THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 2): SAVAGES
The sun beat against her face, lending fire to her veins. A smirk pulled at the corners of her full lips and sweat beaded on her forehead. Hot sand pushed between her toes, unable to burn her calloused feet. Breen stared down her opponent on the opposite end of the ring while the surrounding Delica tribe howled for the fight to begin. Their savage song strengthened her bones and told of her victory.
Breen never lost.
“Are you ready to lose, my betrothed?” Lukerin grinned, stretching the tawny skin of his cheeks. He danced from foot to foot, his weight sinking into the sand.
Breen’s brow furrowed. Lukerin knew very well that their betrothal wasn’t solidified. Though her father, Chief Ruin, urged the young man to stay and win her hand, her heart belonged to no one but her tribe.
“I never lose.” Her fingers itched at her sides. Her heart raced. As long as she was patient, Lukerin would lunge first. He always did.
Lukerin shook his head. His gaze wandered between her feet and her hands, most likely watching for the tightening of her muscles. He tried to guess her movements time and time again, but he had yet to learn she never leapt the same way twice—not with him. The only man to ever best her in a wrestling match; she would keep her guard up at all times and wait for his hasty steps.
“I’ve taken you down before, Breen.”
Sand brushed over his feet as he inched closer. She kept her eyes on his, and his movements in her peripheral. Don’t move, she urged herself. Like a wild jungle cat, as long as she kept still, Lukerin would grow tired of waiting.
“I suppose I’ll have to show you again.”
Breen smiled, her lips quirking to one side. She said nothing.
Lukerin’s grin slowly twisted into a frown, and his brows cinched. There. His impatience betrayed him.
Her opponent lunged across the sand, sending thin grains into the air. Breen leapt from his path, her thick black braids tapping her shoulders and breasts. Lukerin spun, reaching for her wrist. She pulled away, dancing easily from his reach.
“You’ve got to be faster than that,” she taunted.
He leapt again, his movements quick, but uncontrolled.
Breen stepped away once again, but this time, Lukerin spun and slipped his foot behind her calf. Her breath rushed from her lungs as her feet flew from under her. She caught herself on his leather vest, using all of her strength to flip him over her head. Sand assaulted her limbs as she rolled over Lukerin, bringing him onto his back beneath her. Her hands held him down.
“Good try.” She flashed her teeth.
Lukerin growled and flipped her over. His rough hands tossed her like a sack of rice. Hot sand burned her bare arms. She leapt to her feet.
Her not-quite-betrothed waited opposite her. The howling tribe called for more. Their cries lent strength to her limbs, and a grin to her face. Her brothers and sisters, the fellow tribesmen, though not related by blood, encircled the sand ring. A line of dark brown rocks marked the borders.
“Is that all you have?” Lukerin raised his brow.
Breen shrugged. “Why don’t you come and see?”
He took the bait. Leaping through the sand, he grabbed her forearm and twisted; giving her the momentum she needed to fling herself around his torso. Her worn leather tunic pressed against his back as she held her forearm to his throat, gripping her wrist with her opposite hand to keep him immobile. She pressed hard, bringing him to his knees.
“You should have learned by now, Lukerin,” she breathed next to his ear, her voice husky and sharp.
His fingers clawed at her forearm, but she held too tightly. He’d never get the grip he needed to pull her off. Breen took a few deep breaths to still her heart. Any moment, she’d win. Lukerin would tap out, and the fight would be hers.
With a loud grunt Lukerin dove forward, swinging her over his head. Her eyes widened and a yelp pulled from her throat before she could stop it. She flew over his arched back, losing her grip. Her back hit the sand. Air exploded from her lungs.
Lukerin sat back, gasping in air.
Blue sky and a blazing sun shone overhead, stealing the color from her sight. She blinked white dots from her vision and leapt to her feet, dusting sand from her shoulders.
The weight of a wild horse collided with her chest, flinging her feet from beneath her. Breen instinctively latched on to Lukerin’s arm and swung up and over so that her legs wrapped around his neck and she pulled him to ground.
Sand burned her bare skin, but she held on tight, squeezing his neck between her thighs while she pulled his arm back, stretching it at an awkward angle. Lukerin cried out. Though his muscles bulged with the effort to rip her legs away, again, she held too tightly.
