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[WIP] Barbarians, part 3 (SPG)

By awf
Created: 2024-02-08 20:32:30
Updated: 2024-02-22 20:44:25
Expiry: Never

  1.  
  2. > The ride through a dark forest was tense and unnerving. They weren't going as fast as that mad gallop through the pasture, but Thistle was still in a precarious position and in danger of falling off. Not to mention that being unable to see more than a few paces around them made the trip more frightening than it should have been.
  3. > She took comfort in the steady breathing of the mare which carried them, and in Hisein's strong hand on her back. Even without a saddle, the nomad was completely stable as he guided their mount between sparse trees, and he wouldn't let her fall.
  4. > Thistle didn't know how Hisein knew the way, since neither of them had been in this part of the forest before, but he never hesitated and only stopped when he waited for the other horse to catch up to them.
  5. > Every now and then they all halted to exchange a few murmured words. Each time, Hisein asked the other two nomads about their pursuers, and Salki always assured him they had fallen far behind.
  6. > "[I think we got away,]" Hisein finally concluded, "[but we must leave this land quickly. They may come after us.]"
  7. > "[They will not catch us,]" Salki said with youthful bravado.
  8. > Thistle wanted to agree, but when Hisein didn't respond, she glanced up, trying to see his face in the night's gloom.
  9. "[We can outrun pursuit, right Hisein?]" she asked.
  10. > His hand patted her back a few times and then slid up to her neck, where the hunter twined his fingers into her mane. "[Perhaps. We must try. We cannot fight this many.]"
  11. > Hearing that the old, experienced hunter wasn't fully certain was like an icy shower and it made her heart beat faster with worry. Of course, they had a few donkeys who would not be able to move very fast, not with all the gear they would carry. More than that, they had Janus and his hand-pulled cart.
  12. "[Janus?]"
  13. > "[Partly. Let's keep going, we are close to Bulat and Temir.]" With that, Hisein expertly dug only one of his heels into the mare's flank, and she obediently turned. When she was facing the right way, although Thistle couldn't recognize any sign that it was so, the nomad ordered: "[Yah!]" and the animal began to walk.
  14. > Only when they were on the way did Thistle voice her idea.
  15. "[What if we make Janus' cart so I could pull it? I am stronger than he is.]"
  16. > There was silence for long moments as Hisein thought about this proposal. At last, he asked: "[What about the things you will carry?]"
  17. > She didn't know, and her ears wilted. The nomad must have seen this, because his hand came back to rest on her withers.
  18. > They rode in silence, except for both horses' hoofsteps. Thistle craned her neck to look at the sky. She couldn't be sure, not with her eyes, but she thought there were fewer stars visible. Perhaps it would be daylight, soon.
  19. > Their slow creep to the villagers' stable already felt like a lifetime away. The anger which had propelled her was gone, replaced by cold fear. There was no doubt they would all be killed if the villagers caught up to them. The nomads would have to fight. She would have no choice but to join them.
  20. > There had to be a way! She thought furiously for a solution.
  21. "[The tents!]" she spoke up and jerked upright, nearly unbalancing herself.
  22. > Hisein reacted quickly and shifted his grip to her rump, to keep the mare in place. "[Stay still!]" he ordered her.
  23. > For a moment Thistle flattened her ears in shame, but they sprang up immediately after, as she rushed to tell him her idea.
  24. "[Leave the tents! We can keep the leather and sticks for two tents and make from them a big tent. We will only need it in the mountains, the rest of the way is warm enough. We can sleep outside!]"
  25. > She didn't expect the methodical, thoughtful man to respond immediately, so she hurried on with her explanation.
  26. "[If we don't bring all the tents, I will not have a load on my back. I can pull Janus' cart! Surely he can make a harness quickly enough!]"
  27. > "[We will see,]" Hisein finally replied.
  28. "[It will work! I will pull the cart. We have four horses. Temir and Bulat are light, they can ride the gelding. Zaur and Salki can take the stallion. You and Janus can ride a mare each.]"
  29. > His hand patted the side of her barrel. "[And you? You will run the whole way, pulling a heavy cart?]"
  30. > Thistle experimentally flexed her legs. She had come far from the fat and lazy bureaucrat. She remembered that escape attempt with Rainy Day, when she had pushed her feeble limbs far beyond what they could handle, until her legs had turned to water.
  31. > She was no longer that filly. She had become stronger. Her hoof went to her foreleg and she felt the hard muscle and sinew underneath.
  32. > The mare gave Hisein a firm nod.
  33. "[I can. We will not run the whole way, only until we are out of this land. When we start climbing the mountain, we can slow and let the horses rest. I will rest then, too.]"
  34. > Wordlessly, Hisein pressed his fingers into her coat. From him, that was worth more than praise from the others, and some of the icy dread which suffused her veins melted away. Thistle even managed a tentative smile, as she turned her muzzle into the light breeze.
  35. > They weren't going fast enough to have her mane stream in the wind, and it wasn't long enough for that in any case, but she could feel the air moving through the fur on her face.
  36.  
  37. > ~~~~
  38.  
