The Wild People


            Shaman Arnled sat smoking his pipe and watching the festivities around him.  He was a slim old man dressed in handmade leather, with long gray hair tied back with a single thong.  Other older people of his tribe sat on the ground in a cluster around him.  There was the chief, Nektor, to his right.  Nektor was a large, powerful middle-aged man dressed in the leather and bone armor of his position.  Although he feigned enjoyment, Arnled knew he was troubled by recent events.  His wife Jillya sat next to him, with her usual air of quiet, good-natured dignity.  The elders sat in the center of the cluster of leather and wood tents that made up their camp.  The rest of the tribe, the young men and women along with giggling children, were either dancing or standing by one of the many fires, cooking.  The festival was held to celebrate the yearly peeper hunt.  In Eden, where the Bensteni tribe lived, peepers filled the trees on one night in late spring.  Peepers were black lizards with red eyes, about as long as a man’s arm.  On that one night, they sang their shrill mating song, and were easily caught.  The Benstenis normally avoided venturing out in the dark, but on the night of the peeper festival, every hunter in the tribe took to the forest.  They knew that the predators of the night would be occupied, and even the clumsiest of people would be able to pluck a catch from the horde of lizards as they fumbled in the dark of a night without a moon.  Later that night, the peepers’ singing had faded away as they left the trees.  The hunters had returned with their bounty and the festival had begun.  The hunter who had caught the largest peeper had been congratulated by Chief Nektor, in a ceremony, as had the one who brought the most, and then those Benstenis who had musical talent had brought out drums and pipes, to play for the people.  Fires had been lit and the lizards prepared.  Sharpened sticks had been handed out, and each person roasted peepers over a fire.  Nektor and the elders had been brought cooked peepers to eat.  Even after the celebration, the peeper meat would feed the tribe for days.  Tomorrow, they would gather the leftover meat and dry and jerk it, to save it for later.  The bones would be saved as well, for soup.  Only the hide was discarded, as it was not useful leather, and would be gathered up, taken away from the camp and left for scavengers.

            The festival that Arnled watched was a chaotic celebration.  The tribe danced with uninhibited glee around clusters of musicians, each playing a different tune of wild music.  Many of the young men showed their bravery by lighting clubs and staves on fire and twirling or juggling them.  The celebration surrounding Arnled relaxed him.  His apprentice, a pale young man named Geln, brought him a few peeper tails.  Arnled thanked him enthusiastically, as the base of the tail was the best part.  Arnled pulled out the delicate bones and greedily nibbled the soft flesh of the skinned and roasted tails.  The meat was almost like a wild fowl’s, but sweeter and more tender. 

            As dawn approached, the Benstenis paired off and returned to their tents, until only a few remained outside.  The next day, most of the tribe would sleep into the afternoon.  It would be a restful day with little more to do than clean up and preserve the leftover meat, as there would be no need for hunting or harvesting.  A group of children approached the cluster of elders, and a young girl offered to sing for Nektor and Jillya.  She sang a traditional, richly sad song of love and loss, accompanied by a single piper.  Her voice was strong and vibrant, and the elders were respectfully silent.  Nektor rose and thanked the girl with ceremony, and sent a young man to bring her more peeper meat.  The children stayed and answered gentle questions from the elders, until their parents came and told them that they should get some sleep.  By then, Nektor and Arnled were nearly alone, and Nektor wanted to talk.

            “I do hope you enjoyed the festival,” Nektor said.  “We should revel in the good times while we can.”

            Arnled had polished off a peeper tail and refilled his pipe.  He drew deeply on it, making it glow orange in the predawn darkness before answering.  “Yes, we should, while we can,” he agreed.  “You are troubled by the conflict between our neighbors, no doubt.”  The Benstenis’ neighbors were the Songis, a peaceful and pious tribe, who had long been friends and trading partners.  However, the Songis were in conflict with the Rodrangis.  Although the Songis had closed their territory to the Rodrangis and warned them to stay away, the two tribes were not fighting.  Not yet.  The problem was that the Rodrangis were practicing the forbidden ways, and the Songis had demanded that they cease, for the Songis knew that the forbidden ways created a threat to all people.

            Nektor did not want to get the Benstenis involved, but he did not want to abandon the Songis, either.  The forbidden ways could make the Rodrangis into a powerful opponent.  “I am unsure of what is best for our tribe,” Nektor observed.  “You know the old stories as well as I, about the last time a tribe used the forbidden ways and started a frightening war.”

