The Sleepers of the Marsh
Part One – Hunters and the Hunted
A crash of horses burst through the tall reeds that swayed in the breeze, the thrum of hooves pounding upon the spongy soil that bordered the sodden ground of marsh lands that disappeared off into the misty air. The region was a haunt of swarming insects and potent odours. The surface waters of the swamp were disturbed from time to time by things unseen that moved beneath it, causing rings to ripple out across it.
The horsemen, a dozen in number, reined in their mounts to look around, searching among the reeds. Some even beat at them with spears, thrusting into places where a person could hide. Unshaven and with cruel looks, they bore armour of iron scales. For the most they appeared as Hashalites, horsemen from the arid lands and deserts, dusky skinned and with a hawkish cast to their faces, though they were led by a pair of tall, bronzed Metsheputi. The two men of Metsheput spoke with each other before the band split apart, one half riding in one direction around the swamp, and the other headed the opposite way, each group led by one of the Metsheputi.
Silence returned to the lands as the pounding of the hooves and the call of men faded away into the distance, a silence marred only by the sway of the reeds in the breeze brushing together and the buzz of many insects. When even view of the riders had passed, swallowed by the silent mists that clung to the land, undisturbed by the breeze, a rustling of reeds marked the emergence of a figure, one crawling from the fringes of the swamp. Dried blood and fresh mud were smeared across her face. She climbed up out, her bare feet silent upon the ground. Her trousers were torn, and likewise was her leather jerkin rent, both marked by traces of blood. Auburn hair was bound back behind her head and amber eyes burned with a fell gaze from a determined face. Despite the fey cast about her features, that of a wild thing, the sword that she held firm and steady before her remained clean and ready to use.
A low chuckle escaped her as she crept forward from the marches, looking off in the direction that the riders had disappeared to, a chuckle that was just as fey as her appearance, and with a dangerous edge. “Think to track one Aedring born would they? They are fools to try, the lot of them.”
A barely heard sound came to her, of the rustle of reeds moving not in accordance with the breeze but by means unseen. She span about as swift as a cobra on the strike, dropping down low into a fighting crouch, the sword raised and ready.
A person came edging out of the reeds cautiously, a short, scrawny man, clad only in loincloth and a simple tunic that hung open and was tied around his waist with a twine made of reeds. A curved and vicious looking gutting knife was thrust through the belt and he also carried a spear, the shaft made of thick reeds to which had been attached a blade of bronze. By the looks of it, the blade had been re-purposed from elsewhere, beaten into the rough shape of a spearhead and sharpened.
The man had a muddy hue to his skin, with a narrow face and black hair that in part hung over his dark eyes. On seeing the woman, he twitched his spear aside so that he did not appear to be threatening and instead gestured to her, making a motion for her to follow him.
“Friend, come,” he said, speaking in a broken dialect, one rough and guttural.
The woman kept her sword held steady before her, on guard and wary. “Stay back,” she warned.
The man shook his head. “Ket watches. Ket observes. Ket sees hunters track. You hide good. Ket see many others hide before. All found in end. All dead now. Hunters also seek Ket. Ket survive. Ket show safe place.”
The sword lowered just a fraction, though as ever the woman remained cagey, like a wild beast, ready to react at a moment. “I have a friend that I must find.”
“Ket already found friend. Lead him to safe place. Come with Ket. He take you to friend. Must hurry before hunters return.”
The woman stood up straight, her sword lowered. “Lead on Ket,” she said.
The small man grinned and started off, plunging into the reeds, towards the marsh. With a shrug, the woman followed after him.
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