3: Prisoners from Foreign Lands

Blood rushed in Ebskil’s veins faster than the felines of the forest in heat. He felt it pound throughout his body. It ringed in his ears. The fear hit him so powerfully that he didn’t feel the rocks collide with his feet as he ran.

“Momil, you idiot!” He called, wishing to turn back to the safety of Ora’s magical abilities. I shouldn’t have followed, he thought. If he wants to get in trouble, than he should alone. Yet, for some indescribable reason, Ebskil felt unable to turn around and continued to chase his brother with panicked ideas.

What if the camp was in set in wild, blue phlames from the mountain clans? What if the intruders were the neighbouring tribe and brought trained beasts with them? What if they were stumbling into a bloodbath? The worst part of all these thoughts came from the fact Ebskil would be helpless. No phlame meant no protection. Right now, he really wished he stayed back at Ora’s tree house. Why did he follow? What had possessed him?

In the distant, Ebskil heard the crowd do their intimidation mantra; their voices turned to growls and they chanted the ancient language. He could envision the stoic dance which accompanied the gruff faces of the tribesmen. This meant no blood had been spilled so far. Knowing this, Ebskil found a steadier rhythm to breathe as Momil and him jumped back on the well-used path back to their home.

Passing the largest of trees, the boys entered the clearing. In the middle of all the huts, they saw a crowd gathered in a circle around something. Ebskil wanted to stay on the outside but somehow, the crowd drew him in. Their intimidation movements pushed him closer to the front and he saw the cause of the horn.

A group of three travellers remained trapped by vine ropes. They looked young, around Ebskil’s age, and judging by their clothing, came from different tribes across the lands. The larger boy looked like a hero and exactly what Ebskil should be; he was handsome, built solid with bulging muscles under his loose shirt, had wavy chestnut hair and his golden eyes pierced everyone who met his stare. In legends, a writer would describe him as a god. Already, he had more facial hair than Ebskil dreamed of. My prophecy is meant for someone like him, he thought absentmindedly.

“Let us go, savages!” The hero-boy demanded. Even his voice rang deep and husky like a warrior. It made Ebskil want to curse the gods at the unfairness in traits between them.

The Valley tribe ignored the prisoners and instead, grouped together to discuss their own idea of problems. Their low grumbles became undistinguishable from afar. Since Ebskil caught no clear words, he studied the invaders instead. They looked harmless, apart from hero-boy. The girl — who Ebskil thought was cuter than the women of his tribe — tied up must have come from a water tribe. Dark freckles sprinkled her honey skin, especially on her nose and cheeks, and her blonde hair had been sun-bleached due to the many shades on various strands. It reminded Ebskil of the time Momil’s brown hair got lighter once when he chased Ebskil with his phlame in the treetops on a blindingly sunny day. The game gave both Ebskil and his mother a heart-attack. 

“We mean no harm!” The girl tried to explain and nudged the other boy in their trio to speak up too, who had traits of dessert dwellers. His dark skin, black mop of hair and sandy-coloured clothing, which covered most of his body, screamed of foreign lands. “We are on a quest, you see. To bring a stop to the black venom and evil-doer himself!”

The tribe all looked at her as if she had gone mad. “Sounds like something da mountains would claim to fix to act godly,” someone said, referring to their rival clan, while another added their own belief, “it’s the Thicket tribe tricking us again.”

“This is not the time nor place to discuss such matters,” Maller, Ebskil’s mother, interjected and matched her husband’s wisdom. No other woman dared to speak out so freely.

“We will hold a meeting, away from their eyes and ears!” Zerkil, Ebskil’s father, proudly declared.

The suggestion received many content nods and satisfied smiles. From this, Zakil puffed out his large, scarred chest and his lips twitched upwards. He brushed his wavy, oak hair from his tanned face, revealing a chiselled jawline and bright hazel eyes. Then, he held up his large hand and signalled for his people to gather closer.

“Alone, all the men will decide what to do with them! Come! Let us choose their fate before sunset at the ceremonial tree!”

“But who will guard the prisoners? The women can do no such task,” a gruff voice asked, belonging to the weapon gatherer of the group.

Mutters filled the air and Ebskil’s stomach dropped when he met his father’s eye. Somehow, he knew what was coming. Zerkil spoke again. “My son will! He is now a man and will be chief once my rein has passed in the gods’ eyes. It is fitting for the prophesied to prove his worth. The other new men can decide to either be guards or join the meeting.”

To Ebskil’s dismay, most of the tribe agreed with the chief. He gulped. Why didn’t he just stay with Ora?

