Authors: M.J. Schiller
Copyright © 2013 M.J. Schiller
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THE KILLION GROUP
~For my father,
the best storytellerI’ve ever known~
Miss you, Daddy!
Where do you start? No, really, where do you start to thank people who have been there for you while you’re making your dream a reality? They say it takes a village to raise a child? Well, it takes a whole lot of folks to make a book. Putting yourself out onto a page can be an extremely daunting undertaking. I could not have done it without my dedicated first readers, especially Angie Mier, Shelley Gould, and Linda McClure, to name a few. It would also have been impossible without the support of the people I “live” with on a daily basis, my lunch lady friends, Kris Hinderks, Kathy Hester, Kelly Namoff (who has inspired a number of my characters), Anne Boe,Kathy Yelton (Yo-yel), Susie Brockman, Angie Quinn, Jennnnn (sic) Trevarthan. And to Mr. Jason Kessinger, one of our school janitors, who was one of the few brave male souls to read one of my manuscripts (and he actually liked it!) I have to give a special shout out to two ladies: Kristi Hoerdemann, who read one of my manuscripts and came in all excited the next day, saying, “I’m really not much of a reader, but I LOVED this!” And Kendra Kornfeld, who was one of the first to tell me, “I couldn’t put it down!” And I wouldn’t be writing this without my fabulous friends from my RWA chapter, Heart&Scroll. You all have helped to make me the writer that I am today. (That’s supposed to be a compliment, by the way!) Especially R.T. Wolfe, Eryn Rask, Laurie Larsen, Leta Gail Doerr, and G.P. Ching, who were particularly helpful and encouraging. Wow! See what I mean? I’d also like to mention a few others who offered their support in a special way along the way, Susie Cardamone, Angie Thomas, Christy Schiller, Al Blair, Olemuel Ashford, Tara Roberts and Sandy Kachurek, and, of course, my fabulous Ladies in Red! Finally, the most important people in my life, my family:my mom, step-dad, step-mom,(step) brother and(step) sisters, my wonderful kids, Maggie, Mitch, Ryan, and Hannah, and my AMAZING husband, Don, who has never waivered in his support.
Bashea had gone to the well in the dark. She knew it was unwise, but it seemed so safe, just outside of the light from the fire where her family and other tribesmen sat telling age-old stories. If they had heard her scream, her brothers would have been at her side in an instant. The only problem was, her captors didn’t give her time to scream. They were waiting, watching before she even lifted the handle on the gourd and stepped forward.
It all seemed so innocent. Her family was laughing, re-telling stories, ones oft repeated when they got together, like the one about her brother, Bagrat, and the camel. Bagrat meant “made by the gods,” and, in Bashea’s opinion, her brother believed he was. That was why the story about the camel spitting on him, just as he was about to ask for the hand of the woman who was now his wife, was so funny. Bagrat would always laugh good-naturedly and counter with a story about one of Bashea’s other brothers, or something Bashea had done; there were plenty of those stories. They all would join in on the fun, talking over each other and repeating old dialogue word-for-word. Bashea possessed a wickedly fast tongue, and had so often stuck her foot in her mouth, it was permanently shaped to accept it. So, time and again, she was the one being teased when they gathered. Not that she minded; it was all part of being a big family.
It was this she was thinking of as she made her way to the well, feeling warmed by the comfort of kinship. It was cool outside the cozy ring of the fire, and Bashea was pulling her scarf tighter when they jumped her. Before she could even draw a breath, they took her own scarf and forced it into her mouth. She struggled against her attackers, but there were so many hands on her, she could not inflict the damage she wished to.
As they dragged her backwards, Bashea could see her father’s face, lit by the fire, as he stood, the crowd laughing loudly at something he said. No one could hear her grunts or groans, or see how Bashea dug heels into the sand to try to slow the abductors. A short, squat man stepped into her line of vision, smiling evilly as he used a huge palm branch to wipe away the drag marks they were creating. The only signs left behind to point to her presence at all were a cracked gourd and a puddle of water.
The men brought Bashea to a camp, and then they really had their fun, each taking a turn with her until she finally passed out. Even then, they did not stop. When she would awaken, someone new would be over her, and Bashea would thrash about, fighting against the others pinioning her arms and legs. She used teeth
to try to stop what they were doing to her, even head-butting someone, which had him drawing a knife to cut her arm in retaliation.
