“If there is any justice in this world, Arakhum will strike down this barbarian.”

Caitlin’s flawless deception, all that effort and lying, totally undone. Her mother, the smartest, most perceptive person she knew, didn’t suspect a thing! How could she be so stupid as to be found out by this oaf? Why didn’t he just give up the horse when she told him she was going to give her back? What was his name? Richard? Christopher? It didn’t matter. Based on their earlier fight, this oaf was easily bested, so she’d be rid of him shortly. Creating an opportunity to abandon him was going to be easy.

At the very least, the oaf had a wondrous horse. Malcot was beautiful and strong, more than suitable for the journey. She moved through the forest and towards the Imanese Mountain with a graceful, powerful stride. Unlike her owner, she was a companion worthy of the Faraday name. The only difficulty would be getting the skittish mare to trust her. They weren’t going anywhere until that time.

Malcot was weaving between a pair of trees when Christoph said something she couldn’t quite hear.

Oh, please. The oaf wants to converse. Suddenly, spending a day with the Godfreys didn’t seem that bad. Caitlin let out a small sigh. Might as well humor the fool, if only to pass the time. “What was that?”

Christoph cleared his throat and spoke up. “I’ve always admired you-er father.”

If they weren’t trying to get on her good side, her father was the next target. “Is that so?”

"I think I'd make a horrible king. Becoming a knight was difficult, but being responsible for everyone in Amorado, that takes true courage. I don't know much about politics or taxes, but I think he's done a good job so far. Better than the last one-ahh,” He laughed nervously. "I'm sorry, my Lady. I don't know why I said that. I merely thought the current King was a-"

“I concur," Caitlin was surprised he said some many moderately perceptive things in succession, so she decided to spare him further embarrassment. "He is a significant improvement over the last one and you'd make a horrible king."

Thankfully, silence followed. The sun was dipping into the peak of the mountain as it made its descent for the night. It made her think of when she was younger and afraid of the dark. Caitlin could still recall that feeling of primal terror deep in her gut when she was descending the stairs alone into an unlit part of the castle. Now, however, those fears held no sway. Whatever challenge fate presented her, she was ready to stand without fear.

“Did you plan on spending the night somewhere?”

"No. Is there any particular reason you’re asking?” Caitlin couldn’t believe he broke the peace to say that. The coward was afraid of the dark, wasn’t he?

“I-uh, don’t mean to...impose you around, my Lady. I think it would be good if we stopped travelling until morning. I only want what’s best for your safety.”

“If you say so, Christoph,” How on earth could a knight be afraid of the dark? “But I don’t need you to concern yourself with my safety. I’m more than capable of handling myself.”

“Christiansen.” He said.

“What was that?”

“Christiansen. My name is Christiansen. Jamie Christiansen.”

“Right,” Caitlin said. “Well, Christiansen, you are free to spend your nights wherever you wish. Malcot and I will continue on.”

“Uh, I’m sorry, my Lady, but I can’t let you or Malcot go alone. She sticks with me no matter what.”

Did Christiansen think he was being subtle? “You can trust me to bring her back unharmed. I’ll treat her as if she were my own. And have you forgotten I bested you in combat? I don’t need you for anything.”

He brought Malcot to a halt and slid off her saddle. “I have no doubt about that, my Lady, but I can’t let either of you go alone. I need to make sure you’re both safe.”

She slid off as well and almost got in his face “And as I’ve told you several times now, I don’t care about what you want, and I don’t need you to be my bodyguard. Why are you so insistent on following me when you know I’m a better warrior than you?”

The question struck a nerve, as Christiansen’s face turned red and he started at her with wide eyes. “Because I-” He paused and looked away. “Because I don’t want to get exiled. If the King and Queen heard I didn’t join you, they’d likely exile me from Amorado. And that would be bad. Because it would be dishonorable.”

Christiansen was either a terrible liar or a prideful buffoon, but there was no time to focus on that. Some distance away, smoke billowed into the evening sky. Caitlin darted towards the fire.

“Caitlin-my Lady, wait! Where are we going?”

Caitlin hustled through the trees with her typical grace and speed, undeterred by whatever protests the oaf offered. She needed to make sure she wasn’t being followed, by her parents or anyone else. The source of the smoke was two bandits sitting around a campfire.

"So, the old lady just wants us to sit around and wait? That don’t strike you as a bit strange? I ain’t an expert, but most ah’ these bastards pay fools to fight their battles. Unless they’re those freaks from Efline. Everybody from there gives me the creeps.” The brawny man said, stuffing a spoonful of beans into his mouth. He wore bulky armor and his heavily scarred face told Caitlin she needed to eliminate him first before moving to his skinnier compatriot.

Embroidered on both their shoulders was a symbol; in the light of the fire, it looked like a sword surrounded by a large hand. Were they part of some mercenary coalition?

“With how much she gave us up front, I ain’t gonna question her. If she’s right, we’re set forever, and if she turns out to be fulla’ it, who cares? We got paid to sit around and eat.” The skinny man said with a chortle.

As she was scanning her targets behind the cover of a tree, Christiansen came up behind her. “My Lady, I think we should-”

Caitlin turned and shushed him before returning her focus to the bandits.

“And another thing,” The brawny man continued. “Since when have you ever heard of a princess who goes around fighting on her own? Shouldn’t she have a boyfriend escortin’ her or something?”

“Old lady didn’t mention no boyfriend. I think that’d be an important detail, but we’ll deal with him too,” His skinny companion responded with a mouthful of food. “Listen to me, Harry, you’re thinkin’ too hard on this one. The old lady wants the princess of Amorado dead, she’s gonna be all alone, and we’re the best on the market. Simple as, brother.”

“My Lady, I think we need to return to the castle right now.”

