Naheem sagged in his saddle, his head thumping like a celebration drum. His men were in no better shape, each barely clinging to their mounts. The horses made their way through the thicket by instinct for their riders were useless. Four days of festivity had left them all worse for wear. Naheem vowed that whatever spirits he consumed around the Tobesofskee campfire he would never drink again. Never had a hangover so bad lasted so long.
He barely remembered the three days it took to return to Savaadu. The only indication they were near home was the undulating hills and grasslands. A recent rain left behind a dense fog that filled the shallow valleys between the steep mounds. It was for that reason that Naheem and his men didn’t notice the company of Council warriors until they were almost upon them. The snort of a warrior’s horse startled them; Naheem raised his hand before his men could draw their swords.
The company commander approached Naheem, a frown on his rugged face. He was Upatoi as was all the warriors in the company. The council wasn’t taking any chances. They knew there was no love lost between the Savaadu and the Upatoi and they conveniently exploited the rift.
“Nahaja Naheem Nhoj Savaad, you are requested to turn over Vel Savaad to my custody immediately to stand trial for the murder of Hanja Crim.”
Naheem bowed and his head ached. He managed to smile before he responded to the stern commander.
“I would love to oblige you, commander. As you can see Vel is not with us.”
“He is not within Savaadu, either,” the commander said. “At least that is what your father told us.”
Naheem forced a smile. “It seems he is lost.”
“In the event I was not able to find Vel Savaad, I’m under orders to bring you to the presence of the Council to speak for your cousin.”
“Why would the Elders wish to see me?” Naheem wondered aloud. “I have committed no offense.”
“I’m sick of you Savaads and your games!” the commander blurted. “You will come with me immediately to meet with the council!”
“Careful, Upatoi,” Naheem hissed. “This is not that swamp you call home. You’re increasing the chances that you’ll be food for crows before nightfall.”
The commander was about to speak when he noticed movement surrounding him. Warriors emerged from the fog, Savaadu warriors. Some came from Savaadu while most were militia from the neighboring towns. Naheem smiled as the commander’s arrogant façade faded.
“You have to be mindful of the signs, commander,” Naheem explained. “See that red flag flying over your shoulder? It’s a rally flag for our warriors. My father probably raised it after your unexpected visit. He’s a careful man.”
The commander said nothing. Naheem and his men rode through the surrounded Upatoi to Savaadu.
“Tell the Elders I’ll come to them by week’s end. There should be no hurry since I am not the man they seek. Goodbye, commander.”
The commander signaled his men and they fell in behind him. They rode through the Savaadu gauntlet in single file, cutting their eyes left and right at the stoic faces watching them.
“Lamaj, take your clansmen and follow them until they reach Chesterman,” Naheem ordered. Lamaj, a young Savaadu with loose braids and a wicked scar over his left eye, nodded and rode into the mist, his clan brothers close behind. Naheem spurred his horse to the main house as he finally allowed his worry to come to the surface. He leapt off his horse then burst through the heavy front doors before the servants could respond.
“Hush that yelling!” a strong female voice ordered. Sirod, his mother, entered the foyer, her night coat wrapped tight around her thin frame. Her face resembled Naheem’s, her gray hair pulled back into braids.
“Your father is fine. He’s resting upstairs.”
“Did he talk to the Upatoi?”
“Yes he did. I told him I would handle it but he insisted. You know how stubborn he can be.”
“How could you let him do that? He’s too sick…”
Sirod raised her hand and Naheem fell silent, immediately regretting his tone.
“I think I know your baba’s condition much better than you, Nommy.”
Naheem knelt before his mother and lowered his head.
“I’m sorry, mamma. It’s just that I worry for him.”
“We all do, but there is nothing we can do. The herbs and chants ease the pain but we know what the outcome will be.”
It was an outcome Naheem dreaded. He stood before his mother.
“Go to him,” she said. “He wishes to see you.”
Naheem hurried down the main hall leading to his father’s room. Ten years ago a force of Savaadu and Cherokee warriors stormed Fort Benin, the Council stronghold overseeing their region. They had no quarrel with the Council; they did disapprove of what occurred within the walls of the fort, something that no one would speak of. The attack was successful, but the attackers did not take heed of all the defenses within the fort. Every person who took part in the assault fell sick within weeks. His father was the last one still alive. Only because of his mother’s constant care and Samaat ’s skills did he survive.
