Dry leaves crunched under his feet as he stumbled between the trees. He had long since lost track of the distance he had covered or the time that was lost. But now, surrounded by the forest and silence and with no visible signs of any threat, Alaric gave in to his exhaustion.
The man leaned against a trunk to catch his breath. He grimaced as his side continued to feel like it was on fire. Blood oozed sluggishly from where a blade had torn his skin. He tightened his hold on the precious weight in his arms even as he shook his head against a wave of nausea.
Alaric slowly slid down along the length of the trunk until he was slumped awkwardly against it.
The ambush had come out of nowhere.
What had been a peaceful picnic party among the Queen and her ladies-in-waiting quickly descended into blood and chaos. Amidst the explosions and falling bodies, Alaric only had one thought crossing his mind.
He had to get the Crown Prince away from this mess.
So, he took the only course of action he could think of. He grabbed the baby from his swaddles on the ground and ran.
That was...an hour ago? Two hours? Less than an hour? He looked up towards the sky but failed to infer anything useful as the thick canopy shielded his view of the sun.
Alaric sighed. He did not even remember when the open grounds had given away to trees and bushes. At that time, all he could think of was getting the baby as far away as possible from the threats surrounding them.
Feeling an insistent tug against his neck, Alaric glanced down to find a chubby hand fisted around his pendant. For a moment, he was alarmed by the large splotches of red staining the tiny shirt but he quickly reasoned that the child would not be this unbothered if all that blood was indeed his own. Nevertheless, Alaric allowed himself a relieved sigh only after a thorough inspection of the little body had revealed no injury.
Tiny fingers fumbled with the jewel, releasing the pendant and then reaching back for it, all the while an incessant stream of gibberish nonsense drifted up to him.
Blue eyes met brown and Alaric failed to check the smile that formed on his lips when the cherubic face below him broke into a toothless grin.
The prince had let go of the pendant for good now. Cooing happily, he extended an arm, fingers just out of reach from the stubble on his protector's chin. His smile widening, Alaric lifted the arm supporting the child's head, only to abort the movement with a hiss as he was painfully reminded of the gaping wound on his torso.
He ground his teeth against the mounting levels of agony from his side. He felt light-headed and swallowed down the rising bile in his throat.
Through the haze of pain, Alaric thought he heard the snort of an animal. He stilled, listening intently for any unusual noise.
He swore when he caught the sound of beating hooves. It was loud and it was near. He cursed himself for not having sensed the danger earlier.
His frantic gaze flitted around his surroundings until it settled on some thick bushes in the distance. Alaric scrambled to his feet and staggered towards the shrubbery. He crouched inside the thickets, taking great care to keep the boy's face pressed on his chest, preventing the stiff leaves from poking his delicate eyes. His injured side did not appreciate the jolting movements and he had to bite on his tongue to hold back an anguished scream. The baby whimpered and squirmed in discomfort. Alaric tried to shush him with his gentle rocking.
To his dismay, the hoofbeats only grew louder. In fact, Alaric could hear voices. A lot of voices.
"Can't believe that Nightguard scum escaped with the baby from right under our noses!"
"Don't look at me! I was busy creating the distractions. Paul and Remy, they were supposed to go after the boy!"
"And you were supposed to take care of the King's men as part of your distractions."
"You are just trying to shift the blame on me!"
At least three men. With a debilitating wound and a babe in arms, those were not promising odds.
The prince, thankfully, remained quiet. The arguing voices grew louder and soon, several men on horseback came into his view. Alaric counted five of them.
The Nightguard watched as the men dismounted, their backs turned on him. Carefully, very carefully he reached behind him and silently extricated his combat dagger. The bickering continued even as the men wandered about, taking a look at their surroundings.
"This is turning into a wild goose chase, what if he took off in a whole other direction?" one of them wondered aloud as he appeared to casually advance towards his hiding place. The man did not appear to be looking directly at the shrubbery though Alaric could not be sure from his position.
He held his breath as a pair of boots stopped right in front of him. Alaric tightened the grip on his blade.
"I think we have lost him for good." The words were spoken right above him. "We should turn back."
Alaric' instincts screamed at him. He had been discovered. The whole conversation was a planned distraction, a ploy to make him relax his guard.
