Sorry this one has taken so long. Been busy, busy, busy. It considerably long though so I hope it will appease you a little and not bore you. Hope you like it.
Christiana tried to tune out the sound of the shovelfuls of dirt hitting the sheet wrapped body. Though it was a dull, hollow sound, it seemed to penetrate into the deepest reaches of her mind, making her want to curl up into a ball and stay there.
A gentle hand on her shoulder made her look up into Will's sad eyes.
"Let's go. Captain Thomas will be waiting."
She nodded, brushing away the remainder of her tears. That was it. No more crying, no more tears. No amount of them would bring him back anyway. It had not brought Airic back, or the shipmates she had lost at sea. There was little point in lingering on a grief, that, if she let it, would cripple her.
As they silently walked back to the keep she pondered what Will had told her just that morning. So overcome had she been with Redmond's death that she had not given much thought about anything. She had been so sure she would be executed, had excepted it as inevitable.
What will I do if the king does let me go? I have no where to go, no one to go to.
She sighed and shook herself mentally. It was not as if she had not been in those sort of situations before. She would survive until she could find another occupation, a honest one, hopefully one that would teach her something new so it would be a little more interesting.
For a moment her eye drifted over to the Ranger walking beside her.
I wonder what it would be like to be a Ranger? She thought idly, then again shook herself to stop her thoughts in their tracks. From what she heard the Rangers were a very important group of people in this Kingdom. Not as prominent and rich as nobles, or as well recognized as knights, but certainly important. There was no way that they would let a foreigner into such a group, especially one with a background like her own.
So she put the thoughts away. Just as with Redmond's death, it did her no good to linger on such thoughts. They would come to nothing.
As they entered the courtyard of the keep she looked up at the sound of chains. Watharen was being loaded onto a cart along with Brent, while the rest of the Raven leaders that would be going back to the capitol were being tied to horses. Thorn was saddled and waiting for her along with her few belongings, except her weapons of course, tied behind his saddle.
As she opened the pack to check that everything was there she found her necklace and for a moment lifted it, letting it spin. The small emblem flashed in the light of the rising sun, the silver chain shimmered almost hypnotically. As she gazed at the royal symbol her heart ached. She had wanted to tell Redmond about her past, to let the burden of the secret ease a little by telling it to friendly, understanding ears. Just as she had done with the secret of her gender. Now she was once again burdened under both secrets. Somehow, they seemed even heavier than before.
With a sigh she dropped the chain back inside and firmly shut the pack. Walking to Thorn's head she patted his neck and handed him that apple that had been with the meal that Will had brought her that morning. She had not been unable to force herself to eat it and it seemed a waste choke it down when the shaggy pony would enjoy it far more.
Will was currently checking the packs of his own horse. As she waited to be told what it was she should do she examined his animal. Like Thorn he was small and shaggy, with a barrel shaped torso. As she watched he rolled his eyes towards her as if to say What are you looking at?
For a moment she stared into the dark intelligent eyes before looking away at a very similar pony standing beside him. This pony too was short, barrel shaped and shaggy. They were clearly from the same breed. On impulse she walked forward and stroked it's muzzle.
"That is Redmond's horse," Will said as he adjusted his pack. "Her name is Scout."
She nodded. The horse gazed at her for a moment, but not for long. Every time someone would come or go from the courtyard, Scout would whip her head around, nostrils flared, ears pricked.
Sympathy welled inside her as she realized what Scout was doing. She was waiting her her master to come and get her. To pat her, maybe give her an apple before getting on to ride back home. A lump formed in Christiana's throat, threatening to choke her. Unbidden tears welled in her eyes.
So much for no more tears, she thought sarcastically to herself. Unable to help herself she threw her arms around the horse's neck and buried her face into her mane.
"He isn't coming back, girl," she whispered softly. "I am sorry. I miss him too."
The horse nickered and Christiana felt Scout's head press against her back for a moment.
For a moment, neither the young girl, or the mare moved. Christiana was the first to pull away, patting the horses neck.
"Where was she?" she asked softly, hoping her voice would not break.
"She was in the village that you and Leven found Redmond in, staying in the stables of the inn there."
She nodded. "What will happen to her now?"
