Home of Sword and Soul
The Kashites resumed their position as leaders of the expedition. They unhitched the horses from the chariot and saddled them. The path Sebe blasted through the thicket was too uneven for the vehicle. Sebe and his acolytes entered Wadantu as their vanguard, followed by the Kashite spearmen and Auxite archers. The mercenaries brought up the rear with Kadira and Omari leading them. Though the Kashites advanced confidently between the ravaged devastation the mercenaries proceeded cautiously, their eyes trained more on the foliage to either side than on the road ahead.
The power of Sebe's charm was more evident as they advanced. The path ran for miles. Kadira had seen much in her days on the road and at war, but never had she seen such destruction.
"I remember a voyage I took beyond Kiswala," Omari began.
"Beyond Kiswala?" Kadira's eye narrowed. "Are you sure you want to tell me this? I know how the Kiswala guard their trade secrets."
"I am the only Mikijen here," he said. "No one will know, unless you tell."
Kadira shook her head.
"Our destination was a city called Tai on the Eastern Sea. There was a war; by the time we reached Tai it was rubble. The Kiswali were angry of course, so they sent us ashore to see if we could salvage anything of worth. It was the worst destruction I'd ever seen until now."
"The destruction is not what concerns me," Kadira said. "I'm worried about who heard it."
The ragged road finally opened into a wide green field. A group of steep hills rested on the horizon surrounded by small trees and some type of stone columns Kadira could not make out. It was the first sign of men.
"Eyes and ears open!" Omari shouted. "We may have company."
No sooner did Omari utter those words did the sound of hoof beats break the eerie silence. Horsemen advanced on them from either side.
"Archers take the flanks!" Omari shouted. "Horsemen stand behind them!"
Kadira instinctively led a group of riders to the right flank while Omari took his riders to the left. She glanced at the Kashite; they took the same position with the exception that they had no cavalry. The spearmen backed the archers, their spears and shield at the ready. Sebe and his acolytes rested between them.
They waited patiently until their attackers were in range.
"Fire!" Omari shouted.
Arrows took flight like startled fowl, arching overhead then falling into the ranks. The riders fell in large numbers but continued to charge.
"Monsters! Someone shouted. "They're monsters!"
Kadira strained her eyes to see what was going on. The archers continued to fire; it was a few moments more before she could see what had unnerved them. These were not horsemen. They were a terrifying amalgam of man and beast; their bodies that of the great grass antelopes, their torsos man-like, their heads crowned with horns. They brandished shields, assegais, bows and arrows like men but they were anything but.
"What in the Cleave are they?" Omari shouted.
Kadira's eye narrowed. "I don't know, but they die like men. Riders, prepare to charge!"
The archers let loose one last volley then ran aside. Before Kadira could kick her horse it let out a loud grunt and ran toward their attackers. She put the reins between her teeth, took out her bow and loaded. The man-beast threw their spears toward her; to he surprise her horse dodged them nimbly without breaking stride.
"Nguvu, what kind of horse did you give me?" she said between her teeth.
Her arrows found their marks, bringing down more of the creatures. Soon she was too close so she sheathed her bow and took out Nguvu's saber. She could see the faces of the creatures now, their angry eyes meeting her stare. This would be a battle with no quarter.
The man beast nearest to her did an unexpected thing. It leaped into the air, its shield and spear raised. Her mounted did the unexpected as well. It leaped also, carrying her upward. She hugged the horse's neck as it slammed into the man-beast. The man-beast fell first, no match for the horse's bulk. When they came to the ground Kadira and her horse were atop the man-beast. Before she raise her sword the horse began pounding the beast with its hooves.
"By the Creator," she exclaimed. At that moment she realized what she rode and a wide grin came to her face. Nguvu had given her a great gift. He'd bought her a Malian war horse.
Her glee was short lived. The man-beast quickly surrounded them and attacked. A second surprise was gripped in the palm of her hand. Nguvu's sword cut spear and man equally, its sharp edge melting wood and flesh. Her war horse fought as well, kicking, butting and biting in precision with her movements. In moments the crowd about them cleared as those beast still alive sought easier prey. Kadira took a moment to assess the battle; they were hard pressed on either side with more beasts coming from the distance. She looked ahead to the hills. If they could make it to them they would at least have the higher ground.
"To the hills," she shouted "The hills!"
She worked her way between the beasts and her cohorts, freeing those on foot to run. The other riders picked her plan and joined her. The Kashites were already fleeing for the high ground, leaving the Auxites to their fate. Soon they were all running. The man-beasts followed, although they seemed to slow the closer they came to the hills. Omari worked his way to her. His arm was bloody but he seemed otherwise okay.
"They're leaving," he shouted.
"That worries me," Kadira replied. "They may be driving us into another trap."
Omari laughed. "The only thing in front of us is those hills..."
The groung beneath them lurched. Kadira and her horse fell forward; luckily she and the beast were unhurt. Others were not so fortunate. She staggered to her feet.
"What is happening?" she said.
The ground shook again. Kadira looked ahead to the Kashites. They were no longer heading toward the hills; they were heading to the west toward another stand of woods. The ground shook again and Kadira staggered back. The hills were moving.
The ground shook continuously as her mounted her horse. Omari struggled to keep his still so she rode up him and lifted him on.
"Ride for the woods as fast as you can!" she shouted.
A deafening bellow emerged from before them. The hill was no longer a hill. It was a beast unlike any either of them had ever seen. It seem made of earth and stone with a large single tusk protruding from its face. It looked at them and bellowed again. Nothing else needed to said. They rode for their lives.