Hugh, Zeke, and Theoson were led away from the front line.
“How did you find my father?” Hugh asked Jengo.
“I didn’t,” said Jengo. “He found us.”
“Really?” Hugh intoned.
“You don’t believe me?” asked Jengo.
“I don’t know what to believe,” said Hugh.
“He came to one of my grandsons,” said Jengo. “If you won’t believe me, perhaps you’ll believe a child. Come, I’ll take you to him.”
Jengo and half of the guards, along with Hugh, broke off from the others and walked for a few minutes between tents and horses. They approached a young boy sitting atop a horse. Before they were close, the boy rode the horse hard directly away from them, drew his bow, and fired at a small wall of baskets stacked about ankle high. He shot off three quick arrows in a matter of seconds, then quickly turned the horse around and fired another three arrows.
The boy said something to Jengo that Hugh could not understand, then Jengo nodded, unsmiling. He seemed to give the boy some instructions or corrections and the boy nodded back. Jengo then said, “Shizu, this is Hugh. He has some questions about his father.”
“What was his name?” asked Hugh.
Jengo’s jaw dropped. “You didn’t know his name?”
“It was kept from me,” said Hugh, “So that I couldn’t track him down, not that I would want to.”
“I never knew his name,” said Shizu. “I just called him ‘Arimaspi.’”
“Those are a race of cyclops who ride giant griffons and raid towns of their gold,” said Jengo.
“How did you come to meet him?” asked Hugh.
“I was playing with my friends far away from the front line,” he said. “We were throwing rocks into a stream and trying to hit frogs and we felt the ground shake and Arimaspi came up to us and told us he had been looking for us and he threw rocks into the stream with us and he got us all wet because he threw huge boulders and they he was so strong and then I brought him to my grandfather.”
“He said he had been looking for you?” asked Hugh.
“How old are you, Shizu?” asked Hugh.
“I’m six,” he said.
“Had you ever met him before?” Hugh asked.
“No,” said Shizu.
“What… what was he like?” asked Hugh.
“He was really, really nice, and funny,” said Shizu. “He made funny faces and jokes and he used to carry me around on his shoulders so I could see way far away. He threw me up in the air and caught me a few times. It was like I was flying.”
“Did he say where he had been?” Hugh asked.
“No,” said Shizu. “He just said he had been gone a long time and had been looking for me.”
Hugh looked at Jengo. “Why would he be looking for your grandson?”
“You know how kids are,” said Jengo. “They think everything is about them. Your father certainly took a liking to my grandson, but he never mentioned to me that he came here deliberately.”
“So how did he come to… I mean, why did you send him out to fight me?”
“I asked,” said Jengo. “I noticed he was bigger than you are, so I figured he would win. I had no idea he was your father until afterwards. My informants inside the city sent word shortly afterwards. I had no idea, I assure you.”
“Did you know he was my father?” Hugh asked Shizu.
“No,” he replied, “But you two look kind of alike. You’re a lot shorter, though, and you don’t have as many scars.”
Hugh nodded. “Okay. I think that’s enough.”
Jengo barked something at his grandson, who went back to target practice.
“I’m sorry I doubted you,” said Hugh.
“I don’t blame you,” said Jengo. “I would think you to be a fool if you didn’t question such a coincidence. I still don’t understand it myself.”
“It was no coincidence,” said Hugh. “It was either fate, or… I got the feeling he wanted to die.”
“And he wanted you to do it?” asked Jengo.
Hugh just kept walking silently, as they were being led back through the camp to Hugh’s tent.
“Here is the mess area for your section of camp,” said Jengo, walking past a set of benches arranged in a circle.
As they approached Hugh’s tent, a woman opened a flap and threw warm liquid on Hugh’s legs. She then closed the flap quickly.
“I’m so sorry,” said a young man accompanying Jengo. “You… she… er… her father was killed.”
“Oh,” said Hugh.
“By you,” the young man added.
“I’m sorry,” Hugh said.
“Her husband,” the young man continued. “Also, killed by you.”
“I’m… I’m so sorry, is there anything I can do?” Hugh implored.
“Oh no, just leave alone,” said the young man.
“Is this urine?” Hugh asked, smelling his wet hands.
“Yes, yes,” said the young man.
“Great,” said Hugh.
And so it went. For three meals a day Hugh, walked from his tent to the mess area to eat, and each time the woman splashed him with her piss. On the way there: a deluge of piss. Walking back: doused with piss yet again. There were three weeks of urine soaked pants. Hugh took to wearing only a long leather vest that left his legs bare, and she began splashing it more towards his head. One day she almost missed, but still managed to wing his shoulder.
