Take it from me. Adventuring all by yourself sounds better than it really is.
First, there’s the hunger. Just how many rutabagas and strips of dried pork can you carry? Not more than a week’s worth. Hunting and gathering may yield a scraggly bunny or two and a few handfuls of raisins shriveled and dried on the vine, but that’s nowhere near enough.
Then, there’s the confusion. I lost the trail several times despite the map Father had scratched out on a deer hide back in my village.
I hardly need to mention the general discomfort of sore feet, attacking chiggers, rancid waterholes, and the disturbingly close howls of wild beasts as I tried to sleep.
Last night, thunderstorms were added to the list. Specifically, crashing, freezing, hide-in-a-cave and shiver-all-night thunderstorms that leave mud puddles everywhere.
I tripped and skidded into one of these puddles right after spotting the three riders. They were heading toward me. I leapt to my feet, not even taking time to curse over the soaking.
When he drew close enough, a large, dark-faced fellow a few pounds too heavy for the comfort of his horse boomed, “Ho there, young sir!” He smiled. “Taking a bath, are you?”
“Err … ho there!” I called, grinning like an idiot and waving so energetically that water sprayed in ten-foot arcs from my sodden shirt.
How I longed for companions on my lonely journey! Or, failing that, at least a shared meal. The only other person I’d met on the road so far was an aging prostitute riding a sway-backed mule. She tried to trade her body for some of my rutabagas. I couldn’t have run away any faster if my hair were on fire.
The riders each wore scraggly, faded leathers. Their unshaven faces and dirty, weary-looking mounts told me that they had been traveling for a while. Not that I looked much more respectable, with mud dripping off my tangled hair and sluicing down my shirt and breeches.
Where were my manners? I gave the traditional greeting. “Well met in Shaddai’s peace.”
They formed a semi-circle around me. The one who had hailed me lost his smile. “Shaddai’s peace? A pox on it!”
Alarm squeezed low in my gut. The man on the speaker’s right had orange-red hair and an explosion of freckles dotting his face and arms. The third man was swarthy, likely a desert dweller, the first I had seen.
“Look, it’s one of them cowardly farmers from the Golden Hills,” Red-hair sneered. “Out picking flowers for your mommy, whelp?”
My eyes narrowed. In so few words, he had managed to insult my people, my land, and my mother.
I swallowed my temper and gave the wanderers one more chance to prove themselves. “What do you want?”
“Why, bastards like you.” Red-hair smiled.
My face flamed. Without thinking, I uttered a hoarse cry and flung myself upon the rider, knocking him from his horse. I beat away at his mid-section, landing several powerful blows before the others hauled me off him and held me, struggling, by each arm.
The beefy one pulled my sword from the scabbard and examined it, holding the blade like a veteran.
“Old, but the blade is good. It’s not a bad piece. See if he has anything else, Makai.”
The swarthy man plucked my hunting knife from my belt. He ran his finger across the blade. I smiled when a thin line of blood appeared.
“Sharp,” he commented stoically. Then he dug through my pack, tossing aside my extra tunic, cook pots, and other gear with disdain. “No coins.” He regarded me without expression. “What should we do with him?”
“The altars in the east might want him,” Red-hair commented.
The beefy one roughly grabbed my chin and looked into my eyes. “It’s worth a try. He looks young enough to make a good sacrifice.”
My heart constricted. Around the hearth on cold nights, the Elders had told horror stories, mostly children’s tales, I had thought, about a dark religion that bathed itself in human blood. The followers of this evil had instigated the Great War twenty years prior, but since their defeat, they had disappeared. Or, so we had all believed. Shaddai help me, but I didn’t want to see one now. I roared and thrashed around, propelled by a surge of panic.
“Get out the kantas root!” someone yelled.
