First Obi                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   By Rod Hunsicker
Copyright 6/23/2002

The Comanche guided his tired zorca pass the remuda and the circle of wagons into the center of camp.    Most of the party was asleep, as the first sun had not yet risen, so he made as little noise as possible.   When he got to the central fire he slid off his beast and squatted beside the man who was going out to ride guard next.

"Everything quiet out there?" asked the man.  His name was Avil Tarks.  He was a large, muscular brute of a man with ruddy golden skin and thick brown hair.   As Cat Smiling helped himself to a cup of strong Kregen tea, Tarks rose and stretched his long powerful arms.

"Everything is quiet.  No trouble," the Comanche reported.   He was thirsty.  The tea felt good going down.   He squatted on his heels and sipped from his cup.

"Things have been too quiet, lately.   It’s a big place out there, big enough to hide a lot of trouble, but I expected some long before this," commented Tarks.   The big man adjusted his harness and inspected his weapons.  Like most adult Kregans he was fully armed.   On a world as dangerous as Kregen, that was a stark necessity.

"Then get out there and make sure things stay quiet," grunted a man who was joining them at the fire.   A big, blond man, he stood with the confidence of a natural leader.   Tarks nodded sharply and walked quickly to his waiting, saddled zorca.    There were two moons racing overhead, and like it was on most cloudless nights on Kregen, it was fairly easy to see.   The two men squatting by the fire watched as Tarks mounted his zorca and drifted slowly, unobtrusively, out of camp.

"He's a good man.   A superior scout.   Found him in the Hostile Territories.  Takes a tough man to survive there," mused the blond man, one Valcon the Blade and leader of the group.

Cat Smiling nodded.    "Tarks is not a clansman.   Few of the people in your group are clansmen.   Why do they follow you?   Because you are a good leader?"

Valcon laughed as he sat down and stretched his long legs.   "I am that.   I suppose I learned leadership when I took obi as a young man among the clans."

"You lead because you are successful?  Or because they have bound themselves to you?" asked the Comanche.

"Because I am successful they are bound to me.   Many things can bind men or women to a leader.   Most of those things are centered in success.   There is no custom of obi beyond the Plains, Cat Smiling.  At least, not as the clansmen practice it.   I have been trying to impress these people with the meaning of obi.   Some understand it, and some will have to learn.   What they do know is that I am the unofficial obi leader of this group should we encounter clansmen who wish to take obi of us.  That way I can deal with the problem.   At least, at first," explained Valcon.

"Your plains are a big place.   We have traveled far and have encountered the clansmen rarely," commented Cat Smiling.

"That's because I have good scouts like Thipar Crodan, Tarks and you.   You've done a fine job of avoiding trouble from enemy clans.   It may take a while before we find my clan," said Valcon.

"In some ways your people are like mine.  In other ways, they are not.   On the great plains of my country the Comanche are all one people.   There are different bands, which might be the same thing as your clans, but all are Comanche.   We do not fight among ourselves very often.  There are plenty of other enemies to fight," said Cat Smiling.

"The Clansmen like to fight.   Too much.   Obi is a good thing between such fighters, but too often there is bloodshed before obi can be taken or given.   That's why I've warned you to avoid all clansmen.  More than likely, they would attack you first, ask for obi later."

"Always, there is obi.   Is there obi among your women, too?"

"No," smiled Valcon, "but they have their own ways of working things out.   Don't worry so much about obi.  It is not as much like captivity, as you seem to think.   It is more about loyalty and responsibility between men."

The Comanche grunted and looked pointedly at Valcon's eyes.   "You have said you will deal with obi.   It is your worry."

Again, Valcon laughed.  It was easy for this big, blond man to laugh.  "Surely, Cat, surely, unless I am killed, then your worries begin again."

"I think you are a hard man to kill, Valcon the Blade," testified the Comanche as he took a sip of strong Kregish tea.


Eroin missed her man.    For most of the day he was out riding.   One third of the day he rode alone and another third he rode with one of the other scouts.   One third of the day he rested.  That left little time for him to be with her.

Her belly was becoming heavy with child.   They had been wandering for a long time looking for Valcon's clan.   Eroin hoped that they would find them before she gave birth.

