Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Chapter FIVE

Previously- Celeste learned the name of the man who rescued her from the bandits in the woods, and he's her contact. Joshua is surprised that a relatively petite girl would be the one King Damias chose to carry his important package, but Joshua leads her out of the inn so he can take them somewhere to talk without prying ears.


  At least Joshua now knew why she had lied about “Uncle Randall.” The Korelians would pay gold for a courier from the king and torture her until they realized she knew nothing. Then they would have no more need of her. The girl should have come up with a better cover story, though. Apparently, she wasn’t a very good liar.

  Joshua glanced behind him to make sure she was still there. She was, resolutely following him a few paces behind, a frown on her face. He looked forward again and shook his head, wondering why his brother would send a small girl, spirited though she was, to carry almost certainly the most important package in Forellia. Joshua had nearly been captured and killed when he sneaked across the border and liberated it from the Korelians. He didn’t yet know what he was going to do, but he was fairly sure he couldn’t trust this girl alone to safely get it back to Damias.

  “Down here,” he said to her, as he turned down a narrow alley. The girl skeptically peered around the dark, dingy corner.

  “Where are you taking me?”

  “Just come on, trust me. It’s down here.” Against her better judgement, she took a breath and stepped into the alley.

  About halfway through there were a few steps down and a door at the bottom. To Joshua, this was home. He walked down the steps, muttering, “careful on the third one,” and opened the door. Glancing back, he realized she was still at the top of the stairs, arms crossed.

  “How do I know I can trust you?” she asked.

  “What reason could I possibly have for lying to you? In the three years I’ve lived here, I’ve never brought anyone to my home. I’m trusting you a great deal more than you need to trust me.” She paused, her mouth forming a straight line as she peered down at him, then nodded.

  Upon entering, Joshua lit a few candles and a lantern, creating a warm glow and cozy atmosphere. “Close the door behind you,” he said to the girl as she entered. “You’re letting out the heat.” He glanced around his small home: bookcases crowded with books and odds and ends; a sitting area by the fire; three bows on a rack on the wall with a quiver and a couple buckets filled with different arrows below it; a hallway through which he knew was his locked study with a small assortment of other weapons, his maps, notes and papers on his three years of crossing the border into Korelia, and, of course, the package. “It’s not much, but it’s comfortable and safe.” He murmured.

  The girl nodded, “it’s nice.” Her arms were still crossed, and Joshua noticed there was a tremor running through her.

  “You’re cold,” he realized, and knelt before the fireplace to relight the embers that had died down since this morning and add a few logs to it once it got going. “This should help.”

  “Somebody rushed me out of the inn before I had time to grab my furs.”

  “Yeah, sorry about that, but we couldn’t talk there. Look at the bright side,” he said, some of his swagger returning. “It gave me the chance to start a fire for you like a true gentleman. I bet you’ve never seen such superb etiquette.”

  “You do know I came from Forellia, right? Where lords and ladies congregate and etiquette is the key to success?”

  “Yes, but my etiquette is still better because, as opposed to those lords and ladies, I’m incredibly humble about it.” Satisfyingly, this got a laugh from her. She looked at him with those crystal blue eyes, curiosity etched into them, and again, Joshua was struck with a sense of familiarity. How did he know this girl? The fire popped behind him, and Joshua blinked, realizing he’d been staring at her for too long. He awkwardly cleared his throat. “Ok, I think I can trust you, but before I show you this, I have to make sure you’re who you say you are. Where’s your tattoo?”

  Tattoos were given to all Forellian couriers for situations such as this so that important documents or items would not be given to a spy. Getting the tattoo was a somewhat painful experience, and it had to be watched to be sure it would not become infected. However, it was also a very proud day for all couriers, for it was done on the day before he finished his training and could begin his work.

  Without a word the girl pulled the shoulder of her blouse down, revealing there in black ink a rolled scroll, bound by a ribbon, the mark of a Forellian courier.

