It wasn’t all that hard getting used to the mirror despite the fact that I’d never heard of such a thing before coming to Wing Holding. Finar village had never sported so much as a glass window; never mind glass that looked back at you.
The image showed a boy strong and tall for his twelve years, dressed in buckskins far finer than any hide tanned by the half-competent Vaylor Twaks. Vaylor had lived three huts down from us, his tannery stinking up the place something fierce. We’d never complained, though; when you grow up with something, it becomes the norm. Well…grow up part of the way. The tanner had undoubtedly died under the slicing claws or tempered bone weapons of the Psubu’m’sptybalt along with the rest of the village. I missed him, stinking of his work as he always did yet kinder to us orphans than anyone else in Finar.
Not kinder than the people of Wing Holding, though. True, we’d been put to work immediately, my sisters and I, required to attend school every morning except Off Day. It was hardest for me; both Hayly and Joos had been spitting out the alphabet both forward and backward before I could even make sense of the letter Q. Even stranger than schooling had been the expectation that we bathe at least once a week. No one bathed in Finar.
Of course, no one remained alive in Finar, either. Everyone I’d known for the first twelve years of my life, gone, just like that.
Except for Vaylor Twaks, the thought didn’t bother me at all. Good riddance to bad rubbish. There was ice in my veins, or so Hayly said. She grieved for more than a few lost neighbors. Joos…with our youngest sibling, it was hard to tell. Joos always had been able to hide her feelings, even from us.
Well. Time to get going. Wing Holder would be expecting me, but I figured to get there early. I had my reasons. The serious young man in the mirror nodded, and off I went.
Our quarters, two rooms carved into one of the many rock walls that peppered Granite Peak Stronghold, comprised just one habitation of more than a thousand. Deeper in the mountain’s side, many of those dwellings were interconnected by tunnels. I was getting used to it, but it still amazed me. Solid granite. How had these people mined out such a huge warren from solid granite?
Wing’s office, as he called it, amounted to yet another carved-out space some forty feet on a side, though with stone pillars left in place every ten feet or so to support the ceiling. Or, as the undisputed leader of Wing Holding called it, the hanging.
He was already there, as I knew he would be, and I was indeed early. Seated on a log-crafted chair, he was, poring over a stack of papers piled on the table before him. He didn’t look up as I entered, either, so I leaned against a nearby pillar and waited. I had learned patience at an early age.
When he finally put down the paper he’d been studying intently, his gaze shifted to take me in. He asked mildly, “You’re here early for a reason, I presume?”
“I am,” I admitted, finding a frog in my throat that had to be cleared. “I would…I would like to ask…” Damn. I couldn’t get it out.
Unsurprisingly, the old man–100,000 years old, if he hadn’t lied in the Arena–read my mind a bit, or seemed to. “You have a few questions?” His blue eyes didn’t twinkle. No humor; he was taking me seriously. Which, much as I liked it, made me uncomfortable. Other than abandon nearly three hundred of my own people–not counting the Overman, whom I’d have killed with my bare hands if I’d been capable–I couldn’t see what I’d done to deserve being taken seriously.
Hayly said I underestimated myself, but what did she know? I was her big brother; she was supposed to say that.
“Yes,” I nodded, “I do have questions. If…if you have the time.”
He smiled then, reassuring. “Go ahead.”
“Uh…well…” I tried to find the words, which wouldn’t come, and then they all blurted out of their own accord. “I don’t know why you offered to take me on as your apprentice. You’ve been alive for, well, forever, and I suppose there’s always more to learn, but you gotta know a lot more than I could soak up in any kind of normal lifetime, and I don’t even know how to read or write yet, except for my name like the teacher showed me, and–” I stopped, cutting off the babble for a second or two, but then the rest of it just kept coming. “–and I’m not even from here. I mean, I’ve met dozens of people right here, young, old, in between, who could at least scribe for you, at least know what’s going on, how life is handled here, what the courtesies are, and–”
He held up a hand, cutting me off. An act of mercy.
“You hit the nail on the head, you know.”
