Battle for Kragdon-ah: An Alex Hawk Time Travel Adventure

Table of Contents

 

Battle for Kragdon-ah

By

Shawn Inmon

Copyright 2024

All Rights Reserved

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

The Complete Alex Hawk Time Travel Series

Part One

Chapter One | A Short Peace

Chapter Two | Danta-ah

Chapter Three | Help Is on the Way

Chapter Four | Yestin-ak

Chapter Five | Northmen

Chapter Six | Preparations

Chapter Seven | The Lone Horseman

Chapter Eight | Paco Adun

Chapter Nine | Battle in the Romana

Chapter Ten | Battle in the Romana Redux

Chapter Eleven | A Hero Among Them

Chapter Twelve | A Leader Falls

Chapter Thirteen | Death on the Horizon

Chapter Fourteen | This Blood-soaked Ground

Part Two

Chapter Fifteen | Winter

Chapter Sixteen | Visit from a Monk

Chapter Seventeen | Alex on the Side

Chapter Eighteen | The Quest for Wastan-ah

Chapter Nineteen | Wandering

Chapter Twenty | After the Storm

Chapter Twenty-One | Elusive Wastan-ah

Chapter Twenty-Two | Plans to Survive

Chapter Twenty-Three | Wastan-ah

Chapter Twenty-Four | A Difficult Leaving

Chapter Twenty-Five | Long Journeys

Chapter Twenty-Six | The Jewel of Kragdon-ah

Chapter Twenty-Seven | The Time It Takes

Chapter Twenty-Eight | The End of the Beginning

Part Three

Chapter Twenty-Nine | To Live, to Breathe, to Fight

Chapter Thirty | Come Together

Chapter Thirty-One | The Promise of War

Chapter Thirty-Two | War

Chapter Thirty-Three | Brothers and Sisters in Arms

Chapter Thirty-Four | Wasta-ta, Godat-ta, Olten-eh

Chapter Thirty-Five | Chaos

Chapter Thirty-Six | Clash

Chapter Thirty-Seven | Aftermath

Chapter Thirty-Eight | The Death of the Council of Tribes

Chapter Thirty-Nine | Winten-ah

Epilogue

Author’s Note

The Complete Alex Hawk Time Travel Series

A Door into Time

Lost in Kragdon-ah

Return from Kragdon-ah

Warrior of Kragdon-ah

Prince of Kragdon-ah

Mists of Kragdon-ah

Tribes of Kragdon-ah

Armies of Kragdon-ah

Battle for Kragdon-ah

 

Part One

 

Chapter One

A Short Peace

A

lex Hawk sat with his family around a warm fire in the cliffside of Winten-ah.

The previous few years had been challenging, and he was happy to have this quiet time. He had spent a year rescuing Pandrick Masten in the far north, fallen ill with cancer and been cured by Pandrick, then spent years away from home, training the armies of Kragdon-ah for the Council of Tribes.

He wanted nothing more than to build his new house and to spend time with those he loved. Now, finally, it appeared that he would be able to do just that.

Those plans were short-lived.

Pendan-ak, the young boy in charge of keeping the carrier birds known as traka-ta, came hurrying into the cave, flushed with exertion and excitement.

“I think this might be important,” Pendan-ak said, handing the scrolls to Alex’s daughter Amy, the new chief of the Winten-ah. “It arrived in two parts, on two birds.”

That was unusual. Messages were kept intentionally brief so as not to weigh down the birds as they made their long journey. Two scrolls meant something was important.

Amy read the scrolls by the light of the fire. Her posture straightened and she met Alex’s eyes. “Kalki-ah is under siege once again.”

Alex narrowed his eyes. “This is why we trained the army. So no other force would be as great as the Council of Tribes. Who is strong enough to push Olten-eh behind the gates of her city?”

“The note says they are besieged by large, bearded men carrying axes and wearing furs. Apparently, they do not fear death but seem to embrace it.”

Alex had seen many brave warriors and fighters over his decades in Kragdon-ah, but that description fit only one group, an army of berserker fighters who relished a fight to the death. “The Northmen?”

“The Northmen,” Amy said in agreement. “Who else could it be?”

“But how?” Alex wondered aloud, shaking his head.

They had encountered the Northmen at the battle for Drakana years before. Through Alex’s battle strategy and the alliance he made with Makinta, they had managed to kill every last one of the fighters from the north. It had been a bloody battle with grievous losses on all sides. Though the Northmen were vastly outnumbered and caught in a pincer-like battle, with strong, well-trained and heavily armed forces both in front and behind them, they had fought like madmen and inflicted far more damage than they should have.

Alex had come to believe that every one of the Northmen was worth at least three well-trained, fearless warriors.

And now, apparently, they had come to Kragdon-ah.

The fact that Kalki-ah, the greatest city in the land and home to the Council of Tribes, was surrounded and besieged, told a story in itself. Alex had spent more than two years training a thousand warriors. He had taught them not just to fight, but to go out to all the tribes who were part of the Council and train those warriors to be fighters.

If the Northmen were able to lay siege to Kalki-ah, that meant they had arrived in great numbers and had fought their way across a significant part of Kragdon-ah, annihilating the armies of the Council as they encountered them.

“I don’t know how they are here,” Amy admitted, shaking her head. “Are they looking for us, hoping to finish the battle we started in Drakana? But if they had managed to track us, they would have landed somewhere on this side of the continent.”

“They are in Kalki-ah, so that must mean that they landed on the other side of the Okrent-ah River.” Alex shook his head. “I’ve never been there, and I don’t really know anything about that area. Perhaps Harta-ak would know something, since he sailed up and down that river for so many years. I will need to visit him.” Alex’s brain was already swirling, thinking of possible plans, exploring the strengths and weaknesses of each one, combining some, rejecting others. He knew this situation was too big for a single brilliant flash, though. It would take planning, and not just from him, but from everyone he relied on.

“We didn’t leave any of them alive in Drakana,” Amy said, continuing to turn the problem over in her mind. “If they are out for vengeance, how would they know where to look?”

“Maybe they’re not looking for vengeance,” Sanda said. “They are an aggressive people. This could just be a force meant to take over a new land, just like the Drakana sent. Another attempt to colonize this land. It could be an attractive prize for a race always looking for more battles, more civilizations to conquer.”

Another thought occurred to Alex. “It’s still possible that word got back to their home country. Yes, we killed all the Northmen who were on the battlefield. That doesn’t mean we killed all of the force that was there. Maybe there were others on ships or still holed up in the capital city. They could have sailed back and reported on what happened in Drakana. There’s no way to know, but if they are here, we can be sure they won’t stop at Kalki-ah. They are too aggressive by nature. They will work their way across the land, killing and razing as they go.”

Alex looked around the cave. Small fires were burning here and there; the families of Winten-ah had gathered for a quiet night. It suddenly felt a little suffocating. “I need to get out and get some fresh air. Let’s go for a walk.” He spotted Sekun-ak across the cave and gestured to him. When the former chief joined him, Alex explained the sudden change in circumstances.

“I’m going to talk things over with Sekun-ak, then we can meet again,” Alex said to Amy and the others. The two men and Monda-ak left the cave and worked their way down the cliffside, then across the field where the summer’s final crop of krinta was growing.

Sekun-ak reached out and touched some of the crop that had become one of the staples of the Winten-ah diet. “This crop is coming in nicely. It will serve us well this winter.” He rarely made small talk, so Alex knew there was a subtext to the comment.

“You’re right. This is not an immediate danger,” Alex said. “They won’t be here tomorrow, or even this winter. We should have some time to prepare. It is not like when the Drakana showed up unexpectedly and we weren’t ready to face such a force.” Alex turned and stared at the cliffside, with the caves lit from flickering torches and firepits. “They are laying siege to Kalki-ah, but it is well-equipped to deal with that. They have enough food to last many months, their own water source, and the tall walls of the city are covered with poisonous plants.”

“Will these Northmen give up eventually and look for an easier target?”

Alex had not considered that but remembered that while he had fought the Northmen in Drakana, Sekun-ak was in Winten-ah, rebuilding the tribe. He had not seen them in battle. “I don’t think they understand the concept of giving up. I believe they will leave at least enough of their force there in siege until Kalki-ah surrenders.”

“But they could send parts of their army out looking for other targets.”

“Yes,” Alex agreed, “depending on the size of the force they arrived with.” He did not like that idea at all. He looked up at the vast starfield that covered Kragdon-ah like a shimmering blanket. “I don’t know how to defeat them. We beat them in Drakana by attacking on two fronts and vastly outnumbering them.”

“You are the greatest warrior I have ever known,” Sekun-ak said simply. “If our way of life hangs in the balance, you will find a way to defend us, to defeat them. You even fought the Drakana to a standstill here, when we were outnumbered and they had all their destructive stama.”

The thought of the ways he had used the Drakana’s instincts and honor against them almost brought the ghost of a smile to Alex’s lips.

“We had some advantages there, slim though they were. The Drakana had honor. When they struck a bond, they kept their word.” He paused, remembering. “Plus, they were not good fighters. They had come to rely on their weapons to such an extent that when we were able to come face to face with them, they crumbled.”

“That is the way of stama,” Sekun-ak agreed. “You think it makes you strong, but all the while, it makes you weak.”

“The Northmen are not weak,” Alex said, returning his thoughts to the problem at hand. “It will take new ideas and strategies to defeat them.”

“I have seen you train many soldiers. I have heard you say that it is not size or strength that matters. That the ability to think in battle, to use the strength of your opponent against them, will help you beat a larger, faster opponent every time. I will never forget the look on Tinta-ak’s face the first time he faced you.”

Alex winced at the mention of the big man who had been struck down by the drone. When they first met, Tinta-ak had challenged Alex for leadership of an army. Despite Tinta-ak’s size, Alex dispatched him easily, and he became the greatest ally Alex could have ever asked for.

And now, like so many, he was dead.

So many losses—so many friends gone—weighed on Alex for a moment.

“We will prevail,” Sekun-ak said simply. “Or we will die in battle, defending our home and our families. We must be at peace with either outcome. It has always been, it will always be. The world is the world.”

Sekun-ak laid a hand on Alex’s shoulder, the Winten-ah bond, then returned to the cave, leaving him to his thoughts.

Alex watched his shadow retreating across the meadow. He wished he could be so accepting of the possible fate that lay ahead, but his two daughters were only just married. Amy was pregnant with her first child, which the Winten-ah healer said was going to be a boy.

He had come to love this brutal land more than he ever had twenty-first-century Oregon. He was too attached to it to be able to accept that it could all be taken away by the Northmen.

Monda-ak rubbed up against him. After so many years, they communicated with very little need for words. The big dog sneezed, then looked at Alex. His tongue lolled, which gave him the look of the natural comic that he was. In battle, he was as fierce a warrior as had ever existed. At home, he was little more than a snoring, farting rug or a massive piece of playground equipment for the children of the tribe.

Alex put an arm around his shoulder. “You’re right, you’re right. Worrying doesn’t solve tomorrow’s problems. It just takes away today’s peace of mind. For a dog, you’re pretty smart.”

Monda-ak snuffled his agreement.

“All right. Let’s go back, then. We’ve got things to do.”

When Alex and Monda-ak returned to the cliffside, he noticed a subtle change in the mood of the tribe. Word had spread fast. He saw no panic or even worry on the faces of his brothers and sisters. Instead, they smiled or placed two fingers across their foreheads, or simply said, “Gunta, Manta-ak.”

He found Amy where he had left her, deep in conversation with Talon-ak, her husband.

“Can you send a traka-ta to Danta-ah and let them know we’re coming?”

“I already wrote the message and gave it to Pendan-ak. I asked Versa-eh to send for the leaders of the local tribes, and I told her you will be leaving first thing in the morning. I have ordered five horses to be ready at first light for you, Sanda, Nanda-eh, Sekun-ak, and Hundan-ak.”

For some odd reason, the fact that Amy had already anticipated what should be done and had put the plan into action, calmed Alex. He couldn’t help smiling and shaking his head.

Amy returned the grin, held up a finger and, in a fair imitation of Alex, said, “I have a plan!”

 

Chapter Two

Danta-ah

I

f Alex had been a different type of leader, he might have been put out by the fact that Amy had not only put the plan into action before being told, but by the fact that she had chosen who would go on the journey to Danta-ah with him.

Instead, Alex had always empowered those he worked with to make their own decisions, to use their own strengths. Amy’s strength was her brain. She was still young, barely older than thirty, but she had experienced much in her years in Kragdon-ah, not to mention that she had been trained not just by Alex, but also by Sekun-ak.

As was their habit, the group left for Danta-ah an hour before sunrise the next morning. The first leg of the journey—out of the meadow at the front of the caves, then a right at the tree line—was so familiar to them that it was like walking around their own neighborhood.

As they passed each guard station, voices rang out, “Gunta, Manta-ak, Gunta Sekun-ak!”

With his brain attuned only to dealing with the Northmen, Alex wondered if this strategy—not just having guards, but having a defense that also served as an offense—could be used in an upcoming battle. He filed that away under a possible game plan.

Had he been given the choice, Alex would have gladly met with the leader of the Northmen. He would have offered to meet in single combat to settle a battle, or at least come to the table for negotiations.

In the battle of Drakana, he had learned there was no negotiating with the Northmen. When they saw an enemy, they attacked. If they were outnumbered, they attacked. If they were grievously wounded, they attacked. Alex would not have been surprised to see a Northman get up off his deathbed and attack.

He was convinced the only way to settle things with the Northmen was to kill every last one of them.

The trip between Winten-ah and what was now called Danta-ah had once been perilous. The first time he had traveled in this direction, Alex had been trailing the people who had kidnapped Lanta-eh. They had set traps behind them to slow him down. They had been forced to pick their way along various animal trails or hack their way through dense undergrowth.

Now, there was a well-traveled path and Alex knew from various landmarks how far along they were.

Some said that Alex was the primary motivating force behind so many changes in Kragdon-ah. Alex knew that it was Versa-eh and Harta-ak who were responsible for so much of the progress. They had taken an asset that had been abandoned for centuries—a salt deposit in a natural caldera—and had used that to establish trade routes with tribes near and far. They had built roads and bridges and had an entire network of traders and goods.

Alex knew that if it wasn’t already, Danta-ah would soon be like Kalki-ah and be the center of a growing civilization in the western section of Kragdon-ah.

As it was so often these days, the trip from Winten-ah to Danta-ah was uneventful. The trail was so well traveled that most of the animals that might have posed a threat had moved away from it. The only likely threat left was if they ran into a godat-ta, but the giant bear disliked humans almost as much as humans were terrified of it, so it also stayed away.

When they were still an hour’s ride away from the town, they were once again greeted with calls of “Gunta!” from the trees that ran alongside the trail.

Versa-eh had admired the guard towers that Winten-ah used and had adapted the idea to their own town.

As the Winten-ah approached the town itself, Alex saw that the tall gates were open. When they were closed, the town was easy to defend. When they were open, that meant that Harta-ak and Versa-eh thought that no threat was imminent.

Inside the caldera, there was a tremendous amount of hustle and bustle, with people, animals, and horses pulling loaded carts headed this way and that. Looking at the array of wooden buildings and stone-paved roads, it was hard to believe that just a few decades earlier, this caldera had been the domain of a godat-ta and a hive of wasta-ta.

Versa-eh, Harta-ak, and Senta-eh the Younger stood just inside the gate.

When Alex saw the beautiful young woman who was Senta-eh’s namesake, his eyes flitted to Hundan-ak, who had been trying unsuccessfully to court her for the previous few years.

Hundan-ak tried to keep his face impassive, but Alex noticed a difference in his breathing and saw color rise on his cheeks.

“I know I say it every time I arrive,” Alex said, dismounting, “but I can’t believe the changes you’ve made. How many people call Danta-ah home now?”

Before she answered, Versa-eh motioned to several young boys behind her. They moved quickly to take the reins of the visitors’ horses and lead them away.

“That is never an easy question to answer,” Versa-eh answered. “Full members of our tribe? There are more than three hundred of us now. But there are often at least another fifty people who are staying here on trade business before returning to their own tribes.”

A sudden idea struck Alex. “Harta-ak, have you ever thought of using the Kranda-ah the way you once did the Okrent-ah? That is, building rafts and ships to help move your trade goods?”

“I have thought of that,” Harta-ak said. “But it will not work, at least not so far. The Okrent-ah is like a placid lake compared to the Kranda-ah. I have built several rafts to carry goods, but the current is too strong. We are focusing on building more roads and carts and breeding more horses.”

Alex didn’t doubt that what he said was true. He had nearly killed himself the first time he tried to cross the Kranda-ah. The river he had known as the Columbia in the twenty-first century had seemed to only grow stronger in the millennia since.

“We’ve prepared a feast,” Versa-eh said. “We’ve gathered the leaders of as many of the tribes as possible.” She moved close to Alex. “I had hoped to never see those Northmen again in my life, but if they were going to come, I am glad they are doing it now, so it’s not something we have to leave to our children to handle.”

As happened so often, Versa-eh had managed to find a perspective that Alex had missed.

“You’re right. It is good that they have come while we are still here. We have seen them fight and will not underestimate them.” He looked down at Monda-ak and said, “Why don’t you go find Brinda-eh. Maybe the two of you can con someone out of some food.”

Versa-eh pointed down an alley. “She will be down there with Senta-eh. I’m sure she can find something for you, Monda-ak.” She smiled as she watched him jog away.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak led the group to a new building in the center of town. It dwarfed all the other buildings.

“This is our new town center,” Versa-eh said. “As fast as we are growing, we needed something like it to accommodate an idea that Harta-ak has.”

“It’s not really my idea, it’s just something we used to have where I grew up. We would have small vendors from all up and down the Okrent-ah come to our town for a few days each month. Each vendor had its own specialty—a type of food, or leather, or baskets, or boots, or whatever they made.”

“Like a regional…” Alex paused. There was no word for market in any of their common languages.

“We will call it a makra,” Harta-ak said. “That is what we always called it at home.”

Alex nodded, picturing what the immense building would look like in a few months when it was completed. Then, unbidden, he pictured a horde of Northmen coming over the walls built around the caldera and running roughshod through the town, decimating it. He shook his head to clear that awful image away.

Ahead, there was a series of long tables. There were already people sitting on both sides with platters of food and drink running down the middle.

Alex looked for familiar faces but didn’t see any.

Versa-eh seemed to read his mind. “There have been changes in leadership in many of the tribes. Those who sent fighters to Drakana or came with us have stepped down and new leaders have taken their place. They all know who you are, though. The legend of Manta-ak runs through every village.”

“I wish I could do something about that,” Alex said. “I liked it better when everyone doubted me.” A thought occurred to him. “Where are Rinka-ak and Alenta? It would be good to see them and I can always use their wise counsel.”

A cloud passed over Versa-eh’s face. “They are gone.”

“Gone?” Alex asked, stunned. “How? They were young.”

“A fever swept through their village a few months ago. It took many of the people of their tribe, even their son. Rinka-ah is much-weakened now, but they did send their new chief. I will make sure you meet him.”

There were seventeen of the leaders of local tribes sitting around the table. When Alex approached, they all stood. Versa-eh put Alex at the head of the table, which was broad enough to allow both her and Harta-ak to sit on either side of him.

“Eat, first,” she said. “Then we can talk.”

Alex listened to the conversation around the table, which ran, as it so often did, to the weather and what type of winter they could expect. The orange and black caterpillars of summer—as thick as a man’s wrist and the length of his hand—had a wider orange stripe this year, so most of the tribal elders believed that meant they would be in for a long, hard winter. Others pointed out that there had been rings around the full moon for two cycles in a row, which pointed more toward a shorter, mellower winter.

It was a conversation that had happened for many thousands of years, nearly unchanged.

When the meal was almost over and Senta-eh the Younger was serving their specialty, a delicious honey-flavored drink, there was a small commotion outside the building. A moment later, Pictin and a woman Alex did not recognize came through the wide opening.

Alex stood and hurried to Pictin. He was cheered to see him. The man he had first met as a highwayman on the trail to Danta-ah had evolved into the leader of Tharandon and one of the most resourceful people he had ever known.

Pictin hugged Alex. Coming from the Drakana culture, he didn’t have the same aversion to an embrace that the Kragdon-ah did. He held Alex at arm’s length and said, “This is Lostin-eh. She is with me now.”

Alex turned and looked at Lostin-eh. She and Pictin made an odd couple. She stood well over a head taller and had the typical good looks of a Kragdon-ah woman. Pictin, meanwhile, was somewhat squat, with a homely, scarred face.

Alex laid a hand on Lostin-eh’s shoulder in the traditional Kragdon-ah greeting. “Gunta, Lostin-eh.”

“Gunta, Manta-ak. I am pleased to finally meet you face to face, though I have seen you from afar.”

“Lostin-eh was one of those who escaped from Maltan-ah when it came under attack and came to Tharandon for protection. She lost her husband in that attack.”

For a moment, Alex pondered the long, strange trip Pictin and Lostin-eh had taken to arrive at this moment together. His life had started in Drakana, where he had been drafted into an army and sent across the ocean to attack Kragdon-ah, only to be abandoned there. Lostin-eh had been born in a small village that came under attack and had fled to the city Pictin had built. The odds of them ever meeting were so long as not to be worth mentioning, and yet, here they were.

“Word reached us that our old enemy has found us once again,” Pictin said.

When Pictin used the phrase old enemy, it resonated in a different way than when Alex used it. The Northmen and the Drakana had been at war for generations before Alex had led the Kragdon-ah into battle against them.

“I will need your good counsel, my friend. But first, come and sit. Eat with us. We can talk after.”

Other people, whom Alex did not recognize, were introduced to him as leaders of various tribes in the area. Within an hour, the long tables were completely full. Slowly, the conversation died down, and all eyes turned toward the head of the table.

Alex stood and cleared his throat. He was never a fan of making speeches. Given the choice, he would have chosen to face another warrior in fair combat. He cleared his throat, then opened his mouth to speak.

Before he could say anything, a young girl ran into the building, shouting, “Versa-eh! Versa-eh!” She held a parchment over her head. “I read it as you taught me. It is important.” She hurried forward and put the parchment into Versa-eh’s hands.

Versa-eh scanned it quickly, then brought Alex and Harta-ak close.

“It is from Yestin-ak at Vendan-ah. He says they have been attacked. His description matches the Northmen. He needs help.”

 

Chapter Three

Help Is on the Way

A

lex sat back down. Any speech that had been forming in his mind fled.

If the Northmen were already as far west as Vendan-ah, then almost everything he had already planned was for naught. If the force that had reached the training ground was big enough to overwhelm those warriors—who were still in the early stage of training—then it was possible they could be here, in Danta-ah, or even in Winten-ah, within a week.

There was no time for speeches, for planning.

“Does it say anything about the size of the forces that are attacking them?”

“No. Just that they have come under attack.”

“I must return to Winten-ah and gather up as many fighters as we can spare. Can you send a bird to Amy-eh, telling her we are on our way home and to decide how many warriors can come with me?”

“Of course,” Versa-eh said. “Go and gather your forces. I will speak to these chieftains and have them do the same. By the time you get home and are ready to leave for Vendan-ah, we will be ready to go as well. We can meet in Tharandon as soon as possible and leave together from there.”

Alex paused. Something about this scenario—taking the greatest strength of all their tribes and heading toward a single location—made him queasy. In his mind, there were echoes of when he had fought Douglas Winterborne, only to return to a decimated Winten-ah and a kidnapped Lanta-eh.

Still, there was nothing else for it. Yestin-ak was Alex’s chosen leader of the training center. He was resourceful and clever, but he was still little more than a boy. When Alex had picked him, he had believed that his skills would fit the job of training perfectly. He had never thought he would be put in the position of a commander under fire before he was ready. If the Northmen overran Vendan-ah and the thousand warriors were lost, there would be nothing at all stopping the onward march.

There was a risk that they were all leaving their homes under-protected, but that was a risk Alex knew they would have to take.

He motioned to Pictin, who hurried to the head of the table.

“Vendan-ah is under attack. We need to gather a force and go to their aid. I’m going back to Winten-ah, then we’ll all meet at your tribe and travel together.”

Pictin nodded, then turned and gathered the small retinue he had brought. They wasted no time in getting their horses and heading south.

Alex did the same and less than fifteen minutes after the note had arrived, he was heading toward Winten-ah.

It was already late in the day, but there was no way that Alex could tolerate the idea of stopping on the trail back. They rode through the night, with Hundan-ak as the lead rider, carrying a torch to see the path ahead. Alex stayed right behind, relying on Monda-ak’s good ears and nose to alert them if danger was nearby.

The small group felt better when the sky lightened in the east and they could see their surroundings. They reached the tree line where they turned south toward the cliffside just after the sun was at apex.

Once again, the men on guard called out “Gunta” to the group, but there was a change in the timbre of the greetings. Word had spread that conflict was ahead.

Amy, Talon-ak, Torana and Sista-eh met the group at the edge of the clearing.

“We got the message from Versa-eh,” Amy said. “I’ve got the warriors who are going to accompany you ready to leave.”

Alex glanced at Torana, the man-mountain who stood nine feet tall. Sista-eh had seen fourteen summer solstices. Now, she was a tall and beautiful young woman and stood beside the giant, no longer riding on his shoulder as she had done for so many years. Somehow, the sight of Torana and Sista-eh was reassuring.

“Good,” Alex said, “Let’s leave now.”

Amy shook her head, a gesture that few people in Winten-ah would attach any meaning to.

“Dad, you’ve already been awake for thirty-six hours. Your horses are tired and need to rest and be cared for. I already sent a bird to Versa-eh to let her know that you will leave at first light tomorrow and will meet them at Tharandon in two days.”

“How did you know that would be our meeting spot? Did Versa-eh let you know?”

“No, it was just logical. It’s the ideal location for everyone to meet before going on to Vendan-ah.” She looked at Alex and saw that he was loading up his objections to waiting until morning to leave. She stepped close to him. “We are sending all our horses with you, so we don’t have any to replace yours, who have already been ridden hard for two days, with a long journey still ahead of them.”

A group of young stable boys approached, and Amy gestured to the horses. Each boy took the reins of a horse and led them to the stable.

“I know you’re worried about Yestin-ak,” Amy said. “I am, too. That’s why I’m sending as many fighters as we can afford. But whether you leave now or in the morning, we’re not going to be able to extricate him from whatever immediate problem he is having.”

“You’re right,” Alex said. He turned his head and spoke to everyone else in the returning party. “Go get some food and rest.”

“I know, I know,” Sanda said, managing a smile. “We’ll take off before first light. We’ll be ready.” She turned to her sister. “You’ve already chosen which of the archers will go?”

“I’m sending most of them with you. We’re just holding back enough to mount a defense from the cliffside if it comes to that.”

That image—of the Winten-ah being forced to retreat to the safety of the cliffs by onrushing attackers—sent a chill over everyone.

Torana nudged Sista-eh, who said, “He wants you to know that he is coming.”

Alex stared up at Torana. His face was hideous and misshapen, but his eyes were almost always kind, with the exception of when he was in battle dispatching enemies by the handful. Then, he always looked sad and regretful that circumstances had once again come to that.

“It will be good to have your strength on our side, old friend.”

Sanda and Nanda-eh hurried away toward the archer’s lodge. Amy, Sekun-ak, and Alex walked toward the cave.

They had only gone a few steps when Amy turned to Sekun-ak. “I’m keeping you here.”

Alex glanced at his old friend, wondering if he would bristle at being left behind.

“We are going to be thinly defended here, if it comes to that,” Amy said. “If it does, I will need your cool head to oversee our defenses.”

A series of emotions played across Sekun-ak’s face. He had been left behind to keep the home fires lit when Alex had led the force against the Drakana. His job as chief of the Winten-ah had often kept him from leaving on the adventures he craved and now, here it was, happening again.

Amy was the chief of the Winten-ah, though, and her word was final. Sekun-ak reached a hand down and laid it on her shoulder. “I will stay.” The words showed no doubt, but there was a shadow of uncertainty in his eyes. “I will go to Andin-ak and see that your weapons are ready.” He turned and left Amy and Alex alone.

“Is there more to it than that?” Alex asked. “More than just wanting him to direct our defenses?”

“There is,” Amy admitted. “I’ve asked Pandrick to join you.”

Alex raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Why is that? He never takes sides in our conflicts. He won’t use any technology he might have to help us in battle.”

“That’s true, though I harbor a hope that he might change his mind if he sees his friends being slaughtered. More than what he could bring to the war, though, I want him to be there in case he can help broker a peace.”

Alex didn’t see how that was possible, but he had learned not to question Amy’s leaps of intuition.

“Go,” Amy said. “I know you’re going to want to shave a day off on the trip to Tharandon and Vendan-ah both. Sleep while you can.”

Winten-ah was able to put forth a formidable army, at least in terms of Kragdon-ah. When they gathered the next morning, Alex was concerned that perhaps Amy was sending too much of their strength to protect the training ground. He pushed that thought down deep, knowing that whatever amount of time he had given to that consideration, Amy had given more.

She had indeed given all the horses they had, which was just enough for everyone to be able to ride, though several of the smaller, younger archers doubled up. That meant no one was on foot, and they would be able to make good time on the trail.

It took two long, hard, uneventful days to reach Maltan-ah, the island tribe that Alex had helped to liberate several years earlier. On this trip, they were not planning to stop, but a small retinue of five armed warriors waited for them when they drew near.

Alex, who was in the lead of the caravan, held up his hand to stop. He believed that this tribe was friendly to them but knew it was never a good idea to ride unprotected into a situation he couldn’t be sure of.

A young warrior walked forward toward Alex. “Gunta, Manta-ak. I am Bakin-ak, once of Danta-ah and now of Maltan-ah. We have been waiting for you. We are here to join you.” There was pride in his voice. This settlement had once been overrun by attackers, but now they were a thriving community again, able to contribute to the greater defense.

Alex glanced at the warriors, who were armed, but on foot. The tribe had the luxury of a built-in defense in the surrounding lake but was limited by an overall lack of space that meant there was no room for horses.

The young warrior said, “Do not worry, Manta-ak. We are all young and strong. We will be able to keep up with you, at least until we reach Tharandon.”

Alex looked at the warriors, tall and lean, without an ounce of fat anywhere on them. He didn’t doubt that was true. “Gunta, Bakin-ak. We are glad to have you.” He looked up at the sun, high in the sky, and said, “We will make it to Tharandon before dark.”

Bakin-ak and the other warriors were as good as their word. They fell in among the riders and kept pace with the horses.

When they reached Tharandon, they found several hundred warriors gathered outside the walls. A bonfire was already lit and an oversized pig was staked above it. An older woman stood at the spit, slowly turning it.

Pictin, Versa-eh, and Harta-ak hurried to greet them, the dire wolves who gave Tharandon its name flanking them on all sides. Pictin waved an arm to encompass all the men and women who had gathered to accompany them to Vendan-ah. “Many have shown up,” he said simply.

Alex looked at the assembled fighters. Indeed, many had shown up, but Alex knew very few of them. He had not trained them. He couldn’t help but worry about what use they might be in a fight with the formidable Northmen. The last thing he wanted to do was send untrained warriors in as cannon fodder, willing to fight, but unable to do so efficiently. He shook his head slightly, dismissing that thought as unworthy. They had volunteered and were ready to rise in defense of their own land. How could he deny them the chance to do that?

He did his best to smile confidently. “It is good,” Alex agreed. “Are we ready to go?” He could feel the time slipping away from him and couldn’t help but envision what might be happening in Vendan-ah.

“We have a few other tribes that we are waiting for,” Harta-ak said.

“I knew that would chafe on you,” Versa-eh said, “so I have a plan. Most of those who have not arrived yet are coming on foot. They will not be able to keep up with us on the long trip to Vendan-ah. I think those of us who are on horseback should leave as soon as possible. Those on foot will follow as soon as they are gathered. They can support us as a second wave, but we can get there as quickly as possible to make sense of the situation.”

Alex’s heart swelled at her words. Versa-eh knew him so well and how impatient he would be to leave. And then her choice of words—make sense of the situation—told him that she shared many of his concerns, including trying to assess how the Northmen could be laying siege to Kalki-ah in the east, while still having the time and manpower to send a force to attack them a thousand miles west.

Even limiting the gathered army to those who were on horseback, a sizable contingent left for Vendan-ah late that afternoon.

Normally, Alex was cautious about traveling at night. Not knowing what was going on at the training facility ate at him, though, and he craved information. That first night, they once again rode through the night trading off lead riders with the sharpest vision. Normally, Alex liked to position his archers at the back of the caravan, where they could attack from a distance if needed. In this case, as the archers often had the best eyes, they rotated through taking the lead.

Alex remembered when he had been leading an army and the giant cat known as rutan-ta had jumped from a lower branch and dragged a man into the deep woods, killing him. He knew that was a possibility by riding through the darkness, but he felt that the small risk of losing one person was a fair gamble when weighed against the possible deaths that might be piling up at Vendan-ah.

They rode safely through the night and straight on toward Vendan-ah until the sun was high overhead. After stopping briefly at a stream to water the horses and eat something from their packs, they started moving again.

When darkness fell again, Alex knew that as much as he wanted to push on, they needed to stop. Driving both man and beast around the clock for days on end would only serve to deliver a subpar force when they eventually arrived. They settled on stopping for at least four or five hours every other night to rest and rode straight through on alternating nights.

After six long days and nights of hard riding, they finally approached the ring of hills that surrounded Vendan-ah. Alex took the lead and called the caravan to a halt. He motioned for Versa-eh, Harta-ak, Sanda, and Pictin to come with him while the others stayed behind. Monda-ak, of course, came along. He was sure he belonged everywhere.

Alex had to know what situation they were walking into before he could begin to formulate a plan.

They moved south and found a spot where they judged they would be able to see down into Vendan-ah without revealing themselves completely. The five humans and one oversized dog approached the top of a hill, lay on their bellies, and crawled up until they could see what was spread out below.

Alex gaped at what might have been the last thing he had expected to see.

The training facility, which he had named Romana, but which the Kragdon-ah called Roman-ah, was abuzz with activity. There was no fighting, though. It looked like another day of normal training exercises.

There was no sign of the Northmen anywhere.

 

Chapter Four

Yestin-ak

A

lex turned his head away from Vendan-ah and rubbed his eyes. “Do you see what I’m seeing?”

“It looks like a normal day,” Harta-ak said.

“Just training, as we would expect,” Sanda said.

Monda-ak gave his softest woof, confirming what the others had seen.

After riding hard for so many days, pushing man and beast to an extreme degree, Alex hadn’t been sure exactly what he would find on arrival, though he had built up many possible scenarios in his mind. Whatever those scenarios might have been, they didn’t include this—a coliseum sparkling under a late summer day, warriors training, the sounds of swords clashing and people shouting reverberating up the hill.

Alex abandoned the pretense of hiding and stood up so he could see better. He turned to Versa-eh and asked, “Could it be some sort of trap?”

She didn’t answer immediately but stared at the scene laid out below. “No. It all looks too natural. If they were being threatened in some way, would they be going about the normal business of training?”

“You’re right. I’m just trying to find a way to make sense of it.”

“There’s no obvious damage,” Pictin said. It was likely that he would be the one to notice that, since he had been the one who had built the entire community.

“No need to stand here and guess at it,” Alex said, turning and walking back to the rest of the riders that had accompanied them. When he reached his horse, he climbed up easily, clicked his tongue, and started off down the path. The warriors with him didn’t ask any questions, but Pandrick Masten, who rode alongside, raised his eyebrows. “Everything seems fine,” Alex answered the unasked question. There was a touch of irritation in his voice. “The real question is why Yestin-ak sent the bird asking for help.”

It didn’t take long to ride down the hill and approach the stone Romana. As soon as they appeared over the edge of the hill, a cry went up from the guards in the tower and the warriors who had been training hurried out and formed up in squads, ready to defend themselves if necessary.

As Alex and the troops approached, Yestin-ak stepped forward from the first squad with another, bigger man, whom Alex recognized immediately as his older brother, Restin-ak. There had once been competition between the two men, as there often was with brothers. Once Alex had chosen Yestin-ak as the new commander, though, that disappeared. Restin-ak had become a loyal, trusted lieutenant.

The two brothers were not smiling and, in fact, did not seem either surprised or pleased to see Alex or the troops.

“Gunta, Manta-ak,” Yestin-ak said. “Have you come to relieve me of my duties as commander of Vendan-ah?”

Alex would never have guessed those would be the first words out of the young leader’s mouth and was caught by surprise. When he didn’t answer immediately, Yestin-ak turned to his brother and said, “Take the men back and begin their training, please. And send a runner to the kitchen and tell them we will have many more for dinner tonight.”

Restin-ak, who looked as much like the imposing military commander as his brother did not, turned on his heel and hurried to carry out the order.

Alex tried to do a fast count of how many squads were arrayed in front of him. It wasn’t precise, but he thought that there were not as many warriors present as there should have been. He stepped forward and laid a hand on the young commander’s shoulder. “Why would I want to relieve you of your duties?”

Yestin-ak did not look away or shuffle his feet. Even though he was only in his mid-teens, he was already four or five inches taller than Alex. He looked down slightly and met his eyes. “Because I am responsible for you and all these fighters being here. You left your homes at least partially undefended because I asked for help when I should not have.”

“The message you sent to Danta-ah said you were under attack. Is that true?”

Yestin-ak put two fingers on his forehead in confirmation. “It is.”

Alex looked around at the normal day-to-day operations of Vendan-ah. A delicious smell wafted over from the kitchen. There was a changing of the guard at the lookout. Warriors hustled back and forth between the Romana and the stairway that led down to the underground compound. It looked in every way like an ordinary day.

“Did you easily dispatch whoever attacked you?”

“We were victorious, but it was not easy by any means,” Yestin-ak said. He paused, looking for the right way to approach the story of what had happened.

Pictin stepped forward during that pause and said, “There is not room for so many animals as we have brought with us, but I planned for that when I built Vendan-ah. There is a facility that can take care of our horses in that direction.” He pointed to the south. “With your permission, I will have everyone ride there and then walk back. I’ll leave a group there to guard and take care of them.”

“Thank you, Pictin. Leave at least a few archers among those who stay to guard.” He glanced at Torana, whose feet often bothered him, even on short walks. “Have someone take care of Torana’s horse, please.” He took a step toward the fighters and picked out Sista-eh. “Please tell Torana that he can stay here as my bodyguard.”

She smiled broadly and hurried to the giant. When he swung his leg over the horse and stood at his full height, Yestin-ak took a half-step back in surprise. That was a normal reaction on first seeing the largest human on the planet. Torana took his place a few feet behind Alex, casting a long shadow over him.

With the giant behind Alex and Monda-ak beside him, it was difficult to imagine anyone giving him any trouble.

Alex knit his brows, still unable to put the pieces of what had happened here together.

As everyone else rode away, Yestin-ak said, “I know you have ridden hard to get here and are disappointed to find that you’re not needed. Please, come to the dining tent and have something to drink. I will explain everything there.”

Alex nodded and they walked alongside the Romana, past the kitchen, and to the huge tent. Inside, there were several dozen long tables that were capable of seating hundreds of people at a time, though the tent was empty at that moment.

Alex and Yestin-ak sat opposite each other at a table and Torana sat on the ground. He was accustomed to doing just that. Unless there was furniture built specifically for him, there wasn’t a place for him to sit.

Immediately, two men hurried in, carrying large pitchers, cups, and bowls. They poured cool water into the cups and set them in front of Alex and Yestin-ak, then filled a bowl and set it in front of Monda-ak, who lapped at it happily. The two men looked at the remaining cups in their hands, then at Torana. The cups would have looked like thimbles in his massive hands.

“Pour the rest of the water into one pitcher and give that to him,” Yestin-ak said. The men did, and even the oversized wooden pitcher looked slightly dainty when held by the giant. He drained it in one long draught and smiled his misshapen smile.

“Now,” Alex said, leaning forward, “tell me what happened.”

“We were training in the Roman-ah as usual when an alarm went up from the guards in the watchtower. That’s not unusual; it seems that there are always more stragglers coming in to begin their training. But, as I always do, I climbed to the very top and looked east. It didn’t look like any group of warriors coming to train. There were only six of them, and they were dressed strangely. Even in the heat of a summer’s day, they were draped in animal furs. They didn’t look anything like Kragdon-ah, either. Their skin was burned and reddish, and they had long beards that hung down their chests.”

Alex nodded to himself. The natives of Kragdon-ah did not tend to grow beards, and they certainly never got burned from the sun. When he closed his eyes and envisioned the horde of Northmen who he fought in Drakana, he knew they matched that description perfectly.

“I took two squads of my best men, my trainers mostly, and went to meet them, to see what they wanted.”

Again, Alex closed his eyes and could see the scene. Forty men, unsure of the purpose of the visitors, but backed up by almost a thousand other warriors, facing off against half a dozen fighters. Any commander would assume that the oncoming fighters would slow or stop altogether to talk things over. Certainly no small squad would throw themselves at a large army when they were outnumbered by more than a hundred to one.

“You never found out what they wanted, did you?” Alex said.

“Well, in a way. They wanted to kill us. I don’t mind telling you, I was unnerved, because they never slowed. They didn’t seem to know or care how many of us there were. There were forty of us and six of them, with hundreds and hundreds more behind us. It didn’t matter. As they approached us, they sped up, as if they couldn’t wait to fight us.”

Again, Alex had seen that very behavior from the Northmen in Drakana. When they had killed all but one of them and that man was surrounded by hundreds of armed warriors, he continued to fight on, showing no regard for his own life and wreaking more havoc on Alex’s forces. It hadn’t been until Torana had sliced the warrior nearly in half that he had finally stopped. Even then, split from neck to hip, he had died with a ghastly smile on his face.

“We were ready for them, or at least I thought so. I had arranged my squads so that different weapons disciplines were placed strategically.”

“Strategy doesn’t seem to matter much to these fighters, does it?”

“No,” Yestin-ak replied. “At the very end, they broke into a screaming run. They raised their axes over their heads and came at us. I had six archers at the sides of my squads, and when I saw that they weren’t going to stop, I ordered them to fire on the men. Each of the attackers was hit by one arrow, then a second, which I expected would put them down before they got to us. They still ran at us as though they hadn’t felt anything. I’ve never seen anything like it. One of them took two arrows to the throat, and he killed two of my best men with the first swing of his ax.”

Yestin-ak seemed to shudder a little at the carnage he had witnessed.

“In the end, we were able to best them, but the cost was terrible. Those six fighters killed twenty of my men and almost everyone else had a wound of some sort or another.”

That jibed well with what Alex had witnessed before. “Was that when you sent the traka-ta?”

“No. I saw no reason to. I thought it was just a random attack from somewhere. We had put it down, even though we lost more than I thought we should have. We left the attackers in the desert to be carried off by the animals, lit a pyre for our dead, and went back to training with renewed vigor.”

The two servers came in again, this time carrying platters laden with meats and preserved fruits. They gave a large bone, still covered in fresh meat, to Monda-ak, and gave Torana a full platter of his own.

“When did the next attack come?” Alex asked.

“Two days later. It doesn’t make sense, does it? If they were intent on attacking a force as formidable as Vendan-ah, why would they do it with small forces? Why would they not gather the greatest force they had and attack us then?”

“I wish I could say I understand how these people think, but I do not,” Alex admitted. “How many were there in the next attack?”

“More,” Yestin-ak answered, his eyes taking on a faraway gaze. “There were fifteen of the attackers when they appeared again. This time I was better prepared. I didn’t take two squads to meet them. I took everyone. I thought that perhaps seeing such a formidable force would deter them, or that they would at least talk to us, tell us what they wanted. It didn’t make any difference. With such an overwhelming advantage, the outcome of the battle was never in doubt, but having a thousand fighters against fifteen, only so many of us could engage with them at one time.”

“How many men did you lose in that battle?”

“Fifty. Those fifteen attackers killed fifty good men and wounded many more.” Yestin-ak looked at Alex with haunted eyes. “That was when I sent the traka-ta. The more I thought about it, the more I thought these might just be early forays before a full-scale attack. If they were able to kill so many of us with so few fighters, what would happen if they showed up with hundreds of the same kind of warrior? They could overrun us.”

Alex leaned forward, meeting Yestin-ak’s haunted eyes. “You did the right thing. You are a fast learner, and a natural leader. That’s why I chose you to command the training facility. But you are not a battlefield leader. It’s possible that no one in Vendan-ah is. I never expected you to come under attack like this or I wouldn’t have left you alone. Have you come under attack since then?”

“Yes, one more time. Another ten of them came three days ago. It was essentially the same as the first two times. We killed them all, but we lost more than we should have.”

“Did they always come from the same direction?”

“Yes. They all arrived coming straight from the east.”

Alex thought about that, rolling the geography over in his mind. “That makes sense. There is a valley ten miles to the east that would funnel them in this direction. We may be able to use that to our advantage.” He drummed his fingers on the table, then decided on his first course of action. “Let’s go find Pictin, I want to talk to him.”

Alex was never sure how much of what he said was understood by Torana. In any case, seeing the two men rise from the table, the giant stood as well, his head brushing against the top of the tent.

Monda-ak sprang to his feet, ready for whatever adventure was next.

As they stepped outside the tent, they saw the majority of the army Alex had brought with him were approaching. Pictin, Versa-eh, Harta-ak, Sanda, and Nanda-eh were in the lead.

Alex leaned toward Yestin-ak and said, “Can you take care of having someone bring something to drink for them? I want to speak to my team.”

If Yestin-ak was insulted at not being part of Alex’s team, he didn’t show it. Alex understood that the young man had been laid low by what had occurred under his watch. He simply put two fingers to his forehead and hurried off to see that it was taken care of.

Alex approached his impromptu leadership council and said, “Walk with me. I have a better idea of what is happening here.”

They walked away from the Romana, so they could be alone. Alex brought them current with what had happened.

“It is good that we came, then,” Harta-ak said. He was always the first to volunteer to help anyone in need and had been since he had rescued Alex and Versa-eh from an island in the Okrent-ah many years before.

Versa-eh, who was more practical about things, said, “Yes, I’m glad we came, but based on what you are saying, I don’t know if we will be adding much help. Many of those who rode with us are young and strong but are not trained fighters.”

Alex smiled a little and said, “The difference can be those of us right here.” He swept his arm around to include Torana and Sista-eh, who had rejoined him, and Monda-ak. “All of us have seen these Northmen fight. We will not be caught off guard. Yestin-ak made the only decision he knew how—to throw an unstoppable number of fighters against them. We will find other ways to stop them.” He turned to Pictin. “Are you ready to do some more building?”

“Always,” Pictin said quickly.

Versa-eh saw an obstacle immediately. “You will need more lumber for whatever you build. Let’s sketch it out, and I will send a traka-ta ordering the wood to be sent down immediately.”

Alex had begun sketching out his plan for what he wanted built when he was interrupted by screams coming from the guard tower.

“Invaders!”

 

Chapter Five

Northmen

A

lex’s mind had been running on two tracks since he had arrived in Vendan-ah. The first point of concentration was seeking a somewhat longer-term solution to these attacks. The other was how he would deal with the same situation Yestin-ak had been facing in the short term. That is, how to handle a foray from a small but dangerous group of the Northmen while limiting loss of life on his side.

He was not caught off guard, then, when the cry of “Invaders!” came from the guard tower.

He assessed who he had with him instantly and gave orders to each of them.

“Sanda, Nanda-eh, grab ten of your best archers and form up beside the guard tower. Longbows, with your short bows held in reserve. Your heaviest arrows.” He turned to Yestin-ak. “Keep your warriors inside the Romana in case they’re needed but send the cooks and everyone else down below where they will be safe.”

He looked at Versa-eh and Harta-ak. “We don’t want so many people that there is confusion on the battlefield, but we need to have at least twenty good warriors. Look among those we brought with us and pick that number of our best, most well-trained fighters.”

“Our people are not trained,” Harta-ak said. “We will need to choose mostly from the Winten-ah.”

“I agree, and that’s fine. I will do my best not to put any of them at risk.” Finally, he looked at Pictin. “Take six of the people we brought who are good riders to where the horses are kept. I want to have a place here in Vendan-ah where we can keep them nearby.”

Pictin laid two fingers across his forehead, a habit he had picked up from the Kragdon-ah, and hurried off to do as he was told.

Alex led Torana to the guard tower. He shouted up, “How many are coming?” He dreaded the answer. If it was, There are too many to count, he would have to revise all his strategies.

Instead, the guard shouted down, “There are eight of them.”

“Good,” he said, mostly to himself, though Torana appeared to be paying attention. “Better to start with this small group, but we will have to decide what to do when they show up in greater numbers.” He climbed up toward the top of the guard tower to see how far away the attackers were, and how much time he would have to prepare.

They were still a good distance away and Alex realized that the guards had been vigilant and sharp-eyed, spotting them when they weren’t much more than moving specks on the horizon. He also marveled again at how little the Northmen seemed to care about the niceties of strategy in battle. If they had bothered to care about attacking at night, or if they had found other ways to be surreptitious about their approach, he wouldn’t have had the luxury of time. Instead, they walked at a brisk pace, directly toward them, as though they were invulnerable bulldozers. In their minds, he supposed they were.

He used what time he had to run to the weapons building with Torana in tow. Alex grabbed up twenty heavy throwing spears and loaded the giant up. They hurried back to the guard tower, which served effectively as the entrance to Vendan-ah.

Yestin-ak had led his troops forward to meet the attackers on the far side. Alex understood the instinct to never let an enemy inside your town, but he wanted to use a different strategy.

Sanda and Nanda-eh hurried up with their archers, all carrying their longbows with their short bows slung over their backs. They were all burdened with two quivers as well, each filled with arrows of different lengths.

Alex looked up at the guard tower, which was small, never meant to hold more than a few guards at a time.

“Sanda, take three of your best longbow archers up and send the guards down. Wait until the enemy is in longbow range and begin to fire. Nanda-eh, take the rest of the archers and spread out to the south. When Sanda and her archers begin to fire, the attackers will change their pace and start to run. Wait until that happens, gauge their speed, then loose your arrows. When they get closer, but are not upon us yet, switch to your short bows. Those arrows will not put them down, but they are not invulnerable. Every arrow that connects will slow and hinder them.”

Harta-ak and Versa-eh appeared on a run with their chosen fighters. As promised, they were all Winten-ah warriors. Alex took the heavy throwing spears and distributed them among the fighters. He thought back to the Revolutionary War and Colonel Prescott. He almost quoted him verbatim with “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” but didn’t. Instead, he said, “Wait until you feel like you can’t miss, then throw, aiming right here.” He pointed to his own breastbone. “We’ve all brought down giant beasts of the forest with our spears; I think it will stop these humans, because that’s all they are.”

He arranged the fighters in a semi-circle two dozen strides behind the guard tower. He looked around, as satisfied as he could have been with so little time to prepare.

The invaders were within longbow range, and Alex shouted up to the guard tower, “Fire!”

Five longbow arrows flew through the air and three struck home, though they looked like they hit non-vital areas like arms and legs. That caused those hit to stumble or even go down on one knee, but a moment later, they were up and moving, screaming their rage at being wounded from afar.

As Alex had predicted, the first small volley of arrows caused them to accelerate their pace. As they did, Nanda-eh and her archers loosed their own volley. This group was not as accurate, but three more of the invaders were hit, including one who took an arrow through the throat. A crimson arc sprayed forward, and it was enough to stop him for a moment. He vented his anger in a bubbling, incoherent shriek, then reached up and pulled the arrow out with a terrible rending of his flesh. He shook his head, flinging blood in every direction, then once again took up the attack.

The archers abandoned their longbows and nocked arrows on their short bows. They loosed shot after shot at the attacking group, hitting them again and again.

It did not stop them, but only seemed to infuriate the Northmen more.

