tagSci-Fi & FantasyDemon Child Ch. 15

Demon Child Ch. 15


Chapter 15: A New Land

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The regiment rode down the center of the road, through the middle of the North Gate Outpost, past the small cluster of Ramaldi huts and the few survivors of the Khan's savage justice. A small group of women and children watched as they rode past. Aylanna stared back, taking in the thin bony faces, ragged clothing and defeated eyes. She wondered to herself about hate, revenge and Bak justice. She had hated the Ramaldi of her village, had wished for their destruction, and had watched in exultation as they had been slaughtered. But this destruction of an entire people, it made her question that hate. When did justice end and madness begin?

Once past the small village the road began to slope sharply downward, Aylanna looked forward curiously, where was this gate they spoke of? She heard the roar of falling water and then the ground seemed to fall away, the road appearing to leap from the edge of a high precipice. The warriors dismounted, one reaching for Xin'sha's reins, somewhat uncomfortable with this task of assisting her now that Tim'kah had gone ahead with the horse herd. "The road is too steep. We will walk behind the wagons."

Aylanna dismounted and crept forward, peering down. Carved into the stone cliff was a dizzying series of steep narrow switch backs. A short distance away the stream cascaded down the red face, crashing and leaping down into the depths below. A heavy post sunk directly into the rock stood at the top and at each corner of the precipitous road. The warriors removed the harnesses from the draught horses and tied massive ropes to the wagons. Wrapping the ropes around and around the posts, the warriors began to lower the wagons a few feet at a time, paying out the ropes slowly, carefully controlling the wagon as they rolled down the steep incline. As soon as it reached a hairpin turn, a new rope was attached and the wagon began its next descent. The movement was torturously slow and Aylanna was frustrated with the slow shuffle step until she overheard one of the warriors comment to another that he was just happy that they were going down instead of up. Aylanna looked up and blinked at the thought of trying to drag a wagon up that grade.

Gradually the canyon walls rose up and up. Aylanna's nostrils twitched as she inhaled the old familiar smell of rock baking in the sun. At the bottom, Kwal'kek called for the whole regiment to move out as quickly as possible. "I care not for this narrow canyon. If there is rain to the north, this road will become a deathtrap." The sky was just a narrow band high above their heads, but Aylanna could tell it had taken the better part of the day to lower the wagons to the canyon floor. The massive draught horses were quickly harnessed and whipped into lumbering trot. The canyon was indeed narrow, the wheels of the wagons often splashing through the stream itself, in many places skirting huge boulders that had been torn loose and tumbled by floods.

The shadows were deep and the first evening stars were showing in the band of sky above their heads when the canyon opened up into a wider valley and Kwal'kek finally called for a halt. There was little to do beyond filling the water buckets. They did not even build a fire. When her warriors came for her, Aylanna repeated her ritual of pausing, touching their faces, and repeating their names. She wondered how many more times she would share with them, receiving their offerings and blessing them with her magic. She surrendered herself to their hands, arching against their touch, their entry into her, freely giving her passion to them, her cries rising up to the goddess.

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The sun was not yet up when the regiment moved out again. Long streamers of cloud raced across the pale sky. The morning light did nothing to ease the brutal image of the burned out village beside the road. Aylanna stared curiously at the remains of the village, wondering why this village and not the one at the top of the cliff. As she watched she could see signs that some people had survived. One or two huts had been rebuilt; the face of someone peeked out and then quickly pulled back. She thought to herself that this was no longer their land, these were not their homes. They were lann'akh, servants bonded to the land. She wondered at their fate.

Both the days and nights were cool, the clouds gathering thicker and lower, threatening rain. Kwal'kek urged the regiment to move quickly, growling that he had no wish to travel through Ramaldi mud. Nearly every day the Twisted Dagger would pass some sign of the devastation, burned out villages, fearful groups of refugees moving furtively back as they traveled the same road, and once an ugly spectacle of dozens of skulls displayed on stakes along the road. Not once did the Bak warriors acknowledge the presence of the vanquished people, ignoring their existence, riding past tall and arrogant.

