“Haggen! Did you kill the runner?” Jispin understood enough of the Thune tongue to get the gist of the question. He grunted back a nondescript reply as he nocked an arrow and headed back for the embankment, giving his new weapon a few quick test draws. A good weapon. The arrows were straight and well-made, as expected of a race of horse-archers.
Jispen quickly and silently circled upstream before he approached the treeline.
“Haggen!” called the second Thune soldier again softly, peering across at where Jispin and the first rider had disappeared into the trees. It was a little further than he’d have liked, at least forty yards. Jispin drew the arrow to his cheek and loosed it through a small gap in the foliage. The twang of the bowstring brought the soldier’s eyes around in a flash to his direction, and a brought an instinctual and sudden movement to dodge as well. The bow was not quite as strong as Jispin thought – the arrow hit low and plunged through the soldiers leg, the saddle blanket, and into the pony’s flank.
The slightly injured pony bucked once, but it wasn’t enough to throw the soldier: Thune were master horsemen, born to the saddle. But the hit was more than a minor wound. Pinning the leg to his mount as it did, it wasn’t a mere flesh wound to ignore. He brought his steed under control with knees and reigns and wheeled the pony around while he reached down to pull the offending missile out. It gave Jispin time for another shot. A proper height, but the range and sound of the bowstring gave his target time to lean far backward and dodge. The arrow hit his shoulder, skittering just underneath the leather shoulder guard and entangling in the loose clothing. A minor scratch and an inconvenient piece of wood and metal jammed into a place where it interfered with the free movement of his arm.
However, it was enough convince the Thune rider that the boy was more than met the eye at first, and a tactical fall-back to reassess the situation was in order. A strong recon force or avenging army would be rightfully observed and reported back – but a lone scavenger should just be dealt with.
Jispin watched as the Thune tribesman spurred his mount, leaning low over the far side of the creature to use it as a shield, and galloped rapidly out of easy bowshot. Once at a safe distance, the man removed the arrow stuck in the folds of his clothing, then kept an eye on the stream and woodline while he took care of the more troubling arrow in his leg.
Jispin briefly considered the obvious options: mount and ride like the wind, hoping his lone opponent would not pursue, flee on foot, hide and ambush his wary and now alerted foe, attack in the open before the man – apparently a battle-toughened veteran – was ready to do fight again. None of the choices were appealing.
He returned to the tethered pony and quickly took what he could easily carry, little more than a few day’s supply of food as the saddle bags had nothing light of value beyond that and a few more weapons he didn’t need. Then he untied the reins, pointed it south, deeper into the woods, and slapped its haunch. “Hee-yah! Run! Run like the wind!” he shouted at it.
The sturdy little pony bolted and ran, riderless.
Jispin nocked an arrow and sunk into the shadows of the canopy to await in ambush, hoping his target would hurry after the thudding of hooves. He heard the Thune curse and mount, then approaching hoof-beats. But they were not heading directly his way; they circled around, rapidly splashing into the water well downstream and out of sight. He ran to intercept, but the galloping pony was too fast, and he’d waited too long before he’d realized the circle-and-cut-off tactic. He didn’t know why exactly the nomadic tribesman was doing what he was doing, but it fouled his ambush plan terribly. He paused and listened intently.
The muffled sound of hooves hitting thick moss in the forest quickened, then another call and low whistling click, then a responding whinny and snort. The sounds of human and horse fell silent in the damp, well-padded wild. Cat and mouse it is, I guess. They were now hunting one another in the woods. Both were alert and wary, and had some idea where the other was at least recently.
For the next hour they circled around and around, silently sneaking about trying to catch the other off guard and looking the other way. Both had hearing so keen that sneaking very close was difficult as to be nearly impossible. But both had reflexes so fast when when either managed to take a shot at the other with an arrow, it was dodged – if only just barely. Both had three very close calls.
The Thune – Hogol, he said his name was – tried to taunt him out into dropping the bows and having blade-to-blade combat, “like men.” Though Jispin was as tall as the now-afoot horseman, he thought it was an even-odds match at best against the full-grown, obviously experienced, and wiry Thune, who also carried a much longer saber than the short gladius Jispin had, even if he did toss his bow aside, which was unlikely.
The darkness of night was falling fast, and it looked to be a moonless night under thick clouds with no town’s torchlight nearby. Jispin hadn’t seen Hogol for a while, sowent back for the watercourse, crossing it as silently as possible a good quarter mile upstream from the first time.Still no sign of horses or Thune rider. He crept with cautious stealth low in the grass, flitting like a shadow from bush to low spot. He remembered a small rock outcrop in the middle of the fields further west. If he could get to that, it would be a good hiding spot, with decent visibility and solid backup. It would likely tempt the Thune plainsman to make charge and big show of riding for intimidation, and he might make a foolish mistake. A good place for a stand.