            “You know the law,” Arnled declared quietly.  The law of the Gods stated that no tribe was to use the forbidden ways, and the prescribed punishment was that the other tribes should unite, and undo the works of the offender.  “We must stand by our friends the Songis,” Arnled added.

            “True,” said Nektor.  “But we are not a large tribe, and not nearly so numerous as the Rodrangis.”

            “Together with the Songis, we can overcome them, forbidden ways or none,” Arnled said with confidence.  “Hesitation will only allow the Rodrangis to complete their work.”

            “Still, I favor waiting until the Songis call upon us,” Nektor decided.  The chief rose and stretched.  “I long for my bed.”  Arnled’s only answer was the steady hiss of his pipe.

            Arnled finished smoking and went to his own bed.  Like most shamans, he was unmarried, and he shared his tent with Geln, who was asleep when he got there.  He slept late into the next morning, and joined a few others of the tribe for a breakfast of peeper soup.  The camp was being cleaned, and the spot that the cluster of tents was nestled in would make a good summer home for the Benstenis.  After breakfast, he taught the tribe’s children, as was the duty of the shaman, by telling stories and answering questions.  The knowledge he gave them was that the Gods had come to Eden when it was empty of living things, from their own home somewhere in the sky.  They had come in a vessel that could travel between stars, and brought with them living things to make their new home fertile.  The Gods had left their own world because it had become an evil place, where all people used the forbidden ways and nearly everyone had been subjugated by others.  The world that the Gods had come from was the world of the tame people, and Eden was the world of the wild people.  The Gods had founded the tribes, and given them laws, so that the forbidden ways would not be used to tame the wild people.  They had also charged the shamans with the duty of remembering the laws and reminding others.  There were three things that were forbidden by the laws.  First, to build any permanent structure was forbidden, and only structures which one person could take apart and remove were allowed.  It was forbidden because it lured the wild people into staying too long in one place, which would pollute the land around them so that it could not nurture them, making them dependent on others.  Second, the keeping of living things was forbidden.  The law said that to tame a plant or animal, one had to tame oneself along with it, in order to stay and care for it.  The wild people were to hunt and harvest wild things.  Third, for a person to own more than he or she could carry was forbidden.  If a person has too much, it became easier and more tempting to subjugate others.

            That was the knowledge that Arnled taught the tribe.  The rest he kept to himself, and told only Geln, who he was training to replace him as shaman one day.  The secret was that the Gods had used the forbidden ways in order to come to Eden, and had brought many things with them that only users of the forbidden ways could make.  Shamans kept and preserved those things, as they preserved knowledge that had been gathered by the tame people.  These magical weapons and tools were to be used only in the direst of emergencies.  Arnled himself had only two such tools, which he hid from the rest of tribe.  One was a weapon.  It resembled a smooth staff with a crystal set in one end.  The staff was made of metal, a material which only shamans were familiar with.  Also, it was adorned with a round button, conveniently place so that the crystal could be aimed and the button pushed.  Arnled knew that the staff was hollow, and how to repair its inner workings.  He knew he had to open a tiny door at one end, and let the sun shine on the smooth black surface underneath, to give the staff power.  This he did regularly, alone and away from the tribe.  He would then aim the staff and push the button.  So long as the button was depressed, a single beam of yellow light extended from the crystal, which would scorch anything it touched.  The other item was a hat.  It was smooth and hard and had wiring inside it and a need for sunlight, like the staff.  A mask was attached to the hat with a hinge, to be pulled down over the wearer’s eyes.  Using the mask, the wearer could see in darkness, or see through solid objects.  Arnled also had books made of thin paper, which he carefully preserved.  The rest of the tribe knew he had these things, but also knew that it was his duty to keep them secret.

            In the afternoon the Songis arrived.  Arnled was still teaching, with the tribe’s children gathered around him, when the bunch of disheveled men and women emerged from the forest.  They were obviously Songis, with the close-cropped hair traditional for their tribe.  There were almost twenty of them, looking dirty and frightened, and many of them were wounded.  They wore the same crude leather clothing that all of the wild people wore, but many of their outfits were stained black, and the wounded looked as though they had been burned.  A few were having trouble walking, and had to be supported by others.  As they entered the Bensteni camp, one tall, slim man signaled the others to halt, and approached the first person he saw.

