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Chattel. Chapter Three

Tales of the Desert

Date: Lunduna, 14th Dar 798 PL (Early Morning)
Location: Lost in the desert, somewhere north of Banu

Omar just kept running. Vaguely was he aware that the others were following in his wake – the slaves that had been locked in that vile wagon with him. The young barbarian clung to the salvaged goods he had been able to grab from the pile and ran across the dunes and away just as fast as his legs could carry him.

When it finally became obvious that the threat had passed. When the other slaves were calling out to one another to cease running – to return to camp. Omar ran some more. When he was finally running alone, and out of breath in the increasingly hot sun of the new day, he stopped and fell to the sands. He could run no more.

Omar’s breath finally returned and with it his senses. The desert was silent around him and he was terribly thirsty. He couldn’t stay here in the open, exposed to the sun. He scrambled back to his feet, and shaded his eyes from the glaring sun. There was nothing beneath the rising sun but endless, trackless sands, broken to the south by a plume of campsmoke._ Elk for breakfast_, Omar thought gathering up the supplies he’d salvaged and slinging them across his back. Just as Omar turned to leave, something caught his eye, far to the north. A glint, a shimmer of the sunlight hitting something on the horizon. Was that… could that be water..?

  • * * * * * * * * * * *

Gro-Malakh centered himself, releasing the rage that had consumed him. “Let us waste no time: carve the beasts and begin making a fire.” Gro-Malakh demanded of anyone within earshot. “We could all use a full stomach before traveling.”

“Good work Gro-Malakh; a little excessive but we are in a hurry to put as much distance as possible between us and this place.” Thyana said, as she and Grannoch joined the others in the calm after the battle. “Is everyone all right? Any wounded?”

“Besides yourself, you mean?” Meloria said, nodding at Thyana’s left hand where it was pressed against her bloody belly. “Only yourself and Gro-Malakh, although all of us are starved, thirsty and exhausted. We should see to your wounds, bind them and clean them. Those antlers looked none too clean.”

A big human slave with dark-grey skin approached Thyana. Like most of their ragged band, the slave was dressed in baggy, makeshift robes and sandals that he had scavenged from the wreckage.

“Pardon the interruption. You all fought bravely against those beasts. I am Jendai Fudo-no. Please allow me to tend to your injuries." He had a flat face and dark eyes; his long grey hair was secured tightly into a bun and there was a scruffy growth of beard on his square jaw. "But first, now that the slavers are gone, I can safely be myself.”

Jendai closed his eyes and shrugged his shoulders. The man flexed his body and his head as if shedding too-tight clothes – and he began to change. Jendai had been big already, but now he loomed almost seven feet tall, his body widened and strengthened; his head and face extended and changed until it assumed the shape of a rhinoceros. The lycanfey flexed and stretched as if just released from a confined space. “Ahh, much better. Now let me see those wounds.”

There was plenty of firewood to be had amongst the charred remains of the chattel wagons. The slaves quickly had a cookfire burning and made short work of butchering the large female. Gro-Malakh helped haul the other carcasses down the dune to add to their meat supplies. This food should last for awhile, as long as I ration it, Gro-Malakh thought. Now, about the water…

“Those of you adverse to fighting, gather cloth, thin sticks, more firewood, and any metal containers you can find. I’ll get the bladder.” Gro-Malakh said, finding himself a sharp knife and beginning to deftly slice away at the carcasses.

“If that meat tastes even as half good as it smells, I’ll sharpen that knife for you Gro-Malakh.” Omar said as he slunk back into camp, his stomach growling.

After he’d eaten his fill, Omar made his way over to those gathering the supplies, intent on supervising the operation. Under Gro-Malakh’s direction, the slaves were constructing a crude water purifier intent on washing down their elk-steak with monster-piss; the giant clearly knew what he was doing, however, and their operation seemed to working well enough.

“Does anyone know what those things were?” Omar was gnawing away at the last of a rib. “I do not complain, but they taste a little dry, like old meat. Or perhaps that’s just the giant’s cooking.”

“Let me see what I can learn,” Grannoch said. He found the male’s antlers, and cleaned away the strips of carrion, filth and giant’s blood to reveal the ivory beneath. Deftly, Grannoch carved a rune into the antler and studied it closely.

“These creatures, it seems, are known as perytons,” he explained, with noticeable enthusiasm. “Apparently they were originally sibeccai. What happened was the local witch, Rhea, was deceived by the Devil Lord Barbatos, disguised as a great stag, into unleashing a great mass of beasts upon her town. And evidently through Barbatos’ fiendish influence, they became the twisted abominations we fought here.”

