The Color of Life

by Josiah Olson

 

A tribal people on a foreign planet attempt to make a peace treaty with a strange new creature that has landed in their land.

 

The feathers tickled his neck as Fire wrapped the wreath around him.

“May your arrows fly true and straight, and may the skin of your enemy be soft,” said the man in a gravelling whisper. The wish was tradition, as were the tears that he shed, but Lin Jassa knew that he meant every word and every drop.

Lin Jassa knelt now, and laced his sworn brother’s boots all the way up to his knee.

“May your feet grow strong roots.” He stood as he spoke, taking the bone coat from the table. Fire dipped his head, and Lin Jassa helped him wriggle into the coat. The bones rattled as they slipped over his slick body.

“May each arrow and every spear break upon your shield.”

Lin Jassa shed his tears as Fire reached for the stone bowl. He dipped two fingers inside and drew them out, yellow with sap. He traced the fingers from the corner of Lin Jassa’s eye down to his pointed chin. Lin Jassa bowed in thanks, then took the bowl and drew a yellow circle over Fire’s forehead. This part of the ritual was done in silence, and in that moment Lin Jassa noticed how much he was shaking. His teeth chattered, and his fingers trembled. Silently, he hoped that Fire would take no notice.

Fear is contagious, and there is no place for fear today.

Lin Jassa felt his sworn brother’s hand on his cheek.

“Be not fearful,” said Fire.

“Be not weary,” he responded.

Their lips met and they shared a quick kiss. Lin Jassa thought he could taste fear on Fire’s lips, a soft trembling behind the salt of his tears. Their yellow eyes stared into each others in a silent promise that everything would be okay. If only we could be so sure, he thought as he turned and pushed through the beaded curtain and into the main hall.

Most of the sworn brothers were already gathered around the fire. Others joined them as they emerged from adjacent beaded doorways. Not all cherished the traditions as much as Lin Jassa and Fire, and some skipped them altogether.

Fire sat down cross legged beside Lin Jassa, a bowl of steaming soup resting on his lap. He looked menacing in his bone coat. It gave Lin Jassa comfort to know that this man would die for him if need be. A red cloak wrapped around the man’s back, sewn from a hundred enoki furs. It was a sure show of Fire’s hunting prowess, and its fiery red color was the source of his nickname. Everyone called him Fire now, although his name was Bur Helin.

In Fire’s black beard were braided a dozen violet flowers, a promise from a dancing girl he had met on their march a fortnight ago. The brotherhood had chosen to spend the night in the warmth of a small village. She had danced for them, twirling long strands of dyed fabrics, letting them brush against the men. Fire had sworn to her that he would give her children when they returned; she had begged him not to make her wait so long.

Fire had laughed at that, saying “Woman, how vile! How selfish! The pleasure would be great, but the fruits would be weak. I will give you strong warrior sons upon my return, that I promise.”

Now he wore that promise in his beard with an expectant smile. He had been right in what he said; it was well known that a child conceived after a battle would be strong. To most, it was a great dishonor to bring a child into the world in any other way.

Lin Jassa sighed, he had never known a woman. Fire, on the other hand, probably already had enough sons to raise himself a small army. Lin Jassa was married to his bow. He trained constantly and mercilessly, and the results were clear. The arrow always went where he told it to.

Upon entering the village where Fire had met the dancing girl, Lin Jassa had come upon an old man telling stories to a gathering of children. The children listened with wide eyes as the man sang of a hero who slayed a dragon with a single arrow, saving a hundred sworn brothers. Lin Jassa had laughed at that. The ‘dragon’ had really been a Triollian bull. The creature was mostly peaceful if left alone, but with thick scaled armor upon their backs and venom flowing in their fangs, they could be a lethal threat if aggravated.

They had surprised the beast on their march, walking directly in front of its nest before realizing their mistake. It awoke with a loud snort and came upon them in a rage, killing three brothers in a single swing of its armored tail. Then it had picked up another two in its jaws, crushing them with a sickening crunch. The creature didn’t make it any further, however, for it collapsed to the ground gasping for air, Lin Jassa’s arrow protruding from its windpipe. He didn’t bother correcting the old storyteller. In fact he rather enjoyed being known as a dragon slayer, even if it wasn’t completely true.

Fire slurped down the rest of his soup and let out a satisfied belch. Several other belches responded around the hall.

“Well spoken, Fire!” a brother shouted through the flames. “You always were a man of wise words!”

The comment was met by nervous laughter; they were all nervous no matter how well they hid it. The father, a gray man supported by a cane, pushed himself up from a chair piled high with furs. The hall fell silent. He frowned at them, searching with glazed white eyes. The father was blind, but somehow he still seemed to see everything. He traced the worn feathers that wrapped around his neck, his wrinkled fingers remembering the many battles he had fought.

“Brothers, tonight we march!” he said in a creaky voice, authority in every word. “But not upon Triolle or Crin, not upon Yvonnie or Filiore. This is no enemy that we have ever met on the battlefield. This is no enemy that we understand.

“They fell from the heavens in a stone tent, and now they are building camp on lands that you have bled for, and your fathers before you. They may be gods, or they may be a curse come down upon us. Perhaps a plague of demons clad in white armor. Whatever they be, I ask that you will not waver to do what is asked of you.