“You’re not from here. That’s one big part of the reason for choosing you to work at my side. In the afternoons for now, full time after you’ve mastered the three R’s.”
I must have looked as confused as I felt. His smile was gentle. “Brak, if I picked anyone else, especially anyone who’d grown up right here in Wing Holding, I’d be cutting my own throat politically. Do you know anything about politics?”
“Uh…sort of. The art of back scratching and back stabbing, right?”
He laughed, clear and hearty. “Well put. Okay, so here’s the deal. If I picked a helper, an apprentice, from my own clan, the late Cleeg’s people would resent it mightily, I assure you. Right now, that clan is keeping a low profile. My display of power cowed them for the time being, but that sort of thing never lasts. So. If I picked someone to run errands from those close to me, the haters would churn their own emotions just that much faster, speed up the next attempt to throw me over. But if I picked anyone from any other clan, nine chances out of ten I’d be getting a spy working for the other side, or even a hopeful assassin. Having you here, with no family left except your sisters, no local affiliations, short circuits all of that. Plus, people will underestimate you for a while due to your youth, maybe say things in your hearing that could prove useful.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling my eyes widen. “I get it.”
“Good. By the way, Cleeg’s people will be worried about bigger issues shortly. One of our intel people just brought word from Finar. Your village is no more, as we knew would be the case. But a long patrol from Navri City came on what was left–which wasn’t much–and concluded that we Holders had murdered all those people.”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong. Their scouts and trackers and forward observers are as good as anyone’s. There’s no doubt the patrol knew how to read the sign. But the city bosses don’t worry about truth. They spin the truth like a flatland tornado, they do. They’re spreading the word to their own people and to all of the cities: The three Brothers are renegades, mass murderers, and must be stopped.”
“But,” I whispered, aghast, “this will mean war.”
“Looks like it. But wait, apprentice mine; there’s more. Fear and Death and I have issued a joint statement, a paper that is making the rounds of the mountain holdings as we speak. But there are many–eighteen in all–and they’re spread around the Rim of the Bowl in a circuit nearly 3,000 miles in length. Or, 1,500 miles each for two courier parties. We have good men making those runs, but it will take two months at minimum, and possibly as many as four, to get the far Holders up to date.”
I stumbled to the nearest chair and fell into it. War. Real war. My father, before he died, warned us repeatedly of the dangers, the horror, the pure Hell of war.
“You said that almost like it was good news,” I muttered.
“Not good news exactly,” he said slowly, “but not unexpected, either.”
Faye popped in at that moment, bringing another sheet of paper to add to Wing’s sizeable pile. I forgot all about war for a moment, watching her make her delivery. My crush on the boss man’s slave girl was, well…crushing. Not that it would do me any good. I tried consoling myself with the thought that she was more than twice my age. Heck, when I was forty–if I managed to live that long, which, aside from freaks like Wing, did not happen often–she’d be fifty-three. Who needed that?
Not that preaching to myself about it did any good, either. My hormones had a mind of their own. I was moving toward manhood, and trust me, it was a bumpy journey.
“Squad B is in from Wing Peak,” she mentioned to the man at the desk, almost as an afterthought. “They’re saying we’ve got more trouble a-coming. Blakto Nation is on the move. Jon Talent will be in with the details in time for the Inner Council meeting.”
When I heard that, my crush got crushed for a moment. Didn’t even see the woman leave. I waited, watching, hoping Wing would share his thoughts but fearing I was right about what they might be. Apparently, he noted my expression.
“What do you know about the Blakto Nation, Brak?”
I coughed behind my hand to give myself a second to think. “A lot of the buggers, and they don’t like us very much.”
He laughed aloud. “See, there’s another reason to take you on. You have a way of summing up complex situations in a few simple words. A lot of the buggers, and they don’t like us very much. That’s a gem right there. Of course, it’s really not that funny.” He sobered and looked at me intently, his eyes boring through mine. Not into. Through. I felt like my brain had been pierced by that gaze, stabbed and stuck to the wall like a butterfly on a pin.
