The Making of a Forest Fighter

The fourth book in the 'Ehvelen' series


Winner of the Dream Realm Award for Action/Adventure, 2002

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Other books in the series
The Start of Magic. The slave girl who became a legend.
The Mother's Sword. Can a peaceful society defend itself without becoming savage?
The Travels of First Horse: a trilogy. His ten year journey changed history.
Series Summary
Read Chapter 1
Read A Leader Without Fear: an extract from The Great Khan, Fourth Story of the Ehvelen

About the book

   The thirty years of bitter fighting threw up heroes both among the Ehvelen and the Doshi. One of these was an intelligent, sensitive sixteen-year-old Doshi warrior who controlled his terror by always volunteering for the most dangerous missions. By the end of the three years during which the Ehvelen defeated the Doshi Sulet of the Gelders, Ribtol had become a renowned warrior, chosen to lead when stealth and intelligence were needed.

   This book is an account of the three years of warfare, entirely seen through Ribtol's eyes. Here is a short passage that introduces this decent young man:

 

   The tall grass was lying flat and jumbled under the weight of the ever-falling rain. Ribtol had trouble remembering the hot sunshine of the Plains as he wearily dismounted from Bronze after a stint of guard duty. He was looking forward to breakfast. He unsaddled with the unconscious ease of practice. Round droplets of water formed a random pattern on his waxed tack as he put it beside his tent. He pulled a cloth from a saddle bag and started to work on the horse.

   Some sixty paces from him, the entrance flap of Hunok's tent stirred and a small figure stumbled out into the rain. Head down, the slave scurried toward the nearby creek, which was swollen now, lugging an empty leather bucket. By the time he walked past Ribtol, the long dress was glued to his legs by the rain.

   He would have gone by without looking up. "Ho, Timeth," Ribtol called.

   The slave boy stopped and stood in front of him. He raised his head and his blue gaze met Ribtol's.

   "Timeth, I will not punish you or report you to Dariana. But other men will not be so lenient. You must greet a man with honor, and also you must not look a man in the face. It is dangerous for you."

   The boy continued to look up at him with eyes like blue chips of ice, his mouth clenched into a thin line.

   Ribtol sighed. "Look, I am trying to help you because I like your Sisters and they are sad when you are punished. And that happens often, eh?"

   "Truly." Timeth's voice was high like a girl's, but there was more pride than fear in it.

   "You should say, 'Truly, honored Master.' And one day you will be scarred for life, or even killed. Is it worth the defiance, eh?"

   "Honored Ribtol. Yes it is. I want to die."

   All this time, the rain pattered down on them, soaking the boy and sliding off Ribtol's leather armor. But in addition to this, Ribtol was sure he saw great tears start from Timeth's eyes. He said, "If you die, your Sisters and Brother will be grieving for you. I know that now you are a slave, but life does not have to be bad for slaves."

   "Honored Ribtol, maybe not in other families. But..."

   The entrance flap to Hunok's tent stirred again, and a strident voice called, "You, Timeth, where is the water eh?"

   Ribtol looked at his Eldest Brother's head woman in the rapidly strengthening light. Truly, Dariana was a fine-looking woman with a well-sculpted face, flashing dark eyes and long, thick dark hair now caught into a bun on top of her head, and a shapely body with firm high breasts despite the several children she had borne. But oi, inside she was not beautiful at all. He lifted his voice and said, "Dariana, I have been talking to Timeth. He was duty bound to stop and listen."

   "Honored Ribtol," the woman answered with ill grace.

   The Scythian slave boy scurried off toward the creek, and Ribtol went to his tent before reporting for his assigned work. Today, he had the unpleasant fate of having to work under Elder Edoran's command. They were carving and polishing long straight sticks into the spoon-like devices that could be used to propel things across the river.

***

   Three quarters of a Month later, it was raining again, or perhaps it was still raining, eh? This time, Ribtol was one of many men who pulled up their horses within the encampment. They had done well -- the Sabad's share of the raid had been eighteen slaves and a goodly herd of cattle. These were not the hardy beasts that would do well in summer on the Plains, but they would be fine for feeding the Sabad during winter.

