The woodland track, part 3.

It was early morning when the search parties were dispatched, the snow fall had ceased, and the land was still covered in a dense covering of snow. Three groups of about twelve men, all mounted and each with about three brace of large grey wolfhound’s, hopefully the hounds would pick up the princesses trail and find her well and alive. The king himself was leading one of the parties, he was accompanied by the princess’s bodyguard who was with her on the previous night of her disappearance. He had a rough idea of where she had vanished, but there were woodlands scattered all about that area, so the three parties would split up and find her before another cold night would draw in, some men thought it was too late and that the princess must surely be dead, though they wisely kept those thoughts to themselves. All the searchers were lightly armored in leather jerkins, no war gear would be needed, just a few weapons in case bandits surprised them. The king believed bandits were to blame for the kidnapping as he called it. “Brigands I tell you, which is all they are, after a few gold coins from my treasury, well, they will have steel from my armory instead” the king addressed the searchers, “50 gold coins to the man who finds my daughter” and with that he cantered out of the front gate, into the rising sun, followed by his men and the exited barking hounds. Rumor had spread among the men that this was not a band of mere bandits they were after, the bodyguard had told tales of a fear that was darker the night. Stories had spread among the men, stories of witches or spirits of the woodlands, fear crept into their minds, yet they still stood fast with their king, and whatever awaited them, they would stand with him.

 

It was now late afternoon, the search had proved unfruitful so far, many wood blocks had been searched, and the hounds were exhausted, horses and men were also tiring, and as the light of day started to hint that it would make way for the darkness small snowflakes began to fall, not heavily, but they were the vanguard of a much harsher snowfall to come. “My lord I think…” “Silence” the king snapped, cutting off his royal advisor before he could finish. The king knew what he was going to say, because he thought it himself. “I simply cannot leave her, I must search for her, if it means my life, then I must”. All the kings men nodded in agreement. By now the light was failing badly, soon the world would be covered in blackness, the parties were not equipped for a night out in the field, travelling as light as they possibly could, the cold would steal life from the weak or ill prepared in these bitter cold nights. The three parties had now come together, the group were mounted, static at the opening of a track way that lead into a dark woodland, and they slowly advanced into the trees. “This is it” yelled a man, it was the body-guard of the princess, “this is the wood”, and with this he turned his mount and galloped off into the failing night. Men began to give chase, “leave him be” yelled the king. The mounted men entered the wood, spread out in skirmish order, some carried lanterns that gave off little light, the small flame flickering within.

 

It was cold, too cold to be outside. Men shivered violently, there was a chill in the air that felt as though it could freeze their very bones. The hounds were no longer with them, the king had ordered his huntsman to take them back to the castle, they were cold and tired, they would serve no further use for the search. “Leanna” yelled the king repeatedly, a howling wind whistled through the bare trees, the snow had held off for now, just a few snowflakes were floating in the cold air. The group was still together, trying to stay as close as possible to keep the warmth in. but the cold crept in more and more. Men’s faces were numb, their runny noses had frosted over, teeth chattered together like pebbles on a flowing river bed. Suddenly, out of the darkness and over the howling wind came a scream “father. . . . father, help me” it was repeated over and over again “over here” yelled the king to his men, galloping off to the direction of the scream, but when he got to the area the shouts would seem to be in another part of the wood “to me” he yelled, and his men followed. By now darkness had set in, the blizzard that they had hoped would not come had arrived, they could not see it but they could feel it on their cold faces. They all called out to each other, they were lost and scattered in the dark wood. No torches or fire to light the way, and the lanterns had all burnt out. Some men heard running to their side, not horses but something afoot, a man’s scream was heard cutting through the nights wind, then another, all about were the screams of men, the whinny of horses, chaos had descended upon the tired and cold men. The night was full of death.

 

The morning was still, no snow fell, no wind howled. The crunch of footsteps and the sniffing of hounds was the only noise in the wood that morning. The huntsman and his hounds had returned to find his king and friends. He heard a hound bay to his front. He ran, followed by his other hounds who rallied to his holla. When he reached the hound he stopped and stared. To his front was a large oak tree, hundreds of years old he guessed by its size. The hound stood at its base, staring up, howling. He walked towards the tree. “My lady” he whispered. Placing his hand on the tree. He stopped, his hand on her face, it was the princess Leanna, her face protruded from the tree, covered by smooth bark, as if it had been carved from wood, it was perfect, catching every fine detail of her beauty. Her eyes looked sad, almost as if she was staring right into his face pleading for help, like she was calling out but could not be heard. All about him were horses, dead, their limbs protruding from the snow, but no men. He looked about. One of his hounds stuck its wet nose into his hand, he scratched its grey hairy head. When he looked back at the tree lady Leanna’s face had vanished. Up in the tree a crow called out, it seemed to be cackling at him.

 

Well now you can see why I never trusted this crow, for all it told me, it never told me fully. The rest of the details were told to me by other birds, birds I trusted and knew, and by the huntsman who I met once, in a tavern. He said that the small kingdom and castle fell to ruin with the kings disappearance. The castle is now a crumbling mess, unfit for human habitation. The wood they say still remains, and on the night of a blizzard Princess Leanna can still be heard, calling out for help, and her face appears on the oak tree, each time she looks less and less human, blending into the trees natural appearance.

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