The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (28 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
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BLOOD

Scale Jayyed had the highest ranking in both the Southern and Northern Isikolo, and they were about to fight Umqondisi Osinachi’s Indlovu. Scale Osinachi had done well all cycle but had taken a couple of brutal losses to other Indlovu. As it stood, the winner of the skirmish would enter the Queen’s Melee, eliminating their opponent’s chances to do the same.

Tau was lined up with the rest of his scale on the edge of the desert battleground in the Crags. An aqondise from the Northern Isikolo had the war horn to his lips. He blew it and the battle began. Tau ran with his scale for the nearest dune that could offer cover. If they beat the Nobles, they were in the Queen’s Melee. The Queen’s Melee was where he would face Kellan again.

Hadith, crouched beside him, swore as he peeked over the dune. “Char to ashes!”

“What?” asked Yaw.

“They have their Enervator near the center of the battleground. She’s standing on top of the tallest dune with four Indlovu. The rest of the scale is hidden.”

“Then we send men to take her out?” asked Yaw.

“Yes,” drawled Hadith. “That’s exactly what they hope we’ll do.”

“Well,” said Themba, “we remove her or she blasts half of us out of the game when the fighting starts.”

Tau ground a handful of the dune’s sand through his fingers. “They murdered Oyibo in a skirmish.”

Themba shot Tau a look. “What?”

“This is no game.”

Hadith nodded. “We remember Oyibo, Tau. But, for now, we need to know where the rest of Scale Osinachi are, before we do anything.”

“No, we don’t,” Tau told Hadith. “Give me a team. We’ll crawl around, get behind the Enervator, and attack. If we hit hard enough, she’ll have to waste her enervation on the six of us.”

“Weren’t you listening?” Themba said. “There’s four Indlovu with her. She won’t need to hit you with anything. The Indlovu will do the hitting.”

Tau glared at Themba. “You think they’ll stop me?”

“You think no one can?” Themba countered.

Hadith eyed Tau, clicking his tongue. “Right. Do it. Take Uduak, Yaw, Muvato, Duma, and Themba.”

Themba started. “Why me?”

“Because I want to see you fight four Indlovu.”

“Not interested in dying today,” Themba said, but he moved closer to Tau, along with the other men Hadith had assigned to the team.

Hadith outlined the plan. “We hold until Tau’s team launches the attack. If we stay hidden the Indlovu will do the same. When they see Tau’s six men against four of theirs, they’ll think the fight over before it begins. They won’t reinforce and risk revealing their positions.” Hadith spoke faster, becoming excited. “Tau, for this to work, we need the Enervator to hit your team. We can’t attack until her powers are spent.”

Tau nodded to Hadith. He wanted the scale to feel confident. He wanted his words to be bold. “Be ready. It’ll happen fast,” he said as he began crawling toward the battlefield’s center.

“Always does,” Tau heard Themba grumble.

It took a quarter span, crawling to the battleground’s center, but they’d done it and Tau’s team was next to the dune on which the Enervator stood. Tau pointed, indicating they should go farther, the men nodded, and the six slunk to the opposite side of the man-made knoll.

The plan was to attack from the rear, from the side closer to the Indlovu’s starting point. The Indlovu wouldn’t expect an attack from that angle, and the surprise might gain them a few steps. Those few steps could mean the difference between getting to the Enervator and getting blasted.

Tau signaled his men to be ready. They’d round the last bend and charge the dune, engaging the Indlovu and beating them, forcing the Enervator to hit them with her powers or surrender. Whatever she chose to do, it would keep her out of the skirmish for its most critical phase. Hadith and the rest of the scale would attack and it would be fighters versus fighters, no gifts. It was as even as a group of Lessers could make combat against Nobles. A simple plan, a good plan, and it burned to ash.

Tau crawled forward into three Indlovu, also on their stomachs, who looked as surprised as he was. They must have had a similar plan, initiate a small attack and force the other side’s hand. Given how little progress they’d made in their crawl, they’d come up with the plan long after Hadith.

The Indlovu closest to Tau leapt to his feet. “Blood will show!” he yelled, pulling his sword free of its scabbard.

