"Fine." I said. "So now you are free, where are you going to go?"
"With you of course. Why? Where are you going?"
"Away from here. Thataway."
Jabbing my finger in the general direction we had been heading, I set off. Hu~gen followed. It was only a guess as to where I was headed. For two reasons, first, I genuinely had no real idea of the geography. Second, even if I had it would have been no help for the falling snow disguised everything. My main hope was that it would also disguise the fact that the bandits were two persons down (at least) until our tracks away were covered up. If visibility improved soon that would be a forlorn hope.
What I did know was that at least we were not moving deeper into Aponian territory, and be it a day or two away, there was a border to cross. If I turned again now we could run parallel to the road, but a way off to the side, and perhaps reach the new land we were headed for anyway. I knew that to be about a day and a half under normal conditions with the way marked. For us now, who knows? Anyway, that would increase our chances of running into these brigands again.
I could tell evening was coming on from the quality of light, and called a halt. We had been walking, taking it in turns to break track and had been among trees now for a while. About half a subspan I guessed. It was even quieter here as the wind was broken, so Hu~gen and I could talk easily. But the very stillness precluded conversation.
Against one trunk where there had been some drifting, we piled more snow and made a snow hole. Hu~gen had never seen this before but got the idea quickly. We had cleared down to the ground and with a few twigs and my sparkstones it did not take long to get a little fire going. There was no lack of water to fill my cook tin. (How glad I was that the contents of my bag had not been thrown overboard with the bag itself. But I sorely missed the warmth of my old sleepsack, which had.) Melted snow there was aplenty. With dried meat and bread thrown in, a palatable hot soup was produced, which did not linger in the pan. The fire did not linger either, but then there was not much real use for it now. Its work was done, the snow hole was snug and sealed. It would keep us cosy until morning.
Breaking open the air hole and clearing the overnight accumulation of snow I let in the fresh clean and COLD morning. From the look of it, it had snowed for a good part of the night but had stopped now. It was still overcast and threatening, but the real hardness had gone from the sky. Just as our tracks had all but gone from the ground.
Pleased? Ecstatic would be an understatement for my relief. The only way we would be found now was by the bandits either finding our trail earlier and just following its direction or by clever guesswork. Or perhaps luck. I could not counter luck, but I could do something about the former. We would deviate from this path by half a longpace or so to one side and then regain our direction. We had a good chance then to detect anyone in pursuit from a safe distance. I explained this to Hu~gen and he readily agreed to it.
Thus, after a breakfast of boiled oats we set off. Initially in the same direction we had been heading. After half a longpace I told Hu~gen to stop absolutely still whilst I went on for a hundred or more paces. I then came backward along these steps so it would look like two persons going forward and then disappearing into thin air. We were still in trees and I chose the deviation point to be under a large bough. Back with Hu~gen, first he then I in his tracks stepped sideways and continued to do so. When clear, I caught the overhanging bough and gave it a good jerk. The accumulated snow fell off. All over me, but more importantly over, and filling our side steps. The uncovered tracks I knocked in a bit with my stick to try and blend them. It would now take an unusual person to discover the deviation. It was not an impossibility, but even if found would be an extremely time consuming effort.
Meanwhile, Hu~gen and I were making good progress though it was hard work for the snow came up to our knees. We came out of the trees before the half longpace was up and decided to keep to the edge of them for a bit, only crossing the scrubby open ground in the shortest leg possible to the next trees. This was for two reasons. Firstly, in the open both our tracks and we were more visible. Second, in among the trees the snow was not so deep, with some of it lying in the branches, and so it was easier going.
In front of us lay mountains. Not as formidable in appearance as we had seen from Kasa, but still I suspected, foreign territory. We rested at intervals of which I guessed to be about a subspan during which we averaged in my estimation just under a longpace. That is an indication of how hard it was, even though at each stop we swapped over places to give a rest in breaking the trail. In all that day I would say we covered no more than ten or eleven longpaces, not including the half by which we had deviated route. It snowed again, but not heavily nor for any prolonged month as it had the day before.
All day and not a sign of pursuit, all day and not a sign of another living soul. Occasional animal tracks, but not the animals themselves. At days end we made another snowhole every bit as good as the first, perhaps even better, for we both slept extremely soundly.
Once again our airhole had been covered by overnight snow and breaking it open we found that the snow was still falling. It had stopped by the time we emerged after breakfasting to perform our ablutions. These did not take long (have you ever washed in snow?) and it was a job getting Hu~gen to do it properly. He just could not take in that to keep healthy you must cleanse yourself regularly, even if it was cold. Whilst I was explaining this, a thought struck me. We in Valev did this as a normal practice to ourselves. Why had we not thought in the same manner for our fields? Never mind, that would happen now that Harnen the Enaran had taken the message to my home.
On to today. I had given the strange dart thrower to Hu~gen to carry and he had figured out how it worked. This morning he tried it out before we set off, springing the darts in the direction we would go. It was truly an amazing device for though it lacked accuracy in his hands and took time to reload, with it Hu~gen could launch its projectiles nearly as far as I could shoot one of my arrows. That was without practice. It was easy to see that in time and with patience in a normal set of hands it would be a formidable weapon. We had witnessed as much during the ambush. I was dying to have a go, but it was now Hu~gens' weapon and to have taken it from him would have been churlish.
Proudly he retrieved all the darts, stowed the device and set off with me trailing. He was now a warrior. Well, to him anyway. I was not about to bring him down to earth. This newfound confidence and pride would help keep him going. I truly believe that it did, for the longpaces just fell behind us. The snow was still deep, but there was no more of it that day and by our midday stop the sky was clearing.
Hu~gen gulped the last of his bread and some of the sticky Aponian fruit and then went to practice with his springer. There were only nine of the darts so he had to keep going to retrieve them, but it did not take long for his accuracy to improve so that the darts were reasonably close together, most of the time. I just sat and watched and smiled. He had sprung all the darts off and was retrieving them for the third time as I was thinking to call a halt to this and resume the trek, when Hu~gen scurried over.
"Bandits!" He hissed under his breath.
"Where?" I hissed back, bolting upright and fervently searching for signs among the trees.
“Over there. Where I was retrieving my darts." Hu~gen whispered. "I heard their voices."
"What?" I asked, still in a whisper. "Out loud? What were they saying?"
"I do not know." Hu~gen replied. "They were whispering too, and not in a tongue I understand."
"Confound it! Right. This is what we do. Keep low and with me. We crawl back through the trees and round to our tracks and then up and run 'till we clear the trees. Dive left and see where that gets us. All right?"
"Yes." Hu~gen nodded.
"Quietly now, let us go then." I added.
Crawling with the white capes on, we must have been almost invisible. That we were not seen is obvious, for shortly afterward came a shout from the clearing, a pause then a series of shouts.
"Come! Up! Run!" I hissed, but Hu~gen already knew what to do.
We had come round to within twenty steps from our old tracks anyway, and so hit them at top speed. We were just about to break out of the trees when I realised the error of clearing them here, and dived left. Hu~gen followed, landing almost on top of me.
Poking my head out from the tree line a little further on I saw that my fears were unfounded. There was no one waiting in the open for us. The question now, was that then a good place for us to be? For it, was that there was no way we could be ambushed. Against it, was that if they did not know now, they would have no doubt as to our strength, or lack of it and there would be nowhere to escape. Decisions, decisions. For myself I would have run and then played the double back trick. But with Hu~gen?....What the heck!.. Why not?
"Come on." Said I and ran out to join and follow our tracks.
