Einhar strode the worn path of the Ways, seeking news of his father. Every step carried the same determination now as when he had first ventured southward from the savannah city of Fruca, almost six weeks ago. He knew the landscape well enough, having been born and raised out here in the wild. Knew the dangers too: indeed, he had not set foot inside the boundaries of civilisation until he was nineteen and determined that he would forge his own path rather than re-treading the grand looping trail that his ancestors had followed for generations, carrying goods between the three Hu cities.
Hundreds of caravans traversed the Ways with their girotah-pulled wagons, the giant beetles most suited as beasts of burden out in the wild where Hu were far from being the apex predator. Any of the great reptiles, felines, canines, or other savage beasts could attack a caravan without warning, and often did. The chitinous girotah did not attract predators and wouldn’t bolt when scared, instead usually hunkering down and relying on their incredibly tough exoskeleton to protect them.
Each caravan is Family, by name if not by blood, every one of them hardened against the perils of their lifestyle and trained to fight to survive. Mercenaries hired to bolster the numbers of a group were considered part of the Family once they had completed a full circuit of the Ways, which took over a year. Einhar had passed several Families on their way to Fruca, though none with news of his father fresher than this season or the last. Some remembered Einhar as a boisterous lad and had kind words and tales to tell of his well-respected father.
Families rarely numbered much over thirty, having long learned not to invite the wrath of dragons, masters of this world. Long ago the dragons’ supremacy was challenged by their erstwhile bipedal cousins the Rakhnath, full of pride in the grand civilisation they had built. Now, the Rakhnath were limited to a single decrepit city on this large continent and are no longer associated with their kin where once they were favoured. The Hu had not yet sinned against their masters and were blessed with three cities.
Einhar had last seen a dragon just a few days ago, close to the Dea Way-station. He had paused his relentless stride to squint up into the sun-hazed sky at the monstrosity. The dragon was too high for Einhar to make out any detail; might not even have noticed if it weren’t for the majestic cry sending a chill down the spine of every living thing that heard it, but he thought he caught a glimpse of light reflecting off dark-blue scales.
Way-stations are little more than watering holes with a couple of crude shacks for shelter. Any other Hu structures outside of the cities would be destroyed on sight by the dragons, so too any large gatherings of people. Three Families gathered at a Way-station was a risk to be avoided. Einhar had arrived at Dea to wary looks despite him being known, and not just because a dragon had recently been heard. Though no one that knew him could doubt Einhar’s skill as a warrior (he was still considered by most to be Family, albeit a black sheep), seeing someone travel by themselves was uncanny to the superstitious Families. Einhar and a dragon within an hour was one omen too many. With still no word of his father, Einhar filled his waterskin and left quickly. He should have had learnt something by now. Had an attack crippled or destroyed some of their wagons, delaying them while they made repairs? Were they injured… or dead? He could think of few other possibilities.
He had walked through the night and into the day, the flat heat of the savannah slowly giving way to verdant meadow and a cooling breeze. That afternoon, a pack of prairie-wolves made an attempt for his antelope kill. The beasts were over-confident, two of their number being felled by arrows not a deterrent, but when Einhar drew forth the steel from his back and cleaved about him savagely, the prairie-wolves soon gave up, yapping indignantly as they fled.
Now, three days after leaving the Way-station behind and almost six weeks since leaving Fruca, the path of the Ways began to undulate over otherwise green hills and vales. A few more days and he would reach a divergence: one path bearing West towards Glacindal, the other continuing on all the way to Caromklack, from whence his father should be leading his caravan laden with goods.
A sudden guttural roar snapped him from his gloomy reverie with an adrenaline rush and Einhar actually grinned: here was something he could respond to. The sound was unmistakably that of one of the larger reptiles, probably one of the two-legged variety. Nothing higher on the food chain except dragons. Einhar was already running, cresting the hill towards danger, contrary to what most Hu would do when hearing such an instinctively terrifying sound. Heart pounding and mind racing, Einher almost expected to find the monster attacking his Family’s caravan and for a fleeting moment imagined himself reunited with his father as his Family’s saviour.
