An oasis interlude

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The warriors are helped out of the oasis, dried, offered food and drink and fire. They are feted as heroes, their deeds overcoming the aversion of normal folk towards Humakti. A feast is held, and all elders of the oasis vow to honour Ba Hariya's conditions.

After braving the dangers of forgotten Mostali cave and once again surviving the confusing experience of Heroquesting, Enfrew indulges in eating and drinking, trying to forget the burdens of his religious life. Waves of friendly and reclusive mood come over him one after another as he drinks more and more alcohol. While friendly, he seats or walks with his companions, talking about their recent deeds and their lives before they met. While in reclusive mood, he sits alone, slowly consuming his drink. As the feast draws closer to the end, he finds it harder and harder to remember what he was doing a short time ago, and he has long ago lost count of the mugs he emptied.

Once during the feast he finds himself telling jokes with several drunken Bison Men. Obviously, the last joke he told about Praxians challenged their honour and they were ready to prove that the joke is wrong. Before Enfrew can think of apologizing, a challenge to a duel is issued and suddenly he finds a short, skinny Bison Man standing in front of him with a wooden spear. Enfrew laughs at the sight, stands up clumsily and draws his sword, confident in his ability to beat the small man. Although under heavy influence of alcohol, both warriors prove that they retained their combat prowess as first blows fly through the air and barely miss their targets. The small Bison Man skillfully evades Enfrews mighty swings, and the larger warrior barely manages to control his movements enough to evade the jabbing speartip. As the duel progresses and both duelists become more and more winded, several of Bison Man's thrusts find their target and cause small wounds. Annoyed by the blood that flows out of several places on his body, Enfrew musters the last amounts of stamina he has left. With a sudden flash the drunken vision is gone and he becomes clearly aware of his enemy and their surroundings. Enfrews' several well placed swings break the opponents spear in many parts and his boot brings down the helpless Bison Man with a mighty and accurate kick, and then the world goes black and the Heortling falls to his knees and out of consciousness.

The next morning, he finds himself with a strong headache, but the wounds caused by the last nights duel are gone. Janerra explains that the duel really did take place, but she and several of the healers were able to cure his wounds. She also suggests that he finds the Bison Man he fought and apologizes for the insulting joke he told. Although it never crossed his Humakti mind, he realizes this is a good idea and sets off with her to look for the Bison Men.

He finds them after a while, taking care of their bisons, and approaches them with caution. "Greetings, I have come in friendship to apologize for what I have done yesterday. I hope you will accept my apology and not take my insulting and careless words as a sign of enmity towards you or your people."
"May Waha guide you, Heortling," answers the Bison Man, "It is not your place to apologize. It is my fault that I reacted in a hostile way and caused the fight. I am called Ashfahar. What is your name, stranger?"
"I am called Enfrew, and this is my companion, Janerra."
The Bison man then proceeds to introduce his companions, and then continues.
"It is good thing we know each other, Enfrew. Now I may tell the others of my tribe of the powerful warrior I fought in a duel, a warrior who saved the Horn Gate!"
"It was my honour to fight you, Ashfahar," Enfrew replies. "I must leave now and prepare for the journey. I wish you and your people best fortune." They exchange the parting words and Enfrew starts to leave but then he turns back remembering that he forgot something.
"And I should apologize for breaking your spear," he says as an idea comes to his mind. "Maybe I could repay you by making you another one." Ashfahar and his friends start laughing at his words. "No need, Enfrew, I have several spare."
As Enfrew turns to leave, a little disappointed by their reaction, the Bison Man stops him. "Here, take this spear. It will identify you as the friend of Bison People."

After finishing the preparations, Enfrew spend the rest of the time until departure with Janerra. Since they met on the Cradle, they usually exchanged their religious opinions and their view of the world around them. Although arguing more than agreeing with each other, they came to respect the significance of Life and Death for each other, much more so with the recent developments in Horn Gate. This time, however, they just talked about each other, getting to know each other better.

"So, what were you doing while I was sleeping and recovering from last night?" Enfrew asked. "Nothing special," she replied, "I was talking with the healers who helped me with you. They were curious about how I ended up with the Humakti."
"What did you say?" Enfrew posed another question, interested in the answer as much as the healers.
"Well, I told them what happened on the Cradle and how you and your companions respect me despite the differences in our beliefs. They were very impressed with your band, and I'm sure the others in Horn Gate will be when they learn about my story."

