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“That was easier than I expected,” the Maraian boy says in the Common Tongue. A rope tied to Nihae’s wrists dangles from his hands.
One of the Rhilissi, whose braids form an arrow pattern on his head, claps the boy on his shoulder. “Well, Liwin, sometimes you gotta take your good fortune when it come.”
Their good fortune includes Savi’s bleeding nose, Forziel’s black eye, dozens of bruises and scrapes between the four of us, and a dreadful pain in my left shoulder, along with our swords in their hands. I’m sprawled awkwardly on the ground with my wrists bound behind my back, trying to keep pressure off of my shoulder.
Feet wrapped in leather scuff the dirt in front of my face. Onili towers over me, twisting Luemikaroeth back and forth. The blade catches the light of the moons and sends it dancing. It reflects the indree up into Onili’s face as her lips stretch. “Oh, I like this. It’s not often I see an actual sword, and I’ve never seen one quite like this one. This was really good fortune.”
The other Umwian, a big man with three dark lines running down his cheeks, scoffs. “I don’t know about that. What’re we gonna do with them, now that you’ve showed mercy?” His lips curl up at the last word.
Onili’s gaze jerks from the sword to him. “Hynn, Uner. I will not show mercy to those who question my authority.”
Uner drops his head and scowls.
“But, Onili,” the Maraian man frowns at us from a ways back, “what are we going to do with them?”
Onili swings Luemikaroeth behind her, securing it in the sash tied over one shoulder and under the other. She peers at the eastern horizon and hefts a sack from beside her feet. “We’ve all got to get to the highlands before dawn. Hoenna, Liwin, Laen, help them up. Drigo, get their bag. Uner, Vant, and Arudien will guard them.”
As soon as the words leave Onili’s mouth, the bandits obey. The Maraian woman, Laen, drags me to my feet. I groan when she pulls on my left arm. “Hoenna,” Laen gasps, “her arm’s dislocated.”
The arrow-braided Rhilissi, who has stuck close to the Maraian boy Liwin, hunches down beside me. His warm umber hands reach for my shoulder, but he pauses. “May I?” he asks.
I’m hesitant to agree–after all, these bandits did capture us, and bandits in general aren’t known for their kindness. But my shoulder really hurts, and I don’t think Onili will let one of her posse injure me further when she’s eager to be on the move.
At my nod, Hoenna lightly presses his fingers into my shoulder. I flinch. Hoenna hums. “Okay, let’s get you on your back,” he says, and unties the rope around my wrists.
The movement jostles my shoulder. I grunt.
“You’re hurting her,” Savi snaps. He steps toward me, but Uner pulls him back. Savi balks against the Umwian’s grip. “That’s my wife!”
By this time, I’m laying down and Hoenna is positioning my arm. “Uner, let him be,” he says evenly. “He can hold her hand, help with the pain.”
Savi moves forward at Hoenna’s word, but Uner tightens his grip until Onili says his name. Savi reaches me the next instant. He pulls his bound hands around his side as much as possible and links our fingers together. “I’m right here, Rai.”
I squeeze his fingers and focus on his eyes. “Thank you.”
“This will hurt,” Hoenna warns, “but try to relax.”
I nod and grit my teeth.
Hoenna pulls gently, slowly, at my arm. Pain radiates down to my fingertips and across my back. I cry out.
There’s a pop, and the pain immediately lessens. “There.” Hoenna pats my hand. “You’ll be fine. But let’s make you a sling to help with the healing.”
While Hoenna undoes his beige sash and loops it into a sling for my arm, Uner grumbles, “If we were killing them like we should, it wouldn’t matter how her arm heals.”
Laen frowns at the ground. “Uner, please. My people have been waiting for a Champion for generations.”
“If Hoenna is satisfied with the captive’s health,” Onili breaks in, “then let’s be off.” She turns, as regal as any Izyphorn I’ve ever seen, and strides east. Hoenna rebinds my wrists and helps me stand. Then Uner, Vant–the Maraian man–and Arudien–a clipped-eared Larien–flank Forziel, Nihae, Savi, and me. They nudge us forward with spearbutts and elbows.
