Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sample Sunday: A Ride Through Hell and Back

The night brightened as lightning forked across the sky. I flinched, but at least, in the sudden flash of light, I could see the stranger moving ahead of us on the narrow trail. I had feared we'd lost him in the worsening weather. We'd been lucky he came along when the carriage floundered on the road. He showed us the path to higher ground, but even this narrow, hard-packed trail had turned to a mucky morass in the downpour. The road below had likely flooded by now.

My horse protested again and came to a sudden stop. I'd been leading the animal on foot for the last quarter mile, arguing with the animal the entire way. I yanked on the reins, even though I knew it wouldn't help.

"Let him go, Lauren," Janus said, slapping the beast on the haunch and nearly winning a hoof on his foot. "That damn horse is going to get us all killed!"

"You're free to go on without me." I pulled the horse aside so the other two could pass. We'd met a few hours before when we boarded the carriage and I didn't trust them much, even though I didn't actually want to be left behind, either. "I'm not leaving the horse. Once this storm passes, I have no intention of walking to the next town. We're in the middle of nowhere."


The trust was that I didn't dare get caught without transportation -- caught being the important word. I am a professional thief, though I hadn't told my traveling companions about my occupation. They were both larger than me and even the surly carriage driver appeared inclined to mayhem at the slightest provocation. A bag full of jewels, to which I could claim dubious ownership, might be provocation enough.

When the stranger came and helped extricate us from the mud, I had untied my horse from the carriage and brought him along while the driver turned the other two beasts free. Now the recalcitrant animal disagreed with me again, head shaking as he tried to back away.

I pulled at the reins, wishing I knew his name. I had -- well -- acquired him rather quickly this last dawn, right after I finished work in Acklin. I'd ridden all night to Bowith and caught the carriage post there, where people had thought I'd spent the night in a room at the Inn.

I wasn't getting far and if things didn't change, I might be forced to use my less reliable magical skills to get out of this mess. The only good thing about the weather was how the downpour would slow anyone coming after me as well. I just needed to stay ahead of the pursuit.

The farmer reached the top of the hill and stopped. I could see him outlined by frantic lightning rushing across the sky at quick intervals. I decided being at the top of the hill might not be wise, but the others trudged up the hillside. The farmer had said there was shelter nearby, which probably meant the other side of the rise.

I didn't want to be out here alone where robbers preyed on single travelers.

"Come along, you obstinate beast, or I'll leave you here to drown. I only need the blanket, you know."

The horse bared teeth at me: Just my luck to find such a bad tempered animal in a city full of fine steeds. I'd had enough of the creature. A glance showed the others nearly to the top of the hill where the stranger waited. I cursed and grabbed at the saddle, intending to loosen the cinch and pull the blanket free along with the small, leather bag of jewels I'd tied into the cloth. They might think I only wanted to make certain I had something for warmth when we reached wherever the farmer led us. Besides, unsaddling the horse was a kindness I would do even for this brute. I wouldn't turn the horse loose weighed down with something he might on a branch and never get free.

I had my fingers on the cinch when the animal neighed and took a step backward, pulling me down in the mud. Cursing under my breath, I glanced back to see if my companions saw this new embarrassment.

They still scrambled up the hillside where --

Where something other than a man now stood.

I thought what I saw an illusion in the first flash of lighting. I sat unmoving in the mud and stared, making myself not blink. The next flash of light confirmed the last. What stood upon that hilltop had a huge, horned head and massive arms. The next flash made the image twice as horrific, mostly because a second joined the first horrific figure. Then a third. I saw the glint of metal in their hands, and suspected they didn't hold nice farmer's hoes, either.

"Good horse," I whispered, taking hold of the stirrup and preparing to stand. "Damn good horse. You're right. We do not want to go up there."

I pulled myself up from the mud and muck and cautiously made certain I hadn't loosened the cinch after all. Those were Devildins, though I had thought no tribe existed in the kingdom. The sight of the creatures set my hands shaking and I had to fight away old memories..

By the time I got to the saddle, the first of my companions had almost reached the crest of the hill. Though no friends of mine, I couldn't just ride off

"Devildins!" I shouted, despite my better judgment against drawing attention. "On the hilltop!"

I spun the horse and raced for my life back down toward the flooded road. Better to drown rather than to fall to these monsters.

Someone screamed, spooking the horse and me. The mount nearly lost his footing on the slick, muddy trail and I had to grab tighter hold of the pommel. Another scream, but soon the sound of the storm covered whatever happened behind us. I fought the urge to look back. I didn't want to know or to see a scene replayed from my own childhood. I had nightmares enough.

I realized more Devildins stood on the trail between me and the flooded lowlands. They obviously intended to make certain no one got away. The storm had covered all sound of them.

The horse reacted far more quickly than I could have when the first raced forward. With a scream of terror and anger, he rose up, battering the Devildin with his hooves, while I held on. The animal went down with a grunt and the horse trampled the creature as we headed off the trail.

I wasn't as keen on that part since I couldn't see much around us. Horses didn't have exactly the best night sight, either. Soon we passed through a small stand of trees, branches trying to knock me from the saddle. I flattened myself to the horse's rain-slick neck, the hard pommel pressing against my shoulder as I held on. The enemy came after us with their wild, inhuman screams, getting too close, even with the horse rushing pell-mell through the trackless hillside.

A Devildin raced forward and caught my leg, nearly dragging me from the saddle. I kicked it in the face and nearly got free before claws dug into my leg.

I screamed as much in panic as pain. The horse, wise creature, took the sound as a sign that I really wanted to go quickly and he found the swiftest way down the hill.

He leapt straight over a cliff.

For a moment we flew. The Devildin screamed and let go of my leg, and I heard it hit with a dull thump against the stony outcrop. The horse hit the ground and went down on its forelegs with a gasp. We slid in the mud.

I don't know how I held on until the horse rose and stood motionless in the rain. Lightning flashed all around us. I shivered from both cold and pain as I twisted to see behind me.

And wished I hadn't. I could see, in the intermittent flashes of bright light, the Devildins lined atop of the cliff, with even more coming down the hillside at us.

"Run, friend," I whispered to the horse, wrapping the reigns tight around my hand and leaning forward. My leg, at least, didn't seem to bleed much. The boot had stopped the creature from digging the claws in too deeply. "If you have anything left in you, run for your life."

He tried, but he'd injured his right rear leg when we landed. He took several limping steps forward, shuddered to a stop and nearly went down. I had no choice but to do something daring.
A Ride through Hell and Back is on sale at Smashwords for $0.99

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