2: Sensitive Decisions

2.1

In the central region of the Denorian settlement, there was a large huskin pen, surrounded by a sturdy wooden fence. It was taller than a full-grown adult, its posts too thick to wrap one's fingers around, reinforced with knee-high struts on the outside... it had to be strong enough to protect the Denorians from an irate huskin, after all, and so it had to be strong enough to withstand a head-on, full-speed charge. A smaller annex, approximately the size of a standard dromo's footprint, was attached to the north side of the pen, separated from it by a gate that swung open and closed.

A number of trees had been removed to make space for the huskin pen, and so there were stumps scattered around the interior. Edzie crouched on one of these stumps, knees folded in front of her chest, and watched a congregation of adults standing around a lone female huskin, isolated in the center of the northern annex. Behind her, Edzie could hear the muttering voices of Stray, Boyle, and their mutual friend Ghada, a Denorian who was close to Edzie's age. The assembled adults had ordered the three boys to stay away from the huskin, which was currently being prepared for Edzie's blade, groomed to become a lone sacrifice to her informal rite of passage.

Elkansa was doing most of the work, as usual… the other adults were there largely for moral support. Mistra Septa stroked the huskin’s head idly, and Boyle’s parents, Alynn and Dredda, were standing to one side, doing their best to keep out of the way. Baliban had said he would try to make it, but there was no sign of him at the moment.

Elkansa had tied a length of cord around the huskin’s neck, and she had looped the other end around her katsun, which was newly sharpened and polished. Standing about a foot away from the huskin, which looked catastrophically bored, Elkansa lifted the katsun and drove it, blade-down, into the soft earth. It embedded itself nearly a half-meter into the ground, becoming a sort of symbolic hitching post for the huskin's cord. Having completed this final arrangement, she waved away the bystanders, walked halfway to Edzie, and beckoned her over.

Edzie was suddenly aware of her peers’ voices behind her.

“It’s time.”

“Finally.”

“Go on, Edzie! Slay the beast!”

This last remark was followed by two little boys’ snickering. Edzie dismounted from the stump, waved dismissively at her chorus of companions, and proceeded toward Elkansa. Behind her, Ghada and Boyle were arguing over whether it was hard to kill a defenseless huskin. As she walked, their argument faded into inaudibility, and Edzie suddenly found herself in a wide, quiet space, alone with her mother.

Stray, Ghada, and Boyle watched Edzie and Elkansa lean into a conversation in the center of the enclosure. Elkansa put a firm hand on Edzie’s shoulder, and Edzie made a visible effort to straighten up.

“What do you think they’re talking about?” Ghada asked offhandedly.

Stray shrugged. “Probably just about the right way to do it.”

“The right way?” Boyle was confused by the concept. “Don’t you just cut its throat, like we do every time we pick one out for eating?”

Stray shook his head. “No, Elkansa says you have to do it right, so it’s a clean kill, and it doesn’t suffer. She says we can mess up jobs around the house all we want, but this one has to be perfect. You have to sever all the arteries, and the windpipe, in one stroke with the blade, and the animal has to be standing up, so the blood drains fast.”

Ghada and Boyle nodded, taking Stray at his word. Each of them privately wondered if they could do it right, and what would happen if Edzie failed. Stray, now caught up in the topic, elaborated further: “Edzie wanted to do it from behind, where the Huskin couldn’t see her. She said it would be easier for both her and it. Elkansa said she couldn’t do it that way… it’s disrespectful. She says you have to stand in front of it and look it in the eye, so you know what you’re about to do. She says it’s only fair that you face the animal.”

“Edzie’s way sounds better,” Boyle said. “It’s not like a duel or anything.”

“No, Elkansa’s right.” Ghada was looking intently at the mother and daughter as he spoke. “Sometimes the ritual is more important than the practical stuff.”

In the center of the enclosure, Edzie looked at her mother’s feet as she listened to her repeat the basic instructions. She felt strangely separated from the earth, from the people looking at her in anticipation… even from her own body. She understood her mother’s words, but they seemed to be floating by, and Edzie was glad she had already committed these expectations to memory. Finally, completing her litany of precautions, Elkansa knelt to give her final appeal to her daughter.

“Go ahead, Edzie. Don’t rush it. It may be hard… taking life away should never be easy… but you mustn’t hesitate, now, or ever, if something needs to be done. From now on, you must always be ready to do this.”

Elkansa locked eyes with her daughter then, and Edzie returned the eye contact, focusing her attention and settling into the moment. When Elkansa was sure Edzie was fully present and prepared, she stood up and guided her daughter toward the katsun protruding from the earth. Edzie placed both hands on the handle, and Elkansa stepped back, giving her whatever space she needed. Bracing her foot near the embedded blade, Edzie pulled it up, and it slid out of the earth, allowing the huskin’s hitch to fall limply to the ground.

Edzie turned toward the huskin, wiping the streaked dirt off the katsun blade on her pant leg. Holding the weapon in one hand, just high enough on the handle to keep its point from dragging on the ground, she looked into the huskin’s eyes. They were dark, disconnected, and absolutely serene, fully engaged in the idle act of chewing on its cud. She was expecting it to look at her with some kind of recognition… fear, anticipation, distrust… but when the shadow of her body fell over its sad eyes and matted muzzle, it just turned its head away from her, as though she was a bug hovering around its nose.

Edzie glanced at Stray very briefly, and then forced herself to focus. She reached out and scratched under the huskin’s ear with her free hand, and then took the animal by the chin and turned its head toward her. Its boredom seemed impenetrable, but finally, it made eye contact, and as it did so, its ears twitched with a slight tremor of annoyance. Edzie kept her free hand under its chin, and stroked it, giving it a moment to relax. Finally, its eyes lost focus on her, and an indifferent serenity returned to its face.

Stray hadn’t even noticed that Edzie had drawn her other arm across her body, in preparation for a diagonal upward stroke, like you might use to undercut a high defensive stance. The instant the dynamic between her and the huskin stabilized, her katsun flashed through the air with a sigh, and the huskin’s neck opened up, releasing a gout of blood. The huskin’s expression hardly changed, but its knees buckled as it tried to inhale, and then it toppled to one side, suddenly unable to stand or breathe or make a sound. Within seconds, its struggles turned to twitches, and then it went entirely still.

Applause issued from behind Edzie, signaling the adults' approval. She glanced back at them and gave a half-smile, and then turned her eyes toward the boys. Ghada and Boyle were talking in hushed voices, looking at the katsun in Edzie’s hand and the huskin at her feet. Stray was just staring at her, his eyes wet, his expression paralyzed by some kind of psychic turbulence.

Edzie’s concern for Stray mounted for a moment, and then it was interrupted by Elkansa, arriving from behind and putting her hand on Edzie’s shoulder. Edzie jerked to attention, the katsun twitching in her grip. Calm as a passing cloud, Elkansa reached down and took the katsun from Edzie’s hand, squeezing her shoulder as she did so. “Well done, maiden. I have rarely seen better.”

Edzie flashed her mother a smile, and tried to pull away to go check on Stray, but then the other adults arrived and swamped her in trivial praise and idle reminiscence. Ghada and Boyle joined in, asking what it had felt like, and why she had waited so long… but their questions were lost in the bustle, and had to be deferred until many hours later, during their next idle afternoon. Stray stood behind the other boys, forcing a smile, watching Edzie and Elkansa with trepidation in his eyes.

Presently, Dredda and Septa wandered off, talking over some routine settlement matter. Baliban (who had arrived during the pre-slaughter discussions), Alynn, and Elkansa involved themselves in the moving of the huskin, hoisting it onto a canvas sheet and then dragging it to the edge of the annex. Edzie was left with the boys, who were now talking about the sixteen forms, and whether grown-ups ever had trouble with these kinds of things. Stray was still standing a few paces off, lost in his own thoughts.

Edzie had the urge to leap to Stray’s side and offer some sort of consolation, but she knew better than to draw attention to whatever private battle he was fighting. She remained steady and patient, half-listening to Boyle and Ghada’s conversation, occasionally offering an assent or acknowledgment when they looked in her direction. Eventually, they tired of the enclosure, and indicated that they were going to their usual grove along the Splitmouth. Stray turned to follow them, an absent-minded participant.

Edzie took his hand, calling forward as she did so: “We’ll be right behind you. My mother said she needs us for something.”

Boyle and Ghada waved their acknowledgment, and then continued walking, mercifully oblivious. Stray turned and looked back at Edzie, his mildly distracted state suddenly disturbed. “What was it?” he asked.

“Nothing,” Edzie replied. “I just needed a second, with all that stuff going on. We’ll let them get ahead, and then we’ll follow in our own time.”