  Joshua leaned in close and brushed a finger over it to be sure it was genuine. Deciding it was, he nodded. “Alright then, this way.” Carrying the lantern, he led her to his study and unlocked the door with a key he wore around his neck. He stepped in, setting the lantern down on the desk covered in papers, and lit another lantern—candles were too dangerous in this room. The girl followed him, staring at the walls in wonder, seeing his hand-drawn maps covering them with notes written by his hand and documents with information on the Korelian army, landscape, and weapons. This room and the few coded letters he had sent to a trusted contact to take to his brother the king were the culmination of the three years he had spent here performing dangerous reconnaissance after reconnaissance. Joshua was the only person in all of Forellia to know so much about Korelia. It was actually very rewarding to finally get to show it to someone and to see her reaction.

  Standing there watching her, Joshua realized that ‘the girl’ had learned his name, but he had never gotten hers. He opened his mouth to ask when, examining one of the maps he had made, she said, “this is Korelia. And this,” she pointed, “is the Korelian capital, isn’t it? And, what is this?” Tilting her head, she brushed her finger across markings he had drawn onto it. “Is that,” dismay entered her voice, “troop movements? Is Korelia finally preparing to attack?”

  Solemnly, Joshua nodded. “They have been preparing for a long time, but based on what I’ve seen, it’s going to happen very soon now, any day actually. The Korelians are probably just waiting for an excuse. If one doesn’t present itself soon, they’ll surely invent one to attack. That’s why this package is so important and why it has to be delivered to Damias posthaste.”

  She turned and looked at him. “What is it? I have to know what could be so vitally important.”

  Searching her eyes for lies, all he saw was determination and a burning curiosity. Making a decision, he pulled the hidden catch in a drawer of his desk and, from the secret compartment it opened, withdrew the cloth wrapped item. The girl moving closer to see what it was as Joshua unwound the material from the round stone inside. Unlike any gem Celeste had seen before, it was an orb, perfectly smooth, and no bigger than a gold coin. Shimmering, it caught the lantern light, the smoky substance inside swirling and twisting in an array of dark blues and purples. Joshua had looked at it many times, but still, the vibrant colors took his breath away.

  The girl exhaled, staring at it. With a whispered breath she asked, “What is it?”

  “It’s called the Prophecy Stone.”

  “It’s beautiful,” she said, raising a finger to touch it. “May I?” She asked. Joshua nodded. Fascinated by the stone, Joshua had touched the glassy surface of it many times himself. With one raised fingertip, the girl reached for the stone and delicately placed the pad of her finger upon it.

  And screamed.

  An explosion of light blinded Joshua, and he stumbled back in shock, dropping the hand that held the stone. The stone didn't fall, however. It hovered in the air, still pressed to the girl’s finger as she continued to scream as if in agony, still staring at it. Papers flew about the room again and again in shockwaves of energy emanating from the girl and the stone. Colors in the smoky orb shone and transformed into reds and yellows, swirling violently. Joshua leaped to his feet in confusion and horror, thinking to try to knock her away, to try to do something, anything!


  Then the girl’s eyes rolled back in her skull, her scream died away, and she collapsed, the light from the orb immediately disappearing, plunging the room into utter blackness.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Chapter FOUR

Previously- Celeste got to Juroosh and was given a bow by a friendly man named Randall.
She only has the name of her contact and doesn't know when he'll find her. As it was getting late, she returned to her inn.




  That night Joshua ate supper at the Tipsy Tankard as he had been doing for the past two weeks. Eventually that courier would arrive, and, without options, would inevitably end up here, the only inn in town. Joshua was actually surprised the courier had not yet arrived, and he was beginning to wonder if perhaps he should take the package back to Forellia himself. He hadn’t quite been convinced this scheme was a good idea yet, but he did know one thing- he couldn’t take much more of what the Tipsy Tankard called “food.”

  “Heavens, it can’t be,” said a voice behind him. Turning, he saw the blond girl from the night before, and a grin spread across his face. “It is you,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

  “Why, enjoying a nice home-cooked meal from a reputable establishment, of course.”

  The girl made a sound of doubt, “the Tipsy Tankard neither has nice meals nor is reputable.”

  “You’re here, aren’t you? Perhaps I came knowing that this establishment tends to attract interesting characters of good conversation.”

  “Seeing as this is the only inn in town, I can understand how you could figure it would attract interesting characters, anyway.”

  “Well then, won’t you join me and regale me of tales of your travels?”

  “Regale? I don’t know about that, but I will join you,” she said as she took the seat across from him. “As it happens, I am in the mood for good conversation.”

