(Also, for those of you who haven't read the previous books, the spoilers in this first chapter are minimal, so feel free to read ahead and enjoy.)
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1 – Wherein a Routine Mission Doesn’t Go as Planned
Once upon a time, in a land called Bookania, there lived a young boy who was the son of Robin Hood himself. As a result, he lived in the heart of Skewwood with the band of Merry Men.
The young boy was quite proud of this fact, especially since, unlike his younger brother and sisters, who were all babies – or practically babies at any rate – he had his own pony, bow, and small sword. Most importantly, he got to go with his father on important missions.
And so he was doing at the start of my story. Scouts had reported strange men prowling through the woods, and Robin Hood had taken the boy and a few of the men to investigate. However, after three days’ travel with no sight of the strange men, things were starting to get a bit dull. Did they even exist?
“There’s something up ahead,” Prince Eric suddenly announced.
The young boy wasn’t actually sure if Prince Eric was officially one of his father’s men. He knew that the man’s wife was – or was at least pretty sure that she was, but he wasn’t so sure about Eric. Nevertheless, his father did trust the man with the top-secret location of the camp and on incredibly important missions like this one.
“What is it?” Robin Hood asked.
“I’m not sure,” Prince Eric admitted, tilting his head to the side even as his hand went to his sword’s hilt. “It might be nothing, but—”
He was cut off by a scream, and the moment after that, a giant dog burst out of the woods, dragging woman by the arm.
Prince Eric drew his sword and spurred his horse to follow after the dog, which turned and darted back into the woods.
The rest of the men rushed after him. The young boy was last of all, hesitating after a stern glance from his father. He caught up with the men just in time to see a net fall over Prince Eric and scary-looking men pour out of the woods and attack the rest of the men.
The boy drew his own sword but held back from rushing into the fray. His was but a very small blade, and it didn’t look like his father’s men were faring very well. What good could he do? He’d probably just get himself killed, and his mother would be very cross with him if that happened. She hadn’t wanted him to go with the men, yet, after all.
And then was all over. Before the boy had a chance to pull together his courage and decide what to do, the scary men had disarmed and subdued all of his father’s men – had them all tied up with rope and everything!
“You there, boy, are you with these men? Or did you just happen by and think that a skirmish is something nice to gawk at?”
The boy’s eyes widened as one of the scary men noticed him. He opened his mouth but found he couldn’t speak.
“Come now,” said the man. “We’ve no reason to harm a mere boy such as yourself, even if you might be tangled up with these desperate ruffians. Indeed, if you’d like, we can take you back with us. I’m sure that Prince John would be happy to provide opportunities for your betterment.”
Prince John? This was growing worse by the moment.
The boy leaned back. “I – I need to get back to my mother.”
The man gave a single, barking laugh. “Do you now? Aye, that would be a fine idea. Yes, stay home with your mother and don’t get tangled up with criminals bent on defying the crown.”
The boy sat up straight. “Prince John isn’t king yet. King Richard will return one day, just you wait and see.”
The man laughed. “But who knows if Richard is even still alive? Prince John will be crowned king quick enough. And, for that insolence…” He strode towards the boy, pulled him from his pony’s back, and threw him roughly to the ground. “This is too fine a beast to belong to a peasant who refuses to give respect to his betters. Now, run home to your mother and perhaps she’ll teach you some manners.”
The boy swallowed hard, hastily picked himself up off the ground, and ran. He cast one glance over his shoulder at his father to see him give a small, yet reassuring smile. Then he gave a glance to his pony only to see that the man had thrown the “girl” across its back.
She’d been a mere doll. All this trouble for a doll.
He had to return to camp and let his mother know of the attack. She’d know what to do. She’d be able to fix this.
But he was three days from camp, and that was on horseback. It’d take forever on foot – if he even made it back at all. Skewwood was dangerous, and he was alone with only a bow and a small sword to defend himself. He didn’t even have any food on him. Would he starve?
Night was descending. The boy could hear the howling of wolves. He didn’t want to be alone out here.
“I wish … I wish that there was a way for me to get home quicker,” he said aloud, stopping to lean against a tree. “I wish I had someone with me.”
He stood there a moment more, closing his eyes and trying hard not to cry. He was a big boy, and he had the very important task of making sure that his mother knew what had happened. His father and all the men were counting on him.
“William Hood, I have need of a brave knight to guard me in these woods.”
The boy started at his name, and he turned to see a woman riding a horse. She was very, very white, and the horse was very, very black.
“You … know my name?” he asked, drawing back in alarm. “Who are you?”
“A maiden in need of a brave knight,” she answered, “and in possession of a horse that is sure and swift. You, young William, are a valiant young man in possession of a message that must be delivered with all haste. I think that we can help each other, won’t you agree?”
William shifted from one foot to the other. Her offer of a horse was tempting, very tempting, but his father had a very strict policy against strangers in the camp, unless they were blindfolded and well-guarded … and this woman was very strange indeed, white as she was and especially since she had as yet to actually look at William.
“I already know the location of your Father’s camp,” the woman continued, running her hand through the horse’s mane. “Three hundred years ago, it was where—” She broke off with a shake of her head. “I know everything that happens in this forest. I hear every wish.”
“Are – are you a fairy?” William asked. He didn’t know much about fairies, except that Prince Eric said that they could generally be trusted and that sometimes his wife would rant about them being meddlesome.
The woman shook her head again. “I am not a fairy, no, not in the slightest. Still, I can help you, and you can help me.”
William narrowed his eyes. Prince Eric had also warned him that if magical people wanted to barter their services, he should immediately run the other direction because they never meant well. “What do you want of me?” he asked.
“As I said, I need you to be my brave knight in these woods, and that is all,” she answered. “Once I deliver you to your mother, you need never concern yourself about me again.”
William considered, and he finally nodded. After all, he didn’t want to be alone in these woods and a horse would speed his message greately. “You won’t tell anyone where my father’s camp is, will you?”
“I have no motive to betray you and every reason to keep your confidence,” she answered. She gave a small smile. “Well, shall we be off, young William?”
He nodded, and in a blink, she had lifted him onto her horse’s back, taken her seat behind him, and prompted the steed into motion.
William meant to stay awake, but it had been a long day, and his eyelids were heavy. He closed them, for a mere moment, he thought, but when he opened them again, they stood still, and light shone through the trees above him.
“We have arrived,” the woman announced. “Just beyond these trees, you’ll find your cousin Scarlett, whom your mother set to keep watch.”
“But…” William was still trying to blink away sleep. “We were three days from camp. How can we be here already?”
“My horse is swift, as I told you,” said the woman, giving a quiet laugh. “Come now, William. Your mother needs the message you carry. I have bought you precious time. Don’t waste it.”
With her help, William slid down from the horse’s back, still wobbly with sleep. He frowned up at the white woman. “You never did tell me your name.”
Her lip curled in a sad smile, even as she stared straight ahead. “No, I did not.”
“What is it?” he asked. “I think my mother would like to know.”
But the woman just shook her head. “My name has not been spoken in three centuries. Your mother need only know that I bear no ill intention and that I saw you safely home. She also needs to know what happened yesterday.”
William knew this, and yet he still couldn’t bear to let her leave. “Does your horse have a name?”
She gave another quiet laugh. “He is my Shadow.”
William nodded. “That’s a good name. He looks like a shadow.”
There was her smile. “Farewell, young William, and may you never need my aid again.”
And, with a blur, she and her horse were gone. The moment after that, William realized that he couldn’t remember what she’d looked like, beyond how she was so very, very white, and her horse so very, very black.
He sighed and turned to the trees.
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