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In one quick motion, Vargas strikes a spark igniting the bonfire. The flame overtakes the wood in waves topped with billowing streams of black smoke. The crackling fire strobes across the faces that had assembled.
Since The Ruin, the great leaders of the tribe have been igniting the Sacred Flame of Summer Festival before offering words of wisdom and inspiration for the coming year.
Still as statues, the group stands in wait of Vargas’ words. But in silence, he deliberately turns and staggers to his carved wooden chair. Still, upon taking his seat, the tribe erupts into a drunken swagger of song and dance.
In a somber corner of the festival a group gathers. A frail old woman under a frayed gray shawl mumbles, “I don’t know. Things were better once. They felt better.”
A man, with a crescent of salt and pepper hedging his scalp, clears his throat. His face is marred with charred flesh causing words to stammer from his slanted jaw. “I’ve always liked Vargas,” he said. “Against the Carbon Wolves I followed without question. But he’s become homely. The gangs rally at our gates, while he savors a warm meal.”
“Mmmm-hmmm,” says the old woman. “What do you to say, Chino?”
A man of many years hobbles from the shadows, laboring each footfall. His eyes are gray and shrouded by brows as furry as spider legs. His rippled face bares a matching mustache. “I feel a change,” he grumbles. Each word fights through heaving breath, but a small group circles him expecting revelations. It’s well known Chino’s predictions are seldom wrong.
One of Chino’s listeners is a young man, named Zerby. His eyes glow a bright brown under a golden mop of hair. His tan body is gangly and lean, but agile and strong. He pins his saucer eyes on Chino and says, “What do you expect, wise-one?”
Chino, struggling for breath says, “All events must have cause, young man. Can you not feel it?” He looks around at his audience.
His admirers respond with blank faces.
“Someone of strong will must step forward and demand something better. It is our way. The way Vargas took the reins.” He pauses, as if asking a question, but no one dares disturb him. “Nanman was at one time beloved by the people. But he became complacent, corrupt. Having forgotten the tribe follows only when the destination is desirable, his support vanished. Vargas felt the currents shifting and took the center of the field at Summer Festival. Feeling the tribe’s strength behind him, he roared a challenge across the field. Nanman accepted and later regretted. Vargas has been a fine leader, but barring any bold proclamations, I see a change.”
“But who?” scowls the old woman.
“It is hard to say who might have the courage,” says Chino. “It would have to be someone who can handle a wild animal. Vargas can be a wily beast.”
“Any sturdy lad can best a beast,” says the old woman. “Zerby, for example, is a fine hunter.”
“I have heard the finest among us,” whispers Chino, nodding to the young man. “Yet, the man must also be strong and solid of heart--a man of vision and fortitude. Our tribe would not follow anyone.”
“Zerby keeps a good strong house,” says the old woman. Giving an eye towards Zerby, she says, “Your valor in the field as well as at home is well known. How is the little one doing?”
“He’s doing well. He’ll be two in a couple of weeks.” The attention rattles Zerby’s nerves. He clenches his sticky fists behind his back.
Chino looks into Zerby’s eyes. He cups a shriveled hand over the young man’s shoulder. Speaking to Zerby as if alone, he whispers, “I have faith in your future.”
Zerby’s complexion pales. His eyes grow to envelop his face.
“Yes Zerby, it is you,” says the charred old man, with conviction.
“Zerby,” says the old woman, “you are a good and kind man. I am behind you.”
Chino, without releasing his lock, says, “Can you feel it? There is a change in the winds.” As he spoke, a large gust bound through the camp bending the flames to a translucent blue dome before releasing the rolling blaze.
Zerby struggles to control a shiver in his hands. His thoughts dart from one thing to the next, not able to focus--his family, the tribe, Vargas, all flitting through cobwebs. He feels everyone’s eyes burning through to his fear. Glancing to Chino for comfort, he sees a blessing in the old man’s eyes.
