I have forgotten how stupid I was so long ago. At the time, especially after my still recent escape from the Lonireilian army, I thought that I was very clever indeed. I realized my error quite shortly after I stopped hearing the sounds of the others of my company, and immediately before I was struck with most of a tree.
My pursuit of Green Skive, who, at the time, I believe I thought of only as “the damned green woman,” led me along a steep slope dotted with black stones protruding from the snow, obfuscated by smoke-needled trees. I ran along the incline, avoided rocks with my feet slipping, my every breath a labor. The woman’s ghanavocha’s trail was clear, fat-footed round marks pressed deep into the snow and fallen needles beneath. It snorted and trumpeted somewhere ahead, echoing strangely between the trees. Staggering, not knowing what I would do when I caught her except that it would be violent, I forged ahead on shaking legs with my crescent sword out and bright. I remember the silence that fell between sounds. Every noise was distinct and alone in the nothingness: the snort of the ghanavocha, my own ragged breath, each crunching, lost-sound step in the snow.
I rounded a towering rock, on which the trees clung with glistening coal black roots in grasping knots between mounds of moss showing through white powder. She was ahead, waiting and watching on her mount. Behind her stood a rocky wall and more clinging trees, climbing to the bright sky where their greedy fellows basked and took all the sun for themselves and shaded the box canyon. When I saw her, waiting, and heard nothing behind me, I knew my error. That is when the borovoi hit me with a tree trunk.
To be in combat is a series of decisions made with little information, more with memory and instinct and a guess as to what is most likely to happen. At the time I did not understand this, nor was I yet much of a fighter, although, to be sure, I was much, much better than I had been as a child when the Lonireilians came to my family’s farm.
However, any thought or idea one has about how to fight, to face a foe, how to approach and retreat strategically, and to attack, is dashed out of one most swiftly by the unexpected impact of the better part of a tree.
The blow sent me off my feet. Time ceased and then I was in the snow, my face bleeding, my breath truly gone. I failed to breathe. My body would not respond, and panic seized me as I had seldom known, a full-being, mindless terror as my lungs spasmed uselessly. Then, I gasped and the pain that followed my intake of breath was magnificent, for lack of a better term. It was mesmerizing in its fullness, blinding, overwhelming. My entire chest turned to ice and burned. The pain was such that it took a moment of thought, of decision, to determine whether to take another breath again, or to resist doing so forever. Thankfully, my body makes wiser choices than I.
The sound behind me was a deep-throated shudder, geese on the wind mingled with an ox’s bellow. I rolled over in the snow and rock to see a creature wielding a tree trunk in one claw. It was twice my height, and I am not a short man. Matted deep-brown hair covered it and its arms were long enough to reach the ground. A grand and foul mustache drooped from between its snout and snarling blackened teeth, which jutted at angles from spit-flecked, leathery lips. Two antlers, like an elk’s, crowned its head. It raised the trunk again.
An imperative seized me. I scrambled away as the wood fell, splintering, sending wet chunks careening about me. I stumbled up, swung my blade, hit something, tried to run away. The borovoi gave chase and its feet hammered the snowy earth, the reverberations shaking my legs. I changed direction, turned, and sliced. Before my stroke fell, the back of the beast’s hand sent me to the snow and stone again. It hurled my body skidding along the rough earth and, once more, I lost my ability to breathe. Sound receded, no longer muffled by snow, but by the blanket of void drawing over me.
I managed to look over my shoulder, prepared to see nothing by my death falling on me in the form of a hoary, enormous claw.
The damned green woman swept behind the borovoi as it loomed over me. Her first slash caught its ankle, cutting the tendon. The creature staggered and left me, swinging for her, but she anticipated the blow as if it had announced its intention. She was below it, leaping down from her mount, her glaive raised. The blade shore away a part of its arm as it swept over her. Before it could recover, she lashed its sides, carving more flesh. It roared, hammered down with the remains of the trunk, but she let out a shout and, lightning fast, struck the makeshift club. Her polearm shattered the wood in a shower of splinters. On the backswing, she sliced its stomach and it staggered. With another cut, its arm fell away. The creature bellowed again, the same honking shudder, and the green woman’s last slash cut its throat.
It lurched about, less an arm, hamstringed, thick blood draining from its throat and stump. The hot spatters fell over me and it staggered away, collided with the canyon wall, then fell in a shower of crumbling stone.
I lay, covered in stinking, steaming blood, and watched Green Skive clean her blade on the shaggy fur-covered arm still twitching at her feet. Dust hung on the air from the collapsed stone. She came to me, walking with her glaive like a staff, and offered me her hand. It was all I could do to raise my arm enough to grasp her by the wrist, but she pulled me upright with a strange, sudden surge of motion. It was as if I weighed nothing, and in that moment, I would have believed it. She was stone, statue permanent; I, nothing but a passing fog.
Once I was on my feet, she pulled down her scarf to reveal a knowing, somewhat surprised half-smile. She was young, my age or perhaps a little more. Her skin was black, deeper and cooler than a Serehvian’s, and her eyes were waterfall green, pale and alive. She spoke, a language I did not know. The tone was one of amusement, the inflection of a question. The sound of the tongue she spoke was round, big, percussive and musical. I stared dumbly, unable to speak, let alone understand. My mind boggled at what I had seen her do.
She waited, staring, then whistled high and sharp. Her ghanavocha trotted to us from where it had fled. As I watched, the green-dressed woman went to the fallen borovoi, a creature men saw only in nightmares and told of in hushed voices, and cut away its grand antlers with two snapping blows. She returned and slung them over the ghanavocha’s saddle as the creature shuffled and trumpeted, its eyes rolling. Then, the woman I would later come to know as Green Skive reached to the saddle and took the bag she had stolen from my caravan. She offered it to me, inclining her head, and spoke again in the tongue I did not know.
I was empty, drained of fear, my head clear as the skies and just as thoughtless. In that instant, I changed and learned. I guessed what had happened, and it was not until some time later that she affirmed my suspicion. She had come to kill the borovoi, but even so mighty a beast would not approach so many as my company by the road. And even for one of Green Skive’s skill, it would have been foolish to face such a creature without bait. I had become her lure. It could have been any of us, but it was me. She offered back what she had stolen, a lure for a lure, because she was no thief, or at least, was no thief on that day.
She said something again as I took the bag. I thanked her in my tongue, finding it rough and crude. She gave no indication if she understood or not, but she nodded, smiled wide, vaulted to her saddle, and started away. All I could think, standing there in the wreckage and snow, bleeding and covered in another’s blood, was what lie to tell to my company. What could I tell them that would result in my greatest gain when I returned with the stolen cargo, to salvage both the caravan and, more importantly, my company’s reputation?
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