We ran into our first protestors at Barnwell, a town of five hundred or so hardy Souls a mere day’s march from Grain Hollow. There were thirty-three of them–I counted–carrying banners and shouting and throwing rotten tomatoes. Frankly, we never saw them coming. Faye and I were on stage, our usual mixed complement of guards positioned behind and to the sides but leaving the forward view open so we could see, and be seen by, the audience. They came marching around the corner, having been shielded by one of the town’s larger buildings, chanting as they came.
“C-A-F, warmongers pride! Rimlanders lied, good people died!”
“C-A-F, warmongers pride! Rimlanders lied, good people died!”
The locals were as startled as we were, falling back in astonishment as the anti-Pact group forged forward, heading right for our stage. Tomatoes began to fly, and some of the throwers had pretty good arms; in the first mind boggling seconds, I got hit three times. I’d heard of really bad traveling theater troupes who were tomato-bombed off the stage from time to time. Frankly, I’d thought it sounded pretty funny.
Trust me, getting splatted with a tomato hurled from a power thrower’s arm is not that humorous.
“Pretty Eyes!” I heard Faye yell to our security team leader, “No killing! They’re not armed with anything but fruit! Or vegetables! Or whatever the Hell tomatoes really are!”
Teach a dog to suck eggs, would she? It didn’t look like the Blakto She Bear needed the advice. Her squad was already in motion, half of them moving to interpose their bodies between us and the protestors, the other half darting forward, using their spear hafts in quarterstaff mode. The opposition folded swiftly, chanting turning to choked gasps as spear butts drove into city-soft stomachs or to screams as hardwood cracked leg bones or shattered a kneecap here and there.
It was over in less than a minute, the protesters gone back around the same corner from whence they’d arrived, running as they could but hampered by their wounded.
They were disciplined, I noted. Though made up mostly of young people, both male and female, not one member of their party was left behind. Quite a few of their placards were, though, with sayings like
BOOT THE BLAKTO!
CAF = CRUEL AND FOOLISH!
DOWN WITH RIMLANDERS PLAN!
CAF = CLEARLY A FRAUD!
IF GOD MEANT US TO
BLEND WITH THE BLAKTO
HE WOULD HAVE MADE US
God? How did God get into this?
Faye had stepped back during the fracas. Now she stepped forward again, preparing to address the stunned Barnwell population. I was a bit stunned myself, realizing…”Faye, there’s not a splat mark on you!”
She quirked one side of her mouth, amused. “Brak, I can’t help it if you stood there like a block of wood, taking the hits. Good thing you don’t do it when it’s arrows instead of tomatoes, eh?”
“Eh,” I agreed, a bit disgruntled. She could have been splatted at least once! I forgot all about my irritation though; the slave woman’s Barnwell address was that memorable.
“People of Barnwell,” she began, her voice pitched low yet carrying to the far reaches of the square, “what you have just seen is but the beginning. Brak and I, representing Wing Holder and the TranStatePact, hoping to explain the reasons for the changes coming to all of the inner Bowl and the Rim alike, and also hoping to encourage young men everywhere to join the newly commissioned CAF, the Combined Armed Force…we have this to say. First of all, we represent change, and change is never a comfortable thing. There will be resistance, as you just saw. The protestors we saw here today will show up in every town, every city where we speak, from now on until the end of our tour. And they are right to do so!
She stopped cold for a moment, watching the shock register in the faces of her listeners. What is she up to?
“They are right to do so, because it is the right of every free citizen of the Cautan Confederacy to speak up, to be heard. But there are rules. There are rules that govern good conduct, and those rules are simple. When a speaker has the podium, the audience listens with respect. When a speaker has finished, anyone with an opposition view may step forward, asking to be heard, to take the podium in turn. However,” she paused again, glaring out into the crowd, making eye contact here and there and there, “there is no excuse for insult, no excuse for bad behavior, and certainly no excuse for assault. The wonderfully ripe tomatoes that were offered to us this time, (hesitating a couple of beats, waiting for the laughter to die down) were wisely chosen in that none of us would think of them as deadly weapons, except to our sense of fashion (more laughter). Our soldiers recognized that and did not respond with deadly force.”
