Night had fallen once the khazstanian emissaries arrived at the Sogghuram tribe's camp, and the air was already filled with screams of wild ecstasy among the orange light of bonfires. The black-bearded dwarves felt even smaller in shade behind the hellish glow, let alone in the presence of the tall, brutish cannibal raiders. Lord Bana'im Ben-Lut was shocked by the sight of naked morghul women, dancing wildly to maddening drum beats. Bana'im had to cover his ears, as he felt the virulent rhythm creep into his spine. His guide, Ibattun, was less offended, for he had become familiar with the morghul customs in his travels through Sogghuram.
The third of their group, Idith, did not look up at all, simply following the footsteps of her husband, Bana'im. She had never seen anything past the border of Urkhazdim, much less such an unabashed display of nakedness and sorcery. Only once did she raise her eyes to observe her surroundings. The first thing she saw was a powerfully built warrior, staring at her passing by. His shoulders were broad, thick legs rooted to the ground, yellow eyes burning in the dark, black hair braided down his back, and two large fangs protruding from his bottom lip. Idith pictured those fangs ripping and tearing into khazstanian flesh. After the warrior, she spotted a sorceress, mixing potions and chanting spells. Her belly was full with a child, and painted with magic symbols of her race. Idith clutched the seams of her silk robe that protected her from head to toe.
The three stopped at the central bonfire, where stood another warrior, even larger than the first, with regal bearing of many furs. His black hair and beard wreathed around his face like a dark lion. He acknowledged the presence of the khazstanians, but paid little heed as he indulged in the succulent meat on the table by the fire. What kind of meat, Idith wondered.
"My Lord," said Ibattun, "may I introduce you to Qi Shizi, Khan of the Sogghuram clan. And if I may inform my Lord of the naming conventions, Shizi is--"
"No need," said Bana'im. "I'm here for trade, not for cultural studies. Tell the Khan that I am interested in the norvolk steel he procured from his rivals up north." Ibattun did as his Lord instructed, and acted as a translator between the two.
"Eat," said Shizi, motioning them to sit across from him.
"Are there no vegetables in this land?" said Bana'im. "I can't tell if this meat is horse, or qilin, or..." Bana'im lifted a charred steak dubiously.
"Oh, fear not, my Lord," said Ibattun. "I am certain the meat is of lesser beasts. We would know if they served up a plate of morghul flesh. The victory celebrations would be wild and bloody."
"Wilder than this?"
"This is merely for a bountiful hunt. I believe they recently dispatched a mighty qilin, as you can see from the ivory horn near the Khan. No, a combat victory would be met with a parade of severed heads and public orgies." Idith shook her head and covered her ears.
"Quit cowering, woman," Bana'im barked. "Depending on how trade talk progresses, this may be your new family." Idith remained silent, breathing deeply to suppress the fear that a new custom may bring. She couldn't bear the thought of exposing herself as shamelessly as the fanged, painted sorceress she saw before.
"Great Qi Shizi," said Ibattun, "my Lord hails from House Lut, and his father bestowed upon him the name Bana'im. Lut is renowned for its innovative works to the infrastructure of Urkhazdim, your neighbor. But alas, my Lord cannot complete the full vision of his dream, for that which he needs is unatainable by our--"
Shizi crashed his palm down onto the table. "What do you want?" he growled. Bana'im pulled Ibattun close.
"I don't know what you're telling him, but you're wasting my time and his. Steel! I want norvolk steel!"
Ibattun continued. "Your mighty warriors took the unbreakable material from Turrkhan, which they took from the norvolk of Vanalund."
"Steel." Shizi's mouth spread into a wide, sharp grin. "Kaoh! Come." Shizi ordered one of his warriors to stand next to him, weilding a massive, steel topped maul. Idith recognized him as the same warrior she found along the way. "You are foolish, Kaoh. The shaft will break upon your first blow. Like this!" Shizi chopped his hand down the maul's thin, wooden shaft with a ferocious cry, and it snapped in two. He handed the plain wooden stick back to Kaoh. "Play with that."
"Is he angry?" asked Bana'im. Shizi placed the hunk of metal that was once the warrior's hammer on the table.
"I will barter with this weight," said Shizi. "No more than that."
"You ought to be worth that much at least," Bana'im said to Idith. "The look on your face!" he laughed in response to her widened eyes. "Silver and gold comes first. I won't let you go so easily for the price your father gave you."
"My Lord, the morghul tend not to value--"
"I will call on you when I need it, Ibattun. For now, tell the Khan my price." Bana'im emptied his purse onto the table, pouring silver coins between the plates of charred meat. "One-hundred pieces of silver." Shizi looked bemused at the table. He reached forward, as if to pluck a coin from the pile, but instead picked a haunch of meat, and ripped into the sinewy flesh with his large fangs.
"Useless," he said. "Speaker, ask the son of Lut if he takes me for a sorceress, picking flowers and gemstones for women's spells."
