“…and Hextor’s ice-cold flail was twisted by his enemy’s weapon, and then the blazing god Heironeous jerked it free and suddenly then made a viscous cut with his fiery blade, and his enemy, his own blood-kin, screamed in rage as the weapon slashed forward…” he said, pausing in the story to slowly take a dramatic pull from his short clay pipe.
“And then what happened?” Ryees a daughter of one of the merchants, demanded.
“Yes, yes… tell us,” came the voices of the other children who were also listening.
Derek Arkantos put up a dirty, sun-burned hand to ward of the demands of the children and suppressed a smile. Mustering a stern glance he warded the eager voices of his audience and began to continue, relishing their excitement in the old stories.
But before he could continue his senses, honed by years of journeying, were alerted by the sounds of urgent footsteps, and he looked up beyond the firelight to see Tarin Gamm, the caravan captain and his employer gesture to him with edgy anticipation.
“Well,” Derek said, knowing to cut the story short “of course there’s nothing worse then a fight between two brothers, especially if those brothers be gods, but if you want answers to that question look to the sky,” he said stabbing a blunt thumb heavenward.
“You’ll see all the answers to those riddles writ in the stars, for even now the two brothers do battle, if you can see them, and their story will most likely never end, as long as the stars shine. But tonight it must,” he said pulling himself to his feet hearing the groans of the children.
Derek spat the phlegm from his pipe to the ground and knocked the ash out of the bowl as the children broke up and he sidled between them and slowly made his way to Tarin.
“What’s amiss, chief?” he asked, his eyes growing serious at the look the captain had on his face.
“The scouts haven’t come back yet, we need to know why,” he responded quietly, his eyes darting around the camp, checking on the children, watching the shadows, unconsciously looking for danger.
“How long have they been gone?” Derek asked, his tone darkening, glancing down to the hilts of his blades, which were strapped to his hips, then flicking his eyes to the plains beyond the wagons.
“Should’a been back maybe around sunset. We waited, but some of the lads are getting restless. Say we should go lookin’.”
Derek’s face and demeanor darkened. Sunset was near an hour ago. Jerking his kit from the ground he slung it over his shoulders and stuffed the pipe into a pouch at his side.
“You’re the chief, then. It’s your folk and your call,” Derek said, his eyes growing cold and his voice flat.
“Aye,” he said. “I’m the chief, you take our coin, now you earn it,” Tarin said, not able to look the man in front of him in the eye.
Derek pushed his gaze to the caravan captain, until the older man finally met it.
“Draw the wagons to the lee of this hill, have the men dig a trench around it and get some torches lit inside the circle. No light outside the wagons, I want everything in. Hobble the horses that we leave, if anything startles them, they may try to run, especially if goblin-kin’s out here and they smell their stink. I want to take two riders with me, just in case,” he ended watching Tarin’s face.
“Hobbs and Grudin are fair riders both, and they…”
“Oh no,” Derek said with a cold tone “Hobbs is a fair choice, aye. But I think on this journey I want the chief with me, to keep things fair and on the board. Leave Grudin here to watch over the lads and the womenfolk.”
“I thought you said I was the chief,” Tarin growled.
“And you said I need to earn my coin,” Derek tossed back somewhat bitterly. “If you’d listened to me in the first place, we’d be in less trouble. Now I earn my coin. Do what I say, and you’ll keep your folk safer. They listen to you, so you listen to me. And you listening to me makes you last longer as chief,” he added with a hint of irony.
“Nerull take ye,” Tarin muttered, and Derek’s hand flashed to his sword.
Tarin flinched and mumbled a quick apology to the wandering scout and guide and the only man of the caravan who had traveled the wild lands between here and their journey’s end and lived to tell the tale. Seeing the gaze on Derek’s eyes Tarin turned quickly and hurried to set to the tasks he had been given.
Derek relaxed then, his muscles unlocking fluidly and dismissing Tarin as nothing but hot air and now moved from the light near the fire he had rested at and began walking in between the scattered row of wagons. Seeing men and women move to their children he glanced to the moonlight above. It was fair skies and a half moon, easy enough light to see horses on the plains, but just as easy to miss a sign on the open steppe.
Turning quickly from tents and caravans he leapt up at a jagged crag and hoisted himself on it. After a moment or so of climbing he made his way to the top of the broken hill they had camped by and flung himself on his belly and surveyed the surrounding area at a distance, thinking on his next action.
He heard Tarin below calling to the people to start drawing the wagons around the flat cliff wall of the hill. He had recommended it earlier, when they had set up camp, but the women and men complained of the excess work of forcing the heavy carts into a semi-circle. The plains were wide open, there were no dangers they could see, so why worry?
Sighing, Derek shrugged mentally and sniffed the air. It held a trace of dampness on it, and he checked the wind; from the east, which meant that there may be rain in a day or so… but tonight it should be good weather till an hour before daybreak. Tomorrow would be cold, and if he had time to dally he may find that saucy little Evylin and see if she was more then just talk.
Whistling once long, then low, a high kreening noise from the sky answered him. He watched above him and saw a slow descent of a falcon who, with a flap of its wings, landed on the ledge near him and hopped a moment then preened its feathers.
“Ho there my friend,” he whispered gently, pulling a piece of jerky from his side and tossing it to the bird. “Easy boy… easy,” he crooned softly as the bird bobbed its neck forward with a quick jerk and plucked the meat from the air before it landed.
“Hah,” he barked a short laugh, the bird eyeing him coldly with its murderous gold eyes. “Aye, my lad, I see your look. We’ve got killing ahead of us, to be sure my good Shaundakul. I see it in your eyes, you’re keen for it. Well, don’t worry, the first kill I make, their brains are yours to gorge on, but only after we find our prey, eh?”
The falcon, Shaundakul, turned his cold arrogant gaze far to the north where Sartarus was, while Derek turned his gaze to the southlands where their destination of Ravannah lay. They had been traveling in Sarti for some time, but had not reached the troubled borders yet; where the real strife was beginning.
As he watched the men below take pick and trowel to the chalky ground and heap the dirt inside the trench and around the wagon wheels to form a crude defense he sneered at them below.
Fools. Caravans larger then this have died in the wastes. Barely an escort, and on top of your idiocy you bring your womenfolk and younglings with you? Madness, to gamble all on such a venture.
Derek then reproached himself as the dual sides of his life debated in his head and heart; his uncle and his father. The optimist and the cynic. They had both taught the ways of the tribe; to hunt and learn and fight and survive. His father always watching, never trusting, suspicious of anyone not of the clan. His uncle, younger, more reckless, and headstrong; always eager to share and be generous. His father the doubter, his uncle the trusting…
Don’t mock these folk. They have had hard times in the north and rumor has it that Ravannah is growing rich, a mighty city, and much wealth can be earned by skilled merchants and craftsmen there. These folk, they risk everything they have for that dream. They may die, aye, but to die living a dream? How can a man be faulted for that?
Derek knew the voices in his head would continue as he waited for Tarin to finish readying the horses before they set out. He knew that his father and uncle, true brothers though they may, would fight even now for his heart even after their deaths so many years ago.
Glancing to the constellations he saw the stary shapes of Hextor and Heironeous poised in the heavens and smiled sardonically.
“Aye indeed. It seems brothers end up fighting frequently no matter what their bloodline may be… Who will win that fight though? Who will loose? Or are we fated to fight until the stars burn out?”