Death Holder swung his horse a bit closer to Wing, eyeing the clearing sky with some concern.
“The old quarry turnout?”
The bald Brother nodded, and Death spurred on ahead to pass the word to the scouts. On Wing’s other side, Fear showed no unease, simply commenting, “Ain’t gonna be much time to spare.” His dark eyes scanned the countryside, not expecting to see what he was looking for, but trying nonetheless.
“I know,” Wing replied, and that was that.
Two miles farther on, they reached the turnout, forty acres of bare, granite floored surface. Death had returned by this time but waited quietly on horseback while Faye’s lead wagon followed her master in a big clockwise loop, the rest of the train following her. About a third of the way around the loop, Fear also stopped and waited. When the loop had been completed with the lead wagon facing the cobbled road once again and the fortieth wagon completing a circle that was almost but not quite completely closed–leaving an opening some twenty feet wide–the entire train came to a halt.
Oh, there was some scrambling for a bit. Instructing the three youngsters to tuck back among the stacks of toilet paper as far as they could get, the slave girl leaped down from the seat, trotted forward with rope in hand, and tied off the lead horses to one of the ancient steel rings embedded in the granite. Every other driver fastened his lead animals to similar rings bolted to the tailgate of the next wagon forward.
It was not the sort of wagon circling a train would do if preparing for combat, but that was the order that had been passed.
The Brothers, in the meantime, dismounted and got to work. From side boxes came boar bristle brushes and pots of paint. Swiftly, but taking care to be precise, each Holder painted a symbol set on the side of one wagon, then moved to the next. Only these three men knew how to do this right, a mark that looked rather like the ancient pi symbol with a sideways lollipop stuck through the middle of it. Forty wagons to decorate, accomplished in half as many minutes.
Then they waited, three men standing in the opening to the wagon train’s inner circle, their arms folded, gazing out serenely over the grass from which rainwater steamed aloft under the heat of the noonday sun, rising from the thick grass and mud underfoot that would have bogged down any wagon daring to venture from the edge of the old quarry’s granite floor. Except for the teams, all of the horses were tethered inside the circle. Except for the Brothers, no human was in sight, every driver and every guard having found hidey holes inside the wagons.
They’d not been standing there long before the grass rippled, waved…and disgorged one, two, three…nearly four dozen of the Psubu’m’sptybalt. The great ape cats stood as they reached the stone, walking on hind legs as surely as any homo sapiens ever birthed. Seven feet tall or more, each three times the mass of a sizeable man. Males every one, unclad except for their natural fur but wearing what could only be described as war harness. Their short spears, throwing blades, and fighting daggers were all bone tipped–the Psubu’m’sptybalt eschewed the use of steel–but remained deadly nonetheless, tempered by a process known only to their people.
Most of them stopped some thirty yards off, just three walking forward to confront the shorter, lighter–and if truth be known, less intelligent–humans. Their obvious leader spoke in sign language to Wing Holder, not wishing to hear his atrocious accent. The bald one could speak a little of their language, yes, but human vocal cords were never designed for the gracious speech of the People.
The signing went on for less than a minute, then the lead ape cat signaled to one of the others, and a circuit was swiftly made of the wagons, eyeing the symbol-signs carefully.
“The paint is still wet,” the scout advised.
Wing Holder could not speak Psubu’m’sptybalt well, but he could understand much of it. “It could not be applied until the rain stopped,” he signed, “unless we wanted the paint to run. This would be sacrilege, and this we would not do.”
“It is accepted,” the leader signed. Without further ado, he turned away from the train and, dropping to all fours–with his ape arms tucked back along his flanks, the way such beings usually traveled–he launched into a space eating lope, a gait that moved its user along at nearly ten miles per hour. In moments, the Chosen were swallowed up in the tall, still wet grasses across the road; they would reach Finar village in a third of the time it had taken the wagon train in the opposite direction.
The Brothers gave the orders. Horses were untied, guards remounted, and the wagons moved out once again. Faye clucked to her team, soothing them; the animals had not been thrilled at the proximity of the great cat people.
“What happened?” Twelve year old Brak had resumed his place on the seat beside her, though this time his sisters were positioned well forward in the wagon, peering out under the seat.
“You mean, what did Wing and the ape cat leader say to each other?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know exactly, Brak. My eyes were hiding as yours were. But I can guess.”
“And those symbols on the wagons…if I remember right what Wing taught us in class last year…the symbols say something like, we were there, but we cast our eyes down and did not look upon the desecration.”
“The murdered body of their Holy One. The ape cats are mostly pacifists, see; they won’t fight unless you violate one of their taboos. But if you do that, they’ll slice you right up and send you off to your next life.”
Conversation trailed off after that. There was ground to cover. Besides, Brak suspected admitting to having peeked through a knothole in a wagon sideboard might not be the best of ideas.
