Chapter One Huntress
Her face fills my mind. Bow draw, elbow cocked back, perfect aim. She releases the arrow and it tears through her target's chest.
She whips her sleek black hair out of her face. I watch as the people crowd around the man's body. King Roscoe Fereldy Harkness.
I have dropped so low. I have stooped to falling for such an illegal creature. We're at war with this king's country. Several of our king's best men died attempting what she has just accomplished.
Screams and tears and rage fill the night.
She jumps from the tree and lands on her horse. She kicks it into a Gallop and races into the night, her black hair and black cape billowing out behind her.
I turn my horse as well and race off in her direction.
I must meat her. I must know her. I must know this huntress's name.
Many of my comrades would wish to find her name, so that they could have the honor of turning her in. Not I.
I round the corner I saw her take moments ago and she is gone.
Where has my dark beauty gone?
Chapter Two Home
I look over my shoulder to see if he's disappeared. Idiotic soldier. He's always following me, when he sees me.
What a surprise it would be to him, if he knew that I was just a pathetic poor forest born girl. I've no relation with any noble families anymore. My mother was an ambassador's daughter, but she died and their family was removed from the nobles. Considering the soldier is the prince, he's definitely noble. He's also handsome, strong, and mysterious. My favorite of all…..dark and deep.
Well now my dark mysterious prince soldier is on his way to his father to tell him that once again, the huntress has struck.
I weave through the trees towards my campsite.
I know that I can sleep safely tonight, for the enemy is dead. I reach the comfort of my blanket and tent.
What fools they were! Setting there camp in Allricose's forest.
I am Knox of Allricose and I have once again saved my people.
A twig snaps. I reach for my bow.
"Don't even think about it milady." His Kanese accent rings in my ears. "Now get up and turn around." I do as he says and see that he has two other men with him. One has an arrow drawn and the other has his javelin ready. There light hair proves that they're from Kanese.
"Oh, yes. You'll be a worthy consolation prize." He takes a few more steps. "You see. It was my job to protect the king and I failed, but I tried my hardest, so I'm claiming my prize." He reaches for me and I flip back and kick him. I grab two knives and through them with speed and swiftness. They strike home. I take them out of there dead bodies and move on to the one still alive. I take a pan and swing it over his head, knocking him right out. Taking some rope, I bind his wrists and ankles together tight and tie the rope to my horses saddle. I reach for my quill and parchment. I scrawl a message on it.
Your thanks is not needed. The enemy's king is dead. This man will prove that. I killed the king. I killed two other stupid men who thought that they could kill me. You'll find them near the enemy camp. I will remain faithful to my home land. I will remain faithful to his majesty our king.
I am no one's.
I roll the parchment and tie it around the man's neck.
Pack up my tent, load it on my horse, hop on, and race towards my prince soldier's camp. The rope is tied to the front of the saddle and he drags behind. I spot the camp and decide to make my night fun. I pull my scarf up so it hides all my face except my eyes and race towards the camp. I storm through and the soldiers move out of the way.
"Get you bows!" I hear a voice.
"NO! It's a woman!" I slice my knife through the rope and race to the cover of the trees. None follow.
I make it farther into the trees and set my camp back up.
A hand glides gently on my shoulder.
I whip around.
"You!" I hiss, my scarf is lying on the ground and my prince soldier is standing only a few feet away from me. "You'll ruin everything!"
"I would never speak of your identity." He says with no fear in his deep voice. It makes me shiver. "I've followed you, many times. I've watched you from afar and seen you hunt. For so long I have longed to see you. To meet you." He sighs. "You're even more beautiful than I imagined."
I study him before speaking. He had brought his sword.
"Fight me." I command.
"I would never."
"Fight me. You've two hands. Fight me."
"You're a lady."
"I'm a worrier. Are you afraid?" at that he unhooks his belt and lays it on the ground. I remove my cape and skirt, for I have my father's old leggings under it. I'm aware that he is admiring my form. I've sewn this shirt's sleeves into thin straps, for the warm days. I reach down and tighten my flat black leather boots.