   After caring for his horses and greeting Karinn and baby Damon and Tinek, Ribtol strolled over to his Uncle's tent. Upon being admitted, he found Goter already starting on his task of dividing up the spoils. Oi, I would not like being head Elder, truly, he thought, not that there was any danger of becoming an Elder, ever.

   "What is it you want, Ribtol, eh?" Goter asked. He couldn't have been enjoying his work either, from the tone of his voice.

   "Uncle, I want to make your task a little easier."

   "Eh?"

   "Please pay me my share in silver instead of goods."

   Goter put down his reed pen. "You are a strange lad. What will you spend it on, eh?"

   "Uncle, last Summer I had a thought. I want to buy armor. I know I am still young, but I am tall, and if I grow taller I can sell it to other men. But I do not want to go back to the Midgets' forest without armor."

   "Oi, Ribtol, you may have a young body but you do have a wise liver. All right, it shall be so."

   "Also, please do the same for all the raids we will have this winter."

   "Oh truly, Ribtol I am not stupid. You will not buy much steel from this raid alone. Now go and leave me to my fun task."

   "Thank you, Uncle." With that, Ribtol walked out into the late autumn drizzle.

   A commotion caught his eyes a quarter way across the encampment. Hunok's family were pouring out from wagon and tent, and swiftly formed a semicircle. Dariana was standing at the hub, holding a little squirming figure by an ear.

   Towering over the women and children, Hunok stood like a rock, and even from the distance Ribtol could see the anger in his body. He didn't have to be told, it was Timeth in trouble again. He broke into a run and pushed his way past three male slaves, standing respectfully behind the women.

   "Ho, Eldest Brother!" he called.

   Hunok turned, and Ribtol saw that he had his whip coiled over his left arm.

   "Eldest Brother, I can save you the trouble. Leave the punishment for a few breaths, and let us talk."

   Hunok looked puzzled. Dariana was clearly annoyed, and let Timeth's ear go. The boy staggered and almost fell, then stood still.

   Hunok strode into his tent, Ribtol following. He turned. "What is it, eh?"

   "Hunok, I want to buy that boy from you, now."

   "You are crazy!"

   "Truly, Eldest Brother, I know that. But I believe he will give me no trouble at all. How many shekels of silver do you want for him, eh?"

   Hunok tossed his whip into a corner and burst out laughing. "Oi, how many shekels of silver do you want for taking him from me, eh? You can have him, free."

   "No. I will give you something in exchange. It is better."

   "Oh truly, you can have him as a gift. He is nothing but trouble."

   "Then I will give you a gift of half a shekel of silver, as soon as Uncle Goter allocates the loot from this raid."

   "All right, done. Dariana!"

   The woman put her head in through the entrance. "Honored Master, eh?"

   "Get some gehar heated. Honored Ribtol and I have a bargain to seal. And the boy Timeth goes to Ribtol's tent."


1. Toward Battle

Gelders of the Scimitar
Galloping Gelders
Eve of Battle

Five thousand men were preparing for war. Who could stand against such an army, eh? The honored Suletain wanted complete surprise, so they stayed at least a day's ride from the river. Each Sabad's war group moved over a large area of the Plains, to ensure lasting supplies of firewood, and feed for the horses. This needed a lot of coordination, giving the messengers a great deal of work. As he had almost every day during the past half Month of days, young Ribtol carried messages from the Sulet's War Leader.

   Ribtol was tall for a Doshi, well over five feet in Giants' measure, and broad shouldered. Already, at sixteen years of age, he was a respected warrior although his beard was as yet no more than the barest brown fuzz. And he was now War Leader Liban's favorite messenger, carrying all the most important messages. On this trip, he had with him letters to three War Groups.

   He was getting very good at organizing his schedule so that night caught him alone. No dreams had bothered him for the past four nights, but the night before that, back in his Father's tent at Headquarters, he had woken covered in sweat, his heart racing. When his Father asked him the reason, he had said, "Oh, I think something I ate was not so good." But such excuses could only be used occasionally. No way could anyone ever be allowed to know the real reason, certainly not Father!

   Even now, days later, Ribtol perfectly remembered the dream. After all, it had recurred many times, in different variations.

