Vinuk lay under the open sky, unable to see the moon or stars for clouds that overcast the plain. The light wind rustled the grass about him, but the wind blew warm and moist from the south. Rain started with large drops that were sporadic, but their numbers increased to a downpour, and the rain soaked him to the bone and the surrounding alpacas, too. They hunkered in the rain as he did, doing their best to tolerate the drops that pelted them from above. Soon, the rain stopped. Vinuk stood up and tried his best to brush himself off, but nothing was dry. He was wet. The alpacas were wet. Everything was wet. Soon the wind returned with the cooler air from the south after the rainfall, and the boy shivered.
He sat back down amongst his flock, and they huddled around him and one another to share warmth in the otherwise unforgiving landscape about them. Soon though, he passed out from sheer exhaustion from the days of endless hiking from the north.
The following day, he awoke, still soaked. He, however, repeated his routine as he always did. He took a drink of milk straight from one of the female alpacas and did his best to adjust things about himself before he started back off across the plain. It had been sixteen days since he had left the camp to the north, but the boy did not know how far he had gone. The general direction was south, or perhaps to the southeast. Still, the path was not unfamiliar to him. He occasionally recognized a landmark he would recall and would adjust course until he found another one, sometimes having to backtrack or sidetrack for some distance. It helped reassure him that even if he was not sure of the distance, he was sure of the course.
Near noon on the sixteenth day, as he crested a hill, he turned to look back towards the north. He did not linger for long. Still, as he stared out, he spotted something shimmering on the horizon. Not sure what it was, he tried to hide amid his flock and make his way down the hill to the west to avoid being seen, if whoever, or whatever it was, had hostile intent. Once Vinuk and his flock got down the hill to the west, he turned and then stopped, waiting for whatever was out there to come his way or pass. After waiting for the better part of half an hour, Vinuk climbed the hill and peered over it to look towards the west. He saw what he was looking for come into focus: another herd of alpacas not unlike his own. He did not know if they were from the camp he had been at, but he did not hesitate to blow his cover. Once he was up, his herd followed him, and he walked down towards the other flock. They roamed freely without a herder.
As the two flocks came towards one another, the boy ran to intercept the other flock. He noticed something around one neck of the alpacas, and he directed the herd towards his own. Soon they merged and mingled, and Vinuk could hardly tell which animals were from his original herd or the second one he had discovered. He approached the animal with something around its neck and noticed it was some kind of wrapping. He removed the wrapping, and something fell to the ground. He picked it up and realized it was a charm necklace that had belonged to Druji, a young girl about his age. She was a youth that herded the animals at the foot of the mountains like he did. He gathered that this was her herd and that somehow they must have caught the scent of his own on the trek south, but there was no sign of her, just the animals.
Vinuk put the charm necklace in the satchel at his side, and he slowed the now larger herd down. He stopped to rest and took a drink of milk from one of his own before continuing south. As the day passed into the afternoon, the surrounding terrain started to look more familiar. He was getting close—no more than a day or two from the encampment where his mother and father were. The thoughts of seeing another person alive flooded his mind, and he trembled, recalling the sights of the fallen that he had seen only a few days before.
He continued the trek well into the evening. The sky cleared, and he started seeing evidence of cattle from droppings to wallows in the tall grass and other places where the grasses had been chewed down, but there were no cattle. Invigorated, he charged forward and did not stop until well into the night. He slept little that night and was up again before sunrise, resolved to reach the camp that day. He would not stop until he did.
* * * *
Achara stood on the back porch of her crimson wagon, staring at the fire that burned in the center of her encampment of twenty wagons. Men were roasting over the flames, slowly turning the spit and brushing the animal over the fire with herbs and spices. This routine was something that she had grown to love: the midweek meal wherein the entire community would come together to share, sing, dance, and celebrate in a small way. Tonight was to be no different, but still, she was unsettled. She pushed back her dark hair and squinted at the flames and watched the smoke roll upwards towards the sky.
Camon came out of another wagon nearby. His curly white hair laid matted against his head, and his beard was now flowing down to about the middle of his chest. She changed her expression as their eyes met, and she managed a smile. He walked over and stretched at the same time before his gray eyes met Achara’s dark eyes, and he felt her beckon him. Camon winced at first before he ambled over to the seer.
“Good morning,” she said. “Had anything to eat yet?”
“Nothing,” he answered. “I was trying to get my bearings around me. I’m still a little saddle sore from our ride back from the West Watch last week.”
“Come, I’ve got something ready.” She walked into her wagon and came out with a small pot of boiled grains. Camon climbed up on the wagon and sat in one of the chairs. She put some in a bowl and gave it to Camon. Camon thanked her and then ate it.
Achara sat in the chair next to him. “How are the Paladins doing?”
