I ran fast through the shadowy forest, my feet soaring between bounds. Adrenaline pumped in my veins while the soil mushed like buttermilk-sopped bread beneath me. I tried not to acknowledge the way stealing from the rich welcomed me. A surge in my bloodstream. A hunger in my soul. The others followed somewhere behind. I jumped over a ditch filled with water from last night’s rain and dodged several fallen limbs, casualties from the storm. The scents of moss, pine, and fresh water invigorated me.
“Dru,” a faint voice called from a distance. I ignored it, zigzagging from tree to tree like a deer. The wind whipped across my cheeks, burning them with vitalizing heat, as my quiver pounded against my back. The strap that bound the quiver against my breastbone seemed to also bind my heart.
The sun struggled to break through the canopy of the dense wood, only allowing light to shine when the leaves shifted from the gale. The forest colors varied from bright to dark, blending into a staggering canvas of greens and browns. Breathtaking. Speckled white button mushrooms crushed beneath my feet, their tops dusted with dirt like brown sugar. Twigs snapped and cracked beneath me until I found my position for the upcoming bout: the break in the forest where the road to the castle lay.
My breath betrayed me, insisting on a series of inhalations that burned against my throat. And my eyes watered from the rush of the cool morning air. A trail of sweat dripped down my back, clinging to my tattered tunic.
“Wait for the rest of us,” Hawkin gasped as he finally caught up. He rested his hands on his knees, his face red between his arms. “What if the envoy spotted you? You’d be a sitting duck.”
I rolled my eyes, shooting him a sly smile. “I think I can handle myself.” Lifting the strap of my quiver over my head, I handed it to Hawkin and gripped the tree limb above me. I swung twice before flinging myself up onto the branch. My legs dangled as I rested against the trunk. The rough bark scratched at my back.
Hawkin brushed his suntanned hand through his curly, flaxen hair. A wave of his frustration traveled like a cloud of smoke toward me, but I pushed it away. There was no point in absorbing his unwarranted disgruntlement. He was just jealous that I beat him to our post.
“You may be the fastest and the best with a sword and bow,” he warned, “but you’re not the biggest or the strongest. And if they find out you’re a girl,” his big hazel eyes looked up, pleading, “you will be a target for future bouts. You could get captured and tortured or worse.”
I exploded with laughter and almost tipped over.
When I first joined the Band of Brothers, the men thought I was a small boy. When I ran away from home, I’d cut my hair short and wore it in a low ponytail like some of the other lads, bit my nails down to nubs, traded in my dresses and girdles for torn, tattered pants and shirts, and exchanged my makeup for grime. My short, small frame added to the illusion.
Once I demonstrated my skills, the Band of Brothers welcomed me in, never knowing the difference. Several months passed before anyone realized I was a girl, and I had already proven myself by that point. Most of the men didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but Hawkin had immediately changed toward me. His gaze tended to linger even after we’d stopped speaking. Questions about my well-being after a mission became annoyingly redundant. And he’d offer me food or water before any of the other brothers. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this—no more than I was certain we would pilfer enough gilt today.
“Is she ready?” Raptner called from a neighboring tree. Hawkin shrugged, raising his eyebrows.
“When am I not?” I yelled. The ends of my lips curved up on each side.
Raptner was the leader of the Band of Brothers, and one of my favorites. He was a burly man, with most of his weight bundled in his stomach. His wicked smile exposed rotted and yellowed teeth, while his black beard twisted and snarled down his chin. But he was warmhearted and clever and had only one goal—to save the people from the evil Queen of D’Land.
It had been his idea to use me as the initial ruse in their attacks. At first, I was apprehensive. When I sought the Band, it was not because I wanted to be a thief. But when I found out the raids were against the queen’s men or the rich noblemen visiting the castle at her command, I pushed away those feelings of guilt and replaced them with echoes of pride and satisfaction. I had three conditions for thieving: no one would be robbed unless rich, the wealth stolen would be dispersed among the villagers evenly, and no blood would be shed unless in defense. The last condition was at Raptner’s request as well. He wasn’t too keen on unnecessary carnage.
