Satoor did not like Umquai. Actually she did like him. She liked him a lot. What she did not like was how he did not look at her when she spoke. Instead, it seemed as if he looked through her as she told of her visions. None of the others looked at her this way. Why, she wondered more and more, did he?
He was a great warrior, this was well known. And in speech, he did have a knack for getting to the heart of matters rather quickly. These two traits had earned him much respect among the tribal nations, as well as with his enemies. And he also had beautiful eyes, although Satoor doubted he would ever cast them upon her in the way that he did Princess Galatma or the whores of Benvimar. She felt her face flush with anger in the dying embers of the fire just thinking about this. What did she care anyway? Why would he look at her in this way. Why should he show interest in a sayer? A pale and bony one at that?
She squatted to one knee and poked at the fire with the Saying rod.
“I have also seen the blue planet Umquai. It IS real. The Bone Man only confirmed it. He told of..”
“The Bone Man is an old fool, Satoor! He drinks too much Egret Wine. It makes him crazy with his own ideas, not the visions of our father’s past. Am I to take his drunken words before the Council and ask for war? With what hope? This
mysterious blue planet you see? Would you have me strung and skinned over your visions? He squatted down across the fire and spread his hands over the embers.
Satoor said nothing. She smelled the smoke and the burning bones remaining from their dinner of roasted Peelot, killed by Umquai’s arrow. The shot came quickly and smoothly, from atop his steed on full trot. It was impressive, even for a Karvan warrior trained, as Umquai had been, in the way of the Crow.
She had foolishly allowed the thought that he had been trying to impress her, until he dismounted at the spot the mammal was pinned to the ground kicking out its last breaths, and announced abruptly that this would be their camp for the night. She dreamed, in the moment, of lying with him this night. The warm embers of the fire and the thousands of tiny yellow stars in the dark night sky above the Amber Plains. She wondered what his skin and muscle would feel like against her body. Taut, hard flesh and strong embrace. It made her head feel light and dizzy just a bit.
She drew back into herself and quietly spoke.
“Umquai, the Bone Man’s words have brought us to this very night. He has skulls in his place. Did you know this? Not the skulls of mammals. Not the skulls of the Kaldan’s or the other peoples of this planet. NO, Umquai. We know not of these skulls. Not in visions, nor in life. I have seen them both places, but still I myself, a See-er, know not. Nor do my people. We are going to go there, Warrior Prince. We are going to go there and find a way to save this dying world or escape from it. You must know this!”
She saw his left temple flex in the glow of the fire. His jaw clenched. She closed her eyes as the vision wave came and she saw him spring upward in rage and kick the embers into her chest. He reached and grabbed at her cloak as she fell backward and pulled her sharply up and towards his knife blade. It happened so swiftly, as if he had scarcely moved, but then the blade was pressing at her neck and his right hand held the back of her arm like a swordsman’s vice held the glowing steel he pounded.
Satoor calmly opened her eyes in the exactness of the moment. She pushed backward with her Saying rod, rolling fluidly to her right, away from the fire. The embers fell harmlessly upon the cold ground behind where she had just knelt. Coming back up to her kneeling position she thrust the Saying Rod forward and into the surprised face of Umquai as he sprang towards her, his blade gleaming in the seven moon night. The tip of the rod, hot with ember struck him squarely in his throat. So squarely that Satoor needed to skillfully pull it’s force and only allow a hard jab rather than running it through the neck as she would have done to a Hikkor savage or the Moon people. Umquai’s kept coming, however, and she pivoted – in what would have seemed like sped up time to him – backward and around towards her left tripping him with her foot in the process. As he stumbled besider her and fell, she whipped the rod into his back for good measure, with a loud crack.
Had any of his warriors been witness to this sudden burst of action, they would have been stunned by the swiftness with which the girl had moved, almost as if a blur. They would suddenly have understood in this one, six second episode, the meaning of the term,
“Do it quickly! In a See-er’s flash!”, which so many had heard in their training.
“Ugggh!” Umquai coughed and spat.
He turned viciously, his hand at his throat, his sword swiping at the night air blindly. But Satoor was not there. She had seen this in the same vision, and was now moving to tend the horses and give him his space to cool off and mend his bruised ego, as if nothing at all had happened.
The rest of the night they lay in cold silence beside what remained of the embers. Satoor relaxed her limber body underneath the warmth of Peelot pelts sewn together as a large travelling blanket. She fashioned a shallow grave for coals, covered them and lay down a large, thick cloth woven from strands of the Keeling plants of her native town. Between the mat and the blanket she lay in almost naked warmth, the Saying Rod atop her body and pressing under the weight of the blanket of pelts. Oh, how she longed instead for a man to press there.
It would not be tonight. Damn her words, when silence was called for. Would she ever learn?
Umquai’s only words were spoken just as she drifted away.
