The salt flats. Week two of month Frostdream (late winter).
The desert winds seemed hushed. Normally, they howled and skipped through the yurts of the Cazadore pride. Today the lion-like nomads had settled on a rocky bluff overlooking the expanse of the salt flats. To the far north, the outline of some of the desert mesas were just shadows in the distance. To the west, the horizon was marked by the peaks of the Skydagger Mountains. In the south and east was the nothing but desert, marked only by the occasional boulder, the white spill of salt build up from the spring floods, or a few lonely cacti. Odd copses of the twisted trees of the desert were here and there, and would only bloom in the spring and early summer before the leaves burned off in the heat. A group of these trees stood outside the yurts and near the gathering of burros they used as dray animals.
The boy, officially a man on this day, though his mane had just begun to sprout in a brown fuzz around his neck, put on his simple leather armor. His mother, who tried to hide her tears and occasional mournful yowling, buckled the breastplate tightly as his two sisters and younger brother ceremonially tied greaves onto his shins and vambraces on his forearms. Each piece had strips of metal through it to add strength but none as much as the helm. It was blue and white dyed leather, as was the rest of the armor, built up high over the ears with slits to allow hearing, a long nasal bar to fit across the top of the muzzle. His new war claws had been sharpened by his father, Drakefang Lawwnum, who was now casting him out. The war claws were circular pieces of bone that fit in the palm of the hand with a long slashing blade coming from one side and small curved blades coming through the gaps between the fingers of the fist simulating claws. They allowed the Cazadore warrior (and all Cazadore considered themselves warriors) to slash or stab with each hand.
The young male of the Lawwnum Pride could feel the wind building to a storm. He hadn’t earned an actual name yet, but his nickname was Breeze because of his love of the desert winds. All Cazadore are named based on their deeds, and so far, he had none of note. He could always feel the wind and was touched by the element of air but had so far made little progress in controlling it. As a sorcerer, he was being put out of the tribe earlier than he would have been otherwise. Sometimes spellcasters can challenge for dominance earlier because of their magic, but it was difficult to use wind in that way. There were legendary figures who could call down the storms, use air as battering rams or control lightning, but so far all Breeze could do was create little dust devils in the sand. When bards visited the pride, he always pushed them for the tales of those titans like Windhammer Methagan or the legendary Stormcaller Lawwnum who was reputed to be in their family line.
His mother, Keennose Lawwnum, was arguing again with his father. She was getting louder and louder, even yowling and spitting between words with all the hair on her back standing straight out. Her claws were extended, and she was leaning forward, yelling right into his face, gesturing wildly. When Drakefang put his arm on her shoulder, she slashed his face with her natural claws. He roared, and they tumbled around the camp for a moment until it ended with his fangs wrapped around her throat in the traditional posture of dominance. She relaxed and made a pitiful yowl.
Once he let her up, the tall, slim felinoid walked over to her son who was almost her height and hugged him close. Her eyes were downcast, and she spoke softly, “Hunt well, take good care, and be watchful of others. Many other races are not so honorable as the Cazadore. Do not let them trick you! Use the winds to bring scents to your nose. You are the scion of pride leaders, so do not be afraid!” She gently clawed his face after releasing the hug. She sniffled for a moment, her eyes overflowed with tears, and she turned her face away.
Eyes watering, he flashed his claws at her cheek, pulling up just before striking, and hugged her again. Each of his two sisters got powerful hugs and playful bats with his claws getting the same in return from them. His younger brother, they called him Spits because of the way he slobbered when he was angry, handed over a pack filled with dried meats and supplies. Their claws flashed up to each other’s faces stopping just short of the skin in the traditional Cazadore greeting and farewell gesture. His little brother, still only waist high but growing fast, sniffled and wiped a tear out of the fur coving his cheek. They hugged tightly, and then it was time to leave.
“I’ll be joining you in just a few years brother! Find a good pack and we shall take over the desert!” his younger brother called up to him as Breeze shouldered his pack.
Breeze smiled down at the cub, “We will! And we will do it together” he ruffled the boy’s hair and looked over towards his father sadly.
