It was like the vision. The full moon shone high in the sky, its light lengthening the shadows across the cliffs and rocky terrain. There were no drums, however. Only an eerie silence greeted them.
A soft wind blew, its chilling touch caressing her skin. Lisha shuddered, her tail swishing nervously. Something was wrong. She turned to the scouts and Amanii. Their expressions showed they sensed it too.
Lisha leaned against the boulder beside her and scanned the maze of rock formations dotting the landscape. “We should leave,” she whispered.
Amanii nodded. “Orcs have sharp eyes at night, during the day would be better.”
“The Council of Chiefs was too impatient.”
“They’re frightened, young mare,” she replied. “Shoshen’s betrayal is still too shocking to believe.”
Lisha cast her eyes toward the cliffs of the Elder’s Bones. The rocky spire stood defiant and alone amid the rest of the rough terrain. In the moon’s soft light, she saw where a few of its caves lay exposed at a distance.
Lisha placed her right hand on the satchel slung over her shoulder. Amanii was right, Shoshen’s actions left many without words. The Thunderhoof had searched his tent, finding all manner of strange objects and items. There were books, too. But yet, no one could decipher their meaning.
From the objects gathered, Amanii surmised Shoshen had been practicing magic in secret. Amanii and the Windrunners from the other tribes inspected the items. One, a large tusk made of bone, stood out. The patterns carved into it were rigid and crude, staring at the tip.
The disgust on Amanii’s face when she examined the tusk made one thing clear. Shoshen had used it to contact the shadow orcs. She had yet to say how, though.
With the orc tusk in the satchel, Lisha felt the weight of her responsibility for carrying it. A plan was already in the works on how to best use it. Now all they needed to know was their enemy’s numbers.
I can’t believe you guided the orcs to other tribes, Shoshen… Was being a Windrunner worth the lives you sacrificed?
Lisha blinked, seeing the concern written on Amanii’s face.
“Now is not the time to get lost in your head,” she said. “We need to move.”
Cautiously, she and Amanii, followed by the two scouts, moved through the maze of boulders scattered across the landscape. Her heart pounded as she clutched the spear in her left hand. Courage Lisha, she told herself.
Before they cleared the maze, Amanii passed her, raising her hand for them to stop. The old mare peered around the boulder, her eyes widening. “Shadow orcs,” she whispered, pulling back.
Lisha turned to the two scouts. Their faces were blank, but their eyes flared in anger. Amanii glared at them, motioning for them to calm down.
“They have captives,” she whispered.
The path was too narrow for her to peer past Amanii. Lisha strained her ears, listening for how many of her people they had taken. By the clomp of their hooves against the rough terrain, it was at least a dozen.
“Then we must free them!” one scout replied.
Amanii’s expression hardened. “We can’t,” she said. “There are at least four shadow orcs and nine regulars. Even if we could kill them, it would only alert the others.”
“What of your magic, Windspeaker?” the other scout asked. “We could use that.”
Amanii shook her head. “At my age, such incants are too exhausting. The most I can do it mask us. If I were to conjure fire, I might pass out from the strain, or harm one of the prisoners.”
Frustration crawled its way onto his face, but he relented. “Then we report our findings and pray they remain safe.”
Under her breath, the old mare began whispering. Lisha could feel the hair on her arms, coat, and the back of her neck rise. Patiently she watched, trying to hear the words, when Amanii suddenly opened her eyes.
“Come,” she said. “Stay close if you wish to remain unseen.”
The sea of tents never ceased to impress. Lisha stared out, taking it in. Seeing such a sight felt important. Like it needed remembering. Thirty tribes had assembled. Some only had a handful of warriors, while others numbered in the dozens. Regardless of size, all were eager to fight.
Shoshen’s betrayal had unified the tribes present. Stories were already being told and recorded as lessons to pass down to future generations. Some spoke of victory. The thought left her feeling uneasy. They hadn’t found the enemy yet.
“This is because of you, Lisha.”
She turned to Amanii, her motherly smile offering comfort. “But when this is over, everyone will scatter. We will be separate as before.”
“Will we, young mare?” she asked. “Look there, do you see those banners?”
She followed where Amanii pointed, her eyes glimpsing the Raindancer and the Fireheart encampments.
“For decades those tribes have feuded. Each claiming the other encroaches upon territorial boundaries. Now they are allies. Their feud forgotten. Chief Sensoa has offered his daughter to Chief Hoshel’s son as a peace offering. They agreed to share the land equally bordering them.”
“Does that mean the tribes will unite as one?”