"I fear nothing." I admire his wide shoulders and abdomen muscles as he removes his jacket and shirt. Showing off. He might actually be a challenge.
He lunges and I narrowly avoid it. He reaches for my waist and I bend down on my right leg and sweep my left under his knees, causing him to fall.
"What's you name" he asks lunging again.
"Just call me Knox." I slow for one moment and he catches my waist. I try to trip him again, but he pulls me so my back is pressed tight to his chest.
"I win." He states.
"That you do." I reply. "Not an easy feet, when the challenger is me."
"Since I won, I get to ask you a few questions." He says, still not releasing me. As if sensing my fear he says, "I'll not bring you back to my camp against your will. Though it would please me greatly if you would."
"You are the first and the last to see my face. None others shall. I'll be executed. You seem to have forgotten that I am an illegal existence. A woman acting like a soldier."
"I could protect you."
"I need no protection."
"I have influence over the king. He trusts me."
"I know that you are the prince. I have watched you also." It is true. The first time I realized he'd been following me, I followed him to his father.
"Then you know that you'd always be safe with me."
"I'm a forest girl. King Renold would never accept me."
He turns me around. I look into his grey eyes and can't seem to look away. His brown locks fall in his eyes that are illuminated by my small fire. I long reach out and brush one of the locks away.
I tear my gaze away and look down. My hair falls in my eyes and he tucks it behind my ears.
"What is you name?" I ask. "For I will not call you, your highness."
"My name is Willem, but I would prefer you called me Will."
"Will." I repeat.
"I must see you again. If you will not come back to camp with me, then where do you live? I'll visit you often."
"I've not been home in months. I wonder these trees looking for work with boarding. I lost most of my family long ago. I live with my pa."
"I was young. Eleven years maybe. I'm sixteen now." He almost looks startled by my age.
"You look much older. Twenty at least."
"Your age does not matter to me. I'll never see you again." I feel wetness in my eyes. Is it sadness that I'll never see Will again?
"Do not say that. I must see you again."
"You'll die. They all do."
"I'm strong." He smiles and I find myself lost in his eyes again. "And I'd have you to protect me."
He pulls me to him once more, but this time I face him.
His arms feel right around me. It's been so long since I was held this way. So long since anyone but my father has shown me affection.
He tilts my head back and kisses me. His lips are warm and soft against mine. My heart sings.
"Marry me." The prince says.
"I'll be no queen."
"I'll not fight you in any manner again."
"I've been alone for so long. Stay with me tonight." I plead.
"I would have watched you from the trees. I could do it even better sleeping next to you." He kisses me again.
I guide him to my tent, where my blanket lays. The tent is just tall enough, that I can stand, but Will bends just a little.
I kick my boots off and remove my father's belt.
He kisses my neck and I kiss his jaw.
"You're so beautiful." I break from his arms and lay down.
Will shrugs out of his boots and lies next to me.
"I've waited so long for this." He says. "I remember the first time I saw you hunt. Three years ago. You must have only been thirteen or fourteen. Yet your shot was so perfectly aimed. The old merchant never saw it coming."
"It didn't take long for me or my father to realize that I wasn't cut out to be the lady of the forest, the one that attends the balls, the one that is courted by noble men." I take a breath. "I've been courted, but all men were very ugly and they all smelled like dung." He laughs.
"And that is what makes it amusing." He replies.
"Speaking of dung, I once tackled my cousin face first in it for laughing at me." He grows silent and I laugh.
He smoothes my hair back from my face. "Sleep now my black beauty and have sweet dreams. I look forward to waking beside you."
True to his word, I wake with his arms wrapped tightly around my waist and his face buried in my neck.
I kiss his hair to wake him up. "Will, you must be going back to your camp, for your soldiers must be frantic in your absence and I must continue my journey back to my father." We exit the tent and he hastily helps me pack up my camp.
"Goodbye for now, my black beauty." I lean down from my horse and we kiss on last time.
"Yaw!" Soul shoots forward like an arrow from my bow.