The door to his father’s room was open. Naheem looked in from a distance, preparing himself for their meeting. Nhoj Savaad sat up in his bed, a book before his gaunt face. Creases ran deep in his brown skin, lines too early for a man of his age. Though he still possessed the height Naheem did not inherit his muscles had succumbed to the relentless sickness. He was as thin as Naheem’s mother.
Naheem finally entered the room. “So mother tells me you’ve been fighting Upatoi.”
His father lowered his book and took off his glasses. He grinned at Naheem.
“The swamp dogs show up demanding to see Vel,” he answered. “I asked your mother for my tomafango but she refused to give it to me. I had to shout them into submission.”
“Well, you at least shouted them into the woods. I sent them on their way.”
Naheem laughed. “No, back to the swamp. Their visit was legitimate. Vel killed Haja Crim.”
Nhoj smiled. “It’s about time someone did, though I surmise because of his connections to the Council this means trouble for us.”
“Exactly. I sent Vel away with Samaat while I cleaned up his mess.”
“Samaat is gone?”
Naheem hesitated before answering. He didn’t want his father involved in these issues. Maintaining his strength was paramount.
“Samaat is gone doing more research. He’ll be away for at least six months.”
Nhoj looked thoughtful then shrugged his shoulders. “So what do you plan to offer Crim’s clan to erase the blood debt?”
“One thousand head of cattle and the profits of Vel’s inheritance for two years.”
Nhoj frowned. “That’s a lot for such a worthless bastard. They still won’t be satisfied.”
Naheem pulled a chair close to the bed and sat. “They will be if the Council agrees.”
“No they won’t. A Nahaja killed a Haja. Other clans might be satisfied but not Crim’s. They are nobles in name only. All they have is their pride and Vel just tarnished it. They’ll seek retribution.”
Whatever humor Naheem possessed fled with his father’s words. “Are you talking about a blood feud?”
“Possibly, unless they can be convinced other-wise.”
His father gave him a hard look. Naheem’s stomach went hollow and he dropped his head. Men would have to die, many men, and he would have to kill them.
When Naheem finally raised his head his father was looking away from him, his eyes focused across the room. His jaw worked as if he was grinding his teeth and his left arm trembled. He was having a seizure. Naheem jumped out his chair and grabbed the green vial resting on the night stand. He opened his father’s lips exposing the open space in his locked teeth created especially for this moment. He poured the elixir into his father’s mouth and pinched his lips. His father coughed as Naheem held him tight until the seizure subsided then ceased. He re-placed the green vial and picked up the water glass sit-ting beside it. His father reached out and took the glass. He sipped and placed it back onto the table.
“Whatever you decide must be done during the Council meeting,” his father said. Naheem was dumb-struck. His father continued his conversation as if nothing had occurred.
“You must make a statement that will send a message to everyone. The Savaads are not to be taken lightly.”
Naheem still had no words. His father came from another time, a time when men endured hardships with-out question and acted decisively without hesitation. Struggles were not to be discussed, mused over or lamented. Their world was hard; they had to be harder.
“So what will you do?” his father asked.
Nhoj’s direct question broke his trance. “I’m not sure yet. I must think on it.”
“You don’t have much time.” His father replaced his glasses and picked up his book, a signal that the conversation was over.
“Please tell your mother I wish to see her. Be safe, son.”
“Be well, father.”
Naheem left the room knowing that no matter what he did he could never be as strong as his father. Yes, he was a good swordsman and a decent administrator but there was no way he could endure the pain his father dealt with and continue to function. His mother sat in the sitting room, sipping a cup of tea.
“He wishes to see you,” Naheem said. “He had a seizure.”
His mother put down the cup and shuffled away. Naheem watched her disappear down the hallway. They were both so strong. He would never equal them.
Naheem tramped up the stairs to his room. He shed his damp and dingy road clothes for clean garments then went downstairs to the kitchen. Bara was there as always, watching over a large pot of simmering stew and preparing the next meal for the family and the laborers. She worked her way through the room, tipping up her stools to check on baking bread and sizzling meat. She flashed her famous toothy grin when Naheem entered.
“Nommy, you’re back!” Bara immediately ambled over to the stew and filled a bowl. Naheem sat at the small kitchen table and Bara placed the steaming treat with a spoon before him.