The road wound through steep canyons and hills, the rocks changing from the familiar red to twisted and broken layers of red, orange and purple. In more than one place Aylanna saw where the earth had been shifted and moved, deep pits dug, raw piles of fresh earth scarring the land. Kwal'kek pointed, "Mines, the Ramaldi province is rich in minerals; copper, silver, gold, lead and iron, great riches to be plucked from the ground. Many of the most powerful houses are vying for ownership. Such riches can mean great influence in court." He cleared his throat and spat, "With so much wealth to divide, the wolves will be at each other's throats as they vie for power."

Aylanna looked at the old faded scar on the old man's arm. "Is Twisted Dagger a house?"

"Yes, an old, very respected house. Not as powerful as they once were, but perhaps with our victory and recovery of the Ramaldi gold, the gods will smile upon us."

"And we are Twisted Dagger?"

Kwal'kek frowned, "In some ways, yes. You are not a citizen, so you are a servant of the Twisted Dagger. I am not of the lineage of the Twisted Dagger, but my family has been under the protection of the Twisted Dagger for many generations. I owe allegiance and loyalty to the house." The old man pointed with his chin toward where Jhardron was speaking with Jhu'kresh. "Those two are of the house, Jhardron is the fifth son of a younger brother of the head of house Twisted Dagger. Jhu'kresh is a distant cousin; I am not sure of the exact lineage. Jhardron's father is Jhar'drakon, a close friend and advisor to the Aga Khan. They grew up together."

"Is the Aga Khan Twisted Dagger?"

"No the Aga Khan is House Broken Spear, but the two houses are closely aligned and they share sons."

"Share sons?"

"Their children are shared, exchanged. They go to live with the family of the other house. It is a gesture of allegiance and trust. It keeps the bond strong between houses. Jhardron's father was sent to live with the family of the Aga Khan. The two boys grew up as brothers, a friendship that has boded well for Twisted Dagger fortunes."

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Aylanna sat on Xin'sha, wrinkling her nose at the pervasive stink of old ashes and death. The capital Rama'dahlma was a ghost city of burned buildings. Here and there stone buildings stood, stained with smoke. Jhardron was speaking with a tall Bak man who stood before one of these stone buildings. At first Aylanna did not at first listen to their words but something in Jhardron's tone made her prick up her ears. "And what news of home?"

"Have you not heard? Your wife sent messengers north, your first son was born healthy and thrives at his mother's breast. He awaits his name."

There was a general stir among the warriors close enough to hear, a few exclaimed their congratulations. Jhardron had a wide smile on his face as he waved them to silence. "That is fine news, a son after so many daughters. I will make a sacrifice at the temple to thank the goddess for this gift and pray for his protection."

Aylanna felt a strange lurch in her heart beat. A wife, he has a wife. For an instant her eyes fogged with tears, her stomach churned but then she ruthlessly suppressed the emotions. Coldly, intensely she whispered the words silently to herself, "A warrior is always in control of her body, her heart and her mind." Yet she wondered at the rush of emotion, wondered that somehow she had thought she had some ownership, some right of expectation over this man who was her Khan. She was a lowly ha'akh. The mere fact that he cared for her was more than she had a right to.

They did not tarry in the ruins of Rama'dahlma. It was clear that Jhardron was very impatient to return to the homelands of the Bak. The news of a son only seemed to add to his hurry. But he would not leave the regiment or the precious secret cargo they carried in the wagons. That night as she helped dole out the cold trail rations that were the main form of subsistence as they traveled from before light to after dark, Aylanna stiffly, formally spoke to him, "This ha'akh wishes to express her happiness at the news of the birth of your son."

Jhardron did not seem to notice her rigid demeanor, smiling broadly, "Thank you for your good wishes. It is said a daughter is like a rainbow, beautiful to behold but with one foot in your house and the other already reaching for the house of her husband. Sons are the foundation stones of a family, without them a house will crumble and fall. The goddess has smiled upon me." His eyes fell on her, softening, "You have brought me luck, little demon."

Aylanna bit her lip and spoke almost soundlessly, "I will send a prayer to the goddess that your wife bears you many more sons."