Stray was a little discomfited by Edzie's casual white lies, but he found himself grateful for the quiet moment. He took the opportunity to offer his congratulations to Edzie, having been overshadowed by the activity before. “Good job. I knew you could do it.”

Edzie shrugged, looking absently at the blood stain that was soaking into the earth. “It… feels weird to actually do it. That’s the only thing that's hard about it. And also, all the people watching.” She turned, then, and they started walking, side by side, toward the south fence of the enclosure. She considered her next question carefully, determined to stay close to the fine line between friend and big sister. “So, we've all seen others do this, for feasts and stuff... did it look like I did it right?”

Stray didn't answer right away. When he and Edzie reached the fence, she used both hands to hoist him over, and then took a running jump to scramble over herself. Finally, after they had both landed, Stray replied to Edzie's question. “You did really good. Even though it didn’t feel the same as the others. Like, you did something different, or maybe it was just different because I was paying more attention this time.”

“Different? How?”

“I don’t know. I never felt bad for the huskins before. But the way you looked at it, it suddenly made me feel bad for it, that it was there for you to kill it. I guess that’s what Elkansa means when she says we need to respect it?”

“Yeah, probably,” Edzie said. She spoke haltingly, choosing the best phrases she could from the common language’s imperfect vocabulary. “I like the huskins, they seem so calm and content. Boyle would say they’re just dumb, but… they’re animals, just like us.” She paused, trying to parse her feelings on the subject. “But also, liking it… or feeling bad for it… never felt like a good reason not to kill it. I mean, I don’t like killing, but… it’s just something I have to do sometimes.”

Stray accepted this from Edzie, and they continued on to the grove, where they found Ghada and Boyle trying to knock each other off an orebark stump. Edzie and Stray stood aside, and Edzie offered to referee, which gave her a good opportunity to annoy the boys. Stray put on a cheerful face, but he was considerably quieter than normal. Boyle and Ghada hardly even noticed, but Edzie could see the troubled detachment in Stray’s eyes, and she couldn't help but wonder about the monsters he was struggling with.

... ... ... ...

Edzie returned home earlier than Stray that night, leaving him with Ghada and Boyle to concoct fantasy scenarios and practice their katsun-play. Elkansa was serving cuts of the slaughtered huskin, cooked over the gathering-room fire, and she had invited Boyle's family to join them. Edzie was lost in another of Mistra Septa's books... Last Bounty of Alcovale... when her mother called her to her side at the cooking fire.

Edzie dawdled, as she was prone to doing, and Elkansa had to call her a second time before she marked her place in the storybook and made the trip down the hall. Seven strips of Huskin flesh rested on a metal plate over the fire, cooking slowly. Elkansa wore her usual domestic attire: a modest loincloth, wrapped tightly from her belly-button down to mid-thigh, and a bandeau tight over her breasts, leaving her arms and shoulders, midriff, and most of her legs bare to the summer air. Her mass of dense black hair was pulled back into a club, kept in order just above her neck, and her brivsa hung loose about her shoulders. There was a roll of furs on the floor beside her.

Edzie knelt next to her mother, before the fire, just beyond the flames' strongest heat. Elkansa gave a placid smile, directed at Edzie, though she didn't look away from the cooking food. “Thank you for your contribution to our dinner, Edzie. You performed admirably.”

Edzie nodded.

“I want to ask you how it felt,” Elkansa continued, “but I don't think it's necessary. At my age, I know how all these kinds of hard victories feel in the aftermath. But there was a first time for me, too, and there was also a first love, and a first weapon.”

Content with the food's slow progress, Elkansa turned toward the roll of animal fur beside her. She unwrapped it to reveal a katsun, beautifully crafted, though still unfinished. She gestured for Edzie to take it, which she did, inspecting it with trepidation.

The katsun was smaller than an adult's, but significantly larger than any of the practice weapons and tree-limbs that Edzie and Stray played with. Edzie was struck, first, by its weight... she wondered if she would be as smooth in performing her maneuvers, having to balance such a weapon. It was a straight wooden rod, about a meter long, its handle accounting for just under half that length. It was fashioned from orebark, whose hard wood was lighter than metal, but nearly as strong for all practical purposes. In its finished state, the katsun would have one edge girded in a metal strip, sharpened into a blade, and the metal would deform into a point at the end, for stabbing or spearing a foe or an animal. This katsun didn't have its metal lining, and its handle wasn't wrapped in canvas, but aside from those details, it was fully functional.

“This will be your first weapon,” Elkansa said. “I had Rodra carve it, and even asked Mistra Gita to check in and make sure it was well-wrought. In a few months, when you've shown me that you can control which edge you strike with, I'll bring it back to Rodra to have its edge forged.”

Edzie stroked the wooden blade, and then grasped the handle with both hands, separated for control. “Thank you, mother. It's gorgeous.” She lingered over it, watching the light from the fire play off its smooth surface.

Elkansa watched her a moment, and then laughed over the crackling fire and the hissing meat. “My daughter, the romantic. Most children would be jumping up and swinging that weapon all over, knocking down lamps and slaying phantoms. I will never understand how you can be so serious all the time.”

Edzie stood up, as prompted, and turned the katsun over in her hands, approximating some of her forms without moving far from the fire. “But mom, you're the most serious person in the tribe,” she objected matter-of-factly. She was disappointed that the katsun didn't immediately feel natural in her hand... she wasn't used to its balance or the girth of its handle... but she knew it wouldn't take her long to get used to it.

“Maybe,” Elkansa said, “but even I was childish once... a confrontational bully as a teenager, and a wiggling ball of fire as a little girl. I inherited my first katsun from my older sister, who left it with me when she moved west, and it never felt like my own. I thought it would be better if you felt connected to yours.”

Elkansa prodded the cuts of meat, and then stood up and retrieved her own katsun from the east wall of the gathering room. “Come,” she said, joining Edzie in the middle of the floor, “let's see if having a new weapon makes your forms better or worse.”

As the meat cooked, filling the gathering room with the smell of charred bovine, Edzie and her mother sparred, matching aggressive form with defensive, interjecting minor improvisations, Elkansa always staying a comfortable step ahead of Edzie's thrusts and feints. Before they were finished, the day's light had softened, and Stray had returned, and the room had grown uncomfortably warm. Stray watched, hypnotized, as Edzie and Elkansa exchanged blows, until the meat's sizzling reminded them to turn it over, and the family was forced to turn their attention to dinner preparations.

... ... ... ...

As the days shortened, and summer passed into fall, the great trees around the Denoria territory burst into autumn flame and then saw their leaves fall like ash to the earth. Edzie's twelfth birthday passed, and Stray's eleventh approached (he was a mid-winter child, born early in the year). For several months, Elkansa seemed to forget her promise to finish the katsun, and Edzie eventually stopped asking about it, having come to accept the weapon in its nascent state.

As autumn came to a brilliant end in the Pastures, the summer storms abated, and the tribe began its preparations for the winter. The official marker for the change of seasons was the Festival of Release, when the Denorians held their initiation ceremonies and feasted in honor of the huskins' mating season. Edzie and Stray had seen their older peers at the initiation trial, but they had never known any of the participants personally. Finally, this year, their friends Sola and Luna were going to be initiated, and so Edzie and Stray were given special priority as spectators.

When she was a little girl, Edzie had thought Sola and Luna were bound in some sort of magical twinship, dedicated respectively to the sun and moon. Eventually, she grew old enough to ask, and her mother explained the truth, which was much less interesting: their mothers had been close friends since they were children, and when they both became pregnant in the same year, they decided to coordinate the names of their daughters, in honor of their friendship. The girls grew up together and became inseparable, even as their mothers grew apart over the years.

Because their birthdays were only a season apart, they were initiated at the same Festival of Release. They were expected to be proud daughters of the tribe, vigorous and aggressive and full of explosive confidence, and the initiation trial was their chance to prove it. The tribe's hunters took care to trap two of the largest, most dominant grasscats for them to fight, and a great crowd of tribespeople assembled for the spectacle.

Sola's trial was the more challenging... her grasscat, though smaller (about twice an adult human's weight), was more calculating, keeping its distance until she cornered it and provoked it into an attack. When it struck, it was fierce and aggressive, clawing at her calf and then lunging for her throat when she stumbled. Sola had to regroup, and the adult onlookers betrayed some concern, though they didn't interfere. At last, on the second engagement, Sola clipped the grasscat across the muzzle, opening a nasty gash in its snout; as it recoiled, she speared it just inside its left forelimb, delivering the mortal blow.

