Valev

Ella, the youngest of our family came skipping over the meadowland. Puffing a little as her small frame climbed the little hillock on which I sat, she delivered the message from my mother.  I was to return home at the soonest as a visitor was there waiting for me. Nothing I could do would solicit more information from her, although I could see from the grin that more was available.

Old Peter, who would have come out tomorrow anyway, would now get here this afternoon, but until then Ella would have to keep an eye on the herd of livestock I had been minding. Together we rounded the animals up so that she would be able to cope with their tending until Peter’s arrival.

I had been out with this herd for five days now and was due to go in on the morrow anyway for more provisions and a change of clothing.  It had been no hardship for me, for I had been out nearly all summer so far, almost continuously since the snows had ceased and on many forays to the beleaguered animals before then.  It had been a way of earning my keep and easing family tensions since returning to my mother's household at the start of the winter.  I left my overnight kit with Ella just in case Perta was delayed and made my way back to the complex of buildings that made up the matriarchal unit and farmstead.

 

The stranger stood in the main doorway, waiting as I climbed the rise to the family house.  It was only as I closed in on the building that his coat flapped open and I recognised the yellow sash of an official messenger. I realised immediately that my summons was therefore from the regional capital.   The communication delivered was verbal, and simply but succinctly instructed that my presence at an audience on the morrow with the Council of Elders in Iktna was required.

Now, this is not at all normal to be sent for in this manner.  Quite often, the adjudicators will send excess people to the centres of administration for reallocation of tasks or placement after their twice-annual visits. But to send someone just for me?  For one person? Now? It was unheard of. The authorities knew I was here for I had been registered in adjudication at the end of the snows. All normal adjustments had been made long ago now however.

I had been to Iktna before, the last time only two summers ago, and I could think of no obvious reason for this calling.  I hoped that it was not some unknown misdemeanour that beckoned from the past, and did not think that this would be the case for otherwise the blue cummerbund of the militia would have been in evidence together with appropriate weaponry.

The lateness of the day precluded travel there and then, despite protestations on the messenger's part.  Accordingly we had an early supper during which I probed him for hints on the purpose of this summons, and caught up with the goings on in the town.  There was nothing important to learn save that the orders, or at least those divulged were just to deliver me at all speed into the Elders’ presence.

A place was found for the herald to sleep, and we both settled in early for a dawn departure. My dear mother, despite her totteriness was up to breakfast us, and saw me off, thrusting packed breads and cheese into my pockets.

 

The messenger led a fast pace, slowing only occasionally, impatient for me to catch up. For my part, I was disinclined to rush. My experience said that who or whatever it was I had to face could wait. The prepared foods came in useful, as the herald would have no time wasted by stopping at any of the wayside halts. This pace brought us into town by late afternoon, and though tired I was immediately taken to the house of adjudication. The presence I was ushered into was not as expected the Council of Elders, but that of Pratak Zonanva Aliena. The High Chief of Iktna himself.

 

My reception was extremely polite and courteous particularly when considering the difference in our relative status.  We had met before of course, but even then as master and servant.  Now, I was offered food, drink and to be seated.  In short, generally pampered.  I am not normally particularly suspiciously natured, but here I was struck by the thought that something very odd was going on. Curiosity welled up in me but I controlled it, holding my tongue and thinking that the story would come out sooner or later.  The longer I held myself, the more I would hear and the better I could judge its truth and merit.

 

As he must, the High Chief came eventually to the point.

"We have a job."  He said.

"We?" I retorted tentatively into the pause. "Tell me more."

"Look!" He rounded on me.  "You realise I can order you to this task!" 

"Yes.” I responded.  “So why do you not? Why the subterfuge?" I asked,

"This. Well, this is special."  A long pause, looking at me for reaction. My half raised eyebrow gave one.  

"There is a problem in the land.” He said at length. “Well actually two." 

"And?"  I queried.  

You may have realised that I was not then at my most helpful or subservient and this began to irritate Pratak. 

He burst out. "Do you care?  I treat you with deference because I am told you are different.  I appeal to a nature and ability I am reliably informed is loyal, considerate and capable, and then you snub me.  Now.  Are you interested in helping or not?" 

"Of course." I mollified. "But you have told me nothing to which I can respond. So how can I?" 

"Ah!" He exclaimed.  "Good. Good."  Then went on, "This will not be easy.  We, that is the council and I have set others to this task with no success so far."

"So what do you expect of me?"  I interjected.

"Wait." He replied.  "You shall see. The primary problem is that Hivalev is dying. Wait!  I know it sounds unbelievable.  But every year our crops get worse and this means that every year we must acquire more grain from Lovalev.  We are fast reaching the point when we cannot supply goods to pay for it. Already we are sending meat on the hoof that is really needed to feed the towns through winter. Further to this, Lovalev has not the spare grain to send more and is forced to make the difference by importing from Sur.  This in turn puts pressure on the Vasny Council and thereby us, to provide troops to assist in the war Sur is waging far away.

The Councils have held off until now, but we are creating a circumstance that may force them to relent.  We cannot afford that for it would expose our second and potentially more serious problem. We think the two are related and so need a solution to our situation.  We need it badly."

"The second problem?"  I questioned. 

"My son will brief you on that when you get down to Vasny."  Was his answer.

"Why there?" I asked. "Is not the failing here?" 

“Possibly." He replied." But there are already the best minds working on that. I suspect the answer is not. In fact it may not be in Valev at all, or even in Sur. What we want is for you to go and find it wherever it may be."

I gulped.  This was an awesome task.  With little choice but to accept, I had to ask. "Why me?" The answer was truthfully blunt. “Because I was expendable, because, like two thirds of the population I was a neut and therefore a menial.”  

"Because," The High Chief expanded, "I cannot spare another male at this time, nor risk the loss. Furthermore, you have qualities which suit my purposes. Unlike most menials you have your letters and are yet not gilded. You are known to us from before and proven to be trustworthy and true. You are competent in all you do, are quick and keen with a bright eye even with your years. Not dismayed by the unusual, you can take care of yourself in a corner. All this sounds like the ideal stuff for a candidate to this work.  In short Okhta, mock Grand Marshall to Vasyak the Great, you have quite a reputation behind you."

"By the mountain throne!" I exclaimed. "How do you know about that? I thought it had all gone with my father."

"There is a dossier on you of course."  He replied. "Naturally it is for official eyes only."

"The stars!" I cried. "Do you keep a watch and know so much of everyone?"

Pausing, he replied thoughtfully. "In a way. Yes. Though not me personally you understand. I am only aware of the exceptions, the oddities like you. The adjudicators make notes on the entire population and get to know the strengths and weaknesses of most.  They must, in order to best judge suitment for employ."

I had not realised that amount of heed was paid, but in hindsight it is only proper that it should be the case.

