Jonas Salazar – Purpose on the Steppe

She could see the people, her people, they persisted among the smoldering ruins like ants swarming their flushed colony. Some of them peppered the ground, dead and disfigured, others were being dragged away by soldiers with bloody swords and fired crossbows. Excitement was on all their faces, the dead and the living shared fearful eyes, arched eyebrows, and mouths contorting into silent screams and cries of pain. As Syra walked further into the village she noted with relief that most of the children seemed to be alive, to her right a young boy huddled on the ground with his knees to his chest, shock gluing him next to a large pile of still smoking ashes. Probably his house, Syra noted mentally, and maybe his family was trapped in there. The soldiers and the rest of her company were trying to keep the children alive, the whole reason the king had allowed this excursion was because Syra had promised him a reward in potential cavalry recruits. 

Syra turned away from the shell shocked boy, walking on between a pair of animal pens. The village was bigger than she remembered, when its outline had first appeared to Syra’s company she had noticed many new tents that hadn’t been there during her childhood. It made it harder to recognize the old tents, the yurts Syra herself had lived in. She was searching for them now, hastily weaving between soldiers, children, and dead bodies, trying to look at the remaining structures before soldiers threw torches at their edges.Syra noticed a few before they went up in flames, she saw an old portable stable, built of imported red wood. She wondered if it was the same one she kept her own horse in during her childhood, her horse; that had been a pain to train and who always obeyed better for her parents and teachers then it did for her. She noticed a yurt whose sides were covered in crude finger paintings, Syra remembered painting there as a kid, she remembered that childish act being her favorite part of the whole day. She noticed the old armory as it began to collapse, she remembered being escorted there as a child with her friends, everyone being so excited to receive their first bow and quiver of arrows. Syra had never understood her peers’ excitement, nor had she ever come to appreciate her family’s traditional weapon. She smirked a little as the large tent fell in on itself. It’s not what I’m looking for, though, she reminded herself, what’s really holding me back is still out there

“Excuse me, ma’am,” a soldier approached Syra from behind her, “I think we’ve found your families’ dwelling. There’s a yurt on the far side that matches your description.” “Lead the way,” Syra replied, anticipation rising within her as the duo walked through the village. On either side of her were more burning buildings, dazed nomads, and dead bodies being piled up by bored soldiers. Yet Syra hardly noticed, all she cared for was her destination and the act that would follow. She had left this place long ago, she had tried to forget her nomadic upbringing in a settled city, tried to trade in her combat skills and personnel horse for a place in the stuffy bureaucracy and personnel prestige as a translator and advisor in foreign relations. Yet she never had truly separated herself from her family and upbringing, although she had picked up the city’s language fast people were only interested in learning her native tongue. Although she had journeyed far and wide with her family and village as a young girl, seeing more of the continent than most read about, the king was still more interested in assigning her to monitor the activities of the nomadic tribes that lived in the steppe. Over time she had proven her skills as a strategist and advisor, she had earned her wish of covering and watching other peoples and places, and yet her skills and knowledge concerning nomadic life continued to stick to her. She hated that, she wanted to be nothing of the person she once was, no matter how much it benefitted her new leaders or people. 

“Ma’am,” the soldier’s voice brought Syra out of her thoughts, they were rapidly approaching the outer edges of the village, on the far side from where the soldiers had entered. There were few corpses here, the fighting was over, the nomads never really got a chance to prepare. Most of the buildings were still intact too, in the distance Syra could hear her company lighting new fires, but near her the men were busy bounding the arms of adults and rounding up children. They were going through the homes in pairs, occasionally dragging out a kicking child and elders shivering in the cold night air. Perhaps I should tell the soldiers to be less harsh, these people did just witness their whole community get torn apart, Syra thought for a second, no, no that won’t do. They’ll be better once they’re sleeping in a proper house. Of course their shivering, winter is approaching and they think it’s ok to live in these conditions. Syra could not let herself feel bad for these people, it was their fault they chose to live like savages. This is the reason you had to leave, remember all the great things you’ve earned since leaving. A house in the inner city, a servant that attends to your every whim, weekly dues collected from the farmers. She thought of her life in civilization, and shook off the nostalgia that gripped her for the faintest moment. 

