Kai stood in shock, gaping at the body of his mother and father and their murderer. Blood coated his blade and his hands. I killed a man, he thought.
The sound of screams and the clash of iron brought him back to the present. Everywhere he looked smoke rose into the sky, and people ran in every direction. In the distance, clusters of villagers faced off against bands of Engrall, but they were losing. Women and children raced passed where Kai stood, skirting around the dead. No one stopped to ask how he fared. Where would they go? To the woods to die of starvation? To the cellars to be burned alive? The Engrall had killed so many already in the senseless raid, what would stop them from killing women and children?
Kai shook his head. He couldn’t dwell on the fate of the other villagers. Nor could he take the time to bury his parents. Run, his father had told him, so run he would. “I’m sorry,” he whispered to his mother and father. To stay would be to die.
He went into the house, used a towel to wipe the blood from the sword and set it on the table. Then he washed his hands in the stone basin, turning the water red. He grabbed a satchel and filled it with fruit, nuts, and dried meat, then grabbed a parka and stuffed it in. He snatched up the sword and looked both ways outside the doorway before departing. He set his eyes on the forest to the north. The townsfolk were all running south or west, so the Engrall might not expect him to go north.
Kai walked through the emptying streets of Carth, eyes darting this way and that, ever vigilant. The fighting had indeed moved away from this area. Bodies littered the ground, doorways, and windows. A woman had been thrown through a window, her face and head bloody. Blood still dripped down the wall from where the glass impaled her. Elsewhere, the bodies of a woman and two children, lay at at the end of an alley. The woman had clearly tried to shield her children in their final moments and failed. Arrows riddled the back of a man nearby. A few Engrall were among the dead, but far fewer than Kai had expected. They’re a warrior race, though, he thought. I shouldn’t be surprised they can overcome common villagers in battle.
He stopped at the blacksmith shop and grabbed a shield his father had been working to band with iron. Jodan had finished it the day before and was waiting for the buyer to come. A buyer who was now dead and lay in the alley two doors down. Kai also grabbed a pair of knives from the wall where his father displayed samples of his wares. Better to be well-prepared.
He saw no Engrall in the street and arrived at the north gate unmolested. One wooden gate hung by a single hinge, while the other lay in pieces on the ground. The Engrall must have had chopped and battered their way through this point to get into the village. Kai took one final look around at his home, his city.
He sprinted into the forest, blade clutched in one hand and the leather handle of the shield in the other. He did not look back. The smell of burning wood, and probably flesh, told him all he needed to know. The Engrall had attacked here, too. His mother and father, and most everyone he had ever known in his life, dead.
Tears ran down his cheeks. His legs pumped, carrying him further into the woods. He pushed bushes and branches away, running faster. Images of his parents filled his head, the times they spent together, the summer days of fishing, and wading in the water near the brook and waterfall. That was all gone now. The pain wracked his heart, but he had to stay strong, he had to survive.
Jumping down a short bluff, he huddled inside a small nook of dirt and roots. He shivered. The autumn air had a chill to it this evening. He concealed himself with fallen leaves and wrapped himself inside the warmth of his parka.
Kai thought back to stories his father had told him of how The Engrall had never been violent when collecting tribute in the past – not after the war hundreds of years earlier when they destroyed the kingdom of Carth and her allies. Snapping back to the present, Kai smelled something different in the wind. He looked up and froze, eyes wide.
Above the bluff stood a large Engrall warrior. A curved blade-staff tapped against several roots sticking out of the bluff. The pale-skinned man sniffed the air, his long black hair fluttering in the wind. His cold blue eyes scanned the forest below.
Kai remained completely still, the leaves hiding his entire body. Would the Engrall find him and kill him like all the others in his village? If they were willing to kill mothers and their children, they would have no qualms killing him. He couldn’t think of that, or his teeth would chatter. For one of the first times in his life he had known complete and utter fear, and he began to shake.
The Engrall’s eyes fell upon Kai’s hiding place, but he did not react. He sniffed once more before moving on.
Kai let out the breath he had been holding. He would remain for a while longer to ensure no more Engrall were around, then move on to…he didn’t know where. The village of Riverton lay a day’s walk to the west. That would likely be his destination.
After a while, Kai crawled out of his hiding place, sword in hand and satchel over his back. He heard no Engrall. They’ve probably moved on to pillage another village, he thought. He made his way to the forest’s edge overlooking the village and went to the top of a hill. Thin streams of smoke rose from the ashes of the village. Nothing left for him there. He looked to his right, toward the west. The Cartheron River meandered past Carth, flowing from its source at the foot of the Silver Mountain. He would find Riverton there.
A rustling from behind caused Kai to spin. A four-legged, furry striped creature bounded toward him, its teeth bared. A werecat.
Kai shouted in surprise and raised his sword. His hand trembled.
The werecat fixated on him with golden eyes.
Distantly, Kai noticed a man standing at the forest’s edge behind the bounding creature, but he had no chance to dwell on the man’s presence.
His furry opponent leapt toward him.
Kai lowered his blade, hoping to impale the beast.
