Dawn found them huddle together for warmth and wrapped tightly together beneath the wool blankets from his rucksack. She had bandaged his shoulder wound as best she could and awoke frequently throughout the night to make sure he was kept warm and most of all, was still alive. She had boiled some water, gathered some herbs and roots and made him a dinner of nourishing broth and soup. He had gagged at the taste and the effects of the first food of any kind for weeks hitting his stomach, but on the second try was able to keep it down.
His month old beard was matted and fouled with the last thing he’d eaten in haste weeks ago. He smelled like unused deer meat left to rot in the field and she promised herself that the very first thing she would do once they arrived back at GreyCastle would be to see to it that he was properly bathed. Even if she had to do it herself!
She stood and stretched in the cool morning air. She re-buttoned the top two buttons of her yellow blouse that had come loose in the night. She tucked the ends inside of her tight leather breeks and pulled the leather boots tight on her feet tying the drawstrings at the top into secure bows. She pulled a spare jacket from amongst his gear, put it on and began warming the rest of the broth for their breakfast. She hadn’t been camping in the woods since she was a little girl. This simple afternoon ride had turned into quite an adventure thanks to Storm. She glanced over at the tree where she had tied him for the night and her heart stopped. The horse, their only means out of this wilderness, was gone…
Captain KarSalas walked from the throne room in a somber mood. The regalia of his resplendent red and blue officer uniform dulled by the gravity of the moment. Had she been captured by the brigands during this last jaunt of hers? Practically everyone in the Kingdom had told her to stop riding alone. Especially on that crazed horse, Storm. It was positively suicidal to go riding alone during this time of the season. He walked into the courtyard where dozens of tired soldiers stood awaiting their orders. He took the reigns of his chestnut mare from his attendant.
“Has anyone heard from my son, Lt. KarSalas?”
“No sir,” came the reply. “But those men over there by the stables are from his patrol. They reported that they were conducting searches by the marshes and the Outlands near the edge of the Kingdom and that they all were exhausted when well before nightfall he ordered them back for rest and food while he stayed the night to continue the search ordering them to return at first light today.
“They’re leaving now to rejoin him.”
“The marshes and the Outland you said?” His face clouding and showing concern.
“Yes sir”, said the young officer reading his captains mind,
“Yes sir…I’m afraid so…shall I stop them, is there something you wish to say to them first?”, he said feeling the fathers concern.
“No…just tell them I said to be careful and that …that…” he hesitated, visibly grabbing hold of his emotions and said hurriedly,
“…That they do a glorious job for the Kingdom and GreyCastle. Thank you corporal,” he said mounting his horse.
“Yes sir, as you wish sir,” A crisp salute and the smartly dressed corporal trotted off to speak with the mounted patrol.
KarSalas watched him briefly, lost in thought. His son would be fine. He was a good soldier, a good woodsman and a loyal friend to the Princess. If anyone could find her, it would be his son…But it must be before the brigands could find her first. This was the first week of the full moon, and they seemed to always come during that time. No one knew why they came, only that death and misery was left in their wake…
“Troops of the Kingdom!”, he shouted, “Follow me!”
And led the small horde of troops south where they split into four smaller bands darting out to the four points of the compass to join other search parties already in the field…
He awoke with a start and pushed off the blanket that enshrouded him like a frightened butterfly emerging from a strange cocoon. He glanced quickly around him to get his bearings. Where was he? He reached for his sword which was standing in the corner of a lean-to he lay beneath, and buckled it on.
His head spun and he felt nauseous but he rose, hanging on to the lean-to and fought down his stomach. What was this place? Obviously it wasn’t the Tactrians who had found him, for if they had, he would be dead now.
