Chapter 12: Spirit
Almonihah made his way south at a very brisk pace. No point hanging around where Galindakherithan might reconsider and decide there was some joke in Trollish he had to hear or something. The faster he was out of her territory, the better. The Ranger made a mental note to keep an eye out for other dragons’ territorial markings in the future, though dragons were rather notorious for marking their territory in ways that could only be detected from the air. If they marked their territory at all.
He could tell that summer was in full swing in the North Forest. Which meant he’d been stuck in that cave for over a year. The realization didn’t make him particularly happy.
It did feel good to be free again, though. Perhaps not good enough to make him forget the bitterness of captivity, but definitely good. Almonihah spent a couple of days just enjoying being able to go wherever he pleased, though his first brush with a manticore reminded him that just because he was free didn’t mean he was free from danger. Fortunately, the only spike that hit him just barely drew blood. His arrow, however, drew considerably more blood from the manticore.
He neared the edge of the North Forest rather quickly, despite the fact that he slowed down quite a bit once he felt he was far enough away from the copper dragon’s territory. Almonihah wasn’t quite sure how he knew he was nearing the forest’s edge—he just knew. Maybe it was just long familiarity with the forest or something.
It was then that he heard voices approaching from the south. The Ranger froze, brushing aside his idle speculations, and listened with his keen ears. There were two different voices, and they spoke for only a little while before they were silent again. Whoever they were, they were trying to move quietly, though they were doing a mediocre job of it. Almonihah did a much better job at sneaking towards them.
He soon caught sight of the pair. They were two human males, both with bows, arrows, and spears. They looked to be Plainsmen—their manner of dress and their heavily-tanned skin both indicated as much. That would explain their difficulty with traveling quietly through the forest, as Plainsmen usually lived… on the plains.
They were also walking straight towards a pit plant.
Quickly, Almonihah moved to a concealed position on the opposite side of the carnivorous plant and called out, “Stop.”
The two Plainsmen froze, looking around them cautiously for the source of the voice. As one of them opened his mouth to speak, Almonihah fired an arrow. It hit what looked to be a pile of leaves a few paces in front of them with a wet-sounding “thunk”. As it did, the “leaf pile” twitched, revealing for a moment a circular pattern of wedges… as well as giving a glimpse of the hole lined with acidic secretions that lay beneath.
One of the Plainsmen gasped a little as he realized how close to danger they had been. After a moment, he recovered from his astonishment and called out, “I thank you, stranger.”
He paused for a moment, and as he did, Almonihah stepped out of his hiding-place into plain view. Both of the Plainsmen gasped in astonishment and fell to their knees when they saw the half-dragon. The one who had spoken earlier then said, his voice trembling a little, “Great spirit, forgive us for not having given you proper respect earlier…”
“Stop that.” Disgust was plain in Almonihah’s voice. “I’m no spirit. ‘nd get up. That’s ridiculous.” He gestured at their kneeling forms.
Hurriedly, the two rose to their feet. “Forgive us, spirit…”
“I told you I’m not a spirit,” Almonihah growled, making sure to speak clearly so they understood. He didn’t think his Common had gotten that sloppy during his time with Galindakherithan, but it seemed like they hadn’t understood him the first time.
“Yes, g…” the Plainsman floundered for a bit, then continued, “Uh… what would you have us call you?”
“By my name,” Almonihah replied, having to suppress the urge to make his disdain clearer. Then he realized he hadn’t told them his name. “I’m Almonihah.”
There was silence for a moment. It seemed like the two Plainsmen were expecting him to say something more. Then it occurred to the half-dragon that humans usually had a last name. On a whim, he said, “Almonihah Zrathanzon.” That felt… right somehow.
“Almonihah Zrathanzon…” the Plainsman who had been quiet before said, carefully trying to pronounce the name like the half-dragon had.
Almonihah nodded in acknowledgement.
“Almonihah Zrathanzon,” the Plainsman tried out the name again, a bit more confidently, “We owe you blood-debt. Please, come to our camp and accept of our hospitality in token of our acknowledgement of our debt.”
It sounded to Almonihah like he was repeating something he’d memorized. But their camp was almost certainly to the south, and it would be kind of nice to get some respect after being pushed around by a dragon for a year. So he agreed. If this was what Zrathanzon had meant about Plainsmen having ‘strange ideas’ about half-dragons, he didn’t mind them too much.
He did quickly get tired of the superstitious awe that both of them treated him with, and with how the one who had spoken first always had to keep himself from calling the half-dragon ‘spirit’. He did get the other one to the point where he would actually call him just Almonihah, instead of Almonihah Zrathanzon, but it took almost the entire walk back to their camp. The other one… well, he was a lost cause.
