Authors: Jody Hedlund
“ 'Twill be easier on you to have a clean cut,” the soldier behind me insisted.
'Twould most definitely not go easier on me. Not when they realized my true gender. Not when they then unmasked me further and realized I was the bandit who was terrorizing Wessex lands.
And it would go even worse if Sir Edgar and his father saw my red hair and my cleaned face and eventually figured out the vigilante they had sought was the rightful heir to Wessex, that I hadn't died alongside my father after all.
“Let's have the gloves, old man.” The ox began wrestling my hand and tugging at the leather hugging my fingertips.
“No!” I shouted, this time forgetting to disguise my voice.
At the sound of my much higher, clearer tone, the bulky soldier loosened his grasp. The fraction was all I needed. I yanked away, dropped to the ground, and rolled toward my bow. In an instant I had it in hand with an arrow notched and drawn.
I jumped up and was on my feet, running while shooting the arrow in the direction of one of the perimeter guards. It hit him squarely in his fighting hand, as I'd intended. The arrow had hardly left my bow before I had another pulled back and ready to loose.
But another arrow flew out of the forest nearby and hit the second perimeter guard before I could let go. I didn't stop running to think. I simply shot my arrow at the tall soldier with the knife, making sure it knocked the weapon from his raised hand rather than piercing him.
I sprinted toward the forest edge and glanced again at the noblewoman and the pearls. Did I have time to get what I'd been after in the first place?
Two horses with their riders burst through the forest and stampeded across the clearing. Amidst the shouting and chaos, I relished the sound of Sir Edgar's curses. Did Edgar really think he'd get to entertain his guests at my expense today? If so, then my cousin was stupider than he looked.
One of the horses pounded closer, and when a hand reached down for me, I latched on and swung myself up behind the young rider.
I put my head down and kicked my heels into the flank of the beast, urging it faster.
An arrow zipped past us.
I spun as much as I could on the bare back of the horse. One of Sir Edgar's friends and fellow noblemen had shot at me. I took aim and released my arrow with a ping. It ripped across the distance, and within seconds sliced through the man's hat, knocking it from his head, parting his hair and skimming his scalp in the process.
I watched him long enough to see shock widen his eyes. Then I turned back and grinned.
The horse plunged into the brambles and the darkness of the woods. I grabbed onto the rider to keep from toppling off. We charged through the tangle of trees and brush, the branches whipping us, thorns grabbing our tunics, and the windfall threatening to trip us.
But the horse didn't slacken its pace. Nor did the steed behind us.
A quick glance over my shoulder revealed Bulldog. His fleshy face was dark with anger and his scowl chastised me. His blue jay call had alerted me to his presence, and I was glad for his help. But I could have made my escape without himâI usually managed. There had been no need for him to put his and Thatch's lives in danger on account of me.
I crouched low behind Thatch, Bulldog's son. Thatch's blond hair stuck up on his head like dry straw. I gripped him tightly, and his boney body felt as thin as twigs beneath the thin, tattered clothes he wore. Together we swayed with the horse's movements, ducking low and making the kind of getaway we'd accomplished plenty of times over the past few years.
We rode hard for many long minutes, putting the distance we needed between ourselves and Sir Edgar. Thatch wisely guided the horses far from our forest home. We would likely have to spend the next day or two eluding soldiers before we could make our way back to the secret caverns, which served as the base of operations as well as shelter for the many people we helped.
When we finally reached a narrow gully, we reined our horses and hid in the shadows for several moments, our heavy breathing mingling with the snorting of the horses.
Bulldog grabbed my sleeve and growled, “Young missy, I ought to take a switch to your backside for that stunt.”
“That wasn't a stunt. I was fishing. For pearls.” Technically, I'd been hunting. But I hadn't been able to resist trailing the noblewoman once I'd spotted the necklace.
“It was the stupidest thing you've done to date, and that's saying something, because you've done plenty of foolish things.”
“We're running low on provisions.”
Bulldog folded his thick arms across his chest as if restraining himself from strangling me. “I know we'll need to make a raid soon. But not on Sir Edgar. And definitely not when you're by yourself.”
“I had everything under control the whole time.” Or at least mostly. “I could have gotten away just fine.”
His dark eyebrows came together into a thunderous glare above his equally black eyes. “Or you could have ended up like this.” He held up his hands. I didn't have to look to know what he was referring to. But my gaze was nevertheless drawn to the stumps where his thumbs had once been.
Bulldog was one of the lucky ones who'd only lost his thumbs for poaching. And he was also one of the most
stubborn, determined, and strong men I'd ever met. It was due to those qualities alone he'd learned to shoot his bow again, unlike so many men who were crippled for life.
Thatch peered up at me with adoring eyes. “I think all Dad is trying to say is that, next time, make sure you bring me along. That way I can help you.”
I smiled at the boy and tousled his hair, which only made the strands stand up farther.
He gave me one of his wide, crooked smiles, which revealed the gap in the top where he'd lost one of his front teeth in a fist fight.
Bulldog snarled. “That's not what I'm saying at all.”
Thatch's grin slipped away.
“I trust Thatch to watch out for you,” Bulldog said, softening at the sight of disappointment in his son's face. “But, Juliana, I gave your father my word that I'd protect you with my life. How can I do that if you're constantly charging into dangerous situations without telling me?”
The braying of a hound wafted on the wind.
Bulldog didn't have to say anything. One grimace of his rounded face was all it took to know his frustration. Sir Edgar already had men tracking us.
Thatch sprang onto the back of his mare and offered me his hand. I swung up behind him at the same time that Bulldog mounted his horse. He lifted his short nose and sniffed the air. Then he cocked his ear and listened intently.
