Jaxarte and the Bison Khan 
First published in Tales of the Reaching Moon issue #6

Copyright © 1995 by Michael O'Brien

Jaxarte Hits the Plaines
After his eventful yet relatively safe journeys to Sun County and Weis Domain, Jaxarte finally made his first foray onto the Praxian plain itself. Following his experiences at Raus Fort, Jaxarte travelled downriver to the Lunar seaport of Corflu, hoping to catch up with his elder brother Goslem, who was fleeing his Humakti adversaries. Whether or not Jaxarte met his brother at Corflu is unknown: the next entry in Jaxarte's journal was written in Pavis sometime later, and describes his elation at being entrusted with an important mission by his uncle Sor-Eel, governor of Prax.

Sor-eel's true motives can be seen in a confidential message to his half-brother and confidant Bor-Eel, found and translated by the inquisitive junior sage Floriat Fedora, sometime after the governor's fall from grace:

Bor, my brother: 
Sank 3, still beggared Rug! Send plate. 
Jaxarte: despite your reservations, I still think the lad shows promise. Don't send him home just yet. A suggestion: send our J. to truce? Sounds great to me now. Your thoughts on the morrow, when I'm sober. 
Give my pardon to G.: smooth her off with R's plate, mayhap? 

Floriatís Translation
I think I can interpret this entry. "Grey" is last watch of the night, ending as the first feeble rays of dawn fret the clouds. As tireless in pleasure as he was in government, the governor had obviously made a night of it this evening, as was his wont. "Rug" was presumably Pharnastes Rugbagian, an Etyries merchant who enjoyed particular favour under Sor-Eel's administration. His nickname came more from the artless toupee he affected, than a shortening of his surname. 

There are numerous interpretations I could have given when translating the phrase "sank 3", all possibly applicable to Sor-Eel. That he "beggared" Rugbagian and asks his brother to send the customary plate around suggests they were gambling rather than whoring: my guess is Sor-Eel "sank" 3 flagons of Rugbagian's best Pelorian, yet still managed to win. In the final sentence he asks his brother to extend his apologies to an unknown G., presumably some doxy he is trying to placate with the nightís winnings. 

Sor-Eel signs off with "Shine", very much de rigueur at the time, a truncation of the religious phrase "May the Unearthly Light of the Goddess Shine Upon You". Because of the perceived ambiguity of the shortened phrase Icilius Overholy, General Priestess of the Provincial Church, promulgated an edict in 1621 which condemned its use in all documents throughout the Empire. Only those written in the Dara Happan tongue were exempted, for that language has separate intransitive verbs to differentiate between lunar and solar light. 

However, it is the middle section of the note that is germane to my study, and to which I must apply myself here. Too often we sages divert the reader with scholarly tangents!

It is apparent that Bor-Eel had doubts about Jaxarte's usefulness in the provincial administration. Sor-Eel obviously had a more optimistic estimation, yet he took great stock of his brother's opinions: here he asks Bor-Eel if he thinks Jaxarte would be a suitable Lunar hostage to send to the truce they were arranging between the rival Sable and Bison nations.

Presumably, Bor-Eel concurred with his brother's estimation that the callow Jaxarte was more-or-less expendable. He was duly appointed "Overseer of the Truce" upon his return from Corflu some three days later. Details of this ill-fated truce are described by Jaxarte in his journal below.

Floriat, as always, provides her own observations in footnotes to accompany Jaxarte's journal.

All Praise the Reaching Moon!

I, Jaxarte Whyded, Commissioner of the Imperial Census, here relate my experiences as Overseer of the Truce between the great Sable and Bison tribes of Prax.

I must admit, the summons to appear before the illustrious Bor-Eel (half-brother of my uncle the governor) left me with quaking bowels and fluttering heart. As I saw it, an audience with him meant only one thing: I was to sent back to the Heartlands, disgraced! For Bor-Eel has always despised me since I arrived in Pavis, seeing me as one who has gained his position through family connections. While I cannot deny this, I must point out the irony that but for the prestige and influence o f his half-brother, Bor-Eel himself would have never reached the privileged rank he now enjoys![1] Imagine my surprise then, when I found myself leaving his chamber wearing the chain of a Lunar emissary and bearing a new title: "Overseer of the Truce"!

