Beyond the Call

Chapter One

The young boy hoisted the small sturdy wooded side table up with all his might and staggered away from the wagon. Despite its size the table was deceptively heavy as it was made from the dense mahogany wood. The young boy, Bron, was also only ten. He made his way down the stone steps leading to the side entrance of the mighty stone keep. At the door his father, who was coming out, took the table from him.

“Boy,” he growled, “I said take the small stuff. I will handle these.” He took the table in one hand.

“It wasn’t that heavy pa,” he panted, looking up at the big man.

Despite his gruff nature Arlen was a kind man and he loved his son more than life itself. He however kept up a mask most of the time of a tough, mercenary veteran. But those days were long past. 

As a young man Arlen had made his way as a sell-sword, traveling the length and breadth of the continent. He was big. He stood over six foot and had a hulking physique. He was good too. He had a reputation of being fearless, hard and deadly. A man to feared for sure. It was however only late in his career that he saw the need to start saving the coin he earned. In fact he was almost forty when he met Bron’s mother. She was a bar wench who had been widowed twice and abandoned once. She was in her thirties and not unattractive. She and the mercenary struck up a friendship that developed into a physical relationship.

Arlen decided to settle down, marry Kes and spend his time crafting furniture. His savings at that time was not a fortune but enough for him to live comfortably for the rest of his days. The furniture making was a sideline that he enjoyed and the extra coin it brought in provided for the little luxuries in life. Bron was born soon after they were married and was something of a miracle due to the age of Kes.

She however did not survive the birth and Arlen began raising his son on his own. In many ways he was a very good father. Bron wanted for nothing materialistically. His father saw to it that he learned letters, something he himself never was able to do. But Arlen also made Bron work hard at is chores. He wanted his boy to know responsibility and the rewards of hard work. Bron worshiped his pa and desperately sought his approval. Only now and then did Arlen drop the mask and return the affection.

For a ten year old, Bron was a very mature boy in some respects and a little under developed elsewhere. Some said he looked more like his mother, others said he was more like his pa. In truth he had been lucky to get the best from both parents. His mop of thick black hair he got from his pa as well a naturally strong build. From his mother he got her eyes and her wonderful smile. Like his father he had a strong streak of perfectionism in him and luckily his mind was sharp like his mother.

Bron raced back up the stairs to the wagon to collect the remaining furniture as his father took the little table inside. Arlen had received a lucrative contract to outfit King Halden’s Keep. The king of Taland had recently decided to move his administrative capital from Port Augmire to the more defensible inland mountain town of Glensteward.

This happened from time to time as pirate activity increased or decreased along the coast. All the old furniture that was rotten or dilapidated had to be replaced. The keep in Glensteward had not had a monarch in residence in seventy-two years when King Haldens Grandfather brought his family there during the Barbic uprisings. King Halden was enjoying a rather successful tenure as king.

 Economically the lush picturesque kingdom was prospering and numerous treaties secured peace on all borders. It was only the elusive Barbic Pirates that gave him any headaches. The Barbic’s were born at sea and were impossible to hunt down. They raided coastal towns and slipped away before they took any serious losses. Where they dropped anchor no-one knew. King Halden decided it was safer for his family to be inland too, until the pirates could be dealt with.

 Everything was on track and Arlen was making his last delivery of stock. The moldy old keep had had a spate of repairs done to it and it had been thoroughly cleaned out. One could hardly believe it was the same place. At the end of the week the king would arrive.

“That’s everything,” announced Arlen at last to the army captain who had been appointed seneschal while the repairs were being completed.

Captain Kresend looked up at the big man in front of him. Arlen was around fifty and was killing men for coin before the captain was born. He had heard some stories and swallowed hard. He was no coward, and Arlen was old, yet the presence of the warrior commanded respect.

“Looking good Arlen,” he nodded as he ran a finger over the fine craftsmanship of a chair next to him. It was strange how a man could create such beauty and be capable of such destruction.

Arlen grunted acknowledgment. Captain Kresend unlocked the big sea chest and under the guard of two soldiers removed two brown sacks and handed them to Arlen.

“So long Captain,” he grinned and strode off with his son. This contract had really swelled his savings and he was quite satisfied with life. He and his son took their wagon and headed back down into town. Even the windy road leading up to the keep had been repaired ahead of the kings arrival. The festivities would be something special.

*

Bron took a huge bite of the sugared pastry in his hand. It was delicious. The boy was starting to feel ill but he continued to munch away. He could not remember when he had had so much to eat.

The king and his family had arrived on schedule and it took two days just to offload the caravan with all their stuff. A huge celebration, who’s planning went back months, swung into action the next day. It was like a massive carnival with every kind of entertainment imaginable. Practically the whole town was at the commonage eating, drinking and having fun. Arlen had been surprisingly charitable and handed Bron a handful of coin and told him to enjoy himself.

Now he was bursting at the seams as he made his way up the grassy hill north of the commonage. He could hear another speech being made. He had heard enough. It seemed every dignitary wanted to say his peace. Bron had enjoyed seeing the king. He was a charismatic man, still only in his thirties, and his speech had been the only one worth listening to.

Bron lay down on the slope and looked up at the night sky. It was a clear night and the stars shone brightly. Below the smells and sounds of the celebrations filtered up to him. He let out a deep breath and felt sleepy. As he was about to doze off he heard the howl of a wolf.

He sat up. It sounded close. That was strange as the wolves only came out the mountains when times were hard and there was not enough game. This was not the case at the moment. Rains had been good and trappers reported ample game in the high ground.

Bron looked around but saw nothing. Wolves were not something to take lightly. He had heard stories of wolves near the coast being timid and easily scared off. This was not the case with the big black coated mountain wolves. Many a hunter or trapper had lost his life to a pack of them or even an old rogue who had been kicked out of his pack. Bron decided it would be safer back at the commonage and started making his way down the hill.

From his vantage point he could see a disturbance had broken out down in the commonage. He could see soldiers running after a dark colored horse that was charging off into town. The small figure of a child could be seen bouncing around on its back holding on for dear life. The horse cleared the commonage and ducked left as some citizens cut off its route to the centre of town. It leapt a small fence and raced across a newly tilled field.

Bron watched as the horse belted off toward the mountains. He suddenly realized that the child was loosing its grip on the reins and that by the time the chasers mounted up and followed the horse could be anywhere in the darkness, or worse if the child fell at that speed it would be dead for sure. The runaway horse intersected the old trappers trail and began galloping up it.

The boy scrambled back up the hill as the trail wound its way behind the hill before it climbed steeply into the mountains. As fast as his legs could carry him he flew down the back of the hill toward the trail. He could hear the iron horseshoes pounding the hard baked earthen trail. In the moonlight he could just make out the big horse flying up the trail. Just below him was the trail. He hoped he could keep his eye on the beast long enough to tell the soldiers where it had gone when they got to him. The horse thundered past below him as he leapt onto the trail and head down he sprinted after it.

Almost immediately a loud growl followed by a frantic neigh of a horse made Bron’s blood run cold. Still in full sprint he looked up to see the horse rear up as a dark shape confronted it. The figure on the back slipped and tumbled backwards off the horse.

Bron caught the falling child at full pace, almost as a reflex action, and was driven to the ground. The child let out a scream. Bron wanted to but the air was driven from his lungs. The two were almost trampled as the horse charged back the way it had come. The only thought in Bron’s mind was the wolf.

He pushed the child from him and jumped to his feet. Not ten feet from him stood a huge old mountain wolf. Judging by the grey on his face and coat he was a rogue loner, probably ousted from his pack by a younger male. He looked hungry and mean as it bared its teeth and advanced on Bron.

Reaching down he scooped up a fallen branch from the side of the trail and raised it ready to strike. The blood was pumping so hard in his ears it was deafening. He had never been so scared in all his life. Instinct took over and he knew he had to try and defend himself. Panting, he grit his teeth and stood over the cowering child, club at the ready.

“Come on!” he yelled defiantly at the old wolf. He had heard that some animals could smell fear, so he did his best to disguise his own. The old wolf stopped and sniffed the air as it was momentarily surprised by the young boy. Bron lashed out and cracked the wolf across the snout. It backed up and snarled.

“Come on!” he yelled louder hoping the noise and ferocity of the defiance might chase it off. The truth be told the old wolf was now weary of its prey but the hunger was too strong.

It took a few steps forward and prepared to leap at the young boy. The sound of hoof-beats stalled it as it looked up to see several horseman with flaming brands charging up the trail toward them. The old wolf turned and tried to bolt off when a spear pierced into its side. It flopped to the ground as the horseman bore down on it and more spears buried into it killing it. They reigned their mounts and dismounted. Bron just stood there shaking as the moment passed. He still clung tightly to the piece of wood in his hand and he felt a little ill.

“Are you alright Princess?” asked one of the men as he rushed toward Bron. Bron gave him a confused look. The soldier ignored him and hoisted the child into his arms.

“I think so Baradrac,” he heard the child say. The soldier let out a huge sigh of relief as he hugged the child and began wiping her face with his cloak.

“Well its quite the little hero we have here,” he heard another soldier say as he patted Bron on the back, “That has got to be the biggest wolf I have ever seen!”

“They get bigger,” whispered Bron as he felt his heartbeat start returning to normal. The assembled soldiers laughed as they mounted up taking Bron and the princess with them, and rode back to town.

In the torch light Bron got a look at the princess. She was around his age, maybe a year or so younger but quite small with delicate features. She was an extremely beautiful child with golden blond hair. She looked at Bron and smiled. Her teary blue eyes shone when she smiled. Bron’s heart skipped a beat and he smiled back.

*

The next few days were quite frenetic. Bron found out that the young princess Kayla had begged her bodyguard, the soldier Baradrac, to let her ride his warhorse. Against his better judgment he had conceded. Everything would have been fine if the horse had not been startled by one of the snake wranglers, who was there to show his wares, who walked past with one of the bigger python types he had. The horse bolted and was further panicked by everyone shouting and trying to catch it.

Baradrac was heavily censored but did not loose his job. Praise was heaped on young Bron for his actions. The king personally thanked him and gave him a handsome reward. Arlen was very proud of his son and began instructing him in weapons use. He was going to wait a few years but the incident had made him realize one was never too young to know how to defend oneself.

Hoards of people came to their home to drop off a pie or some cheese or some or other ‘gift’ in gratitude. It was an illustration of just how loved the monarch was that the common folk found it necessary to show their thanks for what Bron had done. He was uneasy with the attention and would slip away with his buddies and go fishing. At least they didn’t treat him any differently. Arlen took it all in his stride and managed to hold his temper when things got a little too much.