When she was worried she thought about her home back in Hamal.   She had been safe there with a life of relative comfort.   Her baby would have been delivered by the best of medical hands to be found in her community.   She had expressed this concern to Valcon once, and he told her that many babies are born on the Plains of Segesthes.   The strong live, and the weak die.   He was certain that the child would be as strong as its father and mother.

She took some comfort in that, but on the colder, darker nights she still thought of her father's house and wished she were there.

She started.  Whirling around, she saw Cat Smiling standing nearby.   His zorca wasn't nearby, and that was why she hadn't heard him approach.   It was rare when the Comanche was not mounted.  He never walked when he could ride.

"Sneaking up on me?" she asked, half irritated that he had surprised her.

The Comanche didn't reply.   He stared at her with coal black eyes.   Unconsciously, she turned her leem scar away so he could only see her beauty.   It was something she did because she was a woman.  While the other men in their party noticed the scar and sometimes pitied her, Cat Smiling never commented on it, nor did he look away.   Still, she wanted him to look upon her with pleasure so she turned her scar side away.

"What can I do for you?   Are you hungry?" she said, putting her hands on her hips.

"Almost hungry enough to eat dog," he said softly.       He used the Comanche word for dog.  It was a word Eroin recognized.   She also knew that Cat Smiling’s people hated to eat "dog", whatever animal was.

"Let me get you something," she said with a smile.  "I was just about to prepare breakfast, anyway."

"You are an early riser, Eroin.   Valcon has said that is a good thing in a civilized woman," said Cat Smiling as he squatted down beside her fire.

"I knew you'd be coming back about now.   I wanted to have something ready for you," she said.

He watched her prepare his breakfast.   She was not as nimble with a belly full of baby.   The women of Cat Smiling's tribe often worked before and after giving birth.   It was expected of them, but Cat Smiling looked beyond that tribal expectation and remembered all the babies that had not survived their birth.   It was difficult for the women of his tribe to bear children under the harsh conditions of the plains.   The one thing that his Comanche mother and his Apache grandmother had agreed upon was that it was wise to take special care of a mother when she is ready to give birth.

This child would be his first born on Kregen.   It would be a special event.  If it required special care, then that was what must be provided.

"There is no hurry, Eroin," he said.   She turned and looked at him, surprised at this statement because she knew he was hungry.   As it normally was, his bronze face was impassive, but there was something about the slump of his shoulders and the way he shifted his weight under her gaze that told her he was concerned.   This made her happy even if his concern was only for their child.

After she served him his meal she spoke again.   "You were watching me, Cat.   You do that often.  Why?"

The Comanche didn't answer quickly.   When he did his voice was rougher than usual.  

"Because you are beautiful, Eroin."

"Beautiful?" she repeated.   Again he surprised her.   "Beautiful with this horrid scar running down my face."

"The scar is only one thing.   The rest of you are everything else.   You are beautiful," said Cat Smiling.   He rose to his feet and held out his arms.   She came to him, choked up by his unprecedented sentimentality, and they hugged each other tightly.

With her swollen belly pressed against his, Cat Smiling could almost feel the life of his son within.   His face buried in her long black hair, the cat smiled warmly and freely.


Cat Smiling sat on his zorca and looked out over the rolling plains.   He turned to his scouting partner and spoke, "Why haven't we found Valcon's people in all these months of traveling?"

The man from the Hostile Territories laughed.   It was a harsh, bitter laugh for Tarks was a hard man.   "Maybe his people are avoiding him."

Cat Smiling didn't respond to his companion's cynicism.  Instead, he said,” Maybe they don't exist anymore.   Valcon has told me that the clans are constantly fighting among themselves.  Sometimes they merge smaller bands into a larger band.   He has been away a long time, according to his testimony, and many things could have happened."

Tarks nodded, and turned serious.  "Kregen is a violent place.   Where there is violence, there is change.   Valcon tries to return home.  That is something very hard to do."

The truth of the scout's words struck home in the Comanche's heart.   He wondered how difficult it would be for him to return home.  There was no trail to follow.  No landmarks, and the stars were different.   Everything was different.  The worst part was he did not know where he was.   He could not begin the journey because he didn't know where to go.

