The central fire was easily the largest.
The other campfires were like a smattering of stars surrounding a great sun which outshined them a hundred times over. But, what really set the larger fire apart was the entertainment. A dozen dancers were performing a coordinated swords dance, men and women both baring flesh amid their loose silk garments.
Karva’s eyes mirrored the fire as she watched both the men and women alike, fascinated by the sinuous movements of their bodies and the sheen of sweat that glistened on their skin.
She wanted to go out there and join them, but now was not the time.
Instead, she finally let her gaze focus on one of the dancers in the center. The focus of Karva’s gaze was the only dancer who seemed more-or-less covered from the neck down. Her clothing was also loose, the better for dancing, but it was distinctly modest amid the feast of flesh. She looked young, very young, but Karva knew that the woman, Ciala, was a young woman at sixteen years of age.
Ciala had a petite and slender build, which, when combined with her round face and her abundant brownish-auburn hair, all worked to give off that youthful illusion.
For all of that, sixteen was still young for someone who was the leader of a nation. However, that was merely how the People, often known by other nations as the Wandering Tribes, or more formally as Fralam, did things. There was a council of Elders who would help her rule. Some of them were helping lead the tribes with the last incarnation of the Chosen, Hafsa. Ciala had been born around the other woman’s death, and Ta’sheeki, the Flame Spirit, had recognized her soul and so Ciala was the Chosen.
For sixteen years, Ciala’s life had been spent grooming her for leadership, with the Elders of the council dealing with day-to-day matters.
With Ciala turning sixteen, the People were engaged in a once-in-a-lifetime month long celebration recognizing the ascension of their Chosen. In it, Ciala would show off her skills in performance: music, dance, and oratory among others.
For the People, life wasn’t worth living if it was spent sacrificing the pleasures of life for the purpose of control.
So, while Ciala had also learned the various necessities of leadership, including military acumen, and was apparently an accomplished archer, it was also important that she was well-versed in the celebration that was life.
Karva chuckled to herself, it wasn’t as though the People missed a chance to celebrate.
Though the month long ascension celebration was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, there were a number of regular celebrations every year. In many ways, life among them was mostly spent preparing for the next celebration.
That fact was something that made Karva nervous, she was here to make a proposal to Ciana, but there was a good chance that it would fall on deaf ears.
When the dance was finally over, a crowd of people had surrounded Ciana to offer her well-wishes and congratulations. The smells of roast meat and pipe weed were drifting through the pack of people. Each tantalized Karva’s heightened olfactory senses but she needed to keep her focus on the pretty, small thing who was giving smiles, hugs, and kisses to the adoring fans among her people.
By the time Karva was allowed near, the werefox nearly lost her nerve. However, Ciala looked up at her with guileless brown eyes and her brown hair appeared almost red in the firelight. Her unblemished skin seemed to glow up close. But she smiled such a radiant smile that Karva couldn’t help but smile back. Ciala reached out and took Karva’s hand into her own, the werefox blinked, then placed her other hand on Ciala’s elbow and leaned in.
“We have a chance, a once-in-a-lifetime chance. But I can’t talk here.” Karva whispered, then she hugged Ciala and kissed the woman’s forehead.
Just like that, she was gone, but she did look over her shoulder before the crowds pressed in and hid Ciala from view, and she saw the shock and confusion that her words had left impressed on the young woman.
“Come on, guys, she’s not worth it.”
Karva curled up into a ball, feeling the kicks from her peers all along her back and her sides. It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last. But the worst part is that it would continue because her parents were “normal” and they had no reason to seek out a werepack.
Right now, Karva’s fox ears and tail were showing, and that was enough to provoke attacks from the other eight year-olds that lived in her tribe. It was a small tribe, they moved all along the border of the mountains in Fralam and the swamps of Morland. Unlike other tribes of the People, they didn’t raise any livestock. The coastal tribes of Fralam were the only farmers in the entire nation.
Her tribe were the wanderers of the Wanderers. They hunted game to sustain themselves, and often times they raided towns in Morland close to the border. They never raided other tribes though, and so they were welcome at gatherings, even if others looked down on them and made jokes about them under their breath.
So the bullied were bullies. On the whole, while werefoxes didn’t hold positions of prominence in the society of the People, they weren’t outcasts like the werefolk in Hal’la or, in some places of Morland as well as Valgarde. But to a society of outcasts, scapegoats were needed, and Karva was one of them.
Finally the kicks stopped and Karva risked a peek.
