As I lay on the thick straw mattress, sleep would not come. I listened to the sounds about me, the creaking of the timbers of the great hall, the faint sounds, beyond our chamber, of the soldiers sleeping and guards moving about as they changed watch. I could hear sounds in the forest outside, birds fluttering between the trees and animals scurrying through the undergrowth but mostly I listened to the soft rhythm of Princess Astrid sleeping, peacefully.
Something was troubling me and my mind was whirling with a myriad of thoughts. Why had I not covered myself in front of her? Why did I not want her to wait outside the bathhouse and, the one thing that really puzzled me, why did I tremble when she touched me, when she held me and bathed me?
All these things had never happened to me before. My maids had seen me naked, I had no reaction to them. I had been bathed before, by my mother, my maids, but their touch had never produced the slightest feeling in me. When Astrid touched me my body felt as though it had been pricked gently by a million needles, my breathing became difficult and my heart beat like a blacksmiths hammer.
Who was this woman who made me feel this way?
I couldn't find any answers and soon more and more questions found their way into my thoughts. How would we beat the enemy, how would we break out of Mallagen without being discovered?
Eventually, though, sleep did begin to overtake me and I drifted into an uneasy sleep.
In the distance, I thought I could hear a screech. High pitched and menacing, like some kind of plaintive call, summoning and full of authority. It made me uneasy and I went to the window. It was still dark and all I could see was the dark shape of trees, illuminated by the bright eye of the full moon.
I felt a presence behind me and strong but gentle hands gripped my shoulders.
"You heard it too, Anna?" It was Astrid.
"Yes," I replied. "What was it?"
"That was a Draaken."
"But I thought they were just mythical. Creatures of legend!"
"No, my dear, they are not. They are fearsome creatures and have been bred by Samerron as flying steeds for his generals. They used to be noble beasts with a fine lineage but that has been taken away from them and now they are fettered to the ways of evil."
I shuddered at the thought. I knew of these creatures from the stories I had listened to intently as a child but never thought that I would actually see one! The elders told of their great talons which would cut into a horses flesh as the powerful creature carried it away through the air to its mountain lair. To a Draaken, a human was just a snack!
Astrid moved closer to me and put her arms around my waist. I closed my eyes and held my breath as I felt her, warm, against me, her strong arms keeping me safe.
"There are many perils we must face together," she went on, "and I don't know whether we will survive them." I didn't speak as she continued, "We will try and we will not give up as long as we are together."
I turned in her arms so I was facing her and looked deep into her dark eyes.
"They will not defeat us, Astrid, we have to survive! The future of our people depends on us!"
"Then, My friend, we must sleep this night for tomorrow we must finalise our plans and be ready to move by nightfall."
I put my arms around her waist and pulled her to me, holding her tightly for a moment before releasing her and, for that moment, as she too held me, I knew that we would be invincible for if not, the final haven of peace would be lost and Sammeron would be ruler of all the lands and its people would be his slaves.
We returned to our mattresses and, at last, sleep came and I slept peacefully.
When I awoke, a cold light filtered into the chamber. The other cot was empty, Astrid was nowhere to be seen.
Quickly, I buckled my sword belt around my waist, Fitted my dagger to my arm and put on my cloak. Finally, I picked up my bow and quiver, left the sleeping chamber and entered the great hall. It was a hive of activity with men to-ing and fro-ing, gathering weapons and supplies but there was no sign of Astrid.
"My lady?" A man's voice spoke from beside me. I turned.
"Fabian! Where is the Princess?"
"She has been up since first light, My Lady," he replied. "She is out in the forest just now, checking the defences and making sure the men are fed and prepared."
"Why didn't she wake me?" I exclaimed in dismay.
"She told me to make sure you were not disturbed, My Lady. She knows... we all know, what a difficult journey you had to reach us here and she wanted you to be well rested before we move out tonight. She asked me to look after you so, if you are ready, I will take you to eat."
I looked at him and saw a kind but strong warrior. He was young and handsome and had a beautiful smile but he was rugged also with an air of someone who had seen many battles. His long blond hair was tied back with braids, as Astrid had done with mine and his ice blue eyes flashed and sparkled as he spoke.
He guided me to the great table at the end of the hall and bade me sit at its head and in no time food appeared before me, brought by servants.
He turned as if to leave.
"Fabian?" I queried. "You are not staying?"
"I was going to leave you to eat in peace, My Lady," he replied, "but if you wish me to remain..."
"Please," I answered, gesturing the chair beside me. "I would be happy for you to join me."
As he sat I watched him help himself to the food I had offered him.