The ragged band of survivors had eaten. They had drank. They had seen to their wounds, as best they could, and gathered together all of the supplies that were worth bringing along. Gro-Malakh gathered the remaining water into his collection of waterskins, and had wrapped the remaining food in sand and cloth. He stood up, towering over all, even the big lycanfey.

“I say we go north toward Yhakkoth. We will have a much better chance of survival the closer we get to a natural water source. The Ka’al River has to be north of us. What say you?” Gro-Malakh directed this last question toward Meloria, Grannoch, and Thyana.

“I don’t know how things work in these lands, and don’t know the desert." Thyana said. "I would say let us make for the nearest place where we can take supplies and shelter.”

“Gro-Malakh is right.” Meloria said. “We do not have the supplies to return south, we must find the river and that means we must go north. But in either direction, we remain escaped slaves; the lost property of Merchant-House Summonel. We are not likely to find succor and salvation, but rather chains and bondage.”

“If you consider yourself to be property, then you are. You are free if you choose to be. I choose freedom for myself, and death for those in my way.” Gro-Malakh said.

The giant strode to the head of their group, clearly irritated with the witch. The others fell in behind him and the group began north. The burned wreckage of the caravan finally behind them.

Date: Lunduna, 14th Dar 798 PL (Mid-afternoon)
Location: Lost in the desert, somewhere north of Banu

It had been a trying day. Their full bellies gave the slaves a strength to march, but the sun was relentless and threatened to sap the energy from even the hardiest among them. They made a ragged band, trailing across the trackless dunes, striking north behind the brooding giant. Gro-Malakh rationed out their water at intervals throughout the day, and he made no pains to hide his frustration with the weakest and slowest among them. The slaves were thirsty enough not to care where the water had come from, and greedily drank every drop until the giant pulled the water away. All the while, that shimmering band of hope upon the horizon crept closer and closer.

But too slowly. By mid-afternoon the river remained ever ahead of them. The stronger slaves could push on and some of them might even reach the cool waters of the Ka’al River by nightfall; but it was becoming ever more clear that most of the chattel would not. More than half of their number were staggering along barely conscious. The heat exhaustion was simply unbearable. Jendai made his way slowly up the limping column, falling in silently beside it’s leader; the lycanfey’s feet were dragging in the sand and the sun threatened to force him to his knees.

“These are difficult times, Gro-Malakh." Jendai spoke weakly. "We leave one hardship to face another. It seems this one proves more difficult to manage. We all chose our freedom thanks to your help and to chance. Our hearts are willing, but our bodies are weak. We find ourselves fading by the second. We need shelter, rest and water, then perhaps the march can continue as night falls. If you see fit, perhaps a few of the stronger of our number could scout ahead while we rest.” His rhino’s ear twitched away an insect, animal eyes scanning the horizon in front of them as though his body were capable of no other movement.

“I reckon the big fella has the right of it. You want me to scout ahead, brother?” Omar asked. “I’ll make sure the river is good and cold, and the shade under them trees nice and cool, while this sorry lot build castles in the sand. If we push the chattel, they’ll be feeding the vultures.”

“If your bodies are weak, then rest them. Make shelter for yourselves with the remaining cloth,” Gro-Malakh said to Jendai. “Omar, I want you to oversee the construction of the shelter for the weaker ones, do so as you see fit. Meloria, Thyana and Grannoch, you three will come with me to the river to acquire the much needed water… perhaps there may even be fruits and roots to nibble on.”

“A wise decision. I will make the preparations.” Jendai nodded.

“You want me to babysit the pups!” Omar raised his voice, his hackles too, but Gro-Malakh’s tone did not encourage further discussion. “Yeah. Yeah, alright, brother. I’ll take care of things here, for yer, no worries big fella.”

The four companions turned back to the north and resumed their march. They walked in silence for a while to conserve their breath. The exhausted chattel, left behind at the makeshift camp, faded into the shimmering haze behind them.

“I do not trust the barbarian to be left with either of you women, and thought it wiser to bring you along. Also, Grannoch is sharp and useful, and I need skillful survivors for what I have planned.”

“Well thought big friend." Thyana said, silently wondering if a sibeccai would even find an elf appealing. "Do you think Omar will be enough to defend the others should something dangerous happen before we are back?”