            “Please, I must ask you to take us in,” he said with formal humility.  “We do not wish to burden others with our own tribe’s problems, but we are in need.  We have little with us, but we will certainly compensate your tribe when our troubles have ended.”

            The woman he was addressing looked him over, and thought for a moment.  “I cannot speak for our tribe, but my family will welcome you.” 

            Arnled walked over to the Songi refugees, and the children followed him.  “I, the shaman of this tribe, welcome you as well,” he said.  The Songi looked relieved.  Arnled had no trouble convincing other Benstenis to volunteer their tents, and soon the Songis had been given shelter.  He went to work with the healing herbs that many of the Benstenis carried with them, and made a salve to treat the Songis’ wounds. 

            One small, motherly woman told him what had happened as he treated the burn wound on her abdomen.  “The Rodrangis took us by surprise, and they were using the forbidden ways.  They had a weapon so big that it took six men to drag it on wheels.  The thing made thunder, and hurled something at us.  When that something hit the ground, it threw large sparks that burned anything they touched.  Our tents caught fire, leaving us all in the open.  Then the warriors of the Rodrangis used another weapon against us, a hollow stick that also made a booming noise, as well as fire and smoke.  Each of those weapons threw a small stone or something at us at terrible speed, sending it through people!  We tried to fight back with our slings and axes, but those who did not flee were killed.  Some among us say that they captured our Shaman and all that he kept.”

            Arnled forced himself to be calm, although this news disturbed him.  He comforted his patient by telling her that she would be safe now.  The other Songis had similar stories.  Soon after sundown, Nektor called a meeting of the elders.  There was a long, loud debate over what should be done.  Some, including Nektor, wanted to relocate the camp away from the Rodrangis, claiming that hiding was the best way to survive against such an enemy.  Others, including Arnled, wanted to fight, and argued that the enemy would only grow more powerful if they waited.  A compromise had been reached.  Nektor and Jillya, leading all those who were too old or too young to fight, would hide in a dense part of the forest known only to the Benstenis.  Arnled would lead a war party against the Rodrangis, made up of those who chose to fight.

            In the morning, the Benstenis packed up their camp.  Arnled, carrying his staff, put on his magic hat and then gave his books to Geln.  He quietly instructed his apprentice to go with the group that would be hiding.  Geln would be shaman for the time being and Arnled would resume his position when he returned, if ever.  The Benstenis stayed together long enough to make litters for the wounded and those who could not travel and then the war party left, sneaking through the forest, while the rest of the tribe followed a creek bed to their hiding place.  The warriors were mostly young men and women, armed with stone spears and axes, as well as bows.  A few of the healthier Songis had come with them, led by Laing, the tall, slim hunter who had led the refugees.  Along the way, they cut brush and adorned themselves with it, so that they could blend more easily into the forest.  They traveled carefully, using their hunting skills to avoid being noticed, and resting only in hidden places, where a fire could not be seen.  After days of travel, they had reached the edge of Rodrangi territory.  From then on, they traveled only at night, led by Arnled as he used the mask on his hat to find his way in the dark and watch for enemies.  They followed a well-worn path that led to a broad river, and made camp in a nook between tall rocks.  Eden had no moon and the night was dark, lit only by the stars.  Arnled could climb to the top of the rocks, confident that he would not be seen.  Using the mask, he surveyed his surroundings, flipping the leaver on the side of the hat.  After the first flip of the leaver, night became like day, but he saw little more than treetops.  Still, he looked for anything obvious.  He flipped the leaver a second time, with a click.  In daylight, his mask would have made solid objects look like shadows, so he could see what was beyond, but he could no longer see in the dark, so he saw only blackness.  He flipped the switch a third time, and the mask allowed him to see warmth as brightness.  As he looked over the surrounding land, he saw the glowing shapes of animals in the darkness.  He also saw two men in the distance, sitting on the ground near the shore of the river.

