Arkold system - Moonworld Tahara - Shakalassa Ridgeline: 0730 local time. [2300. 13/3/2003 Omega time]
Tawal and Vean Tahli of tribe Shroa.
The deer were tiny, barely knee high; their almond colored coats were covered with black and dull emerald spots. The scores of rounded, plump bodies flitted surprisingly quickly on skinny legs through the dense olive green underbrush. The crashing foliage and light thunder of hundreds of small hooves pounding against the dry and sandy soil. The herd rapidly changed direction again as another sharp crack sounded.
One stumbling buck emerged from the rear of the fleeing herd. It repeatedly fell to its knees, the stubby antlers scratching up tufts of sand as it flailed about to keep running.
Another crack brought the buck to its side, panicked breaths coursed through a dying body with the rapid rise and fall of its belly.
Small spittles of blood collected on silent, coal black lips as jungle eyes wildly searched the dense vegetation; the prey searched for his hunter.
The crashing herd faded as that vegetation parted to reveal the hunter; a tall Taharan 23 year old man casually walked forward, a badly pitted and rusted AKM held at a low ready. His skin was a dark bronze, long locks of thinly braided black hair hanging about a chinless beard; the typical tone and cut of men of the lowlander tribes. He wore a heavily dusted and grass stained light cotton shirt that hung loosely over a lean and muscular frame; a decades old slogan from some League corporation was once printed in Aethereen script, though now it was faded beyond comprehension by years of wind and wear. Not that the hunter could’ve read it anyway. The original bleach white color had similarly evolved into a light green and beige splash. But the hunter didn’t care, that color worked better for the underbrush anyway. His ancient large running shoes were both soaked with water from some stream he’d leapt through.
Behind the man followed a ten year old boy with a familiar face and height if leaner build. His hair was shorter, barely falling below his ears in a tangled mass that hid vividly green eyes. Those eyes darted from hunter to prey with the excited anticipation of a cub.
The hunter approached the fallen buck and quickly tapped one, then a second round into the back of its head; the prey jerked twice before stilling. He slung the rifle over his shoulder as he knelt, his fingers felt the thick throat and side of the carcass.
“Son, come see.” The hunter spoke Kartoa with a very heavy native Taharan accent that rounded broadly about vowels. He had a paternal baritone.
The boy quickly ran forward and stood next to the hunter, drawing a large knife with a rope wrapped handle in his left hand. The boy halted in his steps when the hunter raised his hand. The boy’s face fell into disappointment as he spoke in Ha’jiam, “I can clean it Dad, you said if I did a good job you’d let me go hunting.”
“In Kahtowa, you will learn the alien’s tongue.”
The boy looked down and nodded his head.
“And so you will, but first come and see.”
The boy kept the knife in his hand as he scrutinized the body.
This is a test. Gotta get this right. Dad’s pointing out something, something. Gotta sound smart, gotta bullseye it on the first try, gotta sound smart.
The boy nervously fingered the knife in his hand.
“Uh… It’s a buck?”
The father’s smile cracked into a soft chuckle, “Yeesss, it’s a buck. Anything else?”
“It’s a yearling.”
“We only kill yearlings for special meals.”
“New babies, somebody dies, or gets married, sacrifices. Stuff like that.”
“And why did we kill this one?”
“Because Granddad made a big business deal.”
“And would you ever kill a yearling?”
“Only if you told me to.”
The father smiled and grabbed the two front legs of the buck, easily hoisting the animal over his shoulders while getting to his feet. The boy smiled proudly,.
My Dad is the strongest in the tribe… Well, maybe not the tribe. Hutyan is a lot bigger, but he’s definitely the best fighter. NOBODY can beat my Dad. Nobody on the whole world.
“We’re going to string it up at the house, you can field dress it there.”
The boy tucked his knife back into a crudely stitched - but secure - sleeve of his pants.
“You’re going to be thorough, I don’t want to see a single calorie of meat wasted.”
“It’ll be the cleanest body ever.”
