The sound of the wind was deafening, and the pale blue snow flew around with such intensity that it seemed like they were walking through a cloud. Kraglar hunched his shoulder and continued to push through the storm. He glanced back, and though he could hardly make out their silhouettes through the blizzard, he knew his tribe was following steadily behind him. The children and the elderly gathered at the center while his warriors surrounded the perimeter. In this formation, the tribe of 62—Kraglar sighed— 61 now had begun this journey eleven days ago. Kraglar couldn’t say that his tribe had been optimistic about the long road ahead of them, but they begrudgingly understood his decision, and even if they didn’t, they had no choice but to obey his command unless one of his warriors wanted to challenge him for the leadership position. Fortunately, no one did. With the arduous journey ahead, he would have hated killing a capable fighter.
It took time to make all the necessary preparations for the journey. Rations needed to be collected, homes demolished, and a cleansing ceremony was performed to release the land back to the gods and whoever would occupy it next. All in all, they were able to finally start the journey a couple of months after he’d announced his decision. Unfortunately, the journey had been beset by misfortune right from its onset, and now, after long days of trekking through this gods damned storm, he could feel the tension growing in the group. Even his most devoted warriors were showing signs of discontent. No one said anything outright, but looks were shared, and off-handed comments carried hidden barbs. Kraglar couldn’t blame them. Fralorians were brutally intolerant of incompetent leaders. He knew that all too well, as his own rule started with his spear ripping the former Ticana’s head off.
Kraglar squinted, trying to see through the storm. The densely packed snow came up to his knees, but with his strength, it was easy enough to push through it. He worried about how the children faired, but they had to keep moving, and he figured this would strengthen them in the long run.
“Ticana.” He just barely caught the voice of his Ripan, vice-leader, with the wind rushing as it was. He glanced to the side but kept vigilant of what was ahead.
“What is it, Agol?” His voice, even to his own ears, was harsh and hard, but he had never made attempts to soften it, and he wouldn’t start now.
“Perhaps we should break and wait for the blizzard to run its course.” Agol had moved directly beside him, so his voice could be heard without yelling and risking the rest of the tribe’s hearing.
“No,” Kraglar growled out. A thin whistling sound came from the back of his throat. It was a warning.
Agol hesitated, fear flittering through his pale blue eyes. But then he scrunched his brow, breaking the thin layer of frost on his purple skin. “Forgive me for my obstinance Ticana, but the people are not happy to keep up at this pace.”
“And what is my concern if they are not happy with it? We must keep moving.”
“Agol.” As Kraglar spoke, another warning sound was released. Agol quickly bowed his head. “I understand your concerns, but we must keep moving.”
Even as they spoke, Kraglar could feel the faintest tremble beneath the ground. He knew no one else would feel it. Maybe Yenuin, the shaman, might, as his senses were the keenest after Kraglar’s. It was because of this trembling that he decided to move the tribe from land that they had held for over forty years. It was just a hum beneath the earth for now, but the frequency of earth tremors in the area had increased steadily over the last two years. Each time one struck, forests were overturned, homes were destroyed, and people died. In a twist of fate, as if to validate his decision, a powerful earth tremor struck only five days after the start of their migration, splitting the ground beneath one of the tribe’s best warriors, Umali. It proved his decision, but the unfortunate incident had set the tone for the journey. Morale immediately dropped, while the crack that Umali fell into filled within minutes from a sudden blizzard. They had now been trekking through that blizzard at an excruciating pace for six days; the exhausted children and elders were being carried on the backs of their equally exhausted but more able-bodied tribespeople.
Kraglar clenched his spear tighter and kept moving. The faster they left this area, the better. Once they safely passed the forests and crossed the Himon Pass, a land bridge over a deep chasm, then they could relax and take a break. Across the bridge was land that none of them had stepped foot on before. It would be a new beginning, surly with its own challenges, but hopefully, it would be better than what they had now. It had to be, but ruminating on that could happen later. Right now, they were at risk of getting caught in another earth tremor or worse. Kraglar kept vigilant of every shadow he saw ahead, real or imagined.