  “Ah, you see? We both came to right spot then.”

  “Listen,” the girl said, leaning forward. “I want to properly thank you for last night. I was in a sticky situation, to put it lightly, and you put yourself unnecessarily in harm’s way for someone you didn’t even know. That was astoundingly heroic, and what did I do but be snippy and ungrateful? So… thank you.”

  Joshua’s grin grew wider, and he said, “So does this mean I can get that kiss now?”

  To Joshua’s surprise, she smiled and said, “Don’t push it.”

  “How about I just collect it later on then?”

  “You are insufferable.”

  “I try.”

  She smiled, and, after ordering some stew, asked, “So what do you do around here?”

  “A little of this, a little of that,” Joshua answered vaguely, waving his hand in the air to indicate nothing of importance. “And why, pray tell, have you come to visit the small town of Juroosh?”

  “Oh, you know,” she looked away, saying, “came to visit a relative.”

  “Really?” Joshua muttered, spotting the lie and deciding to pry. “Who are you visiting? I know most everyone in town so I’d probably know this… relative.”

  She coughed, “ah, you probably wouldn’t know him. He’s kind of out of the way…”

  “Try me.”

  “Um, ok then…,” she looked around the room as if searching for inspiration. “Randall?” Her eyes lit up as she decided on a relative. “Yeah, Randall, the bald guy with the weapons? Do you know him?”

  “Randal is your…”

  “Uncle,” she supplied.

 “Is that so. As it happens, I’m friends with Randall. We get along rather well. You know…” he tilted his head in a thoughtful way. “I think I remember him telling me he doesn’t have any family.”

  She laughed, “what, really? That Randall, such a joker. I was just over there today, and… and—hey, you’re the lad!”

  “What?”

  “Randall was talking about a lad he liked who agreed that Juroosh may need to protect its border one day. You’re the lad, aren’t you? You have a bow, you must go over there to buy arrows. That’s how you know him; you’re the lad.”

  “I suppose I am. I’ve known Randall for about three years now, and it’s funny that’s he never mentioned you.” Joshua veered the conversation back to the girl, although inwardly applauding her attempt to change the subject. “That seems kind of strange—to have a beautiful, capable niece and not to mention her once.”

  With a blush she looked down, “ok, that’s enough conversation about me for the time being.” Joshua did suppose he had made her fidget enough for tonight. Suddenly she laughed, “You know, I still don’t know your name. Is it still too important to trust with me?”

  “Oh yes, my name is one of the most important names in all of Forellia. Although I usually play it down quite a lot, wouldn’t want the power to go to my head or anything, you understand.”

  “Ah, yes, right. You wouldn’t want to be arrogant,” she starting ticking things off on her fingers, “conceited, cavalier, or a braggart, would you? You want to be humble.” Joshua nodded like this was exactly it. “Ah-huh. I thought so. There’s just one thing— if not your name, what do I call you?”

  “Hm, how about I tell you my alias?”

  “Your alias,” she laughed, “yes, why not tell me your alias if you won’t tell me your real name.”

  “Around here I go by the name of Joshua. Joshua Reed. It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance mademoiselle.”


***

   Joshua Reed? Celeste thought, dumbstruck. My contact? It can’t be. Surely he’s joking. But Celeste couldn’t think of a reason why he would be. He would have to know she was the courier, which he obviously did not, and then he’d have to have some reason for lying to her. There was no point though. He would have nothing to gain, but really? Could this blithe man be the one from whom she was to get a package of utmost importance to take back to King Damias himself?

  “Hello in there,” Joshua waved his hand in front of her face to bring her back to earth. “That was my alias, remember? Not the ‘important’ name.” He said important with air quotes to emphasize his joke.

  “Joshua Reed.” Celeste said, just to confirm.

  “Yes… Do you know someone else with that name or something?”

  “Well, there are no other Joshua Reeds in Juroosh, right?”

  He narrowed his eyes, leaning forward, suddenly discarding his nonchalance and becoming serious, “no there are not. Why? What do you know? Why is that name important to you?”

  “It is because,” she paused. “I think you have a package for me.”

  Understanding dawned on his face, followed swiftly by surprise. “You’re the courier. You’re the courier? You’re the one Damias chose to take my package? Really? But why you?”

