The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1) (4 page)

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

“There,” Tau said, pointing at a flickering light in the distance. “Do you see it?” The light was bright against the evening’s darkness, but he was never sure how far Jabari could see.

“I see it,” Jabari said. “They’re burning Daba.”

He picked up the pace, and Tau, lungs raw from running, struggled to keep up with his friend’s longer strides.

He couldn’t believe he’d gone along with Jabari’s plan and tried not to think about what they’d find when they got to the hamlet. “What if this doesn’t work?” Tau asked. “What if they don’t come?”

“They’ll come.”

Before leaving the keep, Jabari had gone to its barracks and told everyone he was going to Daba to defend the hamlet. The highest-ranking guard in the room tried to reason with him, but he wouldn’t be swayed.

It was clever. Jabari couldn’t countermand Lekan’s orders, but the guards were bound, on pain of death, to protect every member of the Onai family. By letting them know he was putting himself in harm’s way, Jabari was forcing them to organize and send an honor guard to protect him. Tau hoped the extra men would be enough.

“Swords out!” Jabari said as they came over a hill. Tau pulled his weapon free, looked down on the hamlet, and froze.

Daba sat on a plateau with natural borders. The most obvious border was four hundred strides directly ahead. There, the plateau became mountainous again and the rock continued its climb to the clouds. To Tau’s right, and roughly eight hundred strides away, was the hamlet’s central circle. Beyond it, the plateau ended in a series of steep but scalable cliffs that dropped toward the valley floor. On Tau’s left were the raiders.

The hedeni had come from the paths leading to Daba’s growing fields, and they had burned half the hamlet already. The flaxen roofs of the larger houses were on fire, and in the night’s dark, the flames silhouetted the fleeing women, men, and children of Daba.

The Ihagu, Aren’s men, were fighting a series of skirmishes between the hamlet’s tightly packed homes and storage barns. They were outnumbered and losing ground but could only go so far. The hedeni were herding everyone to the cliffs.

Tau didn’t know what he’d expected, but this wasn’t it. Scarred and disfigured, marked by the Goddess’s curse, the hedeni held either bone spears or bone-and-bronze hatchets and chopped at the Chosen like woodcutters. They used no recognizable fighting stances and their attacks followed no rhythm or sequence. Worst of all, the Ihagu had been reduced to fighting just as savagely. Both sides hacked at each other, and every so often someone fell back, dead, wounded, or maimed.

“What is this?” Tau asked, his voice too low for Jabari to hear.

“There,” Jabari shouted, running down, not waiting to see if Tau followed.

Tau tracked his path and saw three of the raiders harrying a woman and child. Jabari yelled, charged in, and Tau chased after him.

By the time he reached the flats, Jabari had already engaged two hedeni. They were circling to his sides, trying to get between him and the woman and child.

Tau went for the third savage, arcing his sword in a blow meant to decapitate, but the wretch brought up a hatchet and blocked the strike. The raider, a mass of dirty hair and mud-caked skin, blundered forward, swinging the weapon low, aiming for Tau’s thigh.

Tau leapt back, fear lending him speed, and the hatchet’s blade hissed past his kneecap, a hairsbreadth from taking his leg off at the calf. Blood pumping and desperate to shift the fight’s momentum in his favor, Tau attacked. He stabbed out with his blade, aiming for the heart, and, as he’d been taught, kept his eye on the target, ready to react when the hedena dodged.

The collision, then, was a surprise. Tau’s blade plunged from tip to hilt, into and through his opponent’s chest. The savage had made no move to avoid the sword’s point at all.

Tau didn’t understand. The lunge had been obvious. It wasn’t a serious killing blow. Anyone with decent training would have avoided it.

He looked into the face of the person he’d stabbed. The woman’s eyes were big and wide, staring off at something in the distance. Her mouth, full-lipped, formed a gentle O, and the raider’s hair, dreaded by lack of care, hung down her scarred face.

Tau pulled back in revulsion, but his blade wouldn’t come free. The woman—or girl; he couldn’t tell—cried out as the bronze ripped her insides.

She reached for Tau, perhaps to hold him close, hoping to halt the blade’s bitter exit, and her fingers, bloody already, touched his face. She tried to speak, lips flecked with spittle, but her life ran its course, and she sighed before the weight of her lifeless body pulled Tau to the ground.

“Tau!” Jabari’s voice sounded far away. “Are you hurt?”

“No… I—I hurt her, I think,” Tau heard himself say.