“Both are doing well, progressing well in their training. Mahn is a natural. Tolkuva, though not natural, has kept up with him despite that. She’s as formidable in battle with that sword as he is and has managed to even best the boy sparring from time to time.”
“She can sense what he is about to do and expect his moves better than he can hers. It’s not exactly even. I mean, Mahn might have better skill, but she has an advantage.”
“This is true,” Camon said. “Mahn can sense moves some. Even so, I was referring more to the arts. Paladin arts aren’t a science. We pass them from one generation to the next through experience rather than formally like the priestly arts or your seer arts.”
“Seer arts aren’t a science either, but we maintain the corpus of the knowledge. We try to maintain a sort of orthodoxy about what and how things are taught to our trainees.”
Camon smiled. “With Paladins, I am orthodoxy.”
“I guess your word is the law, then?”
“Yeah, you could say that. But the peculiarities and personalities of the arts are visible with Mahn and Tolkuva. He is strong, bold, and passionate while she is conservative, calculated, and strategic.”
“Where are they now?”
“I sent them on an errand back south. They should be back in today or tomorrow at the latest.”
“They are becoming more independent. How long has it been?”
“Indeed, they are. It’s been five years now. Perhaps they are almost ready to be turned loose on the world.”
“After you do that, then what will you do?”
“I don’t know. I always wanted to retire to a life of books… but now I’m not sure what I want to do.”
Achara smiled. “The role of ‘grandfather’ sounds like it could be in the cards for you. The boys love you.”
“Yes, you could say that. Maybe I’m not spent after all. I have a few more years left; I just don’t want to spend them on the back of a horse anymore.”
Achara looked at him with a sly smile. “You can always join the old men here and talk about the weather and complain about the old women.”
Camon smirked. “Sounds about right, huh?”
“Yes,” she said.
Camon finished his breakfast and handed the bowl back to Achara. A man came out of the wagon as Achara entered to clean the dishes. He sat down in the chair next to Camon and looked out over the camp with him. He removed a pipe, stuffed it, lit it with a match, and handed it to Camon. They shared it as they watched the pitmaster and his help roast the beast.
Achara came back out of the wagon and saw the two men sitting. “You two are already getting acquainted with the old man’s life,” she joked.
Camon laughed. “Soprug knows the eastern tongue now, does he not?”
“Yes,” he said. “I prefer my language, though.”
“Camon only barely knows the Gypsy language though,” Achara said. “It’s hard to teach an old dog—or man—new tricks.”
“Yeah, you got that right.”
Camon stood up and looked out over the way, and offered the seat to Achara. She took it and sat down.
“Well, I guess I better get back to the work of being old,” he said.
“What does that entail?” Soprug asked.
“Ask her,” Camon answered. “She seems to have us old men all figured out.”
Camon walked over to the smith, who handed him a hammer. Camon started assisting him in the yard with that day’s work.
“That’s what he likes to do?” Soprug asked Achara in the Gypsy tongue.
“Help the smith. Yes. That’s what he likes to do when he’s around here and not tied up with his two apprentices.”
“Seems relaxing enough. Maybe it’s something to take his mind off things. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.”
“That, he does, and at times, he literally has.”
“That time he traveled with you down into the swamps and all that nonsense?”
“I wouldn’t call it nonsense, but yes, that. We saved the world. The funny thing is, most people don’t even know it. They live their lives the same way they have for the last who knows how long. And he finds contentment making horseshoes.”
“It’s the simple things, I guess,” Soprug said. “Have you heard from Oghan lately about Vinuk?”
“No, not lately. I haven’t bothered checking in either. Oghan wasn’t at the Circle either last week. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You just seem pensive as of late.”
“Well, yes. Vinuk is away, and I don’t know how he is doing. Any mother is concerned for her son.”
“He’s fine, I’m sure.”
Just then, there was a boy who came running into the camp, which caused a stir. He ran to Achara’s wagon, panting. “Come! Quick!”
He dashed away, not taking a moment to explain. Achara stood confused and looked at Soprug. Soprug followed with a shrugged. They got down off the wagon and followed the boy out of the camp. Camon saw the haste and set his current project with the smith down and followed in behind them. They came out of the camp and turned to the north towards a pond surrounded by cattle. The boy was almost to the pond when he turned back and looked to see if the adults followed him. He beckoned them to come. The adults picked up the pace and came to the top of a hill on the opposite side of the pond. The boy stood atop the hill, pointing off in the distance.
Achara looked with Soprug, scanning the horizon. They did not see it at first, but then they spotted what the boy was looking at. Barely visible across the plain, they saw something ambling their way.
“What is that?” Achara asked.
“I would know that site from miles away…” Soprug said. “It’s a herd of alpacas.”