Narrative only. Story with no dialogue.
| The wind blows down from the north. The short-necked pony shivers slightly. He is cold when he stands facing the wind. The boy on his back looks across the plain at a man walking. Walking is strange here in the empty places. Walking takes too long. The man must have lost his horse. No one walks unless their horse has met with misfortune. The boy waits. He does not ride to the man and uncertain encounter; nor does he back away and show his uncertainty. He will stoically wait like his father.
The man grows bigger with time. He carries a pack on his back. The man's horse must have had an accident and had to be left behind. It is a large pack to carry. The boy notices that the man's cloths are different than the local cut. They are not the close fitting felt breeches and tunics of the local men. These clothes flap and fly about the man in loose robes. The man has a big stick to help him walk. It does not appear to have a spear point at the end. This is a curious thing in a world where men carry weapons. The boy is wary in case there is a sword or knife in the flying robes. The boy's pony notices the robes and shies at the apparition. The boy jerks hard on the woven reins. He twists the pony's head around and beats at the animal with his heels. The pony pushes his nose forward in an attempt to escape the twisted wire in his mouth.
When the pony comes to a nervous halt, the man is there. The two eye each other. The old man speaks in a strange language. He stops and speaks again. He tries a third time. This time he manages a word or two in the language of a neighboring people. People that the boy's father; uncles, cousins and brothers have fought beside. People who are friends. People who share the spoils of local warfare. The boy takes the man for a friend since he can speak the language and motions for him to follow.
The nervous pony, the boy and the strange man arrive in the camp of tents. People stop what they are doing and approach apprehensively. Old men and boys keep a weapon handy. Women push small children behind them. Someone sends a boy on a quick pony to the field to tell the men.
The boy's grandfather steps forward. The stranger speaks the language of the neighboring tribe. The grandfather nods at the few words the man can speak. In the space of a few moments the men come thundering in on their short-necked ponies. There is shouting from a short, stocky man who resembles the pony he rides. A flurry of confusion, and the stranger is whisked into a tent followed by the men of the tribe. The boy is left outside with his friends. They crowd him with questions. Where did he find the man? What happened to his horse? Where did he get the strange clothes? What weapons did he have? The boy hops off his pony, drags it's bridle off and gives it a slap on the rump, sending it out to the herd grazing in the field. Hooking the bridle in his belt, the boy runs to his father's tent. He glances back at the boys who cannot follow and dives under the flap.
Edging against the side of the tent toward where his mother sits, the boy tries to avoid his father's sight. His mother sits behind his father silent. She waits for his word of command. The boy takes his place next to her.
The stranger is sitting in front of the headman. He is questioned in the neighboring tongue. The boy hears his father ask the same questions several times. The headman gauging the truth of the answers each time. The boy knows his father is calling the man a liar. The stranger calmly answers. There is no fear in him.
The boy is able to study the man he found a little closer now. With most of the heavy robes removed, the man is tall and lanky. He is older than the headman, but younger than grandfather. He is gray and wears a little black skullcap on his head. The stranger must be balding and ashamed to show his waning virility. The boy finds such vanity amusing. The stranger's face lacks the stamp of the north. He has a long nose and large eyes. His expressive hands are long and thin. He has a long neck like the birds at the watering places in the spring. The stranger looks nothing like the horse people. They resemble their ponies: short, stocky, with short necks and short legs that move with amazing speed and agility. All of the horse people, men and women, have bowed legs from riding at the earliest possible age. Most learning the skill before they can walk.
The stranger says something that makes the headman stop. A small flicker of fear flashes across the leader's face. He glances at the shaman next to him. The shaman lowers his eyes and gives a barely perceptible nod. The headman considers the stranger's words and the shaman's reaction. He turns to his wife and tells her to get some food for a meal. The stranger is told to sit in a place that marks him as a guest of the tent. The assembly of men relaxes. One man by the door goes out to shout at his wife to bring food and to tell the others to do the same.
The boy's mother calls him over. She gives him instructions to get his father's favorite mare. She also tells him to find a quiet horse for the stranger. One of the children's horses will do. He runs off to the herd.
