Copyright 2014 by Fred Baker. All rights reserved.
“Behold,” thundered the Overman, “the demon was mighty, but your leader is mightier!”
I stifled a yawn, kept awake mostly by disgust. Big Robe Jawnson was a pain, he was. The rain pouring down outside was muffled well enough by the thick thatch roofing atop Finar’s only log building–the only building in the village large enough for all three hundred of us to cram inside to listen to this blowhard–but there was enough sound to make me drowsy. Best look alert, though, considering the braggart holding forth in front of the room. Little tin tyrant, that one; better to fake interest through his entire rant than show one’s true feelings.
Especially since there was no one else to protect Hayly and Joos. If Big Robe came down on me for scoffing at his claims, put me in the stocks and maybe had me whipped till I collapsed, my sisters would die. The Overman of Finar had done that to my sire, had he not?
Yes. Yes he had, three winters back. The bitter cold had gotten into Cleg’s lash wounds, inflamed, infected, burned him to death in midwinter. I would not forget that, nor would I give Jawnson the excuse to finish wiping out our line. My growth was still coming. There was time, and time was on my side.
The Sixer…many of Finar’s residents had doubted the existence of the mythical monster until this morning, until the Criers had called us all to Village Council, forced us from our homes to trudge through the mud in the rain so that we arrived drenched and cranky to stare at the huge, weird beast the man claimed to have killed in single combat. To say that some of us doubted his claim would qualify as the understatement of all time. Overman Jawnson stood maybe five-eight, weighing perhaps one-eighty but a third of that residing in his overstuffed paunch. The beast lying on two long tables shoved together in front of the room…no way Jawnson killed it the way he claimed. The creature, as close in size to the Bengle tigers of ancient legend as anything else, must weigh 600 pounds if it weighed an ounce. The four cat-limbs looked powerful even in death, with razor sharp claws a good four inches long. The two additional arms, located just behind the forward legs, also possessed obvious muscle–and fingers with opposable thumbs.
The double rows of teeth alone could have shredded any ordinary human in one-on-one combat, and except for his tyrannical ways, world class belly, and braggart mouth, the Overman was about as ordinary as one could get.
And yet…and yet the Sixer was obviously dead, while the Overman was just as obviously not.
How could I reconcile these two things? Frankly, I could not. At least not yet. So I would wait, and grow, try to stay alive long enough to become strong enough to do my Necessary Kills. There were three of those: Finar’s resident bully, Cesspool Sim, who’d made me back water a number of times and beaten me bloody every time I’d stood my ground. Hurtane, Finar’s only teacher, who’d thrown me out of his school room for being, as he put it, dumb as a Rimlander. And of course the Overman himself, Big Robe Jawnson.
I would take great pleasure in that last one…when the time was right.
Most of the village idiots were buying the Overman’s tripe, though. Amazing how they flocked to this man’s teachings. Could they not see the rotten core beneath the fine leather robe he wore?
Apparently not. My sisters stayed glued to their seats beside me, but the boaster had the rest of them in the palm of his mud-grimed, never calloused hand. They leaned forward, charmed by the orator, the hypnotist. Not that we’d ever seen a hypnotist in this armpit of never, but someday I would. Someday, just as soon as I could figure us a way out of the village without going from mere hunger to pure dee starvation. Someday, when–
–the Council Lodge door suddenly flew open, crashing against the wall, ushering in the rain, the roaring wind, and three strangers. Tall men, two of them, faces dark in the obscuring hoods of their capes. The third man was short, stocky, built like a young bull. He didn’t bother with a hood, letting the rain plaster his hair to his wide skull. Fierce brown eyes. The eyes of a swordsman, judging by the wicked looking three foot blade in his left hand.
A left handed sword fighter? I’d not heard of such a thing. Of course, being but 13 summers and all of them spent right here in Finar, there were many things I’d not heard of.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Overman Jawnson thundered, the very reincarnation of the sky god Itself. “How dare you desecrate this hallowed hall! Begone!”
The three didn’t even acknowledge the sputtering village boss. Moving as one, a deadly trio if ever I’d seen such–and we’d seen a few passing through, here in Finar–the three strode directly to the tables holding the great cat man, or ape cat, or whatever it was. The man in the middle dropped to one knee and bowed his head, throwing back his hood as he did so. His head was bald, and while the tallow candles yielded only flickering light, I could see that he was aged. He had a tall staff, a quarterstaff perhaps, but laid it carefully on the floor beside him.
The others turned away from the dead beast, looking not at the animal but out at the room. Clearly on guard, these two, though the hooded one showed no weapon.
There was something about these intruders, something that stilled even the Overman’s mouth for a moment.
