tagMind ControlTristan's Tale Pt. 08

Tristan's Tale Pt. 08

byIncomingPornDuck©

Author's note: Part 8 is the beginning of Book Two. I hope you enjoy this new chapter in Tristan's adventures.

All characters depicted in sexual scenes are over the age of 18.

~

A flame-red dragon danced in the air, and Anja watched it in wonder. It slithered this way and that like a snake, then turned sharply with a snap of its feathered tail. Behind his daughter, Salam abruptly pulled on the strings, causing the fearsome beast to rear majestically before Anja's wide eyes. She shrieked and clutched at the hem of her mother's skirt. "Mama!"

Sonja smiled, her eyes reflecting their campfire's low coals. "Now now, love. What do we do when we meet a dragon?"

The dragon laughed, shaking its tasseled brow. "My dear, there's nothing to do...but get eaten!" Salam roared in the flowery Nyssian accent he used whenever he brought out the marionette. Anja screamed, not without a little joy, and buried herself in her mother's skirt.

Sonja couldn't help smiling at her husband's antics. She'd long gotten used to Salam's eloquent, intellectual dragons that were nothing like the devilish monstrosities she had heard about as a child. A little horror can be good for a child, but in this moment, in the warmth of their campfire, at the end of a long day's ride, Salam's over the top interpretation of the ancient beast felt right.

"Come on," Sonja patted her daughter's head. "What do we do?"

The child mustered her courage, and, searching the ground for something to give, finally came up with a small, dusty pebble. She offered it hesitantly.

Salam snaked the dragon in an unnecessarily roundabout course that brought its eyes directly in front of the proffered pebble. It seemed to inspect the small, furtively held thing. "Hmmmmmmm," said the dragon, a long and drawn out sound whose pitch ranged across octaves. Anja giggled. The dragon said, "What is so special about this pebble, my dear, that I would want it instead of such a tasty snack as yourself?"

Sonja nudged her daughter encouragingly. Anja cleared her throat. She thought for a moment. Then, face lighting up as if coming to a mighty conclusion, she brazenly said, "It's smooth!"

"Smoooooooth?" asked the incredulous-looking dragon, eyebrows deftly manipulated by Salam's pulling on invisible strings.

Anja rolled on the ground with laughter. Salam smiled, exchanged an affectionate glance with his wife. But Sonja wasn't looking at him, but over his shoulder, eyebrows knit. He paused, following her eyes.

Then he saw it too. The cloud of dust in the distance. After a moment, he heard it as well. The rumble of hoofbeats. Soldiers.

Anja sat up from her fit of laughter, offered the pebble again. "It's the smoothest pebble..." But something was wrong. Her father had unclasped the box and was hastily stuffing the dragon away.

"Papa?" she asked, worried. He hadn't taken it apart or anything. All the strings were going to get tangled. He hated it when the strings got tangled.

"Stay close to me," said her mother, pulling her close.

It wasn't a company of men, at least. There were just two of them plodding down the road. They rode on Jassanese packhorses, though they did not look like any of the Eastern soldiers they had seen in their travels. They flew no banner, and wore no identifying insignias on their gray cloaks.

Sonja and Salam exchanged a glance. Were they outlaws? Salam tightened his grip on the small firework he'd concealed in his hand. A pitiful distraction at best.

Fear, as the pair veered off the path toward their campsite. Anja started to cry. Sonja stroked her hair reassuringly, her eyes hard as flint.

The riders came into view. One was a youth with downcast eyes and messy black hair. He trailed sullenly behind the other, an older man with a cheery expression beneath his salt and pepper hair. Too cheery for a road this close to the Wastes. And too cheery for a face like his: old and scarred in many places, it was the face of someone who has seen much he does not talk about.

But his smile was wide. He waved from afar. "My humblest greetings," he called. His accent was hard to place. "Southward, or Northward?"

"We make for Nys," said Salam cautiously.

"And we for Sicil," replied the man, coming closer. His voice seemed to have changed subtly, or perhaps his Aarturian drawl had been masked by the distance. He stopped his horse; the younger man stayed five feet behind, looking back from where they'd come. "How are the Wastes?"

On this stretch of road, everyone knew the answer to the question. But you asked it all the same.

"Bad," said Salam. "Worse than it's ever been." He'd relaxed slightly upon hearing the man's Aarturian accent. They'd fled the North because of the war. An encounter with Jassanese soldiers would not end well.

