tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 14

Demon Child Ch. 14


Chapter 14: The North Gate

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Aylanna walked behind Jhardron as they walked the short distance back into the camp. Somehow to her, the fact that it was unchanged, the same guards greeting them as they entered, the same flickering fires, the tents and the warriors going about their same routine tasks, seemed jarring, wrong. The events of their afternoon together, so tender, poignant, even playful contrasted harshly with this very real threat of his rage. Her spirit felt battered and raw. And yet she felt strangely calm, even oddly exhilarated, and profoundly transformed. His unguarded words acknowledging his love for her still hung in her heart like the shining light of the full moon.

Her eyes sought out Kwal'kek finding him seated on his usual box, speaking to a small group of younger warriors. He was in his usual element, using stories of his youth to teach and reinforce the tenants of the Bak and their devotion to duty. Tollarra was sitting out in front of her tent, sipping on a cup of tea, her expression still haunted with worry.

Like the very first time she had looked around a Bak camp as a newly claimed ha'akh, Aylanna was struck how none of the warriors stared at her when she was with the Khan. Now she understood that the life in the camp held little privacy and that custom necessitated at least the respect of averted eyes. She also knew that each and every warrior was intently aware of even the smallest of actions of all the others. There were no secrets in the Twisted Dagger. Knowing that none would ever speak of it, confront her with her actions, or openly censure her, she stepped into the light of the fires.

Stopping briefly, Aylanna crouched down and touched the sick ha'akh's cheek looking into her eyes. Her voice was low, "Has the bleeding continued?"

Tollarra's eyes were wide, "No."

"Any pain in your belly, cramping?"

Again the older woman shook her head.

Aylanna smiled encouragingly. "That is good. I am sure it was nothing. But just in case, I want you to rest."

Then glancing up at the camp, realizing that she still was not sure what fate lay in store for the older and now pregnant ha'akh her eyes sought out Jhardron but he was not to be seen. Again her eyes fell on Kwal'kek, the old veteran's voice vibrant with the excitement of his youth, his hands weaving the images in the air as he spoke of battles won, lessons learned. Looking at him she remembered all the lessons he had taught her, his gruff ways, his duty demonstrated daily in his care and guidance for her and each and every warrior in the camp. Her heart quailed at the thought that she might have hurt him, somehow attacking directly at his spirit with her anger. Again she wished that somehow she did not have this magic in her, that she was not what she was. Silently she mouthed the words, "It is a fool's game to wish for what cannot be." And she cleared her throat and spat out the bitterness the words left in her mouth.

Slipping to sit at his feet like she had so many nights as the regiment moved across these northern plains, she gazed up at his lined face and his hands scarred and gnarled with decades of service. His eyes fell on her as he held forth, and she could feel the warmth of his acceptance. Again she wondered what she had done. Whatever it had been he did not even seem to remember that she had raised her voice to him. Swallowing down her guilt, she smiled up at him, giving him the one gift she knew he valued most, an avid listener, someone to travel with him to his glory days.

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Again Aylanna made a carefully padded nest of blankets to cushion Tollarra as she rode in the wagon. And this time the pregnant ha'akh did not protest at being fussed over. Her only words were a soft apology for being such a bother.

For two days, Aylanna threw herself into her duties, doing her chores and Tollarra's both, watching her pregnant friend carefully, guarding her from engaging in any strenuous activity, feeding her teas and rich soups to strengthen her. Repeatedly she felt Jhardron's eyes following her as she bustled about the camp and each time she would pause in her duties and meet his eyes.

On the third day the regiment had halted for the day. The fires had been built and Aylanna was filling the water buckets from a nearby stream. Tollarra had even tentatively risen to help cook the evening meal, when a scout rode in, reporting that a group of grasslands nomads had been sighted as they traveled.

Jhardron called for her to come to speak for him once more. At the first sight of the horsemen coming over the plains, the column of grasslands people seemed to dissolve into panic, turning and fleeing in all directions, leaving loaded pack ponies to gallop off in random directions, goats scattering off into the tall grass. It seemed like the people had vanished into the tall grass but then a voice called out, and a boy came forth, calling a greeting and words of reassurance to his people. Aylanna recognized one of the boys that had been captured by the Ramaldi bandits and it was apparent he recognized them as well.

