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Lowering her hands, Sannil's lips began to tremble, as the first of many tears started rolling down her sweat-covered face. She had worked so hard to break free of the stiff bonds that held her, only to be caught in the act by her captors once again.
Until that moment Sannil had been fairly optimistic about her chances of escape, but not any longer. The orc had beaten her. As the impact of her situation began to strike home, the cries beneath her hooded veil grew louder and louder.
"Be quiet, damn it! You'll wake the guards," said a hushed voice, but by then the flood gates within her prison had been released.
"Why should I care if my sobbing keeps them awake?" the princess hiccupped between quivering lips, as a firm set of hands worked to restore the strings of her captivity. Yet before she could expand upon that single-minded line of reasoning, the hood which had isolated her over the past few days was ripped off and placed forcibly against her mouth.
"This is very important," the voice continued. "I need you to pull yourself together and be quiet! I don't know how long we have until the orcs will wake up."
In the next instant Sannil ceased breathing and the night fell deadly silent.
Could this be true?
Blinking her eyes in rapid succession, a sudden gulp of air infused her body as she attempted to remove the bitter waters which hindered her vision and regain her minds focus. Yet the man who stood before her left the princess feeling dumbstruck.
What is he doing here?
Shaking her head, Sannil felt certain that their encounter must be a product of the druid dreams, but the warm touch of his hand soon disproved that notion entirely. The druid had said that someone was coming to rescue her, but in her mind she had always assumed that someone would be Rothgar.
As the young ranger began cutting the bonds that held her feet in place Sannil tried unsuccessfully to flash an appreciative smile.
How did he find me?
Within seconds of their release, blood began rushing into the under used appendages, and the pain that she received was so intense it nearly caused her to scream. She hadn't stood on her own two feet in days, and the nerves inside her skin were sending out streams of discomfort as they revolted from the neglect the orcs had placed upon them.
In the hope of regaining mobility to the affected areas as quickly as possible, Sannil sat upon the hard ground and began moving slowly back and forth as though she was taking a stroll within the caste grounds. The tiny pins and needles that wracked her body each time her legs extended begged the princess to stop, but the freedom of movement she now enjoyed felt wonderful.
Looking about the encampment, Sannil was happy to find the orcs still sleeping soundly in spite of the commotion that she had raised. She was far from ready for an encounter with her captors just yet.
Suddenly, the familiar feelings of despair which had greeted her each day since her long ordeal had begun were lifted like a new-day's dawn upon her windows landscape; replaced with a smug sense of satisfaction. She had done it. She had gotten free.
"It's time to go," a soft voice hummed against her ear, and the man pointed toward a thin weathered path.
Nodding, the princess placed her hands against the ground and attempted to rise, but the support which they offered wasn't quite enough. Though her mind may have been willing, her body was still being less than cooperative.
Reaching upward with an outstretched hand, Sannil grabbed a branch from a small tree. She had little more than placed her weight against the sapling when the bough began to break. Yet before the princess could feel the sting of her mistake, the strong hands of the stranger grabbed hold of her slender body and gently lifted her upright.
The ranger had moved so quickly that she hadn't seen him coming, and the princess immediately began blushing from the close contact. Stepping aside to regain her composure, Sannil began striding through the encampment in the opposite direction with the soft shuffle of her rescuer's feet following frantically behind.
"What are you doing?" he asked. "The way out is back there!"
The heat within the ranger's words concealed little about the displeasure he felt toward her actions, but at that moment she didn't care. She was grateful for whatever assistance he might yet provide in making her escape, but she refused to accept the idea of leaving her weapons behind. They may have been but a gift from the old weapons master, but the attachment that drew her to retrieve the ancient relics was much more than that. Sannil felt a responsibility to keep them safe from foul beasts such as these, and an orc above all other of God's creatures was definitely unworthy of their possession. Besides, if the orcs ever caught up to them she would need something to defend herself with, and the princess could think of nothing better to do so with then the light handled blades.
Pulling her belongings from the tattered sack that held them, Sannil felt better than she had in days, and after a cursory inspection felt a smug grin of satisfaction begin to work its way across her face.