Father and son casually walk through the jungle, brushing through immense ferns, branches, and vines. Moving around the thickly twisted trees with roots upraised like some tentacled sea beast writhing in mid frenzy. Yet the overhead canopy was sparse, at least when compared to the thicker inland tracts of the Moon Tahara; sunlight penetrated almost unheeded, casting a strangely patchwork contrast of dark shadow and bright tropical floor. Massive beige boulders towered over the pair. The intense heat was somewhat relieved under the guard of the trees.
The natural sounds quickly returned as the minutes ticked by from the hunt, tan and brown birds flitted about in the canopy while the smaller ground bound mammals and reptiles slithered and prowled about their way, hidden by the foliage. Hidden to sight that is, but the boy knew that his father would still know them all by their scent. A nine kilogram knight rat was watching them warily from the underbrush, his overlapping armored plates of black grey bone that gave him his name blended well in the background. Those rats were alien pests brought to this world by Clan breeders. A two meter long brown arrowbacked viper almost woke from its month-long slumberous roost. A small flock of green and brown Guineas huddled together in fear. A spike backed lizard fled before them with an impressive burst of speed, its grainy green hide vanishing in a blur. Overhead, another sort of lizard clasped closer to its low hanging branch, its thin brown skin flushing into a luscious emerald. The air was filled with the buzz of Cicalas and other insects; a thirty centimeter long turquoise and black dragonfly flitted past on huge silvery wings, strange since they usually stuck to the mangroves nearer the coast.
The land was alive today.
The pair walked just under a kilometer through this scene before crossing the game trail they sought. The barely meter wide path formed after decades of little feet pounding the earth below. They changed their course to follow this trail up a sharply inclining mountain. It crossed over a steadily trickling bright azure stream of water several times, where both father and son stooped to gulp down and soak their faces in the rejuvenating life before moving on again. The path took them under arching roots and between large boulders. It started to switchback and forth as the climb became nearly vertical, yet the natives easily pressed upward; even the boy’s nimble feet had walked this way hundreds of times.
As the climb became close to vertical, they broke free of the over head canopy; only the smallest of trees and shrubs clung to the side of the small mountain. From this side of the ridge they could easily see much higher mountains to the north west before they wrapped around the moon at the close horizon. The furiously red gas giant Hannok swallowed most of the light blue sky above them. Tahara’s sun shined comparatively distantly as it nearly met Hannok’s horizon. The boy looked up at the sky, Gonna be dark soon.
Tahara had a complicated solar cycle, since it was orbiting the gas giant Hannok which in turn orbited the system’s sun. Tahara itself had regular twelve hour days amid month long alternating intervals of near constant light or darkness. Corresponding to whether the sun was facing Tahara, or eclipsed by the gas giant. The native calender maintained by the older shamans recorded ten light months to ten dark months. The red glare from Hannok created a strange nocturnal world that emerged during the dark months. The vipers and bats came from their roosts and reigned in the darkness, subverting and replacing the animals that lived in the times of bright.
Two villagers hold a doe before the head shaman; the shaman holds aloft the ritual machete while chanting to Yatao, then bringing it down severing the head from the body. The blood surges forth, pouring onto the earth from the neck like a hose. As the villagers drag the body around the square under the stark night red light from Yatao. Then Yateo’s sacrifice; the second doe tossed into the flames, pinned by a shaman with a fire pole till the doe’s frenzied screams faded away. “Red shadow, gold light; Yatao’s reign, Yateo’s reign.”
I like Yatao’s sacrifices more, we get to eat it after.
The boy shuddered thinking of the two gods that ruled over Tahara. The storming great red gas giant called Yatao - that aliens called Hannok - was obviously the more powerful one. His little brother Yateo - what they had long since learned was a sun - was the much smaller object in the sky that would blind you if you looked too close.
