A.N. / All the characters appearing here are my own creation, likewise places and such and if anyone wants to borrow them please get my permission first. This is dedicated to my sister, I know I promised you pretty boys but I hope you enjoy this instead.

Warnings: Language, it seems the main character has a bit of a potty mouth.

Chapter One.

The Problems With The Magpie Instinct.

I narrowed my eyes as I stalked my prey carefully across the treetops, using leaves and the movement of the wind to cover my steps. My progress was slow but stealthy, practice having given way to experience and then mastery as I moved like a shadow from branch to branch, chasing down my quarry. Ahead of me, my unsuspecting target paused and relaxed into a drawn out yawn, stretching out beckoning fingers to my hiding place.

Who could turn down an offer like that? Especially when there was such a pretty little sword at his side.

I dropped from the tree-tops and landed on top of the startled guard, my fingers quickly making their way towards his weapon and transferring it over to my own belt before letting his fall carry me forwards and onto my feet with a laugh. Behind me I heard a string of curses being muffled by the dirt, as the guard tried to regain his footing and find his mysterious assailant. I chose to lean against a nearby tree as I inspected my new trinket. Elegant silver twisted its way round the pommel and down to the guard, the fine lattice work occasionally highlighted by some other blue tinged metal that threaded its way through. Eagerly I flipped it into an en guarde position as I tested the weight. Perfectly balanced, the sword cut through the air with a satisfying whoosh and I felt part of my inside go gooey. This was one VERY pretty sword.

"Halt! Vile thief!"

Seems like the late owner of my sword had managed to get himself off the ground. I managed to tear my eyes away from my latest acquisition and smiled at the man who was bristly with barely controlled rage in front of me. His face was a nasty shade of purple and a vein was popping on his forehead as though it was about to explode at any moment. He was still trying to rearrange his cloak which at the moment was tangled about him in such a way that he almost fell over again.

"Are you referring to me?" I asked incredulously. "Good sir, you wound me deeply with your thoughtless insults."

That was a lie really. I was gorgeous and I knew it. Long dark hair, purple eyes, pale skin and a figure men dreamed about and women envied. Sadly in my current guise my beauty was not as evident as normal. The mask I wore to hide my identity also covered most of my face and my hair was hidden under a scarf tied round my head. As for my figure.well.we'll get to that later. Right now a lumbering brute has managed to disentangle himself from his clothing and looks ready to murder someone.

The guard growled at me and launched himself forward, his hands outstretched and reaching for my neck. I quickly ducked out of his way and spun to the side, neatly dodging his attack. Tucking the sword away safely I made an elaborate bow as the guard stared in confusion at the empty space in his hands before turning round to find me.

"I fear I must take my leave of you. Your harsh words and actions lead me to believe you find my company unpleasant. Adieu."

On my final word I sprung up onto the nearest branch and quickly climbed up into the safety of the treetops. Below me I could hear crashing as the guard tried to follow and fell to the ground as the branch he leapt onto broke under his weight. I rolled my eyes as I continued to pick my way across the branches. From somewhere far below me the man's curses rang out across the forest.

"Damn you Black! Someday they'll find you and hang your thieving carcass from the nearest gallows! You little son of a bitch!"

Remember I had to explain about the figure thing? Well, I'm currently pretending to be a man.

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I settled down on my perch above the forest road and played idly with a small throwing knife from my boot. It's strange, but until I decided to take up a life of crime I'd never realised that you could be stylish and functional. Blame it on my many years of having to glide around looking serene in corsets and high heels. My current choice of footwear was far more comfortable than the pinching fashions of court. Soft black suede hugged my calves, the leather on the soles providing cushioning and also the means for a silent approach. Not that I can't be silent in heels, it's just much easier when your footwear clings to your every movement. Plus these little babies also had pockets for storing handy things like throwing knives and lock picking kits. See? Stylish and functional.

