The blood-red sun crawled over the jagged, tooth-like mountains that shot up on the eastern edge of the kingdom, ominous and watchful. Its warm rays seeped between the gaps in the huge rocks and stretched out between the feathered limbs of the great forests that blanketed the base of the mountains like a quilt tucked around the villages and towns of the kingdom. Named Tresanya after its founder, it was a young simple kingdom; not too grand or extravagant but not lazy or needy either, another piece of the expanding reach of men. Unfortunately, this reach was not always friendly and Tresanya was recovering from a recent conflict with a neighboring kingdom that sought to conquer them. The fighting lasted for five years with numerous lives lost on both sides.
Tresanya’s king, Riordan, gallantly united all his people against the threat, including many groups of nomads that sought sanctuary in the territory. With the help of the infamous gypsy leader, Kindon Ravenwood, Riordan led them to a hard-earned victory. The gypsies taught the king’s soldiers guerilla tactics and wilderness survival, while the king offered the gypsies safe haven inside the castle wall until the fighting, their common bond, ended. Even though the king’s offer was made out of concern for his people, some of the gypsy groups felt the king was belittling them and remained in the only kingdom they knew, the forest.
Long before the war, when the kingdom first began to sprout, a respected gypsy woman, who was said to be blessed, or cursed, with the gift of foresight, predicted that the kingdom would fall into chaos and its citizens would be divided. The kingdom could only survive if a bond was forged by the blood that tainted the hands of the people. After sharing this prophecy the woman was never seen or heard from again, but her chilling warning continued to be passed down through generations.
There have always been tensions between the nomadic peoples and the village dwellers, though the true reasons have been lost to history. The gypsies say the villagers attack them for no reason and the villagers say the gypsies attack them for no reason; no one knows when or how it started but neither side is willing to concede.
Even though King Riordan tried to lessen the tensions, not everyone was enthusiastic about letting go of their prejudices. After the king was slain in battle there was no one with the power to enforce the peace and when war ended; everything went right back to how it was before. The gypsies living within the castle wall hurried back to their forest and all attempts at peace between the two peoples were forgotten.
Not long after the death of the king, the grieving queen fell ill with a mysterious sickness that eventually claimed her life. Their orphaned son was left under the protection of the king’s brother, Dalbren.
Looking for someone to blame for the loss of their beloved king and queen, the grieving villagers, instead of turning their aggression to who had attacked them and started the war, turned to a more familiar hatred. After the war was settled between the two kingdoms, both Tresanyian villagers and soldiers alike continued to send raiding parties into the forests to hunt down and exterminate the gypsy population in Tresanya.
One unfortunate dawn, a group of mercenaries was scouring the woods when they came across Kindon Ravenwood’s caravan. The gypsies were caught completely off guard and scrambled to protect themselves, but it was already too late. The cruelty of the mercenaries was unmatched as they systematically attempted to kill every gypsy they could get their hands on. They were ruthless and made each slaying progressively more tortuous. Men were forced to watch as their wives and daughters were raped, women watched their husbands bleed to death, and children watched their entire families be wiped out. Kindon tried furiously to rally his men but even he was lost to the chaos. Desperately, Kindon tried to hide his wife and two young children from the brutality but his wife refused to leave the other women and their children who were swept up in the massacre. She hid her two children in the undergrowth then ran back to try and rescue the others. The two children, a boy about 12 and a girl about 10, lay on their stomachs grasping each other’s hands in horror as they watched their mother being raped and then murdered along with the rest of their caravan. Finally, after what seemed like hours of bloodshed, the mercenaries returned to the castle to report their work, leaving the gypsy camp a mess of bodies and rubble.
The Ravenwood children abandoned their hiding place with tear stained faces as they searched hopelessly through the wreckage of their home.
As the waking breaths of the morning oozed under the doors and through cracks in the walls of each little farm house and shop, tendrils of smoke snaked from chimneys. People dragged themselves from their straw stuffed mattresses and tattered blankets to begin their day of toil.