Luna's trial was shorter, with less theatrics for the spectators, but it made a grave impression on Edzie, who was barely a few paces from the site of the killing blow. Luna's grasscat was very large, fully twice and a half the weight of a grown warrior, and it was more anxious and desperate than Sola's had been. Luna tried to bait it, encouraging a drawn-out exchange of advances, but at the first sign of danger, the grasscat attacked her viciously, going straight for the meat of her leg. Luna barely escaped, and she hardly had time to consider a new approach before the animal, clearly in a terrified frenzy, renewed its attack.

At that moment, Edzie saw something change in Luna's manner. It was subtle, but Edzie recognized it: a subtle shift in her stance and a quickening of her breathing, as Luna realized the severity of the situation. The grasscat was not going to give any quarter, and it was no longer Luna's reputation that was at stake, but her very life. When this realization struck her, she abandoned her forms and her strategy and replaced them with a purposeful brutality. At the height of its next lunge, the grasscat encountered the sharp edge of a katsun, its head split nearly in half by a merciless downward stroke.

Their initiations completed successfully, Sola and Luna spent the day celebrating. In the evening, they were subjected to their scarring ritual: each, in turn, was held by their parents, as Amiaverta, the Elder of Reckoning, inflicted wounds mirroring the mortal blows they delivered to their grasscats. Sola's was a deep “x” carved on her left breast, a bit below the shoulder; Luna's was a vertical slice, nearly bone-deep, from the top of her head to the bridge of her nose. Thus, for her grace, Sola was given a scar that could be displayed or obscured at will; for her ferocity, Luna's face was permanently marked, and she would have to wear it with Denorian pride. Nineteen other youths were initiated at the same festival, but Edzie and Stray didn't know them; as far as they were concerned, the rest of the Festival of Release was a whirlwind of feasting, dancing, and passing obliviously beneath the concerns of the adults.

As the winter wore on, Stray spent most of his time with Boyle, and slightly less, though still a majority, with Edzie. As she learned her forms, she taught them to Stray, and she was impressed and intimidated by his natural grace, his body's innate, almost poetic effortlessness. Stray kept the habit of visiting the watchtowers at certain routine opportunities – early in the mornings or right before dinner – and he grew friendly with all the women and men who kept the vigils. He seemed to like Genefre in particular.

Edzie remained dutiful in her studies and military exercises, and was never long parted from some borrowed book. After she killed her huskin, Elkansa started recruiting her for more adult tasks: helping with the herding, maintaining the public areas of the settlement, and running errands for neighbors who kept hours in the Handworkers' Row. Elkansa also started teaching Edzie about the politics around the tribe – points of authority and hostility, the relationships between the eight elders and the best-known families, the way to present yourself to strangers within the tribe. Edzie feigned an interest in these social games, but privately, she regarded them as trivialities. Her mind was caught up in the books she borrowed from Mistra Septa, and through them, she occupied a much wider, stranger world than Elkansa had time for.


2.15 - a map.

 

Here's a quick map of the Denoria Main Settlement. A note to any occasional readers: the next section (to be posted tomorrow) takes place mostly off this map, so don't let it confuse you. I'm just posting it because I wanted to include a little more visual reference and embellishment. In other words, it is a thing I made, and I am not patient enough to withhold it. Cheers!
maps_DenoriaSettlement_HandDrawn


2.2

Having slain her first live animal, and having Sola and Luna’s initiations on her mind, Edzie took a sudden interest in hunting and trapping, and so it became Stray’s interest by proxy, and then Boyle’s, as well. From Mistra Septa's books, she learned the tracks and habits of the animals that wandered these regions of the Pastures, and after some weeks of incessant nagging, she induced Elkansa to give her a short but productive demonstration of the setting of snare, pit, and deadfall traps. By the time the dry winter frost thawed and the warm air promised storms, she was getting antsy to take to the field. Thus, that spring, Stray found himself being roused from sleep by Edzie, just as dawn was breaking over the Pastures. The mere fact that Edzie was the first awake made this a rare and special occasion.

First, Edzie’s voice echoed in Stray’s dreams, which were a foggy soup of images and anxieties from the previous day. Presently, her words became clearer, and his lingering emotions began to fade, until he was just hearing his name, repeated insistently at sparse intervals. He peeled his eyes open and found her face hovering above him, a featureless silhouette in the cool light of dawn.

“Hey, are you ready?” she asked, keeping quiet. “We won’t catch anything if we wait til the middle of the day.”

He groaned and pushed his covers aside. “Hold on. Okay. Wait.” He couldn’t find an answer at the ready, so he mustered some irritated noises and tried to sit upright.

“Okay, hurry up,” she said. “I’ll go find Boyle.”

Edzie picked up her katsun – still a virginal weapon of naked wood – and stole across the path to Boyle’s dromo. Alynn and Dredda were in their gathering room, preparing something, when Edzie stuck her head in the front door and asked about Boyle. Dredda nodded toward his son’s room. “He’s usually up by now, so don’t worry about waking him.”

Edzie approached Boyle’s room, and found the light of a small thresh lamp illuminating a corner near the window. Boyle was indeed awake, and intensely involved in his work. He had taken the smooth wooden palette, wrapped it in a linen sheet, and propped it up against the wall. As Edzie watched, he stared at it for several seconds… five full breaths, by Edzie’s count… and then wiped something off the linen with his forearm and scrawled something new in its place.

Edzie waited patiently for the cycle to repeat, and just as Boyle put the pencil to the linen, she said, “HEY Boyle!”

Boyle jerked with a start and the pencil shattered, leaving a black streak across the linen. He turned around to face Edzie, his face a display of violent irritation. “Ugh, hi, Edzie. You messed me up. Is it time to go already?”

“I think I’m a little early,” Edzie said, without a hint of remorse, and then, taking Boyle’s silence as an invitation, she walked into his room and approached the linen. Under the black streak, there was a fairly intricate pattern of faceless animal and human figures, interspersed with more abstract shapes that might have been letters in some exotic alphabet.

“I like this,” she said, slightly regretting her interference in his hobby. “These letters look a little like the Badlander writing Mistra Septa showed us.” Boyle looked confused, so Edzie clarified. “In that book she passed around last month.”

“Oh, yeah. Funny, I forgot about that.”

“So you weren’t trying to make it look like that?” Edzie could scarcely believe the coincidence.

“No!” Boyle said, inexplicably defensive at the implication. “I just make things I feel like making. Aside from the animals, it’s not supposed to look like anything.”

Boyle cleaned up the shards of his drawing implement, and then retrieved his makeshift hunting weapon from under his cot. It was a wooden rod, probably scavenged from some debris around the settlement, with a notch whittled out of the end, and a sharpened bone fit into it and tied with a length of cord. It wasn’t exactly master craftsmanship, but Edzie figured it would do. She tried to hurry him along, but he demanded she wait another moment so he could dig a warmer brivsa out of his modest wardrobe.

Returning to Edzie and Stray’s dromo, they found Stray outside, tying up his footwraps and still blinking the sleep out of his eyes. He had donned a warm woolen brivsa, pulled the hood up over his ears, and drawn the scarf tightly around his nose and mouth. His weapon was a straight limb from some tree along the Splitmouth, smoothed out, with the end whittled to a point. Edzie privately wondered why he didn’t put some sort of hard tip on it, but it looked strong enough to work as a spear.

“Did you get the bread and fleurberries?” Edzie motioned toward the dromo. “They're in the canvas bundle on the table.” Stray hustled back inside, his weapon bouncing along in his grip, and came back out with their provisions. Edzie folded them into her waist-wrap and pulled it tight.

The three of them set out north, crossing the Splitmouth at the central ford, and Edzie directed them left at the main road. This brought them around to Handworkers’ Row, where Gransa the materials-trader was setting up her stall. Edzie borrowed a length of cord, a score of meters long, promising that she would bring it back, and if she broke it, she would pay for it in labor. Gransa made a show of reluctance, but she accepted, trusting in Elkansa’s honor, and in Edzie's by proxy.

Now fully equipped with spears, katsun, food, and a line for making snare traps, Edzie, Stray, and Boyle headed north, out of the settlement, and up an embankment that served as its informal border. From this rise, Edzie could see over several kilometers of Pasture land, a patchwork of deep wet green and jaundiced yellow, flecked with wooded ridges and striped with fissures where the granite bedrock peeked out of the landscape. A light rain had fallen during the night, drifting down from the warmer pastures to the north, and this front had brushed against the thawing earth around the Prospect, resulting in ribbons of fog obscuring parts of the landscape. Thus, under the overcast sky, a gray cloak of mist veiled the green and yellow grasses, whose seeds patiently awaited the imminent warmth of spring.