I pick up the scarf she left and lift it to my nose. My head fills with the sweet smell of her. Lavender and forest.
My shirt is gone.
Little thief! She wants to remember me also.
I make my way back through the trees.
"Your highness!" My second shouts saluting me.
"Ay! Will!" my brother calls. "What you got there?"
He asks eyeing Knox's scarf.
"This looks damn near the same bloody scarf that fair lady was wearing last night."
"That's because it is her scarf."
"You met her?"
"No." I answer. "I took a shot at tracking her. This is all I found."
"Where's your shirt?"
"Ripped it on branch, wasn't wearing my jacket."
"Well, that soldier that she dragged through here confirmed that the king was killed. Killed by the very women who tied him up."
"She's quite remarkable, don't you agree?" I ask Gregory.
"Well of course. If I were the one going into the kingship I would track her down and make her a member of my army. Or my queen." He laughs.
"Same here." I say.
"Yes but you are going to be king."
"Something tells me that she doesn't want to be found." I say pointedly at him. I raise my voice. "We'll speak of the huntress no more!" anger sweeps through me for letting her slip away.
My father sits outside our cabin as if he knew I would be home at this day and hour.
"Father!" I hop from my horse and into my father's embrace.
"You've been long this time, child." I feel his smile.
"It is done. King Roscoe is dead. I left my arrow once again."
"Your calling card." He says leading me inside.
I retreat to the separate room that houses my hunting supplies and shed my gear. I take a red died skirt, a brown skirt, brown boots, and slip them on.
I come out and father sets a fresh hot loaf of bread on the table.
After eating I lay on my cot and let sleep take me.
"Just because you're a hero doesn't mean that you don't have chores Anna!" My father calls.
I get out of bed, pull on my boots, and grab a basket.
I head out the door and head for the coop. I collect the eggs and move on to the goat.
"Make sure you head down to Mart's and get more dough!"
"I'll go now!" I call back and start walking down the trail.
Mart is my father's closest friend and our closest neighbor and he and his wife Fern still live a good half hour away. I make it however in less time and Fern loads my basket with a few pounds of her bread dough.
The thundering sound of hooves of horses pulls me out of my thoughts.
I look behind me at the road. Royal flags rivet through the air. The army is returning back to the capitol.
The first rider jerks to a stop when he sees me crossing the road.
I shout. "Ay! What's your problem?! You see a poor girl walkin down the road side and you almost run her over!"
"Move aside little girl, this is the kings army." The man says. Kings army! Will must be riding in this company. "You don't shout in the king's presence."
I glance behind him and sure enough an older burly man with a crown sitting firmly on his head.
I make a quick curtsey.
"I can see that this is the king's army, but you're not the king and you could have killed me on the spot, so I suggest you apologize." I retort.
"Little girl move aside or you will be forcefully moved."
"My name is not little girl. I'm sixteen and my name is Anna."
At that another horse rides up. Will.
"Well, Miss Anna of Allricose and of the forest, if my lead horseman refuses to apologize than I extend mine."
"I do not accept your majesty."
"I would be honored to see you safely back to your home." He A says.
"I'll be fine."
"I insist. A beautiful young girl such as yourself should not be walking through these woods alone at night. It would be no trouble for me really."
"That is very kind of you sir, but I'm almost there." I reply letting small amounts of anger slip into my rough forest tone.
"I simply won't take no for an answer." He hops down from his horse, places a hand on my back, and leads me to his horse.
He grabs me by the waist and lifts me up. He climbs on behind me his arms form a sort of cage around me as he takes the reins.
I lean into him and whisper low enough that the others can't hear. "I said no, you idiot!"
"And I said I won't take no for an answer." Louder he says. "Ride on, I'll catch up." He turns his horse suddenly and rides in the direction I was walking.
Once out of earshot he speaks. "I wasn't going to let you slip away twice." His arms ruined my plan to jump off the back of the horse. "Now tell me where you live, so I can take you home."
"Well then." He sighs. "I suppose we'll just have to ride around for the whole night."
