by Dan Devine
There had never been any chance Burri 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.
The scream of rushing air and the increasingly loud strange shrieks of sound coming from the encampment competed in cacophony for his attention as he fell from the sky.
He knew at once that he had jumped well and would bridge the distance to the other hill, but while this would spare him the most painful outcome, it by no means meant he was safe. The fear remained that if he landed too low on the wall to grab hold of its top edge, then the guards would find and kill him—that is, if the crash did not. Even if his aim was true, he might still be too injured by the impact to pull himself over the wall.
As the camp grew larger and larger with horrifying velocity, it rapidly came to his attention that these were not his most pressing concerns. He would clear the wall entirely, but pass so high above it that it would be beyond his reach to grasp the edge and use it to slow or direct his fall.
Panic strove to overtake him as his mind filled with visions of dropping like a stone into the middle of a tent filled with unfriendly soldiers. He fought to remain in some semblance of control.
The wind was stronger than he had realized, and it had pushed him slightly offline so that he passed over the corner of the fenced in area that was his goal. This close up he saw that it was actually more of a cage, made out of many layers of some sort of metal mesh.
What mattered was it was within arms length, and likely the last thing he’d be able to get his hands on before he made an uncontrolled landing. His hands slid along the mesh, becoming slippery with blood from the dozens of deep cuts sliced open by the metal wires as he sought purchase. Finally, he got enough of a grip to pull his body down to slide along the side of the cage. It skinned his knees and scraped skin from his legs as bits of his clothing snagged and ripped apart in the holes of the mesh.
Only sheer force of will kept him from screaming at the top of his lungs in pain. Perhaps the effort was pointless, since he was probably already creating too much of a commotion to go unnoticed. The friction of the contact gradually slowed him. He had a last impression of some shocked faces staring up at him from inside the pen, thought he might recognize some of them, and then tumbled off the mesh and landed with a painful thump in a sort of alley between the cage and a neighboring tent.
The collision knocked all of the wind out of him, and he could do nothing but lay on the ground and wheeze as a voice called out in a strange lowlander accent.
“Hey! What was that?”
“That was me, that’s what that was!” roared the unmistakable voice of Khan Tulbig. Burri could hear him striking the mesh of the pen in a weak imitation of the sound he must have made when he struck it from above. Despite the poor acting, Tulbig’s rumbling speech carried an energy that demanded attention.
“I demand to see your superior! I am hereby making an official protest! My people deserve better treatment. You Wir are no longer fit to call yourselves a clan! No true warrior would ever make another his slave. Nor treat him with the disrespect that has been inflicted upon us. We are poorly fed and clothed, and constantly chained to ensure our lives have no comfort. Treat us with honor or slay us, but we will not endure this insult!”
“The whip will teach you what you can endure, barbarian!” barked a second heavily Wir-accented speaker. It was followed abruptly by the sharp retort of a lash against the meshwork. Tulbig hissed in pain.
The Khan’s tirade had helped cover the jingling sound as a few men had shuffled their backs up against the wall of the pen in front of Burri so that he would not be visible to anyone looking through the cage. This was not an easy feat, as the men’s arms and legs were chained together behind their backs, and they could only drag themselves along awkwardly on their knees.
Without turning to face him, one of the men gave a harsh whisper, barely audible above that constant unnatural screeching.
“Quickly, get to the shadows between the wall and corner of the pen.”
Burri did not hesitate, he instantly forced his beaten body into the dark area where the wall brushed up against the back of the cage. No sooner had he slumped down in the shadows than a guard peeked his head around the corner of the pen to look towards where he had been lying. He glanced suspiciously at the three men huddled close together.
“Hey, what’s up with you three then? Why the party?”
“It’s a cold night, this spot’s a bit out of the wind, and we’re not too proud to share body heat.”
Burri instantly recognized the voice of his father. It pitched down into a conspiratorial whisper.
“And between you and me, it’s better not to be near the Khan when he’s in a temper.”
