Sitting in the dank confinement of a dungeon cell was too good a way to be left with one's thoughts. This truth ran through Raine Lyndon's head many times over before she banished it and turned her attention to other things. For example, how in the Maker's name she ended up in this frustrating situation.
It had been a big job—quite dangerous. Illegally hunt some whispering wolves and trade the priceless pelts to One-Eyed Roland for some nice pay. Ace, her best friend and partner in crime, labeled it as "rabbit hunting on growth elixir." His strange comparison had calmed her raging nerves at the moment and allowed her to suppress that small voice warning of danger.
In the end, it wasn't the wolves that had been their downfall, but that blasted palace patrol. The king had banned the hunting of whispering wolves ever since the High Mage, his right-hand expert-in-magic advisor, had found strong magic laced into their pelts, and that had only driven the already-high price for them higher. Raine and Ace had jumped at the chance to hunt them. Not just for the money, but for the thrill.
But how were they to know that seven of his Highness's guards would be waiting in that clearing?
The struggle had been brief. Ace had gotten away with a promise to protect Raine's family. For that, she was thankful.
Ending up in Sira Guild, the poorest district in the Heron Kingdom, led to a life of scrounging and black-market deals. It was the only way to live when there were four mouths to feed. And in her old age, it was hard for Raine's mother, Terina, to find work. Her two brothers, Jonas and Matthew, were too young to hunt. She knew nothing of her father. So it was up to her to provide for her family.
Things hadn't always been bad. In fact, her early childhood had been wonderful. Things had changed so much. But that was another story entirely.
Fate had smiled upon the Lyndon's, however, in the form of William Redwood. The elderly shopkeeper had allowed her family to live in the basement of his Curio shop, which gave them shelter and protected them from taxes imposed by the king. Said taxes weren't ridiculous or too much to ask for, but there was no way for Raine to get enough extra money to pay them.
She'd managed to pull off small illegal jobs and pocket enough coins to get by, but her time in the shadows had come to an end.
Sighing, Raine stood and began to pace around what little space the cell provided. There was one daunting truth that was nagging on her more than anything else: now that the guards were aware of her existence, they'd be looking for her family. Notices would be all over the Guilds and anyone in Sira would be up in arms over such the monetary reward.
No, staying in here was not an option. Removing a leather cord from around her wrist, Raine tied up her dark curls and surveyed her surroundings. No windows. A sturdy door, no half-pin barrel hinges. Her green eyes flitted to the barred, rectangular hole in the door, but nothing in the underground hall rang of escape. However…
After many accidental finger pricks and curses later, the small piece of metal that held her boot latched was removed and bent into the proper shape. Standing on her tiptoes to compensate for her somewhat-lacking height, Raine slid her arm through the window bars and set to work on picking the lock.
It took a while to find the palace stables, but she managed with only a few close calls. Luckily, the royal guards were not the smartest of sorts, so escaping that maze of a castle was only moderately difficult. It was by far her best conquest to date and she'd have to tell Ace all about it when she got back.
Grabbing a horse, on the other hand, could not be done without drawing attention.
Stable boys rushed about, carrying an assortment of feeds, tack and grooming tools. Raine furrowed her brows and tried to calculate the best route to take, but all of them had their drawbacks. She finally decided to lunge into the nearest stall, knock out the lanky boy brushing the Azteca beauty, and make up the rest as she went along. It was by no means perfect, but it was the best option.
Hunting had made her lithe and it was reflected in her almost-silent footfalls. She bounded in and vaulted over the stall door, startling the curry comb right out of the boy's hand. Her swift fist landed him out cold and she mentally apologized for the bruise he'd be donning later. The midnight horse skittered nervously but didn't rear when she pulled herself onto its back. By then, other stable tenders were raising alarm.
Her hands yanked lightly on the stallion's mane. It reared with an indignant whinny, kicking through the stall door and trotting out. Raine dug her heals into the horse's side and yelped as it surged forward with a burst of speed. Stable hands jumped out of the way, yelling for the guards.
The rush of activity was exhilarating. Various structures and people flew in her peripheral vision as a flurry of colors. The sun seemed to smile down upon her successful escape. Adrenaline raced through her veins.
She turned and glanced behind her, catching the image of a single pursuer before gazing ahead and spurring the horse again. She was almost out of the palace courtyards now and into the woods that lay behind the towering spires. From what she could gather, her tail wasn't a guard, for the glint of armor hadn't caught her eye. He was blond, his horse a roan. Had a stable hand followed her?
Something whizzed past her head and thudded into one of the trees marking the entrance of the forest. She had just enough time to make it out before her stallion crashed into the woods.
An arrow. Her heart sputtered.
"That's definitely no stable boy," she muttered under her breath, leaning down toward the horse's neck to flatten her body.
That is, until the horse decided to skid to a stop.
"What in the Maker's—" she started, but paused when her green eyes landed upon the fallen tree blocking her path.
Hearing the telltale sounds of pursuit behind her, she leaped off the horse and whispered thanks before sprinting into the trees.