“Give up,” she hissed. Her arms strained with the effort to hold his heaving arm in her grasp. If she couldn’t tame his arm, she’d lose her hold.
“Never,” he choked.
They both froze. The savage cries of her tribesmen died as her mother, Kianne, stepped between two of her larger brothers.
Delicate dark brown braids weaved in patterns secured the hair from her face, while thick waves drowned her shoulders and bosom. She smiled, her hooded gaze warm as she motioned to Breen. Thin golden bands upon her fingers glinted in the afternoon sun.
“Enough with the wrestling,” her mother chided. “It’s time for the young ones’ lessons.”
Breen heaved a sigh and slowly released Lukerin. He gasped for breath and rolled onto his stomach, coughing into the sand. She stood, hands on her wide hips as she met her mother’s dark gaze.
“Mother, I’d nearly received Lukerin’s surrender.” She stepped across the ring to join her beautiful mother, clad in a dark blue gown, woven with gold stitching and leather belts.
“Nearly.” Kianne smiled.
Breen frowned. “Lead the way.”
Her mother dipped her narrow chin, the opposite of Breen’s square one, and entered the maze of tents.
The tribesmen clapped her on the back, and sung her praises as she passed them by. Though she hadn’t officially won, it was clear who the winner would be. She grinned, and thanked them, weaving through the few dozen men and women until she crossed the sand between the white tents.
Children younger than five ran between the homes, chasing chickens and swiping wooden swords at one another. Their laughter rose on the hot breeze. They grinned and ducked around Breen and her mother, waving as the small troupe disappeared behind a gnarled bush.
“You really are your father’s daughter.” Kianne glanced over her shoulder, mischief in her eyes. “He always prefers to fight than teach.”
Breen smiled. “I’m sorry I didn’t inherit your gift of lessons, Mother.”
Kianne shook her head. “I’m not. But you could go easy on your betrothed.”
Her joy seeped from her chest. Not this again. “Mother.”
She laughed and waved her ringed fingers. “I know, I know. He’s not your betrothed, simply an observer.” Kianne recited the message Breen had given her parents time and time again.
Though she liked Lukerin and enjoyed his company and their wrestling matches, she couldn’t see a life with him. She couldn’t imagine being a wife to anyone, let alone mothering children yet. She’d gladly strengthen the numbers of the Southern Delica Tribe one day, but at sixteen, she wasn’t ready for either of the things expected of her.
“Exactly.” Breen nodded. “I can’t imagine Father would be all right with me marrying someone I could best in battle.”
Kianne laughed, her voice high like a bird’s. “He wouldn’t.”
The large white tent of her mother’s Lesson Hut, as she called it, rose above the sand, glaring in the sun. Breen narrowed her eyes against the white.
“What shall I teach today?” she asked.
“Your Father insists on more swordsmanship.” Kianne’s shoulders slouched, as if disappointed. She much preferred educating the children on the ways of the tribes, from the plants of the desert, to the wild horses that roamed the distant hills. None of these things kept the interest of babes, but she insisted on teaching them nonetheless.
“Perfect.” Breen grinned.
Her mother narrowed her eyes, most likely sensing a conspiracy. Chief Ruin knew Breen’s passion to train the young ones in battle, and often spoke on her behalf.
The folds of the tent entrance parted and a thin girl of maybe six slipped outside. She glanced back and forth before spotting Breen and Kianne. The girl froze, her eyes flying wide. Aura. She hadn’t been doing well in their battle training, preferring to focus on taming wild horses and identifying the desert fauna she could use to survive. Her large innocent eyes met Breen’s, and her throat bobbed as she swallowed.
She was trying to flee before Breen’s arrival.
“Aura.” Breen inclined a brow. “Where are you off to?”
“Um…” Her eyes darted around the camp, searching for an answer.
“Get back inside.” Breen motioned her in. Aura sighed before she spun back for the shadows of the interior.
“She’s been doing well in all my classes.” Kianne paused by the tent flap.
“Of course she is. Her thumbs are as green as yours.” Breen grinned and her mother laughed.
“She’ll get better with a sword, I’m sure.”
Breen said her goodbyes and slipped inside.
