“Shalla shansher an Imarah!” Clashing swords rang out over the screams of his dying tribesmen. “For the king and the tribe,” they shouted, again and again. Seasoned warriors, workers, and even Magi, whose duty was to create, not to destroy. They fought as one to protect the women and the children. Aesimar’s warriors had attacked in the night, the cowards. On the one night in a moon’s cycle when the kharesh trained away from tribe lands. They couldn’t have known. Someone from his tribe must have told them. Imarah had a traitor.
At Farraj’s shout, Tir twisted sideways and backwards, barely avoiding an Aesimar blade. Rage simmered in his blood. He fell to the sands, rolled to his feet, but before the Aesimar dog had a chance to face him, Tir slashed across his back with his twin scimitars, the sharpest ever made. He was beset upon at once and blocked a sword and a spear in turn. Two against one were nothing for him; he was faster, stronger—he’d had to be to survive the ordeal of kharashan.
“To the east, Tir!”
Tir didn’t question the order. He ran across the battlefield, fighting through when the path stood obstructed. At the eastern edge, he had a clear view of the entire fight. The Aesimar shansher sat his horse atop a dune with three of his assassin guards. He watched the fighting as one would a chess match and Tir knew that any moment now he’d turn and ride away, an unspoken order for his army to retreat. It incensed Tir, knowing that the Aesimar leader didn’t want to win this battle. He only wanted to show Imarah he could strike at any time, day or night. He sowed seeds of fear and let them destroy a tribe from within. Only if the people truly believed there was no more safe haven to be found on their lands would they abandon them. Imarah was very near that point again, and Tir would eat daeva shit before he allowed his people to be driven completely from their homelands.
Clutching his swords, Tir ran for the dune, weaving among enemy warriors without engaging, his whole being focused on the one target he needed to take out to end this. The sand gave way beneath his feet, slowing him down, but he refused to relent. Gritting his teeth, he bore down, ran faster. Almost there. Almost at the crest. He could distinguish the markings painted in blood on the horses’ bodies—symbols of Aesma Daeva, the god of violence and war, the one they worshipped and for whom their tribe was named. He knew those beasts would be sacrificed in an offering later that night in thanks for another successful raid. Their blood rites disgusted Tir. One more reason to eradicate his enemy.
He was almost close enough to hurl one of his swords, when the company turned and rode away.
Tir roared and pumped his legs, but by the time he’d crested the dune, they were long gone. “No…” He spun around. In the valley below, Aesimar’s fighters were running. Several kharesh pursued and slayed a handful before Farraj barked the order to retreat, to tend to the dead and the wounded.
Tir sliced the air with his twin swords, the need to kill someone so strong he could hardly breathe. He’d failed his people. Again. Down in the valley, Farraj met his gaze and held it, until Tir ducked his head in shame and began to make his way back. The morning sun beat upon the sands, wavering the air in mirages to break one’s spirit. Not far off, where a bountiful oasis once loomed, palm trees poked up like barren poles stuck in the sand. Rocks as dry as dust marked the remains of a deep well that once had enough water to not only soothe dry throats, but also irrigate a small field and a fig orchard. Those fig trees were gone now, years ago cut down for firewood when they stopped bearing fruit.
All of this had once been a verdant valley full of life around a burgeoning city, the tribe a thriving crowd of merchants and craftsmen, artists and singers. Now, the First Valley was dead, as his people would soon be, if he couldn’t find a way to restore them.
“Anyone left alive to question?” Tir asked Farraj when they crossed paths.
“None I have seen yet.”
Then there wouldn’t be. Farraj missed nothing. Tir nodded and continued to the tents, where women stood outside, watching and weeping. He wanted to order them back inside, but it wouldn’t do any good. They couldn’t hide from this. Tir accepted a waterskin from an older worker who’d stayed to protect the women should any Aesimar dog make it through their front lines. “How is everyone?”
“The same, I’m afraid.”
