The winds were strong, and the rain was falling. The castle stood on the edge of a cliff, and from her high window Cornelia could see the fertile land far below, the forests being pummeled with the rain, the rivers filling and flowing over. If she looked close enough she thought she could even make out the distant, tiny shapes of creatures running through the rainy fields.
The sky rumbled again. The sound of the falling rain grew louder as it fell more intensely. Cornelia was standing on jutting ledge outside her window, her hands behind her, locked into place on the window latch, holding her still. The water fell upon her face and soaked her elegant pink ballgown. She wore no shoes, but stood barefoot on the wet ledge, her eyes scanning the lands beneath her.
Directly below was the edge of the cliff, and far beneath it the trees of the forests. Her heart beat loud and hot in her chest, her head pounding, her breathing heavy. Her blond hair was whipping in the strong winds.
The world, she thought to herself. The world, vibrant and untamed, down there far beneath her. She stood high, a princess on a castle ledge, looking down upon the world. And yet it called to her. The castle, in all it’s size and glory, had grown small to her over the years, and even the streets of the city which she had very rarely walked were not enough. She craved freedom, and it would never be given her.
In the wild world, all things were born free. They fought to keep their freedom and to keep their lives, but they always had their choice. In the wild world there was no order, and there were no princesses or kingdoms. Their were no imposed responsibilities from the time of birth, nor were there duties heaped upon innocent children who wanted no part of it. The cubs played in the forest while the mother hunted and kept them. When the cubs grew, they left to explore and survive and create new cubs. On bright and peaceful days, beasts might lay out in the open sun. A predator might come and take their lives, but they were free when they died.
To think of a life here, living in a society that made no sense to her and which she was powerless to change, even as a future queen, made the tears begin to well up again, warm in her eyes. She did not want to die. She wanted to live a life of freedom. But there would never be freedom. Life had failed her. She had born into luxury and wealth, but had never wanted it. To be a peasant. To be hungry. To find and love someone because of who they were, not because of how they were born. Even better, to be an animal. These were things she dreamt of. The royals always dream of what they cannot have, her maids had told her. Be thankful of your blessings.
But she was not thankful. She wanted a life in the world below, far beneath the castle, far away from society, out into the untamed wild lands and forests. If she could never have it, at least she might finish this life on her way down to it, and perhaps in the next, she could be born as a beast in the forest, to live and to love and be happy. To be far away from people and societies and ideas, just to be primal and pure.
Her wet feet were cold. Her clean blond hair was still whipping about her and covering her face. Her blue eyes wept warm tears. Behind her was the warmth of her room with it’s fire,the castle with it’s warmth and it’s privilege.
She took a last moment at the world below, taking it in, willing it to be the place she might awaken in her future life, maybe a place like it, but somewhere even further away from people. No royalty. No citizens. No responsibilities. Just to live. She kept the image of the green forests and the running waters of the rivers far below, and the beasts running across the plains, and closed her eyes, sealing it there within her mind. The last thing she would ever see.
She let go of the window latch, held out her arms to the sky, breathed deep and smiled, and she jumped.
“We’ve got to get somewhere dry for the night.” Jared held up his arm to shield his eyes so that he could see forward. The dense foliage around him dripped with the heavy falling rain, and his black leather traveling gear was bloated and wet, from the heavy boots to the jacket, and even the cotton shirt beneath.
“Sir Jared, haven’t we been this way already?” Carr held up his hand too, but a smile was on his face, even as the young boy was soaked through as thoroughly as his companion. Jared turned to look at him and saw the smile playing on the ten-year-olds lips, his green eyes atwinkle with the adventure, his messy dark brown hair plastered to his forehead from the rain.
“Very possible, young sir squire,” replied Jared, “A knight but always stay conscious of his surroundings. However,” he pointed to a nearby fallen branch, blocking the way ahead, “That is not the same kind of tree we passed before, the tree before was a birch, and this fallen tree is a mighty oak.”
Carr held his hand hoisted his traveling satchel up and nodded, “Right. Then we’re still headed out of the forest.”
Jared sighed, “Not entirely sure about that, Carr. I’ve spent a lot of time in my life wandering through forests but with all this damn rain, I can’t make sense of where we are. We might be even deeper in. We just need to find some place where we can be shielded from the rain.”
Jared had brought traveling supplies, including a tent, but they were lost now, taken by his pursuers, and all they had left was the satchel on Carr’s side, no doubt soaked through with the rain, ruining the small amount of fruits and provisions they had left. “Alright, squire,” he commanded in a voice that played at seriousness but was not, “I will take point and you follow. Your duty is to keep an eye for any place dry.”
“Aye, sir!” chirped Carr happily.
The two continued down the dense forest trail, pushing away branches, climbing over the fallen oak, and deeper into the unknown.
Several more minutes of silence passed as they made their way through the rain-soaked forest and the daylight was beginning to ween from the grey sky that became less visible above them. The tree branches overhead were turning into a canopy now, and though it didn’t stop the rain, it lessened the amount. Carr marched along behind Jared happily, Jared silently stepped forward, his legs aching, cautious of any danger that might be lurking nearby. No doubt the forest-dwelling beasts had retreated to their hovels, but still, one never what to expect in a strange land.