Her whole body cooled in the shadows as she stepped from the hot sand and blazing sun into the tent. Though she preferred the freedom of the outdoors, she had to admit getting away from the sun during the day was a welcome relief.
“Good afternoon.” Breen waved at the dozen children inside. Ranging from six to twelve, the young ones sat in a half-circle at the center of the tent, legs crossed, and dark eyes eager. All but Aura’s.
Breen stepped from the entry and into the main area, rough cloth beneath her bare feet. Furs and tanned pelts lined the walls. Leather flasks hung from a dark brown lattice fashioned from jungle trees.
The Lesson Hut wasn’t the most lavish of tents, but it served its purpose.
“Afternoon, Breen,” they echoed back.
Opposite her small class, Breen placed her hands on her hips and smiled at the group. “We’ve gotten through the basics of holding a weapon and blocking. Most of you have done well and will move on to spar in pairs. This will help get you used to anticipating your opponent’s moves.”
While most of the children grinned beneath their heads of dark hair, Aura’s lips turned into a frown, and her brows furrowed. Breen met her gaze briefly and nodded. She’d teach Aura separately to help her understand the importance of sword skills.
In the past, most children didn’t start learning how to fight until at least eight years old. Their young years were for play, curiosity and exploration. But with Seaburn’s glutinous Emperor ravaging the Savage Lands for soldiers, they hadn’t a choice but to train children younger and younger.
Their tribe needed protection against the Empire raids. Seaburn soldiers took the young warriors, such as herself, and her brethren. If they were one day taken, the younger generations would need to step into their place.
“Grab your swords. Be mindful and pretend you wield iron or steel.” Breen raised her brows and met the children’s gazes. She wanted them to take this seriously. Though right now it was all a game to them, one day it wouldn’t be. “Watch your footing, guard your face, chest, and abdomen. Remember, those are the killing blows. A cut to your arm or leg will only slow you down.”
Each of them leapt to their feet, racing the short distance from the main floor to the edge of the tent where a wooden rack held small carved swords in varying sizes. Though the wood wouldn’t cut them like a real sword, it could still hurt enough to make them think twice about each block and hit.
Once her students paired up, Breen took Aura aside. She plucked a long, curved wooden sword of her own from a nearby rack, and handed a shorter blade to Aura, who twisted her lip nervously between her teeth.
“It’ll be all right.” Breen smiled. She hadn’t always been good with a blade either. Although daughter of the chief, Breen had struggled for many months to learn the most basic of steps. She’d started around the same time as Aura, and could see herself in the young girl’s round eyes.
They stepped near the entrance of the tent, while the other pairs took up the center. Clashing wood, and tiny grunts filled the space, while Breen focused on the small girl before her.
“Hold your hilt tightly, but not with such force your knuckles go white.” Breen demonstrated, her blade a mere extension of herself. “Your sword is part of you, an extension of your arm. Treat it as such, and you’ll move effortlessly.”
She dipped her narrow chin, avoiding Breen’s gaze.
Her brows furrowed as Aura adjusted her grip and parted her feet on the sand, holding her wooden blade straight from her body.
“Relax your elbow, like this.” Breen shook her arm, relaxing her elbow. Her blade crossed a foot from her chest.
“All right.” Her tiny fingers twisted around the hilt and she relaxed her arm.
“Good!” Breen smiled. She could get this. Breen was sure of it. “Now that your sword blocks your chest, you can easily move to block an attack aimed for your abdomen.” Breen slowly thrust her sword forward as if she were going to stab Aura’s chest.
Most likely sensing her intention, Aura shifted the wooden blade to slap Breen’s off course.
Breen grinned. “Excellent! See, I knew you could do it.”
Aura’s cheeks flushed, and she lowered her blade. “It’s still a bit heavy.”
“I know. Usually you wouldn’t start training for another year or two. But you know how deep the Seaburn soldiers have come. They’ve been sighted near the Northern Tribe across the river. I only want you to be ready in case a day comes where I’m not around to teach you. Someone needs to protect the horses you’re so fond of.”
Aura’s brows furrowed and her eyes grew wide. She knew as well as the rest of them, and somehow seemed to understand better than the other children. Once her surprise faded, determination set her gaze. “What next?” she asked.
Breen held her sword aloft, and so did Aura.