“I don’t know how you did that, girl, but it will not happen again, I promise you.”
Morning brought the sudden thud of Umquai’s boot in her back. She lay on her side, the Saying Rod against her cheek and run between her legs like a child’s toy horse. Saying Rod’s were very personal to their owners, often decorated with many elaborate inscriptions detailing the lives their owners had touched with visions, “Seeings”, as they were known. Stories of healing or rescue, or ones of the uprisings or overcoming of enemies or personal challenges.
But Satoor’s Saying rod was different. If one could have gotten close enough to look carefully, they would only have found two primitive carvings among the long, yellow knobs of knotted wood. One was of a fallow deer kneeling at a pool of water to drink. The pool was marked with a small figure of some kind within its bounds, as if signifying someone or something in the water.
The second one was the marking of the Bone Man, the sign all of the nine tribes knew and feared. That is to say, everyone in the Circle of the Crow. It was a big planet, after all. The marking was of a skull of hollow eyes. The skull was elongated strangely. The mouth open as if in a long moan of some kind. It was striking in it’s simplicity. But it favored no tribe. And no one ever got close enough to inspect this Saying rod carefully, so it was only spoken of that Satoor the Sayer, was different. That she was perhaps not a true Sayer. Some called her half breed. But not to her face.
“We ride girl,” was all Umquai said.
It was snowing lightly and the wind had picked up. Satoor fished in the fire for a leg of Peelot as her breakfast. She saddled, wrapped her blankets, tied them firmly and swung upward onto the saddle, as the horse moved to follow the taller steed of Umquai.
“Seven hours to your Bone Man’s wicked land. Pray he receives you well this time girl,” he shouted over his shoulder hoarsely.
She gnawed at the Peelot as they broke to a slow gallop across the wide plains of Amber. She knew Umquai would forgive her actions, being that they were defensive in nature. But she also knew he would not forget them. What difference did it make anyway? Princess Galata awaited his return and the feast would certainly be where Umquai unveiled his plan for unification of the Nine Tribes and won the favor of her hand in the same bold stroke. He always thought things through and planned his moves carefully. It was a strength of the best Kaldan warriors. Some said they learned this way of thinking in the long rides over the Amber Plains, a vast grassland of three thousand skils length. Ten days riding and you only reached the midpoint, the Golden River.
Satoor loved it out here. The nights shone with thousands upon thousands of stars. The nine moons hung in various sizes and positions around their planet, Valda. Sentill, the largest, glowed a dull orange from the dust storms raging on its surface. In the spring, when the grasslands came alive with yellow, star arats; white, musky weed blossoms; bright blue, tin tin cups and the verdant, orange blossoms of the seeking plant, Sentill hung low in the sky, almost touching the vast mountains of Palmolant in the distance. The orange blossoms by day and the orange glow by night were constant reminders to her of the beauty of their home planet. For Satoor and her clan especially, they were also a sad reminder of the coming doom.
Valda had exhausted its known mineral and energy deposits over three hundred years ago, leaving vast cities of once gleaming buildings and teeming transit systems empty. Over time they had slowly given in to the ravages of nature and the scavengers of the mining clans who took them apart bit by bit and re-engineered the pieces or sold them off.
Without suitable replacements for energy and commerce, the planet had fallen out of favor with the surrounding system’s trading partners and was relegated to whoring out its great forests and rivers, mountains and plains to the tourist trade. This by reluctant vote of the Council of Crow, and only after twenty five years of war between the nine tribes had removed roughly one quarter of the population. Now, this Amber Plain and the holy mountains of Palmolant where the Bone Man lived, were the only remaining lands of this quadrant of Valda untainted by the scourge of hordes of inter-galactic tourist bent on seeing a live mammal in the wild, just once in their miserable, technocratic machine-lives. The Heirants, the Systens, the Carmurl People, the Zabots with all of their robotic children and their fluids and their gears. Thousands upon thousands descending on the quiet solitude of Palmolant to buzz and whir and click themselves into orgasmic frenzies in the name of holidays.
Satoor had lost an entire village virtually overnight when the vote came down and the Treaty of Treaties was enacted. A horrid part of her memory which she locked down and kept out of reach of everyone, save, of course the Bone Man. His magic knew no bounds.
They rode at a steady gallop for hours, the sounds of the West wind and the horse’s hooves providing the only backdrop for their thoughts.
Satoor knew Umquai kept this pace for one reason only. He wished to tire her. To wear her down before they arrived at the foot of the Palmolants and entered the domain which made him most uncomfortable – the Bone Man’s lands. The territory of the tribe of the Glowing Mother. They called themselves Winnowers.
For men like Umquai, raised to fight; comfortable with battle and with death; skilled with weapons and hands, this was a land that made little sense, Satoor had observed. He has told her before how his mind had started to hum and seemed to move within his head the last time, after they crossed the Sister’s river and started into the singing hills.