 

The plan laid out was that I should join the retinue going down to Vasny in two days time in order to escort the High Chiefs' son back from school there.  This was going to happen long before the snows cut Hivalev off. I would have time to make enquiries in Vasny and depending on the results, either return with the boy or send word back with him as to my progress and further intentions.  

I was furnished there and then with a letter of authority to poke and pry wheresoever I would in lktna, and to acquire anything such as I saw fit for my needs.  There were only two days to prepare, and quite for what, I was not sure.  There was certainly insufficient time to go back and tell my mother of the leaving. Accordingly I requested that my written note of explanation be sent to my family.

Pratak acceded to this on this on the proviso that he dictate, or at least vet the communication. I was taken aback, but relented on the explanation that this was a task that would be best not advertised in order not to create alarm, and I might easily indicate this purpose to family where one would be more guarded to others.

 

Released from the High Chiefs' audience I was directed to prepared accommodations and rest. I will confess that though tired, sleep did not come quickly to my uneasy mind. Over the next day and a half, I set about the acquisition of those items best found in Hivalev. None of these things I considered vital as I already possessed their equivalents albeit stowed somewhere at home, but new would not hurt particularly as I doubted that I could retrieve or arrange the retrieval of the originals for use in time.

My shopping included some stout boots, a long fur sleeping sack, a strong skin shoulder bag and a heavy broadcloth overshirt.  Anything else l might need would be better obtained in Vasny.  Both price and availability improved there for most other articles.  The time I had remaining was spent inspecting grains.  In storage, in distribution and in use.  I spoke to everyone I thought would be useful to my acquisition of knowledge on the subject.  I confess that prior to this, I knew very little of the makeup, handling and use of different grains.  Our family, and my previous posts had dealt almost exclusively with livestock.  For myself, I had just eaten my bread, cakes and porridge thinking no more of them than the taste.

 

Too quickly the time came to join the ribald retinue of High Chiefs' retainers for the trip down to Vasny. Conforming to my social status l was utilised as a porter of goods for the journey. The company was mixed in gender, standing and experience. There were those who had done this many times before and who looked forward to the renewed experience and of course some for whom it was their first time out of Hivalev. These people fuelled the general air of good humour with a nervous excitement.

The journey itself, as usual, took the edge off of things.  It took a good three days before reaching Asne, the natural divide between Lo and Hivalev. What remained of the journey to Vasny takes a further one and a half to two days to cover.  Not just because of distance, but due to mainly to the steepness of the drop.  It is a good three days back up, more if burdened and we passed trains going both ways.  Buika herds going down grain packs going up.

Down in Lovalev it is a different world.  The air is tangibly thicker. The grass is greener.  There are more variations in the tree and plant types. The buildings are not so close to the ground and the people appear to be more open and friendly. Most notably, particularly to first timers, it is a lot warmer.  The locals are not so encumbered by clothing as we from high up, and where the Hivalever old sweats live up to their name, retaining coats aloofly, the young travellers were loosening fasteners and dragging off cloaks and mantles with wild eyed curiosity and glee.

 

Vasny itself had been visible from a long way off, and its portals beckoned invitingly.  There was by legend, food and drink, laughter and merriment enough for all.  The first timers anticipated this hopefully.  The old‑timers knew it as fact.  They also knew that to all pleasure there is a price, and even the pay of a High Chiefs retainer only goes so far. I had been to Vasny itself many times before. Mostly for the games.  

 

The first time when I was a youth, my father had brought me to act as his second, or equerry as he had no sons to fulfil the task.  He never did have any sons, and had always treated me as such in their stead. It was this foible that was to influence my entire life from a child onward, even eventually gaining me a place in school in Vasny.

My father, not wanting to admit to being son‑less, had passed me off as his heir.  I was eleven summers then and because I am neut looked even less. My father had done well enough in all the individual competitions (Six, the Obstacle run and Single combats) to gain sufficient points to head a team in the Live‑six event.  He had however not done well enough to gather a good team.

 

As is well known, each team leader is permitted seventeen other players to make up their team, just as the pieces in the board game.  These players should be made up from volunteers if possible, and as everyone naturally wants to be in the best teams those most likely to win get to pick from the best competitors.  If there are not enough volunteers then remaining unaligned competitors are co‑opted by lot to less well known leaders.  It is permissible, though frowned on, when there are insufficient contestants to fill all the teams ‑ and that means not enough males‑ for only males are allowed to actively compete, and all males are expected to ‑ then neuts can be conscripted. Although not uncommon at local games, it is regarded as a disgrace to resort to this at national level.

Neuts are not normally taught the skills of the games and therefore teams containing neuts usually get knocked out quickly. There is however always a plentiful supply of neuts available, not a few of whom have by experience acquired some considerable skill, as they are necessary to make up numbers in the final main‑game. It only as this, numbers, that neuts are used. They are not allowed to compete for the title or any placing. That is purely a male prerogative.

 

The rules state that once down, a player is out for that game but may rejoin the team if uninjured for the next contest of livesix.  A team may make up its numbers (if it can) for any game start from any source save currently competing teams.  So, if a team member is injured for instance, he may be replaced by someone from an already knocked out team, but this may only happen by consent once the livesix series has begun.

 

Well, it so happened that my fathers' team had lost two bouts, albeit by close margins but three of the team were unable to continue due to injury and replacements were needed.

There were eligible participants, a good many stout males were available from teams already eliminated by superior skill or experience.  None would join my father, knowing that one more loss, which truthfully looked likely, would knock out this team as well.  They were hoping for places on better teams as reserves and viewed the move to my father as risking these tenuous chances.  As I have said, to conscript males at this stage was not possible and to utilise neuts was considered such a disgrace that my father and his team opted to play with short numbers.

I could not countenance this affront.  By my fathers' teaching, anyone deserved the chance to go down fairly, and so I took up some pads and entered the arena. I was, and looked way too young for a fourteen summer male and everyone knew it, but the rules did not actually forbid it. My father tried to, but the pride in his eyes gave him away, and the team seeing this would not let him. They had not been great warriors until then, but the moment melded them and motivated them.  Despite being two and a half players down, they gained the hearts of Wolves.  Not just beating the next opposition, but destroying it. When the following bout ended with a similar result, the reserves came flocking.  The team would have none.  

 

Team after team fell to the hammer blow.  But injuries mounted and as numbers dwindled further victories became harder.  Mature males cried as their injuries forced them out. Some fought on with broken bones and horrific cuts until their strength or the rules observers forced retirement. Others were now begging to join the team.  All were refused.

The end had to come, and when it did it was glorious. The team took the field with just eleven players including myself. Ranged against us were the Champions' team. Among them were best players in all Valev, including some who had given up their chance to lead just so they could be in the Champions team. Now would be tested legend. The invincible might of emplaced power versus the heart of the hammer.

 

All other games had been stopped. All eyes were on this one contest. My father addressed us quietly.

