It had been five days now since the men of the tribe headed off to war against the Wir. Not a single one had returned. Burri paced between the hide tents in frustration, his head aflame despite the chilling winds whipping around him. The camp felt empty without the usual masculine bustle of activity and bluster of arrogant bravado. The barren bleakness of the winter plains served only to amplify the loss.
The wives and older daughters of the tribe were huddled around the opening to the Khan’s tent, speaking mostly in nervous, hushed voices. Sporadically one would grow agitated in her prattling and words would carry to where Burri or the other children could hear. He knew what was being discussed, and their weakness and indecision revolted him. Such an assembly would never have been allowed in the presence of Khan Tulbig. He would have sent them scattering, like sparrows before a hawk, with a few scorching words on how much he valued their guidance and a sharp reminder as to their real duties.
A couple of days ago, Burri had tried reprimanding them himself. He had possessed little hope they would listen, but his patience had been at an end. The women just laughed down their noses at this boy of ten and four with his notions of authority, treating him like a fussy babe when their condescension only fueled his indignation further. He had not spoken to anyone since, but it would soon be time for that to change.
He could not imagine that all of the women were too stupid to realize that win or lose, the Katali warriors would have sent a runner back to the encampment days ago with news of the battle. Either they had been wiped out to a man in a sudden ambush, or some other equally dreadful fate had befallen them. Regardless, it was well past the time for clinging to false hopes that the men had only been somehow delayed in their return home. The remaining Katali should have been salvaging from their camp everything of worth that could be easily carried and preparing to go off into hiding. The tribe had been blessed recently with many children, and with luck and the time that it provided, the boys would again grow into brave hunters.
Given the daily increase in outbursts of discord during the women’s discussions, Burri was sure that there were at least some who agreed with him. The problem seemed to be the Khan’s wives and those of the other respected warriors. They were older, more cautious, and appeared less willing to abandon the life of comfort they had led here for a more uncertain future elsewhere. They selfishly failed to see that their cowardice was dooming the rest of the tribe. Their men were gone and the Wir would find them sooner or later. It was a miracle they had not arrived already. Burri was ashamed to count Wadi’s wife, Ruda, among this troop of blind fools. He had expected better from his own mother.
Burri kicked a small rock so hard it traveled twenty meters away and nearly broke his toes as well. The stone narrowly missed two little boys playing with sticks near the outskirts of camp. They glanced up at him in anger, but quickly looked away when they saw the expression on his face.
The younger women’s fear of Tulbig’s eldest wife, Batsha, and her supporters had kept them in check this long. Soon their fear of the mounting danger would overcome it. Burri may seem rash and immature to them, but he was capable of biding his time until the proper moment came to strike. It was a principle that Wadi had begun to teach him before he had reached the age of four. After all, it would shame the Katali tribe’s Swordmaster were his own son unable to fight or hunt. Burri cursed the women’s willingness to follow the leadership of the old and infirm, muttering a stream of invective that would have earned him a severe beating were his father still within earshot. If a Khan like Tulbig had ever wasted this much precious time before acting, Wadi or another fierce warrior would have gathered some likeminded men and taken the reins of power from him long ago.
Burri paused his pacing in mid-step, cupping his hand to his ear to listen better against the wind. The occasional upraised voice from the mouth of the Khan’s tent had turned into a cacophony of shouting. The build-up in the argument had been so gradual that the boy hadn’t even realized it was occurring. He spun on his heels and made his way back towards the gathered women. Faces flushed, several small clumps were yelling back and forth at the main group of elder wives. Eyes burned and spittle flew. All traces of their prior feminine properness and protocol were gone, a memory now. Burri fought to keep a smile from his face as he strode into their midst. The time had finally come to intervene!
“Your lack of faith is monstrous!” howled Batsha in rebuke at the younger wives. “That you would abandon your husbands and sons after so few settings of the sun. You should all be ashamed.”
Some of her challengers hushed with guilt at this accusation, but not many. Burri’s own voice had cracked and deepened long ago despite his young age and his ringing baritone cut through the lighter, more delicate female notes instantly, commanding attention.
