Tsiory was exhausted. Every movement and moment felt like too much. It had been three days since he’d last been to the ships to see Taifa. He didn’t want to think he was punishing her. He told himself he had to be here, where the fighting was thickest. She wanted him to hold the beach and that was what he was doing.
The last of the twenty-five hundred ships had landed and every man, woman, and child that was left of the Chosen was now on this hostile land. The ships had been scavenged for resources, broken to pieces, so the Omehi could survive. There would be no retreat. Losing against the savages would mean the end of his people, and that Tsiory could not permit.
The last few days had been filled with fighting, but his soldiers had beaten back the aboriginals. They’d taken the beach. Still, he couldn’t pretend he wasn’t angry. He loved Taifa, the Goddess knew he did, but she was playing a suicidal game. Taking the beach, or whole peninsula, with Dragons wouldn’t mean much if they brought the Cull down on themselves.
“Champion!” A young Indlovu soldier, entering the command tent, broke Tsiory out of his reverie. “Major Ojore is being overrun. He’s asking for reinforcements.”
“Tell him to hold.” Tsiory knew the man wanted to say more. He didn’t give him the chance. “Tell Major Ojore to hold.”
Harun spat some of the Calla leaf he was always chewing. “He can’t hold,” the Chosen Colonel told Tsiory and the rest of the assembled Guardian Council. The group of men were huddled in a makeshift tent beyond the beach. They were off the hot sands, sheltered by the desiccated trees that bordered them. “He’s out of arrows. It was all that kept the savages off him and, Goddess knows, the wood in this forsaken land is too brittle to make more.”
Tsiory looked over his shoulder at the barrel-chested Colonel. Harun was standing close enough for him to smell the man’s sour breath. Tsiory shook his head, returning his attention to the hand drawn maps their scouts had made of the peninsula. “There are no reinforcements.”
“You’re condemning Ojore and his fighters to death.”
Tsiory waited and, as expected, Colonel Dayo Okello chimed in. “Harun is right. Ojore will fall and our flank will collapse. Can’t you speak with the Queen? Make her see sense? We’re outnumbered and the natives have Gifts we’ve never encountered before. We have no true supply lines and we’re low on food. We can’t win.”
“We have orders,” Tsiory told the Royal-Noble.
“How long do they need with the damn Dragons?” Tahir asked. He was pacing and didn’t look like the man Tsiory remembered from Osonte. Tahir Oni came from one of the Chosen’s wealthiest families and was renowned for his intelligence and precision. He was also a man who took intense pride in his appearance.
Back on Osonte, every time Tsiory had seen Tahir, the man’s head was freshly shaved, his dark skin oiled to a sheen, and his Colonel’s uniform had always looked sculpted to his muscular frame. The man before Tsiory was a stranger to that memory.
Tahir’s head was stubbly, his skin dry, and his uniform hung off a wasted body. Worse, it was difficult for Tsiory to keep his eyes from the stump of Tahir’s left arm, which was bleeding through its bandages.
Tsiory needed to calm these men. He was their Inkokeli. He caught Tahir’s attention, tried to hold it and speak confidently, but Tahir’s eyes twitched like a prey animal’s.
“The savages won’t last against Dragons,” Tsiory said. “We’ll break them. Once we have firm footing, we can defend the whole of the valley and peninsula indefinitely.”
“Your lips to the Goddess’ ears, Tsiory,” Tahir muttered, without using either of his honorifics.
“Escaping the Cull,” Dayo said, echoing Tsiory’s unvoiced thoughts, “won’t mean anything if we all die here. I say we go back to the ships and find somewhere a little less… occupied.”
“We don’t have the resources to travel further and must count ourselves lucky the Dragons led us here,” Tsiory said. “It was a gamble, hoping they’d take us to land before we starved on the water. Without them leading us, we’d have no hope.”
Harun waved his arms at their surroundings, “Does this seem like hope to you, Tsiory?”
“You’d rather die on the water?”
“I’d rather not die at all,” said Harun and Tsiory could tell he was losing the room. He knew where the conversation would head next and it would be close to treason. These were hard men, good men, but the voyage had made them as brittle as this strange land’s wood. Tsiory tried to find the right words to give them hope when he heard shouting outside their tent.
“What in the Goddess’ name—” said Harun, opening the tent’s flap and looking out. He couldn’t have seen the hatchet that took his life. It happened too fast.
“Mka!” Tahir cursed, scrambling back as Harun’s severed head fell to the ground at his feet.
“Swords out!” Tsiory bellowed, drawing his weapon and slicing a cut through the rear of the tent to avoid the brunt of whatever was outside their tent’s actual entrance.
Tsiory was first through the new exit, blinking under the sun’s blinding light. All around him was chaos. Somehow, the savages had made their way past the front lines and Tsiory’s camp was under assault.
He had just enough time to absorb this when a savage, spear in hand, leapt for him. Tsiory, Inkokeli of the Omehi Military and Champion to Queen Taifa, slipped to the side of the man’s downward thrust and swung hard for his neck. Tsiory’s blade bit deep and the man fell, his life’s blood spilling onto the white sands.
Tsiory turned to his Colonels, “To the beach!” The majority of their soldiers were on the front lines, far beyond the trees, but Tsiory had a large force of fighters on the beach, held in reserve. They had to get to them.
Tsiory cursed himself for a fool. He should not have let the Colonels convince him. They’d wanted the command tent pitched inside the tree line, to shelter the leadership from the punishing sun and, though it didn’t feel right, Tsiory had been unable to make any arguments against the decision. The tree line started well back from the front lines, and he’d pulled enough soldiers to ensure they were protected. Somehow, it had not been enough.
