The Lay of Boketai Gan

This is another one of my “origin stories” for one of my role-playing characters. I never just “roll up” a character; I flesh them out, give them a history, and a mission other than just what my GM has in mind, whether it be a quest or a dungeon crawl. I make them real.

The Lay of Boketai Gan

In the years before the Spellplague, a nation of orcs formed and managed to persevere. Named the Kingdom of Many-Arrows, it lies in the North on the borders of Faerûn and the Hordelands of the Taan. Now, the Taan were understandably wary of the orcs of Many-Arrows, for they had spent many decades fighting the savage orc tribes that came down from the mountains. Indeed, one of the reasons for that name was the sheer number of ancient arrows still to be found in the deep grass of the borderlands. Admittedly, another reason was the number of archers the orcs had sent into the Hordelands in that long-ago time…

Nonetheless, the Taan came to realize that the orcs of Many-Arrows were more peaceful-minded than those of the mountains, and eventually the two nations became at first wary trading partners and later allies and friends. The Taan clans whose grazing lands lay nearest the borders became more than friends as well; some of the orcs and half-orcs married into the clans, and some of the Taan married into the orc tribes of Many-Arrows.

One of the Taan border clans was that of the Stormhorse. Its symbol is a dapple-gray steppe horse whose mane is the rain, whose hooves strike lightning from the clouds, and when the Stormhorse neighs, it is the voice of the thunder. The Stormhorse clan was one of the more powerful of the clans for many generations, and for some time profited greatly with the wealth and prestige that came with their new members.

Boketai Gan was a half-orc member of the Taan. She was a daughter of the Stormhorse clan, born to a Taan father and a half-orc mother who had been among the first to profit from the wealth the orcs brought with them. Her parents had recently begun a new breeding program for their horses, selecting for greater size than the small steppe horses of the past and buying tall horses from outsiders to breed into their lines. They reasoned that the new clan members, with their greater size, would need larger horses with greater strength to bear them. And for a time, all went well for them.

But then something changed. The rains no longer fell so often on the Stormhorse grazing lands. The herds grew lean, a bad sign for their survival for the winter to come. The riders had to go further and further afield to graze them, and other clans began to complain that they were encroaching on lands that were not theirs.

It was time to seek an answer—but that answer came in the form of a judgement.

The people went to the shaman of the Stormhorse clan, Ebugen, who prepared for the ritual of the Spirits of the Land. It took many days, and when the shaman came forth he was gaunt and drawn as though the Spirits had fed from his very soul.

The people waited as he came forth from the sweat lodge, more and more concerned as he kept silence. And then he began to walk through the crowd, sniffing like a dog seeking someone, peering up at faces. Their fears grew, and murmurs began to rise among them, until suddenly he gave a shriek that shocked them to silence.

Ebugen stood before three people: Alun Ghoa, the red-haired half-orc woman, Khulan Gan, her husband, and their daughter, Boketai Gan. He shook his staff before them, the bells on the antlers of the great deer skull jangling wildly, and again gave that terrifying shriek.

“Here,” he cried, his voice carrying to all in the clan. “Here are the ones who have transgressed against the Spirits of the Land! Here are the ones who must pay the price!”

Aghast, Alun Ghoa cried out to the shaman. “What have we done? What have we done so wrong that our people should suffer like this?”

“It is the horses,” the shaman replied. “The Stormhorse is angered that you should trifle with the children he gave into your care. The stallions you brought to our mares are too frail to survive our winters, and so the foals will be. It weakens the herd, and offends the Stormhorse who is our guide.”

Appalled, Khulan Gan ventured a question. “What must we do? How can we atone for this? What does the Stormhorse demand of us?”

Death,” the shaman said, and the storm winds sounded in his hollow voice as he pointed his staff at Khulan Gan.

Alun Ghoa cried out in a great wail of grief and flung her arms around her husband in a storm of weeping. Khulan Gan held her close, trying to console her, but she would not be still.

“Ebugen sky-father,” came a quiet voice, and the shaman jerked around to stare at the daughter of Khulan Gan, a girl of sixteen summers. “My father meant only good for the clan and for the Taan. Will the Stormhorse be satisfied if the stallions are sacrificed, and the foals when they are born?”

The shaman stared at her for a long moment, his eyes gone dark as pits into the night sky. He stared so long that she feared for his answer, but she would not look away. She held his gaze so that the Stormhorse would know she was sincere.

“No,” he said at last, the storm winds in his voice once more. “It is not enough.”

“Then take me, not my father.” She stood tall and ignored the cries of her parents behind her. “If the Stormhorse is offended by the offspring of his children, then let the child of those who offended pay the price.”

