When their troop arrived at that river post so soon after the death of a comrade, it was a new member of their group that helped them forget their grief. It was around that time that Iku made the acquaintance of Jali who would become a great friend of his, but their encounter did not unfold in the way any of them would have expected.
“A-ah!” – Jali’s startled shout scared some birds off a nearby tree. Huli had kicked the spear onto which he was slumped out from under him. “What! What?” – The Xotlil was confused and disoriented. “So much for keeping watch…” – The veteran remarked. “I only just dozed off right now, I swear!” – Jali retorted. “Jali, the rest of us have been up for hours. Not even Jutek felling that tree woke you.” – Imuz shouted over from a small ways away. Rubbing the last vestiges of sleep from his eyes, Jali scanned his surroundings. The large armored being was carving massive chunks of wood out of a huge tree that had recently stood nearby the guard post with frightening efficiency. Imuz and Iku were standing next to it, in deep discussion, likely about the next steps in finishing the boat. Huli had walked away in the meantime and was fiddling with his pack while Finto and the Elder were sitting by the fire, turning some freshly felled rodents on sticks over it. The sun hung directly above him, shining down with a judgmental ferocity. “…So, uh, what can I do?” – He cautiously asked. “I don’t know, Jali, what can you do? I ask because you are quite clearly incapable of being a guard. Perhaps cooking is more to your liking? We’ve been eating unseasoned rodent for a while now, perhaps whip us up something.” – Huli teased. “What a fantastic idea! I bore of this anyhow. Come, now, Jali, take over for me!” – Finto shouted, ran up to Jali, pressed the rodent-on-a-stick into his paw before he could object and off she went to join Iku and Imuz neat the slowly forming boat. “I, uh…” – Jali started, but was interrupted. “Or, if that doesn’t fit your skill set, you can help with packing up our rolls.” – Huli said, appearing suddenly from behind and dumping equipment in Jali’s hands, then walked off. “But…” – Jali was standing there, hands full, no-one paying attention. “I should’ve known…”
Iku was observing Jutek’s work. The large tree, which alone wouldn’t have been sufficient even for the most skilled team of craftsmen to fashion into a boat even given months, was taking shape under the claws of the large being over the course of a single morning. His huge scythe-like talons looked like brutal tools, but Jutek used them with precision and expertise, allowing him to make even minor adjustments to the curvature of the hull. The extremely sharp and strong blades left the trunk’s surface surprisingly smooth. “Hands that big, he won’t even need oars.” – Imuz said, also admiring the creature’s work. “Imagine what a boon he would be to war production…” – He trailed off, lost in thought. “We’re at peace, and he is no slave.” – Iku replied with a sideways glance at the Captain. “Hypothetically, of course.” – Imuz looked surprised at the guardsman’s tone. Chips and splinters rained around the soon-to-be-boat, and the observers gave it wide berth. “I was wondering…” – Finto began, seemingly ignoring the conversation of the other two. “…Are we just lucky that he knows how to carve a boat, or do all of his people learn this? Is he from a coastal settlement? Does he come from a family of ship-builders?” – She said, looking at the top of Jutek’s head, the only part of him visible over the lip of the hull. “Huh, now that you say it, I hadn’t realized that all this time the thought that he has family didn’t even occur to me.” – Imuz said after a short pause. “It’s so easy to assume that because he looks different, nothing true to us applies to him”. “He did seem to miss his comrades who didn’t survive the crash.” – Iku said, to which Imuz looked at him with half surprise. “Strange to think anything can kill something like that.” – He said. “My point was, these past days, or even weeks depending on how long they’ve been at sea, have been a huge strain on Jutek. You and Huli ought to go easier on him. Not too long ago he was shipwrecked, and now he’s building a boat because of us.” – Iku replied. Jutek hopped out of the hull just then, and brushed sawdust off of his hands. “Amazing…” – Imuz said. “Won’t this be too big for such a shallow stream?” – Finto asked while observing the size of the ship that materialized before them over the course of mere hours. “Let’s ask our resident expert, shall we?” – Imuz replied, then: “Jali!” – he shouted. The Xotlil was trying and failing to neatly fold some bedding with his rodent sticking out of the ground nearby. “What?” – He shouted back. Imuz crossed his arms across his chest and started tapping his paw. Jali realized himself and scampered over. “Yes… sir?” “The boat. Is it too big for this river?” – The captain asked. “I… don’t know, really. Possibly? I mean, it’s a lot bigger than ours, but then I wouldn’t dare swim in the stream for its depth, so…”- Jali trailed off. “Guardsman, you’ve been here for months and you can’t tell me whether a boat is suitable for the river?” – Imuz said, eyebrow raised, purposefully drawing out his question. “I, uh, well, yes.” – Once again, Jali was feeling extremely uneasy. Imuz slowly and theatrically started nodding, mouth arced downwards in a mocking expression. “Impressive.” – he said after a short while. Just as he was saying that, a noticeably wet Huli approached them. “Boat’ll be fine.” – He said, and all eyes were fixed on him. “What? I checked.” – Huli wiped water off his face.
