As expected, the Queen continued the interrogation in Caitlin’s bedroom. “I’m so glad you’re going to see Odonia. How long do you think you’ll be staying?”
"A day or two, three at most,” Caitlin said. “I’m meeting a group of her family’s emissaries shortly, so they’ll be with me the entire trip and back.” She packed her last change of clothes into her luggage and shut the closet. Cumbersome as it was while travelling, it served as the perfect temporary hiding place for her equipment.
Equally important, though, it added credence to the deception.
“I’m just curious,” The Queen continued. “Was this excursion deliberately scheduled to avoid the Godfreys?”
Caitlin shrugged. “Let’s call that a happy coincidence.”
That got a laugh from her mother. When silence followed, she got the sense Mother was preparing another lecture, but the Queen looked deep in thought, unable to find the right words.
“Caitlin,” She began. “I’m aware I say this frequently, but you know I,” A pause. “I only want what’s best for you. I want you to be happy, and whether that’s studying history or plants or baking expensive pies, I want you to go for it. You’re a brilliant young woman, and you are capable of so much.”
Well, that wasn’t exactly a lecture, but as hollow as the platitudes were, Caitlin was indeed capable of anything. “I know. And I appreciate all you and Father do for me,” She needed to leave, before things got even more saccharine. “I should be going, it’s almost time.”
“Will you be needing your Auburn Blades?”
Now was the most perilous part of her quest. Caitlin could only silently pray her mother wouldn’t call her out. “That won’t be necessary, we’re meeting right outside the castle.”
Another brief silence followed. “Okay then, that should be fine,” Her mother finally responded. “Give the Melsaras my best.”
The Queen departed, but Caitlin waited a few moments before allowing herself to indulge in another victory. With the utterly flawless deception complete, the most difficult portion of the journey was over. All that was left now was saying goodbye to her sister and father. She left her room and went down the hall to find Lilith examining various pieces of clothing in a mirror.
“Have you finally come around on the Godfreys?”
“I know you’re going to miss me today,” Caitlin said. “But I’d rather sleep on a bed of hot spikes than spend another minute with those idiots. I merely wanted to wish you good luck, you’re going to need it far more than I am.”
“You leap at the chance for a fight, yet you’re repulsed by teatime.” Lilith mused.
“There’s a smaller chance of a fatality.”
That got a chuckle out of her. “You’re an enigma, Cait, but is there any specific reason you’re here? Typically, you’re only in my room if you’re pulling a prank or testing out some new insult.”
“I actually have just cause,” Caitlin said. “I wanted to ask if you’d give me a haircut before I make the trip."
“You mean what you call a haircut?”
She clearly wanted to drag it out. “How do you like putting it? A styling? I’m requesting a styling.”
Lilith paused for several moments. She rested her clothes on the bureau before walking to the window. “I’d be happy to, but first I need to make sure the sky isn’t raining blood.”
Caitlin rolled her eyes. “You’re an expert in the study, Lilith. I have no problem admitting that your ability and knowledge far exceeds mine. Is it so unusual for me to request your assistance for something beyond basic maintenance?”
“Maybe not, but I had to make sure this isn’t prelude to the end of the world,” Lilith moved away from the window and returned to the mirror, extracting a pair of scissors. “Take a seat, Cait, and let us begin.”
Caitlin complied, aware the teasing was only going to get worse from this point. “So, what do you want from your makeover, Cait?”
“I believe I said styling. Don’t think you’re going to rope me into anything beyond that. I’d like my hair to come down around here.” Caitlin placed her hand to her neck.
“Ever the tomboy, but I’ve always admired your taste. It’s unique, to put it charitably.” Lilith went to work, so Caitlin closed her eyes, trusting her sister’s taste. After a brief and welcome lull in the conversation, she spoke up. “So, Cait, might I inquire as to what motivated this desire for a new look?”
“There are a number of big changes happening in my life.” Caitlin said, knowing exactly how her sister would interpret it.
“I see,” Lilith said. “Could it be that Caitlin Faraday has finally found a man worthy enough to try to impress?”
“I don’t recall saying that, either.”
“You know I won’t tell Mother, but I need details. I am so curious to know what type of man appeals to you. If I were to guess, I’d wager he prefers long walks over the corpses of his enemies to romantic walks by the sea. I also suspect you like his big muscles, though more so for their ability to snap necks rather than hold you in the middle of the night.” Lilith said.