Again the shaman stared at her with those night-dark eyes, and it seemed to Boketai that something—else—stared out at her from within them. “Yeesssss…” came his answer, and he raised his staff to the sky. Above them the clouds gathered and the sky darkened, the winds whirling around them. The thunder rolled, and the wind wailed and moaned, and lightning crackled from cloud to cloud above them. Around her the people of the clan backed away, distancing themselves from her as from their guilt, but also from fear of what would happen next.

“Do you accept the Stormhorse’s judgement?” the shaman shouted over the wind.

Boketai nodded, and spread her arms wide. “By earth and sky, I do.”

The shaman raised his staff once more, and the lightning streaked down like a spear of light, tangling for a moment in the deer horns. And then the lightning shot across the field and struck Boketai in the chest.

The thunder roared, and the lightning cracked like the whip of the gods, and Boketai was flung back to lie lifeless on the ground.

 

Boketai opened her eyes and sat up carefully, rubbing the place on her chest where the lightning had struck. There was no pain, exactly, just a strange, hollow emptiness that ached to be filled. She looked around herself, and realized this was no place she had ever seen. Around her were long, rolling plains as far as her eyes could see, and when she looked even at the edge of her vision everything was as clear as if it were right at hand. The sky above was clouded like the aftermath of a thunderstorm, and every blade of the long golden grass was edged in light. After a moment she stood up and turned slowly, looking around her, and when she came back to the place she had started there before her was a strong stallion, gray as stormclouds.

“It is well that you gave yourself in sacrifice,” she heard, but the voice was in her head and not her ears. “But now you are no longer mine. You are banished from the clan and from the lands of the Taan. You must make your way in the world outside.”

“As you have said, so shall it be done,” Boketai said, and the ache in her chest opened wide as the valleys below the steppes. “But—what shall I do? Is there more to atone for?”

The stallion shook his head, and rain flew from his mane in torrents. He looked down at the ground between them and pawed at the grass for a moment. Then his head came up again, and he locked his eyes on hers. Deep they were, the soft, gentle eyes of all the horses she had ever known, but with a wisdom far greater than theirs. “Go south,” he said at last. “Seek other gods, for Teylas and Etugan are only for the Taan. Make pact with the powers of the world, the elements that give you life and strength. Use the skills they teach you to help those in need, and to fight those who would harm others. Study well, and learn all you can, for one day you will return to the Hordelands of the Taan in their time of need.” He nodded his head. “Go now, once daughter of the Taan. You take my blessing with you.”

After a moment, Boketai bowed her head in respect, and turned away. But she paused for a moment too long, and the Stormhorse nudged her hard with his nose. She staggered, her arms flung wide for balance, and closed her eyes as a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her.

 

Boketai opened her eyes, and found herself standing supported by her mother and father, the shaman staring at her intently. After a moment he nodded as if satisfied. “You have been given a great honor,” he said. “The Stormhorse has spoken with your soul.” He looked down at her chest, and gestured with one hand. “You bear his mark, now.”

Boketai looked down also, and saw that where the lightning had struck the layers of cloth and leather of her clothes were burned away; some of the edges still smoldered and smoked. But where they had been there was a mark now between her breasts. Not a burn, nor a scar, yet somehow a little of both, in the likeness of a small, sturdy hoofprint like those of the steppe horses she knew.

But beneath it, deep in her heart, there was still an emptiness that cried to be filled.

“You are no longer of the Stormhorse clan, Boketai Gan,” the shaman said, “No longer of the Taan. Gather the things that are yours. You may rest this night in your father’s ger, but in the morning you must leave these lands.”

That night she spent with her parents, speaking of what had happened to her, and asking of what they might know of the lands south of the steppes. At least she would have a plan for the next day. But when she left the ger and whistled for her horse, the shaman stepped between them.

“Take your saddle if you wish, but take no horse that is the child of the Stormhorse.” And before she could ask, he added, “Those horses your father bought are forfeit by your own words, to be sacrificed for the good of the clan. I am sorry, Boketai, but you must walk this path alone until you leave the steppe.”

She nodded sadly, then stepped around him to stroke the nose of the sturdy little mare she had raised herself. Then she turned to go, but was stopped by the members of her erstwhile clan. The Mother of the Clan took her hand and folded it around a small leather bag, and as she did Boketai could feel the shifting of coins within it. Before she could speak, the Mother laid a finger on her lips, and she was still.

