Don’t go any further unless you have already read “The Last Spellherder”, or you don’t mind massive spoilers.
‘Warrior Sons’ was originally the last chapter – an epilogue really – of the Spellherder trilogy. It did not survive the final edit to make it into ‘The Last Spellherder’, but those of you who enjoyed the book may like a glimpse of what happened next.
It was a good day for battle. If anything, a little too warm, so it was surprising that Ordin-Marshal Koorukshey of the Chatton span had chosen to begin the attack at noon, when the sun was at its height in a cloudless sky. The span of Redstone Bay reluctantly agreed with only the minimum of sour looks: they had lost the toss so there was no arguing.
Koorukshey was easily identifiable from her starburst headdress and her long red cloak as she stood on a grassy hillock overlooking the spans. Her two standards were planted in the ground; the likeness of John the Slain Prophet on one, and the other bearing an image from a garment left by the Prophet Jason, which was a peculiar looking pink mountain lion with yellow eyes. The noises of the pre-battle salutations were in progress; drums were beaten – Redstone Bay’s Battle Beat of the Sixty-Nine Summers very much in evidence – and whistles were blown. On either side boy-warriors shouted insults across the divide, some sticking out their tongues and thumbing their ears, others turning and waggling their backsides insolently. The flag-boys were just as audacious, using their flags to taunt the opposition.
‘Why don’t we run for it, Yahmbek?’ Naftahli said. ‘We’d be downhill all the way. And even if they start without us, nobody will notice if we just tag on.’
‘No, it’s cheating. We’re neither from Redstone Bay nor Chatton, and anyway, we’ve got a perfect view from up here. We can see it all unfold and observe the tactics, just as if we’re standing over an Iko board.’
Naftahli saw the opportunity slipping away. When would he ever get another? Although they were high above the field of battle, he stood on tiptoe and cast round with his eyes trying to commit it all to memory. The opposing spans drawn up before one another, preliminary insults being exchanged, flag-boys to the fore and marshals eying each other across a gulf a grassland from their hilly vantage points. The Glade Plains were ever the place where spans came to grapple and trade in their own particular speciality.
‘You can stay here. I’m going.’ Naftahli twiddled nervously at the unfletched dart that was pinned through the folds of his robe like a brooch. He walked down the slope a few steps then checked to see the result of his bravado.
‘I said it’s cheating!’ Yahmbek threw his gear down. ‘If you join the greens, I’ll have to go with the reds, otherwise the numbers will be out.’
Naftahli’s eyes sparkled as they took on his smile. ‘Fine,’ he said and began running down the hill. ‘But I’m reds, so you go green!’ he shouted giving Yahmbek no time to argue.
‘Naftahli!’ Yahmbek shouted to no effect at all, and then under his breath. ‘You little pile of k’mulka turd.’ Feeling the need to counter the insult he added, in a still softer voice ‘It’s a good job I love you.’
Throwing his dart onto the pile of equipment, he loped down the hill towards the green span just as the fanfares blew and the manically beaten drums fell silent; the signal for Iko to be let slip from the leash of constraint. He stopped to watch as the young warriors, lightly clothed in breechclouts, used their speed to try outflanking manoeuvres. These were feints for the most part, to hide the movements of the older warriors as they prepared to add their weight to best effect. Yahmbek smiled, for from his vantage point he could see a body of warriors in their stiff linen kilts, robes and headdresses who were making best use of a dip in the ground to move stealthily. They would intercept the youngsters making for the green flag-boy who waved his huge silken flag in full view of the reds; perfect bait for unwary hunters.
He laughed. ‘You’ve chosen the wrong side, Naftahli,’ he called out to his brother-warrior, now just a tiny figure hurtling towards the span of his choice.
Later, the brother-warriors sat outside a rather poor excuse for a wickiup. They had rushed its construction and banked on the good weather holding out for a few more days. There would be no rain, yet they were resigned to suffer having only thin robes and each other to keep warm on what was sure to be a cold night. At least for now the fire blazed well on its bed of rocks, and the juniper burnt nicely throwing out an invigorating aroma.
Yahmbek nursed a black eye and burst lip. Naftahli had got off lightly with only a cut knee. He’d actually got his hands to the green flag, but a burly warrior had barrelled him off his feet and he cut himself on a protruding stone. The big green-clad warrior had immediately apologised and helped him up. He shuffled a little closer to the fire and picked a long blade of grass, which he positioned between his thumbs and blew, making a high pitched squeal, like a small animal falling prey to sharp teeth.
Yahmbek shushed him. ‘By the Slain Prophet, Naftahli! Do you want to attract every bear in the land?’
‘There’re no bears anywhere near the Glade of Many Tears. Since the massacre nothing is suffered to live anywhere near here that may harm a Journal Boy. At least that’s what they say.’
