tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 12

Demon Child Ch. 12


Demon Child: Chapter 12 Ramaldi Gold

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At first light the warriors led their horses up the steep winding path and made their way further west following the highlands looking out over the sea. It was slow going through the twisted forest and they did not find another way down the tall cliffs. Each day Aylanna rode at the back of the column listening to the wind swirl and whistle through the tree branches. Each night she resumed her duties of serving the warriors, blessing them with her magic and then would return to sleep at Jhardron's side. No more dreams haunted her nights and the Khan did nothing more than hold her close to share his warmth with her in the night.

There was a subdued mood pervading the regiment. It was like the trees pressing close on either side of the riders, shutting out the horizon, were wearing on their spirits. Finally Jhardron took one last long look out across the ocean from the lip of the tall cliff and then gave the order to head south. The further they traveled from the sea, the forest became less dense and the more quickly they could travel, and the more their spirits seemed to expand. Aylanna could sense that her warriors were creatures of the wide open spaces.

Once the regiment was free to move quickly, Jhardron pushed them to move faster, impatient to reunite with the wagons. The warriors pushed their mounts to a ground eating trot and Aylanna soon found that fatigue was her greatest enemy. It was exhausting to ride at that bone jarring rhythm and each night she almost staggered through her duties. Several times the scouts returned reporting finding the signs of human passage. A large party, the scouts estimated easily over a hundred, had moved across the grasslands on foot, leaving behind abandoned camps, odd discarded objects like clothing, household items, latrines, and on one occasion an abandoned wagon with a broken wheel and the remains of a carcass of a horse that had been butchered for its flesh.

This news had made Jhardron frown and speak rapidly, quietly with Jhu'kresh and his other lieutenants about something that Aylanna could not quite hear, but their mood was clear. This was not something they feared, their mood was that of a hunting hound, finally scenting his prey.

Then the scouts returned, with disturbing news. They had found the track of wagons, the Bak wagons, but there were other tracks with them as well. A number of tracks of men on foot had followed along with Kwal'kek and the boys herding the horse herd. The scout said that the footsteps of the men were mixed with the Bak horsemen so that they were clearly traveling together. The ominous news was that the wagons had turned south and were no longer on a path toward the original rendezvous point.

Jhardron's face had turned grim and the regiment had mounted up. If Aylanna had thought the pace was punishing before, she learned what true speed was now. The warriors flew across the grass, leaning low over their mounts. Xin'sha was hard pressed to keep up, but Aylanna had caught the fevered tension of the warriors, and leaned low, communicating with the little mare, pleading with her to do her best. And the little mare had shown her heart, straining to keep up the pace of the taller, stronger stallions.

When the little mare finally began to falter and fall behind, Klektor had pulled alongside on his big red stallion. He looked at the sweat streaked little mare and reached for Aylanna pulling her to sit behind him on the faster, stronger stallion, easing the mare's burden. As he kicked the stallion back into a canter, Aylanna wrapped her arms around his waist and yelled into his ear. "What is it that has happened?"

His voice carried back to her over the pounding of the hooves, "Only the gods know for sure, but there was rumor of bandits and Ramaldi refugees at the gathering. Kwal'kek would not have turned south without the Khan's orders. He would never have done that voluntarily, there is something wrong. Now hold tight, ha'akh, there will be no respite until we have our quarry in our grasp."

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As the regiment came over the crest of a low hill, Kwal'kek, Tollarra and the youths were not alone. Nearly two dozen adult men and youths in grasslands herders garb were walking alongside the wagons. At the sound of the pounding hooves they turned to face the charging regiment, gripping spears and bows in their hands.

The regiment swept down, the hooves of the sweat streaked horses thundering. Klektor moved his mount close beside Xin'sha and Aylanna made the shift back to the mare's saddle with an alacrity that made her grin in surprise. She turned to him to exclaim her triumph at her success performing the tricky rider's move that she had watched the boys do repeatedly as they had practiced for the games, but he was already gone. Tim'kah was there instead, his face grim with determination. He reached for the little mare's reins and held her back. Aylanna looked around and realized that he was holding back, waiting on the crest next to Jhardron. The rest of the riders never slowed in their advance, charging down toward the wagon and at the last minute, veering to one side, swirling around and surrounding the wagons and the strangers.

