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Sanadanul, crouched and drew up tighter behind the fallen log, as more pursuing horsemen went directly by. His rasle's empido made the mistake of arriving earlier than the others who were supposed to have met up here in Coitasungi province on the northern border of Ne Varii. Instead they met the combined might of the Dzerjamach Oslabuto and his fearsome son-in law, Bomoyurtsu.
Yelling aloud their battle cries, "This You Dared?" the Coitasungis charged the Rasle Nomale's force that was partially across the unnamed stream. They came under a cloud of arrows and javelins, before their lancers and swordspeople slammed into the Rasle Nomale's dazed ranks. Like many, Sanadanul, wasn't wearing any battle gear, not even his helmet. He managed to get his shield up just as the first barbed rain doused he and his companions. Screams, curses, and shouted conflicting orders replied to the sudden onslaught. Sanadanul felt his mount shudder as two arrows suddenly jutted from its neck and shoulder. He sprang from the saddle just as his horse collapsed. He got up his shield just as the trio of arrows bit into it. Tasmosdu was laying on his side,his mouth agape, in the muddy and reddening stream. Homashe was following the more consistent shouted order, "Save yourselves!" A fellow of his naudo fell almost on top of him, an arrow through his neck.
Sanadanul ran for the opposite shore, nearly being bowled over by a group of four. The fourth rider cried out as he was shot from his saddle only to have his sandaled foot caught in the stirrup and drag him aways ashore. The second slumped forward, a javelin sprouting from his quilted breastplated back. A friend grabbed his horse's reins and pulled him along. There came the sound of a clash as the Coitasungi main body tore into the empido. Sanadanul ran, angling away from the rout. He clumsily leapt over the small leafed bush to stumble over the tree trunk. Cursing at first, he soon gave thanks as a mixed squad of heavies and light horse raced by. He didn't know how long he stayed there. The attack occured after they had broken camp. Sanadanul shaded his eyes and looked skyward. The Sun declared it was 1:00 or close. He froze as more horses rode by him. Sanadanul very slowly removed the arrows from his shield. His saberhilt he brushed off and loosened the saber in its scabbard. With caution he arose and with wary steps, he headed in the direction of that morning's camp.
Sanadanul had to stop often, as he came across squads of the northers searching for his empido mates. Some of them he found. Their lifeless bodies lay in heaps or more poignantly, singly. Most were stripped of anything of value, their nude or half nude forms lay where they had been looted. A trio he found had been buried side by side, one of their helmets and a sword were their collective headstone. A group who must have fought well and took toll, Sanadanul thought after kneeling in prayer. He was not an especially religious fellow, but he had been taught to show respect, to those like him, who strode the Iron Road of the warrior and walked it proudly. The sun had set when he saw the swarm of Coitasungi going through the campsite. He gritted his teeth and sat on his haunches. None rode in his direction. Sanadanul rose and walking away from the previous camp headed in the direction the empido of the Knuboosi spear and bowman were said to be coming from. The riders of the Rasling Huewedup he had issues with. They and his father and elder siblings once dueled along the Enyowa River in contests for the river valley. He began gathering firewood as he walked along. Soon it would be time to start a fire. Just not this close to the Coitasungis, Sanadanul thought looking around him.
The sun had set within a streak of red tinged clouds and with it came a dimming darkness. Sanadanul looked the copse of trees over glad there were eyes staring back. The small fire he had started he had built behind a large bole tree. It had dropped much fruit upon the ground. But that on the ground and still on the overhanging limbs were quite bitter and woody to his taste. That left him to go through his 'all else is gone' pouch on his saber belt. Four thin sliced slabs of beef and powered mihi flour. There were some toasted seeds of branji also, in a smaller pouch inside. Sanadanul sighed. He had no cooking pot to make a porridge in. He took a handful of the flour, some seeds, and a slice of the dried beef and made that his meal. He licked his hand clean, broke some more of the firewood and put it on the fire, then sat against the tree. He placed his drawn saber in his lap. And thought on the day's events. His conclusion? It would have been better if they had gotten lost. Sanadanul did know his way home though. He decided to continue in the general direction of the Knuboosi, but if he missed them, so be it. The night began to make its sound. Sanadanul listened most carefully for any riders. He awoke, how long he'd been asleep he didn't care at the moment, by the cautious approach of a saddled horse. Sanadanul rose into a crouch and just as cautiously approached the horse. It was happy to be with familiar scented people and showed with shakes of its full maned head and happy snorts and huffs. Sanadanul made tcch tcch sounds then patted the newcomer reassuringly. He felt a wetness in the saddle: the former owner's blood most likely, Sanadanul thought making a face. He brought the horse closer toward the fire, to see if it was hurt. Other than the owner's lifejuice, it had no injury. It had a waterbag, hanging awkwardly from the saddle. It was unstoppered and half empty, the rider brought down while drinking from it. There was neither pouches of treasure or a bonanza of food in the other pouch. It too held flour, separate wrapped dried beef slices and some toasted seed in a smaller pouch. Sanadanul took that and shared it with the horse.