"I'm sorry to hear that," said the old man. "How much further is it from here?"

"You'll arrive before the moon is out," said Sonja. Her tone was flat. It said, you are not welcome here.

The old man nodded, as if hearing confirmation of something he already knew. Then his face lit up. "Why, hello there!" Anja had poked her head out from behind her mother. He leaned low on his horse. "You're awfully young for the Wastelands, eh? But I bet you weren't scared one bit, were you?"

Anja hid herself from view. Salam had a strange sense that he could trust this man. He smiled, and said, "She did very well. She stayed on the road and kept her ears plugged."

"Did she? Fantastic." He turned and rummaged in his sack. "Such bravery! Why, I'd say it's cause for a present. Wouldn't you say?"

Hearing every child's favorite word, Anja poked her head curiously from behind her mother. Sonja watched uncertainly, a hand on her daughter. Behind him, the young man who hadn't spoken stared incredulously as, of all things, a pink stuffed bunny was produced from the old man's pack.

"Aha!" he said triumphantly. "I knew I'd find a home for this thing."

Sonja peered at the old man in a new light. If he was an outlaw, then he was the strangest outlaw she'd ever heard of. "Who are you?" she asked.

"We're just travelers, ma'am, on a pilgrimage of sorts to the Lodestone." He looked at their darkening faces. "What? Has something happened?"

"How long has it been since you've been home?" asked Sonja.

"...Years," said the old man. His mismatched eyes went glassy, seemed to look right through them. "Long years, the kind that stretch themselves as if to mock you."

Sonja let out a long exhale. Salam shook his head. "Bring your horses over here," said Salam. "There's news."

The two travelers trotted over and dismounted. The young one had a hard time of it. Anja was the one who spoke up. "What's wrong with his face?"

Upon coming closer to the fire, they saw the youth's face more clearly. It was covered in bruises.

"I fell down some stairs," he said. His voice was heavily sarcastic.

"And what's wrong with his arm?" asked Anja, undeterred.

"Anja!" reprimanded her mother. She looked at the young man apologetically, but he just smiled. His right arm hung limply at one side, wrapped in bandages. He'd had to dismount using only his left.

"It's alright," said the old man. He knelt down, held out the stuffed rabbit. "Anja, is it? Well, Anja, I've always said that the best thing kids remember that us old folk forget is how to ask questions."

She took the stuffed animal and traced her fingers over its fur, the material from a softer world than the war torn one they'd left. She fingered its button eyes, two discs of polished wood with a small black bead at the center.

"What do you think is wrong with his arm?" asked the old man.

"It looks broken," said Anja. "Just like Aunt Mosa's when she came back from the war."

"War?" asked the old man. He sat before the fire, held his hands out. "Are the River Lords at it again?"

"Did you hurt your arm in a war?" asked Anja to the young man.

He stayed away from the fire with his arms crossed. "Sort of," he said. He coughed. It was a bad cough, phlegmy. He smiled sickly. "Would you believe me if I told you that I fought a dragon, and it breathed fire on my arm?"

The kid held up the rabbit, made as if it were a speaking puppet. "Dragons don't blow fire," chided the rabbit. Its head bobbed up and down. Sonja smiled at its Nyssian accent. "Only wyverns do."

The young man groaned. "You've got to be kidding me."

"I'm not," said the rabbit. She turned it so it was speaking to her father. "Mr. Puppeteer, could you show our friend what a dragon looks like?"

Salam nodded to his daughter. But his mind was elsewhere, and he spoke to the old man as he dragged his chest from beneath their carriage. "It's no small war. The River Lords have banded together for this one."

"Hah!" said the old man. "That could only mean one thing, and the Eastern Kingdoms love fighting each other too much to ever make a move on Aartur."

Grim silence met the statement. Salam retrieved the dragon and brought it to the fire.

"Ancients above," muttered the old man. He scratched at his silvering beard. "That's..."

"It's garbage," said Sonja. "It's complete garbage. A senseless waste of life." She spit in the dirt. "Lahein."

"Now now, Sonja," chided the rabbit. Somehow the child had managed to fold the rabbit's arms across its chest, giving it a sternly disapproving air. "We mustn't soil our mouths with such language."

"It's been hard on all of us," said Salam as he untangled the strings of his marionette. They had bundled into a messy snarl, snagged on the wooden edges of its long elegant feathers.

"I'm so sorry," said the old man.