The first arrow whistled by me and I was back in the trees faster than a buika can fart. Theywereout in the open! Guarding against a back track, but off to one side and well hidden. Well, I saw them now, but now was too late. Right. Back up our tracks with lots of noise. Hu~gen was looking a little wild eyed, but kept coming as I hurled loud curses, and muttered the plan as we ran.
"As soon as we see or hear the first ones we double back again then just before leaving the woods dive right and stay absolutely still."
"Yes, yes...Got it." Puffed Hu~gen.
He had too, for mad though it may seem, it worked.
My loud cursing had brought the main party on, and they just kept coming, missing our dive off in their pursuit and straight into their own peoples' arrows. They were back into the trees pretty quick too. A pair of them were not a dozen paces from us, but looking in the other direction, when an amazing thing happened.
"By fards' arse that was close. What do you think?" Said one.
"Looks like the two of them and they may even have got Osok and Ismata. Curse them. Look at poor Farok!"
What was amazing was not what had been said, but that it had been said in Surian. Albeit accented, I understood it perfectly.
From our left came a subdued call. "Hey Farok! Are you badly hurt?"
There was no reply. Farok was the unfortunate recipient of a better-aimed arrow than those that had greeted us. He had stumbled on being hit and fallen forward onto the shaft, embedding it deeper into his chest. If not now already suffocating with a punctured lung or bleeding to death, the wound was clearly too incapacitating or painful for a response. The body in the field still had movement, albeit almost imperceptibly slow.
"Filth! Bloody filth." Cursed one.
"Yes. But what is the Subbie going to do now?" Queried two.
They did not have long to wait. There was a scuffling as someone came to them. Hu~gen and I shrank under our cloaks.
"All right you two?" The new voice. "Well, we are pretty sure now that there are only two of them and they are out there where Osok and Ismata should have been. I am not going into why these two were not there when they were needed, or where they are now, but what we are left with is that we have to draw their shafts until they have no more and then charge them. We have to do this before dark or we will risk losing them, so I want you to keep running out and back. Not too often you understand, and do not take risks. All right?"
There were no answers.
I knew how it felt. One and two were neut. The new voice was the young male Subleader. There was nothing to be said. Whether it was wise or not you did as you were told. The male went away.
"Turds!" Said two.
"Turds on more turds." Said one.
"I will go." Said two.
"No. I will." Said one. "But I will take a dive over and see how Farok is."
He was up and running in a trice. Two arrows swished through the branches, spraying snow.
"Missed! You arseholes!" Called two, at the top of his voice.
"Who the shit is that?" Came a faint call from out in the field. "Is that Misaka?"
"Yes. It is Misaka here, you arselickers!" Two shouted back. "And I am going to bleed you turdsuckers before the day is out!"
There was a silence, punctuated by a grunt from two. Then from the field.
"Subleader Vashtar! It is us. Osok and Ismata. Come out so we can see you."
My heart sank. The ruse was rumbled. I motioned to Hu~gen . Stay down and silent.
The Subleader was not pleased to say the least, and after swiftly establishing credentials everyone was up and out in the open. The two ambushers were given a loud and lengthy dressing down and the person they had shot was administered to. In this time Hu~gen and I quietly crawled away and then made tracks, following used ones where possible.
Hu~gen was beside himself with mirth.
"I would never have believed it." He said. "By the stars, that was good! No wonder the Aponians were afraid of you. Wow! That was fun! Heh! But we showed them. Eh?"
Good?..Fun?.. It was not to me. It was too close by far, and we were not out of it yet. I wished and I hoped. Please snow. Now. But it did not.
Clearing the trees in a completely different direction I saw where our attackers (I was not sure any more that these were bandits) had come. There were enough tracks for ours not to be noticed, and so I went for it. Following their trail, not far down it, we crested a rise and looking back could see the whole thing. This was a matter of luck (bad for us) for the original tracks Hu~gen and I had made approaching this wooded area showed as they crossed the middle patch of virgin snow, well clear of the wood. It was these that had alerted the attackers to our presence. I pointed that out to Hu~gen, explaining how we must be more careful from now on. We turned to continue and faced a row of spears.
These were not the same people as those we had just evaded. These did not look like bandits either. Hu~gen was reaching down for a dart to fit in his springer and thirty paces off, I saw the people tense. They were all Surian looking and though heavily garbed for winter had a facsimile of uniform and a steadiness that said'soldiery'.
"Hu~gen..No." I said, gesturing for him to stop. "This time I think they have us."
"Not for me." He replied. "Do not give in because of me. I am ready to die with you."
"No..There is no way out of this one, but it is all right. I do not think they are going to kill us." I said.
The leader of this new group spoke up in Surian.
“Shut up you bandit filth, and lay down your arms."
"Go suck an egg until you learn some manners." Was my retort.
"You impudent filth! You will get my spear in your throat if I have any more of that!"
"Do not count on getting that close." I countered.
"You understand them?" Interjected Hu~gen.
"Oh yes." I replied. "That lot in the wood too. Just because my Aponian is not worth a spit does not mean I can not speak the language of Sur."
Eyes moved and I followed them. From the woods behind us came the first troop from whom we had just escaped. The trap was now sprung tight.
"Put up your weapons I say to you again!" The leader demanded.
"I would know your authority before I lay up my arms to one who threatens me."
"Bandit." Was the reply. "You have been arrested by Morovar, Cohort Leader in the Pskova department of the Kings' Militia of Swezz."
So that was it. I was out of Aponian hot water into a Swezzer cooking pot. I protested bitterly that we were not bandits at all, but that was pooh poohed and the demand that we gave up our weapons repeated. With the choice now confirmed as surrender or die, I laid down the Aponian war weapon and Hu~gen reluctantly gave up his springer and darts.
"Come on." Demanded the Cohortian. "The bow and any arrows as well." I gave them up, but one of the soldiers was detailed to check my pack for more and confiscated my eating knife. I complained, but as before it fell on deaf ears.
The whole Swezzer party was rejoined with the Subleader reporting in, glaring in our direction now and again as his explanations were given. Neither the troops nor I could hear what was said, but the Subbie’s looks and the Cohortians' eyes told a story of their own. Hu~gen and I were forbidden talking, the irony being that I had to speak to him to convey the instruction. We were then made to go with the Swezzers to a fortified camp some five longpaces off. This was constructed on the lines of the Aponian night‑stops, but the first I had seen in a long time laid out in the traditional Surian fashion. Not that Hu~gen and I had much chance to appreciate it.
We were bundled into a holding cell that bore a remarkable similarity to the one I had been incarcerated in, in Pom. The major difference being where that one was dark and humid, this was dank and cold. There was a layer of sodden, rotting straw on the floor which when we kicked it into a corner revealed a packed earth base. There were twelve bunks, double stacked round the walls but Hu~gen and I were the only incumbents so we moved two bunk sets to make room for this detrius.
Centrally in the cell was a hearth and with the fall of darkness no effort had been made to bring sustenance to us. My calls from the door went unanswered and so rooting through he straw pile we found a reasonably dry piece. After a few attempts with the sparkstones we got it to burn. Shepherded in the hearth with carefully applied amounts of the damper straw, we soon had a smoky but effective fire going. Once it had taken hold, more straw could be added with almost impunity.
Fortunately our waterbottles were quite full, and using the time honoured technique we soon concocted a palatable stew. This eaten, we retired to the least uncomfortable bunks to sleep, leaving the fire burning so to give the cell some residual heat.
Despite this we awoke cold and cramped. The snow holes had been better resting places. There was even a light patina of snow in the cell, blown in through the smoke vent.