Her footsteps were more audible than she would've liked, but she was too busy avoiding arrows to censor them. The man chasing her had also dismounted and was now darting through the trees after her. One of his deadly strikes had grazed her arm, prompting her to start zigzagging her path. However, he adapted to her change in tactic too quickly, and she was soon the target of near-misses again.
Her strength was just beginning to wane when the earth fell out from underneath her.
She managed to keep from rolling, but her skid down the hill was unavoidable. A masculine oath from behind her signaled that her attacker had also suffered the tumble.
Raine landed in a heap when the land leveled, leaved and twigs in her clothes and hair. She had just sat up when the blonde man barreled into her, sending her sprawling with a yelp.
There was a moment when neither moved. It was an impasse—two evenly-matched opponents, each daring the other to make the first move. Their labored breaths seemed to overpower the songs of the birds and rustling of canopies above them. The pounding of their hearts boomed in their ears.
Finally, the man shifted. Raine shot to her feet, ignoring the indignant ache her body gave. She briefly considered her appearance, coming to the conclusion that looking like a crazy forest harpy wasn't going to help her case, but there was no time to fix that. The man had an arrow notched right at her.
He was tall and fairly dressed, wearing clothes meant for hunting but bore telltale signs of a high price. His bow was also of impeccable craftsmanship, engraved with exquisite swirls and designs. A sword hung at his waist and a quiver slanted across his back. His platinum hair was a shock, because almost everybody in the realm had hair of dark tones. Everyone except…the royal family…
Those hazel eyes sent so many memories rushing through her head.
Running from a short blonde boy as her mother conversed with the queen.
Playing hide-and-seek in the royal gardens.
Frowning in confusion as the king and queen argued with her mother.
False accusations flowing from royal lips.
Crying as her mother dragged her away.
Watching as she left her life, and the blonde boy, behind forever.
Realization was also dawning in the man's eyes. "Raine?"
Raine found her eyes tearing up at the resurfaced memories. "Damian."
They simply stared at each other, quite unsure of what to do. Damian lowered his bow.
Finally, he spoke. His voice was hoarse. "It's been a long time."
She choked out a laugh. "I would say so."
He smiled a little, before frowning and pursing his lips. "What happened to you?"
"I'm not entirely sure." Her mother had never told her the story behind her falling out with the king and queen. Terina and once been a noble and best friends with Queen Dayanara, but something terrible had occurred that resulted in a horrible misunderstanding and the banishment of Terina and Raine from the palace.
"They never told me what happened to you," Damian said. "My father simply told me that your mother had taken you and left. He always got angry when I asked about it."
"I think there was…an argument," Raine replied. "And we had to leave."
Damian seemed to be considering something. His eyes traced the ground for a moment before looking back up at her with weary curiosity. "Why were you in the dungeons?"
She gave a little half smile. "Not a good enough reason."
He smiled back. "In that case, have a seat. We've hours left in the day and I don't think we'll be getting back anytime soon, so we might as well catch up a bit, yeah?"
"Mother's had two more," Damian said as he leaned back against the trunk of a tree. "Lilliana and Magnus. Both are quite mischievous, much like us back in the day." He winked. "You remember my older sister, Katarina? She's to be wed soon—some lord from Vyan Guild."
Raine observed him as he spoke. A twinkle lit his eye as he talked about his family, and she was glad that he was happy. She hadn't thought of him in years, mostly because the memories had been the faded ones of a young child. Now that he was here, in front of her, those memories were vivid with color. It was as if a missing part of life had been recovered.
"What about you?" Damian asked.
"How've you been?" he inquired.
Raine's eyebrows knit together. Her eyes were downcast. "Not too good, I'm afraid." She steeled herself and met his hazel eyes. "I want nothing more than to stay here and tell you everything you've missed. There's something quite odd about the falling out between our parents, a bigger scheme, and I want to get to the bottom of it."
She took a deep breath. "But my family needs me right now. I'm the only one who can provide for them, and I need to make sure they're okay before I get myself involved more in this. Damian…I need to go."
He studied her for a long while, searching for something unknown. After many heartbeats, he apparently got his answer.
"Alright," he said, standing. She followed suit as he continued. "But promise me this."
He pulled out a small stone with a swirl carved into it and pressed it into her palm.
"Promise me that you'll come back eventually, so that we can figure out why we were robbed of so many years we could've had together. I've been noticing strange things in the way things are working, as well." He grinned crookedly. "You were my first friend, and I can't think of a better partner in crime."
She gripped the stone tightly. "Alright. Thank you."
He pointed west. "Head that way. It's the shortest route to Sira."
Raine nodded, before hugging him. "You were my first friend, too. We could've caused some amazing chaos, had we the chance."
She pulled back and started walking toward home.
She paused, half-turning to look at him.
He smiled, and his hazel eyes held many secrets. A breeze tousled his blonde hair. "I'll be expecting that little rock back. It's my lucky stone." You'd better come back.
Her lips curved upward in response. The stone felt impossibly smooth in her hand. "I promise."