Author's Notes/Explanation

Greetings and welcome to The New Life. I'm Mark R. Whitten, your humble host and I'm afraid I have some explaining to do. See, I don't think you'll find this to be an ordinary Bridge to Terabithia fanfic. Unlike most of the "BTT" fanfics on this site, I have chosen a different setting for the story. I have set this one in a medieval fantasy world of my own making. Now, before you go clicking the "back" button at the top of the screen in search of something else to read, let me make this perfectly clear: I have not abandoned the premise of the original story; I have simply re-imagined it.

I know some of you might be thinking (or saying) "Mark, c'mon, man, talk in English!" Alright, alright. Here it is: I re-wrote the original Katherine Paterson story. It's all still movie-based, in regards to the character's physical appearances and attitudes and while I have changed the setting, I've kept the characters in place. Some are admittedly different, in some ways, as you will (eventually) learn but I have kept to their personalities and appearances as much as I could.

The reason I didn't mention all of this in the earlier description is that I simply didn't have enough room to explain myself. Please keep in mind that the tag-line description, however ambiguous, is still accurate; Yes, Leslie does have a secret. Yes, it will shake the very foundation of her friendship with Jess. No, I'm not going to give you any hints about it. No, it will not be revealed for quite some time. And yes, if it makes you feel more at ease you can ask me to tell you right before the secret is revealed, so you won't feel anxious about when or where it comes out.

By the way, this story is NOT an LDD (Leslie didn't/doesn't die). That's not to say that she will or won't die, just that she has as much chance as anyone to live or to expire.

If anyone has any questions feel free to ask them, but please keep in mind that if you have any guesses about the story, such as Leslie's secret or what Jess will do about this or that situation, either keep them to yourself or send them to me in a private message.

Posting guesses about the story where anyone can read them will cause problems because a) you'll be right and ruin the surprises for everyone or b) you'll be wrong and mislead everyone. So just send your guesses about the story directly to me and I will answer what I can when I can.

Please keep in mind that my answers will be limited by what I can say without giving away the plot.

As long as everyone follows these simple guidelines, everything should be fine.

Otherwise, enjoy the story.

The New Life

a novel by Mark Robert Whitten

Chapter 1

Jess squinted into the gloom. It was still dark and though the sun had yet to rise, the song birds were already calling for the beginning of the day. He was nervous. He knew he had to be careful. The escape would be difficult, if not impossible. Still, it was dark and that was good; the darkness favored him. If he was quick, quiet and careful he could sneak out without anyone noticing. He peered out the window to the ground below and saw that his father's wagon was already rolling away. It was a welcome sight.

He would have an easier time escaping without his old man present.

Jess pulled on his dark wool pants and felt along the wall, groping until he found what he wanted. He lifted it close, running his fingers along the length of the willow switch—his sword. He had carved it himself out of an old branch. Jess' family had other switches, mostly for herding the animals, and sometimes used as a punishment device on him but as he grew, Jess learned to be careful and rarely had the switch used on him anymore. He resolved he would be extra careful today; no one would even know what he was up to.

Jess smiled as he slipped the sword behind his belt and made his way to the trapdoor.

As he unhooked the latch, the door swung open to hang down into the main room. He winced at the squeak it made, hoping it wouldn't wake his family, and held his breath, straining to hear any movement below. There was none. Jess let out an uneasy sigh as he hefted the ladder down to the dirt floor. Peering into the blackness below, he felt his pulse quicken. They were down there, he knew. He also knew that he had no choice. If he wanted to escape, he had to go down.

The ladder creaked and groaned under his weight as he climbed down to the first floor of their longhouse. His muscles were tense as he carefully placed his bare feet onto the dirt and as he made his way across the floor, its rough texture didn't slow him; his soles, calloused and tough as leather from years spent working barefoot, made only a soft scuffle as he walked.

The farmhouse stood as the lone guardian of the little land his family owned—a field and a small patch of vegetables. There wasn't nearly enough land for farming, so most of what little they grew in their gardens went to the table, along with a few ducks and fish from their pond. Jess was glad for the remote location. There wasn't anyone to call out to him or wake his family.

His family's house was a simple building made from wattle and daub—branches woven together and covered with a mixture of clay, straw and dung. It was large, relatively easy to build and had stood in steadfast service to his family for as long as he could remember, serving as both a house for his family and as a barn for the animals. He could hear them stirring in their pens in the back of the room. Jess didn't mind the animals too much; a few hogs, oxen and a cow were hardly enough to scare him, but sometimes he wished his family had a separate building in which to keep them.