Will shrugged helplessly. "I will take her to an old acquaintance. That is where she originally came from. She will stay there until she is needed again."
With another nod Chris patted the horses neck one more time before walking over to Thorn who had been watching with a covetous glint in his eyes.
"Be nice," she told him softly. "She just lost her rider."
He snorted and butted her shoulder hard enough to make her stagger.
"Not that you would feel anything if I keeled over," she muttered under her breath.
He only tossed his head and looked away.
Will approached her a few minutes later.
"We are about to go. During the trip I do not want you to leave my side. Understood?"
"Yes," she relied, hardly blaming him for wanting to keep an eye on her, since she was the prisoner that he was giving the most freedom.
"Martin will be watching you too," he added, gesturing toward one of the mounted knights.
She looked over to see the same young man that had ridden beside her before.
He saw them looking and nodded.
"Now I do not want you to think it is because I do not trust you, it is partly for your protection."
She stared, not really having the energy to give him a baffled look, but he understood anyway.
"Leven came back to kill you," he reminded her. "A few of the Raven's escaped the other night and they might harbor similar thoughts."
She turned away. "I really do not think they will. Leven had a personal grudge against me, for several reasons." And because of that Redmond was killed, she added to herself bitterly.
"Maybe, but regardless."
Shaking her head, baffled that yet another Ranger was concerned for her safety she mounted Thorn. "It must be because of Redmond,"she said quietly to the horse, "he does not want his sacrifice to go to waste"
That was the only reasonable solution that she could think of to explain Will's behavior. But then again, her mind was not in the best condition right now.
She gently nudged Thorn in the side, asking rather than ordering him to move forward next to Will's horse as the Ranger went to the head of the small column. There were ten soldiers, including Captain Thomas and Martin. That, plus the prisoners, herself and Will made seventeen in all.
A regular parade, she thought dryly.
As she passed by the wagon where Watharen was imprisoned she felt a chill rush up her spine, even though the gaze that was boring a hole in her head felt searing hot. She did not turn to meet the murderous gaze of the former bandit leader but she could still feel it as she went past.
As she drew along side Will, she noticed that Scout was following the ranger with no lead and no other urgings. She just stayed a few steps behind at all times.
"Captain Thomas, is everything ready?" Will called out.
"Hold your horses, Will Treaty," the burly man snapped.
Will grinned, gesturing at Scout. "Have no need to." Causing Captain Thomas to curse.
"Are all ranger horses trained to do that?" she asked when he sat back in his saddle to wait, nodding toward Scout.
"Among other things," Will answered vaguely.
She did not press for further details as they waited for the men to get the prisoner's organized, give out the normal threats about escape and so on and line up to march out of the gate.
Thomas finally nodded to the Ranger and Will wheeled his horse around.
"Let us be on our way."
With little urging from her, Thorn followed, seeming to want to show her that he could do anything that Scout could. Her mouth twitch into the smallest of smiles.
"Jealous mule," she muttered to him.
They rode out of the town surrounding the village and onto the country road. The knights remained alert but they still talked among themselves. Absently she listened to their conversation for a while as Will rode up and down the line to make sure everything was in order before coming to ride beside her.
"Alright Chris," he said in a very business like tone. "Now I'm going to ask you some questions and I want you to answer honestly."
She tilted her head in acknowledgment. "Fair enough, I suppose."
He did not waste time. "You say you come from Elendor."
"And that there is very little contact between there and here?"
Again she nodded.
"Then how did you get here?"
For a moment she did not answer but he did not try and press her. She was just gathering her thoughts.
"I became a cabins boy on a merchant ship. The captain, Captain Tarnek, was a man from the country that my country had regular dealings with."
"Why did he hire you? Seems to me that your skills are more suited to a hunter or a scout."
"I was not trained to be either. I was trained to survive," she murmured.
His face darkened at the gravity in her voice but he motioned for her to continued.
"I met Captain Tarnek because I was at the harbor during market day. There were a lot of merchants there and I would do whatever small task I could find to get a few coins and tying off Captain Tarnek's boat when they came in was one of them."