At sunset three days later, having put Junction Northwest behind them and nearing the turnoff at which Fear’s fifteen wagons would leave them, the drivers circled the wagons, tended to their horses, and settled in around the campfires for one last night together. The higher mountain peaks were just barely visible in the far distance to the north.
“Those are from the bulge that reaches out a bit between Fear Pass Gap and Figure Eight Glens,” Faye informed the youngsters as she began scrubbing potatoes for Wing’s personal cook to fry. The boss liked them with skins on, but preferably without too much dirt.
An hour later, in deepening dusk, all but the sentries and remuda wranglers chowed down heartily. Those on duty would, of course, find plenty of meat and potatoes kept warm for them in the dutch ovens when they came off duty.
“Mr. Wing,” nine year old Joos asked brightly, “would you tell us a story?”
Wing Holder smiled. “You liked the last one? About the Tectonic Plate War? I’d have thought it might be a little rough for a lady like yourself?”
The girl snorted rather impressively. “I ain’t so little.”
“Ah. Well now, you have a point. How about–” He broke off suddenly as a coyote howled in the distance, finished with a double yip.
“No coyote that,” Joos observed. “Bet that’s it for story time.”
“You’re wise beyond your years.” Wing rose to his feet, listening, watching toward the west. “That’s part of our sentry code. Rider coming, friendly but fast.”
“Trouble in the wind?”
Wing didn’t hear that last query; he’d tuned her out. Before long, they could hear the thunder of hooves. Then a shape, seen but dimly in the deepening dusk, bore down on them until, pulling up within the circle of firelight, it resolved into the figure of one man on one horse but leading two others.
“Yan Vuros,” Faye murmured for the benefit of the children. “One of our top men. He’s rotated on those horses to get here, covered days worth of travel in less than one, or I miss my guess.” Then she fell silent, having no wish to miss what passed between her master and this obvious bearer of ill tidings.
“Can it wait till you’ve eaten?” Wing asked the rider.
“Barely, sir. Barely.”
“That’ll have to do. Sit. Faye, get Yan a plate and a mug.”
“While she’s doing that,” the courier said, stepping down and handing off the horses to one of the guards, “you might want to have a few mounts readied. If we’re not flying west by full dark, I mistake you mightily.”
“Figured as much,” Wing nodded, and gave the order. Then he calmly poured himself another cup of almint tea, added a dollop of honey, and sat quietly sipping while the man in front of him ate his fill.
“No sir. Tight as my gut is, I’d cramp something fierce if I did that. Okay, so here’s the news. In one word: Cleeg.”
The old leader heaved a deep sigh. “I feared as much when I saw it was you coming. Details, please.”
“Well, first of all, he’s earned himself a death sentence. Stole young Wara Kane, enslaved her by force. Claimed she consented, but the entire holding knows that’s rubbish. The Kane men rode to get her back. Cleeg killed Brandt and Phorus. Train’s alive but wounded. And sir, that isn’t the worst of it. The worst of it is, he used mort strikes, Cleeg did.”
Wing Holder hissed. Those few who were close enough saw his face contort in pain, agony searing his blue eyes so that even his beloved Faye had to look away. Then his chest rose and fell with one deep, slow breath…and his countenance turned to ice.
They all knew, of course. No mountain mortician ever used killing mort strikes against other holders. It was beyond taboo. It. Just. Wasn’t. Done. Sparring was always done in extreme slow motion, with extreme care. Full speed strikes were reserved for war against outlanders and for the more dangerous beasts of the wild. Never ever ever would a mountain man kill-strike another mountain man.
“With his sons gone,” Wing spoke softly, the quiet whisper of a steel blade being drawn from its sheath, “Train will have nothing to live for. If I’m not there in time, he’ll try again the moment he’s back on his feet.”
“Yes,” the courier agreed, “and many will follow him, outraged by Cleeg’s action. And there will be civil war.”
Just the two of them went. Both Fear and Death offered to go with, but as their central Brother pointed out, the freight train needed them. Besides, as close as the Brothers were, Cleeg’s faction–if he prevailed–might well see their presence as an opportunity to rid himself of two neighboring leaders. If he had decided this was the time to attempt to take over Wing Holding, he might be deluded enough to go for a trifecta immediately.
Neither Fear nor Death liked it, but they saw his point.
Wing and the courier thus rode into what was now full dark, three fresh horses each, minimal weapons, adequate food and water for a single 24 hour run, no more.
Those stuck with the freight train worried, unable to hurry the teams, not knowing what they would find when they reached home. Cleeg had always had ambitions, a mountain of a man, nearly eight feet tall and skilled in every weapon known to man. He had charisma, too. Men flocked to his banner. Women threw themselves at his feet. Some called him the Walking Love Potion, others the Danger Within. The freighters did wonder, though. Why had he chosen to strike at this time?
