Authors: Amanda Young,Raymond Young Jr.
“In that case,” Lynnalin stood and walked over to Marcy, “take this. It’s a scroll for a spell to influence people’s minds and make them open to suggestions. I bought it years ago without realizing the spell had to be sung. I can’t carry a tune to save my life, but you may be able to use it to make someone view you as a friend instead of a threat or a target.”
“Thank you,” Marcy accepted the scroll and gently woke the girl, assuring her she was being taken to someplace safe. With a few words of encouragement, she and Thomas said their farewells and were off.
“We will need to double up someone if we hope to make any real time,” Zanden said. “Have you ridden before?”
Kern nodded. “Once or twice, not far, though.”
“Good enough. Lynnalin, you ride with Casther. Let’s go.”
* * *
Drander meat was a delicacy across the continent. The Farnesay gnomes domesticated the beasts hundreds of years ago. The meat was highly sought after for its rich, deep flavor and ability to complement nearly any dish. It was easy to cook, hardly ever drying. No matter where you came from or how much money you had, everyone loved drander.
As the only people to successfully tame the animals, the gnomes had a corner on the market. They were the final say on who had access to the meat. After a disagreement years before with Queen Maerishka, they forbade their meat being sold to or traded in any Suriaxian territory. With her marriage to King Alvexton, the Southern Plains became hers, and the trade restrictions now covered them as well. Most plains inhabitants couldn’t care less about their king’s marriage or their new ruler. It had very little to do with their daily lives. But they did miss the meat. What little bit that remained from before the union of the kingdoms was now expensive and difficult to find. Most people would rather keep it to eat than sell it, even for a good price.
But the beast next to his cage was not a domesticated drander. Evan looked through the bars and could not ignore his fear at seeing the animal so near. Wild drander were large, twice or even three times the size of their domesticated counterparts. They had long, sharp tusks protruding from their massive lower jaws. The bite force behind those jaws was enough to snap a leg in two. Between the tusks sat two pair of sharp, pointed teeth with serrated edges. The rest of the mouth was full of strong molars designed to grind their food into dust before they even swallowed. They had short hoofed legs and a boney structure going down their back
. The hard bone protected their spine and made them very difficult to injure in a struggle. This shield bone branched out into several smaller bones, resembling a reversed set of ribs. All were covered by hair and visible only as lumps under the skin. A long mane of hair hid the exposed parts of their necks and throats, protecting them even further.
Evan watched the monstrous beast pull against his chain, held by a giant of a man.
The man was as terrifying as the beast. Muscles bulged, practically breaking his skin. Bones, that looked strikingly similar to a drander, surrounded one arm like a bracer. The tips of the bone were shoved in to the skin, held in place in some spots by metal brackets bent and bolted into the skin. His shoes and clothes were made of drander hide. All he needed was a set of tusks to complete the look.
“Is that him?” a high pitched voice asked. Evan looked over at a girl standing outside his cage. No, not a girl. Despite her child
like height and hair pulled up in three bushy ponytails on both side and the top of her head, he could tell she was no child. Given her proportionate features and size, he would guess she must be a halfling, though he’d never actually seen one before. His village was all human with very few visitors from outside. The occasional merchant who passed through was usually human. Every five or ten years an elf or dwarf would run the deliveries. That was rare enough to spark conversations for weeks.
The girl leaned in toward his cage and cocked her head to each side to get a better look. “Are you sure he is the one? Doesn’t look like much.”
“Neither do you,” Evan said out of bravery or stupidity. He wasn’t sure which.
Her eyes snapped toward him, and she moved. He felt a sudden pain on the side of his neck, in the soft skin just to the side of his throat.
He jerked back and was held firmly in place by a small hand on the opposite side of his head. The girl’s other hand held a dagger at his throat. She leaned against his back, her face pressed up against his hair. The door of his cage clanged against the metal bars as it hit the wall and then slammed back shut. Evan felt her breath down the back of his neck as she opened her mouth to speak. “To the pit,” she called. The man with the drander looked up and grinned. Evan felt his skin go cold. Somehow his situation had just gotten worse. The girl pulled the knife back and returned it to a leg sheath. Walking casually to the door of the cage, she turned her back on him with no fear of attack. She walked out of the cage, leaving the door open behind her as she talked to the man.
