Chapter 1 – Runaway
His horse was reaching it's limit. He could feel it's heart thrumming against his calves like a trapped drum-it's mouth agape and frothing. The beast wheezed, and he worried it would collapse from under him.
But he couldn't stop to let it rest.
There wasn't any time.
He forced it through tough thickets of thorns, over fallen trees and around obstacles so quickly that he feared he'd break his own neck.
His legs were sore and his hands were running themselves raw with all of the yanking and jerking of the reigns.
And his pursuers were closing in fast.
When Roddrick had devised this route, he had figured that no one would pursue him through the Forbidden Forest, because it was labeled "forbidden" for a reason. He was certain the only forces he'd have to tackle through it would have been the occasional wild dog or angry bird.
What he hadn't expected was the caravan of bandits waiting just within the brush, and for them to be so well concealed that he wouldn't notice them until they were on his tail.
During his studies he'd heard about bandits, but he'd never actually seen them.
Now he knew why they were such a problem.
Just a little farther, he thought frantically. Just a little farther and we'll be out of the forest and out in the open. Surely they will stop pursuing me there. Bandits don't like fighting in open spaces.
Or so he'd read. But books didn't know everything.
With his luck, they'd probably keep pursuing him even if he was drowning in the lake. They had no doubt caught sight of his gold enameled sword-his silver inlaid saddle and his silk dress wear. They had been stealing from people long enough to know which fights to pick.
And here he was in the "forbidden forest" all to his lonesome, and covered in treasure.
He wasn't going to escape them until he was dead or they were.
This is it. I'm going to die. It was a morbid thought, but he couldn't help it.
Had I known at breakfast this morning that this was how my day was going to end, I would have just stayed in bed.
His horse suddenly shrieked and stumbled to a dangerous halt.
He looked around his steed to realize that just beyond it's stamping hooves was a thicket of thorny brush so massive he could have gotten lost in it. There was no way his horse was going to go through that, and there were no routes around it.
This was it. They were done.
Roddrick turned in the saddle with a sigh, and slowly drew his sword. At least now he could measure all of that training he'd gone through at the castle. See if what he'd been told was really the case.
The bandits surrounded him, removing their own weapons from their dark black cloaks.
He could see the whites of their eyes from above their masks and had to remind himself that these were just people trying to survive (though survive was probably too positive a word in this case). Where they people from his Kingdom? Did it matter?
Enough money could turn anyone into a killer.
The first bandit screamed as he roared forward, blade raised and Roddrick prepared himself for the onslaught.
But the bandit wasn't the only person screaming, and they all realized this quickly. The bandit coming at him turned just in time to have what appeared to be an onion in a net crash right into his skull. He reeled, nearly falling off of his horse as a third party-one man on a horse-came riding in. Roddrick prepared for a fight, but this man wasn't facing him. He was facing the bandits-like he was acting as Roddrick's guard.
Roddrick didn't see his face immediately, but by the leather vest and chipped sword he was hanging over his head, he knew the man was a regular commoner-nothing special.
Well, that was until the man-singlehandedly-raced straight at the bandits while shrieking like a banshee. What Roddrick had perceived as some sort of nosy passerby or hero wannabe-was more than likely insane.
Roddrick watched with some concern as the man swung his sword over his head with violently, and crashed right into the first bandit on horseback that was desperately trying to scramble out of his way. The bandit desperately tried to defend himself, but the stranger clashed swords with him, and from his left flank he thrashed the poor man with his onion-net weapon. Attacked on two sides-the bandit didn't know what to do with him.
The other bandits started to surround him, hoping perhaps to trick him and knock him from his horse. Roddrick prepared his sword-willing to jump into the fray and help this stranger in the fight.
That was, until the stranger literally hopped up to his haunches (on his horse!) and hopped to the one the bandit was on.
Roddrick wasn't sure why this was so spooky to the Bandits, but moments later they were shrieking and belting their horses-racing to get out of there. The stranger watched them leave, staring at the one bandit that had been left behind.
The poor man took off at a run, chasing his part-quite without his horse. The stranger hopped off the pretty beast, took its reins in one hand, and then clambered onto his own. He pranced it over to a tree, where he tied the reins to a branch, and then faced Roddrick.
