(Fargo Adventures – 3)
Of the original one hundred forty, could I be the last Sentinel? The grim thought swirled through Dhakal’s mind.
The invaders’ main force had overrun his country from the east eight weeks earlier with brutal speed and cruelty. Cavalry and foot soldiers poured from the hills and swarmed into the valleys, razed the villages to the ground, and slaughtered all who stood before them.
Along with the armies came elite bands of soldiers tasked with a single mission: locate the sacred Theurang and bring it to their King. Having foreseen this, the Sentinels, whose duty was to protect the holy relic, removed it from its place of reverence and spirited it away.
Dhakal slowed his horse to a trot, slipped off the trail through a break in the trees, and stopped in a small shaded clearing. He climbed from the saddle, allowing his horse to wander to a nearby stream and bend its head to drink. He moved behind the horse to check the series of leather bands that secured the cube-shaped chest to the animal’s rump. As always, his cargo was held fast.
The chest was a marvel, so solidly built that it could withstand a high fall onto a rock or repeated bludgeoning without showing the slightest crack. The locks were many, hidden and ingeniously designed to make them all but impossible to open.
Of the ten Sentinels in Dhakal’s cadre, none had the resources or ability to open this unique chest, nor did any of them know whether its contents were genuine or a substitute. That honor, or perhaps curse, belonged solely to Dhakal. How he had been chosen was not revealed to him. But he alone knew that this sacred chest carried the revered Theurang. Soon, with luck, he would find a safe place to hide it.
For nearly the past nine weeks he’d been on the run, escaping the capital with his cadre just hours ahead of the invaders. For two days, as the smoke from their burning homes and fields filled the sky behind them, they raced south on horseback. On the third day they split up, each Sentinel heading in his predetermined direction, most heading away from the invaders’ line of advance, but some back toward it. These brave men were either already dead or suffering at the hands of their enemy who, having captured each Sentinel’s decoy cargo, were demanding to know how to gain access to his chest. As designed, this was an answer none of them could give.
As for Dhakal, his orders had taken him due east, into the rising sun, a direction he’d maintained for the past sixty-one days. The land in which he now found himself was very different from the arid, mountainous terrain in which he was raised. Here there were mountains too, but they were covered in thick forest and separated by lake- pocked valleys. It made staying hidden much easier, but it had also slowed his progress. The terrain was a double- edged sword: skilled ambushers could be upon him before he had a chance to run.
Thus far he’d had many close calls, but his training had seen him through each one. Five times he’d watched, hidden, as his pursuers rode within feet of him, and twice he’d fought a pitched battle with enemy cavalry squads. Though outnumbered and exhausted, he’d left these men dead, their bodies and equipment buried and their horses scattered.
For the past three days he’d not seen or heard any sign of his pursuers. Nor had he come across many local people; those he did encounter paid him little attention. His face and stature was similar to theirs. His instincts told him to ride on, that he hadn’t put enough distance between himself and-
From across the stream, perhaps fifty yards away, came the crack of a branch in the trees. Anyone else would have dismissed it, but Dhakal knew the sound of a horse pushing through heavy brush. His own horse had stopped drinking, its head raised and ears twitching.
From the trail, another sound, the scuff of a horse’s hoof on the gravel trail. Dhakal pulled the bow from the sheath on his back and an arrow from the quiver, then crouched down in the knee-high water grass. Partially blocked by the horse’s legs, Dhakal peeked under the animal’s belly, looking for signs of movement. There was nothing. He turned his head right. Through the trees he could just make out the narrow trail. He watched, waited.
Then, another hoof scuff.
Dhakal nocked an arrow and drew the bow slightly, taking up the tension.
A few moments later a horse appeared on the trail, cantering slowly. The horse stopped. Dhakal could see only the rider’s legs and his black-gloved hands resting on the saddle’s pommel, reins gripped loosely in his fingers. The hand moved, jerked the reins slightly. Beneath him, the horse whinnied and stamped its hoof.
An intentional move, Dhakal realized immediately. A distraction.
The attackers would be coming from the forest side.
Dhakal drew the bow fully, took aim, and let fly the arrow. The point pierced the man’s leg in the crease between his upper thigh and hip. He screamed, clutched his leg, and toppled off his horse. Instinctively, Dhakal knew his aim was true. The arrow had punctured the leg artery; the man was out of the fight and would be dead within minutes.
Still crouching, Dhakal spun on his back heel while retrieving three more arrows from his quiver; two he planted in the ground before him, the third he nocked. There, thirty feet away, were three attackers, swords drawn, creeping through the underbrush toward him. Dhakal took aim on the trailing figure and fired. The man went down. In rapid succession he fired twice more, catching one man squarely in the chest, the next in the throat. A fourth warrior let out a war cry and charged from behind a copse of trees. He almost reached the edge of the stream before Dhakal’s arrow dropped him.
The forest fell silent.
Four? Dhakal thought. They had never sent fewer than a dozen before.
As if in answer to his puzzlement, the pounding of horses’ hooves sounded on the trail behind him. Dhakal spun, saw a line of horses galloping down the trail past their fallen comrade. Three horses . . . four . . . seven . . . Ten horses and still they came. The odds were overwhelming. Dhakal mounted his horse, nocked an arrow, and turned in his saddle in time to see the first horse galloping through the gap between the trees and into the clearing. Dhakal fired. The arrow plunged into the man’s right eye. The force drove him backward, over his saddle, where he bumped off the rump of his horse and into the next rider, whose horse reared, backpedaling, creating a choke point. Horses began slamming into one another. The charge stalled.
Dhakal kicked his heels into his horse’s flank. The animal leapt off the bank into the water. Dhakal brought its head around, heeled the horse, and charged downriver.
He realized this was no chance ambush. His pursuers had been covertly following him for some time and had managed to surround him.
Over the splashing of his horse’s hooves in the shallow water he could hear them now: riders crashing through the forest to his right and hooves on the gravel trail to his left.
Ahead, the stream curved to the right. The trees and undergrowth were thicker here, crowding the bank, all but blotting out the sun and leaving him in twilight. He heard a shout and glanced over his shoulder. Four riders were in pursuit. He looked right, saw dark horse shapes slipping in and out of the trees, paralleling his course. They were flushing him, he realized. But to where?
His answer came seconds later as the trees suddenly parted and he found himself in a meadow. The stream’s width quadrupled; the color of the water told him the depth had increased as well. On impulse, he veered his horse left, toward the sandy bank. Directly ahead, a line of five riders burst from the tree line, two of them bent low, pikes held horizontally before them, the other three riding upright, bows drawn. He laid his body across his horse’s neck and jerked the reins to the right, back into the water. On the opposite bank, another line of riders had emerged