His breath was a steamy vapor in the crisp morning air. He spied the warming pot of broth upon the fire and poured out some into one of the two bowls that sat nearby and drank and chewed the brew greedily. The bowls were from his kit. He glanced around furtively, his movements still slow and somewhat labored. There was nothing or on one to be seen except…except…He dropped the bowl as he saw Thunder. The horse’s dead body lay partially covered by wind blown leaves. His heart ached as if pierced by a sword. He struggled over to the dead animal. The eyes stared off into the distant land of death. He ignored the stench and wept. His tears, falling on the horses head, traced two long scars near it’s mouth then trickled to the ground. As he wept he recalled the many times Thunder had saved his life, both in and out of battle. The two scars were from the time when he lay wounded on the plain of Alcarr and Chillian Hyenas came to feast upon the wounded and the dead and Thunder had stood guard over him throughout the night as the massive beasts drug off the helpless two at a time to devour them alive. Their screams were like the horrendous screeching of the damned…
He had watched amazed and helpless as this magnificent and loyal animal had repeatedly fought off several dozen of the beasts during the night. They were huge. Nearly as large as the warhorse itself. The morning came to find Thunder, bloodied, shaken and quivering with exhaustion, but still standing over him and at his side with the broken and skull-cracked bodies of over thirty of the vicious man-eaters strewn around him in shattered heaps like stacks of splintered firewood. One had managed a final swipe of Thunder’s muzzle before the courageous horse whirled and kicked him a full six spear lengths. The giant hyena had landed 30 feet away in a mangled heap, dead before he’d hit the ground. The others crept off to lick their wounds and wonder at the power and loyalty of such a beast, with a will as tenacious and as fierce as their own…
“I’m sorry…old friend, that I wasn’t there for you as you had been for me so many, many times. Forgive me...”
It was just then he heard a woman’s scream. He glanced up, his ears searching for the source of the sound.
Again the scream. Behind him. Thru the trees. He rose slowly willing himself to run to the sound. His right arm in a sling, the shoulder bandaged. His sword arm. The weapon banged against his left thigh he ran. He would just have to draw with his left hand if it came to it.
Again a scream, followed by a shout. A woman’s voice raised in anger. He broke thru a mass of trees where the ground dropped off suddenly descending down to a muddy river bank. There, standing knee deep in the shallows, stood a young girl tugging on the reins of a quite spirited gelding. He watched in amusement as the horse reared, the reins slipping once more from her hands and she, her weight displaced, toppled backward into the muddy water, screaming. She arose, soaking wet and mud splashed.
Apparently they had been going around like this for a while.
He sat down where he was, his body reminding him that he was nowhere near his fighting form and that his jaunt through the woods hadn’t helped any. He chuckled to himself as she stamped her foot, and pointed to a spot in the water immediately in front of her, her actions relaying to him what the roar of the river did not permit him to hear.
He was pleasantly surprised to see the smart-aleck young stallion sheepishly obey. Remarkable. Thunder had been like that when they had first met…
It walked to the spot in front of its mistress and whineyed apologetically, bowed its head and then shook the water from it’s main. Splashing her with it in the process.
She turned to avoid the spray and caught sight of a figure seated on the hill above with his legs over the edge like a school boy at leisure. She raced to the shore for her sword. He climbed down the bank to meet her…
“Um talak baak thuu. Dak thalum bak ta ho!,” said a squat figure in a harsh whisper as it peered at the clearing, through the under brush…
“Quiet, you act as if we come to Court the Dead and not to hunt the living. Now, be quiet, or we will be heard…”
An insubordinate grunt answered him from a near by bush…
“It’s you!”, she said in obvious shock, sword in hand pointed at the tall stranger who walked casually up to her.
“What are you doing up so soon. In your condition you should be still getting rest.”
She still held on to the sword, lowering the point a little as he strode by her to the shore to admire the playful horse. But unsure of this Outlander and how he would act, she kept the sword in a semi-defensive position.
He watched the horse splash about playfully in the river then stop suddenly. It had caught wind of his scent, turning, it eyed him suspiciously. He was rather ripe…
“Beautiful animal,” he said hearing his own voice for the first time in what seemed like months. It was strange, hollow, hoarse.
“What’s his name?”, he said, in a hoarse whisper.
