Ijah and BogWalker typically spent parts of each day on lessons; mathematics, history, geography and languages, while they were on the move. Reading and writing during their mid-day rest, though the girl was barely literate and she claimed the letters were tricking her when she misread or misspelled something. Physical training or meditation in the evening and more physical training came first thing in the morning before they resumed travelling. BogWalker was not good at keeping her mind still, nor dance and only marginally competent when it came to fighting, despite being an excellent hunter.
After a couple of more days of travel, they were nearing the southern border of Allark’s Hold, they had skirted around most of the populated areas through the two eastern baronies. The narrow trail they were on lead to a large way-point marker. They had spotted a few people camped in the area and there was an old lightning-struck tree, half dead near the top of the next hill to the southwest.
They were within a couple of hundred alat of the marker before the campers noticed them. Then there was a scrambling through the camp, two more men came out from one of the tents, a couple others had picked up bows and then they waited, watching the women approach. After a few moments one man moved over to the three horses that were hobbled behind the tents. Ijah saw that there was a spring near the standing stone and a small stream trickled off between two hills southward of the boundary marker. Neither of the archers had notched arrows, none of the men had waved or offered any greetings.
“Be cautious. These men look like they see opportunity. When we get to within a dozen paces stay with the horse, I’ll make the final approach alone. If there’s trouble, I trust you know what to do.”
The girl nodded. She shortened the horse’s lead and moved so the horse would partially shield her from their view.
Ijah adjusted her sword from hanging over her shoulder to being cradled in her left arm, carrying it so the hilt was far from her right hand, close to her head. This elicited the expected response, the men placed their hands casually near their own weapons, the archers notched arrows but did not draw on her.
Ijah gave one last glance to her companion, she seemed calm enough, then she waved to the men, “Good day fellow travellers, from where have you come?”
They passed a few low-voiced comments among themselves, a couple of them chuckled. Ijah noticed the mess of the camp and the raggedy look of the men. As she moved up to the closest of them she could smell the stench of the fellow. In her native tongue she said, “You are all sorry excuses for human beings, if you force me to kill you I would be very appreciative.”
They looked confused, one fellow said, “Sounded like Tannican to me.”
Another commented, “Looks Tannican to me.”
“I’ve never seen a Tannican woman before.”
“You ain’t never seen a woman before Narvan.” One of the bowmen commented, amused with himself.
“Shut up Tallar, your jokes is dumb.” The other bowman pointed out.
“Both of you, shut up, ” Said an older man, one of the two who had come from the tent.
“We’re over from Madden Hills, just doing some raiding on Allark’s lands here. Best you leave us to it.” Said the man closest to her, he bore familiar resemblance to the older man.
Ijah was about to take the opening they had offered, as much as she disliked the sight of these men, if they were content to let them pass unhindered she would be foolish to force a fight. She guessed her height, obvious strength and the curved hand-and-a-half sword she carried dissuaded these men from trying anything stupid. However, at that moment, a young woman ran out from one of the tents. Screaming, she started stabbing the younger of the two men who had been in the tent with her. Another girl limped out after her, but the older man backhanded her and she fell back into the tent, dropping the short sword that she had swung so feebly.
The man in front of her turned to see what the commotion was and Ijah took his head clean off, a perfect two handed swing from rest. It had been an instinctive move. As her scabbard hit the ground, she dashed past the falling body and assessed the situation. One of the nearest men was staring at her, a shocked look plastered across his face, eyes gone huge and nostrils flaring. He still had an arrow notched, though he seemed to have forgotten that fact. His nearest companion, the other bowman, was watching what was going on by the tent. She closed towards the distracted man, cautious of the first tent she moved past.
The older man had grabbed the girl with the knife and pitched her down the incline from where the tent was. He paused a moment to look at Ijah. The shocked man snapped to his senses in time to shout a warning to his companion, “Look out!”
Her target turned and was slashed across his shoulder, torso and hip. Her blade bit bone and it stuck. She kicked the man as he collapsed, stepped back, cleared the sword and settled into a high guard posture.
“Fucking run!” The older man shouted as he pulled his companion to their feet. The wounded guy did not look great, numerous stab wounds were seeping blood. They grabbed whatever was close to hand and quickly moved off to the south. The closest uninjured man dropped his bow, raised his hands and began backing away from Ijah. A bolt from BogWalker’s crossbow punched into the mans guts. He collapsed with a wailing cry. Ijah walked over and finished him with a thrust to the heart.
