“Anna.” I heard the distant voice say my name but I was too grief-stricken to answer.
I felt someone stroke my hair and the voice repeated my name.
I lifted my head and my heart leapt with joy!
“Astrid! My darling! I thought...”
She smiled weakly and squeezed my hand, closing her eyes once again.
“So cold,” she whispered.
“You have lost much blood, my love,” I spoke softly, holding her hand between my two,
“Elenia! Elenia!” I called, “Come, Come quickly!”
The door opened.
“Elenia, she is well again!” I cried.
“Oh my sweet lord!” she exclaimed and turned and ran from the room, returning moments later with servants, to help build up the fire and make my warrior princess comfortable.
As we worked I suddenly realised someone was missing.
“Elenia, where is the Lord Fabian?” I asked.
“He left at first light, my lady,” she replied “Leading a large force and the Draaken.”
“And my brother, Zandrir, where is he?”
“I am sorry to say, My Lady,” she paused, “Your brother has gone with the Lord Fabian.”
“I suppose they intend to engage with Samerron before he reaches here.” My heart was heavy again and I prayed they would return safely.
I breathed deeply and my thoughts again turned to Astrid. Now, she needed me and I would do all I could to help her recover.
I held her weakened but beautiful body whilst Elenia placed a pillow behind her so she would be comfortable whilst I fed her the thin but hot broth. As she took the first mouthful she choked and coughed a little.
“I am sorry!” I said, alarmed, withdrawing the spoon.
“No,” she whispered, smiling, “It was just my dry throat.” She placed her hand upon my arm.
“Anna, your neck! What happened to you?”
I touched my fingers to my throat, it felt bruised and sore. I looked at her worried face and smiled.
“Oh, it was nothing.” I couldn't tell her how close I had come to death out there on the field, “You have suffered far worse and you need to get your strength back.”
I refilled the spoon and lifted it to her lips and she swallowed carefully.
I also couldn't tell her about Fabian and my brother going back out to fight again.
They were such a small force against the might of Samerron.
I had no idea how long they would be away or even if they would return.
Soon, the bowl was empty and the bread eaten. Astrid lay back and relaxed while I stroked her jet black hair.
“You saved my life, Anna.” She said quietly, smiling up at me. I smiled.
“Didn't you believe me?”
“Believe you?” She frowned, puzzled, “Believe what?”
“Before we parted, the night before last, I told you I would find you, whatever.”
She smiled and placed her hand upon mine.
“Yes, you did.”
She closed her eyes for a moment then, opening them, spoke again,
“Anna, I don't really remember much after the lance ran through my leg and fighting for my life. I remember Halberad near me, protecting me, and bodies falling on to me as I lay pinned to the ground, but, after that, nothing.” I waited as she gathered her thoughts.
“I have a vague recollection of bodies being pulled from me but really fuzzy and distant. Was it you?” I smiled.
“Yes, it was me but, well... there is no easy way to tell you, I found Halberad too.”
She looked at me, her dark eyes full of fear.
“Was he...” her voice quivered.
“He died in my arms.”
I squeezed her hand as her eyes closed again.
“He was a good man, Anna, he gave his life for me.”
“He spoke to me before he passed on.” I paused as I remembered the scene. 'Find the Princess, My Lady, together you...' I believe he realised how we felt about each other.”
“Why do you say that, Anna?”
“He wanted me to find you. He began to say something about us being together. I think he knew.”
We sat in silence for a while.
Eventually, after a few minutes, I leaned towards her and gently kissed her lips. She didn't respond and I was puzzled for a moment until I realised she had fallen asleep.
I smiled and stroked her hair again before covering her with a fur coverlet to keep her warm then, Buckling my sword belt, with the broken blade still in the scabbard, and fastening my dagger sheath to my right arm, I left to find Elenia.
I found her in the kitchen with the other servants, preparing huge cauldrons of stew and basting an animal which looked suspiciously like a horse, turning slowly over the open fire. I didn't think about it too much but any type of meat would be welcome to the starving people of Pelengrath.
“How is she, my Lady?” Elenia asked as she busied herself with the cooking and cleaning.
