The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (3 page)

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

One hundred eighty-six cycles later

Tau stumbled as he avoided the Petty Noble’s swing. He tried to regain his footing, but Jabari was on him and he had to hop backward to survive the larger man’s attack.

“Come on, Tau! You can’t always run!” Aren yelled from outside the fighting circle, the words made indistinct by the booming of the ocean below.

Tau’s sword arm was numb and he couldn’t wait for the day’s training to be done. “I’m baiting him,” he lied as Jabari pushed him closer to the cliffs. Another step and Tau would be out of the fighting circle, losing him the match.

For Aren’s benefit and to prove he’d learned something that season, Tau made a half-hearted attack, cutting for Jabari’s leg, but Jabari bashed the sword aside and launched a counter, catching him on the wrist.

Tau yelped and, having had enough, was about to step out of the circle when Jabari leapt forward, swinging for him. Tau threw himself back, hoping to avoid being hit again, but his heel hit one of the stones marking the circle’s boundaries and he went down with enough force to wind him.

He was on his back, near the cliff’s edge, and the ocean was loud enough to set his teeth chattering. He glanced down and wondered if rolling over and letting himself fall could hurt any worse than his wrist and bruised ribs already did. Far below, the water roiled like it was boiling, crashing against itself and spewing froth. Tau knew falling into the Roar was death.

“Get up, Tau,” Aren said.

He did, slowly and without enthusiasm.

“Look,” Jabari said, pointing to the water.

Tau saw it then. From the ground, he’d missed the boat.

“Are they mad?” asked Jabari.

“What is it?” Aren asked.

Jabari pointed again. “A boat.”

Aren Solarin, Tau’s father and the man in charge of Petty Noble Jabari Onai’s training, walked over. The three men watched the small watercraft bob in the churning waters. “They’ll be lucky if they don’t drown,” Aren said.

“Can you tell who they are?” Jabari asked Tau.

Tau was known for his sharp eyes. “Doesn’t look like one of ours…”

Aren looked closer. “Hedeni?”

“Maybe,” Tau said. “I don’t see anyone on it. It’s heading for the boneyard…”

Waves drove the abandoned ship against the group of rocks, and it was dashed to pieces.

Jabari shook his head. “How did we do it?”

“Do what, nkosi?” said Aren, using the Petty Noble’s honorific as he scanned the sinking wreckage.

“Cross it,” Jabari said. “No ship we make now can sail more than a few hundred strides from shore. How did we cross all of it?”

“Nkosi, perhaps we should save the deep thinking for your tutors,” Aren said, still trying to pick out details that might identify the boat as theirs or the enemy’s. “My concern is your sword work. Let’s go again.”

Boat forgotten, Jabari smiled and moved to the opposite side of the circle, swinging his sword in looping circles. He loved fighting and couldn’t wait to join the war effort.

Aren walked over to Tau, grabbed at the sword belt he was wearing, and pretended to be adjusting it for him. “You need to give everything to this,” he said, almost too quietly for Tau to hear.

“To what end?” Tau asked. “I won’t win. It’ll only drag out the loss and end the day in pain.”

“I’m not asking you to win. That’s not solely in your control,” Aren said. “I’m asking that you fight to win. Anything less is the acceptance of loss and an admission that you deserve it.”

As Tau nursed his wrist, already swollen and likely to welt, his father finished tightening his sword belt, then stepped out of the fighting circle.

“At the ready!” Aren shouted.

Tau looked to the man he was about to fight. Jabari was taller, stronger, faster. The Petty Noble was born that way, and Tau couldn’t see the point in giving his all to a game he knew was unfair.

“Remember, both of you,” Aren said, “by attacking, you push your opponent to defend.”

Tau wasn’t listening. He’d spotted Handmaiden Zuri. She’d just crested the hill, arm in arm with Handmaiden Anya, and he was caught in the sway of Zuri’s hips. It didn’t hurt that the knee-high slit in her dress offered glimpses of calf. Tau smiled and Zuri’s brown eyes danced as she raised a questioning eyebrow at him. Anya squeezed Zuri’s hand and giggled.

Aren raised his fist. “Fight!”

Wanting to impress Zuri, and against his own better judgment, Tau ran at Jabari. The Petty Noble looked surprised by the aggression, but he rose to the challenge and attacked high, too high.

It was a rare opening, and thanking the Goddess for his luck, Tau lunged, sending out a strike that would have disemboweled Jabari if they were fighting with real swords instead of dulled practice ones. The attack didn’t land. Jabari had baited him, expecting the reckless thrust, only to whirl away and off the killing line.

