When we Kez demanded retainers to honor Vu, we expected the bigger tribes to scoff at us. What those tribes did not expect or had forgotten was how those who serve Vu and control the wild places can make them suffer in their great halls high on their city hills. ~ Urlen, Kez chronicler
The bloom of spring renewed Demeda not at all. Her male relatives ignored her bitter protests about her arranged marriage to the Temulanka King. Her female relatives, although sympathetic, only tried to spin her misery into a shroud of duty.
Demeda hated them all. For all her life her blood kin had been everything to her. She had been proud of her royal heritage, but now she saw the value of her breeding as only an accursed hoax. How could she have value if her own family would send her to lie with their enemy?
A tutor was sent to Demeda to coach her in the common dialect so that she could communicate better in the Temulanka household. Filled with spite, Demeda refused her lessons. She fought her mother, and her sisters, and even Mallah as they all tried to make her attend her language lessons. But she shut her eyes and plugged her ears whenever the tutor began his lesson. In another attempt to thwart him she continually pulled off her tepa so as to reveal her face to the tutor, who lowered his eyes appropriately and left the room until Demeda’s relatives and servants covered her again.
Her battle against her language lessons raged for a whole week until her father intervened. Upon finally seeing her father, who had refused to give her audience, Demeda cast herself wailing at his feet. She begged him to call off the marriage and pity her as his flesh and blood. All manner of pleadings and arguments she blathered at him through dripping desperate sobs, but her father pried her off the floor and stood her up. With two regal fingers under her chin, he tilted her head up so she could look him in the eyes. Demeda saw his handsome kingly face that resisted the lines of worry and age. She saw sadness in his dark eyes but not pity as he explained that the treaty marriage was necessary to protect their tribe. The land and the people were not fully recuperated from long years of war, and the Sabar’Uto needed time to renew their strength. The last war had proven that the Temulanka and the Sabar’Uto were evenly matched. War had brought neither of them decisive victory. It was Demeda’s duty to serve her tribe in this way. The marriage treaty would mellow old bitterness and give peace and prosperity a chance to flourish again.
Duty to her tribe consoled Demeda not at all. She resented having to be the one to cure the problems made by other people, like her father. Angry and wanting to hurt him, Demeda asked him why he did not go get in bed with the Temulanka King if peace meant so much to his tribe.
Then the Sabar’Uto King beat her. Demeda fought him even without the hope of defending herself, and the hands of her father fell on her hard until she was cowering and crying in a corner. Furniture was knocked over and ceramics broken. Her clothes were torn and her lips bloody.
The King said that it was best that she had thrown her tantrum now because such actions would shame her and her tribe if she behaved so at the Temulanka court.
He bade her to do her duty as a royal princess and turned to leave. Demeda heaved herself up and spat a bloody glob of spittle at his feet. He heard the noise and looked back, shocked to his core by her unspeakable action. For a daughter to scorn a father in such a way was unbelievable. For a woman to scorn a king…it was unthinkable. Fury cracked across his face and Demeda expected him to beat her again, but he did not. His eyes misted up a little, but Demeda knew that it was not for her. The King of the Sabar’Uto did not hold back tears for the daughter that he would soon lose. He was upset because he was weak. He had to send a woman to buy his peace that he could not win as a man.
Drugs followed her father’s attempt to beat her into submission. Something began to sweeten her drinks in an evil fashion that flushed her mind of thoughts and pain. Demeda welcomed the feeling after weeks of turmoil. To escape the awful pain and helplessness of her situation was a relief. Meek and quiet, she sat through her language lessons, speaking softly, and politely thanking her tutor each day.
