THE CHRONICLES OF WARSHARD (book 2): SAVAGES
Swords clashed at the top of the hill. Horses reared and whinnied. Shouts tore across the desert, and panic ensued.
Breen dove between her brethren, nearly twenty men and women on the sand, half as many as the Seaburn warriors. The once wild horses of the hills tore past the tribesmen on all sides, slipping through to the camp, while others engaged in battle.
Her gaze flew from the small matches before her, and the tents at her back. Seaburn soldiers weaved between their homes, searching for something. More soldiers for their army?
Would they dare take the children now?
A snarl ripped from her throat, through her teeth. Fire burned through her chest and licked at her heart. She leapt for the nearest soldier, thrown free of his horse.
The man leapt to his feet, heavy armor slowing his movements. Breen spun and sliced at his chest. His sword rose to block hers. Metal clanged loudly in the chaos. She spun again, faster this time. While men had strength on their side, she had speed. Her blade clanged against his armor this time, denting the metal.
His boot slammed against her stomach, sending her flying. Her breath whooshed from her lungs. Hot sand burned her bare arms, though she hardly noticed it against the anger consuming her chest. Gasping in a breath, she leapt to her feet in time to block the man’s swing. Her lips pulled back and she growled, inches from his face.
He pushed hard against her blade.
She jumped back.
All of his weight toppled forward. She jammed her sword through the break in the armor at his waist. Blood poured from his gut onto the sand. He gasped, wide brown eyes meeting hers. The familiar hooded eyes of a fellow tribesmen met her gaze.
Her breath caught in her throat.
So it was true.
Seaburn was using their own kind against them.
Breen pushed him back, and he slid from her blade. He hit the ground hard, and didn’t get up.
Cries rose from the tents. Breen spun towards them, her eyes wide. No. Not them. Not the children. Panic bubbled in her chest. She fled the battle for the white tents dotting the sand in a wide misshapen circle.
I’m coming, she thought desperately.
She had to save them. Had to protect them. They were her family.
They were children.
Her boots pounded the sand as she ran. Soldiers clad in armor pulled two of her students from the Lesson Hut. Their screams rose above the fighting.
“Stop!” she cried.
One soldier looked up in time for her blade to slice clean through his arm. Her student flew back inside the tent, tears streaking his cheeks. The man’s arm hit the sand, blood sticking the fine grains together.
The soldier shouted in a foreign tongue, his eyes wide as he dropped his sword to hold the stump where his arm once was.
The second soldier spun on her, dropping Aura back to the ground.
“Aura,” she whispered. Rage stabbed her chest like knives. She lunged across the severed arm, blocking the man’s path to Aura. “Stay away from her!”
Aura skittered back, whimpering quietly.
The soldier grinned, his dark hair sweeping across his forehead in the breeze. He spoke in the same foreign tongue. His words were clipped, arrogant and angry. Though she didn’t understand the words, she got their meaning. Breen lashed her sword at his chest. He leaned back, the tip of her blade scratching the metal plate protecting his breast.
“Get back inside,” Breen snapped at Aura. She didn’t dare turn her gaze from her opponent.
The soldier narrowed his eyes and lunged. She leapt to the side, his blade sailing over her shoulder. With all her strength, she tackled him into the sand. Aura crawled back inside the tent while Breen leapt to her feet.
Slowed by his armor, the man rolled to his back. Breen dove, her sword held to his throat. He froze. Her hand trembled around the hilt.
Never had she been so angry. Never had she wanted to kill so badly.
Blood pumped through her veins and angry tears stung the back of her eyes. “You will not hurt my family,” she hissed between her teeth. She pressed her blade closer to his flesh.
Garbled words and a smirk were his only response.
Breen thrust her sword through his neck.
He choked, blood gurgling from the back of his throat and between his lips. His eyes rolled back and he lay still.
The roaring of hooves across the sand stole her victory. She spun toward the noise, her bloodied sword ready. A black-skinned man in golden armor flew toward her. She leapt from his path. The horse flew passed, but the back of his sword slapped her back. She fell face first. Harsh grains rasped her tongue.
