Rangee smiled as he watched Handus stare around the tent anxiously. The young Rauder had never before been in the presence of so many chiefs and lieutenants, and was nervous that he might bring embarrassment to the Snow Wind tribe. He was trying to study their faces and match up names and tribes, but clearly didn’t know more than two or three of the other tribes. Introductions were not appropriate in this setting. Chiefs and lieutenants were expected to know one another; asking a chief who he was, or even explaining to someone who he was deemed an insult, as it implied that the chief was not important enough to know about beforehand. Indeed, everyone seemed to know everyone else well enough and there were many background conversations murmuring simultaneously. Only he and Handus and two others at the far end of the meeting tent were not socializing.
Rangee noticed Handus staring at those other two; they seemed to hold the rest of the gathering in disdain. Perhaps the feeling was mutual for no one ventured within six feet of those two, and this was not a very large tent. Rangee knew who they were and Handus probably suspected; and that would only serve to make him more nervous. Rangee put a reassuring hand on Handus’s knee.
“Remain calm, Handus. Be a stone, silent and strong.”
“There are many here I do not know, Rangee. I would bring shame to speak without addressing the chiefs by name.”
“Then do not speak. You are neither a chief or a lieutenant; no one expects you to speak as one. I am the emissary of the Snow Wind; this council is at my request, and I alone will speak for the tribe.”
“Then why did you bother to bring me?” asked Handus.
“To carry my body back to the tribe, should this council go ill. And to tell Lollanna that my last thoughts were of her.”
“It was wrong of you not to let her know you are alive.”
“You are the only one who knows, Handus.”
“That was wrong, too. It’s not right to fool and entire tribe. And you erased the memories of Mandus as well, and he is the one who revived you!”
“Quiet,” said Rangee. “You grow too excited and we need calm minds to do our work here. I could not let anyone know. Kratia is a suspicious witch and if she got even a hint of me being alive, her wrath would be terrible. I did what I had to for the protection of the tribe. And the Taka Shema.”
Handus did not reply and could not endure the intensity of Rangee’s stare. Rangee watched the young man turn his gaze back to the two outcasts at the back. Clearly, he was wondering if they were the leaders of the Death Blood tribe. As if sensing the attention both of the unnamed leaders turned their way and for a moment their gazes locked together. The Death Blood leaders had eyes like black pits, cold and empty of all feelings. Handus broke the gaze and deliberately turned to watch the leaders of the other tribes, who were beginning to break off their talks. Rangee did not avert his gaze, and stared straight at the foreign chief until the line of sight was broken by intervening chiefs and lieutenants moving to take their places around the central fire.
The hastily constructed shelter was somewhat crowded and not all the smoke from the fire went out through the hole in the roof. It swirled among the rough cut timbers and the tautly stretched skins that made up the tent and circled the heads of the leaders of the twelve tribes. Through the blue-gray swirls Rangee could make out faces well enough and the markings of particular to each tribe.
Rangee felt Handus jump as he started a spell; Rangee squeezed Handus’s leg to let him know not to resist. Rangee entered his mind and quickly filled in the names to match the faces and the tribes. Six of the names and faces Handus already knew: Hengis and Sorvatte, chief and lieutenant from the Fire Horse tribe that roamed between the branches of the Mauser; Tsuoka and Rabiz of the Thunder Hoof tribe that held sway northeast of the Mauser; Kroffe and Pazralir from the Mountain Rock tribe in the hills and mountains of the northern Jastic range.
The faces that he didn’t know flashed with brief intensity through his mind. Cerandi and Dorak of the Moon Shadow tribe from the foothills of the Northeast Mountains; Jadhipok and Denskold of the Earth Shakers in the far away Sethmere Mountains; Nialakan and Nandez of the Big Water tribe along the northwest coast; Lysimachus (the most ancient and revered of the chiefs) and his lieutenant Kendelssohn of the Pale Sun tribe that made its home in the smoky interior of the far peninsula; Iridell and Millicar (of whom he had heard but never met) from the small Demon Hunter tribe that roamed without fixed homes through the grassy plains north of the Glorian; Noizath and Sinus of the River Watch tribe that patrolled the banks of the Khios river that cut across most of the far peninsula; Eriador and Staggar of the Tree Mist tribe that kept watch between the tributaries of the Glorian.
