Chapter 4

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The Western Gate was open, pushed back tight against the village's sturdy palisade wall. Batu, flanked by the two guards who'd escorted him from the meeting square, gazed through the opening to the wilderness beyond.

The landscape wasn't much different from the scrubland within Ekkol's boundaries. The plants, with their thick, waxy leaves and vicious thorns, grew low to the ground. A rolling ocean of mauve and gray, interrupted only by a dusty path, breaking the surface like a sandbar.

The guard to Batu's left smoothed his thin mustache, stepped in front and turned to face him.

"This is where we leave you," he said.

Batu swallowed but didn't move his feet.

"Don't make us have to drag you out," the guard said. "At least leave here with a bit of dignity." The guard narrowed his eyes. "And don't even think about trying to creep back in."

He pointed to the pair of wooden sentry towers that rose from the wall on either side of the gateway. Batu peered up. A hard-faced man with his bow poised leaned out over the tower's side and stared back at him.

"They've been ordered to put an arrow in your belly if you try to return," the guard said.

Batu breathed in. He wasn't concerned about the sentries. He wasn't planning on coming back, at least not straight away. It was the other things the men were up there to look out for that worried him.

Batu shuddered. The wilderness might look like village land, but it wasn't the same.

He'd never trodden its paths before, but, just like everyone else, he'd heard the stories from those who'd returned from raiding parties. The plains between Ekkol and it's rival villages were said to be home to gangs of savage brigands, enemy warbands and sinister, dark things spoken of only in whispers.

Batu rubbed his eyes with both hands. Most of the reports were probably exaggerations told to stop Ekkol's youngsters exploring outside the walls. He chewed his lip. But even the tallest tales were often built around kernels of truth.

No, the wilderness would be unlike anything he'd experienced before, and, as soon as he stepped forward, he'd be out there alone.

"Good riddance." A familiar voice rang out from behind him. Batu set his feet and turned his head. Taban. He was standing a stone's throw away, a smile stretched across his weaselish face.

"I told you my father would take action, and he did. He should've driven you out long ago. There's no place in the village for freaks like you. You're an embarrassment to your family and to the whole village."

The guard to Batu's right snorted. He put his hand to his face as if to cover a grin. His companion, the guard with the mustache, wore a stern look. He frowned at his partner and flicked his head in Taban's direction.

"Get him out of here," he said. "The lad's been through enough. He's had his judgment." He pointed to Taban. "He doesn't need him gloating."

The other guard moved from Batu's side and walked towards Taban.

"Your sister might be sad that you've gone," said Taban. "But, don't worry, freak. I'll be there to comfort her." He paused. "And then I'll teach her the error of her ways. By the end of the summer, she'll have forgotten to even think about you, let alone pray for your return."

Batu curled his fingers into fists, his nails digging into his palms.

"Ignore him," the guard said. "Don't react."

Batu turned away from Taban. He studied the guard's solemn face, then looked past him, turning his attention to the rough track leading away from Ekkol.

It snaked across the plain, gently climbing until it reached the brow of a small hillock, then was lost from view.

"Go on then," said the guard. "What are you waiting for?"

Behind him, Taban protested with the other guard, his voice shrill.

Batu blinked and took a deep breath.

"Just move," said the guard nearest to him. "Now."

A shove to the right of Batu's spine propelled him forwards. He lurched onto his left foot. One. Then, barely keeping his balance, he slammed down his right foot. Two. He took another couple of steps. Three, four. Then he stopped.

The skin on his back where the man had placed his hand throbbed as if he's been struck by a heavy punch. The sensation coursed through his right side, up to his neck and down to his hips. He breathed in through gritted teeth. The left side of his body screamed out for an equivalent blow to the one that'd been struck to his right. He had to regain balance.

Batu's breathing became ragged and his mind raced. He sank to his knees.

The guard said something, but the throbbing of his heartbeat pounding in his ears obscured the words.

Flashes of searing pain jolted through his left shoulder blade, and his left arm began to quiver uncontrollably.

His tongue seemed to have grown too large for his mouth, and he winced against the sour taste of bile.

Images of his sister suffering at the hands of Thane Gamtula filled his mind.

Batu turned back to the guard.

"Push me again," he said. "On the left side of my back."

The man hesitated as if he was scared to approach.

"Do it," said Batu

The guard took a breath through his nose and stepped towards him. Batu, still kneeling, faced forwards and straightened his back.

The man's palm landed firmly to the left of his spine, and, almost immediately, a surge of relief shuddered through his body. He arched his back then rolled his shoulders. Both sides of his body were no longer at odds with each other. He was balanced again.

Batu rose to his feet and, planting his left foot first, one, then his right, two, turned to face the guard.

"Thank-you," Batu said

The man nodded.

Batu looked past him to the track that led back to Ekkol's cluster of buildings. Taban and the other guard were now walking side by side.

Taban stopped. It was as if he could feel Batu's eyes on him. He glanced over his shoulder and met Batu's gaze with a smile. He waved.

Batu sighed. There wasn't a chance Taban would leave his family in peace, but what could he possibly do about it?

"It's time," said the guard. He part-drew his curved sword from its scabbard. Its dark polished blade glinted in the harsh sunlight. "Don't make me have to use it," he said.

Batu dipped his head, and the guard let his weapon fall back into place.

"Here, take this." The man unhooked a full waterskin from his belt and passed it to Batu. "I wasn't meant to give you any, but you'll need it in this heat."

Batu grasped the water skin with both hands.

"Thank-you," he said. "For everything."

The guard nodded again, then he pointed to the plains.

Batu scanned the horizon. If he wanted to improve his family's plight, he'd have to embrace his new life. There was no alternative.

He inhaled and took a step with his left foot. One. He was Batu of Ekkol no more. He took a step with his right. From this moment on, Batu the Exile was his name, and the wilderness would be his home. He took another pair of steps. Three. Four. Then some more. Five, six, seven, eight. I will return for you, Kolo, I promise. Nine. Ten. Batu continued along the path. He didn't look back. Eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen...

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