Demeda felt the dose increasing as her departure drew close. With detached eyes she watched servants pack her clothing and jewelry. Listlessly she listened when her mother came to her and explained about being married to a man. Holding her hands, her mother told her about when she had first been married and how afraid she had been. But then things had gotten better. She told Demeda how she would make new friends and find a place for herself in a new household, and life would continue for her much as it did now. Then her mother hugged her and started sobbing because she had to say goodbye to her eldest daughter. Demeda’s heart briefly softened for her mother’s sake, and she hugged her back and declared her love. She would miss her mother because all people miss their mothers. After many tears, her mother brought her a cup of milk and told her to drink. Demeda drank it down, knowing that it would guide her to an uncaring place of calm waters.
Demeda was three days out from Chadenedra now and Mallah was holding a silver cup adorned with leaves and berries to her lips. Mallah extolled the virtues of the fresh milk and said that it had honey in it too. Demeda was deeply tempted, but she was done hiding in her drugged haze. They were approaching the Temulanka Domain and she had no desire to present herself as a sleepy and pliant offering. Her spite was a more alluring toxin than the brew meant to make her a soft and lovely tool of her tribe. Because her father felt duty was so important, then she decided that it should be her duty to look upon the Temulanka King with eyes that conveyed the undying hatred of her tribe. How would the mothers of those sons that fell during the war look upon him she wondered? She imagined how the Temulanka King would gloat over his prize of a Sabar’Uto princess. She would represent a victory for him and that made Demeda shudder. She did not want to be his trophy, and she did not want to be the bringer of peace. Perhaps if her tribe had asked her to pay this price, she would have proudly gone forth, but instead she had been rudely commanded, like a whip thoughtlessly striking a mule. Demeda renewed her commitment to spoiling the treaty. She would find a way to make the Temulanka King regret the bargain he had struck with her father. Everyone, both her tribe’s enemies and her kin, would pay for mistreating her. They all said that what she did mattered for everything but they treated her like nothing. Demeda wanted to correct them all.
“I’m not thirsty,” Demeda whispered and pushed the cup back.
“Demeda, you must have a little,” Mallah insisted sweetly. “I made it for you myself.”
“Then you drink it,” Demeda snapped.
Mallah blinked and looked very hurt. “It will make you feel better,” she persisted.
Demeda caught her tongue. She did not want to hurt Mallah with her viperfish ill humor. She was glad that her dear cousin had been allowed to accompany her on this trip. To be able to see the familiar face of her best friend until the very end was a tiny comfort.
Demeda reached out and held aside a curtain from her covered coach. Outside she saw Sabar’Uto warriors. Most of them were off their horses as they took a midday meal. The men had shining bronze helmets and bronze plates strapped over their arms and chests. Their mustard yellow tunics and black breeches reminded her of bumble bees. Demeda rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath, still trying to clear her head. Whatever she had been drinking often made her mind wonder among strange images. Demeda opened her eyes and leaned a little closer to the open air. Beyond the warriors that ringed her caravan, she saw trees aglow in the splendid greens of new spring foliage. A gentle cool rain pattered pleasantly on the leaves. The forest looked to be pressing thickly against the roadway. She guessed that they were near the frontier lands between the domains of the Sabar’Uto and the Temulanka.
“Don’t let them see you,” Mallah fretted and tugged at the curtain.
Demeda slumped back against her cushions and let Mallah fix the curtain. “Can I not look upon the world on my one journey through it?” she said.
Mallah patted her knee. “Demeda, I hate to see you so miserable. You must stop tormenting yourself,” she said.
Demeda ground her teeth. She could not recall being more bothered than at that moment. How could Mallah say that she was tormenting herself? But lashing out at Mallah served no purpose. Her dear friend was not the source of her suffering, only its handmaiden.
Mallah cozied up next to her and offered the drink again. Demeda accepted the cup this time.
“That’s so much better,” Mallah said, clearly happy that Demeda had ceased being difficult.
But Demeda quickly sat up, stuck the cup through the curtains, and poured it out. She wanted to toss the cup on the ground but that would only bring attention to her defiance. Handing the cup back to Mallah, she said that Mallah must report that she drank it.
Aghast, Mallah shook her head. “Demeda, you must not make me lie. You must drink it,” she said fearfully.