"If you ever had a home in the first place," continued Tarks with a deep, almost growling tone.

They were quiet for a few minutes.   Both kept their eyes on the yellow grass before them.   Nothing was in the distance.  No trails, neither animal or of man were in sight.   The day had been uneventful.

"Home is a treasure on Kregen.   In the Hostile Territories or any other place, I think.   Home means stability.   Ain't no stability when you need to defend against slavers, raiders and conquerors," commented Tarks.   He kept his bronze face pointed away from the Comanche as if to hide his deeper thoughts from his companion.

"And then there are the monsters," he added, in a lighter tone.   "So many monsters."

Cat Smiling was silent.   There was nothing for him to say.  Instead, he urged his zorca forward, hoping to cover another few miles before he and Tarks would return to the main party.

"Why don't we separate a bit," suggested Tarks.  "I'll go to the right.  You go to the left.  Not far apart.  Maybe half a mile."

The Comanche nodded and turned his mount to the left.   The ground rolled in grassy slopes and soon Tarks was out of sight.   Cat Smiling went on, looking down for signs and looking up and around for enemies.   Like all Comanche he was wary in unknown territory, and it irked him that everywhere in this world qualified as unknown territory.   Valcon rarely stayed in one place for long in his search for his own clan so just when Cat Smiling learned the lay of the land he had to move on with the rest of the group.

It was not long before he saw the tops of some trees in the short distance ahead.   He walked his mount over and discovered the beginning of a large gully that led down into a small grove.   These trees grew in an indentation in the plains, caused by some ancient geological disturbance.   Cat Smiling could almost smell fresh water in the draw and angled Grass Burner down.   Then he stopped and retreated before going in too far.   What if this were the only readily accessible entrance into the draw?    With Comanche cunning he began to circle the trees, looking for some other way to go down.   If he couldn't find one he would be very reluctant to go down.

Riding slowly around the little glen, he found no sign and no other way down.   Once around the rough circumference, Cat Smiling returned to the descending path.   There he sat on his zorca and stared at the trees and greener grass below.   By right it was his duty to investigate the tiny valley below, but by Comanche wisdom it would be foolish to do so alone.   So he waited, knowing that Tarks would soon double back and rejoin him.

He had not waited long before he heard the sound of men and zorcas below.   Tired of waiting, five clansmen rode out of the glen and up the path toward Cat Smiling.   Five to one odds was too great a risk, so the Comanche turned his zorca around and sent it flying away from these men who would have ambushed him.   It took some time for the clansmen to climb up the tiny, steep valley path so it was that Cat Smiling opened up one hundred yards between himself and the clansmen.   They rose up from the glen, laughing and yelling and spurring their mounts in pursuit.

The Comanche led them a merry chase.   Displaying a riding skill that matched or surpassed their own, he increased the distance between them, urging faithful Grass Burner up to full speed.   It was in his mind that he might escape until he saw several more clansmen riding toward him from the south before him.   Cat Smiling cut away from these new riders in an attempt to avoid both pursing parties, but it was not long before they began to converge on him.   They sent some arrows over his head and yelled for him to stop.

With a sigh, the Comanche did just that.   With his bow in his hand, and an arrow ready to set fly, Cat Smiling sat on his zorca and waited for the clansmen to come upon him.

Confronted with only one foe, the clansmen were not as bloodthirsty as they might have been upon meeting a more numerous enemy on the open plain.   They circled the Comanche with grinning faces and brandished weapons.   Cat Smiling knew that it was their custom upon meeting strangers to fight first and talk afterward.   He considered it a fortunate break that they had not just attack him outright, and because of this a plan formed in his wily mind.

He raised his left hand, which held no weapon, and said, "Llahal, I am Cat Smiling of the Antelope clan."

They stopped laughing and stared at him with their white man's eyes.    Frowns wrinkled their ruddy tanned faces.   One of them was prompted to answer Cat Smiling's greetings.   After all, they weren't savages.

"Llahal, I am Gig Anton, of the Clan Terentz," growled a big man who was apparently their leader.   He sat back on his superb zorca and scrutinized the Comanche with a puzzled expression on his face.   The first hurtle had been crossed.   The clansmen were not immediately intent on violence.