The draurak was indeed attacking a caravan, but a quick scan of the wagons was enough for Einhar to tell that this was not his Family. However, it was one that he knew: the old Marshts, long friends of his father, their children Einhar’s occasional playmates when they would cross paths along the Ways or in the outskirts of a city, what seemed like long ago. Fajha, Tinath, Henel… were they alive or dead? The giant reptile was bipedal, standing almost three times Einhar’s height and with a massive jaw filled with long, serrated teeth. Each bite, destruction. The beast’s comparatively small forearms were no less deadly, vicious talons slashing awful gashes into any flesh they found, crushing anyone they managed to grab. There was much screaming from the desperate Hu amidst the triumphant deep rumbling of the draurak as it chomped on flesh and bone.
The Hu of the Ways do not flee from danger, such an instinct is of no use in the savage wilds. Better to stick together and face whatever danger there might be as a unified force. Separation from Family inevitably leads to death. Every member of the Family begins learning to wield a weapon from a young age and keeps learning as long as they live. None of this made much of a difference when confronted with a draurak, their dark blue-green hide resisting most weapons. Only iron or steel stood a chance of drawing blood from the beast, and steel was a rarity.
Einhar could see that the Family were not faring well, many of them already crushed and eviscerated, pools of blood soaking into the low grass. That the draurak had not finished off the small huddled group of survivors immediately was intriguing to Einhar as he cautiously jogged downhill toward the scene. The monster now seemed to have a particular interest in one of the wagons somewhere near the middle of the nine-strong caravan, four incense burners hanging from each corner of the wagon bed evidently doing little to hide the scent of whatever lay inside. The draurak ripped the canvas away, snapping the bows that held it in place with ease. The wagon was still harnessed to a girotah which had dug four of its spikey legs into the ground for purchase and retracted the rest, along with any other soft body parts, into its jagged exoskeleton. This tactic had served the girotah so well against the predators of this world that most now hardly gave them a second glance – one of the reasons that they made much better beasts of burden than cattle along the Ways.
The draurak was eating something from the back of the wagon and hadn’t noticed Einhar approaching from behind. He jogged toward the shocked survivors of the attack. There were wounded and a lot of blood. His heart leap as he recognised the unmistakable copper hue of Marsht hair: there was Fajha and Henel, bedraggled and ashen-faced, but alive. Recognition dawned in Fajha’s eyes as Einhar approached and she stared as if at a vision. Henel soon caught on and quietly chanted Einhar’s name in shocked welcome. There were only four others alive, none of them with copper hair, and two of those were swiftly losing their life’s blood into the grass. The draurak continued snuffling into the wagon, but surely only for a few moments more.
Einhar placed a hand each on Fajha and Henel’s shoulder in solidarity. Henel was younger but taller than his sister, though not so tall as Einher. They wore leather armour and clutched iron-tipped spears. A look into their eyes told him all he needed to know about the fate of their parents and brother. Einhar acknowledged the other four survivors, the two wounded barely coherent and likely not long for life. Instinct told him that every moment counted, but still his curiosity piqued him.
“What’s in the wagon?” he asked.
Henel looked darkly toward the beast, his confidence renewing with Einhar’s presence. “Golden truffles from a forest not far from Glacindal, a new delicacy. We used the usual incense to mask the scent, but it made no difference to the draurak.
Einhar shook his head in wonder. “Golden truffles… We need to move, now, before it’s had enough of such treats and longs for Hu flesh again!”
One of the wounded was now unconscious, if not dead. The other began to screech in panic when he saw the Marshts about to leave. Einhar, who had drawn the steel sword from his back, abruptly knocked out the screecher with the pommel and growled at the others that it was time to go. Too late, though, as the draurak turned towards them, unsteady on its legs, and gave an uncharacteristically strangled roar. It shook its head with a snarl and stepped forward almost gingerly, as if struggling to balance.
