Kneeling on one knee, I peered through the long, frosted blades of grass in the meadow, clutching the bow in my hand and watching the dense trees at the other end of the clearing. The forest around me was blanketed in a thick sheet of snow, but I was wearing enough fur to double my weight. So far, this had been a rough winter, and I’d been tracking an elusive deer for the last few days. Just the thought of him was making my stomach cramp hungrily.
“Tch!” I clicked my tongue at my wolfhound, which was crouched at my side but beginning to rise. I didn’t want him giving away our position, so I gave him the hand command to lie down. He obeyed, lowering himself to his stomach so completely that his pure white fur disappeared in the deep snow.
While he all but vanished, I discovered why he’d been rising. I had to steady myself when the first point of the deer’s antlers poked through the trees, because it excited me so much that I almost rose too. The animal took another cautious step, and then stopped to look around. Kneeling like I was, the grass around me almost reached my forehead, and its frozen gold color was camouflaged to the pale brown of my furs. I was well hidden, and after giving Albus the signal to stay motionless, I began to reach for an arrow at my back. The movement was so gradual that I’d let out three long, foggy breaths before my hand even brushed the quiver.
The deer took a few more steps into the meadow. I placed the arrow against my bowstring. The deer paused after another step as its head turned my direction; it was aware of danger, but it didn’t matter. The vibrations of my bowstring shuddered in the frigid air, and the arrow sailed perfectly into the creature’s heart. Albus knew that when I let loose my arrow he could move. He sprang up, prepared to make chase if I’d missed, but I never miss. The hart took one leap, and collapsed when its hooves touched down again.
I ran toward it, my left hand ready on the knife at my hip in case it was still breathing. We would
The deer was dead the moment I shot it. As was my religious custom, I knelt at its side and placed my hand on its head to whisper, “Thank you for your sacrifice. May your spirit rest within me.” Then I stood. “Eyes,” I told Albus, motioning to our quarry.
While he was protecting our sustenance, I sprinted back to where I’d left my dark brown horse, Brande, and returned with him at a gallop even though I could hear the cart he was pulling beating against roots and the sides of trees. I detached the cart and pushed as much of it as I could underneath the deer, though I couldn’t do much since the animal weighed far more than I did. There was a rope hanging from Brande’s saddle, so I looped one end around the saddle horn and the other around the deer’s antlers. Then I led Brande forward a few steps, until he’d successfully dragged our kill completely onto the wagon.
After reattaching Brande to the cart, I mounted, and we started back toward home with Albus trotting at our side. I was overcome with excitement in anticipation of presenting my mother with the deer, eager to see the smile on her face and the small dance Nilson did whenever I brought home food. That is, until I reached our farm and saw a group of horses outside, all clad in the king’s red and gold. I’d known my brother to steal a sweet roll, or occasionally pickpocket to pay for said sweet roll. My only conclusion was that he’d been caught, and they were here to fine my mother for money she didn’t have, and thus take Nilson to the prison in Guelder.
“What’s happened?” I asked, already near a panic as I burst into the cottage.
There were soldiers standing around, but my eyes searched the small room for Nilson. He was sitting at the table with our mother, looking rather comfortable for a prisoner. When he saw me, he waved, with a sweet roll clutched firmly in his other hand.
“What’ve you got to look guilty about?” laughed a familiar deep voice.
I’d been so frightened that I hadn’t tried to make out the faces of the soldiers. Now I looked at the one who’d spoken—a tall young man, bulky in his armor, with long brown locks and facial hair to match. I knew him to be twenty-one years of age, just two years older than myself. It was him who’d brought Nilson the sweet roll he was eating.
“That’s a rotten trick,” I scolded as I strode over, and when I got there I swung myself onto his back. “Coming here with all these men.”
“Your eyes,” he laughed, wrestling me off of him. “Look, look.” He motioned for me to watch, and then mockingly exaggerated an expression of horror.
The soldier’s name was Silas. Our fathers had been old friends, and we’d grown up together, hunting and tracking, even brawling when there wasn’t anyone around to scold us for it. Silas’s fortune and skill with a sword had led him to knighthood in the king’s guard. My lack of fortune and sword-skill led me to the woods.
“Take off your armor,” I challenged, rapping my knuckles against his steel chest. “I’ll give you something to be frightened of.”
“Kiena,” my mother uttered, brown eyes giving me a similarly sharp review. She hated it when I didn’t act formally in front of officials, even if it was just Silas.
I ignored the rebuke, finally taking off my heavy coat and then sitting myself right on top of the table, knowing she was still glaring at me. “Did you come for supper?” I asked Silas. “Just shot myself a hart of eighteen.”
He squinted his eyes at me. “No you haven’t.”
“Come and look, then.” I got up and stepped toward the door, leading him outside so he could see that I wasn’t lying.
Some of the other soldiers had trailed along out of curiosity, and they stood by the open door of the cottage while Silas counted the tines of the deer’s antlers. “Eighteen,” he mumbled to himself when he finished, laughing in amazement. “Eighteen!” he repeated to those of his men who’d stepped out. Then, to one in particular, “I told you she was the right one.”
“Right one?” I echoed, following Silas back into the cottage while my mother and Nilson passed us to take care of the deer. “For what?”
He waited until both he and I were seated at the table. I’d never seen him so suddenly serious, and sitting there with him, surrounded by five other soldiers, I was growing a little bit nervous too. “Princess Avarona has run away,” he told me after a minute. I nodded, though that bit didn’t particularly mean much to me—I lived on the edges of a forest over twenty miles from the castle. “The king wants her found before the Ronan Empire hears of it.” I nodded again, this time in understanding. Our kingdoms had been at war for decades. If Ronan spies found her before King Hazlitt did, it would be over. “I got word to him that there was no better tracker in the kingdom than you.”
“Because it’s the truth,” he answered. When I offered no reply but the shaking of my head, he added, “If you bring her back safely, he’ll reward you with more gold than could fill this cottage. You could move into Guelder. Nilson could have a sweet roll with every meal.”
“And if I can’t find her?” I asked. I’d never even seen the king, but everyone in Valens knew that the reputation of his temper preceded him. “Or if she gets hurt? Then he’ll have my head, is that it?”
“You could find a fox in a blizzard,” he said. I scowled at that, but to emphasize his point, he motioned toward my dog. “Even without Albus.”
I don’t know why I was even still thinking about it. I didn’t much have a choice now. If the king had decided he wanted me, then I had to go. But what would Mother and Nilson do while I was gone? What if I
Before my father’s execution, he’d been labeled a traitor to the kingdom. He’d fought for years to put King Hazlitt on the throne, and then one day he stopped fighting for the king. People said it’s because my father had gained just enough support in the ranks to want power for himself, but that it wasn’t enough to actually win, and for that, they said he was mad. If the king knew who I was, if he knew my surname and my family history, there’s no way he’d hire me to find his daughter. He might even throw me in prison just because he could, because I had a traitor’s blood.
Silas gave me a long look at the question, and though I knew him well enough to recognize the hesitation in it, he wouldn’t risk my life to lie. He was my best friend, and I trusted him.
“No,” he answered, “I only told him that I know the best hunter in the kingdom.” He watched me for a long moment after that, studying the continued reluctance on my face. “We’ve lost brothers to this war,” he said, breaking my intense gaze at him and looking around at his soldiers, all of who mumbled ‘no man is an island’ in response. “Good men. Honest men. W ...