They met the herd master at the hill overlooking Cane River. The cattle milled about the pasture under the watchful eyes of the drivers. The sun worked its way over the undulating knolls, slicing through the pines. Though he worked for the Savaads, Daraja was good enough at what he did to speak his mind with no fear of consequences.
“Ha! The rich boys are awake. You’re just in time for our little stroll.”
Naheem laughed. “I wouldn’t miss it for the world, Daraja. I can’t speak for these two, though.”
“You brought virgins on my drive?” Daraja snarled in mock anger.
“I had no choice,” Naheem said. “They’re in trouble. They need to disappear for a time.”
It was Daraja’s turn to laugh. “That describes most of our crew.” Daraja rode up to Vel and Samaat and sized them up. “You’ll pull your weight just like everyone else, Savaad or no. You’ll eat what we eat, do what we do, shit where we shit. Understand?”
Vel and Samaat looked at Naheem in disbelief.
“Don’t look at me. He’s the trail boss.”
They looked back at Daraja and nodded.
“Good. Report to the chow wagon and get the rest of your gear. We’re leaving.”
Naheem led them to the wagon where they claimed their gear. Samaat grinned as he attempted to handle his whip without injuring himself.
“So we’re cattlemen now,” he joked.
Naheem secured his gear on his horse. “It’s about time you two discovered where all the money you waste comes from.”
Vel held his whip like it was a ball of fire. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
Naheem shook his head. “Find the outriders and stay with them. You’ll scout for pasturelands and undesirables.”
“Yeah, bandits, bobcats, that sort of thing.”
Vel looked at Naheem nervously. “Bobcats?”
“Don’t worry. We probably won’t see any of either. Bandits know our banner. Bobcats are shy despite their size. They’ll take a straggler but they won’t come after a herd.”
“This journey is getting better every second.” Vel said.
They departed Savaadu on a clear day, one thousand cattle, two hundred horses and forty men. No favors were granted to the brothers just as Daraja warned. Naheem rode at the head of the herd with the experienced drivers; Samaat and Vel rode in the rear. They made slow and steady progress to the east, covering ten miles on a good day. At night they set up camp around the provision wagon, enjoying a welcomed respite from a hard day’s work.
Three days out of Savaadu they camped on the wooded banks of the Flint, a small, sedate river bordered by elderly white oaks and clumps of wiregrass. The herders relaxed around a huge bonfire, passing bottles of muscadine wine back and forth while a driver toyed with his kora, teasing the others with a tune. His playfulness annoyed Vel.
“Damn it, either play the song or put the damn thing away!” he growled.
Samaat took a swig of the wild grape spirits, enjoying the tart taste.
“Can it be that my brother is in a foul mood?”
Vel snatched the bottle from Samaat, filling his cup before passing it on. He took a sip and was pleasantly surprised by the taste.
“I know how you feel about music, Vel,” Naheem said. “The greatest accomplishment of man and you can’t play a single instrument.”
“But I sing like a songbird,” Vel bragged.
Naheem and Samaat nodded in agreement. Vel’s voice was the best in the Valley and he used it to his full advantage. Many a woman found herself seduced by his melodic voice.
“Come on, Najee,” Vel urged. “I know you have your djembe with you. Let’s show these scrubs some real music.”
Naheem stood, sauntered to his horse and returned with his djembe. He launched into a lively rhythm that the kora player recognized and quickly accompanied. Vel wasted no time, belting out bawdy lyrics at the top of his voice. Naheem and Samaat provided the chorus. Though not as gifted as Vel, they could hold a tune and had years of experience harmonizing with one another. The drivers joined in, singing and clapping with the impromptu band.
Urgent bellows from the herd abruptly ended the celebration. Everyone ran to the horses, grabbing torches and lighting them in the bonfire. As they galloped towards the pasture a high pitched howl sent a chill through the veins of the experiences drivers, including Naheem. He looked at his cousins, his face serious.
They rode to the herd. Drivers jumped from their horses and planted their torches in the ground, allowing them to handle their crossbows. The Savaads galloped into the semi-circle and dismounted. A bull lay dead before them, its thick tongue hanging from its mouth. A bobcat loomed over the bovine, its wide eyes reflecting the torchlight. The feline was twice the size of its victim, its broad face outlined by the flickering illumination. Glittering eyes darted side to side, its short tail raised above its back. It was a distorted monstrosity of its former self, a throwback to when Arr’s nyama ravaged the local woodland creatures. Most of the altered beasts had died out or been killed to extinction, but some, like the bobcats, thrived in their transformed state. The abundant game in the pinelands sustained the large cats, and there was always the opportunity to steal a stray bovine from a passing herd.
