Despite the danger they brought, she did not hate the centaurs. It was just sport to them, they did not know better. Did not understand. Nnene knew the risks in leaving while the two moons filled the sky. But, a deal was a deal. And if Iyawa could deliver on her end…
Time for that later. Right now, all Nnene needed to focus on was getting back home, to Dijau. Was this the right way? The blades are so tall in this field. At least the rain had stopped and the sky cleared.
She was tiring. Her legs felt loose, her lungs ablaze. Hooves beat the earth behind her. What energy she had left propelled her forward, and she tried to brace herself for the impact of their crude pikes. If this was the right way, she should be in Dijau soon. Nnene clenched the amulet she had retrieved in a pinch-tight grip.
The thundering hooves could no longer be heard. She allowed herself a brief pause to catch her breath. Nnene held up the amulet, reflecting moonslight onto her face. Was it worth it? Why did Iyawa want this so bad? Iyawa didn’t typically explain herself to the people she sent out like this.
Her breathing was nearly back to normal. Time to move.
Not ten feet further a rope came out of nowhere and pulled tight. Nnene tripped and fell down into the mud, sending the amulet flying. They had lead her into a trap. Nnene rolled to the side just as a pair of bloodied hooves slammed down right where she was.
A centaur loomed over her, its face expressionless. It clenched a crude pike in its thick hands, and was poised to strike. More hooves beat in the distance.
Nnene rolled again as death plunged into the ground next to her. She scrambled to her feet as the centaur pulled its pike out of the mud. Dijau had to be close, forget the amulet.
A soft light glowed on the horizon. Dijau. A new strength rose up in Nnene with home in sight. The centaurs were gaining on her again, and would soon overtake her.
The wooden gate to the city creaked open slightly and a guardsman poked his head out. “Hurry, inside!” he looked over his shoulder, “Centaurs!”
Nnene pulled a scarf up around her face as she neared the gate. Arrows were loosed from over the aged walls, keeping the beasts at bay. The gate guard held out his hand to her. She ignored it and shoved past him, dashing into Dijau. She was down an alley and in the shadows before any of the guard could get a good look at her.
The roof was leaking again. Nnene rolled out of her cot and wiped the rain off her forehead. She only got a couple hours of sleep, and winced as she moved through the bunkhouse. There was no time for rest, Iyawa was waiting for her.
“Where were you last night?” Golibe, one of Nnene’s housemates, was heading out the door just as she was.
“Working.” No need for details.
“Not for Iyawa again, I hope. Out all night, and coming home cut up and bruised, only to leave again before the sun rises. Sounds like Iyawa...”
“This is the last job. I won’t need to work for her anymore after this.”
“I’ve heard this before.”
“Need to get going. I’ll be back tonight,” she said and stepped out into the rain.
“Watch yourself around that sorceress!” Golibe called, heading off on his own way.
The streets were crowded, even this early in the day. She kept her head on a swivel. It was still close enough to night that pickpockets and other thugs could still be about. Working for Iyawa, chances were slim Nnene had anything to worry about. Still, it payed to be cautious.
Iyawa lived in a stout tower tucked away where no roads reached. She was one of the last heretic sorceresses in Dijau. Temple wanted her kind dead, so she preferred to stay off the beaten path. Not that any of guard would dare confront her, regardless of Temple’s wishes. Half were on her payroll, and they all feared Iyawa more than Temple.
After navigating the maze of alleyways Nnene finally arrived at the tower. She took a deep breath before rapping the iron knocker against the door. As it opened she was met by a waist-high man leaning against a walking stick as tall as she was. His alabaster skin looked well-worn and thoroughly creased.
“Ludewicus. I’m here for Iyawa.”
Ludewicus eyed Nnene up and down for a moment. “You haven’t the amulet.”
“It’s just outside the gate. A hundred yards. That should be close enough. I want my spell.”