The guard escorted Syra another fifty yards, then stopped them in front of a rather luxurious home, compared to the other yurts.This one had silk drapings marking the entrance, and the sides were decorated with depictions of flying owls, running horses, and leaping deer. Syra’s home hadn’t changed much since she’d last seen it, but now she found herself slightly revolted as she stepped inside. She looked around at the low ceiling, her estate had ceilings made of smooth plaster, far better than the stained and patched covering currently above her. Syra looked at the faded rugs beneath her, she bent down and lifted one up, exposing the flattened grass beneath. As a child she had smelled the earth every night as she slept, now she wrinkled her nose and wished for her scented candles. Syra stood back up and glanced at the small fire in the center, the two sleeping matts in the corner, and the small trunk of clothing and wool boots. All of this for the chieftain and his family, Syra thought, the most important home in the community, and it barely disrupts nature, hardly keeps out the elements, and will burn down in five minutes. Syra didn’t know why anyone valued a home that was this insignificant.

Finally, Syra turned around, and gazed at the side of the yurt right next to the entrance. In this corner, a small wooden shrine stood. Small silver statues of the nomadic deities stood atop, with wooden bowls of food offerings and stubby, half melted candles casting a dim glow in the room. What really caught Syra’s attention was the woman kneeling in front of the shrine, her shoulders slumped, her shoulder length hair bedraggled and her night robe with flecks of dark red. She doesn’t look hurt, the blood is probably someone else’s, thought Syra, what will she think of me, after all these years? Syra licked her lips, her mouth suddenly dry, and tried to find the right words to say. “Mother?” she finally forced out.

The woman in front of Syra finally stood up, and with a swish of her robes turned around to face her daughter. What a beautiful sight they were, mother and daughter with the same flowing black hair, dark brown eyes, in traditional nomadic robes of deep blue with matching deels. They both had the same posture, both stood up tall, shoulders wide with feet pointing ahead. Like nothing changed, thought Syra, I could be a little girl again, at my mothers side, learning the ways of our people. Again, Syra found herself thinking of her childhood with fondness, but why was she? She had always desired to ride farther than the edge of the steppe, always wanted more than what wandering the steppes would give her. She had found that, in no small part because of the chief’s wife.  Now a widow, that woman deserved to be civilized as Syra was, Syra knew she needed to give her mother a better life. 

Yet Syra knew not how to start, and it was her mother who broke the silence first. “I saw you leading the soldiers to us. A settled woman in nomadic garb, speaking with the authority of a chieftain with the purpose of a king. I knew purpose would be kind to you, but I could never imagine where purpose would lead you.” Poetic, as her mother had always been, the daughter of a griot and her husband’s interpreter. Syra wanted to speak just as beautifully as her mother, but her mind was full of anxiety. She had led soldiers in an attack on her old village, had helped burn down peoples homes, yet talking to family was the one thing she couldn’t bring herself to do. “I-I gave c-clear instructions,” Syra stuttered, “t-the children won’t be harmed. The elders and adults will be given safety as long as they don’t act out. Everyone will leave the village as it burns, tomorrow we will return and give the dead proper burials.” Then we’ll leave this place behind, and everyone will start living as sensible people, Syra thought. 

“Aaaahh!!!” A girl’s scream from outside caught both women’s attention, and Syra rushed outside, followed sluggishly by her mother. A few yards away a little girl was being kicked to the ground by a soldier with a bloody face. Syra watched as the girl got back up, crying and still screaming, and charged the soldier who kicked her again. “Soldier!,” Syra yelled to get his attention, “we don’t kick the children!” “She threw a rock at my face! Hit me in the nose!” Why can’t the kids at least be passive, Syra thought with annoyance. “Well she’s barely ten years old, grab her around the waist and put her with the rest! The soldier obeyed, albeit grudgingly, dragging the girl away and threw the tents. At this point the soldiers had made their way to this side of the village, and they started dragging the remaining people away from the buildings to a small crowd enclosed by more troops Syra could see forming to the left of the village. 

