The Hero: Part 1

The small carriage rolled to a stop, and I swung open the door and jumped down onto the courtyard.  The driver dropped down from his perch at the back of the carriage, grabbing a sturdy wooden crate as he did so.  He carefully placed the crate beneath the door and checked to make sure that it was steady before backing away.  I held out a hand to support my mother as she stepped down onto the crate and from there to the dusty ground.  My father followed my mother and once on the ground, stood beside her.  Around us, several other carriages had arrived and were disgorging their passengers.  I breathed deeply, happy that the smells and the sounds of the city below the plateau were muted, barely noticeable.  Two years of living in Wayr had heightened my appreciation of fresh sea air.

My mother touched my arm and gestured towards a carriage that was just arriving. 
“I believe that’s Prajit’s carriage.”

“It is.”  My father grunted.  “Gods willing he’ll have left his wife at home.  I just can’t abide her shrill voice.”

“Suren.”  My mother chided, humorously.  “Be nice.”

My father smiled and bowed gracefully.  “Of course, my love.”

“Perhaps he’ll have managed to get Atreya into a dress for the occasion.”  My mother continued, thoughtfully.

My father snorted, as though he’d just swallowed a laugh, then grinned as my mother quirked an eyebrow at him.

“We’ll find out in a moment.”  Suren, my father, observed.  “I’m sure Adesh will be interested to see if she’s attending.”

I looked at my grinning father and rolled my eyes.  “I feel certain that I’ll be the last person she’ll want to see.”

“With reason.”  My mother pointed out.  “You’ll keep a civil tongue in your head tonight and stay away from Prajit.  Don’t give him cause to complain to our cousin again.”

“Yes mother.”  I replied, glumly.

“You’re lucky that your mother was able to convince Tsironis that you just needed seasoning on the border to straighten you out, rather than exile from the city that Prajit wanted.”  My father reminded me.

“And it’s worked very well so far.”  My mother smiled, as she touched my cheek affectionately.  “I’m sure Atreya will be very impressed to see you looking respectable in your armour.”

I closed my eyes and sighed.  This was going to be a very long night.  I wouldn’t have been here at all, but father had written and ordered me home.  It was time, he felt, that I had started taking a more active participation in Clan affairs, now that I’d shown some maturity.  Tonight, I was to be one of our Clan Lord’s two honour guards, father being the other.  He’d served the role for years, our Clan Lord being his brother, my uncle.

“There they are now.  It seems the Gods were not listening to me tonight.”  My father observed.  “Oh dear, it seems like Prajit has seen us, they’re heading this way.”

My mother rapped a knuckle on my father’s polished breast plate.  “Hush Suren.”

“Yes dear.”

I glanced towards the approaching group and automatically straightened my back, making myself stand a little taller.

Prajit wasn’t a fit man. he was soft and doughy, and I doubted if he knew one end of a blade from the other.  His thinning grey hair always had a bit of a wind-blown look about it, as though it refused to be tamed, but his eyes, like his mind, were sharp and rarely missed a detail.  I always found it ironic that for a man with a mind as clever as his, he was almost blind to some things, like the woman beside him.  His wife. 

My eyes though, weren’t drawn to his wife, Prajit’s second, but to his daughter, Atreya, dressed in a simple but expensive gown.  Her vibrant red hair was done up to frame her delicate face, and an intricate necklace, with a single green gem, to match her eyes, graced her neck.  She was tiny, something she hated deeply, constantly being thought to be younger than she was.  We’d known each other for years, and along with a few other friends we’d gotten ourselves into and out of numerous scrapes, but the last time I’d seen her, she punched me so hard that she’d cracked one of my ribs.  I’d deserved it.

My father pressed his hand down on my shoulder.  “Breathe Adesh.”

I coughed and let go the breath I hadn’t been aware I’d been holding.  Prajit and his family stopped before my mother.  The man nodded to my mother, as much respect as he was willing to grant her.

“Ramani, Suren.”  He greeted, coldly, ignoring me completely.

My father nodded back to Prajit and his wife and daughter.  “Prajit, Tara, Atreya.  A warm evening.  Tara, Atreya, may I say you’re both looking wonderful.”

While Tara, smiled at the compliment, I wasn’t sure Atreya had heard, she was glaring at me.  Apparently two years away hadn’t softened her opinion of me.

“Adesh.”  She said, coldly.  “Fucked anyone’s wife lately?”

“Atreya!”  Prajit barked, as Tara blanched.

Atreya bowed to my parents.  “Suren, Ramani.”  She greeted warmly.

Prajit nodded in my parent’s direction again and led his family away towards the door to the High Lord’s stronghold.

“Well.”  My father commented, once they were out of earshot.  “That went a little better than I expected.  Shall we go in?”

