Rat King

Swiftwind\'s Shaman

Dems journey across the desert began with meager supplies and a short walk. Unfortunately, the Tribals didn leave anything behind. However, he managed to find a small woven carpet worn through in many places and a fur pelt laid on his thumal. He rolled the two items up together and bound them across his shoulders with the same cloth his body had been wrapped in.

He managed only a few miles the first day, stopping at midday after a sudden downpour of rain left him soaked to the bone. However, Dem was unbothered by the wetness or cold; his high tolerance for either was something hed had his entire life.

The second day he paced himself accordingly. Walking for an hour and then resting, he doubled the distance. Although raised in the streets of Thaignaal, following the tribals was pretty easy. Several hundred people traveling with their animals and possessions tended to leave a visible trail.

On the morning of the third day, he ate the last of his sweetmeats left for him by Ai. Although still weak, the rain came early, and Dem was able to travel a fair distance.

The trail widened considerably and was frequented by animal droppings. Sometime after mid-day, he found a large tarp that had been left near the first nights camp. He tried to distract himself from his rumbling stomach by talking to himself.

”It looks like at least two other tribes must have converged… ” Dem rubbed his belly; he needed to eat. He walked another hour before spotting them, a circle of gray huddled together on the horizon.

”Are those tents? ” Although tempted to break into a jog, Dem paced himself. After two hours, he became glad that he did; the distance was much further than he would have guessed.

”Fuck… ” Dem muttered a curse. It was wolves.

He approached until he could make out the details. Four of them were feeding; perhaps they had made a recent kill. They sensed his presence but didn pay him any attention until he was within a hundred meters of them.

Dem palmed his dagger and continued to walk. Unfortunately, he was out of food; his continued progress would be hampered if he could not change that. Two wolves slinked away while the third retreated a few meters; the fourth stood his ground. ”Im hungry. I won take more than I can eat. ”

Deciding to treat the wolf like he would a man, he walked toward it with knife in hand, his dark eyes watching the animals every move. ”We don have to fight. ”

When the distance between them was five meters, the wolf bared its teeth and retreated a few meters. As quickly as he could, Dem knelt beside the carcass and started cutting strips out. Although not a hunter, he noticed a few things. The antlered creature had been skinned and the rear haunches removed. A slice across its throat could have only been made by a knife, perhaps to finish it off.

Dems natural caution took over as he retreated slowly, not taking his eyes off of the wolf. Would they trail him? ”Shit… ”

The street rat chewed at the raw strip of meat while he traveled. Then, keeping an eye behind him, he walked until dusk.

Shortly after sunrise, something woke Dem from his slumber. He rolled to his feet with his dagger in hand.

”No need to be alarmed, ” a voice shouted from a few dozen meters away. ”I thought you were an offering until you jumped up. ”

Dem stared at the man, a tribal youth, probably not much older than him. ”Offering? ”

”Im Telomere, or just Telo if thats easier. ”

”Dem… Whats wrong with your horse? ” Dem didn know horses very well, but since the stranger was leading one instead of riding, it stood to reason that there was an issue.

Telos expression turned troubling. ”Lame forefoot, I need one of the tribal menders. Wheres your tribe? ”

Dem shrugged, ”I don have one. Its a very long story… ”

Telo smiled pleasantly and walked his horse closer. ”You can share it with me over a fire. ”

The two men stood next to the fire an hour later, eating strips of seasoned meat that Telo prepared. During that time, Dem was able to learn quite a bit.

Offerings were kills made by the tribal hunters. Then, after removing a few choice items, the rest was left for the wolves and other predators. This kept the scavengers well-fed and away from Tribal herds since they also migrated west.

Telo was a head taller than the Dem, making him about average in height. With skin bronzed from seasons spent outdoors and dark hair streaked with lighter colors, he resembled the typical tribal. ”Wait… You woke up on a thumal? And everyone was gone?