Savi stays close by my side, even when Uner tries to wedge us apart. He gives the Umwian a glare and moves even closer to my side. “Rai, are you okay?” Savi whispers.
I bump him gently with my unhurt shoulder. “Not really, but my arm will be fine.”
Savi gives a shaky sigh. “Okay.”
With our captors so close at hand, we can’t really talk. Nihae stumbles from time to time. As the night wears on, Arudien the Larien starts to curse softly every time he has to catch Nihae.
No one else talks. We follow Onili, who covers the hard ground with familiar strides, confident even when Jshai Pot, the larger of the two moons, sets midway through the night. Forziel attempts conversation with the bandits, but none of them respond. They don’t even talk to each other.
The ground slopes up as we distance ourselves from the river. In the waning light of the small moon and the first gray light of morning, the smooth ground grows rough. Sharp stones poke out of the ground, like they’re trying to crawl out of the center of Orrock. The ground slopes up more dramatically. Pokey shrubs dig their roots into the dry ground, clinging to every crevasse.
We are in the outskirts of the foothills.
Onili takes a cleared route that could be mistaken for a game trail. It leads into a tiny valley blocked by a rock outcrop. Cold coals from countless dead fires blacken the valley’s heart.
“We’re home,” Onili announces. The bandits are already scattering to crawl under ledges and into nooks. “Vant, you’ve got first watch. Make sure the prisoners don’t burn to death in the sun.”
With a dismissive wave of her hand, Onili tosses her bag down a hole and crawls onto a well-concealed bedroll. If I wasn’t watching, I doubt I would be able to find her sleeping behind that clump of bushes.
Uner leaves with a sneer for good measure. In a couple of breaths, the entire camp is asleep, most of them hidden from sight.
Surely this is a test. My companions and I exchange questioning looks. After dragging us through the desert all night, the bandits can’t just forget about us and sleep. Can they?
Our one remaining guard perches on an exposed stone. He pulls a sharpened flint from his sandal strap and a lump of wood from his pocket and sets to whittling. “You might want to get some sleep,” he suggests. “While the sun lasts.”
I scan the camp. Silence still. “Your name is Vant, isn’t it?” I dare whisper to him.
“What of it?”
Between the folds of his tunic hangs his chanavea, a golden stone at its core. “You’re Maraian?” It isn’t really a question.
The only answer Vant gives is a sideways glance.
Rumbling snores come from Onili’s hideout. I wait until her snores deepen. Then I lean as close as I can to Vant. “Vant, Saviayr and I truly are the Champions. Aia is on our side. Don’t you see? He had you guard us for a reason! You can free us so we can keep going toward the capital. You can even come with us.”
Vant stands abruptly. He isn’t tall, shorter than Savi, but he’s strong, he has a stone blade, and I’m defenseless. The thin set of his eyes makes me wary.
“You need to shut it about this Champion business,” he says. “I’m not going for it. All you’ll do is stir up trouble.”
At this moment, Nhardah might be returning a baby to her family. But how many dozens more are dying? How many infants abandoned in streams, adults crushed in building accidents, and children punished for hunger will lose their lives before the sun sets?
“Trouble’s already here,” I snap. “It’s everywhere in Izyphor.”
Savi nudges me with his elbow. I take a breath and try to calm down. “I’m sure you know that,” Savi adds calmly. “What was it that brought you out here to the wilderness?”
Vant twirls his knife. “I ain’t answering that. You’re not gonna get me with a pity festival. Nope, you’ll only make things worse, you ‘Champions.’ There’s no way you’ll succeed, and when you fail, just watch. Izyphor’ll think up some new torture for us.”
“You can’t give up hope.” Nihae’s voice trembles. I press my eyes closed as they sting.
Vant snorts. “Lady, I haven’t had hope in years. But this is life. Now, by all means, keep blathering on about hope and Champions, but if you do, I’m gonna wake Uner for his turn with you.”
I scowl, but settle into silence for the day. If we aren’t going to escape, I may as well rest.