That was where he awoke, this time. And it was not so much a dream, truly, as a re-experiencing. During the daytime, while busy, he managed to keep the terrible memories at bay. They attacked at night when his guard was unstrung. All that had happened a year ago, but when he slept, he was back there, at the time when he had first met Midgets, when he had found the dead body of War Leader Djing and many another man. Still, this Message was the order for the final advance, and in the past he had noted that the nightmares ceased during real danger. War could not come soon enough, truly!

   There being no sign of rain, he decided to sleep under the Little Gods. He lay on his back, looking up at Their glory in the sky, and listened to the quiet sounds of his two hobbled horses. An owl flew above him on soundless wings, just before his consciousness faded into sleep.

Gelders of the Scimitar

It was halfway between Milking and Noon, what we'd call eleven o'clock of the morning. Ribtol was about to stop to feed and rest his horses, when he spotted a tendril of bluish smoke against the hazy white of the horizon. It was exactly where he'd expected it to be. Excellent, he thought, that should be honored Ikrat, truly. He clicked his tongue and reached behind to give a little tug on the lead of his spare mount. The big gelding, a gift from honored Liban himself, surged forward. He was saddled, ready to ride. In one smooth movement Ribtol gathered his legs under him and leapt from horse to horse. "Go, Charcoal!" he shouted, and kicked the horse's black sides, behind the saddle but the length of his foot below. Charcoal bounded into a smooth canter, and the tug on the lead speeded up Arrow as well, though she would be tired by now.

   The youngster cantered his horses for a boiling, which was probably about a quarter of an hour in our measure, then walked them for the same length of time, over and over. At the end of the third canter, he spotted a bump on the plain, what had to be the trees at the camping spot. And soon after, he was being approached by the tiniest of moving dots: a guard who had seen him. As always, diminishing distance brought detail with surprising rapidity. He could now see that the guard rode a white horse with many brown markings, truly a valuable animal, then the lightness of a gray beard under the round helmet.

   And soon after, the man shouted, "Ho, Ribtol, what is the news, eh?"

   "Ho Ragidal, would you believe war, eh?"

   Both laughed. What else had they been preparing for, during the past two Months, eh?

   Ribtol slowed his horses to a walk once more. Ragidal wheeled to ride half behind him as honor guard, and they approached the herds of the Gelders of the Scimitar.

   "So, young fellow, when are we attacking, eh?"

   "That is what this message is about. All the War Groups are to move into the final marshaling area."

   An Elder was waiting, with two others behind him. The guard handed Ribtol over, then wheeled away to return to his station.

   "Ho, Ribtol. I shall take you to honored Sabadar Ikrat."

   "Ho, honored Elder Kitt. That is good, for I have not had lunch as yet."

   The Elder was a bulky man. Expensive plates of wootz almost hid his leather armor, and Ribtol could see that the leather helmet was merely a lining over a wootz one. Truly, a good use of wealth -- if one had the wealth. He asked Ribtol about mutual acquaintances in other Sabads as they passed through the herd of horses.

   The war camp was under the trees lining a creek. No tents were set up, but Ribtol saw neat piles of possessions, showing that, like him last night, the war group had slept under the sky. And there stood honored Ikrat, the Sulet's head Sabadar, waiting for him.

   Ribtol sprung off his horse to stand before the slim old black-skinned Sabadar.

   "Ho, Ribtol," Ikrat said, "I have been expecting you, lad. The final advance, is it, eh?" He passed Ribtol a small lump of silver as payment.

   "Truly, honored Sabadar." By then, he'd undone the ties holding his jacket shut, and handed over the rolled-up rabbit skin.

   Ikrat called, "Tullo, look after the Messenger."

   Smiling, the Sabad's War Leader was already striding over. "Ho, young Ribtol. I shall set a couple of men to care for your horses. You look hungry."

   "Truly, honored War Leader, I am ready to eat a horse."

   Tullo laughed, white teeth flashing in his dark brown face. Not as dark as his Father, he had the same curly hair and beard, with gray strands already in the black. He was one of the few men taller than Ribtol.

