DORIN RAV WALKED the dusty beaten earth of Quon’s storied Trunk Road. It was an ancient traders’ way that crossed the midsection of Quon like a narrow belt. From great Quon and Tali in the west, it stretched to the proverbial midsection clasp of Li Heng, and from there onward to the rich vineyards and orchards of wealthy Unta in the east.
Over thousands of years countless armies had trodden this route. They came marching out of both the east and the west: Bloor and Gris nobles convening to subdue the plains and the populace to the west of them; Tali and Quon kings emptying their treasuries to assemble vast infantry hordes, and eventually succeeding in subjugating the far eastern lands beneath their Iron Legions. Meanwhile, across the central plains, generation after generation of the Seti Wolf, Eagle, and Ferret clans raided all points indifferently.
He walked at a leisurely pace. He was not worried that his quarry might have struck out in any direction other than east. To the west and north lay the vast central grasslands of the Seti. To the south it was many days to any Dal Hon settlement or coastal Kanese confederacy. No, only to the east lay any nearby haven of civilization: the greatest of the independent city states, Li Heng itself.
The Trunk Road might be storied, he reflected as he walked, but these days it certainly wasn’t busy. Pedestrians such as himself consisted almost entirely of local farmers. Long distance travellers tended to band together into large caravans for protection against Seti raids—and to discourage the attentions of the great man-beast, Ryllandaras.
When he’d come down out of Tali lands, he’d hired on as a guard with just such a band of traders, religious pilgrims and wanderers. Unfortunately for him, after more than a week without a sighting of the feared Seti, the caravan-mistress had let half her guards go. And so he’d found himself unemployed and cast adrift in the empty, dusty middle of nowhere.
Unlike his brother guards, he’d not been concerned for his safety. Being mostly of Tali extraction, they’d ganged together to strike back west. He’d continued on, quickly outstripping the caravan’s rather disorganized, laborious pace. He did not fear any attack from the tribesmen, nor did he expect any attention from the legendary man-beast. Alone, he knew he could hide his presence. His opinion differed from his fellow travellers’ regarding strength in numbers: the great clattering mass of banging copperware, shouting drivers, bawling donkeys, and rattling bric-a-brac was to his mind nothing less than an attracter of raiders and unwanted attention.
And so now he neared Li Heng, and somewhere nearby, ahead or behind, lay his quarry. A fellow who had dared to cheat him . . . Or, perhaps more to the point, had succeeded in cheating him. That was not to be borne. Not by Dorin Rav. Who had been beaten by no one.
The second day of travel revealed smoke over the prairie to the north, not so far off the trader road. He altered his path to investigate. After pushing through the tall-grass for a few leagues, he came to a wide swath of trampled and broken stalks. The first thing he found was a man’s boot. When he picked it up, he found that it still held a foot.
It was a caravan, attacked and massacred in the night. By Seti tribesmen, probably. Old treaties existed—once enforced by the Tali Legions—that forbade predation on the road, but they were hardly honoured any longer. And there were always renegades and outlaws. Still, this was awfully close to Hengan lands.
Walking farther, he realized that it hadn’t been the Seti at all, whether war-party or outlaws. Wagons and carts lay torn apart. Loot glittered among the trampled grass: ironware, clothes, broken chests. Corpses still wore their personal possessions. He paused and knelt at one body. A single swipe of massive claws had torn the woman across the front as deep as her spine. She had twisted as she fell, her hips no longer in line with her shoulders; her viscera lay tossed about, congealing in the dirt. The only reason the organs and intestines remained was that—for the moment—the wild dogs, jackals, and carrion crows had more than enough to eat.
Her wristlet, he noted, was of gold. This he unlatched and tucked away. Brushing his hands, he continued on. It seemed his earlier instincts regarding the curse of Li Heng, the man-eater’s presence, were well founded. Ryllandaras had rampaged through this caravan like the predator of humans he was. Some named him a giant wolf, others a hyena, or a jackal. Such distinctions were meaningless as far as Dorin was concerned. Ryllandaras was a beast who ate people . . . what more need one know?
He kicked his way through the wreckage. At one point he stepped over a child’s severed arm. The noise of movement brought him round and his hands went to his baldric. One of the presumed corpses, a man—soldier or caravan guard—was levering himself erect from where he had lain propped up against an overturned wagon. Dorin coolly watched him do so.
Weaving, stoop-shouldered, the fellow—dark, clothes and armour rent and bloodied—staggered towards him. He was a young man, muscular, half Dal Hon perhaps. His long wavy black hair hung like a curtain of night and Dorin felt a twinge of envy—this one the girls must fawn over. ‘Ryllandaras?’ he called to him.