“Tell me about your Princess,” I asked, “What is she like really? She seems so strong yet has shown me much kindness.”
Fabian stopped chewing and paused, as if in thought.
“Hmmm...” he swallowed his mouthful and rubbed his chin, frowning. “Something is different in her,” he offered eventually. “I am not sure but she seems... well, softer somehow and yet sterner, if that makes any sense.”
“Go on,” I said, listening intently.
“Well, ever since you arrived yesterday she has been very protective of you. She has never asked me to look after her guests before, usually leaves that to the serving maids. I think she likes you.” He paused, then, “No, there is more to it than that. There is something else that I can't quite fathom... something deeper. Maybe she sees you as our last hope against the enemy, I don't know.”
He looked troubled and thoughtful so I changed the subject.
“What about you, Fabian. Do you have anyone special?”
“Oh no, My Lady,” he smiled, I haven't found anyone yet. Maybe when we defeat Samerron and peace returns to these lands, then, perhaps, I will be able to settle down and find a wife but until then...”
I looked into his bright blue eyes and smiled. He returned my gaze for a moment then let his eyes fall. I put my hand on his, saying;
“Our turn will come, Fabian. You will have a wife one day and I will have a...”
Our conversation was rudely interrupted as suddenly the door to the great hall crashed open and a tall, bloodied man ran in, shouting.
“My Lord! The enemy has attacked the west side!” he said breathlessly to Fabian, “The Princess sent me to get you!”
Fabian leapt to his feet and began to run for the door. Grabbing my bow and quiver I ran after him.
"No, My Lady," he shouted back to me. "Stay here where it is safe!"
I ignored his plea and continued to run after him towards the stables and to Fleet-foot.
Grabbing his mane I leapt upon his back, spurring him onwards towards the west and to battle.
By this time we had been joined by a company of Fabian's horse soldiers and we galloped through the trees towards the sounds of a fierce battle, raging ahead of us.
The horses drove straight through the mad throng, swords flashing as they hacked at the enemy soldiers. Steel rang against steel, blood sprayed as keen blades sliced easily through soft flesh and in the angry melee I saw her, Astrid, on the ground hacking and chopping. The great sword in one hand, swinging with the strength of ten men and, in the other, a long pointed dagger, swishing, and stabbing. Her very life depended on it.
Suddenly, I saw something move rapidly toward her and in one swift movement, drew an arrow from my quiver, fitted it to my bow, drew and released. The swift arrow found its mark and the enemy soldier fell instantly, the arrow through his throat.
Almost immediately I drew another and put down another enemy soldier, then another and another until I had no more arrows. Slinging my bow behind me, I drew my sword and swung it for all I was worth.
In the noise of battle, Fleet-foot stood firm until a wounded forest man fell in front of him followed by the enemy soldier who was swinging an axe, trying to kill him.
The horse reared up and I fell backwards, landing heavily on the forest floor, the air momentarily forced from my lungs. It was the signal for the enemy to lurch forwards toward me and I heard gruff voices shouting,
"Take her alive! He wants her alive!"
My sword had fallen beside me and as I grabbed its hilt the first soldier dived towards me. As he lunged, I lifted the sword and he fell straight onto its razor-sharp tip, the momentum keeping him going as the hard steel passed through his tunic and into his flesh, his weight pushing the pommel against the ground until the bloody tip reappeared from his back and he lay, lifeless, across me.
I struggled to push his dead weight from me but he was too heavy and a second one was advancing upon me. As he reached me he stopped, suddenly, staring at me with a look of puzzlement, he let the axe he was wielding fall to the ground then he too fell slowly forward, dead, an arrow protruding from his back.
This was enough and the others turned and fled from the woods, many not escaping with their lives.
I struggled again to extricate myself from beneath the heavy corpse and this time a pair of hands grabbed the body and pulled it from me. I breathed out a great sigh of relief and turned to see who had saved me.
"Fabian!" I exclaimed, getting to my feet. "Thank you."
"You are welcome, My Lady," he replied, bowing low and giving an exaggerated flourish of his arm. I laughed and hugged him. Releasing him I turned to the body of the enemy soldier and, with no small effort, drew my sword from his chest.
"For such a gentle woman, you are a fine warrior, My Lady."
"That is very kind of you to say so, good Sir," I retorted, giving an equally exaggerated curtsy, then, stopping sharply, said with urgency, "Your Princess! Where is she?"
"I am here," the voice came from behind me and I swung round to see her standing tall and grim-faced, her sword at her side and the dagger still in her hand, the broken blade caked in dried blood. I ran to her and threw my arms around her, saying:
"Thank the Gods you are safe." She put her dagger hand around me and whispered,
"Yes, thanks to you. You saved my life."
