Gods, this heat.
Arkir brought up a long scarlet cloth and, heaving a sigh of renewed dismay at the charge he’d been given, held it out behind him in the “giving” gesture. His accomplice, no. He smiled in spite of himself. His ascribed companion, to put it more accurately, took the long, soft sash gratefully and swept what perspiration he could quickly off his brow and cheeks, handing it back wordlessly. Arkir’s grin broadened despite the growing cold that would soon overpower the sun falling at his side, and did the same. This stranger of the wilderness of Ohken, a mere child in the ways of survival and forestry, was intended to fill the void left by the great Alahn?
He severely doubted the notion, rejected it even, and had from its inception in the chambers of the Eldertree, no matter what the lack of alternatives had led the council to presume. A birther. He felt himself growing angry, a deep swelling of uncomfortability coupled with his now-racing heartbeat. A spineless, weightless, writhing little whore. His disgust was barely masked at this point as he came to a halt and turned halfway to face the once-smooth features of Eddun Da’Ir. Younger than himself by nearly three decades, the cross-caste’s first days in the great forest had worn him to a reflection of death itself. Already gaunt and poorly muscled as a member of a people whose days were spent in sheltered luxury, he had in addition become reddened and encrusted with his own burning skin, the whole of his form almost doubled over from a fatigue that crippled most their first time out. He had to give him that, he supposed. For all of the Da’Ir’s lack of preparedness and inexperience, he had lasted to the crest of the furthest hill on the plains past the wooded lowlands they called home.
He surveyed the land before him now, pushing the thoughts of rain and shade from his mind, wanting to distance himself as much as possible from the solace his old hunting grounds would bring. There would be over a full lunar cycle ahead, an entire journey West and then back South to the forest. Below him and to the left lay the rocky expanse of the clan’s trading route to the Westerners. To the right, the increasingly lifeless flats that stood between their conjunction with the route and the bone-dry Svitiu. With no more than a passing glance at one another, the decision was made to place themselves well within the lengthening shadows of the path’s large boulders, distanced from the main outcropping of the trail. With any luck they’d miss the chance encounters of these types of intersections, thieves and the like, for an evening of food and a full night’s sleep before the sprints started tomorrow.
They were O’hniun, The Keepers. They were the silent watchers of all things foreign and native to the Elkein. Theirs were the eyes and ears of the elders and the stone and steel of the council.
A recent consignment meant to signify the tribal alliance, the lot of them would never amount to more than a dozen or so members, and with some in training and others recuperating their numbers waned constantly despite their tasks remaining as daunting and, from the majority of the peoples’ perspective he imagined, irrelevant as ever. Their days were filled with primitive training and esoteric rituals, decidedly unaddressed from a distance or through the deep emptiness within the mottle of their woven hoods by passing locals. When not in combat or dispersed to some far corner of another man’s land, that was. He sighed all over again. The latter had been a constant of late.
He began unfurling what little he carried, a bit more diverse, a bit more outdated, but essentially the same as Eddun’s, and commenced the familiar dismantling of it all from meticulously-constructed pockets and straps. The corked shell of a water container, a thong of various pouches for smoking and treating bites and wounds on watch, a trio of stones for igniting fires and sharpening weapons, and other assorted survival trinkets. A thin longbow, folded over itself for travel and stuffed into its accompanying quiver, was sat to the side for later but quickly forgotten as he opted to put off a quick hunt in favor of his current preserves. They were each allowed a certain amount of excess carry-on for their missions, and it was an easy allotment to fall short of in the double lining of the brown, gray, and green stained cloaks of their caste.
The Alwa, the weapon they each carried upon their acceptance into the Keep, was the most precious piece of his tiny arsenal. Each was slightly different, fitted to their wielder in type and function, hacked off the end of the muuts ore found deep in the heart of their forested homeland and chipped and smoothed to design. There was only the one source, and the light and resilient nature of the dark ashen metal that made everything else pale in comparison was actively sought after by foes and kinfolk alike. As such, the blades weren’t a commodity to be sold or traded at will. They were only bestowed upon the most prestigious warriors, chieftains, and the Keeper caste members, and were shown primarily to the now-deceased.
They slept against the backside of the only coupling of trees nearby, their own bodies a perilous balance of so much mass in the aftermath of a full day’s trek. It was an unusually cold night but an open fire was not allowed, was “never allowed in this sickening emptiness.” Arkir’s words echoed in Eddun’s mind with the typical shattering of expectations he’d recently become too familiar with. They were nearing the end of the ninth day out, of his ninth day ever, and nowhere had he seen the proverbial milestones in this arduous expedition. It didn’t seem to bother his traveling companion in the least, his thick, hooded cloak whipping quietly in the night’s wind, as weather-worn and wartorn as it’s wearer asleep beneath it.