He opened and closed his left hand frequently to keep it from freezing. The purple skin of his fingertips was raw and stinging. Every now and then, he thought he felt a gaze upon his back, but he never turned around. Not only would that show a lack of trust in the warriors guarding the rear, but everyone would see it for what it was. Nervousness. Kraglar was unusually atheist for a Fralorian, and he’d only indulged in the religious practices of his tribe to promote unity. Now though, his mind was plagued with stress-laden superstition, and he had come to believe that the storm was a manifestation deliberately created by the gods of death and eternal frost to hinder their progress. The swirling snow made haunting hollow sounds and morphed into visions of phantoms.
Using his long spear, he swiped at the shadows; most of his strikes glided smoothly through the air, but a couple of hard impacts let him know to avoid large boulders and stray trees. The trees worried him. He knew there would be a few in the route he and the pilowans, his advisors, had mapped out, but it concerned him as he was hitting more and more of them. They had specifically taken a longer route to bypass the forest. The storm had confused them, but he believed they were still on track, though maybe closer to the edge of the forest than initially planned.
“It would be great if we could send out scouts,” Agol said. It was said with an attempt at levity as he checked the tip of his spear for damage after it hit another tree.
“What good are scouts if they cannot find their way back,” Kraglar replied tersely. He knew that the man was speaking facetiously but was too frustrated to indulge the comment.
He knew now, for sure, that they were entering the forest, and it caused his heart to drop. In the original course, they had made sure to skirt around any forests within forty days’ walk, as it would put them in the territory of another tribe. Given the amount of time they’d been traveling, they could only be at the Giltan Forest. Kraglar barely stopped himself from slamming his fist against the trunk of yet another tree.
Even given the best circumstances, Giltan forest was to be avoided for many reasons, but now, in a blizzard, with a fatigued tribe, arriving there was another great misfortune Kraglar could add to his ongoing list of why he could soon expect a spear tip at his back. Not only did various vicious beasts fill the forests, but part of it was within the territory of Apuli’s tribe. Just thinking about the old warrior’s name made him grit his teeth in rage. Another part of Kraglar’s motivation to move was to create distance between his tribe and Apuli’s.
Apuli was an old warrior, but rather than make him weaker, his age and long reign had made him almost transcendent to his tribespeople, of who there were numerous. At over 200, Apuli’s tribe was the largest this side of the chasm. Kraglar was not weak by any stretch, and he knew he could beat Apuli one on one, but by sheer number alone, it would be impossible for his tribe to come out the victor should a war take place. Each year, Apuli encroached more on their land and pushed for Kraglar to become subservient to him as some other Ticanas had done. Apuli would have had to take the land over their dead bodies. Still, even though some may view it as cowardly, Kraglar wanted his tribespeople alive and well, even if it meant abandoning their territory.
They were now properly within the forest, and as the tall trees with their thick canopies blocked most of the winds and snow, Kraglar noticed the relief immediately apparent in his tribespeople. The warriors, on the other hand, became more alert, eyes darting around the shadows of the trees, spear raised slightly in preparation for a surprise attack. Kraglar was similarly on edge. He considered turning them back around and trying to get back on the planned route to skirt around the forest, but seeing the relief in the people, he decided against it. Instead, he led his people through the dense forest, guiding them to stay close to the edges. As they moved, Kraglar’s ears reacted to every sound, and his blue eyes glinted with an intense focus.
“Stay alert,” he said.
“Of course, Ticana,” Agol whispered, then passed the instruction to the warrior adjacent to him.
Fortunately, there were no surprises, and after finding a relatively clear spot, which still had the edge of the forest visible, he called a stop to let them rest.