Among his many tasks was watching over some of the smaller animals. They were of a decent temper, but none were very personable. Jess sometimes wished his family could afford a horse. His closest neighbors, the Perkins, had horses and let him care for them sometimes.

The Perkins longhouse was a bit bigger than his and they had the luxury of a stone wall separating their longhouse into a proper barn and home. His home didn't provide such comfort—only the wattle pens kept the animals on their side of the house. Secure as the pens were, they did nothing to keep away the animal's smell.

In spite of the foul smells and simplistic living conditions, his family's home was a comfortable and welcoming place. Jess was grateful to have a home—as he knew that some people didn't—but he also knew of places in town where buildings were much better. Many had windows with panes of glass that you could look through and floors made of smooth planks of wood covered with soft, colorful woven rugs.

Many even had fireplaces—hearths of stone mortared together to hold a fire on the side of the room, with a stone column called a chimney that would contain the smoke and release it through the roof. All his family's home had was a fire pit dug in the center of their simple dirt floor. It kept the building warm but filled the house with a haze of smoke, especially during winter. Sleeping above the others, he had to endure most of the wetness from rains and fire smoke. The woodsmoke stung his eyes and made him cough a lot before it finally found its way out of the hole in the roof and the roof itself wasn't much better, being made of simple thatch that leaked when it rained. Living on farmland, Jess knew they depended on rain, but it always made the house smell wet and foul and more like a barn. He knew from the teasing he received that it made him smell too.

Houses in town had roofs of clay tiles or slate that never leaked. They were always warm places, clean and dry. He had been in a few of those wonderful buildings on occasion—shops and inns that held any number of interesting people. They also held fine furniture, the likes of which his family could never hope to own. Jess wished they were wealthy enough to afford some of the finer things, but they could barely scrape by as it was.

In spite of his poverty, and the envy he often felt of the townspeople, Jess always enjoyed visiting Westwood. He rather favored watching the townsfolk as they went about their day. Mother often sent him out on errands while she stayed at home and worked, minding his little sister May belle and spinning wool into thread. Mother was one of many spinsters who spun wool for the town and made a few pennies at it to help buy food, cloth and other such things as they needed. Meager as the pay was, Jess was always grateful for her having work. His older sisters, Ellie and Brenda, helped her mend clothes and collected eggs, but sometimes he wished they would do something more useful, like move out. They weren't always kind to him; the two of them enjoyed teasing him when he was smaller but they had mercifully given up on tormenting him as he had grown but there were occasions when they tripped him or said he stank that really hurt.

His sisters weren't married of course. They were thought of as attractive by the boys in town, what with their long dark hair—a feature common to all the womenfolk in his family—but despite both of them being of the age to have husbands, their father had refused to allow it, preferring to keep them around to help until Jess had grown a little more. Jess never thought he would grow big enough to be rid of them.

Sighing at what he knew could never be, Jess considered the possibility of going into town that day. He always considered himself lucky that he could get away from the demands of his family for a time and he never complained when Mother sent him to buy pottery, tools or cloth as it gave him a chance to see his father at work. He rarely had steady employment and had to take jobs in town to support them.

Recently father had found work for the local blacksmith. It started with loading and unloading wagons, but when they learned they could depend on him, father landed a steady job pumping the bellows. Jess loved watching his father work, especially in the blacksmith shop. He would linger in the corner when his father needed him and dream of maybe one day working near the forge, making things for people. When he went into town on errands, Father would always spot him and ask what he was sent for before telling him to hurry on home with it before mother became angry. Jess would linger for a few minutes, watching father fixing things or loading things or moving things, before he rushed home with the supplies. He never remained long enough to be disciplined, however; he knew that his father never considered him useful. Father always just seemed to tolerate his presence, like a pebble in his good boot. Jess looked up to his father and wanted to learn things, but father never seemed to have the time to teach him anymore; he only seemed to ever have time for May belle.

Jess roused himself from his thoughts. He was almost out and he couldn't afford to get distracted. He reprimanded himself for having his head in the clouds when he should have been paying attention. His father often chided him about paying more attention. Jess knew he was right. He promised himself he would do better.

The floor was cold against his bare feet as he looked about. In the dimness, he took in the familiar sights: his mother's spinning wheel set in the corner, the table and benches to the side of the room, and the now dead fire-pit in the center.

