Copyright © 2005
Rick Johnson returns to Pal-ul-don, wherein the adventures of a young Waz-Don take a decidedly unusual turn!
The Waz-Don lay on the ground gasping for breath. It always hurt. Even though the clubs were heavily padded and his fur was thick, a blow against the ribs could still bruise and break bones.
Even his instructor, the old warrior who taught them, had to admit that he was slightly better than adequate with the battle-knife but even a blade the length of his forearm couldn't stop a club. "The Club," the instructor told the group, "Is the definitive weapon of war. No armor of even the thickest leather can stop it. No blade can cut it. In the hand of an expert, the club can even crush the skull of a Ja. The only defense against the club, is another club."
"As-Tan," the grizzled warrior said, "Come here. You ask too many questions and that slows your reflexes. To fight, the mind and body are one and your mind thinks it's own thoughts and does not unite with the body. Work on thinking less and acting more."
After dismissing the students, all nearly adult, As-Tan returned to his cave. Climbing the pegs was an effort but he made certain to not cry out for that would only attract more unwanted attention and so made it home without further incident.
His father was waiting for him and he saw his brothers in the background. Obviously they had told.
"You need to be stronger, fight harder, be better!" his father lectured. "How can you defend the Kor when the warriors of the Kor-ul-Ja attack? What will happen to your mother and sisters if you fall in the first fight?" and so on and on and on. As-Tan had heard this a dozen times in the past. He was always the runt. Always smaller and weaker than everyone else. No matter that he was smarter than they or that his fingers were so nimble that when other men's grass weavings were fit only for the floor, his were equal to any woman's and were hung on the walls. But weaving skills wouldn't bring a deer home for dinner and farming, though important, was for women and those men who were too old or injured to fight or hunt. No woman would mate with a man in his prime that had to farm.
As-Tan sat in the opening of his cave thinking again, his feet hanging into the air eating a melon. He knew that he didn't belong here. He was smaller than the rest of the Waz-Don by a good hand's width and a bit weaker. He asked questions about things that the others took as granted. As-Tan wanted to know why and was never satisfied with ‘because." Although his fingers were nimble, his body wasn't as strong as it could be which resulted in his loosing all of his matches. Also his teacher was right, he thought too much. He thought about what he was going to do in a fight instead of just doing it. Even his play-mates had told him that he was a drain on the resources of the Kor and would be better off elsewhere.
Elsewhere! That did sound attractive but where in Pal-ul-Don would welcome a Wa-Don? None of the other kors would even allow him to talk before they killed him for fear he was a spy. And the Ho-Don of the cities took Wa-Don for slaves or to sacrifice on the altars of Jad-Ben-Otho. Perhaps Bu-Lur near the Morass? All knew that both Waz-Don and Ho-Don lived in peace there but how and why, and would they take a stranger either?
He noticed a movement in the distance, one talent he had was for identifying people at a long range which made him useful as a sentry and he immediately knew that is was a woman, not just a woman but a certain woman. He knew that it was Sad-ul-To returning from the stream to the caves with a pot of water on her head. Quickly, he climbed down and ran over to her. "May I help you with that?" he asked.
"Have you killed a Ja or Jato that I may wear it's pelt?" she asked without glancing in his direction. She was attractive in that way that men found beauty, her carriage was straight and her walk graceful and sexy from carrying water pots on her head, her fur sleek and soft over her black skin. Today she wore her long hair loose, flowing down around her shoulders, her golden breastplates shining in the sun-light. To As-Tan she was beauty incarnate.
"Not yet but soon," he offered.
"Then you may carry my burden, but not now."
It was always thus. No woman would mate with a man who couldn't feed her or her children. Not unless no other man would have her, and Sad-ul-To had enough suitors that she could be picky.
Without warning she stopped and turned, gracefully and spilled not a drop from the pot resting on her head. "Bring me the pelt of a Ja or Jato and I will consider your suit." Then she turned again and walked away, her hips and tail swinging as she did.
The fact that she said this to three other men meant nothing. She said it to him!
Later that night he told his parents, "Mother, Father, tomorrow I go to hunt for a Ja or Jato. I'll return when I have found one and proven my courage and skill."
Unfortunately, his brothers broke out in laughter which ruined the impact of his speech. His father simply grunted and continued to eat but his mother looked at him with horror. Later that night she came to him and took him from the room he shared with his three brothers. "I want you to be very careful out there." She said. He knew that she wanted to tell him to stay but wouldn't shame him that way. Then she hugged him and ran off crying.
His father watched the episode then took him by the shoulder and said, "Son, you are my youngest. You came from your mother early and we didn't know if you would live but you did. Perhaps were you born Ho-Don your skills would be accepted but we Waz-Don live free and so fighting and hunting skills are more important than weaving. But I know that you must go someday to prove your manhood so here is some advice for you.
