Zotikos walked a narrow path through the Rain Lands. He held out his spear, eyes darting from side to side. Roars bellowed from unseen predators behind the flora.
“Still alive back there?” Zotikos asked.
“I may be a Lakelander, but don't count me out yet,” a gruff voice said.
“Good Drust. We'll reach Jamunko by nightfall.”
“Right in time for roast boar and palm wine,” Drust replied.
The Lakelander jumped at a sudden grumbling, then realized it was Zotikos's stomach.
“Sorry, mentioned food again,” Drust said.
Zotikos turned around to ensure nothing stalked his companion. Drust looked back at him, with his red hair and beard sticking out against the greenery. The Lakelander rested a two-handed ax on his shoulder, and scanned the trees for danger.
“Sure you're out of kurronuts?” Zotikos asked.
Drust sighed, pulling the last one from his belt pouch. He tossed it at Zotikos, who caught it in mid-air. He chewed and swallowed it soon after.
“The next sognath we hunt is mine,” Drust said, resuming the walk.
“And spoil your appetite for Jamunko's feast?” Zotikos asked.
“Hah! You haven't seen me pick the taverns clean back in the Territories.”
The duo watched the dense foliage unveil a natural clearing. A shallow pool rested in the center. Drust hurried to it, cupping his hands to collect some water. Zotikos caught up and pulled the man back.
“Wait,” he warned. “Never trust a still source.”
The companion stepped back and eyed the reservoir with renewed suspicion.
“Glad you're the guide,” Drust said.
Their heads turned toward a buzzing. A fist-sized mosquito hovered over the water. Drust squinted at it and held his ax haft tighter.
“What kind of gods create those things?” he wondered aloud.
“Crazy or sadistic ones, I reckon.”
Zotikos waited for the insect to pass, then approached a thick vine. In one hand, he retrieved a drinking shell from his pack. In the other, he drew a gladius from his belt. With one clean sweep, he sliced the vine in half. A stream of water poured into the shell. Once full, he brought it to Drust. The Lakelander nodded in thanks and took it. He swallowed the sweet water in a gulp, drops running down his beard.
Zotikos held a hand over his eyes and glanced upward, noting the position of the sun.
“We can take a short break here, if you need it,” he said.
Drust found a nearby log to rest on. The philosopher used a half buried boulder for a seat. He dug a sharpening stone out of his pack and ran it along the gladius's edge.
“What?” Drust asked, as Zotikos grinned to himself.
“Thinking how odd it was we ran into each other. What takes you to Jamunko anyway?”
“Someone's waiting there for me.”
Zotikos glanced up from his sharpening, and rested the short sword across his knees.
“I'm guessing there's more to this story.”
Drust went silent for a moment. “Alright. First, what do you know about the Jamundi people?”
“They're peaceful, generous and make great food. All I needed to hear to pay a visit.”
“All true, and they're very traditional. A Jamundi caravan came down to the Lake Territories. That's when I met Nawei, daughter of a wealthy tribesman. Not knowing better, I offered her silphium spice for my hesperia seeds.”
“Sounds like a fair deal,” Zotikos replied.
“When a Jamundi trades with a foreigner, it's not just a transaction. It's a pact. Nawei made me an honorary tribesman, just by exchanging goods.”
A smile crept onto Zotikos's lips. “And the plot thickens.”
Drust sighed deeply again. “One thing led to another, and I was engaged to Nawei.”
The philosopher let out a hearty laugh. He calmed himself down, not wanting to alert any unwanted company. “That's too good!” he said. “Tell me she's beautiful at least.”
“And smart, and powerful,” Drust added. “Wouldn't risk my life here otherwise.”
“Didn't go back to Jamunko with them?”
Drust shook his head. “Had business at the lakes. But its finished, so I'm honor bound to rejoin Nawei.”
“Do her parents expect...you know, children?”
Drust glanced at his feet in slight embarrassment. “The Jamundi don't have the same social pressures as other tribes. They keep their numbers low. Fewer tribesman, more to go around. But, anything could happen.”
“Going to stay permanently?”