  39. > Thistle's plan had quickly been explained, and the nomads agreed to put it into action. Zaur, the best among them with needle and thread, was ripping apart one of the tents and fashioning it into loops of leather, as Janus had instructed. Temir had followed the blacksmith into the forest to find a couple of long, willowy branches to serve as shafts. In the meantime, Salki and Hisein were going through their possessions to decide what to leave behind.
  40. > There was little for Thistle to do, so she went to help Bulat with their remaining donkeys. He was untying their burdens so they could re-arrange the load after the other two had picked what was necessary and what could be left behind.
  41. > "[Leave it,]" Thistle's sensitive ears caught Hisein speak. "[We will hunt for what we need. Only bring enough until the mountain.]"
  42. > She didn't hear Salki's response, but when she glanced back she saw the young man emptying one of the leather sacks into a nearby bush. Doubtless some small, hungry animal would have a very lucky day, soon after they'd left.
  43. > Thistle smiled to herself at the thought and focused again on the work she was doing with Bulat. He'd already unloaded two of their five remaining beasts, and he was about to untie the ropes from a third.
  44. "[Wait. Those two, that is Hisein's tent and someone else's?]"
  45. > She pointed with a hoof and the nomad followed her gaze. "[Yes, Hisein's and Temir's.]"
  46. "[Where is your tent?]"
  47. > Bulat glanced around, and patted a pile of cloth on the ground. "[Here.]"
  48. "[Okay. Leave Hisein's donkey. It has the weapons and his tent, we will need all of that. I will unload this one when you have loosened the knots, and you can go to the last one.]"
  49. > The nomad gave her a single nod and went back to untying the ropes which fastened the bundles to the animal's back. He was soon done, and Thistle, although having to stand awkwardly on two legs, began tossing the sacks and bundles from its back.
  50. > Luckily by now the animals were used to her, and no longer reacted with fear when she did things like this and acted how normally only a nomad would.
  51. > She was soon done, and went to pick up Bulat's tent. She hoisted it up with her teeth and slung it across the donkey's back. The animal danced a few steps at the sudden load, but Thistle clicked her tongue and the beast stilled.
  52. > The mare had to walk around and bump the package from that side to center it a little better, then she looked around for other cargo.
  53. > Salki was walking to her, his hands full of various items, which he dropped near her.
  54. "[Good. Tie that on. I will bring you the other things. We are taking Hisein and Bulat's tents, they are the biggest.]"
  55. > The young man grunted something affirmative, then bent down to pass a strap under the donkey's belly. Soon the tent was secured, and Thistle lifted another bundle for the nomad. It wasn't difficult work, and very soon the animal was properly loaded, with all the cargo securely tied with ropes.
  56. > Next to them, Bulat and Hisein were doing the same with one of the other beasts.
  57. "[What else?]"
  58. > Salki pointed with his finger. "[That pile of stuff.]"
  59. > Despite his choice of words, there wasn't very much of it, and Thistle thought they might be able to move a few items from the already-loaded donkeys to the remaining two, so as to make all their burdens slightly lighter. That would enable them to move faster.
  60. "[Come on, let's get it done. Janus and Temir should be back soon, and I should go see if Zaur has made the harness.]"
  61. > As they walked over to the gear they'd decided to bring, Salki asked in a quiet voice: "[If we sleep in the same tent, we will not be able to-]"
  62. > For an instant Thistle's ears flicked down, and a blush threatened to take up residence on her muzzle, but she shook her head and managed to avoid it, even if it was a close thing.
  63. "[No, I guess not. We don't have a choice, the villagers will be looking for us. They saw who took their animals. You and Hisein shot some of them with a bow! They will come, and we must escape. We must move fast.]"
  64. > The young nomad heaved a sad sigh. "[We haven't- not since we came to this village.]"
  65. "[I know,]" the mare said, her tail flicking as she, too, felt the need. "[We will, when we are back.]"
  66. > At that, Salki patted her mane. They bent down to pick up the gear, but Zaur called for her.
  67. "[I think he is ready. I will go.]"
  68. > "[Yes.]"
  69.  
  70. > ~~~~
  71.  
  72. > Thistle was trying very hard to sleep in the open air with three snoring humans nearby. She had gotten used to Salki's, and she thought she could eventually fall asleep despite Janus, but adding in Hisein made it almost impossible.
  73. > On top of that, each time she nearly fell asleep, a gust of wind, or a hoot of an owl in the forest, would bring her back to full wakefulness. If was not that, it was one of the nomads getting up to go and relieve himself, or going to take the next watch, which also meant that someone would be returning very soon.
  74. > She was tired enough, and needed the rest, there could be no doubt. Thistle felt the matted and sticky fur around her barrel and down her legs, where rivulets of sweat had run during the brisk pace Hisein had set away from the foreign village. Both she and the horses had worked hard, and it promised to be no easier the next day.
  75. > That, combined with a sleepless night before, should have been enough, no matter the snoring, or the noises of the forest.
  76. > The final nail in her coffin was the worry. More than once that night Hisein had slipped from his horse and fallen back to check on possible pursuit. Each time he came running back, his face dark and worried. He conferred quietly with Salki, but neither of them had gone to tell Thistle what was happening.
  77. > She understood the news wasn't good, because after each such discussion, Salki kept glancing back behind them for a long while.
