She came to, to the heady reek of incense and the feel of warm furs wrapped around her. She blinked open her eyes slowly, already knowing she was no longer outside. Warm, diffuse yellow light filled her vision, the light eventually narrowing down to the flickering dance of an oil lamp hanging above the simple pallet she was lying on. The scent of fur, incense and mud brought with it comfort. The contours of a small hut slowly revealed themselves as Fantel’s eyes regained their focus. Fantel could see the curved arch of a waxed animal skin roof above her head; the oil lamp dangling from a sturdy metal chain affixed to the apex of the roof. The walls of the hut were made from compacted mud. A crude incense burner stood by the doorway, which was sealed by a curtain of bear pelt. The hut was furnished with a carpet sewn from different animal pelts into a complicated patchwork design, and the walls were decorated with beautifully polished Yammik’a’lim shells and antlers.
Slowly Fantel sat up, mindful of her stiff and sore body. Someone had stripped her of her clothes, the remnants of which had been folded neatly and laid out on the floor beside the pallet. Her shoulder and ribs were wrapped in bandages and she could smell the slightly spicy scent of some manner of medicinal salve lingering on her skin. Looking around her Fantel was just wondering whether she felt strong enough to risk getting up when the flap of the door was pulled back and an ogdegre woman entered.
“Good. You are awake.” The woman was at least six and a half feet tall (inches taller than Fantel) not including the gently curving horns extending from her broad forehead. Her skin was greyish-green and intricately marked with fantastical tattoos, brightly coloured war paints, and picked out with artistic scars in swirling patterns. She had a strong featured, wide face and a mane of jet black hair that fell, straight and smooth as water down her back. She wore a tunic of tough animal hide and carried a painted yammik’a’lim shell as a shield on her back. She walked into the hut and deposited a quiver of arrows and a beautifully carved bow on the ground before turning to face Fantel with an inquisitive smile.
“I am I’tan of the O’da tribe. Welcome to my home.” She said, speaking the Olim’g tongue.
“Thank you.” Fantel replied politely in the same language, pleased that I’tan spoke the common Olim’g dialect and not any more obscure form, as Fantel was confident in her fluency in Olim’g but not so in any of the other ogdegre languages. “I am Fantel. I am grateful for you and your tribe’s aid. I am in your debt.”
I’tan’s smile widened when she realised Fantel understood her, and she waved off Fantel’s gratitude with the ease common among ogdegre. “That bear was good sport; it was no trouble to bring you and your human out of the miasma.”
“Rashari,” Fantel started. “He is stricken, the alraune curse...” She began, disturbed that she had not thought of him before now.
Once more I’tan waved her concern away with an easy grace, “The curse had not advanced far within him when we brought him back to our healers. We were able to purge the infection and he now rests peacefully under Palpir’s watchful eye.”
Fantel sagged, her shoulders slumping in a rush of relief. “Then I am again in your debt. I am in charge of his care while we travel your lands, and did a poor job. We were seeking out the aid of one of the tribes when the miasma fell. I am sorry that I have nothing with which to offer you in recompense.” Fantel met I’tan’s eyes. “If there is something I may do for you or the O’da, and it is within my power to do so, you need only ask.”
I’tan nodded vaguely, accepting Fantel’s offer without making any demands. Her expression shaded into curiosity. “You travel with a human. Does this then mean you are from the human lands to the east?”
“Yes,” Fantel said without a twinge.
I’tan sat down on the end of the pallet, her expression full of questions. “You are Chimera, yes? Your kind do not generally favour humans.”
“No.” Fantel agreed and offered nothing more.
I’tan was not offended. She simply nodded and moved on. “Recently there have been many humans wandering our lands,” she told Fantel, her tone light but hiding a more pointed edge. “They come from the east, from the walled human city at H’malium’s farthest edge. It started during the dark season. They came with carts and machines and headed north.” I’tan’s wide mouth pursed into a frown, “It has been a long time since human scientists came out here. It never bodes well.”