So the talk carried on until Hrolf came to tell them that it is the time to leave, with a puzzled look on his face. Enfrew was feeling very strange. For the first time since he set out on the quest of finding the heroband of his destiny he was relaxed, talking about simple things. But this was not the strangest thing. He was starting to like Janerra, and he didn't like that at all. Somehow, he was partially back in the times before he joined the Cult of Humakt. Was this really that bad, he though. Was he becoming less Humakti?

Responsibility, kin, honour

Dori dresses more carefully than usual for the feast, aware that as their leader she will be expected to receive any formal thanks, and to witness the oaths of the locals to Ba Hariya. The food is pleasant, the chance to relax would perhaps have been pleasant if she'd still been representing herself rather than the Legion, and observing the healers, the Oasis people and the nomads interacting, and picking up more of their languages is always interesting.

But as the evening grows later, the boasts become less truthful, and the effects of the alcohol become more obvious, she slips away, and notices Korlmar doing the same. Let them relax: they deserve it, and will enjoy themselves more without her presence inhibiting them. There are still times when being an officer seems unnatural, and she half-expects to wake up and find herself back in the ranks again, but for the most part it is clear that her troops think of her as their ten-thane even if she doesn't. That, at present, is the point.

It's cooler out here, too.

And, safe though this place seems, especially while close to the calming influence of the White Ladies, she wants to be sure. A stroll round the perimeter, just to be certain of any intruders or threats, will make her feel happier that her duties have been done. There are footsteps behind her - but even as she tenses, she knows, without turning. Kristen. If it was just the Humakti partying, she'd be in there drinking with the rest of them. But with the nomads as well, even after all this time as a mercenary, Kristen still dislikes being in the company of large groups of men. Safer for all concerned for her to leave before her nerves get frayed too far. They walk on together in companionable silence for a few minutes.

"Have you seen Brenna since we got back?" Dori asks. "I got tied up with all those oaths and formal thanks, I never had a chance to look for her."
"She was there. Bringing food, or something, I didn't notice."
"No change, then?" Dori sighs. "I can't think what to do about her. She doesn't seem exactly unhappy, but something's wrong. I can't just leave her here, but she's not fit to travel with us, either, even if she wanted to."
"So don't do anything. She needs healing: she's with the best healers around, and you know they're doing what they can for her. She's not your responsibility."
"Legally no, morally yes. As you know perfectly well. And anyway, she's my friend, and I owe her. It still seems odd to be protecting her, not the other way round."
"You have been for years." Kristen says bluntly. "We both know how she got through Whitewall. And you've only really started using your magic since she left: you used to avoid showing her up by doing things she couldn't."
"I did?" Dori is startled, she'd never considered it that way before. But, thinking about it... "You're right, I did. I suppose that's why I feel so... well, no, not free exactly, that can't be right..."
"Yes, it can." Kristen glares at her. "And stop feeling guilty about it!"
"No buts. Just stop it, you're giving me a stomach ache."

Another hundred yards passes in silence.
"She is still my responsibility, though," Dori says thoughtfully. "Just like you are, and Elendala, and all the rest. They may not be Legion, but that doesn't matter."
"How come?"
"Well, Brenna because I owe her. Elendala, Oddus, and so on, because they take my orders, Legion or not. So I have power over them, so I have to use that power responsibly. Enfrew, even: he hasn't sworn to me, like them, but there's this theory that initiates obey devotees, and he seems to believe it."
"No-one ever mentioned that when Brenna was ten-thane."
"No. It might have been a bit tactless."
"Mmmm. So how come you reckon I'm your responsibility? I don't take your orders."
"I'd noticed," Dori says drily. "I promised your mum I'd look after you. Responsibility with no authority: just what I needed."
Kristen laughs. "Only fair. She made me promise to look after you, and you never take my orders either."
"Not for the last two minutes, anyway."
"Oh." Kristen considers this. "That was a request, not an order. Wasn't it?"
Dori shrugs. "That'll do. Just as long as it works both ways."