“Protect your head.” Breen swiped her sword for Aura’s braids. The small wooden sword shot up to block her attack. “Now your stomach.” She twisted and thrust her blade out. Aura jumped back from reach. “As good a tactic as any.”
“Would you like to try swinging at me?” Breen stepped back into her ready stance.
Aura’s brows shot up, and she glanced from the other children swinging wildly at one another, back at Breen, who waited patiently.
“I’m not sure I can do it.”
“You can. Pretend I’m one of the Seaburn maggots.” They both smiled. “Pretend you’re not only fighting me for the honor of your clan, but for survival. Protect your kin from me. Protect your mother.”
Aura’s lips pressed into a thin line. Her father had been taken two years ago by Seaburn’s army. He’d ventured too far into the jungle blocking the Savage Lands from Seaburn’s great Empire. When he emerged north of the forest, he’d been captured. Aura’s mother had barely escaped alive.
Breen held up her sword as Aura’s fingers tightened around the hilt. The fire of the gods flashed through her dark gaze. It was that fire that gave Breen hope. Aura would one day be great, do great things, fight great battles; her determination and strong will would aid her in this. This mock battle was only the beginning. Someday Aura would mirror her warrior father’s skill in battle.
Aura swung. Though her footing was awkward and she simply hit Breen’s sword, there was determination in her gaze. “Again,” Breen said.
The small wooden sword sliced through the air. Breen blocked the blow for her chest. Aura lunged, thrusting her sword at Breen’s gut. Breen parried, sending the small blade flying from her hands.
Aura’s gaze flew wide, and she breathed hard.
“Very good.” Breen grinned. “Again.”
The small braids at Aura’s cheeks shook as she nodded. She plucked her sword from the ground, and stepped opposite to Breen, raising her blade in the ready stance she’d been taught.
The beating of horse hooves over sand made her freeze. Breen’s brows furrowed as she looked at the edge of the tent, in the direction of the river running to the east. No hunting party had come or gone from the tribe today. No sentries stormed the land, or watched the southern hills.
Then who could it be?
Breen lowered her sword, as did Aura. Her small prodigy followed her gaze.
“What is it?” Aura asked.
Her jaw set and her fingers tightened around the hilt of her blade. “Trouble.”
Breen sprung into motion, placing her wooden sword back on its mount before flying to the door. She peeled the flap of the tent back.
The ground rumbled, and war cries split the hot desert. Her breath caught in her throat. “All of you stay here.” Breen glared over her shoulder, silencing the protests of the older students. “Do not leave this tent, no matter what you hear.”
Wide eyes followed her as she fled the Lesson Hut.
Breen ran across the hot sand as cries of panic rose all around her. Her brethren ran through the tents toward the commotion, curved swords drawn, and scowls gracing their faces. She dove between tents until she reached the largest of the bunch—that of the Chief. She pushed the flaps aside and embraced the cool shadows. Sunlight poured through the opening as she raced between lavish fur rugs, and ornate tapestries her mother had woven.
She found her quarters beyond the main room, the space broken by wooden dividers and jungle cat furs. Breen grabbed her boots from the floor and yanked on the dark leather. She laced them to her calves before tearing her long burgundy sheath from her bedside. Glass jars of candle wax toppled to the floor in her haste.
Her heart raced. Whoever was here—be they raiders, foreign tribesmen, or worse—she had to protect her people. The faces of her students flashed before her eyes. What if one of them wandered from the tent to see what was going on?
They weren’t ready. They wouldn’t be for some time.
Breen fled the chief’s tent, fear and anticipation quickening her movements. She joined her brothers and sisters, sword in hand, boots crushing sand.
Several mothers ushered their children by, pushing them inside their tents, and ripping daggers from the leather sheathes at their hips.
The tribe was united in this. United against anything that dare threaten their home, their family, or their way of life. Gritting her teeth, Breen leapt over the sand to the edge of the Delica tribe’s camp. Steel glinting in the harsh sunlight, she froze atop the slope.
The river stretched to her left, heading east to the sea. On their side of the canal, unheard of before this day, dozens of horses stormed across the open sand. Soldiers clad in metal armor with the gold seal of the Emperor at their hearts, rode the beasts. With swords in their fists, and the flag of Seaburn whipping in the wind, the enemy had finally arrived.
Seaburn had come for them.