“The only thing around here that’s monstrous is the extent of your willful ignorance!” Burri jabbed a finger violently towards Batsha and glared at her with hatred.
Ruda let loose with an exasperated sigh and answered him in a tone that would sound familiar to any woman who has been pushed near the limits of her forgiveness by her children.
“Burri! Now is not the moment for this. We’re in the middle of something important here, and we don’t have time for you. We’ve listened to your complaints already.”
“I think not, Mother,” answered Burri, the last word dripping with venom. “I’m rather certain no one here listened to a thing I said, or you wouldn’t still be sitting there and clucking like a bunch of fat hens.”
Ras, one of Tulbig’s other wives, gave an affronted gasp.
“We do not have to stand for this sort of abuse. Ruda control your boy! Have you raised your whelp so poorly?”
Ruda took a step in his direction but froze when she saw the sizzling rage in his eyes.
“Lay so much as a hand upon me, and you will regret it.” Growled Burri fiercely. Ruda wondered if he had gone mad. She found herself looking into the face of a complete stranger.
“You have debated here long enough. If our warriors had in any way been able, they would have sent a runner to us by now. This is the way of our tribe and if you deny it then you are choosing to deny the truth.”
Burri’s statement brought forth a murmur of agreement from some of the younger women that urged him onwards.
“Our men are dead or enslaved, and in either case we have no choice but to move on. I know the land has been good to us here, but it has always been the way of our tribe to walk with the winds of change, and they are blowing now. There can be no doubt, except by those who dislike the truth so much they refuse to look upon it.”
For a moment, all seemed to pause to listen to the howling wind. Batsha flustered under the boy’s glare, preparing some witty retort, but he gave her no opportunity to deliver it. He talked right over her, and she found her severe dignity no match for his exuberant youthful passion.
“I know you ache for those we have lost and do not wish to give up your hope, but you must do so for the greater good of the tribe. You have your sons and daughters. More importantly, you have their sons and daughters. Ask yourself how you would better serve your husband, by staying and awaiting the harsh cruelty of the Wir or by striking out to forge a great new home for the Katali. I do not think the answer is unclear. Go immediately to your homes, raid them for food and clothing, and strike out towards the marshes of the south and away from the lands of the Wir.”
The murmurs became a roar of approval. The elder women, shocked by this turn of events, looked to Batsha for direction.
“The marshes are treacherous and vile. There is a reason the land is open and none of our enemies wish to live there. It may be months before we find a spot that could support so many, if we ever find one at all. I suppose you would be the one to lead us on this great endeavor, youngling?” asked the Khan’s wife, her words bristling with scorn.
“The marshes are far less dangerous in the winter, as is known to all of the hunters. The journey will still be treacherous, but you will survive if you take care. Many of the places that a man could sink beneath will be frozen over, and the most poisonous of snakes will be sluggish if not asleep. As for leadership, you may select whoever you desire.”
“I intend to follow the tracks of our warriors and learn the tale of their fate so that the story of my father and his kinsmen will not be lost.”
“Burri, you cannot!” wailed his mother, bursting into tears. Many of the voices that had been supporting him quieted.
“Be reasonable, Burri. I agree with what you have said so far, but you are one of the oldest boys and the tribe will need you in what lies ahead,” spoke Tali camly. She was the wife of one of his closest cousins who was no more than three years his senior, but that had been old enough to go marching off to war. A good number of the young women made sounds of agreement.
“The tribe has many other boys,” countered Burri. “I have but one heart and I will follow it. I dare any of you to try and stop me.”
He fiercely surveyed the circle. He expected another protest from the women, but it did not come. Instead, a deeper voice answered him.
“Both you and Tali are correct, Burri. The disappearance of the men should be investigated, but you are too important to what remains of the Katali. I will go in your stead.”
Burri was surprised, he had not seen Fawl approach. In fact, he saw now that a number of the children had been attracted by the arguing and had come to edge the outskirts of the circle. Fawl was a year younger than Burri and not nearly as developed, blonder and prettier perhaps, but a good foot shorter and dozens of pounds less muscled. Still, Burri saw the courage within his heart and loved him for it, even if the two had never been close.
