I think that this is only actually the first half of episode one, and the next half will be posted next Saturday. Enjoy!
The Warrior, the Princess, and the King
The forest was quiet. Andrew liked that. It let him sleep undisturbed. He had spent plenty of time among the noisy throngs, and had no desire to rejoin them. In the forest, he didn’t have to put up with anything more annoying than the birds, and the noise they made was sweet.
He rose with the sun, as was his wont, and gathered his few belongings: a sword, a bow and a quiver of arrows, and a pack with a single book, a few days’ worth of meat he had hunted, and a key given to him by his father. As he made his way through the forest, he noticed signs of recent human activity. He frowned. Humans other than him this deep in the woods was usually a sign that something was unpleasant was going on.
Following the signs led him to where some soldiers had laid a poorly concealed ambush. He scaled a tree silently and watched, wondering idly who they were ambushing, and how soon they’d be out of his forest. He didn’t have to wonder long.
A coach, with accompanying escort that denoted royalty, came around a bend in the road. Andrew spared little thought for the royal buffoon in the carriage, other than to hope they didn’t beg. He despised cowards who begged for their lives.
The soldiers were good, for soldiers. The royal escort was dead within thirty seconds, and the carriage was surrounded. They broke open the doors and dragged out the royal sop who—
A woman. Andrew leaned forward in his tree, no longer simply wanting them to leave. The soldiers roughly dragged a woman from the carriage, throwing her on the ground. Surely she was just a handmaiden, or a mistress, and they would pull the noble from the carriage now. No… The carriage was empty, and the soldiers were destroying it. So the woman must be their target. Andrew scowled. There weren’t many things that could convince him to intervene, but that was one.
He pulled his bow from his back, nocked an arrow, drew back, and waited for the opportune shot. One of the soldiers grabbed the woman, and started to pull her into the shrubbery. Andrew released the arrow, piecing the soldier’s throat.
The soldiers jumped and looked around frantically. Another arrow, and another, then a third. Three more dead soldiers. They grabbed the girl and held a dagger to her throat. “Whoever you are, shoot one more arrow and the Princess dies.”
Andrew put up his bow and drew his sword, then dropped the thirty feet to the ground, knocking the dagger from the Princess’ throat and running through the soldier holding her. She staggered backwards, pressing against a tree as the soldiers closed in on Andrew, who spun his sword, a smirk on his lips. “Come on, then.”
They charged, tactless fools, and Andrew took them apart, his blade glittering and flashing, easily slipping through what little defenses they bothered to put up. It only took a minute before the last of them lay dead. He cleaned his blade on one of their tabards and turned back to the Princess. “Are you all right?”
She stared at him from where she sat on the ground, trembling, her eyes wide. “Y- Y- Yes…”
“Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you. Who are you? Where are you from?”
“I’m Marie… From the kingdom of Olion…”
“Olion… That’s quite far away. Why are you here?”
“I was supposed to be part of a goodwill exchange with Aryalis. Those men must be part of the rebel groups that want to keep our kingdoms apart.”
Andrew frowned. Rebels and kingdoms; it brought back unpleasant memories. “I’ll take you as far as the borders of Aryalis. Do you have anything you need to take from the carriage?”
Marie shook her head. “They destroyed it all.”
“All right, then.” He offered her his hand to help her up. “I’m Andrew.”
She took it very hesitantly, standing. “Thank you…”
Andrew started walking east, toward Aryalis. Why am I doing this? I said I’d never go back to civilization. He sighed, glancing at the princess, Marie. Unbidden, he felt the first stirrings of a deep emotion. He looked away quickly, chastising himself. No! Not attached. Never again. He had been hurt too badly. He’d take her to the border, drop her off, and go back to the forest. The forest was safe.
Five hours later, Andrew was forced to admit that he was growing to respect Marie. He could tell she was hurting, which was only sensible, since royalty didn’t go for difficult hikes very often, but she refused to admit it. “You need a break?” He had asked her that at least five times in the last two hours.
He stopped by a large tree with sprawling roots. “No you’re not. Sit. Rest.”
She glared at him but did not argue, sitting with a repressed sigh of relief. She muttered a thank you and leaned back against the tree, almost but not quite closing her eyes. Andrew sat on a rock and kept a lookout, alert, as always.
Marie studied him from under her half-closed eyelids. She couldn’t figure this man out. He seemed heartless, but if so, why was he helping her? He was very distant, but it seemed like he was trying hard to be so. Why would he try to be cold if he didn’t want to be? She was still mulling it over when Andrew stood about twenty minutes later.
“If you’re sufficiently rested,” he said, “we should keep moving. There’s still plenty of daylight left.”
“All right.” Marie stood and stretched her legs. “I’m ready.”
Andrew nodded and started down the road, leaving Marie to follow in his wake. She kept up easily, which surprised him somewhat. He hadn’t judged her to be that strong. They walked for another few hours, until sunset, at which point Andrew stopped by a huge old willow tree, whose branches formed a natural room. He pulled some of the branches aside, and gestured for the Princess to enter.
She eyed him suspiciously. “You stay out here.”
He gave a small bow. “Of course, your Highness.” She thought she detected a trace of sarcasm, but couldn’t be sure. With a huff, she strode imperiously into the shelter of the willow tree and letting the branches fall back into place behind her.
Andrew chuckled silently to himself, set his pack on the ground, and used it as a pillow, falling into his customary light doze.
Early the next morning, when Andrew checked in on Marie, he was surprised to find her awake. “Sleep well, milady?”
