Text Copyright © 2014 Dan Decker
All rights reserved
Published by Xander Revolutions LC
Cover image © Can Stock Photo / 3000ad
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
For my wife and family.
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Part One: Shadows of Bloodshed
Part Two: Tempest of Fire
About the Author
TWO YEARS BEFORE THE SEVERING
“Melyah take my eyes!” Rend Rahid shifted on the loose terrain, uncertain if he could trust his vision as another ship departed from the valley below. He could feel heat from the glow of the engines, and the roar was deafening, forcing him to let go of his rifle so that he could shield his ears. The belly of the Hunwei destroyer that was capable of holding over five hundred people was soon overhead, and he resisted the urge to try to scoot deeper into the bushes where he was hiding. He’d spent several minutes picking his position so that he couldn’t be seen from the air. If he’d messed up the selection of his hiding place, moving now wouldn’t do him any good.
Out of instinct and old habit, Rend aimed his rifle at the ship, preparing to fire but the ship had already begun its ascent. After it was clear that the ship hadn’t zeroed in on their position, he lowered his rifle. It was the tenth ship he’d seen leave during the last two hours. He and his team had arrived in the late hours of the evening, intending to raid one of the Hunwei encampments. They’d been hoping to rescue some of the captives but instead they were witnessing an unprecedented event. As he watched the ship disappear into the sky, he wondered how many captive men, women, and children it held.
The thought made him think of his youngest son. How many years had it been since little Lief had disappeared? He felt moisture forming in his eyes. He didn’t think about the rest. It had been long enough that he’d been able to accept the deaths of his wife and two other sons, but he’d never been able to put Lief’s memory to rest. Lief’s body hadn’t been with the others, and there hadn’t been anybody left to answer questions.
Tira, who lay next to Rend, let out a sigh as the ship disappeared. She had pulled her brown hair into a ponytail to keep it out of the way. She’d refused to cut it short like many of the other women. Perhaps that was the reason why he’d been so drawn to her. Call Rend old fashioned, but he liked a woman with hair.
The others in their group murmured, and Rend resisted the urge to tell them to be quiet. The noise from the ships in the valley more than covered the noise they were making. One of the nearby metalmen—Rend hadn’t bothered to learn its name—reported that this was happening all over the world. The Hunwei were leaving.
“It’s true then.” Tira leaned over, shifting her blaster so she could put her mouth to his ear. “We’ll live.” She was always cautious. That was part of why he loved her. It was hard enough to find a good woman when the world wasn’t being torn apart by war. Most people didn’t bother to form attachments these days. Rend couldn’t blame them, given the present mortality rate of humanity. He’d fought his feelings for Tira for a long time before he’d succumbed.
“They’re quitting,” Rend whispered. In a way, he was almost disappointed. When he’d set out on this mission, he’d been convinced they wouldn’t survive. The rescue attempt had been a fool’s errand from the beginning. Rather than cower in Rarbon waiting for the inevitable end, he’d decided to face it head on. The unfilled expectation left him baffled; surely, he’d prefer to live? He wasn’t ready to give up on life.
Rend thought of his only living child Arile, who he’d left behind in Rarbon, the last remaining stronghold of their people. The hope that he’d had for her future had kept him fighting all these years. Once the hope had all but faded, he’d fought on still. He’d never have been able to live with himself if he hadn’t. A man has to protect his own, even if he knows it’s futile. He imagined the look of joy on his daughter’s face when she saw him again, and it filled his heart with hope.
“The war’s over.” Tira’s breath felt warm and moist against his ear, then after a pause. “Some are saying we won.” The last statement held the hint of a question. Rend didn’t bother to answer. Tira knew the truth.
The others could no longer restrain themselves and broke into cries of gratitude. They left the forest where they’d been hiding and congregated in a little clearing. Rend could make out a prayer as an older woman he didn’t know by name chanted “Praise Melyah.”
Rend held his breath, expecting the Hunwei to come. They didn’t. Tira began tugging on his hand, and he let himself be pulled out with the others. He kept looking back down at the valley. There were still several ships, but they were preparing to leave as well.
Tira put her hand around his waist, and he realized that he’d have to make good on his promise to her now. He felt too old to be starting over. At the time, he hadn’t given it much thought. It had been impossible until today but had made Tira happy. Happiness had been in such small supply that he couldn’t have possibly denied her.
There was a roar as another ship shot into the sky and even more voices joined the celebration. Rend was caught off guard as Tira embraced him. It was a struggle to get her off, but she stopped when she realized that he hadn’t been caught up in the moment. He touched her face to soothe her hurt look and gazed into the valley. The excitement of the others failed to touch him. Tira, sensing his mood, sobered a bit.
When the final ship lifted off the ground, the cheers became deafening. Nobody else seemed bothered by the fact that there had been little between them and death only a few hours before. Rend made out the word victory and shuddered as the call was taken up by others. Before long, it was on everybody’s lips.
He was reminded of the ocean surf pounding the beach. The last time he’d taken joy in the sound had been many years ago. Their world had changed shortly after that with the coming of the Hunwei.
The sun had just gone behind the clouds when he’d heard Lief shriek. Rend had looked up alarmed but relaxed when he noticed that the water had begun to wash away the small buildings Lief had been fashioning in the sand.
Rend had smiled down at his son. “Don’t worry, you can build again, let me help you.” He offered Lief a hand and pulled him back out of the surf. It wasn’t long before the others had joined in, the whole family came over to help, and Lief was soon laughing.
“Victory! Victory! Victory!” The call broke into his revelry, ripping away the memory, and it took several seconds before he could rejoin the present. Rend relaxed his grip when he realized he’d been crushing Tira’s hand. A glance her way showed she was too happy to notice. As he watched the last ship disappear, he couldn’t decide if he hoped that somewhere up there Lief was still alive or that he’d died that day as well. His words to Lief seemed to echo in his mind. Don’t worry you can build again. Rend didn’t relish the idea of having to start anew, but he knew that he would. If only for Tira and Arile.
He didn’t raise his voice with the others, he knew better. This hadn’t been a victory. It wasn’t even an act of mercy. More than twenty years of fighting taught him that the Hunwei always had a reason for their actions, but he was at a loss to explain the sudden departure.
1,192 YEARS SINCE THE SEVERING
The Neberan town square had been decorated with every imaginable color. Strips of red cloth covered the ground before the sacred boulder where the couple had sworn their oaths to Veri—the local god—and then cut each other. The red strips represented blood and life. To Adar Rahid blood always represented death, and not because of a religious ceremony.
“Thing is, you look familiar,” Neare Paler said, his face barely visible in the setting sun. He’d approached Adar from behind while Adar had been watching the wedding celebration. Adar had chosen to ignore Neare’s approach because he didn’t like the man and had hoped that Neare would just move on.
Neare wiped a small amount of sweat from his brow with the back of his hand. The heat of the day was dissipating with the evening, and Adar welcomed the chill. Before long, it would become cold enough that most would head home. He’d stayed on the outskirts of the celebration for a reason. He wasn’t big on social gatherings and had hoped to avoid speaking to anybody. He’d only come to check up on Jorad.
“Can’t quite recall from where,” Neare continued. “A poster perhaps?” He had a cup in hand that he looked ready to drop so he could grab the gaudy sword that hung from his belt. It wasn’t as fine of a sword as Neare supposed. Adar could see that without having to handle it, but no doubt, the blade was sharp.
Poster? Adar thought. That shouldn’t have followed us here. He turned his full attention to Neare. As usual, Neare was dressed in clothing more suited for a big city than that of a small town like Neberan. His shirt alone had probably cost Neare half a gold piece, and his sword was the ugliest weapon that Adar had ever seen. Adar wondered how much Neare had paid for the travesty, but he wasn’t worried about the threat Neare posed. Should Neare move to draw his sword, Adar could have his sword out of its sheath before Neare’s was halfway. Adar wore his blade on his back in true Radim fashion, it wasn’t his favorite weapon, but it wasn’t as recognizable as his Radim sword.
Surely, Neare wasn’t brazen enough to draw his sword at a wedding. If the rumors around town were true, he knew how to use it. Adar had almost been forced to learn firsthand when he’d come across Neare roughly evicting a man and his family. The spat had ended with Neare leaving for the mayor. Neare was a fool, perhaps a moderately dangerous one, but a fool nonetheless.
“Hear you’re doing a lot of business with Polaer recently,” Adar said, turning back to the celebration. He had figured that the rumors about Neare and Polaer’s wife were just that, rumors. However, if Neare was going to imply accusations, Adar would make some of his own.
Neare’s face tightened, and it looked as though he was going to drop his cup. Adar kept his arms folded and resisted the urge to reach for his sword. If Neare reacted, it would be as good as an admission. Neare must have known the stories that were told of him. There was similar gossip about his son Erro.
Neare bared his teeth. “Hard to keep track. I’d have to ask one of my overseers.”
Adar didn’t respond and scanned the crowd. Where was Jorad? Adar had come to observe Jorad and Soret in public, but to his chagrin, he hadn’t spotted them yet. The wedding and cutting—barbaric ritual that!—had taken place earlier in the afternoon and the celebration would carry on until late. Adar had noticed an angry look from Barc Tedenhel, Soret’s father, so perhaps he’d seen them running off.
Ah, the boy was like Adar at that age. Couldn’t keep his thoughts but on one thing. Nelion drifted to mind, and Adar reluctantly ignored her memory. He didn’t want to let the pain touch him now. Not when he was exchanging barely veiled threats with Neare.
Adar felt a light touch on his arm, and he tensed as Ginne Haer hooked her arm around his. He chastised himself for being taken off his guard. He’d been so distracted by Neare that he’d forgotten to pay close attention to his surroundings. Melyah! That was something hard to do at a party anyway. Just another reason he avoided these things.
Why did she look so comfortable, hadn’t she noticed his reaction? Both of the people that he preferred to avoid at the celebration had converged on him at the same time. Part of him felt the fool for not playing along with Ginne’s flirtations because of how attracted he was to her. The other part knew that she would only be trouble.
“Adar,” Ginne said. “It’s been too long.” Her eyes went back to Neare quick enough that Adar almost missed it. Her shoulder length blonde hair was twisted into braids with strands of red and purple ribbon interwoven. The smell of her perfume and the blue dress that accented her figure caused Adar to reconsider his decision regarding the woman. It reminded him of a desire that he hadn’t succumbed to in years.
“Has it?” Adar asked as he tried to think of a way to extricate himself without pushing her. There were rumors about Neare and Ginne as well. Probably true, Adar thought as he noted another look between the two.
“Merchant Haer,” Neare said, “I may need a new coat before winter, mine’s getting worn.” A fleeting frown crossed Ginne’s face. What was her game? It would have been amusing to watch these two go back and forth if Adar could figure out his part in it. Was he the bait or the goal? The bait, he decided. She was eying Neare way too much.
“Oh Neare,” Ginne said, “You’re always about business. Can’t you set it aside? It’s a party.”
“Indeed it is.” Neare took a gulp from his cup. “The most exciting cutting since Debie stabbed old Han, remember him squealing like a pig at slaughter?”
“Nothing like a good wedding to liven things up.” Ginne moved closer to Adar but kept her eyes on Neare. “It’s rare the boy cries as well.”
“Bad sign that,” Neare said. “When the man cries it shows that he’s not ready. Too young for the knife, too young for marriage.”
“It’s cruel.” Adar shifted, but Ginne held him tight. “Brides and grooms cutting each other on their wedding day? Just encouraging trouble.”
“Bound by blood,” Neare said. “An outsider wouldn’t understand,”
“The sting of their love’s blade,” Adar said, “will be remembered longer than the oath.”
“It’s not like that at all,” Ginne said. “A blood bind impresses the importance of marriage.”
“Doesn’t make a difference,” Adar said. “Neberan carries on like any other town. Blood oaths don’t change the heart.” Adar looked at Neare as he spoke. The meaning of his words hadn’t been lost on Neare, who suppressed a scowl.
“They don’t,” Ginne said laughing; reminding Adar of a young girl’s laugh he’d heard earlier in the week. The girl had been flitting back and forth between several boys. That’s not how a woman of Ginne’s age should be acting, but perhaps he was being too harsh. It hadn’t been long since her husband had passed away and he knew how it took time to come back from something like that.
“Careful Adar,” Neare said, “sometimes you cause more trouble than you’re worth.” He left, headed towards a table covered with food.
“I’ve always found men like you to be worth the trouble they cause.” With a light but firm touch, Ginne brought Adar’s face back to hers. “It’s been weeks since I saw you last.” Adar hesitated; she was taking this too far.
“Once. I came by once.” Friendliness had given her the wrong idea. Adar broke from her grip on his arm, but his actions hadn’t fazed her in the slightest. The time he’d been to her tailor shop, he’d left without ordering. He’d never expected her to take liberties when getting his measurements.
Ginne’s confident smile reached her eyes. She was pretty and had a self-possession that he rarely saw in other, he’d give her that. Perhaps if she hadn’t made her interest known so quickly or been so assuming. How long had it been since he’d held a woman? The thought of Nelion surfaced unbidden, the blood surrounding her and running into her hair.
“Eventually you’ll stop fighting it, but by then I might not be available. I see the way men look at me. I’ve even caught you noticing.” Ginne’s words startled him from the memory, and he responded without thinking.
“I won’t and I don’t.” Adar winced as he turned away but not before he noticed her leaving as well. Somehow, she made it seem as if she’d turned her back on him. How was she able to do that? Was she trying to annoy him? He couldn’t remember the last time he’d treated a woman so badly. What an infuriating woman.
No wonder why Adar hated weddings. He hadn’t attended one in years. He still wasn’t quite sure why he had bothered to come. He should have guessed Jorad and Soret would skip it. He didn’t have a problem with them as long as it didn’t keep Jorad from going to Rarbon.
Jorad was needed there, and his escort was long overdue. Adar had been feeling uneasy for the last several months, and he was beginning to wish that he’d paid attention to his discomfort. It felt to him like there was a storm just over the horizon but he had decided long ago that he would refuse to act on his fears because if he always paid attention to the little voice in the back of his head that was saying something was wrong, he’d go insane. He just prayed that he wouldn’t later regret blocking out the feeling.
Adar turned to leave and almost knocked over Wes.
“Trying to run me over like you did her?” Wes asked. “If you broke my leg, it’d still be better to be me. Wow, you were rude and to a pretty lady no less!”
Wes was scrawny for seventeen, enough to be mistaken for a kid years younger and easily overlooked. His ears poked out from the side of his head. That together with his too wide mouth probably kept the girls away. He was dressed in his finest clothing as well, but for him, that wasn’t saying much. Adar felt a stab of sympathy for the kid.
The lad laughed. “Course, it could just be your game. A woman like that gets what she wants. She’ll just try harder now.”
“How long have you been standing there?” Adar demanded. Wes had a point. Ginne might become more forward. Confound it, what else could Adar do?
“And ripping on the wedding? People already don’t like you as it is.”
“I’m not here to make friends.”
“Jorad’s nice enough, what’s wrong with you? Ginne has managed to overlook that, and you push her away. Is there a bad love affair that you’re still bitter about?” Wes paused. “You do like women don’t you?”
Adar glared at Wes until he looked away.
“I guess it can’t be that since you fathered Jorad, but still, things can change.”
“You talk too much.” Adar had been rude, but he couldn’t think of a way to apologize that wouldn’t encourage Ginne further. Despite the kid’s brash words, Adar regarded him with care. A recently orphaned kid could be given some deference. Given all the kid had been through, Adar couldn’t figure out how he was always smiling. His laugh was often heard around Neberan.
“I don’t speak enough,” Wes said. “If I did, I’d get trampled less.”
“But you’d get kicked more.” Adar couldn’t help but smile, and Wes, unfortunately, took that as a cue to keep talking.
“Ginne’s a nice lady. Not many men would chase her away. Afraid she has the plague? Or maybe it’s been so long since you’ve been with a woman you’ve forgotten how to act. It’s easy. Just relax, it comes naturally.”
“I trust you know.” The kid had a way about him. The easygoing attitude, the constant ribbing, it was hard not to like him. Maybe Wes would have a chance with the ladies after all. “Where’s your woman?”
Wes didn’t miss a step. “At the moment I’m playing the field, you see? Can’t do that with a date chattering away on my arm. Course, if I were your age, I’d take what was offered to me. Before long your hair will all be gray.”
“Would you now?” Right at that moment, Ginne caught Adar looking at her, and he winced. He hated it when somebody had him pegged, especially when he went to great lengths to give them a different impression.
“Not natural you know, ignoring your feelings like this.” Wes turned and looked admiringly after Ginne who noticed and winked at him. “Ah, if I were an older man.”
“Give it a shot anyway,” Adar said as he walked away. “Maybe she’d be up for a kid like you.”
Wes laughed. “She’s almost as old as my mother.” His voice cracked. The pain of her death was evidently still fresh for him. Adar glanced back, but Wes had disappeared.
A few minutes later Adar spotted him chatting with a girl close to his own age on the other side of the square. Always with a smile and up to something. It was good to see somebody enjoying themselves.
Adar continued to scan the crowd from a little bit further away, hoping this time to avoid unwanted conversations. He was concerned about the poster that Neare had mentioned. If that poster had made it here, the bounty hunters wouldn’t be too far behind. If that was the case, it was time to leave.
Confound it. He hated having to wait. Jorad’s escort should have been here months ago. When Adar was satisfied that Jorad wasn’t at the celebration, he left feeling like it had been a waste of time. He needed to know how far along things were with Soret. Adar couldn’t let her stop Jorad from fulfilling his duty to Rarbon.
The last rays of the day lit upon the trees of the forest and caused the leaves to glimmer. Some of which were already turning orange and yellow. Even though a majority of the leaves still held their original color, the reminder of the approaching fall wasn’t lost on Jorad Rahid as he made his way down the trail.
He looked through the forest to the large clearing ahead. Clearing wasn’t exactly the right word since it was quadruple the size of Neberan but he couldn’t think of another way to describe it. Little grew in the open area because it was covered with paved rock.
The pavement showed little in the way of wear, despite the fact that Jorad believed it to be well over a thousand years old, maybe from even before the Severing. That wasn’t what drew his eye, though; it was the tower in the center. He was certain it—people from Neberan called it Vigorock—was from before the Severing.
At several places in the clearing, rocks had been mounded up in various formations, the largest of which was several stories high and shaped like a pyramid. These formations looked much newer.
“We need to get back,” Soret Tedenhel said, breaking into his thoughts. “It won’t be long before my dad notices I’m gone.” She was a step or two behind him and was moving carefully, trying to keep her dress from brushing up against the bushes that were crowding the path; it had been made for festivals, not for moving about the woods. He figured she was also getting cold, but didn’t want to say so.
“Besides Vigorock gives me the creeps,” Soret said. “Wish it wasn’t so close to Neberan. I hate seeing it every day.” She fidgeted, her green dress shimmering and Jorad couldn’t help but notice her figure as she shifted, her long black hair twisting around her. She caught him looking, and he returned his attention to Vigorock, a much less impressive view and perhaps less mysterious.
Seeing Vigorock from this close, and it was still almost a mile away, was something else. It was like a big metal spike that was similar to a pyramid at the base, but instead of four sides it had eight. The sides twisted around the length of the tower giving Vigorock an unearthly look. How could anybody live within sight of this and not wonder what it was? More than a thousand years old and the metal hadn’t rusted; its reflected light would have been visible from Zecarani if there wasn’t a mountain range in the way.
Adar was convinced the tower was a weapon and had spent a lot of time trying to puzzle it out. Jorad had wondered about Adar’s sanity when they spent an afternoon circling the tower, stopping every so often so Adar could swipe his thumb along the base. Jorad had asked for an explanation but of course hadn’t received one. Given the fact that his father Adar had been unable to puzzle out Vigorock’s mysteries, he would get itchy feet soon and want to leave Neberan. Jorad was surprised it hadn’t already happened. They’d been in Neberan for six months, and that was unusual. The longest they usually stayed somewhere was less than three.
Despite Soret’s desire to turn around, Jorad was drawn to the tower and continued to move towards it. He’d never been here at sunset before, and maybe the changing light would give him a fresh perspective on it. Perhaps there would be something with the setting sun that would allow him to unlock its secrets. If it was a weapon as Adar thought, had it been used to fight humans or Hunwei?
Jorad stopped moving forward and looked around. Something wasn’t right, but he couldn’t explain why he thought that. As he scanned the area, his eyes settled on a clump of vegetation. He wasn’t certain at first what it was that drew his eye to it but there was something about it that was out of place. It looked too thick, as if it had another bush within. He put his hand behind him, hoping that Soret would stop. He could have sworn that he’d just seen eyes.
When the bush began to tremble despite the lack of wind, he unsheathed his sword. It hadn’t been his imagination.
“Watch out!” Jorad said, taking a step back and bumping into Soret. It was as if a bush had decided to get up and move. Human eyes were now peering out from the branches, and a figure was emerging as it pushed through the knee-high grass and stepped out onto the path.
Melyah! The man looked like a walking tree. Attached to his dark clothes were bunches of grass and small twigs. Despite his alarm, Jorad studied the figure, it was a marvelous job of camouflage, and he wished that Adar was here to see it as well. Perhaps between the two of them, they would have been able to figure out the method associated with constructing the disguise. Barely any flesh showed, and his face had been rubbed in something black.
The man’s black hair might have been shoulder length, but it was impossible to tell as it had been worked into his disguise. Grass and brush were interwoven with the hair to form a covering that ran down to his shoulders. He almost reminded Jorad of a young girl who had twisted flowers into a crown and was pretending to be a princess.
As crazy as the disguise looked, Jorad had to admit that it had worked. Sure, he had noticed that something was wrong about the bush, but he spent many hours in the forest because Adar was always dragging him on patrols looking for Hunwei. The average passerby wouldn’t have noted anything to be concerned about and would have walked by none the wiser. Jorad examined the rest of the surrounding area looking for any other irregularities. Even though nothing else moved, he didn’t find that very comforting. There were several significant patches of trees and bushes where almost anything could hide. The one this guy had come from was big enough to hide several more just like him. The man kept his arms by his side in a nonthreatening fashion, but Jorad didn’t lower his sword.
“Ou Qui!” Soret hissed.
Jorad was glad she couldn’t see his face. He’d been so busy looking for others and admiring how the man had hidden in plain sight that he hadn’t given any thought to who the man was, but now he realized that Soret’s observation made sense. He’d never met an Ou Qui, but he’d heard stories about their seeming ability to appear out of nowhere. Now that he’d seen it firsthand, he was impressed. If the Ou Qui could track as well as they hid, he never wanted to be their quarry.
The Ou Qui tensed. In a single motion, the man withdrew two short swords from his side and threw them into the ground. The movement had been fast enough that Jorad didn’t have much time to react before the Ou Qui’s short swords stood hilts up, several feet in front of him. His first instinct had been to attack, but when he realized what the man was doing, he stepped back and tried to read the man’s mud covered face. The move had been faster than Jorad had expected, considering the man had moved so carefully when coming out of the trees.
If the Ou Qui attacked, Jorad wasn’t sure how the fight would go. He didn’t like that feeling of uncertainty. Most of the armed people he met didn’t scare him, but that wasn’t the case with this guy.
The Ou Qui folded his arms and waited. Jorad couldn’t see any emotion on the man’s face.
“I’ve never heard of an Ou Qui throwing down his weapons,” Soret whispered from over Jorad’s shoulder. He could feel her brushing up against him. In another circumstance, he would have been thrilled with the contact. It was the closest she’d gotten to him all evening, but now he could only think about making sure he got her out of this alive.
The Ou Qui weren’t exactly known for being trustworthy unless they’d taken an oath. If placing swords in the ground was some sort of custom, Jorad had never heard of it, but he had little experience with them. They lived in the southern rain forests, and they didn’t usually come this far north. Jorad had once talked with a merchant who claimed that the Ou Qui collected human ears from surprised victims and wore them as jewelry. Jorad hadn’t believed it because he’d never met anyone claiming to have lost an ear to the Ou Qui.
The man was staring at Jorad’s sword. The message was clear, but Jorad was hesitant to put it down. He didn’t want to be unarmed, and if he thrust it into the ground as well, he’d need to clean and sharpen it afterward.
He waited until it started to become awkward. Finally, when he could think of nothing else to do, he stabbed his sword into the moist earth in front of him. He would have preferred to just return it to his sheath, but if the Ou Qui had just made some sort of peace offering, Jorad didn’t want to offend him. His sword was two feet longer than the Ou Qui’s short swords and wasn’t as decorated. The hilts of the Ou Qui’s short swords were made from wrought gold and shone in the evening light. It was strange that a man so consumed with not being seen, carried weapons that reflected the light so easily.
Jorad hadn’t noticed the swords until the Ou Qui had removed them from their sheaths. If the Ou Qui was close enough to use them, perhaps it didn’t matter if anybody saw them reflecting light.
The Ou Qui nodded. “Took you long enough. Now that’s out of the way, we can chat. I’m Ruder.”
Jorad quickly covered his surprise. He had been expecting primitive speech and had been prepared to use his hands to communicate if necessary. Ruder spoke with the air of an educated man.
“What do you want?” Jorad wouldn’t offer up their names unless he absolutely had to, and if it came to that he’d probably make something up. For many years, he and Adar had gone by different names on a regular basis and normally he had one already in mind. It was only recently that Adar had relaxed enough that they’d started using their first names. Using their last names was still out of the question and always would be. It wasn’t wise, even this far from Rarbon, to let anyone know he was a Rahid.
Ruder gazed from Soret to him as if sizing them up. An Ou Qui wanting to talk. Who’d ever heard of such a thing?
“Not much on formalities I see. No matter. How many more are there with you? When was Neberan was attacked?”
The question caught Jorad off guard. “What are you talking about? Neberan is just fine.” He didn’t answer the first question on purpose. He didn’t want Ruder knowing they were alone. The questions left him unsettled and would have raised his level of alertness if he wouldn’t have already been well past the point of being afraid for their lives. A man that could have slit their throats without warning was enough to do that.
Were the Ou Qui planning an attack? As a people, they had a reputation as some of the best warriors around. If they weren’t at war with themselves, they were marching off to battle their neighbors. That was the reason why the rain forests hadn’t seen more settlers. The Ou Qui wouldn’t allow it. There was supposed to be good hunting down there, but even Adar, who was drawn to such things, hadn’t shown much interest in heading that way when Jorad had suggested it. He’d said that it wasn’t worth dealing with the Ou Qui.
Ruder might have looked perplexed, but it was impossible to tell. The dark coloring of his camouflage combined with the failing light seemed to erase all his emotions.
“I thought it would have been attacked at the same time as Wasat,” Ruder said as if speaking to himself. He shook his head, causing his camouflage braided hair to wrap around his face; bits of the vegetation were flung off. It reminded Jorad of a dog shaking off water. The movement gave him a glimpse of netting around Ruder’s neck and the method to the disguise began to make sense. Jorad would relate what he saw to Adar, and they could try developing their own.
The name Wasat sounded familiar, and it took Jorad several moments to remember that it was the Ou Qui capitol. An attack on Wasat wasn’t that surprising, given what he knew of them.
“I mistook you as survivors,” Ruder said glancing at his swords, “or refugees.” Jorad inched forward hoping that Ruder wouldn’t notice. If Ruder suddenly went for his weapons, Jorad intended to see that he didn’t get them. “You’re both wearing strange clothes for a stroll through the woods.”
“Just skipping a wedding,” Soret said. “Never did care for Sarai or Toni, but I suppose it’s good they found each other.” Jorad half turned towards her but didn’t take his eyes off Ruder. She was telling too much, and her tone didn’t sound nearly as alarmed as he felt. Perhaps her glibness was just how she dealt with stress. He didn’t know her well enough to say for sure, and he made a small waving motion with his hand hoping to stop her from saying more, but he wasn’t certain that she saw it.
“Zictar,” Ruder nodded towards Vigorock, “is a dangerous place for a stroll.”
