Our luck did not hold. On our third day out from A’leumih, I caught sight of four columns of dust in the distance to the northeast. Yhera was asleep, so I crawled past her to the front of the wagon bed and poked my head through the opening in the bonnet.
“Look lively,” I said. “Someone might be following us.”
Ohna and Lhara’h shared a look then Llara’h twisted to look behind her, over the side of the bonnet.
“Karane is correct,” she muttered. “At least four riders.”
Ohna gave a grim chuckle. “And if we see them, you can bet they see us.”
“Four against four ain’t bad odds,” I told them.
“None of your masculine foolishness,” Ohna snapped. “This isn’t a game. We don’t know their fighting skills. Yhera is a fair fighter, but only fair. We don’t even know how well you fight.”
I stiffened. “I am a commander in the armed forces!”
Ohna took a deep breath and released it. “There is a trap door under the crates. You and Yhera will hide in the space below. We’ll give these people the slip.”
I made to argue, but one frigid glare from Lhara’h and I swallowed my words.
I crawled quickly to where Yhera slept, mouth slack, a small trail of saliva gleaming along her chin.
I shook her.
She started and half sat up. “What is it?”
“We’re being followed. Ohna says there is a trap door under the wagon bed. We are to hide below.”
She frowned. “But–“
“Don’t argue,” I murmured. “Help me move the crates.”
We moved the four heavy crates to one side. I saw the trap door right away.
Lhara’h crawled through the opening at the front. “I’ll set the crates back in place. Hide your belongings, too.”
I opened the trap door and frowned. It was a narrow space.
“Go on,” Lhara’h urged impatiently.
“I’ll go first,” Yhera offered, picking up her travel bag and stuffing it into the space. She then slid in, lying face-up, and scooting over.
I pushed my knapsack towards the other side and slid in next to her. We pressed tight against one another.
Lhara’h closed the trap door with a thud . At once, the space went dark. I felt a creeping sense of unease. The space was hot and had little ventilation. I began to feel entombed.
I felt when Yhera took my hand. She squeezed it.
“Breathe evenly, Karane,” she whispered. “The unease will pass.”
I closed my eyes and tried to do as she suggested.
“There are some holes,” she said. “I think to ventilate.”
“Not enough,” I retorted, swallowing the rising hysteria.
My eyes flew open. “Not enough!”
“Breathe,” she urged softly.
Sweat broke out on my face and neck and back. Soon rivulets of sweat meandered along my body, adding to my discomfort.
I wondered how Yhera could remain so calm and poised.
Shame warred with fear inside me.
Yhera tightened her hand around mine.
I had just enough space to turn my head carefully to look towards her. I could not see her in the gritty dark.
“I know it’s terrible to be shut in like this,” she murmured. “Try to go someplace else in your mind.”
I felt her shift closer. I felt the heat of her body as she pressed against my side.
“It’s alright, Karane,” she whispered in my ear. “You’ll see.”
The wagon kept its ungainly gait through the red lands. I could distinguish Ohna and Lhara’h’s voices in the distance. Bah’nah only knew how long we lay in that closed in space. It could have been an hour or a day, for all I could tell. Some light filtered in through the airing holes but not enough to penetrate the dark much.
I thought of home, of my mother, my father, my closest friends. Sweat continued to pour out of my body, saturating the shirt I wore. Being bigger than Yhera, I could barely move. I was having a hard time breathing deeply. I could not lift my hand to wipe the salty sweat from my eyes. They burned unmercifully. My mouth felt parched.
I was hardly aware of when the wagon rolled to a stop, but then I heard the pounding of hooves. I licked my lips and took a deep breath to calm my nerves.
I heard masculine voices. I felt when Ohna and Lhara’h stepped down from their seat.
I distinguished feminine and masculine voices but nothing that was being said.
Soon the voices rose in argument. Suddenly, there were shouts and the clang of swords.
I cursed under my breath.
Yhera stiffened beside me.