I let a soft sigh escape my lips as I scanned the road for potential pickings. While I was very happy with the sword that hung by my side from earlier, I still needed something a little more sellable before I headed back to camp. While the sword would no doubt fetch a pretty penny at whatever market I took it too, the craftsmanship made it too distinctive to be sold easily. As a general rule I liked whatever merchandise I sold to be untraceable to avoid bringing guards down on my head, and for more reasons than the obvious one. Still, I could never resist anything pretty and shiny so I would just add to my own little treasure horde, or the magpie nest as everyone in camp called it. But still, can a girl help it if she likes to be surrounded by pretty things?

And speaking of pretty.

Making its way down the road at the moment was a small group of five men, none of them highly armed, and each leading a horse laden with saddlebags filled to bursting. A smile worked its way across my face. Merchants.off to try and cross the border into Kerison the neighbouring kingdom no doubt. I paused for a moment as I raked my brains to remember what date it was. The spring melt water had just finished coursing down the streams in the forest meaning that the annual moon fair would be about to take place in Kerison's capital city Arria. My smile became a full-fledged grin. Moon fair meant lots of silver craftwork, and I did so love silver craftwork.

I rose into a crouch and started to keep pace with the group below me, my eyes searching the road around them for any hidden guards. The road seemed to be deserted and no tell-tale flutters from the undergrowth signalled the presence of a waiting archer. Today seemed to be my lucky day. It's not often you find people travelling to Kerison without some sort of armed escort, especially through these woods. Now, I would love to be able to say that it was solely the presence of myself and the motley band of misfits I'd picked up but I'd be lying. Kerison was probably the most powerful kingdom in these lands, not surprising when you consider that it covered a good third of them, stretching from the snowy north with its mountains and deep ice water lakes, all the way to the southern coastline past the deserts and tropical rainforests. It no doubt becomes clearer when you learn that the ruling family of Kerison at the moment grasps the crown with the most tenuous of grasps, and the country is poised on the brink of civil war.

But until that bloody day when war ravages the land, Kerison and Arria are still the most important places for any merchant to go, hence the armed escorts. Or rather in this case, my surprise at the lack of them. Checking the road one last time for any hidden nasty surprises I scampered ahead of the group of unsuspecting merchants - from herein known as easy pickings - and made my way to the section of road I had lovingly named 'flying twigs of terror'. I have a real gift with snazzy titles, a rare talent in this day and age.

As I rounded the corner I came to the hidden network of bridges and ropes that crisscrossed the road and formed a solid base to launch surprise aerial attacks. A familiar tingle ran through my body as I landed on the oaken boards, carefully stuffed with leaves to muffle any sounds further. I could already feel the lovely heavy weight of those saddle bags in my hands, and the excitement of finding out exactly what lovely things I was about to receive was making my heart beat a little faster. I love surprises, the gift kind in particular. I was deprived as a child. Excuse me while I cough.

I ran along the nearest bridge that led over the road, hidden amongst the shady canopy of the interlacing branches that covered the ground beneath. Taking a deep breath to calm myself and focus I gripped the nearest rope tightly and wrapped my calves and hands around it. Flipping over so my head faced the ground, I slid down slowly; pausing at the end of the leafy cover with the remaining rope spooled in my hands for my prey to come into sight. Through the leafy frame I saw the first merchant pass beneath me followed by two more. As the last two merchants were beneath me I let the rope go so it landed behind them, the dull thud it made when it hit the ground muffled by the sound of the horses footsteps. Letting go of the rope with my hands and loosening my calves I quickly slid down so I was next to the left hand horse and tied the rope round the thick leather band that held the saddlebags on the horses back. Speed was of the essence so I climbed back up quickly and pulled the rope up once I reached the bridge again. A slight chinking sounded as the saddlebags landed at my feet, and I bit back a grin as I hastily untied the rope and ran on to the next bridge before the merchants noticed. This was my favourite kind of fishing.

No cry sounded from the party below as I readied myself to repeat the trick with the right hand horse, the merchants eyes were too busy scanning the trees to the side of the road to be looking up or checking their cargo. This time I was even faster dropping down and snagging my prize. It required a little more effort to drag it back up; the weight promised exciting discoveries when I went through it. I ran ahead to the next bridge though, ignoring the temptation to peek at my spoils. The front three horses were going to a little more tricky to manage. I shifted from foot to foot as I studied the group. A normal person would be contented with the loot I'd already nabbed, but it seemed like such a crime to let those charming, clinking little bags out of my grasp. A sudden noise from ahead of me caught both my attention and that of the merchants. Rounding the corner about twelve metres up the road came a guard patrol, led by one very familiar looking brute. I bit back a curse as the merchants then noticed their two missing loads and a noisy scene erupted beneath me.