I am to attend a midnight conference at the offices of Gimgim the Grim, the chief of our intelligence bureau, for a briefing on my mission. Why Gimgim insists on conducting his affairs after dark I do not know. It's Photius's reckoning that his master feels his oratory has better effect on listeners yearning for the bottle or bed [2].

Clay-Death-Fire-7/46 (the next day)
My commission appears simple: I am to proceed by mule, with a small escort, to Three Twigs Sloot, a salt-lick a half-day's ride to the south of the city. There a large band of the outlawed Bison tribe have made camp. Knowing Gimgim has Bor-Eel's ear, I foolishly tried to impress the intelligence chief with my initiative by pointing out that, were I do the ride on horseback, I could make the journey in less than two hours. So much for initiative: I then got a stern lecture from the incredulous Gimgim who rightly berated my ignorance of the Praxian ingrained and deep-seated antipathy towards horses [3]. And he promised that our conversation would be reported to Bor-Eel! I sat out the rest of the briefing in silence.

Sometime after I arrive, a party of our Sable-rider allies will arrive and a prisoner-exchange will take place. In a recent raid, the Bison people took captive one of the Sable Queens (priestesses). The Sable-people are our greatest allies in Prax, and it was Sor-eel's personal intervention that has enabled the truce to take place. Rather than risk antagonising the Sable-riders, uncle has promised the Bison Kahn "great treasure" in return for Sable priestess. This treasure I am to carry with me on my mule train. In addition, the Sables must give back a quantity of their own captives, taken in retributive raids since the lass was lost. It will be my task to ensure both parties deal fairly with one another and uphold the truce. I am also to give the Bison Kahn uncle's assurance of their safe-passage back into Vulture's Country after the negotiations have concluded. I leave on the morrow at dawn, and if all goes well, should be safely back in Pavis the following evening [4].

Windsday-Death-Earth -7/46 (One Season Later.....)
I dictate this in the Deezola temple, for I am abed, and must remain so for another week according to the tender priestesses. I cannot write myself, for I am swathed from crown-to-foot in cloths soaked in soothing skullbush seed-oil and am forbidden to move overly much. Photius now sits at the end of my pallet stylus in hand awaiting my instructions. Unless he stops grinning at my misfortune I shall have him whipped... no, Photius, you donít have to write that [5]. ...As I was saying, I lie here suffering a most grievous sunburn, having spent the height of fire season mother-naked on the plaines, a captive of the Bison People... I won't warn you again Photius, show proper sympathy or I shall have your buttocks whipped even rawer than mine! ...I cannot refer to my notebook: when I arrived at the Bison Tribe's camp, I was ushered into a tent provided for my comfort and put under the watchful gaze of one of the lesser khans. The illiterate fellow regarded my stylus and notebook with superstitious awe, and he almost certainly destroyed it after my arrest [6].

I should have suspected something foul when, as we approached the camp, a group of Bison tribesmen lumbered out on their massive mounts - second in strength only to the Rhinos, but a lot easier to tame and a much better provider of milk, skin, hair and sinew. Blooded braves they were, and their leader a Kahn of the tribe, distinguished from the others by his peculiar headdress: a bone helmet, fashioned from a Bison skull and festooned with trinkets and trophies (including, I could not fail to notice, a human finger-bone with a crescent-shaped ring)[7].

I was forced to cool my heels in the tent. The Bison Kahn who escorted me into the camp sat sullenly outside, and made no attempt to answer my entreaties or even acknowledge my presence. Made of cow-hide, the tent stank horribly (even more so, what with my mule pushed in beside me!), but at least the door flap was open and I could observe all that was going on outside. I will now recount my observations of the Bison tribe camp.