Tau did the same, thinking it strange Nobles had their own war cry and that, even when the Omehi fought as one military, the Nobles still sought to make themselves more.

Blood will show. The words tumbled in Tau’s mind as he spun his dual practice blades. The words were a promise to the enemy. More, he thought, it was a reminder to Lessers that Nobles were different, that the purity of their blood would reveal itself through their deeds as well as their caste.

Blood will show? Blood, Tau wanted to say, will flow deep and heavy like a flooding river, but there was no time. His swords had crossed with the Indlovu’s.

The Noble was taller and much thicker than Tau, which put him in line with a small demon. He, with his shining helm, ornate practice sword, and sand-spattered shield, attacked hard, meaning to sweep Tau aside like a blade of grass in a breeze. Tau slipped past the man’s crescent swing and brought both his swords against the Indlovu’s helm. It sounded like a thunderclap and the Noble stiffened and fell.

Tau engaged the next citadel warrior before the first had hit the sand. The second was cautious. As Tau came within range, he raised his shield. Tau swung with both blades, his double strike clanging on the circle of beaten metal. The Indlovu stabbed out below his shield, aiming to ram his dulled blade into Tau’s gut. Expecting it, Tau turned the bronze away with his weak-side sword while swinging with the other, hard enough to break the Noble’s leg. The citadel fighter dropped with a yell and Tau launched himself at the third man, who turned and ran.

Tau gave chase.

“No!” shouted Uduak.

Blood will show. The words banged around in Tau’s head as he ran down the Indlovu. Blood will show. Like dried sticks, he would break their pride on the blade of his sword, he would… Tau skidded to a halt. Including the running man, who had stopped running, eight Indlovu faced Tau. They had come around the dune, and by the time he’d seen them, it was too late.

Tau shot a look up the sandy hill. The Enervator and her four were gone. He looked behind. Uduak, Yaw, Themba, and Muvato were fighting three Indlovu.

Tau counted. Two down, three behind, eight in front. It meant five Indlovu, and the Enervator, were unaccounted for. They would go for Hadith. It had been Tau’s job to stop her. He’d failed and she’d be free to unleash her gift on the rest of his scale.

Tau lowered his swords and heard laughter. It was the Indlovu who had run from him.

“We’ve heard of you, Common,” he said. “We heard you played swords with Kellan Okar. How did that go?” He laughed again. “Probably better than this will.”

The eight men closed in, the laughing Indlovu smirking, and from the looks on their Noble faces, Tau knew the Goddess’s mercy would mean nothing. Their war cry tossed around in his head, “Blood will show.” The words held more than one meaning. Tau raised his swords, bared his teeth, and told the eight Indlovu the truth. “I have come for you, and I bring Isihogo with me.”

He charged. The laughing man was closest. He was also the most prepared. Tau closed the distance between them, the laugher swung, and Tau darted outside the arc of his blade, crossing his swords in an X and leaping on the Indlovu behind the laugher.

The collision knocked the second man back, and Tau’s blades fell on either side of his neck, beneath the protection of his helm and above his leather armor. Tau sliced as hard as he could, the dulled edges of his swords drawing cuts just above the man’s collarbones. The Indlovu’s neck spurted blood and he screamed, dropping his weapons and grabbing for his throat.

Tau spun into the next man, hoping to take him down before the seven remaining Indlovu could encircle him. This Indlovu was staring, slack-jawed, at the blood pulsing from his sword brother’s neck. Tau stabbed him as hard as he could. His practice sword could not pierce the Indlovu’s thick leather armor, but the strike was vicious and Tau felt the man’s ribs break. The Indlovu stumbled and Tau, sensing danger, spun again, whipping his sword around. He missed the laugher, who had come from behind, but Tau carried through with his spin’s momentum, catching the one with the broken ribs in the side of the head and sending him flying into the dirt.

