With Wing Holder gone off to Wing Peak, I found myself busier than ever. Oh, sure, there was a little burst of bitterness that he hadn’t taken me along. I was supposedly his apprentice, wasn’t I? But in the end, I got over it. Now my afternoons were filled helping Faye and learning from her. As it turned out, she had a lot to teach. The slave woman was an incredible repository of knowledge regarding the workings of the stronghold, its history, politics, and economy. Beyond that, one hour each day was devoted to martial arts instruction. It turned out she could kick some serious butt.
I was still a bit besotted with her, but I was getting better at hiding my interest. Realizing the woman of your dreams could tear you a new one any time she chose…well, I didn’t know about other guys, but that sort of dampened my ardor. Besides, I was beginning to suspect she carried a lot of authority in Wing’s absence, perhaps even secretly running the entire Holding. Not openly, of course; few of the free folk would tolerate knowing they were being ruled by a nothing of a slave concubine.
All in all, there were undercurrents here, power flows that were not always what they seemed on the surface. It only made sense to keep my head down until the real politics of the place could be thoroughly understood.
The Overman had made just one key mistake in judgment that had wiped out my entire home village of Finar. No one in his right mind would want to follow that example.
My sisters were adapting well to life at Granite Peak, though Hayly was still sulking a bit about Wing’s rejection of her proposal that she be taken as his slave. She was only eleven, but Faye had also been eleven when she was taken slave, right?
More than anything else, though, it was worry that finally made me glad I’d stayed behind. There was a bully in one of my classes, a son of one of the hog farmers. Gorton, his name was, some distant relation to Cleeg, who’d been executed by Wing. Seventeen, five years older than me, half again my size, with a look in his eye that promised mayhem, should he ever get the chance. There was no way to know if I’d gotten on his list by being the new kid, by being Wing’s protégé, by being smarter despite my late start in school, or what. Nor did it matter. Bullies are bullies; sometimes they don’t need any reason at all.
Not that he and his brothers and his sycophant buddies had actually tried anything with me. Not yet, they hadn’t. But they would. They’d been waiting for something, seemed like, and that something was quite likely Wing Holder’s absence for an extended period of time. With the war coming, our leader might not be back for weeks. That’s an eternity in bully years. A storm was brewing, and my nerves were on edge. I kept my back to a wall whenever possible, kept my senses extended except when it was necessary to really concentrate in class–like when Faye was pounding a fighting lesson into my head the hard way–and tried to reach my awareness into the future. I was sure that could be done. I was not sure how long it would take to acquire the ability.
“Have a seat, Brak,” Faye told me when I came through the door into her classroom. Not the martial arts room, the academic place. Twix Groetang, two years my elder but half my size and fast becoming my best friend, was already seated, as were the three younger students that made up the group personally tutored by the slave woman. Everybody had writing sticks out, ready to rock.
Oh, crap. Pop quiz.
There were 25 questions on the sheet. I’d at least learned enough math to know that much at a glance. As for the rest of it…well, we’d see. I settled in, Faye gave us the go ahead, and it was time to write.
Q1: How many separate, distinct, sovereign states exist in the Rim Mountains of the Bowl?
Q2: What are these sovereign states called?
Q3: What form of government do these sovereign states utilize?
A3: Trick question. Externally, they are all part of the Cautan Confederacy, loosely allied with each other and obligated by the Cautan Confederacy Constitution (CCC) to lend aid and support to each other when necessary for defense against outsiders. Internally, they are free to choose any form of government desired. There is much variation. Wing Holding is considered to be a constitutional dictatorship, as is Fear Holding. Death Holding is a monarchy, as are seven of the other holdings. Two holdings are oligarchies, five holdings are led by ruling councils (size of council ranging from 5 to 17 members), and the remaining three are essentially tribal with chiefs elected separately for war and for civil matters.
Q4: What two forms of government are significant by their absence in the Rim, though present in three of the Inner Bowl lowland cities?
A4: Democracy and Republic.
Q5: Why have Rim states avoided the forms of government referenced in your previous answer?
A5: Democracies have been scrupulously avoided because Rim states (holdings) have been and continue to be led by men (and in two current cases, women) who have studied history. Students of history are keenly aware that every Democracy is born with the seed of self destruction as part and parcel of its nature; once the citizens realize they can vote themselves benefits from the government treasury, they will vote for those willing to raid said treasury on their behalf until the entire system collapses under its own weight. Republics have been avoided simply because history has likewise shown that Republics tend to devolve into Democracies with ridiculous ease, often without citizens even realizing the change has been made until it’s too late….