The camp was a large one, by Bison standards, because these people were of the Skull Bat tribe, an important tribe of the Bison nation [8]. The camp itself was arranged in the shape of a huge, stylized bull, and each tribe member domiciled in the appropriate place. Thus, the warriors of the tribe bivouacked in the "horns" of the bull, guarding the prisoners in the space between. The Eiritha priestess camped in its lions, the chief and his followers at its heart, the tribal shaman at its liver, and so on. There was much activity going on in the camp, much of it related to the herd, but around the Eiritha priestess's location at the Bull's loins a large group of women - many of them wearing their hair in curious top-knots - were obviously rehearsing for one of their rituals.

The Bison people themselves seem to be of mixed blood, like all Praxians, with the height and build of Western folk, yet the sallow skin and inscrutable gaze of the Kralori. Their hair is invariably dark, and their men, clean shaven [9]. As with all the Praxian nomads, the lives of the Bison folk center around their herd, and all their clothing and food comes from their cherished beasts (or those they can capture from their nomadic rivals).

As nightfall came, my Kahn allowed a buckskinned maiden enter my tent, bearing a bowl of mush, made, it appeared, from skullbush seeds.... yes Photius, the same stuff that now swathes my tender body; pray let me continue... The girl was rosy-cheeked and slender but her long raven hair, wound back into the large knot I had seen earlier, was plastered with oily fat and stank most foul [10].

The girl left without speaking, and as Yelm sank, the Kahn began to lace me into the tent, mule and all! That night, there was obviously a tribal celebration of some sort going on, yet I dared not peek through the gap between tent and floor... No Photius, you wouldn't either if you knew what Bison people are said to do to those who profane their rituals! When I asked uncle about this yesterday, he told me that a trader had said the rites I heard (but not saw) were apparently a curious mixture of mass marriage and funeral rites for the old chief. This surprised me, because I knew at that time the old chief was still alive: I saw him the following morning! [11]

The following morning the Sable Riders arrived in camp, and I was brought out from my tent to see them. It intrigued me that they were accompanied by a small Lunar escort, similarly mounted on Sables. These regular soldiers prudently chose not to approach the camp, and although they were regularly goaded by the Bison youngsters, remained aloof on a small rise. I marveled at their composure. The Sables had brought a coffle of Bison men and woman, none of whom looked especially mistreated, despite having walked all the way from the Sable camp just outside Pavis [12].

The leader of the Sable Riders, obviously a Kahn (though wearing the gaudy silver crescent often given to barbarian converts, and wearing the most unlikely Kostaddian silk trousers) disdained to dismount, preferring the carry on the negotiations in the saddle. Opposite him, the Bison people's chief, obviously sick and dying, lay swathed in a huge bundle of skins. He spoke in a barely audible croak, which was promptly amplified by a naked, oiled brave festooned with feathers and other trophies, who stood at his shoulder [13].

The negotiations dragged on for many hours, until Yelm reached his peak, and the air shimmered with the heat. I was not called upon to officiate, which galled me, and to my surprise, about a hour after noon, the Sable priestess (an old woman, who interestingly enough, I had seen helping to instruct the younger women the day before in their dancing) was produced. She promptly leapt onto the back of the kahn's sable with a spryness remarkable for her age,and they were gone. Only then was my presence before the chief required.

The Kahn thrust me forward, and naked warrior beside the enfeebled chief asked me, in flawless New Pelorian... no, Photius, I don't know where he learned Lunar... where was this great treasure the governor had promised them in exchange for the Sable Queen? I begged leave to return to my tent, and came back with the curious metal box uncle had given me on my departure. The box was very light, and obviously did not contain a "great treasure" in the usual sense. Dutifully, I handed it to my Kahn, who delivered it to the naked speaker. He immediately tore open the box, and removed the only thing inside it: a roll of parchment. I don't know who was more incredulous: he or I.

"What says this?", asked the speaker, more bemused than angry, though he flung the box away. Obviously whoever taught him to speak Lunar never taught him to read! The note was returned to me, and I began to read it, aloud.