Zictar? Jorad hadn’t heard that name before. It made sense that the Ou Qui would have their own name for the tower considering how prominent it was. He wondered if the word Zictar meant something. He had tried to find meaning for the word Vigorock but hadn’t been able to come up with anything. He repeated the name several times to imprint it into his memory. Perhaps it would ring a bell for Adar and prove to be useful information.
“That’s what I’ve been telling him,” Soret said. “He comes every week.” Jorad suppressed a growl and hoped that she’d be quiet. He didn’t want it getting around that he was interested in Vigorock. It might be an old weapon, but it was a weapon. He didn’t want to draw the Ou Qui’s attention. He didn’t think that she’d been listening when he’d mentioned that, he’d have to be more careful with her.
“You’re surprised Neberan is still standing,” Jorad said, eager to change the subject, “why?” A single man wasn’t much of a threat to a town, even one as small as Neberan. Unless Ruder was a scout for an Ou Qui army, there wasn’t much he could do to harm the little town.
“Neberan is in no danger from us.” Ruder’s tone was flat showing that he had picked up on Jorad’s implication. “We’re at war with somebody else.”
“Who are you fighting?”
“Neberan isn’t safe, and you should run.” Ruder stepped closer, palms up but doing little to ease Jorad’s mind because Ruder was also closer to the weapons. Jorad stepped closer to his sword. Ruder might be fast, but if he attacked, Jorad would give him a good fight. “There isn’t anything you can do to save Neberan. Head for the mountains and don’t look back. There aren’t any safe places to be found in the cities. Not any longer.”
Jorad didn’t quite know how to react. If Adar was here, and even though Jorad hated to admit it, it would be useful if he was, Adar would conclude that Ruder was talking about the Hunwei. Adar tended to see Hunwei around every corner regardless of the fact that a living Hunwei hadn’t been spotted for many years. Jorad hadn’t believed in the Hunwei until Adar had dragged him down a mine where they’d found bones too large to be human. Adar had never managed to find any proof that the Hunwei were still alive and he’d been looking for the better part of fifteen years
“The Hunwei are dead.”
Ruder snorted. “I’ve seen them. I’ve fought them.”
“That’s quite the claim. Do you have proof to back it up?” On second thought, Jorad was glad Adar wasn’t here. This would have started an argument about returning to Rarbon so that Jorad could make a claim to become Ghar. There was a rush of wind and the leaves rattled. Jorad noticed that several bits of grass fell off Ruder’s disguise in the gust. He made a mental note. If the Ou Qui always shed like that, it would be easy to track, particularly if the vegetation was out of place.
Ruder shook his head. “I am trying to help you.”
“We should be going.” Jorad reached for his sword, careful to not move too quickly. He cringed when he saw the moist dirt that clung to the end of the blade and gingerly wiped it against his pant leg. Ruder made no move to retrieve his weapons.
“Good night Ruder,” Soret said with a worried look on her face. In the failing light, Jorad was barely able to notice that she’d paled. He took her hand, she held it, and then she pushed it away. The look on her face told him that she thought he was somehow taking advantage of the situation. Maybe she thought that he’d put Ruder up to this so that he could get closer to her.
“We never forgot about the Hunwei. We were vigilant and thought we were prepared. My people were still massacred and captured when they attacked while we slept. Even our metal gods could only kill so many. When the Hunwei come, there won’t be anything you can do. When their ships appear overhead, it will already be too late.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Jorad said backing away with this sword held to the side so that Ruder wouldn’t interpret it as an offensive gesture. He’d been so focused on leaving unscathed that he’d almost missed something that Ruder had said.
He’d mentioned metal gods. What did that mean? Adar claimed that there had once been a people that had been made of metal. Were some of those still alive? Jorad considered stopping to ask Ruder about it further but Soret was already a good distance away, and he didn’t want her walking the road alone.
“Go with the gods,” Ruder said taking several steps forward and retrieving his short swords. He gave Jorad a nod before turning into the woods and disappearing. There was movement in the trees above him, and Jorad could have sworn that he’d seen another face. His suspicions had been correct, Ruder hadn’t been alone.
He looked over his shoulder and saw that Soret was out of sight. Cursing, he turned to hurry after her. He kept looking back, but Ruder had disappeared, and he didn’t see the man in the trees again. He didn’t catch up to Soret until she had made it to the road.
Soret wrapped her arms around her body as if she was cold. “You jumped to the Hunwei conclusion awfully quick.”
Jorad shrugged. “With Adar as my father, it wasn’t much of a leap.” He needed to prepare a way to handle this rumor when Adar heard it. Otherwise, they’d be going to Rarbon the same hour it reached him. Even though Jorad was a grown man now, he couldn’t stomach the thought of abandoning Adar. Who would keep Adar from going crazy with paranoia?
Jorad looked back over his shoulder, half-expecting to see Ruder heading their way with an Ou Qui army, but the road was quiet. Further out, the final light of day reflected off Vigorock, and the reflection wavered several times.
Then the sun was gone, and Jorad could no longer make it out. He must have been imagining something. Birds would have been too small to block out the light from that distance. He thought of the Hunwei ships and tried to laugh it off, but the truth was the encounter with Ruder had gotten to him. Whether or not the Hunwei had returned, Adar would act if he caught so much as a hint of these rumors. Try as he might, Jorad couldn’t come up with a plan to convince Adar to not be worried about the attack on Wasat.
There had to be a way. He just needed more time to think.
They had just entered Neberan when a flash of light shot across the sky. Jorad reached for his sword as the shooting star sped north and disappeared. When Hunwei didn’t drop out of thin air, he lowered his hand. Soret had taken his other hand, and after an uncomfortable moment, they both laughed.
“Jumping at nothing,” she said. Even though her chuckle was hollow and her grip lessened, he could feel her pulse racing.
Melyah! It was a match for his. In the brief moment between spotting the shooting star and recognizing what it was, he’d imagined Hunwei flooding into the town, and the thought had filled him with dread.
“Yeah,” Jorad said. “It’s been a long night.”
The Hunwei aren’t coming back, he told himself, it doesn’t matter what Ruder says, or Adar believes. There wasn’t a need for Jorad to return to Rarbon. Besides, even if he did just that, it was doubtful that anything in the Rarbon Portal would be of use anyway.
He found himself glancing back as the meteor made its way across the sky. It was a coincidence, nothing more. It certainly wasn’t one of the Hunwei ships. All the years he’d spent hunting shadows with Adar had taken their toll on him, and it was hard for him to think clearly about this topic. That was what was really going on here.
The sun blinded Jorad when he stepped out of the shadow of the boarding house onto the road. It was just peeking up over the top of the Jagged Mountains and hadn’t yet warmed things up. He tried to ignore the chill as he took a deep breath. The air held a hint of pine from the nearby forest, and he exhaled, feeling a little bit more awake. He hadn’t slept much during the night. Between Ruder’s claims and the way Soret’s parents had treated him last night when he’d seen her home, there had been too much on his mind. As he tossed and turned, he had hoped that the morning would bring greater clarity, but it hadn’t. He still didn’t know what to think about any of it.
It had been dark long before they’d finished their walk the night before, so Jorad had walked Soret home. That had been a mistake. Barc Tedenhel, Soret’s father, had met them at the door. One look from Barc had been enough for Jorad to know that he needed to make himself scarce.
The balding, short man had pretended that Jorad wasn’t there when he’d addressed Soret, demanding to know where she had been. Soret’s mother Hira looked over Barc’s shoulder—she was a head taller—and had glared at Jorad. Neither had spoken to him during the exchange and talked of him as if he wasn’t there.
Jorad had spoken up a few times, raising objections to being classified as a scoundrel, but he went unheeded.
Before going in, Soret had whispered a quick apology explaining that her parents still hadn’t gotten over her breakup with Erro.
Jorad wasn’t so sure that her explanation made sense. They’d treated him as if he had a terrible disease and that their daughter was at risk of catching it. There had to be more to it than what Soret had said.
“What did Soret do now?” Adar asked, shutting the boarding house door behind him and bringing Jorad back to the present. A slight breeze disturbed the leaves of a nearby tree, and Adar flicked at a bug that landed on the back of his neck. He unconsciously touched the hilt of his sword afterward. That particular nervous habit had sometimes landed them in trouble. There were places that if a man reached for his sword and didn’t follow through, he’d be dead.
“It’s not about her,” Jorad said, he felt his face flush. Erro had been telling Soret’s parents lies about Jorad; it was the only explanation that made sense. Why Erro would do that, Jorad didn’t know. It seemed like every woman in town eyed Erro. Jorad had been unable to decide if it was because of Erro’s wealth or if they found him handsome. Had Soret broken up with him because her parents were pushing the marriage? Jorad suspected that despite everything that happened between them, Soret was still interested in Erro. At the very least she wasn’t over him.
“Course it is, I can see the lie on your face.”
Jorad grunted but didn’t respond as they began to move. The morning bustle stirred as the various shops readied for the day’s visitors. Several horse drawn wagons drove by, and he nodded to the drivers but didn’t recognize any of them. Such was life in a small town. In Zecarani, strangers often didn’t greet each other. Last time he was there, he’d almost been run over and had to jump out of the way of a fast moving carriage. The driver had laughed as he passed.
Adar and Jorad were heading out on patrol. It was one of Adar’s favorite things to do. It wasn’t uncommon to do more than five patrols a week. Adar always insisted that they did the patrols to keep their skills sharp, but Jorad knew the truth. He knew that Adar was paranoid that the Hunwei would catch them unaware. It bothered Adar to no end that he still hadn’t managed to figure out any of the weapons of their fathers. When they’d left Rarbon that had been one of Adar’s principal goals.
Jorad inhaled and looked around. The morning sun didn’t do as much to increase his mood as he would have liked. Even though he couldn’t shake the anxious feeling that the Hunwei had indeed returned as Ruder claimed, he wasn’t looking forward to traipsing around the woods. The only thing he wanted to do right now was to confront Erro about the lies he’d been telling. If Jorad did, he had little doubt that it would come to blows. He smiled. Erro might be more manageable after a thorough beating.
“If you don’t take the lead,” Adar said, “she’ll walk all over you.”
Jorad almost stopped walking; the stories couldn’t have spread that quickly. He’d considered telling Adar about the confrontation with Soret’s parents. He hadn’t done that though because Adar believed it did a man good to have his weaknesses thrown in his face. No doubt, Adar would have come up with a number of different ways Jorad could have handled things and the last thing he needed was Adar taunting him.
“You mentioned earlier you had something to tell me,” Jorad said, eager to change the topic of conversation.
“I’ve heard rumors,” Adar said.
“About what?” Jorad asked, trying to keep his voice even. He failed. Adar noticed it. He didn’t want to tell Adar about his encounter with Ruder. It would have been better to stay on the topic of Soret. Jorad knew where this would lead.
“What have you heard?” Adar asked.
Stupid! Jorad thought, wishing Adar couldn’t read him so easily. If Adar had heard about Wasat, they would have already left town. Jorad knew that and should have kept better control of his voice. He was beginning to regret not telling Adar about what happened last night with Soret’s parents. Enduring Adar’s taunts about Soret would have been better than having to tell Adar about Ruder. They walked in silence for a few steps, but Jorad knew that it was too late and Adar had already made a connection.
“Spit it out.”
Jorad debated. Adar would know if Jorad lied, he always did. If Jorad continued to evade the topic, Adar would hammer away at him until his nerves were all ragged and he’d learned the truth anyway. It wasn’t a good outcome either way.
“Tell me about the rumors you’ve heard.”
“You’ll have to tell me eventually,” Adar said, ignoring him. “The more you resist, the more interested I become.”
Was that thunder? Jorad looked towards the Jagged Mountains to the east where the sound had come from. It was barely audible. It couldn’t have been thunder, other than a small line of clouds, the sky was clear. Odd.
“What’s wrong?” Adar asked.
“Thought I heard thunder.”
Adar looked to the east. “Strange, there aren’t many clouds.”
They walked in silence as they left Neberan. They were approaching the forest when Adar spoke again. “I don’t know why you don’t want to tell me, but you can rest assured I’ll find out.”
Jorad didn’t answer as they plunged into the forest and was glad that silence was a necessity while on patrol. Adar’s demeanor changed as soon as they entered. Instead of walking the way a farmer might through a field or a traveler down a road, Adar moved like a cat hunting a mouse, careful where he stepped and alert to his surroundings. After years of practice and Adar’s stubborn teaching, Jorad had picked up the same skill and stalked forward as well, though perhaps not as quietly.
When Jorad was younger, Adar spent hours explaining various things about the forest, wildlife, and the land. When they came to something new, particularly if it was a plant that had useful properties, they had sometimes spent half a day while Adar taught. Afterward, Jorad would have to recite back what he learned. The educational sessions subsided as Jorad mastered Adar’s lessons. When the day came that Adar declared the lessons done, outings like this became more common. Adar was becoming restless, and they’d patrolled almost every day during the last month.
The thick forest was much darker than the road, and both of them moved slowly to give their eyes time to adjust before picking up speed.
It was a long and grueling day during which Jorad did his best to remain alert, but by the time the sun was setting, he was ready to head home. Adar, on the other hand, looked ready to go all night. Jorad was thinking about saying something when Adar stopped.
Dark had begun to set in, and Jorad didn’t notice until he was about to collide with Adar. He was grateful that he hadn’t let his thoughts wander to Soret again. Otherwise, he would have had an annoyed Adar on his hands.
Because Jorad had lost track of the number of times that Adar had stopped, it took him more than a moment to notice something was wrong. They were on a wooded hill, and the sun was almost gone, plunging most of the forest into shadow. The birds that had been chirping a few moments ago were silent, and except for a slight breeze rustling leaves overhead and the sound of gurgling water from a nearby stream, it was quiet.
Jorad looked around half expecting to see the eyes of a large predator. He reached over his shoulder for his sword but stopped when he realized what he was doing. Fool! Can’t have the last light of day flashing on my sword to give away our position.
They were half way up the hill; behind them, the last rays of the sunset were just visible. Or was that his imagination? Off to the left, the creek ended in a small waterfall at the base. He didn’t see any movement in the small meadow there. He made eye contact with Adar who motioned to his nose and looked back up the hill.
Jorad sniffed the air as he stifled a groan. How had he missed it? There was a distinctive, but weak, smell coming from the top. He didn’t recognize it, but that wasn’t unusual. Here in the south, he wasn’t as familiar with the animals.
A griz wolf? Maybe the mammoth bear that had been spotted in this area recently.
Jorad almost unsheathed his sword; it wouldn’t do him much good if a mammoth bear attacked them. They were notorious for stealth, despite their size, and they’d have little warning, if any. He wished for his bow as he remembered a time when Soret confessed her fear of mammoth bears. Hadn’t he laughed at her? The thought of facing a mammoth bear with a sword set his insides churning. They might have a chance, a slight chance.
Adar shook his head when he saw the question on Jorad’s face and turned his attention up the hill. Adar didn’t recognize the smell, which was a surprise. That ruled out a griz wolf but not a mammoth bear. The trees and brush kept them from seeing anything useful. What other animal could there be that Adar hadn’t hunted?
They waited for some time in the quiet of the forest, studying the top of the hill. Several times Jorad was sure that he’d seen a flicker of movement. After what seemed like all night, but must have been far less than a few minutes, the smell subsided.
Adar went up and paused, angling for a better view. Jorad followed, stopping every few steps to sniff the air and examine the ground. When they were almost to the crest of the hill, Adar stooped and motioned Jorad over.
By the scant light of the all but gone sun, Jorad made out a track on the ground after staring for several seconds. It was bigger than a man, and he didn’t know of any animal with a track that large. He cast his eyes around expecting to see the eyes of a mammoth bear. They were supposed to glow blue in the dark, even without moonlight. He shivered.
Jorad forced his attention back to the impression in the ground and felt the print with his fingers, there were odd markings, and the track was deep. A man couldn’t have made this unless he was heavy and had feet almost twice the size of Jorad. The track felt like an imprint from a boot, except it was oddly shaped, with three toe-like splinters poking out in front.
They continued up the hill a bit more cautiously after that.
When Jorad emerged from a sudden opening in the forest at the top of the hill, he lay beside Adar. The other side of the hill was bare and didn’t offer any cover for them to descend. There was movement at the bottom where the forest thickened again, but it was too far away and dark to tell much more than that. Had Adar seen it as well? A glance at Adar’s face was answer enough, and Jorad could almost hear Adar ticking off the possibilities in his head.
Jorad became more alert with the prospect of tracking the unknown creature. Adar wouldn’t pass on an opportunity to track something they hadn’t encountered before even if it was a mammoth bear. If they were careful and kept their distance, they’d be fine. Adar sometimes would spend hours tracking an animal if it crossed their path even if it was going the opposite direction and they weren’t hunting.
Jorad suspected that tonight would be different and they’d track the unknown creature until they’d confirmed that it was a native animal. Adar was too focused tonight to waste time.
They made their way across the top of the hill until they reached thicker vegetation where they slipped over to the other side. Jorad was aware of the greater need for stealth as they descended the hill and took care to move slower than he had before. This earned him an approving nod from Adar. That was rare enough that it caught him off guard and he almost tripped during a moment of self-congratulation. He cursed and was glad he didn’t loosen anything to go bounding down the slope to warn their quarry as they moved in a course to intercept the unknown creature. He avoided eye contact with Adar, hoping this mistake had been unnoticed.
At the bottom of the hill, it took several minutes to find the large three-pronged tracks. When they did, Adar pointed to a track that was bigger than the others indicating that there was more than one.
They hadn’t been following for long before Jorad could see shadows moving ahead. He stumbled when he saw that the shadows were walking on two legs and grabbed a tree for support. Even in the moonlight, Jorad could see the set of Adar’s jaw.
It took several hours for the shadows to reach the tree line that was parallel to the north road leading out of Neberan. The shadows had stopped multiple times and seemed to be conversing, but Jorad couldn’t hear anything. By the little he could see of Adar’s face from flashes of moonlight through the trees, Adar looked grim and determined.
On the outskirts of the forest, well within sight of Neberan, the shadows—he could see three distinct figures now—crouched and examined the town. Jorad had a sinking feeling in his stomach and wished that they’d found a mammoth bear instead.
Adar touched Jorad’s arm and motioned to the right where the forest was thicker. Jorad moved more cautiously than he had all night while keeping an eye on the shadows as much as possible. Other than a Hunwei, what’s bigger than a man and walks on hind legs? Whatever they were he didn’t want to find out by making a misstep. They hid in the middle of a big cluster of pine trees that was surrounded by thick grass.
The three shadows appeared to be talking and one motioned to the town multiple times. The shadows stayed at the edge of the forest for close to an hour, and the moons were well into the sky when they moved to leave.
When the shadows turned, Jorad was glad that Adar had anticipated they’d return the way they had come. The shadows moved quickly, making more noise than before, if they’d made this much ruckus earlier Jorad would have heard them before noticing the smell.
When one of the shadows turned off the path and started towards their hiding place, Jorad’s heart began pounding in his chest, and he reached for his sword but stopped at the last moment from drawing it. Maybe it was after something other than them. Pulling his sword now would give away their position for sure.
Jorad felt his self-control slipping away the closer it got, it was hard to slow his breathing. Whether the shadow had seen them or not, moving now would be disastrous. One of the other shadows snarled, and the one closest to them snarled back.
Jorad stopped breathing. Snarling?
He’d half hoped that they’d been following men, large men, but the snarling ruled that out.
What were these things? Pushing away the obvious answer, he tried to think of anything else that would explain what they were witnessing and came up with nothing.
Jorad could smell it again, the shadow would be on them in a few more steps, and he’d have no choice but to go for his sword. Without moving his head, he glanced at Adar and saw he’d already managed to unsheathe his sword and was holding it to his side away from the prying eyes of the creature. When had he done that?
Jorad could make out the distinct outline of the shadow against the dimly lit forest. It was at least a couple of heads taller than most men and twice as wide. The other two shadows snarled, and the third finally turned back.
Jorad moved his head to see where the shadows were going and became aware of his senses again when he exhaled with a quiet explosion. He hesitated, but the shadows were too far away to have noticed. He pulled out of the crouch and was glad to see that he could move. The fear hadn’t paralyzed him, as he’d feared.
Adar motioned for him to hold still and they waited until the shadows disappeared and then awhile longer. When they stood, Jorad worried that the shadows might have returned, but the forest was still. He sighed when he saw Adar’s determined look. The thing that Jorad had assumed would never happen and the moment that Adar had been preparing for since as long as Jorad could remember had arrived.
The leaves rustled with the breeze and flashes of moonlight splashed onto Adar’s face as the movement of the trees created gaps above them. Jorad was surprised to see that Adar was calm, even contemplative. He would have expected Adar to be anxious and afraid, given that the thing he’d been paranoid about for years had finally happened.
“We have to get to Rarbon,” Adar whispered as he stared at the place where the Hunwei had disappeared.
Jorad made a face but didn’t speak. He could still smell the Hunwei even though they were gone. It was a musky stench mixed with rotting flesh. He sniffed trying to imprint the smell on his memory. The return of the Hunwei changed everything. His first thought was for Soret. He’d have to convince her to come with them. Adar hadn’t expressed the sentiment yet, but Jorad knew that their time in Neberan had come to a close. His second thought was that he’d have to reevaluate his decision about returning to Rarbon to make a claim.
“The Rarbon Portal is our best chance now.” Adar stared at Jorad.
“We don’t even know if the Portal will work.” Jorad didn’t need any more lectures from Adar. He needed time to think. “For all we know, it’s just a bunch of scrolls gathering dust.” He strained his ears. The only sound he was able to hear were the crickets that had started up again after the Hunwei had left.
“What do you suggest?” Adar asked.
“I don’t know.” Jorad thought about Ruder and was filled with anxiety. Why hadn’t he told Adar about the Ou Qui? They had lost a day. One day could make a big difference.
No! _]He thought, [_I won’t wallow in what could have been. He couldn’t afford to think like that, or second-guessing would keep him from getting anything done. Telling Adar about Ruder wouldn’t have changed much. They would still have spent the day looking for Hunwei. Adar might have been more zealous but in the end, they’d found the Hunwei by mere chance anyway.
Regardless, Jorad could no longer keep the truth from Adar. He took a deep breath and hoped Adar wouldn’t kill him. When he’d finished telling Adar everything about Ruder, Adar didn’t say anything. He didn’t need to because he could recognize the guilt on Jorad’s face.
“What do we do now?” Jorad asked. There had to be a way out of returning to Rarbon. Everything he’d learned about it made it seem like an impossible task especially with the Hunwei breathing down their necks.
“At least you’re finally asking,” Adar said. “To even have a chance you’re going to need to focus. Hard decisions lay ahead, and you’ll be dead if you’re in the habit of hesitating or doubting.” Hearing this advice was unnerving. Adar had taught him to think through things. Oh sure, there were times when Adar jumped into things, but it was always to protect somebody. His father was irrational in other things, women for example, but when it came to matters of arms and death, Adar was cold and calculating. “You must return to Rarbon and find a way into the Portal.”
“We don’t know what’s in there,” Jorad said, “and it will take me forever. If we at least knew for sure there was something we could use to fight the Hunwei, I’d go without argument.”
“It’s a gamble,” Adar said, “but we don’t have a lot of options.”
Jorad didn’t know what to say.
“Do you need to rest before we continue?” Adar asked.
Jorad sighed. “Let’s go.” He should have guessed that Adar would want to track the Hunwei still. As he walked out of the pine trees, he noticed something out of place. He could just make out the outline of a boot in the shadows. He took out his sword and approached. Adar noticed his actions and left the pines a different way while also unsheathing his sword. Holding his sword ready to strike, Jorad took several more steps forward and frowned.
The Hunwei hadn’t noticed them at all. A dead man lay at his feet; the body had been hid from their view by several wild raspberry bushes. Jorad shivered at how close he’d been to taking out his sword when the Hunwei had approached, if he’d done that, they would have been seen for sure.
It would have been a relief to know that the shadows hadn’t spotted them if the reason hadn’t been a corpse. Adar bent to examine it as best he could in the scant light. From what little Jorad could make out, the man was his age and had a beard. There was blood on the chest of the corpse where he’d been stabbed multiple times.
“How long do you think he has been dead?” Jorad asked as he knelt beside the body. He had little experience in this area. Melyah, he hoped to keep it that way.
“No more than a day, if that. Know him?”
“I can’t tell for sure in this light, but I don’t think so.”
“We’ll report the body to the town guard when we return.” Adar stood and put his sword away. “For now, we hunt Hunwei.” There was a slight glimmer in Adar’s eye as he spoke and Jorad wagered that it probably felt good to have been finally proven right after all these years. Too bad that being right signaled the end of the world.
As they followed the returning tracks, Jorad made a greater effort to remain alert than he had before. If there were still Hunwei about, he didn’t want to be caught unaware. At one point, he realized that he was grasping the hilt of one of his daggers and let go. He ran his fingers over the imprints on his hand as they continued on their way.
An hour later, they were following the Hunwei boot prints up a large hill when there was a rushing sound like a strong wind. Jorad froze in confusion, other than a slight breeze from the opposite direction the air was still. The night had become cold, and the sky was partially cloudy. The moons had just gone behind a cloud giving the terrain and eerie glow. Not knowing what else to do, he crouched and noticed that Adar was doing the same. When the sound didn’t stop, Adar continued to move forward without a backward glance.
Jorad followed, hoping they weren’t walking into a trap.
They hadn’t made it far when he could feel warm air blowing from up ahead. The trees in front of them shook, and a shiny silver object appeared above the treetops. Moonlight glinted off the metal. [_What in the name of Melyah? _]He thought. It was hard for him to describe but it looked like a big metal box with glowing light coming from the bottom. It was disturbing the air beneath it as it rose. The object moved up into the sky until it was almost out of sight.
Was he looking at a Hunwei ship? Jorad recalled Adar describing ships to him but seeing one first hand was something else. If he remembered right, Adar had mentioned that humans once upon a time had similar things. The feeling of awe that overcame Jorad filled him with nausea. How could they hope to fight these things? Would people in the ship even notice if they were being pummeled by arrows? End of the world indeed. Ruder’s advice was beginning to sound more plausible by the hour.
There was a loud boom of thunder and the ship disappeared. One moment it was there and the next it was just gone. Jorad spotted the silver object skimming across the sky as it left behind a trail of clouds. He tripped when he remembered the thunder from earlier in the day. Had he heard a ship and not known it?
What else had he missed?
Ruder had warned him the Hunwei were coming and Jorad had thought he was crazy. He’d heard the thunder and discounted it. He’d seen the small trail of clouds and thought nothing of it. Of course, Adar hadn’t caught on to that last one either. Had the shooting stars last night been ships as well?
Jorad tried to think if he’d missed anything else as he followed Adar to the clearing where the ship had come from. There was a burnt smell in the air, and some of the grass was on fire. Most of the vegetation in the middle lay flat as if it had been pushed down by a great weight. He and Adar went around stomping on the burning grass until all the flames had been extinguished. They didn’t need a forest fire on top of everything else.
Based on the number of tracks and the differing sizes, it appeared that there had been more than three Hunwei, but it was hard to get an exact number as the lack of light kept them from getting a good picture of the ground.
“It went north,” Jorad said, “like the shooting stars.”
“What?” Adar growled. “Why didn’t you mention those before?”
“You know now.” Jorad was glad for the dark to cover his embarrassment. He examined a large impression in the ground that was wider than a carriage and about twice as long. He figured it had been made from the weight of the ship.
“Anything else you’ve forgotten to tell me?” Adar asked.
“Why are the Hunwei interested in Neberan?” Jorad asked, ignoring Adar’s question. “Rarbon, Parout, Colonipo, even Zecarani would make a lot more sense for the first wave of attacks.”
Adar snorted. “Who says this isn’t the second or third and they’re just getting to us? Besides, Neberan isn’t different from any other place.”
“I wish that we’d been able to figure out Vigorock,” Jorad said.
