Many years ago, long before I was born, my father was a warrior of the tribe. He was, by all accounts, a great man, and so when the Kings of La Bastida declared war on the meseteros, and warriors from every Argar tribe were sent to form a great Army, the greatest ever seen, my father was chosen to represent our village of Gatas as its champion.
La Bastida is the great city on the plains below us. It is a city surrounded by a wall three times as high as a man, with great towers spaced along these walls, and it is a great trading place. It is the centre of our tribe, where the Kings live. The Kings came from far away, a long time ago, driven to our lands by war and pestilence in their own homelands, and bought magic and secrets with them that allowed them to unify us and drive out others from our lands.
The Argar tribe command a vast fertile swathe of coastland. Gatas is almost at the far south of the land, behind our village is a great mountain range. Over the mountains behind us is one final fertile coastal plain, and then there are mountains for hundreds of miles, mountains too high and too dangerous for us to live in.
So we mining communities live in the lower reaches of the mountains, where we can trade with the coastal and plain villages for their goods. We make the weapons that allow us to live in peace, and trade them for food.
But when the Kings call, we must obey, for we know that we are strong when we are united. But they only call when the danger is great.
Such a calling happened over 30 years ago, when my father was called. The meseteros, those tribes that have been driven inland, over the coastal mountains into the vast inland plains, were uniting upon the death of their old King, and must decide upon a new one.
They are different, the meseteros. They have no access to the secrets of Bronze, as we do, and must make their weapons out of copper, roughly hewn from the ground and beaten into shape. They have no coastline, and live off their herds of animals, which feed on the rich inland plains. They live in a long series of fortified villages, primitive castles if you will, built along rivers and streams to ensure a constant supply of water. They build these villages in long lines, meaning that when we raid from the mountains, they can always run back behind their thick walls to hide.
At the time of this tale, the danger was great. Our unity has always been our strength. When one Argar village is attacked, the alarm goes up and reinforcements quickly arrive from other villages. But under their old King, weak and old, the meseteros were splintered. Speaking a common language, they traded amongst themselves, but their suspicion of one another was great and they did not trust themselves.
But there was the danger of a new King coming forward, and uniting the tribes. He would rule from the authority of the Crown of Crucis, the traditional emblem of the King.
There are, I am told, tribes in the far north who are ruled by one family, with power passing from father to son. This is not the way of the south. Here, we are ruled by he who is most worthy. In our case, this means the wisest or the most cunning of our warriors, or he who has the trust of the warrior. In the case of the meseteros, each tribe would put forward one champion, and the champion who came first – first in debate, and first in pure physical strength – would attain the right to rule.
But we knew that if we captured the Crown, then the meseteros would splinter, for without the crown to claim, no ruler could come forth.
And so a mighty army of great warriors set forth, marching silently through the mountain passes towards the inland plains. We knew our paths, and we avoided the first settlements of the meseteros to finally reach the richer inland villages where the champions were at muster.
But whether we were betrayed or simply spied upon in unknown, but they knew we were there. And we were not met in open battle, for we were too many and too strong. Instead, night attacks were launched. I shall never forget my fathers recollection.
“It was early winter when we set out. It was nice enough down by the sea, but the meseta is a godless place in the winter, and the gods themselves abandon the place in late autumn to vacation by the sea. The first winter snows had already settled upon the passes, and we were so afraid of blizzards that we force marched two days and two nights to cross the pass”.
“Once we were out, onto the inland plains, we had to swing east a good long way to avoid the first line of villages. Which meant we had little water. That first night, we sent down a raiding party to the river to gather water and bring it back to us. 20 men went, good souls all. We heard their valiant deaths in the night, for the meseteros were waiting for them by the river, and fell upon them as they were filling their hide bags with water for us. They fought them off, but eight men were killed that night, including my own brother, and of the rest, six were badly wounded. What was worse, we didn’t have any water. So the Chief decided to take the Army down to the river the next day, which we did, but of course we spent most the morning traipsing down and collecting water, meaning we made miserable time”.
“We could see their scouts in the distance all the time. I was grieving for my brother, and desperately wanted to avenge him, but all day long we never got within range of any of the scouts. We had hoped to fall upon their herds of animals and plunder the food we needed, but of course since they knew we were there, this was impossible, and at dusk, when we made camp, we had to hunt for our suppers, all the while knowing that they were out there, waiting for someone to wander away from camp to fall upon them.”
My father would always pause here, for a drink to remember his brother, before continuing.
“I was on sentry duty that night. Triple sentry, as I remember, and every man to sleep with his sword. There were three of us sitting there, huddled around a small fire so as not to freeze, with our backs to the light and staring out into the darkness. There wasn’t even a moon to show us what was out there. “
“At one point, our camp was attacked from the other side. But we were well aware of the old tactic, to attack from one side, and as everyone flocks towards the noise, the enemy will attack the newly abandoned side, and so we stayed alert and ready, and nobody bothered us that night”.
“We were relieved, eventually, and took to our beds gratefully enough. In the morning we learnt that a further 4 warriors had been hewn down during the night, and we grieved for them”.
“And so we marched on for four further days, and camped for four further nights, but now we had learnt, and every night we were watchful, and no more fell to the sword in the night”.
My father would always drop his voice here and gaze into the fire until prompted, lost in his thoughts of the past.
“They are true shadow walkers, these meseteros.” He would announce. “They vanish into the night like demons, and would appear when least expected. We can’t do that, we can climb cliffs and find metals, but who here has the experience to sneak at night unseen and unheard? Well, that rat Furl of course, but his father was sired by a rat and the grandson has returned to his roots”.