By the time the sun was high, they were beyond the furthest trafficked roads, crossing a scrubland that was stripped of trees and overgrown with weeds. Stray and Boyle kept seeing tracks and hearing noises in the brush, but Edzie continually urged them to be patient… game would be more plentiful further from the settlement, absent its noise and foot-traffic.

The difference was not dramatic, but her case held. Eventually, the settlement passed out of visual range, and the trees grew taller and more plentiful, mottling the landscape with Orebark groves and tangles of vegetation. Here, the noises became unmistakable: rustles of activity would greet them as they passed, and they recognized frequent hoof-tracks and deposits of excrement.

Eventually the hunters’ attention fell to a trace of boundeer hoofprints, leading off along the path and then diverting into the tall grasses. They turned and attempted to follow, assuming the animal was close by, so that for the first twenty minutes, they stalked along after it, pausing and listening and half-hiding every few steps. After they had covered a fair distance, it occurred to them that the tracks weren’t as fresh as they thought, and they fell into a steady pace, and then a brisk one, still stepping quietly and scanning for a sign of their prey.

The tracks continued, and as the hunters walked, their looking merged with their listening, both highly sensitized in the silence of the pastures. The absent body of the boundeer, all prancing legs and nervous eyes, became a voice, distinct in the sprawling murmur of the fields and brush, and the hoofprints, which the hunters continued to follow, became a transcription of that voice across the landscape, sometimes sparse and breathless, sometimes ruminating around some sapling whose leaves had been tentatively nibbled.

The tracks seemed to go on forever, an epic poem that never quite resolved, and the hunters ended up covering perhaps ten kilometers in their pursuit of the elusive boundeer. They scrambled up and down gentle slopes, the hills dry and dusty, the troughs spongy with mud. They narrowly circumvented lines of amberwood trees, generally clustered around granite ridges and stone protrusions breaking up the soft contours of the landscape. It was along one of these rocky patches that the hunters lost the boundeer’s trail… it might have picked up nearby, in some saturated dip in the soil, but Edzie was not an experienced tracker, and the boys were getting impatient anyway. At last, they gave up on the boundeer and looked for another trail to follow, trying to keep a westward bearing.

It was another hour before the trio stopped to reorient, which they did by making Boyle climb a young witherleaf tree. From its lowest branches, he could see a stunning panorama, a navigable landscape stretching off in all directions. To the southeast, he could barely see the settlement's western watchtower and a few plumes of smoke; to the west, the rolling hills dipped gradually, eventually reaching the Riverpath Road and the Tenebre River, massaging the shale on its riverbed. He promptly decided that it was further than he was willing to go.

To the south, a small herd of semi-domesticated huskin grazed, which – as Edzie soon explained – made that the worst possible hunting-ground. Just a bit north, there was a patchwork of rocky ridges and tree-lines, which was exciting in theory, but seemed a bit on the dangerous side. They eventually decided to continue westward, trying to get as close as possible to the Tenebre, despite knowing it was out of their reach. If they could reach the road, at least their walk back to the settlement would be easier.

Following a path through the tall grass – less a path than a slight thinning of the vegetation, a vanishing ribbon of navigable earth – the three hunters made their way west, down through mud and up across dry patches. Eventually, they stumbled through a tree-line and into a wide open field, bordered by woods on three sides. Another twenty paces onward, they were startled by a rabbit crossing their path, and the three of them all froze and followed the rustle of the leaves across the open ground. It seemed to scamper up a nearby rise, setting the whole field swaying in the breeze, and terminate in a tangle of underbrush at the foot of two lonely amberwood trees.

Stray was riveted. “Did you see it?”

“It was a shade hare,” Edzie answered cautiously. “I think it went into those trees.”

“Probably its warren,” Boyle observed.

Reduced to the softest of whispers, the three planned a strategic approach. Stray would go first, taking a long route along the back of the grove, and Boyle would approach from the right side. Stray would flush it out, and Boyle would box it in if it came his way, herding it toward Edzie. Edzie hoped that she could get close enough to skewer it as it crossed her path. She borrowed Boyle’s spear, which seemed more appropriate for this task, and gave him her katsun as collateral. She and Stray decided on a sign, so she could notify him when she was ready.

The maneuver was executed with care and precision – Stray stalked around the rear of the trees, seeming to take forever as far as Edzie and Boyle were concerned – and by the time he was approaching from the opposite side, Edzie was poised to throw. Boyle and Stray both hesitated, standing perfectly still in their positions, watching for Edzie to make her sign.

Finally, she gave it, and Stray let out a war cry and charged at the amberwood trees. They were right about the shade hare hiding within, and it burst forth in a panic, but it saw Edzie before it got anywhere near her. Fully a dozen paces from her position, it veered hard into the gap between Stray and Edzie, making for the clear field in the distance. Edzie barely had a second, but she cast the spear in the hare’s direction anyway. The three hunters watched it sail through the air, disappear into the weeds, and – they could only assume – flop ineffectually to the ground.

The three hunters reconvened, and after a couple minutes of searching, they found the spear. There was no rabbit, but miraculously, the spear had a tuft of hair stuck along one edge, and there might have been a spatter of blood in the ground (though Boyle thought it was just some darker dirt).

Edzie and Boyle were disappointed, but not defeated, and Stray was actually marginally encouraged, having suspected that their hunting excursion might be completely futile. They decided, for the moment, they would head for the river without taking any more detours, but Edzie insisted they set a snare trap first, on the off-chance that the rabbit might come back to the grove after they left. She found what looked like a small nest – no young, but a carefully-crafted little bed of chewed-up grass and twigs – and she set the trap around it, doing her best to keep her fingers off the nest itself. She used two amberwood twigs as stakes and constructed a delicate trigger between them; looping Gransa’s cord into a noose, she fastened the other end to one of the low-hanging amberwood branches and pulled it taut. She gathered a few small berries from the shade of the amberwood trees, and added these to the nest, hoping to sweeten the lure.

This process, which was supposed to be quick, took her more than an hour, and by the time the hunters left for the river, they were all privately preoccupied with their growing hunger.

The next tree-line concealed a short, severe rock face, whose shale had been worn away by running water, creating a shelf in the shade of the orebark trees. Under this rise, which only extended about fifteen feet above them, the hunters cleared a space to eat their blusterwheat bread and fleurberries. The victuals were simple, barely the skeleton of a Denorian breakfast, but it was welcome after their long trek across the settlement's peripheral fields. They had gone perhaps twelve kilometers, and the dawn had turned to late morning, and then early afternoon.

There was a short dispute over who got which piece of bread, but once they loosened their brivsas to eat, both Stray and Boyle went quiet, and Edzie felt compelled to fill the silence. In searching for a suitable topic of mealtime conversation, her mind returned to that morning in Boyle's house, when she had cheekily interrupted his private pursuit. Between bites of bread, she floated this as a possible topic.

“So that thing you do… the canvas-marking…”

“Drawing,” Boyle said. “That’s what my dad calls it. He learned about it while he was away from the tribe, before I was born.”

Stray remained silent, taking note of the conversation, even as he kept his eyes trained on his fistful of food: a bread-crust, folded over several fleurberries, leaving red stains on his fingers. He had talked to Boyle about this before, and he was wondering how much Edzie would get out of him on the topic.

“So your father taught you?” Edzie inquired, circumspect but clearly curious. “I don’t know any Denorians who do that.”

“Yeah, dad says our tribe has no aptitude for it. But I used to scratch markings into the floor of our hut and the wood of our furniture til my fingernails bled, so dad told me I should try drawing instead. Mom didn’t like it at first, but she’s learned it helps me think better.” He paused to take a bite of his bread, then continued, spewing crumbs as he talked. “Dad says he’s bad at it, but he showed me how to hold the pencil and set up the canvas. Mistra Gita showed me some books with a lot of pictures: ones that look just like real life, and others that look more like… feelings, I guess. I like drawing the second type better.”

“And is that how the pictures get in our books, too?” Stray asked, leaving the question open for either Boyle or Edzie to answer.

Boyle shrugged. “I think so, except there are monks down in the Citadel who are specially trained to copy pictures exactly, and they’re the ones that make the books.”

Edzie elaborated, drawing from her reservoir of knowledge she had culled from the Mistras’ libraries. “Yeah, it’s actually a totally different practice. Before the copyists can make their copies of all these books, someone has to make the first book – the manuscript – by thinking up all the text and creating the pictures.” She glanced up at Stray and Boyle in turn. “That’s more like what Boyle does, because he draws new things, instead of drawing things from other peoples’ pictures. In the River Kingdoms, the word is ‘artist.’”

“But there are no artists in our tribe?” Stray asked, vaguely troubled by this thought.

