by Ryan J. Southworth
Part 1 appears|
in this issue.
“Why have you denied my men a drink from your pool, most honored Ulion Begatson? I had heard that your family’s hospitality is great.”
The Falmari warrior stood a step below Ulion on the sandy ridge, hands behind his back in a posture of submission. Even so his presence was intimidating. Tall and thick and powerful, he was dressed much too warmly for the desert sun but did not sweat. His skin was grey and leathery.
Ulion looked steadily into the too-large eyes, unflinching. The Falmari were certainly human-like, but... off. Whatever humanity their race had possessed at the beginning was buried now in the character of its ruder compliments. The addition of troll blood had over time made them a brutal people, corrupt and set apart from civilized life. It also made them dangerous adversaries. Enemies to be treated with care.
“Our hospitality has always been great for those who come in peace and deal justly,” Ulion said firmly. “I’m afraid your reputation precedes you.”
The Falmari laughed at that, deep and from his guts, but didn’t bother disagreeing with Ulion’s assessment. “Then certainly you know that our offer to pay you for the use of your oasis is most generous. We are not accustomed to granting such boons. And I assure you that none of our...” he paused, smiled, “business dealings... will affect you in the least. We will come in peace and be gone before your children have a chance to ask you who we are.”
“No,” Ulion said.
Ulion turned and pointed down the length of the ridge to where several acacia trees clung to life in the sandy rock. Beneath their shade were many iron poles. Small flags waved from their tops, reds and blues and greens.
“Beneath those trees lie twenty generations of the chiefs of my family. My father, and his, and beyond, stretching back to before your kind even existed. They were honorable men, brave, and good. You are right to say that we are known for our hospitality.”
The brute looked askew at the clump of palms and back at Ulion, his face scowling and frustrated. “Your point?”
“My point is that those men’s legacy weighs on me more than you could possibly know. And I will not tarnish it with the money of hired killers.”
The Falmari stood silent for a moment. Like a beating heart his fist clenched and unclenched, and Ulion knew that this man — this beast — could strike him down with little effort. Right here on the sand that led up and over the ridge into his village, the life could be wrung from his neck. They were a fearful enemy indeed.
Instead the Falmari turned quickly and began to shuffle down the sandy hill to his waiting mount. “It is good that you revere your forebears so highly, Ulion Begatson,” he said in a voice that chilled the sun. “Because soon you shall join them in the grave.”
* * *
The lightning had started, flashing in the dark and through the rain. With each bright bolt the riders appeared for a moment, a long line trudging through the growing muck toward the ridge and the waiting men. Mist wreathed about them as the cold rain and hot sand merged to pour a foggy blanket over the desert plain. Then in the blink of an eye the light would be gone and the darkness master of the night again.
There was no need for whispering now.
“Ulion!” Gamon shouted through the downpour. Lightning flashed and for a second Ulion saw his brother next to him, cape soaked and clinging to his prone form. “The rain can only slow them and help us, yes?”
Yes, the rain was sure to slow the Falmari advance. Already Ulion knew the canals and channels dug into the valley behind him were beginning to run with the water that the sand could not absorb. Into the pool and then, within the hour, over its banks and down the cliff. He had seen it happen just the same for nearly thirty seasons. The same trenches, the same flow, the same outcome.
Perhaps they could give the Falmari some water after all.
“Gamon!” Ulion shouted, but the words were lost in a peal of thunder. “Gamon!”
A bolt of lightning lit the ridge and he saw his brother’s face, wet and dripping with dark hair plastered to his forehead. “When they come,” Ulion yelled as the darkness once again reclaimed the night, “strike once and then retreat to the village! Every man to his door.”
Lightning. A confused face, still staring in his direction. Darkness.
“Gamon, pass it down the line!” Ulion shouted again. “One strike as they come over the ridge and then down to the tents! Down to the families!”
Gamon passed the instructions on to the left, Ulion to the right. Faintly he heard as it was repeated, father to son, son to brother, cousin to cousin on down the line. They would obey him. They would not understand, but they would obey. That the instructions had come from Ulion, their chief, was enough.
A low moan broke through the rain and the thunder. The cries of the iamos were bitter and pitiful, like parents mourning at the loss of a child. The storm lit the desert again and through the mist the Falmari came, to the foot of the ridge and beginning to climb. More thunder. More cries of fancied grief from the hungry mounts as they labored up the mud-slick ridge. A flash of light.