Thankfully, he broke contact, rubbing at his eyes as though they burned. “There really are a lot of them. Nobody really knows their exact numbers–unless they themselves do, which is always possible–but there are at least a hundred different tribes. They’re semi-nomadic, sort of a hybrid culture really. Farmers and hunters, gatherers and raiders, traders and thieves, all in one. They have a number of clans, too, and clan loyalty trumps tribal loyalty, at least most of the time. When the squad leader told Faye they were on the move, though, that has a specific meaning. It means they’re marching, sometimes only a mile or two a day, but moving huge numbers of people will do that to you. And they’re getting closer to the Rim or they wouldn’t have been seen, not even from the scouting tower on Wing Peak.”
He paused, staring out through the stone doorway to the far settlement wall, above which a turkey buzzard was lazily circling, hunting the dead. I took the opening to insert a question.
“They will war on us?”
“Maybe. Most likely.”
“We’ve beaten them back every time they’ve tried…haven’t we?”
Wing sighed. “We have, but at great cost to our people. The cities only remember that we beat the Blakto because the mountain Holders worked together to beat them back. The enemy never penetrated into the Bowl’s interior. But we of the Rim lost more than two thousand warriors in the Gap fighting the last time, roughly twenty years ago. Two thousand, Brak. Do you know how many we could field before that campaign started?”
“Um…” I stalled, hearing the sparrow fledglings cheep enthusiastically for their mother’s return, waiting to be fed. Small birds of more than a dozen species nested among the higher stone ledges in these outward rooms, littering the floor with bird things but more than paying for the nuisance with the simple joy of their company. “No. You want me to guess?”
“Go ahead. How many do you think?”
“I’d estimate…eighteen thousand.”
“Hm. And how did you arrive at that number?”
“Well…this Holding, Wing Holding, has around a thousand. Eighteen holdings total. Eighteen thousand fighters.”
“Ah. You’re learning multiplication already?”
“No. I, uh, added them up.”
“Huh.” Wing grinned, reached for his belt knife, and whittled a writing stick to a sharp point while he thought about that. “Not bad. Not exactly right, but not bad. The total is closer to thirteen thousand. See, our thousand is a higher number than most of the others. Fear Holding is larger, a bit more than thirteen hundred, and Death Holding almost twice that, a shade over twenty-five hundred. But only three of the remaining fifteen can field a thousand trained warriors. The average is closer to seven hundred, and the two smallest have barely six hundred between them. So you see?”
Yeah. I got it. “Two thousand dead out of thirteen…okay. We’re starting to do percents. I can see….” I didn’t see clearly, though, and Wing Holder knew it.
“Hold up your hands,” he said, and I did. “Those are your fighters, your eight fingers and two thumbs. Okay?”
“Your left thumb has just been cut off. It doesn’t exist any more. Fold it across the palm.”
“We’re not done yet. Now, fold the middle finger down on that same hand–no, not all the way. Like you were going to do a knuckle strike.”
I did that. Wing waited a couple of beats, building the suspense–and then he made his point. “Look at the back of your hands, Brak. You’re missing one thumb entirely, and you only have half of one very important finger. Besides that, you’re in great pain from having these digits cut off like that; the wounds have not yet healed. Would you feel confident getting in a fight with injuries like that? No? Well, that is how hard we were hit twenty years ago. There’s been time for a new generation to come to maturity, so that’s good; we have all of our digits back. But there is still pain from where they were once cut off. None of us who were alive then would ever think fighting the Blakto again is a good thing.” He sighed. “Unfortunately, it’s the only thing. These people do not bluff. They are not playing games. If they are on the move within the sight of our long-eyed Wing Peak sentries, they will come against us. There will be many thousands of them, and every one will be skilled.”
That sucked. Some of the fear suddenly churning in my gut must have showed on my face. At least, that seemed the most likely reason Wing decided to change the topic.
“You came to ask questions, Brak. We still have a little time. What’s next?”
“That’s easy,” I smiled, vastly relieved. Talking about something else–anything else–would be an improvement over the image of enemies closing in on both sides, from without the Bowl and from within. “How did you learn to, you know…throw the Everwind through an opponent? Like you did to Cleeg? Were you born with that, or did you learn it somewhere along the way?”
