Ilsketh Jartaf did not choose to be the leader of the Gulstaa. A daughter among eight other male siblings, she was the only one born with the Clansign, a long red birthmark on her pale-yellow right cheek, roughly the shape of a scythe’s blade. She was taken by members of the Ruling Council to be educated and trained when Ilsketh reached the age of four. Her parents were well-compensated for their sacrifice.
The rulers, governing factions, and warriors lived separate from the rest of the Gulstaa. They resided in a harsher, more difficult to reach region named Kamethla. It was there that the Ruling Council devised elaborate strategies while the warriors forged their strength and increased their prowess in the art of battle.
Ilsketh spent most of her childhood in Kamethla. As future leader, she had to learn the thousand cycle history of the Gulstaa and their many laws. She also was required to sit in on tactical sessions with the Council. Furthermore, she was expected to become a military leader and the fiercest warrior among their people. As a result, Ilsketh went through more stringent mental and physical training than anyone else.
For fifteen years, she endured a punishing schedule which began before daylight and went well into each evening. She held the title of Heng Da or “High One” in the Gulstaa language — but absolutely no disobedience was tolerated. Any signs of rebellion were quashed immediately. And under the guidance of the Ruling Council and the Warrior General, Ilsketh was molded into a tempered, perfect sword: their beloved future leader. Outside of the Ruling Council itself, she was the most powerful person in the region.
One morning, as she was finishing some stretches, a scout ran towards the village, his feet kicking up pebbles, dirt, and snow as he approached. His uniform was torn and disheveled from the long trek. Intrigued, Ilsketh walked towards the front gate, her dark brown bangs blowing into her eyes by the icy winds. Observing the scout’s short, lean stature and bald head, he appeared to be in his late twenties to mid-thirties. In contrast, while the back of Ilsketh’s hair was short, even severe, it was shorn in line patterns demarking her position. She was tall for a Gulstaa, reaching about six feet, athletic but trim. She had grown accustomed to seeing the dark yellow circles beneath her incredibly sharp eyes, which were the color of lavender. In front of her, the short and thin scout was panting, clearly exhausted from traveling far. His bulging eyes declared his fear, haunted and unsure. The imposingly strong guards helped him remain on his feet and catch his breath.
“The battle — did not go well,” the scout gasped. “The Leader took four squads . . . but it wasn’t enough!”
“What happened?” one guard demanded.
“The Leader fell . . . so did most of the squads,” the scout lamented.
“Only a few warriors made it back . . . to tell of the battle before taking Final Sacrifice. The last of them sent me.”
The guards nodded with dire certainty.
“You did well. We will alert the Ruling Council,” one guard told the scout.
“Thank you. I request Final Sacrifice,” the scout said, eyes lowered.
Only warriors could perform the task, either for themselves or anyone else.
“For your service, I will grant your request,” the guard landed a killing strike with his sword.
The scout fell to the ground, relief frozen on his face. Both guards gave a slight bow.
“I will go inform the Ruling Council,” one guard said. “When I return, perform the death rites for the scout.”
“It will be done,” his counterpart acknowledged.
Ilsketh saluted the guard as he neared her. He returned the gesture.
“Heng Da?” the guard asked.
“I will accompany you,” she said.
“Yes, Heng Da.”
The Ruling Council was in a state of chaos that Ilsketh had never witnessed before. She sat in the Council Chamber, a circular hall hundreds of cycles old, built with large gray stones and having wooden pillars throughout. At the center of the room was a long, wide and sturdy table crafted from the same rock as the walls. A bright fixture resembling a timbered, candle-lit chandelier was suspended from the ceiling. Fresh air permeated from two small bay windows, one on the eastern wall as well as its opposite.
Normally reserved and deliberate, the eighteen members were loudly arguing with each other, following the news delivered by the guard. Most seemed to be in shock while others were clearly vying to increase their own political power. Anger and disgust rose from within Ilsketh.
She went and grabbed the ceremonial war hammer from its honorary place on the northern wall. She took its hilt firmly in both hands and slammed it into the middle of the ancient stone deliberation table.
