Aesara had anticipated a long day of hiking ahead of them, but they’d only travelled a couple of miles when they came round a tight bend in the track they were following to find the way ahead blocked by Drakhan. By Drakhan on horseback. The three horseman had paused, facing the opposite way down the track, looking for something. Aesara used the opportunity to pull Onatas into the ferns and long grasses that surrounded the track. While the rain had stopped, its affect on the ground could still be felt, the two of them quickly re-drenching their clothes in the shaggy undergrowth. But neither cared, attention firmly fixed on the horsemen.
Aesara whispered “Stay low and stay quiet. With any luck they’ll pass us straight by”
“Those are horses? I haven’t seen such a creature outside of Elder writings” Onatas was amazed and scared in equal measure.
“It’s the people on the horses we need to be wary of, now keep quiet, they come our way” Aesara ducked down, right hand grabbing the back of Onatas’s neck to force him to take the same action.
The sound of hoof on wet ground approached. As did another sound. It patted along the ground at a quicker pace. Must mean a shorter leg span, thought Aesara, but it was not human footsteps. She frowned, reflection of her puzzlement looking back up from the puddle just below her face. The approaching footfall stopped.
A beast roared.
The sound so close to their position startled Onatas, who out of instinct leapt up and away from the terrible noise. The horseman closest to them barked an order at his comrades, one of which broke off to slosh through the undergrowth, quickly heading off the fleeing apprentice. Aesara gave half a thought to staying where she was, sacrificing Onatas for now in order to prolong her liberty, or life, but it seemed the game was up as the beast roared once again, this time even closer.
Aesara jumped up, but did not attempt to run. Her staff was in her hands in an instant. She hadn’t had time to repair it these few days past, so doubted it would stand up to much in a struggle, but it was better than nothing. She crouched low and bared her teeth, mimicking the animal in front of her. Another command from the Drakhan, Aesara too focussed on the beast at hand to catch the words. But the beast did. It sat down. A wide pink tongue flopped out of its mouth as it breathed heavily. Aesara would swear that it almost looked pleased with itself. The Drakhan certainly was, leaping down from the horse and bending low to pat the beast, feeding it something from a pocket inside his tunic.
“What pact with the Previous did you make to tame their beasts?” Aesara sneered through her still bared teeth.
The Drakhan ignored her, instead shouting over to one of his cohort “Good hunting Humax” with a smile
Aesara risked a glance behind her, Onatas was being escorted back towards them by the Drakhan that had set off in pursuit. The apprentice was shaking, cold wet and scared.
The Drakhan leader turned back to Aesara, “These are dangerous roads. What is your business?” the smile remained in place, although the position of his eyebrows had changed to make the overall effect a little more sinister.
“Not as dangerous as the battlefield. We flee towards the coast” Aesara was ready to play the refugee again, just as long as she didn’t have to leave the thigh high grass that was currently hiding her bejewelled false leg.
“Anywhere particular on the coast?”
“We have family a little way away. My father and six brothers. And their swords. I’m sure they would like to meet you” Aesara wasn’t sure the lie would stick, but if she could generate any uncertainty in the Drakhan it could be used for leverage.
The Drakhan in front of her just laughed “Are they all as fearsome as their sister?”
“Or maybe as cowardly as this tubby little fellow?” this from Onatas’s captor, Humax, as he reigned in his horse, the apprentice moving to stand next to Aesara.
“What do you want?” Aesara decided a change of tack was needed. “We have nothing bar the clothes on our backs, and even they are torn and filthy” she held up a mud stained sleeve as an example.
“I want a lot of things. But for now I just want you to…” the Drakhan leader paused, then said simply “…hop”. His two men sniggered, the beast looking between them as if sharing the amusement.
“What?” Aesara hissed
“Hop. On one leg. That leg” he pointed at Aesara’s left leg, her false leg.
“You mock me?”
“It would only be mockery if I suspected you could not do as I request” he raised an eyebrow
Aesara glanced round again, noting the position of the Drakhan, calculating angles. Attempting to pit strengths against weaknesses.
She bowed ornately, staff out to one side in a backhand grip.
“It appears you have me at a disadvantage. I beg an introduction” she said
“And I beg you put down the staff that you prepare to thrust at my colleague’s head” he pointed at Humax, who backed off a little. Outside of striking distance.
Aesara inwardly cursed, then outwardly said “Who are you?”
“Just simple hunters, sent to find a missing person. Name of Aesara” his use of her name made Aesara shiver
“And now you have made her acquaintance?” her staff still gripped tightly
“We return you to the university camp”
“You know of the camp?”