As was my habit, I got lost, so immersed in the questions and in formulating my responses that time ceased to have meaning. When at last my writing stick returned to its resting place, worn to a nub and ready to retire, I lifted my head to realize with some surprise that the sun was low in the western sky, its rays slanting through the arrow slits that served as windows. It was nearly sundown. My fingers were cramped, but no matter. There was the satisfaction of a job well done, or at least done as well as I knew how.
Faye was busy at her desk, most likely working out an engineering problem. It was she who had designed the latest trebuchet for Wing Holding. Earlier versions, attempted often but never perfected, had consistently remained too bulky for transport through the mountains. Faye had changed all that, miniaturized the machine yet retained enough firepower to sling a hundred pound load of munitions at the enemy with impressive force. While yet to see action against the Blakto, the new design was expected to throw half-pound steel balls completely through any human bodies that got in their way.
Only a handful of people knew the slave girl had come up with the improved design, of course. Fame is not conducive to longevity for those in bondage whose ability to defend themselves against the law of the land is virtually nil. Wing took the credit in public. Behind closed doors, though, his Inner Circle knew very well who’d done the real work.
“How long have the others been gone?” I asked as I turned in my papers.
“Twix was finished first, as usual,” she replied, smiling. “He was out the door in less than an hour. Urgas was the last except for you; he left a couple of hours ago.”
I sighed. “You’re mighty patient with me, Faye. I appreciate you letting me take my time.”
She laughed, a tinkling sound I loved utterly. “Brak, when you answer a question, you answer it. It’s one of the things that inspired Wing to take you on as his apprentice. You’ve got a mind like a steel trap, and you see to the heart of things to boot. Right now, new as you are to Wing Holding, you know more about politics and history in the Bowl and around the Rim than 99.9% of all the citizens who’ve lived here from birth.”
“Wing Holder doesn’t do pity stuff. He wanted you close to him for a reason.”
“…Don’t know what to say to that. But thanks; I didn’t know. I, uh, do have a question I’ve been meaning to ask, though….”
“Fire away.” The gorgeous hunk of femininity behind the desk stretched luxuriously, doing marvelous things to the front of her buckskin shirt. I nearly forgot my question.
“Uh…guess I’ll just blurt it out–why did Wing turn down my sister Hayly?”
“To be his slave?”
For a long moment I thought she wasn’t going to answer, but she was just gathering her thoughts. “Hayly’s situation is not as deadly dangerous as mine was.”
“Oh. See, Brak, I’m not originally from Wing Holding any more than you are. In fact, when Wing met me, I was a Blakto spy.”
“Yeah. I know. Little girl spy, and everybody here seems to believe the Blakto all have bronze skin, dark eyes, and long black hair…well, except for the elders…and of course the Blakto Nation eats babies for breakfast. The essence of evil, right?”
“What not many folks from the Cautan Confederacy know is that the Blakto people come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. There are those among them who believe in war and conquest, yes, but there are also entire tribes that refuse to participate in any campaign of aggression. Bowl residents wouldn’t know that, for the most part anyway, ’cause few scouts live to penetrate Blakto society deeply and return to tell about it. Most Bowlers couldn’t care less, for that matter. Leave it to the Rimlanders to keep out the barbarians, and there’s an end to it.”
I found myself nodding. That’s pretty much what I’d always heard, all right.
“The Nation encourages that misconception, too. Every warrior dyes his skin with sacred ghowqua, a secret recipe dye that makes sure his skin has that trademark bronze color, before going into battle. Those whose hair is not naturally black dye it that way for the duration of the campaign. The feeling among the Blakto is that presenting a united front like that is somehow more intimidating to the enemy. Plus, they’ve done it that way for more than a thousand years; there’s a whole lot of weight of tradition involved at this point.”
“Huh.” I shook my head. “I didn’t know any of that.”
“Few do. The Brothers do, Wing and Fear and Death, but they don’t bother to try to educate their followers. The Blakto believe that being seen as a homogenous entity is to their advantage, and the Brothers see it the other way around. Wing, I know, does not particularly wish for Rimlanders to see Blaktos as human. It’s better, he believes, for the average citizen to see each Blakto warrior as a rather anonymous bronze statue or some such, not a real individual, a person with troubles and cares just like any other.
“Anyway, my mother and father and I were maubees, deep insertion spies. Our skin and hair and eye color was judged to be close enough to the average Wing Holding resident to allow us to slip into the mountains on a recon mission, gathering intel to take back out to the warchiefs among our people. But something betrayed us. At first, when we were caught in an ambush and my parents were killed outright, I thought someone had betrayed us, but such was not the case. Wing eventually told me our accents had been very, very good, but not quite perfect, and the mountain people are in their own way perfectionists.