Caitlin rolled her eyes and looked back at him. “You are free to go. I’m going to find out what these fools know and finish them.”

“If that is what you wish, fine,” At last, he conceded. The smartest decision of his life. “But I insist that I take them on.”

“Do you still believe I’m some pampered brat who can’t protect herself? I bested you in a fight!”

“That is correct. But you are too important to...uh-to put in danger.”

If Christiansen kept up with the blabbering, they’d be found out. “Fine. I’ll cover you.”

He nodded, taking out a dagger from a sheath at his hip. “Thank you, my Lady.”

While most of his training concerned taking an enemy head-on, Jamie was well trained in becoming one with the shadows. It was an uncommon occurrence, but knowing how to sneak up on a criminal could mean the difference between life and death. Assuming everything went his way, Jamie would cut down the big one with a dagger, then unsheathe his sword to strike down the skinny one before he knew what was happening.

Keeping low, Jamie crept silently through the dark of night, careful to avoid any rogue branches that might give away his position.

“I know we didn’t discuss it with the rest ah’ the guys, but a princess is pretty nasty business. We’re probably gonna end up with a bounty on all our heads. A real big bounty.”

“With what she promised, we can disappear where no one will ever find us.”

Whatever he was planning on saying was forever lost as Jamie covered his mouth and ran a dagger across his throat. He then extracted his sword from his sheath and dashed, driving it through the skinny one’s chest as he brought a spoon to his lips.

“Goddammit, it’s a knight!” A shout from across the campfire drew Jamie’s attention.

“Oh, you are gonna pay for that ya’ fuckin’ basta-” A second mercenary carrying firewood next to that one let out a pained cry as an arrow embedded itself in his leg. His companion whipped around to find Caitlin sprinting at him. He preemptively charged with his sword raised, but Caitlin dodged to the side and smacked him in the head with her bow before finishing him with an arrow.

Once the display of incredible efficiency was concluded, Caitlin placed a boot on the downed mercenary’s chest. “Who is this ‘old woman’ you’re talking about? Why did she hire you to find Caitlin Faraday?”

“I got no idea, I swear,” He choked out. “About your height, green eyes, auburn hair. Didn’t say what she wanted with the Princess, but she said she’d be comin’ this way tonight or tomorrow. She paid a whole lot up front and promised way more when the job was done. That’s all I know. I swear on my life.”

Now at her side, Jamie looked at Caitlin. “That’s all we’re getting. He doesn’t know anything else.”

“Listen, you gotta’ finish me,” He pleaded. “Screwin’ up jobs means death, and messin’ up one this big means they’re gonna’ come back here and make me wish I was dead. You got no idea what they do to traitors.”

Caitlin extracted an arrow from her quiver and granted the request.

“I wasn’t planning on torturing him. Even scum like this don’t deserve that.” Caitlin said.

The fight was over and the Princess was unharmed, but Jamie’s heart was still thudding throughout his chest. “My Lady, I think it’s very important we return to the castle right now. We need to tell the King and Queen someone with a lot of money has put a bounty on your life.”

“Again, you are free to do whatever you want,” She said. “I will continue on without you.”

“My Lady, forgive me for disagreeing, but I think that’s a bad idea. Whatever this clan is, it sounds like there’s more of them and they’ve been paid a lot to target you. The best thing we can do is return to the castle so we can inform your father.”

“Proper escort,” The Princess mimicked his words. “Do you need another demonstration proving I can take care of myself?”

As stubborn as his grandfather could be at times, the Princess made him look easy going and genial. Jamie could see where this was going, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try to avoid it. “My Lady, I understand if you don’t want to tell me, but why are you so intent on going into the forest by yourself?”

To his surprise, the Princess contemplated the question for a few moments instead of firing off another snarky retort. “My grandmother.”

“Do you mean Queen Abigail?”

“Yes,” She said. “I’m going to tell you the truth, whether you choose to believe it or not,” The Princess continued, meeting his eyes again. “I don’t know if it was a dream, or a vision, or a premonition, but a week ago, my grandmother, Queen Abigail, visited me. She told me she’d been watching me my whole life. She said she understood what was troubling me, and I’d find what I’d always wanted if I ventured to the Imanese Mountain.”

The words hung in the air as Jamie was almost too shocked to respond. Partially because she revealed that part of herself, partially because of what she revealed. “I thank you for sharing this with me, my Lady. It’s said that those who’ve passed on watch over their loved ones,” Jamie said. “But Queen Abigail passed away before either of us were born. You’re certain it was her?”

“I saw her, I heard her voice, she was standing there beside me, just as you are now. It was her, Christiansen. People talk to Arahkum all the time and He’s been known to respond. Is it so unusual He’d send a friendly emissary?”

Arahkum sending messages to people wasn’t unheard of, but why would Queen Abigail want her granddaughter to become a warrior? After seeing what became of her husband? After the King and Queen nearly sacrificed everything to stop him?

But whatever reservations Jamie held, Caitlin wasn’t going to let anyone keep her from undertaking this quest. The Princess was going to the Imanese Mountain, with or without him.

“Abigail,” Jamie said quietly. “That’s your middle name.”

“Yes. How did you know that?”

A wave of heat rose to Jamie’s cheeks. “Uh, I don’t know. I mean, I didn’t know for sure, that was a lucky guess. I’m named after my grandfather, so I assumed that’s how it was for everyone. I should get Malcot,” He turned to whistle to the horse, but turned back to the Princess. “That is, if you’re okay with me joining you?”

Caitlin threw her arms up and let them fall to her side. “I suppose it’s either let you come along or you run to my parents to tell them my whereabouts. Not much of a choice.”

Another wave of heat rose to his cheeks. “Are you sure?”

“I will not repeat myself yet again, Christiansen.”


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