*It was nearly a week after her first lesson with the sword, and if Tlisli had only had a mirror, she would hardly have recognized herself. Many days of travel with Azzesh had already strengthened her body, not to mention toughening her mind. She didn’t even notice things that would have had her crying only weeks ago back home.
They followed the river closely, and progress was slow, because the jungle was thick. In addition, Azzesh stopped frequently to collect various plants which she added to her already rather heavy pack. Even though Tlisli knew that Tlazil were much stronger than humans, she was shocked at the load that Azzesh could carry.
The day was generally normal, though Azzesh had mentioned to Tlisli that they were within a few days of the city. “If we pressed on quickly,” she said, “we would reach the city in about four days. As it is, it will probably be more like five or six. We must watch carefully now as we travel.”
“Why must we be more careful? Don’t things get safer as we come closer to the city?”
Azzesh laughed. “Not precisely, small human. When we were far away there were many dangers, but they were far apart. If bandits want to rob travelers, they are going to stay a couple of days away from the city to avoid the guard patrols, but then they won’t go more than a couple of days travel further out because they need to have targets to attack. Further out in the jungle the targets are too few and far between. Bandits don’t enjoy having to hunt for their dinner, indeed they don’t!”
So Tlisli watched closely as they walked. Azzesh liked to stay where they could see the river from time to time, but where they also had plenty of cover in case someone (or something) on the river should decide they looked like lunch. “Just as I could eat you for my lunch, so there are other creatures who might eat me,” was Azzesh’s comment. “That’s not to mention groups of smaller creatures who might do the same!”
So when Tlisli thought she heard something that sounded suspiciously like oars dipping in the water and human speech from the river, she quickly hissed a warning to Tlisli, before dropping behind the nearest cover. “It’s always best to get a look at them first,” Azzesh always said.
Azzesh was actually reaching to push her down, and was pleasantly surprised to realize that Tlisli was already on the ground. The problem was that she had been closer to the river than Tlisli at the time, and she was almost certain that the men in the boat had seen her. Had she just been paying more attention to the river, and less to her effort to catch a rather rare Xiril snake, from which she hoped to milk some venom, she would have seen it earlier. She would never admit to Tlisli that the girl had actually noticed the danger first.
She motioned to Tlisli to crawl away from the river. They both did so until they were perhaps a hundred feet away.
“Are they bandits?” asked Tlisli.
“They are much worse. I suspect you would recognize the yellow sun, surrounded by rays, on a black background.”
It took a moment. Tlisli had practically forgotten the folks who had driven her from her home city. “They can’t be chasing me, can they?”
Azzesh was momentarily stunned into silence. “And to think I thought I had educated you. Oh how vain are my pretensions to being a teacher! Of course they aren’t chasing you! But we are probably a hundred kilometers closer to the Grand Empire than you were when you left your home city. I had not expected them this close, but I imagine these are scouting ways to cut Tevelin off from its trade routes.” Tevelin was the port city they were approaching.
“So what do we do now?”
“Do? We continue northward to the coast and to Tevelin. I think they saw me, and likely you as well, and so they may try to catch us. If so, they’re going to do so further north. I know their boat continued downstream.”
“Isn’t it possible they just decided to go on?”
“I’m sure they hope we think so, and knowing that the boat will travel faster than we can walk, they hope we’ll think they are no longer a threat. But I suspect they want to capture us.”
“So what do we do?”
“We try to avoid them, but if all else fails, you will get to see how Azzesh fights, and you will get to try your sword in actual combat. I assume you don’t want to be captured by the Grand-Emperor’s forces, do you?”
“No!” said Tlisli.
“I will lead,” said Azzesh, “since unfortunately I cannot be both advance and rear guard. I’m going to assume we’ll spot them first. If they come from behind, you need to move first to get behind a tree, and make sure to yell immediately when they have seen you. You carry a bow with one arrow easily available, just as when you hunt, but you only use that one arrow, then draw your sword. In this jungle, our fight will not be at long range.”
“OK,” said Tlisli nervously. The thought of actually fighting still terrified her, even though she knew her skill with the bow was almost unimaginably improved over what it had been just a few short weeks ago.
As it turned out, Azzesh was wrong. The scouting troops of the Grand-Emperor were very skilled at sneaking, and they let Azzesh move right past the first of the ambush. She didn’t notice a thing. In order to keep her from noticing, however, they had to stay somewhat back from the path she was following, so when they moved out to cut Tlisli off, they had several meters of jungle to cross.
Tlisli was tense and alert, and heard them approaching almost instantly. With a loud shout, she turned, and drew her bow and loosed the arrow at an attacker to her right. A yelp and a crash let of her know that she had hit something. She had no time to decide whether she had stopped or merely inconvenienced that attacker. There was a second warrior coming from her left.
Tlisli had never been very big on obedience, and on this occasion it was a good thing. Seeing the distance between her and this second attacking warrior, she grabbed another arrow, drew her bow and loosed the second arrow. This time he was coming straight at her, there was no foliage in the way, and the arrow went straight to his heart.
