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Author Topic: The Onkoro  (Read 3692 times)


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The Onkoro
« on: December 31, 2009, 09:10:21 AM »

Seasons of Man

i.  The Onkoro

   The frozen winter bit harshly into Jeth's bones.  He bit his lip, shielding himself against the icy winds behind the thin oak tree growing beside the frozen pond, the harsh Winter driving at the back of his neck so hard that he could barely hear the world around him.  A thick layer of hard snow compacted around him, the season of white-cold now into its fourth month with three more to go yet.  Life in the North-western lands was bleak, and this Winter had been especially harsh on his people as food supplies dwindled, beasts raided and the ever-present threat of blizzards lasting several days and blanketing the lands with white death.  The youth, barely ten, urged his fingers to co-operate as he jammed his edged club into the ice, hoping to coax supplement for tonight's meal from the chill waters below.  Ice fishing was the one thing he’d been good at since his graduation from cub to young man.  His breath billowed white from his lips as dawn broke over the Eastern horizon, slowly moving across the landscape and chasing away the blue-black of night.  The man village was beginning to wake now that the previous day's long hunt had yielded just enough to keep them from starving.  Jeth's people were few--under a hundred--but they were strong and fine, and they knew how to weather the worst of conditions, no matter what nature threw at them.

   But there will always come times when every man's hand will be raised in rancor to his neighbor.  Jeth startled at a rustling of leaves on the forest floor beside him.  He froze where he was, eyes finding a sinister black shape in the growing dawn.

   It was a man crouching on a short rise between the boy and the deep, dark forest.  A man clad in leather and plates of crude stone and metal at functional points on his body to protect his vitals but still allow him maneuverability.  Beneath this slashed a network of tattoos and scars intentionally branded into his flesh as symbols of his ferocity and accomplishments in battle.  Jeth's eyes nearly started from their sockets at the sight of the man; never had he seen a more august vision of terror.  The man's chill breath wafted before him.  He snorted hoarsely, eyes falling down to land on the boy as a cruel grin split his teeth.

   Suddenly, the quiet of morning was shattered by the clamor of hooves shod in iron.  Men with bodies covered in thick leather and furs and carrying axes, swords and hammers charged around the tattooed man, past the boy and into the small village where his people lay half-drowsing.  Men and women startled from their sleep while Jeth's youthful mind tried to coalesce what was happening.  The cruel rasp of metal drawing from scabbard razed his ears as the first screams began.  The world became a cacophony of horror and glistening steel.

   "The Onkoro!"  someone screamed.  The raiders from the Southeast were known across the land as the stealthiest--and most vicious--of the killing clans.  The malevolent tribe of man had domesticated and bred stout bulls, intelligent as horses, as their mounts.  Those bulls, their horns capped with bladed or pointed skewers, now bore their masters into the youth's village.

   A pack of collared black dogs raced by Jeth, too well trained to attack anything that hadn't been designated as prey.  One set upon a woman, leaping onto her and tearing at her throat; bright rivulets of blood slopping into virgin snow.  The other bolted down the worn path between the huts toward a woman bearing a screaming child.  The hound leapt at her from several feet away, baring vicious fangs for her throat.  A bearded man cried out and met the dog halfway to his victim with a sideswipe of his axe through the beast's belly.  It fell to the snow, tongue flapping and middle gushing crimson as a thundering mount raced by and its rider cleanly severed the man's head.  The woman screamed again and with a roar the mount  thrust a bladed horn through the woman's back, wrenching her with a lurch of its powerful neck.  The child fell from her arms and fell below the cruel hooves of the beast.

   Jeth's father burst from his home into the riotous carnage:  everywhere there was blood and horror.  His father bore the colossal wooden hammer he had fashioned from the hickory tree they had felled that Spring.  With a mighty swing he slammed the weapon into the chest of a passing rider , caving in his ribs and unseating him from his bull.  The man collapsed to the snow, gagging and spitting blood.  The beast wrenched its head, spearing at Jeth's father. As he dodged the goring skewers and with another heave of the mallet the animal's neck was smashed in.