Alex let them rush directly toward them, holding a heavy spear ready to throw. At his side, Monda-ak bristled and growled, anxious to be part of the battle. Torana stood to the side as Alex had instructed, swinging his ax that was too heavy for any other warrior to use.

When the Northmen rushed past the guard tower, Alex screamed, “Now!” and took two running steps forward, unleashing his spear. As he watched it fly straight and true, he was already pulling his own hammer and sword from his belt. He was not a berserker fighter like the men charging toward him, but his blood was high.

Around him, the Winten-ah warriors threw their own heavy spears. Some flew high, some wide, but every single Northman was hit by at least one. It staggered them all and knocked three of them to the ground.

Monda-ak was a few strides ahead of Alex and leaped at the frothing, bloody leader of the attackers. That man underestimated how fast the dog was. He swung his ax, intending to crush Monda-ak’s skull, but he was too slow. The giant dog hit the man with three hundred pounds of momentum and knocked him to the ground. That fight was over in seconds as Monda-ak closed his mighty jaws on the man’s skull, crushing it.

Alex was right behind. The man he had chosen had a longbow bolt in his left arm and had been pierced by what would no doubt be an eventually fatal spear strike to his center mass. Alex moved as though he was going to attack him directly, but the other warrior was almost a foot taller and outweighed him by a hundred pounds. Instead of an unwise frontal attack, Alex ducked, feinted right, then whirled left and smashed his heavy rock hammer into the man’s hip, using his opponent’s own energy to send him tumbling to the ground.

In an instant, Monda-ak was on him. The last thing that man ever saw was furious eyes and gaping, slavering jaws.

Alex sprang to his feet and looked for his next target, but there was no enemy left standing.

The twenty Winten-ah warriors had leaped forward and were busily finishing off the fallen Northmen.

In seconds, the battle was done.

Alex checked Monda-ak. The dog was covered in blood but had no obvious wounds.

“Who’s injured?” Alex shouted, realizing that his voice was still battlefield loud, though the fighting had ceased. Quieter, he repeated the words, “Who’s injured?”

One soldier limped forward a few steps and said, “I slipped in the blood and twisted my ankle.”

Alex tried to keep a straight face but couldn’t help himself. First his shoulders heaved with the effort, then a laugh started deep in his chest and released all the pent-up tension from the battle. Initially, everyone looked at him askance.

How could anything be funny in this scene?

Then, as they looked around themselves, at the incredible gore of their enemy, who had been killed in terrible, bloody ways, several saw the humor in a twisted ankle and joined him. The other warriors, many of whom had never been in a real battle before, looked around, uncertain of what to do.

Finally, the laughter passed. Alex stood up straight, composed himself, and said, “You, and you, help this man to one of the long tables in the dining tent where we can see to his ankle. Bring the healer so we can see if they think it is broken.”

The two men moved to help the injured man, but he waved them off and limped away with them flanking him.

Yestin-ak, who had witnessed the battle from the top of the Romana, came running up to Alex. “I learned many things from watching you. Overwhelming strength can win a fight, but with a cost. Using your forces correctly can do the same without losing anyone.” He paused and looked about the blood-soaked ground. Quietly, he said, “Again, I want to step down so you can appoint someone who will make better use of our troops.”

“That’s the last time I will hear you say that without accepting,” Alex said. He paused, realizing that those words came out harsher than he had intended. He laid a hand on Yestin-ak’s shoulder. “When I was your age, I could not have accomplished anything like you have. In fact, I was still falling out of trees and hurting myself. You should not be hard on yourself about things you have not been trained to do.”

Alex considered a plan that had been forming in his mind. “Yestin-ak, I want you to select your best trainers. Have each of them choose their successor. Then, bring them to me at dawn. We will start training them to be battlefield leaders.”

His inner circle put two fingers to their foreheads, acknowledging that they would all be part of that training.

Alex knelt and examined the corpse that was closest to him. He had a longbow arrow sticking out of his thigh, a heavy spear through his left shoulder, and two smaller arrows in his chest. And still this warrior had fought on and died with a snarl on his face. He looked up at Yestin-ak and said, “Were all the attackers like this?”

“I’m not sure what you mean.”

“Did any of them carry anything with them? These men have no packs, no supplies, just their weapons.”

“Yes, that is the way they have all been.”

Alex stood, wiping blood off on his own shirt. “That’s another thing that doesn’t make any sense. No group could cross great distances without carrying anything.” Alex stared off to the east as though he might spot a large encampment of Northmen there. Instead, there was just vast emptiness giving way to rolling foothills in the distance. To Harta-ak and Versa-eh, he said, “When the horses arrive, choose six riders and send them in the direction they came from. If they see an enemy, have them ride back here as fast as possible. I want to know if these men left supplies behind when they attacked us.” He returned his attention to Yestin-ak. “Have these warriors stacked up and burned.”

Yestin-ak looked surprised. “Should we waste the time on that?”

Alex looked down at the eight Northmen who had fearlessly attacked a settlement where they were outnumbered by more than a hundred to one.

“They did not fight intelligently, but they were brave beyond measure. They deserve to be sent on properly to whatever waits for them.”

Yestin-ak put two fingers to his forehead and shouted orders for people to carry out Alex’s wishes.

Alex gathered his closest friends together and walked back to the tent with the long tables. With the adrenaline of battle past, he felt suddenly exhausted. Still, he knew there was much to do.

The battle for Kragdon-ah had just begun.

 

Chapter Six

Preparations

A

lex woke up in the completely dark room that Yestin-ak had given him and Monda-ak to sleep in.

When he opened his eyes and couldn’t see anything, he was disoriented for a moment, unable to remember where he was. Then Monda-ak snuggled up against him, sighed, and everything came back to him.

The previous twenty-four hours had been quintessential Alex Hawk.

He had ridden into a strange situation, completely unsure of what he was going to find or what would transpire.

Within a few hours, he had taken in the situation, made both short and longer-term plans, then led a thrown-together force into battle against a fierce enemy. His army was not seriously threatened with defeat—there were too many of them—but it would have been easy to put his people at unnecessary risk. Instead, they had emerged with a single injury—a warrior who had twisted his ankle when he had slipped in the blood of the enemy.

With Monda-ak still snoring and passing gas beside him, Alex allowed himself to lie in the quiet room and put more plans in place before he started his day. There was no way for him to know what time it was, but since no light came through the clever, filtered light system Pictin had installed, he knew it was before dawn.

He replayed the battle with the Northmen from the day before over in his mind, looking for what he could have done better, what plans he could put in place in case they arrived again that afternoon, or tomorrow, or in a week.

He couldn’t find much wrong with the battle plan itself, but when he played it over in his mind, he realized that he would have done better to have Yestin-ak beside him, instead of at the top of the Romana.

It wasn’t bad for the young man to get a bird’s-eye view of the battle—that kind of perspective was helpful, but Alex thought that if he were by his side, he could have explained what he was doing in preparation.

Once the battle started, that would be the end of explanations, of course. Even in the kind of action they’d experienced the day before, there was no time or breath for talking.

Alex felt energized and ready to start the day. He was glad to have these short-term challenges to deal with while his mind worked on the larger problem of what to ultimately do with the Northmen in the background.

He thrust a hip into Monda-ak and said, “Hey, hey. Up and at ‘em, you big lug.”

The room was pitch black, so Alex couldn’t actually see the dog’s expression, but he didn’t need to. He’d seen it thousands of times in their years together. Monda-ak loved Alex more than anything, but that love was followed closely by his passion for food and sleep. He sighed and burrowed down into the bed he was sharing with Alex, partially squashing him.

“Nope, not today, big fella. We’re getting an early start.” Alex rolled the dog off him and stood up, stretching. He was happy to find that after the exertion of the battle the day before, he wasn’t sore or limping. The miracle shot that Pandrick had given him a year earlier was amazing. He couldn’t imagine how he would handle the challenges he was currently faced with if that hadn’t happened.

He groped around the room, trying to locate the door handle, and finally found it. When he opened the door, the faint glow of a torch down the hall helped him remember the layout of where he was.

Monda-ak finally gave up on his dream of more snoozing and padded after him.

Alex thought he was up early enough that he would have a good jump on everyone else, but as he rounded a corner, he ran into Pictin, who was bustling toward the staircase.

They nodded at each other but didn’t speak until they had pulled aside the cover and walked up into the early morning air. The brilliant stars were just beginning to fade a bit as the first promise of light came from the east.

“I will have to wait for the lumber from Danta-ah to really begin construction on what you’ve laid out, but I can start preparations so we are ready to go as soon as it arrives.”

Alex smiled a little at his friend. Like so many of the people that were dear to him—Sekun-ak, Tinta-ak, Torana—they had started out on opposite sides. They were all good people who did what they said they would, though, and that soon erased any enmity between them.

Alex felt sure that while he was lying on his bed, going over the battle, Pictin had been doing the same but was instead thinking about his new building projects.

Pictin suddenly perked up, as if an idea had struck him. “We used most of the rocks we pulled from the ground when we built the Romana, but not all of them.” He pointed to a pile of various-sized rocks to the right of the big stone structure. “There were some that just didn’t fit what we were doing. Too big, or too small, or an awkward shape. What if I have some strong young people haul those rocks over to where we are going to build? I could at least use the rocks to build a foundation for us. That will allow us to get started building immediately, and the structures will be stronger for it as well.”

“You are a genius,” Alex said.

“In Drakana, I was only an average craftsman. Here, in Kragdon-ah, I am a genius.” Pictin said that without a trace of irony or braggadocio. Excited by his new idea, he hurried away to implement his plan.

“Gunta, Manta-ak,” a voice said from the entrance.

Alex turned and saw Yestin-ak. He looked a little downcast.

When Alex first met him, he had been the third wheel in his own family, overshadowed by the perfect physical specimen that was his brother Restin-ak. His father had pinned all the tribe’s hopes on his brother and couldn’t envision what the younger boy could be.

Alex had seen, though, and had nurtured and trained him to be a leader in many ways, but the past few weeks, and yesterday in particular, had been hard on him. Alex knew he would need to build him up again, to boost his confidence. He had no interest in doing that with empty platitudes or pats on the back, though. He planned on instead giving him the best opportunity to succeed. That feeling of competence would be the perfect antidote to his self-confidence issues.

“Today, I want you to be my shadow. Follow me everywhere. We are going to set up training exercises in the Romana. Between us, we will talk about each decision we make. Then, I will want you to take your own lieutenants aside and do the same with them. We will all become better at thinking on the fly.”

“I will stick by your side.” Yestin-ak seemed a little relieved that he would be shadowing Alex instead of being in charge.

“I know it’s early, but we cannot know when the next wave of Northmen will attack. Gather your lieutenants and bring them to the tent for breakfast, so we can get started.”

Yestin-ak turned and ran down the steps and Alex hurried on to the kitchen. There was already a buzz of activity in that building. Based on what he saw, he guessed that the cooks had been hard at work since midnight, if not longer. The life of a cook—up early, up late, and a huge amount of thankless work in between.

Alex caught the eye of the woman he could tell was in charge. “We’ll be starting some of the team early, if you can put something together.”

“I always expect that,” the woman said. “Just tell me how many, and we will serve them.”

Alex realized he didn’t know how many team leaders Yestin-ak had. He turned back to the entrance to the underground and saw them already approaching. Counting Yestin-ak, there were nine.

“There will be ten of us.”

The woman waved an acknowledgement at him and hurried back to what she was doing.

Alex met the group halfway and said, “Let’s eat, then we can get started.”

They walked to the dining tent and to the side, Alex saw that Pictin had already rousted a number of strong young people, who were carrying rocks from one part of the compound to the other.

The ten of them sat down at one of the long tables and Alex stayed quiet, listening to the conversations around him.

The team leaders that Yestin-ak had chosen were evenly divided between men and women—not unusual in most Kragdon-ah tribes. They skewed young, but Alex noticed with interest that one of the leaders was a gray-haired woman who appeared to have seen sixty or seventy summer solstices. Like Alex, she mostly kept to herself, but it appeared that the others were deferential to her.

Alex leaned in close to Yestin-ak and said, “Who is that?” nodding toward the older woman.

“Girda-eh,” Yestin-ak said. He did not say anything more about her, but Alex resolved to watch her in action.

The cooks brought in heaping plates of fried eggs, sausages, and freshly baked biscuits. They might work hard, but they would not pass out from hunger.

Before they could even dig in, Alex’s own team of lieutenants came through the tent opening—Versa-eh and Harta-ak, Nanda-eh and Sanda, and Torana and Sista-eh.

Torana was not much use as a trainer. He was one warrior who actually could accomplish almost whatever he needed through his sheer size. He couldn’t train any of the other fighters to be nine feet tall, however. Even so, Alex was glad to have him and his constant companion Sista-eh nearby.

The second group settled in around the first and cooks came in with more food. One brought a massive tray for Torana, along with a fork that was undoubtedly used normally for cooking meat, not as cutlery. He hustled away and returned a minute later with a normal-sized plate for Sista-eh and more meaty bones and a thick stew in a giant bowl for Monda-ak.

Everyone tucked in and for a few minutes, the only sound was chewing and the scraping of food off the plates.

Unsurprisingly, Monda-ak was done first and looked at Alex as though to say, Seconds?

“That’s enough for now,” Alex said. “We want you to be light on your feet in case we have to fight today.”

Monda-ak obviously did not agree with that sentiment, believing that he was always light on his feet no matter how much he ate. He did know that Alex never changed his mind about things like that, so he dropped his enormous head between his paws and seemed to fall asleep immediately. Alex had no doubt that if anyone at the table made the mistake of letting a chunk of food hit the floor, he would be awake, alert, and chomping on it in seconds.

When everyone was done eating, they picked up their utensils and plates and carried them back to the kitchen, then turned to look at Alex.

Alex stared at the entrance to the underground, which, as the sun had come over the horizon, was busy with people coming out.

“Let’s go to the Romana,” Alex said, leading the way.

Inside the giant structure, Alex climbed to the top row, where a small stage had been built years before. At that time, it had been constructed for Alex to make a speech to the assembled warriors he had trained. After he had reluctantly done so—and been rewarded with a minutes-long chanting of his name—they had decided to leave it in place. It was useful for being able to oversee everyone on the floor of the coliseum at one time.

He signaled to Yestin-ak’s lieutenants to join him there.

A few at a time, other warriors who had been part of the training, trickled into the Romana. They took seats expectantly, as though they were about to witness a show.

Instead, Alex chose ten of them at random to go onto the floor. He addressed them by asking, “Have you seen the Northmen attack?”

They looked from one to the other until one stepped forward and said, “Yes, Manta-ak.”

“For this exercise, I want you to emulate their style of attack.” Alex looked from one to the other of the men. “That is, come at the defending force with abandon, with no concern for your own safety.” He could see from the expressions on their faces that they were unclear on the concept. “This is just an exercise. We will not actually be attacking each other.”

The chosen warriors smiled and nodded as though they understood that all along, though it was obvious they had not.

He moved close to them and said, “No matter what happens, keep coming at the defenders until I say you are down. Understand?”

The warriors all put two fingers against their forehead and retreated to the far end of the enclosed battlefield.

Alex turned to Yestin-ak. “For the purpose of this attack, let’s say you only have twenty warriors to defend this end of the battlefield. How do you arrange them?”

Yestin-ak considered, consulted with his team, then looked at the stands, which were again filling up with observers. He chose twenty of them from the first few rows and laid them out much as Alex had the previous day. He put six archers higher up at his end of the field, then laid the rest of his warriors out in a semi-circle.

“How are your fighters armed?”

“Longbows for the archers, heavy spears for the rest.”

“Fine. I will be in the middle, and I will eliminate each of the enemies I think you have killed. If I believe they are only injured, they will keep fighting, as we have seen.”

Yestin-ak acknowledged that and stood on the platform.

The faux Northmen approached, slowly, methodically.

When they crossed the midpoint of the field, Yestin-ak yelled, “Fire!”

The archers did not actually fire, of course, but they did mime going through the motions of doing so.

Alex judged the space between the archers and the attackers and moved in among the attacking warriors. He touched two of them and said, “You’re down.”

Those two knelt while the others approached.

“Fire again!” Yestin-ak said.

Again, the archers mimed their heavy bows.

At that distance, though, Alex judged that the attackers were too close for the longbows to be effective. He did not put any of them down.

The running attackers closed quickly.

Yestin-ak shouted, “Spears! Now!”

Behind the warriors, Alex said, “Stop!”

Everyone on both sides did just that.

Alex moved to the front row of the attackers. He touched all four of them and said, “You’re down.” He backed out of the field of battle and said, “Begin.”

There was no time for Yestin-ak to do anything except say, “Draw weapons,” before the attackers were on the defenders.

“Stop there,” Alex said, his voice carrying across the battlefield. “Four of the Northmen survived the attack. We’ve seen what happens once they come into hand-to-hand combat with us. We will lose many more fighters than we should. In this case, you would have lost most, if not all, your spear warriors. We will do it again. Do you want to change anything in your setup?”

“I will equip my archers with their short bows so they can switch after they’ve sent their initial volley. I want to arrange my spear warriors in two lines instead of one.”

“Good, let’s do it again.”

They ran the exercise again. This time, only two of the attackers made it to the defenders and Alex judged them to be grievously wounded. He also noted that though Yestin-ak conferred with all his team, he spent the most time listening to Girda-eh.

Eventually, Alex told Yestin-ak to leave his team in charge of defense and brought him down to oversee the attackers, allowing him to change their strategy from an all-out charge to a more measured attack.

By then, the late summer sun was high overhead and everyone present was sweating.

They ran the attack over and over, changing both the defense and the attack.

By afternoon, even with switching out the teams again and again, everyone was exhausted and hungry.

Alex was impressed with Girda-eh’s ability to learn and change strategies with no notice.

And Yestin-ak was learning.

 

Chapter Seven

The Lone Horseman

V

endan-ah was a hotbed of activity for the next week.

Alex elected to have Sanda, Nanda-eh, Versa-eh, Harta-ak, and Yestin-ak each take large groups of warriors out of the Romana and continue to work with them on the open plain.

Sanda and Nanda-eh focused on working with the archers, of course. The other three worked with groups that focused on using the atlatl and the throwing spears. Alex’s hope was to keep as much of the battle at a distance, where the Northmen’s ferocious up-close fighting skills would not come into play. He kept a few dozen warriors in reserve and used the coliseum to continue to train Yestin-ak’s warriors in various battle strategies.

Meanwhile, Pictin dove into his building projects like a man possessed.

When Alex had first seen all that Pictin had accomplished in Vendan-ah in such a relatively short period of time a few years earlier, he had wondered how he had managed to do it all. Seeing him working himself and his crew from before first light until the middle of the night, he understood.

For the first few days, Pictin used his genius at properly placing various geometric shapes to construct wide stone bases that reached about eight feet into the air. Most of the upper layers of rocks were placed using ladders, but Sista-eh and Torana also pitched in. Torana could reach the top row without having to strain at all, and the large rocks looked small in his hands.

After a few days, loads of lumber arrived from Danta-ah and Pictin somehow increased his pace, overseeing the construction of six tall platforms built atop the stone foundations. These new constructs were similar in design to the watchtower he had first built to keep a lookout, but with key differences.

That original watchtower was relatively slender, was built of wood from the ground up, and only had room for two or three guards in the platformed structure at the top. If a force reached into the city proper and was let loose to wreak havoc, they could have brought the tower down with a few well-placed swings of their heavy axes.

These new towers had a broader foundation made of stone. No ax blow would easily knock them down. The wider base meant that Pictin could use sturdier support poles, which then allowed him to build a much bigger room at the top.

As part of his initiative to stay away from the lethal axes of the Northmen, Alex intended to fill each of the six towers with eight to ten archers. They could fire their longbows at a distance, and when the enemy got closer, they could pepper them with less damaging but still effective short bows.

Alex and Pictin had no idea how much time they had to prepare for a more dangerous attack, or if one was in the offing at all. They simply prioritized the work that would help them the most.

Sanda and Nanda-eh found a way to make their arrows more effective. They fired their longbows from the new defense towers to get an idea of the range the arrows would fly. When they went to retrieve their arrows, they carried rocks out and marked the spot so they would know when to fire without having to rely on guesswork. They did the same with their short bows, laying out another string of rocks to mark the range of that weapon.

After a few days, the rest of the volunteers who had left Tharandon on foot arrived. They were just as confused and surprised to find a city under construction as Alex had been to find the Romana still being used for training.

These hundred strong warriors had shown up, thinking they might be thrown immediately into a battle. Instead, Alex assigned them to Pictin as laborers. Pictin already had enough people working on the defense towers, so he put them to work on the next project—building a wide fence just tall enough to force an attacking enemy to funnel into one or two select openings that were only two strides across.

Alex planned to have row after row after row of warriors waiting on the inside of those openings, each armed with heavy spears. The front row would throw, then retreat to the back, pick up another spear, and wait until their turn came again. They would do that until they ran out of spears.

Alex hoped that by then, the bodies of the Northmen would be stacked so high that they would block the openings themselves.

All those plans hinged on suppositions, though. The supposition that eventually a larger army would attack, and that said army would mostly use the same strategy as the early attackers. Alex knew that was a gamble, but he was forced to work with incomplete information.

Monda-ak, meanwhile, was having a good run of things. He didn’t need to train, so he spent most of his day stretched out in a shady spot, keeping a watchful eye on Alex. At night, the cooks seemed to test the limits of his appetite by giving him increasingly large portions. If there was an upper limit to what he could consume, they never found it. Eventually, Alex had to ask them to cut back, fearing he would have to roll the giant dog into any battle they faced.

While all the preparations were underway, there were more attacks by small gangs of Northmen, though the pace of the attacks had slowed. Alex had chosen Girda-eh to be the battlefield commander during these attacks. Using the techniques she had learned, she managed to kill every Northman without losing a single one of her warriors.

One night, after a long day of training, Alex and his inner circle sat in the dining room, talking. Harta-ak, who was always optimistic, said, “Perhaps they will just continue to come at us in small numbers, and we will be able to eliminate all of them without losing another soul.”

Versa-eh smiled at him, loving him for thinking so, but she was more practical. She knew how impossible it was that a huge army would come across an ocean, fight their way to a huge city where they laid siege, and then just trickle their force away in constant suicide missions.

There was another explanation for why that was happening, though no one sitting at the table knew what it was.

After two weeks, the six defense towers were completed. They all sat a few strides inside the partially completed fence, where they could see the flat approaching plain for several miles in each direction. Pictin designed and installed built-in quivers for the archers’ long and short arrows, so they would always have them on hand.

Early one morning, just as the sun was rising, the warning cry went up again from the watchtower.

“Invaders!”

It had been five days since the previous attack, and Alex had come to hope that perhaps it had been the last one.

No attack is ever mundane, but the defenders of Vendan-ah had repelled the last six invasions without sustaining a single injury. It was possible that they had come to expect that to continue.

Alex hurried to the base of the tower and said, “How many?”

There was a long pause, as though they were having to count a larger number than normal. Finally, the guard shouted down. “It appears to be twenty. But they are far away, so there might be more hiding behind them.”

This was the largest band of Northmen that had ever attacked them. Alex felt his stomach tighten, as it often did before a battle. His instincts told him that something was different today.

He saw Girda-eh claim the place where she had been directing the defense. Alex hurried to her, laid a hand on her shoulder, and said, “I will take command this time. Please stand beside me and advise me as you see fit. If a force manages to break through, I will join the skirmish, and you will be in command again.”

Without looking or speaking, Alex unconsciously reached his right hand out. As he knew they would, his fingers brushed against the bristling fur on Monda-ak’s neck. He was never far away from Alex in any circumstance, but in a battle, he was always within reach.

Alex watched as the troops automatically moved themselves into position. The archers ran to the tops of the defense towers and faced east. The forty spearmen arrayed themselves in rows of ten, starting a dozen paces back from the towers.

There was another cry from the watchtower. “More invaders!”

Alex took a deep breath, held it, then let it out. “This might finally be it,” he said to himself. Then, louder, “How many in that group?” He expected to hear an even larger number come back. That there were another fifty, or a hundred, or a thousand of the Northmen coming toward them. If that was so, he could not be sure they could prevail. He kept in mind what Sekun-ak had told him the first night he had learned the Northmen were there.

We will prevail. Or we will die in battle, defending our home and our families. We must be at peace with either outcome. It has always been, it will always be. The world is the world.

In any case, he would do everything he could to win.

“Another twenty!” the answer came down, which calmed Alex somewhat, though endless waves of twenty without time to reset, re-arm, and kill the wounded Northmen could prove to be deadly as well.

“Yestin-ak!”

Immediately, the young man was beside him, as though he had been waiting to be called. “Here, Manta-ak.”

“Form up the army in the Romana. Put them into their squads, and bring them here two squads at a time. If the enemy breaks through, don’t engage them, leave that to me. But it appears they are coming in waves. Take your squads and finish off each fallen enemy, then retreat. If more than ten of them break through and are still able to fight, bring four squads into the battle. Understood?”

“Yes, Manta-ak.”

“Use your head, do your best,” Alex said, then turned his attention to the oncoming force, forgetting everything else.

With the rocks delineating the range of the bows, Alex no longer needed to tell the archers when to fire. They all did so together when the attackers were a few strides behind the markers.

As had happened consistently, about a quarter of the arrows hit home and the attackers began to move faster, though the wounded lagged behind.

This time, with a second wave of attackers, there was a twist in the action. When the first group began to run, so did the second.

“Stay with your longbows,” Sanda shouted. “Wait until the second group hits the mark, then fire again.”

Alex agreed with that strategy. The longbow arrows dealt much more damage to the attackers, but there was a downside. Not using the short bows meant that the first group would arrive in greater numbers and much stronger, since they would be relatively unscathed after the first volley.

Alex walked in front of his spearmen. Inside, his blood was roiling, but he kept his voice strong and calm. “First row, stay calm. Wait until enough targets are well inside before you throw. You in the next three rows, do the same. Wait until there are good targets before you throw. We can’t waste any spears here.”

From the watchtower, another cry. “Invader!”

It took Alex a moment to realize that they had said invader, not invaders. “Just one?” he shouted up.

“Yes! It is someone on horseback.”

That threw Alex and nearly made him pause. He couldn’t imagine why a single person would follow behind the two waves of attackers. Until that moment, they hadn’t seen any of the Northmen on horseback.

He was snapped back to the battle when he heard the twang of the archer’s bows and the sizzle of their arrows overhead. The second group had reached the markers.

This time, with the invaders already running, the long arrows only hit two of their targets.

“Switch bows!” Sanda cried from above.

Alex knew things were about to get bloody. He signaled to his own squad, which included his inner circle and their handpicked fighters, to be ready to jump in after the spearmen.

As happened so often in his life, once the first Northmen broke past the watchtower, although all hell broke loose, it felt like time slowed down for Alex.

The first row of spearmen waited patiently as he had asked them. As soon as the first half dozen of the attackers were inside, Alex saw why that had been a bad idea. In his head, he could see the first row waiting too long for ten Northmen to appear. By the time that happened, the first few would be upon them, and chaos would ensue.

“Fire spears!” Alex shouted, but it wasn’t necessary. The spear warriors seemed to have the same thought at the same time. They sensed that they were about to be overrun, threw their spears, then ducked to the back. By then, there was a steady stream of uninjured Northmen hurtling inside the fence, looking for blood.

The second row threw their spears and another small group of Northmen were either slowed or stopped.

Overhead, the archers were peppering the second wave with arrows. A single shot would not put one of them down, but if they were hit by five or six arrows in key places, they dropped.

By then, it was too congested inside the fence for the spears to be effective any longer.

“Attack!” Alex screamed at his squad as he ran forward, Monda-ak galloping at his side.

The defenders of Vendan-ah did not escape unscathed in this battle.

Torana was a titan, as he always was. He swung his heavy club, nearly knocking the head off the first Northman he came against. He bent and picked up two of the heavy axes and swung them in a deadly arc, cutting through the flesh, bone, and gristle of the enemy.

By the time the remnants of the second wave arrived, the ground was blood-soaked and there were small knots of brutal hand-to-hand combat.

In the end, the forty Northmen lay dead but were joined by eight of Alex’s forces. He looked around quickly, taking inventory of those closest to him. They were not among the fallen.

Harta-ak had taken a blow from the back of an ax and his left arm was dangling uselessly, undoubtedly broken.

Torana, who so often appeared to be invulnerable, was down on one knee, bleeding from a heavy gash in his right thigh.

The dead came from among the squad leaders.

Overhead, Alex heard Sanda say, “Archers, longbows!”

He hurried to the opening in the fence and stared out in the direction the attack had come.

There was still only the lone rider there. He sat astride a beautiful white horse, which he held just beyond the row of rocks marking the range of the longbows. Even from a distance, Alex could see that he was wearing armor and a helmet.

The man raised a hand but did not move one step closer.

 

Chapter Eight

Paco Adun

A

lex stared out at the solitary figure. He was fascinated because this was a different type of Northman than he had ever seen before. Part of it was that he was on horseback, another part was the armor. More than anything, though, it was the fact that he was still.

Starting in Drakana and extending to this invasion of Kragdon-ah, Alex had never seen a Northman that wasn’t in whirling, charging, teeth-gnashing motion.

On top of all that, there was something regal in the man’s bearing, as though he was confident nothing could ever go awry in his life.

Versa-eh tended to Harta-ak’s injured arm, while Sista-eh and the medic focused on the gash on Torana’s leg. Everyone else went about identifying the fallen so word could be sent back to their tribes, then carried them off to the funeral pyre. They’d had so many bodies to dispose of over the past few weeks, Pictin had created one spot for the funerals.

In the Kragdon-ah tradition, both sides were piled together. Enemies in life, but all scores were settled by death.

While all that was going on, Sanda climbed down from her tower and approached Alex. She followed his gaze out to the motionless rider. “What should we do about him?”

Alex was rolling that very question around in his mind. Softly, he said, “Would you go and find Pandrick for me?”

Without a word, Sanda turned and ran toward the opening to the underground part of the city.

Pandrick had come along with Alex but hadn’t had much to do since he had arrived. He had mostly been having conversations with people from different tribes, trying to learn how their languages varied from the universal language. In tandem with Amy, he hoped to be able to create a dictionary of the various languages.

Alex watched the rider. The rider seemed to be watching Alex. Neither moved.

Soon, Pandrick appeared beside Sanda.

“Would you care if I borrowed your translator?” Alex asked.

“No, not at all. I haven’t been letting myself use it so that I can force my brain to learn the new languages. I have it right here, though.” He reached into the pocket of his pants and pulled out a small container. He flipped the lid open and pulled out the small device, handing it to Alex.

“Thank you,” Alex said, putting it into his ear.

Sanda anticipated what he was doing and stepped forward to lay a hand on his arm. “You’re not thinking of going out there to meet him by yourself, are you?”

Alex didn’t answer but turned to a young boy approaching the battlefield. “Run and bring me a horse.”

“And one for me,” Sanda said to the boy’s retreating back. More softly, she said, “I’m not letting you go out there without me.”

“Or me.” It was Versa-eh.

“You need to take care of Harta-ak.”

“I’m fine,” Harta-ak, said, though walking caused him to grimace.

Alex knew he wasn’t fine, but the healer had patched up Torana and stood beside Harta-ak, ready to tend to his arm.

Alex considered. The man did not look like he was ready to attack. At the same time, he did not want to expose Sanda and Versa-eh to unnecessary danger. The truth was, if the man did decide to attack Alex, he wasn’t sure he would be able to best him. The Northmen were fierce fighters, but at first glance, this man seemed to embody an unnerving calm. If that was coupled with strength and fighting skill, it would make for an opponent he should not underestimate.

That being the case, having two well-trained fighters alongside him would not be a bad thing.

At the same time, he didn’t want to lose face. If he marched out with squadrons of fighters to meet the solitary man, he knew it would make him look weak.

“I’m sure I will be the only one able to understand him. I doubt he will speak any language we know.”

“We can read his body language,” Versa-eh said. “Sometimes, that is better.”

“Torana wants to go with you as well,” Sista-eh said.

Alex wasn’t surprised that more people wanted to go with him, but he was surprised it was the big man who was volunteering. Alex thought Torana was down for the foreseeable future, but with his leg wound cleaned and wrapped, he was upright. Alex couldn’t help but smile a little at the thought of arriving with Torana. If the stranger saw one person of that size, he might assume they had a whole platoon of giants.

“All right, but that will be it.” He called to another boy carrying bodies and said, “We need more horses. The biggest one in the herd plus two others.”

The boy gladly put his load down and hurried away.

“Any ideas about what he might want?”

“To kill us all?” Sanda guessed.

“Other than that.”

Versa-eh stared out at the rider. “He obviously wants information about us. We can try to get more out of him than we give.”

Five minutes later, the horses had been rounded up, everyone was mounted, and the five of them rode slowly away from Vendan-ah, Monda-ak trotting alongside Alex.

Nanda-eh had climbed to the top of the watchtower and shouted down, “Still no one else in sight.”

Alex lifted his hand in acknowledgement, then said, “If he is foolish enough to attack us, Sista-eh, I want you to tell Torana to back away. He’s already wounded and I don’t want to risk him. He is just for show and intimidation this time.” He leaned toward Sanda and said, “When we get near, drop to the back, with your bow strung but at your side.”

That left Alex, Monda-ak, and Versa-eh to handle the direct conflict with the Northman if things went badly.

As they drew closer, the two sides took the measure of each other.

As Alex had remarked from afar, this man wore armor—a close-fitting helmet that appeared to be made of iron bands and plates that were riveted together. The helmet covered most of his head but left his face exposed. He also had on a chain mail shirt. That told Alex that the Northmen were at least at the technological level of Kragdon-ah, and probably higher. The man had a long, reddish beard that fell onto his broad chest. A large round shield hung on the horse’s haunches, and he carried a fine-looking ax at his side.

He was a formidable figure, at least in part because of the calm expression on his face and the fact that he was facing six enemies with no evidence of concern.

He spoke a few halting words in the universal language of Kragdon-ah, saying, “I am Paco Adun.”

Alex raised his hand to stop him but chose not to identify who he was. “I will be able to understand you in your own language.”

For the first time, the Northman seemed surprised. He looked from Alex to Versa-eh, then to Sanda, Sista-eh, and Torana. Finally, he looked down at Monda-ak.

“Is it common for you to bring your women onto the battlefield?”

Alex ignored the question. He had seen too many Kragdon-ah women warriors fight with unsurpassed bravery. He did not feel the need to defend them. Instead, Alex said, “What do you want?”

“I would like you to allow my men to pass by you without harm. In return, we will allow you to live.”

Alex made a show of looking over Paco Adun’s shoulder at the army that was not there.

“Don’t worry, The People are here in vast numbers.”

Alex was not surprised to hear him refer to the Northmen as The People. That was what any number of different tribes and civilizations did to set themselves apart and above everyone else. He leaned forward slightly and said, “We have already met many of your people. We gave them the dignity of burning their bodies.”

Paco Adun tipped his head back and released a roar of harsh laughter. After several seconds had passed with that unpleasant sound reverberating, he stopped as quickly as he had started. His expression was serious, his eyes malicious.

“I hope that by doing our vagrans the favor of sending them to the other side, you don’t think you’ve defeated any part of our army.”

The translator was doing a good job of translating the language Paco Adun was speaking, but it stumbled at vagrans. Through context, Alex was sure it was something aimed at a lower class of people. His expression showed that he was still puzzling the meaning out.

“The vagrans, the lowest of the low, the failures,” the Northman elaborated. “Those who have failed, either physically or through a loss of will or bravery.” He looked to see if Alex understood. Satisfied that he did, he went on, “Once one of The People have been condemned to being vagran, they will be forever stranded in the between world, unable to cross the great dark sea to their new body. The only way they can reclaim their status is to die in battle.”

Realization struck home for Alex. The reason that the Northmen had been attacking in such a haphazard, suicidal way was that they actually were suicidal. They wanted to be killed, so they could cross some great dark sea they believed in. He thought it was one of the more barbaric things he had ever heard, but then he compared it to some other societies he had known and decided it was just different, not necessarily worse. He did his best to recover.

“We are pleased to have helped your vagran earn their passage across the dark sea.”

Paco Adun bristled slightly at that, his horse shifting uneasily under him. A dark expression crossed his face. “I’m sure they returned the favor by helping some of your people to make the same journey. I saw they did today.”

Alex kept himself calm, his voice even. “We believe we earn our reward by living, not dying.”

“I am offering you a chance to allow your people to continue to enjoy that life. That reward.”

“We are in your path, but there are other ways to move past us. Why do you need us to allow you to pass?”

“That is our way. We never avoid an enemy unless we have a truce with them.”

“Allowing you to pass on, to injure other groups of our people is not our way. We will not allow you to pass. If you wish to go beyond us, the only way past us is through us.”

Paco Adun’s lip curled back in involuntary disgust. “We will make a new river of your blood. Every person in this settlement will be put to the sword. We will eradicate every sign of you so no one will ever know you existed.”

The last thing Alex wanted was to fight an unknown number of Northmen. Particularly this type of Northman—obviously a fighter prepared to die but suited in armor and able to speak intelligently. He thought quickly, hoping for a different solution. “I will offer to face you in single combat.”

The way the communication device worked, those with Alex heard him speak in the universal language of Kragdon-ah, but the Northman heard it in his own language.

Hearing her father offering to meet this giant in combat, Sanda said, “No!”

Alex ignored her and continued on. “If you kill me, we will allow you to pass. If I kill you, your second in command will agree to leave and never come back.”

For a second time, the Northman laughed. He looked at Alex, who was 6’2”, lean and muscled. Paco Adun himself was as tall as the Winten-ah, but much more heavily muscled. It was hard to be precise while he was on horseback, but Alex estimated he was perhaps 7’4” and weighed three hundred and fifty pounds. Alex had defeated many opponents who were larger than him in his lifetime.

“Are you the leader of these people?”

“I am,” Alex answered.

“As I am, for my people. It is not right for us to meet in a fight to the death. But I will bring my champion to face your champion.”

Alex thought quickly. Who would he choose as champion? Who could he put in harm’s way?

Paco Adun ran a huge hand through his beard, thinking. “Actually, that is not fair, and I cannot offer such unequal terms. I will do this, however. I will bring my champion to you if you can warrant our safety in and out. You can choose any ten fighters,” and here he looked at Versa-eh with a curled lip, “even women, if you choose, or your giant. My fighter will take on your ten fighters one after another. If any of your ten manage to best my champion, we will leave you alone.”

Overconfidence, Alex thought. He considered that for the man to make the offer, he must have great confidence in his own fighter. He remembered that once, the Drakana had such confidence in Torana, thinking he was unbeatable until he met Tinta-ak. He didn’t have a complete plan, yet, but he had at least the beginning of one.

“When?” was all Alex said.

“When the sun is highest tomorrow, we will come to you.”

Paco Adun turned his horse and moved easily away, leaving Alex behind to explain what had transpired.

 

Chapter Nine

Battle in the Romana

A

s soon as Alex said what he had agreed to with Paco Adun, Sanda and Versa-eh said, “I will fight.”

Torana nudged Sista-eh, who seemed reluctant, but said, “He wants to fight.”

“He is injured,” Alex said absently. “He is not ready to fight.”

Sista-eh brightened at that but took hold of one of Torana’s immense hands in comfort.

“I will choose who will face his champion,” Alex said, “but not yet. We have a day to think about it. We need to use the time.”

“Who are our best hand-to-hand fighters?” Sanda asked. She seemed to realize that her father would never send her into a one-on-one battle that was certain to take her life. And, though she might have had the best eyes and been the best archer in Winten-ah, she was not close to being the best fighter.

Versa-eh, on the other hand, was as crafty a fighter as Alex had ever known and she had already prevailed in a pressure-filled match where the fate of the entire tribe rested on her shoulders.

That had been many years earlier, though, before children, before age had begun to catch up to her.

They rode quietly back and were greeted by a large group of warriors.

The area where the battle had taken place less than an hour earlier was already cleared. Alex saw smoke rising from the spot where the funeral pyre was and knew they had carried on with that task while he was gone.

He signaled to Pictin, Harta-ak, Girda-eh, and Yestin-ak to join him and the others in the dining tent.

The attack by what Alex now knew were called vagran had come early in the day, before they had eaten their first meal. When they sat around the long table, servers began bringing food.

Alex quietly explained to everyone seated what they had agreed to and why.

For a full minute after he was done, everyone sat, thinking. They didn’t eat the food in front of them, they didn’t jump up and say, “It should be me!” or “I know who it should be.” Everyone just sat with their own thoughts.

Finally, Alex said, “We need to look at this strategically. The fact that their champion will face ten of our people in back-to-back fights means we have some advantages. If we put fighters in early that are both fast and strong, we have a chance to extend the fight and tire him out.”

“Those fighters would probably not be able to beat him, though,” Girda-eh said. “They would be essentially sacrificing themselves.”

“I knew that was the case when I agreed to do this,” Alex said, a haunted expression in his eyes. He had agreed to two things—to put the lives of ten fighters on the line and not to fight himself. It had been an obvious choice, but not an easy one.

If he had spurned the offer, he had little doubt Paco Adun would have ordered an attack. Sitting here, faced with choosing who to potentially send to their death in the arena, he thought that perhaps he should have waited and seen the size of the army before agreeing.

He shook his head, banishing that thought. If that army were even a hundred men, then many more than ten of his soldiers would die. If that army consisted of five hundred Northmen, equipped with armor and using some military strategy, it was very possible everyone in Vendan-ah would die.

As though she was reading his thoughts, Versa-eh leaned in close and said, “This is the only decision you could have made. The world is the world. Let’s spend our time thinking about the best choices.”

Alex looked at his council sitting around him. “Yes. Of course. Who are our best fighters?”

THE NEXT MORNING DAWNED cold and clear. It was still summer in the desert, but the days were getting shorter and the crispness of night lingered into the day.

Alex and his council had not slept at all the previous night, but after many hours of laying out different scenarios, debating strengths and weaknesses, and considering every option, they had made their choices and had informed the ten warriors who had been chosen.

It was not a matter of seeking volunteers. Everyone in the camp was willing to fight and die to protect their families and tribes.

It was also not a matter of who had an existing relationship with Alex, or Versa-eh, or Yestin-ak.

It was simply a matter of who gave them the greatest chance to avoid further bloodshed.

Sekun-ak was not there, having been asked to stay behind by Amy. If he had been, he no doubt would have questioned whether the pact they had made with Paco Adun would be upheld.

Alex wished that they had spent more time discussing the shape of the challenge the day before. He pictured the battle taking place on the floor of the Romana. That being the case, it was possible that a good choice of an early warrior would be one of Sanda’s archers. If they started in the middle of the arena, she could sprint to the other end and fire arrows at whoever the champion was. She might not be able to take him down, but if she could stay away from him long enough, she could perhaps hit him enough times to set him up for defeat from another fighter.

Alex hated the idea of sending a young woman out as what would almost certainly be a sacrifice. He kept that plan as an option, but he wanted to see who the opposing champion would be and what limits Paco Adun might set on the challenge before making a final decision.

There was no food served on this day. It felt too much like a last meal.

Instead, Alex, Senta-eh, and Yestin-ak worked with the chosen warriors, going over strategies and weapons choices.

When the sun was nearing apex, a guard called out from the watchtower.

“Invaders!”

“How many?” Alex shouted up. In the space of the few seconds before the guard answered, Alex realized how little he trusted Paco Adun. In an instant, a terrible thought flitted through his brain. What if this whole thing had been a ploy so they would spend all their time worrying about it so the Northmen army could catch them unprepared?

“Five,” came the answer from above.

“Not an attack, then,” Alex muttered to himself with relief. He couldn’t restrain himself. He hurried up the ladder and stared out at the approaching figures. He recognized Paco Adun by his helmet. There was another rider alongside him, with three more figures riding immediately behind.

Alex tried to take the measure of the man riding alongside Paco Adun, but they were too far away to be able to see much of anything. While the men approached, Alex thought back on the challenges he, his friends and their tribes had been forced into when meeting the Drakana in various Thunduns.

That was where he had first set eyes on Torana. It was where he had fought with Panga, the horrifying beast with acidic saliva. It was where Versa-eh had slain Nissina in a race for the soul of their tribes.

All three of those champions had been outsized, oversized, and huge favorites in each fight.

Tinta-ak, Alex himself, and Versa-eh had defeated them all.

And now here came this unknown warrior, riding comfortably alongside Paco Adun, looking every bit like a normal man.

It was that normalcy that worried Alex more than anything. If whatever unusual talents or skills he possessed were not obvious at a glance, that was worrisome.

Alex once again borrowed the translation device from Pandrick, who was no more than an interested observer in the challenge. He could have used some exotic piece of technology from his pack and tilted the playing field in favor of Alex, but neither of them ever considered that. Pandrick’s neutrality when it came to the wars of Kragdon-ah was already established.

Alex mounted his own horse again and rode out past the watchtower to wait. He wanted to get a good look up close at the challenger but didn’t want to be in the inferior position of being on foot and looking up at the horsemen.

As they approached, the first thing he noted was that although the riders accompanying Paco Adun were wearing armor, it was of a different style than what their leader wore. Instead of chain mail, their chest armor was made of leather. It extended up to cover their throats and dropped low to below their waists. They didn’t wear helmets, which would leave them more vulnerable to certain types of attacks, but also would improve their visibility, especially from a side attack.

Alex immediately dismissed the idea of having an archer among their ten fighters. With that much armor, he didn’t think they would be able to do enough damage to justify the sacrifice of their life.

Paco Adun raised a hand as the men approached.

“This is our champion, Ganton Adun,” Paco said. He didn’t bother to introduce the three other riders.

The champion’s name gave Alex pause. He wondered if Adun was an honorific, or if that was really part of this man’s name. If so, was he related to Paco? With so much of their faces covered by thick beards, it was difficult to tell if they looked alike or not.

Alex realized that he had not identified himself the day before and some instinct told him that was still a wise thing to do.

“We are ready for you,” Alex said, turning his horse back toward the Romana.

As they rode past the watchtower and into Vendan-ah, there were warriors lined up on both sides, forming a path to where the challenge would take place.

“You can dismount here,” Alex said as the Romana came into view. He signaled to a number of young boys to come forward and take the reins of the horses.

All five Northmen dismounted with an easy confidence, and Alex got his first good look at the champion they would be facing. Up close, he could see that every part of his body was crossed and crisscrossed with old scars. His arms and legs were thick and muscled. What concerned Alex was the way the man moved. As large as he was, every step seemed graceful and planned.

Ganton Adun pulled down a round shield, a heavy throwing spear, and a battle ax that had been strapped to the horse. He also had a thick sword strapped to his hip.

“We will fight in the Romana,” Alex said. “There is a place where we can watch.”

The Romana was filled with hundreds of warriors, all sitting on the rows of stone steps. Those warriors were quiet, but there was an electricity in the air.

Alex led the five Northmen to the floor of the Romana, then indicated the viewing platform at one end. “We will watch from there.”

Paco Adun glanced at the hundreds of fighters surrounding them and, for the first time, showed the smallest sign of not being comfortable. “Where are your fighters?”

“I will bring them out, then join you on the viewing stand.”

Alex turned and hurried out of the Romana. His fighters—and there were more than ten, as he hadn’t made his final choice until that moment—were gathered in the dining tent.

Paco Adun walked with Ganton Adun to the center of the arena. He spoke to him quietly, adjusting his armor and giving last-minute instructions. When he seemed to feel comfortable with everything, Paco Adun slammed his fists down on the bigger man’s shoulders. He spun on his heel, rejoined his three guards, and climbed up to the viewing area, where Versa-eh, Harta-ak, Sanda, Nanda-eh, and Pictin were already sitting. There were only two seats left and Paco Adun rightly guessed that one was for him and one for Alex. He spoke quietly to his guards, who took up a position behind the row of chairs, then sat down next to Versa-eh.

In the tent, Alex looked at the warriors they had chosen. There were several that he had not met before yesterday and even now, could not be sure of their names. He turned to the archer and one other very young warrior and said, “You can stand down. You will not fight today.”

Both of those eliminated showed a mixture of disappointment and relief on their faces.

One of the hardest choices for Alex had been whether to include the two brothers—Restin-ak and Yestin-ak—among the ten. There was no doubt they were among the best fighters in Vendan-ah. Restin-ak was nearly the physical equal of Ganton Adun and was a fierce competitor. Yestin-ak was perhaps the most naturally gifted hand-to-hand fighter Alex had ever met, though he was still young and had only recently begun to fill out physically.

Alex had realized that he was holding back on choosing them initially because he had come to know, appreciate, and love them. He was letting his emotions cloud his better decision-making. It was only when the two brothers and Versa-eh had pointed that out that Alex had reluctantly agreed to put them in the ten.

Torana had, through Sista-eh, lobbied to be included in the group. Alex was tempted. If the giant was able to close on Ganton Adun and wrap him up, it was possible that he could smother him or break his neck. In the end, Alex’s decision came down to the fact that Torana had been wounded the day before and would not be at full strength.

In choosing the remainder of the ten, Alex relied on input from Girda-eh, Versa-eh, and Yestin-ak. They chose warriors from different tribes, including two young men from Winten-ah and two from Danta-ah. They also chose fighters of different body types and skills, relying on the speed of some and the strength of others.

“We are ready,” Alex said to the assembled fighters. “Line up in the order I choose.” He walked down the line of fighters, choosing Restin-ak as the first to face Ganton Adun, then choosing the fastest, lightest warrior of the group, then alternating between muscle and speed. He chose Yestin-ak as the final fighter. He may not have been physically imposing, but if the fate of the battle came down to one person, Alex wanted it to be him.

The group marched in their selected order to the Romana. Alex climbed up and sat beside Paco Adun.

Below, the ten chosen warriors of Vendan-ah entered the arena to a great wave of shouts of encouragement from their brothers and sisters, all of whom wished they had been among the chosen to fight.

In the middle of the arena, Ganton Adun stood like a statue made out of granite instead of flesh and blood. In his right hand, he held his heavy spear. His sword and ax dangled from his belt and he gripped the round shield with his left hand.

Restin-ak stepped forward. His favorite weapon was a longsword, gripped tightly in his right hand. He also carried one of the Winten-ah shields.

He stepped forward confidently, then jogged toward the big man in the middle of the arena.

When Restin-ak was still twenty-five paces away, Ganton Adun hefted the heavy spear above his shoulder and threw it with fluid grace.

It flew so quickly that Restin-ak had no time to duck, but instead lifted the shield reflexively.

The spear pierced through the shield as though it was paper and impaled Restin-ak.

 

Chapter Ten

Battle in the Romana Redux

R

estin-ak, who had been moving forward at a measured pace, flew off his feet and landed on his back. The momentum of the spear was so great that when he fell, the tip buried itself in the ground, affixing him like a butterfly in a display case.

Alex’s hope had been that by using perhaps his best, strongest fighter first, Restin-ak would, at a minimum, tire Ganton Adun out and perhaps injure him, if not win outright.

Instead, less than ten seconds into the fight, Restin-ak was pierced through the breastbone with an obviously fatal wound. His eyes were wide open, shocked at how his life was ending.

Ganton Adun did not hurry forward to finish the fight. Instead, he approached in a leisurely manner, as though this was completely expected, and he was conserving his strength for other, greater challenges.

Except Alex wasn’t sure there were any greater challenges.

When the Northman reached Restin-ak, the fallen warrior was struggling to unpin himself from the ground, to somehow, impossibly, raise himself and fight on.

He never got the chance.

Ganton Adun raised his ax and in a smooth, easy arc, brought it down on the fallen warrior’s neck, completely beheading him. The victorious warrior looked down at the head, kicked it casually with his toe, then put his foot on Restin-ak’s corpse and wrenched the spear free. He carried it back to the center of the ring, where he once again stood stock-still.

The first fight was over, Alex’s strongest fighter was dead, and the Northmen’s champion had not broken a sweat.

