Rumors had always surrounded the woods that encircled the city like a mother's loving arms, stories of packs of wolves the size of horses who spoke in human tongues, or of giants carrying clubs the height of a man and who liked nothing better than human flesh for their dinner. More mystical tales were told, as well: a pool of liquid gold, guarded by a winged lion; a white stag that could grant the ability to speak with the animals of the forest; a cave that looked at first sight to be filled with treasure, but rather contained deadly traps designed to catch the greedy and unwary. Everyone, from the highest royal lady wearing silks and jewels to the mother in her homespun dress, minding her children as they played in the dirt, knew the stories. They told their children: Stay out of the forest after nightfall. You never know what could find you in there. Every child was given a knife from an age when they would be old enough to hold it without injuring themselves, and every child knew how to use it. Even then, mothers watched closely if their children wandered too near the trees, noticing what the children did not; the slight pressuring sensation of being watched.
The city sustained itself, for the most part, on the farming of its citizens, supplemented with supplies from its allies. The heavily laden and guarded carts traveled along the one known safe path through the forest that was the city's only connection to the outside world. Even though in all the city's history the shipments had never been attacked on that road, the guards would hurry the carts to reach the walls of the city by nightfall, checking over their shoulders as dusk drew close. Sometimes they saw, or thought they saw, golden-yellow eyes watching them from out of the darkness.
The night the hurricane came, the guards took longer than they liked to shepherd the weighed-down carts through the forest. Darkness swept through the forest more quickly than usual, the clouded skies blocking the weak sunlight from filtering down to the men below. When the rain started, they hastened even more, but did not get far before the storm truly struck. The last thing many of them remembered was a bright flash of light and an explosion of sound and heat.
The people of the city cowered inside while thunder beat out its symphony overhead, fearful that this storm was a child of the forest's wrath against some unknown trespasser. Even the king huddled on the floor next to his bed, arms around his wife and young daughter. The girl buried her face in her mother's skirts, unsure of why her parents were afraid, but picking up on their fear. Had they been more nonchalant about the storm, she would have been curious, the sort of child to climb to the roof to see what the commotion was. But her parents were afraid, and so she stayed with them, hiding her curiosity.
In the morning, the rising sun revealed that the heavy rain had washed away that year's plantings, the tiny green sprouts irretrievably buried in the clods of mud that had gathered around the base of the city wall. The guard confirmed that the supply wagon had never made it back, and their captain sent out a detail of three men to search the path. Reluctantly, they followed the trail into the woods, swords drawn, flinching at every snapped twig and jumping at the shadows of leaves moving in the wind. When the men reached the remains of the convoy, they found shattered wood and metal, scorched and ruined. A tree lay across the road, as high as a man's chest. The tree was tall enough that they could not spot either end, and they were unwilling to venture beyond the path to search for a way around the tree. They could find no signs of either the horses that pulled the carriage or of the guards.
"Fan out and search the area," commanded the highest-ranking among them. "Stay within sight of the path. Look for a way around this if you can." He gestured to the enormous tree lying across the path.
The youngest guard, caught between fear of the forest and obedience to his officers, crouched on the muddy path and began moving some of the debris that had built up around the bole of the tree. The other man hesitated. "Are you sure it's safe?" His voice was steady, but the whiteness of his knuckles on the hilt of his sword told another story. "You've heard the rumors, same as I have.
"Of course I'm not sure," replied the leader of the group, lowering his voice with a glance at the youngest. "But we have our orders; what else can we do?"
"I'm not going in there, not even with an army," countered the other guard. "Never have, not even as a kid, and never will. I wouldn't have come on this trip if it were avoidable. But—" he shrugged. "We all have our orders."
The leader opened his mouth to tell off the other man when the youngest guard called. "You had better see this, sir!"
He was crouched at the edge of the path, clearing away leaves, mud, and twigs from something lying in the dirt. The other guards approached, bending over to see what he had found.
It was the corpse of another guardsman. His armor had melted and fused into a solid piece of metal. His legs were trapped beneath the fallen tree. His face was marked with mud and soot, and his eyes were still open. He wore an expression of shock and surprise.
"So that's what happened to them," muttered the cynical guard. The leader merely knelt, pulled two coins out of his pocket, and laid them on the dead man's eyes for the Tinker.
"We'll have to report everything we've seen to the captain," he said, standing up. "We should move quickly. News like this is important." The other two said nothing, but looked at each other in relief. Whatever else this forest was, it was deadly. That, at least, they had asserted.
Terrence, the guard captain, was worried. The woods, and tales of the supernatural events that took place there, had never bothered him before. But now, as he knelt before dais on which the king sat in a carved wooden chair, he had to report of the deaths of seven men, the loss of a supply cart, and the fact that the one allegedly safe route, the artery that connected their city to the outside world, was blockaded. The king was known to be hot-tempered, and he would not take this news well.
"What happened out there? What did your men find?" King Francis tapped his fingers on the arm of the chair. Worn marks in the green paint showed that he did this often.
"My men report that it appears lightning struck the supply cart, destroying it entirely. There appear to be no survivors, although only one body was found."
The king muttered a quick prayer to the Tinker, who guided the dead to the Otherworld, where they could await their new body. "Why was his body not brought back here for the proper funeral rites? And why have we not sent off immediately for another load of supplies?"
Terrence felt the muscles in his shoulders tense. "Sire, the answer to your two questions is one and the same. A vast tree has fallen across the forest road, trapping the body of the guard and cutting off the route to the outside world." He braced himself for the explosion of words he knew would follow.
"You say your men recovered no corpses but the one? We do not know for sure, then that the guards on the cart are dead. I want some men on a detail scouring the forest for them as soon as you leave this room. As for supplies, we'll just have to find our own. Do you have any proficient archers among your guards?"
"Aye, sire," Terrence replied.
"Send them out hunting. We have some food in our storerooms, but not nearly enough. The forest is bound to be full of game. We must survive, and therefore we must hunt."
Terrence bowed and left. When he gave the orders to the city guards, however, he added one more—return before sundown. Don't stay in the woods past dusk.
"Did I make the right choice?" Francis paced back and forth in front of his wife, Katarin, as she sat on their bed. "Sending good, loyal men into the woods—what if they never return?"
"Of course you made the right choice," Katarin said, running her hands down her skirt to smooth out the wrinkles. "What other choice was there? You are taking care of the city, as you should. The men know to take precautions, and they are trained to fight. They will be all right."
