Fear fills Ari as the words she heard from her vision witnessing her mother’s death are spoken to her. Her magic explodes from her, slamming the man away. Blood from his hand hits her face and she falls back. Arms grab her and keep her on her feet as Radhri runs at the rider, making a killing blow with his weapon.
The fog still moving through the camp fades away as the magic disappears, but the sense of dread lingers behind. Ari glances up at the one holding her.
“I’ve got you, Ariana,” Vico says, smiling.
Returning his smile, Ari’s eyes look past him and spies Crofton watching them with a guarded face. She can’t tell what he’s thinking, but she can see his fists clench tightly.
Pulling away from Vico, Ari stares at the blood on the blade of the axe. “Thanks.”
Radhri appears besides Ari, his eyes still burning with the rush of the fight. “These men following you were cowards, attacking while men sleep. But as with most cowards, they’re easily beaten.”
“Until the next group attacks,” Tal says.
“We’ll be gone before then,” Ari responds. She locks eyes with Radhri. “I promised you we wouldn’t run if it came to fighting, but they’ll know when I’m gone and won’t bother your people.”
Scoffing, Radhri crosses his arms over his chest. “You and I both know that isn’t true. If it were they would’ve only attacked your tent, but they specifically killed many of our mages. This fight isn’t yours alone, Ariana Gurek.”
Crofton appears at Ari’s side, eyeing Vico carefully, but his statement is aimed at Radhri. “You know who she is?”
“Of course, and no, Tal didn’t tell me. I knew the moment I saw you as well as when I saw that medallion around your neck.”
A snort from behind precedes Gahndri’s appearance. “You didn’t even know it was there til I said something.”
Raising her hand, Ari touches the medallion she forgot she wore since leaving Kellahn. “How do you know this medallion?”
Before Radhri can answer, Gahndri forces himself between him and Ari. “That medallion’s got some pretty strong magic on it. The one who cast it made sure only specific people’d be able to see it. And those people would know what it meant.”
Radhri elbows his way back in front, ignoring his brother’s stubborn glare. “It’s a sign of trust. It lets us know whoever is wearing it is someone to help, not hinder.”
“And who told you of it?” Crofton asks.
Again, Gahndri forces his way forward. “No one told us, they’re how we were able to protect ourselves from ambush during the war.”
“The war? The Blood War?”
“Of course, the Blood War. You know any other? I was no more than you’re age, boy, when I went off to fight. Magic makes war a different game. Enemies can be anywhere, anyone, or anything. These medallions, when worn by those not meant to wear it will turn black to the eyes of those wearing its comrades.” Gahndri pulls a similar medallion from his pocket, a large scratch cutting across the center. “Your father never wore one, but if anyone could ever fool him, I’ve never seen ‘em.”
“You knew my dad?” Ari asks.
Turning hopeful eyes to Radhri, the leader of the Redland Raiders lowers his eyes. “I remained behind during the war. Gahndri and our father went off to fight while I remained home.”
“There’s no shame in it, brother. You were to become the next chief. If all three of us died, it wouldn’t have mattered whether the False King was victorious or defeated.”
Ari’s hope fell. “Then my father didn’t come this way on his journey?”
“Not to our camp,” Radhri answers, but he eyes his brother knowingly. “I believe it’s time to deliver the message, don’t you, Gahndri?”
Snorting, Gahndri sneered at his brother. “You think I don’t know when to do it? I’m the one entrusted with it.” His eyes take in the dead around them. “But not here. Do your role, chief.”
Feeling the eyes of his people on him, Radhri turns away from Ari and her group, shouting orders. The Raiders begin collecting the bodies of the killers to burn while others head for the edges of the camp to keep extra watch. The families of those slain prepare the bodies for proper burial.
“This way, all of you,” Gahndri says, being sure to include the ex-caravan members, Ari’s group, and the raider volunteers.
The large group follows in silence. As they walk, Gahndri orders everyone to gather their belongings as he leads them through the camp. How he knows where everyone’s tent sits is beyond Ari’s understanding. When they reach her shared tent, Kemp and Crofton are the first to gather their things. Ari hesitates, staring at the dead body still lying on their tent floor.
The man wore nothing striking or easily discernible. After searching his pockets, she finds no trace of anything besides the knives he wore to kill with. Who were these men? Who had they been before they were sent to kill mages in Kellahn? Is the Source truly the one controlling them?
“Ari, come on,” Crofton calls from the tent opening.
