Excerpt from Wildflower Crown

Wildflower Crown

Wildflower Crown

© Charlotte Cyprus

Prologue

The woman kept to the shadows, avoiding the torches that lit the streets. A hood concealed her face and black cloth was thrown over the basket in her arms. Little whimpers came from the basket, but the woman shushed it, moving through the unfamiliar village slowly. She avoided the men walking home from the pub and went farther to the outskirts of town where there were smaller houses stuffed with squalling children.

Fog rose up from the ground in the cold night air. The streets were tracks of dirt that the recent rain had turned into mud, and it sucked at the woman’s boots as she struggled to keep herself unnoticed. A pitiful cry came from the basket in her arms. The woman paused to reach her hand in and stroke the baby’s cheek. She was rewarded with a happy gurgle.

The woman was caught off guard. She looked at the baby, so sweet and small and innocent. Had she gone far enough south? The king would be hunting her, she knew. It had been a foolish thing to take revenge on the king, but she hadn’t counted on getting pregnant. The baby’s father had no idea where they were, or that the baby existed, but it was for the best. The babe could live out an anonymous childhood away from the chaos of her own life.

A child’s cry rang out in the night, but it wasn’t her baby. The woman froze and listened hard to find where the noise was coming from. The child called out again, and the woman determined that it was the little house across the street. The roof was crumbling and the door was hanging at an angle. As the crying continued, a light was lit. The woman could see it through the shuttered window.

After crossing the street, the woman paused.

“Sweet little babe with pretty purple eyes,
may you go unnoticed by those I despise.
Stay healthy and well ‘til I find you again,
and let you be safe from lecherous men.
May happiness follow wherever you go,
and of your strange past, no one will know.
I hope it’s not long that we are apart,
these things I wish for you with all of my heart.

Her baby glowed for an instant before returning to normal. She looked around to make sure no one had saw and knocked on the door, pulling her hood up to ensure that her face was hidden. A second later, the door was thrown open.

“What do you want?” a woman spat. There was a baby at her breast. Somewhere inside the house, a child was still crying.

“I need someone to take care of this child,” the woman said.

“I already have three. I don’t need another one.” She began shutting the door. The woman stuck her foot in.

“I have gold,” the woman said. “I can pay you.”

“What’s wrong with it?” the mother asked. She looked down at the basket. “Is it deformed or somethin’?”

“No, she’s perfectly healthy. I just can’t be seen with her,” the woman said.

“Ah, a bastard child,” the mother said. She smiled. “You sound like you’re some noble lady. You let the wrong lord give you his seed?”

“Yes,” the woman lied. If that’s what would make the mother take the baby, that’s what happened. “I need someone to keep her safe.”

“How much gold do you have?” the mother asked. The woman reached into the basket and pulled out a heavy pouch. “Oh, that’s a lot.” The mother took the bag. She juggled it with the child at her breast until she had a coin in her hand. She bit it. “Looks good to me.”

“Will you take her?” the woman asked. She gave a paranoid look around, but no one else was out on the street. She still hadn’t been followed.

“Let’s see her first,” the mother replied. The crying inside got louder as a little girl with messy hair came up and hugged her mother’s leg. She was sobbing, and she wiped snot onto the mother’s skirts.

“She’s just a normal baby,” the woman insisted. All the same, she removed the cover of the basket. A little baby girl looked up at the women. The mother drew in a breath.

“That’s not a normal baby,” she said. The baby had bright purple eyes and pale white skin. A little tuff of black hair sprouted from her scalp. She smiled up at them as she grabbed for her little toes.

“She is,” the woman insisted. “Will you take her or not? You’ll get more gold if you do. It might take a year or two for me to return here, but you’ll get your gold.”

“I’ll take her.” The mother took the basket with her free hand. “What’s her name?”

“Her name is Wysandra.” She looked around as a man turned down their street.

“Strange name for a strange little girl,” the mother said. She studied the baby warily, but the baby only smiled back in return.

“I have to go,” the woman said. “I’ll be back.”

The mother looked at the gold lying in the basket. “I look forward to it.”

The woman turned and left, making sure that her hood was still covering her face. Once she was out of the town, the woman found her horse. It whinnied in recognition and sniffed at the woman’s pocket for a treat, but she didn’t have time for that. She mounted him and galloped away, leaving her baby behind.

Chapter One

Wild raced across the field as Flower barked happily, trailing behind with her tongue lolling out. Wild jumped over a hole and sped up even more, pushing her aching muscles until she slapped her hand against the rough bark. “I win!” she yelled. She turned back and ruffled Flower’s head. The dog didn’t quite get the concept of racing, but she was getting there. If only she would realize that she was allowed to pass her master, she could start winning.

