do." She reached for her father's hand and patted it gently. "But if it puts your mind at rest, I won't ride out at night."
"And have one of the boys in the stables with you. At all times." His voice was firm.
"But I'm not a prince!" she said exasperatedly. "I'm not exactly standing in the way of his succession, he won't kill me to get the throne!"
"I don't trust him," her father repeated. "Please, Emmeline."
She looked at him and saw him again, the old man she had returned to. She sighed.
As she lay in her bed that night, Emmeline found it hard to sleep. A bad apple, that's what her father had called him. And yet, he'd been polite. Arrogant, yes. But he'd said thank you, and hadn't laughed at the idea of her being a physician. And when she'd cleaned his cheek... there had been something in those dark green eyes, something she could not quite read but was not afraid of. Something she couldn't match with her father's description of the prince.
Something she wanted to see again.
A/N: This begins pre-movie timeline, hence four brothers and a sick king. It will, however, proceed into movie events.
Pronunciations if you like: Emmeline (eh-meh-leen) ; Geord (jord) ; Septimus (sex-ayy!).
As much as it pains me to admit, reviews do actually help me upload faster, so feel free to drop me a line and guilt me into working faster.