“Unless you have more ideas on how to get it to work,” Adar said, “we don’t have the time. We can get to Zecarani in two weeks if we hurry.”
“Deren’s Tablet?” Jorad asked. It only made sense that he’d want to take another shot at it as it was on the way to Rarbon. When Adar nodded, he sighed. Why not add another difficult task to the pile? They’d tried to get to the tablet before, but they’d been denied access. It was another relic from before the Severing that Adar believed could access the weapons of the fathers.
“We didn’t have much success before,” Jorad said.
“We didn’t try very hard.” Adar looked determined, and Jorad realized that he didn’t just want a look. He meant to take it.
“If you believe the Rarbon Portal is our best option, why don’t you go back and clear your name. It’ll take years for me to pass the trials.”
Adar studied Jorad and nodded. “A good thought, but I’ve been gone too long. The evidence against me was set up too well. They didn’t believe me then, they won’t believe me now. No, you are our best option for getting into the Portal. You’re going to have to convince the Rarbon Council to expedite the process. If we can gather some evidence they may see the urgency.”
“It will be hard enough convincing them that I’m a Rahid, proving that the Hunwei have returned will be impossible.”
“I don’t deny it’s a bad plan. Would you rather stay here and wait to die? You can do something, even if it amounts to nothing, and know that you did your best to stop it. Besides, we have a lot of miles between Rarbon and us. We’ll look for convincing proof.”
“Rarbon is two months away; it will be overrun long before we get there.”
Adar shook his head. “It’s closer than you think. After we reach Zecarani, I’ll get you to Rarbon in two days, maybe less.”
“Are you mad?” Jorad’s stomach churned with the thought. If Adar was losing it now, he didn’t know what they’d do.
“I know a shortcut, a place called the Arches. You’ve been there before, but you don’t remember. It’s our one advantage.”
Jorad was taken aback. Adar wasn’t a liar, but his claim was laughable. If Adar was right and he could get to Rarbon in weeks instead of months, they may have a chance of getting into the Portal before the Hunwei came. He felt the weight of duty hanging from his shoulders like a yoke. Only instead of being attached to a cart, it was a mountain. No that was wrong, it was like the whole of the Jagged Mountains had fallen on him, and Adar expected him to dig himself out. He didn’t like the thought that he was responsible for gaining access to something where so many had failed and that it might turn out to be a waste anyway. How could this ridiculous plan be their best hope to fight the Hunwei?
Jorad turned to leave. “I want proof that it will work.”
“You won’t find any,” Adar said, “I’ve been looking for years.” Rarbon beckoned.
Jorad ground his teeth. It was beginning to look like he had no choice now but to heed its call.
Tere Huel sighed, squinting from the light, it was early morning, and the angle of the sun was blinding. The dew was beginning to evaporate, and he could tell already that it was going to be a hot day. They’d camped on the outskirts of Neberan late last night and had been careful to conceal their presence from the road. It wasn’t necessary, what were the chances that Adar would be in this backwoods town anyway? Still, old habits die hard. While they were on a retrieval mission, it had been his mission for the last fifteen years. Even though the feeling of urgency had long since dissipated, they’d awoken before first light and broken camp.
Tere took a deep breath and closed his eyes, focusing on the sound of the gravel crunching underneath the hooves of their horses. He froze. Had it really been more than fifteen years since the night that he found Adar beside Nelion as her life ebbed away? It was a night that continued to haunt Tere’s dreams.
Adar’s pristine white clothes had been spoiled with Nelion’s blood, and his cold, emotionless face had stood in contrast to the dreadful pleas of the man dying beside Nelion. If Tere had known how that night would change his life, he would have run from Rarbon and never looked back. So many things would have been different. Tere pushed away the memory with a prayer to Vicael.
“You want to go in alone?” Tarner Neatel asked as he wiped his brow, it was easy to forget when they were riding that Tarner was a good foot shorter. Tere had always supposed that was the reason Tarner was always so determined to get what he wanted. Today Tere couldn’t tell if Tarner wanted to come or not.
“I don’t know.” Tere touched his fingers to his lips completing the prayer. If the others noticed, they didn’t comment. He slowed his horse to a stop and looked down the hill at the town. “Neberan is small. Three armed men will be noticed right away, where one might avoid attention.”
Larae would like this morning, Tere thought as he closed his eyes imagining he was back home, sitting on the porch eating eggs and toast with Larae cuddled beside him as Sharu played nearby, having shown no interest in her breakfast. After several long seconds, he reminded himself Sharu hadn’t been that small for almost two decades.
There had been a time when that memory warmed him, but now it was just an empty husk. The years of watching Sharu grow to a woman were past, and even though he had made regular return visits to Rarbon, it was never long after arriving before Rahar Abel insisted that Tere leave again to chase some other rumor of Adar.
At first, every day Tere had spent away from his family was a bit heavier than the last, but that had changed. The gulf between Larae and him had grown until Sharu was the only connection they had remaining.
These days it was better for him to be away because Larae had taken a lover. Tere didn’t have proof, but at times there were words that his wife and daughter exchanged that left him puzzled. He’d refused to ask questions or give much thought to the matter. What was the point? He couldn’t blame her because duty had become his mistress.
[_Melyah take the Rahar! _]Rahar Abel claimed that his grandson Jorad must be found to protect Rarbon, but he said many things that Tere had long since stopped believing, it was mere duty that caused him to continue the search. He had, after all, his oath to obey.
“If you find Adar you’ll want us with you,” Tarner said. “You can’t kill him alone.” Perhaps Tarner did want to come.
“I should go,” Lous Liup said, startling Tere. The man spoke so infrequently that Tere was never sure if Lous knew what went on around him. “Adar doesn’t know me.”
Tarner snorted. “I’d give you ten minutes before you forgot why you were there.”
Lous just shook his head and didn’t answer as Tere closed his eyes again and wished the sun would melt away the pain. It didn’t matter why they were still looking for Jorad. What mattered was that Abel still believed Jorad could be found.
“I’ll go alone.” Tere noticed Tarner hide a smile and realized that must have been what he’d wanted from the beginning. Tere almost changed his mind just because he didn’t want Tarner to think he could be controlled, but he relented. Tarner and Lous could both use the extra rest, and it would be better for Tere to scout out the city alone. If by some remote chance Adar was here, they didn’t need to announce their presence.
Jorad sat beside Soret on a fallen log and did his best to think of the right words to say. They were on the outskirts of town and had a good view of Vigorock as it shined in the late morning sun. Oh, how he wished that he had more time to puzzle out its secrets. The key to the ancient weapons could be right in front of them and because they didn’t know what they were looking for they would probably just pass it by. How much more efficient would it be to get Vigorock to work now rather than spending an unknowable amount of time trying to get into the Portal only to be faced with similar questions if he was successful?
Several small children with huge grins ran by, and he watched them as they passed. The smallest lagged behind and was calling to the others to wait. As Jorad stared at the children, he wondered if there was anything he could do to help them. He and Adar had agreed to warn everybody they could before they had to leave, but he knew that their efforts would be futile. Even if he somehow found the parents of these children, it would not be an easy task to convince them that they were in danger.
Adar had mentioned something about going to see Mayor Keeret and Jorad wished him luck. The mayor was a prickly woman and didn’t particularly like Adar. Melyah, even if she liked Adar, a story about the Hunwei wouldn’t go over well.
Jorad yawned. He and Adar had arrived at the boarding house in the early hours of the morning and gone to bed. He had done his best to sleep, but the stress of returning to Rarbon kept him tossing and turning. He’d finally managed to doze only to be awoken by Adar a few minutes later. They decided to leave Zecarani in the early afternoon after Adar tied up a few loose ends.
Jorad’s first thought when he awoke had been for Soret. He’d grabbed a slab of bread from the kitchen and scarfed it down on the way to the Tedenhel Store. The return of the Hunwei had at least solidified his decision about her, his concerns about her parents seemed trivial in comparison to the days ahead. Luckily, when he had arrived at the store, Barc and Hira weren’t around. It took some doing, but he’d managed to convince Soret to come with him on a walk.
“Ruder was right,” Jorad said, not knowing how to start. He couldn’t afford to have this conversation go badly, but there also wasn’t much time before he would be leaving. He needed to convince her to leave Neberan by either coming with him or by going somewhere safe and hiding.
“Ruder is crazy,” Soret said, her eyes bored into him, but he held her gaze. She was wearing brown trousers, a green blouse, and had her hair back in a ponytail. She might have thought she looked prettier when she had dressed up for the wedding, but she was just as beautiful now. He could smell the hint of the shampoo she used this morning.
Jorad shrugged and recounted to her the events of the last day, his certainty that the Hunwei had returned and that he was going to Zecarani to help Adar find a way to fight them. He left Rarbon out of the explanation for now.
“I can’t believe you’re trying to convince me the Hunwei are real.” Soret shook her head while standing up. “I need to return to the store. I promised dad I’d make some deliveries. I don’t have time for this.” Soret stalked away with her back straight. He’d seen that walk before and knew that she was furious. He would have liked to give her time to calm down but didn’t have the luxury. He chased after her.
Somebody called his name from behind as he ran, but he ignored it because Soret turned. “Is this your plan to trick me into marrying you? You’re not the first man to try something like this on me. My dad won’t give me a dowry if I pull a stunt like that. So if that’s your plan get it out of your head now.” She stood in the middle of the road. Several people were passing by on either side, but she didn’t seem to notice the strange looks she was getting.
“Soret,” Jorad began, but before he could continue, Erro Paler pushed between them and Jorad almost lost his balance. Erro was the same height as Jorad and reeked of cologne. His gaudy sword hung at his side, and he wore a triumphant look.
It took everything Jorad had not to punch the idiot. He didn’t know for sure if Erro had been spreading lies about him, if he did, it would have been much harder.
“Here’s the man you want,” Erro said.
Several of Neberan’s town guard had approached as well. Jorad recognized Thon Reaver, who nodded, but without his characteristic friendliness. Thon was a decent fellow, who stood a head taller than Jorad and had broader shoulders. The man always reminded him of an ox. Instead of the open smile that Thon usually wore, he was tight-lipped and scrutinizing Jorad’s face. His thick sword that was more club than sword was strapped to his back.
Thon looked like he was trying to decide if Jorad had done something wrong. Erro was doing his best to hide a smile. What was the fool grasping at now?
Jorad clenched his fists. The last thing he needed to do right now was get in trouble with the town guard watching. He made a commitment to himself that the next time he had trouble with Erro that he was going to give the fool a thorough beating.
“Erro—” Soret said.
Erro interrupted her, and she scowled. “It’s not about you,” Erro said. “Jorad is wanted for murder.”
That got Jorad’s attention. At least Erro had decided to make accusations to his face now. The treatment Jorad was getting from Soret’s parent’s made more sense with this little tidbit coming to light. He tried to refrain from sneering, but he only half succeeded.
“I’m not a murderer,” Jorad said. “Keep this up, that could change.”
Thon smiled, and the other guard—Sein wasn’t it?—laughed. Erro pulled a folded piece of paper from his coat pocket. It was old and creased in multiple places. Jorad tried not to look anxious, hoping it wasn’t what he thought.
How had that followed them here? Colonipo was half a continent away, and it had been several years. Would that afternoon ever stop haunting them?
“You go too far,” Soret said.
Jorad agreed, he’d been too patient. Erro was spoiling for a fight and maybe it was time he obliged. Thon continued to stare at Jorad, at least that made sense now.
“Here, let me see that little paper again.” Thon took the paper and held it up, comparing it to Jorad, who smiled toothily.
Jorad hoped he never ended up on the wrong side of Thon, who was a dangerous enough man without a weapon. The thick sword just made him all the more formidable. Jorad had seen him practicing with it several weeks ago. The man moved it with the ease a normal sized man handled a regular sword. Thon passed the paper to Sein, who switched his staff to his other hand so he could take the paper and hold it up for comparison. Jorad continued to smile. [_Let them see this doesn’t bother me. _]
“This has been a waste of time,” Sein said, handing the paper back to Erro. For his part, Sein looked relieved. There was a visible relaxing of his narrow shoulders and the grip on his staff lessened as well. “That drawing could be anybody. Even you Erro.”
“You’re right,” Thon said. “Sorry for the confusion Jorad. Just a mistake, that’s all.” He put out his hand to Jorad, who took it. “Enjoy the rest of your morning.”
“But it’s him!” Erro held the paper up so that Soret could see it. “You deserve to know the truth.”
Jorad relaxed. It wasn’t the one he’d been thinking of, if they’d had that one, Thon and Sein might not have been so easily convinced.
“I’ll never come back to you,” Soret said.
Erro choked on his words as his jaw clenched. “He’s a murderer.”
“If Colonipo wants him, they can come get him,” Thon said. “Until then this piece of paper isn’t enough to ruin a man’s life.”
“You can’t just let him walk free.”
“He’s killed nobody here,” Thon said. Erro grabbed the paper back from Soret and stuffed it into his pocket before leaving.
Jorad turned to talk with Soret, but she was already stalking off again. Cursing, he ran to catch up with her. What was it that Adar said? Some women took it as their purpose in life to make men work hard for their affections. Jorad shook his head as he ran after her. This was a matter of life and death. He needed her to pay attention to him so he could help her survive the days ahead.
Tere spent the day scouting Neberan, which despite its small size was dusty from all the traffic. The biggest buildings were a boarding house, an inn, and a one-room schoolhouse. He was surprised at the number of shops in town, but he assumed that meant most of the farmers in the surrounding area did their business here.
At least there was a school. Most towns this far away from major cities didn’t have one and children were educated only if there was nothing better for them to do. In contrast, all the towns surrounding Rarbon had at least one school and several teachers, even those that were small enough they barely qualified to be called such.
Tere had made the right decision to leave Tarner and Lous. The people he passed refused to make eye contact with him and when they thought he wasn’t looking would stare at his sword. Three armed men would have been a cause for concern and news of their presence would have spread like wildfire. As it was, one stranger with a sword would be enough to cause gossip.
Instead of asking questions right off, he looked around and told anyone that asked—there were few of those—that he was passing through on his way to Zecarani and needed supplies. He wasn’t expecting to learn anything that way but knew people would clam up the moment they felt unsure about him. However, if a merchant thought that he was interested in buying something; a casual question could elicit useful information.
Tere was in the middle of a conversation outside a leather merchant’s shop about a new coat he didn’t need, when he noticed a tall young man that had a familiar look to him. Tere couldn’t quite place what made the man stick out. Was it his build, sword, light brown hair, or the way he walked with an arrogant confidence? His fifteen-year search had already been a long enough road that he didn’t trust the feeling of familiarity. He’d experienced the same thing many times in his hunt for Adar, and it had always led to a dead end. Tere’s eye began to itch, and he did his best to wipe the dust on his face away from his eyes, but he only succeeded in making both eyes water.
The kid must have noticed him because he stared back at Tere. He was with a woman who looked like she was angry about something. Tere frowned, he’d seen that same expression on Larae many times, and it had never meant anything good. Poor lad would have a terrible time dealing with her while she was like this.
The leather merchant, Timor, noticed Tere looking at the couple. “That leather coat on Jorad? Best work I’ve done. I could make you one like that for three juen of silver.”
Tere’s heart must have stopped, but he managed to cover his surprise. Jorad had his sword strapped to his back, like a Radim and it was one of the few swords Tere had seen today in Neberan.
Jorad wasn’t a common name in Rarbon, but this far west it wasn’t uncommon at all to find two or three men in a village named Jorad. In the early days of the search when they would ask for anybody named Jorad, they’d get half a dozen leads. They hadn’t asked after the name often. Adar would have stopped using their real names, or so Tere had assumed. Maybe Adar was slipping.
The lad seemed surprised to see Tere. Had he recognized something about Tere or something from Rarbon? Jorad had known Tere as a small boy, but that was long enough ago that Tere wasn’t worried he’d be recognized. Tere doubted the boy had recognized anything from Rarbon because he’d been careful to dress in clothing that didn’t proclaim him to be anything other than a man with a sword. He’d even covered the hilt of his sword with cloth, hiding the distinctive marks.
The young man Timor had indicated, looked like Adar and seemed to have something of Nelion in him as well, but that could just be Tere’s imagination playing a trick on him. Searching for something for so long made it easy to see things that didn’t exist.
Jorad walked faster, and the woman that he’d been chasing now ran to catch up to him. Tere thanked Timor and left but not before he mentioned that he might be back for the coat. It was best to keep up appearances, even if it might not be necessary any longer.
What were the chances of Tere finding a man named Jorad, who carried a sword in a place where most others didn’t, that had recognized something about Tere?
Once he mounted his horse, Tere had to restrain from galloping out of town. Now that he had found them, he didn’t want to mess up. So as much as it bothered him, he continued at a walk on the road out of Neberan. With every passing moment, he became more anxious and worried. This was the best lead since Adar had disappeared and Tere’s men were half a mile out of town. It had seemed a small thing to leave them, but now Tere cursed his decision. He’d become careless. He smiled at some of the people he passed, but they didn’t return it and looked straight ahead pretending not to notice. So much for the rumored hospitality of the west.
Tere alone might be a match for Adar, but together with Lous and Tarner, they should be able to take him. Even though it had been years, Tere was certain that Adar would still be in shape. The man had been diligent about his training even when he was going through the trials. He wouldn’t have become lax now.
Tere snorted. Adar had always been driven as though somebody was cracking a whip over his head. Tere doubted that Adar lacked the motivation to continue his training. Living life on the run would be reason enough.
Tere reached the edge of town, made sure no one was around and urged his horse to a gallop.
Soret was a step ahead of Jorad, and the street was crowded with people so he had to strain to hear her words. The dust kicked up from all the traffic was sticking to his sweaty face. Using the back of his hand, he wiped off his forehead. It came away grimy, so he cleaned it on his pants. He wanted to take a few minutes to rest and calm down but couldn’t afford the luxury.
His blood was still racing from the encounter with Erro. If Erro tried something again, Jorad would give him the beating he deserved, whether the town guard was there or not. He didn’t know what else to say to Soret about the Hunwei. At least Erro’s poster hadn’t seemed to faze her.
Jorad couldn’t blame her for her anger and confusion about the Hunwei though. Ruder hadn’t been able to convince him, Jorad had needed to see it for himself. He wished he had evidence to show her, but all he could do was tell her what he’d seen.
“Save your breath, I’m not coming with you,” Soret said when he caught up to her. “Not for something like this.”
“Once I leave, I won’t be coming back, Adar is adamant about getting to Zecarani as fast as possible.”
“He wants to get that weapon or whatever, right?” Soret looked like she was thinking of slapping him. “Why the rush now? It sounds like he’s known about it for years.”
“It won’t be the first time we’ve tried, but this time is different. He’s not going to leave without it now that the Hunwei are back.”
“And where will you go after that?”
“I don’t know,” he lied. Much as Jorad hated to admit it, Adar’s logic made sense. If there was even a slim chance that something in the Portal could help, it was worth Jorad making the effort to access it. Assuming, of course, that Rarbon hadn’t already been taken over by the Hunwei.
As they passed Timor’s tanner shop, Jorad noticed an armed man that he didn’t recognize. The man was a bit shorter than most, but he looked like he knew how to fight. A merchant guard or a mercenary? It was rare to have mercenaries in Neberan. Merchant guards were more common. There wasn’t much unusual about the man’s clothes, but the sword slung on his back was out of place. Swords were rare, and those that had them wore their swords at their sides.
Jorad studied the weapon for as long as he dared. It looked familiar, even with the hilt wrapped in red cloth. He tried to make the connection, but it didn’t come. He was too focused on trying to make Soret see reason.
The man regarded him with cold eyes. A mercenary then.
“You going to answer my question?” Soret asked. “Or are you going to continue holding back?”
“Yeah,” Jorad said. “Sorry, that man just looks familiar.”
“He’s just some merchant guard. What will you do after Zecarani?”
“I’m not sure.” A mercenary in town was rare but not alarming, and the man was alone. How much harm could he cause?
Soret growled. “Why won’t you tell me?”
Jorad remembered now, it shouldn’t have taken him so long to make the connection. Adar’s Radim sword was similar to the one the mercenary wore. It had been a quick look, it wasn’t wise to show too much interest in an armed man, but the longer Jorad thought, the more certain he became. The hilt of the man’s sword had been wrapped on purpose to cover the insignia of his Radim army.
Adar rarely carried his Radim sword because it was too distinctive. Jorad walked faster. What was a Radim doing here and why was he trying to pass himself off as a mercenary? Was he searching for them?
Jorad felt a chill run through his body.
The Radim had come for Adar. The last thing they needed now was to have the Radim tracking them while they were trying to find a way to fight the Hunwei.
“Jorad, why are you speeding up?” Soret demanded. They were almost to her father’s shop, and Jorad didn’t have any more time to convince her. Adar was in danger.
“I need to find Adar. I’ll tell you everything later.”
The look on her face showed she didn’t believe him, but she’d have to wait. Jorad burst into a run once he turned the corner. He had only seen one Radim soldier, but he was positive that there would be more. Adar had been one of the best swordsmen in Rarbon, and they’d know that it would take a group to bring him in. Jorad couldn’t let that happen.
Several minutes later Jorad charged into the common room of the boarding house, his sides heaving as he gasped for breath. Adar wasn’t there, and their room upstairs was empty as well. Jorad scribbled a note and set it on Adar’s bed. Downstairs he found Mac, the stable boy, laughing with Harri, the cook.
“Have either of you seen Adar?” Jorad asked, still out of breath. He was wheezing.
“Not since he left for old man Koope’s place earlier,” Mac said. He smelled of manure and had a loose piece of straw in his hair. Harri’s large apron covered her girth and was smeared with flour and grease. There were several burn marks as well. In Jorad’s experience, it was rare for a cook to be slim. “He said something about getting money he was owed. What’s wrong? You’re covered with sweat! What’s got you so worked up?” Mac edged away from Harri. They’d been standing too close for just casual conversation. Was something going on between them? Jorad pushed the thought away. He didn’t care.
He wiped the sweat from his face. He would have removed his coat if he didn’t need it to cover the daggers he kept hidden. “What’s he doing at the Koope place?”
“Just told ya,” Mac said.
Jorad nodded. Mac had just told him, and he took several breaths and ended up in a fit of coughing.
“Look,” Harri said, “you need to have a talk with Adar. He tried to convince me that the Hunwei are planning an attack on Neberan. He even mentioned he was going to talk to the mayor about it. Has he lost it? I mean seriously, Hunwei?”
With a final cough, Jorad was able to breathe a bit more normally and moved to the door.
“The Hunwei are coming, but I gotta go. If Adar returns make sure he sees the note I left upstairs.” He could see Harri’s expression of disbelief but didn’t have time to continue to convince her.
Jorad ran out the door and smacked into Soret, sending her flying to the ground.
“Ouch!” she cried. That wasn’t going to help her mood.
Jorad jumped to her side and tried to help her up, but she ignored him as she stood. She did her best to brush off her pants between glares. It reminded him of a look he’d received from Hira the other night and made him feel like she wanted to skin him and use it for a rug.
“Why the hurry?” Soret demanded. She was sweating and covered in dust, but she wasn’t nearly as sweaty as him. He was surprised she’d run after him. Maybe she had more feelings for him than he thought. He felt a flash of hope but pushed it away. Adar was in danger; he didn’t have time for this. “You leaving right now?”
“I’ve got to find Adar. I don’t have time to explain.”
“Well, I’m not done with you. We need to talk.” Soret looked even more stubborn than she had before. Of all the times!
Jorad headed to the stable. “Adar’s in danger. Come if you want, but I’ve gotta find him.” Soret looked angrier than she had all day, but she followed him to the barn.
Tere examined the field and wondered if they were chasing Lous’ daydreams again. The rows of corn were shoulder high, and unless he missed his guess, some would be ready to harvest soon. Men were working between the rows, a few of whom had stopped and were watching them. Tere guided his horse over to the path that led through the middle of the field to the farmhouse. He was torn between caution and wanting to verify Lous’ claim so they could get back to Neberan.
Lous was adamant that Adar had passed by minutes before Tere had arrived. If Tarner had seen him as well, then Tere would have been a bit more trusting. He was beginning to regret his decision to come this way because Jorad had been staring at him. Had Jorad figured out who he was and what he was up to?
Tere slowed when he saw a group of men chatting in front of a two-story stone house. In the back were a stone corral and a large barn. Somewhere nearby a cow mooed and he caught a scent of the farm animals on the wind. It was more of a breeze really, and it felt good against the heat of the day. He zeroed in on the back of a man a short distance ahead.
Is that Adar? Tere asked himself. The height seemed right, but it was hard to tell since Tere sat on a horse. Adar’s build looked much the same that it had fifteen years ago. The sword on his back wasn’t Radim, but that wasn’t a surprise. People would ask questions; too many knew a Radim sword when they saw one.
Adar took a hoe from another of the workers and Tere relaxed, he hadn’t recognized them and was preparing to join the other laborers in the field. The closer they got, the more convinced Tere became that it was Adar. He dismounted, motioning for Lous and Tarner to do the same.
After all these years, Tere had found him.
Something was wrong. The conversation among the group of men just ahead had stopped.
He knows we’re here, Tere thought. He couldn’t explain what it was about the way that Adar stood or the casual way that he was holding the hoe, but he knew he was right. Tere wrapped his fingers around the hilt of his sword. The hoe, despite the blade intended for weeding, would not keep Adar from using it as a staff. How had Tere missed that?
With a staff, Adar might have a chance of winning. Why hadn’t Tere brought more men? He’d thought to spare others the trouble of the trip, but now it turned out that they would have been useful indeed.
The other men backed away as Adar turned to face them.
“You’re as arrogant as before,” Tere said, he felt his breath quicken as he spoke. The fury that had been dead for so long flared to new life in a way that was unlike anything he’d felt before. His frustration of years wasted searching for this man, watching his daughter grow from a distance, and feeling the distance widen between him and his wife reached a focal point. The cause of all that stood before him.
Tarner and Lous were visible to either side, but Tere didn’t take his eyes off Adar. Tere’s mind flashed back to the night when he’d found Adar bent over Nelion’s body, and Tere felt his anger burn brighter wishing that at that moment he’d slain Adar. It would have been a simple thing to do, and Adar would never have expected it. With a shake of his head, Tere returned to the present and focused on Adar who stood almost a full head over him.
“How’ve you been old friend?” Adar asked. “Hope the years have been kind.” He planted the hoe in the ground and used it for support. Pretending he wasn’t threatened by Tere and the others as they advanced, ready to attack.
“Adar you’re under arrest for the murder of Nelion and for kidnapping Jorad.” Tere’s voice quavered as he spoke and he felt a stab of remorse as he remembered the bond the two once had shared. The friendship was gone now and in its place ashes swirled.
“You know I didn’t kill Nelion,” Adar said. “How can a man be charged with kidnapping his own child?”
“If you don’t submit,” Lous said. “We’ll kill you and return with Jorad.”
“You’ve come to kill me and take my son?” Adar asked softly. “Did Abel send you or somebody else?”
“We’re here at his direction,” Tarner replied, there was no emotion in his voice. That man could be cold. “The Rarbon Council stripped your title and accomplishments from you, and you’ve been declared a murderer and traitor. We can bring you back alive or your head in a sack, the choice is yours.” Tarner’s voice reminded Tere that he needed to relax or he risked losing control. If he did, Adar would provoke him and take advantage. Tere spread his feet, took a breath and focused on the blade of his sword, and pictured it piercing Adar’s chest.
Adar nodded and brought his hoe to a defensive position, which he had still been holding casually despite their advance. The fool was still cocky. The other workers were starting to gather around at a safe distance, but none of them looked like they intended to help Adar.
“You’re out of practice,” Tere said. “Fifteen years ago you might have taken us with a staff, but not today.”
Adar waited, looking as calm as a lake of undisturbed water.
Tere charged forward with Tarner and Lous closing from either side.
