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Merit, Part Two

by T.S. Luikart

You can read Part One of this story by clicking here.

Ara Masber rose with the sun, mumbling snatches of a prayer to His Radiance as a thin sliver of His light stole into her tent. Her breath was visible in the cool morning air as she rummaged about for her boots. When she finally located them she knocked their soles together and shook them out to dislodge any unwelcome guests that might have taken up residence in the night. She bundled up in several layers, knowing the temperature along the eastern edges of the Rolling Steppes was apt to change frequently, before heading out to look in on her charges.

Ara served as the official horse wrangler for the Three Moons outfit, a chartered crew of fifteen thunderbird wranglers, meaning she had the keeping of some forty-odd horses. The crew was responsible for a large flock of thunderbirds, properly called a court, which in this case consisted of well over four thousand of the huge flightless avians. They constantly needed fresh horses to keep up with the movements and required herding of the ever shifting court, so someone had to watch over the horses that were not in use, insuring their health and safety from the dangers of the trail. That someone was Ara.

Though she was technically the lowest ranked person on the crew, she was immensely proud of her position all the same and with good reason. Many young wranglers and even a few cowboys had tried out for the spot, but she had gotten it in the end. It wasn’t just the job, there were plenty of such to be had throughout the west, it was some of the men and women that ran the Three Moons that made all the difference: Crovas Rill, Lurek ‘Lightning-Kissed’ Soam, Ihinta Karranado, and the living legend himself, Cleave Merit the Dragonslayer.

At first Ara had thought that the combination of her perseverance, good looks, and skill with horses had won the post for her. Later, after she had become friends with Woon, he told her that her beauty had actually been against her. “Commotions on the trail are generally bad. You, young lady, are a walking distraction of the first order for quite a few of these youngsters and even one or two of the older ones.” This with a smile and a wink.

No, apparently it was her dad’s tutelage over the years that had truly earned her the job. Ara’s father was a well-respected veterinarian and had tried to impart as much about horses as he knew to his daughter. This is what had impressed the senior members of the crew enough to set aside their misgivings about having a “walking distraction” on the range. Her father had been so proud when she told him he had almost squeezed her breathless before swiftly launching into a lecture on the habits of thunderbirds.

When Ara had first been introduced to the bulk of the crew, they hadn’t quite known what to make of her. She had made the immediate mistake of calling herself a “handler” but she was swiftly corrected. She was the horse wrangler for the drive, not a wrangler, certainly not a cowpoke nor puncher, and definitely not a thunderbird wrangler or cowgirl. All such titles meant something specific on the range, the terminology worked out long before. She was also pointedly told that to ever, ever refer to a thunderbird wrangler as a birdboy was a very good way to get hurt.

The first few weeks on the trail had been some of the worst of Ara’s life. She was forever either too hot or too cold, the various members of the crew had either fawned over her or dismissed her with condescending politeness, and she was constantly exhausted from long hours spent worrying over the horses too much. Strangely enough, losing one had actually been the start of matters changing for the better. A young tiger had slipped into camp unnoticed through the long grey-green grass of the steppes and torn one of her horses (she certainly thought of them as her horses) to pieces before she could react. Ara had managed to put it down with a shot through the neck as the beast tried to flee.

The whole crew had made a big fuss over her that night, praising her and teasing her mercilessly by turns. Crovas Rill had probably put it best, “That was one hell of a shot, missy… Too bad you did not get around to it before the tiger broke his fast. Or were you making it clear to the other horses what the penalty for orneriness is going to be in future?” Rill’s gap-toothed grin, shining at her from amidst his silvery beard took the sting out of his comment and she had laughed with the rest of the crew.

From then on, the crew had treated her differently. Those that fancied her still did so, but at least they no longer acted as though she was a fragile doll that might break at any minute. The rest spoke to her with respect, though that didn’t stop them from mocking her occasionally or setting her to unpleasant tasks that needed doing. Ara didn’t mind in the slightest: she finally felt accepted.

The camp slowly stirred to life about her as Ara made her way over to the makeshift corral that served to pen the bulk of the crew’s horses. Woon was already awake, of course, and somehow still managed to wave to her, despite simultaneously stirring the contents of four pots at once. Ara smiled and waved back, but a few of the stories she’d heard whispered about the cook immediately crept unbidden into her mind. Several of the crew had sworn that Woon walked the Dust Road. When she pressed them for evidence though, it was always someone else who had seen the cook in a bar fight or face down a pack of bandits singlehandedly or some other such improbable story. Ara figured speculating about the old cook was one more way to pass the time on the trail and left it that.

When she reached the corral, several of her favorites wandered over to greet her and look for treats. The rest of her charges seemed a bit skittish though. Come to think of it, Ara thought, the horses weren’t the only ones. The thunderbirds’ whoops sounded off this morning. Ara tilted her head, listening to the murmurs of the court.

She was debating returning to her tent to retrieve her rifle when she first heard shouting in the distance. It sounded like the crew was gathering near Woon’s wagon. The cook’s wagon was the unofficial center of camp life, especially when the lead thunderbird wranglers had determined that a given patch of land could support the court’s grazing for a few days , for then Woon would set up a pair of large brightly colored tents and bring out his games and precious books.

Ara wound her way towards the commotion, passing several clusters of thunderbirds that were just starting to rise for grazing. As she drew closer, she realized to her surprise that the bulk of the crew was in camp, with only one or two missing, probably because they were acting as outriders on the edges of the court, a half an hour or more away.