Or so Cat Smiling thought.

"Why speak to this odd looking diff?  Let's just kill him and move on," said another of the clansmen.   He angled his zorca close to Grass Burner and sneered at the Comanche.

The other clansmen shifted their gaze from the man who wanted to kill Cat Smiling to Gig Anton.   Soon everyone was looking at Gig.   He remained silent and smiled at Cat Smiling.

The Comanche spoke to the outspoken clansmen, "I have given my name.  What is yours?"

Like many of the clansmen, this one was big, burly and aggressive.  His face was scarred and bitter as he spat at Cat Smiling.

"I am Rou Tigant, of the Clan Terentz!   I don't like diffs on the Plains.   I will kill you," snarled the clansmen.

"Ah, I understand," said Cat Smiling calmly.   "Now that we have made the papppattu, we will fight at once.   For obi!"

"Obi?" ejaculated Rou in surprise.

"Certainly," retorted Cat Smiling with dramatic indignity.  "Are we beasts not to observe obi.   We have been introduced.  Now we will fight.  You and I!"

The rest of the clansmen looked at the Comanche with equal surprise.   They had not thought him to be well versed in their customs, though there was slyness in Gig Anton's eyes that spoke of a different estimate of the stranger.   There remained one question in their minds, however.

"Are you a diff?" asked one of them.   "I never saw a man with your coloring or eyes before."

Cat Smiling drew himself up in the saddle.  "I am apim."

"So be it," grunted Gig Anton.   "What is your answer, Rou?"

The clansman brute snapped a glare at Gig Anton.   "Answer?"

"Do you give obi to this Cat Smiling?"

The question was ridiculous.   Rou wondered briefly why Gig wanted him to fight the stranger, and then remembered that Gig had never liked him.   There was a light dancing in Gig's blue eyes that shined his amusement to his fellow clansmen.  Rou shrugged his bear like shoulders.  It didn't matter.  He had intended to kill the stranger, anyway.

"Of course not!   Let the little man take it, if he can!"  Roared Rou.

Rou waved his hand toward the Comanche.  "You hold a bow in your hand.   Let us settle the matter with that."

It was as Cat Smiling had hoped.   If there was any weapon with which he might have an advantage over these men it was the bow.   He had been born with one in his hand.   His black eyes glittered at Rou.   The big clansman recoiled a bit.   He had never seen such intent in another man’s eyes.   For a brief moment, Rou felt a bit queasy as he realized that there was nothing more that this small, dark man wanted to do than to put an arrow in his body.   Then the courage that was well known among clansmen took over, and the big man laughed.   It would take more than a mean look to settle their argument.

The issue was quickly put to the test as the two combatants faced each other on the open plain.   They rode fiercely at each other, bows ready to fire and after they passed, Rou fell to the grass with an arrow through his heart.

The clansmen were silent as Cat Smiling rode up to them.   He had made no attempt to flee after passing Rou.   

"I am Cat Smiling.   I have no intention of dying or being captured.  I will fight each of you, one at a time, until you discard the idea of killing me," said the Comanche in slow, solemn words.

The clansmen were silent for a long moment.   Then Gig Anton laughed, "What is the point of killing you?   You can't take obi from a dead man."

“I will not be killed or captured," said Cat Smiling.

"You have a marvelous skill with a bow, Cat Smiling.  I think you may be right if all of your challenges are met with that weapon.   Are you equally good with your other weapons?" asked Gig Anton.

"If you insist on fighting me, you will find out.   I hope that we may continue in peace, however," said Cat Smiling.

"Ah, peace is not our way, stranger.   We are first met and we have made the pappattu.   Let us fight over obi," said Gig Anton with almost tiredness in his voice.  "You do not carry a sword so we will use axes."

The fighting was to be done mounted.    No clansman or Comanche would choose to fight on the ground.   Cat Smiling returned his bow to its sheath and took up his axe.   Valcon had been giving him instructions on how to use the axe properly.   For a brief moment, Cat Smiling wondered how good Gig Anton was with an axe.