My mother sniffed and picked some imaginary speck of dirt from her gown.  “Lead on, dearest.”

*

The feasting hall was a large chamber, deep inside the High Lord’s stronghold.  Sixteen low tables, one for each clan, were arrayed around the room, each with many cushions for seating, in the old traditional manner.  On a low dais, at the head of the chamber, a long table with richly appointed chairs was positioned so that those seated at it could see and be seen.  The table of the High Lord.  Many of tonight’s guests were already seated at their table, talking and drinking animatedly.  A serving man gestured for us to follow him, and he led us to a table close to the dais.  Our Clan Lord, Lomo Jayant, was laughing good naturedly at something his wife, Neera, had said when he spied us.

He rose and hugged my father and mother, before giving me a quick hug.

“I feared you’d become lost brother.  It’s a long way out to your farm.”

“Not so far as all that, Jayant, which you’d know if you and your pretty wife ever accepted an invitation to dinner.”  My father laughed.

“Sit, sit.”  Jayant urged us as he signalled a serving man to fill our mugs.

I settled into my cushion and nodded in greeting to my cousin, Hari.  Hari was around my age and we’d often gone carousing together, along with several other mutual friends.  He would be our next Clan Lord, although he’d be waiting a long time, if his father’s health was anything to go by.

“How are the Hannano’s treating you?”  Jayant asked across the table.

I waved my hand back and forth.  “Well, when they forget I’m there.”

Jayant laughed.  “And the fort?  It’s coming along?”

I nodded.  “It is.  The outer walls are solid and secure, and the gates replaced.  We’re working on replacing the roofs of the barracks and the long hall at the moment.”

“Good, good.  And your warriors?”

“Sober and complaining about all the extra training they’re getting.”  I smiled.

“Sounds like my nephew runs a tight fort.”  Jayant commented to my father.

Suren nodded, smiling.  “He’s coming along just nicely.  Speaking of young men, have you seen the guest of honour yet?”

My uncle’s good mood seemed to suddenly evaporate.  “Not yet.  He’s late, something Ravi would never have abided.”

My father grimaced.  “I’m sorry Jayant.  I had forgotten that you were on good terms with Ravi.”

My uncle waved away the apology.  “I wouldn’t say we were on good terms, but I liked him.  Unlike many of us, he was as honest as the day was long.  Good company when he was in the city, you always knew where you stood with him.”

“Any idea what happened?”

Jayant shrugged.  “By all accounts he took an Elvish arrow to the arm four or five years ago, almost killed him at the time, but I don’t think he ever fully recovered.  I saw him last year and he was almost a completely different man, weak and frail.  I nearly didn’t recognise him.”

I took a long slug of beer from the mug and glanced around at the other tables.

“You took your time getting here.”  Hari spoke across the table to me.

I shrugged.  “I only got in yesterday evening, the roads out near Wayr are a little unsettled, so I was delayed.”

“What’s it like, that close to the border?” 

“It took some getting used to, but I like it there.  It’s wild and sometimes dangerous.  You should try to get a posting to one of the border forts.”

Hari shuddered dramatically.  “You can not be serious!  Leave the warm comforts of Galis for the wilds?  Perish the thought!”

I laughed.  “It’s not as bad as all that.  How’s Samir getting on with Ishika?  It can’t be easy for him being married to the most powerful of the Drethan Clan Lords”

“Well enough I hear.  She’s not the worst, for a Terada.  Father says she’s not malicious, as her father was, but difficult, nonetheless.”

“It’ll do him good.  He was always a little too quiet.”

Hari rubbed his chin.  “Maybe.  I think mother will finally be happy when they give her some grandchildren.  Have you any woman down in the draughty fort of yours or are you just fucking the entire village?”

I coughed.  “Neither, actually.”

Hari laughed.  “Did you forget your prick in your hurry to escape?”

I shook my head and smiled ruefully.  “No, but I’ve had a lot to think about. I owe someone an apology, if I can find a way to talk to her.”

Hari nodded, mockingly.  “You seem to have grown wiser in your old age.”

I laughed.  “That might have been a little dramatic.”

“A little.”  Hari allowed.  “But seriously, if it’s Atreya you’re talking about, then I fear that boat has sailed.  Ishika may be married now, but that hasn’t stopped her from occasionally reminding Atreya about why you were sent to Wayr.”

“I never understood why they hate each other so much.  I can’t remember a time when they ever agreed about anything.”

Hari raised his mug and gestured at me.  “It’s all over you, at least some of it, I think.”

“Me?”  I gaped.