*

Just over a week had passed and things were beginning to return to normal. Bron and two of his friends, Mika the magistrates son and Gordo the schoolmasters son, were heading to the river for a spot of fishing.

Mika was a heavy set lad a year older than Bron. In addition to his size he was also as bright as can be but terribly lazy. There was no doubt he would join the constabulary when he came of age and eventually be a magistrate like his father. He was a calm boy and ideal for the job.

Gordo was a tall skinny kid who was dead set against physical activity. The closest he came to this was either fishing or horse-riding in which he excelled. He was an avid student of letters. In addition to the classical studies of history and literature he also dabbled in the rather peculiar study of science. Many people did not understand it as it often went against the accepted norms of nature but most were tolerant all the same.

The trio had barely dropped their lines and settled back to talk shit and dream of the future when horsemen startled them. They sat at up as the two riders bearing royal insignia approached.

“Master Bron,” called the first soldier respectfully. Bron stood and nodded. “The king requests your presence.”

His two friends just smiled and settled back on the bank. Their friends new found fame amused them. Bron left them and accompanied the soldiers up to the castle.

Bron was taken to the audience hall where he had been presented with his reward by the king not too long ago. It was empty and he was left there. After a short wait the king entered dressed quite casually in simple boots and breeches and a fine quilted tunic.

“Welcome Bron my boy,” he said as he strode over and patted Bron on the shoulder. Bron bowed as his father had instructed him to do in the presence of the king. Halden acknowledged it and took his place on his thone.

“How have you been keeping?” asked the king. The casualness of the situation was a little strange for Bron.

“Fine thank you your highness,” answered Bron politely.

“Good!” responded the king, “What do you want to be when you grow up Bron?” he asked.

The question surprised him. Bron had thought about it a lot. He wanted to travel and see the world and possibly make a living like his father as a sell-sword. Arlen would have none of it. He wanted his boy to engage in a professional career that commanded respect from the community and that he could earn a decent living from without risking his neck. Something like a merchant or doctor or tradesman was what he had in mind. He didn’t realize just how much his boy was like him.

“Well my father wants me to follow a career I can be proud of. Something that the community would look up to your highness,” he replied after a moments thought.

“You know I had heard of your father when I was a boy,” informed the king, “He was quite the warrior.”

“My father says I don’t need to follow the same path he took,” said Bron, “He says he only did it cause he had no other choice. I have choices.”

“Quite true,” observed the king, “But what do YOU want to do?” Bron paused for a moment considering whether he should tell the king what he wants to hear or the truth. He decided on the truth.

“To be honest your highness, I don’t think I could enjoy the quiet life. I really want to be a warrior,” he looked the king in the eyes. The king raised an eyebrow. Bron was not sure what that meant.

“Well how about that!” he mused as he leaned back in his throne, “Your father wants you to be respected and you want to be a warrior! So you need to be a respected warrior. It just so happens I have the perfect job for you. How would you like to start training to be a knight?” asked the king.

Bron’s eyes went wide in surprise. A knight! Little boys dreamed of being knights but that’s just what it was to common folk, dreams. Only nobles were allowed to be knights. It was a mark of privilege. Besides they were the only ones who could afford the equipment. A knight needed weapons, armor and a horse and needed to maintain all of them.

“I would love that!” answered Bron truthfully, “But we are not nobles your highness. Its not allowed.” The king laughed.

“Son,” he smiled, “I am the king. If I say you are to be a knight then you will become a knight. Understand?” Bron nodded. “Its not the first time in our history that someone not born a noble has become a knight. It is rare but not unheard of. Of course you first need to be a squire and do your apprenticeship.” Bron nodded again. The excitement was building inside him. He wanted to start now!!! “So do you accept?” asked the king.

“Yes your highness!” exclaimed Bron. Then he remembered something. “I must ask my father first,” he told the king. The king smiled again.

“You are a good boy Bron,” he told him, “As I told you I had heard of your father and king or no king he is not a man I wish to cross. I spoke to your father before you were summoned here. He agreed but wanted it to be your decision.” Bron smiled broadly.

 

Chapter two

Sweating the thirteen year old Bron, head down, kept up the pace as he ran along the forest road. The heavy pack bit into his shoulders but he had learned to control the pain and channel it. The road left the forest and descended out the mountains to the castle. The old trappers trail came into view. Just two miles left to go. Seeing the trail reminded him.

It was hard to believe three whole years had passed since he faced off the old wolf. Since then he had been working hard as the squire to Lord Pharneson. The old knight had been less than ecstatic at taking on Bron but did not question the kings request for a second. Loyalty to the crown was paramount to the veteran.

Between his father’s instruction and Lord Pharnesons harsh guidance Bron had already begun being molded into a promising squire. Physically he filling out and in basic swordsmanship he was way ahead of other squires of his age. He did as he was told to the very best of his ability. It meant the absolute world to him to see the pride in his fathers eyes when he came home. Old Arlen was able to pass on what he learned about fighting to his son and watch him develop into a respected knight. The countries pride. Having started to get the praise he so desired from his father Bron now set out to conquer the stern Lord Pharneson.

 The bit between his teeth now, he hit the home straight. The yards up the hill to the castle melted away as he urged every last ounce of energy from his body. He sprinted through the gates and flopped down in front of the stables where his master had instructed him to finish. He rolled onto his back and lay on the pack too tired to remove it. Lord Pharneson was no-where to be seen.

Bron gulped in huge breaths of air. Lord Pharneson emerged from the stables where he had been checking on his horses. He raised an eye brow in controlled surprise to see the lad back already. Bron grinned broadly as he spotted the surprise, still gasping for air. Composed as ever the old knight just continued to walk past the prone boy toward his lodgings.

“It is most unseemly to lie on your back in the courtyard lad,” he noted in passing, “The stables need a cleaning. Then take the rest of the day off.” Slipping off the pack Bron crawled to his feet and still grinning dragged himself into the stables. He tossed the pack into a corner along with his sweat drenched shirt and set to work. The rest of the day off! That never happened. He had to be making progress he decided.

*

“Wow it really stinks in here!” exclaimed the young princess as she stopped in the doorway of the stables, waving her hand in front of her nose.

“Well I promise it’s the horses that smell like that not me!” grinned Bron as he continued to work the shovel. Kayla smiled tucking her blond locks behind an ear. The twelve year old princess was still small in stature for her age. Bron was a clear head and a bit taller than her. Just the slightest murmurings of womanhood had begun to show on her body. As always she was dressed in a beautifully complicated, but expensive and stylish dress that was off the shoulder and tight in at the waist.

She navigated her way around the deposits of horse dung, lifting her dress slightly to reveal her shapely adolescent legs. She stopped next to Bron and while managing not to smile with her mouth, let her deep blue eyes betray her.

“Are you busy?” she asked ‘innocently’ rising up onto her toes and back again repeatedly, her hands behind her back.

“Why not at all princess,” responded Bron lacing his reply with mock sarcasm, and hoisting a pile of manure toward the door, “I just could not find anything else to do today!” She slapped his shoulder lightly at the sarcasm.

“Come on,” she frowned, “I heard you were given the day off. Let’s go swimming!” Bron stopped what he was doing.

“Heard I got the day off, or begged Lord Pharneson to give me the day off because you wanted to go swimming?” asked Bron. She smiled broadly.

“Does it matter?” she replied raising her eyebrows anticipating his answer. Bron was sweating profusely and a swim sounded heavenly.

“OK,” he sighed as she jumped up and down with glee, clapping her hands, “Go and tell Baradrac and I will finish up here.”

Skipping with joy she rushed out the stables to find her bodyguard. Since the wolf incident Bron had been a frequent companion of the little princess. She had left all her friends back at the coast, in Port Augmire, when the family moved to Glensteward. The only other friend she really had was young Desree, who was a lady in waiting attached to the kings household. Her father was a Duke to the far east of the kingdom. However Desree was very proper and a few years older than Kayla. It wasn’t long before Desree was bored with young Kayla and visa versa. Then she would seek out one of the only other child the king trusted her with, and that was Bron. He hurriedly shoveled and swept the stables until he was satisfied the job was done. He then grabbed his shirt and went to find the princess.

*

“Clear below!!” screamed Bron as he leapt off the cliff face and plummeted the twenty or so feet into the icy cold turquoise water of the sinkhole. Kayla shrieked and laughed as the frigid water splashed on her. The near full body hand-made swim suit did nothing to accentuate her adolescent body. She was perched on the edge of the raft permanently moored in Windmill Hole, building up the courage to hop in. The old sinkhole had intersected a flooded limestone cave to produce a secluded swimming spot with sheer cliffs. Bron surfaced and splashed her some more.

“Come on you pansy,” he teased. She pouted her lips in anger and determination, and leapt off the raft. She lost her nerve in mid air and shrieked as she disappeared under the water. In a second she was back up gasping.

“I think its getting colder!” she stated treading water. The two played and rough-housed in the water, under the watchful eye of Baradrac. The loyal retainer and bodyguard was out of his armor and perched on the edge of the cliff, ready to leap in should a problem arise.

They had been there almost an hour when a sound like a ‘thwack’ made Bron look around. At first he saw nothing then watched as Baradrac toppled off the cliff and crashed into the water, the shaft of a crossbow bolt in the neck. Bron knew straight away he was dead.

“What….?” muttered Kayla as she heard the splash. Bron grabbed her arm and shoved her to the rope ladder leading out the sinkhole.

“Climb!” he ordered. She looked confused but then noticed Baradrac’s body and the bolt. Clutching her hands to her face she gasped as she, wide eyed, took in the scene. Bron literally thrust her up the ladder.

“Climb,” he repeated, “We have to get out of here!” Unthinking she did as she was told, still stunned by what she had seen.

“Hello my pretty!” growled a voice and Kayla was lifted off the ladder by her arm as she got to the top. She screamed as a brawny thug held her there as if examining her.

“Don’t touch her,” snarled Bron as he crested the top and advanced on the man. The man gave him a dismissive glance. At the same time another well muscled arm wrapped itself around Bron’s neck from behind and lifted him off his feet.

“Not so fast little man,” he heard another gravelly voice mutter. There were at least three. The thug holding Kayla, the thug holding Bron and the scarred individual with the crossbow emerging from the bushes grinning gap toothed at them.

“I’m gonna enjoy getting a piece of this,” leered the one holding Kayla as he licked his lips. Terrified Kayla cringed as he mentally undressed her.

“It’s definitely her,” noted the crossbowman, “And you won’t touch the merchandise you ape. She’s worth too much. Take care of the boy and let’s get going!”

Bron wrestled with the forearm around his neck but it would not budge. He felt behind him to the belt of the man holding him. His strong young hand closed around the hilt of a dagger in its sheath. He pulled it free.