"We take this one a little differently.... We no longer have the strength against this quality of opposition to destroy the centre. So we must go for the head. They have watched us and will be ready for, and may even try the hammer themselves. We must encourage it and sidestep. We shall look at first as if we are in awe of the Champion, and then at the right moment everyone together. Not a hammer, but a metal dart straight for the head. With the Champion out they will be strong still but their morale will be gone and we can break them piecemeal. Agreed?"

We murmured our assent.  Not a gesture had been made, no indication to watcher or opponent of the plan.

"Now, my son.” My father said, turning to me. "When their blow strikes you must deflect it."

"Me?" I asked. "How?"      

"Up to now we have protected you.  They think of you as our mascot, the force that binds us. To fool them long enough they must think they have succeeded in breaking that bond.  You must therefore be the lure to lead them on.

We must now temper our pride with skill.  Once they make their strike, we will move left, you must move right as if in error.  They will veer to cut you off leaving a weak spot for our attack.  If we are quick enough, you will be all right.  If things go wrong they will do their best to put you out for good, for this is no longer a game.  Do you understand?" Only too well I understood. He turned to the others. "All of you?"

"Yes." We said. "Oh yes."

And that is the way it happened.  Except that it was not me who was put out of the games, but my Father.

The hammer came, the ruse worked.  The bolt struck and the Champion tottered but was saved as a whole corner and one of his generals fell.  But so did my father, and heavily at that in a welter of bodies.  I dodged, parried and ran clear as the opposition rallied and turned back, and their weight began to tell. The match was now critical with my father out and our team down to one general.  With him gone the bout would be lost and the team out of the games.  My father would lose after all.

In their desperation to protect the Champion, the opposition forgot, or ignored a small 'boy' but I had not forgotten them.  No yells, no screams. Just silent anger as I accelerated in.  Every ounce of strength was in the move, I did not know how much was there but it took me bodily between two of them, sending both of them flying as I crashed into the Champions back. Already weakened, his legs gave up and he and I crashed together to the floor.

 

But it was over. We had started out with far too few and now only four of our team stood exhausted facing double their number. It is of note that the last member of our team to go down was the remaining General. A fellow called Andrak.

For my father that was the end of these games. It also proved to be the last time he competed. In that fall he had badly damaged his leg and was unable to take any further part, although normally he would have earned a command in the final maingame. Instead, some of the males from the team were given commands and most did well in them, benefiting in later life from the privilege.

For his efforts and pains, my father gained no position, but did get a stipend with which to finish his days. It was perhaps just as well for he was even then way past his prime and subsequently deteriorated fast.

 

We had left Vasny in triumph and returned to relative obscurity in the hills around Iktna. Me returning to my mothers' employ and he to my mother’s side, where she could fuss over him. It was a curious relationship between them when viewed from society but at that time I was not aware of its abnormality. Odd for he had given her no sons and was old, but she would not give him up and did not while he lived. She had a son by an earlier mate but he had grown up and gone by this time and though I was always a neut to her, she indulged his fantasy that I was his son.

This allowed him to teach me the skills and disciplines of the games and a few other things besides. I had an idea what fighting entailed, after all I did have that one experience, but I would never have been able to win a singles contest or accurately shoot an arrow without his tuition.

These were happy times for me. I was young enough for it not to matter that I was neut. I would play with the other juveniles of my age quite at ease. What work we were given was never too demanding and the special attention I got was not taken as strange. At first.

It was only three seasons later after the awakening ceremonies for my age group, which being a neut I had not been a part of, that I began to gain hostility. The other neuts began to treat me as different from them, and the males excluded me as definitely not of their group.

The deterioration of this situation was averted by my father announcing that he desired to see the games for one last time, and that he required my assistance as his equerry again. I knew there had been heated discussion between him and my mother but until the proclamation I knew not the subject. So once more we set off down the valley, the journey this time taking much longer as he could not manage the pace or distance like before.  

 

I wondered why he was doing it, as when we left my mother had a look that said she knew he would never make it back.  I could only put it down to mad male pride, for he had kissed her ever so gently and then turned and walked away straight backed.  Except for the limp you would have thought he was a young buck again.

My mother was proud but heartbroken. I was exasperated. Yes, I would have liked to see Vasny again, but not at the cost of my father’s health and possibly his life. Oh, I knew he would die perhaps even within the year.  But what sense was there in bringing the event forward and leaving that vestige of comfort for when it came.

Whatever the argument or reasons, we were on our way.

 

It was a full ten days later that my father and l entered Vasny as just another pair of visitors for the games.  We were a week early anyway and it was just as well for it took father two days to recover from the journey.  We went unnoticed until the actual start of the games and then only whilst watching 'Six' tournaments we were recognised by the fellow called Andrak who had been in my father’s team before and in succeeding events had made quite a name for himself.  He was jubilant at seeing us having, (so he said) wanted to speak with my father but not knowing where to find him. (It occurred to me that he could not have looked very hard for Valev is not that big.)

This year, his intention was to win the games, which in reality probably meant come second as by tradition and in practice as he could almost always call on the best players, the current Champion always won. The idea was that to do so well it would force an early retirement on the Champion and so vacate the position to him as champion elect.  The disadvantage of this was that he would not sit on the mountain throne and therefore would really have to contest in earnest next year, when the position would be up for grabs by everyone with no built in bias.  So if he lost it then he could have been called Champion without actually winning the games. That was of course on the basis that his plan worked.

 

If you listened to talk, there was a fair chance of him succeeding.  But talk also said there were others who were pushing for the same goal, and the Champion was still there and fighting.  Andraks' best hope was that with my fathers' backing, the spectre of three summers past would so unnerve the Champion that he be induced into retiring before the games went into team events. If then the cause were made known, Andrak would be almost guaranteed to win.

It was obvious however that my father could not compete, but for old times sake agreed to support with advice and his presence at contests. Andrak then requested that I volunteer for his team in my fathers’ stead, but I managed to decline with the excuse that had to care for my fathers every need in order that he would be able to attend all the matches.  My father had been close to agreeing the request but had hesitated and this allowed my timely intervention.

 

There were reasons for this declination.  Firstly, my excuse was genuine. Secondly, it would publicise us and may at some time bring to light that I was neut, and thereby not only damage my fathers’ reputation and standing but undo the effect of his influence, whatever that may be. Thirdly, and this was personal and a reflection of my un neutishness, I did not want to be dragged into a situation, the politics of which were not of my choosing. True we, more particularly my father, felt a debt was owed for Andraks’ standing with my father the three summers ago.  But by the same token, Andrak had profited from the liaison for he would not have gained his present status without the following that had come from that performance.

 

All this made him a sound politician, but in keeping with all of that genre, someone to be wary of. Someone whose actions and motives may not be all they seem to be on the surface.

