“Meet My Friend Yu-Gi”
Minda felt her pursuers’ breath on the back of her neck. Close. So close.
When she saw the wall of ferns hugging a fallen tree she didn’t hesitate. She leapt the log, tucked her knees, flung her arms over her face, and pushed through the ferns.
She expect to feel the ground under feet.
But there was no ground.
She was falling.
Minda let out a shriek as terror stole the air and courage from her chest, leaving her with a empty panic.
Rallying against that fear, the fourteen-year-old kept her eyes open. Saw the ground rising up to smack her. She pitched herself forward, tucked herself into a ball, and rolled into a rough landing. The ground was hard as stone. A rock sliced open her upper arm. She felt a sharp blow to the back that took any whisper of breath she managed to hold on to.
When Minda felt her body slow and finally come to a stop, she threw out her arms and legs, spread them wide, and drew in a long breath of relief. She was still alive. She punched the air. Kicked the place where the stupid ground should’ve cushioned her two foot leap over a crumby fallen tree.
Interrupting the girl’s brief celebration came the sound of parting foliage.
Up and back where she’d dove over the embankment and fallen into a shallow depression in the forest she spied soldiers in lacquered armor.
She cursed her luck.
The soldiers shouted at her. Two of the four held short recurve bows meant for horseback. They each drew back an arrow in a smooth motion and loosed the missiles down at Minda as their cohorts climbed safety down the sheer wall of mud.
Minda rolled to the left. One arrow missing by a hand’s span. She grasped the staff she’d dropped in her panicked landing, pushed herself to her feet, and immediately went into a forward roll. She felt a hiss of wind as the arrow came within a hair of slicing her heel.
She heard the two arches draw and loose another coupling of arrows just in time to wheel around and spin her staff. One arrow flew over her head–thankfully she was as short as a mouse–and the other her whirling staff deflected uselessly off to the side.
With unnecessary flourish, the mousey girl whipped her staff around to her back, laying the shaft horizontally against the small of her back. The piece of cloth tied to the end fluttered playfully as a passing wind swept down through the forest. She fell into a readied stance–knees bent, back straight, arms limber. Head tiled up to the infuriated archers, she stuck out her tongue and blew them both raspberries.
They drew each another arrow.
Cocksure grin set in place, sweat slicking her back, Minda exhaled and attempted to keep hidden from her expression the overwhelming concern she felt.
That’s when the three other soldiers hit the lower ground and charged with curved long swords cutting the air around her.
Minda ducked out of the path one steel swipe. She jammed one end of her staff into the gut of that solider, eliciting a satisfying ouf from the man and spittle across her cheek. The second lunged with her own sword, barely missing Minda’s midsection as the girl turned just in time. Minda fell into a crouch and swept the soldier’s legs out from under her. She was about the shove her staff’s end down on the soldier’s throat when pain exploded above her ear.
She looked up. The third soldier had brought her sword’s pummel down on the side of Minda’s head. The world rang out. The sun breaking through overhead seemed brighter, sharper.
Confusion made Minda take two wobbly steps backward, away from the grinning soldier.
An arrow sunk itself into the mud where Minda had been. A second grazed the side of her body over her left set of ribs. Warm blood slipped down her side. Same color as her hair. That was funny somehow.
She brought her staff up in time to block a downward strike from a sword. But her grip was weak. While the sword grazed off the hollow shaft of wood, the staff slipped from her fingers and spun away.
Minda shook herself.
Get yourself together. They’re going to fill you with arrows and chop off your fingers. I’m attached to those damn fingers!
Dishearteningly she heard the stretching of bow strings. More arrows. Fantastic.
Before the telltale snap of bow strays could bring death, a roar bellowed through the forest. Birds scattered. Minda looked up. She watched the archers’ attentions draw away from her as they looked around for the source of the sound. Confused. Fearful. They should be. They thought they’d taken care of him.
Out of her mind, laughter manic, Minda shook her head.Wrong. Wrong.
The two archers were flung into the air amidst cries of their own surprised panic. The felled tree trunk went with them, batting them in crazy directions. Tree and soldiers went up and over the area where Minda held off three other soldiers.
Behind the archers, barreling his way through them, leaping to the low ground with a grace defying his enormous girth, was a black bear.
