The reaction to putting chapter one of Hunter, Warrior, Commander up as a post was interesting. At least half of those who visited signed up to join my readers group (according to Google analytics) and all of the emails I got were around the theme of “More please!”
So, here we go, chapters two and three:
Chapter Two – Leaving Home
Now fourteen, Sah Lee had reached the age to leave the village for university. She was the only one from her village going this year. Her three closest friends were all older than her and had left last year.
Ten days before she was due to start the long walk to the station, where she would board the train for the city, her mother, Sah Krin, took her for long walks, each day visiting one of her favorite places on the surrounding plains. She took her to the water holes she had splashed and played in when she was a child; where she had swum on the hot summer days when the sun beat down from the cobalt blue sky and when the air was still, the sound of chirring insects came from nowhere and everywhere. To the small stands of trees where she had climbed with her friends and made small shelters from the withered branches that had fallen on the ground. To the rocky plateaus where they had taken food and drink, with her aunt, Sah Lek, and sometimes with her friends, and where they often stayed in the warm evenings until it was almost dark. She took her to all the other places which held special memories for Sah Lee when she was growing up.
While they walked, they talked. Sah Lee asked her mother: “What is the university? You’ve always told me it’s where I’ll go when I am fourteen to learn things, but what is it? A village? A camp?”
Sah Krin smiled at her. “The University is in the city of Aa Ellet. It takes up a lot of the city and is many buildings made of stone. Each of the buildings has many rooms. The rooms are stacked one on top of the other, two or three high and connected by stairs. Look,” she said pointing to an old outcrop where the stone was weathered and broken, “see how those rocks are piled up so you can walk up them, a step at a time? The stairs in the buildings are like that.”
Sah Lee stopped to look at the pile of broken rocks and tried to imagine what it would look like. Rooms like their tent, but made of stone, all put together and piled up on top of each other, with broken slabs of rough rock that had to be climbed to reach the rooms piled up on the top. She shook her head, half wondering if her mother was teasing her, but she looked serious as she spoke. She decided not to question her mother any more on this, and instead asked, “What will I learn there? I know a lot about hunting already. I know how to find my way in the day by the position of the sun and the length of shadows, and at night by the Necklet and the position of the stars. I can find water by its scent and I know what plants are poisonous and which can be used to heal. I know I don’t know everything yet, but how can it take six years to learn everything else?”
“You have much to learn Sah Lee. For instance, do you know where we live?”
“Of course I do! We live in the village!”
Sah Krin laughed. “Yes, we do. But do you know where the village is? Do you know what lies beyond the plains? What happens if you keep walking north or south? Do you know of the sea and ships? Do you know of the other people of Aarn, who do not live on the plains? Do you know where the knives and plastics that we trade for skins come from?”
“No, but that’s not important, is it?”
Sah Krin laughed again. “All knowledge is important Sah Lee. It may not be useful today, but only the Makers know what will happen in the future. We live simple lives now. We didn’t always. Thousands of years ago, we chose the life we live now, to abandon all but the most basic technology, and to keep the males separate. We gave up all technology then and lived the life as our ancient ancestors did. We are changing again now. Only a little, and slowly, but we are rediscovering our technology, being careful to not let it change our lives, but just to make it a little better. Now we are on this path, we do not know where it may lead.”
“That sounds boring. I don’t care about that. But, where is the village? Isn’t it on the plains?”
“Of course it is, but the plains aren’t the entire world. Our world is called Aarn, daughter of Aa, the sun. You have heard the histories, told by the Elders when we sit around the village fire, in the evenings. The histories speak of The Four Makers, who made Aa, the sun, and gave her the gift of life. They made Maaren, the small innermost planet, and made it the home of the demons, who they imprisoned there. They placed it close to Aa so she could guard it. Maaren is so hot that the rocks melt. Then they made beautiful Aarn, Daughter of The Sun. They were so pleased with the beauty of what they had made that they gave Aarn a shiny necklet, a ring of ice that circles the world to show they loved her. They then each made another, lesser planet, Tair, Fairn, Lar and Mehen, to keep Aarn company in the vastness of the void. Aa looked upon Aarn, and so loved her daughter that she blessed her with the gift of all the living things in our world. The Aarnth then, were primitive hunting animals, not much better than vulpen, but Aa saw the Aarnth and made us stand upright on two legs. She gave us the gift of speech and intelligence. We loved Aa for what she had given us, and we always will. The Makers saw that Aa had made us, then they each made a moon, to watch over us and protect us.