It's all here, she thought happily. The orcs haven't misplaced a thing. In the next instant a muffled groan rang out, causing Sannil to turn toward the noise with a start. Directly behind her the ranger stood with his short sword buried up to the hilt in one of her captor's neck. His free hand closed about the orc's lips like a vice until well after the creature had released its last breath.
"Was that necessary?" she asked.
"Unfortunately, yes. Now let's get out of here before the rest of them wake!"
"Why not just kill the rest of them now?" she asked calmly, unable to see the gravity of the ranger's actions in the soft moon light.
"I seriously doubt that I could kill fifty orcs in their sleep without alerting at least one of them in the process."
Fifty! She had only seen five. Maybe it would be wise if they did as he suggested.
Strapping the belt about her waist in a well practiced motion, Sannil signaled to her rescuer that she was finally ready to depart, and the unlikely couple crept out of camp just before daylight.
The rest of the day the pair traveled in silence; only leaving the path to avoid their pursuers before continuing on. Eventually during the night, the ranger ushered her into a small thicket and signaled for her to stop. Handing Sannil an apple and a piece of bread, he uncorked his water skin and took a deep draught.
"We'll stop here for a few hours," he whispered. "Bury whatever you don't consume and then get some rest." Passing Sannil the water skin, he turned his back to the princess and took up a defensive position that allowed him a good view of their surroundings.
At sun rise the pair set off again after a few hours of respite, most of which were filled with the tortured images of her homelands devastation. When they had traveled a considerable distance, she turned toward her protector and stopped. "I don't mean to seem ungrateful, but I was expecting someone else. How, may I ask, did the task of my retrieval come to fall upon you?"
Sannil hesitated calling what he did a rescue, even though in truth that was exactly what he'd done. The druid had told her that a "protector" was coming. Was this the man that he was talking about? If so, it was an odd choice considering the list of those available from inside the castle to choose from. Breaking the uncomfortable silence that had gathered around them, the deep confident sounds of the woodsman cut through the air like a knife.
"I understand your confusion, but I'm afraid I can do very little to illuminate your concerns, and I have no way of knowing whether anyone else was sent as well. I would have been here sooner, but I ran into a bit of trouble."
"What happened?" Sannil asked. "You must tell me everything!"
To her delight, her new companion was all too eager to share his knowledge of the events which had transpired during the past few days. He was an excellent story teller.
Walking along side, she listened intently to the words of the stranger; making note of specific passages in order to ask about them further when he was finished. It was rare that she received an immediate answer to her questions with such fluid lucidity, and Sannil was bound and determined to draw out as much information as possible before this newfound well-spring of knowledge dried up.
Over the next few hours the ranger wove his worded tapestry like a practiced magician, and only when he broached the subject of her father's condition did he seem to pause at all. It was obvious that the woodsman was uncomfortable with the position of being the one who had to deliver the news about the king to the princess, and for a long time thereafter the odd couple walked in silence along the worn earthen path.
Up until that point, Sannil had prepared a myriad of questions for the young man to answer, but inside that one dark moment their importance seemed to dissolve. In their place sat the twisted image of her father's lifeless body, laying bleeding and exposed upon the royal families bedroom floor.
"It's all my fault," she muttered softly, as a fresh set of tears started rolling down her pale white cheek. "If I hadn't delayed coming back to the castle with those foolish questions, none of this would have happened."
"That's not true."
"If I hadn't delayed, I would have been by my father's side during the battle, and he would still be safe."
"No, you wouldn't, but it might well have been you lying on the castle floor as well."
"I can live with that," she added softly, "or die as the case might be. At any rate my parents would have been safe. Their health is far more important to the kingdom then mine."
"Not so princess, YOU are the First of Line."
Her inability to change the things that had happened made Sannil's blood begin to boil, and in a matter of moments a fit of rage overwhelmed the sadness which gathered round her heart. Without warning, she dashed from the ranger's side and set off back the way they'd come.
"Princess!" McKaelin cried. "Where in the world are you going?"
"If it hadn't been for my magic none of this would have happened," she declared unhappily. "Mother was right, the magic made a mistake."
"Stop!" McKaelin commanded, while wrapping a set of steely-coiled fingertips around her upper arm.
"Let go of me this instant!" she howled, but the cool-headed woodsman held fast. Placing a hand upon her blade to draw it forth, McKaelin quickly grabbed the hilt of the weapon and slammed it home.
