tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 06

Demon Child Ch. 06


Chapter 6: A new mission, myths and mounts.

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Her night was filled with dreams, dreams of flying across the land, the roar of hooves pounding. She galloped across the grass once more in the form of the white mare, but now she flew over the grass alone, her head high, alert. There was something she was looking for, something beyond the horizon. The wind in the grass spoke to her, calling her, promising her that what she sought was there, far to the north.

Neekah woke her head still echoing with the rhythms of hooves in the grass. She tipped her head and tried to hear the wind, but all she heard were the sounds of the camp waking. Warrior's voices speaking softly, Kwal'kek loudly ordering the first years about, chastising them about their appearance and something called Jhang Mak.

Neekah carefully pulled on her pretty dress and looked longingly at the blue scarf. Jhardron told her to not cover her hair, but it was difficult. Her hair had always been a symbol of her difference. And now, the events of yesterday had once more proved that she was different. She was a demon and the magic she found in herself made her afraid. She wanted to hide the thing inside her as much as she wanted to hide her flaming hair.

Once more she looked at the scarf, but Jhardron was Khan and she shared the sense of the obedience and respect that the Twisted Dagger warriors felt toward him. She left the blue cloth folded neatly on her sleeping mat.

Kwal'kek had all the first years lined up and was marching back and forth in front of them. "Jhang Mak is a game of speed and brains. It is a game of youth. I am confident that the Twisted Dagger first year warriors will represent their regiment with honor and courage." Neekah could see that one of the first years was holding a leather ball, the same ball they played catch with as they traveled with the wagons.

"You will be playing against the Ghost Rider Regiment this morning. Do not be eliminated in the first round. I did not bet in the loser's bracket and I have some money to make back after losing so much at the race yesterday." The boys laughed and one asked how much Kwal'kek had bet on them winning. "Too much, you pup. If you lose, you will work hard to ease my sadness over my empty coin purse."

Neekah could tell the boys were proud that their teacher had the confidence to bet on them. She sensed their resolve.

Kwal'kek turned to her. "Ha'akh, you are to stay in camp. Your sickness is too recent for you to walk about." Neekah was relieved, the crowds around the games were bewildering and the stress of their emotions preyed on her mind. He pulled her to one side and spoke in a low voice. "Do not speak of the magic. Do not use magic. Obey Jhardron."

Neekah nodded solemnly as he continued, "Tim'kah will stay in the camp. Come with me to the latrines. I do not want you to leave camp without a full warrior carrying your rope."

Neekah followed him to the latrines and quickly finished her business. She tensed when she recognized the warrior that had put his hands on her the morning before, but he very carefully kept his eyes averted as he dug a new trench, carefully covering the offal in a filled trench. Kwal'kek chuckled and spoke to her softly, "The Broken Spear Khan is a harsh man. Not only is this a lowly duty for a warrior, but his shame is displayed for all to see."

The camp was deserted except for Tim'kah and Neekah. Neekah could feel the desolation that flooded the boy's heart. The last place he wanted to be was here with her. She tried to talk to him, "Ha'akh sorry for fighting."

He looked at her and shrugged, his face stoic, revealing nothing of the pain in his heart. "It is nothing." Neekah did not speak of it again, wanting to leave him with his pride.

Neekah busied herself washing her stained shift in a bucket of water. Not wanting to soil her new dress, she changed into the wet garment so it could dry as she worked around the camp. The damp cloth made the hot sun of the day less oppressive. She watched over the food that cooked over low fires for the midday meal. She shook out and aired both her and Kwal'kek's bedding and swept the hard packed earth around the tents.

The returning group of warriors and first years tore apart the peace of the camp. Their war cries and shouts of jubilation made it clear that they had been victorious. Tim'kah joined their celebration, beating his friends on the back and ululating along with them. Kwal'kek was strutting around like a proud father.

The mood of the camp was loud and raucous throughout the midday meal. There was a lot of talk about the next match, where the Twisted Dagger would compete against the Broken Spear.

As the time for the next match approached, the whole camp was practically vibrating with excitement. Neekah wondered why it seemed like she was having more trouble shielding her mind from the emotions around her. It had never been like this when she had been at the camp in the Ramaldi valley. She wondered if it was this place or maybe the games.