Evan looked at his chance of escape and wondered what game they were playing. Of course he doubted he could make it past either the girl or the giant man. They would cut him down the second he stepped foot past the bars. Even if he did somehow manage to sneak by unnoticed there was still the drander to contend with. Evan looked at the beast and almost
wished they would close the door. He wasn’t getting out of here alive. The illusion of freedom was actually crueler than the cage.
The giant pulled on the chain for the drander and led him away. The girl looked back at Evan with a glint in her eye. “Aren’t you coming?” she asked sweetly.
Her hair shimmered in the sun, almost seeming to change from brown to red.
Evan stood and walked slowly to the door, pausing before stepping out of the cage. His stomach twisted, made worse by what he saw as they crossed the yard. Men, monsters of every size and race filled a camp the size of a small town.
Some cleaned weapons or worked on other mundane tasks, made strange by the mutilated forms of the men. Every man bore a combination of various scars, missing limbs, some with weapons shoved in where the limbs once were. Their clothes were mostly tattered and bloody. Some blood was old. Some was not. There were even a few more drander scattered about, though none were as large as the first one he saw.
As they continued to walk, one man stabbed another with his sword and
used the distraction to slice off the injured man’s arm with a small scimitar. With a foot on the man’s chest, the first man withdrew the sword and picked up the severed arm. A gleam in his eye, he removed the spiked bracer on the arm and put it on. The injured man looked down at the bleeding stump and roared in outrage, jumping on his attacker. None of this seemed to faze the halfling girl who continued walking at her same brisk speed around a corner and down, deeper into the camp.
Evan hurried to catch up, not wanting to become separated and find himself alone in this crowd. As Evan took the turn, he
could see the two men still locked in their bitter battle. Those in the crowd either cheered them on or ignored the fight. Evan shook his head and tried to find the girl. Panic filled him. The crowd was thick with men, large and small, tall and wide, armed, scarred and able to kill him with very little thought or effort. Sure, he killed three of them, but that was in the heat of battle, consumed by grief for his wife and the need to protect his daughter in order to give her a good chance to escape. He was no warrior. Just when his mind threatened to focus on his fear and worry over what had become of his daughter, the halfling girl came into sight. Jumping high above the heads of the crowd, she grabbed on to the wooden frame of a wall, angled out to set off an arena of some kind. Swinging her body through the small holes between the slats, she gracefully and easily came to a perch on the top of the wall. The fabric of her pants shifted to show strong, muscular legs. The pants, slit down the sides, were secured in two spots with pins. A belt hung over the pants, holding a curved blade. The one she pulled on him before was barely visible, secured to her leg, under her pants. The open side seam allowed her quick access without making the blade completely obvious.
With a grin she launched herself into the air, somersaulting down to the center of the arena. The men in the street crowded around the wall, eager to see what she would do. Ignoring the two men fighting in the arena, she walked over to a woman seated on a large rock and watching the fight. The girl jumped up on the rock and whispered in the woman’s ear. She sat up straighter and tilted her head. Evan couldn’t see her eyes under the small top hat she wore, but the shiver Evan felt made him fairly certain he was the focus of her attention. The woman stood, her short straight hair pe
aking out from under her hat. Her coat fanned out, large cuffs adorned with gold buttons. She had a flair about her that spoke of someone accustomed to being the center of attention. She lifted a hand and everyone within sight fell immediately silent. The woman looked up at Evan, and he caught a glance of a small conch shell hanging on a chain around her neck.
She shifted her gaze
and spoke. “
,” she said, “
we have something special planned for this evening.
” Evan jumped. Her lips remained still, though her voice was clear and concise. Without yelling, her words reached the farthest man, seeming to come from every direction at once. “
,” she continued, “we
have an initiation.