I heard a bloodcurdling scream tear the afternoon, then silence descended over us.
After a long time, someone climbed onto the wagon bed and then the crates shifted away.
The trap door was pulled open.
Ohna gazed down at us. “Get out.”
With some effort, I pulled myself through the opening. I put my hand out to Yhera.
She took it and I helped her out.
She then pulled out our bags.
“What happened?” she asked Ohna.
“Thieves,” she stated coldly. “Dead thieves now.” She turned her head and spat.
She looked at me. “Help Lhara’h hide the bodies. We now own four more lir’tah complete with saddles.”
She turned away and climbed out of the wagon.
We followed her.
The sun beat unmercifully upon us. I gazed northeast, where the sky was dark with clouds. Hopefully, it would rain and soon. The rain would wash away all traces of the fight and our wagon’s path.
Yhera followed me down. We turned the corner and stopped.
Four lanky men and one woman lay dead on the ground. Blood mingled with the red dust. Two of the men had blood spreading along their chests and bellies. The woman’s throat was cut. The last man, he lay on his front over a wide patch of blood.
The animals stood placidly nearby, saddled, and burdened with bulging saddlebags.
“Help me, Karane,” Lhara’h called impatiently.
I hurried to comply.
I took the shoulders of one man while she took the shoulders of another. I dragged my man in the same direction she went.
“Help me with the beasts,” I heard Ohna tell Yhera.
Lhara’h and I dragged the bodies to an area crowded with prickly shrubs. Hiding the bodies was slow going. When we were done, one could see where the bodies had been dragged. Long bloody grooves marked the way.
In the northeast, thunder rumbled.
Lhara’h looked that way and wiped the sweat from her brow with a forearm. “The rain will wash away everything but the stink of death.”
She gave me a mirthless grin and strode towards the wagon.
I followed more slowly.
We tied the thieves’ mounts to the back of the wagon, removing the saddlebags and hauling them to the wagon bed.
“You go through the saddlebags, Lhara’h,” Ohna said. She turned to me. “You, boy. Come ride up front with me.”
I followed her to the front of the wagon and stepped up to the seat. I watched her scramble up like a youth.
She took up the reins, snapped them and gave a low whistle. The lir’tah lurched forward. The wagon rolled.
I relaxed in my seat and looked ahead.
“You reckon it will rain?” she asked.
“I hope so,” I replied. “It isn’t always the case, this far inland. Sometimes there are dry storms, just lightning and thunder and the smell of ozone.”
She grunted and spit to the side.
“You’ve been out here before?” she asked.
“I trained in the red lands. When I was 13. Long hours of mock fights under the glaring sun. Lots of forced marches carrying rocks in our knapsacks. Made a lot of friends, I guess. Only, I have never determined if they are my friends because of myself or because I am the Empress’ nephew.”
She flicked me a glance. “Poor you.”
I had not expected her to understand, but I had not expected the heavy sarcasm. I looked away from her to the north.
We rode in silence until sunset. She pulled up hard on the reins. The draft animals slowed and stopped, stomping their hooves. It felt strange, the sudden cessation of movement. My body hummed. I hopped down and my knees buckled. I steadied myself against the side of the wagon and walked stiffly towards the back.
Yhera was already outside and gathering wood for a fire. I went to help her.
“Watch out for thorns,” I told her as I walked up.
She smiled at me. “Too late.” She held up her bloody hand.
She made to turn away and I grasped her elbow. “Listen. Thank you.”
She turned, frowning. “For what?”
“For how you calmed me down in the hidey hole. I’ve never had to fit in so small a space before.”
I dropped my hand.
She smiled again. “I hope we are becoming friends, Karane. Friends help each other.”
I ducked my head. “Thank you anyway.”
I helped her gather wood then I helped her start a fire.
We squatted around the fire and Ohna passed around slices of fresh lounma fruit. The pulpy fruit was sweet as honey and juicy. I wiped my chin with the back of my hand.
After the fruit, we chewed on dried meat and drank our share of water.