Hari shrugged.  “I thought you knew.  From what I’ve overheard, at various times, your father was approached by Ishika’s father, to arrange a marriage to her.  Obviously, nothing ever came of it, but it never stopped Ishika trying to lay claim to you.”

“I don’t see why that would set them at each other.”  I replied frowning.

“Maybe you need to spend more time out in the wilds then, to do some more thinking.”  Hari suggested.

I rolled my eyes and caught my mother looking at me thoughtfully.

“Did you say something mother?”

“It’s nothing dear.”  She replied.

“Ah, the man of the hour has arrived.”  Jayant interrupted.

I looked to the door and watched, as the soon to be Putcha Clan Lord entered.  He was dressed in ceremonial clothing, a simple robe.  Supposed to evoke the memory of our ancestors, Sohan made the robe seem as though it were made from the most expensive fabrics.  I’d met him several times over the years and he’d always seemed somewhat aloof from us, but basically decent.  Now he looked positively regal, and he wore it well.

“Mark my words.”  My mother muttered quietly to Neera.  “That boy will be trouble.”

My aunt nodded.  “Ishika is going to have her hands full dealing with that one.”

“Certainly, Amir will be of no help to her.”  Jayant added.  “He’s only led the Rellesa for just over a year, and he’s too young for anyone to pay much attention to.”

A commotion at the door drew everyone’s eyes and a large lumbering man entered the chamber.  Tall and fat, the man pushed a serving man aside and strode to a table on the other side of the room.

“Nakul always likes to make an entrance.”  Suren observed to Jayant. 

“Somethings never change.  Do you remember that time when he tried to force father to give him that estate out near, where was it again?”

“Tehjas, I think.”

“That’s the one.  I thought father was going to take a strap to him.”  Jayant paused and looked around.  “That’s everyone I think.”

Moments later a single booming note was beat on a large drum, kept solely for ceremonies, and the curtains hiding a large door by the dais parted, allowing the High Lord and his family to enter.

The High Lord was a gentle looking man, stocky but not fat.  His every gesture seemed to convey friendship, without appearing contrived.  His wife, Rita, was a tall woman, quiet and dignified.  Only their two sons were present, Heera, the daughter was too young and no doubt asleep.

Tsironis, the High Lord, cast a critical eye over the assembled crowd and remained standing as his family sat.

“Friends.”  He shouted.  “Tonight, we raise a Clan Lord.  An occasion both sad and joyous.  Tonight, we say farewell to an old friend, and bid welcome to his heir.  Join with me now, and raise your mugs in farewell to Putcha Ravi, and may Badabh welcome him into her arms.”

I raised my mug high.
“May the grace of the Gods guide you home and grant you peace.”  I muttered, along with everyone else.

After a moment of silence, the High Lord resumed.

“Bring Putcha Sohan forward.”  Tsironis ordered.

“Duty calls.”  Jayant said, quietly, as he rose from his cushion.

There was a general wave of movement around the room, as each of the Clan Lords stood and slowly made their way to the dais.  Sohan was led to a spot below the dais, just in front of where Tsironis was standing.  Terada Ishika stood on one side of him, Rellesa Amir on his other.

“Kneel.”  Tsironis ordered Sohan.  “Kneel before the High Lord.”

Sohan, staring at the High Lord, slowly knelt.

“Terada, do you vouch for your ally?”

“I do.”  Ishika announced clearly.

“Rellesa, do you vouch for your ally?”

“I do.”  Amir replied, his voice wavering just a little.

“Very well.”  Tsironis continued.  “Who will wield the whip first?”

“As eldest, I will.”  A thin, white haired, old man answered, with a surprisingly strong voice.

Tsironis nodded and placed a whip on edge of the table in front of him.  Similar to those the tribesmen still used, the whip was ancient, but well cared for, a remnant of a time long past.  The old man, the Jereba Clan Lord, pushed forward and took the whip in his hands.

The High Lord gestured to Sohan and the man bared his back.  Both Ishika and Amir stood back as Bipin, the old man, took his place behind the imminent Clan Lord.

“Putcha Sohan, this whip is to teach you humility, and to teach you that as Clan Lord, you will not be immune to your choices.  Power is a privilege, it will always extract a price.”

Bipin waited for the High Lord to finish then swept his arm back, bringing the whip high into the air, before striking.  The ancient leather caressed Sohan’s back, the tip cracking loudly and breaking the heavy silence.

“Who next, will wield the whip?”  Tsironis asked loudly.

Jayant moved to the front and stood beside Bipin.  “As next Eldest, I will.”  He announced.

Bipin turned to Jayant and inclined his head.  Jayant returned the gesture and carefully accepted the whip.

“Putcha Sohan, just as the whip rises and falls, so, too, will your fortunes.  Just as the whip stings as it falls, so, too, will your fall.”

