Between the lines

Chapter One

I peered through the undergrowth, my grey eyes narrowed. Tha-thump. Tha-thump. The drumming sounds of hoof beats on the dirt road made me tense.

My name is Marley Elizabeth Frost. I'm now sixteen years old, but that fateful day I was only twelve. Believe what you will, but fairytales all have a sliver of truth. I would know; I walk between the lines that scroll across storybooks, ducking in and out of adventure after adventure. I have been inside almost every folktale or love story you have ever heard. This is how I know they're real. I'm a part of them, somewhere in the grey haze that makes up the background. The person who's shadow is cast for no more than a moment along the palace wall as she passes the room where Princess Rose is leaning over the spindle of a spinning wheel, her finger hovering above the sharp point.

On that fateful day, I brushed a strand of dark hair out of my face and snatched up the bow that rested against my bent knee. Pulling on my mask and stepping out from behind my hiding place, I moved out onto the road. I nocked and arrow and pulled back on the string. The carriage that approached was an ominous black, deep purple outlining the edges with a color so rich, that even in the dark it was entrancing. The carriage rushed towards me, its horses screeching at my sudden appearance. The first reared back, causing the entire carriage to spin to one side and stop. I quickly approached, my arrow aimed at the driver.

He gripped the horses' reins and looked at me nervously. "Please don't hurt me."

I rolled my eyes and let my arrow fly. It caught the man's sleeve at the shoulder, pinning him to the carriage. Apparently, he didn't notice the fact that I was a whole head shorter than he was.

Moving to the door of the carriage and throwing it open, I placed another arrow on the string of my bow. There was a single man inside the carriage, a midget really. His thin, brown hair matched his short beard and thick eyebrows, but he was unnervingly calm for someone who was about to be robbed.

"Any gold in here," I said gruffly, tossing him a burlap sack. "No funny busy and no silver, and no one gets hurt."

The little man's lips turned up in a wicked smile. "Of course."

I watched carefully as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a small handful of straw.

"What is this?" I demanded. "I want gold, fool!"

Holding up a finger, the man's mouth formed an 'O' shape. Then, his smile returned and he closed his fingers over his palm one at a time. He turned his hand upside down over the sack and glanced up at me. I swallowed. This wasn't how it was supposed to be. Highwaymen were not supposed to be teased. I had only been robbing the road for about a month, but I was already making a name for myself. The Masked Archer. How did this man not know who I was?

Then, just when I thought I was ready to put an arrow through him, the little man opened his hand. Gold coins spilled from his palm and into the sack until it was half-filled. Amazed, my mouth dropped open slightly.

"Who are you?" I breathed, snatching the sack away and tucking it into my cloak.

The little man threw back his head and laughed. "Wouldn't you like to know! The miller's daughter sent you, did she? Well now that's not very fair, is it?" He laughed again and pulled the door shut before I could make a move towards him. "That girl only has one more day to guess, but I like you," the man called out the window. "Three years until you're debt is to be repaid, young Marley."

I stepped away from the carriage as the driver whipped the reins. Puzzled, I waited on the roadside until the plumes of dust the horses kicked up faded away. When they did, the carriage was gone.

Three years later, I sat on a barrel outside the Forge Hut hugging my knees. Gale Woodems was seated on the ground below me, leaning back against the barrel.

"You going on another midnight walk tonight?" Gale looked up at me with his dark blue eyes and gave me a crooked grin.

"Hush up, Gale," I prodded the back of his head with my foot.

Mr. Woodems stepped out of the hut, wiping the back of one hand across his forehead to clear some of the sweat. His muscles bulged and I couldn't help but wonder if the story Gale had told me about him being a half-giant was true. But he had to be large; as a blacksmith it was a job requirement. As Mr. Woodems brought his hand down from his face, he somehow managed to catch the only smudge with his finger and turn it into a smear that ran down from his ear to his jaw.

"Hullo, Marley," he patted me on the shoulder with a hand the size of my head. "Looking forward to the King and Queens three-year marriage celebration tomorrow?"

I smiled. "As always, Mr. Woodems. Can Gale help me with something for a minute before his break it over?" I decided not to mention the reason why I was so looking forward to it; the nobles would have more gold than usual for a certain thief to steal.

The large man chuckled and gave me a wink. "Why 'uh course he can, girl!"