“ENOUGH!” she screamed. “I will have order in this room!”
She succeeded in getting everyone’s attention. They turned and faced her, stunned by her audacity and display of authority. However, she was Heng Da. Legally, she was the only one with the right to command them, especially now. But they had not expected her to do so.
“I know I have seen only nineteen cycles and have much to learn,” she growled, pacing the room like a cat, occasionally looking at various council members. “But even I know that now is not the time to fall apart.”
“Heng Da is wise!”
That voice belonged to Segim Artol, the Chief of the Ruling Council, an elder who had presided since before Ilsketh’s birth. Tall and stout, he appeared astute but weary — and perhaps wary as well.
His hair was long, gray, and well-groomed. Like the rest of the Council, he wore a midnight blue robe and ornamental jewelry made of local crystals and refined metals.
Ilsketh looked at him with contempt but kept her speech respectful.
“Who were we fighting?” she said.
“The Mountain Mokta,” Segim replied.
“I had heard that the Mokta were good fighters,” Ilsketh affirmed. “Did our people die well?”
“Their Chieftess offered them the chance for peace, to retreat.”
Ilsketh made a low murmuring sound, her expression twisting into one of disgust.
“That is not our way,” she demurred coldly.
“Yes, Heng Da. Our people fought to the last warrior, including the Leader.”
Ilsketh knew Segim was not one to miss an opportunity and was clearly still upset by the Heng Da embarrassing the Council. He cleared his throat and looked her in the eyes expectantly.
“You are now Leader, Heng Da. What shall we do?” Segim asked.
“Do?” Ilsketh repeated.
“I will explain. Should your people punish these Mokta for their arrogance or should we set our sights on new territories?”
His tone had been splendidly reverent but Ilsketh had participated in enough Council meetings to see the trap he had laid for her.
Fortunately, she had anticipated his actions before entering the chamber and devised a plan of her own.
“The Mokta acted within the confines of their laws and traditions; they were not arrogant,” she uttered slowly, even defiantly. “However, I will not let our people — and our former Leader — go unavenged. In the Early Days, did we not learn from the example of Daltath? Her father, Kintosh, surrendered four provinces to the Wendana to wage peace. The Wendana returned a cycle later and attempted to take all of the Gulstaa lands.
“But Daltath, also born with the Clansign, slew Kintosh and took command. Her cunning and savagery not only repelled the invaders but she spent the rest of her life hunting them down. Now there are no more Wendana. Daltath taught us that surrender is never an option. So, do not ask me if I will act in a way that sounds or looks like surrender. If I ignore what the Mokta did, it says we are weak and invites them to attack us, to believe they can conquer us. Obviously, that is not so!”
It was sickening to see Segim smile at her. Did he believe he had snared her? They both knew a battle now would not go well. The warriors would still be demoralized by the death of the previous Leader.
They also would not have much good will or rapport built with Ilsketh. Following this path would force her to rely on the Council more. It would increase Segim’s influence over her future decisions. And Ilsketh would not be so easily manipulated.
“But now is not the time for renewed conflict,” Ilsketh continued, addressing the entire Council and making eye contact with each member as she turned. “We will bury our dead and heal from this loss. We will grow our forces and properly prepare for battle. I will show you that your efforts in training me have not been in vain. We will attack in overwhelming numbers from all sides, striking down their defenses and use their own people as hostages. When we take the Mokta Mountain, it will be they who surrender — or die!”
Segim’s expression burned with indignation at the ease with which Ilsketh had evaded him. She had actually turned the situation to her advantage. Her words were met with praise and thunderous applause from the Council. Not only that, but she knew her plan was sound.
She could tell he knew that too. And he was not happy about it.
Seventeen-year-old Jordan Lewis was forcefully roused in the middle of the night with no warning. Sound asleep one moment, she next felt powerful arms grabbing and picking her up. Unsure whether this was real or a dream and terrified regardless, Jordan resisted with all her strength. Using both hands, she pounded against her abductor’s chest, which was covered with armor of some kind, and head, which was protected by a helmet. Trying to twist out of their grip, she kicked and screamed as loudly as she could, but it did no good.