Soon, the narrow but long canoe-like boat was ready. Being bare wood, untreated, it was hardly ideal, but it would do for a single journey. Jutek apparently knew enough about shipbuilding to shape and angle the hull ideally and maintain perfect thickness of the wood to ensure that it would float even with his impressive heft on board. It was past midday, and the company planned to move out before nightfall. Finto had suggested putting the large boat at the front of the convoy and even tying the other two to it in line, as Jutek’s paddling will surely speed it up moreso than the regular dinghies tied to the piers. Imuz was elated, as thanks to Jutek their journey may be even shorter than he had hoped. Under normal circumstances, Lake Haki is four days by boat from the crossing. As preprarations were proceeding, Jali seemed to be more and more on edge. As the company was setting out, he uncomfortably shuffled about until finally speaking up. “Well, best of fortune to you all, may your journey be swift…” – He said awkwardly. “Oh-ho-ho!” – Huli bellowed. “You don’t think you are staying here, do you? It’s high time you were relieved Jali, and I’m sure the guardsmen of Koura will be happy to have such an experienced soldier join them.” Jali grew pale. “B-but I’m assigned to Leowi! The Crossing will be unmanned! T-there’s not enough room!” – He was clearly distressed. “Frankly the Crossing is better off unmanned than with you around, and the changing-of-the-guard here has always this way, with a few days leaving it unmanned.” – Huli said before Imuz joined in. “And don’t forget you transferred from Koura. As Captain of the Leowi Guard I can safely tell you that we’re… glad to transfer you back.” Jali was growing more and more distressed. “You can’t take me back there!” – He was practically begging. The others were all perplexed by his panic. “What is wrong with you? First of all, you are defying orders, second, your behaviour is highly suspect. What about Koura frightens you so?” – Imuz pressed. “It’s best we find out in person.” – Huli added. Both were standing over Jali, stern, and the Xotlil seemingly surrendered to his fate. “If you’re quite done, we’re ready to depart.” – Tawhito interjected after a few seconds of pause. The sun had yet to duck below the horizon when the convoy of boats departed the Crossing. True enough, the tireless Jutek propelled them forward with dizzying speed. His own rather recent misadventure with water didn’t leave any noticeable discomfort regarding travel by river in him. Iku, Imuz and Jali were with him in the large boat, Finto and Tawhito in the one right behind them with Huli alone in the third. As night fell, the usual play of lights in the sky reflected off the water of the river, leading Jutek to occasionally get lost in them and slowing his paddling. Even so, they made good time. Around midnight, they had already covered almost two day’s worth of distance. “We’ll reach the lake tomorrow already, maybe even the far shore if Jutek can keep this up all day!” – Imuz was clearly enthusiastic. “We’ve already made better progress than expected, we really ought not to push him” – Iku said, and looked to Jutek. The speed at which he propelled them made it impossible for the others to sleep on the boats, so they anchored down in the shallows by the bank soon after to camp out until morning. Jutek showed no sign of fatigue, but seemed to welcome the chance to observe the sky and water in peace while the others settled down for a bit of sleep. They didn’t even bother unrolling their packs and simply stuffed them under their heads. Huli wouldn’t admit it and tried to conceal it, but everyone saw that the rapid rocking of the boat in the rear had him feeling a tad ill. No matter how stoic your expression, it cannot hide paleness.
