I was fourteen years old when my father took me out to the plains for the first time. We left on horseback; my father on his brown and white mare, flanked by other men from our village. I rode a smaller, more manageable pony. My father was a triarch of the village, one of three who answered to the lord himself. He was a well-built man thanks to years of hunting, fighting and hard labour. In a village as small as ours, landowning triarchs could not afford to be above such things. My father was just another freeman in all but name.
Our village had once been a much larger town. Though the area immediately surrounding the houses had been cleared for farmland, the land just beyond the fields was littered with twisted and rusty ruins. The Refugees had built their homes of metal and glass, I was told, but the glass was long since crushed to sand.
As we rode slowly out from the village, we followed the old road out into the forest beyond. It was early morning, and a thin mist was settled around the ruins.
“Keep an eye out for the ghosts,” said my father, leaning over to me and grinning.
“You’ll frighten the poor boy, Maruk,” said Lerro, a farmhand. He added: “Everyone knows the ghosts are in the forest, anyway.” He winked at me.
Each man in the group carried a bow, spear and a small knife plus his own sleeping bag and rations. We had two packhorses bringing up the rear: one with the tent, the other for loading with game. The hunting grounds were many hours’ ride away and we couldn’t know for how long we would be there, so brought provisions for up to a week.
Our quarry were the buffalo that lived on the plains out to the West, beyond the forest. We arrived just past midday, passing between two smoothstone pillars that marked the end of the forest road. The pillars were something else built by the Refugees. Thin rods of metal protruded from the top, and when I reached to touch it as I rode past, my fingers seemed to slide over the surface without any friction at all. The lord of the village had a marble egg in his house that I had once held in my hands, but this seemed even smoother. These pillars, my father said, had been brought here at the decree of some king or another many years ago, but in some places such pillars numbered in their thousands and were set out in straight lines that continued for many kilometres.
“Here’s the campsite,” said my father a short while later. We were still within sight of the pillars, in a slight depression near the tree line. There was a ring of stones at the centre of the depression full of ashes and charcoal from previous hunting parties. “Tie the horses and put up the tent. We’ll see if we can get something before the sun sets.” My father turned to me. “Ready to get your first buffalo?” he asked. I nodded eagerly.
The grass on the plains was slightly higher than my knees. Until we caught sight of any buffalo, we simply walked upright, looking this way and that for any sight of them. There were a few trees scattered about and as we came near one of them, Lerro suggested I climb one to get a better look.
“Don’t do anything stupid, Jorj,” said my father. “If you find you can’t climb it, just come back down. It’s a long and painful ride home with a broken ankle.”
“I’ll be fine, Dad,” I said. I gave him my small bow and knife, then scrambled up the trunk.
Near the top, I found a well-placed fork in the branches that I could stand up properly in. My head wasn’t out from the leaves, but I could push them aside easily enough and peer out.
There was a group of dark figures moving near the westward horizon. I couldn’t make out what they were, but I called down to the men and my father.
“Well done,” they said, when I clambered back down. I took back my bow and knife, and we walked straight in the direction in which I had seen the movement.
As we approached them, my father called a halt. I could just about make them out across the rippling grass. My heart was beating fiercely in my chest. Maybe my father would even let me loose the arrow.
“Get down,” said my father. “They’re not buffalo.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“Berrumin hunting party,” said my father.
“Here?” said Gamma the horsekeeper incredulously. “We’re nowhere near the border, surely.”
“They’re getting bolder,” said another. “Won’t be long before they start raiding again.”
“Back away,” said my father. “Keep low. We’ll get back to camp, set a proper watch tonight. We’ll go South for some way first, try to throw them off our trail if they know we’re here.”
As we trudged back to the camp, the sun started to set. To the West, Kanil and Tellest began to rise. They hung close to one another in the sky, and were both almost full.
The tent was set up and one of the men had been collecting firewood. We were greeted loudly, but my father quieted them.
“Reduce the fire,” he said. “We might be being followed. Saw a few Berrumin out there.”
He was met with indignation, but the fire was allowed to burn low. It was thankfully mid-Spring, and the night temperature didn’t drop too low. Two of the men took first watch whilst the rest of us ate our rations. The sky was lit by the moons, drowning out all but the brightest stars.
“Dad,” I said as we sat around the faint warmth of the dwindling fire, “why are there Berrumin in our land?”
“Berruma is having problems,” my father replied. “Their farms are becoming infertile and no one knows why. Their people don’t have enough food and are starving. So they come into our land looking for food and the king has to send them away.”
“Why can’t they make new farms next to ours?” I asked.
“Because if we let them do that, it wouldn’t just be the farmland they would take,” he said gently. “They would cut down all the trees, eat all the buffalo, buy all the metal we need for making tools and horseshoes. There’s enough farmland to go around, but not enough of everything else. So the Berrumin king is getting angry at our king for not letting the Berrumin come here, even though everyone knows we can’t let them. There might be a war because of it.”
“Would you have to go and fight?” I asked.
“Maybe,” he said. “We have to wait and see. It’s nearly Summer, so if there’s going to be a war, it has to be soon or they won’t be able to finish the fighting in time for Winter.”
“Hmm,” I said, frowning. I looked up into the sky. There was a bright star in the North.
It was moving.
I watched it for a few seconds. It really was racing across the sky, West to East. It wouldn’t be long at all before it was gone from sight altogether.
My father noticed me staring and followed my gaze. He gasped and stood up. The other men took notice and did the same. All their mouths were wide open and I felt a pang of fear. I remembered the song I had once been taught by the village priest:
From the stars did come the Refugees,
and Tiqual they did seize.
But they kept an eye turned to the skies,
in fear for their new prize.
Though the Evil One was far away,
they knew must come the day,
when the greedy, grasping, Evil One,
would come collect his pay.