Vinuk held his staff high and whirled it around over his head, striking a boulder in front of him. He shuffled back, drawing the staff to himself, where he thrusted it at the boulder, lancing it. He stood holding the staff for a moment, withdrew it back to his side, and leaned on it. He turned and looked down the slope towards the alpacas he had been attending to for the last few hours. The wooly animals stood under the gray sky grazing on the new grasses that sprouted on the slope of the hill. The animals would soon be ready for sheering, a great community event that was a time of fun and celebration for the entire camp. The camp was not his, but he loved it like it was his own. He had come to stay with his uncle, his father’s brother, for a time. He much preferred herding the alpacas on the slopes where the weather was cool and windy than the hot stuffy air among the cattle of his mother’s camp much further to the south.
Vinuk sat down on the slope as the alpacas moved about for a moment and laid his staff next to himself on the ground. He reached into the satchel at his side, taking out a chunk of cheese and some dried vegetables and ate while watching the alpacas play with one another. This morning had been like so many others before it, where he got up with the sun, took his staff, sling, and packed lunch, and met up with his herd. He had led the herd to the north of the camp to a valley between two large hills, a favorite spot, out of the way with plenty of good grass for grazing and places to rest and relax for himself and the animals. It was also easier to defend, but fortunately he had not had to do that much. Vinuk could use a sling alright, but it was not his forte. The worst thing he had faced was a couple of curious coyotes that came snooping around the pack. He scared them off with a few shots from the sling but never scored a hit. He loved the staff though. At the Conclave this past year, he won third in staff fighting, even against much older boys that had entered. Next year, he hoped to do better.
He finished his cheese and vegetables and grabbed the staff again. He used it to help raise himself, and he walked down to his herd. The alpha prattled as he approached. Vinuk rubbed the creature’s head, and the alpha countered with a lick on Vinuk’s face. The beast then raised his head towards the boy, and Vinuk playfully pushed him. The two wrestled around for a moment before the alpha sauntered away, retreating into the pack. Vinuk smiled at the gesture. “Not wanting to play today?”
He looked to the sky and guessed it was near noon. Without the sun, it was hard to say, but it was time to move the heard down the valley to a brook for watering. He was sure they would be thirsty by now, so he started walking that way. The alpha saw the boy and followed, and soon the rest of the herd was coming in behind him. They trotted to catch up and surrounded their herder as they moseyed along the slope towards the stream.
The valley opened up into a flat, and from there he could see the camp off in the distance with its brightly colored wagons circled in a tight formation. Only a gap about a single wagon wide broke the circle to serve as the entrance to the camp. His uncle’s wagon was red with yellow trim, but others used more vibrant greens, blues, or purples for their paint schemes. It was a splash of color against the otherwise monochromatic landscape, but that would soon change though when the flowers bloomed with colors to match the wagons. Vinuk turned into a hollow between two hills where a stream ran from a spring and created a small waterfall with a plunge pool. The water from here trickled off down the valley towards a larger stream that ran south of the camp. Vinuk led the animals to the stiller waters, and the animals and the boy drank deeply. Once the herd was satisfied, he turned back towards the valley and they hiked back up the slope.
Vinuk sat back down with his staff across his lap until he saw one of the alpacas stand tall and prick its ears forward. Soon, others followed. The ground beneath him started to rumble—something was coming, horses perhaps. The herd formed a tight group about the boy as they circled as the rumbling grew steadily louder. The sound passed, echoing up the valley, but then passed to the south towards the encampment.
Vinuk cleared a way through the alpacas, ran down the slope, and back up the other side of the valley to see if he could catch a glimpse of the source of the rumble. The alpacas followed him as he went. He stopped at the crest of the hill and saw riding in from the south a column of twenty horses with men in bright, gleaming armor. Vinuk ducked back behind the hill while the alpacas stayed around him. He tried to observe through the animals about him what was going on.
Several of the men from the camp came out with machetes drawn to face the column that did not seem to be slowing down. Instead, the column drew their weapons, formed a line abreast, and then charged the row of men in front of them. The men afoot scattered as the column got right upon them. A few were not lucky enough to get away as some of the men in armor cut them down. The riders then rode into the camp through the opening. Those in the camp scattered as the men circled about the interior of the circled wagons. They knocked over machinery and other furnishings about the camp, broke windows on some of the wagons, then set fire to three of the wagons with wood from the firepit at the center of the encampment.
The riders then stopped the invasion and regrouped. Vinuk wanted to charge them, but his better judgment told him to stay put, seeing that even the grown men were no challenge for the men on horses. He continued to stay low as one of the men called out from his horse in the Imperial language. Vinuk did not understand what he was saying, but soon, Oghan, the camps Mother, came out surrounded by her family. Men from the line that had attempted to defend the camp surrounded her. There was an exchange of words, then several of the men in armor dismounted and advanced at Oghan and her companions. Some of the men resisted, but the men in armor cut them down effortlessly. Oghan raised her hand and said something in her feeble voice. The other members of the camp ceased the hostilities and then spread out, making a path for one of the men in armor to come to her. One man approached her, then without a word, plunged a sword into her chest, and she went down. Vinuk gasped at the sight.