Christiana looked down the road, no longer seeing it. She was thousands of miles away, back bustling, loud and smelly docks during market day. Hearing the cry of sea gulls, smelling the tang of salt and feel the rickety board under her worn boots.
Two Years Ago
Christiana heard the small waves lapping under her as she trotted down the rough, wood planks of the dock, wrinkling her nose slightly against the smell of rotting fish. The gulls swept over head, piercing the air with the sharp, cries, just waiting for the opportunity to sweep down and steal a fish or crab.
The crate in her hands was heavy and the splinters of the planks dug into her palms but she did not mind. Her hands were becoming tough. They were no longer the soft, delicate hands that came from living in a palace. They were the hands of a survivor and carrying this crate would give her a few extra coins to survive with.
As two knights passed by her, their chain mail rattling with each step, she automatically turned her face away, pretending interest in a gull that had landed on the pier. It was just a precaution, she doubted that anyone would recognized her. Her parents had put up posters and had men out looking for her but the picture depict a willowy girl, with long, waving dark hair that fell past her waist, large eyes, her head held high and proud and a silver tiara on her head.
Christiana no longer looked at all like the princess that the knights were looking for. Her hair was chopped short and uneven close to her skull. Her own handy work with her hunting knife. It had lost its luster and was dull from washings with the simple, homemade soup she bought rather than the oils and ointments of the palace. Her skin no longer shone but was dark from days out doors. Her small chest was hidden under shabby, ill fitting cloths. She no longer looked like a girl, much less a princess and the only identifying thing she had, her necklace, was hidden deep in her pouch.
She still was not sure why she had taken it with her. Though it was almost priceless it meant almost nothing to her. The dagger she had in her belt, the sling she had around her waist and the bow in her hands were of far more value to her. They were the tools to her survival and she had been taught how to use them by the dearest person in the world to her.
Maybe she would sell it eventually, when there was a need though she was unsure if she could. And she knew why. As much as she had disliked her palace life it was a part of her and she was reluctant to give up that small token that was the only thing linking her to it.
Shaking her head to clear it she continued down the dock until she stepped off the dock and headed down the cobblestone path into town. When she reached the square she place the crate down along with the many other she had already carried.
"Is that all of them?" the trader snapped. He spoke the flowing language of her native tongue but his rough accent told anyone that it was not his own.
She nodded. "Yes, sir."
He eyed the crates, as if to make sure they were not damaged. Finally he reached into his pouch and pulled out a few coins.
"Here you are then."
She took the money, counting it in her palm ignoring the familiar outlines of some of her siblings imprinted on the coins, thanked the man and went off to find something else to do. The rainy season was on it's way and she needed enough money to get the supplies she needed before it came in. She was sure she would have enough by the end of the day.
It was market day here in this city by the sea and the merchants were coming in to sell their wares. There were plenty of little jobs to do here and there. Carry things, chase seagulls away from fish until the tarps were put down, tying off boats, or running messages. Of course things really would not start to boom until Rocen Day next week. The day that would celebrate the birth of Rocen, the crown prince, and her older brother.
But she did not intend to be anywhere near here, or any city at that time. During that week the royal family, as well as most of the royal court, would travel over the country, visiting every large city and province. There the aristocrats would compete one with another to throw the biggest party for the young prince.
Though it was unlikely she would be spotted in the mass of people that would be there for the holiday, she was taking no chances. She would go inland and camp out in the mountains for the week until things had calmed down some more.
"Oy, boy, tie this off will you."
She looked up, not at all surprised that her feet had carried her back the docks which she had been thinking.
Automatically she caught the rope that was tossed to her, looping it around one of the posts and expertly tied it tight.
"Nice knot, good an' tight," a rough voice said.
A man stepped onto the dock from the little boat she had just tied. Swiftly she evaluated him. His accent clearly marked him as a Tarshdian, a member of the country that lay around the Great Peninsula and over the Locaod Sea. His loose shirt, pants and shin high boots said he was a sea man and the dark maroon coat told her she was a captain.
But the face told her far more. It was hard to tell how old he was because his face was lined from constant exposure to the elements. But she would guess not anywhere between thirty and forty. He had pitch black hair, eyes that were just as dark and a broad bearded face that would have been rather fearsome if it were not for the approving smile on his face and the sparkle of fun in his eyes.
