"Angelina, stay close!"
The small princess only glanced over her shoulder for a moment to confirm to her father that she'd heard him as she hurried up a nearby hill to get a better look at the scene. Most of the little peasant village below was nothing but charred and ravaged remains, a few buildings still licked with tall flames and pillars of smoke. She watched as a few of her father's knights raced down on their horses at the order to search for survivors, spellbound by the horrific sight.
Her young eyes followed a dash of fire up into the air as it disappeared into smoke - and it was then that she caught something out of the corner of her vision. Her head snapped towards the figure, and a bit of a smile immediately tugged at her lips. Some distance away from her and the razed village, a little chestnut horse wandered aimlessly, its head constantly tossing towards the smoke pillars, clearly hesitant to stray far from home, its tail flicking anxiously and its fur sullied with patches of soot.
She's so pretty… Of course it was natural for a little girl like her to be drawn to horses, but something about seeing a sign of life in the midst of such a destitute scene brought comfort, and she couldn't keep her eyes off the creature... Yet eventually, she took notice that it carried something in its saddle. She was tempted to get closer, at least enough to see what it was - but recalling her father's order to stay close, she instead squinted to try and make it out. With time, she was able to distinguish some earthy tones from the black as the horse turned aimlessly and a shape began to take form.
Her eyes then widened when she saw the sooted gray of…a face?
And suddenly, the image was as clear as day. A small form, not much bigger than her, draped unconscious over the horse's back, black fur and ears hanging limply over the young face. Little Angelina stood frozen, dumbfounded until her wrenched stomach prompted her to move.
"…Daddy!!" she turned on her heel, darting back for the saddled king and the horsemen still by his side. The moment her cry pierced the air, his eyes were on his daughter. "There's a boy over there...!!"
King Rupert's eyes darted up to where his daughter was pointing. While his eyes weren't what they used to be, he was able to distinguish the form in a moment, and his face mirrored a similar horror. "…B-Bring him, quickly!" he ordered two of his men.
Angelina watched goggle-eyed as the knights' horses rushed past her, the king close behind. She took a step to follow them, but was again stopped by her father's peremptory tone.
She bit her lip, only able to watch as they rushed to the pup's aide. One knight steadied the nervous chestnut horse, while the captain of the guard and the king retrieved the boy from the saddle - who promptly collapsed limp against the captain's strong, metal-clad arms. Rupert quickly planted two fingers to the pup's wrist, falling still and focused for a moment.
"…He's alive. Get him back to the castle immediately!"
"Aye, my lord!"
Angelina watched as the captain whisked the pup back to his horse, eyes shifting to her father as he called for her. "Angelina, darling, hurry!"
The princess's eyes remained on the pup for a while longer before she obeyed and found herself hoisted up into the king's saddle. Climbing up behind her, Rupert seized the reins and secured her between his arms. He turned the royal stallion about sharply, calling back orders to the men sent to search the town - who, by the looks of it, had horrifically turned up empty-handed. Not a sole survivor seemed to rise to join them, and the little princess was given just a second to realize that before the stallion broke into a canter away from the smoke and destruction. She glanced to the other side over her father's arm, barely making out the forms of the captain and his horse - the captain riding with one hand on the reins and the other securing the mysterious boy.
By the time they returned home to the castle, dark clouds were beginning to overtake the sky, and Angelina felt the first patters of rain against her face as they cantered under the stone archway into the courtyard. Two stable hands quickly arrived to take the horses, and Angelina was helped down back to her father's side. Between her size and the height of the king's steed, she'd gotten well used to it.
"Captain," Rupert gently placed his daughter down onto the ground. "I'll take the boy."
"…Sir?" The captain looked rather confused as the king purposefully marched up - yet didn't have much of a chance to question it as the filthy pup was received into the royal arms of the king's blue and gold embroidered jacket.
"Gather some of your men and meet me in the east library." Rupert turned, eyes immediately then going to a footman. "Portwell, find Master Herron and inform him he has a patient."
The little princess watched spellbound as the captain took off in one direction and the footman raced off in the other in search of the doctor. Only when she heard another call from her father did she realize that he was already nearing the door, and she hurried to catch up. She could always tell when there was a sense of urgency about the castle simply based on how her father raced about giving orders and directing the situation. Of course this time, the unconscious boy it all surrounded was more than enough proof of that.
She watched the king's purposeful stride down the hallway, managing to keep up - but not easily. From her vantage point when she peered up, she couldn't make out much. The small form barely fit in her father's arms, ears and tail and legs limp, face turned into the crook of the king's arms. Finally after their bout of powerwalking, Rupert suddenly turned a corner into another room.
The library was only one of two throughout the castle, so it wasn't quite as grand as one would've expected to find in such a place. In a way, however, Angelina enjoyed that so much more. She realized her ability to read and write was not a privilege many children received…and being an only child, the cozy little library was a favorite place of hers to spend the evenings between supper and bedtime. There was a fireplace in there, lit and ready for her nearly every time she went in. This time was no different, as the usual warm orange glow flickered about the walls and the bookshelves around them.
