During their walk from the perch where Rihas’ daughters had gone to meet him, Japhia discloses some very thought-provoking revelations regarding her budding empathic trait. Her description of an entity roaming the Hinterlands is most concerning. Japhia believes that despite it being more akin to a predator than a nomad, it feels anger, happiness, and sadness like nomads do. And although it is not nearby, its feelings are “brighter” and more intense than any nomad she had ever met. It has been especially active over the past two nights, projecting anxiety so brightly that she has been unable to sleep.
Rihas has no reason to doubt the girl. The Hinterlands and Graves are home to a variety of beasts and predators. They make dens in the old world ruins or dense forests and hunt other beasts (and sometimes nomads) for food. Nomads prefer large, open tracts where predators have no advantage and can be driven away or killed before threatening the main camp.
Noise from some commotion in the common area reaches Rihas and Japhia’s ears before they see it. The five visiting women have gathered at the common area’s periphery. One visitor is addressing several nomad women who are working to prepare meals for the camp. The visitor projects a sense of anger, outrage, and boiling contempt. It is the sort of sensation Rihas has encountered when unknowingly violating some deeply held individual belief.
Though it is rare, such troubles occasionally arise while negotiating feasts with scouts from other Nomadic tribes. Local nomads have intermingled for many generations and speak one language. They likewise share similar beliefs, traditions, and customs. Occasionally, once every few generations, large groups of nomads from distant places will enter the area, having fled some manner of flood, fire, or famine. It is in those situations when most misunderstandings occur.
Rihas overhears some of what is transpiring as he and Japhia approach, “I am trying to help you! Why won’t you talk to me?”
This comes from the woman projecting anger and outrage. It will be difficult to communicate while she is in this state. Having moved closer, Rihas also senses profound fear and anxiety brewing below her more intense surface emotions. And it is not only her. Each visiting woman projects some emotion ranging between concern and dread.
“Papa, they’re scared, ” Japhia says meekly while clutching onto him, “I’m scared. I don’t like them.”
Rihas kneels to meet her eye level, “You’ve been awake for many hours. Your brothers are back from scouting and will be tired. Go to one of them and sleep.” Japhia smirks and nods. His children have always shared a strong familial bond. Though his sons, in particular, have come to learn the consequences of spoiling their youngest sister. Whereas Inmah has functioned as a mother for them all, Rihas’ oldest son has been more like a second father than a half-brother to Japhia. It comes as no surprise when she sprints away toward his wikiup.
Rihas approaches the group and finds himself entering into their curious exchange. The visiting woman continues talking to the women preparing food, “Why do you females allow the males to sleep while you are left to toil alone?” She fumes, “Why won’t you answer me!?”
Rihas has always been a commanding presence. He stands head and shoulders taller than most nomad men. He carries himself confidently and speaks deliberately while sparing unnecessary flourish or small talk. The visiting women all eye him with interest as he approaches, but the woman making a ruckus addresses him first.
“You! Why are these females working while you stand idle?” Rihas has learned to suppress sudden changes in emotion. His surprise in response to the woman’s brash greeting is revealed only by his facial expression. Holding his tongue, he considers how best to respond.
Before he can formulate a proper greeting, the woman continues by shouting harshly, “Speak, male!”
“Peace, and Calm to you,” Rihas decides upon the formal greeting used universally among all tribes, “I am Rihas. I am told you come seeking assistance from the Nomads.”
The woman narrows her eyes defiantly in response to his formal tone and dismissal of her initial inquiry, “Do not trifle with me, male. Go summon the female in charge of this camp. I will speak my request only to her.”
Rihas is well known for his even temper, but this woman has seemingly found the short route toward igniting it. He speaks with more force and ire than intended, “We have no female leader at this camp. You may communicate your request to me if you so desire. Otherwise, you will be escorted back to your village empty-handed.”
Though weathered by age and likely beyond her childbearing years, the lead woman’s features are slender and delicate. Having first appeared to be white from a distance, it is now evident her hair is a soft wheat color, perhaps more yellowish than wheat. Though she wears a long traveling gown, her fair skin is immediately noticeable. If not for the bitter expression spoiling her otherwise pretty face, she would be remarkably attractive. Rihas cannot help but imagine how stunning she must have been in her youth.
“Mehetabel, please!” A woman appearing to be the youngest of the group speaks up. “This is important! You promised this would not happen!”
Mehetabel turns to face the younger woman as her fiery expression softens somewhat. She flattens her lips and nods toward the younger woman.
“Please excuse our interruption. I am Tamah, a healer for our village. This is Mehetabel. She is our village leader.” Tamah glances toward Mehetabel for any sign of reproach. Receiving none, she continues, “We are not accustomed to your way of living. Many among us find it unusual. Just as our way of living may seem unusual to you. We each have our own ways. Please forgive any disruption our intrusion may have caused.”
There is a short pause after which time Mehetabel speaks again, “Thank you Tamah. You are wise beyond your years.” The older woman says, gazing affectionately toward the younger.
She then turns her attention toward Rihas speaking to him as one would a child, “You are this camp’s leader?”
Rihas again considers his response before answering. He senses the hesitation causes some measure of aggravation for Mehetabel.
“Our camp has no leader. I am the eldest among scouts in this tribe. Being the eldest, I am their trainer and mentor. I also serve as proxy and negotiator for visiting tribes.” Rihas studies both women as they unsuccessfully tune their empathic traits onto him. The emotion-masking technique taught to him by his empathic mother has never once failed. Thus, the women cannot sense his feelings, worsening their own considerable anxiety. For an empath, it is no different than being unable to see, hear, or touch him.
“Well, then, Rihas,” Mehetabel says ominously, “We have lost a very unique member of our village. If she somehow manages to survive and is not found by us, she will become like a blazing beacon in the darkness. There exists a village far beyond any distance you have ever conceived. This village is so powerful and so vast, that I have no way of describing it to you. If I did, you would have no way of comprehending it. If the powerful village discovers her existence, they will come here searching for her. If we allow that to happen, all human life in the Hinterlands, Graves, and far beyond that, will either become their property or will be exterminated.”
Rihas frowns. Mehetabel is not lying or exaggerating, or she believes she is not. Worse, she is terrified – presumably at the thought of this “village” discovering the lost person. Mehetabel’s dilemma also brings a recent mystery into focus. Two nights ago, scouts observed an outsider, clad in a nigh-impenetrable shell, singlehandedly slaying a nest of giant predators. Scouts brought the outsider to the village after the battle. The outsider has remained unconscious and near death.
If an entire village of such powerful scouts exists, then remaining hidden from them is Rihas’ most important priority. No “demon tribe” will ever again take his family away from him. Rihas levels his gaze toward Mehetabel with an intensity and determination that causes her to flinch, “Then let us not delay.”