Leaning heavily on makeshift crutches, a stooped, rag-covered figure slowly shuffled down the road. Thick, muddy snow hindered the traveler’s progress as she struggled to drag her splinted right leg through the slurry. Sleet fell lightly, mixing with the road dirt, creating a morass of slippery mud that caused the transient to fight for every step. Muffled curses could be heard peppering the air each time she had to stop and pull her useless leg out of a puddle. The warning sound of hoof beats came almost too late.
Azhani Rhu’len cursed the rider’s ancestry and flung herself into a mound of snow that bordered the road. Pushing greasy strands of black hair away from her face, the drifter watched the horse pass. At the sight of the horse’s riders, her dark blue eyes narrowed in surprised anger.
In one hand, a darkly cloaked man clutched the reins of the horse. The other arm was wrapped tightly about the unconscious, scarlet robed body of a woman. The rich crimson color of the velvet robes, coupled with a flash of teardrop shaped tattoos on a pale, bruised face, told Azhani that the man had just broken kingdom law. Frustrated by her injury, the former soldier pushed herself up, considering her options.
Once the warleader of the kingdom of Y’dan, Azhani was now an exile and although she no longer served a king, her oaths of loyalty to the people were still locked deep in her heart. The warrior could not allow the rider to succeed in his crime, not when she still had two functional arms. Sparing a prayer to the goddess, she tossed one of her makeshift crutches aside and stripped the other down, revealing a fine, ash longbow. Layers of rags were hastily shifted aside, uncovering a small quiver of steel-tipped arrows.
Azhani took a deep breath and plunged into the thicket at the side of the road, praying that she remembered the pathways correctly. It had been many years since she had traveled its green depths, but if her memory served, there was a shortcut just behind the stand of trees on her left. Ignoring the pain that ignited as soon as she put pressure on her bad leg, the warrior loped across the snow-covered ground. Within minutes, she broke free of the forest, ahead of the horseman, but not by much.
It took only heartbeats to string her bow and nock an arrow. Quietly, she waited, breathing shallowly to control the agony shooting up her leg in fiery waves. They were close; she could feel the thud of the horse’s hooves in the balls of her feet. One breath, two, and then the stale, acrid stench of sweat tickled her nostrils.
Rounding the bend in the road at a gallop, the horse thundered past the spot where Azhani was hidden. The rider cracked a stick against the animal’s heaving flanks, attempting to inspire even more speed. Sweat mottled the light brown hide and the horse’s eyes were starting to roll in panic. When the rider turned his head, scanning the road behind him, Azhani made her move.
A single arrow hissed through the air, striking the man in the shoulder with enough force to knock him and his hostage off the horse. The animal reared, screaming in fear, and then galloped off down the road. Azhani ignored it, hobbling up to the man with another arrow readied in her bow. Struggling to sit, the man cursed loudly and reached for the arrow that had knocked him from his mount. Not far away from him, his victim lay in the dirt, moaning softly.
“Don’t move, lawbreaker!” Azhani said evenly. The irony of the situation did not escape the exiled soldier as she calmly watched the kidnapper.
Hearing her voice, the man looked up and swore vehemently. Five feet away, the rag-covered, bow wielding figure looked more like a crazed wild woman than a serious warrior. Yet her aim had been perfect, stopping his flight with one shot. Anger twisted his features and he started to reach for his dagger.
As soon as she saw his face, Azhani growled. Branded deeply into his left cheek was the mark of the Cabal. Long nurtured hate for the clan of villains, murderers and thieves bubbled up inside the warrior. When he went for his weapon, she loosed the second arrow, pinning his other shoulder to the ground. With a wild shout, Azhani twisted the bow around, smashing it into the kidnapper’s knees. The sickening crunch of bone, followed by the tortured scream of pain was music to her ears.
Placing the tip of the bow against his temple, she angrily demanded, “Who are you, lawbreaker? Why have you harmed one of Astariu’s chosen?”