Almonihah could see their camp as soon as they came to the edge of the forest. It was a little ways off, but it looked like it consisted of a small cluster of conical tents. He’d seen such camps from a distance before, and Zrathanzon had told him that they were long-term hunting camps. Apparently, during the spring and summer, the hunters of a tribe of Plainsmen would take these tents and spread out from their home village for a month or two at a time to bring down game to salt and bring back to their village. The preserved meat would help keep them fed through the winter.
One of the pair ran ahead a bit to tell the camp of their visitor. Most of the hunters were still out pursuing game, but the few that were in camp, along with those of their wives and children who had come with them, all came out to greet their visitor. If anything, they were worse about the whole superstitious awe thing than Almonihah’s two guides. Some of them seemed quite terrified when he corrected them about calling him “great spirit” or “thunder spirit”, and it took the half-dragon a considerable amount of time and energy convincing them that he wasn’t really angry at them for calling him something he didn’t want to be called. He also got the impression that they still thought he was some sort of supernatural spirit creature. It was all very annoying.
He had just about decided that he’d had enough “great thunder spirit”’s when a small group of Plainsmen made their way from the other side of camp to the gathering around the Ranger. Their leader wore a necklace of claws and teeth from various dangerous creatures, which Almonihah took to be proof of his hunting prowess. The Ranger noted idly that he had killed all of the creatures whose claws and fangs adorned the Plainsman’s necklace himself.
As soon as this Plainsman caught sight of the half-dragon, his face paled, and he fell to his knees. “Thunder spirit,” he began his voice trembling.
“I’m not some thunder spirit!” Almonihah interrupted, angrily. He wasn’t about to let this guy start on the whole “great spirit” routine.
The Plainsman seemed nonplussed by this response. After a moment, he recovered enough to ask, “What are you, then?”
“’m what happens when a bronze dragon spends too much time ‘n human form with a beautiful human sorceress,” Almonihah snapped, his frustration coming out in the bitterness of his response.
The Plainsman stared blankly at Almonihah. After a moment, Almonihah growled in frustration and elaborated.
“I’m a half-dragon. Half-bronze dragon, half-human.”
The Plainsman’s stare didn’t become any less blank. After a moment of silence, however, he apparently decided to simply drop the issue and asked, “How should I call you?”
“Almonihah Zrathanzon. But just call me Almonihah.”
The Plainsman seemed to be getting more used to the idea of his strange visitor. “Almonihah,” he tried the name out, doing a better job at it than most of the others had, “What brings you to our humble hunting camp?”
The Ranger simply nodded at one of the two hunters he had saved. The indicated hunter explained about what had happened, and the Plainsman with the necklace nodded.
“I see. It was right to bring him back here. You, and the tribe, owe him a debt.” The Plainsman with the necklace, who the other Plainsman had referred to as “Hunt-Chief”, turned back to Almonihah. “We are grateful for the lives of the two hunters that you have saved. You honor our camp. However, I fear that this humble camp cannot offer you much to repay our debt.”
“In three suns, we will strike camp and return to our village. There, we can thank you properly. There, our Chief and Shaman, who are much wiser than I, dwell. There, perhaps, we can begin to repay our debt to you.”
There was silence. All of the Plainsmen were looking expectantly at Almonihah. It made him feel just a bit uncomfortable.
Irritably, not quite wanting to agree to anything yet, the half-dragon asked, “Which way is it?”
The Hunt-Chief, accustomed by now to his unexpected guest asking unexpected questions, replied, “It is to the south and east, maybe four suns’ distance from here.”
Almonihah shrugged. “Might ‘s well. Same way I was going anyways.”
The half-dragon found it difficult to stand the superstitious awe with which he was treated while he waited for the Plainsmen to break camp, and even more difficult to put up with as he traveled with them. He wasn’t sure why he was going with them, but… well, he didn’t have anything better to do.
He was, however, quite glad when he could see the village they were heading to in the distance. Of course, that distance was fairly large, given his eyesight and how flat the plains were, but at least their destination was in sight. Hopefully at least this Chief fellow would be better about not calling him “Great Thunder Spirit” and stuff. The Hunt-Chief at least was just calling him Almonihah, so he had some hope for the Chief.
A couple of the Plainsmen had run ahead of the group to inform the village of their visitor, so Almonihah wasn’t particularly surprised to see a group of people waiting to greet them. The leader had some kind of headdress made of beads and what the Ranger was somewhat surprised to note looked like griffon feathers. Given the meaning of the decoration the Hunt-Chief wore, he suspected that this Plainsman was the Chief.