What woke me was Hu~gen trying to light a new fire. He had rummaged through my bag to find the sparkstones but had not got the hit quite right and as a consequence was not getting the really good sparks which started a flame. I rolled off the bunk and staggered over, bleary eyed to show him how.
“You have not got a good edge. See?.Here." I showed him. "Then narrow your strike angle."
It still took a few attempts for him to get it right, but that was fine. It is one of those things that once you have got the knack you never lose it.
It was light outside, that we could see from the smoke vent and door cracks, and it was probably that which alerted the soldiers to our fire. The door suddenly crashed in, with three soldiers behind it.
"What the shit is going on here?" One demanded.
Looking at Hu~gen and he at I answered. "What do you mean?"
"The smoke, the fire. Well, this!" The soldier pointed with his spear at my little cooking pot bubbling with oats. From his demeanour it was plain they had thought we were burning the cell down.
"That is our breakfast." I said. "As you have so far neglected to provide any, we have made our own. Not a problem is it?"
"Hurumph,.. I suppose not. So long as that is all you are doing."
"Dunno about you Over, but that smells a sight better than what I have just had." Put in another.
"Sorry, there is only enough for us." I quipped. "But if on the other hand you had given us some of yours, then the cook could have put my special ingredient in the lot."
"Oh no! You bandit filth! You do not get round us that easily!" The Over riled. "Just get your stuff together. You are leaving within the subspan."
With that they backed out and slammed the door.
But not before I had cried. "What about some water for our ablutions?"
Within moments the door slammed open again and the two soldiers, less the Over came in and ordered Hu~gen to go with them. I had not had time to explain the incident fully and Hu~gen of course, could not understand a word they said. He became frightened when they started shouting, trying to make him understand. I could see his aggression building, becoming more afraid of letting me down than of the soldiers' growing hostility.
"Enough!" I cried. "Can you not see that he does not understand?"
Then to Hu~gen. "They want you to go with them for water. Please go. They actually mean no harm."
Hu~gen went, and came back with two buckets. One of hot water, the other for our soil. The soldiers were a good deal nicer to him on his return and at first I wondered if this were because of my interjection, but later realised as I re visualised Hu~gens' entry that it was for two reasons. Firstly, his withered arm still managing the pail albeit empty. Second, because his extended other arm showed the slave amulet.
It came to my attention that slaves, or ex slaves here, were thought of differently, when on leaving one of the soldiers asked offhandedly how long Hu~gen had been with me. My reply of 'less than one month' was met with the comment,
"Poor little turd. Must have been real shit to run at this time of year."
I started to explain, but was curtly shut up. They still thought us bandits. Me by choice, Hu~gen by circumstance. I was not given the opportunity to divest them of that false conception.
We were marched out in two packets, each of twelve soldiers. Hu~gen in the first, me in the second. From that point, we were kept separate. If it were meant as a kindness, and I believe that to be the case,keeping him away from such a bad influence (sic), it had quite the opposite effect, for I was the only person able to converse with him. Every time thereafter I saw him I would call over some encouraging remark, for he looked ever more isolated and dejected. Each time earned me a rebuke, often backed up with a blow.
That first day and three following, the detachment rose at dawn, ate and abluted, then was marching before a subspan was done. With a short break every subspan and a longer one at midday, the march would continue until shortly before dark. Miraculously, as the last vestiges of light were going would appear a rest station. Crude but sufficient. Everyone was fed, then I would be bundled into a small hut and chained to the wall with a snap device which required a special tool to release it. Hu~gen was treated similarly, for emerging in the mornings we both would be rubbing the sore and cold patch on our legs, where the devices attached.
Whenever I was put in, brought out, chained, or unchained there was always an armed soldier with shortspear ready. I noted that this was not the case for Hu~gen. Nor was he prodded into compliance as was I. I began to resent this prodding as all the soldiers had perfectly good tongues and they knew I understood them. At first I had put it down to tiredness on their part and had forgiven it. When it persisted I became annoyed. The evening of the second day I was prodded with a shortspear then pushed into the cell hut. When the soldier jabbed his shortspear for me to sit so to have the chain attached, I grabbed, jerked, twisted and kicked. The soldier was flat on the floor and I was in possession of his weapon. The others in the hut paled as they became instantly tense.
Reversing the weapon, I held it out for one of the others to take. A little nervously it was accepted.
"Speak to me." I said. "It works wonders. Ask, and I shall do as you bid. Prod me and I get angry. All right?"
There were nods and sheepish indications that perhaps I could be shackled now. I submitted and the downed soldier got up to retrieve his weapon.
"No hard feelings?" I tried. "But I am not Buika, eh?"
There were hard feelings, and shackled up I took a kicking from all four of them for my troubles. It was worth it as the prodding stopped. But after that there were always two readied weapons near me.
The snowstorm dominated journey continued for another tortuous day and a half of treacherous narrow winding track that never seemed to stop climbing. The journeys end was the fortified city of Swezzag. A stunningly beautiful creation set on exposed rock. Utterly formidable and with dominating views over the surrounding area in all directions. Hu~gen and I were not to relish these panoramas. Our lot was to be thrown (not physically) into cells, both in solitary confinement but in adjacent rooms. Our only contact being by calling through the doors made conversation unsustainable, but allowed us to assure each other of our own well being.
A routine was soon set up. Wake at dawn, guard unlocks, take out your soil bucket, empty and clean it, then self-ablution. After that collect food ration and back to the cell. The morning ration was cold and so could be consumed at any time. In the afternoon there was an issue of hot porridge and a new candle, the only permitted source of heat and light save the small grille high on the wall, which I covered in at night to save loss of warmth. Some might have said there was no need, for there were three clean blankets provided and an itcher free straw mattress.
Three days into this and I asked the guard how long we were here for. The reply was ' until the judges are free and all testaments properly obtained'. That was all the answer I got and was going to get. Two days later they came and took Hu~gen. He did not come back.
A new lot of prisoners arrived instead. Real bandits. Three in my block and I understood from them, three in another. They had been badly treated since capture and two had died en route to Swezzag. I asked amazedly if the guards had actually killed these two.
"Not exactly." Was the reply.
They were wounded in the fight leading to all their captures and just pushed too hard. All three in my block spoke Enaran. It was sort of the unofficial language of the bandits as a good proportion of them were runaway slaves of Enaran extraction. Two of those in the cells near me certainly were. The third was from far off in the Aponian empire.
"They have put us in a separate block." I was told, "Because they are uncertain about us. Those in the other block are guaranteed death cases."
I asked how the bandits knew this. Apparently it was well known among the bands. Usually, if trapped, the certain death sentence people would fight on and die in the field rather than surrender.
"Why did the three in the other block not then?" I asked.
"Because one is a coward and the other two were taken in their beds." Was the reply.
I asked again why the three were death cases. The explanation, spoken from door to door could not be lengthy, but boiled down to this. Swezzers or Aponians captured by either side were guaranteed execution, by their own people as traitors or by the opposition as enemies. With runaway slaves and Ovlarans it was different. For slaves, if the Aponians caught you that was it, either at their convenience or in a public place as an example. But whichever, you were history. Sometimes the Swezz would hand certain slaves back to Aponia, in which case it might be execution or a mine or something equally bad, but not always death. Sometimes the Swezz would keep the slave and give them a prison sentence then freedom. Other times, like if they had seen you kill Swezzers, that too was good night cruel world. Ovlarans always had lengthy trials in Swezz, and short lives in Aponian hands. It did not sound too good, and I was worried for Hu~gens' safety. I should have worried for my own.
Two mornings after the arrival of the bandits I was going to get my food ration for the day when the guard stopped me.