Only then did Jhardron advance and Tim'kah followed close behind leading Aylanna on her mare. Kwal'kek raised his hand in greeting, his old voice bellowing that they were late, that he had expected them days ago. He shouted out that he had thought maybe the demons had eaten them for a snack or stolen them across the sea. He kicked his heavy old stallion into a canter and came up to meet his Khan. As he approached, he gestured broadly at the strangers, this time his voice pitch low for his Khan's ears only, "You can see we've picked up a bit of an escort. So far they haven't made a move and your orders are not to attack unless provoked, but there is a bad smell about them."

Jhardron nodded, never taking his eyes off the strangers, riding closer. Aylanna could sense a tension among these men, a wary, almost angry watchfulness. A foreboding made the hair on her neck prickle. The strangers had gathered into a knot and were talking rapidly to one another in furtive whispers. Jhardron's voice was wary, "Do they have a leader?"

Kwal'kek cleared his throat and spat, "There is one that does most of the talking. He says they are hunters from the Bitter Grass Eaters tribe," the old warrior nodded toward the wagons and Tollarra perched there, watching, "...but the ha'akh says they are not really from that tribe. She says they do not have the right tattoo marks on their faces. She thinks they may be from some stragglers from the Ramaldi but she says they speak the grasslands dialect so she is not sure."

The old warrior gripped the handle of one of his scimitars, "I think they thought they had found a fat bird for the taking, a horse herd and wagons guarded only by a half dozen youths an old man and a woman. They would have been sorely surprised. The only reason they live now is your orders."

The corner of Jhardron's mouth twitched but his eyes were serious, "Without question. And now the fat bird has grown many heads." He cast a sharp eye on the group, "And yet, I still have my orders. Perhaps we will let these hunters snare themselves. Have the demon come and speak for me."

Aylanna rode beside Jhardron as he reined his grey stallion closer to the group of supposed grassland hunters. Jhardron never once took his eyes off the men as he spoke, "Tell them to have their leader come forth and speak for them."

As she translated the words, a heavyset man with a lazy eye spoke up. "I am leader." His words reeked of falsehood.

Aylanna wrinkled up her nose in distaste. She spoke clearly, "You lie." Casting her eyes around the group, she pointed a quivering finger at another, tall slender man. "You are the leader. Why do you hide?"

There was a visible stir among the men. One even went so far as to pull a rusty blade from his belt. Instantly, nearly thirty arrows were knocked and trained on his chest. The tall man stared hard at Aylanna and then hissed at the foolish man who had drawn his blade. All bows remained targeted and tense as the man began to casually scrape at his thumbnail and then sheathed his blade as if it were the most normal of actions.

Aylanna whispered furiously at Jhardron, still pointing, "That one there, he is the one, the leader." She pointed at the man who had claimed leadership, "That one lies."

The squint-eyed man who had lied shrugged and laughed, "And who are you to call me liar? Are you leader here?" He stepped closer reaching for Xin'sha's bridle. Before his hand touched, a scimitar was at his wrist. Jhardron's eyes were dark with warning and he forced his stallion between the man and the ha'akh. The horse's shoulder knocked the man back and off balance. Jhardron's voice was sharp, "Move back!" And Aylanna knew the words were for her. Xin'sha was already backing up, her hooves dancing, her ears pinned back, and her eyes rolling with nervous temper. Simultaneously, the warriors surrounding the men, moved closer.

Jhardron's voice was clear and commanding, "Tell them to throw down their weapons or die. Tell their leader to step forward. And tell that one that pretends to be leader, that I will carve his liver out if he lies again!" Aylanna's voice was shrill as she repeated his words.

Facing drawn bows on all sides, the group of men drew into a tighter knot. They did not lay down their weapons but the tall man stepped up to the front, a wide disarming smile on his face. He held up empty hands, "There clearly has been a misunderstanding. We are peaceful hunters. We want no trouble." Again clouds of deceit obscured the truth. Clearly they were not hunters and, like hers, his grasslands speech was thick with the tones of the Ramaldi valley tribes.

Aylanna's eyes narrowed, "You are not grasslander. You are Ramaldi."

He stared boldly back at her, "Your ears are sharp, demon, or should I call you neekah?"

