Author's note: I can't believe I've managed to update. Believe me, this wasn't easy. I've spent hours in front of the laptop wondering what to do, procrastinating, and pretty much writing something only to change it into another something that's completely different.

But chapter two is finished, and I'm glad about that, but I won't be surprised if I rip apart the entire story later to change it into something else. I also can't help but complain about how my prince turned out, but I guess I should let the story tell itself and hope that the prince is actually a decent guy. I won't go into details about how I was frustrated with my lack of knowledge in archaic speech, horses, and a whole lot of other things.

I'd like to thank Reize, SeaJade Song, and ShadowInTheWriter for their reviews. They gave me the push I needed to write this chapter.

A trail of family portraits lined both sides of the hall like doors. Every step she took brought her before each new generation, and the back of her neck prickled—as if the painted eyes were watching her, judging her.

Her father's portrait was halfway down the hall. The frame was as tall as she was, and he stood there, sword in hand and garbed in his military uniform. She was never close to him; she had could never even think of a time when he picked her up and embraced her.

Not that she wanted to hug him.

Her father's body was hard—like a statue carved out of the hardest, coldest stone that could possibility be found. His face was a sword—long with sharp edges.

Auryon passed her father's military portrait and stared at another one—the most recent painting made when her parents were married.

Her mother was as delicate and pale as white tissue. Golden strands of hair were piled on her head like a crown, and she had two large sapphires for eyes, as Ariana liked to put it.

Ariana spoke constantly of her mother, Marianne. She was a kind, gentle woman, as her physical appearance suggested. Her mother was so unlike her father.

Auryon sighed and touched the portrait; the canvas was rough like thick paper made wet and dried in the sun. She smiled as she traced her mother's rosebud lips with a finger but paused when she caught her father.

He stood behind her mother, his mouth set in a deep line, and his eyes like small beetles. Metals and ribbons—earned during his time as general of the king's army—covered every inch of his red coat, the same red coat that was said to have been dyed by the blood of his enemies. He was unpopular in court and had trouble finding a wife before he met her mother. His only redeeming feature was his great wealth—five times greater than the king's and wrung out of the tenants like water out of a rag.

She sighed and walked on. The rest of the hallway was empty for the portraits of future generations. She wondered if her own image would be placed on the wall—or be faked for something more flattering than her current appearance.

The kitchen was on the first floor of the house, at the very back near the stables. Her nostrils were assaulted by something juicy and tender—a mutton roasting on a split over the fire. She opened a few pots and found cold porridge that clung to the sides like glue. Nearby was a tray piled with the small rolls she had eaten for breakfast. She took one and bit into it; it had cooled down, but the crust was still crunchy—and the inside, it was as fluffy as she had remembered.

There was no cook. The kitchen was empty except for a few rats she heard squeaking behind the flour bags. She felt bad for the servants who would have to spend the entire day cooking a feast for the glutton king and his freeloading subjects—a change from the usual day when the only person they had to cook for was her.

A stable boy—his eyes glazed over with a milky-white film, a sign of Ariana's spell—waited outside with her horse just like every morning. She finished her bread, dismissed the boy, and patted her horse.

"Hello, Demon." She smiled, stroking his nose. The stallion was a gift on her fifth birthday from her father, who insisted that she'd name the horse after her father's legendary battle horse, a beast that supposedly crushed the skulls of thousands on the battlefield. Despite his appearance, he was as gentle as a pony.

He dug his nose into her hand, licking her palm.

"Sorry, Demon. I don't have any apples with me, but you'll get as many as you want soon enough."

She climbed onto the saddle and slowly led Demon away from the kitchen entrance. When they were in more open space, she allowed him to go at full speed, his hooves kicking up dirt that swirled like a tornado.

To her right were the Kopinas, a mountain range that separated part of the border between Mornia and Verell. The snow covered peaks rose from the ground like jagged diamonds, and the range inspired legends—countless legends of witches who sought refuge there during the witch hunts half a millennium ago. The mountains beckoned to her—pulled her towards them like a magnet—and promised her a life different from the seclusion she had faced for the past sixteen years.

She wanted to head east and explore the mountains to her heart's content, but she tore her gaze away from the peaks, turned west, and entered the small forest bordering the manor. A small trail cut through the trees and ran through the forest like a river. She urged her horse to go faster, until the trees beside her were only green and brown blurs. Her head was lowered to avoid hitting the leaves and branches that hung over her like a thick roof.