“Sir Jared!” Carr pointed, “Look!”
Just ahead of them was a natural clearing, and at the far end, a formation of boulders by the mouth of a cave.
“I’ve found a dry place!” Carr exclaimed, and started to run forward, but Jared shot out a cautious arm to stop him.
“Careful, we’re not the first animals in the forest to find that cave, I’m sure. May be best to take our chances elsewhere.”
“But what if it’s empty?” Carr asked.
“If it isn’t empty, we could have a small family of bears on our hands, and that might be worse than being soaked.”
“Still, we should try.” Carr suggested.
Jared thought for a moment. “Alright,” he said, “But stay behind me.”
From the scabbard on his back he drew a plain, sharp broadsword, and held it in his left hand, creeping upon the mouth of the cave slowly. It was not a deep cave, and the little light in the area illuminated what there was to be seen, and as he approached he saw that it was clear. Jared relaxed a moment and left his sword drop a little as he stood up tall and turned to smile at Carr. “Alright, we’ve got ourselves a place to sleep for the night.”
Carr jumped in delight. “Alright! We did it, Sir Jared!”
Jared’s smile fell from his face.
“Carr.” he whispered. “Don’t. Move.”
Behind Carr, crouched in the foliage, was a grey wolf with green, shimmering eyes and raised ears. There was a flash of a moment in which Jared yanked Carr behind him by the collar of his jacket and the wolf leaped from the foliage and positioned itself on spread legs with it’s head down, it’s ears raised, and a low growl coming from it’s mouth.
Jared held the sword steady beside him, and kept steady eye contact with the wolf.
There was a long moment of silence.
Jared dropped the sword, and bent down to one knee, on level with the wolf, staring into it’s eyes while it continued to snarl at him. Caar lay on the ground behind Jared watching in fear and amazement.
The wolf lowered it ears, turned, and bolted into the foliage and away.
Jared threw his head back and fell against the boulders, placing a hand over his fast-beating heart. “That was amazing, Sir Jared!” Carr came up close and knelt down next to him. “You scared off a wolf just by looking at it! You really are a legendary knight, aren’t you!”
Jared breathed deep and heavily, “Let’s just get inside the cave, Carr.”
In a few minutes, they were set up inside the cave, where Jared found plenty of old branches and twigs that weren’t burnt through, and, fetching a match from inside the satchel Carr had been carrying, started a fire. The man and the boy stripped their clothes completely and left them to dry next to the fire, and from the satchel Carr produced two small, woolen blankets. While Jared squatted naked next to the fire, throwing on more branches, Carr laid out a blanket on the floor of the cave and crawled naked under the other, covering himself and laying his mop of wet hair down on the satchel.
The boy was asleep within minutes. Jared turned around and pulled the blanket and the boy closer to the fire, and sat his wet bottom down on the wool. He ran his through his wet hair and sighed. “What have I gotten us into?”
From behind him, the boy murmured in his sleep. “Momma…” he groaned. Jared turned and laid a hand on the boy’s shoulder, from which the blanket had fallen, and pulled it up to cover him completely.
Carr curled closer into himself in his sleep. Jared watched with sad eyes. “What am I going to do?” he whispered aloud to himself.
Jared looked out of the mouth of the cave to where the rain still fell, drying slowly by the fire, and kept a cautious eye, his sword to his right side, the remains of the dry tinder he’d gathered from the cave in a heap behind it.
The sun went down, and the knight kept watch by the fire.
There was a bird, soaring high overhead. It was large, but it was so far away, and no certain shape could be ascertained. It let out a loud, majestic screech, and glided round in circles in the wind.
Cornelia was falling through the air, but it wasn’t the air outside of the castle. She was falling infinitely, and when she looked down, there was no world beneath, just endless sky and endless clouds in all directions. High above the bird circled, and she reached out a hand, but the bird did not respond.
“What do you think happened?”
The air around her was infinite, and the falling was infinite, and she closed her eyes and smiled. To fall and fall forever, to be completely at peace, never to land. To fly through the air.
“Is she alive?”
“I don’t know… it looks like she’s breathing.”
Voices. Voices far away, in the direction of the great bird. She held out her hand to it again, but now it’s appearance grew foggy and dim.
“Wake her up!”
“I don’t know how…”
The bird was farther away. It was harder and harder to tell where it was. And then she looked down and beneath her were the endless green fields she had fantasized about. Bathed in the sun. The endless forests, the wilderness stretching on and on forever. But it grew closer, and her heart beat fast as she plummeted toward the ground below.
Fear. Fear and agony, that she might feel the impact. But she had chosen to fall, chosen to fly, and now she must face death, that she might live again in that wilderness. She held her arms close round herself as her hair and her dress whipped in the wind. The ground came closer, and closer, and she shut her eyes, bracing for the impact.
Cornelia opened her eyes. Her vision was blurry, and she couldn’t make out the shape. A bird? No. A person.
Jet black hair, little curls at the ends. Green eyes, with brown mixed into them. Strong face, powerful jaw, hair curling around the nape of the neck.