“With pleasure,” chuckled the brute holding him, “What the…..?!” mumbled the man as he reached for his dagger to find it gone. Bron slammed the blade over his head and behind him. With an unearthly scream the big man dropped the boy.

Bron spun to see he had driven the blade about two inches into his eye. Now he stood holding the six inch dagger displaying the grisly trophy of the man’s eye, while the big man wailed like a baby, clutching the bloody socket. Bron flicked it off the blade and flung the blade with all his might at the crossbowman.

Surprised by the boys actions the man was caught flat footed and grunted as the blade buried into his chest. He dropped the crossbow and fell backwards, fumbling at the hilt as his lung filled with blood. Bron scooped up the crossbow and trained it on the brute holding Kayla.

“Now let her go!” he ordered as commandingly as possible, despite the sheer terror he was experiencing. He made sure he still had an eye on the one eyed man and the bleeder. The one eyed man recovered enough of his composure and stood up glaring out the one eye.

“You little f***!” he roared, “I’m taking two for the price of one, boy!” He had pulled another blade from his boot and was advancing.

“Back off,” ordered Bron as he switched targets. The man hesitated and stopped.

“You got one bolt boy and two targets,” observed the thug holding Kayla, “My math may suck but even I know that’s bad for you!”

“It just means one of you die a for sure,” retorted Bron trying not to let his voice quaver.

Next to them on the ground the third man expired as a rattling of blood bubbled from his lips. In an attempt to catch the boy off guard and panic him, the one eyed man rushed him. Instinctively Bron squeezed the trigger. At near point blank range the bolt thudded square into the man’s chest and his rush was cut short.

“Ah god dam it,” he muttered and fell face first into the dirt, dead.

“Now you pay!” growled the last man, quite alarmed at the loss of his fellow kidnappers. He dropped Kayla and drew his long blade and stalked over to Bron.

“Run!” he ordered Kayla as he backed up to the cliff edge. Kayla needed no further prompting as she scrambled to her feet and took off as fast as her legs could carry her.

“Son of a….,” snarled the man as he watched his quarry duck off into the bush. He decided he could catch her and returned to the boy. As soon as the thug got to him Bron leapt off the cliff into the water. The man cursed and turned and ran after Kayla.

Bron was out the water and up the rope ladder in a flash. At the top both were gone. Just the dead bodies remained. He retrieved the dagger, the crossbow and a few bolts and ran off in the direction Kayla had run. A scream chilled his blood as he realized the brute must have caught her.

Following the sounds he sprinted up an incline and slid down another when he spotted them. The stupid thug had pushed her to the ground and decided he had time to take advantage of the young girl. Clearly Bron’s little demonstration in determined killing had not convinced him to take the boy seriously.

“That’s nice,” drooled the brute as he ran his calloused hand over her naked chest. He had half torn her bathing suit top off and was fondling with one had as he tore at the lashings of his breeches with the other. Kayla’s cries masked Brons approach as he ran flat out at the brute and in a blind rage smashed the crossbow over the back of his head. Later he thought it might have been a better idea to pause and load the crossbow and killed him like that.

The concussed thug rolled off Kayla and clutched the back of his bleeding head. The crossbow was trashed. Still enraged Born drew the bloody dagger and plunged it over and over again into the temporarily stunned man. The big man screamed as he tried to fend off the frenzied attack. Unfortunately for him the boy’s first few strikes had severed some key arteries in the forearm and neck, and he was bleeding to death fast. He lashed out with fading strength catching the boy across the cheek.

Bron stepped back and shook his head. The blow nearly knocked him out cold and he only just stayed on his feet. Already the swelling was closing up that eye and a trickle of blood oozed down the side of his face. In front of him on the ground there was a gargling sound as the man’s breath as life blood poured out and left him for good.

Panting  and blinking furiously to clear his swimming head, Bron turned to where Kayla was backed up to a tree clutching the remains of her bathing suit top to her chest. He felt like an idiot asking her if she was alright. She wasn’t alright. She had just nearly experienced the single most horrific act that could be done to a woman. Bron sat down next to her and put a protective arm around her. Initially she cringed, but he held her close.

“I will kill anyone who ever even thinks of hurting you ever again,” he promised, “I swear it!” She glanced up briefly at him with her tear stained beautiful blue eyes. She then continued to stare at the ground. After a short while they got up and he took her home.

*

Reaction to the incident was one of utter outrage from the king and the community alike. It turned out the thugs were recently arrived in town, probably with the express purpose of kidnapping the princess to hold for ransom or deliver to someone who would then do it. The reference to ‘merchandise’ when describing her fueled that school of thought.

Strangers to town were from then on subjected to the communities overprotective attitude to their princess. Strangers found a cold suspicious reception from locals until it was established beyond a shadow of doubt as to their intentions. The king went over board when thanking Bron in the form of gold and presents. His dad nearly burst with pride on hearing of his sons exploits. His training had paid off. A new bodyguard, Davian, was appointed but everyone knew Bron was her real bodyguard.

 

Chapter three

From that day he always carried a weapon strapped to his side. The dagger became a short sword and that eventually became a long blade as he grew. Kayla took a long time to recover from the ordeal, if she really ever truly recovered. She initially shied away from nearly all men and drew closer to Bron. Over time this developed into a guarded approach to dealings with men. Bron was the only one she ever totally relaxed around.

For his part Bron was the dutiful companion to his little friend. A mix of emotions swirled around inside the boy as hormones further disrupted his ability to think clearly about Kayla. He still regarded her as a friend but felt new feelings begin to develop. These new feelings for her scared and confused him. No matter how much he tried to suppress the feelings it didn’t help. He thought about her constantly and was distracted when hanging out with his other friends. Then when he saw her again he felt his heart leap in his chest. He knew that she could never be with him in the way he was thinking of her. It simply was not allowed. If he had harbored any hope of the king creating a president in this matter, it was shattered when he was around sixteen and he overheard the king and Lord Pharneson discussing Kayla’s imminent coming of age.

“That daughter of mine is going to make a fine bride soon,” the king had said.

“Are the suitors lining up already?” asked the loyal noble. The king smiled.

“Nobles and princess from countries I have never heard off are already making inquiries!” he told him.

“Any local lads in contention?” continued the noble. The king sighed.

“How I would like for her to marry a good local noble, but none crack the nod I’m afraid. There are also foreign treaties to consider,” muttered the old man.

“Really?” frowned Lord Pharneson, “How a about just a local lad?” The king knew what the lord was talking of. Bron. Bron also realized and dared not breath as he listened for the kings response.

“I love that boy,” sighed the king, “He is one hell of a lad and he is going to be an outstanding knight. Hell I owe my daughters life to him twice now.”

“But….,” pressed Pharneson as he anticipated the ‘but’.

“But he’s not a noble,” concluded the king. Brons heart sank and he felt light headed. “It’s just a fact when planning these sorts of things. A princess must marry at her station. It’s different for the lower nobility. They can still get away with marrying a commoner. I feel sorry for the lad. I think he really cares for her.”

The two continued the conversation but Bron had heard enough. He slipped away and went about his duties. He would have liked to forget about Kayla and run away, but his feelings would not allow it. For the next year he was at her side protecting her and watching her become a beautifully stunning young woman. The two were best friends and the safety she felt around him as well as his doting nature won her heart, unfortunately for the both of them. It was early that following year when Kayla and her father had a chat that he had been dreading to do. It was late one evening when he summoned her to his study where he spent most evenings reading and drinking vintage cognac.

“You know I love you very much my darling,” began the king.

“Oh no,” sighed Kayla as she rolled her eyes, “What do you want me to do that I don’t want to?”

She smiled with her entire face as she read her father like a book. When it came to official duties that bored her to tears the king had to really convince his daughter to take part. The conversations always began this way and ended with a suitable bribe. The king smiled but without humor. This was a little more serious than that. He knew she would hate him for it.

“You’re going to be sixteen next week sweetheart,” he began.

“Yes yes!” she exclaimed reverting to her childlike nature when she was excited, “Are we going to discuss presents!!” The king stood and poured a large tumbler of the amber liquid. This was not easy.

“Yes,” he continued, “We can discuss it. But I wanted to talk about the actual party.”

“Ok,” she said raising her eyebrows. She did not understand why he was being so serious.

“I was hoping to be able to have your mother discuss this with you,” he continued, “But that’s not possible gods rest her soul.”

“Oh Dad!” she blushed, “I do know about the birds and the bees!”

“What?” exclaimed the king, “I err… you do? That’s not what I want to discuss actually. You do?!” She nodded slowly hoping that hadn’t upset him.

“Well what is it then?” she asked.

“Your party,” stated the king clearing his throat and composing himself after being caught off guard, “I have taken the liberty of inviting a few guests I want you to meet.”

“No problem,” she responded leaning back in the huge plush high back chair she was seated in, “Who are they?”

“Well I invited Lord Fleriun, Prince Rahale, Prince Zrenst, and Lord Lengar,” announced the king. Kayla recognized some of the names. They had sent her gifts and letters over the course of the past year introducing themselves. They were all foreign nobles and royalty. She suspected they were wife hunting.

“Why?” she frowned. What was her father planning?

“I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet some young eligible nobles now that you’re almost sixteen,” shrugged the king anticipating the reaction.

“Dad!” stormed Kayla as she stood up, “I will not be married off to some stuffy foreigner and be carted off to a place I have never been and don’t want to go! I want to marry someone like Bron. In fact exactly like Bron!” The king sighed.

“I know you have feelings for the lad, but be reasonable my darling. He is just a commoner,” pleaded king Halden.

“And a good man!” added Kayla.

“I am not denying that,” responded the king, “But you cannot change the fact that you are a princess with certain responsibilities to this kingdom. Your marriage to any of those nobles could help unify the nations against those dam Barbic’s. Your mother and I were married by arrangement and we had a wonderful marriage!”

“Then I don’t want to be princess,” yelled Kayla teary eyed. The king hugged his head strong daughter.

“It just doesn’t work like that and you know it. We must think of what’s good for the people and the kingdom first and then ourselves. The people love you and I know you love them too. You can’t let them down,” he wiped a tear from her cheek as the realization of her station in life set in. She excused herself and went to bed where she cried herself to sleep.

*

Bron felt nauseous to the very core of his being. He wanted to turn away and leave but he knew he could not. Prince Zrenst cut an impressive figure in his military uniform with medals to boot. The suave royal was all charm as he danced the night away, with his hands all over young Princess Kayla. She in turn was breath taking in a satin white evening gown and tiara. She seemed quite taken by the young man, albeit still with her guarded and cautious manner.

