Phoenix of the West
And what happens next?
The story ends as all our stories do: He left the clan lands and was never seen among our people again, but traders and travellers told us of his passing through their peoples; he was not lost, nor was he forgotten. This story doesn't begin as it should, though; the hero does not come to us upon his rose-coloured horse, with thunder at his heels and lightning in his hair. Let me tell you...
Riding on the steppes, my son Khadka came upon a young man, who was collapsed beneath a sacred incense tree. Being a dutiful young man of the clan, Khadka brought the man to the encampment, where our clan nursed him back to health. After many days, he awoke.
"Who are you?" he asked.
"I am Khadka. You are at the encampment of the Granite Mantis clan of Delzahn; we found you unconscious on the steppe, and brought you here."
The veiled man nodded. "It is what we do. May I ask who I am honoured to meet?"
"Of course. My name is... my name is... I don't know."
"It's probably the fever. It will come to you. Can you walk? My wife Tuluy tells me she has something special planned for dinner; she would be glad to harbor a guest."
"I think so. Do you have water? I'm very thirsty."
"Of course, of course. Come, my tent is just across the way." Khadka lifted the man to his feet and helped him stagger to the other tent.
Tuluy and her daughters had spent the entire day preparing the evening's feast; today the Delzahn nomads celebrated Yumjaagiyn Ruby-Throat, the hero who brought them horses. She had made roasted pheasant stuffed with squash, dates and spicy almonds, and every bread she could think of. It would be a holiday to remember.
"Khadka!" She greeted the men as they lifted the tent flap. "Your traveller is awake? Come, both of you, sit, drink." She thrust horns of beer into their hands. "So, traveller, what is your name?"
"I have forgotten." He leaned on a tentpost, too tired to be upset.
"It is the fever, I think," added Khadka. He stripped off his veil and took a long gulp, watching as the women fussed over the new arrival.
"No problem. We will give you a good strong Delzahn name, and when the fever has receded and your memory returns, you will have two!"
One of the girls interrupted them then. "When Father was out on the steppe hunting, the day he brought you back, I had a dream: a bird of fire leapt from the setting sun, in the lands of the lake with no shore."
"Then we will call you Taban; it means the Phoenix of the West."
"It is a good name. I hope that I can carry it."
"Do you remember anything else, Taban? We Southerners rarely see a man of your coloring here; I am sure that you carry many tales of far-off lands."
Taban cast into his memory, for an image of his face: a sharply angled, golden-skinned man stared back at him with orchid-violet eyes. The man's hair was dark, but straight, not kinked, and at its tips it turned the color of burnished copper. The Delzahn around him were mahogany; Tuluy's eyes were the blue of the evening sky.
"I remember a story, of how the earth was awakened, in water and fire."
Taban coughed, drank, and began. "In the days when people were taller, they remembered this time, when nothing had been made; all there was was night, and a wave-topped ocean of stars. Then the Tseng O awakened in its depths, the dragon of dragons: his every scale roared, and his mouth was filled with teeth like a meadow of flame. The Tseng O swam to the surface, scattering worlds, to take his first breath. The heat of his body dried the ocean around him; soon he sat atop a hill of salt. In the salt, the stars still shone; they sang their melodies there while the Tseng O surveyed his domain.
"Then a hero was born of their music; he was crowned in light, and in his arms he bore four spears. He knew that the Tseng O would eat him if he saw him, so he waited within the hill, and made an army: each year he carved a little soldier of salt, and it the end of the year he would paint its mouth and eyes with his own blood, to bring it to life.
"After a thousand years, the hero led his salt army into battle; the dragon could not eat them, for his flames only made them harder; he could not drown them, for the dragon feared nothing more than the endless drowsing sea. So he surrendered to the hero, who had struck him nary a blow! The hero buried the dragon in a dark place in the hill, and he and his salt soldiers spread across it, and built their kingdoms there." The tent turned dark as its lanterns burned low; Tuluy turned around to tend their flames.
Khadka nodded. "It is a mighty tale. Now we must eat, to celebrate it, and to celebrate Yumjaagiyn's feast!" He wrapped a piece of meat in a flatbread and took a bite.
