A Keckle

The dusty trail led into the wood and adobe town.   Standing next to a zorca post was a young man equally dusty.  He was fairly tall, nearly naked in the sunshine and had little else about him except an assortment of standard quality weapons.   There was a lean, hungry look to his body and eyes.   It had been too long since he had enjoyed a good meal.

He chewed on a root he had dug out of the ground earlier that morning.   He drank from his water skin.   The sky was cloudless with no rain in sight.   Dust was everywhere.  Down the street he saw a few soldiers walking toward him.  They moved slowly, laboriously in the heat, and while they stared forward in his general direction they did not look directly at him.  They passed him without a second look and continued on their way.

The young man sighed and shook his water skin.   There was little water left in it.   The last time he had filled it had been in a drying stream far out in the wilderness.  He was hoping that the town would have a well.  His thirst was beginning to distress him.   He rubbed his dirty hand over his sweat streaked face and went in search for the well.

It was not long before he found it.  In the middle of the largest street was a circle of ancient masonry with a bucket dangling from a wooden frame above the opening of the well.   Standing next to the well was a soldier leaning on his spear.   His sleepy eyes regarded the youth casually and there was a fresh sweet scent of wine about him.

“I want to fill my water skin,” the young man said.

The soldier noted the near nakedness of the youth.   There was a small coin pouch tied to his weapon belt.   The pouch looked pitifully empty.   Laughing, the soldier pointed to a small sign tacked to the well's wooden frame.

“Can you read?” he asked with the full expectation that this drifter could not.

The young man glanced at the letters and replied, “Not that sign.”

“Can you read any sign?” wondered the guard, idly.

“I can read signs that are a part of the wilderness.   I can read the stars and the sun.  I can read the signs that tell me what kind of man you are,” the youth replied softly.

The guard frowned and straightened up.   He spit into the dust at the youth's feet.  
“And what kind of man am I?”

“Bored, empty, waiting for something to happen,” said the young man.

The soldier snorted, stared steadily at the youth, and then laughed.  “You might be right, you desert rast, but it doesn't matter.  If you want to use this well you have to pay the kov's tax.   If you were a citizen of this town I would think that you have already paid it.  You are not a citizen, so you must pay now.”

“What is the amount?”

“One keckle,” the soldier informed him.    A keckle was a coin of copper, not too expensive a price to pay for one skin of water.

The youth smiled.   “These are dry times.  I would expect hospitality for a stranger.”

“And, I might give it to you, boy, but the kov and my captain have different ideas about it.  They want your money.   My hands are tied.  Orders are orders.”

“The life of a soldier,” the youth muttered.

“Yes, boy, that's right.  So pay a keckle and have your water,” said the soldier.

The young man opened his coin purse and extracted his last coin.  It was a tarnished copper keckle.  He tossed it to the soldier.   The solder nodded and put the coin in a pot reserved for taxes.  Then he said, “Go ahead, boy, take your skin of water.”

Silently, the young man drew up the bucket from the bottom of the well and took the water he had just paid for.   Just as silently, he left the well and the soldier, walking away without even wetting his lips.

The hour was close to midday and the heat was getting worse.   With water slung across his back, the young man walked through the town with the intention of leaving it, but before he left he wanted to look around and see the sights.   Most of his life had been spent in the wilderness of the Hostile Territories, and a visit to a town was worth a few minutes of entertainment.   He passed by some merchant establishments, paused at the door of a pub and considered his lack of money with a lopsided grin.   He moved on, walking down the main street in long strides until he came to a huge stable at the edge of town.   There he stopped, the smell of beasts swelled in his nostrils.   

“What have you done, Mammeta?   You've lost her!”

The shrill voice cut through the thick, hot air.   The youth rounded the corner of the building and saw who had spoken.  It was a mula, one of those small, thin boned odd shaped diffs from the valley of Mul.   This one was dressed in the finery of a house servant, all ruffles and linen.   It stood, indignantly, staring and gesturing at a large, female apim dressed in leather and weapons.

“I lost her!  What are you talking about?   It was the master that insisted the beast should be released into the yard in the early morning hours.  Some idiotic thought about the clean morning air.   I told you it was a stupid idea,” retorted the woman.

