Chapter Two: A Trail of Feathers

Friday, 25th September 2020 ◆ Wanderer without bats (5) ◆ Comments (1) Fiction

Chapters: 1 | 2

Pieces of caravan lay scattered around the plain, interspersed with the corpses of the steed which had once pulled them. There were no human bodies. Oltaq lifted a wooden panel from the sand, watching as a couple of rodents scurried out from underneath, their shelter having been disturbed.

He had visited this tribe only last cycle, when the nomads had been carefree and jolly. They had laughed in response to his plea for caution; a life living in fear was not a life for them. This group of nomads had been undertaking the long journey to Westsea, in the hopes of catching and drying fish which they could then sell in Andria. As the city-state was land-locked, with not even a river passing through it, fish was a luxury which would fetch high prices. Money may not be especially useful to the nomads, but they would use the opportunity to upgrade their equipment and purchase new clothes. Rather, they would have.

Oltaq conjured up the aroma of the exotically spiced preparations of sea fish the nomads were famous for, and his mouth watered. Alas, today would not be a night of fine dining: he agitated another plank of wood with his foot and eyed the scuttling creatures as they looked for a new resting place. At least he would not be going hungry.

This was the third camp he’d seen destroyed in as many months, and Oltaq was worried for two reasons. The first was that the nomads appeared completely oblivious to the threat they were under. Although he had tried to impress upon them the seriousness of these events, his reputation as a cynical and pessimistic figure undermined him at every turn. The second was that he did not know who or what was carrying out these attacks. Oltaq had assumed it was the feral, but sharing this guess with the nomads was perhaps a mistake. The feral usually roamed alone, and were rarely considered a danger. Nomads would only have to bang their pots and shout in order to shoo away an approaching feral, and this is clearly incongruous with the picture before him.

Most of those living in the outlands were exiles, or their descendents, from the city-state of Andria. That includes lone travellers, like Oltaq, but also the feral, no-matter how inhuman they are painted as. The nomads described the feral as animalistic carrion-feeders, scavenging what scraps they can. However, Oltaq had known cases of the feral picking off and cannibalising travellers who have ended up separated from their group. This was why he had assumed they were behind the attacks on the nomads, but the reasoning was albeit weak.

Whether the nomadic tribes were themselves also descendant from exiles, is a point of infinite uncertainty. The history is hazy and each tribe would tell their own story. Oltaq’s understanding was that the early nomads were exiled for refusing to stop teaching and speaking in their own tongue, with the monarchy imposing the sole use of Andrian. However, the existence of a unique language and culture implies the existence of a much older people, before they came to call Andria home. For this reason, the nomads did not consider themselves exiles by and large, but merely a people who had for a time lived within the walls of Andria.

Oltaq gathered a bundle of planks and wheels, snapping them into manageable pieces with his significant strength. Underneath the pile of scraps, he scrunched some paper taken from an abandoned book: “Songs for the Road”. He knew enough Nomadic to understand the title, but not nearly enough to understand any of the lyrics: nomadic music was famously rich with multiple meanings and hidden nuance. The paper would serve as kindling, although he suspected he wouldn’t really need any on such a dry evening.

He unclasped one of the several vials of purple liquid which hung from a simple leather necklace and downed the contents. The familiar warmth of magic imbued his throat and belly, absorbing its way into his body. He focused on the shreds of paper and willed them into flame. They took readily, and the flames slowly welcomed the wooden shards into their dance. The magenta tips of the flames betrayed the source of the fire, but before long the fire burned a natural and warm orange.

The vial contained only a fraction of a measure, and igniting the fire used almost all of it. The lingering magic in his system would be consumed within the hour, being used passively to heat his body. It is possible for a magic user to make a conscious effort to preserve magic in one’s system, but Oltaq didn’t feel the need for such a small quantity.

Oltaq relaxed by the side of the fire, removing his boots and exposing his feet to the warmth. The aches of a few days’ travel were taking their toll on his body, but the opportunity to lie in the heat was a welcome change of pace. He pushed the thought of death, which still lingered in this place, to the back of his mind. He would resume his investigations tomorrow, but for now he would recuperate.

Once the fire had burnt down to a suitable level for cooking, Oltaq set about his dinner preparations. He was used to catching small rodents like this, but the camp had attracted them in such numbers that he really didn’t need to apply much effort to eat well.

Roasted rat. A meal that could perhaps be considered his speciality. He had been a chef back in Andria, before his exile, and it was surprising how well that post had prepared him for life in the outlands. His knife skills were excellent, for one. For another, he was able to identify the various plants which grew out here, easily separating the nutritious from the poisonous. He also had some magical training, as he was a “licensed” chef, which meant he was allowed to use a certain quantity of magic for food preparation. People enjoyed the way ingesting magic made them feel, even if they weren’t trained magicians.

After his meal, the fire’s embers were still emanating a gentle warmth which allowed Oltaq to submit to a quick and peaceful slumber. He wanted to achieve a good night’s sleep, for tomorrow he wanted a fresh mind for the investigations he was planning to carry out.

