Book Three of the Travelers, p.1D. J. MacHale
Feigning just slightly more fatigue than she actually felt, Loor dropped her staff a few inches. It was a subtle thing…but it gave the man an opening. He took it, darting forward and attempting to slam her in the face with his stick. Using exactly the same move he had used against her, she slipped to the side, thrust her stick between his knees, and levered his legs out from under him.
The man fell hard, his face twisting in a grimace of pain as he thudded to the ground. His stick flew from his hand.
Loor leaped onto him, standing on his right arm, her staff poised for a final strike. “Fall back!” she shouted. “Fall back—or he dies!”
But the men didn’t move.
Loor glanced back down at the man on the ground. She expected to see his face full of fear and pain. But instead he was smiling. “Perfect!” he said.
Then two fingers on his right hand rose and fell. There was something practiced about it, as though it were a signal.
With that, every one of the tribesmen released their arrows. The air around her literally whistled as the shafts came at her from all sides.
I have failed, she thought. But at least I have died honorably.
And then the arrows hit.
PENDRAGON BEFORE THE WAR
Book One of the Travelers
Book Two of the Travelers
Book Three of the Travelers
This book is a work of fiction. Any references to historical events, real people, or real locales are used fictitiously. Other names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
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Copyright © 2009 by D.J. MacHale
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BOOK THREE OF THE TRAVELERS
The sun was even stronger today.
Loor stood on the crest of the sand dune and looked into the distance. She had been following the thief for three days. She had never seen him though. The man she was following was a ghost, just a trail of indistinct footprints in the sand.
And when she had lost the trail, she had simply followed a huge bird—a hindor—that had been flying on the hot air currents above her since the moment she left Xhaxhu. A good luck charm or an actual guide—it was hard to say. But whatever the case, the great black bird had never steered her wrong.
But now she didn’t really need the hindor. She could tell she was gaining on the thief because his footprints were becoming clearer. When she had first started tracking him at the outskirts of Xhaxhu, the prints had sometimes been nearly invisible, wiped away by the wind. In the beginning sometimes she’d had to backtrack, searching for the faintest sign of his passing. And sometimes he had played tricks on her, doubling back, jumping from rock to rock so as not to leave prints, leaving false trails. Anything to trip her up.
But not now. Now there was no losing the trail. It was just a contest of will. She shook her canteen. Will…and water. She had enough for another day if she stretched it. Another few hours if she didn’t. Her lips were dry and cracked, and her feet were sore and blistered. Even with her dark, nearly black tone, the intensity of the sun had caused the skin on her shoulders and face to peel and burn.
Overhead the giant bird circled slowly, carried on the rising currents of hot air. The hindor was the only living creature she had seen in days. Not a snake, not a lizard, not a fly, or mosquito.
The desert was no place for people. The sky was a deep, clear blue, without even a hint of a cloud.
And then, for the first time, she saw him. There! The dunes rolled up and down in front of her. He was a small dark lump, three dunes away. He paused and looked back. He seemed to be in no hurry. She could tell that he saw her, though she couldn’t see him in any detail. He wore the robes of the cannibal tribes of the desert. Beyond that, she could make out nothing.
He was watching her. Studying her. Looking for weakness. Finally he lifted his arm and gave her a silent, unhurried wave, as though acknowledging that she had made it this far.
Then he turned and disappeared.
She smiled fiercely.
Three days ago the desert had been the last thing on Loor’s mind. It was the first day of Azhra, the biggest holiday of the year. Even hard-bitten warriors like Loor took time off from training during the weeklong festival. Everyone dressed in their finest clothes and ate their most delicious food. The streets of Xhaxhu were filled with color, and the city’s fountains ran, just as they had in the old days.
There had been a time, years ago, when Xhaxhu lay at the center of an immense and fertile plain. Even though there was not much rainfall in the plains, great rivers ran through the land, irrigating the fields, and making the arid land bloom with life. The Festival of Azhra celebrated King Azhra, who brought his people through the desert to the watery and fertile oasis of Xhaxhu.
But over the years something changed. At first it was just a subtle decrease of the flow during the summer. Over time it became clear that something profound was happening. Some vast change in the weather was causing the rains in the distant mountains of Elzhe’er to cease for much of the year. And so the rivers dwindled and dried up.
Finally a neighboring people, the Rokador, created vast underground tunnels and aquifers, which would channel and store what little rain still fell in the distant mountains. The tunnels of the Rokador made it possible for farming to continue in much of the plains around Xhaxhu. But each year the Rokador reported sparser rains, fewer active streams, less water coming from the mountains of Elzehe’er.
And so, one after another, farms fell into ruin, orchards withered, fields were abandoned…and the sand blew ever closer to Xhaxhu.