To his side, Alex saw Paco Adun was smiling. At least, his lips were pulled back from his teeth in a cruel smirk.

Alex looked down at the next warrior. He wanted to shout, “Watch out for that spear,” but he knew that would be a stupid thing to say. Everyone in the Romana had seen what had happened. Every warrior from that point on would be watchful.

The next warrior, a young man from Danta-ah named Kandan-ak, had also been carrying a shield. When he saw what had happened to Restin-ak, he discarded it and approached Ganton Adun warily, a short stabbing sword in one hand and a hammer in the other.

As before, the champion of the Northman waited patiently for his opponent to approach. At the same point as he had with Restin-ak, he lifted the spear and, in one frighteningly fast motion, threw it directly at Kandan-ak.

Alex held his breath, certain that his second fighter would be done as quickly as the first.

The reason Kandan-ak had been chosen, though, was because of his speed and reflexes. He dodged to his left, spinning as he did. The spear passed through where his chest had been moments before. It flew with such strength that it clanged against the stone wall of the Romana, striking sparks.

In a flash, Kandan-ak regained his balance. Instead of pressing the attack against his opponent, he ran after the spear. He picked it up before the surprised Ganton Adun could even move.

Many in the crowd thought that the young warrior would attack the bigger man with the spear, but that was not his plan. Instead. Kandan-ah leaned the spear against the stone wall, then delivered a vicious kick to the shaft, splintering it. He picked up the pieces and threw them aside.

Whether or not he would be able to beat the bigger man, he had at least eliminated one of his weapons.

Kandan-ak walked patiently toward the center of the ring, trying to take the measure of his opponent. To that moment, he had not seen any of the man’s fighting style.

Ganton Adun stood waiting for the young warrior to approach, then plucked his ax off his hip and dropped it to the ground. He took hold of his longsword and fell into a balanced fighting stance.

Looking at the matchup before him now, Alex wished that he had relied less on speed and more on size. He himself had proven an ability to take down larger opponents many times in his life, but with the huge champion swinging his longsword in small circles, Alex couldn’t help but wonder if Kandan-ak would be able to get inside the swinging arc and inflict any damage.

The young Danta-ah warrior did his best to take advantage of his speed. He feinted and darted, trying to get inside the defenses of the bigger man.

It was for naught.

This battle lasted much longer than the first, but in the end, the result was the same.

Ganton Adun parried and volleyed each attack patiently, looking for any small opening. When Kandan-ak finally tired and left the tiniest of openings in his defense, the big man pounced with uncanny speed. His longsword brushed aside Kandan-ah’s sword and swept down his right arm. The young warrior involuntarily dropped his sword and was momentarily defenseless.

A moment later, Ganton Adun had taken a half-step forward and thrust his longsword through Kandan-ak’s upper chest. The younger fighter fell, a look of pain and frustration on his face. Ganton Adun took one step forward and smashed his boot down on the throat of the fallen fighter.

Two fighters, and there wasn’t a scratch on the Northmen’s champion.

To the credit of Vendan-ah’s remaining fighters, they never balked, never hesitated. They tried to take the lessons they learned from those who fell in front of them and did their best to apply them.

By early appearances, though, Ganton Adun was simply too much for any normal fighter to even wound, let alone overcome.

He stood like an unmovable monolith in the middle of the arena, waiting for whoever was next.

More than anything, Alex wished he had insisted on fighting himself. He wasn’t sure he could beat the imposing figure, but he at least had a few ideas.

Without saying anything to anyone, he stood and dropped down to where the remaining fighters were gathered. This was no time for a pep talk, but Alex shared his ideas about how to at least probe and test the seemingly invulnerable champion.

When he looked into the eyes of the eight fighters still to go, he saw no fear of pain or death, even after having seen two of their number killed so easily. Their only concern seemed to be that they had been given the honor of representing their people and that they might fall short of fulfilling that honor.

The third fighter was another big man—nearly as tall as Ganton Adun, though not as broad. He chose to engage with his enemy more directly. Where the second fighter had tested and probed, the third fighter, called Alkin-ak, from a tribe Alex did not know, charged directly at the Northman. When he was close enough, he feinted as though he was going to dive to his right, then changed direction at the last possible moment, leaping directly at his enemy.

That did seem to catch Ganton Adun off guard, as he didn’t manage to raise his sword in time to fend off the attack. The two men tumbled to the ground in a huge heap of human flesh. They scrapped, scrambled, and tried to get any advantage.

Alkin-ak managed to free one hand momentarily and drew a short knife from his belt. Before Ganton Adun could stop him, he managed to plunge it deeply into his left bicep.

The crowd, which had been stunned into silence, released their pent-up energy in a single breath.

If the Northman even felt the pain of the wound, he did not show it. He quickly grabbed Alkin-ak’s arm, and they grappled with each other for several long, agonizing minutes. The blood from Ganton Adun’s wound spurted and leaked until both men were slippery with it.

For a time, it appeared that the smaller man was holding his own, but as time stretched on, it became obvious what the outcome would be.

Alkin-ak fought with every ounce of skill and strength he had, but the Northman was simply too strong. Eventually, they tumbled over and over and Ganton Adun ended up on top. He put all his weight on Alkin-ak’s arms, waited for him to exhaust himself with trying to buck him off, then wrestled the knife from his hand.

Alex closed his eyes, knowing what was going to happen.

Ganton Adun slowly pushed the knife from under Alkin-ak’s chin, through his mouth and into his brain.

The big man rested a moment, his head hanging down, then stood in the center of the ring again, ready for the next challenger.

Two young men rushed out and picked up Alkin-ak’s body, then carried it away.

Alex wasn’t sure he could sit still and watch more of his fighters be slaughtered, but he was bound by his honor to do just that. He fought with himself not to turn to Paco Adun and ask to be released from his promise not to enter the fray.

Things did not improve as the next three fighters died quickly, though they tried to improvise new strategies, looking for any weakness.

Alex had come to believe that Ganton Adun simply did not have any weakness. He was sure that if he had entered the ring against him, he would have fallen the same as those who went before him, but he itched to have that chance. Even worse, after seeing the first six fighters fail so spectacularly, he knew the same thing would happen with the remaining fighters.

He bit his lip, knowing he had mistakenly given Paco Adun a pass to invade the rest of the western section of Kragdon-ah. The single greatest Kragdon-ah army was located here, in Vendan-ah. If they didn’t stop the Northmen in this stronghold, he was sure they wouldn’t be able to stop them anywhere.

When it was time for the seventh Vendan-ah fighter to enter the ring, a cry of surprise sprang up from the crowd.

It was not the fighter Alex had selected.

It was Torana.

The giant limped slightly from his leg wound, but he strode resolutely toward the Northman. Pausing for only one moment, he turned and looked first at Sista-eh, then at Alex, both of whom were screaming for him to stop, to turn around.

Torana simply bumped his gigantic fist against his chest, then pointed at them both. He turned back toward the champion.

For the first time, Ganton Adun seemed interested in his opponent. Torana was at least two feet taller and a hundred and fifty pounds heavier than the Northman. The challenger rolled his shoulders, twisted his neck, and narrowed his eyes at the approaching giant. He took his measure, looked down at his weapons, and chose his broadsword. After dropping the ax to the ground, he fell into a fighting posture.

Torana never slowed, never sped up. His huge strides gobbled up the space between the two men. The giant had a single weapon—his own stone ax—but he never raised it. He seemed to be unaware he was even carrying it. He did not try to fake Ganton Adun out.

The Northman held his sword out in front of him to ward off the slow-motion attack.

Torana moved into the blade, not avoiding it, but welcoming it. He closed the small gap while Ganton Adun struggled to hold onto the blade as it sank deep into Torana’s midsection.

In a heartbeat, they stood belly to belly, one pierced by a great sword, the other’s eyes suddenly wide.

Torana dropped his ax and put his huge hands around the Northman’s thick neck. The giant threw his head back and roared, an inarticulate scream of pain, frustration and sheer effort.

Ganton Adun struggled to free himself, but Torana’s immense strength was too much. The Northman’s face turned red, then the color of sun-dried bricks. His eyes bulged and threatened to pop out of their sockets. His tongue stuck out the corner of his mouth for a moment until his extreme exertion caused him to bite the tip of it off.

Torana, though run through, ignored the pain, focused on the enemy. His misshapen face grew even more grotesque with effort.

Both men’s knees buckled at the same moment, and they fell to the ground, still in death’s embrace.

Ganton Adun was the first to go. His eyes rolled back into his head, and he collapsed in front of the giant.

The crowded arena, which was waiting to explode into noise, remained silent.

Torana grabbed the handle of the sword and using the leverage of his long arms, pulled it out of himself. When he did, a crimson spray arced away in front of him, drenching the Northman.

It was obvious that the giant was at the end of his strength. With one final effort, he lifted the sword up and slammed it into Ganton Adun’s heart.

 

Chapter Eleven

A Hero Among Them

T

hings moved quickly.

Torana, his strength completely gone, collapsed in a heap over Ganton Adun. There was so much blood on both of them that he slowly slipped off to the side, landing face-first on the arena floor.

The hundreds of warriors in the Romana, more than interested bystanders, sucked in their breath to cheer at the defeat of the Northman, then saw their own hero, Torana, collapse. The cheer remained on their lips, and a deathly silence settled over everything.

Paco Adun stood, shocked at the sight of his own champion lying lifeless on the dusty floor. He shouted a phrase that, even with the translator, Alex could not understand. It was almost twenty feet from the viewing stand to the ground, but the Northman leaped off it, landing with a thud heard all over the Romana.

He landed right next to Sista-eh, who stood still, panic and shock written all over her face. Her hand flew to her mouth, and she wailed the Winten-ah death cry, which echoed to the far reaches of the coliseum.

Alex also leaped to his feet, whispering, “No, No,” at the sight of Torana collapsing in the middle of the arena. He turned to his right and shouted, “Get all our medics out there. Save his life!”

Monda-ak stood beside Alex, fur bristling, but unsure of where he might be of use.

There had been little need for medics to that point in the proceeding, where each battle had left one man standing and the other dead. They were there, however, and gathered up their bags of medicine and began to move toward the fallen giant.

Paco Adun raced past them, drawing his own ax as he ran. Rage suffused his face and spittle flew from his lips as he continued to mutter dark curses. Any trace of the calm, rational man that Alex had spoken to over the previous day was gone. He looked every bit the berserker fighter that gave the Northmen their reputation.

In a few long, loping strides, Paco Adun reached the middle of the arena. As he ran, he raised his huge ax over his head. With a final, primal yell, he slammed the blade down on Torana’s prone back, slicing so deeply it buried itself into the arena floor.

It was the final act of his life.

Sista-eh had been shadowing him, also heading directly toward the fallen giant. She was too late to stop the Northman from delivering the fatal ax blow, but not too late to avenge it.

As Paco Adun stood looking down at what he had done, Sista-eh leaped, her short stabbing sword raised high. She plunged it deep into the back of the Northman’s neck. So deep, the point of it emerged out the front of his throat.

Paco Adun’s eyes flew open wide, knowing that he himself had been struck a death blow.

Sista-eh pulled the sword out as the Northman fell. He landed face-first across Torana’s back. She kicked his shoulder, rolling him over on his back. Her face was fierce, her lips curled back from her teeth.

“I want you to see where your death comes from,” she snarled, then plunged her sword deep into his heart.

Chaos erupted in the Romana. Warriors began jumping from the stone benches and running onto the floor where they circled protectively around Sista-eh.

Sanda and Nanda-eh, knowing what was coming next, both drew their strings to their ears and let fly. Their arrows hit the same spot on two different targets—the right ear of two of the Northmen guards.

They were undoubtedly as tough as any of the Northmen and would have ignored any wound if possible. An arrow into the brain will stop even the fiercest fighter, however.

The remaining guard pulled his fearsome ax and prepared to defend himself against all comers. As fierce as he was, he was quickly overwhelmed, put down by dozens of Vendan-ah warriors, including Monda-ak in the lead. Before he had a chance to attack, he was hacked to pieces.

Alex and Versa-eh ran to Sista-eh, who had covered Torana’s grievous wounds with her own body, hugging him in death as she had so many times in life.

There was nothing that could be done for the giant. Nothing that could be done to comfort Sista-eh. Nothing to be done for all those who had died in the arena on that day.

War and violence had once again descended on Kragdon-ah, leaving heartbreak, death, and destruction in its wake. There was only mourning left.

Alex stood looking up at the blue sky, trying to absorb everything that had transpired in the previous minutes.

The Northmen’s champion was dead, which, according to the agreement he had struck with Paco Adun, should mean that Winten-ah, Danta-ah, and all the other tribes of western Kragdon-ah were safe from attack.

Torana, one of Alex’s best friends, though he had never exchanged a single word with him, had seen that Ganton Adun was going to kill all challengers. He had sacrificed himself to stop that from happening.

Memories of Torana flooded his mind. Alex would never forget the first time he had seen the massive human being brought out to fight against Tinta-ak with their very freedom at stake.

Somehow, Tinta-ak had won that fight and the Drakana had immediately abandoned Torana. He was the result of perhaps centuries of breeding, designed to produce the largest human to ever live. Their program had succeeded in that, but failed to create the heart of a killer. When Alex and the Winten-ah adopted him and took him home, they found him willing to fight, but only when it was unavoidable. It only showed when those he had loved were in danger, as had happened today. He had been bred to kill, but lived to love.

Alex knew he would never have another friend like Torana.

There was also the question of what would happen with the remainder of Paco Adun’s Northmen army? Had it all been nothing more than a bluff? Or were there hundreds and hundreds of the fierce fighters waiting to descend on Vendan-ah when Paco Adun and his champion did not return to them?

That gave Alex something to turn his mind to. Something to focus on other than the overwhelming grief he felt for the loss of Torana and the other warriors who had fought and died so valiantly that day.

While Versa-eh knelt beside Sista-eh to comfort her, Alex began organizing things as though an attack might be imminent. He caught Sanda’s eye and beckoned her to him.

“We don’t know what will happen next. Get all your archers together and put them on rotating watch in the towers, two hours on, two hours off until I tell you something different.”

She hurried away, Nanda-eh beside her, gathering up the archers.

Alex climbed up on the viewing stand and scanned the crowd until he found Yestin-ak. He reminded himself that the young man had also absorbed a brutal loss that day. He hurried to him, put a hand on his shoulder, and said, “We must get ready to defend ourselves.”

Yestin-ak’s eyes were haunted, but he immediately put two fingers to his forehead. Having seen Ganton Adun fight, having seen him kill his brother so easily, he almost certainly knew he would have been no match for him and would have died if Torana had not stepped in.

“We will not know if we are going to be attacked again, or if we are, how many there will be. If they come in great numbers, it will be a bloody battle. Gather your strongest fighters and put them in squads of twenty.”

Alex thought back to the last fight with the Northmen the day before, when there had been so much chaos in tight spaces that they had essentially got in each other’s way.

“Post two squads of spear fighters outside each opening in the fence. Then two more squads of them inside. Rotate through them every two hours. Do we have enough spear fighters to do that?”

“I can do that with three shifts,” Yestin-ak answered.

“Good. Two hours on, four hours off, then back on again until I tell them to stand down.”

Yestin-ak hurried away to gather his fighters.

With the beginnings of preparations being made, Alex turned to the task at hand, disposing of the bodies. He ordered that the five dead Northmen be dragged away and burned at the funeral pyre immediately.

He pulled Versa-eh, Harta-ak, and Pictin into a huddle. “We may come under attack, but if it doesn’t come immediately, we need to honor these heroes who fell today, and all those who have died here since the attacks began.”

“In Drakana,” Pictin said, “we had a special ceremony when someone of importance died. We can do it here in the Romana, if you’d like.”

“How long do you need to prepare?” Alex asked, already feeling the pressure of a possibly impending attack bearing down on him.

“We can be ready this time tomorrow.”

“If the Northmen haven’t attacked by then, we will hold the ceremony at apex tomorrow,” Alex decided. He had no idea what the Drakana ceremony would look like, he just couldn’t stomach the thought of sending Torana off without marking the occasion.

He sat numbly on a bench. There was activity around him, but after having made all the preparations he could think of, the only thing he could feel was exhaustion at the loss of so many friends. He watched as Versa-eh led Sista-eh away from Torana’s body. Sista-eh had been so young when she had become attached to the giant, Alex was sure she couldn’t remember a time when he wasn’t the dominant force in her life.

He let his mind wander, looking for anything else they could do to prepare for an eventual attack. Finally, an idea came to him. He found Yestin-ak arranging his forces as he had been told. Alex took him aside and asked, “How many hunters do you have in Vendan-ah?”

Yestin-ak looked uncertain about how to answer. “There are many fighters here who hunt for their tribes when they are home.”

Alex realized he wasn’t being clear. “Yes, but how many people do you have who actually do the hunting to keep the cooks here in meat?”

“Oh,” Yestin-ak began to focus in. “We have a group of six who go out hunting for us.”

“Good. Bring them to me,” Alex said.

Five minutes later, Alex was encircled by those warriors.

“It is possible that Paco Adun will have put a plan in place to launch an attack against us if he did not return.” Alex paused, looking at each of the young warriors standing in front of him. “We don’t know what the strength of that army might look like. I want you to pack a small bag with enough food to get you through several days. Take our fastest horses and scout the area to the east. I do not know how near or far this army might be. Split up, go in different directions, take different trails. If you encounter the enemy, do not engage with them. Do your best not to be seen. Take a count of approximately how many are in the army and return here at once.”

The six warriors put two fingers to their foreheads and hurried to the kitchen where they could be equipped with enough food for their journey.

Alex shook his head, berating himself that he hadn’t thought to send scouts out to look for the Northmen army before this.

The sun dipped low over the western hills. Alex and Monda-ak did not go below ground to sleep. He knew that was useless. There were too many ghosts who might haunt his sleep that night.

He climbed the watchtower, convincing himself that he was being useful in some way by keeping an eye on the eastern plain. Unable to stand being around anyone else, he sent the guards away.

He watched the sun go down in the west, then darkness descend. The truth was, if the Northmen decided to attack under cover of darkness, he wouldn’t have been able to see them until they were disastrously close. Nonetheless, he stared out into the dark until spots danced in front of his eyes.

In the Romana, Pictin and his volunteer craftsmen worked on whatever project he had in mind. Alex had approved it, but having done so, couldn’t summon up much interest in it. Whatever it was wouldn’t change the outcome of the disastrous day. Torana and the other warriors would still be gone, no matter how elaborate Pictin’s ceremony turned out to be.

Still, it was somehow comforting to hear the banging and hammering of the project behind him. It brought life to the otherwise grieving community.

Sometime in the middle of the night, Sanda silently climbed the ladder and stood beside her father. She was the only person who could have done so without being asked to leave. She didn’t try to draw Alex out or engage him in small talk. She just stood beside him, a warm presence. Eventually, Alex reached out, put an arm around her waist and rested his head against her.

They were still standing together when the sun rose.

Alex mumbled, “Thanks,” to Sanda, who kissed him gently on the cheek. When he looked at her face in the early morning light, he saw that it was tear-stained, and he again reminded himself that his grief could not be too selfish, that others were hurting just as he was. Sanda may not have been young enough to be one of the children who used Torana as a climbing toy, but she had certainly seen the gentleness and care he had with the children of Winten-ah.

She didn’t wipe her tears away, but instead said, “Let’s go see what Pictin was doing all night.”

“It was quite a commotion,” Alex agreed. “I didn’t get a wink of sleep because of it.”

That small, sad joke told Sanda that her father was doing what he had to do. He was climbing out of the hole of darkness, not for himself, but for those who needed him.

They descended the ladder and found two guards waiting at the bottom to take their place. They had been waiting all night, ready, but unwilling to disturb Alex and Sanda.

They walked past the dining tent, where people were already sitting down to breakfast. When they climbed to the top row of the Romana, they were once again surprised at how much Pictin had accomplished in a seemingly impossible time frame.

A new building had been raised overnight. To Alex, it looked like a shrunken-down version of the Drakana Summer Palace. It was mostly an optical illusion, of course. The Summer Palace had taken decades to build, employing skilled craftsmen by the hundreds. This was something Pictin had created overnight.

Shaking his head in disbelief, Alex dropped down to the floor where an exhausted Pictin met him. “I am not happy with it, but it is the best I could do on short notice with the materials at hand.”

“Not happy with it? That shows that no craftsman will ever be pleased with their creation, because it is wonderful.”

The building appeared to be two stories tall, but it was really just a façade, with a plain structure behind it. Inside, it was just one open room that was six strides across. In the middle of that room was a bed of dry wood and straw mixed with small bundles of pitch gathered from a local forest.

“One spark to that,” Pictin said, pointing, “and it will go up like the sun.” He gestured to Sanda and said, “Can you get Nanda-eh and join me here? I have a part for you in the ceremony.”

Alex could tell he wasn’t doing anything here except getting in the way, so he walked away, leaving Pictin to his last-minute preparations.

A few hours later, the Romana was filled to capacity. Warriors stood around the upper ring, which was never intended for standing-room only. Even so, there were others who could not crowd inside but stood at the entrances peering in.

The ceremony itself was simple. There were no speeches, no chanting. One by one, the fighters who had died the day before were wheeled into the arena on carts. Someone in the tribe had dressed and cleaned them, doing their best to hide the horror of their wounds. Someone had sewn Restin-ak’s head back on his shoulders so he could go to his reward whole.

One by one, the warriors were rolled to the entrance and many hands lifted them and carried them inside, where they were placed on the funeral pyre.

The final body to arrive was Torana. This cart was twice the size of the previous ones. There were no extra clothes that would fit him, but his body had been cleaned and wrapped in cloth. Where three men had carried each of the previous bodies inside, it took six to carry Torana.

Alex watched from the viewing platform with Harta-ak, Versa-eh, and Pictin.

Something happened when the six men lifted the giant’s body from the cart. As one, the crowd stood and banged their hand over their heart, the same gesture Torana had made to Alex and Sista-eh before charging to his death.

Once Torana’s body was carried inside and the warriors had left, Sanda and Nanda-eh emerged at opposite ends of the arena floor. Both had their bows strung and arrows nocked. The tip of each arrow was alight with flame.

As one, they drew back their strings, held steady, and released. The two flaming arrows sped across the arena, and both went through a hole on each side of the wall that was no bigger than a man’s hand.

Moments later, black smoke curled up from inside. Almost immediately, flames showed, then engulfed the structure. It burned hot and soon the construction collapsed in on itself.

Aside from the sound of the crackling and falling of wood, the Romana was deadly silent.

That lasted for several minutes, until a cry came from the watchtower.

“Invaders. Many invaders!”

 

Chapter Twelve

A Leader Falls

A

lmost all the warriors of Vendan-ah were gathered in the Romana. There was a skeleton crew in the towers and a few dozen warriors carrying heavy spears in front of each of the openings, but everyone else was inside.

Alex immediately berated himself for allowing this to happen. He knew better. He didn’t bother to shout up at the watchtower, asking how many Northmen were approaching. He had a terrible feeling in the pit of his stomach. It was all of them. At least, all of Paco Adun’s forces.

The warriors inside the Romana had been well trained. They had been given their positions by Yestin-ak, Girda-eh, and Sanda the day before and were not caught off guard for long. They grabbed up their weapons and took their positions.

This time, Alex did not hurry to the top of one of the towers to preview the approaching Northmen. He ran to the stables and found his favorite horse. Grabbing the mane of the horse, he swung up on it bareback. He dug his heels in and the horse leaped forward toward the opening, Monda-ak galloping alongside.

The warriors who stood in the opening stepped to one side to let him past. He and Monda-ak rode out onto the plain where they could better see the Northmen.

What he saw made his heart sink. There were so many of them, he couldn’t take them all in at one glance. He rode forward until he came to a slight rise and could get a better perspective on the attackers.

He divided the approaching line into sections, counted each one, then estimated the total force. There were hundreds of them. Alex continued to count and eventually came to believe that there were somewhere between three and four hundred Northmen. That was approximately the same number he had faced in Drakana, where he had the advantages of having them in a pincer grip and had a more battle-hardened army.

For a moment, an image snuck into the back of his mind. Torana, striding across the battlefield with Sanda on his shoulders, allowing her to slam arrows into their attackers. Then, the giant putting her on the ground and picking up two wounded soldiers at a time and carrying them to the medical tent. Finally, it had been Torana who struck the blow that killed the last Northman.

Alex shook his head, banishing those memories.

He looked more closely and realized that the Northmen were not approaching. They had come into clear view and stopped, as though waiting for orders to charge forward.

Alex turned the horse back toward Vendan-ah, glad for the extra time to arrange for his defenses.

He was riding hard and within shouting distance of the opening when disaster struck.

The horse put its right front leg into a soft spot in the desert hardpan and stumbled forward. Alex tried to hold on, but riding bareback, he slipped off to the side. The horse’s rear foot slammed into his chest as it tried to find its balance. The horse fell as well, with all of its weight landing on Alex’s legs.

The sound of his bones cracking brought bile to his lips, and he screamed in pain. The full weight of the horse lay on top of Alex’s injured legs.

Monda-ak bounced and barked, unable to do anything to help.

Alex tried to leverage himself out from under the weight, but every tiny movement brought an explosion of pain. He turned his head and vomited.

To Alex, it felt like an eternity passed while he was trapped under the horse, though it was only two or three minutes.

Sanda was the first one to reach him. She had watched the fall from the tower, jumped to the ground and sprinted ahead of the others.

Soon, others joined her and worked to lift the horse. In the end, the horse was not badly injured and was able to stand and skitter away, eyes wide.

The same could not be said of Alex. His legs were mangled. The left leg was likely broken, but the right one definitely was, evidenced by the white bone sticking out below the knee.

Sanda turned back to Vendan-ah and shouted, “Bring the cart!” She kneeled next to Alex and whispered to him, “We’ll get you inside and take care of you.”

Even in the pain he was in, Alex tried to turn his head and look back the way he had just ridden. “Are they coming?”

Sanda stared at the Northmen in the distance and shook her head. “They’re not moving.”

Alex nodded, then the pain was too much. His eyes rolled up and he passed out.

That was merciful, as moving him from the ground to the cart was not an easy exercise. The bumping of the cart over the hardpan woke Alex again with a scream. He closed his eyes, bit down on his lip and focused on not crying out again.

Within minutes, they were back inside Vendan-ah. The cart carried Alex to the dining tent, where he was lifted onto a table.

Sanda hovered over him, frustrated at her inability to do anything to ease his pain. A sudden idea came to her. She turned to Pictin, who was wringing his hands in the background. “Go and get Pandrick. Tell him to bring his bag.”

The healers surrounded Alex, examining his legs, probing the wound in his chest where the horse had kicked him, and coming up with the best course of action.

Moments later, Pandrick arrived, out of breath. He didn’t need to ask what was wrong. He set his pack on the floor, bent down and rustled through it. When he stood again, he had one of the capsules that he had used to cure Alex’s cancer.

Alex opened his eyes, saw what Pandrick was doing, and shook his head vehemently. “No,” he said through gritted teeth. “No, I won’t let you. There are not enough left.”

Pandrick glanced at Sanda, a question in his eyes.

“No. Don’t look at Sanda. Look at me. I’m telling you; you cannot use this. We’ve got to save that for you or someone who is dying.”

Pandrick put the capsule back in his bag. “I cannot inject him without his permission.”

The tribal healers elbowed Pandrick out of the way, at least slightly put out that he had been summoned at all. After a moment of conferring, one reached into her own bag and produced a deer hoof with purple leaves inside. She pulled out two of them, then added a third. She stuck them in Alex’s mouth and said, “Chew.”

He did. He immediately felt sleepy and gave himself over to it.

As he did, his hand fell off the edge of the table. Monda-ak, who had been lying on the floor, his eyes never leaving Alex, nudged his hand with his snout. He whined, but there was no response.

WHILE ALEX SLEPT AND the healers worked on his injuries, hoping to give him a chance to walk again, the Kragdon-ah warriors went to work.

The Northmen had advanced to where they were when Alex had seen them, and no farther.

No one in Vendan-ah had any real idea why that was, though there were theories.

The most popular rumor was that the army had come to see firsthand if Paco Adun had actually been killed, though that didn’t stand up to logic very well. If that was the case, it was likely that they would have at least sent another contingent, if not the whole army, to investigate.

Instead, they came to within an easy ride and stopped.

As the day drew toward evening—and as Alex Hawk continued to sleep under the influence of the purple leaves—it became obvious that they were setting up a camp where they were.

That was an uncomfortable feeling for the leadership of Vendan-ah, and the inner circle met in the dining tent to discuss the best strategic response.

It was an unusual scene. Alex was still stretched out and unconscious on the table where the healers had worked on him. The first challenge was to decide who was in charge.

When Alex was conscious, that answer was always obvious. All roads led through him. With that link taken out of the chain of command, the answer was not plain at all.

There were a number of potential candidates.

Yestin-ak had been the unquestioned leader of Vendan-ah until Alex had arrived. However, he was still a green battle commander and had been supplanted in different ways. That made it difficult for him to step up and grasp the job.

Pictin was essentially the architect of the entire town, having overseen its construction from the time it was nothing but a patch of desert. He was more of a hands-on doer than a leader, though.

Girda-eh had found favor with Alex as a battle leader. She made quick, insightful decisions that normally turned out to be correct. This position required something more than a battle strategist, however.

Finally, there was the two-headed leadership of Versa-eh and Harta-ak. Everyone knew how Alex respected them, especially Versa-eh’s keen mind. There was every reason to believe that if he was awake to make the decision, he would have likely tagged them as his choice.

It was Versa-eh who stepped into the vacuum.

“We will all want to give this role back to Manta-ak as soon as he is able. Until then, we should all take command of the areas we are best suited to. Pictin, can you put your workers on the fence line. It is incomplete and will not stand up to a massive rush. We need to be able to control the flow of incoming fighters.”

“I will do that immediately,” Pictin answered and hurried from the room.

“Sanda, I know you want to be near your father. Should I give command of the archers to Nanda-eh?”

Sanda looked at Alex, then stared out of the tent, torn. Finally, she said, “No. I will do what I can to keep us safe.”

“Good,” Versa-eh answered. “Then prepare your archers. Facing so many Northmen, we will need your bows.”

Sanda leaned down, kissed Alex on the forehead, and hurried from the tent.

“Girda-eh, you’re brilliant at directing things during the battle. I will give control of the armies to you.”

Girda-eh put two fingers to her forehead and likewise hurried away to make preparations.

Versa-eh looked at Yestin-ak. “You have spent the most time here in the area. I have a special task for you.”

Yestin-ak leaned forward and listened intently as Versa-eh explained her plan.

“Thank you,” was all Yestin-ak said and left to put Versa-eh’s plan into action.

That left Harta-ak, Versa-eh, Alex, Monda-ak, and the healers alone in the tent. Versa-eh leaned against Harta-ak, mindful of his injured arm but needing the contact. Together, they watched the healers work on Alex.

One of them had gone away and come back with a stiff, clay-like mixture. They cleaned his wounds, disinfected them, and wrapped the badly damaged right leg in clean cloth bandages. They gently pressed the clay against the leg, immobilizing it and forming a cast of sorts.

Through it all, Alex Hawk slept on.

 

Chapter Thirteen

Death on the Horizon

T

he glow of the Northmen’s campfires burned through the night.

Alex woke up from a fever dream two hours before dawn. “Thirsty,” was all he could manage.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak were sitting beside him. Monda-ak raised his head immediately, then stood and sniffed at Alex’s head.

Versa-eh took a cloth and dipped it in a bowl of cool water, then used it to squeeze some drops into Alex’s mouth.

“The battle?” Alex asked, trying to raise his head, then giving that up.

“It hasn’t happened yet,” Versa-eh answered. “They have lined up where you saw them and not moved.”

Alex moved slightly. A slight cry escaped his lips as the bones in his right leg shifted.

“The healers say you need to lie still to give the bones time to find each other again.”

“Why are they waiting to attack?”

“We don’t know, but it has given us more time to prepare.” Versa-eh outlined what she had done since Alex had been unconscious. She explained the orders she had given and what actions the others were undertaking.

“Senta-eh will lead the archers,” Alex said, though his eyes were unfocused. “No one can shoot like her.”

Versa-eh glanced at Harta-ak. They knew Senta-eh as their daughter, named after Alex’s long-dead wife. She was not an archer and was back in Danta-ah.

“She once shot an arrow into a godat-ta’s eye from twenty-five paces. She saved us all.”

Versa-eh laid a hand against Alex’s forehead, then yanked it back. He was burning up. She nodded at the healer who was standing back to come and check on him.

When she did, the healer did not need to touch his forehead. She looked into his eyes, which were glassy and distant, then put her face near his chest and felt the heat emanate from him. She hurried from the tent and returned a moment later with two of the other healers.

They went through the same routine that the first one had, then put their heads together and talked quietly.

Alex did not seem to notice that he was the center of attention. He continued to talk about people and places that were long gone. At one point, he even mentioned a race of people who lived in the trees and looked like apes, and a family that named their children after baseball players, though no one present knew what a baseball player was. Versa-eh and Harta-ak had no memory of the apes in the trees, either.

Finally, the oldest of the healers approached with a paste she had pulled from her bag. She put it on his lips, but Alex shook his head, pushing it away. The old healer nodded at the two younger ones. They stood on each side of Alex and, as gently as they could, held his mouth open. The old woman scooped more of the paste onto her fingers, then pushed them to the back of Alex’s mouth and partway down his throat.

He gagged, spat, and coughed, then moaned at the pain that brought on him.

The healer opened his mouth again, looked inside, and was satisfied. She went back to her bag and retrieved more of the purple leaves. She put two of them between his lips and said, “Chew.”

Alex did, though it was impossible to tell if it was because they tasted better or that he didn’t want them shoved down his throat. The leaves worked their magic again, and within a minute, he had relaxed and was asleep.

“Is he going to be all right?” Harta-ak asked.

“That is the question we are always asked and can never answer,” the healer said. “His body is doing what it can to recover from his wounds. It will win and he will once again grow strong, or it will lose and he will die. It is up to him.” She turned to the two younger healers. “Go and get your brothers. We need to move him away from here. I will take care of him under.”

Under was what many of the Vendan-ah had taken to calling the huge underground tunnel system that Pictin had dug out.

Within minutes, four strapping young men showed up. They effortlessly lifted the entire top of the table Alex rested on and carried him away.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak looked at each other, the unspoken question hung in the air between them: What if he doesn’t recover?

Alex Hawk had been like a force of nature in Kragdon-ah since the moment he had arrived. After so many years, it was difficult to think about what it would look like if he was no longer there.

That was a question for another time. A time when there wasn’t an enemy camped on their doorstep.

Together, Harta-ak and Versa-eh walked to one of the openings and looked at the fading campfires of the Northmen.

“Why do you think they have not attacked us?” Harta-ak asked again. It was the question that was at the top of their mind.

“Torana killed Ganton Adun. Perhaps they believed he was invulnerable and so they didn’t have a plan in place in case he fell. Then Sista-eh killed Paco Adun. That means that they are without their leader, just as we are without ours. It is possible that they are just as glad to have this time to put a battle plan together as we are.”

Harta-ak leaned his head against Versa-eh’s. “The day I plucked you from the river, I knew you were beautiful. I didn’t know how lucky I was that you were so smart.”

“Beauty only gets you so far. Out of the river and on the boat. To grab someone forever, it takes something more.”

FOR TWO MORE DAYS, the area between Vendan-ah and the line of Northmen was a no man’s land. Neither the Kragdon-ah nor the invaders sent so much as a single soldier into the emptiness.

Even so, tensions increased. It was obvious to everyone inside the rapidly growing fence line that an attack would come soon. If that was not the case, why had the Northmen not turned and left when Paco Adun had not returned?

Alex remained underground. Monda-ak stayed with him, even though the huge dog did not particularly like to be in the darkness for that long. He only left to hurry upstairs to do his business, then returned to Alex’s side, sniffing him all over to make sure nothing had changed while he was away.

The nurses did their best to help Alex recover, but for the most part, all they could do was keep him drugged and unconscious while his body fought the infection that had taken hold.

On the third day, things changed. The Northmen—who had stayed in a long, casual line since they had appeared—began to move and rearrange themselves in various groups.

Approximately twenty of them were on horseback, and those formed up at the front. The remainder of the soldiers broke up into units of twenty-five fighters.

Versa-eh watched from the tower. Over the previous days, she and Sanda had taken a more reliable count of the invaders. They were sure there was something near to three hundred and twenty-five of them. There were still almost a thousand warriors left in Vendan-ah, so even with Alex’s estimate of a Northman being the equal of three Kragdon-ah fighters, they still had a chance.

There would be tremendous bloodshed, but they had hope.

What worried Sanda the most was that the majority of the attackers appeared to be wearing armor of some sort. A few—the leaders, she guessed—had chain mail and helmets. Even the foot soldiers had at least some leather protecting their upper bodies. That would partially equalize the impact that the archers would have. A longbow arrow might penetrate through leather, but it was unlikely to be more than a nuisance.

Sanda weighed the option of focusing most of their efforts on the short bows, which could be shot with more accuracy, at least once the enemy was closer. She thought back to the two guards she and Nanda-eh had put down without a fight by putting an arrow directly into their ears. Unfortunately, Sanda and Nanda-eh were far and away the best shots among the archers. With the rest, it was more hit or miss.

Girda-eh had spread a hundred of her best spear warriors in a convex arc in front of the fence. These were not just the most accurate spearmen, but passingly brave. From their position, they would be the first to meet the enemy and likely the first to die.

Girda-eh did not doubt the bravery of any of her fighters and was more than willing to die herself in the name of protecting her home.

Once the Northmen were formed into their units, they began to move toward Vendan-ah.

This was not the harried, pell-mell assault that the smaller groups had made, however. The units moved as one, and not always toward the fence line. It worried Girda-eh that this attack would be more strategic, as a number of units stretched out to the side so they could attack around the unfinished ends of the fence.

The unit of horsemen were the first to approach the rocks that delineated the point where the longbow arrows could reach. The paused twenty strides on the far side of it, then broke into a gallop toward the town.

As soon as they went past the rocks, Sanda and her archers unleashed arrows from their longbows.

Not a single one of those arrows connected, though, because the horsemen acted differently than all the warriors who had come before them. They crossed the rock line, then immediately veered to the right or left, retreating back to where the rest of the Northmen were.

The arrows fell like rain where the archers thought the Northmen would be.

One by one, the horsemen split off from the group and joined the separate units until there was one rider with every group. Slowly, the front groups moved toward the fence line.

As soon as the first three of those front units reached the line of rocks, Sanda’s archers fired again.

This time, the Northmen did not break into a run, though. Instead, they simply raised their heavy wooden shields overhead and absorbed the vast majority of arrows as they fell.

This time, a few arrows found flesh by finding a hole between the shields or coming in at a lower angle and hitting the attackers in the leg. None of the arrows were fatal or completely debilitating, though.

The majority of the Northmen hung back, watching, waiting. This was definitely a different type of attack than Girda-eh had seen before. This was a great fighting force using strategy.

Those first three groups of twenty soldiers varied their pace as they marched toward the front line of spearmen that waited for them. That made it difficult for the archers to get a bead on them. The majority of the arrows went behind them, in front of them, or into their shields.

As the sixty Northmen drew closer, Girda-eh shouted to the line of spearmen in front of the fence. “Spears up. Throw when they are ten paces away.” Her voice carried but remained calm.

In the towers, Sanda shouted to switch bows and to hold until each archer believed they could hit a vulnerable target. It would be a long battle and it was important to conserve their arrows.

While the first units approached, two more units began to move forward.

Sanda realized that as they came in waves, it would be almost impossible to continue to use their longbows on the more distant targets while simultaneously hitting the closer invaders. She made the decision on the fly to abandon the longbows for now.

When the first line of Northmen drew close, the warrior on the horse spurred it forward, intending to break right through the line of spearmen. He raised his heavy ax over his head and screamed his defiance.

It was a brave and impressive attack until the first spearman threw his weapon and hit the unarmored horse in the chest. Just as those spear throws had brought down many wild animals, so did the horse go down. It pitched forward and skidded on its left side, trapping the Northman under its bulk.

That was the signal for the other spearmen to throw their weapons and the archers overhead to rain down arrows.

The Northmen raised their shields, which were only partially effective against the weight and momentum of the spears and the dozens of arrows.

Of the sixty who attacked in the first wave, a third of them went down.

These hundred spearmen did not retreat inside to be replaced by more of the same. Girda-eh had known that if they waited until the attackers were close enough to do real damage, then they would be too close for another wave of spears.

Instead, as soon as they threw their spears, the hundred grabbed their next weapon—swords, axes, hammers—and ran forward to meet the Northmen head on.

That next phase of the battle was not beautiful. The Northmen were stronger, fiercer, and had heavier weapons in their battle axes.

The Kragdon-ah warriors were well-trained, faster, and equally willing to die for something they believed in.

That first wave of the battle ended up with all of the Northmen down. Very nearly the same could be said of the one hundred spearmen who had once stood against them. Of that hundred, only ten were able to retreat behind the fence to be replaced by another hundred rested and battle-ready warriors.

Whatever organization and patience the Northmen seemed to have possessed dissipated.

All of the remaining separate units began to move forward.

The Vendan-ah warriors might have been able to hold off sixty Northmen, but now hundreds advanced at once.

From the watchtower where Girda-eh stood, she shouted to Sanda.

“Now. Fire arrows now!”

The archers switched to their longbows and each picked up a special long arrow. They all dipped those arrows into an already-burning brazier, lighting them on fire. As one they pointed them skyward, pulled back to their maximum, and released.

The arrows flew high, each carrying a small streak of color with them as they did.

Not a one connected with a Northmen, nor were they intended to.

These arrows were not a weapon.

They were a signal.

 

Chapter Fourteen

This Blood-soaked Ground

T

he flaming arrows shot overhead were actually noticeable enough to make the charging Northmen slow or even stop, looking up as the arrows passed over their heads. Then, seeing that those arrows seemed to be much ado about nothing, they restarted their charge forward.

From behind the Northmen, clouds of dust sprang up from both the north and south. It was two groups of perhaps fifty horsemen each, charging toward the flank of the Northmen at a breakneck pace.

Soon after, another small group of horsemen joined them—the scouts Alex had sent out. They had not returned in time to give critical battle intelligence, but they would do what they could now that the battle was in full swing.

The group that rode at them from the south was led by Yestin-ak. The group from the north was paced by his best lieutenant, Dorman-ak. They did not practice stealth, they only focused on speed.

Once the Northmen started their charge toward Vendan-ah, though, they made enough noise between their horses’ hooves, the stamping of their feet, and their fierce war cries that they didn’t hear the two cavalries approaching from behind.

Two things happened simultaneously.

The second wave of Northmen got close enough to the fence line that the next group of one hundred spearmen launched their weapons against them. At the same moment, the one hundred heavily armed cavalry swept down on the final waves of Northmen.

When Alex had arrived, he had implemented a campaign of using weapons that worked at a distance. Longbows, atlatls, heavy throwing spears. His intent was to maximize the damage against the crazed Northmen that were eventually found to be vagrans, because there was no use in employing strategy against them. Those warriors wanted to die and take as many of the Kragdon-ah with them to cross over the dark sea.

This was a different situation. These Northmen were crazed fighters, yes, but they weren’t without strategy. They didn’t throw themselves off a cliff just so they could grab someone and take them down with them.

Versa-eh’s strategy had been to send Yestin-ak and his best riders out on the game trails, or to climb over hills and down valleys. Whatever it took to get behind the Northmen without alerting them to their presence.

That had taken them several days, but eventually, they accomplished it. They managed to get to the east of the Northmen, then slowly crept back, always staying far enough away that they were not noticed.

When they saw the Northmen forming up into squads, Yestin-ak knew that an attack was imminent. He had split his hundred men into two teams, taken one to the south, and let Dorman-ak take the other fifty to the north.

When they saw the signal of the flaming arrows in the sky, they lit out for the invader’s back line.

Now, that same back line was immediately in front of them. The Vendan-ah cavalry had all the momentum and the element of surprise.

They cut through the marching line like a scythe through long grass. Rather than slowing, they kicked their mounts into a full run, right through the heart of the Northmen. They swung their axes and stabbed with their swords.

They passed all the way through wave after wave of the Northmen until they finally arrived at the fence line themselves. When they turned their horses and looked behind them, there was complete disarray.

What had once been an organized fighting force was now a disheveled, disorganized mess. Their single pass had taken down more than half of the remaining Northmen.

Now the troops of Vendan-ah had the complete advantage.

Sensing that, Girda-eh sent every remaining troop into the melee.

Chaos reigned for a time that was both remarkably short and yet felt like an eternity to those on the battlefield.

These Northmen were not vagrans, hellbent on their own death, but they also did not ever consider surrender. They fought on, even when it was obvious that there was no way they could win.

Finally, only one Northman warrior stood on the blood-soaked ground. He was grievously wounded, but still swung his ax in a deadly arc.

This exact situation had unfolded at the end of the battle in Drakana, where Alex had engineered a rear attack on the Northmen, which was what had inspired Versa-eh to use the same technique with the cavalry today.

On that occasion, Torana had waded in, fearless, and cleaved the giant Northman nearly in half.

Now, Torana was only ashes, and Girda-eh feared that this man would take one or two more good fighters with him as he prepared to board the last ship leaving to cross the dark sea of Northmen legend.

Sanda took care of that.

As a circle of warriors closed in on the last standing Northman, she yelled, “Back! Back up!”

They did, Sanda pulled her string back to her ear, took careful aim, and sent an arrow through the left eye of the Northman.

He fell backward, dead before he hit the ground.

In a way, Alex’s fever dream of Senta-eh leading the way had proven to be true. Her daughter, every bit the marksman that she was, had finished the Battle of Vendan-ah without further bloodshed.

There were no cries of victory, no celebration.

There were more than three hundred dead Northmen crisscrossing the field of battle, but there were nearly that many Kragdon-ah warriors, as well.

There was very little to celebrate, other than the opportunity for the survivors to live another day.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak left the watchtower and descended underground to see if Alex was awake and to let him know what had happened.

Girda-eh and Yestin-ak, who had commanded the troops and led a successful rear-action attack, respectively, took charge once again. They put their heads together with Pictin and tried to decide where to build a funeral pyre big enough for so many bodies.

They were still talking several minutes later, when Versa-eh and Harta-ak returned.

“Manda-ak is awake,” Versa-eh said. “He is sorry he was not with us for this battle, but says he never could have accomplished what we did today.”

Sanda and Nanda-eh, Yestin-ak, Pictin, and Girda-eh protested, feeling that Alex would have come up with even more ideas than they had.

“He believes,” Versa-eh continued, “that for now, Vendan-ah has served its purpose. He thinks it should be shut down and that we should all go home.”

Pictin looked from one face to another. He had built this city over the previous years. Could he walk away and abandon everything he had done here? He finally drew a deep breath, then said, “We all have things that we can do at home. They need us there.”

“We will need to carry word of the warriors who died here today,” Yestin-ak said. “There are so many. I will appoint people to take note of who died and pass it on to each chief as we pass.”

That simple statement echoed many long-held Kragdon-ah traditions.

A changed mood settled over everyone who had survived the battle.

The first instinct was to feel simple relief at having survived when the odds were not really in their favor to have done so. Then, perhaps, some quiet exultation that, for the moment, at least, they had emerged victorious and had vanquished the invading force.

Finally, there was an odd sense of dissolution. For a long time, these people had formed a new family, a new tribe. Bonds were strengthened.

And now, as they looked around, many seemed to remember that their home—their real tribe was somewhere else, not here.

It was easy to see people make the adjustment from this is our home to it is time to go home.

Before that, though, there was still work to be done.

Pictin picked out a spot where the funeral pyre would be and dozens of warriors went to work at digging out a hole with a big enough circumference to hold all the bodies that were scattered about the battlefield.

Yestin-ak led his cavalry team out onto the desert floor, quite some distance from the fence line, where the farthest Northmen bodies had fallen. It was brutal, grisly work—especially as they found a few disabled Northmen who still drew breath. Those had to be quickly dispatched on their journey across the dark sea. Once that was accomplished, they used long ropes to hook the bodies to their saddles and drag them back to the spot beside where the pyre was going to be.

It was too much work for a single afternoon and evening, even with many hands. They did what they could—dug the hole, stacked as many bodies beside it as they could, and dragged the driest tinder and firewood into the hole.

When it got too dark for the work to be done, everyone was beyond exhausted, physically and emotionally. By then, everyone knew that word had come down that Vendan-ah was to be shuttered. That meant that the supplies of everything had to be used, carried home, or left behind.

As soon as the cooks heard the news, they began cooking. There was twice as much food as normal, and, sadly, only about half as many people to eat it.

Sanda went below to check on her father and to bring Monda-ak back up to share in the gluttony.

It wasn’t exactly a party and couldn’t be termed a celebration. There had been too much drama and too many deaths over the previous week. But there was a sense of relief, of finality.

For many, the highlight was when four men slipped away, went down the steps to the underground and returned a minute later, once again carrying Alex Hawk.

He was still completely immobilized by his badly damaged legs, but his eyes were clear and his fever had broken.

One by one, those who had survived the day walked past him, briefly laying a hand on his shoulder and quietly saying, “Manta-ak,” over and over.

It wasn’t the joyous chanting of his name that had once echoed around the Romana when he finished training his soldiers.

Everyone there knew that while the most critical decisions of the day were made, he hadn’t been anywhere in the chain of command. He had been below, fighting to get better.

Still. Everyone touched his shoulder, smiled, and passed by.

No matter his condition, he was still Manta-ak.

It had taken Pictin eighteen months to lay the groundwork for what eventually became Vendan-ah. He worked on it for two more years, constantly improving the tunnels, adding new buildings.

That amount of work was not abandoned overnight.

There was much that needed to be divided, to be shared with those who were returning to their home tribes. Pictin, Versa-eh, and Harta-ak oversaw those decisions. That seemed the fairest thing to do, especially since Pictin and his home of Tharandon had provided the expertise and know-how and Versa-eh and Harta-ak had supplied most of the raw materials.

The truth was, though, that there wasn’t much in Vendan-ah that they needed back home. Danta-ah was the wealthiest city in western Kragdon-ah and Tharandon was somewhat limited by the size of their city.

The one thing Versa-eh made sure of was that the horses that people had arrived on were sent home with them. New chairs, tables, or wagons could be easily built, but breeding new colts took more time.

At the same time, there were a number of wounded warriors, badly injured in the battles, who were unable to walk. Pictin made sure that every one of them had either a horse, if they could ride it, or a wagon, if they could not.

Another consideration was Alex himself.

People started drifting away from Vendan-ah the day after the battle, but it was obvious that Alex would not be able to travel for some time. Even riding in a wagon pulled by a horse, the bumping and thumping of the primitive trails would have caused too much pain.

There were others who had been similarly injured who were not ready to travel yet, so while the community emptied out, a small group stayed behind to nurse them to a point where they could leave.

Yestin-ak stayed back with this final group. He had been the commander of the troops, and until they were ready to completely abandon Vendan-ah, he remained to make sure things were secure. He continued to posts guards in the watchtower, archers in the other towers, and at least a few remaining spearmen at the fence openings.

Two weeks after the final battle with the Northmen, Vendan-ah was almost completely deserted.

Alex’s legs, and especially his right leg, were nowhere near healed, but his bones were stable enough that he could at least ride in the back of a cart.

In the time before Versa-eh and Harta-ak had come to the area, that wouldn’t have been enough to travel. There were too many places where there was no path or trail at all. But the two of them had built more and more wide, smooth trails that spun out directly from Danta-ah to all their trade partners. There wasn’t a single direct path from Vendan-ah to Winten-ah or Danta-ah, but no spots that were completely impassable by cart remained.