And his expression surprised him. The man was grinning like he was an old friend, and he hadn't been just fighting bandits.
"Nice morning to go out for a ride, wouldn't you say?" He asked pleasantly, wrapping his horse's reins around his hands.
Roddrick reviewed the man's face, and determined he was nothing more than a commoner after all, for all of his fearless brashness. He had blonde hair, but dusty-not refined or shiny in the least, and his nose was almost too big for his face. He had dimples when he smiled too, and the most boring brown eyes Roddrick had ever seen.
Roddrick narrowed his eyes at the crazy man.
The strange man pranced his way towards Roddrick, looking over he and his horse with cheerful criticism.
"Do I get to know why you were being chased." He asked, stopping just short of their horses butting heads. Roddrick's mare huffed, happy to finally get some time to rest. The stranger's horse didn't look weathered in the least. Like his rider, he seemed rather cheerful for the skirmish. "Or am I allowed to invent my own story, Prince Roddrick?"
Roddrick stiffened. "So you know who I am?"
The stranger snorted.
"There isn't a ninny in this entire Kingdom that doesn't know the face of their Prince. Which is why I'm quite amazed that you're out here without a single guard. You can't tell me you decided to go for a ride without them. Why, that make you rather stupid." When the Prince didn't respond, the strange man gave a loud snort, like a pig. "You are stupid! I never would have thought the Prince to lack a brain!"
If Roddrick didn't get away from this guy, he was liable to punch him.
In his large nose.
"You've helped me a great deal, and I'm very thankful." Said Prince Roddrick, keeping the dry less-than-humored expression he'd been taught to wear in public.
This is just a commoner. Don't let him get to you. He told himself.
But that cheeky smile made it hard.
"I will reward you, but I'd give you more if you could promise to keep seeing me here a secret."
The stranger whistled.
"Are we running from something Your Highness? What, you didn't like the food?"
"Show some respect. I am your ruler!"
"Neh." Said the strange man, as his horse began to trot around the Prince. "You are son to my ruler, and not yet enough in your boots to order ME around. Remember. I just saved YOU, dear Prince. And considering your state of...well everything...I could probably take you back to the palace and get triple what you were willing to offer me, just for returning you. I can't imagine you have a lot of gold hidden on that horse of yours."
"How dare you talk to me like this! I could have you hanged!"
"Oh please do!" The strange man said, smiling eagerly like a little boy about to get a piece of candy. "I really want to see how you'll accomplish that small measure, all the way out here and completely to your lonesome. Here, I'll even help you." He trotted over to a tree and pointed up at a branch there. "This one should be sturdy enough to hold my weight. I really hope you have good rope. Last bloke that tried to hang me tried it with basket grass. Hardly the right material if I do say so myself."
Roddrick didn't doubt that someone else had tried to hang him. He himself, wasn't sure how much of this he could take. He wasn't accustomed to mockery.
"Oh, I'll hang you alright!" He growled, reaching into his saddle bag for the thick twine rope he'd brought with him for the journey. "Just you watch."
He was so distracted trying to get at the rope that he didn't notice the stranger ride up to him. When he turned, he at first had a start-realizing that he was so close.
And then he noticed the hand presented for a handshake, and he couldn't help but quirk an eyebrow in confusion-completely forgetting to wear his emotionless mask.
"And what is that for?"
The stranger chuckled.
"They MUST have abused you at the castle. You don't know what a simple handshake is?" He shook his hand a moment, as if trying to show the Prince how the process worked.
The Prince narrowed his eyes at him. "And why would I want to shake YOURhand?"
"I just saved your life Prince. At least do me the honor of greeting you properly."
"That is hardly a proper greeting for someone of royalty."
"I'm just a poor farmin' lad. We never been taught how to greet Royalty the right way. This is how we greet each other. Come on, don't leave me hanging here."
Roddrick wasn't sure he wanted to shake his hand. He might find himself off his horse. It was obvious to him that the stranger was already keeping the horse the bandits had left. He didn't want him having the "Prince's" as well.