She liked him almost instantly.
"Thank you, sir," she said promptly. "I had a good teacher."
"Indeed. Here ya go, ma thanks."
He tossed her a coin. For the first time she noticed a boy when he scurried after him. He looked about her own age, about twelve, with hair so red it looked like it was on fire and so many freckles that it was hard to tell where he was freckled or where he was tan.
For a moment their eyes met, sky blue and emerald green.
"Samson, come on," the man said.
Samson jumped and hurried after his captain. She watched them go. The captain threw a warm arm around the boys shoulders and started to point various things out to him.
A familiar ache grew in her chest, a longing for companionship, closeness to another human.
She gritted her teeth and turned away to thing something else to do.
"Who needs companions," she mumbled under her breath, "I am doing fine on my own."
Still, the ache did not leave and she felt restless and troubled for the rest of the day.
The cool night air felt good against her skin. She was sure she was a little sunburned from the long day under the hot sun. But it had been worth it. She had almost enough money to buy her supplies, one more day and she would have enough to get what she needed with some left over. She was saving her money to buy a horse. Even a pony would do. Once she had one she could buy some more supplies, and one day travel through the mountain passes into one of the neighboring kingdoms and finally leave this one behind.
A horse would make a good companion as well and hopefully fill the hole where the remains of her heart throbbed, even if just a little.
She was not sure what first made her aware that something was wrong. It might have been a soft noise, carried on the light breeze. It might have been the disturbed ground, covered with footsteps that looked rushed and hurried. Or it might have just been a feeling. But she stopped where she stood looking around.
The footsteps on the ground where not easy to read because they were so haphazard but she could make out several larger footsteps and a set of smaller ones.
Her eyes narrowed as she tried to make the marked ground reveal what had happened. Airic had been able to look at a person or animals foot prints and tell it's weight, usually whether it was male or female and whether they were in a hurry or hunting.
She only know the basics. There seemed to be three sets of larger footprints, so most likely men. And other, smaller ones. The larger and smaller ones came from different directions and once they met there was a jumbled mass before all footprints ran off down a darkened lane.
Curious, and a little apprehensive she followed them.
She heard the pained cry and the rough laughter before she saw them. Turning a corner she stopped in her tracks at the scene in front of her.
She had been off, of course. There were not three, but five men. Young men. By their shoulder length, uniform cut hair she could tell they were young knights. Just barely out of their academy days. They were drunk, their movements clumsy and uncoordinated. Some of them even had kegs in their hands.
One of them kicked out at something on the ground, another cry of pain drawing her eyes down. A young boy lay crumpled at their feet. As she watched he tried to stand only to have one of the boys grip him in a head lock.
"Dirty sea rat. We'll teach you to go against the orders of full knights of Elendor," the largest of the young men snapped, his words slurred and hardly understandable.
His fist slammed into the small boys stomach, then came up into his face when he cried out.
Her hands instantly moved on her own. She did not have her bow, and she did not want to use her dagger. But she did have her sling.
Unwinding the long, supple leather tie from her waist she crouched, scooped up some pebbles and put two in the pouch. She whirled it three times, building up momentum. The big bully heard the dull thrum of the leather cutting through the air and the whistle of the stones, but he only saw a flash of movement out of the corner of his eyes before they slammed into his arm and stomach in quick succession.
He staggered back, clutching his smarting limbs, and cursed to high heaven.
His friends gaped at him, looking around in bewilderment. They did not see the small figure standing in the shadows till four more stones sped from the darkness.
Christiana laughed as they flailed around, trying to locate their attacker, clutching their smarting limbs. The smaller boy had been dropped, completely forgotten.
"There he is," one of the leader, pointing at her.
She waved. "I think I need a lesson in obedience I suppose, would you come and teach me."
Their only answer was to roar and run at her. She turned and ran away, barreling around the corner to go deeper into the city. She let them chase her for a good ten minutes, staying just far enough ahead of them to stop them from giving up but not close enough that they could catch her.
When she thought she had led them far enough away she sped up the pace, slowly lengthening the distance between them. Racing around one more corner she found what she was looking for. The city stables. She slowed for a moment, yanking a length of thin rope from her belt and her hand flew as she tied a swift loop.. She waited until they had barreled around the corner and had seen her before ducking behind the stables as if to hide.
