She always preferred her own company to that of other people. They had a way of intruding on her peace of mind even when they were not speaking directly to her. However, a paying job was a paying job and the captain of the Hudruth escort party had caught her when her purse was feeling particularly light.
“I've heard tales of your exploits. You were the one that killed the White Wolf single-handed, and you brought in the Sindonese Slasher – alive.”
“It'll cost you two thousand gold,” she had said, keeping her attention on her food.
“I have a... personage... What? I haven't even told you what the job is!”
Her face impassive, she had finally looked him in the eye. “You are leading an escort for Ar’pal del Khirrith, Crown Prince of Hudruth. He is the world's best known, and wealthiest, runaway. You're taking him home through The Barrens because you think even he won't try anything there. But you need a guide and an extra pair of eyes, just in case.”
“Well, er... that just about covers...”
“I thought so.”
“But the fee... I only have five hundred for the whole trip. Just staying in this inn...”
“I'll take that for now and the rest when we reach Hudruth.”
When he had hesitated, she had stood to leave but he had grabbed her wrist. “All right, here's the five hundred. I'll pay for the inn from my private purse.”
Taking the bag of coin she had walked away. “Outside at dawn,” she had said over her shoulder.
The next morning she stood outside the inn, waiting for the Hudruth party who did not emerge until the sun was well above the horizon.
“Your highness, allow me to present our guide,” the captain said to a boy of about nine, with a winsomely angelic face, except for the ugly scar along one cheek. His gear was well worn but still showed that it had been made at great cost. He barely glanced in her direction but that glance revealed eyes filled with mischief rather than arrogance. She realised that she was going to enjoy this trip after all.
The prince was a bundle of unspent energy; no wonder he preferred the thrill of adventures to sitting around the palace all day. What he needed was something to do. They travelled on foot, which was more tiring than horseback but still did not exhaust the boy. So the Hunter had him shooting game or gathering firewood along the way. She picked the roughest routes, often taking them over a hill rather than around it and racing her charge to the bottom. The captain expressed his concern over potential broken bones but she dismissed him.
“His highness has already broken each arm at least once. The right was set more expertly; just as well since it's his sword arm. I'm not so sure about his left leg. It may have just been a bad sprain.”
The boy grinned from across the campfire. “The limp is due to a dislocated kneecap. It pops out now and then.”
“All the more reason to take care, your Highness,” said the captain, wincing.
“You're an old woman, captain,” the boy informed him, before rolling himself in his blankets and preparing to sleep.
The Hunter chose first watch that night. Some instinct told her that the trip had gone too smoothly, so far. She allowed her breathing to become more regular and leaned forward over her knees. After a few moments, she heard movement from the place where the prince lay. He moved quietly but he could not silence the squeak of his leather armour or the jingle of the buckles on his boots.
“Going somewhere, your Highness?” she asked, sitting up straight.
“I wish you'd call me 'Pal',” he said, turning back. “That's what my friends call me.”
“I'm a hireling, not your friend.”
“I didn't hire you.”
“It's still my job to get you home.”
“I'd rather have a friend...”
She looked at him with sympathy, realising the constraints on the life of this child who appeared to have everything. “Go to sleep, your Highness. You'll be home tomorrow.”
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