  Celeste, confused by this sudden change in personality and a little offended at the evident shock that she could be capable enough to carry his precious package, growled “yes, me. I’m the courier. I don’t know why King Damias chose me to get your package—for all I know, he just delegated the task to the couriers and Felicity chose me. Why does it matter so much that I’m the courier?”

  “Well,” he spluttered, “you’re not exactly—“

  “What? What am I not?”

  “You can’t deny that you’re not the most capable person in the world, can you?”

  “I’ll have you know that I am a skilled swordsman, an expert shot with any kind of bow, and fairly capable with three other weapons.”

  “None of which helped you last night when I saved you after you were captured by bandits!”

  I was- I was taken by surprise,” Celeste stuttered, “outnumbered, outmaneuvered- what was I supposed to do? Fight off fifteen guys after they ambushed me, and I was thrown from my horse and tied up? Why’s this package so important anyway?”


  Joshua nervously glanced around, seeing a few gruff men sitting at the bar looking back at him and Celeste with their raised voices. “That’s enough,” he whispered. “We can’t talk about this here. Come with me.” Without waiting for a reaction, he stood and walked out of the inn, leaving Celeste to reluctantly follow him.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Chapter THREE

Previously- Celeste was captured by bandits but rescued by a mysterious man, whom we discover is the younger brother of the king and therefore a prince and is going by the alias Joshua Reed. He is waiting for the courier to take an important package back to Forellia. He doesn't realize this courier was Celeste. Celeste, not knowing anything about Joshua, least of all the fact that he's her contact, she headed to Juroosh. 


Chapter Three



  Celeste stretched and murmured, clutching her pillow like a teddy bear. The night before she had woken the innkeeper of the Tipsy Tankard (the only inn in town) and managed to charm him into letting her and her horse stay the night. Of course, some of her few coins had exchanged hands, but Celeste liked to think it was mostly her charm that had softened him into giving her a room, even after she had woken him. Once she had wearily brushed down Nutmeg and gotten him settled in the stables, she had wolfed down some reheated stew from the inn’s kitchen and barely managed to take off her boots before collapsing into bed.

  Now, with the sun streaming down on her through the window, she slowly regained her senses. Remembering last night, she opened her eyes and moaned, thinking that whether she was in a hurry or not next time, she wouldn't risk being captured by bandits again. It was miraculous and possibly a little lucky that it had all worked out in the end. Thinking of the stranger with the bow, she wished now she would have thanked him more sincerely. If he hadn't come when he had- well, she didn't want to think about what would have happened.

  Getting up slowly, she opened the curtains to look out at Juroosh and frowned at what she saw. It had snowed more last night, and now the small town was covered in slushy half-melting ice. Celeste usually liked winter; it was new and fresh and cool instead of sweltering, but this year, it had just gone on long enough. She was more than ready for spring.

  After getting dressed and eating breakfast in the Tipsy Tankard’s “dining room” (more bar than dining room), Celeste wandered outside thinking she might explore the small town and see if there were any place she might acquire a weapon. A dagger might be the only thing she could afford, but she would feel better having something she could protect herself with.

  Striding down the alley with the sound of crunch crunch from the icy snow following her every step, she pulled her furs more tightly around her, shivering, and glanced at the small shops she passed. Juroosh was awake, and this being the main street, there was a quiet buzz of activity: the baker opening windows and setting out breads to cool and draw in customers with their fragrant scents; the basket weaver setting up his booth; the dress maker drawing her curtains and dusting her shelves; and the smithy, hammering a horseshoe and plunging it into a bucket of water. Celeste stopped there and asked, “excuse me, do you make weapons?”

  “Weapons?” He pulled the horseshoe out and threw more coal on his burner. “There aren’t many people who come to Juroosh looking for weapons, especially not young pretty lasses like yourself.”

  “Do you sell them or not?” Celeste asked, wishing she could tell him she was a Forellian courier here to get a package for King Damias himself.

  He glanced at her, “no, I only fix ‘em.”

  “Well do you know anyone in town who does?”

  “Sure, Randall, up the road on the left.” He gestured in the direction she had been walking. “He has about every weapon you could hope for.”

  “Thank you,” she said and continued walking.