“We were caught in the little community of Oglesthorpe, just a couple of miles from here. The people formed a mob, tore my parents to pieces, and were prevented from doing likewise to me–never mind my youth at the time–by the timely arrival of Wing himself and half a dozen Rangers. Unfortunately, when my mother and father went down fighting, I fought beside them, loosing several arrows from my little rabbit bow before I was taken. As terrified as I was, my hands shaking, only one of those arrows found flesh–but that flesh happened to be the left thigh of Wing Holder himself.”
“Yikes!” I stared at her, my eyes wide.
“Oh yeah. But Brak, it was wounding Wing that saved my life.”
“It did. See, we’re a Constitutional Dictatorship here at Wing Holding–though most of us refer to Wing as simply “the leader”–and one of the Amendments to the Constitution specifies the death for all traitors and spies, age notwithstanding, no excuses. My sentence would have been the arrow squad, no ifs, ands, or buts…but there’s an exception. If a holder–little “h”, a citizen of the holding–if a holder is wounded in combat with a traitor or spy, the wounded individual can demand Blood Right. The enemy who did the injury is stripped of everything, property, clothing, head shaved, and he or she is declared Slave to the one who has been wronged.”
She paused to take a breath. I put in my two cents worth. “And Wing did demand Blood Right…because if he didn’t, you’d be summarily executed. You stuck an arrow in him, and he saved your life for it.”
“Oh,” she chuckled softly, “I believe he did it for more than that. Once he’d tamed me and begun to teach me truly, he told me the other part of it. He recognized me, see. Recognized me as a Soul who’d been his throughout the centuries, never yet learning to live long as he does, but cycling through his life time after time, birth after birth, death after death, birth after birth, deja vu all over again.”
That’s when it hit me. I stared at her, finally comprehending. “You’re still trying to learn it, aren’t you?”
“Learn what?” She asked innocently.
“How to live forever, or close enough to it, so that you can be with him long term, not just for a few decades at a time.”
She grinned at me, lighting up the room. “By George, I think he’s got it. Now when–”
The door burst open, slamming back against the wall so that we both jumped, landing in fighting crouches, facing the opening. My friend Twix stumbled in, the right side of his head all bloody, a crazed look in his eyes. He was panting for breath, his chest heaving in a way that could only mean he’d run hard and long with the very Devil at his heels.
“Hayly!” He gasped. “Joos! They’re–”
I was already in motion, shoving past my diminutive friend, sprinting even though it was farther than a sprint could last.
“Behind the stables!” Twix shouted behind me. “Gorton! Bunch of ’em–”
The rest was lost in the wind. It was my fault, all my fault. Six hundred yards to the main stables. They’d be around back, doing bad things to my little sisters. My fault, because I’d taken so long to finish the test and even then loitered, making conversation with a good looking woman.
Once, maybe halfway there, I threw my head around, saw Faye striding strongly in my wake. Strongly, and she had wheels, but my legs were fueled by fear; not even she could catch me. No, not fear. Terror, knowing what brutes like Gorton and his pack were capable of doing to the innocent, knowing that I’d been the real target but had failed to do my duty, failed to be there. I might have fallen; there was that. In that case, they’d likely have pounced on the girls anyway, but that was no excuse.
You have to arrive with enough left in you to fight! The voice in my head spoke reason, but I wasn’t listening to reason. Reason was not in it.
Still, though my lungs wheezed in a match for the bellows at Smith’s forge, I knew I had something left as I rounded the corner of the huge log building. My belt knife was in my hand. No kill strikes if you can help it! The voice spoke reason again, knowing that no matter the circumstances, rubbing out one or more of my fellow holders might well put me in front of an arrow squad. I told the voice to shut up and finished the turn.
Gart, Gorton’s younger brother, was on lookout duty. He’d been distracted by the sight of my sisters being held down, spread eagled, naked on the ground, arms and legs pinned by the grimy hands of more than half a dozen grimy-souled boys and men. His turn toward me was not even complete when my left shoulder slammed into him, driving him completely off his feet. I spun without losing my forward momentum, my knife flashing to sever the cords in the back of his left knee as I went barreling on by.
He likely screamed, but I didn’t hear it. Sound was lost to me. There was only the scene before me, only targets. Seven of them left, I thought, though later I would find out there’d been eight; I was off by one. Grant, Gorton’s older brother, was the fastest to respond to my attack, his own belt knife leaping into his hand. Time slowed; I parried his low thrust, slicing off his thumb in the process. That would not have been enough against a seasoned warrior, but the 21 year old was not seasoned; the panic in his eyes was evident as his blade fell from his hand and he tried to stop the bleeding.