            There was something else, too.  The men sat by a stationary shape that was on, or in, the river.  Arnled flipped the leaver, twice.  All went black for a moment, and then he could see clearly again.  Still looking at the place where he had seen the men, Arnled could just make out the shape of a rope and wood bridge spanning the river.  Arnled climbed down and slipped silently through the night.  He watched where he stepped as he picked his way over the unspoiled ground, careful to keep a bush or other object between himself and the two men he was closing in on.  He froze when he was in sight of the pair, crouching in the sparse brush near the river.  He watched them, silently.  The two young Rodrangi men sat close to each other, whispering and laughing but careful to keep quiet.  Each man wore a weapon over his shoulder.  Only a shaman would know those weapons.  Guns.  Even the name for them sounded like an evil grunt to the wild people’s ears.  Arnled realized that these were not shaman’s weapons.  They were made crudely, unlike those of the Gods, and did not have chambers, so Arnled had to wonder how one loaded them.  The Rodrangis must have been making the guns themselves, using the forbidden ways. 

            For as long as any Bensteni could remember, the Rodrangis had been aggressors, more interested in raiding their neighbors and taking what they wanted than in trading.  Now, however, they were using the forbidden ways to make themselves more powerful than other tribes, and had used their power to attack the Songis.  Arnled had little doubt that the Benstenis would be next.  Although the Rodrangis had never been friendly, Arnled was shocked that they sought to subjugate their neighbors, to tame them.  The bridge was no less a forbidden thing than the guns, as it was too big to take apart and carry.  The structure was fairly simple, four ropes in the corners, with wooden planks secured between them.  It was large enough to allow two columns of people passage, and gave easy access to Songi and Bensteni territory.  Arnled figured that the two Rodrangi gunmen were there to guard the bridge until it was needed.  He studied the area, looking for tracks, and his trained eye could see some signs that a large group of people had used the bridge, but not recently. 

            Arnled moved away, silent and careful to stay low.  He returned to camp and told the other warriors what he had found.  They talked quietly among themselves, and decided to cross the bridge.  Arnled led them, using his hat and mask.  At the river, the warriors found hidden positions as near to the two gunmen as possible.  Arnled aimed his staff carefully, and pushed the button.  The yellow beam lit the night and baked ground between the two gunmen.  In the light of the beam, the warriors stood with their bowstrings drawn back, making themselves clearly visible.  The two Rodrangis put down their guns and stood, hands held high.  The war party surrounded them.  With a hand gesture from Arnled, who stepped forward holding his staff, four of the warriors seized the two captives, holding them by the arms.  Arnled lifted his mask. 

            “Your tribe has broken the laws known to all,” he observed, waiting for a response.  The captives were silent.

            Arnled stooped to pick up a gun.  “Which of you would like to explain this?”  His voice carried quiet authority.  Still, the captives were silent.  Arnled raised the weapon and pulled the trigger, sending a ball whining over the heads of the captives.  The sudden sound and fiery flash startled the warriors, many of whom jumped.  The smell of smoke filled the night air.  Arnled hung the empty weapon over his shoulder by its strap and picked up the second weapon.  “One of you should explain,” he taunted.  “We would not want an accident.”  One captive nodded, and Arnled moved closer to him.  He seized a bag that the man wore on his belt and opened it, inspecting its contents. 

“Powder and balls, made by the Rodrangis?”

            Still held, the man answered.  “Yes.  We have built a mighty fortress, and have forges to make weapons.”

            “Tell him nothing!” the other gunman shouted.  “He is ignorant.  He barely knows how to use the things the founders have given him.”

The gunman that Arnled had questioned looked down.  “It does not matter what you know,” he grumbled.  “We are strong enough to beat you all.”

            Arnled made a show of anger as he rebuked the man.  “So that is your evil plan!  You wish to make yourselves strong by taming the wild people.”

            The man struggled with his captors in an attempt to free himself, looking Arnled in the eyes with contempt.  The other gunman spoke softly.  “You could join with us.  We have shed ignorance and benefit from doing so.  Not only have we built a fortress, but houses as well.  You could have one to live in, instead of a tent.  You could be warm and comfortable.”

            Arnled turned to face the man.  “For how long.  How long do you think you can live in one place before you poison the land with sewage and refuse, and bring a plague down upon yourselves?”

            “The books tell us how to prevent that,” the man countered.

            Arnled waved his hand dismissively.  “Only to prevent it,” he said.  “Inevitably, you would bring the wrath of the Gods down upon us all.  We are entitled to stop you, for your own good.  Perhaps you should join with us!”

            The gunman looked genuinely surprised.  “You are a shaman,” he began.  “You know that the founders are not gods, they were people like any others.  They were not happy with their own world, so they forbade knowledge.  Without the benefits of that learning, we were unable to accomplish anything, or even be comfortable.  They made us ignorant and miserable, and you know it!”