His suspicion was confirmed when the Plainsman spoke. “Greetings, Almonihah Zrathanzon. You are welcome here in the village of the Griffon Tribe. You have done us a great service in saving the lives of two of our hunters. For this service we offer you the hospitality of our village.”
“Thanks,” Almonihah said as he took in the sight before him. The village was a humble affair, made mostly of low huts. There seemed to be little wood involved in their construction. Instead, most of the walls consisted of some kind of grass or brush, with only enough wood to make a frame over which these materials were spread. The Ranger found this rather odd, given that the forest was only a couple days’ journey away.
The half-dragon realized the Plainsman Chief was still speaking. “Normally, we would have a ceremony to celebrate what you have done… but you outsiders rarely appreciates such things. Is not this so?”
It took Almonihah a moment to realize that was a question. “Yeah, I think we can skip th’ ceremony part.”
The Chief nodded. “Then let us go to the Shaman. He wishes to see you. If you would, please follow me.”
Shrugging, the half-dragon followed the Chief to a large hut near what he thought was the center of the village. There seemed to be a large, clear area in front of it, which seemed like it had been pounded down by many feet. Interesting.
The inside of the hut would have been fairly dim to human eyes, though the hole in the roof—which Almonihah supposed was to let out smoke from the fire pit underneath—did let in a fair amount of light. There were a number of odd objects in the hut—feathers, teeth, and claws from various animals and monsters, drying herbs, oddly shaped rocks and pieces of wood.
The Shaman himself was an older Plainsman, with white hair and a face that looked worn by the elements. He was dressed in the same simple clothing—made mostly from the hides of the various animals that roamed the plains—as the rest of the Plainsmen, but he also wore some sort of talisman around his neck that involved items rather like those that adorned his hut. He was sitting cross-legged on an animal skin on the floor, with a staff across his legs. The staff was an interesting object—carved intricately in the shape of various animals, with matching feathers, claws, and teeth attached.
When the half-dragon entered the Shaman’s hut, he looked up and said, in a soft, mildly raspy voice, “Ah, greetings, young dragon. I was hoping you would make your way here.”
For some reason the Shaman’s words irritated Almonihah. “’m not a dragon. Just half.”
The Shaman smiled gently. “Of course… young dragon.”
The Ranger growled a bit, but decided the old man must be too senile to listen. That, or might be deaf. Or blind. His eyes did seem to have a bit of a milky look.
While Almonihah had been looking over the Shaman, the Shaman had been examining Almonihah. “You follow the Earth-Mother, do you not?”
Almonihah was a bit taken aback by the sudden question. “Earth-Mother?”
“The Forest Maiden, the Lady of the Plains… she has many names. Perhaps you would know her by the name of Naishia? That is the outsider name for her.”
The Ranger grunted in surprise. “Yeah, I do. How’d you know?”
The Shaman nodded, smiling again. “There is a… feeling about fellow followers of the Earth-Mother.” He paused for a moment, shifting his position a little bit, then continued, “We also reverence the Earth-Mother and her creation, but in a different way than you outsiders do, you will find.”
Almost unconsciously Almonihah found his curiosity rousing. “What d’ you mean?”
The Shaman motioned for Almonihah to sit in the hut across from him. He did so, a corner of his mind noting the fact that the Plainsmen who had led him to the hut didn’t follow him in.
Once his guest was settled, the Shaman spoke again. “There are many differences between our view of the world and that of the outsiders. Before I continue,” he held up a hand as if to forestall an interruption, even though Almonihah had no intention to do so, “I want you to know that part of the reason I wished to see you is because I love to learn of others. Now, where was I?”
He paused for a second, then said, “Ah, yes. How we differ from outsider followers of the Earth-Mother. We, unlike most outsiders, view all life as…” he paused for a moment again, “sacred would be the closest word for it. We view all animals and plants as… expressions of the Earth-Mother’s divinity.” He paused again. “It is difficult to describe our view, but it permeates our lives.”
“Hmmm.” He was right—he didn’t quite understand what he meant. He thought he got the idea of what the Shaman was getting at, but only the general idea.
“This is different from how you view things, is it not?”
There was a pause, as if the Shaman was waiting for an explanation. Eventually he asked, “How do you view things?”
The Ranger thought for a bit. “Well… I respect life. Don’t kill anything ‘f I don’t need ‘t t’ live. Try t’ protect ‘t from things that aren’t right…” he trailed off with a shrug.