Wild raced across the field as Flower barked happily, trailing behind with her tongue lolling out. Wild jumped over a hole and sped up even more, pushing her aching muscles until she slapped her hand against the rough bark. “I win!” she yelled. She turned back and ruffled Flower’s head. The dog didn’t quite get the concept of racing, but she was getting there. If only she would realize that she was allowed to pass her master, she could start winning.

“Back to the river?” Wild asked. Flower cocked her head as Wild pointed over the hill. “Last one there carries the food home!” She shot off again, the dog sticking by her heels. They made it to the river in no time, but Wild won once again. “You’re carrying everything home!” She laughed and hugged Flower. She looked up and down the river for people, but there was nothing in sight. Small boats occasionally went up or down to carry cargo from town to town, but it happened seldom enough that Wild still felt comfortable living near the water.

“There you go, girl,” Wild said as she flung a stick into the water. The river was wide and sluggish, rushing past only when rain swelled the banks and turned the water brown. Flower swam back with the stick in her mouth, shaking to cover Wild with water. “Wanna help me dig?”

Flower panted happily and followed Wild along the river as she searched for the juicy root that grew along the bank. Wild happily dove into the river to clean herself afterwards, lying out in the grass to let the warm sun dry her. She picked up her tattered clothing and slid it back on. She had fled the village with nothing but Flower and the clothes on her back. They were all but shreds of fabric now. She’d snuck into the village twice to steal clothes that hung out on the line, but she always delayed having to go back. She kept away from people as much as she could.

“How about you go find some meat while I make a basket?” Wild said. She pointed towards the field, where she was sure there were plenty of birds and rabbits for Flower to find. The dog got the idea and shot off, leaving Wild alone to weave with the long grass near the riverbanks.

She finished the basket quickly and set it aside, lying back and enjoying the sun on her face. She was always outside, but her skin stayed very pale, something the children had teased her about when she’d lived in the village. Still, the children weren’t there and it was a beautiful day. Tiny fluffs of cloud drifted across the sky, none of them big enough to block the sun for long. Wild’s black hair grew hot from the sun, so she decided to take another dip in the river to cool herself.

The sun moved across the sky and Flower hadn’t yet returned, so Wild decided to weave a sling. Flower must have caught something big, maybe enough meat for a few nights. If it hadn’t been for Flower, Wild would have starved after leaving the village. Wild didn’t know how to hunt, but Flower had. She caught meat enough for the both of them, even in the winter. Wild tried to share her plants with Flower to make up for it, but the dog wanted nothing to do with them.

Wild made herself a grassy pillow and watched the clouds roll by, unaware that she was drifting off. She woke up suddenly when a wet nose pushed insistently against her cheek. Wild opened her eyes and screamed.

“Sorry,” the man said as Wild scrambled to get up. “Didn’t mean to… startle you.”

“Go away!” Wild yelled. She grabbed her basket of roots and backed up, ready to run. Her chest constricted as panic flowed through her, but Flower didn’t move. “Flower, come.”

“No… please,” the man said. Flower stayed at his side. Tears sprung to Wild’s eyes. She didn’t want to die, but she couldn’t leave Flower behind.

“Please leave me alone,” Wild said. “I didn’t do anything.”

“I need help,” the man said. He fell to his knees and Flower licked his face in concern.

Finally, Wild noticed that there was blood all down his chest, darkening his brown shirt. His face was pale and he seemed to have trouble breathing. His hands were covered in blood as well, she realized, but she guessed that it was probably his own.

“What’s wrong with you?” Wild asked. She searched the man with her eyes, but she couldn’t see any weapons. Maybe he wasn’t there to hurt her, but he was the first person to have found her secluded field and she didn’t want him there. She didn’t want anyone there save herself and Flower.

“Archer,” he said. He struggled to get up, but he only fell back down with a huff. “Where’s the… village?”

“Far away from here,” Wild said. She relaxed a little and dropped her basket to the ground. If he didn’t know where the village was, he couldn’t know about her, which meant he couldn’t be out to hunt her down. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” the man said, giving a weak chuckle. It was followed up with a coughing fit. “Just need… some whiskey… and I’ll be fine.”

“I don’t have whiskey.”

“A bed will do,” he said. His brows were furrowed in pain.

“Can you go away?”

“No sympathy for me, eh?” He coughed again. “If you could get… your father… or your neighbor…”

“I don’t have a father or neighbors. It’s just me.”

The man gave her a weak smile. Flower licked at his face again, and the man put his arm around her for support. Flower was a big dog, and the man didn’t look very impressive beside her. Hunched over with his hand clutching his wound, he wasn’t very intimidating at all. “You’ll be… letting me die, then?”