            Arnled was startled and confused.  “Who has been telling you these things?”

            “Marquas was once our shaman and is now our king!  He became king after the Rodrangis raided the Chawnis, and took their shaman’s books.  He has the true names of the founders, and a record of what they did.  Now, he will lead us all into a better way of life.”

            Arnled interrupted him.  “The way you led the Songis?”

            The two gunmen were silent.  Arnled held the empty musket.  “You wish to lead me out of ignorance, so tell me how to load this gun,” he commanded.  The two gunmen looked away.  Arnled move his staff so that the crystal was under the chin of one of the prisoners.  “Speak,” he spat.

            “Pour the powder down the barrel, drop the ball in after it and then push it into place with the rod.”

The other gunman squirmed.  “Don’t help them!” he shrieked.

Arnled pulled a small bundle from the gunman’s bag and opened it, seeing fine black powder inside.  He poured it down the barrel, and then found a lead ball in the same bag and dropped it in as well.  He pulled a rod from where it was secured under the gun’s barrel and pushed it down the opening, feeling the ball shift into place.  He handed the two loaded guns to two of the warriors. 

            Arnled started across the bridge, motioning to the others to follow.  “Run those two off,” he ordered quietly as he went.  The warriors let go of the two captives and brandished their spears, ordering them away before following the others across the bridge.  Once the entire war party was across, Arnled aimed the staff and pushed its button.  He moved the yellow light carefully, cutting the ropes at the opposite side of the river, so that the bridge went limp with one end drifting in the water.  Under his direction, the warriors pulled the bridge onto the shore and dismantled it.  As they worked, they used the planks and ropes to make shields, ready to be strapped to their arms. 

            As the warriors worked, Arnled watched for enemies, using his mask to make anything warm look bright.  He saw no human shapes, and very few animals.  The land on this side of the river had been cleared, and he could see stumps that had once been majestic trees.  When the shields were ready, the war party moved on.  It was not long before they could see the Rodrangi fortress in the distance.  It was surrounded on its outskirts by an unfamiliar obstacle, a stone wall of the kind Arnled had only seen in pictures that the books he kept contained.  Beyond that, the tiled roofs of small houses could be seen.  In the center, a tall pyramid of gray stone dominated the area.  A single stairway was built into one side of the structure, flanked on its edges by doors leading inside.  As they approached, Arnled stood on a hill and looked beyond the wall, using his mask to see in the dark.  There were many small houses, as well as work sheds with glowing forges.  Inside the wall, the Rodrangis had dug into the ground in many places and cut out the squares of stone used to make the pyramid.  The pits yawned between blocks of houses.

            Arnled explained what he had seen to the warriors, and they promised him that it would be destroyed.  As they discussed the matter, their raid became a holy quest.  Arnled took the leadership role with ease, and began to make a plan.  About half of the warriors, taking the captured guns as well as their bows, were to find cover and shoot over the wall.  The rest of the party would wait by the exit, along with Arnled and his staff.  In this way, they hoped to lure the Rodrangis into a trap and attack, taking more of their guns.  None of the warriors had difficulty accepting the idea of using the forbidden weapons against their makers, as the Songis among them had told them about the raid on their camp, and how easily the Rodrangis had defeated them. 

            Arnled and the warriors with him approached the wall tentatively.  They made for the only opening they could see, which was an arch set in the wall.  Arnled was the first to ease carefully into the open, walking slowly with his staff ready.  He used his mask to watch for Rodrangis.  The gate was blocked by a grid of thick metal bars that was lowered from a slot in the ceiling of the arch.  Arnled could not see anyone.  He put his back to the wall.  The other warriors followed, spears and axes at the ready.  They waited, still and silent, barely even breathing.  The sound of a gunshot echoed off the walls as a single flash of fire erupted from behind a rock.  The ball whined through the air as it traveled.  A second shot followed.  A shock of tension surged through the portion of the war party that was with Arnled as they waited.  In the silence, they could hear the twang of bowstrings from outside the wall, and angry calls from within.  They saw no one, and the grid of iron bars stood unmoving.