“It is what master Cran wanted.   It is not our duty to question his orders.  We are to make sure they are carried out promptly and efficiently and without failure,” squealed the mula as he stamped his tiny black boot on the dusty ground.

“The zorca slipped the corral.  I figured it might happen.   I can't stand out here all morning watching some special pet,” growled the woman.

“Oh really, Mammeta, and who pays your wages.  Lord Cran, that's who.  Oh, dear, this is a terrible thing.   The lord will be so irate.  I don't know how I shall tell him.”

The woman rubbed her hair with a dirty hand.  “Maybe we can find the zorca?   Probably, Cran won't miss it until early evening.”

“Diddle widdle!” cried the mula.  “How can we find Zlana?  We aren't trackers?  Besides, the countryside is beset with hostiles.”

“We can try, Winapedet,” replied the woman steadily.   “What else is there for us to do?  We will just have to avoid the Kartani raiders.”

The young man stepped out from around the corner of the stable.  “Do you have money?”

They whirled and gaped at him.   Both were alarmed that a stranger had discovered their problem.   The mula covered his mouth with one small hand, while the apim woman put her hand on the handle of the broad knife that hung from her belt.

“Easy, folks,” the young man said with a smile.  “I am offering my help for a little money in return.”

“Did you hear what we were saying,” demanded the woman harshly.   Although she was a big woman, the youth towered above her.   Still, she narrowed her eyes and glared at him.

“Yes, I did.   Which is good for you.  I can help you.  I am a good tracker.   For a silver coin I will find your zorca,” said the young man, still smiling.

“What makes you think you can find it?   The ground is dry and the wind scrapes it clean every hour,” asked Mammeta.

“I was raised in the wilderness.  I spent years with the Halitari.   Let me try if you have the coin,” the youth said.

The two stared at the young man, then looked at each other.   The question of what to do loomed large between them, and by staring at each other silently they seemed to be considering their options.   The tiny mula turned his gaze out to the empty yard and shrugged.

“What do we have to lose, Mammeta?” he asked.

“Our heads,” groaned the woman.   “We need to find that silly pet zorca, and we need to do it quietly and quickly.   Perhaps, the gods sent this young fellow to us.”

The little mula clapped his hands together.  He tip toed over to the youth and pulled a silver coin from a pocket in his neatly pressed trousers.   

“Here is your payment to be received when Zlana is in our possession,” he said in a rather serious tone.

“Okay,” agreed the youth.  “Show me the beast's tracks so we can get started.”

They led him into the corral where the woman isolated the zorca’s tracks.   The young man squatted by them for several minutes, quietly observing them from every angle until he had reached some kind of satisfaction.   He rose and said to them, “I'll get going now.”

“And we'll go with you, young man,” said the mula.

“Why?” asked the youth.  “Why go out there?  There are Kartani raiders in the area.  I passed sign of them yesterday.  It would be dangerous for you to go.  Stay here, I will bring your zorca back.”

“Widdle diddle, young man.  We must go to insure you find the right zorca.  It is imperative that we get the beautiful Zlana back.   There can be no mistakes,” explained the mula.

“Now wait, Winapedet,” interjected the woman, “maybe this boy is right.   We don't want to get killed over this.”

“Zlana was our responsibility.  We must insure that he is returned.  We must go.  It is as simple as that.  Come, come, come…let us begin.”

The big woman towered over the small, slender diff.   It was apparent that they had known each other for a long time.  Both were long time members of the lord's staff.  The mula was a house servant, while Mammeta worked in the stables.  There was no nonsense about her as she stared down at Winapedet with her brawny arms crossed over her ample bosom.

“Just who made you the kov of all this business,” she said with a frown.

“Oh, Mammeta,” said the mula softly, “you know I am trained in the organization of tasks.   That's what I do best.   Let me do my job.  You know how important it is that we find Zlana.  Why fight with me or bother to glare at me like some wounded leem.  We both know I am right and that this has to be done.”

Mammeta groaned and tossed her dirty blonde hair.  “Let's go and hope we're lucky.”

“You two are going with me?” asked the young tracker with a dubious frown on his golden tanned face.

“It looks like it, boy,” growled Mammeta.