We parted then and I looked at her.
"They know I am here."
"Yes," she answered, "They have known all along. That is why they attacked before they were ready, they need you to get them into Pelengrath. We don't have a moment to lose."
She turned then to the captain of the horse guards.
"Fabian, get your men rested and prepared, we leave at sundown!"
Fabian nodded turned and strode away.
"He is a good man, Astrid."
"Yes," she said quietly. "He is."
As we stood, Astrid looked down at the body of the warrior I had slain then bent and snapped the cord from around his neck.
"What is it?" I asked her, seeing in her demeanour that something was not right.
She held out a pendant, fashioned like a talon. its claws holding a ball of clear crystal.
"I knew it!" she exclaimed, "This is no ordinary tribesman. This pendant is the symbol of Samerron's elite guard. The Draaken riders! They don't fight unimportant skirmishes like this. Why is he here? What's more, where is his steed?"
She pondered these questions for a moment then declared;
"Samerron must want you very badly if he is sending the likes of him after you. Is there something I should know?"
"I don't know," I replied. "Except that I am the daughter of the king of Pelengrath. If he dies I have two brothers to rule in his place. They are in the citadel, defending it and Samerron cannot breach its walls to kill them. We are still strong but if he can get his troops inside he will be victorious and the lands all around you will become his. Can you survive if that happens?" I waited for an answer which didn't materialise. "No, I didn't think so. Samerron knows that too and by capturing me he thinks he can torture me to reveal the secret ways into the city. I do not know if I will be able to hold out and even if I do, he will have me alive to show to the king and my brothers. Can you imagine what that will do to them if they see what he has done to me?"
Astrid looked at me intently.
"Hmmm..." she pondered for a second. "Then we have to make sure that he does not get his hands on you." She took my free hand in hers, "You are becoming very precious to me too."
We stood for a moment, oblivious to the detritus of the recent battle strewn all around us, searching each other's souls, becoming one. My heartfelt as though it had stopped and I gazed into her eyes, still not understanding why this very special woman before me made me feel so strange in her presence.
I let my head dip slowly forward as I lowered my eyes and broke the spell I was under, the sounds of the forest slowly returning to my ears and I saw that we were not alone.
Quickly I released Astrid's hand and she turned to the 'intruder'.
"Fabian?" she spoke softly. "What is it?"
He looked confused and a little flustered before replying:
"I think you should see this for yourself," he said, grim-faced then turned and led us through the forest to a clearing not far from the outer limit.
I took Fleet-foot's rein and guided him along with us. He hadn’t fled from the battle but had stood beside me all the while.
As we walked I asked what was wrong. Fabian wouldn't say, speaking very little. I was surprised as just a few moments earlier he had been so full of life at the defeat of the assailants.
As the trees thinned out into the clearing I could hear a lot of commotion ahead and I gasped in amazement as I saw the massive shape of a winged creature, tethered to the thick trunk of a giant tree.
It was as high as a house and its outstretched wings were as wide as the clearing.
Whenever anyone approached it roared and bellowed, Its massive, pointed, teeth looked deadly in its powerful jaws, its fiery red eyes darting this way and that as its head thrashed from side to side, its nostrils flared in anger.
Suddenly I realised where I had seen its like. I looked across at Astrid's sword, sheathed at her side and saw the golden heads at each end of the cross guard, they were Draaken's heads!
Astrid began to walk slowly toward the giant creature, her hand outstretched before her and to my astonishment, it began to calm down and stopped bellowing. It stood still and folded its massive wings against its flanks. It lowered its head, its great red eyes still wild with fear but calmer now, as the Warrior Princess gently touched its snout with the back of her hand. The once monstrous creature began to nuzzle her hand and responded to her gentle words. With her other hand, she beckoned me to approach which I did. I didn't fear this creature any more and I reached out my hand slowly.
"Shh..." I whispered in encouragement to it and it remained still and allowed us to gently soothe its giant snout.
"He likes you," Astrid whispered as she turned to me.
"Well, I am quite good with horses," I answered her. "I guess he is no different. I get the feeling he has been treated badly as he responds so readily to kindness."
"I think," Astrid continued slowly, "that this could be just what we need."
She turned and waved Fabian to join us. As he approached the great Draaken began to get nervous again and hissed loudly through his nostrils, letting out a growl, pulling at its tether. Astrid waved him away again and the creature calmed down.
"That settles it then," she spoke softly to me, still stroking the Draaken's snout, "One of us will have to ride him. That will be our advantage over the enemy. he believes he has all the remaining Draaken for himself. His troops around Pelengrath will not know that we have one and will believe it to be one of their own commanders as you or I fly over."