Neekah watched with relief as the first years and warriors mounted and rode away. It wasn't until they were gone that she realized that Tim'kah had gone with them and that Klektor was left in camp. He sat in front of one of the warrior tents, his eyes on the tall red stallion that stood tethered next to the lame stallion.

Neekah busied herself cleaning the bowls from the noon meal and then, picking up her rope, she approached him. "Please walk water. Please, want fill buckets?" He looked up and nodded. Neekah put the rope over her head and he tied the other end to his belt. Neekah picked up two buckets and headed to the lake, a small thought in her head that it seemed she was leading him rather than the opposite. She sensed little from him, just a feeling of watchfulness.

She made a lot of trips before all the buckets of the camp were filled with fresh water. Neekah was hot and sweating. On the last trip she turned and asked, "Bath?" He just shrugged and nodded. She quickly waded out, not bothering to take off the shift. It was very hot and the wet cloth would help keep her cool in the still air of the afternoon.

As she carried the last two buckets of water to the camp, Klektor spoke to her for the first time. "Ha'akh, you cast a magic spell on my horse."

Neekah looked at him warily. "No talk magic."

"But you did. I saw him. He was tame under your hand."

Neekah shook her head vigorously, "Jhardron say no talk magic." She tried to turn and walk away from him but he held her rope short in his hand. She stood with her back to him, her head down, holding the two heavy buckets in her hands, her wet shift clinging to her skin. "Please walk camp." Her voice was soft and pleading.

Klektor did not speak again, walking with her to the camp. Neekah could sense his frustration. She went and moved a skin into the shade on one side of Kwal'kek's tent and sat down. She could feel his eyes on her. She was careful to avoid his eyes.

It was not long before she could see his feet before her. The rope dangled in his hand. "Ha'akh, come." Neekah looked up, her eyes wary. She stood and he dropped the rope over her head. She looked up nervously. Kwal'kek had said for her to stay in camp, but she also knew she should obey the man left in charge of her. Klektor turned on his heel and strode toward the horses. Klektor untethered the stallion and, as the horse began to dance and sidestep, vaulted into the saddle. He looked down at her and held out his hand. "No talk, ride."

Neekah was electrified. All thought of staying in camp gone from her mind. She held out her hand and was up behind Klektor in an instant, her arms tight around his waist. She could feel the tension and terror radiating up through the skin of the stallion at this new experience. She struggled to pull her mind away from the stallion's and then they were flying. A soft cry of excitement broke from her lips. She was one with the horse. She could see through the horse's eyes, feel its heart beating like her own. The sheer joy of the run intoxicated her. It drained away the fear.

Neekah was simultaneously aware of riding and being ridden, she sent her thoughts of joy and gratitude to the stallion. "This is what you are for. This is your destiny." Neekah was so immersed in the experience she was not even aware she was talking to the horse, making magic.

Neekah was dizzy with excitement as they flew over the grass. They were on the hill overlooking the camps below. Far in the distance, she could see the crowds around the Jhang Mak competition. The red stallion ran like the wind.

The big horse was breathing hard and covered with sweat when they returned to the empty camp. Klektor lowered her to the ground and then slipped to stand beside her. The stallion stood still, his deep breaths the only sound. Klektor was looking intensely at her. Neekah could tell he was aroused, but she also could tell he was struggling with himself. She looked at him with sadness in her eyes and in a soft voice repeated, "No talk magic."

Neekah touched the neck of the big stallion. She turned and walked to a bucket of water. She handed it to Klektor. "He thirsty." She turned and walked to the skin she had moved to the shade and sat down, looking out across the lake.

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Klektor held the bucket to the horse and as the horse sucked the water up he ran his hand up the side of its neck. For the first time, the skittish red stallion did not shy from his touch. The Demon horse curiously stretched its nose to him and blew softly, then turned its large brown eyes and gazed at the girl sitting still with her back to them.

Klektor returned to his seat, his eyes shifting between the girl and the sweat stained stallion. He wondered what power this woman had over him and this stallion that had resisted each time he rode him. He could feel between his knees the change in the horse as soon as the girl was seated behind him. The horse had not fought his hand, he responded to his knee and touch like a horse long trained.

