The riders came from the plains and killed everyone in the village. This is what my father said and I didn’t believe him for the longest time. I lacked an understanding of what he meant and what the words themselves could mean. I didn’t learn the language he spoke, I learned a foreign cacophony of sounds and grunts that made his language sound foreign in my own ears. At a young age I was taken from the village to ride with the horde as were all the young, be them male or female. It started at the age of four when I knew enough to be frightened and wail at the separation from the only people I had ever known.
The rider who took me was known as Claphat, he was a burly man who stank of horses and smoke and he laughed as my father offered me up. I recall that he turned his horse to knock my father down into the muddy street as he made off with his prize. I was worthless for anything at that age, as are most children and I do not know how Claphat put up with my incessant crying. I did speak his language, I didn’t know it at the time but came to realize it later that my family had only spoken the invaders language since being conquered. Claphat was not as harsh as the other children’s foster parents, many of whom discarded their burdens after a month or two on the trail at whatever village we were riding by. Some slew their charges if the child grew too morose or sullen.
Claphat brought me back to my father every year, except for the year he broke his high leg when his horse was slain under him by a lucky arrow from yet another resisting town taken by the horde. My parents gave me up for dead that year, the year I turned ten. The following summer when I miraculously reappeared they celebrated my return from the dead with a great feast, but I could see the difference in my father, in my mother; they had aged ten years for the two between my visits. It was no surprise to me that by thirteen my mother had joined the riders of the endless plains, but in my father I saw a resolve that hardened him against the reapers. He was determined to survive until my name day, when a man of sixteen summers would be returned to his village as a man, no longer a child. This was important for the horde, as many of the young as possible must be returned with honor to the taken villagers to integrate with, to convert them…to finish the job of conquering that began two years before I was even born.
On the sixteenth year of my life I was named and given the choice of returning to my father or riding to claim my share of the wealth from future conquests. I chose to travel and conquer and slay those who would deny the horde its due. For eight years I rode, until I was told I must return to my father and the village where I was born, for my father was failing and I had not seen him these eight years past.
I was reluctant to give off the plunder for though I was a man, I had squandered my share of wealth on intoxicants, harlots and trinkets that shame me now when I think of them. I found solace in Claphat’s words, for yes, that old warrior was still alive and I was still riding at his side. He told me that it is not shameful to revel when we are young, but eventually we must all chose to grow and set aside the childish things. He gave me treasure of his own to bring back to my village, to make my father’s last days as peaceful as I might be able. With a hanging head I vowed to repay him, but he laughed at me and said when I returned I would be given the honor of taking a child of my own to raise as he had done me and that would be repayment enough. I said the words and made the vow to do as he said, for truly he was more of a father to me than any other and then I set off on the long journey to the village where I was born.
My father was dying, it was not a good death, nor quick, he rallied when I returned and spoke to me in my own language with an accent so foul that I could scarce understand him. Few other children had returned to my village, only the maimed, the women with child and the ones who had been wiser with their treasure than I. We would pass in the street and nod, understanding passing between us and knowing that we were of the horde and would return there one day.
In our lonely hut I nursed my father as I had Claphat when he sported the broken leg and, as I said, for a time he grew stronger and more hale. But the wasting disease has no cure and I knew from the moment I had laid eyes upon him that he would not survive far into the winter. We would eat each night and he would speak in his rough accent about the history that was important to him, things he never had the chance to tell me in our annual visits. I was impatient with death. The babbling of an old man on his death bed is not to be wasted upon the strong, invincible youth. I believe it was my disdain for the stories that broke the old man’s spirit; that led him to nod one evening halfway through a tale involving some ancient relative and say only that the horde had taken his village. He died four days later and I gave him to the flames as I would any fellow warrior taken with by the reapers.
When I returned to Claphat he questioned me about my visit and nodded when I detailed it to him, summarizing my months away in less than a minute of conversation. A look came into his eye and he struck me down, for he was still man enough to do so and I was still enough of his student to accept such a blow without lashing out at him. He picked me up and held my face to his and growled into it that I had wasted my father’s last gift to me as I had wasted eight years of treasure on the trail. His anger knew no bounds and though he lashed at me with a sharp tongue I knew not what he railed about.