“Are you okay? Can you sit up?”
He was speaking to her. An angel? A harbinger, come to usher her into the next life?
“Miss? Can you speak?”
His strong hands were suddenly holding her from behind her head and her back, and he helped her to sit up. Her stomach flipped, and she shut her eyes from the dizziness.
She was alive.
She spoke, groggy. “Where am I?”
When she opened her eyes, the man with the dark hair was smiling. “Good, you can talk,” he said. “How did you get out here?”
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Well…” the man looked around, and so did Cornelia.
A circle of trees around them, dark trees with green leaves, but this was a meadow. An open circle of sunlight bathed the yellow and pink flowers all around, and the trees stood at the edges, as though afraid to touch the beauty with their knarled trunks and dark leaves. She was sitting up, in the same pink dress she had worn on the balcony. Her hair was a mess around her face and she pulled it away from her eyes. Next to her knelt the man with the dark hair, wearing black leather trousers and a dirty, brown shirt unbuttoned at the neck, exposing a strong collarbone and smooth chest.
“We’re in a forest in the Ornaria region, near the kingdom of Sectra,” the man said.
“Sectra,” she repeated.
“Yes. Is that where you’re from?” he asked.
Yes. “No,” she said.
“Ornaria then, do you know where that is?”
Yes. “No,” she said again. “I… I don’t think I know where I am at all.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?” he asked.
“I was…” Falling. She was falling from the castle window, she was committing suicide, she was jumping to her death. “I don’t remember anything,” she lied. “I… I have no idea.”
The man bit his lip and seemed to lose himself in thought for a moment. “No memories.. do you know your name?”
“It’s…” she hesitated. Who was he? Was this real? Was she really alive? But then there was the pain in her back, and the disorientation, it all felt very real. “I’m Cornelia.”
He smiled again, “Good, you remember your name. I’m Jared. Oh, and this is Carr.”
He held out a hand behind him, and a boy she had noticed before was sitting on his knees, looking at her in wonder with wide eyes. He wore simple clothes as well, brown trousers and a brown shirt, and had a mop of unruly brown hair on his head. “Hello, miss.” he said. His voice was high pitched and sweet, excited.
“H-hello…” she murmured, still dazed.
“So you remember your name,” said Jared, “Do you remember anything else? Friends? Family? A town? You’re dressed very well, you can’t be a peasant.”
“I…” she placed a hand to her chest, which was just as sore as the rest of her body, “I don’t remember a thing. Just my name… nothing else.” She had never been good at lying, but Jared’s thoughtful nod of agreement showed her she had convinced him.
“Alright, well, let’s get you up. We’re nearly out of the forest now.”
“Forest…” she repeated, once again looking around at the densely packed trees circling the meadow.
“Yeah,” he said with another kind smile, “Imagine our surprise when we come upon a sunlit, flower-filled meadow with a girl lying asleep in the center. You kind of looked like some fairy tale princess.”
“Princess?” her heart beat a little faster. No. No, the princess was dead. She had hurled herself off of her window ledge. If this was reality, if she had somehow survived the immense fall, then she was no longer a princess anyway.
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound rude,” Jared said, “You just don’t often come upon beautiful women in ball gowns laying in the middle of a forest.”
“Come on, stand up,” Jared put his hand behind her back and helped her to her feet. The world spun around again for a moment, and then she fell forward, but he caught her, and helped her stand again. She reached down and felt her legs, wobbly as they were, and brushed the dirt from her gown. She was still in her bare feet.
“No shoes…” Jared said, “It’ll be difficult for you to get through the woods in your bare feet. However you ended up here, you certainly weren’t dressed for it.”
She found herself smiling. “I don’t know either. But I don’t think I’m going to get very far like this.”
“Well, forgive me if it’s terribly forward,” he said, “but…” and with a quick motion he swooped a hand under her legs and held her close to his chest, causing her to catch her breath from surprise. “We’ve got to get out of this forest while we have daylight, and I may as well carry you if you can’t walk.”
On the one hand, it was terribly rude, and on the other, she didn’t seem to mind at all that he picked her up. His arms were strong, and his face was kind. He seemed trustworthy, and after all, what an adventure this might turn out to be. She found herself as excited as she had ever been at the idea of traveling the forest with these strangers.
“Sir Jared, we best be going,” the boy said.
He laughed and turned to face the boy, “Right you are, sir squire! Lead the way, and the princess and I shall follow.”
The boy hitched a traveling satchel up on his shoulder, smiled, and turned to leave the clearing. Jared followed, Cornelia in his arms, and his boots crunched through the grass and flowers as they headed out. There was a trail at one end of the clearing, and they reached it and began to walk.
Then there was another voice.
Jared turned, Cornelia in tow, and they both looked back to the other end of the clearing, where there stood a man in armor, large with a bushy beard and thinning hair. “Men, we’ve found him!” he shouted. Other men in armor came rushing up behind him. All of them were armed with swords at their hips or spears in their hand.
Jared let out a low sound like a growl.
“Thought you could hide in the woods like a deer?” the man laughed, his voice was cruel.