The creature landed in front of Kai, short of his blade, and then leapt to the right. It swatted at Kai’s arm, scratching him.
Kai screamed in pain and dropped his blade.
In an instant, the creature was on top of him. It pinned him to the ground and roared in his face.
The boy held up his arms and prepared for the sharp teeth to descend, tearing into him.
“Leave it,” a voice came from behind the beast.
The creature stopped and backed up, not taking its eyes from Kai.
The man Kai had distantly seen before now strode up to him. He was an Engrall. He wore leather armor, but no helmet, and held a blade-staff upright.
Kai tried to scoot backward. He prepared to kick the man, eyeing the blade at his side. Even with one arm badly scratched, he could still try to defend himself. He would not go down without a fight.
“Sit,” the man commanded.
The werecat sat and looked up at at the man. Its expression softened as its snarl disappeared. Its eyes widened and it began to purr.
The Engrall put his hand on the werecat’s head. “Good Gojo.” He looked Kai in the eyes. “Gojo smelled you hiding and followed you here. He smelled blood on you.” His eyes appraised Kai, settling on the sword. “You are no warrior. Who are you?”
“Just kill me already, you monster!” Kai shouted. “Your people killed my family and destroyed my village. Stop talking and finish the job!” He was now ready to meet his maker.
The man narrowed his eyes. “I did not destroy your village, boy. Nor did my people.”
“Liar!” Kai shouted. “Look for yourself.” He brought himself to a sitting position, but a growl from Gojo kept him from standing. Kai pointed behind himself toward the village. “The Engrall burned my village to the ground.”
The man grunted. “I shall see for myself.”
Just then, a group of people emerged from the woods. More Engrall. A man and woman approached.
“What’s this, Tirrin?” the man asked.
“A boy, hiding in the woods. He claims the Engrall destroyed his village.” He turned to the seer. “Can you discern the truth, Isa?”
“I shall try,” a white-haired, middle-aged woman said. She approached Kai and extended her hand.
Kai shied away from her.
Her face softened. “Do not be afraid, child. This will not hurt.”
Her words did little to comfort Kai, but he did not shy away further when her cold hand touched his forehead. Unbidden, memories of the slaughter of his village flashed through his mind. The barrage of images slowed around the scenes concerning his mother and father fighting Engrall. An image of Kai stabbing the Engrall named Candris froze in his mind’s eye.
“Candris,” Isa breathed.
“What of my brother?” asked the man who had accompanied Isa.“What do you see?”
“The Engrall did indeed attack this village,” Isa said in a distant voice. “They were led by Candris.”
“Does he yet live?” the man asked.
Tirrin held up a hand. “Let her finish, Davius.”
“Candris…was slain,” Isa said slowly.
“By who?” Davius demanded, ignoring Tirrin and stepping closer to the seer, as if his proximity would hasten her answer.
“This boy?” Davius’ face contorted in anger, and he glared at Kai. His hand went to his side where his sword hung.
The memories of the strength Kai had felt and the runes on his sword glowing bright froze in his mind.
“Yes. I see…power…such power…a blade of old wielded by…I cannot see more.” She removed her hand from his forehead and slumped her shoulders.
The memory faded and Kai blinked. How had she summoned his memories on a whim? He felt the exhaustion from fighting Candris returning as if he had fought the man all over again.
Davius drew his blade. He snarled. “The boy will die, then.”
Tirrin stepped in between Davius and Kai. “No.”
“Get out of my way, Tirrin,” Davius said.
“Back away, Davius. Your prince commands it.”
Kai could not see Tirrin’s face, but Davius’ was a picture of fury. His hand turned white from clenching the hilt of his sword so hard. At last, he gave a reluctant bow. “As my prince commands.” He shot Kai a glare before turning around and sheathing his blade.
Tirrin stood facing Davius for a few more moments, then he turned to Kai. “You will come with us.” It was not a suggestion.
It was Kai’s turn to curl his lip. “I will never go with you.”
“You don’t have a choice. Walk or I carry you.”
“I’m not a child.”
“Then stop acting like one.”
“Am I your prisoner?”
Tirrin’s eyes took on a distant look. “Not yet, if you cooperate.”
“And Davius? He wants my head.”
“He will not bother you.”
Kai doubted the sincerity of his assurance, but fell silent anyway. He glared at Tirrin. He truly had no choice. Go with them…or die. “Fine. But I keep my sword, and no locking me up.”
“We have no prison here,” Tirrin said, stretching his arms wide and indicating the forest behind him. “But you have my word you may keep your weapon,” his eyes fell on the rune-marked blade, “and shall have your freedom if you do not betray us.”
Kai nodded. He would go with them, for now.
“Let’s go. The others are waiting for us.” Tirrin turned and headed toward the forest, Gojo at his side. Isa and Davius followed, the latter reluctantly and not without first shooting Kai a glare.
Kai ignored Davius’ glare. He gave one last longing look toward his village before snatching up his sword and bringing up the rear. He had a feeling he would need to keep his blade close for a while.
They passed through the woods without seeing anyone else. No villagers, no other Engrall, not even animals except for the birds. After several minutes, they reached a clearing.