“Omar is strong enough, but what is important to our survival is the river. If we stay with the others, we may not make it to the river before the sun takes us all.” Gro-Malakh explained. “We will have to entrust their safety to the gods.”

“The old gods, or the new?” Meloria wondered aloud.

It took the four of them another five hours to reach the river, by then the sun had mercifully sunk into the west. The Ka’al River was bordered here on both sides by lush vegetation, tall grasses, bright flowers, vine tangled trees and bushes. It was blessed cool, Meloria dropped to her knees and dug her hands into the damp earth, crying with relief.

The river itself was wide, deep and slow-moving. Many of the trees and plants grew right out of the shallower waters or hung out far over the river – reaching for the water with low hanging branches and vines. A single patch of spindly reeds and grasses burned with a pale eldritch flame, it was some ten feet from the river bank, the fire apparently unhindered by the water and the grasses somehow not consumed by the flame.

A stone oven stood close to the edge of the water, not far from the burning reeds, beneath the canopy of a hanging desert willow tree. A collection of copper pots and cauldrons, pans and kettles, forks, knives and plates hung from the sides of the oven or were stacked neatly on the ground beside it.

“We should gather what we need, but do not take anything from this kitchen. I do not want the ire of some desert witch brought down upon us should we take without permission,” Gro-Malakh cautioned the group. “Thyana and Grannoch, fill these water skins. Meloria and I will forage for food. Stay within ten strides of the opposite pair, we do not want to become separated out here.”

The presence of magic nearby made Gro-Malakh uneasy, but he reassured himself by tightening his grip upon his axe and focusing upon the task in hand. He and Meloria quickly realized they had stumbled upon quite the oasis; an allotment of irrigated growing beds had been cultivated by the shores of the river. Established beds of figs, olives and apricots grew in the shade of laden date palms and peach trees, other branches offered oranges, limes, lemons and grapefruit; the river was abundant with fat fish and even the air was thick with buzzing locusts.

“Will you return to the others tonight, Gro-Malakh?” Meloria asked as she was gathering oranges. “You are the strongest amongst us. You could bring them food and water, and lead them on at dawn. Perhaps we could even remain here for a day or two, gather our strength and our wits about us.”

“I have not yet decided.” Gro-Malakh responded. “It may be that there are more important things to be dealt with."

Thyana and Grannoch carried the jumbled collection of water skins down to the river’s edge. Thyana quickly splashed into the mercifully cool waters of the Ka’al and began filling them. Grannoch’s curiosity got the better of him, with a quick glance across the grove towards the others, Grannoch knelt beside the stove and etched a swift rune upon it’s stone door.

“Those tools look like they are still used frequently. I’m not eager to meet their owner. Let’s take the water and be quick about it, Grannoch.” Thyana called back.

The kitchenware may look as good as new, Grannoch realized as his rune flashed briefly, but it was centuries old.

A woman broke the surface of the river a little ways beyond the eldritch flames. Thyana was the closest and saw her first; she was an older sibeccai woman, with rich-brown fur and dark hair. The woman must have been swimming beneath the surface for some time, to have remained unseen since they’d arrived at the oasis. She shook out her hair and stretched, her naked back to Thyana. It wasn’t until she turned to float on her back, luxuriously, that she even noticed the elf in the shallows and the gnome at the bank.

“Something isn’t right here, Thyana,” whispered Grannoch. “Keep your guard up.”

Thyana answered the gnome, telling him she’d be careful.

“Saheeda, travelers. A thousand apologies, but you have surprised me. I did not hear your approach.” The woman began to swim, in powerful strokes toward Thyana.

Grannoch called out loudly, “Greetings, stranger. What brings one such as yourself to live in such a remote region?”

“I do not live here. I am a shepherd, this is where we water our flock. I am Ashasunnu. Please be welcome. You’ll be hungry, I’m sure.”

Thyana smiled and waded out to greet Ashasunnu, her hands never far from the hilts of her swords. “Thank you, we are sorry we invaded your camp but you are right, we are weary from a long walk in the sands.”

“You have nothing for which to apologize.” Ashasunnu swam closer, until she was able to stand, unashamed of her nudity. “The desert takes its toll upon us all.”

Gro-Malakh appeared at the water’s edge and splashed into the river. “We seek to survive at any cost, so choose your course wisely.” Gro-Malakh tightened his grip as he spoke, all the while making his way toward the river witch. “Blood will be shed, or food will be shared.”