As an official  member of the royal household Bron was in attendance as squire to Lord Pharneson. He had been told that the king was to use the occasion of the princesses birthday party to officially knight him. The feeling was bitter-sweet. On the occasion of his one true loves birthday and possible engagement to another man, he was going to be rewarded with his dream after nearly eight years of hard work.

Kayla and he had gone for a ride in the woods the previous day where she had broken the news to him. He knew it was coming and he tried to prepare for it but it was still like a sledgehammer when it landed. He broke protocol and pledged his love for her. She was in tears as she admitted the same. It was with great effort and conditioning from Arlen and the king, that the two resolved do what was in the best interests of both of them. They told themselves that they were young and it wasn’t love just infatuation. They lied to each other and themselves in order to make the other one feel better.

“Lords and Ladies,” announced the herald as he thumped his staff on the wooden floor of the great hall, “His Royal Majesty King Halden!” Everyone stood and clapped as the king stood up from his throne where he had been observing the proceedings.

“Assembled guests,” he began as the people settled down, “You all know why you are here. My beautiful and wonderful daughter has come of age. I think you will all agree she is the envy of women all over the kingdom.”

Nods and murmurs of agreement rumbled through the guests.

“Many of you will know that we would not be celebrating this day if it wasn’t for a certain young man. This young man has been responsible for saving my daughters life not once but twice. I call on Bron son of Arlen to come forward and accept what you have worked so long and hard for.”

Spontaneously the crowd clapped furiously in approval as young Bron approached the king, trying for all he was worth to look pleased. Arlen, who had also been invited for the occasion, beamed with pride. He however also knew the turmoil his son was experiencing.  Bron dropped to a knee.

“As monarch of this great kingdom,” recited the king drawing his ceremonial blade and touching it to Bron’s shoulders, “I call on you to rise Sir Bron!”

The guests cheered and applauded as a popular individual in the community was justly rewarded. Bron forced out a smile and accepted the congratulations as the party continued.

“Sir Bron,” said a voice. Bron turned to see Prince Zrenst with Kayla on his arm, “I have just been informed of your daring exploits on behalf of my Kayla here. You have my thanks. Very much beyond the call of duty,” smiled the prince. The reference to ‘his’ Kayla did not escape Bron. He gave a curt bow.

“Your highness,” responded Bron, “Just doing my civic duty.” Kayla gave him a little smile and he smiled back. The exchange was not missed by the young prince.

“Bron is like my bodyguard Ivan,” she said addressing the prince by his first name.

“Yes I see,” noted Prince Zrenst, “Shall we return to dance floor?” Kayla smiled and nodded and the two headed back to the dance floor. Bron watched them go and felt bile rise in his throat.

“It is for the best lad,” stated Lord Pharneson as he handed Bron a cut glass tumbler of the strong stuff. Bron gulped it down in one go and let it burn his insides. He was becoming numb inside.

“I suppose it is my lord,” muttered Bron through clenched teeth.

“Prince Zrenst is from the Kingdom of Glau. They have the most modern navy around. With their help we could crush those pesky Barbics once and for all. For their help their king will almost certainly insist on our princesses hand in marriage for his son,” explained the old noble and knight.

“Well I am glad its working out so well for everyone,” smiled Bron from behind his mask, “Excuse me sir.” He left his former master and headed out to the balcony where he gulped down the fresh air. He knew what he had to do if he was to remain sane.

 

Chapter four

Holding the reigns in one hand Bron guided his steed mostly with his legs as it galloped after the fleeing bandits. He slashed his blade to the left and right of the muscled beast, opening skulls and removing limbs. On foot the bandits had nowhere to run. Bron cut down the last one and turned the horse.

Another bandit was making a beeline for the trees. Urging his horse on, he galloped after him catching him just short of the first tree and decapitating him. He scanned the clearing. Foot soldiers were turning the remaining tents inside out and securing the few bandits who surrendered. Lord Caldric, the other knight, came galloping over.

“Marvelous!” he exclaimed, “I think we got them all!” Lord Caldric was in his early twenties, five years older than Bron. He was average of build with sandy brown hair. He was however no match in combat for the well trained Bron. Like most knights he was born into nobility. He knew Bron was of common stock but it did not seem to matter to the enthusiastic young man.

“I am glad we finally found them,” smiled Bron, “I was beginning to think we never would.” Caldric grinned.

“Lets see what’s been captured,” suggested Caldric and galloped to where the soldiers were securing the camp site.

Bron trotted over to join him. The day after Kayla’s sixteenth birthday party, it was announced that she and the prince were to be betrothed. That same day he went to the king and requested a military posting to the most remote part of the kingdom. The king had been surprised and had hoped that the announcement of the engagement would be something Bron would just accept. He however granted his request and realized the young man might have been even more fond of his daughter than he had imagined.

First Bron told his father who reckoned it was best he went away to deal with his issues. He then went and congratulated Kayla and informed her he was leaving. She burst into tears. For some reason she thought that Bron would continue to be her bodyguard even after her marriage, and move to Glau with her. The prince was adamant that he could provide adequate security. Kayla did however make Bron promise to come to the wedding to be held in Glau in a couple of months. He promised not knowing if he would be able to keep it.

By the end of the week he was ready to head off to Fort Wepnal. It was a week by fast horse and was remote enough for Bron. From his considerable savings he purchased his first set of plate mail armor and a fine medium warhorse. One Baron-Captain Marshax was in charge of a garrison of soldiers at Fort Wepnal. One other knight, Sir Caldric, was also stationed there.

Bron arrived to find the area was experiencing some bandit trouble. He threw himself into the task eventually tracking down the group and surprising them at one of their temporary camps. He was particularly keen to get his frustrations out after receiving his invitation to the wedding that morning with the daily dispatches.

After burning the bodies of thirty-one bandits killed in the skirmish, they took the recovered goods and four prisoners, and headed back to Fort Wepnal. Bron was pleased his first ‘mission’ had met with success. He and Caldric rode through the forts gates resolving to meet for drinks later at the local tavern. Bron had discovered that his status as a knight out in the provinces proved to be a major boon when chasing skirt. The rural lasses were suckers for a man in plate mail. He was keen to drown his memories of Kayla with some ale and a comely wench.

“There’s a royal dispatch rider to see you sir,” announced a soldier as he took the reigns from Bron.

“I already got my invitation,” mumbled Bron, “What the hell is this?” He strode over to the keep. He reminded himself he needed to appoint a squire as he had had enough of cleaning equipment.

“Ah Sir Bron,” greeted Baron-Captain Marshax as he entered.

“Baron-Captain,” saluted Bron and nodded his head.

“This young man has an urgent dispatch for you from the king,” he told him and a travel weary courier presented Bron with a scroll bearing the royal seal.

“Did they change the date and needed to tell me?” he mumbled to himself as he broke the seal and read.

“I beg your pardon sir,” asked the courier thinking he was being addressed.

“Nothing,” replied Bron dismissively. He read on. Suddenly he gasped and dropped the scroll, “I have to go now,” he stated and walked out without waiting for a response from his superior. Marshax frowned and picked up the fallen scroll and read it.

“Oh gods no,” he muttered in shock,” The princess’s been kidnapped.”

*

The darkness lingered. Surely by now the light should start showing through the crack in the heavy velvet curtain. Princess Kayla shifted as much as her tight bonds allowed. Pins and needles streaked up her arms from the constriction of the ropes. She had imagined she would have been more frightened than she was. Perhaps it was the conditioning of her childhood that caused the whole situation to be less shocking. She sighed. Still she was pretty scared. She no longer cried as she had done enough of that and it helped nothing.

Bron had taught her that. He always made some comment like:“It could be much worse you know. Maybe you should hold onto those tears and use them when it’s really bad. Not that they really help at all.”

The non-malicious, logical manner in which he made those statements really drove home the futility of things like crying. Now she sat in the darkness and wondered what would happen next.

How quickly things can change she mused. A few days back she was involved in the preparations for her move to Glau and her marriage to the crown prince Ivan Zrenst. Now she was a kidnap victim.

After packing a considerable amount of odds and ends, the royal delegation from Glau arrived to escort her to her new home. Tears were shed by both father and daughter, not to mention a fair number of locals. Her last thoughts, as the carriage train pulled out of the old keep, were of Bron. How she wished he was coming along to provide her with that little piece of stability and a reminder of home. She felt quite empty without her childhood companion. Of love she was not one hundred percent sure. Bron had made his feelings plain, but she was still wondering if it was Bron she was in love with or that she was too scared to risk her emotions.

Once in Port Augmire they awaited the arrival of several Glau navy warships to take her the rest of the way. They stayed at the port castle that had been her home for a number of years. Then a lone warship arrived at Port Augmire and the delegation boarded. She did notice an altercation between the captain and the knight the prince had sent to lead the Glau delegation. The two seemed to have some sort of verbal disagreement that continued after they set sail.

Two days out of harbor she was awoken one night by the sounds of battle. Her door to her cabin was broken down and huge muscled thugs hauled her from her bed and literally shoved her into a large sack. Screaming she was jostled and bumped around till she smelt fresh air, before it smelt dank and stuffy.

As far as he could tell by the rocking motion that she was still on a ship, but maybe not the warship anymore. Then another swarthy brute hauled her out the sack and bound her hands and feet. One word of protest brought a swift backhand that stunned her. He left her alone in a small cabin, tied up and tied to a bunk. There was no light and a heavy velvet curtain was crudely hung over the porthole, keeping the light out. She was tired, hungry, cold and thirsty and wished she had left Glensteward with Bron. He would have saved her. He always did.

*

Not sparing the steed for one second Bron galloped at pace down the well worn highway leading down to the sprawling city of Port Augmire. Upon his arrival in Glensteward he was told by his father and Lord Pharneson, that the king had gone to Port Augmire on receiving the news. Lord Pharneson had been appointed seneschal on a temporary basis.

Bron changed horses and set off without resting. In what might have been a record for the trip from Glensteward to Port Augmire, Bron thundered his horse through the main gates and on towards the castle. He dismounted and rushed into the keep. Once his identity had been established he was allowed to see the king. The charismatic vibrant liege looked a hundred years old with grief and worry.

“Your majesty,” he dropped to a knee, “What news?”

“Bron my boy,” sighed the king, looking as though he was fighting back the tears, “She’ been taken and we don’t know by who.”

“Any ransom demands?” asked Bron.

The king shook his head. He then told Bron what they knew. The warship that arrived to fetch them was not manned by Glau navy. The ship had been part of the convoy sent to fetch her but the convoy was set upon by forces unknown. A Glau fishing vessel came upon the debris of at least two of the warships and raced home to inform the authorities. Prince Zrenst himself lead a fleet out that eventually made it to Port Augmire, not finding anything at sea, only to find that a warship had already picked up the delegation. Whoever destroyed the first fleet must have spared that vessel and manned it masquerading as Glau navy and taken the delegation on board.

