Festiz’ Playground

February 5, 2015 - Short Story

Festiz’ Playground

 

By Kelly Tolman

 

Fenton Halbrook tossed another coin into the already heavy pile in the center of the table.  “Here’s your chance to win it back,” he said with a smile.  The smaller man across the table shook the dice cup slowly.  His greedy eyes followed the dice as they dropped.  Then he swore.

“Those dice aren’t right,” he said.  “You gave me weighted dice.”

“Those are your dice, Torson,” said a third man, with a laugh.  Fenton didn’t care much for gambling, but tonight he played to pass the time.  This game had already begun to spiral out of control and he wanted out.

“I think I’ve had enough,” said Halbrook.  “I need to get an early start.”

“You can’t quit now,” said Torson, his words slurring slightly.  “You’ve won some, now let me get mine back.”

“Your drunk,” said Halbrook, his voice flat.  “Besides you don’t have anything left to gamble.

Torson reached into a bag he had next to his chair and dropped a heavy metal bar on the table.  “That’s the best coal forged iron you’ll ever see.  This bag is full of it, and I have another.  Across the Playground this is worth its weight in gold.  Now let’s play.”

“That ain’t your to bet,” said the third man.

“Shut up Larn, it is too.  This is my share.  I put in over half,” said Torson.

“Lief won’t stand for it,” said Larn.  “The village needs that in trade.”

“I don’t want to take your trade goods.”  Fenton stood up and began piling his winnings.

“One roll,” growled Torson.  “Both bags, my whole share, against everything you got, including that horse of yours.”  Torson slammed the cup down in front of Fenton.  “You beat my roll or walk out of here busted.”

Halbrook felt the eyes of the other locals turn and watch.  He scooped the money on the table into a bag, tied it closed and tossed it onto the table.  He picked up the cup.  “One roll,” he said and shook the cup.  He let the dice fall without looking.

“You lost Torson,” said Larn.

“He cheated,” cried Torson.  “Nobody gets that lucky.  You’re a dirty cheat.”

Fenton stepped back from the table.  “Calm down.  I’ll trade it back to you.  I need supplies.”  Torson had already drawn a knife and began to circle around the table.  He swayed drunkenly and stabbed in with the cutting edge up.  Fenton caught his wrist and turned it inwards before he smashed a left hook into Torson’s jaw.  The off balance man’s knees buckled from the blow and he crashed head-first into the table, splitting his skull on the steel bar.  Lars knelt over his friend, listening for breath.

“He’s breathing,” he called.  He looked frantically around the room to the other villagers.  “Go get the healer.”

Halbrook didn’t wait around to see if the man lived or died.  He took his winnings, or at least what he could load on the pack horse before they mustered the courage to take him, and left Bale’s Meadow at a high lope.  Without the ore the villagers would suffer through the winter, at least some of them, but for him it meant a fresh start on place of his own.  When the pursuit continued after three days, he concluded that Torson Baleson must have died, and that he probably gambled more than just his own share.

Halbrook studied his back trail carefully.  His vantage from between the boulders gave him a clear view of the valley without sky lining him to the pursuit.  Lief Bale, grandson of the Shep “Farmer” Bale, founder of Bales Meadow would be the leader.  Six riders and two pack horse.  Lowlanders for sure, but they were all rough fighting men.  At least these were not the wild men of the mountains that had kidnapped and raised Halbrook for nearly six years.  The lowlanders called them Festizi, children of Festiz the mountain spirit.  Among the Festizi, Halbrook learned how to disappear into the wild, and how to turn the hunter into the hunted.  Above all he learned patience.

Halbrook turned his dun toward the higher ground.  The horse plodded on, tiring a little as the sunlight faded.  Behind him his pack horse trailed quietly, carrying the burden of a small treasure.  A small spring, the last water for three days waited up there.  Howling Ridge, the Festizi called it because of the constant wind.  Beyond the ridge waited the desert.  The wild men had no name for the desert, but the settlers referred to it as Festiz’ Playground.  Few but the Festizi entered it willingly, and fewer ever returned.  Merchant caravans skirted it to the south where water was easier to find.  The desert is not a place for a man to challenge, but rather a place a man must learn to work with.