   Soon the young Messenger sat by a fire, answering eager questions from the men clustered around him. He had been given a loaf of soft bread, a joint of meat on the bone and a big crockery mug full of steaming, fragrant herb tea. Truly, being Messenger was not a bad thing.

Galloping Gelders

Ribtol had planned his route wisely. The third war group he'd found, late in the afternoon, had been traveling between two of their scheduled camping places, a day's hard ride from Headquarters. To reach them, he'd followed a great circle, riding through the vivid green that covered the Plains this time of the year. His target had been the war group of the Galloping Gelders. As Messenger, Ribtol rode with Odo, one of the most senior Sabadars in the Sulet, who sat as if he was part of his horse, despite his paunch and what to Ribtol felt like a greatly advanced age. The war party set off soon after Dawn, Odo ordering the men to breakfast in the saddle. Father Sun glowed huge and red to the east, but the western sky was hidden by a dirty black cloud that rushed toward them, and well before the mid-morning time called Milking, they were caught by a downpour. But then, they were all warriors and bred to the Plains. "Is your gear well oiled, eh?" Odo asked him with a broad grin.

   "Truly, honored Sabadar," he answered. It was cold and wet, that could not be denied, but his leather armor, his weapons, the tack on his horses would all stay dry.

   The shower was well past and they were steaming under Father Sun's blessedly warm breath by the time they reached the outskirts of Headquarters, a huge semi-permanent camp. A guard handed them over to an efficient Elder, who studied a map on a rabbit skin and said, "Ribtol, lead honored Sabadar Odo to the honored Suletain. I shall take charge of the War Party and show them their camping spot."

   So, Ribtol led the way toward the center of the camp. They rode for several boilings past herds of horses, groups of tents, men engaged in many activities of preparation. At one place, they passed a team sawing flat planks from great cedar logs that had been brought all this way from Syria. They were going to become components of the planned wooden track over the river. At another place, a great many wagons stood in a compact array. "Oi, new Elamite wagons," Odo said with interest. "What are they for, eh?"

   "Honored Sabadar, they hold grain for horse food, to be used during the coming Months of days. They were bought from one of the Areg Traders."

   "I wish we did not have to deal with the asps," Odo rumbled, and Ribtol agreed. No-one liked the treacherous Areg.

   At last they arrived at the great dusty square, which was surrounded by neat groups of tents. There, he left Odo at the honored Suletain's widespread and luxurious tent and reported to War Leader Liban.

   Like his illustrious Father, Liban had a spare build and a hook nose. However, his face was not pockmarked. His black beard now held gray strands, but he moved like a forceful young warrior. As Ribtol was admitted by the guard, he saw the War Leader impatiently striding around, waving his arms while addressing a group of men. He turned his head as the entrance flap of the tent opened. "Ho, Ribtol. Good, you can listen also. We are planning the lines of communication for the last advance, on the evening of the third day after today¬Ö"

Eve of Battle

It was too early to eat as yet, but all the warriors chosen for the first crossing were having a last hot meal. Ribtol sat by his Father's fire, manfully devouring a large bowl of stew. He was a drawn bow of impatience. Now, now he could prove to himself that he was not a coward! The last time, the forest had been a place of terror. Tomorrow, he would conquer it, truly. For several days past, he had been free of terrible dreams, and having caught up on his sleep, he now craved action.

   Sitting cross-legged in front of his own tent, Ribtol's Eldest Brother Hunok said with a superior smile, "Oi, lad, after a while you do not look forward to a battle with so much eagerness, truly, it is just another battle."

   "Eldest Brother, leave the lad alone," Gadatin answered, but he was grinning also. "Ribtol has an arrow nocked for these Midgets."

   "That is if we find any," Jodran said with a full mouth. He was Ribtol's favorite Elder Brother, second favorite Brother only to young Dlingen who had not been blooded yet and was back helping to guard the Sabad while most of the men were away. Jodran had been selected for the first crossing also.

   "Whether they are there or not, I am glad to be going with honored Liban," Ribtol told them. It did no harm to see the pride on his Father's face.

   Having finished eating, Ribtol washed his bowl and spoon, and his hands and face also. He said, "Good-bye, Father, Elder Brothers, I shall check my gear once more."