They were on the trail home with the rising of the sun, its light washing away the night and her stars. It was a stop and go affair. Sanadanul saw that the Coitasungis still had scouts in the area, causing him to hide in copses of trees or brush, along vegetation lined streambeds, or on one occasion he and his new horse laid down in the tall grass to avoid a too close band of scouts. Twenty minutes after they went on,Sanadanul arose warily and looked about. Then he got his horse to its feet and still not mounting as yet walked on. Some two hours later, when he heard his name coming from an island of boulders atop a lone rise of ground, it was with restraint that he didn't gallop away, wrapped in all out fear! Homashe came from behind a boulder and waved her arms. With much reluctance, he waved his hand back at her and looked frantically about. He tensed; half expecting the arrows from the baiters of the trap. Homashe came up to him grinning in her lopsided manner. " I thought you were a goner when I saw you drop with old Dak! Good to see you made it through! And you got a new horse, too!" Homashe patted the neck of the blue-black male who didn't give off any hint that this might be a being who haunts the open grass country, in search of unwary human prey. " I'm glad to be anywhere alive right now, Homashe. But I thought you were long gone from this province," he said, his hand about the hilt of his saber and still looking all about. The second figure on the hill stood, then crouched on its haunches, a lance still in hand and planted erect. " Come on, I'll introduce you to the others," she said turning from the watching lancer, back up at Sanadanul. He gave a half grin. But gripped his hilt firmer.
The slope of the hill wasnt meant to be ridden up. Sanadanul dismounted and led/pulled his new horse up it. Homashe was ahead of them. She would look back, smiling, then go on. When she came up beside the squatting lancer she touched him on his shoulder and stood beside him. He rose up. He was taller than Homashe. Better looking too. Sanadanul was led around the boulders to a relatively level area. Coming around one boulder he saw on the opposite side that there were, half faded by wind, rain, and neglect, ancient writing. On this side were bunches of long stemmed nasiji grass bushes growing wild and calf high. These were usually among the plants grown in the gardens of the High Steppers in the cities. A grove of free growing, seven in number, fruit trees bearing orange rind fruit was there too. And there was a bubbling spring watering the area, its stream going down the opposite slope. Fifteen horses and thirteen riders looked on the newcomers. Sanadanul looked back at them and the surroundings they were in. " You do know you're in somebody's memorial garden right?" The lancer sneered, then spoke to Homashe. " Looks like ya boy here has all the makin's of being a noncom." A not as tall as the lancer but wider in bulk scarred face swordsman walked up. "Git back on sentry youse two! I'm da leeda heah!" He glared at the lancer, who held his stare for a moment, then broke it off, walking off in the same direction they had came. Homashe backed away, giving her "It's fine wit me!", smile. The 'leeder', from the southwest region of their province by his accent, stood with both fists on his hips and looked Sanadanul over. Sanadanul felt like he was a first month rookie, instead of the nine year veteran he was. " You plannin' on a routine for the next full moon ceremony?" " You tryin ta git smart wit me?" "It wouldn't be any try if I did!" The 'leeder' pointed a finger at Sanadanul. " Ya may have got away wit dat smartass mouth in the Second Naudo, but not heah, not now, in da middle of dese heah Coitasungis," he stepped up closer to Sanadanul, "And not wit me!" " That's a load off my mind. I feel so much better!" The horse snorted.
