Echoes of Shadow Chapter 8: The Hunt

Chapter 8: The Hunt

 

Thunder passed into the Nightsong Woods and Oba steered him off the main path and into the snow-covered underbrush. The maneuver would leave tracks, to be sure, but he was banking on that. He brought Thunder to a halt and dismounted. He groaned in pain and briefly fell to his knees, but rose and slapped thunder on the flank. “Go, old boy, go. May we meet again in the light of Valhalla.”

The horse snuffed and looked at Oba as if to say he was worried about him.

“Oba waved him on. Go on. Go!”

Thunder trotted away, reluctantly.

Oba found a stick and stuck it between his teeth. Then he withdrew his knife, lay on his stomach in the snow and reached behind him for the arrow. He found the shaft and with his other hand sliced through it. He left the arrow-head in - it was the only thing stopping him from bleeding out. He rose, brushed off the snow and followed the trail Thunder left, not bothering to match the hoof prints but hoping his pursuers would give the trail only a cursory glance and not realize he was now afoot. He passed a tree that stood close to the edge of the trail and grabbed hold. He slung his blade-staff behind him and climbed up the tree, pain spiking with every move of his arms. Then he crouched on a branch overlooking the trail left by Thunder. He unslung his blade-staff. Now he need only wait.

As expected, a dozen mounted Engrall warriors charged down the path made by Thunder a few minutes later.

Oba waited, knees tense and blade-staff clutched in his hands. He ignored the pain in his back but felt blood dripping down his back.

The last warrior approached, seconds away from the branch Oba crouched upon.

Thank the gods for the cover of darkness, Oba thought. He dropped down and landed on the horse in front of the man. Ignoring the surprised gasp and more concerned by the man’s open mouth, Oba knocked the man, or boy, by the look of him, off the horse with his blade-staff. The commotion went unnoticed as the man fell with a muffled thud.

Oba kicked the horse, forcing it to speed up. As he closed on the first enemy, strange thinking of his former underlings as enemies, he held his blade-staff out at neck level. As he passed the razor-sharp blade sliced through the man’s neck, beheading him. Oba switched position of the blade-staff and swung it at the next rider, slicing into their rib and knocking them off their horse. Three down, nine to go. He swung the blade-staff down and lopped off a leg on the next enemies’ horse, causing it to scream in pain and the rider to go flying.

The other eight, hearing the scream of the horse, stopped their horses and turned.

Oba slowed his horse and hefted the blade-staff like a javelin. He hurled it toward one of the riders and it took them right in the chest.

The man flopped to the ground, dead before he landed.

Next, Oba drew his sword. He roared with fury. “Come and get me!” He spurred the horse into movement once again.

The other seven warriors, surprised by the death of their comrades and the ferocity of the single opponent facing them, were slow to bring their blade-staffs to bear upon him.

Oba was on the first man as he leveled his blade-staff. He swung his sword up and sliced through the haft of the enemy’s weapon. Then he stabbed the man in the gut and moved on.

Two blade-staffs came at him at once this time, and he fended them both off while circling around to isolate one of the attackers. Before the man could swing his blade-staff around Oba had lopped his head off. He then kicked the headless corpse toward his former comrade to create chaos before circling around to strike at the second man. He was forced to halt and parry, however, as another warrior charged him from the right. He parried the blow and withdrew his long knife. While keeping the staff at bay with his sword he rode in close and stabbed the man in the eye. He then turned to the original opponent.

By now the horses, either riderless or carrying wounded or dead men, milled around aimlessly, creating artificial moving barriers that prevented the remaining four from striking him at once. He used this to advantage by sheathing his sword and knife and grabbing his blade-staff from the back of his earlier victim. He swung it toward a living opponent but they parried. He tried thrusting in a stabbing motion but they batted it aside. This must be the commander, he thought. Finally, a worthy opponent. “You don’t have to do this,” he puffed out as they circled each other. “I am innocent.”