“Run!” shouted Tsiory, pushing Tahir along and, as it turned out, towards another savage.
Tahir fumbled with his sword and the savage cut him down. Tsiory lunged at the half-naked fighter, blade out in front, and skewered his tattooed enemy. He stepped close to the impaled man, to shove him off the sword, but the heathen, blood bubbling in his gibbering mouth, tried to stab him with a dagger made of bone.
Tsiory’s bronze-plated leather armor turned the blow, and he grabbed the savage’s wrist, breaking it across his knee. The dagger fell to the sand and Tsiory crashed his forehead into the savage’s nose, snapping the man’s head backwards. Tsiory moved closer, shoving his weight behind the adjustment, and forcing the rest of his sword into the man’s guts.
The savage screamed, spraying him with blood and phlegm. Tsiory yanked his weapon away and swung round to rally his men. He saw Dayo fighting off five savages with the help of an Indlovu soldier.
Tsiory ran towards the skirmish as more savages emerged from the trees. A few of the smaller gray-garbed Ihashe soldiers joined him, yelling as they went. Tsiory counted. They were outnumbered, they always were, and would die if they didn’t disengage.
Tsiory saw Dayo take the point of a long-hafted spear to the side. Dayo yelped and went down. The closest Chosen soldier killed the savage who had dealt the blow and Tsiory, running full tilt, slammed into two other heathens, sending them to the ground.
Tsiory, on top of the two men, pulled his Guardian dagger from his belt and rammed it home in the first man’s eye. The other savage struggled beneath him, reaching for a trapped weapon, but Tsiory shoved the hilt of his sword against the man’s throat and used his weight to press it down. He heard the bones in the man’s neck crack, and the savage went still.
Tsiory got to his feet and grabbed Dayo, “Go!”
Dayo, bleeding everywhere, went.
“Back to the beach!” Tsiory ordered the soldiers near him. “Pass the word, retreat to the beach. We can’t fight them in the trees.”
Tsiory ran with his men, looking back to see how they’d been undone. The savages were using Gifts to mask themselves in broad daylight. As he ran, he saw more and more of them stepping out of what his eyes told him were empty spaces among the trees. The trick had allowed the savages to move an attacking force past the front lines and right up to Tsiory’s command tent.
Tsiory forced himself to run faster. He had to get to the rest of the army and order a defensive posture. If the savages had a large enough force, this surprise attack could overrun the reserves, and then the savages would be among the Omehi populace, with no one left to stop them.
Tsiory heard galloping. It was an Ingonyama, riding double with his Gifted, on one of the few horses the Chosen had put on the ships when they fled Osonte. The Ingonyama spotted Tsiory and rode for him.
“Champion,” the man said, dismounting with his Gifted. “Take the horse. I will allow the others to escape.”
Tsiory mounted and saluted before galloping away. He looked back. The Gifted, a young woman, little more than a girl, closed her eyes, focused, and the Ingonyama began to change, slowly at first, but with increasing speed.
The warrior grew taller. His skin, already deep black, darkened further and, moving like a million worms writhing beneath his flesh, the man’s muscles reformed thicker and stronger. The soldier had been a large and intimidating man, but now that the Gifted’s powers flowed through him he was a colossus.
The Ingonyama let out a spine-chilling howl and launched himself at his enemies. The savages tried to hold, but there was little any man, no matter how skilled, could do against an Enraged Ingonyama.
The savages stabbed, they fought, and they died. The Ingonyama shattered a man’s skull with his sword pommel and, in the same swing, he split a running savage from collarbone to waist. Grabbing a third heathen by the arm, he threw him ten strides into two more of the enemy.
“The Champion has called a retreat,” the Ingonyama’s Gifted told the soldiers within earshot. “Make for the beach!”
The girl, it was hard for Tsiory to think of her as much else, had her teeth gritted as she drew a continuous line of energy from Isihogo, pouring it into the Enraged warrior, maintaining his mutated state as six more savages descended on him.
The first of the savages staggered back, his chest collapsed inwards by the Ingonyama’s fist. The second, third, and fourth men leapt on him together, stabbing at him in concert. Tsiory could see the young Gifted staggering with each blow her Ingonyama took. She held on though, brave thing, as the target of her powers fought and killed.
It’s enough, thought Tsiory, leave now.
The Ingonyama didn’t. They almost never did. The colossus killed eight more savages, and then he was surrounded. They swarmed him, battering and cutting him, doing so much damage that he had to end his connection to the Gifted or kill her.
The severing was visible as two flashes of light emanating from the bodies of both the Ingonyama and Gifted. It was difficult to watch what happened next. Unpowered, the Ingonyama’s body shrunk and his strength faded. The next blow cut into his flesh and, given time, would have killed the Omehi warrior. The savages gave it no time. They tore him to pieces and ran for the Gifted. She pulled a knife from her coal black tunic and slit her own throat, before they could get to her. That did nothing to dissuade the aborigines. They fell on her and stabbed her repeatedly, hooting as they did.
Tsiory looked away from the butchery and urged the horse to move faster. He would make it to the reserves of his army. The Ingonyama and Gifted had given him that with their lives, but it was hard to think it mattered.
Tsiory had seen the number of savages pouring out from the tree line. They had come in force and the Chosen could not hold. The upcoming battle would be his last.Get the Book or Continue to Part 3