The pair climbed another few kilometers, the buck and AK slung over the father’s broad shoulders. They finally crossed over the crest of the ridge to follow the trail in a sharp series of switchbacks downward. On this side of the ridge you could see the many rivers and creeks that ran toward and from the great lake to the south. Gigantic white clouds loomed to the south, the misty white seemingly frozen outline of rain was outlined from them down to the jungle. One of those rivers came up to form a small lake down below at the foot of the ridge. A few motor boats and canoes were running down there now.
They look so tiny. Like little ants I can squish with my fingertip.
The boy looked over to see several trails of smoke emerge from a clearing in the canopy just below.
Home. Rang both within the boy’s and his father’s minds at the sight. Tribe Shroa
Home gradually became clearer through the treeline. Four mudbrick and cob buildings stood in in a flattened clearing on the side of the ridge. The largest family house was four levels tall, a mansion by Taharan standards. The second and third were both just one level carports storing several trucks, speeders, and ATV’s. The fourth was just a small cinder block shed with a tin roof. On the roofs of the first three structures rested dozens of water drums, a few of which were hooked into a pipeline that ran into the house below. A large net dish was setup on the roof of the family house. The first three houses all had overhangs made from tin and thatch, various chairs, logs, benches, and crates were hauled in the shade.
Over a dozen children were playing kickball in the dusty square, a few mothers and older children sat on the family house’s front porch shucking the rough husks of roadfruit into large tin wash basins. A few old Shaog bolt action rifles leaned against the porch railing just within easy reach of the women. The mothers’ long black hair were tied into many small braids, while the couple young women present had theirs tied back into a single cord of hair. As per the general custom for women in the lowlander and lakeside tribes. Some had receivers, and all were chatting in Ha’jiam.
Why do they all talk at once?
Several old men and young boys were also lounging about in the shade, Disukan made Machine pistols in their laps. A couple were on also on receivers, but for the most part they were napping in the afternoon heat. The game trail finally emerged past another large boulder into the sun baked dust of home.
“Tawal! Little Vean!” A fifteen year old woman waved over to them, she sat aside the roadfruit and sprang to her feet just as the hunter dropped the buck onto the wooden slats of the front porch. She wore a more traditional feminine Taharan garb, flowing white robes bound up by an embroidered sash. She somehow managed to hug them both, drawing them into a tightly familial embrace.
Don’t call me ‘little’ Aunt Ilani, that’s for babies! You’re only five years older than me! Stop kissing me! The boy wanted to say, but he knew his father Tawal might slap him for it later. Instead, he just prickled a bit, casting a quick look at the other boys to see if they heard her. One of the boys had forgotten the game and was already sneering in his direction.
Hanan did hear, DAMN.
Vean glared at the other boy through Ilani’s hug, but neither she nor Tawal noticed. She brushed cheek to cheek with Tawal before planting several kisses on Vean’s head.
“Careful Ilani, don’t get blood on your dress.” Tawal said, some small blood stains had trickled over his shoulders from where the buck’s mouth had been lagging.
“I don’t care! It’s a beautiful buck! You know Kovono loves venison at his feasts! Would you like me to clean it for you?”
“I was actually going to see if Vean can do a good job.”
“Ooohh!” Ilani gushed, turning to her nephew, “Vean is going to dress it? That’s a big responsibility to clean a yearling buck!”
Vean grinned triumphantly at Hanan before turning to Ilani, “And I’ll do it perfect too!”
Tawal opened his mouth to remind him, but Vean remembered and quickly restated his sentence in Kartoa. “And I do it great too.”
“And you will do it great too.” Tawal corrected anyway. “You need help moving the buck?”
“No,” Vean quickly replied, “I’m strong enough.” He pointedly said in Hanan’s direction. He looked down at the buck that Tawal had carried for several kilometers over the ridge. I got this. He grabbed the buck and tried to heave it onto his back, but only made it halfway before he lost momentum and it slid back down to the ground.
Damn, Damn, Damn!
Hanan’s laughter racked through his brain.
“You sure son?”