Seeing how futile his words were he bade me be ready to leave at dawn the next day. It was time to choose a child for myself, as I had promised before I had left. He gave a prayer to the life giving god of pain, something I had never heard him do before, that I might learn more from my child than I had from him.
The brat I chose was a female. It was by purest chance that I chose a girl, the conquered kept their children all alike, with long, wild hair, wearing only furs cladding their loins. With the greatest amusement Claphat watched my discovery later that night when I grew tired of the child’s foul smell and discarded its sodden furs. The child whined incessantly and I was tempted to leave her at one of the many villages I passed along the way, but Claphat told me if I did so he would be done with me and my debt would not be paid. You pay your debts in the horde or you might as well return to your village for the shame it would bring you. I kept her, she was a trial and I was forced to nurse her back to health when the black fever struck our encampment down in the dead of winter. My debt to Claphat grew as he paid for a witch woman to come in and save the child’s life.
Like him before me, I took her back every year to visit her village, their accents were worse than my fathers and in time I came to enjoy the visits, especially after the year Claphat rode with the reapers, taking my debts with him. I came to realize I had nothing else, only the girl, Claphat had been my mentor, my father, my only true friend and now he was no more. The last thing he bade me was to give up the horde and return to my village when the girl was named, to not die on the trail as he did.
My girl grew into a fierce warrior, she disdained the companionship of men, much as I disdained her advances on me when she came of such an age to offer them. Together we blazed a trail through the eastern lands gaining much repute among the horde and becoming commanders of warriors such that we would be called upon for advice when difficult situations were presented to us. We conquered a town half the size of the horde using only guile and threats and the rewards for this were beyond any I could have ever hoped for.
Her naming day came and passed and a decade went by before I realized it. One evening as we lounged in our tent she accosted me again, this time with an ardor and longing that I was unable to turn aside. When we were finished she clung to me much as she did when I had pulled her from a swollen river that she had blundered into when she was eight. In a quiet voice she told me that she wanted to return to her home.
We quit the horde the two days later, taking with us only what we could on our two mounts having given away much of the wealth we had accumulated while feasting our goodbyes to our compatriots. When we rode a dozen riders followed, we pretended not to notice and they pretended they were not our honor guard. If any brigands or thieves attempted to molest us I was unaware of it and we arrived at her village after many months, our guard intact. She gave birth to a son, a squalling brat with eyes that were a reflection of my own, delivered by her own mother with much joy. Her father asked me, ancient man that he was, if I had entered a bond with his daughter and I said that was not the way of the horde, I could no more tie her down with words than the wind could be attached to a mountain.
He was quite anxious at this, for who would raise his grandson, and I told him the horde would, after four years, something I took solace in and something that didn’t seem to bring him joy. I decided to move on, to return to my own village and see how it fared after all these years. I was old and looking for a place to die, vowing I would not do so on the trail of the horde. My promise to Claphat may have bent, but it was not broken entirely and I could still redeem myself by returning to my own village to burn with my ancestors.
The riders followed me, with four staying with my girl and son. They had grown fat and lazy on the journey and at night we dropped pretense and shared meals and camp. One picked up a child of his own, as did another, soon there were four children to enliven our evenings as we made the long trip. When we arrived at my village I was astounded to see how much it had grown, how much it had changed in the intervening years. The house of my father was vacated upon my arrival and I compensated the former tenants, though I needn’t have done so. My retinue settled in my estate and we passed the time pleasurably raising the children and telling our war stories to those would listen. Eventually such stories grew weary to tell and I began to listen to the villagers instead, learning of the campaigns they had fought in, of the battles they had won, be it pacifying foreign soldiers or bringing in a hard harvest. Annually the horde came for the children, and my riders returned to continue training their charges, never all leaving me at once.
My girl came to me four years later, she had just seen her own child off and reported that her parents had both joined the reapers and left the mortal coil, she set up house and we fell into a household, with never less than three riders at our beck and call. Such is the honor of the horde. Eventually I felt the years upon me and knew my time was short, measured in months, no longer years. I called into the town for elders to tell me stories of the days gone by; I was shocked to find I was the eldest among them and there were no stories they could tell me. I inquired of the old language, the one my father had spoken, but of which I could not utter three words. It too was gone, only a few musty tomes were left but there were none to read them.
It is now on my deathbed that I realize what happened so long ago, the journey of a life that saw so much and lost more than was ever known; the riders came from the plains and killed everyone in the village.