"You will not need that." He said.
A second guard appeared and I was ushered through a different door and taken out of the prison complex and across a plaza to another building, much cleaner and lighter, and there chained to a wall. No matter what I said, the guards would tell me nothing, only speaking to issue me instructions. I waited there most of the morning, gradually becoming hungrier. The prison rations were sparse at best and although at first I had been able to supplement them with provisions from my pack these were all gone now, leaving only the last vestiges of flavour powder to spice up the evening oats.
The fellows who had brought me went away, presumably back to the prison, leaving me in the care of a new set of jailers. The guards changed frequently, there always being a different one sat in the corner of the room. At length, two new ones came in, unchained me and took me down to an impressive hall. I was motioned to stand on a slightly raised stone, with a guard either side.
In front of me, behind a half hex table sat the panel of six.
"Okhta the neut." Spoke out the Chief Judge, "We have examined all the evidence and heard the testimonies in your case. We conclude that you were caught in the illegal practice of banditry, and accordingly under Swezzer law sentence you to the mandatory punishment of death. You will be taken ‑ "
"Hold on Sires!" I interrupted loudly. "I do not know ‑"
"Be silent!" The Chief Judge shouted.
"No!" I shouted back.
The guards brought up their spears to my chest.
"Shut up and behave yourself in front of these wise judges." Said one.
"Why? What are you going to do? Kill me?"
"Yes." Answered the guard.
“Oh dear, not in front of these fine fellows surely?"
The spearpoint came right up, touching the cloth of my coat.
"If that is what it takes." Said with utter conviction.
I shut up.
"As I was saying, " The Chief Judge continued. "You will be taken to a place of."
"No!" I interrupted again.
"I told you to shut up." The guard said, bringing his spear up close again.
"But this is not justice." I implored of the guard.
"Yes it is." Was the retort.
"How can it be?" I asked. "Have you seen all the evidence or heard all the testimony?"
"No, of course not." Answered the guard. "That is not my place. That is for these judges, and they have."
"But that is not true." I answered. "They have not heard from me."
"Oh yes, and what are you going to say?" Adopting a meek and squeaky voice, "Sires, well I was just practising in mid winter for the games when this trader fellow walked into one of my darts and I was just checking his pockets for a poultice to bring him back to life when the soldiers wickedly arrested me."
There were snickers of mirth from the panel.
"Actually not." I answered. "We were arrested in the open and with no reason to suspect that we were anything other than normal people."
"There is your lie!" Spoke the third judge. "You were arrested attempting to evade the Swezzer Militia. In which act a Militianeut was seriously injured."
"By his own comrades, and anyway ‑"
"That is not what it says here." Interjected the fifth judge.
"Well, that is what happened. They were running around in circles and shot themselves."
"I do not believe that." Said the guard who had done all the talking. "Not of trained Militia."
"It is the truth." I said. "If memory serves me right, the two in ambush were called Osok and Ismata, and the fellow who was shot was Farok. I think the Subleader was Vashak, or something very similar. I only heard his name once."
"You admit then to evading contact with Swezzer militia then?" Put in judge two.
"No." I responded. "Had I known that I would have been relieved to see them."
"But you spoke of hearing the title 'Subleader'. Do you bandits have ranks?" He continued, a grin of logical triumph on his lips.
"I would not know. And that is exactly my point. For I am not a bandit, and having been attacked by them once I was not going to take chances on who was trying to sneak up on me. Besides, I did not hear that bit until the shooting was done and then I definitely was not going to come out smiling."
"I can understand what you are telling us." Spoke judge four. "But any bandit would have done the same.
"Perhaps true." I countered. "But you have heard, well maybe not if this is anything to go by, but you should have heard Hu~gens' testimony as corroboration."
"Who is Hu~gen?" Asked the Chief Judge.
I told them, whereupon they conferred, then announced that I would be granted a stay of execution until Hu~gen could be found and his evidence checked.
"There is of course the document as well." I blurted, suddenly thinking of it as a testament of time.
"What document?" The chief Judge asked, of course.
So I explained how because I was non Aponian it had been necessary to issue me with a safe conduct certificate. As this had been drawn up in Zoma on or about the twenty-first of Firstwinter, it just was not feasible for me to have had time to indulge in banditry.
I was ordered back to the confines of my cell, with a fresh whole days food ration and only half a day to eat it. I was to wait a whole six days before being brought to the hall of justice once more. In that time, all of the incumbents of my cell block were taken one by one, not to return. There were no new arrivals to replace them. The second hearing was short. I was informed that full evidence had not been obtained and therefore my sentence was deferred yet again. In the mean time I would be transferred to another prison, where a scribe would take statement from me and write down the answers I gave to those questions the judges thought pertinent.
The new cell was an improvement on the previous one. For a start, it was much bigger and had furniture in it apart from a bunk. There were two stool, two tables, one large one small and a blanket box, and of course, a bed. There was even a little separate cupboard with vent in, to store the latrine bucket. Best of all, the little barred window set high in the wall, and fitted with a hinged door to keep out night draughts overlooked the central yard of the prison. If I stood on a stool I could just look out and see that life existed outside this cell. The food was better as well. Not that the fare varied, just that in the mornings the bread was fresh and the afternoon cook actually knew how to make porridge and it arrived hot.
The scribe usually arrived at about midday and always with some new question. At first it was,
"What was my understanding of the content of the document?"
Then; "Why did I have such a document?"
And; "What had I done to warrant its writing?"
Then; "How did I come from its point of issue into Swezz? How did I come to be in the company of a slave? Was it my intention to retain this Hu~gen in slavery? Why should the judges believe that I did not? What galley slaves? What is a galley?"
At that point I asked for stylus, ink and paper, saying it would be easier if I just started at the beginning and wrote down the whole story. This was agreed, and formed the framework for what confronts you now.
The telling has been as true and accurate as I am able to recollect. There will have been omissions and errors but that is the nature of the mind and the way our memory stores events. I am sorry for them whatever they are. For if they exist I cannot tell where they are.
It was an abridged version that I wrote for the judges, but it still took nearly a month to compile. The scribe still came, albeit only every other day, and took everything that I had written away with him when the question and answer session was completed. During this time I was snugly, even comfortably housed, though perhaps not so safely as I could have desired.
The worst of the winter weather came in this time and there was not really anything useful I could have done, and so the time was not lost. Even in Lovalev there would have been little activity and in Hivalev, virtually none. The days came and went in a mind numbing sequence of routine of wake, wash, eat, write, exercise, eat, sleep, write, sleep. The only variation being that one day I would watch out of my window for a subspan before exercise. The next would be spent with the scribe. My questions of the outside world and in particular the fate of Hu~gen were ignored.
If it had not been for the writing, I think I would have gone mad. I am so used to change around me now, be it people or scenery that this lack of change was stultifying. And yet, when I think back, wintered in, in Hivalev it would be the same faces and the same tasks and even the same games all winter. This thought helped me cope. To bring some reality, even normality to my situation.
One of those days, I do not remember which, a judge came with the scribe and asked question after question on the Surian campaign in Latii. I gave every answer I could, and as honestly as I could. Right down to estimations of casualties. I think that this was more interest than corroboration of evidence and he seemed to go away satiated.
Another item, which came up more than once, was the trade status with Enar and how it was affected by Enar’s plans for war. Here again I gave as much information as I could, and opinions where information was scant. The only thing I disguised or withheld the entire time was the Hivalever population disparity. Even if an answer or help could be forthcoming, this was neither the time nor the source for it.
