Authors: Meredith Skye
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure
Ruben and the others had wrapped the bodies of Dale and Tomlin and put them in body bags. These they had taken a distance from town, into the hills, and buried. The Agency would come back to claim them later.
Once that was done, Ruben and his team travelled for half the night, carrying the priest Jaynanth's body on one of the
. Ruben took them over rocky trails to hide their tracks in case someone tried to follow.
The north moon rose and gave them a little light. Still they rode their
well away from the village. They found shelter in a ravine and made camp.
They dropped Jaynanth's body carelessly on the ground. His vacant eyes stared up at Asta. The eyes almost looked alive still. She bent a little closer and thought she heard a whisper; it made her jump. She moved away from the corpse.
“You didn’t have to kill him,” Asta accused Ruben, who was standing nearby.
“You hate the Garrans as much as I do!” insisted Ruben. “What were we supposed to do?"
"Arrest him and give him a trial," she said, upset.
"You saw what he did to Dale and Tomlin! He’s a killer. And I’ll be damned if he got away with it!”
"He wouldn't have gotten away with it," said Asta. That's what courts were for. This breach of justice bothered her.
Ruben studied her. "Is this going to be a problem for you?" asked Ruben. He knew that her father was Koethe. He'd almost refused to take her into the Stealth Unit because of that. "You're not going to get me in trouble are you?"
She could, she knew it. Technically, her father, Koethe was the head of the Enforcers. Though as base Commander, though he oversaw little of the actual operations. But she and her father weren't exactly on speaking terms. But she could report him to someone else. She studied him silently.
"Look," he said. "Things happen out here. If you can't handle it--then maybe you're in the wrong line of work."
"I can handle it," she said.
"That priest attacked us! We don't even have to make a story up. He was armed. He attacked us and killed Dale and Tomlin. So--we killed him. We put him down. All this is true."
She stared at Ruben. He was one of the Agency's top agents. Even if she did complain to his superiors--maybe they knew how much he bent the law out in the wilderness. Maybe they knew . . . and did nothing. She shrugged at last. "Don't think I go running to my Father every time something bothers me, if that's what you think."
Ruben nodded. "So, we're good then? You'll back us up?"
"Of course," she said, trying to appear careless even though the whole situation made her feel uncomfortable.
"Good. Because out here the lines get a little fuzzy sometimes. We are the law and there are very few of us against a vast population of natives. Things have to get done,
even if they get done the hard way sometimes. Strength is what these people understand," said Ruben, his eyes hard.
He turned to the others. "Build a fire. Let's do this."
Breehan, Jess and Pak pitched in and they built a huge bonfire. They tossed the body of Jaynanth into it and watched him burn.
Even in the fire, the priest's head was visible. His eyes stared at them the whole while, as the body burned. Last of all, the fire consumed the head. It felt morbid. Almost Asta wanted to flee home and leave this job.
What she really wanted to do, though, was leave the planet of Garran. Go back to her homeworld of Toolash. A civilized world, not some lawless, backworld desert. The planet that had killed her mother. She pushed those thoughts aside.
Once the body had been incinerated, they roasted eke meat on the embers of the bonfire, laughing and joking about it all the while. A final insult to the old priest.
"Relax," said Ruben, passing Asta a flask of Anik Rum. "This was your first big mission. You did well."
"Thanks," she said. She took the rum and drank. It took several more drinks before the situation felt acceptable. The others drank deeply as well.
She could still see the priest's bones in the fire.
The tents had already been set up and they were done for the night. It had been a very long day. A tense one, especially for Asta. Now the group just relaxed.
Ruben slid a little closer to Asta. "I wasn't kidding when I said you did well. I'm proud of you."
"Thanks," she said, blushing a little.
They were both a little drunk. He took her hand. "It's nice to have a little time together out here, under the stars." Ruben had flirted with her some during training. She'd had her eye on him. He had that rugged look that appealed to her, as did his scraggly long hair.