The celebrations are slowly calming down as the Hurt King leaves for his painful journey through what once was Wonderhome. Geran watches silently from the shelter under a tent, the shadow providing a blessing in the brutal heat. The water in the pools swirl lazily in response to something the Uz doesn't recognise. His darksense search for the other Uz and find them drinking fermented bison milk with a group of rowdy storm bullies. He picks up a gourd full of the same stuff a terrified oasis girl brought him earlier. He's not thirsty, though and puts it down again. With a sigh he rises, bruised and battered after so long on the road, and quietly escapes into the waiting darkness when he sees Aelf, afraid his friend is looking for him.

As the heat seeps from the desert the lone Kargani searches for a suitable spot to worship, or train as the uninitiated might call it. Having found what he was looking for Aelfwyrd puts down a long bundle of black hide and strips to the waist. With no small reverence he recovers the Dragon Blade; an insane looking trident-cum-sword arrayed with wickedly sharp and serrated blades.

Silent for a moment he takes in is purpose, its perfection.

Breathing deeply he seeks his center. Then something disturbs, something dark and malevolent in the near dark. Peering at the looming shape for a moment his face suddenly breaks into a smile.

"Geran you old dog! What are you doing stalking around in the dark?"

The shadows sigh, then one of them moves and is revealed as Geran. He looks at his friend and the strange weapon he carries, wondering how anyone could wield such a thing.

"Want me stalking in the filthy light, do you? Want my skin to burn and eyes to water. Some friend", his tone of voice suggests he may not be entirely serious. But something seems lacking in his banter and he looks unusually subdued when he walks up to Aelf. He isn't wearing his armour, the precious gift from his mother, only the thin leathers he uses for padding. He begins to say something, then changes his mind and points to the Dragon Blade.

"It is... odd. Your style is different, you seem so... Sure" he trails off, unable to express what he means, unsure of what he does mean himself.

"Show me"

Aelfwyrd's smile disappears as it becomes clear that Geran is not joking. The Kargani eyes the hulking darkman in silence for a long moment. Looking from his Dragon Blade to the Elkozi and back again his expression is thoughtful. With a shrug of his shoulders he walks over to the Uz..

"We walk a wyrd path my friend, what else is there to be sure of? We follow..."

"Weird indeed" the uz mutters.

As if that is was the beginning, middle and end of an explanation Aelfwyrd passes the strange oriental weapon to his darkman friend. Then as some kind of further explanation he speaks liturgy often told.

"There is no greater honour than the mastery of arms. A man that masters but one in his lifetime is truly blessed. In the heat of conflict it is he who will know truth."

Geran looks in surprise at the Kargani before he carefully accepts the weapon. It lies uncomfortably in his large hand, the balance seems all wrong to him and difficult to use with any of the ways of fighting Uz practice. Besides, smashing and crushing is so much more satisfying than pricking and nicking. Hesitantly he makes a few practice moves, but stops after only a few attempts.
"I thank you, brother, for the honour, but your weapon does not like me. We do not agree." He turns the blade and returns it to its owner hilt first.

"It must be difficult to have such, a... um, a responsibility?" Before his friend gets a chance to reply he continues, brow furrowed.
"Do you ever miss your home?"

Home? A distant memory now....

The untamed storm of the Far Place; between Jaskor's Hold and Ginijji. The sacred stead of LagerWater, home to Tovar and the Animal Twins. The western boundary of Snakepipe Hollow, and the northern and western reaches of the Lost Man Hills. The marshy gors and lush galts. The beasts of chase: aurochs, stag, elk, roebuck, spreadhorn and horned boar.

Releasing a deep breath the Kargani smiles with a slight grimace.

"Severed am I from my blood, from my stead"

Driving the Dragon Blade into the sand he speaks with fervour.

"My domain is here, inside this armoured skin. I have pledged all that I own to Kargan; muscle, bone, blood and the heart that pumps it."

Then he is silent once more as if considering something.

"But in truth, the memory of life will haunt me until the ending."

Soft footsteps and quiet female voices in the background announce the ten-thane and Kristen deep in some seemingly intense disussion.

The darkman is silent for a heartbeat, and turns slightly to acknowledge the arrival of Dorinda and Kirsten with a slight smile.
"I don't understand that.", he begins and takes a step back to face all of them. "How can you be apart from your grandmother, your mother, your sisters? Even your brothers. They are you, you are they. How can you cut them away from you and still be you?"
His brow furrows again as he struggles with his words, with thoughts he does not quite know how to express.

