Against the Winds - 2
It was a rumbling in the earth. That was the first sign something was coming. Xaliti snapped to attention, forgetting the packs she was loading onto a slave as they broke their afternoon camp. Around the hustling caravan stood several other of her Warriors peppered in around the lesser castes monitoring the too-tall sea of grass looming around them. She saw them suddenly stiffen - they felt it too. The rumbling grew deeper, sending the pack dogs skittering in all directions. Luckily they'd already loaded their cargo before the slaves. Xaliti brought her hand to her mouth and sending a trilling line of Tiquini ripping across the landscape. She blew as loud as she could, knowing it needed to reach her Pathfinders in their miles-distant patrols.
-North Call- a whistle echoed through the camp, followed momentarily by East and West. A long moment stretched her nerves as she awaited a response, her breath caught on a knife edge. "Rhotaro! Khri!" Xaliti shouted as she sprinted to the south end of the small clearing they'd stopped in. Rhotaro fell in behind her step for step despite his advanced age. Xaliti waved a hand back towards the caravan. "Gather the Workers and Slaves, keep them from fleeing to their deaths. You know whats coming." Rhotaro touched his Mochmark briefly and peeled away from her, barking orders of his own to get the frightened chattel moving. Khri was at the south end of camp already when Xaliti arrived, she held her shirohk in one hand and loaded sling in the other. Xaliti felt a kernel of pride burn in her chest at the girl's readiness to fight, but pushed the feeling aside - there were more important tasks for her. "Khri!" Snapped Xaliti, causing the girl to raise her bow in a confused salute. Xaliti shook her head and took the double recurved bow from her. "You won't be fighting-" Xaliti began, swatting away Khri's attempts at protest. "You won't be fighting. I need you for something else." She finished, unslinging the belted satchel she'd been carrying since the expedition began. She turned the now-placated Khri around and strapped it onto her. The girl knew what this was. This satchel held the bones of the Forgotten man they'd set out to return to Sogadar. "Take the Forgotten. Run north, as fast as you can. Don't stop. If you don't hear our Tiquini by third tide, we're dead." Krhi whipped around at that. "Xaliti. I can fight! Let me-" Xaliti cracked the back of her hand across Khri's face, hard enough to send the smaller girl sprawling into the dust. "Go! I'll find you. And if I don't, you must find the Sun Sons."
At that moment she felt it. Xaliti whirled away from the girl as she got back to her feet just in time to see them. Three massive Hornbulls burst from enshrouding grass, the thunder of their trunk-like feet threatening to knock Xaliti to the ground. The beasts stood not much taller than a man, but seemed twice again as wide. Their hard grey skin was almost like plate armor with how good it was at turning aside weapons. Jutting from the Hornbull's nose was it's namesake - a vicious spike as long as Xaliti's arm. She stared down one such Horn as a beast charged her, the Howdah it wore bearing several whooping herdsmen armed with bows and short-hafted hook spears not unlike shirohks. One Tribesman pointed at her and drew back his bow.
Steady as the Tide.
Swift as the Rapids.
Xaliti intoned, feeling that familiar icy presence of the Twae'ii grip her mind as the world around her slowed. Her eyes darted around, drinking in her enemy. Three atop the charging Hornbull, the other two Hornbulls circled around her at full gallop - towards the Workers and Slaves. Xaliti worked to remain calm as the Herdsman released his arrow. She hadn't been raised as a Warrior, she didn't have the decades of training in the Twae'ii like the others had. Already she felt her hold on the presence slip along with her concentration. The arrow approached her now as if flying through honey, she easily sidestepped it and plucked it from the air, flipping it around and knocking it into her own bow. She drew back and let fly back at the tribesman.