The guard sneered at them. “You cowards seem almost intelligent, I bet you’ll make the best slaves of the bunch.”
Burri almost jumped out of his skin when a man called out from directly above him.
“Everything alright there, Trish?”
“Yeah, big man’s making a ruckus again. I’ll be glad when we’ve sold him off to lose some weight on a rowing vessel.”
“Won’t be so much longer now.”
Soft footsteps trailed away and the sentry continued on his rounds. Ice ran along Burri’s spine. If the man had happened to look straight down…
Trish noticed the scuff marks in the sand where the boy had landed, and was just beginning to step towards them when Tulbig burst into another angry monologue.
“Get over here, Trishib! It looks like I’m going to have to go inside and administer a little instructional punishment!” called the other guard from the far side of the cage.
“Coming!” said Trish. He swung about with a real look of glee dancing in his eyes.
“Stay where you are!” growled a Katali named Quirin, who happened to be closest to Burri’s corner of the cage. “If you lay flat they’ll be too focused on their fun to notice you. I will let you know when it is safe to go and speak to Wadi.”
Of all the things Burri had endured so far, the hardest was to stay still as the Wir moved about inside the pen, a sword and one hand and a whip in the other, lashing the Katali and laughing at their pain. At one point, the man was standing no further then a few feet from him, but as Quirin had predicted he was too focused on his torture by then to notice anything else around him.
Burri did his best to ignore the sounds that followed and pretend they were just part of the terrible keening noise that constantly split the air of this camp. Eventually, it was over, and Quirin checked the walls around the pen for sentries then waved him over to talk to his father.
Burri tiptoed back to where Wadi was hunched. This time the three turned their heads to regard him.
“Apparently, I raised a suicidal fool. No sane warrior would try a stunt like that.” Normally his father’s words would have stung, but even his dry tone could not hide the grinning pride beneath the statement. The other two warriors nodded their head in approval.
“Father, I...” Burri choked on a rush of strong emotions, and found he knew not what to say.
“I know,” replied Wadi sagely, saving him from his confusion. “But for now you must listen, then act quickly.”
“We ambushed the Wir and killed many, but before we could take them all they realized the danger and activated their wailing machine.” He inclined his head to the side, presumably to indicate the source of the shrieking. “I cannot fathom how it works, but no man can form a Soulsword while it can be heard.”
Burri concentrated on calling his sword into being. He was astonished to find his father was right, the fluctuating sound somehow distracted him and kept him from maintaining his focus. He could muster no more than a fizzle of light.
“You see?” continued Wadi. “It affects the Wir as well, but since they were carrying metal weapons and we were not, we suddenly found ourselves defenseless against them."
"I gather the machine is housed in the main storage tent. Even if you destroyed it, we are intentionally trussed in a way to make summoning our swords useless. Worse, the guards claimed this mesh was designed to be difficult to hack through were we to shed our chains. You’ll need to find a way to trick or overcome the guards in order to release us.”
“I’m afraid to say slaying them seems the more logical decision, since even if you stole their keys, you’d still need to be able to get by them to open the pen and our bindings.”
Burri felt a half-formed idea tickling at the back of his brain.
“Father, I will find a way to free you and our people! I already have the seeds of a plan. I think I will have to leave this camp and return, however, and I will need a way back in.”
Wadi thought for a moment, then nodded.
“Return tomorrow, as soon as the darkness is thick enough to cloak you. We will create an even louder diversion that will draw the attention of many of the sentries.” He pointed further along the wall. “The Wir have foolishly failed to cut down all the trees whose branches border the perimeter wall. If you are fast, and you time it properly, you should be able to climb them and pass over the wall without being detected.”
“The pen guards will begin to circle the cage now, so you had better hurry along. Climb the wall here and sprint downhill to the tree-cover as fast as your legs will take you. And fear not son. Win or lose, we have all seen that the fire of a true Katali burns within your heart. In comparison to that, the final outcome is irrelevant.”
Burri simply nodded to his father and the others. To attempt speech would be to risk bursting into unmanly tears.