One theory was that he’d miscalculated. The train had made good time this year, returning a good two weeks ahead of schedule. Perhaps he’d thought he’d have time to prod the conservative factions of Wing Holding into hasty action, into a conflict he’d be confident of winning in Wing’s absence.
Perhaps. But nobody really knew. It was all guesswork.
When they reached Granite Peak Stronghold some four days later, their confusion only increased. The word was out. Wing Holder and Cleeg would meet tomorrow in the Arena.
“In the Arena?” Faye asked Wing in their quarters. “You aren’t going to actually fight that monster, are you? Are you?” She sounded more like a wife than a slave, but of course theirs was no stereotypical master-slave relationship.
“No,” Wing replied, looking up from the belt he was treating with neatsfoot oil, “I’m going to execute him.”
“Uh…he doesn’t think so. Word is–well, what did happen?”
“Sit down, honey. Your pacing is making me nervous. Now, let’s see. First, I got Cleeg to release Wara. She’s back with her family. What’s left of it.”
“You–how did you do that? I’d have thought he’d laugh at you, point out that he commands hundreds of fighters, and dared you to try.”
Wing nodded. “He did that. I simply replied that if he didn’t release her to me on the spot, I would Call War immediately.”
“Call War. See, Cleeg does want war, but on his own terms. As long as he’s healthy and charming everybody he’s not raping or killing, yes, he could probably round up 200 or so fighters, or close to it. If he can position them right, that could be real trouble for the holding. But he wasn’t ready, and most of all, if he found himself embroiled in combat before the wagon train got home, he’d have to worry about fifty of the best warriors the holding has–the men who served as wagon guards on the freight run. They might come at his back, or his flank, or worse yet, some of them might escape and make it to Fear and Death.”
“So I made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Told him he obviously had to be executed, but if he’d like a piece of me, I’d do the execution personally, and we could even make it a Trial by Combat.”
“Sure did. And oh, there’s more. He gets to bring his choice of weapons.”
“Master…I know it’s not my place to say it, and you can have me flogged for it…but that’s insane.”
“Probably.” Wing grinned, looking positively lighthearted. Insanity will do that sometimes.
“Well. So.” The slave girl struggled to bring her emotions under control. To her credit, she succeeded, and it didn’t take long, either. “Um…what weapons will you be using?”
“Babe,” he twinkled, “I am a weapon.”
The morning dawned bright and clear, not a cloud in the sky. The execution, or revolution–depending on who you talked to–was scheduled for high noon, when the sun would be directly overhead and neither combatant could claim an advantage that way.
High noon, but residents of the holding began filing into the Arena before the sun peeped over the horizon. It was a natural amphitheater, a freak of nature, this Arena. The bottom, a rough oval some 100 feet in length by 80 feet in width, served as the focus for many community gatherings–theater, sports, important announcements, and even the occasional barbecue. This was, however, the first time it would be used for an execution (if one believed the old man who had always led them, Wing Holder, would come out on top) or murder (if one believed a massive 400 pound warrior with incredible quick twitch reflexes could overcome a man far less than half his size and at least double his age).
The sloping sides of the bowl, mostly rock, had been terrace-carved over the decades, providing bleacher style seating for more than five thousand people. As noon approached, most of that seating was occupied. Except for the ten man squad on lookout duty at Wing Peak and children deemed by their parents to be too young to watch mortal combat, every citizen was there.
And most of them agreed with the slave girl. Wing Holder had gone senile, agreeing to fight Killer Cleeg one on one.
The sundial finally indicated high noon–and He Who Would Be Holder came striding confidently in through the east entrance. No one who watched him move could fail to be impressed. There had not been a fighter born in these mountains to match Cleeg in generations. Despite his immense size, he moved with a fluid, deadly grace. Curly black hair topped a square-jawed face; his eyes were keen and piercing. His clothing–ah, his apparel for the day! Supple buckskins dyed an impossible midnight shade of blue, moccasin boots that framed muscular calves.
At least a hundred of the females present felt their hearts flutter in their chests, and two thirds of those fluttering hearts were married.
Men admired the massive warrior, or hated, or feared, depending on where their loyalties lay.
For weapons, he’d chosen just one: A double sticker. The sticker was essentially a spear with a double edged, razor sharp 18 inch tip…at either end of the hardened wood haft. Cleeg was a natural with this, wielding it much like a quarter staff but with (duh) superior slicing and stabbing qualities. Not many men could handle a double without injuring themselves in the process; it was not a popular weapon.
In Cleeg’s hands, it was a pinwheel of death.