Hitting nothing, Tau stumbled forward and was still trying to get his feet under him when Jabari’s sword belted him below the armpit. The blow knocked Tau further off-balance, drove the air from his lungs, and sent him tumbling, his fall accompanied by Handmaiden Anya’s tittering.

Embarrassed and battered, Tau looked up to see that Zuri, though not laughing, hid a smile behind her hand. Worse, his audience had grown. A High Harvester was standing with the young women.

“Nkosi,” said the Harvester to Jabari, sparing not even a glance for Tau. Tau thought this one’s name was Berko. He was from the mountain hamlet of Daba, where they grew potatoes, tiny, misshapen potatoes. “I’ve come from the keep. Umbusi Onai as well as your father and brother are looking for you.”

Jabari grimaced. He wasn’t close with his older brother and Tau couldn’t blame him. Lekan was self-impressed, condescending, and the single best argument against making firstborns heirs to anything.

“I’m training,” Jabari told the Harvester.

“It’s news from Palm.”

That caught Tau’s attention. News from the capital was rare.

“From Palm City?” asked Jabari.

“Yes, nkosi. It’s the queen… She… Well, she’s dead.”

Anya gasped, Zuri covered her mouth, and Jabari looked dumbfounded. Tau turned to his father but found no comfort there.

“W-who leads the Chosen now?” Jabari asked.

Berko, rail thin but paunchy, with a patchy gray beard, stepped closer. “Princess Tsiora, the second, will be queen.”

“Then, Palm City seeks ratification for her ascension,” said Jabari.

Though it hadn’t happened since he’d been born, Tau had heard of this. New queens asked the Petty, Greater, and Royal Nobles to accept their rule. It was a formality. The Omehia line had ruled since before the time of the Guardians.

Jabari looked to Tau’s father. “Apologies, Aren. I have to go.”

“Of course. Goddess guide you and may She also embrace Queen Ayanna in Her glory.”

Jabari marched for the keep, and Anya, eager to hear the gossip, rushed after him, dragging Zuri with her. Tau didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye.

“She’s a child,” said Berko.

Aren gave the man a look. “What?”

“Queen Ayanna’s granddaughter? She’s a child.”

“Princess Tsiora is of age,” Tau’s father said.

“Cancer.” Berko hawked and spat on the packed dirt of the fighting circle. “Hard to believe things like that can kill royalty. First Princess Tsiora’s mother; now her grandmother. The line grows thin and the princess will need an heir or it’ll be the end of the Omehias.”

Tau spoke up. “There’s her older brother, Prince Xolani, and there’s the younger sister too.”

“Brother doesn’t count and Princess Esi is… unsettled,” Berko told him. “Add all the raids to the balance and it’s not a good time for a child queen.” Berko lowered his voice. “Let’s not forget, it’s been a long time since our queens have been gifted.” Tau had to lean in to hear the last part. “A bit strange that the Omehias can no longer call the dragons themselves, neh?” Tau saw his father stiffen. Berko saw it too. “I’m just saying, is all,” he said, turning to call down the hill to the two Drudge waiting there near a ration wagon. “One Low Common portion and one full portion for Aren.”

“I’m High Common,” Tau said, annoyed he had to correct the man.

Berko shrugged. “And one High Common portion!”

One of the Drudge took two sacks from the wagon and tried to run up the hill. The scrawny man, dressed in little better than rags, couldn’t keep the pace and slowed to a hurried walk before getting to them. Breathing hard from the brief run, he placed the sacks by Tau’s feet and waited to see if the Harvester needed anything more to be done. He kept his head down and Tau couldn’t blame him. The Drudge would be beaten if he met the eyes of his betters, and Tau wasn’t sure the thin man could survive that.

The Drudge’s skin was dark, almost as dark as Tau’s, and his head was a mass of kinked hair. It was forbidden for them to shave their heads like proper men, and his poor state made it hard for Tau to tell what Lesser caste he’d originally come from.

“Tau,” his father said.

Tau gathered up the sacks, making a show of examining their contents, but when the High Harvester looked away, he placed two potatoes near the Drudge. The man’s eyes widened at the unexpected offering, and, hand shaking, he snatched them up, tucking them under the folds of his rags.

“Coming,” Tau said to his father.

The man looked half-starved. He needed food. Tau did too, though. He trained most afternoons and that was hard to do on an empty stomach.

Jabari would have called him softhearted. He’d have said the man’s lot was his own doing. The only Lessers who became Drudge were the ones who didn’t make it into the real military and still refused to join the Ihagu.

