The Warrior and the Princess Pt 3

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What I would give now for a horse!? This thought – born more from hope than anything else had been prominent in the mind of the guard since they had set out for the Marshtop garrison. Amid the carnage of the battle they both had survived lay the corpses of many horses and their riders. He had decided then that very little choice remained but to go on foot; he dare not risk the safety of the princess by entering the palace stables for fear of encountering the enemy and, there was no certainty that any horse would be found there alive.

Without any knowledge of where the demonic enemy would show up next, or in what number, the guard was well aware of the high risk strategy he had been forced to undertake and the dangers inherent to the princess with such a plan, the only other realistic alternative was to take a longer path through the forest which ran parallel either side of the valley, but by taking such a path would mean going miles out of their way and, they most certainly would not make the garrison by nightfall. But in any eventuality, and should they be attacked, he would defend her life to the bitter end even if by so doing, he had to lay down his own life; the safe passage of the princess to the garrison was of paramount importance.

With these unsettling, uncomfortable thoughts, the guard, with haste, directed their path down into the Griven. The valley itself, although mostly open country, had very rough terrain with a few clearings here and there, it pitched slowly downward toward the centre and then, from their vantage point, rose sharply up at the marsh end. A sparse scattering of trees could be seen a small distance ahead amid outcroppings of stone boulders and wild prickly bushes that all fell away as far as the eye could see to a vanishing point. The guard had travelled the pathways on horseback many times in service to the king; he knew the layout of the land well enough and, he knew exactly which path would be the shortest route to take.

The weather remained clement as they both descended farther down the Griven, the mid afternoon sun shimmered high above sending down heat waves which made everything ahead of them mirage in false movements. The faint sounds of bird song could still be heard coming from the surrounding forest. The air around them became very close and the lower they got, the more apparent and oppressive it became.

On they trudged saying very little to each other, the only immediate sounds came from the snapping of dry brush as they were crushed underfoot when trodden on. The guard ever on the alert continuously looked all around him for any tell-tale sign that might signal the presence of the very thing he did not wish to encounter; the demonic enemy. Nothing out of the ordinary could be seen or heard, but the guard, as if by way of a sixth sense had an ever growing feeling that they were now being watched; the hairs on the back of his neck were standing up alerting him to an impending, unseen danger.

With the fast pace the guard had imposed, they had now travelled a mile and three quarters and had reached the nadir of the valley, the late afternoon sun was to their right getting ever lower in the sky; there would be just a few more hours left until sunset. Ahead of them they could now see the ground starting to rise rapidly, the going from here on would be physically more demanding on the pair of them.

The feeling of being watched had never left the guard, but now it had doubled in its intensity. He hadn’t mentioned his concerns to the princess, but it had become plainly obvious to her that the guard’s tension level had dramatically risen over the last hour, and occasionally she would cast a nervous glance in his direction only to see him looking expectantly about him; she had said nothing in her silent fear but kept very close to him. The tension now became so high within the princess that she couldn’t remain silent any longer, she was about to say something when the guard suddenly grabbed her arm and halted her in her tracks; the Princess then let out a gasp, through shock.

“Jules, what is it?” she whispered, wide eyed with fear.

The guard said nothing but desperately looked around the terrain and then led her to a nearby boulder where he made her crouch low on the valley floor; he squatted down to join her.

The princess looked at him, searching his face for surety.

“My Princess,” he hissed, still looking about him. “listen, what do you hear?”

The princess’s eyes darted everywhere then came to rest on the guards, she shock her head and looked questioningly at the guard.

“I don’t hear anything Jules,” she replied. “What am I listening for?”

The guard pointed upwards with his finger.

“The birds my Princess, the birds are no longer singing,” came his reply. “All has gone quiet…this is not natural, something has disturbed them.”

The princess froze, listening, and then finally nodded her agreement. She held up a trembling hand to her mouth in an attempt to steady herself while looking pleadingly into the guard’s eyes for guidance; a thick heavy blanket of deep, brooding, dead silence had now descended upon the valley.