“You have sacrificed yourself for us, Boketai Gan,” the Mother said, “and it will not be forgotten. You will not be forgotten. You gave the gift of yourself, of your family and friends, that you have now lost. In its place we can only give you this. It is enough and more to buy a horse when you reach the southlands below the steppe.” And then she leaned forward and placed a kiss on Boketai’s forehead. “Take my blessing, and the blessing of the Clan. May you find help when you are in need, as you gave it to us.”

Boketai clasped the woman’s hands, then did the same to her mother and father. Lastly, she made the gesture of respect to the shaman. He stared hard into her eyes, and she paused, confused. In her mind she heard his voice: “The Stormhorse has said that you are not banished for all time, Strong Steel. A time will come when you must return. You will know when that time has come.” For a long moment she stared back at him, and then at last she bowed her head in acceptance. Then she leaned down and picked up her pack and her saddle and bridle, nodded to them all, then turned her back on all she had known and walked away.

# # #

The way down from the steppe was hard and long, but Boketai was a strong and sturdy youth. She walked all that day and well into the night, the full moon lighting her steps, and halted only when the ground became too steep for safety. She rolled out her blankets and lay down to sleep, using her saddle for a pillow.

The next morning she woke with the sun in her eyes and the world around her glittering with tiny jewels everywhere. Never before had she seen dew on the grass, beads of fire on spiderwebs, even stars on her own eyelashes! All around her was a sea of cloud, foaming and boiling up the mountainside in a cool fog.

Out of the mist came a pip! pip! peeWIT! and a tiny bird like a finch fluttered up to land on a twig not far from her bedazzled eyes. It fluttered its wings and flirted its tail, uttering pip! with every flash of its feathers. Where it perched in the shadow of the bush it was a rusty brown, but then the sun rose just that bit further and turned them into a fiery copper. Very slowly Boketai put her fingers into her pouch and pulled out some crumbs of waybread, and gently scattered them on the ground. The copper finch cocked its head at her, looking at her with one beady eye and then down at the crumbs.

“Yes, little sister, those are for you,” Boketai said softly. At that, the copper finch fluttered down and pecked up all the crumbs. Then it sat and waited, hoping for more. Carefully, Boketai moved to sit up, and the finch hopped back a few feet to give her room. As she rose, some strands of her hair caught in the silver ornaments on her saddle and pulled free from her braid. They fluttered free, catching the light, and the little finch dove forward to snatch them up in her beak and flew away.

In exchange, a long copper tail feather floated down to land in Boketai’s hand, and she smiled. “Thank you, little sister,” she said.

She cupped her hands around some of the pale flowers that grew around her, wetting her hands and washing her face in the fragrant dew. Then she stood and stretched to loosen her muscles, and sang her morning prayers to the Sun. When she was done, she sat again with her back against her saddle, and once again looked around her. The ledge where she had slept was broad and wide, with a deep overhang that would shelter her from the worst of the early spring weather, and she decided that this was a good place for a Spirit journey.

From her pack she took out a small drum and drumstick, a little silver bell, a dish, and a stick of incense. Into the dish she poured a bit of ayrag, the fermented mares’ milk of her people, and set it out in front of her. Then she took her flint and steel and a bit of goat-hair fluff, and struck a spark to the fluff. She touched the incense to the tiny flame, and when it began to scent the air with its perfume she pushed one end of the stick into the ground. The burning fluff she snuffed out with her fingers, and when it was cold she placed it back into the pouch with her flint and steel. Then she rang the little bell three times to the four directions, and set it aside. Finally, she picked up the drum and began to tap out an intricate rhythm.

She began to hum along with the beat, her eyes closed against the sunlight, going deeper and deeper into the place inside herself where her soul dwelled. As she did, the beat became simpler and simpler, until at last it was an echo of her slow heartbeat. And at last she prayed to the Spirits of this place.

She called them to her, the spirits of the land; the spirits of life, of earth and wind, of rain and lightning. Of cold, and fire, and thunder. She called them to witness and told them her story, and begged them to guide her in this new land. And she asked them to give her power, that she might do as the Stormhorse had commanded her: to help those in need, and to fight those who would harm others.

And as the sun rose, they answered her.

To those below, it seemed there was a small storm on the heights, a storm lit by fiery lightning and frozen rain, and thunder that rolled down the mountain like stones, and the people who saw made warding gestures against the spirits, fearing their wrath. What the spirits told Boketai, and what they asked of her, she never told; indeed, sometimes it seemed she did not know herself. But after that day the empty space in her heart was filled, and her soul was steady in its course.

And within the curve of the hoofprint on her breast were strange symbols, the signs of the elements with whom she made her pact.

The next day, she came down from the hills and entered the town. There she bought a sturdy horse, and had enough coin left over to fill her pack with provisions. And on the day that followed she rode away, and never looked back.

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