'I have a bad feeling about this.’
Kaveh looked across the carriage at his sister, who bit anxiously at a thumbnail. Locks of Mariah’s thick black hair dangled loosely in front of her face, half covering one eye. Mariah generally disregarded Kaveh’s nervous outbursts, but something told her that this time he might be right. She said nothing, and turned to her cousin Xianna for comfort. Xianna and her twin sister Aydyn were always the strong ones among the children; and Mariah derived some comfort just from the warmth of Xianna’s body under the blanket they shared.
The children had been told by their grandmother not to stop for any reason. Yet their coach had come to a halt in a deserted clearing somewhere deep in the forest. The waning moon barely cut the darkness that echoed the eerie sounds of night animals.
Kaveh nervously stroked the back of his pet sare Padmin, who lay curled in his master’s lap, its nocturnal eyes wide open.
The knob of the carriage door jolted violently. Regour, the twins’ younger brother, startled. Six pairs of eyes stared apprehensively at the handle as though it were the head of an asp about to strike.
All at once the door flung open to reveal Icarus, a jemadar of the elite troan dragoons. Troans were hideous, deformed, malevolent creatures, and Icarus was no exception. He leaned his misshapen head into the carriage and leered with his yellow eyes at the children.
Aydyn was frightened. Instinctively she grasped Xianna’s hand. 'Icarus! What are you doing here? How did--? What--?'
'Where are the manservents?' demanded Regour.
Icarus responded with a lurid sneer: 'Probably waking up with a pretty nasty headache right now, I suspect.'
Akatar, another burly troan jemadar, emerged in the carriage door as he laughed at Icarus’ witty retort.
'This is definitely not good,' said Kaveh.
'This is the end of the trip for you, children,' menaced Akatar.
Xianna leapt into action. ‘Run!’ she cried. She threw her shoulder against the door on the opposite side of the carriage, but the door was bolted from the outside and did not budge. Xianna rubbed her bruised shoulder while the jemadars laughed at the children’s pointless struggle. With nowhere to go and nowhere to turn, the five backed into the corner of the carriage furthest from the troans. Regour stood in front holding his only weapon, a small dagger. He had spent his whole childhood learning fencing and combat, but none of his training had prepared him to contend with fear.
'What are you going to do with that, Regour?' taunted Icarus. 'Trim my claws?'
Once again Akatar responded with appreciative laughter.
Knowing only that he had to protect his sisters and cousins, Regour leapt at Icarus and planted the dagger in the troan’s shoulder. The troan had not expected such spirited resistance; and he and the boy fell backward onto the ground.
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