“We will stop here,” Kraglar said as he faced his people. He couldn’t see everyone, as not everyone could fit in the small clearing. Others were in the shadows of the trees, leaning against the white trunks or sitting on the snow-covered ground. At his words, he saw people’s faces light up. He felt a slight pull in his chest but tapped it down and kept his face impassive as he continued. “Briefly. Very briefly. Eat quickly, and take care of your business. We will leave shortly.”
He watched their faces fall. The adults could mask their tiredness and disappointment well, but the children were open books. They grumbled and whined, but none were silly enough to throw up a racket. He pulled down his bag, picked out some strips of dried meat, and quickly ate them. All the while, he glanced into the forest and over the people. Some were massaging their legs or retying the furs on their shoes. Others leaned against tree trunks and fell asleep.
“We are far from our course,” Rukin, one of his senior warriors, said, coming to stand beside Kragler. The man was almost as tall as Kraglar but much wider. His skin was light, almost lilac, and his long light blue hair was tied behind his back. Kraglar watched as some of the women’s eyes drew to both of them. He knew they were both considered the most eligible men in the tribe. He also knew that if a challenge were to come, it would most likely be from Rukin.
“That is obvious,” Kraglar replied, turning away from the gazes filled with intent.
“The people will not last much longer going at this pace.”
Krglar frowned and looked down at Rukin. The man was smiling, but it did not reach his navy eyes. Kragler released a low warning sound from his throat.
“I know the condition of my people,” he said with an equally false smile. “All of them.” Kraglar glanced down at Rukin’s hand that was holding a spear. The strips of fabric holding the long speak tip in place were frayed and loosening. He must have hit it too hard against a tree or boulder. “If you have time to make meaningless conversation, spend it making sure that your weapon is ready to use.”
Rukin glanced down at his spear without the slightest crack in his expression. “Ah,” he exclaimed softly. “Thank you for your advice Ticana.” He smiled wider, then nodded and walked away.
“He is dangerous,” Agol said. During the conversation, he had moved to stand beside Kraglar. If Rukin had called a challenge, Agol would not have been able to get involved, but his presence was intended to show solidarity. To show that the Ripan was still on his side.
Kraglar allowed a small smile as he turned to his deputy chief. “He is, but so are you.”
Agol raised a nearly white brow. “Are you in the mood for jokes now?”
Kraglar scoffed. “That was not a good time.” Part of him wanted to apologize for his earlier attitude, but that could be seen as a weakness in a Ticana. “But I’m not joking now, and we both know it.”
Kraglar eyed Agol carefully. The warrior was bigger than Kraglar in every way and was probably the most skilled spearman in the tribe. The only advantage Kraglar had over him was the immensity of his shikan, time-stilling abilities, and ambition. In terms of his shikan, Kraglar was confident that he had never met anyone who could even compare to him, and that was why no one could challenge him carelessly, but he was always weary.
Agol laughed softly. “No, I believe you are joking, Ticana. I have already pledged my loyalty to you. There will be no change in that.”
Kraglar’s heart tingled pleasantly, and he tried to keep his lips from rising higher. “Is that so?”
“Without a doubt.”
Kraglar nodded. “I will take your word for it. Get everyone back in formation.”
Kraglar carefully looked over his spear, checking the tips and the straps. Once satisfied, he looked over the people; some were shaken awake, and others lifted the smallest children in their arms as the people prepared to continue their journey.
“We move,” he said, and the long march began again.
As they wove through the forest, Kraglar considered whether he would prefer to encounter rabid beasts or Apuli’s tribe. He figured he’d probably have a better chance of reasoning with the wild beasts. After they walked for some time, Kraglar saw a break in the trees leading into an open clearing, and he got a chance to find an answer to his ponderings as they walked in on a pack of aglun devouring the carcass of some creature at the center of the clearing. Cursing his wretched luck and carelessness, he quickly and silently raised a hand to stop the group, then began signaling a retreat. It was a moment too late. The wind changed direction, and as one, the pack lifted their heads, catching the scent of the tribe.