Jess sisters were sleeping in their straw pallets, their long hair tangled and strewn with hay. He slunk past them carefully, not wanting to risk waking them.

Jess peered at Mother's spinning wheel. The stool sat empty. He smiled at his luck, knowing Mother wouldn't be awake for another hour at least.

He looked to her bed and saw her slumbering contentedly, like a cat after a good meal. It was going to be a good day. He could feel it.

Jess was almost out the door when he heard her moan. He froze, turning to peer over his shoulder. He expected to see her waking and scolding him.

She was out cold. Heaving a silent sigh and whispering thanks to the gods above, Jess turned to leave, when he realized something: his little sister was missing. He turned back and loomed closer to mother's bed, holding his breath and peering carefully at the mattress. May belle was gone.

Wherever she was, he knew he couldn't stay and decided to escape while he still could. As he turned around to leave, he staggered to a stop.

May belle was standing right in front of him.

As he attempted to recover, his breathing coming in ragged pants, Jess watched her round little face staring up at him. Her hair was a long dark tangled mess with bits of straw still clinging to it that made him wonder if his own dark hair was so unkempt.

In spite of the early hour, her bright brown eyes showed no trace of sleep and as she looked up at him, May belle's features scrunched up with a suspicious little frown.

She spoke before he could.

"Where are you going?"

As he stared down at the naked little girl staring up at him, Jess sighed in resignation.

"Out" was all he told her.

She brightened with a sudden smile, her round cheeks puffing out all the more with her grin. "Can I come?"

Jess winced at her loud squawk. He peered at the others and saw they were still fast asleep. Jess glared down at her hopeful face. He didn't want her coming along, but he knew if she cried, his mother would be woken and he would get blamed for sure. He also wouldn't get out before dawn. His whole day would be ruined.

Jess knelt down close and thought of something that he knew would keep her quiet. He grabbed her bare shoulders and told her in a hushed tone that he was going to run fast, that she couldn't keep up and that if she tried to follow him, then he would tell everyone that she still wet the mattress when she slept.

Her face fell but Jess glared, challenging her to object. He knew she wanted to argue, but she mercifully pouted instead and went back to bed. As Jess watched her wrap herself in their mother's arms, he smiled. She actually believed he would tell. But then, May belle believed anything she was told. Jess sometimes thought that if he told her that their mother was eaten by trolls, she would run home crying to see if she had really been devoured.

He never told her anything like that, of course. He didn't want to be switched for a joke and it always seemed too cruel. Not that he cared much for his little sister, but he didn't like the idea of hurting her either.

He watched her a moment as she drifted to sleep.

Without sparing a moment's hesitation, Jess slipped out through the cloth covered doorway and into the open fields. As he ran through the pre-dawn gloom, he laughed. He had escaped the dungeon. His captors had tried their best to imprison him, but they were no match for his wits and cunning. As he ran through the open fields he realized that the rains had passed leaving behind the sweet aroma of moist earth.

To Jess it was the sweet smell of freedom.

As the late summer wind blew across his face, he pumped his legs as hard as he could. His willow switch, still tucked securely behind his belt, whacked against his legs with every step. He imagined the blows were the snapping jaws of a guard dog trying to take him down. Such thoughts gave him a fright and made him run even faster, his heart pounding wildly as he tore across the countryside. There were people about, a traveler on the road or a farmer already working, who waved to him, but Jess paid them no mind as he ran with all the fury of an unleashed animal.

As the forest finally came into view, he slowed up a bit. He was far out of the reach of his former captors and their relentless hounds; no one would ever find him in the woods.

As he breathlessly trotted through the tree-line, he drew his willow-switch sword.

It was time to begin.

Jess swung his willow switch, the tip whistling through the air as he cut down his foes.

"Take that, Fulcher!" he shouted, thrusting his sword through an invisible gut. "Take that, Hoager!" He swung the sword in an arc, lopping off a head. He parried and thrust a few more times, bringing the sword up and taking off a hand as they thrust back at him and bringing his weapon down again in a deadly arc to kill even more.

He laughed at his invisible foes' impotent swings as they failed to strike him down.

No one could stop him. He was invincible.

He suddenly realized they were coming in from behind. With a dramatic and somewhat ungraceful swing, he spun on his heel, bringing the willow switch around with him in a deadly sideways arc. To his surprise, the sword struck something solid, stopping in mid-air with a loud crack. Jess' sword-hand stung. His eyes went wide as he realized that his sword had made contact with another.