” The men roared, clanging together objects and making a loud racket. The woman grinned, letting them get worked up. Tilting her head, she looked up at Evan and grinned even more. Still looking at him, she raised a hand for silence and continued.
“Who will volunteer to take to the pit and educate our new recruit in our ways?”
Several men yelled out, fighting over each other to be selected. Ev
an took a step back. Her eyes continued to follow him. Turning, he stumbled through the crowd. He looked back for a brief second and came up short to find the halfling girl blocking his path.
One hand on her hip, she wagged her finger at him and clicked her tongue. “Now, now, where do you think you’re going?”
Evan froze, no sounds coming from his mouth, as much as he tried to say something, anything. She stepped forward, and he stepped back. They continued their dance until he felt a wall behind his back. His hands grasped the metal rods making up the arena fence. He closed his eyes, trying to drown out the cheering and excitement of the crowd. The girl jumped onto the wall beside him and spoke into his ear. “Wake up. It’s time to play. You should open your eyes. You’ll want to remember this . . . or not. But either way, it will make survival easier and make for a better show . . . for us anyway.” Giggling, she pulled on a pin from the wall, and he felt the support at his back give way. Flailing uselessly, he fell. The ground came at him hard, knocking the wind from his lungs.
” the announcer woman continued, “
killed three of our men during the last raid. Let’s see if he can repeat that task.
Evan heard the whistle of something moving quickly through the air and opened his eyes to see a man swinging a battle hammer in circles to either side of his body. Evan rolled just before the hammer came down on the ground.
Coming to his feet, he flinched at the pain in his back and arm.
Let the pain make you stronger
,” the woman’s voice said softly into his ear. He shook off her words and dodged the man with the hammer, or he tried to. The hammer came down on his good shoulder with a painful crack that left it bruised and disjointed. He saw the rapture in the man’s eyes as he prepared to deliver the final blow. It was the same face he saw that night. The features were different, the hair another color. This man was shorter with a more rounded jaw. But the eyes were the same. He saw that man who cut down his wife. He saw the other two men, each directly responsible for the death of a close friend. They all had those same eyes. Roaring, Evan ducked his head and rammed the man in his stomach, using the force to pop his shoulder back into place. Surprised, the man fell back, dropping his hammer. Ignoring the pain in his arm, no, not ignoring, instead letting the pain feed his actions, Evan grabbed the hammer and swung. He caught the man under the jaw with a sickening pop. The man’s eyes rolled back into his head and closed.
Evan didn’t have time to think of what he had done as another man came running to his side, picking him up off his feet with the momentum, and slammed Evan into the ground. This new opponent was small and covered in blades. Sharp, talon like finger blades scratched and tore at Evan’s skin. Evan pushed him off, but the man spun
, slashed and kicked like a wild animal. His movements were impossible to predict. Blades on his hands, knees and feet cut at Evan repeatedly until he dripped a trail of blood. He swung the hammer, but the man was too quick. He couldn’t get close without getting cut.
After another series of slashes that left Eva
n woozy from the blood loss, he gave up trying to avoid injury and went on the attack. The man was fast, but there was some advantage to not caring about the outcome. Either he would win and survive, or he would die, and this would all be over. With that in mind, Evan embraced what could be his last few moments of life. His senses grew sharper. He could smell the blood and sweat. He felt the sun beat down on his skin. His shadow formed strange shapes as he moved and swung the hammer. He heard the crack of bones breaking as his weapon finally hit. Following up with more attacks, he refused to give the other man the space to recover. He may die this day, but he would take as many of them with him as he could. The man’s finger blades pierced the skin of Evan’s bruised shoulder. Evan just raised a knee into the man’s stomach and followed with a wide swing at his head. Evan looked down at the blood on his hands, just like that night. The only difference was this time the blood belonged to him instead of the men he killed. He closed his hands and felt the blood squish between his fingers. Then the next man jumped into the arena, and he had no more time for thought.