"I left them to be free of them but they sent Kogad to keep me in line. Among us the females rule, but Karrg decides in war, so my sister and I... discussed it" He smiles again, the long incisors glinting faintly.
"She is alone in Pavis now and needs me, I must look after her."

He turns to Dorinda and gestures vaguely to encompass all of them. "They, this legion, the Herewardi have no kin. They have cut them away" His voice is full of emotion at the thought of someone doing such an awful thing. "They look to you as their mother, for leadership, protection and comfort, for you are all the only kin you have now."

The first stars can be seen in the gathering darkness and the natural sounds of the oasis are easily heard. Only the occasional shout from a Storm Bull or braying mule pierces the growing silence.

"I will go to Pavis now and await you there." He looks at the surprised faces and smiles. "I am impatient for my sister, and I miss travelling in the dark."

Like the others, Hrolf had wandered off from the crowd, finally abandoning his search for companionshp among the Oasis Folk, and seeking darkness instead. But Geran's talk of kinship had drawn him and set his nerves on edge.

"There is no honor in kinship, Geran - it's worthless!" the Heortling exclaims too loudly, slurring his words. "Kin are tied only by blood. The only bonds worth having are bonds forged by honour, and honour comes from <hic> righteous action!"

"Only by blood? Righteous action?" Geran looks at Hrolf incredulously, eyes narrowing in anger.

"There is nothing stronger than kinship, the love of blood kin. Your little death god sets himself apart with his honour. But it is empty of meaning, like the undead are empty of life. What good is this honour if you have no-one to honour? What action is righteous if it is not done for those you love and who love you?" His voice has slowly risen in anger at Hrolf's stupid assertion.

Hrolf pauses at Geran's reply. A series of explosions seem to be taking place inside his head and his pupils contract to dangerous pinpoints before expanding again. Finally he hawks and spits, "There's your kin for you. Thought you'd know better by now, <urp> but you're not Humakti." He turns away at the last words and his eyes betray his disdain.

But then he turns back, raising the gourd of date-wine to his lips, "Tell ya what. It's not about "who". It's about what you do <hic> it's how you treat people not who you treat well. Ya dumb f***."

Apparently satisfied, Hrolf walks away, then starts again. "Damn kin will turn on you, sell your grandmother, sell your clan ancestors to the **** Lunars."

"Maybe your kin would, their honour no thicker than your spit it seems." The furious Uz growls and tries to grasp his mace, only to realize he left without it. Instead he takes a long stride and places a meaty hand on Hrolf's shoulder to turn him around. A big maw with enormous sharp teeth and horrible breath is thrust into the Herewardi's face. "Don't insult my mother!" he shouts. Then he thrusts Hrolf away, turns and without a backward glance leaves his former companions.

Aelfwyrd raises an eyebrow as he watches the slanging match escalate. A bystander for once. How strange. Sucking his teeth at the last exchange he grimaces; that's torn it.

Pre-empting the inevitable he deftly steps between the two.

Hrolf regains his balance after being thrown back like a rag doll by the enormous Uz. "Your mother?"

Hrolf shakes his head, reconnects with his rage.

As he turns away from Hrolf, Geran steps right into Aelf who has just come up behind him. He glares at the Kargani as he is forced to stop short or knock his friend over, but doesn't say anything. In the short impasse Hrolf shouts passionately behind him.

"MY KIN DID!! My kin DID sell each other out to the Lunars! Chief xxx [gotta look this one up] sold his brother's children as slaves; he organized the Duck Hunts after the Durulz had saved my clan from Delecti. Threaten them with death or taxes, and all that talk of kin blows away; they all turn on each other like dogs. No honour!"

The awful truth of Hrolf's words drains some of the anger from the darkman as he faces him. Lost for words he just looks at him.

Suddenly he goes ominously quiet. After a few seconds, a huge volume of date wine and other effluvia explode from his mouth and he falls to his knees.

Geran licks some of it off his arm where it splattered, before he kneels down and gathers Hrolf in a big hug. The huge uz holds him like a child and does the only thing he can come up with, rocking and crooning a Xiola Umbar lullaby. A song of comfort.

