The Dragons of Arbor
Chapter 6: Dust and Demons
Copyright© 2011 by Sea-Life
The Zadrain Steppes were a harsh place, much harsher than the Shadar River Valley, and so challenging for me! I found almost immediately that there was little flowing water to draw strength from. What little there was was either brief, distant or buried deep beneath the stone and sand of the steppes.
Marila was clan leader of the Dry Hills clan of the Zadaru. Some arrangement had been made to foster me among them for a time. How long, still to be determined. For this to happen, I was going to have to be adopted into the clan, and Marila and her mate Tak would become my clan parents.
"My husband is from the west, having been of the Copper Canyon clan, and it is through him that the request was made of the clan to foster you. The Wind of Arbor has made the request herself, we are told, as a favor to someone."
We were riding back to the camp, an extra horse having been brought for me. Trellis had not stayed, despite the hour growing late.
"I do not see with the same eyes as men, when my Magic is about me. I have plenty to guide me on my way, and the trip home will be much shorter than the one that we just took." She had said in parting. Her disk was soon just a glimmer high on the horizon as the sunlight reflected from it flashed at us.
The Zadaru, or at least these Zadaru, used almost nothing but a blanket and a small patch of leather as a saddle. Far different than what I was used to. The many hours I'd spent on horseback stood me well though, and I was able to manage with the minimal gear. Still, it was a good thing the ride was short.
Evening meal was roast goat, with some spiced melon and heavily seasoned rice, washed down with a serviceable enough wine, very fruity and with something of a weak finish. There was little in the way of talk. Tomorrow we would be traveling, and most everyone was quickly busy once the meal was over. I had nothing to do and no one expecting me to pitch in, so I sat on a rock near the fire and made sure what little gear I had was efficiently packed for travel.
The next morning, I saw an entire city of tents and supplies packed, folded and carefully placed on the clan's horses. The very young and the elderly were left to guide them, and we began to run. I had run before, but not like this. These people seemed born to run. I managed to keep up, more or less, though I noticed some of the runners seemed to be running circles around the rest of us, literally! When I began to feel as if there was no way I would be able to go on, I began trying to feel some water flowing somewhere to draw strength from, but there was nothing, only the faintest of whispers in the far distance, or deep beneath my feet. Far too distant to draw strength from. Marila did not run beside me, and in fact I was surrounded mostly by eight and nine year olds, who seemed somewhat contemptuous of my running. I collapsed before midday meal, and an older man, not an elder, but a few years from it probably, was assigned to escort me back to the horses. I rode with the old, infirm and the infants for the rest of the day. Dinner was a blur of aching muscles and pain. I collapsed on my furs as soon as it was over and didn't even have the time, nor the energy to cry myself to sleep.
I made it no further the second day than I had the first, though I took some small pride in overcoming the body ache and pain I woke up to and making it at least as long as I had the first day. I had to be getting better, the second night I did manage to cry myself to sleep, though it was a short bout of tears. I also managed to wake up on my own without needing to be rousted by those nearby.
I still fought aching muscles and some new sore spots, beginning to rub themselves raw as my pack chafed here and there. I mentioned it to one of the young girls I was running with and they called one of the women over to take a look. A piece of sheepskin was added in one spot for padding and a couple strips of leather were added to tie the pack to me in a couple places to prevent it from shifting as I ran. All this had been done without anyone even breaking stride. Well except for me. I managed to stumble twice, which caused the nearby girls to twitter in laughter over my clumsiness.
I almost lasted until we stopped for the evening of our third day. It was sore feet that did me in more than fatigue, though I certainly wasn't done with fatigue, not even close!
After evening meal I was given a flask of something dark and foul smelling and told to wipe down the bottoms of my feet with it every night just before going to sleep. The bottoms of my feet had not been able to toughen over time, as these clansman's had, and the treatment was designed to hasten that process.
"Do not touch yourself anywhere sensitive after applying this, you know what I mean?" Felit, the old woman who had given it to me said. I must have had a blank look in response to that.
"This will deaden the skin, and make it insensitive to the touch, so be careful where your fingers go if there is potion on them. You do not want to become a woman who goes through life unable to receive pleasure."
Oh. Well that was plain enough I guess. I blushed and the old woman laughed as she left.
The evening of the our fourth day, my first time on our journey when I had been able to make the entire run, Dyou, one of clan leaders lieutenants came to me before the evening meal.
"You carry a bow and a staff. Can you use either of them, or are they for show?"
I started to say, with some indignity that of course I could use them, but then I remembered that I used to think I could run too.
"I have received instruction in them, but I do not know if that will be sufficient to the clans purposes.
"Good. You are not one of those city-bred experts who sees only the face their own existence puts on things. Let's go see what you know."