She finishes and leaves. After a few more stops, the group reaches the edge of the camp. The groduns are already harnessed to the wagon, filled to burst with supplies. Link and Sten check the groduns carefully, allowing the great beasts to take in their scents. A few of the raiders check the supply wagon, making sure nothing is left behind. Tal continuously looks behind, searching for her father, sure he wouldn’t forget to say goodbye.
“Stop you’re worrying, Tal. You’re father would flay me alive if I let you leave before he has a chance to say farewell.” Gahndri turns to Ari, studying her calm expression. “What’s in that mind of yours?”
“These were only a small number of the men following me. Only one even a true magic user,” Ari says. “There’re more out there, enough to attack Kellahn. How will you be able to fight them if they choose to attack the camp?”
“If they wished to destroy the camp, they wouldn’t have sent non magic users and if they truly wanted you dead, they wouldn’t have bothered with such a cowardly way of doing it.” Gahndri’s eyes darken. “This was a warning, I think.”
“A warning? People died,” Kemp says.
“And what does that matter? You continue to spout the foolish thought that they’re trying to kill her, but think carefully on this attack and the one you witnessed in Kellahn. For ones trying to kill someone, they’re not very well organized.”
“And yet they killed my mother,” Ari speaks coldly.
“I don’t mean to speak ill of any’s death, but your mother was killed because they truly wanted her dead. I think these men were meant to frighten you from finding your father.”
From the corner of her eye, Ari notices Crofton’s shoulders stiffen. She knows he’s remembering their fight.
“Sorry, I think we’ve missed a lot of what’s happening,” Vico breaks in suddenly, sensing Ari’s unease. “Those of us from the caravan know we’re searching for someone in Deirak and we’ve pieced together that someone is after Ari.”
“And that she’s the daughter of Ime Gurek and the Life Healer Meah,” Vesna adds. “But why are these people after her?”
“My father is searching for the Source of all magic in order to discover why magic is fading from the world. Something claiming to be the Source sent these men to our home in Kellahn and killed mages as well as my mother. Now they’re after me before I can find my father.” Ari meets the eyes of Vico, Vesna, and Guto. “Understand?”
The three nod their heads in unison.
“Do you still wish to travel with them, after hearing that?” Gahndri asks.
There’s no pause before the answers. Vesna smiles at Kemp, who returns the smile happily. Vico stares at Ari, holding back his smile in the presence of Crofton.
“Good. Now, I have a message from your father, Ari.”
“I thought Ime didn’t travel this way?” Crofton demands.
“He didn’t visit our camp. But I’m not condemned to never venture out for my own business just because I’m the cook. I came across Ime and his group many years ago. He told me of his quest and the dangers he believed would befall his family back home. He even seemed to know about the possibility of his daughter following after him.” Leaning his head to the side in thought, Gahndri’s expression reminds Ari of Radhri when he’s concentrating. “Though I don’t think he knew then it would be because of this exact reason.”
Waving his hand to clear his thoughts, Gahndri locks his eyes on Ari’s. “That’s besides the point. His message. He wished for me to tell you to beware the grave city and once you reach the sea make sure the ones who transport you to Deirak bear the mark of the Watchers yet not the Watchers.”
“What is it with our parents and riddles?” Crofton says under his breath.
A large group of Raiders walk out from the camp, Radhri in the lead. “They aren’t riddles for the sake of being confusing. They’re meant to keep wandering ears from understanding the truth beneath.” He takes a deep breath and, smiling, looks at the group preparing to leave. “May the gods protect you all and grant us a swift reunion.”
Tal runs to her father and wraps her arms around him. “Don’t destroy the camp while I’m gone.”
“When have I ever needed to be told that?” He waves Indra over and places a hand on his new son’s shoulder. They have a moment of understanding only Ari catches. Radhri looks to Ari and nods his head. “Your journey is still only just beginning, but know when it’s over you have another place you can consider a home.”
The Redland Raiders say their goodbyes to the group and as they leave the camp, Radhri’s booming voice leads those staying behind in a somber chant. Soon the group is gone, out of sight and the raiders return to their lives.
Gahndri and Radhri are left alone, staring after the ghosts of those who left.
“It’s strange,” Radhri says, “The message Ime left for his daughter didn’t seem as poetic when he spoke it to you years ago.”
Shrugging his shoulders, Gahndri eyes his brother. “He also said I could deliver it however and whenever I wanted.”
The two brothers stand a while longer before heading back into the camp.