\”Una,\” bade his mother, and Unaduti began again his plod.
They walked single in file, their heads bowed and hooded. Wardings on those cloaks kept their skin dry and fit, but this walking was never pleasant. There was Unaduti and his mother, Hialeah, his elder brother Dutu, their sister Usdi. Atop a wide, brown hill of grass, those as were able to saw the low plain below, sided with forests. Within those woods was their destination.
The file continued in sullen motion. This was their yearly journey off the hilltops, down to pay tribute to the Warfain. Dutu stooped with the burden of tribute, hides and tsola and dried meats. That burden lay heavy upon his back, but the responsibility remained his as eldest. Mother commanded it so. Why the journey was to be made in the fell Spring time, when rain was worst and rustler\’s made their season, Unaduti could not say — it simply was as it was.
When the hill broke and the descent began, he moved, backwards stepping, to support his brother. The treachery of the wet slope was best handled together. Dutu\’s soft shoes failed him, foot sliding from underneath, and Unaduti caught him, feet planted, steadying his brother. The first event behind them, it came time to resume.
The rain hid the sounds of their approach, those makers of evil. The trees were a smoke against their onset. A band of them, twelve in number, broke away from the shelter of the nearby woods, feet sliding through muddy earth, and came for the family. Dutu was setupon first, oldest and strongest. Two of the raiders strode forth as snakes, striking him with clubs, toppling him to be buried in rain. The offering pack, heavy laden, struck Unaduti who stood beside him, shoving him off into the stream.
Hialeah cried out, Usdi gasped, and arms, heavy and terrible, closed about them. So sudden was the attack that no look was given their assailants. Only Unaduti bore witness, casting a hateful gaze at them before the river swept him away. He saw twelve men in ragged cloaks and mismatched leathers, feral as the woods from which they sprang. Bold and desperate looks were in their faces. Excepting the one who had clubbed Dutu, they had no need to draw weapons. Two of them grabbed his elder brother by his ankles and dragged him into the woods, along with his mother and sister.
The river bore Unaduti away with wide, uncaring hands. Rapids drove him into rocks, the current gained speed, and he did not stop until the hill did and the river deposited him on the flat banks.
Lifting his body, will-resistant, took great effort. When he stood, he swayed. His cloak was heavy with water, his head bruised and swimming. But the forest awaited him without barrier, the forest of the Warfain.
Unaduti, his family, and those like them, were of peaceful temperament. Violence and war were foreign to them, their lives, and their culture. So the dealing of death fell to the Warfain when violence made itself known. The arrangement was time-worn. The folk of the mountain vales descended every thaw to the forest plains where dwelt the Warfain. Cruel men they were, but not without honor. Filthy, unlearned, god-less, and malicious, trained guard dogs fed on the hard winnings of the peaceful. And yet the proffered organization held and its practicality proved fruitful each year. Until now.
The Warfain had failed Unaduti now twiceover, and he would be the one to call them to arms, to drag them by their stinking beards to the den of those wolves as took his family, and see to it that theirs was the blood that fed the summer\’s planting.
He stumbled and held his side. Perhaps a broken rib was there, perhaps not; it mattered little where or when he had struck it on the river-ride that took him to the plains. Thoughts strayed into the clouds; body knew the way without them. He had paved this way with each spring, cutting down branches and blazing new trails where mud and wet had blanked out the old.
The sounds of drumming reached his ears, tree-bouncing across the forest. With it came new sounds, harsher sounds of men chanting in guttural tones. Only the fiercest and rawest of men joined the Warfain, plucked from their homes by the Sword-chooser each fall, young boys and, rarer, girls who showed no signs of obeissance and all a signs of conflict. The waves of their voices struck Unaduti like a shallow wave, tingling his nerves with power. Ferocity was in those songs and joy.
And then, as if from the very trees of the sun-kissed woods, a camp emerged. No, a very town, a city, full of fighters. Each seemed his neighbor\’s kin, all fur-covered and mailed, many bearing masked helms or animal skulls, beasts they had bested bare-handed. Unaduti was joyful, rather than fearful, to be among them; here were his protectors. And yet a frown covered his face. His protectors had failed.
If they took notice of him, none gave tell. The boy stepped among them, head turning this way and that, hoping for some sign of what came next. But none came. The Warfain, proud and tall, milled among him on their daily work of carousing and sparring and sharpening. Unaduti scratched his head and, without thought, shouted, \”Hail, Warfain!\”
The din of their songs and chatter lessened a little.
\”Hail, Warfain!\” he called again. \”I come among you with entreatment! I call you to fulfill the alliance by which we live!\”
The dogs slowed then, many turning their ears his way. The Sword-chooser was on errantry and there was no chieftain of the Warfain, no leader save the boldest of the day. This one stood forth, perhaps the only woman among them. She was Alsoome and she strode forward saying, \”And who are you to call us hence?\”
\”I am Unaduti,\” he said. \”Son of Hialeah. We have paid tribute all our lives to you and now we are in greatest need.\”
\”Your mother is known to me,\” said Alsoome, \”but who is your father?\”
Anger rose in Unaduti. The story told was that he was attacked as he worked in field, and the Warfain were not fast enough to save him. \”My father you failed,\” he said grimly. \”Let not my mother and sister and brother join him on that list, short as it may be.\”
A collective growl rose and shook the city of high-walled tents and tree houses. The Failed were not taken lightly by the Warfain, blemishes of disgust upon a stolid reputation. And yet some carried in them hardened hearts, made so by the shame of such tales and the brashness of young men entering their camp without call. One was Naalnish, and he spoke.
\”We do not hear you, boy.\”
\”Speak for yourself!\” cried Alsoome.
Before the argument could grow thicker, Unaduti, full of rage, drew a sword from its bin, there for the weapon-take, and clove a nearby pole in twain.
\”My family is in need!\” he shouted for all to hear. \”Honor your pact and save them, or shed your names, Warfain! I shall go in the stead of cowards.\”
Again a chorus of growls rose as one voice. The Warfain were not pleased.
\”Defend your words, boy!\” bellowed Naalnish, and he struck.
The first blow pushed Unaduti backwards, his sword-arm now stiff and surprised. He quickly regained his footing. Duty drove him, rage steadied him. The clang of their blows, sword on sword, rang within the camp. None moved. Not even good Alsoome would disrupt honored battle. When Naalnish struck high, Unaduti parried, when he struck low, he moved. But a warrior of renown overmatches a boy raised to till the earth, and his blows powered Unaduti to the ground. When the final strike, meant for his heart, launched from the shoulder of Naalnish, Unaduti slid and turned. His blade, destiny-guided, found its way into the belly of the warrior, who fell to the ground cursing.
A moment of silence. Only chirping birds dared show disrespect in the wake of death. And then the Warfain came to take Naalnish away, chanting and swaying. The body gone now, Alsoome stepped forth again and spoke to Unaduti, saying, \”We will go.\”
|Crazy awesome picture by Dan Dos Santos|