They came together on zorcas.  Axes flashed through the air.  Both men had masterful control over their mounts so that it was almost as if they were fighting on the ground.   Anton was taller and had a longer reach, but the Earthman was quite a bit faster.   Cat Smiling was not good enough with the axe to try to disarm the clansmen, as he wished to do because he had taken a natural liking to Gig Anton, so to compensate for his lack of skill he fought with unrestrained ferocity.   He did not want to lose.   The fight was decided when their axes came together with jarring force, and the lesser axe broke.   Gig Anton sat on his zorca without a weapon, staring into a savage Comanche face.

The fight was over.  Given Cat Smiling's speed and weapon in hand it was nearly hopeless for Gig Anton.   He conceded the fight and gave obi to the Comanche.

He sat upright in his saddle and entered the obi ceremony.  He covered his eyes, ears and mouth with the palms of his hands and then held them over his heart.

"I make obi to you, Cat Smiling.  With my eyes I will only see good of you, with my ears I will only hear good of you and with my mouth I will only speak good of you.   And my heart is yours to feast upon."

Cat Smiling accepted this and waved his hand to the other clansmen.  "What about them?"

"They may do what they wish, but since I am the best man here, I doubt they will challenge you," said Gig Anton.

Cat Smiling waited and received no challenges.   Though his face was impassive, his mind was racing with all he had learned about obi from Valcon.   It was true that when a new papppattu was made and there was a challenge for obi, all other obis died.   Valcon said that this meant that anyone could challenge anyone else, though this seldom happened unless a man had been waiting for such a time to change his obi status.   Usually, only the top men fought and the lesser men went along with the outcome of the fight.   It appeared that this was going to happen now.   The other clansmen were standing down.

They all stared at the Comanche, waiting for him to decide what they were going to do next.   Cat Smiling felt the power of obi.   Command over other men such as he had never known among his own people except for the power that a man had over a slave.   These warriors were not slaves, however, and that made his command over them far more fulfilling and thrilling.

“Where are your people camped, Gig Anton?”  Cat Smiling asked.

“Our herds graze ten miles to the west.   We are a small hunting, scouting party.”

“A rider approaches,” reported one of the clansmen.   Cat Smiling turned in the direction that he pointed and saw Tarks slowly walking his zorca toward them.   The Comanche grunted and spoke to the clansmen.

“Wait here.  I know this man.  We ride together.  I will go talk to him.”

Seeing that Cat Smiling was coming to him, Tarks stopped and waited.   As the Comanche came closer, the badland scout grinned.

“Find some new friends, Cat?”

The Comanche shrugged.  “We found each other.”

“Valcon won’t be happy.  We are supposed to avoid Clansmen parties.”

Cat Smiling said something in his native tongue that meant something like “shit happens”.   “Its not so bad.  I have taken obi from their leader.   They follow me, now.”

“I see a dead man lying in the grass.   You didn’t get obi from him,” Tarks said with a laugh.

“He was a fool.   Now his spirit rides in the Land of Mist that Valcon has told me of.”

“What now?”

Cat turned in the saddle and looked back at the clansmen.  They were waiting patiently where he left them.

“Valcon told us to avoid contact with the clansmen, but that’s blood already drawn.    I think he wants no complications as he tries to find his own Clan.   Do you think they would return to their own people if I order them to do so?

Tarks shook his head.  “What’s the good in that?   They know about you.  They know about me.  They’ll guess there are others with us.  They’ll tell their people.   I say bring them with us.  Let Valcon decide.”

“You are right.   The only other thing to do would be for us to ride with them to their camp and pretend that there are only two of us.   I doubt if that would work.   They are not stupid.  They’d send out scouting parties and search the area.”

Cat Smiling waved to the Clansmen, indicating that they should join him, and they did so immediately.  When they arrived, the Comanche introduced Tarks to them.   Tarks and Cat Smiling waited for the challenge of obi, but none came.   

“Where do you ride, now?” asked Gig Anton.

“To the camp of my party.”   He kicked his zorca ahead.   Tarks rode beside him with an odd smile on his face.  The clansmen rode behind.   Cat Smiling knew what his fellow scout was thinking.   What would Valcon say?


“Ah, the plot thickens.”

Richart leaned back in his chair and smiled at Maeve.   “No more periphery.   He’s going to get directly involved with the Clans now.   Is that what you want?”