The tracks of a lone caribou circled the spring.  Halbrook listened intently as he cautiously approached the water.  Though the Festizi generally hunted farther north, there was no point in carelessness.  They lived to fight and to steal, and Fenton Halbrook knew all too well that though they knew him and respected his courage they would not hesitate to kill him should they meet.  He held less concern for the olive skinned pursuers than for the unseen enemies who might wait for him in the shadows.

Two razor sharp steel knives hung from his belt, one of them concealed at his back.  He hid a third, smaller bronze blade in his right boot.  He could shoot the bow better from the back of a running horse than most men could shoot standing still, and the bow was never far from his hand.  He favored the short lances, styled after those the Festizi used rather than the broad bladed swords common among the lowlander militia.  The two spears Halbrook used also had steel tips rather than the obsidian the wild men used or the bronze more common among the lowlanders.  Too many close chances taught him to find the best weapons he could and to treat them better than the friends who might one day sell him out for a handful of coin.

The men of the lowland villages held only modest knowledge of the wild, especially of the ways of the high mountains.  Halbrook had been born on a homestead near such a village.  His hair and skin were both generally lighter than others of his race.  Blue eyes were rare.  Among the Festizi the superstition around those eyes kept him alive long after the other captive children perished.  Drifters, mercenaries and merchants sometimes talked about a people with white hair and fair skin that dwelt in the far east, across the desert and over the mountains by the sea, but Halbrook never saw such a person.

Dusk began to cool the summer heat.  At this altitude the nights turned cold quickly.  Halbrook drank, watered his horse, and filled his canteens before moving on.  Staying too long near a source of water begs trouble, and he had plenty to deal with at the moment.  He made a cold camp a few hours past the spring in a clump of pines well hidden from casual view.

The Festizi hunted like packs of wolves, taking down animals with bow and spear, or the cougar claws they sometimes strapped to their hands.  The lowlanders regarded them as little more than animals, but they held a great love and respect for all things natural, and Halbrook developed that same joy.  Halbrook still bore the ceremonial scars on his back from the time he became a warrior among them.  Pitch laden quills had been inserted in even rows and then lit to test his courage.  Civilized life did not suit him, so he drifted from settlement to settlement guiding, scouting, and fighting for whichever merchant, chieftain, or lord could pay for his services.  He kept his hair long and never shaved after the tradition of the wild men, and he preferred a rough bear hide coat or buckskin shirt to hide his many scars and to keep warm in the altitude.

Before dawn, Halbrook woke and slipped into his boots.  Less experienced men would camp where they ate or camp close to water.  Of the six men tracking him, none had much experience in the mountains.  They would camp at the spring, he concluded.  Hopefully it would take them the better part of the morning to find his tracks, which gave him time.  He could slip into the desert, or he could start the fight here.

Halbrook circled back toward the spring, careful to cover his tracks, and checking his back trail as always.  A man traveling in the wild learns to watch not only where he’s going, but where he came from as well.  A man never knew when he would have to travel down the same trail coming the other way, and it just plain made sense to keep an eye out for anybody following.

His guess was correct.  He found them at the spring just as they were finishing breakfast.  Trackers and mountain men they might not be, but frontier men were fighting men.  They could handle their bows and spears for sure, and the shaman in Bale’s Meadow was rumored to know particularly powerful battle magic.  Consideration must be given to their weapons and experience.  In any case they would need both horses and water if they wanted to survive for long in the wild.

Halbrook dismounted and padded up to where they picketed the horses.  He cut the line to one of the pack horses and led it slowly away.  As he left, he heard a voice calling the group to mount up.  He quickened his pace a little, wanting to get a decent lead before they figured out his trail again.

With the extra horse and supplies it carried he could afford to push faster than before while his pursuit would have to conserve the resources if they hoped to survive a trek through the wasteland that waited on the other side of the mountain.

One of the many dangers of descending into the desert at that point in the mountains came from the general lack of cover.  The wind blasted the trees to stumpy shrubs, and very little rain fell on the desert side.  Maneuvering into the broken flatlands below without being seen could be difficult.  Once into the desert itself, however, the land would be broken by gentle slopes and cloudburst washed ravines.  The only water would be what collected in a few places following the infrequent rainfall.

Halbrook shed his bear coat long before he reached the first stand of creosote bushes.  The rapid descent from mountain to flatland opened into a corresponding increase in temperature.  Night fast approached as he found a small hollow sheltered from the wind.  Somewhere behind him, but not far enough for comfort, his pursuit would have to decide to brave the desert or turn back.