The moment she was out of sight she skidded to a stop, grimacing at the foul smell that emanated from the shadows just ahead. Throwing the loop around one of the tying posts, letting it settle low to the ground before diving behind a barrel on the opposite side of the alley, clutching the rope tight in her fist.
The boys came skidding around the corner. They only ran a few steps forward before two things happened. They let out disgusted grunts as the rank smell hit them, then shouts as there legs were suddenly entangled and all of them were sent flying forward, face first into the enormous pile of green and brown manure. The entire weeks supply of extract from the horses, mules, donkeys and other live stock that were put in the stables.
She snickered as the boys flailed around, only making things worse as they splatter each other with the brown goop and pushed each other in to try and get themselves in.
Cutting her rope free she sped off, still smirking as the curses faded behind her.
In a few minutes she was back in the same alley where she first saw them. The smaller boy had barely moved. He had managed to crawl over to one of the walls and sat against it, gasping and holding his leg close to his body. He looked up startled when she appeared in front of him.
"Where are you hurt?" she asked as she knelt down in front of him.
He stared at her for a moment then his eyes widened.
"Ya the one 'o led them off," his accent was the same as the captain's she had met earlier.
She peered closer and raised her eyebrows. Yes, his hair was red. He was the same boy that she had seen at the docks with the dark eyed captain.
"Yes. Were are you hurt?" she repeated.
After a moments hesitation he pointed at his right leg.
"I twisted ma ankle while trying ta run. That is 'ow they caught me."
She nodded and pulled out bandages from her pouch. It would mean she would have to buy more later but she shrugged that thought aside as she carefully examined his leg before binding it tight. He watched her in silence.
"What did they want with you anyway?"
He shrugged. "I have no idea. I was just getting some things from the blacksmith for Cap and they got mad when I bumped into them on the way back."
She looked around and sure enough cold she a wrapped bundle a couple feet away.
"Sorry that you were subjected to such rudeness."
He snorted. "Seems like most Elendornians are like that."
She scowled. "I take it that you have mostly been dealing with knights or nobles."
"The regular citizens are no worse or no better than ones in your country," she said firmly. "Do not judge the country because of a few of them."
She finished tending to his leg and stood, brushing her hands together.
"Your other injuries will have to be tended to later. Do you want me to take you to the docks or are the rest of your crew staying somewhere else?"
He looked up in surprise. "How do you know that I am part of a crew."
"Your clothing, for one thing," she said, waving a hand at his apparel, "and I saw you earlier today with your captain at the docks."
For a long moment he was silent as he studied her face. "Your that boy who helped tie our boat up."
She nodded, heaving him to his feet, cringing when he groaned. No doubt the punches that he had taken where aching something terrible.
"Yes, so where do you want to go."
He pulled away. "Thanks, but I can get there myself."
No sooner had he taken a step toward his fallen back that his leg gave out. She just managed to catch him and keep him upright.
"Sure you can," she said sarcastically. Taking his wrist she dragged it over her shoulders. "Come on, I'll take you where ever you need to go."
For a moment it looked like he was going to argue but she glowered at him and he fell silent.
"I need my pack."
After quick deliberation she helped him over to a wall where he could hold himself up before hurrying over to gather his things and sling the package over her shoulder. Then she went back over to him.
"Where do you want to go?" she said as she once again drew his arms around her shoulder.
"The Seagull, an inn near the docks."
She nodded. She knew that inn. It was small but homey and she had already done a few small jobs there.
They began to long trip there.
He wasn't really heavy but he did outweighed her by quiet a bit and she struggled under his weight. It only became harder when the shock and adrenaline faded from his system and the pain hit him. It was harder for him to move his leg at all without him groaning in pain and his many bruises and cuts from the beating where just as painful.
By the time they reached the inn, they were both staggering, gasping and exhausted. Samson was as the point of passing out.
"Samson," a deep, rough voice said, a familiar one.
She looked up to see the Captain from earlier that day. His eyes were wide with concern when he took the two of them them in.