Fantel understood the question I’tan was not precisely asking. She nodded. “This is the reason Rashari and I have come out here, also. There are humans who seek to harness a magic far beyond their means. We think these scientists may be part of it.”
“Humans,” I’tan scoffed and tilted her head, tired contempt in her tone. “We care not for their foolishness, but we worry that they’ll cause trouble for us.” I’tan fixed Fantel with a sharper look. “There is another human wandering close to our territory. A female accompanied by a djinn,” I’tan’s lip curled away from strong dark stained teeth. “Humans are trouble but Djinn are a threat. The djinn is from the human lands, from what our scouts tell us, but that is little comfort.”
Fantel frowned. “I do not know of this djinn,” She said honestly. “You are sure the djinn and this human woman are together?”
I’tan nodded. “The human woman stopped one of our scouting patrols a day hence, requesting shelter. We would have given it to her, of course, whatever our feelings for the humans we do not deny aid to those who need it – but the djinn was with her. We do not aid djinn. Humans know something of the responsibilities of a good guest, they also sometimes have goods to trade, but the djinn are malicious and not to be trusted. We do not allow them near our settlements.”
Fantel could feel her suspicions rising. “Did your scouts say any more about this woman? Did they know what business she had out here?”
“No,” I’tan said simply. “They agreed to give the woman some food and water, as her own supplies were low, but the woman did not say anything of her purpose. The scouts thought she was likely another scientist, except that those that came before travelled in larger groups.”
Fantel nodded, thoughts racing ahead of her. “May I see my...human?” She asked looking up at I’tan. “I would like to speak to him. He may know more about this human woman.” Fantel had never been one to see conspiracy hidden amid every coincidence until she had met Rashari. Now she found it impossible to imagine that the presence of a human woman and a djinn wandering the Steppes almost like an inverted mirror image of she and Rashari could be anything other than more trouble coming their way.
“You will need clothes,” I’tan said, sounding pleased. She stood from the bed. “You can have some of mine.” I’tan cast her another keen look, “We want this strange djinn gone from our lands. If you can make this happen you would have the gratitude of our tribe.”
Fantel nodded grimly. “I understand.”
The O’da settlement was much as Fantel had imagined it would be. A series of steeple roofed huts made out of mud arranged in concentric circles with a wall of wood and flax marking the boundaries of the settlement. There was a well in the centre of the settlement and a sunken area where exhibition wrestling matches and archery contests took place. There was also a number of open air fire-pits scattered around surrounded by benches carved from slabs of wood where meals were prepared and consumed communally. A group of ogdegre women sat inside on fur blankets fletching arrows and a male ogdegre stood by a large pot suspended over one of the cooking fires stirring a delicious smelling stew with a huge wooden spoon while he kept one eye on a group of children laughing and shrieking a few yards away. A flash of familiar dull gold and brilliant violet caught Fantel’s attention, and with I’tan patient at her side, Fantel deviated from her course toward the sight of Smith skittering along the edge of one of the hut roofs to the obvious delight of the gathered children.
The ogdegre children cooed and cheered as Smith skittered left and right like a sand crab over the edge of the roof, blinking his eight violet eyes in sequence. One of the older ogdegre children, a boy whose horns were just beginning to grow in, reached out an arm toward Smith. Immediate Smith danced down the boy’s arm to his shoulder and perched on his head, his steps light and nimble. Fantel could see Smith was careful to make sure the sharpness of his legs did not hurt the child. The boy whooped with laughter, puffing up with pride as the younger children watched with envy as Smith skittered down from the boy’s head into his waiting arms. The ogdegre boy stroked a hand over Smith’s smooth metal body as he might a furred pet. After a moment the other children stepped closer to reach out and touch as well. Fantel hung back, not wanting to interfere with the game.
“The humans call such creatures automatons, do they not?” I’tan asked her smiling softly at the scene.
“Yes,” Fantel said unable to keep all the surprise out of her voice. She had not thought I’tan would know that. “He is called Smith.” She added almost as an afterthought.