Sleeping in the open at the spot of a known attack, with a fire to reveal his location, would probably have seemed foolish to most, but Oltaq did not believe himself to be in danger. No, he was the one hunting these mysterious attackers, not the other way around.

He lay down, and within minutes he was asleep.

Morning came and Oltaq was thankful for the full night of sleep he had enjoyed. The man readied himself quickly fueled by the morning’s freshness. He wanted to pick up the trail before he lost too much of the day. He first rummaged through the wreckage looking for any improvement on the threadbare clothes he was currently wearing, and was rewarded with a pair of thick trousers which had no holes and a shawl which would keep the sand out of his eyes as he walked. Next, he looked for any scraps of preserved food which had not yet been claimed. In this he was largely unlucky but he did find a small tin of nomadic spices which should help to improve his future meals. Finally, he pulled out a bundle of notes from his pack, and turned his full attention to investigating what had occurred here and when it had occurred.

The absence of human corpses was consistent with the two other scenes he’d seen before. Here however, he could tell the attack had been much more recent and resultungly the trail would be more fresh. The only blood present was that of the horses, meaning the nomads themselves had either not resisted or had fled in response to some event. Oltaq assumed the latter was unlikely, for surely the horses would have been the first to bolt. The sandy outlands didn’t hold footprints for long, so Oltaq felt lucky - if that was the right word - to notice several foreign tracks still imprinted, albeit faded. He suspected the arrangement of the caravans had shielded the site from the winds just enough for them to persist this long.

The Nomadic tradition is to wrap the feet with a layer of light cloth. This protected them from the heat of the sand, whilst also being light and comfortable. There was no need for heavy footwear, as the ground was rarely rough, and the nomads spend much of their time in their caravans. This form of wrapping left either no trace, or, when applied tightly, a footprint one would almost think corresponded to a barefoot step.

The tracks Oltaq could see had clearly not been left by the nomads, for they were pointed in shape and had an outline of a firm shoe. In any case Oltaq assumed there had been about a dozen of these figures. He sketched the form of the imprints in his notes for future reference, making sure to include information on the size of the footprints and the stride length.

The nomads must have been approached by a group of these strange figures and had been lured away from their camp for reasons as yet unknown. Once away, the caravans had been destroyed and the horses slain. However, where had they gone? Once the tracks left the shelter, they were quickly impossible to follow. He did at least have a direction to follow, this time. It seems they had been led away by foot. A group of this size travelling by foot in the outlands was unusual and, importantly, slow. Oltaq would surely be able to catch them up. If he could find out where they were going that is. They can’t have been travelling by horse, since the nomads’ horses had been left behind and there were no hoofprints.

At the point where the tracks were leading out of the camp, he noticed something strange on the floor. There was a little pileup of sand at one specific point. What was strange was that he saw no pebble against which the sand could have been blown. He got down on all fours for a closer look. There was a feather which had been pushed into the sand, so that the tip was barely visible. The northern winds had blown against the sand, leaving some of it to form a tiny mound against the feather.

He withdrew the feather for closer inspection. It was the length of his little finger in total, and was a brownish colour not too dissimilar from the sand around it. It was excellently camouflaged, which meant the feather had probably come from one of the species of birds native to the outlands. It was normal for nomads to keep messenger birds with which they would communicate with other tribes and with Andria, perhaps this was a feather from one such bird?

He looked further ahead in the direction the group had probably travelled. Again, he saw another build-up of sand. Lo and behold, there was another feather responsible.

Could this be a message left by the nomads? Oltaq pushed the last feather into another spot to about the same depth. That confirmed his suspicion: the feather was all but invisible without the mound of sand to betray its location. That would mean the captors may not have been wise to this little trick…

He looked further ahead, and again, there was a mound about 30 paces ahead. He was becoming more convinced that this was intentional. Perhaps this tribe had taken his warning a little more seriously than they had let on.

Oltaq was annoyed at having rested so long on the previous day. He now had a clear trail to follow, and he had already lost time. His initial plan was to track down the other tribes, and warn them too, but following the trail of feathers was a more promising avenue.

He could just about make out Andria ahead of him and slightly to the right. The flatness of the outlands permitted unobstructed views over great distances. The city-state appeared tiny, Oltaq would be able to cover it completely with a thumb at arms’ length.

The feathers seemed to be leading in the direction of the city, to the east. Before this event, the tribe had been heading west, hoping to reach the coast within a few months.

As he walked away from the camp, a cautious feral peeked out from inside one of the still-intact upturned caravans and resumed its consumption of a decaying horse. Oltaq had seen the poor soul, but didn’t want to cause any unnecessary fright. The nervousness of the creature further cemented the idea that the feral could not have been behind the disappearance. Who or what would Oltaq encounter at the end of this trail?

Oltaq would be worrying about little else as he made his way from feather to feather.


tann ◆ Friday, 2nd October 2020 at 09:21

How could the nomads have placed feathers carefully in the ground without their captors knowing? Maybe there's more to it than Oltaq suspects!

Thanks for sharing, I'm enjoying this series!