I could not tell the rest of it…but at some point I realized it was over and I was still on my feet. Two boys were running, boys whose names I didn’t even know, legging it for home most likely. Though huddling up with their parents would not likely help them; raping young girls was not exactly accepted in this society.
On the battlefield, for that’s what I suddenly realized it was, seven were down. A hazy memory slipped in, a subtle awareness that I’d not done quite all of the damage by myself. Wanson, there, he’d been coming at my back but had tripped over his own feet…and I suspected he’d had help, tangled by a subtle, invisible strike from the slave woman who’d been studying many things with her Master these past dozen years and more. Faye was with my sisters, acting as if she’d had nothing to do with it, simply helping the girls back into their still serviceable buckskins. That’s one good thing about leather; not even the average rape leaves it much more than stained.
Neither Hayly nor Joos was even crying; we’d grown up hard in Finar Village.
There were screams and moans now; my hearing had returned. Gorton himself, middle child but one helluva ringleader, was curled up in the fetal position, holding his gut and whimpering. I looked at the blood on my blade and suspected I knew why he had a bellyache. One of the boys had his pants off, not just down, when I hit the pack like a junior tornado; they served as a cleaning cloth before the knife was thrust back into its sheath.
“Neither of them was raped, Brak. You got here in time.” Faye’s voice was quiet but insistent, boring through my fog of self-hate.
“Really?” I said stupidly.
“Really. I knew you could move, but that’s the first time anyone has outpaced me. I’ve been the footrace champion of Wing Holding for years, but I suspect that’s about to change.”
I laughed shakily, though there was nothing funny about this day. “Doubt I can cover that much ground that fast without, you know, motivation.”
She didn’t reply, instead turning her head to observe the newcomers just rounding the corner of the stable. Hard Jak, the Constable, with two of his Deputies. Jak handled petty law enforcement, leaving the big stuff like rapes and homicides to Wing himself, but in Wing’s absence he might well take criminals into custody to await our leader’s pleasure. The man was short, maybe five-six, but stocky as they come, at least 200 pounds. A sizeable gut, but I’d seen him move. I wouldn’t want to mess with him under any circumstances. Hard to tell his age, though he was a bit grizzled. Old enough, at least, to have served in the last Blakto War.
Twix hobbled beside him, a fraction his size, favoring an ankle he must have twisted during his runs. No dwarf, my friend, no midget, but not far removed from either. I looked at Faye.
“Go on and talk to him,” she said softly. “I’ve got the girls.” Which she did, both of them clinging to her for dear life as if she were their own mother. Nine year old Joos, though, tough as they come, gave me a twisted smile and a wink. Hayly did not; I saw fear in her eyes. Fear of me. She’d seen me get pounded before, back in Finar, trying to defend her against the bullies. She’d never seen the developing warrior I was becoming, a whirlwind of serious injury if not yet quite of death. If I was not mistaken, I now scared her worse than her wannabe rapists ever had. That angered me, and I turned swiftly to Hard Jak so that she could not see the expression in my eyes and become even more terrified.
The Constable didn’t say a word at first, bending instead to check each of the fellows I’d injured. It didn’t take him long; then he began issuing orders to his Deputies. “Tang, Nim, grab up that Gorton kid and haul him off to Mama Vick. He’s got a gut wound that will kill him if it gets a chance, but she should be able to knock him out and patch him up. Close your ears on the way; he’ll be screaming some.”
He got that right. We all waited in silence until the screamer was far enough away, around the other side of the stables, slung between the Deputies like a long sack of grain. Then Hard Jak–almost no one thought of him as simply Jak–tipped back his hat, scratching his head a moment while he considered.
“Twix ran to get me after he told you what was going on, Brak. Can’t blame him none for that. It’s best to let law enforcement handle these things when you can, but we all know that sometimes when you need help in a matter of seconds, officers are only a few minutes away.”
He didn’t seem to mean that as humorous, but the way he said it left me fighting not to laugh. There was all too much truth in that statement.
Three of the remaining six wounded had to wait for transport, not to Mama Vick but to other healers in the holding. Gart, with his severed knee tendons. An unconscious kid I didn’t know with a probable concussion or worse, considering the lump on his head and how close it was to his left temple; the hilt of my belt knife had done that, maybe. And Wee Wayne, the fool who’d literally been caught with his pants down. The Wee One had gained his nickname honestly; Hayly might not have even noticed if the boy had completed the rape process.