“I was there not two days past. My superiors are still there now, enjoying the hospitality”
“If you Drakhan scum have harmed so much as a single person there…” Aesara had dropped back into her combat pose
“Enough of the posturing Aesara. While I have been made well aware of your abilities, we clearly have the advantage here and you will do as I say as a result” he cast her an appraising glance. “Stand. Down.”
A second’s hesitation, but Aesara complied.
The Drakhan seemed happy at this, and continued, “I give you my word that we will escort you back unharmed, provided you give me your word that you shall stow that cursed staff of yours”
Another second’s hesitation, this time culminating in Aesara changing her grip in compliance, placing the staff into the wet and muddy undergrowth, and pushing herself forward and onto the track, between the horsemen. Humax remained wary and urged his horse another pace away from her.
“Good” the Drakhan commander relaxed a little in his saddle.
Aesara was on him in an instant. She planted one end of the staff on a harder patch of ground she’d previously spotted next to his horse, using it as leverage so spring up and into the Drakhan astride the saddle. He toppled over, striking the ground with a surprised yelp, but Aesara managed to grab the reign around the horse’s neck to avoid following him. The horse span around in agitation.
The beast pounced.
It came at Aesara hard and fast, jumping up at her. But using the horse’s momentum, coupled with a swing of the staff still in one hand, she swatted the animal away with a thunk of the metal ended staff on the beast’s skull. The horse was even more unnerved, rearing up, Aesara doing all she could to remain on it, her staff falling into the rutted, muddy, track. She’d never seen a horse before, let alone ridded one, but she’d watched the Drakhan approach closely and seen how Humax had used his feet to nudge his animal along. It wasn’t exactly an exhaustive training, but enough for her to point in Onatas’ direction and urge the horse forward, which it did with great anxiety.
For half a second she thought she would run the awe-struck apprentice down, but the horse instinctively altered direction fractionally to pass by him and head to open ground. As they passed Onatas she grabbed onto his robes, dragging him off his feet. His weight nearly pulled her off and out of the saddle. It took all of her strength and battle training to recover her balance and haul him up and across the horse in front of her, his backside pointing up in the air. It wasn’t elegant, but it would do, as they charged forward down the track.
The two remaining Drakhan were momentarily torn between their stricken commander and their prey. The indecision gave Aesara precious seconds head-start, although it wasn’t long before she heard the pounding hooves of pursuit.
Encouraging the horse to indulge in its natural instinct to run as fast as possible was one thing, but controlling the creature in full flight was another. Aesara was certain that the galloping motion would loosen her teeth, if not her bowels. Onatas was shouting something, but with his head down over the horse’s flank, she could not hear him over the thundering hooves. Instead she attempted to manipulate the reigns and adjust her feet, to try and exert some control over their direction. It did not work.
The horse veered off the track, through a bracken thicket and into a small copse of sycamores. Branches slapped at Aesara’s face, forcing her to bend lower, lose sight of the route ahead. She managed to turn a little in the saddle to instead look behind. The motion remained jarring, but she could just about make out their pursuers a little way behind. She cursed, words lost in the wind of their rapid progress. The noise and movement made it hard to think, but she remained aware of her disadvantage having lost her staff. Bringing the two remaining Drakhan to a straight fight seemed implausible. Maybe if she could lose one of them, but how she would manage that given the disparity in horse faring skill, she did not know.
They were soon out of the copse of trees, on open ground, a flock of birds unsettled in the field in front of them leaving as one. Aesara could look ahead again, but spotted no sanctuary or way to lose the Drakhan. It was hard to tell, but she thought their horse was slowing slightly, froth clearly visible at the corners of its mouth as it laboured under the load of two adults. Aesara was running out of options. The flight of fight or flight was gradually receding as an option as the horse tired. Aesara was prepared for the fight, but her bare hands versus whatever strange weapons the Drakhan had access to was not an enviable prospect. She surveyed the land ahead as best she could to look for an advantageous position to fight from, but it was all depressingly flat and uniform. Irritated at this she looked behind them to assess the position of their pursuers.
They weren’t there.
Well, they were, but receding rapidly as they had reigned to a halt someway behind them. Aesara attempted to make sense of it. Perhaps they’d been ordered back? Or had she ventured into some unknown warlord’s territory? She’d take that risk right about now, with the Drakhan rapidly becoming dots on the horizon. Aesara smiled to herself; she’d come out on top against unenviable odds versus a superior enemy once again. Not bad for an amateur on an unknown animal.
Their horse careered over a cliff.