“It might,” the old mare replied. “Life is full of change, Lisha, and uncertainty. The important thing is not to doubt yourself. You unknowingly brought peace where even we could not.”
“He doesn’t love My people,” she whispered aloud.
Amani glanced at her, curiosity showing on her face. “What do you mean?”
“One of the times I observed Shoshen, I heard a voice say that. I felt angry, but it wasn’t my anger.”
“You heard the Creator,” Amanii replied reverently. “Felt His anger.”
“What will happen to Shoshen? What fate do you think the Keeper has for him?”
The old mare’s eyes softened. “I don’t know, but remember, young mare, he made his choice,” she said. “He loved his position more than his people. I shudder to think what awaits him.”
Lisha nodded. “We should go,” she said. “The Council of Chief’s awaits.”
They waded through the tents, navigating the dim lighting. Few campfires were lit. The chiefs had ordered them kept minimal. Families ate with families within their tents instead of the traditional tribal gatherings. With the war camp only a couple hours from the Elder’s Bones, too much light on the plain would make them easier to spot.
Upon reaching the Chieftain’s Lodge, Lisha sensed the thick air of expectation hovering around it. She handed her spear to one of the two warriors guarding the canvas entrance. After Amanii had slain Shoshen, the chiefs forbade weapons in their presence.
The scouts that came with them were already inside, and the chiefs of each tribe stood in a circle around the tent. As before, their expressions were blank, but all eyes were on her and Amanii. Lisha looked to her father. Though his face gave nothing, it was hard not to think he was proud of her.
“We have learned much while you were away,” Chatan said. “Shoshen was clever. He could speak the human tongue.” The Thunderhoof chieftain tossed a leather-bound book onto the ground.
“Is there anyone who can read it?” Amanii asked.
One of the chiefs stepped forward. “I can,” he said with anger burning in his eyes.
Lisha stared at the markings on the tunic he wore. None were familiar. He must have only recently joined us.
Lines of the red dyes used on the tunic were sharp and angular. At a glance the pattern was hard to follow, but if you studied the war paint on his face, it all came together. The markings depicted the visage of a bear.
“My people venture into Daeshal occasionally to trade with the Shaylin along the border of The Wood. There are some humans living in these small villages. It was from them I learned to speak their tongue.”
“The leader of these orcs is Kal Zanjin. His tribe hunts our kind and sells them to the tribes within the Berisan Stepps. Shoshen’s writings speak of how he organized a way for them to hunt us, but kept the Wildmane safe from Kal Zanjin as part of the bargain. In effect, his method is similar to how we hunt buffalo. We take only a small portion, so the herd can survive and grow.”
“How did Shoshen even learn to speak the human tongue?” Lisha asked.
Her father stepped forward. “When we were young colts, Shoshen and I found the remains of a wagon caravan. The signs pointed to wolves. We found a survivor, buried in the debris,” he said. “The Wildmane took him in and cared for him. We taught him to speak our words.”
“Shoshen was facinated the human. Neither of us had never seen one before. He wanted to learn everything he could, so in return for saving his life, the human taught him. I never gave it much thought, all of us didn’t. We never saw such a thing as useful.”
“Could Shoshen have learned sorcery from this human?” Chatan asked.
“It’s possible. Shoshen was always scribbling things. Whenever we traded with the Thunderhoof, parchment was something he often requested.”
Lisha’s stomach sank deeper as she listened. Shoshen’s crimes continued to mount, but the weight of them rested on her grandfather. As chief, they would hold him responsible when this was over.
I promise, Grandfather. I will think of something.
“This Kal Zanjin… does the journal say anything of his current plans?” Amanii asked.
“He no longer cares for ‘pruning’ us, as Shoshen wrote it. It seems he has fallen prey to the impatience shadow orcs are known for.”
Chatan furrowed his brow. Lisha could tell that the ‘bear’ chieftain hadn’t disclosed this before. “Noten, did the journal say how many shadow orcs serve Kal Zanjin?”
“No, Wise Chief. It only their numbers were greater than yours.”
Silence settled over the lodge. The news didn’t bode well. To protect themselves, each tribe left warriors at the Thunderhoof settlement. Many wanted to join the war party, but the mares and colts needed protection.
“Lisha,” Chatan said, breaking the silence. “What activity did you and Amanii observe at the Elder’s Bones?”
“It was quiet, Great Chief. There were no signs until we began the trip back. Amanii spotted a group of orcs with a handful of our people held captive.”
“Were they headed to the caves?” he asked.