"Feron! The silver's gone!"

"And the jewellery! All of it!"

My eyes gleamed at the mention of jewellery. Pretty, pretty sparkling things. Maybe I could find something to match my eyes.the noise below me built and interrupted my reverie. Seems the guards had joined the easy pickings.

"Halt. A notorious bandit known as Black has been attacking travellers down this road. We have reason to believe he might still be in the area."

As you might have guessed, that was the genius of a guard I met earlier today. He still looked kind of pissy so I decided this would be a good moment to cut my loses and disappear. Probably best to leave the rich stuff here and come back later when the area was a little quieter, and I had a bit of help to move it. Honestly, those bags are heavy.

I ran along the bridge I was standing on and gripped onto a nearby branch, swinging myself up and making my way higher into the trees. From behind me I could hear the merchants' angry voices explain their loss to the guards. Hopefully explaining their situation would buy me enough time to make my escape. I dropped down onto the forest floor.

"Sir! Over there in the bushes!"

Or maybe not.

I broke into a run, a heavy crashing behind me signalling that at least three of the guards had decided to give chase. Bugger. So much for a relaxing day of robbery.

"You there! Halt in the name of Royal Guard!"

Yeah right. Like that was going to make me turn around and submit to being captured. Honestly what was the point? Did that line ever work?

Something whizzed past my head and embedded itself in the trunk of a nearby tree. My eyes glimpsed the sheen of metal and I bit back a curse. The nasty men were throwing knives at me! What had I ever done.oh yeah, the sword thing. Forget I mentioned it. I sped up a bit, darting through the maze of roots and trees with a well practiced ease. A heavy thud rocked the ground slightly and I felt a grin work its way across my face as I realised one of the men behind me must have taken a nosedive onto the forest floor. Serves them right.

"Fire at will men! Take that godless bastard down!"

Man. That guard sounded really pissed. Somebody obviously didn't get enough love in their childhood. Another whizzing sound sped towards me, causing me to dodge to my left. A bit slowly it seems as I felt a familiar sting as the knife grazed my upper arm. This was getting a little too close for comfort. Time to make my grand exit.

I veered sharply to my right, heading for the river gorge that ran through the forest and led into Kerison. In front of me the trees started to thin out as I approached the craggy tear in the ground caused by the icy water that flowed through it. The guards chasing me seemed to sense my nearness to victory.

"Sir! He's getting away!"

Too right I thought to myself as I took a deep breath and dived into the freezing currents. Surfacing quickly with burning lungs, I took another deep breath of air before diving back under and swimming upstream with clean practiced strokes. When I surfaced again, the guards were looking forlornly at the spot I dived in at, complaining at their lack of being able to swim. I had to stifle a giggle. With the amount of clothing and chain mail they had on they'd sink like stones regardless. I let myself fall into an easy breast stroke as I made my way unnoticed upstream towards my camp. My right arm was starting to throb and I really needed to get it seen to.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

"Ouch! Dammit Randel, that hurt!"

I glared up at my attacker who seemed nonplussed by my discomfort and instead grabbed another bottle of foul smelling stinging lotion from the table next to him. Long tanned fingers held my arm in a vicelike grip which I couldn't escape from no matter how I wiggled. Stormy grey eyes frowned at me from under a shock of black hair that fell across his forehead.

"Could you just stop moaning for once Lyria and let me finish? It'll hurt less and be over quicker that way."

I pouted and sullenly stared at the youth who continued to tend to my wound, ignoring my pain. He slapped on a gauzy covering then started to secure his dressing with a bandage. I huffed out my breath and gave Randel my best evil glare. What can I say? Pain makes me grumpy.

"I thought princes were supposed to be kind and gallant, not sadistic purveyors of pain. It's no wonder that bloody fairy cursed you. How can you treat a lady this way?"

Randel tied off the bandage and twanged it so it slapped against my skin, a smile on his face.