The others were able to walk, after a fashion at least, but not before Hard Jak had interrogated them. They gave up their buddies, the two who’d run: Yaw Betson and Ram Cropper. They’d all be facing charges shortly.
Finally, even Faye had gone, taking my sisters with her. The two Deputies were done organizing paperwork and ferrying wounded. It was just me, Hard Jak, and Twix Graetong.
“Well, boys, how be we have a little heart to heart?” The Constable rolled himself a smoke while he spoke, not tobac–which we’d heard of but which would not grow anywhere in the Confederacy–but some other dried weed. Kinnikinnick, maybe, or something like it.
We waited, silent. One thing you learn young if you learn at all is not to tell adults any more than you have to. We’d seen more kids hang themselves with their own tongues than–well, suffice it to say, we waited the Constable out.
He wasn’t used to that. You could tell. Didn’t disturb him much, though; a crinkle of amusement started sneaking in at the corners of his eyes. “Let me sum it up for you, okay? There was a lot of action here today, a fair bit of violence. But despite the fact that the girls were not raped–by a hair they weren’t, but they weren’t–leaves it possible for me to file the actions by the Gorton pack as attempted rape charges. Unfortunately, according to the statutes, that’s actually a lesser charge than, say, slicing a guy’s knee tendons all to Hell and dang near gutting another fellow like a fish.
“Hold on,” he raised a hand, forestalling my protest. “I ain’t done yet. Twix, let’s start with you. You done the best you could, took a shot to the head trying to defend Brak’s sisters, then ran like the wind to get help, and even after that, ran to add me for reinforcements. My office is farther from here than Faye’s classroom, so what you did made total 100% sense. Which means you’re out of it, except for coming off a bit of a hero.”
Twix blushed. Dropped his gaze. Scuffed his boot on the ground a bit. He dang sure doesn’t see himself as a hero. He is, though.
“Last but not least, Brak, is you. I ain’t faulting you for using your knife against the pack, kid. I truly ain’t. I don’t reckon the Inquiry Court will see fault there, either. But what I would like to know is…how the Hell did you take out the whole bunch of ’em without killing anybody? Or at least, not killing ’em right away. Gorton could still bite the dust, and so could Frang Youst, the kid with the knot on his noggin, if the cards don’t fall right. Anyway, how did you do it?”
“I, uh…don’t know? Luck, maybe?”
Hard Jak chuckled drily, snorting smoke like a dragon as he did so. “Uh huh. Luck. Let me tell you something, son. They don’t make luck like that. And that’s going to make for a problem.”
He saw the spike of alarm in my eyes. “No, no, don’t get me wrong. You’re covered legally. Reasonable amount of force for the situation. Trouble is, though, it was too reasonable. Maybe a few citizens would buy the idea of it being luck, but most of ’em won’t. The story’s going to spread, Brak, and it’s going to get bigger and bigger and bigger with the telling. That’s going to amaze and terrify a whole lot of folks, and when that happens, when people see you as Super Warrior Kid, they’re going to tend to do one of two entirely ridiculous things. One group will try to plot and scheme to take you out before you can finish growing up–not to your face, understand. Nobody in their right mind is going to challenge you to your face or mess with your sisters after this. But behind your back, they’ll try to stir up trouble.”
I nodded slowly. This was nothing new, really. There’d been plotters and schemers even in the tiny village of Finar. “And the other thing?”
The blocky man sighed. “The other thing is maybe even worse. There’ll be some who will admire you, suck up to you not because they like you but because they think you’re godlike or something. Girls will offer to spread their legs for you just ’cause they think you’re tough enough to protect them or because they’re drawn to bad, bad boys. Enemies trying to stick a knife or an arrow in your back are one thing; people looking at you like you’re the Creator Itself are quite another.”
“Huh,” I replied brilliantly. Having a bunch of girls after me didn’t sound so bad. Might take my mind off Faye, the Wonder Woman…. “Well,” I admitted, “mostly I’m relieved my sisters are gong to be okay.”
“As you should be, son. As you should be.”
“I have to admit, after it was over, I was a little worried about the legal side of it. After all, I did do a fair bit of damage–”
“–and without a mark on me, I didn’t know who was going to believe me at the end of it.”
Hard Jak and Twix stared at each other a moment, jaws dropping. Then they started laughing.
Twix couldn’t help himself. “Take a closer look at yourself, Brak. You’re still bleeding from half a dozen knife slices, and I’m pretty sure your nose is broken.”
“Huh?” My eyes went crosseyed, trying to stare at my own nose, and I fainted.