“Get up. More are coming. We have to make it to the rest of our men,” Jabari said. “Is that your blood?”


“Your face.”

Jabari and the woman and child were staring at him. The two hedeni men who had faced Jabari were dead.

“It’s not me,” Tau told them. “Not my blood.”

“We have to go,” said Jabari.

Tau nodded, struggled to jerk his blade free from the hedena woman’s body, took a step, doubled over, and retched. Nothing came up. He retched again, his stomach still heaving when he forced himself upright. The child was staring at him. He wiped his mouth with the back of his blood-streaked hand. “Fine,” he said. “I’m fine.”

Jabari looked Tau over and began moving. “We have to go.”

Tau followed, looking back once. The woman he’d fought lay in the mud like a broken doll. He’d never killed someone. He was shaking. He’d never—

“This way,” said Jabari as the four of them weaved between huts and buildings, doing their best to avoid the fighting all around them.

Jabari was heading toward the barricade that the Ihagu had set up at the edge of the hamlet’s central circle. They’d used overturned wagons, tables, even broken-down doors to block the paths that led to it. They were making a stand. They wouldn’t last. There were too many hedeni.

“In here!” Jabari shoved the woman, who had picked up and was carrying the child, through the open door of a hut. He dashed in after her and Tau was right behind.

The hut was far larger than the one Tau shared with his father. It must belong to a High Harvester. Maybe even Berko, he thought, as the first hedena warrior burst through the doorway.

The man, hatchet out, made for Jabari. He didn’t see Tau and Tau sliced at him, cutting into his arm. Hollering in pain, the raider stumbled into the nearest wall, and Jabari stabbed him in the gut.

The next hedena through the door had a spear. It was a woman. Tau knew the hedeni fought women alongside men. He knew it like he knew he had ten toes, but seeing a second female fighter gave him pause.

He should attack. He didn’t. She thrust her spear at him and it would have taken out his throat if Jabari hadn’t reacted, knocking it from her hands.

She drew a dagger from her belt. Tau remained rooted, noticing instead that she wore no armor. She had on an earth-toned wrap that covered her breasts and looped round her back, where it dove into loose and flowing pants. She was sandaled and her hands were bangled, the golden metal bouncing on slim wrists as she flicked her dagger at Jabari.

Jabari danced back. She came forward and Tau saw his chance. He was behind her. He just had to kill her.

On weak knees, Tau stepped forward and swung his sword as hard as he could, sending the flat of his blade hammering into the side of her head, knocking her down. Jabari followed up. He kicked the dagger from her hand and leapt on her, pressing his sword to her neck.

“You speak Empiric?” Jabari snarled. “How many ships did you land on our shores? How many raiders?” He pressed the point of his sword into her neck, drawing blood. “Speak or die!”

She looked frightened but spat in Jabari’s face, closed her eyes, and began to spasm. Jabari scurried back, making distance, as her skin, already scarred by the Goddess’s curse, bubbled and boiled. Blood erupted from her nose, ears, mouth, and eyes, and she began to scream and scream and scream. Then, like a candle blown, her life was gone, snuffed out.

The Lesser woman let out a choked gasp and turned away, holding the child closer. The child was crying. Jabari was still as stone, watching the dead savage with wide eyes.

He turned to Tau, mouth open, brow furrowed. “Demon-death,” he said. “Your father told us it’s what they do when captured. I didn’t believe it.”

Tau could think of nothing worth saying.

Jabari stood, wiped the savage’s spit from his face, and stumbled away, using the wall for support. Tau, along with the woman and child, followed. Jabari bashed out a shuttered window at the back of the building and they crawled out of it, emerging in the middle of a circle of tightly packed homes.

In front of them was a storage barn, and they were still a hundred strides from the Ihagu’s barricade. Jabari tried the barn’s door. They hadn’t been seen and could go through the long building. With luck, they’d come out a short run from the barricade and the rest of their people. Jabari broke the door’s lock and they went in.

The storage barn was large, but its interior was tight, crammed with shelves, most empty. That was bad. It was almost Harvest, and if the storehouse was any indication, the Omehi would have trouble feeding their people.

As they slunk through, Tau began to have trouble breathing.

“What are you doing?” Jabari asked.

He couldn’t stop panting and felt dizzy. “Too close,” he said about the shelves and walls.


Tau squeezed his eyes shut. It didn’t help and he couldn’t get enough air. He stopped moving, unable to keep going, when a cool hand slipped into his.