“No, except the monks who decorate their robes.” Edzie looked over at Boyle. “But I'm glad you can do it, Boyle. Your markings look really good.”

Boyle smiled in return, unaccustomed to positive feedback. There was a lull, then, and after a few minutes of eating and discarding their scraps, the three companions launched into a vigorous debate over whether or not they should keep going. Edzie wanted to follow the ridge, and didn't seem concerned with getting home at any particular time; Boyle knew he would have to check in with his parents, but he wasn't comfortable advocating for himself. Stray took up the position that they should turn back, partly on Boyle's behalf, and finally, after some barking and eye-rolling, they chose this as their consensus. They all agreed to circle back to the settlement via the watchtower, after stopping off at their snare trap and collecting Gransa's cord.

Edzie approached the grove a few steps behind Stray and Boyle, and even before she could see the snare, she could tell something was wrong. Her body cried out a warning, something triggered by the shifts in the foliage, the creased and divided grasses, the scent of dust in the air. Still, she wasn’t trained to respond to these kinds of instincts, so she just hurried to join her companions, who were just entering the grove. She was only a few steps back when she heard Stray.

“Something happened to the snare. It’s tripped, but there’s nothing in it. Everything’s all torn up back here.”

Edzie joined Stray and Boyle and surveyed the empty warren. Stray was entirely correct… the snare had certainly been tripped, but its loop hung empty, with traces of blood and fur on the cord and on the ground below. The underbrush was trampled, much more roughly than a shade hare could have managed. She started untying the cord with nimble fingers, her eyes darting over the tall grasses nearby.

Before she had finished, Boyle found the bootprints, leading off conspicuously to the north. They weren’t Denorian, nor tracable to any of the Concordance tribes, who stepped lightly, with bare feet, footwraps, and bound leather soles. These were the heavy imprints of boots, leather or wood, with a tread carved into the flat soles. Edzie thought of the caravans she saw along the Cragstep Road, heading toward the mountains to trade or pay tribute at the Temple Envoclajiz.

Boyle gained some nervous confidence, practically insisting that they hurry back to the settlement to let their parents know about the strange tracks. Edzie, whose dangerous curiosity was in perfect counterpoint with Boyle's trepidation, demanded that they follow the tracks into the brush. Whoever was around had ruined their trap, after all, and they had come a long way to return empty-handed. Stray became the deciding vote, and though his honorable and conservative instincts shivered in the face of this reckless diversion, his love and loyalty for Edzie finally won out (helped along, of course, by the heat of his own hunger for adventure). They set off, following the tracks deep into the fields, toward the rougher, woodsier ground to the north.


2.3

Edzie, in her enthusiasm, forged far ahead. Stray might have kept up, with some effort, but he saw that Boyle was struggling with the uneven landscape, so he dropped back a bit to bridge the space between them. They crossed a lengthy expanse of threshweed, divided into wide tracts by a half-dozen drainage ruts, and then turned up a sharp rise in the landscape. Presently, the tracks became fresher (their quarry evidently wasn't traveling very fast), and as soon as they came near a rocky depression in the landscape, the footsteps veered hard in that direction, making for an alcove of boulders in the shade of three ancient amberwoods. They heard noises in the underbrush, and approached the boulders carefully.

There, crouching in the shelter of the stone, they found a lone man ravaging the corpse of a freshly-killed shade hare, digging out its meat with fingernails and teeth. The first thing Edzie noticed was his footwear... the short, toughened leather boots of a traveler, clearly the source of those footprints. The second thing she noticed was the shock of hair in the center of his scalp, tied into a greasy brown braid that clung to the back of his head. The third thing she noticed was a short blade in a leather sheath, lying prone on the ground next to the man's planted feet.

“Hey,” Stray said firmly. “You took our rabbit.”

The man jerked his head up toward the interlopers, desperation flashing in his eyes. When he saw that he was facing three children, he relaxed a bit, lowering the torn-up body of the hare. Edzie could make a more complete assessment, now that he was looking up at her: he had the ashen pale skin of the men who came from the rivers to the southwest, with sunken wet eyes and hollow cheeks. Judging from his demeanor and complexion, and his behavior toward the rabbit, she guessed he was half-starving. At the moment, he didn't look dangerous, but his attitude made her wary.

There was a long delay as the parties regarded one another. Finally the crouching rabbit-thief said in a veritable grunt, “What was that?”

“Our rabbit,” Stray repeated, louder. The man continued looking confused.

“He can't understand your accent,” Edzie explained, noting the unfamiliar stresses in the stranger's use of the common tongue. “Speak slower, like Mistra Septa taught you.”

“You stole our rabbit,” Boyle chimed in, pronouncing each word with all the stiff propriety he could muster.

“Oh!” The stranger looked at the hare in his hands, as if to verify, and then looked back. “So I did! Sorry, little ones... I'm very very hungry. I've been traveling for like six days now.”

“From where?” Edzie asked. “And where are you going?”

“Well...” The stranger's eyes flickered with uncertainty. “From way out west, actually. From the Range River, and before that, Settlers Road. You heard of that?” He watched the children's faces for credulity, but kept talking before they could respond. “Anyway, right, I should give you something for your little prize here. I've got something very nice, if you want it. Something specially special.”

The stranger reached for his blade in its scabbard. Stray and Boyle watched obliviously, but Edzie's hand flicked to the handle of her katsun, small and unfinished as it was. It struck her that they must not look very intimidating, with their homemade spears and her apprentice's weapon, but there were three of them, and this traveler didn't seem to be in the best shape.

“Jeez, bit jumpy, aren't you, girl?” The stranger made a show of moving slowly, picking up the scabbard and slipping his fingers into a slot beside the blade's handle. He dug around in some kind of compartment... someplace tucked into the tailoring, whose subterfuge Edzie found intriguing... and pulled out a smaller item, black and shiny. He lowered the sheathed blade, but Edzie took note: he left it in contact with his free hand, which he used to prop himself up in his crouch. Affecting a friendly attitude, the stranger held out the black object, and Edzie took it cautiously.

It was an object of some type that was completely unfamiliar to her: a perfectly smooth plate, two fingers wide and as long as an adult's hand from wrist to fingertip. In terms of shape, it was basically a standard knife, the top half tapered into a sharp edge on both sides and the bottom half smoothed into a handle that was slightly too large for her own palm. In terms of material, though, it was confounding: it was a single seamless piece, absolutely smooth, and it was shockingly rigid and inflexible, like forged metal... but it was lighter than soft wood. It was perfectly black, but now she could see that it was reflective like polished stone, and she found her own face staring back at her from its surface.

She looked back up at the stranger, still full of suspicion. Meanwhile, Stray took the object out of her hand. “What is it?” he asked, and Boyle leaned in to see, as well.

“Something very rare and special,” the traveler said. “A knife, but different from what your parents have got.” He lowered his voice a bit. “But you're not supposed to have it. It could get you in trouble. So if you want it, you have to never tell anyone you saw me out here, and not show them that knife, either. All this has to be our secret.”

Edzie, Stray, and Boyle all kept this stranger locked in their gaze, and each considered this offer privately. Edzie had just concluded that she would keep the knife, promise the stranger her silence, and then tell the tribespeople immediately when she got back to the settlement, so that the adults could deal with the situation. Unfortunately, Stray's principles decided for all of them, undermining her strategic dishonesty.

“If it's not right, then we don't want it!” he cried, throwing the knife on the ground in front of the stranger.

Edzie barely had time to utter a curse before the stranger's muscles tensed. There was an infinitesimal delay, a fraction of a second of calculation, before he lunged at the children, drawing his blade from under his foot with one hand and grabbing for them with the other. All three of them scattered before his burst of movement, and Stray and Edzie cleared the underbrush immediately, but Boyle hadn't been so prepared, and he stumbled as he fled the attacker, toppling to the earth.

Stray and Edzie both heard the resulting scuffle and turned back to find Boyle, desperately pulling away from the stranger's arms, but gradually being overpowered. Stray didn't even pause to consider a tactical approach... he dove into the fray, and was nearly caught by the short blade across his belly. The distraction didn't change the dynamic of the melee, but it gave Boyle extra leverage to struggle, and the wrestling continued for another ten seconds.

At last, as Stray recoiled from the threat of the weapon, the stranger slowly gained the upper hand, trapping Boyle under his bicep and pulling the short blade into position below his neck. “Sorry, kids,” the stranger grunted, trying to steady his weapon, “but I can't have you running off home to tell on me.” At last, his hand closed around the sword handle, and he started to move the blade across his captive's throat.