Drakefang’s faced bled from two slash marks, so mother had not surrendered easily. His huge brown eyes bored into those of his son as their clawed fingers flashed upwards towards each other’s faces. Both stopped just before making contact. The elder Cazadore nodded his magnificently maned head and clapped the younger male on both shoulders. “Go earn your name boy. Greatness awaits.” He watched the younger male carefully as this was often the time when they would challenge the older for control of the pride. Breeze had no such ambition and walked off into the salt flats with the music of the wind filling his ears.
Drakefang, the huge elder male Cazadore, a lion man with short golden fur covering his body except for his long brown mane that was blowing in the wind, roared to the sky as he watched his son depart. Breeze knew that, to look back now would be taken as a challenge for the pride. Breeze kept his eyes trained forward on the path ahead, but he could recall every detail of his father’s appearance. Beaded leather armor covered much of his father’s torso, forearms, and shins with a hardened skirt of leather sections over his pelvis. Tattoos telling of the great Drakefang’s deeds covered much of his exposed skin including his face; scars from ritual and actual combat also left their marks. Breeze wondered if some day he might be as his father, covered in tattoos and scars, faced with the task of defending his place as the alpha male and evicting his own son. Drakefang was the leader of the pride, all six and a half feet packed with muscle of him, and though his son was officially banished, seen at the end as no more than another younger male who might one day challenge for dominance, Breeze thought he could hear his father’s might roar crack with grief.
Days passed. He explored and hunted, learning a trick to make the wind throw dirt up in front of fleeing rabbits so they would turn towards him. He ate better than expected in the sparse area but was still hungry. Snows fell a few times, and he was grateful for the warm furs that were in his pack and the leather poncho to keep off the wet. After nearly a week, he found tracks in the snows covering the desert. They were of a creature nearly as heavy as the members of his pride, but their feet were narrow and seemed covered in something with no toe marks visible at all. Intrigued, he followed them.
For several hours, he went over dunes, across hills, and around boulders through the flats, though generally keeping south with the Skydagger mountains on his right. A whiff of wood smoke came to him, and he peered over a low rocky ridge. In a cluster of large boulders was a fire and several humans tending it. They talked quietly to themselves. The boy moved about trying to see them from several angles. All were armed, but he didn’t know enough about men to determine more. The smell of roasted meat set his stomach to growling loudly enough to wake the dead.
Hearing a scuffling sound behind him, he spun and saw a club arcing down towards his eyes. It struck, and a ringing sound accompanied the stars suddenly bursting overhead. The tough leather of his helmet was pushed down over one eye by the blow. He began to stand but was hit again, and everything went black.
Sometime later, he came to a painful consciousness, unable to feel his hands or feet, but the biting chill told him the rest of his body was still there. He was lying upon some sandy gravel with the taste of salt strong in his mouth. Trying to rise, he realized his hands and feet were tied. His armor had been removed and was piled just out of reach with his equipment.
“Oi, its awake!” A kick from an iron shod sandal pounded his kidney, and he grunted in pain. “Spying on us, was you? Leading a war party our way? Where are they?” Another kick hammered home.
The human kicking him was olive complexioned and, though short for a Cazadore, would be around average for a man. His black hair was roughly shorn, and his beard was long. He was dressed in mismatched finery with what looked like a blood stain around a patched section of his pants. A sword at his belt rattled as he continued to kick the helpless felinoid. “You are a fool to plot against the Black Road Raiders! I am Hakim the Dreaded, and I cannot be defeated by you cat scum or any other!”
“I wasn’t spying for anyone! I just smelled your fire and was hungry.” Breeze pleaded between blows. The boy thrashed in his bonds, “Please, stop!” he panted and sobbed. A stomp to the muzzle had the boy tasting blood. After countless blows and begging, he passed out again.
When he awoke next, it was shivering cold in a snowfall. His hands were tied with a thick rope but not tightly. A collar to the type of heavy chain that holds anchors on ships kept him within ten feet of one of the huge egg-shaped rocks. Hungry and miserable, his tears froze on his long whiskers. He was not the bandit’s first captive. There were empty chains attached to the rocks and surrounding trees. Prisoners had hopelessly clawed at the ground and rocks, and within the deep impressions, Breeze could see spots of blood and fingernails, sheared off in desperation.