The old woman who had been Alex’s primary healer traveled with them, since her home was just the other side of Danta-eh. At each stop, she offered Alex various herbal remedies to help with the pain of the journey. He always refused. He was too glad to be sitting up and aware of his surroundings to surrender to those leaves again.

Before they packed everything up, Alex had sent a traka-ta to Amy to let her know they were on the way home. He included a list of those Winten-ah warriors who had fallen in battle and would not be returning, including Torana.

The trip to Danta-ah, and eventually Winten-ah, was slow. The days were getting shorter, and there was no reason to hurry home. They passed through Danta-ah first, then the contingent of remaining Winten-ah warriors traveled west toward home.

Alex had convinced himself that he would be healed enough to be able to get on a horse and ride into the cliffside, but that was only a hope and prayer. When they turned south along the tree line, they were challenged, then greeted with cries of “Gunta!”

One of the guards in the first tree hurried down and ran ahead to let everyone know that the warriors were nearly home.

By the time they got to the open meadow, nearly everyone had gathered to wait for them.

Amy had only barely begun to show when the group had left for Vendan-ah. Now she was obviously pregnant and slower afoot. Even so, she was standing hand in hand with Talon-ak at the front of the group, waiting. She was the chieftain, but she was also emotional when she saw how thin Alex was and how both his legs were still wrapped in the primitive casts.

“No baby yet?” Alex asked when she enveloped him in a hug. “What have you been doing?”

Amy blinked away her tears, laughing slightly in frustration at her father. “What have I been doing? Worrying about all of you. Wondering if you would ever be able to come home.”

Sanda slid off her horse and wrapped Amy in a fierce hug, taking her in. “Glad we made it back before baby got here.”

Many people lined up to lift Alex out of the cart and carry him back to the cliffside.

Before they could get that far, Amy commanded that Alex be carried to the house he had built and given to her when she and Talon-ak had gone through the binding ceremony.

“There’s no way I’m going to watch people carry you up and down the cliffside when we’ve got a house with no steps right here.”

Alex opened his mouth to protest but recognized the expression on Amy’s face and just nodded.

As they crossed the field, the first snowflakes of the year dropped gently from the sky.

Alex turned his face up, drew a deep breath, and looked around at the place and the people he loved.

He was very glad to be home.

 

Part Two

 

Chapter Fifteen

Winter

A

lex and Monda-ak stayed in Amy and Talon-ak’s cabin for two weeks, though he did his best to leave every single day.

Amy finally agreed that he could leave when he was able to climb at least to the lowest level of the cliffside on his own.

Pandrick was able to help with that. Alex would still not allow Pandrick to inject him with the last of the nanobots, but that didn’t mean there was nothing that could be done.

Once Alex was in the cabin, in a place where he could be essentially immobile for a time—which was not possible while they were on the trail—Pandrick produced a small jar filled with a gray powder. He asked the healers to remove the cast, which they did.

Many people wanted to get a look at how bad the leg was. That list included Sekun-ak, who made a tch-tch sound when he saw the wound, Amy, who wanted to see with her own eyes, and Standin-eh, the Winten-ah healer who had stayed behind.

The leg was already remarkably thin and pale, with a concerning twist between hip and knee.

Once everyone satisfied their curiosity, Pandrick asked them to leave.

Standin-eh did so only reluctantly, but finally agreed once Pandrick promised she could come back and have the last word once he was finished.

When they were alone, Pandrick produced the hollowed-out hoof of an elk. He filled it with water from the waterfall just outside the cabin, then took a tiny pinch of the gray powder and dropped it in. The reaction was immediate. Smoke rose from the receptacle, then came a gurgling, boiling sound. Soon after that, a thick, frothy substance pushed out of the top.

Monda-ak was interested in the whole process. He pushed his nose toward the stuff, then shook his head so hard it made him sneeze. That was close enough for him, and he decided to lie down and let Pandrick proceed without him.

Pandrick gathered that sticky substance into his palm and, with exceeding gentleness, began to apply it to the upper part of the leg. He smiled a little and said, “A thought just occurred to me. If an unbiased witness saw what I’m doing here, then watched what the Kragdon-ah healers do, they wouldn’t be able to see any difference. We both mix our potions, then apply them.”

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Alex said, quoting the great twentieth-century writer Arthur C. Clarke.

Pandrick bent to his work, taking more and more of the paste and applying it from Alex’s hip to his ankle.

“What is this supposed to help with?” Alex asked, willing himself not to flinch each time Pandrick touched his leg.

“I’m concerned about the way the bones are knitting together. If they join improperly, you’ll have a hard time putting full weight on this leg going forward.”

That was Alex’s precise fear, but he hadn’t wanted to put it into words. “And this will help with that?”

Pandrick raised his eyebrows and moved his head slightly from side to side. “It is not the same as injecting you with the healing nanobots, but yes, this will help your bones knit together in a way that will strengthen them.”

As Pandrick spoke, the grayish substance seemed to disappear.

“There. It’s absorbed into your skin.”

“Will we need to reapply it?”

“No, that wouldn’t do any good. Once your body absorbs this, it will go to work.”

By that moment, the substance Pandrick had rubbed on was completely gone.

“There,” Pandrick said. “Standin-eh will never know there was anything done. That will make her happier.”

“Having you out of here and having me all to herself is what will make her a little happier. Is there a problem with having the leg recast now?”

“No, not at all. It will probably make you more comfortable. This is inside your leg, already going to work. Nothing will stop that now.”

Pandrick opened the cabin door and was unsurprised to find Standin-eh waiting right on the other side. “He’s all yours,” he said in Winten-ah.

Standin-eh hurried inside and immediately examined the leg, which to her eye, looked precisely as it had when she had left. Humming an ancient tune, she unpacked the materials she needed to make the cast and went to work.

After ten days of being bedbound, Alex took the pair of crutches that Andin-ak, the weapons maker, had designed for him and tried to walk. Monda-ak walked slowly alongside, recognizing that Alex was not steady on his feet and offering at least a soft place to land if he fell.

Amy and Talon-ak watched him take a few steps. His recovery was complicated by the fact that both his legs were broken, though the left one was mostly healed by then. Still, those first steps were a small comedy of errors.

“You look like a godat-ta on roller skates,” Amy said, though she had to use English for the last of the sentence. No Winten-ah has ever conceived of a pair of roller skates.

Alex took it in stride. He made his way outside, where the weather had shifted considerably. Any hint of a late resurgence of warm weather was gone. Rainwater dripped off the eaves of the cabin and the ground was more muck than solid.

“Dad,” Amy said, “you know we don’t mind you staying here. You can have the house until spring if you want.”

Alex nodded his head in agreement, then took off for the cliffside, swaying on his crutches. They were crude devices, really, not intended for use on such slippery surfaces. Twice, they failed to find purchase on the wet ground, which threatened to send Alex headfirst. Each time, he recovered.

Amy watched him go, but said quietly to Talon-ak, “The last time he was injured, Torana just picked him up and carried him everywhere.” Not for the first or last time, she thought of how she missed the giant man with the even bigger heart.

Alex struggled up the gentle hill to the first level of caves, but when he eventually got there, he leaned on his left crutch and lifted the right one in the air as if to say, “I made it. I’m free!”

Reaching the upper levels of the cliffside was out of the question for Alex in those first few days, but there was no shortage of caves available on the lower levels. Historically, those were the least desirable places to live because they were theoretically easier for an attacker or wild animal to reach.

The unfortunate fact was that almost a third of the warriors that Alex took with him to Vendan-ah had not returned home, so there were plenty of sleeping rooms available.

It didn’t take long for Alex to tire of his enforced idleness, so he asked Sekun-ak to bring him a selection of boards, branches and tools.

Many years earlier, Alex had built a cradle for Amy. She slept in it for the first six months. When Senta-eh died giving birth to Sanda, he had been too emotionally distraught to consider such a thing. But now, with the loss of Senta-eh so long ago, he set about building another.

It was slow going. He didn’t have exactly the type of wood or the types of tools he needed. What he did have was time, plenty of time.

He had ended up in the same cave he had occupied when he had gotten sick after first arriving in Kragdon-ah. It became a popular visiting spot. People brought the checkers Alex had popularized in Kragdon-ah. Some came to watch him work on handcrafting the cradle or brought both him and Monda-ak something tasty to eat.

In this way, time passed.

A few days before the winter solstice, he finished the cradle. He asked Sekun-ak to carry it out to the bigger cave, where he showed it to Amy and Talon-ak.

The truth was, the babies of Winten-ah never had furniture of their own. They were born, slept with their mother and father, and continued to do that until they were ready to have a bed to themselves or share with a sibling if they weren’t the oldest child. Amy and Talon-ak’s child would be the first Winten-ah to grow up in a wooden house and sleep in a cradle.

When Amy saw the cradle, she rushed to Alex and nearly knocked him over. She buried her face in his shoulder and sobbed, then laughed at herself for sobbing, then cried some more. It was possible her hormones were peaking.

Talon-ak carried the cradle down the incline to their house, with Alex and a number of other interested bystanders following along. They put the cradle right next to their bed and everyone agreed that though it was a strange practice, it was a beautiful piece of furniture.

Two days later, while overseeing the preparations for the winter solstice feast, Amy’s water broke. She had been born in the twenty-first century and had spent the first twenty-four years of her life there. She got her first iPad at five and grew up with Bluey and Dora the Explorer. She drove a car, had a Facebook account, and was, in every way, a product of her time.

Amy, along with her sister Sanda, had chosen to leave all that behind. To forever forgo any kind of modern convenience.

That was also true of giving birth. She would do that the way people had thousands of years before she was born and had chosen to do in Kragdon-ah millennia later.

With Amy unable to continue to oversee the feast of the solstice, Sekun-ak stepped in. His first decision was whether to continue at all.

Tradition is powerful, though, especially in Winten-ah, and even more so with Sekun-ak. He decided that whether the tribal chief was giving birth or not, the feast would go on.

Sanda helped Amy to the birthing cave, which was far-distant from where the feast would be held. That particular cave had been used for births for generations because of where it was located and the fact that sounds from there were dampened.

Even with that being the case, Amy’s cries of pain echoed through the great cave as the feast began.

The singers sang, the young people danced, and a huge spread of food was laid out for everyone. Sekun-ak, who never said two words when one would do, stood in for Amy and told the story of the winter solstice. Of how the sun had grown tired and needed to rest, but now would be coming back to bring life to the land.

When he was finished, the Winten-ah did their best to focus on the food that was in front of them. That was made more difficult by Amy’s cries, which seemed to reach a crescendo.

At that moment, her cries stopped and stillness overtook everyone.

It was possible that the quiet was much worse than the screams had been.

A moment later, an older woman came hurrying into the big cave. She found Talon-ak and pulled him away.

Alex stood, wanting desperately to go to his daughter, but knowing it was not his place.

Talon-ak hurried away and was gone—it seemed to Alex—an impossible length of time.

Sekun-ak approached Alex and put an arm on his shoulder. In this situation, there was nothing more either of them could do.

After that eternity had passed, Talon-ak came back into the cave. He was carrying a bundle wrapped in fur. He went straight to Alex and handed the bundle over. He whispered something to Alex, who had tears streaming down his face.

Alex pushed the furs aside and looked down at his grandson. He had Talon-ak’s complexion, but against all genetic odds, had his mother’s green eyes. He was the most beautiful baby Alex had seen since Amy and Sanda had been born.

Alex handed the baby back to its father and nodded to the front of the room.

Talon-ak walked onto the small stage, unwrapped the baby, and gently showed him off.

Not unlike Sekun-ak, Talon-ak rarely spoke unless he needed to. Looking at his son, though, he found his voice.

“This is our son. We have named him Toran-ak. We hope his heart will be as kind and his arm will be as strong as Torana.”

There was silence for two beats as the name sank in with people. Then, a wild cheer went up. It went on and on.

Talon-ak wrapped Toran-ak back up in his furs and weaved through the crowd, accepting the congratulations that were heaped upon him. He and the baby disappeared back to the room where Amy and Sanda were waiting.

An unexpected voice cut through the cheering.

“I have come at an auspicious time!”

Every head in the room turned as one.

It was an ancient, wizened monk, wearing an orange robe.

It was Tokin-ak.

 

Chapter Sixteen

Visit from a Monk

A

lex was riding an incredible high when he turned and saw Tokin-ak. He had just held his first grandson and already his mind was filling with the many adventures they would have ahead of them. For a moment, he had forgotten about his injured legs, the impending threat of the Northmen, everything that weighed heavily on his mind.

Then, the seemingly impossible appearance of Tokin-ak.

It should have been just that—impossible—for anyone to walk into one of the caves without being noticed and called out by both the guards in the trees and the guards on duty at the base of the cliff.

And yet, there he was.

It seemed to Alex that Tokin-ak made the unlikely commonplace and the impossible only slightly more difficult.

When Alex had first met the old monk, many years before, he had appeared before them, sitting on a log, holding a conversation with a rabbit. To Alex’s eye, he looked to be more than a hundred years old and very frail. But the next day, when they were accosted by highwaymen on the trail, Tokin-ak had turned into a whirling cyclone of kicks and punches, dispatching an enemy twice his size and a quarter his age.

The old monk had hinted to Alex at the time that he was near the end of his mortal life, and that he was ready to pass on to whatever was next.

And yet, all these years later, here he was, still very much alive and apparently unchanged.

Alex had often wondered what the role of the monks was in Kragdon-ah. They seemed to be aloof and separate from the wars and troubles of the various tribes and nations. And yet, when Alex had needed help to reach the emperor in Drakana, it had been an orange-robed monk who had given him access. When he and Monda-ak had an enraged godat-ta on their trail and were sure to die, it had been Tokin-ak himself who had warded off the bear. Not with violence, but with words.

Even recently, when a long-buried drone had been excavated and sprang back to life in Vendan-ah, it was another monk who had shown up out of nowhere. He had led the deadly drone away like a puppy who had somehow escaped a backyard.

Even with all the mystery that surrounded Tokin-ak and the other monks, Alex couldn’t help liking him.

The crowd of revelers parted to allow Tokin-ak to pass. The monks were revered everywhere, it seemed, whether it was in Kragdon-ah, Drakana, or anywhere. At that moment, Alex wondered if the Northmen would feel the same way.

Was it possible that Tokin-ak could use his influence to barter a peace with the invaders? Alex thought that was unlikely but didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand. Anything that might save further bloodshed was at least worth looking into.

Alex stood on his crutches and hobbled uncertainly toward Tokin-ak. He bowed slightly. “I will have someone bring us a bowl of water so we can wash your dusty feet.”

This was the tradition the monks followed when welcoming anyone into one of their homes, but Tokin-ak waved that away.

“You look like you are the one who should be under someone’s care.”

Alex looked down at the heavy cast that wrapped his right leg and shrugged. “It’s better every day.” He started to say, “I’ve been worse,” but he wasn’t sure that was true. Even after he and Monda-ak had battled the godat-ta and killed it singlehandedly, he wasn’t sure he was physically worse off than this. Instead, he said, “You just missed seeing my first grandson.”

“Oh, no,” Tokin-ak said, “I saw him just now, but I have been seeing him for months. He is what makes this evening so auspicious.”

Tokin-ak’s use of the word saw made Alex chuckle, as the old man appeared to be completely blind.

Alex chewed on that for a moment. Toran-ak had been on this planet for less than an hour, but the old monk was saying he’d been seeing him for months. After all the other miracles he had witnessed, he wasn’t about to discount that. It also brought back many memories of conversations with him.

Tokin-ak never lied, but the truths he shared were not always helpful. Alex remembered, in particular, one instance where they came to a fork in the road. Alex had asked which one they should take. Tokin-ak had answered that the path to the right was the shortest one. That had been true, as far as it went, but as Alex soon discovered, it was not even close to the easiest path.

That was when Alex decided to be more careful with the questions he asked.

Tokin-ak leaned close to Alex. “If mother, father, and baby don’t mind, I would like to visit with them before I leave. I have a present for Toran-ak to mark the occasion of his birth.”

Alex thought of the last time Tokin-ak had given a gift. It had seemed like nothing at the time—a broken half-stone on a necklace. But years later, at a most opportune time, he had found it was called a pomoro stone, one of only ten in the entire world. It had been exactly what he had needed at that time, as though Tokin-ak had known that would be the case years ahead of time.

“Of course,” Alex said. “Can you stay with us tonight?”

With anyone else, Alex wouldn’t have asked the question. If a friend or ally appeared suddenly late in the day in the middle of the shortest day of the year, it was assumed they would stay. With Tokin-ak, you never knew. He seemed to appear and disappear as he wished.

“If there is a piece of floor somewhere, yes, I will sleep here.”

“We can do better than that. Amy and Talon-ak will stay in the birthing cave overnight with Toran-ak. That means their cabin is empty. You can stay there. It is not quite your monastery in the mountains, but it is cozy.”

Tokin-ak bowed his head, accepting.

Alex glanced over Tokin-ak’s shoulder and saw that the rest of the Winten-ah were lining up to have an opportunity to speak to the monk. Many would seek his blessing while he was there. “Did anyone else come with you to see us?”

“No, just me and my alecs-ta, which I left at the bottom of the cave.”

The alecs-ta, the Kragdon-ah name for the giant donkey creatures, was often Tokin-ak’s preferred method of transportation.

“I will have someone take care of your alecs-ta, while you greet your many admirers.” Alex turned away, then stopped and turned to face Tokin-ak again. The old monk seemed to be waiting for Alex to say something. “Would it be possible for me to have a few minutes of your time later tonight?”

Alex braced for some Tokin-ak aphorism that sounded like it was lifted from a fortune cookie. It didn’t come. Tokin-ak just nodded—one of the very few people in Kragdon-ah who used that gesture—and turned to face the crowd of well-wishers.

Alex found a young boy and asked him to feed and water the alecs-ta, then hustled off to the birthing cave. He had held his grandson for a moment, but he already longed for more. He found the cave easily, but his access was barred by a stern-looking young woman with her arms crossed over her chest.

“I’m sorry, Manta-ak, but not even you are allowed in. This is the time for the mother, father, and baby to bond together.”

Alex couldn’t help smiling a little at that. Being the greatest hero in the history of a tribe had some perks, but apparently getting in to spend some time with his grandson was not one of them. He turned to go, but Amy’s voice—still a little weak and ragged—came from the cave.

“It’s okay, Alla-eh. Thank you for doing your job, but I would like to see Manta-ak.”

The young girl, who had to have seen no more than a dozen summer solstices, narrowed her eyes at Alex, not loving this breach of tradition and protocol. Still, the chief had spoken. She turned slightly to the side and allowed Alex entry.

The birthing cave was small but was made as comfortable as any of the caves in the cliffside were. There were woven, colorful tapestries hanging on the walls. That had the dual purpose of making the cave seem homier than bare walls and also helped absorb some of the cries of labor. There was a birthing bed made of blankets stacked a dozen layers thick.

And on that bed was Amy. Her dark, curly hair was still damp from her efforts. Talon-ak, Sanda, and Standin-eh sat beside the bed. Amy held Toran-ak at her breast, feeding. When she saw Alex, tears leaked out of her eyes. “Isn’t he just so beautiful?”

Alex wanted to kneel beside the bed, but thanks to his right leg, he could not. Sanda straightened out a spot on the blankets beside Amy and said, “Here, Dad. Sit here.”

Alex did, and beamed down at his daughter and grandson. Since the births of Amy and Sanda, he had always known that he would go on in some way, that they would carry a little piece of him forward into the future. But seeing Toran-ak at his mother’s breast, suckling away at the most nutritious food he would ever receive, he felt his heart swell.

“How can something so tiny make me feel so much?”

That struck Amy as a little funny, and she laughed, sending more tears coursing down her face. Toran-ak lost his grip for a moment, and he squirmed, trying to find the nipple again. He soon did and settled back to feeding.

“I don’t want to bother you,” Alex started to say.

“—Dad,” Amy interrupted. “You know you can’t ever bother us. Just sit here with us for a time. We are welcoming his soul into this life, and you will be a huge part of that.”

Alex nodded his agreement. “I’ll have him throwing a heavy spear by the time he sees his third summer solstice.”

Behind them, the young girl, Alla-eh, could be heard to say, “Oh, no. Not you. You cannot come in.”

“Who is it?” Amy asked, though she thought that everyone that should be present already was.

“It is the giant, Monda-ak.”

Alex wanted to say she should let him pass, but he did not. Instead, he looked at Amy. These would be her decisions now.

“Monda-ak is the big brother to this little man,” Amy said. “He can come in.”

Alla-eh made a small uh sound as only a young girl of any generation can, then Monda-ak padded into the room. He immediately crowded past everyone else and thrust his nose against the nursing baby.

“Monda-ak, this is your little brother, Toran-ak.”

The big dog sniffed endlessly at the baby’s head and neck, as though he had never smelled something quite like it before.

Alex reached out and laid an arm up and across Monda-ak’s neck. “You have always done the best job of looking after me. From now on, our first job is looking after Toran-ak. Understand?”

Monda-ak turned to stare at Alex. He gave him the look that said he not only understood, but it was obvious and didn’t need to be stated. Having finished his examination of Toran-ak, he turned and moved to a spot by the entrance where he could keep watch, just in case any marauding bands came looking for his new charge.

The minutes became hours and the small family group spent that time quite happily admiring the littlest member of the Winten-ah tribe. With a full belly, he slept blissfully through all the attention and being passed from hand to hand.

Finally, Standin-eh looked at Amy’s drooping eyes and said, “It’s time. Everyone go to your own room so we can let Talon-ak and Amy sleep while they can.”

Alex and Sanda excused themselves after planting one more kiss on Toran-ak’s forehead. With Monda-ak leading the way, they left the birthing cave. Sanda headed back to the archer’s longhouse. Alex found Tokin-ak still surrounded by people wanting a small piece of him.

Alex intervened, saying, “Tokin-ak has come a great distance today and needs his rest.” He led the monk uncomplainingly away from the acolytes and out into the cool night air.

“Does it ever get tiring? Having everyone want a little of your attention like that, I mean?”

Tokin-ak looked shrewdly at Alex for a moment, then said, “I think you could answer that question yourself.”

That caught Alex a little off guard. He never thought of himself as in a position like the monk was, with people lining up to speak to him wherever he went. As he thought about it, though, he saw the parallels. “I guess I only give what I’ve got to give. If someone wants more than that, I can’t really help them.”

Tokin-ak was silent for some time as they walked across the field toward the house Alex built. He walked slowly, as he always did. Alex shuffled along on his crutches, so that speed was fine with him. He marveled again at how the supposedly blind monk never took a misstep.

“That is wise. None of us can ever give more than we have, though sometimes we try.” Tokin-ak turned his face toward Alex. “That never works.”

They stepped inside the cabin and Alex found that the embers of a fire were still burning in the fireplace. He lit a small twist of straw, then the wick of the short candle sitting in the middle of the table.

“I’ll build the fire up.”

“There is no need,” Tokin-ak said. He nodded toward the bed. “There are plenty of blankets there to keep me warm. But first, you said there was something you wished to speak to me about.”

Alex drew a deep breath. He felt that Tokin-ak knew almost everything but was also sure that he kept that knowledge to himself. Although they were friends of a sort, he didn’t want to impose on that friendship. At the same time, with the stakes so high, he felt he didn’t have a choice.

“You know the Northmen are here.”

Tokin-ak nodded his agreement. “They call themselves Takana Ma.”

“The People, in their language, right?”

“Yes. So many groups want to differentiate themselves from everyone else. The world is a better place when we acknowledge our similarities and celebrate our differences.”

Alex didn’t want to get off track, but he couldn’t help but ask, “You’ve been alive for so long. Have you ever seen a time like that?”

Tokin-ak let that question hang between them for a long moment, then quietly said, “No. But we must never give up hope. It is what I live for.”

“With the Takana Ma, I would very much enjoy looking for our similarities and celebrating our differences, but every time I meet one of them, they are busy trying to kill me.”

“And you them?”

“Well…yes, but only because I have to, or die.”

“Perhaps they feel the same, but in a different way.”

Alex thought about that, but couldn’t make it connect in his mind.

“Can you tell me where they came from, or why they are here in Kragdon-ah?”

Tokin-ak shrugged, a gesture that Alex was no longer used to seeing. “They came from their homes, they are here because it is what they do. They move. They expand. They fight.”

A sudden thought hit Alex. Something Amy had said once. “Are they here looking for me, specifically? Or perhaps us, since we were the ones who stopped them in Drakana?”

“Not everything is about you, Manta-ak. Sometimes the butterfly takes to the sky, whether you walked by it or not.”

“They are laying siege to Kalki-ah.”

This was a statement, not a question, and Tokin-ak did not say anything.

“Can you tell me how numerous the Takana Ma are at Kalki-ah?” Alex knew that was pushing his luck, nearly asking Tokin-ak to move from unbiased third party to interested person.

Tokin-ak leaned forward and blew out the candle, bringing darkness to the cabin. He leaned close to Alex and said, “One hundred times ten times five at Kalki-ah.”

Alex’s heart sank.

“Five thousand Northmen in one location? How can we ever deal with that?”

 

Chapter Seventeen

Alex on the Side

A

lex Hawk’s head was spinning. In Vendan-ah, he’d had a thousand warriors to fight less than four hundred Northmen. Even with a better than two-to-one advantage, it had still taken all the strategic advantages they could conjure up to beat them.

He quickly ran some numbers through his head. He had trained a thousand soldiers in his time at Vendan-ah that were now scattered back amongst their own tribes. There had been less than four hundred left after the battle with the Northmen. Altogether, less than fifteen hundred trained fighters.

There were probably another five hundred soldiers in Kalki-ah, but they were useless, caged up by those five thousand Northmen. No matter how siege-resistant Kalki-ah was, eventually the Northmen could wait them out. If they tried to fight on their own, they were outmanned ten to one.

If Alex managed to gather every conceivable trained fighter and showed up with them at Kalki-ah, they were still badly outnumbered.

He searched his mind for anything that resembled a plan, a solution. There was nothing.

Each time he asked himself, How do you fight a superior fighting force that has the numerical advantage? he came up completely blank.

He tried to tell himself that he had once done exactly that when he had taken the fight to the Drakana, or when he had invaded a large city with only three people and a mighty dog, but he knew that wasn’t the same. The Drakana had become too reliant on their weaponry and when met with direct fighting, either from the Kragdon-ah or the Northmen, they were unable to withstand an attack.

Alex, Sanda, Werda-ak, and Monda-ak had beaten the city through trickery, nothing more, using birds to light fires then running a blitzkrieg attack to accomplish their mission.

Neither of those strategies would work against the Northmen.

Alex realized that he had been sitting unmoving, thinking, for several minutes while Tokin-ak sat across from him. The old man was theoretically blind, but Alex knew that he saw whatever he wanted to.

He tried one more question.

“If you were in my position—undermanned, about to be attacked by a force like the Takana Ma, what would you do?”

As soon as the words left his mouth, Alex realized it was ridiculous. He was asking for strategy from a monk who, if he was not dedicated to peace, was at least focused on remaining neutral.

Alex was not surprised, then, when Tokin-ak did not answer, but slowly stood and shuffled over to the bed. He sat on the edge, then relaxed with a sigh. He was quiet for several long minutes, and Alex thought he must have drifted off.

As quietly as possible, Alex stood and stepped to the door. As he touched the door handle, he heard Tokin-ak mumble a single phrase.

“Wastan-ah.”

Alex froze. Wastan-ah? He had never heard of such a place. He might have been prone to dismiss it as part of a dream Tokin-ak was having, but he knew that the old monk rarely did anything by accident. He decided not to acknowledge it but tuck it away and investigate.

He stepped out into the cool night air, careful where he placed his crutches. He felt like his right leg was finally starting to heal. He didn’t know whether that was time, or Standin-eh’s doing, or the salve that Pandrick had applied. Whatever it was, he didn’t want to undo it by slipping and falling on the wet grass.

He made his way up to the lower cave, intent on finding a bed and going to sleep. He was successful with the first, as he found a bed that wasn’t being used. The second—sleep—proved elusive. There were only a few ways he could arrange himself with the cast on his leg and none of them seemed comfortable on this night. After several hours of unsuccessfully chasing unconsciousness, he gave up and hobbled out to the mouth of the cave.

In a different circumstance, he would have climbed to the very top of the cliffside and sat with his legs dangling over the side. That was impractical with the cast and crutches, so he just found a comfortable chair that looked out at the still-dark sky and settled in.

He was woken by Sekun-ak an unknown period of time later.

“It is not a good idea to fall asleep sitting up,” Sekun-ak said, and as was often the case, Alex couldn’t tell if he was kidding him or not. By the hint of a smile, Alex guessed he was.

“It’s been a long night.”

“And a good night. Your first grandson. The first of many, perhaps.” Sekun-ak never mentioned it, but Alex knew he would never have the gift of grandchildren. He only had one daughter, and she had been killed in the initial attack of the Drakana.

“Why are you awake, old friend?”

“Like you, I am getting older. I am halfway between the warrior I once was and the day I find a chair in the upper cave and sit forever. The closer I get to that chair, the less I sleep.”

Alex did not believe that. He had seen Sekun-ak in battle not that long ago, and he had moved just fine then.

They sat in silence for a time, listening to the rain drip from the lip of the cave. With a start, Alex remembered what Tokin-ak had said as he was leaving.

“Have you heard of Wastan-ah?”

Sekun-ak was quiet for a long time, but that was not unusual. Finally, he said, “I have, but it has been many years. I was a young man when I heard my mother mention that name.”

“So it’s a real place?”

“I think it was a real place. I haven’t heard of it in so long, I’m not sure it still exists.”

“What do you remember about it?”

“Nothing, really.” Sekun-ak glanced down at the cast on Alex’s leg, which made getting around to the upper caves difficult. “Maybe some of the elders will remember. Tomorrow, I will go and ask for you.”

“Thank you, brother.”

“You are still worried,” Sekun-ak said. “I can see it hanging like a cloud over you. This should be a happy day for you.”

“It is, of course. But I wonder if we will be able to keep him safe. Toran-ak and everyone. More people to love is good and right, but I am worried what will happen.” Alex looked out on the empty field, as though he was already envisioning hundreds and hundreds of Northmen charging toward them.

Sekun-ak did not seem to share his concern. “He is small. Tiny. But he is Winten-ah. If it is his fate to know a long life, then he will. If not, then he had the glory of being born into our tribe, our family.”

Alex wished that he could maintain the same laissez faire attitude about things that Sekun-ak did. Even with the difficult things that had happened in his life—the loss of his wife, his daughter, much of his future—he held onto his equanimity.

Soon, the sky pinkened in the east to their left and people began to stir around the caves. A woman brought Alex and Sekun-ak a plate of breakfast. It wasn’t typical to wait on people like that, but in Alex’s condition, it happened more often than not.

Alex had been silent for long minutes, thinking specifically about the challenges that the Council of Tribes faced while being held under siege by the Takana Ma. Those thoughts blended into what had happened in Vendan-ah, and without meaning to, a plan of sorts worked its way into Alex’s brain. He hurriedly ate the breakfast and stood up, finding that his left leg, his good leg, had gone to sleep while he had sat in one position too long. He nearly fell, but Sekun-ak reached out and steadied him with his strong grip.

At that moment, Amy, Talon-ak, and the small bundle that was Toran-ak, emerged from the birthing cave.

“You all right, Dad?”

“Fine, fine. I just stood up too fast after sitting too long. Can you send a message to Pictin for me?”

“Of course,” Amy answered, handing the baby off to Talon-ak. “What do you want it to say?”

“Can you ask him to come and see me, if it’s not too much trouble?”

“If it’s not too much trouble,” Amy repeated with a grin. “You know he’ll do anything for you.”

“He’s shown that over and over, but that doesn’t mean I want to take advantage of him. It’s just that he has some skills that no one else has, at least as far as I know.”

“He’s aware of that, too. That’s why he’s been training young builders in Tharandon to learn how to not just do what he does, but to think about things the same way. Where you train warriors and fighters, he is training builders.”

“His is the better way,” Alex mused.

“There is a time and a need for both,” Sekun-ak said, and that seemed to close the subject.

“I’ll send a bird to Pictin,” Amy said, and she, Talon-ak, and Toran-ak left for the aviary where the traka-ta were.

Sekun-ak looked shrewdly at Alex. “When we sat down, it felt like you were lost. Now, it seems like one of those famous Manta-ak plans is coming together. I will do what I can to help. I’ll climb up and ask the elders if they know what happened to Wastan-ah.”

That left Alex alone with his thoughts, which was not a bad thing. The more he thought about Kalki-ah, the more that part of the plan came into focus. The problem was not nearly solved, but it was taking shape.

By the time light had come to the steel-gray sky, Sekun-ak returned. “Where did you hear of this Wastan-ah?”

“Tokin-ak,” Alex answered and leaned forward, anticipating something. If none of the elders had ever heard of Wastan-ah, he never would have asked that question.

“I thought that perhaps it had completely disappeared. Several people said they remembered hearing of it long ago, but nothing since. Lusen-eh was the only one who had any real memory of it at all.”

“Does she know where this place is? Or even what it is?”

“Lusen-eh has not left the cliffside in many years, so much has changed since then. The way she described Wastan-ah, it sounds like it is only a four or five day journey from here.”

“Which direction?”

“To the east/northeast.”

“Toward Danta-ah, then,” Alex said. “If it’s that close, why have I never heard of it?”

“Lusen-eh said that her last memory of the place was that her father said it was very beautiful, but that most people who tried to go there never returned. It is a dangerous place.”

Alex considered that. Tokin-ak would have known of any danger such a place might pose, but he was possibly also giving Alex a leg up against the Northmen.

“I’m going to Wastan-ah,” Alex said decisively.

Sekun-ak laid a hand on his shoulder and quietly said, “You are the worst person to go there.”

Alex bridled at that but thought it through. He had just sent for Pictin. If his friend came to the cliffside and found Alex gone on an unknown quest, that would be a waste. Alex also knew that in his present condition, he was in no shape to go looking for long-lost cities. All he could do would be to slow everything down.

Sekun-ak grinned, an expression that looked slightly ghoulish on his stern face. “This is one time when I will go on the adventure and you will stay here at the cliffside.”

Alex almost chuckled at how childlike and anxious Sekun-ak was to make that point, but he didn’t show it. “Who will you take with you?”

Having someone along was a given. Aside from whatever danger might come from seeking Wastan-ah, the wild was no place for a single person to go wandering.

Sekun-ak considered. “I do not want to have too many. Perhaps two or three people.”

“I’m sure Sanda and Nanda-eh will go with you.”

“They would be good to have along. I can catch fish to feed us and they can shoot game with their bows. We might need one more fighter, though, just in case.”

“I would suggest Hundan-ak. He is young, strong, and keeps a cool head when he needs to. The four of you would be a good team.”

Sekun-ak reached an arm outside of the cave and drew it back wet with rain. “And it is a beautiful day to travel. I will go and see if the archers and the warrior want to go on an adventure.”

Alex watched Sekun-ak’s retreating back as he crossed the field to the archer’s longhouse. He hated the feeling of being left behind. No matter how he looked at it, the whole thing was weird. A possible wild goose chase, looking for a place or a people that may or may not exist.

At least, he had something to work over in his mind. It wasn’t fully formed yet, but Alex had the beginnings of an actual plan.

 

Chapter Eighteen

The Quest for Wastan-ah

T

here are a number of Winten-ah sayings that have loose correlations to English. The World is the world essentially means, life happens, and what are you going to do about it? Alex grew up with the aphorism The best time to plant a tree is ten years ago. The second best time is now. In Winten-ah, they said, “dangun bak,” which kind of meant the same thing, but translated more precisely as now, not then.

Sekun-ak was a big believer in dangun bak. Even though he had not gotten any sleep at all the night before, and even though there was no particular hurry in investigating this Wastan-ah, he recruited his group and was ready to leave by apex.

Alex had agreed that taking Sanda along was a good idea, but seeing her on her horse, ready to ride out of Winten-ah, caused some anxiety.

Sanda was observant. “It’s okay, Dad. We’re just going exploring. How many times have you gone exploring without me?”

“That’s just it,” Alex said. “I can think of all the trouble I’ve always gotten into when I did.”

“And yet, there you are, still standing.” Sanda blew her father a kiss and she, Nanda-eh, Sekun-ak, and Hundan-ak rode slowly across the muddy field and turned north at the tree line.

Sekun-ak felt a little like Sanda, though he wouldn’t have said so. He had watched Alex leave Winten-ah on adventures many times, including the two years he was gone fighting the Drakana. Sekun-ak had always stayed behind to keep the home fires burning. He was glad to be the one leaving, though the truth was, he wasn’t entirely sure what his mission was or how to accomplish it.

They relayed the greetings back to each of the guards in the trees, then turned east.

Hundan-ak had been quiet since they left the cliffside, but he suddenly perked up. “Are we going to Danta-ah?”

“That will be a stop on the way, yes. But we are going beyond that, and to the north.”

Hundan-ak settled back into his saddle, a somewhat dreamy expression on his face.

Sanda noticed and made a small jerk of her head toward the young warrior, smiling. Nanda-eh noticed and smiled back.

Everyone knew that Hundan-ak had made an effort at courting Senta-eh the Younger, the daughter of Versa-eh and Harta-ak. It wasn’t that his efforts hadn’t gone well, they just seemed to go nowhere at all. He had dinner with her family, they had gone for a walk around Danta-ah, and everything had seemed to fizzle out after that.

Hundan-ak was at a loss to explain why, but every time he found himself in Senta-eh’s presence, his brain and tongue stopped being connected. He was able to smile foolishly, and he did sometimes get a few words out, but not much more.

Senta-eh seemed amused by him, but that was not really the effect Hundan-ak had hoped to have on her.

He had seen twenty-four summer solstices now, though, and he knew the same was true for Senta-eh. It was almost a miracle that she hadn’t chosen a mate yet, but he knew his luck could not hold much longer.

He had hopes of doing something—though he couldn’t have said exactly what—when they arrived in Danta-ah. In his imagination, he saw himself leaping down from his horse and sweeping her into his arms for a kiss before he asked her for her hand. Thus, the dreamy expression.

Sanda leaned close to him and said, “You should just ask her, you know.”

That jerked Hundan-ak back to reality, and he sputtered a little, starting to protest what he had been thinking about.

Sanda ignored that. “Sometimes it is better to know than to live in the agony of not asking. If she rejects you, you will swallow that pain and move on to someone else. But how will you feel when we arrive in Danta-ah if there is a binding ceremony going on for her?”

Hundan-ak’s face clouded over. The answer was obvious.

He resolved to leave the fantasy behind and to do something concrete. “You’re right, my sister. I have been a coward.”

“You’re no coward,” Nanda-eh said. “I have seen you stand in front of the largest animal and throw your spear without flinching.”

“Why is this so much harder?” Hundan-ak asked.

“These are the mysteries of life,” Sekun-ak answered.

That seemed to startle the other three, as though they had forgotten he was there.

“But if you let the opportunity pass you by, you will regret it when you are old like me.” Sekun-ak clicked his tongue and rode on ahead, leaving the other three behind.

Since they got a late start, they ended up stopping for the night only a quarter of the way to Danta-ah.

As part of their ongoing improvement of the surrounding area, Harta-ak and Versa-eh had ordered their craftsmen to build lean-tos every three or four miles along the path. They were not much, but they offered a firepit and shelter from the rain, and they were all built in areas that had a water source.

Considering what Alex and Senta-eh had found the first time they came along this route, it was luxurious, though.

Before the light completely failed, Sanda and Nanda-eh went hunting for small game but came up blank. Sekun-ak allowed Hundan-ak to be the fisherman on the first night, and the young warrior returned with more than enough fish for dinner.

Sekun-ak himself found firewood and built the fire.

After dinner, they set a watch schedule, with Sekun-ak taking the first two hours.

IN WINTEN-AH, ALEX stood in the rain in the meadow for a long time after the foursome rode away, a knot in his stomach. Monda-ak stood as close as he could without actually touching him, whining slightly.

“I know, I know,” Alex said. “They’ll be fine.” He laid a hand on Monda-ak’s head. “We’re just a couple of old men, worrying about things for no reason.”

Monda-ak shook his head, though Alex didn’t know if he was disagreeing that they were worrying over nothing or that they were old.

“Getting soaked like this is probably not good for your cast,” a voice said from behind.

Alex turned and saw Sista-eh, who was also standing in the downpour for no reason. He looked at her face and his heart went out to her. She was just a young woman, barely more than a girl, but she seemed to have aged terribly since Torana’s death. Alex remembered where he had been in the days, weeks, and months after Senta-eh died and understood. He also knew there was nothing he could say or do that would really comfort her.

Alex wrinkled up his nose and said, “And this cast already wasn’t smelling too good. Getting it wet probably won’t help.”

The two humans and the giant dog turned back toward the cliffside. They were intercepted halfway there by Tokin-ak, who had been standing on the front porch of the cabin.

“I am leaving today,” the old monk said with no preamble. “I thought perhaps I could see Toran-ak before I leave. I have a small gift for him.”

“The new parents are up and around already,” Alex said. “Let’s see if we can find them.”

That wasn’t hard. Amy and Talon-ak were waiting just inside the largest cave on the lower level. Toran-ak was wrapped snugly in a sling on his father’s chest.

Tokin-ak bowed slightly to the new parents and said, “Gunta.”

“Gunta, Tokin-ak,” Amy and Talon-ak said in return.

“Our guest was hoping to meet our newest tribe member,” Alex said.

With a pride nearly universal among new parents, Talon-ak rearranged the sling and brought Toran-ak out into the fresh air. The baby had been sleeping and scrunched his face up at being exposed to the colder air.

Alex’s heart sang again at the sight of the baby. He wondered for the hundredth time in the last twenty-four hours how something so small could have such a hold over his heart already.

Tokin-ak took two steps forward and smiled down at the baby. He reached a hand out and tousled the curly black hair. “So much hair!” he said approvingly.

“It gave me heartburn the whole pregnancy. Standin-eh told me he would come out with enough hair to braid and that was almost true.” Amy looked at the old monk, who appeared to be blind and fragile. From everything Alex had told her, she knew he was neither. “Would you like to hold him?”

Tokin-ak tipped his head back and smiled broadly, reaching his arms out. Talon-ak handed the baby over and Toran-ak seemed to snuggle right into the crook of Tokin-ak’s arm.

At once, the monk began to hum a song. With a shock, Alex realized he knew the tune. It was You Are My Sunshine, a song that should not have been sung in many thousands of years. Alex contemplated asking Tokin-ak about it, but knew he would not receive a satisfactory answer. He just put it down on the long list of things about the monk that could not be explained.

Whatever the song was, Toran-ak seemed to like it. He opened his shockingly green eyes and locked on the cloudy eyes of Tokin-ak. It was impossible to say what passed between the oldest and youngest person in the cliffside at that moment, but it was something.

Tokin-ak rocked Toran-ak back and forth for a few more moments, then, still smiling, handed him back to Talon-ak. “Thank you. That will undoubtedly be the best part of my day and made the long journey from Altor-ah worth the effort. He is a special child, destined for greatness.”

There is no parent that, upon hearing such a proclamation, could fail to agree.

“I have something for him, welcoming him to this world.” Tokin-ak reached into the pocket of his orange robe and pulled out something that looked very familiar to Alex.

It was the pomoro stone, fully reunited once again. Alex didn’t bother to ask how it had made its way from the monk he had handed it over to in Drakana back to Tokin-ak. He couldn’t even manage to be surprised.

The old monk glanced quickly in Alex’s direction. Alex couldn’t be sure, but he thought Tokin-ak might have winked at him.

Tokin-ak bowed his head slightly and pulled the two halves of the pomoro stone apart. “There may come a time when he will need this.” He handed half the stone that was still attached to a piece of leather to Amy.

Amy had been there when the monks had nearly tripped over themselves to get it back from Alex in Drakana. The stone looked like nothing special, as many things of value did at first glance. She knew it was more valuable than gold, frankincense, or myrrh. She couldn’t help herself. She stepped forward, wrapped her arms around Tokin-ak—who was nearly as short as she was—and hugged him. She kissed his cheek and said, “Thank you. It means everything to us.”

Alex watched the expression on Tokin-ak’s face. He had seen him face critically dangerous situations without raising an eyebrow. This embrace of pure emotion from a new mother seemed to fluster him, though. He half-bowed, started to say something, then stopped. He smiled, raised a hand in goodbye, and turned away.

At the bottom of the cliffside, he got on his alecs-ta and rode off into the oncoming winter storm.

 

Chapter Nineteen

Wandering

T

he next morning, Sekun-ak, Sanda, Nanda-eh and Hundan-ak were up and on the trail again before dawn.

“We are starting so early,” Sanda observed, “it is almost like Manta-ak is still with us.”

“I was getting up at this time for many years before your father appeared in our midst,” Sekun-ak said. He tried to act as though he was grouchy, but everyone knew the truth. He longed for adventure and was glad to be back on the trail again.

They rode into the afternoon without a break. When they did finally stop to refresh themselves and fill their skins at a creek, Hundan-ak looked at the gathering clouds. “We will be lucky to get to Danta-ah before we get wet, I think.”

“Especially if we stand here watching those clouds approach,” Sekun-ak said. They all took the hint and were back and riding moments later. Throughout the afternoon, they picked up their pace and did arrive at the large gate into Danta-ah before the rains fell. That was fortunate, because the clouds dropped fat, heavy snowflakes as they entered.

The first person to greet them was Senta-eh the Younger, with her giant dog Brinda-eh by her side.

Hundan-ak sat up a little straighter.

“Will Brinda-eh be unhappy that we didn’t bring Monda-ak?” Nanda-eh asked.

Senta-eh looked at Brinda-eh and said, “She seems to be quite happy without having a mate around to bother her.” She did not look at Hundan-ak, but everyone else in the party did. He seemed to find interest in the falling snowflakes. “Amy-eh sent us a traka-ta, telling us to expect you. She didn’t say why you were traveling in the middle of winter, though.”

“We are on a quest,” Sekun-ak said, rather proudly. “We are seeking Wastan-ah.”

When Senta-eh did not react to that, Sanda asked, “Do you know it?”

“It is not familiar to me, but we deal with many tribes and villages. Perhaps it is one of those. Mother will know. She keeps track of everything. For now, we will care for your horses and give you something warm to eat.” She held a hand out and watched a few flakes land on her brown skin. “I will have some rooms set up for you, unless you want to go back out in this.”

Everyone looked to Sekun-ak for that answer.

“No, we can stay here until the storm passes. Thank you for taking us in.”

Versa-eh emerged with a warm shawl over her shoulders. “You made it here just in time. We have some food ready.”

Young boys scrambled out of nowhere and took the four horses away to be cared for.

The travelers followed Versa-eh and Sanda into the largest house in Danta-ah. It was two stories tall and almost all of the bottom floor was one big room, with a kitchen on one side and a long, heavy table that could seat a dozen people on the other.

Versa-eh ladled up a thick stew and cut slices of a loaf of bread and passed it all around.

“Taking hungry travelers in like this,” Sanda said, “I’m surprised people aren’t lining up to get in.”

“Not everyone is our friends from Winten-ah,” Versa-eh answered. “Though we do our best to take care of everyone peaceful who passes by.” She slathered a piece of bread with a butter-and-honey combination and took a bite. “Now, Amy said you would likely be here, but she did not say why.”

“They are looking for Wastan-ah,” Senta-eh said. “I told them you might know where it is.”

“Wastan-ah?” Versa-eh asked. “With so many troubles and so much uncertainty in our world, why would you look for that?”

Sekun-ak recounted the conversation Alex had with Tokin-ak.

“I think that old monk enjoys sending people on wild goose chases. Can you imagine, sending a group of people across the country just because you mentioned it one time with no context at all?” She paused, thinking. “Manta-ak believes there is something there that can help against the Northmen?”

“He is worried. He carries the weight of so many people on his shoulders. I think the birth of his first grandson has given him even more worries now.”

Versa-eh cocked her head at Senta-eh and said, “Yes. Grandchildren. Even the promise of grandchildren is enough to keep us awake at night, hoping.”

Senta-eh pointedly ignored that remark, while Hundan-ak pricked up his ears.

“So, do you know of it?” Sanda asked, eager to find out how easy or difficult their trip might be.

“Oh, I know of it, but I do not know how much help I can be in finding it.”

That caught Sekun-ak’s attention. “If you can just give us an idea of the direction, we can ride to look for this mysterious place.”

Versa-eh took a deep breath, contemplating how to answer. “I don’t know a direction. No one knows where they live, as far as I know, though some people might have an idea and are not saying.”

“I don’t understand,” Sanda said. “How can you know of them, but not know where they are?”

Versa-eh held up the bread with the glistening sweet mixture. “We only have this because of Wastan-ah. The special drink we make that is so popular? That comes from Wastan-ah, too.”

“Then you trade with them,” Sekun-ak said.

“We do, but not directly with them. They trade with us through an intermediary, and I don’t believe even they know where they are.”

“That makes no sense,” Sanda said. “How do you trade with them?”

“Honestly, I’m not completely sure, and I’ve never reached out to find more information because I did not want to threaten our supply of what they send us. The Wastan-ah are a private people with almost no contact with other tribes. They never mingle with anyone, and as far as I know, they are completely sealed off from the rest of the world.”

None of this was what Sekun-ak was expecting. He thought that either people would know of them and they would be able to reach them in short order, or the whole thing would turn out to be a waste of time. Instead, there was this—confirmation that Wastan-ah existed, but with no idea how to find it.

“The trader who brings their goods in says that he received a message from another tribe that if he wanted to make a profit, he needed to be at a specific place at a specific time. When he arrived there, he found wagons already loaded, but no people in sight. An invisible person told him what they wanted in exchange for the goods on the wagon and that if he returned with that, he could keep anything else he received.”

“Wait, an invisible person?” Hundan-ak asked. “Are there invisible people?”

“I’m skeptical that there was an invisible person. That is just what the trader said. I’m sure someone was just hiding somewhere and communicating with him. I believe he saw the chance for profit and did not want to look too hard.”

“I am sensing a theme, then,” Sanda said. “People leave them alone because they have a product that no one else does. What is it?”

“Honey,” Versa-eh said simply.

“Of course,” Sekun-ak said, closing his eyes with the realization. “Wastan-ah. The wasta-ta. The bees.”

Versa-eh, who was scared of almost nothing, shuddered, then agreed. “The wasta-ta. The bees once lived here in Danta-ah, along with the grand old Godat-ta who ate their honey. With its thick fur and hide, it was able to steal from the wasta-ta with impunity. Before we could build our city, we had to rid the area of both of them.”

Sanda snapped her fingers, a memory coming clear. “Dad told me the story. He and Harta-ak nearly died getting rid of the wasta-ta.”

“I thought they had died,” Versa-eh confirmed. “They were both stung so many times, they passed out. Your mother and I had to drag them away and care for their wounds.”

“Did you not get stung as well?” Sanda asked. It was obvious that she was interested in hearing the oft-told story from a different perspective.

“Yes, we all got stung, but Harta-ak got stung many times and your father even more. Your mother rescued them both with a flaming branch.” Versa-eh’s eyes grew dreamy as she pictured Senta-eh swinging the burning, smoking tree limb at the giant bees while Monda-ak helped drag Alex to safety. “Your mother was incredibly brave and smart. You take after her.”

That brought tears to Sanda’s eyes. Senta-eh had died within an hour of giving birth to her, so she only ever knew her like this—through the stories people told her.

“Somehow,” Versa-eh continued, “these people have managed to tame the wasta-ta, or at least find a way to get their honey without dying. We are happy to pay them whatever price they want for it, so long as we never have to face another of those bees again.”

“How often do these people send their goods to trade with you?” Sekun-ak asked.

“Twice a year, but the last shipment came just two moons ago. We won’t see more from them until spring is here.”