Suddenly Demeda realized that threats had probably been used to elicit Mallah’s cooperation with the constant drugging.
“Just lie for me, please Mallah,” Demeda said and crumbled back into her cushions.
Mallah fidgeted with the cup nervously. “It’s best if you drink,” she whispered. “All the ladies say so, even your mother. In time, they say you won’t need it, but for now, it’s best. Will you drink at dinner?”
“No,” Demeda said flatly. She was done with the walking death that the world offered her. She felt almost on the threshold of sobriety now, and she wanted to stay there no matter how painful.
The coach started moving and Mallah put her arms around Demeda. She started crying quietly and told Demeda how much she would miss her.
“You drink it for me tonight,” Demeda suggested. Mallah deserved the relief.
They held each other as the coach bounced and rocked along the road. Demeda was so sick of the motion. She wished that she could ride a horse, but her father had denied that request. Demeda suspected that he guessed her heart. If she were on a horse now, she would ride as fast as she could and not look back ever.
Demeda tried to imagine the wind in her hair as she raced away from her many masters, but her dull and downtrodden mind had trouble summoning a sensation that she had not felt since she was a young girl. Since maturing to womanhood, she had been allowed no outdoor activities with her hair or face exposed to the open air.
A brooding gloom settled heavily over her face, whose features were too young to bear such weight. She stared at the green and brown curtains that surrounded her and hated always being shoved into a fabric box.
Denied a view, she simply shut her eyes and tried to doze, but with the calming potion finally wearing off she felt increasingly awake. Mallah shifted beside her and started to talk, trying to cheer her as always.
In a soft voice, Mallah whispered with taboo delight, “Perhaps the Temulanka King will be handsome and fall helplessly in love with you. He will grant you many favors and your life will be far more pleasant than you can imagine.”
“I’m not interested in silly fantasies,” Demeda said.
“It could happen,” Mallah insisted. “You are very fair.”
Demeda touched her face. She supposed she was nice looking although she truly had no idea what effect her appearance would have on men. Demeda supposed she would soon find out.
Mallah continued to spin out possible scenarios in which Demeda found love and happiness at the Temulanka court. Demeda wanted to verbally stomp on her cousin’s nonsense, but she let her prattle on. Mallah was trying to be kind, and Demeda did not bother to remind her of the sickening facts. She would not be the first wife of the King. As the new wife, she would likely be the target of jealous intrigues from the other wives. Demeda had seen such unpleasantness often enough growing up at the Sabar’Uto court. Above all that, the fact that the Temulanka King had been her tribe’s blood enemy for many years rotted all hope from her heart.
The afternoon passed with excruciating slowness for Demeda who was surprised at how accustomed she had grown to the mindless floating of the drug. Mallah ended up taking a nap beside her, but Demeda could not sleep. A deep grasping terror had consumed her soul like the roots of a plant left in its pot far too long.
When her caravan halted for the evening, Demeda considered the ability to leave her coach to be a scrap of mercy. Mallah and she put on their tepas, and her brother Ulet came to escort them to their tent. Her brother was decked out in his full royal warrior regalia and looked especially handsome and strong. His thick dark eyelashes accentuated his large brown eyes. Thousands of gold beads adorned his dark blue clothes and threads of silver inlaid on his bronze armor sparkled like frost. A fine dagger with a handle covered in rubies hung from his waist and a newly forged sword made from iron was on his other hip.
Despite his magnificence, Demeda noted his troubled expression. On this trip, he had not bothered to converse with her. Both of them had been content to travel in silence. Their inevitable sharp words were not worth the energy.
The rain had stopped and the western sky was clearing for a lovely sunset. Forested hills surrounded the muddy road, and the air was fresh and sweet to breathe. Spirited birdsong sang from every direction as birds emerged from their leafy shelters to rejoice in the glistening clean forest.