She cleared her blade then scanned the area for further threats. The two fleeing men were still running, the wounded man lagging a bit behind. She found a discarded shirt, wiped her blade clean then retrieved her scabbard. BogWalker approached, the other two women stood near the fire pit holding tight to each other and watched Ijah with a mix of fear and awe.
BogWalker spoke to the other two, “Glad you acted when you did! Are ya’ll right?”
It was apparent that they were not well off at the moment. They had suffered at the hands of those men, recently and likely for upwards of a fortnight, judging from the bruises. They were scared, one of them was on the verge of a breakdown.
The girl who had fought well disentangled herself from her fellow captive and walked a few paces towards BogWalker, “My thanks for your help. We ask for some of the things here and perhaps help getting home.”
“Where is home? How far?”
“A half day or so northwest, a town called Pesh.”
Ijah offered, “Take what you want, you are free to go.”
BogWalker added, “I’ll take you home, with whatever those horses can carry, though I’m trading that old nag for one of them. Can either of you ride?”
“Not so much so.” The other girl shook her head no.
“Ah, well. I can take your friend with me and I can get you to ride on one of the others, I’ll have their lead.”
“Yeah, alright.” The girl seemed unsure, the other collapsed by the fire pit and started sobbing.
They set about looting the raider’s camp, young BogWalker rolled up anything useful for them and sometimes pocketed a small thing or two for herself. Ijah lent a hand by unloading the nag. After that task was done she took one of the water skins and her bedroll and said to her companion. “I’m going to carry on, if you have not caught up by the time I reach Madden Circle I will wait there. A day, likely two, no more. You remember the map?”
“Course I remember the map. Besides, I can track you.”
“I’m going after the two that escaped.”
“Thought you might.”
“Stay safe, be alert.”
Ijah headed off, following the trail of the men who had fled earlier. Truthfully she was glad for some time alone. As she travelled further south from Allark’s Hold the Kaffern Hills gave way to open plains, here too the land was dry and showed more sand than the areas north. Towards evening, she came to the crest of one of the last hills, not much more than a small bump on the face of the plains. One side of the hill had been quarried at some point in the past, though there was no settlement, ruins or even a trace of a roadway.
The western sky was ablaze with deep reds and dusty orange colours to the south. Clouds slowly floated away from her into the sombre blue of early evening and the eastern sky was a dusty washed out grey turning black. She could have seen further on a calm sea, and twilight on the land was very different than being on the water. Far to the southeast she spotted what looked like a large mound, a smudge, there was the distinct likelihood that it was a natural formation. It could be an earth-machine; she had been told to keep her eyes open in this area and an isolated hill was one of the things she had been told might be worth investigating. Southwest of her position she could see the fleeing men’s long shadows. Though she needed to investigate the mound, as it really seemed out of place on the landscape, at least in her mind, she did not want to let the raiders get back to their homes. The last thing she needed was a posse hunting them through the Madden Hills.
She did not doubt BogWalker’s ability to help the other two reach their home. She was more than capable in the wilds, sneaky and cautious of dangers. She knew enough about herbs that she could tell the girls what to take to help in their recovery. She was also an excellent tracker, most of her family were.
Ijah cinched the straps on her gear and jogged off to the northwest. She moved easily over the terrain, if not soundlessly. She circled around until she was coming at the men from the southwest, the last rays of the setting sun were behind her, her shadow cast out ahead of her. The older man spotted her first. The other one was barely on his feet, often stumbling and yet to notice her approach.
The older man held his hand up, shading his eyes from the sun, “Keever, someone’s coming.”
Ijah slowed from a jog to a casual walk in a couple of strides. She dropped her bedroll and the water skin, continued to close towards the men. Then she shifted her sword around, unsheathed the blade and dropped the scabbard.
“Gods save us. It’s her!”
Ijah closed, disembowelled the wounded man as he turned to face her and stepped forward with the second swing. The last raider managed to dodge back and clear his blade. “Just let me go lad-”
Ijah followed up with a lunging thrust, blade rising upwards.
He choked on his last word, spat blood and looked down at the blade sticking through his torso. Ijah twisted the blade and stepped back, blood spurted and the body dropped to the ground.
As darkness settled she cleaned her sword and searched the men, they did not have much. She retrieved her gear then waited until Masri, Shevaleem to her people, had risen. By the light of the nearly full moon she walked east by southeast, roughly towards the mound she had seen.