The sun had barely risen, the air was thick with swamp stink, and Antonia had never been happier in all her life.
“Stop smiling so much, it’s obscene,” Gundiberga grumbled from her spot next to the princess. The two companions and their small group of escorts had been on the road for five days now, and while Gundiberga’s mood had only blackened with each passing sunset, Antonia was thriving
. Though the nights were frigid and her bedroll was less than comfortable, without the king’s oppressive aura and midnight shouting sessions she was thinking clearer than she had in years.
“It’s just that I’ve never been outside of the city before,” Antonia explained, before gasping and pointing at a dilapidated tree stump. “Look, a crow!”
“Of course it’s a fucking crow!” Gundiberga barked, causing her black gelding to pin his ears back apprehensively. “This place is infested with the damned things. Why do you think they call it ‘Crow Valley?’”
“Well I know that,” Antonia huffed, somewhat petulantly. “But that one is...um...really big?”
Gundiberga stopped then, halting her horse and peering out through the marsh's haze to where her charge had pointed. Sure enough, perched atop the remains of an oak tree was a large black bird, so gigantic in fact that it appeared to be almost human in size. Immediately the warrior held up her fist to signal for the group to stop and the bird chose that moment to twist its head in their direction, its eyes snapping open and glowing with a sickly green light. “That’s no crow,” the blonde started, tightening her grip on her halberd. “It’s a--,”“Night Bird!”
one of the guards behind them screeched in warning, prompting the monster to shriek and beat its giant wings to take flight.
“Back the way you came, little fox,” Gundiberga ordered, swatting the flank of the princess’s dappled grey mare before the redhead could argue. “Stay back until I call for you!” she yelled as the horse whinnied and took off, racing away from the oversized crow and passing the soldiers as they were readying their weapons. Once she was sure Antonia was out of range the shield maiden turned to the men and shouted over the crow’s wailing, “Mind its claws, boys!”
The night bird let out another howl before descending on the group, its talons gleaming menacingly as it swooped in and raked them across the face of of an unlucky archer. The young man let out a gurgled sort of noise, an eye hanging out of its socket by a mere thread of gore as he slumped forward on his mount. “Establish a perimeter,” she continued, spurring her horse onwards. “Archers in the back, everyone else to the front. Keep the damned thing back so they can shoot it down!”
The group spread out and formed ranks seamlessly, the archers loosing arrow after arrow into the beast’s inky feathers while the others brandished their halberds when it got too close and sank their spear tips into whatever part they could manage. It was all going well and the night bird seemed destined for a swift death until it feinted a strike to the east side of the circle, but with a flap of it's great wings it had pulled a complete about-face and was barreling full speed toward Gundiberga. The warrior pulled back on her mount’s reins hard, causing him to rear back and shield her from the brunt of the attack. The gelding’s cry was piercing as the night bird drug its claws through the horse’s soft belly, entrails spilling out as he collapsed lifelessly to the ground. Gundiberga managed to bail off and roll away to avoid being crushed beneath his corpse, getting her halberd up right as the night bird started bearing down on her.
An arrow flew threw the air, burrowing deep into the side of the monster’s neck. The night bird shrieked again, pulling up at the last second and changing course for its new attacker. Gundiberga was able to roll again to avoid its talons, squinting when she stopped moving long enough to see where the beast was headed now. She cursed when she finally spotted what it was bound for.
Tied up at the base of an ash tree Antonia’s mare was prancing nervously, and halfway up said tree the princess had found a perch to shoot from. “Shoot it down!” Gundiberga shouted over the din, already on her feet and running for the tree. She watched as arrow after arrow missed its mark or sunk into a non vital area with increasing concern, only to be filled with relief when Antonia nocked her own arrow and fired the projectile directly into the night bird’s right eye. It gave a final cry as it folded in on itself, crumpling and falling towards the valley floor. In the midst of its violent descent the night bird managed to clip the branch Antonia was positioned on and the freckled girl gave a startled yelp as it gave way and sent her careening towards the ground as well.
Gundiberga got to her charge just a few seconds before the rest of her guard did, dark eyes searching for any obvious injuries. “Are you well?” the shield maiden finally asked as the other soldiers came to stand next to her, with the exception of two that had gone to behead the nightbird to be absolutely sure of its death.
Antonia’s mouth opened and closed once or twice as she tried and failed to take in any air, but eventually she was able to inhale with an explosive gasp. “Y-yes, I’m fine,” the blue eyed girl managed. “It just knocked the wind out of me, that’s all. Did I get it?”
got it,” Gundiberga snorted, but the skin around her eyes had softened considerably now that she was certain the girl was fine. She extended an arm and yanked the younger woman up, rough hands brushing all the dust she could from the princess’s clothes. “Next time you disobey a direct order, I’ll skin you and make myself a nice new pair of gloves,” the warrior threatened, delivering a slap to the back of Antonia’s head to drive the point home. “Now go help the men get the horses ready to move, and I’ll go put that poor bastard out of his misery,” she said, jerking her pointed chin in the direction of the soldier moaning with his eyeball hanging out of his head.
“Are you certain he can’t be healed?” Antonia asked, sympathy bleeding into her features as she stared at the soldier who was folded listlessly over his own saddle.
Gundiberga shook her said. “No, little fox, the talons of the night bird are toxic. He wouldn’t make it through the night without the proper salves, and we are at least another two days from Udos.”
“Oh,” Antonia said simply, voice suddenly small. “I see. Well, I hope he goes with peace then.”
“I’ll make it quick,” Gundiberga conceded, shouldering her halberd and heading in his direction. “Help the men ready the horses, I want to be out of this stinking swamp before nightfall.”