“No.” She scowled at him. She didn’t want to deal with him, but she couldn’t very well let him die. That wouldn’t be right. “I’ll give you a bed.”

He coughed and doubled over, wheezing heavily. “I need… water.”

“Hold on,” she said. She knelt down and wove a tiny basket as fast as she could. It was only the size of the palm of her hand, but it would do. She dipped it in the river and brought the water to his lips, repeating it when he spilled most of it down his shirt. “Why did an archer hit you?”

The man shook his head and accepted another drink of water. “I’ll take… that bed now. I hope… you don’t mind a man… dying in it.”

“You won’t die,” Wild said, looking him over. Unless the growing darkness was concealing some additional hidden wound, she didn’t see why he couldn’t survive. Maybe he was inclined to dramatics. One of her step-sisters back at the village had been the same way, so she recognized the type.

She tied the basket of roots around Flower’s neck—she’d lost the race, after all—and hauled the man to his feet. He grimaced and clenched his teeth at the pain, but he kept quiet as they began shuffling along.

“You’re optimistic,” the man said. His voice was very faint. The little frogs had started chirping along the river some time ago, so Wild could barely hear him. “I can’t walk… much farther.”

“Don’t worry,” Wild said. One of his arms were around her shoulders, and she had an arm around his waist. She bent over and scooped up his feet. He was heavy, but she managed. When she’d first found her cave there had been many heavy stones to move to make it comfortable, and the man was nothing compared to them.

“How?” the man asked. He chuckled to himself a little, coughing up blood on Wild’s shirt. She frowned at that. She took good care of her clothes to stop them from wearing out. She didn’t want him bleeding on them.

Flower stayed close to Wild’s side as she carried the man back to her cave. The air was starting to cool now that the sun had gone down, but she didn’t think that was why the man was shivering. His eyes slipped shut at some point, but she could feel that he was still breathing.

When they approached the cave, she took the man through the curtain of vines and sat him down on her bed of grass. She released Flower of her burden of roots and the dog shot off.

“Flower, come back!” Wild said. Flower never hunted after dark. But the dog was gone, and she knew better than to leave the injured man on his own. Well, she had to for a little while. She checked to make sure he was still breathing before running out to where she had seen some cobwebs that morning. They would do for stopping the blood, and she also knew of a plant that had leaves that would lessen the pain of someone who chewed them. Missy had chewed them for her back years before when she had lived in the village.

She brought her supplies back and again checked the man’s breathing. It was shallower now, but she still wasn’t worried. A wild dog had once taken a bite out of Flower’s side that was so big she’d been able to see her organs. Flower had healed up just fine with barely a scar.

When the man refused to wake back up, Wild shoved the leaves into his mouth. “Chew these,” she said, even though she knew he couldn’t hear her. She forced his chin to go up and down, then massaged his throat until she was sure he swallowed it. She grabbed her stone knife from the corner of her cave and ripped open the front of his shirt, gently pulling the fibers away from the wound.

He didn’t stir as she packed the wound with the cobwebs she’d collected. He was very pale and her bed was now soaked with blood, but she moved away to start putting away the roots that she and Flower had collected. Sleep would heal him up just fine.

 —

Yhonn blinked his eyes open, his hands instantly going to the hole in his side. Only there wasn’t a hole. Yhonn poked the area, satisfied when it produced a stabbing pain. He wasn’t dead, then. The hole was still there. It just had healed. He must have been asleep for days. Weeks, maybe.

He looked around and realized that he was still in the cave that the strange girl had led him to. The light was low, so he guessed that it was either early morning or late in the evening, and he smelled the rain before he heard it falling outside. He looked around for the girl, but she was nowhere to be seen.

However, a minute later, the girl and her dog broke into the cave at a run. The dog skidded to a halt, only barely managing to stop before running into one of the cave walls. The girl was slightly more controlled, though she was giggling.

“Oh, you’re awake,” she said. She dropped a small woven basket to the ground. “Does it hurt still?”

“Only when I move,” Yhonn said. Or poke at it. “How long was I sleeping?”

“Only since yesterday,” the girl said. She shrugged. “Sorry about that. I think I gave you too much for the pain, but I didn’t want you to wake up hurting.”

“I’m sorry, did you say yesterday?” Yhonn asked. He finally braved a look down to see that his shirt gaped open and that the wound had healed over with glossy pink skin. There wasn’t even a scab. How was that possible?

“Yeah. Are you hungry?” she asked. She pulled a root out of a basket and handed it over. Yhonn took it slowly. “There would be meat, but Flower doesn’t like hunting in the rain and you distracted her yesterday.”

“This is plenty,” Yhonn said. He ate silently, watching the girl as she yawned. Maybe she didn’t know how to tell time? “How many nights was I asleep? How many times did the sky go completely dark?”

