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.”
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.