Survival rates for Ihagu, the low-level, unskilled fighters who made up the front lines of every battle, were abysmal. Yet, most would say being a Drudge was a worse fate than an Ihagu’s near certain death. When given the choice, almost everyone chose to fight. After all, a lucky few were assigned defensive duty and stationed near the fiefs or cities.

As Tau walked past with the rations, his father put a hand on his shoulder. “Kindly done,” Aren whispered, little escaping his notice. Then, louder, he said, “Take the food home. I need to see the umbusi. With this news from Palm, we’ll want to add more patrols.”

Tau nodded and went to do as he was bid. He made it three strides when he heard Nkiru, his father’s second-in-command, shouting from down the mountain. The muscular man, along with a full unit of the fief’s Ihagu, was running. He was drenched in sweat, his sword’s scabbard slapping at his thigh. It would have been humorous if not for the look on his face. He was terrified.

“Raid! Raid!” he yelled, struggling to be heard over the ocean’s roar. “The hedeni are raiding!”

DUTY

Tau moved to his father’s side as Nkiru arrived.

“Signal smoke, near Daba,” Nkiru said, blowing hard.

“Daba?” asked the High Harvester. “Daba?”

Nkiru ignored him. “‘Hedeni crossing fields,’ that’s the message. They must have landed a war party and climbed the cliffs. If they’re in the farming fields it won’t be long before they’re in the hamlet.”

Tau thought about the wrecked boat. It had been an enemy ship. He marveled at the stupidity and courage of sailing the Roar. How many had they lost to the waters in order to mount the raid?

“Did the message say anything about numbers?” Tau’s father asked.

“No,” Nkiru said. “But if they’ve come this far—”

“Send men. Send everyone,” Berko pleaded. “You can’t let them reach Daba.”

Aren gave orders to the gathered fighters. “Nkiru, Ekon, take the men you have and head for the mountain barracks. Empty it out.”

“Yes!” said Berko, frantic. “I’ll go too. I have to get back home.”

“I’ll make for the keep,” Aren said. “I’ll gather the men there and ask the umbusi’s Gifted to send an edification. We have to call in the military. This isn’t a normal raid. If they’ve come this far, they’ve come in force. The fighters at the mountain barracks won’t be enough.”

“Aren… it’s just us,” Nkiru said. “Lekan won’t let the keep guard come to Daba’s defense. I just left him and he says it’s too risky to send everyone. He’s worried that the hedeni might also send raiders here, to Kerem.”

Aren closed his eyes, drawing a slow breath. “Lekan is not right in this,” he said. “If the hedeni sailed the Roar to get to us, they’ve come to do damage in force. They won’t split their fighters and pick at us. They’ll attack as one. They’ll destroy Daba.” He looked down the mountain, in the direction of the keep. “I have to speak with Lekan. We need the Gifted to call the military and we need enough men to defend the hamlet until the military arrives. We can’t do that with just the men from the mountain barracks. We need the keep guard.”

“He won’t…,” Nkiru said, trailing off and knuckling his sword’s pommel. “Lekan has already called for the military, but he also ordered me to tell you to lead Daba’s defense. He says he’ll see to the keep’s safety.… Aren, he won’t go to Daba, and he won’t let the guards go either.”

Berko shot looks at the men discussing the fate of his home. “What does this mean? What do we do?” he asked.

Aren looked to the sky. It was a cloudless day, merciless in its heat. “We defend Daba,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

Nkiru’s forehead was crinkled with lines of worry, but he turned to the men and did his best to sound eager. “You heard the inkokeli. Move!”

The fighters, Berko, and the two Drudge went up the mountain, making for the Taala path. It was the quickest way to the barracks and to Daba.

“Go home,” Aren told Tau, placing a hand on his shoulder. “I’ll see you when it’s done.”

He squeezed Tau’s shoulder, patted it, and left. Tau stood there and watched his father follow the rest, the lot of them racing against what little time the people in Daba had, before the hedeni were among them.

He’d not seen his father that concerned in a long time. It meant Aren didn’t think they’d hold Daba. It meant there was a damned good chance they’d all die.

“No…,” Tau said. “Not because of Lekan. Not because of that coward.”

He rushed to the closest bit of brush and hid his practice blade and ration sacks. He belted on his sharpened bronze sword, the one that had belonged to his father’s father, and gripped its hilt. He felt the etchings his grandfather had made, spelling out the family name in a spiral that wound its way from pommel to guard. “Solarin,” it read.

