[Story] Story a Week 28

[[ Prompt: A story that ends at sunrise ]]

Tamazi was frozen in place by fear, held fast to the muddy ground by the skeletal hands that clawed up from it. For a moment, even if she was free, she could not have run, stunned by the sight of the strange creature before her. His eyes, like pools of bright fresh blood, seemed to hold her there. But he turned his long head to look upon Harvian, and then the spell was broken. She could hear him chattering something beneath his breath, some spell perhaps? But his hands were held tight by the bones, he couldn’t reach his pack full of herbs and vials. But maybe Tamazi could. As much as she pulled, she could not free herself from their bony grasp; it had to be some kind of magic that held them to her.

In her mind, like an echo, she heard the strange creature’s words and could understand them. It startled her at first. How could he do that? Or had it been Harvian’s doing? For now, it didn’t matter. She had an idea.  If she could only find a branch upon the ground — her eyes searched the dark ground for one within reach.

“You must be lost,” said the strange black grass-deer, in Tamazi’s head. When he spoke, his ears swiveled around, as if he had heard the echo too. Tamazi paused, waiting, to see what he would do, but he continued on. She spotted a branch just behind her, on the left side. If she could get to it…

“I don’t know what you are doing here,” the strange creature said. “But I don’t like it. And you are poking your pointed nose around my home.”

Tamazi could almost reach it. If she could just stretch a little further, maybe. She glanced at Harvian. He was not struggling anymore, he was still and silent on the ground. Was he resigned to his fate, or simply planning? Tamazi wasn’t going to give up. Not yet. Her teeth brushed the bark of the branch. Almost there.

The black creature moved then, between herself and Harvian. That was bad, because she couldn’t see him anymore, but it also meant the creature couldn’t see her. Just a little further. Tamazi could see the creature’s feet when he moved; he had large, strong hooves that could kick. If she got free — when she got free — she would have to be careful to avoid them. The horn on his head was sharp, too. Like a grass-deer, the safest place would be to leap onto his back. If she could leap that high. He was much bigger than any grass-deer she’d ever seen.

“Who sent you, asenji? If you mean to stop my work, you’re too late.” He had moved around now to Harvian’s other side. “And why,” he said, looking directly at Tamazi. “Have you dragged this unfortunate savage along with you?” Tamazi froze under the creature’s bloody gaze. But his attention turned back to Harvian, watching him intently. Waiting for a reply.

“I don’t know,” Harvian panted, his tongue protruding from his muzzle. He looked exhausted from trying to free himself. Or had he been casting a spell? Tamazi remembered that Harvian had to rest after that, too. She stretched again, this time her jaws closing around the branch. It was stuck fast in the mud, so she had to tug it free. “This isn’t about you, Naxitarius. It’s much bigger.”

The black creature snorted suddenly, startling Tamazi, and she dropped the branch. Was that the creature’s name? How did Harvian know it? She would ask him later, if they got free. When they got free. She moved the branch between her front paws, and nudged it toward the skeletal hands. One tapped it with a bony finger, exploring. Yes, Tamazi thought. Grasp onto it!

“So short-sighted,” sighed the creature called Naxitarius. “I wouldn’t expect you to understand. But you can help, after all. I do so hate to waste valuable materials.”

The fingers of one bony hand curled around the branch, then another followed. Her leg was free! Only one, but that was more than had been a few moments ago. If she could find another —

Her thoughts were broken by a sharp, loud cry of pain. Harvian! Naxitarius stepped away from where the asenji lay crumpled in the mud, his long bony horn tipped in blood. There was no more time, she had to act now. Tamazi gathered her strength and strained forward, her claws digging into the earth for leverage. She heard a dry pop as some of the bones in the hands gave way. Almost there! But Naxitarius had heard her struggling, and now turned his attention to her. He reared back upon his hind legs, bringing his sharp hooves down where Tamazi had been just a half a moment ago. Fortunately, Kamara had taught her well how to avoid being trampled by prey. That’s how she had to think of him. Very large and dangerous prey, but prey all the same. She was the huntress, not him.

Tamazi darted forward, underneath the creature’s belly, and out the other side. The remains of the skeletal hands still clung to her legs, but all at once they dropped away. She had time to notice that Harvian’s had too. He was free! But he didn’t get up. He remained there, unmoving.

Naxitarius snorted something, but she could no longer hear the echo of his words in her head. It didn’t matter. She felt more focused now, less distracted. He was only prey. She might not be able to reach his back, but she could reach his belly, and hopefully, his neck. He lowered his head and charged at her with that horn, still wet with blood. Harvian’s blood. Tamazi circled around to his rear. She was quicker and more agile, could anticipate his moves. Though larger and more frightening, he acted the same when threatened. She ducked as one of his rear legs kicked out at her. Even better, he was getting scared. She could tell by his rapid breathing, see the rim of white around his eyes. It emboldened her, made her more determined. Tamazi darted beneath his belly, slashing with her claws before moving again. The key was to stay moving. Naxitarius squealed in pain, though it was not a serious wound, it had startled him. Tamazi doubted that she could bring him down alone, but she guessed that she could scare him off. Sooner or later, even the biggest prey will try to run. That was the difference between her and them.

His nostrils flared, Naxitarius tossed his head and said something else. She didn’t know what. Was he giving up already? Tamazi paced around him, just outside of range of his hooves. She hoped that he was afraid of her. She hoped that she looked fierce and dangerous. “Run away!” she roared back, though she knew he couldn’t understand the words, maybe the sound would be enough. She saw his eyes move to the cover of the woods, and then back to her. Was he judging his chances? Tamazi stood near Harvian, wanting to see if he was all right, but she could not take her eyes off Naxitarius. Her prey, she reminded herself.

Maybe her gaze was enough. The black grass-deer turned on his heels and broke for the nearby forest, not stopping to look back at her. Tamazi was flooded with relief and pride. But it lasted only a moment, remembering Harvian. She could smell the blood, flooding the muddy ground. She would get a closer look once they were somewhere safe. Gingerly, she picked him up in her jaws, carrying him like a new-born. She wanted to run, felt the itch in her heels, but she did not want to jostle him until she had seen the extent of his injury. She ran at a low trot, up the hill out of the muddy hollow. At the top of the hill she paused to get her bearings. They had been going south before, so she continued that way. Tamazi had to put distance between them and Naxitarius. He was not badly wounded, and he likely had a herd of his own kind. More than that, he knew magic, and that frightened her. She wanted to get far away from him before they stopped to rest.

She followed a small river, winding between the hills. She wanted to stop and check on Harvian. She could feel him breathing, very slow and shallow, but he had not spoken since she had picked him up, nor had he moved. He was like a dead thing in her jaws, and the longer they traveled the more worried she became. Even when she paused to drink, he did not stir. She needed help. As the sun began to rise, painting the sky with streaks of pink and orange, she found it: smoke rose lazily from a cluster of buildings along the river’s banks. She didn’t know how she would ask for help, but she had to try.

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