(Continued from Part IV)

“All these people do is eat and drink and play,” Brita said to the King as they watched the joust below. A month of touring and tournaments was beginning to wear on her patience, and she promised herself she would never wear a dress again. The king laughed deeply, his eyes twinkling like the wine in his oversized chalice.

“There’s more to being a princess than this, my dear, and even more to being a queen. But you won’t get to see all of it, I’m afraid.”

“I’ve seen enough of it for now,” she responded, holding the hem of her dress as she stood. “I’m going out for some air.”

She passed through the crowds, knowing the prince was not here but unconsciously seeking him anyway among the laughing faces and the prancing horses. Her steps danced lightly over the dirt, moving through the assembly as though they were perfumed trees. She longed for the smell of campfires and wet leaves, the cold dew and the chatter of squirrels.

Her feet led her automatically to the archery range. A dozen nobles and their retainers loitered about, taking turns attacking their straw prey and boasting to one another of exploits only they had been present to witness. Even their stories did not change from fair to fair, Brita thought, unless it was to grow in the telling.

From behind her, Brita was startled to hear a familiar voice. “Well, if it isn’t the Royal Huntress,” it laughed.

Brita looked up into the face of the captain who had tricked the Huntresses and set up her capture. Scorn burned in his eyes.

“Is Her Royal Huntress here for the competition?” Like everyone else who had led her, hands tied, from the forest to the castle, he apparently thought that a naughty Elda had sneaked out of her royal quarters for a little caper with the outlaws and was now back in her father’s good graces.

“I’m afraid Royal Huntresses are not allowed to compete,” she said coldly. Her princess training had been primarily concerned with learning to wave and to blush when her hand was kissed, and she was not sure of the protocol in situations such as this. But this man was obviously goading her.

“Besides,” she continued, returning the challenge, “we would not wish to embarrass you.”

“Is that so?” he said, pushing a boy’s training bow and quiver at her. His bearded lip shivered. “Stand back, all! Make room! Her Royal Huntress is going to embarrass all the archers here today!”

A crowd gathered around at the sound of his deep voice and laughter arose at the sight of Brita, her long train dragging in the dirt and the quiver slung over her shoulder. She held the short bow loosely at her side. Brita concluded that the nobleman had chosen to such a small weapon to humiliate her. But while the popular longbows of the kingdom required more strength than she could muster, this bow felt warm and familiar in her grasp. She smiled inwardly while trying to look appropriately solemn.

“Now, observe, all!” the captain said, drawing his hand back to his ear. His yew creaked, the air whistled, and an arrow stuck in the straw target a hundred paces away. He smirked as he bowed, directing the crowd’s attention to Brita with an exaggerated wave of his hand. She looked up at the curious faces and shrugged.

The crowd gasped. One hundred paces away, four arrows stood out from the bull’s eye: the arrow of the man with a smirk frozen on his face was surrounded by three humming projectiles. Brita handed him the quiver and bow and turned quickly away. He was on her heels immediately.

“Well, Huntress, I’ve a better surprise for you,” he growled. “It’s one you’ll certainly enjoy less than archery. Your future, should you be so foolish as to dabble in outlawry again, awaits you in front of that crowd.”

He pointed toward a gathering of people around a raised wooden platform and skulked off. She picked her way into the crowd, careful to avoid stepping on the curled boots of the men or the dresses of their ladies. Her eyes widened at what she saw when she reached the front.

Jenna stood atop the platform with a rope around her neck. Her green cloak was covered with mud and her hands were tied behind her back. A nobleman was reading a list of charges, and the crowd cheered at each one. Brita looked around at them, sickened.

Her glance returned to Jenna. There was no fear on her face, only a look of resignation. Brita stood frozen as a hooded man nodded and pulled a lever. Jenna’s body jerked and twitched while the crowd cheered. Brita ignored the satisfied looks on their faces: she saw only Jenna’s web of white scars darkening.

(Continued in Part VI)