“Where do you think you are going?!” – The voice rang out. Everyone jumped up, even Jutek who apparently dozed off. The voice belonged to Huli, and was joined by another, highly worried one belonging to Jali. “I just had to… a-answer the call of mother nature!” – He protested as Huli dragged him closer to where the others were and pushed him to the ground. “What, with a knife? Cutting loose one of the boats? Your reluctance was one thing, but this… escape attempt? Has me wondering what it is in Koura you want to avoid. You owe someone? You did something wrong?” – Huli demanded. Imuz approached Jali with some rope. “Something tells me you’ve been less than honest with us, and with all the time we have spared on our journey, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to find out all about it in the city.” – The captain bound Jali. “I’ll watch him, the rest of you rest. I can do so in the boat.”
At first light, Imuz roused the others, and off they went. In spite of saying so, Imuz didn’t rest in the boat either and didn’t take his eyes of a very silent Jali. Jutek paddled tirelessly and the boats glided across the water at speeds that none of the others have ever experienced before. Tawhito was enjoying it the most among everyone, and only he and Finto were immune to the effects of the constant rocking and churning. Imuz pressed for them not to stop unless Jutek needs rest, and the large being never gave indication that he does – if anything, he almost seemed like he was in a hurry. Iku spent much of the journey observing his odd friend. Is he a friend, though? We still know so little of him, and he of us. he doesn’t even know why we’re going where we are going and why he should help us get there. He doesn’t seem distressed, or worried, he just paitently waits for whatever we ask of him and does it. By late afternoon, they could see the lake glittering in the distance. “Remarkable.” – Imuz stated. “If travel at this speed would be common place, life in Ixamil would be revolutionized. Trade would flow more freely, visting distant relatives would be trivial. Battles would be utterly different…” – He trailed off. Iku disapprovingly shook his head unbeknownst to the Captain. As the convoy drifted out the river delta into the more open waters of the lake, the view previously restricted by the dense foilage of the jungle suddenly opened up. Behind them the mountains towered in the distance, ahead the green treeline of the far shore beckoned and the bright sunlight played off the surface of the water all around them. Finto felt right at home, leaning out of the boat, dipping as much of her arm into the cool water as was safe without tipping out. Jali hadn’t said a single word since he was bound. Around the time when they reached the middle of the lake, night had fallen, and the group decided to anchor and enjoy the water for a change instead of rushing through it. As always, Jutek was fascinated by the technicolour sky and its reflection, but was clearly reluctant to actually get into the water. The others, save Jali, all went swimming. Finto seemed more comfortable in the water than she ever did before on dry land, which was understandable considering she was an Oomagtl, a frog-like amphibious Ixaman race. The cool waters of the lake washed away weariness and the grime of their gruelling journey, and allowed for rare moments of levity. After plenty of swimming and splashing, the company returned to the boats where they slept – save for finto, who slept in the water. after they had settled and some time had passed, the marine wildlife dared to come closer to their boats. Soft splashes of Ruki were heard, and the faint glow of bioluminescent fish could be seen in the depth, barely distinquishable from the reflection of the colourful stars. Out in the middle of the lake, they dared not leaving anyone to watch – they were securely anchored and Jali was securely bound. Lake Haki was a very busy during the day so they didn’t need to fear. After a good night’s sleep, once more they were on their way. Their destination was the village of Parawi on the other shore where they would deposit their boats and enter the last leg of their journey to the capital. The fishermen of the lakeside villages have long since been up and working by the time the company were on their way, and thus they had quite the audience observing the unnatural speed at which these odd boats were gliding. Those fishermen close enough to make out Jutek were universally shocked by the strange mass of metal propelling the vessel, though it is likely that most assumed it is some new form of engineering – even though metallurgy was hardly advanced enough yet. Their arrival in Parawi caused quite the upheaval. Moments after they disembarked the boats, a small troop of guards had gathered around, all of them terrified of Jutek. Tawhito, Huli and Imuz chided, calmed and persuaded the guards at length that all was well and that they were on their way to a conclave precisely because of their strange guest. After many an explanation, the air was finally cleared and someone asked about