Drust bit his lower lip in thought. “Don't know Zot. The Jamundi are good, their lifestyle enviable. But they're a simpler people. They don't have the comforts I enjoy back home. I'd have to think on it.”
Zotikos sheathed his gladius and stood up. “We're running out of daylight. Your blushing bride awaits,” he said.
“Gladly, I've had enough of the Rain Lands for one lifetime.”
The jungle thinned out as the pair continued. A white beach appeared on the horizon. Zot and Drust saw Jamunko's stilt houses, belching smoke from clay ovens. Drust raised his head and sniffed the air.
“I smell that crisp roast pork already!”
Zotikos winced and clutched his stomach. “Still hungry.”
Drust clasped his friend's back. “A little longer old friend, you can make it.”
Zotikos pressed on, using his spear as a walking stick. Moments later, another group came into view.
“Zot!” Drust hissed, pulling the philosopher behind a tree.
Zotikos laid his spear in the grass, hiding it from sight.
“Not the welcoming committee I take it?” Zotikos whispered.
“Its a war party.”
“Thought they were peaceful.”
“They are, something's gone wrong.”
The two watched the party venture into the Rain Lands. There were six in all. Four of them led the way. A couple more followed, carrying a wooden pole across their shoulders. They wore grass skirts, with colorful bands around their biceps. Bleached animal skulls served for helmets. They held long spears, topped with sharpened stone. At the front of the procession, two prisoners were prodded along by the spears.
“Should we follow?” Zotikos asked.
“Best leave them be, it's not our affair.”
“You can tell a lot about a society by how they treat their prisoners. I must know what they're doing with those captives.”
Drust recognized the determined look in his friend's face.
“As stubborn as ever Zot.”
“So are you with me?”
Drust muttered a curse under his breath. “Fine, but if there's no boar left at the feast I'll be very upset.”
Zotikos beckoned for Drust to follow him and slunk into the jungle. The party took a hidden path that twisted through the wood. After several minutes, they stopped at a mossy cave mouth. The men carrying the pole stuck it into the dirt, ensuring it was firmly in place. They tied the two captives to the pole, a few yards from the cave's entrance. A tall, bronze skinned man approached the prisoners.
“Choroti and Kaiwa, you are offered to the Nehebka for murder. May you both be forgiven in the Great Divide.”
“I was forced to do it!” the shorter of the two prisoners said. He had the same sun browned skin as the others, with a shaven head and flat nose.
The war party ignored the man's cry and returned to the village.
“Curse you Kaiwa,” Choroti said. “This is all your fault.”
“You wanted her dead as much as I did,” Kaiwa replied. In contrast to Choroti, Kaiwa had unkempt black hair and scars crisscrossed his chest.
“The Nehebka?” Zotikos whispered to Drust.
Drust shrugged his shoulders. “Never seen one, but I think we're about to.”
The prisoners averted their gaze from the cave. Drust and Zot heard something slither from inside it. The hairs on Zotikos's arms stood as a hiiisss escaped the cave mouth. A snake's head, half as tall as Zotikos, emerged. Its massive body followed, sliding on its stomach toward the hapless victims. Its arm sized tongue flicked out of its mouth. Its unblinking black eyes focused on its meal to come. Choroti screamed as the serpent drew nearer.
Zotikos hoisted his spear and lunged out of the grass. He ran full speed toward the serpent, aiming for its neck. The Nehebka's head swung toward the charging human. Its jaws snapped open, ropes of venom dripping off its fangs. The warrior-philosopher tumbled out of the way, avoiding the snake's bite. Its scaly head bit into a pile of leaves, just missing him.
Drust dashed out of the brush, ax held over his head. “Try a Lakelander, you oversized worm!” he shouted.
With speed that belied its size, the Nehebka shifted its weight, whipping its tail at Drust. The tall axeman attempted to pivot away, but the tip of the tail buffeted him to the ground. Drust slid across the dirt from the impact. He clutched his side and tried to force himself up. Zotikos thrust his spear into the serpent's back. The Nehebka screamed in pain, arcing its head toward the sky.