“It’s a few more steps,” the Lesser woman told him. “Keep your eyes closed. I’ll guide you.”

Tau nodded and stumbled after her.

“Ready?” asked Jabari.

Tau, still nauseous, opened an eye. They’d walked the length of the storehouse and were at its front doors. “Hurry,” he said, wanting nothing more than to be outside.

“If the Goddess wills, we’ll have a clear run for the barricade,” Jabari said. “We make it there and we’re safe.”

Tau wasn’t sure anywhere in Daba could be called safe. He’d seen how many hedeni were out there.

“Ready?” Jabari asked again.

The woman, eyes wide, nodded.

“Go!” Jabari yelled, kicking the door open.

Tau pitched his way through, fixated on being free of the barn, and ran into a startled hedena. He bowled the man over and Jabari stabbed the downed savage. There were four, maybe five other raiders, but they were fighting Ihagu. Jabari joined the fight, and Tau, head spinning, grabbed the woman’s hand, pulling her away.

The barricade was just ahead and he made for it. The woman, carrying the child, was slowing him, and he could picture raiders running them down. Gritting his teeth, he tightened his grip on the woman’s hand and pulled her after him. The men behind the barricade saw him coming. Tau thought he recognized one of them, but the blood caked on the man’s face made it hard to tell.

As they hit the barricade, the man shoved aside a pile of overturned chairs, making a climbable path for Tau and his two charges.

“Your turn now,” the bloody-faced Ihagu yelled, after the woman and child were behind the ramshackle wall.

“Tendaji?” Tau asked.

“Tau?” said Tendaji. “What are you doing here? Never mind, climb up!”

“Can’t. Jabari is still out there.”

“Jabari’s here?” The shock in Tendaji’s voice spoke volumes.

Tau nodded, and with fear grasping at his guts, he forced himself to turn and run back to the fighting. He didn’t have to go far. They were coming to him.

Jabari was bleeding through the arm of his gambeson and the other warriors carried one of their own.

“I’m well,” said Jabari, waving off Tau’s concern. “Let’s get behind the barricade.”

Tau helped carry the wounded Ihagu to the wall.

“Jabari?” Tendaji said, mouth dropping open. Tau had warned him, but actually seeing one of the heirs to the fief in the middle of a raid must have been too much for him to accept.

Tendaji helped lift the wounded man and then helped Tau and Jabari. Once the last fighter was over the barricade, they shifted the rubble back in place, blocking the way.

Behind it, Tau had hoped to feel safe. He didn’t. Most of the Ihagu were injured, the ones fighting at the contested sections were being overwhelmed, and the townspeople were frantic.

Looking beyond the barricade, Tau saw that the hedeni were being heavily reinforced, and possibly a hundred more of them were racing down the paths and into the flats. Tau looked to Jabari, and for once, the optimistic second son looked worried. This was not a battle they could win. Even Jabari’s honor guard, if they made to Daba before everyone was dead, would only slow the inevitable.

“Get back, nkosi,” Tendaji cautioned, remembering Jabari’s honorific this time. “They’re coming.”

“Let them,” Jabari said, stepping up to the barricade.

Tendaji looked like he would say more. Instead, he shifted, making room.

Tau stepped up on Jabari’s other side. “For the queen,” he said with little conviction, which was still more than he felt.

“For the Goddess,” intoned Jabari and Tendaji together. The three men hefted their weapons. The barricade wouldn’t hold and they wouldn’t last, not against the number of hedeni coming for them, but they’d give a good accounting of themselves.


The first wave of hedeni hit the barricade, and it was madness. Tau stabbed and swung at limbs and faces. He sliced away someone’s fingers, praying they’d come from an enemy’s hand; was almost scalped by one of the raiders; and barely managed to push away a third before she could climb onto his side of the barricade.

It didn’t matter. There were too many. There had always been too many. It was why the Goddess had blessed her Chosen with gifts. It was why she had given them dragons.

The burst of fire exploded a hundred strides in front of the barricade, singeing Tau’s eyebrows. He threw himself back, away from the searing heat, and as soon as he regained some semblance of sense, he saw that Jabari and Tendaji were on the ground too. Tau tried to speak. His spit had been cooked away.

“Guardians!” yelled a hoarse voice from farther down the barricade. “Guardians!”

