Chapter 7 – Swords in the Moonlight
Amaran and Kathri rode slowly across the desert beneath the light of the moons. The red moon was growing both in size and luminous though remained far from completing its erratic course through the heavens, one that would culminate in it eclipsing the white moon in both size and brightness. For its part, the white moon still held dominance, even if it was beginning to wan.
They were, Amaran had said, a little over a night’s ride from their destination, Vas Madreso, established in the hills that marked the western edge of the desert, and of Digaran lands in that region. Life there was hard, and the rewards to be found difficult to come by, but for the lucky few the opals that could be dug up were worth the effort. The Ridge, as it was known, had been the site of a Hajanri mine in ancient times, long abandoned when it was thought the riches had been played out. New sources, though not as valuable as in the time of the Hajanri, had been located in recent years and this attracted a motley crowd of prospectors, from across the Conclave Kingdoms, from the Briothan lands, from the lands to the east and from lands beyond, all attracted to the lure of a fortune to be found.
Kathri had visited it a number of times, the most recent a couple of weeks before along with Astiara as she had ridden out to search for Ajanathad’s tomb. It was, as with any town out beyond the borders of what was called civilised lands, a lawless place, but one with its own code of justice that was easy to fall foul of for those who did not know it. Kathri found such places easy to navigate through, able to wheedle out the rules and idiosyncrasies with a few words here and there and a little bit of careful observation. If there was anywhere that she could feel at home with, it was in such places.
They rode for the most part in silence, Amaran leading the way as he guided a path through the desolate lands of sand and stone. Out there, away from the camp, his demeanour undertook a radical departure. The laughing man that Kathri had come to know was gone, replaced with one of a serious mien, always alert. His eyes were ever on the move, searching out from trouble among the shadows and broken ground they rode through, while his hand often strayed towards the hilt of the scimitar sheathed on his saddle.
“Are you expecting trouble?” Kathri asked after they had been riding for a couple of hours. Once more Amaran had slowed his pace, looking intently at a spot where the land dipped away into a dark depression.
“Always,” Amaran replied, almost grim in his tone. “This close to the Ridge, there is always the chance of opportunists and raiders. Then there are the rival tribes to the north. This is Armakur land for as long as we hold it. When we no longer can others will. We regularly patrol the region to deal with all threats as we find them but the land is vast and we are not many to cover it at all times.”
Towards what Kathri estimated to be the middle of the night, they came to a halt. Amaran chose a place where a series of boulders and standing stones formed a small patch of cover in the otherwise open wastes about. There they gave the horses a spell while partaking in a simple meal and a drink. Amaran spent the time walking the horses around while Kathri rested, keeping their limbs warm to prevent the cool getting into them.
Kathri rested her back against a large boulder that had split in half, letting her eyes close for just a moment. It was the sound of distant hooves, carrying on the clear night air, that brought her out of the verges of slumber. Kathri scrambled to her feet as Amaran held out the reins of the horses to her. He ghosted forward through the boulders, scimitar in hand, studying the terrain around them. He stared off in the direction that the sound of the horses came from.
From over a small rise emerged two horsemen, riding southwards. Amaran made a call like a night-bird, a pair of short trilling notes followed by a longer one. The horsemen reined in at the sounded of it, coming to a halt. From them came an answering call comprised of two longer notes. Amaran visibly relaxed at the sound of it, lowering his scimitar, stepping out from behind cover of the boulders.
“They are Armakur,” he told Kathri. He took back his horse from her and swung up onto it. The horse moved forward at a nudge from Amaran. Kathri hastily scrambled up into the saddle of her horse before urging it to follow.
As he neared the pair of horsemen, Amaran called out a greeting, one to which the they replied. The three Digarans began a conversation, speaking in hushed tones. Kathri could not make out any of what was being said.
One of the riders, a stout but young man armed with a spear and a shield made of hide rimmed with iron, gestured back in the direction the pair had come from, speaking rapidly. Amaran nodded as he listened, cutting in on occasions to ask what sounded like questions. Kathri sat quietly on her horse, letting her thoughts drift off. She almost missed it when the conversation finished and Amaran turned to talk her.