The Makers looked at what they had made, and it was perfect. They filled the void with lesser suns to worship Aa, to twinkle in the darkness and act as beacons to guide the Aarnth in the darkness of night, and having finished, The Makers left, never to return.”
“I hadn’t realized the histories were about us, I thought they were just stories.”
“It doesn’t finish with the histories, Sah Lee, there is so much more. Aarn is a huge globe, mostly sea, but with vast areas of land. We live on Por Dars Erntoran, the great central continent, which is the biggest of all the lands of Aarn. All the people who live on Por Dars Erntoran are of the Sek Farn, the One Tribe. This is where the Aarnth came from, where we were changed from being animals to being what we are now.”
“Are we the only people on Aarn?” Sah Lee asked.
“No, we live in the middle of the northern plains. If you were to walk east or west for two hundred days, you would reach the ocean, which is like a huge water hole and seems to go on forever, but you can travel across it on a ship, like the little boats you played with on the water holes, but much, much bigger. The ship would take you to other lands where other Aarnth live who aren’t of the Sek Farn, they belong to other tribes.”
“Are the other tribes our friends?” Sah Lee asked.
“Yes, of course.” Sah Krin smiled. “They are our sisters, we trade with them. The university is only two days travel from a port, which is where ships go to meet and to trade. You will visit there when you are at university, and you may get to travel in a ship.”
Sah Lee was intrigued by this. All she had ever known were the plains, and she loved them. She didn’t want to leave them. Yet, to travel on the sea, to be surrounded by so much water that she would never need to be thirsty…
“You said about traveling north or south. What happens if you keep walking north or south? Do you come to the sea again?”
“No, it is very different. As you travel north, if you go far enough, the air will grow cooler, the grasses become softer and grow thickly. If you keep walking, you will come to where huge trees grow in great forests, which stretch further than the eye can see. The forests are so big it takes tens of days to walk from one side to the other. Dangerous and mysterious animals live there. If you keep on going north through the forest, the air grows so cold that you can see your breath, and water becomes hard, like stone.”
“Are you teasing me, or is it really like that?”
“It really is like that Sah Lee. You will visit the forest when you are at university, but you won’t go to the cold lands. It is dangerous there, the cold kills people. Those lands aren’t meant for the Aarnth.”
“What happens if you travel south?”
“If you travel south a long way, many days walk, it becomes hotter and drier. Eventually it becomes so hot and dry that nothing grows there. The soil is dust, which sometimes blows around in great swirling clouds that blot out the sun and smother everything. But if you are properly prepared, and lucky, and keep on traveling south, you will come to the end of the dry lands and reach plains again. And if you keep going even further south, the air will grow cooler and you will reach soft grasslands and great forests, just as you would if you traveled north.”
“Does anyone live on the plains in the south?”
“There were a few who did when I was at university, but I don’t know if there still are. The university keeps an outpost on the southern plains, near the sea. If you stay near the sea as you travel through the dry lands, it is a bit cooler, not quite so dangerous.”
“Are they all the Sek Farn?”
Her mother smiled, “Everyone who lives on the continent of Por Dars Erntoran is of the Sek Farn, we are all one people.
“And does anyone live in the soft grasslands and the great forests?”
“Just a few. The Aarnth are plains people, we are hunters of the Imaya that roam in huge herds across the plains, the graceful farun that live solitary lives among the rocks and grasses, and the great dangerous massoons that lumber across the plains in small family groups from one waterhole to the next. We don’t scramble around the roots of grasses for the small mammals, lizards and snakes that live there, and we don’t climb trees looking for bird nests, nuts and fruit. The Aarnth don’t belong there, but there are some who want to live there. You will learn all this at university Sah Lee, in more detail than I can remember. You can ask your questions there. The tutors like students who ask questions. You are not just quick of foot and hand, you are quick of mind too. You will enjoy university, I hope not so much that you won’t want to return home.”
Sah Lee walked on in silence, deep in thought. All she had learnt during her childhood until now had been how to hunt and survive on the plains, how to read and write, to count and basic arithmetic, and some of the histories the Elders told when they gathered around the village fire in the evenings. She had thought that she knew almost all there was to know, all she needed to know for life on Aarn. Now, it seemed that she knew little of the world outside her village, outside life on the plains.
She knew that university made people different. Those that came back seemed to have had the joy sucked out of them. They were no longer playful and mischievous but serious and concerned. No longer wanting to run across the plain for the sheer joy of it, or to play in the water and mud in the swamps, or to climb trees and play hide and seek in the glades around the waterholes. They hunted, but seemed like they did it just to get food, not for the sheer joy of the hunt.