The kneeling man spoke, more of a chant really, but in no language I’d ever heard pass through the village. He spoke for a minute or so, then retrieved his staff and stood, coming upright with a grace my keen eye could detect even beneath the man’s sodden cape. He turned to Big Robe Jawnson and spoke, not loudly, yet his voice carried to where the girls and I sat near the back of the room.
“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?”
The Overman looked confused. “I have killed a demon beast, Rimlander. And what business is it of yours?”
The tall ancient looked sad, I thought. “No. You have slaughtered one of the Peaceful Ones. He ran from you, trying to spare you the karma, but he was too old, in his last days. He could not move quickly. He was half blind, three quarters deaf, his sense of smell was gone, and even his telepathy was dulled by senescence.”
“You murdered an innocent, villager.”
The Overman proved the old adage, then, the one my sire taught me before he died under the whip, the adage that says nothing is more dangerous than a fool caught in his own folly.
“You lie, Rimlander!” Jawnson began to shake, the usual precursor to one of his famous rages.
This, I realized, could get interesting.
“I do not lie. What I do is bring warning. You have murdered not only an innocent Psubu’m’sptybalt; you have murdered their Holiest. OUb’ebolebutta’t was here when the spacers gave up on colonizing this stubborn Earth. He and his people were their slaves. They escaped, stayed behind when the invaders left. They have been with us ever since. And now you have murdered the last of those who had been slaves, the last of the original freedom seekers from the star system Bylaytabotmep.”
Big Robe looked about to launch a tirade, but the Rimlander raised a gloved hand, forestalling him.
“I am not quite finished. By committing this atrocity, you have done one other thing. You have condemned everyone in this building to certain death.”
The assembled people, most of them, stared in shock. Our bully of the village in particular seemed at a loss for words, like his little brain was trying to process all this, but without success. Me? I couldn’t help myself; the words were out before I knew they were coming.
“The legend is true? Their practice of Scrubbing is real, as described in the Tales?”
“It is real,” the man nodded, meeting my solemn brown eyes with his storm gray gaze, “and it will come today. This weather will be gone by noon; the Chosen will arrive in force before sunset.”
“Is there no way to survive this?” I was thinking of Hayly and Joos, eleven and nine years old respectively.
“There is one possibility. My Brothers and I are leaving now. Anyone who wishes to join our freight caravan may possibly escape the justice that comes. I cannot guarantee life, but there is a chance.”
The Overman broke free of the mental paralysis that had frozen his brain in place. “You heathens! You’ll not take my people!” With that, he lunged to close the distance between him and the Rimlander who’d spoken, half a dozen rushing steps, spear thrusting out before him.
Truly? I expected the Rimlander to be skewered, though I should have known better. Aged he might be, and bald, but neither feeble nor infirm. His stiff slid smoothly into position, parried the spear, one end of the hardened wood cracking the braggart ape cat murderer under the jaw.
Big Robe Jawnson went down, out like a light.
No one else spoke, nor did they move, either to help the fallen village leader or to join the Rimlanders who were, after all, insane enough to travel into the teeth of the storm.
My sisters and I found ourselves tucked into a tall freight wagon, behind the broad bench driver’s seat. Hayly and Joos, wide eyed but knowing better than to question my decision, huddled together, protected from the weather by the enclosed cargo box. I left them to it and climbed up on the seat beside the driver. There was plenty of room, and I’d long learned the truth of another old adage my sire had favored.
It’s usually easier to get forgiveness than to get permission.
“You’ll be drenched to the bone,” the driver said, and I realized the hooded figure was a girl.
“I reckon you already are,” I replied, and she laughed. She had a nice laugh. But I needed more than the company of a pleasant wagon driver, female or otherwise. I needed information. Worse, I needed understanding. “Is it okay to talk?”
She turned to face me for a second, and I realized she had a nice face, too. No. Not just nice. Stunning. I wondered if she liked younger men.
“You may have to speak up a bit, what with this wind,” she said, “but sure, it’s okay to talk. Was it not so in your village?”
I snorted. “Hardly. My father talked, three years ago, and it got him dead.”
“So…” I hesitated, looking for the right words. It seemed like it should be important that everyone I’d known in my whole life was about to be terminated, surgically sliced by the middle fore claws of the ape cat clan’s Chosen. But it wasn’t worth worrying about. It just wasn’t. “We left everything.”
“Did you have much?”
“Well…not really.” There hadn’t been a lot, had there? My sire’s old hut, more colander than shelter, was certainly no loss; rainstorms and bugs found their ways through the cracks and holes with equal facility. “Our spare set of clothes, but they were mostly worn out anyway. A little food, a few eating utensils. One blanket we all shared. That’s about it.”
“More than some,” she observed, “but also less than many. Your name?”