Vean didn’t reply, he just dragged the buck onto a nearby chair and knelt down under it. Now he’s just able to struggle to his feet, the buck slumped awkwardly over his head. He started walking toward the meat shed, one careful step at a time, trying to ignore the other boys. The other children kept after the ball with rapt focus, even little Oshta - another of Kovono’s grandchildren - waddled after the ball, squealing with delight when she neared it.
Ilani looked toward Tawal with a slightly concerned look on her face, “Ashara’s not going to be happy that you’re teaching him the alien’s tongue.”
“I don’t care what Ashara thinks.”
His reply caused some of the nearby chatter to drop into shocked silence before the busy whispering started. Tawal had always hated that, but at least they hadn’t waited for him to turn his back before talking about him.
“Where is Sali?”
“She’s… um.” Ilani’s gaze turned away.
Tawal didn’t detect any trouble, but he definitely wasn’t going to like what he heard. He asked the question again, gently enunciating each word.
“She’s working down in the bar, cleaning dishes I think.”
Tawal’s brow furrowed in anger, “How long?”
“Since this morning I think, please don’t tell Ashara I told you!”
Tawal stormed off toward the auto-shed, hopping onto an ATV and revving it to life. He roared across the yard, slowing down and steering carefully around the children, and squeezed the throttle down the winding single road that led to the foot of the ridge and the bar.
Tawal sighed at the name of the matriarch of Shroa: Ashara. They had always been at odds. Ever since he had defied her marriage arrangement and eloped with Sali at fifteen - a year before the customary age. Ever since he’d gone out of his way to learn the alien tongue and encouraged its use across the tribe. He hated the old way of tribal patriarchs and matriarchs, it wasn’t right for the new generation to be at the beck and call of the old. He was the rising young warrior that everyone knew would lead the tribe one day; he flaunted his independence and Ashara hated him for it. Tawal wielded a lot of clout with the tribe. And she more usually than not took it out on Sali. Singling her out to work in the steaming hot kitchen of the bar while most of the women were up here.
Ashara loves to boss Sali around whenever I’m gone. It’s going to stop.
He was frustrated with Sali as well, she wasn’t stupid or intimidated easily; far from it. So why did she just keep smiling and curb to whatever Ashara wants? It wasn’t fair.
Tawal roared from the house road to the main road, a couple dozen other homes and buildings surrounded the bar on the main road in front of the lake. Darkness was quickly starting to set in as first night was coming; the sun was creeping behind the red mass of Yatao, the dimmer red light quickly falling upon the world. A small wharf filled with returning boats and Shroa tribesmen waved to him. He waved back as he pulled up in front of the bar. It was a very broad three level structure bustling with activity as more tribesmen were coming in tired and leaving in various states of inebriation.
He curtly responded to a few greetings as he strode to the open front doors. By the time he reached it, the full darkness of first night hit, so he was illuminated against the inward light of the bar.
The bar was packed - as usual - with about seventy patrons, most of which were Shroa. These were the night owls who staid up through much of the four hour eclipse would spend most of that time drinking here. The dull red light filtered through a few cracks and open windows in the thick mud brick walls; the scarlet rays reflected off the faint haze of pipe smoke that filled the air. The scent was powerful to those unaccustomed to it. Extinguished kerosene lamps were spaced around a score of tables of a dozen different makes. The variety is outdone by the seats thereof, everything from ancient handmade wicker rocking chairs to empty shipping crates are propped haphazardly around.
The patrons were of two types, some wore the diversely patterned multi-colored Taharan robes of the Shroa. Though most were wearing cheaper t shirts and shorts or tunics from various alien cultures. Most were armed with some sort of firearm that were only as diverse as they were collectively worn and rusted. Fourteen tribeswomen in a corner were from the Cartel’s mushroom plant down the road smoking their pipes; it was good work that brought a nice income to their families. In another were the muddy diamond divers that worked for the Freedom Fighter’s Front in the diamond fields to the south. They took 4 day shifts at a time before walking home.
Tawal drew stares when he entered the room, stares that quickly returned to their drinks at his stern expression.
