“Lia! Lia! Come quick!”
Ialia angrily plopped the bread she was kneading on the table, and swiped at a stray strand of hair. She’d been trying to get the baking done all morning, and this was the fifth time that Tarn had interrupted her, so she was in a foul mood as she went to the door.
“What is it now?”
“Soldiers! Near the road! Over there!” Tarn pointed off to the southeast, just out of her line of sight.
“There’ve been soldiers on the road every day and every night since talk of war started,” she crossly pointed out. “I’m trying to finish the baking, and if you want bread for supper, you’d best stop interrupting me.” She started to turn away, but he tugged at her elbow, and looked at her entreatingly.
“This is different. They’re heading this way. I think you should come look.”
Ialia sighed, and allowed her little brother to lead her around the corner of the house. Not that Tarn was all that little, anymore. In the year and a half since turning thirteen he had grown like a weed, and now had almost four inches and twenty pounds advantage on her slender five and a half foot frame. Still, she was four years older, and had been responsible for much of his care since mama died, so she would probably think of him as her ‘little’ brother even if he grew taller than papa.
As it turned out, he was right. There were soldiers heading their way. In fact, as their parrikis bounded toward them, it seemed as though they would run right over them, and Ialia took an involuntary step back as the riders suddenly wheeled and stopped their beasts, only an arm-length away.
The soldier riding the nearer parriki wearily looked more through, than at them. “Pack your things and get out, as quickly as possible.”
“Wh... why should we do that?” she asked, even though the exhaustion on his face and in his voice had warned her of the reason.
He jerked his head toward the east. “The Q’tapapans are coming; and if you know what’s best for you, you won’t be here, when they do.” He clucked at his parriki, and it and its companion bounded off again.
“What do you think, sis? Should we go?”
Ialia stared at the receding riders. Part of her wanted to run, as far and as fast as she could. But to leave their home? Perhaps never to return? If only papa were here, instead of at the fair...
Suddenly sure of herself, she turned. “We must go to papa. Loose the animals, then meet me in the house.”
“Let them go? But what will we do when we come back?”
“We can’t count on coming back; and I’m not going to leave them for the Q’tapapans to eat. Do what you can to scatter them, then get back to the house, as quickly as you can.”
Dust filled Ialia’s world. It swirled about her, stinging her eyes and choking her lungs, and filtered into every part of her, coating her hair, her skin and her soul.
For more than three hours, she and Tarn and dozens of other refugees had been trudging along the river road, doing the best they could to keep out of the way of the parrikis and chariots racing past them. They had seen no sign of the Q’tapapans yet, but there was no doubt, from the intense earnestness of the soldiers who scurried to and fro, that they were far too near.
For the fifth time, she wondered whether they should have headed for Ituali. It would have been far more pleasant to follow the trail that wound along the foothills of the Ianazana, just north of their farm, than to wade through this dusty miasma. But although Uncle Orrik would have been happy to take them in, it was papa she needed to see, and he was in Iqatania, so Iqatania was where they must go.
“How you doing, sis?”
Ialia did her best to force a smile.
“Not too badly, under the circumstances. And you?”
Tarn shifted his load, and nodded. “About the same. I’ll need to rearrange my pack, though, when we stop. There’s something poking my back, and it’s getting a bit uncomfortable.”
Ialia nodded toward the side of the road. “Best take care of it right now, then. You don’t want to get rubbed raw before we’re halfway there.”
They drifted through the crowd, and onto the slope which led down to the river, and she nodded toward the woods which bordered this stretch of the Iqataria. “We might as well get out of the sun, while we’re at it.”
Tarn nodded, and they half walked and half staggered over the uneven ground, then collapsed in the shade of the trees. Tarn slipped out of his pack and began to empty it, while Ialia leaned against a tree, and wiped her brow.
For a long, longing moment, she looked at Tarn’s bare legs. As hot as it was, it would have been so much nicer to wear a short tunic, instead of her ankle-length dress. Not that she would actually do such a scandalous thing, of course; but still, she couldn’t help but envy him his far cooler costume. Sighing deeply, she turned to her pack, to see if she could do anything to lighten her load.
“Surely there’s something here, that we can leave behind,” she muttered.
“There’s precious little, if you think of all we already left behind,” Tarn pointed out.
She sighed again, and nodded. Everything that they and papa had worked for — built, grown, sewn, or bought — everything that they couldn’t load onto their backs, had been left at the farm. Nothing that they couldn’t live without, and yet, hardly anything that she could bear to part with.
“At least we have the money that papa saved,” she said, thinking of the belt under Tarn’s tunic, “and whatever he’s made at the fair. And once we’re settled somewhere, we can work and earn more while we’re waiting for things to get back to normal.”
Tarn looked at the stream of people on the road.
“Do you think things will ever get back to normal?”
Ialia nodded. “They always do. There have been wars since the beginning of time, and when they’re over, people mostly do whatever they were doing, before. It will take some time, and a lot of work, but someday...”
An agitation suddenly swept through the crowd, a murmur of voices that grew apace, and as they turned to see what was going on, the road seemed to explode, scattering people in all directions.
“They’re coming! Run for your lives!”
Ialia and Tarn sprang to their feet, and donning their packs as they moved, ran into the woods.
For what seemed an eternity, although it couldn’t have really been more than a few minutes, Ialia ran as if pursued by demons — although, given the things said about the Q’tapapans, that might as well be the case. At first, there seemed to be people all around her, if not actually in her sight, then at least present by their desperate cries. But as they ran deeper into the woods, she and Tarn separated themselves from the others, and...