The New Year heralded a new hearing. This one again was short. I was merely paraded before the judges to be told that my sentence of death had been commuted, but that I was to remain in custody until all my evidence and testimony had been examined and corroborated. I tried to ask how long that might be but was hustled out and back to my cell before I could obtain even an acknowledgement. Yet again I settled to a life of tedium worsened by the cessation of the scribes visits and lack of anything of value to write. I could have elaborated the story I had already told, but considered this a risky venture as it might only serve to cloud the issue. I asked instead for books.
The request, to my surprise, was granted, and I was presented with one book. It was on the lineage of Swezz and tied in exactly with where the Book of Sur loses the Surland of Pskova. In fact, it goes so far as to name the Swezzer regions under their old names when they were Surlands. Even the lost land of Zoborsk has been recreated to stand alongside the truncated Zelsk and Ovelsk. Only Pskova itself retained the bulk of its land. That may be due to its terrain however, for the Pskova of today is nearly all foothill and mountain.
Since this forced separation from Sur, there have been bad times and good for the Swezzer cause, and a gradual settling and acceptance of and by other nations and peoples. The book listed all the countries surrounding Swezz with brief descriptions of their peoples and effects.
First was Enar, of which I knew, and of how despite early conflicts the two societies had learned that mutual benefit of trade outweighed any differences and that only by acting in harmony could the original Aponian expansion be halted. Allies then and friends now. What the book did not say was of how Enar hurt now under Aponian occupation of part of their land and of how war was prepared for without the consultation of ally or friend.
Here the book explained how in the beginning of time the Einul peoples must have been as the Surian forefathers for there were many similarities between the races. But there must have been a separation and growing apart, for there were now major differences. Similarities were that they, like us had three genders, lived and counted by the number ten, spoke and wrote in a manner which though removed from the master copy was plainly derived from it. They differ in having fewer neuts and shorter lives. They are larger and stronger as individuals, exceptions discounted, and tend to precede the Swezzer peoples in mastery of new ideas and practices. They are cunning and capable. Stout in friendship, formidable as adversaries.
On to Nul and a recanting of a related race to that of Enar, but a differing attitude. Harder and more military, this conditioned centuries of unrelenting pressure. A kings pace here, a kings pace there. A skirmish, perhaps ten then a bloody battle and a kingspace won back, but still another lost. The, at first endless fight to regain the old road to Sur, finally and irrevocably lost to another and far more dreadful invader. The Milatan. As with Enar, Nul was forced to make a Swezzer alliance or be overcome. This pact however was an uneasy and unreliable arrangement though heralded great victories and gains in its initiation.
So for Latii. There is and always has been nothing but war. This unending conflict has contained decades of inaction, but the stalemate is always broken. The Latii are of a different breed and seem unable to contain their own violence. It is revealed that when no external foe can be reasonably attacked the Latii readily fight among themselves for no discernible reason. These tall strong people have a tongue and origin from a different part of the world. They are dark both in look and deed. They do not subjugate, they eliminate. There is no tolerance of other races or peoples. Their borders are heavily patrolled and where direct conflict and force of arms fails to win territory, it is cleared by raiding parties terrorising the inhabitants, killing and burning. They live in an alien world and are its masters.
A curious fact, for the inhabitants of Mides are kin to the Latii and yet have settled and adjusted to their surroundings with hostility to Swezz now nonexistant. This may be in some way likened to the situation that Enar has with Nul, for to one side there are the aggressive Latii and on their other flank Anapes. The colony of Aponia.
Aponia was a land which has changed its name and peoples over again. At first it was a part of the region known as Meipra, when the old people had wandered it hunting for a living. They had disappeared with the arrival of the Milatans, who called the place Ovlar. That had been a short ascendancy however, for close behind them came the armies of Aponia intent on destruction of the Milatan supremacy. A less warlike Milatan held these lands and was overcome to fall into the evil of slavery, together now with a part of Enar. In titanic conflict, the borders of Mides and Swezz held, and then the Aponian hordes were recalled to their homelands, leaving this Anapes a colony, or province ruled form afar by an evil empire. There is no breaking the power left to administer this land, and no point. Swezz is secure, with mountain fortresses guarding against incursion. There will be none, for Anapes has its own problems. Slavery breeds malcontents and banditry is rife. The only problem this causes is when these bandits cross borders to escape justice, and the only agreement (and that is not official ) between the lands is to cooperate in the hunting down of these people. Even then, there are circumstances where this ruling is bypassed, and at best the situation can be called an uneasy truce.
Having read all of this it was obvious that there was only one real option for me. That was if I couldgo on. I could probably get back through Nul but that would be defeatist after such an effort, and anyway serve no purpose. Latii was not thinkable as an option. Enar, like Nul would be purposeless. Anapes was forbidden by decree. That left Mides. There was not overmuch to be gleaned from the book on the subject of Mides or Mideans save what I have already told. The frontier between the two lands is short and there is trade across it albeit limited. The people themselves are a more sensible, amenable version of Latiians. Strong on action, short on tact.
What information there was on both Swezz and Mides, I devoured. Reading over and over, I could detect no account or implication of a population disparity at any time. I was sadly reminded there are no neuts in Mides, but conceded that perhaps something lay beyond it. In truth, maybe there was not time for such disparity to occur, after all, this summer Swezz would only be declaring their four hundred and fifth year of lineage. There was nothing for it. I had to get a population count for comparison and I had to read further.
I asked for a second book and one to fit my choosing was exchanged for that I had completed. To my amazement I had been allowed access to a copy of the Book of Accounts. This detailed in every district of all four regions, the leading families, all the males of great note, the populations in numbers and vitality. The considered wealth and reserves, and even the major products. Such a plethora of information at my fingertips! I could not believe my luck, or that such vital data had been exhibited to a stranger.
It was not long before my cell was raided by irate officials. It had been realised that the book was missing from the library and an enquiry set up to trace it. On the discovery that it had been given to a foreigner, let alone a non administrator all the elements were let loose. I was harassed and harangued over whether I had bribed anyone, then over how much I had read.
"Not much." I answered them. "After all it is mostly figures, with no real story. It tells me nothing of the character of Swezz, nor of its beauties. Although there is a lovely cartograph showing all the towns and cities."
The book was snatched away and removed for safekeeping. I asked for another to be told that Swezzer books were now forbidden me.
"All right then," I argued, "Why can I not have a book describing another land? Perhaps Mides?"
My jailers relented and I was duly brought another book describing what was known of Mides. A proportion of it was taken from the Lineage of Swezz but there were significant additions. Primarily in a series of phrases translated from Midean to Swezzish and back. Reading and memorising these I became convinced in my resolve that if there could be no legal or proper departure from this prison to my intents, then I should escape.
Accordingly, I prepared for the worst and watched and waited, made preparations and plans. The most obvious routes and chances were at wash and exercise, when out of the cell. The main drawback was the number of guards on duty at these times. A further problem was that this was always done in the inner courtyard and so was a greater physical distance from freedom. Also it would mean a daylight exit and instant pursuit.
A better option would be to get out of the cell at night. How this could be achieved perplexed me for some time. Damage to the floor or walls would be instantly seen and the cell window was too small, even if the bars could be bent or broken. Another drawback was that it faced in the wrong direction. Perhaps in a multiple cell some form of deception could be used, but on my own there was no way to switch bodies or leave dummies. It was always me that had to enter or leave, and all visitors were thoroughly checked so no impersonation was plausible.
Fortunately I was incarcerated on the upper floor of the two and so breaking through the roof was a real possibility. I say fortunately, for most of the solitary cells were on the ground floor with stone walls and floors, and above them more cells. Those tended to be used however, when one of the prisoners from the communal cells got a bit out of hand and needed reminding of their punishment. I was lucky in that I had been put in a cell normally reserved for long-term imprisonment of ranking males. If you call being kept on your own lucky that is.