  78. > They couldn't move any faster, she had been pretty clear on that when the two nomads had asked her. Not without leaving behind the blacksmith's tools she was lugging, and not without risking the horses. Those were the two most important things the group had, so her warnings had been heeded.
  79. > She wondered now, in the dark, if perhaps it might have been better to go just that slight bit faster and further.
  80. > Surely their pursuers had to rest, too, hadn't they?
  81. > The mare groaned in dismay and flopped to her other side. The blanket with which she had half-heartedly covered herself slipped down until it was barely covering her hips, but the night was warm and Thistle didn't care enough to pull it back.
  82. > She shut her eyes tightly and tried to clear her thoughts. Once, a lifetime ago, some of her friends had taken her to try that new Neighponese fad, yoga. She hadn't liked it, but she recalled there was an element of getting your mind to stillness. Or perhaps she was getting it wrong and it was meditation she was thinking of.
  83. > It was no use. She heard footsteps approaching and lifted herself into a sitting position. One of the nomads was coming from the watch, which would mean another session of waking someone else up, shuffling in and out of sleeping cots, and the new watcher stomping off.
  84. > She might as well listen to their exchange and perhaps get some reassurance that all was well in the night.
  85. > It was Temir, and she recognized him mostly by scent when he came closer. To her eyes, he was little more than a darker shadow against the faint, blurry stars. She tracked him with her ears as he went to Hisein, and heard the slight rustle of animal furs as the older hunter was shaken by his shoulder.
  86. > He woke instantly, without the slightest sound. Temir must have seen Hisein's eyes open, because he began whispering immediately.
  87. > It was just slightly too low for Thistle to understand, so she shrugged her blanket off and walked over to them.
  88. > "[... went the other way, but maybe they'll come back. Bulat will stay near and send Zaur to warn us, but maybe-]"
  89. > Her heart began to beat faster, and before Thistle could ask the youth to repeat himself, Hisein lifted himself up and interrupted: "[Wake everyone. We have to go.]"
  90. "[Why? Are they coming this way?]"
  91. > She kept her voice to a whisper in a subconscious attempt not to wake the others, despite Hisein's words to the contrary.
  92. > Temir repeated his message: "[They are near. I don't know if they know where we are, but what else could it be? They just missed our camp, it looks like they're going too much to the south.]"
  93. > "[They plan to circle us while we sleep and wait for us on the path.]"
  94. > "[How? If they knew where we are, why not attack us at night?]"
  95. > Hisein shook his head as he began rolling up his sleeping mat. "[They don't know where we are, but they know we will take the road. We can't move as fast with horses in the forest. Some of them are going ahead. The road curves south, remember?]"
  96. > He fell silent for a while, deep in thought, or perhaps recollection, then continued: "[They will find the road again in the south and wait there. The others will follow our trail. They must know they are getting closer.]"
  97. "[They are getting closer?!]"
  98. > Thistle had expected as much, but having it confirmed still clenched her gut in a grip of sudden fear.
  99. "[How can they be so fast?]"
  100. > Rather than answer her, Hisein turned to Temir. "[What did you see? Tell me,]" he ordered.
  101. > "[Some men, walking in the dark. They have long metal blades, but no fire. The moon was enough, as it was for us.]"
  102. > "[Horses?]"
  103. > "[No,]" Temir replied, shaking his head.
  104. "[What does that mean?]" Thistle asked.
  105. > Hisein leaned down to run his fingers through her mane. It was far more comforting of a gesture than it had any right to be, and for a moment Thistle closed her eyes and simply enjoyed the warmth of his touch.
  106. > "[They left the horses with the other group. They will go ahead and wait in ambush by the road somewhere. The rest will keep following us. We are slow in the forest, and they faster. They do not ride double, remember? If we take to the road, the first group will attack us with bows. It is what I would do.]"
  107. > It sounded hopeless, and Thistle's ears wilted in the dark.
  108. "[What do we do?]"
  109. > The hunter was silent for a few more moments, then bent down to pick up his cot. "[We show them who they are messing with!]"
  110. > "[Attack?!]" Temir exclaimed, his voice at the same time eager and frightened. The thought also occurred to Thistle, and she swallowed a painful lump even as her tail tried to creep further between her legs.
  111. > "[Almost, but no,]" Hisein said. "[There is a river a hands-width away. I remember the road crossed a wide, shallow bed. It must get deeper to the north-east. We will go there.]"
  112. "[Will crossing the river throw off the pursuit?]"
  113. > Both Temir and Hisein chuckled at her question, and the older nomad went to pat her mane again. "[No, they are not as stupid as that. Which is why we will wade in the middle of the river, and we will go back to the south-west.]"
  114. "[What? Why back?]"
  115. > At the same time, Temir pointed out: "[What about Janus' cart? It will sink in the river. We will not get it through the mud.]"
  116. > That stopped the conversation for a moment as Hisein thought. "[We will load the things on the horses, and we will walk. We only need about a thousand, maybe two thousand paces.]"
  117. "[Then what?]"
  118. > "[Then we will catch those sons of donkeys from behind.]"
  119. "[There are more of them than us!]"
  120. > Hisein gave a shrug. "[We are better at hiding. Only some of us will go, without horses. We will hit them with arrows and escape. They will be in a confusion. Maybe they will think someone else is attacking them from behind. They will believe they have two enemies.]"