The laugher traded his smile for heavy attacks that came with surprising speed. Tau blocked three of the man’s cuts, saw him pause, knew he was being baited, and ducked. A sword whizzed over Tau’s head and he backpedaled, slamming his elbows into his unseen attacker’s chest. The attacker wheezed and Tau stood to his full height as fast as he could, smashing the top of his head into the man’s chin. He heard the Indlovu’s teeth click together and Tau’s head was spattered with sticky wetness. Tau broke away from the man and faced him, ready to continue the fight.

The Indlovu had bitten off the tip of his tongue and his mouth was a soup of blood. Tau went for him, punching the pommel of his sword into the man’s throat stone. He gurgled, reeled back, and collapsed, as Tau was struck from behind.

Tau spun. It was the laugher. Tau caught the man’s follow-up, but his back burned from the cut he’d taken. The laugher struck again; Tau blocked and was hit on the helmet by one of the other Indlovu. He staggered, then threw a shoulder at the nearest man, trying to break free of the circle in which they’d trapped him. The Indlovu he ran into was as solid as a mountain, and he pushed Tau back.

With no choice but a bad one, Tau moved to the center of the five men surrounding him. The laugher pointed to someone behind Tau and waved the rest forward. Tau spun, blocking the jab aimed for his spine, spun again to stop a head strike, and barely blocked a third blade, arcing for his neck, with the tip of his weak-side sword.

He leapt forward, engaging the laugher, slicing the bastard across the cheek before the Noble could totter out of reach. He whirled to engage the next man and was hit from behind and cut on the calf as the five Indlovu took turns harrying him or fighting defensively, avoiding injury while keeping him trapped between them.

He roared, spinning this way and that, crossing swords with any who came close, taking cuts on his arms and legs and bleeding from everywhere. They couldn’t get a clean hit, but they had him penned in and it was only a matter of time.

The laugher, blood and sweat streaming down the side of his face, smiled. “Kill him,” he said and all five attacked.

HISTORY

With no chance to beat them all, Tau went for the laugher. The Noble tried to block but wasn’t fast enough, and Tau’s sword smashed into the wrist on his shield arm, breaking it, twisting the man’s smile into a wide-mouthed scream.

Tau pushed on, his other sword lashing out, taking the laugher in the same cheek he’d cut earlier, this time splitting it like a tent’s flaps. The Noble fell back and Tau had his escape. He took a step, was hit on the back of the head, saw stars, and found himself on his knees. He tried to stand but was kicked to the ground. He rolled, was kicked again, and a dull blade hammered into his side.

Pain blossoming, Tau tried to scrabble away. He’d lost one of his swords. Could see it. It was a few strides distant. His head was pounding, making it hard to think. He needed his sword, crawled for it, and was kicked back to the dirt.

Nothing left and tasting copper on his tongue, he rolled to his back, looking up at a cloudless sky. The hot sand burned him through the worn patches in his gambeson, and he lay there panting, somehow finding the energy to turn his head and spit blood as the silhouettes of four Indlovu moved to stand over him.

He squinted, trying to see their features past the brightness of the day. He reached for his remaining sword. It was gone.

He’d done well, though, he thought. There had been eight at the start, eight Indlovu in leather armor. And the one with a missing tongue tip, he’d never speak properly again.

“Kill him!” shrieked the laugher from somewhere beyond the four Indlovu. “Kill him!”

“To the Cull with you,” Tau said, his words coming out slurred, making him think the hit to the head had been worse than it felt. He saw a sword rise into the air and kept his eyes open, watching it. He’d died before, he thought, trying to convince himself that doing it one last time wasn’t special.

“The world burns!” came a shouted mishmash of voices, and the sword, raised above him, came down and into a defensive position.

The four silhouettes closed in around Tau, and he tried to sit, to see what was happening. He couldn’t move, though, not with his skull throbbing itself to pieces. He turned his head, seeing stuttering afterimages as he did, seeing the shuffling of Indlovu feet, seeing their heels. They had turned their backs to him.

He heard the clang of swords, and one of the Indlovu tripped, falling on him. The Noble’s weight made it difficult to breathe and Tau tried to push the man away. He couldn’t. He had no strength left. Another Indlovu fell beside him. This one’s eyes were glazed, unseeing.

