A blood-curdling scream echoed through the trees, sending shivers over Artem’s body. Without hesitating, he pulled a knife out of his boot and ran. He sped into the clearing where the group had stopped for their midday rest, knife drawn and ready to fight. He stopped dead when he saw the crumpled and bloody body of Jem, lying face down on the ground, Erik kneeling over him, wiping the blade on his trousers. Behind him, Ishak and Hans were fighting of three other men, and Lukas was nowhere to be seen.
‘I was hoping you would arrive,’ Erik said, standing up, a cruel smile on his face. ‘And your little princess too, how sweet.’
‘If you lay one finger on her,’ Artem hissed.
‘You’ll do what? I’m the one in control here, you don’t have your hundreds of loyal subjects to protect you now.’
‘I don’t need them to help me show you who is in charge here.’
‘Well come on then. Show me who’s boss.’ Erik taunted, throwing his arms out wide, his whole posture saying ‘come and get me’. So that is exactly what Artem did. Taking a running jump, he leapt at Erik, his knife glinting in the sunlight as he brought it down towards Erik’s throat.
Rowena gasped, clutching at her throat as Erik stopped Artem’s arm with his hand, punching him square in the jaw with the other, bringing his knee up into his stomach, making him double over, then pushing him hard so he stumbled backwards over Jem’s body.
‘Is that the best you can do?’ Erik teased. ‘Well, what more could I have expected from a common thief.’ The words burned on Artem’s skin, making him angrier than before, picking up his knife for a second attack. Rowena watched on, helpless, as Artem and Erik traded blow after blow, neither one able to kill the other, and Artem seeming to be on the losing side.
Erik was broader, taller and stronger than Artem, giving him an advantage when it came to pure strength. But when it came down to knife skills and agility, Artem had the upper hand. Which was why it wasn’t surprising when Artem dodged a blow from Erik, ducking under his arm and slashing at Erik’s chest with his knife. The wound wasn’t fatal, but it ripped open his shirt and drew blood.
‘That’s more like it,’ Erik said, enjoying the competition of fighting with the man he wanted to overthrow. Erik was backing Artem into a corner, cutting off his options so he would not be able to escape. Rowena looked around for a weapon that might help her save Artem. She knew he wouldn’t like it, but she couldn’t stand to see him killed.
She caught sight of something shining near Jem’s fallen body. A dagger was lying near him, its sheath nowhere to be seen and the blade catching the sunlight. She ran over and picked it up. It felt heavy and slightly unnatural in her hand. But it was all she had. Looking towards the corner where Erik had maneuvered Artem into, she saw Artem take a blow to the side, hearing the crunch of bones from where she stood.
Trying to steady her nerves she ran towards the fighting pair. Unfortunately she had forgotten about the other attackers, and when she was only metres away she was tackled from behind and went crashing to the floor. An ugly face loomed over her, the mouth contorted into an unpleasant grimace and the eyes shining with delight. She saw the glint of a dagger as it was raised above her, ready to come down and pierce her heart.
‘Bye, bye princess,’ the man chuckled in a horrid squeaky voice.
Rowena closed her eyes, knowing the blow was coming but trying to think of Artem, his face, the single kiss they had shared, so he would be the last thing she would see before she died. But when the blow hit it wasn’t nearly as painful as she thought it was going to be. It felt more like a lead weight being dropped on her chest than the sharp pain she had been expecting. She lay still, not moving, waiting for the last dregs of life to drain out of her. Then the weight was removed, her chest heaved up and down as it brought in air and she heard someone calling her name. Her eyes opened and Ishak was standing over her.
‘Ena you have to run. They’ve killed Jem and Lukas and I don’t think the rest of us can hold out much longer.’ He pulled her to her feet, pushing her away from the fighting.
‘But what about Artem?’ She strained around to try and catch a glimpse of him. Was he dead? Had Erik’s strength won over Artem’s skill?
‘Don’t worry about him; you need to get to safety. Just run, don’t turn back, and don’t stop, run until you reach the nearest village and find somewhere to hide. I’m begging you to do this. You’re going to have to find your own way home.’
‘I’m not leaving Artem,’ she protested, slipping out of Ishak’s grip and running back towards the fighting. The dagger was still in her hand and as she ran towards Erik, she raised it, ready to do whatever it took to stop Erik from hurting Artem.
Artem saw her coming and his eyes widened in panic. ‘Ena stop!’ He yelled. But it was too late. Erik turned around and saw her coming with plenty of time to prepare for the attack. He pushed Artem away, making him stumble and crash into a tree. He drew his sword that was hanging from his belt and brought it up in time to block Rowena’s downward blow.
‘Your highness,’ he said with mock courtesy. ‘I’m impressed, I didn’t think you had it in you.’
‘Well there are a lot of things you don’t know about me.’ She struggled to keep Erik’s blade away from her with the small dagger in her hand, but Erik pushed her down, making her fall to her knees, then using his foot to push her off balance. She fell backwards, her hair spreading all over the muddy ground.
Before she could get up again, Erik was on his knees beside her, his hand wrapped around her hair as he yanked her head upwards, forcing her to look at him. ‘You have no idea how much I’m going to enjoy this,’ he said, crazy pleasure filling his eyes. ‘And you know what I’m going to love most? The look on your lover’s face when he realizes he’s lost everything.’
‘You’re a nasty piece of work Erik and I hope you burn in hell.’ She spat in his face, forcing him to wipe the spittle away from his eyes. He pulled her head back to expose the beautiful pale skin of her neck. He didn’t say a word as he placed the blade to her throat and prepared to cut.
But he had been too slow. Ishak came flying at him, wielding his dagger and shouting at the top of his lungs. Erik’s attention was distracted for a moment and that was all it took for Ishak to attack, pushing Rowena away from Erik and his blade and knocking Erik to the ground. Rowena was still in shock, but she managed to hear the single word run as a bright red flower appeared on Ishak’s back, followed by the dirty tip of Erik’s sword.