[P] it was a great big world, with lots of places to run to
Fort Cumberland. Mid-afternoon, overcast and breezy.

She rode north, away from the looming gate and the mountains. The city emerged from the greenery bit by bit and then at all once. In the center it was still very much concrete, asphalt, and rubble. Pockets of what had once been yards and parks formed weedy patches, while trees bunched and did their best to grow in cracks and crevices. This provided some shade, but by and large she stuck to the taller swaths of forest that ringed the old city.

Had the city been her destination, Whisper would still have followed the route she now took. Part of leaving Salsola was ensuring that no one who wasn't part of the pack realized who she was. Efforts had gone into masking her scent and the scent of Laurel's gear as best she could – using a bundle of herbs to rub the smell on herself and the horse each time they stopped to rest. Eventually the little brush was beyond use and discarded in the brush along the way. She had borrowed a pair of old leather clothes from the storage unit and kept them bundled up in smelly herbs (mostly lavender and mint). Satisfied by the result and pleased with her cleverness, Whisper felt confident that her little adventure would be a simple one.

For the most part, it was. She rode a good portion of the trail at a slow pace, but pushed her borrowed mount on flat open ground when it became clear. Caution kept her from going too fast in unknown territory. If anything happened to the horse, they'd both be in a great deal of danger.

After a few hours, she stopped to rest at a peculiar, open area that afforded her a wide view of the oncoming landscape. Though it lacked shade, the day had become overcast and the worst of the sun was blocked out. Whisper was glad for this, and took her lunch on the peak of a rolling, artificial hill that overlooked several stone walls and an old building in disrepair. While she considered exploring the place, doing so alone was too risky. She was already throwing some caution to the wind by coming out here on her own.

Laurel was a good horse, though, and her regular use and temperament made the travel easier for both of them. The wolfdog let her horse graze while she ate her travel food, determined to go a little further before turning back and heading home. Daylight was long still, but it was beginning to give more and more time away even as the season reached grueling levels of heat.

The wind felt good. When it came up from the water, Whisper breathed in the salty smell and noted the subtle differences between this shore and the ones surrounding her home. She turned her focus towards where the thick forest she had traveled through began. Maybe she'd turn east and follow the coast. There were ways to get back over the mountain, especially if she still had daylight.

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Optime | NPCs: Rum & Abelie
Ronin was out there somewhere. She’d lost contact with him about an hour or so before, and part of her cursed herself for not bringing Treasach with them when they’d left the pack territory earlier that day. The plan had been a rather simple one; leave New Caledonia, explore a bit, hunt a few things, bring back the spoils. Ronin had been in need of new leather to work with, and Naomi had been more than eager to adventure the world beyond her homeland again. It was usually fun, easy, except for when Ronin got too focused on a scent trail and left her wondering where he’d run off to.

Honestly, she would throttle him in the next sparring session they had if she didn’t skewer him with her knife first.

She’d tried searching for him the traditional way, however, his scent had quickly become lost and muddled as he’d traversed through waterways and areas impassible by horse. The roundabout routes she’d had to take to not leave their mounts and gear behind meant that she came in and out of his scent trail, and, after an hour of trying to find him, Naomi had decided that she was too irritated to care anymore. Ronin was a big boy, and could fend for himself or howl for her if he actually needed her help.

In the meantime, Naomi would do her own thing and adventure.

The Tavar sat astride the stallion that she had been working with since mid-winter. She wore her new set of leather armor atop a long, sleeveless doublet and a pair of linen pants. Her hair had been pulled up into a ponytail, and, to a Cavalier, she might have looked like a redder version of her mother. She had her sword attached to one hip, and its paired dagger resting opposite. Both horses had their own set of saddlebags and bedrolls, along with the extra baggage of Ronin’s personal gear from when he’d shifted down and run off.

Naomi’s mare, Abelie, followed easily behind them with little fuss, likely quite content to be riderless and only burdened with Naomi’s travel gear for the short outing. Rum didn’t seem to mind the extra weight of carrying Naomi though, and ambled along with little protest as the rider and horses traversed further out into neutral territory. Eventually, the trees gave way and rolling hills and stone ruins came into view. They’d gone south enough to reach Fort Cumberland, Naomi realized.