Jhardron laughed, "Wives, pretty demon, wives, all three of them. And a warrior must be home to sow his seed in order to reap a harvest."

Aylanna blinked at the news that he did not have one wife but three, but did not respond, swallowing down her questions, saving them for the more talkative Kwal'kek. It was not many more days travel before she managed to ask, "Is it customary for Bak men to marry many wives?"

Kwal'kek barked with laughter, "Oh no, not usually. I myself have just the one." The old warrior's eyes softened and then he joked, "Though she is so fat, it is like lying with two. But she is a good woman, a fine mother to my sons." He cleared his throat, generally a sign that he was warming up to a long lesson. "Generally, it is only among the Bak Lann'amattah, the ruling class, that a man may have more than on wife. Marriage among the ruling class is as much a function of political and economic alliances as for the breeding of children." Kwal'kek looked about a bit furtively, "Though the birth of children to the ruling class is not quite as common as it once was. It is said that their blood is growing thin."

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They camped at the top of a high cliff, preparing for their descent into the Bak homelands. The Middle Gate was much like the North Gate. A seemingly endless series of cliffs lay between the Ramaldi highlands and the rolling misty green hills below. The precipice was higher, river was wider, the falls were an incessant roar and the switch backs cut into the cliff face perhaps not quite so narrow or steep. Aylanna had learned that these torturous passages cut into the cliffs that divided the layers of the earth had always been called gates. Kwal'kek told her that the war between the gods and the demons had broken the land, dividing the peoples from one another. It had taken men many generations to find a way to scale the cliffs, and many more to cut the gates between.

Aylanna found herself wondering how the demon men that had populated her visions would have ever had the power to do battle with a god or to break the world. They had appeared strange, tall and barbaric, but they had been mortal. The demon that had forced his seed into her mother had died like any other man. How could mortal men battle an army of gods and how could they break the earth?

Jhardron approached Aylanna, "Ha'akh, once we enter the Bak homelands, you will travel on the wagon. You will keep your demon eyes, hair and skin covered. I want to keep your appearance hidden."

At Aylanna's puzzled frown, he pointed down the cliff toward the land below. "In the kingdom, there is little that is kept secret for long. Information is gathered and traded like precious jewels. It is inevitable that the news of the Ramaldi gold will reach ahead of us. It is likely that the court already knows that the Twisted Dagger acquired a demon, but they will not look upon you until the treasure is presented before the Khan."

Again it took the better part of a day to lower the wagons, but this time, as she walked behind the wagons, Aylanna stared out fascinated at the land spread out before her. The Bak homeland seemed as ordered and disciplined as the regiment. As far as she could see all was carefully groomed fields with neat stone fences, straight wide roads, and in the distance a wide blue expanse that must be a lake.

At the base of the cliff was a cluster of square stone buildings and many Bak men moved about, apparently occupied with duties. Aylanna kept her new scarf wrapped around her head and across her face, casually standing to one side and behind a group of waiting warriors. It was an old habit to hide, one that was easy to renew. She peeked out from below lowered lids as one man came up with a scroll and pen and began talking at length with Kwal'kek regarding the content of the wagons, where they had come from and their destination. "Your herd master came through here seven days ago. He left word that their trip was uneventful and they would await you at the horse meadows." When the fact was stated that they brought with them the Ramaldi treasury, his eyes widened, looking with new respect at the regiment. Aylanna could clearly sense his sudden pent up excitement. "This is news indeed."

Kwal'kek's voice was dry, "News that will undoubtedly travel ahead of us."

The bureaucrat licked the point of his pen, staining his already blackened tongue as he carefully noted down the inventory and the names of the warriors traveling with the regiment, "It is said that news of good fortune travels on the wings of birds."

Kwal'kek spat, "The only thing that moves across the land faster is ill news."

The record keeper barked a short harsh laugh, "Too true, my friend, too true." He gazed at the papers and then at the assembled warriors, speaking aloud as he carefully made notes on the papers in his hand, "Four casualties and the acquisition of a single ha'akh." He gestured toward where Aylanna stood. She stood very still, somehow fearful that he would demand to know her name, to look at her, but he just made a few more marks on the papers. Aylanna peered with curiousity as both Kwal'kek and Jhardron approached him and then made some marks of their own upon the papers. He handed them some of the papers, keeping others and pointed down the road, "You are the last regiment to return. You will have your choice of camps."