Demeda slipped her hand through the arm Ulet offered and walked with him to where serving men were putting up tents for the women and Ulet and his honor guard. Mallah fell into place behind Demeda and her other serving women got out of the other coaches and followed.
Through her tepa, Demeda peeked at Ulet. The hard line of his tense lips and drawn brow indicated that he pondered bad news.
“Is something wrong?” she whispered.
Ulet glanced at her suspiciously. His impulse was to brush her concern aside, but ultimately he chose to answer her because this would be one of his last chances to talk to his sister before he saw her safely delivered to the Temulanka.
“A Temulanka envoy was supposed to meet us here at Jatuh Creek and escort us into their domain, but no one is here. I suppose they are only late,” he said.
Demeda suddenly tingled with the hope that the Temulanka were backing out of the treaty. Perhaps the envoy had not come because the Temulanka King had decided to reject her. But she refused to let herself cling to the hope that was as attractive as the tempting drink that Mallah would soon be preparing.
Ulet continued, “And with this rain the creek is high. My scouts say the fording might be difficult. We might have to wait a couple days for the water to go down a bit.”
Demeda knew nothing about fording creeks but she was skilled at knowing her brother’s mood. “Do you fear a Temulanka trap?” she asked.
He frowned with disapproval and wondered why her wits had suddenly resurfaced. He supposed her calming drink had worn off since lunch.
“There are many reasons an envoy could be delayed,” he said. “Tomorrow I’ll send scouts across the creek to look for them.”
Demeda grabbed his arm. Urgently she said, “Ulet, withdraw. It’s a Temulanka trap to get members of the royal family. Take me home.”
“Demeda, I can’t do that,” he said.
“Why? You’re in command. You see bad signs. Don’t ignore them,” she urged.
Despicable pity softened his face. “You are not going to trick me into letting you have your way this time. I’m sorry,” he said. He removed her hand from his arm and pointed to her tent.
Demeda wanted to argue, but she had spent so many weeks pleading and begging that she knew it was hopeless. She smacked aside the tent flap and ducked inside her fabric box. Angry tears overflowed. She hoped they were falling into a Temulanka trap and were about to be murdered in the night, but even that raging wish did not comfort her. She wanted to live, just not like this.
Amar sensed the excitement of the twenty warriors gathered around him. The mission against the Sabar’Uto camp was a risky one, and they needed faith that they would succeed. He drew out his crystal orb and held it up so that they could see its enchanted glow.
“Go in silence through the dark and begin the revenge upon those who scoff at our value,” he said. “The kings of civilization are not the sole source of justice. I have proven that myself, striking as the unseen hand against Ginjor Rib. As the power of the rys was with me then, know that it is with you now,” Amar declared.
The warriors saluted him, and Amar liked their respect and awe. As the Lord of the Lin Tohs he had been given his due by his subjects, but, as Amar of the Kez, he received a deeper respect that had been earned…and was feared.
The twenty Kez around him were thieves and assassins who were good at skulking in the dark and killing quietly. Amar had been rapidly learning how to draw upon the various rogue talents within the ranks of the Kez, and these men would serve as the first wave and quietly overtake the Sabar’Uto sentries. They wore little clothing and no armor because they would be donning the clothes of the sentries that they killed.
Amar waited for full darkness to claim the forest before sending them. The leaves were still dripping after the rainy day and the soft sound would help mask the stealthy approach of his sentry hunters. Amar would lead the second assault himself, penetrate the Sabar’Uto camp, and then rendezvous with Kym once they had their hostages.
Amar believed that he had manipulated the situation perfectly. The advance scouts of the Temulanka reception party had already been killed, which had caused the rest of the Temulanka to pause inside their border, fearing some Sabar’Uto treachery. As for the Sabar’Uto, Kez spies had confirmed that Prince Ulet was leading the caravan. He would make a splendid hostage as would the Sabar’Uto princess. Her capture would jeopardize the treaty between the tribes. Fracturing the fragile peace between the war-weary tribes would give the Kez a weighty revenge upon the two tribes that had refused to honor Vu with retainer payments. The delicate diplomatic errand of the delivery of the Sabar’Uto princess to the Temulanka King should have been escorted by the Kez. Their neutral presence would have assured both sides of safety in the transaction of the treaty marriage, but now both would suffer the consequences of failing to pay Lax Ar Fu.