She’d visited the area a few times before, but, that afternoon had been the first for her to spot—her brows furrowed—a lone horse? Curious, Naomi turned Rum towards the grazing animal in the distance. She turned her nose up to the passing breeze, frowning as she realized that it was from the wrong direction. Her eyes scanned the open terrain for any signs of danger, but found little more than a few sparse trees dotting the rolling hills of Fort Cumberland. The closer she rode to the horse though, the more she was able to pick out the details of the lone animal. “Anybody out here?” She called out, hand moving to the sword at her hip just in case.

The lonely horse had gear, but she didn’t see a ride—

Her glacier eyes finally landed on a young, wolfdog female not far off from the horse. Suddenly, Naomi felt foolish for calling out at all. “Oh! Sorry, I suppose that’s your horse, huh?”

Inwardly, she cringed as she realized that she probably looked like a horse thief.

Naomi Stryder
— The Roquen —
Alone like this, Whisper imagined what it might be like to be the only person in the world. She knew it was a foolish thought – there were plenty of Others that scraped by living in the wilderness, and other groups further from her own home. The picture that her parents and peers painted of these Outsiders was not a terribly kind one. There was violence and danger in the unknown, and the fact of the matter was that by birth alone Whisper had been named one of the elites. A lesser, weaker person would try and use that against her.

So it was that when the other rider called out, Whisper got to her feet quickly. She was tall and well built, muscular from her work with the horses, but as she soon realized woefully unarmed. The woman atop the dappled horse had a sword. A secondary horse, a paint, warned Whisper that the stranger either had a companion or had taken the animal by force.

Given the leather armor she was wearing, the Outsider did look formidable. If she was a bandit, she was either putting on an act or biding her time and waiting for her missing companion to appear.

Uncertain, but unwilling to let this show, Whisper lifted her chin and stepped forward. Were the worst case scenario (an attack) to occur, she was now close enough to jump into the saddle and run. The trail back to Salsola would be a long one, but even a few miles from home would afford her protection. Laurel wasn't their fastest horse by a long-shot, but any horse could run when forced.

“Yes,” Whisper answered loudly. In one hand she held the long, loose reins that tethered Laurel to her, but did not make a point to display this to the stranger.

“Are you traveling?” She asked.

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NPCs: Rum & Abelie
As far as first impressions went, Naomi was sure she was off to a bad start. It was a bit of an embarrassment, really. She was a yearling, and she’d had so few encounters with Luperci outside of her home that weren’t either friends of family or ruffians to be fought. With any luck, she hoped she could salvage things before they spiraled south with the wolfdog before her. “It’s a nice looking horse,” Naomi complimented, “My mother has one with similar colors. He’s a bit darker though.”

Shifting her weight, she swung out of Rum’s saddle. She offered the stallion a pat on his shoulder as she turned to face the other female. With any luck, the pair of them being on the same level as one another might help Naomi seem like less of a threat, particularly—as the Stryder realized—since the other woman was obviously taller and heavier than the Caledonian rider. Naomi kept a hand on Rum’s reins, and placed the other casually on her hip. Though it was within reach of her sword, she hoped her stance was open and friendly enough.

“Traveling in a sorts,” she answered with a half-shrug. “My friend and I were supposed to be hunting, but…” Her eyes sharpened and ears flattened in an expression that demonstrated annoyance. “…he seems to have forgotten that the horses can’t follow every place someone in Lupus can.” She let out a sigh, not wanting to impart or whine too much in front of a stranger. “So, while he’s off following his nose, I decided to explore a bit with these two.” She gestured with a shift of her head to indicate to her horses.

When her eyes moved back to the wolfdog before her, she offered a small, friendly smirk. “I’m Naomi Stryder of New Caledonia, by the way.” She introduced. “So, what about you? Traveling as well?”

Naomi Stryder
— The Roquen —
Whisper almost gave everything away when she opened her mouth to talk about the horse. She adored the animals within Salsola and wanted to brag about their care, their training, everything that she herself knew and loved.