They were from various naudos the gathered survivors were. All were slapped hard by the defeat and were in fear of what might happen if they were discovered. It showed on their faces Sanadanul saw as he was led over to the horseline by the 'leeder' Ingiaku. One who looked Sanadanul over as he passed was beaded with sweat, and it wasn't that warm a day. "Ya got any grub?,Ingiaku asked after Sanadanul had tied his horse to the ropeline the other horses were,and unsaddled him. " A little bit." "Well add it to the pot! It's gonna be awhile since we get a proper meal so we might as chow down while we gotta chance." Nobody's out foraging," Sanadanul asked out of curiosity. Ingiaku frowned at him as if he were a rookie going through improper weaponhandling manuvers. "This ain't a excercise back home,case you ain't noticed. Ain't gonna risk it and leed a bunch of harm doers heah!" Sanadanul poured the mihi flour and added a few strips of beef in the pot himself. He looked for a spot to claim as his own. There was another boulder with time worn engraving behind the cooking fire. He chose not to plop down over there. Sanadanul decided it would be by the edge of the pool. But after he laid out his horse blanket and sat upon it, the thought of something being in the pool and rising up to snatch him, came up to light in his thoughts. " Have an orange?" The offer came from a bandaged arm woman carrying several. She wore her hair in a crest but hadn't groomed her head in a while so it was looking scruffy arising from a lake of black beads. She wasn't as determinedly unattractive as Homashe was, though Homashe thought the opposite. But she wore a straight sword instead of a saber, which meant she was of some outfit's standard guard. "Thank you. Have a beef strip and some toasted seeds?" She became prettier when she smiled down on him. Moreso when she sat down beside him.
She said her name was Lydione' one of the standard guard of the Fifth Naudo. They hadn't crossed the stream when the attack came. " With those still able stampedin' back at us, it was some time before we could even begin to form up. By then though, the Coitasungis were on top of us, screechin' 'This you Dare?' in our faces, their collective bad breath just as deadly as their lances and sabers. We got broken up; I got split off from the standard, or they got split away from me! However it was, it was a dozen hells of a race! Everybody was mixed together; us, the Coitasungis. Those the Coitasungis weren't killin' out and out, they'd pull from their saddles, eiher to be wrapped up as prisoners, or ridden over by them that was followin'. The pack I was with had the two happen to them for about twevle miles. Till it was only three of us left. You already met Oermonu, and I seen you tic off 'Crackjaw' Ingiaku." " Sanadanul recognized the nickname. It was laid on a particularly heavyhanded ulafazi who was known to make even the High Steppers nervous!
Lydione' grinned and put another section of orange in her mouth. " You are most definitely on his 'To Kill' list. What he lacks in style, weapon wise, he makes up for in power and speed. I've seen him shear the leftside off a High Stepper who'd come to mingle among us lowly ones, in a wajkhino back in garrison. If he got his hand around his saber's hilt, don't stand there stupid!" Sanadanul's facial reaction made her laugh. " Just do what he says from now on. And watch his weapon hand!" Sanadanul nodded his head, no longer thinking about pond dwelling beasties or roving Coitasungis. He sighed. " This can be considered a fine muckup to find oneself," he said looking at the pool. Lydione' patted him on the back. "Yes it is. Best thing to do about it is to get out of it, whole." The lancer Oermonu came over after she spoke. He stood over them for a few seconds, then squatted with his lance in his folded grasp. He went from smiling at Lydione' to blankfaced at Sanadanul. "Homashe says your a good one to have on your side. A Regular are you?" "I've been in nine years now. My people worked somebody else's land. I'm not Freehold. Like you." Sanadanul let the fulltimer's sneer come through his words at this one he suspected of being a parttimer. It seemed to have struck true, for Oermonu rocked on his heels and his frown was most pronounced. " By the Steps of the Dancer! You just enjoy collecting enemies," Lydione' said before popping some seeds into her mouth.
It was relatively uneventful the rest of the night. Those who wanted to, like Sanadanul, devoured the porridge. Lydione' and he spent the rest of that time talking. When she laid out her blanket beside his a sleepy Sanadanul felt he had accomplished something worthwhile. Then that predawn Homashe woke him. Lydione' had pressed up against him, he saw with half a smile and an erection. It wasn't all urine. Homashe looked at him angrily, and loudly tcched. "We is pullin' out now. Wake Miss Divine One up and tell her." " I have to go piss, you do it," Sanadanul said getting up from his sleeping companion's side. Lydione' rolled over, her hand about her unbuckled sword's hilt. " You don't have to Homashe, I'm awake. Thank you for the compliment." Homashe and she stared at one another, Homashe's face a mask of hate, it's wrath bubbling up just like that of the pool. Lydione' wasn't smiling either as she got to her feet and faced Homashe, her hand on her sword's hilt, the other ready to pull it clear from its scabbard. "Who's collecting enemies now?," Sanadanul said to himself, as he went to the unkept grove of orange trees to urinate. When he came back Homashe had just walked away. "You and she made up?" Lydione' went to the pool and knelt beside it, praying. Then she scooped up water to gargle and splash on her face. When she arose from that she smiled on Sanadanul. The smile, though warming, thought Sanadanul, was chilled somewhat by her strapping on her sword. " Nope. You and she ever an item?" " We were in the same outfit, and she has a thing for taller, better looking, higher pay types. Something like your Freehold friend Oermonu." It was Lydione' turn to look surprised. " Like I said yesterday, we managed to survive together. So your sayin' this is all about unit cohesion?" "You're sounding like a High Stepper." "Well, I was in the standard guard, you know?"