“Once,” the girl said slowly, frowning at him. “Just last night, but it’s getting dark now.” She yawned again as her dog came to lean against her. “I said you were asleep since yesterday.”

“Right,” Yhonn said. Now the girl clearly thought he was the stupid one. He chewed on the root some more. It was a little bitter, but he was grateful for it all the same. If she hadn’t found him and did whatever she had, he would certainly be a dead man.

Maybe she was a witch? Yhonn had never met a witch before, but the girl didn’t look like one. She did look like she was dangerously close to going naked, as her shirt looked close to unraveling, but she still didn’t look like anything more than a beautiful young girl. Witches were ugly things, if he remembered correctly, though it had been some time since his mother had told him those tales to frighten him.

“Did I bring my things?” Yhonn asked. “I had a bag.”

“Oh, right here,” the girl said. She threw the pack to him. He managed to catch it, wincing at the pain in his side. However, the pain wasn’t as bad as it should have been. The only explanation was that he hadn’t been as hurt as he’d thought. Perhaps some sort of poison had caused delirium and he’d slept it off. It was the only explanation. “Flower brought it for you.”

“Thank you for helping me, both you and the dog,” he said. “My name is Yhonn.”

“I’m Wild,” the girl said. He noted that she was staying as far away from him as the cave allowed, as if he would spring up at any time to take a bite at her.

“I can see that,” he said, smiling to ease her mind. “What’s your name?”

“Wild,” the girl said again. Her look clearly conveyed what she thought of his intelligence.

“My mistake,” he said. “That’s an unusual name.” He pulled his extra shirt out of his bag and threw it at her. “Here, take this.”

The girl examined it for a second before figuring out what it was. “But I can’t give you anything in return.”

“You saved my life. You can keep it.” He barely had time to close his eyes before she was pulling off her current shirt to put on the dry one. She was lucky he wasn’t a different kind of man, for even a man in his state couldn’t help but notice what a pretty girl she was.

Assured that she was done changing, Yhonn tried standing, and he was surprised to find that his guts didn’t feel like they would pour out of him. He’d seen the scar, but he still didn’t believe that he had healed that fast. It was a dull ache that throbbed when he moved, but the pain was manageable, nothing like it should have been.

“You might not want to walk yet,” Wild said, but she didn’t move to help him.

“I have to relieve myself,” Yhonn replied. The girl shrugged and lay out on the floor. He felt bad as he saw the bloodied grass bed that had clearly once been hers, but she didn’t mutter a word of complaint.

When he returned from his business, the girl had fallen asleep with her dog. He knew that the others would be waiting for him, but he knew he wouldn’t reach them without another night’s sleep. He lowered himself to the grass bed and fell asleep to the sound of the rain.

 —

When Wild woke up, Yhonn was already moving around the cave. He looked much better. He’d healed just like she knew he would.

When he caught her staring at him, he smiled. “I have to leave now. There are people waiting for me.”

“How did you get shot?” she replied.

He paused for a second, his smile falling. “I got caught somewhere where I shouldn’t have been. It was a mistake on my part.”

“Must have been a big mistake,” Wild said. Wild nudged Flower, who was snoring loudly, and watched as she jumped up with comically big eyes. Without Flower making a racket, Wild could hear that it was still raining softly outside. Yhonn pulled a hood out of his bag and pulled it over his head.

“Do you want to come with me?” he asked. “I owe it to you to ask after you saved my life. You don’t have to live alone in this cave for the rest of your life. My friends can protect you from whatever you ran away from.”

“I doubt that,” Wild said. No one could protect her from the villagers. It was a nice thought, but she knew it wasn’t true.

Missy had warned her that word would spread from village to village of the pretty young demon that had killed the butcher’s boy. If she had gone to a village too close to her own, they’d have killed her. Too far away and she’d have risked being caught on the road. She didn’t know how to get around the kingdom, having never left the village until she’d been chased out, so the cave had been the best place for her. Unless someone happened to tumble past the curtain of vines, no one could find her.

“If you’re sure.” He nodded to her and walked to the entrance of the cave. “If you change your mind, I’m heading west.” He gave her a little wave and left her there. She stared after him until Flower whined to go outside.

Wild took her out into the rain, watching as Yhonn walked away. He turned to wave at her once more before he reached the crest of the hill and disappeared from view. “Come on, Flower. It’s raining. Hurry up.”

Flower sniffed around some more before finishing and going back in the cave.

There was never much to do in the rain, but Wild tried her best to keep busy. She reorganized the roots she had collected and put away the herbs that Yhonn hadn’t needed. She gathered up the grass bed Yhonn had dirtied and threw it outside of the cave. She couldn’t gather new grass until the rain stopped, but in the meantime, she could weave more baskets. If Flower was good, Wild could make her a hat.

