|-“I can hear them coming!” the boy hissed.
-“Yes, I know. Most of them have been waiting all morning at a distance… They have stopped… One of them has unhorsed… He is slowly walking to the entrance…” Umatar smugly commented.
-“How could you guess that? You can’t be a Shaman! You’re a woman!” The last was uttered in a more humble manner this time. The past two weeks spent in the Golden Dragon’s company had taught him a lot of things, among which respect had proved the strongest.
She had gathered food and combustible matter during her forays, as she certainly would not allow him to venture outside in her company. She was not ready to reveal her true identity yet. Moreover, his leaving the cave alone was simply out of question. Although he had sampled food vastly different from what he had experienced in his short life, the boy had come to appreciate the cooked flesh of the small rodents and birds she had caught. He was also discovering the taste of herbs and wild plants he had never imagined would exist. Second thoughts about his own kin had insidiously crept into his mind.
Umatar had also found water inside the grotto. She suspected that somebody had been using it for other purposes as it appeared too practical.
-“He’s come in! Do as I told you! Can you manage?”
-“Of course, I can! But do we have to go through that farce?”
-“Absolutely! Trust me!” Umatar disappeared into the shadows.
Soon after, He-Who-Knows-All, a name the Golden Dragon had come to despise intensely, made his entry.
A nasty surprise had been waiting for him, whatever he might have expected: instead of a shackled dead lad in a dark cave, a healthy boy welcomed him seated in front of a small fire with meat roasting on an improvised spit. The Shaman found himself speechless.
The boy who had no name faced him with aplomb:
-“Greetings, He-Who-Knows-All, Shaman of the Tribe of the Wind! May I invite you to enjoy my humble lunch?”
-“You… you… you should have been dead!” the Shaman finally manage to blurt out, his amulets shaking, his hand gripping his staff hard for support.
-“Why? Why should I be dead?” The lad was beginning to enjoy himself in spite of all his earlier misgivings.
-“You are an orphan! You have no name! Nobody’s come to adopt you!” He-Who-Knows-All was recovering his senses. He had been too crafty a man to be overcome by any unforeseen situation, however bad. With more authority, he tried to instill fear into his interlocutor.
-“You know the law, you toad with no name!”
-“What law, Shaman? Your law, maybe? And what do you know about my name? Would it please you to learn I had one? Who do you think has freed, fed and protected me all that time? Eh! I’m waiting for your answer, He-Who-Knows-All!”
The last was exclaimed with such mockery and disdain that the trickster – that was as far as his vaunted magic extended, as Umatar had explained – was stricken speechless once again. How could an ignorant goatherd have become so intelligent and confident in such a short time? And where did that fire and food come from?
A deep voice resonated in the dark behind the boy.
-“He-Who-Knows-All! We are waiting for your answers! Or shall I tell you my charge’s name?”
A golden light appeared in the back of the cave. He-Who-Knows-All saw with terror the shape of a golden-coloured dragon coalesce and tower above the two of them.
The Shaman who knew no magic, and was sorely aware of the fact, suddenly looked upward, clutched his chest and tottered for a bit. But before his heart seized and before he dropped to the earth like kindling, he knew that for the first and last time he had witnessed a true manifestation of the art. As he fell, his face disturbed the dust as it slammed into the floor of the cave.
Umatar appeared at the side of the boy who turned around for the first time since the Shaman had entered their secret abode.
-“Are all your Shamen so faint-hearted?” she mockingly asked.
-“What did you show him? What made him so afraid?”
-“Not that much, actually. Shall we say an illusion? One day, if you listen to me and study diligently, I’ll show you how to do it!”
-“What! Do you want me to become one those good for nothing charlatans?”
-“I certainly wouldn’t let you, believe me!” his protector retorted with some asperity. The anger surprised her companion into a fearful stare.
-“Oh come on, boy! I’m now your teacher and I’ll make a great man of you! The Tribes, one day, will follow your leadership willingly and without an ill word spoken against you. Until then, you shall have to learn, and from what I have seen so far, it will prove laborious, painful and frustrating. But right here and now, you have my solemn oath I shall always be at your side and protect you! One day we shall be equals and I hope you will still enjoy my company.”