It was Hundan-ak who asked the key question. “What about the man who trades with them, though? Does he come more than twice a year?”

“He does,” Versa-eh confirmed. “In fact, he is overdue to arrive. He may have gotten delayed by the storm.”

“Do you think he will show us where he meets these invisible people?”

“He is a trader,” Versa-eh answered. “For the right price, he will take you anywhere.” She looked at her guests and realized they had only their horses, their packs, and the clothes on their backs. “Don’t worry, if he shows up, I will barter with him on his load and include a guided trip to wherever he meets the Wastan-ah.”

IN THE CLIFFSIDE CAVES of Winten-ah, Alex Hawk kept himself busy while waiting for Pictin to arrive. He had received a traka-ta from Tharandon, saying that Pictin and his wife were on the way, and he wanted to be ready for them.

Before anything else, though, Standin-eh took the cast off his right leg and examined him again. To Alex’s eye, the leg looked like a foreign object. It was completely white, shriveled and still looked slightly bent.

After rubbing her hands along the bones and tendons for long minutes, Standin-eh declared herself satisfied with his progress and told him that if he promised to use the crutches and keep most of his weight off that leg, he wouldn’t need another cast.

Alex would have promised almost anything to be rid of the stinking, moldy plaster.

As soon as the cast was off, he recruited several youngsters to help him with his next project. They acted as his legs and brought him pieces of wood he could carve and sand. He built a square box that was an arm’s-length across, with a two-inch lip around all four sides.

He asked the young boys to bring him some of the loose, sandy dirt that was found at the edge of the tree line. In two days, he built a sandbox that he could use to show Pictin what he wanted done. It was a huge ask, and Alex knew it. Especially when he had asked so much of the man. Looking at the design in his mind, though, he knew Pictin was the only person who could accomplish it.

With the box built, Alex allowed himself to relax with Monda-ak, Amy, Talon-ak, and Toran-ak.

The baby was still sleeping much of the time. Alex soon found that just leaning back in a chair, looking out over the meadow, with a baby boy sleeping peacefully against his chest, was among the best feelings he had ever known.

While he rested, he turned his plans over in his mind, sharpening them.

More than anything, he wanted victory, so he could find peace.

 

Chapter Twenty

After the Storm

S

now blanketed western Kragdon-ah for the next few days.

Even Sekun-ak, who did his best to simply ignore weather as it was happening, was glad that the storm had come while they were safely tucked away in Danta-ah.

The snowfall was heavy enough that the four travelers flashed back to their experience a few years earlier, when they had traveled north to rescue Pandrick and had been stranded for months afterward.

Standing at the window of Versa-eh and Harta-ak’s home—theirs was the only home within five hundred miles that actually had windows—Sekun-ak watched the snow fall and drift in the courtyard. “At least we didn’t have to fight a damned giant bird on this trip.”

“I am thankful for small favors,” Nanda-eh said. She was particularly thankful because she had come so close to death while battling the soran-ta.

Sanda reached out and touched Nanda-eh’s hand, smiling, glad that her love was still around to take on yet another adventure. “We are much farther south, now. Here, storms come and go. I believe this one will be gone soon enough.”

She was right. On the afternoon of their third day in Danta-ah, it stopped snowing. The weather warmed enough that it began to rain, which turned everything into a mucky mess outside. Nonetheless, Sekun-ak was chafing at sitting in the luxury of Danta-ah when they should be out on their quest. That quest was still poorly defined—what were they supposed to do if or when they found Wastan-ah?—but he knew that sitting in one spot would not answer the question.

“We will leave tomorrow,” he said, standing under the overhang of the porch roof, watching the rain.

“Travel will be easier in another day or two,” Versa-eh said.

“The easy way is not often the best way,” Sekun-ak answered, then smiled at Versa-eh. He had seen her tackle many hard things over the years and knew she didn’t need the reminder.

From behind them, Senta-eh said, “I’m going to come with you.”

Both Sekun-ak and Versa-eh turned in surprise.

“What? I’ve been cooped up here for too long. Brinda-eh and I would like to have an adventure, too.”

Sekun-ak’s eyes flicked briefly to Hundan-ak, who looked as though he had just received an incredible gift. He had spoken of taking his opportunity to talk to Senta-eh, but once they arrived, those intentions had dissipated.

Versa-eh knew better than to tell her daughter that there were potential dangers ahead. Senta-eh was too much like she had once been—impetuous and headstrong. Versa-eh herself had once abandoned a life of luxury with a wealthy man, just to see what adventures were ahead. That had led her to Harta-ak and a more fulfilling life than she could have imagined. She looked at Sekun-ak. “What say you?”

“We can always use someone as smart as Senta-eh. You are welcome to come if you want.”

“I do. I have a pack ready. Are you sure you want to wait until morning? There are hours of daylight left right now.”

As much as Sekun-ak would have liked to agree, he decided to wait. In the end, that was a good thing.

If they had left right then, they would have ridden out of the gates of Danta-ah without a plan, without any real idea of where to go to find their target.

Instead, they waited and were rewarded.

Just before night fell and the heavy gate was closed, a weary traveler came through leading a pack horse and a loaded cart.

Word reached Versa-eh, and she gathered the travelers together. “The man who deals with the Wastan-ah has just arrived. He said he would have been here days earlier but ended up waiting out the storm in a cave he shared with the rotting corpse of some unknown animal. I have invited him to eat with us tonight.”

At the dinner table, that trader—Heldon-ak by name—proved to be a character, as so many traders were.

Even though everyone at the table knew how and why he had been delayed, he wanted to tell the story again, and it was much more interesting the way he told it. He was one of those people who believed that facts should never get in the way of a good story. When he got to the part about discovering the fur-covered corpse of the dead animal in the cave, he said, “It was so rotted, I couldn’t even tell what it was before I ate it.”

Sekun-ak nodded, believing it, but Sanda, who had once eaten Raisin Bran cereal and Top Ramen noodles, turned a little green at the thought.

Noting their expressions, Heldon-ak roared with laughter.

Seeing a chance to get a word in edgewise, Versa-eh said, “Sekun-ak is seeking Wastan-ah.”

Heldon-ak grew serious, and, raising his mug, directed it at Sekun-ak. “And good luck to you, man. If you find them, you will be the first.”

“But you have spoken to them,” Hundan-ak said.

“If you want to call hearing a disembodied voice emanating from different spots speaking to them, then yes, I have.” Heldon-ak tucked his chin to his chest, changed his voice and said, “Trader, bring us the list of goods we left on the wagon. You can keep anything else you get. If you do not bring our goods back, your life will grow short.” He threw his head back and laughed, though it was impossible to tell if it was because he thought the story was funny or that his imitation of the Wastan-ah was spot on.

“We want you to take us to the spot where you pick up and drop off the wagon,” Sekun-ak said.

It was apparent that Heldon-ak did not have to wonder if Sekun-ak was serious. Few people ever thought he was kidding.

“That is one of my trade secrets. Perhaps my greatest one.”

“We are not traders,” Sekun-ak said, leaning toward the trader. “We are Winten-ah.”

“The Winten-ah, I should have known. Your people are not known for their sense of humor.” Heldon-ak rubbed his chin, thinking. “I only just arrived. If you will wait a few days while I recover from the trip, I will consider it.”

Sekun-ak frowned even more than usual. “We leave in the morning.”

“Well, good, have a safe trip, then. I will be staying here while we complete my trade.”

“We are leaving in the morning,” Sekun-ak said, his voice deepening down into basso profundo.

Versa-eh stepped in, breaking the tension that had sprung up. “Heldon-ak, these are special friends of ours, and what they are doing is important. We would be very grateful if you would lead them to that spot.”

The trader leaned back in his chair and examined the situation. His crafty eyes lingered on Versa-eh. “How grateful.”

“We would be happy to give you an extra ten percent on your goods for the next year.”

That was a generous offer, but Heldon-ak sensed he could do better. “You are the best trading spot on my route. You are the only people kind enough to give me a place to stay each time. A real house, with a real roof over my head. It is very nice to have that after so many nights spent under the stars and in the rain.”

Versa-eh had a much more pleasant face than Sekun-ak, but even it clouded over. “And you are now trying to use our kindness against us?”

Heldon-ak had become a trader many solstices earlier because he was good at reading people and now saw that he might have slightly overplayed his hand. “What if we keep our terms the same, but you leave that little house open for me always? Maybe even include citizenship in Danta-ah when my old bones can no longer travel my route?”

Versa-eh leaned back. “A permanent house for a few days of your time? That seems like a very good trade for you.”

“You have many small houses, but only one trader who knows where to meet the Wastan-ah.”

“True enough,” Versa-eh answered. “You know my word. I give it to you now.”

Heldon-ak’s grin lit up his face. He had struck a good bargain, and he knew it. He looked at Sekun-ak and said, “Do you want to start early in the morning?”

“Before first light,” Sanda and Nanda-eh answered together.

Heldon-ak’s good humor had fled by the time he dragged his carcass away from his new, warm house in the pre-dawn hours.

The Winten-ah had left on their journey with four, but their fellowship had now expanded to six humans and an oversized dog.

Five of them waited somewhat less-than-patiently for the trader to come grumbling into the town square and mount up. As they walked slowly toward the gate—which had been opened just wide enough for them to pass through—Hundan-ak noticed a tall, broad-shouldered warrior shadowing them.

Nanda-eh noticed him too. She leaned close to Hundan-ak and quietly said, “He hasn’t taken his eyes off Senta-eh. Perhaps that is your competition.”

Hundan-ak bristled a little at the thought, but that was quickly quelled when Senta-eh said, “There is no competition, and I am not a prize.”

Sufficiently abashed by her correction, both Hundan-ak and Nanda-eh fell silent and left the town without speaking another word.

Heldon-ak rode to the front of the small group, alongside Sekun-ak. “We will travel east for a few hours, then turn north at the fork in the road.”

Sekun-ak grunted acknowledgement, which was all he had to say about anything during those hours.

There was very little silence on the trip, however, as Heldon-ak regaled the small troupe with story after story. Some of those tales meandered a bit, and several of them seemed to have no point at all, aside from the man wanting to hear the sound of his own voice.

Everyone else tuned him out and rode along with their own thoughts. Even Brinda-eh, almost always traveling alongside Senta-eh, seemed not to be listening.

After a few hours, Heldon-ak said, “There’s the fork, just ahead.” However, he said it in the same tone of voice he had been using to tell a long-winded story, so no one actually paid him any mind.

Finally, it was Sekun-ak who came out of his reverie and said, “There is the fork in the road.”

That caught everyone’s attention.

Heldon-ak sputtered a little and said, “That’s what I just said. Is no one listening to me?”

Sanda, Nanda-eh, and Senta-eh exchanged guilty smiles, but none of them answered.

Heldon-ak had protested greatly about not wanting to go back out on the trail again so soon after returning, and everyone else could understand that, to an extent. The snowstorm had passed, but the cold temperatures, biting wind, and constant drizzle made travel unpleasant.

Still, it was obvious that the trader had traveled these trails many times. He always knew the place to lay up for the evening, where there was water for their horses and good hunting. He even pointed out the cave where he had holed up with the stinking carcass of the unknown animal he claimed to have eaten. He asked if they were interested in going in and having a go at identifying what it was for themselves, but everyone passed.

Those few days passed mostly uneventfully, with Heldon-ak apparently never going to run out of stories to tell.

More and more as the days went on, Senta-eh and Hundan-ak fell to the back of the line and had quiet conversations on their own. The more that happened, the more Hundan-ak got over being tongue-tied and was able to be himself more. At one point, he even smiled and laughed a little.

Sanda and Nanda-eh noticed the change but were careful not to say anything, not wanting to disturb whatever it was that might be happening.

On the fourth day after they left Danta-ah, Heldon-ak stopped mid-monologue. The sudden silence was different enough to catch everyone’s attention.

He pointed to a spot ahead where the trail they were on stopped altogether. Two other trails shot off at right angles. Just past where the trail ended, there was a small meadow.

“There it is,” Heldon-ak said. “This is as far as I go.”

 

Chapter Twenty-One

Elusive Wastan-ah

W

ithout another word, Heldon-ak turned his horse around and headed back the direction he had come. Apparently, the promise of a house of his own in Danta-ah was something he wanted to get back to.

The five remaining were amused to hear that he immediately started telling another long, drawn-out tale. No one else was needed by him, he was his own best audience.

Sekun-ak looked around at the area where they found themselves. There was nothing unusual to distinguish the spot. No obvious trail to anywhere, other than the small paths that led due north and south. “What are our thoughts?”

“I don’t think it will be on either of these paths,” Sanda said. “If it was, then many people would come across this place and it would not be hidden at all.”

“With no path at all,” Hundan-ak said, “the going will be much slower.”

“This generation is spoiled by having so many trails laid out for them so easily. When I was young, we made our own trail, wherever we went.”

The four younger people all caught each other’s eye and smiled, but no one laughed.

Hundan-ak slipped down off his horse, took the reins, and walked a few feet ahead. “It might be better to lead them for a time. If we are closer to the ground, we might see something.”

No one wanted to disagree with that, so everyone dismounted. They took a few steps forward, and Hundan-ak took the lead. Ten steps past the small clearing, he brushed against an innocuous purple plant and immediately slapped at his leg. That caused both his leg and his hand to burn.

Senta-eh hurried to him, tipped her leather bag open and poured water down his leg. “Is that better?”

“You could have amputated his leg and he would think that was better,” Sanda observed, but quietly.

Hundan-ak just smiled and put two fingers to his forehead.

Sekun-ak approached the plant and named it, saying, “I have not seen this plant in many years. We called it vabon—the itcher—because if your skin came in contact with it, you’d have a burning, itching sensation for some time afterward.” He bent low over the plant and said, “Here is something interesting, though.” Reaching his hand out, he grabbed the plant firmly in his hand.

Hundan-ak, who was still feeling the sting of the plant merely by brushing it, gasped. “Sekun-ak. That will cause you no end of trouble.”

Sekun-ak put that idea to rest by continuing to grasp the plant firmly and tugging on it until it pulled up out of the ground. As soon as the roots of the plant met the air, the entire plant withered as though it had been uprooted many days earlier. He tossed it aside.

“That is the solution. Instead of avoiding it and accidentally brushing against it, it has to be grasped with a strong hand. Then it will not spread its poison into you.” He looked at Hundan-ak and said drily, “This is true of many things in life.” Louder, he went on, “Let’s move slowly as long as there is vabon in the area. We’ll need to pull them up one at a time and dispose of them. If you get stung by them too often, they will have a cumulative effect and will make you very sick.”

The only one among them who seemed invulnerable to the plant was Brinda-eh. She walked right through the vabon with no noticeable effect. She even sniffed it, then tried eating it, but it must have tasted terrible, as she shook her head and sneezed several times. Aside from that reaction, though, the big dog was fine.

As it turned out, the purple plant was abundant in the area, which slowed their progress considerably. Initially, the others were nervous about grasping the plant firmly. They had seen the instant rash of white bumps that had developed on Hundan-ak’s leg. But after Sekun-ak demonstrated the proper technique a few times, everyone pitched in and began removing the plants.

Even so, all of them ended up accidentally brushing against a leaf or two. Within a few hours, they were all feeling a little feverish and decided to look for a spot to camp out for a few hours until the feeling passed.

While they waited, they ate some jerky, drank from their canteens, and hypothesized about where Wastan-ah might be and how far they might have to travel to find it.

Hundan-ak believed that it was likely somewhere nearby and that they would reach it within the next day. He believed they wouldn’t have wanted to haul the heavy jars of honey they traded too far.

Sekun-ak saw things differently. Because seemingly no one had ever stumbled on Wastan-ah, he believed that they were nowhere close to it. If it was close to an established trail, they would have been found at some point.

They rested until the effects of the minor brushes with the vabon faded and they were able to resume the search.

More than anything, their challenge was that they had very little to go on. When they had left the established trails, they had headed due east, but that had gotten them nowhere.

They started again and were relieved to find that the vabon began to thin out and soon enough disappeared. The thick underbrush also thinned out and they found themselves in the middle of a forest. Their travel was easy enough, so they mounted their horses again and made better time.

The real question was, were they making better time in the right direction or going the opposite way?

All five of the travelers had a near-perfect sense of direction. Any of them, if asked, could have immediately pointed to the place of their birth, though they would be pointing in different directions. They had, essentially, a compass built into their heads that allowed them to always know which direction they were traveling.

Sekun-ak, as the leader, decided to just continue in an eastward direction.

They traveled for several smooth miles until darkness began to fall.

Senta-eh stopped her mount, turned her head, and listened carefully. “I hear water coming from that direction,” she said, pointing south. “It will be dark soon and we’re not going to find Wastan-ah today. Should we camp here, where there is at least water for the horses?”

Sekun-ak didn’t answer, but just turned toward the direction she had pointed.

Soon, they found the source of the sound, a small, burbling creek.

Sekun-ak pointed to the biggest tree in the area and said, “We’ll stop here and make our camp under the branches of that tree. If it rains or snows tonight, it will offer at least some protection.”

Everyone dismounted and went to work at what needed to be done. Senta-eh found some dead wood, dug a firepit, and started a fire. Sanda and Nanda-eh strung their bows and went in search of small game. Sekun-ak and Hundan-ak both tried their hand at landing a fish from the stream.

In half an hour, the fire was blazing, and the two men returned empty-handed. The archers did better and came back with two of the oversized Kragdon-ah versions of grouse. That was more than enough to feed them and have plenty left over to share with Brinda-eh.

They all agreed that because they were traveling through such unknown territory, they should wait until at least first light to start again. They didn’t want to stumble upon the bed of a godat-ta, or worse, the cub of a godat-ta, not to mention the danger of one of the horses stumbling off a cliff in the dark.

Over the next few days, strange happenings plagued the searchers. At night, they heard eerie shuffling and odd noises in the trees overhead. It was Hundan-ak who had finally had enough of that. He grabbed a burning branch to use as a torch and climbed quickly up the trunk of the tree they slept under. There was nothing to be seen.

Likewise, during the day, they often felt that they were being watched from the bushes. From time to time, Sanda, Nanda-eh, or Senta-eh would leap lithely from their horse and explore the bushes. Again, they never found anything.

Aside from those uncomfortable feelings, they ran into more and more problems with nature. They discovered a plant they were not familiar with. It lay flat on the ground, but when anyone walked by it, it curled around their leg and sank its thorns into their flesh.

Another time, a flock of small white birds began to circle overhead. They dropped in a formation as if they were circling down a drain, with the five travelers at the center. As the first bird came within a few feet overhead, it released a spray of liquid feces. It headed straight toward Sekun-ak’s head. He saw it coming and ducked to one side so it missed him. Neither he nor the rest of the group were as lucky when the several hundred other birds did the same.

In seconds, all five horses, riders, and Brinda-eh were essentially covered in sticky, stinking, oily bird poop.

None of the travelers were particularly squeamish, but having their face, hair, and eyes covered in the stuff was too much for them. Unfortunately, they were not near any body of water, so they ended up riding on for more than an hour in sour silence before they could clean up.

Senta-eh washed Brinda-eh while the other four dunked their whole body in the freezing cold stream. That was when they realized two things: that they should have built a fire to get warm before they washed themselves, and that even after they had cleaned the feces off themselves, it left a whitish residue that no amount of scrubbing would remove.

Sekun-ak was the first to call good enough. He scrambled out and, shivering and shaking, managed to get a small fire going. Everyone else followed suit and hustled around the area looking for dry wood to burn.

Wet, cold, and still stinking, the five of them sat around the fire as close as they could get without singeing their skin.

“Is it possible that the gods are telling us to go home?” Hundan-ak asked. Like most of the Winten-ah, he rarely gave much thought to religion or the old gods, but when things were going horribly wrong, his mind turned that way.

“No,” Sekun-ak answered confidently. “The fact that these things are happening is proof to me that we are getting closer to whatever we are supposed to find. If we were not, these curses would not be falling on us.”

Everyone exchanged glances and no one wanted to argue with Sekun-ak. What he said made a certain kind of sense.

A few minutes later, when everyone was sufficiently warmed by the fire, Hundan-ak and Senta-eh stood to clean the horses. They gathered some thick, tough leaves from a bush and rubbed it over one of the horse’s flanks. To their surprise, the leaves brought the stuff right off in chunks. In almost no time, they had cleaned all five horses and found that using the leaves, there was no residue left behind. It was the water that had activated some substance in the bird’s poop and left the white stain.

Hundan-ak looked at Senta-eh. She looked back. They both shook their heads, then started to laugh. Everyone knew they looked ridiculous and had no idea how long the stains would last, or if they would even be permanent.

Since they had a water source and a fire built, they decided to stay there for the night and start their search again in the morning.

Sanda was on guard in the middle of the night when she heard the horses shifting nervously. She woke everyone and they listened carefully for several minutes. Aside from the increasing discomfort of the horses, they couldn’t hear anything. They all grabbed torches and walked toward the horses to see what was causing them to fidget.

There was nothing visible, but all the horses had begun to stamp their feet and show the whites of their eyes.

Suddenly, Sekun-ak’s mount reared up, tugging at the rope that kept it tied to the branch. That spurred the rest of the horses, who stamped and whinnied and tossed their heads from side to side.

“Whoa, whoa,” Hundan-ak said, trying to settle the nearest horse.

It would not be calmed. It reared back and managed to snap the limb it was tied to.

A few moments later, all the horses had managed to do the same. In a panic, they stampeded back up the trail. Hundan-ak and Nanda-eh ran after them but fell rapidly behind.

Sanda held her torch out, trying to see if she could catch a glimmer of eyes in the darkness, looking for anything that might have frightened the horses so badly.

A moment later, she felt a tickle at the back of her leg, followed by a blinding flash of pain.

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

Plans to Survive

A

lex Hawk screamed in pain. He had beaten so many opponents in his life, but as Standin-eh bent over his right leg, moving it left and right, he knew he would have a hard time beating her.

“It is all right to scream,” Standin-eh said. “It helps the healing.”

“Is that why you do it?”

“I do it because it is good for you. And making Manta-ak scream is good for my soul.” She looked a little shamefaced. “I suppose I shouldn’t take such happiness in it. It shows my weakness.” She brightened. “But look!” She twisted Alex’s ankle and it moved farther than it had since his accident. “It is all worth it in the end. I will have you walking without a limp before you know it.”

Alex sat up and used a cloth to wipe the sweat from his face and chest. “Thank you, Standin-eh. You have been diligent in torturing me.”

“You’re welcome, Manta-ak. Now I will go torture someone else.”

“Thank God for small favors,” Alex said, but it was quietly and in English.

A young boy burst into the room. “Manta-ak! The guards have sent me. Visitors for you!”

Alex looked at the boy, thinking that he couldn’t have seen more than ten or eleven summer solstices. The Winten-ah were shorthanded. Losing so many of their fighters in the battles at Vendan-ah, then subtracting the four who had gone looking for Wastan-ah, exacerbated that.

“Tell them I’ll be right there. I’ll meet them at the bottom of the cliffs.”

The boy ran out in a flash. Alex looked at the heavy wooden cane that leaned against the cave wall. He had been more than happy to give up his crutches a few days earlier. He still didn’t like using the cane, but it was an improvement. He hoped that working with Standin-eh in what he thought of as the torture chamber would allow him to lose the cane as well soon enough. For now, though, it was still necessary.

He hurried to the outer opening of the big cave and looked down. What he saw gladdened his heart. More than a week earlier, he had sent word for Pictin to come to him. He had no doubt he would, but now he saw that his friend was not alone. In fact, he had brought a sizable retinue. Alex counted fifteen people traveling with him.

Alex saw Pictin at the front of the pack and raised his hand in greeting. When Alex focused more clearly on who was with him, he saw that it was his wife, Lostin-eh. Then he noticed something else—her distended belly.

Pictin was not a young man, but he was about to be a father again.

Alex hurried to meet them. He embraced Pictin in the Drakana way, then Lostin-eh like a Kragdon-ah warrior, which she was.

“I know I have asked too much of you already,” Alex started.

“If I had not met you, I would have been dead of starvation many years ago. You can never ask too much of me.” Pictin glanced down at the cane. “You are improving. Good.”

“We’ve still got battles to fight. That’s why I sent for you.”

“And that’s why I brought some of my most trusted people with me. I knew you needed my skills, but I didn’t know how big the job was.”

Alex squinted at Pictin. “Unfortunately, it is a big job, and it is far from here.”

Pictin didn’t hesitate. “It doesn’t matter. Whatever needs to be done, we will do it.” He took a deep lungful of the cold winter air. “Will we ever be done with these battles, Manta-ak? Will there ever just be peace, so we can raise our families and live our lives?”

“Our challenges have seemed never-ending,” Alex agreed. “But I hope this is the last. We deserve some time to just live peacefully.” Alex saw Amy standing on the porch of the small cabin. He waved her over. When she got to them, he said, “Where is my beautiful grandson?”

“Sleeping on the chest of his father, where he belongs,” Amy said with a smile.

Pictin’s eyebrows rose. “Grandchild? Congratulations.”

“He is quite strong,” Amy said. “With no effort at all, he has Manta-ak wrapped around his finger.”

“The world is the world,” Pictin agreed.

“Can we find a comfortable spot for Pictin’s people?”

“I’ve had something ready since we sent the traka-ta.” Amy put a hand on Lostin-eh’s shoulder. “If you’ll bring your people, I’ll show you where you will be staying.”

This was another difference Amy had instituted in Winten-ah. When Sekun-ak was chief, and for many generations before him, no visitor, no matter how trusted, was welcomed into the cliffside. They always stayed on the grass in the meadow, even if the weather was foul.

Amy changed that, believing that bringing true friends like Pictin into their home strengthened the bonds of alliance.

Alex and Pictin split off from the rest of the group and went to the cave where Alex had set up his drawing box.

“They’re going to have us outnumbered,” Alex started.

“After what we saw in Vendan-ah, that means we are against long odds.”

“Part of our problem is that our warriors are scattered across the landscape of Kragdon-ah. We’ve trained two thousand or more warriors to fight over the last few years. There were already good fighters in many villages. Plus, I spent time training the fighters of Kalki-ah when we were there.”

“Our problem, then, is to gather them all into one fighting force. Is that what you need me for?” It was evident by Pictin’s expression that he didn’t really see how he fit into that.

“No, that’s going to be up to me. I’m working with Amy on that. One of our big problems is that a big part of our fighting force is currently held up behind the walls of Kalki-ah. They are trapped and, as the winter progresses and the siege continues, they are getting weaker. Unfortunately, if we just open the gates of Kalki-ah and pour their fighters out through that gate, or let the Northmen in to fight, it’s going to be a bloodbath. Kalki-ah, the center of the Council of Tribes, will almost certainly fall.”

Alex reached for a message that they had received while they waited for Pictin to arrive.

“You haven’t been to Kalki-ah, but their defenses are very good. They built the walls that surround their town out of an amazing material that can absorb almost anything thrown at it. So, even if the Northmen have brought cannons with them, they won’t blast away the walls.”

“They can just go over the walls though, can’t they?”

“No, that’s the other brilliant part of the design. They have layers of poisonous plants that grow over the entire outer surface of the wall. A single prick from one of the thorns on these plants and anyone—even the Northmen—will be thrown into a hallucinatory state.”

“That should have been something we worked on in Drakana. They never would have breached the Summer Palace then.”

“One problem that we have is that it is the dead of winter. The foliage that protects the town withers somewhat in winter. It doesn’t die, but it retreats a little, leaving more avenues open for attack. The message we received yesterday is that the Northmen have figured this out and they are starting to take advantage. They are using their shields to protect themselves as they get close, then are burning the plants away from the wall. So far, those fires are being put out by the Kalki-ah pouring water over the walls, or just from rain. But we don’t know how long that will hold.”

“Is this where I come in?”

“It is,” Alex said. He wiped the sand smooth in his drawing box, then began to trace the outline of Kalki-ah and the surrounding countryside. He pointed to a section of the walls and said, “This is where the gate is.” Pointing a short distance away, he drew a curving line. “And this is where the Northmen are camped. But according to the intelligence we’ve gotten, they have all of their forces focused on the front and side walls and the gate. They know there isn’t any other way out of the city, so they are trapped.”

Light dawned on Pictin’s face. He smiled. “And this is where I can help.”

Alex laid a hand on his shoulder and said, “Yes, this is where you can help.”

The two men discussed the various strategies involved in the project for the next few hours. By the time darkness fell over Winten-ah, they had decided on a course of action.

Once again, it would take Pictin away from the home that he had built for quite some time.

Once again, he answered the call.

SANDA INSTINCTIVELY slapped at her leg and felt something wet squish against her skin. She lowered the torch so she could see what had stung or bit her.

What she saw turned her stomach.

The forest floor seemed to be alive. Moving. Writhing.

There were ants everywhere, around her. In a slight panic, she swept the torch at the ground, burning dozens of the crawling ants, but making no effective difference. Eyes wide, she looked to her left and saw that Sekun-ak and Nanda-eh were jumping, twisting, and writhing in pain.

At that moment, Hundan-ak and Senta-eh returned, out of breath, and said, “They are too fast. We will have to—” Hundan-ak’s words cut off in mid-sentence as he saw the incredible tableau in front of him. He took a step toward them to help and immediately felt the same flash of pain. He let loose a scream, then began to stomp the ground, which was no more effective than Sanda’s torch had been. In seconds, the ants began to crawl up his moccasins, then to his legs, biting him again and again.

He spun and danced and tried to fling them off, slapping at them with his hands. For every ant he knocked off, three more took its place. Looking around in a panic, he saw a tree limb overhead. He jumped up, grabbed on, and pulled himself up. That allowed him to slap at the crawling, biting ants and momentarily rid himself of them. He shouted down, “Find a tree! Climb up!”

The others looked for a lower limb, but that search was called off as Hundan-ak began to slap and scream again. The ants had climbed swiftly up the trunk of the tree and found him once more.

It was Brinda-eh who found the most expedient rescue. Snuffling and shaking her head, she ran for the creek and dove in.

Senta-eh followed, yelling for the others to come too. Everyone fell in behind her and jumped into the freezing cold water. The swift current dislodged all the ants and swept them away. Millions followed them to the creek’s edge. A few attempted to reach them but were also carried quickly away.

Sekun-ak grunted as several of the ants that had hidden in his long hair began to chew and bite on his ears and neck. He quickly dunked his head underwater and scratched at himself vigorously.

Dunking themselves completely underwater solved the immediate problem of being bit by the ants but presented a new issue—hypothermia.

The temperature was near freezing, and the creek seemed to consist of melted snow and ice. They knew they would perish if they stayed there long.

Brinda-eh swam to the far side of the creek, climbed out, and shook herself vigorously. The humans in the water waited a moment to see if there were ants or other biting insects on that side as well, but after a few seconds, deemed it clear.

They followed the dog and climbed out of the water onto the shore. Their wet clothes clung to them, and their breath crystalized in the air in front of them as they stamped their feet and slapped themselves, trying to encourage circulation.

“Let’s build a fire here,” Hundan-ak suggested.

“Our flint is there,” Sekun-ak said, pointing to the ant-infested campsite.

Hundan-ak looked around, picked up a dead branch, and said, “Gather up some wood. I will wade across, run to the fire, and set this alight. If I move fast enough, they will not bite me.”

It was the best plan they had, and it might have worked, had they not been stung and bit so much already. They had been, though, and the poison from the bites was working its way through their system. The more they moved to try to stay warm, the faster the poison spread.

Nanda-eh was the first to feel the debilitating effects of the bites. She said, “I feel dizzy. I need to sit down.” In the end, she fell more than sat.

Sekun-ak was next. He didn’t say anything, just collapsed. He was followed in short order by Hundan-ak and Senta-eh.

Brinda-eh wobbled on her four feet, shaking her head from side to side, then gave in and fell onto her stomach, eyes closed.

That left only Sanda conscious, and she had fallen to her knees.

She heard a noise behind her and turned to see a man step from behind the bushes. He was small. Not just small for Winten-ah, but small period. He was perhaps four feet tall. His skin was dark, but his face was covered in the same white stain that had come from the birds.

He walked close to Sanda, who cocked her head to the side like a curious dog. Waves of nausea and dizziness washed over her. She blinked, having a hard time opening her eyes.

When she did, the small man was right in front of her. He reached out one hand and pushed on her shoulder, knocking her to the ground. His face hovered over her, watching. She tried to sit up, but it was a losing battle.

The small man took a piece of cloth out of a pocket and held it over Sanda’s mouth and nose. She thought it smelled slightly sweet and it stirred a long-lost memory. She struggled against the cloth, but only for a moment, then she slipped completely into unconsciousness.

The man lifted her arm and let it fall. Satisfied, he went to each of them—even Brinda-eh—and put the cloth over their faces for a long moment. When he was satisfied, he stood and signaled to more people in the bushes—more men and women who looked much like he did.

One brought a wagon led by an alecs-ta. It took three of the smaller people to lift the five people and the dog onto the wagon, but eventually they managed it.

 

Chapter Twenty-Three

Wastan-ah

S

ekun-ak was the first to swim back into consciousness. It took a few moments for the memories of what had happened to return. He assembled those memories with his eyes still closed. Without opening his eyes, he could gather some information. He heard steady breathing around him, so he assumed he was still with the rest of his group. His clothes were dry, so he knew some time had passed since he had fallen unconscious. Interestingly, he was no longer shivering and cold, so he assumed he had been moved.

Altogether, those facts led him to believe that he had been captured by someone and taken somewhere. He risked opening one eye a slit and saw the back of Hundan-ak’s head. That was not much help. He had been captured and enslaved once before, by Douglas Winterborne. He never wanted to be in that situation again.

“I see you are awake. Good.” It was a voice from behind him, speaking in the universal language of Kragdon-ah. “You will all be awake in the next few minutes. It will take a little time for your head to clear.”

Beside him, Sekun-ak felt someone else shift and move slightly.

“Where are we?” That was Senta-eh’s voice.

Even in a mostly unconscious state, that voice roused Hundan-ak. He struggled to sit up.

One by one, everyone began to stir. Sanda, the last one to go down, was also the last to wake up.

When they were all awake, they looked around and saw that they were in a cage. The back and sides of the cage were formed by naturally formed rocks. A cave. The front was made of thick wooden bars that fit right into the rock itself.

Hundan-ak reached out and gave the bars an experimental push. They did not move.

“You can push on the bars of your cage if you wish, but they are sturdy.” It was the same voice as before, though no one was in sight. “You are in our cage to protect you from us.”

“What does that mean?” Sanda’s head was starting to clear.

“It means that you met some of our friends in the forest. Our many small friends that bit you, poisoned you slightly, and sent you into the river for us. The birds that marked you for us and made it easy to track you. We have many more friends that are much more dangerous to you than you are to them. We keep you in there for your own protection.”

Sanda exchanged a glance with Sekun-ak. It was obvious that neither of them believed that.

“Why are you hiding?” Sanda asked.

A small man—the same small man who had first pushed Sanda down at the creek—stepped out from behind a rock. He was dressed from neck to feet in clothes that appeared to be made completely out of plants and vines. In the proper surroundings, that would have made him not invisible, but well-camouflaged.

“We prefer to keep to ourselves,” the man said, as though that was an explanation.

The prisoners in the cage were surprised at how small the man was but tried to conceal their reaction. They had never met anyone who was small. No native Winten-ah was ever under 6’8”, while this man was barely over half that. He was definitely an adult, though. There were wrinkles around his eyes and even through the bird stain on his head, it was obvious he had mostly gray hair.

Sanda kept speaking, trying to get her bearings. “Why did you do this to us? We never meant you—or anyone—any harm.”

“You were very persistent in looking for us, or at least coming close to us. We prefer to stay away from the rest of the world. No matter how many wrong paths we put in front of you, or how many of our friends were sent to delay you, you persisted. It became apparent to us that you were going to continue looking for us.”

If they had any doubts about where they were, that removed them.

“This is Wastan-ah,” Sanda said matter-of-factly.

“That is what outsiders have named us.”

“But that is not what you call yourselves?”

“We do not have a name for ourselves. Do the birds or the insects give themselves names? No. They are only named by other humans. We identify with our friends more than we do with other humans.”

Sanda looked at her fellow captives, trying to see if anyone else had an idea of how to proceed. She didn’t get anything from them except blank looks, so she continued on.

“You’re right. We have been looking for you, but we never intended you any harm.”

“We believe you harm us simply by seeking us. We only want to live in peace, to be left alone. Why do you seek us out?”

“We came seeking your help.”

“We are the smallest people in all of Kragdon-ah. We are peaceful. We never make war. We hide away here in a place no one else wants to be and all we ask is to be left alone. Why do you think we could do something to help you?”

“But you trade with my people!” Senta-eh said.

The old man looked crestfallen. “Is that why you are here? I knew that offering some of our honey for trade would result in bad things. We talked about it for years before I allowed it. I was always against it. It was the young people who wanted things that we did not have.” He glanced to his left and it was obvious that there were more people hidden away. Perhaps the young people who had encouraged trade with Danta-ah.

“No,” Sanda said, trying to get the conversation back on track. “We’re not here because you traded honey for goods with Danta-ah. That is simply how we knew where to start looking for you.”

The old man’s eyes narrowed. “Is that how you heard of us?”

Sanda thought, then said, “No.”

“Then how did you hear of us?”

“Tokin-ak spoke of you to my father.”

“Tokin-ak? That monk?” The old man spit on the ground. “Pox on the monks.”

That was unusual. No one inside the cage had ever heard anyone speak disparagingly about the orange-robed monks.

“You do not like Tokin-ak?”

“He and his monks are the exact opposite of what we are. We are one with nature. They manipulate things to their own control. I should have known they would point people here.” He stopped, obviously angry, and spit on the ground again. “What did he tell you we would do for you?”

That question got to the heart of the matter, since really Tokin-ak had not told them anything about what Wastan-ah might do for them. He had simply spoken their name to set the wheels in motion.

“He didn’t tell us anything,” Sanda admitted. “He just mentioned your name to my father when he asked who might help us.”

“Help you with what?”

“The Northmen. Giants—even bigger than us—from another land. They have landed here in Kragdon-ah and are killing everyone.”

“Not everyone,” the old man corrected. “Not us.”

“No, not you. Not yet.”

“If they come for us, they will find us as difficult to locate as you did. We have many more friends who will spring to our defense.”

Sanda felt she was losing ground, and their very fate was up in the air. “I’m afraid we have made a mistake by seeking you out. We did so out of desperation. My sister just had a baby, born on the winter solstice, and we fear he may never get a chance to live to see another. But you are right, that is no problem of yours. We were wrong to come here and ask you for help. This is not your fight.”

“A new baby often brings a new perspective on life,” the old man said. “This is something we can agree on.”

“Now that you have spoken to us,” Sanda said, “and seen who we are, can you let us out of this cage? I’m sure you can see we mean you no harm.”

“Oh, no,” the old man said, “we’re keeping you right there.”

ALEX HAWK WALKED TO the edge of the meadow with Pictin, Lostin-eh, and the others. It had been a long journey from Tharandon, and they had only arrived the day before, but time was short. Another, even longer journey was ahead of them.

“Gunta, Pictin,” Alex said. “Gunta, Lostin-eh.” As always, that simple word expressed many different things.

As they rode away, both Pictin and his wife raised a hand in farewell, saying, “Gunta, Manta-ak.”

They all knew that there were perilous times ahead and that there was every possibility that they would never see each other again.

Alex went straight back to the caves to meet with Amy and the rest of what remained of the council. She was his daughter and a new mother, but more, she was also the chief of the Winten-ah, and that was the capacity he needed her in. It was time for a council of war.

He found her nursing Toran-ak, but she was carrying out her duties as chief at the same time. Much of her council of advisors were gone—either killed in the Battle of Vendan-ah or off looking for Wastan-ah.

When Toran-ak was done feeding, she handed him off to Talon-ak to burp and take care of. In Winten-ah, there were no clearly defined roles for men and women beyond breastfeeding. Whoever was available filled each task as needed.

Alex longed to ask to hold Toran-ak while the council met, but he held back. This was a critical conversation and seeing Toran-ak’s cherubic face, ringed in black curls, always distracted him from the task at hand. He owed it to the baby and everyone else to be focused and sharp.

He looked around at the small council, which included Ganku-eh, who had once been chief of the Winten-ah, but who had stepped down after Lanta-eh was kidnapped.

“I was hoping that Sanda and everyone would be back by now,” Alex said. “I worry that I have sent them off on a fool’s errand.”

That seemed to hit home for Ganku-eh, who once thought herself guilty of the same sin.

“Don’t blame yourself,” Amy answered. “We face such difficult odds that we have to look for any advantage we can find.”

The other members of the Winten-ah council mumbled their agreement.

“We could use Sekun-ak’s wise counsel here today,” Ganku-eh said.

“Agreed,” Amy answered, “but we will have to survive with who we have.”

Alex looked more closely at Amy. He had been so distracted by his new grandson that he hadn’t paid as much attention to her. Now he saw that her face was drawn and there were dark circles under her eyes. Part of that could be put down to having a new baby, but he thought it was more down to the responsibilities of being a wartime leader.

Amy ran a hand across her face, rubbing her eyes. “I know none of us will like it, but we can’t wait for them to return. If we delay by even another day, we could be too late in getting to Kalki-ah. That last message we received from them is concerning.”

Alex tried to picture leaving on the long journey across Kragdon-ah, not knowing if Sekun-ak, Sanda, Nanda-eh, and Hundan-ak were safe or lost and wandering in the wilderness. He couldn’t imagine leaving them behind but knew that what Amy was saying was correct. He needed to take the army they had left and begin moving toward Kalki-ah.

“I have sent Traka-ta out to everyone between here and Vendan-ah. They will meet you there, then you can all leave for Kalki-ah together. From there, you can meet up with each small army as you go.”

“How many do you want me to take from Winten-ah?”

“Almost everyone.”

Alex opened his mouth to object, but before he could, Amy went on. “It doesn’t make sense to hold people back here when a few more strong arms might be the difference between victory and defeat at Kalki-ah. If we lose there, it is inevitable that Winten-ah will fall eventually. Even if I held warriors back, we could never beat a full army of Northmen.”

She paused, and Alex saw what this decision was taking out of her.

“I have spent long hours contemplating it. I don’t think any other tribe will choose this time to attack. I’ll hold enough back to occupy the guard posts and keep us going, but I want everyone else to go with you. I’m asking the other tribes to do the same, how can I do any less?”

Alex knew what she was saying was correct—both about needing to leave at once, and about sending almost everyone who could fight with him.

“Will Talon-ak be staying?”

Amy’s eyes looked a little haunted. “Yes. He fills so many roles here that he will stay in the cliffside. We need to have at least a few able-bodied people to plant the krinta, do the hunting, make sure our pantry is not empty going into next winter.”

“Of course,” Alex agreed. “I did not mean it as a criticism. I would have encouraged you to make the same decision.”

Amy took a deep breath and said, “I think you should leave tomorrow.”

“Before first light,” Alex agreed.

He walked away from the meeting with eyes downcast. He had left Winten-ah to go into battle too often, but he had never felt this uncertain as he did. It wasn’t just that he felt like he was likely marching into certain defeat. It was the uncertainty of what he was leaving behind, an unprotected Winten-ah, and those he had sent looking for Wastan-ah.

Like Pictin who had answered the call, he knew he would, too.

But it would be with a heavy heart.

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

A Difficult Leaving

A

lex Hawk held Toran-ak high above his head in the pre-dawn darkness. The baby looked placidly back at him.

“If I don’t come back, he will never remember me. Be sure to tell him some good stories.” He handed Toran-ak back to Talon-ak.

Amy fixed Alex with a serious look. “First of all, you’re coming back. That’s what you do. You always come back. Second, imagine the life of this poor kid growing up. Every person he meets is going to want to tell him a story about you. I fought with Manta-ak in Drakana or I was with him at the battle of Vendan-ah.”

“That would be the one where I was underground during the whole battle. Not a very good story. Make up some lies if you have to in order to make me look good.”

Amy’s eyes filled with tears, and she threw her arms around Alex’s neck. She whispered, “Just come back, Dad. Please,” in his ear.

Alex nodded and turned his head, not wanting Amy to see his own tears. He couldn’t help but look back, though, as he rode away.

Alex was not alone, of course. Every one of the fifty people who rode with him was leaving people they loved behind. They didn’t have a defeatist attitude, but they did know how the odds were stacked against them.

When Alex and the other riders—some on alecs-ta because they didn’t have enough horses—reached the tree line, they turned and looked back at the verdant meadow and towering cliffside. Their home.

One by one, they beat their right hand against their chest, memorializing Torana once again.

Alex rode at the front, with Monda-ak trotting beside. Joining Alex at the front of the caravan was Pandrick Masten. Pandrick was a historian, and what archivist could resist seeing such a vivid slice of history unfold in front of them? He would not participate in the battle and would not use the technological magic he still carried in his bag. He would observe and write his thoughts in a journal that he would leave for a future generation to find.

There was very little conversation as the contingent traveled from the familiar hunting grounds around Winten-ah into areas where many of them had never been before.

This was not the same ace fighting force that Alex had led to Vendan-ah some months earlier. This was what remained.

At camp that first night, everyone fell into an easy routine. Some hunted, some fished, and others prepared the camp. It was all done quietly.

It was dark very early, and Alex set the watches with the shifts rotating every two hours.

They followed the same pattern the next day until they arrived at Maltan-ah, the small tribe that sat on an island in the middle of the lake. It had been overrun several years earlier and Alex had led an army that rescued them. After that, Versa-eh and Pictin had offered some of their own young people to the tribe and it had once again become healthy and thriving. It was small, though, and Alex did not expect them to have many—if any—warriors to send to Kalki-ah.

Instead, he was surprised to find a crowd of almost thirty people waiting for him.

“How can you send so many?”

It was a very young man who stepped forward. “We believe that if you do not prevail at Kalki-ah, we will be murdered by these motherless Northmen anyway. We’d rather meet our fates head on than cowering in our bed.”

They had the same problem they did the last time the Maltan-ah volunteered to fight. They were willing but did not have horses.

On the previous occasion, they had split into two groups at Tharandon—walkers and riders. This time, they had carts and wagons that they were using to haul supplies and weapons, so they made room for the extra people there. The Winten-ah had also brought the massive horse that Torana had once ridden, and they were able to fit three people onto that one.

They arrived at Tharandon just after sunset that day.

Alex was thrilled to see that Versa-eh and Harta-ak were there waiting for them.

He loved the Winten-ah that were riding with him. They were his family, his siblings. But he had not ridden into battle with most of them. Without Sanda, Sekun-ak, Nanda-eh, and Hundan-ak along, he had felt a little isolated.

Having Versa-eh and Harta-ak there lifted his spirits.

The wolves of Tharandon met Alex and company at the field where he and Sekun-ak had once been enslaved. The huge animals wagged their tails and whined almost like dogs that had been domesticated. They sniffed at Monda-ak, but soon lost interest and ran back to their village.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak, who oversaw a village that thrived on trade, had brought many wagons with them. As long as they didn’t run into places they couldn’t pass with the wagons, they would be able to accommodate many more volunteers on foot.

By the time they left Tharandon, their numbers had swelled to over four hundred people in the caravan.

Even by an optimistic estimate, no one would say that was four hundred trained warriors. Alex had given up on that idea, though. They would need support people, both on the trip and once at the battle.

The young warrior from Maltan-ah had put it perfectly. If their efforts at stopping the Northmen failed, it was likely that everyone in Kragdon-ah would be put to the sword or enslaved anyway.

When they reached the abandoned city of Vendan-ah, they found hundreds more people who had used it as a convenient meeting point waiting for them.

They were picking up momentum.

THE PRISONERS OF THE Wastan-ah were not treated poorly. They were fed regularly, and the food was delicious, though it leaned much more toward a vegetarian diet than what they were used to.

Their cage was not big, but there was enough room that they could all stand at the same time and could even stretch out and lie down if they didn’t mind close quarters.

There was no bathroom, but there was a large pot they could pass out in exchange for a clean one whenever they wished. The people of Kragdon-ah were not fussy, and Sanda, who had once gone to school in twenty-first-century Oregon, had become accustomed to such things.

In short, they were not suffering, except for the fact that they were prisoners.

They could feel the clock ticking. They counted how many days it had been since they had left home and knew that Alex, Harta-ak, and Versa-eh were undoubtedly worried sick about them.

Worse, they knew that with the situation as it was, their tribes were leaving to meet the Northmen while they were left behind.

The old man, who was the only person they had seen so far, was becoming somewhat less shy about appearing in front of them.

On their second day, the older man sat in front of the cage—well out of arm’s reach—and said, “You can call me Andula. We do not use the same way of naming ourselves that you do.”

Sensing—or perhaps hoping for—a breakthrough, Sanda said, “I am Sanda, daughter of Manta-ak.” She introduced the rest of the group, including naming Nanda-eh as her binding partner.

Andula politely noted each person’s name as though he would try to remember it.

Sanda tried to press their case. “We were wrong to seek you out when you only wish to be left alone, and we are sorry. We wish you no ill will. If you open this cage, we will simply leave. Our brothers and sisters are heading off to fight the Northmen, and it is making us heartsick that we’re not able to join them.”

Andula sucked on his teeth. He glanced to his left. Finally, he said, “I should tell you that I’m not the leader of my tribe.”

“I am,” a woman said, stepping out from behind the rocks. “I am Andanon, the leader of what you call the Wastan-ah.”

Everyone in the cage gaped at the woman. She appeared to be about the same age as Andula but was even smaller than he was. That wasn’t what was so remarkable about her, though. Sitting on each of her shoulders and on the crown of her head were three wasta-ta, the giant bees. They sat calmly, almost as though they were statues or decorations, but from time to time, one would flick a wing or move its head to stare at the prisoners in the cage with its big bee eyes.

“We do not know the ways of many of the outside tribes,” Andanon said. “We thought it was possible that you would not respect a woman leader. But now that we have observed you, we have seen that you women speak freely and are respected by the men you are with.”

“Yes,” Sanda said. “My sister is the chief of our tribe, the Winten-ah.”

“And my mother is the leader of ours,” Senta-eh said. “We believe in letting the strongest person do the job.”

“As it should be,” Andanon said. She looked a little wistful and trailed off, repeating, “As it should be…” She came back into focus and looked at Andula, who bowed his head slightly and excused himself. She sat comfortably cross-legged on the floor. “Now, tell me more about these Northmen.”

“It is quite a long story,” Sanda said.

“You’re not going anywhere. You might as well fill the time by telling me the story.”

Sanda wasn’t completely sure where to start. She decided that when the Drakana first attacked Winten-ah was the best place. She did not try to explain that she, her sister, and her father had been living in a completely different time period. The Winten-ah accepted that, but it was because they had seen the evidence with their own eyes.

Sanda explained that the Drakana had come from far across the biggest water with the intention of enslaving everyone in Kragdon-ah. How her father had at least managed to fight them to a standstill here, but that they had left with many, many Kragdon-ah people in chains. She painted the scene of how she, her sister Amy, and her father Alex, had perched on the edge of a cliff and watched the Drakana sail away. How Alex had sworn to capture one of their boats and sail after them to retrieve their people.

“Your father seems quite warlike,” Andanon observed.

Carefully, Sanda said, “He is a brilliant fighter and strategist when he needs to be. The greatest in all of Kragdon-ah. But he would rather be in our home, with his daughters, his grandson, and the people he loves. He only fights now when he feels he has no choice.”

“I see.” It remained to be seen whether Andanon really saw that point or not.

Sanda elected to leave out the section of the story where they sailed into the fog and back out with an apparent chunk of time missing. Instead, she told of sailing into Drakana with the intention of fighting them, only to find that an aggressive army of Northmen had invaded ahead of them.

“Sometimes, the enemy of my enemy is also my enemy. My father decided that was the case and made a treaty with the Drakana. Between our two armies, we were able to vanquish the Northmen.”