Dem nodded, making Telo burst into laughter even though it was the third time he asked to hear it. According to the tribal, this made him a fosterling. Every tribe had at least one or two of them. ”Its better than not waking up on a thumal. ”

Telos face grew somber, and he nodded in agreement. ”I see your point. However, you
e wearing thumal clothes. Aren you afraid of being cursed? ”

”By who? Its my thumal; given the situation, Ill accept my fate and live on. ” Dem smiled for the first time in weeks. ”Unless you think I should curse myself? ”

”I can decide if you are cursed or blessed… ” Telo kicked at the fire with his feet, stomping until the embers they no longer glowed. ”We should continue, even with walking a lame horse; we should catch up in three or four days. ”

Dem spent the rest of the day walking with the young tribal. Although Telo was able to share quite a bit of information on tribal life, he absolutely refused to share anything regarding the significance of tribal tattoos. He would only say that Dem mustn mention it until he caught up with the Swiftwind Clan.

Telo pulled another strip of meat off the spit and tossed it to him. ”Your strength is returning; just in the last few hours, I notice your color has improved. ”

”Tell me about Masaat, ” Dem asked.

Telo shrugged slightly. ”Again, its something I can speak about other than to say its a year of wandering. My Masaat is coming to an end. ”

The days passed quickly; during the day, the two would converse about tribal customs and the life of a street rat. Then, before sharing an evening meal, Telo began to teach Dem archery.

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

The Swiftwind Clan were near the center of the gathering of a half-dozen tribes. Telo walked by himself, bypassing his own clan to take care of Dems situation. As expected, it had taken them a bit over three days to catch up.

Although the tribes were loosely allied, wandering into another clans area was considered bad manners. Telo scanned for the entrance, two guards with spears who were chatting amongst themselves. They both stood when he approached.

”Greetings, Swiftwind, ” Telo bowed politely. ”I have an important matter to discuss with Ai Swiftwind and the Clan Elders.

The guards shared a knowing glance. ”With Ai? Is this a marriage proposal? ”

Telo smiled good-naturedly. ”No. It is not. ”

One of the men left abruptly, leaving Telo alone with the other guard.

”Im Yanz. What is your name? ” After looking closer, the guard was younger than he appeared. He had a mans height but the babyface of someone younger.

”Telomere, returning from Masaat. ” Telo didn say anything else; during the Masaat, he was considered clanless. So his first duty would be to report to his clan for acceptance as an adult member. It was primarily ceremonial in nature unless you were a criminal.

”Masaat? ” Yanz grinned at him. ”Im still two seasons from going. Could we talk later about it? ”

Telo nodded, his sharp eyes noticing the guard returning.

”Ai and one of the Elders will meet with you; please follow me. ” The guard paused for a moment before turning abruptly and heading back toward the camp center.

Telos critical eye inspected the camp while he followed the guard. Swiftwind was a mid-sized tribe, but their travel lodges were well constructed, and everything seemed orderly.

The guard stopped outside the entrance of a large round tent; he took a position near the door before motioning for Telo to enter.

”Thank you, ” Telo smiled politely and pushed the thick curtain to one side before stepping in.

The warmth and pleasant smell of the lodge filled him with longing for his own clan. Like most who undertook the Masaat, he longed for home by its end.

Two older women sat comfortably on cushions that were placed in the center of the lodge. They were flanked by a younger woman with braided black hair.

”Greetings Elders, I am Telomere. ”

”You did not name your Clan, Telomere. Are you on Masaat? ” The two older women studied him curiously. The one with shorter hair spoke while the other puffed smoke from a small pipe into the air.

”Yes. I am near the end and will return to my clan soon. ” Telomere glanced at the younger woman; she had her arms crossed in front of her like someone facing trouble.

The short-haired woman motioned to Ai before turning her eyes back toward Telomere. ”Drink tea with us and speak freely. ”

Ai moved to the side of the tent where a tea kettle was sitting. She filled four cups before returning. Then, although there was a cushion for her, she chose to stand.

”Thank you. ” Telo bit his lip to keep from smiling; Ai seemed a bit on the frosty side. ”I found a young man following the migration. Apparently, he was injured in Thaigmaal and taken to your clan by Ai. He woke up on a thumal less than a week ago. ”

The cup held in Ais hand slipped to the floor, splashing the hot liquid onto leggings. ”Demitri? ”

”He calls himself Dem. ” Telomere handed Ai a carefully folded letter written by her own hand.

”This… ” Ai stared at the paper. It was the letter she left on the thumal. ”Take me to him. ”

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