“Brak. My sire named me Brak.”
“Pleased to meet you, Brak. You can call me Faye. To answer the question you’re carefully not asking, you need not worry about material goods. Granite Peak is well provisioned; you and your siblings will most likely find yourselves better off than you were.”
“Really. We have plenty to go around. Now it’s my turn to ask you a question.”
I was so focused on watching her lips move, I didn’t really hear what she said. Or maybe it was the wind-driven rain; that could distract a guy pretty good, too. “Huh? What?”
“What about them? Uh, the bigger girl with the black hair is Hayly. She’s eleven. The one with the brown hair is Joos. She’s nine.”
“Okay. But what I wanted to ask was…do they talk? Normally, that is? You know, when their lives aren’t in danger.”
I laughed harshly. No humor in it. “Miss Faye, their lives are always in danger. Or were, anyway. Village Finar is not a safe place for orphans. Of course, I guess today it’s not a safe place for anybody.”
“Just Faye will be fine, Brak. You don’t have to call me Miss.”
“Oh. Okay. In Finar, the Overman had us whipped if we didn’t use proper titles. Faye.” I said her name a bit fiercely, my own personal declaration of independence. Big Robe Jawnson wouldn’t be whipping anybody ever again, not after the Chosen came to town, now would he? “Uh, anyway, to answer your question, Joos hasn’t spoken since we all watched our sire flogged to death three winters ago. I mean, he was alive when they cut him down from the post, sort of, but we had no medicines. The winter was uncommon cold. His cuts got infected, he fevered. Couldn’t fight the fever and the cold, too. Took him three weeks to die.”
I said it like we were discussing the weather.
“Hayly, she talks sometimes. Not much and not often, but when she does, it pays to listen sharp. The times she does speak, it’s ’cause she has something worth saying. Me, I’m the only real talker of the bunch. Talked myself into so many fights, I had to learn to talk my way back out of them if I didn’t want to end up dead, leaving my sisters to the wolves.”
Faye flipped the reins just so, hollering out into the rain, “Gee! Dancer, you dunderhead! Gee! Gee!” The team had nearly drifted clean off the cobble stone road. That wouldn’t have been pretty, sinking the off wheels in the mud.
Six horses in the team, big burly types. I’d thought they were matched blacks until I realized it was only rain that made their bay coats look so dark. The great animals stomped ahead stoically, harness jingling, storm be danged. The Brothers were out there somewhere on saddle mounts, I guessed, though why they chose to face the elements head on like that made no sense to me.
We kept talking–Faye more than me, once she got going. Which was good; I had no idea what I’d gotten us into, and she was a fountain of information. Sometimes I had to strain a little to hear her, what with the storm and all, but that did seem to be slackening as we traveled. Before long, I found myself just concentrating to absorb and remember everything.
The three Brothers, as we’d always heard them named, were not called that in the mountains. Nor were they called Rimlanders. Instead, those men were called Holders, apparently because they held specific areas of the mountains. The tall bald one who appeared to be the leader of them all was called Wing Holder, named for Wing Peak, a gigantic spire of jagged rock soaring far above the rest of the mountain range and providing an outlook point for watchers charged with spying any outlanders who dared approach the Bowl. The stocky man with the sword was Death Holder, his land bordering Wing’s to the south at Death Pass Gap. The fellow whose face had remained hidden within his hood was Fear Holder, bordering Wing to the northeast at Fear Pass Gap.
There were other Holders, all the way around the Bowl. Eighteen of them, according to what Wing had told Faye. She didn’t know much about the others, though, except that their sections of mountain terrain were deemed less important, less likely than the northwest segment to face invasion attempts by outlanders for two reasons: There weren’t many passes through the rest of the rim of mountains, and this area also bordered territory controlled by the huge, aggressive Blakto Nation.
The rim varied from 11 miles deep at its thinnest point in the Wing Holding, where Wing’s Granite Peak stronghold also lay, to more than 40 miles thick in portions of the southeast quadrant.
Not that she’d ever seen the far quadrants. After all, the Bowl was reportedly more than 900 miles across in some places, and never less than 750. Nearly 800,000 square miles of territory in total, she’d been told. The Cautan Confederacy, thousands of small farming villages but only 8 major cities and the eighteen mountain holders bound together in agreement to trade, to respect each other’s sovereignty, and to join forces to fight like the Wigan Himself against any outlanders who might try to take over the land.
“The system has worked pretty well for hundreds of years,” she said, “but some of the cities have gotten cocky. Navri City especially, the closest to us and where Wing, Fear, and Death take their freight wagons twice yearly to trade. There has not been a serious attempt at invasion since the Blakto Nation was turned back at Fear Pass Gap some twenty-three years ago. The city dwellers decided–or their government did, anyway–that mountain defense was no longer as necessary as it had once been.”
