Ster rode out from the mountain palace at the head of a twelve-man hunting party. At the base of the steep trail were the rolling grasslands of the Moyer Plains, fed by springs that rolled off the tops of the peaks. Each winter, the Moyers kept close within the palaces as the snow covered the passes, but in the spring, they descended again for a great hunt, whether they needed the food or not.
“Good morning for it,” Mally said, reining up next to Ster. Her short hair billowed in the sharp wind.
“Hoping so,” Ster said, squinting. His son Caled rode alone at the head of the column, the young man sitting straight-backed and scouting the path, his horse picking its way slowly overs the stones.
“He seems confident.” Mally smiled and shook her head. This was Caled’s first hunt and his first ride on his own mount as a man. “I’m sure he’ll bring down something enormous.”
“He’ll turn it into a great story for everyone back home, whether he finds game or not,” Ster said, and Mally laughed. Ster tried to hide his smile, but it was difficult. His boy was a torch in the dark of the winter palaces and Ster adored Caled’s laughter and joking, his ceaseless energy, his ability to make everyone around him feel as though they were the center of the world. Ster didn’t know why the gods blessed him with a son like Caled, but he was grateful.
The hunting party reached the plains and moved at a walk away from the mountains. Caled ranged ahead and Mally rode to join him as they searched for deer tracks around the springs nearby. Ster kept the main hunting party together on a lazy, comfortable stroll.
Ster called a halt. The party watered their horses and gathered around to talk amiably. The hunt itself wasn’t so important—the palace had plenty. It was more of a way to break the winter and to transition his scouts into spring, a way to get their riding legs under them again, and to prepare them for the rigors of summer. But it was a good day, and Ster wouldn’t let the coming hardships bother him, not yet.
Until he saw Mally riding hard toward them over the horizon. The woman returned at a gallop, her horse in a lather and sweat on her brow.
“What’s going on?” Ster asked, storming toward her.
“Caled,” she said, out of breath. “Conglomerati.”
Ster felt a sharp sting in his chest. “Mount,” he barked and ran to his horse. He climbed up and pulled toward Mall. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know,” she said, shaking her head. “We were tracking a small group of deer when we came across the soldiers. I told Caled to turn back, but he insisted on stalking them.”
“You left him alone?” Ster’s grip on the reins tightened.
“It was either that or let the boy get us both killed.” Her eyes were wild and pleading. “Please, Ster. He’s that way. We can still bring him back.”
“How many soldiers?” Ster’s head felt dizzy. He had barely enough men for a scouting party, let alone a true war band.
“A squad at least,” Mally said. “Twenty or more, I’d guess.”
So double his own. Ster looked back at the grim-faced warriors behind him, each of them prepared to do what was needed, but he wouldn’t risk their lives for a single soul. Not even for his son, the torchlight of his life.
“Stay here,” Ster said and reached into his saddlebags. He took out a small, round object that looked similar to a compass.
“I’ll come with you,” Mally said. “I never should’ve left, but I thought—“
“You did well, getting me,” Ster said. He didn’t need Mally flagellating herself. He could do that for her when they returned to the palace. “Stay with the party. If I don’t return by midday, ride back and tell them what’s happened.”
Ster didn’t wait for a reply. He spurred his horse and rode at a trot as he got his bearings and followed the compass, then at a canter as he chewed up the land.
His compass pointed in one direction and one alone. The body was covered in the sigils that created the magic connection between his compass and the matching copy in Caled’s saddlebag. Ster had the pair linked, meaning his compass would always point directly to its mate, and he had insisted that Caled carry it with him, though the boy hadn’t been happy about it. Now Ster was glad of the precaution.
The ride wasn’t long. He slowed as he gained a small rise and saw a solitary horse hobbled to a small, scrubby bush at the base of a taller hill. He dismounted and went by foot, adding his own horse to the bush, which wouldn’t do much if the animals were spooked. He continued on, following the compass up another rise, and found his son lying dead-still in the tall grass with his musket in front of him.
Ster crouched down and made a soft hissing sound. Caled looked back, surprised and already bringing his musket around, but Ster held up his hands. Caled relaxed slightly and motioned for Ster to join him. Ster hesitated, but he needed to see the Conglomerati, and so he crawled on his belly until he lay shoulder to shoulder with his son.
“How many?” Ster whispered.
“Thirty,” Caled said. “I think musket and rifle mixed.”
