This boy runs fast.
As I sprinted through the leaves, I couldn’t decide if this mysterious figure was a man or a boy. He had wide shoulders, but he wasn’t bulky. He was tall and fit. It was almost as if he were perfect.
I learned a long time ago that everything had a flaw. Perfect doesn’t exist. Perfection only exists in fairy tales and daydreams.
I jumped over the log, crinkling a few leaves. Other leaves slapped my face as I chased the boy.
“Hey!” I tried again.
I was getting tired. A thin layer of sweat stuck to my back, making my shirt uncomfortable. I shifted my shoulders and I already knew I couldn’t keep this up for much longer.
I stopped and catched my breath, watching the boy bolt away like a spooked animal. I put my dagger into my mouth horizontally, so it didn’t cut me unless I did something stupid. Jumping up, I swung myself onto a low branch of an oak tree. I crouched down and took the dagger out of my mouth. I stuffed it into my boot as my breathing slowed down some more.
I strained my ears as I climbed a few more branched higher. As a child, trees has been a welcoming pair of arms. Arms-or rather branches-that I clambered on.
I found a slim but strong branch. I slipped down, gripping the branch with both of my hands, then I swung back and forth. As soon as I gained enough momentum, I hopped to the next tree.
That small jump and momentum was all I needed. I kept going forwards, higher. Soon enough, I reached the one of the highest branch of this tree.
I couldn’t reach the very top, of course. The branches are too young, too small to support my weight.
I swiveled my head to the crack of a branch. It was to my left. I heard a loud hush, then silence.
Got you, I thought as I headed towards the noise. Mystery boy must have some clumsy friends.
I slipped off my boots once again and quickly attached them to my thin leather belt. I fashioned two small holes in right above the heel of the shoes, where I can slip a string through and fasten it to my belt.
I tugged it a bit, double-checking that it wouldn’t fall off. One again, I was barefoot. It was easier this way. I wish I could be barefoot all the time. Then my balance and speed would increase. It would be so much easier to move around.
Focus, I chimed to myself. I took a few steps back, then I was off again.
Duck. Sprint. Dodge. Jump. Branches were in my way, but I couldn’t care less. I need to find out about this boy. I never saw him in the village. Then I would have noticed.
Another snap of twigs to my right. This time, it was much closer. I slowed down my pace, biting my lip.
I inhaled sharply when I heard some more noise right below me. I stopped and crouched, peering down.
There he was. The mysterious shadow of a boy. He was leaning against the tree I was on. I saw the same big bow he had on his back, the same black cloak he had. There was another boy with him.
He was tall too, with magnificent yet messy midnight hair. I couldn’t see his face, only the top of his head. They were talking in heated, hushed tones.
“He saw you!” growled the boy with the black hair.
“He was too slow. He didn’t catch me.” the mysterious boy said with the same menace in his tone. I noticed his voice was as melodic as it was velvety.
Focus, I reminded myself more forcefully this time.
“He didn’t catch you but he saw you!” Black-hair dude whisper-shouted.
Mystery boy pushed himself off the tree, his hands by his side, clenched. “The boy had skill, Jacob. He could have come with us.”
Oh, this again. Me, being the boy. Can’t people ever think that girls can put a pair of pants on?
“No!” The black-haired Jacob snarled.
"Why not? Jealous?" Mystery boy sneered.
Jacob bit down a curse. "We’ve got enough people to take care of, Haze."
Haze, huh? Interesting. What a rare name.
"Who appointed you leader now? Who died and made you king of anything?" Haze snapped.
Jacob gritted his teeth. His clenched hands unraveled, then tightened once again. They were clenched so hard I could see the white knuckles from here. This argument would escalate quickly.
"Nobody died, Haze, dammit. I don’t want to be the stupid leader. I want to protect them. Will and Leo are still young, and you know that."
Haze crossed his arms, revealing his strong-built frame. "I do know that. Now put your massive ego aside and let’s go."
Haze started walking northwest, but with a shove from Jacob, he stopped him.
"No, Haze. I won’t let go this time. He saw us. That boy-"
"He is the only one who saw me in two years! The last time it was that girl that saw not only me but you! Stop losing your shit and let’s go."
"The last time? Hell yeah it was a girl. And you clearly know what happened."
I could feel the fury radiating off of Haze. It was rolling off in waves, pulsing. Jacob sensed it too, and took a step back.
"Whatever." he mumbled. "Let’s go."
Haze started walking side by side with Jacob, still encased in silenced rage.
The two boys started walking northwest, where Haze first intended to go. They stopped abruptly, mouth hanging open, staring at me.
I was casually standing in their way, playing with a dagger. My hip was cocked as my cloak fell around me, the sewn shut hem barely touching the ground. I smirked under my hood at their priceless expressions.
My smirk gave away into a grin. "Not even a hello?" I mused.