Hrolf freezes in Geran's embrace like a groundhog under the stare of a cobra. The Xiola Umbar melody resonates into his very bones, and he feels himself become sleepy despite his state of extreme awkwardness. His body goes limp, hanging in the arms of the Uz like a black leather dishrag.

"Now that's a useful song," Dori comments. "Best way to handle a drunk, too."
She crouches down and inspects the wreckage. "What's he been trying this time? Something too strong for him again?"
The gourd has fallen from his limp hand: she picks it up and sniffs it. "Oh. That gut-rot. No wonder. Silly kid, he's going to feel awful in the morning."

She looks up at the huge uz who's holding her little brother so gently, her initial distrust almost completely gone. Yes, he's alien. But in the ways that matter, no more so than most humans.
"You're lucky, Geran. You've got blood kin who are worthy of your love and honour. Not all of us have that privilege. So when there's no other option left, yes, we cut them off. And replace them with something better, something we can trust. You're right there, too. We become blood-kin in the other sense."

Geran looks at her as he slowly releases Hrolf and lowers him gently onto the sandy ground. The lead earrings clang dully as his hairy ears twitch a little.

She draws her sword, gently, reverently, with no threat in the movement, and runs the palm of her hand down the edge. Red drops run down the blade. The same gesture he's seen Aelf make many times, but here done with love, not with violence.
"My sword: my blood: my Legion. Bound together by the blood we shed: ours and that of others. But also by the trust we share... Yes, we're kin."
She wipes the blade clean, sheathes it.
"But since you have real blood-kin, and responsibilities to them, then clearly, you're going to have to go and find them. We've delayed you too long already. I hope we meet again in Pavis, Geran. Give my regards to your sister: she's a good healer and a wise woman."

Having released Hrolf from the embrace the darkman rises to his full height and nods, his usually mobile face uncommonly neutral in its expression.
"Little Mother, you have not delayed me", he replies in a soft voice and wipes his hand before he reaches out to caress her cheek briefly.
"You have taught me." He lets the hand drop to his side as he eyes the humans before him.
"My stomach tells me we will meet again. Our story isn't fully told yet.
And I thank you for the honour and friendship you offer. If you ever need me, seek me out."

As the darkman explains his departure the Kargani's expression clouds over. He looks at Geran saying nothing for a long moment.

Then suddenly he laughs out loud and shaking his head smiles broadly. But it is his eyes that betray him; sadness wrought large in his stare.

Then with a grin the Far Walker makes a joke of the situation.

"Elkozi, I cannot believe you are leaving us! Who to eat everyone's rations now? And when you are gone who will terrify the locals?

But the uz does not reply in kind, he has no wish to make a joke of his pain.
"I am sorry brother." He says simply

His smile quickly fades and is replaced by a long silence.

"Our paths will cross once more. Of this I am sure my friend. Before the ending we will stand together on fields of conflict"

"Yes! I believe it too, mace and sword, Karrg and Humakt we will stand together some day."

Extending his weapon arm Aelf offers a farewell reserved for a sword brother.

The uz grasps it firmly, then quickly pulls Aelf in for an embrace that lifts the Far Walker off his feet before he is released again.
"Brother, I have little. But remember me by this." He gives Aelf a small dagger of uz manufacture, a bronze blade and some sort of wooden hilt that looks like it has been chewed.

The Far Walker takes the blade and begin to look rather misty eyed.

"And take care of Hrolf and Enfrew and Vastyr and all the others."

And recovering himself he smiles
"Aye, I will and don't let that sister of yours boss you around too much." and slapping on of Gerans meaty arms he grins
"Tell her she'll answer to Aelfwyrd!"

With those final words Geran walks away to the camp.

The weaponmaster stares into the middle distance long after Geran disappears from view. Turning the Uz blade over in his hand he smiles. They would meet again.

The last they hear is the pained yelps and angry growling as the other uz are kicked awake to begin their journey back to their kin.


Xenophon: "From the beginning the gods did not reveal all things to us, yet through searching we may learn and know things better. But as for certain Truth, no man has known it, nor shall he know it, neither of the Gods nor yet of all the things of which I speak. For even if by chance he were to utter the Final Truth he himself would not know it, for all is but a woven web of guesses."

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