Both of them smiled at the ridiculous question.   Or was it?   Richart was beginning to wonder what it was that Maeve wanted exactly.

“What I want is proof that my scanning device works.   The Clans are incidental.”

Richart lingered his gaze on her pretty face and wondered if he would ever understand the totality of his friend.  So much theoretical intelligence in a woman’s head was something of a wonder.

“Have you heard the news about Inomoroti?”  He asked.

“Oh, what news?”

“He rides for Segethes.   Can there be coincidence in that?”

Maeve turned and faced him directly, abandoning the screen before her.   She grimaced in alarm.  “No, I don’t believe so.  No coincidence.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know, Richart.   We’ll just have to keep an eye on the situation.  More data will provide more accurate conjecture.”

Richart nodded and returned to his work.  She watched him for a few more moments until the concern she was feeling faded from her face.   The Scythian in the field meant that Garvos was involving himself in the
Clans.   If that was going to involve Cat Smiling she did not know, yet somewhere in the back of her theoretical mind she knew it was going to.


“Your man is late coming back?”

Eroin looked out over the plains.   The smell of grass and earth swept across her face with the breeze.   One of her hands stroked her swollen belly absentmindedly.   It had occurred to her that Cat Smiling was late.  For this reason she was gazing out across the rolling plains instead of finishing her work.

“A little, I know.   I’m not so worried.  He always comes back,” said Eroin with a soft smile.   As she said it she was hoping that she had spoken the truth.

”What would you do if he didn’t come back?” asked Valcon.   Turning, she frowned up at his open, blond face.

“Why do you ask?” she wondered.  Concern for Cat Smiling speared her heart.

Valcon shrugged. “Just curious.   You and Cat are very different.   You come from different cultures.   From what he has told me of his people I don’t think they bear any resemblance of the people of Hamal.”

“That is true,” admitted Eroin.

“So I wondered what you would do if you were not his woman.   I like to know things about people,” explained Valcon, comforting her with one of his friendly smiles.

Eroin looked behind her at a hide stretched out on a frame of sticks.   She had been scraping the hide to make material to fashion a new shirt for Cat Smiling.   That was the kind of tedious, hard work that she would never have had to do back in Hamal.  Eroin rarely permitted memories of her life back in Hamal to surface into her consciousness.   When they did come they were mildly disturbing.  How could it not be disturbing when she remembered her previous life?   She thought, now, of her father’s large house.    She recalled her large bed with its dark wooden bedposts and frilly trimmings.   She thought of her vanity, with its large mirror and the many small drawers that contained her perfumes and other womanly items.   Her closets had been filled with beautiful, wonderful dresses and other expensive articles of clothing.   She could imagine, Renma, her personal slave, fussing over her things now, taking care to maintain them in perfect order as if her personal worth was somehow tied into how well she kept her mistress’s things.

 Looking out the window of her room she had often gazed over the expansive fields of grain.   Many slaves worked for her father.  He was a stern man, expecting a full days work from each slave. Now, she sighed and replied to Valcon, “I don’t know.   I suppose I’d try to get back to my father’s farm.  I was happy there.  Life held the usual promise.   I think my child would have a better life there.”

Valcon nodded.  “An honest answer.  Have you told Cat Smiling that?”

“Yes,” she admitted.  “Once.”

“What did he say?”


Valcon smiled.  “Of course.  He is a man.  He expects his woman to be with him.   That would be the end of the story.  May I ask what you think of your life here?  I mean, on the Plains of Segesthes?”

Of course, she knew what he was asking.  How did life here compare with her life at home?   She studied him closely, wondering why he was asking these questions.   He looked like he always looked in those moments when he was not acting as the commander of their little party.  He was big, blond and friendly with a soft smile on his handsome, masculine face.   How would her life have been different if this man had “rescued” her from the slavers and not Cat Smiling?

But she knew that was not the question.   He had a genuine interest in her thoughts without coveting her body.   Somehow that made him more endearing to her.  It was as if he were a good friend.

Eroin drew in a deep breath.  “Life isn’t so bad here.   It’s a struggle though.   A barbaric land for a barbaric people.”