"The only choice is not the same as a good choice, though. Should I do what is best for the city, or for its people, or for my family? Where do my loyalties lie first?"
Katarin looked down at her hands, folded in her lap, and then back up at her husband again. "You chose to help your city, as is your duty. These other two loyalties will follow the first naturally. By helping the city, you help its people; by helping the people, you help us." Her speech still carried a faint trace of her foreign accent. "You have responsibility, Francis. You must not fail it." She paused as the door swung open and a brunette child of eleven skipped in. Reluctant to speak of such worrying things in front of Leoine, their daughter, the queen stood up and gripped her husband's hands in her own. "By keeping the city strong, you keep our family strong," she whispered to her husband. "If the city falls, so will we."
By the end of the week, the first huntsman had disappeared. Terrence dismissed the first two deaths with a cold "They lingered too long in the woods," but he held rites for the men quietly, privately. By the time the sixth had vanished, in the span of nearly a month, Terrence began quietly taking volunteers from the city, boys over the age of sixteen who were willing to learn to hunt, and then risk the forest to feed the city. The hunters who returned brought enough game to feed the city, but it was a near thing. Many nights people grew hungry. By the time Leoine was twelve, the woods had claimed near thirty men. It became obvious around Leoine's birthday that Katarin was pregnant again, and would soon give birth. On the day that her son was born, a man staggered out of the woods well after sunset, scraped and bleeding. When Terrence brought the man into the guardhouse, the man reported, voice shaking, that he had stayed out as the sun was sinking, hoping to catch one final piece of game. He saw in the distance a pond, the surface coated with reeds, and approached it, hoping to catch a duck or two. His dog bounded straight for the pond, though the huntsman held back from the edge. His caution was rewarded when an arm, larger than any human's, emerged from the pond, grabbed his dog, and dragged it beneath the water.
The huntsman had not waited to see what would happen to him. He ran through the forest—various collisions and falls explained his injuries—until he reached the edge of the woods and safety. When he finished recounting his tale, he collapsed in a chair and buried his face in his hands. Terrence studied the man grimly, once more dreading his report to the king. He couldn't risk losing a man or more every week, especially now that they knew what they were facing.
The king's orders were decisive: Take as many men as necessary with nets and trap this monster. He knew he must protect his people, especially the newborn, who would be his heir when the time came. Terrence gathered his men for the dangerous journey into the forest. As the guards and hunters made ready to depart, Leoine begged to be allowed to come with them. Ignoring her requests, Terrence handed her back over to her parents, who shut her in her room. The hunter of the day before guided the troop of men, armed with clubs and nets, until the pond was just in sight, and then left, unwilling to spend more time in the woods.
Silently, Terrence knelt and released the tether of a goat brought from the city. The goat wandered through the trees, steadily approaching the pond—the men following behind would not let it turn aside. When it reached the pond's edge, a hand the size of a plate reached out of the water and grasped the goat around its middle. As the hand withdrew towards the surface of the pond, the men threw their first net, entangling the goat's legs and the fingers of the hand, when they tried to free the goat. As more of the body emerged from the water, the men surrounding the pond threw nets to trap it. Finally, they found they had caught a man-shaped being, near seven or eight feet tall. They tied him securely and brought him back to the castle.
When the men had departed for their hunt, and her parents had locked her door, the first thing Leoine had done was kick the door in frustration. Then she turned and scanned her room. She was wearing a plain dress, since she hated the fancier ones her parents forced her to wear on formal occasions. She glanced at her window, then went over to inspect outside it more carefully. She was on the second floor, but the drop to the ground was still too far without some way to get lower. She turned around, leaned against the window, and inspected everything in her room once more. Finally, her eyes found the bed. She stripped back the cover and pulled off one layer of sheets. Leoine carefully knotted one corner of the sheets around a bedpost and laid the rest on the ground. Removing another bedsheet, she tied it to the first, then repeated the process with a third sheet. When she dangled the knotted sheets out of the window, they nearly reached the ground. Carefully, clinging to the sheet with one hand, Leoine pulled herself up onto the windowsill and swung her legs out. Tangling her feet in her makeshift rope, she cautiously moved her weight from her seat on the window to her feet. She squeaked as her feet slid downwards, then caught herself, clinging to the rope with all of her strength. She hesitated, let go with one hand, and moved it lower on the rope. Her weight made her slide some more as she let go with the other hand, and the wind shoved her into the stone blocks that made up the outer wall of the castle. Eventually, by moving slowly, hand under hand, she made it to the ground. Once her feet were planted, she laughed in surprise that she had made it this far. Kneeling, she picked up some dirt and rubbed it on her face to help disguise her features, then ran towards the gate, where Terrence's men were just returning with a giant wrapped in nets and ropes.
The giant's skin was tanned to a rusty brown, and his long hair and beard were matted and tangled with leaves and twigs and roots. Somewhere inside the wild mane of black hair, two leafy-green eyes peered out at everyone. Leoine watched, just outside the crowd of cityfolk, as the men dragged the giant within the walls. The huge man did not even struggle within his ropes, not until he saw the cage of iron into which he was to be put. The nets constricted his writhing, though, and the men forced him into the cage and shut the barred door. Only after the giant had collapsed on the floor of the cage did Leoine notice what she had not before—one man in the group was limping, supported by two others. The giant had broken his leg as he cut the goat free from the net.
Noticing the young girl standing on the edge of the crowd, Terrence walked over to her, guessing at her identity. "Leoine!" he said fiercely as he grabbed her shoulder. "You're supposed to be in your room. This is no sight for little girls."
"I'm not little," Leoine muttered fiercely. "I'm twelve. And if I can get out of my room on my own why bother putting me there in the first place?"
Terrence sighed. "Your parents are trying to protect you," he said. "You're their child and they're trying to keep you safe."
"Don't see what's so dangerous about a man all tied up," Leoine replied. "And if they cared, they'd pay more attention, instead of just shutting me up in my room. All they notice these days is the baby. He's the center of attention these days. Nobody notices me."
"That's not true, Leoine," Terrence replied.
"If it's not, then how was it so easy for me to do what I wasn't s'posed to?" Leoine asked. "If people notice me, how come I could climb out my window and sneak out to see the giant man without anyone stopping me?"
Terrence said nothing more, but walked the girl back to her room. He didn't mention her transgression of the rules to her parents, either, as he handed over the key to the iron cage.