The boy’s eyes searched Umatar’s face for a while. A smile gradually illuminated his sun burnt face, and with a very stiff bow, he slowly spoke.
-“I ever will, Master!”
-“Master? You shall find out only too soon that nobody is anybody’s Master! Some people foolishly wish to become so. Others wish to give away their will and right to govern themselves. But even very few of the Tribes of the Steppes know the true meaning of freedom. But I am digressing. He-Who-Knows-All’s cronies are still waiting outside. Shall we have a word with them?”
Without any further explanations, she entered the tunnel leading to the entrance of the cave.
When they emerged from the Mount Of All Gods, a group of Shamen and members of the Tribe of the Wind were waiting behind a pyre obviously erected for the orphan’s funerals. Like their predecessor, they found themselves struck speechless by the manifestation of Umatar and her companion.
The half dozen Shamen present offered a motley sight. All of them carried a staff of some kind tied with stones, feathers, amulets and rags. They wore animal pelts, various bird feathers, bead necklaces, talismans, bracelets made of horn or wood and even animal skulls in the case of two of them.
Umatar wrinkled her nose. Cleanliness did not seem one of their prerequisites.
Most of the members of the Tribe of the Wind were still sitting on their horses. Their mounts bore no saddles or stirrups, but only blankets and a rope as a rein. The warriors sported breeches and short sleeveless tunics. Their heads were decorated with feathers tied to their dark braids. Some of them had painted lines and symbols on their faces, arms and hands.
All their eyes were fixed on the young outlandishly beautiful woman standing her legs slightly apart and her arms crossed on her chest. She wore soft leather and sturdy shoes of the same dun colour. Her golden hair was braided at the temples and tied with a simple leather band at her nape. She wore no other garments or any of the accessories donned by her ‘kin’. An attentive onlooker, however, would notice a myriad of weapons concealed inside her belt, boots and many parts of her clothing in the shape of knives, sharp metal stars, hooked lines, chains and the like.
-“What is that?” started one of the Shamen, “ a woman wearing breeches and bearing weapons? If you plan to live, you had better get changed at once and pray for forgiveness!”
The boy started to retort angrily but a strong hand gripped his right shoulder and silenced him.
-“And at the same time, you’re probably hoping to feast your dirty eyes on me as I comply, He-Who-Sings-With-Thunder?”
-“Who do think you are, wench, calling my name out in such a fashion?” a suddenly enraged Shaman screamed back at her.
-“You shall have to learn better than to use such foul language in my presence, fraud!”
The Shaman who had insulted the dragon suddenly found himself being flown backwards into his acolytes with such force that they all fell into an incongruous heap. Adding to their discomfiture, a gust of wind covered them with dust that made them cough atrociously, completely destroying their dignity.
-“What are we going to do about that?” the Golden Dragon implacably continued. She added a thought of fear in their minds that had them trembling and shaking to tears.
“Fine! You are getting to your senses! Now go and pick up He-Who-Knows-All’s body and light this pyre for him! The stupid monkey had a heart attack when he saw us. Would you believe it?”
Not wanting to suffer any more vexation, the Shamen almost ran into the cave to retrieve their unfortunate comrade. In no time the dead trickster was laid on the pyre, which was immediately lit. His body soon disappeared in the crackling flames.
-“Next, turn over He-Who-Knows-All’s horse to the youngster. He won’t have need for it any more. You Shamen will go to all the Tribes and call a general conclave of all Shamen and Tribe Chiefs living within fifteen days’ horse ride! The conclave will take place here next full moon! Move at once, or I shall beset you with piles to force you to travel on foot for the rest of your lives.”
Then facing the warriors she added, “The same applies to you! Tell your people that She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons has come and new laws will be dictated to you all for your own good. First, all fights will cease, whatever the reason. If I catch any of you at war, and be sure I will know, he will never walk or ride a horse again! Make sure that anybody of authority is present or I shall strike all your cattle sterile and turn their milk sour!”
To put more resolution into their superstitious minds, she called upon a fork of lightning that struck the top of the mountain with a deafening fracas sending their horses into a panic. All the Shamen and warriors, their faces wan with fear scrambled and left at a furious gallop towards their respective camps.
-“Did you have to do that?” her friend asked.