"The Khan says he places no value on silver and gold," said Ibattun. Bana'im scoffed, stroking his thick, black beard while Idith demurely placed each silver piece back in her husband's purse.
"Very well. Let's offer him something that can't simply be pillaged." Bana'im reached into his larger pack, and revealed a wondrously simple contraption of khazstanian make. It was cone shaped with a clean, glass eye at the wide end of the bronze tube. Shizi was again disinterested, shrugging his shoulders.
"We offer you, great Khan, the gift of far sight," said Ibattun.
"I told you, I have no interest in sorcery."
"The Khan is indeed strong, and has no need for women to aid him, but we give you khazstanian craftsmanship which can be used with a flick of the wrist." As Ibattun sold the item, Bana'im demonstrated, bringing the scope to one eye and closing the other. Ibattun passed it from Bana'im to Shizi. "This is no more magic than the bow and arrow. You may see your enemies passing over the hill from miles away, and even count the archers from the infantry."
"By Fol, it works!" said Shizi.
"We are pleased. Is it a deal?" asked Ibattun.
"Not yet. I'm not ignorant to the crafty nature of khazstanians. You will take this steel and disect it like a hunter skins a qilin. You will learn the secret which the norvolk have guarded for generations, and create machinations the world has never seen - weapons and crafts that could forge an empire." Ibattun spoke haltingly as he translated, yet Bana'im remained calm.
"That's no secret," said Bana'im. "You want a trade with more permanency. A safeguard, yes?"
"Khazstanian flesh," said Shizi. Bana'im laughed, pulling Idith close to his side.
"And here I thought we had different taste! I think you'll find khazstanian women to be the most willing flesh. Go on, Idith." Bana'im slapped her rear like a horse, ushering her toward Shizi. "Your children will be like my nephews. Is that protection enough?" Shizi smirked, flaring a single fang from the side of his mouth as he nodded.
"Wine!" he shouted to his tribe. "A great hunt and a fair trade, all in a single night."
"You will love it, Lord," said Ibattun. "The drink is like alsaebier, but sweet like fruit." They recognized the warrior, Kaoh, as he handed filled cups to Idith and the men.
"It is a long journey back to Urkhazdim," said Bana'im. He brought the cup to his lips, and guzzled the entire cup before he even realized it. "By my ancestors, I think I know what trade will come next! Wine, you said?" Shizi pointed to Bana'im's cup, and Kaoh refilled it to the brim. Idith hadn't even uncovered her mouth from behind her veil.
"You are no slave. Drink," said Shizi. Idith timidly unveiled her lips and took a sip from the cup, keeping her arm close to her body. She took a second sip, then a longer gulp of the wine. Having satisfied her new husband's hospitality, she put down the cup and clutched her former husband's purse of silver coins, hidden underneath her robe.
"You're much cleverer than those men give you credit for," said Shizi. Idith was paralyzed for a moment, gripping the hidden silver even tighter. "You understand the tongue of my people. Neither of them know, do they?" Ibattun and Bana'im were now far from earshot, drinking and reveling with the morghul men.
"They do not know," said Idith in broken Sogghurese.
"You must have learned from the written word you khazstanians love so much. Tell me, what do your precious symbols and letters say about my people?"
Idith paused. "They say you are savage people." She waited for his angry response which never came. Instead, Shizi listened with bemusement. "Your people are the mightiest fighters this side of the world, next to the norvolk of Vanalund. A morghul archer on horseback is without peer. No other race commands the steppes with such speed and ferocity as you..."
"Yes, go on."
"Please, my Khan, I would not insult you with my ignorance," she said. Shizi responded with a deep scoff.
"Apparently they teach nothing of morghul culture. Didn't I say you were no slave?"
"You have bought me as a wife."
"I traded steel for flesh, then for some reason the dwarfish lord shoved you to my side. Does the word 'flesh' mean something different to you as it does to us?"
"I am unsure..." Idith's composure fell quickly as the idea of her fleshly worth drove her to fiery anger, spitting hot curses in her own language. "If only I could smash that brick over Bana'im's head as he slept! I would have struck again, and again, and again! He is no man, but a pig, trading me like a goat. What I wouldn't give to see morghul teeth rip the muscle from his skin, and a dagger slice across his bearded neck."
"Whatever you said, the air about you tastes of blood. That was the sound of a killer's promise, regardless of language. You make my heart pump like no woman has excited in me before. If you would take me as your husband, I would consider myself lucky."
"Take you?" Idith was certain she misheard. "Have you not already taken me?"
"You are no slave, deaf woman. Are my words not clear? Need I call your speaker?"
"The scribes spoke nothing of the relationship between morghul men and women. I had assumed they were objects of pleasure, the way they flaunt their bodies so freely."
"My people are not so complicated as yours. The men rule the men, and the women rule the women. It's as simple as that. You see the men adorned in feathers, furs and horns because their power comes from their prowess. Only a warrior can judge another warrior, and they wear their pride on their sleeves. For a woman, however, her power comes from within. She is the creator of life, and weaver of the Earth's energies. What use has she for rags and furs?"