Amar put away his crystal orb and darkness covered his face. Alongside him remained Kym and Urlen, who was sniffling unpleasantly with a cold. Although Urlen had little to offer during the fight to abduct hostages, his writing talents would be needed to communicate the demands of the Kez to both tribes.
Urlen foresaw that all tribal kings would come to dread messages in his handwriting. He had even been adding a distinctive flair to his script so that it would be more easily recognizable. Like all scholars, he wished for recognition.
Urlen smothered a sneeze with a small linen cloth. Urlen supposed that infamy as the secretary of Vu might not be all bad. He was trying to adapt to his new situation. Despite always feeling small and foppish around the gang of killers he now called brothers, he was glad to be on this mission with Amar. He preferred the company of his friend greatly to that of Lax Ar Fu who often repulsed him with his licentious appetites and cruelties. Urlen’s time that winter at Eferzen Springs had been a taxing horror.
Urlen folded his handkerchief and slipped it into his pouch. He noted how Amar was increasingly mentioning Onja when he wanted to encourage his warriors. Urlen had also noticed that Amar did not do it so blatantly when Lax Ar Fu was present although Urlen had no doubt that the Overlord was aware of the power game that Amar was playing. For both their sakes, Urlen hoped that he played it well.
With the first wave of twenty Kez dispatched, flickers of light shifted among the nearby trees as the remaining Kez lit lanterns and covered them. At the end of the coming battle, some men would uncover their lights and reveal themselves to lead their enemies on a false trail while the hostages were taken in another direction.
To Kym, Amar said, “We’ll come straight up the road to the creek. I will try to slip out with our prizes while the battle still rages in the camp.”
“I will be ready,” Kym promised. At first Kym had been offended that Amar had not assigned him to the main assault, but then he realized that Amar honored him with commanding the escape. Nothing mattered if the escape did not succeed.
Kym asked, “How will you find the princess? The women will be covered and you can’t grab them all.”
“The tent of the princess should be easy to identify,” Amar said. “Her tattoos will mark her as royalty, and I believe that the prince will rush to defend his sister. I will look for him and hopefully take them together.”
“Get him at least. He’ll be the most valuable,” Kym advised.
“I know, but he might also be harder to take alive,” Amar said.
“He’ll surrender,” Kym predicted with a derisive tone. “A royal will know we want ransom. He won’t fight to the death.”
“I will soon find out,” Amar said.
Kym chuckled. “And the two strongest tribes will soon find out that they should not disrespect the Kez.”
Amar could tell that Kym relished what they were doing. He was not the only Kez warrior that Amar had noticed to be renewed with enthusiasm and pride for their brotherhood. In a short time, he had reawakened the slumbering power of the Kez and sent fresh terror among the people of many tribes. With a little help from Onja on top of his own daring, Amar had reinvented the Kez into something more frightening than what they had been before. And the credit for this was clearly given to him. Lax Ar Fu was the Overlord, but all Kez knew that Amar was their new inspiration.
Amar was pleased that he was succeeding at becoming powerful, as Onja had bade him. Kym, who had begun as Lax Ar Fu’s watchdog, was now his man. Cybar and Vame continued to show genuine loyalty. They would fight beside him tonight.
Before leaving with Kym, Urlen said, “Fight well my friend.” He touched Amar’s biceps as he passed. The muscle was hard beneath Urlen’s soft fingers.
“I will,” Amar said, and his anticipation for the fight thrilled through his body like a man who has caught the sight of his lover after long absence.