The problem was that this girl was an Outsider, and in accordance with the Law, could not be trusted.

Whisper lacked the context to pinpoint the pack scent upon the stranger as that of New Caledonia, though her father and sister would have recognized it. Once revealed, however, Whisper struggled with the choice that lay before her: to lie, as was expected, or be truthful with a neighbor and would-be ally. It was the first grand decision she had been faced with, and in truth, Whisper struggled to make the choice.

Perhaps she was foolish, but given that Naomi had been so forthcoming, Whisper thought it unfair to keep her in the dark.

“More exploring than traveling,” she admitted. “I'm...Whisper. My Family is familiar with your pack.” The wolfdog paused as if this was an important bit of information. If Naomi was lying, or if her companion was waiting to attack her, perhaps the threat of Salsola's formidable strength would keep her at bay.

Wanting to get back to the more interesting conversation, Whisper indicated the animals Naomi was leading. “Are these both your horses? Or is that one your friend's?”

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NPCs: Rum & Abelie
Naomi quirked a brow at the strange pause in the other woman’s introduction, and her confused expression lingered a beat longer with the rather cryptic continuation that followed. Initially, the strangeness of it all sent a warning through the fighter’s nerves. The more sensible and reasonable part of her stopped any further consideration of the knee-jerk thought though. Whisper’s tone had not been said with animosity. As well, her stance still remained rather open, even if it wasn’t overly friendly.

Family. Family… Family…! “I see,” the Stryder hummed, her gaze morphing from questionable to considerate as she looked Whisper up and down. Could the golden-eyed woman before her be a Salsolan? The Thistle Kingdom was not too far off, and Naomi had known them to be a secretive bunch. She knew from her visit back in the spring and from her mother’s recounted tales of her experiences with the mysterious pack. And that was not to mention that her milk-sister had a relationship with one, apparently. All in all, Whisper being a Salsolan certainly would have explained her ambiguous introduction.

Naomi’s smirk remained at the edge of her lips, doing well to play along despite the moment’s delay. “Nice to meet you then, Whisper.” Even as she accepted the introduction though, part of Naomi wondered if Whisper was her real name or the fake name she gave to strangers. Sólveig’s “friend” had two names, after all. The Stryder’s eyes shifted to her horses as Whisper asked about them. She supposed the other’s name didn’t truly matter so long as their conversation remained in neutral enough.

“They’re mine. My friend found the stallion without its rider last winter. He sort of gave Rum to me when he joined my pack since I knew more about horses than he did.” Naomi patted the chocolate palomino’s neck. “I’ve been training him ever since to be a warhorse like my mare,” she revealed with a hint of pride while gesturing to tobiano that stood on the other side of Rum.

“Do you like horses?” She asked suddenly, curious if Whisper merely casually rode them or if she actually knew or cared to know more about them. Since Amon had moved to Portland, Naomi didn’t have any packmates that truly cared for the beasts. Her family and Merlin had been about the extent of those knowledgeable in horses beyond merely using them as a convenient way of travel.

Naomi Stryder
— The Roquen —
At first, Whisper wasn't sure if the other girl picked up on her meaning. There was a long pause, and perhaps even hesitation – but this wasn't so surprising, she thought. Her parents and their peers had always reinforced the idea that Outsiders would view their pack as anathema. In the past, when Salsola had been first founded and forged, black magic and slavery had been key components of their culture. Over time, these greater evils had disappeared – though not entirely. If her father hadn't acquired Heulwen, it stood to reason some other master (a crueler one, undoubtedly) would have done so.

Salsola saved Outsiders, even those who were unwilling and unaware of this great boon. Those who did not understand would fall back to those old half-truths and lies. The rumors which spread not only made Salsola sound terrible and fierce, but helped keep away fools that might tempt their great wealth and power.

Naomi did seem to understand, however, and Whisper smiled to reassure her that she herself was no threat.

