Keri

Snowflake had not been behaving himself. Keri had tried calm her horse, she even had resorted to pleading, futilely, with him. If she’d had the strength she would have tried to force him down, but it was between her and Melissa, who did not trust horses apparently and was about as scared of Snowflake as her horse was of whatever was going on behind her. The horse had started with backing away from her, eyes wide. By the time it had backed all the way into the tree line he was standing on his hind legs trying to put yet more distance between him and the thing that had him sweating profusely and rolling his eyes in panic.

Keri had to hold on to his reins for dear life to keep Snowflake from bolting. Not that she could fault her horse from wanting to flee. There was a silent battle going on behind her that made her feel like her hair was standing on end. Only worse. There were the little sounds of feet shuffling in the dirt, and the occasional sickening sound of a sword thunking into flesh. There were no cries of anger or pain or fear.

When Brandt called out for her to flee Keri had to bite back the angry retort that was all but bursting out of her. She was trying, she was trying very hard to get her horse under control long enough that Melissa and she could try to get Oboru mounted. And then they all could get the dark hells away from here as fast as they could.

When Brandt and Talya simultaneously cried out “Run!”, Keri couldn’t help herself from looking back. She gasped at the sight of a human figure shrouded in darkness that was standing in the undergrowth and withering away the plants. Darkness was beginning to swirl around the figure, not just sheathing it.

‘Run!’, her survival instinct shrieked at her.

‘How’?, her more practical subconscious wailed, almost paralysing her between fear and indecision.

Brandt barrelling into her forced her into action, if only to prevent herself from falling over. He grabbed her by the shoulder and hauled her up before she could get quite unbalanced, showing he had run into her intentionally.

“Keri,” he said urgently “help me control your horse. Talya, Melissa, soon as we got that horse on four legs grab the easterner and throw him on its back.”

“Yes,” Talya replied. Both Keri and Melissa remained quiet and Oboru was apparently still oblivious to what was going on around him.

Melissa shot three arrows at the dark figure in quick succession while Brandt approached the panicking horse. The arrows did not do much harm against the figure, but staggered it deeper into the undergrowth that it was busy absorbing. Like before, the arrows stuck through the figure for a moment before dissolving into ashes and blowing away on a non-existent wind. With each shot Melissa moved to the side so that she forced the figure a few steps away from the entrance to the clearing. It was only a short distance but it might be enough to slip past it before that terrifying swirling cloud could reach out and choke the life out of them.

Brandt held Keri back before she could get too close to her horse.

“Wait,” he said “your horse won’t recognise you. It’s too scared.”

Before Keri could answer he faked stepping in range.

“Snowflake!” Keri cried out as the front hooves came crashing down where the animal expected Brandt to be. The tall man darted forward as soon as the horse was fully committed, coming at it from the side. Strong yellow teeth snapped at his hand, but Brandt was just a hair faster and the teeth snapped closed on empty air. Before the horse could do anything else Brandt grabbed it by the head and forced its head down. The horse shrieked and tried to rear up but was effectively hobbled by the weight.

Keri knew well how dangerous a panicking horse could be, having seen her fair share of spooked horses stampeding down packed city streets. She hesitated to get close to Snowflake, making a half-hearted attempt twice before shying back.

When Brandt grunted in pain and almost lost grip, she darted forward without thinking. She lacked the mass of Brandt of course but she added to his and together they managed to distract her horse long enough to allow Brandt to bring the horse back down to its knees before he got dragged off.

“Can we get on with it today?” Brandt ground out between clenched teeth.

“He’s kind of on fire!” Talya replied, through equally clenched teeth, though she clearly was biting back a lot more pain.

Keri turned around to see Talya pulling off still smoking gloves while Melissa was busy wrapping rags around her hands that she had torn from the thin chemise she had stepped into her life in.

“You are not going to put him on Snowflake’s back,” she all but shouted.

“We need to get him away from here,” Brandt said.

“He’s on fire. He’s going to kill Snowflake.”

“We’ll put a blanket over his back,” Brandt suggested, ending in a grunt as the horse tried to struggle free again.

Panicking Keri thought about a way to prevent what the others were about to do to her horse.

“Wait, wait. Where is the travois we carried him on earlier?”

“We ditched it,” Brandt said. “When we put everybody on horseback.”

“Melissa,” Talya cried out. “Shoot it again. It’s almost free.”

“Will you two hurry up?” Brandt shouted “I can’t hold the horse down much longer.”

Talya muttered something under her breath that Keri didn’t catch but, from the woman’s expression, she assumed wasn’t complimentary. She also draw her long knife out of its sheath and turned towards the undergrowth.

With two quick slashes she cut down a young sapling at the edge of the clearing. She passed it on to Keri.

“Strip it,” she said.

Melissa’s bow twanged four more times before in a very short time Talya and Keri had improvised a crude and flimsy travois to replace the one they had uses earlier.

“It won’t hold long,” Talya warned, as she lined the travois up next to Oboru. “But hopefully long enough to get away from here. You may want to wrap up your hands.”

“Wait,” Keri cried out. “Leafs and sand may protect the blanket a bit longer.”

“Good thinking,” Talya said approvingly, and quickly shovelled stripped off leafs and hands full of sand on the travois.