Amar gathered his warriors. Forty men fingered their weapons, and their eyes revealed a criminal gleam. They were ready to take on the one hundred warriors that spies reported were with Prince Ulet. Amar counted on the element of surprise and the disarray that his advance warriors would cause once they disguised themselves as Sabar’Uto sentries. And he expected that the rising notoriety of the Kez would inflict extra fear upon their targets. The Sabar’Uto were probably expecting an attack from the Temulanka, but once they saw that Kez warriors were among them, they would have to think about the dro-shalum. Amar knew the name that people had given him, and he liked it.
Amar advised his warriors to stay close to him when they descended on the camp. They would act as a spear being driven into flesh. By remaining in a compact unit, the numerous Sabar’Uto warriors would be unable to reach them all at once. Plus, the Kez brothers in disguise as sentries would raise false alarms around the camp and draw warriors off the main assault.
After reviewing the technical details, Amar roused the bloodlust of his men with stronger words. “Cut them. Kill them. Punish their arrogance. Show them what waits for them in the shadows and the wild lands while they sit in their palaces and suck up the wealth of Gyhwen that they deserve no more than any other,” Amar said.
He unsheathed the iron blade that would have been the heirloom of his lost tribe and the bronze one that he had stolen from a Patharki warrior. Lifting the blades and turning within the circle of men, Amar felt like the whole universe smiled on him. Above the trees, stars twinkled through the thinning clouds and their faint light reflected off the edges of his comrades’ weapons and helmets. He could feel the men’s energy, waiting for him to release it. They looked forward to the violence. Together they would fall upon the Sabar’Uto with feral confidence that would shatter the other men.
Cybar spoke. “We fight for Vu! We fight for Amar!”
For the sake of quiet the other Kez repeated Cybar’s declaration with sinister whispers.
Amar took a deep breath and exhaled, enjoying the moment of clarity that descended upon his corrupted soul. He was the lord of these men.
Expecting that his sentry hunters were by now plucking the Sabar’Uto watchmen from their posts, Amar led his warriors into the trees. They walked slowly and quietly, picking their way carefully around trees in the dark and ducking low beneath brush and vines. The frontier lands between the domains of the Temulanka and the Sabar’Uto were unsettled and not frequently traveled. The undergrowth of the forest crept close to the road and provided good cover.
When Amar could discern the torches and watch fires of the Sabar’Uto through the trees, he was pleased to hear only the quiet sounds of a camp in repose. His sentry hunters must have been successful.
One of his men signaled with the familiar call of a night bird with one note added. The return signal came immediately. The forty Kez plus Amar moved like a herd of deer from the woods onto the road where fires were burning low and warriors were snoring on the ground. Amar recognized the face of the sentry beneath the bronze helmet. He quickly flashed a few hands signals to Amar to indicate that they had achieved total success.
The royal tents were easy to spot across the road inside a protective ring of warriors and watch fires. Amar’s new sentries had weakened their watch fires, and the inner circle of Sabar’Uto warriors on guard duty now looked out on a darker scene. Gloom obscured the quiet entry of over forty intruders. Amar quickened his pace as did his companions. Despite their stealth, Sabar’Uto warriors were roused from their sleep by the passing of so many strange feet. Whenever a head popped up, a spear or sword lashed out from a Kez like a scorpion’s tail and killed each chance for the alarm to be raised. This harsh strategy allowed the Kez to gain several crucial seconds of undetected freedom before an outcry finally arose. Guards shouted and rang their bells. With a charge of Kez warriors erupting from within the camp, none of the Sabar’Uto had a chance to wonder how the outer sentries had failed. There was only time to fight.
Amar shouted his command and his comrades flung throwing stars, knives, and spears at the Sabar’Uto. The slicing missiles hurt nine or ten warriors, but some archers fired back. Two arrows flew by Amar, and one nicked his arm. He heard a familiar voice cry out. An arrow had hit one of his men, but Amar did not turn to look. He had instructed each of his warriors to choose two partners to help them escape if wounded. If possible, no one – dead, wounded, or alive – was to be left behind. It would increase the mystique of the Kez if the traces of their coming and going were kept faint.