As if a time-shift or hypnotism had been used, he finds himself staring up at the carved wooden seat of power. He stands dead center of an engulfing field of onlookers--his eyes on the large man beneath a ruffled brown cloak. It’s like a dream as he hears the challenge roll from his tongue before he can register it.
The large man flexes his forearms pushing himself erect. His face is relaxed in contrast to Zerby’s, and he says, “Are you certain, boy?”
Zerby offers Vargas a silent stare. He feels cold eyes on him now, not warm and supportive as he had hoped. Chino’s blessing is a distant memory. He questions whether it even happened. The deed has been done, however. Any other action would be seen as cowardice.
Taking a deep breath to muster his courage, he roars, “Yes, I challenge you, Vargas, for leadership of the tribe!”
“Very good,” whispers Vargas. Leaping from his throne his boots slosh an imprint into the mud. He whips his arms to full extension releasing the brown cloak in a heap. Nicks and gouges, like badges of honor, decorate his chest. Zerby, across from the old warrior, bares a cherub’s face on a newborn’s body.
Two men scuttle onto the field delivering small blades to the mud within reach of the combatants. They scurry off as quick. Leaning forward, Zerby snatches the blade and assumes a stiff battle stance. Vargas squats to the mud and presses his hands deep, while his eyes burn through his opponent. A few moments pass before he pushes himself up from the ground knife in hand.
“Let it be known,” barks Vargas to the crowd, “this is a fight to the death. The man left standing leads the Wolf Pack uncontested.”
Vargas offers a congenial nod to Zerby, which Zerby reciprocates. Vargas drops into a defensive stance and the two begin circling one another. They circle in to striking distance trying to gain a rhythm, an edge. They feign knife strikes and dodges--neither man wanting to commit to soon.
The tranquil circling of Vargas can’t be goaded by the restless crowd, but Zerby’s skin crawls hearing the chants. He inches his way to Vargas. Seeing an opening he lunges for the cagey man’s mid-section. Vargas bobs left, but the attack leaves a thin angled red line across the man’s chest. It’s not a deep cut, but a trail of blood oozes from the crease. It gives Zerby some confidence and he relaxes his stance. In rapid succession he tries feigning, lunging, and retreating for safety.
Vargas, a veteran of many circles, sees the pattern. It’s not staggered--a repetitive dance. After the next lunge, he counts off, one, two, three, and jives right. Zerby, thrusting forward, is surprised by a slice across his bicep. He retreats, clutching the wound, but Vargas follows his recoil by puncturing Zerby’s left hip. The young man’s knees wobble like rubber, and without a response, a decisive slash takes Zerby’s bronzed throat.
The young man, spilling blood and stumbling backwards, tries holding his throat together with a clasped hand. He crumples to the mud like a rag-doll. The crowd gasps at the thud.
Vargas’s chest pours, but his face shows a stone cold stare. Standing alone in the middle of the field, he howls, “Who is the leader of the tribe?”
Without pause, the surrounding crowd bellows, “Vargas!”
“Let there be no doubt among you. I, Vargas, stand uncontested in the Wolf Pack.”
A unified Hoo-ahh is heard from the crowd.
“Two days from now, we will march on the Junkyards! The Scraps have kept that territory for too long, and I want it!”
Another cry of approval is heard from the crowd, and with it Vargas pivots and struts into his hovel. Once he crosses the threshold, an elderly man follows him in slamming the wooden door with a clatter. His gray eyes are shrouded by brows as furry as spider legs, and a matching mustache covers his upper lip.
“Do you think it was worth it?” he gasps.
“I gotta’ have their hearts going into the Junkyard,” said Vargas.
“I mean, killing Zerby. He was a good man.”
“Cattle. Deveroux is the man I fear. Had he challenged me, you’d be counsel to him now. As it stands, your scheme worked, Chino. Get to work on a plan to take the Junkyards.”
This reads as a good chapter in a book. I want to know more about Vargas' past and the setting. Well done!
Good story - clearer than the first one (bargain). And better more consistent ending. A little predictible as Zerby had no passion for the task. Keep writing.
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