This troubled Sah Lee. She loved the carefree life in the village with her family and friends and the excitement of the hunt. She also knew that she did not have a choice. This was the way of the Sek Farn. Only the unfortunate ones remained at home beyond their fourteenth birthday, those that stayed like babies, however old they grew. And the males, of course, they never left their compound.
The day came to leave. Sah Krin told Sah Lee that like her elder sister, Sah Elt, she must take the first steps to adulthood and independence alone. She prepared to leave, wearing soft leather breeches that came just below her knees and a tunic of the same soft, fine farun skin, which her mother had lovingly sewn. Sah Lee felt the same empty, sick feeling in her stomach that she had felt when she made her first farun kill.
Half a year before, Tef Dor, the hunt leader, had taken her out in the late afternoon, to find and stalk the shy and elusive farun. After several hours prowling through the dry, rocky areas preferred by the farun, they spotted their prey. They quietly and patiently stalked it as it moved amongst the rocks, grazing on the tough grasses that grew there. She had been so intent on the hunt that all she had thought about was finding their prey and bringing her trophy home. She was an experienced Imaya hunter now and the thought of the kill hadn’t crossed her mind. But now, as she crouched ready to spring, she saw the fragile beauty of the slender farun. At the last moment, as she was about to leap, the farun sensed the hunters and turned to look at them. Sah Lee stared into the farun’s large, fear-filled, black eyes. She froze for a moment, unwilling to quench the spark of life in this graceful creature, but remembered that she was above all else, a hunter. A killer of prey, pitiless and remorseless. Swallowing her hesitation, she leapt onto the farun’s back, threw it down and tore out its throat with her long, sharp cat-like cuspid teeth. Blood spurted from the torn arteries and sprayed her face. Tef Dor ran over and pulled her up, grinning and congratulating her on her first farun kill, not noticing the tears that ran down Sah Lee’s face, mingling with the farun’s life blood.
Sah Lee knew that she had to do the same thing now as she had when she made the kill. She had to push down her feelings, hide her fear, her overwhelming desire to stay. To not show emotion, to do what had to be done, quietly and with dignity. She picked up the bag, made of the same leather as her clothing, that contained dried meat and water for her journey. It was all the luggage she needed. The University would provide everything else -.
She stepped out of their dwelling and squinted in the bright midday sun. The entire village had gathered to see her off. Her mother Sah Krin, her aunt Sah Lek and the hunt leader Tef Dor stood at the front of the small crowd. Sah Lee hugged her mother and her aunt, who both had tears in her eyes. It surprised her to see that Tef Dor’s eyes also glistened with unshed tears. She moved on to hug the four elders, knowing that they would probably all have died before she finished at University. She looked back to her mother and ran the few steps back to her to give her a brief silent hug and turned to stride out through the crowd which parted for her, head up and shoulders back with her jaw clenched to try to stop her lips from quivering and blinking furiously to keep back the tears.
As soon as she was clear of the village, she broke into the long loping run that the hunting pack used when tracking Imaya herds. She knew that she could keep this up for hours and that the concentration needed to avoid tripping or stepping into holes would stop her from thinking about the home she was leaving, possibly forever. When she finally stopped, exhausted in the gathering gloom of the evening, she found a sheltered spot among rocks where she could spend the night. She curled up to keep warm and with deep sobs racking her body, cried herself to sleep.
Chapter Three – The Station
Sah Lee awoke in the pre-dawn twilight and looked around. All was still, even the insects and small mammals sheltered from the chill of the air that came as night ended. She was cold, hungry and thirsty and quickly ate the last of the dried meat and finished her water. She would keep the bag. It was new and might be useful in the future. There would be food and water and people to greet her at the station, and she would soon warm up if she ran for a while.
Even after eating, she still had an emptiness inside her. She doubted that she would see her family or village again and tears pricked her eyes. Sah Lee took a deep shuddering breath and decided not to think of them again. She may have the body of a child, but now she must have the mind of an adult. A hunter. Be self-contained. She no longer had a family, home or friends. She would to be a stranger in a strange land. She knew this; she knew what she must become. But knowing it was not the same as being it. The feeling of loss almost overwhelmed her, and a tear ran down her cheek. She started walking and as the light grew broke into a run. She soon fully focused her mind on keeping her feet in the rough terrain and her body was warmed before the sun crept over the horizon.