The horses are scattered in groups in the grassy strip along the river. Boys keep guard on the horses. They sit on their haunches watching for raiders, human or animal. The primitive horses are mostly brown or beige with black manes and tails. Most have a black stripe down their backs and some even have stripes across their upper legs. A few are black, some are blond, and there are even spotted or patched horses occasionally. Children like to ride the multicolored horses. The little horses are shaggy and their hair is shed every spring providing the additional material for the felt tents. The goat like sheep grazing on the other side of the river provides meat, milk and wool for the tribe. If horses are status; sheep are wealth.
The boy spots his younger brother and an older sister. They are watching a large group of horses at the far end of the grassy strip. These are his father's horses. He sees his pony standing at the river's edge. A quick, trilling whistle brings the pony's head around. The animal looks away and tries to ignore the command to come. Its ears pin back. Another whistle to demand action. The pony pins its ears again and switches its tail. The boy is forced to walk down to get the stubborn animal. He says a grateful prayer to the spirits of the horse that the pony didn't bolt and lead him on a chase as so many did. The boy slides the bit into the animal's mouth and springs on the pony's back. He rides over to his sister and brother to tell them their mother's orders. He sits and waits while they bridle their father's bay mare and a slow-witted palomino.
The stranger steps up to address the dull pony in front of him. The animal turns its head to see who is to ride him. The stranger is not an experienced horseman and has to be assisted onto the pony. The stranger's legs dangle far under the pony's belly. The headman signals for the party of riders to move out. The stranger claps his heels into the pony's sides, nearly clicking his heels together. The pony starts out with slow strides after the rest of the horses. Someone strikes the pony with a stick from behind to make it move faster. The palomino jumps forward and the stranger grabs two fists full of mane to keep from being thrown.
The boy trails after the group on his pony. He falls in line as inconspicuously as possible. He wants to know what his father is showing the stranger. What is so important that it must be done now?
The headman takes the party across the river and sets the group out at a ground-eating trot through the sheep and over the hill. He keeps the pace up knowing the hardy ponies can do this speed for an entire day if necessary. The stranger clings to his pony desperately, reins forgotten. Obeying the strong herd instinct, the palomino hugs the flank of the horse ahead of him.
The boy fights his pony to keep to the back of the pack. His pony drags at the bit and flings its head in the air. It wants to race the other ponies and run ahead. Mouthing the twisted copper bit, the pony flings frothed saliva back on the boy.
The party heads north over the plain. The wind hits them full in the face. It carries the cold from the far north and makes the ponies snort and blow. The Steppe people take the cold as a refreshing splash. The stranger tries to huddle down in his cloak and hold on to the jolting trot at the same time.
When the trail widens the line fans out and riders let their mounts take their own pace without passing the headman. The boy still continues to fight his pony into the back of the group. He does not want his father to see him.
Without apparent reason, the headman turns the group to the west. The plain starts to dip in a gentle down slope. A stand of trees shows in the distance. The boy knows where they are headed. He says prayers to every deity he can think of as they approach.
Under the trees next to a thin stream are a group of carts and felt tents. A few ponies and larger horses feed near the stream and a small group of goats. A woman stands ready at the edge of the camp to greet the riders.
The Steppe men pull up, but remain on their mounts. The headman speaks to the woman. He is careful with his tone and manner, showing her a respect that he would never display to one of the women of his own tribe.
The woman walks right up to the stranger. She studies the man for a moment before making a signal that all may dismount and follow.
The boy slides from his pony, strips off its bridle and leaves it to find food and water. Tucking the bridle in his belt, he trails after the group to the center of the camp.
The people of the camp do not seem to notice the strangers in their midst. On second glance, the boy notices that each person has some sort of weapon at hand. As apparently tranquil and pacific as these people seem, they are a terrible adversary should they be threatened.
The Steppe men are led to the fire in the center of the camp. An old woman sits close to the fire with some children. She shoos them off. Standing with the assistance of a short stick, she shows herself a small woman but her manner is of a person used to command. She and the larger woman exchange some words in another tongue. The headman and his people are asked to be seated on the ground around the fire.
The old woman and the headman make their greetings and inquiries of health. The old woman speaks the languages of the local tribes. The headman tells the stranger to tell his story to the old woman. The stranger speaks in labored words. The old woman listens carefully. At the end of the stranger's story, she sits back and considers his tale.
The boy notices that the camp has moved carefully close to the old woman. They appear simply going about their business, except that everyone's business is suddenly near the fire.