It would normally be extreme punishment for a neut, for we are always among a group of our own kind. Thankfully for my sanity, I was a bit of an oddity and could deal with this. I had been put in this cell because it was convenient for the guards. The prison was nothing like full and it was easier for them to have empty sections sealed off. Although in the same block as other inmates, I was always kept separate and only saw the other prisoners when they were in the exercise yard.
There were five other solitary prisoners and each of these was treated as I. Kept totally separate from all contact save the guards. The main stream, or communal, prisoners all exercised, ate and washed at the same time, which could engender some considerable noise. Far from annoying, it was a comfort to my ears and I suspect, the other single cell occupants.
I found that by standing on a stool, I could touch the ceiling and with a stool on the table (originally tried in order to see comfortably out of the window) I could work on the ceiling planks. This had to be done during communal exercise when the noise would not be heard, or quietly and in the dark. It also had to be done in short bursts, for the guards came round throughout the night checking through a spy hole. I had got used to the frequency of their comings and goings and could quite quickly go from bed to ceiling and back.
First I had to loosen a stone from the top of the wall to get behind a plank and then lever it loose. This process alone took many subspans and I only did two or three a night for if I were overtired the next morning something might be suspected. Of a consequence, I was not able to look into the roof space proper for about twenty nights. Curiously, the hardest thing was to replace the boards and stone securely and keep them looking like they were not tampered with. My efforts were rewarded with a roof cavity encompassing the entire cell block.
Once up there I could choose my point of exit, the most useful being toward the outside wall. Once through the roof I could slide down into the snow drifts between the buildings and the wall. Getting over the wall would not be easy, but there was a large stack of wood up against it at one place, which feasibly would enable this. All I needed now was to choose my moment. I was loth to commit myself as I would be on the run in a strange city and defenceless. I wanted some sign or judgement from the panel of six. I got it.
I was once more marched through the streets under guard to the house of judgement. There to be informed that learned council had studied my testimony, sought and found corroboration, re-examined previous evidence and exposed flaws. It was the judges combined opinion that I was innocent of banditry. I was however guilty of slavery, albeit in a foreign country, and as such would be sentenced to half a years servitude as penance for disgracing the moral standards of the Surian race and its descendant peoples. The time I had been imprisoned was to be deducted from the total. This meant that I would have to do work for some designated person (pretty close to slavery I considered) for about four months. There was no appeal. The penalty for failing to complete this would be akin to that for attempting escape from gaol. Death if resisting recapture. Manacles otherwise.
I was returned to the prison, but only to collect my meagre belongings. From there I was taken directly to a predetermined overlord. The journey through the streets, lined with old snow did not take long and I was quickly delivered into a distribution yard. The male who took my papers from the guards extended them the offer of hot broth in a kitchen nearby and gruffly ordering me to go with him.
I followed, and was led to an old male (incidentally, younger than I)."I am called Asyavak, the distributor general of sector three. Know this and know my power." He intonated.
Asyavak! Imagine! The same name as my father, what a coincidence. It must be a good portent. Or was it?
"You are here," He continued, "To do my bidding in servitude. Work hard and behave yourself and you will get along. Do otherwise and you will regret it. Do you understand?”
I did, and said so. Asyavak dismissed me into the custody of the gruff fellow who had led me in. He in turn handed me over to a neut by the name of Pikta, under whose direction I would be on an absolute basis. He would be there when I worked, when I slept, when I ate and when I made my ablutions. He advised me that I should be employed in keeping the yard clear of what snow was left, carrying grain from the stores to the yard and anything else that he devised. In short, any labour intensive or menial task required that did not take me beyond the distribution centre and his eyesight.
I was put to work straightaway lugging sacks of grain from the store into the yard. There were already two other neuts doing this, both of them much larger than I and they carried their sacks with ease. They made fun of my struggling, but Mokta, the larger of the two came and gave me advice on how to carry the sacks most easily. I am afraid that prison had made me terribly unfit, and in any case I was unused to hard work. Both would change quickly, but after three days in this place I was exhausted.
It was up at dawn, clear the yard of any snow that had fallen overnight then take wood to the kitchen, fetch and carry for the cook and when the meal was over scrub the pans. Then I had the chance to wash, before starting work proper. This entailed either filling the sacks or taking them from store to yard. This went on all day, for the store was huge and Swezzag had a lot of hungry mouths to feed right through to next harvest.
My arrival had eased the workload of the neuts around me for the work I was allocated had previously been shared among them all. None of them however was required to fulfill the number of tasks that I was given. This indeed was the next best thing to slavery, and in fact the majority of slaves I had encountered were better treated. Not that the food was bad or the regime harsh, just the sheer workload for someone of my stature was, I thought, a little excessive.
It was the sacks that were breaking me. True, after two or three you felt as if you had got used to the weight but after twenty they began to feel heavier with each new one. There had to be an easier way of doing it.
"Of course!" I thought. What about a load arm like the Legny use? I approached Pikta with the suggestion but he pooh poohed it, accusing me of slacking. That evening too, I climbed into the bunk allocated me in a state of near collapse.
I jerked up and awake. My head had gone straight down onto the hair filled mat, which lay, on the straps of the frame. It should have hit my warmsuit from Legny. I had been using this as a pillow, for wearing it, I quickly overheated under the present workload. It was not there where I had left it, nor was it on my bunk at all. Come to that, nor was my bag. Leaving the prison, everything that was mine except the weapons had been returned to my possession, even the eating knife. It looked like they had just been taken.
It is common in neut quarters to share everything, but that is when the neuts are all in one family or have an accepted ranking. New neuts to a quarter are always told who is the elder and invited to share what the quarter has, then expected to fit in and share out their bits when accepted. No one just took all a strangers things. It just did not happen that way. If anyone wanted to use something and did not know its owner, they would ask the elder. If he or the owner was not there, the item was not touched. Well, those are the rules in every quarter I have been in anyway.
Looking around I could not see my chattels. I climbed down from the bunk and went over to Pikta. Almost too kindly, he directed me to the elder. Very politely and very tiredly I asked the elder if he knew of my missing articles. He did. A fellow called Nikov in the next-door quarter had them.
"He needed my warmsuit and the entire contents of my bag?" I questioned. "And you approved it?"
"No." I was told. "The elder from next door did."
"Does that mean the next hut elder is top elder?" I asked.
Again, "No." Was the answer.
"So what jurisdiction does he have in here?" I asked.
"None." Was the answer.
I was sure that I was missing something, probably because I was tired.
"So what," I continued, "Is he doing, letting this Nikov take things from here. If I may ask?"
"Because Nikov wants to." The elder answered. "And nobody argues with Nikov. Not me. Not anyone."
"I bloody well do!" I stormed and turned on my heels.
Marching into the next quarter it took only a brief glance to see what was what. Nikov was bigger even than the two fellows I worked with carrying grain. He was lounging on his bunk, lying on my warmsuit and sing it as a pillow as I had been doing, while he rummaged through my bag. Going straight up to his bunk I confronted him.
"If you do not mind I will have my warmsuit and bag back now." I said, holding out a hand expectantly.
Looking up as if detecting an unpleasant smell, he replied distainfully, "Did you say something? Jailbird!"
Slowly and resignedly I repeated that I wanted my possessions back. Now.
"Go and turd in a corner, jailbird!" Was the immediate retort. "This stuff is mine."
