Angry shouts and terrified screams followed the crack of heavy splintering wood as the raiders broke down the massive doors guarding the royal family’s apartments. While the king and the adult member of his extended family were rounded up and slaughtered, loyal retainers raced through the secret escape passage with the king’s children—two small sons and twin infant daughters—determined to save the last of the royal family of Baryna.
Guards and retired warriors viciously defended the narrow tunnel giving the retainers precious time to reach the hidden vault far below the palace. When all who survived were inside, the last warrior released the prepared trap, filling the passageway with heavy stones that hurtled down on the pursuers. The warrior rushed through the bronze covered doors signaling the guards to slam them shut.
Enormous iron gates descended with a frightful clang from the ceiling behind the doors, barring them from the inside. A terrible silence fell over the small group as they came to grips with the bloody terror in the royal apartments.
Finally, Aken, the leader of the guard straightened his shoulders and declared with bitter anger and grief, “The king is no more. Long live the king.”
In the center of the big room, a young woman set a small sturdy boy on his feet. Sleepily, he rubbed his eyes and yawned as all around him, men and women knelt to swear fealty to Romaden, their new king.
By morning, the weary group had reached the Tarchema Barrens. Even in the early hours of dawn, word that Vrainal, leader of the raiders, had seized the Baryna throne, had filtered through the dark streets of towns and villages across the land. At the edge of Tarchema Barrens, following long held plans, the retainers split in four groups, each taking one of the children with them. Those that guarded Romaden also accepted the responsibility of guarding the royal chronicles and genealogies. A smaller fifth group carried away the royal regalia, sword, casket, dagger, goblet and crown. When Romaden was old enough to claim the throne, the regalia would be retrieved. In the meantime, Vrainal’s false rule would not be supported by his possession of the regalia.
When each child was safely within the family stronghold on the rocky island retreat off the coast of Gultera, the retainers were supposed to split up, melting into the small towns and large cities, forming a network for information and support. Vrainal the Usurper would find his reign more difficult than he imagined.
* * *
A woman would no doubt be the cause of his death, Eli thought, but probably not today.
With the billowing dust storm at his back, Eli dared to breathe a tentative sigh of relief. The posse hot on his trail had disappeared in the first swirling rust colored clouds. If the storm didn’t catch up with him before he reached shelter, his escape would be assured. He shook his head at his own foolishness. The village headman’s daughter was a luscious morsel, too tempting to pass up though he knew better than to fall for such feminine wiles.
Most women scorned turned to their male relatives for vengeance, but not Niria. No, instead she reported him to Vrainal’s raiders. Well, next time he would remember to keep his hands to himself. His primary goal now was to outrun the storm.
Then he spied the colowoots lazily circling overhead. His grime-rimmed eyes slid over the barren land searching carefully as he reined his weary shnormies to a halt. The lop-eared beasts stopped on the rutted trail, flapping their long ears and raising small clouds of dust when they stomped their feet. Tiny stinging latibugas swarmed up their legs, attacking the fresh source of food.
In the Tarchema Barrens, you were either prey or predator. Often you were both, but Eli preferred to be on the predator end of the scale. He pulled his spyglass from the pack behind his seat, climbed up on top of his dusty hover caravan, and studied the immediate area while keeping a cautious eye on the dust storm at his back. The little bloodsucking colowoots wouldn’t be this far out in the wastelands unless there was a body to feast on.
Out in front of him, to the side of the trail, a flock of colowoots squabbled over a dark shapeless bundle. Eli didn’t waste time wondering if the victim was dead yet. Colowoots didn’t attack the living. He clambered down from his perch atop the caravan and took up the reins, snapping them over the shnormies’ haunches with a quick flick. The approaching dust storm was gathering speed. He needed shelter for his caravan and animals and he needed it immediately.
Under the sting of the reins the shnormies moved into a jerky trot, tugging the floating caravan over the rough ground toward the bundle. Though time was running out, Eli couldn’t afford to pass by the body without at least coming to some conclusion about how it came to be subars from nowhere. No one walked into the Tarchema Barrens on foot. When his caravan stopped alongside the body, his uneasiness turned to alarm. The dead man was no roaming wanderer. His fine clothing and handsome riding boots told their own tale. Here was a wealthy man, alone and dead, with no mount in sight.
Wrapping the reins around the caravan hitch, Eli hopped down and approached the body. The colowoots shied away, squeaking in anger while he grimly checked the body for telltale wounds inflicted by men. They weren’t hard to find. From the numerous slashes and cuts, the man had fought fiercely before succumbing. A second look at the boots assured Eli that they were the handiwork of a fine boot maker. Certainly robbery had not been the motive. No robber would have left them behind. On the underground market the boots would fetch enough distris to buy an entire herd of shnormies.
Briefly, Eli debated taking the boots himself, but in the end he concluded they would bring him more grief than he could handle. He went back to the caravan and climbed up to the seat, casting an anxious look at the dark sky on the horizon behind him. No more time to tarry. He must find shelter at once. He snapped the reins, urging the shnormies into an unaccustomed gallop. Ahead of him was a ravine with a large cave. If they could make it before the storm, the cave would provide shelter for both his caravan and the shnormies.