"That's enough!" he growled, and for the first time in their lives the princess and the ranger's eyes met. Locked in a battle of deadly defiance, the pair stared at each other for what seemed like an eternity before McKaelin's gaze suddenly softened and released his iron-clad grip. In the next breath the young princess stomped off from his presence again, but this time McKaelin was content to trail a short distance behind.
At least she's headed in the proper direction, he thought.
The poor thing, it was painfully obvious that she cared for her father deeply, and had their roles been reversed McKaelin felt quite certain that he would've reacted in much the same way. As they walked in silence beneath the forest canopy, he began to study the princess's movements and couldn't help but notice that she appeared to be bearing the weight of the world on her shoulders. She was beautiful.
In all his life, McKaelin had never met anyone quite like her, and the fact that she couldn't stand the sight of him didn't bother him in the least. After all, it was out of the question that she would ever be interested in someone as lowly as he. She wasn't just any girl, he reminded himself, she was a princess. And princesses didn't consort with the likes of him. In her eyes, he was little more than the hired help. That was the way she had seen him on that first morning, and judging by her latest series of outbursts nothing had changed. Even so, he couldn't help but feel drawn to her.
Undoubtedly, he wasn't the first person to be snared by the allure of her charms, and McKaelin sincerely doubted that he would be the last. Even Marcus, the castle's captain of the guard, was rumored to have an interest in the young girl, or so his friends had said.
Dwelling upon that thought for a long moment, the ranger shook his head in disgust. The idea didn't seem natural to say the least. The man was at least ten years her senior, and the ranger couldn't imagine a set of circumstances on which the king would ever allow it.
What little he knew of him, King Randolph had seemed like a fine And noble man. With "had" being the operative word, he reminded himself. At the time he'd left the monarch's side, the proud king's outcome hadn't looked very good; and while he'd tried his best to revive him, the poison had rooted itself deep within his system. In his professional opinion the balance of his efforts had only stalled the inevitable.
Looking ahead toward the proud image of his charge, the ranger tried his best to remain optimistic. Perhaps the healers will have better luck, he chided himself in silence. After all, they were undoubtedly much more gifted in such matters than me, and it is all together possible that they identified the poison in sufficient time to administer an antidote. Watching the sun as it bounced off her long golden brown hair, McKaelin decided to cling to that hope until they heard otherwise. For her sake it was the least he could do.
Suddenly McKaelin caught wind of a familiar growl that caused him to spring into motion. "Princess!" his voice hissed in a whisper, but the girl was still lost inside her own personal nightmare. "Princess!"
"What do you want now?" she asked while turning about with irritation, as the source of her unwanted interruption mouthed wordlessly to get down.
Whether it was due to her unwillingness to submit to his command, or that she truly didn't understand the meaning of his gesture, the princess ignored his warning and dismissed him out of hand.
"I don't have time for your silly games, woodsman!" she spat vehemently and turned around.
What in the world is she doing? Doesn't she understand we're in danger?
Pulling Bear from his back, McKaelin fastened its trusty string in a matter of seconds while calling out to the princess again.
"What?" she shouted with irritation, and at that same moment McKaelin released his hold and let a missile fly.
The arrow buzzed close enough that it tickled her ear drum. Had the ranger just tried to attack me and somehow missed his mark? But just as her mind began to form the foundation of indignation necessary to express her ire, the sound of an arrow penetrating flesh reverberated upon the landscape.
Turning back toward the direction she'd been walking, she was startled to find the lifeless body of a gnome not two feet away. The slanted green eyes that greeted her were filled with a hate that refused to yield, even as the last few embers of life drained from its face.
The sight of pooling blood quickly proved too much for the battered princess's fragile mind, and immediately she began to retch the empty contents of her stomach at its feet.
She'd never seen a living creature die before.
Feeling nauseated and weak, she lay upon the soiled surface as the sound of arrows hitting their mark filled the air. All the years she'd spent training for combat had never prepared her for anything like this. Sadly, she admitted that nothing could.
Excerpted from Protector of the Line by Michael Paul Metzger Copyright © 2011 by Michael Paul Metzger. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted February 9, 2012
Posted August 27, 2012
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