“We know there is a magic user here. Tell us who he is and we’ll spare the rest of you,” the blue-eyed man says.
Mircien looks back at the other villagers. Sweat rolls down the side of his face, but his voice is calm when he faces the man again. “There haven’t been magic users in this part of the valley in centuries. Surely if one were here we would know of it.”
Blue Eyes’ smile falters for a moment. He looks to the two still holding Mircien and nods. They release him and move away. Before Mircien can react to the freedom of his arms, Blue Eyes punches him hard across the face. Mircien falls to the ground, holding the side of his face. His eyes are wide and blood rolls down his chin from a cut lip. The villagers scream and huddle close together.
Blue Eyes kneels down and grabs Mircien’s throat. He pulls the man up to his knees. “You have seen men like me before. You know why we are here.”
Mircien grabs at Blue Eyes’ hand and licks at the cut on his lip. His voice is no longer calm, shaking with fear and anger. “You are slave traders. You’re taking slaves for the Arena.”
“If we don’t find the magic user we’ll take the others. Tell me where he is and no one else will be taken.”
Mircien swallows, having difficulty with the man’s hand at his throat. Then he spits blood into Blue Eyes’ face. “Go back to your murderous land and leave us in peace. We are poor people who only wish to be left alone!”
Blue Eyes sighs and wipes the blood from his face. He looks into the elder’s eyes then throws him to the ground. He stands and moves back. “Where is the magic user?”
Mircien struggles back up to his knees. As he does, his wandering eyes catch a glimpse of Meah hiding behind the pile of logs. He smiles to himself and then looks up at Blue Eyes. “Leave us in peace.”
Blue Eyes looks to the one with his sword drawn. He nods and the man walks forward. In one quick movement the blade comes down on Mircien’s neck, beheading him.
Meah covers her mouth with both hands to stop from screaming, but the tears roll freely down her cheeks. Mircien’s body stays kneeling upright for longer than Meah thought should be possible before slumping to the ground. The villagers scream in terror and try to run away, but the armored men surrounding the group force them back to the center.
The man with blue eyes moves towards the group, not even glancing at Elder Mircien’s body. “We have been told stories from other villages about the magic user that lives here. Bring him forth or you shall all share in the old man’s fate.”
The villagers stare at the man in fear, but none speak. Meah can see Paki clinging to his mother. She keeps him from looking at Mircien’s body still lying prone on the ground. Sobbing is the only sound from the villagers.
Blue Eyes looks at the men surrounding them and waves his hand. The men close in on the group, drawing their swords. They each grab a single villager and pull them from the large group. Other villagers try to keep hold of those being separated, but the men kick them back or threaten them with their swords.
Paki is ripped from Zuri’s arms by the man standing in front of Meah’s hiding spot and Meah stops breathing. Blue eyes raises his hand and the men, in unison, raise their blades above the ones they hold, preparing to kill.
“Where is the magic user?” Blue Eyes asks again. The villagers remain silent. He looks at his men and takes a deep breath.
“Stop!” Meah screams. She stands and crashes into the man holding Paki. He releases him and the boy runs back to his mother. Meah stares at the man with blue eyes. He is staring at her, his expression calm. “Please, stop. I am the magic user. Please, don’t hurt anymore people.”
Blue Eyes looks at his men and waves his hand. They release their captives and sheath their weapons. He walks toward Meah, stopping an arm’s length from her.
The villagers find their voices and speak all at once. Some claim Meah is lying, some tell her to run, and others claim to be the magic user. But the men standing around them silence their cries.
The man’s blue eyes move up and down Meah’s frame before locking onto her eyes. “What is your name?”
“You’re the magic user?”
The man leans closer to her and his blue eyes take in her face. He takes a deep breath and looks at the villagers. His eyes move to Mircien’s body. His eyes rise to look at his men. “Burn the village to the ground. We’ll take them all to the Arena.”
Several of the men cheer and go to the still burning buildings. They grab a piece of burning wood and head for buildings not already aflame. The villagers plead for mercy and some try to grab the men. But those who hadn’t gone for the burning wood close in on the large group, pulling shackles from their belts.
Meah grabs Blue Eyes’ arm. “NO! Please! I’ll go with you, but spare them, please!”
“Why? They had their chance to save themselves, but they chose to remain silent.”
“If you don’t, I won’t go with you.”
Blue Eyes grabs both of her arms and pulls her close. “And how will you stop me from taking you?”
Meah sees a dagger on the man’s belt and grabs it. She places the blade against her throat. “I’ll kill myself.”
The villagers protest loudly, moving towards Meah. Blue Eyes glares at them and they become quiet. He turns back to her. “You’re bluffing.”
Meah presses the blade against her throat to draw blood. “Can you afford to lose a magic user you threatened an entire village for?”
Blue Eyes’ hesitation answers Meah’s question. He orders his men to stop. There is a moment the men don’t seem to hear him. “Enough!” His booming voice freezes the men. They look at him confused. “We’re leaving. Now!”
The men grumble as they throw the burning pieces of wood to the ground. They start leaving. Some shout final threats at the villagers still huddled in fear.
Meah lowers the dagger from her throat and Blue Eyes grabs it forcefully from her hand. He grabs her arm and drags her away. “No goodbyes.”
Meah looks back at the villagers with tears in her eyes. As the men in black armor leave, the villagers begin putting out the fires engulfing their home. The children, including Paki, whom she healed only that morning, stand, staring after her.