But during the Festival of Azhra, all these things were forgotten. Loor’s people, the Batu, forgot about the drought, and water flowed everywhere. Long ago the festival had signaled the beginning of the rainy season. The culmination of the festival was a great public ceremony in the central stadium of the city. There were speeches and dances and singing. Warriors paraded, showing off their skills and their finest uniforms.
And then, finally, a huge vessel of water was hoisted above the crowd. Each year a warrior took the ancient golden ax of Azhra and struck the vessel. It broke, dousing the crowd in water—symbolic of the life-giving rain that sustained the city.
This year Loor had been chosen for the honor of using the golden ax.
But on the first day of Azhra, an urgent message had summoned her to the Supreme Council, the body that advised King Khalek a Zinj, the king of Xhaxhu. Khalek had been in poor health lately, so his young son, Pelle a Zinj, was officially presiding. But because Pelle was still relatively inexperienced, he left most of the talking to his councillors. Loor’s mother, Osa, was among those councillors, so Loor was not unfamiliar with the proceedings. But to have been called here, not as an observer, but as a participant—it was a great honor.
The news from the council had been grim. According to Chief Councillor Erran, the golden ax, which had been used for generations, had been stolen.<
“Why would someone do that?” Loor said as she stood before the council.
One of the king’s oldest councillors, Shakar, stood and pointed his finger across the room. “It is the Rokador!” he shouted. “Those traitors know the importance of Azhra to our people. They seek to humiliate us! We must strike against them now.”
But Erran, the head of the council, rose and said, “Silence, Shakar! We do not know that it was the Rokador.”
“Who else could it be?” Loor asked.
“We do not know, Loor.” Loor’s mother, Osa, stood and spoke. She looked much like Loor—tall, dark-skinned, strong. But her face was softer, and she smiled more easily. Today, however, she wasn’t smiling. “Very likely the thief was a Zafir.” The Zafir were fierce tribesmen who inhabited the deserts that surrounded Xhaxhu. “A man wearing the robes of a tribesman was spotted near the temple where the golden ax is stored.”
“It could have been a Rokador dressed in desert robes!” shouted Shakar.
“Yes!” shouted another councillor. A loud hubbub erupted.
Erran raised his hands and silenced the room. “Let us not prematurely blame the Rokador,” he said. “I have called Loor before us for a reason.”
“What is that?” Loor said.
“The man in the robe was spotted in the outskirts of Xhaxhu not an hour ago. You are ordered to follow him into the desert. Follow him and retrieve the ax.”
Loor turned to look at her mother. Osa looked back at her impassively. “Who should I take with me? Do I get to choose my team?”
Erran shook his head. “You will take no one. You will go alone.”
Loor tried not to appear confused. Why would they send only her? Why not someone older? She studied her mother’s face again. But Osa was showing nothing. An outside observer wouldn’t have known from Osa’s expression that she and Loor were even related.
For the first time Crown Prince Pelle a Zinj spoke. “If we send a large group, the group will go at the speed of its slowest member. No, Loor, your determination and resilience were well demonstrated in the games this year. You will go alone. You will find the thief. And you will take back what is rightfully ours.”
When a Ghee warrior was given a direct order by a royal authority, there was no debate, no questioning. Ghee warriors simply did as they were told.
Loor knelt and pressed her forehead to the floor.
After the audience with the council, Osa accompanied her daughter back to her room.
“Why me?” Loor said finally. “There are many more experienced warriors in Xhaxhu. Did you get them to pick me?”
Osa shook her head. “You know I would not do that, Loor. It was Erran who suggested that you be the one. He felt your youth and vigor would be useful to the mission.”
“Good,” Loor said. “I would not want anyone to think I got the mission just because I was the great Osa’s daughter.”
Osa smiled. She put her hand on Loor’s arm. “You earned the right to the assignment. Just do your duty and someday people will stop describing you as ‘Osa’s daughter.’ In fact, they will probably be describing me as ‘the great Loor’s mother.’”
Loor almost laughed. But she didn’t. Laughter was unbecoming of a serious warrior.
Thirty minutes later Loor’s colorful holiday outfit lay in a pile on the floor of her room, and she was jogging into the western outskirts of the city, a heavy pack on her back, her war staff in her hand.
By midday she had found the thief’s footprints. They wound through abandoned farms, and past dried out wells and twisted and leafless trees. And by the end of the day, she was into the sand. The thief’s footprints were measured and unhurried. He showed no sign of fear, no sign of haste.
As she finally lay down on the sand, the stars twinkling above her, she was sure: This was no Rokador trick. There wasn’t a Rokador in all of Zadaa who would march calmly into the desert like this. The Rokador word for the great desert was “shu-roka-nak.” Loosely translated, it meant “the place where Rokador die.”
No, the thief was a child of the desert.
