The note, having been read through three times, was crumpled in Andrew’s hand. “Which way did the brigands take her?” he demanded of the messenger.
“Into the forests of Bern,” the intimidated man replied.
As soon as Andrew had a location, he was off, running across the grassy plains, cutting straight for the forests of Bern.
Those forests had a bad reputation. They’d been a renowned hideout for thieves and bandits for years, and very few honest folk who went in ever came out. If the bandits had taken Marie there, it was unlikely they were holding her for ransom; unlikely that they intended to ever release her.
The ground was blurred under his feet, the rocks and shrubs he passed completely indistinguishable. Every passing moment was another moment the bandits had the princess at their mercy. He ran for hours, not pausing, pushing his body, strengthened though it was by years of living in the forest, beyond any expectation he had had of it before.
Though he would have been more than willing to run until he had reached the princess, he was only mortal, and was forced to stop just as he reached the borders of the forest of Bern. He climbed a large tree with strong limbs and picked a fork to curl up in, and slept.
He woke exactly four hours later, coming out of his light sleep into full alertness in a single moment. He slipped to the ground, pulled a ration from his pouch, and ate it on the move, seeking the point in the forest’s boundary where the bandits had entered. It wasn’t hard to find. They were clumsy, unprofessional. They left a trail a blind man could have followed.
A few hours fast walking brought him to the place the brigands had camped overnight. He examined the site only a few minutes, long enough to determine that the ashes were still warm, and that Marie had been unharmed, or mostly so, when they moved on. Another few hours brought him within hearing distance of the brigands, who had stopped for a brief rest. It took a conscious effort to stop himself from charging them blindly, but he managed.
He approached to within ten feet of them, concealed by the underbrush, and eavesdropped. He had hoped to hear who they were working for, but they did nothing but complain, whether about their empty bellies, aching feet, or strong-willed victim. This last complaint caused him to smile, remembering his impressions of Marie. What he heard next made his blood run cold, and then boil.
“So what’s to stop us from playing with her before we kill her?”
There was a long pause, presumably as the leader contemplated this. “Nothing.”
Laughter then, and then Marie’s voice. “You stay away from me. Stay away!”
Andrew heard the sounds of struggle, and could wait no longer. He drew his sword and charged out of the underbrush, dismembering three of the brigands before they were aware of his presence. The rest of them, about eight in total, two of whom were holding Marie, scrambled to draw their weapons. Two of them died before their weapons cleared the sheathes, and another two died before they could bring their weapons to bear. The remaining four, however, proved that they were much more skillful than the soldiers he had fought in the forest, giving Andrew an unexpected challenge.
A challenge, in this case, was not a threat, and the four were dispatched inside of a minute.
“Very good. Now turn around slowly.”
Andrew exhaled slowly, turning to see one last brigand, one with an air of superiority that marked him as the leader. He barely noticed this, as the man was holding Marie, one arm around her throat and the other holding a dagger to her ribs.
“Now I don’t know who you are, but you’re trying to save the princess. If you want her to live, you’ll put your sword down and walk away.”
His face an expressionless mask, Andrew put his sword down slowly.
“That’s it. Now just walk away.”
Andrew backed away, disappearing behind a bend.
The leader laughed, lowering his dagger from Marie’s ribs. “Some protector, huh?”
Then an arrow pierced his throat, and he staggered backwards and fell sprawling.
Andrew dashed around the bend, dropping his bow as he caught Marie, who had nearly fainted. “It’s all right, Marie, you’re safe now.”
The princess was completely unresponsive, so Andrew was forced to pick her up like a child. He set her down for long enough to sheathe his sword and strap his bow across his back, then he picked her up again and started to carry her out of the forest. It was only a few hours before she came to, but she was still so weak and scared that he just kept talking to her and holding her, carrying her along the winding forest trail.
After a few more hours, the princess fell into a natural sleep in his arms, occasionally whimpering in her sleep as she dreamed frightening dreams. By the time he reached the borders of the forest, the king’s men had reached it, and were waiting for him. A few of them moved forward as though they intended to take Marie from him, but his glare made them back off.
Andrew carried her the few miles to the castle, not putting Marie down until he reached her chambers and he could lay her in bed. He sat in a chair beside her and fell asleep, exhausted.