"Wha' happened?" he demanded as he scooped Samson into his arms who instantly went out cold.
"Careful, he's hurt," Christiana cautioned, though relieved to be rid of the burden. "He's taken quiet a beating."
The captain's eyes, which had been so kind and warm earlier held nothing of the sort now. In the light cast by the lamps of the nearby buildings his eyes seemed to blaze with anger.
"Who did this?"
"A group of knights," Samson said.
"He can explain later," she quickly said when she saw the captain was opening his mouth for another question. "Right now he needs a healer. I've bandaged his leg but he has some open cuts and bruises that need tending."
Instantly the concern was back and the captain turned to walk away, hurrying toward the door of the inn.
As she herself turned to leave he stopped and called over his shoulder.
"Come 'ere, boy," he commanded. "I want ta here more about this."
She sighed but followed him into the inn.
Some of the patrons in the commons room looked around curiously when they entered. Several men instantly leaped to their feet when they saw the tired and beaten Samson in the big man's arms. She guessed they were Samson's shipmates.
"What happened Captain? What's wrong with Samson?"
"He's 'urt," the captain said bluntly. "Denor, find a healer and bring 'em back here as quickly as ya can."
One of the men nodded and rushed out. The captain hurried up the stairs to the bedrooms above. Christiana hesitated, debating whether just to slip away. But another look from the captain made her hurry up the stairs after him.
At the top of the stairs a low beamed hallway stretched in both direction with doors on either side. She followed him to the right and into a door near the end of the hall. The captain had to duck to enter go through the door. Carefully he arranged the boy on the bed there. A lantern hung from the ceiling revealing the simple room. Beside the bed there was a wash table with a mirror and basin along with several fresh wash cloths. There was a small table where the occupants could eat.
The captain grabbed one of the chairs around the table, dragging it over beside the bed before turning to her.
"So boy. Wha' happened?"
"He had a run in with a group of young knights that were drunk," she explained. "When he tried to run he twisted his ankle so they caught him and beat him a little."
He examined her from under his thick black brows. "How did you happen to be there?"
She shrugged. "I was heading...um...back to my place when I saw their footprints and went to investigate."
"And ya saw wha' they did?"
"And ya helped 'im?"
"Yes," she said simply. Briefly she summarized how she had led the young knight off and to the stables. She flushed a little when he chuckled a little at the story but he did not interrupt as she finished her story.
"Seems I owe ya," he said, leaning back in his chair.
She shook her head. "Not at all. I was happy to help."
He studied her for another long moment from under his dark, thick eyebrows.
"Wha' ya name, boy?"
He nodded, smiling warmly. "Ya a good boy Chris. Thank you."
She flushed again and looked away, embarrassed and a little ashamed. I am not a good boy. I am not even a good girl.
"Your welcome, sir," she murmured to her feet. "I really must be on my way."
"I won't be 'ere more en a few days. But if there is anything I 'an do for ya, let ma know."
She thought for a moment. "Well, if you have any jobs I can do for you while your here I would I would be happy to do so."
He raised an eyebrow. "Ya need one?"
He tapped his huge fingers against his bearded chin. "Well, since Samson will not be running about anytime soon, there will be a few things ya 'an do for me. Mostly carrying messages and fetching packages."
"Sounds excellent," she said.
He held out his hand. "Alright then. Ya come by 'ere every morning for the next few days and you 'ave got yaself a job."
She smiled, reaching forward. They shook hands. Or rather he grabbed half her forearm in his huge hand and pumped her entire arm up and down.
She turned away after that. As she went down the stairs she passed the sailor that the Captain had scent after the healer. A old, wizened man followed him.
"Do ya know 'ow things are run 'ere pretty good, Chris," the captain said.
She looked up. They were both walking down the main street in town. Her carrying a package for him as they went on an errand.
"A bit," she hedged, wondering what he was getting at.
It was the morning after she had helped Samson and this was the third such of an errand. For the most part the captain, who was named Tarnek, went about either arranging supplies for his ship, or securing bids for the goods he had on his ship or would have next time he came through.
"O do I talk ta about the young knights o 'urt Samson?"
She grimaced. "No one. No one who will listen to you anyway. The baron of this city will not care and the captain in charge of them will not either."
