Isis remained silent, gesturing for Wing to come forward. He did so, bending at the waist to peer through the gap in the foliage. Life’s a bitch and then you die, he thought, though hopefully they wouldn’t have to literally kill anybody this evening. The willow thicket provided enough cover for them to see and hear without being seen or heard; the She Bears had chosen their meeting place wisely. In the clearing, gathered around a typical evening campfire in early dusk, a dozen female warriors sat listening to three supposed traders.
Easterners, come all the way across the prairie to spy on the doings at the Rim.
They couldn’t possibly have heard about the decision to build the Great Wall in time to trek all that distance. No…no, they had come for another reason entirely, although the Wall doings would undoubtedly be of considerable interest to them. Certainly their cover story was suspect; no trader before them had ever bothered to cross thousands of miles of wild country, country heavily infested with customers who might well turn out to be hostiles willing to slaughter them and take their load of admittedly superior knives, spear points, and arrow points. Superior to Blakto cutlery, that is; no place turned out better steel than the forges owned by the Brothers.
Just for a moment, Wing squeezed Isis’s shoulder with one hand, letting her know he was ready. She laid a hand over his, cementing their mutual understanding. It was time to blow smoke.
Stepping casually out of the willow stand and into the circle of firelight, the hundred thousand year old man did not look himself. His usual leather hat had been replaced by a wig of long, jet black hair that fell beyond his shoulders, held in place with a soft brown leather headband. His face was thoroughly dyed a dark shade, a shade that matched the natural skin tone of many a Blakto. Instead of dying his hands, he wore soft buckskin gauntlets that came far enough up his forearms to prevent any accidental showing of a white man’s tanned wrists. His usual fringed buckskin shirt was present, but his pants were of wool, a dusky blue color that blended well with the night. Moccasins instead of boots, and the piece de resistance, a gnarled walking stick to accompany an exaggerated limp. He could do little about his blue eyes, but some Blakto did have those; it’s not like the races were pure these days.
Yellow Bird jumped up to escort him to an honored place by the fire, a seat on a sawed-off block of wood that allowed him to join the group without sitting clear down on the ground with his “bad leg”. “Welcome to our fire, Honored One,” she greeted him smoothly, offering an arm which he took as though he were an invalid and she his nurse. “We are overjoyed you could join us.”
“This,” she spoke to the three traders, “is the man I told you about, Mountain Wind. He has seen nearly sixty summers and as many hard winters. More importantly, he knows much about the ancient one you seek, Wing Holder.”
The traders looked eager enough to be dripping saliva. Time to put a stop to that. Wing snorted in contempt. “Ancient one, my ass. That snake eyed yellow bellied liver lilied fraud ain’t a day older than I am.”
That stopped all conversation for a long moment, the Easterners looking kind of poleaxed and bumfuzzled and all. The biggest of them, and also clearly the youngest, was about as white a white man as Wing had ever seen, and that covered a lot of ground. Freckled Irish, mostly, at a guess. There were still Irish out there and plenty of them, though Ireland itself had gone beneath the waves in one of the earlier wars. The oldest fellow was part Chinese at a guess, not a big guy but the sort you’d expect to be played by Jackie Chan in the movies, back when there were movies. The obvious leader, though, was the black man in the middle, or what passed for a black man these days. More chocolate brown, really, with maybe a touch of Aztec in there somewhere and for darn sure at least one alien in the woodpile.
Well. At least the Eastern Empire didn’t seem to be judging its people by the color of their skin. You could practically smell their sense of superiority over the Blakto, though, thinking the She Bears to be brainless barbarians and themselves the sophisticated ones.
Yellow Bird was more than a tad telepathic; it would shake these yahoos considerably if they ever found out she’d been reading their minds from the moment they showed up in the Death Pass Gap sector.
Thanks to the mind reader, he already knew what they were really after. They didn’t care about trading steel, though they’d wouldn’t turn down a profit if they could get one. A good third of their wagon was already packed tight with furs they’d obtained from various tribes, never mind that this was the worst possible time of year for good critter skins. Still, in all fairness, they’d probably started out in early spring when the prairie trappers were full up with skins obtained throughout the long, harsh winter.