“Lady Iyawa will not be paying for a job half finished. We told you the amulet only shows itself under the two moons, full,” he closed his eyes and tilted his head. When he spoke again his voice was steady, and with an edge. “You have until the next full moons to bring it to us. If Lady Iyawa does not have it by the end of that night, then that night will be your last.”
“What? I--” The door closed.
The rain continued to pick up as Nnene made her way home. Was it death either way, then? She barely escaped last time. Would luck be enough for a second time? Maybe she could flee. The way to Udalo was treacherous as well. Nnene could not recall ever hearing about anyone braving that journey with anything less than a small army and surviving. So, death that way as well.
By the time Nnene had reached her door she had made her decision. Iyawa was going to get her damned amulet, and Nnene was going to get her spell as payment.
She was going to need some help.
“You want to leave Dijau, at night, under the moons?” Golibe leaned back in his seat. “It’s suicide! You know the centaurs have their hunting ceremonies under the moons, right?”
“Of course I do, I barely escaped them last time,” Nnene replied. “But they rarely use the same area twice in a row, and we only need to go out about a hundred yards.”
“And then what? Dig around in the mud and dirt looking for this trinket, dodging who-knows-what? The savanna is dangerous enough during the day!”
“The amulet is shiny, unusually shiny. Should be easy to spot under the moonslight.”
“Golibe. she’s is coming after me if I don’t do this. You’re good, great, with a spear. No one else will help.”
“Damn that heretic,” he put his face in his hands. “Fine. We need to figure out how to get passed the guards at the gate.”
“Already know a way. Trust me.”
Nnene peeked around the corner of the building she and Golibe hid behind. She eyed the streets above one of the man-made canals that ran through the ancient stone parts of Dijau. There was a grate where the canal met the wall and eventually joined the Kenue River. Nnene had loosened a small portion of the grate for her last trip out. Hopefully it was still loose, and hopefully she would have the opportunity to use it on the way back in this time.
“There will be a break in the guards’ patrols shortly,” she said.
Golibe nodded. He bore a spear and shield, with a sling tucked in his belt. He was tense, knowing that the guards had reason enough to arrest either of them on sight. One of side affects of their less-than-noble careers.
“Now!” Nnene ran to the wall and jumped down to the grate, Golibe on her heels.
She felt around the metal grate for the loosened section. After using it last she had pulled it shut to obscure her secret exit. It should be down towards the bottom here. The guards should be coming by again any second now…
Nnene’s heart sank- there was a shiny new bolt in the grate. She looked up at Golibe and his eyes went wide as he saw it as well. Thinking quickly, he jammed the butt of his spear into a particularly rusted section of the grate and leveraged it with all his weight. Guards’ footfalls could be heard faintly. Metal creaked, and Nnene squeezed through the new opening. Golibe, however, was broader than her and his hips caught on the grate. Nnene grabbed his shoulders and threw her feet against the grate. A moment of pulling, and they both tumbled free down into the rain and mud.
They both sat there panting under the moonslight. No sounds of alarm rose from beyond the wall. Nnene and Golibe were safe from jail, but found themselves in the untamed savanna.
“Off to a great start,” Golibe observed.
Nnene grunted her response as she got up and wiped herself off. She had hoped for a more subtle exit. No need to draw unwanted attention this side of the wall. Still, they weren’t caught, so things weren’t too bad.
Golibe lifted himself with his spear and took in their surroundings. The night breeze made gentle waves in grass. Clouds filled the sky, but the rain was light at the moment. As far as Golibe could tell, they were alone. He nodded to Nnene, and followed closely behind her.
She moved slowly through the grass, eyes to the ground. Golibe knew well enough to keep his eyes up so she didn’t have to. All Nnene had to go on was a hazy idea of where she fell. It all happened so fast, and any tracks she might have left would have washed away over the last month.
“Wait,” Golibe whispered.
He squinted and gestured ahead. “There. A glimmer, can you see it?”