“Good, because the carriage is rounding the bend,” Raptner called quietly.
At Raptner’s gesture, the other men hid behind large boulders and in ditches along the side of the road. The element of surprise was our greatest weapon. Hawkin threw my quiver over his shoulder and climbed to the branch above me. The muscles in his arms and back bunched and then stretched, pressing against his clothes as he clawed his way up the trunk. Hawkin was the best tree climber and jumper, which was surprising for a boy of his size. He towered over six feet tall, with a lithe build of pure muscle. I was often fascinated by the ease with which he moved.
I waited until he settled into position. “I don’t think they’d believe I’m a lass,” I whispered, gazing down at my dirt-caked fingernails and the stains in the creases of my skin. How dainty and pale pink my hands had once been. But being filthy covered not only my exterior appearance but my internal struggle of the past.
“Of all women, I ain’t the fairest to behold. Not even close.”
Hawkin huffed his forgiveness for my running ahead without him, and the tension dispersed like a wave going out to sea. He never remained mad at me for long.
“You could be. Your brown hair ain’t so bad when you comb it. And if you would stop rubbing mud on your face, those blue eyes would be easier to see. You could be more than fair, but you ain’t trying.”
My cheeks reddened. I didn’t want to be fair. That was who I used to be. Not who I am now.
I closed my eyes, and the forest burst with sound. Hawks screeched in the distance, probably stalking dead game. Which would mean that, by the time we got there, the meat on whatever animal had been killed would already be gone. I loathed when the vultures got to food before us.
The spindly wheels of the post chaise creaked as the envoy rounded the road. I counted the rotations to anticipate their pace. The coachman’s whip cracked at the horses to keep a steady stride. They closed in on my mark.
Raptner cooed into the air, which was my signal to leap. My eyes flew open. I grabbed onto the bark with my hands and swung, somersaulting down on top of the carriage. I took a quick assessment of my surroundings: a driver in front, four guards flanking me, and three guards trailing the rig.
The driver, an older man with salt and pepper hair, pulled back on the reins until the horses halted and stamped. He swiveled in his seat to find himself staring up the length of my sword, the tip nestled under his chin.
“Who goes there?” I demanded, my left hand propped on my hip.
He gulped, sending his Adam’s apple closer to the tip of my glinting blade. “I am Charles, faithful servant to D’Wales. We are on our way to D’Land Castle to see Her Majesty Queen Ebbigal.”
“Well, Chip, I am Dru, faithful servant to no man, here to steal your jewels and gold.” I bowed with a mocking smirk.
His brows wrinkled. “Dru, faithful servant to no man, I feel I should warn you. We will kill you if you do not disengage.” The man’s voice was soft but menacing. The men in their royal blue garb with silver armor drew their lances, pointing the spiked tips at my chest.
I laughed. “Afraid of death, I am not, but your threat is highly unlikely nevertheless.” I lifted his chin with my sword and raised my left hand. Heads popped up everywhere—over bushes, beside trees, out from behind rocks. Over fifteen of our men surrounded the wagon, armed with bows aimed at the guards—three arrows to every lance.
“An army you bring to attack us?” Charles asked, his voice measured considering the odds against his lot.
“We do not wish to hurt anyone. Isn’t that right, men?” I asked. The Band all hollered in response.
“See, Chip? We just want what the rich have stolen from us, what is rightfully ours, what the people deserve, and what Queen Ebbigal of D’Land covets.” I tapped my foot twice on the carriage, and Hawkin took his cue to jump out of the tree. His companions, Balthazar and Ebert, lowered their weapons and emerged from behind nearby bushes to help him gather the gilt. The remaining men closed in on the rig, tightening our circle.
“King Herbert III of D’Wales does not steal from the poor, nor does he rob the rich. He lives for his people and by his people. He is adored by all who truly know him. If you traveled outside the thicket of your own resentment toward your kingdom, you would see that the only thief here is you,” Charles insisted.
My brows furrowed, and my body stiffened. Bitterness etched across my face.