He scowled. "Bloody place hasn't changed much, 'as it?"
She shrugged helplessly. "How long has it been since you have been here last?"
"Five years, I was sailing under another cap'ain."
"The same king was in charge ten years ago," she pointed out.
He huffed and stormed on. She hurried to catch up, the familiar sickening feeling churning in her stomach. It was the same feeling she had every time she saw the citizens of her country suffering under her fathers rule. Though Airic had told her over and over again that it was not her fault she could not help feeling saddened, guilty, and ashamed. There was nothing she could do about it but she could still not help but feel that by being a member of the royal family she was somehow responsible.
Shaking her head to try and rid herself of such thoughts she concentrated on the task at hand.
"Chris, where are ya parents? Seems that they would be worried, wha' with ya running around with me all the time," Tarnek said.
She shrugged, looking down at her plate of food. It was the fourth day after her helping Samson and Captain Tarnek had once again insisted on buying her dinner at the inn. Sometimes the crew joined them and a still sour Samson. They were a surprisingly entertaining group of people. Always making jokes and poking fun at each other. Though she had been quiet and reserved they had pulled her into the conversations with tales of the places they had been and adventures they had had on the wide open sea.
Now, however, they were eating on their own. The rest of the crew out at the square where a dance was taking place. It was a sort of pre-party that the nobles held to get the towns folk happy so that when the royal family came by in the following week they could have the towns people working hard on the preparations under a heavy put on obligation. She hated the event, knowing what it was so she avoided it.
"They do not mind."
She was so busy looking busy that it took her a moment to realize that he was studying her again. She hated how his black eyes seem to see right through her. She had faced down hundreds of nobles and not one of them had the ability to pierce a emotional mask like Captain Tarnek did.
"Chris," he said softly.
Reluctantly she looked up into his eyes.
"Do ya have parents?"
"That are still alive?" he said.
He examined her for a moment. Then leaned back in his chair, tapping his chin. She knew this meant that he was thinking really hard.
"Do they live 'ere in town with ya?"
She hesitated just a second, trying to figure out what he was trying to worm out of her. She did not like lying to him either.
He smiled. "I would like ta meet 'em. They must be fine folks indeed ta raise such a young'in."
She flushed. Deciding not to answer that one.
"Are ya parents good people."
She looked up at him, forcing an inquisitive look on her face. "Of course. Why would you think other wise?"
"Well for one, ya do not seem very happy. For another, all the people us'in 'ave talked ta do not seem to know who ya are, so yar not a local. For another one of ma men saw you coming into town early in the morning from the road. And lastly you never talk about them."
She gaped at him openly while inwardly cursing to herself. He was a sea captain but he was sharp enough to be a scholar or battle tactician.
She did not answer. Instead she shoveled the rest of her food into her mouth and washed it down with her milk. She stood pushing away her plate.
"Captain Tarnek I have got to be going. Thanks for the meal again."
She stood, before she could bolt he caught her arm. She slowly turned to face him.
"You going to leave without your pay for the day?"
She waited as he pulled out his money pouch, counted out a few coins and placed them in her hand, wish she quickly pocketed without looking at them. This was it. She was determined that this was the last time she would see Captain Tarnek or any of his crew. She had stayed for to long already. Her family would be here within a matter of days and she needed to be on the move. It was not safe to stay in one place to long. Captain Tarnek was putting to many things together as it was.
Yet, the thought made her heart feel strangely heavy. A new feeling from the raw, shattered feeling that she had grown accustomed to feeling.
"Thank you, Captain Tarnek, for everything."
He raised an eyebrow. "Your saying that as if you are saying good-bye."
She did not answer.
He considered her for a moment. "Ya are, aren't ya?"
She just gave him a level stare.
"Ah boy, I 'ate to loose ya. Ya 'ave been a good 'elp to me."
"Nothing Samson could not have done if he was up for it. You will be on your way soon in a couple of day, captain. I am just cutting the time a little shorter."
"That you are. Runaways often have to keep on the move after all."
She started looking at him in shock. He smiled triumphantly for a moment, finally having his suspicions confirmed.
"How did you know?" she murmured, unable to think of anything else to say.