The big animal's sudden composure was a sharp contrast to his own feelings of confusion and lust. He could still feel the imprint of her lithe form pressed against his back.

The Bak warrior cults only grudgingly acknowledged the existence of magic. Those that openly spoke of it were considered superstitious and possibly even daft. Never before had Klektor believed in magic. He still did not know if this was magic, but this strange looking girl certainly had power over his horse and he wondered if she had a power over him as well.

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The wild exultation of the first year warriors, as the rode up from the Jhang Mak final, shook Neekah's mind. She remained seated and watched the celebrating boys with a wide smile. They busied themselves, caring for their exhausted horses, talking in loud excited voices, reliving the spectacular catches and saves that led them to their victory. Even as they carefully groomed their mounts, they still tossed the leather ball, the jhang, back and forth amongst themselves. Casually catching and throwing the jhang, their hands reaching and grabbing the ball from the air with thoughtless automatic grace of long practice.

The main bulk of the warriors arrived at the camp after the boys, walking around the lake. Neekah found herself watching them as they approached, her eyes unconsciously searching for Jhardron, a sense of nervous guilt over her having used magic making her lips quiver.

Both Kwal'kek and Jhardron were conspicuously absent. Neekah busied herself helping serve the evening meal, her eyes down, focused on her task. Enjoying the banter between the warriors and the first years, there seemed to be something they were teasing the boys about, but Neekah did not understand. She did sense that the jubilation of the victory was quickly being overshadowed with dread, determination, and an eager anticipation. Something was going to happen, something the boys both feared and were wildly excited about.

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The camp fell silent when Jhardron and Kwal'kek approached. Kwal'kek carried a large leather bag the let out a loud metallic clash as he dropped it in front of the Khan's tent.

Jhardron stood before his men. "These first year warriors have brought another victory to the Twisted Dagger. Come forward and stand before me." As the group of six teenagers stood at attention before him, he raised his fist in salute to them. The warriors standing in a semicircle around the boys and their Khan raised their fists and saluted as well.

"You each have proven you have the heart of a Twisted Dagger warrior. You have earned your warrior's scimitars today." The surrounding warriors began to move closer to the youths in the middle of the circle. Neekah watched in confusion as the warriors took the boys in their hands, holding their arms wide. "A warrior's scimitar needs to be washed in his blood. It must become bonded to him. Let your blades taste your blood."

Neekah's eyes were locked on Tim'kah. He was being held up and off his feet by three warriors. One stood behind with his arms under Tim'kah's, pinning the boys shoulders back, forcing him to thrust out his chest, lifting him up and off his toes. Two more held his arms, their legs pinning his legs back. Neekah could see all first years were gripped in the same manner. The whole camp sizzled with tension. Neekah felt like she could not breathe, that the air she pulled into her lungs held no life for her; she found herself gasping.

Kwal'kek lifted the bag he had carried to the camp and up turned it over the skin in front of the Khan's tent. A confusion of flashing scimitars cascaded out. Jhardron spoke one last time. "This will not be the last time you will face pain. You are Twisted Dagger. You will prove yourselves brave today. I will be proud to have you fight by my side."

Kwal'kek picked up two shining scimitars and approached Tim'kah. "Nephew you will become a man today. I am proud to see this day." He uncorked a vial of liquid and rubbed a generous handful over the chest and stomach of the boy and, lifting one of the scimitars, made a careful cut high on Tim'kah's chest and then another below it and then another further down. Each slice about two inches long and evenly spaced, he continued down, making a row of parallel bleeding gashes down the length of the boys chest.

Neekah reeled back. Tim'kah had not moved or made a sound. The only evidence that he was in pain was a tightening around his eyes and his lips pressed together. But Neekah could hear the screams echoing in his head, his and the other boys'.

Not one of the boys made a sound as they endured their initiation. Neekah knew of initiations, the Ramaldi boys went through a time of testing, but it did not include this cutting, this blood. She could see that this was the source of the scarring that decorated every warrior of the Bak Tai.

