She crouched down in the undergrowth, silently cursing every rustle that her feet made as they shifted on the leaf-covered ground. The prize was in sight – she had a clear shot, if she didn't startle it away before she got the chance to shoot.
The rabbit limped past, oblivious to the predator waiting in the bushes. Its mangled leg trailed behind it, red raw and painful with the bite of a far larger and more deadly animal. The girl eyed this leg carefully, and knew she had chosen a good prey. She was generally averse to hunting healthy animals, particularly for pleasure, but she could see in the hopeless loping of the rabbit that the creature was not long for this world. She might as well put it out of its misery.
She waited until the animal had made its way, painfully, into the spot just in front of the bush, before reaching behind her into her sheath of arrows. It was now or never – she just hoped that the rabbit didn't have enough in it to spring away before the arrow found its mark.
Fortunately, the rustle of leaves had gone unnoticed by the unsuspecting creature, and with a thudding heart the girl set the arrow into its place on the bow. It was a small bow, designed for small hands, but it was well-crafted, light and symmetrical. At this distance, it would be easy to make a straight shot. She licked her lips in concentration as she stepped back from behind the bush, her feet not making a sound as she straightened up. She clasped the bow in her left hand as she squinted at the target, and slowly drew the arrow back, preparing for release.
A crash behind her made her jump, and the rabbit sprang away in fright. She cursed loudly, spinning on her feet to face the source of the noise. A small heap of clothing lay a few feet away, at the foot of an old rowan tree. Green leaves and small, red berries lay scattered, disturbed by the fall. She frowned at the bundle of fabric, but stepped forward, keeping the bow clutched in her hands. As she drew closer, she realised with shock that it wasn't just clothes that lay before her, but a body too. The soft rise and fall of the bundle as whoever it was breathed unevenly had given the game away, but now she was closer she could easily see the mop of fair hair. The person was not very big, closer to her height than the adults at court, and was lying face-down on the ground.
She hesitated, and lowered her weapon, making a final step towards the body so that her toes were almost touching the thick black cloak. She coughed loudly. There was no answer. She coughed again, more pointedly, and nudged at the fabric with her toe.
To her alarm, the figure jumped up at once, and wheeled around to face her. It was a boy, a young boy, with fair skin and hair that fell into his grey eyes. He stood, poised like a cat waiting to pounce, his thick cloak hanging lopsidedly around his neck and over one shoulder. His trousers shorter than those that were fashionable at court, his tunic hung loose, without a belt to keep it secure.
She took a few deep breaths to calm her racing heart, and eyed the boy up and down. They stared each other out, boy and girl, before she broke the silence with a high-pitched laugh. He looked slightly startled at the noise, and eyed her bow and sheath of arrows warily.
"Sorry," she spluttered, trying to stop laughing at the boy's strange attire. She noticed him glancing at the bow, and she dropped it onto the ground, kicking it away from her with another nudge of her toe. She raised her hands. "See?" she said showed him. "No weapons."
The boy breathed an audible sigh of relief and relaxed his stance slightly, but he still did not reply. The girl exhaled, realising that she would have to do all the talking.
"What's your name?" she asked pleasantly, stepping forward towards him. He flinched, but didn't step away from her. "Come on," she encouraged him. "You can tell me."
He looked wildly around him, as if he were searching for a way out. In truth, he was remembering the instructions his mother had given him that very morning: don't make yourself known, don't speak to anyone, don't reveal who you are. He'd already broken the first rule, though he hadn't meant to fall out of the stupid tree. He had meant to be keeping lookout, while his mother went off in search of something to eat, but he had gotten bored and had wandered off. He had seen the girl try and hunt the rabbit, and had spied on her from the branches of the tree nearby. And he was about to break the second rule, for there was no way the girl would let him go without answering. But he knew the third was the most important, so he racked his brains for an answer that wouldn't ruin the years of work his mother had done to get them this far.
"Um," he mumbled. "Uh…"
"Cat got your tongue?" the girl grinned. She didn't look like she was about to haul him into the castle dungeons. Her clothing didn't mark her out as a member of the royal court, though she could have been some sort of servant. She was wearing a similar tunic to his, though it was clear her was of a far better quality, and fit perfectly. Her trousers were long and tight, and her boots were of fine leather. Still, if she was going to arrest him for trespassing then she would have done it already.