Aylanna stiffened at that word, the epithet she had once used for a name, her grey eyes widening in shock. Memories of the Ramaldi village, times of terror, humiliation, and pain clouded her mind. Hands holding her down, the bodies of the Ramaldi youths swarming over her, jostling against one another in their eagerness to mount her, to thrust themselves into her, their faces crazed and cruel, their coarse hooting war cries ringing in her ears as they raped her. Aylanna swayed in her saddle.

Xin'sha squealed in panic as she began to fight the reins, backing up, rearing and kicking out at some unseen assailant. And then one by one stallions under the warriors seemed to catch the madness, sidling, fighting their rider's control.

Then just as quickly all was still. The horses stood motionless. It was almost as if it hadn't happened. The only clue was the puzzled looks on the warrior's faces.

Aylanna's voice was shaking with remembered rage and revulsion, "How do you know that name?"

"We are from the same village. I am surprised you don't remember me. I certainly remember you." He leered at her and to Aylanna, his spirit felt somehow filthy, poisoned, even diseased.

Again the ha'akh recoiled but this time she kept control. She stared back, her eyes narrow and steady. She raised up her hand and could not help but notice that it no longer quivered. When she spoke her words were for her Khan, "That one is Ramaldi, from my village."

His voice rang out sharp and clear, "Kill him."

Instantly a dozen arrows flew and buried themselves feathers deep in the tall man's chest. His eyes bulged and then rolled up in his head as he fell to his knees and then face down into the grass.

There was a sudden movement and another was dead just as quickly. After that the brief slaughter was too quick for Aylanna to follow. Tim'kah was there, his mount jostling Xin'sha back and away. The sudden violence made the ha'akh flinch and reel in her saddle, grasping at Xin'sha's mane to keep her seat. She could see little as her mare seemed to lurch and prance in response to each scream, yell and the dull thuds of arrows striking bodies.

When she looked again, only a few remained alive, on their knees, their hands passively clasped over their heads in the traditional posture of surrender. They were all youths, barely more than boys, painfully thin, their eyes staring out from deep hollows in their skulls. Clearly terrorized, more than one had burst into tears, sure that they too were going to be killed. Not a single one carried a weapon of any kind.

Ignoring the bodies littering the grass, some still twitching in their death throes, Jhardron spoke, "Speak to them, find out who they are."

Soon it was clear that they were grasslands youths that had been taken captive. They reported that the men were only part of a larger party of Ramaldi refugees that had fled north after the Bak invasion. They were basically functioning as bandits, preying on the few travelers and the grasslands tribes that they could locate. One of the boys, a little older spoke up, "But our tribe, the Bitter Grass Eaters, they moved north, hid among the forests. My father is speaker. He will reward you for our rescue." Then he looked hopefully around, "Please, could we have some food? They had little food and would not let us eat. My friends and I have not had food for some days."

Jhardron listened to their tale, his face twisted with distaste at the boy's tale of abduction and neglect. He gestured abruptly to Kwal'kek, his voice terse, "Give them some traveling rations and let us move on from this place. It stinks of the blood of cowards."

The wagons resumed their slow passage across the plains. As they traveled, Jhardron had Aylanna speak at length with the one boy who seemed to speak for the others. He was more than happy to tell all that he knew about the men who had taken them captive, mumbling the words around the mouthful of dried meat that he gnawed on as he walked. "They spoke of another group, a larger group that they were trying to catch up to. They acted a little afraid to attack the wagon driver and his guards until there were more of them. They wanted the food in the wagon, the woman and the horses. They had eaten all their horses."

Jhardron's eyes sharpened at the mention of a larger group, "Do you know where this other group may be?"

"No, Sir, not exactly but I know that Kraddin, the one you killed first, he said that they were that way," The youngster pointed south, "but I do not know how far."

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The wagons continued south. Now that the armed strangers were gone, Tollarra slipped down off the wagon, talking at length with the grasslands boys as they walked along. It was clear that while the boys were far too young to remember her, they were familiar with people who were in Tollarra's family. She looked up at Aylanna, "Yes, these boys are Bitter Grass. That one there is a cousin by marriage to me." Tollarra's face twisted in anger, "Those men treated these boys very cruelly. Three of their friends died at the hands of those monsters, apparently killed for little more than begging for food."

Aylanna suppressed a smile, nodding solemnly. "I will tell our Khan what you have discovered," choosing to avoid explaining to the older ha'akh how she already knew that the boys were telling the truth about their ordeal.