Soon a small group of adult men were standing, holding their bows but no arrows, looking fearfully at the tall dark skinned warriors on their long legged mounts. Finally a sturdy, weather beaten man of middle years stepped forward. "I am Tottanta, speaker for the Bitter Grass Eaters. My nephew says you are the ones that freed him from his captors." He gestured around at the grass, "We have suffered many attacks from the bandits. My people have come to fear the sight of strangers."

Aylanna relayed his statements to Jhardron and he nodded grimly. "Tell him that the main camp of the Ramaldi bandits is no more. They will not be sending out raiding parties any more. Ask him where they travel to."

"Your news is good. The bandits have been a plague upon this land. Too many of my people have died this season. My tribe returns to its traditional winter camp, only one more day's travel to the east." As he spoke more and more of the people who had hidden in the grass came out to gaze fearfully at the group of warriors and Aylanna suppressed a smile as she watched a group of women and children rushing to collect the scattered animals.

Once the goats and ponies had been retrieved, Jhardron told Aylanna, "Tell them we are camped not far from here. They are welcome to join us."

After Aylanna had relayed the invitation, Tottanta frowned and appeared to chew on the inside of his lip as he debated. "My people are tired from their journey and eager to see it end." He turned and called to his gathered tribe, "We will make camp here." Then he turned back to Aylanna and Jhardron, "But it would be impolite to refuse your generous offer of hospitality. I will visit your camp. The boys spoke of a woman from the Bitter Grass Eaters who travels with you, a Tollarra, she is a relative by marriage. It would be good to see her."

There were shadows of concealment in Tottanta's words. Aylanna could tell his interest in Tollarra went beyond a mere family reunion or sharing of news. But she did not feel a threat or any outright deceit so she chose to relay the Bitter Grass speaker's acceptance as it stood.

To Aylanna's dismay Tollarra was still up on her feet, bustling about the camp, talking with the warriors, helping with the food when they arrived. The younger ha'akh stared reproachfully at the older woman, fighting the urge to scold her, to tell her to sit, rest, take care. But it was clear that Tollarra was peering excitedly beyond the riders, looking for her people. She looked curiously toward Tottanta, clearly wanting to approach and speak but Kwal'kek was ordering her to sit and tend the roasting meat in his usual loud voice.

Aylanna sensed the grasslands leader tense and glance back and forth quickly between Tollarra and the warrior who seemed to be berating her. He looked quickly at Aylanna and again she felt his concealment. It was clear that the man was aware of her abilities, and she remembered that the boys had witnessed her question the Ramaldi raiders. It was obvious that the boy had told his uncle about the demon that traveled with the Bak warriors. The grasslands leader was uncomfortable, even fearful, but at the same time resolved. Aylanna could tell he wanted or was planning something but what she did not know. Again, just as clearly, Tottanta did not seem angry or aggressive. She whispered to Jhardron, "This man conceals something. His words are mostly true but his heart is filled with shadows."

Jhardron's face was impassive and his words were unworried, "He is one man."

The two leaders sat and discussed the news of the high plains. Tottanta told how numerous raids from the Ramaldi had resulted in many of his men being killed, women and children carried off for a life of slavery. His tribe had lost one in three. Finally he had his entire people move completely off their traditional lands, traveling into the northern forests. His eyes were on Tollarra, "Many of my people are lost, taken by the invaders. The Bitter Grass Eaters are diminished."

When the meal was prepared, Tollarra brought bowls of food, serving the guest first and then Jhardron. Tottanta thanked her formally, "Greetings, sister, my nephew spoke of you."

Tollarra smiled and nodded eagerly, "Yes, yes, I am Tollarra, daughter of Koffanda."

Tottanta nodded solemnly, "We are kindred by marriage. You are aunt to my son. His spirit walks with his mother in the land of our forefathers. They were killed by bandits."

Tollarra's smile vanished and she made a quick gesture to the four corners of the sky, "May they find peace."

Tottanta looked carefully toward Aylanna and she could tell he was choosing his words carefully, "Too many of our people have been killed or taken captive by the invaders." His eyes looked nervously around the camp, taking in the warriors seated and standing around, "Sister, are you... well?"

