Aya’s uncle was drowning her, and she had no idea why.
They were stopped at a shallow brook that crossed the road to Stonesport in order to water the hounds. After dismounting and leading the hounds to water, Rost had grabbed his canteen and bade Aya to do the same. They were kneeling down at the water’s edge to fill their containers, Aya chatting to her uncle about how much fun she was having, when Rost interrupted her in a harsh tone of voice.
Unsure of what he’d said, Aya was about to ask him why he was being so rude when she heard a growl. She looked over her shoulder and was startled to see Streak looking in her direction and baring his teeth. Was he staring at her? Wait, no. Not at her. Past her.
As she was turning to look in that direction she felt something slam against the back of her head. Whatever it was, it pushed her from her knees and down into the water before she could react, and suddenly her face was buried in the muddy streambed.
At first, Aya didn’t do anything. She was too surprised. She sensed that a hand was holding her head underwater. Rost? She tried to push herself up, but the hand was too strong.
Her own uncle. Why? She started to thrash her limbs, kicking, splashing, and screaming out what little air was left in her lungs under the water.
The hand released her, and her body rose from the brook with an involuntary motion. She tried to take a breath, but in doing so she inhaled a little water. She coughed and sputtered, which, coupled with the fact that for some reason she couldn’t see, caused her to lose her balance.
Falling backward in the water once again, she felt a furry creature brush past her. Streak? With her sight failing her, she concentrated her hearing while she tried to stand up in the water. There was a lot of splashing, but there were high-pitched squealing noises as well. Her uncle was yelling, probably at her. Once Aya was on her feet her hands went to her eyes and she wiped the mud off her face in order to see.
The first thing she saw was Streak and Auger, her uncle’s wardog, with strange grayish carcasses in their jowls, shaking them to and fro as if they were still live prey. She then turned to see one of the strange carcasses, this one very much alive, running at full speed towards her. In one hand it held a large club. Aya had little doubt was he was going to do with it.
Her first instinct was to pull the bow from her shoulders and shoot this slimy beast, but by the time she had her bow in hand the creature was nearly upon her. As it raised the club to strike, Aya, without thinking, swung her bow at the attacker’s head.
She got lucky. The end of her bow connected with the creature’s round, snout-like mouth. This hurt the beast enough for it to recoil in pain, and Aya quickly drew an arrow from her quiver and notched it to her bow. She was in such a hurry that she almost missed entirely. Her arrow found it’s target’s leg, and the creature let out a deafening, high-pitched cry.
Aya winced at the beast’s squeal. In doing so, she turned a little, and out of the corner of her eye she saw another one of these things coming for her. This one was a good distance away, however, and she let her arrow fly before he even got close. It didn’t occur to her that these creature’s anatomy may be different from that of the tunhee people, and so when the arrow hit the creature right where its heart should have been it surprised Aya when the ugly thing never broke stride.
Fitting another arrow to her bow, she took aim at the creature’s mouth. She missed, and hit the grey beast’s throat. It clutched at its neck for a moment before falling into the brook. Aya was relieved, but only until she heard that awful squeal again.
She turned back to where her first assailant was and saw it staggering towards her despite its injury. She backed off a few paces while targeting its throat, and when the arrow found it’s mark true, the squealing stopped. The slimy creature toppled over and did not stir.
She looked around her for more of these strange beasts, but saw none. She called her uncle’s name just as she saw him walk up the streambed towards her. His shotel was still out of its scabbard, but he was visibly relaxed. She took this an a sign the danger was past. She shouldered her bow and looked down at her hands. They would not stop trembling. No wonder she had shot so badly.
“Are you hurt?”
Aya looked up at Rost. “No,” she said.
Rost then walked over to see after Auger, who was still chewing on his victim. Aya had forgotten about Streak, and she looked around for him but did not see him. She called out to him, “Streeeeeeaaaaak!”
After listening a moment, she heard him padding up to her from the shoreline. She reasoned that he must have chased a few of those that fled. Aya examined her hound with great care, knowing that even superficial wounds can fester. She thanked the Spirits aloud once she was satisfied Streak was uninjured. She then turned to her uncle, who was now cleaning his blade.
Pointing at the carcasses, she asked “What are those things?”
“Spitters,” he said without looking at her. “They like to gather around water. They also like to ambush travelers. Whenever you stop for water you must keep alert. You never know what’s hiding just out of sight.”
Rost looked up at Aya with a blank expression, then broke into a smile. “You may want to wash your face, child.”
Aya felt her cheek, and the mud along with it. She knelt down it the water to splash some on her face while Rost continued talking.
“Yes, Spitters. They are called such because they eject some kind of burning venom from their mouths. That’s why I held you under the water. If I didn’t, you would be dead, or disfigured.”
Aya looked up at Rost, her face now clean. “You could have warned me,” she said.
“There wasn’t time, and you were talking so much already. Remember, child, stay alert. This is all new to you. New things may be fun, but they can be deadly as well.”
Those words resonated with fury within Aya. He was right. Up until this skirmish she had been having the time of her life. There was so much to be happy about, to be fascinated with. For the first time she felt free. Anything was possible.
She’d had to learn, by observation, how to live on the trail, but that had a certain joy to it as well. Watching Rost go about his travel routines was easy, and she did as he did, and it was always to her benefit.
And now, with this fight, came the realization that this was serious. They were doing this for a reason, and what just happened proved that there would be times when life would hang in the balance. Aya had a growing, lurching sort of feeling in the center of her guts. She had stopped trembling, but the shock was still with her. Rost’s next words brought her out of her introspection.
“Still, you didn’t do too bad, not for your first real fight. I saw you smack that one with your bow. That shows good instinct. You would not have had time to shoot. Of course, if you knew how to use a shotel you could have been more effective. Didn’t you have a blade with you?”
Aya gave a sheepish grin. “I left my knife in my saddlebag.”
Rost shook his head. “A knife? That’s all you brought?”
“Well I can fix that,” Rost said, and he sheathed his own blade and walked over to his mount.
Aya wasn’t too happy about being expected to carry a blade. She just wasn’t very good with one. But she could not have been more confused with what her uncle retrieved from his saddlebag.
He held out what looked to be a small iron rod, not much longer than her forearm. One end of the rod had five finlike protrusions jutting out from a round mass of metal. She took it in her hand. It was a little heavy, but not too much.
“I’m told you use it like a club,” Rost said. “Just hit whatever you’re fighting with the big end. I’m sure you can handle it.”
“What is it?”
“The humans call it a mace.”
Now this was intriguing. “How did you ever acquire a human weapon, eh uncle?”
Rost shot Aya a strange grin. “An old friend gave it to me.”
“Oh,” she said. “A human friend. Funny, I didn’t think you got along with them.”
“There are a great many things you do not know child, particularly about me.”
Aya knew her uncle well enough to know not to press a matter once he had made a statement like that.