“We'll have to split up,” he said in a voice tight with frustration. “I'll lead them on a wild goose chase. And the two of you get as far away from here as you can.”
For a moment, remorse tumbled about my empty stomach. Danger was nothing new. We'd lived with threats, starvation, and menace every day in the three years since my father had
attempted his revolt and subsequently lost his life. But I didn't like the thought that I'd made things harder for Bulldog and Thatch with my recklessness. “I'm sorryâ”
“I'm tired of your apologies.” Bulldog's keen eyes swept through the dense forest. The thick tamarack and low spruce would slow down the search party, but the hunting dogs would eventually sniff out our trails.
“I'll go on by myself.” I wiped a sleeve across my mud-caked face, brushing away sweaty flecks of dirt.
“No,” Bulldog replied tersely. “Thatch will stay with you.”
I held back my protest. I'd already rankled Bulldog enough for one day. Even though I didn't need Thatch's help, I liked his company. If Bulldog was forcing me to flee, at least I wouldn't be bored with Thatch along.
The barking of the dogs sounded nearer.
“Head west of Wessex. And stay out of the forest for three days.” Bulldog bolted out of the gully, his steed crunching through the fallen leaves.
Thatch tugged his horse toward the west but paused when Bulldog glanced at us over his broad shoulder.
“Be careful.” Bulldog's voice was harsh, but his eyes gentled as his gaze touched first on Thatch and then me.
“We'll be fine,” I reassured him.
He gave a curt nod, then kicked his horse forward and was gone.
Thatch murmured to his mare and spurred her into the dense foliage.
I'd much rather be the one racing through the forest, dodging Lord Wessex's soldiers. There was something wild and exciting about the chase. But I'd accept the wisdom of Bulldog's plans this time. Maybe I had stepped too far over the line of danger with my latest move.
At the very least, it wouldn't hurt to lay low for a few daysâespecially for everyone else's sakes. The last thing I wanted to do was endanger Bulldog, Thatch, and the other families.
The wind and branches whipped my face.
Bulldog had told us to head west. West of Wessex. My mind spun with the possibilities . . .fishing possibilities.
I'd heard rumors that the master of the land bordering Wessex on the west had finally returned after years of being gone. The young, wealthy master who'd once insulted my red hair. An insult I'd never forgotten or forgiven.
A smile tugged at my lips.
“Head to Goodrich land,” I called to Thatch.
Yes, indeed. I sensed some very good fishing possibilities ahead.
GAVE MY STEED FULL REIN, LETTING MY MOUNT PLOD AT
a leisurely pace. The morning air was crisp, finally losing the heat of the summer. A breeze ruffled my cloak and tugged at my cap.
Irene and our two guests rode ahead with the servants and huntsmen, and for a reason I couldn't understand I was content to lag behind. I hadn't even brought my falcon as the others had. In fact, I'd almost decided to stay at the manor. After the past four weeks of partying and dancing and feasting, I expected to be much happier than I found myself now.
Of course I was glad to be home, to see my sister, and to reacquaint myself with friends of the family. I'd only returned home twice in the many years I'd served as a squire and then as a knight under the Noblest Knightâonce when my stepmother had died, and then three years ago, after my father had passed on.
Now that Father was gone, as the only son I'd inherited everythingâthe lands, estates, and fortune. I was quite likely the wealthiest man in all the kingdom, next to the High King.
I had everything I wanted. I should feel satisfied . . .But with each passing day, I only grew more restless.
Ahead, Irene smiled at the man riding next to her. Her falcon perched on her wrist, grasping the long leather glove she wore. The tiny bell on the falcon's foot tinkled just like her laughter.
As Irene was now nineteen and past due for marriage, my first task was to find my sister a good husband. As lord of Goodrich, it was my duty now. So even though I'd considered canceling the festivities she'd arranged for my homecoming, I'd continued with her plans for her sake.
If I couldn't cheer myself through the endless merriment, perhaps at the very least I would be able to find her a perfect match. Once she was safely married, then maybe I'd return to the Noblest Knight, the Duke of Rivenshire. Serving alongside my mentor had been much more exciting than my current situation.
I glanced through the canopy of changing leaves to the blue sky overhead. Perhaps if I just tried harder to be content with my new life . . .
A sudden glint in the branches of a nearby maple tree caught my eyeâthe glint of a knife.
I stiffened but forced myself to remain casual even as my mind raced forward.
We were about to be ambushed.
I began to whistle a merry tune. As lazily as I could, I stretched my arms above my head and used the movement to assess the surroundings better. From what I could tell, there was only one bandit in the tree.
As I lowered my hand, I brushed the goose feather fletching on one arrow in my belt quiver. If I wanted, I could shoot the thief out of the tree before he knew what hit him.
But as the man shifted into a crouch on the branch that hung above our path, I let my hand fall to my side. From the litheness and lightness of the figure, I guessed the bandit was
nothing more than a child. I wouldn'tâcouldn'tâhurt a child. But I also wouldn't sit by if the wayward urchin jumped onto my sister and attempted to harm her in any way.
My fingers slid to the knife sheathed underneath my tunic.
Completely unaware of the danger above us, Irene and our guests passed under the branch. My muscles tensed in readiness, but I continued to whistle as if I hadn't a care in the world.
When I neared the tree, I tried to keep myself from glancing up. From the corner of my eye, I could see the waif and his outstretched knife. As I finally passed beneath the danger, for a second I could almost believe that we'd avoided an altercation, that perhaps the young boy was simply hiding and feared detection.