“You speak bravely, younger brother.” Fawl was not even a cousin, but in its broadest use the term could encompass any member of the Katali who was his junior. Burri chose it to emphasize his theoretical superiority over the other boy. “But what you say is true only if neither of us would return. I am the son of the tribe’s Swordmaster, and I am thrice as strong in the Soulsword as anyone else who remains in this camp. I urge any here to speak otherwise if this is not so.”
It was Ruda who answered him, her words sounding resigned rather than proud.
“It is indeed so. Wadi often spoke of it. Burri’s sword is unmatched among the other children.”
A murmur went through the crowd. Burri had not known his father had praised him so in secret, and he had to fight to keep his face stony as he regarded the other boy.
“We have dueled before on the practice field, Fawl. Are you prepared to duel me here in truth to prevent my leaving?”
Fawl wavered before the implied threat, but refused to admit any fear.
“That would be pointless, if I killed you it would be no better than if you were slain by the Wir. I think your fighting spirit is exactly why you should not risk yourself so needlessly. I still urge you to send me in your place, but if your madness is such that you will not listen to reason and will fight those who try to protect you, then I abandon you to your destiny. I will do my best to defend the tribe in your absence.”
It was true. After him Fawl arguably had the strongest sword left to the Katali, and he was not close to being a match for Burri. If the tribe were discovered and attacked by even a large scouting party they would be in danger. For a moment, Burri entertained the idea that he was no better than Batsha, endangering the whole tribe for his own desires. But he was not one to dwell on ethics, his actions simply went the way his heart pointed them.
“I wish you luck, then, and I promise my absence will not be long. I have no delusions of defeating the Wir single-handed. I will not pick a fight, but will sneak to the battlefield, examine it, and then track the rest of you down. That is all. I do not intend to be rash about this.”
Fawl nodded grimly, then turned away without replying. Ruda burst into fresh tears. Burri did not wish to leave it like this, so he strode forward and embraced the other boy. He stiffened at first, but then hugged him back.
“Good luck, you stupid goat.” Grunted Fawl.
“Same to you.” Burri said with a smile.
Then he went to his mother, who held him and wept silently into the crook of his neck for a time.
“I can’t lose you, too...” she managed between sobs. It made Burri very uncomfortable, and he knew he must not dally or his own resolve would surely falter. He squeezed her and patted her back. It was strange, he reflected, she was a slight woman and already he was the much larger of the two. With her crying so, it almost made him feel the adult. It was a sad, lonely feeling. He pulled away from her gently but firmly.
“Do not worry, Mother. I’m sorry to put you through this, but I love you and I will return.”
He did not look back towards her as he made his way out through the crowd and into their family’s tent. He had already packed what he needed. He tied his supplies around him and strode out of camp without pausing, knowing that every time he stopped moving it would be harder to start again. A line of the children and younger wives formed to watch him go, but he never turned back, may not have even known they were there.
Burri may have been unaware of the point at which the Katali warriors met their downfall, but he did have a general idea of where Tulbig had been leading them when they left camp. He tried to parallel their path rather than follow it exactly. It would not do to blunder straight into the same mishap. Despite his precautions, he still felt terribly exposed. The winter plains offered nothing in the way of cover. Trees and bushes had shed their foliage and the tall swaying grasses that would usually have obscured him had browned and fallen to the frozen earth. Were it not for the hilliness of his tribe’s territory, Burri was certain every Wir within a dozen miles would have been able to see him approaching.
Though there had been no rain or snow in the last five days to obscure their passage, Burri could find no trace of the group of men that had traveled before him. This was not surprising, since the warriors would have taken care to erase any sign that might lead the enemy back to their own homes, but he was still filled with pride to see that their efforts had been so complete. At the same time, it was somewhat distressing. He could never be sure that he was truly following along their footsteps. The best he could do was hope that he was remembering the conversations he had overheard between Wadi and the other tribesmen correctly.
He believed that Tulbig had intended to lead his men to the Drum and survey the layout of the Wir encampments from there, before charging down into the lowlands to make war. Burri would make his way there as well and look for signs of a conflict nearby. If he found none, then he would backtrack and see what had kept the Katali from reaching their goal.