“My preference would be for the later,” Ashasunnu smiled. “You are all more than welcome to eat and to drink. The Goddess provides here, just as she takes away in the desert. If you have nothing to offer, or share yourselves, do not be embarrassed brave giant. You can prepare for us the meal – pluck any fruit, gather any nut, fish any fish and hunt any game, but prepare food to share and spare us the bloodshed. It is said, that the Goddess rewards those who make good use of her bounty.”

With visible relief the giant put his axe away and said, “Then praise be to your Goddess. I will prepare this feast, that we might all be strengthened.”

While Thyana, Meloria and Grannoch sat on the river bank with Ashasunnu, Gro-Malakh set about gathering food, spices, and water. Ashasunnu remained in the cool waters, idly splashing and relaxing, and it didn’t take much to convince the others to languish alongside her. It was a mercy to be able to cool off at the end of such long and grueling day in the sun.

“I am glad I did not have to kill you," Gro-Malakh called from the bank.

“Believe me, I am glad of that, too.” Ashasunnu smiled.

“My inner Beast has had control for far too long. I sometimes forget how people are supposed to act when under it’s spell.”

“Brave giant, let your beast be calm. I wish to know if what I have heard of Summanian cooking is true – a caravan of your people rested and watered themselves here once. They had the most wonderful bread I have ever tasted and they spoke of long, stringy food that sounded like hair. I just cannot imagine.”

Above the grove the stars shone as brightly as they ever had; a beautiful and crisp desert night was upon them and for the first time in many, many nights each of the escaped slaves was able to enjoy a moment of peace, comfort and companionship.

“An elf, a gnome, a giant and a sibeccai.” Ashasunnu said. “Four different peoples, each lost in the desert together. I am sure that we will not lack for tales over dinner.”

Meloria reluctantly returned from the cool waters, when it became clear that none of the others were about to, she pulled back on the dirty and torn robe she had been wearing and sighed.

“It feels so good to be clean, that I’d almost rather stay naked than wear these rags anymore.”

Meloria set about making a campfire, and soon the smell of Gro-Malakh’s cooking lured the others out of the river too. The companions gathered around the campfire and Ashasunnu joined them, wrapping herself in a shawl that had been draped across a tree limb. The meal did not disappoint, and Meloria wondered how the others were faring, under the rude lean-to drinking urine and eating peryton jerky.

They huddled closer to the campfire and to one another as the night turned cooler. Ashasunnu produced a polished wooden wand, the traditional baton that desert folk passed around after their evening meal. Children called the wand, a story stick, and whoever held it was expected to tell a tale or sing a song. Ashasunnu sat cross-legged by the fire-pit and began to sing. It was a song that was forbidden in the cities by Unseelie Decree. Meloria recognized it immediately and added her own voice to the harmony.

“Moonrise and so rise I,
Fire burning and so burn I,
Spindle spinning and so spin I,
The world is turning and so turn I.

Mother I feel you under my feet,
Mother I feel your heartbeat,
Mother I feel you under my feet,
Mother I feel your heartbeat.

Moonrise and so rise I,
Fire burning and so burn I,
Spindle spinning and so spin I,
The world is turning and so turn I.

Mother I feel you under my feet,
Mother I feel your heartbeat,
Mother I feel you under my feet,
Mother I feel your heartbeat."

“I sang that song with Alriak,” the memory brought tears to Meloria’s eyes, it seemed so long since she had heard from her lost friend.

Ashasunnu smiled and leaned over to wipe away Meloria’s tears with her shawl. She handed the story-stick to Gro-Malakh, who even while he was sat down towered above the whole group. The giant related the tale of how he came to be captured by the slavers,

“There was not a cloud in the sky that cursed night, with a fell wind blowing through the trees from the west. It was not long into the night that I heard the snapping of twigs under foot, some 200 paces from my hunting blind. From the sound I was able to discern the direction they were headed, they came toward my cave. Once they had passed my blind, I slipped to the forest floor and stalked them.” A predatory grin creased his face as he spoke. “When I came within fifteen paces, I could smell their stench… the stench of the civilized. These fools were laden with manacles and rope, and they were too loud to hear my approach. When they started to talk I charged into their rear-guard, hewing the first two in half.”

Madness shone in the giant’s eyes as he continued the telling. “The closest few dropped their burdens and ran screaming into the woods, the sounds of slaughter following their flight. Limbs careened through the air, their stumps spewing blood like fountains. Where Gnasher bit, death was assured.”

