Having no other direction the boy followed a hundred or so yards behind Enin. Most of the refugees were headed in roughly the same direction, though none seemed to know why. A few miles in the distance he could see the forest on the horizon. At a gallop they may reach the edge of the woods within the hour. Yet Enin seemed to maintain a trotting pace.
After several minutes he had made his way nearly alongside the sorcerer. Soon after that he saw a few figures ahead on the road. Two older boys stood beside a prone paksi.
The boy raced ahead on his mount and stopped to greet the travellers.
“Ho there!” he said, “Is your beast injured?”
One of the older lads looked up and the boy recognized him as Darik. Darik had been a cruel and frequent tormentor of the boy for several years on the streets of Kudra Kai, but now he looked weak and frightened.
“We were hoping to get out to the country. Away from this hellstorm. The two of us, Naveed and I.” said Darik, not seeming to recognize the boy. “We...borrowed a paksi and galloped as fast as we could. The stupid thing fell to the ground and now it won’t budge.”
“You’ve probably exhausted the poor thing.” the boy said. “That bird was never meant to carry two riders and certainly not at such a pace.”
A tear streaked down Darik’s soot-stained face.
“Hop on.” said the boy. “Our paksi are larger and much stronger than the one you have. As long as we do not work them too hard they should keep their strength.”
Enin caught up with them. “Are these friends, of yours, boy?”
The boy looked at Darik and Naveed. He knew them both. Naveed was a round-faced boy of perhaps sixteen years. He barely spoke and almost certainly could not read. Darik was taller and broad-shouldered with dark straight hair and tan skin. Many of the girls had called him handsome and he never lacked their affection in spite of his callous nature.
Even though the boy had known him for years Darik’s face showed no sign of recognition.
“They are strangers to me.” the boy lied. He worried that had he told the truth Enin would realize how much the boy hated Darik and Naveed. He suspected the sorcerer would refuse them aid if he knew how atrocious the older lads had been. As it was the boy barely concealed the venom in his voice.
“Then tarry no longer.” Enin said, “We have matters to attend to beyond the forest.”
“But they’re going the same way!” said the boy.
“They would only slow us down needlessly.” said the sorcerer. “Besides, there is no point in them running. Soon there will be nothing to run from. Nothing to run to. The world is ending.”
“If you choose not to help them then I will follow you no longer.” the boy said.
“Follow me.” said Enin. “Do not follow me. It is all the same. I have no need of you boy. I just did not desire to end this life alone. But if you would rather sit with these ruffians on the side of the road or tend to their ailing beast as the world burns I will not stop you.” With that he urged his mount onward and was gone.
“What did he mean?” said Darik. “He said the world is ending. Did he mean that? Is he insane? I half believe him. Never saw no fire fall from the sky like this. My Nan once did, though. During the war she said. The enemy threw burning pitch into the city. It nearly burned the whole town down to the ground it did.”
“We aren’t at war.” the boy said.
“Then what was it then?” Darik said, “You don’t know nothing about no wars. You don’t know if the king were to be at war with another king.”
The boy looked at Darik and said, “We don’t have a king. Kudra Kai has never had a king. Ever. It is a free city and run by a council of merchants.”
“How you know that?” spoke Naveed for the first time.
“I read it in a book.” the boy said. “Reading is good for you.”
“Oh yeah?” said Darik. “You think you’re real smart, eh?”
The boy did not like the look in Darik’s eye. He’d seen it many times before. There was something about the cruel and stupid that made them infinitely crueler when you reminded them of how stupid they were.
Darik grabbed at the boy’s leg.
“You know what?” Darik said, “I’m taking that mount for myself. You don’t deserve it. You don’t deserve shit!”
“Let go.” said the boy.
“Let go!” said Naveed in a mocking tone.
Darik grasped hold of the boy’s leg and tried to pull him off his paksi. The boy gripped the reigns but Darik was strong and nearly had him.
“Give a hand, you donkey!” said Darik to Naveed.
The round faced lad galumphed over and attempted to grab hold of the boy’s arm. He caught only a bit of sleeve and pulled.
“Stop it!” the boy said. “This is my paksi. I’m not letting you take it.”
“I remember you now.” said Darik. “You’re the little shit who used to run with Stik and Paol down on Butcher Street, ain’t you? You were always a bit of trouble. Never listened. Always mouthing off to your betters. Yeah. I know you.”
A flood of memories filled the boy’s head. He hadn’t thought about Stik and Paol in a long time. They were tough lads. Not far off from Darik and Naveed, really. The only difference was that they picked on other kids instead of him. Eventually they ran afoul of a real gang and were found in an alley with their throats slit. That was when Saiku Lin found the boy and took him in.
“Hey ‘Veed,” Darik said to his friend, “remember this waste? I used to box his ears for fun.”
The boy twisted the reigns in an attempt to keep his grip. The massive bird began to twist and shake its heavy head.
Naveed looked up at the boy’s face and a dim light of recognition was struck in his eyes.
“Oh yeah.” he said, “It’s-”
He never finished because the paksi had spun its thick neck around and hit him square in the jaw. In a flash the lad was on the ground.
In shock Darik let go of the boy who was half hanging off the giant bird.
“Yah!” yelled the boy as he spurred his paksi onward. The bird took off into the night with the boy nearly falling from his perch.
Darik ran after him but was outpaced by the long legged beast in seconds.