“Now!” Zotikos shouted.
The Lakelander recovered himself and grasped the end of his weapon's handle. He lifted his arms behind his head, leaned back and threw the ax with full strength. The blade spun threw the air, slicing into the Nehebka's neck. A jet of blood sprayed from the wound, and the giant serpent collapsed. Its body shook for several seconds then went still. Zotikos pulled the spear from the Nehebka, using the grass to wipe it clean.
“You alright Drust?” Zotikos asked.
The Lakelander clutched his side and trudged to the philosopher. “It'll bruise, but I'll live.”
Zotikos and Drust approached the captives. Choroti and Kaiwa stared at them in disbelief. There was Zotikos with his curly brown hair, blue chiton garment, bronze bracers and short sword. Next to him was the Lakelander, with his crimson mane, blue eyes, tiger skin kilt and laced shirt.
“Are you gods?” Choroti asked them.
Zotikos laughed. “If only. We're just mere mortals seeking Jamunko's famous food.”
“And decided to rescue some prisoners on the way,” Drust added.
Zotikos severed the captives' bonds with his gladius. Drust pried his ax out of the dead reptile.
“We were judged guilty for murder. Why save us?” Kaiwa asked.
“When Choroti said he was forced to kill someone, I couldn't bear to watch him eaten by the serpent.”
Choroti sniffed, tears welling in his eyes. He fell to his knees and grasped the hem of Zotikos's robe.
“Thank you, thank you for saving my life! May I have the honor of knowing your name?”
The philosopher eased Choroti back to his feet. “I am Zotikos of the Phanarite tribe. This is my friend Drust, from the Lake Territories.”
“Might as well explain yourselves,” Drust said.
“It happened several days ago,” Choroti replied. “I was courting Ixta, a village maiden. I didn't know she was seeing Kaiwa behind my back. When I caught them together, I flew into a rage. I...I said I wanted to kill her in front of the villagers. Ixta regretted her infidelity, and promised she would stop seeing Kai.”
Choroti pointed to the taller man. “Kaiwa was livid, expecting her to choose himself over me. He used a spell to control my body. I was possessed to kill Ixta.”
Choroti shook with emotion, shutting his eyes and grabbing the sides of his head.
“Zotikos,” he continued. “I was made to strangle Ixta in her own bed. A night watchmen spotted me leaving her hut in a stupor. Suspicious, he entered the home and saw Ixta's lifeless eyes staring up at him. I was arrested and thrown into the prison pits.”
“How was it proven Kaiwa forced you to kill her?” Drust asked.
“The village shaman examined me, and verified I was magically influenced. Furthermore, when Kaiwa was investigated, he was found with several powders used in mind control spells.”
“Then Kaiwa alone is responsible. You were used against your will as the weapon,” Zotikos said.
Choroti shook his head. “In my culture, we mean what we say, no matter what. When I publicly declared I wanted to kill Ixta for cheating, it was taken as true. That I said it in anger means nothing. In their eyes, I'm just as guilty as Kaiwa.”
Drust turned to Kai. “Do you admit all Choroti said is true?”
“Yes, I do,” Kaiwa replied. “I made him kill Ixta, and don't regret it.”
Zotikos pointed his spear at Kaiwa's chest.
“What are you going to do?” Kaiwa asked. “Kill an unarmed man?”
“I'm thinking about it,” Zotikos replied.
Choroti ran behind Drust and Zotikos and glared over their shoulders at Kaiwa.
Drust asked, “Want to finish him off Zot?”
“Kai's an unashamed murderer and manipulator, but I can't kill him in cold blood. I think we'll have to let him go.”
Kaiwa's jaw dropped in disbelief. Zotikos slowly raised his spear.
“You'll take your chances in the Rain Lands. A practical death sentence in itself. But if you manage to eke out a pathetic living in this wilderness, I won't envy you.”
Kaiwa belted out a humorless laugh and bounded away into the foliage.
“Doesn't seem right to let him go free,” Drust said.
