Aiella Leigh pulled her horse to a stop at what seemed like the thousandth tree of the day. As she dismounted and set her horse to graze, she glanced appreciatively at the heavy stand of trees in the thicket. It was good to be a bowyer in this part of Britannia, where oak, walnut, and o’hii rubbed shoulders with massive Yew trees. The wood was plentiful around her small brick house; the occasional ettin or giant spider that wandered through made the tedious chopping interesting. She was getting to be a fair hand using the axe as a weapon as well as a tool, although she preferred to use the sturdy bows that she crafted herself to protect herself, if need be.
Recently, it seemed, a lot of people felt the same way. Aiella could barely keep her bows in stock; the hundreds of arrows that she had stocked only the day before were gone. Many of Britannia’s citizens apparently preferred to take on the jukas from a safe distance using archery or magic. She could hardly complain about the business, of course. It paid her vendors and provided gold for anything she might want or need.
“Enough of this,” she said aloud. “We have work to do.”
Before long, Aiella had fallen into the comfortable rhythm of chopping the wood and securing it in her llama’s pack. To her surprise, she worked undisturbed as Rama’s pack filled quickly with the wood she would need for dozens of bows, arrows, and bolts. It wasn’t until she had ridden north a ways, nearly to the city of Yew, that she began to realize that something was amiss. Duke, her normally steady riding horse, began to prance from one side to the next rather than trot forward on the path toward the settlement. Even fat Rama, who rarely showed interest in anything other than the fruits and grains she fed him, refused her command to follow. She peered cautiously through the trees in the direction that her animals gazed, ready to jab Duke with her heels if flight seemed like a good idea. Something was definitely moving up ahead.
Instead of the Juka that she had anticipated seeing, an indistinct shape shambled toward her. She grasped her axe, wishing that she had bows instead of wood in Rama’s pack. It was something that she had never seen before—and in these unsettled times that could not be good. If it had not seen her, and had only been following the path as a matter of course, perhaps she stood a good chance to escape whatever it was. She quietly commanded Rama to follow again and urged Duke off the path, intending to walk him discreetly toward the northeast, and home. Though she hoped that she wouldn’t have to fight it, she continued to hold her axe at the ready.
The creature barely seemed to notice as she rode within mere yards of it. It was difficult for her to tell where the beast stopped and the forest floor began, as if it were growing from the ground itself. It was as tall as an average-sized man, yet not like a man at all—and the breeze carried the stench of rotting vegetation over the three of them from its direction. Rama bleated and galloped off in a panic, drawing the creature’s attention. Aiella clapped her heels into Duke’s sides. He needed no urging to follow the fleeing llama. Even as they left the creature behind, however, the foul odor seemed to ensnare them from all sides. Far from retreating, Rama seemed to be leading her into the thick of the creatures. Aiella glanced over her shoulder to see if they’d left the one behind at least, only to find that now two were pursuing her, the new one smaller and more humanoid than the first.
It couldn’t be! She hadn’t seen the second one anywhere nearby; it was as if it had sprung from the rotting vegetation. Ahead she could see another two—no, four—of the creatures. Aiella used all of her strength to turn Duke from them, toward the safety of the moongate, until she realized that a single warrior was being engulfed by their attacks. She once again turned the confused riding horse, sending him into the middle of the battle. Her axe swinging, she set upon the creature nearest the warrior. As the creature let out its death rattle, Aiella took the time to leap from Duke’s back.
“Duke, attack!” she yelled over the clamor of the melee.
Aiella fell in once again beside the warrior, without pausing to see if the horse obeyed. One glance from the corner of her eye told her all she needed to know about him. His armor had great gashes where rings had been destroyed; blood flowed from many wounds. She had not trained in field medicine, but she could tell she could do little for him, even if they should both survive. But together they had a better chance at survival, even in his weakened state. Finally, five creatures lay stretched dead before them and the air was still.
The battle had not been won without a cost. Rama was dead and Duke limped badly on one of his hind legs. The warrior—whose name she still did not know, swayed unsteadily as he tried to bandage himself. It did not seem like a good idea to remain much longer. There was no telling when the sixth creature had escaped, or where it had gone. If it returned, even if it returned alone, they would not survive another attack.
“Get on my horse,” she said to the warrior. She dragged him to his feet, sending his bandages flying in every direction. The wounded man put up a weak protest as she pulled him toward Duke. As she fought to get him on the horse’s back he crumpled to the ground.
“It was like fighting quicksilver… they never stopped growing,” he said in a soft voice, shot through with amazement. His eyes closed for a final time.
Aiella dropped to her knees to examine the warrior. He was dead. She would not struggle to get him away, not with a wounded horse and no assistance. She’d mark the place where he’d died and return—she needed the wood from Rama, in any case. As she rose from the ground, something caught her eye. The warrior had fallen near one of the creatures. Between them, on the ground, were a few oddly shaped seed-like objects in strange bright colors. Curiously but with haste, Aiella scooped up a handful and put them in her pouch. She mounted Duke and trotted him in the direction of the moongate. As the horse’s hoof left the ground its print began to fill with murky water. A few moments later the ground began to shift as vines and grasses slowly congealed into a mass that throbbed faster and faster as it grew.
From the Britannia News Network - The Journal of Ultima Online, April 25th, 2002.