   Roder answered, "Oi, my Sons, chances are you will find no Midgets at all. How can they know we are here, eh? But I know you will acquit yourselves well, whatever happens."

   The long day ended at last. Shortly before Dusk, the contingent of the Leading Gelders assembled in front of Suletain Harila's magnificent tent. Each man had only one mount: there was no need for spare horses on this mission. Standing behind War Leader Liban, as ever, young Ribtol felt tighter than a drawn bowstring. Oi, let us go! he thought, but knew that there was a whole night's waiting yet. It did not matter if they were waiting here in camp, or sitting on the grass by the riverside.

   The quickly dimming light showed the tent flap stir, then the Suletain was there, Uncle Goter just behind him by right, being the Sabad's head Elder. The Suletain's deep-set eyes almost glowed as he said, "Liban, my Son. One year ago, those little asps killed your Eldest Brother." He held up his left hand, so the mutilated little finger was plain to see. "Revenge is forever. Start on it now."

   A Month and a half of warriors sprung into their saddles. The contingent moved forward in an orderly manner, wheeled, then rode off into the gloom.


A Leader Without Fear
an extract from The Great Khan, Fourth Story of the Ehvelen

Dawn, in the mountains

Dawn, in the mountains

   Atto of the Galloping Marauders was finally getting used to the weight and awkwardness of the wooden board. He could hold it while wielding a scimitar or a new-type stabbing spear. However, he hated walking instead of riding. After a few boilings, the old fracture in his leg started to ache. Still, this was better than being shot by many arrows, truly. He knew they were facing several Grandfather bows on the other side of the great water-filled ditch the Midgets had made across the track.

   The order to advance came at first light. Atto was part of the attack along the right flank of the valley, among the trees with their light green covering of new leaves. It was good that the foliage was not thick enough yet to hide Midgets. He hefted his board, picked up the long stabbing spear and joined his comrades in an extended line. "Walk steadily forward!" the honoured War Leader shouted. They followed the line of men in front, advancing across the slope in a hopefully irresistible push. A glance showed him many lines of men on the opposite side also, and in the valley itself.

***

   Heather was up a tree where she could see the whole action at a glance. "They're carrying the shields we saw them use in practice," she called down.

   "They can't use archery then," Old Hare of Green Mountain was on the ground, looking up at her.

   "I expect the archers'll follow. Give the great bows maximum elevation."

   The advancing Doshi passed a mark. Suddenly six boulders rained down into the valley, flattening men. Those at the front started to run forward. Most of them scattered up one side or the other, fitting into the lines there. "That'll keep them out of the easy path," Porcupine grunted while helping to reload one of the wagon-mounted launchers.

   Suddenly several Doshi in both front lines screamed as they fell into staked pits. This caused a break in the orderly lines. At that moment, mounted Ehvelen galloped downhill, speared and trampled many men in the first few lines, reached the bottom and wheeled west. They hit the survivors of the stone attack from behind, jumped their horses over the trench and made it to safety behind the curve of the valley. "Three casualties," Heather reported, steeling herself against the pain. Those three had bought perhaps sixty Doshi lives.

   The Doshi advanced past the first line of pits, walking with even more caution now. Some were jabbing their spears at the ground ahead of them. "Shoot at individual targets," Heather whistled. It was hard for men to check the ground while holding their shields properly in place. Every now and then a shield tilted -- then two or three arrows sought out the gap.

   The attackers reached the second line of pits and stopped without any of them falling in. They didn't realise that the pits were nicely placed so that no branches obstructed the fall of missiles from above. Launchers had been carefully aimed well beforehand. Stones rained down among the trees, and again men died. More important, the survivors became terrified. Some turned to run, and received arrows in the back. Most jumped forward, a few falling into the pits.

   One warrior in the front line on the southern slope roared loudly enough to be heard above the general din, and started to run forward. A few others followed him, then there was a general charge. Porcupine and his crews reloaded and launched with desperate haste, each time killing men, but of course many more got through. Somehow, the example of the single warrior had inspired them to overcome their terror. Those on the other side saw their comrades' advance, and followed with a charge of their own.