The arrow took him in throat and snapped off when he crashed into the dust, snorting away his last breath. Her eyes lingered on him for just a second, but it was long enough for the Twae'ii to regress from her mind. Not yet! Xaliti screamed internally, wresting the trance back under control just as the Hornbull bore down on her. She rolled aside, easily positioning herself in her hyperfocused state to dodge the incoming thrust of a Shirohk from a passenger. Instead she grabbed onto the haft of the spear and yanked herself up, using the Herdsman's own weapon as a foothold to propel herself into the howdah. She felt the Twae'ii slip fully away as she landed. Xaliti bit her tongue hard and clenched her eyes, fighting off the vicious nausea and vertigo that accompanied leaving the trance. Luckily it seemed like the Herdsmen were too shocked by her sudden boarding to take advantage of her lapse in awareness. She stood up, shaking away the dull feeling of ice cold sweat from her body - as if she'd been doused in freezing water.
Xaliti rocked back and forth uneasily, not used to the shifting arena of the Hornbull's Howdah. The Herdsman charged at her with his Shirohk, pushing her on the backfoot - at that moment, her training took over.
Knee to back.
Knife through spine.
Even now, after all these years, Xaliti was sometimes surprised at how well she'd taken to killing. Her body was a honed weapon of the Moch, and her mind an all too willing taskmaster.
The final Herdsman atop the Hornbull dropped the reigns and charged at her with a curved machete. Xaliti fell back into the Stance of Storms - feet spaced, knife close, arms loose and hands open. He took a few staggered steps to close the distance, raising his machete high. Xaliti swatted his machete wide with her open hand and plunged her knife into his supporting thigh in the same motion, smiling when she felt it clip the bone and exit the other side. The Herdsman's shriek of surprise was cut short by a thunderous strike from Xaliti's fist. He clutched his stomach and doubled over, his falling face lining up perfectly against her rising knee. Grabbing the wiry herdsman around the waste, Xaliti was again struck by how much more scrawny and malnourished they were than her. The thought passed quickly when she tossed the stunned Herdsman off the Howdah to crash in a heap below. Near where he landed Xaliti spotted an idle Warrior, she recognized him by his warhawk woven with blue feathers. "Inwitti!" She called out. Inwitti spun around, saw the rising Herdsman, and nodded at Xaliti as he raised his painted crossbow. She didn't wait to see his death, instead she spun around and leapt into the Hornbull's saddle and grasped the reigns.
Across the clearing were the other two Hornbulls. Snorting, stomping, and goring the mostly defenseless Workers. Xaliti clenched her teeth and drew the reigns up hard against her chest. Her Hornbull bucked for a few moments before finally calming enough to stand still while Xaliti lined it up with the other Bulls. She tried kicking the beast like a horse, clicking at it like a dog, and giving it free reign like a bison - but nothing would spur the Hornbull into forward motion. Xaliti let loose a low growl. She didn't have time for this. Trying a different tact, she drew another knife and plunged it into the beast's shoulder. The Hornbull seemed to almost squeal and started bucking and trotting wildly, it was all Xaliti coud do to keep it in line with the others across the clearing. Her vision began to swim with dehydration, he legs going weak from exhaustion. She focused just on holding the reigns straight as her target grew closer and closer.
Finally the Hornbull crashed into it's kin, slipping beneath the belly and impaling it on it's spike horn. The sudden stop threw Xaliti forward, sending her flying fully over the impaled Hornbull and into the grass beyond. Her vision began to darken as she tried to stand, swooned, and fell back to the dust. The last thing she saw was the two Hornbulls caught in a tug of war with life and death, one impaled, the other's neck broken.
When she awoke she was staring at the ground passing beneath her. She was being carried. Slowly she reached up to feel her warhawk, finally taking a breath when she confirmed she hadn't been scalped. "Put me down." She croaked. The ground stopped moving and she was hoisted off of someone's shoulder. She smiled when she was greeted with Rhotaro's wrinkled face. Xaliti fell forward and rested her head against his chest. "I'm surprised you can still carry me." She mumbled, still trying to make sense of her delirium. "You may be a Warrior, but I am too. Never assume someone has lost their edge." He answered her. She could hear the smile in his voice. Looking up and around them, Xaliti frowned. "Where are we? Where are the rest of the Chattel? I saw them break like rabbits before a wolf."