Far from the hustle and bustle of the capital town, a gypsy caravan made its way through the dense evergreen forest. The few nomadic groups that call these secluded woods their home never stay in one place for too long, always moving around throughout their familiar patches of forest, to remained hidden from unwanted eyes. Bare feet silently shuffle against the undergrowth and dirty toes and watchful, dark eyes peak between the shadowed leaves. These are the only whispers of their movement before the aged creaks of wagon wheels, heavy with memories, echo through the trees.
A lone scout from the traveling party moved ahead, making sure the path was safe for the group. The spirals of sunlight trickled between the frilly canopy, straining to catch hold of her as she moves like a ghost, gripping the edges of the shadows that stuck to the dark pillars of trees. A flash of her ebony rope of curls or sparkle of steely eyes, one a deep blue the other a rich chocolate brown, give an air of mystery about her. Her twin, double-edged, long-bladed, steel daggers are cleverly concealed along her forearm under her long sleeves. As she moved forward along the intended route she became lost in thought, not expecting to run into any trouble as she had travelled this unmapped highway many times before. Still scanning the area around her, she moved without caution and unbeknownst to her, was about to cross paths with a change so drastic it would alter the entire kingdom as they knew it.
The sweet smell of the morning bread rising in the ovens wafted through cold stone walls of the castle. Already the servants were scurrying about their work, preparing life for the royals and their noble guests. The guards, in their polished armour, changed positions on the great wall surrounding the grounds, the maids, in their tidy uniforms, baked in the kitchen warmed by the blazing fires and cleaned every inch of the grand castle that they could get their hands on, and thus was life in the palace of Tresanya.
The soon-to-be king, King Riordan’s only heir, was awake pacing around his room deep in thought. He had come of age, and was now legally allowed to take the crown that was rightfully his. Well almost legally. Before he could be crowned the law required him to have a bride. It also said that the prince must choose a bride from the people, creating a bond between the royals and the citizens and lessening the likelihood of uprising or rebellion. Over the course of a week every eligible girl that wished to try her luck at winning the prince’s heart, and be crowned princess, would come to the palace and be presented. There each girl would spend no less than seven minutes speaking in private with the prince. At the end of the week he would make his choice. It was a tedious process and there were no sure results but much of life is like that.
After the death of the king and queen, the king’s brother, Duke Dalbren, took the young prince under his wing, and took on the duties of the king. Dalbren was basically the king without the formal title, and that’s the way he liked it. At first he tried to follow in his brother’s footsteps, trying to work for the better of the people, then he got a taste of power and something dark crawled out of the depths of his soul. He became greedy and conniving, taking as much as he could while still keeping up his facade of compassion. As the prince grew, Dalbren tried furiously to hide his evil doings and discourage the prince from ever taking the crown by exaggerating the hardships and lack of benefits of the job, while painting a skewed picture of an ungrateful kingdom.
Now the prince played these memories over in his head as he paced around his room, brow furrowed in frustration. Since then, the prince had discovered his uncle’s lies and gluttony but was not fully aware of how much his people were suffering because of it. Today was the second day of the introductions and already the prince was exhausted and losing his mind with worry. Some noblemen had already offered to pay him to marry their daughters but none of the girls he met seemed to care about what he wanted. Their only concern was improving social status. He also sensed that his uncle was picking and choosing which girls he would meet because he hadn’t met any girls from the real common population, just nobles and girls whose families have social power and funds.
The rest of the morning passed in a blur. Villagers that could afford to lose a day of work came to the palace to speak to the soon-to-be king for a variety of reasons. He tried to listen to them and help them as best he could but it was clear that his mind was elsewhere. In the far corner of the room, a small group of potential brides was gathering like clouds before a storm, and quietly talking amongst themselves. The line of villagers that had come to the palace evaporated all too quickly and the prince thanked them all before they were lead out of the palace and the girls were brought forward. The prince sighed under his breath, he didn’t mean to be rude but he just couldn’t see any favorable ending. He didn’t want to just choose some girl because she was pretty and her family was approved by his uncle and self-serving advisors, like picking a prize animal from a pen. He wanted to find someone he truly cared for and someone who cared for him in return. As the first girl stepped up, he tried to appear friendly and confident, hiding his doubt.