The moon had risen higher, casting a pale light over the desert. The stars were visible.
But the white bones of the corpse in the fire, damped the romantic moment. Asta still remembered the look in his dead eyes. She closed her own eyes, but it was hard to remove the memory.
She opened her eyes as she felt Ruben move. He leaned over and began kissing her. This surprised her. She hadn't expected it. To be honest, she had hoped that it would happen. So, she kissed him back.
Just 21 years old, Asta had never had a serious relationship. She'd always been a bit of a loner. Ruben's tender and insistent kiss felt good to her. Arousing. Also comforting.
Still, some part of her mind objected. The day had been upsetting. But by now, the rum had kicked on and her worries melted away. She gave in to his kisses, savoring the intimate moment.
A torch lit the wall of the sleeping chamber where Norbi slept. He had hardly stirred in the few days since the attack. A broken arm and some broken ribs were not the worst of it--there was internal bleeding. Instead of recovering--the boy had worsened.
Their father, Ashtan, bent over Norbi, examining him. Moorhen could feel the anger burning in his father. Ashtan had always hated the Chanden, but had never suffered an attack like this on one of his own children before--not that Moorhen knew of. Many things had happened twenty years ago during the Karther rebellion.
Finally, Ashtan left Norbi and strode from the room. Moorhen followed.
Ashtan wasn’t a rash man but then—he wasn’t prone to anger, either. Moorhen wasn’t sure what he would do in the face of such an act by the Chanden.
And now many feared that Norbi wouldn't survive the attack.
Once they got back into the main hall, Ashtan turned and hit Moorhen full across the face. The blow knocked Moorhen to the ground. “You fool! How could you have let him go? I left you in charge. You’re useless!”
Ashtan walked over to the heatwell. The incident had caught the attention of all those in the hall. Embarrassed at the reprimand, Moorhen said nothing, but got back on his feet. He nearly pointed out that he had risked his own life to save Norbi, that he had taken on eleven Chanden and survived--but this wasn’t the time for self-congratulations. His father was justifiably angry.
If Moorhen had watched Norbi better, then these things wouldn’t have happened. Even going after Norbi and leaving the
could be considered irresponsible. Moorhen didn’t want to bring up that subject.
Moorhen went to a nearby wall and sat on the floor in a small pile of furs. Ashtan paced for a while without speaking, his agitation growing. Finally he stopped. “I will not stand by and watch my children treated in this manner. We've suffered at the hands of the Chanden long enough! Perhaps I was wrong to turn down the Upper Steppe Clan when they asked for our help. Will we tolerate the Invaders indefinitely on our world? We should send them a message--that such things will not be tolerated by the clans!”
Channik, Ashtan's oldest and next in line as chieftain nodded, supportive of anything Ashtan did. He had always been Ashtan's favorite.
The others looked as surprised as Moorhen. This wasn’t the Ashtan that they knew.
Mirrhia and Derish, Moorhen's aunt and uncle, exchanged a glance.
“Ehrlinnt, you and your brothers will stay and guard the
,” said Ashtan. “Me?” argued Ehrlinnt, one of their better warriors; he was not pleased with “babysitting” duty.
“I’ll stay,” offered Moorhen.
His father glared at him. “No. You’ve stayed at home too much. I’ve turned you into a coward by coddling you. And I don’t want any more incidents while I’m away.” Ashtan strode from the room. Humiliated, Moorhen avoided the gaze of his brothers and sisters.
To Moorhen, this plan to go with the Upper Steppe Clan and attack the Chanden sounded crazy. Twenty years ago the Garrans had united to try such an uprising, hoping
to reclaim their homeland--and had failed. The Chanden struck back, showing no mercy. Thousands died. After that, the Chanden sent for even more Enforcers to patrol the deserts.
Moorhen had read more than one book on the wars between the Chanden and Garrans--all written by the Chanden of course. Garrans had only begun writing books (and only in the Chanden language) for the last 30 or 40 years, and they were few.