Bashea was sure they would kill her, or she would be abandoned in the middle of the desert, left to die. But in the end they rolled her up in a carpet, where she fought against the panic of suffocation, head giddy, lungs aching for air. Toss
ing her onto a camel, or some other beast of burden, it was hard to say which, they brought her to dump their load on the floor of a beautiful bedroom. With a brutal yank on the carpet, they sent her rolling out across the floor to the hearth, almost into the mouth of the fire that chased the chill from the room. Then they just left. She attempted to get her bindings off by various means, but finally fell asleep. On top of her exhaustion, the warmth of the fire lulled her. Besides, she needed to conserve her energy to fight off the next attack.
It was all so surreal. She wondered what her family must be thinking. They would have searched for her, if they had any idea where to start. But even she had no idea where she was. She knew her father would be very upset, and that pained her. She tried not to think about what the soldiers had done; it made her sick.
* * *
The King of Avistad was dying, and there were those who wanted to hasten his death all the more. Young Prince Tahj knew this. He knew it as he was walking down to the throne room, his footsteps ringing in the empty hallway, his heart beating a mile a minute. The twenty-three-year-old prince had found that very thought weighing on his mind day and night since his older brother, Kadeesh, was killed in a war with the neighboring kingdom of Subda.
Tahj remembered the day he learned of Kadeesh’s death. He was knocking around a cloth ball with his friend, Radeem, juggling it on his ankles and knees, when the messenger arrived. His mother’s wail pierced through him, ripping a hole in his life that left Kadeesh on the other side of a great chasm. Kadeesh had been the brightest jewel in his father’s turban, tall, with a bronzed, even complexion, radiant teeth, and a heart bigger than the very breadth of the good king’s lands. He was a kind brother to Tahj, though six years his senior, and had always managed to spend time with the younger boy when he was home.
Since the fateful day Kadeesh was killed, the king had trained Tahj to take his brother’s place as heir to the throne. Tahj accepted the mantle unwillingly; he did not believe himself to be the born leader his brother was. Maybe it was because Kadeesh was always there to lead the way; Tahj had become comfortable in his role as the understudy. And now, thrust into the limelight, he felt like a fool, strutting around and putting on airs he did not deserve. The place belonged to another. But, no matter what his feelings on the subject were, he knew it was his obligation to step up and bear the responsibility as best he could, for his mother, for his father, and for all of Avistad.
Tahj felt the little stab that had become so familiar whenever he thought of his brother and accepted the pain as he traversed the long hall, glancing up at the dozens of colorful, triangular banners rolling in the breeze off of the adjoining courtyard like waves in the sea. Light still streamed in, ducking between the pillars separating the courtyard at his left from the hallway. Though it was late afternoon, its rays still felt warm on his shoulder as he strode purposefully forward. It always amazed him that outside the thick walls of the palace, the sun could roast you alive, but within its shadowed walls, there was a chill that could never be permanently shaken.
As background music to his thoughts birdsong rang, sounding almost mournful as it ricocheted off the palace walls, coupled with the sound of a fountain somewhere nearby. The closer Tahj got to the throne room, the tighter his chest became, knowing any misstep on his part would be met by the derision of his father’s counselors, especially the grand vizier, Lord Boltar. The man was a pompous ass, as far as Tahj was concerned, but he still wielded a lot of power, and so Tahj kept a close eye on him.
When Tahj entered the throne room and strode forward, he could already feel the others sniveling behind his back.
“Look, the boy prince has come.”
“He is not worthy to wear the royal turban.”
Still, Tahj squared his shoulders and approached the throne, passing through the others as if swimming upstream.
The throne room was unnecessarily large, the back three-fourths of the room unused and in shadow. The only time these corners were lit was during a ball, when the whole room seemed to come alive as if it were put under an enchanted spell, broken only by the sound of music and laughter, and the tantalizing smells issuing from the kitchen just beyond. Now the room managed to smell both musty and, at the same time, like an odd combination of pine and jasmine. Columns sprang up in regular rows like soldiers, marching up to the bottom of a short but wide staircase that led up to his father’s throne.
At the foot of the stairs, Tahj got down on his knees and bowed from the waist, his hands stretched out in front of him on the floor, as was proper, holding the position for several seconds before slowly rising.
“My son.” The king reached out to clasp Tahj’s hand warmly in his long, slender one. He was taller, thinner than Tahj, with steel-gray hair and a long, drooping moustache.
“Father,” Tahj returned with feeling, stepping up and bending to kiss the ring on the king’s hand.
His father was not looking well these days, he noted. His skin had taken on a gray pallor, and his hands shook uncontrollably. His golden robes hung from him, limp, as if suspended by the pair of hooks that were his shoulders. The older man coughed, the air rasping through his lungs like the clash of metal.
