The Least of Men, Part 3

Read previous parts here: 1
                                                      2

“Rider approaches! Rider approaches!” The servant of fire’s ringing cry sundered Bendaevi’s lesson.

The advisor’s eyes leapt to young Prince Badani. “You must go to your father. Now.” He did not look again but sprinted to the lookout, reaching up to straighten his egal.

Badani dashed around a line of tents and panted down the alleyway between canvass homes. He peeked around the last corner.

Bendaevi stood in the middle of a line of thirty servants of fire. Each servant had his hand on the hilt of the falchion that rested at his side. The boy could see the advisor breathing slowly but deeply.

“What do you see, Watcher Daeb?” Bendaevi asked in clear tones.

Twenty paces ahead of the line, a single servant strained his eyes against the sun. “One rider. A sword dancer, by the silks. Whoever it is, he’s riding the horse hard. He hasn’t spotted us yet.”

Bendaevi turned to the servant on his left. “Report to Patriarch Kaden. We are under attack.”

Even as Badani attempted to puzzle out the words, the servant bowed and ran to Badani’s father’s tent at the center of the camp. Sword dancers fought against Garethen. They were good, weren’t they? Why did Bendaevi say they were under attack?

To a second servant, the advisor ordered, “Call out every servant of fire.”

A second warrior fled the protective line.

In the distance, Badani could barely make out a speck on the sea of sand. It would take several minutes for him to arrive.

Bendaevi addressed a third servant, “Place every woman and child on horses and ready them to ride.”

Even as the third servant dashed to the women’s tents, the scout ahead of the line shouted, “I see more coming over the rise!” A moment of silence, and then a shout: “It’s a goblin hoard!”

Bendaevi raised his hand in front of him, palm down. “You are servants of fire. You have been trained to be flames in the hand of your patriarch, protecting his own and burning any who would dare touch him. Today is the day you have lived for. Ready yourselves.”

As Badani watched, the black speck skidded to a stop. It suddenly angled sideways from their encampment.

The scout reported, “He’s seen us. He’s leading the hoard away.”

The advisor shook his head. “Stand ready. If he’s seen us, it’s likely the hoard has spotted us as well. We have an opportunity to rid thelandofGarethen’s vermin. And even if the hoard never notices us, we have a duty to protect the sword dancer. If a dancer’s fleeing, it’s only because he’s hurt so badly he can’t fight.”

The servants of fire stood fast.

Patriarch Kaden approached the line. From his hiding spot, Badani had not seen him exit his regal tent. His father stood in hastily-donned leather armor. A simple, rolling pattern decorated the dark leather. A falchion hung at his side. The patriarch addressed his advisor, “How long?”

“Five minutes. Perhaps six.”

“Enough time to prepare the camp. The women and children?”

Bendaevi nodded. “They’ve been alerted.”

“The rest of the servants of fire?”

“They’ve been summoned.”

“My son?”

Bendaevi did not answer. His eyes shot open.

Badani slunk deeper into the shadows in his canvass alley.

“My son, Advisor Bendaevi? Where is he?” Patriarch Kaden’s voice took a warning tone.

“My patriarch, I sent him to your tent as I ran here to address the coming horseman,” Bendaevi stammered. “I did not escort him to safety. He should have gone straight to you!”

Kaden backhanded his advisor. “I pay you for your wisdom, but you couldn’t see that a boy would thirst to see what the rider was? You are useless as a dry well!”

Bendaevi’s head hung in shame.

The patriarch addressed a servant of fire, “Find the prince. He’ll be where he could hear the scout’s report, so he won’t be far. Get him to the women. Quickly. He’s not yet ready for goblins.”

Badani crept backwards, deeper, ever deeper into the canvass canyon between tents. His slippered feet crunched on the sand. He quieted his breath, but every exhalation exploded in his ears.

He needed to get to his tent. Which one was it? It should be in this line. That one was his father’s private sleeping quarters. Badani could recognize the blue silk lining peering out under the drab canvass. So his should be two farther down. There. Orange silk.

The prince lifted up a corner of the tent and slipped underneath.

The sudden darkness swallowed him. He panted, trying to keep quiet.

A sudden hiss brought light as a man struck a match and lit the oil lamp in the far corner.

“Prince Badani, I believe you were sent to your father’s tent,” Tutor Isboset spoke. “It is not wise to disobey the patriarch’s advisor.” He waved his hand toward a small pile of bags. “Nonetheless, I have packed your belongings so we may flee if necessary. It would not do to have the only son of our patriarch die in inglorious battle.”

Badani scowled for a moment before marching to his bags. “Where’s my saber?”

“The prince does not need his saber now,” Isboset answered.

“I am going to kill a goblin!”

“Your training with the blade is far from complete. If you go into battle, you will hinder the servants of fire who should be serving your father. They would need to protect you.” Isboset stood and calmly moved to the pile, even as Badani disemboweled bag after bag.

“Where is it, tutor? Where did you put it?”

Isboset closed his eyes and sighed. “My prince, I know you too well. I have taken your saber and hidden it. Come with me now.”

Badani flung a finger at the older man. “You taught me to hate Garethen! You taught me to fight him! Now’s my chance! Now I can kill some of his servants!” The prince attempted to keep his voice from cracking or shaking. He was not successful.

“No. You will come with me now.” Isboset strode to the entrance flap of the tent and pulled it aside. “We do not have time for you to be a child. Be a prince and do your duty. Water does not desire to be sand, nor sand water. You are a prince. Now your duty is to flee and preserve your family line if your father should fall in battle.”

“He won’t!” Badani kicked at one of the emptied bags, his eyes still raking the piles of belongings scattered there.

Isboset did not answer.

“Will he?”

Isboset gestured outside the tent.

Badani gathered himself and stepped outside into the blinding sun.

A star flew overhead and struck the next tent. Badani watched, and realized it was not fire from heaven but a fiery arrow that had descended. Another whistled from the sky, and then another.

Isboset grabbed him by the arm. “This way!”

The two ran for a distant palm tree. More whistling missiles flew by, but most struck tents. Badani had never noticed how hard it is to run in sand before. Tutor Isboset fell behind.

And then a servant of fire stood before Badani. “My prince!” he exclaimed. “Hurry! This way!”

As Badani dashed to his side, he saw blood on the man’s falchion.

His ears started working again. Men were screaming. Something like the sound of a screeching owl tore through the air. Metal clanged on metal.

The servant ran beside the boy. “Faster! We must reach the horses before the household flees!”

A flash of metal, and a gray creature fell next to Badani. More blood dripped from the guard’s blade.

“Hurry!”

Badani ran with the speed of a sandstorm. His lungs hurt, but he ground his teeth. It did not matter. He must do his duty. He must preserve his line.

He and the guard topped the last rise before the gathering place.

Below, they saw the horses gallop away. Not one steed remained.

The guard growled. “You must stay with me. Be safe, prince. There is no escape now. And you must survive.”

Read part 4 here.

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