  121. > It sounded doubtful, but there was a growing urgency, an eagerness behind Hisein's words and Thistle knew she wouldn't be able to convince him otherwise. She also saw Temir nodding, and the glint of his teeth in the moonlight as he smiled at whatever glorious battle he was imagining.
  122. > For a moment she considered trying to argue them out of it, but before a single word could escape her mouth she clamped it shut. She didn't want these foreigners to kill her, or Salki, or any of the others.
  123. > Despite that existential fear, she couldn't quite suppress a small flame of anger.
  124. "[This wouldn't have happened if you and Salki didn't kill some of them with your bows yesterday!]"
  125. > "[We didn't,]" Hisein said.
  126. "[What?]"
  127. > "[I told Salki to aim at their feet. We only wanted them to drop the torches. They were not wounded very badly.]"
  128. > Thistle didn't have a reply to that, so she simply snorted softly to herself and went to pick up her things. On the way, she could wake up Salki and explain what was happening. She heard the other two moving to Janus.
  129. > It would be an early start, and with luck, the next night she would be so tired and exhausted that'd she'd have no trouble sleeping, despite the snoring and the forest and the worry.
  130. > Then again, if Hisein's plan went off the way the nomad expected, perhaps the worry would be less, too.
  131.  
  132. > ~~~~
  133.  
  134. > It was down to Thistle, Janus, their remaining donkeys, and the four horses. Guided by Hisein's expertise, they'd hidden in a dense copse of trees, so at least it was shady. Unfortunately, the fact that they had waded through the river's mud, meant they all stank.
  135. > Thistle had thought she was beyond caring about such mundane matters, but a combination of pony, human, and horse stink was testing her stoicism. It didn't help when the beasts simply made dung where they stood.
  136. > They were not to move, unless their lives were threatened, those had been the instructions. The nomads had all gone with their bows to attack.
  137. > True, neither Hisein nor Salki had called it an 'attack', but that was what it was. They would sneak up behind the group of men who were chasing them down. Doubtless, according to Hisein, the enemy would split up to search the banks of the river, having easily guessed the nomads' intentions to hide their tracks.
  138. > That gave him and the hunters an opportunity to harass a smaller group of villagers.
  139. > Some people were sure to get killed, and Thistle really hoped it would be none of her friends. They were expert at this kind of thing, after all. Even so, the awareness of the inevitable conflict still left a bad taste in her mouth, but at least the villagers were the ones pursuing them.
  140. > In a small way, they deserved it, especially if Hisein had told the truth that he and Salki had only lightly wounded a couple of people that other night. They should not have chased them so hard, and so persistently, over a couple of stolen horses, not when one of theirs had tricked the nomads into buying a gelding in the first place!
  141. > No, in this situation the nomads were in the right, and if they could have evaded this senseless pursuit, they would have. Hisein and Salki would only fight because they had absolutely no other choice.
  142. > It irked Thistle that they all seemed to relish the prospect, and that even the younger three hunters had brightened up at the news. That was something she would have to work with Salki to change. Violence should be avoided whenever possible.
  143. > "You think they win? No dead, you friends?" Janus suddenly broke the silence.
  144. > The mare swished her tail, as much in annoyance at being disturbed from her thoughts, as to swat away a few pesky flies on her flank.
  145. "Yes. Hisein is our best hunter, and Salki is probably second best. They will be fine."
  146. > She wanted to go on and explain that it was the younger three she was worried about, but she couldn't bring herself to engage in another lengthy, complicated explanation.
  147. > Thistle was spared having to make up some excuse when one of the mares gave a shrill whinny and reared up. Something was wrong!
  148. > She hurried over, but the blacksmith was faster and had the horse's halter in his hand. He put himself between the mare and the other animals and spoke a word of command.
  149. > Soon he had the problematic mare backed a short distance away. Thistle followed them.
  150. "What was it?" she asked.
  151. > The little outbreak had happened when she wasn't looking, and she could draw no parallels from her experience with the donkeys. It was obvious they were quite a different kind of beast than these foreign horses.
  152. > The ironic part was that the horses' body language felt more familiar to her, even when it made no sense. Interacting with them was right in the middle of the uncanny valley.
  153. > Janus waved his hands expansively, indicating the mare and the other horses. "Mare fight mare," he said. "Maybe soon, they soon-"
  154. > He switched to his native word and it was so complex that Thistle had no chance of trying to decipher it. She wasn't sure she could even repeat it, but she tried anyway:
  155. "Sugar-verve-el?"
  156. > Her splayed ears and raised eyebrows told Janus exactly what she wanted to know. His brow furrowed as he, in turn, tried to come up with an equestrian word.
  157. > "Zugarvorvel. You know? This," he said and indicated with his hands. Thistle watched the gesture for a while as he repeated it. His thumb and first finger touched and formed a kind of circle. The third finger of his other hand was passing into the loop and out repeatedly.
  158. > Suddenly she understood and her face grew red.
  159. "Make small horse?" she ventured.
  160. > "Yes! Soon, maybe, mare want make small horse. Other mare no want. They fight." He gave an exaggerated shrug, and said: "Horse, you know?" as if that would explain everything.