She spat the sand from her mouth, rising to her knees.
The ground trembled as the huge man leapt from his horse and hit the ground. Breen glanced over her shoulder as he bore down on her.
Scrambling to her feet, Breen stood in time for him to slice a curved steel blade at her chest. She leaned from reach, giving him time to step into his swing and kick her feet out from under her.
Air exploded from her lungs, and she gasped for breath.
Cold metal pressed against her exposed throat. She froze. Anger seeped from her trembling limbs. No. She never lost.
The man narrowed his dark eyes, his lips twisted in a frown. “You killed my men.” He slurred the words of her language, but she understood.
“Your men would kill mine,” she spat.
Steel pressed closer, nipping and stinging her skin. Something hot dripped down her throat. Blood. She hissed, her teeth snapping together.
His eyes roamed her from head to toe. “You will do.”
“Do what?” The tip of his blade rose from her throat to her chin. She tilted her head until it touched sand, and she had nowhere else to go.
She glared. Her fingers twitched against the hilt of her sword. If only she could get the momentum, she could swing his sword from his hands and jump to her feet. Her chin stung as the sharp tip of his sword cut through, as if he sensed her intention.
“Drop it.” His voice was monotone, deep, and merciless.
She released her hold on her hilt. He kicked it out of reach.
“You’ll pay for this.” She held his gaze.
His dark eyes gave away nothing. “Stand.” He stepped back, the sting leaving her skin. Once given a foot of space, Breen slowly stood, her eyes never leaving the soldier. “Turn around.” She did. “Move.” He poked her spine with his blade.
Her fists clenched. But she listened.
Marching ahead, silence stilled the desert sand. The sounds of battle had died, and the scent of copper wafted through the air. Her heart leapt into her throat. How many had they killed? How many of her tribesmen were dead? Were her parents alive?
Breen stepped through the maze of tents, and into the open where the battle had been. Several soldiers lay dead. Several of her tribesmen joined them. Their blood soaked the sand. Their eyes turned to the blue skies, unseeing.
Her eyes widened and burned with tears.
Between her brethren and the Seaburn soldiers, at least a dozen were gone.
Why must they do this? Why did they wish to steal the lives of her family, and ravage their lands? So many lives had been needlessly lost. And for what?
Breen gritted her teeth against the coming tears. She would not cry. She would not show such weakness in front of these men. Steeling herself, Breen followed where the soldier directed her, to a line of her brothers and sisters kneeling in the sand. The man pushed her to her knees.
Lukerin met her gaze. Blood poured down his face, matting his short dark hair and bathing his harsh cheekbones and angular jaw. His eyes mirrored her sorrow, her fear, and her anger.
Another soldier stepped up behind her, his boots crushing sand. A cold blade pressed against the base of her skull.
The soldier clad in gold stepped to the front of the line of eight. He slipped his sword back into its sheath and crossed his hands behind his back. He walked the line slowly, inspecting them like livestock.
Her lips pulled back in a snarl and her fists shook at her sides.
They were outnumbered. Hardly any of their best warriors remained.
Cries of protest broke the quiet. Several soldiers led the rest of their tribe to the far end of the slope, closer to the tents. Dozens of children, elders, her parents, and some of the older warriors were forced to kneel.
The dark gaze of her father found hers across the sand. The leather band that typically wrapped his forehead was gone. His thick brows furrowed, and his beard trembled as he mouthed words to her.
She nodded. Breen would be the strength their tribe needed. She’d kneel because she had to. She’d kneel because she’d rather die than let these men hurt her tribe. And they would. The spears facing the large group by the tents told her as much.
“These eight will do,” the black man said. He nodded to the guards at their backs.
“We should fight,” Lukerin whispered, barely audible over the breeze.
Breen shot him a glare. “No.” She wouldn’t have his desire for revenge outweigh the lives of those left.
