Reading through correspondence is not, at all, how I want to spend my day. It involves far too many hours spent in a dark room reading words on crusty parchment sent by noble men and women who simply wish to pander to the crown. In that respect, I’m an awful Prince. I’ll get the work done, of course I will, but I’ll hate every moment. Working with the Knights, travelling across the land to respond to worries from the people, that is what I love about my position. The people. I’m grateful when Harris, my friend and manservant, knocks on my door and pops his head in.
“Sire, there is a group of bounty hunters here and they’re demanding to see you.”
“And have those bounty hunters stated their business with me?”
Either way, I guarantee that, whatever the issue, will be far more interesting than reading through all these papers.
“I believe they have captured a bounty who, and I quote, ‘is a darn interesting piece, mate!’”
I laugh at Harris’ impression and walk to the hall with him.
“Well then, how rude of me to keep them waiting,” I say as we set off in the direction of the courtyard.
“I’ve already informed the knights, they’ll be waiting for us in the courtyard for our arrival.”
“What would I do without you, Harris?” I ask, sarcasm and affection for my friend in every word.
“Crash and burn, I believe. Honestly, Sire, without me the kingdom might just fall!”
I laugh openly now, passing my parents as I walk outside.
There is a small group of mercenaries who have taken a defensive stance around a small, inhumanely small, iron caravan with a barred door.
One of the men steps forward and bows, his men following suit with a small bow of their own.
“My Lord, thank you for seeing me. My name is Goran, and these are my men.”
“Well met, Goran,” I nod toward the others as they all stand again. “Now tell me why you are here.”
“Sire,” he nods, people are always nodding. “We took a job request from a village in the west. It was an intriguing request. They claimed to be plagued by a witch who had spelled the creatures of the forest to do her bidding. Naturally, my men and I were curious, so we took the job. The villagers were right. The woman acted as a healer, but spent her time with the beasts. The villagers were terrified. Sire, boar the size of houses!”
“What did you just say?” I ask, shocked, a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. “Show this woman to me at once!”
The mercenaries respond immediately, unlocking the door and reaching inside to drag someone out. Someone who is clearly putting up a hell of a fight.
My Knights are riding the edge of fury, suspecting the same as me as to whom they’re about to shove out of that cart.
She is stark naked, her body covered in cuts and bruises. There is a nasty stab wound in her side. Her face is purple and swollen. Her flaming red hair is a tangled mess and her eyes, so full of hatred when they meet mine.
“You,” she growls. “You gave your word. Where is your honour?!”
Quick as a flash, Goran lands a punch to the side of her face. My men draw their swords, not in defence of my honour, but in rage at their treatment of Maia.
Goran lifts his hand to punch Maia again, but Mikael moves to intercept.
Maia moves faster than Mikael, twisting her arm from her captors hold, taking the large hunting knife from his belt and slashing out at Goran’s arm in a move that is rather elegant. Her strike hits so hard that she damn near severs the man’s hand.
I hear a gasp behind me, noticing for the first time that my parents are watching from the top of the steps.
Maia doesn’t even seem phased by her nudity as she is grabbed and slammed against the side of the caravan. She doesn’t even flinch as she is forced to her knees at my feet.
My fury keeps me paralysed for a moment. I have never been so filled with rage.
I step forward, remove the bindings they’ve just wrapped around her wrists, and cover her with my coat. She looks surprised, but her rage is still a powerful static in the air.
“They murdered the boar. The wolves,” she says.
“Of course, we did!” Yells Goran, firmly wrapping his wrist in cloth and obviously trying not to cry at the pain. “Did you think we were going to let them kill us?! I think not! The witch tried to show us a document with your name on it, stating that the boar aren’t to be harmed, but it was clearly a false decree.”
I ignore him, for now, taking a knee before Maia and wiping the blood from her temple.
She doesn’t move away from me, but her expressions says, loud and clear, that if she had a weapon she’d cheerfully embed it in my eye.
“How badly have they hurt you?” I ask, not really wanting to know the answer.
“Go to hell, Grayson.”
I see nothing but loathing in her eyes, but now is not the time or place to explain that none of this was my doing.
“Bring me her clothing and personal items,” I command, the mercenaries immediately moving to obey.
I’m handed a burlap sack that I lay gently at Maia’s feet. “Please dress, my men will shield you from view.”
She snorts as she opens the sack and pulls out a pair of pants. She stands, right there, naked, in front of everyone, and starts to dress.
“Everyone has already seen me, Grayson. Or will covering my body make you feel better?”
I watch, mesmerised, as she draws out a number of leather straps and starts criss-crossing them over her chest and thighs. It’s not until she starts pulling knives from the bag that I realise that all those straps are knife sheaths, not fashion accessories.
