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Escort Duty – Part 3

Princess Erika sat on her horse, impatiently strumming her fingers on the pommel of her saddle in the early morning gloom. She wore a deep violet riding gown and cloak, with a plumed hat to match. Her saddle and tack were as fine as her dress, with the former’s ox-blood dyed leather buffed to a high gloss, and the latter made from polished silver, which rang like a bell whenever it moved. The horse was a beautifully dappled mare, with violet ribbons in its mane and tail, matching her gown.

Her maid sat astride a smaller gray horse, her plain dress matching the tawny leather of the saddle she sat upon. She kept stealing nervous glances toward the camp, where men could be heard at some work or another, or toward the woods, where the sound of the wind in the trees mixed with the noises of animals either going to their beds or rising for the day.

“Greta, why are you twitching about?” the princess demanded after a few minutes.

“My lady, it’s not safe to be out of the camp unattended,” her maid answered, “There could be brigands or rebels in those woods.”

Patting the leather sheath on her saddle, Erika smiled.

“We’re perfectly safe,” she said, “I’ll skewer anyone who trifles with us.”

Greta looked at her mistress dubiously, then glanced back at the camp.

“They’re coming, my lady,” she said as a group of men rode out to join them.

Dveglammar reined his horse to a stop a few feet away from the women and nodded to the princess. Behind him, Soren, wearing plain clothing and a long, brown cloak, rode a dappled pony. The only indications that he was a soldier were the shiny black cavalryman’s boots on his feet and the long sword he wore on his belt. A pack mule, bearing several bundles, followed along on a tether.

Simon, clad in a dark gray tunic and leggings, rode between the two guards who had escorted him to Tor’s tent the day before. His horse, a black pony with a white spot between her eyes, pawed at the ground after he reined her to a halt, impatient to be moving again after a long rest.

Simon looked out at the woods around them and gave a low whistle, its tone warbling across the grass and into the trees. His guards scowled at him, but Simon only smiled back, winking at the one who bore a war hammer. After a moment, a bird answered the call with a harsh caw. Simon’s smile brightened to a grin.

“My lady, I hope you know vat you are doing,” Tor said gravely.

“My lord, I am sure that I do,” she replied, “In a month, I shall be home, and you shall be finishing your campaign. I’m also certain that these gentlemen can keep us safe until we cross into Prince Jorgen’s lands.”

“A messenger left out last night to warn the Prince of your coming,” Soren said.

“Ve asked dat he have vatchers at his borders,” Devglammar added in a grave tone, “He vill be expecting to see you in a few veeks.”

“Excellent. I’m sure my betrothed will greet us with open arms.”

Simon looked around, then interrupted, “My lords and lady, might I ask a question?”

The trio turned to him, while the guards smoldered at their prisoner’s impertinence.

“Yes, you may,” Tor replied icily.

“Am I to go about unarmed on this little jaunt?”

“You vill be given your veapons before you go.”

“We’re about to go, aren’t we? Or are we going to waste daylight chatting?”

Soren rounded on the half-elf, his face reddening.

“We will go when the princess and the commander are done speaking, half-breed. Now sit on your nag and do not speak unless told to!” he retorted.  A trace of his northern accent, which he normally suppressed, crept into his voice as he spoke.

Simon’s grin brightened at that, and he bowed dramatically in the saddle.

“Of course, my lord,” he said with his best courtly tone, “I shall be sure to do so.”

Soren turned back to Tor and said, “Is he really necessary? I know the roads well enough.”

“You vent troo dose lands as part of da army, on da main roads, and dat vas only because ve put da strong arm on der rulers,” Dveglammar said, “Simon vill get you troo dem vitout being seen. You know dat Lords Herceg and Kiraly vould like notting better dan to have da prinzess for ransom, or vorse. Just keep a lid on him and for da love of da gods, keep him avay from da prinzess!”

Soren nodded, then bowed to the Princess. “Highness,” he said, “Shall we go?”

Erika smiled and said, “Yes, let us get moving.”

Tor urged his horse forward, saying “I vill accompany you to da river, my lady. After dat, you vill have to rely on your escorts and yourself.”

Erika nodded and rode beside him. The pair was followed by Greta and Sorren, with the mule following docilely. Last came Simon, flanked by his guards.

“I assume that the view will get better with time,” he quipped as he glanced at the back end of the mule. The guards ignored him, keeping their horses a few feet from his.

The small group made their way through the woods without a word. The sound of their horses’ hooves was muffled by the damp remains of the last fall’s leaves on the ground and the heavy canopy of green on the branches above. Even the pleasant sounds of Tor, Soren, and Erika chatting seemed muted and distant. The quiet was occasionally broken by the sound of a squirrel running through the canopy, or the sound of some bird or another calling to its mate.