They shoved a bitter, dry plant into my mouth. I choked and gagged, whipping my head around until they held me securely and forced the awful thing down my throat. Limbs suddenly frozen, I kicked spasmodically and ground my teeth together. My body jerked and trembled, and my spasming neck propelled my head straight into the beefy one’s bulbous nose. He swore at the contact and slapped my face. A trickle of dark red blood ran from his nostril.
They tied my hands and threw me to the ground. I lay perfectly still, the cool mud pressing against my cheek, while the others set about preparing their supper, which was some sort of disgusting smelling soup. At home, we had used the kantas root as a poison to keep small animals from our fields, but eaten in sufficient doses, it produces a paralyzing effect for up to several days. Smaller quantities, however, result in mild drunkenness. My friends and I had discovered this while chewing it in secret behind the smokehouse. Despite what I’d led my assailants to believe, the drug had hardly affected me, save for a slight throbbing headache. The brigands must have done this to other unfortunates because they paid little attention to me, thinking I was incapacitated.
My adopted father had warned me about my temper more than once. “You’re not a bastard to us, Lance,” he would tell me. “You’re as much our child as the others.”
He and my adopted mother had always treated me as such, too. They didn’t care that someone had dumped me, squalling and alone, in the wheat fields north of Lor when I was no more than six months old. The only clue to my identity was a broken lance plunged into the ground next to my naked body. A single red flag had been tied to it. They had taken me in, and they called me Lance in recognition of my mysterious origin.
Perhaps one day, I would find the answers about my birth. If I managed to live through the night and whatever plans these devils had in store for me.
The three must have come from town. They guzzled down a jug of something and bragged about who was the better fighter.
Red-hair lurched to his feet and slurred, “Just try to best my blade, fools! I’ll prove my sperity—superity—how good I am!” He waved my sword in a wild arc.
The other two didn’t bother to get up from their spots next to the fire.
“Shut up and go to sleep, you idiot,” Beefy advised.
Red-hair blinked slowly. “You bastards . . . I’ll show you.” He proceeded to bring the blade down with such force that it struck the log next to my head and wedged there. Now my father’s blade had even more dents and dings in it.
“Damn you!” I yelled, which really came out something like, ‘Dum ew,’ due to the slow paralysis of my mouth and the excess drool that had resulted from it.
Grunting and heaving, Red-hair tugged and yanked at the sword until it came out of the log with a screech. The effort made him fall to his knees next to me, breathing hard. He narrowed his eyes.
“What did you say to me, you stupid prig?”
He grabbed my tunic around the neck and hauled me close to his wide, sweaty face, shaking me for emphasis. I took the opportunity to get rid of my drool by spraying it all over that face. The resulting blow to the side of the head and kicks in the stomach were worth it.
Red-hair lost interest in me after a while and staggered back over to the fire. He blathered on for a while about his heroic ancestors before sagging into a stupor. The beefy one curled up on the ground and went to sleep soon thereafter, but Makai stayed up, standing watch.
By now, muzziness clouded my head. If I waited much longer, I would truly become incapacitated. I steeled myself by repeating the word, courage, in my mind before rising to my feet as quietly as possible. With his back to me, Makai toyed with a stick and hummed a tune. His occasional sways told me the alcohol had affected him as well.
At first, the solid earth beneath my feet felt unstable. I walked a few steps forward without making a sound. When I stood right behind him, Makai straightened and whipped around just in time to meet my kick to the head. I gave it all I had, and it connected perfectly. He fell to the ground with hardly a sound. Unbalanced by my bound hands, I fell as well.
Head spinning, I lurched to my feet again. My pack lay in pieces everywhere. The beefy man had pocketed my knife, and my sword lay in Red-hair’s slumbering grip. Shaddai! I couldn’t leave my father’s sword.
I crept forward and, crouching awkwardly, grabbed the hilt with my bound fingers. Standing took a while. Beefy gave a loud snore but didn’t wake. Stumbling a few steps away, I tried to think what to do. With my hands tied behind my back, I couldn’t mount a horse, so I did the next best thing.