By midafternoon, Flower was sporting not only a woven hat, but a little vest as well. She sat patiently as Wild wove her a skirt, but she ran out of the wide grass she needed and she wasn’t about to go collecting it in the rain. She altered it to fit on Flower’s tail, but the dog wasn’t having any of that. After a few minutes of spinning around in circles, setting Wild into a fit of giggles, the dog managed to get it off and tear it to shreds.

The cave used to feel warm, but now it felt empty, the rain outside echoing against the stone walls. Ever since the villagers ran her out of town she got sick by the thought of returning, but Yhonn had been nice. He hadn’t wanted to hurt her at all. Maybe if she went with him, she could help him find his friends and meet more nice people.

She loved Flower, but she was tired of being alone. Her step-sisters hadn’t been particularly interesting, but she had still loved talking with them, and at least even the dullest of people knew how to race.

“What do you think?” Wild asked Flower. The dog cocked her head, her hat finally sliding to the floor. “You liked him okay. Should we go with him?”

Flower wagged her tail and stayed silent, as usual, her dark eyes serious. Wild knew that Flower was just a dog, but sometimes she fancied that she was a human in a dog’s body. There were fairytales like that, of innocent people being turned into animals, so maybe that’s what Flower was.

It would have had to be a dumb person, though. As much as she seemed to listen to Wild when she talked, she still occasionally did her business inside the cave. That was never fun.

Wild made up her mind and stood. She would go with Yhonn and get out of her cave. She looked around at what few things she owned and fingered the fabric of the shirt Yhonn gave her. He’d given her a gift. That meant he was nice, right? And certainly a nice man would keep the company of other nice people. As long as they didn’t go to the village, maybe no one would recognize her. She was taller now, and her hair was longer. She knew they wouldn’t have forgotten her, but her old village was in the east, not the west, so they couldn’t be headed there, and if she escaped them once she could do it again if she had to.

“Come on, girl,” Wild said finally. She gave her cave one last look and headed in the direction Yhonn had indicated, passing through her field and traveling into the heart of the forest.

She walked for most of the day, ignoring the rain and relying on Flower to follow Yhonn’s trail to help her from going astray.

She thought it would be easy to catch up with him, but after pushing through thorn bushes all night, there was still no sign of him. Maybe it had been silly of her to try to follow. Just as she considered turning back, she stumbled out of the forest and onto a road that had been cut through the woods. Before she could celebrate her victory, she stepped in a large pile of wet horse dung.

“Ugh.” She looked up and down the road, but there was no sign of Yhonn. “Which way?” she asked Flower. Flower licked her hand. That wasn’t helpful in the least.

After considering it carefully, Wild decided to head north, farther away from the direction of the village. She knew the road would go through it eventually, so it would be best if she went the other way. If she didn’t find Yhonn before sunrise, she’d turn back and return to the cave like nothing had ever happened.

The rain stopped soon after. The rain had been a warm summer rain, but Wild shivered as she began to dry. Fog rolled across the road as Flower started to lag behind. Wild had to admit that she was tired too, but she didn’t want to stop. She didn’t want to go back, to have such sore feet for nothing. She’d lived for years in the cave, but Yhonn was right. She couldn’t stay there forever. She was ready for more.

She said that she would turn back when the sun rose, but she found herself keeping up the pace as the forest around her began waking up and the first hints of daylight trickled down to the worn path between. Exhaustion covered her like a blanket, but she didn’t want to turn back. It wasn’t until Flower sat down and refused to move that she acknowledged that they needed to rest.

With the clouds and the trees, it was still pretty dark along the road, so Wild curled up with Flower and fell asleep with ease.

 —

Daivat threw the knives rapidly. Thump. Thump. Thump. They landed together in a circle in the dummy’s chest. One had landed directly in the black X that marked where the dummy’s heart would be. Sweat poured down his back in the heat, but he retrieved the knives anyway, ignoring the ache of his muscles.

Thump. Thump. Thump. This time, two of the knives landed on the X. The other hit the dummy’s arm. Daivat swore. An arm was no good, especially the left arm. Unless he attacked the rare left-handed swordsman, a hit like that wouldn’t stop the charging man from slicing him to pieces.

Once more he got the knives, finally getting all three on the X. That wasn’t enough, though, not if he wanted to kill a real opponent. He practiced jumping from a crouch and throwing, throwing while he turned, and he was about to try throwing with his eyes closed when he saw Cyril approaching from behind.

“You’ve already mastered knives, why don’t you practice with a sword for once?” the old man asked. His scar twisted his face gruesomely, but Daivat was used to it. He had known Cyril since he was a child, even before the outlaws had given him the scar. That had been back when his father was still alive.