The other men who had resisted watched in horror, and then a shout went up from among them. Soon, the entire encampment swarmed the men on the horses, but the riders turned to meet the attack. The men on horses, one by one, cut down the people of the encampment, leaving nothing alive. Soon, they set fire to the rest of the wagons. The fire engulfed them and black smoke was billowing skyward.
The riders remounted and turned out of the camp that was now an inferno and rode back north the way they came. When they were out of sight, and the thundering of hooves faded, Vinuk got up from his hiding place from among the alpacas and ran down the hill towards the encampment, leaving the alpacas. He reached the encampment but could not get close because of the heat. The boy went around towards where the entrance to the camp had been and tried peering into the encampment to see if he could see anything or anyone. All he saw were bodies littering the ground along with artifacts from the camp. He approached the fire and then tried to crawl. The heat from the burning wagons was almost two much, but he managed to get low enough and crawl along the ground between the two wagons that opened to form the entrance to the middle of the encampment.
Vinuk went from body to body, turning them over, looking for anyone that was still alive. Nobody was, not even the smallest child. He then found his uncle, grandmother, and aunt, all of whom had been cut down. The boy turned his head away, burying it in the ground. Numbness crept through his limbs and seized him. He could not even cry. He stayed in the middle of the inferno for what seemed like hours before he managed to get his wits again. The boy left the two women and found one of his cousins, also dead. He crawled back out of the burning wagons and ran back towards the hill to his flock that was now half way down the backside of the hill away from the encampment.
The shepherd crawled in between them not knowing what to do. The animals surrounded him as he sat on the hill with his knees tucked to his chest. He rocked back and forth, and finally a tear rolled down his cheek. The boy sat among the alpacas for hours, the sun sank low on the horizon, and then everything went dark around him. The alpacas stayed close, just grazing on the nearby grasses. Soon, a few of them laid down next to him, and he laid himself next to the animals and he fell asleep, crying the whole time.
When he awoke the next day, the sky was cloudy, casting a dreary mood over the plain. Vinuk found that the herd was still with him. He went back up the hill, and looked back down into the place where the camp had been and saw nothing but the black, smoldering husks for the wagons that had been bright and cheery the day before. The boy went back down the hill to the camp, this time inspecting it without having to crawl through the burning wagons. Instead, he found evidence that someone else had been into the camp. Some of the bodies had been removed, while others still remained where they had lain. He was not sure if something or someone had carried them off, but his grandmother and uncle still lay as they had been.
Vinuk’s lip quivered as he saw them again in their state, but he did not linger. Instead, he ran out of the camp and back towards the alpacas. He retrieved his staff and gazed out to the south across the plains. It was empty, devoid of animals or people. The vastness swallowed him as he stared. There was no one left—only him. The boy did not know where to go or who to turn to. All he had were the things he had worn out the day before and his herd. The shepherd was not even sure if there were other herders about or if they had fled after seeing the encampment ablaze. He sat and cried on the hill for a while, but then looked south over the camp to the next hill. His only hope was not here, rather at his home. His real home, but that was weeks away to the south.
Vinuk rose. He gripped his staff, placed it on the ground next to him, and then with a resolute stare took a step. He took another, and soon he was walking. The flock looked on curiously then ran to catch up. They passed the encampment, and Vinuk led the alpacas across the brook, where they stopped to drink for a while. When they were satisfied, they started back up the hill across the valley. Vinuk stopped and turned back to stare at the camp one last time before setting his eyes back to the south. He walked down the back side of the hill away from the camp. The alpacas followed him obediently as if they were going out to graze on some new pasture that day. But when Vinuk kept going south, some of them started to hum and gurgle. The boy stopped and assured the herd, but he had no idea where he was going. He only knew to go south, and he hoped that the way would be familiar to him.
Vinuk continued walking for the better part of the day, stopping only once to eat what he had in his satchel. By the end of the day, he found a grassy valley some miles from the camp. He could no longer see the plume of smoke on the horizon from the hill. He knew that he was well beyond the reach of the camp, but the mountains still stood in the distance to the north. Not having anything else to eat, the shepherd milked some of the alpacas for a meal that evening as he had done on other occasions. But this time, he had nothing to go with it. The milk was satisfying to him, then he set himself down in the middle of the herd again before they encircled him as they had done the night before. The boy stayed under the three moons in different phases overhead without a fire, but the animals gathered in close to keep him warm. Vinuk had no idea how long it would take him, but he contemplated the trek south to another camp might take weeks to complete, as that is how long it had taken to reach the camp this far north. Even so, without any other options, he knew it was his only choice. The herd would sustain him and protect him, but only he could guide them. But that would be a day-by-day task until he reached his destination.