Within seconds, he heard the swish of steel cutting air and raised his dagger just in time to parry the blade aimed at his head.
Emerging from the bushes with a snarl, he plunged the dagger into the neck of his attacker and left it there. The man gurgled and went down with a shocked expression on his face.
Shouts and curses filled the air. Alaric withdrew his sword as the men around him broke into a flurry of activity.
The little prince wailed.
Two men lunged at him at once. Alaric evaded the blade of one and deflected the attack of the other. What the Nightguard lacked in numbers, he made up for it in skill. Spotting an opening, he quickly slashed his blade across the thigh of one of his opponents. The man stumbled and dropped to the ground, writhing in pain as blood spurted out of his wound. The blade had sliced through a major artery, the injury would be fatal.
Alaric hissed as his other attacker took that as an opportunity to score a cut across his arm. He kicked the man before running him through with his sword.
A shot rang out in the air and Alaric felt the ball graze past the top of his shoulder, tearing a good chunk of flesh in the process.
He howled, almost losing his grip on the boy and barely managing to maintain his footing. He looked up to find only two of the men left standing. One of them held a smoking pistol, his features twisted into a mix of fear and surprise, while the other pulled out his own pistol and pointed it at Alaric.
"Put your sword down," he barked.
Alaric weighed his options. The distance was fair enough and these men had proven to be poor shots in addition to being terrible with a blade. The only thing that kept him from taking his chances was the sobbing baby in his arm.
"I said put it down! Now! Or I'll shoot the baby!"
Alaric growled before reluctantly dropping his sword.
The man smirked. "Good. Now stay there and hand over the boy to my friend," he added before gesturing at his companion to retrieve the prince. "You move a hair, I pull the trigger."
The other man shot his friend a hesitant glance before striding determinedly towards the Nightguard. He stopped before Alaric and eyed him warily.
"Do it. Hand him over," his companion yelled from behind.
The man reached forward to grab the prince.
Only to stop short as his eyes fell on the pendant hanging against Alaric's chest.
"Yo...you..." he sputtered, unable to tear his gaze away from the glinting sapphire. "You're one of them... the Order of the Bl-"
He didn't get to finish his sentence.
Alaric surged forward and head-butted the thug on his nose. There was the satisfying crunch of shattering bones followed by an anguished scream. The Nightguard grabbed his cowering adversary and manhandled him in front of himself just as a pistol fired and the ball found its target in the human shield.
Figuring out that discretion was now the better part of valour, the other man dropped his spent pistol and made a dash for the nearest horse. In one swift motion, Alaric whipped out his own pistol and fired at the retreating figure. Unlike his opponents, he did not miss. The man went down with a yelp and did not move again.
The prince's high pitched wails were now reduced to pitiful mewls. Alaric blinked.
Get to one of the horses, a voice inside his head ordered him.
He took a single step forward.
Only to end up abruptly slouching on the grass.
The man groaned as the various wounds inflicted on him angrily reminded him of their existence. The deep gash above his waist burned with a vengeance, his shoulder felt wet, his injured arm throbbed with every heartbeat. He cradled the boy close to his chest even as he struggled to control his harsh breathing.
With the adrenaline wearing off, his exhaustion and blood loss were finally catching up on him. Alaric opened his eyes to find himself lying on his uninjured side, the prince snuggled contently against his shoulder. When had he closed his eyes?
The voice inside his head screamed at him. He needed to get up. He needed to get them both to safety.
His body begged to differ. His limbs refused to cooperate. His head swam. Dark spots scattered all over his vision. He shivered. He shouldn't be shivering, it was not that time of the year.
He was bleeding out. He was dying.
Alaric could feel the life seeping out of him.
He had failed. He had failed in his promise to Brielle.
"I'm sorry," Alaric choked. The child, oblivious to the direness of his situation, reached out a hand and giggled when his fingers finally caressed over the stubbled cheek. Alaric scrunched his eyes shut as a single tear streaked down his nose. The dark spots were gaining in prominence. "I'm so sorry, I failed in my duty, I failed to protect you."
He summoned the last remaining shred of his strength to plant an affectionate kiss on the baby's head before letting the darkness overwhelm him.
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