“A Place of Honor” continues with part two! Be here on Friday for the conclusion!
That evening, Chana and Tiris dined with Ko-Ta and his men in her home. After being driven from Southlake, her father had claimed one of the Old One’s ancient and crumbling edifices as his own. Though the building was not as badly decayed as those around it, it had still taken months of work before he was satisfied with it. Upon its completion, the front door opened to the east to face the rising sun, a covered porch faced west to watch the sunset, and a path lead down to the shore, where her father would often stand in the shadows of the redwood trees and the granite peaks and look to the south.
It was here, as she watched the clear blue waves of the Great Lake beat against the rocks, that Tiris told Chana about his meditations on his visions. “There are secrets buried in the mountains, Child.”
“Of course, Uncle. Father always said that the mountains have as many tales as they do hearts beating within them.”
The old man shook his head. “No, not these mountains. South, far south, in the Wastelands. The Old Ones hid their secrets where they knew no one would look for them.”
Chana arched an eyebrow, the honeywine they had been drinking all throughout dinner leaving her skeptical of the seer’s words. “Why, Uncle?”
“To hide it away from their enemies. They kept great power there. They experimented on it and they refined it, and what they could not control, they buried.”
“They buried it… You’re speaking of the tomb you saw, then?”
Tiris nodded. “I can see it more clearly, now. Buried beneath a great mountain, a holy place, a sacred place.”
“A place of honor,” Chana said softly. She considered this for a moment before turning her attention back to Tiris. “What do we gain by going to this place, Uncle? Do the Wastelands truly hold anything of value to us?”
“There is much of value in the Wastelands, Child. I see secrets that even the Old Ones themselves did not know. Technology from before the Harrowing of the Seven. Trinkets that every tribe that surrounds us would give anything to own. I see… I see…” He frowned. “Weapons…”
Chana was just about to speak when a hand, strong and firm, set upon her shoulder. She jumped, startled, and quickly turned around to face the unknown person. She threw a blow with her right hand that hit the man in the center of his torso and sent him stumbling backwards and coughing.
When she saw who it was, her fear turned to anger. “Damn you, Ko-Ta! Do you always intrude on private conversations?”
Ko-Ta opened his mouth to respond, coughed some, and tried again. “Do you always attack without first asking any questions?”
Chana blushed slightly. “My father raised me to be strong. I will not apologize for it. And besides, I am not the one skulking about in the dark!”
“I was simply looking for you to ask if you would join me in my quarters, that we might discuss our covenant in private.” Tiris chuckled.
“Hush, Uncle!” Chana snapped. The old man ceased laughing, but his smile remained. She turned back to Ko-Ta and said to him, “That discussion can wait for the morning, I think.”
He coughed once more and nodded. “Of course. Merely a thought.” He turned to leave but stopped before going too far. “Chana, this is just another thought, but if you were planning on making a trip to the Wastelands, perhaps you could use some horses.”
Chana’s eyes narrowed. “How much did you hear?”
Ko-Ta grinned. “Enough to know that you’ll need horses for your trip unless you want to take an entire season to get there and back.”
“What makes you think that–”
“Enough to know that there’s something worth searching for in the Wastelands.”
Chana stared at Ko-Ta with a cold fury. If she could have put an arrow through his throat simply by looking at him, she would have done so in an instant. “What do you want, Ko-Ta?”
“To help, Chana. I want you to trust me, to believe that I want to be your friend and not your enemy. Let me provide you with horses. Let me accompany you. And when you return with whatever treasure the Old Ones hid beneath the sand, let me help present it to both our tribes as a sign of all that we can accomplish together.”
Ko-Ta shrugged. “If you prefer, my men and I can return to Southlake alone. Within a day’s time, we will be on horseback and headed into the Wastelands to find whatever there is to be found.”
“You don’t know where you’re going or what you’re looking for.”
“No, we don’t. But even so, we could be there and back again before you make it there on foot.”