A minute later, the wall of trees before her began to thin. Above her, she could now see the sky, a large, blue expanse that stretched on like an ocean. Her body tensed as she saw a log ahead, but Demon jumped it.

They were in the air, and for a second, she thought she was flying. Her hood slipped off, and her unbound brown hair fluttered in the air like a flag. She jerked on the reigns, and Demon suddenly stopped, nearly throwing her off the saddle.

"Woah. Be careful boy."

She patted Demon on the head and led him into a slow trot. They had exited the forest, but were still at least ten minutes away from the village. Before the rider and her horse stretched the wheat fields, a waist-high ocean of green stalks that were beginning to streak with gold.

In the distance, she saw little peach blobs—shirtless farmers, she realized. She ducked her head and pulled the black hood over her eyes.

The heat was stifling. Auryon could feel sweat pooling in her chest, and the cloak made her feel as if she was being roasted like a chicken. She groaned.

Demon threw his head back and tried to charge forward. She pulled on the reins and nearly fell off the back of the saddle.

"No, Demon. I'll let you run on the way back."

Auryon could feel the tense anticipation he felt under herself; it was like tangled rope. She sighed again when his muscles relaxed.

Some of the tenants began to notice her. They all put down their tools—and she saw them bow out of the limited view her hood allowed her. She nodded her head and turned right so that the fields were on the left side—the forest on the other.

If she cut through the fields she could reach the village and summon more workers to the manor. However, if she went straight, she would arrive at the orchards and be able to take care of whatever problem Ariana predicted.

Auryon chose the latter, realizing that any problem happening there would have to be solved as soon as possible.

She passed more workers along the way, old farmers that took off their straw hats and bowed as she passed. As it was summer and not much to be done in the fields, most of the children and other tenants spent their days at the nearby lake or at the small village school she had built two years ago.

Which is why she wasn't surprised to find the apple orchards empty. The apples on the trees were unripe and hung from the branches like balls of green jade. More apples were scattered on the ground, some of them rotting and attracting flies like garbage.

"Well, they aren't ready yet, but they'll have to do, Demon," Auryon said. She dismounted and bent down, picking up an apple that lay on the ground. The area near the stem was covered in a spot—like a bruise that marred human flesh. She threw it, picked up another apple—this one as smooth as baby's flesh—and fed it to Demon.

More apples littered the ground like marbles. A waste, she thought. Auryon led Demon along with one hand and picked up apples with the other, depositing them into her saddle bags if they weren't bruised. She reckoned that cook could use them to make apple jelly.

She couldn't find the trouble that Ariana mentioned. But the orchards stretched on as far as she could she. Sighing, she walked on.

Half concealed by a bush, a man was bent over, his chestnut curls plastered to his head as if he had worn a helmet all day and took it off. As Auryon neared the figure, she noticed the edge of a brown skirt and a blond head hiding behind him.

Auryon gasped, and anger bubbled up within her, overwhelming her surprise. She moved slowly to avoid stepping on any twigs or leaves. Her goal was the two green apples lying only a foot away, both of them shining like worked jade. When she picked the two up, she tossed one in the air and caught it, satisfied with the "plunk" it made when hitting her hand. It was almost as hard as a rock.

She inhaled deeply; she was ready.

"You get away from her, beast!" she cried out, letting loose one of her missiles.

The apple hit the back of his head like a dart landing on a bull's eye. She was satisfied with the heavy "thunk" that sounded as her missile made contact.

The man cried out and ducked, using the bushes as a shield from her next missile, which flew over his head and landed on the grass five feet away.

"Wait! What's going on?" He stood up and held both hands in the air. "Please stop sir. I—"

Auryon bent down, picked up another apple, and threw it. "This is for calling me 'sir'!" she cried out.

This time her missile hit him on the right side of his chest—right where his heart should be. His fell to his knees and groaned, clutching his chest as if he was preventing blood from leaking out of a sword wound.

Auryon bent down again and picked up another apple—a bit rotten but still useable.

"No, milady! Please!" A voice called out. It was the lady in the bushes. Her cheeks flushed, she brushed her hair—a tangled, vine-like mess—away from her face. Auryon noticed that her bodice and sleeves were ripped, revealing her shoulders and the patch of skin just above her breasts.