Aylanna frowned; his words rang false. He did not mean that. Suddenly she understood and spoke directly to him. "Tollarra became servant to the Bak of her own free will."

Tottanta looked sharply at Aylanna, "Then she can leave, return to us?"

Aylanna blinked, "Once she swore to join, that choice was no longer hers to make. She cannot forsake her duty."

Tottanta stood up and faced Jhardron, speaking directly to him. Aylanna could sense his fear but also his courage. His voice was stiff and formal, "You speak of peace and treaties, yet you enslave my people."

Tollarra tried to interrupt, protesting that she was not a slave, that she was a servant, that she wanted this. Jhardron stood and made a sharp silencing gesture, "Ha'akh, what does this man speak of?" When Aylanna had explained and relayed the grasslands leader's challenging words, Jhardron shrugged and waved his hand, "If he wants the woman, he may have her."

Aylanna nearly choked on the word, "What?"

She was about to argue back when Tollarra interrupted almost laughing with delight, "Wait, sister, can't you see the wisdom in our Khan's words? I am a poor servant to the regiment. I am too old; my strength is taken up by this child that grows within me. This way he can cement the treaty with this grassland tribe and dispose of me in one simple decision. Our Khan is a wise leader." Then the older ha'akh turned to Jhardron who was struggling to keep a smile from his face, "But, my Khan, you will gain greater advantage in this transaction if you present me as having more value to you than a sick old woman. Do not sell me cheaply. A grasslands woman who carries a child is twice valuable in bride negotiations. Demand a husband for me." Tollarra's eyes sparkled, "A handsome, rich husband would be very welcome."

Both Aylanna and Jhardron were gazing at Tollarra in amazement. And she stared back at them and whispered, "Please, this way, if the gods smile upon me and my baby lives, I would be able to keep her, to raise her as my own. Please." Her dark eyes filled with tears, "Do not think that I do not know the fate of my child if I continue with you to the Bak cities. Here we would have status and freedom." Tollarra held out the handful of gold coins that had been her and Aylanna's share of the Ramaldi treasure, "Please, if there need be payment made to gain my freedom..."

Jhardron frowned and waved her hand away. He spoke to Aylanna, "Tell this man that this ha'akh had promised herself to the Bak, but if she chooses, she may return to his tribe. Tell him that she has been a good servant to us and we would miss her company. Tell him she carries a warrior's child in her belly and is of great worth. Tell him that I cannot in good conscience allow her to return unless I know that she will have a place of honor among her people."

Aylanna nodded and turned to Tottanta speaking rapidly, relaying all of Jhardron's words. As soon as he realized that Tollarra was free to return, that it was just a matter of negotiating a fair price, he relaxed his angry posture. He had seen the gold in Tollarra's hand and the knowledge that she carried a child only enhanced her value to him. And he had heard her speak the stranger's language fluently; such knowledge could only benefit his tribe in the years to come, now that these tall dark warriors seemed intent on treaties and trade. He stood up and squared his shoulders. "My hearth is empty, my wife was taken by the Ramaldi bandits and did not return. I can only pray her spirit finds its way to join our ancestors with my son. I would take this woman as my wife and raise the child as my own. I promise that she will be treated with honor as wife of the speaker for the Bitter Grass Eater tribe."

Tollarra eyed the man offering to be her husband. He was young for a speaker, only a few years older than she was. He was strong looking and she could not help but be impressed by his courage. He has stood up and challenged Jhardron in the Bak camp alone. And he was not so bad looking. And wife of the speaker was a position of greater status than she had ever dreamed of before. She nudged Aylanna and whispered in her ear, "Yes, tell him that the Khan will agree to this." And after the words were relayed, she smiled shyly and spoke directly to Tottanta, "I would be honored to become your wife."

After that Aylanna was caught up in the whirlwind of saying good bye and packing up herbs and medicines for Tollarra, trying to tell her a thousand things at once; how much she had learned from her friend, how much she would miss her, how to take care of herself and the baby in the months to come, cautioning her to be careful, wishing she could be there to see the baby when it was born. Tollarra hugged her fiercely and spoke with a determined voice, "You told me once that this child would be fine, that you had seen it. I know that your words are true. I will name her Aylanna after my friend and the luck she brought me. She will grow up with stories of my adventure as a ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger." Then the older ha'akh pressed a spinning bobbin into Aylanna's palm, her smile quivering with a mix of tears and laughter, "Don't forget to practice, never forget you are a daughter of the grasslands."

