Little Bird the Unstoppable
Young Love Press
Little Bird and Marten filled their packs with as much meat as possible (and also the head of Bjera as a trophy) and set off through the forest to return home. Their intention was to notify the hunters of their prestigious kill and have them collect the rest of the meat. Afterwards there would probably be a feast held in their honor, at which the two would be required to make an appearance before sneaking off to another adventure.
As circumstances would have it, however, there would be no such festivities.
Now, they were very close to the tree line and could see the rolling hills of the Apricot Kingdom which surrounded the Town and the Castle Palace. The sun was beginning to wrap up the day, and the forest should have been a buzz with birds and squirrels and all manner of peaceful creatures returning to their homes, fat from the fruit of the hillsides. But they were not. As the two approached the edge of the forest, Little Bird paused and listened, her head turned slightly to the side.
No, it seems as though the forest were empty of its pleasant inhabitants and occupied by a foreign and much more chilling presence.
"Marten, do you notice anything strange?" Little Bird asked, with a teaspoon of intrigue and a pinch of concern.
"Mmm... I'm not sure. I don't think so. Why? What's wrong?"
"It's very quiet... for one."
"Aye, I can hear my stomach rumbling. But... I may just be very hungry." Apparently Marten had not followed his training of being ever constantly aware. No, through their hike the thought of fresh bear steaks was foremost on his mind.
Suddenly... A shout! Little Bird's head turned sharply towards the cry. It came from a good distance.
And then another! And the clanging of metal! Battle!
The two friends looked at each other, eyes wide. They dropped their heavy loads and started running before the packs had touched the forest floor. Of course, Marten had taken his bow, full quiver and his dagger, and Little Bird her sword, but everything else was left.
"Marten, it's coming from the stable yard!"
"What do you think it could be? I haven't heard a single rumor of war."
"No telling until we get there."
The Princess felt an adrenaline rush like she had never felt before, and her head was racing with ideas of what to do when they arrived at the battle.
But, just before they got within sight of the stable yard, everything went quiet. At first glance, nothing was out of place. The structures were still standing, and the horses were still in their places. As they came closer though, they could see the signs of conflict. The horses were in a panic, bucking and neighing wildly in their pens. The earthen road leading away from the stableyard was scattered with bloodied bodies.
Little Bird and Marten slowed to a cautious pace as they approached. They stayed within the cover of the trees and circled the yard, scanning the grounds for signs of any survivors, or any dangers.
Little Bird analyzed the battle ground. "It looks like our Rangers rushed in to a defended position."
The Rangers were a group of scouts and guardsmen who patrolled the outer lands of the Kingdom. They were a lightly armed, and lightly trained division whose job was to mainly scare away vagabonds and highwaymen, not attack a trained band of warriors.
She continued, "See how the fallen Rangers are only on the West side of the grounds at the road. These foreigners must have anticipated their arrival and laid an ambush."
"That is not a good sign," Marten swallowed, a hint of worry in his eyes. "If they just came to steal horses, why would they risk such a confrontation?"
"And why would all the horses still be here? If I was a bandit, I'd have those horses halfway to the river by now. Look, there's no foreigner's bodies. It means whoever did this is still at large. We were not the victor here."
Marten's eyes grew and he looked over his shoulder, worried a bogeyman was about to descend upon him.
Little Bird's mind danced along the battle scene, trying to put the puzzle pieces together. "If they're not here to steal horses, they must be here for something bigger. If they're here for something big they must be prepared for confrontation. This may have been a test of our forces."
She continued, the gears in her head clanking away, "Or, perhaps they knew the Rangers patrolled this area. In order to stake out a base of operations they knew they'd have to deal with them sooner or later. Better to take them by surprise. Claiming the stable grounds gives access to the forest which can provide food and safety, and to plenty of horses. Marten, let's get a closer look."
And before Marten could protest, the Princess sprinted, sword drawn, to the ground where the actual battle was held. She kneeled close and studied the dirt and grass.
"I think you're right. It was an ambush. The enemy hid inside the stable here. You can see where they jumped out- there are deep impressions in the ground."
Marten joined her in her analysis. "Also there, behind rancher's house. There they hit our men from the side. You can tell by the way the... the... bodies are fallen," he said nervously.
Little Bird showed less anxiety, intent on the task at hand. Her brow was furrowed in concentration.
"Flanked. The Rangers probably rushed here quickly, not cautiously, expecting a couple of bandits. That means they came in a narrow line, not a wide formation. Probably two or three next to each other. When the head of the line was ambushed, everyone's attention was focused there. The line of Rangers became a bulge of Rangers as they all tried to attack the first group of ambushers all at once."
Marten nodded, "Right. Then out of nowhere they were hit from the side. They didn't see it coming. They didn't stand a chance."
"There are tracks leading down the road. Whoever did this is still on a rampage." Little Bird scampered over to the trail of fresh bootprints. "It must be at least twenty men."
And here was the only place where Little Bird erred. For it was not twenty men, or even thirty men, but in fact fifty-two. Had she known the actual number of enemies, and the skill of those who had traveled down the dirt path she may have reconsidered what she was about to do. Maybe.
Little Bird looked grave, but inside she was a kaleidoscope of emotion. She felt traumatized by the deaths of the men around her. She felt excitement at the thought of tracking a deadly enemy and putting her skills to a test. She was scared for her own life, and for that of Marten's, but having him with her made the world of a difference.
Marten the jester. Marten the constant companion. Marten who accepts her as herself. And Marten, the boy archer who had the fastest reflexes of anyone she had ever seen.
I'll be safe with him, she thought. Probably.
"Little Bird... should we track them?" Marten asked, right on cue.
"Yes, I think so. We can get a count, and try to figure out what exactly they are doing in our land. Once we do that, we can return to the Castle Palace and give a report. I think it will be much help."
Marten grunted in agreement and with that consensus they were off, pursuing an unknown enemy and the villain who would change their lives forever.