“Ah. Been wondering when you’d get around to that.” He propped his elbows on his desk table and steepled his fingers under his chin, considering his answer. “Therein lies a tale. Not to strain your brain too much; just let’s say that no, I was not born with it, and yes, I did learn it along the way. One of the times when our world had a dramatic population crash–never mind what caused it for now; it would take too much time to tell–I came to a point where I could find no other living humans. They existed. I had faith that they existed. But at least where I was, they were proving almighty hard to find. Winter was coming, I was alone, and I needed to lay in stores in a hurry if I was going to survive comfortably.
“That was a cold time, when spring and fall were too brief to notice, warm weather no more than three total months of the year, and snow upon the ground the rest of the time. Long story short, I succeeded in provisioning a place, a place atop a high rock ledge with a sheer cliff at my back. This was important, because in those days the shingong roamed the land. I believe them to be extinct now, but they were commonplace then, predators brought to this planet as pets by one of the alien races who wanted to possess this Earth. The aliens were gone, but some of the shingong were left behind, and few could stand against them.
“They hunted by night, and they loved cold weather–they dug underground and hibernated during the summer months–but they did not climb well. Sixty feet of sheer rock below my ledge was enough to keep me safe. I built rope ladders that could be pulled up behind me, built a small cabin on the ledge from small deadfall logs, and by first snowfall, I was ready.”
I could see the place he described…but I could not imagine inhabiting it. I’d never spent a single night alone away from all other humans; I could not fathom it. That, more than anything else, made me wonder if Wing Holder was truly human at all. Perhaps he was himself an alien. My mind wandered, and I almost missed the next part.
“What I did not have was entertainment. I have always been a reader, love books, will read dry texts if there is nothing else to be had. But that year had been a difficult one; I was lucky to have my own skins and the skins of a few deer for brain tanning. So I dreamed. Have you, Brak, have you ever found yourself able to do things in dreams that you cannot do here in this waking world?”
“Yeah!” I replied, startled at the sudden question. “Sure. Doesn’t everybody?”
“Not everybody. But many, yes. In my case, I had a little paper on which to write–not much, but enough sheets to write down a few things here and there. Over time, I listed fifty-seven things I could do in dreams that most humans do not believe possible here. I decided to practice these things in the waking state, see how many of them I could learn. During the brief summers I’d hunt provisions, store up for winter, and cast around for live humans while I was at it. But the rest of the time, I’d practice.”
“And…did you learn them all?”
“Oh, no.” He chuckled. “Far from it. But I did learn what you saw me do in the Arena. In the end, I decided to keep on practicing one or another of these things until I either mastered each one or found other surviving humans. By actual count, I conquered seventeen of these dream skills completely, made some progress with eleven, and failed completely with the remaining twenty-two.”
“Wait a minute.” I stared at him, goggle-eyed. “You can do sixteen other things nobody knows about?”
“I wouldn’t say nobody,” Wing replied, his voice dry. “The EM’s certainly know.”
“The Everwind Masters. We don’t often see them, but they monitor this sort of thing.”
“And,” I wondered, “how long did this take you? You know, till you found survivors and all?”
He thought for a moment, making sure he got it right. “Three hundred and seventy-two years.”
“Give or take.”
I was speechless. I thought practicing the alphabet these past two weeks had been torture. More than almost anything, I wanted to follow up on that–but there was one other thing, and we didn’t have much time left. “Last question for the day?”
“Sure. We can do one more.”
“Well…I’ve seen men kill before, you know. Finar village wasn’t always peaceful….”
“Okay. The thing is, the men I’ve seen kill always showed either relief after it was over, or sometimes they celebrated their victories….”
“But not me?”
“No. Not you. Why?”
I thought for a long moment that he wasn’t going to answer. When he did speak, I could barely hear him, his voice was so quiet. “I failed.”
*Sigh* “I failed, Brak. It started in an earlier life–”
“A what? You mean, a life before this one? This hundred thousand year life? You remember before that?”
“Some. Bits, here and there.”
“I know it’s hard to believe….”