Adar ran to the right putting Tarner between himself and the others. Tere cursed. The movement was not that of a man in his mid-forties, it reminded him of a much younger man. Feinting with the handle of the hoe, Adar brought the blade in between Tarner’s legs and then pulled Tarner down as he howled in pain. Tere rushed to get in front of Tarner to keep Adar from bringing the hoe crashing into his head.
“Get up!” Tere yelled. It was already going badly, and they needed Tarner, or this would be over too soon. Lous circled around as Adar attacked, the hoe swirling fast enough that Tere had a hard time following its movement.
Tere wasn’t sure how long it lasted, but as the fighting continued, he became covered in sweat, and his breathing was labored. Adar hadn’t lost a step as he defended their attacks and brought his own. He too was covered in sweat, but his breathing was normal.
Tere knew he couldn’t do this for much longer as he moved forward slashing with his sword. Adar was faster, dodging his attack and bringing the blade of the hoe around and into Tere’s feet, it hooked a foot and knocked Tere off balance. The next thing he knew he was flying forward right into Lous’ sword who just managed to move it out of the way so that the sword only sliced Tere’s left side instead of skewering him. He felt a stabbing pain in his back and crashed to the ground with his breath knocked out of him.
The sounds of the fight continued to play out behind him. He rolled until he was far enough away that he felt safe getting to his feet.
As Tere moved forward towards the men, there was a cry from behind. He turned to see Jorad charging him. As he brought up his sword and prepared for the attack, he reminded himself to be careful. He wouldn’t be given a chance to explain if he killed Rahar Abel’s grandson.
Jorad’s howl of outrage grew louder as he spun his sword while he charged, at the last moment Jorad slid to the ground. Out of instinct, Tere jumped forward and over Jorad. By the time he scrambled up, Jorad was already on his feet charging again. Tere didn’t have a chance to prepare a defense and ducked to keep his head.
He fought off Jorad’s next attacks but wasn’t able to get in any attacks of his own. From the beginning, he knew he was going to lose. Fighting Jorad was like fighting a younger version of Adar. Tere continued to parry the attacks blow after blow, but he knew he was getting too tired. Jorad had managed to score several hits. The cuts on Tere’s arms were bleeding, and he continued to collect more.
Despite the fury of Jorad’s initial attack, it was clear that he spent a lot of time with his sword, and once the fight had commenced the anger was barely noticeable as Jorad went through the motions he’d done many times before when sparring with Adar.
It was a strange feeling now as Tere realized that he was going to die. After many years of struggling to keep going, to do his duty to Rarbon and his family, he was going to find peace. He thought about his wife as he deflected Jorad’s next attack. It had been his actions that had pushed her into the arms of another man. He hadn’t paid enough attention to her on those infrequent trips home. Maybe his death would be a release for her as well.
As he struggled to throw off the next attack, he thought about Sharu. She’d become a woman that he could be proud of, despite the fact that he hardly knew her. Pride filled him as he thought that although she was very different from him, she would carry on his legacy of service. The last time he had seen her she was in the Radim uniform of Korew army.
He didn’t see how he tripped, but Jorad was already charging as he fell to his knees. With a scream, Jorad prepared for a final swing as Tere brought his sword up knowing that he could not block it and closed his eyes.
_Peace at last. _
Tere felt the sword rushing toward his throat. There was the clank of metal hitting metal and then the sword slid into Tere’s neck.
He felt a slight pain and then nothing.
Why am I still breathing? Tere opened his eyes and looked up into the astonished eyes of Jorad. The blade of Adar’s hoe had snagged the sword when Jorad had made the final pounce for the kill.
“You can’t kill him,” Adar said, sweat and blood running down his face.
Despite the peace that Tere had felt as he embraced death, he gripped his sword. [_Does Adar want to kill me himself? _]
There wasn’t time to figure it out because Tarner took advantage of the distraction to attack Adar, who wasn’t able to completely dodge the strike, Tarner’s sword glanced off Adar’s head, leaving a small cut and taking with it the tip of his ear.
Adar howled, yanking his hoe back while pulling Jorad’s sword away from Tere’s neck, and attacked Tarner with a ferocity that he had not yet displayed.
Tere watched Jorad carefully as he wiped his blade and sheathed it. There was no sense in encouraging Jorad to attack again. If his sword was put away, Jorad wouldn’t attack him. He hoped.
Tarner and Adar continued their dance of death, and it was clear that Adar was going to win. Lous was getting to his feet and held his sword at his side as he watched Tarner and Adar maneuver in and out looking for an opening against the other. The sun flashed off the metal of Tarner’s sword. The ringing of it hitting the hard wood of the hoe filled the afternoon air.
“It’s over!” Tere called. Adar dodged a thrust from Tarner and stepped away as he watched for what Tarner would do. The frustration on Tarner’s face was evident as he stepped backward. It was the most emotion he’d shown today. Adar gave Tere an unreadable look.
“Are you all mad?” a young woman asked as she dismounted from a horse a safe distance away. Tere recognized her as the woman who had been angry with Jorad. Tere wondered if this was his wife. Things would get a lot more complicated if it turned out she was pregnant with his child. She sniffed like she was the teacher that had just discovered misbehaving students. Tere had to keep from rolling his eyes.
Jorad could hear a chicken clucking as it searched for food and the squeal of a pig coming from somewhere, but other than that Koope farm had become rather silent. The men and women who’d been working had stopped to watch the fight. Many had kept their distance and gathered into groups. Several had approached as if intending to offer aid. Jorad was glad that they’d been smart enough to not get involved. The head of a young girl was peeking out the second story window of the farmhouse. Her mother had come to the front porch and stood with her hands on her hips, she wore an apron covered with flour.
Most of the bystanders wore confused looks. Jorad could relate, he was stumped as well. These men had been trying to kill Adar, and he’d spared their lives. Why? The others might have been surprised that Adar had been able to hold his own with these men using a hoe, but that’s what Jorad expected from Adar. In another circumstance, Jorad would have found it comical that Adar’s sword was strapped to his back, and his weapon of choice had been a long-handled hoe, but he wasn’t in a laughing mood.
Jorad had survived the fight without a scratch. While Adar had blood dripping down his face from his injured ear, that was the worst he’d suffered. He had numerous cuts in other places but stood with vigor and energy. Of the Radim men, the only one that looked like he could continue fighting was the last one to stop. He was a very short man and looked like he was considering an attack even though he’d been ordered by their leader to stand down.
The crunch of gravel from behind indicated that Soret was heading towards them. Her hair was in tangles from their frantic ride, and there were streaks of dust on her face. Jorad turned and motioned for her to stop. She did, but she didn’t look happy about it.
Couldn’t she see the danger was far from over? The fighting could start again at a moment’s notice, and Jorad didn’t want to worry about something happening to her. He had just been fighting for his life, and despite that, if her frown was any indication, she was still furious with him.
“Tere, we can either come to an arrangement,” Adar said addressing the man that Jorad had almost killed, “or we’ll kill you. Your choice.”
Tere snorted and set his jaw. “Returning Jorad to make his claim is paramount to killing you. What are your terms?”
Soret gasped. This wasn’t how Jorad wanted her to find out. He’d dodged Soret’s question about what he would do after Zecarani and now he wished that he hadn’t. Strangely, the anger had left her face. That wasn’t the response he’d been expecting. Well, truth be told, he’d expected that she wouldn’t have believed him.
Adar looked at Jorad. “Put your sword away.”
“Not as long as they’re trying to kill us.” Did Adar expect Jorad to go with them to Rarbon? He wouldn’t go at the point of a sword.
“Not us, just me,” Adar said. “Do it.” Jorad did as Adar asked. Tere motioned to his men, and they put away their swords as well.
Without his sword in hand, the anger left Jorad as if he’d been plunged into cold water. He shivered as he realized how close he’d come to killing another person. What would that have been like? He knew that Adar sometimes had restless nights when memories of the men he killed tormented him. When Jorad joined the Radim and made his claim to become Ghar, it was inevitable that he would kill and be responsible for the deaths of many. Jorad wasn’t sure if he could live with that or not. One night, in a rare moment of openness, Adar had shared with him the visions that haunted him. It hadn’t been a comfortable conversation.
“I need to talk with my son.”
Tere nodded. Adar tossed his hoe to the ground, motioning for Jorad to follow. He didn’t have any qualms about turning his back on the three men, or at least if he did, the concern didn’t show.
“Stay on guard, but you have little to worry about,” Adar said when they were out of earshot. “They’d be executed for harming you.”
“Could have fooled me.”
“You attacked Tere, and he defended himself. Don’t you think it odd that you fought one of Rarbon’s best swordsmen and you survived without a nick?”
“He was trying to kill you.” Jorad had been a little bit proud of the fact he hadn’t suffered a scratch. He realized that Adar was correct. Tere had been fighting defensively. Jorad should have figured that out himself.
“I appreciate your help. We should allow them to escort you back to Rarbon. You were already planning to return anyway. This will save time because you won’t have to convince the Council you’re a Rahid. Tere and his men can vouch for your heritage. ”
“Let’s hope so.” Jorad didn’t think he would ever trust Tere to do anything.
“You’ll go with them?”
Jorad hated feeling roped into this. True, he’d made the decision already, but there was a big difference between going alone and being escorted by armed men to make sure he went through with it. Adar did have a point about not having to prove who he was. He hesitated. Timing was important, and they needed any leg up they could get.
“If it’s clear I’m not their prisoner.” Jorad didn’t like this decision, and it was only because the Hunwei were breathing down their necks that he agreed.
Adar nodded, and they returned to where the others were waiting.
“We travel together to Zecarani,” Adar said. “After that, we part ways and Jorad will go with you to Rarbon as your guest. He is free to leave at any time, and we enter a truce that lasts until I say goodbye to Jorad and send him with you.”
“Travel with you?” Tere asked, rubbing his face and muttering something that Jorad didn’t hear.
“Or we end the conflict.”
Tere wasn’t happy about the offer, and the struggle was evident on his face. At length, he nodded and held out his hand. Adar took it. There was something exchanged between the two men that Jorad couldn’t read and there were a few tense seconds while their eyes were locked onto one another. It looked like it would end in a tussle. Tere released his grip and Jorad found that he’d been holding his breath. He exhaled, glad that it hadn’t come to blows again, and wondered how in Melyah’s name they would make it to Zecarani without killing each other.
Soret shifted one of her hands from Jorad’s waist and touched his arm, hoping that she could get him to calm down. Even though he’d agreed to go along with Adar’s plan, he didn’t appear to be happy about it. He looked over his shoulder and gave her a tight smile, before turning his attention back to the horse.
Typical. Whenever a woman tried to reach out to a troubled man, he pushed her away. She squirmed, trying to find a more comfortable position, but it was cramped with both of them on the horse. Unable to find anything more comfortable, she sighed and resigned herself to waiting it out. The sun wasn’t making things any better, and she wished that she had a hat.
They were in front of the others as they made their way back to Neberan and it was taking a special effort on her part to avoid looking back at the men from Rarbon. She was confused about how the fight between Adar and the others had ended suddenly without warning. It hadn’t been more than five minutes later that they were entering a truce. Adar wasn’t a trusting man and for him to enter into an agreement with men that had almost killed him—or rather tried to kill him—was unthinkable. Tere had seemed to take Adar at his word that the Hunwei had returned, which also seemed strange given the circumstances.
She shuddered as she remembered the fight. Her anger with Jorad had become sheer terror when she saw how recklessly he’d thrown himself into the fray. When she had the nerve to watch, she’d been surprised to see Jorad alive and holding his own with a man twice his age.
With all the stupid things that Erro had done recently to Jorad, he was lucky that Jorad hadn’t broken an arm or a leg. She’d felt her face flush as she remembered thinking during the confrontation with her parents that Jorad should stand up for himself more often. She hadn’t realized that he’d been holding back on purpose.
She had screamed when Jorad had gone to kill Tere and couldn’t begin to describe her relief when Adar had intervened. She was beginning to wonder if there was there something to Erro’s poster after all. Had Jorad mentioned that he and Adar had been to Colonipo? She couldn’t remember, but it seemed familiar.
“Wait until I tell my parents that you are the next Ghar of Rarbon,” Soret said playfully. “They’ll forget all about Erro. They may even start to like you.” She felt his arms tense.
“I wouldn’t bet on it,” Jorad said. “Besides, it won’t be as simple as it sounds. Many have tried, and so far nobody has succeeded.”
“What do you mean?”
“I have to pass a number of trials before I can become a Rahar. After that, I have still more testing before I can be made Ghar.”
“What will the tests be like?”
“It depends. The Rarbon Council decides all that. It’s never the same thing. Many of my ancestors have died during the testing.”
“Oh.” Soret had never heard about any of that.
“My father passed all the tests, and somebody killed my mother to keep him from ascending. It happened on the eve of what would have been his inauguration.”
“That’s terrible! I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to dig up the past.”
“It’s ok. I barely remember her. Most of what I know about her I learned from Adar.”
She sighed, her mind awhirl with questions, but now she was hesitant to probe him further for additional information. There was so much to sort out. How did she feel about Jorad? Should she go with him to Rarbon? What about the Hunwei? There was a lot going on, but like fish swimming below the surface of a lake, she was able to catch only a few glimpses.
Earlier, Soret had been convinced that Jorad was lying to her about the Hunwei, but now she wasn’t so sure. Both Jorad and Adar were adamant about the Hunwei returning. Tere and those with him had believed them without question. Apparently, the Radim soldiers set aside all differences when it came to the Hunwei.
The thought of the Hunwei made her shiver despite the heat of the late evening sun. The stories that she’d heard about them as a child had made it impossible to sleep until her father had explained that they were made up. Without realizing what she was doing, Soret scooted closer to Jorad. That was even more uncomfortable, and after a bit, she shifted back again.
Jorad was leaving today and Soret wouldn’t see him again if she didn’t go too, she was certain about that. Rarbon was more than a month’s journey away, possibly two. How long before a pretty Rarbonian girl would make Jorad forget all about her?
But what would Soret do if she went? Join the Radim? Her pulse quickened at the thought. Jorad had said that it was true that the Radim accepted women and had whole armies comprised of them, but there weren’t any women with Tere. Had Jorad been serious or joking around? Sometimes he could be so dry it was hard to tell.
Soret tried to imagine strapping on a Radim sword, but it was a strange thought. Still, that might be a better life than staying in Neberan and marrying a farmer, or even a wealthy merchant’s son like Erro. Nothing ever happened in Neberan. The exciting things always happened in a far off place. She sometimes wished that they would happen here too.
When rumors would come from places like Colonipo or Paroux, she dreamed of seeing the events firsthand. Paroux, now there was a city that she wanted to see! Paroux’s shining walls and towers that climbed to the clouds were supposed to be taller than Vigorock and far more beautiful. Jorad had mentioned that he’d lived there but hadn’t talked much about it. To him, it was just another place.
She remained lost in thought for the rest of the trip and was surprised when she looked up and saw that they were at the Gartel boarding house. After Jorad, Adar, Tere and the others had seen to the needs of the horses, they headed into the common room. It was largely empty because it was still a little while before dinner would be served.
Soret recognized Wes talking with one of the serving girls in a corner, but she couldn’t tell who it was because the girl had her back turned to them when they entered. As always, Anny Gartel did a good job of keeping the boarding house clean, which was surprising given the type of clientele that usually frequented the Gartel establishment at night.
There were three strangers talking with Anny. The first, a pretty woman, turned when they entered. Without realizing it, Soret pushed back several strands of her hair that had gone askew. The woman’s smile was stunning, and she looked appreciatively at Jorad’s shoulders. Soret cringed and found herself baring her teeth at the stranger. She tried to change it to a smile of her own but wasn’t sure that she succeeded. It was rare that Neberan had visitors other than merchants. These three strangers, combined with Tere and his men from Rarbon, all at once? This was going to cause quite a stir.
The woman looked relieved to see them and started towards them but stopped when Tere and his men entered the room. There were astonished looks exchanged by everybody but Adar who was frowning at the newcomers.
“Melyah take me!” Tere spoke first, addressing the woman. “Xarda, what are you doing here?”
“Uncle Tere,” Xarda said, “I could ask you the same thing!”
Tere didn’t reply as Soret looked between the two of them. They were related? Xarda was taller than Tere, and while he was haggard, she was beautiful, despite her worn clothes and the sword strapped to her back.
Soret did a double take and couldn’t help but stare at the weapon, it was smaller than Tere’s, but it was a Radim sword. No doubt about it. It was true that the Radim allowed women to join their ranks! The other two strangers with Xarda approached. The first was a large man who stood a head taller than Jorad and Adar. He might even be bigger than Thon. The second was a younger scrawny guy. He was Jorad’s age, maybe a little older.
“Xarda,” Adar said, “You’re as beautiful as your mother and Karn you’re just as big a man as you were a boy. Who’s the kid?”
“Leron,” said the scrawny guy. “To think I thought Xarda was crazy to drag us out here. It’s an honor to meet you.” He had recognized Adar without an introduction. How had he done that? Soret had overheard that Adar hadn’t been to Rarbon in over fifteen years. There was no way this kid was old enough to remember him.
“It seems that you have just as many supporters as you always did.” Tere gritted his teeth. “Never mind the fact that you’re wanted for murder. Do I need to remind you all that he was stripped of his title and there is a standing death order on his head? An order that any Radim is duty bound to fulfill?”
Xarda looked indignant and cut Leron off from making a response. “Come now uncle, I don’t care what happened with you two. You can’t really believe Adar murdered his own wife? Your mother never understood it and neither do I. You two were like brothers.”
Adar was accused of killing Jorad’s mother? His wife? That was something that Jorad hadn’t mentioned. Tere’s hands balled into fists, and Adar folded his arms. Soret had a feeling it wouldn’t take much to break apart their pact.
“I was there,” Tere said. “I saw the bloody dagger and her blood on his hands. Nelion’s lover lay at her side, gasping in the throes of death. I’d kill him now if I didn’t need him.” Tere looked as if he wanted to spit but then noticed how clean the floor of the common room was so he swallowed instead.
“Even with two men you couldn’t kill Adar,” Jorad said, his voice was firm, but he looked confused. Soret wondered if this was the first he’d heard that Adar was accused of killing his mother and that she had been found with another man.
“Nelion was faithful,” Adar said to Tere. His voice was calm, and the tone was even, but there was a fire in the words that even Soret was able to pick up on. “You never explained how you found me so fast.”
Soret felt Jorad stir beside her and realized he was reaching for his sword so she stepped away as she tried to puzzle everything out. She noticed Leron staring at her and grimaced when he flashed a toothy smile at her, never mind all the tension in the room. The others could have been talking about the weather for all the attention he was paying them. She’d have to keep an eye on that one.
She stopped. She hadn’t even realized what was going on. Jorad was reaching for his sword? All of the sudden her mouth went dry, and she felt queasy.
“What are you accusing me of?” Tere took a step forward.
“Are you backing out of our agreement?” Adar almost looked hopeful.
The two men stood staring at each other until Tere lowered his hand. Soret hadn’t even noticed him reaching for his sword. Adar’s arms were still folded, but he looked the more dangerous of the two by far.
“Our deal stands!” Tere said. “I don’t know why we bothered to find Jorad. The years I’ve wasted, only to learn Xarda knew where to find him all along!” Tere stormed out. His men followed him several moments later.
“Don’t worry about him,” Xarda said. “A lot of people never believed his story. Some even say that he was more likely to have killed Nelion than you.”
“You’re late,” Adar said. “I expected people more than two months ago.”
“So this is why we came to Neberan?” Jorad sputtered. The air in the common room seemed to get colder still. Adar met Jorad’s glare as Xarda shifted uncomfortably.
“I made these plans years ago before you even knew anything about your duty.”
“And why didn’t you tell me?”
“It hadn’t come up yet.”
As the two men faced each other, Soret became afraid it might come to blows. She took Jorad’s hand, and he looked startled as if he’d forgotten she was there.
Karn, the big man, cleared his throat. “Uh, it’s my fault that we are late. While on the road, I heard a rumor that,” he paused to look around the room, “we had to investigate.”
“Give me a full report.” Adar motioned for Karn to follow him outside.
“This conversation isn’t over.” Jorad held Soret’s hand tight enough that it was beginning to hurt.
Adar pulled the door closed behind him without answering.
Xarda touched Jorad, and Soret found herself bristling. Xarda was older than Jorad, but she was very pretty, and men didn’t care about age. That golden brown hair and those wide eyes had no doubt attracted many men. “Jorad, you look like your father, but I can see your mother in you as well.”
“You knew my mother?” Jorad muttered as he stared after Adar. Soret could feel his heartbeat racing through his hand. “Was she as infuriating as my father?”
“Hard to say,” Xarda said lightly as if making a joke. “I only met her a couple times.” Her tone was completely lost on Jorad.
“I barely remember her.”
“Well, the portraits still hang in the Council Chambers. Perhaps that will help.”
There were portraits of Jorad’s mother? That meant there were portraits of Adar as well. No wonder Adar didn’t need an introduction; his people would know him on sight. Soret had never known anybody wealthy enough to have a portrait done. Not even Erro’s parents had portraits.
Soret couldn’t help but stare at Jorad as if she was seeing him for the first time. His dark brown hair was tussled and standing on end, the clothes he wore were filthy and wrinkled, but he suddenly seemed something more.
That’s a stupid thought, she told herself. [_Why would his appearance change just because I know he comes from wealth and power? _]She felt a little foolish that she was so easily impressed and tried to push away the feeling.
Xarda turned to Soret. “Are you Jorad’s wife?” The question caught Soret off guard. Why would Xarda think that? She and Jorad had only just started spending time with one another; surely they weren’t bad enough to be mistaken for that?
She felt her cheeks blush and chanced a shy glance at Jorad, but he was still staring at the door. He hadn’t heard the question. “We’re not married! I’m too young for that.”
“Don’t mind her too much.” Leron flashed a mischievous grin at Soret. “She’s nosier then ten women combined!” He laughed. “Marriage is all Xarda thinks about. I’m just here to keep Xarda and Karn from—ouch! As I was saying, I’m just here to keep Xarda from seducing Karn. Poor man wouldn’t know what hit him. Ha!” Leron moved to avoid a punch from Xarda.
Soret couldn’t help but laugh; she cut it short when she realized that Jorad hadn’t joined her.
Jorad gazed at Soret from across the table where they sat in the common room of the boarding house. They’d been talking quietly for nearly half an hour. The others had disappeared, and he’d been trying to make use of the time to convince Soret to leave Neberan, but she’d been more intent on asking him questions about Rarbon. She was fascinated with Xarda and had focused on the female Radim for some time. They’d fallen silent, and he’d been thinking of new ways to approach the point he wanted to make to her.
He inhaled and caught an aroma of something cooking in the nearby kitchen. He wasn’t sure what Harri was cooking up, but it smelled delicious, and he was ravenous. He hadn’t eaten much today and was feeling a little bit lightheaded. If he didn’t eat something before they left tonight, he’d regret it. They had a long road ahead of them, and he didn’t want to start on an empty stomach. He made a mental note to make sure to get some of Harri’s food; it would be at least two weeks before he’d have another opportunity to eat a decent meal.
The evening was still warm, but that wouldn’t last long. He could see gray clouds through the window and wondered if it would rain. As he watched, the sun broke through the clouded skyline and shone between the mountains of the Pinta Peaks. It was already close to the horizon, night was coming fast. Where had his last day in Neberan gone?
He sighed. There was too much on his mind at the moment to think properly. There were things he didn’t understand, and he wished for a moment alone with Adar to try to dig out more details about the death of his mother, but so far hadn’t been able to make that happen. There was a lot he didn’t know, and he wondered what other surprises lay in wait for him.
He had never known that his mother had been found with another man. It bothered him that Adar had neglected to mention this particular detail. He could understand why Adar hadn’t brought it up, but it had happened years ago, and it would have been nice to hear it from Adar. For his part, Adar had been adamant that Nelion was faithful to him. He’d even gone so far as to imply that Tere had been the one to set him up. If Adar suspected that, why was he willing to make a truce with Tere?
It grated on Jorad that Adar had been planning this day for years, making arrangements and all the while counting on Jorad to be ready and willing. When he went to Rarbon, could he avoid becoming his father’s pawn?
He shook his head and pushed the questions away. These thoughts were getting him nowhere. Their original plan to leave today was still in place as far as he knew. Perhaps once they got out on the road, Jorad would find some time to get Adar to talk.
Adar still hadn’t returned, and Jorad wondered if he and Tere had found somewhere to continue their fight. Perhaps that wouldn’t be a bad thing. Jorad didn’t like Tere and didn’t relish the thought of making the trip back to Rarbon with those that had tried to kill his father.
He turned his attention back to Soret. She was more relaxed than before, which meant that she didn’t believe him that the Hunwei had returned. The Hunwei were scouting Neberan out for a reason, and he didn’t know how long they had, but if he could get her away tonight, he’d feel better about leaving.
“It’s not safe here,” Jorad said. “Whether you come with me or not, you need to leave. Convince Barc and Hira to go to the mountains. Take enough provisions to last for several months, maybe longer.” Barc’s store would have more than enough supplies for them, and he had the horses to carry everything. They could get away tonight if they hurried.
Soret shook her head. “The mountains? My father wouldn’t last a week. Besides, how do you want me to convince them?”
“Tell them you want to see the countryside.”
The door to the inn opened, and Jorad turned expecting to see Adar and Karn. Instead, he saw Thon and several of the town guard. Erro wasn’t with them, so he turned his attention back to Soret.
“What if we come with you?” Soret asked. Her question surprised Jorad; did she really think she could convince her parents? Had she decided to believe him about the Hunwei?
No, that wasn’t it. The look in her eyes told him that she was thinking about Rarbon.
The guards approached their table, and he looked up into Thon’s face and could tell that there was going to be trouble. Thon’s eyes were bloodshot and his lips drawn back as if he intended to bite somebody. He still wore his big sword on his back, and there were six other guards with him. Jorad recognized all of them but didn’t know any of their names. He all of the sudden got a bad feeling. Had Erro found the other wanted poster? That one that resembled him a little bit more?
Jorad took several deep breaths to calm his anger. It didn’t matter what Erro had done, Jorad was not going to take it out on these guards. Thon was a good man, and he was just doing his job.
Thon placed his hands on the table and leaned down. “You’re coming with us. We should have listened to Erro.”
“What did Erro say now?” Soret asked.
“Bram is dead,” Thon said. That took Jorad by surprise. Who was Bram? Thon’s face contorted as he continued to speak. “Stabbed a dozen times. Take him.” He motioned to the other guards who grabbed Jorad from his chair, one of whom snatched away his sword. Jorad allowed it to happen without a fight; it would only make matters worse if he hurt the guards. Erro was probably hoping Jorad would do just that. It wouldn’t matter if it came out that somebody else was this Bram fellow’s murder if Jorad cut up half the guard when they tried to take him into custody.
“I haven’t killed anybody.” Jorad didn’t know who this Bram fellow was, but Erro’s jealousy was insane if he was trying to pin this man’s murder on Jorad. Perhaps it was Erro who had been the one that killed Bram.
Jorad saw the swing coming and tightened the muscles in his abdomen. Thon’s punch took Jorad in the stomach. Melyah! His arm was like a battering ram. Soret yelped as Jorad doubled over, gasping for breath. The guards continued to hold him though Jorad saw looks of disapproval on several of their faces. Whether it was aimed at Thon or him, he didn’t know.
Thon hit him in the head, and he saw stars. It was quickly followed by another to his gut again. Jorad struggled to breathe and felt like he was about to pass out. After several painful seconds, he was on the cusp of panicking when he managed to get some air into his lungs. He breathed again. It felt like everything else in the world was pushed away as he struggled for another breath. Nothing matter more than being able to suck in another lungful of air.
“That’s enough,” one of the other guards said.
“Bram was a friend and a good man,” Thon said. “You’re not getting away with this.”
“I didn’t even know Bram, why would I kill him?” Jorad continued gasping. It took some effort, but he managed to straighten out. The hunger he’d been feeling earlier had been replaced with nausea, and his head hurt as if it had been hit with a hammer.