"I don't bite, your highness. Here, I'll help you." He quickly snatched up Roddrick's hand-quicker than the Prince could full away, and gave it one firm shake.
"There, now we've met. Don't go getting sore over all of my mockery, your Highness. You can't deny me a bit of fun considering the circumstance. It's not every day I get to meet the Prince of my Kingdom unrestrained by Guards and Knights and out in the Forbidden Forest to boot. Name's Arthur. Arthur of StoneBrook."
Prince Roddrick scowled. Screw emotionless expressions.
"Arthur? I don't know any Arthur of StoneBrook."
"Of course not." Said the man, leaning back on his saddle. "I'm no more than a farmer. My old man supplies the Kingdom with cabbage. And rather poor cabbage at that. But people will buy what you tell them they need. You wouldn't believe how people outside this Kingdom think Cabbage is a delicious commodity."
"It's not." Said Prince Roddrick, but this only served to elicit another snorting laugh from the stranger.
"You and I know that, but people outside the humdrum of Kingdom life aren't as knowledgeable. They think this stuff is served at the Royal Table."
The Prince grit his teeth. "You've tricked them! You have them fooled!"
"Neh." Said Arthur. "I haven't fooled a soul. All I said was that we supply cabbage to the Kingdom. They made up their own minds that the Royal Family buys it too."
Prince Roddrick once again felt like hanging this man.
"That's the same as tricking them."
Arthur snorted. "You can't help those that would fool themselves."
Roddrick tightened his grip on his horse's reins. "I will be the judge of that. Take me to this stand. I will see how these people have "fooled" themselves."
"I thought you were running from the castle? Now you suddenly want to play "Prince"?"
"I never said I was running from the castle."
Arthur's smile turned into a frown. "Really?"
"YES! Why do you keep saying that?!"
"Because I think the only person you're fooling here is yourself. Only a runaway would come all the way out to this forest by himself, with that much baggage on his horse. I bet you had every intention of leaving the Kingdom and "traveling the world", right?"
Roddrick had to refrain from growling. He'd hit the nail square on the head, but the way he said it made it sound like he was pursuing a childish ambition. Roddrick couldn't stand being patronized.
"I wasn't running away, necessarily." He said, facing away from Arthur. "I just wanted to cool my head. That's all."
"Cool your head from what? I mean, what could you possibly be running from anyway? It's not like you have to work for a living."
"Don't patronize me! You have no idea what a member of the Royal Family has to endure!"
"Well, you don't have to sell cabbage that nobody wants. That's a start." Said Arthur. Then he suddenly set his chin in his hand and supported himself on the front of his saddle. "But now you've got me curious. What was so bad that you, the Crown Prince, would run?"
"That's none of your concern." Roddrick growled. He turned his horse to leave, when Arthur suddenly hit the nail on the head again.
"Is it Marriage?"
"How much do you really know!? I mean really?!"
Arthur laughed and kicked his horse forward, so he could stand next to Roddrick.
"It doesn't take a genius. What, did the Princess not meet your liking?"
The Prince sighed. What had he done to deserve this?
Such meddlesome people…
"It's not like that."
"Then what is it like?"
"It's really none of your business-"
"Is she pretty?"
The Prince did a double take.
"Is she pretty?"
"Well, of course she is-"
"And her personality. Is it completely horrible. Like an evil witches-"
"No, no...She's quite pleasant-"
"Does she have any annoying ticks. A lazy eye, a chatter in her teeth?"
"What are you getting at!?"
"Nothing, I was just trying to see what the problem was. I think you have a wonderful opportunity before you. Not many men are blessed to marry a beauty. Which Princess are you betrothed to?"
"I'm not betrothed. Not yet."
"Okay, but which one? Come on, I want to know."
Roddrick felt like keeping that information from him. Just for the fun of seeing him squirm.
But even if he did, he had a funny idea Arthur would just somehow KNOW that too.
"The Princess of Asheton."
"The fair haired maiden?"
"You know of her?"
"Sir there are men here who would DIE for her! That collect her painted portrait! Why would you run from someone like that?"
"Its...Ugh, It's complicated."