“Go!” the pale woman said three seconds later.

Keri drew in a sharp breath and pushed with both hands at the kneeling Oboru, toppling him over. She cried out as the barely visible bluish heat mirage surrounding the easterner turned out to be entirely real heat that raced up her arms all the way to her shoulders before she could break contact.

Tears springing in her eyes with the pain of it, and biting her lip to keep herself from crying out, or worse, whimpering, Keri made it over to the narrow end of the travois to help Talya attach it to Snowflake’s saddle pommel.

Another arrow twanged from Melissa’s bow.

“Start running Keri,” Brandt growled. “We’ll catch up in a moment.”

The feeling of horror at her back had grown almost too much to resist already, so Brandt’s curt command was all she needed to start running without a further thought.

True to Brandt’s words though she could hear the pounding of hooves only moments after she left the clearing. A wave of horror pulsing from behind her drove thoughts from her mind and sent her running even faster.

Only slowly did exhaustion catch up with her panic. But when it did she fell to her knees as her legs suddenly lost all strength.

“Ouch,” she cried out as her falling turned into landing face first on the dirt road. She spat out the mud that she had inadvertently got in her mouth. Ahead of her several of the others came to a halt too, as the terror that had propelled them dissipated.

Melissa grabbed her by the shoulders and dragged her along. The tall woman was gasping for breath, but was still able to get her legs too cooperate. Which was more than Keri felt she could manage.

It took a couple of minutes for Melissa to get her to the little group that was huddling in the middle of the road. The horses were filthy with sweat again, and their heads where brushing the ground without the animals attempting to browse for grass to eat. They clearly were exhausted too.

Keri dragged herself in a more or less upright seating position. Keri was sitting in a similar position. Melissa was looking at the horses with an odd expression on her face. Oboru’s travois was smoking quietly. Brandt was lying on his back, eyes closed and apparently asleep or unconscious.

She sighed. “We keep falling for that … thing’s tricks.”

Talya look up at her, “How so?”

Keri grimaced, “Thing isn’t fast by all accounts. Not from what we could see either. So why did we run ourselves into the ground? Now we have to wait for it to catch up.”

“Oh, that.”

“Yeah.”

Melissa looked between them non-comprehensible, and Keri realised with chagrin that she had been speaking her native language with Talya. Then she narrowed her eyes as she realised that Talya had been pretending not to speak that language other than a word or two.

That’s odd‘, she said to herself. ‘What is she hiding?’ Then she shook her head, ‘never mind, not now‘.

Brandt said softly and breathy, showing that he hadn’t been unconscious after all. “We need to catch our breath a couple of minutes. Talya, if you can tell how quickly it moves, now would be the time to tell me. But…” he held up a warning hand “no scouting back on our trail.”

Talya scoffed, “That would be stupid to do in my condition.”

“Estimate?” Brandt reminded her.

Talya shrugged apologetically, “No idea. I could easily outrun it before. Even without getting winded. But not by much.”

“Melissa? Can you feel it?”

The tall woman shook her head “Not can, I.” she said “late with it was.”

Keri tried to interpret the garbled trade language. “You mean to say that you did not notice the thing before it was close?”

“Yes, do. do not?”

Keri sighed and replied to Brandt, “assume Melissa can’t warn us early.”

He sighed audibly, “We move at the count of three hundred. Count out loud so we know we aren’t affected by something. We’ll move slowly but as long as we can. Maybe we can recover.”

Talya looked briefly annoyed, Melissa confused. Keri simply started counting slowly.

“1 … 2 … 3”

One by one the others fell in with her.

Three hundred came way too early for Keri, but she got on her unsteady feet anyway.

Walking was even more unsteady than merely standing. She wobbled to Snowflake and held on to him for dear life, using him as prop while she lead the exhausted horse out. Snowflake was too tired to protest beyond a token attempt to evade her grasp at his halter. With a weary, resigned whinny he dragged his feet through the muddy road, half dragging Keri with him.

Keri mentally echoed the sound. She found she could move her legs, if only barely. She also could not think of anything she rather not be doing right now than try to move.

Then the thought popped in her mind that at least one thing existed she would like to do even less. Meeting the dark figure.

Eyes narrowing she called out “Anybody else feeling too tired to leave?”

Brandt grunted an affirmative, Talya answered with a “Yes” that tapered off into a mix of question and wondering. Keri briefly wondered how she managed to express those two emotions in that single extended word.

“Guess that means it’s high time to leave, if it doesn’t want us to.”

Nobody bothered to comment on the obvious. They all picked up a little more speed and, after a moment of feeling some kind of resistance trying to keep them from moving forward, or perhaps something trying to drag them back. Before she could work out what the strange feeling was, there was the vibration of something tearing, though there was no sound.

Moving became a little easier after that. Keri still felt like her legs were being weighed down by big metal boots, and she could not entirely suppress a small groan of pain as every step, ever flexing of a muscle sent small waves of pain through her body. It was a natural pain though, that she recognised from the times she had exerted herself too much. Those times had been so opposite to what was going on right now that she tried not to think of them any further. She was just trying to be grateful that she was feeling a natural ache instead of an unnatural one.

She would walk through the night if she had to escape the horror she could once again feel dimly at their backs.

On the travois behind her, Oboru coughed.

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