It’s only a matter of minutes before she’s turning to Goran with death in her eyes.
“Where are my horses?” She asks, and her calm is more terrifying than any rage I’ve ever witnessed.
“Your horses! No peasant like you could ever afford horses like that! You clearly stole them!” He turns to me, but he will find no understanding here. “You should have seen them, Sire. Pure bread battle horses. A white mare and a silver stallion. Silver! Massive, they were!”
“Yes, I’m aware. They’re names are Bow and Arrow. Now, answer the lady. Where are her horses?”
Goran looks uneasy now, finally realising that Maia and I are acquainted.
“Uh,” he gulps. “Sold ’em, Sire, on the way here. Found a breeder in Quinteray who wanted ’em pretty desperately.”
I see a glow beside me as Maia’s power erupts in an amazing display. Plants shoot forward, growing at a pace that would be impossible without magic, and moving rapidly toward the mercenaries.
Maia wraps them all in vines covered in inch long thorns.
“Give me his name,” she demands as the thorns sink into the skin of the men, causing them to cry out.
Their fear is surprisingly satisfying.
“Gerald. His name is Gerald. You’ll find him on a farm on the outskirts of Quinteray,” Goran mumbles, the vines tightening.
And Maia just starts walking away. Just like that.
“Shit. Anders, organise the men and take these mercenaries to the dungeons.”
“What?!” Shouts Goran as I walk past him in pursuit of Maia.
I don’t stop as I hear Anders say:
“The decree regarding the boar? It was real, prick.”
I take off after Maia, but my parents reach her first.
“Excuse me, Maia? Please stay a while, allow us to set up one of the rooms and give you time to recover,” My mother calls. “Please, wait!”
Maia does stop, but she isn’t pleased about it.
“And, you are?” She asks, annoyance all over her.
“Oh, sorry dear, my name is Helena. I’m the Queen,” Mum says awkwardly. It’s not often you meet someone who doesn’t know who you are, not when you’re the royal family.
“Congratulations,” Maia replies, turning her back on the King and Queen of Endolis.
Luckily, my parents aren’t the stuffy type.
“Well, she has quite the spirit,” my mother chuckles, watching Maia leave.
“She’s the woman you told us about, isn’t she? The healer who calls a forest home,” asks my father.
“Yes, that would be her.”
“Well, what are you waiting for, dear? That woman is injured, exhausted, and on the war path. Your father and I will handle her attackers, you go help her. Oh, and find out about that birthmark on her shoulder. I’m intrigued.”
My mother is quite the progressive woman. If it wasn’t written in law, then this kingdom would have female knights. As it is, any woman who comes here wishing to learn the blade can train with the knights and be warriors in her court, they just aren’t allowed to be officially knighted.
She is even known to knock a few knights over in training, herself.
“Yes, Ma’am,” I reply, and continue after Maia.
I catch up with her just outside the castle walls.
“Maia,” I call, but she ignores me.
I jog in front of her and turn, blocking her path.
“Maia, just stop for a moment. Let me take you to our healer. I’ll show you to a room where you can get cleaned up, get you some fresh clothes. We can get some horses after and head to Quinteray.”
She looks at me like I’m an idiot.
“I’m fine. If you forgot, I am a healer. There are streams that I can bathe in and horses aren’t a wise choice for forest hikes. You should remember that, it’s how you ended up in my woods.”
I can’t actually argue with any of that. Luckily, a growing red stain on her tunic gives me a new point to make.
“You’ve already bled through your clothes, Maia. You need to take the time to patch yourself up or you’re never going to make it to Quinteray.”
She just stares at me. I can see the wheels turning in her mind, but I can’t tell what she’s thinking.
“You have an hour,” she says, turning back toward the castle.
I breathe a sigh of relief, a small one. I’m not sure an hour will be enough time to bandage her up.
My mother is waiting for us when we get back to the courtyard.
“I knew it!” She exclaims. She’s always so enthusiastic. “I had my hand maiden go ahead and contact the healer. She also made up a room for you and run a bath. We’ll find you some new clothes, too.”
And she spins around like the excitable little flower she is and starts up the steps.
“Well, come on then,” she says, stopping at the top. “We don’t have all day!”
Maia rolls her eyes and follows, swaying a little as she gets to the top. I reach out to steady her, but she smacks my hand away like it’s covered in bee stingers.
“If you’re particularly fond of that hand, then I’d suggest you keep it to yourself,” she growls, sweat dripping down her face from the effort it’s taking to stand.
My mother covers her mouth to smother her laughter. Any other queen would lock up someone who threatened their son, but not my mother. She finds it hilarious.
“I gave you an hour, Grayson. Surely you intended to more in that time than stand at the top of some stairs.”
Hint taken, we start moving once more.