[Player Character Journal: Domingo de Veracruz / Author: M. Weed]
The man stood up in his stirrups as much as he thought was prudent and gazed over the desert to his right. Honestly, he’d been daydreaming and out in the Bastard Sands that kind of behavior could kill you.
Most everything in the Bastard could kill you. The sand could kill you, a stampeding heard of wild hawkstriders could kill you, their natural predators the ‘yotes could kill you, not drinking enough water could kill you, drinking too much water could kill you, the list went on and on and on.
Was that what was out there, he thought? A coyote? It would have to be a damn big one or a damn hungry one to be this far away from the large herds. He had seen one stuffed that was 12 hands high in his father’s hacienda once. He did not like the thought of that and sat in the saddle long enough to tie his scabbard tighter around his thigh. His eyes never let the horizon though as his hands moved. The bird he was astride was a big one. He’d won it in a drunken poetry contest with another bard in a little border “town” of pueblos carved in the side of a rocky cliff. He had managed to rhyme “rictus most” with “intercourse.” He had also managed to make an enemy for life that night of the little singer from Toledo who might have been pretty in her own right except for the scar tissue under her eye. When all the laughter had died away and the crowd had flitted home, her eye with the ugly pink scar never left him and followed him as he put his saddle, all its silver inlay still intact, on the bird. He left the cliffs that very night, not waiting until morning and rode the bird hard toward the Lion’s mountains thinking she would expect him to hit the trade routes for a caravan rather than take the long away around.
Could it be the girl? He did like to think she had chosen to follow him. He did not want to kill her but he was quite willing and able to do so if she came. She had started the limericks after all. Her, with her almost child-like guitar. He’d encouraged it though. She had pegged him for a second son or range Don and thought he would be an easy mark. In point of fact, she probably played better than he did but he always had his wit and his wit had always kept him alive ever since he fled from his land and title or at least since he’d fled from his father’s land and title. So he chided himself again for not paying enough attention to the horizon. It was only when his mount had chirruped and started to shift from talon to talon that Domingo had “come on guard.” He’d been thinking about the girl and the game. He was too damn proud his father had always said. Pride should be added to the list of things that can kill you in the Bastard Sands. He was just thinking that he might write a ballad about it. A soft ballad about the hard sands when those very same sands exploded into life and he found himself several hands away from his bird, a partial stirrup still clinging like a peon child’s rag doll from his foot. He had his rapier out and was in position three before he’d even finished flinging the rest of the broken leather from his heel.
The thing towered over him. Tall and brown and desperately hungry. Domingo actually smiled just before it lunged at him. Damned if the girl might not have killed him after all.
The ‘yote lunged at Domingo de Veracruz and Domingo pivoted from position three into position seven. The animal seemed to sweep past him but was able to turn his snout enough to snap at the flesh of Domingo’s “free” arm. Domingo would always think of his empty had in that particular way. Under the tutelage of his old masters there was no such thing as a free arm. An open hand was merely another weapon, just unfilled with steel. Domingo tried to rake the animal with the cup of his rapier hilt since the blade was nowhere near anything vital and he used his free arm to keep the thing off balance as it glided past him all bones, matted brown fur and stink. It looked as if the animal’s huge head, bobbing on its scrawny neck, would snap but no such luck was with the man and the dirty thing came away with a year’s worth of lace in its mouth. Although gravity did the rest and the beast crunched briefly into the sand it seemed to simply fold itself up, all ribs and hips hanging about and then it recoiled out and back into a furious crouch, growling. It was fast. The Donling knew he had two options. End this quickly while he was strong and at his best speed or find a way to wear the ‘yote down and make himself too hard a kill for the thing to bother with. Make it know there had to be easier meat elsewhere. Domingo saw immediately that tactic two was going nowhere. A hungry but rational coyote could usually be scared off by noise or enough pain to startle. This animal was more aggressive than Domingo had ever seen a coyote, of any size, let alone a big ‘yote like this one. The thing was either rabid or loco with hunger. Since it was not discernibly drooling more than usual, or at least what Domingo thought was usual, he assumed the later. All these thoughts were born in a second. The ’yote came at him again after two.
It went for his legs this time. Of course, it had tried to land on his back the first time and snap his neck. Now its instincts told it to maim him and wear him down. Lunge, bite, bleed him, circle, lunge, bite, bleed him and eat. Domingo countered again from position three, to which he had instinctively returned, and this time he was able to aim a solid strike at its head which was low as it tried to catch his right leg. It was a good thrust but his blade slid along the crest of the animal’s skull and instead of killing it the fur and flesh along its scalp split opened after a moment and its skull shown in the sunlight yellow and white. It shrieked at him in pain. As a boy, Domingo could recall what he thought were women screaming in the marshing woods that had formed at the base of the Lion’s Tooth range near what was clearly the DwarflandIts (in the old tongue). When he confronted his father about it, self-righteously demanding justice against the bandits attacking their people Don Alejandro laughed and had told him it was a panther. The ‘yote screamed like that now. Its long ears suddenly flopping a little left and right since there was no muscle between them to hold them.