For many long and silent seconds, the two stared at each other. Finally, Ko-Ta spoke, holding her gaze unblinkingly as he did so. “It’s difficult being the leader of your people, isn’t it? To be as young as we are, and to be in charge of so many lives. I do not even have a family, Chana; I have only ever lead my people on hunts, and a warrior is not a father is not a chieftain. This is an opportunity for both of us, no? To show our people that not only can we put aside our differences, but that we can even work together to accomplish something unheard of? That holds no appeal to you at all?”
“We can discuss this in the morning, Ko-Ta. That is all I will say on the subject tonight.”
“Very well. Good night, Chana. The Seven keep you.” Ko-Ta turned to walk back up the path that lead to Chana’s home, the building he and his men were staying in being a ways down the road.
Tiris waited until Ko-Ta was out of earshot before he shook his head and smiled. “To be that young and confident again… I would trade all of the Seven’s gifts to be a young man with a sharp pair of eyes.”
“He is arrogant,” Chana said. “It will betray him yet.”
“Of course it will. But with a man like that, it will never betray him so badly he cannot recover.” Tiris took a deep breath, exhaled it with a sigh. “The hour is late, Child. It’s time I return to my home and prepare for sleep.” He turned to leave, and Chana watched him for a few moments before summoning the will to speak and stop him.
“Uncle, wait,” she said softly. “Your visions… What of the death?”
Tiris did not turn to face her. He stood still for a moment, his head tilted ever so slightly up, as if he were straining to hear a distant voice speaking to him. He shook his head. “I don’t know, Child. Not yet.”
* * *
Their discussion the next morning surprised Chana with how smoothly it went. Tiris had to come if they were to have any hope of finding the tomb and returning before the summer sun made exploration too hot. Tiris would not ride during the night, and he expected a long rest at midday; his bones were too old for this nonsense. Ko-Ta would bring one of his most trusted men, Wa-Vi, with him. Chana would bring one of hers, Ander. An elder from each tribe would go to live with the other and help guide the tribe’s affairs, the planting and the harvesting, if the trip took that long; they would be killed if anything happened to the other tribe’s leader. Whatever artifacts they returned with would be brought before the elders of both tribes and equally distributed in public, for the betterment of all.
“There is one more thing,” Chana said. “I want access to the Fields of the Dead.”
“Of course. Our tribesmen will be free to move back and forth as they please.”
“No, Ko-Ta. I want to be able to bury our honored dead there.”
Ko-Ta examined her face for a moment, sat back in his seat and crossed his arms. “The Fields of the Dead are in our lands, Chana.”
“And those lands used to be ours, Ko-Ta.”
“And they are not any longer. I thought we were trying to move on from the past, to put the pettiness of our fathers behind us.”
Chana stood up and leaned forward over the table they sat at. “My father was not petty.”
Ko-Ta arched an eyebrow, said nothing in the face of her calm but forceful statement. Slowly, he smiled. “I suppose that I am amenable to the idea. It will require discussion with the elders of my people, of course, but I will see what I can do.” He stood up himself and folded his arms across his chest. “But that it is all I will promise you for now.”
Chana stared at him, her face as set as stone, her green eyes locked unflinchingly on his own dark brown ones. “Then I suppose it will have to do. For now.”
* * *
The five of them set forth from Northlake the next day after making the necessary preparations. Chana appointed the elders she wanted to lead in her absence, she went to Ander’s home to speak with him and apologize to his wife for taking him away for so long. She said the necessary prayers at the altar of the Seven, told her people she would return before the harvest and that when she did, a new chapter in their tribe’s history would begin. And with that they set forth in Ko-Ta’s craft across the Great Lake just to do all of it again with his people.
They rode east the first day, following the remnants of one of the great roads the Old Ones had laid down. It seemed as if the road would take them towards the lands of other tribes, the Buree’s, the Sonite’s, the Ran, but Tiris insisted that they stay near to the mountains. “We must stay in lands where we can hunt and slake our thirst for as long as possible,” he insisted. “We will need all of the supplies we can muster for the Wastelands. This coupled with the fact that only Ko-Ta and Wa-Vi were used to spending any great length of time on horseback slowed them down. Still, Chana had to admit that they were traveling at least twice as fast as they could have managed on foot. Ko-Ta was quick to remind them of this whenever Tiris complained about his bones being too old to be perched atop a smelly beast. “And how would your bones fare walking up and down these mountains with a pack on your back and nothing to support you but your walking stick, hm?” Ander and Wa-Vi both laughed at this, and even Chana chuckled softly.
