Later, after the runswine had been skinned, the good meat was carefully removed and set aside. The rest, tainted with the oily poison that was the runswine’s natural defense, was stripped from the bones and piled high to feed the carrion insects. Once cleaned, their bones were taken for carving into weapons. Those that were not fit to equip the warriors would be used to make toys for the tribe’s two surviving children.
Everyone was fed as best as possible from the spare, tough meat. It seemed almost a sin that such great creatures should yield so little, leaving barely enough for the high sun meal. The other scouts had returned with some small game, four waterfowl and a pair of large rodents, but they would not suffice for long.
One of the two younglings was named Rael, a precocious boy whose dark skin was naturally ashen. He was still a hundred hot seasons from even being able to scout like Telo, and the neediness of youth was apparent as he whined “I want more!” His mother, Baerd, tried to hush his cries, but his reedy voice rang through the undergrowth.
Sitting not twenty paces away, Waso winced. A dark chuckle sounded behind him, and he rose to see Krese picking his teeth with one of the runswine’s tiniest bones.
“Something amuses you, scout?” Waso asked pointedly, using the title as a reminder that Krese was far from the best of the tribe.
“Nothing is funny about a hungry child, Omdar, ” Krese said, his eyes on the ground. “Perhaps the joke is something else.”
The normal chatter that accompanied a meal died down as all eyes locked on these two. Waso stood, breathing calmly, staring at Krese.
“We are tired and could benefit from mirth,” Waso said simply, turning towards Krese, arms down by his side.
“I scarcely know where to begin. Could it be Omdar Powirre bringing that mannuja into the Gathering Wind?” Krese asked, standing up and tossing the runswine bone aside. “Or perhaps it is how Dusu’s ‘magic’ led so many of us to die? No, I know… maybe it is a ‘tribe’ so small that its leader cannot even get in to see the Council of Omdar, let alone speak as one of their number. For when I consider our pitiful state and the ‘leadership’ of your blood that brought us there, what can I do but laugh?” Krese’s speech was met with stares, and he yelled, “Do not pretend that no one feels as I do!”
A silent, deadly moment passed, until Waso’s lip curled in a wicked smile. Uun-sil moved to go to his side, but he raised a hand in her direction, never taking his eyes off Krese. He allowed the silence and Krese’s labored breathing to build before he spoke.
“I never agreed with my father bringing Dusu into our tribe,” Waso said calmly. “You know that, as does everyone else. I never thought Dusu was good enough to be one of us. I always thought the prophecy, the one that turned out to be true, was a lie.”
After a tense moment, Waso continued, “However, I am Galemren. I am Quiel Yem Vorkanu to my bones. I would never question my omdar in front of the people!”
The last syllable had barely escaped Waso’s lips when his strong fingers closed around Krese’s throat. Waso had covered the twelve paces between them so quickly that gasps remained half-formed by the time the third blow landed on Krese’s face.
“YOU ARE NOTHING COMPARED TO ME!” Waso yelled as he rained punches faster and faster on Krese’s head. “YOU COULD NEVER BE WHAT I AM, WHAT MY FATHER WAS!”
Krese lay stunned as Waso pulled his blade from his waist. Pulling it high, he suddenly saw the shadow of Zako fall across his body. Looking to his right, he saw Apacu as well.
“Vorkanu,” Apacu said quietly, “your blade brothers, as always, stand at your side. Our tribe, however, would be hungrier today without Krese. Would not sparing him show those who consider you too angry to rule that your temper knows compassion?”
Breathing heavily, Waso looked down at the blooded and bruised Galemren face below. He sheathed his blade and stood, glaring around. “It was not my temper, but the righteous anger of Powisienne, for the Father of All has great plans for the Gathering Wind. A glorious future that He whispered into my father’s ear. A future that many of our number died for. A future that I will ensure for us.
“Today I asked a boy for his thoughts, and he fed us all!” Waso yelled. “I am a Galemren who will listen to his blade brothers, his mate, his tribe… but I will be respected! I am Omdar Quiel Yem Vorkanu, and only I can lead us to the glory that the Father has ordained for us!”
He stared into each pair of eyes regarding him before turning to Uun-sil. “He
has need of your talents,” Waso said simply as he walked off past the rocky overhang.
Uun-sil frowned, watching her love recede into the verdant surroundings. She nodded towards Apacu and Zako, who went off after Waso. Turning to the rest of the small tribe, she said loudly, “I will treat the wounds of our brother Krese, and then I must commune with Powisienne to find the path we must follow. Ready the fire for me.”
Many looked at each other, unused to the young girl taking charge. However, as erius, her words carried almost as much weight as the omdar. Without protest, the survivors moved to obey.
Uun-sil kneeled down next to Krese, who was drifting in and out of consciousness, and sighed. “We need you, Krese,” she said softly, wiping his face with a cloth from her waist. “Please do not let yesterday hang so heavy around your neck.”
Down the path, Waso had leapt up to use a low-hanging branch for exercise, pulling himself up and dropping repeatedly to strengthen his arms and chest. He heard Zako and Apacu approaching, thinking, The sound of Zako’s feet on the ground is so strange, hearing it so rarely. Waso let himself fall silently to the ground as they approached.
“This time will pass,” the taciturn Galemren said, his voice hushed like insistent rain in the dead of night.
Waso nodded without turning around.
“Theoni said that her grandmother told her only two other Galemren became omdars as young as you,” Apacu offered conversationally. “Both went on to become legends.”