‘And you believe it?’
‘I think I do. They say there was enough death here on that night, and that the land could take no more blood. So there are patrols to kill bears and snake-bush grows everywhere to scare the lutai.’ Naftahli blew his grass-leaf again, but a little softer. ‘How’s your lip?’
‘It hurts. How’s you knee?’
Both boys started to chuckle. ‘What a day,’ Naftahli said through laughter. Yahmbek agreed.
‘I knew reds would win, Yahmbek.’
‘They had an unfair advantage. Koorukshey fought the Iko-shkeer, against the Spider-People; the very one that this annual Iko commemorates.’
‘I know the story. The Spider armies lost their leaders and blundered into the many passes like herds of goats. They kept coming south because there was no one left to tell them not too.’
‘Or to direct them in battle. Koorukshey herded them into valleys where talons waited for them, and they were slain in great numbers.’
‘Those who didn’t run away as fast as their spider-legs would carry them.’
‘And that’s why you should stop making such a noise. They say there are still roaming bands of spider-folk.’
Naftahli rolled his eyes. How could such a strong lad as his brother-warrior be that much of a worry-wart? It was a good job he loved him.
‘Very well! Blow your grass-whistle! Go out and dance in the dark. All I’m saying is there are still dangers in this world, and it would be better if we didn’t go out of our way to attract them.’ He stood and stretched. ‘Anyway. Tomorrow is our Journal Meeting. I want to be up early and see how many other brothers we have.’
Naftahli stood too, wincing as the pain in his knee caught him unawares. He was much shorter than his brother-warrior. ‘Who needs other brothers? One is more than enough for me.’ Yahmbek fetched a light slap off his brother’s head. ‘Ouch! But it will be good to meet our father, if the bears have spared him.’
Yahmbek ducked into the temporary home of sticks and leaves, and Naftahli was about to follow when he heard a twig snap. His indrawn breath drew Yahmbek up sharp, his hand falling to his knife.
A figure stepped from the shadows, only the green of his robes and whites of his eyes showing clear.
‘Is there room in your hut for one more?’ The voice was deep and resonant.
‘For a friend there is always space. Are you a friend?’
‘Well, I am not a bear. Nor yet of a wandering band of spider-folk.’
‘You were listening to us,’ Naftahli said accusingly.
‘No,’ said Yahmbek. ‘It’s probably hard to miss anything said by this one.’ He gave his brother-warrior a sharp elbow to the ribs. ‘Come, friend. Sit by the fire and we will learn a little of each other. I am Yahmbek. This is my brother-warrior Naftahli. We are both from the Town of Burrows, many days walk to the north.’
‘I know who you are, as I am here for your Journal Meeting.’ The boys then exchanged such looks that the man laughed heartily.
‘I see that your minds work hard. How can this man, whose skin is as black as your obsidian knives, be your father? Of course, I was not he who got your town’s sisters with the children that grew into yourselves, but I knew those who did.’ The man sat close to the fire and invited the boys to join him. This they did, most eager for him to continue. He was quiet for several minute, and his sudden seriousness began to scare them.
‘Yahmbek. Naftahli. I have news, both good and ill. First I shall rid you of anticipation for the ill. I’m sorry to say, you will not see your fathers at your Journal Meeting. Nor are there any other brothers for you to meet. And, contrary to your belief, you are not sons of the same father. You are brother-warriors, sons of brother-warriors and I, Togsol of Redstone Bay, knew them well, if only for a short time.’
Of course, Yahmbek had heard of the Prophet Jason, but had never dreamed he was his son. Maluk too had become famous through story and song and Naftahli was thrilled to be the son of the brother-warrior of a prophet, but his excitement was dulled with sorrow that they would never meet.
‘Our brothers and sisters often spoke of the special bond between me and Naftahli,’ Yahmbek said. ‘They said our warrior-bonds must have been made while we were yet in our town-sisters’ wombs, and now I see it goes further back still.’
‘And I see from your fletching-marks that you are indeed close. So many, and so identical. The next generation will be a time of many warrior-bonds, I think.’
‘Togsol, I know from the stories that Maluk Many-Levels was lost on the night of the massacre, but his body was never found. Have you other news to give us? Was Maluk ever heard of after the massacre? Did Prophet Jason escape from the Spider-People that captured him at the Tear-of-God?’
‘If there was further news of either of them, the tales have never reached us, although there were rumours that Jason was seen at Ten Drums after his capture. Whatever, their tablets rest uneasy at the Breathing Wall, and remain without an ending, either graven or even waxed. The tales tell that they fell at the very moment of their victory over the evil that ruled the Kern. They soaked up all the evil and carried it to the world of prophets.’
‘Do you believe it?’ asked Yahmbek.