The ‘yote retreated a little but it did not flee. While Domingo spun away from position four to return to three, who might bleed to death was a question that had now for a time shifted into Domingo’s favor. He was already winded. While he had endured the most rigorous training a gentleman could face or afford, most of it was had been performed underground in the upper shafts and halls of the Dwarf Lord’s holdings. Even his human and his impossibly fast elven masters had gone underground to where the work was – the centers of civilization where the gentlemen were found.
“The center of the world is at its heart,” dwarves liked to say “and the heart of the world is under our mountain.” In the Bastard however, the heat could wear the best trained and heartiest down. There was also the old peon saying that “the gods created all the races. The Bastard made them equal.” Here in the Sands, Domingo would have stood at least an even chance of striking a killing thrust at one of his old masters. The light and heat were to a human’s advantage. Although he had never heard it spoken aloud he had always suspected that the Dwarf Lord’s natural aversion to bright light and the elves natural aversion to heat were all that had kept most humans free. The ‘yote did not seem to have heard either expression however, nor cared a fig for Domingo’s musings. It merely circled him, a little more warily, but even more fiercely than before. I have to end this now, he thought. He’s bleeding but I’m losing.
It continued to circle.
“You son of a whore,” whispered Domingo when he glanced at the hole in his shirt. He was not really angry then, however. The old ways always took over when he fought. Singing was nerve racking, sometimes his palms would sweat or his skin would cover with a thin sheen of sweat that he prayed to his mother’s gods no one would see but in a death dance it was always the same, he always went back to the old ways, the repetition, and the drills. The death dance. His new pet was doing a pretty good death dance of its own, thought Domingo. The animal snapped at him just then. It went for Domingo’s free hand this time. Had the jaws actually closed on his hand he might have lost it. It was ugly work but the swordsman’s slash sliced along the beast’s ribcage and a thin line of blood splashed on the sand. The ‘yote bit at Domingo’s exposed haunch then and gained an inch or so of leather. The man swung under the thing and lanced upward with all his strength. The rapier went right through the thing’s intestines, its heart and the top of the shining blade sprouted out of the maw of the thing like a brand new nose. It clawed at him now while trying to find a way off the silvered spit it suddenly found itself hung upon. Fighting his instinct, Domingo chose position twenty-three and he held the thing close to himself tightly. For a moment, it looked like the combatants were locked in the vicious hug of the osso. It was intimate as often the dance of death was. To Domingo it felt like he held the animal up for hours as it twitched and spasmed. With its jaws locked open by the blade, its claws eventually beat themselves out on the well-oiled leather of the bard’s short jacket. Finally, Domingo decided that he could lower the thing on to the sand. He stayed in close for another moment and with a twist of his sword hand he leapt back and away while withdrawing his blade. The thing looked dead enough but Domingo thrust the rapier through it lifeless eye and deep into its brain … just in case. It didn’t move. Domingo rose to his full height then and moved out of his combat stance.
“You son of a bitch-bastard,” he shouted at the thing. “Look at my shirt!” He kicked the dead thing one time in the ribs and heard a delightful crunch. It was the first time since the ‘yote sprang at him, all fur and teeth and rancid breath that Domingo had actually been irritated. It was a small fit of pique which he rarely allowed himself. Truth be told he wasn’t so much angry at the ‘yote but at himself for letting it ever get so close. His next problem snapped him out of his fit a second later. Where was the damned bird? A rider in the Bastard without a bird, a goat, a worm, a peon or a slave to ride was a dead man. Yet another causa mortis out here in the sand he said to himself. I really have to write that song, he thought.
The ‘yote stopped twitching at Domingo’s feet. The sand was plenty fresh outside the circle of the death dance so it was an easy thing to find the sandstrider’s tracks. The bird had lost a few feathers. No blood trail though. At least that’s something, Domingo thought to himself. Sandstriders were used to the deep desert and had evolved to out run most of their natural predators. The bird could be miles from here by now or just over the next dune. Much of what happened next would depend on the bird’s temperament as much as it’s training. Get the bird, get the bird, get the godsdammned bird, Domingo thought. He had never named the sandstrider. Many riders did but to him the bird was simply transportation. While he had never purposely run one to death he had known many a noble who had in the great races held at season’s turn. He’d seen many a heat blasted bird fall at the end of the hundred mile rally under the long shadows of the Mountains. Domingo did not like to waste things. He did not have to love something to dislike it being misused. He’d seen beautiful sandstriders with blue and emerald feathers with elaborate names like Moonrunner and Dustdancer ridden or lashed to death by callous Lords or their jockey’s. He never understood how someone with so very much could squander so very much. He had to find the bird soon or…
He saw it off to his left. It was pacing back and forth a few hundred feet from where the ‘yote had sprung on them.