Her voice, which had risen in both pitch and tempo, suddenly dropped to a lower register. She spoke slowly, deep intensity throbbing in every word. “Had they been using raw potatoes, hard objects capable of serious injury and even death, some of those protesters. Would. Have. Died. Today.”
Again switching it up, she lightened her message to one of hope, of union. “We never want to see that happen. We want and need every citizen of the Confederacy to prosper in good health; we do not want to be fighting among ourselves.The danger at which the opposition scoffs, calling us liars…that danger is very, very real. I have personally seen the war leader of all the River Eyes Blakto, Isis Two Feathers, severely wounded in battle yet fighting on until she fell from blood loss, refusing to back away despite the deaths of thousands of her followers, and why? Why would such a warrior–and believe me, people, that woman can fight–why would such a warrior be so desperate that she would sacrifice more than a third of her finest young men and women, the cream of the crop from the generation most suited to child bearing and raising? Why would she do such a thing?”
I scanned the audience. She had them. No one moved, not even to shift weight from one leg to another. Nobody even coughed. All eyes were on the speaker. Okay, so all male eyes would probably have been on her no matter what she had to say, but the women were just as rapt.
“I can tell you why she would do such a thing,” she said softly, so softly that her audience had to strain to hear her words. “She would do such a thing because she had no choice. Isis Two Feathers has seen the power and numbers of the Easterners, seen their inexorable march west, their taking over of the wintering cities formerly inhabited by the Blakto, pushing her people westward. Wing Holder, too, has seen these things, though not quite as recently. He has traveled to their very cities, these Easterners. He tells us their numbers are as the blades of grass in the fields, as the stars in the night sky, and that they multiply like rabbits. They are coming, people, and they will crush us underfoot like little boys stomping ants for the fun of it…if we are not ready. If we are not capable of stopping them at the Rim. If we do not have the numbers, and the training, and the organization, and the defenses in place before they arrive.
“Fortunately, there is a little time. There is no time to waste, but fear not, there is time to prepare. And now, I’ll turn the podium over to young Brak, formerly of the village of Finar and now of Granite Peak Stronghold in Wing Holding. Don’t let this man’s youth fool you. He has survived the destruction of his entire village, the only one to do so except for his two younger sisters, whom he also saved. He has fought and killed creech, and yes, those fabled monsters are real. He has fought and killed men as well, experienced mercenaries born to war. He serves as the apprentice of Wing Holder himself, is an experienced scribe, and is learning the Blakto language. He can answer any questions you may have.”
Faye relinquished the podium to thunderous applause, giving me time to mutter in her ear, “Thanks a lot. I’m supposed to live up to that introduction?”
“Hey,” she replied out of the side of her mouth, “I figured it was time. You’ll be fine.”
The applause was dying down. I grunted and stepped to the podium, not exactly a splendid sight in my somewhat trail-stained buckskins and pimple-populated skin, my growth spurt contributing a good two inches of exposed wrist between cuff and hand. My pants were high water, too, ending halfway up my boot tops. Worst of all, my voice was changing; I never knew how it was going to come out.
Yeah. I’d do fine. Heck, these people could take one look at me and see I had all the answers. That’s sarcasm, in case you didn’t catch it.
At least the people of this town understood procedure. I gestured for a woman with her hand raised to go ahead.
“Aren’t you a little young to have done all that?” Her attitude reeked of disbelief.
“Yes,” I admitted. “Yes I am. The man in the back.”
“She said your village was wiped out.”
“How? What happened?”