Any real trader interested in furs, though, would have turned back by June at the latest…unless they had a deeper mission, which these three men clearly did. They’d never make it back across the plains before winter set in; where were they figuring to hole up for the snow months? Maybe they weren’t thinking too clearly about that; Yellow Bird and her squad had gotten them dead drunk for three days in a row, following which she and her fellow warrior women had taken them to their blankets, in the process milking them for information.
It still amazed him how often an otherwise intelligent man would spill the beans with a gut full of liquor and a willing woman in his arms. Of course, these particular women would have used other means such as bondage coupled with hot coals and well honed blades, had the booze and booty ploy proved unsuccessful.
Fortunately, that had not proved necessary. Wing knew exactly what they were up to. They had a priority list.
1. Find out everything possible about this Wing Holder’s apparently very long life span. The word is out, and the Emperor wants to know his secret.
2. Best case scenario, capture Holder and return to the East with him in chains, gagged and secreted in the wagon’s false bottom, below the cases of knives and bales of furs. Field interrogation is advisable, but the Emperor’s Persuaders are specifically skilled in the art of extracting information.
3. Second best case scenario, persuade him to explain himself without letting him know what you’re up to. Warning: If he really has lived that long, he may see that one coming. Be cautious.
4. Do NOT do anything to terminate his life. The Emperor’s Persuaders are most excellent but have yet to successfully get a corpse to talk.
5. Worst case scenario: If it turns out Wing Holder is a fraud, which may well be the case as has been documented for nineteen other men and women who supposedly “never died”, you are authorized to kill him IF the opportunity arises. More importantly, however, will be your reports to the Emperor. Enquiring Emperors want to know.
Or words to that effect.
Wing Holder clearly had his work cut out for him. Now he waited, letting the silence grow. He’d never met an Easterner yet who was comfortable with silence. These proved no exception to the rule; the black leader broke first, speaking after no more than half a minute had passed. “So. Mountain Wind, is it?”
“I’m known as Haxon Tribble. Hax for short.”
“Glad ta meetcha.” Wing spat a stream of kinnikinnick juice into the fire, watching it sizzle. He didn’t much care for the stuff, but he’d do most anything to put on a good show.
“So. Mountain Wind. You know this Wing Holder, eh?”
“Ya could say that. We growed up together, back in the day.”
“Ah.” Tribble’s eyes took on an avaricious gleam. “You know him well, then.”
“Ayuh. ‘Bout as well as I know myself, I reckon.”
“Huh.” The black man clearly struggled to restrain his excitement before continuing. “Then…why did you, you know, sort of snort when the subject of his life span was mentioned?”
Wing let out a long sigh. “Well, Hell. If you could remember him jumping off a cliff as an eight year old, holding his coat open against the winter wind so he kind of glided down to the snowpack at the foot of the cliff like a freakin’ flyin’ squirrel, would you be impressed by fairy tale stories told about the feller? Eh?”
“Hm.” There was clear disappointment in the face of the Easterner, and in the faces of his partners, too. On the good side, there was something that looked a whole lot like relief there as well; their mission actually became much easier if this fabled immortal turned out to be a fake, eh?
Wing waited some more. This time it was the young man who broke, the big guy, whatever his name was. “Mr. Wind–”
Wing and the entire Blakto contingent busted out laughing. “Mr. Wind?” He spluttered, tears running down his face so that he began to worry a bit about his skin dye. “I ain’t never–ain’t never been called that! Sounds like a title for a World Champion Gas Passer!” At that moment, a pitch-laden brand in the fire popped loud enough to send the bunch of them off again.
“Oh.” The man didn’t look ruffled at all. “Mountain Wind, then?”
“That’ll do fine.” Wing thought about wiping his eyes, but he didn’t dare. That would streak his makeup for sure.
“Well…if he’s a fake, do you happen to know…why?”
Once again under control, Wing nodded. “Yeah. Kinda sorta. He shared some with me. See, my maw, she’d been captured in one of the Gap Wars…you’ve heard of those.”
“Of course,” the man nodded earnestly. “Have to be deaf not to.”
