That night, the band gathered together at the inn. Alden, Jincra, and Braden sat on one pine bench while Lalaine and Grath sat on the other side of a large pine table overflowing with meat, fruit, bread, and fresh buttercream. The hunting band laughed and clapped one another on the shoulders, recounting moments of their victorious battle.
“I can’t believe we pulled that off,” Braden said. He waved a dripping piece of meat for emphasis. “I thought my nap in the sand was going to lose us some points.”
“Nope,” Alden said, dodging droplets of meat juice. “No blood, no broken bones, no point loss. Full points, a perfect score. It’s been two cycles, twelve winters now, since a band pulled off a perfect score against a hammerbill.”
“Stylish,” Braden declared. “From now on, we gotta be stylish. Folks are watching our rise to the top. Winning with style may shut down future challenges from any bitter tribes mad that we sauntered in and snatched their glory. Style may keep them too afraid to anger us.”
Grath made a deep rumbling sound of approval. “We were fortunate that Kilna took such a beating and fared so badly. If they’d done well, their battle would have been worth more points.” The Aibeck bit off another large chunk of roasted meat.
Lalaine daintily swallowed the bits of fruits she was chewing. “I’m just relieved we all made it. There were some close calls.”
As he wiped his fingers on his hide pants, Jincra nodded. “Lalaine, I was particularly impressed by your skill and daring. You performed extremely well.”
Lalaine blushed. “Thank you, Jincra. I’m impressed by you as well. I mean, I was impressed during the battle. I still am, of course.” The young huntress’ blush deepened. She fidgeted with her hands and squirmed in her seat.
Jincra blushed also. “Oh, really? Well, I… Thanks, Lalaine. I think we all did extremely well.”
Braden snorted. “I’ll say. Miss Golden Huntress here even got a great nickname out of it.”
“So did you,” Lalaine replied, “Boy Vixen.”
Braden almost choked on his hunk of meat.
As the two siblings fell to squabbling, Alden turned to Jincra. “This victory puts us at even points with Kilna, right?”
The studious young man nodded. “It does. We are tied for first place in the competition, though the Avyh of the Kash tribe are not far behind. It would be truer to say that all three of us are serious competitors for the top spot. Five events remain, though only one more in this current phase before the break to temporarily return home and check on our villages.”
Alden’s chewing slowed until it stopped, and he dropped his bread back onto his plate. “I hope Sacram village is still there when we return.”
Jincra’s eyes widened in alarm, but he saw the downcast look on Alden’s face. “I am certain it will be, Alden. Felka, Mirak, and Kazra will keep them all safe.”
Grath rumbled again deep in his chest. “Don’t underestimate your sister or her husband, Alden. They’re two of the most tenacious hunters I’ve ever seen. And my daughter is an excellent huntress in her own way.”
“I’ll take your word for it,” Alden said. “Kazra seemed to have a lot of energy in the few training matches she joined us for.”
Grath grinned, a rarity for the serious Aibeck man. “She’s a warrior, like her mother was. I can’t wait to see her again.”
Lalaine elbowed Braden. “I bet you can’t wait to see her again either, right Braden?”
Braden paused with a roasted bird leg held just in front of his mouth. The Trickster looked deeply confused. “Well, sure, I guess. She’s fun to be around.”
“Uh huh, I bet,” Lalaine said. She exchanged a look with Grath, who sighed, looked away, and rolled his shoulders uncomfortably.
Jincra used the silent moment to switch topics. He turned on the bench to face Alden. “Your ghostblade seemed to function well toward the end of the battle. After it tried to kill you, of course.”
Alden grimaced. “You saw that?”
The whole band nodded.
Alden sighed. “It took some convincing, but I got her to agree to help us.”
“’Her’?” Jincra asked, surprised.
“Yes,” Alden said. “She’s agreed to help, conditionally.” The young leader picked up the metal sword from where it leaned against the table beside him, drew the blade from its red leather sheath, and set the weapon on the table in front of him. “Maybe I can convince her to come explain it herself. Will you come out and meet the people you helped save today, ghost?”
The band sat in silence for a few seconds. Alden started to wonder if he was going to be snubbed again.