  161. > That was good news for Thistle and the nomads. If one of the mares would go into estrus soon, that would mean their heard would grow quite soon. However, right at the moment it was an inconvenience. If the mares were prone to fighting under the influence of all these hormones, they would have to be handled more carefully during this, already tricky, time.
  162. > Maybe it would be simple, and all they had to do was to keep the mares a short distance apart. Thistle hoped so, but it was too hot, and too stinky, and she was too sweaty to work this out through Janus' broken equestrian just then. It could wait until the evening.
  163. > After the hunters were back, they would probably have to hurry, and the animals would be too tired to fight.
  164. > As if her thoughts had summoned them, Thistle heard the sound of hurrying footsteps, trampling through the thick forest underbrush.
  165. > Her ears perked up and swiveled, and Janus immediately realized something was up. His hand went to the mare's nose, in an effort to keep the animal calm and silent.
  166. > There were multiple people approaching, and Thistle couldn't immediately identify if they were her friends. She mentally reprimanded herself. She should have paid more attention to how the nomads' soft leather boots sounded in the forest!
  167. > She tensed up and experimentally dug her forehooves into the ground. If it was the enemy, she would only get one chance to buck, so it better go to the right place!
  168. > As the people drew nearer, her muscles tensed and her ears laid flat against her head. She crouched a little, so as to be ready to spring at a moment's notice. Behind her, she heard a soft rustle as Janus drew his knife from his belt.
  169. > She wished she had realized the danger sooner, so she and the blacksmith could have taken spears from one of the nomads' packs. It was too late now.
  170. > "[Thistle?]" came Hisein's call.
  171. > The mare nearly folded down in relief, and she hurried toward the sound.
  172. "[We're here. We're waiting!]"
  173. > His footsteps came nearer and the big nomad burst into the bushes, followed closely by Zaur, Bulat and Temir.
  174. > Her heart nearly stopped, and the sudden stammer in her voice barely allowed her to speak.
  175. "[S-S-Sal- Salki?!]"
  176. > For a moment Hisein looked at her strangely, then his face cleared. "[He is fine,]" he told her, and for the second time in as many breaths Thistle's legs nearly gave way. "[We were separated. Zaur is wounded. We have to go.]"
  177. > Only now did she notice that the younger hunter's leg was covered in bright, red blood.
  178. "[What happened? Are you okay?]"
  179. > She hurried toward him, but Hisein put his hand in her way and stopped her. "[Not now. No time. Get the blacksmith things, get the horses and ride north. Temir knows the way. Salki will meet you!]"
  180. "[And you?]"
  181. > Hisein's face grew grim. "[I will give you time and lead them the other way.]"
  182. > Without conscious control, Thistle's head began shaking in a firm no, and she threw her forelegs around his thigh.
  183. "[No! No, Hisein! There has to be a different way!]"
  184. > He put his hand on her mane for a moment, then cupped her muzzle and lifted it so she was looking at his face. His grin was confident. "[Don't worry. I am not so stupid to get killed by these donkey-sons. I will shoot arrows at them, and lead them back to the river. Then I will lose them and come find you. Salki will know where to go, we will meet there.]"
  185. > Despite the bravado in his voice, Thistle was worried sick.
  186. "[Please be fine!]"
  187. > Only now was she realizing just how much the stoic, calm nomad really meant to her. At first he had just been the hated Willow's friend, but now she saw him for who he really was. A moderating influence on a stupid boy whose mother had much political clout and who might become a chieftain someday.
  188. > Pretty much what she was trying to do with Salki.
  189. > Over the past few weeks, Thistle thought, they had become fast friends. She would need his experience and the esteem the camp showed Hisein. With his and Salki's help, they could start building a real society.
  190. > The man's grin just widened. He gave her an insolent wink, then patted her cheek and pulled his leg free of her grip. She let him go.
  191. > "[Go now!]" he said and pointed.
  192. > Zaur was already sitting on the mare, supported by Temir. He looked a little pale, and his face was drawn into a grimace of pain, but he gave the mare a smile and a nod.
  193. > On the other side, Janus had climbed onto the mare he had calmed. That just left Bulat, who was sitting on the gelding and held the stallion's lead rope in his hand.
  194. > "[Shame we do not have time to put the blacksmith things on the horse, so you could move faster,]" Hisein said. "[The ropes are too small, they will not be able to pull it. You will have to do it, Thistle.]"
  195. > She very nearly gave the man a salute, but realized in time he wouldn't understand it.
  196. "[I'll do it. You make sure you get there alive, too!]"
  197. > "[That's the plan!]"
  198. > Thistle didn't say that his last plan hadn't panned out the way they wanted, either. She raised one hoof in a wave, and then the nomad was gone, running back through the undergrowth in the direction they had come from.
  199. > Everyone was waiting on her and she still needed to get the harness on!
  200. "[Bulat, help me with the ropes!]"
  201. > The youth passed the stallion's rope to Janus, then slid down from his horse to do just that.
  202. > It had happened so quickly, and so differently from all the scenarios she had imagined, that Thistle could only stand there, shell shocked, as the nomad did his work.
  203.  
  204. > ~~~~
  205.  
  206. > There was neither sight, nor sound of any pursuit, so Temir and Bulat assured Thistle. She couldn't tell on her own, not with veritable rivers of sweat pouring into her eyes and her rattling, thumping heartbeat filling her ears.