“Ayuh. Well, my maw, she was captured three Wars ago, so near ’bout sixty summers, give or take. Wounded she was, and pregnant with me as it turned out. Not by much, my old man had put a bun in her oven and then got himself killed in battle. One of the Rimlanders from Wing’s stronghold took her slave, saw to it I was born okay. My maw, though, she’d been wounded some serious. Didn’t kill her right out, but she was never right, either. Died when I was five. The Rimlander, he didn’t want me around after that, so he managed to scam old Wing Holder–the one that held the title before the one I grew up with–into taking me. Old Wing, he had a son about my age, not but a few months between us.
“We got the same education in some things, but I could see Old Wing didn’t really want or need me hanging around, neither, so when I was eleven years old, I run away to the Blakto. They wasn’t none too sure about me neither, but they ain’t known for turning on their own blood, so the bunch I hit up with let me hang around, and I learned as I could, getting beat to crap by the boys but sometimes getting my own licks in, too.
“Then when I was twenty, the Blakto fired up for another try at busting through one of the Gaps, and I got my chance to prove my manhood and my loyalty to ’em. Didn’t work out worth a hoot nor a holler, though. Turned out I wasn’t any luckier in war than my maw had been, or at least not by much. Went down with a spear through my leg. Freaking Rimlander woulda cut my throat to be done with me, but Old Wing and Young Wing came riding by just in the nick of time. Old Wing didn’t give a rat’s bony ass, but Young Wing recognized me as his childhood buddy–or at least so he thought; I personally thought he was an arrogant little shit.
“Anyway, they got me patched up and give me the option. I could either work as a translator between the two peoples, being by that time more or less bilingual and bicultural to boot, or I could stand up in front of an arrow squad and get executed. Seemed like a pretty clear option, so I been a translator ever since. Ain’t neither side ever been that fond of me, though I do appreciate the She Bears of the River Eyes tribe considerably. They been giving me honor for a while now, though I ain’t a hunnert percent sure of the why of it.”
Wing stopped there. Had he laid it on too thick? Ah. Hell. He hadn’t even gotten to the point yet!
“So anyway, one day I get called in to Wing’s stronghold in the mountains, and when I get there, the Wing Holder in charge ain’t Old Wing at all; it’s Young Wing with a bit of makeup on his cheeks to make him look some wrinkled. I asked him, where’s the old one? And you know what he said? He laughed, said his pree-dee-cessor, I think that means the guy who came before him, his pree-dee-cessor had retired, gone off to laze around in a cabin somewhere, fishing and hunting and no more cares in the world.”
This time the silence lasted for a good two minutes, at the end of which Haxon Tribble summed it up. “So what you’re saying is, each Wing Holder in turn, he finds some kid that looks something like him, trains him up to know how to run things, then suckers him into taking over?”
Wing shrugged. “Near as I could see, that’s been the way of it. They do lie a lot, them Wing Holders. Keep telling the people their leader is one man who’s been around forever, a freaking immortal if there was such a thing. The weird thing to me is that so many out there seem to believe it. But I guess there’s a sucker born every minute.”
Take that zinger, o’ Emperor of the East! Wing snickered a bit, but only on the inside. He’d just called the Emperor a sucker. Love it. He didn’t love the fact that there was an Emperor, though.
Emperors were nearly always trouble.
The gathering went on for another hour, mercifully terminated by a “messenger” who arrived to escort the Honored One to another campfire some distance away and well out of sight of the trader spies. He hobbled off into the darkness, just one old and slightly bitter Blakto.
Isis met him as soon as the forest had swallowed them up. They walked hand in hand, the excuse being that his night vision hadn’t yet returned from staring into those campfire flames for so long. They hadn’t yet taken it any farther, and he was pretty sure neither of them had yet decided whether or not they would do so at some future date.
There was certainly nothing stopping them. Faye was his slave, not his wife; if he decided to hump another woman in her absence, she could like it or lump it. Isis was widowed, and besides, the Blakto weren’t strictly monogamous, anyway.
Still, there would be consequences. There always were.
“Do you think they bought it?” Isis’s voice was soft, inquiring. Up ahead, their wagons beckoned, set up in a little clearing with their guards anxiously awaiting their return. None of the warriors felt at ease when their bosses took off without backup.
“Don’t know,” Wing admitted. “Seemed like they did, but with something like this, they may sleep on it and wake up with an entirely different view. I presume your She Bears have them well wrapped up, though?”