“You are a liar and a traitor. You killed the prison guards during your escape. We are authorized to kill you, now.” He hefted his blade-staff and prepared to throw it.

Killed? “They were alive when I left. I swear it on my life and after-life.”

The warrior spat to the side. “Your word means nothing to us now.” The warrior drew his arm back, preparing to throw.

Oba braced himself, preparing to evade.

A blur streaked out from nowhere. Blood spurted from the enemy commanders neck. A dagger. The commander dropped his blade-staff, clutched at his throat and then slumped forward in his saddle.

Oba turned his horse, following the source of the throw with his eyes. A lone figure atop a horse, no, not any horse, Thunder, threw back their hood. “Khadd?” he asked incredulously as he recognized the features of his former prison-mate.

Khadd bowed in his saddle. “Aye, friend Oba.” He withdrew another dagger and whipped it underhand. It flew past Oba and made a wet thunk sound.

A glance behind revealed another dead Engrall warrior. Startled into remembering the other opponents, Oba faced the remaining two enemies. They watched him warily from a distance, several wandering horses between them and him. They made no move to attack.

Oba breathed deep and winced, the wound in his back having been made worse from the fighting and now radiating pain. “I take no pleasure in the bloodshed of Engrall. Leave now or suffer the fate of the others.”

The two men shared a glance before dropping their blade-staffs and riding into the forest.

“Smart men,” Khadd observed.

“It’s human instinct to want to survive,” Oba retorted.

“Would that more men wanted to survive.”

“Enough about them. How did you escape? And how did you find me?”

Khadd rode up and removed his dagger from the neck of the commander. “I’m a sneaky rogue, it comes naturally.”

“Judging by your skill with a dagger, I would say you are more than a rogue, and more than you say you are. Who are you really?”

“Just an old man trying to make a living.” He sighed. “But in another life, well, let us say I am one of the few to leave Kaz’radan and live.”

“You’re an assassin?” Oba asked. He tightened his grip on the blade-staff, muscles tensing and preparing to fling it at him if he tried anything. Not that he would be able to stop an expertly thrown dagger. But he could try.

“Former assassin,” Khadd corrected. “I retired.”

“All right. Let’s say I believe you. How do I know I can trust you.”

“You don’t, but I’m the only ally you have right now.” He cocked his head to one side. “Shall we get going, or would you like to tell tales until those two warriors you spared come back with reinforcements?”

Khadd was right. The Engrall would send more - many more, and he was in no shape to fight much longer. “Fine. Let’s get moving. Are you any good at removing arrowheads?”

“Aye. When we get to safety I’ll remove it.”

The throbbing intensified. If I make it that long.

The duo rode back to the main road and headed west. He hoped they would soon encounter tracks from other travelers on the roads to hide their own. They had ridden for a several minutes when Oba felt dizzy. He slowed his horse.

Khadd looked back at him. He opened his mouth to speak but snapped it shut.

Do I look that bad? Oba idly thought. He was sweating despite the cold and the pain was almost unbearable. His hands let go of the reigns and he felt himself falling.

***

An indeterminate amount of time later, he awoke.

A human woman, middle-aged with gray streaked black hair stood over him.

“Where…” Oba croaked.

She held a cup to his lips. “Drink this.”

Oba clamped his mouth shut.

“It’s water,” she explained.

“Drink, friend,” Khadd said from somewhere to Oba’s right. “I’m right here.”

Small comfort, Oba thought as he sipped from the proffered cup. The cold water sliding down his throat caused him to shiver.

“You collapsed,” Khadd explained. “I carried you on Thunder here to this farm.”

“The arrow?” Oba asked between sips. His back still hurt from where he’d been shot but it didn’t burn like it had before.

“I removed it. This kind lady stitched it up and put a salve and bandage on it.”

“I’ve never stitched an arrow wound before, much less on an Engrall, but with five children and a husband I do have experience stitching up wounds.” She offered a smile, most likely to set him at ease. It worked.