“No, no. I believe you. It’s just kinda hard to wrap my twelve year old head around, you know?”
“But you will, given time. I’ve never met anybody who could adapt as quickly as you do.”
“Really?” I was a bit stunned by that. When Wing Holder said never….
“Really. Anyway, in an earlier life, Cleeg–he wasn’t called Cleeg then, of course, but the same Soul–he and I got into a discussion about spiritual matters. This was in a desert country, like the southeastern portion of the Bowl, only a thousand times drier, hardly any vegetation at all, mostly sand dunes. But there were oases here and there, areas where a spring came to the surface, where water made life not only possible but lush and abundant. In one of these places, he and I discussed theology, and then we argued, and then I lost my temper. Pulled a knife. Killed him, murdered him in cold blood. The penalty for murder was of course death, so I ran. Stole a camel–like a tall, clumsy mule with a humpy back, big rubbery lips, and a worse disposition–and ran for my life, out into the sand, horrified at what I’d done.”
This was getting interesting. “And that’s why you owed him? For knifing him?”
“Maybe. Probably, some. But wait. There’s more. We met again in this life, when I was…twenty-nine years old, if memory serves. I was studying a secret spiritual teaching only a few knew about. He was the Living Master of the teaching, which meant I was his student–”
“And you knifed him again?” Interrupting was rude and foolish. Just couldn’t help myself.
“No. Years passed, and this time I remained his faithful student. But then he blew it. Not with me personally, but with the Universe entire. He passed the Staff on to a new Master…but fell spiritually. He’d become attached to the position, couldn’t take stepping aside. He did step aside, but eventually his successor found out he’d stolen funds from the LMT, the Living Master’s Treasury. He was banned–the new Master had no choice–and died a few years later, his health having taken a complete nosedive to parallel his spiritual fall from grace.”
“But,” I said, puzzled, “what did this have to do with you?”
“I volunteered to help him. I told the Everwind Masters–inwardly, just a private, silent vow, but it counted–that whenever it was time for the fallen Master to begin his climb back to spiritual grace, I would be more than willing to be part of the rescue party assigned to pull him out of the negative current. It traps Soul, you see, and sometimes help is needed; it becomes impossible to escape without assistance.
“So, some time back, it started happening. Cleeg–by whatever name–started turning up, lifetime after lifetime. Not constantly, but every so often. I’ve known him at least a dozen times around now, in recent centuries. I’m given the opportunity to teach him, to help him learn, to get him past the attachment factor that knocked him down from on high back when. But time after time, it’s not enough. He falls again, and all I can do is wait for him to turn up one more time so we can try, try, keep on trying.”
I stared at Wing, wide-eyed. “And…what about this lifetime? Why, or how, did you fail?”
“Brak,” he said, getting up and beginning to pace the room, back and forth, “I was so close. When he was your age, he was my apprentice. I was able to teach him much, survival skills in the spiritual realm as well as right here on Earth. Heck, I even taught him to use his favorite weapon, the double stick. My quarterstaff, you see, has sling blades hidden in either end of the wooden shaft; it can and sometimes does function as a double stick. But just when I was beginning to dare hope, when I saw signs that he was beginning to understand, he lost it again. He became taller and stronger than any other man in Wing Holding. Other people began to see promise in him. His own clan leaders shamelessly flattered him, whispering in his ear, assuring him he was destined for great things, perhaps to one day lead not only Wing Holding but Fear and Death Holdings as well, possibly all of the mountain Rim.”
“And he listened.” I thought I’d spoken only in my own head, but Wing heard it.
“He did. He listened. Slowly but surely, his ears closed to anything and everything I had to say. By the time he’d turned sixteen, when I spoke, he heard only the wind–and I don’t mean the Everwind.”
“And thus,” I took up the tale, caught up in the vision conjured by Wing’s words, “his acts of aggression, and eventually the confrontation in the Arena.”
“Just so,” the old man murmured. “Just so. Executing Cleeg was no victory. No victory at all. Instead, it was an admission that in this lifetime at least, I could do no more for him. It tore my heart out. It was the very definition of failure.”