 

***

 

The prisoners sat on the ground, tied up by more thick vines, inside a tree. The tree formed from multiple different plants growing, creating pockets of space which then clan weaved through and used as shelter on occasions. Ebskil stood adjacent from them, leaning against a trunk and focusing on their surroundings rather than the invaders themselves.

Most of the new men decided to join the meeting, apart from Tamil, whose mother demanded he prove himself worthy by not lazily sitting in a meeting, and Changil, who still wanted to show his tough, masculine qualities after his traumatic hunting disaster years ago. Ebskil, at first, felt relieved his friends accompanied him but this ease vanished when he learned they had to walk and guard from afar. This left Ebskil, believed to be a great hero by the whole tribe, alone with foreigners. The pressure of protecting the tribe made him uncomfortable.

To distract himself, Ebskil tried to figure out the prisoners. Their clothing hinted at far away lands and their rumbling stomachs suggested struggles in the forest region. Ebskil ignored this sound but he struggled when the girl coughed profusely. When it didn’t stop, he took off his tough, or a poor imitation of tough, exterior and offered water from a hardened fruit shell, hidden behind a root. He put it to the girl’s lips and helped her drink, keenly aware of the small distance between them. He only been this close to his mother and sister, since all the tribe’s women stayed well away. Whether it was due to his appearance or father’s reputation, he did not know.

“Thank you. My name is Reefer Stone, from the Tide Tribe. What is yours?” The girl suddenly asked. Ebskil flinched, surprised by the sweetness of her voice and willingness to talk. He expected for the pregnant silence to last until sunset.

Should he answer? His father wouldn’t or if he did, it would only be promises of impending torture. Yet, Ebskil did not share the same malicious tongue or frightening attitude.

“Yeah, okay.” The awkward response made him internally cringe. The tribe should’ve picked someone else for this job.

The girl smiled warmly. “Nice to meet you, yeah okay.”

“Yeah, nah. That isn’t— Not that it matters — but it isn’t me — my — name. Umm. Nah.”

“What is your name then? This is Pend from the Dunes,” Reefer said and pointed to the sand tribe boy, “and this is Wildem from—”

“Don’t tell him our names,” Wildem, the hero-boy, hissed.

Ebskil didn’t know what to do. Prisoners which intended to harm never introduced themselves. Did this mean they were friendly? He couldn’t deduce that by himself. What if he was wrong? But then, what if they were to be sentenced to death by his tribe? Did a name mean so much then?

“My name is Ebskil.”

“Are you a cursed child?” Reefer blurted, as if the thought had been on her mind for hours.

Ebskil blinked like a confused cub. Cursed? He realised what caused her curiosity when she continued to marvel at his white hair and pale skin.

“In my own way,” he finally replied, mulling over the idea. Cursed. Did it count if he was cursed to bring his family shame? Was it a curse to be prophesied a hero?

“I felt like a curse in my tribe too. Everyone thought my family brought trouble and problems. They cussed at us and called my brother insane.”

“My clan treat me well,” Ebskil replied defensively.

The tribe had grown used to Ebskil’s abnormality in appearance over the years. At a young age, they all showed him kindness, finding relief in Ora’s early prophecy; ‘a hero’s heart resides in thee’. This dampened most dark fears in the village and the few skeptical did not involve themselves with Ebskil. It gave him a peaceful life, except for the pressure to lead the people without a phlame.

“Your accent isn’t thick like the rest of you clan.”

“Oh,” Ebskil mumbled, not sure what to say to accompany his blushing face. It felt like a compliment. No, wait. Was it an insult? She just emphasised how much he continued to not belong to the tribe. Yet, she looked too sweet to be so cunning. He had to be overreacting like always. His mind loved to wander over every possibility without permission.

“Flattery won’t win him over. The forest tribe are too thick in the head,” Wildem said with a glare.

You sound like the mountain tribes, Ebskil thought and then, the truth dawned on him. Arrogant aura, sharp features and golden eyes meant only one thing; the person had to come from a mountains. His name even started with ‘W’ like their tradition upheld and he scorned the forest. If they weren’t dead before, they are now.

“Ya have someone from the mountains. Our tribe definitely won’t let ya go freely now,” he muttered, picturing the bloody battle ahead with the mountain tribe.

“Told you they are barbaric!” Wildem shouted.

Ebskil wished he had the courage to say something threatening like Tamil or Momil. Maybe ‘I will show you are barbaric I can be!’, then throw a blade, or ‘least I don’t have a wind chime shoved up my arse all the time’, but he cringed at the idea. Nothing sounded good when it came out of a lean, pale boy’s mouth instead of a stoic Valley tribe-man.