            A powerful sound came from behind the wall.  It was like a gunshot, only louder and deeper, followed by an unfamiliar whistle.  An explosion sprang up, away from the war party but close enough to light the night as it threw yellow sparks that arced outward.  For a moment, Arnled thought that the warriors with him would bolt, but they controlled themselves.  Next to the wall, Arnled could hear movement on the other side.  He could clearly make out the sound of booted feet climbing ladders.  He turned, aiming his staff upward, at the top of the wall.  The boom and whine was heard again, and another explosion appeared, closer to the warriors who were clustered behind the rock with their shields up.  They could be seen clearly as the explosion bathed the area in yellow light.  Arnled saw gunmen crouching on top of the wall, and took aim.  He pushed the button on his staff and held it down.  When the yellow beam of light appeared, he turned his staff, swinging the beam across the edge.  He was relieved to hear the panicked commotion.  Two scorched gunmen fell outside the wall, still holding their guns.  A third caught fire as the light caressed his powder pouch.  The gunman discarded the pouch and slapped at his smoldering hip.  Two of the warriors darted forward to retrieve the guns belonging to the Rodrangis that had fallen outward.  They turned the weapons upward and fired, nearly in unison, not knowing if they hit their targets.  The boom and whine of Rodrangi weaponry sounded again.  The warriors who had been hiding behind the rocks had scattered and pulled back.  A Rodrangi leaned over the wall, aiming his gun straight down at one of the Benstenis.  Arnled pushed the button on his staff again, and the yellow light scorched the gunman, making him drop his weapon.  A Songi caught it, gratefully.  He aimed the weapon upward and watched.  The two Benstenis with captured guns robbed the bodies of the fallen Rodrangis and hurriedly reloaded, using what they had found.  Watching the top of the wall with guns and bows ready, the warriors waited for an enemy to appear.

            The unseen Rodrangi weapon boomed and whistled again.  Arnled could clearly see the giant ball falling to the ground and exploding into yellow sparks, frighteningly close to their position.  He closed his eyes under his mask as the harsh light delivered a shock of pain.  Arnled wondered if the Rodrangis would risk hitting their own wall to rid themselves of their attackers.  He had an idea.  Arnled darted to the other side of the arch.  As he passed facing inward, he used his staff to swing a beam of light across and between the bars.  The light scorched the wood and mud houses within, but only left a black mark on the metal grid.  As he had passed, Arnled had seen the Rodrangi weapon.  It was a large, squat gun that sat on two wheels, aiming nearly straight up.  Three Rodrangi struggled to load the weapon.  Arnled adjusted the leaver on the side of his hat, and the wall seemed to become a thick shadow.  Through it, he could see the outline of the heavy weapon.  He held his staff away from himself, aiming the weapon’s beam through the bars while keeping as much of his own body behind the wall as he could.  He moved the beam toward the pile of balls.  When the beam touched the pile, a series of popping explosions sounded as the deadly mixture inside the hollow balls ignited.  The three loaders scattered, scorched and panicking.  The weapon’s frame was smashed and scattered, and sparks from the exploding balls started small fires inside the wall.  Arnled tapped the warrior nearest to himself and motioned him to run.  Arnled and the others disappeared into the night.

            The members of the war party found each other the next morning.  They went looking for cover and a place to rest.  The Rodrangi land had been cleared and cover was sparse.  Although thrilled by victory, the warriors were also fatigued and, having only the four guns, they kept on the move.  The Rodrangis had planted wheat and other food and the open land was dotted with fields, which seemed to be untended.  The war party saw no one, so Arnled figured that the entire tribe had moved inside the wall of their fortress, and that the fields had simply been cleared, planted and left to grow on their own.  Arnled did not let the lack of local inhabitants fool him into feeling secure.  He was sure that the Rodrangis would be out looking for them.  The war party traveled slowly, stopping to rest often and taking turns as lookouts.  Eventually, they found a pit that the Rodrangis had dug in order to find something, only the Gods knew what, and the war party hid inside and rested, leaving one young warrior outside as lookout.

            Arnled had drifted off to sleep, and was awakened by the cold, slimy splash of some sort of aromatic brew that had been thrown into the narrow pit.  Arnled sniffed, and discovered that he had been doused in animal fat.  The light from outside was dim and yellow, so he realized that the sun was setting.  As the warriors around him stirred, Arnled looked up to see several Rodrangis looking down at him.  He reached for his staff, and one of the Rodrangis spoke. 