“Am I supposed to convince you it’s not about being appealing to a man? Is it my responsibility to disabuse you of all your ridiculous opinions?” Caitlin responded.
“You haven’t done a good job of it so far.”
"And I’ll make no further attempt to stop you.”
Lilith ceased the inquiry and remained quiet until she made a deal of progress. “Well, how do you like it so far?”
Caitlin reopened her eyes. Her hair on the right side was shortened so only a few loose curls wrapped around her ear. The rest was parted left and came down to her neck.
Her sister cocked an eyebrow. “Not even complete and it’s a masterwork? I’m humbled, Cait.”
Caitlin stood and brought herself closer to the mirror. It really was the perfect styling for the journey. Short enough that scoundrels would have a difficult time grabbing it, but enough remained to make it distinct. A true warrior needed a signature look to inspire fear in the hearts of her enemies. “You’ve done well, Lilith. Even I’m impressed.”
Lilith smiled back and crossed her arms. “If you’d really like to thank me, might I be given more information about your mystery man?”
“What time is it? Oh, I’m already running late. Odonia’s guards will be here any minute,” She quipped, stopping at the door. “And I’ll tell you all about the mystery man as soon as I sprout wings and wield a magic sword.”
With the styling in place, the final step was talking to Father.
As he reiterated time and again, Father’s door was always open to his wife and daughters, no matter the time or day. He also understood the world in a way Lilith and even Mother never could.
But now that she was on her way to see him, Caitlin wasn’t so certain. It was also true that, after years of training together, Father knew her better than anyone. Without so much as a hint as to her true intentions, he would know something was amiss.
And if Father knew the truth, he’d never agree to let her go.
“Arahkum on High,” She whispered. “What am I to do?” After everything he’d done for her, Caitlin could never disgrace her father by directly lying to his face. Giving her mother a little white fib was one thing, willingly dishonoring Father was below the worst cretins.
However, her father was still a knight: he knew better than most that their life was one of sacrifice. Knights were sometimes called upon to make the hardest choices for the greater good, and only those with the strongest wills could be called to serve. If anyone was capable of understanding that, it was the King.
Before anything could further cloud her judgement, she picked up her luggage and began making her way out of the castle towards destiny.
Caitlin would’ve liked to sell the luggage to a struggling business for far less than what they were worth. Even if no one suspected Princess Faraday to dress in a hood and boots with her hair cut to her neck, that was still a time consuming risk, and she only needed her clothes and equipment. She settled for leaving them in an obscure part of the Castle her parents were unlikely to find. If they were discovered, her parents would simply assume she forgot her clothes and would ask Odonia to borrow some.
About an hour after she said goodbye to her mother and sister, Caitlin was in the outskirts of the countryside, her only company were birds and the serenity of nature. The sun was high in the sky and bathed the world in its rejuvenating glow, but the air was temperate. She preferred a warmer climate, but if it remained at this level for the rest of the day, there wouldn’t be a problem.
Alone with her thoughts, she had time to reflect on the morning’s events. Deceiving Mother and Lilith was easy enough, but her hesitance to talk to Father made Caitlin wonder: was she wrong to lie to her mother and sister? Of course, she didn’t enjoy lying to her mother and sister, but what choice did she have? They never understood her desire to become a warrior, the Queen in particular. Whenever they were training, Mother always threw a big fuss about how Caitlin didn’t understand what she was getting herself into and Father was a fool for encouraging her. What was so wrong with wanting to follow in your mother’s footsteps, especially when your mother was once one of the most legendary knights in all the lands?
No, Caitlin was totally justified. In fact, she was more resolute than ever
The deception and escape were complete. Next, she needed a horse.
Seeing as borrowing one of her father’s was out of the question, the most logical solution was to purchase one, but where? A random vendor in Amorado was likely to give away their most prized stallion free of charge and keep the exchange a secret if she asked, but that jeopardized the mission. There existed a possibility, however remote, the information would get back to her parents. Walking the whole way wasn’t ideal, but the nearest place one could make the transaction without incident was off course from her destination, so she was at the mercy of-
Caitlin’s heart stopped. About fifty feet in front of her was a stunningly beautiful, powerful horse. The only thing standing in her way was the rider. ____________________________________________________________________________
After the scuffle with the merchant, the rest of Jamie’s day was uneventful. Some of his coworkers were averse to boredom, but he was willing to tolerate a lack of excitement if it meant the people of Amorado were okay. After saying goodbye to Claire, he returned home, said his thanks to Arahkum that his grandfather hadn’t taken Malcot, and began the journey to the O’Doerery home. Returning to one of the most significant places of his youth after a few years away was a pleasant prospect. Jamie also didn’t have to work tomorrow, so the O’Doererys were likely to insist on him staying the night and for breakfast.