"It does not matter when I go home, but you have the royal victory feast and parade to attend tomorrow and your father would grow worried if you did not return. My father knows what I am and he would just assume that I had another job."
He jerks to a halt. "Come to the feast."
"I cannot and I will not."
"You could be my guest. My father would right us off as meaningless courtship."
I know how to get rid of him. "So you're saying I'm meaningless to you?"
"No! You're so much to me. I've wanted you for so long. I've loved you ever since I saw you."
I jerk out of his arms and off the horse. I run.
I stop dead in my tracks, turn around and look him in the eye.
"I can't do this!" I turn and run and weave through the trees. I weave farther and farther into the trees and crash into my father.
He's wearing his hunting gear. He hasn't touched it since the first time I went hunting. He went with me, but after that he gave his position to me.
"I heard you shouting." He hugs me and I cry. "It's been so long since you cried. What has happened?"
"You heard everything."
"He loves you no doubt, but do you feel even remotely the same way?"
"He's been following me since I was thirteen. He knows what I am and I am afraid. The prince knows my identity."
"You know that your mother was noble."
"Yes, she was the ambassador's daughter."
"On one very important mission I noticed a beautiful girl had noticed me hiding. She wasn't telling anyone. It was a market day and I had been hired to kill a merchant that had murdered a man. I shot him clean through with my bow and left. I was in the trees and I turned around and there was that beautiful girl.
"Please don't kill me." The girl had said. "I just wanted to meat you."
"I told her that I would never harm a lady. That night I kissed her." My father looked blissfully calm. "We kept trying to meet as often as we could. One night I took her to my home and we made love. After we were married we made love every night. We received word from the apothecary that she was pregnant. Nine months later we had the most beautiful baby girl. One day I had come home from a hunt and your mother and I were discussing it. Out of nowhere you screeched "HUNT!" your mother and I both knew that you were going to be the first huntress.
The worst day of my life, was when the ambassador got word of where his daughter had went. He stormed into this house with a group of soldiers and he killed his own daughter instantly and I killed him and all his soldiers."
"The spirits of the night." I say.
"Yes. They give us the ability to project our strength and energy with their rested spirits."
"I remember that day. It was the first time I ever used the spirits. I haven't been in enough danger to use them since."
"The point of this is that people like us aren't meant to be loved by others."
"We fall in love and we drag them down with us." I say. "I don't want to do that to Will, especially because he's the prince. Why did he have to be the prince?"
"We can't help who we fall for."
"But I don't want to be queen." I shudder at the thought. "I'm not cut out for it."
My father pulls me into his warm embrace. "It's all going to work out. You'll see." With that he leads me back to the cabin and he tucks me into my cot and kisses my cheek like he did when I was young.
"I love you."
"I love you to."
My sleep is peaceful and I don't once think of Will.
The next few months pass free of stress and free of thought of that what's his name prince.
I've taken time off of the hunt. The costumers would come to my father and he would send me. We've had paying costumers, but we have refused. My father and I agreed that I would keep practicing, but would not hunt a human again until I turn eighteen, for the sake of my humanity and mental wellbeing.
May and market day are approaching.
"Anna!" I bolt up out of bed.
"You need to finish the baskets, your skirts, and find all the eggs you can. You've got to head out to the capitol in three days!" my father shouts.
"I'm getting up. Don't blow your throat out!" I haul myself out of bed and to the kitchen to grab an armful of basket handles. I walk out the door down to the creek and pull off my boots, to stick my bare feet in the running water.
I take a basket and continue to tie off ends and weave so that they can hold water.
"Anna!" I turn around to see Ben galloping to me. He's holding a basket full of food. Ben is currently my object of fixation. His hair is so black it's almost ink. His blue eyes stand out like ice.
"Hello, Ben." I say more cheerfully than I meant to.
He kicks off his boots and sits down next to me resting his feet in the water. He puts his arm casually around my shoulders and I snuggle in. Ben makes me feel a way that I never have before. He helped me find out who I am. Picky, funny, according to him lovable, smart, clever. I think I may love him.
He's forest born, just like me.