“Thank you, sir, but I’ll stick with the knives,” Daivat said. Cyril rolled his eyes.

“Son, I’m not a knight anymore. Not in practice. You called me Cyril as a child, don’t you think you could try it again?”

“I’ve matured since then,” Daivat said. “I will always treat you with the respect you deserve.”

Cyril snorted. “Whatever you say, boy. Come on, the queen requested your presence.”

“For what?” Daivat asked. He went to the training block and replaced the knives. His own knives were sharper, and he kept them on him at all times, but it would not do to dull them during practice.

“She asked me who out of my guards could be trusted most, and I named you.”

“Did she say what she needed?” Daivat asked. Excitement built within him, but he pushed it away. More than anything he wanted to be head guard, but Cyril would hold that position until he died. Daivat had to be patient and wait for his time, and do whatever the queen bid until then. If she asked for one guard alone, it could mean only one thing; she was looking for a royal guard. The king had five guards about him at all times, so Daivat assumed that would be his station. He could think of a guard or two that were more than a few years past their prime, but the king and queen were sentimental types. Rarely would they dismiss a loyal servant.

“Only that she wanted one of my best men,” Cyril said. “Clean yourself and go see her at once. She has a job for you.”

“Yes, sir,” Daivat said. He went to the guard house and cleaned off quickly, wiping away the sweat with a damp cloth. He put on his uniform and reported to the Throne Room as instructed. He wished that Cyril was there with him. He had never before had a private audience with the queen. You’re a grown man, Daivat thought. You don’t need Cyril to hold your hand. Still, he was nervous, and he found himself fiddling with the handle of a knife.

“Are you the guard Cyril sent?” the steward outside the door asked. Daivat nodded, his hands coming away from the knife like it was on fire. To handle a weapon like that before the queen would almost be treason, and he didn’t want her to catch him at it. “She’s expecting you.”

The opulent doors were opened and Daivat strode through with more confidence than he truly felt. He knelt down on one knee when he reached the base of the stairs that led to the throne. What did the queen want him for? At the very least he knew he couldn’t be in trouble. He honored the law to the fullest extent, not even visiting the whorehouses that the other guards constantly talked about.

“Rise,” the queen said. Daivat could remember when he had been younger and Queen Tovah had been a beautiful woman, but those days were past. Age had softened her. She was graying and wrinkled, and her posture was relaxed, pronouncing the little curve of her stomach. She was smiling at him, which immediately set him at ease. She had a motherly smile.

“You called for me, Your Highness?” Daivat asked. Queen Tovah’s face was powdered, but there wasn’t enough red on her cheeks so she looked ghostly on the throne. King Rhett wasn’t in attendance, but the king rarely dealt with the guards’ business. Actually, he left an awful lot up to the queen, but no one would dare bring that up to him. If he was more content to sit back and allow his wife to rule, that was his business, not Daivat’s.

“Yes. I asked Cyril to send me his best. What is your name again?” she asked.

“My name is Daivat Folkvar, Your Highness.” He bowed.

The queen’s brow furrowed. “Folkvar? Of Eskia?”

“Yes, Your Highness. I was born in the castle.”

Queen Tovah smiled even wider. She clapped her hands together, startling him. “Cyril did send me the best, I see. As you know, your father guarded Rosabel since the day she was born. He lived his life for the job, and he gave his life to save my daughter.”

“I know, Your Highness. My father died a noble death.”

“Very noble,” she agreed. “I am happy to tell you that my husband and I have chosen you to guard Rosabel as your father did.”

“I would be honored, Your Highness,” Daivat said. His chest tightened. Guarding a member of the royal family was one of the highest honors. The king and queen doted on their daughter—she was their only daughter, second in line to the throne after her younger brother. Cyril had to have trusted him greatly to offer him for the position.

“That’s good to hear. I need someone who will take the job seriously. Sir Oran has been caught drinking on the job twice now, and Sir Julardo is too easily swayed by Rosabel’s sweet words. She’s growing into a young lady now, as you know, and she’s turning out to be a flirt.” Daivat blushed at her frank talk even as he swelled with pride. He was replacing two men, both of them knights. Had his dad still been alive, Daivat was sure he would be pleased. “In the end, I suppose it’s for the best. She must charm that prince from Blairford to keep our kingdoms at peace.”

She paused, so Daivat bowed again. “I understand, Your Highness.”

The queen waved her hand. “As you know, Prince Cadmus will be arriving in two days. He’s said to be ugly and crippled, but he’s Rosabel’s only choice, the poor thing. She won’t be happy, but she’ll do her duty.”

Daivat was at a loss. The queen’s attention drifted to some hidden thought, so he was left standing there like a fool in the silence.