-“To people who had just left you to die only a while ago? You’re being too kind, boy. There are times when punishment and fear are a better medicine than leniency. Listen, we have at least a whole moon of peace for the two of us. Why don’t we start your education?”
-“Never mind. Follow me. Let me show you how to trap those little beasts you like so much to roast on your pit.”
-“ Wow! That will be fun, She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons.”
-“Sure I would need a pair of arms, especially ones as strong as yours look. Moreover, if good Captain Adir recommended you, I certainly don’t see how I could afford to pass up the chance to hire you. However, you must understand you will have to provide for your daughter out of your wages, and as long as she doesn’t make a nuisance of herself, she will be welcome. But if I were you, I wouldn’t let her in the main room. That’s too rough for a kid of her age!”
“My thanks, Master Turgas! Shall I start right away?” a grateful Ekan replied.
“Very commendable of you of willing to work at once! Why don’t you leave your bag in the staff quarters. Don’t worry, nothing will be stolen! Theft is considered a major offense and heavily punished in this city! When you are ready, come and join me at the counter and I shall tell your duties for the day.”
The Tavern of the Blue Mermaid was the most notable and biggest building on the main thoroughfare leading from the harbour to the city of Dunlago proper. The port area could have been called a city of its own with its facilities, docks, inns, merchant’s houses and private dwellings. A bustling area in daytime, it could become fairly raucous and even disorderly at nighttime with the propensity of the locals for reveling and the numerous visiting sailors, traders and diplomats’ retinues.
Turgas’ establishment was an imposing structure with a large common room on the ground floor, both for eating and drinking. It was divided into three distinct parts; a front space open to the outside as was the custom in that part of the continent; a main room with tables and chairs or stools and a counter for standing customers.
A large bathhouse stood separately at the back, a feature generally found at any large establishment or building. The inhabitants of the land also regularly visited public baths, not so much to clean themselves and relax, but also to conduct politics and even trade.
The first floor was fitted with private bedrooms and was also including Turgas’ private lodgings.
The tavern staff slept in an adjacent annex.
As Turgas turned to leave he yelled behind him “What’s the name of your daughter, by the way?”
-“Mareeva, Master Turgas!”
-“Well, she’s welcome, but keep your eyes on her. I just don’t have the time to look after my employees’ families!”
-“Do not worry, Master Turgas! She will be by my side all the time.”
“See those traces? What kind of animal left them?” Umatar asked.
She had been instructing the boy on how to recognize the footprints of the prey they wanted to hunt. The lad had been used to having meat, milk and the occasional tubers and fruit given to him by his mother. The Tribes of the Steppes herded mainly cattle, sheep, goat and horse and they moved with their herds. The animals and tubers provided enough food as the Steppes quickly became unending pastures on low hills the more south you traveled. Even the northern reaches provided plenty of grass and shrubs for sheep and goats. The Tribes also migrated seasonally. Their respective territories were loosely delineated; hence interminable feuds occurred when different herds happened to graze the same piece of land. The nomads were beset with internecine struggles and even wars at times. The Golden Dragon realized too well that she would have to give them a reason to cease those crippling fights and devise some form of common law or tradition to be able to organize them in the future. The Tribesmen were superstitious to the point where she had a hard time containing her laughs, or anger, depending upon the situation. One thing was certain: fear could be instilled in them. The fact was that they appeared more comfortable with strong harsh leadership than with reasoning. Surely no fault could be found with their bravery and stoicism, but those Shamen will have to be put to heel once and for all.
-“That’s easy! A rabbit! The back paws are at least three times as big as the front paws!”
-“Fine, fine! Now, how do you know there are rabbits here?”
-“They can dig their holes easily in that sandy soil and there is plenty of grass and leaves around!”
-“Alright! How shall we plan to catch them?”
-“Wait and run after them when they come out!”
-“I doubt it. You do not have the patience or the speed of a wolf or coyote. You don’t even have the stamina to stalk your prey for half a day! No, what you have to do is set traps and come back later. The rabbits won’t see or smell you and they’ll come out!”
She proceeded to show him how to make a noose with a length of rope or strip of leather, secure it with a stick thrust into the ground and place it in front of the rabbit’s den.