"Why must you ask so many questions!? In fact, why am I still talking to you at all!?"
Arthur thought on this a moment. Roddrick wondered if he was actually trying to come up with an answer.
"Perhaps you actually like men…?"
"You will crush that train of thought or I will break your nose."
"What? Is that a touchie subject-"
"I am no...whatever it's called. I'm just not!"
"I feel like someone has told you this before-"
Arthur's surprise was almost comical. Were Roddrick not so annoyed, he would have been amazed at how quickly Arthur shifted expressions.
"It's not a bad thing to be Gay-"
"I really will hang you."
Arthur chuckled, and then laughed.
Roddrick waited, not quite sure why, but he waited.
Arthur seemed to really enjoy the predicament. Or perhaps he was just enjoying Roddrick's suffering.
"Okay, I'll tell you what. I like you and I think you're an interesting character, so I'll present you a deal you can't refuse. You ride off into the sunset and do whatever it is that meets your fancy-and I'll take you're place on the throne. How does that sound?"
Roddrick had to furrow his brows.
"You'll take my place?"
"And how do you propose you're going to do that. You don't look a thing like me."
"I'll just present myself as the ill-gotten son of your father. His illustrious night with a castle maid-"
"No one will believe you."
"Yes they will."
"No. They won't."
"Yes. They will. People love gossip. And while they're gossiping about your father's fake love affair, and their runaway crown Prince, I'll be putting out my charm on your fiance." He wiggled his shoulders as if this was the proper symbolism for what he intended to do. Raoul merely thought it looked like an itch he couldn't scratch.
The Prince snorted this time. "You don't have charm."
"Yes I do!"
"You lack it implicitly. Besides, Lilianna would have nothing to do with you."
Arthur's brows raised to his hairline. "So we are on first name terms with the Princess. Me thinks you're more prepared for a Royal Wedding with her than you let on!"
"Where's my rope." Roddrick declared, going back to his saddle bags. "I will hang you yet!"
Arthur laughed and trotted a circle in front of him. "Oh, don't take it so hard your Highness. I won't put any moves on YOUR Princess. I'm not one for the Royal, Noble types anyways." He grinned like a loon, openly enjoying the conversation. "Besides, you seem to be in love with her."
Roddrick felt his face grow hot. Was he blushing!
He decided to try to make it look like anger.
"Stop digging where you don't belong!"
"Wow, the Prince can blush too? So you're not from another world."
Roddrick felt like screaming. "What did I ever do to deserve this!? Why are you still even here. You know what, I don't care! I REALLY don't care. I'm leaving now. Good day, enjoy the REST of your life!"
Arthur laughed and trotted until he was blocking the road Roddrick was going to take.
"Oh, don't go getting butt hurt Rick. Loving a girl is a rather respectable thing. There's not a lot of men that can do it, so be proud."
"Don't call me Rick. I hate that name. And get out of my way. Don't make me kill you."
Arthur stopped laughing, but wore a funny smile on his face.
"So, why ARE you scared of marrying anyway? Do I get to know that at least."
Roddrick thought about trying to dodge the man again-find another way around him to get to the path, but for a moment he second-guessed himself.
He wasn't sure what it was-this man was strange. He was the first person Roddrick had met in a while, that had elicited so much anger out of him. And Roddrick had thought he was very good at pretending to be calm and satisfied.
"If you really must know." He said, deciding that honesty would probably help him best. "I'm running because I'd like to make a decision for myself, for a change. I'm tired of everyone making them for me."
Arthur looked pleased with this information.
"So that's it. You just wanted a chance to decide for yourself."
"Yes. Everyone else gets to. Why not me?"
"Then let me impart some wisdom on you, if I may."
"Oh yes, please. As if you haven't done THAT enough already." Roddrick growled.
But Arthur wasn't smiling. In fact, he looked very serious. Serious enough, that Roddrick was starting to get concerned. What was Arthur's goal here anyway?
"Choices are not a given, your Highness." He said, looking out into the trees. "They are earned."
The Prince was silent. This strange man-this utterly crazy strange man-he seemed to know pain more so than anyone Roddrick had ever met. He couldn't put his finger on it, but he had an idea that this cabbage farmer had been through more than he was letting on.