I’tan glanced at her in amusement. “My youngest child took himself to the human lands several seasons past.” I’tan explained. “He came back with many tales of the humans and their machines.” A shadow of sadness touched I’tan’s open, expressive face. “He married into tribe D’wen last Rain Fall. It was a good match and his wife treats him well, for all that she has three other husbands, but I miss him still.”
Fantel nodded slowly, not completely sure how to reply. The conversation was uncomfortable for her. It brought her thoughts against the edge of memory that hurt to think on. She forced herself away from the scars in her memories. “If your son returned to the tribe he could not have found the human lands to his liking.”
I’tan shrugged. “He always intended to return. Ifan was like many of our young, intrigued by the stories of the human world, so close to our borders. He would not settle to life in the tribe without first seeing it for himself. But he was always a sensible boy. He took heed of the warnings of his elders and stayed clear of the walled city, the one called Aramantine. He travelled on to Tabris and then much further east, to the city of many rivers -Valkieres. He said the sky was full of flying machines and the buildings were taller than mountains. He found work on the river, with the boats. He met goblins and even djinn.” I’tan frowned. “Things are different in the human lands, their ways are not our ways, but Ifan said that the humans he met were not without their good sides.”
“I suppose that is so,” Fantel conceded, a wry smile touching her lips. Fantel had visited Valkieres once when she first left Aashorum and thought Ifan’s description apt. The Adran Imperial capital was a vast, sprawling hive, full of machines and sky scraping towers. The city was also scoured through by three rivers converging into one great river, the Valdene, in the very heart of the city. The Adran Empire had always tolerated the presence of non-humans with far greater equanimity than most human lands, and Fantel knew that there were large populations of immigrant ogdegre, goblins and, yes, even djinn in the Capital; had it not been for the ever-present reek of phantasma hanging over the entire city like a death shroud Fantel might even have stayed in Valkieres herself. Whimsically she wondered if she might have met Rashari sooner, had she done so. Rashari wore the cloak of his origins very clearly for all that she thought he tried not to.
Leaving Smith with the children, as he seemed happy enough to act as entertainment for the time being, Fantel followed I’tan to another hut, closer to the outer walls of the settlement. She waited outside while I’tan slipped inside to confer with the healer. While she waited Fantel looked beyond the wall to the trees beyond. The O’da settlement was on the edge of an old and sturdy forest. Unlike the forest where they had encountered the alraune Fantel could tell immediately that the spirit of this forest was strong and robust; the air seemed to sigh with a sense of calm and acceptance. She was sure this forest would shelter and protect the lost and the weary, and provide sustenance and safety to those travelling under its boughs. This was a place of kindness. Even the soft breeze seemed to reach out and touch her like a friend. Fantel blinked suddenly wet eyes, her vision splintering into a thousand shades of liquid green. It hurt like a blade between her ribs to know that she could not reach out to the spirit of the O’da forest, that she could not answer the spirit’s welcome with one of her own. She dared not even try. She didn’t know what Anoush might do if she attempted to use her magic again.
“You may enter, my friend. Your human is still sleeping but Palpir says he should wake before dark falls. You may wait with him if it pleases you.” I’tan’s voice startled her. Fantel jerked as if she’d been shot. She whipped around, eyes wide, claws extended. I’tan stood by the door to the hut wherein Rashari was resting. She held the flap open for an aged ogdegre male whose bones had started to fall in on themselves so that he walked with a pronounced stoop. He wore a leather satchel across his shoulder, bulging with medicinal smelling herbs and trails of bandages. He nodded to Fantel, blinking rheumy eyes at her.
“I...thank you,” Fantel murmured regaining her composure as best she could. She nodded politely to the healer, Palpir. “Thank you for all you have done.” The healer grunted and shuffled off back toward the middle of the settlement where the sweet scent of roasting meat wafted on the breeze. I’tan smiled at her, nodded, and followed after the old healer. Fantel watched them go, took a breath, and slipped into the hut.