In the Lair of the Bloody Handed
Part Two – The Rescue
Their progress, while steady, at times had to be aided by cutting a path ahead of them when the undergrowth grew too dense. The forest did not grow on flat land, but across terrain that undulated in a series of low rises and ridges through which gullies cut. Small creeks and streams flowed down through the gullies, across beds of rocks and stones that had been worn smooth by the flow of water, before disappearing off into the forest. In the distance they started to hear the sound of a heavier rush of water, a larger stream or even a river. The noises of the wildlife never abated though rarely did they see anything beyond a flash of colour as a bird took to flight and darted among the trees. Of ground beasts they saw nothing, as they stayed absent, either hiding away in the undergrowth or remaining off in the distance.
They began to become accustomed to the new place, and the sounds that rang out around them, the longer that they walked, no longer with hands going to weapons with each new sound. That came to an abrupt halt when, unexpected, a scream rang out through the forest. Not only had no animal made it, but it sounded as if it had come from a woman, off ahead of them, in the rough direction that they were headed towards, and where they could hear running water as well.
Nhaqosa broke into a run at the instant the cry came to him, no thoughts as to danger crossing his mind. It sounded as if someone had met trouble and that was the only matter that concerned him. It had also been the first indication that this wild land might have some form of inhabitants. His cloven hooves slammed into the ground as he crashed through the forest, brushing aside shrubs and small trees in his hurry.
Lumbering up over one of the small rises that marked the forest, he crested the ridge and saw below him, through the trees, the river that they had been hearing. It ran broad and the sunlight dappled its surface. He could also see a young dark haired woman near the water’s edge, wearing a short sleeved jacket and a skirt made from simple hides. She scrambled away from the river, trying to climb one of the nearby trees as a fearsome beast emerged out of the waters.
Nhaqosa had seen crocodiles before, but never one of such a vast size as the one he beheld before him. It was fully three times longer than any he had encountered, and suitably proportioned in its other dimensions. He had never considered the possibility that they could grow so large. With its gnarled hide and tearing fangs, it would be a formidable killer of anything that lived in the forests.
Without even a pause, Nhaqosa thundered on down the slope towards the beast, the sound of snapping branches and fallen twigs underneath his cloven hooves loud in the air. He splashed on into the river to meet the foe. The giant crocodile growled and whipped around at the sound of Nhaqosa’s charge, beady eyes focusing on him.
The minotaur bellowed as he crashed through the water, kicking it up around him. At the edges of the river it did not even reach much above his hooves. He let swing a mighty blow with his maul, trying to end the beast in one strike. Despite his efforts and the strength behind the strike, the maul managed only a glancing blow, one enough to deal with most, but not with the thick hide and colossal fortitude of the crocodile.
The crocodile surged forward with a speed that belied its size, crashing into Nhaoqsa and knocking him to his back in the river. Such was the jarring force of the impact and the fall that it sent his maul flying from his grasp to land in the deeper part of the waters of the river. As Nhaqosa tried to regain his footing, the crocodile made a snap at him, its jaws with their massive teeth slamming shut just short of Nhaqosa’s arm as he whipped it out of the way. The minotaur threw out a wild punch, more in desperation than anything. The blow slammed into the side of the crocodile’s head, managing to momentarily rattle its senses, enough for Nhaqosa to recover his footing. As his foe sought to recover from the strike, Nhaqosa’s hand groped around beneath the water, searching for his maul. His questing fingers had just found the handle when the crocodile lunged again, forcing Nhaqosa to scramble away before he could pick the maul up. Without a weapon to defend himself with, Nhaqosa turned to face the foe, ready to go down swinging with fists and hooves, teeth and horns it need be.
A crossbow quarrel flashed through the air with a whistling sound to stick into the creature’s side. Despite punching its way through the thick hide and brining forth blood, it did little in the way of impeding or distracting the beast.
Katako, one of the band who followed Nhaqosa had been the first to reach the site of the battle, followed closely by Lakach. The wiry man had paused to shoot with his crossbow, allowing Katako to run in closer. The former gladiator tossed a spear in Nhaqosa’s direction. The minotaur snatched it out of the air, spun it about and dropped down into a ready position, setting the spear.
He did so just in time as the crocodile lunged again. Nhaqosa stabbed forward, plunging the spear into the beast’s mouth. It buried itself deep and the crocodile began to thrash about as Nhaqosa worked it home, driving it further in. After a short struggle, the crocodile gave a last twitch and fell silent.
With the beast dead, Nhaqosa pulled the spear out and tossed it back to Katako.
“Thanks,” he rumbled, breathing deeply. “Almost got myself into some trouble there.”
The rest of the band moved down the slope towards the river as they arrived, heading across to the dead crocodile to inspect it. As they were doing so, the young woman who had been chased by it came clambering down out of the tree she had sought refuge in. Her face was pale while her blue eyes were opened wide, staring hard at the group. She looked around, at those who followed at Nhaqosa, at the beast and most of all at Nhaqosa himself. Hesitantly she began to talk, keeping a distance from them. None there could understand her language and Nhaqosa shook his head.
“I do not know what you are saying.”
Lakach laughed and stroked his moustache. “And I doubt that she knows what you are saying either.”
The girl’s face took on a puzzled aspect as they spoke but then she nodded and gestured for them to follow, starting off down the bank of the river.
“What about the critter, boss?” Lakach asked, nodding towards the dead crocodile. “We could make use of it.”
Nhaqosa cast his eye over the creature critically. “Not exactly easy to move.”
“We’ll make it work.”
The girl had stopped when she realised that they weren’t following her and looked back to them. Nhaqosa pointed to the crocodile but she appeared not to understand what he meant, not until some of the group took axes to small trees and others took rope from out of their packs. They lashed together a crude frame around the crocodile before all of them took hold of handles on the frame or ropes, Nhaqosa at the centre of it all. With a heavy they were away, slowly dragging their burden down the river, following behind the young woman.
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