  It wasn’t far, and she recognized it immediately because only weapons shops have iron bars on the doors and windows.

  Upon entering, she was astounded by the number and variety of weapons. The smithy had not exaggerated, and with child-like glee, she began to explore the weapon racks. First she examined Randall’s selection of swords— from long and broad to the slender rapier, he seemed to have almost anything she’d like. Trying a few, she swung them through the air, many of the slender or curved blades feeling good in her grip. Next she found the bows: long bows, short bows, recurve bows, crossbows- did he have everything?

  While testing the pull of a recurve bow, she heard a deep chuckle behind her and spun. There stood a tall, bald man with scars watching her. He wore a white shirt and brown jerkin and seemed surprisingly neat and trim.  “Oh,” she murmured, looking up at him. “I suppose you’re Randall?”

  “Aye, and who might you be who can handle a sword and shoot a bow? It’s not often I see a lad in Juroosh who appreciates a good weapon, let alone a lass.”

  “I really wish folk would stop calling me a lass. My name is Celeste, and in the city I come from, it’s not so strange for a woman to be proficient with a variety of weapons.”

  Randall laughed, saying, “people keep calling you lass because you are one. Ye can’t deny it, lass, and around here, girls embroider and bake. I keep telling folk that one of these days our border may need protectin’, and when that day comes already knowing how to handle a weapon would be useful. They don’t listen, though. At least most don’t. There is one lad who agrees with me. Glad to find another with a fighting spirit.”

  “Well,” Celeste muttered, not completely sure how to reply to this short speech. “Yes, I agree with you that people need to be more prepared to fight. That’s one reason I became a—“ at the last second she remembered she was not to tell anyone other than her contact who she really was.

  “What did you become?” Randall asked.

  “Oh, you know- just- a- a lass with a fighting spirit.” She raised her fist and smiled awkwardly. “So um, how much does this cost?” She asked, looking down at the bow still in her hands and quickly changing the subject.

  “Ah, the recurve bows from this rack are four silver.”

  “Wow, really?” Celeste asked, disappointed and carefully replacing the bow on the rack. “I was ambushed and robbed by bandits, you see, and am rather low on coin as the moment. Um, where are your knives?”

  Randall tilted his head sympathetically, looking at her. “Tell you what, I like you, and ye being one of the few I actually like, ye can pick out something you like and keep it, no charge.”

  “Are you serious?” Celeste asked.

  Randall grinned. “Yer eyes right lit up! Yes, of course I’m serious. So what’ll it be? Sword? Bow? Mace?” Celeste laughed and looked around the shop with new eyes.

  She spent the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon browsing, but in the end, she found herself standing once again before the bows, feeling, weighing, testing. She liked all of them, and almost decided on a crossbow, but after some deliberation, she picked out a recurve bow that just felt right in her hands. It was faster than a crossbow, easier to handle than a longbow, and it would have better maneuverability and aim when riding a horse. Overall, Celeste was very pleased with her choice. She also selected a knife, small enough for throwing, but large enough for fending off an attacker.


  Finally, she found Randall and showed him her choices. Paying for the knife, she sincerely thanked him for his wonderful generosity and left, walking back to the inn for a late lunch, feeling capable again with a knife in her belt and a bow on her shoulder.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chapter TWO

Previously- Celeste was on her way to Juroosh to pick up a package for King Damias. She was told her contact would find her. On the way there, she was kidnapped by bandits, but apparent rescuer[s] caused the bandits to flee. Out of the woods strode a young man who asked Celeste if he would get a kiss for saving her.

Chapter Two



  Celeste ignored the stranger’s puerile question, instead asking suspiciously, “where are the others?”

  “Others? No others, just me.”

  “But all of those arrows…”

  “Like I said,” he grinned, “just me.”

  “Well who are you?”

  “Now how do I know I can trust you with such an item as my name?”

  “Why,” Celeste scoffed, irked by this arrogant bloke, “would your name be important. Forgive me, but you don’t exactly look like you live in a palace.”

  He grinned wider and murmured, “feisty.”

  She scowled, “is that all you have to say for yourself?”

