The sand dunes fade away, allowing the hard earth to become visible. Tall mounds of rocks and distant canyons appear. Dry, thorny plants cover the ground. Dust replaces the sand decreasing the heat level, as it’s no longer reflected off the endless sea of sand. Large birds of prey circle in the sky, searching for food with their powerful eyes.
The caravan enters a small canyon of rocks. The partial shade is a welcome reprieve from the sun. Scaled animals hide in the shadows of large rocks and trees with large thorns covering the bark, which grow from the walls of the canyon.
The air in the canyon stills, putting the men in armor on high alert. The groduns pulling the carriage make strange sounds and move oddly, as though spooked. The slaves move closer together.
Jaxon stops the caravan suddenly and climbs down from his epir glaring ahead. “Damn it! What is this?”
Meah looks ahead. The canyon is blocked. Large boulders have blocked the only path through. She knows Jaxon is weighing their two options. Head back through the canyon and try to find another path or try to clear the block.
“What do we do, Jaxon?” Bruer asks the question on everyone’s minds.
Jaxon curses and kicks a rock at the blockage. “We can’t go back. We’ll only run out of food.”
“Clear it then?”
Before Jaxon can give him an answer a spear flies through the air and into the neck of one of the groduns pulling the carriage holding Meah. The beast rears back frightening the other grodun. They pull away from each other, breaking away from their reins. The carriage falls over and Meah falls to the ground. She screams as the bars break around her and one stabs her in the arm.
The slaves begin panicking as the wounded grodun runs at them. Those who can’t move out of the way are trampled or knocked to the side. A second spear shoots into the grodun and kills it. The men in armor circle the caravan with their weapons drawn, some herding the slaves to the center.
“See to the girl!” Jaxon roars at Bruer.
Bruer immediately runs to the carriage and forces the door open. He struggles at first with the bent lock, but manages to tear it off with a surge of strength. He climbs inside and looks at Meah’s arm. The bar piercing her arm is still connected to the carriage, but bent upwards.
He locks eyes with Meah. “I’m going to have to pull you off. It’s going to hurt.”
Meah nods and closes her eyes. Bruer grabs her and roughly pulls her up. As her arm is freed from the bar she bites back a scream and Bruer helps her out of the damaged carriage. Bruer tears a long strip from Meah’s dress and dresses her wound.
“This will do until you can heal it. Stay with me.”
Meah looks around at the panicked slaves. She sees those who were trampled by the wounded grodun. They lie still, but those who were only thrown to the side are screaming for help. Blood colors the already red earth black. The second grodun that had been pulling her carriage managed to escape and ran back the way the caravan had come. Several of Jaxon’s men are running after it with thick ropes.
Meah looks at Bruer with terror filled eyes. “What’s going on? What happened?”
Bruer draws his sword. “Bandits.”
Men appear from the walls around the caravan. A larger group appears from atop the blockage and stands in front of Jaxon. The bandits outnumber Jaxon’s men and Meah recognizes the one at the center of the group in front of Jaxon as the strange man from the oasis town.
He raises his curved sword at Jaxon. “You are the Black Caravan. We have heard many stories about you. We are here for your supplies and,” he looks at Meah, “the Rare Kind you are transporting.”
Meah feels her body run cold and nearly tumbles to the ground. She’s thankful for Bruer’s arm around her waist.
Jaxon’s men prepare to attack, but Jaxon holds up a hand. They move back and Jaxon walks towards the bandit leader. His expression is of pure rage. “You know of the Black Caravan and yet you still attack. You obviously did not listen to the rest of the stories. Clear a path or else you will be destroyed.”
“You must not have heard me, slave trader. We want the Rare Kind. We outnumber your men. They can’t win.”
Jaxon draws his sword. “You misunderstand my threat.” He raises a hand and the men in black armor sheath their swords and move closer together, tightening the circle around the slaves.
Bruer pulls Meah away from the fallen carriage. But she struggles to remain within eyesight of Jaxon. “He can’t be thinking of fighting them alone!”
Bruer stays silent, but moves so they still have a clear shot of Jaxon and the bandits. He still has his sword out, but Meah notices it’s lowered to the ground.
The bandit leader’s eyes move from each of Jaxon’s men and he laughs. He turns to his men and raises his hands. “Do you see this? He believes he can fight all of us alone!” The bandits laugh. The leader lets them laugh for a few seconds then drops his arms. The laughter stops. The leader turns back to Jaxon. “Kill him.”
Meah screams as the first wave of bandits run at Jaxon. She stares at Bruer in shock. “Why aren’t you helping him?”
“I would only get in the way.”
The first bandit reaches Jaxon. He raises his sword and brings it down on Jaxon’s head. Jaxon easily steps to the side, then takes a step forward, raising his sword. He stabs the man in the chest and pushes him back into the two behind. The two men grab their dying comrade but throw him to the ground moving to either side of Jaxon as a third bandit faces him. They swing their blades, but Jaxon easily blocks some with his sword, while dodging any he can’t reach. The men move closer, limiting Jaxon’s maneuvering room.