“How long have I been asleep?” he asked.

“Two days. You had a fever when you first arrived,” the woman replied.

“And our…”

“Ah, friend, you should rest,” Khadd interrupted, coming to stand behind the farmer’s wife. “Our mutual friend is alive and well. Rest and I’ll tell you later.” He gave Oba an exaggerated look that said “drop it.”

Oba held Khadd’s gaze and gave a long nod of understanding. “Good, I’m glad to hear it.” He looked back to the woman, who watched him curiously. “My friend is right. I should rest. Would you excuse me?”

She smiled. “Of course, dear. I’ll check back in a while. I’ve got supper to prepare.” She rose, buttoned her thick coat, and walked out into the snow.

When the door had fully shut Oba spoke. “What was that about?”

“I didn’t tell them we had Engrall warriors chasing us.”

“Because you were afraid they would turn us away?”

“Or turn us in.”

“Humans hate the Engrall as much as you and I do now. They wouldn’t betray us to them.”

“Perhaps,” Khadd said dubiously.

“Judging by the fact we are still alive, they haven’t found us?”

Khadd shook his head. “I’ve seen no movement on the road.”

“You think they gave up the chase?”

“Why would they?”

“Perhaps they’re afraid to lose more men. Or worried we have more allies in the woods with us.”

“Or they don’t care about you. Or they wanted you to escape.”

“You’re quite the optimist,” Oba observed.

“Being an assassin you learn to expect the worst.”

“Funny, I thought I did that as the emperor’s bodyguard.” Oba closed his eyes. “But I didn’t think broadly enough, I suppose.”

“What did happen? You didn’t tell me.”

“An assassin entered the emperor’s chambers and killed him.”

“You were there?”

“Yes. I fought her.”

“What did she look like?”

“I don’t know. She wore a veil over the lower half of her face. I think she had dark hair. Shorter than me by a head.”

“How did she defeat the two of you?”

“She possessed magic. She could make her blades freeze our weapons upon touching them and disappear into the shadows. She leapt onto a shadow drake before flying away. I thought them the stuff of legend.” A thought occurred to him. “You know her, don’t you? She’s in the Assassin’s Guild.” The last part was not a question and Khadd’s face confirmed his suspicion a moment later.

“Aye, her name is Eriyana. She is the daughter of…the guild master. If he sent her it must have been an important job.” He narrowed his eyes. “Why did she let you live?”

“So the emperor’s son, Rai’vyn could set me up. She paralyzed me and framed me for killing the emperor.”

“She could have killed you and done the same thing.” Khadd stroked his chin.

“Are you disappointed I’m alive?”

Khadd snorted. “No, but it does worry me that she might come back to finish the job.”

“You think she wants me that badly?”

“If the people paying her father want you dead badly enough she may be sent after you. Assuming the emperor’s son planned for you to be executed and cannot allow you to live, that is. Youmay be too dangerous to let live.”

“And that would be why he called off the search,” Oba said, following the former assassin’s logic. “Lull me into a false sense of security while Eriyana comes for me.”

“Yes.”

“We must go. I have to tell Tirrin.” He tried to sit up and groaned as the stitches on his back strained.

“You’re in no shape to travel.” Khadd looked around at their surroundings. “But then, this place is in no shape for us to defend against one such as her…if such a place exists. Let me help you up.” He extended a hand and helped Oba sit at the edge of the bed.

Oba donned his tunic and armor again and strapped on his sword belt. He hefted his blade-staff and then used it as a walking staff as pain made his knees weak. “Ready.”

“Do you know where we’re going?”

“South. Tirrin ranged south to collect tribute. We’ll find his warband in that direction.”

“And can you trust this Tirrin? If his brother betrayed you, how do you know he wasn’t in on it?”

“Tirrin has honor his brother could never possess. He would not contemplate betraying his father.”