“I’m not hiding from anything,” Jared said loud and with authority. “I’m staying away from people like you. I have nothing to tell you, and I won’t be coming with you.”
The large man with the beard laughed. “Jared, come now. You’ve been running from us for how long now? Seven months? Face it boy, you’re cornered. And who is this lovely maiden in your arms? Off skirt-chasing now? And with that boy in your company too, how crude.”
“Shut your mouth,” Jared barked.
The man narrowed his eyes and pulled a sword from a scabbard on his hip. “Listen to me, you will not outrun us here. Give yourself up, and we will let your girlfriend and the boy go.”
“Carr,” Jared said quietly, “Run.”
“But Sir J-“
“Go!” he hissed, “Don’t question me!”
Cornelia looked back over Jared’s shoulder and saw the boys face twist in consternation, but he turned and ran away down the trail. Jared stood firm, and Cornelia wound her arms around his neck, turning to look back at the clearing.
“Tell your mistress,” said Jared, “That she can hunt me until the end of time, but nothing will be gained from it. I have nothing you could want. Not information, not money, not affiliation. I am worthless to you.”
The large man began to step closer with his sword outstretched, and the men behind him readied their weapons as well. “This is your last chance to surrender to us peacefully.”
“Go to hell.” Jared spat.
The large man growled. “Men, seize him.”
The men with weapons and armor charged forward, and Cornelia felt Jared tense as he backed away. “What do we do?” she whispered.
“Quiet,” he commanded.
Halfway through the clearing, trampling the flowers, the men stopped in their tracks as flashes of grey shot out from the foliage. Two first, then three, and then they could be seen. Wolves. The men held their weapons out, and as the three wolves began to growl and raise their hackles, more shot out from the surrounding trees and filled the clearing. Four, five, six, seven, and more coming. All of them growling ferociously and some of them barking now, a high-pitched, terrifying sound.
“We’re going,” Jared whispered, and he turned and ran.
Carr stopped to catch his breath, his hands on his knees, dropped his heavy satchel to the ground. Jared would be coming soon behind him. How he could escape from a convoy of armed soldiers, Carr couldn’t begin to guess, but he knew it wasn’t beyond the talents of a knight of legend. The thought of Jared bravely defending his friends single-handedly inspired Carr to hitch up his satchel, switching it’s weight to his other shoulder, and set off again.
He took a breath and readied himself, then broke out into a run. But in an instant, something stopped him, and he nearly tripped.
A voice, whispering to him. He skidded to a halt and looked around.
“Hello?” Carr asked, his voice a little shaky and uncertain.
“Carr,” it was a woman’s voice. A soft, gentle whisper.
“Where are you?” Carr asked, “Who are you?”
“Come,” the voice whispered, and he turned his head to see, just for an instant, the figure of a woman with long hair passing behind a nearby tree. It was difficult to believe, but the instant he saw her, it seemed as though she was shining with many different colors around her.
“Carr!” it wasn’t the woman’s voice this time, but Jared. Carr turned fully around.
“Sir Jared!” he called, relieved.
Jared was bounding toward him, the girl from the meadow in tow, her hair flying behind her as he ran and her ruffled pink gown hanging over Jared’s arms.
“What happened?” Carr asked, “Did you stop those men?”
Jared was panting for breath. Cornelia’s expression was something between fear and excitement, she was breathing heavily too. “No time to talk, Carr,” Jared gasped, “We have to keep running. Find our way out of this forest.”
“Carr,” the voice of the woman again.
“What was…” Jared began, but a glimmer of light caught the attention of all three, and they turned their heads to see, for an instant, the flowing hair of a woman, her vague figure, draped in colorful light, dissapearing behind the same tree Carr had seen her dissapear behind before. Without thinking anymore, Carr rushed toward the tree, “Come on!” he shouted.
“Carr, wait!” Jared called, but Carr had already ran into the bushes and behind the tree where he’d seen the woman dissapear, and up ahead, he saw again the glinting light and the woman, dissapearing into a thicket. He ran ahead, following her, and heard Jared’s footsteps behind him. “Stop! We’re going to get lost again!” Jared called from behind him.
Without thinking, Carr jumped headlong into the thicket he’d seen the woman dissapear into, and instead of being met with thorns and briars, he found himself suddenly in another part of the forest entirely, this time with sunlight reaching down through the trees overhead, and he was on the trail again, though in a completely different spot. In a moment, Jared was beside him, panting again.
“What just happened?” Jared wondered aloud.
“Where are you?” Carr called out to the mysterious voice, but no answer came.
“Look!” Cornelia pointed down the trail, to where there was a clear opening out into a sunlit field, an exit from the forest.
“What the hell?” Jared sounded astonished.
“Whoever that was, I think she led us out of here!” Carr cried happily.
“But…” Jared began, “We were… deep in the middle of the forest… this is the way you and I came in… we weren’t even on this side of the wood. And, why weren’t we hurt by that thicket of-“
“It doesn’t matter!” Carr interrupted, “Let’s just get out while we can!”
Jared seemed to agree silently, and with a nod of his head, he shot forward, Carr following close behind. In a moment they came to the exit and ran into the field outside.