"Never stand your ground with either Ja or Jato or you will die for these big cats are fierce and cruel. Be fast and when they leap, step aside at the last moment and strike for his side or back. If you can snap his spine, you win. If you send broken ribs into his lungs, you have a chance. BUT, never be afraid to run and jump into a tree to live. There is no shame in running from a cat that is bigger, stronger and meaner than you are.
"You are smarter than many and think thoughts that few can understand, use this weapon as you would a club and if you cannot be stronger than an enemy, be faster and if you cannot be faster, be smarter. Now, take this club and be careful"
The next morning he took the bag of food that his mother had prepared and after hugging his mother, father, four sisters and even his three brothers (all of whom were proven warriors and hunters) he set out. He decided to move south along the stream then cross over and avoid the Kor-ul-Gryf where the beast from whom the gorge took it's name resided. No man or army had ever defeated a gryf with it's plated back, armored head and three horns. The reptile's head was twice the length of a man's height and the total length of the beast was a dozen times longer than a man was tall. If the club was the ultimate in weapons of war, the Gryf was the ultimate engine of destruction created by The Great God to punish cruel mankind. Once that gorge had been inhabited by a strong tribe but then the Gryf moved in and after eating half the tribe and driving the rest away, the monster had settled in, taking the gorge as it's mating ground. There were legends of the cruelty of that tribe that caused the Great God to punish them in that manner, legends that were an object lesson for the rest.
It was as he was about to cross the stream and head east when he saw the strange Waz-Don. It was walking as if there were nothing to fear which was strange enough. But it carried no club and across it's back was what looked like a very long knife. This one had a blade easily twice as long as his own fighting blade and was much longer than an arm.
As-Tan sat in the tree watching the stranger. Anyone who was from a Kor or Lur other than his own was an enemy so perhaps killing this man would bring him some fame. He waited for the Waz-Don to come closer to his tree when six warriors from the Kor-ul-Ja appeared and surrounded him. The stranger didn't fight or run, he made gestures that indicated that he wanted peace. Peace! In Pal-ul-Don?
The Kor-ul-Ja surrounded the stranger who stood there calmly. At first As-Tan thought he was afraid but from his vantage point of not being involved, he could see more clearly. The stranger wasn't afraid, he was confident! That made no sense as he had only a long knife against six clubs.
Then the leader of the band stepped forward and clubbed the stranger. Or he tried to club the stranger. Somehow the strange Waz-Don managed to step in close and after grabbing the Kor-ul-Ja's arm, throw him to the ground. Then instead of taking advantage of the opening in the ring of warriors or killing the one he had so easily cast down, he bowed to the warrior and seemed to be apologizing to them. Still without any fear at all.
The warriors began to circle him, even the leader who got up and joined his band. They spun their clubs and waited for a signal to kill the interloper who simply pulled the sheathed knife from his back and waited. Then he stepped back and jabbed the sheathed blade into the stomach of the man behind him, a man he could not possibly see. The warrior went down gagging and then the five others attacked.
Instead of watching a massacre, As-Tan saw the stranger move around somehow blocking blow after blow with his sheathed knife or simply stepping aside so the clubs missed him. No one could do that but it was happening. Then the stranger jabbed another in the stomach, threw a third to the ground and struck a fourth with the side of his sheath. Now it was one against two.
The two separated and approached slowly from opposite sides. The stranger finally unsheathed his knife and pointing the tip at one Kor-ul-Ja and the sheath at the other, waited. When the two attacked, he diverted the blow of one with the blade, spun and struck the second with the sheath then continued the spin to strike the last down.
Suddenly it was over. Within a dozen heartbeats, one strange man had defeated six tested warriors. Then the warrior did the unthinkable. He knelt to each and carefully ministered to the injuries of his enemies. Enemies were to be killed so that they couldn't kill you later. After he was done, the stranger replaced his long knife across his back and continued on, leaving the injured to recover.
As-Tan followed him carefully from the trees. He now knew that he couldn't defeat this warrior but if he could learn the man's fighting style he could become a great warrior, then perhaps Sad-ul-To would let him court her. Until then, there were so many questions he wanted to ask and he had no idea of how to ask them. So until he could decide what to do, he followed the stranger.
After an hour the man found a rock under a tree and sitting down, placed his knife in his lap and appeared to sleep. A moment later As-Tan saw two j'jato approach and he knew that the stranger would die. They were large as jato go, their stripes bright in orange and yellow, their long stabbing fangs that were longer than the fingers of his spread hand ready to stab and tear. Jatos were the symbol of ferocity and courage and ran only from a gryf so. Being stalked by two, As-Tan knew that this man was dead and nothing would save him.
