RiaR Marooned: “Stranger” by VictorK

Every month, the Bolthole’s “Read in a Rush” competition serves up flash fan fiction. 1,000 word tales usually set in either of the Warhammer universes, but sometimes in original settings. The winners will be posted on the blog. 

Stranger
by VictorK

The fire warrior hid beneath the stinking carcass of some alien beast and so survived the barrage that wiped out what remained of his cadre. In subsequent reports and other tellings he would emphasize the creature’s panic and the weight of the corpse pinning him down, but in his dreams he relived the fear and awoke with shame. The greenskins moved on, claiming only a few trophies from among the fallen Tau. The last that Shas’la from Vior’la saw was a large ork taking the ta’lissera knife that had bound the cadre together. He wanted to cry out, but his throat seized.

As the fire warrior pulled himself free the Kroot who had scattered when the first enemy shells burst over their formation emerged from the jungle. A savage strain of the species, each wore a unique tattoo on the side of his face. They regarded Shas’la with vacant, dim eyes. The fire warrior could appreciate their low sort of cunning, but he dared not draw closer to his erstwhile allies. Their shapers, some of their limbs hacked off to be consumed by Orks later in a bizarre reversal of the Kroot ritual, lay dead among the Tau. Shas’la resolved to ignore the aliens. He slung his plasma rifle, searched the bodies for ammunition, and started the hike back to the command post.

The Kroot followed.

Shas’la crested the last hill in time to see the last transport leave. He didn’t reach the base itself; swarms of greenskinned brutes blocked the way. The fire warrior could feel the cold hand of panic reaching up to tickle his heart. He was being left behind. Worse, the Tau didn’t know he was alive. Shas’la allowed himself to retch in the bushes. One of the Kroot concealed behind him edged forward, as if inquiring about his distress. Shas’la said nothing; he didn’t know the language and there was no shaper to translate. He was the last Tau on the planet.

The fire warrior retreated into the foothills to escape the marauding Orks. The rains and the Kroot followed him, and he spent many nights huddled beneath an alien tree, the eyes of the Kroot surrounding him. They will eat me, Shas’la thought. He had long gone through his own rations and could keep down little of the local flora. They will eat me and try and steal my language, and my culture. They will make themselves Tau and eat us all…Shas’la’s hand sought for the hilt of the knife that wasn’t there, and finally succumbed to sleep.

When he awoke, he was being carried. Malnourishment and the cold had sapped his strength, and now he found himself bound to a litter carried between the Kroot. Shas’la thrashed and cried out until a scaly claw clamped down over his mouth. Quiet, the Kroot silently demanded. Shas’la heard the rumble of ramshackle vehicles nearby. He complied, and soon fell asleep again.

There were more Kroot when Shas’la awoke. Others who had been left behind. They laid the tough bits from their hunt before him and he devoured the meat until he felt like retching again. Shas’la’s body would not let him die. The Kroot formed a circle around him and sat together around the firelight. They chatted amongst themselves in their clicking, guttural tongue. But they all stole their glances at the Tau. Still hoping that he might fade away and join his ta’lissera, Shas’la finally studied the Kroots’ faces. They were young; the ones who broke and ran lived. Cowards all, he thought. How long had they lived among the Tau? Couldn’t they tell a shas’la from a shas’o? Shas’la sought the knife again. He could not die until he held it again.

At first, Shas’la tried to teach the Kroot the way of the fire warrior. In the absence of the Tau, the Orks soon fell into fighting each other. Shas’la struck. The results were not to his satisfaction. Each Kroot seemed to be a Greater Good unto himself and would not support the others as was required by Fire Caste doctrine. Shas’la returned to sketching in the mud to plan his raids, but to no avail.

Kroot started dying. Shas’la could not deliver the unity and victory that the Tau promised. Once again, he feared that he would be eaten. The rains came again and he retreated with his new cadre to wait for a better fighting season. Shas’la accompanied the Kroot on their hunts for the first time, sacrificing the aloof posture he believed command required to try and form a bond with the aliens. What he observed opened his eyes. The Kroot feasted on their kill and howled to each other through bloody maws. Shas’la saw them as one, and followed every hunt thereafter.

Kroot could not become Tau, but Shas’la could bend them to the Greater Good. His raids became hunts, and he led from the front and ate from his kills. Orks from miles around sought him out, hoping for battle. Shas’la disappointed them and then struck when their war-lust had dissipated. He recovered his knife and drove it through the skull of the warboss who had severed his ta’lissera. He sheathed the knife, but did not yet feel complete. Shas’la ate the greenskin’s heart.

That night the fire warrior awoke to a roaring blaze and blank stares from his Kroot. They seized him, bound his legs, and threw him down before the fire where the young Kroot held him down. Shas’la screamed and cursed them as traitors, fearing that now he had become mighty the Kroot would at long last make him their meal. The strongest among them took his knife, and Shas’la cursed even louder.

The knife cut him along his right temple, shallow. The blood was allowed to flow over that side of his face, and the Kroot studied its path. He cleared some rivulets away, and let others stand. When he was satisfied, he wiped the Tau’s face clean. A fire-heated quill was drawn to the fire warrior, who regarded its cooling point with a promise to kill all of the savages. The strongest got to work, pricking Shas’la along the same course as his blood. The fire warrior fell silent. Shas’la regarded the tattooed faces of his cadre and let himself weep.

Another fighting season passed before Shas’la, his armor long broken and his rifle replaced by a crude Ork construct, stood in the wash of a descending Tau dropship. Reinforcements at long last. The Shas’o, in pristine armor with a drone over his shoulder, stepped down to the planet so many of his people had bled for. He regarded the lone Tau and his Kroot, The Shas’o’s gaze lingered on Shas’la’s tattoo.

“Berras.”

The Tau word for ‘stranger.’ Shas’la Vior’la Berras felt something turn in his stomach. He returned the greeting with a crisp salutation and reported his hunter cadre for duty.

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