"This sucks!", Majan said as her mother lead her to the waiting group. It was the third year in succession she would have to travel to the summer camp. "If you would finally start to behave like a girl, a young woman now, you wouldn't have to go, you know that. But if you insist on running around like a boy and try to be better than them with a bow, you will be go north every year. And you will never find a husband!" Her mother sounded exhausted. It was an argument they had had in the past. "I. Don't. Want. A. Husband! I want to do what I like. And that's not keeping a house clean and cooking." "I don't think anyone will ever accuse you of liking either of those things.", her mother replied, her expression grim. "And that's a good thing!", Majan thought, but she kept her mouth shut and tried to prepare herself for weeks of travel and months of being away from her home - again.
They crossed the narrow bridge over to the main square, where the other delinquents who were forced to go were already waiting. Scanning the waiting crowd, Majan found a few familiar faces. Some of them people she didn't like, others people who didn't like her.
The carts and the horses the tribe had prepared for them was the same as every year. Old, close to useless. Another thing designed to remember everyone they were being punished by being sent away from the tribe. Only a few of the older people joined voluntarily, they brought their own equipment and held delinquents like Majan in contempt. Old Yara was one of them. She would be responsible for the girls and would be in charge of teaching them womanly things and proper behaviour and the traditions of the tribe. Majan despised her and she was certain the feeling was mutual. When they entered the square, her mother turned to her: "You know I love you, Majan and I hope nothing bad happens to you, but please make this the last time I have to see you off like this. It is a disgrace and it doesn't do you any good." It was a speech Majan had heard before. "I will do my best.", she replied, as she had done the years before. Then her mother kissed her on her cheek, whispered "I love you." and left her. Majan watched her leave the square and saw her cross the gorge and walk towards their home.
When she no longer could see her mother, she turned towards the carts. One of them held her belongings, clothes and some other provisions. She made sure everything was still as she had left it the day before and then sat down on one of the stone benches that lined the square. She would miss the town, with its terraces and the waterfall and its dozens of bridges. As far as she knew, the town was unique among all tribes. The other tribes lived in their tents all year long and they went to the summer camps as a whole. For her this was unimaginable. Never having the comfort of a proper home seemed terrible. She knew that the other tribes considered the gorge tribe as weird, but didn't both the angels in their realms and the humans of the Kingdom live in towns like theirs? The last terimag incursion had been over a century ago. These days, sending a few warriors to patrol the plains should be enough.
A shadow looming over her made Majan look up. It was Old Yara. The woman was ancient, her eyes almost hidden behind wrinkles, her skin weather worn and her hair was almost pure silver. As one of the few who preferred to travel to the summer camp every year, she lived at the edge of the town in a house that was little more than a hole in the cliffs the town was hewn into. Her clothes were probably about as old as the woman who wore them, a worn out skirt made from heavy wool and a shirt and waistcoat. All of them would have been colourful once, but they had lost most of that and now only showed a pale red and green. It wasn't even as if the old woman couldn't afford better or newer clothes. She was one of the better seamstresses in the town and still was keeping herself busy making embroideries. Old Yara just didn't care. If it didn't serve a purpose and helped with something, she didn't do it or use it. This applied to items, animals and everyone she interacted with. It would be a tiresome journey, getting lectured while underway, having to do all kinds of sewing, cooking, whatever the old woman fancied at the moment Majan would have to do.
"Everyone come here!" The call came from Haro Minar. He would probably lead the warriors and thus the whole caravan. "You better hurry up, Majan.", the old woman said. Saved by Minar, Majan thought, at least for a while. She wouldn't be able to escape Yara for long.
"We have a slightly smaller group this year than the last years. There also are more youngsters among us than usual, this means we will have a hard time if we encounter any bigger terimag. I want all of you to be vigilant." One of the warriors said what most people probably thought: "We haven't encountered any terimag at all in years. Green Mountain will travel nearly the same path as we do, as every year and clear things out for us."
"There have been reports from Clay that angels have made an attempt to conquer Sormech Valley. They expect more terimag to enter the plains because of that. Clay already left their camp, so we can't expect much cover from the east. And since we have to defend the town, the farms and the mines, no additional warriors can be spared. We might even try to catch up with Green Mountain and join them if the threat becomes more than we can deal with."
"Great news.", Majan thought and made sure her knife was sharp. She noticed more than a few of the warriors do the same with their weapons.
Minar hadn't finished: "I'll call everyone's name once, and I expect you to respond immediately if you are present and have made sure your belongings are on a cart and you are ready to leave." He enjoyed this. A mean spirited man, quick to anger and incredibly ugly, he probably saw it as revenge to command the people who didn't like or respect him.
An hour later they started moving out of the town. From the main square, a long ramp lead down into the valley. It was one of the most beautiful sights fro Majan. From the ramp you could see the cliffs at both sides and in front hills covered with farms, vineyards and some small forests. While she liked, even loved the town itself, situated in the gorge created by the waterfall, the view of the surrounding land was even more beautiful.
As she walked next to a cart, trying to evade old Yara, she thought about their numbers. thirty seven warriors, about twenty traders, who joined the caravan as it passed their houses, a dozen families and thirty-one delinquents. The traders, who had their own wagons filled with iron tools and weapons, also brought some apprentices. All together, they were one hundred and seventy two people. Not much more than a big clan. As they left the cliffs behind them and followed the road north, the group got more lively. As per tradition the delinquents had to walk as much as possible, while the others would ride on their horses or wagons. Some of the families had smaller carts drawn by mules, with their children on the cart and the parents walking. The soldiers split up in groups, chatting with each other and having a laugh. As they passed the last villages and left the hills behind, the warriors would split off the main group and scout the surroundings. Often conveniently comming across some game they could hunt. In the evening, they would share it among themselves. The rest had to make do with what they had brought along. Majan started talking to one of the traders, who was far away from the wagon she knew to be Yara's. Some of them had a lot of experience travelling and almost all of them had interesting stories to tell. Some of them even went to the Kingdom on their trips.