Valcon laughed.  “Don’t call these Clansmen barbarians.  They consider themselves above that.  You might be right, though.   And don’t worry about your man.  I think these old eyes see him coming now.”

Eroin searched the plains in the direction Valcon pointed.   Yes, a group of men were riding toward the camp.

“He’s returning.  He’s not alone.   What went wrong now?” Valcon wondered in a gruff voice.   The big man ran over to his zorca, leaped into the saddle and rode out to meet the returning party.

There was no need for Valcon to shout a warning.   His people were trained to be alert.  By the time he reached the approaching party, most of them had mobilized and were riding out to support him.   Meanwhile, Cat Smiling, Tarks and the clansmen had stopped to await their reception.

Valcon jerked his zorca to a sliding halt.  He shot his two scouts a scalding glance before he faced the clansmen.

“What’s this?” he demanded.

Tarks leaned back in the saddle and smirked.   With a little laugh he nodded at the Comanche.   Valcon glared at Cat Smiling.

“Let’s hear it,” he growled.   He was very angry.   The last thing he had wanted to happen was for the clansmen to find his party.   He glared at Cat Smiling with an expectant air that the scout’s explanation had better be good.

The Comanche kept a stoic face as he briefly explained what had happened.  He had never seen Valcon so angry before.   During the explanation, Valcon kept glancing over at the Terentz clansmen with troubled eyes.

“Damn, this isn’t what I wanted to happen.  I thought you were good, Cat!”  Growled Valcon.   By this time the others of his party had arrived and formed a semi circle around the clansmen.   They were an eclectic crew, apims from all parts of Kregen.  Among them were only a few recognizable clansmen.  The Terentz clansmen looked upon them with amusement.

Gig Anton spoke.  “I am Gig Anton, of the Clan of Terentz.   Who are you?”

Valcon faced the clansman who had spoken to him.   The big blond man hesitated to reply, his expressive face twisted with reluctance.   His left hand closed on the pummel of the long sword that hung at his side.   Then, he gathered himself and replied, “I am Valcon the Blade.”

“You are more than that,” observed Gig, “you have the look of a clansman.   Tell me who you are?”

Valcon remained silent.   His face was a stone mask.

“If you are of the Clans, you must tell me who you are.   Are you not a man?” asked Gig Anton.

The blond man flinched at Gig’s words.   Still, he hesitated as if he were making a serious decision.

“I am a man, Gig Anton.   A man who has been gone from these plains for more than a hundred years,” said Valcon slowly.   “Once I was a clansman.  Now I’m not so sure.”

Gig’s eyes narrowed.   His fellow clansmen shifted in their saddles behind him.   All of them seemed to sense that something was very wrong.   No clansman would fail to identify his clan.  All of them were proud of their heritage.   A few moments of silence prevailed over them all.   All that could be heard was the gentle whine of the soft prairie wind.

“I am Gig Anton of the Clan Terentz,” repeated Gig.   The clansmen stared at Valcon expectantly.

Valcon drew in a great breath.  He raised his head in pride and made his decision.

“I am Valcon Kreeg, of the Clan Gisgedalt,” he said slowly, softly as he looked at Gig as if to say, “do you have a problem with that?”

Gig Anton hissed.    His fellow clansmen moved restlessly behind him.  One of them spit on the grass before Valcon.    Before Gig could reply, a tall sinewy clansman pushed his zorca forward and growled at Valcon.

“I am Tither Amil of the clan of Terentz.   Now that we have made the pappattu, we will fight at once!”

“Hold on, Tither!  I’m not sure this traitor is worthy of obi,” cried one of the other clansmen.  “We should just kill him outright!”

Sitting on his zorca beside Valcon was the long lean form of Wrevo the Spear.   He replied in his usual, dry, laconic voice, “That wouldn’t be a good idea.  You’re outnumbered.  Look around.”

Tither Amil laughed as he waved toward the semi circle of strange warriors that surrounded the clansmen.  “Weak foreigners.   We outnumber you.”

Valcon sat on his zorca with an odd contemplative look on his handsome face.   It seemed that his anger had passed.  With a slow movement he pulled an amulet from under his shirt and let it drop on his chest and dangle by its silken chords.   The clansmen recognized it as a pakzhan, and it signaled to them that Valcon was a renowned warrior, a hyrpaktun.  