  207. > They'd set a gruelling, relentless pace after Hisein had gone back to buy them some time. Despite her earth pony strength, and the months of work which had hardened her muscles, Thistle wasn't sure she could take much more.
  208. > More than once she peered back, shaking her head to fling sweat from her eyes, to check whether the little cart she was pulling still had wheels. It felt as if the heavy anvil was biting into the soft ground, like an anchor.
  209. > The crude harness of ropes and leather strips was digging painfully into her chest and shoulders, and droplets of blood, mingled with sweat, left traces down her forelegs.
  210. > They had been trudging through the thick underbrush for what felt like hours, although it couldn't have been more than two, judging by the position of the sun, which was beating down on her back nearly vertically.
  211. > Some of the way was in the shade, which offered brief moments of respite, but that merely rendered the heat harder to bear when they returned into the open.
  212. > Through it all, Thistle kept stubbornly placing one hoof in front of the other. It would be worse if they got caught.
  213. > Eventually, she had no more to give.
  214. "[Stop,]" she croaked.
  215. > Without waiting to see if the others would do so, the mare slowed to a halt and hung her head. Her lungs strained for all the oxygen they could get, and her tongue, fat and sticky, lolled out of her mouth.
  216. > She'd had the presence of mind to stop in the shade of a big oak tree, and the ground felt marginally cooler than the air when Thistle sat. All her limbs were twitching, sending small jolts of pain from her otherwise numb muscles.
  217. > Thistle wasn't aware of much around her, but she felt a strong hand lift her muzzle up, and fingers poke something leathery through her lips. Moments later, warm, stale water splashed onto her tongue and she nearly inhaled the first mouthful.
  218. > Swallowing was a reflex, painful with her raw throat, but necessary to preserve her life. The second mouthful was easier.
  219. > Someone was talking, in a language she thought she understood. Thistle forced her eyes up and sought out Temir's face. "[...die on us!]" he was saying. "[Fuck, you should have said sooner!]"
  220. > He was scolding her, and Thistle's ears splayed out of sheer reflex. She let them, too busy concentrating on the life-giving water she was gulping down. Her muscles and tendons felt tight, and both her hind legs were starting to cramp. Thistle tried to relax them.
  221. > She concentrated on her midriff and imagined a plane across it, like the surface of water. It was cool and soothing as it moved down. One of her legs spasmed and kicked out, which tossed her hindquarters to one side, but Thistle kept herself upright on her forelegs. She pulled away from the water skin for a moment to breathe.
  222. > Something warm tricked down her thigh, and she looked, half expecting to see a rivulet of blood from where the harness had broken her skin.
  223. > It was yellow. She hadn't really felt her bladder loosen, and once she saw it wasn't life-threatening she ignored it and clamped her mouth on the little leather spout again.
  224. > "[Wait, I will get another bag,]" Temir said. The sack in his hands was limp and nearly empty, but despite that Thistle sucked down a few more mouthfuls.
  225. > On her other side she became aware of a different, larger presence. Janus, she recognized him by his smell, shared between the man and his little cart she'd been pulling along.
  226. > "There water not far," he said and pointed. His outstretched hand indicted a direction very nearly where they had been going before she had made them stop. "Water. Drink. Rest. Only small go, yes?"
  227. > Temir was giving the man a curious glance and Thistle translated.
  228. "[Water, near. Short distance, that way.]"
  229. > The young nomad gave a nod. "[Can you go further?]" he asked her.
  230. > Thistle tried to get her hind legs under her once again. She'd stopped peeing, and after a few false starts she stood up. She took a step, but the harness bit into her shoulders and she whimpered in pain.
  231. > At that, Janus jumped closer to inspect the crude leather and rope affair. His face looked grim as he peeled the straps away from her, and soon after he pushed on her head. "Back," he ordered her, and the mare took an obedient step.
  232. > That allowed the blacksmith to lift the harness from her body.
  233. > "[Fuck,]" Temir said.
  234. "[What?]"
  235. > She twisted her head down to see. There were ugly, purple lines down her chest, jagged edges in a few places leaking blood.
  236. > "No pull," Janus said firmly. "No more or pony die."
  237. "We don't have a choice. We have to keep going."
  238. > He shook his head and took the wooden poles firmly in his hands. "I pull now. You no pull."
  239. > He was probably right, and when Thistle jerked her head to try and nod, her vision went blurry and the world spun around her. She had to brace her forelegs firmly on the ground to stay upright. Once again her gaze went down, to the faint, diluted streaks of blood matting her fur.
  240. > If she tried to keep going, even at a slower pace, for much longer, she would die of heatstroke, or perhaps her heart would simply give out.
  241. > Temir seemed to agree with the blacksmith, having understood the general gist of it even if he didn't know the actual words. "[Come here,]" he said and grabbed a tuft of Thistle's mane to gently urge her forward.
  242. > She glanced at the blacksmith's cart, but then lost interest as Temir led her to the horses. Zaur was still sitting on the mare, his hand pressed against his thigh.
  243. "[Where is Bulat?]"
  244. > "[He went to look for Salki. We should be close to where Hisein said to go if we got separated.]"
  245. > Thistle shook her head in confusion.
  246. "[How? You don't know this land!]"