Two more faces briefly flashed in his mind—the strangers at the far end of the tent whom others moved quickly away from as they took a seat in the circle around the fire. Rangee’s thoughts remained fixed on them even after he had imparted the knowledge of them into his aide’s mind. Kungtsu, chief of the Death Blood tribe, and Yutaux, his lieutenant. Like the Demon Hunters they made no fixed homes, but unlike the other tribes they set no boundaries on their territory. They roamed as nomads wherever they chose, taking whatever they needed by raids. Often as not, they raided other Rauder tribes. They usually succeeded; they were fast and powerful even by Rauder standards, and they embraced combat for its own sake. They seldom had any cause or goal other than their immediate needs.
One even more distinctive difference seprated the Death Blood from the other tribes. Despite their violence, all the tribes save one cherished life and worshipped the spirits of creation. The Death Blood worshipped death, and no adult spoke to their horses. In battle they took no prisoners and even their wounded were expected to heal themselves. The primary measure of status was the number of kills, especially if the foe was powerful. Rangee suppressed a shudder. There were horrible stories about the habits of the Death Blood, stories he had not shared in the mind meld with Handus.
Rangee rose, took a pinch of powder from the pouch around his belt and sprinkled it on the fire. It sparkled, releasing an acrid smell that was carried by the smoke throughout the large tent.
“I am Rangee, emissary of the Snow Wind. I greet all the noble leaders of the Rauder tribes and give thanks that all could answer the summons to this council.” Rangee drew a deep breath then began the arduous task of convincing twelve divergent tribes to unite for a common cause.
“Some of us are old enough to remember the Wizards War, when the twelve tribes decided to unite our forces to overthrow the armies of the Dark Lord, whose name I will not speak. Each tribe, powerful in itself, became part of an even more powerful force when united with the other tribes. None of the Dark Lord’s forces could stand against us. In the end we triumphed and the evil one was destroyed. Thus we paid homage to the Elves, who had fallen at the hand of the Dark Lord. And we preserved our freedom, which surely would have changed to bondage had the Dark Lord triumphed.
“All of us know the legend that portends the return of the Elves, who will be delivered by the Taka Shema. The ancient treaties and ties of friendship that bound us to the Elves demand that we give aid to the Taka Shema, should he appear in our lifetime.” Rangee paused, sighed heavily.
“Assembled leaders of the twelve tribes, there has arisen a servant of the Dark Lord who would continue to work his evil plans. And there has appeared the Taka Shema, who will deliver freedom to the Elves and death to their persecutors!” Rangee began to shout amid the growing murmurs. “It is our duty to help the Taka Shema and to oppose the servants of the Dark Lord! As we did in the past, we must unite the tribes and ride forth to do battle!”
Noizath rose and the others quieted as he stared at them. He turned to Rangee and spoke. “Rangee, a danger as great as you claim would surely have been sensed across the world. Yet in my travels there has been no hint of any growing unrest, no lurking dangers. Let me remind you that Salmineria is more than just Condeu and Mileu.” He sneered. “A threat to your friends to the south doesn’t mean the end of the world.”
“The Dark Lord moved so silently, so carefully that Aloria had fallen and half the world with it before anyone knew things were amiss,” answered Rangee. “There were signs, but they were ignored until it was nearly too late. We must not ignore the signs now!” “What signs? What is your evidence?” challenged Noizath. Many murmurs of assent followed the question.
“A good and fair question,” said Rangee. “Let me tell you what I have. First, let us consider the matter of the Taka Shema. Legend has it that the Taka Shema will be both a warrior and a wizard of great skill, and that he will carry with him the fate of the Elves. Is this a fair summary of the legend?” Rangee asked of the assembly. None disagreed.
“Then know this: although the one called Billy Takashema is not of Salmineria, he is a skilled warrior, for he defeated my lieutenant, Mandus, in fair fight. He is a wizard as well, for I have entered his mind and seen his memories and reviewed his spells.”
Before Rangee could continue, Iridell interrupted. “Memories can be misleading. Even faked. Your review tells us nothing except that he thinks of himself as a wizard. The thinking can be very different from the being.”