And then darkness. Night all around.
* * *
Ulion’s heart felt like it would burst. From pride. From sadness. He stood motionless before his people, spread out across the hot sand, dividing amongst themselves what weapons they had.
He had been in fights before — against sand tigers or thieves — but he was by no means a military leader. And these were not a warring people. The swords and long daggers his men now swung through the air in mock battle were relics of decades past, and most of the sharp pikes had seen more use as lantern posts than as weapons.
The movements of the boys were awkward, embarrassed. But an excitement ran through them, a thrill of a coming danger they did not understand. It was only in the faces of those Ulion’s age and older that he saw a fearful comprehension of what was to come.
Yet not one had wavered in his commitment to the coming fight. To a man — and to a boy — they had cheered his decision to stand up to the raiders. There had been no complaints. No pleas for an easier path.
Ulion turned his back to hide his tears.
* * *
The next flash of light showed the ugly faces of the iamos swaying back and forth over the sand in search of a scent through the wind and rain. They were close now, nearly within arms’ reach, and in the sudden burst of vision, predator and prey saw each other through the rain.
Then all was dark.
Shouts rose up all around and Ulion rose to a crouch, sword at the ready. An ill-aimed strike from the beast to his front glanced harmlessly off his shoulder and for an instant he knew where his enemy was. He brought his sword down hard, through flesh and bone and into the wet sand with a thump.
Another blind strike from his invisible foe snapped dagger-sharp fangs at his stomach, tearing away his cape and drawing blood, but again Ulion’s sword found its mark, sinking deep this time and bringing the beast crashing to the ground in a spray of blood and rain and sand.
And now for the running. Turning to face the camp Ulion stumbled down the ridge until another flash of lightning lit the sky. In an instant he saw it all, the whole valley laid out before him. The trenches where he had played as a boy. The trees where he and Thalia had stolen their first kiss. The canals he had maintained since childhood. He knew it all as well as he knew his own face, and as the light vanished and the darkness of the storm collapsed on them again he did not need to see.
Down the ridge he plunged and over the first canal which flowed like a torrent beneath him. Then ten quick steps to the right and over a second canal, equally wide and equally full of the season’s first downpour.
Another flash and he was down the hill, across the wooden bridge he had repaired last month and as the darkness claimed him again he turned to run parallel to another channel and towards his home. Another leap, then another. Another flash and the thunder that followed and he was home, standing in the door flap and facing the night.
“What has happened?” Thalia said from the darkness of the tent. She clutched a cloak around her quivering shoulders and moved to his side at the door.
“Look,” he said and his breath was ragged from the run and the pain at his side. He pointed his sword into the night and said again, “Look. See what we have done.”
At the next bolt of light the valley was a scene of chaos. The men from the tribe ran through their village, around the canals they knew so well and to their homes, standing firm as a last defense against the raiders who came at their heels.
But the Falmari did not know the valley. The system of trenches and holding pools that latticed the sandy soil became death traps for them in the darkness. One after another iamos plunged unseeing into the channels, snapping their legs and sending their riders tumbling down the current.
Weighed down with armor and weapons, the fallen soldiers struggled in vain to pull themselves against the torrent and onto the sand. Down the valley they were swept, into the central pool to drown or be washed over the cliffside and to the rocks below.
Some riders, realizing their plight, froze in their place, waiting for the lightning to show them a path. But their mounts were agitated now, reckless in their fear and straining against the harness, ready to bolt. Eyes wide in terror, they too were swept away and shattered in the dark.
What few survived the onslaught of the waters were now outnumbered and helpless, stranded as it seemed to them on islands of land encircled by the power of the rainy season. These pleaded for mercy, shouting at the storm and to any who could hear their submission and surrender.
* * *
“Will we win, Master Ulion?” the boy said, looking up and shielding his eyes from the hot sun. Samus was fourteen, the son of Ulion’s sister, and often the chief found him tagging along at his heels. Now the lad held white-knuckled tight to a long knife, tarnished and old. In his eyes was excitement. Fear.
Ulion wiped a tear from his eye and placed a hand on the boy’s shoulder, leaning low to whisper in his ear. “We are in the right, Samus. When all is said and done, we will win. And I will stand with you to see it done.”
Samus smiled. It was enough.
Copyright © 2010 by Ryan J. Southworth