Against the Winds - 1
Previous Story- https://forums.candarion.com/topic/738/the-end-all-men-meet
She had heard of this land her entire life. Fractured stories from wandering traders and Hornbull nomads. Golden grass stretched across the horizon, challenging the sunset as the most beautiful sight eyes could hope to see. But this land held a brutality only the Sun Sons could understand, hidden beneath the shining facade. Only the desperate came here. Someone needing a place to hide, or needing hope - they would find neither. The desperate were fools, and fools never saw the trap until it was sprung. The Gold Expanse would make you into an effigy of what you once were, make you watch it burn to ash from behind glazed eyes. . .
Xaliti's eyes snapped open. She lay there staring at the ceiling of her canvas tent, the barest hints of pre-dawn light leaked through the open doorway. How long had she slept this time? A quarter-tide? Less? She sighed and rubbed her face, eyes still burning from exhaustion. With a grunt the Warrior sat up and took stock of her senses. Her back ached from another sleepless night on the hardpacked earth, she could smell a trace of smoke - the last watch? Xaliti pulled on a doeskin split kilt and her moccasins. She debated for a moment leaving the tent but decided to put on a tight linen wrap around her chest. She'd be on horseback today and would need it more than she needed reprieve from the wretched heat.
Exiting the tent and slinging her bandolier of knives around one shoulder, Xaliti surveyed the pitiful camp. Twelve similar tents were clustered around her's, with the Workers heaped in their sleeping bags behind a makeshift windwall made from the baggage. The edge of camp drew her eye, a small fire burned there with a figure leaned against a stone nearby. As she drew nearer it became clear that this wasn't some watchman, the silver haired warhawk gave it away - This was Rhotaro, her Second. The wizened warrior turned his ear at Xaliti's approach but didn't open his eyes. "Up early again." He stated, the words seeming to dredge up a coughing fit. Xaliti kicked a few rocks aside and sat across the fire from him. "Still can't sleep. What's your excuse?"
Rhotaro shrugged and turned back to the lightening dawn. "I took the last watch from Kaichiaxtch. He needs the rest more than I since you started him Pathfinding."
Xaliti rolled a bundle of gathered twigs onto the guttering fire. "Anything to report?"
"Two more horses died in the night."
"What caused it?"
The old man shrugged. "Hard to say. Dehydration I'd guess. Like the others." He leaned his head back against the stone and let out a sigh. "The ones still here won't do anything but walk."
Xaliti fiddled with the pommel of one of her sheathed knives, staring into the crackling flames. It took her a long moment to realize Rhotaro had opened his eyes and begun studying her. Mulling her thoughts over again, she cleared her throat. "Kill the remaining horses. Drain their blood into skins. They'll die today, or tomorrow. If we don't find something to drink then we'll be next."
Rhotaro grunted but didn't say anything. Xaliti knew him well enough to know that was an affirmation of agreement. She knew everyone in this expedition just as well - except the Workers of course. That made it all the harder to watch them suffer as they had. The expedition had been plagued by pitfalls since the day they'd left Kaiaomec. For sixty four tides they'd been travelling north, far behind schedule due to a herd of bison that took days to pass by. When they'd finally reached the Gold Expanse Xaliti had instituted water rationing after a Hornbull Raid, and now this slow death of the animals. Xaliti shook her head and matched Rhotaro's sigh. Despite her confidence of command, somewhere deep inside her that small voice still whispered aching truths - She had been given free reign to pick the members of this expedition. She picked her trusted friends and the most capable upstarts of her Crop. Was this the price of Loyalty to Xaliti?
Rhotaro leaned over and rummaged through his satchel, pulling out a small hemp-wrapped bundle and tossed it to Xaliti. She caught it deftly and unrolled it, smiling when she saw it was a few strips of gator-jerk. She'd thought they'd run out days ago. "Make merry, Xaliti. The Crop looks to you." Said Rhotaro, holding up a refusing hand when Xaliti tried to return the bundle. "You keep it. You're the last of us that needs to be downtrodden. Nobody watches me, I'm nearly Jerky myself in this Forgotten Sun." Finished Rhotaro. Xaliti attempted a smile but it was only on the surface. She nodded her thanks and tucked it into a spare sheath on her bandolier. "We've come too far to turn back now. We wouldn't make it back to Oniganche with the supplies we have, much less Kaiaomec. There has to be water somewhere… We'll keep following the Horbull Tribe until they lead us to it." Said Xaliti, waving a hand northward towards the wide tracks of a hundred Hornbulls plodding across the Expanse. Their deep footprints left behind pools of glistening shit filled mud reflecting off the coming dawn.
Rhotaro eyed Xaliti carefully. "So long as you keep the Pathfinders running out around us. We'll never know in this grass if we just missed a pond, or even a village of some-" Rhotaro coughed pointedly. Xaliti snapped her attention back to him and matched his crinkled gaze. He tilted his head, gesturing to the left. Xaliti looked and saw a small figure emerge from her tent and walk towards the fire on careful feet. She was dressed similarly to Xaliti and carried a long sheathed sword in her arms. The fire reflected in it's pommel of precious metals made to masterfully replicate a tortoise. A smile cracked across Xaliti's face. "Come, My Wake." She said, extending an arm to the girl. Khri took the last few steps and bowed slightly to Xaliti, then Rhotaro.
The girl handed the sword off to Xaliti and sat cross-legged next to her. Xaliti set the trophy sword aside and drew a knife, this one another trophy taken from the Brymoch. She moved to sit behind Khri, studying the sides of her head before setting to work shaving out the new growth there around her newly earned Warhawk.