 Laughing, he raised his palms in surrender. “Excuse me, I don’t know if you noticed, but I did just save you from a lot of seemingly disreputable gentleman. If you wished to continue being tied up by bandits, I do beg your pardon.” He mock bowed. Then looked up again, “otherwise, you might want to try a little more gratitude.”

  He was right, she knew he was right, but he also irritated her. “Rescued? You haven’t even untied me!”

  “Yes, that’s true.” He muttered, an expression of thought and consideration on his face. “But based on this short conversation, I’m beginning to think that those bandits may have had it right idea.”

  “Hey!”

  With a reluctant gesture, he said “alright, alright, if you insist,” and drew nearer to her, pulling a knife from his belt and sawing through her binds. When they snapped, she gratefully massaged her arms and shoulders, moaning quietly.

  “Well then,” the stranger said, “the damsel is saved, her binds cut, the horse staring at me reproachfully- I think my work here is done. That is, unless you’ve changed your mind about that kiss.” She smacked him on the arm and didn’t bother answering.

“Go out of the way to save your life and a blow is all the reward I get? Ah, the life of a hero is tough. Still, at least I feel good about myself, and that really is all that matters, is it not?” Before Celeste could reply he continued, “Now then, I have an appointment, so if you’ll excuse me-“

  “You’re leaving? But- I don’t know where I am. Where do I go?”

  “Assuming you’re headed for Juroosh, seeing as that’s the only town near here, you just go straight through those woods and it’s on the other side. Not far, about an hour’s ride.”

  “Well, thanks. I suppose…,” Celeste muttered.

  With another sweeping bow the man said, “you’re very welcome, my dear. Fare thee well.”

  He turned and leapt upon a horse that had followed his master from the woods. “Wait,” Celeste called, “I still don’t know your name!” But he was already riding away without a backward glance. Celeste shook her head and muttered at the trees into which he had disappeared, confused by the unusual character she had just met.

    Getting down to business, she climbed to her feet with a groan and began to collect her damp belongings from the slushy, snowy ground and stuff them into the saddlebags on Nutmeg. She murmured softly to the slightly agitated horse to calm his nerves. “Well, Nutmeg, this has been one crazy day. I’ve decided I prefer to have a travel companion with me when I go on these missions. Isn’t that better? I have someone to talk to, you have someone to eat grass with, and most importantly, two is better at fighting off bandits so that I don’t have to be knocked out, tied up, and rescued by some vagabond.”

  The small pouch of gold she’d had in her bags was, of course, not among her things. Neither was her bow, and her sword had been taken also. Fortunately, she always kept a few coins on her person in case of a similar catastrophe. It would be enough for a room and a few hot meals at least. She wasn’t sure what she’d do about the weapon predicament. She couldn’t travel all the way back to Forellia without a weapon while carrying this important package she was to pick up. She supposed she could afford a dagger although that wasn’t much protection. Celeste let out a breath as she finished re-packing her bags and decided that her lack of weapons was a problem for another day. Right now, with a splitting headache and still-aching arms, she mounted Nutmeg and headed for the trees, half-awake and already dreaming of a soft bed.

***

    Josua Eramis Daniel Van Quincy, younger brother of the crown prince of the kingdom of Forellia, thought dead by his people after a hunting accident, had been living under the alias of Joshua Reed in, and around, the town of Juroosh for the past three years, sneaking across the border into the country of Korelia to gain invaluable reconnaissance for the war that everyone knew was coming.

  His mother had, of course, been opposed to his going off alone and traveling into enemy territory with only his wit and weapons to protect him. “Why can’t someone else go?” She’d asked. “Why does it have to be my son the prince?”

  “Mother,” he’d replied, “I’m not the prince. Damias is the one who’s going to be king.” He’d clapped his brother on the back. “And nobody knows the Korelian border like I do. You know I’ve been there, traveling it up and down, searching for weaknesses for months. Well I’ve found one.” His mother had looked stricken. “I’m ready for this,” he’d said. “I’m more than ready; I want to do this. As much as I try, Mother, you know I’m not cut out for palace life. Look at me,” he had gestured to himself. “I’m not even built for palace life. I’m small, dark, and unimpressive, Damias’s complete opposite. He was born to be king,” he had paused and lowered his voice to show her how serious he was. “And I was born for this.”

  It had taken some convincing, but with Damias’s help, he had eventually persuaded her.