   Jeth cheered his father.  Then his face went white as a rider's face snapped toward him.  The Onkoro warrior roared something in his own language and two others began to make for the boy.  His father screamed in fury and raced toward the careening riders as another tore toward where he had been standing.  Unable to slow in time, the bull slammed clumsily into the side of Jeth's hut, taking most of the structure with it to the frozen ground as it fell forward in a plummet that ripped a horn from its bloody socket.  Jeth watched as his father caught one rider before its steed had made full gait and shattered the beast's legs.  It went tumbling to the snow and the rider was thrown from the saddle.  With a sickening crunch the man's head compacted into his shoulders as the second rider whirled his thick-bodied mount to face the attacker.

   The men had risen now, some naked in the bitter cold, to defend their womenfolk and children.  A smattering of women bore swords, and Jeth made out his own mother wielding the slender blade her blacksmith father had made for her husband when the two were wed.  The great sword flashed in the sleepy light of the new dawn, glistening already with blood.  A woman raced by her with a babe in her arms and stumbled in the slippery mud, landing harshly, nearly crushing the child as another rider raced toward the two women. 

   Jeth barely noticed a second band on foot--archers--streaming past him.

   The boy’s eyes found his father again as the mighty war hammer crushed into the ribs of the second rider's bull.  The man had unsheathed his sword and was aiming a killing blow at his father on the ground when the bull collapsed under him.  In pain and spasm the bull startled to the side Jeth's father had crushed and began to topple.  As the brute came down he leapt back to avoid being pinned, but not enough to avoid the heavy blade of the rider as it thundered down on his shoulder and buried deeply into the viscera of his neck.

   Jeth stood in stupor, hot tears streaming down his frozen cheeks with the horrid realization that his father had fallen. 

   And old man was cut short in mid-scream as an arrow pierced his lungs.  Through terror and shock the boy stared at the gory scene before him.  The homes had been demolished and bodies lay strewn all over the face of his village where only shortly before there was tranquility.  A rider dismounted his bull and drew a leviathan blade, approaching the boy's mother.  All around metal belled against metal and drowned out the screams of the wounded and dying. 

   A group of young men brandishing hoes and shovels as well as blades emerged from behind the smithy, shouting in martial fury as they charged a wall of riders.  Jeth saw his brothers, Avar and Hest, among them.  The invaders bade their steeds part before the charging youths seconds before a wall of arrows streaked through the air, cutting the villagers down in a single fell swoop.

   The air rang with the fearful crash of steel as Jeth's mother met her foe head on.  The two swords proclaimed themselves in the failing light as the stalwart lioness defended herself against the much larger man before her.  He aimed a disemboweling stroke at her and the woman dodged to the side, returning with a volley of rapid veers to his body.  Several hit and glanced off the tough armor.  The man's lip curled in a horrid sneer, and the woman seized her opportunity to strike, cleaving an upstroke across the fleshy, exposed face of her attacker.

   A hand clamped onto the boy's shoulder:  the first man had still been there.  Jeth screamed despite himself, and with the familiar pitch of his cry breaking his mother's attention for a crucial instant.  She responded automatically to her child's voice and was felled with an answering upstroke from her ribcage to the opposite shoulder.  The woman at her feet still held the baby when the swordsman crushed her beneath his heavy boot and cleaved mother and child through, cursing at the hot pain in the deep gash running across his face. 

   His father and mother, his brothers . . . were no more.

   Jeth wanted to collapse.  His stomach heaved violently and his head swam with the visage before him.  Rough fingers gripped his hair and jerked his head back as a sharp pain cracked at the back of his neck.  The boy fell to his knees in the snow, then forward, landing roughly on the cold, muddy ground as the world darkened around him.

*          *          *

   Less than half an hour later, blistering fires were all that remained of the man village which had rested so calmly at dawn.  Everywhere there were the hideous signatures of death; the distended bodies of men, women, and children too small to be of service to the Onkoro lay haphazardly in the icy waste that was once a home.

   Jeth's eyes, swollen from repeated beatings in the cold, bewildering night, stung with tears as he trudged forward in the snow.  When the initial slaughter had finally broken his people, the men had been slain one by one, their heads mounted on pikes along the boundary of the wasted village.  The women were taken, but he did not know where.  His injuries aside, he was a pathetic figure against the background of bleak white, weighted by hopelessness and exhaustion. Several other children, he assessed between the ages of seven and fifteen, were linked together at the neck on a long, ironbound corded rope.  They journeyed to the South and the East, many leaving bloody footprints in the snow.

   The boy wondered if he would ever know hope or freedom again . . .
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