“The armor they wear is strong, that we know. And soon enough we may also know the power of the strange weapons they carry, but I hope we will not have to. I know that you have all been trained to be fighters, and you have done so since the day you took your vows. I know that you all desire for blood and glory on this march…but I ask a different task of you tonight.”

The sworn brothers shifted in their seats, anxious to hear what the father meant. He clicked his tongue several times before continuing.

“I aim to make an alliance with these foreign people. If they desire land, let us give it to them ― but not our own. No, we will promise them the land of the Triolle, and in so, doing pit them against our enemies. If it is blood they want, we will ally ourselves alongside them and lead a conquest into the Crin territories.

“Once we understand these foreigners, then we may do with them what we wish. But leading an attack could be fatal if they prove to be more powerful than we suspedt. Instead, we will play a safer game, a surer game. Together we will pathe a road to greatness!” The old man raised a hand high above him and shook his fist. “Who is with us?”

He was met with cries of agreement. The prospect of making peace with the newcomers soothed much of Lin Jassa’s fears. Many in the room remained silent. however, and upon looking around, Lin Jassa saw a scattering of frowns and scowls in the hall.

“When did the viper lose his teeth?” asked a gruff voice.

Lin Jassa was horrified to see that it was Fire himself who spoke so rudely to their father. “I see the yellow sap on each one of your faces, but I fear that some of you may have forgotten its meaning.”

Fire stood and darted an accusing finger around the room, pointing out those who seemed most supportive of the father’s plan. “It is the blessing of M’ali. The blessing of nature herself to rise above all other creatures and to rule them. The yellow means bravery, strength, and wisdom. Or did you take it to mean cowardice?”
“You will not reproach me, Bur Helin!” said the father. “If you will not join us, then you may leave. But if you wish to prove yourself a brave man, then I invite you to come with us and do what none have done before, to ally ourselves with these creatures of the heavens be they demons or gods.” he smiled, wavering on shaky legs. “If not, you had best remove those flowers from your beard or bring dishonor to yourself and to that dancing girl.”

Several laughed. Fire cursed under his breathe, then spat.

“My pardons father, I will come and see these creatures for myself. But I hope I may see what color they bleed before the sun is set.” With that, he sat back down, pulling his red cloak higher to hide his face.

After that, the sworn brothers were dismissed. One went to the father, placed his bone coat at his feet, and said farewell. Silently, the father wiped the sap from the man’s face and dismissed him with a shake of his hand. The one who had been sworn to him had no choice but to quit as well, for there was no fate worse than to fight alone. The rest gathered their weapons, either bow and arrow or spear and shield, and began their march.

 

The red dunes rose high around them, a sea of sand. These lands were infertile and home to many dangerous beasts. Lin Jassa shivered as they peaked a dune and pulled his scarf tighter around his mouth. Even so, the sand crept in his ears and stuck in his eyes.

Fire marched ahead of him, his round shield strapped upon his back. He used his spear as a walking stick to pull himself over the hills. Fire had been sulking since they left, angry with the father’s decision. Lin Jassa was sure that he wanted nothing more than to leave, but honor tied his hands.

“Fire,” said Lin Jassa.

Fire turned and met him with angry eyes. “What is it?” he said gruffly.

“Do not do anything stupid,” said Lin Jassa. “Please.”

Fire grunted, turned, and continued down the dune. The head of the march was peaking the next dune, and a whisper was passed, ear-to-ear, all the way down the chain.

“We are here.”

The words filled Lin Jassa with fear once again. We are not fighting them, only allying. He had told himself so a thousand times already, yet still he was afraid. Fire and Lin Jassa were motioned to the dune, and slowly the expedition spread out to cover as much ground as possible. Although they had been told not to, Lin Jassa chanced a look at the camp below. The father had been right, yet somehow his words hadn’t been able to prepare Lin Jassa for what he saw.

Five of the stone tents were gathered in a circle, their shiny legs sprawled out beneath them and their needle sharp tips pointed toward the sky. Many of the creatures wandered around between the tents, carrying the strange weapons that the father had told of.

In the center of the camp stood a tall pole and from it hung a red cloth with five yellow stars. Carts moved around the camp loading and unloading materials. Lin Jassa gave a shout of wonder when he saw that the carts weren’t pulled by any creature, but rather they seemed to pull themselves.

Fire pulled Lin Jassa back behind the cover of the dune.

“You should not have looked so long!” he said angrily. Lin Jassa saw fear in the man’s eyes. I have never seen fear in him before, not like this.

“They look like us,” whispered Lin Jassa. “They wear white armor, but I swear that beneath the armor they are the same as us.”

“They come from the heavens. We come from the earth,” Fire reminded him, grabbing ahold of Lin Jassa’s shoulder. He shook his head. “You see water where there is only sand. But you are mistaken, we are not the same.”

Lin Jassa nodded, wishing that they could return home. He wiped sweat from his brow; the heat here was unbearable.

“When you hear the horn,” came the whisper down the line. Lin Jassa counted his arrows once more. Thirty, he thought. I can kill thirty. There had been at least a hundred visible when he had peeked over the dune, and most likely many more within the stone tents.

Baaaawooo! Baaaawooo! Baaaawooo!

The horn reverberated into the valley. It was formed from the hollow fang of a Triollian bull. The fanghorn was a symbol of peace for their people, a once-deadly weapon transformed into an instrument. All along the dune rose the sworn brothers.

 

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