The fog still hung in the early morning air like a dense white smog when I saw it coming.
A cloud of dust rising above the haze, coming from the west and blowing down the road towards the camp like a sandstorm. At first I thought it was a trick of the light, or perhaps the road behind us simply had a dusty look from afar. But as I fixed my gaze on it, I could see the cloud growing in size, and with it came the sound of thunder.
I could not tell where the noise was coming from, but had no desire to wait and find out. My body began moving without the consent of my mind, my arm reaching over and rousing Ko’sa from her sleep. She looked at me with red bleary eyes, momentarily disoriented. “What’s going on Miss?”
I pointed at the cloud approaching us. “Ko’sa, what is that?”
Ko’sa’s eyes followed my hand down the road to face the dust cloud. She studied it for a minute, the noise now loud enough that other travelers were also waking up, poking concerned faces out of the flaps of their tents. She looked back at me, and for the first time since meeting the small girl, I saw something new in her eyes.
“Run,” she said. I was fully awake now, panic fueling me like caffeine. My heart was in my throat and my hands were clumsy as I scrambled to pick up my pack. We tore across the camp, east towards King’s Valley, now in a race with the approaching cloud. My borrowed sandals flapped painfully against the raw skin of my feet and throttled my speed.
Even though Ko’sa’s legs were but half the length of mine, they pumped effortlessly like well-oiled pistons, and after a minute the girl had flown past me and out into the open plains beyond.
“Come on Jill!” she yelled back at me, the noise so loud that it drowned out everything and I could only read her lips. She turned around and her face fell when she realized how far behind her I was. I saw the anguish in her face as her eyes darted back between me and the imminent danger that would soon be upon us. She turned back to the Valley for a second and I saw her hips twitch towards it, as her instincts told her to abandon me. At that moment my insides turned to ice- I needed that girl more than I had ever needed anyone before.
“Ko’sa,” I pleaded. “Please.”
That did it. I saw her shoulders sag and the fight leave her eyes, and a second later she was sprinting back to me. “Quick, behind the rocks,” she breathed, pointing at the boulders lining the road.
I could now hear the sound clearly and realized it was familiar. I recognized it from the time I had gone to bet at the racetrack for a day with my family. It was the sound of hooves- hundreds of them, pulverizing the ground into particles and kicking them up into the atmosphere. I felt the rush of wind as the stampede passed us, and before we could make it to the rocks, one of the beasts rushed around and cut off our path, gnashing its teeth against reigns held by an armored rider. It was muscled and dark like a demon, with the wild unfocused gaze of something that has gone mad with blood-lust.
They began to circle the camp, about thirty to forty horses in total, each one larger and more terrifying than any I had ever seen before on Earth. A rider sat atop each horse, some holding banners that were so tattered and faded that I could only see dark shadows that may have once been an insignia. The rags billowed and flopped on their posts like fish out of water.
I felt Ko’sa grip my arm tightly. “Those are the flags of the Broken Prince,” she whispered. “He is an outlaw, but we are not his enemy. Keep your head down and be silent, and he may let us leave in peace.”
I did not have to be told twice. The riders looked battered and weary, wearing armor that was dented and rusty, but they were also armed to the teeth with swords and maces. The circling horses began to slow, and one by one, the riders pulled on their reigns and had them stop, marking a perimeter around the entire camp. Everyone was awake now, standing still as statues and watching the beast closest to them with looks of terror.
When the dust cleared and the camp fell silent, I chanced a glance up towards the center. It was not hard to guess the leaders of the pack- two horses remained in the middle of the circle, their riders scanning the travelers gathered before them. The first rider was a man with a wild mane of black hair and a matching unkempt beard growing out from a heavy square chin. Though he could not have been much older than me, his face was lined with scars. His clothes may have once been expensive silk fabrics, but now they were stained brown by grime and covered by chain mail that was partially red with rust. He motioned at the ground with one of his gauntlets. In response, the rider next to him- a large lean woman a head taller than himself- hopped off her horse and landed nimbly on the ground.
She was tall and thick with muscle, like a bodybuilder. The woman wore a suit of dark armor with sleeves that ended at her shoulders, exposing a pair of abnormally large biceps. Her dark hair was pulled back so tightly that it seemed to pull her forehead away from a pair of small, angry eyes. I imagined she could have made a living as a MMA fighter had she been born in my world.