“Storm,” she said somewhat cautiously.
His head thoughtfully turned in her direction. Why did he ask? Was he planning on stealing her horse and leaving her stranded out here in this wilderness?
“Why what’s wrong with that name?”, she said shifting her weight from foot to foot just in case she did have to fight the stranger she’d be prepared. Now, why was he smiling?
Storm, he thought, coincidence?
“Storm you said?”
“How ironic,” he said.
“Yes, my horse, the one up there in the clearing, was named “Thunder”. Life…how full of ironies…Painful ones.
“Are you the one responsible for this,” he said indicating the sling and bandage.
“Yes,” she said deciding to take a chance and sheath her sword. In his condition even if he tried any thing he would be no match for her.
He thanked her.
“You’re welcome. I saw your horse there in the clearing. A beautiful animal, what a shame to see it so…”
“Yes,” he said bowing his head,”… and it’s my fault.”
“I—“, he stopped. Something, was wrong…He knew it. He felt it. Eyes. Probing…watching…waiting.
It was then that Storm reared. He had caught the scent too.
“Girl”, the stranger said matter of factly, looking casually but alertly around them.
“Can you draw steel, or do you wear that sword as a mere trinket…”
She bristled. So he was planning on stealing her horse, the ungrateful, wretched…
“I’m the finest swordsman in JildiZar and if you doubt that…”
“I am not your concern girl…”, he said still turning slowly and eyeing the forest and trees on the banks above them…
“…But there!”, he said pointing to a parting bush with his left hand, “Is your enemy!’
Suddenly an arrow thunked into the sand at their feet and the brushes and woods around them spewed forth gruff fur-clad figures wielding battle axes and spears and short swords charging down the banks at them screaming war cries.
“Run!!!” shouted Arnenia and ran to mount Storm. We must race down river. She slung herself up on the horse in a heartbeat and turned to stretch out her hand to the stranger behind her and pull him up. Only he was not there! But on the beach turning to face the Brigands.
Was he crazy??? There were twenty or more of them!!!
“Stranger, hurry!!! Come on!!!” Storm reared and crushed the skull of a brigand wading up to him in fur kilt, battle axe raised. His head cracked as easily as an egg shell beneath the horse’s hooves.
By the gods! Was he mad?? He was turning to face them, and fight! There were too many! Had she worked so hard to save his life just to see him die here, like this, so quickly. Then she watched him, and she was amazed…
He wore a now soiled and worn black cape. As ten or more of the northern barbarians swarmed towards him he removed his injured arm slowly from it’s sling. He spun into the first small group of 5 or so that reached him with all the ease and grace of a court dancer, but with the deadliness of a hungry wolf.
He spun, snatching off his cape, flinging it over the heads of his on rushing foes. It billowed like a great black predatory bird engulfing them, and he was like some great magician that had pulled it out of thin air. They attempted to dodge and duck away, but it settled upon them like a great death cloud while he, without pause or breath, drew the sharpest sword she had ever seen, and sweeping low while they were blinded, severed their legs at the ankles in one incredible swift movement. She had never seen anything like it before in her entire life…but, weak as he was, there were more than he could handle.
She looked down river to safety and sure freedom, they hadn’t blocked that way yet. If she bolted with Storm now…
No. She drew her sword and goaded Storm into the fray, screaming her battle cry. Such courage from this stranger could not be left to die unappreciated or alone. Storm pounded his way to shore as if eager to join battle with the intruders.
It was then that the single fiery arrow arched it’s smoky way gracefully upwards from the treeline into the stark blue sky…
“Barrak bal um tom, ba aak Thall dum tak!” said the savage archer in a gruff but reverent whisper as the arrow fell like a deadly bird of prey toward its unsuspecting target…
“For you, the Thall, the god of Fire, may the burning death of our enemies bring you pleasure!”
The force of the arrow from the long bow knocked the slim but courageous young Princess clear off of her horse, backwards into the muddy river, face first, where she lay floating, face down…and perfectly still...