The old woman speaks. She instructs the headman to put his people downstream for the night. They will gather again after dark. She stands up and, leaning on her cane, she walks through the camp to her tent.
The party of men breaks up and moves to the outside of the camp. Each wears a long felt cloak that will serve as warmth. The camp they are visiting will offer food. The men survey the area and gather for conversation about the events to be attended later that evening.
All the men are nervous in this camp. None know if he will be chosen to satisfy the needs of the special ones who will be at the feast tonight. The boy wonders if the stranger has come to offer himself to the creatures this camp cares for. Some do so, hoping to become immortal. The boy thinks that the creatures might not find the stranger so appropriate. They like robust people, healthy people. The stranger does not seem like the type that would be able to satisfy the special ones. One would not know until night, and a nap would be the best thing to think of right now. The boy finds a quiet spot under scrub tree and wraps his cloak tightly around.
The boy rolls over and rubs his eyes. It is dark now. He can hear men talking softly. He can hear the snores of others. The boy stands up without unwrapping himself from the warmth of his cloak. The ponies are grazing off near the horses of the camp. The headman is in conversation with two other men of his tribe. He glances over to see the boy. He frowns and returns to his conversation. The boy has been noted and will probably be punished. He walks over to the place where the horses have decided to sleep.
His pony stands quietly on three legs. Raising its head to see who approaches, it blows air through its nostrils. The other horses shift uneasily. The boy leans on his pony.
The boy hears someone coming. He hears the footfalls of more than one. Moving behind his pony's shoulder, the boy waits to see who it is. He listens to the men talking. One of them is his father. The boy can hear bits of conversation through the rustle of the wind and grass. The men discuss who will honor the special ones.
The boy suddenly finds himself sprawled on the ground. Clutching his head he peers up at his father's third in command. An ugly man of uglier temper, the man grabs the boy by the scruff of the neck and hauls him in front of his father.
The headman is not pleased by the boy's presence. He is secretly pleased by the boy's courage to risk displeasing his father. The headman asks the boy what he has heard. The boy tells him nothing. The third in command hits him in the head with the back of his hand. The boy hits the ground. The headman demands to know what he has heard. The boy looks his father directly in the eye and says that he has heard nothing. The headman sends him off. The boy gets up and runs from his father.
The boy pulls up after only a few feet. In front of him is a man. A tall man dressed in a long black cape. The man's eyes are intent on the boy. With a graceful wave of a hand, the man turns, fully expecting the boy to follow. The boy shivers. He must follow this handsome man. He cannot refuse. This is one of the special ones.
The boy sits on a soft pillow in a tent. There is light only from the fire in the center. No one has thought to light a lamp. The boy looks around at the rich things tucked back in the shadows. The handsome man who brought him here squats in front of him. The man's intense eyes are a light color. The boy silently prays to his gods that this strange-eyed creature will not be too long in sacrificing him.
Another of the special ones enters the tent. It is a woman. She is tall and thin. She wears a thin woolen gown and her feet are shod in delicate slippers. The boy has never seen such a woman before. He is of an age when a woman like this can create conflict and embarrassment. Smiling, she seats herself on a pillow next to him. He sniffs. She smells like flowers. She touches his hair. He shivers.
The man moves to the back of the tent. Another special one enters. Like the other two, this one is dressed richly and thinly for the harsh climate. The boy has heard that these people are gods, or at least related to gods. They do not feel as other people do. The cold does not bother them. The second man sits down on the other side of the boy. The first man brings some clothes to the boy. They are made of finer than the wools from the local sheep. It is white like fresh snow. The boy is afraid to touch it for fear of dirtying the fine cloth.
The question of the boy's cleanliness is soon answered. The woman takes the boy's hand. Her hand is cold. He instinctively pulls back. She keeps a firm grip, never losing her smile. He is led to the back of the tent. It is darker here. He can barely see the pale creatures waiting here. They stretch their thin hands to him. He feels their sharp nails and cold grasp. One breathes on him. It is a cold breeze. He panics as they strip his dirty felts off him. He cannot escape their strong grip. The woman intervenes. She strokes his cheek. She passes a hand over him. His clothes come away. She coaxes him into the warm tub of water. He pulls back. He has never bathed. The water of the steppes is icy. No one goes in. No one ever thought to warm it and put it in a large tub. The woman kisses his cheek.
(to be continued)