“Bottom line,” I replied, “our village Overman was an idiot. He murdered an innocent elder, and the elder’s relatives took revenge. Slaughtered every man, woman, and child in Finar, razed the buildings. Before you ask, my sisters and I got out because Wing Holder himself happened by in time to warn us the revenge party would be arriving soon. My parents were already long gone, but I believed Wing and asked him if my sibs and I could travel with him, get clear of the village before the avengers arrived.”
Another woman, young, square faced, and outraged. “The avengers were not tracked down? Not brought to justice?”
“How, Ma’am?” I asked. “Finar was on a main road but otherwise remote. Here in Barnwell, you folks may not understand that; Grain Hollow patrols likely come out this far at times, right? Yes? Next question.”
And so it went. I heaved a mental sigh of relief, having managed to avoid identifying the Forty Chosen of the Psubu’m’sptybalt as the avengers in the tale of Finar. I was pretty sure these people were having more than enough trouble believing creech were real; asking them to believe in the existence of ape cats would have exploded their heads.
Strangely, more than a dozen young men signed up for military service after we were done speaking. That was a high number for a town of Barnwell’s relatively modest size. It puzzled me until I asked Faye about it as we were cinching up to head on down the road.
“It’s a curious thing, Brak,” she said, “but sometimes the anti-nationalists acting obnoxious will stir the patriotic impulse in people. I suspect the protestors helped our bottom line recruiting effort here today, maybe even doubled the number who would have otherwise joined up.”
“Huh,” I remarked sagely. “I’ll have to think about that. Excuse me a sec; there’s someone I need to talk to.” I’d noticed the lone volunteer who had been rejected by the recruiting sergeant as unfit for the CAF. He was standing right at the edge of our camp, looking about as lost as a man could look. There wasn’t the slightest doubt in my mind as to why he’d been culled from the herd; he couldn’t be more than, what? Four foot ten? At most. Well built, but on the slim side. His age wouldn’t have mattered, and I’d seen some pretty short soldiers, but those guys were invariable broad and heavily muscular, something the stocky Sergeant Vringas–who happened to be on the recruiting desk today–could appreciate. There wouldn’t me much time to chat with the fellow. The army would be moving out shortly, wanting to reach our pre-chosen campsite by sunset, and I’d not care to be the cause of holding up the entire operation.
“Hey.” I stuck out my hand as I closed the gap. Mr. Short and Unhappy took it, clearly surprised to be approached at all.
“Hey,” he said. His voice was light, pleasant, not exactly what you’d picture as a candidate for chopping enemies to bits. Vringas, much as I hated to admit it even to myself, might have been right to refuse this candidate. His eyes were gray, not a common color in the Bowl although not unknown among the Blakto. Up close, he looked even younger; I was suddenly none too sure he was older than me. Definitely shorter, though; I topped him by a full head. His brown hair was chopped in a simple bowl cut. A farm youth, then; none of the urbanites wore their hair that way. Steady, too. He waited, calm at least on the outside, no nervous questions about why one of the two high and mighty civilians representing the TranStatePact and recruiting for the CAF would deign to talk to him.
I liked this guy already.
“You want to serve your country.”
It was not a question, but he answered anyway. “Yes.”
“You’re not running away from anything?”
The little guy cocked an eyebrow. “Not that I recall, but if I was, what business would that be of yours?”
I couldn’t help it. I grinned and went on. “Can you fight?”
He turned his head and spat deliberately, nailing a startled grasshopper some ten feet away. “I see you’re not much for answering questions. You want a demonstration?”
“Huh–” That’s as far as I got. It only took a few seconds for my head to clear enough to realize I was lying flat on my back, my wind gone from a solar plex strike I hadn’t even seen coming. Had he punched me? No, must have been a kick. Damn!
Oops. “Wait!” I yelled. Okay, it didn’t really come out as a yell, more of a gasp, but Pretty Eyes got the message before any of her squad could skewer my new best friend with a few spears or whatever. Best friend? Yeah, he’d better be if I wanted him to live long and prosper. Our assembled warriors would take it personally if they thought a security risk had slipped up next to one of their charges that easily.
