Have you been wondering what really happened between Tarek and Alyra before they escaped from Racah? Well, here's the first part of their story, told from Tarek's point of view.
Captured is the first in the White Road Tales novella trilogy.
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Here's a bit from the first chapter:
A sharp intake of breath alerted Tarek that the note from his aunt wasn't good news.
Brie, his mother, crumpled the paper in her rough hands, her shallow-set eyes unfocused. Tarek placed a hand on her shoulder, feeling nothing but bone under her rough fabric of her dress. Her head snapped up, face pale as she clutched his arm. "Go find Olden. Quick now. They're coming."
Ma didn't need to name who they were.
Tarek removed his jacket off the coat rack on his way to the door.
"I want to come," Vesia's twelve-year-old body slammed into him, as she grabbed the back of his shirt, pulling him to a halt.
Dislodging her grip, he turned to her, bending slightly until he was level with her green eyes, the same shade as his. Strands of brown hair fell across her gaunt face. "You don't have anything warm to wrap yourself in and it's chilly outside. Besides, I'm sure he's at the tavern, and that place smells of Troll's feet."
Vesia stomped her foot. "I've had to drag him home a time or two, just like you."
"Please stay." He lowered his voice, whispering. "Keep Ma calm till I get back."
Folding her arms over her chest, she let out an irritated snort but nodded in agreement. He tugged at her ear, then hurried out of the door.
Outside, he slipped into his muddy boots that pinched his toes. He set off at a slow jog seriously doubting the threat of invasion was as immanent as Ma feared. His aunt and uncle, who owned the house they currently occupied, had left everything behind to make a run for it. But Olden, his father, refused to leave the family home based on rumors. Besides, nobody in their right mind would waste any effort taking over this sand pit someone had named DeTiere.
Still, Ma wouldn't rest until Pop was home and they were making plans on where to go next. Tarek sighed. Another move. For once he'd love to find a nice town they could all settle down in and stay.
Only the stars and half moon lit the narrow dirt road that ran north and south through DeTiere. He stopped at a crossroad. To his left, tall cliffs full of caves and sheer rock walls guarded the eastern boundary, offering a bit of shelter and security. Tarek shuddered, just not enough. A cool wind blew sand into his face from miles of open desert lands surrounding the small oasis.
He turned right toward the town center. Some oasis, he chuckled. At one time the stone buildings, adorned with clay statues and metalwork might have been something. Unfortunately, as more of the surrounding villages were taken over by the Racan King, DeTiere fell into disrepair as people abandoned their homes and lives.
Bright lights and lively music from the Traveler's Inn spilled out onto the deserted road. Strange that no matter how destitute conditions might be, the tavern always seemed to flourish.
Tarek came upon a body lying face down in the dirt.
He immediately recognized the close-cropped gray speckled head. Taking a couple of tentative steps forward, he watched Olden's back for the rising and falling of breaths. A drunken snore rumbled from the heap. Tarek sighed a breath of relief.
"Wake up." Tarek nudged his boot not too gently into Pop's ribs.
Olden came up with a furious yell, his arms swinging wildly.
Dodging his father’s fists, Tarek grasped the back of his dirty shirt, dragged him to the nearest horse trough, and dunked his head into the mucky water.
"All right!" Olden shouted on the third dunk, trying to push from the basin smelling of dead things and algae. "All right, I say. Leb go ob me, you blasted scamp!"
Tarek shoved him away and jumped out of reach in case the old man decided to pay him back.
"Get on your feet," Tarek ordered. "Or I'll do it again. I'm not carrying you home this time."
Wiping the last dregs of mud from his eyes, Olden stood on wobbly legs and grabbed at a post to steady himself. Purple and yellow splotches covered the side of Olden's face. Blood trickled down into his scraggly goatee from a split lip.
Olden pointed a black smudged finger at his son. "Jus' cause you're sixteen doesn't make you the man of the family. That's still my role."
Tarek rolled his eyes. "Can you get home, Pop? Ma is beside herself with worry. A messenger bird brought a letter from your brother. Uncle says we better run for it. Racan soldiers are plundering this whole region."
Olden waved his hand dismissively. "They're not interested in this stink hole." He tried to wipe the dirt from his muddied shirt and trousers, then gave up the lost cause. "Tole her I was out getting us some coins. She been ranting about leavin', but I'll need to buy provisions. Without food and travel gear, we'll not make it more than a few days. Miles of desert surround this forsaken sand pit." His arms waved around him like branches in a storm.
"If you had no coin, then what did you gamble with?"
A sly grin crinkled Olden's leathered face. "My charms, son. As usual. Haven't I taught you nothin'?"
That would explain his busted lip. Shaking his head, Tarek turned and started for home. "Pop, don't you think it's time we pack up and leave anyway? All you do is hang out here, wasting what little we do own. I'm with Ma on this. Nothing can be worse than this place."
"Don't go gettin' all superior on me, lad. You been goin' around with a big chip on your shoulder, you have. And what've you done to help out, eh? Don't see you workin' at getting us out of this mess."
"You're the so-called man of the house. Thought that was your job?" Tarek said over his shoulder.
A hard force hit up against Tarek's back, knocking him flat on his stomach. Spitting sand, Tarek rolled aside before Olden got a good kick in. As he scrambled out of the way, Olden grabbed his shirt and pulled him to his feet. Their faces were inches apart. Tarek tried to avoid breathing in the reek of ale drenching Olden's breath.