“You know not of what you speak. Your king supports Queen Ebbigal of D’Land.” My words barely escaped from my gritted teeth.
Below me, the door of the coach creaked on its hinges.
I flipped off the roof and landed on my feet with a flourish, extending my sword toward the door. Several of the brothers appeared at my side while the soldiers moved in.
A male around Hawkin’s age stepped out of the carriage. He wore royal blue garb with a polished metal breastplate, the crest of D’Wales engraved across it. The antelope symbol in the middle featured the body of a stag with the tail of a unicorn and formidable horns; the beast represented strength, peace, and harmony. He held his head high and his shoulders broad, his sword hanging nonchalantly at his side. The hairs on my neck immediately stood at attention. My eyes traced the man’s outline before me. Same dimple in his right cheek, same fluffy brown hair, and playful blue eyes. I drew in a startled, sharp breath.
“I am Prince Edward, heir apparent to the Throne of D’Wales,” he said. Unease crept up my spine. I knew exactly who he was. He nodded at the men around me before directing a sole nod to me. His guards all lowered their heads, but not their weapons. He held my gaze steady as I stepped backward, instinctively putting more space between me and my past.
“Am I to understand that you believe my kingdom, D’Wales, has stolen from you?” he questioned. His familiar eyes sparkled like sapphires, their gaze penetrating me. My pulse raced, and my heart pounded wildly against my ribcage. I shook my head. Focus! Thankfully, all I had to do was call upon my powers and syphon the emotions from the men around me. I slowly inhaled through my nose as oceanic sounds grazed the back of my throat. The dark thoughts and emotions of my brothers-in-arms filled my esophagus like a balloon and quieted my core’s rhythm as I exhaled.
“Yes. If you serve Queen Ebbigal, then you have pilfered from this land,” I said, losing some of the arrogance I had just moments earlier.
“You speak treason,” one of the guards yelled.
My gaze found the audacious soldier. “I speak many languages fluently, and treason against Queen Ebbigal happens to be one of them.” I tipped my hat to the guard. “And my favorite one at that.”
“Sire, let me take care of this rascal.” The guard raised his sword as sweat glinted his furrowed temple.
Hawkin lifted his bow to point it directly at the guard’s head. “I wouldn’t recommend that unless you’d like your head to grace the tip of my arrow.”
“That will be quite all right,” the prince said to his guard. Hawkin sent a quick questioning glance my way, and I nodded. Hawkin lowered the bow but held his scornful expression.
“Please enlighten me as to how my allegiance to the rightful ruler of D’Land makes me a thief.” Prince Edward waved a hand as though conjuring my words from the air.
The vigor of my voice found its way back. “Enlighten you? As if you even care about our misfortune, those bleeding and starving because of the new taxes instated by the queen you profess loyalty to. She uses the war we fight in foreign lands as reason to strip the people of their merited worth. Do you know how many go hungry night after night? Do you know the beating and badgering these men suffer when they cannot abide the unrighteous laws so strictly enforced? Blood is not only shed by men but by women and children. Houses, towns, drinking holes have all been burned to the ground as examples of what can happen if we do not obey. If we don’t fill the queen’s coffers, she fills our caskets.” I laughed mockingly. “She’s a fool, trying to drain dry udders. And you’re a fool blind to the truth.”
Anger rose inside of me, and it wasn’t drawn from the men. This time it ignited from the soles of my heels to the crown of my skull as I relived all that I have known, done, been through, but mostly all I have lost. I shook my head. I didn’t know this man in front of me anymore, and he didn’t know me. “No, you do not care. You lie at night on plush beds, inhaling the scent of fresh linens. You dine on hot savory meals prepared by your servants. You have shelter to shield you from nature’s many moods. Hah! Your purpose today is not to be enlightened but to save your life and those of your men. We are not jesters, here for your entertainment. So how about you save your miserable life, hand over your coinage, and let us on our merry way?”