She permitted herself a brief smile. The desert was unforgiving, and the tribesmen were tough and vicious. This would be a true test.
By the time the sun had neared the horizon, Loor had gained significantly on the thief. She had been pushing herself relentlessly. Even with all her arduous training, the desert was taking its toll on her. She had been forced to drink more water than she planned.
But it didn’t matter. When she had first seen him, he was three dunes away. Now each time she crested a dune, she saw him struggling up the next dune.
She was close. Very close. But she had to catch him by nightfall. The thief almost certainly had more water than she did. If he slipped away during the night, she would run out of water once the sun began blazing on her the next morning. And without water, all her training, all her skill, all her will and determination were useless. She would die. It was that simple. She didn’t have enough water to make it back to Xhaxhu.
She had dropped her pack hours earlier in order to make better time. Either she caught the thief, retrieved the ax, and took his water…
Or she died.
She was moving in a fog of pain now. Her feet burned, her lungs ached, her body was sore. And the lack of water was making her lose her edge. She began to entertain thoughts that she might die out here.
Her legs constantly threatened to give out under her.
And yet somehow she managed to go on. Still, relentlessly, she closed the gap.
As she crested the next dune, she saw that the landscape had changed. The dunes trailed off into a rocky, barren wasteland. Boulders and eerie rock formations thrust upward into the sky. She had heard of this place before. It was the high plateau that led to the mountains.
She could see the Elzehe’er range, white capped even at this time of year, rising in the distance.
Below her on the face of the last dune, she could see the man. For the first time he was hurrying, as though at long last he acknowledged her as a real threat. He looked back over his shoulder. He was slipping and sliding on the loose sand, trying to reach the sounder footing of the rocky plateau above them.
He was no more than a hundred yards away.
Loor felt a surge of pleasure. Yes. She was going to make it.
She paused, drained the last mouthful of water, tossed her canteen into the sand, then let out the shrill war cry of the Batu.
The echoes came back to her off the massive rock formations before her. In the distance the sun touched the top of one of the tall boulders. Then she saw the hindor pass in front of the red disk of the sun, its long black wings outstretched.
Loor raised her fighting staff and charged.
Until this moment Loor had been unable to tell anything about the tribesman. Was he tall, short, pale, dark, muscular? There was no way to tell, given the massive scale of the dunes and the all-concealing folds of his robe.
But as she closed the gap, she saw that he was smaller than she’d expected. As a result he couldn’t begin to match her speed. And, for the first time since she’d entered the desert, she was glad to be wearing the tiny outfit of a Ghee warrior instead of the bulky robe of the tribesman.
The thief didn’t look back, though. He simply charged into the thicket of boulders, dodging this way and that. Loor was faster but the man was quick. Loor’s legs were burning and her chest was on fire.
When she was only about fifty paces away, the man ducked between two stone pillars. She followed and found that he had entered a sort of stone chamber—a dead end surrounded by high walls of pale rock. Throughout the chamber were oddly shaped piles of rock, dozens of them, made from pieces about the size of her fist. They must have been man-made, though she couldn’t think what they were for. Was it some sort of tribal burial ground? A religious site for the desert people?
The thief, still running, glanced back at her. He had nearly reached the end of the chamber
Loor ran toward him. The thief lay with his back against the wall. As she approached, he looked up at her. Now she was able to clearly see his face. She was shocked at what she saw.
It wasn’t a man at all.
It was just a boy, not more than eleven or twelve years old.
She halted and stared down at him. “Give me the ax,” she said.
The boy said nothing.
“You led me on a good chase, boy,” she said. “I applaud you. You are strong and brave. But I’m more than you can handle. Give me the ax and enough water for three days’ journey through the sands, and I won’t hurt you.” To punctuate her demand, she lifted her stick, ready to strike the boy if he attempted to fight.
Still the boy said nothing. But a small grin ran across his face.
Suddenly Loor felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck. Her warrior instincts told her something was wrong. But it wasn’t until she heard the sound that she knew what it was. The sound of rock scraping on rock.
A flood of anger ran through her.
She whipped around. Throughout the chamber the strange piles of rock began to move. Men rose from piles, like mythical creatures growing from the living rock.
But they weren’t mythical creatures. They were desert tribesmen, carrying the distinctive short recurved bows of their people. Every bow was strung with an arrow.
Finally the last of them appeared, and the last rock fell away, clattering to the ground. For a moment there was no sound but the hot desert wind whistling softly across the top of the canyon.
Loor knew she had no chance against them. There must have been close to twenty men, hoods up, faces invisible. Every bow was trained on her. It was known that the desert tribesmen were masters of the bow. Having no crops in the desert, they sometimes had to survive for months on end on just the animals they shot.
Book Three of the Travelers by D. J. MacHale / Fantasy / Science Fiction / Young Adult have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes