Towering Darkness (pt 2)

If you haven’t already, you may wish to read part 1 of this story before reading on.

The princess was accompanied by five sour-faced Royal Guards, all heavily armed and clad in their distinctive black tunics. They did little and said even less, but they had the look of fighting men — the steel-eyed stare — and several sported the scars to prove it. Princess Bouchet remained hidden under the raised hood of her cloak and kept her words to a minimum when she spoke, which was rarely. This suited Rael, he enjoyed peace and quiet and as the others largely ignored him he took the opportunity to enjoy the nature and views that surrounded them, something the others seemed not to notice.

Slowly the countryside slipped by and he got into the routine of the trip. They would rise shortly after dawn, breakfast, the princess would bath, then they’d break camp and head off on the road. They would stop when the princess signalled time for lunch and have a bite to eat, then continue on until the light began to fail, when they would find a suitable campsite and the royal guard would erect a tent for the princess. Rael and the guards would sleep outside, except when it rained, when they would hang a tarpaulin from some trees for protection. The guards took turns to stand watch throughout the night. All this was done in near silence. If they passed a village or small town they would often stop outside as one of the guards went in to purchase supplies.

Rael enjoyed the peace as he watched the world slide by but something unnerved him. He could understand the guards silence around the princess, but he’d been around enough soldiers to know that once the boss was out of sight the horseplay, stories, bragging and joking started. Not so with the royal guard, they were silent and stern all the time. It wasn’t normal, and that planted a seed of doubt in Rael’s mind, an annoying little itch he couldn’t scratch away. He was careful to keep an eye on them, while acting as if he was completely oblivious. He had barely seen the princess, eating before her so that he could prepare his horse in the morning, she spent most of her time hidden inside her cloak. This didn’t bother Rael so much, princesses were known to be eccentric. He was counting the days to Edlenser.

The question came out of the blue, Rael hadn’t noticed the princess drop back beside him.
“Are you a swordsman?”
“No, my Lady, a farmer.”
“You have a very impressive sword for a farmer.”
“It was a prize, I won it in a tournament hosted by your cousin, King Drenden.”
“Then you must be very good, to beat all those others I mean.”
“I doubt I’m even the best in Westland, my lady, let alone in the lands beyond. I’m sure any one of your fine guards could best me with a blade.”
“Then why did my cousin insist you come accompany me?”
“I have business in Edlenser, I asked if the king might allow me to travel with you and your guard, these lands are known to be treacherous to lone travellers.”
Without another word she slowly increased pace and moved ahead of him. In all this time he had seen little more than her lips beneath the hood.

On the afternoon of the tenth day of their journey they came to a fork in the road. Rael knew that the left path lead to Edlenser, so it he was surprised to find them take the right fork.
“Er, Captain, I think we should be taking the left fork.”
No response. Rael noticed that the royal guard had taken up positions all around the princess, hemming her in, with their leader, Fiden, leading them all. Normally they rode slightly behind the princess.
“Fiden, I believe Edlenser is the other way.”
“Is this right, Fiden?” came the princess’ voice from under the hood.
The leader of the Royal Guard signalled a halt. He turned his horse parallel to the road, the disdain on his face was evident. He practically spat the words as he spoke the.
“The farm boy is right, Your Highness. But we’re not going to Edlenser, you see, I have been offered a great deal of money for you in Highdown. All I have to do is deliver you and I become a very rich man.”
Rael reached for his sword.
“You can’t — I won’t — ”
“You won’t what?”
The last two guards spun their mounts and raised loaded crossbows.
“You don’t have a choice, my friend, all you’re going to be doing is dying.”
Rael pulled tight on the reigns and jabbed his feet into the horse’s side, it reared, lashing violently. This spooked the other horses and the crossbowmen dropped their weapons in favour of trying to stay mounted. Rael turned his horse and spurred it into the trees. He’d got a little distance when a crossbow bolt whistled past him, followed by a second. He rushed on, then suddenly pulled up, he walked his horse into some dense brush. Dismounting, he took his bow from the pack and strung it. He notched an arrow and waited, listening.

Part 3 of this story has now been published.

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