Steadied and feeling ready for the task ahead, Tau ran down the mountain, in the opposite direction his father had gone. He went to find Jabari. Lekan might be craven, but Jabari was as decent as Nobles came. He’d help. He’d tell his mother to order the keep’s men to go to Daba, and that would stop Tau’s father from getting killed.

Before long, the Onai’s keep, the largest building in Kerem, came into view. It was two floors tall, had a central courtyard, and was surrounded by an adobe wall that was nine strides high. The adobe was smooth and that spoke to the Onai’s wealth.

“Eh, what’re you about, Tau?” a reedy voice asked from above.

Tau looked to the top of the fortifying wall. It was Ochieng, one of the Ihagu assigned to be a keep guard. Ochieng had always been a blustering oaf, and, a full cycle older than Tau, he’d already reached manhood. He hadn’t passed the test to be part of the real military and had come back from the southern capital with his head low and prospects grim.

He’d been lucky; Tau’s father spoke on his behalf, and on the strength of Aren’s word, the keep guard took Ochieng as one of their own. Most of Ochieng’s family were either dead or Drudge, and if Aren hadn’t vouched for him, Ochieng would have followed in their footsteps. As it stood, Tau felt owed.

“Open the gate, Ochieng. I don’t have time.”

“Don’t have time, neh? Where’s your hurry?”

“Hedeni raid,” Tau said, hoping the news would shock the guard to action.

“Just heard. What’s it got to do with you?”

“I have to see Jabari.”

“He know you’re here?”

“What do you think?” Tau said.

“Don’t know what you’re fooling about,” Ochieng muttered, disappearing behind the wall. A moment later, Tau heard the heavy latch on the bronze gate swing up and away.

“Hurry. In you get.”

“Thanks, Ochieng.”

“Didn’t open the gate for you. Tell Aren I said hello.”

Leaving the gate behind, Tau came to a juncture in the keep’s paths and stopped. Jabari could be almost anywhere, and, worried he was making the wrong choice, he went toward the keep proper and Jabari’s rooms.

He moved through the keep’s yards at a brisk walk, head down, trying not to draw the attention of any of its handmaidens or administrators. Lessers in the keep tended to be women or, if male, they were higher caste than Tau. He’d stand out and didn’t want to be stopped or, worse, prevented from getting to Jabari.

He sped up, eyes on the dirt, anxious to get where he was going, which was why he came near to knocking his younger half sister on her ass.

“What in the Goddess’s… Tau?” said Jelani, unable to keep the surprise from her face. “Why are you here?”

“Hello, Jelani.”

“Don’t ‘hello’ me.”

“Uh… how’s Mother?”

“That’ll depend,” Jelani said, glaring at Tau like she’d found a maggot in her rations, “on what I tell her about seeing you here.”

“I’m looking for… Jabari asked to see me.”

Jelani squinted at him. “Jabari?”

“Yes, there’s a raid in the mountains… the hedeni—”

“He’s in the bathhouse. Find him and leave, before I tell my mother.”

Our mother, Tau thought, inclining his head and hurrying back to the path he hadn’t selected. He swore he could feel Jelani’s beetle-black eyes on his back as he went. She hated having a half-low as a sibling. That’s how she thought of him, half-low.

It made Tau want to yell that he was as High Common as she was. Status came from the woman who bore you, and his name was Tafari, just like hers. It wouldn’t have done any good. Jelani knew their mother wouldn’t have anything to do with him, or Aren.

Pushing his sister out of mind, Tau stepped up to the bathhouse, opened its door, and was hit by a blast of hot scented air. “Jabari?” he said into the fog. He didn’t dare go in. “Jabari?”

“Tau? That you?” said a familiar voice. “What are you about?”

He’d have only one chance to convince Jabari to help. “There’s a fight coming,” Tau said, “and if we don’t do something, the people your family pledged to protect will die.”

Tau heard water slosh around, and then Jabari appeared through the steam, towering over him, stark naked.

“What’s this?”

Lekan hadn’t told Jabari about the raid. Tau corrected that, telling him everything, then begging him to act. “Go to your mother,” he said. “She’s the umbusi; tell her the defense of Daba will fail without more men.”

“Tau, I’m the second son. Lekan’s the one being groomed to command our fief’s men. She won’t go against him on my word.”

“Jabari—”

“She won’t, Tau.”

“We have to do something!” Tau said, struggling to keep his voice respectful.

“I know, I know. There’s a fight coming and my family must protect the people of Kerem.” Jabari clapped Tau’s chest with an open palm. “I have it.”

“Have what?”

“A plan,” Jabari said.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
12.33Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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