the bound Xotlil. “Oh? This is Jali, who claims to be a guardsman and was posted to the Crossing, but then he tried to escape. We’re taking him to Koura to find out what he’s actually on about, because his behaviour hardly befits a guard.” – Huli explained with gleeful mockery. No sooner than he had finished, another Xotlil pushed past the guards, went straight up to Jali and punched him. “You bastard!” – He shouted as guards stepped in. “You ungrateful, morally deprived lobcock!” – He continued shouting while Jali, surprisngly enough, retreated behing Huli. “What’s this then?” Imuz demanded of the assailant, who shook off the guards. “I’m Jali, not him! This incompetent wank couldn’t be a guardsman if he wanted to!” – He shouted, spitting at the false Jali. “Okay, look, calm down and explain this. You are Jali, not him?” Imuz pushed the other Xotlil. “Yeah, yeah. This is my brother, well, half-brother. Akhi, that’s his rightful name. See the resemblance? Well, I sat in a dungeon years for that.” – Jali explained. “He framed you?” – Huli asked back. “Right and proper, I only just got released a few weeks back, tried to track his traitorous ass down.” – Jali said. For the first time, Akhi spoke up since being bound, and the persona he enacted fell away revealing a more spiteful character. “Miss me, brother?” – He said mockingly. “Aye, missed you like I miss clumps of shit stuck in my fur.” – Jali spat back. “I like him already” – Huli whispered to Finto. “Are you really just going to believe some random Xotlil off the street over me?” – Akhi began pleading to Imuz and Huli. “I mean, I helped you guys with the boats and -” Jali cut him off. “Mother is dead!” – He shouted, releasing anger pent up for far too long. Painful silence hung over the crowd, and only after some of the Parawian guards started awkwardly shuffling off was it broken. “…What?” – Akhi was genuinely shocked. “What did you expect you gobshite? Crossing the Fangs like that? You knew what they were like. Not two days after you bailed and I was locked up did they… they… I was brought out to identify the body. I could only do so by her locket.” – Jali wasn’t shouting anymore, but was all the more frightening. “We were taking him to Koura anyway to find out about his posting. Something seemed off from the moment we met him.” – Huli told Jali. “You mind if I tag along? I can take care of myself and keep up, I just want to see this filth brought to justice.” He glared at Akhi with ungridled hatred. Huli looked at Imuz, who looked at the elder. Tawhito just shrugged. “Very well, join us then.” – The Captain said. “Thank you. I’ll keep an eye on him so you needn’t worry about that.” – Jali replied, not taking his gaze off Akhi.
After resupplying in Parawi and organizing guards to man the Crossing, the company, now numbering 7 once more, set off. In his focus on the long-lost half-brother, Jali never paid much attention to Jutek and strangely enough the large being didn’t particularly bother him after either. When Iku told him the story, he listened attentively but never expressed any fear or particular sense of wonder at the strange being. Imuz, on the other hand, was more than interested in Jali’s story. “If you haven’t been to Koura long you might be in for a surprise, and a bad one I mean.” – He began to explain. “See, stuffing all the islands under one flag won’t solve everyone’s troubles. Sure, we ain’t got no war anymore but that isn’t the only hardship. Ever since all resources are centrally controlled across the entire Archipelago and efforts to rebuild or improve villages have been enacted big cities like Koura just don’t get enough of anything. Sure, this is good for you village folk and places like Leowi, but when Koura don’t get enough guards nor goods, things like the Fangs happen. The Takawa Fangs they call themselves, nasty bunch, has all kinds of underhanded deals with warehouses, get their mitts on all sorts of goods then sell them back to folk at higher prices. Get tangled with them, you either work, pay or die. My idiot brother saw opportunity instead of danger, and when he got cold feet pissing off both the guards and the Fangs, he did the old switcheroo and turned tail. Guards came for me, Fangs came for mother. I fared better.” – The others were listening in as well. “You realize if there’s evidence, he’ll likely go to the gallows?” – Huli asked him. “I mean I understand he did horrible things but he is your brother, kinda?” – Jali replied after short pause. “He cost my mother her life and me years of mine. He deserves the worst punishment.”
The last portion of their journey passed mostly without event. The closer they got to Koura, the busier the roads became and the procession of such a colourful company, counting an elder, a prisoner and Jutek among them, made for quite the spectacle. Having completed their journey much quicker than planned, Imuz didn’t push them too hard, and a week later, they set up camp one last time on a small ridge overlooking the vast city of Koura. It would be their last calm night for a long time to come.
Previously: Chapter 3