And then Edzie was behind him, her katsun at the ready. She had crept around the stranger's back as the boys struggled, her mind flashing back to Luna's initiation rite with the Grasscat, and in transit, she had decided upon an effective point of attack. Now, as the stranger's blade moved, she put the point of the katsun behind his knee and thrust downward viciously, putting all her weight on the wooden handle. Flesh parted, bone and sinew split and unfolded, and the stranger bellowed in agony, crumpling onto the devastated knee. His sword-arm spasmed, splitting Boyle's skin at the collarbone, but the sword leapt from his grip without inflicting a serious wound.

Edzie pulled her katsun back, feeling the flecks of blood splash from its tip, and swung it with both hands, bashing the back of the stranger's head and laying him out on the ground. Boyle put his fingers to his minor wound, and when he saw blood on them, the first traces of tears in his eyes, but he held himself steady. The three regrouped silently, looking at one another in desperation. Edzie, still feeling the rush of adrenaline in her brain, was the first to take action.

“Stand on him,” she ordered Stray, taking out Gransa's cord and pulling the stranger's arms behind his back. Working quickly, she tied the tightest knot she could manage, looping the cord around the stranger's wrists until it was an impossible tangle, cutting into his skin and lying sinuously over his back. By the time she was happy with her work, he was starting to move again, trying to turn his head to the side and prop himself up.

“Boyle,” she said, “go back to the settlement. Run as fast as you can. Tell whoever's at the watchtower what happened, and show them how to get back here. Stray and I will watch him.”

Boyle hesitated. “Don't make me go alone,” he finally said, trying to control his tears. “I might not know the way back. Please come with me. He won't get far.”

“I'll go with him,” Stray volunteered. “Between the two of us, we'll make it back before sundown. Can you keep watch until then?”

Edzie looked at her captive, groaning and struggling to roll over, his crippled knee letting blood flow into the earth. She looked back up and nodded, brandishing her katsun. The boys took flight, and Edzie stood quietly, offering no conversation or assistance to the stranger. She remained that way for a long time, watching him writhe on the ground... eventually, amidst groans of pain and constant sputtering in the dirt, he managed to roll over, leaving his tied hands wedged uncomfortably under his back. With wet red eyes, he watched his diminutive guardswoman.

Confident that he was immobilized, Edzie walked around him and picked up the black knife he had tried to use as a bartering chip. She looked closely at it, turning it over in her hand, and then put it away in the folds of her waist-wrap.

“You like it, don't you?” the stranger sneered at her. “It's not allowed, you know. All sort of laws forbid that sort of thing.”

“I know,” Edzie said. “It wasn't smart to show it to us. It won't serve you well before the elders.”

“The elders, eh?” The stranger grunted between words. “That's just great. I get to meet your old field-people, maybe we can all smoke some herb together.” He raised an eyebrow. “You better admire that knife while you got it... if you're gonna be a well-bred plains woman, you'll probably never see one again. Good people miss out on a lot of beautiful things.”

She considered this as she paced, but refused to indulge it with a response. Instead, she sat down on a piece of boulder, buried in the dirt a few meters away.

In the face of Edzie's silence, the stranger continued talking. “You're nothing like those two little boys. Not like the other plains people I've met, either. You're fierce. You know how to make a point, if I may put it that way. Make tough decisions, when the need arises. I know some people out there who would appreciate a girl with your... attitude.”

“Well, you tried to kill us,” Edzie said. “So I don't think I'm too interested in your favor at the moment, or your friends'.”

The stranger continued his halting conversation, finding little but curt acknowledgment from Edzie. He tried to ply her with promises of gifts, with dangerous knowledge, with veiled threats and provocations, but he was continually met with a stone stare and a watchful eye. Eventually, as the sky started changing colors, he fell to humming some foreign tune to keep his mind off the pain of his ruined knee.

Meanwhile, Stray and Boyle ran as fast as they could, with Stray urging Boyle on, across the open grasslands and directly through the huskin fields. They stumbled through mud and huskin excrement, doing their best to avoid the bulls, which might have been territorial toward anything trespassing among their herds. After what seemed like an eternity of running, and then hasty walking, and then more running, Stray and Boyle reached the hewn forests on the outskirts of the settlement, and the western watchtower gradually came into view. They arrived, gasping for air, and two young warriors came down to meet them.

The boys poured out their story, gulping air as they did so, and one of the guardswomen went scrambling for assistance. Elkansa and Alynn arrived several minutes later, and Alynn took Boyle back home so Dredda could tend to his wound, minor as it was. Elkansa, meanwhile, recruited two of the younger warriors – first Genefre, and then a huntress of twenty-six summers named Laine – and set out for the stranger's location, with Stray leading them on. Stray was already exhausted, but he did his best to hurry... luckily, Elkansa seemed unexpectedly sanguine about the whole thing, having invested Edzie with her full faith in this sort of high-pressure situation.

By the time the tribeswomen reached Edzie and the stranger, the sun had set, and the only trace of daylight was a pale glow on the horizon. The stranger was sitting up against one of the boulders, still humming, and Edzie was perched on a rock fragment nearby, watching him intently. When she saw Elkansa approaching through the tall grass, she leapt to her feet and ran to join the party. Elkansa gave her an approving squeeze on the arm, and then she turned toward their captive.

“So you finally made it,” the stranger said. “Good thing. This one couldn't stay awake forever, and who knows what I would have done when she fell asleep on that boulder.”

“I can see you're from one of the provincial cities,” Elkansa said, taking stock of his clothing. “You don't have the poise of a river citizen. You will sorely regret laying a hand on a Denorian child.”

“And you smell like those huskin that soil your fields,” he spat. “I hope you send me away soon, or I might end up getting used to it.”

Elkansa, Genefre, and Laine set about lifting the stranger to his feet. He made a show of being too hurt to walk, but after some prodding and threatening with their katsun blades, he fell into line, supporting himself on his good leg and hopping along between his captors. Elkansa led the party, keeping Stray and Edzie beside her, and Lain and Genefre followed, walking on either side of the captive. At one point, when the stranger tired of hopping, it occurred to him to go limp, refusing to cooperate with his wardens. They fought to drag him for a few strides, and then resorted to striking him with the unsharpened edges of their katsuns, calling him an ingrate. After a few minutes, enough bruises and discomforts accumulated that he stood back up and returned to hopping.

... ... ... ...

In the settlement, amidst a sizeable crowd of curious bystanders, the stranger was escorted to the western storehouses and pulled into the auxiliary building. As Stray and Edzie stood by and watched, Laine closed the large doors behind them to keep out the tribesfolk, and Elkansa and Genefre dragged the stranger to one of the pens used to hold large animals, a rectangular metal frame suspended about three feet off the ground. They lifted him and tossed him inside, face-first. He grunted in pain and rolled over, trying to ease the stress on his knee, as Elkansa fastened two latches – one at the center of the door, and one at the very top – and took both keys with her.

“Nice accommodations,” the stranger said. “How long before I’m served up for dinner?”

Elkansa huffed at him. “You will be entered before the elders in the morning, and they’ll decide what to do with you. In the meantime, Genefre will have the pleasure of watching you.”

Genefre scowled for a moment – apparently just learning of this responsibility – and then spoke to Elkansa. “Uhh, can you stay for a minute while I get my latticework from home? I should work on it while I’m on watch.”

Elkansa dismissed her, and she ran out through the front door, which Laine closed behind her. Her business presently settled,, Laine drifted over and stood at a distance from the criminal. Elkansa, with Edzie and Stray by her side, stood immediately before the enclosure and the stranger, and she took slow stock of him.

“Stop looking at me like that, sluicule,” he barked at her. His face was a blur of bruises and mucus, bits all swollen out of proportion, and when he spoke, he had to hack through blood and damaged teeth. “I’ve heard about you plains-people. You eat grass, shit mud, and fuck those cows that hang around your villages. Your stench alone may as well be a death sentence.”

Elkansa was unfazed. “You are hardly worth all this effort,” she sneered at him. “Had you come here with a caravan and asked politely for asylum, there’s a chance we would even have tolerated you, living out at the edge of town. But attacking one of our children… you’re lucky I don’t flay you right here, before the elders have a chance to complicate things.”

“It’s all I deserve, getting hobbled and dragged off by you boggs. You’d have no satisfaction but three dead kids, except for that demon girl you raised.” He looked at Edzie again, grinning grotesquely. “Don’t forget what I said, little girl. Stay in this shit-town, and everything you got will be wasted.”

In this rude stranger’s gaze, Edzie felt a strange glimmer of conspiracy. She thought of the forbidden knife, tucked into her waist-wrap, and averted her eyes from his. Stray looked over at her, confused and curious, but Elkansa remained entirely focused on the prisoner.

