Rat King

Offering

The rumbling sound of wagon wheels caused the passenger to stir slightly, eliciting a groan of pain from him. He battled to open his eyes, if only slightly, but lost and faded back into the darkness.

Days passed, blending into each other in a constant haze filled with voices and pain. Sometimes they spoke to him; other times, they conversed with others.

”What is your name? ”

”He won live. Its a miracle he survived until now. ”

”Why did you bring him here, Ai? ”

”Because he is one of us… ”

”What is your name? ”

”Drink this! ”

”Gods… you smell horrible. Have someone bath him. ”

”I will call you, Demitri. ”

”Hes your guest, Ai. You should clean him. ”

”Please live, Demitri. ”

”Im sorry, Ai. He has died. ”

Then one day, the voices stopped. They were replaced with the sound of the wind and the suns warmth.

The light of mid-day announced itself thru Rats closed eyelids; squinting in protest, he turned his head to one side. Then, a moment later, his eyes blinked open.

”Bright… ” His head throbbed in pain as light pierced into his eyes. The sound of his voice made him cringe inside, low and raspy like a rusted hinge.

He lay there looking upward for several seconds while the fog of confusion slowly cleared. The sound of leaves rustling in the wind made his brow crease in confusion. There were no trees near Thaigmaal.

”Where am I? ” He spoke again, his voice still sounded odd, but it was less painful. Rat struggled to sit up but failed miserably. Stubbornly he pressed on, a second, third, and then fourth before realization settled in. ”Why am I bound? ”

Wrapped in thin white cloth, only his face was left exposed. After nearly a minute of struggle, he managed to free his right arm. The effort caused his breath to labor like he had been sprinting. ”Fuck! ”

His movement caused something cool to fall against the left side of his face. A small stone jar, sealed with wax, came into his view. It was when he grabbed the container that he froze in fear. The fur patch that had appeared on his right forearm three years earlier was gone. In its place was a tribal tattoo.

Having a fur patch on your left arm within the four Kingdoms was a death sentence. It couldn be shaved, cut, or burned off. Rat had it better than most; for some reason, his appeared on the wrong arm. It was common among teens to wear a shirt with the left sleeve missing so the hunters wouldn target them.

Pushing his fingers through the wax seal, he sniffed cautiously at it; the sweet aroma escaping the jar caused him to risk a taste. The liquid was sweet and viscous, like the honey he had once stolen.

He drank from the jar until it was dry, the stickiness of it clinging to his lips and chin. Energy seeped slowly into his muscles, and he started to test the strength of the cloth that bound him. Several attempts convinced him that it was wrapped too tight for him to break free. He then noticed a familiar-looking dagger placed on a pile of hand-wrapped gifts.

”A black dagger… ” Slowly it came back to him. The easy job that Brim had discovered. The betrayal and the fight on the rooftop. The memory of it brought him to tears; he would have died for them. Could he have mistaken their intent?

He grabbed the dagger and cut himself free; taking a few minutes, he freed himself of the bindings before discarding them.

”Wait… ” Rat made several discoveries over the next minute. His left arm and chest were also tattooed. A complex pattern that was obviously pinned by someone with a steady hand and lots of talent. They were tender to his touch, probably done relatively recently.

”Gifts, drink, a weapon and… ” His sharp eyes found a neatly folded set of handstitched clothes. ”Clothes and a small backpack; this is a final rites thumal. ”

(Thumal: Burial ceremony among the tribal people that roam the four kingdoms; usually elevated by wooden poles or stone platforms in cases of leaders or elders.)

A chill went down his spine as he peeked toward the ground. He had been laid to rest on a small platform elevated by a scaffolding consisting of dozens of saplings cut to length.

A few minutes passed by, the young man ate several of the sweetmeats that had been left for him while he considered his options. ”First… I need to find out where I am. Perhaps this is the far side of Mount Thaig? ”

He slipped on the clothes left for him; theyd obviously never been worn and were his exact size: a simple leather jerkin, homespun pants, and leather footings with a hardened sole. Then, while packing the rest of the items in the backpack, he found the letter.