As the king fought to get his fit under control, Tahj slid his gaze to the group of advisors to his right, searching for the face of the grand vizier. He located the man with ease, his prominent red robes setting him off from the rest, his thin face looking strangely stretched, cheek bones and chin pointy under the dark, thin skin and smooth goatee. Was it his imagination, or did the minister’s coal-black eyes seem to sparkle with menace, his thin lips lifting almost imperceptibly at the corners as he gazed upon the weakened king?
“You look well, Tahj,” the king said, regaining his voice at last. “I take it things went well in Moleeda? You had no problem collecting the tribute there?”
Tahj turned from his scrutiny of Boltar and grinned easily at his father. “Things went well. The sultan sends his regards—”
“Aaaactually, Sire,” Boltar interrupted, drawing out the word with feigned politeness, “I’m sorry to interrupt, Your Highness—” His voice was oily as he gave a slight bow in Tahj’s direction. “—but the prince did not collect the entire tribute.” He stood back, his arms crossed, a slippery smile splitting his face, above which his thin mustache twitched in anticipation of a conflict.
Tahj waited a beat before responding, his eyes like cold steel as he glared at Boltar. He returned his attention to the king. “This is true, Father, the sultan was a little short on his gold. He is in the middle of building a mausoleum to his late wife, and is drawing heavily from the treasury right now.” Tahj glanced again at the grand vizier. “I believe, since he is grieving, we can give him a bit more time,” he added pointedly.
“Sire.” Boltar pounced. “This is exactly what I was speaking of. Everybody has a sad story they could share. If we allow people to go without paying tribute every time someone is ill or—”
The King waved a hand dismissively in Boltar’s direction without even looking at him. “If Caspar says he will pay, he will pay. We’ve never had a problem with him. Was your travel pleasant, son?”
Tahj beamed, happy to have scored a point against his nemesis. “Very pleasant, Father.” He chanced a glance in Boltar’s direction. The grand vizier scowled, a vein pulsing in his elongated neck. “Very pleasant.”
“Good, good. You must tell your mother and me about it at dinner, then.”
Sensing he was being dismissed, Tahj clicked his heels together sharply and bowed. “As you wish, sir.”
He left the throne room quickly, and was surprised to hear a second pair of boots accompanying him. A hand dropped over his shoulder. “It is good to see you, Prince Tahj. Welcome home. Your trip was good, then?”
Tahj tried to ignore the chill running down his spine. “Yes, as you just heard, Lord Boltar, it was good.”
“Ahh…fine, fine. Well, we have a gift for you, the men and I.” His tone was amused. “Something we brought back from a small village in the desert, just under the foothills of the mountains. Something to make you a man.”
Tahj knew he meant a bottle of some strong drink. Unlike his men, Tahj rarely imbibed alcohol, and it had become a point of ridicule among the troops. “Thank you, Grand Vizier. I’m sure it was very thoughtful of you. Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going into my private quarters now to open your gift.” Tahj took the other man’s arm from his shoulder as if it were contaminated and dropped it, turning to enter his room. The last image he had, as the door closed, was of Boltar rubbing his hands together with a sneer of sick satisfaction.
With a sigh, Tahj leaned against the door. “Like I would really drink anything
would send me,” he said to the thin air. He straightened up and removed his short, robin’s egg-blue, silk, beaded jacket, crossing through his sitting room to dump it on the curtained bed in his inner chambers. He removed his turban, too, throwing it unceremoniously across the bed. He hated the thing as it was both hot and uncomfortable. He only wore it for formal occasions or when conducting business, to lend himself an air of dignity his youth and inexperience robbed him of. He ran his hands roughly through his thick, black hair and then, with a loud, exaggerated exhale of breath, he flopped down on his mattress. Tahj worked to undo his loose blouse at the wrists where it was tied, at the same time tugging it out of the waistband of his tight, white, dress pants, also saved for formal occasions.
“Where is this dubious bottle of mead?” He glanced around the room at all the flat surfaces and saw no glittering bottle. Having freed his wrists, he dropped them to his lap as he continued to scan the room, realizing it felt good to be home in his own familiar surroundings. The brightly colored bedspread, the red drapes, the ornately carved bedside table, along with the spicy aroma of incense, all spoke of home. Light flooded the relatively small apartment from a wide bank of windows on the far side of the room, which still smelled of the fresh air he’d let in when he first arrived home. A crow cawed loudly in the courtyard off his bedroom, overriding the trilling of a warbler in a nearby acacia tree. A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. He rose to open it.
With a cry of joy he pronounced, “Oh, ho, ho! Radeem, my friend.” He was swallowed up by a large man with a wide, open face and hair as black as his own, who began to thump him vigorously on the back. “How good it is to see you. How long has it been?”