She chuckled. “Oh yeah. They’re working those poor guys in shifts. By the time their wagon is empty of steel and stuffed with moth eaten late summer furs, they’ll be well back out past the arc of the Wall–which they didn’t see anyway, our progress being as slow as it is at the moment.”
“And for which we can be thankful. Never thought I’d be happy to see portions of the Wall not built yet.”
“Me either. Silver lining and all that.”
“Could you see the slanty eyed man’s position okay from the willows?”
“Kinda sorta. Why?”
“Well, he was taking notes–or so I thought at first. Then I realized he was actually drawing my portrait in a little sketch book. I’m willing to bet the real reason he was chosen for this scouting foray across the continent was because of his artistic talent. Which means–”
“Which means,” Isis cut in, excited, “that the Emperor and his analysts back East will not only be hearing the story of many perfidious Wing Holders pretending to be one, but they will see the image of the man who told the tale, the lame old Blakto. And that may help convince them there’s nothing to you but a smoke screen, not really an immortal.”
Wing huffed in disgust. “I’m hardly immortal, Isis.”
She shrugged as they reached the wagons, Wing immediately shucking his gloves and wig and shirt before heading for the basin of fire heated water to begin scrubbing the dye from his skin. “You may not call it that, but anyone else would. A long lived one might be someone who lived two, maybe three times the normal life span. A thousand times…no. You’re immortal, old man.”
“Watch who you’re calling old man, chickie poo.”
One of the supply sergeants had come up with another five pound bag of imported coffee, bless his scrounging heart. They weren’t about to ask how he did it; any military man or woman knows some things are purely off limits. Isis took a dollop of honey in hers; Wing added a revolting spoonful of cow’s milk–kept from spoiling by the addition of a silver dollar to the bucket–and they settled in for one last mug before racking out for the night. Millenia earlier, some fools had had a superstition against drinking coffee right before bedtime, but the human race really was making progress.
Wing sipped cautiously, making sure he wasn’t about to scald his throat, then swallowed deeply. “Ah-h-h, that hits the spot. You know, I’m surprised it took this long to happen.”
“What? Took what to happen?”
“I knew better than to come out into the open about my age. Truly, I did.”
“Oh.” She eyed him over the rim of her mug, dark eyes curious. “Why did you, then?”
“Necessity? How so?”
“Well…I’d never flapped my gums about it before, you know. Not through all the millennia. Not until a few hundred years ago, give or take. Did you know that when I first discovered the Rim and the Bowl as they exist today, the land formations I mean, there were no people?”
She considered. “None?”
“Not there. Out on the prairies, yes. Back East in what has now become the Empire, yes. But not in the Bowl or the Rim. Not that I could find, and I spent a couple of decades trying. Your own people were on the plains, but you were a small tribe, destined for great things as it turned out but numbering no more than seven or eight hundred in total at the time. The Eastern cities were nothing more than a hundred or so small hardscrabble towns, villages really, just trying to scrape by.”
“Huh. This is going somewhere, I can tell.”
“Oh yeah. The rebound from the latest great population crash was begun, but it had some distance to cover to get where we are today. Now, I looked over the Rim and the Bowl and I saw not what it was but what it could be. And I decided to seed it. I made a pilgrimage with the idea of gathering up a few people and taking them to the Rim to live. I’d stumbled across Granite Peak Stronghold and chose that for my starting point, but the first folks I convinced to join me didn’t just up and decide to follow me simply because I told them it was a good idea.”
“No,” Isis remarked, “I don’t suppose they would have.”
“No indeed. In the end, after having to flee for my life a fair number of times and generally having my message of a Golden Land rejected vigorously by one and all, I decided things were getting desperate. I was going to have to blow my own cover. There was a tiny tribe of plains people, most of them light skinned but a few about as dark as you, who were starving to death along the big bend in the Stone River–”
“Hngh.” She grunted. “Damn good place to starve to death.”
“Indeed. Then and now. They’d only survived as long as they had because nobody else wanted that area, but game was scarce, crops did not grow well, the river ran dry more summers than not, and the winters were something else even for the plains.”
“Yep. That’s the Stone River country.”