The boy put his feet against the bottom of the wall and his back against the corner of the cage. While the Katali warriors broke into a rousing chorus of a bawdy drinking song, he used his strong legs to slide up along the pen to a point where he could reach the walkway along the inside of the wall. This process left a number of agonizing abrasions along his back, but he figured these were nominal in comparison to the bruises and hairline fractures he’d probably received upon landing.
The wooden palisade was not so high as to be dangerous to hop down from, and as he landed he formed into a ball so that his momentum merely rolled him further downhill towards his goal. Within seconds, he was back on his feet and moving at top speed. An instant later he had his back to a pine near the bottom of the Drum, lungs heaving so violently he feared they might turn inside out.
He recovered his breath before he heard any sounds of pursuit, and he did not wait around to be discovered by a patrol. He had less than a day to find what he needed.
Burri returned at sunset as his father had instructed, and found himself wondering what his heavily bound clansmen could have accomplished to create such a disruption. Only half the sentries were at their stations on the perimeter wall, and even they were paying far more attention to the slave pen than their duties.
The boy crouched on a broad branch that overgrew the wall, and inched out slowly and silently, trying not to catch anyone’s notice. The process of sneaking back into the Wir camp was much more difficult in practice than his father’s curt explanation had made it sound. Still, instead of the terror he had expected to experience, he found Wadi’s training for the hunt once more guided him. Rather than being paralyzed by fear, he was filled with the familiar confident concentration of a predator sneaking up on his quarry.
He glanced down, and mentally said a prayer of thanks to the gods as he realized his good fortune. Directly below him was a stack of wooden crates.
They were piled high enough that he was able to lower himself onto them from the branch, rather than jumping down, which made staying quiet much easier.
He quickly surveyed his surroundings, and found that this location seemed relatively deserted. Whatever sort of loading or unloading transpired here apparently occurred only during the day. Shifting some crates, he created a small crevice where he could peek out at the activities within the camp while remaining unseen. He lay in wait there, calming himself and allowing the base itself to fall back into a more relaxed state. There would be no point in charging towards the caged Katali while the entire camp was staring in their direction.
An hour passed, and the sentries returned to their usual patrol schedules. Burri gave them another hour to regain their boredom and the lulling impression that nothing else exciting was going to happen tonight. Finally, he slipped out of his hiding place and made his way towards the prisoners’ pen. He kept his head and eyes moving constantly, alert for any movement within the base, aware of the guards along the wall who might turn towards the interior at the wrong moment. He kept his back flush against the tents as much as possible and crept forward sideways, hoping he wouldn’t be noticed immediately by someone approaching along the path.
He was forced into a much less direct route than he had desired. Twice people began to emerge from tent flaps along the way, and he had to hurry onto another path between the pavilions. Once he saw a half dozen warriors walking straight towards him, and he had to backtrack and circle around to cross the road behind them after they had passed.
Regardless, he reached his destination undetected. The boy approached the slaves’ cage with extreme caution, wanting to be sure he’d see the guards there before they saw him, but he need not have worried. Whatever the Katali had done to aid Burri’s break-in had infuriated their watchers. It was a different pair than he had encountered last evening, but they took no less pride in keeping their slaves in line.
One man, a huge hairy brute who must have been half again as tall as Burri, was inside the cage dealing with the Katali. The boy could see the thick muscles of his neck knotting as he screamed and spit obscenities at the clansmen. This disciplinarian was using a knife rather than a whip. He was clearly taking care to make his blows painful rather than permanently damaging, but there was already ample blood soaking the ground inside the pen.
The man’s shorter, skinnier partner was blocking the entrance to the cage, but he was turned and watching the slaves to ensure that none of them made a break for the opening. Something in his demeanor told the boy that he was concerned his companion was about to lose control of his temper and begin inflicting more serious wounds on their charges.
Burri’s stealth failed him at the last, key moment. Even amidst the torturer's yelling, the man in the doorway heard something. He turned at the youth’s approach, raising his sword, and began to voice a challenge.