The guard propped himself up and reached behind his back to pull his spear from its straps, he then produced a dagger from its leather holster and placed it into the trembling hand of the princess.

“Take this, Pretty,” he said, commandingly. “You may be called upon to defend yourself.”

The princess looked bewilderingly at him, gently shaking her head in self doubt but took the dagger; it did little to reassure her. The guard motioned for her to remain where she was as he left the cover of the boulder and slowly stood up to look around. Nothing could be seen as he gazed around, all was still dead quiet, but he could sense that they were definitely not alone, it felt like they were being hunted. He also knew they dare not remain in one place for too long, they must somehow keep moving forward as best they could, whenever they could.

About thirty yards ahead, slightly to their left stood another boulder. The guard decided that the best option was for them to head for it, he gestured to the princess to stand up and remain quiet while whispering his intention to her, she acknowledged with a nervous nod of her head. With a prompt from the guard they both made for the boulder, running low, running fast and silently as they could. They successfully reached the boulder without incident and took cover against it facing in the direction they needed to go.

Up ahead another fifty yards or so stood another boulder, the guard looked at the princess and pointed at it with his head, the princess understood and waited for the command to go. Suddenly, someway back directly behind them a deep guttural noise sounded and this was answered by two identical sounds coming from their left and right respectively – but still someway behind them. The guard remained motionless, listening, waiting, but no other sound came either from in front or from behind.

The guard now considered their options, he had to trust to a certain amount of good fortune that no enemy lay in silent wait up ahead, there was no way to be sure unless it betrayed itself like the others had done behind them, but through experience he took some comfort from the knowledge that since these creatures first appeared, being as ferocious as they were, had not displayed any higher intelligence other than a pack hunting mentality and, they did not learn from their mistakes during combat making them singularly easy to kill, but here and now there were at least three heading in their direction and he was essentially alone should a fight ensue.

Although they were almost at the end of the Griven, the most difficult aspect of the journey, the steep uphill climb lay before them. If they could traverse that unasailed then the marshes secretive, safe path would assist their passage to the garrison. With everything considered and weighed up in his mind the guard turned to the princess.

“My Princess,” he said, half whispering, “I believe we are being hunted. Our scent has been picked up and the enemy is tracking us since our departure from the royal grounds, we must make haste and try to reach the marshes before they are upon us, it is our only choice, we dare not remain here any longer. Are you strong enough to run?”

The princess gave him a worried smile.

“I will make myself,” she answered, softly but defiantly.

The guard gave a grim smile and nodded.

“Very well, no more talk, we must go now…do not drop the dagger.”

The guard stood up and helped the princess to her feet and, without further ado, she suddenly sped off toward the steep incline ahead; fear being her drive reinforced by a strong sense of self preservation, the guard, taking regular glances behind him, was hot on her heels.

No sooner had they set off when another throaty guttural noise sounded behind them, and again this was followed by the other two at either side, but this time the proximity had changed; they were gaining on them.

The princess, on hearing the sounds, looked behind her and by doing so almost stumbled, but she managed to keep her footing and ran onward.

“Pretty!” shouted the guard, angrily – silence no longer mattered – “do not do that again, no matter what happens keep running with eyes forward!”

The princess, feeling foolish after what she had just done, never replied but started to run harder up the hill and, not being used to running for any long periods of time, her calf muscles were beginning to tighten up, but she gritted her teeth and soldiered on regardless.

The guttural noise sounded again, but this time all three were heard emanating from virtually the same place, and worse still, not very far behind their fleeing prey. The guard glanced behind him and now he could see the creatures arriving at the slope and gaining ground on them all the time, he now knew that he would have to face them in a fight to the death. He turned back round to see that the princess was not too far ahead but appeared to be slowing through fatigue and she was almost out of breath; soon he feared she would fall from sheer physical exhaustion.

“Pretty!” he shouted. “Don’t stop running no matter what happens…you hear me!?”