“One of them is a legend because he led his tribe to be trapped on a cliff side, far from the trees,” Waso said quietly, turning to face them, thin shafts of sunlight penetrating the dense foliage to find his face. “You know as well as I the name Ramit now means the same as ‘fool’.”
Apacu grimaced bashfully. “A clumsy example, but…”
“You are no Ramit,” Zako said simply.
Apacu looked at Zako, surprised to hear the quiet hunter be so good with words. “Well said.”
“I am fine,” Waso said calmly. “I will be fine. I… I am not sinsin…”
“You are Omdar Waso,” Zako said, his voice flat. “We are not broken, so you are not broken.”
“You yearn to be a legend,” Apacu said. “Since we were too small to hunt, you wanted the Gathering Wind to sweep across the Ugoma with you as tip of the spear. We know. We stand with you.”
Waso offered a terse smirk, and Apacu took that as a great encouragement. “Should we return to our people?” the huge Galemren asked.
Waso nodded and came close to smiling as he started to walk back with them.
Uun-sil was just finishing up her divination as they returned. Most of the Gathering Wind huddled around her. She stood and remarked loudly to Waso, “Omdar, we have completed our ritual and await your example.”
Waso raised an eyebrow but said nothing at the subtle implication. Intoning solemnly as he’d often heard his father do, Waso asked, “Where would Powisienne have the Gathering Wind blow?”
Uun-sil simply said, “Omvem-na,” as she pointed to the east and south.
“Scouts said a large Selvanu settlement is less than a melsha in that direction,” Waso recalled. “Dangerous place for our woodland cousins. Perhaps they have need of our protection. We should see if that is the will of Powisienne.”
Wordlessly, the Galemren gathered their scant possessions and began moving silently through the thick jungle.
It was not long before Waso began to understand why the Selvanu resided here. The Ugoma was not a natural settling place for the wood elves, but this particular part of the jungle had grown more to their liking. The trees overhead were called urth morsh ujella, which translated from the old tongue as “tree that traps the sky.” They were rare elsewhere but common in this part of the Ugoma. The tallest Galemren could lie flat on the ground and wouldn’t be half as wide as the trunk of an urth morsh ujella, and they rose higher than twenty Galemren standing on each other’s shoulders. Wide and voluminous networks of branches spread around them, interlocking with the branches and leaves of other trees nearby to create a dense canopy that “trapped” the sky and kept it from the ground below.
Waso admired these silent giants as he walked at the head of the saqu, which followed behind him, each member careful to step where he stepped, both for safety and to disguise their numbers. The sticky Ugoman heat clung to the dark, scantily-clad bodies of the Galemren, but none showed any signs of faltering as they proceeded towards the Selvanu settlement ahead.
The Selvanu had spread far across the face of Asunda, and they could appear as dark as the Gathering Wind or as ghostly as the palest mannuja of Isintarre. According to the scouts, these Selvanu carried the Ugoma’s ebon mark just like the Galemren, but there the similarity stopped. The Selvanu were smaller and leaner, perhaps through birth or perhaps through habit, for the Selvanu were a sedentary people by Galemren standards. They believed very strongly in personal possessions and establishing stable places to live and work, for they followed the same God as the Galemren but believed that Powisienne had made them stewards of the trees, tasked with cultivating the Father’s creations and maintaining harmony with all. Traders, weavers, singers, farmers and artisans, they were known for their complex attire — craftily ventilated against even the most brutal heat — and their well-fortified encampments. Their multi-level villages, built throughout the branches of the urth morsh ujella, could span as far as an hour’s walk in every direction. The village the scouts had spotted was a small one by Selvanu standards, with no more than fifty structures reaching for the skies. To the Galemren, however, such a permanent dwelling seemed unnecessary and unwanted.
As they walked, Waso and his saqu took note of several things, finally approaching an urth morsh ujella three times larger than any other they’d seen that day. At the foot of this massive tree, the Selvanu had woven a series of wooden steps in a spiral around the trunk, allowing one way to ascend. A wide rope ladder, rungs as thick as a Selvanu’s arm, also hung from a platform far above their heads. Finally, an intricately designed cart, carved with symbols to honor Powisienne, was affixed to a series of ropes, wooden pulleys and powerful spikes, attaching it to the root of the tree and the flat wooden surface above which formed the streets of this settlement. A large trapdoor hung open, showing wispy clouds floating by in the sapphire sky.
Three Selvanu Peacekeepers, guards of a sort, sat on extensions of the roots at the foot of the tree. Each one wore ornately stitched robes, all in dull earth tones with pointed hoods shadowing their faces within. They also wore a kind of short pants, stopping at mid calf, and sturdy looking sandals of bound and treated leaves that were strapped to each foot with twine. Each held a long weapon called a seppo kaa that was part halberd and part hammer. As the Gathering Wind approached, the Peacekeepers stood, holding their weapons loosely at one side, not provoked by their tattered looking cousins.
“Hail, Galemren,” said the largest of the three Peacekeepers. “You approach the home of the Children of the Great Glade. What is the purpose of your visit?”
Waso allowed himself a sly half-smile, his throwing axe held backwards and loosely in his left hand, a gesture implying he lacked aggressive intent. “We’ve come to help you, cousins. A visit to help shore up your defenses against terrors in the night.”
The Peacekeepers glanced at each other, and the largest one pulled back his hood, revealing a shaven head and a scar across his right eye. “I do not understand,” he asked as the Galemren drew closer, “what dangers should we be wary of?”
Waso smiled and said nothing, continuing to walk forward.