Moorhen knew that the Chanden were wrong--but would violence solve it? And the Clan Conclave had an understanding among each clan that none of them would take action alone against the Chanden, to provoke them. The Upper Steppe had already suggested actions at counsel and been voted down. The Chanden were too powerful and too vengeful for the clans to fight--even united.
Moorhen only hoped that his father’s blood would cool and that he would think better of this venture. There had to be a better way of getting justice than provoking a war that could turn into a bloodbath, mostly on their side.
Long before sunrise Moorhen left with the others for the Upper Steppe. The morning was chill but not cold. The wind blew mildly; the light touch of the wind on his face calmed Moorhen.
In all, there were nearly two-hundred hunters in their party. Channik, Ashtan's favorite, rode alongside him at the front.
As the war party rode along, Draiha and Gudhel dropped back from the front of the line so that they were within Moorhen's hearing. His cousin Gudhel was four years his senior and a fierce warrior. Draiha was only a year older than Moorhen, but she spent a lot of time hunting and was an excellent tracker.
Despite her coarse attire, Draiha always managed to look very much like a woman. Moorhen was immediately aware of his own shabby appearance. His clothes were unwashed and tattered. He pushed this thought aside; he was her cousin, after all.
"Cousin," said Gudhel sourly, "we have you to thank for this trip." He lay the blame at Moorhen's feet.
"The Upper Steppe is more than a week away. We have no friendship with them," said Draiha, angry. "They care nothing for our lives." Speaking against Ashtan and his counsel while traveling with him was careless.
"For my part, I apologize," said Moorhen. "I have no desire to start a war."
"I'm not afraid to die," said Gudhel, "especially if I take some Chanden with me. It's the Steppe Clan I don't trust. Maybe we should strike on our own."
"No matter who strikes," said Moorhen, "it's all the same to the Chanden. They don't care about clans. They'll blame every Garran for it and punish them."
"The other clans shouldn't be cowards then," said Draiha, "if it's their neck as well as ours." She glanced over at Moorhen. "Too bad Father wouldn't leave you at home. Now we have to babysit you, as well as watch out for our own heads." At this Gudhel smirked. They rode ahead again. The insult stung all the more for coming from Draiha.
At night the group camped in a ravine, out of sight. The North Moon was already up, giving some light. Moorhen was given the job of looking after the
, a job no one coveted. He being junior-most on this trip, Moorhen expected that he'd get all of the worst jobs.
Talk at supper was lively. Many discussed the upcoming battles and what they'd do to their opponents--the daring acts they would perform. Moorhen was silent through most of this.
"Why don't you speak, cousin?" asked Draiha, "Are there no acts of courage that you have dreamt of? Or do you plan to just run away?" This brought laughter, especially from Channik, his eldest brother.
"I won't run," said Moorhen, his face reddening.
"Oh?" said Draiha. "Why so silent then?" Her features were delicate, despite her skills as a warrior … and her voice taunted him. She knew that Moorhen was attracted to her.
"It's just that …" Moorhen hesitated. From the corner of his eye, he saw his father draw closer, listening in. "I think that there may be a better way to avenge Norbi than attacking the Chanden. That's all. In my heart, I have doubts that it's the right thing to do."
At this, Ashtan strode over, angry. "You speak against me?"
"No," said Moorhen, now afraid. He'd seldom seen his father in such a mood as he'd been since they brought back Norbi. All this talk of war. "Not against you. But … the Chanden strike out against us all, if one of us offends them. How are we different from them if we also strike out at every Chanden for the same reason?"
"Our reasons are good enough! And of your making!" spat Ashtan.
"They have weapons more destructive than any bow or sword we have. A terrible marksman can kill at long range with their guns!"
Moorhen saw concern about this in some of the other's eyes. Mirrhia and Derish exchanged a glance.