Several of the guards looked uncertain about Thon’s behavior, but none of them looked ready to interfere. Jorad thought of his daggers under his coat and in his boots. If Thon kept this up, Jorad would be forced to protect himself. He was certain he’d be able to take out Thon, but the six other men posed a problem he couldn’t handle alone and unfortunately there wasn’t anybody else in the room with him other than Soret. She came into view and the look of concern and anger she wore weakened his resolve to attack. She might end up hurt if he retaliated.
“You pretended to find his body,” Thon said. “How stupid do you think we are?”
Jorad had forgotten about the corpse they’d found while on patrol. Adar must have reported it. It was a safe bet that this was who Thon was referring to. “Think about this. If I killed him, why would we report his murder?”
Soret tried to step towards Jorad, but a guard pushed her back and caused her to trip on a chair leg.
“Leave her alone!” Jorad said as she fell to the ground. He tried to free himself from the guards, but they held him tightly. Thon had appeared to be looking for an excuse and this was it. He grabbed Jorad away from the other guards and slammed him into a wall, cracking his head and blurring his vision.
When Jorad could see again, he noticed that the common room, which had been almost empty before, had begun to fill with people. He struggled to free himself from Thon’s grasp, but several of the other guards latched onto him as well and the anger that Jorad had been trying to keep at bay was finally released. As Jorad gasped, he managed to wrench his arm free and grabbed for a dagger. He hoped Soret wouldn’t get hurt, but he couldn’t let Thon kill him. Before he could grasp it, his arm was again secured by one of the guards.
Jorad tried to knee Thon in the groin but missed and hit his leg. It only served to make him angrier. Thon slammed a ham-sized fist into Jorad’s chest.
“Baurn!” Thon said to the guard that had pushed Soret. “Help her up.”
Through his blurred vision, Jorad saw the guard that Thon had called Baurn hold a hand out to Soret but she sneered and stood without help. There was a tense moment when Jorad could tell that Soret was thinking of doing something to Baurn, but it passed, and she turned away.
Jorad took a deep breath and tried to calm down. Kneeing Thon had been foolish. The next time he attacked, it would have to be a killing blow. That meant he had to get to a dagger and attack immediately if he was to have any chance of success. Thon wasn’t going to let him leave this room alive. Jorad could see it in his eyes.
“Thon! Has Kore possessed you?” Anny screeched. She must have just entered the room, but Jorad hadn’t seen it happen. “Get out of my house. Now!” She was breathing heavily, her apron straining under each breath. She waved a large wooden spoon at Thon. “Get out!”
“Jorad murdered Bram and he’s resisting arrest.”
“He was complying until you started beating him!” Soret stepped towards Thon; she looked ready to slap him.
“Are you cotton-brained?” Anny asked. “Jorad isn’t a murderer! Bram was always fooling around with other men’s women. Why don’t you look to them?”
“Multiple people saw Jorad arguing with Bram last night near the place where his body was found.” Thon spoke through clenched teeth.
“Is Erro your main witness?” Jorad asked, hoping to distract Thon by continuing the conversation. Thon’s glare was answer enough. The guard holding Jorad’s left arm looked the weakest, if Jorad freed it, he could grab the dagger he kept on his right side. “I was with Adar last night. Did Erro mention anything about him?” Jorad eyed the guard who looked uneasy holding his sword but the man was too far away. He put the sword out of his mind. His best hope was one of his daggers.
Thon growled. “You’ll have to do better than that.”
Jorad noticed Xarda and Leron enter the room as the insanity of the last couple of days came crashing down on to him. His insides swirled in turmoil and he found himself opening and closing his hand. As his anger spiked, he almost reached for his dagger prematurely. His head hurt, and he was still having trouble breathing. He took another breath, trying to calm down. His timing would have to be right for this to work. He’d only have one shot.
Jorad stared into the eyes of Thon. His normally friendly face was pulled back into a scowl, and his eyes were determined.
Would Leron and Xarda join the fight when Jorad attacked? He closed his eyes, took a breath, and released it again. This had all happened because of Erro, the bitter, jealous fool.
“Erro is manipulating you,” Jorad said opening his eyes. “Bram—”
“Don’t you dare utter his name!” Thon put his hands around Jorad’s neck. From the corner of his eye, Jorad saw Xarda pull a dagger out and hold it to her side as she approached. Leron was right behind her. They both wore the look of people headed into battle. Jorad was grateful for their presence. The guards wouldn’t be expecting them so they may have a chance at overcoming all of them.
“Leave him alone!” Soret screamed.
Thon continued to squeeze, and Jorad gasped as he struggled, all thought of his plan to attack pushed out of his mind by his desire to breathe. His head was starting to spin. It wouldn’t be long now before he blacked out.
Anny screamed at the other guards. “You can’t let Thon kill him!”
“Thon, let go.” Jorad recognized Baurn through his fading vision. “Once you’ve calmed down, you’ll see I’m right.”
“I won’t regret this!” Thon said.
Anny came up, stood right beside Thon, and touched his shoulder. “This is wrong.” Xarda was only a foot away from Thon now, but she waited. Jorad tried to speak, he wanted to urge her to attack, but all that came out was a groan.
Thon let go, snarling as he did. Baurn and the others dragged Jorad to the door as he gasped for breath. He’d never realized how much breathing meant to him and it was something he wasn’t going to take for granted again. He took breath after breath. The more air he got into his lungs, the hotter his temper became.
Thon wasn’t any calmer either. Several of the guards were standing at his side, and one placed a hand on Thon’s arm. Thon didn’t take his eyes off Jorad as he swatted the man’s hand away. Thon would come at him again, Jorad didn’t have any doubt. The attack had been delayed, but it hadn’t been stopped.
Jorad’s eyes locked onto Soret. Her eyes were red, and her face was covered with worry. Xarda and Leron stood at her side. He had to get her out of Neberan, and he couldn’t let his anger get in the way of that. He focused on breathing. When Thon came at him again, Thon would come at a time when he would be certain to win. Jorad would have to be ready. That meant watching and waiting. That meant letting logic take control again.
“Who is going to pay for the damage?” Anny demanded.
Baurn avoided Anny’s glare as he took in the room and muttered. “It wasn’t supposed to go like this. Sorry.” He nodded and motioned towards the door.
“The mayor will hear about this,” Anny said.
“Jorad—” Soret began.
Jorad cut her off. “Tell Adar.”
As the guards led him out the door, Jorad resisted the urge to feel his face, which felt as if it was a bloody pulp, or rub his neck, which he was sure had imprints from Thon’s hands. He swallowed. For a moment there, he’d been wondering if he’d ever be able to swallow again. The sun was almost down, and he checked the sky, hoping that the Hunwei didn’t choose tonight to come. It was still cloudy and thank the gods, he didn’t see any ships.
When the setting sun covered the street in shadow, Adar naturally became more alert. Ruder had mentioned to Jorad that the Hunwei attacked Wasat at night, but Adar didn’t know if that meant that they preferred to attack at night or if he was reading too much into it. Regardless, he couldn’t stop from becoming more wary of the possibility as the sky became darker. The Hunwei had scouted out Neberan less than a day before. How long would they wait before attacking? What preparations would they need to make?
“Your father remarried,” Karn said disturbing Adar’s thoughts, he was walking beside Adar. “You have a half-brother.”
“I heard.” It made sense that Abel had felt the need for another heir. When Adar had heard that particular rumor, he hadn’t had trouble believing it. Once he was out of the picture that would have been one of the first things on Abel’s agenda to secure his power and position. As long as there was another Rahid in line to succeed, it would be far easier for him to maintain his influence. By the sound of it, Abel hadn’t even waited a month before announcing his engagement.
Several small children ran by, drawing Adar’s attention. He frowned. Considering the size of Neberan and the town’s lack of defenses, there couldn’t be much that the Hunwei would need to do before they were ready. He was beginning to wonder if he should just treat Neberan as already lost since he’d already done what he could. He’d warned everybody that he’d come in contact with today and had even sought out the mayor. There hadn’t been a single person who had believed him or been willing to listen beyond the first sentence or two. The only thing to do now was to focus on moving forward. He needed to get Deren’s tablet and send Jorad on his way to Rarbon.
One of the children cried out from behind him, and his heart wrenched with sorrow. He resolved that he wouldn’t stop warning anybody that would listen, but he knew that he would continue to still receive scorn and disbelief for his troubles.
“Who are the generals in Rarbon?” Adar asked. Karn had spent the better part of an hour bringing Adar up to date on what had happened since he’d left, but he hadn’t yet mentioned how the leadership had changed during his absence. Adar had heard some things over the years but he’d always been uncertain about what information he could trust. “Which Radim armies do they command?” As Karn listed off the names and armies, Adar was surprised to hear that a few of them were still around from his days as a general. Old Jakop Marel was still in charge, huh? How old was he now, seventy-nine? That probably made Marel one of the oldest in recent memory.
Adar stopped Karn when he heard one of the names. “General Morgol? Moloch Morgol?” Karn nodded. “Melyah help us,” Adar muttered under his breath. The man had sworn an oath of fealty to Adar rather than be exposed as a member of Kopal, but Adar had never trusted him. If Adar hadn’t been in such a hurry to leave Rarbon, he could have done something to keep that particular promotion from happening, the least of which would have been to order Moloch to never accept a promotion. There were a lot of things Adar could have done on his way out of the city if the city guards hadn’t been hunting for him at the time.
“What was that?” Karn asked.
“Never mind.” Adar frowned. That was a problem he could do little about for the present. “Tell me about my half brother. What kind of boy is he? How does Abel treat him?”
It was Karn’s turn to frown. “I don’t know much. I’ve never had much of an opportunity to talk with the lad. Abel has seen to most of his training personally. He doesn’t seem to be as jealous of the boy as he was of you.”
“That’s because he’s either not threatened yet or he believes he’s conjured up a way of convincing the council to give him another shot at becoming Ghar. Either way, Jorad is not going to have an easy go of things.”
“You’re half right,” Karn hesitated, apparently not certain how to go about things.
“Spit it out.”
“Look, I believe you. You say the Hunwei are back and you’ve seen them, that’s fine. But things have changed. Few people talk about the Portal these days. The Hunwei are seen as a myth and in many ways, Abel has managed to cement his power over Rarbon. Some are even treating him as a king. The belief that a Rahid needs to gain access to the Portal has dwindled. Most don’t even care. Abel has never been in a better position. I fear Jorad will have a hard time convincing anybody to listen to him, let alone take him seriously.”
Adar grunted. It wasn’t a surprise that his father had been working to fortify his position and if he was feeling secure in his place, a young fifteen-year-old son wasn’t going to be much of a threat to him. It only added to his legacy.
The part about the languishing belief in the Hunwei helped Adar make sense of something that had happened earlier in the day during the ride back to Neberan. He and the others had spoken at length about the Hunwei’s return, and Tere’s group of men wasn’t as solidly behind Tere as it had first seemed.
It was strange to Adar that Tere had believed him without argument and he assumed there was an ulterior motive that he was yet to pick up on. Lous had been ambivalent about Adar’s claims and Tarner hadn’t made much of an effort to conceal his doubt. Adar hadn’t thought about it until now because there had always been those in Rarbon that didn’t believe, but if Karn’s report was accurate, Tarner’s attitude now reflected that of a majority of the people in Rarbon. That didn’t bode well for Jorad gaining access to the Portal. He wouldn’t be able to create a sense of urgency, let alone that of need.
It had already been a tough decision for Jorad to make and Adar was hesitant to give him any additional information that would make him doubt his mission. It had taken enough time to convince Jorad that Adar wouldn’t back out now.
Why couldn’t Adar shake the feeling that it was all going to be a waste of time? It was true that they might be better off if he sent Jorad to chase down one of the rumors of other hidden weapons facilities, but that was just as likely to be fruitless. Karn’s report meant that it was going to be harder for Jorad than Adar had expected but that didn’t mean that it wouldn’t work. Maybe once word of the Hunwei attacks began to come in from other sources the people might be forced to see the need. The problem was that it might already be too late when that finally happened.
It turned out that the rumor that had delayed Karn and Xarda was about an ancient artifact that had been embedded into a rock. When Adar had heard the story his first thought had been that it might be one of the weapon repositories from the Hunwei war and he’d pressed Karn with a number of questions that he wasn’t able to answer. What little Adar was able to learn wasn’t very helpful and more than a bit annoying.
After wasting more than a month looking for the place, Xarda had eventually convinced Karn that it was more important to get on with their trip to Neberan. Adar had refrained from chastising Karn for the delay, though he had to do it by biting his tongue. At the moment Adar had few allies, he couldn’t afford an idle word or two to affect that.
Instead of giving Karn a piece of his mind, Adar focused instead on taking steady even breaths. He asked after Semal Bray and learned that Semal was well, despite his advancing years, but his role in Rarbon had been marginalized recently. Karn hadn’t said as much, but Adar assumed that was due in part to Abel’s efforts. Abel had never liked Semal.
While some of the generals still called Semal in for the occasional lecture, much of the populace regarded him as insane. Adar had been planning to send Jorad to Semal for guidance on passing the tests and getting into the Portal. He would still do that, but it might be best if Semal’s help was kept quiet.
Semal should have been their best hope at getting Jorad into the Portal without having to do the Council’s stupid tests, but that wasn’t going to happen now. If he no longer had influence, he wouldn’t be able to help convince the Council to give Jorad access to the Portal without going through all the trials. Which was a shame because Semal had been lobbying to ease some of the restrictions to become Ghar back when Adar was making his own claim. Semal had been making headway until it became a moot point when Adar had finished his last task.
It had been years since Adar had thought about his final trial. Thinking of it again still filled him with anxiety. It had only been luck that had kept him from slipping into the molten metal. He could still remember the surprise on Abel’s face when he’d come up, burned but alive. He hadn’t believed that his father wanted to see him die, but it had become clear that his father hadn’t wanted him to succeed either. His father’s surprised look had been quickly replaced by one of jealousy.
Adar scanned the people on the street, looking for anybody or anything out of place. There were a number of people going about their business. A small gathering had pulled chairs outside to enjoy the evening air, and Adar could smell their alcohol from several shops away.
After six months in Neberan, he knew almost everybody by sight. It was part of how he operated. He spent a great deal of effort to familiarize himself with the people around him in every new place. It was now second nature for him to absorb the routine of their normal habits. Nothing jumped out at him as unusual until he looked behind where there was a man that he didn’t recognize following them.
His quick glance told him enough information to know that the man was from out of town. His clothing didn’t strike Adar as coming from any particular nationality, which in itself was odd. Was the man trying to hide where he was from? He wore two short swords at his side and was a brawny fellow. The man hadn’t made eye contact with Adar even though he was directly behind them. That was strange too. The man should have been looking in the direction he was walking. Adar looking over his shoulder would have drawn the eyes of the man.
Adar guided Karn down an alleyway while Karn continued to ramble on about Adar’s brother. They hadn’t made it very far down the alley when Adar heard rushing feet. He’d been expecting this and was prepared; he turned at the last moment, a dagger in each hand.
The man that had been following them registered a look of surprise before one of Adar’s daggers took him in the eye. The other sunk into his chest. Adar had his sword out the next moment, but there wasn’t a need. Their attacker dropped his two swords and fell in a heap.
“Melyah!” Karn drew his sword and stepped away from the dying man while Adar looked back down the alley. There weren’t any witnesses to the event and if they moved quickly they could get away. “Killed him pretty quick, didn’t you? Don’t you want to know why he was attacking you?”
Adar grunted. He hadn’t recognized it earlier, but the coat told him the dying man was from Colonipo. He searched the man’s pockets and pulled out a worn piece of paper, which he handed to Karn.
“Already knew what he wanted.”
It was unlikely the man had found them without help, Colonipo was a long way away, and Adar had been careful to cover their tracks. Neare had mentioned a poster the other night, and Adar wondered if Neare had helped the man find him or perhaps even sent for him. Adar retrieved his daggers and cleaned them on the bounty hunters jacket. Somewhere a woman screamed, but it didn’t seem to be connected to his kill as the alley was still empty and nobody had walked by on the street.
“Why you got a bounty hunter on your trail?” Karn asked.
“Caught a man doing something he shouldn’t and he didn’t survive my lesson. Grab his legs. I don’t think anybody saw me.”
“Lucky thing we’re leaving tonight.”
They moved the body over to the side of the alley behind some crates. Adar had been distracted by the bounty hunter so he hadn’t given the scream a second thought. Now he wondered where it had come from, was somebody in need of help?
He was about to investigate further when another figure stepped into the alley. He prepared for an attack until he recognized Tere’s silhouette. For a moment, all Adar could see was Nelion soaked in blood as it spilled from her torn chest. Adar made a fist when he thought of the other man lying in his gore. She’d loved Adar, he knew it, and it didn’t matter how he found her, but the thought still fueled him to a full rage. He had never been satisfied with Tere’s explanation that he’d been passing by and just happened to hear Adar as he fought to keep Nelion from bleeding to death. A thought occurred to him. Tere had thrown that particular fact in his face, intending to get him angry. Why? Had Tere wanted to continue the fight? Was he as uncomfortable with this truce as Adar was?
Adar already regretted entering the truce. If he had known that Xarda and Karn would show up today, he would not have entered into the arrangement.
“Gone for all of an hour,” Tere said examining the body, “and you two have already managed to find trouble.” Tere was considerably calmer than when Adar had last seen him at the boarding house. As hard as it was for him to do, Adar tried to imagine how Tere felt.
Tere had spent all those years looking for them so that he could return Jorad to Rarbon, only to find out that Adar had left a plan in place for Jorad to return anyway. If Adar were him, he would have been furious.
If Tere had killed Nelion, it was only the beginning of the punishment he deserved.
Adar’s eyes narrowed. Tere could have put the bounty hunter on his trail; it would, after all, be a convenient way to get rid of him and still return with Jorad to Rarbon. It was too dark to make out much of Tere’s face. Karn was right; Adar should have waited to question the man.
“What do you want?” Adar asked as Tarner and Lous followed Tere into the alley. Both of them looked down at the body with a measure of surprise.
Tarner took it better than Lous did. Adar had to keep his hand from touching the tip of his ear that Tarner had sliced off. It had been a long time since he’d taken a wound that was more than a cut that left a scar and that was because Tarner had attacked him when his back had been turned. It was a cowardly thing to do; he had been keeping Jorad from killing Tere. Tarner had seen that but hadn’t cared.
Adar would have to keep an eye out for Tarner in the future. He remembered giving Tarner some training back when he’d been a scrawny and short boy. Come to think of it, he hadn’t gained much height since. He was a great deal bulkier and Adar wondered if Tarner kept that way on purpose to make up for his lack of height.
Lous was affected by the body. Adar didn’t know Lous from before and hadn’t yet had a chance to learn his last name. When he did, that might tell him a little bit more about the man and why he’d been sent on this particular expedition. It seemed like Abel never did anything without having multiple reasons for his actions. Lous might have been somebody that Abel needed out of the way to get something done or perhaps Abel just didn’t like the man and hoped that he would die on the trip.
“Jorad was taken by the town guards.” Tere looked down at the body of the bounty hunter. “It seems that he takes after his father. He’s wanted for murder.”
“One of the guards almost killed him,” Tarner said, his voice devoid of any emotion. “Xarda was sure they’ll try again tonight.”
Adar didn’t bother to respond as he pushed past them and rushed out onto the street. The guards would have taken Jorad to the guardhouse. The quickest way to get there would be through the town square. Of all the times, why did this have to happen now? This smelled of Erro. That jealous fool son of Neare couldn’t leave well enough alone, could he?
As Adar ran past the party of people who’d been relaxing and drinking, he couldn’t help but feel a twinge of guilt for not doing more to try to save the town. When he’d had the conversation with Mayor Keerit, she hadn’t even bothered to keep the amusement off her face. What could he do about something like that short of producing a live Hunwei so that they believed him?
As he got closer to the town square, he became alarmed. People were crying out. He’d didn’t remember anything particularly noteworthy happening in the town square tonight, but he rarely paid attention to those things. Despite his urgency to get to Jorad, he slowed down. The cries did not have a note of merriment to them. He thought about the scream he heard earlier and wished he had gone to investigate it sooner.
Adar slowed as he approached the last turn that would put him on the street that went to the town square. He knew what he would find but had to see it firsthand.
He could hear the cries more clearly now, and there was a lot of light coming from around the corner. The smell hit him next. He didn’t have the right words to describe it, but he could tell that some of it came from smoke. The rest didn’t smell like anything that he’d encountered before. He noticed that Tere was walking beside him. Neither spoke as they turned the corner and found the town square engulfed in mayhem. Tere said something that Adar didn’t catch because that was when the explosions started. Adar dove to the ground, the rumbling thunder blocking out the sound of his own curse.
The Hunwei were here.
THE YEAR OF THE SEVERING
As the wind from the open doors of his balcony touched and cooled his sweaty forehead, Rend wondered if he was making a mistake. He wiped his brow and sighed.
Millions were about to die. At first, he’d been certain about his decision to continue the mission, but as time had worn on, his thoughts weren’t so clear.
He’d lost weight in the weeks leading up to the assault, and he couldn’t remember the last time he had a restful night of sleep. What would he feel once it was done? Would it be relief or horror? Was this just the first step on a path that would leave him abandoned and forlorn?
He steeled his nerves. Even if that were to be his fate, he would proceed.
Most believed that the fleet had been destroyed by the war’s end, but the holographic display in front of him proved the lie. A full third of their fleet was intact and moving in on the Hunwei home world.
Rend used the computer to call Admiral Joner, but his hail went unheeded. That wasn’t a surprise, Joner rarely answered. The man had been sent on his mission years before by Ghar Chandlir. Joner didn’t feel the need to explain himself to the likes of Rend.
Jbyte would track Joner down if Rend asked but the thought of interacting with Deren’s cursed program made him want to punch a hole in the wall. It frustrated him that Jbyte was always monitoring him anyway. The last thing he wanted was her bothering him as the attack began.
He took a breath, letting the cool air calm him. The last time he’d punched something he’d been lucky. It had been a chair that easily gave way. The rock walls of Rarbon palace weren’t so forgiving.
There was a flurry of activity on the display that drew Rend’s attention. At first, Rend assumed that the attack was under way, but it was the last of the fleet moving into position. He was surprised because he’d been following the fleet closely and had thought that everybody was already into their assigned places. Perhaps Joner had changed his orders at the last moment.
When the first reports of the planet had come into Rend’s office, he’d scarcely believed that they’d found the right place. The initial photographs had resembled a big dust ball, and he’d wondered how the Hunwei survived with so little water, something just as essential to Hunwei as it was humans. It wasn’t until later that he learned that what it lacked in oceans and lakes, it made up for with rivers and marshes.
He’d been surprised to find that the Hunwei built cities in harmony with their ecosystems. That was ironic. The Hunwei made no effort to spare the natural resources of Rend’s home and in many instances had destroyed large swaths of forest and vegetation.
That reminded him of the question that had been bothering him now for the better part of twenty years. Why had the Hunwei attacked in the first place?
Because the Hunwei never tried to directly communicate, the reasoning behind the war was hotly disputed among those that had survived. Any attempts to reach out to the Hunwei had failed. From what he could tell, the Hunwei had come to capture slaves and destroy. There had to be more to it than that, but he didn’t have any idea what.
Regardless, the Hunwei would deserve what they got. He repeated that thought several times, willing himself to believe it.
Rend had rarely left his office since the first ship had snuck into the system and sent back the photos. His wife Tira wasn’t too happy with him about that. It would have been much easier if he just told her, but then the burden would be on her shoulders as well. She didn’t need to feel the responsibility for this atrocity.
She’d stopped to visit earlier when Rend had been having a panic attack. He’d barely been able to engage in conversation, and she’d left in tears. A few more hours and it would all be over. She’d forgive him.
He stared at the fleet. If the reports he’d been given were accurate, it would take less than an hour to destroy the planet. He didn’t quite believe it, but he couldn’t help but hope.
[Do I want this to be my legacy? _]he wondered. He set his jaw. _I just want this over and done. Joner is certainly taking his sweet time. Any time now, the destruction would begin, and the nightmare would be over. After that, he could get to work dealing with the political fallout and putting his life back together.
Once the attack was complete, the truth would go out. Joner had his hands full keeping his team in radio silence. There had been several executions in the last year of those from the fleet trying to get around the blackout order. Rend’s heart went out to each of them, but he’d done nothing to stop it.
Who’s to say that the Hunwei hadn’t left spies? It seemed unlikely, but it wasn’t a risk he was willing to take. The soldiers had just wanted to know if their loved ones had survived, but order and secrecy had to be maintained.
What a mess I’m in, he thought, it isn’t even my fault. The lie had been told long before he’d ever sat in this office. His only sin was that of perpetuating it. That wouldn’t matter though when the truth finally came out. He’d be just as blameworthy as Joner and Ghar Chandlir. Even once everybody knew, Rend hoped that most wouldn’t condemn him and the others involved.
He had been outraged when he’d learned the truth. How could Ghar Chandlir have been so blind to the fate of his people that he’d sent so many of their resources away when his people had needed them the most?
After Rend had calmed, he realized that Chandlir had made an impossible call and it was hard to find fault with it. If the rest of the fleet had stayed, who’s to say that they wouldn’t have been destroyed like all the others?
Rend’s first instinct had been to call the ships back, but he’d hesitated. The Hunwei had brought humanity to the brink of extinction. So many had died. His first wife, his sons, and all but one of his daughters.
The thought that Lief was up there somewhere living his life as a slave is what kept Rend from calling off the attack. That wound would never heal.
It was unlikely that the ship that took Lief had returned to the Hunwei home world by now. Rend wasn’t aware of a single Hunwei ship that could travel faster than light. While it had taken ten years for the remaining ships in the fleet to get to the Hunwei planet, it would take the Hunwei more than a thousand. It had been a mere two years since the last Hunwei ships had left and everybody but Rend had declared victory.
Faster than light travel had been his people’s one advantage and little good it had done them when the war had been entirely fought on their home world. How could a species that was so advanced in other ways lack something like that? Was it because the Hunwei could live for more than a thousand years so they just didn’t bother? What good were slaves that were lucky to live past eighty? Rend wished he knew.
He pushed the questions away. It was one of many inconsistencies with the Hunwei. There were many more questions he’d never be able to answer.
Here was Rend’s only opportunity to right this wrong. He’d never be able to find what ship his son was on or where they’d taken him, but he could ensure that any of those Hunwei ships that returned home would find their planet gone. Much the same as what they’d left to the few human survivors.
“Besides,” Rend whispered to himself. “This war isn’t over.” There had been no declaration of truce. He had a distinct feeling that the Hunwei would one day return.
“If it isn’t, why’d they leave?” Jbyte materialized as she spoke and Rend looked up from the holographic display. Her image was that of a serving girl in a tight red dress. He recognized the face but couldn’t put a name to it. An actress from before the war? The holograph bowed low, an act of respect that had been out of fashion for years.
Rend winced and wished he hadn’t. Jbyte’s sensors picked up the smallest things. She enjoyed it when she got to him. Unfortunately, if Rend ignored her, she’d do the same, and he still needed her help. For now. She was his only way of knowing what was happening with the fleet because Joner wasn’t very forthcoming and rarely answered a call.
“We’re not done until they’re all dead or they’ll haunt us forever.”
Stupid. His comment would just result in her tormenting him further. If there had been another way to continue this attack without depending on one of Deren’s cursed inventions, even if it required a lot more effort, Rend would have taken it.
Deren had never built anything that was reliable. He’d programmed that way on purpose and had called it intelligence. For Rend, Jbyte was just a terrible nuisance.
“Care to make a bet?” she asked instead of continuing the lecture she liked to give. He’d probably heard it more than thirty times during the last week alone. That had almost been enough to make him want to shut down the whole mainframe, but he couldn’t do that just to spite a program. Even a particularly annoying one.