  247. > "[We know enough. We came through here on the way in. There is a bend in the river and the bed is shallow. We can cross, and head through the forest to that dead village.]"
  248. > The mare shrugged to herself a little. It seemed the nomads' navigational ability was bordering on what some of the best pegasi could do. Perhaps it made sense, since their life was spent moving through the landscape, following their old paths and finding their accustomed camping grounds.
  249. > She focused on the important bit:
  250. "[Salki will be there?]"
  251. > "[I hope so, in the clearing past the river.]"
  252. > Before she could ask any more questions, Temir put his arms under her barrel and lifted. His elbow pressed into her tender, bleeding skin, and the mare hissed in pain. The nomad muttered something apologetic, and then she was laid across the large mare's back. Zaur placed one hand on her back to steady her.
  253. > "[You are okay to ride like this? We will not go very fast,]" Bulat asked.
  254. > Thistle opened her mouth to say something, but Zaur beat her and she realized the question had been intended for the injured hunter, not her.
  255. > "[I will manage.]"
  256. > Bulat gave Thistle's flank a friendly pat. "[I will take one of the other horses. Janus will pull his cart. We can make it across the river.]"
  257. > At this, Thistle gave a small nod, then let her head hang. It wasn't a particularly comfortable position, and her raw skin was pulled uncomfortably, but it allowed her to fully stretch all four legs, which was nice.
  258. > Her belly was also full of water, and already the precious liquid was clearing up the fog in her head. Her hearing was back, now that her heart and her breathing had slowed down. She didn't even have to pee, thanks to the earlier accident. She thought about trying to wipe herself clean, at least with a hoof, but decided against it.
  259. > She could always wash her fur in the river. Some of it dripped down the big mare's barrel, but Thistle didn't think she would mind very much. If they found Salki, their escape would be perfect.
  260. > Correction: If they found Salki and then Hisein caught up with them.
  261. > Thistle heaved a sad sigh, fearing for the big nomad's life.
  262.  
  263. > ~~~~
  264.  
  265. > Somehow the jolting and rocking of the mare under her lulled Thistle into a gentle stupor. Her muscles didn't burn anymore, and the cuts on her chest and shoulders didn't throb. Even the air felt less like an oven. It was quite pleasant, actually.
  266. > A few times they stopped so that the nomads could confer, but other than flicking a lazy ear in their direction, Thistle didn't join the conversation. She kept her eyes shut and enjoyed the steady rhythm of the horse's gait.
  267. > She woke up from this reverie when she heard running water. A glance around showed her that they had found the place where the river could be forded, but the glint of sun on the shallow waves blinded her and she hurriedly closed her eyes.
  268. > It was too bright out!
  269. > Even with her eyelids tightly shut, she still saw the red and purple afterimages of the blazing white sky. Thistle grunted in annoyance and pressed her face into the large mare's withers. This nearly unbalanced her, and she had to scrabble with her hind hoof to keep herself steady. The movement made her whimper as her sleeping muscles became red-hot lines of fire for a brief moment.
  270. > Zaur's hand on her back pressed her down, conferring some support and stability, and Thistle relaxed again.
  271. > "[It is not much longer now,]" he told her. "[If Hisein was right, we will find Salki in the clearing where we camped before.]"
  272. > She opened her eyes again to look at him, and saw the lines of pain and worry on his face before she had to avert her gaze from the bright, burning sky.
  273. > In an effort to keep the terrible sun out of her head, Thistle wrapped her forelegs over her head.
  274. > It helped.
  275. >...
  276. > Almost immediately after that, at least in her perception, she felt Zaur's hand shaking her. "[Wake up,]" the nomad was saying. "[We're here.]"
  277. > For a few seconds she didn't know what the words meant, but when she drew in her breath in a half-yawn, Thistle got a noseful of horse. She remembered that she was being carried by the mare they had stolen.
  278. > She opened her eyes carefully, keeping her head pointed toward the ground, so the impossible glow in the sky wouldn't hurt as much.
  279. > This time there was no blazing light, no splitting headache. Thistle blinked a few times and saw that the sun was barely past its zenith. They hadn't travelled far. Had she really slept?
  280. > She didn't remember anything after the river.
  281. "[How long? How long back was the river?]"
  282. > Zaur lifted a hand to shade his face and looked at the sun. "[Maybe a hand? Not more.]"
  283. > Half an hour or so, Thistle estimated crudely. She didn't have a very good feel for how fast the sun moved, nor did she have a clock to really measure it, so translating it into hours and minutes was just a bad, imprecise crutch for her equestrian mind.
  284. "[I- slept?]"
  285. > "[I didn't want to wake you. You looked like you needed it. Here, turn this way,]" Zaur said and guided her face toward him with a few fingers under her chin. When she obeyed, he took his hand from her back and cupped her cheeks. His thumbs brushed through her fur, and he picked out bits of... something.
  286. > All she felt were tiny tugs on the sensitive hair around her eyes. She couldn't see what he was pulling out. It was quite pleasurable, though.
  287. "[Mm, what are you doing?]"
  288. > He was silent while his fingers brushed through her fluff a few more times, then he let her go and answered: "[I don't know. Dust? Maybe tears, or sweat. It was dry.]"
  289. "[Oh.]"