The weeks following heralded no more disappearances. Both the removal of a threat and the increased caution of the hunters in staying within sight of the wood's edge brought about this change. The wild man stayed locked in his cage, and though at first the townspeople had stopped to stare at him as they passed by, but he soon became a fixture of normal life. Only one person still stopped by, the only one to have spoken to him before.
"So, child, you've come back," the wild man said, as Leoine approached his cage. "Another chance to taunt me about my fate?"
"Have I ever?" Leoine replied, sitting cross-legged next to the cage. "Tell me about living in the forest again."
Their first encounter, he had asked her, "Child, what are you doing here?"
"I'm not a child, I'm a princess!" she had said, somewhat outraged. Although many she knew well didn't use her title, it stung a bit to have a total stranger disregard it.
"To me, such rank means nothing," he replied. "All, in the end, are equal in the eyes of time and nature."
She had been impressed by this response, and continued to visit the wild man, demanding descriptions of how it was to live in the forest. "It is cold, oftentimes, and hungry many nights as well. But if you take care of the forest, the forest will take care of you. If you treat your prey in the right way, it will return to you; if you kill no trees without permission, they will shelter you."
Every visit ended with the wild man asking Leoine for the key to his cage, and her replying "I have no way to get to it."
This time, though, when he asked, Leoine said, "Why do you need the key so badly? Is it that terrible here?"
"I belong in the woods, child. They get along without me, but they need me to survive, and I need them."
"But why don't you just break the cage?" Leoine was insistent. "You're so strong, you could do it."
"The cage is iron, and iron is poison to my kind. Trapped in the cage, it is slow, not so deadly as if I had been wounded with an iron weapon, but the cage saps my strength. Were the door unlocked, I may not even be able to push it open."
The wild man's pain was obvious to Leoine, but she didn't know where the key was kept. She had rifled through Terrence's room before, and it wasn't there, but she had no idea to whom he had entrusted it. "I don't know where the key is," she replied.
"Your mother keeps it under her pillow. So much was I able to spy before this accursed cage cut off my farseeing."
Leoine looked surprised, but lingered by the cage a moment longer. "If I help you escape, you have to promise you'll take me with you." Then she darted off, towards the stone building that loomed over all the others. She took only moments to get the key and unlock the door. As the door swung open, her finger got caught in a hinge. It pinched her and she began to bleed. She sucked on the injury to stop the pain, then locked the door and re-concealed the key. When she returned to the iron cage, she found the giant man near the walls, headed for the forest.
"Take me with you," Leoine demanded. "You promised."
The wild man turned to look back, surprise in his face. "Indeed I did. And I must honor that promise." He lifted the girl onto his back and walked past the walls, past the houses and the garden-like fields, into the woods as the sun set.
When Leoine's parents discovered her missing the next morning, a search was raised. Terrence was the first to discover that the wild man had disappeared from his cage, though the door was still securely locked. When he bore this news to the king and queen, Francis stood and began pacing while Katarin stood statuesque, holding her newborn child in her arms.
"What do we do? Where is she?" Francis sounded desperate, on the verge of hysteria or tears.
"You said the wild man had vanished as well?" Katarin, in contrast to her husband, was as cold as the carved stone of the castle around them. "The solution, then, is obvious. He has stolen away Leoine, taken her into the woods and beyond our reach. She may as well be dead."
"No," whispered Francis, squeezing his eyes shut as though he was trying to wipe away a dream. "No."
"We should be grateful that we still have our son and heir," Katarin said. "We must focus on raising him now."
Terrence, suddenly aware of how much he did not wish to be in this situation, in this room, backed towards the door and exited the room quietly.
"You are my student now, the heir to my knowledge," the wild man said when he and Leoine had reached the forest. "I am Silvain, and you will address me as such. I will teach you all I know, so that you may make your way in the world, or remain here and become heir to my kingdom as well as my knowledge." He gestured at the trees around them.
Leoine nodded excitedly. Her lessons in the castle had consisted of things like etiquette, how to dance and how to bow to a foreign prince or an officer in an army; or farmer's knowledge: what plants grew when, how much each was worth as compared to the others. Lessons in woodcraft seemed much more interesting.
Over the weeks, and ultimately months, Leoine learned how to move silently over the dead leaves on the forest floor, how to carve and string and shoot a bow, which plants could be eaten and which could not, which parts of the forest contained wonders or atrocities that should not be approached. She learned how to swim, how to read the weather from the sky, how to climb a tree, how to tell if a stream was nearby, how to not be seen if she wished not to be. She learned that her protector's name would help plants to grow, and that he knew all the secrets of the wood.
When Leoine was approaching fourteen, Silvain told her he trusted her enough to be allowed to experience basic magic. He took her to a spring deep in the forest that flowed into a surprisingly deep pond. Previously, it had been one of the areas she had been taught to avoid.
"Part of the magic of this spring is its purity," Silvain said to Leoine. "It is the pool of gold spoken of so reverently among your people, but you must be careful that nothing falls in, or its magic will be in imbalance, or perhaps even corrupted. I will leave you to watch this place until sundown, when I shall return for you. Be vigilant." With that, he turned and left.
Leoine watched the pond carefully, catching leaves if they spiraled down from the trees, or shooing away small animals who approached to drink, or simply sitting and staring at the water. The first time she saw a golden fish swim past, she jerked back from her position leaning over the water, startled. She leaned out over the water again, peering into its depths, and the fish swam back towards the edges of the pond, where she lost track of it.
The finger she had injured in the cage a year and a half ago began to hurt. Leoine realized she must have reinjured it during archery practice that day. She watched the blood trickle down her finger, then wiped it off on the stone shelf overlooking the pond and put the injury in her mouth. When this did nothing to alleviate the pain, she submerged her hand in the pond without thinking. She was momentarily astonished as the blood turned to golden swirls in the water that sank and settled until it was indistinguishable from the sand at the bottom of the pool. She jerked her hand out of the water, scattering droplets that changed the color of a spot on the rock or a blade of grass, but it was too late. Leoine's wound had healed and scarred over with a pale gold mark. Her hand was a darker shade that didn't quite blend in with the tan on her arms. She touched the skin on the back of her gilded hand gently. It was still warm, and soft like skin, but not quite so soft as it had been before, more like when her hands had just been beginning to callus. When she felt her palm, her calluses were much more solid than they had been, more like stone or metal. She wondered what would happen if her whole body fell in there.
That evening, when Silvain appeared at the pool, he asked her if anything had fallen in.