For a moment, the eight beasts watched them. Each had two pairs of glassy blue eyes, and blood and meat still dripped from their fangs, staining their blue-tinted white fur that near perfectly blended with the snow. Kraglar hoped the beasts would simply return to their kill, but as expected, he could almost see the various degrees of aggression and maliciousness creeping into their hungry eyes. The entire tribe stood still. Even the youngest children knew the smell of impending death. With deliberate slowness, the alpha aglun flung the meat hanging in its mouth to the side. It opened its wide mouth, letting its split tongue roll out, then began inching its large body forward, ears perked up and fur standing. The others followed it in an instinctual formation.
Agluns were one of the most aggressive beasts on Fralor, and they would kill just for the sake of it. As the beasts inched closer, Kraglar clenched his jaw so hard it felt ready to shatter. Maybe this was what he needed. He had spent weeks planning the journey and sent multiple scouts to check the route. He had even reluctantly allowed the head shaman to hold a week-long group prayer. He’d done all he could in hopes that the journey would proceed with as little conflict and issues as possible, but this was the final confirmation that his wish was impossible. He exhaled slowly and fell into a natural battle stance. His warriors took up positions beside him.
He felt his body relax and release all the tension and stress he had been holding in since their journey began. This journey was not something he could bend to his will. There were too many factors beyond his control, and there was no guarantee they would all make it to their new land, wherever that might be. The thought should have increased his frustration, but it didn’t. He nodded and smiled in resignation. All he could do was make the best of each moment as it came, so he raised his spear. The rest of his warriors followed suit, smoothly forming a defensive line between the agluns and the tribe who had already begun inching back to give the warriors enough room. There was no Fralorian old enough to walk that didn’t know what to do in a conflict situation: fight or get out of the way of those who could. A few of the elders even smiled in anticipation. There was no greater joy for them than watching their young ones in battle.
The agluns roared and sprinted toward the group. Kraglar stepped forward and raised his spear, not pointing it toward the charging beasts but up to the sky. Twelve warriors stayed behind him and prepared to throw their spears. The agluns cracked the ground as they charged forward. Kraglar did not flinch. The agluns pointed their curved horns forward, their heads low to the ground, and their bodies hunched to leap. In one motion, Kraglar twisted his spear and struck the ground. Mid leap, the agluns appeared to freeze, and snow hung unmoving in the air. In reality, everything remained in motion, but they were slowed down beyond visible perception. Kraglar’s shikan spread like a wave toward everything in front of him. The tribe, unaffected by Kraglar’s abilities, cheered as the warrior threw their spears, each dealing a fatal hit to the agluns. Kraglar released his powers, and the bodies fell.
As Kraglar watched the warriors retrieve their spears, he smiled. He didn’t notice, but his mumbling tribespeople quieted down at the sight of such a soft expression on their leader’s face. Kraglar indulged in the moment of peace for just a second before re-focusing. Usually, they would immediately skin the animals and perform hunting rites, but being in the Giltan forest, they could not afford such luxury. The use of time freeze was perceptible to all Fralorians, and with Kraglar’s potent powers, it wouldn’t be long before Apuli’s tribe arrived to investigate. They took only two of the agluns with them and started making their way out of the forest. Kraglar was exhausted from using the skill but continued increasing the pace. Even after they made it out of the forest and back into the blizzard, he did not slow down until they had put a considerable distance between them and Giltan forest.
# # #
On the 14th day of their journey, the persistent blizzard had finally calmed to a light flurry, and the tribe walked with ease, finally back on their planned route. They traveled for a few more days before arriving at the chasm. The trees had fallen behind them to open plains and mountain peaks stretching up to clear skies. Kraglar looked down the land bridge and beyond the rugged mountains to a frozen valley. It was unfamiliar land. He did not know what kind of people he would find there or what the personality of the land was, but he was confident that, within the valley, they would find their new home.