“No, but he won't last a fortnight here. In time, he'll wish he'd been consumed by the Nehebka,” Zotikos replied. Zotikos looked to Choroti. “I suggest you find some empty coastline, where you won't be seen by your tribe. The beach is safer than the jungle. Find a ship, or build a raft to―”
“No, I must go back,” Choroti interrupted. “I must clear my name. Murder is taboo within any society. But in mine, it's especially repulsive. Every one of us is precious. There's rarely over a few hundred of us at any time.”
“You get a second chance at life, and you'd risk it by returning to those that condemned you?” Zotikos asked.
“I won't be remembered as a murderer. I'd run back to Jamunko screaming I'm innocent, if only to be speared by a village guard.”
Choroti looked up at Zotikos with a determined frown. Drust broke the silence.
“Zotikos, I may be able to help, due to my relationship with the Jamundi. Being engaged to Naiwa, I may ask her parents one reasonable favor. By law, they must grant it. Her father is the richest merchant in the tribe. I'm sure he could convince the elders to hold a retrial.”
“Yes, I would try anything!” Choroti said.
The convict paced around Drust and Zotikos as they considered the possibilities.
“Told you so Zot. We were to have a nice feast, but you followed the war party.”
“My curiosity saved an arguably innocent man from a gruesome death.”
Choroti wrung his hands while the two men finalized their plan.
“Cho, grab a place to hide. I'll find Nawei and handle this further,” Drust said.
Choroti jolted from a harsh cry over the treetops. “You want me to hide out here, while you dine?”
“We could've left you to be swallowed whole...” Zotikos said.
“Al-alright,” Choroti stuttered. “I'll take my chances...”
Zotikos removed his gladius from his rope belt.
“Here, take this. It's the best I can do. Maybe we'll sneak some food to you later.”
Choroti held the sword, admiring its craftsmanship. “Thank you Zotikos.”
“Don't thank me yet. Wait till you've been proven innocent. Let's go Drust.”
Zotikos and Drust finally arrived to see the settlement basked in torchlight. The philosopher leaned heavily on his spear, his head light from hunger. A pack of revelers came toward the pair.
One of the women recognized Drust, running to him excitedly. Small bells were tied around her wrists and ankles, adding a musical quality to her strides. Her ebony hair waved in the wind, decorated with exotic flowers. The woman's hazel eyes sparkled in the night. A grass skirt draped her legs, and several beaded necklaces covered her chest.
“Druuust!” she called out, hands outstretched.
The Lakelander caught the woman in his arms, hugging her tightly.
“Nawei,” he said, waving a hand through her hair. “Told you I'd be back, and during a feast no less.”
Nawei called out to her friends in her native language. One of them brought over two sticks, with a cooked sea creature skewered on each. She handed them to Drust and Zotikos.
“Food or drink in a guest's hand at all times during a Jamundi feast, it's only proper,” Nawei said. “Start with some grilled squid.”
Drust hid his reluctance, sniffing and nibbling it before deciding it was edible. When he turned to Zotikos, the philosopher licked the last bit of flesh from his portion.
“Do Jamundi give seconds...or thirds...or maybe fourths?” Zotikos asked.
Naiwei laughed. “No one leaves hungry, please have as much as you like.”
“Are they this hospitable in the Territories?” Zotikos asked Drust.
“If you've got the coin,” he replied.
Drust, Zotikos and Nawei sat around a crackling bonfire. Others chatted around them. Many stared and commented at the strange outsiders, and their appearances. But it was out of curiosity rather than fear or prejudice.
Zotikos won over some hunters by displaying the metal work on his spear and bracers. Some children applauded as Drust halved a tough melon with his ax. As the night continued, the three enjoyed palm wine and spit roasted meats. The sound of pan flutes traveled across the air. Nawei wrapped her arms around Drust's own and looked into his eyes.
“Drust, will you marry me yet?”
The trader put a hand around her slender waist. “Nawei...I may need a little more time. Things got complicated on the way here.”
“Why? What's wrong?”
Drust took a deep breath. “Well here's one way to put it. One of your tribesmen, Choroti...is back from the dead. And it's Zotikos's and my fault.”