"I didn't let anything fall in, Silvain, but—" She hesitated. Then she held her hands out in front of her, next to each other where the difference was obvious. "I hurt myself practicing with my bow today, and I put my hand in the water to stop it from hurting. I forgot what would happen."
Silvain took her hand in his and inspected it closely, crouching down to be at around eye level with the girl. Finally, after a long pause, he said, "This kind of magic is ancient, and cannot be reversed. It is none too noticeable, especially if you conceal it, but that hand will never know injury again."
"And the pond?" Leoine asked, concern in her voice. "It's not contaminated, is it?"
"You have done no lasting harm," was Silvain's answer. "I will give you another chance tomorrow morning, but you must be vigilant. If the spring is corrupted, an ancient magic will be lost to the world, for this spring is irreplaceable."
Leoine nodded, eager for a second chance. The next morning she was taken to the spring again. "Keep a watchful eye, child," the giant said before he departed.
Leoine watched the spring that day like a mother wolf watches her pups. She stayed back from the surface, to help her resist the temptation to touch the surface again. The only times she came near the edge of the pool were to catch leaves or feathers falling from above before they came near the water.
Looking up at the sky as greenish sunlight filtered through the branches around her, Leoine watched the clouds. The sky was slowly filling with the white, fluffy clouds, the sort that looked like cleaner, more shapeless sheep. As the clouds gathered in the distance, their bottom edges turned the pale grey of beech-tree bark. The wind gusted, tossing the tree branches and blowing back Leoine's long hair from her face. "Rain later," she muttered. "Not 'til tomorrow evening at least, but soon." The wind gusted again, and she pulled her makeshift hat lower over her eyes. Then she noticed what she should have seen sooner—a feather drifting towards the surface of the pond, spiraling around itself like a dancer. Leoine lunged forward on to the stone outcropping, gripping the rock with one hand to stop herself from falling in, the other extended, stretching out to try and catch the feather.
She was a few seconds too slow. The feather spiraled past her fingers as she moved, sending ripples across the surface of the pond as it landed. When it drifted near enough to reach, Leoine picked it out of the water. It was slightly heavier than a feather should be, and no longer the brown-black of the bird it had fallen from. Now, it was a glittering gold, each downy ridge shaped in minutely thin wire. She ran her finger up the side of the feather, feeling the edge of it bend and ripple back into place as her finger passed over it. She sighed, feeling her breath push on the feather in her hand, and she laid it on the rock in front of her. The other leaves that fell that day, she managed to catch, but the feather glinting softly on the rock was a reminder that she had already failed that day.
When Silvain arrived at sunset, she handed him the golden feather wordlessly.
"I shall give you one final chance," he said, taking the feather from Leoine. It looked tiny in his hand. "If you succeed, you must help with the ritual to wash away your former deeds." He paused, a long silence filled by the small sounds of the forest. A night bird sang, the wind rustled the leaves on the ground and the branches high in the air, a wolf howled in the distance and was joined by others. "If you fail, I must complete the ritual alone. Should you fail, you would have to leave the woods. I would no longer be able to teach you." His eyes were sorrowful. "There are beings more powerful than I here. They would have sent you away after your first mistake and doubtless they will try again. I will plead your case once more, but if you fail a third time, I will not be able to keep you here." He paused once more. "It would be a pity to send you away. You are the best student I have had in centuries."
The next morning, Leoine was stationed by the pool again. Although the sky was solidly grey, a shade closer now to the color of iron, as the day began there was no wind, and so most of the time passed uneventfully. Remembering the previous day's mistakes, Leoine stayed just out of arm's reach of the pool—close enough to lunge and catch something, but out of reach of temptation. Without the fierce wind gusts of the day before, there was not much to do but watch the ripples in the pond and the fish that occasionally swam by. Although the sun was not visible, it was near dusk when the wind picked up from the steady, gentle breeze it had been all day. The trees leaned in the wind, wood creaking.
A small branch, no more than a foot long and less than an inch around, broke off somewhere high above and fell, spinning as it caught on leaves and branches. Leoine edged forward on her perch, ready to catch it. As it came close, she leaned out, her long hair swinging forward around her face, and grabbed the branch before it touched the pool. She failed to notice, though, that as she leaned, her hair spilled over her shoulder and trailed in the water. From where it touched the water, it changed from a light brown to golden-blonde. Leoine didn't notice the change until she realized her hair felt heavier than usual. When she ran her fingers through it, the strands seemed thicker, and she pulled it around to the front of her face. When she saw its color, she realized what must have happened. Quickly, with the naturalness born of practice, she twisted her hair up and shoved it under the cap she wore. Using the pond as a mirror, she made sure no strands peeked out from beneath the hat.
Just as she finished, Silvain strode out of the trees. Beside and behind him was another figure, almost as tall, but with cloven hooves, a man's torso and arms, and the head of a stag. Although he was a few inches shorter than Silvain, he bore a pair of antlers that arched above Silvain's head. "Do not try to deceive us, child," he rumbled, his voice deep like the calls of elk in the autumn. Silvain hung back as the stag-man approached Leoine. Reaching out a hand, he pulled off her cap, letting her now-blonde hair fall around her shoulders. "You are lucky the storm comes tonight, child, or we would have to purify this spring with your life." His eyes were cold and dark.
Leoine looked down at her feet as the stag-man walked away, vanishing among the trees.
"I am sorry, Leoine, but it is the only way," whispered Silvain, approaching her. "Take what you must, but be gone by dawn."
She nodded once, then slipped away. She gathered food, and as the rain began to fall, she pulled out her belt knife. With her left hand, she gathered up her hair, careful not to miss a single strand. She brought up the hand with the knife and tried to cut through the bundle of hair she held.
The knife refused to cut through her hair. It had been dulled by the time spent in the forest, but she had sharpened it as best she could with stones she found. It should have certainly been sharp enough for this task. Inspecting the blade of the knife, she understood moments later that the difficulty was because she was trying to cut not hair, but metal. She would need a sharper knife to do the task she was attempting. In the end, she simply settled for tucking it up in her hat as best she could. A boy on the road by himself, even one her age, was far less unusual than a girl on her own.
The last thing Silvain said to her before she set off was "If you are ever in trouble, if you are ever in need of aid, do not hesitate to call on me."