It was a grassland, long green blades flowing in the breeze, the sun high above bathing it all in a warm light, and as they stopped for a moment, Carr looked behind at the forest, it’s dense trees seeming dark and ominous. Far off in the distance were mountains, they surrounded every corner of the far-flung grassland, off to one side were hills that led down into deeper areas of the valley, and high above the forest was the great cliff, atop which stood the castle, the palace of the kingdom of Sectra.
Carr turned back and saw that Jared was setting Cornelia down and helping her to maintain balance. “I think I can stand now, thank you,” she said politely. Jared stretched his arms and his neck. “I hope I wasn’t too heavy,” she said apologetically.
“Not at all!” he responded with a smile. “It’s been a while since I got the chance to sweep a young woman off her feet!” and he winked at her. Carr laughed quietly. Cornelia looked all around her.
“I can’t believe it, this is really…” she lost her words as she pulled a lock of blonde hair, blowing in the breeze, behind her ear, and turned round, gazing off at the tall mountains in the distance, the valley hills, and then she stopped as she stared up high above the forest. “No…” she whispered, “That can’t be…”
“That’s the palace,” Jared explained, his arms crossed. “It’s the palace of the Kingdom of Sectra. We’re not actually in Sectra right now, though.”
“Yes I know, I…” Cornelia stopped herself. “Well, I think I know anyway. I seem to… remember that.”
“So is your memory coming back to you?” Jared asked.
“I’m… I’m not so sure. But I remember that castle, that’s certain,” her voice took a somewhat bitter tone as she stared up at the palace high above, her eyes narrowed at it.
“So what happened, Sir Jared?” Carr asked, “Did you stop those soldiers?”
Jared’s mouth twisted and he seemed lost in thought for a moment. “I’ll explain later. For now, we need to find a place to settle down, get what little we have unpacked. The nearest town is a day’s walk from here around the mountains, and we’re all exhausted and hungry.”
Carr’s stomach rumbled. “All the food we had left was soaked through last night.”
“I know,” Jared said, “But remember the trader we got the supplies and the food from? He lives out in these grasslands. When we get back to where we made camp before, I can still go find him. You won’t mind keeping an eye on Carr for me?” he asked Cornelia.
She looked to Carr and smiled, “No, I don’t suppose so. Though I can’t say I’d be much use if we were attacked… Why were those people after you, anyway?”
“That’s another long story, and it can wait until later. What I can promise you is they’re not looking for either of you, they’re looking for me.” Cornelia seemed worried, and seeing this, Jared spoke up again, “And it’s not because I’ve commited some crime, either, just so you know.”
“Sir Jared is a legendary knight,” Carr explained eagerly, “He’s had all sorts of adventures. Magic and goddesses, all kinds of stuff!”
Cornelia seemed bewildered as she looked back to Jared. He shook his head with a smile, “That’s an exaggeration I’m sure,” he explained, “But suffice it to say I was a knight, and I left. I didn’t agree with what was going in my… kingdom. So they think of me as a deserter, and they want to bring me back.”
“I have great respect for that,” Cornelia said quickly, “For you making your own choices, and not allowing a kingdom to dictate them to to you.”
“Well, like I said it’s a long story. But believe me, I can handle myself if they show up again. And, even though I’m no expert in traversing strange forests, Carr and I were in there for two days before they showed up, and however the hell we ended up out here, we’re on the other side of the woods, and there’s no encampment set up here, so it’s safe to say they won’t be following us out here, or at least not today anyway.”
“So… we’re safe?” Cornelia asked.
“Don’t worry,” Carr skipped forward and grabbed Cornelia’s hand, and began to lead her to where he remembered their camp site to be, Jared following. “You’re always safe when Sir Jared’s around.”
“Didn’t think I’d see you again so soon.”
A young man with short-cropped blonde hair was filling a large leather bag with a variety of supplies: some blankets, two towels, a couple of cooking utensils and some tools for cleaning hunted game.
Jared hoisted a bag out of the back of the man’s caravan. “Like I said,” Jared explained, “We had some unexpected company.”
“Yeah, Captain Rodahn of the Dulhan royal guard, I believe you said,” the young man replied.
“That’s the one,” Jared replied, setting down the heavy bag, “These are tents, right?” He opened the bag up to inspect the inside.
“Certainly are. Of course, after you lost the last one I sold you…”
“Stephen,” Jared responded, “We had to abandon our camp site when we were discovered by one of their scouts. Carr and I trekked through the pouring rain with no way to keep warm, and barely found a cave to sleep in for the night.”
“You know, Jared,” Stephen leaned against the horse tied to the caravan, “They’re not going to stop chasing you. And now you’ve gotten the little boy involved too.”
“I know,” Jared said, rustling through the bags, “But he would have become involved anyway. I’m going to keep him safe, he has no family anymore. And what’s more, he’s not the only one with us now.”
“Met another orphan kid, did you?” Stephen raised his eyebrows.
“No, you’re really not going to believe it. We met a girl in the forest.”
“A wild woman, huh?” Stephen laughed, “Weilding a bow, hunting the game, growling at you like a wild dog, that kind of thing?”
“Exactly the opposite,” Jared stood up and crossed his arms, “A woman in a big ruffled ball gown, laying in a flowery meadow in the middle of the forest, knocked out and apparently with amnesia.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Stephen responded. “Look, I know that you’re the adventurous type, and I don’t doubt you’re running around pursuing girls in ball gowns, but they don’t just turn up in forests with no memory of who they are.”
“Something was weird about that forest,” Jared said quietly, almost to himself, “It was like a maze. The trail would lead forward, but then we’d be going in circles. And there were… strange beings there.”
“Like the girl in the ball gown?”
“No,” Jared said, “She was the least of it. There was this… woman. Like, a forest spirit or something. She led us out. And remember, we were crossing through the forest to get out of Ornaria, and into Sectran territory. She kept dissapearing behind trees, and then she led us through this thorny brush that didn’t so much as scrape us, and suddenly we were right at the mouth of the forest, back where we started, and the woman was gone.”
“You seem to be seeing a lot of strange women lately. You sure you haven’t just gotten lonely?” Stephen asked, throwing two loaves of bread and a small burlap bag filled with fruit into Jared’s bag of provisions.
“Not just the strange women… there were wolves.”
“Well of course there were,” Stephen laughed, “It’s the wilderness.”
“No,” Jared shook his head, “Not regular wolves.”
Stephen raised his eyebrows. “Look Jared, you’re a good guy. You may not be a legendary knight like the kid thinks you are, but you have done a lot to help people, least of all me, and that’s why I’m dishing out supplies to you for the second time in three days for almost no money. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think you were a little touched.”
Jared laughed. “I told you about the wolves before.”
“Right,” Stephen said, “And I still don’t believe a word of it.”
“They rescued us.” Jared said, “When the Captain had us cornered, they shot out of the bushes and charged the soldiers. I turned and ran before the carnage started, but it sounded like a bloodbath.”
“Did it never occur to you that those wolves might just as well have eaten you for dinner as the soldiers?”
“They distinctly avoided us,” he said, “Because I met one of the pack the night previous. It had come to attack us, and I asked it to leave us alone.”
“Jared, people cannot talk to animals, because animals don’t talk.”
“You’ve seen strange things in your life,” Jared said, “Do you really find this so hard to believe?”
“I don’t know,” Stephen replied, “Intelligent wolves, mystery women roaming around the forest… I’m starting to think this is just a clever lie to get some more supplies out of me.”
Stephen was smiling. He didn’t mean it. He had known Jared for a long time.
“Alright, you’ve got food in this bag, along with supplies, this bag has the tents, and this last one has some new clothes. For you and the boy.”
“And the girl.” Jared confirmed.
Stephen sighed, “Yes, and the girl, even if she isn’t real. Now look, I’m leaving Ornaria soon. Not through the forest, mind you, but it’s happening. I’m going back to Dulhan, there’s not much money to be made out in the grasslands, and I’m no good at defending myself against predators. I won’t be able to help you next time you’re in trouble.”
“You’ve been more help to me than you know,” Jared smiled and put an arm around his friend, pulling him into a hug, “And if I didn’t have friends like you around, I wouldn’t be able to make it.”
Stephen punched Jared lightly on the shoulder. “I’m not very sentimental, but it’s good to see you didn’t get yourself killed. Remember though, that Captain Rodahn is the least of your worries. If they send that witch after you again…”
“I know,” Jared nodded. “Hopefully though, if any of the men in the woods survived, they’ll think I’ve moved out of Ornaria, and won’t suspect that I’m retracing my steps. Looks like we’ll be taking the long way out of this country.”
Jared hoisted up all three bags, checked his sword was still strapped to his back, flicked his fingers through his hair and marched in place a moment. “Alright, time to go.”
Stephen put a hand on Jared’s shoulder, “Good luck, my friend. May the winds keep you.”
“Pray they do, Stephen,” Jared looked off into the mid-day sky of the grasslands, “I need all the help I can get.”
Cornelia sat on a log, wrapped in nothing but a wool blanket, and watched Carr fussing over the campfire he’d rekindled, throwing on branches and twigs and whatever else he found. With no towels, the young woman and the little boy had to air-dry in the warm summer sun after bathing in the river. It was a novel experience for Cornelia, who had never dreamed of dipping her toes into a filthy, cold stream and attempting to wash the grime off of her body in a pool of more grime. Still, she didn’t really mind, the discomfort was worth it. It was a new life, after all, and an adventure.
Carr, not concerned with modesty, was running about the clearing stark naked as he threw more tinder onto the fire, checking the sky overhead periodically as it darkened and ocassionaly making comments that Jared should return soon. Cornelia couldn’t help but laugh a little at how silly he looked, the little naked boy running in circles, full of energy, emulating someone he idolized.
“Carr,” Cornelia finally thought to ask, “Just who is Jared, anyway?”
“Oh, that’s easy,” Carr said without looking up at her much, still gathering what he could to throw on the fire, “He’s a legendary knight.”
“What exactly makes someone a legendary knight?” Cornelia was smiling as she asked it.