Jess suddenly found himself staring straight into the face of a girl.

"Hello," she said with a smile.

As Jess staggered back, his sword hand still extended, she casually used her own switch to knock his from his hand. It clattered to the ground far away. She pointed the end of her sword to his throat as she slowly approached, forcing him back against the trunk of an old willow tree. Jess had nowhere to go. His sword was well out of reach and grabbing her sword was against the rules. He was hers and they both knew it. His head tilted back, the tip of the girls' willow sword just under his chin, Jess swallowed hard at the deadly look in her eye.

He knew he was about to die.

He couldn't believe it. Just moments ago, he was invincible, defeating a dozen boys as they tried unsuccessfully to take him down, and now here he was, helpless as May belle, about to be slain by some dirty-faced blonde girl, no bigger than him.

Girl, he thought bitterly. How could he lose to a girl? It was impossible. She must have cheated. She'd used some conniving girl-trick to deceive him and now she was going to win. It just wasn't fair. He was supposed to be invincible.

With a mischievous grin, the strange girl lowered her sword until it pointed at his chest. His eyes followed hers as she looked down at the sword point.

Jess held his breath. Her thrust came quicker than he expected and he grunted in pain as she playfully jabbed him in the ribs.

"You're dead," she cheerfully remarked.

Jess frowned at her inappropriate glee. It was an ill-gotten victory. He hadn't lost; he couldn't lose. He was invincible. She was just too dumb to know it. Jess felt his blood heating. He wanted to wipe that stupid smirk right off her face.

But Jess had no sword. He looked over to where it still lay on the ground, waiting for him. It was a good distance away, well out of reach. He wanted to roll across the ground, grab his sword, and come up swinging, but before he could even move a muscle, the girl walked over and plucked it up.

She had both swords now and he had none. He had gone from invincible to helpless; from knight to peasant, and it was entirely the strange girl's fault.

With rising ire, Jess suddenly realized that she had done it on purpose.

She was humiliating him.

As he sulked against the willow tree, not wanting to talk and wishing she would go jump in a creek, the girl calmly walked back over, both switches in hand.

She held his out by the tip, offering him the thicker end. "Here" was all she said.

Jess crossed his arms and pouted. He didn't want to play anymore. As the thick end of the sword sagged and her smile faded, Jess grunted in satisfaction; it was his first victory against the strange girl. She seemed to realize that he didn't have any intention of playing anymore, so she leaned the swords against the tree and offered him her hand instead.

"Jess, right?"

He gaped at her. How could she have known his name? It occurred to him then that she might be witch. That was how she had defeated him. She had used an evil spell to trick him. How else could anyone have beaten him so soundly?

But he had lost. It may have been that she was actually better. Curiosity overcoming his bitterness, Jess reached down and picked up his sword. He swished it about, letting the tip whistle a moment, before pointing it at her. She smiled and grabbed her own sword from the tree, swinging it about herself in a fairly good imitation of him. He smiled and thrust at her. She parried and side-stepped, tripping him as he went past. Jess staggered forward, landing face-down in the dirt.

As he spat grass and dried leaves, he could hear her laughing.

He felt the point of her switch poking his bottom. "Are you dead again?" she giggled. He shot to his feet and swung at her head. She ducked and calmly poked him in the gut. He grunted as she laughed. "I guess so," she teased. He tried again, only to receive a gentle slice across the throat as she gave him a fairly convincing beheading.

The girl giggled again. He swung at her leg. She stepped back out of reach and, to his surprise she knelt down with a sudden cry. Jess rushed forward to see if she was alright. As he reached her, she stabbed him in the gut. She snickered at having successfully gulled him. Jess fumed; she was making a fool out of him.

With a burst of anger, he knocked her sword away. She gasped as her switch flew off to the side, leaving her naked to his blade. Jess had her. She was unarmed and he could do as he pleased with his prisoner. A hundred giddy thoughts of what to do with her, now that he finally had her, paraded through his head unchecked.

Now that she was helpless, he could make her pay a heavy price for having humiliated him. But before he could decide on which punishment to inflict on his victim, she rolled across the ground towards her sword, snatched it up and dispatched him again.

Had it been a real fight, the smooth slice she gave him across his belly would have sent his guts spilling out across the cold, leaf-strewn ground—a most painful and humiliating way to die. Jess was impressed.