Somehow as the j'jato approached, the stranger held both hands out (he obviously wasn't asleep but thinking with his eyes closed) and both j'jato walked to him and placed their heads in his hands. Unbelievable. Jato acting like a tamed wildcat kitten. They remained a moment then walked off leaving the stranger to his contemplations.
After an hour of this, the man stood up and began to leave when the bellow of the Gryf alerted them both to the danger. The stranger looked at the gryf then stepped behind the tree for protection. At least this was normal though why he didn't climb to safety was beyond understanding, but this Waz-Don did nothing understandable.
The gryf charged the tree then smashed it to the ground, pinning the stranger underneath. Fortunately the stranger was hidden by the foliage so as the gryf began to eat the branches that stood between it and his meal, As-Tan acted. He didn't think, he simply acted.
As-Tan jumped to the ground and cried to the gryf then ran off with the monster in pursuit. When he could, he jumped into the tree and led the gryf off for an hour then when he saw a nearby herd of deer, he climbed higher and waited for the gryf to chase the herd. As-Tan then returned to the Waz-Don to discover that he had vanished and had been replaced by a monster. The hairless thing had a head of a boar but a long nose that hung below his chin and moved like a tail. It had thick legs and three thick toes and three fingers on each hand and was tail-less. He knew that this thing and the Waz-Don were the same as they both had the same long knife and strange bracelet on the left wrist, but now the bracelet was damaged and As-Tan saw that it was hollow with bits of metal and shiny rocks inside. This thing could never climb with those feet and no tail but it was still a couragous and skilled warrior and deserved better than this.
As-Tan found a broken branch and used it as a lever to raise the tree trunk enough to pull the creature free. Why he did this he didn't completely know. But there were too many strange things here not to understand. The creature was badly hurt and pointed to the Kor-ul-Gryf as if he wanted to be taken there. Taken to the home of the monster that had tried to kill him? As-Tan shook his head no and pointed to his own Kor but the thing was adamant and it's eyes seemed so sad that As-Tan built a stretcher of branches and leaves and managed to get the thing onto the litter. He then picked up one end and began to drag the thing to certain death. About an hour later, As-Tan saw something shiny among the trees. Shiny as if it were all the steel in the world in one place and polished to mirror brightness as if you could get steel to shine as much as bronze. As-Tan hesitated then decided that he was dead anyhow if the gryf returned so continued on.
As soon as he got near he saw that the thing was an egg. But an egg the size of a tree and so large that men could live inside, which some apparently did. As-Tan saw what looked like humans but they were as tailless as the Ho-Don said Jad-Ben-Otho was. And these were giants! Each was so tall that As-Tan's head would come up to the giant's belly. If these were gods, then everything that the Ho-Don said was true and all that the Waz-Don believed as a lie.
As-Tan felt weak in the knees at this thought. His entire world was crumbling and he almost swooned when two of the giants saw him and ran over. They jabbered in some strange god-like language then looked at the monster he carried and one touched his own bracelet and spoke into it. Then the two picked the litter up and carried it inside the steel egg as a third exited. The third talked briefly to the other giants then to the creature who pointed to As-Tan and said something to the giants then the third waved the rest on and approached As-Tan.
As-Tan could see the giant closer now. It was human-looking but tail-less and hairless as was a Ho-Don and it wore strange skins that came from no animal As-Tan could identify. The giant knelt before As-Tan and talked to him in his unknown language. He pointed to himself and the egg-building then motioned towards the sky. When the giant realized that As-Tan knew nothing of his language and they couldn't communicate, he removed a ring from his finger and gave it to As-Tan. The ring was too large to wear but the stone was a diamond. One of those stones that were so hard they couldn't be cut or scratched only this one was cut and shiny. The Ho-Don had a way of placing diamonds into a barrel with hard sand and water and after turning it for a year by a water wheel, they removed the diamonds polished to a degree. Only never like this.
The giant said something that As-Tan believed to be thanks and returned to his steel egg. As-Tan knew that these people were not gods but people from another land for the gods lived beyond the morass, not in the sky. It was either believe that or believe that his entire people's lives were a lie and he found that idea impossible to grasp.
Where did they come from? Who or what were they? How could tail-less ‘ho-don' giants be friends with a monster like the one he saved? Why would they care about it? They honored the monster as a warrior but a warrior who didn't kill?
His head hurt from all these questions so As-Tan did what he did for the second time without thought, he ran into the steel egg as the doors were closing. He heard a soft rumbling and felt vibrations through his feet but he knew that whatever happened, death or life among strangers or destruction at the hands of the gods would be preferable to his constant embarrassment to his own people. And somehow, he didn't miss Sad-ul-To at all as the ship left Pal-ul-Don for the stars.