"I guessed. I was one myself when I was your age, so it was not hard to recognize the signs."
"You ran away?"
"Yes. When I was about ya age."
He sighed. "I was young, 'bout ya age. The youngest of a rich merchants son. My parents where social climbers and they 'ad the money ta do et to. They put me and ma brothers in the academies. But I did not want ta be a scholar. I wanted ta be a sailor. Had been since I first laid ma eyes on one of my pa's ships. So one day I stowed away on one."
"What did the captain do once he found out?"
"Was not actually that surprised really. He was an old friend of the family and 'ad been telling me stories about the sea for years. He let me go on the trip as a cabins boy and once we returned home he managed to convince my parents to let me continue. They were none to happy about it but after a while they accepted it."
She looked at him for a moment. His life would have been easier as a scholar, or a teacher, or a priest in one of the foreign temples yet he chose the rough life at sea. To most it would seem silly but she understood it. After all she chose the life of a street urchin, living by her wits, instead of the luxurious life of a princess.
"Do you ever regret it."
"No I don't. It 'as been tough, but the things I have learned, the places I have been, the people I ave met 'ave made it all worth it. I would not trade it for a 'undred life times as a aristocrat."
For a long time neither of them spoke.
"So anyway, Chris, I do not need to know ya past. That is your business. But I was wondering if ya would like to come with us when we leave in a few days."
She gaped at him. "Me. A cabins boy? You cannot be serious."
"I am so."
"But why? I have never been on a ship, much less worked on one. I have no experience. I am not one of your country men. I–"
He put his hand over her mouth.
"Stop yapping like a dolphin would ya and listen."
She blinked then nodded.
"Why, ya ask? Simple really. Like I said before. I like ya. And so do the other men. Samson won't be up for another week or so. Someone ota take care of 'is work. Also, the boy could use a companion closer to 'is age on the ship. So many days at sea can get a little lonely, I will admit that."
She sat down, stunned. "You always think things through, don't."
"Shore do. Quickly to, that is what make me a good cap'ain."
She shook her head, hardly daring to believe it.
"So, what do ya say? Want to join ma crew?"
For a full minute she gaped at him, trying to think. On a ship, surrounded by men, it would be harder to keep her secret but then again this could be her chance. To get away from here, to no longer worry about being recognized or being found by the knights and being dragged back to the palace. A chance to learn something new.
And she would have friends, comrades, shipmates.
Slowly the first real smile in months spread across her face and she heard herself saying: "Yes, captain. I would love to join your crew."
A couple days later she would be standing on the swaying deck of Captain Tarnek's ship. It felt odd but the sailors assured her she would get used to it.
She watched as the green mass, her country, faded into the distance until it was out of sight and had the strange feeling of having her heart both seem to be sinking and flying at the same time. She was saying goodbye to everything she knew and was familiar with but at last she was free. Completely free. Out here on the endless stretch of blue-green water she was not constantly reminded of who she was, what she was running from. It did not matter that she was a former princess. No one knew of cared. She was free.
My heart is not sinking, nor is it flying, she said to herself. No, it is sailing.
Smiling she turned away and looked on ahead. Everything looked the same in every direction but never in her life had she seen anything that looked so full of promise and opportunity.
"That is quiet the story," Will said as he finished putting the wood on the camp fire. The two of them had talked throughout the day. Once she had started it had been hard to stop and she had told him almost everything. Except for the fact that she was a runaway princess. He did not need to know that. Instead she had just told him that her family had been nobles and she had run away because she hated the pampered life.
She was not sure if he was convinced, but he did not press her.
She settled into her blankets. Mind filled with her past memories.
"You will have to tell me the rest tomorrow. You tale is an interesting one, young Chris," the ranger said as he settled down across from her. "You will have to tell me the rest of it tomorrow."
She nodded surprised that she was actually looking forward to telling him more. Will was a good listener. He had hardly interrupted but he never seemed bored or uninterested in what she had to say.
"Good night, Chris," he murmured as he settled in for the night.
"Good night, sir."
What did you think? How did I do on Captain Tarnek's accent. I wasn't sure how to do it but I think I got it alright. Tell me what you think. Was it too boring, too long, weird having her past thrown in there like that?