The first few suns in the valley were perfect. Skyrel put his earth wielders to work creating shelter for the tribe. Mota investigated the lake and found it teeming with fish and crustaceans. Falme wielded a firepit, and Beledine made them a roaring bonfire. Together they celebrated their good fortune.
But Skyrel had been right: it was too good to be true. There was a reason they hadn't seen any other tribes in the flatlands, and they discovered that reason the morning of their third sun.
“Chieftain!” Blure, who'd been scouting in the north, came hurrying back to the main camp. “There's another tribe in the valley. They're headed this way!”
“How many men?” Skyrel stood and hefted up the driftwood spear he'd been working on. It wasn't finished—nor was it particularly well-crafted—but having a weapon in hand made him feel better.
“They outnumber us. I'd say at least three to one,” Blure huffed as he limped over. “They've sent a scout ahead, he'll be here shortly.”
Skyrel grunted and strode to the edge of the encampment. He signaled to Kibar, who began rounding up the nearby hunters into a defensive formation. The women fell back into the stone shelter Saanug had created, and the men gathered behind Skyrel.
This was all too familiar, Skyrel thought to himself as he saw a lone figure crest a rocky ridge. The last time they'd faced off against a larger tribe had been the night they'd lost their home. He glanced left and right at his vastly reduced numbers and felt a pang of loss for the wielders who'd died defending their old valley.
“What's going on?” A voice rang out through the tense silence that had descended upon the tribe. Beledine was trotting up from the lakeshore, holding an armful of dried reeds that were meant to be used as bedding.
“Stay back,” he warned, pointing her away from the front line.
She paid him no mind. Indeed, she squeezed herself between Mota and Blure and gazed at the man loping down the pebbly hill. “Who's that?”
“An enemy,” Skyrel said curtly. “Get in the yurt.”
“How do we know he's an enemy?”
“Fangs and claws, shut your mouth and listen to your chieftain,” Yalon snapped. He'd slunk up on Skyrel's other side and was glaring at Beledine. Yalon was the only one whose mood had worsened since arriving in the valley. Perhaps he was angry that the tribe had listened to Beledine over him; perhaps he was angry that Beledine was always right and he seemed to be ever more in the wrong.
“If there's trouble, I can help,” she insisted. “I can fight.”
“There's nothing you can do that the Araxi tribesmen can't,” Yalon told her. “Listen to your superiors and leave this to us.”
“I can wield fire," she shot back. "I'm a mage.”
“Fire wielder you might be, but mage you are not. I think you're a fraud. I've not seen you wield anything more substantive than a few sparks to light our evening flames.”
“Enough!” Skyrel stepped between them to break them up. They'd wasted so much time arguing that by now the scout was upon them. “Stay where you are, and don't you dare say a word,” he threatened Beledine as he strode forward to greet the foreigner.
The newcomer was an air wielder, by the looks of him. His face was lean and his jaw was strong, and his wiry frame moved in a way that suggested he knew the terrain. That told Skyrel the approaching tribe wasn't just passing through—they likely lived here.
“Greetings. I am called Embre Osli, and I represent the Lothoko Tribe.” The scout raised his hand and addressed Skyrel in a broken northern accent. “Do you speak Nordri?”
“Surdri is my native tongue. I am called Skyrel, and I am chieftain of the Araxi Tribe.”
“I've been sent to inform you that you aren't welcome in Lothoko lands,” said Embre. He didn't speak with arrogance—in fact, he sounded almost contrite. “Our chieftain is coming to evict you in whatever way he sees fit.”
“I'm afraid I can't allow that. My people worked hard to get here.”
“If you don't leave, they'll kill you,” said Embre, dropping his voice and stepping closer. “They're cannibals. They kill nomads for sport and destroy tribes. They will rip you limb from limb. I've seen them hunt down and decimate every tribe that's come within four spans of the valley. Take your people and go, before it's too late.”
But it was already too late. Over the ridge marched a line of brown-skinned water wielders. They were bare-chested, and they had painted themselves with a substance that looked suspiciously like blood. Each one of them carried a rock-tipped spear.
Blure had been right—they outnumbered the Araxi at least three-to-one. They swarmed down the slope and spread out across the mossy flat by the lake, facing off against Skyrel's tribe. A tall man stepped forward—given his attire, Skyrel assumed him to be the chieftain. He wore a headdress woven from dried thorn branches, and strings of teeth and small bones dangled around his neck. Embre cowered away from him, fading back into the Lothoko ranks.
“You are the chieftain?” Skyrel asked, addressing the tall man.
The other nodded. “I am Tikar, master of this valley. And you are trespassing.”
“We didn't know this space was claimed.”
“No matter. You won't be staying long.” Tikar thumped his spear on the ground, and all his tribesmen thumped theirs in response. It was no doubt meant to be intimidating—and unfortunately, the display worked. Skyrel's men, who were still weak from their travels, drew back. All except Beledine. She held her ground, head tilted sideways as she examined Tikar.