Her assailant apparently could see in the dark, never turning on a light nor having any illumination on his or her protective suit. They never said a word, either, as they stole Jordan away from her home in Colorado.
“What do you want? What are you going to do to me?” Jordan shrieked. “Let me go!”
Silence continued to be their only response. In her panic, Jordan wondered if it was even human.
“Someone! Please help me!” Jordan cried.
Passing through the living room, Jordan’s kidnapper sidestepped the couch and exited through the open front door, walking over the cobblestone path to the driveway. Her eyes adjusting to the brighter moonlit sky, Jordan beheld her assailant’s companion, a second abductor, who held her mother, Janice, struggling in its arms. She looked like she was screaming, too, but Jordan heard no sound.
No one can hear us, Jordan thought, horrified. Somehow, they’re blocking the sound! That’s why no one has tried to help us!
One of the kidnappers pressed a button on its wrist and a circle of bright light erupted in mid-air. It was about eight feet wide by eight feet tall. They calmly walked through the portal with their captives. Jordan’s senses were nearly overwhelmed by the jarring sense of motion within this phenomenon. She didn’t know how fast they were traveling or in which direction. It seemed like every direction simultaneously.
It made her feel sick and extremely anxious at the same time. Would it ever stop? Were they going to die?
Seconds, or maybe minutes, later, the abductors emerged on the other side of the anomaly, still holding Jordan and her mother just as tightly as before.
They seemed unphased by the experience. Unlike Jordan, who felt shaken and dazed.
Almost immediately, her assailant gently set her on the frigid, snow-covered ground while its companion did the same for her mother. Jordan remained emotionally spent and fought to orient herself.
“Wh-where have you taken us? What do you want??” Jordan shouted with as much strength as she could muster.
Her kidnapper pointed at a light in the distance. Was that a fire? Jordan watched her foe launch some kind of flare from its wrist, using another technology she was unfamiliar with. Then both assailants walked back into the pulsating portal of light before it closed behind them. Jordan crawled on her elbows and knees to reach her mother, who had fainted. The last thing Jordan perceived before passing out was silhouetted shapes approaching them and shouts of alarm in a language she had never heard.
Jordan woke to the light from the distant twin stars Hylot and Ghorot, “The Brothers” in the Mokta language. She rolled to her side, half-tempted to go back to sleep. But icy winds forced open the flaps of her tent and made her squint, holding close the furs covering her until the gust ceased.
Whether she liked it or not, she was awake now. As with most mornings, she dragged herself out of her tent, stood up and stretched. The frigid air bit into her lungs as she took a deep breath. She then exhaled slowly. Moisture from the snow-covered ground and the smells of the nearby tall, slender trees and fall flowering plants greeted her. The scents of the rest of her hunting pack, still sleeping in their tents, mingled with the freshness of the morning. She ran her hands through her long, soft dark brown hair, untangling waves as she went, and then secured it into a braided ponytail.
Looking at the mountain in the distance, the birds and clouds in the sky, Jordan smiled at the wonder of another day. Soon, she and the other hunters would be pursuing a giant Sasstonn, an animal that looked like what would happen if a woolly mammoth crossbred with a cheetah, or two. It was their job to secure a meat supply for the coming months.
She performed additional stretches to loosen up her limbs and to ready for the coming challenges of the day. A tent’s flap rustled, and footsteps crunched through the thin soft snow.
“Will you be performing the fire dance for us soon, Jorr-Don?” Zoska asked in the Mokta language. “Or were you intending to break your spine to avoid the hunt?”
“Neither. The stretches loosen me up,” Jordan replied in Mokta. “I do them every morning and they help me.”
“I eat a hearty meal every morning. That helps me!”
“Are you saying I do not eat well?”
Curious, Jordan turned to her friend. Zoska tilted her head slightly and raised an eyebrow.