The mainframe was the last remaining hub of information. Initially, when it became apparent that humankind wasn’t going to win the war against the Hunwei, the government at the time had been afraid of being sent back to the dark ages.
To ensure that didn’t happen, twenty-five secret mainframes had been established throughout the world. The one hidden in the depths of the Rarbon palace was the last one remaining. In the intervening years, all the others had been destroyed. By the time they were down to the last few, too much of their technology had been lost to build anything new. It would take them years to recover everything they’d lost. It was a lucky thing that Rarbon was self-sustaining, or even the final mainframe might have been lost.
Jbyte’s words were still ringing in Rend’s ears. Care to make a bet? She knew Deren had been fond of those words. Her eyes narrowed, and she raised the side of her upper lip, an expression Deren had frequently worn when he’d been lost in thought.
“It’s not too late. This crime will overshadow your victory.”
Rend didn’t bother to correct her, they hadn’t won. Even Tira could see that now. When the Hunwei had left, most had celebrated. Eventually, other people began to come around to Rend’s way of thinking.
“It wasn’t a victory, they packed up and left.” He tried not to imagine what a baby Hunwei looked like. He looked at the clock. The attack should have begun by now.
“Get me Joner, he—” Rend stopped when he saw a flare of light coming through the open balcony doors. His office was high enough in Rarbon Palace that he could see the distant outer wall. He could just make it out. The light was outside the city wall and far enough away that he would have missed it if he hadn’t happened to be looking that direction. Had it been a missile? A bomb? Whatever it was, Rarbon’s shields were continuing to hold.
It was a reminder of one more problem he still needed to deal with. He’d been ignoring Araz for too long, and the attacks were becoming more frequent. Rarbon’s walls would hold a little longer. Once the Hunwei were dealt with, he could focus on Araz. Rend would sooner see the mainframe destroyed than let it fall into Araz’s hands but there wasn’t much danger in that happening.
Not even the Hunwei had ever managed to get past Rarbon’s defenses for long. Araz wasn’t likely to make it past the shields anytime soon.
Perhaps it was time Rend made a trip to the outer wall to observe the enemy encampment firsthand. Tomorrow would be soon enough, once this was all over, and he had a full night of rest under his belt.
“Where’s Joner?” Rend asked.
“Not responding. If this is right, why haven’t you told your people?”
“I’ll tell them when it’s over. We have to keep our plans secure.”
“Rubbish. You know they won’t agree with you.”
Rend was saved from having to respond because Joner flashed onto the large display mounted on the wall facing his desk. Joner looked as haggard as Rend felt. Normally, he would have stopped to ask how the man was doing, but every minute they delayed was another chance for the Hunwei to realize they were under attack.
“It’s about bloody time.” Rend approached the display. “Why haven’t you attacked yet?”
“The attack is still several hours out.” Joner didn’t seem concerned by Rend’s look of alarm.
Rend struggled to keep his voice steady and had to resist gritting his teeth. “You don’t have time, Joner. Launch the Borers. The Hooneys will find you soon if they haven’t already.”
Joner shook his head. “We won’t move until we’ve completed a final analysis of the planets defenses. We have one shot at this; we need to make sure we’ll succeed.”
“You’re jeopardizing the plan.”
“I’ll let you know when the attack commences.” Joner ended the transmission and Rend pounded the screen, enlarging a small crack that had formed before when it had received similar treatment.
“Temper, temper,” Jbyte said. “Maybe he’s having a crisis of conscience, that’s something you wouldn’t understand.”
“He’s a fool! We can put an end to the Hunwei war now.” Rend stopped before he slammed his fist into the rock wall beside the screen, he hadn’t realized he’d moved over and didn’t need a broken hand on top of everything else. He stepped out onto his balcony and looked at the city far below, he needed to clear his head.
“We can’t take the chance it’s not over.” His eyes narrowed when he noticed metallic flashes moving through the crowds far below. Would there ever be any end to the damage Deren had inflicted? It would take the rest of his life to rid the world of Deren’s mistakes.
“We’re under attack,” Jbyte said.
“Sensor’s failing? I saw the missiles earlier; it was nothing to worry about.”
“The palace has been breached.”
Rend turned. “How many? Where are they now?”
“Fifteen and they’re on the second floor. Araz’s men.”
“Why’d you let them get that far?”
“My sensors were disabled.”
“And you didn’t notice?” Rend grabbed his rifle from the closet and as an afterthought a small blaster that fit into his pocket. It wasn’t his preferred choice for a backup weapon, but it was better than nothing. Why did everything always happen at once?
Rend readied his rifle and looked at Jbyte, but Deren stood before him, frowning. Rend growled, and had taken aim before he remembered that Deren was dead. Then it was Jbyte again, smiling.
Cursed machine. “Get me General Paet.” She’d picked a bad time to taunt him.
“It’s not my fault they got in.”
Rend was having a hard time believing that. “Just get him.”
After a brief pause, Jbyte responded. “I can’t get through. Admiral Joner is blocking any attempts to communicate.”
“Try the other ships.”
“All communications are blocked.”
“Melyah take Joner! Can’t you get around it?”
“You’re the one who insisted I relinquish control of the fleet computers. Regret that yet?”
Rend didn’t answer as he reached into his pocket, pulled out his tablet and brought the holographic display to life. If she couldn’t get through, he didn’t need her any longer. He couldn’t take the risk that she was involved in the breach.
“I didn’t betray you.” Jbyte disappeared.
Rend blinked. He’d been a few steps away from imprisoning her, but hadn’t completed the process.
Rend brought up a status report for the mainframe server room. Once the attack had begun, the guard on the mainframe should have tripled, but instead, the display showed the room had been breached. He should have received an alert when that happened; it was just further proof of Jbyte’s instability or treachery. He didn’t have time to wonder which.
“Either way, they’ve betrayed you too.” Araz’s men were targeting the hub. Was he desperate enough to destroy it?
Rend had assumed not, but maybe he was wrong. He made the adjustments necessary to lock down the mainframe but hesitated before completing the action. He was the only one that knew how to access it once it was secured.
There was no time. Araz would have known about the protective measures before penetrating the palace and would be working to disable them. So much for not being an immediate concern, he thought, something is only impossible until someone proves it can be done. Rend touched the display in the air and completed the process. He’d waited too long already. The doors forty levels below would close, the blast shields would follow, rendering them impossible to open and in minutes the oxygen would be sucked from the room, and the intruders would be dead.
When Rend looked up from his tablet, he realized that he was no longer alone. His first instinct was to raise is rifle until he recognized his guard.
“Has the palace been secured?”
They didn’t answer as they leveled their rifles at him, took him into custody, and led him out of his office.
1,192 YEARS SINCE THE SEVERING
As Jorad sat on a stool in the corner of the one-room guardhouse, he realized that he was glad he was in Neberan instead of Zecarani. If he’d been in Zecarani, the guards would have had a jail with a heavy locked door. The thought buoyed him up a little bit. Things could have been a lot worse; at least he had a chance of escaping this place without help.
The guardhouse had a rank smell that reminded Jorad of sweat and mildew, and he wished that the windowless holes in the walls were big enough to let in more air. The stench combined with the smoke from the fireplace made the room quite uncomfortable. Several beads of sweat were rolling down his forehead, and he could feel the moisture beginning to accumulate on his back. He frowned as he looked at the holes and had to keep from shaking his head. They were too small for him to fit through, so he’d have to use the door to make his escape.
His sword and scabbard hung on a peg near the entrance, and his stool was on the other side of the room, as far away from the door as they could put him. When Baurn had demanded that he turn over any other weapons upon arriving at the guardhouse, he had immediately given up two of his daggers but not said anything about the other two in his boots. Baurn had accepted the weapons and not looked into it further. It hadn’t been long afterward when Thon, Baurn, and the other guards were relieved of duty and replaced by those on the night watch. He didn’t know how long it had been since Thon and the others had rotated off duty, but he guessed they’d been gone for no more than an hour.
On their way here from the boarding house Thon had been withdrawn, but whenever he’d looked at Jorad, it was obvious to Jorad that he would be lucky to make it through the night alive. He was surprised that Thon hadn’t come back yet and was expecting him to come walking through the door at any moment.
Two of the new guards had been left to keep an eye on Jorad while the others had gone to patrol the town. Jorad had bitten his tongue when the guards had gossiped about rumors of strangers in the night. Before he had left, Thon had told the new guards in detail about the fight at the Gartel boarding house. Even though it was a very one-sided account, Jorad hadn’t tried to correct Thon. He didn’t want to do anything that would have resulted in Thon attacking him again.
Jorad knew both of the guards that had been left to watch over him—Gorew and Lel—and they were now warming their feet by the fireplace. It was a lucky thing that the Neberan town guard was comprised of volunteers, and they couldn’t afford to be picky. Of the two, Jorad figured that Lel was the weaker. He was tall, but there wasn’t much to him. Jorad couldn’t help but wonder how he had survived in such a rural community.
While Jorad had waited for the guards to settle down, he had considered what he might do to escape, but his thoughts had gone in circles as he dealt with his anger and frustration at the situation. Now that the guards weren’t paying close attention to him, it was time to make his move. It would be a simple matter for him to grab the daggers from his boots, but what then? He refused to entertain the idea of killing them; they were just doing their job, and even though he didn’t know either of them very well, they seemed to be decent enough. They didn’t deserve to die because of Erro’s lies.
Jorad’s belly growled, and he wished that he’d eaten lunch or dinner. It was tough to formulate an escape plan on a stomach that had barely had any food in the last day. Word should have reached Adar by now of his arrest. When it did, Adar would come to his aid and Jorad hoped to escape before that happened. Adar could sometimes be a bit heavy handed in his approach to things, and Jorad didn’t want to see anybody get killed.
He was also trying to keep his thoughts off Soret, but he couldn’t keep from worrying. He didn’t know what more he could do to protect her from the Hunwei. Once he got out of here, Adar wouldn’t be willing to wait around for him to talk to her. They’d leave immediately, perhaps without returning to the boarding house to gather their things.
He thought of Erro and found that his hands were balled into fists; he unclenched his hands and took several deep breaths. There wasn’t anything he could do as long as he was here. Maybe he would get lucky and find Soret with his father. She’d been talking about convincing her parents to leave with them before Thon had interfered. He focused on this hope, thin as it was, rather than his fury at Erro. He promised himself that if he ever saw Erro again, he wasn’t going to let him get away unscathed.
Gorew and Lel were passing the time by telling stories and sipping on wine. Jorad figured that this meant that they didn’t seem to regard him as a threat. Lel almost seemed to have forgotten that he was there and had been chatting on about gossip involving people that Jorad didn’t know. News of Jorad’s fight with Tere and the others must not have reached these men yet; otherwise, they would have been more cautious. So much the better for Jorad.
Gorew noticed Jorad staring at them.
“Enjoy your last evening,” Gorew said with a growl.
“Have you considered the possibility that I’m innocent?”
“You attacked Thon. Hardly the actions of an innocent man.” Gorew was shorter than Lel but about the same height as Jorad. He was a stocky fellow, but Jorad was confident he could handle the man if Lel were taken care of first.
Jorad didn’t respond, and he stared at Gorew until he looked away. Jorad crossed his leg and started to pull the dagger out of his boot. His heart quickened when Gorew glanced at him again, but Gorew went back to his wine after a few moments.
Once Jorad had finished removing his dagger, he kept his crossed leg between the dagger and the guards. They were only armed with staffs, and those were leaning against the wall. After he was certain that his dagger was hidden from their view, he waited, trying to think of an excuse to get one of the guards to approach him. If he asked for a drink of water, would they see through it? Lel was a little bit slow, but Gorew might become even more suspicious than he already was. Jorad was just about to try it out when Gorew stood and saved him the trouble by coming several steps closer.
“You’re awfully quiet over there,” Gorew said, “What are you up to?”
Jorad looked into Gorew’s suspicious face as innocently as he could. So much for trying to incapacitate Lel first. When Gorew seemed unlikely to move any closer, Jorad decided that it would have to do. He could cover the distance between them quicker than Gorew could react. Springing off the chair, Jorad lunged for Gorew but he immediately tripped and fell.
Cursed by Melyah! What he’d do for a little luck now. He sprung to his feet and took a swipe at Gorew with his dagger, trying to miss anything important. Gorew saw it coming and easily sidestepped the attack.
“Watch out!” Gorew said as Lel started to stand, blinking in surprise. Jorad charged Gorew, grappled with him for a few seconds and then had his dagger to Gorew’s throat before Lel had figured out what was going on.
“Stay where you are Lel.” Jorad eased back towards the door while keeping a tight hold on Gorew. His dagger was digging into Gorew’s throat, but it hadn’t drawn any blood because Jorad had angled the edge of the blade away from the man’s neck.
Lel stopped, the confusion evident on his face. His mug lay broken on the floor in front of him, and red wine had spread out like blood. Jorad was relieved that he’d been able to take control of the situation so easily. He hoped that Adar and the others were ready to go so that they could leave as soon as he found them and he prayed that Soret would be with them. He almost welcomed the thought of seeing Barc and Hira if that meant that Soret would be coming.
Jorad had just reached his sword where it hung on the wall when the door opened beside him. He put his back against the wall and turned Gorew toward the door.
“Don’t come in or I’ll kill him.”
Thon walked in. “Kill him or not, it doesn’t matter, you’re a dead man.” He was followed by three men, one of whom held a coil of rope with a noose tied at the end.
Jorad pushed the dagger tighter to Gorew’s throat who in turn cried out in terror. It reminded Jorad of the first time he’d slaughtered a chicken, and he almost vomited. This wasn’t Gorew’s fault. It wasn’t even Thon’s.
The look in Thon’s eyes dared Jorad to slice Gorew’s throat. Jorad pressed the dagger and strengthened his resolve; he wished that he’d acted sooner. He shouldn’t have spent so much time letting his thoughts wander while the guards had settled down.
“Thon, don’t let him kill me! Please—”
“Shut up, Gorew!” Thon said.
Jorad was trying to decide what to do next when somebody kicked in the door. His first thought was that it was Adar coming to his aid, but he realized that something was wrong when the end of a black stick was shoved in through the doorway. An explosion filled the room, and a mist of blood, chunks of bone, and bits of brain matter appeared where Lel’s head had been.
A black armored Hunwei entered the room. He was several feet taller than Thon and almost double the width of a normal man. He had to duck as he walked through the doorway. Jorad had never before seen armor like that which the Hunwei wore. It didn’t appear to be made of metal and the closest thing he could think to compare it to was rock, but that couldn’t be right either. Armor made of rock would have been impossible to move, let alone wear. The helmet had a face shield, and the Hunwei was looking at them through clear glass. The helmet only partially covered the monster’s neck, leaving room for him to move his head.
The Hunwei pointed his weapon at one of Thon’s men and another explosion filled the room. Jorad could feel the concussive blast from the weapon on his exposed skin as he saw the man fall over.
As the other men in the room began to react, Jorad considered his options. His sword was right beside him on the wall, but it was sheathed and would be unwieldy in the tight quarters of the guardhouse. He still had his daggers. Could he get close enough to the Hunwei to slip one between the helmet and the neck guard? Given this new enemy, could he somehow coordinate an attack with the remaining men? Surely, if the four of them rushed the Hunwei, they’d be able to bring him down. Jorad discarded the idea, Thon would sooner kill him. It would have to be the daggers.
Jorad didn’t have time to act on his plan because the Hunwei pointed the weapon his way and he was forced to dive to the ground, pushing Gorew out of the way as he did.
Just after the blast went over his head, Jorad charged the Hunwei. As he ran, he realized there was a good chance it would be the last thing he would ever do. Not to mention the stupidest, he thought. The Hunwei was taking aim at Gorew, giving Jorad just the amount of time that he needed to close the short distance.
He put his head down and shoulder out as he collided with the monster. Pain ran through his body, and he was afraid that he’d broken a bone or two in his shoulder. He didn’t know what he’d imagined would happen but he hadn’t been expecting it to feel like he’d just charged into a rock. The Hunwei eyes didn’t even register a look of shock.
Regardless of the pain, Jorad threw his weight into the Hunwei again and managed to cause the Hunwei to lose his balance. Taking advantage of the opportunity, he pushed off the floor with his feet and into the monster again. He wasn’t sure if it was the force of his attack or the weight of the beast’s armor that caused it to fall, but he felt a surge of hope when the Hunwei toppled over towards the floor.
He fell in a heap on top of the monster. Even though his breath was knocked out of him, he didn’t wait as he started stabbing at the neck in between the gap in the armor. The dagger couldn’t penetrate, despite the fact that he could see rough light brown skin peeking through the cracks. The crack was big enough that the dagger should have been able to reach it with ease. The blade of his dagger was stopped just a little bit above the skin and try as he might, it would go no further.
Screaming in rage and frustration, he tried to break the glass that covered the Hunwei’s face, but his dagger glanced off it without making a scratch. It wasn’t until the third try that he realized that the dagger wasn’t even making contact with the glass either. It was behaving in much the same manner as when he’d tried to pierce the Hunwei’s neck. Was that laughter he saw in the orange eyes of the beast? The Hunwei flung him off, as easily as Jorad might have kicked a small dog and sent it flying. Jorad bounced off a wall before skidding to a halt on the floor.
Adar would have liked better cover than the small bush he was hiding behind, but it was better than nothing he supposed. So far his luck had been far better than that of the many others whose bodies he could see scattered around the town square. He could hear Tere cursing and muttering under his breath in the bush behind him. If they hadn’t been surrounded by explosions, Adar might have been concerned that the Hunwei would overhear Tere. Adar could just make out a particularly vulgar curse that he’d heard Tere mutter for as long as he’d known him.
Some things never changed. Over the years Adar had come to believe that the seeds of Tere’s betrayal had been there all along but it wasn’t until they were older that they’d finally manifested. Adar shook his head to clear his thoughts and try to get the ringing to go away.
When the bombs had gone off, and the town square had flooded with Hunwei, they had been close enough to Arnie’s blacksmith shop that they’d been able to hide behind several small bushes at the side of the building. Adar was doing his best to keep from moving but found it hard. He hated feeling exposed, it made him uncomfortable, it was like an itch on his back that he couldn’t scratch. The bush in front of him didn’t offer much cover, but it was his only alternative for the moment. The Hunwei were everywhere and moving would mean capture or death. If it hadn’t been for all the chaos, the Hunwei would have found them for sure.
Adar was afraid that the ringing in his ears meant he would be left partially deaf because his head felt like somebody had put a bell on him and rung it for hours. He fidgeted and was surprised when his hand touched his arm and came away wet. Cursing, he wiped the blood on his pants and flexed his arm as much as he dared. It didn’t feel like the wound had affected his ability to use it. It was small, and the blood would soon clot, so he put it from his mind. He checked the rest of his body as best he could from his crouch and determined he hadn’t sustained any other notable injuries.
During one of the explosions, Adar was able to see that Tere had a huge gash on his forehead. The blood from the wound had already covered half his face, but his eyes were alert, and Adar believed that was the worst that he’d suffered. It shouldn’t keep them from moving when the time came.
For a brief moment there, when they’d made eye contact, it had felt like nothing had ever happened between them and Adar was reminded of a time they’d both nearly been killed during a skirmish with some bandits and Tere had saved him. He had hopped into the middle of a fight without looking to the side, and Tere had killed a large one-eared man who had been hiding in the brush. Later on, in the same battle, Adar had skewered a man that had come from the ground where he’d been pretending to be dead. Tere would have died with his head lopped off if Adar hadn’t been there to stop the man.
It was a shame they’d lost their friendship, but the regret washed away quickly. It was too late to go back now.
A man’s body fell in front of Adar, and a large armored figure loomed above him in the smoke. The Hunwei glanced down at the corpse, looked away, and brought something to his shoulder. Fire erupted from the end, illuminating the Hunwei’s armor. Adar frowned, wondering what his chance of survival was if he were to attack the Hunwei. He decided to do nothing because the Hunwei didn’t appear to have noticed them. The light from the blasts and the nearby burning buildings reflected off the Hunwei’s helmet and the rest of the armor. It was the first real look that Adar had gotten of the Hunwei. The creature towered over him, and the helmet obscured most of the head, but Adar could see there was a faceplate that allowed the Hunwei to see. The light reflected off of it, making it seem to glow and completing the Hunwei’s unearthly look.
Melyah! Adar should have dragged Jorad to Rarbon months ago, back when he started feeling uneasy. He’d been angry with Jorad for not telling him about his encounter with the Ou Qui, but Adar was actually angry with himself. He’d had a premonition that this was going to happen and he’d ignored it.
The Hunwei fired repeatedly. Each time the blast from the end of the thing he held to his shoulder lit up his armor. After several more explosions from his blaster—what else could it be?—the Hunwei moved away from them.
Similar explosions came from all around as Adar examined the dead man several feet in front of him. A hole had been burned all the way through his chest. Light from a ship passing overhead showed the ash, mixed with blood, flesh, and bone that covered the ground where the man had fallen.
Adar didn’t dwell on the scene before him and instead surveyed the town square. Flames burned everywhere he looked. The fire, the continuing blasts from the Hunwei weapons, and the light from the roving Hunwei ships above them lit up the town square to the point that he had a good idea what was going on even though there was smoke everywhere.
As he viewed the scene around him, trying to formulate some semblance of a plan, he gradually became aware of the smell. It had probably been there for some time, but the smell of burning flesh and smoke from the fires began to assail him to the point that he finally noticed. With everything else going on, he hadn’t been paying attention, but now that he finally did, it made him feel weak in the stomach. He set his jaw and calibrated his mind as he swallowed down bile. He needed to rescue Jorad.
While some of the Hunwei were firing blasters and killing everything they came across, most were gathering people into the middle of the town square. Adar remembered hearing from Semal that the Hunwei had taken many slaves. He assumed that this was to be the fate of those that were being rounded up.
The explosions weren’t coming quite so often now, but they were still occurring at a steady rate.
Tere growled. Adar looked at the man that had at one time been like a brother and wasn’t surprised to see that even now behind the fear in Tere’s eyes, the anger and hatred burned. One small oath was all that kept Tere from trying to kill him. Adar doubted that even the Hunwei would be reason enough to stay his hand. What was an oath to Tere anyway? Wouldn’t Tere see this as his final opportunity to get revenge on Adar?
“Did you see what happened to the others?” Adar asked, he hadn’t been able to find Karn, Tarner, or Lous in either the forming group of slaves or among any of the nearby bodies.
“They were behind me when the explosions started,” Tere said. “I saw Tarner trip, but I can’t find his body.”
They fell silent again for some time; as they watched the mass of swarming people in the square grow substantially. There was now a sizable number of Hunwei patrolling the outside perimeter, but the people in the square far outnumbered the Hunwei surrounding them. If they were all to run, a majority would be able to escape.
“The gods have cursed us.” Adar surveyed the crowd, hoping Jorad wasn’t there. If he could get his hands on one of the Hunwei weapons and figure out how to use it, they might have a chance at getting away. Their swords wouldn’t do much good unless they were right on top of a Hunwei. Tere mumbled something Adar couldn’t make out, but he didn’t ask for clarification.
“Tarner,” Tere said a few minutes later while pointing to the prisoners. “You see him?”
Adar nodded as he recognized the sharp angular face of Tarner. He was surprised to see that Tarner was still armed with his sword, but with the armor the Hunwei wore, maybe an armed man wasn’t much of a threat to them.
“Never figured he’d end up this way,” Tere muttered.
“The others are probably there as well.” Adar scanned the crowd, looking to see if he could spot Karn and Lous. He recognized most of the people, and while he didn’t know many of them by name, he knew who they were. He felt a sharp stab of guilt when he noticed the women and children that were among the captives. When Adar recognized Soret in the crowd, he growled quietly as he examined everybody close to her, trying to see if Jorad was there as well. Adar couldn’t find him and was unable to spot Soret again. If Jorad had managed to escape from the town guards, his first thought would be for Soret.
Adar hadn’t thought of trying to rescue Tarner or any of the others, but seeing Soret changed his mind. If Jorad was there, Adar had no choice but to go get him and everybody else. If Jorad wasn’t there, he’d never forgive Adar for leaving her.
“I’m going in,” Adar took a deep breath as he stood. Causing a stampede might prove a challenge, but he’d make it happen one way or another. The odds were in their favor, but they’d have to act quickly before more of the Hunwei congregated around the captives.
“We can’t just walk out there,” Tere hissed from the bush.
“Doubt they’ll stop us from joining them.”
“What’s your plan?”
“Mass exodus. Unless you want to leave Tarner.” It didn’t seem like a good idea to mention that Soret was Adar’s reason for the insane plan.
He stepped out of the shadows and walked towards the crowd. Tere followed him before he got too far, cursing as he caught up to Adar. As much as possible Adar avoided looking down at the bodies. The remains of the women and children would rile him up, and he couldn’t afford to lose control of his temper. They hadn’t made it five steps when he heard snarling from behind.
Adar turned and faced the Hunwei, looking up into the faceplate of the creature; he was able to see the orange eyes that glowed behind it. The Hunwei motioned with his weapon towards the center of the square. Adar eyed the blaster, it might be his only chance to get one, and he was tempted to try, but then he’d have to run if that failed. He doubted the Hunwei would let him live through the attempt.
“Just on our way there,” Adar said.
Tere smiled. “You’re not excluding us from all the fun.”
The bulge of one of Adar’s daggers dug into his side, and he ached to try to slip it through some of the gaps in the armor he had noticed, but he turned and marched towards the crowd of captives. Tarner and Karn found them when they joined the group.
“Fools!” Tarner said. “Should have run when you had the chance. Now we’re all stuck.”
Tere said something but Adar didn’t hear, and he wondered if the ringing in his ears would ever go away. He noticed Soret and headed in her direction. The people were scared, and many showed signs of shock. Several of the people he moved by lay on the ground. Whether they were passed out or dying, he didn’t stop to check. They had to act quickly if this foolish plan of his was going to work.
“Be prepared to run,” Adar said as he made his way through the crowd. “Run when I attack. Pass it on.” Too many stared numbly back at him, but several nodded. He repeated the message many times as he moved, hoping that the Hunwei couldn’t understand their language.
When he got to Soret, she was crying, and it took several attempts to get her to speak. He noticed that she was staring in the direction of her home and through the incoherent rambling, he gathered that her house had exploded with her parents inside. He couldn’t get her to say anything more and Jorad wasn’t with her.
Another explosion filled the air, and there was a flash of light from several streets away. The light illuminated another crowd of people that the Hunwei were herding towards them. Praying that Jorad was safe, Adar took Soret by the arm and returned to Tere and the others.
“Karn, can I trust you to get her out of here when the time comes?” Adar asked, nodding his head to Soret.
“Sure.” Karn looked disappointed with the assignment, no doubt he’d been gearing up to fight. Adar almost reconsidered, Karn was big enough he could probably wrestle a Hunwei to the ground by himself, but getting Soret out was important. Adar didn’t want Jorad suffering through the pain of her death while trying to pass the trials in Rarbon as well.
Assuming they even made it that far.
Adar called as many of the people around him as he could and explained if they all ran at once, most of them could escape. His words were met with disbelief and doubt. Tere, Tarner, and Karn all supported him and eventually they’d managed to convince a sizable group to run.
“When we going to do this?” Tarner asked.
Adar examined several of the nearby Hunwei. One was close enough that Adar could take him in the eye with his dagger because his faceplate was up. He pulled it out and threw; it hit the eye and bounced off, falling harmlessly to the ground. The Hunwei turned towards Adar and brought up his blaster. Melyah take me, he thought, wondering if he’d imagined the whole thing. The dagger had hit the eye with enough force to kill a man.
“Down!” Adar knocked Soret to the ground first and landed on top of her. The blast from the Hunwei went into the crowd. The other Hunwei nearby started firing as well. Adar scrambled off Soret and charged the closest Hunwei, diving into his legs. Pain shot into Adar’s arms and chest like he’d decided to charge a statue but luckily the Hunwei wobbled. Digging in with his knees, Adar pushed the Hunwei just enough that he lost his balance. As the Hunwei fell, Adar grabbed for his blaster. The Hunwei yanked it out of reach and slammed the butt of it onto Adar’s head who howled even as he latched onto it again.