Rough twine encircled her wrists and burned her skin. Gloved hands pulled her to her feet and thrust her down the hill to a smaller pack of soldiers waiting beside two horse-drawn trolleys. Bars of wood created a box atop the back of the carts. Cages. She gulped the lump in her throat.
This is what they wanted. The fighters. The young warriors. Those who would grow and become one with their armies.
Breen shook her head. She had no choice. She had to follow.
The man at her back thrust her forward. She stumbled ahead, but kept her footing. Glaring over her shoulder, Breen cursed them for this. A curse for hurting her family, endangering the children, and for causing fear to stir in her chest. She didn’t know how Seaburn could create such loyal soldiers out of those they called savages. Yet, the men she had fought proved they could.
Clenching her fists, she paced across the sand, the rest of the clan’s warriors following. She’d follow as long as she had to, but then she’d escape.
* * *
The journey from the Savage Lands to Seaburn was long and arduous. Desert sand and hills spread out on all sides. They crossed the river at the single wooden bridge to the east, before turning west to escape the jungle. The trolley bumped along the rough terrain, keeping sleep at bay.
They didn’t stop for food, water or rest. The soldiers were determined. After a full day’s ride, the horses came to a stop somewhere north of the jungle—far from any tribe village. They were on their own. Breen needed to escape.
“We could head for the jungle.” Breen nudged Lukerin’s arm with her elbow. They sat side by side at the back of the cage. Three others accompanied them, while the remainder of the warriors taken occupied the smaller cart behind two dark mares.
“We have no weapons.” He glanced at her, his lips pressed in a thin line. For hours she’d spouted possible plans of escape, but he had yet to agree with any.
“We’ll take them from the soldiers.”
“With our hands tied behind our backs?” He scoffed.
Shouts rose from the soldiers at the front of the party. Breen glanced nervously at them before returning her gaze to Lukerin.
“I can get mine in front of me.” She’d done it before as a test long ago in her lessons with Kianne. Her mother’s foresight had to be excellent, for Breen never imagined she’d need to use this knowledge.
“Without anyone noticing?”
At least thirty soldiers led the party, all on horseback or atop benches at the front of the carts. While maybe a dozen led the way back to Seaburn several feet ahead of their wide wooden cart, fewer stayed behind to watch their captives. She took pleasure in knowing their numbers had diminished since their attack. At least they’d made a dent in Seaburn’s army.
“I may need a distraction,” she admitted.
Lukerin nodded. “What do you have in mind?”
“Make a scene. Shout. Holler. Pretend you’re injured—” She glanced at the blood dried to his face. “—More injured than you are.”
“And what will you do?”
“Get my hands in front of me. When the soldiers check on you, I’ll grab whatever weapon I can and stage our escape.” The dark eyes of the other warriors flickered in their direction. Soldiers at the front of the party dismounted their horses and approached the rear.
So they were taking a break. This was the perfect time to spring an escape plan. They were weary from the journey, sleep deprived and hungry.
Her own stomach rumbled. She narrowed her eyes at the leather covering her gut. Hungry or not, she’d use every last bit of her strength to get away.
Several yards to the south, the dark jungle rose out of the sand, as if by magic. Thick green moss covered visible stones and vines hung from the tall trees, brushing the desert’s edge. How could such dense forest survive in this heat?
“I don’t know, Breen.” Lukerin sighed.
He didn’t meet her gaze. Instead, he stared at the wooden floor of their prison. She’d never seen this side of him before—the side that would give up. She was glad she’d never accepted his proposal.
“Then what do you suggest?” she hissed between her teeth.
“Someone’s coming,” one of the others snapped.
Her teeth clacked together, cutting off their conversation. She leaned back against the bars of the cage. Rough wood dug into her spine.
Foreign mumbling approached. Two men dismounted their horses at the rear of the pack. Another two joined them from the front.
Breen barely held back her snarl. The faces of tribesmen, not her own, but of others to the north. They’d given in to Seaburn. She could never forgive such an act. Her fists clenched at her back. She waited. Maybe they’d move them. Outside this prison would be easier to flee.