The Shroa tribe fear you Matriarch Ashara? They fear me too.
He strode across the room straight to the kitchen, moving around the bar till one of the bouncers named Hanyuk stood in his path; he was a huge man, taller than Tawal. He wasn’t armed, but in the crowded spaces of the bar and his usually unfocused opponents it wasn’t really necessary. Yet the expression on his face was uncertainty, out of place on a face which was always certain. To the side a bargirl named Kallia watched with a frightened expression on her face.
“Hanyuk, step aside.”
“Ashara told me to not let you pass.”
“Hanyuk, step aside."
Tawal gently but firmly brushed Hanyuk aside and moved to the kitchen door, thrusting it open violently as he entered.
The unbearable heat blew over him; sixteen different workers were deep in the large metal sinks, washing cups, mugs, tankards, and glasses in a mass of bubbly froth. His entry drew several startled stares from those workers, he studied their faces for a moment before he recognized his wife. Her face and shirt were sopping with sweat, her arms red and pruny from being in the rinse water all day. Yet she didn’t seem to know it.
Sali smiled at him fondly while shaking off the bubbles and drying her arms with a dishrag, “Never mind ladies, my husband loves dramatic entrances.”
“How long have you been working here?”
“Since last night, a good day’s work to nurse the soul.”
“You’re on permanent break now; come on, I’m taking you back to the house.”
“If you insist.” Sali tossed the dishrag onto the sink and walked over to Tawal, planting a wet kiss on his lips as she took his arm.
“By Yatao, you’re as sweaty as I am!”
“Had a good day’s hunt.” Tawal commented as he walked back out of the kitchen into the bar. Tawal started walking straight for the door till Sali turned him back to a few empty bar chairs. “Sit, we could both use a quick drink before heading back.” He obeyed without protest.
Sali hopped onto a chair by the bar as she beckoned to Kallia for two drinks. She was thin as a stick but unusually tall. The bargirl moved quickly to pour them, looking apologetic then relieved when Sali smiled at her. Tawal took the seat next to his wife, watching the bar door. Sali sat silently for a minute before asking,
“So I trust you ran into little Hannu up at the house?”
“No, Sakea looking after him?”
“Yep, Sakea and Ilani, I can barely pry him from them. Ilani’s going to make a great mother."
Tawal didn't comment, Sali fingered her drink for a moment.
"How did Vean do on the hunt?”
“He did good, kept up well enough and didn’t complain.”
Sali left a moment’s pause, “You know, he’s been talking about running off with the PA when he turns twelve.”
Tawal finally took a swig from his tankard on the bar. “Few months ago he was talking about leaving Tahara and becoming a pilot in the alien’s army. Before that it was joining the diamond divers with the triple F. He’s still a boy.”
Sali shrugged her shoulders, “Either way he’s still going to want that SKS when he turns twelve, like all the other boys.” She had that particularly patient voice.
“He’ll get a rifle, I just want him hunting with it, not running off to get himself killed with the PA. We keep him here he’ll stay alive like the rest of us.”
“Your father is quite the diplomat,” Sali emptied her tankard and tapped the bar for a refill. “I didn’t think anyone else could keep Shroa neutral between the triple F and the PA.”
“He has a lot of friends in both, and he keeps them happy.”
“Yes, he does…” Tawal caught the faintly disapproving tone behind Sila’s smile, understandable.
The tide of chatter dimmed down slightly, immediately drawing Tawal’s gaze to the door. A tall and powerful woman stalked into the bar. Streaks of grey shone in her hair, the braids hung before a scarred eye socket and one intense blue eye.
The matriarch’s here.
Sila smiled and toasted her entrance, “Good evening Ashara!”
Ashara walked up to the bar and tapped for a drink. She glared at Hutyan before turning to Tawal and speaking with perfectly articulated Ha’jiam.
“Good evening son.”
Tawal stiffly nodded his head in bare recognition,
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The Chivalrous Rogue