A man much closer to his own age than he had suspected, Arkir looked a healthy century past him, the darkened skin creased heavily from the elements and looking almost stretched too thin over thick muscles. Beneath the tangled shock of hair as black as his robes, his eyes were another trait that belied his years, cold and hardened from some series of events he’d never share, calculating and penetrating to some hidden level of character. Perhaps tired from too much life Eddun thought, holding their gaze now as they opened to reflect what light remained in the sky. Mostly though, he figured, turning away, his involuntary mentor seemed angry. He’d noticed it from the onset of their relationship, a gnawing awkwardness that left every meal silent and every calm moment unpeaceful. And he was not the only one. His eyes found their way to the cloak’s fine, fresh hemming around his own ankles. And why wouldn’t they be different?
He turned up to the layers of grey surrounding him, the night enveloping the Keepers’ treed corner of the pass in contrasting angles and bright specs. He had always lived in the forest, had even spent most of his early childhood in the deep woods before being consigned to his place in the Ithren Chambers, living off the land in solitude with his grandfather, practicing regularly with sword, dagger, and bow. This wasn’t as big of a change as he had first feared. He should have been more capable than he felt now, he scolded himself, climbing through the trees of foreign lands and skirting the senses of every noticeable prescence encountered. But, if anything, he’d spent his time learning that he was not so far outclassed and unprepared as expected by those opposed to his new lot in life.
There was the Alwa as well, reminescent of his grandfather’s long, thin sabre and his only saving grace. His equalizer in this world turned upside down, it had been bestowed upon Eddun by the elders after a small session of combat had deemed it the best fit. He had deemed it his lifeline to sanity in an impending dance with endless peril. He thumbed the hilt now and rolled onto his side, his senses finally starting to dull as sleep took hold. Tomorrow, he had been told, they would head west and into the mountains. Then in another few days it would be hot meals with spices, warm homes with thick walls, and his chance to see a Western city for the first time. Still mulling over the possibilities, he faded off then, to the smell of garlic and peppers and the sounds of a crackling fire.
The sounds of his kinfolk came, chittering and shuffling into the great hall of the Eldertree – the new home of the united tribal council. “Why me,” he was saying, but it wasn’t him. Or he wasn’t him. It was all irrelevant now as he whisped through the audience, hearing better all the shuns and scorns of his day of reassignment. “Even he doesn’t think this is wise,” they were saying. “Da’Ir or not, Alahn’s seat belongs to a natural warrior.”
Natural. Chosen from birth to fulfill a task deemed fitting. What did they know of the natural, this concoction of strangers assembled to judge him as if they had spent a life together? He, the great-grand offspring of the fabled Akkihsi, the final blood and breath of a warrior line, raised from an infant in the ways of the Alwa and greatbow, had been resigned to a life in the dimly-lit halls of a neighboring tribe’s breeding community by the same fools on his last visit. A just decision indeed! He had spent decades in his chambers, the majority of his 140 years a single melting memory of court games, strange foods, obscure weapons training, and the obligatory intercourse that served to appropriately diversify and strengthen the future generations of the tribes. He had become quite fond of it all, honestly. He, or rather the man who he was, standing before him in this great hall of harsh eyes and tongues, didn’t relish the thought of leaving that lot for another 200 years in constant peril.
He fell back into his body then, and was a few days progressed, packing small personal items and remembrances of his now-previous life into the unfairly small satchel he had been given by his overseer. But, he was reminding himself, this was to be an entire caste change. No clothing beyond what he wore into the Keepers’ grove. No tools of any trade, and indeed there were few of his that seemed useful in the least as a woods-bourne wanderer. No scented items, soaps, perfumes, and the like, as they had the dually-undesired effect of drawing predators close and driving prey away. And no food. He’d be conforming to a quite different diet in his new minimalist walk it would seem, and this potentially blandest of all changes nagged at him constantly.
Thock thock. The knocks came to lead him away. He turned with a sigh from the now unlit front hall, stretching back into the honeycombed chambers he had called home for a full fourth of his life, and began to make his way through the intertwined branches and vines that formed the paths between areas of the village. As he followed along behind his shadow of an escort he began to pull back out of his body, watching himself as he traversed briskly through the tangles of trails that separated their tiny classes, each hundreds of steps up into the giant Ohken canopies. Below, the murky waters of the lowland’s last spring-fed buffer from the ravages of the sea’s salty waters swirled with the tell-tale signs of the life that teemed beneath it’s great opaque surface. They went over the crest of the market tree, central to the entire village, then right across the boughs of two more onto the outskirts of one of the garrison’s hollowed-out guard trees; then even further still, into the black and the cold and the thickest of unkempt paths he had ever been made to travel. Then finally, after a dizzying and disorienting final stretch through the woods, into the lair of the Keepers.
He entered through a rather lowset trap in the base of the single, unspectacular little tree, still trailing his silent guide and wiping spray from the now-close and ever-roiling waters, and climbed his way up the spiral staircase within to a small but obvious living quarters. These are ingenious, he thought. It was as simple as carving from within rather than without. The great mystery of the Keeper hold revealed. He found himself grinning and quickly suppressed it as the shadowy figure turned to him, removing his hood, and spoke for the first time.
“I am Arkir. This will be your room, and I your mentor in the weeks ahead.”
“It’s a privilege” he was responding, waiting awkwardly for some sign of decency or comradery to be exuded from his new companion, and was still waiting when he was grabbed from behind and blinded by a single fierce blow to the back of his head.