The black bear landed on all fours but stood up on his hind quarters like a man. Small head with two tufted ears. Broad shoulders and chest filled with strength. His paws were wrapped in bandages as a warrior would who preferred the way of the fist. His trousers billowed, loose. His rug-thick chest was bare, crisscrossed with fresh laceration, puffed out in intimidation. The three remaining shoulders stared in horror as the black bear roared. Then he assumed a ready fighting stance, huffed, and looked past the soldiers to Minda. He winked at her. Then he attacked.
The black bear fell forward to all fours and bounded toward the soldiers. He swung himself, bringing his back legs around to slam both rear paws into one soldier’s chest. Lacquered wood cracked and the soldier fell back several feet.
The second soldier stepped forward and chopped down with all the strength she could muster.
Arm flung out, the bear blocked the blow with a massive furry forearm as the sword descended but was cast aside. Bandaged-wrapped paw curled into a fist, he punched at the soldier with his opposite paw, staggering her.
In the confusion of the renewed battle, Minda shook off her disorientation and ignored the throbbing above her ear. Peered passed the ringing. She darted away and retrieved her discarded staff again.
Whirling her weapon in a figure-eight, Minda sprinted toward the soldier picking himself up. His tabard torn she could see a large lightning shape crack, thick as her thumbnail, down the breastplate. As he shook his head, the soldier didn’t see the pint-sized redhead slide under him and ram her staff upward. The butt of the staff caught the soldier under the chin, whipping his head back, tearing his chinstrap, sending his helm flying, knocking him down hard. He didn’t rise up again.
She wheeled on her heel and darted for the black bear, who fought the other two soldiers. His paws struck out in a flurry of blows. His body thick as three tree trunks was too large to get inside the soldiers’ guards so he used his indomitable mass to push the two soldiers around. Despite his girth he shifted about, dodging, ducking sword swipes and chops.
At some point he and a soldier got too close. Stuck close, a tick on the bear’s fur. He couldn’t dance out of the way. The soldier came in from the side, dragging the blade sideways. The bear threw up a forearm and howled with rage as the blade cut his thick hide. The sudden ager in his growl set the soldier stepping back. Just for a second. Then she renewed pressure. Keeping in close where the bear couldn’t use his strength. Where the soldier could maneuver swiftly around his guard. Her cohort saw the tact and ducked low to emulate on the opposite side.
Minda swept the incoming soldier’s legs, sending her face down the dirt. The girl planted her staff in the soldier’s back and vaulted over the splayed body, driving the soldier further into the ground.
The bear saw the redheaded girl sore through the air toward him.
With a paw as wide as a grilling pan, he batted the remaining soldier away and stooped, bowing for the girl.
Minda landed on the bear’s shoulders as he hunched over. She gave him a little rustling behind one year. He grinned. Showed his fangs. The girl pointed her staff at the last soldier collecting herself and the bear advanced on all fours. He ate up the distance in two bounds
A paw slapped down on atop the soldier’s helm, temporarily blinding her. Not deterred, the soldier pulled her helm back up, shook off the blow and attempted to enter the bear’s guard. Minda used her staff and swatted the soldier outside the bear’s personal space. Balled up paws struck, one after the other with such speed she couldn’t track, hitting the soldier. Everytime the soldier attempted to swing her sword, Minda used her staff and cast aside the blade.
Paws rained down.
Lacquered armor cracked.
Then with a block timed so well, Minda sent the soldier’s sword to the ground. The soldier kept hold but the black bear stepped hard across the blade, snapping the weapon in half.
Astonishment and weeping darkened the soldier’s face just before the bear fed her a mouthful of paw that could crack teeth. She fell. Same as her soldiering brothers and sisters had.
Minda rested herself across the bear’s shoulders, plopping herself down with legs crossed, leaning back with arms propping her up and her staff laid across her lap. She could feel the bear’s shoulders rise and fall with deep breathing. She drew in air slowly, filling her lungs, and let out her breath with resolution.
The bear fell to all fours, twisted his body to raise one arm and look up at Minda. She had to grab a fist of his fur to keep herself from falling and her staff from slipping away.
She offered him a crocked smile.
He looked at her with concern, despite her newly attained safetly.
In a deep baritone that was a drum around a mouthful of sharp teeth, the bear asked, “Are you alright, little sister?”
The girl patted the bear on the shoulder with a hand. “Never better, Yu-Gi. Now that you’re here. Alive.”