There was silence again for a few seconds, then the Shaman asked, “So what are you planning to do after you leave us?”
There was a long stretch of silence before Almonihah finally answered. “I’m a Ranger. I was going down south t’ help hold th’ Line.”
There was something almost shrewd about the way the Shaman looked at Almonihah. “Perhaps you might stay a while with us first, to learn something of our ways?”
Almonihah almost said no before he stopped himself and thought. While the whole “Thunder Spirit” thing was annoying, the Plainsmen seemed like good people, and he was curious about their ways. Certainly they weren’t like any other people he’d ever met. Not to mention that their hunters needed some help with not getting themselves killed if they were going into the forests.
“Yeah, might ‘s well.”
The Shaman smiled again. “Good. I look forward to speaking more with you.” He slowly got up to his feet, using the staff to help push himself up. “Now, I believe someone is waiting outside my home to show you the way to where you may stay during your time with us. Why don’t we go out there and let him do his job?”
There was, indeed, a young Plainsman waiting for Almonihah outside the Shaman’s hut. The Shaman passed the half-dragon off with another mysterious smile, then hobbled back into the hut. Almonihah’s young guide (who seemed annoyingly awed by the half-dragon) led him to a small hut, then waited outside while the Ranger settled in—which consisted of him setting his pack down and unrolling his bedroll. His guide seemed surprised to see him done so quickly, but once he was sure Almonihah was truly ready, he led the half-dragon to a long, low structure, constructed in much the same fashion as the rest of the village.
Apparently, skipping welcoming ceremonies did not mean skipping the honorary feast for the hero. At least, Almonihah assumed the Plainsmen didn’t gather together for a huge meal in this building every day. It looked like it wasn’t quite ready yet, but the Chief was ready to greet his visitor again.
Almonihah found that he was right about feasts like this being out of the ordinary, but he was only partially right about it being for him. While much mention was made of his actions, he gradually figured out that this feast was traditional when a hunting group returned from a good hunt. So he tried to be polite, and talk without showing too much irritation at how many of them still seemed to view him as some sort of mystical spirit. And at having to be at a feast. Eating was all well and good, but Almonihah didn’t really see the point of eating so much with so many people at the same time.
After eating—and talking until the sun was low—they went out to the large dirt circle in the middle of the village. There was now a large bonfire in the center of the circle, and many of the Plainsmen had already gathered around it. As Almonihah and the group he had come with sat around the perimeter of the circle, he noticed a few of the tribe members coming to the edge of the circle with drums and other objects he assumed were musical instruments.
Then some other Plainsmen came running into the circle. These ones… Almonihah had to struggle not to show some sign of his incredulous disbelief at their costumes. They were dressed in what he could only assume were costumes made to resemble different animals—deer, bison, wolves, lions, griffons, and others—complete with masks. It seemed that their entrance was some kind of a cue, because the musicians started playing, and then the costumed Plainsmen started dancing.
At first, all Almonihah could do was note that they somehow managed to get close to the fire without catching their costumes on fire while he tried to hide his opinion of them. After watching for a little while (and getting control of himself), however, he started to feel like there was something more to the dance. He watched more intently, trying to put his finger on it. It was like… that was it! There was a story to the dance!
Unfortunately, the realization hit him just as the dance was ending. He went over what he remembered, but couldn’t quite put the pieces together. He grunted softly, a bit disappointed.
“You are displeased with the performance?”
Almonihah had to keep himself from jumping at the Shaman’s question. He’d been watching the dance so intently that he’d forgotten that there was someone behind him.
A bit more roughly then he normally would have, the half-dragon admitted, “Just felt like I was just starting t’ understand th’ thing when ‘t ended.”
There was silence for a moment, until Almonihah turned to look at the Shaman and saw him nodding with that irritating smile on his face. “I am glad that you realized there was something to understand.”
Almonihah grunted again. He was getting tired of the Shaman and his infuriatingly mysterious smile.
He was also getting tired of thinking of him as “the Shaman”.
“What’s your name?” Almonihah’s question carried just a bit of an irritated growl.
If the Shaman noted the Ranger’s irritation, he gave no indication of it. “I am called Owl Talon, young Almonihah.”
Almonihah nodded. That seemed to fit—the names he’d gotten from the Plainsmen tended to be animal-related like that.
He jerked his head towards the Chief. “What’s his?”
“Our Chieftain is called Griffon Heart.” Owl Talon paused for a moment, then said, “It is not customary for either of us to be called by our given names, however.”
The Chief had come to the center of the circle while they had been talking. Now he beckoned to the gathering and began to speak.