The trio sat there in silence for a long while. Parts of the camp began to stir, but noone approached the fire. Whether they were preoccupied or respectful or fearful, Xaliti couldn't say. Finally the sun broke across the horizon, gold rays of dawn cascaded across the camp and every Ganche turned to gaze at the sun while it was still dim enough to allow it. There it was - their place of paradise that the Ganche were cast out of in the time before time, banished to wander the endless blue sea on the other side of the earth. Cursed to never look upon their homeland as it floated across. Only the souls of the greatest Chiefs and Warriors could escape the endless cycle of rebirth that was the Ganche's prison.
"Its so beautiful." Whispered Khri, her face sparkling with golden red light.
Rhotaro sighed and looked back to the fire. "All things lost and never found are thought of as beautiful."
That brought a frown to Xaliti's lips. She placed a hand on Khri's shoulder and squeezed. "Paradise is never lost." She said, eyes locked on the rising dawn. "It is simply out of reach."
Suddenly a low warble echoed across the Expanse from the north. That same deep, undulating reverberation that sounded at every dawn. At first Xaliti had figured it to be a beast of some kind, but now her scouts had reported that it was some kind of instrument used by the Hornbull Tribes every dawn. Long and loud, the sound could be heard for miles in all directions, subtley changing notes and pitches to create a sort of waving sound. Xaliti wasn't convinced that the Hornbull Tribes didn't use it as some kind of language similar to the Ganche Tiquini Whistle-Speak. Whatever it was, it swept a haunted energy through the camp. Every Ganche had stirred by now and every one was suddenly reminded that they were strangers in a strange land; This Dawn was not like those seen from the tops of great Mounds or the forests of Oniganche.
"I would speak clear with you, Xaliti." Said Rhotaro, breaking the eery silence that had fallen over the camp. Xaliti nodded for him to continue. The wizened Warrior looked at Khri then back to Xaliti pointedly. "Some words are only for you to hear. You may choose to tell your Wake, but that would be your decision."
"Khri. Rouse the Workers. Have them kill and drain the horses of blood. Have them set up drying packs for the meat. I want the camp to be ready to move by second tide." Said Xaliti, shushing Khri's welling protests. "Then alert the Pathfinders to spread out, relay reports when they can. Stay within Tiquini range." She sat back, watching the girl stand and gather her pack. "And fetch Kaichiaxtch. He'll be the lead Pathfinder today - He should be well rested." She finished. Rhotaro frowned at that but said nothing until Khri had left them.
"You understand that we're all going to die here?" He said flatly. Gaze leveled at Xaliti. The question took her by surprise, mind reeling while she searched his eyes for motive. "I… No, Rhotaro. Should I?"
"Yes. This expedition is a death sentence. We are lost, far from lands we know, far from water, and surrounded by enemies. We were never meant to survive, Xaliti." Said Rhotaro, sighing deeply. "We are victims of a political battle we could never truly understand. Tioteche's Folly - But we pay the cost in blood."
Xaliti narrowed her eyes. Was he right? She swept her gaze across the camp. At friends and allies that did not question her when they were chosen. Had she just condemned them all to die for the uncaring Chiefs? "No." She said, startling both Rhotaro herself with the icy resolve in her tone. "Tioteche wouldn't send us here for nothing."
Rhotaro grunted his dissent. "He would. If he had to. If he was forced to. Look around Xaliti. Already our numbers dwindle. We need to find water and we need to flee back to Oniganche… Every one of us that dies here cannot be returned to Twae'koa, Xaliti. You know that."
"I trust Tioteche!" She snapped back. "I am the Sum of a Thousand Lives. I am The Scourge of Bry. Who are you to question the Mochmaker when even I dare not?"
Rhotaro closed his eyes, the deep lines of his face catching dark shadows in the rising sun. "I am a dying man who needed to rinse his thoughts." He said slowly. Xaliti's eyes widened at that. "You're dying?" She said, anger suddenly washed away.
He nodded. "Yes. I have forgone my Water ration. And food. I give them to those more worthy than a withered warrior." His eyes shifted back to the dying fire as if staring in a mirror.
Xaliti snatched up her bandolier, pulling out the wrapped jerky and thrusting it at him. "Take this. Eat it, now. And drink the Bison Blood." There was a twinge her voice. An echo of something remembered but not recognized. "Rhotaro… Please. I can't lose you too."
Rhotaro didn't look up from the fire. His arms stayed resting on his crossed legs. "You will have to, My Wake." He said gently, using that term that hadn't applied to Xaliti for years. "I've felt the Withering inside me for many cycles now. I knew this would be my last journey. This may even be my last day."
"You shouldn't have come. Why did you agree?" Xaliti said softly. "You won't make it back. You won't be reborn… Your soul is wasted." She said, leaning forward on her elbow and covering her mouth with her hand.
"I came to counsel you. How could I turn my back to you?" Rhotaro coughed again. After spitting phlegm into the fire, he continued. "And so I have. Turn back. If you can't, then send others back. Go on yourself if you must. But know that this noose is tightening around you. Things will get worse and might never get better. You'll die here choking on sand and dust."
Xaliti didn't respond. The two sat quietly until the fire burned out. She looked up to see that Rhotaro staring back at her with precious moisture in his eyes.
A few hours later the camp was broken and loaded back onto the Bison Train. Meat was hung and blood was drank as the expedition continued stumbling north through the endless grass, following the winding shit-covered trail of the Hornbulls, still hoping they'd lead them to water. Kaichiaxtch called through Tiquini that he'd been spotted. He was never seen again. Xaliti hoped he deserted, but she knew better.