I was not humiliated by comparison to the clan women's skills with a bow, but I saw that I had a very long way to go to match any of the adult women in the tribe. Particularly in their ability to draw and fire on the run.
"You did well for someone not of the clans. The histories of the Zadaru speak only of one time when an outsider came to the clan and did not need teaching, and that one was the Wind of Arbor, so you should not take this the wrong way."
I had a feeling that what she meant by the wrong way was as a sign of the clan's lacking skill. No danger of that from me!
The staff was another matter, I soon learned. I outmatched all of the women I fought that night, and it was promised that tomorrow evening I would get a chance to match myself against the men.
I robbed my feet with potion, carefully cleaning my hands afterwards and went to sleep to visions of clashing staves and swirling dust.
Mid morning of our fifth day I felt water close by and stopped, surprising the girls around me. Teppa, the leader of their little band called out for one of the women, my stopping had so alarmed her.
Standing still, I reached for the water with my senses, and felt it off to my right, beyond a small rise. I began to run in that direction, only to be stopped by the shouting of the girls. Teppa's call had brough Amian, one of the women who ran the perimeter of our trail.
"Why do you break off the run?" She asked.
"I sense water nearby." I answered.
"You girls get going. Let Fedeh know that I am off my route for the moment, but that its not an emergency." Turning to me, she flashed me a look that I took as a challenge. "Show me."
We ran over the rise and out onto a hard pan of smooth dry ground, blown almost clean by the constant wind. We were practically in the middle of it when I stopped. The source of the water I was feeling was ten feet directly below me. I dropped to my knees and put my hand on the hard packed dried clay of the packed ground.
"Here, ten feet down there is a flow of water." I said.
"This is your gift, to know such things?" Amian asked me.
"Yes." I answered. I dug my spare bow from my pack and took the strings off it and placed one end on the ground. I began to spin it between my hands like a fire drill. I borrowed some strength from the water below me and added it to the speed of my drilling. The water was ten feet below us, but with my hand touching the ground I knew there was moist soil between the water and the surface, and I thought I could reach it with my improvised drill.
"Stop!" Amian said sharply. "You will ruin your bow, even if it is a spare it shouldn't be treated so harshly."
She pulled a whistle from where it hung, suspended on a cord around her neck and blew two sharp short notes followed by a longer one.
"There had better be water here. I have just stopped the entire clan on your word."
It took an hour to get the clan turned and here. Marila had someone fetch a long hollow length of swamp cane, fire hardened and obviously designed for this purpose. There was little chance of something like this swamp cane ever being found anywhere on the steppes. It must have been traded for and was obviously a precious bit of clan property.
"Before I put this tool to ground, what can you say to convince me that you are not just wasting the clan's time?"
I thought about it for a moment. There was nothing I could say, but perhaps there was something I could do. I pulled as much strength from the water below me as I thought it safe to.
"Nothing I can say, but perhaps something I can do." I said.
Full of the flowing water's strength I stepped away from the crowd that had gathered around us, motioning everyone to stay clear. I flexed my legs and jumped twenty feet into the air, managing a nice somersault at the top of my leap. When I landed it was lightly, and still feeling stronger than I had since I'd come to the Zadrain.
There was not a word from the crowd for a long time, until finally Marila spoke.
"I see perhaps why we were asked to take you in. You must be a very dangerous woman when you are near water."
"Flowing water, if it isn't moving, I can draw nothing from it." I corrected.
The reed was applied to my small start, and soon enough there was indeed a nice flow of water coming up from underground.
"Felit, get Fedeh and several of the other elders to build a cairn. They will know the proper methods." Marila said. "Teppa, fetch Yanya and ask him to bring his map. We will want to add this to the clan water map. We will need to check it again next season to make sure it doesn't just dry up now that we have drilled into it."
"Does your gift tell you whether this water is safe to drink?" Marila asked.
I reached out, touching the water coming up through the reed. Yes it was pure. Very pure and sweet.
"Yes, the water is very good." I answered.
"Tarsk! Get a siphon over here and lets get busy topping off all the water skins. You will wait for the horses and get the pack skins filled as well. Select whoever you need to get it done."
With that, the clan was back on the move. With the strength I had taken from the flow, I was giddy with the effortless manner with which I ran. There would be no problems finishing the run today. I could only hope that there was no power hangover tomorrow. I had never felt anything like that, but the constant running was outside of my old experience as well.
The Dry Mountains that gave this clan its name were one of the natural features that kept the steppes isolated from the areas that surrounded it. East beyond the mountains themselves was the Imhur, the strange wild forest ruled by the Fenrim. The hills were the winter home of the clan, and one of the few places where they raised their tents that came close to being green. The Dry Hills did manage to trap some moisture from the winter winds, and that moisture fell as mists and fog. An actual rain might happen, but was rare. Hunting was good, with the game plentiful. Trade with the Fenrim was possible, and sometimes occurred at the end of a trading trail that lead to the very edge of the great wood.