Ashtan drew closer to Moorhen, and he thought Ashtan would strike him. "I'm no fool, boy. Anyone here knows more about war than you do." This brought a little laughter, especially from Channik and their cousin Pellan.
"The Upper Steppe Clan has a stash of Chanden weapons which they'll share with us. We can match their power, and exceed them in skill." This Ashtan spoke for the benefit of the others, perhaps aware that Moorhen was not the only one who had doubts. "Even if we were no match for them--to live as we have lived is a disgrace. It's wrong. There must be an end to it. Better that it be a brave end!"
"Hear! hear!" said Channik in agreement.
The others nodded in assent. Moorhen felt cold. Was this a suicide attack? Did they not mean to return but to throw their lives away in some sort of protest?
"You, Moorhen, had better beware of my wrath. I won't have you speaking against me behind my back."
"Shut up! I've heard enough from you." His father glared at him.
Moorhen stopped arguing and his father strode off. The others stared at Moorhen without speaking to him, then gradually went on about their business of setting up the camp, avoiding him. Discouraged, Moorhen walked out towards the stream.
No matter what Moorhen did, his father disapproved of him. Maybe he was wrong to question his father's plan, but it seemed a bad idea to him. Everyone else seemed to be behind him, except in the matter of the alliance with the Upper Steppe Clan.
Moorhen sat on a rock, gazing on the water; the reflection of the moon shimmered, as though laughing at him. A small sound behind him startled him and Moorhen realized his foolishness in coming out from the camp. There were
, and other creatures of the night. He still hadn't fully healed from the
attack. He knew what his father would say about his foolishness.
As he whirled to meet his enemy, Moorhen remembered to draw his blade.
There on the path stood a girl with sword drawn--a short sword. It was his younger sister Crysethe. She wore her leather hunting jacket and carried a sword she'd borrowed, that was slightly too large for her. Her hair was pulled back like a boy's, with her bow over her back.
"Crysethe?" demanded Moorhen in a whisper, not wanting to alert the camp. "What are you doing here?"
Crysethe put her sword away and Moorhen sheathed his dagger. "Father told you to stay behind!" he accused her.
"I wanted to come," she replied haughtily, reminding him of Draiha.
Moorhen thought back to the suicidal plan his father had and groaned. "You should go back home, at once!" Still he whispered.
"No," she said, unwavering. "I'm a warrior."
She must have been trailing them all day. Who knew what dangers lurked out there now--she couldn't go back, not alone. And they'd consider him a coward if he offered to take her. Father had to be told; there was nothing else to do.
"Come on," he said glumly and led her back to camp. They got quite a few stares and whispers as he brought her to Ashtan, who sat eating with some of the older ones.
"Father," said Moorhen, seeking his attention.
Ashtan turned his attention to Moorhen and saw Crysethe. He scowled. "What is this? Does no one follow my orders? She was to stay at the
!" This accusation was pointed at Moorhen, who was in no way responsible for the actions of his little sister. Surely his father didn't blame him for this as well?
"She must have followed us. I …" Moorhen's excuses sounded lame and he failed to give them. It wasn't his fault. Ashtan stood and pushed Moorhen out of the way, none too gently, and went to Crysethe.
"Child," he said to her, more gently. "Why have you come?"
"To fight beside you, father," she said with all earnestness. At this Ashtan didn't reply, but smiled a little.
"Very well," he said. "If that is your desire." He led her over to where he had been eating. "Get the young one some food."
Mirrhia motioned Crysethe to sit beside her. "Come here, child."
Moorhen stared at them, incredulous. He wouldn't take her with them, would he? To death and destruction? Or did Ashtan truly have some plan to succeed? Quietly Moorhen moved away to his side of the camp.
"You let her come along?" whispered Draiha, angry.
"Not me!" he hissed. "I didn't--" Draiha turned and walked away in disgust. Moorhen fought the urge to follow her and argue. Instead he sat down, threw his cloak around himself and tried to sleep.