No matter how much he bathed, he could never get the smell off. Even when he seemed to come close, he knew it would only be a matter of time before he had to eat again. He skipped meals, he reduced himself to begging for scraps from people on their way back to camp. He ate cold gristle people had brought back to bait traps with. And yet, he rarely spent a day during those three weeks completely dry, despite three weeks without rain.
What’s worse, she either drank an unusual amount or she was collecting urine from others, because she always had a full pot. Hugh was sure she left it out in the sun or cooked it over a fire, because sometimes it seemed hotter than when it would have been fresh.
The rest of the day was spent passing the time anyway he could. The Otros tended to just practice archery all day, and this excluded the three outsiders. They were not permitted to mount a horse, nor to wield a bow. They tended to play a game played by the children.
The children, wives, and some elderly relatives all travelled with the army. When a son went off to war, for the Otros this usually meant the family picked up and left to go on the campaign. Jengo explained that this caused men to fight more readily knowing that their own kin are directly behind them. He said it provides a sort of psychological feeling similar to that of defending one’s home: they will not give up ground for fear of endangering their loved ones.
What’s more, the Otros were composed of many different clans, tribes, cities, and nations. Jengo formed his original army around his fellow tribesmen, who called themselves “The Brave.” They fought and negotiated their way to prominence in their homeland, then spread out rapidly from there. They held influence and pulled troops for their army from most of the known world.
The engineers to build great siege weapons were the contribution of one nation they allied with. The formula for making thunder-crash jars came from a conquered people. Many of Jengos closest advisors were the military leaders of defeated foes. As it turns out, while Jengo had a reputation for being a brutal conqueror, he seemed more like a brilliant strategist, both on the battlefield and in diplomacy.
Jengo also took a hands-off approach to running his empire. He had dozens of sons by dozens of women, some of whom were fully grown and could properly govern the various provinces. The army did not request money in the form of taxes. Instead, Jengo put out transcription quotas that had to be met. The Army always needed new recruits, not only for the battle but for the logistics of Jengo’s army.
For every fully trained soldier, Jengo brought seven horses, which were themselves always giving birth and dying off. Every soldier was responsible for keeping five horses prepared for use at any time, and his family was expected to maintain a breeding pair, with new foals being granted to those who lost horses, as needed.
Then there was the nearly endless supply line that spanned the entire length of the Karnate. Supplies could be moved to the war front in bulk by oxen-drawn cart, as could plunder be sent back to population centers to be utilized. Letters, on the other hand, could be run on horseback. The Karn’s horse service was incredibly reliable and extremely quick. A message could travel across hundreds of kilometers in a day.
In fact, it was from this lightning fast mail system that they became known as the Otros, as an otro was one of the relay stations where the messengers would switch horses. These stations peppered the entire Otros empire landscape, allowing a message to be galloped at full speed for the entire length of the continent.
The Otros themselves were largely self sufficient. They lived off of resources primary centered on their horses. Jengo was also often seen with a falcon, which he used to hunt rabbits. One day, Hugh was talking to the falcon about what it was like to hunt with a human.
“What are you doing?” asked Jengo, looking over at Hugh talking to his falcon, which rested on its perch, a leather hood covering its eyes.
“Just chatting to your bird,” said Hugh.
“You can understand what he says?” asked Jengo.
“Of course, can’t you?” asked Hugh.
Jengo got up and stood facing Hugh, between him and the bird. He puts his hands behind his back. “How many fingers and I holding out?”
Hugh asked the falcon.
“He said he has a hood over his head.”
Jengo laughed. He turned and removed the hood.
“Five,” said Hugh.
“Interesting,” said Jengo, smiling. “You use this to scout during the war?”
“No,” said Hugh.
“That’s foolish,” said Jengo, shaking his head, putting the hood back on his falcon, and walking off.
One morning, well into the third week in camp, Hugh was coming back from breakfast… and the woman didn’t appear to splash him. Hugh stopped dead in his tracks, walked over to her tent, and lifted the flap. The woman was hanging by a rope tied to a hook on the center post. Her face was deep red, turning blue around the mouth.
Hugh rushed over to her and lifted her up. He undid the rope as quickly as he could. She lay lifeless in his arms. Tears began to roll down Hugh’s face, and she coughed. It was weak at first, but before long she was taking deep, fevered breaths.
Hugh was ducking to leave when she ran up to him and placed her hand on his shoulder. She said something he couldn’t understand, though he understood that she asked “Why…” something. He went over to her chamber pot, took it, went outside, and splashed it on his midsection, then handed the pot back to her.
“I’m sorry,” he said. He hoped she understood. She might have, because now she would open her flap to wave when he passed.
To be continued…