Nicaule watched the hawk overhead carefully. It had been circling them for some time now, its silhouette marked out against the unbarred sunlight. The bird of prey was not necessarily an unusual sight in the area, but Nicaule had a queer feeling about it.
The wagon juddered as it passed over a rock and broke Nicaule’s gaze. Boaz caught her eye and pointed back up to the hawk.
“It worries me too,” she said. The bronzed man reigned in his horse and dropped its pace to fall behind the wagon. Nicaule, seated behind a heavy set carthorse, clung tightly to a small, sleeping bundle in her arms. It had stirred from the bump in the path but the rocking of the wagon appeared to soothe it.
A second horseman galloped past Nicaule and the wagon, charging ahead to a clear area. The rider, Jachin, halted his horse and jabbed his spear into the ground before unslinging a bow from his back.
Boaz returned, turning in his seat to better direct his voice and speak quietly to Nicaule. “Jachin thinks it’s definitely one of Solomon’s spies.”
“It’s unfortunate, but we can do nothing about it,” said Nicaule.
“We’re going to shoot it down,” replied Boaz, gesturing ahead to Jachin who was drawing an arrow on the bowstring and aiming high. Nicaule shielded her eyes and gazed back up at the hawk.
“It’s too high isn’t it?”
“Maybe, but it’s worth a shot. If we’re lucky we hit it, if not we might scare it off.” At that moment Jachin released the tension in his arm and consequently the bowstring. The arrow catapulted into the sky, racing higher and higher until its ascent began to level. It missed the hawk but flew within inches of it before arching back down to the ground.
The hawk dived to the side to avoid the potential hit then flapped its wings to ascend once more and glided away in the direction Nicole and the boys had come from.
“It’ll do,” said Boaz. Jachin shook a fist after the bird, then put away his bow and retrieved his spear. He spurred his horse to a gallop and went in search of his loosed arrow.
“Now what?” Said Nicaule, “If that was a spy it’ll flee back to its master and report on us.”
“It’ll report on our current position. We’re going to be somewhere else before it and others return. Hold on tight.” Boaz squeezed his horse’s sides and pressed it forward, he smacked the rump of the carthorse and grabbed its reigns before it charged off. Jachin quickly returned and galloped in formation on the other side of Nicaule.
The group charged ahead at breakneck speed, Boaz and Jachin guiding the wagon, they veered it from the pathway across unmarked land. A cloud of dust kicked up from the dry, orange dirt behind them.
The baby in Nicaule’s lap woke with loud and angry bursts of tears, distraught at the rough journey. She did her best to soothe it, holding it close and whispering to it, but to little affect. The child was not hers. She had stolen it and though in her mind she felt it was the right thing to do she was sure that without Boaz and Jachin’s support she would have surrendered to the guilt and returned the it.
The two men had been raised like the child in her arms would soon be, parentless and on the poor scraps offered to beggars. They had adapted to the scavenger’s life and trained themselves as hunters. Nicaule had helped look after them in a time of need, unable to resist the matronly urge to care for others. The two, through some misguided loyalty had learned of Nicaule’s intentions and taken it upon themselves to aid her.
Jachin signalled for them to slow down, lest they overwork the horses. “How is the child, Nicaule?” he asked. Having run out of tears, its tiny voice no doubt hoarse, the baby had quietened but still trembled with snot oozing out of its nose. Nicaule wiped it clean with a fold of the cloth wrappings.
“I think he’ll be fine,” she replied. The truth was she had no idea. No idea of how to care for a baby. She had sheltered and fed many orphans before, but they had already grown enough to wander the streets unaided before Nicaule had found them. This baby was entirely vulnerable, without the ability to even move, let alone feed itself. She said the words confidently though, aware of the comfort provided in having someone take charge.
“He suits you,” Jachin said.
“What do you mean?”
“I’m not sure really, there just looks something right about you holding a baby in your arms.” He smiled, a youthful gesture that betrayed his true age, his body weathered and toughened through hardship.
A screech pierced the air and as a group they turned to the sky to see the hawk had returned. Jachin reached for his bow again but Boaz cut him off.
“Look about you Jachin!” Boaz readied his spear and stabbed at the ground around him. Crawling from the dirt and rocks came snakes of living fire. They slithered across the dirt, flames running over their crimson scales, and snapped at the heels of the horses.
Jachin’s mount started at the assault and threw him to the floor. It shied away from the snakes but was surrounded. Jachin had fallen clear, flinging his spear free. He recovered but could do little more than kick dirt at the approaching snakes.
Boaz rallied to him, and swiped and stabbed at the snakes, spearing some and shaking their bodies free of the point. The dead snakes grew cold and crumbled to ash as they hit the earth.
“Nicaule, get away from the wagon!” Boaz cried out while Jachin retrieved his spear. She turned in her seat to look at the wagon behind and saw the snakes slithering up the wheels and setting the wood ablaze. Smoke appeared and was blown in her direction making her and the baby cough and splutter through the ash.
She stood up and held the baby to her breast with one hand. Fiery snakes littered the grown around her and an inferno was developing behind. With nowhere else to go she clambered over the wagon’s harness and onto the scared but fortunately untouched carthorse.