Leoine made her way out of the forest using the skills Silvain had taught her. Instinctively, she headed away from the city in which she had grown up, where parents who had almost forgotten her spoiled a brother who never knew her. It took her two days to reach the edge of a forest and any sort of semblance of a road. She knew without money, she'd find it hard to get anywhere. Her best option was getting work, at best as a huntsman or forester somewhere. There were no buildings near, as far as she could see, so she followed the road, heading away from the forest, towards the low hills she could see in the distance.
On her fourth day on the road, she had almost run through her provisions. She shot a hare as it ran across the road, skinned and cleaned it, but it was barely a meal, and there was no sign of even a town or an outlying farm yet. As she stood, the hare's body safely packed away, she saw a middle-aged man, hair just beginning to go grey, watching her where no one had been standing before. He was carrying a pack that was seemingly full of objects, which pressed odd outlines into the leather. A chain of the sort to hold a small watch dangled from his vest and then disappeared into a pocket.
"Hello, my daughter," the man said. "Would you be so kind as to share some of your meal with me?"
Leoine flushed. She hadn't thought her disguise was so easily seen through, and her hands and face were spattered with the hare's blood, not the best first impression to make on someone, especially a stranger on the road. She knew better than to be rude to someone so polite, though, when he could be carrying all manner of hidden weapons better suited to close range than her bow. "Of course you may," she replied. She pulled her flint and steel out of her pack, checking the wind before starting a fire. The man made idle conversation as she built up the fire and roasted the rabbit, and Leoine replied in terse, one-word answers, trying to avoid giving away information without being too impolite. He seemed to always need to have something to do with his hands, fiddling with a bit of wire, rewrapping her bowstring after she granted permission.
When they had both finished eating, the man was the one to speak first. "Thank you for the meal, my girl. Such kindness deserves kindness in return." He bent to his pack, and pulled out a carved wooden horse. It was painted in three colors: The front third was a coppery chestnut, the second third was painted in a white that had faded or smudged to grey, and the final third was black as the space between the stars. "If you place this on the ground, and call it by name, it will become a true steed, fit for a warrior. It can only be called upon for aid three times, however, before the magic runs out, and it is merely a toy."
Leoine was astonished. Such magic was ancient and could not be replicated. The toy alone was a slight as a gift, but the magic artifact was much more than her due. "I cannot take this gift, sir," she said. "It is far more than I could ever hope to repay."
"Repay me with deeds, daughter," the man replied. "You will have need of that trinket." He met her eyes squarely, and she noticed that his eyes were hypnotically deep, almost dizzyingly so. "You will walk a hard road, my girl," he said. "That's why I am here, to help smooth the way. In that spirit, continue towards those hills one more day's travel. There you will find a place that has what you seek."
She looked down once more at the wooden horse in her hands. When she looked up, the man had vanished, pack and all. She let out a long breath, realizing who she had been speaking with. The Tinker was known to give advice to men, although she knew no one who had met him. It would be how he had seen through her disguise so readily as well. She tucked the wooden horse statue into her pack, muttered a quick prayer of thanks, and continued down the road, towards the hills the Tinker had indicated.
Another day's walking, as he had said, brought her to a small city, barely large enough to not be a town. A small, fortress-like castle overlooked the buildings from a hill. Unsure where to start looking for work, Leoine went directly to the castle, hoping for an audience with the king.
She made her way to the throne room by bribing guards with her remaining coins, relics from her time with her parents. Once there, some instinct told her to treat the man on the throne as she had the stag-headed man in the forest—with deep respect, hiding her true feelings.
"What is your business here, child?"
Although he used the same word for Leoine as Silvain had, the king's tone was harsher, more demeaning. She bowed her head for a moment before answering, apparently in deference, but in actuality to control her temper. "I seek employment, sire. I have traveled many days from the wilderness in order to do so. If I may, I am a fair hand with horses."
"We have no need of a new stablehand," the man to the king's right said. He wore a guard's uniform. "However, the gardener was saying he would like some assistance. His two children are too young for such work. It is not difficult, and not something that is a struggle to become accustomed to."
Leoine knew it for a gracious offer when she heard it. "I would be most grateful, my lord." She backed out of the throne room, then went to meet her new supervisor.
The gardener, as it turned out, was a gentle, fatherly man. He stood a foot or more above Leoine, and had the broad shoulders of a smith. He let his dark reddish hair hang shaggily into his eyes, though he was clean-shaven. His wife, he told her, had passed away a few months ago, leaving him charge of their twin children, between the ages of four and five.
Leoine's job wasn't difficult. Honest work, certainly, but it was relaxing. As the growing warmth and green-tipped branches alerted the world that spring was coming, it became her task to plant new seeds in the freshly thawed earth.
She tended them carefully, using a trick Silvain had taught her in the woods—a breath and his name—to keep the fragile, pale-green shoots strong even through a late, harsh frost that killed other young plants, leaving them limp and black. The gardener was astonished by his assistant's skill, but Leoine refused all offers of gifts beyond her pay from the king. "Keep it," she would say. "You need it more." And in the evenings, she would sit on the wooden floorboards of his house with the twins and gallop the little wooden three-colored horse up and down the floor while the children laughed.
The first time Leoine spoke to the princess, it was the sort of warm spring day that cannot be spent indoors. Leoine was outside, carefully tending to the just-opened flowers she had planted a week and a half ago. The princess was sitting on the balcony outside her window. Not on a bench, but on the floor, leaning back against the metal railings, twisting a strand of light brown hair in her fingers.
"How do you get them to grow so well?" she asked abruptly.
Slightly startled, Leoine looked up. "Skill, I guess," she replied. "Some kind of knack or something."
The girl sitting above her laughed. "And what might your name be, o skilled gardener? I can't keep thinking of you as that new boy."
"Leon," she said, barely hesitating. "I'm Leon."
"Nice to meet you, Leon," the princess said, smiling. "And would you be kind enough to bring a lonely girl some of your beautiful flowers?"
Leoine blushed. The king's daughter was two years older than her, and she had no idea how to deal with someone flirting with her. Instead of remaining in her small corner of garden by the wall, she hurried off to cut flowers.
When she had made it to the princess' room with her bouquet, the girl took it from her and inspected it. "Wildflowers, Leon? Did you not see fit to bring me some tamer flowers better suited to a quiet girl?"
Leoine blinked. "I thought the wildflowers, both strong and delicate in their own ways, would suit you better, your Highness. Besides, just think how angry your father would be if he found a mere gardener stealing from his own gardens."