Ravin, Thurg, Evin, and Rulla. It was Rulla who had asked them to stop. She was only six, and about one of the only friends that Karva had, but even she didn’t want to risk the wrath of the rest of the tribe and so she ‘spat’ on Karva like the rest when she was around them.
The others had already begun to wander off, but Rulla bent down close.
“You need to run, why do you stay?” The little girl stood, then said to the others, “see? Told you she wasn’t worth it.”
Karva just cried.
Why had she stayed? Karva couldn’t say, but she had.
Rulla was hers now, as was the rest of the tribe. She’d been abused for years, but her parents loved her and Rulla had loved her, and it was through them that she had developed the strength to grow and to learn and, eventually, she had grown strong enough to protect them and herself.
It was getting more and more difficult to raid Morland villages, though.
The swamp people were getting stronger and more advanced in both their military as well as things like simple defensive measures. Little villages had scouts and walls and Karva’s tribe found impregnable fortresses as often as they found vulnerable townships.
Karva watched Ciala’s tent as the night passed. It was guarded, of course, but the guards had patterns and she was certain she would be able to make her way in. As it was, all she had to do was convince the young woman to leave with her. Trying to have a conversation in the tent was a sure way to get caught.
The time came as the moon was beginning to sink once more.
A quick little work with a knife and she was able to make her own door. She thought that Ciala would be asleep, but the small woman was sitting there as though waiting for her.
“I figured you’d be back,” Ciala said with a smile.
Karva led the young woman to a nearby bluff, but one which was away from the rest of the camp, it took half an hour or so to get there, to get clear of the camp.
“You aren’t concerned that I might hurt you?” Karva asked. It wasn’t the best way to start things, but she wouldn’t have come so easily or willingly herself.
“You won’t,” was all Ciala said, it was confident, but it was a quiet confidence.
In spite of the fact that the young woman was the leader of an entire nation of people, there was nothing particularly bold or brash about her. She wore her authority well, but she wore it like one might wear any other garment. It was part of an ensemble, and it didn’t shout any louder than other aspects of her appearance.
Karva wasn’t as confident herself of what to do next, she’d felt more confident coming up with the plan, but now that she was here, she realized that her arguments had holes.
“Rumors tell of a coming war between Hal’la and Morland.” She said.
Ciala nodded, “rumors, yes. Though I think we both know they’re more than that.”
“Fair enough. You have your sources, I have mine. Yours are probably better.”
“I’m sure some of them are the same.” Ciala held her hands in front of her, an action which reinforced her youthfulness and ran in sharp contrast with the wisdom she was effortlessly exuding in their brief conversation.
“Morland is getting stronger, but Hal’la’s military is better.” Karva said carefully, watching Ciala with her fox-like gaze.
She could appear more human if she wanted. All werecreatures that were in control of themselves could exert some level of control over their forms. When in the lust of their passions, be there in a fight, or love, or creative discovery, it was much harder to control their shapes and they usually succumbed to the primal animal inside them. But they were otherwise free to shift between forms, including shifting only parts of themselves.
Karva had learned to enjoy her ears and tail, as well as those fox-like eyes. They were the best way to show that she wasn’t human, without giving in to the beast as many furred werecreatures did in their humanoid forms.
Ciala, for her part, merely seemed to shrug. “Also well-known.”
“If we were to help Morland fight back, they might not only keep their territory, but gain more. Our people have never required much, even more mountain territory along the border between Hal’la and the Wood would be a significant expansion…”
Ciala seemed pensive as she listened to Karva’s appeal, her face so utterly still that it was impossible to tell if Karva’s words had any significant impact on the young woman.
“I suspect you lead at least one tribe of your own?” Ciala said gently after a few moments.
“Well, you certainly don’t need me to tell you what your people should do.”
“One tribe would hardly make an impact…”
Ciala lifted up a delicate hand, but it was enough to cut Karva off.
“War requires a vote of the council, even then, any small tribe may choose to refuse their edicts. Only the five great tribes are truly bound by them.”
Karva knew that, but it was impossible that Ciala was unaware of her own power to convince others and sway them to a cause.
Ciala giggled. It was such a sudden, flighty thing that it cut Karva off as effectively as even the simple motion of a hand.
“Yes, yes, you want me to convince others to join your cause.”
In spite of the girlish laughter, the brown eyes that returned Karva’s gaze were as shrewd as any crone’s. Karva realized then that she was playing with fire, Ciala was a woman far more dangerous than she realized.
“I like you,” Ciala continued, “you may join me for as long as you wish. Perhaps one of your pretty pleas will sway me.”
It was a start.