“Ah, but even so, they weren’t about to follow some crazy old man just because he told them to do so–unless he could convince them he was an immortal old man who could truly save their sorry asses. So I dug deep, knew I’d be cursing myself one day for the decision…and pulled out all the stops. Not only told ’em I knew better than they did, but showed ’em evidence after evidence. They were still using flint arrowheads; I flashed my steel around. They’d never seen a mirror or telescope or, the Creator forbid, a pair of reading glasses. I picked out their best fighters, told ’em to come at me one a time, then two at a time, then three at a time, and showed off enough martial arts moves to put ’em down without busting anything critical. Went out hunting alone where there was supposedly no game and came back with two fresh antelope carcasses loaded on my pack horse, thanks to my long glass and a compound bow. And so on and so forth, all the time spinning tales that were one hundred percent true but still shame me to think about it.”
He paused, realizing that somehow in the midst of talking, he’d drained his mug. What the hey, a second round wouldn’t hurt. Isis winced when he dipped his spoon into the milk bucket.
“So,” she mused, “they did follow you in the end…and that little tribe became what, the Rimlanders? The Bowl belly dwellers? Both? Neither?”
“Yeah, they followed me–and before we got back to the Rim, I got two thirds of them killed. Led them right into an ambush. Don’t know who the attackers were. Not your ancestors; knowing your people as I do, I can say that much. But somebody out there, contesting the plains even then. By the time we made it to cover in the tree line, there were 173 left in total, out of a group that had numbered something over five hundred to start.”
Isis’s eyes grew sympathetic. “They must not have seen you as the almighty invincible immortal by then, huh?”
“Funny thing.” He shook his head, remembering. “Most of them saw me as even mightier than they had at the start. Except for one man. That man has passed down his completely justifiable skepticism through the centuries, generation to generation. I had to execute one of them not so long ago. Anyway, I got that bunch settled in, worked with them for a generation or two. A lot of them are still rooted in and around my Holding, good strong people for the most part.
“And then, when I thought it was safe to leave them for a while, I went back out. Brought back another batch, planted them in the belly of the Bowl, right where the city of Grain Hollow stands today. And so it went, rinse and repeat.”
“I’ll be damned.”
“Wing, you really are the father of your country, about as literally as you can get without breeding all the women personally. If I’d had any idea what I was running up against, you couldn’t have gotten me to lead that last attack on the Gap for all the buffalo on the prairie.”
“Yeah, I guess. But Isis, I don’t want to be.”
He took a deep breath. “It’s like this. Originally, when I was still in my first century of life, I took on–I believe I took on a spiritual assignment. It’s not like the word came down in flashing lights or burning bushes or anything, but I became convinced I was destined to live long and be a loose cannon in the right place when the spiritual hierarchy needed a loose cannon in the right place–”
“What’s a cannon?”
“Oh. Uh. I may have to show you one of these days. Let’s hope not. It’s…a very high powered weapon, like something the size of a crossbow that could hurl a quarrel hard enough to punch right through a tree without the warrior even needing to crank the bowstring back.”
“Anyway, my preference is to live alone or with a very small clan, high in some deeply hidden place–”
“You like to live alone?” There was shock on her face. The very concept was utterly…alien.
“Yeah. I do. My ideal life would be alone except for maybe the company of a slave like Faye, or maybe a handful of such. Which doesn’t mean I can’t function around other people. You’ve seen that I can. It’s just not my preference. But at times it is my duty, and when I first saw the Rim and the Bowl, I knew I had no choice. The right thing to do was help it become populated in as responsible a way as possible. I mean, that might not always be the case, but I felt it was at the time. Felt it in my bones, and knew I had it to do.”
“So…for however many hundred years now, you’ve been basically suffering…out of duty?”
He nodded. “You could put it that way.”
“Wow. Life’s a bitch and then you die.”
“Don’t I wish. That would be the easy way out.”
Isis stared into the flames, thinking. She had been such a blind, vain, selfish bitch during her incarnation as her own ancestor, Berea Two Feathers. No more. Wing’s honesty had given her a paradigm shift. If I find at some point that I’m no longer aging, then I can consider hooking up with this Soul. Anything else is unthinkable. I will not ask him to watch me grow old, wither, and die, as he has so many before me.
When she came out of her deep thinking mode, it was to find Wing Holder already gone to his wagon for the night. Relieved, she rose and turned toward her own quarters. For the moment at least, there was nothing else for either of them to say.