“But not forever.”

“We thought it was forever, but a few months ago, we received word that they were back, and in great numbers. They had laid siege to another ally of ours, the great city of Kalki-ah. We fought some of them in Vendan-ah and were able to emerge victorious, but that was only because we had the advantage of numbers. Now, in Kalki-ah, the Northmen outnumber us. They are exceptionally aggressive, and we know once they ransack Kalki-ah, which will fall very soon, they will spread across the rest of Kragdon-ah. We believe they will wipe everything out. That is why we’re looking for every advantage we can. That’s why, when Tokin-ak mentioned you as a possible ally, we went looking for you.”

At the mention of the old monk’s name, it was Andanon’s turn to turn and spit a thick gob onto the floor of the cave.

“We believe that if we do not find something to help us, we will all die. If you let us go, we will join our tribes in the battle at Kalki-ah and never breathe a word about Wastan-ah.”

“Join your tribes and die?”

Sanda looked at the three giant bees who sat on Andanon. She had never seen the like.

“Yes, but die trying.”

The old woman stood, rising easily from the floor of the cave. As she did, the three wasta-ta rose lazily up into the air and flew in front of her. Andanon turned and walked away.

 

Chapter Twenty-Five

Long Journeys

S

anda’s shoulders slumped. She had thought she was getting through to Andanon. Not to a point where the Wastan-ah leader would suddenly leap to her feet and say, “Yes! We will join you on your quest!” But she thought she had connected with the old woman. That they had things in common.

Now, just when the captives thought they might be freed, Andanon had simply abandoned them once again, leaving them caged and trapped.

The five prisoners huddled together. They had been looking at possible escape routes, though nothing particularly promising had emerged yet. Three of the walls of their cage were solid rock. They could chip at it, but without tools, there was no way they could tunnel out.

The bars were stout and seemed to connect deep into the walls of the cave. Still, given enough time, Hundan-ak was sure he could loosen them. The challenge was, even when Andanon and Andula were not sitting directly in front of the cage, the prisoners felt like they were being watched.

On one hand, that seemed like a ridiculous idea. There were certainly no closed-circuit cameras in Kragdon-ah. On the other hand, based on the Wastan-ah’s relationship with the things that fly and crawl, even the bugs and bats on the opposite wall of the cave seemed like they might be observing them.

They felt the constant drip, drip, drip of time escaping them, knowing that the people they loved were, at that very moment, heading toward a battle that they likely could not win.

In frustration, Hundan-ak gripped the bars at the front of the cage and strained with his considerable strength. His muscles popped, he grimaced, and sweat sprang up on him, but he had no impact on the bars.

The other captives were watching him and did not notice that someone else was sitting where Andanon had been. Two someones, in fact.

One of them spoke. “Our father built that,” the girl said. “And the things he builds never break,” the boy said.

The prisoners turned, surprised to see someone new.

The two newcomers were also small but were different in other ways. They were much younger, for one. In fact, they looked like they had seen fewer than twenty summer solstices. The other thing that set them apart was that they did not have the white stain on their faces, chests, or hair. They had the same dark, smooth complexion that was a hallmark of the Winten-ah.

“Can we ask who you are?” Sanda asked.

“I am Antana,” the girl said.

“Askana,” the boy answered. “We already know your names. We have been listening.” He glanced up at the bats hanging upside down in the dark recesses of the cave. Unlike many of the animal life of Kragdon-ah, where sizes tended to run to gigantism, these bats were smaller.

For just a moment, Sanda felt that her hunch about being spied on was correct. She shook her head slightly, sure that was ridiculous.

Sanda focused on their faces. Where the elder Wastan-ah had carefully hidden their thoughts behind the white stain and blank expressions, these two looked pleased with themselves, as though they had a secret. Perhaps a secret that they were willing to share.

Antana scooted toward the cage and leaned forward. She was close enough that, if Sanda was quick, she could have perhaps reached through the bars and grabbed her. “Askana and I have decided that we will come with you.”

There was so much information in that single sentence that everyone in the cage needed a moment to process it. We will come with you implied that the prisoners were to be freed and could go on their journey. Moreover, it also meant that the two young people would help them. But how much help could these two small people be?

When they had left Winten-ah weeks earlier, they weren’t sure what kind of help they were looking for from the Wastan-ah. They had certainly had their sights set a little higher than two teens who stood less than four feet tall.

“Is there anyone else who wants to come with us?” Sanda asked hopefully.

“No, just us,” Askana answered, grinning. “Are we not enough?” He still had that I’ve got a secret look on his face.

“We will gladly accept any help we can get from you. Thank you,” Sanda said.

“We are a tiny tribe,” Antana said. “There are less than thirty of us. Andanon did not want us to come at all. But it is part of our tribal law that once a person sees their fifteenth summer solstice, they can do what they want. So they can’t stop us.”

“If there were others our age,” Askana said, “they would probably want to come, too. But we are the only ones who are old enough to leave but not so old that we have given up any hope of seeing the outside world.”

“When can we leave?” Sekun-ak asked.

The two young Wastan-ah looked at him as though they had forgotten he had existed. It was obvious that they preferred speaking to a younger person. All of the prisoners picked up on that immediately, and Sekun-ak dropped his eyes and stepped toward the back of the cage.

“We’re happy to have you with us,” Sanda said. “When would you like to leave?”

“We will be ready to go tomorrow,” Askana answered. “We have some things to bring with us that might help. Can we use your horses to pull our wagons?”

“Of course,” Sanda said. “But our horses are lost. They ran away when the swarm hit us.”

“Oh,” Antana said. “We didn’t tell you, did we? Askana and I were waiting for them that night. They came to us. We gentled them, talked to them, then brought them back here. We’ve been caring for them ever since.”

“You have our horses?” Senta-ah asked, plainly surprised.

“We do,” Antana said.

“We would never let harm come to any animal,” Askana agreed.

“And we should talk about that,” Antana said.

Listening to them speak was like watching people throw a ball back and forth in one smooth motion. Where one of them left off, the other picked up.

“Yes,” Askana agreed. “We should talk about that.”

“Talk about what?” Sanda asked. It was possible that there would be some odd, offbeat consideration that would cause their freedom to dissipate.

“We don’t eat meat,” Antana said. “We cannot be around people who eat meat,” Askana continued. “While we are on the journey with you, we would ask you not to eat meat. It would make us sick. You would be eating our friends.”

Sanda looked at Sekun-ak at the back of the cage. He gave an eloquent shrug.

“What choice do we have?” Nanda-eh asked.

“Of course,” Sanda said.

“Wait,” Hundan-ak said. “What about fish?”

The two Wastan-ah shared a glance, then said, “We’re not friends with the fish. They are not really animals. They do not think or talk to us.”

“We will be happy to observe that condition,” Sanda said. “Thank you for letting us know. Can you tell us what is in the wagons you wish to bring with us?”

Askana and Antana looked at each other and smiled.

ALEX DID NOT SPEND even a single night at Vendan-ah. He had arrived early in the day, greeted the others who were waiting for them, and left again immediately. They had many miles to travel and a desperate need to get to Kalki-ah while they still had a chance to save it.

From Vendan-ah, they rode east-northeast until they picked up a trail that was familiar to both Versa-eh and Alex. It was the same route they had taken several years earlier when they were chasing after their daughters who had gone to Kalki-ah to help form the Council of Tribes.

After three days of traveling east, they came to a small stream. It wasn’t so wide that they would have a hard time getting the wagons across, but Alex still brought everyone to a halt before crossing. He climbed onto the back of a wagon and raised his voice so everyone could hear him.

“This stream does not look like much, and it isn’t a difficult crossing. However, the last time we were here, we found sudan-ta.” That was the word for the giant leeches in the universal language. “They attached themselves to our horses, our legs, our backs. They are slightly poisonous and can make you sick if you don’t get them off quickly. So, this is how we will go. Versa-eh and I will cross over first. If they attach themselves to us, we will be expecting it. We will remove them from each other, then bring more people across and help them. We’ll do that until everyone is safely across.”

Alex looked at the assembled faces staring up at him. They were willing to follow him into battle and die with him, but the idea of the leeches had them looking a little green.

“They will not hurt you if we remove them quickly.”

Versa-eh saw that some were still not sure, so she said, “Hyah!” and rode her horse across the stream. Alex quickly followed her with Monda-ak by his side.

On the other side, they dismounted to find that several of the sudan-ta had indeed attached themselves to the legs and underbelly of their horses and one was on Alex’s leg. One had attached itself to Monda-ak, but he grabbed it with his teeth, tossed it on the ground and ate it.

They hopped down and peeled off the giant leeches—which were several feet long—and dropped them on the soil, stomping on them.

To Versa-eh, Alex said, “We’ll want to not sleep too close to the big fella tonight. Those things give him even worse gas than normal.” Raising his voice, he said, “Okay, who’s next?”

There was some hesitation, but then Pandrick crossed, with Sista-eh right behind him. Since Torana’s death, she had been in her own world, most of the time, but saw an opportunity to be useful.

Pandrick came up on the opposite bank with no leeches attached. Alex assumed that he had turned on his rejection field to keep the sudan-ta at bay but did not say anything.

Several of the slugs attached themselves to Sista-eh and her horse, but she simply jumped down and, using her short sword, flicked them first off her horse, then herself.

After a teenage girl did that, who could show fear? First two at a time, then four, then eight, people crossed the stream. By the time everyone was across, there were enough of the giant sudan-ta to nearly cover the ground.

They rode on. As they did, Alex pointed to a tree with a small, muddy area around it. “I remember, do you?”

“Of course,” Versa-eh said. “That was where we caught the rumpin-ta.” That was the word for the gigantic frog-like being that lived in the mud. “That’s what cured Destin-ak.”

“Cured him so he could be run through by his own bodyguard,” Alex mused quietly.

There seemed to be ghosts everywhere on this trail.

They pushed on and picked up more people at every settlement.

Alex couldn’t help but notice that this trip was like a reverse image of the last time he had been over this trail. That previous trip, his group had picked up enthusiastic young people who wanted to go to Kalki-ah and form the Council of Tribes. They were excited about the possibility of bringing a real change to their world.

To Alex, it reminded him of the hippie movement of the 1960s—excited people, ready to enact new ideas.

Now, as they picked up more people at each stop, he saw the difference. These were people armed with whatever they had—hammers, pitchforks, shovels. Anything at hand. There were younger people among the volunteers, but older and grizzled people were more prevalent.

If the first trip to Kalki-ah had been about flower power and a higher goal, this trip felt more like the Greatest Generation going to war in Europe and the Pacific.

Two weeks into their journey, their ranks had swelled to more than eight hundred people. It was still not the number of fighters they would need to face the Northmen in Kalki-ah, but Alex felt encouraged.

As they rode, he discussed strategy and plans with Versa-eh and Harta-ak.

“If Pictin can help free the Kalki-ah army, and we can triple our size before we get there, we might have a chance.”

Versa-eh looked at him out of the corner of his eye to see if he was joking but saw that he was not.

“Perhaps Sanda and Senta-eh will already be there with whatever it is Wastan-ah has to offer,” Harta-ak, the eternal optimist, said.

“That’s probably too much for us to hope for,” Alex said. “In some ways, it might be better that they are not here at this battle. It will be a terrible spectacle. Far worse than what we saw in Drakana.”

They passed a small stand of trees that Alex nodded at. “That’s where I waited for the people who were following us.”

“Did you kill them all?” Harta-ak asked, apparently having not heard this part of the story.

“There was only one of them. He very nearly killed me, but in the end, I wounded him, and he slit his own throat. He was the son of the man leading the group following us.”

Several hours later, they came to another campsite and stopped for the night.

“And this is where Destin-ak was killed,” Alex said. “I would have turned around and gone home right then, but Sanda, Amy, and Senta-eh were still ahead in Kalki-ah.”

“You’re right,” Versa-eh said. “This is where Destin-ak was killed, which means we’re only a few days away from Altor-ah. Do you want to stop and see the monks, see if we can shake some answers out of them?”

“I’d like to give Altor-ah a wide berth this time.” Alex looked down at Monda-ak. “We almost didn’t survive the run in with the godat-ta last time we were here. Tokin-ak saved us that day, but I can’t help but wonder if that mother godat-ta has a long memory and will recognize our scents.”

PICTIN STARTED ON THE journey to Kalki-ah just before Alex did, but he made much better time. His group was smaller and could travel faster.

His group did stop at various communities from time to time, but not at every village and tribe. Their goal was different from Alex’s. They weren’t trying to pick up as many warriors as possible. They were simply trying to get to Kalki-ah as quickly as they could. Some days, they stopped because it was time to get off the trail for the day anyway, others to fill their water skins and hope that the tribes might be good hosts and perhaps feed them a warm meal.

Pictin didn’t explain what he was going to Kalki-ah to do, but it didn’t matter. Each town offered volunteers to help him. Once he explained that he was on his way to build something to help the trapped community, each town resupplied him and even provided him with an extra person or two for the task.

His group ran into many of the same hardships that Alex did—long days across a trackless desert, up and over mountain passes, enduring rain, snow, and wind. They ran into the same sudan-ta that Alex did at the same creek, though they didn’t know it was coming. Happily, they had picked up a new volunteer at the previous town and he had been able to warn them, so they were prepared.

Their lead over Alex and his unwieldy band of soldiers stretched out until finally, they arrived in the general area of Kalki-ah almost two weeks before them.

They stood on the top of a small mountain and looked across the plain at Kalki-ah. It was a fearsome sight.

What had once been described as the jewel of Kragdon-ah was tarnished, at best. Smoke rose from the once-pristine and plant-covered walls in several places. Pictin was momentarily worried that they were too late.

The most frightening thing of all was the vast army of the Northmen that spread out across the front of the city. That army was so immense that it stretched as far as they could see before disappearing over the horizon, as though their actual number might be infinite.

Pictin shivered, though it was hard to say if it was from the chill wind or seeing so many enemies in one place. The Northmen had been long time villains in Pictin’s home country of Drakana, as well. Children grew up on frightening tales of being eaten by the oversized, bearded monsters.

Lostin-eh, her belly protruding more now, leaned into him. “We do not have to fight them, husband.”

“Not yet,” Pictin answered, but then realized that his momentary loss of courage was not becoming. He pointed to Kalki-ah, then to the western side. Perhaps half a mile away from the city, there was what looked to be a thick forest.

“That will be our way past the Northmen. We can drop down from here, then move through the woods until we can get to the other side of the city walls.” He reached down and touched her stomach gently, as if for luck. “Then we can get to work.”

 

Chapter Twenty-Six

The Jewel of Kragdon-ah

P

ictin led his small team through the woods. They had retreated an hour’s walk into the deeper part of the forest for fear of accidentally running into a crew of Northmen. An army lays siege with its stomach, and he was sure that the invaders were heavily hunting this area of forest to keep themselves fed. He didn’t want to run into a group of armed Northmen and be killed. It would be almost as bad to kill the hunters and have them not return to camp. This would signal to the army that there was a group of people in the woods capable of killing them.

They moved slowly, always sending a young scout ahead to make sure the way was clear.

It took most of a day, but they managed to move past the Northmen horde to the north.

When Pictin estimated they were far enough away that they would be less likely to find hunters, they moved toward the tree line to the east.

He knew what his project was, and he had been working on it in his mind since he had left Winten-ah. That was actually the easy part. The hard part was deciding where to begin the project.

Standing at the edge of the forest and looking at Kalki-ah, what was ahead felt like a formidable project.

He looked at Lostin-eh. “We’ll move back into the forest and make camp there. No fires, nothing that could alert anyone to our presence. We’ll want three guards on watch at all times. As soon as full darkness falls, I’ll go toward Kalki-ah and find where to start.”

“I’ll go with you.”

Pictin smiled and touched her pregnant stomach. “You are not built for stealth now. I’ll bring young Darand with me.”

That was the son of Darand, who had been killed in one of the attacks on the caravan coming to Kalki-ah several years before. The boy was young, having only seen twelve summer solstices, but he was smart, and a more than capable builder. He was also small and Pictin knew he would be able to walk silently with him in the open.

They slipped back into the woods and found a place that would make a good camp spot. It was within an easy walk for water, but not so close that someone walking along the stream might stumble upon them.

When darkness fell, Pictin and Darand waited another hour, hoping that most of the Northmen would be asleep or at least not paying attention to two shadows slipping across the field. It was just a precaution since the only way for the Kalki-ah soldiers to leave would be to go over the wall, which would have been suicide because of the poisonous plants, or else they could go through the front gate.

As Pictin looked at the imposing walls at the back of the city, he thought that if Manta-ak had been in charge of the Northmen army, he would have undoubtedly set up a perimeter watch around the entire city.

Pictin and Darand went to the stream and put mud on all their exposed skin, nonetheless.

They left the edge of the forest and crept silently to the back wall of the city. There was no one from Kalki-ah on watch there, looking north. Pictin supposed that the siege had been going on so long that both sides had begun to take each other for granted and expected no surprises.

He hoped to be just such a surprise.

They reached the wall, which seemed to give off a slight glow, even on this nearly moonless night when clouds covered most of the stars. He turned, got his bearings, and walked away with even, measured steps. He counted fifteen hundred steps, then turned and looked back at the city.

This spot would have been his preferred starting point, but now that he could see the layout in front of him, he knew it was still too close.

He paced off another three hundred steps, turned and looked again.

“Still too close,” he whispered to Darand.

“Yes,” the boy said, pointing. “I can still see the glow of the enemy’s fire. If I can see it, then they will see us as well.”

Pictin’s shoulders sagged. This project was going to be more work than he had hoped.

He walked another fifty paces, then felt the soil rise slightly under his feet. Another twenty paces and the elevation dropped again.

“That little rise is just what we need. As long as we are not too loud about our presence, it will stop them from seeing us.”

“Eighteen hundred and seventy steps,” Darand said.

Pictin looked down at the boy fondly, pleased that he had taken it upon himself to count along as they walked.

“Can we complete what we need to do in time?” Darand asked.

“I have no idea.” Now that the actual physical layout was in front of him, Pictin was already setting plans in motion in his mind. “All we can do is try.”

AMY PACED BACK AND forth in the tiny cabin she shared with Talon-ak and the baby. Toran-ak had been fussy all night. Amy might have called what he had colic, but Standin-eh had a different idea about it. She said it was Toran-ak’s soul still getting settled into its new body.

In any case, she had given Amy some drops made from the leaf of a particular plant that grew in the deepest part of the forest. Amy had rubbed the drops on Toran-ak’s gums, and it did seem to settle his stomach. The drops smelled like peppermint to Amy, and she wondered if that was really all it was.

Now, Toran-ak was asleep on her shoulder. Amy didn’t spend a lot of time thinking and hoping and wishing that things were different, but for a moment, looking down at her sleeping baby, she indulged herself. She wished these precious first days with her new family had come at a quieter time, when she might have been able to focus on nothing other than the oohs and ahs and how long her baby’s eyelashes were.

Instead, she was the chief of a tribe during wartime. Beyond that, many of those she loved the most dearly, including her father, sister, and many of her closest friends were off on a trek that she knew would lead to a possibly horrible conclusion.

Her only means of communication outside the realm of Winten-ah was the traka-ta. That was at least somewhat helpful but did not give her any way to reach out to Alex or Sanda.

Instead, she focused on what she could do. She had spoken with Pendan-ak, the keeper of the birds, and had gotten a complete inventory of what traka-ta she had left, and where they would fly. She used the carrier birds like a politician might work the phone lines the night before a big vote. She sent every available bird out, either asking the tribal leaders to meet Alex along his route, or, failing that, imploring them to gather somewhere near Kalki-ah so they could fight for their homeland.

Remarkably, Pendan-ak even told her that he had one bird who would fly all the way across the continent to Lasta-ah, the very city that Alex had once burned to the ground. The leader of that city had shown up at Kalki-ah before. In that case, he was not there as a friend but had been there to retrieve Olten-eh, his daughter and the golden child who had rallied everyone to the Council of Tribes.

Amy was not hopeful that whoever was in charge of that city would look kindly on her plea for help, but she did the best she could, writing a note asking them to show up and fight.

She had written those notes until her hand was cramped, then sent them off. The cages of traka-ta, which had once been full, were now almost empty.

She handed Toran-ak to Talon-ak, who held him tight and looked down at him with love and pride.

Having done what she could to help the cause, she had a thousand tasks to attend to in Winten-ah. With less than a fifth of their normal population, and most of the able-bodied people gone to war, every person had to pitch in and do more jobs. For Amy on this morning, that meant going up to the caves and carrying meals up to the elders who sat in the uppermost cave. After that, she would check the stores of krinta seeds in the storeroom and make sure they had enough for the first planting, which would be there before she knew it.

She smiled at Talon-ak, took the baby back, and put him in a sling around her shoulders. There was much work to do.

ALEX LED HIS ARMY, which had now swelled to over twelve hundred people, toward the giant dome that rose up from the floor of the desert ahead. He had been serious about wanting to avoid the domed city, though he knew that if Tokin-ak or any of the monks really wanted to talk to him, they would manage to find a way to be in his path.

More than anything, he just didn’t want to slow down.

He remembered that the plateau where he had accidentally frightened the godat-ta cub was to the north of the city, so he turned south, planning on skirting the whole area around the dome.

Alex, Pandrick, Versa-eh, and Harta-ak still rode at the front of the increasingly long column. As he always did, Alex directed the makeup of the rest of the group so that there were strong fighters at the front and back, with archers in the middle and back.

He didn’t expect to run into any trouble, but he had long since learned it was better to be properly prepared for trouble and have it not show up, than the other way around.

They passed by the dome after apex. Spring was still more than a month away, and so darkness fell early, but Alex wanted to put the dome completely behind them before they stopped and made camp.

There was a ring of small hills several miles to the south and Alex directed them to ride halfway in between.

The trail they rode along drifted farther south and took them within a mile or so of a plateau that stuck out from the rest of the small mountains.

Alex glanced in that direction, thought something caught his eye, and turned to stare. His blood ran cold.

Quietly, he said, “Look at that plateau on our right. Tell me what you see.”

As one, Versa-eh, Harta-ak, and Pandrick did.

Versa-eh spoke first. “Godat-ta.” She paused, then said breathlessly, “No. Two godat-ta.”

Alex had seen this situation several times before. Once, when leading an army to invade Douglas Winterborne, a godat-ta had run through the entire line, scattering the bodies of soldiers like leaves in a strong autumn wind. Only a once-in-a-lifetime shot by Senta-eh partially blinded the giant bear and saved their lives.

At a later date, with a better-equipped army hot on their heels, Alex had used the godat-ta as a weapon. He had attracted its attention, then got out of the way as it roared through a pursuing Drakana army. The Drakana didn’t have an archer like Senta-eh. They only had their guns, which were ineffective against the thick, matted fur of the godat-ta. It had killed and maimed dozens of them.

And now, he was faced with a similar circumstance yet again. Alex found that he was holding his breath as he watched the two bears shamble along. He forced himself to breathe.

Alex rose up on his horse a little and looked back over the caravan that trailed behind him. It stretched for hundreds of yards. They were advancing across a level, open plain. The only possible hiding spot was Altor-ah itself, but the entrance to the dome was miles away. They were caught.

Alex made a quiet speech he had made once before. “The best defense against a godat-ta is to hope that it never sees you. If that fails, it is best to hope that it has had a big meal recently and isn’t interested in you as dessert.”

With no real plan of action available, they continued on their way, slowly winding past the two godat-ta high above them.

If the bears noticed all the humans far below, they never gave any indication.

Soon enough, darkness began to fall, but Alex pushed on much longer than he normally did on this journey. He wanted to put as much distance as possible between them and the godat-ta.

Two days later, they came upon another familiar area. They could hear the rushing water of a fast-running stream, and Alex saw the silhouette of a familiar hill ahead.

As they approached it, he said, “Ahead is the river where we met the melkin-ta.”

Harta-ak, unfamiliar with the term, said, “The what?”

“The melkin-ta,” Versa-eh answered. “The great monster that rose up out of the river and ate anything it saw.”

“I missed so much on that adventure,” Harta-ak said.

“I hope we all get to miss it this time. The man who runs the crossing said that it only comes through once every few years, and that was later in the season. I hope we miss it this year, because it is already going to take many hours to get us and all our wagons across.”

Ahead, the trail split into a Y.

“If you two will take the wagons to the right, that’s the only way for them to get around this hill. I’ll ride the shorter trail and talk to the man. I wish I could remember his name, but it’s gone from my brain.”

“Tomdan-ak,” Versa-eh said with certainty. “You saved his son from the melkin-ta. He should be glad to see you.”

“We saved his son, as I recall. I grabbed the boy, then you grabbed me, otherwise we both would have ended up as monster food.” Alex looked up and to the left as though trying to tuck something away in his memory. “Tomdan-ak, Tomdan-ak. Got it. I’m glad you’ve got a good memory.”

Alex split off to the left and Pandrick rode alongside him. They took the steeper but shorter route up and over the small mountain, then down the other side. He was pleased to see the homey little houses still sitting on both sides of the river, smoke curling up from both their chimneys.

“It’s a relief that they are still here,” Alex said. “When we rode through here last, they told me that the nearest crossing point other than here was a two-week ride to the south. That would have just about done us in.”

“This world is so interesting to me,” Pandrick said. “There is so much uncertainty because you don’t really have the ability to communicate over any distance at all. Fast travel would be supreme, but even the ability to talk to each other would be such a vast improvement.”

“Before long,” Alex said, “it wouldn’t surprise me if someone strung lines from village to village so they can communicate with a Kragdon-ah version of the telegraph.”

“Oh dear,” Pandrick said. “That would change everything.”

Down below, a young man stood outside the house and raised a hand in greeting.

Alex and Pandrick rode up to him and said, “We’re going to need to take many, many people across. I’m sorry to burden you, but we will make ourselves useful on both sides while we are being transported.”

“Gunta, Manta-ak. Don’t you recognize me?”

Alex stared at the young man and realized that he was younger than he had first thought.

The boy-who-was-nearly-a-man pointed at his own chest. “It’s Parken-ak. You saved my life!”

“No, can’t be,” Alex said with a smile. “You were only a boy.”

“That was many seasons ago. I’ve grown.”

“You certainly have.”

“A messenger arrived nearly a month ago, telling us that you would be coming soon and would have a large army that needed to get across. We’ve been working ever since to build a second and third crossing so we can get you across faster.”

Alex looked at the river for the first time. When he had been by here a few years earlier, there had been a single set of poles and ropes set up, with a single barge to do the crossing. Now there were three sets and two barges sat on this side of the river with a third on the far side.

“You didn’t build this just for us, surely.”

“We did. Your daughter sent a message to the closest village, and they delivered it to us. The messenger explained that there are invaders in Kalki-ah, and that you are going to fight them. I’m coming with you.” Parken-ak puffed out his chest a little at this last, proud to be old enough to go fight and die against the barbarian horde. “Dad and Uncle are coming with you too.”

Alex felt a tightness in his chest. He needed every strong arm and back he could get, but looking at this young man, so fresh and full of exuberance, gave him pause. To Parken-ak, this was an adventure, the chance to get away from the homestead and the boredom of endless river crossings.

Alex knew what lay ahead—the ferocity of an attack by an ax-wielding Northman, the screams of the dying, and how slippery the ground was when it was covered in the blood of other young people.

At the same time, after recruiting people old and young from villages and tribes across Kragdon-ah, how could he say no? How could he deny this young man his eventual fate?

It was always thus for brothers and sisters in arms.

 

Chapter Twenty-Seven

The Time It Takes

T

he man who ran the river crossing was indeed Tomdan-ak, and he remembered both Alex and Versa-eh very well for having saved his son years before. He had news as well, and he seemed anxious to share.

He pointed across the river at the house on the other side. “You remember my brother? The man who did what he wanted, drank too much, and slept until apex?”

Alex did remember. He had thought that though Tomdan-ak had ridiculed his brother for those things, he had been jealous of his brother’s footloose lifestyle.

“Of course, I remember. He seemed happy.”

“Oh, he was!” Tomdan-ak answered, his face lighting up at the memory. “Do you remember the young woman he had with him the day we rid the river of the melkin-ak?”

“I do.” Alex could tell that Tomdan-ak was building up to something, and by the expression on his face, he thought whatever he was bursting to say was hilarious.

“He married her!” Tomdan-ak burst out laughing. “You would have thought that having seen me, he would have learned his lesson, but no! They are married now.” He looked across the river and raised a hand in greeting at the man on the other side. “See, there he is now! He’s been up since early this morning, preparing for you, checking the lines, feeding his alecs-ta. He’s had a good breakfast; he’s wearing clothes that are nicely patched.” The man grinned and wiped a tear from his eye. “What an idiot!”

Just then, Tomdan-ak’s wife emerged from their small house and yelled at him to come inside. His humor quickly dissolved, he put a cap on his head and said, “Yes, dear.” As he walked away, Alex could hear him muttering, “What an idiot,” to himself.

Alex saw Parken-ak coming from a small corral with two of their alecs-ta. “Can I help with them?”

“Nah,” the boy said. “Did Dad tell you about Uncle? He went and got himself married!”

“He did,” Alex said.

“What an idiot!” the boy said, echoing his father.

Everyone at the crossing had a job, knew what it was, and went about it smoothly and without complaint. There was nothing for Alex to do but sit and watch, so that’s what he did. He took his horse to a meadow with some tasty grass and let her loose there. Then he sat down himself. He stretched out on his back and before he knew it, he was asleep.

He was awakened an hour later by the creaking sound of dozens of wagons and the steady footfall of hundreds of horses. The rest of the caravan had finally made their way around the small mountain.

Versa-eh and Harta-ak were in the lead and they rode directly to him.

“They’ve built two more ways for us to get across the river,” Alex said, still a little amazed that they would do that for them.

“Of course they did,” Versa-eh said. “They are Kragdon-ah, and they know we are fighting for them.”

“The two men and the boy are going to join us,” Alex said.

“As they should,” Versa-eh responded. She seemed to be much less surprised and impressed by the extra effort, but instead took it for granted.

Alex decided that he might be the odd man out with his train of thought, so he switched back to strategic thinking. “Even with three carriers taking us across, it’s going to take a long time to get us all. While the first loads are crossing, we should get those further back to let their horses loose here. There’s lots of sweet grass and they can go down to the river to get whatever they need to drink.”

“I’ll take care of it,” Harta-ak said, and rode off to implement the plan.

Alex sat down to do some loose math.

They had three rafts running. Each raft could carry ten people, or four horses with riders, or two carts if they were small, or only one regular-sized wagon. Each trip across and back would take fifteen minutes.

For a moment, Alex wished he had taken more advanced math classes in school, so he could use an equation to figure out how long it was going to take.

Then a thought occurred to him.

It didn’t matter how long it was going to take. The time it took was the time it took. He couldn’t leave without everyone across, so knowing that it was going to take two days to cross wouldn’t really do him any good.

“The world is the world,” he mumbled to himself and let it go.

The three rafts were all on their side of the river now, so Alex began loading people onto them, including himself. He wanted to be the first one across in case some disaster like melkin-ta struck again. The rafts would be empty on the trip back, so he decided he would come back and help organize things here. He chose Versa-eh and Harta-ak to go over on the first three rafts as well but would leave them on the other side to get a camp organized on the far side.

The two brothers worked through the rest of the day and into the night by the light of lanterns. When they needed to talk to each other, they did so using red flags on long sticks. To Alex’s eye, it just looked like they were waving them in random patterns, but Tomdan-ak had explained that the flags were his family’s language. They were able to pass amazing amounts of information back and forth with them.

Finally, the two brothers announced to those on both sides that they were going to shut the crossing down for a few hours so they could get some sleep, but that they would be back at work at first light.

Alex noticed that things had definitely changed at the younger brother’s house. When he had last seen it, it was in ill repair. Now, it was neat and tidy. And, as good as their word, both brothers were back up and at work after only a few hours’ sleep.

In the end, it took two and a half days to get everyone across, with the two brothers only taking a few hours off late at night to rest.

“We can sleep as we ride!” Tomdan-ak declared.

Alex was heartened by the fact that there were no more major obstacles between them and Kalki-ah. He estimated that if they rode hard, they would be there within five days.

PICTIN WAS GLAD TO get the first part of the job out of the way. It was what he thought would give them the greatest exposure to being caught by the Northmen. He started it on the far side of the rise away from the invaders’ camp and did so several hours after total darkness had fallen.

After working to build the underground area in Tharandon, then the whole underground bunker in Vendan-ah, he was used to darkness.

His plan—which had started as Alex’s plan some weeks earlier—was to secretly dig a tunnel into Kalki-ah that would allow its army and citizens to escape the siege. That way, they could use them in what Alex envisioned as the final battle with the Northmen.

The first question Pictin had asked when Alex had given him the plan was, “What does it matter where the army of Kalki-ah attacks from?”

This showed again that Pictin was a builder, not a battle strategist.

If the warriors of Kalki-ah had just burst out of the gate and into the immediate area surrounding the town, they would have been met head-on by a massive force that could overwhelm them.

Alex had seen the Northmen fight more than he would have liked, and he knew that type of battle—a single pinch point exit—would lead to a slaughter of the Kalki-ah army.

If Pictin could construct a tunnel and allow the army to escape unnoticed, then Alex could deploy them in the way that made the most sense. He could mix the trained warriors of Kalki-ah—trained by Alex himself—with the game but untrained fighters. He could send them around the edges and attack from there instead of wasting them in a single, suicidal charge for freedom.

To Alex’s mind, it could make the difference between victory and defeat.

For Pictin, it made for another difficult challenge. He had to not only build a long tunnel, but he also had to do it in such a way that the undertaking was never noticed by the Northmen. If the invaders spotted him, he and all his crew would be quickly dispatched. There was no way he could stand up to the aggressive might of the ax-wielding giants.

Initially, he split his team into two parts—one that worked on the digging and another that trekked to a distant part of the forest, where they could bring down timber without attracting any attention. The distant team worked hard double shifts cutting, forming, and hauling trees, but for the most part, they weren’t exposed to the same danger of discovery that the digging crew was.

The first night, Pictin and his crew attacked the ground with vigor. They felt that being on the other side of the rise, it was unlikely that they would be spotted once they were down enough that they could stand in the hole and not be seen.

One of the issues was that digging a tunnel that far resulted in a lot of dirt that needed to be carried away. The forest was an easy walk from the mouth of the tunnel, but again, a constant train of people carrying bags of dirt to empty onto the forest floor was not optimal.

All of that meant that some of the work could only be done at night, but Pictin knew how long it would take to dig the tunnel. If they did not work constantly, it would not be finished before Alex wanted the Kalki-ah out of the city.

They chose a hybrid approach. They worked underground essentially around the clock but filled the hundreds of bags they had brought from Tharandon with dirt and stacked them along the length of the tunnel during the day. They carried those bags away and into the depths of the forest, where they scattered the dirt about during the night.

One advantage that Pictin had on this project was that the tunnel was just temporary. It had to serve one purpose, to get people out of Kalki-ah. If it could do that without collapsing, it had done its job. He didn’t have to worry about supporting it in three or four different ways, which allowed them to move faster.

Dig, support, carry. Dig, support, carry.

When he took a few minutes to rest, Pictin worried about what kind of reception he might get when he broke through and popped his head up somewhere inside the walled city. Amy had said she would send a traka-ta there informing them what was happening, but he had no way to know if that bird had gotten through or not.

That was a small worry, though. More, he was anxious that they would be spotted by the Northmen or that they wouldn’t finish the tunnel before the invaders launched their final attack on the city.

SEKUN-AK AND SANDA rode at the front of what was very likely the strangest-looking caravan in Kragdon-ah history. Immediately behind them were two wagons pulled by their horses, with Nanda-eh, Hundan-ak and Senta-eh the Younger trailing at the back.

That was all fairly normal, but the oddity was in the other details.

The wagons were heaped tall with boxes strapped together with rope. A small person sat swaying on top of each of those piled boxes—Antana on one, Askana on the other. The boxes themselves buzzed constantly, as though they were carrying a series of alarm clocks that were all going off simultaneously. There were also tall clay jugs tucked into each corner that sloshed a little with every bump.

Stranger still, the caravan attracted attention wherever they went. Snakes rolled out of the grass to hiss a greeting and birds that ranged in size from small to very large circled constantly overhead. At one point, a family of Kragdon-ah beavers emerged from a pond to greet them.

Sanda was the only one who would have understood the reference, but the whole thing felt a bit like a landlocked version of Noah’s ark.

Having the Wastan-ah teens along with them helped them make faster time than they ever could have managed without them. Instead of having to stop as soon as it got dark, they were able to continue, with Antana and Askana communicating with birds and bats who flew overhead, telling of any possible problem or issue ahead on the trail.

That allowed them to ride for eighteen hours or more every day, only stopping to get a few hours’ sleep.

They were the last to start on the journey to Kalki-ah, but traveling so many hours each day, they caught up to Alex and his immense army a little at a time. After starting out well to the north of the trail Alex had been on, they slowly drifted south and picked up the same trail just before they reached the domed city of Altor-ah.

As they passed by the city, they met two orange-robed monks astride alecs-ta waiting on the trail for them.

“Gunta, travelers,” the first monk said. “I am Quintan, and this is my brother, Hartel.” Quintan glanced at the younger monk and said, “He does not speak.”

“That’s a coincidence,” Sanda said. “I once knew one of your brethren. His name was also Quintan. He looked just like you and also could not speak.”

Quintan looked closer at Sanda and recognized her. He bowed his head but did not quite hide his smile.

“Please note that I said he does not speak. I did not say that he cannot speak. All monks go through periods when we are not allowed to speak. When I met you in Drakana, I was likewise engaged in a year of silence.”

Sanda did not answer that. She had been born in Winten-ah but was mostly raised in twenty-first-century Oregon, so she never felt the same reverence for the monks that many people and whole tribes did. A quick glance at the expression on Antana and Askana’s faces told her that they felt the same.

“We are following Manta-ak and a great army,” Sanda said. “Did he come this way?”

“He did,” Quintan answered. “They came through here four days earlier. We are now heading in the same direction and would like to know if we can ride along with you.”

Just then, a huge wasta-ta crawled out of one of the boxes and flew at Quintan’s face. He did not flinch or swat it away, but just stared calmly back at it, saying, “Hello, sister wasta-ta.”

The giant bee hovered in front of him for several long seconds, then flew back and crawled into its box.

“Of course,” Sanda answered. “You’re welcome to ride along with us.”

The two monks and their alecs-ta fell in alongside Nanda-eh, Senta-eh, and Hundan-ak at the back of the group.

Within just a few minutes, they passed the same hill where Alex had spotted the two godat-ta a few days earlier. Alex had been blessed to ride past them without the giant bears taking notice.

This caravan was not so fortunate.

The biggest of the godat-ta stood on its hind legs, sniffing the air, then looked straight down at the small group. A moment later, both she and the second godat-ta ran down the switchback trails that led to the desert floor.

They turned straight toward the caravan with incredible speed.

 

Chapter Twenty-Eight

The End of the Beginning

S

ekun-ak drew his small group to a stop. It was obvious that they had been spotted by the godat-ta and that they were coming this way. A focused godat-ta could outrun the fastest horse over both long and short distances. His eyes swept around, looking to see if there were any narrow openings nearby that they could fit into but would block the bears. They were on an open plain, and there was nothing but an open stretch of desert. He knew there was virtually no escape.

The two monks looked calm, but then, the orange-robed ones always looked that way, as though there was nothing that could ever surprise them.

Hundan-ak drew his sword and moved between the bears and Senta-eh, but they both knew that was laughable. He could give his life protecting her, but it would be done quickly and to no effect.

Sanda and Nanda-eh rode to the middle of the caravan, meeting by the wagons. They both drew their bows and nocked their arrows. Sanda had grown up hearing of her mother’s miracle shot that had blinded the godat-ta on the trail, but that one had been standing still, raised on two legs. These were charging at full speed.

Only Antana and Askana seemed pleased to see the bears. They climbed nimbly down from the wagon and hurried in the direction of the godat-ta.

Sekun-ak, who had seen miraculous things from the two young people, did not expect to see another unlikely marvel from them. Communicating with bees and ants was one thing, but the godat-ta were the kings of the world.

The bears ran with abandon, closing the mile gap between them in what felt like seconds. They ran at the two diminutive Wastan-ah, slowing only as they approached them.

That was when the miracle happened.

The godat-ta, the unmatched monsters of Kragdon-ah, came to a stop before the two small humans. The foursome bowed their heads as though they were in communion with each other.

Everyone else in the group finally remembered to breathe.

Askana turned to Sanda and said, “These are our friends. We called them to us when we saw them. I just told them that we need their help and they have agreed to come with us. We will ride on them from now on.”

Sanda and Nanda-eh slowly lowered their bows and looked at each other.

Sekun-ak was normally quiet because he did not enjoy speaking. At the moment, it was because he had been rendered speechless.

Finally, everyone realized that life had not ended, and they moved to the east, once again trying to catch up to Alex.

FIVE DAYS AFTER THEY left the river crossing, Alex Hawk and the more than two thousand people he led approached the final ring of hills that surrounded Kalki-ah. He called his caravan to a halt and asked everyone to move up as close to him as they could.

“Our long journey is almost complete. The Northmen who wish to destroy us are just on the other side of those mountains.”

Almost as one, every person’s head turned past Alex and looked at the rise. It was not impressive, really, perhaps fifteen hundred feet tall, and it was as though everyone could envision a horde of the invaders coming over the top and straight at them.

“A few of us are going to go up the hill and see what the situation looks like.” He pointed to his left and said, “There is a small, clear lake only a short ride that way.” He looked at those gathered in front of him, and his eyes fell on a familiar face. “Sista-eh, will you lead the group and set up a camp there? Circle around the lake to the far side, and do not start any fires. That would alert them that we are here.”

Sista-eh did not answer, but simply nudged her horse forward, heading to the south. Slowly, the massive caravan followed her.

A few minutes later, Alex, Monda-ak, Versa-eh, and Harta-ak were alone. They watched their army move away, then turned their horses toward a path that led up to the top of the hill. They rode almost straight up, but as they neared the top, Alex turned and looked behind them. “We’re either going to need to leave the wagons behind or find a different way up and across.”

“Do we really need the wagons anymore?” Versa-eh asked. “If someone can’t walk up this hill, are they going to be any good in the fight? Or do we still need them to carry supplies?”

“I don’t think we do,” Alex said after considering it for a time. “We’ll need to find some kind of role for everyone, though, even if it is preparing a camp for us when we return victorious.” He glanced at Versa-eh to see if she bought that comment, but her face remained impassive. “We can distribute the weapons, and any supplies can be left behind.”

With that at least mostly decided, they dismounted, found a flat area to tie up their horses, and walked the final fifty strides to the top of the hill. When they got to the top, they all dropped low and looked at the tableau spread below them.

It reminded Alex of the moment he had once stretched out on the top of a hill and watched the Drakana army loading their Kragdon-ah prisoners onto ships to carry them away. He couldn’t have said why, but that day he felt confident that, against long odds, they would find a way to track them down and defeat them.

On that day, Alex didn’t know that the fearsome fighters he now knew were called Takana Ma existed. On this day, knowing that, Alex felt less optimistic.

The valley below was smokey from so many fires. Kalki-ah was visible, but it looked much worse than when he had last seen it.

Versa-eh had the best eyes and she focused in on the wall. “Look. I can see the Northmen running up to set the poisonous vines on fire.”

“Is this it then?” Alex asked. “As far as we’ve come, did we get here just that much too late?”

Versa-eh was silent for long moments, staring intently. Alex squinted trying to see what she saw, but his eyes weren’t good enough. Finally, she said, “No, I don’t think this is any kind of final attack. The Kalki-ah guards poured something over the wall and put out the fire.” She moved her gaze to the right. “I can see that the gate is still standing. We are here in time.”

PICTIN APPROACHED THE two men who were digging in the tight confines of the tunnel. “Stop here. I want to check something. Go back to the surface and then to the woods. Lostin-eh will have something cool for you to drink.”

One of the men glanced at the torch that was stuck roughly into the dirt behind them. It was sputtering and burning, the only light in the tunnel.

“Take the torch with you. I don’t need it.”

The two men, who had not embraced the darkness as much as Pictin had, gladly accepted his offer. They pulled the torch out, and Pictin watched as the light got smaller as it moved away from him, finally disappearing altogether when the men turned a slight corner.

He put his hand against the wall the men had been digging into. He was sure he could feel something. A slight vibration, an almost imperceptible movement that told him something was moving overhead. He felt certain it was the feet of people walking and that he was finally directly under Kalki-ah.

It was impossible to tell for sure, but he had devised a simple test. He paced away from the wall, counting his steps as he did, taking into account the slight curves of what they had dug. When he reached the ladder at the outer edge of the tunnel, he climbed up it and inhaled deeply. No matter how long he spent underground, the first few inhalations of fresh, above-ground air were always sweet.

He had walked the tunnel so often over the preceding days that he felt like he had it memorized and could walk it whether he was down below or on the surface.

He did just that now, walking along with where he perceived the tunnel was below his feet. As he did, he counted again.

When he reached the wall, he was still twenty steps shy of how far he had walked underground. Now, he was nearly certain that they had achieved their goal. He began to feel a slightly giddy sense of accomplishment.

That vanished in an instant when he heard a sudden noise to his left. It was the rough voice of a Northman, followed shortly by the equally rough voice of one of the women who the invaders had brought with them. The men did the fighting, but the women set up the camp, cooked their food and did what was needed to keep the men happy during the long siege.

These two had apparently escaped from the prying eyes of the others long enough to couple.

Pictin did his best to fade into the shadow cast by the wall while still managing not to brush up against the poisonous plant that would knock him unconscious in short order. He didn’t want to move, make any sound, or attract any attention to himself.

He listened as the two fell to the grass and began to thrash together rhythmically. Pictin couldn’t tell if they were having sex or trying to hurt each other. Although he couldn’t understand the words, even their lovemaking seemed violent.

Pictin cursed himself as he pushed as close as he could to the vines without getting stabbed by them. He thanked the gods that the sky was cloud-covered. Just when his stomach was so tied up in knots that he thought he might throw up, the woman bashed her forehead into the man’s face. She wriggled away from him, rattling long, harsh sentences in their language. The man just laughed, snorted a spray of blood on the ground, and reached for her ankle. The woman was too quick, hopping away, but moving back to deliver a vicious kick to the man’s shoulder. That only made the man laugh more, which gave the woman a reason not to continue the battle. She hurried away.

The Northman sprawled on his back, shaking his head. Finally, he farted, belched, then stood up and stumbled away.

Pictin could finally breathe again. He hurried to the relative safety of the forest, where Lostin-eh and his crew were waiting for him.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Lostin-eh said. “We thought about running out and killing them both but knew that would only make more trouble for us in the long run.”

“You did just right,” Pictin said. “And the good news is, the long run has become the short run. The tunnel is under the city. All we have to do is dig up and we’ll be inside the walls.” He gestured to the men he had sent away. “Bring your tools. We’ve still got hours of darkness to work in.” He kissed Lostin-eh and said, “We’re going to keep digging until we’re through to the city, so if we’re not back by morning, don’t worry. We’ll be inside the walls.”

“Don’t fall in love with any of those fancy Kalki-ah girls,” Lostin-eh said, smiling at him. “They haven’t had much to eat, so they’ll all be thin.”

“I’ll keep you just as you are.” He patted her stomach one last time for good fortune.

They hurried back down the tunnel, Pictin leading the way with no light at all, the men running along behind using torches to light their way.

The hardest part of the work was behind them, but building a small ramp up inside the tunnel, then digging up was not easy either. Minute after long minute stretched away as he hoped each blow of the pick, each shovelful of dirt, would open the way into Kalki-ah.

Finally, his patience was rewarded, but not with a rush of fresh air into the tunnel as they broke through. Instead, he scraped the last of the dirt away and found a stone path. He moved a bit to the side and found the same. After another attempt, he realized that they had come up directly into some sort of road inside the wall.

“Hand me the small pick.” With that in his hand, he said, “Clear me space to swing.” He swung the pick with all his strength. It clanged but fell back down. He hit it again and again and finally felt it loosen.

Above, he could hear voices and several hands reached down to pull stones away, dropping dirt onto Pictin’s face.

Finally, he could see flickering firelight above him and smell the clean air.

A young woman’s face leaned over the hole.

“I am Olten-eh. Welcome to Kalki-ah.”

 

Part Three

 

Chapter Twenty-Nine

To Live, to Breathe, to Fight

A

lex pointed to the forested area to the west of Kalki-ah. “That is where Pictin should have set up his operation. If everything went according to plan, he is already digging the tunnel and approaching the walls of Kalki-ah.” He turned to Harta-ak. “Will you take someone—maybe Sista-eh and another young warrior—and work your way along those woods? I need to know if they have arrived safely and how long they think they will need to get the fighters of Kalki-ah out of the city.”

Harta-ak and Versa-eh put their heads together for several moments, discussing the best way to work their way down to the forest, then through it, all while avoiding running into any Northmen.

“I would stay deep in the woods until I was well past where the Northmen are,” Versa-eh said. “Then maybe work your way over to the tree line once you get past the city.”

“That should be where you’ll find Pictin. I just need to know if he is close to breaking through, or if he’s made it there at all. If you cannot find him, come back and tell me.”

Harta-ak touched Versa-eh’s shoulder, then hurried back down the hill. He mounted his horse and rode carefully down until he reached level ground. Then he turned left and headed straight for where the new encampment would be.

“I’ll need you to help me organize the camp,” Alex said. “We’ve got to be prepared to fight, but I hope we can put that off for a day or maybe two until we hear if Pictin has made it. Having those fighters from Kalki-ah might make all the difference.”

“I’ll start that right now,” Versa-eh answered.

“If you’ll get the camp organized, I’ll start splitting off the real fighters from those who are willing to fight but are untrained. We will have to mix them together into different squads. If we end up with too many untrained fighters in a single squad, they’ll get overwhelmed too easily and their deaths will serve no purpose.” Alex turned back and looked out over the vast complex of Northmen below. “I’m going to stay here for a time and see what I can determine about them.”

Versa-eh turned and followed the same route that Harta-ak did. Before she even reached the camp, she was met by Harta-ak, Sista-eh, and a tall young warrior who looked pleased to have been invited on such an important mission.

Harta-ak raised a hand in greeting as he rode by but didn’t even slow down enough to exchange a word.

Versa-eh rode on and found the camp in disarray, as expected. She immediately chose ten people to help her organize things, then went about choosing others to be in charge of the care and feeding of the horses, the alecs-ta, the unloading of the wagons, and the preparation of food, albeit without a fire.

Back on the hillside, Alex hunkered behind a rock, gleaning everything he could about the structure of the Northmen army. As was so often the case, it seemed to be organized in concentric circles, with the lower ranks on the outside, where a preliminary attack might do the most damage. Those outer circles showed people sleeping in small tents or even just lying on blankets on the ground.

The innermost circle was obviously where the commander or king was. There was a single large tent, colored a deep red and with multiple flags flying from the corners in the very center.

Alex remembered a time when he had been able to infiltrate an attacking army that was set up in the same way and kill the leader without making a sound. In that case, that had ended any possible invasion. He felt sure that even if he could somehow accomplish the same thing now, it would not have the same result.

These Northmen had traveled too far, spent too many resources, including the time necessary to lay siege to Kalki-ah, to turn around just because one man died.

Alex stayed behind the rock, studying the scene below for some time. More than anything, he was looking for places where he could most successfully stage an attack. There weren’t a lot of good options available.

Kalki-ah had been built in a large, mostly flat open area, ringed by forests on three sides and a mountain range on the fourth. Looking at that, Alex began to formulate a plan. Ideally, he wanted to be able to create a pinch point to counter the vast numbers of Northmen that could battle at one time. Even better, if Pictin had managed to free the trapped Kalki-ah army, they might be able to attack from at least two sides simultaneously.

