Had the white riders slaughtered everyone? Had they left no survivors?
Tanin stood in the middle of Desita, the Fell town which lay crushed, crumbled, and burned to ash around him. Bodies sprawled, mutilated on the ground, golden faces of friends and neighbors smeared bloody and upturned to the darkening sky. The sun, it seemed, wanted to vanish and hide its face from the massacre.
Tanin desperately wanted to call out, to find survivors, but thought better of it; the beasts who had assaulted his friends at the river and torn through his home may lurk nearby. All the same, he did not try to hide as he picked through bodies and destruction, around fires and rubble that had once been home to his family, friends, and clan.
Memine . . .
Tanin pushed her from his mind. No, not now, not yet, there were things to do, things that must be done in the wake of this carnage. The riders had been thorough. Fell blood pooled in the dirt. Already desert scavenger insects were gathering to eat their fill.
He came upon the body of Veyley, an elderly Fell and friend of his father’s. Veyley’s abdomen was split apart, his innards baking in the sun. The smell reminded Tanin of the butchering of sandcats and the mountain deer his people would sometimes hunt.
Father . . . Mother . . .
Tanin’s vision wavered. He dropped to his bare knees, limbs quaking. He rocked backward onto his heels, digging his hands into his eyes.
Would this be Memine’s fate? They had her; would they butcher her like they had Veyley and the others?
Tanin stood and raced past burning and crumbled burrows and adobe huts, past baked-brick buildings and pools of gathered communal water. In this central plaza, the Fell would gather for their great feasts, with cooked meat over three roaring fires forming a triangle in the middle of the gravel floor. Homes and other buildings radiated outward from the plaza in concentric circles, each doorway facing the center; the eye, the heart of the Fell community.
There’d been many more of them, Tanin realized as he ran for home. The band of white riders at the river had only been a patrol of some kind. The destruction of Desita wasn’t the work of a few dozen of them; this was the work of hundreds.
He reached the dark doorway of his family’s burrow. Most Fell buildings like this one were sunk half a body length or more into the ground, with short walls surrounding the ground-level perimeter of the burrow. The burrows were topped by domed adobe roofs and encircled by brick gutters to gather infrequent rain.
Swallowing bitterness at the back of his throat, Tanin took the three steps down into his family’s gathering room. The chimney hole in the center of the dome allowed a shaft of grim red sunlight to shine across two bodies.
And several limbs.
Mesiki and Raba, his mother and father, had been torn apart. Their bodies lay atop one another at crisscross angles, their arms and legs severed and tossed about the main room. Their blood flooded the dirt floor, creating crimson mud; Tanin could not leave the bottom step without his bare feet becoming saturated.
The sight of all this turned the desert heat to freezing ice in his veins. Panic welled in him, and the young Fell screamed their names.
No answer came from within or without the home. A warm wind blew through the doorway, bringing with it the unfamiliar smell of death.
Tanin wept and shook, his entire frame trembling with terror. He could not take his eyes off the remnants of his parents; the gore ensnared his mind, twisting it like wet garments being wrung out to dry.
What was there to do? There was no one left, no one to—
A groan. Tanin spun, seeking the source of the sound. He inclined his head and let his ears hone in. Someone alive, somewhere outside.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered to his parents—for not being there, for not sharing their fate—and ran from the burrow.