The agony of the boys swirled through her. She knew, if she could not block it out, she would faint or go mad. She staggered back and found herself leaning against the tall red stallion, Klektor's Demon horse. Instantly, she found an island of peace. She did not lose herself in the horse's mind, but she could sense him clearly and, at the same time, the waves of pain she sensed from the young men were somehow muted. From her refuge she watched.

Kwal'kek finished one row and taking the liquid he rubbed it over the open, bleeding cuts. The liquid seemed to staunch the bleeding. He nodded in approval of Tim'kah's bravery and picked up the second scimitar and began to make a new row on the opposite side of the boy's chest. He was very careful to make the cuts an exact mirror image of those already done.

The warrior doing the cutting worked quickly. It was not long before the warriors holding the young warriors released them and the boys staggered on their feet trying to stand at attention. One boy sagged to his knees, but he was helped to stand. Neekah was proud that Tim'kah did not fall. They stood swaying on weak legs, facing Jhardron, each grasping in their hands the bloody swords that had so recently inflicted dozens of wounds upon their body.

Jhardron had pride in his voice. "You are boys no longer. You are full warriors of the Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. Serve your regiment and serve your Khans. Great honor will be yours. I welcome you, warriors of the Twisted Dagger." Neekah could sense the overwhelming sense of pride that radiated from Tim'kah and the other young men. She shyly approached and looked at the cuts on his chest. All the bleeding had stopped. Neekah looked at the vial of liquid that Kwal'kek had used. "What this medicine?"

Kwal'kek was always eager to teach her about the medicines he used. "We call it Warrior's Blood. It is a mixture of herbs. I do not know the names of them. I am not an alchemist. It stems bleeding, numbs pain, and will cause the scars to stand up from the skin. It also makes the wounds heal without fever and stink. It is invaluable for wounds of battle, for those can fester easily." Neekah nodded and sniffed the oily liquid and then tasted it carefully, spitting the bitter flavor from her mouth once she became familiar with it.

The mood of the camp was joyful, but slightly subdued. The boys did none of their normal duties, but lay resting quietly on their backs. As the sun sank in the evening sky, Neekah looked up and smiled happily as she recognized a group of five warriors approaching her, smiles of anticipation making their faces light up. Neekah laughed in delight and held her hands out to them, already feeling their needs adding to her own.

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The next morning, Neekah softly touched the two tiny gold beads that added to her necklace, thinking that each addition was a memory. All she needed to do was touch the necklace and remember the feelings of ecstasy, but it was more than ecstasy, it was connection. Not once, since her capture by the Twisted Dagger, had she felt the horrible ache of aloneness that had been central to her existence in the Ramaldi camp.

The warriors were taking down the tents and packing them on the wagons, but there was none of the urgency of the last time the camp was moved. Tim'kah and the other new initiates were helping, but Neekah could tell they moved slowly and carefully to avoid opening their freshly scabbed wounds. Kwal'kek moved among them doling out a fresh coating of the Warrior's Blood, to soften the scabs and ease their pain.

"Where we go now?" Neekah asked Kwal'kek.

"It is not a ha'akh's business to wonder where we go. It is her duty to follow and obey." Neekah thought that Kwal'kek probably did not know; it was too much his nature to share information and teach for him to be secretive.

As the last wagons were loaded, Jhardron rode up on his new stallion. He had traded much to replace the black he had given as a prize to Harnum. It was a tall gray with a black mane and tail, and showed promise to be a fine war horse. On a rope, he led a small red mare behind him. "Kwal'kek it is time for the ha'akh to learn to ride. You say she does not like to ride in the wagon. I got this little horse in my trade for my new stallion. Like Klektor's Demon horse, she has the same red color as our wild color girl, but none of its wild spirit. It will be a good mount for her to learn with. Our ha'akh seems to have a way with horses. I suspect she will learn quickly."

Neekah watched and listened to this exchange. Her heart raced with excitement, a horse of her own to ride. She looked at Jhardron with huge eyes and a tremulous smile and then looked at the red horse standing patiently at the end of the rope, looking curiously around the camp with large brown eyes. The red mare was wearing a simple saddle and bridle. It was rare for a horse to be traded or gifted without tack.

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