Rhotaro flicked his eyes around for prying ears. "These with me are the ones who stuck close by. A dozen Warriors have split to our flanks. The rest…" Rhotaro looked away. "Ch'sucht. Maybe. We call them as we run North, but there are Herdsmen searching for stragglers too."
Xaliti inhaled deeply and raised herself back to standing. Pressing in all around her was the ever-present grass of the Gold Expanse. Only now they weren't following some Hornbull Tribe's trail, or a road of any kind. No, now they were forging blindly through the endless grass, ticks, nettles, locusts, and all manner of other creatures she couldn't even see. How long until they came upon some Midnight Lion? "Where are we going?" She asked more specifically. "And where is Khri?"
A smile cracked across the old Warrior's face. "Khri lives. She guides us northward via Tiquini. Maybe a few miles away yet." He put a hand on Xaliti's shoulder, steadying her. "She says there's something you have to see."
With that, the group of beleaguered survivors trekked northward towards the distant call of Khri's Tiquini. More survivors joined up with them as they went, but to Xaliti it seemed like most had vanished. Eventually the dogs started trickling back to the group. You could always trust the pack dogs to return - Xaliti valued them more than the Workers if she was being honest. Sometime after the third tide, what was left of Xaliti's expedition stumbled out of the wall of endless grass. There they found themselves on the edge of an immense bluff overlooking the vast and unchanging landscape below. Khri jogged towards them from a distant outcropping of shady rocks, pointing wildly out towards the horizon.
Xaliti looked back, squinting against the setting sun. Her breath caught in her throat even as Rhotaro gasped. Across the plains there was a warm mass of light that filled the land below them. Tall concentric rings enclosed huts that spewed forth from the heavy stoneworks to bleed into one another like seafoam upon a beach. In the center of it all was another ring, but this was taller than the rest and made of stones that were impossibly large. Above its brightly patterned parapets, they could see static figures perched black against the waning light of the third tide.
"Is it Senitwaa'iti?" Asked Khri, breathless as she looked out over the city.
"No." Xaliti whispered. "That is Mehraq."
The caravan spent the next several hours inching their way down knotted hempen rope slung over the cliff until at last they reached the ground below. Xaliti reasoned that the cliff was a natural barrier for the Hornbull Raiders above, as the beasts they relied on could never climb down. For all she knew there wasn't an easy way down this bluff anywhere. Once the last Warrior reached the bottom, Xaliti did a headcount - Twenty Seven Warriors and Thirty or so of the lesser castes remained. A pitiful fraction of the proud caravan that left Kaiaomoch those weeks ago. She sighed and turned to the North, the city was hidden behind the looming tall grass now, but she knew it lay somewhere out there. Somewhere close. Workers armed with threshers took the lead, carving a path through the endless stale grass.
It wasn't until second tide on the next day that the beleaguered caravan stumbled it's way into the massive clearing that held the city and it's pastures. Upon reaching the outskirts Xaliti nearly fell into the dust, her body screaming for rest and water. But she didn't, she couldn't - not with her people watching. Instead she leaned against a woven stick fence, facing away from the accusing faces of her kin. "Rhotaro! Inwitti!" She croaked, voice cracking after hours of not speaking. The pair of Warriors leaned against the fence with her when they arrived. "Make ready, we go to treat with the Chief in this city. Inwitti - it's time for you to prove how good you really are speaking the Sun Son's Tongue."
Xaliti wove her way through the rows of huts, Rhotaro and Inwitti following just a few steps behind. People gawked and stopped from their hurried chores to look at them as they passed, and Xaliti couldn't help but feel as if she were being scrutinised with every step she took upon their path. The crowds, the huts, and the animals they kept in tiny enclosures seemed to grow even more dense as they slowly approached the city proper, until it had become hard to distinguish which were which. It was becoming harder to breathe at the sudden closeness of it all. Xaliti felt like a cricket piled atop other refuse in the feed trough the slaves would gather to eat from.