"Great," I hopped off the barrel and grabbed Gale by the wrist. "Come on, Gale."

As I towed him away from the forges, he frowned. "Those looks people give us are getting rather annoying."

I laughed, shook my head, and pulled him off to the side of the road. Releasing his hand, we walked side by side down a small, dirt path that led between the nice shops and houses. As we moved away from the center of the village, the buildings became shabbier and so did the villagers who were roaming the streets. I didn't live on the outside of town, I lived outside of town. An old woman with a walking stick mumbled something as she bumped into me. I touched her shoulder lightly and apologized for running into her, using it as a distraction as Gale discreetly took back the pin she'd stolen from my cloak.

Parting with the woman, we cut across a back alleyway, narrowly avoiding a steaming mug of beer that broke through the window of a tavern and crashed to the ground at my feet. I picked it up as it started to roll away, alcohol still sloshing from its rim. Gale glanced sideways at me and I shrugged, taking a small sip of the remaining beer. It wasn't half-bad, so I wasn't sure why the man had thrown the mug in the first place.

"Gale, enough talk of midnight walks," I said as we reached the last, rundown house of the village and strode onto the main road, "you can't just go announcing my job to the world."

The boy smirked at me, running a hand through his short, blond hair.

"I wouldn't call it that, per say."

As we walked, the countryside stretched out before us in rolling fields of green. The crop was almost ready for harvest. A few mud-brick houses poked up from the plains and we turned right off the main road, heading towards the smallest of the farms.

I rolled my eyes at him. "It's not like I'm killing anyone. Well, that was that one couple with the baby…"

His eyes widened and the corner of my mouth tugged up into a smile.

"Look," I stopped walking and turned to face him. "I know this sudden obsession in the last few days is because you want to come with me, but you can't."

"And who is there to stop me?" Gale challenged, drawing up to his full height so that he towered a half a head over me.

As well trained as I was with a bow and arrow, we both knew that he could best me in a fight. After all, what friend doesn't know their best friend's weakest point? No, I'm not telling you where it is.

With a sigh, I took a step back. "All right, you can come."

Gale's face brightened.

"But only tonight!" I added quickly.

The boy's head was already swelling. "I'll need a mask, and I already know what I'm going to do."

"Fantastic," I mused.

A familiar look crossed over Gale's face and I backed away, my hands held in front of me. "Don't you dare–"

He rushed forward and grabbed me around the shoulders, poking at the soft area just beneath my arm. I screamed and wriggled in his arms, a tingling sensation spreading over my body. All right, that's my weak spot. Gale would call it my ticklish-cinch-in-the-armor.

"Let go!" I squealed, slipping away from him.

Gale grinned and bolted towards my hut. Somehow, we'd managed to fight our way to the edge of my father's land. I raced after him, my long legs covering ground faster than his. Leaping into the air, I landed on his back. We went down in a heap just outside the front door. Dust flew in the air as the two of us rolled and struggled against the other, laughing. Gale found my weak spot again and pressed, harder this time. My back arched and I gasped for breath between giggles.

Then the door swung open and a foot thumped me in the back of the head. I tipped my head back, the laughter sliding back down my throat as I stared into the upside down face of my father.

His thick eyebrows lowered over his dark eyes and Gale quickly climbed off of me. He held out his hand and I allowed the boy to pull me to my feet. I brushed off my twisted cloak as Gale coughed nervously beside me. Father looked from one of us to the other. Being the respectful weasel that he is, Gale averted his eyes to the ground. I stared my father straight in the face.

"You're a useless wench," Father spat, bringing up a hand and striking it across my face.

My eyes burned, but I would not cry. Not in front of Gale, not in front of anyone. Beside me, Gale stiffened and I imagined him stepping in front of me and strangling Father in the doorway. I could tell he wanted to, but he didn't move.

"And where have you been all day?" my father demanded, grabbing a handful of my tunic and dragging me into the house. "The sun is almost set and there's no supper on the table."

I cast a tightlipped smile over my shoulder at Gale as the door slammed closed behind me. There was no hope for me now. Gale was gone.

Father threw me at the crackling fireplace. A pot already hung from the hook and I could hear the boiling water that would soon be stew. My heart sinking, I went to the small cabinet and pulled out some dried strips of meat. I dumped them into the pot and began to stir with only one thing to keep me going: the thought of my bow in hand and a mask pulled over my face.