“Oh, Mammeta, we can't keep calling him boy.  What is your name?” asked the mula in a pleasant voice as if he were speaking over tea in his lord's garden.

The youth laughed lightly.   “I am Tarks.”

“Oh, just Tarks.  Well I am Winapedet the Neat, and this mean looking woman is Mammeta the Vosk.”

“Llahal and lahal,” said Tarks formally.   “Let's get started before the trail gets too difficult to follow.”

“Even for a man who lived with the Halitari?” asked the mula slyly.

“Yes,” said the young tracker.   He walked over to where the trail began.    “I'm not sure, but I'd say your zorca left the corral about three hours ago.   I don't think he will be traveling fast in this heat.   Since he is a domesticated zorca he might not even know where to go and could be wandering about aimlessly.   I need to track him on foot.   The prints are very difficult to see in this wind swept dust.  Out on the grasslands, I will have better luck, but I still need to be close to the ground.   Are you going to be mounted?”

“Yes,” said Mammeta.  I have a couple of zorcas that I can borrow from the stables.  We will tag along behind you.”

Tarks nodded and began to follow the trail out of town.   After they had mounted, the apim and diff followed him.   It was not long before they were out in the grasslands that surrounded the town.   The grass was burned brown in the heat of the two suns.   Tarks took a quick sip of water as he walked as quickly as possible along a trail that was not easy to follow.

About two hours on the trail, Tarks turned to his employers.  “The beast is near.  I didn't think it would wander too far.   But we have to be careful.  I cut fresh sign of raiders a few minutes back.  If they found the zorca, it is lost to us.”

“How many Kartani?” asked Mammeta?

“Not too many.   Only 4.   More than we are, though.  We must be careful.  Dismount and lead your zorcas so you will not be so easily spotted. Perhaps, you would prefer that I go on alone.”

“Why?” asked the mula.

“I can move quietly.  Possibly I can find the zorca and bring it back before the Kartani suspect we are in the area.  You should be safe here.  I doubt the Kartani will double back.”

“Is that really necessary?” the diff asked contritely.

“It might be a good idea, Winapedet.  You spend too much time indoors.  It is still a violent world outside and these savages would kill us as quickly as look at us.   Let the boy find the zorca and then we can go home,” said Mammeta grimly.   She placed her calloused brawny hand on the mula's slender shoulder.

“Oh, all right.  If you insist,” conceded Winapedet the Neat.  “But please hurry, young man.   The afternoon is getting late.”

Tarks smiled at the little mula.   “Wait here then.  I will return shortly.”

He walked away quickly, keeping to the fresh trail with ease.   Before he drifted out of sight he turned and saw the two standing where he had left them.   With a short laugh he began to trot along the trail.

In was an easy matter to find the zorca.  It stood near a small, patch of water.  Its hide was scratched and dusty from its travels, and it whinnied with pleasure when Tarks came forward and spoke to it soothingly.   He slipped a leather strap around its neck and led it back to where he had left the others.

As he returned to where they were waiting he realized he had made a mistake.   Shouting and laughter carried the bad news.  The raiders had found them.   Tarks stopped.  He tied the zorca to a large rock nestled in the ground and crept forward silently.   With the ease of a leem, he slithered on his belly until he discovered the unfortunate situation his employers had fallen into.

Both were tied up with the brutal efficiency of the savage.  The big woman was bruised and cut in several places.  Her big knife was in the hands of a powerfully built Kartani youth.   The mula was already tied to a zorca for transport.   Perhaps, the raiders thought they might get a good price for a rare diff.  Two of the raiders were poking Mammeta with knives.  Her fate did not look promising.    She was an unattractive woman, but they might still rape her if the urge came upon them.  After that, they would either kill her or sell her as a slave.

Tarks narrowed his eyes in thought.   He laughed silently and slithered back the way he came.  Out of sight, he opened a small pouch hanging from his leather belt and took out some pigments.   He stripped naked and applied patterns to his face, chest and stomach.   His golden bronze body was soon decorated with odd, primitive circles and strokes.   He armed himself, remained naked otherwise, and walked calmly down into the midst of the raiders.