"Have you ever been there?", she asked. behind her she heard one of the man's apprentices groan: "Oh please no." Apparently there was a story the youth had heard too many times already. His master remained oblivious to the comment and plunged right into his story: "I have visited the kingdom a few times. There are other traders who have been there more often, but I think I am maybe the one who travelled through it the longest. When I was younger, before I inherited my father's business, I decided to go and see if I could find more opportunities for trade in areas the other traders didn't go. The journey through the mountains isn't easy, but alone, just with a backpack it is easier than with a wagon. For the first part I joined a colleague of mine and we crossed the border together. The land itself doesn't change much. Here we have the plains, then the hills, then the mountains. On the other side, the mountains also become smaller and turn into hills and eventually, much slower than here, the land becomes flat. You will find most of the same trees there as you will find in any forest here, they have the same animals. When you go farther south, that changes. If you think it can get hot here over the summer, you are mistaken. The people who live there are used to it, though and they just stop working in the middle of the day and only continue when the temperatures go down again." He paused for a moment, then added with a smile: "They have amazing wine there. Better than anything I ever seen from any tribe." Again he stopped his story for a moment, probably thinking about what to say next and continued: "The people there have a very different way of living. Here, we are the exception with our town and villages. There, they have towns many times bigger that Gorge. It is amazing. They build their houses in the open, not in the side of a cliff or a hill. Some of them are made out of wood, but most of the buildings are made of stone or clay. There are so many people there. And so much demand for almost anything we can find a way to carry there. And all the uses they found for magic! It makes you wish we had our own mages. We only ever see them when they come to kill and destroy, but there is so much more they can do. They have roads where they can travel faster than you could on any normal road. They light the streets in some cities with lights that don't need wood to burn. I've also seen them build houses with the help of magic. Things that would take days or weeks without can be done in a matter of hours with their magic. And better!"
He went on like that for a while and Majan could see why the apprentice didn't want to hear that again. So as he droned on, she was listening with half an ear, watching the landscape and her fellow travellers while occasionally nodding or asking a quick question to keep him talking. This went well for another half an hour or so when her luck changed. One of the warriors called her name and she probably would have gone unnoticed if she hadn't turned her head and looked at him.
“The old hag wants you.”, he simply said, waving his hand in the general direction of where Yara's wagon would be. She sighed, and asked her trader-friend: “Promise me to finish your tales sometimes?” “Of course! It is nice talking to someone who hasn't heard the same words half a dozen times already.”, he replied, nodding towards his apprentice as he winked at her.
As she carefully made her way towards her fate in the person of Yara, she watched a horse slipping on the wet ground. “It must have rained here last night”, she thought to herself. As an unlucky warrior sailed through the air, she saw one of their scouts galloping towards the caravan, shouting something that got lost in the distance. One by one people started to notice him, but still nobody could understand what he was yelling. Then, as he came closer to meeting the caravan at the foot of the hill, someone picked up what it was: “Terimag!”.
Immediately some people started to panic, while others froze. The day had turned into chaos, and it would only be the beginning. Minar started questioning the poor man, at one point shaking him to get him to talk faster. Majan couldn't make out what was being said, but it couldn't be good as everyone who could hear it turned very, very pale. Majan noticed she was holding her breath and forced herself to slowly breathe in and out. It helped, a little bit, but she still felt helpless. The whole caravan had gone eerily quiet, even the horses seemed to know something was going on.
It was Minar who broke the silence: “Ok everyone, listen now!”, he yelled at the top of his lungs. If he had been a better looking man he probably would have appeared more inspiring. As it was, his shaggy hair did a bad job of hiding his crooked nose, the huge mouth full of bad teeth and his patchy beard. “A large group of Terimag are about half an hour from here. Waller will take half the warriors to get word to the villages and to Gorge. The rest of us will leave the cart and get as many people as possible on the horses. We will turn north and try to find Green Mountain. They have to be warned and we will have a better chance of getting there. Keep only what can be carried on horse and only what you absolutely need. Leave the rest, if we're lucky we can get to it at some point.” In five minutes we leave. Get the horses ready. I know we don't have enough of them, so find someone who has one and team up with them. Now get on with it, time is precious!”
What he had just said took a moment or two to register for Majan. Then she ran to grab her bag. She slipped and slid down the hill once, but with the grass dampening her fall she only got wet and dirty. There was a throng around the cart where her belongings were, but eventually she managed to get a hand on them and started emptying it. Most of her clothes had to go, but she grabbed a blanket she found on the ground and made sure some food was in the bag as well. Then she shouldered it and went looking for someone with a horse. Around here, the families had readied the horses that had carried their wagons and carts. The traders and their people had sorted themselves as well. As she watched, she didn't see anyone who was alone on their horse. She felt a deep and black desperation spread. Around her a few people were also standing, bags and rucksacks in their hands or on their shoulders and they all seemed to have come to the same conclusion as she had. They would be left behind. From what she saw, all of them were the delinquents who were here as a punishment. One of them, a young man a few years older that Majan grabbed Minar as he walked past him: “What about me?”, he looked around him and swallowed. “What about us?”, he then said. Minar shoved him back and said: “We don't have enough horses. You'll have to make make your own best speed. I can't do anything.”