The question brought me back from my thoughts and I turned away from the fire to face her.
“I think the danger has passed now,” I replied. “She needs rest and time for the wound to heal. Would you check on her while she sleeps, please? I need to walk outside for a while, clear my head and see how the food situation is.”
“As you can see, My Lady, we have a good supply of food now, but it will take time for the sick to recover and, well, some may still die but you returned just in time with the Princess and her woodland folk. I do not believe we could have survived very much longer.” She took my hand.
“Your Princess will be well looked after, My Lady, I promise you that. Pelengrath and all the free people owe you, and she, their very existence.”
I took my leave of her then and stepped out into the bright sunshine. The storms that had threatened us yesterday had not materialised, save a couple of lightning bolts and rumbles of thunder but, overnight, the black clouds had moved away and the day had dawned bright and clear. The morning sun was already riding high in the sky and had chased away the mist that had lingered around the dark forest surrounding the city.
Outside the walls, soldiers and prisoners were working hard to clear the debris of the battle whilst inside, a watch was kept from the towers for the impending arrival of the reinforcements that we had been warned about.
I climbed the steps to the battlements and looked out over the desolation below. It was a terrible sight. So much death and destruction. Bonfires were burning at various places, consuming all that could not be salvaged. Funeral pyres raged as the dead were burned to avoid the spread of infections and diseases. The smell was overwhelming.
Through the smoke, I could see the forest beyond. Many of the trees had been chopped down along the edge, by Samerron's men, to make a space for the impending attack and these very trees had been used for the fires which consumed the dead.
I looked beyond the forest toward the horizon and I fancied I could hear the call of eagles, carried on the wind, screeching, but I could see nothing.
Suddenly, I jumped! Startled as I felt a hand placed on my arm. I swung around and stepped back, my dagger already in my hand.
A man, head covered with bandages and leaning in a stick, stood before me. He was tall and rugged and slowly, I recognised him.
“Ereward!” I exclaimed, “You startled me! I could have killed you!” He smiled but said nothing. “What happened to you?”
“My Lady, if you had killed me it would have been a strange twist indeed, especially after you prevented my death.”
I was puzzled, I hadn't even seen him on the battlefield, at least, not that I could remember.
He saw the expression on my face and laughed.
“I had been unseated by a lance blow and was fighting a giant of a man. He caught me on the side of the head with his flail and I fell, stunned from the blow. The last thing I remember was him holding his sword aloft, ready to run it through me as I lay but at that moment you rode past and cut him down with one swift cleave of your own sword. As he fell, he released his grip and the blade fell onto my leg, piercing the flesh.” I remembered now.
“That was you? I remember him falling but it was so fast, everything is such a blur.”
“My Lady... the dagger?” I had completely forgotten I was still holding it. I quickly returned it to its sheath but as I did so I remembered Fleet-Foot and how faithful he had been right to the end.
Ereward turned and hobbled slowly toward the steps, descending carefully, one at a time.
As we walked slowly Ereward, looking ahead, asked;
“If I may be so bold as to ask, My Lady, What happened to your neck?”
I told him what had happened and when I finished he asked;
“But what of your opponent, what happened to him?”
I thought again about the scream and why he let go of my throat. It didn't make sense, even more so when I considered why he wasn't there when I came to my senses.
“I am glad you survived, Ereward, so many did not. I am afraid that Halberad was one who was taken. I was with him when he passed.”
He looked down at the ground when he replied.
“Yes, I know, I was told this morning. He was a good man, a good leader. I was proud to have known him.”
We continued to walk slowly through the busy streets, being careful not to hinder the activity that was going on all around us.
“Something he said puzzled me though, a few days ago.”
I didn't reply but let him tell me at his own pace.
“He said you had given our Princess a new spirit, a purpose. What did he mean?”
I smiled inwardly.
“I am sure I don't know,” I said to him. “Unless he means I gave her a reason to fight, to break out of Mallagen and help my people. She possibly thought she was alone and could do nothing but defend the forest when the time came.”
“Hmm, maybe. I don't know. He thought very highly of you and Princess Astrid.”