“I will find her my liege,” promised Bron standing and preparing to leave.

“Prince Zrenst thinks that the only power strong enough to take a Glau fleet must be the Barbic Pirates,” stated the king, “He has set out and sworn to find her.”

“Don’t hold your breath my liege. He has already failed with one promise,” snarled the young knight, “He promised to keep her safe!”

*

Bron pushed through the crowded market of the trading port town of Prelint. One hand he kept firmly on the hilt of his blade and the other on his money pouch under his cloak. Bron abandoned his plate armor as it made him stand out too much. He acquired a chain mail vest and some non descript traveling clothes. He then negotiated passage on a merchant vessel bound for the Savage Coast.

He had often heard rumors, growing up, that it was the place to go to buy or sell dodgy goods, and where the Barbics went to off load their ill gotten gains. No law existed out there as no country staked any claim to the area. The closest kingdom was the frontier kingdom of Grenz to the south, but not on the same continent. Grenz was on the Dark Continent.

He disembarked at a small stop over for smugglers and pirates and began making enquiries. He refined his methods after being set upon by some mean looking types there. He killed two and badly wounded the others. He decided to be more subtle and come across more as a fellow bandit than an enemy soldier.

 He went from town to town where most had not even heard of the princess or her disappearance. The talk of the area was the Glau fleet terrorizing local shipping, looking for Barbics. It was on this line of questioning that he discovered that there was a Glau warship for sale in the area. He immediately made for Prelint where the sellers were supposed to be. It could be the one that picked up Kayla. He entered a dubious tavern called the Rusty Gaff, confident he had avoided the pick pockets.

“Ale and information,” ordered Bron as he dropped some coppers on the bar counter. The jaded barkeep scooped up the coins and slammed down a battered pewter mug of watery ale. With a bored expression he waited for the young man to ask.

“I am looking for Branert,” he told the man.

With a tilt of the head he indicated to a tattooed man sitting against the wall on the far left hand side of the tavern. Bron nodded his thanks and approached the man mug in hand. From his right a man stood and placed a firm yet non aggressive hand on Brons chest.

“What’s your business with Mr. Branert?” asked the brawny lug who stood a clear head taller than Bron and outweighed him by about fifty pounds. A number of daggers stuck out his belt and an axe was strapped to his back. Numerous scars indicated this was no green recruit but a seasoned veteran warrior.

“Business,” responded Bron evenly.

“Gonna need more than that boy,” muttered the muscle with a shake of his head.

“I am looking for a ship,” he elaborated.

“You don’t look like you have the kinda coin needed to afford a ship,” he said with a raised eyebrow.

“I don’t,” he countered, “I represent a consortium from Grenz who require a very specific ship, and no complications.” The big man glanced over his shoulder to where the tattooed man had been following the conversation. Branert nodded and the muscle mountain stepped back and showed Bron to the table.

“You don’t look like you’re from Grenz,” noted Branert as Bron took a seat.

“Originally I’m not,” informed Bron, “But works good so that’s where I am for now.”

“And originally?” queried the businessman.

“Lots of different places,” smiled Bron indicating that Branert was not going to get much personal information about Bron.

“Alright then,” nodded Branert, “To business then. Tell me of this ‘specific’ ship.”

“Well,” began Bron, “I have been led to believe you actually can provide someone with genuine Glau warships. Those I represent could make very good use of such ships in the Grenz area.”

“Its one Glau warship,” corrected Branert, “And the price is high.”

“Just one?” frowned Bron feigning disappointment.

“It’s worth it,” promised Branert, “Nothing could touch you in one of these.”

“Come now,” smiled Bron, “If that was the case then how do you have it? You’re not shafting me on the price with this.”

“Not at all,” grinned the businessman, “I mean what I say. And trust me there’s more than one way to skin a cat. This warship cannot be taken in combat very easily.”

“You have to excuse my skepticism,” sighed Bron, “The Glau navy won’t sell any of their warships. I know. We’ve been down that road. No-one else makes them so it would mean this one was taken by force, which means it’s not that ‘special’.” Branert leaned in close.

“Ask around boy,” he whispered, “This ship was taken not by another ship but from within.”

He sat back satisfied he had given enough information. Bron nodded and sipped his ale deep in thought. An inside job? That made no sense. He had no knowledge of Glau politics.

“Ok,” he conceded, “Let’s see the merchandise.” Branert smiled as he figured he had hooked the boy. He stood and straightened his sleeveless leather waistcoat.

“Let’s go,” he smiled. Bron joined him and they left the tavern. They, together with the bodyguard, headed out of town into the jungle bordering on the coast.

“Where the hell are you keeping it?” wondered Bron out aloud.

“You’ll see,” grinned the tattooed businessman. They had gone about fifty meters down a trail into some of the thickest bush Bron had ever seen, when a sharp pain erupted at the back of his neck and darkness enveloped him.

*

The door opened and a shaft of light stung Kayla’s eyes. Silhouetted in the door way was the frame of a thick set man. He strode in and hauled her to her feet, slashing the rope binding her. He half dragged her as her cramped legs refused to cooperate, to another cabin where a barrel of water stood.

“Clean up,” he ordered, “We’re almost there.”

“I er….” was all she could get out before the brute slammed a fist into her midriff. He had been ordered not to mark the face. She doubled over and fell to the floor coughing and gasping for air.

“Don’t talk,” he warned her, “Just do.” He headed for the door. “Clean up yourself or I will send one of the men to clean you up. There’s a lot one can do to a girl and still maintain her virginity. Think about that.”

He slammed the door and she heard him walk off. She lay curled up on the ground as she gasped for air. Her insides felt broken. She moved and it hurt. Fearful of what they might do to her she willed herself to her feet using the barrel for support. The water was freezing. A hard brush and a bar of soap lay on a table next to the barrel. Shaking with fear she stripped down and washed. She was not yet finished when the door opened and the brute returned.

“I warned you to move it,” he growled as she jumped and tried to cover herself. He strode over and hauled her off her feet and dumped her into the barrel. She screamed as the air was driven from her lungs with shock. He shoved her under the water and held her there. He then plucked her out by the arm and dropped her naked onto the floor. She never imagined a human being could feel so degraded. Another thug came walking in carrying some clothes.

“Nice!” he grinned. Shivering she crouched on the ground as the two men towered over her.

“Remember,” ordered the first man, “Maintain her virtue but get her cleaned up. And make it snappy!”

He stepped over her and walked out. Wasting no time the other man threw the clothes to one side and hauled Kayla up. She screamed as working mans rough hands pawed her, as the lecherous thug copped enough feels as he got her ready. Kayla was hoarse from screamed by the time she was dressed and cleaned up.  The man then dragged her up out the hold. She was blinded by the sudden light and squeezed her teary eyes shut.

“Her hairs a mess,” barked a voice, “Here! And hurry!” A new brawny thug shoved a bone comb into the hand of her minder, who went to work ‘brushing’ her hair. The man tore the knots of her wet matted hair as she cried out hoarsely in pain.

“It’s them!” announced another voice.

She opened her eyes and let them get used to the light. Sailors milled around on the deck as another vessel approached. When it got close it dropped a smaller boat, that rowed over. The occupants boarded. One man looked like a slightly portly merchant and another like a thinner younger version of the first. The other three looked like professional muscle.

“Is that her?” asked the fat man.

“Yes sir,” grinned the original thug, “And all in one piece as requested.”

“She looks like she’s been pulled through a bush backwards!” commented the younger man, “What have you done to her?”

“You wanted a young noblewoman and we got you a young noblewoman,” growled the supposed leader, changing his demeanor when addressing the younger man. “You want her all prettied up then go deal with slavers!”

 The fat man held up his hand ending the exchange.

“You have always been true to your word in business Anclerique,” stated the man hauling out a bag of coin and tossing it to him.

“It’s always good to do business with you Farn,” grinned Anclerique. Kayla was shoved over to the merchants whose men at arms took her. Farn lifted her chin with his forefinger and examined her face.

“She looks worth every cent,” he muttered, “Where you from sweetheart?” he asked her.

“Taland,” she said softly. Farn frowned. He looked to his younger companion. “Isn’t that north of here?” The younger man shrugged. “You’re a far way from home,” he told her, “You’re not going to be any trouble are you?” he asked her again.

She shook her head still traumatized by her molesting. They changed ships and she was put in much more comfortable surroundings, but still under lock and key. She risked asking what was to become of her. Farn politely told her he had a buyer for her and that’s where she was being taken. She had been reduced to merchandise. A commodity to be bought and sold. Unable to even weep she curled up on the bed and stared into nothingness.

*

“Wake up!” bellowed a voice as icy cold water splashed over Bron. He opened his eyes and blinked. He realized he was tied to a chair in a large room. The back of his head throbbed. The big man from the tavern stood in front of him. He tossed an empty bucket to one side. A few other rough looking individuals came over to have a look. Branert stood arms folded to one side watching Bron.

“Now who the f*** are you?” he sneered.

“Hey I was just looking to do some business! What’s your fu…..,” was all he managed to get out before the muscle stepped up and drove a right into his face knocking him and the chair over. Strong hands hauled him back up. His eyes watered and his face stung, in addition to the swirling. He felt the blood drip down his face from the split lip.

“You don’t represent anyone from Grenz boy,” Branert told him, “You are not a very good liar. I know good liars. You are not one of them.” Bron shook his head to clear it. He wondered if he should tell the truth or try another story.

“Ok you got me,” he admitted, “I should have been straight with you.”

“Go on,” waited Branert. Bron made his decision. The door suddenly burst open.

“We gotta get out of here!” yelled the man, “It’s those Glau f***!”

“What?!” gasped Branert, “Where?”

“Just spotted them off the coast and they’re heading here, fast!”

There was much cursing as men rushed off, forgetting about Bron. Struggling at his bindings Bron managed to get to his feet. He threw himself down of the chair and was rewarded with a crack. He did it twice more before the chair broke and he fell to the floor. He scrambled to his feet and rubbed the back of his head. His lip was already badly swollen. As he got to the door he bumped into Branerts muscle coming back in. Bron hoofed him in the nuts. Surprised the man mountain dropped wailing and clutching his groin.

“That’s for the back of the head f****!” spat Bron as he backed up and took a run up. He booted the brute in the ribs, hearing an audible crack, and backed up again.

“That’s for the punch!” he continued. He ran up and jumped, landing with both feet on the man’s head. The man stopped moving.

“That’s so you don’t do it again,” he snarled.