Aylanna laughed and hugged her friend, "Sister, I will never forget. But my fate lies south, with the Bak and my Khan." But she carefully put the bobbin into her pocket, resolving to keep it with her always to remind her of this time on the high northern grassland plains and her first friend.

Kwal'kek cleared his throat and pointed to the scar on Tollarra's arm, protesting gruffly, "You will always be ha'akh Bak Tai Twisted Dagger. Our Khan spoke the truth when he said you were a good servant and will be missed."

Tollarra smiled softly and pressed her hand to her belly, "This child is the child of all of you. Each time I look into her face I will remember."

Many of the warriors, especially the older veterans, spoke with Tollarra, formally taking their farewells. More than one of them pressed a coin or another small token into her hand.

It was late and the grassland leader seemed impatient to return to his people. Now that he had secured Tollarra's rescue from what he still perceived as her captors, he was clearly eager to put some distance between himself and the Bak warriors. His eyes widened in surprise when Jhardron had two stallions brought forward, handing over the reins. "It is a tradition of the Bak that a bride brings a mount with her to her husband's hearth. Our myths say that our brothers, the horses, were born here in the northern lands."

Tottanta's eyes did not leave the tall horses, "This is a fine bride price. No other tribes have such fine horses. If it is true that such horses were born upon these plains, then perhaps this gift will herald their return." He helped Tollarra to mount; the short, plump, grasslands woman clutched at the saddle and mane of the horse with a squeak of alarm at being so high from the ground. Aylanna smiled, she could tell that Jhardron had chosen two sedate older stallions that were well past their prime, calm and easy to manage.

Aylanna watched through eyes swimming with tears as Tottanta led the horses out of the firelight and vanished into the darkness. She drew in a deep shaky breath telling herself that this was a good thing for both Tollarra and the baby she carried. Turning, she quickly wiped the tears from her eyes and looked around the camp. Jhardron met her eyes and she nodded briskly to him, speaking softly under her breath, "a wise leader indeed."

When the warriors came to share the blessings of the goddess with her, she clung to them with a new awareness of the tenuousness of human relationships, how easy it was to lose someone you loved. She spoke to them more, using her words as well as her cries to tell them how she loved them. Gently touching their faces, stroking their skin, she spoke their names reverently, thanking them for being her warriors, for making the magic with her.

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In the morning the camp seemed empty without Tollarra's happy spirit and constant banter. Aylanna rushed about, trying to somehow fill the void with a brittle smile and forced cheerfulness. Finally it was Kwal'kek who put a gentle hand on her arm, speaking low, "Little ha'akh, we all miss her. But it is better for her to stay with her own people. Take comfort in that knowledge."

Aylanna took a deep shaky breath and nodded, blinking back tears, and whispering, "I know. It is just that she was my only friend and there is pain in my heart."

Kwal'kek stroked back the wisps of her fiery red hair, his brow rising, "Only?"

Looking around the camp at the dozens of warriors, Aylanna could not help but laugh ruefully, "Well, only ha'akh friend. Somehow with you, with all the warriors, it is different. I know you care. But we are not the same." Then looking at the grizzled old warrior with love in her eyes, she took his hand in hers, "But then I am not the same as anyone, and if you would be my friend, that would be wonderful."

The old man laughed, "Friends then, but don't expect me to know anything about sewing or women's magic."

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The next day the regiment came upon a stream running south and turned to follow it, following for the first time a well marked road. Kwal'kek, always eager to teach with his stories, spoke from the broad back of his old stallion, "This is the river road that leads through the center of the world. Many say it was made when Pan'Shash'Sha'Am fled before Jha'Mak'Tah, their hooves tore rents in the land, creating the roads and rivers. The Bak call it the Great Road, or sometimes the Mother's Way. If you follow it, it will lead straight to Bak Pan Amara, the heart of the world."

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