They camped the first night in a valley, the great mountains and trees of their homes bringing an early end to the day as the sun sank behind them. They gathered wood for a cooking fire and set the horses to graze and set up their tents. After dinner, they passed around a skin of honeywine and the men got to boasting of their hunting prowess. Wa-Vi, a bit drunker than the others, turned to Chana and asked, “Tell me, do you have any tales to share with us, or is that not how one measures the worth of a leader in Northlake?” Ander bristled at this, turned to Ko-Ta and muttered, “Control your dog, Southlaker.”
“I do have a tale,” Chana said before the men could turn on each other. “Not of a hunt, but of a fish I once speared when they were making their runs. As long as your arm, it was, and as thick around as your thigh!”
“Impossible!” the men said. “No fish so large has ever lived in the Great Lake! And if you speared it, what became of it?”
“It freed itself,” Chana said. “So furious was it that it snapped my spear with its writhing and swam away,” and so on, embellishing the tale and adding details until the skin had been emptied and they all began to go to sleep. Soon, only she and Ko-Ta still sat around the dwindling fire.
“You did not catch such a fish,” he said. It was a statement, not a question, but he was smiling as he said it.
“Of course I did,” Chana said, returning his smile.
“I’ll never believe that.”
She shrugged. “You don’t have to.” They sat in silence for a bit watching the fire. Neither of them made a move to add another log. “You know, my father once told me something that has stayed in my mind all my life. He said to me, ‘Chana, all men are liars, but hunters are the worst of all. But the best hunter is not the one with the sharpest eye or the quickest hands; he is the one who knows that the liar who stays awake the longest wins.’”
Ko-Ta laughed. Neither of them spoke until Ko-Ta said Chana’s name softly.
“It is… somewhat sad, isn’t it? That your land is yours and my land is mine?”
Chana chuckled to herself. “I think the honeywine’s gone to your head, Ko-Ta.”
“No, no, hear me. Isn’t it sad that our peoples are not friends? There was a time generations ago when they were, however briefly.”
Chana shrugged. “Things change, Ko-Ta. Sometimes they change for the better. Is that not why we’re out here? To change things for the better?”
Ko-Ta nodded. “True. Imagine, though. Imagine if it were not your people and my people, but our people.” He turned to face Chana, studied the shadows that the fire cast on her face. She felt his gaze upon her, felt his eyes bringing a heat to her cheeks stronger even than the warmth of the fire. “Not your land and my land, but our land. Or the Fields of the Dead. Imagine if it were not your family or my family resting there, but our family, Chana.”
She said nothing for many long minutes, but she did not make any move to get up and retire to her tent either. In time, Ko-Ta turned his gaze back to the fire, little more than burning embers now. When she spoke, he nearly jumped. “That is a conversation for when we return, Ko-Ta. I don’t think it will do us any good to discuss… to discuss change in the Wastelands. They are dry, dead lands. Not a fitting place for such a conversation.”
Ko-Ta nodded. The fire died and they each went to their separate tents.
* * *
It amazed Chana to see the landscape change so drastically as they wound their way south along the Old One’s roads. The great trees of their homeland vanished, replaced by smaller trees, and then shrubs, and then vast swaths of nothing at all. The sun beat down upon them mercilessly, as hot as the hottest summer day in Northlake, but without the succor of shade or the cool waters of the Great Lake. And when the night came, it became impossibly cold, the fires they started meager things fueled by dried plants hardly worth mentioning. And sometimes amidst the sand and dust they would find a spot where a river broke through the ground, the land around its banks verdant in comparison to the rest of the Wastelands. Unlike the rest of the Wastelands, they found the ruins of the Old One’s settlements in these places, stone walls, metal debris, wood baked tough and grey by the desert sun. When they came upon these oases, they would rest for hours at a time, the unspoken fear that they would not come across another until it were too late to turn back racing through all of their minds. But somehow they always did. “There will be water if the gods will it,” Tiris said. “And thus far, they have been generous.”