"Would you like to share my horse on the way to the capitol?" he asks.
"I've too much to bring."
"My mother is sending me with a trailer wagon."
"Well, you can't ride in that." I say with a laugh. "I would love to."
Ben is quite taller than me and he's far more muscular than any other man I've met. He chops the wood for seven family's fires, including ours. He's paid well for it.
I remember the first day he showed up on our doorstep, shirtless and sweaty.
"Good evening, ma'am." He said. "I believe Wane sent for me." He was carrying an ax.
"We need no help with the wood. I've done it fine." He seemed as if he didn't believe me.
"You're quite a tiny thing. How do you chop fire wood?" he asked.
"With an ax." He cracks a handsome smile. "And just because I'm tiny, it doesn't mean that I can't be strong. I really don't know why my father sent for you." Just as I said that my father gave me a look that screamed "Don't screw this up."
"I would love to have your company while I work."
"I'll see if you're good enough to work for my family."
"Good." my father coughed unintelligibly. So I had put on my best seductive smile and laughed. "We'll pay you, if you can catch me!"
I ran as fast as I could. He ended up tackling me to the ground when he caught me. "I tripped. I swear." He had said. Then we ended up visiting each other as often as we could.
Ever since I met Ben, any feelings I had for Will quickly began to fade and new feelings, feelings for Ben, began to wake up.
It took me several minutes to realize that Ben was calling my name.
He shakes my shoulder lightly.
"Anna? Are you here?"
"What? Oh! Yes I'm here, I was just thinking." I sigh.
"And what, my lady, were you thinking about."
"That night when you showed up on my doorstep wielding an ax and looking very appealing."
"That's exactly what I was thinking about, except that I was thinking about how I tripped." He says.
"Yes you had to have been very clumsy to have been six feet away from me, trip over an invisible vine, get launched in the air, and land on me in the process." We both laugh. He takes a basket and his practiced fingers begin to weave much tighter than mine.
"Where will you be staying in the city?" he asks. Normally the women that come for market day would stay in extra servant's quarters at the palace, but I've long feared entering the palace.
"I'll most likely be sleeping on the ground."
"Why do you say that?"
"No reason." He takes my hand. "If you weave like that you'll be making strainers." He moves closer and guides my hand over to the loose pieces of the thin bark and rope. "You need to pick up the rhythm. In and out. In and out. Under and over. Under and over. It's the same way all the way through." He's describing sex.
Ben moves closer and he runs his hand over my shoulder, sending vibrations deep into my body.
"Stop playing around and kiss me already." With that he pulls my head back gently and kisses me, with a passion that makes me feel like I'll light on fire. I kiss him back. His fingers pull through the tangles in my hair.
With Ben, I'm human.
With Will, I'm hunter.
Which is me?
These past few months I've been slowly declining. I can't shake the memory of Anna. The loss of her has dragged me into depression. I've tried to forget her and move on, just as I know she did.
Right now she's probably sleeping in another man's arms. The thought angers me.
No one is good enough for her. Just maybe I might be.
"Son." My father enters my bed chamber. "The only thing that can drive a man into this kind of depression is a woman. Who is she?" My father asks.
"The girl in the forest. She was so beautiful. I can't stop thinking about her."
"She was a beauty. Were she older I would have brought her back for myself." My father laughs.
"Father, when has age ever stopped you?" I ask remembering the young age of my mother. My father twenty and she was a fourteen princess from Condole, our ally.
"I'm a man of forty-seven and still have young beauties sneaking their way into my bed. Your mother was fourteen. This girl is sixteen. She's in your age class, but not your rank." He says trying to reason with me.
"When as rank stopped you? I do remember the night when I was thirteen and went to your room in the middle of the night and saw that sixteen year old girl lying underneath you. When your war captain walked by and saw, he pulled me back to my room and when I asked him what you were doing, he said 'Your father and a forest girl are naked wrestling and your father is winning".
"Just because I'm older now, doesn't mean I don't deserve a little pleasure now and then." He smiles sarcastically.