Salam shrugged. "We were lucky. We left. Most couldn't." He frowned, struggling with the knot. Seemed he forgot how to use his hands whenever the memories surfaced. Memories of home, of who they'd left behind.

After watching Salam struggle for a moment, the old man said, "Let me give you a hand with that. I know a thing or two about puppets."

Salam looked at the old man skeptically. "You do?"

The youth wore the same expression. "Please tell me you're joking."

Within half an hour, Anja was clutching her new rabbit to her chest, listening with rapt attention as the old man sang a ballad about dragons she had never heard before.

He spun in place, sending the dragon flying in long, wide circles. Its wings outspread, feathers bright with story and moonlight. The effect of his constant spinning was a rise and fall in the volume of his song as he either faced them or faced away from them. This, somehow, wove into the fabric of his story, which was about the rise and fall of two heroes; the rise and fall of two great nations.

His turning began to slow. His singing slowed too. His gray robes stopped fluttering and the dragon's flight was an ever shrinking circle. The end was approaching. The turning dragon was inches from touching him. Then he stopped, facing them, eyes downcast. The dragon listed aimlessly with spent momentum as he sang out the last words in a melody that broke under the weight of the rest of the story, the notes dying, the song dying, the dragon he had sung about throwing itself on the Liberator's spear for love of Archangel Ariadel.

Silence. The old man stood with his head bowed. Anja saw tears run down his wrinkled cheeks. She didn't know what to say. Neither did the young man. He had rolled his eyes and turned his back to the performance moments after it started.

Anja's mother and father came to the rescue, navigating the post-performance moment with compliments and exclamations of astonishment. They'd been alive longer, and could be affected by beauty without being silenced by it.

"Ancients above!" cried Salam. "What good fortune it is to meet such a talented Dervish on this long and winding road."

"Truly," said Sonja. "I have never heard that song sung before. Do you have a written copy?"

The old man wiped his eyes. "No. It was just something I heard once."

"I need to write it down while we remember. Can you help?" asked Sonja.

He smiled weakly. "It's not something I'm keen to revisit. Between the three of you, you should have the bones of it. Excuse me."

He tapped the youth on the shoulder, which caused him to flinch visibly. The old man whispered some words to him. His companion was looking at the road. He didn't seem to give any response.

The old man sighed and started unloading the horses. Salam approached him a few moments later as Anja and Sonja did their best to record the performance.

"There's a mark on that rabbit," he said at a whisper. "Under the right foot. An embroidery of a golden sun."

The stranger set down a large pack that looked much too heavy for him to lift with the ease he was displaying. "Huh."

"Where did you get it?" he demanded. "Did you steal it?"

The old man lifted a bag off the horse. He peered inside and seemed disappointed to find it only contained one apple. "It's just a stuffed animal." He grabbed the apple and split it in half with only his hands. He pawed at the ground until each hand held half an apple and a handful of rocks and dirt. He fed this to each horse. They chewed, hardly aware that they were even eating.

"Just a stuffed animal?" hissed Salam, casting his eyes back at his family. "It's made by the most legendary toymaker in all of the Haerth. That's real velvet fur. Those are black diamonds at the center of its eyes, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn that the wood was Old Growth."

"I wouldn't know anything about that," said the old man.

"Just who the hell are you?" demanded Salam. "If you mean us any harm, if-"

"No, no. We're just a traveling pair, searching for home."

Salam didn't know what to do. "If you're a Jassanese spy, if this is some sort of test-"

"Rinzai! They found us!"

Rinzai sighed. "Damn. Alright, Tristan. You know what to do."

"Found you?" exclaimed Salam. His wife and daughter looked up from the campfire, nervous. "Who found you?" He scurried to the other side of the horse, where the young one, Tristan, was coughing as he unstrapped a polished brown staff from their packs.

Another cloud of dust in the distance, but bigger. Salam's blood chilled: sounds of yipping and howling carried across the low plains.

"Efreeti," he said in one long breath. He spun toward Rinzai. "You brought them to us? To my daughter, my—is that a folding chair?"

"Impressive, isn't it?" said Rinzai, hefting the thing. "I designed it myself. Very lightweight." He scanned the topography. "I think that hill will provide the best view, don't you? Come come." He trudged toward the small rise a few hundred feet away.

Salam stared at him for a moment, then rushed to his family. "What's happening?" asked Anja.

Sonja pressed the pages of the stranger's song to her heart. "Efreeti?"