Skyrel was proud, but he wasn't stupid. There was no way his tribe could stand against the Lothoko. They'd lost more than half their ranks to a less-organized tribe with fewer fighters when they'd been ousted from their old home.
“We didn't come to make trouble,” said Skyrel. “Give us until sundown to leave the valley, and you'll never hear from us again.”
“No one leaves without first paying tribute to the Lothoko. But I am a merciful master. My people have fed recently, so there is no need for violence.” A few of Tikar's hunters grinned, revealing teeth had been sharpened to fine points. “I'm told you have women. You will trade them all to me in exchange for safe passage out of my valley.”
Skyrel pursed his lips. He glanced to the left, seeking out Kibar. His gaze fell instead upon Beledine, who shook her head vigorously.
“Hah!” Tikar boomed a gravelly laugh. “The she-dog doesn't want to come play with us.”
Skyrel didn't want to draw attention to Beledine's scars or eyes. Fortunately, Mota was thinking along the same lines. He took her arm, pulling her backwards and standing in front of her to shield her from the cannibals' view.
“Giving you all my women would be too great a loss for my tribe to bear,” Skyrel said in a loud voice, purposely drawing Tikar's attention back to him. “I have eight women in total; I will give you my five best ones.”
“No you will not!”
Skyrel's heart skipped a beat and his stomach dropped. Beledine broke away from Mota and stormed back out in front of the Araxi, planting herself next to Skyrel. He couldn't react—he could only stare at her in outrage. Not only was she openly defying him, she was putting the entire tribe in danger.
The Lothoko burst into a storm of raucous laughter. “Look at her speak,” Tikar wheezed, pointing at Beledine with his spear. “Look at the weak chieftain, taking orders from a southern whore!”
Beledine whirled upon Tikar. “Skyrel is not weak,” she declared in perfect Nordri. “And we are giving you none of our family. You will turn around and leave us in peace, or you will pay for your insults in blood.”
Her outburst shocked the Lothoko into silence. Tikar's face darkened with fury—and perhaps fear. Skyrel could tell he'd finally seen the color of her eyes and her mage markings.
“You think yourself a match for fifty of my finest wielders, she-dog?” he hissed, taking a step forward. He thumped his spear again and all of his tribesmen echoed with dull thumps of their own.
“Take one more step and you'll find out.”
“Ahh . . . but I like your spirit.” Tikar directed his attention back to Skyrel, who still couldn't quite believe what was happening. “I will make you a deal, weakling. I will grant your whole tribe safe passage out of my valley if you give me this little girl.”
“Deal,” Yalon said at once.
Tikar barked another laugh, causing his strings of bones to rattle and clink. “Well, chieftain? Your men seem to like my offer. What say you?”
Skyrel bit the inside of his cheek. It was a better offer than he could have hoped for, truthfully: the safety of his whole tribe in exchange for an outsider who'd been with them for less than two moons. He met Beledine's gaze one more time. Her lurid eyes were now clouded. He saw pain and confusion there, but not a trace of fear.
“No deal,” he announced. “And I'd listen to the little girl if I were you.”
He heard Yalon's yelp of fury and felt the shifting of his men behind him as they shrank away from the Lothoko, but it was too late to back down. The words were out of his mouth and the damage was done.
“You say you can fight,” he muttered to Beledine, whose lips were curving into a smile. “Now's your chance to finally prove it.”
Across from them, Tikar was shouting instructions in a different dialect. Half his men fanned out across the ridge and lowered their spears, blocking the path out of the valley. The remaining men, the ones closer to the lake, began to wield.
The Araxi Tribe was comprised mostly of earth and air wielders. The earth wielders, led by Kibar, reacted right away. They began wielding barricades around the front line, while the air wielders set to work making invisible shields. It was a process they were used to, and it had saved them many a time before.
But they had underestimated the Lothoko. The men in the lake worked together to muster a huge tidal wave that rose high into the air. Skyrel and Mota jumped forward to begin counter-wielding. The wave towered over Skyrel's men, then came crashing down toward them. Skyrel sensed the energy and weight in the spell, and in that moment, he was sure they were done for.
In a flash, Beledine was in front of him once more. She moved her arms in a graceful arc and flames bloomed from her fingertips, white-hot and blinding. Her spell billowed upwards, meeting the descending wave and obliterating it. The water erupted into searing steam when it collided with her fire, and the enemy wielders let out cries of surprise.
It was hard to tell what happened next, for the air became hazy with steam clouds and the heat of it caused Skyrel's eyes to burn. He wielded the aerosolized liquid away from his face so he could see, but still it was impossible to understand just what was happening. The Lothoko water wielders were assaulting Beledine—or trying to. She blocked each of their attacks with tongues of flame, her spells flaring and dissipating in a series of rapid succession.
Skyrel had never seen a mage at work before. He knew the legends of course, and everyone had heard stories about their skill, but actually being this close to her power was . . . well, there was no other word for it: amazing. She effortlessly countered the attacks of thirty-odd men while simultaneously wielding a translucent heat shield in front of the Araxi to protect them from errant spears or spells.