"Anna." I sigh. "She was beautiful."
"Well, then why are you speaking of her as if she's dead?" my father asks exasperated. "You're a powerful man. Go after her."
"I cannot. She's no one's." I say thinking of the note she left.
"Well, then you best be getting out of bed. Today's market day and we'll have numerous supplicants for sure." With that he exits and I dress for the day.
I look out the window at the carts and wagons coming into the square.
"Anna!" Ben calls from the lane outside my home.
I race for the door and my father catches my arm.
"Could you at least kiss your father goodbye?" I kiss him on the cheek and race out the door. After Ben and I finish loading my supplies on the trailer my father calls out again.
"You'd better not come back with grandchildren!"
Ben hoists me up on his horse and my father once again runs up to the horse carrying a basket with something rapped in a sheet.
"Ben you best be taking care of my little hunter."
My eyes grow wide at that.
I feel Ben's breath against my ear. "Relax. I take part in the hunt."
"Thank God. I thought I was going to have to kill you."
"I have no doubt that you would and could do it much faster than I." I hear his easy laughter and my whole body relaxes.
My father hands me the basket. Inside it rests my cape, bow, a fresh sheath of arrows, and three throwing knives.
"You never know when you might need these." He pats my knee and as he's turning around his eyes sparkle with tears.
Ben kicks his horse into a gallop.
"Why didn't you tell me that you were a hunter of the assassin variety?"
"Why didn't you tell me that you were?" he asks. "You didn't trust me, but I knew I would trust you the minute I set eyes on you. After you gave me that seductive little smile of yours I knew that I didn't have a choice. I was yours."
"I hate to break it to you, but you still are."
"It pleases me to hear you say that, but are you mine?"
"Yes." For the first time I say it.
I've always been mine. I've never been anyone's
My signature line was always, "I'm no one's."
Now I'm someone's.
I'm Anna, of Allricose.
I'm Knox of the Hunt.
Which one is the real me?
After three hours riding under the night sky, the sky starts to lighten as the sun begins to rise. After five hours of riding under the light rays the sun becomes blazing.
We've come to the cross roads that lie just beneath the city just before it floods with carts and wagons, but we beat them. He slows and I shrug out of my thin cape and wrap it around my head, like the traditional headscarf of the forest women. We wear head scarves, simply because we know that the brown haired city women are jealous of our long, beautiful, strait, black, locks. And to keep it out of your faces when we're cleaning horse and cow shit out of the pastures.
We ride more slowly when we reach the gated wall of the capitol. Just before the guards come to check our cart I take the sheet, balloon it around the basket, and shove it under my shirt. It gives the impression that I'm pregnant.
The idiot guard buys it and we're through.
"Anna, why didn't you tell me?" Ben asks sarcastically over exaggerating his accent when he sees the guards looking at him in disgust. I see what he's doing.
"Well, me being eight moths along and all, I thought you would have noticed!"
"Well I didn't and now we're it's gona be deformed after last night!" once passed the gates we laugh.
"That's what they really think of us isn't it?" he asks.
"Maybe not." I answer. "Maybe they thought I was too young to have a baby. That I was a runaway." I pause for a moment. "Or they thought that we were just two uneducated idiots and I got knocked up by the hick down the lane." We laugh again.
We pull into a large enough area to set up our carts.
I pull out the large pieces of wood with ease and set up three of them.
Two on the bottom and one on the top, to make a makeshift counter.
I the hammer and a few bolts and nail them down into the top piece so that it doesn't collapse. Next I take my baskets, pile them on top of each other, and set them next to my station.
I fold the skirts of all colors and set them on the counter and do the same with the crates of eggs.
My first buyer is young brown haired city girl. She seems nice enough and wealthy.
"Ooh!" she exclaims pulling a pale pink skirt out of the pile. "How much?"
"Six gold necks." I say we call our gold coins gold necks, because of the swan like pattern stamped on the front.
"I suppose that's a reasonable price." She doesn't hesitate to give me the coins, except the girl's too stupid to count them and she gives me ten. Hey I'll take it.