The princess laughed. "A good answer, and a brave one," she said. "But I hate it when people use my title. They're 'Highness'-ing me left and right. Call me Alacia."
"Alacia it is, then," Leoine said, giving a small half-smile.
"But why are you wearing your hat in front of me?" Alacia asked, confused. "Father'd have a fit if you wore it in front of him, when he wasn't being distracted by politics and the state of the whatever economy we've got. Besides, you're indoors, there's no need for protection from the weather." She reached out for the edge of the hat, and Leoine scrambled out of the way.
When she looked back at Alacia, though, the princess was holding her hat. "I don't take off my hat because I have made a vow never to cut my hair," Leoine mumbled, knowing how implausible the story sounded. "I hide it because I fear the others would taunt me for my feminine appearance."
"Men and their pride," Alacia teased. "So easily wounded by a simple comparison." She gave a small smile and handed the hat back to Leoine. "Don't worry, I won't tell."
Every day, the princess would summon Leoine to her room on some pretext—flowers, a small service she required—but mostly the two would talk. Alacia learned of some of Leoine's time in the forest. Leoine never mentioned Silvain or the reason she left the wood, just that she had learned to look out for herself and become a competent woodsman over the years. She learned that Alacia looked forward to the time when she would be queen, because she enjoyed the chess-like interplay of politics while finding the economic side of things boring. Leoine got used to the way Alacia teased her, and started looking forward to their time spent together, occasionally even making excuses to go visit her.
One day, Leoine was summoned by Alacia without a pretext—an unusual event. When she arrived at Alacia's rooms, the princess was looking more serious than Leoine had seen her before.
"What's wrong?" she asked, sitting on the chair Alacia usually reserved for her.
There was a long pause before Alacia answered her. "The hill tribes have banded together under a single warleader. There are usually raids around this time of year. But never all of them at once. One tribe at a time, my father's troops can handle. This is closer to all-out war. My father's men are preparing to fight them, and they'll ride out tomorrow, but I don't think there's any way they can win."
Leoine comforted her friend as well as she could, then left and went down to the stables. Men there were saddling horses, preparing weapons and armor for the battle the next day. Leoine ignored all of them. Instead, she approached a man who held himself as though accustomed to giving orders, the captain, perhaps.
"I want to fight," she said without preamble. "I want to help tomorrow. You'll need everyone you can get on the battlefield, and I want to be there."
The captain looked her up and down as though surprised. "I'm sorry, lad," he said, and gestured to one of the stalls. "This is the only horse who'll be riderless by the time these men are done, and she's hardly fit for battle." The horse he indicated was skinny and old, and from the way she stood she walked with a limp as well. Leoine saw there was no use arguing.
That evening, in the gardener's cabin, Leoine examined the wooden horse thoroughly, searching every inch of it for something that would reveal the name to call it. When that served with no success, she tried every variant and synonym of "horse" she could imagine. None of those worked either.
"Ye say the man as gave it to ye told ye to call it by name?" the gardener asked. He had been watching as she attempted to awaken the magic within the horse carving. "Why d'ye not use the ancient tongue? Such a thing would be made before our speech existed."
Leoine looked at him, startled. "You think that'd work?" she asked. She barely remembered her lessons on the ancient language that was precursor to theirs from when she was a child.
"If ye have the knowin' of such things," the gardener replied. "It's not something I'd know, for certain."
Leoine turned the horse between her hands, thinking back to those days of outwitting her tutors for a short-lived adventure in the city. Half-remembered bits of information rose from her memory, but she discarded most of them. Finally, the word she was searching for came to mind. "Hrusson," she muttered, and the wood became warm beneath her hands, as though the wood had gained blood of its own. Quickly, Leoine moved outside and set the three-colored horse on the ground, and within minutes it had become a copper-colored horse, not wood but blood and bone and skin. Quietly, Leoine gathered the other preparations she had acquired throughout the day, and quickly armored herself as a mounted archer. The helm covered most of her face, for which she was grateful, and the arrows and bow she had brought from the woods and hidden when she sought a position with the king were of her own making, and she trusted nothing more. She mounted the horse, and rode out to meet the king's company as they left for the battle.
The sentry spotted her, and called out a warning. "Who are you?"
"A friend," she replied. "That's all you need to know."
The battle the next morning was a victory. A close victory, but a victory nonetheless. The soldiers all admitted they would have lost, except for the mysterious archer riding a copper-colored steed, whose arrows never seemed to miss their targets. "He did half the work of their defeat," the soldiers would say. "Without him, there'd be nothing left of our country to speak of."
While the soldiers camped out on the fields of battle that evening, no sign could be found of their mysterious ally. They set guards to watch the flickering torchlight of the hillsmen, desperately hoping for the appearance of the mounted archer. That night was a long and anxious one, but the men survived to see the dawn.
As the sun cleared the horizon, a tent burst into flame, and a second arrow thudded into the ground nearby, extinguishing itself on the earth. The men, half-armed and half prepared, swung onto their horses and charged the ambushing hillspeople, getting inside the range of their archers as quickly as they could. The hillsmen were ready for this, though, and surrounded the king's troops immediately. Though the king's soldiers fought on valiantly, they feared they were lost.
Then one tribesman fell from his horse, followed by another. Slowly, the king's men were able to fight their way out of the trap they had ridden into, and meet forces with the same mysterious archer as the day before, though today their ally rode a tall white horse, not the chestnut of the day before. The army rallied to the archer and again defeated their enemies, pushing them back beyond the hilltop on which that day's battle had taken place. They made camp there that night and again watched their enemy's fires with wary eyes, and again wondered at the vanishing of the hero of that day's battle. The army was braver that night, happy with their victory. They made plans to attack the enemy camp at first light, confident in their previous successes.
Before dawn, the king's army was ready to move. They were about to depart for the enemy camp when a black horse appeared, bearing a rider wearing the light leather armor of a mounted archer and carrying a bow. The archer and the black horse led the charge, and the hillmen were quickly routed and driven back. The army pressed until the hillmen turned and fled for their homeland, to look for an easier land to raid.
The king's soldiers returned to his city, all whispering of the mysterious rider who had in some accounts led the soldiers to victory through cunning stratagems, and in others singlehandedly and alone defeated the raiders with force of strength. The gardener's boy listened to these stories as the troops entered the keep, and smiled slightly, face hidden beneath the brim of his cap.
