The Long Road to the Deep North

  • Baron

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    I slipped out one night as soon as I could stand without hurting myself too much. There wasn't much time between now and then when the men who branded me would return and take me to… wherever they would take me. I needed to get out of the city as soon as I could.

    I stole a horse some groom carelessly left out, the animal blowing and making no motions to back away from my hand as I approached it. Maybe it didn't like its owner.

    Up until this moment, I had never been so close to a horse that I could touch it, much less ride it. My father used to take us to watch them run around in circuits on the grand plaza one day, and I would watch the horses and its riders speed across the great space against one another.

    I refrained from riding him until I was well away from the city, looking back in time for the sun to start colouring the sky dawn as the mounds of my city glowed underneath.

    I bit my lips, hesitant at all that lay ahead of me if I were to leave. And all that waited if I were to stay.

    With that thought, I jumped on the saddle with difficulty, pushing the horse forward awkwardly until it got annoyed enough to walk at a brisk pace forwards towards the unploughed fields of spring.

    I didn't know how long it would take for me to get to Kaiaomec, I didn't even know where Kaiaomec is exactly beyond northeast. You could forgive a child like me for being blind to optimism and naivety, but to act on it? A fool's death finds no tears in his grave. All I knew beyond a vague sense of direction and no provisions is that I could end up in Kaiaomec by luck and the generosity of strangers along the road, or I could die - which I wanted, if not less than living through to see that city to the north.

    We avoided people for the most part, even when I desperately needed food and thought I couldn't bear another night going to sleep hungry. I still had the mark of a slave after all, and that was enough to rouse even the slowest people to suspicion. Of course, I didn't know if people this far from Chetiwimoch even bothered or handled slaves because I'd never met anyone from the north, but I had no reason to think otherwise.

    We had been travelling for two weeks when we came upon a clearing in the forest one day. Wide open fields and pastures were too dangerous to let the horse graze - there were usually people about at this time of the year. But here the only risk of catching anyones attention to my presence came with hunters too busy with tracking their games to spare a thought for a lone horse. I found that this was also the best way to let the horse - who I took to calling Kiawaech - graze while I picked berries and roots to eat.

    On one of these days amongst the verdant green of the woods, it's easy to think that maybe I would just live like this. A wildman among the bushes and trees with Kiawaech as my only companion, risking no rejection or enslavement from some distant chief I didn't even know the name of. I could learn to build a hut for myself and the horse somewhere deep in the forest. I could learn to fish by a stream. I could live and die here making my own fate in the world amongst the living and dying animals of the wild. It would be easier, but that was neither the fate that I decided for myself and promised for Hetu.

    I returned to the clearing, a sack of berries and leaves slung over my shoulder as I walked where Kiawaech perked his head up to watch me. Bellowing air from his nostrils like he usually does which I took to mean “Hello”. Yet he stayed there, watching me like an approaching animal he had never seen before.

    Then his head snapped to look in a sideways glance towards the trees, snorting and letting out an agitated whinny as he beat his hooves twice against the ground. I followed his gaze, and that was when I saw a man standing by the edge of a clearing, watching us silently.

    The man dressed differently than I or anyone that I had ever known in Chetiwimoch did. He wore the top half of his face black with paint and his patterned headdress sported two black tusks instead of colourful feathers. He was clothed in fur as if winter hadn't ended for spring, and he had in his hands a bow with its quiver strapped lazily across his chest. The man watched us carefully, as if he was deciding whether or not I was a threat, even as I knew that would not be possible.

    Suddenly more figures began to emerge from the forest behind him, dressed similarly, until a horned beast I had never seen before marked with various colours of paint lumbered into view.

    Quickly, I dropped the sack I had carried and made for Kiawaech when an arrow flew and landed right between my legs where it could have easily buried itself between my ribcages.

    The man whistled, and the figures began to approach from all around me. One man held out a hand, keeping his distance and encouraging me to take it. And when I stayed there, he reached out, grabbing me by the wrist and locking my arms behind me as he knocked me down face first into the dirt.

    Kiawaech whinnied, standing on his two hind legs as others began to take him by the bridle. I began to scream with him as the man holding me down by the knees began to tightly tie a rope around my wrists. All of this; leaving Hetu behind, just to be enslaved again.

    I watched Kiawaech being led away towards where we came from as they brought me towards the man I had saw, now sitting at the back of the hornbull, watching me with the same expression as he had before.

    Fate, whatever you make of it, does not always go your way.

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