The sentries were now shouting about attacks from all sides and causing great confusion. The first warrior who opposed Amar only got his sword halfway out of its sheath before Amar’s iron blade inflicted mortal pain. Amar leaped over the falling body and tackled the next warrior. When Amar hit the ground, he rolled and came up running. He actually laughed. He could feel how much stronger he was than a year or even six months ago. His rigorous workouts were transforming him into a man superior to most.
Two Sabar’Uto came at him with spears. Amar blocked one spear with a sword and dodged the other spear while he struck the man holding it with his second sword. The warrior’s armor saved him but he stumbled back from the blow. With another slash of his iron sword, Amar broke one of the spears and spun around to strike the second warrior across the back of his neck. He fell forward, dying quickly.
Sabar’Uto warriors pressed thickly around the Kez. Amar fought hard. His swords slashed and spun as his body dodged weapons and bullied its way through struggling bodies. He was close to the tents. The royal emblems were clear to see, and Amar saw the young man who had to be Prince Ulet burst out of a tent. The flapping fabric fluttered behind him as he took in the chaotic scene. The glittering golden beads on his blue clothes and his splendid armor marked him as the heir of the Sabar’Uto dynasty. His captain ran to his side to report.
Filled with a sick zeal for victory, Amar promptly killed two more warriors. Strength, growing skill, and an unrelenting desire for power drove Amar. His opponents in contrast were bumbling in surprise. Amar sheathed a sword and seized a spear from one of his fallen enemies. He threw the spear and pierced the captain in the throat. The prince stepped back, aghast by the red gushing sight of his murdered captain. With the best of his honor guard crumpling to the ground, the prince drew his sword. As Amar had predicted, the prince fled into the next tent where the princess likely was.
Amar drew his second sword again, rallied his men, and raced for the tent. The Sabar’Uto honor guard fought back, but the Kez were well inside their position, like flooding waters overtopping a levee. Amar burst into the tent chasing the prince. Squealing female cries and frantic disarray greeted him. Glowing embers from a central fire pit and a single oil lamp provided meager light that revealed a half dozen women, their heads uncovered and dark hair flying loose. The soft scents of perfume and incense filled the air with the beckoning aroma of female treasure. Amar saw the prince grabbing a young woman, dressed only in a white nightgown. A handmaiden was trying to slip a robe onto the young woman along with a tepa.
Amar overhead the prince saying “I’ll get you out.”
The women noticed Amar’s entry and screamed. One threw a plate at him and he blocked it with a sword. Another woman threw a heavy crockery bowl and it caught him on the chin. Shocked by the blow, he reeled away, slashing blindly with his swords to protect himself. The prince cursed and charged the intruder. Amar forced himself above the stunning pain in this chin and reconnected with the throbbing joy that he derived from combat. He blocked two strikes from the prince before more Kez barged into the tent.
Cybar kicked the prince in the small of his back and then hit him with his sword handle on the back of his bare head. The prince fell forward onto his knees. Amar then kicked him in the face and the prince toppled onto his side.
The young woman who now had on a blue robe and a tepa flopping open over her face dove over the prince.
“Don’t hurt him!” she shrieked.
Amar did not even glance at her exposed face. Sheathing his swords, he grabbed her arms and looked at her hands. The royal Sabar’Uto designs were tattooed onto her hands as surely as they were stitched onto the flags outside the tents.
“I have her!” he shouted and crossed her wrists so that he could bind them.
She gasped but Amar was surprised by her lack of resistance. She trembled with fear but was otherwise cooperative as he lashed her hands tightly with braided leather cords.
“Why do you want me?” she asked in her household dialect, forgetting her education in the worldly tongue at that moment.
Even if Amar had caught her meaning, he would not have bothered to answer. She cried out as he tossed her roughly over his shoulder.
“Demeda!” a woman screamed.
“Mallah, save yourself,” commanded Amar’s captive.