Faking it mightily, I sat up, got my feet under me, and rose, vision blurring around the edges. I didn’t go down again, though, and that’s what mattered. Plus, when I spoke, the words came out clear enough. “My fault. I asked this fine gentleman if he could fight. He was just giving me a demonstration.”
The Blakto bodyguards stared at me for a long second…and then busted out laughing like there was no tomorrow. Without another word, they turned and headed back to finish their preparations for departure, some of them holding their sides from the sheer mirth of it.
“Wasn’t that funny,” I muttered under my breath.
“Of course not,” the little man agreed soberly, his eyes dancing. “Not funny at all.”
I eyed him suspiciously, flicking an occasional glance toward his feet. “Well…what’s your name?”
“Sam. Sam Dennis.”
“Okay, Sam. I’m Brak–uh, guess you know that already. I don’t have a second name.”
“True that. Uh…I take it the recruiting sergeant underestimated you.”
“Considerably.” It wasn’t a boast, just a simple statement of fact. Sam Dennis knew what he could do, and he wasn’t about to play the false modesty card.
“All righty then. You want a job? Not in the army per se. You’d be working for me.”
The eyebrow went up again. “After I just knocked you on your ass?”
This time it was my turn to laugh. “Hell, Sam, because you just knocked me on my ass! Uh, they’re about ready to go; I’ll have to make this quick. Here’s the deal. I get a salary as Wing Holder’s apprentice. I could give you a quarter of that. Faye and I, as part of Wing’s inner circle–we’re acting as his representatives on this tour–we get certain perks similar to CAF troops, such as food and weapons and clothing, not necessarily in that order. I’m pretty sure Faye will be willing to authorize the same for you, even a place to sleep in the wagons instead of on the ground with the infantry and most of the cavalry. That means your pay, while not all that much, will add up ’cause you’ll have no place to spend it for most of the next year at least.”
I cast around mentally for something else to throw into the sales pitch, but I needn’t have bothered. “Hell yeah,” Sam stated flatly, “I’m in.”
With that, I simply nodded and headed back to my horse where Faye was already mounted and waiting. Sam walked beside me, his shorter legs having no trouble at all keeping up. “You’ll have to walk for the rest of the afternoon. There’s no time to get you a mount, let alone scrounge a bit of spare tack from the quartermaster.” He’d need weapons, too; all he carried with him was a brush jacket and a belt knife. Probably all he owned in the world.
“I’m used to walking.”
Faye didn’t say anything as I untied the pinto’s reins and stepped into the saddle. “I just hired an aide,” I told her. She simply nodded, gave a little wave of welcome to the newcomer, and we were off.
The three hour ride to the night’s stopping spot gave me time to think. What had I just done? The more I thought it over, the less certain I became. It had been an act of impulse, action without consideration of possible consequences. I didn’t know this kid–look at me, calling somebody else a kid–or anything about him, except that he’d be acquiring a chunk of my own hard earned wages from now on.
Well…that, and I liked him. My stomach muscles were going to be sore for a while from that kick, yet I found myself grinning like an idiot just thinking about what he’d done. For most of my life, I’d been in the habit of getting beaten up regularly by the self appointed Bully of Finar. That, even more than the martial arts training from Faye and the actual combat with both creech and adult human warriors, had helped me develop a radar for incoming assaults that was second to none. And yet Sam had hit me so fast I never saw the kick coming. How could I not like somebody like that?
Besides, it would be a flick in the face to Sergeant Abasalom Vringas. He’d rejected Sam, following which I’d promptly hired Sam. If I were any judge of character, Vringas would hate that. He would take it as an insult, me not letting the undersized Mr. Dennis run along back to his Daddy’s farm or wherever he came from. Yes, it would eat at Vringas; I was sure of it.
That alone would be worth the price of the whistle.