Prince Edward’s eyes fastened on me. “A jester I would never call thee,” he said, his voice smooth and controlled, vacant of distress. “Misguided maybe...Lower your weapons!” he ordered his soldiers. The soldiers immediately obeyed. A momentary confusion crossed my mind. Why would he leave his entourage so vulnerable? How was it possible he did not fear us? I returned my sword to its sheath to reflect his good faith.
“Charles, get our lot and give all to…” he paused, refocusing on me, “…Dru?” I nodded, amazed. “Dru and friends,” he clarified.
Hawkin stepped in front of me with Balthazar and Ebert, a protective gesture. I welcomed the coverage.
“But Dodge!” Charles contested.
Hearing him called by that name sent a ripple of goose bumps up the skin of my spine. Out of those we pilfered, how could this be the transport we intercepted? Those familiar features I had known since childhood burst forth, flooding my mind with memories: Dodge and I frolicking through the gardens; playful wrestling in hay at the stables; mimicking the grownup dances in the courtyard. It was I who named him Dodge after—
I pushed the memory down deep. The thought of what I had done, the reason he got his name, it was too much to bear. And looking into his face— his matured face—made me choke back tears.
I squeezed between Hawkin and Ebert’s shoulders, silently accepting their guardianship.
“Who is your father?” I had to hear him speak his name.
“King Herbert III, Sovereign Ruler of D’Wales. And your father?” he asked in a tone that was perfectly polite.
“Dead,” I snapped. I turned to help Hawkin load the treasures into our burlap sacks. I felt my old friend’s eyes rake down my back as I moved with haste. His sympathy seemed to smother me in a thick, white cloud. I pushed the sentiment aside. My mother taught me to control my powers of syphoning, and I would not disappoint her by indulging in his pity. I also had no desire to continue bantering with someone who knew who I truly was. Dodge last laid eyes on me at my mother’s funeral four years ago, the day after my thirteenth birthday. A present it was not! His eyes held much more than sympathy that day. I could never pinpoint what sentiment he felt because no cloud of emotion ever seemed to rise above his head. If I had to guess, it was fear. I never saw him again. He left me when I needed him most, so I buried his memory in my mind and swore never to dig up that grave.
Charles jumped down with surprising limberness for a man his age. We followed him to the storage compartment of the caboose, where he passed down handfuls of jewelry, rubies, and coins of gold and silver. Next, he unloaded several loaves of fresh bread, dry-aged legs of mutton, some freshly caught squirrel carcasses, and bags of herbs and spices. There was even a barrel of finely-aged wine. The fragrance of the bread and meat made my mouth water. I swallowed it down. We hadn’t eaten more than foraged scraps in days.
I motioned for more men to assist in loading the bags onto our horses. Not one of the prince’s guards tried to retaliate, although their dark expressions revealed their disappointment in the fact.
“Thanks, Chip,” I teased, smacking the driver on the back as we tied up the last of the spoils. “It was truly a pleasure.” I bowed for the second time.
Hawkin rode up behind me on one of the horses, now laden with riches. He extended his hand, and I gripped it tightly while I wedged a toe into the stirrup and flung my leg over the saddle. I grasped his waist as I balanced my weight. It was time to leave before my eyes betrayed me and Dodge suspected anything.
“Dru!” Dodge called. Hawkin turned his horse to face the prince. “I’d like to do this again, although without the weapons, of course. It would be my honor to offer riches to you and your people if it might ease the misfortune of living under D’Land’s throne. Not all of those in power steal from the less fortunate.” He paused, staring more intently at me than before. Fear took root in my stomach, spreading like poison oak. Could he recognize me? He tipped his head to the side, and I averted my eyes. “A throne is only as good as the people it serves,” he concluded.
My throat constricted, and my breath hitched. Only one man had ever spoken those words to me, and he said them often to the two of us as children.
Tears welled up in my eyes, and I sniffed back the sudden moisture in my nose. I slowly nodded to Dodge as Hawkin put heels to his horse, which broke into a gallop until we blended with the trees. The prince’s words echoed in my mind until his voice merged with the one voice that contested my self-control.
The voice of my father.