They were repeating the sequence at a different spot when Umatar raised her head.
True to her word they saw a lone figure on a horse approaching in the distance.
-“I owe you, Ironfoot. You saved my life and you gave me a chance to put my house in order. How can I ever repay you?”
Numnir smiled at the King Under The Mountain as he made a deprecatory gesture.
-“You do not owe me anything, Hammerblow. Do not forget all of you are my people. I am certainly as concerned as you are with your welfare! Moreover, I’m not certain if I have actually helped you sort out your problems. I probably have brought you more on your head than you might have realized.”
The two Dwarves were sharing a meal with Brighteyes in the royal couple’s apartments where the Grey Dragon had spent the previous night.
-“First, you could help me by providing me with my own quarters. It will not do if I stay in your apartments. You are going to create more dissent if you show me any favour!”
-“These are my apartments and a Dwarf’s hospitality cannot be discussed!”
-“Of course, but sooner or later, I shall also need some kind of space to instruct your engineers and craftsmen on various new technologies I have brought for you. Why not combine the two?”
-“You are right” the King conceded, “I shall find you a private room and a workshop. How much space would you need?”
-“A reasonably large space and I request that each clan send one master craftsman for full training so he can spread his acquired knowledge once back with his tribe.” Seeing the frown on his interlocutor’s brow, Numnir held a placating hand. “Hammerblow, give all your clans more than they can return, and they shall owe you for life. Forge a common interest and you shall put an immediate stop to those futile arguments and fights. I would go as far as to create a Guild of Mastercraftsmen with a written resolution stating that all knowledge acquired or discovered within these Mountains has to be shared by all Dwarves. Build a library with different rooms for each field; engineering, underground agriculture, medical care, glass crafts, weaponry and so on. Rip the doors off their hinges and post a clear sign on the lintels explaining the specialty of each room and stressing on free access to knowledge!”
-“How the hell am I going to pay for all that?”
-“Take a tithe out of each Guild for the upkeep of those facilities and their overseers. You will need a few good librarians, too. Hire older dwarves thinking of retirement for that task and make them feel useful. Keep clear accounts of all the money spent. The system will prove fair, productive and beneficial to everybody!”
-“You’re crafty, aren’t you?”
-“Not at all, my King! Just organized!”
Amrel was getting tired of the “great city” of Beaucastel. The capital of Beaulieu had seemingly lost all sense of hygiene. Refuse and dirty water were running freely in open central gutters in all the narrow smelly cobbled streets of the town. Wells were difficult to locate. Public privies did not exist. She also suspected the inhabitants of very succinct personal toilet. The stink in some districts was overpowering. She had nonetheless taken to explore her new “home” and acquire a thorough knowledge before making her move. She had already revolutionized the inn where she kept her present lodgings. A frazzled owner found himself harried in providing for a bath every day and make sure the “pot” was constantly emptied and cleaned. Since she scrupulously paid all her dues as soon as asked, the innkeeper did not dare comment on her idiosyncrasies, even behind her back. Frankly speaking, a pensioner, especially a person of her rank and means, came as a novelty and his staff and other customers had their tongues wagging aplenty. Rumours that a very rich noble lady had come to town had even reached the King’s Court. The Blue Dragon naturally was aware of all the fuss she was provoking around her and encouraged it. Time had come to make a few changes done in Beaucastel!
The rider dismounted and led his steed it by its rein.
Umatar had not stood up yet. She was waiting.
The new arrival was a young man, neither a warrior, nor a Shaman. Wearing plain garments made of soft leather, he did not carry any noticeable accessories or weapons on his person. He only carried a kind of satchel across his back.
He stopped a few paces away and raised his palms in front of him in the salute of peace common to all the Tribes of the Steppes.
-“Lady, greetings!” His voice was clear and deferential.
-“Greetings, young man!” the Dragon replied uncommittingly.
-“Do I have the honour to meet She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons?”
-“You are speaking to her. May I ask you why I deserve such a graceful acknowledgement of my gender from a member of the Free Tribes of the Desert?”
Umatar belatedly realized she was overdoing it. But the young man puzzled her. The latter seemed to understand.
-“Lady, apparently you do not know all of us yet. You would be hard put to do so, since our lands are so vast and our people so many!”