"But you, Lyria, are not being a lady at the moment are you?"

Oh yeah. Good point Randel. Clever bastard.

I scowled my displeasure at him and he winked at me before standing to leave. As he pushed aside the tent flap he called lightly over his shoulder.

"And it was a troll not a fairy remember?"

He ducked, thus avoiding my well aimed boot. Despite appearances, I really like Randel. He's everything a prince should be. Tall, handsome, clever, a good fighter and an even better listener, kind, noble with a good sense of humour.and cursed. It's lucky he had such an understanding girlfriend. Lucreia, or Lucy as she preferred to be called, was pretty much the prefect princess to Randel's perfect prince. Except for Lucy's curse obviously. But as long as she kept away from sharp wooden objects it was fine. The pair of them were my closest friends and made up the rest of my gang. Well, there was another addition but he's kind of hard to explain about and really only likes to come out at night.

Flexing my arm gently I was surprised by only a mild stiffness. Once again Randel had done a great job of patching me up. Which reminds me.

Pausing to put my boot back on as I left the tent I sat down next to Lucy by the campfire. The light from the flames highlighted the copper in her hair, making her green eyes glow as she smiled at me.

"Hey Rai, feeling better?"

I nodded and smiled back. Randel came and sat down on the other side of Lucy and raised his eyebrow at me.

"That was a remarkable recovery highness."

I stuck my tongue out causing Randel's rich bass laugh to ring out soon joined by Lucy's light one. Honestly, laughing at the suffering of a dear friend. It's tragic isn't it? But I was letting myself get distracted.

"Randel." I began in my best sugar laced tones. Lucy rolled her eyes and poked Randel in the side.

"Watch out. Here it comes. The request for a favour."

I sighed and threw a hand to my forehead. "I work and slave all day long and you won't even help me carry my spoils back home!"

Randel chuckled and stood up, dusting off his breeches. "Fine, fine. Where did you leave it Rai?"

I grinned and rose to lead Randel back to the flying twigs of terror. "They're on the bridges. Two sets of saddlebags."

Randel nodded and I found myself squinting slightly as I looked up at him. Why do men have to grow so tall? He gave me a little push, signalling his desire to head off. With a big grin on my face as I remember all my goodies I had to unwrap, I bounded off through the trees, the sound of Lucy's and Randel's laughter following me.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I puffed out my breath and watched the leaf that was about to land on my face swirl in the mini breeze I had created. From somewhere to the left of my stretched out position I could hear the gentle murmurs of Lucy and Randel as they too lay in the sunshine. A tickling on the sole of my left foot caught my attention and I propped myself up to see a flash of crimson scamper into the bushes. A smile worked its way across my face. Looked like someone was awake early. I moistened my lips and let out a soft whistle. I was instantly answered by a rustling squeak as a heavy weight leapt onto my chest and I found myself staring into a pair of golden eyes. I reached a lazy hand up and scratched the baby dragon's head, smiling as he closed his eyes and trilled his pleasure. This was the final member of my little gang, Jiff, named after an old tutor of mine who likewise could be an evil flame breathing demon when annoyed. Which was often with me as a student.

"Hello Jiff. Feeling lonely?"

The dragon cooed his answer and I swept him up into my arms as I sat up, tickling his soft underbelly as he made little chuffs of smoke tinged laughter. Randel's voice cut across the clearing.

"Why don't you take him out to the market? You know how he loves oranges."

Jiff chirped and rose up onto his haunches in the cutest little pleading position ever, his golden eyes begging me without mercy. I'm such a sucker for puppy-dog eyes.

I tipped my head and regarded the dragon who was trying to look as cute as possible.and succeeding. One of these days I'm going to get some tips off him.

"How about it Jiff? We can head to the market and try to sell some of the silver?"

Jiff's little wings which still had a lot of growing to do flapped madly as he bounced up and down in excitement. Never let it be said that I don't have a soft heart. Letting out a laugh I stood up and brushed the leaves from leather breaches. I walked over to where I left my boots and pulled them on, as an impatient Jiff jumped about on my shoulders, tugging at my head scarf. Flicking him gently on the end of his nose I turned over to where Randel and Lucy were cuddled up.