As the two moved at a gentle trot, Malcot’s milk white mane billowed in the breeze, and the sun gave her chestnut coat an almost orange sheen. Being able to ride her again was a treat. Jamie fondly recalled how it had taken quite a bit of coaxing to get her to trust him. She was nervous around strangers despite her gentle strength, but once he got her out of her shell, they were a pair to fear. Giving her to the O’Doererys all those years was a painful but valuable lesson about the necessity of sacrifice, and the first of many that-
“What was that?” Jamie said to the forest.
Jamie brought Malcot to a halt and shifted to look back. A rustle, like acorns dropping from the trees. No birds in flight, nothing leaping from one branch to the next, was it the wind? There didn’t seem to be any creature besides him and his compatriot, but instinct told Jamie differently. Like some unseen force was watching him. He brought his hand to his scabbard and-
“Take your hand off the sword and get off the horse,” A slightly muffled female voice said plainly. “Now.”
Jamie retracted his hand and slowly placed both at his sides. A thief with an arrow nocked and ready to fly into his face had snuck up on him.
“I won’t ask again.” She said.
As instructed, he slowly got off Malcot. The way her steely blue eyes were digging through him, Jamie knew she’d kill him without hesitation. Her bow was brilliantly crafted, almost like it was dipped in silver, and her hood and facemask looked to be made from a fine garment that was far outside Jamie’s salary. This was a skilled, dangerous thief. He would have one chance to take her down.
“What’s your name?”
“What’s your name?” She restated.
Jamie had only been a knight for two years, but that was probably the strangest thing a criminal asked of him in his tenure. Regardless, it was probably best to play along. “Raymond. Raymond Christopher. Why?”
“I’m going to give the horse back to you when I’m done.”
Since when did thieves care for compensating their victims? “She doesn’t like strangers,” He backed away as she sidled towards Malcot, the bow still trained on him. “This isn’t going to end how you want.”
“I’m sorry, but you’d never understand.” She hopped onto the saddle only to be sent plummeting into the dirt after Malcot bucked her back legs.
"I told you, she doesn’t like strangers.” Jamie extracted his sword and shield and maneuvered towards the downed thief.
Her eyes flared with frustration and she was back on her feet a second later, nocking another arrow from her quiver. Jamie moved his shield in front of his face to block it. He prepared to charge, but the thief was on him a moment later, swinging her bow at his head. The impact of the weapon on his shield reverberated throughout his whole body, almost taking him off his feet; one blow from that would be more than enough to incapacitate him. Jamie wasn’t quick enough to deflect her driving a boot into a part of his shin left vulnerable by his armor, sending him to one knee. The thief lifted her bow high and Jamie brought the shield over his face. His knees almost crumbled beneath the impact and his sword hand gave out.
“Yield,” She said, pressing the cold point of an arrow into Jamie’s neck. “I’ll return your horse as soon as I’m done.”
That voice was...familiar. Like he knew it from...somewhere.
Doesn't matter , can’t let her take Malcot. Every criminal Jamie encountered viewed fights as kill-or-be-killed. Between that and the promise of returning Malcot, did this thief genuinely hold some sense of honor? Twisted as it might seem to him, perhaps that could be used to his advantage. Thinking quickly, Jamie burst to his feet and wrenched down the thief’s hood in one swift motion.
As intended, the move left her briefly stunned. She dropped her bow and turned away to bring the hood back up with both hands. Now was the time to strike, but the plan had the unintended side effect of also leaving Jamie stunned. The earth beneath him could’ve opened and consumed him, and that probably wouldn’t be enough to draw his attention. Jamie only saw the briefest glimpse of her face before she turned away, but he’d recognize her anywhere.
“Caitlin?” He barely whispered.
The thief who accosted him and attempted to steal Malcot was none other than Caitlin Abigail Faraday. The Princess of Amorado, second daughter of King Benjamin and Queen Mary, just tried to take his horse.
Hundreds of questions stormed to the forefront of Jamie's mind, each fighting to escape. What was she doing in the middle of the forest, so far away from the city? From the castle? Why was she dressed in a hood, a face mask and boots? Why did she try to take Malcot? What did she do to her hair? It was so radically different from what she’d worn throughout the years, but she still looked heart-stoppingly beautiful. When did she learn to-
The Princess whipped around and knocked him on his back with a thunderous punch to the face.