Ialia stopped for a moment and, panting heavily, turned to say something to Tarn; but to her dismay, he was nowhere in sight.
“Tarn?” she called out, as she retraced her steps. “Tarn?”
There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she started to turn; but before she could do so, a strong arm wrapped around her waist, and a harsh, guttural voice rang in her ears.
“Qur’rah! Qin sik na tovaldis!”
Ialia stared in dismay at the Q’tapapan who held her.
“Tovaldis q’taka,” his companion noted, with a wide grin.
“Tovaldis q’taka... sapenna...” the first one leeringly added, as he slid a hand over her breast.
She screamed and writhed in his embrace, doing all she could to escape him. Then a shock passed through her, and she was flung to the side.
“You leave my sister alone!”
As she staggered to her feet, she saw Tarn straddling the soldier who’d captured her, beating him about the head. The second soldier rushed at Tarn and tackled him, and they fell in a heap, on top of the first one.
“Run, Lia! Run!”
For a moment, Ialia hesitated. Then, as two more soldiers burst into view, she turned, and with what she knew would be her last sight of her brother searing her soul, ran for her life.
Tears streamed down Ialia’s face as she ran through the woods. Ran and ran and ran. She had no idea how long she’d been running, or how far, or even what direction she was going in. And she didn’t really care. Tarn was dead, or captured, which was as good as dead where Q’tapapans were concerned, and although she ought to be glad that she had escaped their vile attentions, she was sure that nothing could ever make up for the sacrifice that he had made.
Finally, exhausted beyond endurance, she stopped and leaned against a tree, gasping for breath. Her labored breathing rasped harshly in her ears, but as far as she could tell, there were no other sounds in the woods. In some ways, that seemed ominous, as there should have been some sound of the creatures who lived there. But they were undoubtedly doing their best to hide from the Q’tapapans as well, so perhaps it wasn’t all that surprising. And at least there was nothing that suggested pursuit.
While she recovered her breath, she took stock of all she had lost. Her pack was gone, lost in the struggle with the Q’tapapan, and she had torn her dress and lost her waistband while struggling through a thicket; but all of that was as nothing compared to the greatest loss of all — Tarn.
For a long moment she struggled with the urge to dissolve into tears again. Then she finally managed to get hold of herself. Tarn might be gone, but papa was alive and well, in Iqatania. She had to reach him, if only to let him know how badly she’d failed him. She had to reach him, tell him all that had happened, and hope — hope against almost certain lack of hope — that they could do something, anything, to save Tarn.
The first thing to figure out was, where in the world she was. It was hard to tell, as the part of the woods she was in was so thick she could hardly see the sky, but it looked like she needed to head... over there. Yes. Definitely over there. She pushed away from the tree, and staggered in the direction she had settled on.
It was hard going at first, as the ground was very uneven, but since all she had to carry was herself, it was easier than it would have been, with her lost pack. And as she moved along, the woods opened up a bit, allowing her to follow a straighter path.
In fact, she soon realized that she was on a path, of sorts. Nothing like a regular pathway, but certainly something that had been used on several occasions. That made her a bit nervous, as it meant that someone else might also be on it, but every time she stopped to listen she heard nothing, save her own breathing.
She wasn’t familiar with this area, as she’d hardly ever left the farm, save for an occasional visit to another farm, or when papa took the family to the fairs at Ituali or Ituita. And of course, when he did that, she rode in the wagon, and didn’t really pay much attention to the woods, save to notice how pretty they seemed. Not that they seemed at all pretty, now. No. They seemed dark, and full of danger. Full of the danger associated with the known, and worse yet, the unknown. Still, whatever they were filled with, there was one thing she was quite certain of. The path she was on was leading her toward Iqatania, and every step that she took, took her one step closer to papa.
For quite some time, the path meandered through the woods. At one point, it crossed a small stream. On the road, the mud left by a recent storm had dried and turned to dust, but in the shade of the trees, the pools created by the stream’s overflow still remained, quiet and cool and inviting, and she took a few minutes to wash up, while maintaining a wary stance.
Brief though her stop was, the murmuring and splashing of the water, the buzzing of the insects flitting about her, and the soft rays of sunlight streaming through the canopy seemed wonderfully soothing — not to mention how much better it felt to be more or less clean — and as she rose and resumed her journey, there was a spring in her stride that had not been there through the whole of that long, long day.
The path led into a small clearing, and she stepped out of the darkness, and into the light. As she did so, she raised her eyes to the heavens... and an unseen hand gripped her ankle, and lifted her into the sky.
Ik’kori swore softly to himself, as the Q’tapapans walked right past the signs he’d so carefully laid. Were they blind? Even a child should be able to see them!
There was a movement off to his left, and as his head jerked in that direction, a girl walked into the clearing, and stepped into his trap.
Under different circumstances, he might have been quite entertained by the way in which, as his snare lifted her into the air, her dress fell to her shoulders, exposing her form to his view. A very lovely form, too, with a lushly curved torso, equally shapely legs, and a striking contrast of pale flesh and fire-red curls that was rare in Itualwana, even here, near the border.
But that was of little moment, compared to the ruin of his plan. The idiot was now dangling more than a dozen feet above the ground, where his quarry should have been. And with her screeching loudly enough to wake even the dead, he couldn’t do anything but watch, and hope the men would be too distracted by the show to pay proper attention to anything else.
He nocked an arrow, and waited for the Q’tapapans to come running.