Those who had armor put it on, Ingiaku was one of them in a lamallar breastcoat, Oermonu tied a scarf about his waist. They saddled their horses and still cautious, walked them along the stream that originated from the pool. Once they had reached level ground, and looked around a bit, was when they mounted up. Sweaty One and a grim faced fresh scarred youth armed with a bow, took off in opposite directions as scouts. The dawn came, then some three hours after, they dismounted and let their horses feed on the pasturage. The piles of dung said domesticated beasts, cattle, most likely, fed here. Sweaty One brought proof. " There's a stockgurl bringin' up either a village's or a noble's herd, ovuh them hills to tha nor'east. She acted like she didn't see us or anything," he said straightening in the saddle in response to the hard look on Ingiaku's face. " Ain't no village that way, that's what the last scout said when we came through here the furst time," Ingiaku said more to himself than the others. " Depends on how far they pushed out, none of tha scouts came from our outfit," a big, middle aged woman, wearing a hewed off spike helmet and a lamallar breastcoat, said. She didn't sound like she had any fear of Ingiaku. Ingiaku nodded his head in agreement, then looked back to Sweaty One. " You sure she ain't spot you?" " Stayin' here gabbin' about it gonna make it more likely Somebody's gonna spot us," Sweaty One replied with a dash of heat. " Plomghaso got the right idea, Ingiaku. We'd best put some distance tween us and this benighted country," the woman said walking up to Ingiaku's side. " Yeah, Valhazande. Let's get outta here. Mount up ev'rybody!" They put some more miles between them and the disaster and the stockgirl and her charges. Then, galloping up from the opposite direction of where the one Plomghaso came, the young one reined in beside Ingiaku, almost as sweaty as Sweaty One had been. " They fell on top of them gotdamn Knuboosi! They was wrapping up when I seen it!" " Ingiaku slumped in the saddle. The woman Valhazande just looked nervously around. Ingiaku straightened. " So much for that way! We's gotta plow on that way!" He pointed straight towards the herd. " Was it bad," asked the woman. " Muyulafazi Valhazande it was a slaughter! They caught those poor bastards just as they were stepping out from their night campsite. They caught it worst then we did!" Sanadanul and Lydione' exchanged looks.
The first band of Coitasungi horse that swooped past that day had them all hiding in a copse of trees near a dry streambed. Fifteen minutes later the retinue of a chieftain or noble walked by. The double line of prisoners following behind them, Knuboosi, were all wearing ropes about their necks and with their hands tied behind them. Two younger riders were ahead of them, one pulling on the main rope, while another two with lances trailed. "So much for that", Lydione' whispered though they were a good deal away from the road the Coitasungi and their captives were on. " Why you say that?" Sanadanul whispered ,too. "That's the way we were headed. It seems those bad actors are headed home in that direction. That herd probably belongs to the High Stepper at the head." Sanadanul nodded his head, then gave a louder 'hmmpf'. Ingiaku led them from the copse after the column passed, straight across the road and into the crossroad grove of trees. They went through that, mounted up on the opposite side, and very warily rode off at a trot. Through the grassland, thankful the dust of their passing would be held down somewhat. Having no spare horses, they couldn't gallop off as most felt they should. But after an hour they dismounted and led their mounts for another hour before remounting. Plomoghaso rode the left flank, just as his compatriot rode the right flank. " He spotted the Coitasungis coming up a lower tier of ground onto the higher tier of the low plateau. " Here they come! Here they Come!" Ingiaku cursed and hit the side of his bay mare with his reins. There was an island of stone arising from the grass to the left. That's where he was headed!