“It seems our journey may get interrupted.”
“Interrupted?” Kathri asked, returning to the moment.
“My men have spotted a large number of riders between here and Vas Madreso, bandits of some type it seems. They are scattered about in small groups, seemingly searching, though for what at this time of night I do not know. If we are lucky we may be able to slip by them.”
“And if we are not?”
Amaran’s teeth gleamed in the moonlight as he smiled. “Then we fight.”
The spear armed Digaran led them onwards into the night across the wastes. The other one took up the rear, an arrow strung to the horsebow that he carried. Kathri stifled a yawn as they rode. While the prospect of a fight was disturbing, tiredness had settled upon her, making her eyes heavy and her thoughts lethargic.
On a number of occasions the small group stopped along their course, taking a moment to study the way ahead, searching out for danger. Once a short whispered conversation was exchanged between Amaran and the other two Digarans when in the distance a small cloud of dust, glowing silver in the moonlight, was spotted, the sign of someone riding hard through the night. They ducked down into a fold in the ground, taking what cover it afforded, to wait there until the threat had passed by.
“Dangerous to be riding so fast at night,” Amaran said to Kathri in quiet tones. “Even in moonlight it is all too easy to miss a hole in the ground or a depression that could see your horse’s leg broken. Fools,” he added with feeling.
When the way was clear, they set off again, following a cautious route. The Digarans took advantage of the natural lie of the land, using it to mask their movements as much as possible along a course Kathri would not have thought existed.
Local knowledge pays for much.
They rode slow to conserve the strength of the mounts as well as to not kick up dust that could give away their position.
Kathri found herself dozing off in her saddle, the long hours of the ride during the night having extracted its toll upon her. She kept on forcing her eyes open, pinching at the bridge of her nose.
Stay awake, Kathri, she told herself.
A shout split the air, startlingly loud, the shock of it bringing her fully awake. She thought she caught the words ‘Armakur dog’ among a stream of Digaran. A ring of steel being drawn echoed through the night.
From out of a depression such as the one they had been following burst five riders, kicking their horses into a gallop, their scimitars gleaming in the moonlight.
The soft whistle of an arrow in flight answered them. One of the enemy tumbled from his saddle as the arrow struck him, his horse careening off wildly.
Amaran reacted in a moment, his scimitar singing free as he wheeled his horse about. His mount surged forward as he rode to meet the charge head on, screaming a defiant warcry. The Digaran with the spear was still turning about when Amaran crashed into the foe. Blades clashed and sparks flew while horses kicked up dust with their flailing hooves. Chaos swirled all around.
Kathri saw Amaran’s blade flicker, driving aside an enemy’s scimitar and then striking, sending another enemy reeling from the fight. As a second enemy engaged him, the remaining two kept charging forward.
One bore down on the spear armed Armakur Digaran. He tried to bring the spear around to stab at the enemy but the hasty blow was easily avoided. The enemy’s horse collided with that of the spearman, causing it to stumble. As he tried to right his horse, a scimitar flashed, bypassing the shield and slicing across the arm that held the spear. A dark stain blossomed across the shirt were the blow had landed. The spear fell free from his grasp and he let out a loud cry that sounded like a string of curses. Another blow came whistling in, this one aimed at the head. The injured Digaran attempted to duck beneath it. He almost managed it. Instead of taking the full force of the blade, the hilt caught him a glancing blow across the head. Dazed, his balance lost, he tumbled from the saddle, hurt but still alive.
Kathri was aware, in a vague way, that the remaining two pairs of riders were locked in battle, of the shouts and sound of steel clashing. For the most, though, her attention was focused on the remaining rider. Having dealt with the spearmen, her turned towards her. She could not see much of him, only that he too was Digaran, tall, dark and bearded. He wore the garb common to Digaran men, the trousers, long shirt and sleeveless vest, with a scarf wrapped around his head, one end dangling free over his shoulder. His scimitar flashed as he swirled it about, as did his teeth.
Kathri heart began to pound and her skin started to prickle as fear and exhilaration both rose in her. She was not, and had never been, a fighter, preferring instead to rely on her understanding of people, their moods, hopes, dreams and fears, her way with words and, if necessary, a bribe here or there, to keep her out of trouble.
