A sonorous clanging woke Kaia from a string of nightmares filled with burning villages and the keening Lost. She bolted upright in the dark room, her heart thumping and her clothes damp with sweat. Sleep still fogging her senses, her blurry gaze roved the blackness. Where was she? Where was Klaus? And who was ringing a bell in the middle of the night?
Then two paws and an insistent wet nose found their way into her lap. It’s okay, my girl, we’re okay.
Tangling her fingers into Gus’ thick red fur, Kaia’s eyes focused, and she took in the simple spartan room around her—a narrow bed, a round wooden table, a hearth, and the night peeking through the window. Oh yes. Direfent fortress. She wrapped her arms around Gus and buried her face into his neck with a groan, as if to escape the clanging. She could’ve really used a few more hours of sleep, even with the dreams. A harsh rapping at her door jerked her head up once more.
Still fully dressed in her tunic and leggings, Kaia’s stocking feet padded across the cold stone floor and opened the door.
Madoc stood in the hall, his face stern. “Come on then, Dragon. I think you’ll want to see this.” Not waiting for her response, he turned and strode down the hall.
Frowning, Kaia yanked on her boots, belted on her sword, and raced after him. Her mind still churned sluggishly as he led her down the stairwell and into the courtyard.
“Is it the Lost?” she asked. Drawn to yanaa as they were, it wasn’t unusual for them to trail after the Heirs.
“The bell rings when the Rastgol approach the river.” He turned through an archway, and a mob of armed soldiers straightened, already assembled to greet them.
“Oh.” Kaia’s shoulders relaxed. The Rastgol may have been a threat, but at least it wasn’t her fault everyone had been roused from their beds. This wasn’t her problem to fix. “Do you think they’ll attack?”
“No, they’ve asked fer a parley. And they’ve brought hostages.”
Kaia’s eyebrows shot up. “Does that happen often?”
His dark blue eyes caught hers, unreadable in the torchlight. “Never.”
Klaus shouldered his way through the crowd, covering a yawn with a hand. “Your scout tells me he saw only four Rastgol. I didn’t realize the Western Guard was so skittish these days.” Matching Kaia’s strides, he fell in beside her. He nudged her shoulder with his own before bending down to scratch behind Gus’ ears.
She smiled, the sight of him smoothing the tense lines of worry from her brow.
Not looking at Klaus, Madoc scowled. “The Rastgol are a shrewd and bloody-minded people. Ya can bet there are more of ‘em out there in the dark.” Madoc’s men parted before him as he strode through their ranks. He gestured to a handful, and they trailed along behind them. “If they even smell weakness, they’ll ford the river faster than ya can piss yer pants.”
Kaia glanced over her shoulder to see four warriors bristling with weapons bringing up their rear. “Is that what we’re here for? A show of power?”
“Guess again.” Madoc’s smile didn’t reach his eyes. “After all, we’ve been doing plen’y fine without yer help so far.” He paused at the small wooden door in the outer wall and turned toward them. His gaze skated across the Heirs to the soldiers behind, and he raised his voice. “Now listen. The Rastgol haven’t asked to speak with us in years, but be on yer guard. It could be a ploy. We’ll meet ‘em on the bridge, and if there’s any sign of aggression, the bridge’ll be cut. Keep yer wits about ya or you’ll find yourself floating down the river. Understood?”
“Yes, Cap’n,” the men chorused.
“And we’re only allowed to bring four on the bridge, so you,” Madoc pointed at Klaus, “will not be seen.”
Klaus gave a mocking salute. “Yes, Cap’n.”
“What of the hostages?” Kaia asked.
Madoc snorted. “Don’t worry about them, girl.” He turned and opened the door. “If they die, it’ll be a better fate than what the Rastgol have planned for ‘em.”
Swallowing, Kaia felt the blood drain from her face. She hesitated as he strode out into the open, his men close on his heels.
Klaus bent toward her ear. “I’m sure it’ll be fine, Firefly.” He squeezed her hand. “You won’t see me, but I’ll be right next to you.”
“It’s not me I’m worried about.” Licking her lips, she put a hand on Gus’ head. “Stay here, Gus.”
Gus whined, his feet pawing anxiously at the ground, but did as he was told. Come back soon, my girl.
His eyes soft, Klaus squeezed her hand once more before disappearing into the night air. “No need to worry,” he whispered again. The soft press of his unseen lips against her brow prompted a reluctant smile.
Then with a slow, deep breath, Kaia stepped out of Direfent’s protective arms. The fortress balanced not twenty paces from the edge of the steep embankment, and a long rope bridge stretched across the lazily flowing river dividing the dark sea of grass.
Two of Madoc’s men waited to either side of the bridge posts, blades already drawn and ready to cut the lines at the whiff of trouble. Madoc stood with the other two on the suspended planks of the narrow bridge, wide enough for only two to walk side by side. Kaia’s gaze followed the bridge across the broad river to the torch held aloft on the other end. Even from a distance, she could make out four broad-shouldered figures towering over two frailer ones kneeling on the ground.
A shiver crawled along her spine. Two hands squeezed her shoulders, and a warm breath tickled her ear. “Come on, Firefly.”
With a nod, Kaia strode off toward the bridge. She filed in behind Madoc’s two soldiers, but he pointed to his side. “Nope. Dragon, I want ya here next to me.”
Kaia’s brow wrinkled as she obliged. “You know, I’m all right with a sword, but without any Lost here, I would’ve thought you’d prefer a soldier.”