"You just made two mistakes." I returned. "Firstly in touching my belongings without proper authority and secondly, in talking to me like that."
"Oh ho!" He cried, rising from the bunk to tower over me. "Now you are going to have to lick my arse!"
I backed off.
"No you do not, you little runt. Stop him Affta!"
Another large neut came behind me. I side stepped that one, but failed to realise that there were twocronies and was struck from behind.
Even as I reeled, I saw Nikovs' blow coming and managed to deflect most of its power. But it still knocked me breathless. I was down and in trouble. Tired or not I had to do something positive. As the kick came I lurched at it, reaching behind Nikovs foot and steering it clear of my body. As his body weight continued forward and into imbalance he came down on the opposite knee over the top of me. His flailing arm striking my shoulders as I attempted to roll clear. My rise was thus impeded but not prevented, and propelling myself forward head down with arm bent and elbow leading, I cannoned into one of the cronies. He went down like a sack of grain. Turning swiftly, I kicked the feet out from under the second as he grabbed me. A swift jab to the throat released the hold.
Nikov was stood up again and now bearing down, fists raised. Once again, immediate punitive action was required so I feinted left and dived in under the reactive swinging blow. It missed by only a hairsbreadth, but that was enough and I hammered into his abdomen. My shoulder jarred with the force of the blow as I ricocheted clear. Nikov was winded and perhaps a little unsettled by this, but nothing more. He seemed to be built like a mountain, and I knew I did not have the strength to beat him. Fortunately, combat is not all about strength. My tiredness had vanished under the surge of adrenaline. If only I could keep going, my superior skill and experience might win for me.
He came at me again and again. Each time I managed to dodge or parry. He was expending vast amounts of energy, for each blow was intended to kill. This effort began to tell, to the point where he was visibly tiring.
"Not long." I thought. "Before I can close in.”
Suddenly my leg was jerked by a kick. Unbalanced, I flailed, open to a strike. That it failed to come in time was an indicator of how tired Nikov was. It was his guard fist that actually struck me, causing me to fall. Worse still, I landed awkwardly on a stool, and this caused more pain than the blow. That did it. Where I had been angry before, now I was seething. Grabbing the offending stool I rose and whirled, smashing it into the crony who had tripped me. The stool and the arm raised in protection shattered. A large portion of one leg remained in my hand. It was like having Latiistabber back.
The fog cleared, and instead of an open deck littered with Aponians, I was in a dark neut quarter with a stump of stool leg in my hand and a bloody and quivering wreck in the corner.
"Shit!" I exhaled, and ignoring the gawking faces huddled against the walls walked over and retrieved my possessions.
The waves of fatigue were rushing back as I returned to my own section and threw my body onto the bunk and to sleep.
I awoke with a jerk, and immediate pain. My head throbbed and my ribs ached for all the world as if they were broken. Perhaps they were. Slowly I sat up. Morning had dawned and the quarters were empty. What was going on? In this place, there was always noise from somewhere, but I could hear nothing. It was not that I was going deaf, for I heard every noise that I made.
Gently I eased myself off the bunk and over to the door. Poking my head outside, I could see that everyone was washing and breakfasting. It was not normal for everyone to be in the mess area together, but perhaps I had counted my days wrong and this was rest day, or perhaps some special occasion. If it were not then I had better get a move on or I would be in trouble.
Gathering my bits, I went to the washroom and stripped to clean up. There was dried blood in my head hair and a livid bruise on my chest.
"That looks like it will be painful."
I turned to see the speaker. Pikta stood in the doorway, leaning against the frame, a mug of broth in his hand.
"It already is." I replied.
He snorted and held out the mug. "Here, get this inside you. You will need it."
Gratefully I took the mug and drank.
"Thanks. It is not rest day is it?"
"No." Came the answer, "Why?"
"Just that no one woke me, and I thought they usually would."
"I told them not to." He replied. "The elder thought you would need the rest, and seeing that bruise I think he might have been right."
"I have had worse." Was my retort. "I will be all right."
Brave words indeed, for I do not actually remember feeling worse.
"Ahh...I was rather hoping that you had learned something from last night. Maybe I was wrong."
"No." I assured him. "You are not wrong. I re learned a few lessons all right."
"Good...Good." He mused, then. "Come on, finish up. You will be late for work and Misak (the male) will want to see you."
I did not need to ask why.
Eating a bowl of oat mix, and sat across the breakfast table from Pikta, I asked how Nikov was.
"He will live." Came the caustic retort. "But he will not be at work today. Nor the rest of the month I think. So tell me, where did you learn to fight like that?"
"I suppose in the army of Sur." I told him.
"Phew!" A subdued exclamation. "We had heard stories that they were in deep with Latii last summer. If they fight like that, no wonder they did so well."
"Ump." I interjected. "It is not the Sur who fight like that. That is the Latii way. I just copied it because it works.”
Suddenly curious, I asked what he knew of the campaign. It was mostly conjecture and rumour, but he had heard of the Surian siege of 'Goshisk' (Jojiisk) and the 'trail of retribution' as he called it. Apparently there had been a series of major battles that had been resounding successes, with the Latii ending penned up in 'Aperma' (Iipermiia). That second siege had to be lifted though because of the lateness of the year and lack of supplies. All in all it sounded like a Surian trump.
Others had gathered to hear the telling, and they as well as Pikta wanted my version. I told it in as much detail as I could remember, from my arrival outside Jojiisk (I pronounced it correctly) to safety in Null. At which point came a voice from just behind me.
"A grand tale I am sure, but there are people queuing outside for food. Do you not all think it would be a good idea if we did something about it?"
It was Misak.
An almighty clamour ensued as everyone hurried to work. Me included. I was spared the carrying of grain sacks but not the torture of filling them. I gritted my teeth to the pain, telling myself that it was after all my own fault, stampeding the situation like a mad dog. I should know better by now.
Misak came for me at the mid day break.
"You might as well know." He said, "Neither Asyavak nor I, am impressed by your actions. It does not seem very repentant to us and we therefore want rid of you before you cause us to lose any more workers. Unfortunately you will have to stay until we find a new position. But in the meantime, any more fighting and we will call the judges. Understand?"
"Absolutely." I replied. "But it was not my fault.."
"I do not care" Misak butted in. "I know the whole sordid story and there are no excuses."
"No? Why not?" I asked. "How would you have handled it better then?"
"CURSE YOU, BLOODY NEUT! KNOW YOUR PLACE!"
His outburst, at ear rattling volume ended the matter once and for all.
"Is that my problem?" I thought. "Do I not know my place? I wonder."
I would wonder for a bit longer, in fact nine days longer.
Into this very yard that morning came a foreign trader with goods to exchange. My first sight was as I was coming out of the grain store, sack on my back and I nearly stumbled into him. My insides went cold and in my panic looking for a weapon that was not there and trying to get away I dropped the sack. I had the grain-filling shovel before you could blink and was ready as I could be for flight or fight. The Latii were here!
Pikov poked his head in the door, a worried expression on his face.
"What is wrong?"
"Latii!" I hissed.
"Do not be daft." He chided. "They are Midean traders. Now be a good fellow and come and pick this sack back up."
His tone and face told the truth. Feeling very foolish, I went back to work.
I heard and understood the Midean comment as I passed. The word was something to do with movement. Ah! Got it! "Jumpy." "That one's jumpy." Was what was said, and it was about me.
Returning to the grain store I again passed the Midean, this time talking to Misak in Surian.
"We have more of this stuff than you can shake a stick at. So much that it is even going off in our stores. But that is no good to you. There is no way to get it here in any quantity."
"Nothing to stop us trying though, is there?" Misak quipped.