“I put a little wild game in it this time,” she said proudly. “Gives it a fuller taste.”
“You didn’t forget the okra, did you?” Naheem teased.
Bara took a swipe at his head and he dodged it. “Of course not! I did that one time and you’ll never let me forget it!”
He took spoonful and blew on it before sipping the aromatic concoction. His eyes closed and he smiled; it was another one of Bara’s culinary masterpieces. Naheem lost himself into the flavors and the smells of the kitchen, attempting to distance himself from the grim business ahead. As soon as the stew was done the weight of his duty sat on his shoulders again.
“I’m going for a ride,” he said as he left the kitchen.
“But you just returned!” Bara shouted.
Naheem waved goodbye as he walked out the back door. He mounted his horse then rode away.
The Craugh compound occupied five hundred acres near the Cane River, running along the base of a series of hills undulating between waterway and the Savaad holdings. The Craugh were horse traders, some of the finest in the Nations. Their land teemed with horses of every description, from fast sleek racing thoroughbreds to thick, powerful wagon pullers. They also produced the best warhorses in the region. The mount Naheem rode was a Craugh horse. He preferred theirs over his own.
Naheem crested the hills and the Craugh lodges came into view. He smiled; if anyone could distract him from the troubles of home it would be Kiv. The largest lodge was the main domicile of the family. The two smaller lodges on either side belonged to Kiv’s brothers, Ven and Bruk. Kiv still lived with her parents, following the rules of daughters remaining home until married. It was the only tradition Kiv honored.
As he reached the base of the hills he saw some-one emerge from the main lodge. The person mounted a horse and rode directly toward him. By the time he was halfway across the main pasture he was staring into the smiling beautiful face of Kiv Craugh.
“Nommy Savaad, what brings you out in such foul weather?”
“Hi Kiv. What do you mean foul? It’s a wonderful day for a ride with a friend, don’t you think?”
Kiv’s eyes narrowed and her concerned look almost dampened Naheem’s joy in seeing her. They had been friends since birth, their playground the wooded banks bordering the Cane and the hills between their lands. When she was younger they would fish and hunt together but as Kiv grew into a lady she reluctantly set aside such activities to take on the duties of the house and of her family’s calling. They both attended the Academy at District but ran in different circles, Naheem playing the spoiled son of privileged parents while Kiv mingled among the children of the haja. Then the war with Canada broke out and Naheem was called to fight. He returned a different man in many ways but his friend-ship with Kiv was one of the few things in his life that remained untainted.
“What troubles you?” she asked.
“Nothing I wish to talk about. I just want to ride for a while in good company.”
“Naheem Savaad!” The shrill voice cut through distance and fog. Kiv and Naheem smiled then guided their horses to the lodge where Kiv’s mother stood at the lodge door.
“Naheem Nhoj Savaad, I know you weren’t go-ing to visit us without saying hello,” she fussed.
Naheem climbed down and hugged her. She was a warm person with a constant genuine smile.
“How is your family?” she asked.
“They are well,” he lied.
“It’s been some time since we’ve seen you. Are you hungry?”
“No, ma’am. I just ate dinner.”
“I have seed cake. Come and have a slice. It will just go bad if no one eats it.”
Naheem grinned. He was fighting a losing battle. Mamma Craugh was known for her persistent generosity.
“I’ll have a piece,” he conceded. “Can you wrap it so I can take it with me?”
Mamma Craugh smiled. “Sure, I’ll be right back.”
“Is that one of those Savaads?” a stern voice barked.
Semas Craugh swaggered out of the log. Kiv covered her mouth to muffle her laugh as Naheem forced a smile.
“Hey boy! Where you been?”
They hugged then Semas pushed past Naheem, going directly to his mount.
“Have you been taking good care of my horse?”
“As good as possible, sir.”
Semas cut his eyes at Naheem. “I doubt it.”
He inspected the horse’s bit and bridle then ran his hands across its body before stopping at the saddle.
“Straps are too tight. You’re riding an animal, boy, not a fence.”
He continued his inspection down to the hooves, lifting each one to inspect the horseshoes.
“I swear, you Savaads don’t know anything about shoeing a horse!”
He grabbed the reins and led the horse away.
“This will take a while.”
Naheem looked at Kiv, raising his hands in exasperation. Kiv laughed hard.
“I’ll get you another horse.” She dismounted then went to the stables a short distance away. She returned with a beautiful Appaloosa.