He nodded. "They brought them right to us, the idiots."

Anja looked confused. "So what if there are Ifrits? I saw a couple back home once and they were kind."

"These are different," said Salam. "They are outlaws. Scavengers."

"How do you know?" asked Anja stubbornly.

Her mother stroked her hair. "Do we run?" she asked her husband.

"Are you coming?" asked Rinzai. He came to their fire and dipped a twig in it until it caught. Then he walked toward his viewpoint, carefully sheltering his twig's fire from the wind.

"What does he want?" asked Sonja.

"To...get a better view."

Sonja's face twisted in confusion. "Of what?"

Anja pointed. "Of him?"

Tristan had withdrawn a smooth staff from his horse. He stretched, then twirled it smoothly across his body. He ducked, sweeping it over his head, and started a fighting routine.

He sprang forward. Jabbed the empty air, as if he were fighting enemies no one could see. Dodged left, then right, then planted the staff in the ground and heaved himself into a kick. All with only one hand.

He had removed his shirt. He was a lean man, but strong. His too-white skin was a tapestry of bruises, like a sky laden with stormy clouds.

He finished his practice set, then rested his staff in the dry dirt, and leaned on it. He took slow, deep breaths.

Anja didn't understand the severity of the situation. "Cool," she said. She tugged on her mother's skirts. "I want a staff. Can I have one?"

Sonja eyed Salam. "We might be safer with him."

All of his instincts told Salam to flee. The howls of the Efreeti crescendoed, seemingly coming from every angle. They might be happy enough to take these two as prisoners. Maybe they wouldn't chase him or his family. But if they did...

"We can't outrun horses," he admitted. "These two might be our best chance at survival."

They followed Rinzai, who greeted them warmly on his little hill. "He hasn't had an audience in a while," he said. "Hopefully he doesn't get too overzealous."

The invaders drew closer. "You don't sound very concerned," said Sonja. "Is he a skilled warrior?"

Salam nervously said, "Skilled enough to defeat at least..." He peered at the advancing cloud of dust. "Four mounted Ifrits?"

Rinzai procured a long pipe from inside his sleeve. The stem was black, the bowl red, carved in the shape of a demon sticking its tongue out. He filled it with leaf from a small pouch, then retrieved the twig that he'd stuck in the sand. "If I tell you, will you promise not to tell him?"

Sonja and Salam hesitated. Anja, however, nodded solemnly. She thrust forth the rabbit, who did the talking for her. "Yes, Mr. Dervish. I swear it on my cotton tail."

Rinzai's eyebrows shot up. "Hmm! That's quite a vow." He lit his pipe and puffed two perfect circles out of the bowl. Through the smoke he regarded the family. "A skilled warrior? Skilled warriors bow at his feet. That man is one of the best fighters in the world."

Anja watched the young man. Took in the shape of the bruises on his skin, watched the campfire's flickering illumination of his back. The light, she realized. He's keeping it behind him to blind them.

"If he's such a good fighter," said Salam skeptically, "then why is he so covered in bruises?"

Rinzai puffed on his pipe. "Because I'm better."

In that moment, Salam looked at Rinzai, and he finally saw him. He saw the hard set of his jaw. The sheer number of small scars that adorned his face, never mind the one like a lightning bolt that split his eye. The presence of a great desert storm that shone through his eyes. The rabbit, which was worth a fortune. The song, which was like an arrow to the soul. The pipe, with its bowl like a demon's head...

Salam shared a glance with Sonja. She'd realized it too. They were not in the presence of a friendly stranger. They were beside someone whose story was much greater than theirs. Their lives were puddles in the morning walk of his life.

And the young man. The sickly man with the bruises, with only one good arm. The one who so confidently awaited the Efreeti riders with only a quarterstaff to defend himself.

Who was he?

~

Everything has changed so much. I knew it would, but not like this.

~

You know, I used to think traveling was something everyone should do.

"A soft bed. A hot shower."

I thought it was this enlightening experience that opened your eyes to different perspectives, different worldviews.

"Ice water. Coffee."

I've heard it said that traveling is where you encounter the shape of yourself. Where you find your edges, your contours: how you think, when you push forward, when you give up. In short, who you are.

"A toilet," I said. "Dear god, my kingdom for a toilet."

Rinzai trotted next to me. "Don't you just love the smell of the road in the morning?" he beamed. He held the reigns of his horse loosely, and balanced the polished quarterstaff across his lap.

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