Skyrel's tribesmen backed up toward their small camp, awed by Beledine's display. The Lothoko were backing up in the opposite direction, for she had now created a wall of solid fire before her and was using it to push them away. None of their spells made a dent in the flaring shield. Water attacks vaporized before they even came in contact with it.
They cannibals began to break formation. Some men even dropped their spears and retreated into the hills whence they'd come. Skyrel could just make out Tikar screaming orders to his scattering tribesmen, jumping up and down in fury.
There was so much steam, and Skyrel was so focused on Beledine, that he didn't realize a contingent of Lothoko had crept across the slope and come up behind them. Only when he heard an anguished shout over the hubbub did he turn. A group of ten water wielders was attacking their rear flank. They'd gotten hold of Blure and were holding him at spearpoint. Behind them, Skyrel saw another group of Lothoko dragging Kamber and Falme's son out of the main yurt.
“Make her stop or your people die,” one of the Lothoko cried, pressing his stone spear against Blure's neck. The older man choked as ruby liquid brimmed over the jagged edge of the cannibal's weapon, trickling down toward his chest.
Skyrel didn't have to say anything to get Beledine's attention. She somehow heard the threat over the roar of water and fire, and she dropped her offensive spells at once.
“Let them go,” she cried.
“Surrender,” Tikar countered, “and I may think about sparing their miserable lives.”
Though she clearly had the magical advantage, Beledine raised her hands. The Lothoko looked shocked by this, but it didn't take long for Tikar to recover. He motioned to his nearest hunters and a group of them rushed forward to apprehend her. Embre was among them, as was a skin-and-bones earth wielder—perhaps a sole survivor from another tribe the Lothoko had previously overtaken.
“Bring her to me,” Tikar demanded. The valley was still. All eyes were on Beledine as the cannibals dragged her to the cannibals' chieftain and threw her down at his feet.
“I do like your spirit,” he told her, hefting his spear and pointing its tip at her chest. “But you have dishonored me and hurt many of my people. For that, I demand blood.”
The men around her dispersed, leaving her kneeling alone before Tikar. Skyrel tensed up. Beledine had started this fight, and he'd thought she could handle it, but evidently he'd been wrong. He couldn't let her die, not until he'd had a chance to thoroughly scold and punish her for her rash behavior.
Tikar drew his spear back, preparing to strike. Skyrel started forward—he wasn't sure what he intended to do, but he was well aware he had to do something.
Then a shadow crossed the sun. A rush of wind was the only warning before a massive beast dropped from the sky, landing behind Beledine with a resounding crash. The lake rippled and the ground shook, loose rocks tumbling downhill and splashing into the water.
Skyrel found himself staring up at a pale dragon. He'd crossed paths with a few rheenarae in his time, but he had never seen a dragon this close before. The beast's scales were silvery blue, his talons pearly white. His wings were outstretched, making him seem three times his actual size—but he was still twice Skyrel's height. A crown of ivory horns protruded from the back of his skull, flashing as he tossed his regal head. His eyes, the same vibrant purple color as Beledine's, narrowed in disgust as he surveyed the Lothoko.
“I had it under control,” Beledine told him, rising to her feet. Tikar stumbled back from her and the dragon—who had to be her bondmate—and tripped. He fell heavily, gaping up at the monster in horror.
“Release my friends,” Beledine commanded in a ringing voice that echoed throughout the hills. The water wielders who'd apprehended members of the Araxi Tribe dropped their hostages at once. They doubled over and screamed in pain, steam wafting off their skin.
Skyrel's gut twisted. Beledine must be wielding a very advanced fire spell against them. Almost anyone could create a flashy show with magic, but a wielder's true power lay in the ability to weave subtle, intricate threads to do his bidding. It would require an unbelievable amount of finesse to latch multiple invisible heat spells to the flesh of those water wielders.
“I could destroy you the way I'm sure you've destroyed other tribes,” she calmly told Tikar, who was looking back and forth between the dragon and his burning tribesmen. “I could roast all of you alive. Or I could simply run you out of this valley and let you starve in the flatlands.”
“Please . . . mercy,” Tikar managed in a strangled voice, cringing away from her.
“Mercy is more than scum like you deserve,” she said. “But I will give it to you anyway.”
“What?” The question was chorused by a number of men, both Araxi and Lothoko. Skyrel's mouth fell open. What was Beledine playing at?
“You can have your valley.” She turned her back on Tikar and strode toward Skyrel. “Gather everyone. Take whatever provisions are on hand. We're leaving for a better place.”
Skyrel was too overwhelmed to argue, too confused to ask questions, and too intimidated by the hulking monster behind her to put her in her place. He signaled to Kibar, snapping the older man out of his shocked stupor. Kibar drew himself together with visible effort and began herding the Araxi away from the cannibals, following Beledine and her dragon as they marched west along the lakeshore.