“Your Highness, the baker is here to see you about the welcoming feast,” the steward announced, breaking the queen from her thoughts.

“Very well, send him in. You are dismissed, Folkvar. You may report to your duty tomorrow. Good day.”

“To you as well, Your Highness,” Daivat said. He bowed one final time and left the room. He allowed himself a brief smile once he was out. He needed to thank Cyril for putting him up for consideration. From his position, he could go anywhere. Rosabel would eventually marry and move away, which meant that he could guard the queen, or the king, or even the prince when he returned. If he worked hard, Cyril was sure to make him head guard in his place once he retired. He had to go tell his mother the good news.

 —

Wild woke up as someone prodded her with their boot. She jumped up into a crouch and grabbed the nearest weapon, which happened to be a rotting stick. Flower woke and began growling, baring her teeth at the strangers, most of whom were on horseback and staring down at her through the fog. The man who had woken her had fluffy red hair and a round face. Oddly, there were rings in his ears. Wild had never seen anything like it.

“See, she’s alive,” the man said. He smiled at her, showing off his dimples. “What are you doing out here, girl? Don’t you know there are outlaws in these parts?”

“I see no outlaws, only a silly man with big ears,” Wild said. She looked around, but there wasn’t anything better to grab for defense.

Someone laughed at her jibe, but the man ignored it. “What’s your name, girl? You must be far from home.”

“I’m Wild.”

“That you are,” the man said with a chuckle. “My name is Rigel. What’s yours?”

“My name is Wild,” she said.

“Wild?” someone said. Wild looked behind Rigel. A man walked up to her slowly. It was Yhonn.

“Yhonn!” Wild said. She smiled and stood up quickly. “I came looking for you.”

Clearly. This is the girl that helped me,” he said to the others. He looked back to speak to one of the people on the horses. Once she took the time to examine them, Wild noticed that some of the men rode horses, and there were a few other horses that carried supplies, but most of them were on foot. The fog was very thick, stopping Wild from seeing how many people were in their party.

“…good idea,” the man on the horse said. They were talking quietly, so Wild couldn’t hear everything that they were saying. She decided to talk to Rigel instead. He seemed nice too.

“I’m sorry I said you have big ears,” Wild said. Rigel burst out in laughter.

“It’s okay, child. I’ve heard worse.”

“I am not a child,” Wild said. She scowled. “I’m nearing twenty.” In truth, she didn’t know how old she was. Missy didn’t know when exactly she had been born and she had lost track after leaving the village, forgetting to count the years. She guessed at twenty, but she could have been older. What did it matter?

Rigel threw his hands up. “Could’ve fooled me. You are a petite woman. You should take it for a compliment.”

“Wild,” Yhonn said, pushing Rigel aside. He ignored Flower as she went over to beg for a scratch behind the ears. “I have someone I want you to meet.”

“Who is it?” Wild asked. Yhonn didn’t answer her as she followed him past the other men to the end of the group. The last horse in the line was a white stallion, though the rest of the horses were drab and mangy. Wild expected to see a large man in impressive armor on the horse, but to her surprise, it was a woman. Her hair was pulled back in a severe braid that ran all the way down her back, and there were little scars all up and down both sides of her face. They looked like they had been put there intentionally, but that couldn’t be right. Wild didn’t know who would want to do such a thing to a person.

“Lady Sula, this is Wild,” Yhonn said. Was the woman really a lady? She was wearing furs and had knives strapped to her boots, but Wild had never seen a lady before for comparison. “She may be useful to us for our mission tonight.”

“How so?” she asked.

“You planned to stay behind yourself, but Wild would be much better suited, I believe. She is much closer to the princess in size, and her voice is not so deep as yours.”

The woman nodded. “She could be useful, yes. We will continue to the capital. Talk to her and see if she will work with us.” She narrowed her eyes at Wild, who suddenly felt very small. Unlike Yhonn and Rigel, the woman’s eyes were hard and dark. She said nothing more, but Wild still felt judged.

“Yes, my lady,” Yhonn said. Wild stood there and stared at Sula’s scars, but Yhonn pulled her away before she could ask about them. “Don’t stare at her,” Yhonn hissed. “Are you crazy?”

“Sorry,” Wild said. She hadn’t meant to, but she felt herself staring at everyone they passed. One man’s nose was too large for his face, another had a face like a rat. There were many men who were missing a hand, oddly, and one was missing an eye. She hadn’t seen so many people together in years, and for some reason, the sight left her feeling giddy.

The group started moving again and one of the men offered to let her share his horse, but she declined the offer and walked with Rigel and Yhonn instead. Rigel told her funny stories that made her laugh, and Flower was clearly fond of Yhonn.