"Time you man up, too, you little whelp." Spittle flew from Olden's puffy lips. "You’ve been complaining an' whinin' your shoes are too tight, your belly is rumbling, you hate being here. Don't show no gratitude for a house that belongs to our family. Has the Lion crest on the door. Cain't nobody ever take it from us."
"Don't be so sure. Those other towns probably thought the same thing before the soldiers hit them. That's why we need to leave. Before they come." He shoved Olden away from him and started walking again.
Pop's brother had encouraged them to move here to help revive the floundering town. Unfortunately, by time his family arrived in DeTiere, rumors spread of the neighboring villages being taken over. The Racan King confiscated whatever bounty he could squeeze out of the citizens before taking them all off to work their skills in his own mountain fortress. Tarek had no desire to become some king's slave.
They'd reached the edge of the main part of DeTiere. From here a few abandoned cottages dotted the desert land before they reached home.
Olden's cheeks puffed as he blew out a long breath. His hands went in his pockets, jiggling nothing but air. He stared down at his own worn boots "Actually, I was thinking of making a run for Wilderland. Maybe go live with the Greenmen. They'd keep us safe, except—" he shook his head, "—there's the walk across that barren desert. You and I know how to endure hardships. Brie and Vesia? Not so sure they'll be up to the challenge."
Tarek studied the thousands of stars glittering across the sky, the one constant despite where they lived. They'd not stayed in the same town for more than a year, two at the longest before Pop's wanderlust hit him again and he wanted to try his luck at a new place. "Life is an adventure," Olden often said. Everyone knew that meant they better start packing what they wished to keep, or be forced to leave it behind when he got the notion to move on.
Tarek faced Olden. "Sis is more resourceful than you're giving her credit for. And Ma, she's toughed it out with you all these years."
Olden raised his hand as if to backhand him, then started chuckling as he slung his arm across Tarek's shoulder instead. "You're a sassy lad, aren't you? Such a scamp."
Tarek's smile was tight, guarded. Hard to know when the old man felt friendly or when feigned friendly so he could get off a good hit.
This time he seemed somewhat sincere as his voice took on a serious, pondering tone. "But you're smart. I can depend on you."
Oh boy, here he goes. Tarek waited to see what Pop would require from him this time. He'd drawn the line at outright thievery so far. He wished to keep his hands attached to the end of his arms.
Olden continued. "I was thinkin' we'd wait a few months in the Wilderland forest. If those scavengers are coming here, which I don't know why they'd waste their efforts on this pathetic town—" He sneered as they passed a clapboard house with a sagging roof. "—then we can come back after they've cleaned out the riffraff. Rebuild the town. Maybe stay for awhile like you and your Ma been whining for."
Tarek stared at his father as if he'd sprouted horns. "Wouldn't it be easier to find a nice established town? Doesn't Ma have folks in the North? Some place called Kinti, or something?"
Slowing his steps, Olden scowled. Tarek flinched, preparing for the smack sure to come.
"Done tole you all, I'll not go to one of those white tree towns. A feller has to give up too much. Cain't live for yerself. They expect people to follow harsh rules. You're expected to share your hard earned food and goods with any ol' fool who passes through. No. We are of the House of Lion. We serve nobody. We take care of ourselves, Tarek. How many times I got to tell you? Instead of crying about sore feet, make yourself new shoes. Use them hides you collected."
"I've been saving them to sell at the market."
Olden waved his free hand dismissing Tarek's plans. "You ain't got but a couple left. I done already sold the best ones. Had to trade them for a bit of coin to get on the tables."
Tarek stopped. "I made the kill. I cleaned them. Where's my money then?"
He shrugged. "They don't call it gambling for nothing. Anyway—" he went on, pulling Tarek along with him. "—there's enough left for a pair of traveling shoes."
"I don't know how to sew, Pop."
"As if that should stop you. What do I always say? If you don't know, find someone who does. Ask your Ma. I'm sure if you promise to make your sister a pair, as well, she'll show you how to stitch them up." Olden squeezed his shoulder tighter.
Tarek jerked away. What a piece of work his old man could be. If it weren't for Vesia and Ma, he'd have cut out a year ago.
"Come on, Tarek, man up. We have a lot to do if we're going to hit the road again. First thing in the morning, we'll take a little hunting trip. I'll talk to Vesia about gathering some vegetables."
"We don't own a garden, Pop." Was he serious, Tarek wondered, or just spouting off what he thought they wanted to hear to pacify them a bit longer? Hard to tell with the scheming old man.
"Yeah, well." He gave an unconcerned shrug. "I'll tell Brie to start packing. Only what we absolutely need. Nobody takes more than they can carry across the desert. With four days of good traveling, we should reach the woods where there will be a better supply of game and water. From there, it'll take a few more days to find the hamlet. We'll travel at night. The moon will be full by the end of the week…."
Olden seemed serious. Dare Tarek hope? He stared out across the blackened land beyond their yard. The family house, partly made of wood and stone, was one of the nicer places they'd been able to lay their heads. He froze. Did one of the shadows just move? Mountain lions roamed close to town when hungry enough. "Pop…"
"We must stick together son. We do what needs to be done to ensure our survival. Remember, we have nobody but ourselves to take care of us. If you fail, you can only blame yourself."
Tarek sighed. So they'd poach and steal and hopefully get it all done before the soldiers came. No problem.
A sound like a snapping twig echoed from the darkness. Tarek froze his eyes and ears alert. A spark flared and illuminated a man riding a steed the color of the night sky. The first torch ignited the next as the flame traveled down a row of black clad horsemen, all holding glistening weapons and all yielding the crescent moon and stars emblem on their chest.
Too late. They were here.
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