What was this "great treasure"? To my shock I found that in return for the Sable Queen, uncle was merely granting the dying Chief Red Knees a pardon for his rebellious acts at the battle of Moonbroth, and a guarantee of a safe escort back into the wastes of Vulture's Country! What's more, the Lunar sable cavalry (who had not moved from the rise, even after the Sable Riders had departed) were to form this escort!

At this, the speaker lost his composure, and even the enfeebled chief rose partway from his blankets to spit a curse at me. A band of braves ran for their mounts and thundered out of the encampment, their wives running to their tents and dragging out their lances for them to take up as they rode through. I know not whether they were striking out after the liberated Sable Queen or against the unwanted escort on the rise, for at that moment I was roughly seized and flung to the ground. Whoever the braves were after, I did not see the Sable Queen again, and the Sable escort (or another band like it) appeared on the hillock the next morning.

Despite my protests, they trussed me up like prized mutton and carried me away. I was dumped with the rest of their prisoners at the fringe of the camp. One of the brutes grinned evilly as he whipped a saw-toothed knife from his belt - I gasped for the goddess - but it was only to cut the leather thongs binding me. Wrists and ankles raw, I struggled to my feet. I was in the space between the "horns" of the "bull", its border crudely etched into the dust by the bare foot of one of the priests. Hacked into the centre was the image of an immense lidded eye, from which the rest of the captives averted their gaze. I was amazed to see that, despite the fact no-one was paying particular attention to us, none of the prisoners dared attempt to break out, despite the safe walls of Pavis shimmering in the heat haze of the distance. Only by night did the khans order a watchful guard stake out the perimeter [14].

It was on the third day that I began to worry: the Bison Riders were obviously preparing to break camp. I must have been surely missed back in Pavis: where was uncle? On the fourth day my worry turned to desperation: a band of shambling morokanth appeared at the edge of the camp, and were led by our captors into the circle. My fear rose as I watched these inhuman brutes bargain and pay for (in salted mock-pork) the pick of the prisoners. As they were taken away, bound and bawling for mercy, the Kahn led two other morokanth to me. While one clumsily poked me in the ribs and the other used a grimy thumb to inspect my teeth [15], I decided I must make my dash for freedom. I had found myself the subject of an obscene haggle: the morokanth obviously wanted me - "good stud beast", one lisped in appalling Pavic - but the Kahn was reluctant to sell me at any price. The reason? Once in a kahn's life he must slay a thing of chaos: as a Lunar, the fool reasoned, I would be it! [16]

Fingering my moonstone pendant (a gift from mother on my initiation-day), I struggled free from the clubbed paws of the morokanth and began reciting the incantation. Even as I attempted to dodge past the bellowing Kahn the rock began to pulse a deep red. It was my plan to make the lune cause mayhem in the camp, and then escape across the plain to the Sable cavalry on the hill in the confusion. I had never called forth nor seen a lunar elemental before, and struggled to recall the incantation. As the moonstone crumbled to dust in fingers, my vision blurred into a rapturous swath of the deepest crimson... [17]

Of the next weeks, I cannot recall much at all, save fleeting images of sweltering sun, a dryness in my throat, and pain, pain, pain! ...No Photius, I can't be more specific, and please don't ask again... My next clear memory is standing on the slave block at Adari, subjected to the hoots and whistles of the crowd. The same Bison Kahn who had treated me cruelly was selling me! Why they hadn't just killed me at their camp I shall never understand, nor why they didn't just sell me off to the Morokanth (who, I understand, herd humans for their meat!) [18]. I am thankful that one of uncle's agents ...No Photius, I will not identify him for your benefit... was in Adari at the time and had to the necessary funds to free me.

In all, my experience with the Bison People is one I would prefer to put aside and not care to remember. I was of course unable to verify the Census figures during my brief stay at the Bison camp, and will get Photius to transcribe the relevant figures from the earlier records [19].

Leave me now Photius - I must rest. Go now and fetch those figures on the Bison People from the old census. I must lie here and ponder the next assignment uncle wishes me to carry out for him: he wants me to revise the population figures we have on the inhuman Morokanth: I can't say I look forward to carrying out this task with any enthusiasm, given my recent experience with these brutes!

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