The Champion did not stand down, and Andraks' pressure upon me increased as a result.  The argument being the same, that a resurrection of the past would topple the present.  I continued to demure as I had a growing feeling that this was neither a right nor proper means to an end.  I was convinced during the 'six' contests when although generally doing well, Andrak lost a game needlessly and when I pointed out how he should have played, was dismissed arrogantly as a know nothing youth who has not sat at the table and should therefore mind his own business.  Now I took this badly, for although right about the pressures of the game he was wrong in that one cannot improve from constructive criticism. Further more, even though I was not my father, this attitude belied the agreement my father had made.  As a neut, I had an inferior station in society and was accustomed to being put in my place.  Andrak was not aware of my gender, nor to my knowledge were any others. Even my name was not a give away, for my father, and therefore all others who spoke to or of me called me by a non‑generic nickname of Vakva.  That aside, this struck me as not being the way to secure assistance, and not a good precursor of conditions should I be pushed to join his cause.

 

Accordingly, at that point, I elected that under no circumstances save my fathers’ direct order would I do so.  In its way this was a shame as I had half hoped to play some small part to please my father and show off his teaching skills.  It was only half a hope for although my first participation had not been technically illegal, it had been highly irregular, and playing now would be even more so, except perhaps on the final affray.

The chance came. Not because of politicking, but because of theft.

 

The market was extra busy that day as I understood was normal during the games, with so many people in town.  There are always those who capitalise on such an influx to hide their dishonest activities, and some of them I am told make enough profit from this to live for the rest of the year on it.  Nevertheless, it is criminal and ruthlessly punished if caught.  This one fellow, a large neut it seemed to me, took a young girls' purse. I saw him do it.

I was in the market to buy provisions whilst my father watched singles combats.  I wanted to watch them too in order that I might pick up a tip or two, but we had to eat, and in our lodgings the landlady had her work cut out cooking. She was young and had the lodging house to run alone as she was an only surviving daughter.  Her offspring were not old enough to do anything but run errands and our agreement had been that I would provision every other day during our stay. This was good for us as we had been able to obtain a room for the two of us at a minimal rate, almost unheard of during the games and good for her as the provisioning got done reliably.  Normally one either had to share a room with at least twenty others or pay exorbitant rates. Not that sharing was degrading or a real problem for me, just that it was easier for my father to rest when by himself.

 

But as to the theft, it was a simple affair, quickly over. The purse was taken and the thief started a getaway.  It maybe he would have made an escape but I saw the girl’s misery at the loss writ large on her face and stepped into the thief's path. A blow was aimed to move me, but my father’s lessons were not wasted and I easily deflected and re-channelled its power to topple the thief. Then with my foot on his throat I bent and retrieved the purse.  Perhaps my next action was none too wise but the fear the thief's face exuded could not let me take him to justice so I said, "If you must steal, take from those who will not miss it." And let the thief go.

He was up and gone in a trice and I handed the purse back.  The girl thanked me and members of the crowd made approving noises, some trying to pat my back or shoulders in support. But I stopped them as best I could and made a premature exit from the market to still the talk.

 

I returned later in a different coat and completed the provisioning without further notice. 

Thus, I considered the matter at an end.  It was not however, for I had been seen and recognised by one of the people staying at the same lodgings as my father and I. They told a friend of the incident, who told an acquaintance, who mentioned it to a colleague, who told his mate, who told her friend who told. Well so it went until the story reached the ears of the Champion and by tracing back down the line it came home to roost.

Why it was followed up in such a manner I shall never know, for a Champion has his hands full during the games and I would have thought left such things to the city provost, who again would normally have turned a blind eye so long as the crime was prevented and particularly as catching the thief would at that time be extremely unlikely.

 

The issue must have been pursued however for by name I duly received a summons to the Champions' court, the yellow sash garbed messenger waiting to escort me as to assure my attendance. My father came with me to speak on my behalf although I had not previously told him of the incident as I had thought it too trivial.  I could however only think of that incident as the reason for the summons.

It is curious, as the Champion wields immense power, that I was not afraid of him as an individual. Perhaps the memory of his falling three years ago was still strong enough to diminish his stature in my mind. In all events, whether he remembered me as an individual or not, his research had been done and he knew who I was. We were escorted to the Champion’s council chamber and made to wait outside, the escort staying once more, as if to prevent our escaping. It made us both feel like criminals, the only feature to suggest otherwise being that the escort was unarmed.

My father protested loudly at the semi-incarceration without warning or explanation of the cause. I whispered to him the tale of market incident as my only suspicion for this event, and that helped him still.

 

At length we were shown into the presence of Vasiak, Champion and ruler of all Valev, who by his appearance had only recently completed a bout of  'livesix'. Despite ageing three summers, he still looked better than when he left the match after I had felled him. 

His opening words were a surprise to me as well my father. "You.” He looked straight at me. “Are a dangerous person to have around!” He paused, “You. Who think you are a law unto yourself and above and beyond mine. You who I would dearly like to punish, but I do not know how, or even if I can!" 

"Me?" I blurted, for it really was me he was addressing. "How? When?" 

"You," He continued. "Who are the talk of the town. You who can let a thief go and yet gain approval for the act. You!" The cadence of his voice had risen until now he was close to shouting. "You. Who can floor a fellow half your size again as if he were a child. You who do not compete in the games because as you say 'you are not really very good'. You who further state you cannot take part despite many requests because you must care for your father, but can nevertheless walk the markets shopping whilst your father entertains old friends. You who are a threat to me, and all know it, and because of that I cannot make an example of you and retain popularity.  But I might just bloody well lock you up anyway.  It would all be clearer then."

I was dumbstruck. My father sat down heavily and said nothing.

"By the banks of Grivov and the mountain throne!" Yelled Vasiak. "I know what your game is you two, and I will be cursed if I am going to let you deny me this one last time as Champion!"

Turning to my father, he continued. "You have tried to oust me before and failed! Yet you have gained great respect and admiration in the process. By my conscience, I confess I have lived in dread of a rematch. I have run between despair and relief as I heard first you were here and then you were not competing, and finally of your support for Andrak. Now this. What am I to make of it?"

 

Reeling from the verbal assault, neither of us could muster a reply before he resumed the tirade.

“Damned politicking! That is what I see! You are too old to be Champion, I am sure of that as you must be. I also understand how you want to see your son succeed where you could not. But there are things I cannot see. Firstly, I thought better of you. Where is the honour in this? Second, what can you gain from my downfall now? Oh perhaps you have an agreement with Andrak, or think of him as an easier target next summer. This may be true. But why not enter this year? Your boy has his majority. He would benefit from the leadership practice, and would by the stories that are circulating, destroy Andrak. You know he cannot win the championship next year if he does not enter these games. So what are you at?"

My father just dropped his head into his hands and hid his face. I could not speak in this matter for fear of causing distress to him.

All I could say was that it was not like that, "Not at all."

To which Vasiak angrily enquired how it was and ordered me to tell him as he could not wait to hear.

