“Get up,” he said and kicked her hard in the thigh with a knobbed leather boot. She roused quickly and was on her feet faster than any of them anticipated. Instinctively, he bashed her knee with the broad side of his machete, sweeping her back down to ground, banishing her thoughts of yabba root.
“Not that fast,” he cackled and his four companions laughed along. Finally, she was able to focus and perceive them. Five teenaged locusts from the Vicious. A loosely federated gang of hooligans, the Vicious weren’t usually active this close to her cloister’s lands. Then again, there had been several seasons of flooding in Qathtar, a notorious indicator that a breeding glut would take hold of the Vicious. These boys, no doubt, were new footlings. Freshly pushed out of the proverbial nest. They were eager to prove themselves as aggressive as their parents and older cousins, jealous that the newer brats were getting all the food and attention.
“I’m a stone worker,” she addressed the lead locust. “And you shouldn’t be here.”
The leader, sprouting all over with new hair like the desert spurts flowers after first season’s rain, guffawed in her face. His voice clashed with low melodious notes and the high, shrill markings of a man yet unmade.
“We are the Vicious,” he told her, pointing to the insignia stitched into his red dengo. “We go anywhere. Everywhere.” He spat.
“These are stone lands. We have agreements with your people,” she continued. “This spot is only a three day’s journey from my cloister. If you want tribute, we can arrange for that. We have plenty.”
“Plenty,” the lead locust repeated, arching his mouth into an angry smile. “No one out here has plenty of anything.” To enunciate his point, the lead locust squatted down and prepared to spit again, this time in her face.
Instead, she punctured his cheek with her stone chisel, which was always at the ready in her front pocket. His blood sputtered out and he made a high sound like the vermin sometimes do in mating. He attempted to unsheathe his machete but she had already brought his entire arm under her control. She disarmed him with a jab to a sensitive point in his wrist and brought his own machete to his neck.
The other four locusts stood completely still. They were caught off guard by her swiftness and confidence. Usually the traders and pilgrims gave in quickly and softly to their threats.
The lead locust’s blood continued to ebb out of his face. “Sorcerex!” he screeched. “Do something!” he egged on his compatriots.
“No,” she said. “Go back to your leader and tell her you encountered a stone worker. Tell her that the stone worker invoked her territorial privileges.”
A long silence prevailed between them all. The sun had already met the horizon and the stone’s shadow was melting away. A waking chill blew through as night began to temper the air.
One of the locusts charged her. Immediately, she slit the leader’s throat and thrust his body to the ground. She stumbled her way around the stone, evading the charge.
“No!” she could hear the younger boy scream. She retrieved a pair of deadly knives from her knapsack. The handles were carved with the mythos of her people and gently worn from able use. She turned just as the charging boy was at her. She blocked his clumsy attempt to mow her down with his machete and then killed him with a single, punctuating stab to the chest.
She let his body fall and quickly approached the remaining three of the Vicious. They, however, did not wish to meet her and quickly withdrew. They streamed away into the darkness and clambered back over the rocks.
She would have to leave the stone behind for now. She didn’t know how many more of the Vicious were scrambling around in the scrub. Nor was sure how arrogant the rest of them might be, feverishly ready to break a hard won peace.