Demitri,

Im sorry that you have passed. Its been two months since I brought you from Thaigmaal. Everyone here said you would die within a few days, but you did not. I did not know your name, so I named you after the great Beast King, Demitri. Unfortunately, the clothes I left for you are low in quality; my sewing is poor.

The markings you wear are from my family crest. If you see my father on your journey to Jahaal, tell him that we are fine. I know he is worried.

May your spirit watch over us and be welcomed by my ancestors.

Ai Swiftwind.

”Demitri… ” Rat said it aloud. It sounded pleasant to his ears. However, wearing the name of the Beast King while in the four Kingdoms was likely to get him in trouble. He didn remember his own name; everyone called him Rat for as long as he could remember. ”I can continue being Rat either… Dem will be good enough. ”

It took several minutes before he managed to climb down from what was meant to be his final resting place. ”How long was I here? Probably less than three days… ”

Absently mindedly, he rubbed the tattoos that adorned his forearms. Ai had taken care of him when his friends betrayed him for coin. Although he had nothing of value except for the black dagger, she made sure to leave that behind according to her beliefs.

”I have a debt, ” he considered those words while he limped in an ever-expanding circle around the scaffolding. Then, finally, he found a small trail leading from his thumal site. A few minutes after that, he found the tribal camp.

Dem stood at the edge of the abandoned camp. As someone raised in the streets of Thaigmaal, he knew nearly nothing about the tribals. But, from the stories he overheard at the inn, he knew they migrated across the desert during the end of summer rains.

Sitting on the ground, he drew a rough shape of the world as he knew it. The Caveressi Empire in the Northeast, the Dhrygal States to the South, and the Galieo Kingdom to the West. Objectively he understood that there were other kingdoms on other continents, but his exposure to them had been nonexistent.

”Haral sits in the middle, with Thaigmaal butting up against Caveressi. ” Dem stared at the map, aware that it was complete shit. ”I can go back to Thaigmaal… ”

****************

For one month out of the year, the desert that stretched across Haral turned green and teemed with life. A result of the torrential downpours of rains that occurred nearly every day during that month. The Tribal people followed the migrational herds, enjoying the bountiful journey from east to west.

Ai stood tall in her stirrups, her brown eyes keeping an eye on her section of the herd and for any would-be thieves from distant tribes. She had little to do during the day; most of their domestic animals were content to walk leisurely for five or six hours. Anything more than that, and they would refuse to budge. ”Hurry up and stop! I want to hunt. ”

”Ai! ” A familiar voice called her name. ”Don curse our herd with fatigue. ”

Ai held a finger to her lips, smiling slightly at Tamra, her childhood friend. ”Not so loud! If the elders hear you… ”

Tamra returned the smile, her plain face instantly becoming attractive. ”Nice to see you haven forgotten how to smile. ”

”Tam… ” Ai slipped off the side of her horse and reached inside the black saddlebag. She bent down next to her mounts left forefoot and picked it from the soft ground.

Tam watched as her friend used a small tool to clean the mud from her horses hoof. Although related distantly, the two girls looked alike enough to have been sisters. They shared the same long limbs, brown skin, and raven-colored hair. ”Youve mourned enough in this life, Ai. ”

”Agreed, ” Ai replied. Her father had died two years earlier, along with the man shed been betrothed to since birth. If she was being honest, she barely knew the latter. However, the death of her father still weighed heavily in her heart.

Her thoughts wandered to the night of Summers beginning. The boy had fallen out of the sky and bounced on the cobblestone streets of Thaigmaal. Despite limbs being twisted and broken, he struggled to rise to his feet three times before collapsing. Had her father been alive, hed have agreed; the kid was tough.

Without thought, she picked him off of the street and placed him in the back of her wagon. It had seemed like a destined event. It had happened on the day of her monthly supply run to Thaigmaal. But, unfortunately, it hadn ended well.

”You didn need to add to your burden by taking in that boy. ” Tam tried to protest when Ai approached her mount and started cleaning the hooves. Demitri had become the talk of the tribe for two reasons. First, his injuries should have killed him immediately. Secondly, his corruption was on the wrong forearm. ”Its too much, Ai. ”

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