Hunters then. Ster’s gut twisted. The Conglomerate sent their soldiers out onto the plains to track down Ster’s people and to kill as many as they could. In return, great Moyer raiding parties descended on the edges of their towns and villages, taking what they could, killing whoever dared to stand against them. Out on the plains though, it was a game of tracking and hunting, and while the Moyer people have been doing it for a very long time, the Conglomerati were getting better.
“We go back,” Ster whispered.
But Caled didn’t move. “They’re led by a woman,” he said, nodding. “She’s not far. I could make that shot.”
Down below at the bottom of the rise, the Conglomerati sat beside a small stream, taking a break from their patrol. At the edge of the group, Caled saw her: auburn hair like a dark sunrise, flat nose, wiry body. The men gave her space, and the markings on her arm suggested she was a Sergeant in their military.
Ster had to admit, it was tempting. Killing their officers was an honor and a pleasure. But even if Caled could make the shot at this range, which was not guaranteed, they’d be ridden down before they could reach their mounts to flee.
“No,” Ster said, tugging on his son’s shoulder. “We return.”
“Father,” Caled said angrily, raising his voice.
And it echoed around them, down into the small ravine beyond.
Ster didn’t move, staring at the soldiers. Several of them looked over toward where Ster and Caled were covered in the grass. Ster put a hand against Caled’s mouth and his son stayed perfectly still, eyes wide with terror. He knew he’d made a mistake, and now they’d pay for it.
Ster began to back down the hill slowly.
But it didn’t matter. The Sergeant below barked orders in her strange language and several of their men began to mount up.
Ster crawled backwards fast, tugging Caled with him. Then together they stood and sprinted for the horses.
No time to hesitate. He didn’t know if they’d reach the mounts, and if they’d have enough distance to outrun the Conglomerati riders. The soldiers weren’t good shots while mounted, and the Conglomerate horses were inferior to the Moyer stock, but it wouldn’t matter if they had a running start.
Ster pushed himself faster than he’d ever run before, but halfway to the mounts, he heard his son gasp in shock. Ster looked back and saw Caled sprawled on the ground, then scrambling back to his feet.
Ster let out a groan as he went back to his son. The boy should’ve known better, should’ve been watching his footing—
Two horsemen crested the rise where they’d been laying just a minute before. One spotted them and shouted something.
“Go,” Ster barked, tearing the musket from Caled’s hands.
“Father,” Caled said.
“Run,” Star shouted, shoving his son, and the boy ran.
Ster turned toward the two men and dropped to one knee. He sighted down the musket, aiming for the soldier on the left. He shot true, the crack like a lightning bolt on the plains, and the man toppled sideways into his companion. Their horses startled, but didn’t spook, and the uninjured soldier pushed the body of his dead companion away while he brought his own weapon to bear on Ster.
No time to think. Ster turned and ran, musket clutched in his hands. Ahead, Caled was at the horses and already mounting.
Ster felt it before he heard it. Another crack in the air and a sharp pain in his lower back, like a kick to his spine. He staggered once, stumbled, and fell onto his face.
Caled screamed and turned his horse around. Ster climbed to his feet, desperate to get his son moving. He felt the blood dripping down his legs and heard the thunder of the soldier riding toward him.
“Ride,” he yelled at his son.
The boy didn’t move, caught between his father and freedom.
Then more hooves thundered up the ridge.
Ster looked back. Five more riders, eight, twelve. The whole squad, some tending to the man he’d shot, and the rest barreling down on him.
“Ride,” Ster screamed at his son.
The pain on the boy’s expression broke his heart. Ster stared at him and wanted to remember every line of Caled’s face, every smile and laugh, all the moments the boy brought him so much joy. He remembered Caled as a toddler, sitting in his lap and curling up against his chest, and as a young boy running through the palace halls and getting into trouble. Ster loved his son more than he’d ever loved himself, and gods, it wasn’t fair, losing him like this. It was never fair.
Caled turned and rode. His son was good in the saddle and that horse was fast and strong. He’d escape the Conglomerati. He’d make it back to the hunting party. There was more life for his boy, there’d have to be more life.
Ster felt a surge of pride. That was his son, riding hard, bent over his horse, wind streaming through his hair, body taught like an arrow.
He turned back as the first soldier barreled down toward him, a cavalry saber in his hand, and didn’t have time to duck as the blade flashed out and took him in the chest, the throat, and half of his face.
He fell backwards and saw the clear sky. He closed his eyes and thought of his boy, riding like a thundercloud.
ps, This is a bit of a world-building exercise for the novel I’m working on right now. If you liked it, please share it! And hit that like/heart button. And follow me on twitter: @dckalbach. Or do whatever you want! Have a good week. - DC