“Are you sure you wish to take this road, Prince Maxim? I am told that the surrounding woods are full of thieves and murderers who would not think twice about slitting your throat.”
From his seat atop the brown mare he rode, Maxim gave his squire a broad smile and his brown eyes twinkled. “Let them come and try, that’s all I have to say Hanson,” he replied to the older man, patting the sword that hung from the sheath at his waist. The other man eyed the sword, but anxiety still clouded his features and the grip on his reins tightened.
“I wish you had not insisted on leaving the castle without your guards. Though you are a very talented swordsman, my lord, it does not bode well for us that we are only two in number. The thieves could be any number and we could not possibly take them on ourselves.” As Hanson spoke, his own hand felt for the longsword he had brought with him. He was not half the swordsman as the prince, but he knew how to use the steel should he need to.
“You worry too much man,” Maxim laughed, urging his horse into a gallop. “We have taken this road many times and have not once been attacked. Now let no more be said of it and simply try to enjoy our ride, for we have time to spare.”
Hanson said not another word, but he could not be easy as his eyes swept the treeline for any sign of another, but saw nothing. As they continued their ride, they came upon a stallion laying in the middle of the road. The animal’s grey fur was covered in dirt and it was laying in a pool of what appeared to be its own blood.
“Whoa girl,” the prince said as he brought his mare to a stop, then quickly dismounted, throwing his reins to his squire, who made a sound of protest. Taking tentative steps, he made his way slowly toward the horse and as he grew closer, he was shocked to see that the animal was still breathing. “The poor thing, it’s lost too much blood and I’m sure it’s in so much pain. Best thing to do is put it out of its misery.”
Drawing his sword from the sheath, Maxim raised his sword and was prepared to strike the killing blow, when a voice called out to him from the forest. “Don’t you dare,” a high voice, clearly belonging to a woman, spoke. He turned his head and was surprised to find a cloaked figure standing on the tree line.
“Is he yours? I’m sorry, but he was this way when I found him. The best thing for him is just to end it now, quick and easy,” he told the woman, whose face was hidden under a black hood.
“Don’t be daft, Dax is perfectly healthy. The good boy is only doing what I taught him to,” said the voice. A low whistling sound came from under the hood and the stallion was suddenly on all fours and trotting toward the woman. She gave him a pat on the nose and sent him into the forest.
Slightly shocked, Maxim watched as the animal disappeared from sight and then his eyes fell on the woman, who now held a sword in her hands. He realized with start that he had been tricked, by a woman no less and he felt as though he’d been punched in the gut. How could he have been so stupid as to let his guard down like that?
“Do not worry sir, I do not mean you or your companion any harm. I only want your gold and that little diamond ring on your pinky. I think that it would look much better on me, do you not agree?” she asked mockingly, taking a careful step toward him. “So, if you would be so kind…”
Maxim shook his head and began laughing, the sound resounding through the woods. The grip on his sword tightened and he gave the faceless woman a coy smile. “If you wish to take something from me, you must come and get it, milady,” the prince replied with a come hither look, earning him a narrowed eyed glare that he could not see.
From his place on his horse, Hanson watched anxiously as his master and the thief began to circle one another, their swords held confidently in their grasps. This game continued for a few moments more, their little dance creating a circle in the dust. Finally without hesitation, Maxim lunged at the woman but his blow was quickly blocked and the sound of steel clashing with steel rang through the air. The cocky smile did not leave the prince's however and he swung again, only to have his sword thrust away for a second time.
“You are a very impatient swordsman, m’lord,” the thief tasked, at the same time thrusting her own weapon out and catching the blade on his forearm, successfully drawing blood. Maxin was caught off guard and she took the opportunity in full, lashing out at him yet again. With his grip having slackened in his shock, the sword flew easily from his hand and tumbled to the ground. Before he could reach for it, her foot swung out and he was knocked off his feet and her steel was at his throat.
Chuckling, she crouched down to his height and slipped the ring from his finger, slipping it into her pocket. “I thank you for the jewelry good sir, I will cherish it. But I will leave you with your gold, for I fear I have wounded your pride. Now I bid you a good day.” With that, she was on her feet and moving toward the tree line.
Shaking the embarrassment and shock from his head, Maxim quickly got to his feet and called out, “Wait thief!” She paused, turning back to him with her body tensed to run. The prince brushed the dirt from his backside and gave the woman sly smile. “I am not often beat and never by a woman. You have indeed slighted my pride and for that I must know who you are so that one day I may repay you.”
“It is unlikely that you will ever have the chance, but I shall tell you anyway.” With that, the hood was thrown back and Maxim gasped, the smile dropping from his lips. Behind a small black feathered mask pair of crystal blue eyes bright as the moon peered out at him, intelligence alight in them. A tiny red mouth held a bemused smile and her golden hair hung like a halo around her face. Yet again he was shocked, but this time it was by the beauty that he viewed. “You may call me the Raven.”
And then she was gone, her black cloak quickly disappearing among the trees and underbrush. Maxim’s eyes did not leave the spot she had just been and he ignored Hanson when he dismounted his horse and came to see if the prince was hurt. The only thing that he could think of was a pair of magnificent blue orbs and ruby red lips that begged to be kissed.
When he finally let himself be helped up and he was back on his saddle on the way to the castle, he found that he wished that this Raven was wrong. Because he wanted nothing more than to see her again and never let her out of his sight again.