Burri could not risk the man alerting reinforcements, so he called his Soulsword into being will the full force of his will. It appeared so quickly, he almost fumbled it in surprise. The blade was an enormous broadsword of simple construction. It was a weapon for killing, not ceremony (Fawl had once denounced it as artless and brutish during their lessons). The sword was as transparent as well made glass, defined only by the vague suggestion of an outline, but it glowed with a subdued inner light of the purest white.
The Soulsword sliced through the blade of iron as if it were passing though parchment and cleanly severed the neck that lay within its path. The only sound that escaped the man was a soft gasp, which not even the Wir within the cage detected.
The boy did not hesitate to consider what he had done, but stepped immediately inside the pen, betting the other guard's preoccupation with torture would grant him surprise. The thug felt a presence at his back and spun, knife held out before him, his look of anger turning to surprise on his ugly face as he realized it wasn’t his partner coming to rein him in.
The man’s free hand moved to draw his sword, and Burri was watching it so closely, he didn’t realize that the man had thrown his knife until too late.
The Wir had done it with barely a flick of his wrist, and the boy cursed his opponent’s skill as he raised the flat of his blade to deflect it, knowing he’d never move his arms fast enough to knock it away.
The Soulsword made contact with the handle, and it veered just far enough from its deadly course to imbed itself in his left shoulder. Burri just gritted his teeth against the pain and surged forward. His opponent had drawn a nasty looking serrated cutlass out of its scabbard, and was smart enough to know it would be useless to take a defensive posture. The Wir lunged for Burri’s throat. At the same moment he stepped forward to take a wide sweeping cut that would cleave the man in half if it connected.
It was a near thing.
The Soulsword sang through the air and slammed brutally into its target. The force of the blow stopped Burri’s enemy in his tracks, jarring his sword point to a stop inches from the youth’s throat. Burri gulped and stared at the tip of the weapon. For a moment, he was too stunned to move. If the nature of his personality had been different, if his Soulsword presented as a smaller blade...
Quirin nudged him in the side and broke the spell. The pain in his shoulder was suddenly intense. His sleeve was soaked in blood.
All the Katali were clamoring at him in agitation. Of course, he couldn’t hear a thing they were saying. He was deft enough with his sword that he freed each prisoner with a few swipes of the blade, rather than wasting precious time to search the guards for the key.
He untied a bag from his side, and began passing out what he had spent so long yesterday searching all over the hills for and collecting.
“The sheathe of the pogrout seed,” he explained with a grin. “Protecting the Katali tribe’s hearing since the first midwife was faced with a squealing sickly babe.”
The others smiled back and nodded in understanding, as they began stuffing their own ears. He saw Tulbig turn to Wadi, and thought the word the Khan mouthed might have been ‘brilliant.’
The clansmen were used to hunting skittish prey, and acting together without speech would be no difficulty for them. Tulbig began giving hand signals to move warriors into position. Someone pulled the knife from the boy’s shoulder and tied it tightly in strips of cloth. He hardly seemed to notice.
Burri unblocked one of his ears and gave his father the sign for “What now?”
Wadi bared his teeth in savage amusement.
“Were you thinking we might flee? Now that we have our Soulswords back we’re going to take this base from the Wir. We’ll start with their damned machine.”
“So you can destroy it?” Burri spoke carefully, so his father would be able to read his lips.
Wadi ruffled the boy’s hair with his hand, like he used to when good-naturedly chastising him for giving the wrong answer during a lesson.
“Of course not, son! They don’t have seed sheathes, so we’re going to make sure no one who thinks of it has a chance to shut it off. Then we’ll teach them the folly of trading their souls for iron.”
It had been fourteen days now since the men of the tribe headed off to war against the Wir. They returned triumphant to their safe new home in the swamps. What Fawl and Batsha had built was not expansive, but then the tribe was sadly smaller now.
Still, none could doubt that there was now one more man among them.
© 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 1.
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