The lady rose—and nearly feel back down as pain flashed on her face. Auryon felt anger at the young, mysterious man.

"No!" Auryon decided. She felt into the folds of her cloak and pulled out a dagger—a long, jagged, metal tooth that had belonged to her father—and walked forward. "He will not go unpunished for his crime."

The man pushed himself to his feet, sweat pouring down his cheeks. His damp hair fell past his eyebrows, almost hiding a pair of green eyes—watery from the pain of being hit by two apples. She noticed the dimples on the side of his mouth—so prominent that he didn't need to smile to show them—and his build, shorter than average but lean like a runner's.

Auryon surly admitted to herself that he was good-looking—and that the rich clothing he wore suited him perfectly. But she was angry at him…and at the other nobles who took advantage of the poorer people.

"I have done no crime…Unless there is a law I am unaware of that states that I cannot help an injured woman." He shook his hair out of his eyes and glared at Auryon.

Auryon paused, taken aback by his comment. But she convinced herself that he was lying, and she began to walk forward again.

"You're a liar," she accused him. "I saw you. You were on top of her."

"You dare call me a liar?" His nostrils flared. "I assure that I was only helping out the young lady." He touched the back of his head and winced. "You can ask her yourself."

"Is there any truth in what he has said?" Auryon shot her gaze at the young woman. "Remember that I do not tolerate lying from any of my tenants," she warned.

"Aye." She bit her lip and looked down, as if her dress was more interesting than the two people before her. "His highness helped me when I fell off the tree."

His highness? Auryon felt as if she had been slapped in the face. He was young and fit, so she doubted that he was the king—an old glutton who could barely move around without the assistance of a dozen attendants.

That only left the Prince Ian, the king's heir.

"I—I—Forgive me, your highness." She gulped and knelt, her eyes glued to the ground. "I did not recognize you."

Auryon wouldn't have recognized him in any other situation, but she could think of no other excuses. She sneaked a peek at his face; he looked smug. A haughty bastard, she thought to herself.

She watched as his black boots—as dark and shiny as ink—walk back to the bushes. He leaned over, and reached into the bushes, pulling out a pair of thick, leather gloves.

It annoyed her that she felt nervous—and scared—as he walked back and stood in front of her.

"I accept your apology and trust that you will recognize me before you throw any hard objects from now on," he sneered. Any regrets she felt for hurting him disappeared, and she had a strong urge to slap the prince.

But she took a deep breath, and her temper calmed down like cold water poured on a fire. "I will your highness."

"Good." He clapped his hands together and turned his attention to the other woman. "I shall take you to the village."

"Do not worry, your highness. I will take her by my horse—and your father and the other nobles must be worried by your disappearance." Auryon stood and walked over to the injured woman. "Can you stand?"

She nodded, but the prince pushed past Auryon and put his left arm underneath the woman's knees and the other around her shoulders. With a groan, the prince lifted the woman and took a small step forward. The village girl looked as gleeful as a child eating sweet pastries.

Auryon rolled her eyes.

"Please don't bother, your highness. She is merely a servant from the village."

Auryon placed her hand on the prince's upper arm, and she felt the muscles underneath her grow as stiff as wood. The prince turned his head and looked straight at her.

If they were on opposing sides on the battlefield, she would have run away. That was how deadly and frightening his glare was.

"I'm sorry." Auryon gasped and jerked her hand away, as if his arm was a hot brand. "It was inappropriate of me to touch you, your highness."

She swallowed and took a step back. "Excuse me."

Then Auryon turned around and walked away without turning her head back. She was lucky that her face was hooded; she could feel her cheeks burn and turn red. From what Ariana told her, a blush on her pale skin was as noticeable as mud stains on a fine white tablecloth.

She continued to walk—and stopped when she saw a white flash. Blinking, she realized that it was a swinging tail that belonged to a fine stallion that was as white as Demon was black. She didn't need to think hard as to whom the horse belonged to.

A minute later she reached Demon. Untying him from the tree, she patted him on the nose and led him away from the orchards.

There was no trouble, after all. All she dealt with was a rude prince who was nice enough to help out a pretty village girl, but cruel enough to insult his host.

What angered her the most was that she had to pretend that she didn't hate the man.

An hour later, Auryon was back on the forest trail. She had only intended to stay in the village for ten minutes and find a young boy willing to relay her orders, but one of the women had just given birth, forcing her to make an unplanned visit.