I could only retort that it was not my place to say. 

"What the shit do you mean" Vasiak growled.

Dropping his hands into his lap, but with head still lowered, my father spoke. 

"What Okhta means is that it is my place to speak now. Being neut is not his fault." 

"What?" Exclaimed Vasiak. Immediately grasping the implication of my fathers' words. Staring boggle eyed at me.  "But I thought!" Then turning to my father. "But you said!" Then back to me. "And you were then.." Oh my word NO! It gets worse! By the, Ahhgg! But that explains a thing or two! By the demons of the forest what a fool. Why did not I see it before? But GHAA!"

 

"Exactly." My father interjected on Vasiak’s tirade. "I am wretched in my admission of deceit but there you have it. Okhta here is as much and more the son I always wanted but through cruel fate was denied. He is every bit my son excepting in one capacity ‑ and what was the harm in this delusion? Who was to know excepting that Okhta has excelled in his learning. Pure circumstance and my pride have led us into this corner. I, no we for Okhta is blameless, have no plot nor intrigue nor vain hope nor aspiration. My time is gone and Okhta can have nothing by chance of his birth. Surely this cannot preclude an old males’ love for his offspring, and our mutual pleasure of witnessing the games?"

Vasiak’s tirade was as nothing against this gentle but heartfelt missive, and silence lay for a while as Vasiak took it in. At length and almost in a whisper, he spoke "Forgive me Asiavak, for it seems I have wronged you. Vakva, Okhta, call him what you will, is indeed your son and his real gender is of no consequence. I see now why you have held back his entry and participation. Your esteem is renewed in my eyes and I shall do all in my power to see that it is not diminished in the eyes of the land.  Even the Council will hear nothing of this save that I am obliged to defend your good name."

Turning to me he said. "Okhta, I am humbled by your devotion and ability. The first time I saw you in 'livesix' I knew you would be champion one day. Your father is good. Very good, and coming from remote Hivalev has struggled for popularity and success despite his skill. You gave him these but too late, and now you have reaped his hard harvest but cannot have the gain of it and nor can he see his strain passed on, and that is a heavy burden indeed.  I know the calibre of the mould and Valev will lose at its breaking. Your glory can never be, but I ask you now, not for me but as an honour to the name of the warrior Asiavak." Turning back to my father. "With your permission of course."

 

And back again to me.  "Stand by me in the last affray, advise me, direct my troops with me. Your father cannot honourably withdraw from his support of Andrak, but you can nullify the politicking.  I swear that I will listen should you advise of a better tactic, and you will not find a better source of knowledge or experience than my battle team.  It is obvious that you need no lesson on justice, maybe just how to administer it.  I do not plead as do others, for my own benefit.  I will still win the games.  I know that for sure now.  And no matter what Andrak shall concoct I shall not stand down to him.”

“But there are others who contend, and who just might beat you yet".  I said. 

"Ah, you mean Etlek of Vasny or Oblan of Yossna".  Vasiak countered. "You are bold to suggest so to me, but yes they are threats. They are though, nothing compared to the fear engendered three summers ago by the hammer.  Let me tell you.  As I grow older I grow wiser.  The shame is that as with your father this wiseness will soon be gone. I now have tactics to counter every move ever thought of, even the emulations of the hammer. But the original, if it came back with a full team would take all my tactics and grind them to dust. It is not a tactic I have feared all this time, it is the oneness, the ferocity, the purpose and determination. The unquenchable fire within that I fear, that any commander fears in his enemy. That is missing in all current adversaries but came to the games those three summers ago. You have inherited that legacy from your father but where he struggled to mass a livesix team, whole populations would now follow you.  If you stood with Andrak it would be you that everyone fought for, not him.  But he would gain from it and he knows it. He is using you."

"I know your father Asiavak has taught you well. The evidence is plain, but he is a mild and honourable person unaccustomed to the harshness and bitterness of those who have success at their fingertips when young and will do anything to full grasp it. Help me to a just and reasonable conclusion to my term as Champion and the appointment of a worthy successor."

 

He promised us nothing and indeed that is what we expected. But the honesty and openness from someone of his calibre to someone of mine was either an incredibly devious and clever ploy, or as I believe genuinely worthy of what assistance I could with my fathers' happily and readily given approval, provide. In the event I played only a minor role. I advised that tasks be switched in the final game so that Vasiak ended with the assault instead of the usual defensive position.

The games are always run so that in the last event, the main game or affray, team one, which is normally the Champions' team complete their task and return to the battle arena first thereby taking up the dominant position. The other two teams draw tasks that will return them at later times and therefore have to assault the defence of team one. And yet each must not become so weak in the process that third team can assault with impunity. By thisprocess the defending team always has a major advantage. Or so it seems.

In my estimation, the prestige of taking the risky position outweighs its disadvantages, particularly if the fight can be carried.  The trick as I saw it was to do it quickly.

The argument, put to Vasiak worried but impressed him. The question was how we were to ensure the task was swiftly completed and prepared before tertiary intervention. “Simple,” said I. “We get there first.”  

But that did not make sense to Vasiak.  “If we were there first, why did we not take up the defence?” He asked.

“Because,” I explained, “that is not the aim. The intent is not just to survive, but to win and to do that convincingly we must shatter the opposing teams. So why be there first?" I asked rhetorically. Musing further I continued. "We must arrive in strength it is true but most of all there must be surprise." The basic idea was mine, the refinements my fathers and the victory Vasiaks.

My profile was low, but it is amazing what the right word here or there achieves and knowing the lot of the ordinary person, associating with it and enduring with them but improving and encouraging from their level got people places and things done that were thought impossible.

 

Despite a handicap that should have put Vasiaks' team two subspans behind that of Andrak, everyone was in place prior to his arrival.  He was late.  All the spectators knew we were there but not a one let on.  Andrak was applauded on to the defence hill as the primary team and expected victor.

That was when our 'fast team' ran out from cover and looked startled to find Andrak there, skirmished noisily, and withdrew. This of course was all a little sooner than Andrak had anticipated but he rallied and began positioning for an imminent attack from the direction of our 'fast team'.  Unfortunately for him that is not where the attack came from.

We used a version of the 'hammer'.  A triple headed massive blow to his rear, destroying his command and control.  The fight proper was over within a third of a subspan.  It took a while to mop up the odd pockets of people who kept fighting, not realising their cause was lost, but it was done quickly enough for trap two to be laid.

This was a double bluff.  It was obvious that some fighting had been going on, so when team three arrived they saw a very weak force occupying the defence mound. (actually a few of our people plus some of team one. Team three then mass and prepare to assault the mound when team two suddenly appear behind them. Team two have plainly failed in their attack and hidden themselves awaiting team threes' assault, which at the critical moment will be attacked in the rear. Team two is obviously weak from its efforts, so the natural manoeuvre is to finish them off first and then take the mound.  Accordingly team three about face and regroup to repulse the threat to their rear, which once again was our ‘fast team’ albeit bolstered somewhat. At that point the hidden main body of team two charges over the mound in a single hammerhead, smashing through the centre of team three who are not sure which way they are supposed to be facing.  In its confusion, team three was then destroyed piecemeal.  First the left wing then the right.