Then the ghostly girl appeared, sitting on the bench across from Alden between Lalaine and Grath. Her pale skin gleamed in the torchlight of the inn. Her long, feathered brunette hair was tied up in a loose ponytail high on the back of her head. She wore her elaborate blue and white floral dress and white gloves, and had her hands folded demurely on the table. Her mismatched blue and green eyes were downcast at the tabletop, and she cast embarrassed glances around at the assembled hunters.
Lalaine gasped. Grath looked about ready to crawl out of his skin, though Alden suspected the reaction was more related to the ghost reminding the Aibeck of dark human magic than the actual sudden appearance. Braden and Jincra looked surprised but said nothing.
Alden cleared his throat. “This is the ghost who helped us today.”
The ghostly girl smiled uncertainly. “Hello, everyone. My name is Miravelle. You may call me Mira. I hope you’re not upset that my disagreement with Alden impacted your first event.”
Lalaine recovered first. “Hi Mira, I’m—” Lalaine reached to touch Mira’s arm in greeting, but her hand passed straight through the ghostly flesh. “Oh, um, sorry. I’m Lalaine daughter of Korl, and this is my twin brother Braden. Please don’t mind his terrible manners.”
Braden had his mouth open, and his lips were smeared with grease. He swiped his sleeve across his mouth and glared at his sister before turning back to Mira. “Hi, Mira. Nice to meet you.”
Mira nodded to Braden.
Jincra was next. “It is a pleasure to meet you. I believe I speak for everyone when I say you more than made up for the earlier problems with the help you gave Alden today. If I am not mistaken, it looked like you augmented his strength and accuracy? I have never seen Alden cleave through monster bone so effortlessly. I see you pass through objects, and it looks as though you are not actually touching the table or that bench. Sometime when you feel it is appropriate, I would like to ask you some questions about the ghostblade and about yourself, if you find it acceptable.”
Mira tapped her lips with a gloved finger while she thought about it. “I think that would be all right.”
Grath growled in his throat. “Human magic. Sorry you’ve been trapped in that thing, girl.”
Mira smiled sadly. “Not as sorry as I am.”
The Aibeck grunted and looked away.
“Nice to meet you, Mira,” Alden said.
Mira looked across the table and made eye contact. For the first time since he’d met her, the ghost woman didn’t look angry or spiteful. Her expression was open and genuine. She even smiled at him.
“Nice to meet you too, Alden.”
“What made you decide to help us?” Lalaine asked.
“I only agreed to help during this one battle,” Mira corrected. “I’m still considering the request. Alden promised me we could work together to protect people. He told me a story about your village facing the Scourge, though I’m hesitant to believe that.”
“Most people are hesitant to believe it,” Alden muttered.
“And besides,” Mira continued. The ghost placed one gloved hand on her cheek and averted her eyes. Her cheeks colored slightly, and Alden could swear he saw her eyes fill with moisture. Mira suddenly looked terribly fragile and vulnerable. “Alden made it clear that he was going to have his way with me eventually, and I’d better just surrender no matter how I felt about it.”
Silence reigned at the table. Alden saw Lalaine, Grath, and Jincra shoot him critical glares.
“H-Hey!” The young leader stuttered. “Don’t go saying things that way! It wasn’t like that. Honest, guys, it’s not like that!”
Braden placed a hand on Alden’s shoulder. Alden turned to his friend with hope in his eyes, but all that greeted him was his Trickster friend’s massive grin. “I knew you had some assertiveness in you, Alden.”
While everyone in the band was looking at their leader, Mira stuck out her tongue at him.
Alden lowered his face into his hands and sighed. “This is going to be so much harder than I imagined.”
The throne room was silent, save for the dripping of light rain outside the open walls. The long hall was one completely open-air building lined along the outside with stout oak pillars. Polished oak floorboards, thick oak pillars, and a painted ceiling depicting famous hunts gave the room a feeling of wealth and majesty. Beyond the pillars, beautiful gardens stretched in all four directions. Morning light spilled through the rain clouds and across the gardens and set all the colorful birds to chirping and singing. Fragrances from dozens of flowers swept through the throne room on a warm breeze. The wind stirred carved bone chimes hanging from the sloped eaves.