“What did you find in the saddlebags?” Ohna said into the silence.
“Maps,” Lhara’h replied around a mouthful of meat. “Coin and supplies. I suppose the coin can go to funding the Resistance.”
“There’s no point in our keeping it,” Ohna agreed. She sighed. “I would like to travel in the dark, but I’m afraid of laming one of the draft beasts.”
Lhara’h swallowed. “You need to sleep. I’ll take the first watch with Karane. You and Yhera rest. We’ll head out first thing.”
Ohna rose and stretched. “Sounds like a plan.”
She turned and ambled towards the back of the wagon.
We heard her climb onto the wagon bed.
Yhera rose as well and patted my back. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
I nodded. “Sleep well.”
Lhara’h rose. “I found some treated cloaks in the saddlebags. Go get you one. It will more than likely rain while we are on watch.”
I rose and hurried to the back of the wagon. I saw two cloaks folded just at edge of the bed. I took one, unfolded it and shaking it out before I donned it, buttoning it at the clavicle. It had a hood, of which I was glad. Storms inland during the rainy season could be soakers. There was the potential for hard rain that could last for hours.
The cloak smelled of a stranger’s body odor. I wondered which of the dead people it had belonged to.
I watched as Lhara’h pulled on the other cloak.
“You watch the northeast,” she told me. “I’ll take the southwest.”
Yhera ducked her head out and handed me a belt complete with sheath and sword. I took it and thanked her. It must have belonged to one of the thieves. I walked a few feet to the east and strapped the belt low on my hips. The weight felt familiar and comforting. I turned my gaze back the way we had traveled.
In the distance, lightning danced across and below the clouds. Long streaks of light disappearing into the land. Thunder rumbled a few seconds later. The heat from the day had yet to dissipate and it was no fun wearing a heavy, treated cloak. Soon I was sweating freely. I began to walk back and forth, back and forth, my eyes trained on my surroundings. This exercise was familiar. I had done a lot of guard duty when I first joined the army. Long sleepless hours in drafty halls or along the parapets of Da’hrisja’s city walls. I was tired, but I knew how to keep weariness at bay. I knew the feeling would soon pass, and I would get my second wind.
The clouds rolled closer, eating the stars and even the moon, it grew pitch dark when Lhara’h put out our fire.
The wind kicked up as the storm got closer. I could hear rain falling like a distant sea. Each time lightning crackled, it lit the night like the sun. The red lands seemed to be holding its breath. The air grew more oppressive, heavier, until it was hard to breathe. Then there was a shift. The temperature plummeted as the rain reached us. I made my way closer to the wagon.
The first drops soon gave way to a deluge.
I heard someone running.
“Get inside!” Llara’h yelled. “No use watching in this!”
I hurried to the back of the wagon and clambered inside. She followed. We removed our cloaks and shook them out, laying them along the back of the wagon.
“Keep an eye on our back,” she told me. “I doubt anyone will find us in this, but it pays to be careful.”
I nodded and sat at the edge of the wagon bed.
Every slash of lightning illuminated the four lir’tah tied to the back of the wagon, hunched against the rain, and the surrounding land. To keep awake, I counted the seconds between lightning and its corresponding boom of thunder. During the next flash of light, I looked behind me and saw the gleam of Lhara’h’s eyes. I turned back to the storm.
The night passed with me tottering on the edge of exhaustion. In the morning, the rain had reduced to a gentle patter. The land around the wagon was the color of old blood. I shuddered.
Ohna awoke first. She sat up slowly.
Lhara’h woke second.
Yhera kept sleeping.
“So, you didn’t run off,” Ohna commented.
“To where?” I asked.
She huffed a laugh. “Good point. Let’s see how bad it is outside.”
She crawled to the flaps and pushed them to one side, glaring out at the saturated earth.
“If we are lucky,” she said to herself. “We’ve managed not to get stuck in the muck. Lhara’h!”
“Here,” the younger nun said. “How bad is it?”