The train was due at the station at just after mid-day. Sah Lee arrived early, having run most of the way, with half the morning to wait. The ‘station’ was just a platform of raised soil with the stones removed. Weeds poked through and rainwater had cut shallow channels in it. A wooden shelter stood on one side of the platform, bleached pale gray by the hot plains sun. It needed repair but was mostly intact. It surprised Sah Lee that it hadn’t been taken for firewood, trees weren’t common on the plains. The station was deserted, which was disappointing to Sah Lee as she was thirsty and there was no water hole close by. She realized that the people meeting her must come in on the same train that she was getting on. There was nowhere for them to stay overnight here and no reason for them to expect her to arrive so early.
She wished she had brought a short leather wrap to wear so that she could hunt in it. The clothes she was wearing weren’t practical for hunting, and anyway, they would get dirty, bloody and probably torn too. She sat in the shelter and waited until the sun had moved another tenth of the way across the sky, by which time she was hungry as well as thirsty. If she caught something she would have something to eat and could slake her thirst with its blood. She quickly stripped off her breeches and tunic, leaving them with her bag and ran naked into the grass near the station.
After only a few paces she picked up the scent of a ranual, a small mammal about half a pace long that lived in burrows in the sandy soil of the plains. Laying on her belly, she crept towards the scent and saw an adult ranual gnawing at the roots of a clump of plains grass. Silently she gathered herself up ready to spring and leapt onto her target. She swept the ranual up in her hands and bit through the back of its neck, severing its spine and killing it instantly.
She had no knife to butcher it with but her sharp claws sliced its pelt open and while it was still hot with life, its skin pulled off easily. Sah Lee bit through its neck and greedily sucked its blood to quench her thirst, then ran back to the shelter with it. She took a handful of grass with her and spread it on the ground next to her bag and dropped the skinned body of the ranual on to it to keep it out of the dirt. She ran back into the grassland and picked up a handful of the sandy soil to rub into her skin to clean the blood off, then wiped herself down with handfuls of grass to remove the sand that had stuck to her.
Back in the shelter, she pulled her breeches and tunic back on and sat leaning against the wall, enjoying the taste of the fresh meat. Having sated her appetite, she took the remains of the ranual a few paces into the grassland and buried it.
When she returned, Sah Lee leaned back and dozed in the warmth of the morning sun.
The distant sound of heavy panting from a great beast woke her. Startled by the noise, she leapt to her feet. She had never seen a massoon, but she knew they were big and dangerous, but then realized that this must be the sound of the train that her mother had described to her. She stood with her empty bag in her hand and looked westward down the line. In the distance she saw the sleek black shape of the train coming towards her, making a chuffing noise that she had mistaken for a massoon’s heavy breath. She watched it approach, slowing as it got closer to her, eventually drawing to a halt. Nobody got out of the train to greet her. Uncertain what to do, she stepped up to a door on the middle of the three carriages and entered. As soon as she closed the door behind her, the driver started the train again with a blast of steam from the engine.
She looked around the carriage and saw that the only other people in it were a group of what looked like traders. They stared at her as she got on, then turned away and ignored her. She had met traders at the village when they made their infrequent visits. The villagers and traders held each other in mutual contempt. The villagers were pleased when the traders arrived so they could exchange cured skins for knives, pins, thread, metal cooking utensils and plastic food storage boxes, but were even more pleased when they left.
Metal, wood and plastics were scarce commodities in the plains. Plastics were so rare that they hardly saw them. The amount of all three which surrounded her amazed Sah Lee. The entire train was made of either wood, metal or plastic, but when she thought about it, what else could you make it from?
With no one to greet her and give her food or water, or to guide her, it worried Sah Lee that she would not know what to do or where to go. And she was even more thirsty now than she had been before. Drinking the ranual’s blood may not have been such a good idea after all.
After about two hours, she was beginning to notice the effects of dehydration. She was feeling nauseous and had a growing headache. She realized she had to ask the traders for a drink. She got up and walked over to the traders, and quietly asked if they could spare her a drink, not really expecting them to do anything but rebuff her, but she had to try.
“You’re a villager.” the oldest looking trader said.
“Yes, I’m on my way to University.” Sah Lee replied.
“Thought as much.” the trader said. “You don’t mind sharing our water?”
“No, not at all. I mean, I would be most grateful for a sip.”
“So, you’re on your way to be civilized. You’d better come and join us you little savage. You can share our food and drink and start to learn how civilized people behave. Sit down.”
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Copyright © Andrew Maclure 2016
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Copyright © Andrew Maclure 2018
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