The Ban Me flows blue and cool, taking its gifts to the Virtas River, which brings tribute to the ocean. Above the Ban Me, the Screaming Eagles ply their trade and live their mysterious lives. Below lies the land of the Kung Sah, where jungle meets prairie. To the south, no one knows.
Xubachu pressed his men hard, leading a demanding march with vigilance honed to a fine and sharp point. By day they never left their saddles except to talk to local tribespeople. At night they laagered in surroundings as secure as they could find. Xubachu acted as if he expected attack at any time, night or day. They slept with their hands on their spears.
There is a river down here, insisted Xubachu. He felt it in his bones. And the pursuit of this mythical river consumed him. He knew this was his last scout, and he would find what they were commissioned to find. The Heck’r’we. Xubachus’ luck had shown when he found the Aisharians. When he greeted Otsa-Kahn and Clan Savo, his luck had positively glowed. The rest of the party believed in Xubachu’s luck. They felt that somehow Xubachu had been blessed at birth to be a scout among scouts, and their confidence grew. Xubachu was just happy that they cooperated, and he cared little for being a legend. In his mind he was not a legend. He was just an aging horseman who for the life of him could not figure out why his Altman and his Hetman wanted him to be riding all over the plains instead of being comfortable and well fed in his yurt with his wife. But if they were to find the Heck’r’we, well then, by god they would find the Heck’r’we. And Hargaman and Chun-gah could have all the Heck’r’we they could stand until they choked. After that, if they so much as hinted that Xubachu go on another journey, he would personally take his jerkin and all his weapons … and stuff them!
“We’ve got company,” Cho spoke wearily from behind Xubachu.
He could see the small figures moving on foot with spears in their hands. He counted six. It looked like a hunting party.
“Stay visible and see what they do. Don’t look like you’re preparing to fight.”
The scouts spread out and slowed to a walk. Hands were off weapons; no spears were poking out from the riders, which would be frightfully visible on the horizon. Four riders fanned out on each side of the distant footmen in case there was a fight. Xubachu kept his eye on the spearmen.
The riders were quickly seen and the spearmen stopped. When Xubachu figured they were close enough to be clearly identified, he raised his hand and his own horsemen also stopped. “Cho?” he called. Then he proceeded ahead. Cho trailed him by a few horse lengths; the rest of the scouts remained stationary.
“I hope they have something good to eat,” said Cho from behind him.
“I hope they’ll know what we want,” Xubachu countered in a quiet voice. He stopped again, and raised his right hand, palm facing the spearmen. The spearmen did not move. “I don’t’ like this,” he said under his breath.
He and Cho resumed their forward movement. As they got closer the tribesmen grew more distinct. They were dirty, with leather loin covers and what looked like shell necklaces around their throats. Their hair was frizzy and stuck out in all directions. They wore paint. Xubachu’s heart sank when he saw the paint.
Then the nearest native uttered a harsh scream and charged, his spear jacked up and ready to throw. Xubachu reined in his horse so hard she almost bucked, and galloped away at a right angle. Cho went the other way. Xubachu heard the spear slice through the air behind him and felt it nick his jerkin. His bow was already in his hand and, as he steered with his knees, he notched his first arrow. The man who attacked him was gone but two more were charging with their spears. Had they forgotten the other horsemen? With a quick jerk of the arm he let loose his first arrow. He saw the man drop, from the corner of his eye, as he fired the second arrow at the remaining runner. The man dodged away from the arrow but the third was already seeking him and he shot him through the rib cage, the arrow sticking out both sides. The native stopped, and stared at the arrow, bewildered. His spear fell from nerveless fingers, forgotten. Xubachu looked around and saw only Kung Sah riders.
Sheathing his bow and drawing his bone axe Xubachu trotted up to the wounded man. His eyes met Xubachus with a look of surprise, this was not supposed to happen. His confusion never changed as the bone ax swept down.
The call came some distance away. Xubachu trotted toward the call, keeping a lookout for the man he saw drop. He did not know if he was hit or merely going to ground. He then saw a body with an arrow in his forehead. Shaking his head at his luck he kept going.
“Here’s why they wanted to fight,” a young warrior named Kanga said.
There on the ground, their hands tied and hooked together by a long leather rope, were four girl children. Looking too tired and beaten down even to be scared, the girls squatted in a pathetic little circle, staring at the dirt. Their skin was bruised and torn, their hair matted. The bile in Xubachu rose. Slavers. The Kung Sah hated slavers. They were an affront to The Way. Xubachus’ disgust filled him as he got off his horse and stiffly approached the girls. Drawing his knife brought a wide-eyed look, but no one moved. It was only when he began to cut their bonds that the fear changed to incomprehension. And when he handed out some dried meat and a water skin, their incomprehension turned to worship. As they reached for the food and water with shaking hands, they looked at Xubachu as if he were a god. As they drank, he could see tears course silently down the sides of their faces. But none uttered so much as a tiny sound.
“Where are they from, I wonder?” said Cho.
“What do we do with them?” asked Kanga.
Xubachu remained quiet, like the girls, as he watched them eat.