Boaz had cleared a path to Jachin’s horse and with surprising skill the man reclaimed the horse’s fear and his mount. Quickly they struck at the carthorse’s harness with their spears, severing the ropes and freeing it from a burning anchor.
“Run, we’ll catch up,” yelled Boaz, though the carthorse needed no encouragement and had stampeded away the moment it was freed.
Boaz and Jachin made it away once Nicaule was clear, but not before Boaz had to discard his spear, a snake latching onto it a little too long and setting it ablaze.
The plume of smoked from the burning wagon marked the horizon as they sped away. Before they could feel safe though two more creatures of fire sped after them, darting across the landscape at an inhuman speed.
As they closed in they became more apparent as hounds, made of the same living fire as the snakes. Their corporeal bodies shone with a hot yellow glow and spots of blue fire marked their eyes. They moved in on the left side of the fleeing group and began to harass the horses herding them towards an upcoming ravine.
Nicaule’s horse was most susceptible to the attack with what little control she had over its flight. Boaz similarly was helpless now that he was weaponless and vainly tried to steer his horse to trample the hounds. Jachin attempted to strike with his spear, though he could only distract one of the creatures and it nimbly dodged his attempts.
The ravine approached and with little resistance the group descended into its rocky channel. They were brought in close together by the steep walls. A turn in the ravine gave Jachin the chance to land a blow on a fiery hound. His spear struck it where its heart should be and with a howl the creature blazed briefly and crumbled to ash. The other hound, backed off, slowed down and turned to run away.
Boaz moved his horse parallel to Nicaule’s and, grabbing its reigns, halted it. Jachin stopped just ahead of them and patted his mount reassuringly while muttering curses at the creatures that had attacked.
“Are we safe?” Asked Nicaule once the panic had passed and her heart had calmed.
“The hawk’s gone,” said Boaz, looking skyward through the slit of the ravine. “It shouldn’t be much further until we’re out of this territory, we should keep moving. Are you alright on that horse?”
Jachin shouted, “Something’s coming,” and pointed overhead. A large shaggy creature was flying in the sky supported on leathery, draconic wings. It skimmed above the ravine before diving in and landing ahead of them, blocking the path. Closer the creature resembled a mighty lion with a great mane of dark fur. It folded its wings and allowed its rider to dismount.
The rider stood, an imposing figure, it was human in basic physiology but could hardly be called so. Huge muscles rippled under its taut skin with veins bulging over its bare chest. Its thick legs, groan, back and along the overside of its arms were covered in coarse, brown fur. Its face bore the strong jaw line of a hansom man but its mouth twisted into a bestial snarl and revealed the incisors of a hound. Two ram horns protruded from the black hair of its head and curled backwards.
“I’ve come for the child,” it said with a deep voice. Nicaule instinctively turned her body away from the beastman, shielding the baby from view. It laughed gutturally, “I didn’t say you had a choice in the matter.”
Jachin kicked his horse and galloped at the beastman spear raised. It raised a powerful fist and swiped at the approaching horse, knocking it and rider, sideways. Jachin leapt free before he was crushed.
“Don’t be a fool,” the beastman snarled above the frenzied neighing of the injured horse. “A mortal like you cannot face a mighty demon.”
“I’ll not give up on words alone!” Jachin shouted, and charged once more. The demon leapt forward suddenly, shocking Jachin and grabbing the spear end. It wrestled the weapon from Jachin’s grasp with ease and snapped it with a single, giant fist. It then grasped at Jachin, holding him close from behind, its strong arms constraining the man while its hand gripped his throat. Jachin struggled to no effect.
“Let him go,” cried Nicaule.
“I might do just that,” said the demon, “in exchange for the babe of course. Or maybe I’ll just keep him as my personal plaything.” The demon ran his spare hand over Jachin’s torso, retractable claws tore off the man’s shirt and pierced crimson streaks into his skin.
Boaz dismounted and, though weaponless, started towards the demon but was rapidly cut off by the flying lion, which growled at him as if daring him to approach it.
“Now then, what’s it to be?” Said the demon in a low drawl.
“I am not as harmless as you believe,” said Nicaule confidently. The demon furrowed its brow but otherwise did nothing. Nicaule raised her free hand towards the demon and spoke a Latin phrase. Six shards of glowing, white light shot forth from her hand. The demon pulled Jachin up to cover him but the shards passed harmlessly through the mortal man.
The demon howled and tossed Jachin to the side revealing his muscular abdomen pierced with the shards and oozing black liquid. It turned its black eyes to Nicaule in disgust.
“Bah! What use have I for an infant!? It is not my desire to possess such a weak and fragile creature!” The demon jumped onto his mount. The lion monster charged forward, Boaz diving aside to avoid it, and took off into the air. It rose above the ravine and shortly the two disappeared from sight.
Boaz recovered and hurried over to tend to Jachin. Though battered, bruised and his pride sundered the man was otherwise well.
“We’d best get out of here as quickly as possible,” Boaz said. The three nodded. Jachin took charge of Nicaule’s horse, the woman and child holding onto him while Boaz took point. Jachin’s mauled mount was too injured to survive and he had chosen to end its life mercifully. As night fell the group continued their escape from Solomon’s lands.