Within a week, an announcement had been spread that the king was to hold a contest: three days of sports and games, hunting, riding and the like. The winner of each contest would receive a golden token, with the king's seal imprinted on it, and the winner of three of these tokens would be granted a special prize.
"He's trying to draw out that archer who all the soldiers say won the war for them," Alacia said to Leoine the afternoon before the first day of contests, as they sat in the garden. "He wants to give a reward for bravery or somesuch, and he thinks this'll draw out anyone it could've been. Everyone's heard the rumors by now that he's going to grant a knighthood to the winner."
Leoine laughed with her at the ridiculousness of a contest revealing one so intent on keeping a secret identity, but she kept her hand in her pocket, wrapped firmly around a carved wooden horse.
That night, she dreamed of the road she had walked to find this place. Just inside the curve of the road, a blanket was spread, with food laid out on it. "Looks like someone's expecting me," she said to herself with a half-smile, walking over to the blanket and sitting on it.
"Indeed, child, I was," said a familiar voice. The old man who had given her the horse—the Tinker—sat cross-legged on the blanket across from her. "And now that you have achieved the purpose I sent you for, what do you plan to do? Travel around the lands as a mysterious rider who rescues the needy and guards those weaker? Return to the forest to live with the wild things and the spirits?"
Leoine laughed. "I'd thought to join in the king's contests and try for a knighthood," she said. "After that, who knows?" She absentmindedly shredded a piece of bread between her fingers as she thought. "I'd need a horse for the trials, though. Most of the contests are done from horseback, hunting and jousting and such."
The Tinker gave her a secretive smile and extended a hand. "I think I can help with that," he said. "Just this one time, though. I can't extend the life of something like this forever. You'll have to get your own horse after this."
Leoine reached into her pocket and found the figurine of the wooden horse there. Pulling it out and handing it to the man sitting opposite her, she replied, "If I win a knighthood, I'll be able to afford my own horse after this."
The Tinker laughed, loud and clear. Then, cradling the wooden horse in his hands, he gently blew on it, an exhalation that seemed to go on forever. Handing it back to Leoine, he said, "Three more uses. As a reward for your dutiful service. Good luck, my daughter, and fare well."
The roadside, the food, and the man in front of her faded into white, and then Leoine was awake, blinking in the sunlight streaming into her eyes from the window to the gardener's cabin.
The trials that afternoon were crowded—not just with soldiers excited at the prospect of knighthood and glory, but with the townspeople and courtiers who were looking for a day's excitement and entertaining. Threads of conversations bled into each other, a mass of noise with only a few distinguishable words. Some people sold food at small, colorful booths that lined the edges of the contest area. Leoine leaned against the fence that had been built around the boundaries of the contest area, watching the jousting. Today were the jousting and archery contests—there were other, smaller competitions, but only five that gave golden tokens.
There was a great cheer from the crowd around the fence as one horseman unseated the other, and Leoine pushed away from the fence, sliding through the crowd. The archery contest would be starting soon.
Once she was in private, she pulled off the tunic she wore over her archer's armor, and tied a strip of dark brown cloth over her nose and mouth, concealing the lower half of her face, and picked up her bow and quiver. She transformed the wooden horse into the copper-colored stallion, and led the horse unobtrusively around the deserted, outermost edge of the tents and stands. Tying her horse next to the other archers', she quietly walked to where the others stood, anxiously waiting for the last joust. At last the horn call that signaled the end of the jousting tourney sounded, and the crowd cheered as the victor was handed his gold token. Quickly, targets were set up, and the archers took the field. Leoine heard mutters travel through the crowd like ripples on water as she stepped up to her position. She gave a half-smile under her mask, knowing that was the cause of the commotion. All the other archers' faces were visible under their helmets. When the whispers died down, the signal came to take their aim. Leoine settled herself in her stance carefully and nocked an arrow. When the command came to let fly, her arrow thudded into the bullseye of her target, as did the arrows of about half the other archers. The judges walked down the line, signaling those who had missed their mark by a certain amount to leave the field.
The targets were moved back, and the process happened again. It was still an easy mark for Leoine, although now there were less than fifteen archers left. The targets were moved back a third time and the archers took their shots, leaving Leoine and six others to go on to the mounted part of the competition.
For this, a target was set up in the center of the ring, and the archers rode around the ring at a fast trot, aiming at the target as they went by. Those that succeeded in striking within a handspan of the center of the target—all but one of the archers—moved on to the next round, urging their horses into a canter. Three more archers struck the outer rim of the target or missed entirely in this round. Leoine and the two remaining competitors increased their pace once more. As the first archer flashed by the target, his shot missed completely, landing in the dust of the arena. The second archer's arrow thudded into the rightmost edge of the target, barely hanging off the cloth-covered wood. The crowd was silent as Leoine's horse rounded the corner of the arena, holding its collective breath. Everyone could hear the pounding of her horse's hooves in the dust, the sharp sound as she released her bowstring, and the dull thud of the arrow striking the center of the target.
As she sped past the target and slowed her horse to a walk, the crowd erupted in cheers. She drew to a halt in front of the king's seats under a colorful cloth pavilion. He held aloft to the crowd the golden medallion, then handed it down to Leoine.
The next day were the swordfighting and horsemanship competitions, as well as some smaller contests. Leoine, as the gardener's boy, entered in some of those, winning some and losing some, but enjoying herself. She separated from the crowd as they crowded around the arena where the swordfighting was about to start. She heard the announcement of the first two competitors, but didn't turn around. The clash of metal on metal and the cheers of the crowd, though muffled, entered through the thin cloth walls of the tent as she changed into her armor and tied the mask over her lower face. The grey-white horse shied slightly at the clamor, until she stroked its face and whispered to it, calming it. The horse continued to shift its weight nervously from foot to foot as she led it out, finally standing next to a brown-and-white horse tethered to a fence with no rider in sight.
Leoine vaguely recognized the armor of the swordsman who was winning the majority of the bouts. He'd won the golden medallion in jousting the previous day. He seemed a fairly strong swordfighter, as far as she could tell—he won quickly and decisively, never getting entangled in drawn-out battles like some of the other fighters. His feet seemed to always be where they needed to be, precise and never off-balance. Leoine wondered half-heartedly where he had been when the army had fought the hill raiders, but she could tell swordfighting from horseback would be very different than on foot, and certainly different than these carefully controlled bouts.