The silence held for another minute, and then finally the Prince spoke. Despite his rugged battle-torn look, his voice betrayed a noble upbringing: it was loud enough for all to hear without ever breaking into a yell, and the inflections in tone were practiced, like a politician that had given many speeches over the course of his lifetime.
“Loyal subjects of this land, I bid a good morning to you.” He looked out over King’s Valley. “News travels fast across this kingdom, even to those no longer considered welcome like myself. Alas, it is my understanding that our good queen has come to pass, and that many of us will be gathering today to mourn her passing.” He jumped off his horse and began pacing in his spot at the center of the circle, the woman next him shadowing him like a sentinel.
“A question for any to answer: how much did you love your queen?”
The camp remained silent as the travelers shifted uncomfortably and looked at the ground. The prince feigned waiting patiently, but I could tell he already knew that nobody would be bold enough to answer his call. The silence became so stifling that it was a relief when the prince spoke again.
“You love her enough to mourn, yes, but which of you really cares about the woman that devoted herself to this land. The same one that was murdered in cold blood?” Then suddenly, he was screaming. “Will anyone here avenge her death!? Hold the man that stole my wife from me accountable for his crimes?”
Again, no answer. The prince gave a mirthless laugh. “So be it. I hereby brand the lot of you cowards, subject to a cowardice tax.” He turned to address his men. “My loyal subjects, please relieve these travelers of their valuables.”
A murmur broke out over the crowd as realization set in. Most travelers began to empty their pockets, while others tried to fade into the shadows of the tents and hope they would be passed over. The rider closest to me took a step towards me, then stopped suddenly and looked up.
One of the travelers had stepped out into the middle of the circle in defiance. He was a man in his early forties, dressed in sleek silver armor, his right hand gripping the handle of a holstered sword. He took another step into the center of the circle to face the prince.
“Sir, I ask you reconsider.”
The prince turned on him, looking genuinely surprised by the challenge. “And what’s your deal? You one of the King’s dogs?”
The challenger shook his head. “I am Edwin Leary, and I have been tasked with protecting the family that travels with me from the thiefs and scum that wander theses roads. I cannot allow you to rob them under my watch, and will uphold a duty sworn over my father’s grave…even if it is against a man I once respected.”
The prince’s voice dropped, his eyes wild and deadly. “And are you prepared to die for that cause, Edwin? These are only material possessions I plan on taking. Think carefully before you answer.”
I could see the soldier quaking, but he held firm. “I am sir, although I have but one request. If you want to strike me down for protecting an innocent family, do me the honor of using your own blade. Alone.”
The prince narrowed his eyes. “None of us are innocent anymore, but so be it. Maybe you can release me from this hell of a half-existence.” He reached over to his saddle and produced a long sword, the blade still stained with dried blood.
Edwin drew his sword and bared his teeth. After a moment of sizing one another up, each man yelled his battle cry.
“For Family! For God! For Kingdom!” Edwin roared.
“Fuck your false king,” the prince said, and then he lunged at the man.
I felt Ko’sa’s fingernails digging into my arm as the two men exchanged blows. “That guard doesn’t stand a chance,” she hissed. “Prince Janis won more fencing competitions than anyone else in the entire Kingdom, before his banishment.”
The disparity in skill was obvious. The prince struck like a cobra, landing two blows for every one from the guard. Again and again he bashed away at the guard’s thick breastplate, knocking him backwards toward the fringe of the circle. The prince dodged his aggressors clumsy thrusts with the grace of a dancer, his footwork a mesmerizing cyclone crafted from years of training. It only took another minute for the prince to knock the heavy sword from the guards hand.
Edwin looked back at the prince, unflinching as he stared death in the face, and spoke his last words. “You disgrace your family name, traitor.”
The next swing caught the man in the neck, and the fight was over.
The prince withdrew his sword from the fallen guard, and looked at the crowd, paralyzed by the spectacle. “Now then, would anyone else care to uphold their own honor?”
The camp was so quiet that I could hear the blood dripping onto the ground from the tip of the Broken Prince’s sword.
“Good,” he said. “Let’s get this over with then, and we’ll be on our way. Wouldn’t want to keep you lot from your funeral.”