Another Rauder stood and said, “I am Eriador, Chief of the Tree Mist. Billy Takashema is a wizard. I challenged him to a wizard’s duel and he bested me. So thoroughly that I had to talk to my horse. And though I have no direct memory of the battle, my lieutenant will vouch for the accuracy of my words.”
Staggar stood said, “I was there. It is exactly as Eriador described. The outworlder is the Taka Shema.” He sat down, as did Eriador.
Kroffe stood and spoke. “Takashema did defeat Mandus of the Snow Wind tribe. I was watching from the cliffs above the ford of the Mauser. The man in black moves as fast as the wings of a bird, and his blows land like rocks hurled from an avalanche.” Kroffe sat.
“Perhaps most importantly, Billy was seen riding with an Elf,” continued Rangee. “He carries with him a box that carries the souls of the Elves. He marches to the northern pole to enter the cusp of the Blue Crystal and there free the Elves from their bondage!”
There were signs of further argument starting, but Kendelssohn rose and the other leaders quieted. “Chiefs, my master reminds me that Rangee’s argument had two major premises. Only one, the Taka Shema, has been voiced. What of the other premise; the rise of a servant of Murgorath?”
The tent grew silent at the voicing of the name. All eyes turned back to Rangee as Kendelssohn sat down.
“The name of the dark one’s servant is Kratia,” said Rangee. “It is she that commands the box that holds the Elves; it is she that has trained the Reps to act as her agents of terror, it is she that builds up armies that will soon unleash war. First upon Condeu, then Mileu, then the rest of Salmineria. She is a witch of unspeakable menace and holds great skill and power. I battled her in a wizard’s duel, and was utterly defeated and killed. Were it not for the fast action of Mandus, I would have joined my ancestors.” Rangee paused and looked at Eriador. “I too, had to speak with my horse, and though I do not remember my defeat and my death, I know that Kratia caused them. She is dangerous, too dangerous to ignore. We cannot risk letting her grow any more powerful.”
Iridell shook his head. “There have been wars in the lower nations before, Rangee. Also panics over what would happen to the balance of power. I’m sure that centuries ago, when the legions of Purgatorius overran the Ch’Kiang kingdom, people were certain that the Emperor Tiberius would go on to conquer the entire world. But it didn’t happen. Nations rise and fall all the time. None of it matters to us. The southern nations don’t covet the northern plains or the far peninsula where we make our homes. And if they did, it would make no difference. The southerners are soft, and can’t fight worth a damn. Few humans can. This is no different. And as for the Taka Shema – I remember a former chief of the Snow Wind making a similar claim. But Desna was no Taka Shema, for he never returned from the cusp. The Crystal can defend itself, so I feel no need either to help or to hinder your latest Taka Shema. But going to war – that is a great commitment, Rangee. And I think a needless one.”
Hengis jumped up, hands on his hips and a scowl on his face. “I think Iridell should sit down and be silent, for it shames me to hear a Rauder hide behind words. Have the Demon Hunters forgotten how to fight? One would think so, for all their skill seems now to be wrapped up in wordy arguments that justify doing nothing. How the gods must be laughing and our ancestors crying at our follies. Well, the Fire Horse tribe takes this seriously, and we stand with Rangee.” The shuffling of his furs as Hengis sat down was clearly audible in the stunned silence.
Iridell face darkened with rage, and it was clear a challenge was soon to be made. Rangee noticed smiles on both the faces of Kungtsu and Yutaux, but a sharp division of the tribes was exactly what had to be avoided. “Iridell,” said Rangee softly. “I believe you have good points that need to be considered. War is not to be entered into lightly. We must consider the effects of our decisions and do our best to choose that which seems right.
“We only have two choices: to go to war or not. Let me briefly describe what I believe to be the possible outcomes of each decision based on the truth or falsehood of my claims.
“First, we can choose not to go to war. If Kratia is not following the footsteps of Murgorath, then her actions will most likely come to nothing, and we go on just as we do now. However, if Kratia is a true threat, and succeeds in fulfilling the conquests planned by the Dark Lord, then we greatly weaken our future security by doing nothing now. A united army of the south would destroy twelve separate fractured Rauder tribes, no matter how much better we are as individual fighters. They outnumber us a hundred fold.