Simon tried on several occasions to engage his guards in conversation, but was only answered once with a grunt.

“Well, if you fellows aren’t going to participate, I’m just going to ride in silence,” Simon finally said.

Occasional beams of bright early morning sunshine broke up the shade, but their eyes adjusted to the forest’s gloom well enough. The undergrowth of brambles and bushes on either side of their trail might have seemed claustrophobic had it not been for the bursts of spring blossoms and their perfume infusing the air around them.

Presently, the forest opened up to reveal the banks of a wide stream, its flow still swift from the spring melt in the mountains to the north, but only a few feet deep.

“My lady, dis is vere I leave you,” Dveglammar said, halting his horse at the edge of the water.

“My lord, thank you for your help and companionship,” Erika replied, “I hope that the rest of the journey is just as pleasant.”

“Vell, ve can only hope,” he replied, turning to Soren, “Take care of her. Once ve are finished here, I vill send for you.”

Soren nodded and offered Tor his hand. “Good luck, my lord. I hope to see you before the snow falls.”

The two men shook hands briskly, then Soren splashed his horse and the mule out into the frigid water. Once he had gained the other side, the two women rode across to join him. Tor watched them go, his hands tense on the reins until they had ridden out of the water. Soren raised a hand once the women were safely at his side.

Dveglammar turned to Simon, a stern look upon his face. He reached out and put his hand on the blond-haired man’s arm.

“If you survive and dey don’t, I vill find you and feed you to my horse,” he said darkly.

“Then I will have to make sure they survive, won’t I?” Simon replied.

“And Simon, von odder ting,” Tor continued, dropping his hand, “Keep your hands off of both vomen.”

“Tor, I’m shocked! I’ll be a gentleman, of course.”

“I mean it, Simon. Da prinzess is off limits, and so is her maid. Da last ting I need is for Prince Yorgen to vant to know if da child of his vedding night is really his, or vhy his new vife’s maid is no longer a maiden.”

“Tor, I won’t lay a finger on either of them, I promise.”

“Good, den, be off vit you.”

“There’s the matter of my belongings?”

Tor considered Simon for a moment, then said simply, “Give him his veapons.”

The guard carrying the war hammer reached behind his saddle and produced two daggers and a sword, all sheathed in black leather. The guard weighed them in the palm of his hand for a moment before passing them over to Simon.

“Nice toys,” he sneered, “Don’t weigh enough to be of any use in battle.”

Simon smiled as he took his blades from the guard.

“Well, I’m no blade master, and we can’t all carry war hammers,” he replied quietly.

“Be careful, now,” the guard snorted derisively, “Don’t cut yourself.”

Simon’s smile broadened as his wrist and elbow moved as one, removing his sword, Gnarlthing, from its scabbard and swinging it below the guard’s chin faster than the brute’s eye could blink in surprise. The blade, flashing in the mid-morning sun, sliced through the guard’s beard, sending the whiskers fluttering down as Simon brought the sword’s blade to a halt a hair’s breadth from his own thigh. For a moment, the only sound was the play of the stream on the rocks and the sword blade singing after being freed from its scabbard.

The guard squawked as his free hand flew to his bare chin. The other guard just gawked at the sight of Simon casually putting his sword away. Tor reached for his sword hilt, but stopped when he saw no blood on either his guard or Simon’s blade.

The guard, his beard shorn away, bellowed as he raised his war hammer. Simon’s grin never wavered as his sword flicked out again, this time halting as it rested against the guard’s jugular.

“Stop!” Tor cried, his own sword halfway out of its scabbard. The other guard, his eyes as big as saucers, stopped with his spear halfway down from its carry position.

“Nice moustache,” Simon said evenly, his blue eyes locking with those of the guard, “It would be a shame to dye it blood red.”

“Simon, put dat avay!” Dveglammar ordered angrily, “You two, put your veapons down!”

Simon pulled his sword back and smoothly snicked it down into its scabbard. The guards relaxed, with the war hammer carrier slowly putting his weapon down across his pommel.

“Now, get going, you scoundrel,” Tor said once his breathing had returned to normal, “You’ve made your point.”

Simon raised his hand in salute to Tor, then nudged his horse in the flanks with his heels and splashed across the stream.

Soren waited for him near the other side, his hand on the handle of his sword and his horse a few feet out into the water. “What happened?” he demanded as Simon urged his black horse up the bank.

“Oh, that big bastard needed a shave. I just did it dry,” the half-elf said with a smile.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

1 Comment

  1. Loved that one!

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