Hate-filled brown eyes looked up into hers and he smiled mirthlessly. “Dance in hell, bitch.” Dark red blood bubbled up and spilled over his lips. His eyelids fluttered shut and he went limp.
“Shit!” Azhani cursed, dropping her bow aside and reaching for his hand. She was too late. The thick, golden band of a ring glittered menacingly. Tugging it off with a curse, the warrior was not surprised to see several tiny, poison coated needles lining the inside of the ring.
Anger suffused the warrior and she kicked the body. The pain was like a blast of icy water in the face, and she collapsed, whimpering brokenly. Fresh blood seeped through the rags binding her leg, staining the snow. Black spots obscured her vision as she panted, trying to will the pain away.
“Gods fucking damned mace carrying wet nosed excuses for pathetic soldiers!” she shouted at the uncaring trees. She forced herself to roll over, pounding the ground with a fist as fresh pain brought tears to her eyes. Looking over at the priest, she was heartened to see that the woman was still breathing.
Azhani gritted her teeth and slowly, one inch at a time, crawled over to the body of the kidnapper. Ruthlessly, she searched his body, hoping for anything that would explain why he had broken the kingdom’s oldest laws by harming a woman deemed sacrosanct by noble and peasant alike.
Finding nothing but a bag of mixed coins, a vial of poison and two knives, one of which was the wicked, hook-bladed dagger that was the trademark of a Cabal assassin, the warrior then pulled her arrows free and stowed them back in their quiver. Leaving the poison, she stowed the pouch of gold away under her rags.
Using the body as a lever, Azhani stood up and started to shuffle toward the softly groaning stardancer. Even though the kidnapper’s clothes were cleaner than hers, nothing in creation would convince her to don the garb of a Cabal. She had no desire to come under the scrutiny of the dark gods who favored those who slunk in the shadows and preyed upon society. That baleful gaze had already wreaked too much pain and havoc in her life.
A soft whicker from behind caused the warrior to slowly turn. The horse had returned and was standing only a few feet away, sides heaving from exertion. Slowly, carefully, Azhani began to cluck her tongue, limping toward him and speaking softly while reaching out for the horse’s bridle.
“That’s a good lad,” she whispered. Her hands came into contact with the slick leather and she reached up, scratching his head. Nodding in pleasure, the horse let out a happy sigh. The tack bore the starburst markings of Astariu’s Healer aspect. Surmising that the animal must belong to the unconscious priest, she gave him one last pat and looked over at the unconscious heap of scarlet velvet and sighed.
“All right lad, let’s see if you were trained properly,” she said warmly. “Support.” The horse immediately lowered his head, making it easy to grasp his mane tightly. “Slow,” she cautioned, and took a step forward, toward the stardancer. In this manner, she crossed the road to the fallen woman. Upon reaching the unconscious priest, the warrior calmly said, “Kneel.” The horse went down on its front legs, waiting for the warrior’s next command. “Steady,” she said, and steeled herself against the torture she knew was coming. As carefully as she was able, the warrior lifted the dead weight of the stardancer’s body to the horse’s back.
Before the pain could overwhelm her, Azhani dragged herself up behind the priest. The horse easily stood as Azhani wrapped her arms around the young woman, holding her close to prevent her from toppling over. The priest’s head lolled to the side, revealing a youthful face. Alabaster pale skin covered an archly angular bone structure. A mottled, dark purple bruise shadowed the edge of her jaw, causing the warrior to wince in sympathy. Thick, wavy amber-colored curls framed the woman’s delicate features and brushed the tops of her shoulders. Tiny, graceful points topped her ears, proclaiming her half-elven heritage. She’s beautiful, the warrior thought as she juggled the priest around until she was safely tucked against her body.
Nearly blacking out from nauseating pain, the warrior fought off a wave of dizziness. When she could finally see, she took the reins tightly and directed the horse onto the road.
Banshee’s Honor by sHaYcH – 290 pages