“No. By all means no. Especially if you can supply us with the quality greymetal you have shown me."
"Well. I do not see why not."
This said as the pair left the store. It had given me a really creepy feeling to be so close to a person so Latii like. I would not have thought it would affect me so, after that long. But it did.
Any fears I held were however dissipated over the next two days.
Observing the trader and his followers, it was overwhelmingly obvious that as had been said to me a long time ago on the borders of Nul. Like us they were people, only different. The followers were in billets close to our neut quarters and within the station compound. As a consequence, during mid day break and the evenings we were in close contact. Even during the day whilst we neuts were working, the Mideans would watch us and lark about.
Listening to their talk, I realised that there is a tonal link with Aponian. The words are quite different but the languages sound the same. Some of these followers could speak Surian and would talk with the supervisory neuts, like Pikov, and then translate for their fellows. Such an event was taking up the grain store doorway the first afternoon.
Dekovta, one of the neuts I was working with was trying to push through the gathering with his sack.
"Excuse me please." Then, "Can I come through please?" All to no avail.
Pikov and the Midean he was talking to were engrossed in their talk and the others did not understand. If Dekovta had raised his voice it would have been clear, but we had all been told to be extra polite and well behaved in front of these visitors.
I did not know the best words, but, "Make room." called across the room in Midean did the trick.
"I did not know you spoke their tongue." Said Mokta, helping me up with my sack.
"I cannot." I replied. "It is just a few words I picked up from a book."
"You read as well?" Mokta returned amazed.
"And write." Was my reply. "Odd, the things you pick up as you go along is it not?"
Hefting the sack to accentuate the parody, I made for the door.
"Maafaii hajiied?" Came from my right.
Turning, I looked blankly, madly scanning my mind for words.
"Na waakii." I said.
The Midean laughed. "Neiij waakiianii."
"Naii wakiianii." I said again corrected.
He thought a bit, tried "Hajiied" again, then "Naymii..you."
"Got it! What is my name! "Okhta." I said.
"HajiielOkhta." He said, satisfied. Then pointing to himself, "Hajiian Rupiitii Rookeii."
I correctly presumed he was telling me his name, so repeated it, nodded affably and rattled the sack to indicate I had work to do. Said sorry and went back to it.
The intent of friendship had been open enough, but turning my back on him still sent a little shiver down my spine. I experienced that tensing of back muscles again in the mess hall later that day. The others on my table looked up to something behind me, and I turned to face three Mideans. They had plates of food in their hands and were asking in gestures if they could join us. The mess hall being a grey area as to who was in authority there, we deferred to Pikov and he in turn to his elder for permission.
There could in reality be no objection, given the conviviality rule that had been laid down. The three, Rupiitii among them, sat and laid out their plates. Both we and they offered each other the contents of our pots. I am afraid that our offerings were dull in comparison. With the Midean delights on their tongues, the others became much more open. Introductions were made all round, each side trying out the words of the other and much mirth gained at the blunders this engendered.
I could not say there was conversation, but there was an exchange of ideas and interests. It was also an exchange of friendships, solemnified in ale. Neuts are not noted as drinkers, but there is always a ready supply of ale in any quarters. This was one supply that took a beating. Headaches all round were the order of the following day. Us,because consumption in excess of two cups was not the norm. The Mideans, because they were unused to the heavy ale.
Fortune would have it that this 'morning after the night before' was a rest day. That did not actually mean that I could rest. Just that there was no grain humping. All the other tasks needed doing, but there was less rush. That afternoon, with time on our hands and the first melt underway, the traditional games came out. There was of course an illicit 'six' board game being played by the elders in a corner of one of the quarters. It was not exactly illegal, just frowned upon for neuts to indulge in it.
In the yard, there were simultaneous games of tag, throw a stone and a truncated version of livesix. In the middle of this the Mideans started their own game, played with a fist-sized bunch of rags. This was thrown from player to player within a team until up to eight passes had been made, whence it had to be lofted for a general melee. There were odd rules about movement that I did not understand, no matter how hard an explanation was tried. I had not been invited to participate in any physical games since the Nikov affair, and despite my not comprehending the intricacies it was a welcome change.
A gradual mix occurred, with more Swezzers in the Midean game, and Mideans playing the older entertainments. This mixing continued to the conclusion of the day, with communication a combination of spoken word and signs. The most interesting thing about this when looking back, was that not a single incident occurred where any antagonism flared. Well, not that I was aware of anyway.
We were all back to work as normal the next morning. Us with doling out foods to the populace, the Mideans preparing for their return journey. Good news came later in the day. Misak, the over male, was going with the Mideans to inspect their grain before it was brought to Swezzag. He would be taking three people with him as porters cum bodyguards. With Nikov out of the running, there was a placement open.
One of the three would almost certainly be Dekovta or Mokta, for their size. Similarly, a strong possibility existed that one of Nikovs' cronies would take the second place for the same reason, but the third place was undecided.
The only question on my mind was "How can I make it me?"
Misak did not like me. How could I change his mind? As expected, Mokta was told to ready himself as was Affta, Nikovs' friend. My heart soared when Misak came to me.
"I make this clear." He said. "I do not like you, and I do not really trust you. But you have abilities that I cannot ignore. You speak a little of the Midean tongue and are the only neut here intimate with the way of weaponry. Should anything odd happen I want you right by me. Understand though, one false move and I will squash you."
I thanked him profusely, promising that I would behave myself and went to gather my things.
We did not actually leave until the following morning, and then only to a foundry where there were stacked hundreds of metal bars ready for packing and transport. The Midean eyes were bright at the sight of all this good greymetal. I suppose the trader must have seen it before and checked its quality, but the follower/porters had not. They wrapped each bar in an oiled rag to prevent corrosion and packed them carefully so to allow each individual to be able to carry the maximum number possible. The weight that some carried must have been near to breaking their backs, let alone the backpacks. To them, this was as precious as food to the Swezz. I wondered why.
Each of us neuts carried in addition to our personal equipment, a token sack of greymetal, a short spear, a food bag and another bag with a third of Misaks' gear. One last night was spent within the walls of Swezzag, curiously enough right next to the prison in which I had first been incarcerated. Then, bright and early, this new procession made its way out of the gates.
The trip down from Swezzag was spectacular, not least for the impression that one could see for a hundred longpaces. The track varied in every detail save one, and that was that it descended unceasingly. Some parts were steep, others shallow. Some parts wide, others narrow. Some parts firm and others treacherous. All this was visible and apparent, where on the way up it had been disguised by snow. That the way was at all negotiable in winter was a phenomenon beyond belief. That it was navigable now by laden porters was itself a minor miracle.
Miraculous or not, the train worked steadily downwards with an attendant van and tail of Swezzer troops. Amusingly to me, these were for the crossing of the lowlands, where banditry might occur. Once at the frontier, Midean troops would take over this duty and it was from this point on that Misak needed our presence.
In less than a day we were off the mountain with its difficulties and into the muddy foothills. Here, hardly a trace of winter remained. The ground was wet with freshly thawed snow, and the streams and rivers were high and fast with spring waters. At every crossing point there was a bridge or stepping-stones high enough to cross in safety, with even steadying ropes strung out over the torrents. Never once was there a need to get wet above my ankles, which was just as well for even then all it would have taken was a badly placed foot for the owner to be lost in the surging waters.
From time to time on the second day out there were glimpses of the river that received these tumbling torrents. As afternoon wore on we came over a crest and finally saw it laid before us. Off in the valley, on the far side of this swollen monster lay a fortified town. The fortress of Rookeii, in the land of Mides.