And so they went on, for seven days and seven nights until at last they came upon the ruins of a small town that sat in the shadow of a great mountain. A river flowed through it, and it was soon clear to the group that others had been there within recent memory. The buildings that were not crumbling into the desert sands were littered with the detritus of human activity, the singed bones of animals, ashes, footprints in the dust. Some of the buildings were patchwork, pieces torn from those that had already fallen to prop up those that were more whole. “We will stay here tonight,” Tiris said to the group. “In fact, we may stay here as long as we please.”
“And why is that?” Ko-Ta asked.
“Because the tomb is but a half a day’s ride that way,” the old man answered, his finger pointing at the mountain.
They decided to stay within one of the buildings, protected from the night’s chill and the day’s unrelenting sun by its walls. Another skin of honeywine was produced, and, perhaps because they felt more secure knowing that their goal was within reach, the group gathered in a circle around the fire and set about trying to frighten each other. They told tales and jumped at each other and they laughed as often as they cursed at each other. Wa-Vi and Ander, in particular, seemed to enjoy tormenting each other.
“You won’t scare me,” Wa-Vi said. “There is nothing born of woman that I fear.”
“There is nothing I fear, either,” Ander said. “Save my wife.”
“Hah! And what of you, old man?”
Tiris shook his head, said with uncharacteristic solemness, “I only fear the things I have seen.” The circle stared at him, tried to decide if he was pronouncing doom on their entire venture, when he burst into laughter. “I am blind, you fools! It was a joke!”
Ko-Ta turned to Chana, a grin on his face.“Tell me, you don’t fear sleeping out in the wilds with a group of men for company?”
“Why? Do you?” The circle fell to laughing, and Chana could swear that she saw Ko-Ta’s complexion turn a shade darker in the firelight. He looked away as Wa-Vi and Ander set to teasing him and he didn’t bring it up again before they all retired to their bedrolls.
* * *
Chana awoke to a hand over her mouth.
Her eyes went wide, the form of her attacker looming over her, his features obscured by shadow. “Don’t speak,” he said, his voice a whisper so soft she could barely hear it. “Listen to me, Chana.”
It was Ko-Ta’s voice.
She bit him as hard as she could even as she freed her arm from underneath her blanket and swung a fist at where she believed his temple to be. Her fist connected with the side of his face, but he made no sound other than a soft grunt. “Wait,” he hissed. “Wait! Listen to me!”
“Get back, Ko-Ta,” Chana said, intentionally projecting her voice for the others to hear. “Get back now, before I stick you with a blade.”
“No!” Ko-Ta shouted. “Damnation, listen! We’re not alone! We’re surrounded!”
Chana couldn’t see his face, but she saw the shape of his head looking around, as if trying to see a shape in the darkness beyond the building’s crumbling walls, as if trying to hear some faint sound. He was agitated, nervous. She had never seen him nervous before. Her own anger ebbed, began to be replaced by fear. “What in the name of the All-Father are you talking about?” The others began to stir, muttered to themselves and asked what was going on.
“I woke up to relieve myself,” Ko-Ta said, his eyes still scanning the darkness. “I saw a light in one of the other buildings, heard men’s voices, but only for a moment.”
“And they mean us harm? How can you know?”
“Because the light was extinguished within seconds of me noticing it. Because the voices did not speak after that.”
“My lady,” Tiris said, his voice still groggy and slurred by sleep. “He is right. My dreams, I saw warriors in my dreams.”
“We need to leave,” Chana said after a second’s hesitation. “Now.” The circle got to gathering their things as quickly and as quietly as they could, but before even that could be completed, a circle of flames burst into existence, surrounding the building from all sides. The light illuminated men holding torches, each grim-faced and dust-covered, knives and spears in their free hands. Their clothes were tattered, patchwork, mottled grey and green and tan. A voice shouted at them, booming from the darkness. One of them stood taller and more confident than the others, and his voice echoed off the walls of the town.
“Intruders! I am Mykail of the Usair! Surrender to me now or face death!”