It was not much longer before the regiment was mounted and moving along a very smooth road. Aylanna looked over the edge of the wagon at the paving stones; they were rectangular and perfectly smooth. Sitting up she peered ahead, the road was straight and wide enough for two wagons to pass easily. The fields were well watered green rows of some cultivated green leafy plant. Here and there, men and women worked in the fields, most of them from the smaller brown skinned races.

Soon they stopped at a well established camping area. Carefully defined rectangles of bare sand and trimmed grass surrounded a stone lined fire pit. A large rectangular stone trough was filled with fresh water. Even the white painted pole corral was a square. Aylanna looked around herself at the rigid order. She was not sure if she liked all these straight lines and square corners. It was sterile, stiff, as if even the trees, shrubs and grass had been harnessed and trained to their duties.

They did not put up the tents and, in the night, Aylanna was awakened by the distant rumble of thunder and splattering of heavy cold raindrops. Shivering she had pulled herself into a smaller ball and covered her head with her fur. Morning dawned wet and grey, the cliff behind them obscured by the low clouds. Riding in the wagon was cold. She huddled with her damp blankets around her, keeping her scarf around her head and face.

At first they were the only travelers on the road but after only one day's travel, wagons filled with the last harvests of the season began to appear. Ranging from two wheeled carts to large wheeled freight haulers, all of them would instantly pull off to one side to give the whole road to the advancing regiment. The workers would stand respectfully, one hand across their chest in a gesture of respect, their heads lowered. The warriors rode past, ignoring the people beside the road, except perhaps to sit a little taller, prouder in their saddles.

The first small community they passed was a curious grouping of square white stone buildings some distance from the road. Each one was exactly the same as the other, exactly the same distance from the other. The few people moving about seemed to hurry with some goal in mind.

Once they passed a man herding a group of small fat goats grazing them along the side of the road. Again the regiment did not pause, riding straight through the flock of bleating animals. Aylanna looked back and as soon as they had passed and the shepherd relaxed his respectful posture he quickly approached a fresh steaming pile of manure, dropped by one of the stallions and efficiently scooped it up and dropped it into a small cart he pulled along behind him.

Each night they stayed in a designated camping area, designed exactly the same as the one before. She wondered that the troughs were always filled with fresh water; fodder was there, waiting and ready for the stallions, and wood neatly stacked by the fire pit. She did not see anyone nearby who did these things, but clearly it was done. Finally one night when Kwal'kek had sat down to eat his evening meal she asked, "Who puts back the wood that we burn, the water?"

Kwal'kek looked about the camp as if he was seeing it for the first time, "Road keepers, they tend the camps and maintain the roadways. We will pay for our use once we arrive at our stated destination. The road fees pay for the roads, camps and bridges."

"Road keepers?"

"You saw one, the man with the goats. The goats keep the grass grazed short and the herder then has a fattened herd to sell at market. He cleans the road of offal, keeps inventory of repairs that need to be made and generally keeps things ready for travelers. All travelers register to use the roads, carry a permit and pay a set fee once they arrive. No one travels without a permit."

The only time the regiment acknowledged the presence of another on the road was when they overtook a slower moving, covered wagon, escorted by a number of tall Bak men. The wagon continued its way, but the Bak men called to one another, loud jovial calls of greeting, wishes for luck and fertility. Aylanna stared curiously from behind the concealment of her scarf; the wagon was brightly painted with complex designs of interwoven lines and flowers. Two horses, a stallion and a mare, wearing very fine gilded saddles with their manes twined with golden threads and flowers, were tethered to the back of the wagon.

Once they were past, Aylanna could not help but ask, "Who was that?"

Kwal'kek smiled broadly, "A daughter of the House White Crane travels to her new home. The riders were of the House Ghost Rider. The two houses are closely allied. She will marry one of their sons once she reaches marriageable age."

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