The Only One
Romjha B'kah rolled a dart fashioned from a spent rifle cartridge between his finger and thumb, squinting to clear eyes blurred by blood loss, fatigue, and painkillers.
Painkillers? He almost laughed. More like enough glasses of ale to make him forget about the bullet hole in his thigh. By morning all he'd care about would be the monumental hangover left from his overindulgence; but if he'd consumed what the healer had tried to push on him, the official knock-you-out-for-a-day-or-two pills that passed for medicine, he'd be flat on his back now instead of playing darts.
Priorities, he reasoned. A man had to have them.
Nearly all of the community's available women were crowded into a corner of the Big Room, the social heart of their community, to watch him and the other raiders wind down. He and his men drew female attention by being members of an elite group. Raiders. Who didn't love them? At great personal risk, they left the security of the caves to forage supplies from the surface: fuel, building materials, medical supplies—
all left behind by the absentee conquerors who'd gutted their homeland three generations ago and still visited random terror campaigns upon them.
It didn't hurt matters that every man in Romjha's assigned cell of five was a bachelor in good health, or that at twenty-four he was the old man of the group.
Romjha took aim. A target hung from an unadorned wall of solid rock. The Big Room, unlike other parts of the surrounding cave, made no attempt to hide its origins: an underground munitions storage facility. The installation had served as home for Sienna's surviving population since they were driven underground by invaders who had exterminated everyone unlucky enough—or witless enough—to remain topside.
Romjha leaned on his crutch. The target wavered. Or was it his eyes? It almost felt as if his head were floating away from his body. He swallowed, his mouth parched, and put the bulk of his weight on the crutch.
"Looks like you'll need to put a bullet in your other leg to even out the load!" yelled Petro.
The raiders lounging nearby guffawed, slapping their legs with dirty hands. They hadn't cleaned much more than the sweat from their faces after returning from last night's mission, one which had nearly won Romjha a one-way trip to the Ever After. Petro had been crawling next to him when the catwalk they traversed gave way, causing Romjha's rifle to misfire. The bullet had passed clean through Romjha's leg, missing the artery. Had he not long ago lost his faith, he might have believed the Great Mother was looking out for him.
Since women were present, Romjha refrained from answering his friend with a rude gesture. There might not be much of the warrior's creed to which he still adhered, but showing consideration to females was part of it. "Maybe I'll put one in your leg next time we throw—to even the odds," Romjha suggested. The women laughed, and he flashed them his most charming grin. He enjoyed their company (he enjoyed women, period—the texture of their skin, their hair, their taste, their scent) but he'd showed so little interest in making any of them his mate—or interest in them at all lately— that they assumed he was still grieving for his wife.
He didn't know the cause of his disinterest to tell the truth. It had been years since Seri died. He was still a warrior, still fierce and proud. Although perhaps his fire had faded some. He'd been so helpless when Seri and their newborn son died from complications regarding the birth. All the weapons in the world couldn't have prevented their deaths, not when his people lived as primitives without modern medical facilities.
He let the women all imagine what they wanted about him, let them imagine that they knew him. But he didn't even know himself anymore. He certainly didn't feel like much of a man, a protector. Perhaps the others still did.
Flicking his wrist, Romjha threw his dart. It landed true with a resounding thwack . He shrugged to the sounds of whistles and the grumbles from the men who'd lost their bets—shares of their allotted portions of ale.
Hobbling to the target, he plucked out the dart, sunk deep and dead-center. As if he'd withdrawn a dagger imbedded deep in living flesh, the action brought about a blood-chilling scream.
And then another. Women's voices. Children's.
Romjha turned around, the dart hanging from his fingers. His pulse didn't even accelerate. He simply peered over the heads of
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