Days passed in a daze of abuse, hunger, and cold. Dried meat, some of it from his own pack, was thrown to him on the ground like he was a dog chained in the yard. He used his claws to fray at the rope on his hands, but it was thick, and a Cazadore’s natural claws are short. Occasionally, one of the band of humans and one scar-faced elf would come over to taunt him about the smell of his wastes in the area or what the slavers would do to him next time they visited. One short, deep voiced human would toss rocks at him and guess at what a young Cazadore boy would be like in the joyhouses of a big city. One of the few women in the bandit group brought food over; she would dump it on the ground to force him to eat like an animal and laughed in a high-pitched, screeching voice. Breeze tried calling the winds or storms but only summoned the weakest of zephyrs and not the great cataclysm he imagined.
Some of the bandits – and from hearing them talk about others that had been chained to that very rock and the ones around it, Breeze had learned they were definitely bandits – were always on watch. Early one morning, a watcher ran in saying they had a single traveler walking along the elevated causeway that was the Salt Road in this area. One of the women, the one who made him eat from the dirt, laughed too loudly at this and was shushed. They all gathered their weapons and jogged to ambush points they had apparently used many times before. Most of them grinned with yellow teeth, but the scarred elf looked grim as he vanished between some cacti.
The lone human was filthy, covered in the salty sands of the flats. He had a poncho that was torn and ragged. Long brown hair whipped around his head, and his loricated armor appeared stained black in areas and covered in rocky dust in others. He had a sword in scabbard on his left side and a shorter empty scabbard on his right. The man seemed to walk aimlessly, without the ground-eating stride of the few traders or peddlers moving their goods from town to town. His huge backpack bulged, though it didn’t seem overly heavy.
The leader of the bandits, Hakim the Dreaded, stepped out in front of the traveler with a bolt seated in his crossbow. “Stop,” he said, placing a dirty, fat finger on his crossbow’s trigger, “This here’s a toll road, and you got to pay to use it.” He aimed at the traveler’s chest but in a relaxed way with the butt of the weapon on his hip instead of shouldered like a serious marksman. The man just kept walking as if he didn’t hear him.
Hakim shouldered the crossbow. “Oi! You! Stop where you are and pay the toll, or I’ll shoot.” The dirty human still hadn’t reacted and was getting closer to the bandit leader. “Are you mad? I’ll kill you where you stand!”
Several of the other bandits yelled out suggestions from their scattered hiding places. “Shoot him!”, “Knock him on the head!” and “Split his head and see if the crazy’ll leak out!” The one woman laughed again like she was a loon, and Breeze secretly wished someone would leak the crazy out of her.
Only a couple of paces apart now, the bandit sighted his crossbow and pulled the trigger. The apparent vagrant moved with impossible speed forward a short step, reached out, and eased to the side all in one motion. He broke the bolt he’d taken from the crossbow with his left hand, never moving his right from having his thumb tucked in his sword belt. He walked past the bandit, still not saying a word. It took Hakim the Dreaded a moment to realize he was disarmed after hearing the click and thrum of the crossbow’s action with no bolt in it. The sun-leathered killer narrowed his eyes and drew his blade after throwing the empty weapon to the side. You could hear snickering from between two cacti in the high tones of the elf, from behind a boulder in the crazy way of the woman, and from under a sand-covered cloak near the causeway.
Hakim stalked up behind the man with murder in his eyes. The vagrant finally spoke in a quiet voice, “Don’t do it friend. We have no quarrel with one another. Just put your weapon away and go about your business.” He kept walking as though nothing was happening.
The bandit’s scimitar glinted in the light of the yellow sun. It fell upon the filthy traveler, but instead of a spray of blood, it cut only air; the dirty human sidestepped the strike and kept walking. Some of the other bandits had stepped out of hiding and moved towards the two on the causeway. The short human with the deep voice growled in a way that would have done credit to a Cazadore and gestured with his maul.
Hakim screamed in rage and grasped his curved sword’s hilt in both hands, chopping with it like you would an axe. It rang against steel as the filthy man blocked it with a basket-hilted broadsword.