In the stillness of the night Halbrook chewed a piece of dried meat and listened.  The cloudless desert sky sparkled with seemingly infinite stars.  He heard a mouse rustle in the fallen creosote leaves and drifted into an uneasy sleep.  A desert hen called into the darkness.  Instantly Halbrook tensed.  Something about the call rang false to his senses.  Would the Festizi attack?  Surely they knew his position.  If they stole his horses he would have no chance of crossing the desert alive and his enemies behind could catch him at will.

He quietly saddled the dun.  He would push on for a few more hours, then rest, and then move on until dawn, hoping to put some distance between himself and the wild men.  The nearest, most reliable water, at Talum’s Pots, waited at least another day farther into the desert.  How many were out there in the darkness?  Did they know about the six men following him?  They had no need to try to track him at night.  They knew where he must go, and with a horse laden with treasure he must move much slower than their savage mounts.  Their shamans raised mountain lion cubs to be swift and energetic mounts and companions for the hunt. The typical warrior stood a full head and a half shorter than Halbrook, though the mountains bread lean, wiry, strength.

Just after dawn, Halbrook found a relatively secluded patch of shade in a ravine.  The early summer sun already began to bake the earth when he tethered his horses and slumped down for a rest.  Brown dust caked his clothes and hair, but he neither noticed or cared.  He would rest during the hottest parts of the day, and try for more distance during the cool of the evening and night.

An unexpected movement from the dun as Halbrook lay resting in the afternoon sun warned him of the attack.  He rolled slightly to his left as a spear struck the ground where he had been only a moment before.  He grabbed his bow and knocked an arrow as he found a place to hide behind a small rock.  Halbrook studied the terrain, looking for likely places of cover.  An expert hunter could find a place to hide where the untrained eye thought impossible.  Only movement or the reflection of some piece of metal or glass would betray the presence of an enemy.  The dusty obsidian points the Festizi generally used would not reflect in the sunlight, and he hoped they had not traded for bronze blades.

Patience now would be his weapon, and theirs.  The first to move would probably be the first to die.  Darkness would come later and the shadows might allow him to escape once more.  Sweat trickled down his back.  He craved a drink, but dared not risk even that slight movement or take his attention away from the task at hand.  A slight breeze brought temporary relief.  A careful warrior would often make his move with the wind.  Halbrook picked a likely spot and waited.  A brown shadow, a bit of dust, and Halbrook loosed an arrow.  A dark shape slumped into the desert.  He had scored a hit.

The victory would be short lived.  When the sun began to set they would rush him, as the light would be poor for shooting.  He would have to run before they made their rush.

An impatient warrior shifted position, briefly exposing a foot.  Instantly Halbrook sent an arrow, again scoring a hit.  The wound would not be fatal, but if he could not keep up the others would leave him behind.

As the sun began to dip on the horizon, lengthening the shadows, Halbrook cautiously made his move.  He moved with the intermittent breeze to a position closer to his horses.  The horses stood hidden from easy view, but they would become exposed as he made his run.  He heard another false desert hen call, and mounted quickly.  As fast as he could, he charged his horses out of the ravine towards the waiting water at Talum’s Pots.

The Festizi charged, attempting to head off his escape.  He counted three cats but guessed they would have more mounts.  In a short chase he had no chance.  He let the horse have the reins and fired arrows as quickly as he could knock them at the oncoming mounts.  One scored a hit, and a charging cat stumbled, throwing its rider into a mess of prickly pear.  As they closed the gap, he slipped the bowstring over his head and brought a spear into play.  He managed to catch the attacker on his right with a slashing blow in the chest.  To his left he felt the claws of a lion cut through his buckskin breeches and into his leg.  He kicked free, grunting away the pain for the moment and brought the butt end of the spear crashing into the rider’s head.  Two more bounding leaps and he had escaped immediate pursuit.

After only a few hundred yards the pain in his leg became noticeable as the initial adrenaline spike faded.  He looked back, checking his back trail, and noticed that an arrow or spear had cut a large gash in the stolen horse’s left rear.

