The horses were gone, the palace was miles away, and I had no weapons. I searched high and low for my spear, but eventually decided that my stepmother had taken it as well. I placated myself with a pair of knives strapped to my legs under cover of my gown, hoping that there would be no need to have such close hand to hand combat with a zombie tonight that would require the use of my short blades.
Although the road was safest, it wound through the country in a zigzagging pattern, adding miles to my journey that I could not afford. I opted to make my way through the forest instead. I was used to walking through the wooded trees, I often did as a young girl with my father, so I was not afraid of getting lost.
The sun was beginning to set even faster now. If I did not hurry, then I would be too late. The gates to the palace would be barred and locked, with no possible entrance. I quickened my pace.
I suddenly found myself in a dark thicket of trees that I did not recognize. The air felt cold and heavy around me, and I tried to move faster. My thoughts began to race as I thought I heard the sound of a shuffling gait behind me, crackling through the dried underbrush. I began to run, my heart pounding in my ears. Zombies were slow-moving creatures. Surely I could outrun whatever was following behind me. I ran faster. A moment later I was sprawled across the ground, having tripped over an exposed tree root. I tasted blood in mouth. I must have bit my lip during the fall. But before I could scramble back up and continue to run a hunched figure emerged from the thicket. It was an old woman. Very old, by the looks of her. And very much alive.
The old woman let out a dusty-sounding cackle as she approached me still laying on the ground.
“Thought you could outrun me, huh, little miss?” she said, offering me a withered hand. I took it warily, and found myself surprised at the strength in which she was able to assist me in rising. “I am faster than I look,” she continued, a spark twinkling in her dark eyes.
“Who are you?” I asked, bewildered to come across an old woman in the forest.
“Never you mind,” she replied mysteriously, and turned back toward the thicket which she had emerged from. Evidently expecting me to follow, she continued to talk as she moved away, “You are in a bit of a hurry, are you not? You must get to the palace before sundown.”
I was startled.
“How do you know....” I started, but she interrupted me.
“Do you want my help, or don’t you?”
“Umm, yes, if you can…”
A few moments later we cleared through the dense branches and foliage of the thicket and came upon a small clearing. There was a round hut in the center of the clearing, with a beautiful black horse tethered to a stake near the door. I gasped.
“His name is Sampson. He will take you to the palace. He is friends with the prince,” the little old woman croaked, waddling past the horse toward the hut in a nonchalant manner, as though he wasn’t the most perfect creature I had ever seen.
I stopped to pat Sampson’s neck. He nickered and bobbed his head, giving me permission to caress the smooth silk of his nose.
The old woman appeared again in the doorway.
“You’re going to need more than a horse tonight, my dear,” she said, as she shifted a long leather satchel toward me. “Here you go, dear. Open it up.”
I obeyed and loosened the leather string that held the satchel closed. For the second time in the last few moments I let out an involuntary gasp. There in my hands was the most beautiful bow I had ever seen. It was made of pure gold, and the length of it was covered in intricate carvings of exotic birds and trees. The arrows were also of gold, the shafts as straight as anything I could imagine. Even the feathers which were set into the shafts were a luminous golden color. I wondered what sort of bird would have feathers made of gold, and who could have possibly made this hunting set.
I could hardly speak. “It’s beautiful,” I finally spoke in a reverent whisper.
“Try it out,” the old woman prodded, and I readily complied.
I set the arrow into its place, sliding the notch into the silky smooth string. As I lifted the bow into position to draw the string back, my hand perfectly molded to the smooth grip, I was amazed at how light the bow was. It was made of pure gold, but felt as light and comfortable as a bow made of young and supple wood. The tension in the spring moved so smoothly that I was able to pull it back with ease. Aiming at a distinctive knot in a tree on the far side of the clearing, I released the string and with a melodic singing twang the arrow flew straight and true, hitting the knot dead center.
“It’s magic, isn’t it?” I asked, but I already knew the answer.
The mysterious woman chuckled softly. “Oh yes, my dear. Magic of the oldest kind.”
I looked into her eyes, searching for more.
“Magic from the ancients only returns into the world of the present when there is a dire need. This is not the first time that the earth has been scourged with the undead vermin. It is a plague as old as time, from the darkest magic of all. Magic this dark can only be combated with magic which is pure. If you want to save this kingdom, you must use the magic of the ancients to wipe it clean from the filth of the undead.”
“What do I need to do?” I asked.
“The bow will draw the undead to it with its magical song. Once they are gathered as one you will be able to attack. Scourge them with fire and the undead will not be able to return.”
I nodded my head.
“But you must remember, the magic will only work if wielded by one who is true of heart. Magic this ancient and powerful requires the purest conduit. If it is used by someone unworthily, there is no telling what may happen.”
“I must get to the palace. I must talk to the prince!” I cried, ready to jump on Sampson’s back right then and ride off.
“Not so fast, my dear,” the old woman placed her hand on my arm to stop me from leaving. She looked me up and down pointedly, especially at the ruined front of my gown. “Have you looked at yourself lately? You don’t want to be seeing the prince in this state.”
I couldn’t help but blush. In my hurry to get to the palace I had forgotten about the condition of my gown, and what the prince might think of me with my underclothes hanging out.
“Don’t you worry. I know exactly what you need.” The old woman gave a wink and left me again as she entered her hut.
There was a scraping sound, followed by the woman’s croaky voice muttering what sounded like a chant, and last a brilliant flash of blue light. I began to creep up to the door to have a peek at what she was doing but she was already coming back out when I got there. In her hands she held a beautifully tanned corset made of leather, with matching arm bands to strap a number of weapons to.
As I wrapped the leather around my body I was amazed with how perfectly supple it was. At first it didn’t seem like it would fit, but then I started to feel a warmth pass around me and the leather seemed to meld perfectly to the shape of my body.
“There is one more piece,” the old woman said, and she pulled out a matching face mask. The leather now felt like it was part of my own skin, it fit so well.
I looked down at myself, seeing the setting sun cast a golden sheen across the surface of the leather, and making my new weapons alight with a fire of light. I was ready for the assembly.