The camp is half a day’s walk from where the caravan was attacked. The raiders are warm to Ari and the others, offering them food and water freely, but the feeling of unease is still strong among Guto, Link, and Sten. The stories of the Lost Raiders are many and many end with no survivors, though as Kemp points out that makes it hard to verify the true stories when supposedly none survived.
Radhri remains far from Ari since they spoke, but she still catches him a number of times staring at her. After hours of the same reaction, Ari carefully makes her way forward until she walks next to the leader of the raiders.
“Why do you keep staring at me?” she asks.
“Who says I’m staring at you?”
“Well, you appear to be looking back an awful lot and, so far, every time your eyes found me. Sounds like someone staring at someone else.”
Smiling, Radhri leans towards her, balancing easily on his riding animal. “You seem to have a high opinion of yourself if you think every time a man looks behind him to make sure everything is working as it should be is actually keeping an eye on you. Perhaps you should worry more about your friends. The little one is bothering my men close to him.”
He was speaking of Link. He’d been becoming more and more nervous as they walked. If any of the raiders got too close, Link nearly passed out. Now he’s visibly shaking and his eyes roll anxiously in his head.
“Can you blame him? Have you heard the stories people tell about your group? Some actually claim you’re a group of dead soldiers out to finish fighting a war thousands of years old,” Ari says.
A full-throated laugh explodes from Radhri’s mouth, jarring his riding animal. “Do they really say that? Or did you make that one up?”
Hesitating, Ari’s face flushes a light pink and she turns away from him. His laughter grows louder and she finds herself struggling not to smile. “It could be true. I’ve heard stranger stories from Guto.”
“Ah, is he the large one?”
“My men like him.” Radhri glances back at the man in question. “They can tell he’s a good man. Now, what about the two who are with you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You three are headed for the coast to find a ship willing to take you to Deirak. Normally, I wouldn’t question you beyond what you’ve already told me, but you three seem to be hiding something. And I have a strong feeling it may put my men in danger. I’m nothing if not someone who trusts strong feelings.”
Ari glances back at Crofton and Kemp. Crofton is staying close to Guto, talking normally. Kemp is helping Vico with Vesna, keeping watch on her injury. She stares at Radhri. “They’re may be men following us. We don’t know who they are, but they do want to cause us harm.”
Searching her face for deceit, Radhri’s eyes narrow slightly. “When was the last time you saw these unknown men?”
Shifting uncomfortably under his scrutinizing gaze, Ari takes a deep breath. “We…actually haven’t seen them. We just know they’re after us.”
“Mm-hm. Interesting. I’m assuming someone informed you about them, then?”
“A friend who happened to be a Seer told us about them.”
“And he didn’t tell you who they were?” Radhri asks.
“No. He couldn’t tell from his vision.”
Radhri thinks carefully and for a moment Ari thinks he may change his mind about helping them. Radhri faces forward and his eyes search the horizon.
“I’ll have some of my men keep watch behind us. Any signs of danger and we’ll place you three deeper in the group. I’m not going to risk my men’s lives over unknown assailants. If they attack my people and I see your group running instead of helping, I’ll kill you. Is that understood?”
Ari nods her head. “We would never abandon anyone who helps us.”
Radhri’s head snaps to her. “Don’t speak for those you think you know. I’ve lost many to the fault of false trust. If you wish to speak for your two companions, be sure you know them better than yourself first.”
Before Ari can respond, Radhri spurs his riding beast forward. Those of his men also riding mimic their leaders movement and soon those walking are hurrying to catch up.
“Why the sudden rush?” Crofton asks as he catches up to Ari. “Is something wrong?”
“We’re almost home,” one of the raiders not riding says. His smile is bright and he quickens his pace.
Many around them skip and release loud whoops of excitement. Ahead a tall plateau sits at the top of high cliffs. Canyons cut through, but at the base of the largest opening is a camp. Smoke rises from dozens of fires and the smell of cooking meat wafts over the group as a breeze passes.
Tents span out from the center of the camp in a circular pattern. Those on the outside circle are smaller and made of thicker skins. Men sit outside of them with weapons close by. As the group passes through, they look up and wave. When they see the remnants of the caravan their smiles waver for a moment.