"Is she not vulnerable to a lustful man?"
Shizi shook his head. "Only a weak man takes advantage of a woman. They don't survive long here. Whether at the hand of a friend or the victim herself, he dies like a lame horse." Idith eyed Bana'im as she listened. When she looked back to Shizi, she noticed he was also staring at her former husband. "But if by some chance he goes unpunished, he will be discovered one morning, beheaded in his sleep. Then the clan knows that Fol came swiftly in the night to claim vengeance."
Idith almost felt captured by his gaze. His eyes yellow eyes reflected the crackling bonfire, and everything surrounding his face seemed to disappear into darkness.
"I have heard that name before," she said.
"What do your scribes say of Fol, father of all morghuls?" Idith shook her head, never breaking her gaze.
"Nothing." All that existed now was Idith and Shizi. She couldn't move, mesmerized by his words like a snake to a mystic's flute.
"Fol is neither man, nor beast, nor god. He is a devil, and Khan of all Morghulia, running the circumference of its border in a single day. By dawn he reaches west, at midday he reaches north. By dusk he crosses east, and south by night. Fol has the body of a horse, but the torso of a man. There are the great claws of a cat where hooves might be, and his legs are mighty to carry him at untold speed. His arms are as thick as a qilin's feet, with taloned fingers to grasp his prey as swiftly as the hawk.
Out from his shoulders extend two cobras who whisper in his ears. One tells the truth and the other lies, but he cannot tell which. Fol is paranoid by nature, and lets no one ride on his back, as he cannot trust either of the serpents who can see behind. Fol's head is like that of a lion, for which my people gained our own fangs. If you ask the morghuls of Turrkhan, they would say his head is like a tiger, but they are wrong. The Ventam claim he is like a bull, and the Xiadi claim he is like a hawk. They attempt to shape Fol into the image of their own clans' totemic aspect.
But we've done nothing of the sort. You'll see for yourself when he comes tonight. Tonight we make offerings to Fol, and he will be appeased that, despite our victories, we still fear and respect him."
"Offerings?" Idith tried to shake the dizziness from her brain, but the area surrounding Shizi became darker and darker as his eyes remained fixed on hers.
"The same offering we traded for norvolk steel." Shizi grinned. "Khazstanian flesh." A jolt sparked through Idith's spine. She stood up and broke her gaze from Shizi, adjusting her eyes to the dark. Kaoh and the other warriors were no longer where they once were. Every morghul man and woman gathered around a crude shrine of rock and bone. The drum beats which pervaded the air now became more wild and furious. A chorus of chanting, roaring and screaming resounded in rhythm with the drums.
Shades of female forms in the fire light painted symbols on the bare chests of warriors, chanting spells of some vile nature. The men were like statues, not moving a muscle until the women completed their ritual, and made invitations to their bodies. Idith saw one man impatiently take a sorceress by the waist and bosom, only to be met with a dagger in the eye. The bloodshed was followed by howls of victory, as another weakling had been dispatched from the clan.
Two severed heads rose high above the crowd, impaled upon vertical pikes. One's face exuded some former wisdom, eyes now stricken with shock. The other was like that of a black-bearded pig, staring dumbly into emptiness. Idith was speechless at the sight of Bana'im and Ibattun, blood trickling down the sticks beneath their necks. She could think of nothing else to do, but take her silver and run. Run as if dogs were biting at her heels.
"My horse!" Shizi cried. Idith didn't look back. Whether as a wife or the next meal, she would not survive in this land. They tasted khazstanian flesh. It would only be a matter of time before they wanted more. She would be next. A forest lay just ahead to hide in. Her stocky legs could only carry her so quickly. If she could just reach civilization. Silver could buy her salvation, but not from these barbarians of Sogghuram.
She reached the shade of the trees. The pounding of hooves followed close behind her. Idith held her breath. Her heart was ablaze when she thought of the Khan's mighty grip taking her by the neck. The air was still for a moment, save for the snorting of the horse. Idith closed her eyes, wishing the darkness would swallow her for just a moment. With a horrified whinny, the rider finally lead his horse away, back to the safety of the clearing.
If this was indeed Qi Shizi, Idith wondered, what could possibly terrify the very horse which he lead into countless battles? She stayed down, breathing slowly and silently, listening intently for even the slightest shifting of a leaf. A cold wind blew overhead, and the low, quiet rumble of thunder sounded far in the distance. Idith still refused to raise her head. Again, the thunder rolled, louder and much closer this time. It sounded to her like the hungry growl of a god. Then, less than an inch away from her body, Idith felt the ground quake as some creature crashed all four of its powerful limbs around her. Its claws dug into the earth, spelling doom for the helpless khazstanian.
Every urge told her not to look up - not to look the thing in the eye, but to no avail. Idith turned her head up toward the creature above her. She froze when she saw it, becoming stiff as a marble pillar.
Written by RCainTales