When I say destroyed, no one, well not many people died during these events but a lot of bruises were gained and a lot of egos were broken and reputations made. 

 

That is how I got to go to school.  Proper school that is.  

The victory is legendary as you will well know. What the legend does not say is how between us, my father and I masterminded it, nor that the real victory lay with the neuts who carried the plan out, or that they the troops, were only able to complete the victory because unusually they were properly briefed on both the intentions of their leaders and the importance of their actions. The lesson was not lost on Vasiak and from its fruits, he gained his last year as Champion and undying glory. My father gained a position on the Valev Council that he gave up after two seasons and went home to quietly die in the house of the female whom he loved and who loved him, my mother.

Andrak was a little unfortunate in that so gleefully taking the position of team one, he then lost the fight so quickly.  Incidentally, my father had without the knowledge of Vasiak advised Andrak against the move but the advice was ignored.  Andrak never again had a following strong enough to seriously contend the Valev Championship but nevertheless gained the position of High Chief of Yagev.

Oblan of Yossna, although defeated as leader of team three took heed of the manner of his defeat and went on in later years to be Champion. For myself, none of these options were open and the best Vasiak could do without exposing my father (or himself) was to get me a place at the university of Vasny.  It was where I learned to read and write properly.  My mother had taught me some words and how to count, but here I learned how to add, multiply, subtract and all things mathematical, I also learned geography (I know all the lands of Sur, Old and New), history and philosophy.

 

When I came out of school four summers later I was neatly side tracked into an expedition into the forest of Grimask in search of the route and origin of the route and origin of the people of Sur.  It was an interesting time, but quite inconclusive.  Nothing was found that could be regarded as proof, or even strong probability.  So it ended two summers and a winter later, as it had started, with conjecture. The only real gain was the acquisition in this time of an abiding love for trees together with an intimate knowledge of them.  We had great experience of them traversing the forest end to end until the trees came to an abrupt stop against a sheer rock face running into the sea. If people had come this way it must have been by boat.

Having frequently explained that in Hivalev the belief is held that the original inhabitants came over the mountains, not through the forest as the Surians did, I was finally heard and an expedition set up to explore that possibility.

Coming from Hivalev as I do, it was not at all hard to inveigle myself onto this enterprise.  I could think of no better course of action for me anyway. We trekked up through Hivalev and stopped off for a few days in Iktna.  I took the opportunity to visit my mother, intending to catch up with the expedition later.

This was a Joyous meeting for by that time I had not seen my family for seven summers.  The family had changed in this time and really only my mother, Sumara her sister and a few of the neuts remembered me, but still they made me welcome like a long lost son, the neuts behaving to me exactly like I was a male. Happy to see me, glad when I went. In fact I was even quartered in a new section of the house built for visiting males. I was alone there.

 

Catching up with the exploration party as they started the climb into the mountains we ascended the head of the valley. Up and down we went all summer, up and down looking for a high pass. Up and down, until the onset of winter forced us eventually to abandon the quest.  The main party wintered in Iktna, and of course I went to my mothers to stay.

Again, my mother was happy to have me arrive out of a blizzard as we had only just come out of the mountains in time.  But it quickly became apparent that she and her sister Sumara were the only ones who were happy.

To my sisters and my half sister Aminra and their males I was a burden on the household, with no useful purpose to fulfil. Sumaras' daughters and their mates felt the same and it was with some grounds. I had contributed nothing to the larder that summer gone ‑ and seven more previously if you viewed it that way ‑but perhaps unbeknown to them, my fathers' stipend had in an unprecedented way been transferred to me for life by Vasiak when he was still Champion.  They were not to know.  Neuts just do not get stipends.  Ever! Well never before to anyone's knowledge.

 

Up until this time all I had needed had been provided by the university or the expedition funds.  I had therefore needed a minuscule part of this to cover new clothing and other minor sundries. The bulk was transferred into my mothers' hands, and wisely she used it too.

There had been improvements to the house, with new quarters built (like the one I had been in before) and more livestock shelters in the fields.  This does not belittle the efforts she has gone to and attainments gained through her direction alone. She was a good matriarch and everyone had naturally put the well being of the family down to her effective management of resources.  Quite rightly too, excepting that perhaps the resources were a little more than they had thought.

 

As it was winter and males were present in the household I was quartered with the other menials.  Seventeen of us in the same dormitory, our ages ranging from young Unkata, only just out of the children's rooms to Aktita, well into his dotage and the oldest now Perta was gone, but who still looked after my mother and aunt Sumara. None of the neuts could take to me, for after all neuts that are relocated by the adjudicators never go back to their birthplaces. Even those who knew where I had been and what I had done, and that it had been done to follow my fathers' wishes, could not reconcile my lot to theirs.

I insisted on my share of the chores, as befits a neut.  At first my mother refused me, knowing of course of my input via the stipend. But I explained about the reactions to me, stating that I thought this would be the only likelihood of me becoming accepted, particularly by the neuts. If this could not happen I would have to go to Iktna and winter with the expedition.  As this would be a gross insult to her, to have me feel I was forced out by my own family, she relented.

And so I did slopping out and sweeping up in the main house, and journeying out with the other menials through the snows to the livestock huts isolated in the pastures to clean them out and re fodder the animals therein.  Acceptance came reluctantly but eventually, although it never blossomed into friendship.

 

Many a game from the courtyards of Vasny was introduced to brighten the dark evenings that winter, and at times caused a great deal of merriment, particularly I noted, when replayed later and the participants could forget their source.  More notable and a lot more quiet was the introduction of ‘six' to the neut dormitory. The traditional attitude of neuts is 'if you are not allowed to compete, why bother to learn the game?' My answer was that no one said neuts could not compete among themselves, just for the fun of it. Here I told a little white lie in saying that it was quite common in Lovalev.  How else did I learn and play?

The truth is slightly different.  I learned to play to provide a son and opponent for my father, and continued to play at the university with other students, very few of who were neut, but for whom the rulings were very egalitarian.

 

The time came to rejoin the expedition as the snows melted.  It would be a week or two before any work could be done in the mountains, but there would be equipment to ready and plans to discuss, as if that had not been done all winter!  But I needed to be there to do my share before departure.

On saying my goodbyes I explained to my mother that come what may, whether a pass was found or not, at the end of the summer the expedition would have to return to Vasny to explain itself and I would have to go with them.  Once down there it would be almost impossible for me to return home again once the snows had started.  It would therefore be another long absence but that nothing would change short of my demise.  In fact the lack of stipend would probably be her first indicator of that event.  She in turn assured me of her love and that a home would always be here for me whilst I survived, even if she did not.