Jaxon side steps a down swing and steps on the man’s sword. The man tries to pull his blade free, but Jaxon kicks him with his other leg. The man drops his sword and Jaxon raises the leg he kicked with and spins around, kicking another man in the head. The two men collapse to the ground. The third man draws a dagger and tries to stab Jaxon. Jaxon dodges and grabs the man’s arm. He twists it, forcing the man to drop the dagger and draws his own. He stabs the man under the chin and releases him. The man falls to the ground dead and Jaxon sheaths his dagger.
The other two men manage to climb back to their feet. Only one has a sword, the other pulls out his dagger. They attack him simultaneously. The one with the sword aims for Jaxon’s head and the one with the dagger goes for his stomach. Jaxon blocks the sword with his sword and moves closer to the two men. The man with the dagger hits Jaxon’s stomach with his arm, not the blade. He tries to pull back to slice Jaxon’s side, but Jaxon grabs his companion’s arm and brings down both swords on the man with the dagger. Both blades hit his arm and he screams as it is detached. Jaxon punches the man with the sword on the nose. The bandit stumbles back, releasing his sword. Jaxon grips the man’s sword tightly and spins, slicing blades into one man’s neck and the other’s side.
Jaxon throws the dead man’s sword away and looks at the rest of the bandits. “You should all attack. Unless you like watching your comrades die one at a time.”
The bandit leader glares at him. “You don’t order them.” He snaps at a second group and ten men surround Jaxon.
Jaxon sighs and raises his sword, spreading his legs to lower his center of gravity, and smiles. The bandits attack in a flurry of steel, but when Jaxon swings his sword it makes contact with steel or with a bandit every time. He quickly dispatches the second wave and faces the bandit leader again.
The bandit leader sends the rest of his men in one large wave. They circle Jaxon and attack him one at a time. Jaxon keeps their swords from hitting him, but has trouble keeping his back clear from sneak attacks. Somehow the bandits cannot manage to hit him. His sword moves quickly from one blade to another, blocking those he can’t dodge. Those he can dodge miss him by mere inches and some hit bandits too preoccupied to avoid their comrades’ blades.
Jaxon manages to maneuver all of the remaining bandits in front of him and begins his counterattack. He moves in close to those at the front and dispatches them quickly. He uses several bodies as shields against the second group and manages to confuse a number into attacking each other, thinking they are the bodies Jaxon is using for cover. He kills those standing in confusion and throws the bodies to the ground. He draws his dagger and easily finishes the last of the bandits, moving quickly between the men and stabbing them in the back, head, or slicing their throat.
The last body falls to the ground and Jaxon turns his full attention to the leader.
“You may think you have won, but you are exhausted while I am still freshly energized,” the bandit leader says.
Jaxon shrugs. “Come on over and see how exhausted I am.”
The bandit leader pulls out a second blade and runs at Jaxon. He swings the blades quickly preventing Jaxon from dodging to either side or swinging at the man. He moves backwards, the only available path. The bandit leader kicks Jaxon in the stomach. As Jaxon falls he raises his dagger to the leader’s foot and tries to slice it. The leader spins and pulls his foot away before Jaxon’s blade can even touch his leg.
Jaxon falls to his knee then rolls to the side before the leader’s blades are brought down on him. They hit the dirt and the bandit leader turns his body so the blades follow Jaxon’s escape. Jaxon winces as one of the blades slices his arm. He moves away from the bandit leader, but feels his back hit something large and soft. He looks and sees he has been forced against the dead beast that had pulled Meah’s carriage.
The bandit leader runs at Jaxon with both his swords raised, aiming to run him through. Jaxon raises his sword between the two blades and dodges to the side. The leader’s swords dig into the dead beast. Jaxon’s blade follows the small opening between the blades and stops inches from the leader’s face. The two men freeze.
Jaxon holds his blade still, standing behind the leader. The leader breathes heavily and his eyes stare at the blade. He swallows and tries to pull his blades free, but they are stuck too deep into the beast’s corpse. He reaches for a knife and turns to slice Jaxon’s throat. Jaxon digs his dagger into the leader’s chest. The bandit leader stops and falls to the ground dead. Jaxon wipes his dagger and sword clean using the bandit leader’s scarfed head. He sheaths both weapons and walks towards Meah.
“How is her arm?”
“It was run through, but no major damage.”
Jaxon looks at her. “Can you heal it?”
Meah nods slowly, too stunned to speak.
He smiles. “Good.” He turns to his men. “Check all the slaves for injury. We’re going to need to clear this canyon before we can move on, but the good news is we now have more meat.”
Most of the men in black armor cheer and do as they are ordered. Others, more than likely the newer members, stare at Jaxon in amazed fear. The older members shove them to get them to work. They check each slave and move those who were chained to Meah’s carriage to the second.
The men who ran after the second grodun return with it in tow. They quickly put the animal to work pulling larger rocks from the blocked canyon. Slaves strong enough to lift are put to work helping with smaller rocks.