He tried to take her down again and got a playful whack across his bottom for his trouble, the thin material of his brown wool trousers doing nothing to lessen the sting. He growled as she laughed. She just wouldn't stop smiling. It was infuriating.

Nothing was working; every time he went on the offensive, she blocked, parried and bested him. He couldn't get past her defenses—at least, not in the usual way.

Jess stopped attacking for a moment and began walking in a wide circle around her, thinking about how to get at her. Twigs snapped under his bare feet as he stepped, carefully considering this ordinary girl that had come to mock him. Jess appraised her critically. She was indeed his size—and even somewhat skinnier than he was, with spindly arms and legs. Her dirty, jaw-length blonde hair was matted and ruffled and even held a leaf or two, as if she had been sleeping in the forest.

In spite of her skill, she didn't appear to be all that dangerous.

Her clothes were simple; her pants looked to be made of the same cheap wool as his, and her simple blue shirt had more than its share of stains. She seemed like she had been traveling for a while. Jess frowned at his appraisal. The only real difference in their clothing—besides her high black boots, which made her seem even stranger—was the brown wool vest she wore over her dark blue shirt.

She seemed simple enough, he figured, but Jess knew she was anything but stupid.

She was a very dangerous adversary.

As Jess continued his careful examination of this deadly foe, she waited for him to come. He watched her intently as she suppressed that stupid girl smile of hers. She made no move to attack him, instead choosing to watch with what seemed a kind of giddy anticipation.

She waited, slowly turning in place to keep her eyes on him as he made his way around the dimly lit clearing. The crunch of leaves under her high black boots mixed with the gentle breeze as she circled him in turn. The sight of her boots made him want to laugh; they would look normal on a boy but to see a girl wearing them was beyond strange. Jess chided himself to remain focused; he knew he had to take this enemy seriously. She was crafty and he had to be careful. He didn't attack her right off, as he had done before; that wasn't working.

His imaginary foes had been accommodating, giving him what he had wanted: an easy victory. But this stranger was not imaginary, nor was she accommodating.

She was challenging.

Jess began to realize he was having more fun fighting her than he had fighting alone.

As he watched her annoying smile growing, he realized that he was smiling, too. A trick, he told himself, to make him fail again. This time, he didn't believe it. She wasn't trying to trick him. She wasn't a witch, she was just a girl and he could defeat any girl.

Except this girl.

He threw his sword on the ground at her feet.

It was over.

He surrendered.

She frowned down at the sword. She picked it up and tossed it back to him. He caught it and tossed it on the ground at her feet again, shaking his head. She picked it up again and tried to give it back to him. She just didn't seem to understand.

Maybe she didn't want it to be over. He guessed she wasn't done humiliating him.

But he was finished being humiliated by her. He didn't want to play with her anymore. The sun was rising high, the day growing hotter and Jess was more than a little tired. In fact, he was exhausted. They were both panting with the effort of having tried so hard to outdo each other, and only then did Jess realize how much of a sweat he had worked up.

She was sweating too, he noticed, and they both smelled like animals. They both needed a bath and he seriously thought about jumping in a river before going home; his mother would toss him out if he came back home smelling like a horse.

His mother…

Icy panic rippled through him at the thought of his mother. In all the excitement of their duel, Jess had lost track of time. He had completely forgotten about his chores. He had to get back home at least in time for breakfast, or his mother would twist his ears off. Jess glanced at the sun, cringing at how high it had reached into the early morning sky. He had to hurry; there wasn't much time.

Without a word, Jess snatched his sword from the girl. She jumped back, her sword raised, ready for another attack. Ignoring her, he slipped the sword back behind his belt. "Gotta go," he called, running out of the woods, leaving the girl alone.

He tried to forget her as he rushed off towards home. He thought about how scrawny she looked, as if she had never had enough to eat. He thought that maybe he should have invited her to come home with him, but he had no idea how his mother would react to him bringing home strangers. He guessed she wouldn't have appreciated it.

He put aside his thoughts as home finally came into view. The wild grass gave way to the packed dirt of his barren front yard, kept clear by the countless years of livestock and human footsteps. The old wooden steps of his porch creaked under his weight threatening to give under him one day. Jess ignored their complaint and as he came through the cloth-covered doorway, he could see that May belle was already awake and dressed and that his mother had breakfast cooking on the hearth: eggs with bacon, his favorite. The aroma of cooking meat reminded him that he hadn't eaten. His stomach grumbled with eager anticipation.

"Good morning, Mother," he said, his eyes locked on the skillet.