But as he had suspected, the meetings dragged on, each girl was presented, they spoke for their seven minutes, then she left, and that was it. No sparks. The throne room was hot and stuffy, drained of even a hint of excitement, despite the floor to ceiling windows. He found himself constantly tugging at his shirt collar and feeling claustrophobic. Just as he was about to propose a quick lunch break, the main doors at the far end the throne room burst open and four palace guards marched in, or rather attempted to march. They appeared to be dragging someone with them and that someone was putting up quite a fight. The struggle continued until the guards managed to haul their captive all the way across the room to the foot of the throne where the prince was now standing, shocked. The girls had long since scattered to the far reaches of the room, squealing in fear. Breathing hard beneath their skewed helmets, the guards grunted and shoved the prisoner to the cold marble floor and pinned him down. The prisoner’s threadbare clothes were dirty and torn in places, mostly from the struggle, and his long dark hair was pulled back into a long braid, caked with dirt, leaves, and blood. One guard pressed his knee into the prisoner’s skull, keeping the prisoner’s face to the hard floor. Another pinned the prisoner’s arms behind his back. Yet another stood by holding a pair of long bladed daggers they had confiscated from the captive. In a sudden thrashing of limbs and a few frustrated, exhausted grunts the prisoner made a final struggle to get free before a guard’s armoured fist, already coated with blood, connected with his face and his body fell limp.
The prince stared down at the scene before him, his heart pounding with adrenaline. At last something exciting, exciting yet terrifying. The world seemed to slow down, as if trapped in molasses. He watched blood seep from numerous wounds on the prisoner’s face. The harder he tried, the harder it was for him to clearly see the details of the prisoner’s face; hidden beneath a layer of grime and blood, and the guard’s knee. His own body refused to move fast enough as the scene played before him. It felt as if millions of tiny strings were attached to his limbs, holding him back, and no matter how hard he struggled against them he could not break free. Finally one of the guards began to speak, breaking his trance.
“Found this one snooping around the forest, not far from the wall. Probably a spy.” His voice coarse was exhaustion, “Put up quite a struggle, but nothing we can’t handle.” It wasn’t hard to tell he was lying. The guards looked exhausted and their armour was spotted with dents and blood. He held out the daggers they had taken off the prisoner, “These were the only things she had on her.”
Her? A woman? The prince did not hide his surprise as his eyes were glued to the battered form of the prisoner lying under the guards’ oppressive holds.
“One girl, with only two knives, took on four palace guards by herself, and caused this much damage?” His tone revealed his dissatisfaction with the guards but also his intrigue. The guards’ faces contorted with embarrassment and anger, they didn’t answer. A small smile crept across the prince’s lips until whispers trickled from the other girls crowded together in a far corner. The prince turned to look over his shoulder at them and couldn’t stop himself from rolling his eyes. He turned to the guards stationed by the other doors, who were attempting to hide grins and snickers.
“Guards please escort the other ladies from the room… for their safety, of course.” He hoped that was enough to get them to move without questioning him. The guards hurried to herd the girls from the throne room.
He stepped forward slowly and bent down next to the captive. “Let her up,” he ordered firmly. Already he had begun to notice more details about her. The sleek shine of her hair when it caught the sun, the softness of her facial features, her tanned skin giving a glow of warmth despite the bruises and bloody wounds.
“But sir!” The guards looked at him in disbelief, not willing to surrender the spoils of their hard fought victory, “It’s a gypsy traitor!”
The prince looked at them unimpressed, his expression meant business, and his voice was a low growl, “Let her up.”
Although the prisoner still lay unmoving on the cold floor, the guards looked at her suspiciously and were reluctant to let go. They released their hold on her but one of them pulled out a thick rope to tie her hands. Much to their dismay, the prince waved him off. The guards were obviously on edge but didn’t question the prince as he knelt beside her slowly. He hesitated only a moment before he reached his hand out cautiously towards her. In a flash of movement her hand shot out and grabbed his outstretched arm. She jumped to her feet and viciously twisted his arm around behind his back causing him to yelp in pain. The guards rushed forward but she hauled the prince backwards a few steps, “I wouldn’t do that if I were you. One more step and I’ll kill him.”
