Authors: Jean Johnson
Kuruk heard a scream and dragged his gaze back down in time to see two figures on fire. Death had stalked up to one of the men who had struck him in the initial fight, and now held him close with one arm. The unlucky warrior had either bumped into or deliberately shoved the torch against his opponent's head, but where his own skin blackened and crisped, bringing the scents of singed wool, seared leather, and charring flesh, Ban's body burned with no visible effects other than a bit of oily smoke curling off his limbs.
His other arm grabbed the bronze blade of the next man and wrenched it free. Swallowing, Kuruk watched the warrior turn to flee, only to have Death fling the long dagger into his back. The man caught against Death's chest no longer struggled. Ban-taje released him and stepped over the corpse, the flames licking at his boots without doing any harm; his own fires were slowly dying down as the last of the earth oil burned out. Parts of his kilt smoldered but had not actually burned; a not-as-frightened corner of the scout leader's mind guessed that it was made from some sort of finely spun wool, to react like that.
“Anyone else?” Ban-taje asked. He focused on a trembling youth clutching an axe. “Didn't
strike me when the spear pierced my lungs?”
“IâI'm sorry!” After throwing his weapon at the ground, the warrior turned and ran before it even clanged on the stones underfoot, shoving his way through the gaping crowd. As if his flight was a signal, others turned and ran. First a handful, then by the dozens, then most of the crowdâwarriors, tajet, and animadjet alike.
A few remained, frozen in place. Kuruk was one of them. Ban-taje turned in a slow circle, pacing around until he came face to face with the scout leader. Feeling warm wetness trickling down his thighs, Kuruk dropped to his knees on the edge of the garden box, his left hand still gripping the sapling, forcing it to bend.
“P-Please.” He didn't know what he was pleading for, but there it was. “Please don'tÂ .Â .Â .”
Death took another step closer, his brown eyes remarkably calm considering the blood on his hands and the bodies in his wake. Along with the stench of blood came burnt flesh and charred wool. “Djin-taje-ul says I must not attack first.
time. If you do not attack, I will leave you alone.” Those eyes dropped to his chest, to the red lines painted on Kuruk's vest. He turned, eyed the slumped bodies, and lifted his chin. “One of those was your leader. We have no use for his corpse. Take his body, and go back to your people.”
Afraid that if he did not obey it would anger the man, Kuruk released the sapling and climbed down clumsily. He skirted around Death, heart beating fast in his chest, until he could grab Barrek's legs. The dead leader was larger and more muscular than Kuruk, a heavy, awkward weight to drag, but Kuruk did not stop hauling on it.
Death had spoken and given him a reprieve. He would take the body of his former leader and would never, ever return to this place. Every awkward step of the way, Kuruk prayed that these anima-beings, these
in the southern tongue, would stay content in their little valley. That they would stay far, far away from the Circle Fire Tribe.
Year 17, Month 5, Day 28
“They're back to calling it a mere gift again,” Halek murmured, watching the trade party from the Circle Fire Tribe setting up their tents in the valley before the theater.
He was getting old, the kind of old that Djin-taje-ul's magics could not cure, and it was simply easier to sit on the upper balcony of the long-restored gathering hall to watch the visitors who came and went. He had retired from being the taje of the humans, but still liked to keep an eye on everything. Those gifts had been given earlier, and now the trade goods were being set out for the Flame Sea Tribe to admire. There weren't many other visitors at this time of year, so the Circle Fire traders had drawn a lot of interest.
Halek gestured at the caravan. “They call it a gift, but it's still a tribute from a defeated tribe to a victorious one. It's still intended to placate us.”
“What makes you think that?” Ban asked. He, too, relaxed in the shade of the upper balcony. Where Halek's dark, gray-streaked hair had turned thickly gray over the years, that thin beard long since turned white, the painted man's own long locks were still solid black, his face smooth-shaven and unlined by the passage of time. He sat on one side of a long table, the same side as the former taje.
“Yesterday was cooler than the day before. So is today,” Halek observed. “We are now in the season of fading summer, when the water supplies are low. The chance of being caught in a flash flood on the return trip is high. They are therefore desperate for a blessing from associating peacefully with us, especially after last year's attempted attack by the Green Teeth Tribe.”
On the other side of the table, Djin-taje-ul frowned in annoyance. She placed one of her tiles among the others already laid in neat, touching rows and drew a replacement from the messy, unconnected pile set to one side. “We are
gods. We can no more change their fates, for good or for ill, than they can.”
“I think most of us understand that, Taje,” Halek told her, watching Ban select and place a tile. “Especially after you tripped and broke your arm two years ago.” That earned him another annoyed scowl, but he merely smiled. “Seeing the Mother-Healer in need of healing herself makes you more human in our eyes, and less Fae.”
“Save that feeling for the half-born children,” Djin-taje warned him. “I still have to make my report on their progress in a few years. It will determine whether we stay or go.”
Halek drew a spare tile without comment. He had learned in bits and pieces that the Fae were very much like the Circle Fire members in the valley below, at least in one aspect: they had come here originally to trade. In crafted goods, in grown foods, and in information, but just simply to trade. They would have established a hidden home in these rocks and would have gone to the other tribes to do their trading if Halek hadn't heeded Zudu's advice on finding a new place to settle and live.
Taje Djin-taje-ul was not the leader of all Fae, just those who were here. The others, the rest of their kind, lived “elsewhere, in a place far, far away,” as she put it. Hidden beings listened to her reports on all the information gathered, most of which was gathered by Ban, who rarely stayed in one place long. It was a good thing, really; even Halek, who knew the tall, painted warrior could be as gentle as a mother with a newborn, often felt more comfortable when Death roamed far away.