“Will she do?”
Naheem mounted the mare with a big grin on his face. “She’ll do fine.”
They were about to ride off when Mamma Craugh appeared again with a wooden box.
“Don’t forget your cake, Nommy.” She held up the box to him.
“He’ll get it when he comes back, mamma,” Kiv said.
She spurred her horse and galloped away, Naheem close behind. The horses galloped until they reached the river’s edge then halted as both riders reined them back. They rode side by side along the riverbank, weaving in and out of the budding white oaks.
“So, what’s troubling you?”
“I have to ride to Chattahoochee tomorrow,” Naheem said. “I’ve been summoned by the Elders for a Judicial Council.”
“What did you do?”
“Not me, Vel.”
Kiv shook her head. “I should have known. Whose wife did he seduce?”
“He killed Hanja Crim.”
Kiv stopped her horse. “So this is a blood debt?”
“I hope so. My father thinks different.”
“He believes the Crim won’t accept a payment,” Kiv said.
“Oh, they’ll accept a payment but they won’t honor it,” Naheem replied. “He expects me to set an example that will discourage the Crim from pursuing revenge.”
Kiv maneuvered her horse close and touched his shoulder. “Oh, Nommy.”
Naheem said nothing.
“I’ll weave your braids,” Kiv said.
Naheem smiled at his friend. “Thank you. I leave at daybreak tomorrow.”
“Stay here tonight. You can sleep in Ven’s lodge. He’s away. I’ll send a rider to Savaadu to inform your parents.”
“You’re a good friend, Kiv.”
Kiv smiled. “I know. Now let’s get back inside. This weather is ruining my hair.”
They raced back to the main lodge. Mama Craugh was waiting with a wooden box.
“Here you are, Nommy. There’s enough cake for you and your parents.”
Nommy’s not going home tonight,” Kiv informed her mother. “He’s staying with us. I told him he could stay in Ven’s lodge.”
“Good! Finally someone who knows how to en-joy a good meal. You and your father eat like you mouths are sewn shut.”
Nommy followed them both inside. The Craugh lodge was modest but homey. Naheem wasn’t hungry but he didn’t want to disappoint Mama Craugh. They waited for Papa Craugh then sat down to a delicious meal of rice, turnip greens, pork roast, cornbread and sweet tea. After a slice of poppy seed bread Naheem felt like he was about to burst. They passed the remainder of the evening engrossed in a game of cards. Naheem was terrible but it was good to be in a place where the pressures of the Nations did not loom close by. After the fifth game his eventful day caught up with him. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms high as he yawned.
“I think it’s time I slept.”
Mama Craugh hurried from her seat and shuffled to the linen closet, returning with sheets and a thick pillow.
“Vin’s lodge could probably use an airing out,” she said.
“I’ve been on the road for days, Mama Craugh,” Naheem said. “Just sleeping between walls will be paradise.”
“I’ll walk you,” Kiv offered.
“No you won’t,” Papa Craugh replied. “The boy can walk himself. He’s a Savaad.”
Naheem grinned. “I’ll be fine. Thank you all for your hospitality.”
Mama Craugh swatted his shoulder. “Hush up that formal talk. You’re like a son.”
He leaned down to meet her kiss for his cheek. Kiv waited for him at the door with a torch.
“See you in the morning.” She kissed his cheek as well.
It was a quick walk to the lodge. Naheem lit a lantern inside before dousing the torch. He stripped down quickly and fell into bed, dozing off before he had time to think. It seemed only seconds when he was awakened by an insistent tapping on the lodge door. Early morning light stole into the lodge through the thin curtains as he sat up, rubbing his eyes.
The door opened and Kiv entered.
“Good morning!” She was still in her nightgown, a cotton sheath that snuggled against her body. Naheem suddenly found himself attentive to her movements as she sauntered through the lodge lighting the lanterns. She stood before him, her bright smile diminishing as her eyes widened. It was then he remembered he had slept only in his undergarments, his chest bare. The moment seemed awkward, yet there was another feeling lurking about that surprised him.
“You’re early,” he whispered as his eyes traced her curves.
Kiv slowly raised her head and their eyes met. She looked away embarrassed.
“You said you were leaving early. Put on some clothes and I’ll begin.”
She swatted his shoulder. “Your braids, remember?”