"That is an interesting tattoo, Taban," said Khadka. The two men were sparring beside the camp's pool; in the noonday heat, they had discarded their jackets. Taban's tattoo, a long-tailed bird with two pairs of wings, flew up his left arm; its dark red, lacy curlicues had begun to disappear into his deepening tan.
Taban turned his staff in a tight arc to deflect a blow; Khadka's weapon shot harmlessly past his head. "I suppose so. I remember, a little, the day I got it. Perhaps I will tell you the tale sometime." He flicked three more blows away, then leapt at his friend, catching him in a tackle. "But today, the only tale I'll be telling is the one where I defeated the champion of Granite Mantis clan, in a pitched battle to the death!"
Khadka laughed as he threw Taban into the water. "Go take a swim! Maybe the water will wash the madness off of you." Taban looked hurt. He took a moment to wash the grit from his face and body, then went to a bench to dry himself off, scrupulously ignoring Khadka, the staves, and the jackets hanging on the horse-post. Khadka took a short dip as well, then sat down on the bench beside Taban. "You still want a horse and a tent, don't you?"
"Yes, I do. Your wife named me. By your laws, that makes me your son. And by your laws, if I best you in combat, then I may demand of you a horse and a tent that I may start a home among a clan of my choosing."
"You should study the laws more carefully, my friend. In the months you have been here, you have learned much, but you are not Delzahn yet. You must best me in a contest of my choosing."
"Then I demand the right of the test. Name your contest."
"Let us play at kzind," Khadka replied.
He explained the rules briefly to Taban: much like the game called Shogun*, there are a variety of pieces, each with different abilities, and they move about, capturing each other on a square grid. However, the size of a kzind board is set by the players at the beginning of the game, and they each construct their armies out of the panoply of pieces that are available. The first player to capture the other's Tri-Khan would win the game.
As they played a game for practice, Taban relaxed his mental disciplines, and allowed a golden thread of Essence to creep into his mind. With each move, he saw the pattern of games splay out before him, and watched dispassionately as Khadka's emotions led him to one decision or another. He played carefully, but allowed Khadka to win. It was not yet the time.
"You play well for one who is new to the game. If you wish it, we will have our test tomorrow when the chief has returned from his meeting with the chief of Copper Raven clan; he will be the judge of our game and say whether it is fair."
The Thirsty Hawk was quieter tonight than it usually was, and Oteitani's drinking friends were conspicuously absent. He sat down at the bar and ordered some ale to keep him company while he waited for them to show up. They would be here soon; it was cockfighting night.
Some time later, he stood up to leave; they hadn't shown up. A hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Oteitani, the mercenary?"
"I have a job for you."
"I'm not taking new jobs right now." Oteitani moved to leave.
"I'm afraid you don't have that luxury." The man turned to face him; white and blue color stirred in his eyes. "House Ragara records show that you owe us a fee, sir, and I am afraid that it is time for you to pay it." He pulled out a chair. "Sit down. I am Ragara Lyeshe. You and I have much to discuss."
"Mother, I think that Taban has begun to remember," said Khadka's daughter Osol. "He says strange things in his sleep, and I have caught him now and then, drawing pictures and writing things in the sand."
"I know. He told me that he has found his old name, but while he is among us, he would be Taban and no other. It is strange."
"He wishes his place were here, but he knows it cannot be."
"Khadka does not want him to go."
"Father doesn't seem to know what's going on, though," Osol replied. "Have you noticed that the Realm patrols are getting closer together, and each time they approach, Taban goes to hunt, and when he finally returns, he brings back the strangest prey? I think there is something in those patrols that Taban fears, and he does not want that thing to take us as it took others before."
At that moment, there was a crunching of footsteps, and Khadka and Taban entered the tent together. Osol slipped out the other side, taking a basket. "Welcome back, beloved. How was your sparring today?" Tuluy motioned the men toward a table where water cups sat waiting. "Messengers arrived from Copper Raven saying that the chiefs will be delayed."
"Thank you, love. Has the rest of the clan been informed?"
"The women will tell their husbands as they arrive from the hunts."
"What would I do without you, Tuluy?" Khadka smiled broadly. "You are a better chief than Jagun Thundermane by a thousand times."
"Hush! Don't let anyone hear you say that, they will think that you are serious! I do not want to be clan-chief."
