As soon as they saw the smoke, Gregory felt the Prince tense up next to him. Bryce was on edge, clearly affected, though his face was calm and devoid of all emotions. They stopped walking and stood in a clearing, watching the smoke filter into the clouds.
“How long?” Bryce asked.
“How long do you think it’s been burning,” Bryce said. “A few hours?”
“I don’t know,” Gregory said. “I’ve never seen a city burn before.”
“I have,” Bryce said, then began walking again. He said the words casually. Gregory rushed to catch up.
“What do you mean?”
“I saw a village burn when I was younger,” Bryce said over his shoulder. “I think I was six.”
Bryce was silent for a long minute. “We didn’t have a name for it, but the locals called it Mistan. Only a few hundred people lived there.”
“I haven’t heard of it.”
“Few people have,” Bryce replied. “It was built in Comer’s territory, inside the set boundaries we allocated for the natives. My father threatened them if they didn’t remove the village, and they were steadfast.”
“So he burned it down.”
Bryce nodded. “He brought his army in, forced the citizens out, and then set the village on fire. It burned for days. I was there with my mother. He insisted I be with him, so I could learn how to be a good leader.”
“You were six?”
“If even that. The only thing I learned was how scared and sad people could be when they were forced out of their homes.”
“The natives must have been pretty upset.”
Bryce laughed sardonically. “They thanked him.”
Gregory scrunched his face in confusion. “Your father?”
Bryce nodded. “They thanked him and gave him gifts, saying he was an honorable man for protecting his border.”
“I know,” Bryce said. “That’s how powerful Comer is: my father kills the natives, and they thank him for it.”
The smoke plumes were getting larger as they got closer.
“How big is Mulrich?”
“Big?” Bryce said.
“It’s about forty miles from the border?” Gregory asked. He had seen the city on his map, the closest to the territory of the natives.
“Closer to thirty. The maps exaggerate the border to make our territory look bigger.”
“Do you think...?”
“That the natives did this?” Bryce finished. “We have a lot of enemies, but none that would have gone out of their way to attack Mulrich except the Otagin.”
“But, why would they attack at all?”
“To start a war.”
“But, don’t they remember how the last one went?”
“We destroyed them without mercy, killing hundreds of thousands and taking their territory,” Bryce replied. “But, there were considerably more of them we didn’t kill, and if they have united against us they can deal considerably damage to us.”
“So you think that they have united?” Gregory said.
Bryce shrugged. “I think it is the most likely scenario.”
Gregory grabbed him by the shoulder, stopping him. “Then where are we going?”
“To the city to help.”
“Help with what?”
“You said yourself that it is probably an army that burned the city down. An army of enemies who already captured you once and intended to execute you.”
Bryce opened his mouth to respond, then changed his mind.
“If that really is an army of the Otagin, than we shouldn’t go anywhere near it. Even if it isn’t, it isn’t worth us risking our lives to get close enough to find out.”
“We can’t just leave the people, if they need help,” Bryce said. “They are my people.”
“And right now, there is nothing you can do for them,” Gregory replied. “If you want to help your people, then right now we need to warn Comer that there is an army marching toward the Capital.”
“The army isn’t a threat to the Capital,” Bryce said, looking west toward Comer.
“No,” Bryce said. “But it could destroy over a hundred towns and cities before we could stop it.”
Bryce moved quickly through the brush, heading directly west, and he set a pace fast enough that Gregory was struggling to catch up. He was panting from the exertion and wanted to ask for a break to catch his breath.
But he knew that wasn’t going to happen just now. Bryce wasn’t going to slow down for anything, not until he’d made it to the Capital and spoken with his father.
They traveled until dusk before Bryce finally stopped walking. They were in a small clearing deep in the forest.
“We can stop here,” Bryce said.
“Okay,” Gregory said. “I’ll start building a fire.”
“No fire,’ Bryce said. “We’re only going to be here a few hours.”
“A few hours?” Gregory said. “It’ll be the middle of the night!”
Bryce nodded. “And then we can start trekking again.”
“We’ll be lost as soon as we start.”
“We can use the stars to guide us.”
“I hope by ‘we’ you mean that you can, because I sure as hell don’t know how to navigate by starlight.”
“Then I’ll show you. Take a rest, if you like. I’ll handle the first watch and wake you up in two hours.”
Gregory felt like arguing further, but he knew it wouldn’t do any good, and he didn’t have the energy to spare in either case.
“Fine,” he said, settling down in the dirt for a rest.
It felt like as soon as he closed his eyes, he was being shaken by his shoulders.
“What…?” he started to mumble, and felt fingers covering his lips.
Bryce knelt next to him. The prince leaned over and whispered. “Someone is coming.”
Gregory felt his body tense, all the weariness washed away by a flood of adrenaline. Bryce slowly removed the finger and pointed to the east. Gregory looked that direction, straining, and then heard a snapping sound.
It couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away.
Bryce slipped back away from Gregory, ducking behind a tree and out of sight, and Gregory began climbing to his feet. He winced as every movement created a noise.
He was up to one knee, moving gingerly, when the person came into the clearing. It was sudden and loud, two men shouting and waving spears at him.
Gregory stumbled back, throwing up his hands.
“I’m unarmed! I’m unarmed!” he said, cowering.
The men continued coming closer, shouting in a language he didn’t understand and jabbing spears at him. These were probably more of the natives, though it was difficult to tell without decent light.
“I’m unarmed!” he said again. The men gradually quieted down, and one walked closer to him, placing the spear against his stomach. He felt the tip slice his clothes and draw a cut on his skin.
The man leaned in, close enough to be seen. Gregory saw that it was one of the natives, and the look on his face was one of utter contempt.
He spoke slowly in his language. Even though Gregory couldn’t understand the words, he knew that the man was telling him that he was about to die.
Gregory closed his eyes, stifling and sob, and then he heard a loud thwacking sound several feet away. It was followed by a thud.
Just like that, the spear was gone. He heard more shouting and opened his eyes to see his attacker charging at Bryce. Bryce stood over the body of the other native, holding the man’s spear. The man was unconscious on the ground, and broken log lying next to him.
The standing native stabbed and slashed, and Bryce dodged away and used the spear defensively. After only a few seconds Gregory could see that Bryce was severally outmatched by the native.
Gregory climbed to his feet and started looking around for anything he could use as a weapon. There were short sticks, grasses, and a few rocks he could find. He picked up the rocks, figuring they would serve him best.
The fight wasn’t going well, and he could tell Bryce was losing confidence. The native moved methodically, practically dancing, and he’d already cut Bryce several times with the spear. Blood ran down the prince’s arm from an open wound and one of his legs was wobbly.
Gregory found a good position, readied one of the rocks, and waited for his opening.
The first throw missed completely and Gregory cursed. He steadied his aim, took a deep breath, and threw his second rock.
It hit the native in the neck, sending him off balance. Bryce took the opportunity and ran forward, jabbing the spear into the man’s stomach.
“Yes!” Gregory said, laughing.
Not even a split second later the native twirled his spear, whacking Bryce in the head. The prince staggered down, collapsing to one knee and groaning.
He held up his hand toward the native, pleading and begging. The native ignored him, smacking the hand out of his way with the tip of his spear, and then plunged it directly into the prince’s chest. Bryce made an awkward noise, clenching and unclenching his fist, and then collapsed.
Gregory stared in mute fascination, watching the life flow out of the prince’s eyes.
And then the native looked up, directly at Gregory’s hiding place, and grunted.
Gregory turned and ran.