I, again, did not reply, wondering whether he knew about us and had tried to tell me that we would be accepted as equal rulers. 'Together you...', he had said. Did he mean rule together as friends or lovers?
“Oh, nothing,” I said, “It has been such a difficult time and only now have I had time to reflect. I am tired, Ereward, and there is still so much to do.”
We walked on, again in silence and I realised that we had been circling the entrance to the underground store. I had entered the city this way little more than twenty-four hours before and so much had happened since but now I was afraid of what I might see. What I had seen yesterday upset me but I had a lot to attend to, then. Now, I had nothing else, so I headed toward the gateway.
At the entrance, I stopped. Ereward stood alongside me.
“I understand, My Lady.” He spoke gently, soothing me. “I remember how it was when we arrived.”
I took a deep breath and stepped forward through the arch.
Taking a moment to allow my eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior, the first thing I noticed was the smell. The aroma of death and decay was still there but was now much less so as it was being overridden with the smell of cooking meats and wood smoke.
The sense of despair had given way completely to a feeling of hope and as I walked through the rows of sick and wounded, the cries of pain I remembered from the previous day were being replaced by words of gratitude and welcome for our saviours from the forest.
We stayed for a while, talking and helping feed the weaker folk and the time passed quickly.
When I was ready to leave, Ereward stayed behind to continue with helping.
I walked quickly back to the palace. I had been gone longer than I intended and Astrid was wide awake, propped up comfortably on a mound of soft pillows and chatting with a servant girl.
As I entered she looked up and smiled broadly.
“Astrid! You look so much better now.”
“I feel it, Anna. The girls have looked after me and I have had some more soup. I think I may be up soon.” I smiled at her.
“You'll be nothing of the sort, My Lady!” I chided her. “You have a lot of healing to do before you are up and about!”
We both laughed and I realised that I hadn't heard laughter in a week. It was as if a great weight had been lifted from me. As though the most important person in my life had been spared and maybe we were destined to be together.
I remained at her side for the rest of the day. We talked about the future with never a thought about my brother or Fabian. It was as though we had already defeated Samerron but the truth was, we had not, we had only bought time and divided his forces. There was still a possibility he could regroup and overrun us again, in which case we would be finished and the fate of the free world would be sealed.
I didn't mention any of this to Astrid. I wanted her to think only of her own recovery. I needed her to be strong.
The light began to fade as the day drew to a close. Once again I left her whilst I went outside to check the defences and walk the walls. I spoke to the guards and their commanders and looked out into the ever-increasing darkness, hoping to see any sign, however small, of the safe return of my brother and our people but there was nothing, only the plaintive cry of the eagles, soaring high and distant.
Before I returned to my chamber I visited the storeroom and spoke once more with the keepers and Ereward, who, although a woodsman and wounded himself, had occupied himself with the restocking of the food store and the gradual removal of those who were now fit to return home.
As we spoke something made us stop and listen. I frowned.
“What was that?” I asked eventually.
“You heard it too, then,” Ereward replied, “It came from the tunnel.”
I turned to one of the storekeepers.
“Quickly, get the guards!”
He turned and ran towards the Keep.
More sound came from the tunnel, the very way we had entered, and suddenly it occurred to me that since we had come in that way then maybe the entrance had been discovered. I thought carefully, had we closed the entrance in our race to get in? I couldn't be sure.
I could hear footsteps inside the tunnel, more than one person and they were getting near.
My heart was pounding as I took my bow and fitted an arrow.
Where were the guards? Although Ereward was not in the best of health, he was beside me, sword drawn in anticipation. The storekeepers had grabbed anything they could find to use as a weapon, axes, hammers, even shovels, to defend the store from whoever was about to emerge from the tunnel.
The footsteps grew in volume and speed, running now as they approached, the darkness hiding their identity.
I drew back the arrow and aimed into the blackness of the tunnel, ready to release in an instant.
The invaders burst out of the tunnel and into the dim light of the storeroom where the first intruder stopped dead in his tracks. He fell to his knees as my arrow pierced his head.
I didn't fit a second arrow, there was no need as the intruders were a handful of wild pigs who had evidently found their way through the jammed entrance gate.