“Wait,” I interrupted. “They think defense is a waste?”
“Apparently, it’s a common blindness. Anyway, they concluded the holders were not contributing their fair share to the Confederacy’s economy. We of the high country were too rich, in their eyes. We must pay more in our trade, sort of a…tribute, or a tax.”
“And they got away with that?”
“No,” she shook her head, “they didn’t. Not this time. Our caravan was more than two thirds loaded at the central trading plaza when their city militia showed up to collect. The Holders saw immediately what was going on, and they–well, Wing stalled them while Fear and Death quietly passed the word to our warriors. Then, when the City Manager finally realized things weren’t going his way, we were loaded and ready to move out, he ordered the Captain to take the city’s supposed share by force, and there was a battle. Sort of. When we cleared the city limits, there were dozens of dead and dying militia left behind.”
That didn’t sound good. Despite knowing we’d abandoned my entire village to face slaughter before sunset, a battle between city and mountain forces sounded much more…malevolent, somehow. “How many holder troops were killed?”
She laughed, though there seemed little humor in it this time. “None. There was one man wounded, one of Death’s personal guard, but that was friendly.”
“Friendly?” My confusion showed.
“In a sense. He was fighting side by side with a partner and got a little too close. Partner’s sword nicked him in the arm. Nothing fatal, though. He won’t even lose the arm.”
“Huh. So,” I wondered, “what’s the load in all the wagons that, you know, was so worth fighting over?”
“I can’t speak for the other thirty-nine,” Faye chuckled in clear amusement, “but this one’s mostly full of toilet paper.”
“Toilet paper?” I’d never heard of that.
“Hey, it’s a precious commodity in the mountains. We make our own when we must, but it’s a far inferior product to that put out by the Harlan family mill in Navri City.”
“Hm.” I thought for a moment and decided to switch topics. “So, you work for one of the Holders, then?”
“You could say that. I’m Wing’s slave.”
“What?! The mountain people keep slaves? Is that what–I mean, are my sisters and I–??”
“At risk of being collared? Nah. Doesn’t work that way, at least not in Wing Holdings. Can’t speak for the others, but Wing’s rule is that to be enslaved, you either volunteer for it or commit a crime that requires it. You know, mandatory sentencing.”
“Uh…which are you?”
“I volunteered, Brak. When I was eleven.”
I was struck speechless. I didn’t know much about slavery, other than what Finar’s teacher had told us before she’d kicked me out of school, but…. “Our teacher taught that slavery was evil. Against the Nomar teachings, too.”
“Is that all she said?”
I’d swear Faye was twinkling at me. “He said. Our teacher was a man. Um…I don’t know. Right at that point, in the middle of the slavery segment, he kicked me out of class. Permanently.”
“For being dumber than a jack pine stump. Or at least, that’s what he said. Something like that.” I wasn’t about to repeat the direct quote, “dumber than a Rimlander”.
She turned to look at me, letting the horses follow the road as they would. “And what do you think?”
“Me?” No one had ever asked me what I thought.
“Yeah. You. Answer me this: Were you or were you not the only one in your entire village to speak up when Wing said the Chosen of the Psubu’m’sptybalt would be coming? And were you or were you not the only one who chose to believe his warning and to bring your family away from all you had known, forever?”
“Yeah,” I said slowly, “I were the only one. Excuse me. Was the only one.”
“Brak,” she said firmly, staring straight at me so that I felt I could get permanently lost in her eyes, “you may be many things, but one thing you are not is dumb.”
I was struck dumb right then, though–and wouldn’t you know it, my sister Hayly decided that was the time to say something.
“She’s too old for you, brother. And besides, she’s taken.”
I’m pretty sure I blushed clean up to my hair roots. And then another voice piped up, rusty from disuse, but the words were clear enough. “Yeah,” Joos added, “She’s taken.”
Whipping around on the wagon seat so hard I like to snapped my neck, I stared at my baby sis, the one who’d not spoken since the day our sire died. “Little One! You’re talking!”
“He noticed,” she said dryly, and I remembered. Back before, when she’d been six and both of our parents were alive and well, Joos had been the smart mouth of the bunch. Oh, I had something of a rep in that area, but I’d never been a match for the baby of the family.
Three years of silence had obviously not dulled her tongue…and I was now surrounded by females. Considering the miles, perhaps even the years that loomed ahead, I began to wonder if I should’ve stayed in Finar after all. Compared to being continually one-upped by one’s own opposite gender siblings, getting ceremoniously sliced and diced by fanatic zealot ape cats suddenly sounded like an attractive option.