He watched the scene below, looking for patterns, similar movements. Anything that might tell him if this was just another day in the life of the besieged city, or if an attack was imminent. He stared and memorized things until his eyes burned and his head hurt. He rolled his shoulders and neck and glanced up to see that the sky was darkening. It shouldn’t have been quite sunset, so that probably meant another rain shower.

He dropped down the hill, beginning to catalog all the things he had seen and to look for ways to use that information. He was just about to mount his horse when he looked below. There were three of the Northmen, though only two of them were men. They were each sitting on the front of a horse-drawn wagon, heading directly toward where he had sent his troops to set up camp.

In that brief instant, he saw the critical error he had made. He had put his entire army—a group so large that it was impossible to miss—right next to an easy source of clean water. He realized that the one thing he hadn’t noticed in the vast expanse of Northmen was any other water source. That would mean that they had to almost constantly send people to the lake to fill jugs and take them back to the encampment.

He felt caught on the horns of a dilemma. If he and Monda-ak attacked from above, he could almost certainly kill one, and possibly two of them. When he had met Paco Adun in Vendan-ah, that Northman had seemed amused that the Kragdon-ah brought their women onto the battlefield. Alex wasn’t willing to believe that the women who accompanied the invaders weren’t capable of fighting, though.

If he and Monda-ak were able to kill both of the bigger Northmen, he believed they could best the woman, too. But that would create its own set of problems. It would start a clock ticking, because how long would the people back at camp wait for their return before they started looking for them?

The worst-case scenario would be if Alex didn’t manage to kill all of them. That would mean that Alex would be dead, and Monda-ak would have died defending him. The army would be rudderless, and whoever survived their attack would ride back to the Northmen camp as fast as possible and raise the alarm.

The wagons all had large clay jars in the back that shifted and knocked against each other as they rolled. That made enough noise that Alex didn’t feel the need to be stealthy. He left his horse tied where it was, signaled to Monda-ak to stay with him and be quiet. Together, they hurried down the hill.

By then the three wagons were far enough ahead that Alex had to hurry to catch up and stay close. Monda-ak could have closed the gap in seconds, but Alex didn’t want to send him off to face the three of them alone.

At the same time, Alex didn’t feel like he could just follow along behind in case one of them happened to turn and look over their shoulder, so man and dog dashed from one piece of cover to another.

That meant that the wagons were actually lengthening their lead. He didn’t want the three wagons to roll into camp and catch everyone there unaware, so he finally abandoned cover and sprinted along behind after the wagons.

Alex wasn’t completely sure what he would do when he caught up to them. He supposed he would climb on board the back of the wagon and try to throw the rider off so Monda-ak could finish him, then try to jump to the next one and do the same.

It wasn’t much of a plan, but in the end, he didn’t need to worry about it.

The wagons passed through a slight narrowing of the path that was lined with trees on both sides. As they did, arrows zipped from the upper limbs of the trees. All three drivers were hit. The female Takana Ma took an arrow to the side of the neck. She rolled off the wagon and jumped up with a stabbing sword in her hand.

The two men were each hit twice in the chest. They weren’t as quick as the woman, but they all managed to get off the wagon and spin around with their axes in their hands, trying to find their unseen enemy.

They didn’t need to wait long, as four Kragdon-ah warriors dropped down from the lower branches and ran toward them. Archers from above continued to pepper the Northmen with more arrows.

Alex shouted, “Monda-ak, go!” then sprinted to catch up with the wagons. The biggest of the Northmen, who by then had arrows sticking out of his chest, arm, and leg, never heard him coming. Alex raised his stone hammer high and brought it crashing down on the back of the man’s head. That might not have been enough to kill the big man, but it incapacitated him, and he fell to the ground.

Monda-ak took care of him from there.

Meanwhile, three of the Kragdon-ah warriors focused on the remaining man. Alex and Monda-ak joined them and they had the man surrounded. Another type of enemy might have surrendered, but this one did not. He lunged directly at Alex, who was ready for the attack. He dropped low, let the ax swing over his head, and slammed his hammer into the man’s knee. He went down, screaming his rage, but not for long. Monda-ak was on him, tearing at his face and throat.

That left only the woman, who also showed little sign of wanting to surrender. She flicked her short sword back and forth, letting curses flow under her breath that none of the Kragdon-ah could understand.

The archers ended the standoff by hitting her with three more arrows, one of which hit her in the base of the neck, dropping her to the ground. She writhed for a few moments and Monda-ak moved toward her, but Alex gave him a hand signal to back him away. Moments later, the woman sighed and lay still.

Alex looked at the warriors and realized that, like so many of the people who had joined his army, he didn’t know who they were.

One of the warriors stepped forward and said, “I am Bekan-ak. Versa-eh sent us out here to be on guard. We thought we were guarding against nothing until we saw them coming toward us with you right behind them.”

“Versa-eh is very smart,” Alex said. “Now, they’re going to come looking for them soon. It probably won’t make much difference, but I want two of you to come with me to take the wagons back to where the Northmen came from. We will leave them there, then hurry back here. The rest of you can drag these bodies off somewhere, then spread some dirt over the blood. When you’re done with that, take up your posts again until Versa-eh sends replacements.”

Alex climbed into one of the wagons, turned it, and took off back the way it had come. He heard the other two fall in behind him. They reached the spot where, if they had turned right, they would have headed back into the camp of the Northmen. Instead, Alex turned left, intending to drive the horses a few feet away, then leave them ground tied.

Monda-ak, who had been running alongside him, woofed quietly once. Alex glanced down and saw that the big dog’s hackles were raised, and he had a growl deep in his throat.

Alex looked around but couldn’t see anything. He stood up on the wagon and peered down the trail.

There were two full-sized godat-ta coming straight for them.

 

Chapter Thirty

Come Together

A

lex squinted ahead, trying to will himself not to see what he was seeing. He rubbed his hand across his eyes, but his vision remained the same. There were two gigantic godat-ta coming up the trail.

They weren’t running, but instead were sauntering at a typical, slow godat-ta pace. The only time they ever moved quickly was when something attracted their attention or irritated them. Then the unfortunate being that had done so was already consigned to the next life.

Alex thought as quickly as possible. He considered telling the two warriors who were in the wagons behind him to turn around and flee back to their camp by the water. He discarded that idea immediately. If they fled, they would more than likely just bring the bears back with them, which would wreak untold damage on the army Alex had collected.

His second thought was to scream at the godat-ta, attract their attention, then drive the wagon back into the Northmen’s camp, hoping the twin beasts would follow him. That way, he would lose his life, but he knew he would take any number of Northmen with him.

Finally, with resignation, he decided the best thing to do was to just stand and accept his fate. He could hope that after the godat-ta had finished with him, they might very well wander into the army laying siege to Kalki-ah afterward.

Alex looked down at Monda-ak and patted his leg. Monda-ak whined a little and tried to jump up into the cart with Alex, as though that might protect him, but he couldn’t make it. Alex took pity on him, jumped down and laid his face against the dog’s neck.

“Have I ever told you that I was once able to hold you in one hand?”

Both he and Monda-ak knew that he had. He had told the story many times, but it was the only thing he could think to say or do at that moment. He drew his stone hammer, but it was more perfunctory than anything. He and Monda-ak had once battled an old, wounded grandfather godat-ta and had barely escaped with their lives. He knew he had no chance against what appeared to be two young, healthy beasts.

As they drew closer, Alex frowned. He looked down at Monda-ak again. “Are you seeing what I think I’m seeing?”

Monda-ak looked at the godat-ta, who were growing ever-closer and woofed quietly once more to say that he did see the same thing.

“There’s a person riding on that godat-ta.”

Another woof of agreement from Monda-ak.

Just then, a cloud of dust rose behind the two giant bears. Alex climbed up on the wagon again and stood as tall as he could. There were two horses pulling wagons behind the godat-ta. And behind those wagons, there were three other horses, galloping sedately along.

Alex was as flummoxed as he had ever been in his life, though a light was beginning to dawn.

Finally, the two bears broke into a bit of a run, but they stopped right in front of the wagon. They did not rear up on their hind legs, growl, or act as though they were about to tear Alex into shreds.

Alex could see that the people riding the two bears were not your average Kragdon-ah warrior. These were very small people.

And they were smiling, as though they intended him no harm.

“Can you take us to Manta-ak, the great warrior?” the boy on the back of the largest godat-ta asked.

Alex had rarely felt so confused and, truth to tell, slightly ridiculous.

“I’m Manta-ak,” Alex said.

Before the words were out of his mouth, he heard, “Dad! Dad!”

Alex’s surprise was now complete, as Sanda charged forward on her horse, jumping off while it was still running and enveloping him in a hug so tight, it felt like she might never let go. Alex held her equally as tight, burying his face in her neck.

“I was so scared I might never see you again,” he whispered fiercely. “Now everything will be all right, no matter what.”

Right behind her, Sekun-ak, Nanda-eh, Hundan-ak, and Senta-eh the Younger, also jumped down and hurried forward.

Things finally clicked in Alex’s mind. He looked at the two small people on the godat-ta and said “Wastan-ah?”

“Yes!” Sanda said. She pointed at the young man and said, “Antana.” She pointed at the young woman and said, “Askana. They are like miracles.” She stopped to think for a moment, then said, “But I guess you can see that for yourself.”

“I can,” Alex agreed, laughing. Then he realized where he was, which was standing on the main path that the carts of the Northmen used to haul water. He turned to the two warriors who had brought the other wagons and said, “Abandon those there. Run back to Versa-eh and tell her that I’m coming back with her daughter!”

The two warriors took off as though the devil himself was at their heels.

Alex pointed behind him. “We had a little trouble. These wagons came to get water from the spot where we have made camp. We intercepted the Northmen and killed them, so we brought the wagons back here to try and confuse whoever comes looking for them. We’re hoping to delay discovery by at least an hour, so we can get organized for the fight.” He reached out and rested a hand on Sekun-ak’s shoulder. “I am so glad to see you, brother. But we need to move, or they will come upon us now, before we are ready.”

“I am always ready,” Sekun-ak said, but his eyes were smiling.

“Dad, wait until you see what we’ve brought with us.”

Monda-ak gave the godat-ta a wide berth, but walked up to Brinda-eh, who took his all-over sniffing with good humor.

“I can see,” Alex said, still looking nervously at the two godat-ta.

“Don’t worry about them,” Sanda said. “They won’t hurt us as long as Antana and Askana are with them. But we brought more. So much more.”

“I can’t wait to see what else,” Alex said, “but let’s get all of us safely back to camp before you show me.”

They made for a strange parade on the way back to the encampment. Alex was in the lead, followed immediately by Sanda and Sekun-ak pulling wagons piled high with boxes that buzzed constantly. Behind that came the two godat-ta with the Wastan-ah riders on their shoulders. Bringing up the rear was Nanda-eh, Senta-eh, and Hundan-ak. If anyone was paying attention, which they probably weren’t, given the strange sights ahead of them, they might have noticed that Senta-eh and Hundan-ak rode very close together.

They passed under the guards in the trees, who said, “Gunta, Manta-ak?” It was more of a question than a statement.

“Gunta,” Alex confirmed.

They rode on and began to see signs of the camp. There were no fires, but people were lined up at various wagons, getting food of one sort or another. When they saw Alex, no one paid much attention, but the godat-ta with the Wastan-ah atop definitely caused a stir.

A scream rose up, but it wasn’t actually at the sight of the apparently tame bears. It was Versa-eh; she had spotted her daughter. She came running, Senta-eh dropped off the horse, and the two of them had a reunion much like Alex and Sanda had minutes before.

“Where’s Dad?”

Versa-eh held her daughter’s face in her hands, drinking her in. “Off on a mission. Isn’t it exciting?”

“Honestly, I think maybe I’ve had enough excitement,” Senta-eh answered. “I’d kind of like to just go home.”

That was when Versa-eh saw Hundan-ak standing behind her daughter. He stepped forward and took Senta-eh’s hand.

In a slightly strangled tone, Hundan-ak said, “I once asked you for permission to court your daughter and you granted it. Now I would like to ask for her hand.”

“Should we wait until we get done with what we came for?” Versa-eh asked.

“We’ve been together for some time now. We’d like to do the binding ceremony soon. Sekun-ak has agreed to do it for us.”

Versa-eh flicked a glance at Sekun-ak, who remained as impassive as always. “You certainly have our permission, if that is what you want, but let’s wait until Harta-ak returns.”

That seemed to be good enough for Senta-eh and Hundan-ak, who wandered off in search of friends to tell the news.

“It’s a momentous day,” Versa-eh said. “Children wanting to do the binding ceremony, godat-ta wandering like pets into the camp, and thousands of enemies just over the hill, waiting to kill us all.”

“Let’s see if we can do something about that,” Alex said. “Let’s organize ourselves.”

Versa-eh returned her mind to the business at hand. “I’ve already been doing that. I’ve chosen some of our leaders and they are choosing their groups of one hundred people each. That won’t put everyone in a squad, but it will be a good start. Now that Hundan-ak, Sekun-ak, Sanda, and Nanda-eh are back, I will add them in.”

“I have always been able to count on you,” Alex said. “Do I know any of the other squad leaders?”

“Of course. Yestin-ak and his father are here and each have a squad. Girda-eh has one, too. All of the squad leaders came from people you trained at Vendan-ah. They will all be under your command.” She looked around the camp. There were a large number of volunteers who weren’t going to be capable of fighting for one reason or another. Versa-eh nodded at several of them, standing off by themselves. “What shall we do with them? They want to help.”

“Of course. We’ll put some of them with Standin-eh and her army of healers; they can help with the injured. We can assign others to our archers. They can carry arrows for them, so the archers themselves aren’t burdened with carrying so many.”

“I need to talk to you about what we brought with us,” Sanda said. “It will make a difference.”

“Based on the sounds I hear coming from the wagons, I can guess what some of it is.”

“Yes, we brought thousands of wasta-ta. It’s the strangest thing. They seem to be in mental contact with Askana and Antana. You remember what it is like to be swarmed by them, don’t you?”

“It’s one of the worst memories of my life, so yes. When I went down and they continued to sting me, I thought that was the last of it for me.”

“Right,” Sanda said. “Now, imagine thousands and thousands of them flying directly at the Northmen. It should cause some chaos.”

Alex glanced at the giant godat-ta. “Especially when they see those coming. They’re like living, breathing tanks.”

“Even better,” Sanda said, “is what is in these clay jars.” She lifted the lid off, and Alex put his head over it to look inside.

He drew back immediately, a horrified expression on his face. Both his eyes and nose immediately began to run.

“What is that?”

“It is a mixture of poison that the Wastan-ah make. It comes from snakes, poisonous spiders, and centipede-like creatures they call kradin-ta.”

“It is suitably horrifying, but what good does it do us?”

“It’s been frustrating that we cannot bring the Northmen down with our arrows. It almost seems like all we do is irritate them unless we hit an absolutely perfect shot. But not anymore.”

Alex saw the light. “You dip your arrows in this mixture.”

“And once we do, it will stop anything short of a godat-ta itself. It will make us effective again.”

Alex took that information and began to run it through his head. “It’s too bad we don’t have time to build some sort of tall contraption that we could wheel out on the field of battle to get the archers in close.”

“We do have those tanks you mentioned.”

“You mean the Wastan-ah aren’t the only ones who can ride them?”

“Nope,” Sanda said, “As long as one of the Wastan-ah are there, we can ride along. We can probably fit three or four of us on each one of them. We could really wreak some havoc.”

“Have you actually tried it?”

“Nanda-eh did. She rode partway here on the back of the mama bear.”

“Mama bear?” Alex almost laughed. “They’re still godat-ta, right? Not something out of a fairy tale?”

Sanda shrugged.

“Well, that’s fine if we can get a few archers on their back, but I want you and Nanda-eh to go out to the ridge that overlooks their camp. See if you can figure out if, from that distance and elevation, you can reach them using your longbows.”

“We’ll go check right now. Tell Versa-eh to hold off on the wedding until we get back. We watched them fall in love; we should get to see them get bound.”

“I think Hundan-ak fell in love with her the first moment he saw her.”

“Fair enough,” Sanda said. “But it was on this journey that he finally stopped tripping over his tongue and just talked to her, so she could see what kind of person he was.” She put two fingers to her lips and whistled.

Nanda-eh’s head whipped around, and she ran over to them.

“Dad’s sending us out scouting. Let’s go.”

“Be careful out there. The Northmen may have noticed that those wagons have gone missing and come looking for them.”

Sanda put two fingers to her head, winked at her father, then hurried away. As she did, she ran into another small party that was arriving.

Harta-ak had returned. He brought Pictin and Olten-eh with him.

 

Chapter Thirty-One

The Promise of War

S

anda embraced Olten-eh. They had lived and worked together to form the Council of Tribes but hadn’t seen each other in several years.

In Kalki-ah, Olten-eh was revered as the Golden One. Wars had been fought over her, but in the end, she had won out for peace.

Until, at least, the Northmen showed up. They were not good negotiators but tended to end discussions with You kill me, or I kill you.

Harta-ak, Pictin, Olten-eh, and Sista-eh hurried to Alex and Versa-eh.

Alex looked at Pictin and saw that what he had asked of him had taken its toll. His eyes were set deep in their sockets, he had obviously lost weight, and the bags under his eyes showed that he hadn’t slept much at all.

Alex embraced him. It felt like too little, but all he could say was, “Thank you, my friend.”

“Gunta, Olten-eh. The fact that you are here instead of trapped behind the city walls is a wonderful thing. Did we get all of you out?”

“A few chose to stay behind,” Olten-eh said. “They are heroes, willing to give their lives so that others can live.”

Alex cocked his head slightly. “Why? What is the purpose of leaving people behind?”

“It is two-fold,” Olten-eh said. “First, we wanted to leave people in place so that the enemy would not immediately be aware that we had deserted the city. If they knew that, they would have scoured the area and likely found us. We would have fought as best we could, but I think we can be of more use in union with your army.”

Alex couldn’t disagree with that. “And second?”

“And second, we have a plan to help rid our land of those scum.”

Alex noticed that Pictin perked up and assumed that he must have already known what this plan was.

“Tell me,” Alex said. After things had gone so poorly for so long, he was starting to feel the tide turn. With the escape of the Kalki-ah and the arrival of the Wastan-ah and their specialized weapons, he was starting to believe they might have a chance.

Olten-eh explained her plan.

Alex winced but saw the effectiveness of it. “Are you sure you’re ready to do that?”

“We are.” The way she said it left no doubt.

“Then we will implement it tomorrow.” It had been seven months since Alex had sat in the cliffside of Winten-ah and received word that the Northmen were here. It had been a long and torturous road to get here, but he knew the time was at hand. Another thought occurred to him. “Tomorrow, that is, unless they bring the battle to us today.” He explained what had happened with the wagons, and how the Northmen could come looking for them at any time.

“We could move the camp,” Versa-eh suggested.

“We could, but when they find the wagons, they will know we are here. They will seek us out and there are too many of us to hide. I think we will be best served by preparing for the battle.”

“And a binding ceremony,” Versa-eh said. She reached for Harta-ak’s hand. “Our daughter is getting married.”

Behind them, Hundan-ak said, “With your permission, of course.”

Harta-ak, who could still remember being young and falling for someone at first sight, said simply, “Yes.”

Versa-eh turned to her daughter. “The timing is not perfect, but in a way, perhaps it is. We have our closest friends here with us. What more do we need? Your brother back home will never forgive us, but we’ll deal with him later.” She turned to Sekun-ak. “Have you agreed to bind them?”

“I have.”

“Then let’s do it now. There is much work to be done still.”

“Wait, wait!” Sanda said, hurrying up with Nanda-eh. “We ran, because we didn’t want to miss it!”

This was both the best-attended and least-planned binding ceremony in Kragdon-ah history.

Typically, a binding ceremony is attended by all members of a tribe, but on this occasion, there were people from over a hundred different tribes present. The ceremony still went off as if it was a small gathering.

Two thousand people surrounded Hundan-ak and Senta-eh the Younger. They began to sway in rhythm. One person began to hum an ancient song. Soon others joined in.

Sekun-ak held out a long piece of leather. The young couple reached their hands out. Sekun-ak wrapped the leather loosely around each of their wrists and said, “We do not tie the knot tight because the strength of the binding is the commitment you make to each other. If each of you stands forever for the other, nothing but death can ever separate you. Do you agree?”

As one, Hundan-ak and Senta-eh said, “We agree.”

“Normally, we would move to a feast to celebrate you,” Sekun-ak said. “But in today’s unusual circumstance, that is not possible. We will postpone the feast until after we have vanquished the invaders from our land.”

That was the type of pronouncement that might ordinarily elicit a loud and long cheer, but everyone was aware that it was possible the Northmen could be looking for them at any time. They settled for quietly congratulating the new couple.

Normally, a newly married couple had a special place set up for their first night. On the eve of the biggest battle in anyone’s memory, there was no such accommodation. Harta-ak came to their rescue by requisitioning a small tent with a closed opening. Others produced blankets and pillows. Hundan-ak accepted these graciously, saying, “As long as I am with her, nothing else matters.”

He did carry the tent a ways away from everyone else to set it up.

The whole ceremony had taken perhaps fifteen minutes.

With that momentous occasion out of the way, Alex brought his key group of advisors together and began to map out a plan.

Sanda and Nanda-eh thought that with the added elevation of the hill, they would be able to shoot their arrows far enough to reach the Northmen camp—or at least the outer fringes of it.

“We’ll wait until Olten-eh gives the signal for Kalki-ah’s part of the plan, then those of us who are adept with longbow will begin to fire. Once the battle starts in earnest, though, we are going to mount up and ride closer so we can shoot with accuracy.”

“Have the arrows already been treated?” Alex asked, referring to the poisonous dip.

“No, we’re not sure how long it will stay fresh and vibrant, so we’re going to start dipping thousands and thousands of arrows in the middle of the night.”

“Good,” Alex said. “We’re going to attempt to fight them on multiple fronts, all of which will hopefully be advantageous to us. Inside the city of Kalki-ah will be one, the spot where they bring the wagons through to get water is a pinch point, though not as tight as I would like.”

Personally, he wished for something like the Pass of Thermopylae, but there was nothing like that in the surrounding geography.

“While we are busy with them on those two fronts, Olten-eh will bring her forces from the north. The Northmen should still believe they are trapped inside the city, so we should have the advantage of surprise there.”

“Is it worth splitting our own force in two?” Girda-eh asked. “Perhaps send a few hundred of them to the south and attack from that direction as well? Encircle them?”

At Vendan-ah, Alex had learned to never overlook ideas from Girda-eh. He could see the soundness of the idea but was still resistant. With the Northmen likely coming at them through that one area, he knew he did have more troops in that spot than he could use. He was hesitant, though, because sending those troops south would expose more of his untrained fighters to battle. He wanted to save as many of those as he could. In the end, the only thing that mattered was to prevail. Everyone who had volunteered to come with him knew the likely price they were going to pay.

“Yes. Take your squad and four others with you. You’ll have to travel along these mountains to the south until you can find a way over them. Wait until you see the battle is joined before you bring your troops in. That journey will take some time, so you had best start now.”

Girda-eh put two fingers on her forehead and said, “Gunta, Manta-ak.” She hurried away and Alex could see that she was already going over her own strategies in her mind.

“That’s it for now, then,” Alex said.

“I’m going to put people in every tree along the route the Northmen might approach us overnight,” Versa-eh said. “We can’t afford to be surprised.”

“That’s smart,” Olten-eh said, “but it should be unnecessary. They’ve been drinking themselves into a stupor every night for months now. They have grown almost as weary of the siege as we have. Now, it’s time for me to go back to my people. We will be ready at the appointed time.” She left just as the sun set in the west, with Pictin behind her.

Alex had a sudden idea. “Pictin. Wait!”

“Do you remember when you built the funeral house for Torana in one night?”

“Of course.”

“I have another project for you, if you have energy left.”

“My energy fled long ago, but I will do my best.” He turned to Olten-eh. “Will you send some armed men with Lostin-eh and the rest of my workers? I will need them here.”

She signaled she would and hurried away.

Alex sat down with Pictin to describe what he wanted.

There was very little sleep in any corner of the encampment that night. Versa-eh rotated the guards every two hours to keep them fresh. The squad leaders met with their fighters, discussing strategy until there was nothing left to say.

After sending Pictin off to work on a project that may or may not come together, Alex sat in a circle with those closest to him. It was unspoken, but everyone realized that it was likely that at least some of them would not be there after the battle.

They did discuss ideas for the next day, but that soon fizzled out as they realized they had talked everything to death.

Harta-ak amused everyone by telling the story of how he had rescued Versa-eh, Alex, Senta-eh, and Werda-ak from the small island where they were about to be devoured by a giant beast. That opened the dam and soon, everyone was sharing stories of their lives together.

Yestin-ak, who was a newer arrival to the inner circle, seemed lost in the stories of invading another nation on the other side of the world, how Alex, Harta-ak, and Versa-eh had removed both a swarm of wasta-ta and a godat-ta from what was now their home, or traversing all of Kragdon-ah and burning a city down almost single-handedly.

No one told of how Alex and Monda-ak had defeated the godat-ta on the hillside that became an eventual memorial to their own Golden Child, because only Alex had been there to witness it, and he wasn’t talking.

After a few hours, the stories quieted, and everyone was lost in their own thoughts.

For Alex, that meant thinking of those he had loved and lost over the years. The members of the Winten-ah tribe that had been killed in the war against Douglas Winterborne. Losing Werda-ak after rescuing Lanta-eh. All those he led and lost in the battle against these Northmen in Drakana. Tinta-ak, who had started as an enemy, but had become his brother. Torana, who had the biggest heart Alex had ever known. And of course, his love, Senta-eh, gone all these years now.

Finally, birds began their morning song and faint rays of light emerged from the east. They realized that they had talked through the night.

Sleep might have better prepared them for the day that lay ahead, but the kinship with people they loved reminded them—again—what they were fighting for.

 

Chapter Thirty-Two

War

A

lex and Olten-eh had decided to launch their plans at apex, but now that the day was upon them, Alex wished that they had chosen an earlier time. The waiting often seemed like the hardest part of battle.

Still, there were advantages to waiting. It gave Girda-eh and her groups of warriors more time to traverse the hills and mountains and put themselves into position to the south of the Northmen.

It also gave Pictin a few more hours to work on building what Alex had described to him the night before.

Alex found him in the woods to the side of where they were camped and was once again amazed at what he was able to accomplish in such a short period of time.

“It’s not perfect,” Pictin said, pointing at his project, “but perfect takes more than a day.”

What Alex had described to Pictin was similar to the guard towers that he had built in Vendan-ah. There were differences. These towers were not nearly as tall. Those were twenty-five feet tall, where these were only two times as tall as the average Kragdon-ah warrior. They were, in all truth, not nearly as stable as those towers, either, which had been built with stone foundations.

These towers were built to be mobile.

There was no lumber for Pictin to work with, so he’d put several of his people to work dismantling wagons, saving the iron rods and nails, and, most crucially, the wheels.

The towers each had something resembling a small treehouse at the top. The only way to reach that was by using a rope ladder that could be pulled up.

The ingenious part of the design, Alex thought, was that the base of the tower was also a structure of sorts. It was broad enough to allow four strong warriors to step inside and seal the door behind them. Using leverage, and looking through a slit in the wood, they could push the tower across a field of battle. Meanwhile, the archers could rain poison arrows down on the enemy from above.

As Pictin said, it was not perfect. Alex could see it hitting a rut and tipping over, exposing everyone in it and on it to immediate danger. It was built of wood and so was subject to being set on fire. Occupying it, either on the top or on the bottom, would be an incredibly dangerous job.

Nevertheless, there were many more volunteers than there were spots to fill.

“If I had more time,” Pictin said, “I could make more of these, and make them more stable.”

“Time is the one thing we don’t have,” Alex answered. “We are fortunate that we haven’t been discovered already. Let’s move it into position by where we will attack.”

Alex went from squad to squad, partially to inspect, but mostly to have a word of encouragement with each squad’s commander.

When it was time to get into position, Alex had some difficult choices to make. His preference would have been to lead the first squad through the pinch point and engage the first Northmen he came across.

With Girda-eh gone to the south, he knew it was incumbent on him to be the strategic battle leader. That meant he could not jump into the battle headfirst and let everyone find their own way. He needed to stay back and direct forces, at least until staying back no longer felt like an option.

He decided to hold the forces back a bit while Olten-eh put her own plan into action. Then, he wanted to release the archers with their longbows and see if the poison-tipped arrows would really work or not. To do that, both he and the archers needed to be on top of the same hill where he had been observing the Northmen camp.

His hope was that when chaos began to erupt around Kalki-ah, that would draw many of the Northmen toward the excitement. Then, he could begin sending the Wastan-ah warriors in with their wagons loaded with the giant bees. Once they were deployed, the Wastan-ah warriors would retreat, climb onto their giant godat-ta rides and take several archers along with them.

Alex tried to imagine what he would have done if he had been at the receiving end of this triple-threat attack, the invasion of the wasta-ta, and then two giant godat-ta rumbling toward them with archers firing poisoned arrows. He didn’t think any commander in the history of the world had ever faced an onslaught like that before.

But that would be essentially the end of all the tricks he had up his sleeve, and from there, it would come down to an old-fashioned bloody battle.

Before the battle began, he figured that the Northmen outnumbered his own undertrained army, so he needed those early actions to even the odds a little bit.

Alex took his best longbow archers and climbed to the top of the hill. That included Sanda and Nanda-eh, of course, but they had brought another twenty archers from Winten-ah who had at least some skill with the longbow, which was not something that could be picked up in a short period of time.

He had the archers stand down, bows strung, arrows nocked, while he crept to the top and looked toward Kalki-ah.

For a moment, everything looked just as it had since they arrived.

Then he squinted, saw that the gate to Kalki-ah had opened and Northmen were pouring in.

THE GUARDS WHO WERE left inside Kalki-ah had been busy since everyone else had left. They put their time in on the walls, pouring liquid on the fires the Northmen started, but they had many tasks to complete before things were ready.

The night before, Olten-eh had used the tunnel to come back inside and let them know the plan. She had honestly wanted to stay behind with those who were prepared to sacrifice themselves, but she knew that she was needed to lead her army.

There were forty Kalki-ah who stayed behind. They had worked through the night, building pyres of flammable materials, just waiting for a flame to light them. They piled bark shavings, pinecones, fireweed, and rotten wood under piles of ready to burn wood.

By first light, they were ready, but waited until apex, as Olten-eh had instructed them. When the sun was high in the sky—it was a beautiful, clear day—they put their plan in motion.

The guards on the walkway high above the city began to scream and taunt the Northmen below. That wasn’t unusual, but it did attract their attention.

That was when four tall guards began removing the strong timbers that had held the gate shut against the Northmen for so long. There were half a dozen other tall timbers on each side of the gate, each one coated in pitch that would ignite instantaneously.

Everyone knew their role, but they all looked to Lakton-eh, who had been a guard for more than forty summer solstices. She stood tall on the catwalk, gave a Kalki-ah salute to all who followed her, then gave the signal.

The final timber holding the gate shut was pulled away and for the first time in many months, the massive gate swung open ever so slightly.

Almost immediately, a cry went up from the Northmen who were camped on the other side of the gate. Their protocol said that if the gate was breached, they should send word to their commander. After waiting so long, and sensing a glorious battle was finally upon them, they grabbed their axes and rushed inside.

They found a mostly empty courtyard, with only a few Kalki-ah soldiers visible at the far side of the walled city.

“They are hiding like cowards!” the first giant Northman said. He charged toward the retreating Kalki-ah with his ax raised above his head, screaming a battle cry.

That cry echoed out of the city walls and into the field of Northmen. There were hundreds of them within hearing distance of the scream. In an instant, they had grabbed their weapons and ran for the gate. After waiting so long, they were not going to be denied their chance at battle.

On the catwalk above, Lakton-eh watched as the invaders poured through the city gates they had defended for so long. The timing was all on her shoulders, and she wanted to absolutely maximize the value of their trap.

Northmen ran through the gate—pushed wide open now—and ran screaming into the center courtyard of Kalki-ah. What had once been a beautiful city—the best that Kragdon-ah had to offer—had suffered in the months of being under siege.

The guards on the parapet began to fire arrows and throw rocks down at the Northmen. None of that was to do actual damage to them, but simply to show that the Kalki-ah were fighting back.

Lakton-eh kept a sharp eye out on the field and saw that someone was riding toward the gate on an impressive, armored horse. She guessed that was the commander of the Northmen. He would likely be smarter than these men had been about stumbling into a trap. She took a deep breath and looked down.

There were now hundreds of Northmen inside the gate, looking for any enemy to kill.

Lakton-eh had to be satisfied with that.

She lifted a horn to her lips and sounded the call. The piercing note carried throughout the town.

Guards sprang up, dipped their arrows in fire and aimed at their preselected targets.

The largest strongest guards who had stayed behind lit the giant timbers on fire that stood on either side of the gate. They waited a moment until they were burning, then used long poles to push them over. They crashed to the ground quite nicely, creating a burning bramble that grew hotter by the moment. Until those timbers burned, no one would be getting in or out of Kalki-ah.

The other tinder piles were set on fire with flaming arrows and as designed, the flames spread quickly from there to wooden houses and buildings.

In less than five minutes, hundred-year-old buildings inside the walls of Kalki-ah were burning.

The roar of the flames became an inferno.

The Northmen screamed and raged, finally knowing that they had stumbled into a trap and were denied a glorious death.

Instead, they would be burned alive inside an almost-empty walled city.

A FEW HUNDRED YARDS away, from the edge of the tree line, Olten-eh watched the city that she loved burn.

She heard the screams of frustration and anger from the Northmen and the cries of victory from the friends she had left behind.

She stood listening for long moments, until all the cries went silent.

 

Chapter Thirty-Three

Brothers and Sisters in Arms

A

lex watched as black smoke boiled from behind the walls of Kalki-ah. Quietly, he said, “Go.”

Sanda stood next to her father. In a firm voice, she said, “Archers, fire.”

As one, the twenty archers pulled their bowstrings back to their ears and released. The arrows sizzled in the air as they flew from the hilltop. At that range, they weren’t necessarily aiming at specific targets, but more at groups of potential targets.

Alex was concerned over whether or not the arrows would reach even the outer ring of the Northmen, who were several hundred yards away. He hoped that at least one arrow would connect so he could see what effect, if any, the poison might have on the invaders.

Shooting from a higher altitude and aiming with an upward arc, the arrows cut through the air with incredible speed.

Watching twenty arrows fly as though fired from a single source was mesmerizing, and it showed the skill, training, and strength of the Winten-ah archers. Before the first arrows landed, the archers had pulled another arrow from their quiver and stood at the ready.

Alex’s first question was answered immediately. The arrows had more than enough distance to reach the enemy. In fact, they went past the outermost circle of Northmen and well into the area where hundreds of invaders had their backs turned, paying attention to what was happening in the city.

Of the twenty arrows, six found living targets. All six of the warriors staggered, then recovered and looked around to see what enemy had attacked them. None of the wounded looked up at the hill where the archers stood.

Alex held his breath, willing at least some of them to go down.

A moment later, all six crumpled to the ground and did not move.

“They can ignore pain and injuries, but poison will still put them down.” Alex’s voice was still quiet but carried an urgent sense of momentary victory.

“Again,” Sanda said.

And again, twenty more arrows flew. Five more Northmen staggered when they were hit by arrows. Thirty seconds later, those five enemies were down.

Now, there was chaos in that particular area of the camp, as men scrambled for their shields, though they still weren’t sure of which direction to hold them to protect themselves.

“To the right,” Sanda said, and twenty more arrows flew toward that part of the camp.

Alex touched Sanda’s elbow lightly. “Keep firing until they move out of range, then come down.”

Sanda nodded, turned back to her archers. “Fire as you will.”

Shooting a longbow was a more involved process than doing the same with a shorter bow. The smaller bow required less strength to pull back and the motion was more compact. One of the trained Winten-ah archers could fire a cluster of arrows with accuracy in under fifteen seconds. Each shot from the longbow required more preparation, effort, and mechanics.

Once the archers were free to loose their arrows at will, they stopped arriving in bunches and became a steadier, but more deadly beat, as they weren’t all focused on a single area. That made it more difficult for the Northmen to know which way to move to get away.

Sanda directed the archers left, right, and center, closer in, then further out, all designed to give them the greatest clusters of targets to aim at. After just a few minutes, the area that they could reach had been cleared as the Northmen moved closer to the city to escape death from the skies. She could not take the time to count but looking at the corpses of the Northmen scattered about, she was confident that their initial effort had taken out more than a hundred of them.

If Alex was right and each Northmen warrior was worth three Kragdon-ah fighter in a head-to-head battle, they had already saved at least three hundred of their own.

Sanda turned to her archers and said, “Report to your squads and listen to your leaders. Each of you will have a person assigned to carry additional arrows and keep your quiver full.” Her heart was beating fast, her blood was high, but she tried to keep her voice calm. She wanted to say something brave and inspiring to these warriors, most of whom she had trained since they had seen less than ten summer solstices. She looked at their faces, so trusting and ready to do whatever she said, and no words came to mind. Instead, she formed a fist with her right hand and beat her breast, the action that would forever symbolize Torana and the sacrifice he made.

As one, the archers returned the gesture.

Four of the archers stepped toward Sanda and said, “We haven’t been assigned to a squad. Where do we go?”

“I have chosen you to ride the godat-ta. Find the small Wastan-ah warriors and report to them. They will show you how to mount the giants. Take double quivers because there will not be anyone to hand you more arrows. Choose your shots carefully. When you are out of arrows, drop off and run for our back lines. Regroup there.”

Those four archers put two fingers to their foreheads, then hurried down the hill.

ALEX STOOD BACK FROM the opening that led onto the open field where the Northmen had camped for so long. Beside him were the two wagons filled with vibrating, buzzing boxes.

He knelt so that he looked right into the eyes of Antana and Askana.

“Thank you for leaving your home and coming to protect our land. Sanda has told me what a sacrifice that is for you.”

“It is a sacrifice for our parents,” Askana said. “We were just ready to get out and see the world.”

“You have seen a lot already, and I am sorry for what you will see today. Now, the wasta-ta. Do you have to be right with them to communicate with them?”

Antana laughed at how little this great warrior, this Manta-ak, seemed to understand. “No. It is not like that.”

“So you can stay here, where it is safer, and ask them to attack the Northmen?”

“Yes,” they said together.

For the first time, Alex thought of the thousands of wasta-ta as something other than an annoyance or potential danger. He realized that they, along with the godat-ta were, in a way, the same as Alex and his army. They were fighting to repel invaders who would change everything.

Alex opened his mouth to speak, but before he could, Askana spoke in the universal language.

“The mother godat-ta told us that she knows you. She never forgets a scent. She remembers you and the one you call Monda-ak.”

“How…” Alex started to ask, then realized the answer. “She was the mother godat-ta near Altor-ah.”

“She communicated to us that she thought you had hurt her cub. She intended to kill you, but then thought you killed yourself when you jumped off a cliff.”

Things became clear in Alex’s mind. He looked at the two giant bears, as big as buildings, and said, “Is that huge godat-ta the same cub?”

Askana smiled and said, “He has grown up.”

“He certainly has,” Alex agreed, thinking that the small cub was now even larger than the giant he and Monda-ak had battled on the hilltop outside of Winten-ah. “She followed us and caught up to us outside the domed city, where Tokin-ak saved us. He spoke to her the same way you do.”

Antana spit on the ground. “Tokin-ak cannot speak to the beasts, birds, or bugs the way we can. He uses trickery instead of communication.”

Alex didn’t know about that, but if it was trickery, he had been very thankful for it at that particular moment.

“Do you need assistance in letting the wasta-ta out of the boxes?”

“No,” Askana said. “Does it have to be right now? We would like to tell them goodbye and how much we appreciate their sacrifice before we send them to die.”

Again, Alex hadn’t really thought of that, but the wasta-ta died after they stung someone. Every one of these small creatures was about to sacrifice themselves as surely as the guards left behind in Kalki-ah had.

War, senseless or not, required much sacrifice from so many.

“Whenever you are ready,” Alex said. He stood and walked away. He found Pictin’s latest contraption. Sanda and Nanda-eh were standing beside it, along with Hundan-ak and several other warriors that Alex did not know. “What archers have you chosen to go up above?”

Sanda did not hesitate or blink. “Us.”

Alex wanted to argue, to keep them more out of harm’s way. He did not.

“Let’s get these men inside, get you up top and have them practice pushing it. I want to check the stability.”

“We already did that, Dad. It’s not great, but we’ve already learned where to hold on.”

“How many arrows do you have up there?”

“We each have four hundred arrows. I chose us because we are the best shots. We’ve been in battle before and aren’t prone to panic.”

And you’re the daughter or Senta-eh, Alex thought.

“Once they see the damage you’re doing, they’ll try to burn you out.”

“We’re ready for that, at least as much as we can be. If they try to burn us with a torch, we’ll put them down before they can reach us.”

“And if they shoot us with flaming arrows,” Nanda-eh said, “we’ll just have to rely on the fact that this is very hard wood and won’t burn easily.”

“When you run out of arrows, what then?”

“We’ll drop down,” Sanda said, “and these warriors will come out and help us get back here. We’ll all grab more arrows and try to do it again. We won’t stop firing until all the Northmen are down, or we are dead.”

Hearing his young, strong, beautiful daughter speak so casually of death nearly broke Alex. He grabbed her and pulled her close. “No. You do not die.” He stepped back and looked at the six of them that were trusting their lives to a contraption that had been dreamed up the night before. “All of you. We need you all.”

If there had been a strange, vibratory sound coming from the boxes on the wagons before, that sound was suddenly doubled, then trebled, then got so loud, it could no longer be measured. Everyone within a hundred yards unconsciously hunched down a little and covered their ears.

Alex hadn’t really known how many wasta-ta were inside the boxes, but they must have been packed very tightly. As they rose up and up, they formed a cloud flashing black and yellow. The air from their beating wings created a small wind all around them.

They rose up into the air and headed toward the Northmen.

 

Chapter Thirty-Four

Wasta-ta, Godat-ta, Olten-eh

T

he cacophony of the wasta-ta managed to even compete with the burning of Kalki-ah. They were impossible to ignore.

The giant bees flew toward the Northmen, but they were not alone.

Alex had asked Antana if they could control the wasta-ta from where they were safe, and she answered in the affirmative. Alex hadn’t specifically asked the Wastan-ah twins to stay out of danger, nor had they promised to do that. They had no intention of allowing their friends to fly into the battle alone.

As the cloud of deadly bees rose into the air, Antana turned to the four archers who had been assigned to them. “We are going out. Are you coming?”

Without a word, the four climbed onto the backs of the two godat-ta.

Kragdon-ah was a place like no other and no tableau there or anywhere had ever played out like this.

The two bears were so mountainous that even with two tall archers and a smaller Wastan-ah on their backs, the human cargo almost disappeared into the long fur of their backs.

As though they were all connected, the bees and bears roared across the open plain toward the camp of the invaders.

The entire culture of the Northmen was built around bravery and the prospect of a glorious death in battle. Even so, the sight of tens of thousands of fist-sized bees and two bears the size of one of their homes gave them pause.

But only for a moment.

Askana, who was most in touch with the wasta-ta, encouraged them to be patient, to wait, and to not have too many of them sacrifice themselves on the same enemy. He was intent on doing as much damage as possible to the invaders.

Antana was communicating with the godat-ta as they ran pell-mell toward the camp. She felt that communication become more distant as they approached. She had managed to instill a hatred of the Northmen into the animals and that became all that was present in their ursine brains.

Alex saw the two godat-ta tear out toward the camp. He did not yell to stop them. He knew it was too late. He scrambled back up the hill to see the impact of these two secret weapons being inflicted on the enemy at the same time.

It was glorious, gory pandemonium.

The bears actually found first blood, and it was bloody indeed.

The first Northman in their path bravely stood his ground, a snarl on his face and his ax raised high overhead. Antana’s godat-ta ran over him, breaking his back and tearing his skin from chin to groin with his claws in passing.

The four archers lay flat on the backs of the bears, disguising that part of the upcoming attack until they were in a more target-rich environment.

The two godat-ta swerved left, toward a row of tents with dozens of Northmen gathered there. To their credit, these men and women did not quail, but they could not stand against the hurricane attack of flesh, teeth, and claws.

The Northmen, more than twice as tall as the diminutive Wastan-ah, were sent flying like pinecones in a windstorm. They attempted to stand up to the attack, raising and even swinging their heavy axes against the godat-ta, but it was like whispering against a roar and had no effect on the animals.

The two godat-ta cut a wide swathe through the middle of the Northmen. Those who were fortunate to be passed by counted their blessings, but only for a moment.

Right behind the godat-ta came the swarm.

They fell on the Northmen with a vengeance, and these were opponents that could not be slain by an ax or sword.

Soon, screams of pain and frustration echoed over the field.

Northmen from the very edges looked with consternation to see what could make their brothers scream like that. What they saw was a cloud of bees heading toward them.

No Northman ever backed away from a fight but seeing the wasta-ta coming in such prodigious numbers, many of them decided prudence was better than valor. They jumped inside tents, lay flat on the ground, or hid under blankets while the swarm passed over them.

It did not matter. Every single wasta-ta found a Northman and sunk its stinger deep into their flesh, releasing their small dose of poison.

The truth was, even the sting of eight or ten wasta-ta was not enough to kill one of the giants, but it did disable them. They staggered, went to one knee, tried to get up, and often fell to the ground. After thrashing about for a moment, they would try to rise, to get back in the fight, but failed.

The swarm of wasta-ta slowly diminished, leaving hundreds of Northmen gasping for air, unable to stand.

That was when the archers revealed themselves. They gripped the flesh of the godat-ta with their legs, pulled their bows, and chose their targets wisely. They fired arrow after arrow into those on either side of the rampaging godat-ta.

Between the archers’ poisonous arrows and the roaring, swiping, rampaging godat-ta, they left an enormous path of destruction behind them.

The Northmen soon learned that they were defenseless against the godat-ta and focused on trying to take down the archers, but the bears moved so quickly, and in such an unpredictable, shambling manner, that they were targets that were nearly impossible to hit.

The archers fired again and again, so often that they went through their stock of arrows. When they were out, they leaned forward and shouted, “We’re out of arrows.”

One at a time, Antana and Askana worked to reassert their line of communication with the godat-ta.

The two behemoths had wrought such savage annihilation that their minds had calmed somewhat.

When the Wastan-ah encouraged them to turn and return toward where they had come from, they slowly did so.

Not before they ran right through the middle of the commander of the Northmen army’s tent, though, knocking it into the wind. The commander was outside, trying to see what was destroying his seemingly invulnerable army, and was spared.

On the return trip, the godat-ta cut another wide path through the Northmen, leaving more scattered and broken bodies in their wake.

Standing on the hilltop, Alex felt a surge of hope. There were so many dead or broken Northmen down that he couldn’t begin to count them, but he estimated that they might have taken a quarter of the total force down without losing a single Kragdon-ah warrior.

He knew that he had fired his big guns, though.

Soon, it would be down to bloody face-to-face fighting.

OLTEN-EH WAS A LEGENDARY figure. When children were young, they were fed a steady stream of stories of the Golden Child who could escape any trap, fix any problem. People swore those stories were all true.

On this day, standing at the edge of a forest and watching her beloved city burn itself to the ground, this was a quieter, more defeated Olten-eh.

She may have once been burnished gold, but at that moment, she felt only tarnished.

Her state of mind was not ideal, then, as she faced the most difficult decisions a leader could make.

That mindset led her to make mistakes.

The most critical of those errors was seeing the dual attack of the wasta-ta and the godat-ta and mistaking it as the beginning of the full-fledged attack on the Northmen.

It was a mistake in judgment, but one that could be easily attributable to hunger, exhaustion, and grief. Her bravery would never be questioned.

As soon as she saw the black cloud of wasta-ta hovering over the camp, she gave orders for her own army to begin their march.

She knew that she had agreed to wait. To give Alex and his army time to fully engage the enemy before giving that order, but now, in the fog of war, she could only see her chance to finally strike at the enemy who had attacked her city and held it hostage for so long.

The army of Kalki-ah had once been the envy of all of Kragdon-ah. The great Manta-ak himself had spent long months training them, teaching them different techniques and military strategies. Olten-eh had sent her best and brightest on the long journey to Vendan-ah to continue their training.

Then the Northmen had come, killing everyone in the surrounding area. It was obvious to her that even her army could not stand up to the bearded invaders. She had made the difficult decision to close the gate and rely on the strength of their walls and the poisonous plants that covered them to keep them safe.

She had sent a plea to Winten-ah, asking Manta-ak to save them once again. She knew he would answer the call, but it had taken so long.

Even with rationing, food had run low by the winter solstice. By early spring, they were eating the bugs that crawled and any unfortunate bird that happened to fly where an archer’s arrow could bring it down.

Her once-fine army was reduced to a shadow of what it had been.

Now, the chance for redemption was at hand.

Olten-eh herself led the charge toward the field where the Northmen were camped. She was encouraged by the stomping feet of her army as they marched behind her. She was further heartened by what she saw in front of her.

Manta-ak’s original attack was wreaking havoc on the Northmen. There were so many of their dead that parts of the field looked as though the battle was already over, won by the forces of Kragdon-ah.

That was misleading. The battle had only just begun, and what she had thought was the main force of Manta-ak’s army was just an initial foray.

The Northmen, who had been attacked in ways and by methods they didn’t know existed, were overjoyed to see something they could relate to. That is, an actual army, made of real human beings. They deployed one of their strongest squads, made up of huge, strong-armed men carrying multiple heavy spears over their backs. The commander of the Takana Ma, who had nearly been trampled and mauled by rampaging godat-ta, sent this devastating force toward this vulnerable army.

Olten-eh and her army of starving warriors, stood directly in the path of thousands of raging, berserker fighters looking for anyone to fight and kill.

It was not really a battle at all, but a massacre.

Olten-eh fought bravely. Her army fought as though their very way of life depended on the outcome, which it did.

It did not matter. They were so completely overmatched that when the spearmen reached them, it was as if a sharpened scythe was cutting through wheat. The army of Kalki-ah died by the hundreds.

Olten-eh, once the Golden Child, was the first to fall, which was a mercy.

Her city was burned, and in just a few minutes of battle, all her able-bodied citizens were put to the swords and axes of the Northmen.

 

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chaos

T

he early stages of the battle were a mixed bag. It had started well, with the longbow archers, the trapping of hundreds of Northmen inside the burning city, the specialized weaponry of the Wastan-ah, and the effectiveness of the poison-tipped arrows.

The loss of Olten-eh’s army was a major blow, however. Alex never had any dream that those hunger-ravaged fighters would be able to effectively match the invaders blow for blow. He had hoped that if they sprang into action at the proper time, they could have taken the flank of the Northmen by surprise.

Instead, they met them head on, with predictable results. Every Kalki-ah soldier lay dead on the battlefield, joined by, at most, a few hundred dead or wounded Northmen.

When Alex saw that Olten-eh had moved her army prematurely, he cursed to himself. He looked to see if he could rush his army onto the battlefield to help save them, or, at a minimum, at least take advantage of the distraction.

Neither was really possible, though. Alex had been planning to use the Wastan-ah, the godat-ta, and the archers to take another run through the Northmen, softening them up somewhat for the next attack. His army was not in a position to launch their full-scale attack.

There was nothing he could do but watch the painful battle play out. As soon as he saw that the Kalki-ah army was indeed going to be wiped out, he hurried down from the hilltop.

At the bottom of the hill, the Wastan-ah were once again mounted on the godat-ta. The archers had resupplied themselves with arrows. Even the diminutive Wastan-ah had two extra quivers across their back, though the arrows were nearly as long as they were.