A small group of Engrall, perhaps three dozen by Kai’s count, sat or lounged around a large fire. Seven tents surrounded the fire in a circular pattern. Two sentries saluted Tirrin as he approached with fist to heart before eyeing Kai with suspicion.
“This is Kai,” Tirrin said, raising his voice to be heard. The other Engrall fell silent. “He is our guest and should be treated with respect. Belgar, I would speak with you.”
A tall Engrall rose and nodded at Tirrin. “As you command, my prince.”
Davius made to follow Tirrin.
“No, Davius. I have a task for you. Return to the village with a squad of men. Collect the belongings of any Engrall dead and give them proper burials.”
Davius gave a slight bow. “As you command.” He barked out half a dozen names and headed back into the forest without waiting for responses.
Is that how he always acts? Kai wondered.
“You, boy,” Tirrin said. “Isa will show you around. We won’t be staying here long before heading back to Drakau.” He then led Belgar toward the tallest of the seven tents. Gojo trailed behind.
Drakau, he thought. The Fortress of Dread, the gateway to the Engrall lands. Kai shivered.
“Come,” Isa said. She led Kai toward the fire. “Have you eaten, child?”
“No,” Kai said warily as he sat on the ground. It was evening now, with the sun setting in a few hours, and he had not eaten since breakfast.
Isa grabbed the spit and pulled off a chunk of meat. She offered it to Kai. “Rabbit.”
Kai knew what it was from the smell. He had hunted rabbit for years with his friends. Was she trying to reassure him? Comfort him? Did she think he thought it was human flesh? The Engrall did have a reputation among the low-landers of devouring human flesh. “Thank you,” he said grudgingly, taking the meat and biting into it.
The Engrall around the fire watched him with suspicion and, perhaps a bit of curiosity. He had just arrived in the company of their prince, so they probably wondered who he was and why he was special.
“Here,” an Engrall with a long scar on his right cheek said. He extended a piece of bread and a mug toward Kai.
Kai took the bread but eyed the mug dubiously. He looked back at the Engrall.
“It’s not poison, boy. ‘Tis ale.”
Kai shook his head. “Forgive me, I forgot my manners. Thank you.” He bowed his head slightly in thanks and took the mug. He was aware of some of the others watching him as he tore a chunk off the bread and took a sip from the mug. Are they expecting me to die?
“What’s your name, boy?” the same Engrall asked.
Another Engrall across the fire spat: “A low-lander name.”
Kai puffed up his chest and looked across at the man. “Yes, and I’m proud of it.”
Kai felt his cheeks warming. He opened his mouth to respond and an image of him drawing his sword and running the man through flashed through his mind. He closed his mouth. Where had that thought come from?
“Enough of this,” Isa scolded. “Children,” she muttered as she dug in a satchel at her feet.
“Forgive us, Warbinder,” the first Engrall who had offered Kai the bread and mug said.
“What is your name?” Kai asked, attempting to change the subject.
“Vrakon’ka, of the Kolakk tribe.”
“Are you all from the same tribe?” Kai asked.
Vrakon’ka shook his head and took a swig from his mug before answering. “No, lad. The prince has warriors from all the tribes in his service.”
“How many tribes are there?” Kai asked. He kicked himself mentally afterward – he shouldn’t be asking his enemy to tell him more about themselves. Though maybe he could use the information against them…
“Three. The Evids,” he gestured to the rude Engrall who had insulted Kai earlier, “the Kolakks,” he pounded a fist on his chest, “and the Trills.” He pointed toward the tent Tirrin had disappeared into. “Prince Tirrin is descended from the Trill tribe. Long ago…”
“That is enough for tonight,” Isa said in a gentle but firm tone, making clear that she would brook no argument. “Save history lessons for another time.” She gazed knowingly at Kai. “We are not in a hurry.”
“Of course, Warbinder,” Vrakon’ka bowed his head in deference.
“Come to me, boy,” Isa said.
Kai took another bite of bread and took a swig of ale, then approached the warbinder.
She held a small leather sack in her hand. It tapered to a small opening on one end. She squeezed the sack and thick fluid came out. “This is an ointment. For your arm.”
Kai started. He had forgotten the scratch from Gojo. His arm chose that moment to begin throbbing, as if the memory had triggered it.
Isa took the ointment in her hand and spread it over the scratch.
It felt cool at first, then began to grow warm. Not uncomfortably so, but more like from the sun’s warmth on a spring day shining on it. The warmth subsided moments later and took the pain with it. Amazing, Kai thought.
“You may sleep in my tent tonight,” Isa said.
“Yes, Warbinder,” Kai said, using the formal title he’d heard the others use.
Isa snorted. “That title is only for Warbound. You shall call me Isa.”
“What are Warbound?” Kai asked, curiosity overwhelming him.
“The Warbound are groups of warriors bound through a Warbinder to their War Chief. Individual Warbound groups are called Warbands. Tirrin is the War Chief of this Warband.”
“I see,” Kai said.
“You do not yet understand,” Isa said with a wry smile. “But you will…one day.”
Unsettled by discussions of the future, Kai again looked toward Tirrin’s tent. What could they be discussing?
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