The caravan bounced as the shnormies stumbled over the ruts. The first tendrils of wind began to hum across the land. As they approached the lip of the ravine, Eli hauled back on the reins to slow the shnormies’ headlong race over the edge. They thundered down the slope into the ravine with the caravan slewing from side to side. In desperation Eli braced his feet and yanked on the reins. The shnormies slowed to a walk before staggering to a stop, sides bellowing, a few feet from the cave.
It took Eli a few heart pounding moments to realize the shnormies’ abrupt halt wasn’t due to his heroic efforts. Rather, they shied away from the scent of death that permeated the ravine. Wearily securing the reins, Eli leaped down, racing over to the nearest body. He hoped to find someone alive since the colowoots were not present in the ravine, but he was doomed to disappointment. The man was clearly dead. Rushing from body to body, Eli found that none had survived the terrible massacre.
After hurriedly dragging the tumbled bodies out of the way, he guided the shnormies and his caravan deep into the cave just as the howling dust storm descended upon the ravine. The shelter allowed him a few precious moments to fling protective covers over the shnormies’ heads before he crawled inside the caravan and slammed the door shut.
The wind whipped down the ravine, scouring everything in its path with sandy grit. It howled past the cave mouth, screeching as it rose at the end of the canyon, racing over the flat barrens, leaving deafening silence behind.
He wanted nothing more than to stay in his caravan, huddled on his bunk, but there was no one else to deal with the dead. He would not shirk his duty. Rolling to his feet, he shuddered as he contemplated the task before him. Opening the cupboard overhead, he lifted down the jug of gulteria—fine dark ale from the coastal city of Gultera. The plug squealed as he worked it loose. After pouring some in his mug, he pounded the plug back in and set the jug back in the cupboard. Then while slowly sipping the soothing liquid, he mentally listed all that he must do before darkness fell on the ravine.
When the last drop was gone, he tugged on his cap, tied a fine gauze scarf over his mouth and nose, and went back out into the cave. First he stopped to check on the animals. After many trips across the barrens, the shnormies had adapted to the protective hoods, but Eli liked to give them a comforting pat or two as extra reassurance and reward. Though most people didn’t bother to name their shnormies, Eli felt a kinship to his animals when he named them. He patted Thumi’s gritty golden hindquarters as he stood placidly waiting for release from the caravan. Next to Thumi, Tomac stomped his feet restlessly and snorted. His dark brown hide twitched and he snorted again when Eli caressed his long neck and shoulders. “Easy. Just a bit longer.”
With a shallow breath, Eli turned away, heading for the vandalized caverns out in the ravine. Once he searched them, he planned to place the bodies inside and burn them in the morning. But first—first he hoped to find a hint of who the dead were and why someone had murdered an entire party of travelers.
A high pitched wail echoed from the ravine walls as Eli stepped out of the cave into the waning light. The tiny short hairs on his spine rose in alarm as his head came up, searching for the source. The next unhappy cry galvanized Eli to race for the caravans. Ripping open the door of the nearest one, he peered inside, astonished when he found himself face to face with a grubby youngster perhaps three or four years old who was peeking out of a storage space.
Eli climbed up into the caravan and squatted down next to the boy. He frowned, his nose wrinkling at the acrid odor of stale urine as he studied the youngster crouched in the hiding place. Finally Eli sighed. “What is your name, boy?”
“Romaden.” The boy’s lips trembled as tears threatened to spill over his dusty cheeks.
“Well, Romaden. Come out of there. We’ll go to my caravan and clean you up a bit. Are you hungry?”
After a moment, Romaden nodded.
“All right. Do you know where your clothing is stored?” Eli inquired hopefully.
The boy swiped his running nose with his sleeve and pointed to the storage unit under the bunk across the narrow aisle from him. Eli pulled open the drawer and stared down at the tumbled piles of ladies undergarments.
“I don’t think these are your clothes, boy. They seem a bit too frilly even for a youngster.”
Creeping from his spot, Romaden knelt next to the drawer, plunged his grubby paw into the lacy garments, and tugged. The false bottom yielded to his efforts, revealing neatly packed clothing for a small boy.
Nabbing the first things he saw, Eli jumped down from the caravan and grabbed Romaden under his arms, swinging the boy down to stand next to him facing away from the bodies. “Close your eyes until I tell you to open them. We’ll come back for the rest of your things.”
Obediently, Romaden shut his eyes.
Taking his hand, Eli led the little boy back into the cave to his caravan. When they were safely inside, he said, “All right. You can open your eyes now.”
While the boy stood very still as he stared at his new surroundings, Eli lit the lamp over his small wash basin and poured some water from his cistern in the bowl. Silently, he stripped the soiled clothing from his new charge and scrubbed him down from head to toe. While he cleaned and dressed the boy, he meditated on his next steps.
Tarchema Springs, the nearest settlement was over forty subars away, on the edge of the barrens. It was a small huddle of mud and stone houses where the inhabitants eked out a living by charging for the use of the springs and selling water. If all went well, it would take two days to reach the Springs. The next settlement, Qildomi Heights was two days on the other side of the Springs.
Somewhere between the ravine and the Heights, Eli would have to think of a way to hide Romaden’s fiery bright hair—silky red-blond strands that would bring a death sentence, even to such a small boy. From the moment he confronted the child, he’d known what the raiders were searching for. They wanted to capture the missing heir of the exiled royal family of Baryna.
With a sour smile, Eli wondered which of the gods was laughing at him now.