“Let us hope you’re right.” Khadd set about preparing Thunder and the other horse for riding. He gestured to Thunder. “Your horse.”

Oba nodded in appreciation and mounted.

Khadd opened the door to the barn, mounted his own stallion and the rode out into the night. Snow had begun to fall, which would mask their tracks.They did not say goodbye to the farmer or his wife - better that they not know where the two were going or when they’d left, in case the Engrall came.

***

Valkerion landed in front of a barn with an open door. Eriyana slid off. Wait on the roof, she thought. The door swinging in the wind with a light emitting from inside had drawn her attention. It was near enough to the Engrall fortress that her prey could have taken refuge. She stepped inside and found it devoid of life. It smelled of horse dung, yet there were no horses present. She strode to a crude cot and touched the straw. Blood. Someone who bled had been here. A wash basin on the other side of the cot held bloody water. “Found you,” she said aloud.

“Who are you?” a male voice asked from behind.

Eriyana turned and appraised the speaker. A balding man with gray hair dressed in the attire of a farmer stood there. He watched her warily. “There was a wounded man here,” she gestured to the blood. “Who was he?”

“I don’t know,” the man said. His eyes flicked to pitchfork leaning in the corner by him.

Eiryana smirked. Do it, old fool. “Where was he going when he left?” The snow outside would obscure the tracks from his horse, but it would not be impossible to track him.

“He left without saying anything to us,” the farmer said. “Honestly.”

The assassin tutted. “I find that hard to believe.” She withdrew her knives. “Let’s get better acquainted and see if your answer changes.”

The farmer lunged for his pitchfork and pointed it toward her. “Stay back, I’m warning you.”

She smiled. Oh this would be fun. She focused on the shadow behind both of them by the single lantern hanging near the center of the barn. She disappeared into the pool of darkness behind her and imagined herself re-appearing behind the man. An instant later her surroundings changed and she was behind the man. She put a knife to his throat but refrained from cutting it. “Now…you are going to invite me inside.”

“Never,” the man rasped.

“Fine, have it your way.” She slit his throat and kicked him forward. Then she turned and strode through the snow toward the house. She knocked on the door.

A moment later it opened. “Keith, I thought you had a key,” a muffled voice came from behind the door. A latch clicked and the door opened.

Trusting farmers, Eriyana thought. She kicked the door open before the woman could try to close it. She grabbed her by the throat. “Where is the man?” She demanded. “The wounded man.”

“I…don’t…know,” the woman gasped.

Eriyana’s instincts told her the woman was telling the truth, but after the humiliation she’d suffered in Kaz’radan she wanted to take her anger out on someone. “Wrong answer,” Eriyana said. She focused her frost magic into her hand and unleashed it into the shaking woman’s neck.

The woman’s neck turned blue and she made a choking sound as the air froze in her throat. The frost spread to her head and her eyes froze in their sockets before it spread down her body. Within moments she was frozen solid.

“I’ve been waiting to do that for a while,” Eriyana said. Now to wait until I can do the same to the masters. She performed a roundhouse kick and shattered the statuesque woman into shards of red ice.

A gasp came from within the farm house. Five children, ranging from a baby to a boy of perhaps ten, huddled by the fire. The older boy stepped forward as if to protect his siblings.

Eriyana hesitated. The children wouldn’t know the whereabouts of her prey. She looked down at the remains of their mother. They had suffered enough, hadn’t they? An image of her mother flashed in her mind’s eye. She closed her eyes for a moment before focusing on the terrified children. “Let that be a lesson to always tell the truth.” Without waiting for a reply she strode back into the storm. Valkerion, to me, she commanded telepathically.

Her shadow drake shot through the snow and landed before her. His wings kicked up a small cloud of the white substance and it billowed around her.

She paid it no mind as she mounted him. Where would Oba have gone? She would find him…not to make up for her “mistake” in her father’s eyes though. No, she would find him so she could return triumphant and one day enact her revenge on the masters.

***

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