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Once Upon a Time

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Prologue:

Once upon a time, in days remembered only in fairy tales and nursery rhymes, there existed a land known as Lévèrage. It was a fair and happy land, blessed by sturdy, hard-working folk, fertile fields and the benefits of peace. The land was watched over by two lords, who divided it among them, and each took responsibility for half. One, Lord Nathan, was a wise and compassionate man, deep of thought and noble of character, who ruled with both strength and fairness. The other, Lord James … was not.

In the fair land of Lévèrage, when the times were good, noble lords watched over their people with care and concern, made fair laws and upheld justice, and strove diligently for peace and prosperity among their folk. Bold, brave knights served their lords with loyalty and courage, wielding their swords in the service of right, protecting the weak and defending the oppressed. Fair maidens danced in green and flower-laden meadows without care, beautiful ladies presided over courts with warmth and grace, and young men of nimble minds and skilled hands could come to fame and fortune by virtue of their gifts.

But even in the fair land of Lévèrage, times were not always good.

Sometimes they were dark and difficult.

And once upon a time, they really, really sucked.

Chapter One

The boy leaned back on his arms in the tall grass and lifted his face to the sky, delighting in the warmth of the sun on his skin and smiling at the tug of the light breeze at his hair. He’d taken off his boots and now dug his bare toes into the earth, closing his eyes and simply relaxing into the moment.

He’d escaped again.

He knew his father would be angry, but, just now, he didn’t care. He hated being shut up inside with the tutor when the day was so fair, couldn’t understand why he had to waste his time staring at books and ledgers when there was an entire world out there to see. He already knew his figures well enough, could read better than most of the men around him, knew by heart the Latin required for Mass. And as a landowner’s son, he’d absorbed almost from birth the lessons of weather, water, soil and husbandry.

But none of it mattered to him.

What he truly wanted lay far beyond his father’s holdings. From his earliest days, he’d been fascinated by the soldiers he saw returning from the wars, from places he’d only read of in his tutor’s books; scarred and bearded and fierce, telling tales of exotic lands, glittering cities and the glory only to be found in battle. He stared in awe at their swords, ached to hold and know the secrets of such weapons, longed for the time when he might escape his father’s simple fields and make his name and fortune in the world that lay beyond. He wanted to live those stories for himself, to seek whatever glory waited for him.

Not that his father would ever allow it.

He sighed heavily and frowned, his pleasure in the day fading. His father was vehemently opposed to such a thing, insisting that the stories were lies and refusing even to consider the possibility of allowing his son to become a soldier. Of late, this had become a source of almost constant tension between them. Whenever his father caught him practicing with his sword, the man grew angry and accused him of foolishness. And he railed against the unfairness of it. His father had been a soldier, had seen other lands and tasted the glory of war, but was determined to deny his own son that adventure.

But he was determined, too.

He glanced down at the sword lying at his side. Old Fitz in the village said he was already almost the equal of any grown man. Fitz had been a soldier himself, told stirring tales of the battles he’d seen, and had been giving him lessons with sword, lance and shield, as well as instruction in the dirtier art of close knife-fighting.

Fitz had said he was a natural.

His smile returned at that. He’d never be the scholar his tutor seemed to want, and never be the farmer his father desired. Soldiering was his destiny. And just as soon as he was old enough, he’d leave these dull fields behind and seek out that destiny. Maybe like so many others before him he’d find it in the holy wars in the east.

That land of golden desert, shining cities, and dark-eyed women.

He sat up, his grin returning as a thrill of excitement shot through him. Instinctively, he reached for his sword, lifted it to the sky and began to sing.

For God and King we now take up the sword,
In the company of the just we march.
Let our souls fly aloft as we raise our banners,
May strength be in our hearts and arms
As we lay our lives on the altar of sacrifice–

He caught a flash of movement, of color, from the corner of his eye and tensed slightly. Still singing the song he’d learned from Fitz, he turned his head slowly, until he saw what he’d expected.