I thought for a moment before asking,
"How does that benefit us, Astrid?'
"Don't you see? We can tell exactly how they are camped around the city and concentrate our forces more effectively!"
"Of course!" I understood now. "They won't know we can see them so they won't know to increase their defences! Astrid, you are wonderful!"
For a split second, I could have sworn she blushed before replying.
"It will have to be you who rides him."
I stared at her.
"Because," she continued, "I have to lead my people into the battle and, once it all begins, you can fly straight into the city itself and tell them the plans."
"Yes," I said, "I see that but how will they know not to shoot at me?"
"Well, it's a little crude, I know but you will have to make a pass first and drop a warning tied to a ribbon and trust that you are not hit before they read it."
"Hmm..." I thought for a moment. "It carries great risk."
"Yes," she said, "but can you think of another way?"
"Not off hand but we have a few days travel ahead of us. we can alternate and use this fabulous creature as a means to watch the road ahead. As we approach the city I will spy out the encampment, as you say, then fly into the city to prepare for the final assault."
"Then it is agreed?" Her big brown eyes questioning the very depths of my soul, made my heart melt.
"Yes," I replied, "It is agreed."
Together, we untethered the beautiful creature, speaking softly to it, and led it back to the village. It seemed to understand that we meant it no harm and followed placidly at the end of the rope we had attached to its harness, moving clumsily through the trees.
Once we had reached the village, Astrid beckoned Fabian again and once more the Draaken became nervous in his presence, pulling at the tether and snorting.
"I fear that he has been treated very badly by the enemy," he said, "He doesn't trust me."
"I see that," Astrid replied, grim-faced. "Can you gain his trust in such a short time?"
"I can but try." His words were short and precise, as though something was troubling him but he took the rope and, with soothing sounds and words, reached up to gently stroke the snout of this enormous creature.
Astrid and I turned as one and strode away towards the great hall but whilst we were still in earshot I turned as I heard Fabian say:
"We have a lot in common, you and I." I was about to ask what he meant but saw he was addressing the frightened Draaken as he continued. "We are of much use to many people but no-one really notices who we are."
I wanted to go back to him, to ask what was wrong but at that moment, Astrid tugged my arm and guided me towards the Great Hall saying;
"Come, Anna, we must rest now, the sun is already dipping in the sky and in a few short hours we will ride out and face our destiny."
I turned away from Fabian and the Draaken and walked beside her, my mind returning to the perils that lay ahead.
Back in the bedchamber I unbuckled my sword belt and lay the heavy weapon next to the cot on which I was about to lay my head for a short time. I looked across to the other cot and saw that The beautiful warrior princess had removed her belt also but was standing with the sheathed sword in her hands. staring at it.
I stood and went to her.
"Astrid?' I spoke gently. She looked up at me, a sadness in her eyes.
"This sword," she began. "It belonged to my father. I took it from his cold hands and used it to slay the man who killed him. Since then it has taken many lives. It is notched from many generations of battle. It belonged to my father's father and to his father before him."
She fell silent, briefly, before taking a deep breath.
"I fear that I shall be the last person to wield this weapon for, if we fail in this final quest, there will be no-one left to stand against Samerron and he will be triumphant. The lands about will be destroyed and the people will be slaves to his will."
She sighed deeply and seemed to diminish before my eyes.
"I took her face in my hands and looked at her intently.
"You cannot think like this! We will not fail. You are not alone in this, Astrid, I am here beside you. We will not fail!"
"You fill me with resolve, Anna, you are right, this is not the time to weaken. Our swords together will be victorious!" and she straightened her back and stood tall then, drawing the sword from its scabbard, the red stones in the Draaken's heads flashing as she lifted it above her head, cried out:
"Together, Anna, we will live!"
I looked at her standing there and saw how strong and magnificent she was, her dark eyes aflame and bright.
She lowered the sword and replaced it in the scabbard.
"You truly were sent here by the Gods, Anna. Without you, I don't think I could do it."
I took the sword from her and laid it on her cot then, taking her hands in mine, told her;
"Yes, you could. It is OK to doubt yourself sometimes. Without doubt comes overconfidence and that could be disastrous. You are strong and your people love you. They will follow you to the death if need be, as will I."
She looked at me for a time, a slight frown creasing her brow.
"You are a very special woman, Anna, I am glad you are here beside me."
I squeezed her hands tightly.
"And I you." I replied, then, releasing her hands, "Now we must rest, ready for the beginning of the downfall of the evil that is Samerron."