It was almost a relief when the claustrophobic space around them suddenly gave way to a clearing. Before them were walls so large, they looked like boulders stacked carefully atop one another by creatures larger than anything she could imagine. Inwitti stopped, rooted in place at the sight of the immense stone walls with mouth hanging open. Rhotaro had to reach back and grab him before he was washed away with the crowd and pulled him towards the gate, hurrying to keep up with Xaliti.
There were two sentries standing guard at the gates as they approached. They held long spears that towered far above their heads, as with most things they seemed to have found here. Xaliti wondered if these people worshipped giants. They wore helms with the fearsome visage of alligators and leopards carved upon them, and she could see behind those colourful headpieces the bright gold eyes of the man staring back at her.
“Attsuo pet ke?” one of them said to Xaliti.
Xaliti glanced towards Inwitti and gestured towards the sentries. The young Warrior swallowed dust down his dry throat and frowned. “Ke… Suopanuolliuoni” he said slowly, laboring over the words carefully.
If the guards had found humour in the way Inwitti had butchered their language, they did not show it, and instead gestured for them to come inside the walls with a cold wave of their hand. Inwitti locked eyes with Xaliti and forced a smile - one she didn't return.
The Trio were led through the inner city by the helmed guardsmen, through snaking corridors of walls, dead ends, and wide spaces packed with round huts and screaming children. Xaliti took it all in stride. She knew these people would live differently than the Mochs, but hadn't quite imagined the ant-colony feeling of the whole city. As they passed around a sharp corner like any other of the dozens they'd passed through so far, she was suddenly accosted by the sight of some great longhouse standing before them. It was crimson and cream colored, and had eerily similar construction to the A-frame atop the Grand Mound of Kaiaomoch.
The alligator helmed guardsmen threw a hand toward the A-frame and mumbled something they could not understand before stepping back with his cohort to guard the doorway. The trio took the steps up to the entrance of the Chief's Longhouse.
She looked back at Inwitti quizzically. "Are we just to… walk in?"
Inwitti held his hands up as if trying to grasp the answer from thin air. "Yes. I think. Maybe."
Xaliti rolled her eyes as she thrust aside the curtain. Inside she was met with an impossibly long room that stretched out before her like some never-ending dream. Lit by the glowing coals of central firepits, Xaliti could see colorful curtains lining the walls that hid the goings-on of the lounges behind them. At the far end of the room sat a man sitting atop a solid gold stool that glittered brilliantly in the firelight.[description of man]. Flanked by some form of council or court, all of them seemed to be engaged in some sort of meeting and meal. They started walking down the hall towards the Chief, the clinking of weapons and tinkling of beaded clothing echoing through the empty expanse and drawing a silence over the room.
“Attsuo dep ke?” The man on the stool said loudly as he took notice to their entry in his longhouse, the bright smile on his lips lingering after some unknown jest that was not shared or heard by them.
“Dep ke?” Inwitti struggled. “Dep ke… Ganche?” He finally answered.
“You come from Ganche lands, strangers?” The man said in fluent but accented Tiqwa, his eyes suddenly glimmering with a new found interest in the newcomers.
Xaliti took two steps forward with head held high. "I am Xaliti - Warrior of the Great Kaiaomoch. We are here on our passage to Senitwaa'iti. I am in need of water, food, and supplies."
“And what business do you have in Senitwaa’iti, warrior?” The man asked once more, leaning forward eagerly.
"We go to deliver their dead and negotiate trade for Kaiaomoch."
The man’s eyes lingered on her for a moment. “I see.” He nodded his head sagely. He stood up from his stool abruptly then, snatching a cup from one of his courtiers as he stepped forward towards the Ganche.
“Here is your Senitwaa’iti, warrior.” He offered her the cup with a wide grin.
Xaliti looked down at the gem encrusted cup in the shape of a bull, with the horns bent back to form its handle. Her eyes drifted slowly back up to the Chief's grinning gaze. "I do not understand."
“You need not to travel so far to find Sogad goods to receive them. We provide all that you seek here in Mehraq.” The chief explained, gently placing the cup on Xaliti’s hands before he turned to take his seat on the stool once more.
