She twirled in a quick circle, admiring the way the blue skirt of her dress flared out and the white embroidery along the hem became a solid line instead of its usual flower motif. Stopping, she winced as her sword whacked her leg, but was soon off running, her brown hair flowing out behind her. The sun on her skin and freedom from her mother for the weekend made her laugh as she ran.
Bursting through the branches overhanging the path, she came out into a small garden, one that had an alabaster statue of a woman surrounded by flowerbeds of orange and pink. Her headlong race was brought up short as she ran into someone else, stumbling to a stop. He caught her before she fell while her hands clutched at his arms. She shoved herself back, shaking her head to get her hair out of her face as she looked up. Her green eyes met the almost black ones of the boy still holding her arms. She felt her face heat up as she stared into his dark face. "I'm sorry. I wasn't watching where I was going. Are you okay?"
He nodded, not releasing her until she was firmly on her feet again. "I am safe, my lady. Are you uninjured?"
She nodded, giving him a quick once over. He was a head taller than her, his hair black and his legs long. He was dressed in dark greys, a long sword sheathed at his waist in black leather. She wondered if he was trying to look like a shadow on purpose or if just hadn't noticed. "I'm fine. Oh, I'm Paige by the way."
A slight line appeared between his brows. "You are a page? I had not heard that a lady had decided to attempt her knighthood."
She laughed and shook her head. "No, no. My name is Paige. Stupid, I know, but what can I do. What about you?"
He bowed. "My apologies, my lady. I am Sir Axton of Heartfield. It is an honour to make your acquaintance."
Paige grinned. "You're a knight? Already? Aren't you really young? I mean you look like you're almost the same age as me. I thought you had to be like twenty to be a knight or something."
He bowed again. "I completed my training early, my lady."
She clapped her hands. "That's sweet! So does that make you like the youngest knight here? Was it hard? What do you do now? Oh and call me Paige. My lady is so stuffy."
He stared at her, like he was impressed or shocked at how quickly she spoke. That made her grin wider as mischief began to twinkle merrily in her eyes. The sound of approaching voices and laughter made her hesitate. A second later, a shout made her turn to look.
Three boys, looking to be about the same age as her and Axton, were smiling at them as they walked over. They also wore swords belted at their sides and walked slightly spread out. Paige didn't trust their smiles, finding them edged with maliciousness and arrogance.
"Heartfield, however did you get a lady to willingly be seen in your presence?" The tall blond boy in the lead said, glancing back at his friends. Then his gaze fell on Paige and his eyebrows rose and he bowed. "Well. Dear lady, may I suggest a change in company? Heartfield is clearly not a worthy companion for one such as you."
Paige clasped her hands behind her back and smiled at them. Then she turned to look at Axton. "So how often do you have to deal with jealous idiots?"
His eyes widened slightly as he looked at her while she could hear the three newcomers choke. The lead boy took a step forward. "Do you know who I am?"
She glanced back at him. "No," she replied dismissively.
He spluttered for a moment, glaring at her. "I am Quany of Goldbeach."
"Good for you," she said, not looking at him.
"My father is Count Emery of Goldbeach, a member of the ruling council and a personal friend of their majesties!" he snapped, fists clenched at his sides.
"So? What does your father being important have to do with you? It's not like you helped him with any of that," Paige replied, letting scorn fill her voice. "Or are you still relying on your parents to do everything for you?"
"You," he began, stepping forward, his hand shooting towards her.
She backed up a step, her feet shifting into her fighting stance as her hands fell to her sword. His training was a match for hers, making him fall back and do the same. She only had an inch of her sword out when Axton stepped in front of her, drawing his blade and holding it in front of him. "You are a squire, Goldbeach. You have taken your first vows of chivalry and yet you still dare raise a hand against a woman? I should have you demoted back to page work."
"Shut your mouth, you cursed son of a rat. What do you know of chivalry?" Quany cried, drawing his sword. His friends moving up beside him did the same.
Axton shifted his stance slightly while Paige edged over to his side, not about to leave him to fight three by himself. A shout from the path to their right made them all turn to look. Two palace guards, their dark green uniforms obvious to all five of them, were watching them and pointing.
Paige reacted to the sudden appearance of authority figures in the time honoured teenage tradition. "Run!" she yelled, grabbing Axton's hand and dragging him back the way she'd come, while the three boys just stared after them.