 He retrieved the man’s axe and daggers, and a small bag of coin. Peeking out the door he saw a hive of activity. Men rushed all over with boxes and horses with boxes. It was a hasty withdrawal.  It appeared they were on a rivers edge. He opened the door more and looked out. They were in fact close to a river mouth.

Out to sea the Glau warships loomed large as they headed for the river mouth. The missing Glau warship in question was moored in the small lagoon at the entrance. A number of largish wooden houses lined the shore. Store houses like the one he was in no doubt.

He scanned for Branert. The man was hastily saddling a horse and packing two chests into its saddle bags. He must have wondered where his bodyguard was because he glanced back at the house and saw Bron in the doorway. He gulped and mounted the horse.

Bron ran out the house toward him. There was so much panic and commotion in the small bandit community that no-one paid him any notice. He grabbed the closest horse and decked the owner. He mounted up and galloped after Branert.

The businessman burst onto a jungle trail and kept going. Bron was right on his tail. After two minutes the trail climbed sharply up a hill. Both men urged their mounts on as they slipped a little in places. At the top the trail cut back down the other side down an even steeper slope, and zigzagged to compensate for the steepness.

Bron picked his opportunity and as Branerts horse passed below him he leapt off his steed. He clothes-lined his opponent and scragged him clear of his horse. The two hit the ground and tumbled down the slope, ripping through the vegetation. Bron tucked and rolled and crashed into jungle vines at the bottom, tearing through several layers before stopping. Branert was older and less supple and thudded to the bottom of the slope, where he lay with a broken leg and shoulder. Bron gingerly got up, badly bruised, and drew the axe, that thankfully hadn’t impaled him, and laid it across the wounded mans neck.

“Who the f*** are you?” groaned the confused businessman. Bron ran the sharp edge of the axe across the man’s chest, just enough to make a superficial wound, and to hurt. Branert yelled in pain

“I don’t have time to talk,” he told Branert, “How was that warship taken?” Branert looked confused. Bron sliced him again.

“Ok,” he yelled, “Stop! I’ll tell you what I know.”

“I’m waiting,” warned Bron, ready with the axe.

“It was used in some kidnapping. The popular story is some enemies of the Glau crown prince together with some pirates managed to get their people on a fleet being sent to fetch the princes’ bride from somewhere. They took over the warships and sank a few to make it look like it was attacked. They then went and fetched the bride to be, and sold her into slavery. I bought the ship off some foreign pirates who were selling it cheap.”

“Barbic Pirates?” asked Bron seething with anger at the thought of Kayka being a slave.

“No,” admitted Branert, “It was meant to look that way I am sure, and it seems to have worked. The pirates used were from near Glau. I think they are privateers for the crown called The Marauders.”

“So where’s the girl now?” he pressed.

“What’s that got to do…..” the man was cut off as Bron sliced him again.

“Answer!” ordered Bron.

“I don’t know!” yelled the man in quite a bit of pain now, “The marauders took her I think.”

If that was true then Bron had gone in the wrong direction. And Prince Ivan Zrenst was also looking in the wrong place. Bron cursed. He left the incapacitated man and fetched the horses. He took the two chests from Branerts saddle bags and made him open them. They were filled with coin. Bron helped the wounded man to his horse.

“I’m going to keep one chest for the trouble you put me through, but I am letting you go,” he told him, “You see the Glau crowd will execute you for having one of their ships. This will be what you wish had happened if I find out, for whatever reason, you have just lied to me. I will come back to this stretch of godless land and I will find you and torture you to death. Ok?”

“I told you what I know,” grimaced Branert, “I swear it!”

“Then you won’t see me again,” muttered Bron as he slapped the horses rump and sent the bandit painfully on his way. In less pain he mounted his acquired steed and headed back to the river mouth.

He trotted casually into the settlement as Glau marines rounded up the smugglers and bandits that hadn’t fled fast enough.

“Take me to Prince Zrenst,” he ordered the first surprised marine who had approached the lone horseman assuming he was another bandit, “I am Sir Bron of Taland.”

“Just a mome……..,” began another marine nearby as they surrounded the armed horseman.

“Now soldier!” barked Bron, “I have vital information on Princess Kayla!” The marine jumped. This young man was too well informed on specifics and his accent was a little strange.

“This way,” he said. Bron dismounted and tossed his weapons at the closest marine before being asked. With the saddle bags over his shoulder he followed the marine to the captured warship. On board Prince Zrenst looked shocked to see the young knight.

“Sir Bron?” he asked incredulously.

“Your highness,” bowed Bron showing the proper respect.

“What in the gods names happened to you and what are you doing here?” exclaimed the prince.

“Same thing as you, looking for Kayla,” he told him.

“Princess Kayla,” corrected Zrenst.

“Yes,” continued Bron, “She’s not here.”

“Well we will find out exactly where soon enough,” assured the prince, “I have ordered the questioning of the prisoners.”

“They wont know,” Bron told him, “She was never even brought near the Savage Coast.”

“What makes you think that?” frowned the prince.

“Because it wasn’t the Barbics that took her,” he continued, “It was an inside job along with those privateers The Marauders.”

“That’s ridiculous,” snorted the prince derisively, “I don’t have enemies and the Marauders work for the crown, hence the name ‘privateers’.”

“Look Prince Zrenst,” sighed Bron, “I don’t have time to argue. I have already wasted too much time looking in the wrong place. I came to tell you what I know and now I am heading north.” He turned to leave.

“How did you come by this information?” queried the prince stopping him.

“I managed to get it out of the man who bought this ship,” he said tapping his foot on the deck, “Before you arrived and scared him off.”

“Where is he now?” asked the prince suspiciously. Bron shrugged.

“Halfway to Grenz probably,” he replied.

“And he just volunteered the information,” pressed the prince.

“Look here,” Bron pointed to his battered face, “It was a little more difficult than that!”

“Watch your tone!” barked one of the princes men, hand on the hilt of his blade and taking a step forward. Bron glared at him angrily as if to say don’t start what you can’t finish.

“Relax,” ordered the prince to all parties, “Look Sir Bron. I cant run off on a wild goose chase just because you ‘heard’ something.”

“I’m not asking you too,” stated Bron, “Stay here, but I’m going to find Princess Kayla. Good day to you sir.” He nodded and left the ship. He collected up ‘his’ weapons and horse and rode off.

 

Chapter five

Kayla stared out the long narrow window onto the bustling street below. Hot dry air blew through the high ceiling apartment. Only on the hottest summer days in Taland did it get this hot. Thankfully she was not dressed in the heavy fabric gowns she was used to. The light silk wrap draped over her kept her cool if not a little scantily clad.

Emotionally she felt empty. Just the tiniest shred of hope still remained to be rescued. Then what she wondered? Who would have her now? Now that she was ruined. She closed her eyes and shuddered as she recalled it.

Farn, the merchant, was not a professional purveyor of flesh. He was however constantly keeping tabs on every sweet deal that came along. When he found out through his marauder contacts that a princess was going to be assassinated by them, he recalled hearing of a caliph who only had noblewomen in his harem. He brokered a deal where the marauders would deliver the girl to him instead of killing her. He then passed her along to Caliph Sulamed ibn Ahkbar for a handsome profit.

Kayla bit her lip as the memory flooded back of her first meeting with the tall hook nosed caliph in his late thirties. She had been cleaned up and made presentable by a rather dubious individual whose preference was definitely not for the fairer sex. Andre had transformed her back into a princess, on behalf of Farn, and the caliph was suitably impressed.

Without ceremony he pushed her onto a bed of pillows behind a thin curtain and had his way with her, as his delegation waited patiently on the other side a mere five feet away. When she screamed he beat her. She learned to shut up and do what was expected.

For the first month he visited her every day. The man liked to experiment and the thought of some of the things he had made her do nauseated her. Once the novelty wore off he saw her less often. She did not speak to the other women in the harem and they barely spoke to each other. Multiple nationalities were represented and few spoke common languages. She noticed that soon after she arrived one of the older girls disappeared. No-one said anything so she supposed it just happened from time to time as the caliph recycled his harem.

She wondered how many years she had. By her reckoning she had been incarcerated for more than three months. Often the caliph would show off his harem to visitors as one would your racing horses. The young girls would be stripped naked and gawked at as the caliph enjoyed the envious stares from his guests. Only he got to touch, except in some of his experiments. Even the harem guards were castrated so as not to tempt them. One of them approached Kayla and indicated to the door. The caliph was calling. Like a drone she obeyed without thinking.

*

“Now speak! Who the f*** are you?” bellowed the heavy set enforcer. Not again thought Bron as he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Tied to a chair again he attempted to recover from the savage beating he was taking. His own blood pooled around the chair. Some nineteenth birthday he thought.

Once he made the long arduous journey north to Glau he set about making contact with the Marauders. They were not too difficult to find. He cracked a few skulls to impress one of the captains to take him on board as a crew member. As subtly as he could he made inquiries about the captured princess. It turned out it was quite a topic of conversation, like a good hunting story. He found out quickly how instead of offing the girl as agreed to with a certain Glau duke, they lied and handed her over to a merchant named Farn who paid them almost as much as the duke for the job. It was the duke who arranged for marauders to just about completely crew the fleet of warships that left to fetch her. They then turned on the remaining crew late at night and took all four warships. Two they scuttled and then crewed the remaining two. One went to a buyer in Bayleland and one went to fetch the princess. Easy work and no witnesses.

Bron jumped ship as soon as he had the info and sought out the merchant. Farn was not hard to find. Like most merchants with dark dealings, he maintained a respectable front. Buoyed by his successful info gathering with the marauders he was careless and after one question too many he was visited in his inn room. He downed two before he was over bared and hauled off to a dank stone room where the interrogation began.

“Mister Farn does not like people snooping around asking questions about his business,” snarled the thug, “Now who are you?”

“I am……..,” whispered Bron so the man couldn’t hear, while lolling his head forward feigning semi-consciousness.

“What?” snapped the inquisitor. Bron lolled his head back and whispered something just as incoherent.

“What!?” snapped the thug again leaning forward.

Bron drove his head forward in a flash, head-butting the brute right on the bridge of his nose. The cartridge crushed as the big man dropped to the ground bleeding profusely. With an ungodly roar of pain and anger Bron stood, snapping his bonds. He collected up the chair and shattered it over the thugs body after the sixth strike.

Panting, beaten and bloody Bron spat a mouthful of blood onto the floor. He drew the dagger from the belt of his dead torturer and went to the door. He opened it to reveal a stone passageway. He had been unconscious when he was brought in but he was sure he was underground.

He sneaked along the corridor passing other cells until he got to a stout door. Peeking through the hatch he spotted three guards at a table, playing cards. A stairwell led up behind them. He tried the handle and it opened.

“That didn’t take long,” commented one of the men, not looking up from his hand, “I thought you said the youngster was a hard-ass!”