“With respect to the Taka Shema, if he is the true Taka Shema and we do not aid him, then he will most likely fail, and the Elves will never be freed. If he is not the Taka Shema and we do not aid him, things go on as they do now. In short, if we do not go to war, the best we can do is stay the way we are now. But the worst that can happen is that we put ourselves in grave danger and condemn the Elves to eternal punishment.”
Rangee paused, his eyes probing the audience before continuing. Iridell was still angry, but was listening to the argument closely enough that an immediate duel with Hengis was growing more unlikely.
“So, what if we do go to war? If Kratia is not the danger I think she is, then she will fall all the faster, and we take some booty along the way.” There were several nods. “If she is a serious threat, then we have forced her hand sooner than she planned, and strengthened our defenses at her expense. There may be casualties, but far less then if we let her set the timing of the attacks. With respect to the Taka Shema, if he is true, then our actions will aid him in freeing the Elves, breaking the tyranny of the Crystal. And we honor the ancient treaties with our friends and allies. If he is not the Taka Shema, then it is of no consequence, for we have lost nothing and gained both booty and excitement in our battles!”
There were more thoughtful nods. Then Lysimachus stood, his muscles and stature undiminished by his hundred years of age. His voice was strong as he spoke. “Rangee speaks with wisdom, though if anything he underestimates the dangers that we face if he is correct. The Pale Sun rides with Rangee.” The old chief remained standing, and looked around expectantly. Kendelssohn rose and stood next to his chief.
Tsuoka stood and said simply, “The Thunder Hoof tribe rides with Rangee.” His lieutenant rose and they too remained standing. Hengis and his lieutenant stood and vowed to join. The Tree Mist and Mountain Rock tribes also rose and joined Rangee. The remaining six tribes remained sitting, though Rangee noticed some of them cast repeated brief glances at the Death Blood leaders.
“Kungtsu,” said Rangee. He kept his voice calm. “I would ask that you share your thoughts on this matter with the council.”
Kungtsu rose and walked directly towards Rangee. The Death Blood chief ignored the heat of the central fire and its flames that licked at his furs, leathers and bare skin. He stopped a foot away from Rangee.
“I will not follow a chief who has twice been bested by Muchuckla,” he said. The scorn in his voice was palpable, and the use of the derogatory term ‘Muchuckla’ for people who were not Rauders was an insult. Literally translated, it meant ‘bags of mucus’.
“Kungtsu, I have honored the tradition of stepping down as chief following two successive defeats. Mandus is now chief of the Snow Wind. But that does not change the facts that I have presented, nor relieve us of the need to choose our path of action.”
Kungtsu sneered. “You are Muchuckla, too,” and started to turn away.
“Kungtsu,” said Rangee coldly.
The Death Blood chief turned around. Rangee spit on his face. “That is how a Muchuckla thinks of a coward.”
Rangee never thought a living being could move so fast; Kungtsu was on him in an instant, the breath knocked out of him as the two of them hit the dirt floor of the tent. Kungtsu paused just a moment to withdraw a dagger from a sheath on his arm, and Rangee seized the moment to fight back with a powerful kick to the groin. Kungtsu grimaced but withdrew the dagger and lunged. Rangee was pinned, but thrashed enough that the blade missed his heart and only punctured a lung. He managed to get one arm free and struck out stiff fingered at Kungtsu’s exposed throat. The fingers smashed the larynx and blood trickled from the chief’s mouth. Kungtsu withdrew his dagger and stepped back, unable to draw a breath. Still holding the dagger menacingly, he grabbed a power wand with his other hand, and began working a healing spell. Rangee moved forward, kicked the dagger out of the way, and moved in with a spell of his own, forcing the suffocating chief to engage in a wizard’s duel. The advantage was quickly secured, but the Death Blood chief refused to yield; he slipped into unconsciousness, dying on the floor in a pool of blood.
Rangee withdrew from the dying man’s mind, and was about to cast a healing spell on his fallen opponent when he felt a restraining hand on his power wand. He looked over to see Yutaux holding the other end of his wand. “Kungtsu is dying, do not rob him of his honor,” the lieutenant said. “I am chief now, and the Death Blood shall follow Rangee.”
The remaining tribes joined in short order, and the logistics of the combined army were slowly hammered out.