The flank rider and his horse went down under a wasp cloud of arrows. The Coitasungis numbered about fifty and they were forming the "Cat's Jaw": The outliers sped off, distancing apart like the opening maw of a hunting predator, to curve inward like the canines of the hunter. And cut the fleeing ones off from the boulders. Sanadanul was taken how this mount was much faster than his Dak was. He raced through the throng coming up to Ingiaku, on one side. Lydione' was on Sanadanul's flank, her horse's flowing mane ending in beads. Then, it was as if they had came up against a flame wall. The boulders, more liken to the collasped wall of some long ago fortress, loomed behind the invisible barrier. Ingiaku's horse reared up suddenly, pawing the air. Sanadanul's horse skidded before racing back. Lydione's horse stopped cold. Several survivors were throw from their saddles. Homashe was on a suddenly bucking mount. Oermonu horse had fallen over, throwing him nearly under another rider's hooves.
A pair of riders raced away going around the barrier towards the north. Three more with their frightened steeds raced south around the boulders. Ingiaku cursing,jumped from his saddle and drawing his saber, raced through the barrier and into the cluster of stones. Valhazande followed behing him, leaping as if through-Something. Sanadanul's horse whinnied, as if telling him to get off because the horse was not going forward. He jumped from the saddle, a quick look saw the southern jaw had slowed to a trot. As he ran, he looked northward to see the upper jaw had stopped completely. "What the?" Three arrows landed at his feet! He ran and felt the prickling on his skin as if being scratched by thorns as he jumped through the barrier. "Come on, slowpoke!" Lydione' was ahead of him almost behind a low boulder. " I'm coming, gotdamn it!" He swept out his saber as he ran. Bomoyurtsu drew reins and signaled for the others of his retinue to halt. An eyepatch wearing, dyed gold and crimson bearded lancer looked to him. "Ya think that's it for 'em? " Bomoyurtsu laughed good naturedly. " Most likely. Then again,they might be doing us all a favor." " Want da ones who showed sense and went around-" he pointed his lance at the ancient once prime dwelling,"that place?" "Let them get away. A few to tell what happened here in our country might lessen those bastards curiosity."
Sanadanul felt the weight of dread even moreso here, than at the place of the pool. As he got deeper within the pile of stones, the view of the horses and the pursuit soon became gone from his sight. The stones were once atop one another, he saw looking closer, even though wind, rain and mud had hid somwhat their once unity. On the larger slabs of rock was even more of the time faded writing. Sanadanul saw the skeletons of a once grove of living trees to his right. Their bare branches clawed at the sky like some exposed withered limbs. There were no encroaching grasses or weeds anywhere around them. The crusty dried ground here around seemed to be drained of bearing life. He doubted if there was any worms in the earth here. That thought caused him to stop. Lydione' stood by what seemed the remains of a wall of unmortared stones. They were like petrified ripples in differing height, ending at where the entrance must have once been in narrow width. " This is not a place of refuge I care to be," she said as Sanadanul came to her side. She had drawn her sword also. The sounds of argument came. Valhazande held with great effort an enraged Ingiaku. Plomogasho and another, a lanky bowlegged individual with a scraggly mustache and a weapon torn dawada on. "You can get as mad as you want," Plomoghaso said with his head almost drawn down into his neck. "If those sonsofbitches wanted they could have been here right now!" The other one started to speak but, instead took a step back. Oermonu half dirtied from his spill, spoke instead. "That's true Ulafazi Ingiaku! They could be upon us now!" Homashe to show nothing effected her, sneered and spat between her long sandaled feet. " You gettin' scared, Pretty Boy? Had a bad dream or somethin' " Oermanu narrowed his eyes and turned his head upon Homashe. The look was enough to change her sneer to a gulp and a washing of hands. "Ingiaku gave you an order, not a suggestion, Plomoghaso!", Valhazande said releasing Ingiaku but keeping between he and the most reluctant pair. Turning to Ingiaku she said lower voiced, " This is a wrong place, Ingiaku. That barrier, the horses refusal to cross it, and the fact the Coitasungis seemed to have boxed us in here..." Ingiaku un balled his fists and looked at his old friend without the fullout rage he had placed on Plomoghasu and the other. " This is a haunted spot, you think?" Valhazande looked at the surroundings and briefly, visibly shivered. " We'd best figure how to get out of here," she said, just as Sanadanul and Lydione' came up.