Gro-Malakh took a darker tone when he continued. “By the time I had moved half-way up their column, I was feeling dizzy as an unfamiliar numbness spread from the slight wounds I had sustained. The fetchers were poisoning me, cut by tiny cut, and I could not kill enough of them to stop it.” A low growl emanated from his throat as he recalled the cowardice of the slavers. “Six of their number were outright dead, missing heads or halves, a dozen more lay bleeding out, however; I was losing my senses and I fell from consciousness.”

Gro-Malakh paused, seeing the slavers faces and then said in a low, bitter tone, “That is how I came to be held captive by the slavers… they should have killed me. The fools will rue the day they set their eyes upon me, for Gnasher hungers for their bloated carcasses.”

Gro-Malakh let the gruesome story of his capture hang in the air for some time, his eyes staring into the darkness across the river; a cruel grin across his rough features. He handed the polished wand back,

“Ashasunnu, from where do you hail? Are there others in this region like you?”

“I am from Muan Oasis. It is about a day’s hike from here, just a small desert camp really. Nothing more and nothing less, thank Mother.” She smiled.

“Muan Oasis?” Meloria said. “But that’s a hub, no desert caravan passes through these sands without resupplying at Muan. We were bound for there, on our way north. I overheard the slavers. It is more than a mere desert camp, surely?”

“My dear, you may be confused. The oasis is not large enough to support the traffic you describe, not even nearly. I could name every soul who calls the Oasis home using no more than our fingers here around the campfire." Ashasunnu spoke kindly, as you might to a child. "But, regardless, I spend more of my time here, with my partner Balashi, than there. We’re shepherds, you see. Balashi is with our flock right now, upstream a ways. We have half a hundred head of mork, you know. Have you heard the tale of The Mork Whisperer?”

As she began the telling a bright light appeared in the night sky. It burned a glittering trail across the heavens, bathing the grove in a pale luminescence and reflecting brightly on the river. Meloria fell to her knees and clasped her breast in prayer. Grannoch, while trying to appear as calm as possible during the strange new development, turned to Thyana with a nervous, questioning grin on his face.

“I have never seen anything like it,” Thyana breathed. “And look, the flames on the river. They mimic the flames in the sky.”

The eldritch flames which burned on the water’s surface shimmered a myriad of scintillating colors and seemed taller, as if they burned yet more fiercely to reach the flames above. The shooting stars burned their fiery trails across the night sky for long moments before they finally vanished, winking out into darkness and leaving behind a stunned silence.

A silence that was broken, suddenly, by Ashasunnu. The woman rose in a panic and began to scream, “Balashi! Balashi! The sky is falling, Balashi! Oh Goddess, save us!”

“Stop blubbering Ashasunnu, and tell us what is going on!” Gro-Malakh demanded, as he readied Gnasher, cautiously.

“We must flee!” The crazed woman screamed at Gro-Malakh. “The Goddess is angered and the sky is falling! I must find Balashi!”

Ashasunnu seemed almost deranged in her panic. The woman turned and ran for the river, diving into the dark waters. Meloria stood and pointed, her eyes wide.

“Did you see that?” She gasped. “When the shepherd hit the water, she made no splash. How is that possible?”

What Meloria said was true, the shepherd had hit the water without causing so much as a ripple and now Ashasunnu was swimming upstream with powerful strokes, still screaming. Meloria ran to the river and waded out hip deep, shouting for Ashasunnu to wait, to stop, but she would not listen. As the others remained transfixed by the falling stars, the strange shepherd disappeared beneath the water’s dark surface.

Date: Mother’s Day, 15th Dar 798 PL (Dawn)
Location: The southern banks of The Ka’al River, somewhere south of Muan Oasis.

In the morning, Meloria was the first to rise. She gathered together some apricots, grapefruit and oranges for breakfast and fresh water from the river; she was gathering her thoughts at the same time. That was an ill omen last night, she thought to herself, not for the first time but she did not understand it, could not understand it.

“We know where we are now, more or less,” Meloria said as the others ate. “A day’s hike from Muan Oasis, Ashasunnu said. Of course, it might take us more than a day to find it. It seems to me, our wisest course of action would be to return for the others. Bring them fruit and fresh water and guide them back here. That’s going to take the rest of this day, but once everyone is safe and reunited, we can send out scouts and find the oasis, make sure that it’s safe and not currently hosting any Summonel merchants.”



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