Alex wanted to say Godspeed to them, but no such equivalent existed in any Kragdon-ah language. Instead, he said, “Keep moving, don’t slow down. Return here after you make a circle through the invaders.”

Antana and Askana both grinned as though this was a delightful game, not warfare, then surprised him slightly by putting two fingers to their foreheads in acknowledgement. The four Winten-ah archers did the same, then the godat-ta exploded toward the Northmen, bloodlust once again in their eyes.

Alex resisted the urge to climb up the hill again and watch the destruction the two mighty bears would wreak across the battlefield. He knew it was time to prepare his own army to attack.

He took his remaining assets into account. He still had the Wastan-ah, the godat-ta, and the archers who rode them. They would continue to be agents of chaos across the landscape. He had his army, which he could now take against a reduced, if not completely weakened, Northmen army. And he still had Girda-eh, who would be wise enough to attack from the south at the moment when she judged they could do the most good.

Was that enough?

Deep in his heart, Alex doubted it.

And still, there was nothing else for it. He had done everything he could.

He walked along his squads of one hundred fighters. Each of the units had at least five or six archers, who would hopefully equal the odds a little with their deadly arrows. And each of those archers had at least one, if not two, volunteers who carried four to five extra quivers of arrows. Those volunteers were not suited to fight for one reason or another, but they would nonetheless be in the thick of the battle, doing what they could.

As Alex walked past one of the squads, he saw something that tore at his heart. It was a small girl, who couldn’t have seen more than eight summer solstices. She had long, dark hair that framed her huge brown eyes. She was burdened with three quivers of arrows and staggering slightly under their weight. He stopped and said, “Who are you?”

“Morgen-eh,” the young girl answered.

“Come here, please.”

Morgan-eh looked up at the archer she was carrying the arrows for.

“That’s Manta-ak, our commander. Do whatever he asks.”

The girl took two shy steps toward Alex, who lifted the heavy quivers off of her. He summoned an older boy who seemed to be looking for something to do. “Here, carry these for our archer, please.”

The boy put two fingers to his forehead, grabbed the arrows, and stepped next to the archer.

“What should I do?” Morgen-eh asked.

Alex wanted to say, You should run for the hills, do anything to stay safe. You’re only a child. He knew he could not say that. Instead, he said, “I need you to stay beside me for now. I may need someone to run messages for me. Can you do that?”

The girl considered, then said, “I am the second fastest girl in my group.”

“That’s good enough for me, Morgen-eh. Stay close to me.”

She took that order literally, standing close enough to Alex that he soon learned to look down before taking a step so he didn’t stumble over her. She looked shyly at Monda-ak, who smiled his shaggy smile and let his tongue loll comically. He was a clown prince who could make every child laugh, and Morgen-eh was no exception.

Alex finished getting his squads lined up and ready to attack. He put the mobile tower with the archers on top somewhere in the middle, hoping it would be able to deal some damage, but wouldn’t be exposed to unnecessary danger.

In the open field, the Northmen saw the godat-ta coming this time and did what they could to brace themselves, which wasn’t much. It was more of a lottery. If you were in the path the bear took, you were going to get run over, no matter what you did. If you were fortunate, you were badly injured. Or perhaps the truly fortunate ones were those who were killed and began their believed journey across the dark sea.

Antana and Askana ran their huge charges side by side, with the archers lying flat against the bears’ backs until they spotted a target nearby. Then, they would pop up, fire quickly and hug the fur again. They had to pick close targets because of the speed and bouncing they endured. It was impossible to get any real accuracy at a distance. But, picking out the Northmen who had managed to step just outside the path of the godat-ta seemed to be an effective strategy.

The two godat-ta made a huge sweeping circle through the thousands of Northmen, then turned to head back to where they had come from.

That was when they saw a Northman who seemed to be different from the others. He was a giant among the giants, standing head and shoulders above those around him. He had a contemptuous sneer on his face as the behemoths bore down on him. He casually flicked his gigantic ax from one hand to another. He was so calm; an observer could believe he faced situations like this every day.

Antana noticed him and, instead of veering away, headed straight for him.

The gigantic Northman set himself and timed his blow perfectly. He knelt low and, muscles bunching, swung his ax in a deadly arc just a few feet off the ground. It connected with the godat-ta’s leg and bit deep.

The godat-ta stumbled, then pitched forward. Antana managed to keep her grip, but the two archers were flung forward onto the ground. They rolled and popped back up but saw that they were surrounded by charging Northmen. Without hesitation and finally on level ground, they fired their arrows as fast as they could draw them from their quivers. The poison took down six, eight, then ten of the charging invaders, but they could not shoot all of them.

Moments later, they were overwhelmed and died where they stood.

The Northmen turned toward the injured godat-ta, which was struggling to regain its feet. It had landed on the giant Northman and, as big as he was, that had taken him out of the fight. He wasn’t dead, but he would not be swinging that heavy ax again that day.

Askana’s godat-ta whirled around and ran back to attempt to protect the injured bear. Any control Askana had was gone. All the godat-ta saw was that someone had attacked what had once been her cub. She roared and stood on her hind legs, which caused the two archers to slide down her back, though they managed to barely hang on. The ground shook as she dropped to all fours and tore up the field getting back to the injured godat-ta.

Northmen had surrounded the stumbling, limping bear, but those who did were soon torn apart by a mother’s fury.

Antana encouraged her injured bear to limp his way back to where they had come. The mother godat-ta ran circles around it, protecting it from all attackers. It was a slow journey, with many more Takana Ma casualties, but eventually the two godat-ta made it back to where they had started.

They brought dozens of Northmen screaming after them, but that was why Alex had chosen this exact spot to launch his attacks.

He had his best archers lined up in the trees and along the slopes of the hill that led to the opening. They cut down the pursuing attackers with arrow after arrow.

Alex ruminated that if he had known about such an effective poison for the arrows, he would have spent almost all his time training more archers and building thousands and thousands more arrows.

Once the godat-ta were through the opening, the two archers who had managed to hold on jumped down, turned, and added their arrows to the fusillade.

Now, there was no doubt that the Northmen knew where these attacks were coming from.

Alex yelled up to Antana on the injured godat-ta. “Take him to Standin-eh. She will put something on that leg to stop the bleeding, then send her back here. We will be bringing injured for treatment.” To himself, he muttered, “I never thought I’d be sending a godat-ta to our healer for treatment.” He looked down at Morgen-eh, who looked up at him expectantly. He pointed to the top of the hill where he had watched the early phases of the battle unfold. He pointed to Pandrick, who was standing in the prime observation spot. “Do you see that man?”

Morgen-eh pointed her own small finger in Pandrick’s direction. “Him?”

“Yes. I need you to climb to the top of that hill and wait for me there.”

“Is there a message for me to deliver?”

“Yes, to yourself. I want you to survive. To remember what you see here today. If we fall on the field of battle, find someone to take you home and tell our story. That is important too.”

Morgen-eh squinted at him, weighing those words. Finally, she put two fingers to her forehead and turned to run up the hill.

Alex knew that the time had come.

He had to attack the Northmen directly. He looked for his most trusted battlefield commanders—Sekun-ak, Versa-eh, Harta-ak, Yestin-ak—and told them it was time. They each had their own squad but were also in charge of larger groups. Each of them had four other squads under them that they could deploy as they saw was needed.

The time for preparation and seeking miracles was past. There was an enemy on the battlefield and the future of Kragdon-ah was at stake.

Alex pointed to Sekun-ak and said, “Attack.”

Sekun-ak led his squad in a steady march toward the line of Northmen closest to them. As soon as they crested a small rise and the armies could see each other, the Northmen yelled their battle cries, and axes raised, sprinted toward the Kragdon-ah warriors.

Sekun-ak turned his back on them. He met the eyes of his warriors. “Stand here. They will come to us.” His voice was calm. “We do this for our homes, for our families. For our ancestors.”

That was as long a speech as Sekun-ak ever gave.

“Archers, as soon as they are in range, begin to fire. The more of them you take down, the more we do not have to kill.”

A moment later, the battle was joined.

 

Chapter Thirty-Six

Clash

G

irda-eh had traveled through the night with her army. They had navigated around a mountain and arrived in position before dawn. She told everyone to rest, though she knew that very few would be able to sleep.

She put a rotating set of guards out, then moved forward to find a good place to watch the battle unfold. She found a heavily treed hill that looked out over the open field where the Northmen were camped.

In some ways, it almost gave her too good a view, because from this vantage point, she could see how truly immense the army of the invaders was.

She told herself that it didn’t matter. She’d already had a good life. She had married, had children, lost a husband, and seen her children go through the binding ceremony. She had spent most of her life doing things that needed to be done for her tribe.

It wasn’t until she had arrived in Vendan-ah that Manta-ak had picked her out of the crowd and began to give her responsibilities. She had always known she was smarter than many others, but in her life raising children, there had been little opportunity to show it.

She was grateful she had that opportunity now, even if it was the end of her life.

She stayed on the ridge, examining the makeup of the camp for long minutes, then decided to return to where she had left her army.

On the way back, her senses told her something was off. She sensed it, but it came to her too late.

As she turned around a bend in the hunting trail she was following, there were six tall Kragdon-ah warriors that she did not recognize.

“Gunta, sister,” the oldest of the men said. “We must talk.”

ALEX MOVED FORWARD, marching alongside the moving tower that Pictin had built for him. More than anything, he wanted to climb up and join Sanda and Nanda-eh inside the protected room at the top. He knew that would give him the best view of the battle ahead as it happened.

Monda-ak walked alongside him, though, and he knew he couldn’t leave the big dog on the ground while he climbed into a watchtower. Instead, he leaned close to his friend and said, “Stay close to me.”

Monda-ak cocked his head as though asking where else he might be on the field of battle.

Ahead, he heard the battle being joined. He knew that was Sekun-ak, among the wiliest of his commanders, making first contact with the enemy.

He had to constantly tell himself to slow down. There was no hurry. He had given Sekun-ak plenty of good fighters—the most among all his lieutenants, in fact—and the battle would still be there when they arrived.

The tower was moving along better than he had thought it would. He had really believed that the whole thing might tip over the first time they hit a rut in the field, but Pictin’s genius for balance and making things work came through again.

Alex looked inside the lower section and saw Hundan-ak, the new groom, leaning into the pole that pushed everything along. He was focused and already sweating.

The field was flat, so Alex couldn’t see too far ahead. “Anything to report?” he shouted up to Sanda.

“There’s fighting ahead. We’ll be there soon.”

That time arrived very quickly, as a small handful of Northmen had broken through the line in front of them and appeared suddenly, swinging their axes and looking for people to kill.

Finally, Alex could release some of the built-up tension he had felt for so long. He had carried his heavy throwing spear with him and took two steps forward and released it with all his might. It hit the first charging Northman dead center, knocking him over backwards.

Monda-ak was on the man seconds later, and he was dispatched.

Overhead, Sanda and Nanda-eh calmly shot their arrows, taking down the other three Northmen.

Getting that first action out of the way felt good.

“Just another battle,” he said, to no one in particular.

Then the battle was, indeed, upon them.

The line had spread out and Alex was able to forget about strategy and whether they were winning or losing. The only thing that mattered were the many small pockets of battle that went on all around him.

It wasn’t continual combat. Alex would see a Northman attacking a small pocket of his warriors and rush to help them, then spin to find another of the invaders coming at him. If he survived both those encounters—and he had—then they would take up the march again and move forward.

It helped that they had Sanda and Nanda-eh in the tower above. If they saw someone flagging, or being overpowered, they were able to put an arrow into the invader. The poison acted so quickly that it gave the Kragdon-ah warrior the opportunity to gain the upper hand.

Still, there were massive casualties on both sides.

Alex and the fighters around him who survived to move forward were drenched in blood, gristle, sweat, and dirt.

After what felt like hours of fighting—but had actually been no more than thirty minutes—Alex and his team reached a small rise that gave him the advantage of being able to see the land around him. He had thought that there were still thousands of Northmen lined up at the back of the field, waiting to join, but that was not the case. They were almost as spread out as the forces of the Kragdon-ah were, and most of them were currently engaged.

Still, Alex didn’t like what he saw. They had fired every extra weapon that they had, and he could see that they were still not in a position to win. It would be closer than he had thought, but he could sense that his troops were falling too fast. He had been in losing battles before, but those were in the twenty-first century, when one side could retreat and regroup.

There would be no retreating in this battle. It was to the death for both sides.

He heard a loud noise behind him. War whoops and hollers echoed across the field. It came from the south. When he turned and looked, he saw that Girda-eh had chosen that moment to attack. It was perfect timing, which was why he had selected her to lead that effort.

When he looked closer, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He had given Girda-eh five hundred fighters, hoping that would make a difference.

She was attacking, but it wasn’t with four hundred people. It looked like she might have a force of a thousand or more warriors behind her. Alex looked up to Sanda, still in the cage overhead. “What do you see coming from the south?”

“I see Girda-eh’s army, and just in time, I’d say.” She paused, sweeping the horizon in that direction. “No, that’s not right. Girda-eh had five hundred warriors with her, right? There are way more than that coming in this direction.”

“That changes things,” Alex said, then realized that their brief reprieve was over, as a wave of Northmen were marching toward them again. The screaming, frothing, berserker behavior was mostly a thing of the past, now. These Northmen were already tired, had seen too much, and were approaching much more cautiously.

“How are you for arrows?” Alex asked.

“Okay for now,” Nanda-eh answered, “but we’re starting to get low.”

“When you run out,” Alex said, “come down. Hundan-ak, when that happens, you come out too. Try to fight your way back to where we started. Load up on more arrows, with everyone carrying some. You can fight your way back here, and if this thing is still standing, we can start again. If it isn’t, or if we’ve all fallen, just try to keep away and shoot your arrows at a distance.”

Just before the Northmen reached them, Alex said, “Sanda! Don’t shoot them as they approach. Save your arrows for when you see someone is overmatched, then take them down.”

Sanda frowned but acknowledged the order. She knew that her father was trying to save the lives of the people fighting around him, even if it meant giving a little ground.

Then the battle was joined again. The Northmen’s size and weight advantage was starting to become a detriment, as they were wearing down. That allowed the sleeker, faster Kragdon-ah warriors to move and parry, slide and slice.

There were twenty Northmen who attacked the rise where Alex and his people stood. A few minutes later, all twenty were down, while Alex had only lost three.

Sanda and Nanda-eh had done what Alex asked and had only fired when one of his people was about to go down. Even so, they were down to their final quiver of arrows.

“Almost out, Dad!” Sanda shouted.

Alex surveyed the area around them, then looked at Girda-eh’s force, which was now running toward them, a wave of fresh fighters.

“Come down, then. Hundan-ak, provide as much protection as you can to get them back. Grab more arrows then come back here.”

Sanda and Nanda-eh didn’t even bother to use the rope to come down, but tossed their bows and quiver down, then jumped and rolled.

Hundan-ak and the other warriors who had been providing the push for the tower moved out and formed a small phalanx in front of the two archers.

Sanda and Nanda-eh retrieved their bows, nocked an arrow, and followed along behind. As they ran, Sanda looked over her shoulder at Alex, who was already busy repositioning his remaining people. She knew it might be the last time she saw him.

Hundan-ak attempted to pick the clearest path back to where they had started, but there was no truly clear path. There were bodies from both sides scattered everywhere. Most were dead, but some of the fighters from both sides were writhing in pain and asking to be dispatched for a quick death.

A band of roving Northmen saw Sanda and Nanda-eh running and moved to intercept them. One, who was smaller than most, but also somewhat quicker, took a straight line toward Sanda. He didn’t carry the heavy ax but instead had a broadsword in his right hand.

Hundan-ak saw him coming, cut toward him, and managed to intercept him just before he reached Sanda, who was firing her bow at one of the other approaching invaders. Hundan-ak swung his heavy hammer and hit the shoulder of the attacker, knocking him off his feet.

Hundan-ak stood over the man, raised his hammer, and prepared to send him across the dark sea.

Instead, another Northman caught up, swung his ax, and caught Hundan-ak just below his ribcage. The ax bit deep, nearly cleaving him in two. His eyes rolled up into his head, and he fell to the ground as the Northman tried to free his ax.

He never got the chance, as Sanda hit him square in the back of the neck with an arrow. The big man staggered, then fell on top of both Hundan-ak and the other wounded Northman, pinning them both.

Both Sanda and Nanda-eh rushed to Hundan-ak’s aid, pulling the Northman off of him. They had intended to carry Hundan-ak to safety, but saw that was no use. He was past saving.

They had stopped, but the battle had not. In a flash, other Northmen ran toward them.

“We’ve got to move!” Sanda said to the three other warriors. She and Nanda-eh shot their last few arrows, taking down the approaching invaders.

They made it past the opening and into the staging area Alex had set up.

Senta-eh was there, organizing things.

When she saw Sanda and Nanda-eh, but not Hundan-ak, fear crossed her face.

“I’m so sorry,” Sanda said. “He sacrificed himself to save me.”

Senta-eh was stricken, going through several stages of processing grief in just a few seconds. She stood up, dry-eyed, and said, “Your arrows are there.” She hesitated, then said, “Did you kill the one who killed him?”

“I did,” Sanda answered.

Senta-eh didn’t say anything else, but returned to what she had been doing. She had been married less than a day, was already widowed, but had the perspective to know that everyone would be mourning that day.

Sanda and Nanda-eh wanted to comfort her but knew that they were needed back on the field. They restocked their quivers, then told the three surviving warriors who had been with them to help them carry more, but not so many that they would be overburdened. They would still need to fight their way back to the tower.

They hurried out and found that in just the few minutes they had been gone, the battle had changed.

Girda-eh’s many warriors had taken what was an even fight and turned it into a rout.

Those fresh and strong warriors had spread out across the battlefield and were hunting down the Northmen who were still willing to put up a fight.

They hurried back to Alex, who still stood on the one high spot in the middle of the field. He noticed immediately that Hundan-ak was not with them but didn’t ask. His mouth was set in a grim line.

He pointed down toward a spot not far from the city walls of Kalki-ah, where smoke was still curling into the air. Even the walls themselves, which were made of an organic material, not stone, were leaning and smoking.

“That’s where they are gathering for a last stand.” He looked down at Monda-ak, whose fur was matted with gore and said, “Wait here, old man. I’ll be right back.”

He climbed up the rope ladder and stood at the top of the tower. He looked around and what he saw appeared to be a victory. Gerda-eh’s troops had saved the day.

He pitched his voice to carry on the slight breeze. “Warriors of Kragdon-ah! If you are not in an immediate fight with the enemy, come toward me. Gather here!”

Warriors from all four corners began to converge on him.

“This battle is nearly over, and victory is near.” The way he said it, it didn’t sound like a line from a victory speech. No one cheered or chanted. “Form up into positions like this. Fighters in the front, then rows of archers, then more fighters. Archers, share your arrows between you so that you all have some. I will lead us to the last fight, but we will march, not charge.”

Alex dropped down. Exhaustion was threatening to overtake him, but he pushed it away.

He led a marching army that was still many hundreds strong. They went straight to the final grouping of Northmen. Alex fully expected the enemy to charge at them and fight to the last man. He hoped the archers and their poison-dipped arrows would limit the final number of Kragdon-ah casualties.

Instead, he was surprised to find that the commander of the Northmen stood at the front of his final group of fighters. They all had their heads bowed and their axes were blade down against the ground.

“Gunta,” the Northman leader said.

Alex wondered if he spoke more of the universal language than that. He did not respond in kind. These people had killed so many people that Alex loved and respected that he could not summon up anything but a desire to kill them in return.

The Northman commander stepped forward, bowed his head, and offered his ax. He said one more word in the universal language of Kragdon-ah: “Surrender.”

Alex had been in this position a number of times since he had stepped through the door to Kragdon-ah. Everything he had been taught before that day had been to take a surrendering soldier as a prisoner. That was his first thought on this day as well.

But it was not his last. He thought of all that was still ahead of him. Burying the dead, tending to the wounded. Rebuilding a hundred tribes that had been wounded or completely wiped out by these invaders. That was his priority, not these remaining invaders.

He turned his back on the surrendering Northmen. He raised his voice. “Archers! Put them down.”

He turned and walked away as the order was carried out.

 

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Aftermath

A

lex knew that his first order of business was to take care of the hundreds of wounded scattered around the field of battle. Until they could do that, nothing else mattered. He looked down and saw that Morgen-eh was suddenly there.

“I watched like you told me to,” she said. “But now there isn’t anything to watch. Can I deliver a message for you?”

Alex wanted to pick her up and hug her. His arms and legs were suddenly like lead. If a sudden random Northman came running at him with ax raised, he wasn’t sure he would have the strength to defend himself.

“Yes, Morgan-eh. Go back to where everyone is and tell them to come here. I need everyone.”

She took off for the staging area, feet flying.

Alex began to look around at those who were still on their feet. He was looking desperately for those he loved.

He knew that Sanda and Nanda-eh had come through because he had been with them. But what of Sekun-ak, Versa-eh, Harta-ak, and Yestin-ak? Girda-eh had led the charge that turned the tide, but had she made it through those initial confrontations? And where had she found all those other fighters?

There were so many questions that needed answers.

Alex stumbled along the battlefield, nearly directionless, looking for those he loved. As he did, he tried to avoid the dead bodies, but it was impossible not to walk close to them. There were too many scattered about.

As he walked by one convoluted tangle of bodies, a hand reached out and gripped his ankle with surprising strength. Alex didn’t pull away but knelt down to see who had grabbed him.

It was Sekun-ak, though he was nearly unrecognizable. He had been slashed across his face and had open wounds all over his body. That wasn’t the worst of it, though. His left arm was missing just below the elbow.

“Oh,” was all that Alex could muster. “Oh, my brother.”

Sekun-ak, miraculously, smiled. “Is it over?”

“It is over, and we’ve won.” Alex leaned close to the man who was truly his brother. “The last of them tried to surrender. I had them killed.”

Sekun-ak’s smile widened. “I knew we would make a Winten-ah warrior out of you. That was the proper thing to do.” His eyes closed slowly, and Alex could see he was slipping away.

“Please don’t leave. I need you here.” Alex pulled the body of the Northman off of Sekun-ak and saw that he had more wounds to his torso and lower legs. “You’re too tough to die. I know you are.” He pulled a strip of cloth off his own shirt and used it to tie a tourniquet around Sekun-ak’s injured arm above the elbow. He grabbed a small stick and used it to tighten the pressure until the blood stopped.

Alex had seen so many people he loved die. He was not willing to give another. He held Sekun-ak’s good hand and continued to talk to him. “I know you want to leave, but there are so many here who still rely on you. Amy will not know what to do without your wise counsel. I will not know what to do without my brother.”

Sekun-ak’s eyes fluttered open. Still smiling, he said, “You have always talked too much, my brother. Now, I must go.”

He closed his eyes and was still.

Alex dropped his head to his chest. Tears squeezed out of his eyes, and he did not want to accept that he was gone.

Morgen-eh returned with dozens, then hundreds of people. They all looked at Alex to be told what to do.

Alex himself was almost unrecognizable, bleeding from more cuts than he could count. He had been hit over his left eye and it was slowly closing. His entire body was covered in blood. The only clean spot on him was where his own tears had run down his face.

More than anything, he wanted to lie down next to Sekun-ak and join him in a final rest. He had felt that way before at the end of a battle and both then and now, he picked himself up and went on. He stood and looked at the people in front of him.

“Divide up the field into sections. Take four people through each section, looking for any of our people that are alive. If you find any Northmen still hanging on, send them on their way. Any of our people that you find alive, give them whatever aid you can. Send someone to look for a healer. When we have completed that sweep of the battlefield, we will begin to care for our dead. Every single Kragdon-ah warrior who died today is a hero, and we will treat them that way.”

Alex felt light-headed and thought it was possible that he might be about to fall down. He steeled himself. He wouldn’t let himself rest until he found out where all his friends were. Still, he swayed a bit. Then he felt Monda-ak against him, holding him up. A moment later, Sanda had an arm around him.

“Let’s get you out of here, Dad. You’re bleeding.”

It was true. Alex hadn’t noticed that one of his leg wounds was worse than the others. Blood was pouring out of it every time he took a step.

“Not yet. We’re all bleeding, and we’ve got too much to do.”

“Thanks to you, there are hundreds of us still alive to do what is needed.” Sanda looked to her right and saw a small, empty cart that was going to be used to haul the dead into one central location. She signaled for the young woman to bring it to her.

Four people gathered around Alex and, though he tried to resist, picked him up and put him in the cart.

Just then, he saw Versa-eh, walking toward him. Alex struggled up and out of the cart and limped toward her. “Where is Harta-ak? Have you seen Senta-eh?”

Versa-eh pointed vaguely to her right. In a monotone voice, she said, “He is over there. They are preparing his body.”

“His…his body.” Alex shook his head, refusing to believe what he was hearing.

Harta-ak, the young captain who had rescued them all so many years ago. The man who always had a smile and a kind word for everyone. He had been on almost every adventure Alex had, walking with him stride for stride.

“I found Senta-eh, though,” Versa-eh continued. “She is alive, though she lost Hundan-ak, too.”

Alex looked at Sanda, who had not had the opportunity to tell him yet. She nodded, then looked away.

All the losses piled up on Alex. “I should have kept them with me. All of them. I could have protected them.”

“No, you couldn’t have,” Sanda said. “Any more than I could have protected Hundan-ak, who died right in front of me.”

“We did the best we could,” Versa-eh said flatly. “We did what we could so our way of life could continue. So our family and the next generations could live on. This is the heavy price we have to pay.”

She spoke unemotionally, but Alex knew that though they never used the words, no two people had ever loved more than Versa-eh and Harta-ak.

Alex sank back into the wagon, unable to process any more death. Sanda picked up the handles and pushed toward the staging area. The healers were all out on the battlefield, but she helped Alex find a spot under a tree. She found a jug of water and cleaned his wounds.

“If you’ll sit still here, it doesn’t seem to be bleeding anymore. I’ll get a healer to bandage you up as soon as I can.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Alex said dully. “They are doing the important work. I will be fine.” He laid his head back against the trunk of a tree and closed his eyes.

Monda-ak whimpered, sharing Alex’s pain. He laid his mammoth, shaggy head across Alex’s lap.

Alex laid a hand across Monda-ak’s shoulders and finally, mercifully, went to sleep.

THE CLEANUP OF THE battlefield took three days. They separated the Northmen’s bodies and piled them in one spot, though chose to just let them rot there instead of giving them a cleansing fire.

Hundreds more Kragdon-ah warriors died of their wounds over the next forty-eight hours. In all, more than four thousand warriors from around Kragdon-ah died on the field of battle.

Alex finally found out where the extra warriors who had turned the tide of battle came from. They were from the city of Lasta-ah and the surrounding areas. That was the same city Alex himself had once set on fire in rescuing Lanta-eh.

When asked why they had chosen to come and join the battle, they simply said they received a traka-ta all the way from Winten-ah carrying a plea for help and explaining about the threat of the Northmen. They had decided to join in and found Girda-eh just as she was about to launch her own attack from the south.

Amy was a thousand miles away, but had managed to play a key role in the battle.

The remaining able-bodied Kragdon-ah people dug a pit that stretched from one end of the battlefield to the other. They lined it with dry wood, pitch, and kindling, then piled the thousands of bodies into it, including Sekun-ak, Harta-ak, and Hundan-ak.

The funeral pyre was lit and burned so hot and bright that it could have been seen from many miles away as the bodies and spirits of the brave fighters who gave everything were consigned to the ancestors.

With that done, the Kragdon-ah turned toward home. They traveled together in groups both large and small. There were hardships along the way but compared to what they had seen on the battlefield, everything else was unimportant.

At each village and tribe, they returned the people who had lived through the conflict and sang the praises of those who had died. Many tribes had been hurt so badly, there wasn’t enough people to carry on. In those cases, the remaining people were welcomed and accepted by a different tribe as full members.

On the road, Alex discovered that Morgen-eh’s tribe had been essentially wiped out and dispersed among others. He invited her to come and live with them in Winten-ah. To that end, he asked Sista-eh, still mourning the loss of her greatest friend in Torana, to take care of her. They were inseparable for the rest of the journey.

The Wastan-ah, who had truly impacted the battle, released the godat-ta into the wilderness when they approached their homes near Altor-ah. The male would limp forever on his damaged front leg, but a limping godat-ta was still the mightiest beast to be found anywhere in Kragdon-ah.

Not wanting to reveal the location of Wastan-ah itself, Alex gave the twins a horse and at some point, they left the caravan and returned home.

When they parted, Alex said, “We never would have won without you. You changed the path of the future of Kragdon-ah.”

“We know,” the twins said together. They never lost their smiles, and they fulfilled their desire to see more of the world. They would have tales to tell forever.

Alex’s leg became infected, and there was some concern that he might lose the leg below the knee, but Standin-eh found some yellow plants growing along the trail, made a poultice, and took the infection away.

Even so, Alex was consigned to a cart or wagon for much of the journey, which he hated.

Pandrick, Sanda, Versa-eh, Senta-eh, or Nanda-eh walked or rode alongside and talked to him, keeping his mind occupied.

Finally, the huge caravan of people dwindled and the mountains, valleys, and rivers once again looked familiar to those who were left.

One of their last stops was in Tharandon. Lostin-eh had given birth on the way home. She gave Pictin a beautiful baby girl whose eyes looked like his, but who promised to be tall and strong like her mother.

As he prepared to leave Tharandon, Alex wrapped his arms around Pictin and told him truthfully, “We never could have done this without you. You built Vendan-ah, you built the underground that kept us safe from the bug. You did more than anyone else.”

“Do you remember the day that I tried to rob you on the trail?”

“Of course,” Alex said, and he smiled for the first time in so long.

“The decisions we make in moments like that have long lasting reverberations. You could have easily killed me that day. I looked like nothing more than a starving mongrel, but you chose not to put me down. Ever since that day, I have done what I can to repay your kindness. I always will.”

Alex shook his head, unable to speak for a moment. “Anything you might have once owed me was settled long, long ago. I can hardly wait to see what you will do with Tharandon now that I won’t keep you busy building cities elsewhere.”

They parted with promises to come and see each other soon.

Finally, two months after the summer solstice, they arrived back in Winten-ah.

It was a somber reunion, but Amy, Talon-ak, and Toran-ak were waiting for them as soon as they turned down the tree line.

Toran-ak had grown so much that Alex barely recognized him.

Amy looked desperately for Sekun-ak, Hundan-ak, and all the others who had been left behind in Kalki-ah.

Alex just shook his head, which told her everything.

 

Chapter Thirty-Eight

The Death of the Council of Tribes

T

he war with the Northmen continued to reverberate throughout Kragdon-ah for years afterward.

The Council of Tribes was finished. It was an effort that began with good intentions that, due to limits of the time and technology, was never able to effectively fulfill its lofty goals.

Destin-ak was the original architect, and he was killed before he could bring his vision to fruition. Olten-eh picked up the flag and carried it forward, but one mistimed mistake on the battlefield put an end, not just to her, but to nearly her entire people.

She had sacrificed her city to try to tilt the battlefield in their favor, then gave away the advantage by her own error.

Such are the vagaries of war.

The walls of Kalki-ah were made of an organic material that effectively rejected any type of attack against it and nurtured the poison vines that further kept enemies at bay. The fire they set in order to trap the hundreds of Northmen burned so hot that it didn’t just destroy the city, it effectively melted the walls themselves.

With no leader, no army, and no city, Kalki-ah simply was no more. The remaining citizens—those who had been too young, too sick, or too old to be part of the fighting force—were absorbed by other Kragdon-ah tribes. Even if they served no other purpose, they could tell the tale of the day when the armies of Kragdon-ah went head-to-head with the fearsome Northmen.

No city was built where Kalki-ah had once stood. It had been a beautiful location, with good weather, easily accessible water, and good soil for growing crops. None of that mattered. The Northmen were left to rot where they fell. Animals would not even touch many of them because the poison in their bloodstream fouled anything that it came in contact with.

It became, in its own way, a memorial to war itself, and the consequences of attempting to spread an empire too far.

The Northmen had landed on the far eastern shore of the land across the inland sea of what had once been the United States of America. They had killed and conquered their way across that thin stretch of land, crossed that inland sea, and continued on, meeting only minimal resistance. If they had a bigger force, they might have left people behind to oversee each tribe, village, or city that they conquered.

Instead, they just cut through the eastern portion of Kragdon-ah, moving constantly, leaving nothing but a trail of destruction behind.

Until they came to Kalki-ah. They could have looked at the semi-impenetrable city and moved on, continuing their path, but they did not. Instead, they chose to lay siege to the city, which was their fatal mistake. They sent out small forces like the one that had attacked Vendan-ah, but those met with overwhelming resistance and none of them ever returned to Kalki-ah. That delay while they laid siege, gave Alex and the rest of Kragdon-ah the time needed to put a force together large enough to give them an actual battle.

With no one left behind them and no one left alive at Kalki-ah, the Northmen were finished in Kragdon-ah. The force that had landed there was the largest the Northmen had ever assembled. When not a single warrior returned to their homeland from the expedition, the leaders of the Northmen made the decision to never attack there again.

One key decision was to dispose of the poison the Wastan-ah had brought with them. It was decided that since the poison could not be used for hunting, as it ruined any meat it touched, its only purpose was to wage war.

The leaders of all tribes decided that no tribe should have a weapon such as that at their disposal, so they broke the jars and let it seep into the grass. They took the remaining poison-tipped arrows, built a bonfire, and threw them on.

There was a prevailing sense of friendship, of having overcome a common enemy at that time. History said that such a feeling would be temporary, and when it passed—when one tribe looked with anger on another—they should not have such an effective long-distance weapon at their disposal.

It was always possible that the Wastan-ah could make more if they chose, but they had always had that ability and had never used it. All that the Wastan-ah wanted was to be left alone to live their life after their own fashion.

The army of Kragdon-ah dispersed, and life returned to the way it had been for many generations before the Northmen had arrived.

 

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Winten-ah

L

ike all of the tribes and villages of Kragdon-ah, Winten-ah was heavily impacted by the war. They lost more than half of their people, including many of the young and strong, and returned with less than half the horses they had left with six months earlier.

Amy and those few who had stayed behind had done everything they could to keep the tribe operating while everyone else was away.

People who had retired from being hunters once again picked up their spears and bows and went back on the hunt.

People who normally spent their days in the upper cave, rocking their time away, found their legs again and helped hoe, plant, and pick the krinta, then grind it into useful form.

In short, everyone had worked from sunup to sundown to keep the tribe functioning.

The scarred and wounded returned and immediately went back to work. There was no time for anything else. Winter was coming. They would not defeat the Northmen, then let a harsh Kragdon-ah winter starve or freeze them.

One of the first decisions Amy made when Alex and the other Winten-ah returned was to schedule a feast. That might seem counterintuitive, or a waste of resources. But with the heaviness that had settled over the tribe because so many brothers and sisters were lost, Amy decided it was necessary. She didn’t want a halfway feast, either. She wanted the full solstice feast that they had given up while the majority of the tribe was elsewhere.

To that end, she sent people to the ocean rocks, where the karak-ta laid their psychotropic eggs.

As chief, Amy had decided to stop gathering the eggs for a few years to give the bird population a chance to reestablish itself, but now she was interested in seeing for herself what that effort had netted. In addition to the five fastest warriors they had left, she went along with Talon-ak, Alex, Sanda, Nanda-eh, and of course, Monda-ak.

Months after the final battle at Kalki-ah, Alex’s leg was once again mostly healed. He would never again be fleet of foot. After the compound break in Vendan-ah, and now the infected wound in his other leg, he walked with a noticeable limp.

That slowed but did not stop him. He was not fast, but his stamina was still good, and he did not hold the group back as they passed through the grasslands on the way to the ocean.

They used the same technique that they always did to pass through the grasslands. They put four tall young warriors at the four points of the compass, where they scanned ahead and to the side, looking for the telltale sign of the silver fur or yellow eyes of the ronit-ta.

While they walked through the great open space, Alex told Amy and Talon-ak of the almost unbelievable ability of the Wastan-ah to speak to the wild animals, birds, and insects.

When he recounted how the twins called and rode the godat-ta into battle, it was plainly difficult for them to believe. Amy glanced first at Sanda, then at Nanda-eh, looking for confirmation that her father hadn’t slipped and imagined the whole thing.

“Without them, we never would have prevailed,” Sanda confirmed. “None of us would have been able to return.”

They made it to the beach without seeing the pack of ronit-ta that roamed the grasslands. They passed through the valley where hills rose up on both sides, with the dead trees almost halfway up each hill.

Amy had once told Alex that this phenomenon was caused by the salt water that had rushed through this area, killing but not uprooting the trees. As they looked up at the hills, it was possible to see just how much water had once tumbled through this valley before retreating.

Soon, they passed by the spot where Alex had crawled into a hollow log after shooting half a dozen karak-ta. Sekun-ak and a group of other Winten-ah had pulled him out and taken all his weapons. Sekun-ak had been his enemy, then, though not for too long.

A number of the egg hunters were on their first trip to the rocks, so Alex took everyone aside and once again went over how it would work. He pointed to the three young warriors—barely in their mid-teens—and told them they would be the group to excite the birds. Once they ruffled their wings and got them to leave the cliffside, another small team would swoop in and grab an egg.

Typically, because this journey was arduous and dangerous, they grabbed three, four, or even five eggs. That gave them a valuable commodity to trade with anyone who passed through.

On this day, though, Amy insisted they only pull one of the huge eggs. Just enough for their feast and ceremony.

She walked partway down the beach with the group who would be chased by the karak-ta.

What she saw amazed her. The last time she had heard, there were perhaps twenty to thirty of the leather-winged monstrosities. Today, there were so many that she couldn’t count them all.

“Should we call the egg hunt off?” she asked the runners. “We don’t want to risk anyone. What if not all of them follow you.”

With the stubborn pride of the very young, the tallest of the boys smiled and said, “They won’t catch us. There is nothing like having those giant, squawking birds coming after you to put wings on your heels.”

Amy considered canceling the hunt anyway but relented.

“You should go back to Manta-ak now,” the same young man said. “We will be coming back very soon.”

Amy turned and hurried back to her father, who said, “Well?”

“I’d say conservation was the right approach. There might be a hundred of them.”

“I’m not as fast as I once was,” Alex said, gripping his cudgel. “Let’s take a head start then.”

Amy, Talon-ak, Alex, and Monda-ak turned and headed back to the valley of the dead trees ahead of the rest of the group.

Before they reached it, they heard the screams and shouts of the others. They were running pell-mell, chased by a dark cloud of the karak-ta.

“Into the trees,” Alex shouted. “They can’t fly after you in there.”

He didn’t need to tell them twice. The young men still screamed and hollered, but as they drew near, Alex could see it was the exhilaration of a new adventure, not fear.

Sanda and Nanda-eh drew their bows and stood at the ready in case any of the birds got too close.

In the end, everyone made it into the deeper part of the woods where the trees were too close together and the birds were too big and awkward to fly. The karak-ta screamed their frustration but turned and flew back to the rocks.

The two boys who had been on egg-gathering duty proudly pulled the spotted, bluish egg out and showed it off. It had been a long time since the tribe had been able to partake in the ritual and everyone was excited about what they knew was coming.

The trip home was uneventful. The scouts did spot several of the ronit-ta as they passed through the grasslands, but they kept their distance.

The next night, they had the feast. It wasn’t as huge and festive as many of the solstice feasts had been, but it stuck to the protocol.

It started with the cooks working all day to prepare both the food and the egg.

The ceremony started with the children dancing into the big cave and chanting their song. Then Amy and Talon-ak came in, singing the story of the Winten-ah.

Finally, the food was served.

Alex sat at a round table with Sanda, Nanda-eh, and Pandrick.

When the food had been cleared away, Alex leaned close to Pandrick and asked, “Are you going to use your powers to devour a large piece of egg?”

He was teasing, of course, as the last time Pandrick had partaken of the egg, he had passed out flat on his back for nearly twenty-four hours.

“None for me this time,” Pandrick said.

Alex did have some of the egg, but only the smallest bit, and only because he was required to do so to be part of the tribe. Even the small bit that he swallowed had its impact. Perhaps by not stealing any eggs for a few years, the impact had increased as well.

Alex wasn’t floored like he was the first time he had tried the egg, but he did feel his consciousness expanding. For a time, the overwhelming sadness of what had happened at Kalki-ah lifted from him. He knew it wasn’t possible, but for that time, he felt like he was communing with those they had lost there.

As though he and Sekun-ak, Harta-ak, Hundan-ak, Torana, and all the others who had died were together again. The feeling he got from all of them was not regret, but satisfaction that they had played their own part in the victory.

Finally, it was Senta-eh’s presence he felt. Her spirit sat with him quietly for a long time before fading away.

As the effects of the egg began to wear off, he felt their presence move away. The last thing he saw was the whole group of people he had lost since arriving in Winten-ah. As one, they touched their fists to their chests.

Alex was not sad to see them leave.

He knew it was time to let them go.

 

Epilogue

W

inten-ah slowly rebuilt itself, though it took years. Almost anything is replaceable except the people who make up a society.

After so many previous adventures ended, Alex Hawk would often say, “That’s it. No more adventuring for me.” Each time he said that, he inevitably ended up out on a search to rescue a friend, or to fight for the very future of not just the Winten-ah, but all of Kragdon-ah.

This time, he made a simple declaration.

“I am done fighting.” He returned his stone hammer, his ax, even his cudgel to Andin-ak and told him that if someone needed them, they could have them. He did keep his heavy throwing spear but said that was only to hunt with.

This time, he meant it. This time, it came true.

Alex went out on small adventures, to see an interesting sight, or to visit his friends, but he never raised another weapon in anger.

Before winter settled in that first year, he traveled to Danta-ah to see Versa-eh and Senta-eh the younger.

He was surprised but pleased to see that Senta-eh was now showing a pregnancy.

“Our healer says it is a boy,” she said. “We are going to name him Hundan-ak the Younger.”

Even in the midst of so much death, life continues on.

What Alex did instead of fighting was play with his grandchildren and the other children of Winten-ah. He worked in the garden where they grew food to get them through the winter. He fished like Sekun-ak had taught him. Sometimes, sitting next to a quiet pond with his hook in the water, he felt like he could feel his friend sitting there beside him.

He built another small house, this one halfway between Amy and Talon-ak’s home and the longhouse he had built for the archers. He did not live alone; he always had his slobbering, gaseous best friend right beside him.

Sanda and Nanda-eh asked him to build them another longhouse where they could train more archers. The Battle of Kalki-ah had shown them that there would always be a need for their discipline. Soon, tribes from around the region were sending their young daughters to live with the Winten-ah to be trained and eventually returned.

Alex watched Toran-ak grow up. In fact, he grew so quickly that Alex often wanted to stop time so he could enjoy a particular time with him.

Toran-ak proved to be an exceptional child. He grew straight and tall, had the hyper-intelligence of both his parents, and the adventurous, inquiring spirit of his grandfather. Not unlike Alex himself, he oftentimes let that spirit of adventure overrule his common sense and ended up in hot water because of it.

Over time, he outgrew that, and it was soon obvious that he was destined to be one of the leaders of the Winten-ah when the time came.

Toran-ak was not Alex’s only grandchild, though.

Amy and Talon-ak had two more children over the next few years, another boy and a little girl. All of them had Talon-ak’s dark skin and Amy’s green eyes. They named the little boy Sekun-ak and the girl Mandy-eh after Amy’s mother.

Even that was not the end of Alex’s grandchildren, though.

In between Sekun-ak the Younger and Mandy-eh’s birth, Alex noticed that Sanda was not as slim as she had once been. He didn’t mention it but couldn’t help noticing.

Eventually, Sanda smiled and said, “Do you think I’m just eating too much?”

Alex could only shrug, helpless in the face of this new development. “I just assumed because you were bound to Nanda-eh, that you would not ever be pregnant.”

“There are things about this tribe that you still do not know, Dad. I can explain it to you, but do you really want to know?”

Alex considered that. Then he hugged Sanda and said, “The only thing I need to know is that there will be one more beautiful baby in this world to love.”

A few months later, Sanda gave birth to a baby girl the week before the summer solstice. They named her Alta-eh, after Nanda-eh’s mother, who had been killed in the initial invasion by the Drakana.

Those years, when there seemed to always be another baby coming along to take the place of the ones who had begun to grow up, were the happiest of Alex’s life.

The tribe was flourishing again, and everyone he loved was either with him there, or within an easy ride to visit.

Both he and Monda-ak grew stiff with age once again, but this time they did not get any of Pandrick’s magic elixir. They just aged together as gracefully as they could.

Pandrick’s history of Kragdon-ah took a turn when he announced that he thought Alex was the central figure in this particular era of the land. Pandrick asked him to sit for a long series of interviews.

Alex could not understand why and did not think he had done anything worthy of that kind of attention, but he agreed to answer whatever questions Pandrick might have.

As a historian, Pandrick drilled deep, asking for more and more details, even looking more deeply at what Alex’s life had been in twenty-first-century Oregon.

When he was done with the interviews, he sat and wrote for more than a year. When he was done, he had completed a nine-volume history of what he had learned.

He gave the first volume the rather fanciful name of A Door into Time – The Adventures of Alex Hawk.

He offered to let Alex read it. Alex shook his head—a habit he still had, after all the years he had spent in Kragdon-ah.

“I promised to take Toran-ak down to the pond to fish this afternoon. That’s much more important than reading about myself.” He stopped, considered, then with a sly smile, said, “You know, no one’s going to believe all of that anyway.”

He walked away whistling an old tune, fishing pole over his shoulder, Toran-ak on one side, Monda-ak on the other.

Author’s Note

I

don’t normally title my author’s notes, but if I did, this one would be called Alex Hawk changed my life.

I quit my J-O-B and became a full-time writer in 2016. For the next few years, it was touch and go as to whether I would be able to make a sustainable living from my stories.

The Middle Falls Time Travel Series helped a lot, but in those early days of that series, that mostly just helped me keep my nose above water. After I had written twelve Middle Falls books in a three-year period, I knew I wanted to branch out and write something else.

When I closed my eyes to think about what to write next, I saw a single image: a man working in his basement and discovering a glowing door that led to who-knows-where. I mean that literally. I really had no idea where that door led.

As a young reader, I read every Jim Kjelgaard book I could get my hands on. Snow Dog, Haunt Fox, Desert Dog, Irish Red, etc. What kid doesn’t love animal stories? Then I found his YA book called Fire Hunter. It was set in a primitive time and showed a young boy separated from his tribe. The boy was clever and managed to survive using his wits. That really fired my imagination.

A few years later, I found Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar books and Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth.

I was hooked. I read and re-read those books over and over. They were the first books to ever make me think, I want to write stories like that.

The challenge with those books is that they were written more than a hundred years ago, and they sound like it. The writing was, by modern standards, stifling and formal. They were great stories, but I knew that 21st century readers wouldn’t pick them up. I began to wonder if I updated the fish out of water hero in a mysterious world scenario, would it be popular?

I wanted to give it a try.

I decided that the man with the glowing door would be transported into a world like the heroes that Burroughs and Verne wrote about. Just for fun, I decided that though he was flung into the distant future, it would look a lot like our ancient past.

That’s how Alex Hawk was conceived, but the gestation period did not go smoothly.

I decided to write that book in November of 2019. I am a pretty fast writer, so I thought I would have the book written and ready to publish by January of 2020.

That didn’t happen. I had a crisis of confidence.

I had never written a book like that before, and I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off. That horrible writer’s bugaboo—imposter syndrome—raised its ugly head.

By the end of January, I hadn’t even started the book, though I was getting plenty of exercise beating myself up for not doing it.

On January 26th, 2020, I woke up to the news that former Los Angeles Laker great Kobe Bryant had been killed in a helicopter crash. I wasn’t a huge basketball fan, but most people know Kobe and his passion, his drive, his will to be great.

For some reason, that really hit home with me.

Kobe was still a young man at the time of his death, only 42. It reinforced the message once again that we are not guaranteed another day. Whatever we want to do, now is the time, not tomorrow.

I sat down that very morning and wrote the first chapter of A Door into Time. Two months later, it was done.

Of course, I still didn’t know if it would sell.

But it did.

Although I didn’t take out any type of ads for it, people discovered the book organically and it took off on its own. Within a year, it became the biggest selling book of my career.

In quick succession, I wrote two sequels, which I thought would likely bring the series to a close. Those sequels sold as well.

That’s how Alex changed my life financially. All of a sudden, things weren’t so nip and tuck with my writing career. I could see that I wasn’t going to have to go back and get a regular J-O-B after all. The sales from those books allowed me to get three surgeries done on my eyes that stopped me from losing my vision.

Thank you, Alex.

But of course, Alex changed me in other ways. These books gave me the confidence that I wasn’t going to be a one trick pony. By then I knew I could write Middle Falls, the type of contemplative, deep meditations on the meaning of life that I enjoy. But now, I found that I could write something with action and adrenaline as well.

Without Alex Hawk, I wouldn’t have had the oomph to write my two Kradak books. I would have had no reason to write what is essentially a prequel to this series, called The Chronicles of Altor.

So yes, Alex Hawk changed my life for the better.

You may be wondering, then, Why is this the last Alex Hawk book?

Excellent question. Thank you for asking.

After nine books, totaling almost a million words, it feels like I’ve said everything I want to say about the world of Kragdon-ah.

This series started off with a question: Can a modern man not only survive, but thrive, in a world with no technology at all? I think I answered that question in the first three books, and the answer was, You bet.

I wrote the second trilogy because, as I was out walking my dogs one day, the question of colonialism dropped into my head. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I wondered, to see what would happen if Kragdon-ah was invaded by people with rifles and cannons? I wanted to answer that question and so I did, starting with Warrior of Kragdon-ah and finishing with Mists of Kragdon-ah.

I was tempted to end the series then, but I didn’t because I heard from people nearly every day asking for more tales of Alex, Monda-ak, and friends.

I decided to take a long look at the impact Alex had on Kragdon-ah, and that’s what this final trilogy has been about. The Council of Tribes seemed like a great idea, but in Kragdon-ah, it just wasn’t feasible.

And now, we’re here. I’ve written the final chapters of Alex’s adventures in Kragdon-ah. Right up until the end, I didn’t know if Alex would be alive at the end of the book.

Back when I was that young reader, I read Robin Hood, and that final scene, with Little John cradling Robin as he shot his final arrow to identify his final resting place, just about destroyed me. I cried real tears for Robin when I read that.

As an author, it’s tempting to use that sort of device, but after I’ve spent four years with Alex and Monda-ak, more than anything, I wanted to let them wander off into the sunset, happy and at peace. And so I did.

I need to mention the song that I listened to as I wrote this book. Just as I did with Armies of Kragdon-ah, it was Brothers in Arms by Dire Straits. This song made a huge impact on me and ultimately it had a real impact on the story I told here. If you listen to the song—which I whole heartedly recommend—you’ll likely find some similarities in the tone of that song and this book. Besides, you can never go wrong listening to a Mark Knopfler song.

I need to thank MIBLart for creating the cool cover of Alex facing the oncoming horde of Northmen. This cover was their first shot, and I knew it was perfect as soon as I saw it.

Melissa Prideaux has been my editor for the final six Alex Hawk books, and she is, in many ways, the MVP of the team. She rearranges my tangled sentences and prods me to remember to include the many things I forget. Thank you, Melissa.

I used three proofreaders on this book: Dan Hilton, Marta Rubin, and Kim K. O’Hara. They do a wonderful job of checking continuity, making sure my commas are in the right places, and overall just fixing the final remaining errors. Many thanks to all three of you.

More than anything, I want to thank you for sticking with me through all nine books. You’ve played a big part in giving me my dream career, and I really do thank you for that.

Shawn Inmon

Tumwater WA

March 2024