Harken to me, children, and hear my words. These are the stories of our people, tales of strength and honour, malice and cowardice. These are the tales of how the nine tribes survived the Suffering, before the sands came. Yes, Shuri, there will be a princess.
Long ago the nine tribes were the servants of the gods. Who can name the tribes? Yes, Jakir, that is correct. Orrenai, Salmadi, Bedine and Fe’din, the Ameri, J’alin, Madith, Sha’tai and our people – the A’mai. Of all Men, it was the A’mai who were raised the highest. We served as seneschals, shieldbearers and advisors. We were truly the favoured children of the gods.
But then came the Time of Suffering, when the earth broke, the waters boiled and cities crumbled. In that time, when we needed them the most, our gods were nowhere to be seen. Their cities and towers lay empty, their great works abandoned. The nine tribes cried out and were full of fear. Like dogs with no hearth or master, we turned on each other. For forty generations we fought over the ruins and demesnes of the gods. We killed for rage, jealousy, and pride. It is the greatest shame of Man that this came to pass. Only the Orrenai remained aloof from the fighting, withdrawing to their temples and caves in the southwest.
In the eight hundred years of the Suffering, the Ameri had been all but wiped out, their lands salted and their women made barren. The Bedine and J’alin had been forced out of the cities. They, in turn, pushed the Fe’din far into the wilds of the east. I know, Shuri, we’re almost at the princess.
In time, there came to each of the tribes an ambassador from the Orrenai. In each case the message was the same, “Come in peace to the shadows of Mount Ashai. In that holy place will a contest be held. The prize shall be a treasure beyond mortal ken, a treasure so great that its bearer will rule over all the lands of the nine tribes. But be warned – spill blood outside of the contest and no treasure shall be had by any. A doom on your house should you break the peace of the Orrenai.”
So the sultans, khans and chieftans gathered their finest warriors and sent them to Mount Ashai at the appointed time. Oh ho, Kimmen, you are a bright one! Yes, this was the first Council of Khans. The tribes set up camp in the shadows of the mountain, where they were each met by a single warrior of the Orrenai. The warrior spoke, “Only those who defeat me in single combat will earn the right to compete for the treasure”. At first the tribesmen scoffed – it was well known that the Orrenai had no love for blood and battle. But, as the first challengers were dispatched in quick order, they soon realised their mistake.
The Orrenai swordmasters fought countless duels, until the sun baked the sands red with blood. As night fell, a worthy challenger from each tribe was found. Sala and Mu’din, princes of the Salmadi and Bedine, Ahmed of the Fe’din and Ahmed of the Ameri, Bulwar of the J’alin, Kierra, huntress of the Madith, Dark Krish of the Sha’tai, and Muhammed, King of the A’mai.
The challengers then ascended Mount Ashai to a cave near the summit. Inside they found a golden cage, and within the cage was a woman of such astounding beauty that all knew her to be the treasure of the Orrenai. In a voice of liquid honey she bade them welcome. She told them that she was Sh’alia and that she would give her hand to the champion that could open her cage. At once, Bulwar and Sala struck the lock with mighty blows but to no avail. Ahmed ibn F’e’din and Kierra tried picking the lock, also without success. Ahmed ibn Ameri and Mu’din – the Lion of the East – set themselves to bending the bars but their efforts were for naught. Only Dark Krish and Muhammed stood back and waited.
Sh’alia bade them cease their efforts, for only poetry could open the lock. She asked them for a poem about the simple beauty of the first spring blossoms. All were thwarted, for they were warriors, not poets, and none had ever taken the time to contemplate spring flowers. Their words were clumsy, hasty and ill-formed. As the frustrated champions began arguing amongst themselves, Sh’alia calmed them. She told them to return in one year’s time for another chance to open the lock.
The champions of the eight tribes returned to their people and, for the first time in 800 years, there was no war that year. The princes gathered poets and songsmiths to their courts, while some canny chieftans sent their sons to the Orrenai to study with the swordmasters. An uneasy truce reigned as Man prepared for the next contest.
The seasons turned and, once again, the Nine Tribes gathered in the shadows of Mount Ashai. This time the Orrenai duelled not just with swords but with songs and poems also. The tribes had prepared well and more champions joined the first eight at the summit of the mountain. Sh’alia made all welcome but, instead of a poem, she asked for a riddle that she could not answer. Again all were thwarted. Sh’alia answered all of their riddles quickly and kindly, thanking each champion for their efforts. The challengers were humbled by her grace and vowed to return in a year.
And so it has been for over two thousand years, children. Each year the tribes of Man have grown wiser and more adept at art, lore and philosophy. Each year have we been strengthened through the challenges of the Council. Each year the Council of Khans has become less a contest to acquire the hand of Sh’alia and more a time of learning and kinship. None alive know when the champions stopped ascending the mountain – perhaps it was when we realised that no tribe was greater than the others – but it is said that the Orrenai princess still waits, patiently, in her cage for her champion.