When night finally fell, they stopped to make camp. A small tent was assembled for Sula, but the rest of the men had to do with thin bedrolls or the dew-covered ground. The rain had stopped and the clouds had blown over, so it was quite a nice night. Wild enjoyed being under the stars, even if moisture seeped into her clothing. They weren’t close enough to the river to hear the frogs, but Wild watched the sky as little black bats danced around in their quest for bugs. No matter where she was, she would always love being in nature. The village had been nice, but that had been before she knew freedom. There was nothing better than the feeling of grass underfoot and the sun on her skin.

“Why does she have so many scars?” Wild asked, finally getting the question off of her chest once Sula went into her tent. She was almost sure that she wouldn’t be able to hear her from her position at a far fire.

“Don’t let her hear you ask that,” Yhonn said. “She’ll have your hide.”

“I’m just curious.” What was wrong with asking questions? It wasn’t as if Sula could be unaware of her scars, and she hadn’t come off as the sort of vain person that would mind them.

“Don’t be,” Yhonn said. “I’ll get you some food. You haven’t eaten all day.” He stood and left her and Rigel at the fire. Rigel smiled at her.

“Don’t tell him I told you, but everyone knows,” he said, leaning in. Wild leaned in with him, looking around to see if anyone was paying attention. “When Sula was very young, her father undertook a mission similar to our own. He wanted to free the poor of this kingdom so that his family could escape from the dirt hovel they’d lived in all their lives. He was murdered by the royal family that night, slain without even a trial,” Rigel said. The flames flickered on his face, casting strange shadows that almost acted as a mask. “She gives herself a new scar each year that she fails to get her revenge to remind her of the pain the royal family has caused her.”

“The royal family killed her father?” Wild asked. She remembered how Missy complained of the taxes back when she lived in the village, but she didn’t remember any talk of murder. The king must have covered it up. Those with the most gold can do what they wish, Missy had been fond of saying.

Rigel nodded. “All of us are here because the royal family killed someone we loved.”

“Really?” Wild looked around at all the men. There was so many of them! It would’ve taken more than a dozen murders to call them all together. While she had been living in her cave, Eskia had been falling apart. She hadn’t had a clue.

“Knights killed my brothers by command of the king,” Rigel said. “Yhonn’s father was killed by the queen’s guards.”

“That’s terrible.”

Rigel nodded. “That’s why we have to put a stop to it. There’s only a few of us, but we are strong. We’ve been planning for months on how to best take on our current mission, and now it’s finally time to strike.”

Wild nodded. “Yhonn said that I could help, but he didn’t tell me how.” She scratched behind Flower’s ear as the dog approached with a small squirrel in her mouth. Wild shook her head when Flower tried to share. “All for you.”

Rigel looked at her strangely, but he didn’t comment. “Tomorrow night, we’re going to kidnap the princess.”

“The princess?” Wild asked. “But how? She’s the princess!”

“Yes, she’s the princess,” Rigel said. He leaned back and laughed. “We’ll use her for ransom to make the king pay back what he’s stolen from us all.”

“You’re not going to hurt her, are you?”

“Of course not,” Yhonn said, coming up behind them. He handed her a hunk of dried meat. “Once we get the money, we’ll return her. We’re not as heartless as the king and queen.”

“But how can I help?” She shivered as the breeze blew across the field, causing the grass to whisper and the horses to stir. “I’ve never even seen the castle.”

“The guards would notice right away if the princess vanished, so Sula was going to stay behind and pose as the princess for as long as she could to give us at least a day’s head start. We’ve timed our mission with the arrival of the prince of Blairford, so Sula was going to claim that she was sick and she didn’t want the prince to see her. She was going to lock the door and refuse to let anyone in, then slip out the window the next night.”

“You want me to do that instead?” Wild asked. “But Sula is so strong.”

“Exactly,” Yhonn said. “We need her to make sure the princess stays safe. Without her, the guards might catch up and ruin everything.”

“But what about me?” Wild asked. “How will I get away? What if they catch me?”

“They won’t, don’t worry,” Yhonn said. “I’ll personally wait for you with two horses. I’m sure you’ll have no trouble getting out, and I’ll take us away with haste. The guards won’t have a chance to catch us.”

“Are you sure?” Wild asked.

“Of course,” Yhonn said. “We’ve been planning this for months. You have no idea of the work that went into preparing for this, of the time it took to get a man inside the castle…”

“Will you look after Flower while I’m in there?” Wild asked. The royal family sounded horrible. They deserved to pay for their crimes, and it would be fun to pretend to be a princess for a few hours. She had always wished to be a princess, ever since Missy had told her the silly stories at bedtime.

Yhonn smiled. “Of course we will. She helped save my life, after all.”

“Then I’ll do it.”


Coming June 2015!

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