“I am,” responded Bron as he strode over and slashed the man’s jugular. Spewing blood the surprised guard stood clutching his neck, only to collapse and die in seconds.

The other shocked and stunned guards stood, going for their blades. Bron slashed the next ones wrist and plunged the blade into his chest. Gasping the man toppled back dead. Bron let go the dagger and drew the falling mans long sword, bringing it up in time to parry the last guards clumsy strike. The savagely beaten young man then executed three swift strikes, cutting the outclassed guard down.

Bron picked up one of the mugs on the table and washed the blood from his mouth with the cheap liquor. It burnt like hell. He splashed the rest on his face washing some of that blood off too and letting the alcohol clean the wounds. The pain was intense but eased up soon after.

 Bron checked the trio for anything useful and then approached the stairs. It led up about a story with a door at the top. He scampered up and checked through the observation hatch. It was night outside. He tried the door and it opened. Peeking out he saw that this was a dungeon attached to a large manor house. The property looked huge. He spent two minutes scanning the area but saw no guards.

He slipped out and moved quietly along the length of the building. A door opened as he got near and he got ready to jump the person exiting. A middle aged woman stepped out and tossed a basin of water onto the ground.

“SSSSSHHH!” he indicated with a finger to his lip. She turned and saw the beaten and still a little bloody young man holding a sword from one of the guards. She took in a deep breath but didn’t scream as Bron preemptively punched her out cold. He shook his head. He didn’t enjoy that. He dragged her inside what turned out to be the kitchen. He propped her up in a chair and tapped her awake. Stunned and woozy she came round.

“Now don’t make a noise or I will smack you again,” threatened Bron with a raised fist to emphasize his intensions. Horrified she nodded.

“Please don’t kill me,” she whispered.

“Then tell me where Mr. Farn is?” he ordered.

“He’s not here,” she told him rubbing the side of her face where Bron punched her, “On Thurday’s he goes to see his mistress, Velda,”

“Where?” pressed Bron.

“The Hill & Dale Inn. She keeps a room there,” she replied still quivering with fear.

“You wouldn’t lie to me would you?” snarled Bron menacingly as he leaned close. The woman almost fainted, but shook her head vigorously. Convinced Bron tied her up and locked her in the pantry, before slipping out the back and over the boundary wall.

*

“You don’t know who you are f***** with boy!” snarled Farn as his capturer paced in front of him toying with the sharp dagger. Farn was securely tied up and on the floor. Velda whimpered through her gag as she lay in the one corner also tied up.

After leaving the manor estate he slipped into town and back to his rented room where he cleaned up. Some of his stuff was missing but they failed to find his coin stashed under a loose floorboard. He then went over to the Hill & Dale and slipped  through Velda’s window, while the two rutted away and then tied them up.

“You don’t think so?” mused Bron. He crouched in front of the tubby merchant and rested the dagger under Farns eye, “You are the piece of shit who sold my only true love into slavery and that’s all that counts.” Farn looked a little concerned. “I badly want to torture and kill you now for that,” admitted Bron, “In fact the only way that’s not going to happen is if you tell me right now where Princess Kayla is.”

“The Taland princess?” asked Farn surprised. Bron nodded, “It’s way too late boy. She’s now a prize object in Caliph Sulamed ibn Ahkbar’s harem!”

Farn chuckled callously not fully appreciating the danger he was in. Bron snapped when he heard that and drove the dagger deep into the merchants chubby belly. His other hand he clamped over the mouth as the fat man gave a muffled screamed.

“It seems you are the one who didn’t realize who you were f***** with!” whispered Bron coldly as he twisted the dagger.

The fat man yelled out another muffled scream. Bron manipulated the dagger until he fully disemboweled the tubby merchant. In great agony Farn expired. Bron wiped off the blade and sheathed it. He looked at Velda who had feinted. He left her and climbed out the window. He went straight back to his room and packed and left in the dead of night. He was heading north to the desert lands of the Emirate of Yezuyd.

*

Kayla sobbed as she sat on the edge of her plush cot in the harem.

“You are lucky,” noted a fair haired young woman with deep blue eyes and a stunning figure.

“What?” she asked as if she hadn’t quite heard correctly.

“Now he will certainly not get rid of you,” explained the tall blond, “He might even take you out the harem.”

Kayla didn’t care about that. Her last thread of hope flickered like a flame in the wind and went out. She lay back on her bed and turned her back to the other harem girls. They left her and went back to other things. Kayla reached under her pillow and felt the hilt of the small sharp knife she smuggled out the caliph’s room. Life was over.

*

“What ever happened to the art of conversation?” asked Bron as he stood from his bar stool and kept his back to the bar, as five well muscled swarthy Yezuydians encircled him.

“You pig-dog!” spat one of the men barely able to form the words in the foreign language.

Bron knew talking was of little use. These five were no doubt related to the group that jumped him at a pass two days back. The lone horseman must have seemed like easy pickings. Too bad for them. Bron killed three and wounded one before the wounded one and his buddy fled. All Bron had to show for it was a nick to the forearm.

This crowd had tracked him to the capital where he headed for the first inn he saw and had refreshing juice drink. He found out no alcohol existed anywhere in the emirate and so did with out. He already saw the high walled palace of the Caliph and was considering how to get in when fight club arrived.

They drew blades and closed in. Bron rolled backwards over the bar counter as curved blades whacked into its surface. He drew his own and slashed out skull capping the first. He then ducked and darted left, where he hopped back over the counter. The remaining four slashed and missed and now advanced.

In a flash Bron lunged forward and lopped off the leading mans wrist. Screaming and spewing blood he dropped clutching the stump. The remaining three backed up.

“Walk away,” advised Bron. They looked at each other and said a few phrases Bron did not understand. They did back off, dragging their handless companion, and hurried out the door.

Bron sheathed his blade and returned to his fruity refreshment.

“That’s going to cost you,” noted a voice. It was fluent but accented. Bron turned to see another foreigner to the lands getting up from his table. He dropped a few coins down on the surface.

“It was self defense,” stated Bron, “Everyone saw that.” Bron put his hand back on the hilt of his blade. The man did not look like a warrior but he wasn’t sure.

“It makes no difference,” sighed the man who looked in his thirties and possibly a merchant, “You better get out of here before the Crescent Guard arrive.” Bron cursed. So much for keeping a low profile. Now he needed to try and rescue Kayla with the law looking for him.

“Thanks,” he said and started to leave.

“Wait,” smiled the man, “Come with me. I can help.” Not wanting to trust anyone but also not having much choice Bron followed the man out the back door as the remaining patrons glared at them.

“The names Bron,” said Bron offering his hand.

“Selkirk,” replied the man. The two ducked out the back door and disappeared in the maize of streets that was the oasis town.

*

“That’s all of it,” sighed Bron dropping the last coin onto the table. The little pile of gold coins looked impressive. It totaled over one hundred pieces. It took a bit of a bite out of his stash but he was confident he had more than enough to get home. The swarthy Yezudian sitting across from him counted the coins carefully. When he was finished he looked at Selkirk and nodded. Selkirk breathed a sigh of relief.

After he and the scarred young warrior made good their getaway, Selkirk took him back to his humble lodgings. Selkirk was a merchant of sorts. With so much being banned in the emirate under its strict laws, there was ample work for those who would risk supplying the populace with it. Alcohol was the main thing. Selkirk would travel outside the emirate and buy huge quantities of goods. He would then smuggle it in through numerous channels and distribute it to dodgy merchants. He thought he might be able to use the youngster as muscle in a few negotiations. It was why he helped him. Selkirk himself was a wanted man. Bron however made no bones about why he was there. His princess needed rescuing.

It was all very much beyond the call as far as Selkirk was concerned. He did however like the idea of putting one over the old caliph so decided to help by introducing Bron to some people. After much negotiation a palace cook who had had his cooking insulted once too many by the fussy monarch, agreed to slip Bron in the palace, in exchange for enough coin to relocate. Thankfully Bron still had the coin from the Barbics.

The deal concluded, it was arranged that Bron was to come to his house before he left for the palace to go to work. He would smuggle him in, in his food cart.

“Sorry it was so much,” offered Selkirk as they left the dive of an illegal drinking hole, where the deal was struck.

“Worth every coin,” shrugged Bron, “If it gets me to Kayla.” Selkirk admired this young knights dedication to duty. It was not his thing personally but he admired it nevertheless.

*

Bron concentrated and breathed normally. His heart was beating wildly so much so that he heard it thundering away in his ears. The two guards passed within inches of the knight but continued to chat and walk on by. Moving the heavy velvet curtain he stepped out and crossed the hall. In the dead of night the palace was like a tomb it was so quiet.

After getting into the kitchen via the food cart, he slipped out and following the rough directions from the cook, he made for the harem. Apparently the cook had had to go there more than once to personally deliver prepared food to the Caliph. He was never allowed in but knew where it was. Right as he said the stairs to the left appeared.

Already Bron had two bodies of guards stashed as he made his way. He heard voices at the top of the stairs. More guards. If the cook was right then the harem was right beyond them. Slowly he crept up the stairs until he just spied the two eunuch guards in front of the elaborate door. Sneaking a peak down the hall he saw no other guards. Speed and surprise was needed.

With dagger in one hand and sword drawn in the other he rushed from the shadows letting fly with the dagger. The shot was sweet as it punched into the guards neck killing him. The other guard was still trying to open his mouth to scream when he was neatly decapitated.

Bron stood there and listened for commotion but there was none. Now he had to be quick. Opening the door he slipped it. The huge room reeked of perfume and stale sex. It was dark as most of the women slept. A single light from the far end of the room cast a twilight around.

Bron was about to wake the first woman asleep on a pillow a few feet away when a shadow near the light caught his attention. It looked like a girls, who was kneeling down on the other side of a curtain. She had something in her hand. For reasons he could not explain a cold sweat gripped him and he sprinted over and ripped the curtain aside. With a stifled gasp Kayla fell over with fright at the sudden intrusion. The sharp knife fell from her hands.

“Bron?” she frowned as a surge of emotion coursed through her. The void that was her inner emotions was suddenly filled. She was dressed in the local light silk wraps that barely covered the dignity but for the most part was nearly see through anyway.

The young man stood there stunned as he gazed down at the slight bulge that was her stomach. Realizing what he was staring at she turned away and began to sob. Bron had expected the worst, but for some reason it hadn’t occurred to him that his love would be pregnant. Pregnant with another’s child. Composing himself quickly he dropped down next to her and drew her too him.

“I’ve come for you Kayla,” he whispered close to tears. Around them some of the other girls stirred.