“Yes, Chieftain. We believe so.”
“Something seems off,” Laka chimed in. “Your vision said they would be there in force.”
“Take care, Laka,” Amanii replied. “Lisha only spoke of what she saw. She has never said they were there. That assumption came from those gathered here.”
“What of the orcs and captives you saw, Windspeaker?”
“I have been thinking. The drums, the fires, the location, and the full moon. There are two more nights when the moon will remain full. Our enemy could be at the Elder’s Bones in force on either of those nights.”
Amanii was right, they were quick to assume the orcs had encamped in the caves. “What if they broke into raiding parties?”
“What do you mean, Lisha?”
“The group we saw, they were few, but had taken captives. The Elders Bones are three days travel from Thunderhoof territory, and your warriors encountered a raiding party west of the settlement.”
“A meeting point,” Laka responded. “They need a place to secure their prisoners. The caves are difficult for us as centaur to navigate because of our size. Two legs like shadow orcs would have an easier time getting in an out.”
One by one each chieftain seemed to realize something, as if each once held a piece of the puzzle but no idea what to do with it. A few whispering among themselves, some nodding in agreement. Chatan appeared patient enough to let them speak, but after a few minutes lifted his right hand, calling for silence.
“It seems now each of us has a larger picture,” he said. “The hour is late, and we have deliberated many things. Each chieftain is to confer with their war bands on any attacks made against the tribes present up to this point. We will use that information to confirm if our enemy is moving toward the Elders Bones.”
Lisha fumbled the orc tusk between her fingers. Amanii had gone to her tent and most of the Wildmane were asleep. She glanced at her own tent. After everything, in the eyes of the chiefs and elders, she was an adult. They had provided her with a place to lay her head.
It was a bit intimidating standing on your own. The more she looked at it, the more of a reminder of how far she it became. I hope I don’t all of you down.
“The weight of the world on such tiny shoulders. How far you’ve come, granddaughter.”
Lisha looked up, her eyes meeting with her grandfather’s. He looked tired and a little worried. “Is this okay?” she asked. “For us to speak like this?”
He drew lip taut, his regrets showing. “It’s past time for this.”
He plodded closer, using his staff for support. “I owe you an apology, Lisha. When your uncle died, I became so bitter. I used the warriors we lost as an excuse to mask my anger. You’ve suffered most for this.”
Lisha put the tusk in her satchel and reached out to him, holding him close. “The past is on the wind, grandfather.”
He softly sobbed, Lisha felt his tears against her cheeks. “You are so much like your mother. She was always the forgiving sort.”
“I always believed the way I was raised was because I was to become a Windrunner,” she replied. “I learned to accept the distance between myself and our tribe. Learning the truth paled to what was ahead.”
He pulled away, wiping his eyes. “Your father and I have spoken. There is peace between us. When we return home, I promise things will be different.”
Lisha smiled, wiping her eyes. “I promise to become a mare you can be proud of, grandfather.”
Coyate smiled, his age lines showing around his eyes. “You already are, Lisha.”
He gave her firm hug and plodded toward his tent. Lisha smiled, fighting back her tears. Amanii was right, peace was brought where none existed before.
She reached into the satchel, feeling around for the tusk, when she felt a sharp sting on her index finger. Lisha winced, pulling hand out, nothing the blood on her fingertip. She felt a warmth emanate from the bag, a soft crimson glow shining through the canvas.
Hesitantly, she reached into the satchel, grabbing the tusk, and pulling it out. The crude markings etched across it were glowing, her blood seeming to fuel it. A chill settled over her like a blanket and she felt a presence enter her mind.
Shoshen, why do you call at such a late hour? Come to beg for your life or perhaps strike a new bargain?
The voice was harsh and guttural. Its tone showing the speaker was the type of person accustomed to being in authority. Their voice also hinted at a lack of respect for life.
Shoshen… No, not Shoshen. Who are you, girl?
Lisha froze, dropping the tusk. The presence faded, and the chill vanished. The tusk continued glowing as it lay on the ground. Cautiously, Lisha stooped down, kneeling just enough on her front legs to pick it up.
The chill and the presence returned.
So, he finally got caught. Harsh laughter followed. No matter, I know what you are up to. I will make you an offer, the only offer your people will get. Serve my tribe and all of you will live. Pay tribute and spare yourselves needless culling. This is the mercy of Kal Zanjin. You have two days; you know where we are.
Lisha stood, fighting to keep her legs from buckling. There would be no surprise attack. No first strike. Their enemy knew, and as the vision showed, they were waiting.