A lame horse had no chance in the desert, and already its strength was visibly flagging.  Without time and proper care it would only run itself to death.  Gingerly Halbrook dismounted.  He cleaned his own wound, and the horse’s cut the best he could with fresh water and bandaged his leg.  His own cut appeared to be clean and not serious.  If he could keep it from festering it should heal without too much problem.  The horse was another matter altogether.  Its best chance of survival would be without the burden of a pack or rider so it could make its own way to water and food.  The desert provided for animals that knew where to look.  In general horses have more sense than men when it comes to surviving in the wild.  With increasing despair Halbrook transferred all the food and water he dared carry to the other horses and cut the bay loose.

Though he had certainly reduced their numbers, the Festizi would not likely stop.  Horses are a great prize.  His metal weapons, however, now that he had shown them would bring dogged pursuit that could only end in violence.  Such weapons would bring any warrior success and glory.

Careful trackers could read the sign easy enough.  Even the lowlanders would know that he was wounded and short a horse if they decided to follow his trail.  They would follow, he decided.  Bale was a determined man.  Fenton must reach Talum’s Pots by sunrise.

Halbrook paused a few times during the night to rest and bathe his wound.  He used more water than originally planned.  The margin for error slimmed with each spent drop.  As the sun filtered through the cactus and creosote Talum’s Pots were nowhere in sight.  Time and distance can be hard to judge in the desert.  Without a careful sense of direction and meticulous judgment a man could easily lose himself.  Men had died out here only a short distance from water because they became disoriented or careless.  Halbrook plodded on, not daring to rest.  The Festizi would not stop, unless they had found the wounded horse.  Bale would probably drive his men onward as well.  They would want to finish this business and return home quickly.

Nestled in a bit of sandstone at the bottom of a ravine lie two pools with sandy bottoms.  Even in the hottest summers, water can generally be found there, though sometimes there is very little.  Now, in the early summer with the spring rains not too distant, Halbrook found more than enough for himself and his horses.  His horses picked up the scent of the water long before he saw it, and he let them find their own way to the little oasis.

Near the lower pool Halbrook saw a stand of mesquite that offered some protection from the sun as well as a place to hide.  The Festizi could not be far behind, and they knew he must try for the pots.  At best, if they had tended their wounded and dead, he would have until tomorrow.  He could possibly gain a day by pushing ahead, but even his tough, experienced horses needed rest.  A day out of the saddle could only help his wounded leg.  Exhausted and sore, Fenton drifted into sleep.

The sound of voices started Fenton awake.  He cursed himself for sleeping too soundly, but it could not be helped.  Rest is a powerful cure for many ailments of both the body and the mind.  A cool evening breeze filtered through the desert, carrying the scent of men and horses.  The lowlanders had reached the water.

“The trail ends at the lower pool.”  He heard.

“The desert didn’t swallow him.”  Halbrook recognized Bale’s rumbling voice.  “Get out there and find him!”

“Per’s done in,” replied a third voice.  “We all are, but he needs rest.  Hell, we couldn’t take him even if we found him, not without rest.  The horses sure won’t go any farther.”

“Rest while you can then.  We pull out in the morning.”  Bale sounded furious.

“No need to leave yet,” said Halbrook quietly.  He stepped into the open, his bow at the ready.  Six pairs of eyes immediately turned on him.  “Keep your hands still.” He warned.  One man had a makeshift bandage across his chest, and was lying feverishly near their oversized campfire.  Their dust covered faces spoke of their exhaustion.

“You won’t leave here alive, Halbrook,” said Lief Bale.  Anger burned in his eyes.

“Possibly,” replied Fenton.  “I may die, but one thing is certain.  You will die.”  He gestured to the group.  “All of you.  You’ve no idea what the desert can do.  The Festizi will be here before sunrise.”

“What do you know about them monkey buggers?” asked a slender man with thinning hair.  “We killed one back a ways.  Seems like they split off pretty quick.”  Others nodded their assent.

“They’ll be back,” said Fenton.  “They want your metal and your horses.  They won’t go home without them.”

“We’ll take our chances with the desert,” said Bale.  “I came a long way for that iron you’re packing, and Torson was kin.”

“Torson was a fool,” said Halbrook.  “I gambled fair and I fought fair.”  Halbrook held his bow steady.  “I’ll help with the Festizi.  We can settle our differences afterwards.”

Bale thought for a moment.  His men needed the rest.  He had no fear of Fenton Halbrook or of any man, but he saw no need to waste either his men or an opportunity.  “We’ve grub enough to wait,” he said.  “I’ll be taking your head back on a spear to the Meadow.”