“You are not worthy of a response from my daughter. You are lucky she isn't as cruel as some of her elders... at times like this, I almost wish I had raised a less wise, more destructive child, so she might have put that blade through your throat, instead of your knee.”

“She don't need you to teach her to be a monster. It's already in her blood. I can see it. One sluicule breeds another, all polite society knows that.”

Elkansa smiled at this provocation and fell silent. Edzie stood behind her, gazing at the floor, until she heard the door creak, and Genefre returned with a satchel of crafting tools. She took a position at the far end of the storehouse, watching the locked pen, and the rest of the Denorians stepped out. Laine and Elkansa helped Genefre secure the door, and then Laine bid them better fortunes and headed north to handle some residual business. At last, Elkansa walked Stray and Edzie home, fatigue finally beginning to show on her face.

Neither the stranger nor Genefre had a peaceful night. Aaraya and Dredda left Boyle with Elkansa and visited the storehouse an hour or so later, guided by the light of a thresh lamp. They did not try to enter, knowing that it would be more troubling for all involved, but they wanted to reassure themselves that he was secure, and that there were sufficient plans in place for him to be held responsible. Shortly after they left, as the last traces of light left the horizon, Greya the healer arrived, summoned by Elkansa to ensure the prisoner was presentable the next morning. Greya was a persistently gentle middle-aged woman, and though she handled the stranger with an uncharacteristic frigidity, she did her best to make sure his wound was dressed and his face and body were clean. At that point, he was too sore and exhausted to resist.

The next day, at dawn, Genefre was relieved, and three Denorian warriors (Laine among them) roused the stranger and led him to the central court, where he was due to face the elders. A great many Denorians were there – no less than five hundred, crowded around the edges of the gathering space – and five of the eight elders had deigned to attend (more than sufficient, for a decision of this order). Along with the stranger, the assembly in the court included Elkansa, Edzie, Stray, Boyle and his parents, Laine (who had been licensed to speak for Genefre), and Mistras Septa and Baliban, who were there to provide learned counsel.

The elders, spread out in a line before the blackened fire pit, included Amiaverta the Elder of Reckoning, Hylidae the Elder of Harmony, Warryn the Elder of Severity, Yogo the Elder of Favor, and Pattrice the Elder of Stewardship. If the stranger was an outsider arriving in good will, only one or two elders would have been necessary for the decision, but for criminals, hostile foreigners, and anyone taken against their will, at least three were expected, and more if possible.

Elder Hylidae stepped forward to speak. “Greetings, outsider. I am Hylidae, one of the elders of this tribe. I’m sorry we have to meet under such unfavorable circumstances. Do you wish to declare yourself?”

“Rasteur Pelipen,” the stranger grunted, his face a mask of stony defiance. “Let’s get on with this.”

“You have been brought here by force, accused by members of the assembly...” she gestured to the Denorians standing behind him, “of attacking a child from our village, who you encountered in the fields a score of kilometers to the northwest. Do you dispute this charge?”

The stranger seemed to snarl in spite of himself, unable to maintain the composure required to answer. “I would, but I think you boggs’ll trust the children and that little scratch more than my word. But you know… all of you… that I wasn’t here to hurt nobody.” He visibly struggled, trying to rise up a few inches, but his bound knee buckled, and he slumped back over in his wardens’ arms. “I was just scared. You know running from those bastards is hard.”

Elder Yogo stepped forward and spoke in a surprisingly gentle voice. “We know that some men are made who they are by fate, not by their own hand. We have not gathered here to bury you, Rasteur. Now is your chance to tell us: why were you hiding in our land?”

“I’m being run down by Protectorate thugs from Fabrice,” he said. “I was trying to get to the mountains, maybe find shelter, decide where I could make a new life. But they have a long arm, and I don’t trust nobody, even up here.”

“What was your crime in Fabrice?” Hylidae prompted.

The stranger paused, processing the question for the length of a full breath. Finally, he struggled to answer. “Thievery. Stole a few bites of fruit and bread from the stalls in the market. They want to make an example of me. Just wanted to feed myself and my woman, though.”

The murmurs of the audience rose and fell, and Edzie saw Baliban raise an eyebrow. Elder Yogo spoke. “That is hard to believe, Rasteur. We have dealt with the Fabrice branch of the Protectorate, and they may be strict, but they are not barbarians. I would suggest being more forthright.”

There was a gap in the exchange, and then Stray’s voice broke the silence. “Wait, I know something else,” he declared, to Elkansa’s visible surprise. The elders all looked at him; the stranger tried to turn, but he was held in place by his guards, so he could only turn his head far enough to glimpse Stray out of the corner of his eye. “He had something he said wasn’t allowed. A flat thing, like a knife, but made out of some black slippery stuff. We wouldn’t take it, though.”

Elder Warryn looked at Laine. “If he has contraband, it is best we find it.”

“It was hidden in his sheath,” Stray offered. The stranger snorted with contempt. Laine departed hastily to fetch the sword from the storehouse, where it was propped against a wall.

“Is there anything else you would like to declare in your defense?” elder Hylidae asked, as they waited for Laine to return.

The stranger was silent long enough that conversations started whispering across the court. Elkansa looked at the stranger with contempt, and then spoke up, feeling uncomfortable with the leniency and lack of progress so far. “Let us not get distracted by petty charges claimed by this criminal. He attacked our children. He is an enemy. Look at him… he disrespects us, slumping and blubbering, as if he was the victim.”

Elder Yogo gave Elkansa a stern look. “The prisoner is not on trial for being unpleasant. This is the time for understanding his situation. Our wisdom stems from our mercy.”

Laine reappeared presently, carrying the sheath. In her hands, she had two of the black objects, which she explained had been tucked into secondary compartments alongside the blade. Stray confirmed that those were the objects he had seen, and one was presented to the elders. They passed it among them and each handled it with aversive reverence, assessing its texture and testing its strength. The other knife was given to the Mistras, who conferred over it.

“Revolting,” Elder Pattrice muttered, giving voice to the expression on a few of the elders' faces.

“Plastic, I'm guessing?” Elder Hylidae was looking at Baliban for confirmation... Baliban, who had spent so much time traveling Pantempus on diplomatic missions, who had advised the Protectorate branches in other cities, and who would be the only person in the assembly who might be familiar with such travesties.

“Yes,” Baliban said, looking from the object to the elders. “Some sort of polymer, certainly, possibly polycarbonite or polystyrene. High-density.”

“Clears up the dubious story,” Elder Pattrice remarked wryly.

“Well, Rasteur,” Elder Hylidae said, now more severe, “now we know that whatever your status here in our tribe – whether a desperate exile or a seasoned manipulator – you are certainly an enemy of the River Kingdoms, whose Protectorate enforces the Mekonic Decrees. We will treat you as an oath-breaker, armed murderer, and fugitive from justice, until we can confer with agents of the Prefect.”

The elders allowed a moment of silence, gazing together at the prisoner, some looking to Elkansa for her approval, as well. She looked agitated, but not hostile.

Finally, the stranger broke the silence. “I knew this whole show of mercy was pointless. If I can be chased down across every city in Pantempus for having something so small and stupid as pieces of plastic, then I wasn't gonna find asylum here, with you simple boggs.” He looked around at the audience and spat at the ground.

“You know the laws,” Elder Hylidae said, “and you brought this crime to our doorstep. I see no reason to talk of mercy.” She glanced at Alynn, whose stony eyes remained locked with hers, and then she turned back to the prisoner, who was looking at the ground. Unexpectedly, a single tear squeezed out of his scowling eye, belying his show of defiance.

At length, he spoke again, loudly, his voice cracking as he tried to extend its volume. “The learned folk in the cities talk so much of how you Concordance tribes are so independent, so fierce, out here in the open space above the rivers, guarding the borders of civilization and all that. I never put much stock in it, but I'm glad to finally know for sure: it's tripe, all of it. You're just another name in the Prefect's ledger, ready to dive between her thighs whenever she gets moist. Keep your righteous rituals, give me back to the redges who own up to hating me.”

Hylidae now looked more disgusted than disapproving. As the guardswomen prepared to drag the prisoner back to his cell, Elder Yogo spoke: “For the sake of candor... do you have any more of these things, or any other contraband we should know about?”

It only took the prisoner a moment to respond, but in that moment, he caught Edzie's eye and betrayed the slightest hint of a smile... or perhaps she merely imagined it, waiting to hear what he would say. “No,” he replied, “you found 'em. Easy access, next to my blade, and usually overlooked by simpletons.”

“Then you are dismissed. Laine, Thrynidae, put him back in the pen in the storehouse. Have somebody – one of your companions, I don't care who – prepare one of the empty dromos closest to the gathering area, as a more suitable lodging for the time being, with a barred door and at least one guard at all times. Two at night. Be sure he is bound in some sort of irons – restrained and secured, but not cruelly.”