It took a second but Nnene saw the faint flecks of light as well. How is that possible with the clouds? Doesn’t matter now. Nnene darted over to the amulet. Maybe this was going to be easy after all. She was finally going to get that spell from Iyawa.
Nnene could swear the amulet nearly glowed with the moonslight as she held it in her hand. There was something supernatural about this thing, something heretical. She stared at it intently, almost missing the shadowy shape slowly approaching them.
“Down!” she whispered.
They both dropped prone in the mud. Nnene struggled to quiet her breathing. Couldn’t be a centaur, the moons were barely even visible this time. What, then?
“Zija,” said Golibe.
Nnene’s heart leaped into her throat. Zija were dangerous monstrosities, almost as bad as centaurs. Black and dingy-yellow stripes stretched across its gaunt body. Some sort of terrifying mix between a wild horse and a massive cat, the zija were the stuff of nightmares. Very few had faced one and lived.
A slow growl reached out towards Nnene and Golibe.
Golibe’s grip tightened on his spear. He knew there was no way they could outrun it. He needed to do something, and fast. Adrenaline filled his veins and his body surged up. Golibe rushed forward, the first few steps awkward in the mud. He prayed silently that it would not cost him his life as he and the zija met.
Claws raked his shield and the weight of the beast caused him to slide back several paces. He stabbed around the shield finding purchase for just a moment before the zija shoved off. It let out a shriek that chilled both Golibe and Nnene to the bone.
Golibe steeled himself and lunged at the beast as it tried to flank him. He misjudged the distance though, and buried the point too deep in the zija’s side. The spear was yanked out of his grip as the zija continued to dart around and then maul him from the side.
Nnene saw them both fall to the ground. She lay still for what felt like hours. The night, however, did not lift. Seconds, then? Pushing away her fear, Nnene finally urged herself up and over to where Golibe fell.
The zija was heavy, much more than it looked. Nnene struggled in the rain and mud against the dead weight. When it finally shifted and let out its final breath, there lay Golibe. Gurgling and with his throat slashed.
Everything went numb in Nnene’s world. Golibe was the closest thing to a friend she had. He didn’t even want to come out here, she had convinced him. What was the last thing she said to him? Something about guards? No, a single word of warning.
The amulet grew hot in her hand. She held it up, and through her tears could see that it was no longer just glimmering in the moonslight. The amulet now glowed on its own. Gentle tendrils of white light slowly arced downward to Golibe, wrapping his body in a soft embrace. His whole body seemed to glow.
As it subsided, Nnene could see that his wounds were closed, barely a scar remained. His eyes slowly opened.
“Nnene? What happened?”
Nnene crouched down just outside the light of the torches that burned atop Dijau’s wall. There were an unusual amount of people patrolling it. Are those clubs they hold? Nnene moved closer and squinted. They all bore swords.
“What?” Golibe was still with her. He had recovered surprisingly fast, but was exhausted and leaned on her for support.
“Temple on the walls. We forgot to cover the grate up.”
Temple soldiers were dangerous. The foreign weapons they used, and knew how to use, were wicked. They didn’t leave Temple very often, but when they did it was clear how highly they thought of themselves. Waltzing through the city with a swagger, bossing guards and citizens around. Most knew to avoid eye contact and not interact with the soldiers from Temple.
“The gate, the guards,” said Golibe.
Nnene threw him a concerned look. How rattled was his head? Would he recover? “Yes, Golibe. There are guards at the gate.”
“Yes. They’re guards.”
She almost smiled as she realized what he meant. His mind was still all there, he was just tired and having trouble talking. There were guards at the gate. Not Temple soldiers. Nnene stayed low and slow as she moved through the grass, supporting Golibe, over to where she was facing the gate. Two guards stood at it.
One was definitely familiar. She had just shoved past him a week ago, breaking back into the city. Nnene hoped the plan that was forming in her head worked.
She waited until two Temple patrols passed, one on the wall and one in front, before darting over to the guard she recognized.
