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So there you have it. For more than a thousand years, Ra’Qara and Re’Gelrin ruled their people. They expanded their clan’s territory, traveling east into the steppes held by the Brown Skins. There they learned new skills, new ways of living, and so they settled down on the fringes of the desert. They built great cities of stone for themselves and abandoned the nomadic way of life that the degonti had embraced for generations.

But not all degonti became People of the Stone, or so we call them now. Some still retained the old ways of following the moon and the wind across the vast desert plain, the ways of the Sandwalkers…


“Ocotillo. Spiny shrubs that bear red flowers during spring and summer. Soothes coughing and sore throats. Liquorice. Bears white flowers in early summer; the roots taste sweet. Relieves aches and strengthens the body against infections. Kingsberry. Small bushes with bright red berries that grow near water. No practical use, but very tasty.”

The makhani facing Drai nodded slightly at his reciting, the ornaments in her hair tinkling softly as she moved her head. Her hair was bleached to off-white from her great age, and her degonti skin was almost black from so many years under the sun.

“Well done. Keep going,” she said in her hoarse voice. Drai bowed his head respectfully and continued.

“Aloe vera. Stiff stalks shaped like spiny leaves. Cures infections and…and…I-I forget.”

“Soothes stomach complaints when ingested,” finished the makhani. She looked up at the sound of footsteps approaching the tent. A male degonti poked his head inside. He ran his eyes over Drai and scowled softly, but quickly turned to give the makhani a respectful bow.

“The sachem wants to see you.”

The makhani tipped her head up slightly, and Drai directed his gaze to the rugs on the ground. He was a cripple, and so he garnered no respect from the other male. If only his lungs were not so weak…

“Did he specify a reason? I am teaching a student,” said the makhani calmly. Drai stared harder at the rugs as if he could burn a hole through them that he crawl through. He wished she wouldn’t mention him. Bad enough that he couldn’t become a warrior because of his weak breath, but he was forced into a position usually only held by women...

The other degonti cast a distrustful look at Drai and reluctantly said, “It’s about the Enemy.”

“Mm. Very well.” The makhani slowly got to her feet. “Continue your recitations, Drai. I should not be gone long.”

Drai bowed his head as the makhani followed the other degonti. When she was gone, the yurt became very quiet. Outside were the voices of children as they played and of women as they dressed the carcass of the kill the hunters had brought in that morning. But here in the yurt, Drai felt as if he were apart from them, in a separate world.

And so it has been all my life.

Drai stood and lifted the tent flap just enough to look outside. The camp was in good spirits today, exuding feelings of warmth and family that Drai never fully felt for himself. Drai pulled his gaze away from the others, over to the sachem’s yurt that the makhani had just entered.

She was in there for a very long time, and Drai wondered what was so important. The Enemy had been a scourge to the Sandwalkers for generations. It was He, Re’Sheek, who commanded the desert winds to blow as they did, burying watering holes and snuffing out the delicate plant life. It was said He had been mortal once, and would be mortal again when Re’Vekra returned from the grave to destroy Him for His treachery.

Not that anyone believed those old stories. Re’Vekra had been murdered ages ago by the jealous Stone gods. The stories of his return were only tales told to children to soothe them when the tents flapped particularly violently, when the howl of the wind rose to a shrieking like a wounded degonti…

Drai shuddered. Sometimes he heard words in those winds. A bad omen, his people believed. The only voice that spoke on the wind was the Enemy’s, and thus He lured His faithful to Him.

Eventually the makhani emerged from the sachem’s yurt, looking grimmer than usual. She cast a perfunctory glance at the other members of the tribe, and then turned to look Drai straight in the eye. Drai quickly dropped his gaze, but she strode up to him purposefully.

“We must talk.”

“About the Enemy? I will gladly give my life as is honorable—“

“Yes, the Enemy! Shush, child, these are not words for the rest of the tribe to hear. Step inside.”

Biting back a protest, Drai stepped aside, holding the tent flap open for the makhani. She entered and crossed over to her favorite rug. As she settled down on it, her slow movements seemed older than ever. She looked at Drai, or through him, rather. Drai sat down opposite to her and waited for her to speak first.

“And so it has come to pass at last,” sighed the makhani. She passed a hand wearily over her brow, an unusually evocative gesture that made Drai squirm uncomfortably. She paused then, unhooking one of the baubles in her hair and handing it to Drai.

Drai stared at it as he held it in his palm. It was a string of beads, each carved to represent different parts of the prophecy of Re’Vekra. The symbol of the Wanderer, the circle of kings, the Starpool, the draconic khurarl, and at last, the Forest of Jade. Drai turned the first bead in his fingers. The Wanderer was always said to be despised wherever he went, but to bring great fortune to those who gave him lodgings.

“I give this to you. It will help guide your journey.”

Drai looked up, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“You know the prophecies as I have taught you,” said the makhani. “The Wanderer picks up his staff at the turning of the winds. The circle of kings calls to council once more. From the Starpool emerges a champion to right those wronged. The khurarl gather to fight, and the Forest is reborn anew, giving bounty to all.”

Drai shook his head. “It’s just a bunch of nonsense. The khurarl don’t even exist.”

“No!” the makhani snapped, and Drai cringed at her fury. But on looking at him, the fire left her eyes and she softened. “No, it is not nonsense, my child. The winds are stirring. Re’Sheek’s people gather their strength. Now is the time for the Wanderer to emerge.”