Tere and Tarner were there the next moment and helped pin the Hunwei down. As Karn ran by, leading Soret and a small group of people, Adar noticed that one of the Hunwei was firing at the escaping group. He hoped that they were fast enough to escape as he turned his full attention to the Hunwei that was struggling with Tere and Tarner. Adar unsheathed his sword as the Hunwei kicked him in the stomach. He gasped for air but remained standing and thrust his sword into the gap between the helmet and armor. To his surprise, the attack was stopped, as if he’d hit a brick wall. Cursing, he tried again in several more such openings and found that he wasn’t able to get through. Melyah, they’d have to run. They couldn’t kill these things.
“Run!” Adar called out to the crowd. “Now’s our chance.” The panicked exodus that he had hoped to start had failed to happen. Another Hunwei approached them, blaster half down as if he was afraid he’d hurt his companion.
As Tere and Tarner continued to fight the struggling Hunwei, Adar tried again for the blaster, but the Hunwei wasn’t letting it go.
Once the other Hunwei was close enough, Adar lunged for his legs, but the Hunwei was prepared and Adar felt like he’d assaulted a thick petrified oak tree. The Hunwei kicked Adar out of the way and ripped Tere off his fallen companion.
Adar got to his feet and knocked the Hunwei’s arms up as it took aim at Tarner, the shot dusting the top of Tarner’s head. Tarner let go of the Hunwei with a hand and grabbed his head, surprised to find most of his hair intact. The distraction was what the fallen Hunwei needed and he flung Tarner off. Adar pushed up again on the arms of the Hunwei he was grappling with but he might as well have been trying to push a rock. A gurgling growl came from the Hunwei.
He’s laughing at me, Adar realized. Holding his sword with one hand, he pulled out a dagger with the other and went for the eye. The Hunwei didn’t try to stop the blow. He didn’t need to; Adar’s dagger was turned away just before it would have reached the eye.
The Hunwei grabbed at Adar as he continued to try with the dagger, twisting around the Hunwei as he went. The bulky armor appeared to limit flexibility and as long as Adar stayed right up against him, he had a hard time latching on to Adar. The armor didn’t cover the Hunwei perfectly, and Adar tried to get through the gaps under the arms and even tried the neck again. It was futile; something kept him from getting through.
Adar yelled in frustration, there had to be a way to kill these things.
Several hands grabbed onto the monster. More hands followed, and then even more. The mob of people had finally surged. Adar took the lead and together they pushed the Hunwei to the ground. Others stopped to help Tere and Tarner with the other Hunwei, but most made a break for it.
As Adar’s Hunwei went down struggling against the mass of people, the head of a nearby person disappeared in a mess of blood and brain matter. Adar looked regretfully at the blaster that the Hunwei still held with an iron grip and turned to run.
When Adar saw Tere struggling to free himself from under the mass of people holding down the other Hunwei, their eyes made contact. The hatred that burned in Tere’s eyes could have started a fire. Adar hesitated and then reached out and took Tere’s hand. It took some struggling and maneuvering, but he pulled Tere free, due in part to several other people being knocked out of the way when the Hunwei beneath the dog pile blasted holes into them.
“Run!” Adar yelled hoping those nearest to him would listen. “Run! We can’t kill them. Our only hope is to run.” Many of the captives had escaped already and he felt hope as an additional surge pushed forward and ran past their Hunwei captors. The Hunwei were firing into the escaping crowd but there weren’t enough of them to stop the tide of people.
The two Hunwei that Adar and Tere had been fighting were still being mobbed, but it was just a matter of time. Adar yelled again as he ran for the edge of the square with the mob. When Adar got to Arnie’s blacksmith shop, he slowed, looking for Soret and Karn. The stampeding mob of people almost knocked him over and he ducked behind the building, grabbing hold of a trash barrel to steady himself. It reeked of rotten food.
“Can you see them?” Adar asked as Tere stopped beside him.
Tere shook his head. The blasts were coming closer and there was a loud explosion from the town square. They pushed back into the mass of people. Several blocks later, Tarner appeared in front of him, holding on to a door to keep the mob from running him over.
“In here!” Tarner yelled. Once they were inside, Adar spotted Soret and Karn before Tarner slammed the door, blocking out the light.
Jorad didn’t know how long he lay on the floor of the guardhouse, but when he opened his eyes, everything was quiet. Had he been knocked unconscious? His arm and ribs hurt from where he had hit the wall, and there was a bump on the back of his head. He got to his knees, checking to make sure he didn’t have any broken bones. As he stood, he found that his leg hurt but was still functional. He twisted his head to either side to stretch his neck. It didn’t help, and he still felt stiff afterward. It was painful to twist it too far in either direction.
The fire in the hearth had burned down and cast the room in shadows. He could smell oil from a lantern that lay broken near the stool where he had sat earlier. The last time he’d seen that lantern, it had been lit. It was a lucky thing that the guardhouse hadn’t caught fire.
The two corpses were his only company. The bodies of Lel and Thon’s friend filled him with sadness. Lel didn’t deserve to come to this end. He was a decent guy who had volunteered to keep Neberan safe. His body lay in the middle of the floor, and his staff was in two pieces with a large chunk missing, either end was burned. The upper right half of Lel’s shoulder and neck were gone as well as his head. It was as if a large animal had taken a bite. The other body had a big hole in the middle. The smell from the dead made him nauseous.
How many more will die? Jorad asked himself as he turned away. We could have done a better job to warn Neberan. The thought bounced around his mind, and he did his best to ignore it.
The sound of smaller explosions peppered with much larger explosions came from outside the destroyed doorway. He walked to it, afraid to look out and see the terror that had engulfed Neberan but knowing that he needed to get moving because he had to find Soret and Adar.
People ran in every direction. Fireballs—that wasn’t quite the right word, but he couldn’t think of another term—burned through the air. A group of Hunwei was herding some of the townsfolk, prodding them with their weapons.
Jorad quickly ducked out of sight and after the Hunwei had passed went to where his sword hung on the wall. After securing it, he looked until he found the dagger he’d tried to use to kill the Hunwei. He frowned as he picked it up and looked at the tip. It had become blunt, as though he’d been pounding it into a rock. Why hadn’t he been able to harm the monster? There hadn’t been anything in the way. He doubted a sword would do much good either and he didn’t want to risk damaging it anyway, so he grabbed a wood ax from where it stood in the corner. It had been hidden by the fireplace from his vantage point on the stool. He was glad that he hadn’t noticed it during the heat of the fight earlier; otherwise, he might have tried to make for it and ended up killing Lel or Gorew with it. Lel is dead now anyway. He didn’t dwell on the thought.
He approached the doorway again and stopped several feet away. He had to cover his eyes from the brightness of the light flooding the ground outside as a ship flew by overhead. When the ship had passed, he shook his head to clear it as he stepped to the door. If he had heeded Ruder’s warning and left Neberan immediately, he wouldn’t have been in this predicament.
There were some bodies on the street, but it was clear. The Hunwei he saw were moving in a different direction, and the people he’d seen had disappeared. He crept out of the guardhouse and did his best to keep to the shadows.
Many of the buildings were on fire, and others had been destroyed. Smoke hung heavy in the air and in several places as he crept along, he struggled to breathe. He passed a burning home where the heat was so intense he had to run past it to avoid being scorched. He was worried that some wandering Hunwei may have spotted him, but he made it back to the shadows in safety. Several other buildings near the blaze were starting to burn as well. He sighed as he took in the ruin that used to be the prosperous town of Neberan.
At first, he was unconsciously keeping count of the bodies that he passed. When he realized what he was doing, he froze in front of a pile of corpses. He’d counted twenty-three dead and he’d only made it six or seven blocks. It struck him as odd that the bodies had been placed in a heap until he realized that the Hunwei had to have stacked them there as they searched for survivors.
Jorad was brought back to reality when he heard cries from behind and turned to find a group of people with Hunwei prodding them from the rear that was heading Jorad’s way. He didn’t have enough time to hide in a nearby building. Melyah! He needed to collect himself or he wouldn’t survive the night. What was he thinking, standing out in the open counting bodies? Not knowing what else to do, Jorad lay down beside the dead.
The Hunwei didn’t spot him but it took considerable effort for him not to move when he realized he was lying next to little Joney Beron, dead with a hole burned into his side. The kid couldn’t have been older than five or six. When they had gone, he got to his feet and followed. He hoped Soret hadn’t been taken captive, but if she had, he would do everything he could to rescue her.
He didn’t make it very far. The door of a shop opened in front of him and a Hunwei stepped out, ducking to make it through the doorway.
Without waiting, Jorad charged forward to close the gap and swung his ax into the Hunwei’s leg. The Hunwei tripped and fired at the same time. A fierce heat went by Jorad’s head as the blast missed him. He took another swing, this one aimed at the back of the Hunwei’s exposed neck. The ax glanced off, jarring his arms. As he swung repeatedly down onto the Hunwei, he danced out of the way of the blaster. It appeared that the Hunwei was enjoying this and it made a gurgling sound. Laughter?
Jorad brought the ax down on the Hunwei’s faceplate. It bounced harmlessly off but the laughter stopped. The Hunwei pushed to his feet and Jorad did the only sensible thing he could think to do. He ran.
For the first several blocks, he could hear the Hunwei chasing. Jorad ran faster. Buildings, fires, and corpses turned to a blur. His chest hurt and he began gasping for breath. After a few minutes, he’d managed to lose the Hunwei. At least he could run away. It wasn’t much, but it was something.
He came to a halt and ducked into the shadows beside some barrels to catch his breath. He took in his surroundings and realized that Soret’s place was just a couple blocks over. That would be his next stop. After that, he would find where the Hunwei were taking their captives.
He was taking a deep breath when he heard the sound of approaching people. A mob turned onto the street, running as if they’d just escaped. A man in the front slipped and fell. The people behind didn’t stop and he was trampled. Over the heads of the people, Jorad could see the Hunwei chasing behind. The mob, despite its frantic energy, was actually moving slower than he would have expected and the Hunwei chasing them didn’t have any trouble keeping up. Run faster! He thought.[_ Many of you can get away._] He didn’t dare yell the advice to them because he was in no condition to run again so soon after his last sprint.
Jorad held still as the mob went by, keeping his eyes peeled for Soret or Adar. He hadn’t seen either one of them by the time the mob had passed. He doubted Adar would have got himself caught up in a mob, so he’d been expecting to find Soret if he found anybody.
The Hunwei were close on the heels of the people, firing their blasters as they trotted behind the mob. An older man took a shot in the back and landed in the mud and the Hunwei trampled his body. When they’d gone, Jorad realized he knew the man. It was Rodd Gartel, Anny’s husband. He hoped that Anny was ok, but he couldn’t afford to mourn Rodd’s loss yet.
If any of the Hunwei noticed Jorad sitting in the shadows, they didn’t care to stop. It wasn’t until they’d been gone for awhile that he finally dared to take a breath. In all the confusion, he hadn’t realized that he’d been holding it.
A large coordinated volley of blasts echoed from the direction the mob had gone. It was punctured by screams and yells from the dying. Jorad gritted his teeth, but he was powerless to do anything. When he thought it was safe to move again, he crept in the direction of Soret’s home, praying to find her alive.
Jorad wasn’t sure how long it had been since he’d left the guardhouse. He’d lost track of any concept of time. The sky was cloudy and with the smoke from the burning town, he couldn’t tell where the moons were to give him any indication of how late it was.
When he turned the corner onto the street of the Tedenhel home, he cursed out loud. Most of the buildings on the block were on fire and in various states of destruction. The Tedenhel place was no exception. It looked as though an explosion had torn it apart, the remains were on fire.
Their home had been a two-story building, but in the dark, it was hard to make much sense of the mass of wood and flame. If anybody was in there, they were dead. A knot formed in his stomach and he hoped that when the attack happened Soret hadn’t been home. Even though he knew it was futile, he moved to the destroyed home and called out softly, hoping there weren’t any Hunwei nearby. As he’d expected, he was greeted with silence.
After that, he wasn’t certain how long he wandered until he found another group of people the Hunwei were herding. The smell and carnage of death surrounded him as he followed them from a safe distance and more than once he found himself jumping at nothing. He had never been so tired or paranoid. He was glad for the dark because it kept him hid, but he could already see that the sky to the east was growing lighter. It wouldn’t be much longer before he wouldn’t be able to hide in the shadows of the buildings that hadn’t been destroyed.
“Jorad over here!” a voice hissed at him from behind. Despite the continuing explosions, the quiet voice startled him. He approached it and found Wes crouching behind a barrel.
“Man am I glad to see you,” Wes said. “I thought I was the only one who hadn’t been caught.” Other than one of his big ears covered in blood, Wes appeared to be all right, and he wore a grim smile.
“Soret. Adar. Have you seen them?”
“No.” Wes’ smile disappeared. “But that’s a good thing, only people I’ve seen have been dead.”
“I’m going to the town square,” Jorad said, that appeared to be where the Hunwei had been herding their prisoners. He turned to go. “If I were you, I’d get out of town and get lost in the woods.”
“You crazy? Hell’s raining down from heaven. Makes ya wonder which god we pissed off, doesn’t it? We need to bolt.”
“Go.” Jorad didn’t have time to argue and didn’t stop when Wes grabbed his arm.
“They’ll take you too.”
Jorad didn’t answer as he shook off the young man’s grip and left. He didn’t make it very far before Wes had caught up to him. Without a word, Wes motioned for Jorad to continue.
A little while later, they found that the Hunwei had gathered a large crowd of captives at the town square. As they crouched in the shadows, Jorad surveyed the scene and tried not to let what he was seeing affect him. The bodies of the dead littering the ground reminded him of the streams of red fabric decorations the night of the wedding. He shuddered. He spent more time than necessary trying to spot Soret or Adar, but couldn’t find them among the living or the dead. Wes had finally prevailed in convincing him that they needed to leave right before the Hunwei ships began to land in the town square. After that, Jorad focused on the ships and tuned Wes out.
The Hunwei started by separating the crowd of people into groups. Men into one, women and children into the other. Jorad gripped the hilt of his sword as he watched the women and children being loaded into the ships, but knew that anything he might attempt would be foolish and left it in its sheath. Once a ship was full, it lifted into the sky. With a rush of air, they’d shoot straight up into the sky and then head north. Just like the ship he’d seen the day before and the shooting stars from the night of the wedding.
“What are they going to do with the men?” Wes asked.
Wes shook his head. Jorad couldn’t tell if Wes didn’t believe him or didn’t want to believe him.
“What do they want with the women and children?”
“I don’t know.” [_Probably food, _]Jorad thought. Some of the stories said that the Hunwei took people and raised them the same way that men did cows but he refrained from saying this aloud. Wes had probably heard the same thing, but he didn’t need to be reminded of the gruesome details.
Jorad continued to scan the crowd for Soret.
“There she is.” Wes pointed towards a group being herded into a ship on the other side of the square. Jorad looked where Wes pointed and recognized Carli Bruno. On more than one occasion, he’d mistaken her for Soret from behind. He’d learn to recognize the subtle difference in the shape of Carli’s head, the cut of her hair, and her slightly thinner figure.
“That’s Carli.” He watched as she boarded the ship, wishing he were able to do something to help her.
“Hey, you’re right, that is her.”
Jorad hadn’t seen one Hunwei corpse the whole evening, and he subconsciously massaged his shoulder as he remembered what it had been like crashing into the Hunwei at the guardhouse. If he had known he was charging into a boulder, he wouldn’t have been so cavalier.
“If you find Soret, what will you do?”
Jorad continued to scan the crowd as he didn’t answer.
“You can’t just go down there, it’s suicide!”
Jorad turned to Wes. “If I find her, don’t follow. Go south. I think the Hunwei have already been there, so it should be safer.”
Despite Jorad’s suicidal plan, the remaining women and children were herded onto the ships before he could find her. The men were agitated as the last ship prepared to leave. They had a good idea of what was coming next. During the boarding process, several had tried to escape, and they’d been shot. In the early morning light, Jorad noticed that a shot from a blaster distorted the air, leaving a trail behind as it went.
“We should go,” Wes said, a slight quaver in his voice.
Jorad didn’t answer. He wasn’t able to tear his eyes away from the scene unfolding before him. As the last ship took to the air, the Hunwei began firing into the men. The sound of screaming mixed with the blasts of those infernal weapons.
Wes pulled on Jorad’s arm, but he stayed in place. Where was Adar? Before he realized what he was doing, Jorad had stood and unsheathed his sword. He’d been so busy looking for Soret that he hadn’t given his father much thought. Adar wouldn’t have let himself be taken, would he? He might not have had a choice. There was no fighting those weapons.
Jorad recognized Adar’s voice and spun around, half expecting that Wes had managed to mimic his father, but it was indeed his father. He was covered in blood, his face was blackened, and his eyes were gleaming in the early morning light. A man ready to kill or willing to die, without hesitation.
“Glad to see you,” Adar said. “Soret’s safe. I sent her out with Karn first thing. They’re with Xarda by now.”
The relief that washed over Jorad filled him with shame. Men were dying, good men, and innocent women and children had been taken captive. He turned back to the massacre. “We can’t just leave them.”
“It’s that or go and die with them,” Adar said. “And if you’re stupid enough to try, I’ll knock you out. We don’t have time to waste; we still need to stop for our stuff at the boarding house. You’re needed in Rarbon; a stand here will do nothing.”
“It’s too late.” Jorad’s voice cracked. “I should have gone to Rarbon months ago.”
“Maybe, but do you have a better plan?”
“Hide,” Wes said. “Now!”
They ducked. One of the men from the crowd was running their way. Jorad didn’t recognize him, but the man had seen them and was yelling and waving as he ran in their direction. His head disappeared into a mist of blood and pieces of skull.
Adar was right, they couldn’t do anything. As Jorad turned his back to the massacre, he caught a glimpse of Vigorock glinting with the first light of day. If only they had more time, Jorad was sure they could have figured the tower out; perhaps the trip to Rarbon wouldn’t have been necessary if they had.
“Let’s go,” Jorad said.
“About bloody time.” Wes was already several steps ahead.
Several beads of sweat rolled into Jorad’s eyes, and he blinked, trying to get the stinging to go away. He wrapped several fingers of the hand he was using to hold his bow around the arrow he kept ready so that he could free up his other hand to wipe his forehead. While the bow wasn’t much use with the Hunwei, they’d had a close call with a group of marauding bandits several days ago. The bandits hadn’t been expecting a group of survivors from Neberan to be so well armed.
Jorad’s hand came away sweaty, but he was still perspiring, and several minutes later sweat ran into his eyes again. As he blinked through the sweat, he examined an opening in the forest to the meadow ahead. He almost wished that winter would come a little bit sooner. The heat was miserable, and his heavy backpack, sword, and arrow quiver weren’t helping matters. The sweat drizzled down his back, and his shirt was already wet. The forest was muggy, and there wasn’t as much as a breeze to help him cool down.
The heat was enough to drive a man insane. He could smell his body odor and wished that they had time for such luxuries as baths.
The clearing ahead was large enough that they’d stopped to observe it before crossing. There hadn’t been anything alarming to keep them from crossing, but the sheer openness of it gave them pause. Jorad wondered if it would ever be safe again to travel on the road. They were making good time to Zecarani considering that they’d covered most of the distance traveling through the woods. It had almost been a week since the attack on Neberan, and they were a little less than halfway to Zecarani.
“Nice day for a walk through hell,” Leron said. Jorad wasn’t sure if he was referring to the heat or the new reality they faced. Either way, Jorad agreed. It could have been a nice day if it weren’t for both those things.
Leron’s grim face matched what Jorad was feeling, but Jorad cringed at how loud Leron’s voice sounded in the quiet of the forest. If Adar had been here, he would have admonished Leron for speaking too loudly. Jorad considered reminding Leron but thought better of it. He’d already warned Leron earlier this morning. Maybe one of these times, Jorad would take Adar’s place in the front patrol. Adar would shut Leron up quick.
After their frantic flight from Neberan, they’d broken into three traveling groups. Adar and Karn ahead, Tere and Tarner behind, the rest were with Jorad in between. Tere and Adar were taking great pains to avoid one another, and both appeared to be more concerned about putting distance between the two of them than anything else. While their arrangement had several benefits, it had one main purpose. If they came across any Hunwei, it increased the chances that one of the parties would be able to escape. Everybody agreed that getting word of the attack to Rarbon was more important than anything else.
“Best enjoy it,” Wes whispered cheerfully. He was sitting with his back to a large fallen log, and his eyes were closed. “Could be our last.”
“Quiet!” Xarda hissed, her voice barely above a whisper. She was sitting on the same log and leaned down to smack him. It hadn’t been gentle, but Wes took it in stride. He’d taken to Xarda and wasn’t usually more than several steps away from her. Jorad had overheard Karn teasing her about Wes yesterday, and she hadn’t taken it well. In retrospect, her irritation was quite comical. At the time, dusk had just been setting in, and Jorad had been more concerned about surviving through the night.
“Don’t talk like that.” Xarda didn’t look at Soret who was sitting a little further down on the log. She didn’t need to; everybody knew it had been for Soret’s benefit. Nobody else in the group had lost anyone in the attack.
Jorad went to Soret. She was staring at nothing and had a faraway look on her face. He touched her arm. “You ok?”
Soret had her hair pulled back into a ponytail, and there was a sheen of sweat on her face with a smudge of dirt underneath her chin. It didn’t appear she’d heard the exchange between Wes and Xarda. The daggers she now wore on her belt comforted Jorad. It wouldn’t be much good against the Hunwei, but out here Hunwei were only one of the dangerous things they might come across. It had taken some convincing to get her to take his daggers, and it hadn’t been until he’d gotten Xarda involved in the conversation that Soret had relented. He’d felt bad for pushing her so hard, but it had been the right thing to do. She couldn’t be left unarmed.
“I’m making it,” she said, her eyes coming into focus as she looked at him.
Soret hadn’t said much since Neberan and Jorad still hadn’t been able to get the whole story from her. Based on what little he’d pieced together from her and the others, he assumed she’d witnessed the destruction of her home and the deaths of her parents. Sometime after that, she’d been taken captive and had been rescued by Adar.
At night, when Jorad wasn’t on guard duty, he could sometimes hear her sobbing as she lay beside him. He didn’t know what to do or say. He had tried several times to comfort her, but the words all came out wrong. Eventually, he’d given up and kept by her side as much as possible, hoping that was enough.
“There hasn’t been any sign of pursuit for days,” Leron said again, his voice closer to a whisper this time. “We got away,”
“They haven’t cared to chase us.” Jorad wiped his brow again. Confounded sweat.
The clearing had opened suddenly when they had reached the top of an incline; the uphill hike was part of the reason why they’d waited so long at the clearing. Several of the others had needed the rest but it was past time to get going. They’d been staring at it now for close to fifteen minutes. It was wide enough that they would be exposed for a quarter mile while they crossed. If the Hunwei were looking for survivors, Jorad didn’t relish being on the field when one of their ships flew by overhead.
The grass in the meadow was waist high and the forest at the other end was much thicker than the trees currently around them. A whole army of Ou Qui could be hiding in either the grass or the trees. It was possible that they could walk right by the Ou Qui and never know it. Jorad looked for bushes that looked too bushy, but nothing stood out.
“Think Adar and Tere might be willing to let up a bit?” Wes asked. “It’s been three days since we’ve seen a ship.”
“No,” Jorad said, a touch of annoyance in his voice. Wes just didn’t get it. This was their new way of life now. “And you better not start slacking either.” He waved his hand to gather everybody’s attention. The only person that didn’t look his way was Lous. That man was strange. Lous rarely spoke. Jorad had overheard Tere muttering about Lous’ crazy imagination more than once.
“Anyway, I think we’re safe to move.” Jorad shifted his pack and moved his sword to a more comfortable position. “I’ll go first. Wait till I’ve made it across.” He gave Soret what he hoped was a confident smile. “See ya soon.”
Jorad took several steps into the meadow and stopped. He could hear those behind him holding their breath, waiting for something to attack him. When nothing happened, he started moving again, careful to keep his bow in front of him with the arrow at the ready. The long grass that reached his elbows was doing little to ease his mind and as he made his way across, he looked for signs of life.
Even though he couldn’t find tracks indicating that Adar and Karn had passed this way, Jorad was certain they’d crossed here. Adar tended to move in a straight line until something got in his way and the meadow was too wide to waste time by going around. When Jorad had made it to the other side without any problems, he gave the signal for the others to follow.
He scanned the tree line and recognized one of Adar’s markings on a pine tree at eye level. He was right, they’d come this way. The small carving was of a cross, with a slash underneath. It was a warning of danger ahead and an instruction to wait. Cursing under his breath, he brought up his bow and arrow, putting a small amount of tension on the string.
The others were already too far into the clearing to signal a return to the other side. Leron was almost too him, the fool had run the whole way. Jorad would have preferred Leron to stick with them, but it was too late now.
As Jorad’s level of alertness increased, he noticed that there were tracks on the ground that didn’t belong to Adar or Karn; he knew their boot prints well enough by now he could tell at a glance. As he examined them more closely, he determined that there were a great number of them. Because the boot print wasn’t one he recognized, he guessed that a band of Ou Qui had been through here recently. Jorad wished he had noticed what Ruder’s track had looked like. He’d been so enthralled with the man’s disguise that he had noticed little else.
As he tried to guess how many Ou Qui could be hiding nearby, he considered taking his sword out and stabbing it into the ground. Adar had known a little about and was able to explain Ruder’s actions when he’d stabbed both of his short swords into the ground in the woods of Neberan. The Ou Qui were serious about their customs. It was apparently a great crime among their people to kill a person who’d disarmed in that fashion. Jorad thought better of it and decided he would rather have his sword in hand, in the event they needed to flee.
The air here was a bit cooler because of the thicker foliage. A small breeze rustled the branches of the tree up ahead and he turned and regarded it suspiciously. If the other tree limbs around him wouldn’t have started to quiver from the breeze at the same time, he would have signaled the others to stop while he investigated.
Leron approached. “I wasn’t supposed to come on this trip, you know.”
Jorad noticed with chagrin that Leron was barely sweating. It made Jorad want to give Leron some of the rations Jorad was carrying. “Look alive, there’s Ou Qui about.” Jorad continued to keep his eyes peeled, afraid something would happen to the people in the meadow.
“I took my father’s place when he broke his foot.” Leron held his bow up, but didn’t look alarmed. “People are counting on you to make a claim, you know that, right? Most believe that Adar fled to protect you and always meant to send you back. They know your father would never abandon them.”
Jorad wasn’t surprised to hear this, but it increased his anxiety. He’d already been feeling a lot of pressure because he’d assumed this already, but there was a big difference between knowing and assuming. It felt as though the large weight pressing down had just doubled.
“Protect me from what?” Jorad asked, his curiosity getting the best of him. Xarda was walking beside Soret, whispering something into her ear. He was glad that Xarda was trying to comfort her, but he wished they would hurry.
Leron looked surprised. “You don’t already know? Abel. His jealousy is the stuff of legends! Some say he murdered your mother. Many fear for the life of Cor.”
People thought Jorad’s grandfather had killed his mother? Certainly, that couldn’t be true. Adar hadn’t talked about Abel much, but Jorad had never heard anything like this.
“Cor?” Jorad asked as he turned toward a bird that took off from the branches of a nearby tree. He didn’t get a good look but was certain that the bird was a crow. He exhaled and tried to relax. Worry would cause him to make mistakes.
“Abel’s other son.”
That got Jorad’s attention. “Adar has a brother?”
“Abel remarried shortly after you guys left.”
Jorad felt a surge of hope. Was there somebody else who could make a claim if something happened to him? The hope was fleeting, though. Cor couldn’t possibly be old enough. “What is he, fifteen?”