Jayant struck as the High Lord finished speaking, striking Sohan’s back with a snap of the whip.  The man, his eyes closed, took the blow calmly.

And so it went, each of the fourteen Clan Lords took their turn, Amir, as the youngest going last.  Each stroke of the whip was preceded by a warning, solemnly delivered by the High Lord.  Finally, it was over.

“Rise Putcha Sohan.”  Tsironis ordered.  “You have survived your trial.  Let the scars that will remain be your final reminder of tonight.  Rise Putcha Sohan, Clan Lord of the Putcha.”

Sohan shuffled to his feet, breathing deeply and turned to face the other Clan Lords behind him.  One by one, in the same order as before, they bowed to him, and he to them.  Two serving men stepped forward and guided Sohan away to have his wounds dressed before he would return to the feast.

“He’s tough.  I’ll give him that.”  Jayant reported, when he returned to our table.  “Not so much as a groan out of him.”

“Ravi prepared him well for it, no doubt.”  My father surmised.

Jayant grimaced.  “As father did me.”

As they spoke, I excused myself to use the privy. 

Walking back to the table, I spotted Atreya and made a beeline for her.  She saw me coming and her eyes widened.  I could almost see smoke rising from her as she smouldered in anger.

“What do you want?”  She hissed.

“To say I’m sorry.” 

“You tried that already, as I recall.”  Atreya reminded me heatedly.

“And you broke one of my ribs.”  I replied.

“As you’re wearing armour, I’ll assume you’re afraid I’ll do it again.”

I shook my head.  “Atreya, I deserve your anger, and the cracked rib.  I didn’t think things through, before.”

“No.”  She hissed, stepping towards me.  “No, you didn’t.  Do you have any idea what I had to endure because of you not thinking?  Do you?”

I shook my head.  “No, but I’m willing to listen.  If I could go back and change who I was, I would.”

Atreya laughed mockingly.  “I was wondering how long it would take you to trot out that old saw.  You can’t change the things you’ve done, you stupid, bloody fool.”

I ground my teeth and took a breath.  This wasn’t going nearly as well as I’d hoped.

I heard a whisper of movement and turned to see Sohan, once more dressed in his robe, sweeping towards Atreya.

“How unusual.”  He laughed.  “A Lomo chasing a Urito skirt.”

Atreya glared at Sohan, her eyes blazing.  “He is not chasing me, and I am no skirt!”

Sohan openly eyed her from head to toe.  “You’re not, are you?”  He said, thoughtfully.  “Would you care for better company?”

Atreya glanced at me and then turned to the newly raised Clan Lord.  “I think I’d like that very much.”

Sohan smiled coldly at me, a look of victory in his eyes, then swept away with Atreya on his arm, leaving me feeling decidedly like a rug had been pulled out from beneath me.  A hand clasped my shoulder from behind.

“Hard luck cousin.”  Hari commiserated, as he squeezed my shoulder.  “Come back to the table.  A few drinks and some food, and by morning it won’t seem so bad.”

“You were right, I suppose.”  I said to Hari as we walked back to the table.

“About what?”

“I should have spent more time out in the wilds, thinking.”

“Ah.  That.  Forget I said anything.”

An inhuman scream at the far end of the room cut off my reply.

“What in the void was that?”  Hari asked in shock.

“Doesn’t matter.”  I replied, as I drew my sword.  “We need to get to your father, now.”

It was a matter of moments to get back to our table.  My father was standing behind Jayant, his sword, a match for mine, drawn and ready to defend our Clan Lord. 

“Did you see what that was?”  My father asked calmly.

I shook my head.  “Didn’t see anything, the sound was enough to send us running back here.

“Jayant?”  My father asked, deferring to his brother.  “What do you want to do?”

Jayant looked around the room where people were milling around, unsettled and on edge.

“We need to get to the High Lord.”

“Alright.”  My father replied.  “I’ll lead.  Adesh, you take the rear.  Jayant, I want you behind me with Hari.  Ladies, stay behind Jayant and in front of Adesh.”

“Honestly Suren.”  Neera objected, standing up.  “It’s not a battle.  Whatever that was, we’re perfectly safe.”

“Until we know what’s going on, best to believe that we’re in danger.”  Jayant advised his wife, as he grabbed her arm.  “Listen to Suren.  He knows what he’s doing.”

Neera rolled her eyes as she tugged her arm free of Jayant’s.  “This is ridiculous.”

We were all looking at my aunt as a black cloaked, man shaped form sprung across the table and grabbed her by the neck, yanking her off her feet.  We all heard her neck break as the form flew past, landing several feet away, before Neera had even fallen to the floor.

“Neera!”  Jayant cried in anguish.

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