One moment he wasn't there, the next moment he was standing on a small hill west of them.   The two suns of Kregen highlighted his splendidly masculine body.   The Kartani jumped at his appearance, startled, and reached for their bows.   With automatic ease, they drew arrows back to their ears and aimed at the stranger.

One of them spoke and the bows were lowered.   The speaker pointed to Tarks, his finger etching a circle a round the young man's body.   The raiders mumbled among themselves in a confused babble of excitement.   They waited as Tarks walked down to them.

He stopped within ten feet of them.   The boldest among them raised his hands and spoke in signs.   Tarks replied in the same sign language.   No words were spoken.   Tarks pointed to the others and made another sign.   Then he stood there, solemnly, waiting for their reaction.

The leader made sign toward the zorcas that the others had been riding.   Tarks shrugged in a universal sign of indifference.   The leader made a sign of assent and spoke to his brethren.  They mumbled among themselves for a short time and reached an agreement.  One of the Kartani removed Winapedet from the zorca he was tied to and dropped him to the ground.   Then the raiders left, taking the zorcas and all other properties, but left their captives behind.

Tarks laughed as they rode away.

“Stay here,” he said.   Your zorca is just beyond that ridge.  I want to get him before those boys find him and want to renegotiate.”

Winapedet blurted something out.   It fell on deaf ears as Tarks turned and raced back the way he came.  A few minutes later he arrived, riding Zlana, with the rest of his possessions in his hand.

He cut Mammeta lose.

“What was that all about?” asked the big woman as she watched him put his breechcloth back on.

“We have to hurry.  I don't want to run into any more raiders.”

“Why didn't they attack you?” persisted Mammeta.

“I told you I lived with the Halitari.   They know and respect those mighty hunters.  I came to them as a Halitari, and they recognized me.   There was no reason for them to fight.   They have no feud with the Halitari and they would not wish to make war on them.   It was all a very civilized negotiation among savages,” laughed Tarks.

“Thank you for not just riding away on Zlana,” said Mammeta.

“Why would I do that?  I haven't been paid yet,” said Tarks blandly.   

She stared at his blank face and wondered if he were joking or not.   Then she laughed out loud and said, “You haven't.  Let's get back to town and take care of that minor transaction.”

The trip back to town was without incident.   Tarks was given his money and a little extra for saving their lives.   They parted on good terms.

Tarks left the town, heading out into the rough surrounding wilderness with a smile on his face.  It had been an interesting experience for the young traveler.   He checked his pigment pouch and decided he would have to replenish his supply soon so he kept an eye out for the right kind of plant whose root made good paint.

Two days later he came upon a slaughtered troop of soldiers.  Nearly all of them were dead.   Broken Kartani arrows identified the killers.   Tarks found no whole arrows because the savages would have reclaimed them.   Among a primitive people who had to make their own weapons, arrows were valuable.

Only two soldiers were still alive.   One was mortally wounded, bleeding to death from a deep stomach wound.  There was no hope for this man so Tarks cut his throat with the same cold efficiency that a butcher kills a calf.  The other had a severe wound to his right leg and a huge bruise on his head from the blow that had rendered him unconscious during the battle.   Tarks grinned as he bent over the wounded man.  It was the same soldier who had collected the water tax from Tarks at the well in town.

“You've fallen into rast shit, soldier,” said Tarks softly as he examined the man's wound.

“What?” the man gasped.  “Oh, it is you!  The youth from town.”

“Not exactly from town, soldier.   Remember?”

The soldier remained bewildered.   His eyes narrowed as he tried to focus.  “What are you doing here?   You have to help us.”

“Just passing through,” said Tarks.   “Do I have to help you?   Is this some custom of hospitality or charity to strangers that I don't know about?”

“What?”  the soldier groaned, “what are you saying?”

“Do you have a keckle?”

“A keckle?  I don't understand?”

“Do you have a keckle?” Tarks repeated.

The soldier pushed a clumsy hand into his pocket and pulled one out.  “Here, a keckle.  Help me, I'm bleeding to death.”

“Yes, you might,” agreed Tarks.  He took the keckle and flipped it into the air.   He caught it with a smile.

“Lean back and I will sew up your wound.  For a keckle,” said Tarks.   He laughed and began to work…

The end.

By Rod Hunsicker
Copyright 5/5/03