"Want anything guys?"

Randel shook his head without opening his eyes, and Lucy smiled up at me.

"We're fine for supplies at the moment Rai. Thanks for asking."

I grinned and turned my head to look at the little golden eyes gazing back at me.

"Alright trouble. Let's grab some silver and head out."

Randel and Lucy both laughed as Jiff chirped and scampered off ahead of me. I waved goodbye and followed the streak of crimson into the forest.

Serca was the last town in Gallian before the border with Kerison. While it wasn't by any means huge, its position on the main trading route with Arria meant the markets always had an interesting supply of goodies, as merchants traded goods in return for food and lodgings before heading through the forest. Gallian itself was a small kingdom, but mainly peaceful, its main industry being that of timber and further to the north crystal. For my little jaunt into the market I had lost the face mask I normally wore. Walking round a market in a face mask is just asking for trouble. You've just admitted that you're a criminal to anyone that looks at you. I kept the headscarf though, made me look slightly less feminine.

When we arrived in Serca, the market was in full flow, a constant ebb of voices raised in banter and haggling prices. Delicious smells of freshly baked cinnamon buns and rich milk bread drifted over on the breeze, making both mine and Jiff's stomachs rumble. Jiff was hiding beneath the train of my scarf as dragons tend to make people nervous. Can't imagine why, especially a sweet little soul like.

"Ouch!"

Jiff chuffed an apology and nuzzled my neck, trying to get me to forget my sore ear that he'd just nipped. Remind me that's it's never a good idea to loiter with a hungry dragon on your shoulder. I walked over to the nearest stall which luckily happened to be selling fruit. Fifteen minutes later I left minus a silver candlestick and with a basket full of fruit. I peeled an orange, passing the segments to a very happy little Jiff who was nosily snuffling them up, as I browsed the rest of the stalls. Sparkles caught my eye and I drifted over to a crystal stall.

Chimes danced on the breeze, shards of multicoloured light playing along the wooden surface beneath them. Set up on the wooden bench were crystal balls and sculptures. I caught my breath as I examined the wealth of beautiful sparkly things before me. One set of chimes in particular caught my eye; the little dragons with their wings open seemed to be swirling upwards in flight. As I reached up to touch it a heavy hand clamped down on my forearm. Hard.

"Well, well, well. I wonder if this could possibly be the infamous Black."

Shit. I still had that blasted sword from the other day by my side and from the sounds of it, the former owner had noticed. The market fell silent as I was swung round roughly to meet the eyes of my accuser. Pig ugly, check. Purple face, check. Little throbbing vein, check. Yep. It was definitely him. Bugger.

The guard sneered as he dragged me closer to face him. "I think your famous luck just ran out Black."

You and me both pal. Seems my anonymity was forever blown. Only one course of action left. Beat a hasty retreat.

My knee slammed into the guard's crotch with as much force as I could muster. It seemed to do the trick as the grip round my arm loosened and the guard doubled over moaning. Ignoring the stunned gasps erupting around me I dropped the basket of fruit and ran. Jiff was squealing quietly on my shoulder, his claws digging into my shoulder as he tried to maintain his perch. Suddenly something slammed into me from my right, sending me falling to the ground. Jiff fell and rolled under a stall, seemed like a nice safe place for him to hide. I made to rise when a heavy weight crashed onto my back sending me sprawling onto the ground again.

"That's right lads! Hold him down! Someone get some manacles!"

I felt a frustrated cry rip out of my throat as cold iron was fastened round my wrists and I was dragged to my feet, a knife at my throat. The guard from earlier stepped forwards, his little piggy eyes gleaming with satisfaction.

"Well done lads!" he leaned in closer and breathed in my face. "And you my boy will be spending the night locked up before we take you to Arria. Seems you've got quite a handsome bounty on your head."

I was roughly shoved between the shoulder blades, causing me to lurch forwards and tearing my wound from where the stupid guard holding me hadn't started to walk. The only reason tears were pricking my eyes was because of the guards foul breath. Honest. I wasn't scared. Not at all.

-so that's it. If you liked please let me know, likewise constructive criticism is always welcomed. Thanks!