“Well, he’s not from this world, of course! He’s from another place, my mother used to read me stories about his adventures all the time in this book of fairy tales. He was a member of this group of knights who fought evil and injustice. He wasn’t the leader, but Sir Jared was widely known as the most kind and compassionate, always the type to help those in need.”
“It would certainly seem that way,” Cornelia agreed.
“But it’s not just that! He has amazing powers! I heard all about them from my mother. He hasn’t shown them to me, but that’s because he’s so clever he doesn’t need to rely on them.”
“Your mother…” Cornelia asked, “Where is she now?”
Carr actually stopped for a moment, a small branch still clutched in his hand. His face fell a bit to a look that was something like dissapointment, and in a smaller voice, he said, “Oh, my mother… well, she died.”
“I’m so sorry…” Cornelia said quietly.
“It’s okay,” Carr finally looked up at her, “Jared was very kind to her. She was sick when he came into town, and he took care of her. She told me that he was the same knight from the stories, and that they weren’t just fairy tales, they were all real. She told me…” he looked at the ground and was lost in thought for a moment, “She told me that she would be leaving soon, and I knew that meant she was going to die. She said that her gift to me was to tell me truth, that the fairy tales were real, and that Sir Jared would take care of me, that he’d promised her he would. And so, when she died, Sir Jared buried her, and prayed to the goddess for her, and we left. I’ve been with him ever since.”
“What about the people following him?” Cornelia asked.
“Those are the bad knights,” Carr explained. “Sir Jared became unhappy with the way the knights were acting, they weren’t focused on helping people anymore. Sir Jared says they became selfish, and so he left. But they didn’t like that, and they wanted him to come back, so they chased him and asked him to join them again. When he said no, they swore they would get him back, get revenge, so they’ve been chasing him since before he met me.”
“And… by revenge,” Cornelia asked, “Does that mean they want to…”
“Kill me, yes,” Jared’s voice startled her as he walked into the clearing, three bags slung over his shoulders. He dropped them in an empty, dry spot on the ground. “Carr, don’t you know it’s rude to run around naked in front of girls?”
Carr laughed. “You’re back!” he said excitedly, “What did you bring?”
Jared leaned down and picked up one of the bags. “Well first of all, some clothes. Then when we’re dressed, we can have some dinner.”
Cornelia’s stomach rumbled. She was starving, and had been since she awoke in the clearing, but hadn’t said anything about it. She didn’t know if it was her place to ask a stranger for food.
Jared pulled some thick brown undershorts from inside the bag and threw them to Carr, “At least put these on. We have to work on your manners, sir squire. Once you’ve started sprouting hairs on your body it’s no longer acceptable to go hopping about naked in front of a lady.”
Carr laughed again. Jared turned to Cornelia. “I brought you some clothes too. I’m afraid they’re not extravagant ball gowns, but they’ll suit you fine for traveling.”
“I can’t thank you enough,” she said and smiled, while Carr pulled on his shorts and resumed running about excitedly, throwing branches onto the fire.
It was night. The fire was bright and warm, and Cornelia remained draped in her blanket, though she wore some undergarments beneath it. Jared sat by the fire finishing his dinner of bread, fruit and meat cooked over the campfire, wearing similar brown shorts to the ones he’d given Carr, and nothing else. Cornelia couldn’t help herself but admire the muscles of his stomach and chest, glittering in the firelight, as he drank water from a cantine. She hadn’t said much at dinner, mostly eaten ravenously while the two boys discussed traveling, where they planned to go, and named a lot of towns and cities she’d never heard of.
“So,” Jared finally said as he turned to look at her, “How was dinner? I hadn’t expected to see a woman so refinedly dressed tear through her food like a wild cat.”
Cornelia should have been offended, but instead found herself blushing from ebarassment. “Yes, well, it’s been a while since I’ve eaten, I should guess.”
“It’s alright,” Jared replied, “Who knows how long you were laying in that enchanted meadow, waiting for true love’s kiss to awkaen you.”
Cornelia’s eyes widened, “I.. I what? You…”
Jared laughed, “It’s a joke, princess. And that’s what you looked like too, in your magnificent gown, sleeping amidst those flowers. It was almost a shame to wake you.”
She found herself very flattered and looked away from him, feeling the warmth of the fire. She suddenly noticed that opposite her, Carr had fallen asleep.
“So,” Jared said, staring into the fire, “You really can’t remember a thing, huh?”
Cornelia paused. He was trustworthy. He’d been kind to her. He had saved her life, given her food and clothing. The least she could do was be honest. Maybe he would understand. Or maybe he would return her to her kingdom. But what position was he in to do that, really? He was a fugitive. Yet still, she didn’t want to admit who she was aloud. She wanted to truly believe that this was another life, and she was no longer the person she remembered being, even if she knew it wasn’t true.
“Cornelia?” Jared asked, “Are you alright?”
“Oh,” she came back to herself and to the moment, “I’m sorry. No, I don’t remember anything. Just my name…”
Jared smirked and looked back at the fire. “Seems like a luxury,” he said.
“What do you mean?” Cornelia wrapped the blanket closer around her.