"That's unfortunate; Taban and I had hoped to see Jagun tomorrow; we have a contest to play."
Khadka's youngest daughter tugged at Taban's sleeve. "Brother Taban, you aren't leaving, are you?" She climbed up into his lap and offered him a stuffed toy horse. "Cousin Fleet-as-Secrets will miss you."
Taban hugged the girl and horse. "Don't worry, Dusk Flower. I'm not leaving just yet." He had his doubts about the truth of that, but it was hard to tell such a thing to the child. The two of them had had a great many adventures in the past few months, and traded more than a few tales over campfires burning low into the cold desert night. "Will you tell us a story tonight? Your father has spent the day beating sense into me, so hard that even my voice is sore."
"You're silly. Of course I'll tell a story. But first, you and Cousin Fleet-as-Secrets have to eat your dinners, and Daddy does too." Dusk Flower slipped off Taban's lap and wandered over to the pile of pillows at the other end of the tent. "I'll wait here with the storybooks."
Tuluy looked at the men intently, turning over something in her mind. "So, Taban, you have demanded the test?"
"Yes, Mother, I have." He used the honorific form, addressing her as a supplicant would to a priestess giving blessings. She looked at him strangely, but did not comment.
Then Osol came back inside, with a basket of fruits and breads. "It's time to eat. Phew, Father, what have you two been doing? You smell like a stable! Change out of those jackets at once. Taban, yours is all dusty, and I just washed those yesterday! Mother, I don't know how you stand these men living in your tent."
Oteitani shifted in his saddle and muttered. These had to be the most uncomfortable saddles Dragon-Blooded money could buy, and their riding beasts were no improvement. He did not know what they were; the plated beasts had far too many legs, and their clicking, unnatural stride made his stomach queasy. Lyeshe seemed excited to see them at the stable though; something about "good strong jaws."
"Mercenary! You're not trying to run off, are you?" The Dynast was squinting into the sunset and glaring at Oteitani, who had fallen back while musing on his condition.
"No! I fully intend to charge you for all the discomfort that my contract doesn't cover, and I have to be there for that!" He spurred his creature and rejoined the group. "So, Master Lyeshe, what do we hunt?"
Lyeshe's face was set in a look of bitter determination. Ice crystals sparkled on his eyelashes. "Someone that got away."
"Hold on now. Anathema are dangerous. You're not paying me enough to hunt one of those."
"I will double your fee."
"Triple, and you can keep the bug."
They rode on in silence, towards the darkness of the east. Oteitani smiled. Dynasts had no idea of the value of money. He had just made a fortune on the easiest job of his life. His bug chirped irritably as he spurred it on, to the head of the column. It was going to be a good hunt.
A sharp pain awoke Taban: like a forge-red dagger being plunged into his brow, his head throbbed with heat. Not again. Taban rolled out of the blankets and slipped on a pair of riding boots. He took a stave and went outside, moving as quickly as he could to where the family kept their horses tied.
Osol was waiting for him there; a half-circle of light burned above her eyes.
"Taban, I know what you are."
"What you are."
"We cannot stay here; the clan is in danger." She had untied Black Grass, and somehow he was loaded with saddlebags as if for a long journey.
"I know. What can we do?"
"I know a place. It is secret, and if we are wise and careful, we can be safe there, for a time. But wait a moment." She took a branch, and drew a diagram on the ground; as she connected lines and surrounded them with mystical script, they began to glow with coppery fire. A loaf of bread and a few drops of wine completed the ritual, and a shape came up out of the earth: a figure like a naked maiden, woven of dry grass roots and dusty with dry earth. "Goddess Takiyyudin, I beg of your assistance. Will you cover our tracks and hide us from the Princes of the Earth that pursue us? If you refuse, I swear that when I return, I will destroy you and all you have created, even unto the memory of you, and in the end I will stand in desolation and wonder what came to pass there."
The statue only nodded and collapsed back into dust.
"Now we must fly."
They mounted Black Grass together and rode off.
Tuluy found a note on her pillow in the morning.
Mother, goodbye. I am Anathema; I must protect the honor of the clan. May the passion of your heart kindle your warrior spirit.
* Shogun is similar to the Earthly game of chess.