“You eat well enough now. You used to eat like an insect. That is why it took so long to train you.”
“You were a good mentor.”
“I am still a good mentor!”
“Yes. But I do not understand why you parent me so much. You are only two cycles older than me.”
“You are a handful, darkhair,” Zoska said with a smile. “Maybe you need a second parent!”
“Maybe,” Jordan said, returning the smile. “Shall we start the morning meal?”
“Why should we do that?” Zoska replied. “Let the other member of this pack make it!”
“You have tasted Reiban’s cooking, right?” Jordan grimaced.
Zoska stared at Jordan for a moment. She wrinkled her nose in dismay.
“Yes. Yes, I have,” Zoska said. “I will get started on the food.”
Jordan pulled some kindling wood from one of the bags and started a fire for the cooking. She caught a glance of Zoska entering her tent to get ingredients. Jordan then returned her attention to maintaining the flames.
Zoska befriended me when I still did not want any friends, ties or connections to this world, Jordan thought. She helped me out of my despair and self-pity. She listened to me and then reached out and told me what I needed to hear. I will always owe her for that.
“Do you remember when we met, the night I arrived on Algoran, four cycles ago?” Jordan asked as she started the fire.
“Yes, I was the first to find you. You had such thin clothing and were shaking from the chill.”
“Even the coldest nights where I grew up were warm compared to here,” Jordan said.
She wasn’t feeling frigid at the moment, but the memory made her involuntarily shiver.
“You were hurt from going through the, what did you call it —‘porr-tahl,’”
Zoska added. “Reiban and I were not sure you two would survive.”
“I could not understand a word you said but I could tell you were worried about me and Gemta,” Jordan replied, using the Mokta word for mother.
“You were strange-looking, with your light skin, brown hair, and white eyes,” Zoska said. “But Chieftess had told us that your kind might be brought to us. And that you would not be prepared for life on this world. I knew I had to help you, even if you did scare me.”
“I scared you?” Jordan chuckled. “I would never have known.”
Jordan had never been frightened of the Mokta. She considered them a handsome people, with their red skin, black scleras instead of white, amber irises, pointed ears and white hair. They were about a foot shorter than Jordan and her gemta, but they were stronger and faster than any human.
“I could not tell you that. It would have been a sign of weakness,” Zoska replied.
“I would not have seen it that way.”
Jordan added a little more kindling wood to the small fire, watched the flames and smoke build along with the heat.
“I did not know you well then. I could not take that chance,” Zoska continued.
“I am glad you told me now,” Jordan replied.
Zoska smiled in response.
“It surprised me that you and your mother learned our language so quickly. It made things … easier.”
“Gemta has always been good at languages. I guess I am, too. At least learning the Mokta language gave us time to adapt,” Jordan said. “Once we could understand what you were saying to us, your gifts for storytelling helped us learn Mokta culture, history and the importance of this mountain we live on. How do the Mokta remember all those details? The Mokta have no written language.”
Jordan watched as Zoska tied her own hair into a ponytail. Jordan had observed that younger Mokta kept their hair in longer styles while elders kept theirs short.
“Once we hear or see something, we always know it. We can see it in our thoughts and recite it the way we experienced it.”
“Then I was right. It is a gift,” Jordan said.
Zoska smiled. “I suppose you could say that. I had never given it much thought. It is a normal thing to the Mokta, like living in the village.”
The Mokta tribe occupied a mountainous region which was relatively easy to defend from invaders or rival tribes. The hunters wore tough animal hides and furs. Those in other village professions wore more elaborate clothes made from woven fibers and colored with dyes.
From inside her tent near the flap, Zoska was still pondering which ingredients to use for breakfast. She looked into one of the bags and called out to Jordan.
“Do you want wibb eggs, wibb eggs, or wibb eggs?” Zoska asked.
“Wibb eggs are fine,” Jordan smiled. “Oh, tell me you still have some of your spicy lahna to go with it.”
“Fortune smiles on you this day, my friend!”