“Good girl,” he cooed, “sweet girl, papi needs you.” The remains of his silver inlaid saddle, his guitar and supplies were still firmly tethered to the great bird’s back nestled firmly over its large but useless wings. Most importantly, his water jar was there desert tied on his saddle. He was suddenly parched looking at the jar.
The bird did not seem to be bleeding. It was agitated though, as well it might be. It looked up and saw him. The thing almost seemed to stare at him accusatorially as it stood stock still taking him in. He’d seen the great birds do that just before they bolted. Like many little cabberros he’d laughed when some bird left its rider on his rump while it showed the good bird sense to lope back to the confines of its paddock on the ranches of Domingo’s younger days. He had not understood then why the old comancheros had spat and glared at the boys. He knew better now. An untrained, skittish or just plain stubborn bird who dumped a rider was as good as a ‘yote. Leaving a rider in the sand was death. Some of the birds who proved unreliable had to be put down. Their giant legs roasted on great spits in some Don or noble’s hacienda or hill. The birds were good eating too if one applied enough sauce to the meat. The peons and comancheros wasted nothing. Many a peon had lived for a month on the cracklings of some Lords cooked sandstrider. That got him thinking about water again.
“Sweet bebe , pretty girl…” it kept looking at him and past him as well. Was the damn thing deciding whether or not too run? He was a few feet from it now but still too far to reach the reins or the saddle for a grip. The bird stepped back a step on Domingo’s next step forward. The Donling stepped up again and it stepped back. Damn thing is twitchy he thought, she’s going to run … and why not? It had been the one who had to save both their lives by chirruping Domingo out of his revelry before the ‘yote leapt on them from the behind the dune. The great bird seemed to come to a conclusion then and it turned its back on him and with its neck keening high in the air, it started to jauntily prance back toward the village they had left last night. He was nowhere near close enough to even bother to make a desperate leap at the reins. He was a dead man.
He was tired. Although not wounded significantly, exertion in the Day-Sand was exhausting enough. He was suddenly weary and he sank to one knee. The shadow of his feathered hat elongated upon the sand and as he looked down on it, too numb to despair, he did something he in his life. He started to sing. Too much noise in the Bastard Sands could mean death. Pretty much like everything else that might be done in the Bastard meant death. It just came to him, unbidden. If someone had asked him what had possessed him he could not have rightly answered. He sang one of the old songs his mother had taught him. A peon song. His near-noble father would have grumbled. But his father had never left the room when his mother sang. Not once.
“Sweet blossom, white blossom, gold blossom, blue
Long reacher, long reacher, long reacher do
Pluck me a sweet blossom in the cool of the morn
grind up the sweet petals into the corn
Long reacher, long reacher, long reacher be
Find me a sweet blossom to hide in the tree
Long reacher, long reacher, long reacher leap
Run with the sweet blossom all through the street
Sweet blossom, white blossom, gold blossom, blue
When they catch you long reacher may I have your shoes?
When they catch you long reacher may I have your shoes?”
The former or future Don Domingo de Veracruz ‘ voice grew ragged near the end. His throat was dry. He had realized suddenly he had closed his eyes as he sung. It was habit. His mother’s soft ebony hair brushing his check as she swayed over him. For the hundredth time he thought, that his father had truly loved his mother to have risked so much for her. It is the only thing we share in common, Domingo thought. He was mistaken on that point, however. When he opened his eyes he noticed that his shadow had grown exponentially since he started. The great bird’s long neck hovered over him now. The warm folds of the great thing’s crop lightly touched his cheek. Domingo looked up and the bird stared at him its large liquid eyes as black as Dagon’s Lake. It did not move for what seemed like a long time.
“Well get on with it,” she seemed to say. Domingo stood and swung his foot into the remaining stirrup. In what would have looked like one motion to an observer he grasped the water jar, opened the seals, and had a good swing. The bird arched his neck around and Domingo held the jar for it to drink. Later, Domingo resealed the jar and turned the bird back toward the east and spurred him gently toward the trade routes and the fringe of villages where a bravo might earn some coin or learn a secret or best yet