I learned these facts, and others, during the long days running across the steppes. The trip took the clan eighteen days. This was only two days longer than normal, and when I was told that, it was meant to be a compliment. I had only slowed the clan's travel by two full days. I almost laughed except for the dead seriousness with which the compliment was delivered.
The clan's winter home was a valley, or close to it, the sides of the low hills were covered with thick scrub, not trees, but it was a valley nonetheless. The dry wash that ran through the middle of it was going to have water running in it a moon from now.
I had thought I had already been adopted into the clan, but once we arrived in the valley I learned that this wasn't true. Marila and Tak were to be my foster parents, but I had to go through several steps to become one of the clan. Primarily, I had to prove I could learn, that I could survive, and that I had a skill or craft that was useful to the clan.
For most of the clan, those born into it, they proved themselves to the clan by demonstrating the ability to hunt or track, or with some skill or craft such as arrow making or leather work.
I had already demonstrated that I was a capable water douser, and that was a valuable skill to these people, for whom water was life, on a much purer and more vital level than it was to most others. Before the demonstration of a skill would be considered though, I first had to prove I was capable of learning.
I had demonstrated no skills as a tracker during my time with the Sisters and I did not have much hope for suddenly developing a knack for it here, but I went with Eirac, one of the clans trackers our first morning in the valley.
"You walk silently enough." Eirac commented after we had been moving towards a nearby hill for a while. "You have stalked game somewhere."
"Yes, but never out in the open like this."
We aren't stalking anything yet. We will begin to look for sign when we reach the scrub higher on the hill." Eirac said.
"What is the most important trait of a good tracker?" Came the question some time later. I was surprised by it, and thought a long time about the answer I was going to give. It seemed obvious to me, but I had no confidence in it.
"Sharp eyes." I said.
Another ten minutes of quiet walking brought us to a small ridge line, and above that the scrub grew very thick. It would be much slower going from now on. Eirac sat, cross-legged, and I joined him.
"The most important traits for a good tracker is stillness of being, peaceful purpose and an open mind." He told me. "Good trackers are soft-spoken and receptive, patient and unassuming. Why do you think that is?"
This was familiar philosophy, to a degree. My teachers in the Sisterhood had said nearly these exact words. Perhaps it was because this time they were a question instead of a statement of fact that I truly gave them so much thought, when before I had only nodded my understanding and waited for the next fact.
"Because the signs are easier to see when there are less distractions?" I answered, with a question.
"A good start."
Horsemanship, for the clans is a mixed bag. They would have been hard pressed if they tried to survive on the steppes without them, but keeping them fed was a huge burden on the clan. A good amount of the winter was spent gathering and processing the feed that fed them the rest of the year. There were large storage areas in the valley, wide shallow caves, more overhanging cliffs than caves really, where the purple shiver weed was stored after it had been boiled and ground, then roasted, just until it was dry. The dense aromatic meal was amazingly efficient as feed, and with it, they managed to keep their horses fed and happy. Even with this incredible feed, they could not afford to keep enough horses for every man to own one, nor could they afford horses to carry men and women fit enough to run, so every horse the clan owned was a clan treasure, and each horse was a beast of burden when the clan was on the move. Caring for the horses was work, and I did my share, and when it was my turn, I rode. Mostly, like everyone else, I gathered the soft, dusty weed from where it grew in thick blankets along the edges of the hills.
I missed the horse and rider relationship I had known between man and horse back on the Shadar. Horses here were precious, but they were a commodity, a clan treasure, and to consider a horse as something to have a bond with, would have been looked on oddly by these people, and I already had enough trouble fitting in. The Zadaru were not a tall people, and I was tall. I was a head taller than the tallest woman in the Dry Hills clan, and she was a half a head taller than the rest of them. I was taller than all but a couple of the men as well, and I hadn't actually gone and measured myself against them to confirm this, so it was based on relative perception.
My fair skin suffered under the sunlight, and I could only thank the Spirits that I had had a winter to adjust to life on the steppes before I had to endure the full heat and sun of a Zadrain summer. I had browned eventually, but it had been painful for a while. I was too tall, too slow, too fair-skinned and too good with my staff.
For all my differences, I might have been accepted by the Dry Hills Clan, but there wasn't a one of them who could beat me with a staff, and it made me some enemies among the older men, and some admirers among the young men, which in turn made me some enemies among the young women. At the end of my third winter with the clan, I went to Marila.
"The clan will be leaving in little more than a ten day." I said when I sat down beside her.
"This is true." She said.
"I believe it is obvious that I follow a different path."