***

   Atto had got through the area of magic, a stone crushing two men to his right. He jumped a pit holding two others with stakes poking through their bodies, and pounded after the backs ahead of him, despite his aching leg. The man immediately in front suddenly turned right around. As he fell, Atto could see the arrow in his right arm, and two other arrows struck him as he dropped his board.

   Again mounted Midgets charged down the hill, in great numbers this time. They were shooting, hitting men from the side. Then arrows came from behind, and a few of the Midgets fell.

   There was the now familiar whoosh as many arrows from a Grandfather bow flew overhead. Poor archers, Atto had time to think as he ran forward.

   "Form small circles!" somebody shouted. Atto locked backs with four or five others. This protected them from archery, but also it stopped their charge.

   Several Midgets were galloping downhill side by side, straight for their circle. "East and north men face south," somebody calmly said. Atto pivoted toward the attackers, his spear ready. He was about to spear a horse when the man on it dived head first for the ground, went under a shield and kept running. The horse swerved past the group. Atto's neighbour on the left was down, stabbed by the Midget in that brief moment.

   The leader with the calm voice spoke loudly, "Pair off. One with board to the front, the other right, and advance at a walk." This was necessary because an apparently endless stream of Midgets kept coming down the hill. Each used archery while approaching, then engaged men in close fighting, either crashing through or dying.

   The noise was stupefying. A regular thud still shook the ground: large stones crushing men behind. The Midgets' horses drummed with their hooves. Wounded men and horses screamed. Doshi roared, but worse than any of these, the Midgets were voicing their terrible fighting ululation. It was the sound of fiends from Underworld.

   Another group of Midgets came at Atto and his partner. One threw his spear high, another for the legs. Atto's comrade suddenly stopped, swayed, then fell. His foot was nailed to the ground, truly. Atto threw his spear. It was not designed for throwing, but hit a horse in the throat. The woman on it jumped off, landing on her feet. Atto snatched for his scimitar, but she caught his stroke on her little sword. He pushed forward. A horse barged between the two of them, the man on it striking down at Atto with his sword. A great clang blanked out the noise of battle, and Atto found himself sitting on the ground. His ears were ringing. Board-bearing men still pushed past him, Midgets were still charging through. He picked up his scimitar and board, and fell in downhill of a pair of men protecting each other. He ignored the pounding pain in his head.

   At last he was at the point where the valley curved. Another noise now came from behind: the drumming of a great charge. With the sides held by Doshi, clearly the honoured Suletain decided that the Midgets would have to withdraw. The first riders jumped over the ditch of water and rounded the curve. Then, when maybe three Months had done so, unbelievably the water suddenly burst into flames. Great gouts of red fire splashed up, clouds of stinking black smoke arose, and the water kept burning with a fierceness not normal to usual fires. Also, it kept splattering, sending globs of fire far afield.

   Those horsemen who had cleared the ditch rode ahead, out of Atto's sight. The others pulled up their mounts, but riders further back crashed into them. Then several Grandfather bows shot into the melee of men and horses, and both rocks and burning charcoal fell on them from the sky.

   "Do not stop to admire this," the same leader shouted, still in that incredibly calm voice. "Charge ahead to save our comrades!"

   Truly he is right, Atto thought and whipped his aching, tired legs into motion. He ran around the curve in the mountain, two arrows smashing into his board with such a force that he was almost knocked down. The horsemen who had led the charge were a heap of dead. Further ahead, the last of several wagons with strange sticks poking up from them got into motion. Many mounted Midgets were in between, all shooting. Grimly Atto and his comrades walked forward, leaving dead and wounded in their wake. At last the Midgets turned and rode away. "Keep advancing," the leader shouted. Atto followed his comrades. The sides of the valley became increasingly steep, there were fewer trees, and these were smaller and more spindly. Then the valley became a gorge with rock walls.

   "Stop!" the leader shouted. "We shall hold this line. Gather fuel for the fires at night."

   Later, Atto found out that this man, who could be calm in the middle of a terrible battle, was the famous Ribtol of the Gelders of the Scimitar.

***

On top of the cliff, Porcupine and Heather exchanged an annoyed glance. The Doshi had stopped before reaching the prepared rockfall that was supposed to crush a hundred or so while blocking the path.

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