Just what sort of life had this man lead until now? After all, most NORMAL people didn't challenge bandits head on like he had.
Prince Roddrick was brought out of his thoughts when he heard the pounding of hooves in the distance. At first he thought the Bandits had returned, but then he saw the glint of the sun off of silver and knew instantly that it was his Retrieval Party. A troupe of six of the Kingdom's Knights rode up to them, and Prince Roddrick knew there was no fleeing now.
"You all sure took your sweet time." Said Arthur, riding up to them suddenly. All seriousness he had worn had instantly been replaced with a sort of smug grin. "You're late you know. Bandits almost had him."
The head Knight, an older man named Steele, openly glared at Arthur-but there was a fondness there that Roddrick noticed in the man's eyes. Steele didn't smile, but that didn't mean he didn't experience humor.
"If any of my Knights rode as fast as you on a horse, we wouldn't need messenger birds." He said. "However did you get here so fast?"
"If you and your men lost at least half the armor you always wear," He said, knocking on the arm peice of Steele's armor with his knuckles, "you'd be much faster. And your horse would thank you for it."
"True enough." Said Steele. He reached into a satchel on the horse's rump and produced a small bag. "Your reward, for the Prince's safe return."
"Safe return?" Prince Roddrick asked questioningly. "Do you mean to tell me you were hired to come and get me?"
"Something like that."
"But I thought you were a cabbage farmer?"
"I am." Said Arthur. "But cabbage is only grown in the winter. A farmer has to find other ways to make ends meat."
"Arthur is a Messenger for your father, your Highness." Said Steele with a frown. "One of the fastest men on horseback in the entire Kingdom."
"And perhaps the most clever." Said Arthur with a grin. "Though I wear it humbly."
"So this entire conversation...this prattle on about cabbage and...and...marriage...You were merely keeping me here? So that I could be captured?"
"Partly." Said Arthur. "And Partly because I was quite curious to know about the Prince that would go riding out into the Forbidden Forest alone to avoid a Princess. The highest Skill of a Merchant, is to learn about the people he sells to. You never know your Highness. There may be a day when I have something to sell, and you would be the only buyer."
"A day like that will never come." Said Prince Roddrick with a growl. "I would never buy from such a twisted merchant."
"Says the you now. But the you in the future may have different plans. If you all have no more use for me, I will be off. This Cabbage Farmer has some work to do before tomorrow and he needs his rest. Good day Tin-Men."
The Knights waved to him fondly as he collected the bandit's horse and rode out. Prince Roddrick silently wondered what he was going to do with that horse-but had an idea he'd probably just sell it. He'd sold the Prince quickly enough, hadn't he?
Steele rode up to the Prince's side and took the reins from his hands. "Shall we start heading back your Highness. The Queen is beside herself with worry."
"It's not like I have a choice in the matter. You're here, aren't you."
The group started up into a slow ganter. Prince Roddrick folded his arms and let himself be lead. His attempt to flee had been successfully thwarted, but he was already running the idea of attempting a different method of freedom through his mind. There was more than one route out of the Kingdom. He just had to decide on one that wasn't so dangerous.
"You know," Steele began, glancing at Roddrick through the side of his metal helmet. "We don't usually hire on farmers to do such important work as taking the King's messages to other Kingdoms. We wouldn't usually hire one to fetch a Prince either. Used to be you had a be a Knight or someone within the Court to do that. Hell, until a year or so ago it was the King's own adviser that did the message taking."
Price Roddrick's curiosity was piqued for a moment.
"So then, why did my father entrust such a high task to an average cabbage farmer."
Steele had a twinkle in his eye when he looked at Roddrick, much like Arthur had.
"Some men, your Highness, can turn trash into gold. Arthur is more than he seems. For a merchant."
Now Roddrick just felt disgruntled. What, was it "everyone patronize Roddrick" day.
It disgruntled him to have all of these people imparting such unwelcome wisdom to him, yet at the same time he couldn't deny the truth in their words.
A farmer indeed.
He got the funny idea he'd be seeing Arthur again.