The skilled swordsman defeated his last opponent to cheers from the crowd. He sheathed his sword, then bowed before the king's seats and received his medallion. He was walking in her direction, she realized; he approached the piebald horse who stood next to her black one. He stowed the medallion in a leather saddlebag and swung up onto the horse's back. "Here for the riding challenge, archer?" he asked. "Better hurry up then, it's about to start." He kicked his horse's side and trotted off. Leoine mounted and followed him.
The competition was nothing other than she had expected—the riders had to trot, canter and gallop through a course that had ben set up within the arena. Leoine guided her horse through the course fairly easily, whatever residual magic making it easy for her to communicate her wishes. At one point she felt one of her horse's hooves clip a barricade that had been set up as one of the obstacles, but that was the only mistake she felt she had made. She watched other riders pick their way through the course, some making many mistakes. The swordsman's horse stumbled several times in the more difficult portion of the course, but many riders did a good job. She drifted into her own thoughts of the hunt tomorrow while the judges conferred—the prize would have originally gone to the hunter who brought back the most game, but reports from outlying farms told of a boar that had been seen in the area of woodland designated for the hunt. The king had announced shortly thereafter that the medallion would instead go to the person who brought back the boar's tusks, as proof that it had been killed and a danger to the area removed. She was jolted out of her thoughts when the swordsman laid a hand on her shoulder and said, "They mean you, archer." The crowd was cheering, the king in his booth holding the medallion above his head so everyone could see it. "Well ridden," the swordsman said, giving her a half-smile.
Leoine realized what had happened, and mounted her horse to receive the prize. She and the swordsman were now tied in the competition, two medallions each.
Leoine's black horse moved its way easily through the trees, stepping over fallen branches and brushing past low-hanging twigs. She led it afoot, so she could better follow tracks and signs left by the boar as it moved through the forest. Her usual quiver of arrows and bow were strapped to her back, but two long boar-hunting spears were attached to the side of her saddle—the guardsmen would not let her leave without them, although she had no idea how to handle them; they seemed unwieldy and impractical to her.
She had been following the tracks and broken branches left behind by the boar for about an hour, but had yet to see any sign of the creature itself. Judging by the age of the tracks, it had passed by the path she was following the night previous, and she was unlikely to catch up to it soon. Some smaller game, a few rabbits and a pheasant, she had already caught and put in one of her saddlebags—even if she didn't find the boar, she could at the least make a good showing.
When she found a spot where the boar had stopped at a riverbank to drink, Leoine decided she should do the same. She tethered her horse loosely to a nearby tree branch, then knelt by the river, cupping her hands in the water and then bringing it to her mouth. She was on her third handful when she heard the scream.
Reflexively she reached for her quiver, searching for the source of the noise. She couldn't see far in the trees, but she had just about located the direction from which it had come when another shout echoed toward her. She tugged her reins free from the branch she had tied them to, climbed into the saddle, and kicked her horse into a run, turning its head towards the direction from which the shout had come, knowing every second counted.
When her horse burst into the small clearing, it took Leoine moments to evaluate the situation. The boar, big as a large dog and twice as hefty, had a spear shaft buried in its side, just behind its shoulder. The shaft jutted out six inches before the jagged end showed where it had snapped off. The remainder of the broken spear lay on the opposite edge of the clearing. The boar was just turning around, ready to charge the figure lying on the ground at the opposite side of the clearing.
The man lying on the forest floor was the swordsman. A long gash up the side of his leg explained the red stains—blood—on the boar's tusks. Although he had out a short hunting knife, it was obvious he could not stand, and equally obvious who the victor would be should the boar complete its charge.
As the boar began to move, Leoine nocked an arrow, took a moment to aim, and loosed in one fluid motion. The swordsman shoved himself backwards, away from the charge, thrusting with his knife. There was a squeal from the boar. It never made it to the far side of the clearing. Halfway there, it fell to its side, slid briefly, and came to a stop, Leoine's arrow in its eye.
"You win, archer," said the swordsman as Leoine approached him and started to cut off the hem of his tunic to make bandages. "You killed the boar, fair enough."
"I'm sure you would have killed it had I not been here," she replied.
"Nay, archer, it would have been the other way around if you hadn't been here to save my skin," he said. "Take the reward; you deserve it."
She finished bandaging his wound, helped him onto her horse, and went over to the boar. After severing its tusks, she tucked them into a separate saddlebag and began leading her horse out of the forest.
"And so it is to our mysterious ally that we present the prize—a knighthood and free roam of this country, wherever he should wish to go." The king finished his rousing speech, made to the watching populace after Leoine and the swordsman detailed what had happened in the forest.
Leoine tapped the side of her leg nervously. She hadn't expected the king to behave so trustingly; she thought before elevating the status of a stranger he would at least ask his identity. "Sire?" she said. "I don't believe I am worthy of that which you offer me. You see, I've lied." She removed her helmet, revealing her face and distinctive hair.
"The gardener's lad?" She heard the confused voice from the crowd but could not identify the speaker.
"Not even that," she said. "I've been concealing my identity in more ways than one. I'm a woman."
"And you think that makes you unworthy of a knighthood?" the king said in answer. "You not only excel in competitions of skill and strength, and save the life of one of our best fighters, but you helped save the kingdom as well! That far outweighs any lie you may have told." He hesitated a moment. "What is your true name, then?"
"Leoine," she answered.
"Then kneel, Leoine," said the king. She started to protest, but he interrupted more forcefully. "Kneel. " She obeyed.
The king drew his sword, lowered it to touch one shoulder, the other, and then rested the flat of it on the crown of her head. "Rise, Sir Leoine Archer," he said, sheathing the sword.
Leoine stood, confused, as the crowd cheered, voices mingling chaotically. And then one quiet voice cut through them all, drawing the entirety of the crowd's attention.
"Father," said Alacia, stepping forward from where she had stood beside the king's throne. "You've been telling me for a while that I should be thinking about choosing who to marry, so that you can have a quieter job and I can begin learning how to rule."
"I can hardly deny it," said the king, with a smile that seemed to say he knew what his daughter would say next.
"I've made my decision," Alacia said. "I would like to marry the savior of my future kingdom. If she'll have me, I'd like to marry Sir Leoine."
Leoine hardly hesitated. She knew how much she cared about the princess, and was glad that Alacia cared in return. "Yes," she said. "Yes, of course, I'll marry you."
Alacia threw herself forward and kissed Leoine, who caught her around the waist, not quite overbalancing, and kissed her back. If she had not been so involved, she would have heard the crowd cheer even louder than before.