AZLANA’S MAIN INHABITANTS were the faelk and their ashen-colored colts. Ten acres of fenced-in grass and willow trees made up much of the settlement and was where the colts explored and the adults grazed. A still lake was nestled in the corner of the enclosure. Some black adults proudly displayed ivory antlers but most had had theirs shaved off long before. Inside the corral, two riders were in pursuit of one quick and high-spirited faelk. She had tall, noble antlers and thin, agile legs. She used her experienced limbs to dart between other faelk and escape the riders’ lassos. Scott whistled when he saw her. “That is one fine creature,” he said.
The eye-patch man dismounted and looped his faelk’s reins around a fencepost. He glanced up at Scott’s face and saw an excited light in his eyes. “Scott, you were never fond of those does. What’s gotten into you?”
Scott didn’t reply. Instead, he ordered Andrew to dismount. “Moss!” he then called to the boy, “Watch the prisoner.”
The boy, Moss, loped forward. He swung out his bow and stationed himself next to Andrew.
“You’re going out?” the eye-patch man said.
“Yep,” Scott answered, “Open the gate, would ya?”
“You’ll need a fresh mount for that one,” the woman said quietly.
If Scott had heard the advice, he ignored it. He spurred his faelk into a gallop and dashed to the center of the corral where the proud female was tossing her head. She taunted the unsuccessful riders by veering just around their swinging lariats.
The woman turned from the fence. “C’mon, Moss. We need to take the prisoner to Captain Rawley.”
The boy faced the woman, a crestfallen expression on his innocent face. “The captain can wait a few extra minutes, Ma! I’d like to watch Scott catch the doe!”
Ma? Andrew, astounded, began to study the woman and boy closely.
“You’ve seen enough faelk roundups to last seven lifetimes!” she retorted as her voice rose for the first time. “Come. Now.”
Moss opened his mouth again, only to seal it once more under his mother’s resolute stare. He glanced down at Andrew and nodded grudgingly in the direction of the village. The woman turned her faelk and trotted down a dirt path that wound among clumps of trees and opened into a clearing where several narrow, gray cabins were erected. Andrew followed her, taking long strides in an attempt to keep up. Moss held the rear and remained at Andrew’s heels. Andrew noticed several of the tame white and black-spotted llargos slinking around the modest houses. An old woman had rewarded one of the wolf-like creatures with a clay bowl. The adult llargo was ravenously consuming its meager contents when Andrew walked by. A younger llargo gradually crept up to the adult, tempted by the delicious smells. The adult, its long snout still submerged in the bowl, paused to growl raucously. Its yellow eyes glowed with menace as the young llargo, flashing its long tail like a white flag, scampered back to its hiding place.
Captain Rawley was rooming in a cabin at the far end of the village. He was seated at a wooden desk when the threesome entered the door. Without lifting his head, he bluntly proposed, “What is it?”
The woman gingerly stepped forward, her head slightly bowed. “Captain Rawley,” she addressed him. He sat up at the sound of her voice and regarded her with interest. “Do you recognize this man?”
Moss gently probed Andrew’s spine with an arrow tip and Andrew stumbled forward. The captain turned his attention away from the woman and surveyed Andrew in the light of the window. Combing his fingers through his blonde hair, he replied, “No, I can’t say that I do. That doesn’t mean he isn’t part of my troop, though.” He looked at Andrew directly. “Why'd they bring you in, kid?”
“Sir, he doesn’t have a mark,” the woman said before Andrew could even think of an answer.
The captain cocked an eyebrow. “Why didn’t you say so in the first place?” He rose from the desk and approached Andrew. Then he lifted Andrew’s left arm, as Scott had done, and lowered it again. He turned to face the woman once more, his features hardened. “This man is dangerous,” he declared. “Have your boy bring him to my soldiers immediately.” He spun around on his heel and bent over his desk, scribbling out a note. Once he was done, he extended his arm and handed the message to Moss. “Bring this message to the Lieutenant,” he ordered.
Just then, a very tall man entered the room and hastily removed his navy blue cap. “Captain, I-”
“Lieutenant!” the captain exclaimed jovially. “You’ve arrived just in time.”
“Really, Captain, I must explain-”
“Look what we have here, Lieutenant: a young, normal-looking, blue-eyed Steel without a mark!” With that, the captain lifted Andrew’s arm again. Andrew, irritated, tugged his arm back. The captain was evidently displeased at this small act of defiance. “Get him tied up,” he said, his face firm. “We will ride to Medilva tomorrow.”
The lieutenant fastened one massive hand around Andrew’s wrists. He extracted a thin strip of leather from his trousers and proceeded to tie Andrew’s wrists behind his back. “And, um, Captain,” he uttered, pulling the leather knot tighter, “I doubt that you will be so eager to leave by tomorrow.”
“What do you mean?”
“This morning, our Slate was found dead in the faelk herd. We noticed the herd had started to scatter, so a few of us rode out to investigate. We found him lying on the outskirts of the herd.”
“Was he trampled?”
The Lieutenant shook his head. He bent down and slipped his hand into the side of his boot. When he stood back up, an arrow was grasped in his hand. “This was stuck in his back,” he said, solemnly.
The woman gasped and clutched Moss closer to her. Moss observed the arrow with wide eyes. The red and black feathers and the blood-stained arrowhead did not escape his minute examination.
The captain gently lifted the arrow and meticulously scanned the red markings along its shaft. When he was done he softly placed the arrow on his desk and stared at the floor for several minutes. When he finally lifted his head, his icy blue eyes were fixated on Andrew. “Who are you?” he growled. He stepped closer toward him. “Are you a spy for the Mobs?”
“No,” Andrew replied, truthfully. “I don’t know who the Mobs are.”
“I know that your appearance and the coming of the Mobs is no coincidence, kid. If you could only give me a straight answer, you will save you and me hours of trouble. Are you a member of any of the Mobs?”
Andrew shook his head. Without warning, the Captain balled his fist and punched him in the stomach, hard. Andrew doubled over, gasping, and crumpled to his knees. He felt helpless without his hands, now useless tied behind his back. “That was just for starters, kid,” the captain warned. He bent down and whispered in Andrew’s ear: “Tell me again; are you from the Mobs?” Andrew was fearful of answering. His chest heaved as he wordlessly watched Moss and his mother shuffle out of the cabin. “Tell me!” the captain hissed.
Andrew felt the captain’s fist slam into his face. His left eye felt as though it was about to burst under the extreme force of the blow. He fell back on his side, slumped against the wall. His eyes were shut. He heard the Lieutenant warn, “Captain…”
He managed to lift his right eyelid. He saw the captain gripping a rifle’s barrel and slowly coming near him, his face crimson. He wouldn’t kill me, Andrew thought, seeing the gun. He didn’t realize that the captain was holding the weapon like a club. He closed his eyes.
The captain questioned him again. Andrew wouldn’t answer. He couldn’t answer.
There was yet another blast of pain. But Andrew didn’t feel the sting of the blow. Before his body could absorb the pain, he slipped into unconsciousness.