“What are you waiting for?” Naheem asked. “Fire your bows and be done with this.”
“We did,” Daraja replied. “Our bolts shattered before they reached the beast.”
“Damn!” Naheem cursed. Large bobcats were common but those that still possessed nyama were rare and lethal.
“Pull the others back,” Naheem ordered. “Samaat, Vel, draw your swords.”
Samaat and Vel had practiced dealing with enchanted creatures but had never put the training into use. Samaat took his place behind Naheem and Vel and raised a warding spell to protect them. The bobcat sensed nyama and growled, its stubby tail flickering back and forth. Vel and Naheem banged their swords together, the sound disrupting the cat’s concentration while energizing the mystical blades. The cousins split, Naheem easing to the feline’s right as Vel tipped to its left. The cat backed away from the bull carcass, its head moving left to right. If they were fortunate the bobcat would retreat. For a moment they were optimistic but then the cat lunged at Vel so suddenly only Samaat’s warding spell saved his life. The bobcat’s natural power collided with Samaat’s conjured wall, throwing Vel and the beast in opposite directions. Naheem charged the stunned animal, driving his blade into the cat’s defense as he released the sword’s power. The sword absorbed the impact, removing the bobcat’s protective screen. The cat swiped at Naheem, tearing his shirt and knocking him away spinning to the ground. He recovered before the beast could pounce, raising his sword to meet the lunging beast. Instead he heard a painful howl. The bobcat landed beside him, a smoldering hole in its shoulder. Vel ran towards them, his sword still glowing from the shot. Naheem took advantage of the distraction, leaping to his feet and driving his tomafango into the beast just behind the foreleg, the hunter’s sweet spot. His blade tore through the skin, piercing both lungs and the heart. The bobcat collapsed immediately, lifting Naheem into the air as it died. He placed his feet on the cat’s body and extracted his sword and winced.
“It this over?” Vel asked.
Samaat joined Vel and Naheem at the bobcat carcass. “I think so.”
The sounds of clashing steel told the trio what they had hoped for would not be. They ran to their horses and charged toward the sounds. Torchlight revealed the battle, the cattle drivers pitted against a horde of determined bandits. They waded into the midst of the fray, quickly changing the odds. Naheem dealt the most damage, his Goldcrossman skills unmatched by the opportunistic bandits. They were fleeing in moments, leaving their dead to the night.
Naheem jumped off his horse to inspect the bodies.
“Did we lose anyone?” he shouted.
“I don’t think so,” Daraja shouted back.
Samaat came up behind Naheem, checking the bodies as well. Vel remained on his horse, a disgusted look on his face.
“I sense no wizard among them,” Samaat said.
Vel looked puzzled. “Should there be?”
Samaat frowned. “This was no coincidence. The bobcat was a diversion for the bandits to steal our cattle. Only a wizard could summon a bobcat and control it.”
Naheem remounted. “Let’s go.”
Samaat followed Naheem. Vel hesitated.
“Where the hell are we going?” Vel asked.
Naheem looked as his cousin. “After them.”
Vel refused to move. “It’s dark out there. Who knows what might be waiting for us?”
“Exactly,” Naheem replied.
Vel gestured at Naheem’s torso. His ripped shirt was soaked with his blood.
“What about that?”
Samaat scowled at his brother. “Damn it, Vel, are you a Savaad?”
Vel’s face contorted with anger. “Of course I am!”
“Then get on your horse and let’s go.”
Vel spat then climbed onto his horse.
The trio rode off after the bandits. The moonless night quickly swallowed the camp’s light, leaving them surrounded by darkness.
“Blades,” Naheem shouted. They extracted their tomafangos then tapped them on the charge plates strapped to their horses’ flanks. Easing the grips released the swords’ energy and they glowed just enough to light the way.
There was no stealth in their approach. They rode as fast as the light allowed hoping to overtake the bandits. They heard their targets before they saw them, their horses’ hooves pounding hard on the red clay path, their heavy breathing drifting between the pines and scrub oaks.
Naheem was gaining on the slowest bandit when he saw a fireball building in the distance. He slowed his mount, shifting his sword to a defensive position.
“Samaat! I need…”
The fireball streaked at Naheem. He raised his sword, swinging with both hands and striking the ball as it reached him. The impact knocked him from his horse and into the trees. He jumped to his feet, unhurt by the violent collision.
“Samaat!” he called out.
“I see him!” Samaat raised his hand, a sphere of spirit fire materializing over his open palm. He hurled it, the ball winding through the trees then exploding in the vicinity of the fireball’s origin. Someone cried out.