“We’re camping for the night,” one of them said. His soulless black eyes looked right through her. “Try anything and you’ll be beaten. Try again and you’ll lose a hand. Try a third time—” He smiled. “—and we’ll bury you in the sand and leave you out here to die.”
She couldn’t help the widening of her eyes. How cruel.
Breen set her jaw. She’d have to choose her moment carefully.
The man slipped a key into the thick metal lock barring their exit. He turned it and the lock clicked. The gate creaked open.
“Out.” He motioned to the sand. “One at a time.”
Three soldiers waited at the man’s back. She sighed. She had no other choice. Slipping from the cart and onto the hot sand, Breen stepped from the trolley, only to be grabbed by one of the men. His rough fingers wrapped her bare bicep. He thrust her forward.
She stumbled, and turned a glare on her captor. He stared back with hard eyes.
What had Seaburn done to these men? They were vacant. Barren of feeling. Did they not see their own brothers and sisters here? How could they go along with whatever this was? How could they obey the Emperor?
The man pushed her forward again.
She didn’t bother glaring.
The others dismounted, led by one soldier each. A small camp formed around them. The sand darkened with the setting sun, casting long scorched shadows over the surrounding dunes.
The soldiers brought tents up on either side of their party, building fires outside each. One remained tall and lavish, most likely for whatever General led them. The other was small, worn beige fabric and brittle polls to hold it aloft.
The soldier leading her grabbed her shoulder. His fingers dug into her skin as he forced her to the ground. “Sit,” he commanded.
Breen’s fingers itched against her restraints. She pulled on the ties, but did as he said, sitting cross-legged on the hot earth. The others joined her until eight of them sat about a foot from each other.
Five soldiers stayed to guard them, surrounding the tribesmen in a small circle.
By the time the camp had risen from the dust, the sun had disappeared behind the horizon. It would take some time for the sand to cool. At least her pants were thick enough to keep her from burning.
Two more soldiers approached their party. “Eatin’ time,” one of them growled. He tossed two burlap sacks and a leather water canister to his comrades.
Another slurred back in the foreign tongue she assumed belonged to Seaburn. The soldiers joined in laughter, while she glanced at her brethren. What was so funny? A soldier kneeled at her back and grabbed the twine at her wrists. It dug into her skin, rubbing her already raw flesh.
She gritted her teeth until a dagger snipped the thin rope and her hands were freed. He stepped away from her and another soldier placed the water canister in her lap.
“Share,” he slurred, motioning at the circle around her.
Irritation flashed through her chest. She nodded.
She wasn’t an imbecile.
Breen uncorked the bottle and took a quick sniff of the contents; just to be sure they hadn’t been poisoned. Nothing but the scent of her own sweat met her nostrils. Fresh water. Finally. Her dry lips parted and she took a deep gulp. Warm water washed down her throat. She sighed blissfully.
Reluctant to give up the water, though knowing she needed to, Breen took one more quick sip before passing it to Lukerin. His brows rose and his hard features relaxed. Relief. Breen sat back
With one of her present concerns cleared, she could think clearly.
Though seven soldiers stood nearby, there were eight of her tribesmen. Even with armed opponents, her tribe should be able to fight their way through them. But they’d need to do it together. Glancing around the circle, Breen assessed the warriors.
Two sisters and five brothers.
Three half-asleep from the looks of their drooping eyes and hunched shoulders. Two on alert and two injured, including Lukerin. With only three ready to fight, including herself, it would be a blood bath.
They’d never be able to pull this off.
Her stomach soured. She still wanted to try. Death might very well be better than finishing the journey to Seaburn. Whatever waited for her to the east, she didn’t want to know.
Lukerin met her gaze. His brows furrowed. He knew she was up to something. She flicked her fingers against the sand, motioning in a circle to the guards surrounding them. He narrowed his eyes. No. He was telling her no. But he wasn’t the Chief’s daughter. She was.
Breen sought out the other two on alert. One sister, Osana, a year older than she, and one brother, Gryn, a year younger. She made sure they were paying attention to her before glancing at the surrounding guards.