“Hey! You--” he started
“Shh! You need to let me in,” Nnene said.
“What? And lose my hands, worse my head? These are Temple soldiers, girly.”
“We’re already having a conversation. Won’t that be just as bad for them? Might as well let me in.”
“Don’t think so, girly,” he lowered his spear at her and Golibe, who had just now made it over. “We’ll give you to them and stay in their good graces.”
“Wouldn’t you rather stay in a sorceress’ good graces?” Nnene asked. This was the gamble. Unless they were both on her payroll, this probably wouldn’t go over well.
“Think she is, Mardav. Seen her going in and out of those alleys before,” the other guard cut in.
Mardav eyed Nnene and Golibe closely. Nnene was starting to sweat, she had no idea how soon the Temple patrols would pass by again. If they passed again soon, or Mardav decided to turn them in, it was over for her and Golibe.
Voices from the patrol on the wall nearing cut through the tense moment. “Fine. Quick, then.” They cracked the gate open, and Nnene slipped in and out of sight once again, this time followed by Golibe.
“Lady Iyawa is not happy with you,” Ludewicus leaned heavily on his staff, “and demands to see you immediately.”
Nnene rolled her eyes as she moved past the old man. She had come here right after getting Golibe home and resting. The moons were setting, so her time was short.
Iyawa’s chamber was smaller than most would imagine. Still, the room was richly furnished and did not disappoint. Various tapestries of intricate design hung from the walls, exotic rugs were strewn across the floor. A hand-carved desk was on display in the center of the room. Magical curiosities cluttered the chamber along with crowded bookshelves and potted plants.
“You used my amulet.” Iyawa stepped into the room from behind a set of multicolored curtains. Her robes were elaborately embroidered and her head hairless, covered in arcane tattoos. “Now why would you go and do that?”
“I didn’t do anything,” Nnene said. “It acted on its own.”
“Quite convenient. You need the amulet’s magic, and suddenly it decides to act on its own.”
“Doesn’t feel very convenient right now. And I didn’t even know what it could do!”
“Listen here, darling,” Iyawa lifted the amulet from Nnene’s grasp and placed a hand on her cheek. “I won’t be able to use this for another two months, two lunar cycles. This job is half done, so I will only half punish you. You have a week to try to run and hide.”
Iyawa turned and placed the amulet onto a pedestal. She then leaned against her desk, looking at Nnene expectantly.
“It’s not half done,” Nnene knew she had to think fast. “You… asked for the amulet, and I got it for you.”
“Two cycles until I can use what you have brought me. You know what I was meaning when I sent you out on this job.”
“Don’t see how what you thought you implied matters. I did what was asked of me.”
Anger flashed across Iyawa’s face. Nnene could briefly feel the pressure in the room change, like a thunderstorm fast approaching. She started to second guess standing up to the heretic sorceress in her own tower. If Iyawa killed her here, would anyone ever know?
A smile stretched across Iyawa’s face but did not meet her eyes. The room gradually returned to normal. “One spell. Then you never let me see you again. What will it be?”
Nnene shooed away the cat while she tossed seed to her chickens. It was a young and feisty cat, but it eventually got the idea. Now that a couple of months had passed, Nnene could finally admit that a small part of herself missed Dijau. She knew she would never go back, at least not for a very long time.
She still wrote to Golibe on occasion. They were both trying their best to live honestly now. He had found work as a guard, surprisingly enough. As far as Nnene knew, Golibe has so far been successful in resisting Iyawa’s temptations.
And Nnene had her small plot of land just outside Ubalo. It was quiet, and she worked for herself. No more dodging guards, running from Temple, or facing death threats.
From the doorway of her modest home she could see beyond the farms of Ubalo all the way to the savanna surrounding Dijau.
Nnene took a deep breath, and smiled.
©November, 2017 J. S. Alexander
J. S. Alexander has not been previously published. He blogs about Dungeons & Dragons at js-alexander.com.