Xaliti's eyes narrowed. "Our business does not end with trade. I'm afraid it requires the aid of someone with a fair bit more influence than you could manage." She said, handing the cup back.
She could see his eyes harden at that, yet when he spoke, he betrayed nothing of his cordial nature to them. “And what would that be, Ganche?” He asked.
"To divert the Saltway away from Saskitchemoch." She said resolutely, her gaze flashing against his.
The courtiers erupted into a cacophony of whispers at that, eliciting a backward glare from the Chief. “Why should such matters be in my interest?”
"They…" Xaliti's shoulders slumped. "They don't." She finished, her determined tone cracking under the questioning line of conversation.
The Chief grinned once more, satisfied at the sight of Xaliti floundering. “And so it is not.” He repeated cheerfully, waving his jewel-drenched hand carelessly against the air. “You are welcome to purchase any provisions from our storehouses. Otherwise, you may leave us.” He said in a dismissive tone, settling himself back into his glimmering stool as he shared a laugh with his court.
Outside they rejoined the guardsmen who brought them here, though now Xaliti could see they were agitated, word had evidently reached them of her dismissal. They gestured for the trio to follow them without another word - Xaliti already knew where they were going. The Guards led them back through the twisting corridors of the inner city and to the main gate.
Rhotaro put a hand on Xaliti's shoulder. "We did what we could. We've passed merchants here, maybe they'll be willing to trade something for supplies."
"Trade what? Our Forgotten gifts?" She scoffed. "What's left of them, anyway."
"Maybe we should." Inwitti squeaked. "The Workers, some of them, they don't go much further without eat and drink."
Xaliti rubbed the shaved sides of her head, gathering the sweat droplets there before slurping them back into her mouth. "You're right." She said with a sigh. "The brownwater left by the Hornbull Herds has been… less than helpful." She said as she turned away from the gate and strode back into the city outskirts. The clusters of houses broke away into pastures stretching as far as she could see, dotted with herds of grazing cattle. There she came upon the remains of her huddled caravan - an entirely different breed of cattle.
Khri emerged from the crowd and jogged out to greet the returning trio. "Where are the supplies?" She said, poking her head around Xaliti as if some baggage train hid behind her. Rhotaro shook his head and pulled Khri away from Xaliti. "There is none. These Sun Sons will not help us. But we may trade on the outskirts."
Khri fell silent at that, she knew their moods after weeks of travel and knew when to not press her. Rhotaro called tiquini and summoned a set of Slave Caste from the caravan that trotted up to present their cargo. Xaliti opened the first one's pack of glittering artworks and baubles. She sifted through it, becoming more agitated. "How can we show the wealth of Kaiaomoch if we lose it along the way?" She asked, pulling out an Olma replica carved from a single fist-sized emerald. Rhotaro took the Olma from her and tossed it back into the pack. "We won't be showing anything if we all die of thirst, Xaliti. There has to be something to part with."
Rubbing her sleepless eyes, Xaliti groaned long and low. She was so tired of being tired. So exhausted with making every decision that always led to another failure greater than the last. Everything always came back to the Thirst. None of them would make it much further without water. Xaliti opened her eyes suddenly. "Won't make it much further without water…" She whispered. "Rhotaro!" A thought struck her suddenly. "Bring the Turtles!"
Rhotaro beckoned a certain slave over and shot Xaliti a questioning look. "The Turtles have all wasted away."
"Thats the point." Said Xaliti, opening the wicker cage on the slave's back. Inside were six small turtles with shells gilded in spiraling gold designs. They were dead for some time, all but one had perished weeks ago, there wasn't enough water to spare. Xaliti collected the carcasses and handed all five to Rhotaro. "Take these into town. Trade for Water. Food. Supplies. Take Inwitti to speak for you." She said, smiling at Inwitti's expected groan.
Rhotaro nodded and handed the dead turtles to Inwitti as the pair walked into town. Beside Xaliti, Khri cleared her throat. "What do we do now?"
Xaliti turned to regard the distant horizon. "We keep going North. There's nothing else to do."