Her short-haired sister nodded, determination setting her hard gaze. Osana wanted blood. She wanted escape. She wanted freedom. Just like Breen.
Gryn hesitated, his lips parted as he glanced between the guards and their warriors. He had the same concerns as Breen. They’d be well outnumbered in this fight. But it would be a test of her strength and resolve. All she needed was a sword, and she’d have them.
The soldier behind her stood at attention, though his gaze wandered to the setting sun. He wasn’t paying attention. With his sword held carelessly at his side, she could knock it from his hand and sweep it from the sand before he could attack.
Lukerin shook his head in her peripheral. He knew her plan. Would he try to stop her? Or join in the fight?
It was time to find out.
Breen leapt to her feet and slammed her knee into the guard’s groin. Breath fled his lungs in a gasp as he buckled forward, releasing his sword. She grinned and swept it from the ground, turning back to the enemy.
Lukerin and three of the other tribesmen joined her, sending fists, knees and feet at their opponents.
Yes! They could do this.
Two guards lunged at her, swords brandished. Breen parried the attack of the first, slipping through his defenses and slicing open his gut. Before he hit the ground, she spun to block the swing of the second. A snarl passed her opponent’s lips. He gritted his teeth and thrust her back.
She leapt away, in case he moved to counter. He didn’t. Not right away.
Blood soaked the ground at her feet.
The second soldier swung wide. She stepped from his path and kicked his unarmored knee. The man’s eyes flew wide before he toppled to the sand.
Breen lunged after him, swiping for his hand.
The man cried out as her blade sliced his flesh. He released the sword, giving her a second to work with. Plucking it from the sand, she held both swords to the back of his neck. He froze, mid-crouch.
“Release him, savage.” The black-skinned, gold armored man who’d taken her, held his long curved blade to the throat of the kneeling Lukerin.
Her breath caught. Her heart sped.
“Release him,” she countered.
Osana and Gryn had been taken down, pinned to the earth. Osana met her eyes, an apology on her lips.
Breen shook her head. Damn.
“Release my soldier now,” he commanded. Blood trickled down Lukerin’s exposed throat. He winced.
Breen gritted her teeth, looking left and right. Soldiers stepped up on either side of her. It was no good. She was trapped.
And she couldn’t risk the lives of her tribesmen.
She dropped the swords and stepped away from the soldier. They didn’t hesitate on grabbing her arms and throwing her into the sand. Grains irritated her eyes, nostrils and throat. She coughed them from her lungs and looked up at the gold-clad man.
His boot pushed her head back down.
She gasped, struggling to push herself up.
Two soldiers held her arms behind her back.
She sputtered, sand filling her mouth and throat, stealing her saliva and the sweet relief of the water she’d been given.
“You are no longer a warrior,” the man droned. “You are a slave. You will obey me, and my soldiers. We are your betters. We are your masters. If you want to live, you will listen.”
Breen struggled against their grasp. Her cheeks and eyes burned. She thrashed her shoulders.
“Stop!” Lukerin shouted.
Something heavy hit the ground nearby.
“Silence,” a soldier said.
“You will learn to obey, slave,” the man continued.
Her lungs burned. She couldn’t get air. She was suffocating. Panic lent strength to her limbs, while oxygen deprivation stole her senses. They held her to the ground until pain filled her chest and her movements slowed.
The boot lifted from her skull.
They pulled her up before throwing her back down. Coughs exploded from her chest. She gasped in air, her sides heaving with the effort. She’d nearly died. He’d nearly suffocated her on the sand.
“Let that be a warning.” The man spun on his heels and trudged away from the group of tribesmen.
Weakness seeped into her muscles. Her cheek lay against the earth as she blinked sand from her lashes.
So this was Seaburn. This was their army. Cruel. Merciless thugs.
Her fists clenched around the cooling sand beside her face. She took another deep breath. If this was Seaburn, she needed freedom. Whether she found freedom in life or death—she would soon find out.