"Er, my name's…my name's…" he searched his memories desperately for a name, cursing the fact that he had met so few people in his short lifetime. "Griffyth. My name's Griffyth."
The girl smiled again, showing off her two even rows of teeth. "Hello, Griffyth."
"What's your name?" he asked her, relaxing fully now. He put his weight on one foot and set his hand on his hip, with the air of an arrogant prince.
Now it was her turn to be wary. She knew she couldn't say who she really was – if word got out that the princess was sneaking out of the castle to go hunting in the woods, unguarded, she would definitely be locked in her room. The thought of having to spend days, perhaps even weeks, shut up in there filled her with dread. Though she hated the thought of lying to the boy, she knew she had no choice. She glanced up, hoping to find inspiration in the world around her, but saw only the thick branches of the tree.
"Rowan," she stated resolutely. "Rowan Draconis." She held out her hand, and he stared at it, puzzled. "You're supposed to kiss it," she told him, moving closer.
He stared at her hand in horror. He was supposed to kiss it? There was no way he was going to do that. But the stubborn look on her face told him that he really didn't have a choice. He hesitated, before bending quickly at the waist and brushing the back of her hand with as little of his lips as possible. He straightened up, and stared insolently back at her.
She retracted her hand, knowing that she was fighting a losing battle.
"You're not from around here, are you?" she asked, eyeing him again.
He thought for a moment, but decided that he had lied enough for today. "Nope."
"Where do you live?"
"We just moved here," he explained. "We move around a lot."
"You and your family?"
He thought for a moment, but for some reason he knew he could confide in this strange girl in boys' clothing.
"There's just me and my mother," he said slowly. "How about you, where do you live?"
"Oh, over there," she replied, waving vaguely in the direction of the town. "How old are you, anyhow?"
He straightened up, widening his shoulders and tossing his hair out of his face. He had told himself he wouldn't lie anymore, but this wouldn't be too much of a lie. "Fifteen," he said firmly.
"Liar," she replied quickly, with a smirk. "If you're fifteen then I'm a rabbit."
"I can't see your ears," he joked, pretending to search for them on top of her head. "Alright, I'm not fifteen. I'm thirteen."
She didn't have to speak, for her raised eyebrow said it all.
"Fine, twelve. Honest."
She nodded, apparently satisfied with this answer. "I'm eleven. My birthday was last week."
"Happy birthday," he replied drily.
"What were you doing in that tree?" she asked, pointing at the trunk behind him.
He shifted uncomfortably, suddenly fascinated by the soil at his feet. "Nothing."
"You were spying on me, weren't you?" she smirked again.
"You were. You were watching me hunt."
He snickered loudly. "You call that hunting? I could do better if you tied my cloak around my eyes and strapped both arms behind my back."
"No you couldn't," she replied hotly, her cheeks flaming. "Besides, I would have caught that rabbit if you hadn't ruined it all by falling out of that tree. At least I can climb branches properly."
Now it was his turn to blush. They faced off, neither one looking the other in the eye, but both determined not to back down first. After a few minutes, they both sighed deeply.
"Sorry," she muttered.
"Sorry," he conceded, at the same time. They both looked at each other now, and grinned widely. "Can I see your bow?" he asked, pointing at the weapon that lay abandoned on the ground.
"Of course," she shrugged, picking it up and handing it to him. He took it eagerly, running his hands up and down the smooth wooden curves, his fingers snapping over the tight string, which gave a satisfying twanging noise.
"It's a good bow," be concluded, handing it back to her. Actually, it was the best-made weaponry he'd ever seen, but he wasn't about to admit that.
"You know about them?" she asked, securing the weapon onto a sash on her back.
"A little," he said quietly, modest now. "I prefer swords."
"Boys always prefer swords," she laughed.
"Who taught you how to shoot?" he asked her, genuinely interested on how this young girl had come across such an exquisite piece of craftsmanship.
She shuffled uncomfortably. If she told him the truth, she'd give the whole game away. "My friend," she answered vaguely. "My father doesn't like me doing it. He says it's not ladylike."
He raised an eyebrow. "But he lets you go around in boys' clothes?"
She bit her lip, embarrassed. "He…he doesn't know."
"Come on," she said quickly, grabbing his hand. "I want to show you something."
He hesitated for a moment, staring down at their clasped hands, but intrigue got the better of him and he allowed the girl to lead him through the trees. When she was certain he wasn't going to run away, she let go of his hand and they walked in companionable silence, side-by-side. After only a few minutes she had found what she was looking for, and the ducked into a small, circular hole cut into the side of a mound.