Drai stared at the beads. For a moment he thought he saw the carving of the Wanderer shift, his hood drawing back to reveal his face. He had long hair like a sachem.

But then it was gone, and the hood was back in place. Too much hinterweed, thought Drai. “I don’t understand what you want me to do.”

“You have not been happy here,” said the makhani gently. “The other warriors have earned the right to grow out their hair, but still you sit here with a shaved head past your twentieth spring.”

“I do not lack strength!” snapped Drai in protest. “I’ll earn the right. Someday. I will. I won’t dishonor my family.”

“Your family is lost,” said the makhani. Drai looked up at her accusingly, and she stared calmly back. “Your destiny is not that of your warrior kin, Drai. I see that now. I understand why the sachem had me train you. You are not a fighter.” She paused and a smile touched her eyes, though Drai couldn’t see the levity in the situation. “You are a dreamer.”

Drai squeezed his eyes shut, bowing his head and clutching the beads hard. “No, I’m not a Deviant! I don’t—won’t listen to the voices. I won’t betray the tribe. Please d-don’t--don’t exile me.”

“No,” said the makhani. Her gentleness had disappeared and she spoke with the authority of a sachem. “Your place is not here. You will go out into the world. Today.”

“Please…”

“You will find this Wanderer. You will find the champion of the Starpool. You will set these prophecies into motion.”

Drai felt a lump in his throat that wouldn’t go away when he swallowed. He felt someone kiss his forehead, and he looked up into the makhani’s face. “It is not exile,” she whispered. “Not the exile of one who has betrayed the clan, anyway. You are needed, Drai, but you are not needed here. This is not your family. You owe no one here the birth debt.”

She was talking about his foreigner father. Drai’s mother had been one of the tribe, but his father had arrived from the desert. No one knew him and he had no breeding, but he earned the tribal rights anyway.

And then he had betrayed the tribe in favor of Re’Sheek. Their warriors were still suffering from that loss.

“But I can make up for—“

“No!” said the makhani and shoved him away. “You will go. This is the order of the sachem, and not my doing. You will leave. You will go east. You will not return until you have fulfilled your duty.”

There was nothing he could do. Drai looked away, feeling his weak chest tighten as he tried to keep his sobs down. Warriors did not cry. But he was not really a warrior now, was he?

He felt a hand on his shoulder, and, not roughly, the makhani pulled him to his feet. She picked two bags of dried herbs—those that delayed hunger and those that soothed pain—from her stash and set them in his hands. With a pause, she also took down the beaded pouch holding the Zmbah from where it hung on the wall, and pushed this in his hands, too. Drai ran his fingers along the tiny colored beads, praying for the magic in the pouches' contents to give him strength.

“The sachem has ordered provisions set aside for you. He will give you your heading.” The makhani went quiet, studying him, and at length she pulled Drai into a hug. “Don’t despair, my child. I will always consider you one of my own, even if I did not birth you.”

“Thanks,” Drai whispered. And he couldn’t help it when his tears escaped.

*****

The place was like nothing Kevaar had ever seen before.

The plains had continued beneath his feet for days now, rolling monotony after rolling monotony of grass and the occasional rock. In contrast, the cliffs had appeared quite suddenly, like a coyote had taken a big bite from the land, revealing the red rock beneath, like the striated muscles of the living earth. Bands of carrot, cream, rust, and greenish ochre painted the rocks all the way down, ending in a soft sand the color of rosewood. This sand stretched on into the dusty horizon, a deadened plain even flatter than that of the grasslands Kevaar still stood in.

The degonti squinted, but his second eyelids were of no use against the glare. Even the chirping and buzzing insects that had been his constant companions in the grasslands were silent here, from awe or a trepidation similar to Kevaar's, he couldn't tell.

The degonti thumped his walking stick against the parched red dirt of the road, bringing himself back to reality. "Well! No time like the present, eh?" he said to an unseen observer, then began to pick his way down among the rocks.

He could almost forget himself in this silent land watched only by the sun. But to Kevaar, that was preferable. A dozen tales of intrigue and gallantry dogged his footsteps, or so he liked to brag to the barmaids in the taverns he had frequented along the way. It was a brave face put on a less than brave past, and somehow the most ignominious parts of his history never made it into stories told in the smokey taverns. The patrons were sure to hear such things after, Kevaar thought, once his pursuers arrived and he, with any luck, was long since gone. Kevaar grimaced.

Any of those barmaids probably would have thought him out of his mind if they learned he had journeyed here, far from all things familiar. Out in the deserts was no place for an enterprising young rogue, or so his old masters would have told him. The natives were savages, too ill bred to even know how to read, and he would find nothing of value unless he knew an avid collector of stone handaxes and bird feathers to pay the acquiring fee.

Perhaps his old masters were right. Kevaar cursed as he slipped on the gravelly slope, stopping himself from plummeting to his death only by grabbing on to a nearby boulder. I am out of my league, or would be, if there were any leagues out here worth mentioning!

Which is exactly why he had chosen to come here, he reminded himself. No organized crime meant no competition. No competition meant no one hankering to slit his throat in a back alley... The land was wild enough that even his pursuers would think twice about following him here. Yes, it had been a very good idea to come here.

The self-congratulating thief was too wrapped up in his thoughts to notice that the western horizon had begun to darken. A native could have told him that a sandstorm approached and he should find cover. Unfortunately for Kevaar, no native was nearby.

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Gray Fox

March 2016

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