The man dropped his pack and swung the sword in his hand. “You had to push it didn’t you? You couldn’t leave well enough alone,” he said. The bandit lunged at him over and over and was either blocked or sidestepped with contemptuous ease. The short bandit with the maul swung mightily from behind but hit only air. Though the man was filthy, the sword was pristine and apparently razor sharp as he began to cut slices out of the bandit lord. The man turned his attention from Hakim for just a moment, and then deep voice’s cries became shrill as the fingers of one hand flew off. He dropped the maul and fell to his knees.
Five of the other bandits closed in with their own weapons ready. Hakim was making a high-pitched whining noise and bleeding from several minor wounds, including one to each cheek.
As the other bandits arrived, the sword-armed vagrant sliced through Hakim’s hamstring, dropping him to the ground and grabbing the fallen scimitar in his left hand. The first of the new arrivals was thrust through the heart and slid to the road without a sound. The others closed more or less together but attacked clumsily, clearly not trained in group tactics.
The traveler’s blades sang as they blocked and cut at the four remaining bandits. First one fell, throat cut so deeply his head was nearly severed, and then another hit the ground screaming with a gut wound. Hakim dragged himself out of the fight down the causeway, trailing blood. Deep voice continued to hold his bleeding hand and screamed.
A couple of the hidden bandits stood and backed away from the fight. They weren’t warriors but were just thieves looking for an easy score on a lone traveler. One more bandit died on the causeway, and the last one screamed for mercy and threw down his machete. The traveler slashed his throat and kicked the twitching body off the elevated road into the sand. Deep voice shouted again as he was stabbed though, then he went abruptly quiet as his body slid, like melting butter, off the blade.
“I asked you nicely to let me be,” the traveler said; his voice was flat and emotionless. He followed Hakim’s blood trail towards the bandit who was dragging himself in the direction of the rocks. The thief with the bleeding wound in his abdomen continued to shout hoarsely behind them. Another crossbow thrummed and struck the traveler in the back just over his shoulder blade. When the bolt broke against his armor it made a deep drumming sound, almost like huge rocks colliding. The walking man casually leaned down to pick up a knife from one of the dead bandits and tossed it once into the air to test its weight. The woman giggled with a crazier edge than normal as she frantically wound the crossbow’s windlass to try and seat another bolt. The warrior on the causeway threw the knife and sunk it deep into her shoulder. The injured bandit yelled, dropped the crossbow, and ran off into the desert, her crazy laughter floating back to the road like a disembodied spirit. Hakim had nearly dragged himself to the clutch of huge egg-shaped rocks where the bandits camped.
“You had every chance.” The man walked calmly as if wiping out a group of bandits was of no import. The injured bandit lord was within the rocks now.
“Please, don’t kill me!” Hakim begged with both hands held out in front of him. “I’ll pay you!”
“You have nothing I need.” The man said in a quiet voice.
“Anything!” Hakim shrieked.
The blow that killed the Dreaded was with his own scimitar. The blade wasn’t well-maintained, so it didn’t cut cleanly, but it did cut. The traveler dropped the scimitar on the body of its owner and sighed deeply.
He heard a whimpering sound in the rocks and readied his broadsword. Stalking over toward the sound he found a young Cazadore male dressed in rags. Malnourished and squatting in his own waste while tied to a stone, the boy huddled against the rocks. “Please, please don’t hurt me,” the boy lion begged. The Cazadore’s words were difficult to make out because a cut on his face was infected and swollen.
The human stared for a moment as if somewhere else, then started back to alertness. “I’m not going to hurt you boy. Let’s get you cut loose.” The filthy man sliced the ropes tying the equally dirty prisoner. After a moment, Breeze was free and rubbing the blisters left by the ropes.
“What is your name lad?” the man asked.
The boy lowered his eyes in shame. “I haven’t earned one yet, but my family calls me Breeze.”
“Well, Breeze, help me burn these bodies. We don’t want them coming back as something tougher.” The man turned towards the body that had been Hakim.
“What is your name, sir?” The young lion man asked limping towards his savior.
“Miltiades. My name is Miltiades.” The Bleeding Wind warrior stated quietly as he dragged the body to the fire pit before the leprous Scar in the sky could send sprits to animate the bodies.