Approaching one of the chaise lounges near the fire, Rupert carefully laid the pup down and Angelina finally got a good look at the poor thing's face. He had clearly been through it today, the sweat on his face causing the soot and dirt to cling tightly to what she assumed was white fur. "Bring some water for him," the king instructed a nearby servant.
Above them, the distinctive sound of thunder rumbled - and above it and the crackle of the fire, the rush of heavy rainfall. The little princess squirmed a little, edging closer to her father. She knew she was probably too old to be scared of thunder, but…
"It's a good thing you found him when you did, dearest," the king's gentle timbre distracted her from the storm. "He would still be out there in this rain were it not for you…"
The little princess blinked, looking from the pup to her father, rendered silent. She didn't really get a chance to respond, however, as the ever-prompt captain arrived with four of his knights flanking behind. Shortly after, the servant returned with a silver tray holding a chalice of water, carefully setting it on the table next to the chaise.
"Let us speak in the sitting room," Rupert rose to meet his men, motioning his head towards the adjacent room. His daughter followed suit - ready to follow them in before she was stopped by the king's gentle hand against her shoulder. "Angelina, the men and I need to speak alone… I want you to look out for the boy in here."
"…Wh-What?" the princess blinked, an edge of panic to her voice. "B-But I don't know how!"
"You don't have to, love. Master Herron is on his way… But if the boy wakes up before then, he's doubtless going to be terrified. He won't know where he is or what's happened… He's going to need a kind face to be there."
She bit her lip a little, staring at the boy. His chest movement indicated troubled, erratic breathing from exposure to so much smoke - and it made both her heart and stomach hurt.
"…O…Okay…" she nodded quietly.
"Good girl…" Rupert smiled warmly as he leaned down to kiss her forehead before turning to follow his knights into the sitting room. Hearing the door click behind her, Angelina nervously wrung her hands a little.
Staring at the unconscious boy, she quietly made her way to the other side of the couch to sit and watch him. It was only now that she took note of another little feature of his…a little tuft of black fur that currently hung disheveled over his forehead. She didn't even think twice about it as she reached out to brush it aside.
And the moment her finger touched against his face, the pup's eyes snapped open and his mouth opened to take in a panicked gasp. The princess jolted at the feel of his fingers seize against her arm and she reeled back with a near-yelp.
The boy instantly dissolved into coughs into his sleeve from the burn in his chest, inadvertently curling tight against the couch. His bare feet tucked against the rest of his body, and his eyes finally lifted to look at her - jet black, exhausted, and brimming with fear.
Startled by those eyes, Angelina sat frozen for a moment…yet eventually convinced herself to relax. She closed her eyes, took a breath, and recalled her father's teachings. In the face of fear, a princess must be the calm, gracious, guiding light for her people.
"…It's okay… You're in my father's castle, and we've sent for the doctor… I-I'm Princess Angelina."
The pup trembled from exhaustion, ears perpetually hung back. "Wi…W-Will…iam…" his voice was ragged and weak, and Angelina quickly moved to get his water.
"H-Here…" she gently brought the chalice to his lips, and he was drinking it eagerly before he seemed to even know it. The moment he finished and swallowed, the frantic pants returned, and panicked eyes lifted once more to dart about the room.
The young princess took another deep breath, trying not to look as frightened as she was. She couldn't help but wonder what it'd be like…if she woke up one day after a horrific fire and found herself in an unfamiliar room surrounded by complete strangers. Her heart suddenly seemed to twinge in ache, and she very carefully, very slowly managed to gently place her small hand against his shaking arm.
"I…It's okay, William… I'm watching over you…"
He kept his eyes on her, panic still there but slowly dissipating, looking ready to drop despite it. And slowly, gradually that exhaustion won over and dragged his eyes to close. His cheek sunk against the cushion. His breathing - still a bit labored but not as erratic - confirmed to the little princess that he was fast asleep.
Angelina's shoulders untensed, and she let out a breath. It was only then that she could hear the mumbles of discussion in the sitting room, though silenced by the closed door. Very slowly and very carefully so as to not wake William, she rose to her feet and tiptoed over. Carefully raising one ear, she leaned her head against the polished mahogany.
"No survivors? At all? You're…you're sure…?"
"Yes, my lord. The little that wasn't rubble indicated some may have escaped, but we're not sure where to. All others… We found them dead."
"The ones you said looked like the boy… Them too?"
There was a prolonged moment of silence…then came the king's voice again, soft and solemn.
"And…you're sure you wish to do this, captain?"
"As soon as he is better, your Majesty. Yes."
"…Very well, captain,"
Angelina's brow furrowed in curiosity, eyes wandered back to the boy as her father's voice grew purposeful.
"Once he has recovered, I will formally see to it that you are given all rights and responsibilities to train the boy as your page."