Her turn having come around again, Djin-taje moved a pip-covered tile into place, aligning one of its two sets of pips with another set, then drew a new one to replace the spent tile. This game, “dominoes,” was something Ban had taught her. Something Halek enjoyed playing. He eyed her placement and added one of his own, then lifted his chin at her. “How fares the new one?”
She grunted and patted her rounded stomach. “Eager to be born. I still don't know why we're so attracted to your kind, nor so fertile when we interbreed. Still, there seems little harm in the results. They look and act like blond-haired, beige-eyed humans, so we may be permitted to stay beyond the twenty-year mark. And then the forty-year mark. We are a patient race.”
“They do have a strong affinity for the anima,” Ban warned her. “I caught Luti whistling up a water spring the other day.”
“You did?” Halek asked, brows raising. “Literally whistling?”
He nodded. Just the once, his every move precise and conservative. As was the neat way he lifted one of the fajenz tiles into placeâhis last tile, technically, though there were still a few left in the drawing pile, forcing him to take one more. “I told her to put the water back when she was done.”
Halek placed one of his three tiles and drew a replacement.
“Did she manage it?” Djin-taje asked. She drew an extra tile, since she didn't seem to have one she could place. That left her with five in front of her, three in front of Halek, and just the one in front of Ban. This was an easy-enough game to play; it engaged the mind lightly while allowing enough of the rest of the mind to have the room to think of things to ask and say.
“No. Almost, but not quite. I cannot see water and stone the way Parren and Kaife can, but I am still able to use magic in this realm. I put the aquifer back where it belongs and lectured her about carrying a waterskin instead of casually disrupting Parren-taje's waterworks.”
Halek nodded, considering his own tiles. The Fae were now considered leaders in their individual areas of expertise. Parren for water, Adan for metalsmithing, Fali for hunting, Rua for gardening, so on and so forth. He supposed Ban was their default war leader, but the tall man spent far more time traveling and studying than fighting. At least, one presumed. The aging ex-leader wasn't sure anymore what the man did, aside from go away and come back periodically with news of other tribes and samples of plants, rocks, and so forth.
“Did Taje Kuruk send a message with his gifts this time?” Ban asked. He placed his tile and drew the second-to-last one of the lot. The game was almost over.
“Yes,” Halek told him. He placed a tile and drew the last one from the pile. Ban had not been here when the gifts had arrived, and Djin-taje had been too interested in playing a nice, relaxing game with two men to discuss intertribal politics before now. “He seems to have mellowed in some of his fear and aweâhis message stated it was a gift from one leader to another, not a war tribute, as I said.”
Djin-taje placed one of her tiles. “Well, I may be losing this game, but I think we're finally winning that one. Only the foolish try attacking us, and those grow fewer in number every year. Green Teeth's attempt at poisoning our water supply was good, but fruitless. I thank you again for the advice on letting the other tribes punish them for their attempt, Halek.”
“In the desert, any man who poisons the water for one poisons the water for all and must be stopped,” the aging ex-leader dismissed. “They got a far worse fate at the hands of the others. Unleashing Ban-taje would have made the pain short in length but would have left no room for them to rethink their ways.”
“They got exactly what they deserved,” Ban agreed mildly when their gentle-minded leader drew in a breath to argue that violence and violent punishment were not what people deserved. “Better for them to discipline themselves than for us outsiders to constantly step in. Is that not what you always say, my taje-ul?”
Sighing, Djin-taje gave in. “Fine. It is. Now play your last tile so we can tally the points for this round and see who's winning.”
Halek dutifully picked up his char-pencil, a stick lined with a core of charcoal-impregnated wax. A plain marble tile about the size of two heads in width and length made a good marking surface, so long as one was careful to scrub the marks free at the end of the day so that they did not permanently stain the smooth, white surface.
Ban laid down a tile that had no pips on it whatsoever. He capped another tile, one with three on one end and none on the other, by laying his piece crosswise. “Zero for me.”
A strange concept, giving nothing a number. Then again, so was writing, drawing marks that represented sounds. These Faeâand their Shae companionâwere strange and brought strange ideas, but they were good ideas. Counting his pips, Halek marked the tally. “Seven left for meÂ .Â .Â . and seventeen for the taje-ul.”
Ban started turning the fajenz tiles over one at a time, clicking them on the wooden surface. “I was thinking of departing with the Circle Fire traders. I have not been to the south in some time, and it would be good to explore beyond the southern mountains again. I might find the tribe Siffu came from this time. I have the descriptions and names of her family. It might give her some closure for each side to know what happened after she was kidnapped and enslaved.”
“Careful, or she might think you care,” Djin-taje teased.
Or so Halek thought. Ban replied bluntly, “She knows I do not. But I know that
do. For you, I will seek and ask.”
Seventeen, eighteen years, and Halek knew more about the closemouthed, fair-haired Fae than he did the enigmatic, dark-haired man. He was older than anyone, even Djin-taje, yet looked no older than his late twenties. He had battle skills beyond compare, could kick with the strength of an ox and cast spells like an animadj of many years. But though he looked more human than the Fae did, he was the most alien of the pantean.
Death. If so, then Djin-taje had to be Life, because if there was one thing clear in their strange relationship, it was that she was the one person who held him in check. Only Life could hold Death back. Halek carefully mixed up the tiles with the other two, and started selecting his required five to start. He still wasn't completely convinced they were anima-beings. They were a little too human, particularly at times like this, to be gods.
But he would caution his people to always keep an open mind, just in case.
Â is the national bestselling author of both military science fiction and fantasy romance, includingÂ
, a Flame Sea novella, and various series, such as Theirs Not to Reason Why, Sons of Destiny, and Guardians of Destiny. Currently, she lives in the Pacific Northwest. She enjoys chatting with her readers and can be easily reached through Twitter via @JeanJAuthor.
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