“Goddess’s mercy! Mercy!” called out a Noble, his voice tight. Tau was facing the man’s heels, which, as Tau blinked, turned into the soles of leather shoes. The Noble had gone to his knees and dropped his sword. Another blink and the man was pushed into the dirt, facedown, beside Tau.

“I’ll have your heads!” That was the laugher, no mistaking his voice.

Tau twisted his head in that direction, lights flashing behind his eyes in time with the throbbing in his head. The laugher was fighting Uduak, Hadith, Kuende, and Mshindi.

He was focusing on Kuende and Mshindi. Not surprising. The two men had shared a womb, they fought like they could read each other’s minds, and their preferred weapons were absurdly long swords that always caught an opponent’s attention. Still, Tau thought, the laugher was making a mistake, focusing on the twins instead of Uduak or Hadith.

Hadith smashed his shield into the laugher’s back, pushing him toward Uduak, who clubbed him, putting him down hard.

“Blood… will show,” Tau slurred, the words striking him as funny. They’d won, somehow. They’d beaten the Indlovu, made it into the Queen’s Melee, and it had been Hadith’s doing. Tau had, as far as he could tell from his position in the dirt, mostly taken a beating. He wanted to laugh, started to, and then the darkness took him.

“Never seen the like,” Tau heard a voice say. “There were eight of them. Eight! I wasn’t so close, but I was close enough to see him holding them off.” It was Anan speaking.

Tau forced his eyes open and had to squint. It was day and bright, but there was no sky. No, that wasn’t right. There was a sky. Tau was in a tent.

“I didn’t see it. I was positioned to see Hadith tackle the group with the Gifted.” That was Jayyed.

The only tents in the Crags this big, thought Tau, were the infirmaries. There were a couple for Lessers and one extra-large and well-equipped one for the Nobles.

“Foolish of them,” said Anan, “to send five Indlovu against forty-nine of us.”

The tents were open on the sides. Tau hadn’t turned his head, but he knew that. Still, it was bloody hot. Bloody bleeding hot.

“Truth? I thought it was clever,” Jayyed told Anan. “It would have worked on any other Ihashe scale. How many men would you use to assault a Gifted’s position, if you saw she had four Indlovu with her?”

Tau let his eyes close. His head still hurt and it felt like it was twice its normal size.

Anan grunted. “You think they expected more men to splinter off?”

“You would have sent more men,” Jayyed said. “I would have sent more men. Hadith, though, Hadith sent Tau, Uduak, and four others.”

Anan chuckled. “Goddess take me, but I swear I’d let a Sah priest snip away one of my seeds to have seen the faces of those five Indlovu when they dashed round the dune and charged into forty-nine Ihashe!”

“The entire crawl over they must have been thinking how easy it would be,” Jayyed said. “They’d show up, their Gifted would blast as many fighters as she could, and the five Indlovu would take care of the few she couldn’t hit. Then they’d go back to help the men they left as ambush.”

“Eight Indlovu,” said Anan, awe in his voice. “He ran after their inkokeli and into seven others. Then he fought them!”

Jayyed chuckled. “You say it like he won.”

“You didn’t see it, Jayyed. I know we’ve watched him in the practice yards. What he does… What he… It was eight Indlovu, though, eight… and he had me believing he could do it. A Noble lost most of his tongue. The other still hasn’t woken from the knock Tau gave him… and their inkokeli? Goddess wept, you can see into the fool’s mouth through the hole in his cheek.”

“Tau is exceptional, I’ll grant that. He’s no Ingonyama, though, and, being foolish enough to fight eight men, he’s lucky to have come out of it with little more than scrapes, cuts, and a demon of a headache. He’ll be fine, this time, but if the Indlovu had three more breaths alone with him we’d be attending a burning tonight instead of a celebration.”

“Ack, an inyoka has warmer blood,” Anan said, “but I know you, and I’ve never seen you as proud.”

There was a pause. It was long enough that Tau thought it might be a good time to let them know he was awake.

“I’m not sure I have been,” Jayyed said.

Maybe it wasn’t the best time. Tau heard footsteps and then shuffling feet as Jayyed and Anan turned to face whoever was approaching.