“I won’t know until I see the wheels,” Ohna replied and climbed down from the wagon.
Lhara’h followed suit.
With a glance at Yhera’s sleeping form, I stepped down as well, right into a puddle.
I stepped away from the water and shook my booted feet. Walking around the wagon, I saw Ohna squatting next to the front wheel. Mud came up over the bottom of the wheel. As I walked, I could feel the mud sucking on my heels.
Ohna sighed and rose. “Wake Yhera, Karane. You three will have to push the wagon.”
I returned the way I had come and climbed onto the wagon bed once more, crawling over to Yhera and shaking her awake.
She sighed and came up on an elbow.
“We have to push the wagon,” I told her. “It might be stuck in the muck.”
She nodded and sat up.
We made our way back outside, where Ohna and Lhara’h were standing close together, speaking in soft tones. When we walked up, they separated.
“I will drive the wagon,” the older nun said. “You three will ride lir’tah-back. Let’s see if we can get the wagon free.”
Lhara’h and I pushed while Yhera urged the draft animals forward. The wagon made to roll forward but rolled back instead. We tried several times but all we were doing was exhausting ourselves.
“Can we use a couple of crate lids to bolster the back wheels?” I suggested.
Ohna frowned. “A good idea, lad. Let’s do that.”
Even with my idea in play, freeing the wagon from the mud was not easy. We pushed while the wooden crate lids gave the wheels traction and we managed to get the wagon moving forward after several tries. From there, I took the reins of my mount from Lhara’h and swung onto the saddle. I rode behind the wagon, to the right and Lhara’h took a position front to the left.
I was happy to be on a lir’tah once more. I leaned forward and patted the animal’s sinuous, muscular neck and it huffed. It was early in the day and the temperatures were still relatively cool. The cerulean sky was clear. Soon it would grow hot and humid once more as the water saturating the land began to evaporate.
It did not rain again for several days, for which we were grateful. The land began to change, the red dust giving way to darker, richer earth. We were getting close to the breadbasket of the nation. Deciduous trees began to appear as random copse. Scrubland gave way to grassland. Grass grew knee-high and covered most of the land.
When the rain returned, we were quite near the Kahi River. We began to spot caravans of traders. Most travelers did not choose to travel alone, due to the criminal element that tended to live in the wasteland to the east and south. The northeast and northwest were dominated by heavily patrolled cropland.
We lost ourselves amidst the caravans. The Kahi River was still a handful of days to the west but mingling with guarded caravans would be our best bet. The caravans usually hired ex-military or mercenaries to keep the contents of their wagons safe. It was hard work for fair wages.
We latched onto the back of a caravan of fifteen wagons guarded by ten mercenaries.
The caravanner was more than happy to allow us to tag along.
“We encountered bandits in the red lands,” Ohna told the caravanner as we shared sweet milk tea around a bonfire.
It was near sunset and the wagons had been maneuvered into concentric circles. Our wagon was on the edge of the widest circle.
The mercenaries patrolled along the outside circle.
The caravanner, a woman perhaps a bit older than Ohna, grimaced. “There has been an exponential increase in banditry the last few years.” She lowered her voice. “Things are getting harder and harder these days.”
Lhara’h, Ohna and the caravanner wandered off, speaking in soft tones.
Yhera and I shared a glance.
Yhera shrugged. “It’s not our business, I guess.”
One of the mercenaries, a relatively young man, was making moon eyes at Yhera.
“Look lively,” I told her softly. “You have an admirer.”
She glanced casually where I indicated with my chin.
“Hm,” she said. “He’s handsome enough for you.”
“He isn’t looking at me, Yhera,” I said and laughed.
The man made his way to where we stood. His gaze flicked coolly over me before alighting on Yhera with considerably more warmth.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Yhera,” she replied evenly.
I cleared my throat. “Excuse me.”
I made my way away from the bonfire and towards our wagon. The sun was close to setting and it was growing cooler. The skies to the west were overcast. It rained more frequently here than in the red lands. The monsoon season was young. It would mean a lot more rain before the season passed.