The consensus of thought within the expedition had come to the conclusion that the path over the mountains, if it existed, did not necessarily have to be at the head of the valley.  Accordingly, both sides would be searched for some way back and if nothing was found, then a final attempt at the head would be made at the summers' end.  In concept this approach was sound.  In practice it failed.  One path was discovered and much time was spent researching it until it was realised that it lead to Grimask, not to some new land.

 

A number of other good-looking possibilities were explored, all of which came to nothing, all were impassable.  The valley head once more did not concede a passage and the expedition was forced to admit failure and return to Vasny in defeat.  The origin of the people of Valev was to remain a mystery.

The consolation was that it could be said with some certainty where our forebearers had not come from.  I still had a nagging question in that if people had not originally come over the mountains, with all the land in Sur, why had they come up to Hivalev?  Just because we had not found the way, I was not utterly convinced that there was not one. But that was the conclusion placed before the University of Vasny and accepted by them.  This of course meant that the expedition had not in their eyes been a total waste of time and resources, and so saved many a face from embarrassment.

 

The failings of these expeditions to produce positive answers or results inhibited any further plans that may have been set afoot, and so for the first time in eight summers I was at a loose end.  There was the winter to see through first of course, as with expeditioning abandoned, I was released from the universities employ.

 

I could have increased my taking from the stipend and had a good living just whiling away my time. But I was loath to do this on two counts.  Firstly, it would detract from my mothers' income, and she deserved it.  After all she had stuck with my father and looked after him well right up to his death.  Most males meet their end in some shabby corner of a hostel if they have money, or hillside if none, to which they have been condemned once they are beyond breeding or public use.  For those with a stipend it is easier, but for those with nothing but the Champions' charity there is a miserable existence that is mercifully short.  

Once my mother died, I knew despite her words I would be ostracised by my family and suspected my final days would be spent in a similar manner.  As a neut I was not subject to the Champions' charity and so was glad of the stipend.  But there was no hard and fast guarantee that some future Council of Elders would not reduce, or stop it. Even so, that was a problem I would have to deal with when I came across it.  In the mean time I had to fend for myself.  Find work and hope by it to amass a sum that would see me through the bad times.

I was lucky, as through the universities’ influence I gained work as a tallier for a trader in Iassna.  This lasted another eight winters and summers, only coming to an end when the trader died and his son took over the running of the business.

 

The original trader had not stood a chance in the games.  He had the wrong physique and dexterity, and so determined to make his mark elsewhere in order to improve his mating status.  His son, my employer, was of a like mind but unfortunately the next son, he that took over when my employer died, had delusions of grandeur. Despite failing to achieve livesix leader status by a long margin in all but local competitions had insinuated himself onto a quite successful national team. (He had inherited both his fathers' build as well his acumen).

Mistakenly he considered his standing to be on the basis of martial skill and that his participation was really the key to the teams’ success. Less than half of males would get to see a son properly mature, and even then, only their eldest, consequently all males desire to ensure their offsprings’ success, but even with this my employer could see the obvious at an early stage and had told the boy of his best option. The boy did not like this, and on taking over the concern removed everything that reminded him of his father. One of those things was me.

During the time of this employment I had on a number of occasions during slack trading months taken leave of absence and paid short visits to my mother.  It was therefore a natural choice for me to return there on conclusion of the employment.  It transpired that I did not arrive home however as travelling up valley, I bumped into a large party going down, en-route for Vasny and the Games.

 

They were short of porters as in an accident not far back along the road one of their neuts had tripped over and broken a leg bone.  They had to leave a second to care for him and were currently over burdened until replacements could be found.  The intention had been to achieve this in Asne.  It did not take long to persuade me that I should be one of the replacements, and so I joined the retinue of Pratak, High Chief of Iktna, taking his son to the games for the first time. 

 

This son, just into his fifteenth summer had only recently been fully released from his mothers' household, and though technically and traditionally free to return until his eighteenth year was unlikely to do so with a patron such as his father.  He would have a lot to learn.

Youth and stamina may just get someone through the obstacle run and personal combats, but only acquired skill and experience bring leadership.  It would be this winter, after seeing the competition that would hone him ready for next year and command. He would compete now of course, but be most unlikely to get anywhere.  That was normal and of no consequence to young males.  Just to go to the games filled them with Joy.

 

I was of only minor help, and initially none to the boy or his father.  My lessons had been well learned in the service of the trader. No matter what your ability, neuts just do their work and keep their minds and mouths to themselves. Do not take this as a suggestion that I in any way thought myself more knowledgeable than the Iktna High Chief, for he had competed at every game for sixteen years. I nevertheless heard him talk of Vasyaks' last victory on more than one occasion, but being employed as a porter and general labourer, kept quiet.

Pratak had missed those particular games by one summer, and had gained his present status under the ruling of Oblan of Yossna.  He had retained it under new Champions due to his wise and careful control of the Iktna region, and there being no truly better male for the task. The mantle would however have to be handed over soon as Pratak was in decline.

The advancing years stood well on him, there as yet being no major appearance of his decline despite being nearly my age.  Indeed there was little manifestation of it in his performance at the games.

 

My slip up came when watching him effortlessly tip an opponent. I smiled, giving my head a little shake in memory of a thief so felled many summers previous. The problem was that Iktak, the son of Pratak had seen my gesture and misinterpreted it. He later took me aside and demanded to know its meaning, suspecting some disloyalty or other.  I explained that I had seen the manoeuvre performed before and admired its execution. 

"So why the head‑shake?"  He enquired. "Did you not want my father to win?" 

I then had to tell how he had misunderstood me.  I had nothing against the High Chief or himself, in fact quite the reverse.  They were now my employers and would enjoy my undivided support, as any who would have found my natural favour were all long gone. 

"So why the head‑shake?" He persisted. 

"Just a personal memory" I told him, elaborating, "Last time I can recall the manoeuvre, the victim was not going to be so polite as to stay down and a finishing touch was needed."  

At Iktaks insistence I explained then demonstrated the trick. Interested though he was to learn it, he did not like being powerless under the foot of a neut and demanded that he be able to try it on me.  Well, I let him practice four or five times on me and each time it got a little more vicious until I had enough.  When I said so his reply was that he was the one who would say when enough was enough.

 

"Very well." I thought, and half checked, parried twisted and flipped.  Then with his arm locked and my knee in his back I could have made him squeal, could have made him beg to an end.  But I did not.  I released him saying nothing. 

Getting up and dusting himself off he asked warily how I knew these things.  My reply was that just because I was neut did not necessarily mean I was inferior. I told him that I was as old as his father, and every old sleeve has a few tricks up it.  For myself, I had seen a games or two and even been to university in Vasny. Furthermore, it should never be forgotten that everyone, male, female or neut has a tale to tell and a trick to show. A lesson for life.  The skill in life was to listen to everyone's tale and learn their trick.  Then when you know all the tricks no‑one will be able to catch you out, and when you know all the stories then your judgement will be true.

