From a rock outcrop on the big hill, Chun-gah watched his camp in the jungle. Pandemonium. Where the vegetation had been cleared he cold see all sorts of people milling around, engaged in all sorts of who-knows-what. Brightly outfitted Aisharians and short, bow-legged Forsung mixed freely with the Kung Sah, all eager to get something from each other that they have never had before. Never mind that they knew not what it was. At least the Forsung knew what they were about, but he had heard that compared with his own people, they were lousy gamblers. He feared that soon some Forsung warrior would get sick of being cheated and draw his sword. So far that hadn’t happened. The Aisharians were drawing the most attention and were freely mixing with his people. They stood out like a tree on a prairie hill that was for sure. Where the Kung Sah were the color of the steppe, the Aisharians were whatever color struck their fancy. Leathers in red and white, and the color of a fruit he had seen in this jungle that the Kung Sah had no word for. And cloth. Common Aisharians would be dressed in colors that glowed compared with his best ceremonial dress. Kung Sah women were not normally taken by the frivolous or the useless, but the Aisharians had awoken something in them. He saw a Kung Sah woman in a bright Aisharian shirt and hoped in his heart that she didn’t cheat someone out of it in a game.
They had seemed aloof and a bit arrogant when they first entered the Kung Sah camp, but that broke down very quickly. It was simply their version of the Kung Sah “Suspicious Eye.” Lack of a common language proved no barrier to trade between their peoples. Aisharian cooking implements became a hot item, and in return Aisharian boys were whooping it up, learning to ride horses from the skillful Kung Sah warriors. Recipes were exchanged and young men and women looked each other over hungrily.
“Quite a mess, isn’t it?”
Chun-gah just about spat his heart out and almost fell off the rock as he wheeled around. “Damn your ancient hide, Yagadai! How do you expect to stay old when you sneak up on people like that?”
Yagadai sat down on the rock with a sigh. “My old bones make too much noise to sneak. You were daydreaming.”
“Daydreaming, my butt!” Chun-gah moved over beside his friend, and they both regarded the mob swirling below them. “I’ve never seen so many people in my life.”
“It’s been a trial for my clan. You remember Xan Kan Su, do you not?”
“Yes. She’s been a midwife for Chieu Hoi. Short little thing.”
“Well, that short little thing almost started a small war. Seems some Aisharian woman was in a hurry and didn’t think little Xu was a real obstacle. Hell, the foreigner was almost twice as tall as Xu, so she might not have even seen her. Anyway, she shoved Xu aside with enough force to push her face down in the mud.”
Chun-gah looked at his friend with a stricken expression. “Oh, no.”
“Oh, yes. By the time it was broken up, Xu was doing her level best to flatten the foreigner’s skull with a leg bone. Damn near did it too. She’s hurt, real bad, but she’ll live. Apparently they’ve got good medicine women there. I was lucky, there were lots of witnesses of both sides and they all agreed that Xu was provoked. I don’t think the foreign woman was very popular with anyone. Anyway, I didn’t have to do anything about it, but Xu was so mad I thought she’d just swell up and burst.”
“I swear, Xu kept the temper of every demon she’s ever slain.”
“Kept? She’s been a war waiting to break out ever since I’ve known her. And I’ve known her all my life.”
“And you’re older than dirt.”
Yagadai laughed and slapped Chun-gah’s shoulder. “I sure feel it today.”
In a hurt some distance from the hill, Xubachu sat cross-legged by their small cooking fire. He stared at the fire in silence, his moustache drooping limply around his mouth. A stout, middle-aged woman sat beside him, looking at him with moist eyes. She reached out a stubby arm and rested her small hand on the man’s arm. “Why you?”
The man shook his head silently. He raised his eyes to meet those of his wife, but could not hold them. He returned to the fire. “The task is a big one. We will go very far.”
“Yes, it is, my husband. I know we have seen many years. I know I will give you children no more, but my husband…” she stopped. The sounds of revelry carried on outside the yurt but could not penetrate the wall of emotion that surrounded the two. Xubachu raised his eyes to his wife’s again and gathered her graying hair in his hand. He squeezed the back of her neck lovingly. “You have many to care for you if I am gone.” He cupped her ear and she pressed her cheek into his palm. “You will not be alone.”
“If you go I will always be alone.” Her gruffness gone. He winced as he saw her naked love for him. She had always been such a strong woman, and now he beheld a terrified little girl.
“You will protect me at night? You will guard me from the shadows?”
She smiled. He saw years melt away from her lined face. “Yes, my husband. No demon will touch your soul.”
Xubachu traced his thumb against her cheek. “Will you protect me from the demons of the great water when I find it?”
“I will fight the water demons ‘till my last breath.”
“Then I will be safe.” He smiled back at her. “I will not fear the dark. And in the light it is I who is feared.”
“I will make you an amulet tonight, my husband. I will join my sisters under the full moon tonight, and when we are done I will make you an amulet. All our power will be in that amulet. The demons will quake at your passing.” Her eyes began to glow as she gratefully grasped the task. “We will celebrate the coming spring and together we touch even the creator. I will use this power.”
“That is good.” He drew her close to him. “Now, let’s think of better things than my journey.”His nose touched hers as he smiled into her eyes. “Let’s remember our youth.”
Children ran and shouted, and people went about their noisy lives, while inside the yurt the years melted like snow beneath the sun.