Her shock doubled when she realized many of them were starting to shout her name.

“Masber! MASBER! ARA! HEY! MASBER!”

As she drew closer the calls stopped and she heard one of the men say, “She’s here, Merit.” The mass of the Three Moons outfit were standing around outside Woon’s largest tent, staring at her expectantly. The moment stretched out far too long, and Ara didn’t know whether she was going to burst into laughter or tears until Rill’s gravelly voice cut through the crowd.

“Maiden’s tits, look at the poor girl, ya’ll scairt her half to death.” The senior wrangler elbowed his way past the crew and grinned at her. “It’s alright, missy, nothing you done. We are in sore need of a portion of your expertise this fine morning.” He took her arm gently and pulled her through the crowd, towards the large red tent beyond.

Lurek Soam stepped out of the tent just before they arrived and glared at the crew behind them. The massive wrangler set his hands to his hips, before bellowing out, “And NONE of you have ANYTHING to do this morning? Are my dates off? Is this the day we celebrate Immortal Foyn, patron Saint of LAZY ASSES?” The crew made a hasty retreat, though Ara had no doubt that she would be grilled for every detail of what occurred and who said what later on.

Soam turned his head to wink at her as Rill guided her past him into the tent. Ihinta Karranado and Woon sat at a small table awaiting them, cups of steaming burve tea to hand. Cleave Merit was pacing back and forth, but stopped as they entered.

“Miss Masber.”

“Mr. Merit. What’s going on?”

Merit stepped toward her, his dark brown skin making him almost a shadow in the dusky tent, but his steel grey eyes were near-feverish bright and Ara could easily tell he was making an effort to calm himself, which was completely unlike the quiet, unflappable Cleave Merit that she had come to know over the last few months.
“Miss Masber, what do you know about tattoos?”

“Tattoos?”

He nodded.

“Well… they’ve come into common practice at a lot of the ranches in the west and around the Thousand Mesas. Too many rustlers started covering other ranch’s brands with their own, so more and more folks turned to ink. Thunderbirds prefer it over branding, doesn’t work well on bison though.”

Rill snorted in the background. “Yeah, they sure prefer it alright. About lost my head to a bull one time, as he did not favor the burning metal rod I was trying to stick into his posterior.”

“The Imperials use them, their soldiers I mean. And I’ve heard that the clans use them and,” her voiced lowered a fraction, “the secret societies too. I met a man once, his horse had been shot and he brought it to my father. His hands were covered with magnificent butterfly designs. They were so beautiful… Daddy said he was a Wandering Star.”

Merit nodded. “Do you think you could determine how old a tattoo was by examining it? How long ago someone got it?”

Ara thought about it for a few seconds, then nodded. “Yes sir. I have seen quite a few steers marked up alongside my father. Exposure to sun makes a big difference, but I reckon I could tell you inside of a few years, give or take.”

“A few years… So you would definitely know if a tattoo was, say thirty years old as opposed to five?”

“Oh, yes Mr. Merit, absolutely. The ink bleeds a bit after that much time.”

Merit turned and looked at the others in the room. Ms. Karranado set her cup down and stated in her distinct Castalan accent, “I can see you will not be letting this go. So be it, but she does not need to see any of the rest, Cleave.”

“Course not.”

Woon and Soam both shrugged, Rill shook his head. “Alright, let her take a gander.”

Merit turned back to Ara.

“A man was killed within the last few days. Not one of ours. I have his body in the tent beyond, I need to give him a proper burning, but I want you to look at a tattoo he has on his upper arm first and tell me how old you think it is.”

Ara nodded and without further speech, Merit turned and lead her into the next tent. The body was covered head to toe in a dusty tarp, a hole had been cut to allow the arm in question out. Ara immediately noticed that several of the hand’s fingernails were missing, fingers clearly torn. She was thankful she didn’t have to see the rest. Merit turned the arm over with a gloved hand and gazed at her expectantly.

She looked down at the still crisp lines of the intricate symbol that had been inked into the body’s flesh. “This can’t be more than a few years old at most. Three or four years, I should think.”

Merit nodded slowly, some expression Ara had no hope of identifying worked its way over his features. He covered the arm and lead her back into the other room.
The senior members of the Three Moons outfit all looked stricken, clearly they had all heard what she had said, though she had no clear idea why it was so upsetting. Rill shook his head. “Cleave it does not mean a godsdamned thing. Maybe he lost a bet. Maybe he got drunk in the wrong bar in Sedoa and his friends decided to have a bit of fun with him.”

Soam grunted, “Some friends. Same ones that staked him out here, you reckon?”

Woon spoke quietly, “That is the mark of the 6th army’s scout company, none other. Only a madman would allow himself to be so marked, unless he had earned the right to have it. Four years, no more, you said Ara?” She nodded. “He is returning.”

Karranado nodded. “Maiden watch over us.”

Soam spat in the dirt. “Lord Pyre himself. All these years… what the hell has he been doing?”

“Throne knows.”

Rill stood up and began to pace, “Let’s not go jumping at ghosts.”

Ara looked at the cook. “Woon, who is returning?”

“The Rebel General. The Scourge of the Far West, Lord General Guyansi Hul.”

Ara paled, Lord General Hul’s name was still wielded my Far Western mothers to scare children into obedience. “I don’t understand. What are you all saying? What do you think this means?”

They all fell silent, till Merit spoke in a calm, quiet tone. “War, Miss Masber.”

“It means war.”

 
 
 
 
You can read the other parts of Merit’s tale here:


 
 
 

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