"What's in there?" he asked before following her. He squinted uncertainly into the blackness of the cave, but it was too dark to see anything.
She poked her head back out, chuckling at his nervous expression. "Nothing, it's just a tunnel."
He still looked unsure, hovering at the entrance, unable to decide whether he should enter or run away screaming.
"Come on," she goaded. "Don't be a coward."
"I'm not a coward," he insisted crossly, and stepped into the darkness.
The tunnel wasn't long and soon enough they walked out into the warm, bright sunlight of the spring day. They both blinked, adjusting their eyes to the sudden light. When he recovered, he noticed her pointing at something on the ground, not so far off. He followed her arm, and the sight before him nearly took his breath away.
It was a pool, some sort of lake, set right in the middle of the forest. It's glassy surfaced rippled only slightly in the breeze, and the vegetation on its banks was green and healthy. It was small enough that they could see to the other side, if they were to crane their necks, but the dark blue of the water indicated its depth.
"I didn't know there was a lake here," he murmured, stepping closer to the water's edge.
She joined him, sneaking a peek at the amazement on his face and smiling to herself. "Not many people do. It's kind of a secret place. That's why I like it."
He crouched down, and trailed a finger in the cool water. The disturbance created ripples that fanned out across the whole surface.
"What lives in it?" he asked, balancing his whole hand on top of the water, as if to stop the ripples.
"Nothing," she replied, crouching down beside him. "And everything. In winter it freezes over, and goes all white."
"I bet a whale could live in here," he said softly, leaning out over the water, trying to see to the bottom.
She scoffed. "Whales live in seawater, not lakes. But I know what you mean. It's kind of magical."
He froze at the mention of magic, hoping she wouldn't see the flash of fear that passed over his face. All his mother's warnings suddenly came back to him, and he tensed, his arm hanging still in the water.
"Are you all right?" she asked him, noticing the change in his expression.
"I'm fine," he answered shortly.
A flock of birds sprang into the air from the trees behind them, making them both jump to their feet in alarm.
"What was that?" he asked quickly, wiping down his wet arm on his tunic.
"Probably nothing," she replied, but she didn't feel comforted.
"Princess!" somebody called from within the woods, and she groaned softly. "Princess!"
"Who is it?" he whispered, noticing her eyes widen.
"Er, nobobdy," she answered, a little too quickly. "We've got to go."
"Who's the princess?" he asked, as she pulled him back into the tunnel.
"No idea," she lied smoothly, glad for the darkness that concealed her blush. They reached the other side of the tunnel, and the sound of hooves trampling over leaves was clearer. They were getting close. "You've got to go."
"But I –"
He took off in the other direction to where the voices called out, but glanced back over his shoulder to where the girl waited on the threshold of the tunnel. "Will I see you again?"
"I hope so!" she called back to him.
"By the lake?"
"Yes!" she replied, shooing him away with her hand. She didn't relax until he was firmly out of sight, just as a large black horse clattered into view.
"Princess," Merlin sighed in relief, pulling his horse to a stop just in front of her.
"Hello, Merlin," she smiled sweetly at him. "What are you doing here?"
He shook his head incredulously, helping the girl onto the back of his saddle. "I think the question is, Aurora, what are you doing here? I thought your father said you were never to go into the forest alone. He's got practically the whole guard out looking for you."
She sighed dramatically, grasping him around the waist as he turned the horse around. She let out another, quiet sigh of relief when they headed back the way he had come – Griffyth would be safe as long as he didn't cross back over their path.
"And what are you wearing?" Merlin continued, oblivious to what was going on in his young mistress's head. "Where did you get those clothes?"
"Borrowed them," she replied vaguely. Normally she could tell Merlin anything. He was her dearest friend in the castle, and despite him being so close to Arthur, she knew she could trust him not to tell on her. And yet something stopped her from mentioning the strange, grey-eyed boy. She knew only his name, but something within her told her that she would be seeing him again. She hugged her secret tight as Merlin caught up with the other knights, and even when she was interrogated by her father later that evening, she refused to tell him what she was truly doing that day.
Feeling a bit grumpy cos I wrote loads on a future chapter and then my computer crashed and I hadn't saved it :(
I'll try and update as soon as I can, but things are crazy at the moment. A xo