She stepped away and turned her back as Naheem dressed.
“I’m ready,” he announced. Kiv scooted a chair to him and he sat. She immediately began unbraiding his hair.
“What have you been doing? Headstands in a barn?”
Her hand entered his vision holding pine needles.
“Feasting in Tobesofskee,” he replied with a chuckle.
“I can only imagine,” she mused. They were silent for a moment as her strong fingers pulled out his braids and brushed his tangled hair. Naheem closed his eyes, savoring the peace of the moment.
“How did you get those scars?” Kiv asked.
“You know. The ones on your chest.”
Naheem grinned. “Oh, you noticed those huh?”
Kiv gave his hair a tug and he winced.
“They’re hard not to.”
Naheem drifted back to the Canadian War. He served three years as a scout and cavalry man before being called home after the rift between the Low Lodges and the Elders. The scars were bitter souvenirs of a time he’d rather forget but a time that forged his skills and revealed to him his special talents. Men looked at the scars in grim admiration; women caressed them with ad-miring sympathy. Naheem wished they never existed for the experience that created them would never have occurred.
“A few gifts of conflict,” he said.
Kiv finished unbraiding his hair and immediately began re-braiding.
“Vin served in Canada,” she commented. “He didn’t see any fighting. He was a quartermaster dealing with horses mostly.”
“He was a lucky man,” Naheem replied.
“You wouldn’t think so listening to him. He often talks about how he hated not being in the midst of it all.”
Naheem tried to turn but Kiv pushed his head back around.
“There were many who were in the midst of things that are still there,” he said in a grim tone.
“He said he would have liked to serve alongside you. You would have made sure he came home.”
Naheem thought about those he left behind, friends he’d promised they would see their families again.
“I hope you’re paying attention to what you’re doing,” he said, changing the subject.
Kiv pushed his head. “Be quiet. I’m almost done.”
She let his fresh braids fall then replaced the colored beads on the ends. She then twisted them together and lifted them over his head.
“Be very still now,” she ordered. “This is the difficult part.”
Kiv bunched his braids together and began winding a leather ribbon around them.
“When was the last time you saw Lemau?”
Naheem chuckled. Lemau was a friend of them both, a wild spirit with a sword as sharp as his wit. They went to war together but Naheem returned alone.
“I haven’t seen him since leaving the war. I assume he’s still there. As long as the gold keeps flowing in his direction his loyalty to the High Lodge is secure.”
Kiv sighed. “I can’t believe he’s a mercenary.”
Naheem shrugged. “I can’t either, but you know Lemau. He’s full of surprises.”
“There.” A mirror appeared before his face, he gazed at Kiv’s smiling face over his shoulder.
“Beautiful,” he whispered.
“How can a war braid be beautiful?” She patted his shoulder.
“Come on. You’re losing the day and I need to get back before my parents wonder what we’re doing in here.”
Naheem turned and they faced each other. He was so comfortable with her; she knew all his secrets and he was sure he knew most of hers. They came closer and his arms snaked around her waist as she placed her hands on his shoulders.
“You’re my best friend, you know,” he said.
Their faces moved closer. “I wouldn’t want anything to ruin it. Anything.”
Kiv closed her eyes. “No matter what happens between us, we’ll always be friends.”
They embraced, pressing full against each other. Naheem’s mind reeled in desire and confusion. After all this time and all these years, why was he feeling this way about Kiv now? Maybe it was his pending confrontation with the Crims, or maybe something deeper. Whatever the reason his feelings for Kiv were changing and he wasn’t sure if he wanted them to.
“I have to go,” he finally said. He reluctantly let her go then they walked out the lodge to the stables. His horse waited for him. He saddled it in silence, Kiv look-ing on with a worried expression. When he turned to-ward her she held the reins of the horse he rode the previous day.
“Take her, too,” she said. “It’s a long journey to Chattahoochee. You don’t want to wear your horse out.”
He tied the horse’s reins to his mounts saddle and led them both outside.
“Tell your parents goodbye for me will you?”
“Of course.” Kiv kissed his cheek, her lips linger-ing longer than normal.
“Be careful, Nommy, and come back soon.”
Naheem answered her with a smile. He jumped on his horse, waved then rode away. He looked back one last time then set his attention on the road ahead. He would visit his parents briefly then head on to Chattahoochee. It was time he focused on the difficult task ahead.
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