They enter the camp and pass tents of varying sizes with women, children, and elderly peering out at them. A few of the tents have men taking care of the children and as the group passes the women of the raiding group hurry to their families. By the time they reach the center where a large pylon is built and the larger of the tents sit, the raiding party is down to a few and the last of the caravan stands out noticeably.
Radhri stops them and climbs down from his beast, stroking its long nose and whispering in a different language. A raider takes the animal and leads it away as Radhri turns to the largest of the tents. The flaps fly open and a young woman storms out.
“Tal! See, I told you I’d make it back before the feast,” Radhri says, holding his hands out wide, expecting a hug.
The young woman glares at him and then at Ari and the others of the caravan. “Who are they? More mouths to feed? Have you told Gahndri he’ll need to prepare more food or are they going to eat dirt?”
Realizing he wasn’t going to get a hug, Radhri lowers his arms and a sheepish grin forms on his lips. “They were attacked by bandits. They lost their comrades and a lot of their trade.”
“One of our own has been seriously injured,” Vico yells angrily. “She needs help now.”
Radhri waves his hand at Vico cautiously, but the young woman, Tal, is already directing her anger at him. “Is she dead?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Is she still breathing?” Tal asks, crossing her arms. “Cause if she’s still breathing and the bleeding’s slowed she’s going to survive. What you need to be worried about is whether or not the injury to her head is more severe internally.” She snaps her attention to Radhri. “You couldn’t drop her off with the healers first?”
Radhri looks defeated and takes a step back. “It slipped my mind.”
“Of course it did.” She glances behind her at the tent. “Indra!”
The tent opens and a man walks out. He meets Radhri’s eyes cautiously and smiles. Radhri nods his head at him, a brief look of pride passing through his eyes.
“Indra, my father seems to have forgotten to drop off a wounded fighter with the healers in his rush to get home. Could you show them where to go?”
Indra steps forward and waves his hands at Kemp and Vico. Kemp hands off Vesna to Vico and watches as the two follow the quiet man. Ari leans close to him. “You can go if you want.”
Kemp shakes his head. “I’m not going to leave you two to deal with this without me.”
Tal walks up to Ari and her eyes move up and down taking Ari in. “So what are your names?” Walking up behind her, Radhri tries to talk, but she stops him with her hand. “Go tell Gahndri to prepare more food before I get angry and decide to feed them you.”
“I’m the chief and you’re my daughter, you can’t just feed me to whoever you like.”
Tal turns to him and even though Ari can’t see her expression, the look of fear on Radhri’s face makes her glad she can’t. Radhri leaves without another word.
“Now then,” she says as she turns back to Ari with a smile. “Your names?”
“Ariana, Ari,” Ari says holding her hand out.
Tal takes it and her smile widens. “Talea, Tal.”
“Crofton,” Crofton says, stepping forward.
Guto crosses his arms and remains where he is. “Guto.”
“Kemp,” Kemp says.
Link and Sten step forward together, but Sten is the one who speaks. “I’m Sten. This is Link.”
“And the two who left with Indra?” Tal asks.
“Vico and his sister, Vesna,” Kemp answers.
“What are we gonna do about the groduns? They need food and lots of space to rest,” Link says quickly, stumbling over his words. He covers his mouth with his hand when Tal gives him a look.
“There’s some space in the canyon if they don’t mind some company. The horses are pretty friendly and don’t mind sharing their space,” Tal says.
“Horses? That’s what your father was riding? We’ve never seen anything like them,” Sten says, wonder in his voice. He and Link, between panic attacks, had watched the strange animals with great curiosity.
“Well, they’re rare here. When the first of my family made it here from Deirak they brought a few with them. As far as we know they’re the only ones in all of Myldea. They’re smaller than jubequi, but they’re faster and have a stronger stamina.” Tal turns to Sten and Link. “If you two would like to take them to the paddocks I can have some of these men show you the way.”
“I’d like to show them, Tal,” one of the remaining men says. Ari recognizes him as the one who spoke to Radhri when they first met. “One of the groduns is wounded and is more familiar with my scent than any of the other men.”
Tal nods her head and the three men went to work releasing the groduns from the wagons. Guto tags along to provide extra strength.
Tal grabs Ari’s arm and leads her towards the tent. “So, I want to hear how my father found you.”
Kemp and Crofton follow quickly.