With a sigh, Tir nodded again and changed directions to go see to his family. His oldest sister, Halima, now a childless widow, tended to their father whenever Tir was away. She was the only one, besides himself and Farraj, allowed into his tent. None of them wanted the tribe to see their shansher this way. The once-mighty Dhakir the Conqueror’s spirit had deserted him after Aesimar scum had taken the life of his beloved first wife. Now, he was little more than a wasted shell, sitting listless in his chair, staring off into nothing. He never spoke, rarely moved. He’d eat when Halima fed him, drink when she held a waterskin to his mouth, but he wouldn’t seek them out on his own.
“Father.” Tir sank to one knee before his shansher. “Aesimar fighters have retreated.”
He didn’t answer, and Tir shuddered, feeling again as though he was speaking to the dead.
“You must do something, brother,” Halima said, her dark, beautiful eyes pleading. “We can’t go on like this. The wells we dig run dry within a day, there’s nothing to hunt, and our crops dry out or rot as soon as we plant them. We are dying, Tir.”
“Then do something!”
“What?” As the shansher’s last living son, it fell to him to lead and provide for the tribe. Never was there a prince who wanted his station less. It never should have been his. Dhakir had had three other sons, all of whom had met their end in battle over the years. Tir was the youngest, and the last. “Tell me, Halima! If you know something I do not, please tell me.”
Halima ducked her head. “Forgive me. I meant no offense.”
Tir huffed, at his wits’ end. They’d tried everything. The Magi had blessed the land, beseeched the gods, called to the spirits, and even tried to summon a djinn. Nothing had worked, as if everything had fled this land except for the foolish Imarah, the first Aegiran tribe to be birthed by the gods and gifted this valley as their homeland. And now, apparently, the first tribe to be abandoned by their makers.
What was he supposed to do? If they left, they might wander for years before they found another source of water, and the desert was merciless to the unwary. The Imarah had lived in this valley for so long, they knew no other way to live. If they left, they’d die. If they remained, they’d die.
Farraj announced himself and stepped into the tent. “Our dead are being prepared for funeral.”
“Twelve in all. Seventeen wounded. The Magi are tending them now. We were fortunate to return when we did, otherwise we might have lost many more.”
“What of the dead raiders?”
“We will leave their bodies in the desert far from here.”
“I would praise your heartlessness, Farraj, but I think that might be their way.”
Farraj bowed his head. He was the oldest fighter Imarah had, still unmatched to this day. He’d served the shansher all his life, loved him as a brother. He was as much a father to Tir as he was a commander and a mentor.
Halima shook her head in sorrow. “All this began when Mari died.”
Farraj’s gaze snapped up to her. “We do not know that.”
That he’d bother to answer her at all put Tir on guard. “What do you mean, Halima?”
“Nothing, sher’nah,” Farraj said. “It is only a woman’s grief speaking. You must not give the words more meaning than that.”
Tir focused on his sister. “Halima?”
She would not meet his gaze. “He is right, brother. I should not have said anything.”
Tir swore. “Someone tell me what is going on—now!”
Halima met eyes with Farraj, who shook his head.
Tir shoved to his feet and, brandishing his sword, pointed the tip at Farraj’s neck. “Either speak or leave this tent.”
Slowly, Farraj raised a hand and eased the blade away with a finger. “As you command, sher’nah.”
Tir lowered his sword but did not sheathe it. When Farraj motioned them all closer, Tir sat on the ground by his father, and the others followed suit.
“Before you were born, your father led a raid on the north, hoping to win glory for our tribe with a great victory. Our warriors alone numbered in the tens of thousands then, and to the last, his men were ready to lay down their lives for their shansher.”
Tens of thousands. Tir couldn’t imagine it. Less than two thousand of the tribe remained, half-starved and dying.
“We thought ourselves gods, trained from birth for war. The Northerners would not stand a chance, and many of them did not. We razed their towns and cities, killed any who stood in our path. But the northern kingdoms are not like ours; they are great beasts with a heart city where their kings sit, and Dhakir wanted their golden crown for himself. When we came upon the crown seat of Lyria, we found a fortress made of stone, impenetrable. They had more horses, better weapons, and knowledge of the land to use against us, and their fighters wore armor made of metal that repelled our arrows. Fortune, too, favored them. The prince of Wilderheim was there, and to keep his son safe, his king father sent countless more warriors to protect him. We were not only defeated, we were destroyed.”