  290. > "[We will have to wash your wounds. I don't know how we will pull Janus' anvil now. I hope Salki is here, so he can decide.]"
  291. > At those words Thistle remembered why she was in so much pain and covered with welts and cuts.
  292. "[Janus? Where is he?]"
  293. > "[He is fine, although he curses a lot. He sweated more than you did, and he only pulled the cart a short way.]" The young hunter chuckled as he said it.
  294. "[Salki? Is he-]" she began, but the sudden thought made her swallow an unexpected lump.
  295. > This time Zaur was silent for a while, and his hand went back to stroke her back, before he replied: "[I don't know. I don't see him. I can't get off. My leg.]" He scanned their immediate surroundings and raised his voice: "[Temir! Temir. Come help Thistle down!]"
  296. > The other nomad hurried to them. His hands wiggled under Thistle's belly and barrel. He brushed her teats, but she hardly even realized it.
  297. > Temir wasn't as tall, so it proved to be a challenge for him to lift the mare. Zaur helped keep her steady, but in the end she nearly fell and the poor lad barely caught her in time. The jolt made her hiss in sudden pain, as her limbs were forced into movement, and her skin tugged at the wounds around her withers.
  298. > Slowly, Temir lowered her to the ground, but Thistle's hind legs simply folded up underneath her. She couldn't make them do anything. Luckily, she was able to remain sitting, braced on her forelegs.
  299. "[I'll be fine. Thank you. Did you see Salki?]"
  300. > Temir shook his head mutely, and Thistle tried once more to get her hooves under her. This time she was able to move her legs, even if they wouldn't yet support her.
  301. > All she needed was to keep working at it, stretch her poor, abused muscles, and she would be fine.
  302. > There would be Tartarus to pay in the morning, but at least they'd escaped. Well, she assumed they did. The other nomads wouldn't be so calm if they were still in danger.
  303. > She was staring at the ground, focusing on working one of her hind ankles, when Zaur shouted: "[Salki! Bulat has him!]"
  304. > The words nearly got her upright, but in the end Thistle simply flopped to her other side so she could gaze in the direction Zaur was pointing.
  305. > It was as if a heavy rock had rolled from her heart. There was no mistaking that tall figure, leaning on Bulat as they hobbled closer.
  306. > Hurt, but alive. It couldn't help but bring a smile to her face.
  307. > "[I found him leaning against a tree,]" Bulat said. "[Small cuts, nothing serious. The enemy was dead. Three men!]"
  308. > At those words, the other two nomads raised their voices in a boisterous cheer. Even Janus joined in, although he didn't understand what they were saying.
  309. > Thistle thought she saw Salki flash them a grin and raise his hand, as if to modestly ward off the praise.
  310. > "[It wasn't hard,]" he said, "[they were farmers, not warriors. I just needed a small rest. Hisein said to wait for you here. Where is he?]"
  311. > The mood immediately dampened, although not as much as Thistle had expected. "[He went back to buy us time,]" Bulat said, the first one to break the silence.
  312. > Salki thought for a moment, then his face cleared up. "[He will be fine. We will wait here. Bulat, let me down and make a fire. Temir, take care of the horses. Zaur-]"
  313. > Only then did he notice the youth, still sitting on the mare. "[Are you hurt?]"
  314. > "[Not badly,]" Zaur quickly said, "[only a scratch. I will be fine tomorrow.]"
  315. > This gave Salki pause, and he looked to the blacksmith. "[You still have the things. Oh, what happened to you?]" That last bit was directed to Thistle, who had dragged herself closer to where Salki was sitting.
  316. "[Nothing. Tired.]"
  317. > At her modest words, Bulat came closer and patted her back affectionately. "[Don't listen to Thistle. She dragged the blacksmith things from where we left them, to the river. The sun was not yet highest in the sky when we found the river!]"
  318. > That earned her an admiring, nearly disbelieving look from Salki. "[Wow!]" he said, sounding for all the world like the young boy she'd met when she first came into the nomad camp.
  319. > It was making her blush and she had to avert her eyes.
  320. > "[Okay, Bulat, help Zaur down. Watch for enemies. Temir, scout around in the circle, make sure there is no one on our trail. When you're back, you and Bulat will take first watch. Me and Janus will take second. Then you in the early morning. We will wait for Hisein until evening tomorrow, then we will leave in the night.]"
  321. > The others considered this plan, and seemed to find no fault with it. Salki sounded decisive, in charge, and seemed to know what he was doing. It filled Thistle's heart with pride.
  322. > "[Do you think they will still search for us? We bloodied them this morning, and when the ones you killed don't come back, they will know we are no easy prey. No doubt Hisein will take some more.]"
  323. > Salki gave this a moment's thought. "[You are probably right, but we should not lose our care. We will leave in the night and head for the mountains. Hisein knows this - if he doesn't find us before then, he will follow us and meet us ahead.]"
  324. > His reasoning was good, but Thistle couldn't help lowering her head in sadness. She couldn't shake the feeling that Hisein's mission had been a suicide one, and that the big hunter had known it.
  325. > Part of her wanted to go back and look for him, even while the rest of her know just how monumentally stupid that would be.
  326. > In this matter, she thought, she would have to fully trust Salki's judgement. His hunter's instincts were apparently serving him well.

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