Jamie needed several seconds to regain his composure. He propped himself on an elbow and put up a hand to yield, just in case she planned to strike again. “Caitlin, wait! I’m a knight!” He said. “I’m from Amorado and I serve your father!”
“I knew that,” She said, clearly aggravated with him. “That’s why I was going to return your stupid horse when I was done.”
At a very slow pace, Jamie returned to his feet, careful to not make any sudden movements. “Why did you want my horse? Couldn’t your father get you a horse?”
“You wouldn’t understand,” Caitlin pressed a hand to her face and ran it through her hair. “Leave me alone and tell no one what happened.” She turned and began walking in the opposite direction.
Jamie stood motionless and watched her walk away. The Princess just gave him a direct order, but he was certain that contradicted the King and Queen’s wishes. There was no way to get in contact with them, but he was reasonably certain they’d never agree to let her go without an escort. That meant he had to follow Caitlin until such time as she was safe.
Jamie opened his mouth to call out to her, but his voice failed him. Circumstance forcing him to talk with Caitlin should’ve delighted him, he fantasized about the possibilities countless times, but the reality was far more petrifying. That he managed a few sentences earlier was a miracle, likely attributed to the adrenaline from the fight. He didn’t know if he had the courage for anything more.
But he also knew any member of the royal family was a prime target for mercenaries, bandits, bounty hunters, and anyone with a vendetta against the Faraday name. Just the thought of Princess being put in danger because of his negligence was enough to make his body go cold and his mouth go dry.
“My Lady, wait!” Jamie shouted and almost broke out into a sprint to catch up with the Princess, but he made sure to keep a comfortable distance between them. “You can take my horse back to the castle. I’ll make my way back on foot.”
She continued walking without giving him so much as a glance. “Go away.”
This was going about as well as expected. “Uh, I promise I will, m-my Lady, I will plan to go away, I mean I will go away as soon as I know you’re safe.”
“I don’t need protection from you or anyone else.”
“My Lady,” He began. “I know you may not want to hear this, but if you insist on going into the forest, I think it’s best that we stay together.”
“This conversation is becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate,” The Princess said. “I don’t need my father to make you regret disobeying me.”
Jamie knew nothing he could say or do changed anything if Caitlin truly wanted him gone, but he also knew she wouldn’t kill him for continually badgering her. True, she snuck up on him and tried to steal Malcot, but she only tried to incapacitate him. That was a powerful indication of her character. The Princess wasn’t going to kill him.
At least, he hoped that was the case.
“My Lady, I know you ordered me to go away,” He slowly began. “But either I go with you or I return to Amorado to tell the King and Queen where you and what you’re doing.”
That got her to stop and look at him, if only because she wanted to scowl at Jamie like he suggested they get married. “Excuse me?”
“I-I know how that sounds, I’m not trying to overcome your command, but I swore an oath to the King and Queen, my Lady,” Despite her unyielding scowl, Jamie called upon his years of training and stood his ground. “And I can’t let you go alone.”
She turned away in a fury, her fists balled. Jamie was preparing himself for another punch to the face, but the Princess loosened her fists and turned around. “Fine.”
“I’ll let you come along until I deem you unnecessary.” The Princess clarified.
“Really?” He asked, hope fluttering wildly in his chest.
“Do you wish to stand here and discuss it further?”
“Right. Right, yes, we should get moving,” Jamie whistled and Malcot dutifully trotted over. “She won’t buck you off if I’m riding her. If you don’t mind me directing her, of course.”
The Princess joined his side and lightly rubbed Malcot’s back. “She’s beautiful. What’s her name?”
“Malcot,” Jamie knelt and outstretched his palms to boost her up. “I’ve known her ever since she was a filly.”
The Princess almost kicked him on his back again as she nimbly hopped onto Malcot’s saddle. “I mastered horseback at age thirteen, my father’s tutors said I was the most gifted pupil they ever taught.” She looking down at him.
"I apologize, my Lady, that was rude of me.” Jamie said as he got back to his feet. He probably should’ve known that was unnecessary considering how she hopped onto Malcot’s saddle with ease before their fight. Another dumb mistake, but he also feared not making the offer to a member of the royal family was a violation of customs.
“Rude and stupid.”