Reign Czekalski raised the field glasses to his eyes and focused on the dust plume in the valley below. Here and there, gray-green bushes dotted the carpet of brown. A hairless javelina collapsed by a ribbon of water in a muddy wash. Rocks and pebbles dug into his chest through his shirt. Holes appeared in the fabric woven from human hair.
Woven by his wife before she’d left him.
For a moment, Reign struggled to breathe. Her loss crept upon him like the cunningest of ‘Viders, even after all these years. Blinking the sting from his eyes, he focused on the newcomers.
Four men on black horses galloped toward the low hill where Reign kept watch. The Dark Hope Security emblem glowed like bleached bones on their right breast pocket. Dust clung to their blue uniforms. Behind the four riders, two pale horses pulled a wagon loaded with a dozen men and women. Two more security men guarded the rear.
Reign checked the hazy dust trail.
No one followed the party.
Good. He lowered the field glasses, carefully stowing them in the leather case. “Looks like they got everyone.”
Pat O’Brien, Reign’s second-in-command, shifted into the net of shadows created by the dead bush on his right. Brittle twigs snapped off in the warm breeze and stuck in his brown hair. “You know, our scouts report that Dark Hope is changing their security uniforms to black to match the Tricity ones.”
“You don’t say?” Reaching into the human skin pouch at his waist, Reign tugged out a strip of goat jerky. Clamping his teeth on the piece, he tore off a chunk. Strings of dried meat fluttered from the jagged edge. His stomach bucked at the foul taste. The Head Provider wasn’t meant to eat unclean animals, not when such sweet morsels abounded. He spat it out and chucked the rest under a bush,
O’Brien flushed until his sunburned nose blended with the rest of his red face. Black tattoos flared along his soft jaw line like permanent stubble. “Those uniforms won’t be worth anything in a couple of weeks.”
“They’re not worth much now.” Reign tugged a mirror out of the pouch containing his jerky and held it toward the hill on his right. Sunlight caught the surface and sent three bursts of light toward his men concealed in the bushes. He repeated the signal for his men on the left. “Except as an appetizer.”
“Fresh meat tonight.” Licking his cracked lips, O’Brien notched an arrow and aimed it toward the crowd. “It’s a shame we can’t pen the rest. Make the celebration last for a few more days.”
“You know the rules.” Reign swept his finger over the chipped enameled backing of the mirror. The jagged hinge cut a red line onto his pad. Tossing aside the jerky, he licked off the blood. His mouth watered at the thought of more to come. Lots more.
O’Brien shrugged. “Doesn’t seem sporting this way. Most will die before they even know what hit them.”
Reign set his hand on his second-in-command’s notched arrow. “Then use the axe, and we’ll finish them off the old-fashioned way.”
The way they’d hunted before prey stopped wandering into the village, before they’d been forced on a death march northward, before word of a Raider who hunted ‘Viders reached them. Reign’s father had nearly consigned the Great Spanner’s Chosen ones to extinction.
Fortunately, Reign had surfaced above the morass of his grief in time to save the ‘Viders. He pulled out his axe, tested the sharpness of his blade on his thumb.
“Now you’re talkin’.” O’Brien quickly secured his bow and arrow, then pulled his machete.
In the valley, the horsemen trotted closer. A hundred yards ahead, closely packed large boulders would prevent the prey from escaping the ambush.
Reign rolled his shoulders and waited. Five minutes, maybe six, then they would attack.
“Aren’t you afraid some of them will escape?”
“Our kin will pick off any that try to run.” Reign hoped his men shot out a leg. His blood hummed with the promise of a least a semblance of a hunt. “The missing won’t be traced to us. I’m certain there are plenty of villagers who will swear that Dark Hope carried them away.”
O’Brien nodded. “Isn’t your Tribute’s brother among the security team?”
Disapproval weighted the corners of O’Brien’s mouth. “Won’t she wonder when he doesn’t return?”
“She’ll probably go looking for him.” At least, Reign hoped she would. Three months with that harpy in his bed was three months too long.
O’Brien cocked an eyebrow. “We hunt those who try to leave, say they went to Dark Hope, and never returned.”
“I know.” The plan placed his men on the winning side. Dark Hope was blamed, and his men ate a ration of fresh meat.
“Do you plan to rescind those orders?”
“Nope.” Reign smiled. He might have a meal without indigestion for the first time in three months. “She’s served her purpose. She convinced her people to let us in. She’s been invaluable at insisting Dark Hope is the source of all their woes. Now she must go. We have one more village to conquer before reaching the train station. One more group to win over. I’ll need to be single for that.”
“We also have disposable fighters to recruit.” O’Brien grunted. “You should pick a mate in the next village, have children. You are the last of your bloodline.”
“I had a mate. I had children.” Reign rolled his shoulders. They always tightened at the thought of the past. “Losing them made me crazy. I can’t afford to be crazy. Not when we are so close to reaping the harvest of our restraint.”
And he would never risk so much again. He’d promised his father, the former Head Provider, that Reign would bring the Chosen back from the brink of extinction. He would keep that promise.
He owed his people. They had supported him when he had lost everything.
In the valley below, the wagon reached the boulder-lined area. A volley of arrows arched through the air. Red fletching winked in the bright sunshine. A second salvo answered from the hill across the canyon. Men shouted from the backs of horses. Two were cut short as arrows sank into their chests.
One man dug his heels into his horse’s flanks. Two arrows chased him before burying deep in his back. The men and women in the wagon bailed over the side. They scattered in all directions. The fools thought they could flee the kill zone.
Reign rose to his feet.
O’Brien stood up next to him. “Perhaps, you’ll change your mind once we reach Dark Hope and have access to all that clean meat.”
He would never change his mind. He’d vowed to his wife, he’d only have one. He kept his word as a ‘Vider; he could do no less as the Head Provider. But his people didn’t need to know that. Not now.
Another barrage of arrows rained into the canyon. This time the hits lamed the victims but didn’t kill them.
Raising his axe, Reign charged down the hill. Soon, he would take out the Raider, then all would bow to him. But today, he needed scalps to patch his shirt.
Today was a good day to hunt.