Einhar saw a chance of survival. The monster was acting as if intoxicated – perhaps those golden truffles had such an effect. Still, the chance was slim, as the enraging draurak seemed intent on its prey even if it was taking more effort than usual to get to it. Einhar had no confidence that they could flee: even inhibited the monster would catch up to them with ease. Hiding amongst the wagons was unlikely to keep them alive much longer. Fighting a draurak was usually suicide, but perhaps…
Fajha was beside him, her pale slim hand cool on his. She was beautiful to Einhar in that moment: not for the first time, but never coupled with such poignancy. He longed to lose himself in her eyes. In them, he saw determination and belief in his abilities. “I’ll distract it,” she said. “Kill the monster, Einhar.”
There was no time for thought. The draurak was stumbling towards them out of its mind, slather flying from its minacious mouth. Fajha began to sing shrilly, a song of hard days along the Ways with the companionship of family and loved ones to stave away the terrors of the night. She slipped off her colourful skirts and waved them in the air, backing away as she did so. Henel remained by her side. The other two mercenaries made a run for it, and Einhar cursed them as he slowly moved away from the last surviving Marsht’s to position himself behind the draurak.
The draurak paused in its delirium and for a long moment seemed entranced by Fajha’s sound and movement. It took tentative giant steps towards her, shaking its head as if to rid itself of the effect of the truffles. Einhar had never seen anything like it – all the draurak encounters he had seen or heard of were nothing but rage incarnate. It was only a matter of time before the monster snapped out of its incoherence and attacked.
Einhar ran, a burst of speed hopefully with enough momentum for him to propel himself from the lizard’s tail to its head. His sword was too unwieldy here, but it was not the only steel he owned, the precious metal also encapsulated into a dagger with a blade the length of his hand. He knew he would get only one chance; if he failed in his attempt the draurak would throw him off with ease and eviscerate him in moments.
He could not help but to release an immense cry of effort as he leaped, and this actually helped his cause as the draurak began to turn its head towards him, presenting its right eye as prime target. Einhar’s thrust was true and the dagger’s blade pushed deep into the eye socket. The monster raged instantly, throwing Einhar off to land roughly in the grass. It spasmed erratically, its scream awful, green-tinged blood and ruined vitreous oozing from the wound. It stumbled away: irrational, enraged and perhaps even fearful, its steps floundering as it went.
Einhar did not know if the monster was bound to die, and he did not think it wise to wait to find out. A combination of luck and teamwork had kept them alive this day. He felt a rush of exhilaration at surviving the encounter and beckoned the Marshts to run with him to safety.
They kept to the Ways, of course. To get lost beyond them was to invite death. After an hour with no sight nor sound of the draurak they were reasonably sure that they had escaped, but kept going anyway, saying little. The Marshts were clearly in shock, struggling to process the grief of the loss of their Family. They made camp as the sun began to dip low in the sky, Einhar sharing what little water and scraps of meat he carried. There was a Way-station close to where the path diverged; they should reach it before the end of the next day.
Henel asked how Einhar had found them, so he told the Marshts that he was searching for his Family. A dark look of remembrance crossed the siblings’ faces then, and Fajha explained that they had seen his father’s wagons broken, ransacked and abandoned along the Ways halfway to Glacindal. They had been stripped almost bare, but she had recognised a distinctive marking carved into one of the broken wagon-beds: Fajha’s own initials, carved there by Einhar years before when they were children. This meant that whatever had befallen his Family had happened no more than a few months after Einhar had seen them off from the outskirts of Fruca. They were likely dead, Einhar knew: his father would not abandon the wagons. The trail would be cold, but someone must know what had happened. Einhar vowed to find out.
Leigh is the curator of Wyrd Daze. You can sometimes find him on Twitter.