Jacob drew out a long knife faster that I could blink. I took a small involuntary step back, eyeing the sharp blade. I made a mental note that the blade was about the length of my forearm, from my fingertips to my elbow.
Which also means he could skewer me by just lifting his arm. Hip hip hooray for some Princess kabob!
This first step to be calm under pressure is to act like it, Bjorn once said.
I tilted my head, throwing my dagger up and down. My gaze flickered in between Jacob’s sharp features and Haze’s mysterious ones. I still couldn’t see his face under his cloak, and the boys couldn’t see mine.
"Slow down." Haze said in the same velvety voice as before. He stepped forward, putting himself in between Jacob and I.
"Who are you, boy?" He asked. "Name’s Alyx." I lied.
When I was a child, I played with the small children in Edwinstowe. They didn’t know my name, and I wouldn’t tell them. As soon as I uttered the two syllables Dah-ra, they would know I was the princess. Then they would run away and avoid me.
So instead, they called my Lynx. I was quick and agile as a child. When we played games of tag, I would always be merciless and fast. The children called me after the feline, not only because of the similar characteristics, but also because of my eyes.
Lynx was no proper name for a small girl. Lynx quickly changed to Alyx. For many years, I was Alyx to Edwinstowe. That nickname quickly melted away, as all my childhood friends realized that I had to climb my majestic castle steps to go to bed while they had to duck under their modest cottage.
"Alyx." repeated Haze, nodding.
Jacob put back his knife, sighing. "Listen, lad, sorry for overreacting. We need to keep this hushed, alright?"
I raised an eyebrow, still messing around with my knife. I waited for them to go on.
"Walk with us or walk home." Jacob proposed, his tone much lighter.
"My daddy told me to not go with strangers." I joked, putting my dagger away.
As if Dad would care. He’d like to see me dead. He would be happy if I skipped away with some random person, off to some different continent.
"What do you guys do? Steal candy?" I asked, smiling again.
Jacob scoffed, but I could hear humor in his voice. "Trying to shame us, Alyx? We steal, not candy, but money."
"To buy candy." I added.
"All jokes aside, Alyx, we are trying to help Scarlog and Hailsinger. They are two villages south from here. They both are terribly poor and can’t pay for the tax the King puts on them." Haze said.
"Dad-" I suddenly coughed, covering up perfectly that cursed word.
"The King is doing what?" I tried again, my voice a bit wavery.
Jacob knitted his eyebrows together. "You must be from Edwinstowe. Now, that village is rich. It’s the only town that actually pay up the ridiculous amounts of money the King is demanding for."
I didn’t know Dad was such a turd. He was imposing huge taxes now?
A mix of anger and duty swirled in my chest. These people are my people. I can’t just let them get pushed around by my stupid father.
"How much do we need to cough up?"
"Well…" Haze tucked his hood over his face a bit more, concealing anything I was trying to make out of him in vain. "We need to gather around about what the King has is stock."
My mouth hung open. I’ve seen what riches my father possessed. It was in a huge safe, about the size of a small house. The money in there is way too much to count.
"Get jobs then. You’ll never gather that much money."
"We are outlaws, Alyx." Jacob said as if it were obvious. "We can’t just stroll around town and request to polish the princess’s shoes."
I stiffened as he mentioned me. I let out an awkward chuckle. "Yeah…she’s…"
"A hell of a lady. Barely one, really." Haze laughed. Jacob smiled to that.
"Anyway, yes or no? I saw what you can do, Alyx. What about your parents?"
"Mom died. Stupid, ignorant father. I want to run away." I practically blurted.
"Fair enough." Jacob took a deep breath.
They are both waiting for my final say.
This is the moment I have been waiting for. I have daydreamed of moving away from my father. This is the perfect opportunity.
I hesitated. Why am I, though? This is a dream come true. I bit back a yes. I need to see my room and things one last time before I leave for good.
"I’ll think about it."
"You better, boy." Haze said. "I’ll be by the archery range tomorrow at midnight. If you say no, we bid goodbye. If you say yes, we get to play heroes together."
"Do you guys usually propose these deals to random girls-" Another cough. "Boys?"
"Nope. Just Haze here is stalking you." Jacob said with a snicker.
Haze exhaled loudly, slightly embarrassed. "I watched you for a pretty long time now. You’re good with daggers. We need people like you."
"Not a word of this to anybody," Jacob said, seriousness in his blue eyes.
"Fair," I replied in a neutral tone. I started walking away, my cloak swinging behind me.
"Oh!" Haze called. I stopped but didn’t turn around. "We didn’t tell you but my name is-" he started.
"Haze and your buddy there is Jacob." I finished. I started walking away once gain from the slightly stunned silence.
"He’s gonna be the best of us all." I heard Jacob whisper as I disappeared into the thick foliage.