Their common ground – horses – was more interesting than the subtitles of false-identity and allegiance. Whisper was always interested when it came to the large animals, and eyed Naomi's with curiosity and a touch of critical insight. Finding the flaws in these beasts was part of her father's role as Equinest, and if she ever hoped to follow in his path, Whisper would need to be able to identify these too. Not that there were much, if any, faults she could pick out from a distance.

“I love horses,” Whisper stated plainly and with conviction. “You said your mare is a warhorse? What's her name? Did you train her?” This seemed unlikely, given they were close in age. Still, what if she had? Was there something Naomi knew that Whisper didn't? Was this stranger more talented than her, who had been caring for horses and riding them since she could shift?

A strange sensation – jealously, almost – sparked in Whisper's heart.

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NPCs: Rum & Abelie

-screaming into the void- I was doing good at the start of the month and then my muse tanked again. I’m sorry ;___; Since this is older, we could probably wrap this up with a fade if you want?
The other girl’s declaration instantly elevated Naomi’s initial interest in her. There was more to be had between them than idle small talk between two passing strangers. It was somewhat unfortunate that Whisper was not of New Caledonia, but, the Stryder supposed, just knowing that there were other horse enthusiasts out there would have to be good enough. Looking at the horse the supposed-Salsolan had with her, Naomi couldn’t help but to wonder what sort of qualities the Thistle Kingdom looked for in horses, if they had any preference at all.

Any pondering would have to wait, however. Naomi glanced over to her tobiano mare and nodded with pride. “Abelie,” she answered as her attention returned to Whisper, “She’s the foal of my grandmother’s warhorse. My grandmother started Abelie’s training when she was still young, and my mother completed it after my grandmother passed away. When I shifted, Okaasan had me work my brother’s filly up until I turned a year old and passed my First Blood. She gave Abelie’s reins over to me as part of my coming of age gifts.”

She had, perhaps, spoken too much to someone that was a hardly more than a stranger, however, there were few that she’d known that she felt she could talk about such things with. She hadn’t spoken to many Cavaliers outside of those that knew her mother, and her friends in New Caledonia consisted of Ronin, her milk sisters, and some of the Savoy-Tanaka siblings, and they didn’t really share her passion for horses.

Nodding to Whisper’s horse, Naomi asked, “What about you? Does your family own a bunch of horses too?” The question was innocent, spoken more out of excitement of a shared interest and hobby than anything else. “New Caledonia received a bunch of nice ones as a gift a few winters ago.” Bryony, Pearl, Prancer, Elenore, they’d all been beautiful horses, and, looking at the one Whisper had with her, it seemed only reasonable to think that—if she were from Salsola—that the Kingdom had a great array of gems to be had and be envious over.

Naomi Stryder
— The Roquen —
Naomi explained that not only was her horse trained, but it was the descendant of a bloodline bred for battle. Enthralled by the idea of this, Whisper's hawkish eyes fixed on the paint again. Though she could clearly see the muscle and sturdy build of the mare, it was hard to gauge the quality of an animal made for war at rest. Some were more obvious – Altan, with his ferocity and prideful steps, or even her father's newest trainee, the heavyset Gulliver, those had the looks of creatures meant to fight and carry warriors into combat.

It was narrow-minded of her to overlook animals that did not fit the suitable colors or shapes of those her homeland valued, but Whisper was deeply ingrained in such lines of thought. Even now, she found herself seeking out flaws, wanting to find a reason to devalue the mare before her.

She kept these thoughts to herself. Offending a trading partner, even if Naomi was no more than an errant wanderer like herself, would not reflect kindly on her. There was no way Whisper would violate the agreement between Salsola and New Caledonia, least of all from being mean-spirited.

All of the things Naomi mentioned sounded foreign and strange. Whisper, despite her xenophobia, was intrigued.

“We have a few,” Whisper offered vaguely. “I've been working with them for a while. I'd like to know more about how you trained yours, actually, I –”

She fell silent as a howl rose from the nearby wood. While Whisper did not recognize it, Naomi did. Citing it as her absentee companion, the rider from New Caledonia mounted her horse again. The two girls shared a brief farewell.

Conscious of her own exposure, Whisper was quick to gather up her things and be on her way.

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