Since he was avoiding the most efficient path, which he felt strongly that Tulbig would have chosen, Burri had to endure several sheer climbs. This would have been bad enough in the warmer weather, but the cold doubled the difficulty as hanging vines were dead and brittle and the soil was too frozen to allow for digging any sort of handholds. Still, Burri did not mind the exertion. It felt good to finally be doing something. His only regret was that caution made him move at a much slower pace than he normally would have set.
As night approached, Burri was plagued for the first time by uncertainty. Tulbig likely would have marched his men through the night to reach his goal within one day. Burri didn’t know what he would face ahead, but he knew he was likely to be greatly outnumbered and would need his wits about him. That suggested he should get a good night’s sleep before proceeding, but without someone else to stand guard over him it would mean leaving himself vulnerable in what was potentially enemy territory.
In the end he chose a narrow ridge on a hill so steep it was practically a cliff. The ridge was recessed slightly into an overhang of the hill, offering him protection against the wind and hiding him somewhat from the passing eye. Its main defense was the exhausting climb it took to reach it. Someone would have to be quite serious about checking it out to bother coming up and taking a closer look. He called his Soulsword into being and used it to carve up enough soil to cover himself in a small mound. The earth would both camouflage him and help to keep him warm through the cold night. He felt a bit wrong about using his sword this way, especially when a shovel would have done a much better job, but it had been necessary to travel as lightly as possible.
Burri fell asleep almost the instant he closed his eyes—a clear victory for the day’s physical exertions over his adrenaline, fear, and anxiety.
He awakened, what seemed a moment later, to the sound of howling wind. The boy opened his eyes only to have them immediately blasted with flying dirt. He leaned back deeper into the recess and rubbed them dry, stifling the curses that he would have uttered loudly under safer circumstances. He then dug himself out of his insulating mound, taking pains to avoid further self-blinding.
Burri mastered his youthful urge to rush onwards into action and continue his search, forcing himself to wait out the strongest of the winds. Breakfast was a cold, bland meal of salted meat and water. Before the hour was out the air had quieted significantly, and it was clear enough for him to better examine his surroundings. With a jolt he saw that a lower branch lay broken off one of the barren saplings that grew at the base of the hill on which he had camped. After retying his supplies and making his way back down the difficult incline, his suspicions were confirmed. The break hung at too steep a downward angle for it to have been caused by the wind. Someone or something had trod upon it.
Burri silently blessed his father for many hated childhood lessons on the importance of caution, and said a prayer that Fawl had managed to get the tribe moving without much dragging interference from Batsha. If a Wir scout really had passed below Burri’s position as he slept, then they were surely close enough to find the Katali camp within this day or the next. It was even possible they had gotten lucky and blundered upon it already, if the scouts had been pressing on until dawn. Burri resumed his course, moving slower now, more suspicious of enemy patrols. He encountered no one, but twice more uncovered signs left by men traveling through unfamiliar terrain. One of the marks looked fresh.
The youth journeyed to within a kilometer of the Drum without incident, but then began to hear an odd keening sound from the distance. He paused when he first noticed it, but it was nothing he could identify. He stood still for a long moment, waiting for the sound to run its course, only to shrug into motion again when it persisted without break. Burri could not have named the source, but felt certain it was another sign of the Wir presence. Wadi had taught him to hunt well, and one needed to recognize the sounds of his land and his people. This was not one of them. Still, if it helped to cover his advance, he would raise no objection.
Burri could see the Drum on the horizon now, and even from this distance the fact that something was occurring atop it was as obvious to him as if someone had changed the face of his own mother. The shrill wailing sound only intensified as he approached. It had his teeth standing on edge, making the boy feel agitated and irritable. Altering his course, he crossed over the path he believed Tulbig would have taken. Again he saw no sign that the Katali had ever made it here. He arrowed towards Stab Hill. It was the only point in the area that rose higher than the Drum, if only by about a dozen meters. Rather than being wide and flat it was jagged and steep, and he was hoping the lowlanders would have decided it was unable to support an encampment. At its top he would acquire a much better vantage point, and he had no desire to scale the face of the Drum and charge blindly into almost certain danger.