“This is what you wanted when I left you in the care of the people on the coast? To help that pathetic port turn into a stinking, filthy city so that you could come and make us miserable?” Her mother’s words stung, albeit partly misleading. “I knew you wanted more than our simple life, I know you wanted to be literate, wealthy, and well traveled. I knew you were suffering every day you tried to hide it, I knew our expectations were tearing you apart. So why are you now tearing your people apart with your expectations?” Syra looked back at her seething mother, mustering all the compassion she could into her response. “I’m not tearing us apart, I’m providing us a way to a better life. It’s a painful process, but we will gain far more than what we have lost.” A slap to Syra’s right cheek made her take a fearful step back, a backhand to her left made her give a short cry of pain. “Children have been orphaned because of you. Your childhood friends have been killed in front of their families because of you. I watched you light the first fires; to the stables, workshops and supply mounds, our whole way of life has been erased by you.” 

Syra lunged towards her mother, grabbing her robe and pushing her back against the wall of their yurt, her mother wincing as she hit a wooden support behind the outer covering. I’m so tired of my family not understanding where we are wrong, Syra was burning with rage, why are people so stupid to the obvious?” “I didn’t ask anyone to raise a sword, or an arrow. I didn’t ask you all to hide in our animal hides and resist progress,” shouted Syra, spittle flying from her lips. She was done being patient with her mother. She heaved her mother to her feat and half dragged, half pulled her towards the steppes beyond the yurts. The smell of blood and burning hide swirled around them as Syra led them out of the village, into the knee-high grass beyond toward the crowd of villagers. 

“Let go of me, let go of me you foreigner!,” her mother shouted as the fires from the village grew more distant behind them. “I am not a foreigner, I am your daughter!” “No, I let you go,” her mother gasped as she dug her bare feet into the grass and soil, grabbing at Syra’s robe and slightly ripping the fabric. “I let you go, and I lost you. I did what I thought was right, but you were given to savag-” “My king, and my fellow citizens are NOT savages! We act like savages, YOUR people, my father’s people act like savages.” Syra was trembling with rage now, her mother was fighting with desperation, they nearly fell over three times as they got to the outer circle of soldiers. The noise from the crowd beyond the troops was deafening, crying children were calling out for their mothers and fathers, elders covered in ash were huddling to stay warm as the wind whistled through them, husbands and wives were holding their bleeding or dead spouses. A few villagers turned to watch as Syra parted two soldiers and pushed her mother toward the crowd. Her mother held on to Syra’s robe, ripping the front as she stumbled and was caught by a man around Syra’s age. 

“Traitor!” Syra looked up as she walked back behind the line of soldiers. Her robe was ripped in the front to reveal a vest of tightly woven leather scales, the same chest plate of armor that the soldiers around her were wearing. “Traitor!” the man who had caught Syra’s mother said again, his mouth contorted into a hateful glare. “You can’t even wear our full attire. I guess it’s easier to put on an outward disguise than wear the clothing you were raised in.” The crowd was getting quiet now, people turning to look at the confrontation between their clansman and their chieftain’s only child. “You must be disgusted by your own clothing.” Of course I am, Syra thought, it’s the mark of the poor, those who were too lazy to join civilization. “I am no traitor,” Syra said, “I simply am doing my duty to my king, and guiding my kin to a brighter future.” Syra turned to the troop commander, who stood apart from the circle of soldiers. “Make sure there’s no trouble tonight, if the smoke from the village comes this way move them out of its way,” she barked. The troop commander bowed, looking at her with a steely gaze. “Yes ma’am,” he said. Syra turned away and walked back towards the village. 

When Syra reached the outskirts once more the soldiers who had stayed had managed to light a fire to every structure in Syra’s sight. She threw her deel towards the nearest burning yurt, then wrestled out of her robe, throwing it onto the fire as well. She preferred the leather chest plate and skirt of her culture, her new people. She watched as the fires burned the yurts to the ground, plumes of smoke rising into the sky. She watched as several bodies went up in flames, people she had once lived with now leaving this world. I did it, she thought, I ended this pathetic way of life. Tomorrow, I can start to make my kin great. She waits for satisfaction to come, she waits as the fires slowly die down and the first rays of sunlight wash over from the eastern horizon. She waits and waits, for her satisfaction, but it never comes.

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