From the west entryway, once Cleeg had reached the brass circle where he must stand until the referee said “Begin!”, Wing Holder came walking in…without any weapon at all. For that matter, he wasn’t even more than half dressed. He did have on a pair of plain buckskin pants and a pair of plain elk hide moccasins, but nothing else. The pale “farmer’s tan” of his torso gleamed even more brightly that did his bald head. The assemblage saw him bald, toothless, wide enough through the shoulders but nothing to brag about, a tiny bit of gut but not enough to pour over his belt buckle, weaponless–and gasped.
The general consensus was immediate. Wing Holder had lost it.
Cleeg, according to protocol, spoke first. “I stand falsely accused,” he thundered, his voice carried to every ear via the natural acoustic benefits of the Arena, “accused of rape, of fraudulent enslavement, of killing men who were attacking me for no good reason. I thus reject your judgment, Wing Holder, and proclaim that your reign is ended this day, and I shall be the instrument of that ending. You are no longer fit to lead, if you ever were. Not that it would have done you any good, but you didn’t even remember to bring a weapon. Prepare to die.”
“You always did talk too much,” Wing responded, his baritone at least as resonant as Cleeg’s rumbling bass. “but just for the record, I need no weapon to carry out your execution. I am a weapon.”
He said no more. When the referee finally realized that was the end of it, he spoke the fatal word. “Begin!”
Cleeg wasted no time, sprinting toward his half naked, unarmed opponent with the speed of a startled cheetah and the power of a starving grizzly presented with a free lunch. His double stick spun in his hands almost lazily as he ran, catching sunlight on the blades, throwing it back in the eyes of the audience.
Wing didn’t even leave his brass circle, simply setting himself in what appeared to be a martial arts T stance. His forward (left) foot pointed toward the onrushing giant while his rear (right) foot turned out sideways. His left arm extended out over his left leg, wrist bent, fingers pointing skyward, palm of hand facing himself. The fingers of his right hand also pointed skyward, next to his right shoulder, palm forward.
He did not look at his opponent, but at a point on the ground between them.
The audience held its breath. Some few covered their eyes.
The raping rebel never reached his target. As his lead foot–it happened to be his right foot–landed on the spot Wing had been watching, Holder’s torso suddenly twisted, his left palm pulling back, his right palm slamming forward. “Hai!” He yelled, and the man in front of him fell, pitching forward, face smacking flat into the dust, his dark curly hair coming to rest a mere pace in front of the smaller man.
There was no fire, no crack of lightning, nothing either visible nor audible except for Wing’s yell, but there was a ragged hole blown clear through Cleeg’s huge body, through the center of his chest and out through his back, a hole that was singed around the edges so that it did not bleed, a hole roughly the size of a man’s hand.
Smoke curled up from the edges of that hole for a time.
There was silence in the Arena.
Wing Holder gathered himself and addressed the throng. “Some of you–I name no names, but some of you have expressed doubt in recent years. Doubt that my tales of the past are true. Doubt when I’ve said that I’ve lived on this planet for nearly one hundred thousand years, that I was here as the last mini Ice Age came and went, when the Yellowstone caldera blew, when the Space Wars rearranged our planet’s tectonic plates, when the ape cat people escaped from their masters and chose to live with us. I listened to your doubts, and I understood them. But there are times when true understanding is necessary. Cleeg had to pay the price for what he had done, and he had to be stopped from doing what he intended yet to do.
“I want you to know that I love you all. Few of you living have ever seen me exhibit any abilities you could call unusual, until today. I did not do this thing this way to impress you. That was not my point.
“My point was…be careful when you challenge a really, really old man. There aren’t many such, even if you’re looking at one who is a hundred years old instead of a hundred thousand years old. And in either case, try to remember one thing, or at least ask yourself one question. Ask yourself, how did this old fellow manage to last long enough to reach such an advanced age? Was it luck? Genetics? Or has he perhaps learned a few survival skills, so that he is still standing when others have fallen?
“Barbecue next Off Day.”
The silence held until he was gone, and for several minutes thereafter.
Faye met her master just outside of the Arena and accompanied him back to their quarters. Sensing his mood, she did not speak for a time, but in the end could not hold it.
“Master? Permission to speak?”
“Always, Little One. Always.”
“The only other time I’ve seen you show something of your powers was the day you saved me, the day I begged for enslavement. That was twelve years ago, almost to the day. Is there…is there something to that, the twelve years?”
“A cycle?” He thought for a moment. “Probably. I hadn’t really considered it, but the Ancient Science of Intruth teaches quite a bit about cycles. The seven second cycle. And yes, there’s a twelve year cycle in there, too.”
“But you didn’t consciously–?”
“Okay, ah…why did you go out without, you know, a shirt or hat or anything?”
He laughed at that. “Babe,” he said, “I needed to let the energy flow through me with as little obstruction as possible. The best way would have been to go out there totally naked, but I somehow doubt our good people are quite ready for that.”
“No,” she admitted, her mood lightening as his had lightened, “I don’t suppose they are.”