None of that will work here, she told herself. This one will not be bargained with, even if I could speak the language.
The reins fell loose in Kathri’s hands as she was caught between reactions, unsure what exactly to do. Her horse, trained as it was for battle, knew what to do, and reacted despite its inexperienced rider. It reared up as the enemy came closer, lashing out with its hooves. As it came back down again, it snapped at the enemy with its teeth. Kathri felt the horse tense itself beneath her and surge forward, slamming into the opposing horse. The enemy rider’s horse stumbled at the collision, forcing him to haul back on the reins, trying to bring it back upright. Wheeling about as his horse regained it’s footing, he lashed at Kathri with his scimitar. She ducked beneath it and it whistled close to her head, close enough that she could feel the disturbance of the air as it cut through it.
She considered drawing the knife she carried, but rejected the idea almost as soon as she had it. Against a scimitar, and with little training in its use in combat, she knew that it would be to little avail. Turning and fleeing was likewise not a choice to consider. Turning her back on the foe would simply give him an easy target.
Her heart pounded faster, setting her ears to throb with the sound of it. She licked at dry lips, eyes widening as she took in the scene, trying to spot anything that would help her come to a decision. To her ringing ears came another sound, beyond the shouts and sounds of combat, a whispered, subtle song that started low, barely heard, yet building up strength. Another slash of the scimitar swung close to her head, defeated only by the dancing of her horse to carry her aside from it. The song surged almost as if in response to the attack, a shiver running through her body at the strength of it. Her horse snorted and slammed a hoof down on the ground. As it did, the hoof clipped a small stone lying on the ground, sending it ricochetting into the air. It struck the enemy rider in the face, causing the man to grunt as it momentarily staggered him.
Not wishing to question the freakish moment of luck, or the opportunity that it had afforded her, Kathri began to turn her horse about in readiness to put some distance between herself and her attacker. Even as she did, a scimitar flashed with cold fire in the moonlight. A gasping gurgle escaped from the lips of the enemy. He sat on his horse for a few seconds, blinking in shock. Then he tppled from his horse to land on the ground with a crash. A dark stain spread from out beneath the unmoving body.
“Are you hurt?’ Amaran asked from where he had ridden up behind the enemy, unseen by either the rider or Kathri.
Kathri shook her head. The ringing in her ears and the song began to diminish though her heart still pounded. “No.”
“Good.” Amaran rode across to the where wounded Armakur rider sat upon the ground, clutching at his arm. The two exchanged a few words. As they did, Kathri looked around. The fight had ended with all the raiders dead. As far as Kathri could see, only one of the Armakur Digaran had taken wounds
She sat on her horse, breathing deeply as her nerves calmed. The song had all but gone, fading away into the land and dying out. As she watched on, the others were busy. Amaran tended to wounded his companion, tying a bandage around his arm. The other man had started to round up the horses of the fallen foe, bringing them back to a central location.
When the mounts were gathered together, Amaran and his two companions turned their attention upon the fallen enemy. They searched them, taking weapons and any valuables that they might have carried, before bringing the bodies together. They laid them out on their backs, folding their hands upon their chests and shut their eyes.
“We have no time to bury them,” Amaran said. “We can only hope that their friends find them before the scavengers do.”
“You are showing a great deal of consideration for those people who were only just trying to kill you,” Kathri said.
“They are Digarans like us,” Amaran told her, rising from the bodies of the dead men. “We may have our difference but we are, in the end, kin.” He came across to where she sat upon her horse and handed her a small item. “Here, this is for you.”
Kathri raised it to study it in the moonlight, looking at a small ring of silver set with a sliver of a stone that she couldn’t make out in the dim light, a ring taken from the dead. “What is this for?”
“You will need it when you reach Vas Madreso. I would not leave you in that place with no resources with which to support yourself. It would be more merciful, and quicker, to throw you into a den of lions than to go in there with nothing to barter or buy with.”
“Thank you Amaran.”
Amaran smiled as he mounted his horse. With a string of new horses behind them, they rode off again, headed towards the hills.
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