I found our wagon and leaned against the back right wheel to finish my sweet tea. I could see the shadows of the mercenaries patrolling the periphery of the circles. They were good soldiers and made little sound as they walked. I found myself thinking of my cousin, En’jteru. I had had the maddest crush on him since as far as I could recall. He was the most excellent soldier I had ever encountered, graceful and strong even when we were children. My mother called him an old soul. Nothing ever went to his head. He had been my protector when I first entered the army and my closest ally and friend from then on.
It had been a big disappointment to me that he did not share my proclivities towards other young men. He was inordinately fond of women. It had caused me heartache for the longest time before I outgrew the intense first blush of love. Eventually, I was able to be as good a friend to him as he had been to me. He had been a vocal opponent of my going to the Isle of Bah’nah alone to consult the Oracle. It had been our most devastating argument, and I wondered if we were still friends.
I felt someone coming up my back and made to turn when a meaty hand clamped over my mouth and pulled me into the inky shadows between two wagons. I started fighting right away.
“Stop resisting,” a man said into my right ear and pressed the tip of dagger into the tender flesh over the jugular. “Or I swear I will gut you.”
I stilled at once.
“Move,” he hissed and pushed me. “Make a sound and I will end you before the guards can even react.”
I walked to the edge of the widest circle and paused, looking in each direction. The guards had their backs to us.
“Act casual,” he warned.
We strode away from the wagons and towards a copse of trees several feet away to the north. When we reached the trees, the man spun me around and slammed me against the nearest truck, holding me in place with his forearm on my throat.
“I got him,” he called out softly.
Movement at the edge of my right eye coalesced into three men. The Shadows from the ship.
“Hello again, Karane,” Estenosj murmured.
The man holding me pushed his forearm against my throat until I could not swallow or even breathe. I began to fight as the edges of my eyesight grew dark.
“Leave him,” I heard someone say.
The pressure released and I crumpled to the ground, gasping for breath.
Estenosj squatted before me and placed two fingers under my chin, raising my head until I met his gaze.
“Do you think you can give us the slip so easily?” he asked casually.
I shook my head. “It wasn’t my idea to leave the ship.”
“No,” he agreed. “I’m sure it wasn’t, because you need us, don’t you?”
“Where are you headed?” he asked.
“To purchase a space on a barge heading to the capital.”
“Hm,” he said and rose. “We aren’t going to take you with us this time. We need you where you are, with the Resistance.”
I watched him pace.
“I need to inculcate you with our teachings, Karane. You must become a Shadow before we reach Da’hrisjah. How am I supposed to do that with those whores guarding you?”
I flinched at the vulgar epithet.
“Have you studied the holy scroll I gave you?” he demanded quietly.
“When?” I demanded. “I am always with one of them.”
“So. Perhaps it’s best you come with us now, Karane.”
I looked up at him helplessly.
“Don’t look so down, my friend,” he said with a quiet laugh. “It’s for the best.”
One of the others bent and took hold of my right arm, hauling me to my feet.
“Come,” Estenosj said. “You will ride with me.”
On the other side of the copse of trees were three lir’tah saddled and waiting. Estenosj strode to the one of the far left and caught hold of the pommel of the saddle, hauling himself onto the beast. He beckoned with his chin.
“Look lively, Karane,” he said and someone behind me gave me a shove.
I steadied myself and hurried to Estenosj’s animal.
He leaned down and held out a hand. I grasped his forearm, and he pulled me up behind him.
“What about the scroll?” one of the other two asked.
Estenosj shrugged. “It is in code. They won’t be able to decipher it. Let’s go.”
I turned my head towards the caravan. I thought of Yhera and my heart constricted in my chest.
“We should reach the river in two days of hard riding,” Estenosj told me. “I will teach you our faith any time we stop to rest the mounts. Now – hold on!”
He flicked the reins hard and whistled. The lir’tah huffed and then we were galloping past the caravans to the north.