At one end of the rectangular open hall sat a raised oak dais. Three carved steps rose up the front. An enormous throne, carved of black granite veined with silver, took up much of the dais.
Seated on this throne was a man about fifty winters of age. Thick black robes lined with fur covered his thin body. His olive-skinned forehead was lined with gentle creases, and gray hair woven in elaborate braids spilled down from a rather simple iron crown of looping knotwork. The robed man’s piercing eyes were gray, and his creased face was the age-lined roadmap to a lifetime of heavy decisions.
The robed man seated on the throne looked down on Duarth, leader of the Kilna hunting band, who stood at the foot of the dais. Duarth had been healed and cleaned up from his battle the day before. He wore black pants, hide boots, and a sleeveless red woolen tunic. The olive skin of his shoulder was blemished with a slight scar, but the muscles beneath were healed. The bone charms woven into his thick black braids clacked together in the breeze as the young hunter looked up at his father, Huarth of Kilna, Imperator of Veruscia.
“You nearly failed me, Duarth,” the man on the throne said. Huarth’s voice was commanding and firm, but not angry.
“Yes, Imperator. I’ll accept discipline as you see fit.”
Huarth considered his son. “You made mistakes. This is to be expected from one so young. Learn from them. If you repeat them, there will be tremendous discipline in order.”
“Yes, Imperator. I have already begun learning from them.”
Huarth turned to look outside between the pillars as rain fell from a sunny sky. “I’ve had word that you’ve spoken with this young leader of the Sacram tribe. They are now tied with us for dominance of the competition.”
“His name is Alden, Imperator. I have spoken with him.”
“He seems to be a man of good character. He healed me in the tunnel after I was injured in my last match and there were no other Druids around. He risked giving up too much energy just prior to his own battle. When I asked why he would heal his enemy, he seemed confused.”
Huarth’s eyes narrowed. “Such sentimentality would be a weakness in a ruler. Our enemies surround us, both predacious beasts and rapacious nations seeking our wealth and land. Imagine if we had a ruler on the throne who risked his own ambition to care for his enemy.”
Duarth said nothing.
Huarth turned back to his son. He considered the young man for a moment. “What else?”
Duarth shifted uncomfortably. “Alden claims his village is being attacked by the Scourge. He asked for aid.”
“The Scourge?” The ruler’s eyebrows rose. “It’s been many decades since that vile darkness was wiped from Veruscia.”
“Yes, Imperator. He seemed sincere in his concern, though.”
“And I suppose he wanted us to go now, rather than wait for the end of the tournament?”
“As always, Imperator, you see the truth before it’s spoken.”
Huarth smirked. “That’s what a ruler must do, Son. You must learn this skill.” The smirk vanished, leaving Huarth’s usual shrewd expression. “This is a trick to distract us from the Trials. Do not be swayed by his deception.”
“But, Imperator, couldn’t we—”
“We will not be distracted by tricks. We have the rule of a nation to secure,” Huarth declared firmly, and it was clear this was a command.
Duarth bowed his head. “Yes, Imperator.”
Huarth’s hard eyes bored into his son’s lowered head for a moment before they softened. “I know how you feel, my son. I wish we could run off and rescue every village who claims to need help. But we must secure our nation. We cannot allow all that we have built over the last thirty winters to fall into the hands of inexperienced and incompetent rulers. We would be overrun by giant predators and slavers from other nations in no time. That is what is at stake here, my son: our people devoured, either by beasts or by other nations. Under this sentimental Alden’s rule, our people would be food for monsters or shackled and chained in servitude.”
Duarth knelt and kept his head bowed. “I submit to your wisdom, Imperator. Please guide our nation to safety and prosperity.”
Huarth smiled. “I am already doing so, my son. I will have to think on how we can deal with this upstart from Sacram village. He cannot be allowed to triumph.”
“I swear to you, Imperator,” Duarth declared as he knelt at the foot of his father’s throne, “I will see Alden of Sacram broken and cast down into the sand at my feet.”
End of Volume 1. To be continued in Savage Hunters Volume 2.
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