The prince shook his head, letting the guards know he was ok, “Get out, let me handle this.” Though his voice was a bit uncertain, they didn’t dare defy him, or antagonize her, and they slowly backed out of the room with looks of concern plastered on their bruised faces.
As the door closed behind the soldiers with a heavy thud, the prince sighed in relief, “Please, Miss I mean you no harm. I apologize for the way my soldiers treated you.”
“Don’t patronize me,” she hissed pulling his arm further behind him. Her lips curled into a snarl beside his ear. He grit his teeth trying to hide the pain and fear. He could feel her heart pounding as she held him close in her death grip.
“I don’t mean to patronize you, I’m just telling you that you are safe now and you can relax,” he tried to keep his tone even and comforting despite his pain and uncertainty.
She scoffed, “Relax? Here? Surrounded by soldiers and huge walls? Not a chance.” Her eyes scanning the room for any signs of movement or opportunity to escape.
“I know you’re anxious to get out but that might be a bit difficult seeing as you just threatened the king’s life. Let me help you.” He knew he was being reasonable but wasn’t sure she was going to listen to reason. He carefully reached his free hand backward and placed it on top of her’s. Too busy examining the room for a way out, she didn’t realise he was moving until his hand gently encased her own and she smashed her elbow into the back of his head in surprise.
He flinched hard with a yelp and tried to pull away, “What the hell was that for?! I’ve never done anything to you!” He used his free hand to rub the sore spot on his head.
“Never done anything to me!” Her tone was laced with hatred and hurt and he could tell without having to look at her face that she was furious. “Never done anything to me! It’s because of you that my people run for their lives in the darkest parts of the forest! It’s because of you countless innocent people have lost their lives in your vengeful massacre! It’s because of you there are people out there starving and freezing to death because they’re afraid to light a fire! And it’s because of you this kingdom is in shambles!” Her hands were trembling with anger and her breath was ragged with emotion. They stood together in the middle of the room as her message sunk into the walls. Then he took a deep breath and hung his head. It didn’t matter that none of it really was his fault, that there was nothing he could do about it until he was legally king. He could feel the pain in her words better than her pounding heart and he knew he would do everything he could to make it up to her.
“You’re right, and I know it doesn’t make a difference, but I’m sorry. I’m truly sorry. I will do everything I can to fix it, but I can’t do it alone,” he prayed that she would hear the sincerity of his plea, “Will you help me?”
“Help you?” Her voice was suspicious and tense, “Help how?”
He bit his lip in thought for only a moment before coming up with an idea. “Just give me seven minutes. We can make a plan and when I am crowned we can make changes and we can save our people.” Secretly he was grateful his negotiation lessons that were finally paying off. Even though his arm hurt from her powerful grip, he was careful not to act like he was trying to get away. He could feel her grip falter as she mulled over the proposal.
She knew that had any other gypsy had been in her place, especially her older brother, they would have tortured the prince and taken his head as a trophy. But she also knew that rash actions like that would only worsen the friction between the gypsies and the villagers. If there was something she could do to mend the relationship, she should at least try. Reluctantly she released his arm and took a step back.
He sighed in relief and carefully pulled his arm back into its normal position, turning to face her, “Thanks.” Not sure what to say neither of them said another word as they stay looking each other over from a gap that seems to be closing with every passing minute. The prince couldn’t take his eyes off the girl standing before him. Her long, messy, raven black curls wisped from the braid like a dark halo. Her stormy mismatched eyes sparkled with a wild strength he had never seen before. Even with the wounds that littered her tanned skin she had a mysterious beauty that seemed to draw him in. His expression was one of pure admiration and respect as their eyes met. He took a cautious step even closer and extended his hand gently in an act of trust.
As if right on cue, the main doors were thrown open and swarms of soldiers rushed in and charged at the prince and the gypsy girl. In a split second decision the prince jumped forward, grabbing her, and pulled her to his side as if he was protecting his entire kingdom. He spotted his uncle standing in the doorway with a mock look of concern on his face and the prince’s temper flared. He knew his uncle was the cause of the all the problems the girl had blamed him for. His uncle would do everything he could to prevent the prince from helping this girl and freeing the kingdom from Dalbren’s dark influence.