“You better get your horses out of sight,” replied Halbrook.

Bale started to growl a reply, but Fenton had already started back to his hiding place.

“Better get that man out of sight, too,” he called over his shoulder.  “They can make a wounded man sing a fairly rotten song.”

Fenton settled down to rest in the rising starlight.  He held no illusions that Bale or his men believed the threat of the Festizi was real.  If he slept now he would probably never wake.  He settled on chewing some dried meat and listening to the sounds of the night.

About midnight he rose to check his horses and to clean and change the bandage on his leg.  Much of the pain had subsided.  He felt lucky for it had not festered.  Silently he circled the camp, careful to leave no tracks.  As he went he picked out the most likely places from which the Festizi would attack.  He spotted no tracks.  They must have found the wounded pack horse and stopped to gorge themselves, in which case they would not arrive until dawn.  How many?  Enough to attack six mounted men, even after losing three to Halbrook.  A dozen?  Probably closer to twenty.

The lowlander camp was quiet.  All slept except Bale and one other man on watch.  The men stared dumbly into the fire, pulling their coats around them to ward off the night chill.  Silly to look at a fire like that, thought Halbrook.  The eyes can’t adjust to the darkness before an attack has come and gone.

“You think them monkey buggers will come here?” asked the man on watch.

“Can’t be sure,” replied Bale.  “That iron’s not going anywhere, so I’m in no hurry.  He’s hurt, and if they don’t come, then we can take him anytime we want.”

“You’re mighty confident for a man I could have killed three times over,” said Halbrook from the darkness.  Their eyes turned to follow the sound of his voice, but he knew they wouldn’t be able to see him for a few seconds at least.  “They stopped to eat that old pack horse of yours.  They’ll be here in a few hours.”

“You owe me for that horse,” growled Bale.

“Call it payment for the tour of the country I’m offering.”  Halbrook smiled.

“I’ll take my payment from your hide.”

“You wouldn’t be the first to make that offer.  I just came down to warn you to keep out of sight come dawn.”  Halbrook followed the shadows back to his horses.

The first false desert hen called out about an hour before dawn.  Fenton used the time to circle away from the water and try to flank the Festizi.  He found one enemy working around behind the lower pool towards his hiding place, and put his spear through its throat before it saw him.  By the time the first sunlight crept over the horizon Halbrook found a strong position where he could observe the advancing attack.

Patience, more than anything would decide the outcome.  Though he had three enemies flanked, if he attacked now and alerted them to his presence they would only break off and regroup.  Worse, he would be alone and separated from his temporary allies.  He must wait for them to commit so that he would have a chance to disrupt their forces and give the men at the pots a chance to react.

Fortunately Bale had the sense to listen to the more experienced man.  When the attack came all of the men had found reasonably defensible positions.  Bale’s men had all tasted battle before defending raids on the lowland homesteads.  Five against eighteen are poor odds in any battle.

Fenton made three kills with his bow before they realized they had been outflanked.  The Festizi on the opposite side of the pools never knew he was there and did not break off their attack.  The men at the upper pool fought hard, each one using his bow expertly.  Halbrook charged their flank with his spear as they reached the pools and engaged the lowlanders hand to hand.  He caught one in the back with his spear as eight Festizi crashed into the three lowlanders.  The wounded man was already dead before Halbrook arrived, and two more of them had fallen to arrows.  Halbrook and Bale slashed back, each cutting down another foe.  Bale’s last companion took an obsidian point in the throat.

The remaining four Festizi balked at the fury of the more experienced expert fighters.  Almost instantly they disappeared back into the desert.

“Run you buggers,” yelled Bale.  Halbrook quietly cleaned his spear and recovered undamaged arrows.  “You think they’ll come back?” he asked.

“No,” replied Halbrook.

“You sure?”

“Yep.  They’ve taken your horses and are riding home now.”

Bale suddenly ran to check his horse.  Of course Halbrook was right.

“You’ve plenty of canteens, and plenty of grub.  Travel at night, and take it easy.  I don’t give you much chance, but you might make it.”  He glanced at Lief’s bronze sword.  “Without a horse you couldn’t carry the iron even if you managed to kill me, which you wouldn’t”

Fenton Halbrook mounted the now refreshed dun and pointed it east to the end of the desert and the troubles that followed him.

 

THE END

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