Her. Standing as she always did, just between the forest and the meadow, perfectly still save for the soft movement of her bright golden hair in the breeze. She held a small bouquet of flowers in her hands, and was staring at him through wide, unblinking eyes.

He continued singing, repeating verses when he ran out of ones he knew, turning slowly and carefully all the while until he was fully facing her. She didn’t flee, but neither did she come any closer; she never did. She seemed to be listening to him, though, and he knew the moment he stopped singing she’d turn and scamper back into the forest.

She always did.

He had no idea who she was or where she lived. He’d never seen her anywhere but here, between the forest and the meadow, like some mythic sprite. Sometimes he saw her with flowers, as now; other times, she would chase the butterflies that fluttered in such abundance here. But always, always she was silent, and would stop and stare when he began to sing or tell her stories.

Sometimes he wondered if she were real at all.

If so, she looked to be a few years younger than he, was slender and beautiful as only a wild creature could be. Her golden hair was long and tousled, half in a loose braid, half out, and he longed to touch it to know if it were as soft as it looked. She wore a gown that seemed to be made almost entirely of patches and that was as colorful as the flowers around her. He could see a smudge of dirt on one cheek, and supposed that came from running through the forest.

He wished she’d speak, wondered what she’d do if he stood up and started toward her, but was almost certain she’d turn and run. She didn’t seem frightened of him – or not any more – but neither did she seem inclined to let him get close. She just seemed to be … curious.

He’d first seen her about a year ago, when he’d caught her watching him practicing with his sword. He’d called out to her, and she had run away. Since then he’d said nothing to her directly, had merely continued practicing or started singing or telling stories to the world at large. The longer he sang or spoke, the longer she stayed.

And every now and then he thought he saw her smile.

He finally ran out of verses and let the song die. Before he could think of another, she was gone, turning on her heel and running away as fast as a deer. He started to go after her, then stopped. Something told him he’d never find her anyway.

With a sigh, he laid his sword back on the ground and reached for his boots, tugging them on. As always, her departure seemed to take some of the brightness from the day and left him with no reason to stay. And he did have chores to do back home.

He rose to his feet, slipped his sword into the sheath at his waist and started across the meadow. Between one step and the next, though, he stopped and turned, looking back to where she once had stood and seeing only a cloud of butterflies.

Young Eliot Spencer turned back and strode resolutely toward home, feeling the weight of the sword at his hip and dreaming of the glory he’d find one day with it.

She watched him go from her perch in the tree, humming the song he’d sung. She kept all his songs and stories, repeating them to herself until they were pressed securely in the pages of her memory. Little pieces of him she stole, like all the other bright trinkets she took when they caught her eye. Sometimes she showed Archie the newest additions to her “collection.” But these pieces she hid away for herself alone, keeping him for herself alone.

Eliot.

She knew his name, knew he lived in the white-washed house over the next hill, knew which room in that house was his and which window led into that room (it conveniently had a large tree growing close enough for him to sneak out … or her to sneak in). She knew that his family, while not wealthy, owned this land, knew he had both his parents and a sister and that he and his father argued. A lot.

And she knew he was going away.

She could hear it in the stories he told and songs he sang, his words of far-off places and distant adventures, never words that spoke of home and here. And she could see it in the way his eyes – as blue as the sky itself – traveled constantly to the horizon, overlooking what was right before him to see what lay beyond. He wore and practiced with a soldier’s sword – she’d stolen one just like it to try and understand its power over him – and talked to soldiers in the town, collecting their stories and songs and pressing them into his memory.

He was like her butterflies – pretty, a splash of color against an otherwise drab world … and destined to fly away. She didn’t collect her butterflies, knew keeping them would kill them, and so had to content herself with merely watching them and letting them color her world for the little while they were here.

It was the same with Eliot.

So she collected his stories and his songs and pressed them into her memory, using his words to build for herself the worlds he longed to see. And, now and then, whether by sneaking into his room when no one was around or by waiting when he was so intent upon his sword practice here that he didn’t see her, she managed to steal a trinket or two from him, just so she might have something real to hold–

And to remember him by when he flew away.