Naheem sprinted in the direction of the voice. He charged into the bandit camp, his tomafango illuminating the thieves’ den. The bandits emerged from the darkness with swords drawn. Naheem fanned his sword toward them, releasing a stream of spirit fire that consumed them all. He sprinted towards his target, a wounded mage struggling to his feet, a burn on the back of his garment where Samaat’s sphere struck. The mage jerked his head up and spotted Naheem. He raised his hands and chanted. Naheem jumped the gap between them, swinging his sword with all his strength. The blade sliced through both hands and cut into the mage’s neck; he fell into pieces at Naheem’s feet.
Vel rode up to Naheem with a stunned look on his face. Naheem sheathed his sword and mounted his horse, ignoring his cousin’s expression. Samaat joined them soon afterwards.
“One less to worry about,’ he said.
“I wonder if we’ll ever find them all,” Naheem mused.
Samaat rubbed his sore shoulder and winced. "I doubt it. Arr’s influence is like a pestilence. It spreads from one weak mind to another. We’ll never be rid of it.”
Naheem nodded. “Let’s get back to camp.”
“Wait a minute,” Vel protested. “You two talk as if what just happened here is normal.”
Naheem and Samaat stared at Vel, waiting for him to explain.
“Nommy, you just waded through this camp as if it was an annoyance. What has happened to you?”
“Vel, let it go,” Samaat warned.
“No I won’t,” Vel snapped back. “I went to the Academy with you and I saw you do some amazing things with a sword, but never anything like this.”
Naheem fidgeted. “My skills have improved somewhat.”
“Somewhat? Now that’s an understatement if I ever heard one.”
“Enough of this,” Samaat said. “Let’s go. Knowing Daraja, he’ll want to leave at daybreak despite tonight’s activities.”
They rode back silently under the glow of their swords, Naheem nursing his wounds as Samaat led the way. Vel rode behind them both, never taking his eyes off Naheem. His cousin had changed more than he realized and he wasn’t sure how he felt about it. When they reached camp the others had settled in for a night’s sleep. A somber mood hung about the camp, the joviality dispersed by the raid. Naheem left his cousins to meet with Daraja and see the healer about his wounds while Samaat and Vel set up their tents.
They lounged before a small fire, both too agitated to sleep. Samaat sat cross-legged, the Scrolls spread out before him. He held a tablet and a quill, scribbling translations as he mumbled. Vel watched as he sipped the remnants of the muscadine wine.
“What’s wrong with him, Samaat?” Vel blurted out.
“Who are you talking?” Samaat kept his eyes focused on the Scrolls.
“Naheem, damn it! That’s who I’m talking about.”
Samaat sat down his tablet and quill. “Have you noticed something?”
Vel tossed his bottle at his annoying brother. Samaat caught it then glared.
“Don’t play me for stupid,” Vel said. “I hate it when you do that.”
“You are stupid,” Samaat retorted. “Still, I want to hear what you think before I say anything.”
Vel straightened. “I’m not a coward, Samaat. I’ve seen my share of fights. I’ve battled beside Naheem at the Academy and in Canada. But this was different. He was so cold.”
“Maybe you are mistaking coldness for control.”
“No, this was emotionless, like he was knocking down pegs. He didn’t care about those men at all. They could have been blades of grass.”
“I’ve noticed it, too,” Samaat admitted. “It seems more gradual to me since I see him more often. I first thought it was because of his new responsibilities, but after reading a portion of the Scrolls I believe his transformation may be something deeper.”
“Yes. According to the Scrolls our ancestors came to this land as three separate clans under the banner of one tribe. From what I can decipher, they were divided by talents. The Numu were a warrior caste, the Jele the priests and the Garanke seemed to be some type of craftsmen. Naheem shows traits of the Numu.”
Vel rubbed his cheek. “But those were skills gained by training, right?”
“No, it was much deeper than that,” Samaat replied. “Each caste possessed its own type of nyama. The Numu’s was war.”
“Are you saying that Naheem is Numu?”
“If he is that means we are, too.”
The brothers fell silent, the crackling fire the only sound between them. There were questions in their heads they both feared to ask, afraid of what the answers might be. To their relief Naheem appeared, ending any chance to continue the conversation.
“Get some sleep, boys,” he said. “Daraja sees no need for us to linger. We break camp at sunrise.”
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from A Debt to Pay. To read more, purchase your book today directly from MVmedia, LLC today or anywhere books are sold. Books purchased from MVmedia will be signed by Milton J. Davis