Seeing the prince’s enraged expression, the soldiers stumbled to a confused halt, “Sir is everything alright? Has she hurt you?” Some of the guards snickered under their breaths, not believing that this girl, or any girl, could be dangerous.
The prince could sense the girl’s confusion and suspicion as he held his arm around her as if to shield her, though she didn’t struggle to free herself either. Perhaps she understood that he was trying to help her, at least that’s what he hoped. He took a deep breath and glared at the soldiers, “Please leave.”
The soldiers glanced at one another for a clue as to what was happening but they relented and began to back away as Dalbren stepped forward.
“What is the meaning of this nephew?” he put on his best act of sincerity and pushed through the soldiers until he stood before the prince.
The prince couldn’t help but tighten his grip on the girl beside him and tried to keep himself between her and his uncle. “I was merely having an interesting conversation with this lady. I do believe I am allowed to do that.” He had to hide a smirk as his newly formed plan played out in his mind.
“Yes of course, but that is hardly a lady. The guards tell me they found her spying from the forest nearby.” Dalbren looked at the girl with disgust and loathing.
“Spying? Ha,” trying to sound confident as he realised he didn’t know what she was really doing, “She was merely out hunting, following a trail she had picked up. She meant no harm to us.”
His uncle’s frown deepened and he sent his nephew a furious glare, “The guards said she had only knives with her. She hunts with only knives?” His fingers were twitching at his sides angrily as he attempted to break down his nephew’s defenses.
The prince merely shrugged and gave a small smile as he watched his uncle struggle to gain footing. He simply stated a phrase his father had taught him long ago, “To every man his own.”
None of the soldiers were willing to get in the middle of this family rivalry but duty kept them from backing away. They didn’t like the fact that there was a gypsy in the castle but they trusted the prince and if he said she was safe then they wouldn’t question him, at least not to his face.
Finally after what seemed like an hour-long stare down, the prince spoke up, “You see, it is all just a misunderstanding. Now if you will excuse us, the lady and I were in the middle of something.”
That was all the soldiers needed and they turned quickly and filed out in the fastest march they could manage without running. Dalbren was less willing to retreat and took a step closer so his face was almost touching his nephew’s, “I do not approve of the company you keep.”
“I do not need your approval,” the prince growled in response. His voice so strong that it echoed through the castle. He was sick of his uncle trying to run his life for him. With no audience and hardly a chance of victory Dalbren furrowed his brow and stomped off like a reprimanded child.
The heavy wooden doors closed tightly behind his uncle and the prince slowly let go of the gypsy girl and sighed. He couldn’t bring himself to look her in the face, but she made no effort to move away either. “Why did you do that?” She looked at him stunned and still suspicious.
“Do what?” he glanced up at her with an apologetic, puppy-dog look.
“You protected me, why?”
“Why wouldn’t I? You weren’t doing anything wrong, at least I doubt you were.”
“I wasn’t, but you didn’t know that. Besides I kind of threatened your life, and I am a gypsy you know.”
He couldn’t help but smile softly and shrug, “I guess I figured that if you hadn’t killed me yet, you probably weren’t going to. I could tell you were just a scared as I was.”
“I wasn’t scared,” she snapped, but a light blush rose in her cheeks and she bit her lower lip apprehensively.
He only nodded, “Well I guess you probably want to go now.” He seemed rather disappointed and dropped his gaze again.
This confused her and something in her heart skipped, “You said we should make a plan, to change things for the better. So let’s do it.”
He smiled a little, nodded, and looked up again, “Alright, but first, you know who I am, but I don’t know who you are.”
She thought about this for a moment, “I don’t really know who you are at all besides that you and your uncle don’t get along so well and that you are the king.”
“Not yet. I’m not the king yet, but all in good time.” He shrugged, though she can tell that’s a difficult subject for him. “Very well then, I am Landon,” he smiles and extends his hand.
She studies him for only a second then smiles and takes his hand, “I am Ria Ravenwood.”
Submitted by Cyrena.