Weekend Wind Down – The Zoukai

This is the opening of The Fated Sky which is the first part of Transgressor Trilogy and the first book in Fortunes Fools by E.M. Swift-Hook.

Caer sat on his pony looking at the dead body on the ground and wondering if he should send more scouts back towards the road, almost a day’s trek behind the caravan. This man had been alone, half-mad and no threat to the caravan, but others might even now be following the same path that they had taken from the road and for the same reason they had taken it: others who were scouts for brigands, bandits or bigger caravans than his own.

He spat in the dirt and narrowed his eyes as he looked past the file of wagons, ponies and people. It was late afternoon and his breath misted slightly in the air. The long cold winter was over, but in the barren Wastelands, spring was always slow to come. The air still carried a biting chill, even in the heat of the day and the distant peaks kept their mantle of snow and ice, tinged with crimson by the light of the huge red sun. Spring was having to claw its way free of winter’s greedy clutches so that Temsevar could bask in an all too brief season of warmth and growth.

The Wastelands were vast and magnificent. Here and there, standing proud and alone in the plain, like the lost sentinels of a forgotten age, were towering flat-topped mountains of rock, some so massive they were too big to cross in a day on foot. It was as though at some point in the distant past the ground had simply dropped away, leaving the high plateaux stranded above, like giant stepping stones, creating a two-tier terrain. If in the winter, these high grounds were the coldest and most exposed, in the spring they seemed always flushed with new vegetation before any managed to creep out of the more parched stones below.

Caer made his decision. With the work to be done, the four men he already had out scouting their back trail were all he could spare for the moment. He called to one of the mounted men who was riding with the caravan.

“Shevek, we are camping here.”

The man he spoke to wheeled his pony away and rode at a brisk pace towards the front of the train of wagons and animals, issuing sharp orders to make the night’s camp around the rocky debris beneath the steep cliff face of one of the high monoliths. Caer felt a familiar sense of satisfaction as those orders turned the straggling ranks of moving people, ponies and wagons into a brief flurry of chaos, before brightly coloured awnings, tents and pavilions sprung up from the chaos, like strange blossoms. Caer and his men rode through the quickly forming encampment, shouting instructions, solving problems, helping secure ropes and encouraging any who were slow to respond with the whips they carried curled in their belts.

In a remarkably short time, the caravan resembled a miniature town with streets and open spaces, stables, and pens. Fires were being kindled, children tending the animals as women kneaded dough and cut the vegetables for the evening meal. Toddlers screamed and got underfoot or rolled like puppies amongst the big, sharp-toothed dogs, which ignored them and begged for scraps with soulful eyes and then turned on each other snapping and snarling when an unsavoury morsel was cast their way.

Once the familiar routine was well established, Caer’s men guided their mounts towards the middle of the camp. The ponies’ short stubby ears, thick coats, wall-eyed glares and powerful necks, made them far from beautiful to look upon, but their split hooves could splay to grip surefooted even on snow and ice or could run fast on firmer ground. It was their broad backs which carried the burden of human traffic in both trade and war with a sturdy strength and agility which, for Caer, had a beauty all of its own.

The men who rode were as tough as their ponies. The older ones amongst them wore their hair long, stained red and tied back into a heavy braid, the greater length of the braid telling of ever greater age and experience. The youngest men had their hair shaved so close to the scalp as to seem bald. They were not even allowed to begin to grow a braid until they had served a year of apprenticeship with the caravans. All the men wore coats made from a brightly coloured heavy-felt cloth, over shirts with billowing sleeves, patterned skirted jerkins made from fleeced hides and plain felt britches which gathered loosely into calf-high boots. All were armed: every man wore a bandolier of wooden cartridge boxes over one shoulder and carried a crude pistol; one or two had a long-barrelled musket or rifled carbine, on their backs and each wore a long-bladed knife with an ornately carved hilt and whips hung looped at their belts.

These men were of the Zoukai, a brotherhood of warrior guardians, hiring themselves to protect the caravans which carried the trade of Temsevar. Named after the swift and ruthless, red-plumed predatory birds which hunted from the skies in these very wastes, they were bound by a strict code of honour which placed loyalty to their captain and their caravan above all else.

There were around thirty men in all, talking in loud boisterous voices, their breath misting in the cold air, laughing together at crude jokes, whilst passing wine-skins from hand to hand. They had gathered in front of the central pavilion, where a clearing gave some measure of status and privacy to the impressive tent of their employer the caravansi – the owner of the caravan, its wagons, its slaves and much of its cargo. When Caer finally rode into the clearing, his check of the camp completed, one of the Zoukai called out:

“Here, Captain.”

Catching the wineskin, Caer let the warm liquid cut the dust of the day from his throat, swilling out his mouth and spitting, only then swallowing a single mouthful before replacing the stopper and passing it on. Then he nudged his pony forwards and moved amongst his men, sending four more out to join the scouts and a handful of others to support the pickets who were already guarding the outskirts of the camp. He wanted to be extra careful today. Then he moved on, talking briefly to each of the others as he passed: a word of praise here, a question there, advice and the occasional sharp reprimand, all delivered with an easy authority.

A sudden stillness, as sharp on the senses as any loud sound, made Caer turn towards the pavilion, already knowing what to expect. The flap was being held up by a slave girl and a woman had just stepped out of the shady, incensed interior. It was her appearance that had silenced the horsemen and Caer understood why. Alexa the Fair they called her on the roads and the title was well deserved. Caer had lived twenty-five years and had never seen a woman he thought more beautiful. Her mere presence was enough to draw every male eye and deprive a man of his next breath.

She was tall, very tall for a woman and slender with it – long necked, long limbed and lithe, almost boyish with narrow hips and small breasts that barely lifted the sheer satiny substance of the emerald robe she wore. Beneath the magnificence of her dark auburn hair, her face with its clear skin and high cheek bones lent her an ageless beauty. Her violet-blue eyes swept imperiously over the Zoukai and when they came to rest on Caer, he felt the impact as if she had reached out and physically touched his skin.

E.M. Swift-Hook.

Manythanks to Robert Lee Beers for the illustration which is the cover of the Transgressor Trilogy.

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