“Fellow tribesmen, as most of you know, we celebrate this evening not only a successful hunt, but also the rescue of two of our tribesmen by our honored guest, Almonihah Zrathanzon.” He gestured with one hand at the half-dragon, then continued, “Almonihah will be staying with us for a time, and we will extend to him the hospitality of our tribe in acknowledgement of our debt to him for the lives of our brothers.”
Almonihah simply crossed his arms and kept listening. Chief Griffon Heart talked for a fair amount of time, talking about various matters, praising the performers for their skill, and so forth. Towards the end, he mentioned that another hunting party would be leaving after the new moon, which if the Ranger remembered correctly, meant in a couple of weeks. He made a mental note to volunteer to go with them if they were headed towards the forest so he could teach a few of them not to walk into pit plants. Or blood vines. Or packs of fell-wolves.
The half-dragon noticed that people were starting to leave, and that Griffon Heart was walking towards him. He stood up to meet the Chieftain.
“You have been shown where you will stay, Almonihah Zrathanzon?” he asked. When Almonihah nodded, the Plainsman continued, “Then I will leave you to rest. If you wish, I would like to speak with you in the morning.”
Almonihah nodded again. Griffon Heart excused himself, and went off to his home. Looking around, the half-dragon decided he might as well do the same, and went off to the hut he was to sleep in.
There were walls around him. How had he ended up back in that cave? When had Galindakherithan hunted him down again? What…
Then Almonihah remembered. He was in the village of the Griffon Tribe, in the hut they’d given him to sleep in. Now that he was really awake, he could make out the smoke-hole in the roof of the hut, even though it was a cloudy, moonless night. He wasn’t sure how long he’d slept, but it certainly hadn’t been the whole night. Still, he didn’t feel like he could fall asleep again. At least not until his heart stopped beating so fast.
Almonihah exited the hut, pushing aside the animal skin—a deer, if he wasn’t mistaken—that served as the door. All was quiet in the village, except for the quiet movement of a few of the animals the tribe kept. Even more quietly, the Ranger slipped between the homes of the Plainsmen.
When he reached the edge of the village—not really all that far from the center, truth be told—the half-dragon noticed that there were actually a couple of tribesmen keeping watch over the village by night. It made sense—the Central Plains might not be as dangerous as the North Forest, but there were still plenty of things here that wouldn’t mind helping themselves to a chicken… or a human.
Almonihah slipped easily past the sentries. Watchful they might be, but the Ranger had trained to sneak up on creatures much more keen-eared than a human, and on a night like this, remaining unseen hardly took any effort. He remained quiet until he was well away from the village, then stopped to take in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
The night would have been impenetrably dark to human eyes, but Almonihah could see the endless fields of grass extending outwards from him in all directions. In black and white, yes, and not for as far as in the day, but he could see them. Which made made it all the more odd that he’d mistaken his hut for that little room in Galindakherithan’s lair. After spending a few minutes taking in the sight of the plains at night, he had the strange urge to just run. With a shrug, he broke into a trot, and then a steady, ground-eating run.
He didn’t really think about much as he ran. He just enjoyed the feeling of the wind of his passage waving his frill back and forth, the earth beneath his boots, the freedom of being alone on the plains save for the animals, which he avoided without even alerting them to his presence.
His run took him on a wide, lazy circle back to the village. Keeping his sense of direction was something Zrathanzon had trained Almonihah in well. Soon enough, he had to slow down and try to slow his breathing, so as to not alert the sentries.
Again he was back in between the huts of the village. He had come back in from a different direction, however, so that the Shaman’s hut lay between him and ‘his’ hut. As he approached, Almonihah noticed that there was actually a bit of light coming from the hut, and a wisp of smoke rose from the smoke-hole. Cautiously, the half-dragon started to slip past Owl Talon’s doorway.
Just as he was level with it, the tip of a rather familiar staff poked out of the doorway and lifted the animal skin, revealing the old Shaman standing in front of the embers of his fire.
He had that smile again.
“Did you enjoy your run, young dragon?” Owl Talon asked quietly.
Almonihah looked at the old man incredulously. How…?
Recovering a bit, the half-dragon grunted, “Yeah.”
Still smiling, the Shaman nodded and said, “That is good.” Then he stretched, and added, yawning, “Well, these old bones are telling me that I should try to get the rest of the night’s sleep that I woke up from. Rest well, young dragon.”
And with that, Owl Talon went back into his hut.
Still a bit off-balance, Almonihah stood staring at the animal skin that covered the hut’s doorway for a few seconds before he shook himself a bit and went back to his bedroll. Maybe this whole thing was just a dream…