She smiled at him and returned the greeting. He watched his mother as she returned to her work at the fire pit. Jess thought his mother was a handsome woman. She was as tall as his father but not broad, as some women looked. She was in good health though, and when she would swat his bottom or twist his ear to make him sit, he knew she was strong.

Jess looked her over as she turned back to cooking. Her long brown hair was pulled back in a horse-tail to keep from falling in the fire when she leaned over. Her dress was a simple, light red that had faded from years of washing and mending. He wished he could buy her new cloth for a dress. There were shops in town where you could buy cloth, but he never had any money. He wished he had some money to buy her things she deserved.

Mother looked tired, but she kept smiling as she motioned for him to sit, while shooing May belle away from the fire. Jess yawned and took his seat as his older sisters set the table. He wanted to help, but Mother told him to save his strength for his chores. He agreed as he sat down to rest noticing that the plates and spoons were already in place, beside the cups, which she was already in the process of filling.

Jess drummed his fingers on the tabletop as he waited impatiently for the eggs to cook. He glared at May belle when she told him how much he stank. His older sisters were giving him dirty looks as well. They all looked clean. They must have bathed while he was gone.

Before he could consider how much he would like to avoid a bath, his sisters started in on him. "Mother," Brenda complained, "he stinks. He has to bathe before he eats, that's the rule."

Mother glared at her. "Don't you tell me the rules young lady—I made them."

If there was one thing mother didn't like, it was being talked against. But Brenda was right so mother told him to wash up. Her voice was gentle, but he knew she was serious.

Jess heaved a sigh and hauled himself off the bench. As he stumbled over to the wash basin, he glared at his sister for making him get up. His muscles burned with protest but he ignored their demand for rest. As he peered over the surface, he realized it was filled with dirty water. Brenda bathed last and hadn't bothered herself with the chore of empting the basin, which left Jess to do it, as with most things Brenda didn't finish. She thought she was better than to live on a farm and for all her life she had made her feelings very clear. One day, she often said, she would marry a man with wealth and status and be a noblewoman and have everything she wanted and would never suffer the indignity of farmland labor again. Ellie was of a similar mind, often saying she was too busy to be bothered with this or that, leaving her lowly peasant brother to do her work instead. The way they strutted around the farm made Jess think they were already members of the nobility—at least in their own minds.

What he wouldn't give for some nobleman to come and marry them. Then they would be gone from his life. Of course, after that, he would have to do all the work by himself.

Jess sighed and lifted the basin off the little table, spilling the dirty water onto the floor. It absorbed into the earth and he stood there, watching it for a moment, wishing he could disappear as easily.

"May Belle," he called, "fetch my shirt."

He heard her scurry off to get it. Annoying as she was, he found her useful sometimes. He lifted the ewer and refilled the basin with fresh water. Jess splashed some on his skin. It prickled against his hot flesh like icy needles. As he scrubbed his face the smell of the eggs and woodsmoke fought him for attention, but right then, all he could think about was the water and how much it stung. He shivered for a moment before grabbing a drying cloth and toweling off. Jess figured if he stood by the fire he might warm up a bit.

Before he could move, May Belle showed up right next to him, handing him his shirt and smiling like she had brought him a sack of gold. Ignoring her, he slipped the treasure on his back and glanced at the water in the basin, surprised to find how much dirt he had scrubbed from himself; he thought he could plant potatoes with the grit he had left. Feeling a better about being a bit cleaner, he tipped over the basin and refilled it again.

Jess still wasn't very clean and he decided to go out to the pond for a bath after he ate. It was the least he could do. As he resumed his place at the table, clean in his red shirt, he thought about the girl in the woods and how much she needed a bath. He wouldn't tell them about her; how could he ever explain losing a sword fight, and to a girl, no less?

After an endless moment, Mother pronounced breakfast served and carried over the hot skillet to fill their plates. Jess tried not to show how much he was looking forward to a good meal. Having worked up an appetite fighting the stranger, he was more than ready to eat. Jess watched intently as his mother dumped his share of eggs onto his plate. He looked up to thank her when she stopped and stared at something. Jess glanced at May belle and Ellie sitting directly across from him and noticed that they, too, were staring. He put down his fork and craned his neck to see what everyone was looking at that was more interesting than the steaming pile of eggs.

As he caught sight of their object of interest, his eyes went wide.

Standing in the doorway was the dirty-faced blonde girl he thought he had left behind.