Four of the line drew back their strong recurve bows of horn and wood.On command they fired as one. Jispin ducked, flattening himself on the ground, then bouncing back up, once again armed with two swords and a challenge on his face. “Kurgen are better than any Thune! You disgrace your parents, if they even know who you are!”
“Hold!” said the vanguard leader, and older man with a weathered face and a bit of horsetail and a small pennon on his spear. “Take him alive. He may be a worthy slave for the gladiator pits of Malalaboor.” Bows were slung and whips, bolos, and lassos came out. The attack was well coordinated and overwhelming; when Jispin drew his arm hurl his gladius again, a whip, then another, flicked around it with blinding speed. Bolos around the saber and his feet slowed him down, then roped around his neck made him a little more careful as the whips jerked him off his feet. The outcome was not in doubt, but he made them work for it. Before his hands were tied and a neck rope secured to a saddlebow more than one Thune warrior was smarting from a vicious kick, head-butt, punch, or knee to the groin. By the time the rest of the villagers – a sad looking lot even by local standards – caught up, the riders charged with securing him were wary of him, hated him for all the injuries he caused and constant undiminished disrespect he showed them… but they respected his energy, resourcefulness, and raw defiance that the Thune valued.
The old man leaned down out of his saddle to examine the finally secured but hardly subdued Jispin. “Yes. You are indeed Kurgen,” he said with a calculating and gap-toothed grin. “An army pursues us. We must move fast. So now… you run. Run like the wind, boy. If you fall before we stop, you will be dragged by your neck. If you stop before any of them-” he pointed to the villagers “-you die. If they fall before you stop, they die. If you kill any more of our people, you die. By nightfall we will drink from the Tehomic River. You will see its waters this day, Kurgen, or the carrion crows will have your eyes.”
The villagers looked on at the proceedings with trepidation. Some knew enough of the language to get the gist of it, and they translated it to the rest in already tired whispers, and the anguish was great.
Their little stream joined the much larger Tehomic a good fifty miles away.
The raiding party kicked their ponies, clicked their tongues, and started to trot.
It was the steady ground-eating pace that let them rule the plains. For them, fifty miles in a day was nothing. But for the villagers – weary, underfed, in foul weather on broken ground, and afoot – it would be brutal. Jispin eyed the group that now surrounded him. He didn’t think many of them would last to nightfall. But they were not his problem. Making it to nightfall himself was. He started running.
The Thune kept a steady pace. It was less than an hour before the first woman stumbled and fell. She was lanced and cut loose from the rope stringing a line of captives together without missing a beat. Her scream lasted only a moment. She was but the first of many to litter their path.
Jispin saw a small stream ahead they’d have to cross. He urged his string to the fore of the cluster, ignoring their foreign cursing as he helped, cajoled, pulled, and shoved them ahead.
When they hit the stream, he slowed to a walk and drank, scooping up water as fast as he could gulp it down, still standing and moving, but slaking a deep thirst. The others did the same. They fell to the back of the group, giving as much time as possible to drink, but he kept them moving. It wasn’t enough, but it was much more than nothing. The ponies trotted, the captives ran. By the second hour more had dropped and died where they lay, gasping out their last breaths on the cold winter ground, then around the colder Thune steel in their chest.
In the third hour, one string of captive middle-aged men and women, just stopped. All together as a group. One declared in a loud voice “We will go no further. We stand as one before the gods. You must release us!” The words were grand, but they were blurted out between gasping breath and heaving sides.
The string leader looked at them and laughed. “Stand as one? Before your gods?”
“All of you? You stand to all your glorious, mighty gods?”
The rest nodded agreement.
The Thune raider kneed his pony forward and lanced a woman in the gut. “Then you all shall meet them.” He lanced another. “But you,” he pointed his lance at the first speaker, “will go last.” He slid off his pony and cut the scalps from his first two still victims, who were dying but still very much alive. The rest were held at bay by other Thune with bows drawn. When he was finished the rider tossed a lasso around the foot of one of the men and remounted, looping the other end around his pommel and started to ride. The unfortunate villager was nearly pulled off his feet, and they quickly realized he’d have to hop on one foot, with help. “Help him,” the Thune called over his shoulder, laughing harshly. “You are as one.”
They’d gone not a mile further when he fell and couldn’t get back up. He was drug, pony straining, until he was clearly not merely unconscious, but quite dead. He was freed, then with lash and lasso the next man in the string was tied to a different pony by the foot, and forced to hop with help until he fell, whereupon he too, was dragged to death. Bets were made by nearby riders as to how long he’d last, and how long the next one could go. The man who’d spoken up, apparently a leading man in the village, looked both horrified and physically at the end of his strength, but he was forced to watch as one by one his friends and neighbors were drug to death because he’d ask them to stop and go no further. He learned all too vividly what fate awaited him.
Jispin and those who could ran on.