  Their father had been easier, which had surprised Joshua at the time. “You’ve never been at ease in court,” his father had said. “I’ve always known a day would come when you’d tell me you were going to go out in the world and do something great. That day may have come sooner than I expected, but if this is your calling then you have my blessing, son. Just don’t forget that there is royal blood in you, and that the Forellian castle will always be your home.”

  Joshua never really felt like a prince. He sometimes wondered if there had somehow been a mistake, and he was not actually a son of the king. But now here he was rescuing damsels in distress like a proper prince so perhaps he had a little bit of royal blood coursing through his veins after all. He grinned as he rode through the woods on his horse.

  His father’s words stuck with him, and he remembered them often, especially now that his father had died. Joshua had gotten a letter from his mother a few months ago telling him, and by the time the letter found its way into his hands, his brother Damias had already been crowned king. Joshua was heartbroken he hadn’t been able to see his father again before his death and had missed his own brother’s crowning. He had missed so many important moments.

  Overcome by melancholy, Joshua sighed and forced himself out of his reverie. Trying to focus on the present, his mind wandered to that cheeky girl with the long blond hair. She had reminded him of someone, but he couldn’t think of whom. In any case, she wasn’t like anyone he’d met in the last three years, and that intrigued him.


  With a smile, he nudged his horse into a canter, enjoying the wind in his face and the joy of freedom he’d been feeling since he left the castle all that time ago. Sometime soon, though, he both feared and hoped he’d have to go back. Korelia was on the brink of declaring war, and Joshua just had to wait until that courier from Forellia arrived before he could make his final plans.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Chapter ONE

  A chill wind from the north blew, ignoring the few signs of spring in the blooms on the trees. Celeste shivered, pulling her furs more tightly around her shoulders and patting her horse, “We’re almost there, Nutmeg. Soon there will be a warm stable and hay. There’s most definitely an apple in it for you as well.” The horse whinnied at the sound of his master’s warm voice and continued plodding through the snow. It wasn’t deep, but there shouldn’t have been any at this time of year, and the gray sky threatened more to come.

  Having journeyed for a week now, Celeste was more than ready for a hot meal and a pillow to lay her head down on. This was the first time she had traveled so far by herself. Usually Celeste was with Felicity or with a unit, and although she was trained and perfectly capable of completing a mission on her own, she wasn’t used to being alone. She longed for someone other than Nutmeg to talk to. Nutmeg was excellent at listening but not the best at carrying on a conversation, try as he might to whinny when the time seemed right. Soon, though, she would reach Juroosh, and there, at least, she could ask an innkeeper for a room or a waitress for a meal. That would be something anyway.

  She wasn’t quite sure why she had been sent here to begin with. Felicity had delivered the mission to her and had told her there was a package to be gotten for King Damias. The location of the village she was to go to and the name of the contact to deliver the package were the only details she was given.  She was not to wear any official clothing since she was going to a town right next to the Korelian border, and she was travel as quickly and quietly as possible. Unusual, to be sure, but who was Celeste to question the king? So of course, here she was, trying to stay warm and waiting for the sky to release its burden. She sighed and shifted in her saddle. “I’m ready to get there, aren’t you, Nutmeg?” The horse neighed what seemed an affirmative, making Celeste smile.

  When she looked up again, she realized she was at the entrance to a pass. “Woah, boy,” she gently tugged Nutmeg’s reigns, stopping him for the moment from entering. She remembered from the maps she had studied that Juroosh was on the other side of this pass, but it left her completely exposed and vulnerable to an ambush. Still, if she tried to go around or find some other way, it would take her days. Softly, snow began to drift from the sky as she examined the pass. Letting out a breath, she tossed her blond hair, looking like a horse fashioned into a girl, and decided to risk it. After all, Felicity had told her to make haste; she couldn’t waste all that time going around the pass.

  First, however, she slung her quiver over a shoulder and rested an arrow on her bow. Then she loosened her sword in its scabbard and said, “Ok, Nutmeg, I want to get through this pass quickly and safely, understand?” She jabbed her heels into Nutmeg and murmured, “let’s go.”