“Umqondisi. Aqondise.” That was Hadith.

“Hadith, Uduak, Chinedu, Yaw, well met,” said Jayyed.

“Awake?” Uduak asked.

“Not yet.”

“Why is his head wrapped?” said Yaw. “Was his skull cracked?”

That was, Tau realized, why his head felt so damned heavy. It was bandaged.

“Nothing broken,” said Anan. “The bandages are to hold down swelling and to stop the bleeding. Scalp cuts bleed like a woman on her moon.”

Tau had had enough of people talking about him. He turned his head toward the voices. “I’m awake,” he rasped. “Can’t sleep with Uduak’s booming voice in my ear.”

“Not near an ear,” rumbled Uduak.

“Tau!” said Chinedu, coughing. “We… did it!”

Tau knew, wanted to hear it anyway. “What?”

“The Queen’s Melee!” answered Yaw, throwing a fist in the air. “The Queen’s Melee! We’re in!”

“First time in…,” started Hadith. “How long has it been?” Tau was sure Hadith knew how long it had been to the day.

“First time for Lessers in twenty-three cycles,” Jayyed told them. “And the Ihashe have never placed at the melee. Never.”

“Time for new traditions,” Hadith said.

“The world burns,” said Yaw.

“It will,” Tau promised, receiving broad smiles from everyone but Jayyed, who looked away.

“Goddess’s eyes, Tau,” Yaw said, “why’d you charge into eight Indlovu?”

“I was chasing one,” Tau told him. “Didn’t know he had friends.”

His sword brothers laughed.

“Good to know you’re not completely mad,” said Hadith.

Yaw wore a large grin. “I’m telling it the other way. In my story you see all eight of them and you charge! I was there, wasn’t I? Who can say it went different?”

Hadith shook his head. “You and your stories.” He turned to the big man. “Uduak?”

The big man nodded. “Thirsty.”

Hadith stroked his chin. “Thought you might be.”

“Only one thing… for it,” said Chinedu, coughing and grinning.

“Only one thing,” echoed Yaw.

Hadith looked to Tau. “Drinking houses and celebration. We achieved something that may not earn us a page in the history books, but it merits a footnote and a hangover, at least. Tau, if you can stand, you can drink.”

“You’re not at risk of punishment for the duel,” said Jayyed. “Kellan Okar did not seek restitution and the time allowed for him to do so has passed. Make no mistake, if you go to the city, and I’m not sure I should allow it, you need to be careful.”

Tau considered going. He needed to see Zuri, but Jayyed’s mention of Kellan Okar took him to darker places. He thought about the beating the laugher and his seven Indlovu had given him. They’d intended to kill him and he’d been unable to stop them. He needed more time in Isihogo.

“Not sure I can handle enough liquor to split costs with you drunks,” Tau told his brothers.

They looked disappointed, and Hadith wasn’t ready to surrender. He tried another angle. “Tau, take the day to yourself. It’s earned. We have time. It’s two moon cycles to the melee.”

“Yes,” Anan added. “Today you lot secured our place. Means we don’t skirmish again until the melee. That’s good for us. We can focus on training hard and careful. No injuries and a well-rested scale, ready for the real show.”

“Both the Northern and Southern Isikolo as well as the citadels will attend the melee,” Jayyed told them. “It’s the largest gathering of initiates in each cycle. The Guardian Council will be in attendance and even the queen will come to observe. It’ll be a difficult contest but I can’t say I’m not excited to be participating instead of watching.”

That settled it. “Aqondise Anan, are any of the other scales returning to the isikolo?” Tau asked.

Anan hesitated, probably thinking Tau should celebrate with the others. “Some of the scales that came to watch will leave soon. The second skirmish is under way and I imagine they’ll march once it’s over.”

“May I return with them? I hope to rest and return to training as soon as possible.”

It was Jayyed who nodded assent, and Hadith, his opportunity to sway Tau gone, sucked his teeth. Tau appreciated that his sword brothers wanted him with them. He had to go back, though. He had to be ready if he was going to kill Kellan Okar in the Queen’s Melee.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
5.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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