Amar yelled to his warriors to get the prince up. They finished binding his hands and hoisted him to his feet. Ulet was only vaguely conscious, but with two Kez dragging him, he could stumble along.
Amar grabbed the oil lamp and threw it at a trio of crying women. They ducked and the oil and flames splashed onto the tent. Amar took out a sword and slashed an escape hole.
With the princess over his shoulder and his warriors dragging the prince, they emerged into the cool night air. Vame caught up to Amar outside and saw that the prizes had been taken. He quickly put a horn to his lips and blasted the signal. Half the Kez in the camp rallied to the sound of the horn to cover Amar’s escape while the others led the Sabar’Uto fighters on a decoy chase.
Amar ran as his fighters cut down anyone who tried to block his path. The excitement of the abduction masked the searing exertion of running with the woman over his shoulder. Although she was only a slender young woman, her weight presented a sufficient burden when running for his life.
He raced by the edge of the camp. In the light of the nearest watch fire, he saw some of his sentries in disguise aim their bows at the Sabar’Uto warriors who pursued them. Amar knew that his men would fire a few shots and then scatter into the forest.
Desperate and unthinking, the Sabar’Uto fired arrows down the road at the disappearing Kez. Amar laughed at their stupidity. The princess over his back would protect him from their arrows.
A sharp cry made Amar turn because he did not recognize the voice. He figured that the prince had been struck.
“Keep him coming!” Amar shouted and resumed his run. He could hear the rushing water of the swollen creek and knew that escape was only a few more strides away.
Kym came forward to assist his comrades into the canoes that he had brought downstream to carry them swiftly beyond the reach of the Sabar’Uto.
Breathing hard, Amar transferred the princess to Kym.
“Did you get them both?” Kym asked urgently.
“Yes,” Amar panted. He bent over a moment to catch his wind. Sweat dripped steadily off his forehead and ran in small rivers down his chest and back.
Cybar and his companion arrived at the creek with the prince, who was trying to shout for help. Cybar clamped a hand over his mouth but Ulet bit his thumb. Cybar yelped and punched him painfully in the ear. The prince slumped to his hands and knees. Another Kez kicked him in the ribs and told him to get up.
Amar took charge. “He’s not going to do what you say,” he snapped. He grabbed the prince by his hair and yanked him up. Amar noticed how the prince was trying to keep weight off his right leg. He bent down and ran his hands over the prince’s body. He plucked a dagger from his belt and handed it to Cybar, and then he found an arrow sticking out of the prince’s right buttock. Amar grabbed the shaft and wiggled it. The prince cried out, sounding more boy than man.
“Get ready,” Amar said, thoroughly enjoying himself. He pulled the arrow out of the man’s muscle. The prince wailed and then gasped in shock once it was over.
Amar tossed the bloody arrow away and shoved the prince toward the muddy bank of the creek. Three Kez warriors scrambled to grab the prince and load him into a canoe. Amar waded into the flowing water and grabbed the edge of a canoe and got in. The canoe rocked again as Kym got in behind him. At the front of the canoe sat Urlen, who sneezed and then welcomed his friend.
“Glad to have you back, Amar. I’ve found that I can actually paddle a canoe,” Urlen said, pleased that he had found a physical activity that he could perform competently.
“Then start paddling,” Amar said.
Eight more warriors loaded up into the remaining canoes and the rest ran off into the night. Kym confirmed that the prince and princess were secured in canoes, and they all paddled into the brawny current. The swift creek would take them beyond the reach of the Sabar’Uto. The plan had employed the landscape and been executed perfectly. Amar was proud of his cleverness and daring. He had done this without the power of Onja to aid him, yet he had done it for her.
Resting in the canoe while Urlen and Kym paddled, Amar touched the pouch around his neck. Until her call came, he would amuse himself with his fine catch of a prince and princess. They would surely bring much sport and treasure for the brotherhood. And all of it born of his deeds and not those of Lax Ar Fu.