“It’s too late Bron,” she shuddered, “No-one will want me now.” Bron lifted her chin and kissed her deeply with every fiber of his being.

“I do,” he told her, “I want you now and forever, no matter what!”

As much as he tried to hold them back the tears flowed down his cheeks. So many times he had almost let himself believe he wouldn’t find her, or be too late. Now he had her and he wasn’t letting her go ever.

“I had given up all hope,” she sniffed.

“I have always, and will always, be there for you Kayla,” he responded with a smile, “Don’t you realize that by now?” She threw her arms around him and sobbed.

“You better get out of here,” said a voice. Bron spun around to see the blond harem slave, “Both of you.” She smiled.

Bron breathed a sigh of relief and wrapping his cloak around Kayla they headed out the door. Stepping over the dead bodies and avoiding the pooled blood he retraced his steps. They were just slipping out the kitchen and into the city when the alarm was raised. A gong was frantically beaten.

Realizing that the Caliph would do all in his power to have his yet to be born child returned to him, Bron took Kayla straight to where he had his horse and spare stabled. He was going to wait till things died down before slipping away, but a runaway slave was less important than the caliphs unborn child.

Giving Kayla traveling clothes to change into, he saddled the horses. He bit his lip as glanced at her still tight young body as she slipped out the silk wraps and into breeches, tunic and cloak. To him she was still stunning and desirable despite her condition.

Gently he hoisted her onto his spare horse. He had stocked up on water and dry rations the previous day, so the only concern really was his own stamina. He hadn’t intended to rush off into the night without rest. As soon as they were ready he galloped out leading Kayla’s steed. He could still hear the gong sounding. Without having a wall around the oasis it was easy to slip out into the dark desert and gallop on into the unknown.

By dawn the oasis town was nowhere to be seen. Using the marauders compass he swiped, Bron kept up a steady pace until almost midday. By then both were just about falling out the saddle. Bron stopped in the lee side of a dune and struck up a small sunscreen. Exhausted Kayla collapsed under it barely having anything to eat. Bron checked for pursuers but saw none. He watered and fed the horse before taking on some fortification himself. Unable to keep his eyes open he lay down next to Kayla and fell fast asleep.

The snort of a horse woke him with a start. It was dark and it wasn’t one of their horses. He sat up grabbing his blade. Kayla still slept beside him. The chill of the night was just starting to bite. Bron crept up the dune and keeping low peeked over. Two horses stood at the bottom on the other side. One still had a rider while the others rider had dismounted and was examining the ground. Trackers! No doubt royal bounty-hunters sent by the caliph.

Bron kept out of sight and watched them in the moonlight. The first one stood and indicated to the rider to go around the dune while he headed straight toward Bron. The rider took off and Bron cursed inwardly. The rider was following their tracks and would get to Kayla soon, but he couldn’t turn his back on the one approaching over the dune. His nerves stretched to breaking point he held out and as the walker got within throwing distance he let fly with his trusty dagger pegging him in the chest.

The man stumbled and fell. Bron leapt to his feet and charged down the dune as the rider came into view. He reigned his horse and it neighed. Kayla sat up and looked around. Bron moved between her and the rider. One of two things was going to happen he realized. The rider was going to try and take him or he was going to ride back and fetch reinforcements.

Bron was relieved when the rider drew his wicked scimitar and charged. The young knight closed the distance and met the man on foot. He only just managed to parry the blow as the rider passed. The strike was swift and true. Bron knew he was dealing with an experienced warrior. He heard Kayla gasp.

The rider charged again. This time Bron decided to even the playing field and dropped and slashed out the horses front leg. It shrieked and ploughed into the sand vaulting the rider headlong onto the sandy ground. Bron was up and on him in a flash powering several overhand strikes, but they were all parried as the warrior struggled to his feet. He countered with a slash or two of his own.

Bron leapt back to avoid them. The two combatants circled each other looking for an opening. His opponent was fast and deadly. Each strike of his was perfectly timed. Bron kept them out but realized the man was a better blades-man than he was. Bron tried to counter but took a slash to the forearm. The man followed up with a slash across his chest. Bron dropped on all fours as his blood seeped into the sand. He heard Kayla shriek in the background and the man take a deep breath as he raised his curved blade above his head.

Bron spun around throwing a handful of fine desert sand into the sword master face and rolling left. Blinded the desert warrior swung and missed. Bron scrambled up and dived into him driving him to the ground. The sword master was no brawler and Bron hammered away at him beating him unconscious. He then grabbed his sword and finished him off.

 He then staggered over to the crippled horse, howling in agony and put it out of its misery. Turning he headed back to Kayla who ran over and threw her arms around him. He winced.

“Sorry!” she cried and pulled his shirt back to see the wound. The blood made it look worse than what it was. It was deep and would leave quite a scar but was not mortal. She helped him to sit and she lit a lantern.  Between the two of them they crudely bandaged it up.

“One more to the collection,” Bron forced a smile. Kayla held the lantern up and really looked at Bron for the first time.

“What happened to you?” she whispered as she ran her fingers over the numerous scars, old and new, all over his young face. Combat and repeated beatings left their mark.

“It’s nothing,” he promised and took her hand in his. He kissed it lovingly. “We need to get going,” he told her. She smiled and nodded.

 

Chapter six

Within a week they were out of the emirate. Bron offered to take her to Glau. Prince Zrenst might have returned from the Barbic campaign. Kayla just wanted to get home and could not face the Prince as she was. Bron did not argue and booked passage on the first ship to Taland and Port Augmire. After selling the horses he was flush with funds again and took a room at a clean inn near the docks to wait the two days until the ship was due to set sail.

“Can I get you anything?” he asked as he put down their luggage and closed the door.

The room was not too small and had a fair view of the harbor. The trappings were above average and the room had recently been cleaned. Kayla sat down on the edge of the bed and looked up at Bron shaking her head. She hardly ever smiled. She was so different from the girl he had bid farewell in Glensteward.

“Bron?” she said.

“Yes,” he answered.

“What do you think it will be like?” she asked.

“At home?” he queried. She nodded. “I think your dad is going to declare a national holiday and a week of celebrations to mark your safe return.” She smiled but it faded quickly.

“They won’t love me like they used to,” she whispered staring out the window at the harbor and the hundreds of white sails.

“No,” admitted Bron kneeling down in front of her, “They are going to love you even more now, if it is at all possible.” She ran her hand affectionately down the side of his face. Her mere touch sent his heart racing and he closed his eyes.

“You’re so sweet Bron,” she smiled, “But I have been ruined. No-one will look at me the same. I don’t know if I can even face my father.” Bron took her hand and kissed it.

“Don’t ever say or think that,” he told her sternly, “We can’t wind back the clock and change what happened. It’s not important anyway! You can only live from this moment on and live life to the fullest. You may think you have something inside you that you don’t want. You may think it is some reminder of the horror you endured. Remember this. It is also part of you. It is part of the most wonderful creature in creation and that makes it something really special. Nothing that happens can change the person you are, and that is what everyone sees and will continue to see. There is absolutely no shame in what happened to you. You are going to garner so much respect and admiration after you get home, with your head held high. You are the greatest princess of all time.”

As he finished she could no longer hold back the tears and let it all out, hugging Bron tightly. Her rock was back. She let out a deep breath and literally shuddered as pent up tension seeped out of her. Bron held her firmly but gently.

She leaned up and kissed him on the lips. They then lay back on the bed and continued to embrace. Without it being a conscious thought they caressed each other as both had their better judgment clouded by the moment. Before Bron knew what was happening he had his hands all over her sweet nakedness. From there they could not stop themselves and they made love for several hours. They remained entwined, holding each other for hours more afterwards. In a way Kayla felt like a child again, safe, satisfied and warm.

*

“Are you ready?” asked Bron, a little nervous himself. Kayla took a few deep breaths and closed her eyes before letting out a deep breath. She opened her eyes and nodded. Bron offered her his arm and the two entered the Taland Royal Audience Hall. 

The sea trip had almost been without incident. Some suspicious sails marking the horizon had the crew and passengers panicked but they passed on by without anything happening. Kayla stayed in their cabin most of the voyage. She was concerned that some of the passengers who were from Taland might recognize her. Each night she and Bron were together sharing the most intimate of moments.

On the arrival in Port Augmire Bron took a heavily cloaked princess, masking her condition, off the ship and up to the palace. Guards at the main gate nearly collapsed in surprise when Kayla drew back her hood and requested entry. They went straight to the audience hall where the king was holding court. They entered mere moments after the king himself was given the news.

Wide eyed visiting dignitaries and officials stared as Bron led the lost princess toward the throne. King Halden stood from his throne and paused for a moment as though he could not believe it to be true, before striding down the few steps and racing to his daughter.

Bron let her go as she ran and embraced her father as he hugged her tightly. Numerous officials wiped an eye as the emotion of the moment overcame them. All smiled broadly at the reunion. King Halden cried unashamedly with joy as did Kayla.

King Halden immediately cancelled all appointments for the rest of the day and cleared his audience hall. Initially Bron was ushered out with the rest of the officials before being summoned back.

When it was just the three of them the king was told by Kayla of her ordeal. Still teary the king listened as she told of her pregnancy and rescue. He seemed to barely hear she was pregnant. It mattered absolutely nothing to him compared to getting his daughter back. He thanked Bron over and over again until Bron was thoroughly embarrassed. When asked how he managed to do it he retold his tale, glossing over the details.

“I still can’t believe you did it lad,” sighed the King still feeling very emotional.

“I gave my word sir,” Bron reminded him and glanced at Kayla. She smiled. The king noted this and realized the powers at work were far superior to his as monarch.

“I will assume then that you choose not to go to Glau and Prince Zrenst,” noted King Halden.

While he had always been aware of the affection between the two, he never suspected its power. For a young man to endure what Bron did, and to persevere as he did took more dedication to love than he had ever witnessed.

“I will do what is best for the kingdom,” she stated with a pained and heavy heart. Bron looked down as he knew this was coming.

“Then as your king and father I command you to follow your heart my child,” smiled the king.

Prince Zrenst had been adamant he would only marry a virgin princess, and his rampage through the Barbics had scattered the pirates, and set back their plans many years. He inadvertently did Taland a great service but would not be marrying its princess. Kayla looked up surprised. The king nodded, confirming what he had said.

“But what about protocol and royal expectations?” she asked.

“I think I would be facing a revolt if I denied the union of the most loved princess to the countries greatest living hero,” chuckled the king.

Kayla smiled and embraced Bron, throwing her arms around his neck, as he lifted her off the ground. The kingdom of Taland prepared for the biggest celebration in its history as Princes Kayla prepared to marry her one true love, Sir Bron.

 

 

THE END

For now…….

 

This post was submitted by Peter.


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