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 naïve 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?”