‘The truth is that the Kern lost their sting, the spider-people scattered and the brother-warrior’s left us, all at the same time. I believe these events are connected, though who can know the details.’
‘Nobody,’ Naftahli said, his head hanging with sorrow.
‘And yet, maybe someone,’ Togsol said. ‘Tonight when the moon is at its height, we must expect a guest who has led me to believe he has important news for you.’
Naftahli built up the fire while Yahmbek prepared a snack. Togsol shared a skin of ale and they sat into the heart of the night recounting the stories and singing the songs that told of Jason and Maluk. Their sons asked Togsol many questions about his time with them, and he told all. Actually he told more than all, for as folk have always done and ever will, he elaborated and embroidered. He made a plain tale shine with stories that had once been not entirely truthful, but had become so, even in his own mind, with the passing of years and the many tellings. Their impromptu wrestling match became a great battle; Maluk’s prowess as an Iko player was magnified to the level of arch-marshal, and their dip in the water tanks of the Tower of Seven Mountains became a swim through raging seas.
‘What is the one thing you remember most about them, Togsol? What marked them most as brother-warriors?’
The fire gleamed in Togsol’s eyes and flashed off his teeth as he smiled. ‘They once fought a bear together.’ Both boys sucked in their breath. Togsol continued. ‘Jason killed the bear, and he gave its teeth to Maluk. That is the thing I remember. That is the mark of a warrior-bond.’
‘Most men will never kill a bear in a lifetime,’ Naftahli said in awed voice. ‘And your father killed a bear, and gave its teeth to my father.’
‘That’s certainly a gift worthy of the best warrior-bond,’ Yahmbek said. ‘I don’t think I could live up to that.’
‘You don’t have to worry about giving me the teeth. I don’t think you could kill the bear.’ Naftahli giggled.
‘You’re right. Perhaps I’ll just kill you and give your teeth to the bear.’
Togsol held up a hand and urged the boys to silence. They immediately huddled towards the flames, looking round nervously, both their minds fresh with the images of bear.
There was a rustling as of wind through autumn-dried leaves, and a shadow moved in the dark. Togsol stood slowly. ‘It is the one I was expecting.’
From out of the darkness came a Kern.
Three humans and a Kern in a small wickiup was a tight squeeze; uncomfortable for the men, almost impossible for the Kern, but they managed. Togsol introduced the insect-being as Drone, first of the free drones. At first the boys were nervous, even though they knew Kern had ceased to be a danger years ago, before they were born. It was just that Drone was such a different being that time was required to adapt. It helped that his movements were slow and graceful and his demeanour unthreatening.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ Togsol said. ‘In a minute he’ll put two black buttons on each of you. It doesn’t hurt at all.’
‘Buttons? Why?’ Yahmbek said.
‘They will enable him to talk to you, and for you to talk to him. Pictures will fill your head and they will form into the meaning of his words. It’s hard to explain, but you’ll see.’
Drone reached out a long bony finger, on the end of which was a small round device. Yahmbek held still while Drone placed it against his left temple. He placed another on the right then repeated the process with Naftahli.
‘Now, just close your eyes, young warriors. Try to think of nothing and soon his words will come. It is a beautiful thing, and nothing to be afraid of.’
It is a hard thing to think of nothing at all, and Yahmbek could not do it. Always there were voices at the edges of the blackness he created, and people popping their heads round the dark curtains to spoil his chance of ever clearing his mind, but then a voice came which was not the product of his own wayward mind. Warm feelings of greeting and friendship flowed into him, and at once he knew they came from Drone. How could a creature so different produce feeling so human? Images flooded into his mind, at first seemingly random, but soon arranging themselves into meaning.
Drone was speaking to Yahmbek about his father. He saw his face, he learned of his adventures; in an instant Drone’s knowledge of him was now Yahmbek’s also. And then there was sadness at his loss, and a long search. Here Yahmbek struggled to interpret the images, for the search was not merely across lands but across a region of coldness and warmth, darkness and light that divided worlds.
The searching stretched into an unfathomable period of time until at last Jason was found, across the boundary in the other world, and there with him was a lad Yahmbek felt, no knew, to be Maluk. The brother-warriors then grew older as years rushed by. Yahmbek saw things he could not understand; strange buildings and wheeled carriages – all seen in a half-light that gave them a smoky appearance. He did understand other parts of the vision; women who chose, children, struggles against unseen foes, laughter and heartache; but always the warrior-bond unbroken, until Jason and Maluk were very old men.
Togsol watched as smiles and tears moved the boys’ faces. He knew that they were rapt in the experience of Drone’s language of feelings and vivid images and, although in full knowledge that there is never such a thing, he knew they were seeing the happy ever after of their fathers’ lives.