It would be five years before Cor was able to make a claim but it was good to know there was somebody else if Jorad failed. The only problem was that the war would be over by the time Cor was old enough.
Lous was the first to join them, looking as aloof as ever. He was closely followed by the others. Jorad pointed out Adar’s warning. While they waited, Xarda and Lous both drew their swords. Wes pulled out a dagger, and Soret got closer to Jorad.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Jorad mumbled so only she could hear. She didn’t say anything. Her eyes were big with fear. He let go of the arrow and patted her on the shoulder. “It’ll be okay.” As soon as he said it, he wished he hadn’t. It wouldn’t ever be okay again.
When Tere and Tarner caught up to them a few minutes later, they noticed Adar’s warning carved into the tree. Without speaking, they drew their weapons as well.
When the silence started to become overwhelming, Jorad had to restrain from pacing. The others had gravitated to hiding places among the thick foliage, and he didn’t want to be the one to give away their position. Xarda was several feet away, crouching beside a bush and she was looking more concerned by the moment. Jorad knew her well enough now to know that it was for Karn.
It was almost an hour later, and Jorad had been about to suggest that he and Tere scout ahead when Adar and Karn appeared. Adar was covered with sweat, but Jorad knew that he’d be able to go for hours still. There was a smudge of blood on Adar’s face, but otherwise, he looked the way he had when they’d started earlier in the morning. Karn was covered with perspiration as well and looked a touch more fatigued than Adar.
“We’re smack dab in the middle of several traveling bands of Ou Qui,” Adar said in answer to the questions he expected. “They’re moving the same direction as us and traveling fast. Their bands are much larger than normal; otherwise, we wouldn’t have noticed they were here. We’ll need to travel more closely together.”
Soret paled and Wes muttered something about wanting to keep both his ears. The others took the news with stoic resolve. The Ou Qui were skilled warriors, and there were many stories of their exploits.
Tere’s face tightened when he looked at Adar, but he kept silent. Jorad wasn’t certain if Tere was bothered because Adar had assumed leadership of their group or if it was Tere’s hatred that was keeping him agitated.
Jorad hadn’t stopped scanning their surroundings when Adar and Karn returned, and he noticed that there was a bush rustling nearby. There were some trees in between him and the bush and he might not have noticed it if he hadn’t been looking that direction at the right time. This time, he was certain that the rustling wasn’t being caused by the wind.
“We have company,” Jorad pointed towards the moving bush as a figure came out of the underbrush and was followed by several others. They were all dressed in the same manner Ruder had been. Tree branches and grass were woven into their disguises. Their camouflage was incredible, and Jorad couldn’t help but think about how useful camouflage like that would be. If he could hide that well, Hunwei would walk right past him and never know he was there.
When he realized that they’d been here for over an hour and the Ou Qui had been watching them the whole time, he increased the tension in his bow. Ruder hadn’t wished them any harm, but that wasn’t a guarantee that these would feel the same way.
“Lower your weapons,” Adar said while looking at Jorad and the others in turn, “the Ou Qui love to fight. If they were going to attack, we wouldn’t have known until it was over. They want to talk.”
Tere glowered at Adar. “Thought you were tracking them. You’re losing your skill.”
“These came from behind.” Adar drew his sword and stuck it in the ground. Beside it, he set his quiver of arrows and his bow. He walked through the trees until he had closed about half the distance between the Ou Qui and their party.
Jorad removed his own weapons, leaving only his hidden daggers and caught up to Adar. His father turned as he approached but didn’t say anything. Jorad was glad Adar didn’t try to get him to turn back. He wasn’t about to miss another opportunity to study their camouflage close up.
“Better hope you’re right,” Jorad said, once he’d caught up to where Adar was standing.
“I don’t recall inviting you.” Adar folded his arms and waited.
The strange men didn’t move for several long minutes, and Jorad was looking back at their own group, checking on Soret when one of the men started to approach. He removed his short swords and stuck them into the ground before coming over to meet them. His camouflage wasn’t as intricate as Ruder’s, but the arrogance, which was typical of the Ou Qui, was evident. He acted as if he had an army at his back. Upon reflection, Jorad realized that the man probably did.
The Ou Qui stopped when he was a few steps away, and they stood in silence for several moments. Jorad examined the man closely, trying to learn more about the disguise. He remembered how part of Ruder’s disguise came off as he moved around. This Ou Qui’s camouflage didn’t look as fresh, and it struck Jorad that the gear required constant upkeep. They were probably always replenishing it with fresh branches, leaves, and grass. As he examined it, he noticed the same netting he’d seen in Ruder’s disguise. He also noticed strips of dark colored fabric. It varied in color from dark earthy green and blacks to several other lighter tan and brown colors as well. The darker colors were towards the bottom of the man, while the lighter colors were towards the top. Jorad was about to open his mouth when the Ou Qui spoke.
“I’m Kinib Jemmir,” the Ou Qui said.
“I’m Adar Rahid, this is my son Jorad.”
Jorad was surprised that Adar had used their proper last name. In fact, Jorad couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever been introduced as a Rahid. He supposed it didn’t matter now since the people they’d been hiding from had found them. He wasn’t uncomfortable, but he did realize that it was going to take some time to adjust to openly being a Rahid. Had there been a flash of recognition on Kinib’s face when he heard the name Rahid?
“When was Neberan attacked?”
Jorad was taken aback. Ruder had asked the same question, but that now seemed part of another lifetime. So much had happened since then that it felt like it was years ago.
“Nearly a week ago now,” Adar said. “When was Wasat attacked?”
The Ou Qui grimaced, or at least it looked like a grimace. The mud on his face made it hard to tell. It was either that or a smile. Jorad doubted Kinib had much to smile about.
“You are well informed. Wasat was indeed attacked several weeks ago. The ships that took your people went north too?”
“Yes, all the ones we saw.”
“In the past, my people have been at war with all and it kept us strong. While we hunt the Hunwei, we can’t afford to be distracted. Please accept my gifts and promise. While we are in your lands hunting the Hunwei, we won’t harm you.”
It happened fast. One moment, there was nothing. The next, two black handled daggers quivered in the ground before their feet. Without hesitation, Adar responded in kind with one of his own daggers. He looked at Jorad until Jorad contributed one as well. Jorad missed sticking the blade into the ground, but a patch of grass kept it from skidding. He felt a little embarrassed but put the thought out of his mind.
“Please accept our offering of peace.” The Ou Qui put his hands out, both palms up.
“We accept.” Adar picked up one of the daggers. “We promise not to attack but cannot speak for the other inhabitants of this land.”
“Are you not a Rahid?”
Adar nodded. “We can speak for Rarbon, but not for this land.”
“So be it. Our truce stands with all those from Rarbon.”
While the Ou Qui picked up his new daggers, Jorad retrieved the remaining Ou Qui dagger. When he pulled the blade up, it was covered in mud. He wiped it on his pants, only to realize that it wasn’t mud. Jorad examined the blade. The black residue that covered it seemed likely to prevent him from using the blade to cut anything. He tested his finger on it, and sure enough, the residue made it quite dull. Why cover a weapon with something that made it useless?
“Where are you heading?” Adar asked.
“North,” Kinib said. “We mean to get our people back.”
Adar started to speak and then changed his mind as he looked at his dagger. “Can this weapon kill them?”
Kinib shrugged. “Depends on the man.” He left and returned to his short swords. Several other figures moved to join Kinib. One of them was smaller than the others but still dressed in the peculiar Ou Qui camouflage. That figure looked curiously at them. As Jorad watched the child disappear, he couldn’t help but wonder how many just like him had been captured by the Hunwei and taken north. The child reminded him of Joney Baron; it was hard not to imagine the Ou Qui child suffering the same fate.
“We’re not the only ones that prepared for the return of the Hunwei,” Adar said. Prepared was a generous word, considering the Neberan massacre, but Jorad didn’t argue. Neither the Ou Qui nor anybody else could fight the Hunwei. They could only run or die.
“You don’t believe this dagger could kill a Hunwei do you?” Jorad asked as he peered closer at the blade of his new dagger. It reminded him of tar, only it was hardened, and Jorad doubted there was anything he could do to get rid of the residue. With the two he’d given to Soret and the one he’d just given to the Ou Qui, he was down to one functioning dagger now.
“If one get’s close enough for us to use it, we’ll be desperate enough to try it.” Adar smiled grimly. It was his usual tight smile; it was gone just as quick as it registered.
Jorad welcomed the chilly afternoon air. It was a good deal better than the heat wave they’d had most of the week. It was nicer for traveling, and he was much more alert. It had been overcast for most of the day and had rained several times. The breeze that ruffled his hair had a cold edge to it, finding its way underneath and through his light wool jacket. It smelled like rain again, and he wouldn’t be surprised if he’d soon feel drops on his head.
The clouds were a bit darker than this morning, and he was beginning to wonder if winter was going to come early this year. He buttoned his jacket and wished he’d thought to grab his gloves in his hurried flight from Neberan. Maybe he’d have an opportunity to pick up another pair in Zecarani if it was still there.
It had been four days since the encounter with the Ou Qui, and they’d started stopping for the entire night to rest. Adar didn’t trust anybody but Jorad to stand guard while he slept, so Jorad was running with only a half a night’s sleep. He yawned, but he wasn’t that tired, splitting the watch was normal, even when they traveled alone. It was something he’d been accustomed to for many years.
Adar had become concerned that they weren’t moving fast enough and the morning before last, he’d announced that they would start using the road to travel. This had been met with enthusiasm by most of the group. Tere had opposed it, but Jorad was certain he’d done so because it had been Adar’s proposal. Everybody was anxious to put Neberan as far behind them as they could. Jorad estimated they were only a couple of days from Zecarani and he was beginning to think they’d make it without encountering any more Hunwei. At the moment, he was trying hard not to think about what would come after Zecarani.
Holding his bow and arrow with one hand, he reached beneath his pack and knuckled his stiff back as best he could. He hadn’t realized that he’d been sleeping on rocks until morning. They hadn’t been obvious in the dark and had been covered by dirt that had shifted as he slept. Perhaps he’d just been too tired to notice as he fell asleep. Either way, he was paying for his carelessness now. Stretching, he tried to ease the pain, but there was a limit to how much you could stretch while wearing a pack, sword and arrow quiver.
Adar gave Jorad a grim smile. For Adar, the coming of the Hunwei hadn’t changed things much; it only served to confirm the things he’d already been doing. Jorad couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen Adar happy. There had been a few times when he’d seen his father relax enough to laugh, but not too long afterward, his grimness always returned. Jorad returned the grin with one of his own, hoping that he appeared more cheerful than he felt.
They had traveled through the morning without incident. Now, in the early afternoon, Adar and Jorad were in front scouting. It was the first time Jorad had taken a regular scouting rotation because Soret was doing better and starting to move past her grief.
Up ahead, the road turned around a bend. They’d been following it as it made its way around a mountain to the west since morning. For a brief moment, the sun peeked out, and Jorad smiled when the light touched his face. He closed his eyes, glad for the extra warmth.
When it was gone, he was surprised to see that Adar had stopped a few paces back and was staring into the trees. Jorad yawned, trying to massage his back again. Adar stared a few moments longer into the woods and then moved off the road motioning for Jorad to follow. Silently using a dagger, Adar made a notch in a tree that would be seen by those behind. Jorad became more alert. It was a sign for danger. Ou Qui or Hunwei?
Adar motioned to the woods between them and the mountain, indicating that they were going to move in that direction. They moved slowly, keeping behind trees, shrubs, and other cover.
Half an hour later, Jorad crouched uncomfortably behind a small tree while he waited for Adar, who was ahead and had not moved in some time. Adar was peering out from underneath a willow tree as he took cover in its low hanging branches. He turned and made a motion with his hand by extending his thumb and little finger. This was a Radim sign to ready his bow with an arrow, a signal that Adar had given him hundreds of times in practice.
Jorad brought up his bow and pulled the string back a little ways. Adar already had his sword out and motioned for Jorad to move around the other side of the willow tree.
So much for hoping to make it Zecarani without seeing any more Hunwei, Jorad thought. He moved as quietly as he could, taking care with every footstep, and keeping as close to the branches as he could without disturbing them.
When he was in place, he had to force himself to start breathing again, but he was able to keep it shallow and silent. Thirty feet in front of where they hid were four Hunwei that had their backs to them. This was his first experience seeing Hunwei during the daytime. He’d often heard it said that daylight chases away fear but that wasn’t the case with the Hunwei. They towered over Jorad by a solid three feet, and their shoulders were wider than Karn’s by half. The armor they wore was colored a dull black.
Jorad was reminded of the first Hunwei he’d attacked. How his shoulder had hurt afterward. How he’d been unable to do any damage to the Hunwei. He thought of the dagger the Ou Qui had given to him and wondered if it could work on the Hunwei. If he got close enough to use it, he wouldn’t have long to live if it failed.
As the Hunwei snarled, Jorad realized his grip on the bow with his left hand was in danger of breaking the arrow against it. Instead of trying to push away his fear, Jorad did as Adar had taught him and let the fear stay but he ignored it. Or rather he tried to.
Jorad took several slow breaths. Adar wasn’t foolish enough to attack when he didn’t have any idea about the tactical situation. Besides, they already knew that their weapons would do little good anyway. Sure enough, Adar signaled to fall back just as they heard noise from the direction of the road.
It sounded like people arguing. Adar grimaced as Jorad cursed under his breath and thought of Soret. Why were they here? One of them should have seen the notch in the tree. Jorad couldn’t make out what they were saying, but they might as well have been screaming at one another.
The Hunwei were now gazing towards the road, and one of them had readied his blaster. The others followed. Adar sheathed his sword, pulled out his bow, and notched an arrow. He looked at Jorad and nodded. It would do little good other than causing a distraction, but maybe it would give Soret and the others a chance. Melyah take the Hunwei, Jorad hoped she’d be okay. He singled out a Hunwei and aimed at the gap between the helmet and the body armor as there was no sense wasting a chance, maybe it would get through.
The whistle of Adar’s arrow sounded at the same time Jorad let his loose. He didn’t take his eyes off the Hunwei as he let another arrow fly. Both arrows flew true but—as expected—instead of piercing through the chinks in the armor, they bounced off the Hunwei skin. The Hunwei that his first arrow hit turned in time for the second to bounce off his face. Melyah! It had bounced right off his eye. Even though Jorad had been expecting that, it was still shocking to see.
“Run!” Adar cried. The order wasn’t needed as Jorad had already turned and was sprinting away, praying as he did that Soret and the others would be okay. They’d done what they could to distract the Hunwei, now it was in the hands of the gods.
Jorad slung his bow over his shoulder as he ran. The arrows, like his dagger and the ax, had bounced off the Hunwei as if their skin itself had been made of armor. An arrow had been turned away by a bloody eye. If they were that tough, why did they bother to wear armor at all?
As Jorad passed a tree, it burst into flames, and a hole the size of his head emerged in the trunk. Adar sprinted ahead and turned up towards the mountain. As Jorad followed, the full gravity of their situation fell upon him. They were going to die, and the certainty filled him with dread.
More trees around him burst into flames, and a blast of heat rushed over his head. He ducked without thinking and chanced a look back. The Hunwei were right behind, and his eyes were drawn to one pointing a blaster at him. The Hunwei pressed a lever, and a blast exploded from the end.
Jorad hit the ground as the blast went just over his head, singeing his hair on its way. Scrambling back to his feet, he plunged ahead and hoped that they could outrun the Hunwei. Their armor should slow them down.
Several minutes later, he came across Adar leaning up against a tree trying to catch his breath. Jorad slowed to a stop while gulping down air in great heaving gasps. The Hunwei weren’t visible, but he could hear crashing coming their way. At most, they had a few minutes. He was glad that they were able to outrun them. Whether it was because of the dense forest or the weight of their armor, he didn’t know.
“We need to get to higher ground.” Adar panted.
“We’ll end up like a treed cat.”
“I want to see what happens if we can push one off a cliff. Maybe we can crush one with a rock. Besides, with all these hills, we have a better chance of hiding.”
Jorad thought Adar might be joking, but one look at Adar’s face showed he wasn’t. They were facing certain death, and he wanted to test the vulnerabilities of their armor, never mind their blasters.
“My arrow bounced off that Hunwei’s eye.”
“They’ve got to have weaknesses, this isn’t magic. Come on, we have to keep going up. If they get close, try the Ou Qui dagger.”
“Suicide.” Jorad gulped for air. “This is suicide.”
Adar grinned, if Jorad didn’t know any better Adar almost looked happy. “This isn’t the first time we’ve danced with death.”
“Hopefully, it won’t be the last.”
“Pray to the gods.”
The afternoon air felt heavy with the potential for rain. The feeling had been getting worse for hours and Soret just wanted it to rain so the feeling would pass. There had been several small showers earlier in the morning, but the afternoon clouds had become worse without a shred of precipitation. The anticipation was wearing on nerves that were already so frayed that she couldn’t stand even a single strand more of additional anxiety. She wished that the rain would just come.
Today was the first day since the loss of her parents that she’d felt like she might be able to return to something like her normal self. The guilt she’d felt about the arguments she’d had with her parents had subsided, and the pain of their deaths had been replaced by a dull ache that she was certain would return whenever she thought about them.
She wasn’t feeling hope for the future, though. The reality of their new situation was starting to sink in. It was a topic everybody avoided, but was evident on everybody’s mind. The life they’d known before was gone. The life they had ahead of them was unknown.
Soret was glad for the strong presence of Adar, Jorad, Xarda and the others. If they hadn’t pushed her to keep going in the days after the attack on Neberan, she would have probably found a comfortable tree and curled up, waiting to die.
She took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to kindle some hope. It was nice to be traveling on the road. She’d always thought that she enjoyed walking through the woods, but the last week had taught her otherwise. Having a maintained road to follow was a luxury that she was doing her best to enjoy. It might not last long. The slightest hint of the Hunwei would send them back into the woods.
There was a shout from somebody up ahead. To Soret’s surprise, it sounded like Leron and Wes were arguing. There wasn’t anything alarming about either of their actions, and it was evident that they were horsing around. The sudden sounds of their jostling filled her with fear. Those two should know better. The Hunwei could be anywhere.
“I’m going to kill them,” Xarda said, storming past Soret with Karn and Lous beside her. Xarda and Karn were carrying their bows with arrows notched. Lous held several daggers. All of the Radim had been traveling with some manner of weapon always at the ready.
Soret ran after them, not wanting to be away from the main group. By the time she caught up, Xarda was chastising Wes and Leron, not bothering to notice how loud she was talking. Her voice carried through the air and heightened Soret’s unease. Xarda needed to quiet down.
Soret looked around the trees, trying to spy signs of trouble and hoping everything would remain quiet. There was a freshly made notch in a nearby tree.
Her mouth went dry, it looked like the warning that Adar had carved into the tree the day they’d run into the Ou Qui again.
“Xarda,” Soret hissed, pointing at the tree. Xarda stopped mid sentence when she saw where Soret was pointing. The others looked as well and their attitudes changed in an instant. Both Leron and Wes, who only moments before had been belligerent, changed their tune. Leron pulled out his sword while Wes fumbled for a dagger. Xarda brought her arrow up and ordered everybody to get under cover.
Soret had only taken several steps toward the trees when the sound of small explosions reached her ears. She recognized them. Hunwei blasters. Melyah, she thought, they’ve killed us all. As she continued to run for the trees, she noticed that Xarda was taking aim with her arrow. Soret turned to see that a Hunwei was approaching. Xarda’s arrow glanced off the Hunwei without harm; it was followed by several more. Soret didn’t see the source of the other arrows, but she assumed that Karn had shot some as well.
“Soret, get down,” Xarda yelled.
Soret, hearing her name had turned to look at Xarda and tripped, falling to the ground. Her hands took the brunt of it, but she fell into a patch of mud that had formed during the rainstorms earlier in the morning. There was heat as a blast from the Hunwei went over her head. She exhaled. Saved by luck.
The Hunwei that had aimed at her turned his attention elsewhere and fired again. Soret tried to get up and run, but she couldn’t move. Wes and Leron had already disappeared into the forest. The same feeling of helplessness she had the day Neberan was attacked, fell onto her like a bag of bricks. It became hard to breathe. She needed to run.
As she lay paralyzed, the Hunwei fired again. His aim was true, and Lous went down with a hole in his chest. Tears welled up in Soret’s eyes as the fear tore at her. She was going to die. She didn’t blame Wes or Leron for running away. It was the only sensible thing to do. There was a war cry and the next thing she knew, Karn had charged into the Hunwei and knocked him to the ground.
“Hurry,” said Xarda from behind. Tugging on Soret’s arm. Soret was amazed at how in control Xarda was of her emotions. The man she loved was charging a Hunwei and could die, but Xarda was trying to save Soret’s life instead of worrying about him.
The shame that enveloped Soret spurred her to action. She sprung to her feet and followed Xarda into the woods. She looked back in time to notice that Karn had knocked over the Hunwei and then immediately dashed away. The Hunwei was just sitting up as Soret followed Xarda into the woods. She’d never stopped to think about what Xarda represented because she’d been so overwhelmed with the loss of her parents. Xarda was strong like Adar, Karn, and Jorad. She fought as well as them and controlled her emotions, even when the man she loved was putting his life on the line.
It was a new reality, and that meant it was time for Soret to face it and make the changes necessary to survive. For the first time since the death of her parents, Soret felt something very much like hope. Xarda represented to her a pathway forward. If Xarda could do it, so could she.
The sun shone through the ever-darkening clouds, and Jorad was surprised to see that it was already so low in the sky. They only had a few hours of daylight left. Truth be told, Jorad was surprised that they were still both alive. Attacking the Hunwei had been a stupid thing to do. He only hoped that the others had been given a fighting chance by their brash action. With the brief glimpse of the sun gone, Jorad turned his attention back down the hill, careful to keep his head low.
Any minute now.
He was crouched behind a rock with Adar at his side. Broken rock covered the steep decline before them and disappeared into the forest. His back was starting to ache, and one of his legs would likely fall asleep soon, but he didn’t dare move. There was movement in the trees below. He strained his ears, he could just make out the sound of the Hunwei moving between the trees, but he couldn’t tell if there was more than one.
If there was only one, they were going to put Adar’s crazy plan into action. If there were more, they’d have to run again. The Hunwei walked out of the trees and sniffed the air. Could it smell them? Jorad hadn’t anticipated that. The grizzled gray face of the creature was visible even at this distance, and his bright orange eyes scanned the hillside looking for them.
“We’ll have one shot,” Adar said, his breath stank.
“This isn’t going to work.”
“There’s just the one, and if it doesn’t, we’ll run away and try something different.”
Jorad grunted softly.
The Hunwei followed their trail, up the steep hill, moving slower than before. It wasn’t clear if he knew they were here or if the hill was slowing him down.
Soret was out there with little for protection. The image of a Hunwei blasting a hole into her chest came unbidden, and he tried with little success to push it away. He tensed, hoping he’d see her again, hoping the distraction had worked and she and the others had gotten away. For all he knew, an army of Hunwei stood between them now.
“Stick to the plan!” Adar whispered. It took Jorad a second to recognize the source of Adar’s worry. Jorad had gripped his sword hilt; he relaxed and moved his hand back to the rock without comment.
“On my mark,” Adar whispered.
Jorad readied himself. They’d tested the rock earlier to make sure that they could push it down. It was going to be a struggle, but they should be able to move it. The Hunwei still followed in their tracks. That would be the rock’s path on the way down.
“Now,” Adar said.
They pushed against the rock, but it barely moved. It was heavier than they’d estimated.
“Again.” They pushed repeatedly, and each time the rock seemed to move a bit further, but they still hadn’t come close to pushing it over.
“We need to run, he’s too close,” Jorad said.
They continued to push, and Jorad was wondering how long it would be before the Hunwei noticed them, when there was a loud clap, and the ground exploded in front of the rock, answering his question. The blast from the Hunwei loosened the rock, and one more push sent it over.
Jorad lost his footing and slid down the hill face first after the bouncing boulder. As he tried to stop, digging in his hands and feet as best he could into the loose rock, he caught a glimpse of the boulder as it fell towards the Hunwei who still had his blaster aimed up at them.
The rock hit the Hunwei at the same moment he fired several shots, one shot hit the rock and the other continued on to Jorad. Having slid to a halt sideways on the slope, Jorad screamed in pain as the blast grazed him. Blinking back tears, he touched his lower back. He withdrew his hand at the flash of pain. Blisters were already forming, and part of his shirt was burned away, melted into his skin. He got to his feet and found that despite the searing pain he was able to move.
Adar ran past him, down the hill.
“Wait!” Jorad cried. “He’ll kill you.” Then he saw what had happened. The boulder had hit the Hunwei, sending him to the bottom of the hill but the blaster hadn’t tumbled down the mountain after the Hunwei. Adar neared the blaster, but he was moving too fast. He tried to slide to a halt but missed and plummeted down the hill.
Jorad walked down the slope. Every step hurt. When he picked up the blaster, his back felt like it was on fire. As he straightened, he lost his balance and slipped down the hill. He gripped the blaster while he rolled, his back wrenching with pain. The string of his bow snapped, and it fell away from where he’d temporarily slung it on his shoulder.
At the bottom, Jorad lurched to his feet and fell on his face, the weapon flying out of his hands. He took a breath. Then another. Crawling forward he reached the blaster, picked it up and held it like the Hunwei did. It felt awkward, not at all the way a weapon should.
Adar was swinging away at the Hunwei with his sword, who was parrying the blows with his armored arms. Every hit rang out as if the armor was a bell and Adar’s sword the hammer. The Hunwei grabbed the sword with his gloved hands. In response, Adar jumped back pulling the sword away and attacked again.
Jorad leveled the blaster at the Hunwei and pulled the lever as he’d seen the Hunwei do, nothing happened. He tried repeatedly. The blasts of fire he’d been expecting didn’t come.
“Melyah!” He threw down the weapon, unsheathed his sword and charged.
Jorad thrust his sword into the face of the Hunwei, it jarred in his hands, and he nearly lost his grip. The point of the blade stopped on the Hunwei’s face without doing any harm. The Hunwei bared his teeth and let out a howl through his glistening fangs. Jorad thought of the Ou Qui dagger but didn’t dare let go of his sword. The dagger was blunt; there was no way he was trading his sword for that.
“He’s calling to his companions. We need to run!” Jorad hit the Hunwei again.
“The blaster. It’s our only chance.” Adar was attacking the Hunwei’s legs now, testing for weakness. “He’s just playing with us.”
“I already tried the weapon. It didn’t work.” Jorad began beating down the back of the Hunwei. Every hit seemed to be hitting just above the creature. He increased the ferocity of his attack but to no avail.
“Keep him distracted, I’ll try the blaster.” Adar stepped out of reach. The Hunwei made to follow, but Jorad jumped into his way. When the Hunwei saw where Adar was going, he slapped away Jorad’s sword and charged past.
“Adar he’s coming. Run!”
Adar picked up the blaster and took off into the trees with the Hunwei close on his heels. Jorad gasped for breath as he followed.
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Dan Decker lives in Utah with his wife. He has a law degree and spends as much time as he can outdoors. You can learn more about upcoming novels at dandeckerbooks.com.
Adar Rahid and his son Jorad have been on the run for fifteen years, chased by servants of Adarâ€™s father who are intent on finding and killing Adar. Even while a fugitive, Adar continues to search for the secrets of their forefathers because he fervently believes that an ancient alien race known as the Hunwei are about to attack. When Adar stumbles upon large cloaked creatures in the woods, he determines that the Hunwei have returned and that drastic action needs to be taken. Just as Adar and Jorad are leaving town to seek out an ancient weapon, men sent from Adarâ€™s father show up to kill him. Readers are taken on an adventure as the Hunwei attack and a father and son struggle to find a way to fight back in this tale of epic fantasy and science fiction. This action packed story is the first eighteen chaptersÂ of the War of the Fathers. Pick up your copy today!