He had his mother's nose and eyes.

A stab of pride sliced through Thomas's heart. Samuel might have gone astray, but this image of his boy could have been him fifteen years ago.

The stallion's clip-clopping hooves echoed as it stepped into the firelight, followed by three, then five, then nine warriors who'd taken up arms with Samuel. All were dressed in the same battle dress of the Forest Guard, largely abandoned since the Circle had laid down arms eleven years ago. Only the guards and scouts wore the protective leathers to ward off arrows and blades.

But Samuel . . . no amount of reason seemed to jar good sense into his thick skull.

His son stilled his horse with a gentle tug on its reins. His followers stopped behind him in a loose formation that left them with no weak flank, standard Guard protocol by his own orders. Samuel and his band moved with the ease of seasoned warriors.

A few catcalls from different points in the crowd raised praise for the man who scanned them without a hint of acknowledgment.

"Hear, Samuel! Elyon's strength, boy!" A pause. "Keep the boogers in their stink hole, Samuel!"

This remark was a departure from general sentiment, though not as distant from the heart of the Circle as it once had been. Thomas was all too aware of the rumblings among many clans.

"Nice of you to join us, Samuel," Thomas said, tipping his chalice in the boy's direction.

His son looked directly at Chelise, dipped his head, then looked back at the three thousand gathered in the natural amphitheater. "To the Horde," he called.

"To the Horde." But only half took up the cry. The rest, like Thomas, heard the bite in Samuel's voice.

"To the stinking, bloody Horde who butcher our children and spread their filthy disease through our forests!" Samuel cried, voice now bitter with mockery.

Only a few took him up. "Stinking, bloody Horde."

"Our friends, the Horde, have sent their apologies for taking the life of our own three days ago. They have sent us all a gift to express their remorse, and I have brought it to our Gathering."

Samuel stuck his hand out, palm up. A dark object sailed forward, lobbed by Petrus, son of Jeremiah, and Samuel snatched it out of the air as if it were a water bag needing to be refilled. He tossed it onto the ground. The object bounced once and rolled to stop where firelight illuminated the fine details of their prize.

This was a head. A human head. A Horde head with a mane of long dreadlocks, covered in disease. A chill snaked down Thomas's spine. This, he thought, was the beginning of the end.

Copyright 2009 by Ted Dekker
Published by Thomas Nelson 
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