His vision swimming, Tau looked up and saw his first dragon up close. The behemoth, its body a mass of pure-black scales that drank in light and twisted the eye, ripped through the air. Tau watched it course toward the hedeni, sinuous tail trailing behind, lashing the smoke from Daba’s fires to hazy shreds.

When it was close enough, the black creature opened its maw and lit the evening with a twisting pillar of sun-bright flame, thick as three men. Tau tottered to his feet and climbed the barricade, watching the dragon’s chain of fire explode against the ground. The hedeni who were hit were vaporized, and the dragon flew on, past Daba’s plateau, turning for another pass.

“Tau?” said a voice he would recognize anywhere.

“Father,” he said, turning to face Aren Solarin.

“Why, Tau?” his father asked. “Why?”

Tau’s mouth opened and closed, no words coming.

“After I heard about the raid, I sought him out and ordered him to accompany me,” Jabari lied. “It’s my duty, as son of the umbusi, to fight with my mother’s men. I know I’m not yet an Indlovu, but this is my place, and I couldn’t come alone.”

Aren eyed Jabari and shouted to the nearby listeners. “Shore up the barricades! The Guardians won’t do us any good when the hedeni are mixed in with our own people.” The gawkers snapped into action. “Jabari, as inkokeli of your mother’s fighters, your place is best decided by me. By coming here, you’ve risked your life.”

Jabari was forced to nod, accepting as strict a chastisement as Aren could give him. Tau looked down and away. The words were also meant for him.

“Please, Aren, accept my apologies,” Jabari offered. “I’m only doing what I believe I must.” He lifted his chin and seemed to stand straighter. “I also went to the keep barracks. The guard knows I’m here. They’ll send men.”

Aren grunted. “Ill-advised, but smartly done. My men and I thank you for it. Now, stay back from the fighting.” He marched away to give his men more orders. “It would break my heart to have to tell your mother that you’d died.” More words meant for Tau.

“Ihagu,” Aren shouted. “Form up and help the townspeople carry what they can.” Everyone began moving. “If the Gifted have enough reason to call the Guardians, it means we must run.”

“Run?” Jabari asked Tau.

The roar of several hundred foreign voices answered in Tau’s place, and the two men stepped onto the barricade in time to see the full force of hedeni raiders charging in their direction.

“Goddess…,” said Tendaji, his voice little more than a whisper against the howling tumult racing their way.

“Away from the barricade,” ordered Tau’s father. “Run. Now!”

Jabari was off the barricade first, Tendaji and Tau right behind. Needing little encouragement from the Ihagu, the townspeople abandoned everything but their loved ones, and they ran too.

“We’re being herded,” shouted Jabari. “When the flats end, we’ll hit the cliffs. There are no paths this way.”

The raid had been well planned. The initial attacking force was large, but not too large. The Ihagu and townspeople had been led to believe they could hold Daba and had willingly trapped themselves with their backs to the cliffs. Once they’d done that, the hedeni launched their real attack, proving Tau’s father’s worst fears. This was no raid; it was an extermination.

The Guardian made a difference. It would thin the hedeni’s numbers, but like Aren had said, if the savages got in among the Chosen, the dragon would have to hold its fire or burn the people it had come to save. Tau thought this through and knew what would come next.

“Ihagu,” his father shouted. “Form up, battle lines.”

It was the only reasonable choice. The Ihagu would stand and fight. They’d slow the hedeni enough to allow the townspeople some chance at escape.

Tau stopped running and turned to face the horrifying mass of enemy flesh, with their sharpened bronze and bone. Tendaji was beside him, his presence a surprising comfort. His father ran up as well.

“Jabari, Tau,” he said. “I need you to guide the townspeople down the mountain. Take them to safety.”

“You ask too much, Aren,” Jabari replied. “I’ll be no help to them and you can’t save me from this fate. I’ll stay, just like every other fighter here.”

Conflicting emotions played across Aren’s face. Tau saw pride and fear warring with each other. He’d been trying to save them.

“We’ll show them what it means to be Chosen, Father,” Tau said, his hands shaking.

“So we will,” Aren said, holding Tau’s eyes with his, before turning to yell his orders to the rest. “Tighten the lines. Stand firm. Remember, the men to your left, to your right, they’re your sword brothers. Keep them safe and they’ll do the same for you.”

Aren stopped there, waiting for the right moment. It came quickly. “For the Goddess!” he bellowed.

“For the Goddess!” they screamed back as the hedeni front lines smashed into them.

BOOK: The Rage of Dragons (The Burning Books #1)
4.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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