Ereward and I breathed a sigh of relief and smiled at each other. The storekeepers also relaxed but to them fell the task of rounding up the other four pigs. They would make good eating.
At that moment the guards arrived, armed and ready. I tasked them with securing the entrance in the forest and making sure that it was once again concealed. I also ordered a solid gate to be constructed at the tunnel entrance and, indeed, the three other secret passages. We could not rely on concealment alone.
Once I was happy that everything was in order I returned to the palace and to Astrid.
It was dark now and she was sleeping when I entered the chamber. She looked so peaceful and beautiful in the flickering firelight that I could resist but to lean over her and kiss her full lips gently.
Her eyes flickered open and she took a deep breath as her hand snaked around my head to hold me to her, her lips responding to my touch and opening to allow my tongue to enter her sweet mouth.
It was now my eyes that closed, with sheer pleasure at the feelings coursing through me.
A knock on the door broke the spell and I stood as the door opened.
“I saw you return, My Lady.” A very young servant girl stood in the doorway. “Can I get you some supper? I am told you haven't eaten since this morning.”
She seemed a little nervous and I wondered if she had seen us.
“Is something wrong?” I asked tentatively, “You seem a little nervous.”
“Oh no, My lady!” she flushed crimson, “I have heard so much about you both, Your bravery and strength. I didn't really know what to expect. I only came to the palace today and it is very daunting coming to you for the first time.”
I beckoned her to enter.
“How old are you?”
“Fourteen, My lady.” Her faced glowed red in the dim light.
“Well... erm?” I awaited her name.
“Diana, My Lady,” she answered.
“Well, Diana,” I continued, “You have no need to fear us. You are young and have much to learn but I can see that you are strong and willing. I feel you will be a credit to my household.”
I smiled and lifted her chin. She smiled back.
“Was there something else?” I asked her gently when she didn't move.
“Your supper, My lady,” she blushed, “You didn't answer.”
I smiled at her still, liking her spirit, remembering how I was at that age, learning battle skills with my brothers instead of how to be a good queen.
“Then, yes, please, Diana, I will.”
She smiled back at me then turned to leave.
“Diana.” I stopped her. She turned back and looked at me quizzically.
“Your parents,” I asked her. “What do they do?”
Her head bowed in sorrow as she remembered.
“They are dead, My Lady. My father was killed on the field yesterday and my mother was taken by the sickness three days ago.”
She turned and left.
“I feel a strong spirit there.” My thoughts were spoken to no-one in particular but Astrid responded with a wink.
“Hmm, yes. I think we may see more of her than she thinks.”
Soon after, Diana returned with a tray of bread and fresh milk.
I thanked her and let her leave telling her not to return for the tray and, refreshed, I sat beside Astrid for a time.
I told her about the pigs in the storeroom. She found it amusing, imagining me preparing to fight a handful of wild boar.
“You know...” I said, almost thinking aloud again. “Young Diana...”
“What about her?” Astrid asked.
I can't help thinking about her. I think she will be an asset to this household. I think I might take her as my own servant and train her in the way I learnt as a young girl.”
“But Anna,” she protested. “Diana is a serving girl.”
“Maybe so,” I replied, “but there is something about her, something that reminds me of the way I was at that age.”
Nothing more was said on the subject and presently I got into my bed and fell into a deep but troubled sleep in which I again dreamed of battles and death and the black knight standing in the stirrups of his black horse. As in the previous night's dream, I could not tell who was fighting who, which was friend and which was foe.
Once more, riders hacked down foot soldiers and Draaken wheeled and dived, plucking men from horses and from the ground, carrying them high and releasing them to fall, lifeless, back to earth.
There was another knight, clad in bright, gleaming silver, galloping towards the black knight, his sword in his hand, cutting his way through the men around him as he rode.
Suddenly, his horse fell from under him and he was thrust forwards onto the ground. As he lay, with a great screeching cry, a huge Draaken swooped down and grabbed him in its massive talons, carrying him away, out of sight of my dream.
The black knight spurred his horse and galloped into the battlefield, his shield on his arm and swinging his flail as the trumpets blared loudly.