“Yes, fine.” It was a blatant lie, and he could tell that by her appearance. She hadn’t gotten more than a few hours’ sleep all night.
Nonetheless, Andrew accepted it. “That’s good. We should get going as soon as possible. The border is only a few hours away.”
Marie stood, and was reminded by the growling of her stomach that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast the previous day. “I don’t suppose you have anything to eat?”
He pulled some rations out of his pack and gave himself and the Princess each a serving. She eyed it distastefully. “I know it’s not what you’re used to,” he said, “but it will fill you.”
The Princess sighed and nibbled the rations. “Let’s walk while we eat,” she said, setting off down the road.
Andrew followed suit, walking down the road beside her. As he walked, he found his eyes being drawn from their customary scan of his surroundings to observe the young woman walking beside him. Again, he chastised himself. No! You can’t let yourself become attached. Besides, she’s betrothed, remember? Part of a goodwill exchange. He took his eyes off her and returned to watching their surroundings.
Several long hours later, the forest began to thin, and farmland could be seen on the next hill. “Here you are, milady. The Kingdom of Aryalis. This road should take you to the capital.”
Marie bit her lip. “Would you accompany me as far as the first city?”
Andrew raised a single eyebrow. “Why?”
“Because I don’t think I can make it alone.”
“But why should I? All I want is to return to the forest.”
“Please!” she said desperately. “I’m sure the king will reward you for helping me. He’ll give you whatever you want.”
“I have all I want. My forest.”
“But it isn’t yours,” Marie replied, inspiration striking like a thunderbolt, “it’s part of the contested lands between Olion and Aryalis. Once our nations are united, they will start utilizing the forest, instead of fighting over it.”
Andrew narrowed his eyes. “Then maybe I should ensure you never reach the capital, so my forest will never be taken.”
Marie shivered, but she didn’t waver. “If you escort me to the king, I’m sure he will give you your forest.”
He thought about this for a long moment. “Very well. I’ll go with you to the capital.”
“Oh, thank you,” she said, with a rush of relief. “You won’t regret it.”
“I probably will,” Andrew replied with a shrug. “But then, I regret a lot of things. One more won’t be too bad.”
With that, they set off down the road again, the Princess relieved, and a little excited, and the warrior resigned, and a little nervous.
Two cities, three days, four bar fights and five duels of honor later, Andrew remembered why he hated civilization. Marie was trying to convince him that traveling the last day to the capital would be worth it.
“You’ve come this far, Andrew! It would be folly to return to the forest now.”
“Folly or not, I can’t abide another day in a city. I’m returning to my forest, going around all the cities between here and there.”
“Andrew, please. You’ve helped me this far, I beg you help me just a little longer.” She continued to plead, though she had already resigned herself to going the last leg of the journey alone.
He opened his mouth to insist on his departure, but caught himself looking into the Princess’s deep blue eyes. Without thinking, he found himself saying, “Very well, I’ll accompany you.”
It was hard to say which of them was more surprised. Marie got over her surprise first, and threw her arms around him. “Oh, thank you, Andrew!”
Andrew cautiously hugged her back, and then disentangled himself. “Now let’s go, before I change my mind.”
It took the pair only a few hours to reach the capital, and they avoided unnecessary contact with the crowds until they reached the gates of the castle. Marie greeted them. “I am the Princess Marie de Markelous, from the Kingdom of Olion.”
The guards snapped to attention. “Your Highness! Right this way.” They led Andrew and the Princess through the hallways of the castle, right to the doorway of the throne room, where a courtier announced their presence.
“The Princess of Olion, Marie de Markel, and her escort.”
The king spoke from where he sat on his throne. “Approach, fair princess.”
Marie approached the throne, tugging Andrew along after her by one arm. “Greetings, your Majesty,” she said with a curtsy.
“Greetings, Princess de Markelous. Who is your companion? And where is your royal escort?”
“My escort was ambushed and killed by rebel militia. This man is Andrew, a forest-dweller. He saved my life, and then escorted me here.”
The king raised an eyebrow. “It sounds like you two have had quite the adventure. My chamberlain will show you to your rooms, where you can freshen up after your journey, and then you can tell me all about it at the feast tonight.
“That would be wonderful, your majesty.”
They followed the chamberlain through the halls, and he led them to a spacious suite. “You’ll be staying here, milady.”
“Thank you, chamberlain. What about Andrew?”
The chamberlain gave Andrew a disdainful look. “He’ll be staying in the servant’s quarters.”
“He’ll do no such thing!” the Princess replied. “I owe him my life.”
Andrew made a dismissive gesture. “It’s all right, Princess. I’ll sleep with the servants, it’s all right.”
“No.” She was adamant. “If you won’t give him a room, he’ll stay with me.”
The chamberlain’s eyes grew wide. “Milady, that would not be proper.”
“I don’t care. Goodnight.” She pulled Andrew into her room and shut the door. Then she fixed him with a firm look. “You’re sleeping on the couch.”
“Of course, Princess. I never thought anything else.”
“Good.” Marie withdrew to the larger washroom, to freshen up after their long journey.
Andrew went to the smaller one, and looked at his reflection in the washbasin for a long time. What are you thinking, Andrew? What are you thinking? Well, he was here again. With any luck, he’d be gone within a few days. But while he was here, he resolved to not let his past haunt him, and enjoy the company of the Princess Marie, if nothing else. Maybe this would work out well after all.