“That changes nothing, zhan.   You are still part of a traitorous clan.   You deserve death!” cried Tither.

“Bullshit!” came a cry from Hastan Opine, the short clansman who tended the remuda.    Valcon silenced him with a sharp glance.

“Before we fight for obi, you should know that I have been away from Segethes for a hundred years.  I have done nothing traitorous toward the Clans.   I have come home to discover the truth or falsehood of these vile accusations against my old clan.   I refuse to accept that I have done anything dishonorable.   If you fight me, you do so with this knowledge in your thick head, because when the fight is over, and if you are not dead, you will give obi to me.   I am Valcon the Blade, and there are few men my better.”

Tither, with typical clansman braggadocio, laughed and said, “That’s because you have been too long away from Segesthes.   Let us fight so I can end this matter quickly.”

Valcon nodded.   There was nothing more to be said.  The two men met on the open plains with axe and zorca.   Tither was a youthful, energetic fighter, but when it was over he lay on the tall grass with a bloody right arm.   Valcon dismounted and towered over him.

“Well?” asked the big blond man.

Tither staggered to his feet, holding his wound together with blood soaked fingers.   There was a moment of silence as the young clansman tried to decide what he should do.   Although, his clan had been declared outlaw, Valcon had not been among his clan for many years.   Of course, Tither had only the Blade’s word for this, but the fact that he was accompanied by a motley band of mercenaries seemed to testify that Valcon was telling the truth.   Then, begrudgingly, he made his decision.

He gave obi to the victor.

After accepting obi, Valcon turned to the other clansmen.  “I suppose I’ll have to bloody the rest of you too.  I hope not.  None of you can defeat me.   Let it go.   I am as disturbed as you are about the disgrace of the Gisgedalt clan.   All I want to do is investigate and see what is true and what is not.”

Gig Anton, clearly the leader of the Terentz clansmen, spoke.  “I believe that none of us could defeat you.   I believe that you are truly a hyrpaktun.  When you called yourself the Blade I thought you meant the sword.”

“I am Valcon the Blade.  All blades.”

“So I see.   There need be no further trouble between us.  We will let our elders decide on the matter of Valcon the Blade.”

“That’s good,”  Valcon said with a smile, “take your wounded clansman and go back to your people.  Let me and my friends discover the truth about the Gisgedalt in our own time.”

“We will go, Valcon.   What the elders of our tribe decide is not for us to predict.   For now there is peace between us,” said Gig Anton.   He turned to Cat Smiling, “With your permission, we will go.”

The concept of obi still amused him.   These men had given obi to him, yet one fight over obi with Valcon seemed to confuse the issue.   Clearly, these men considered Valcon to be the man present most superior and were prepared to follow Valcon’s directive with the Comanche’s nearly tacit permission.   Cat Smiling nodded his assent.   

Wrevo the Spear grunted as the young Terentz clansmen rode away.  “I was afraid you’d have to kill them all, Val.”

“Me to.   I didn’t want to do that.  I just hope I haven’t put us all in jeopardy by letting them return to their clan.”

Wrevo grunted.   “Yeah, you might have made a bad choice.   They could come back in strength and kill us all.”

Valcon turned a concerned face to his friend.   “That worries me, Rev.   I don’t want you and the others to die because of me, my old sword dom.   Perhaps, you should go your own way.  It might be too dangerous now?”

Wrevo laughed harshly.  “Why do I have to hear that rast shit?   What’s danger to two old paktuns like us?   I think the others feel the same.   Besides, we’ve ridden together too long to part ways now.   And never because of danger, dom.”

Valcon gripped the tall man’s thin shoulder.  “You’re a good friend, Rev.”

“Let’s not start wailing like women.   What do we do about the Terentz?”

“Nothing.   They know where we are.   Its unlikely we could evade them, now.   It’s up to their elders what they are going to do.   Trust to luck and the whim of the gods, Wrevo.”

“Bah,” muttered the lean man, “I’d rather trust my right arm and my spear.”

“So would I, old friend,” said Valcon with a bitter smile, “so would I.”