by Chip Dunning
“The enemy of my enemy is not my friend nor is he my enemy – he is nothing to me.”
— Ancient Proverb
It was hot in the village of Topan and all Akbar could think of was the pitcher of fruit juice that sat in a nearby tent. He had been on guard duty for the past six hours as the sun blazed its trail across the sky. Six long hours while the rest company sat in the shade by the oasis. His commander had sat the pitcher within view knowing that if Akbar abandoned his post he would be standing the watch again tomorrow, this time with red welts decorating his back.
To make matters worse Commander Horin made him stand his watch in his full armour. Conical helm, heavy chain shirt, armored skirt, metal leggings, and silk shirt all made the sweat pour down his face faster than the spring rains. Akbar licked his lips and turned away from the waiting tent to avoid any temptation to take even a small sip. Instead he looked out into the steepes and wished fervently he was back home.
It was hot as Checheg stared across the steppes at the lone guard that stood watch over the [[atlas:Turan|Turanian]] camp. She had a heavy blanket thrown over her body which was covered with sand so that she could stay close to the camp without being detected. Under the cover of darkness she crawled on her belly to within five hundred feet of their camp armed only with her hornbow and a short spear.
The sweat from her brow ran into her eyes but she refused to brush it away as even the slightest movement could give her position away to the Turanians. She was sent here to observe and report what their enemies were doing here — if she was forced to kill them her task would be a failure. She knew her sister and brother were also hidden among the dunes several miles away observing other Turanian camps.
The great horned cerphan moved along the sandy dunes with amazing speed and agility. Ahead was its favorite drinking hole and with luck some juicy animal would be there drinking their fill. He was hungry and looking forward to a good dinner. Instead of an animal the cerphan found four men drinking from the water and relaxing under the trees. The great horned cerphan was near the top of the food chain in the steepes and feared little, especially these soft-bellies with neither claw nor tooth.
It flattened itself to the ground and used is claws as great shovels to glide towards the soft-bellies. Most appeared to be asleep and the cerphan was able to get into charging distance without being detected. At just the right moment it raised its head and leapt into their midst. The soft-bellies were slow to react and the cerphan had gored one and clawed another before they began to react. The soft-bellies fled from the cerphan while making loud noises designed to warn the rest of their pack, which the cerphan enjoyed hearing because a soft-belly pack often stood and fought rather than scatter and flee.
Akbar heard the screaming from the oasis and only hesitated a second running in that direction. What he came upon was a scene that caused him to nearly sick up. A great cerphan had ambushed the rest of his friends and slaughtered them. Although it was only a few seconds since the screaming began only Captain Rashi remained alive to fight the beast. Swallowing his dislike of the captain, Akbar rushed the beast from the side and struck his spear deep into its side, the great creature howled in pain.
Working together the two Turanians were able to force the creature to retreat until the captain slipped on some blood-soaked sand. While he only dropped to his knees, it offered the cerphan enough of an opening to clamp his great teeth about the captain’s head. Before Akbar could move in and help the captain’s headless body fell to the ground. Now alone against the great beast it was Akbar’s turn to retreat.
Checheg first knew something was wrong when a small flock of [[bestiary:prongs]] darted across the steepes bugling their fear. Then the screaming of the other Turanians confirmed that some great hunter had arrived at the oasis. She smiled to think about the Turanians falling prey because they didn’t know the signs of the land. When the guard left his post to help his friends, Checheg used the opportunity to sneak closer to the camp.
Just as she closed the gap to one hundred feet from the guard’s post, Checheg stopped as the growling snarl of a great horned cerphan echoed across the land. This was a beast stalked by teams of hunters on horseback because of its ferocity, not by a woman who only earned her name a few moons before. Caught between her own fear and reckless courage, Checheg decided to burrow herself deep and wait to see what happened.
It didn’t take too long before she noticed the guard backing towards her position, while his long spear darted out to keep the beast at bay. The cerphan had been wounded, but it was still more than a match for the lone guard. As she watched them approach her own position she became ever more memorized by the cerphan’s method of darting in an effort to get around the guard’s spear. On the other side the guard was obviously skilled enough with his weapon to keep the cerphan at bay, but it was only a matter of time before he fell before its claws.
Although she could never explain why, when the guard took a terrible blow from the cerphan that ripped through his armor and sunk deep into his side — Checheg suddenly moved into action. She rose to one knee from her burrow and let fly three hunting arrows at the great beast. While she knew their crude heads would never penetrate the thick plates of its hide, she wanted the cerphan’s attention. The cerphan dropped the Turanian and charged towards the new threat.
Checheg ran as fast as she could in a great arc around the cerphan, firing arrows as she moved. A few had managed to hit between its plates, but most simply skittered off harmlessly. The creature was tiring, but it was still not bleed enough to collapse or be driven from its meal. With only two arrows remaining, Checheg knew that it was time for her to face the beast.
She rolled to her knees and came up with one of her few warshots just as the cerphan turned and charged her position. With the skill of generations of Carthin archers drilled into her arm she let fly and struck the beast in the left eye. As the cerphan howled in pain Checheg scrambled to her feet and moved into its blind spot. Unfortunately just as she was loosed her final arrow into its soft neck, the cerphan spun to its left and dropped its head.
As the arrow snapped harmlessly against the armor of its shoulder, Checheg’s options began to dwindle. The cerphan was enraged and would not stop until it had killed her. Out of arrows and her halfspear somewhere near her burrow it was time to make her peace with the ancestors. Still, no Carthin warrior would go down bloodlessly so with knife in hand she advanced on the beast. As she closed a better idea formed in her head. A few of her arrows that lodged into its armor were still intact — if she could get them out she could kill the beast.
Just as she charged the beast something else happened instead. The Turanian guard, who was lying nearby shifted and rose unsteadly to his feet. Because he was on the cerphan’s blind left the beast never saw him. With his remaining strength the Turanian dove towards the charging cerphan and set his spear into the ground. The beast never saw the spear, but it felt the pain as its wide-tip punctured its soft underside and pierced its lungs. Checheg took the opportunity to grab up some unbroken arrows that had fallen to the ground and sent two of them through its neck. The cerphan staggered for a few steps before it finally collapsed.
The Turanian crawled a few more steps towards the cerphan to finished the beast off with his scimitar, as his broken spear was now useless and its point deeply embedded into the beast’s body. Meanwhile Checheg nocked the last arrow she recovered and approached the dying man.
Akbar nearly reached the monster before he collapsed, the blood from his side staining the nearby sand a dark red. He tried to hold his side together with hs left hand and still keep the Carthin woman at bay with the sword in his right. In the end the decision was made for him as his sword dropped from his now useless right hand. Akbar looked up and saw only the woman’s bow aimed right at his head as he began to bleed out. That she saved him from the creature he knew, but now she only watched him die.
Checheg looked down at her enemy — an enemy she saved from death at the hands of the horned cerphan. His sword dropped from his hands and Checheg could easily just leave him out her to die slowly. Her arm wavered and her bow creaked as she continued to pull back and imagine the arrow driving through his head. Then, before she could regret her decision she loosed the arrow into the air and set down her bow. As the Turanian fell over from his wounds, Checheg reached into her pouch and used her supplies to tend his wounds. It was not out of compassion that she did such a thing, but from her father’s words that she was only to observe and not kill the Turanian this time — this time.
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