He was sweating profusely when he reached Stab Hill’s summit, convinced that some Wir sentry must have detected his ascent. As he scrabbled to the top,
Burri searched the land below him for activity, some sign that the enemy had been alerted to his presence. There was none, but that struck him as too easy to be comforting. How could the Wir completely ignore such a strategically important position as the neighboring hillock? Tulbig or Wadi would have secured such a location instantly—automatically—more by nature than by conscious thought. The Wir might be feeling confident if they had just won a big victory over the Katali, but this kind of laxness seemed unforgivable. Burri felt there must be something he was missing.
He crouched awkwardly, too aware of the long fall that awaited him if he lost his grip on the rough ground of the uneven summit. Spread out not far below him was the sprawling temporary base that had been established by the Wir. This was sensible. The high ground of the Drum made a perfect outpost from which to launch scouting parties and map the unknown Katali territory, and this seemed to be just what they were up to. All that he had seen continued to support the notion that the Wir had met his tribe in combat and defeated them, but Burri could not imagine how that could be the case. Hoping that he was biased by more than sheer foolish pride, he failed to understand how a foe so undisciplined that they did not even challenge his approach to within meters of their base could have managed to defeat the mighty Katali in their own territory.
The boy lay prone, motionless and sore, against the crooked slope of the hilltop until sunset. He need not worry about dozing off, the horrid screeching sound did not relent for a second. Then he would use that to his advantage, too. Every moment was spent spying on the enemy encampment.
Though the construction looked foreign due to its strange Wir architecture, the camp layout was simple and generally familiar. The base was surrounded by low, crude wooden walls that, even as he watched, were being reinforced and built higher with timber from the surrounding trees. A roughly circular mass of tents was visible that Burri guessed would mainly house soldiers. At their approximate center was a larger command tent from which orders could be dispersed efficiently, as well as a fiercely defended wooden structure that would no doubt contain weapons and supplies. The grating noise was even louder, originating from the direction of the base, but whatever was creating it could not be identified from this distance. What drew Burri’s interest was a fenced-in area set against the outer wall that also boasted a couple of guards. It was possible the Wir army was traveling with their own livestock, but it seemed more likely that such a pen was for captives or slaves. If there were any Katali men left alive, they would certainly be found there.
Cold despair tugged at his heart as he watched, chilling him along with the cool, damp ground that leeched the heat from his body. Regardless of their other shortcomings, the Wir had sentries who knew their business. Burri could detect no hole in their scheduled shifts where a man might find a blind spot on the wall while the guards were changing. He noted the men carried metal weapons, which astonished him. Could the lowlanders have grown so soft and decadent that they had even lost touch with their own Souls? Even so, Wadi had taught him that every warrior must know his limits, and even so poorly armed, two or three of the enemy tribesmen would have no trouble overcoming him if he were detected. As long as he lay there, he could think of only one other way.
The promises he had made to Fawl and his mother never even crossed his mind as Burri weighed what he would risk to get a closer look at that prison. He slid slowly downslope to give himself more room. There had never been any chance he would turn back until he saw the body of his Khan or his father, or at least heard the tale of their deaths. Climbing to his feet, he gave himself only a moment to flex his sore joints—knowing if he waited longer he’d risk being sighted, or worse losing his courage. One misstep on the treacherous ground would doom him. Blocking out all thoughts, but those of his love for his father, he launched himself towards the tip of the peak with all the speed he could muster and leaped out into the sky.
© 2007 Dan Devine
Original fiction debuting at Residential Aliens.
Dan Devine is a scientist by day and an aspiring science fiction author by night, though he'll write anything that pops into his head. For a short time he served as editor of Fools Motley Internet Magazine, but he recently decided to shut it down and focus on improving his own writing. He has since had stories published in Dark Fire, Afterburn SF, and Flash Tales Magazines. For more of Dan's stories, visit here.
Read The Pride of the Tribe, Part 2 in Issue 3 - September 2007.