Warrior's Ransom (The First Argentines #2) by Jeff Wheeler




PROLOGUE

The Chandleer Oasis

Heat, sun, and sand. Those were the three daily facts in Ransom’s life as a caravan guard. But guarding the caravan was far better than being one of the camel handlers. He loathed the smell of the beasts, their noisy grunts, and their slow pace. There were twelve camels to defend, each laden with heavy burdens on their way to the outermost borders of the East Kingdoms. The head of the caravan—a merchant by the name of Kohler of Genevar—whistled an idle tune from the back of the lead camel.

Ransom rode a piebald destrier. It had a grayish coat that looked as if it had been splotched with ink. And while the incongruous coloring made the beast less elegant than others he’d ridden, he was grateful for the animal’s relentless energy. Its previous owner had named it Dappled, which suited the coloring. It had borne him across the vast desert toward the Chandleer Oasis, their destination. His contract with Kohler would end at Chandleer unless what Ransom sought could not be found there and he had to go deeper into the East Kingdoms. It had been a year since he’d left Kingfountain following the funeral rites of Devon Argentine, the king he’d served, and they were almost to their first destination.

“Ransom!” barked Kohler.

He lifted his head at the merchant master and saw his arm pointing southward.

“What do you make of it? Bandits?”

His view was blocked by the train of camels, so Ransom urged Dappled forward, coming ahead of the lead camel. Kohler was wrapped in cloaks and headgear, layer after layer, to protect against the sun and wind. Ransom wore his armor beneath his own heavy robes for the same reason. He didn’t like the smothering feeling of it, nor did it stop the sand from chafing his skin, but he’d learned from the ways of the desert people.

There were twenty or so riders approaching from the south. His stomach clenched with dread. Although there were twenty in their party as well, he was the only experienced fighter.

“How far is the oasis?” Ransom asked.

“I’d thought we’d get there by nightfall,” Kohler said. “That’s a lot of men for bandits.”

“You have a lot of camels. They’ve no doubt been watching the caravan road.”

“Close enough to Chandleer but still too far, even if we get the camels running.” Kohler hawked and spat. “I’d hoped tales of our last run-in with thieves would be enough to frighten off any more vultures.” Kohler lowered the scarf from around his mouth, revealing his bearded face. “Can you handle that many?”

“I guess we’ll see,” Ransom said. He heard the trickle of water, a sound that didn’t exist in nature here in the desert. He’d sworn his loyalty to Kohler as part of the contract, and because he had, he felt a swell of Fountain magic whenever he was called upon to protect the caravan.

“Hup!” Kohler called out, signaling for the other camel drovers. “Like before. Tie the camels together so they cannot run. Grab your spears.”

Some of the servants began to murmur with concern, but they had done this before. Ransom saw a few glance his way, offering looks of encouragement. He might be an outsider, but he’d proven himself as their guardian. The one everyone called when a scorpion wandered into camp or a thief attempted an attack. Serving a merchant felt different from serving a king, but this had taught him more about his power: it required him to serve someone else. When he had no master, the stores of strength faded and he felt darkness rise inside him. A darkness with which he was now familiar and that he feared.

Ransom rode south to face the riders, at the same time removing his cloak so his armor could be seen from a distance. He did this without really expecting it to affect them. The desert tribesmen were a hardy people, accustomed to living in difficult circumstances with oppressive heat and lack of water. Even if these men had heard stories about his prowess, the prospect of plundering a Genevese caravan was likely too tempting for them to ignore. Kohler was prosperous and would only become more so after this journey was done.

Ransom put on his helmet. His jousting helmet was in his saddlebag. This one covered the top of his head with a nose guard in front, but it was otherwise open at the eyes and mouth so he could see and hear better. He cinched the strap beneath his chin and rolled his shoulders back, preparing his muscles for battle. His position gave him a powerful advantage. He was on the crest of a dune, which would require them to attack uphill. And their horses would be more wearied from the ride.