“Yes! Your lahna is so good, you could sell it at the market.”
“My torkomm does sell it at market,” Zoska said, alluding to her father.
“And for a good price, too.”
Jordan’s smile faltered as she suddenly felt wistful and lonely. Zoska had stopped gathering eggs and Jordan could see the concern in her eyes.
“You mentioned your torkomm and it reminded me of mine. I miss him,” Jordan answered her friend’s unspoken question. “I was angry with him right before my gemta and I were taken. I regret not making things right.”
“Forgive, Jorr-Don,” Zoska said. “I did not think about my words.”
“No, it is okay. I am okay. I know my family is here now … with the tribe.”
“Tribe is family but not like blood,” Zoska said.
“No, not like blood,” Jordan repeated. “I miss my torkomm—and my younger brother, Mark.”
“Do you sometimes wish he had been taken with you?”
Jordan shook her head nervously.
“No. At least he is still on Earth with my torkomm,” she said. “I do not know what I would have done if he had gotten sick with the Shilvaba like Gemta.”
Zoska nodded. “You are the reason she survived.”
“I only stayed with her. Healer Latas gave me good instructions: when to give her the medical salve, how to handle her fever and tremors—the loss of her sight. I would not have been able to watch my brother also.”
“Chieftess Kitranor would have told the tribe to help with him. And your gemta still would have lived.”
Jordan put her hand on Zoska’s shoulder and smiled at her.
“Thank you. I noticed you did not say you would have helped with my brother?”
Zoska grinned. “No, I did not. I had to parent you.”
“You did. And so did Chieftess.”
Zoska’s expression turned sympathetic. “Your only blood relative on Algoran could have died from the Shilvaba. Many have, even during my cycles,” she said. “You were so … lost during that first wintertime. I feared you might perish from sadness.”
Jordan felt older than her twenty-one cycles. “I had to live,” she said. “It was the only way she was going to make it.”
Zoska nodded somberly. “But she did recover. You were able to learn the hunt, as all young ones do. And your gemta helped in the harvest fields.”
“Yes. She can use her other senses well there—touch, hearing and smell. Sight is not as important.”
“And because of my training, you are a decent huntress,” Zoska added.
“’Decent?’” Jordan raised an eyebrow in mock offense. Zoska laughed in response.
Reiban had arisen and approached his hunting companions. He was lean for a Mokta but strong and fast. He had almond-shaped eyes, a long and thin nose and somewhat small mouth. He had his own share of hunting scars on his arms and legs.
“This hits the spot,” Jordan said in English as she savored her eggs.
“Dizz hitz thah spaht? What are these words you speak, Jorr-Don?” Zoska asked.
“I think she said something in her old language,” Reiban added.
“I am sorry. It, um, lost something in translation,” Jordan said. “I was saying I really enjoyed the meal. Thanks.”
“We will need to go soon,” Reiban said. “The Sasstonns will be stirring and it is best to catch them unaware.”
“For once, Reiban is right,” Zoska deliberately provoked an irritated glare from the young man. “We should go, Jorr-Don!”
“Pack up your gear then, I will be right behind you,” Jordan allowed the last of her eggs, which were smothered in lahna sauce, to slide off the stone plate into her mouth.
“What a beast!” Zoska taunted. “Perhaps we should be hunting you!”
The trio laughed at that as Reiban attended to the rinsing of the plates. Zoska began packing gear.
Jordan drank some water from the stream and organized her hunting gear within a handful of minutes. She looked at the silver ring on her right hand, which had a sapphire gem embedded at its center. It had been given to her by her father a year before her abduction.
Dad, Mark, I have not given up hope! I may not know where Algoran is or how The Abductors brought us here, but if there is a way for me and Mom to come home to you, I swear I am going to find it!
About the author
Allen Steadham is a nondenominational Christian. Happily interracially married since 1995 and the proud father of two sons and a daughter. He and his wife have been in the same Christian band since 1997. He plays electric bass, she plays strings, they both sing. It's all good.
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