Jhardron was busy speaking with Kwal'kek, Jhu'kresh, and the other senior officers of the regiment. Scouting parties were dispatched to locate the larger group of bandits and to report their exact location and status. He was eager to find these Ramaldi refugees. At the gathering, on the last night, all the regimental Khans had met and discussed the mystery of the missing Ramaldi gold. The Ramaldi king had disappeared with his treasury. One of the directions that he was suspected of fleeing to was the northern plains, perhaps even clear to the ocean. But none of the Ramaldi village leaders had revealed any knowledge of his whereabouts, even under extreme torture. If their king was not there, perhaps these stragglers would have information that would lead to his capture. To enter into the Bak Pan, the holiest of cities, with the king of the Ramaldi in a cage, the Ramaldi treasury on display, that would very much enhance his status in court. Such a triumph would perhaps establish his reputation as a warrior, a regimental leader, someone too valuable to waste in a court position.

Jhardron stopped himself, clearing his throat and spitting. Such thoughts were a waste of time. He knew he had little control over his future. His father was First Lieutenant to the Aga Khan, an old friend from childhood. Jhardron knew that tradition would require him to follow in his father's footsteps, to serve in court as a guard and an advisor. Though now, the future was much less clear. Only a year ago, the last son of the Khan, a boy six years of age had died under suspicious circumstances. With no heir, when the Aga Khan left this world to join the gods, chaos was sure to rein. And rumor was that the Khan suffered from a mysterious malady. He was weak and suffered from fits.

Once again clearing his throat and spitting, Jhardron turned his thoughts back to the present. His eyes fell on Aylanna, leaning down from her perch atop her mare, speaking with the older ha'akh. Jhardron felt again the warming of his heart at the vision of her, the blue scarf tied around her head and then falling over her shoulders. As he watched, she tucked some stray tendrils of her strange red hair back up under the cloth. She sat on her horse in an easy comfortable manner that spoke of a lifetime of being in the saddle, rather than mere weeks. She was one with her mount in a manner that few Bak warriors have ever attained.

The girl turned casting her gaze around, like she sensed someone's eyes upon her and meeting his regard returned it openly. Her strange grey eyes, wide, guileless, trusting. Finally she smiled, a soft uncertain fleeting smile, and turned her eyes back to the other ha'akh. Jhardron wondered how just the sight of her banished all thoughts of duty from his head. And at the same time, wondered how she would fare at the court of the Khan. The thought of her small, exotic, alien, at the mercy and sway of the various factions that vied for power made him blink, clear his throat and spit again, trying to clear his mouth of the bad taste that seemed to fill it.

He kicked his stallion, urging him closer and spoke clearly, "Ha'akh, ride by me a while. Tell me of this man from your village."

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Aylanna had been talking with Tollarra when she felt his eyes on her. She had turned looking for him, knowing he was nearby, knowing he was thinking of her. He sat on his grey stallion, looking at her, his black fathomless eyes unreadable and she had sat motionless meeting that gaze until her heart swelled and filled her throat and she had to look away. When he had ordered her to ride with him to speak, she had felt her heart lurch and felt the skin of her face heat. Almost without thinking she said the word that filled her heart. "My Khan, wherever you go, I will follow."

Jhardron turned and looked at her sharply. His mouth opened to say something but then he stopped. Aylanna could sense the turmoil in his spirit and then it was gone, like a hand coming up to cover her eyes. His voice was calm, neutral as he walked his stallion beside Xin'sha. "This man, the Ramaldi you said was from your village. Who was he?"

Aylanna shrugged, "I do not know. I did not recognize him. But he said he remembered me. He named me with the name they gave me in the village, Neekah, dirty thing." She paused, almost reluctant to go on. "There in the village, after Kharthmah died, I had no family, no status. The boys, after they went through the manhood initiation, were free to run loose in undisciplined gangs for a period of time before they formally took on the responsibility of adulthood. There was no one to protect me from them. They would catch me, force me to share blessings with them, but it was not a blessing. It was hate, and fear, and pain. It was a curse." Aylanna's voice shook and then broke. She swallowed and took a deep breath. "The goddess was not there and the magic was evil." She spoke her voice low and savage, "That one, the one you killed; he was one of them. I am glad he is dead. It is what I wished for all of them."

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