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          “My Lady,” Colette beckoned, focusing on the middle distance ahead of her. “A rider.”

​          Indeed, her guards had spurred their mounts forward to rein in on either side of Colette and Bella, having spotted the rider themselves.

​          Bella squinted into the distance, shading her eyes against the early fall sun, which was just beginning its western descent. She frowned at the distinct image of a lone rider just coming into view ahead. While not exactly closed off from the surrounding countryside, this wood was privately owned by the Crown; the few who did ride through kept to the narrow road that ran just out of sight to the north.

​          “Shall we ride ahead, my Lady?” The man to her right, a tenured knight named Ashton, inquired.

          Bella shook her head. “No. He is one; we are four. I see no reason to intimidate him.”

​          Ashton nodded acceptance.


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Dismount; walk the horses.”

          All three did as told alongside Bella. She kept her eyes on the man in a futile attempt to see beyond the hood; the cloak the man wore was made for such a purpose, and he kept his head down to boot.

​​          When they reached about thirty paces, the man slowly held both hands out at waist level, ungloved and open, palms facing them.

​          It was a military gesture, made in the absence of a white flag, meant to convey one very important thing: I am unarmed and intend no harm.

​          Bella sensed Sir Ashton and his partner Darrick relax some, though they remained alert.

          As if to emphasize his point, the man slowly reached to unbuckle his sword belt with one hand, letting it drop to the ground, weapon and all. It was a heavy one. No, he was no villager; clearly, he was no common man at all.

          At eight or ten paces, they stopped.

          “This is a large wood and one tree looks much the same as the last; he’s probably a villager or a countryman who simply lost his way,” Colette mused. Bella agreed.

​          Nonetheless, they all fell silent then, watching the mounted man—yes, she could tell it was a man now—as he slowly closed the gap with them.

​          Just as he came close enough for Bella to begin making out his features—he was young, with dark hair; she could tell that much, at least—he reined his mount to a dead stop and dismounted, hooding himself. Bella’s focus sharpened, and in her peripheral, she saw the guards’ hands go to their their sword pommels. Why would a lost villager hood himself that way?

          His dark clothing, at this distance, looked of fine make, though maybe a bit worse for wear. That’s no villager.

​          “My Lady?” Ashton murmured.

Bella considered a moment, scanning the tree-lined horizon. “He is still only one.

open book

"I am not an apparition, nor an imposter.”

          Bella let out a strangled sob. “Put your weapons away,” she ordered in a hoarse tone, barely more than a whisper. “That is your prince.

          “What is your name?” Bella inquired in a clear voice. As she did so, Ashton suddenly tensed once more, hand dropping unconsciously to sword pommel.

​          “The weapon,” he muttered under his breath.

​          Bella glanced at it, then back at the hooded man. “Sir,” she began more cautiously, “please lower your hood.”

​          The man hesitated only another moment, before giving off a distinct air of resignation. He did as asked.

​          Ashton and Darrick had their blades drawn practically before she could blink, both uttering curses. “An apparition,” Darrick marveled, just as Ashton growled, “Imposter!”

​          Inexplicably, Colette burst into tears beside her.

​          Bella’s breath left her, and she began to tremble so violently it was a wonder her muscles didn’t seize up and send her to the dirt.

​          “No,” the man declared quietly.

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