“I figured ya’d want to be here.” Madoc lifted his torch higher and waved it back and forth, its flames blurring. A figure on the other side did the same and started forward across the bridge. “Since they want to talk about you after all.”
Kaia’s stomach sank as she followed Madoc across the creaking bridge. A gentle summer breeze flowed along with the sloshing river beneath them, and Kaia kept one hand on the taut rope that held them in. The bridge swayed as the Rastgol strode across it, dragging two poor souls behind them.
“They’re huge,” Kaia whispered.
Madoc nodded. “They force their kiddies to kill the smaller, weaker ones, so yer typical Rastgol is a head taller than a big Okarrian.”
Kaia’s hand moved to the hilt at her waist. “Is that all?”
Madoc snorted, his face hard. “Not even close. The scars on their faces boast their kill tallies, and they believe that drinking the blood of their slain enemies grants ‘em their strength.”
Her stomach sank a little deeper with his every word. She never dreamed of a day when she would prefer to face the Lost. “So, what do you want me to do?”
“Don’t get close. Don’t let yer guard down. And don’t ever underestimate ‘em.” Madoc halted several paces shy of a white flag tied to the thick rope railing. “I’ll talk, and we’ll leave as quick as possible.”
Kaia nodded and glanced over her shoulder at the two other soldiers once more, wondering if Klaus stood unseen behind them. But what good could he be back there on such a narrow bridge?
Facing forward again, her gaze caught on the hulking warrior now standing at the white marker, and she got her first good look at a Rastgol. He stood at least two heads taller than her, the torch in his meaty hand illuminating his ruddy, freckled scalp. Small sharpened bones pierced his earlobes and hung around his neck and ankles. Dark brown eyes glared from heavy eyebrows, and muscles bulged from every inch of his body underneath the furred hide of his armor. His bulk took up nearly the entirety of the rope bridge, hiding his companions behind him. But perhaps the most striking thing about him was the legion of scars that marked every inch of his exposed skin. The small white strikes covered his cheeks, forehead, neck, and even the backs of his fingers.
This man was a killer.
And he was proud of it.
“My name’s Madoc, Cap’n of the Western Guard,” Madoc called out. “What do ya wish to discuss?”
The Rastgol’s words were slow but clear as a mountain stream, fanged with the sharp burr of a strange accent. “To offer you t’safety from our god-pleasing raids.”
Kaia cocked her head. He wished to discuss peace? That didn’t sound like the war-hungering barbarians Madoc had described.
Madoc laid a hand on the hilt of his sword. “In exchange fer what?”
The Rastgol’s gaze slid to Kaia. “We want t’fire-bringer.”
Kaia tensed, biting her lip. They must have seen her blaze at the village yesterday. But why would they want her?
“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc replied calmly.
“Of course, you would t’say that.” The Rastgol reached behind him and yanked their two hostages forward.
Nausea roiled in Kaia’s belly at the sight of them—a boy and a girl only a few years younger than her, their hands bound behind them. They stared at the ground, shaking in the Rastgol’s shadow, their angular bodies sharpened with obvious starvation.
“Would you prefer t’slaves in exchange instead? These t’are but a sampling. You could name your number.”
“She’s not fer bargaining,” Madoc said again.
“Ah, but t’perhaps she is not so selfish?” The Rastgol turned his ice-chip gaze to Kaia. “What of it, Fire-bringer? Would you t’like to save twenty lives? That would t’please your god, no?”
Madoc turned to her, everything about him relaxed, as if they were bartering for trinkets at a summer market instead of lives in the dark of night. “They’re gonna try to drink yer blood to get yer Dragon fire.” He gestured to the bones hanging from the Rastgol’s neck. “And he might even wear yer finger bones around fer good luck.”
She looked at the children trembling in front of her with hollow eyes, and Mackie’s dead body blazed through her mind. Mogens brandishing her father’s mutilated face in a similar bargain flashed through her thoughts. From behind her, Klaus’ invisible hand squeezed her wrist. She’d been a fool once, but she would not make the same mistake twice.
Kaia swallowed, sweat beading on her temple. “I will not go.”
The Rastgol nodded. “We will have you t’one way or the other. But since these slaves are not worth t’saving…” The Rastgol raised his foot and planted it on the boy’s back, pinning him to the bridge. “I suppose it is t’best to be rid of them.”
With that, he took his torch and dug it into the boy’s back. The boy’s tortured squeal shattered the night air, turning Kaia’s blood to ice. “Stop!” Kaia stepped forward, but Madoc grabbed her shoulder even as Klaus’ hand tightened on her other wrist. The scent of burning flesh assaulted her senses, and her jaw clenched. They couldn’t just stand by and do nothing.
The Rastgol lifted the torch, but the boy continued to scream in agony. “Ah, did you have a change of t’heart?”
Before Kaia could find her words, Madoc answered instead, “If that’s all ya wanted to discuss, this parley’s over.” Madoc took a step backward, pulling Kaia along with him, his eyes never leaving the Rastgol.
The Rastgol cocked his head. “So t’is.” Lifting his huge booted foot, he brought it down on the boy’s neck with a crunch. “Then let t’blood flow.”
Thanks so much for reading! New chapters posted Mondays and Thursdays! Also, if you’ve found a typo, please feel free to give a shout, and I’ll be sure to correct it. Thanks again!