“Dhakir retreated, and Mari was given to the northern prince in ramesh feh.” Tir knew this part, at least. A life for a life, ramesh feh used to be their custom for ending war through marriage. No longer. The attacking Aesimar tribe had no desire for peace, only war and death. All of the emissaries Tir had sent to offer a truce had been returned headless. The old days of honor were as gone as the water from their wells.
“Yes,” Farraj said. “But she was only a babe still, and so we waited until she grew into a woman before we took her to become queen of Wilderheim.”
Tir had only been a babe himself when Mari left. He couldn’t even remember what she’d looked like. Still, she’d been his sister and he’d loved her. That much he knew. “So what happened?”
“We do not know,” Halima said. “Not long after the wedding caravan returned, her guards and handmaidens came back as well, carrying her ashes. They said she became with child, and something went wrong. The midwife told me they did everything they could to save her, but she was too far gone. There were some who believed her northern husband killed her to take another in her place.”
Farraj swore. “Fools. They didn’t know what they were saying. Their pride was thrice hurt—first with their defeat, then with Mari leaving, and the third time when King Saeran remarried. They would have fought ghosts to prove themselves, and they would have died trying.”
“You think so little of your own men?” Tir challenged.
“No, sher’nah, but I have fought the Northerners, I’ve seen their magic men, and I have met their king. He is an honorable man. He would not have done harm to an innocent like Mari.” He spoke with such conviction, Tir was tempted to believe him. Tempted, but not convinced.
“Not long after that, our river dried up,” Halima said. “With the water gone, the fig trees were the first to die, then the crops. Then the people began to sicken and then…”
“And then the daeva started flying through the night,” Tir finished. In the absence of good and light, dark spirits had infested the valley. They came out at night, danced their wild dervishes, snatched any soul foolish enough to be wandering outside. Sometimes, they wouldn’t appear for weeks; other times, they screamed and growled for nights on end. The Magi were powerless against them, their spells and rituals all for naught. Two had died trying to banish the demons to whatever hell they’d flown out of. Only light seemed to keep them at bay, so the Imarah people had taken to sleeping by lamplight.
It would not be long before that comfort, too, disappeared. With nothing left to trade, their current oil supply was all they had left. What would happen when the last drop burned away?
“Simply because one followed the other, does not mean they were related,” Farraj argued. “We have dry seasons and rain seasons.”
“Yes, and the rain seasons grow ever scarcer,” Tir said.
“Tir, think about this.”
“I am. You spoke of magic men. If you fear them so, it means they are very powerful. Perhaps even powerful enough to cast a curse on our tribe.”
“Why would they do such a thing?”
“To prevent us from riding against them a second time; to keep us too weak to seek retribution for the death of one of our own.” And they’d succeeded. The more he thought about it, the more sense it made. Imarah had struck out against the northern kingdoms, and in retaliation, the Northerners had taken the life of their princess and made certain their tribe could never rise to retaliate.
Tir stood and picked up his swords.
“Tir, I know what you’re thinking,” Farraj said. “You cannot—”
“Oh, yes I can. You taught me that.” He was kharesh, an assassin trained in the ways of battle and death. He couldn’t raise an army against Wilderheim, but he could sneak into the kingdom to strike directly at its heart.
“No, I forbid it!”
“You forbid?” Tir snapped. “I am sher’nah, Farraj. You will do as you are told!”
Wide-eyed, his mentor stared a moment too long before lowering his gaze. “You would abandon your tribe, now, when they are most vulnerable?”
“I would do all in my power to rebuild what we have lost. If that means destroying the one who brought this misery upon us, then so be it. Kill the source, and the malady will lift.”
“Ready my horse. Halima, I will need whatever supplies we can spare. The kharesh are in charge until I return. You will see to the women and children.”
“I ride out at sunrise.”