The guardswomen left, guiding the stranger before them. He was only defiant for a few paces, and then settled into a compliant shuffle, using his damaged leg and the guards' arms for balance. As he departed, the assembly stepped up together so the elders could conclude the matter.

“Summon messengers,” Hylidae said, suddenly brusque in discharging the necessary duties. “They will inquire with our neighbors in the Aerimus, Hexcalor, and Vananya tribes, making known our prisoner's situation. If no news is to be found, they will continue to Horizon, to determine whether such a criminal is known there. Send two, also, to Fabrice and Tempustide, to the South. If anyone is looking for this criminal, we shall make it easy for them to find him. If all else fails at last, we shall with our own hands bear him to the Protectorate in Tempustide, so the court of the kingdoms can deal with him.”

An attendant scampered off to make the necessary arrangements. By now, the audience was already drifting off, many of them satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. Before Hylidae dismissed the assembly, she called Edzie, Stray, and Boyle forward. She prompted Elder Amiaverta to speak, then, knowing she was more experienced in the informal aspects of these rituals.

“Edzie, Stray, and Boyle, children of Denoria,” she said in show of comfort and recognition, “you all conducted yourself in exemplary fashion. Your parents will talk to you more, I am sure, but we are proud that you all acted in the interests of the tribe, especially by taking care of one another. It is more than we have any right to expect, that you meet these challenges with such character, at such a young age.”

Amiaverta turned to Stray for a moment. “Stray, in particular: I would like to thank you for bringing the contraband to our attention. It allowed us to see the full range of this ruffian's offenses, and treat him accordingly. Your respect for our tribe's character is something to be celebrated.”

She returned her attention to the whole trio, then, giving a glance to Boyle's parents as she did so. “I also want you three to know something... you especially, Boyle, who fell into the most danger: even if the contraband hadn't come to light, we would have taken your interests seriously, and I can assure you, you would have seen that criminal exiled from our lands, and the stain of his presence would have been erased from our lives, one way or another.”

The three children nodded, maintaining the grave countenance that the occasion seemed to demand. After a minor ritual of conclusion and release, the assembly was dismissed, and the last of the spectators wandered off. Alynn, Elkansa, and Mistra Septa joined some of the elders for a few minutes of private conference; Edzie, Stray, and Boyle, tired from the formalities, left to return home, avoiding any path that might take them past the storehouses.

... ... ... ...

The stranger was kept secluded in his makeshift cell for forty-one days, as messengers and couriers arrived and departed, bringing bits of news and accepting new assignments. Edzie, Stray, and Boyle tried to return to their routines, but they were always conscious of the danger lurking within their own village, a bristling presence that they seemed to feel, or smell, when they wandered the empty lots or tried to sleep at night. Edzie hid the plastic blade in the foundation of one of the walls in her room, knowing that keeping it was a serious transgression that would earn her a severe and lasting punishment. She felt a steady current of anxiety for the entire season, but generally managed to conceal it from Stray and her mother.

Within five days of the elders' gathering, the messenger from the neighboring tribes reappeared with the first bit of news. A traveler affiliated with the Aerimus tribe, a few hundred kilometers south of the Denoria, had discovered a small caravan, hidden beside Cragstep Road, whose civilian passengers were murdered. Their possessions were left with them, including a large satchel of various illegal artifacts: fully a dozen plastic knives, plus a few other obvious pieces of contraband. The elders acknowledged the discovery and kept a close watch on the prisoner.

The messenger returned empty-handed from Fabrice, the city to the south, but several days later, the messenger who had been sent to Horizon returned with three Protectorate soldiers, riding tall gray steeds that bore the insignia of the municipality of Horizon. All three of them wore platinum breastplates, their arms protected by bolts of thick leather. They wore wide staffs with curved blades affixed to them, and carried saddlebags packed with documents and provisions. Their leader, Jordani Atrey, was a muscular, full-figured woman, her blonde hair obscured by a brightly-polished helmet consisting of three metal spurs mounted on a skullcap, reaching around from the back of the headpiece, just short of covering her face. Her companions – one lithe, darker-skinned woman and one broad-shouldered man – wore no headgear, but their breastplates had high collars to protect their shoulders and throats.

They said they had been tracking such a criminal – a dealer in Mekonic contraband – within their black market for several seasons, and had recently been informed by their sources that he had joined a caravan heading to Tempustide via the Settlers Road.

This prisoner... whose name was not Rasteur Pelipen, but Dormoroy Gesk... was affiliated with a lesser manufacturing and smuggling syndicate that operated out of Horizon, Tempustide, and Bhijanica. He had vanished somewhere along the Settlers Road, along with the small caravan that had been seen accompanying him. There were not enough agents with the Protectorate of Horizon to mount a wide search for the fugitive, so they massaged their contacts and kept an eye out for news. At last, the Denorians had provided it.

The arrival of the Protectorate agents renewed the Denorians' interest in their prisoner, and the subsequent whisperings became wild rumors that writhed and mutated among the Denorians, causing a great deal of “incidental” traffic to pass, gaping, past the guarded dromo. The buzz and speculation lasted for two days, as the Protectorate agents spoke to the prisoner in private, leaving him with some vivid wounds for his reticence. The agents gathered information from the Aerimus tribe, as well, and through these sources, they determined that Dormoroy's caravan had diverted from its course to make stops at the Aerimus and Denoria settlements, and perhaps some of the other Concordance outposts, as well.

Somewhere along the route, some event forced Dormoroy – whom the caravan passengers thought a mere passenger “returning to my family in Tempustide” – to expose himself, and he killed them out of desperation. Perhaps they had discovered the contraband he was trying to transport, or they had angered him by diverging from their planned route. Whatever the case, Dormoroy had no plan to cover this contingency, so he had traveled up the road for several days, and eventually became paranoid enough about passers-by to flee into the fields around the Prospect River.

He was nearly starving when, by luck, he ran across a shade hare in a snare trap.

Finally, after gathering their narrative from the children and massaging (a gentle euphemism) a confirmation out of Dormoroy, the Protectorate spoke to the Denorian elders. They assured the tribespeople that the prisoner would be held fully accountable to the public and the blade for both his ongoing criminal activity and for the murders he had committed. Though they were a mere secondary branch of the River Kingdoms' Protectorate, they gave their provisional sanction to the Denorians: if this man was ever to escape his punishment and return, by some miracle, to the Denorian lands, they had permission to execute him immediately, and only had to return his head to the Protectorate for later identification.

The agents mostly spoke with Elder Amiaverta and the messengers, though they did meet, briefly, with Stray, Edzie, and Boyle, accompanied by their mothers. They asked each witness to recount, in turn, the events that led to the prisoner’s capture, as the male agent took notes in a ream of logging paper, scribbling with a mechanical rhythm and efficiency. After Stray and Edzie had finished their respective accounts, with Elkansa watching from behind, Jordani addressed them in turn.

“Young man,” she said to Stray with righteous and impersonal confidence, “I commend you for exposing the criminal’s possession of contraband, and for refusing to humor his pleas for appeasement. Your principles will serve you and your tribe well.”

Stray nodded, grinning in the light of this outsider’s attention. Edzie smiled and nodded at him; Elkansa remained silent behind them, though her eyes were alight with approval. Jordani turned to Edzie and sized her up, noting her wary posture and her serious gaze. Their eyes locked for a few seconds, and in their exchange of regard, there was an echo of suspicion, and rivalry, and finally mutual understanding. At last, Jordani addressed her.

“Young woman of the eight tribes, whose warrior’s spirit exceeds your maiden’s body, we thank you for your service in apprehending this enemy of the Prefect. May your wrath always strike true, and may you wield it with dignity, always in service to your tribe and your elders.”

Edzie bowed her head, less taken with this soldier’s praise than Stray had been. Jordani turned to Elkansa and offered her thanks and her congratulations on the upbringing of her fine children, and then the conversation ended and the Protectorate soldiers returned to the duties of their residency.

The agents' visit was to last two more days, and then, having settled the situation to their satisfaction, they suddenly announced one morning that they would be departing immediately, with the captive in tow. Amid a small gathering of supporters and civilians, the Protectorate agents finally rode off on their gray horses, with Dormoroy bound and borne in a cart behind them. The gawkers returned to their daily toils, and the morning turned into an afternoon, and then the night passed into further mornings, afternoons, and nights. Gradually, the acrid memories of their ordeal began to fade, both in the minds of the three children and in the consciousness of the tribe as a whole. By the arrival of the Spring Festival of Emergence, the prisoner was largely forgotten.