“Is this to do with the feud thing?” Pend asked, exasperated. “So the reason we have been getting into so much trouble is because of you, Wildem!”

“It isn’t my fault the forest is full of primitive animals!”

“Can ya stop fighting please?” Ebskil asked, conscious of the noise booming from the boys. They ignored his softly spoken plea.

“Fish-heads! Stop! If you keep yelling, we will get into more trouble!”

“What trouble? Look at him! He is too scrawny and wimpy to do anything! If my hands weren’t bound, I’d…”

Oh no. This was bad. The hero-boy spoke truth since Ebskil had no phlame. He learnt a few fighting moves from his father but they were still poor. If the prisoners realised this, they might build enough courage to escape. Ebskil had to bluff otherwise, his tribe would skin him alive if a mountain tribes-man escaped.

“As expected from the mountains, ya act like a fool!” Ebskil roared, then lowered his voice to growl. Was it threatening enough? Did they notice his shaking hands or hear his beating heart? “Why do ya think they let the cursed child guard ya? It’s because I bring trouble and have powers beyond ya wildest nightmares. Try to escape. I dare ya.”

“We won’t do anything!” Pend and Reefer shouted at the same time. Still, Ebskil didn’t relax since Wildem kept up his deathly stare.

“We just want answers! Like I said, we are trying to help the world! Black venom is destroying everything. It has taken tribes and nature like a toxic plague. We ventured into the forest in search of answers.”

They were heroes. Of course. The gods played a cruel trick on him, as if wanting to taunt the fact he had no heroic qualities. It made him feel ashamed.

“If ya want to learn anything, ya go to Ora,” he said. "If they let you live."

“Who is Ora?”

“Our oracle.”

Wildem scoffed and rolled his eyes. “Typical. Forest tribes having oracles. What a load of—”

“Oh shut up, oyster-guts!” Reefer scolded and attempted to headbutt him. If the friendliness didn’t win Ebskil over, this did. “Look, Ebskil. I just want to know if you have seen anything unusual. That is why we came: to ask a simple question.”

Ebskil knew he needed to keep his mouth shut but her kind eyes made him hesitate. Against his better judgement, he mulled over the week. They would die with a mountain tribe member anyway. What was the harm in talking?

“There hasn’t been anything too unusual. Some birds migrated early and off their usual path. A few black flowers sprouted on the outskirts of our hunting territory but that might be the Palm tribe tricking us. They have before. And then there is…” me who has no phlame, Ebskil wanted to add but kept the confession in his head.

Without warning, a sound screamed through the trees. Another tribal horn, mimicking a bird's warning cry, accompanied it. The noises made Ebskil’s bone chill to the core. The fear must have been reflected on his face because Reefer immediately questioned him.

“What’s wrong?” She asked. “What is that sound?!”

“The predator horn,” he managed to spit out and noticed the continuing questioning gaze from the prisoners. “We have different horns to protect us. The horn you hear warns of large beasts entering the camp.”

“Crap,” Reefer muttered and turned to her companions. “What if it’s the venom?”

Pend nodded, considering the possibility of something Ebskil didn’t understand. “We saw black flowers near the shoreline too before the attack.”

“The wimp said there hasn’t been—” Wildem began to say.

“The birds migrated early. That means trouble must be in their home. The black flowers were also speckled across the field of Halimden. It is a wild guess…” Reefer continued to mutter, ignoring the voiced worries of her gang.

“What about phlame-less?” Ebskil blurted, gripping his spear tighter and reaching for the bag of rocks carried around his bare waist. The assurance he wanted from the weapons did not come. The panic in his heart grew, as if hungry for chaos. 

 

“Huh?”

“If someone in our tribe has been born without a phlame, would it match the sightings in Halimden?”

“Yes!” Reefer yelled, over the top of Pend and Wilden. “Yes! Untie us because I know how to handle this now! Please! We can help!”

Oh no. Oh no, no, no. I cannot make this kind of decision, Ebskil realised. Trouble comes from my choices. Yet, he found no other solutions. If they ran away after he freed them, they would be as useless as if they were tied up here. However, if they were heroes like he thought, then the tribe needed their help. Their foreign phlames could annihilate a forest predator.

Taking a risk, Ebskil used the tip of his spear to cut the vines free. The screeches of animals made him tremble, especially when he also distinguished the cries of his tribe. He looked into the blue eyes of Reefer and tried to convey how much trust he put in her. 

“Please don’t make my life more miserable,” He pleaded to the invaders before running outside without thinking.