“To forget,” he replied, “To leave your life and your memories behind. To become a new person. It must be frightening for you, but for me it would be a gift.”
Cornelia glanced across at Carr, laying on an outstretched blanket on the dirty ground. “The boy,” she said, “He calls you a knight. You said you left your kingdom, though.”
“Yes, I did,” Jared said, “But he doesn’t realize that I mean an actual kingdom. He thinks I’m a fairytale knight come to life, that I have magic powers and that I can save the world from evil.”
“Why does he think that?” she asked.
“His mother,” Jared explained, “She told him that I was Sir Jared the Compassionate, one of the Paladins of Evangelicia.”
“From the book of fairy tales, Carr told me.”
“Yeah… I knew those fairy tales too, when I was a child. I actually wanted to be like that person, even if he wasn’t real. When she died, she told Carr that I was really Sir Jared from her book, I don’t know why. Maybe because she thought it would distract him from her death, I can’t say. But I don’t have the heart to tell him it isn’t true.”
“Well, you’ve served a kingdom, and you’re certainly compassionate. I’d say you fit the description quite well.”
“Yes,” Jared agreed, “But a knight who deserts is a traitor and an enemy of the state, not a legendary hero fighting for peace in the world.”
“What do you fight for?” she asked.
Jared put his hands around his knees and stared up high into the starry night sky. “Freedom, Cornelia. I want to be free.”
Cornelia closed her eyes and laughed quietly to herself. “I can understand that.”
He kept staring into the sky. “I want them to think I’m dead or something, leave me be. Maybe they’ll think the wolves got me. No, I’m sure they won’t. Somehow, they always know, and they always find me.”
“What would they do to Carr if they found him, or…”
“Or you?” Jared finished her sentence. “I can’t say for sure. The guys we met in the forest may have been thugs, but the people leading the search aren’t like that. They’re interested in me.”
“Carr said they’re trying to kill you.”
“They’ve said that, and I’m sure they’ll keep saying that, but they won’t. They’ll take me back to the knights, and they’ll keep me in chains until the day I die or the day I rejoin them.”
“What makes you so sure?” Cornelia asked.
“I just know,” Jared’s eyes remained fixed on the sky above.
“And, Carr and I?” Cornelia asked.
“I figure they wouldn’t hurt you if I agreed to go with them. But since they won’t catch me, we don’t have to worry about that. And, if they did catch me, well, I’d find some way to get you guys to safety.”
“You’re very confident in yourself,” Cornelia observed.
“Not really, I just know what I’m capable of,” Jared replied, and he finally lowered his eyes from the sky overheard to look at her, “I’ve been through a lot of crazy things in my life. I was a very special kind of knight, and I dealt with a lot of unusual circumstances. Thinking on my feet is the only way I know how to survive.”
“Aren’t I… a burden to you?” Cornelia asked.
Jared let his eyes wander and bit his tongue within his jaw, “No, I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Do you want to be a burden?” he asked, a slight smile forming on his lips.
“No, of course not, I just don’t understand why you would think of me as anything but. I have no survival skills, I can’t really be of help to you…”
“I think you can,” Jared said, “And I’m sure you have a reason for being here.”
“But-” Cornelia began.
“You may not have chosen to wake up with no memory, and in my company,” Jared continued, “But somehow, you were brought here, to this place and this moment. I think you have a journey ahead and a story to be told, and being with the two of us, at least for now, is a part of that journey. I can’t say where it will end, or if your path will lead you away from us, but I just have a feeling I was supposed to find you there in the forest.”
Cornelia was silent. She looked down at her lap, and unexpectedly, she felt her eyes begin to burn with tears, and closed them as they began to fall quietly into her lap. “I don’t know how to thank you for your kindness,” she said softly, “But please believe me, it means more to me than you can know.”
When she opened her eyes she saw that Jared had come closer to her and was on a bended knee in front of her. He reached up with his dirty hands and wiped the tears from her face. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I’m crying like a silly girl.”
“No,” he said, “Don’t be ashamed. I can see that even if you don’t know who you are, you carry a heavy burden. Maybe coming with us with help you to release that burden. Maybe you’ll discover who you are.”
Cornelia looked into Jared’s eyes, and his smiling face, and somehow she could see there in his kind eyes that he knew she lying about having amnesia. He was telling her to discover herself, not remember herself. She didn’t need to admit that it was a lie, he could see the truth.
“Very well,” she said aloud, hearing to her own surprise, a new resolve in her voice, “I’ll come with you, and I’ll discover whatever lies there on my path.” And she would discover how in the world she had survived the jump and the fall, how she had ended up in the forest far below her window without a scratch, and maybe she would discover why this enigmatic pair found her, of all the people in the world.
Jared leaned forward and very gently kissed her lips. She was surprised, and kept her eyes open, as she felt his soft and gentle kiss touch her. He didn’t say a word as he smiled at her and turned around, heading over to Carr and lifting him up. The boy remained asleep, and Jared leaned down to enter the thick hide tent he’d set up. “You’d better come inside and get some sleep soon, princess,” Jared said with a smile, “We have a very long journey ahead of us.”