It was fortunate for Tlisli that the Grand-Emperor’s scouts tended to wear little armor in the jungle. Her arrow went straight to his heart, and she saw him fall. At the same time, she could hear from the other direction that the other attacker had in fact not been killed or incapacitated by her first shot, and he was coming right at her with a short spear. She barely had time to dodge neatly avoiding the spear point and buying herself time to draw her sword.
While on that first pass he had been so sure he was going to hit her before she realized he was there, as he turned, he was much more careful, feinting with his spear to try to get her off-guard. She had gone immediately into the defensive stance that was so necessary in practicing with Azzesh, and she now realized it’s value.
He stabbed at a point to her left, and she simply moved her sword inside to protect her torso. It was a good thing, because that was where he moved immediately afterward. Had she parried the mis-aimed blow, she would have been out of position, and he could have stabbed her right in the chest. As it was she parried his next attack with her sword, and took advantage of the time his spear was out of position from her parry to step in closer.
It was the last thing he was expecting. There was nothing deeper in the mind of a Grand Empire soldier than disdain for women. To him, Tlisli was just a girl. She might wiggle out of his reach, but she would not be a direct threat.
He was wrong. As she stepped forward and stabbed his gut with her sword, he had only a moment to realize it. She withdrew the sword and struck again, then checked to be sure her other opponent was still down.
She had been hearing sounds of fighting, about where Azzesh would have been, and she guessed that she had been subject to the smaller attack, probably because the attackers underestimated her so much. These two warriors were to separate her from Azzesh, while presumably the larger force attacked the larger target.
Despite the short distance between them–less than five meters–there was a tree between her and Azzesh. She came around that tree with her sword at the ready, and saw Azzesh lying prone a large human standing over her, preparing to stab his spear into her. There were already three bodies on the ground, testimony to the speed and thoroughness of the Tlazil’s attacks. Yet she was bleeding, on the ground, and helpless.
Without thinking, Tlisli charged forward. The warrior jumped back, leaving Azzesh lying between them. Then he made his big mistake.
“Give it up, girl!” he said. “There’s no way you can defeat me. Your Tlazil master is dying and can’t save you. In fact,” he twitched his spear point back and forth carelessly, “I won’t kill you. The men of my patrol need some entertainment, and though ugly, you will doubtless be adequate.”
Tlisli didn’t pay attention to the speech. She watched his spear twitch back and forth. He began to criticize her sword stance, pointing out that in that position, she would be best able to go for one of his toes. Tlisli remained quiet and just watched. Hours of being insulted by Azzesh had inured her to the sound of such criticism.
Suddenly he lunged forward, and swung his spear at her like a stick, aiming to hit her in the side and knock her over. That was Azzesh’s favorite punishment for inattentiveness during training, and this warrior wasn’t as good at it as was the Tlazil. As he swung she carefully angled her sword to catch the haft of the spear at just the right angle, and cut it nearly through. What was left was no longer functional as a spear.
He had his moment of surprise, and found himself too far forward. She got in one swing with her sword before he drew a long knife from his belt, but she only managed a cut–nothing disabling. Then he let out a war cry and turned to flee. Tlisli guessed he was calling to the remainder of the soldiers at the boat, and planning to to get them and return.
But now he learned the error of his ways. He had assumed that Azzesh was dying, too far gone even to employ any form of healing herbs or magic. But he was wrong. He had given her long enough to find and use a healing amulet. She was still not at full strength, but she was far from dying. As he turned to flee, she brought up her sword and very nearly cut him in two.
“Quick!” she said to Tlisli. “Get behind the crotch in that tree. His companions will be here in minutes. Keep an eye out for them trying to slip around, but I think they will abandon subtlety and come straight at us. We will gain the advantage with our arrows. I’ll check that these others are dead, though I believe they are.”
“How many do you think there are?”
“I would say about the same number again as we have already killed, but the advantage will be ours.”
And so it proved. In fact, there were only four more warriors who came to investigate, and they should not have done so. They came carefully, but were unprepared for what they found. When the first two in site sprouted arrows, all fled, but only three were left to run back to the river.
With a glance around at the bodies on the ground, Azzesh charged after them, and Tlisli followed. It was less than 40 meters to the river’s edge, where the boat was tied to a tree. The three fleeing warriors jumped into the boat while the one remaining warrior who was waiting there cut the rope with his knife. As he pushed away, both Azzesh and Tlisli loosed arrows. Then as Tlisli grabbed another arrow, Azzesh jumped into the water and grabbed the side of the boat. Her weight was substantial and the boat capsized, throwing the remaining warriors into the river where they were at a serious disadvantage over the amphibious Tlazil.
Then all that was left was to collect the spoils of battle …
* This is obviously a work of fiction. All places, persons, and even things are products of my imagination. Part of the Tlisli Series. Copyright © 2010 Henry E. Neufeld