The first wave of hedeni hit the barricade and it was madness. Tau stabbed and swung at limbs and faces. He sliced a hedena’s fingers off and almost scalped another.
It didn’t matter. There were too many. There had always been too many. It was why the Goddess had blessed her Chosen with Gifts. It was why she had given them Dragons.
The burst of fire exploded a hundred-stride in front of the barricade, singing Tau’s eyebrows. He threw himself back, away from the searing heat. He looked to his right and saw Jabari and Tendaji on the ground too. He tried to speak. His spit had been cooked away.
“Guardians!” yelled a hoarse voice from further down the barricade. “Guardians!”
His vision swimming, Tau looked up and saw his first Dragon up close. The behemoth, its body a mass of pure-black scales that drank in light and twisted the eye, ripped through the air. Tau followed with his eyes, watching it course toward the hedeni, sinuous tail trailing behind, lashing the smoke from Daba’s fires to hazy shreds.
When it was close enough, the black creature opened its maw and lit the evening with a twisting pillar of sun-bright flame, thick as three men. Tau jumped to his feet, wobbled, and climbed the barricade, watching the Dragon’s chain of fire explode against the ground. The hedeni that were hit were vaporized and the Dragon flew on, past Daba’s plateau, turning for another pass.
“Tau?” said a voice Tau would recognize anywhere.
“Father,” he said, turning to face Aren Solarin.
“Why, Tau?” his father asked. “Why?”
Tau’s mouth opened and closed, no words coming.
“I asked him to accompany me, Inkokeli Solarin,” Jabari lied. “I heard there was a raid and it is my duty, as a Noble and son of the Umbusi, to fight with my men. I haven’t tested for the Citadel, but I’ve reached manhood. This is my place.”
Aren watched Jabari and shouted to the nearby listeners. “Shore up the barricades! The Guardians won’t do us any good when the hedeni are mixed in with our own people and killing us.” The gawkers snapped to action. “Jabari, as Inkokeli of your mother’s Ihagu, I believe your place, among her fighting men, is best decided by me. By coming here, you have needlessly risked your life.”
Jabari was forced to nod, accepting as strict a chastisement as Aren, a Lesser, could give him. Tau found himself nodding too. Aren spoke to Jabari, but Tau knew the words were meant for him.
“Please, Aren, accept my apologies,” Jabari offered.
Aren grunted. “Stay back from the fighting,” he said, marching away to give him men more orders. “It would break my heart to have to tell your mother that you’d died.” More words meant for Tau.
“We fought through hedeni to get here,” Tau said, loud enough for everyone near them to hear. He wanted his father to know what they had done, that they had saved Chosen lives. “We killed and—”
Aren stopped, but didn’t turn. “And what does that make you, Tau?” His back was stiff, his fists clenched.
Tau had nothing to say and, after a breath, his father walked away.
“Ihagu,” Aren shouted. “Form up and help the townspeople carry what they can.” Everyone began moving. “If the Gifted have enough reason to call the Guardians, it means we must run. Run and don’t stop.”
“Run?” Jabari asked Tau.
The roar of several hundred foreign voices answered in Tau’s place. The two men stepped onto the barricade in time to see the full force of hedeni raiders charging in their direction.
“Goddess…” said Tendaji, his voice little more than a whisper against the howling tumult racing their way.
“Away from the barricade,” ordered Tau’s father. “Run. Now!”
Jabari was off the barricade first, Tendaji and Tau right behind. They ran. Townspeople abandoned everything but their loved ones, and they ran.
“We’re being herded,” shouted Jabari. “When the flats end, we’ll hit the cliffs. There are no paths this way.”
Tau had never been to Daba, but he’d lived near the Southern range of mountains his entire life. All paths, throughout the mountains, ran across reliable ascents and descents. If there were no paths in the direction they ran, it didn’t mean it was impossible to climb down, but it did mean there was no way to do it at speed. It would be an easy task for the hedeni to kill those who made their way down too slowly, and the mountain would claim the ones who went too fast.
The raid had been well planned. The initial attacking force was large, but not too large. The Ihagu and townspeople had been led to believe they could hold Daba. They had willingly trapped themselves with their backs to the cliffs. Once that was done, the hedeni had launched their real attack and the truth had become clear. This was not a raid, it was an extermination.
The Guardian made a difference. It would thin the hedeni’s numbers, but like Tau’s father had said, if the savages got in among the Chosen, the Guardian would have to hold its fire or burn the people it had come to save. Tau thought this through and knew what would come next.
“Ihagu,” his father shouted. “Form up, battle lines.”
It was the only reasonable choice. The Ihagu would stand and fight. They would slow the hedeni enough to allow the townspeople a chance at escape.
Tau stopped running and turned to face the horrifying mass of enemy flesh, with their sharpened bronze and bone. Tendaji was beside him, his presence a surprising comfort. His father ran up as well.
“Jabari, Tau,” he said. “I need you to guide the townspeople down the mountain. Take them to safety.”
“You ask too much, Aren,” Jabari replied. “I’ll be no help to them and you cannot save me from this fate. I’ll fight, as do all the men in my mother’s Ihagu.”
Conflicting emotions played across Aren’s face. Tau saw pride and fear warring with one another. He had been trying to save them.
“We’ll show them what it means to be Chosen, father,” Tau said, hands quavering, but voice steady.
“So we will,” Aren said. He yelled his orders to the rest, “Tighten the lines. Stand firm. We hold here. We will not be moved. Remember, the men to your left, to your right, they are your sword-brothers. Keep them safe and they’ll do the same for you.”
Aren stopped there, waiting for the right moment. It came quickly. “For the Goddess!” he bellowed.
“For the Goddess!” they screamed back as the hedeni front lines smashed into them.