 

"These are the needs of a champion." He came back.  "Do you purport to that status."

"No.'' Said I, "But the Champion stands as the leader of our land whereas each of us should be champion of our own individual selves.  We owe it to each other to remember that and to treat each other with the respect accorded to a champion."

He was unable to counter this concept, and deep in thought I left him with it.  It must have made an impression of sorts for from then on he seemed to have changed, as if he had grown up a little.

In the time since, he has not won the games but has improved his standing as well his prowess. This was the person I was going to meet two summers later with a task from his father.  Not quite yet mature, should the father hold on to life and position for one more summer it was said the boy was almost certain to take up the post of Iktnas' High Chief on his father standing down.  A most rare and most revered occasion of father handing over to son.  I could onlyhope that the impending ceremony and status had not turned the boys head.  I was not to be disappointed.

 

Our arrival in Vasny was inauspicious for there was much coming and going at that time of year and the parties arrival was not associated with the university in that term had only started one month ago.  It was not due to end for another two.  It was normal for Hivalevers to remain at the university right through the winter as a return to Hivalev would be necessary before the end of the eleventh month in the year in order to get there prior to the risk of snows blocking the way. Iktak, in returning soon would therefore not only miss part of this term but the entire winter term and part of the spring as well.

I had intended to wait a number of days whilst looking around and gaining evidence.  This, so I could speak to Iktak from a position of knowledge and strength.  I had spent time in Vasny before of course but had never looked in the corners.

Iktak, however, learning of my presence in the city and finding my whereabouts called for a meeting only a day after my arrival.  At the event, I was pleasantly surprised.  No longer was I faced with a large boy.  Iktak had grown into a full male.

 

Our meeting was not characterised by the traditional male-neut formality or assertion.  His greeting was warm but not over enthusiastic. Not really like a friend, but then neither as a superior, almost as if in some way I were a rival. Having assured myself of the security of our conversation I briefed him directly on the task that confronted me, addressing the situation as a difficulty that his father had, and therefore that he would inherit. It was plain that Iktak was completely aware of the scope of the problem and we quickly set to organising how we could best obtain answers. For Iktak, despite his fathers' instruction that he should not divert himself from what schooling he had left, insisted on helping.

He talked of population figures for Vasny and comparing them with Hivalev. Of how we should make notes of how many males, females and neuts we see in each day and where in particular as we checked the grain stores and fields.  Then when a suitable base number has been obtained and compared with actual records from the university we might work out a ratio and simple means of comparison.

On asking the relevance of such a study to the task, he confided in me the second problem facing Hivalev.  Pausing for effect he began.  

"There are not enough males in all Hivalev. Our numbers have been slowly dwindling and there has not been a male born this summer, or for the last three.  We can perform our civic functions and still command our regiments.  But if these males perish there are minimal replacements and anyway, in that case only the old will be left to retain our breeding stock. There will be no new blood and no chance of reversing the decline and eventual demise of our people." 

Another pause, then he carried on.  "My father thinks the two problems are related.  But we need to know and we must have a solution. This solution may be hard to find, may be far away and may be dangerous in its seeking and retrieval. We need someone who is determined, resourceful, capable and inconspicuous. We chose you."   

 

Before I could make comment he pushed on insistently. "No‑one must know of this. I repeat. No‑one! Lovalev does not know. Oh, the Vasny Council may suspect but they do not know. The adjudication's have been fixed whilst we try to remedy the situation but this seasons figures will have to come to Vasny soon and it cannot be hidden much longer then." 

"How can they not know?" I asked. "If the thing is three years old already?" 

He then explained the system.  How births are registered as only that, numbers.  Gender or family are not recorded until the child has survived three summers. 

Then I understood. The totals were good but the balance was wrong.

 

It took ten days for us to come up with our conclusions.

Firstly.  The general Vasny population was reasonably stable with a small but evenly balanced growth. There was evidence, though it was inconclusive, that there was a minor decline in the number of males. We tried a number of techniques for head counting as we thought that this should be verified elsewhere and accurate figures would not be so forthcoming in other places. Eventually we came up with a reasonably workable method that would not give any guarantees or, we suspected even show a disparity on the level of Vasny, but should indicate one at the state Hivalev was in. 

Secondly. We also arrived at a standard method of sampling and examination for grain for not all grain was at the top of the sack, and even if the husk looked sound, the germ might still be rotten. But I had found that Lovalev and Surian grain was not rotten.  What is more, Hivalevers were increasingly consuming Lovalev grain.  If Lovalevers were not affected by it, why were Hivalevers? 

 

We thought then that it could be the preparation or general diet.  Again, Lovalevers did not on observation prepare foods any differently to Hivalevers. So what then? A comparison of the grain, vegetable and meat content of relative meals was discussed, but neither of us could find a disparity.

At length Iktak conceded as his father had guessed that the next step would be for me to go to the great university of Sur in Rega, as there might be a clue there. And as with the urgency of this project, I should go soon.

I have not mentioned that winter sets in a good deal later down at this level and it is nothing like so harsh.  I felt that we were achieving nothing here any more and any move would be doing something positive.  Besides, on the assumption that the scholastic timetable is similar in Sur, I would have at best one month in which to complete any researches prior to the university closing for the breeding season.

 

And so it was, that armed as it were, with a stout set of new boots and a walking stave, wearing a belt with thirty-six gold coins sewn into it and my sleeping pack thrown over my shoulder together with a bag containing a small metal bowl and drinking mug, some spark stones, a spoon, a sharp knife, some clean underwear, a few other odd trinkets and some basic provisions I set off out of Valev.

I viewed the journey ahead with a degree of trepidation for the unknown and a tinge of excitement for the same reason.  Putting on a brave face I bade farewell to Iktak who had accompanied me on the days journey to the crossing point over to Ioss and Sur.  Boarding the ferry across the Grivov, the boat was full with traders and their wares. Pots and pans, blankets and coats, trinkets and ornaments, but mostly live buika and their fleeces. All from Hivalev. A Lovalev fleece is no different to a Surian fleece, but those from Hivalev have a length and quality unknown elsewhere. My sleeping pack was made from Hivalev buika fleece and was a sought after item in other districts.  One fellow was cashing in on this and taking a great stack of completed packs to sell in Sur (no doubt at inflated prices). Unfortunately for him, his stack was so large it stood clear of the boat sides and when the boat hit an eddy in mid‑stream it wobbled, collapsing his stack and strewing some of the packs overboard. He burst into an apoplexy, demanding that the boat manoeuvre to retrieve the articles as they floated serenely downstream. Sadly for him the boat was too full and heavy to manoeuvre in the required manner and the packs drifted away, causing much mirth to the Surians waiting nearby on the bank.

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© Alexander Travell