Author's Note: I own nothing except my own characters.
The queen was sitting in her study, reading and signing documents. She sighed, not quite sure what was the matter with her today. It had been ten years since her husband had died, and twenty since her son had disappeared. How was her son now, she wondered. Where was he? Did he know who he was, or had he simply died? She shook her head, unwilling to believe it. He was alive and would return someday, she just hoped she would be alive to see it.
She barely heard the door open as an older man entered, looking as if he had seen a ghost. It was Kestrel, the court "wizard." Nowadays it was just an honorary title since magic had faded from the land an age of ages ago. Now the court "wizard" was a man who was renowned for his learning and counsel.
"Kestrel? Are you all right" she asked, somewhat disturbed to see the pale and shaken look on his face.
"I'm fine, Your Majesty" he said, but the frightened look didn't fade from his face. "I came to see you since I've had a vision."
She sat up a little, surprised. It was known that Kestrel was "strange" and that spirits sent visions to him, but he had never actually told someone when he had one.
"Are you sure" she asked, worried.
He nodded. "I cannot doubt it, Your Majesty. It concerns your son."
She felt herself go cold all over. "My son"
"In a week, you must go to the hot springs and soak your feet in the water. That's what I saw you doing. Then a beast will leap out of the bushes at you, and you scream, but your son appears and kills it, saving your life. That is what I saw, and I am sure that if you went to the springs, your son will come"
He was so fervent in his belief that she could not disbelieve it. "In the morning, afternoon, or evening" she asked.
"In the morning, Majesty. It will happen in the morning, and your son will return to you."
Malone squinted in the bright morning sunlight, wishing he could find a quicker way back to the treehouse. He had gone out hunting early this morning, and had been disappointed each time he had his sights set on something. Frustrated and more than a little grouchy, he headed back home, hoping that he hadn't gone so far as to get lost. He was sure that he knew the terrain around the treehouse pretty well by now, but he didn't want to be proven wrong. Pushing aside some branches, he swore under his breath. What he'd thought was the way back to the treehouse was actually a bramble patch. He had to face it: He was lost.
Screaming interrupted his thoughts, and he went running back the way he had come. Pelting headlong back down the hill and toward the screams, he prayed he would be in time to help whoever it was. Roars made him run faster, and he thanked his lucky stars that it was downhill all the way. Bursting through the bushes at the bottom, he saw a woman cornered by a large panther. It took him only a moment to aim and pull the trigger, and the rifle was powerful enough so that it took only one shot to ensure that it was dead. The woman dropped to the ground, shaking and frightened, but apparently unhurt.
"Are you all right" he asked, lowering the gun and going over to her. It looked as if she had been getting ready to bathe in the spring since her shoes and stockings were in a pile at her bare feet.
"I-I'm all right" she said tremulously. She still seemed very frightened. "Are you all right"
"Fine" he assured her, helping her to her feet. She slipped her stockings and shoes on, and held onto his arm, not willing to let him go.
"Are you by yourself" he asked, surprised that she was out here by herself.
She nodded. "Could you escort me home" she requested.
Malone looked at her. She was wearing a dark lavender dress of some very rich material, and her hair was done up in a soft, becoming style that suited her motherly air. He found himself liking her, and he was sure that there was something wrong.
"Why are you out here by yourself" he asked, just to make sure.
"I decided to have a day to myself" she answered. "I needed to get away and clear my head, and I thought a soak in the springs here would do it. I didn't realize a beast would come."
He nodded, convinced. He would help her home and then head back to the treehouse.
They headed off together, chatting companionably. She did some sort of work for her government, and was often plagued by people with petitions or ambitions of their own. Malone began to understand why she had crept off: She just couldn't take it anymore. She asked him all sorts of questions about himself, everything from his name to what his friends were called. Malone was telling her all about Challenger and the work he did when they topped a rise and spotted the city.
"Is that it" Malone asked. Hoofbeats interrupted him.
A group of men rode up, all in some sort of military uniform. "Your Majesty" exclaimed the captain. "Are you hurt"
"I am just fine, captain" she assured him, smiling the slightest bit. "This is Ned, and he saved me from a panther."
All of them sat up at attention in their saddles, their hands coming up in salutes. "Sir"
Another man rode up, older than the soldiers, and he smiled when he spotted them. He was told a quick version of the queen's rescue, and the gentleman insisted that Ned at least remain overnight and be honored as befit the queen's rescuer. Ned's protests fell on deaf ears as the captain pulled him up behind himself and the queen joined the older man on his horse. They cantered off into the city, and Ned wondered what his friends were going to think when he failed to show up for dinner.