Luckily, she didn't run into the crown prince again.

The hair on her neck prickled, and she heard a pair of hooves behind her—faint, but there nonetheless.

And when she turned she saw a familiar white horse, and the rider upon it raised an arm in the air and waved it. Irritation prickled at her like pine needles. She wanted to ignore him and ride away, but the practical, politically-conscious side of her told her that angering the crown prince was unwise.

Auryon touched her cloak ties with one hand; the knot was so tight that it was wrapped around her neck like a choking hand. Satisfied, she pulled on the reins and turned her horse around.

"Your highness," she said, lowering her head.

"You, I am searching for Leymor Manor. Show me."

Auryon clenched her hands into fists, gripping the leather between her fingers tightly. She ground her teeth together to the point where her jaw began to ache.

The nerve of him, she thought. The cloak covering her head and the sound of leaves being swept across the dirt path hid her low sigh and her face as she tried to control her angry features into something more calm.

"Of course, your highness."

She turned Demon around and led him into a leisurely walk. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a hint of white—the prince's horse following, she realized. She looked ahead and concentrated on the path before her. However, her sharp ears picked up the prince's breathing—a constant reminder that she wasn't alone.

And that she had a guest to entertain.

A minute later, the Prince Ian spoke. "You are Auryon of Leymor, are you not?"

"Yes, I am," Auryon replied, her voice low.

"My father and I have come to offer our condolences," the prince said proudly.

I'm sure you have. Thank you for paying respects to a man who has been dead for the past two years, she wanted to scream at him in sarcasm.

Instead, she replied, "You are too kind, your highness. I am sure my father would be happy to know that the king has not failed to recognize his sacrifice in battle."

That was all a lie. Her father was never happy, and if he was, then he had never shown it. As much as she hated to admit it, she was glad that her father was gone, leaving her as his heir.

"Ah, yes." The prince coughed and cleared his throat.

"Why are you not with your father and his men? Wouldn't your father by angry that you are riding around the countryside without guards. It is dangerous, after all." Auryon peeked at the prince from the corner of her eye. He was looking down at his reins, a deep furrow forming between his eyebrows.

"I—I am sorry. I did not intend to pry," Auryon quickly added.

"No, I might as well ask you the same thing," he said arrogantly. "Why are you, a nobleman's daughter, riding about the woods, dressed like a man?"

He moved his horse closer. Auryon grew so stiff that she couldn't even move the horse's reins.

"And why do you wear such a heavy cloak in this heat?" The prince smirked. "I feel as if you are hiding something beneath that hood. Do your tenants know that the one who rules over them is not a lord, but a lady?"

For a second, Auryon had thought that the prince somehow knew about her curse. She was relieved that he came to an entirely different conclusion: that she disguised herself as a man to gain respect from her tenants more easily.

"Perhaps they do. I dress this way because I find that skirts are too unpractical for when I have to ride and do my business," Auryon said, her voice shaky.

The prince extended his arm and touched her right shoulder. "I have heard many stories of how remarkable of a beauty your mother was. Show me your face, Lady Auryon."

And then his hand slowly crawled upwards, like a bug, until it was touching the hood of her cloak.

Auryon gasped and turned her head away, her hands reaching out to push whatever was in the way. She felt cloth and leather—and the prince yelled. When she looked back, she saw the prince's saddle empty, and the prince sprawled on the ground, his eyes shut tight. He groaned and lifted his head.

"I'm—" She closed her mouth before she could finish her apology.

He had no broken bones, and he seemed to be okay—well, except for the scowl that marred his handsome face.

And if he wasn't easily forgiving and caused trouble, Auryon could ask Ariana to take care of the matter. The witch wouldn't even ask for a reason.

Plus, she couldn't help but feel satisfied to see Prince Ian on the ground—where he belonged, in her opinion.

Auryon straightened herself and looked down on the crown prince. "If you follow the trail, I trust that you will be able to find Leymor manor." She squeezed her legs, causing Demon to start walking.

Before she increased the stallion's speed, she turned her head and called out to the prince, "You can find your way to Leymor manor, but you nor your father will be welcome at my home or on my lands."

Chapter three preview: Auryon and Ariana have an important discussion regarding the unwanted guests, and a certain prince is found walking the grounds at night in search of the mysterious cloaked lady.