-“At least you do not appear as a warrior or one of those Shamen!”
-“From your tone, I may understand you do not appreciate their company very much! For which I do not blame you. Fortunately, some of us, not many I’d reckon, will prove different. But I am digressing. I have come here to ask you for a boon!”
-“How far away have you come from?”
-“What do distances mean in the Steppes? I travel a lot as a matter of fact. I have recently had the pleasure of meeting some distant cousins of my own Tribe who have been extremely rude to you, so it seemed to me!” The last was uttered with a small grin. The Golden Dragon felt attracted to the man. She wanted to know more before listening to his wish, though.
-“May I ask your name, since you already know mine?”
-“I do not have any name as yet, that is, in my Tribe’s fashion. To tell you the truth, I do not care too much about names, especially long-winded ones!”
-“What shall I call you, then?”
-“If you grant me the boon I came for, ‘apprentice’ would do fine with me!”
-“The fact is I wish to become a physician, A real one. But as you probably have discovered for yourself, our Shamen have little to impart my kind. Once you have seen through their mumbo jumbo, they tend to become a pitiful lot, except that they wield a great political power. To put it short, I had to acquire all my very few skills on my own. But there is a limit to what one can learn in such a situation. I had been looking for a teacher all my life, a short one I admit, and here you come out of the blue. From what I have heard, I surmised, selfishly no doubt, that I could not let this chance to improve my skills go away!”
-“I must say you speak your point, and moreover, very quickly. But how come your manner of speech is so fair? I must confess you have piqued my curiosity!”
-“Well, truly, I would not be able to explain myself. It seems to come naturally to me. I tend to upset quite a few people with my speech habits. Some will go as far as to ask questions of my manly nature!”
Umatar could not suppress a laugh.
-“I like you! I wonder what I could teach you! But apprentice or what else, it will be my pleasure to share whatsoever scant knowledge I have with you!”
-“Lady, you are too kind and too modest. You are making this man very happy indeed. May I presume to stay with both of you for as long as you will bear with me?”
-“Sorry! I have been remiss! Actually, neither of you has a name. How shall I introduce you? Boy, this is my new apprentice. Apprentice, this is Boy, although Boy will have a name one day. And I hope you will own one, too.”
-“That would be a great honour to own a name granted by She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons!”
-“Do not be so sure, Apprentice! No one can predict the future. But at least, we can help it. The two of us do not possess any yurt, but we have made our quarters inside the Mountain Of All Gods.”
-“The Mountain Of All Gods? You are certainly provoking the ire of my fellow tribesmen if you use their most sacred abode as your own!”
-“Who said it is sacred? The Shamen? I’m afraid times of changing have come and although I do not presume to abolish their political powers for the moment, some new rules and customs will have to be implemented!”
-“You seem very sure of yourself, She-Who-Speaks-To-Dragons. You might be the first lady with a name among our Tribes, but can you truly hope to achieve any success in erasing ages of evil customs in a wink!”
-“Not in a wink, but fast enough if need be!”
-“Well, I would not dare patronize you on those political matters, though I should be more than grateful if somebody managed to make this bunch of ignorant fools change their ways!”
-“And both of you are here to help me! Come Apprentice! Let’s sit inside around a meal and see what kind of lore you have gathered so far!”
The Apprentice followed docilely, his horse’s rein in his hand. The Boy came walking by his side.
-“Is it alright with you if I call you Boy?” he asked his young companion who grinned back at him.
-“Why not? I’ve never had any other name anyway! Two of us will make education more fun!”
The captured slavers’ ship had finally reached the former captives’ village. Glamrun and the Wolf were waiting on the small pier with the miserable remnants of the original population.
-“Wise One, I think time has come to move on our way south. With that ship, those poor people should make it through now.”
-“You are right, Ancient One! I was getting weary of all that sedentary life, anyway!”
Glamrun helped with the unloading while the Wolf observed the operations, doing her best too stay unnoticed.
Once Glamrun had convinced himself he was no longer needed, he took his staff and satchel and left the scene with the Wolf trotting behind before anybody would call them.
The next morning, even the traces of their feet had disappeared in the sand dunes away from the village they had helped survive.
Chapter 9: Dargelblad