The princess wanted to reply but was unable to, every breath she had left she knew must be preserved, but she also knew she would not be able to continue much further; she was now a hair’s breadth away from total collapse.

Three quarters of the way up with just a little way to go, the guard stopped and prepared himself to whatever end awaited him, he was breathing hard but in no way exhausted, not yet at least. He climbed a grassy outcropping and watched as the creatures, only a hundred yards or so away raced forward to claim their prey. With a quick glance up the hill he saw the princess collapse; her strength now totally spent. She lay on her back with her arms splayed out; she still had the dagger in hand.

The time has come, thought the guard as he screamed his battle cry.

The demonic creatures were upon him, he held up his trusty spear and singled out the leading demon. With deft timing and unparalleled skill the guard let loose his spear, it shot forward from his hand and penetrated the demon’s skull, it fell instantly never knowing what had hit it and died instantly with not so much as a whimper.

The guard leapt down from the outcropping and stood proud while drawing his sword as the remaining pair approached him warily. He slowly backed up the hill never taking his eyes off them. The creatures seemed to be looking not at the guard, but ahead up the hill at the princess.

“Not until you pass me demons!” shouted the guard, menacingly.

He suddenly lunged at one of them but it managed to avoid his blade, the other also sprang back more out of reflex than threat. The demons then split apart forming to attack lines, the guard knew he wouldn’t be able to stop both at the same time but it wasn’t going to stop him from trying.

With drooling mouths agape, and red eyes aflame with hate, the demons prepared to strike. The guard then made ready to go for whichever one went for the princess, he waited, all muscles tensed and ready to react, then they sprang. One lunged directly for him while the other made for the same outcropping the guard had used, with an avoiding leap the guard dodged his assailant, then rolled head first on the ground and righted himself in front of the other demon immediately taking a swipe at it with his sword just as it leapt from the mound.

Out of nowhere came a flying dagger which landed in the demon’s front leg right after the guard had taken his swipe at it. The creature let out a howl and stopped in its tracks then tried desperately to remove the blade from the injured leg with its teeth. The guard flashed a look behind him and saw that the princess was standing just yards away panting heavily and wide eyed with abject terror.

The demon which sprang at the guard began prowling back and forth, the injured demon was still trying to remove the blade jutting out from its leg. The guard backed up the hill again until he reached a point just in front of the princess.

“My Princess, keep moving up, there is just a little way to go,” said the guard, not taking his eyes away from the demons.

The princess obeyed and started walking backwards up the hill closely followed by the guard. If only he could retrieve his spear he would have a chance of evening the odds to one on one, but the reality was he could not leave the princess; it was out of the question.

The situation looked hopeless when all of a sudden the injured demon successfully pulled out the dagger from its leg, and with a blood curdling screech rejoined its demonic partner and together they closed in for the kill.

“Pretty! If you are able to run, then run for your life. I do not think I can hold them both.” said the guard.

The princess, half frozen in terror, couldn’t speak, but she kept moving backwards up the hill nonetheless, and with a reserve boost of adrenalin she turned around and began running as fast as her legs would allow. The top was now clearly in sight and on seeing it the princess shouted down at the guard in a screaming, hysterical voice.

“Jules…we are nearly there, it’s just up ahead.”

Just after that, two things happened at once. The creatures pounced, one at the guard, while the other ran at the princess. Then somewhere above them a hail of bugles was heard followed by a thundering of horses hooves stampeding upon the ground, the demons both stopped dead in their tracks and looked up to where the sound had come from. A small party of mounted guards coming from Marshtop appeared at the crest of the hill and came charging down yelling their battle cry.

One of the mounted guards stopped and picked up the princess then went racing back up the hill with her. The others came charging down upon the demons and hacked them to pieces where they stood; it was all over in a matter of seconds.

The guard fell to his knees in thankful wonderment, and of all the myriad of thoughts going through his tired mind, the only thing that really mattered to him was the rescue of the princess. She had been saved.

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