Blue Eyes barks an agitated order at two of the men walking nearby. He passes Meah to them, then quickens his pace to make it to the head of the group and lead them away from the village. They travel north and as they move, the men who had been scouting in the forest join them. The group around Meah grows to over a dozen men.
The River Garen appears through the trees and the group moves to follow it. The sound of the water is comforting. Meah refuses to look at the two men holding her, keeping her eyes to the ground or looking at the rushing water next to them.
Blue Eyes slows his pace and waves the men holding her away. He takes Meah by the arm to keep her from running. “I know I’m probably the last person you want to speak to right now, but I only wish to apologize to you.”
Meah jerks her head up to stare at him in shock. “You’re right. I don’t want to speak to you.” She turns her head away from him and they walk in silence. She eyes the man curiously. “Why are you apologizing?”
“Well, for killing that old man and for setting fire to your home. Isn’t that something to apologize for?”
“Yes, but murderers tend not to apologize right after the fact. Or ever really.”
Blue Eyes leans close to her so his words don’t reach the men around them. “If I may be honest, I didn’t order the burning. Our caravan has recently gained new members and they were a little excited. I haven’t allowed them a chance to really cut loose and unfortunately your village released their more…fiery spirits. My style is more surprise attack with weapons drawn to scare everyone into submission. Less people get hurt that way.”
Meah’s face flushed with anger. “And Elder Mircien’s murder? Was that not one of your typical moves?”
Blue Eyes leans his head to the side and looks up, thinking. “No, that one was all me.” He smiles at her. “But it did work.”
A chill runs through Meah. “All of that just for me? Why?”
“Magic users bring higher pay, for one. For another, I needed to prove to the new members that I’m the one in charge. You’d be surprised how many caravan leaders are killed by their own men.” His grip on her arm loosens. “Though truthfully, it’s our own fault. We hire thugs and killers on purpose, so in the end we get what we deserve.”
Meah smiles, but then frowns. She is finding herself liking this man and hates herself for it. He killed Elder Mircien. He burned her home, but there is something about him she finds…likeable.
“Jaxon Parth,” he says standing straight. “My name. Since you will be traveling with us, you should at least know my name.” His grip tightens on her arm again. “But don’t think you will be treated any differently than the other slaves. You are not the only magic user we’ve collected. You are nothing more than a thing for me to sell.”
Meah swallows a large lump in her throat. She finds it strange he can flip so easily from kindness to ruthlessness.
Several hours pass as they follow the river and the sun begins to set behind the mountains. Men’s voices echo in the forest and the group enters a large clearing by the river’s edge. A camp already set up with men cooking on several fires stretches before them. At the center of the camp are two large carriages full of people. More people are chained behind the carriages, sitting on the ground.
Four large animals are tied to the trees by the river and they drink greedily. They are thick creatures, their legs short, but strong. Two horns jut forward from their overhanging brows. Another shorter horn hangs from their chin. Their tails are short and stubby. They roar, but the sound is low and rumbles through their entire bodies.
Meah stares at the large beast in awe. They are the largest animals she has ever seen. Some of Jaxon’s men throw large piles of grass and hay in front of the beasts and their huge maws inhale great mouthfuls.
“Stay far from those beasts. A grodun wouldn’t think twice about crushing you beneath its powerful legs. Those other animals there are called epics,” Jaxon explains.
A whinnying from the opposite side of the camp catches Meah’s attention. She sees smaller animals tied to two long makeshift fences. They are large enough for two men to ride on, but there is the same number of animals as men. The animals have long lean legs. Strong muscles ripple under the thick furred skin. Their necks stretch out with long curly hair hanging down.
Jaxon leads Meah towards one of the carriages and chains her, by the wrists, to the line of people behind it. “Don’t try to run. You won’t be killed the first time. We’ll merely break your legs. The second time, we will kill you.”
Meah meets his eyes and straightens her back. “I have no intention of running.”
“You’re very unlucky. We ran out of room in the carriages several days ago. Your village was the last one we planned to hit. We leave for the Arena tomorrow. You will have to walk all the way. Unless someone dies in the carriage, then maybe you can take their place.”
“I would rather walk than be caged like an animal.”
Jaxon laughs. “We’ll see how you feel after the first day.”
“What is the Arena?” Meah asks, afraid of the answer.
“That is where the Blood King holds his games.”
Jaxon sighs and Meah notices the men in armor close by grimace, two spit on the ground. “Because he is King and his decree is law.”
“I have never heard of a king.”
“You have been fortunate. This valley is outside of his self-proclaimed realm—for now. But valuable fighters have been harvested from it for many years. Your village has always been too poor and far away to merit attention, but the stories about your magic added incentive.”
He starts to walk away then stops and turns to her again. “You should rest now. We leave at the rising of the sun. There will be very few stops until we reach the Arena.”
“How long will it take?”
“It is better not to know. It will make it seem much shorter than it actually is. You should enjoy the scenery while you can still see clearly.”
He walks away, leaving Meah alone with the other prisoners who look at their new companion briefly before returning their eyes to the ground. Several cling to each other while others stretch the chains to their full length to remain separate. Meah looks down the long line to discover most are men or young boys, but the number of women is higher than she had expected. The women look thin and sickly. Those in the carriages look a little healthier, but are cramped close together and as dirty as those forced to walk.
Meah lies on the cold, rocky ground and cries herself into a forced sleep.