  The horse broke into a canter and then a run, with Celeste low on his back. She was just moments into the pass when it seemed the bandits faded from nothing on her left and her right. She looked behind her and saw them there too, all with horses and hot on her heels. Nutmeg sensed her fear and neighed nervously, breaking into a full gallop. The bandits chased her. Pulling back her bow she sighted, but hitting a moving target while she herself was rocking and bouncing was difficult. Still, she released the taut bowstring at the grinning man on her left, and was surprised when he howled and fell back, clutching the arrow protruding through his arm. There were a lot more, though, and they were gaining. Running out of time, she dropped the bow and drew her sword, swinging it at the men closest to her, desperately fighting to get through the pass, hoping there could be escape on the other side, but then, from the trees in front of her more bandits erupted, trapping her. With a startled and dismayed cry, Celeste yanked on the reigns. Nutmeg balked, and Celeste’s speed carried her over the horse’s head. There was a moment, flying through the air, when she calmly wondered if she was about to die. Then she landed with a crash and met only darkness.

***

  From a dream of fire and wolves, Celeste slowly regained consciousness, unfamiliar sounds coming to her first: gruff voices of men, huff and puffs from horses, loud laughter, a rummaging through her packs, a crackling fire, and, over it all, the quiet sound of drifting snow. Then the splitting headache hit her, and she moaned, scrunching her brow in confusion. With difficulty, she cracked open her eyes and an unshaven face gradually came into focus. “’Ello, there lass, ‘bout time you woke up,” he grunted. Memory came back to her, and suddenly Celeste was very much awake. She sat up, or, really, tried to jump up, but found that her wrists were tied together behind her back and shooting pain arced through her shoulders as her numb arms woke up from being cramped for hours. Celeste cried out and bit her lip, trying to ease her shoulders back into use.

  The man chuckled at her, “right painful, ain’t it? It always is when they first wake up.”

  “Look,” she said, thinking fast and glancing at her surroundings, seeing most of her belongings out and on the dirt. Some of the other bandits were still going through her bags, but it seemed they were just rummaging for the sake of going through a young woman’s bags. Celeste assumed her small pouch of gold had already been confiscated. “You have all of my belongings. Please, can’t you just give me Nutmeg and let me go? I won’t make any trouble for you, I swear.”

  The man barked an ugly laugh, “and why would we do that? And what’s this nutmeg you talk about anyhow?”

  “Nutmeg is my horse. Please let us go. I’m of no use to you here. If anything, I’d be a burden as a prisoner.”

  He shook his head at Celeste in wonder, “Yer a na├»ve little thing, ain’t ya? First of all, the horse is ours now. If nothin’ else, we could sell ‘im for a nice price. Second,” here he paused and looked her up and down. “You would certainly have a few uses to us men, pretty little thing that you are.” He grinned wickedly, and Celeste blushed scarlet. She had to get out of here somehow!

  With a twang followed by a thwap an arrow suddenly bulged through the grizzly man’s chest. He looked down at it in wonder as he collapsed. Suddenly more arrows rained down from the trees, often hitting the fleeing, shouting bandits, and Celeste pushed herself backwards, sliding across the dirt, trying to stay away from the falling arrows. No more came near her, however.

  “We’ve got you surrounded,” yelled a voice from those trees. “Leave the girl and her belongings, and we’ll let you off with a warning. Next time, it won’t just be a few of you.” The camp was frozen in stunned silence. “Well, what are you waiting for?” Said the voice. “Go!” Arrows started raining down once more, but now they were intentionally mostly missing. The bandits ran, jumping their horses, arrows at their heels. A dying camp fire, Celeste’s belongings, and a nervous Nutmeg were all the evidence of their having been there to begin with, a cloud of dust displaying their hasty departure.

  Celeste sighed with a relief, letting her eyelids droop for a moment and thanking God for her rescue. A rustle from the trees drew her attention, and she tensed, not completely sure just yet if she could trust her rescuers much more than she could trust the bandits. From the shadows strode a man a year or two older than Celeste. He carried a bow and was thin with shaggy brown hair and a wolfish face that didn’t exactly inspire trust. His clothes were of good quality but were mismatched and seemed a little ragged.


  “Well then,” he said, looking at Celeste with a mischievous smile and leaning on his bow. “It seems I’m you’re knight in shining armor. Do I get a kiss for rescuing the lady in distress?”