            “Use that, and you will ignite yourself.”  The speaker was an older man with a grim and stoic face.  He wore armor made of a few metal plates, placed strategically for protection and held together by a mesh of thin chains.  He also held a torch, whose flame danced in the open air.

            “Leave your weapons and come out of there,” he ordered, sneering.  “And be quick, you would not want me to become fatigued from waiting and drop this.”

            The damp and slimy warriors climbed out, and were grabbed immediately by Rodrangis.  Their lookout stood with his hands tied and his mouth covered by a leather headband, surrounded by the enemy.  Arnled thought about what he should have done differently, perhaps posting two lookouts or sleeping in shifts would have prevented this.  It was too late now.  Their captors were a large party of Rodrangi gunmen, as well as two brown dogs on leashes, under the command of the man with the armor.  He ordered his men to retrieve the war party’s weapons from the pit and tie the warriors’ hands, and then took Arnled’s staff and hat himself.  He held the staff, looking it over, and then aimed it at the ground and pushed the button, watching the beam studiously as it made a mark in the dirt.  Holding the staff with his left hand and the hat under his elbow, he drew the weapon that hung on his belt.  It was a long, shiny metal blade, straight and double-edged.  He held the tip under Arnled’s chin, and spoke.

“You prisoners will behave, or I will demonstrate this mysterious weapon on your beloved shaman.  Is that understood?”

A few of the warriors nodded, despondently.  The Rodrangi commander shouted suddenly.  “I cannot hear you, is that understood?”  He waited until each of the warriors said yes.  The Rodrangis escorted their captives back to the settlement.  They remained silent and most of them, including the commander, stayed behind the prisoners.  Occasionally, one of the dogs would whimper or bark, tugging at its leash.  It was nighttime when they arrived at the wall of the Rodrangi fortress.  The warriors were led through the open arch and along a dusty street.  Inside the wall, clusters of small houses were sprinkled around, between streets and quarries built on bare land.  The streets and homes were lit by torches and oil lamps, which filled the place with a fiery glow.  It looked hellish to Arnled and his comrades as they were made to walk to the pyramid.  The fires that Arnled had started the night before had spread and a few of the houses were burned and ruined.  The prisoners were led up the pyramid’s broad stairway, inside one of the open doors beside it, into a cramped, dark tunnel and then down a sloping hallway.  The Rodrangis locked them inside a cold, stuffy room and left them.  The room was large, with a higher ceiling than the hallway, and there was a single small window set in the thick wall that must have faced the outside of the pyramid.  It was bare, and the prisoners had to sit or lie on the floor, with their hands still tied.  Two of the warriors backed up to each other, and worked at the leather thongs that bound their hands.  After some clumsy fumbling, one of them freed his hands and untied the others.

They sat on the floor and talked.  One of the Songis held a thong in both hands, pulling it straight.  “We should attack those infidels,” he suggested, staring at the leather with murderous intensity as he wound the ends around the palms of his hands. 

A Bensteni warrior replied.  “That would only bring them down on us,” he reasoned.

“I do not care,” the Songi growled.  “They will kill us anyway.”

Arnled interjected.  “If they wanted us dead, they would have killed us by now.  We should wait for more advantageous circumstances.  There must be a way out!”

The young Bensteni who had been the lookout spoke up.  “I do not share your faith, shaman.”

Another warrior spoke up.  “What was it that they said at the bridge, that the Gods were not gods, and were keeping us ignorant.”

“Twisted lies,” Arnled said, dismissively.

“The Rodrangis are powerful,” the warrior commented.

Arnled used the tone of patient expertise that he typically saved for instructing the Benstenis’ children.  “The forbidden ways can make a tribe powerful for a time, yes, but to achieve that power, they must use up and throw away the land that supports us all.  The Gods have decreed that the land must be preserved, for everyone’s benefit.”

Another warrior interjected.  “But the Rodrangi said that they can prevent the land’s destruction.  He said you know this.”  The man’s voice was accusatory.

Another prisoner spoke up.  “These men have been lied to!”  Arnled gave the man a look that told him to settle down.  The last thing they needed to do was fight with each other. 

“Keep the faith,” he encouraged.  “It is said that the land is eternal, and will recover from damage in time.  But, once a tribe starts down the path of the forbidden ways, they can bring harm to the people before the land has time to heal.”

That explanation ended the debate, and the prisoners waited quietly.  The arrival of the Rodrangi commander was announced by the clicking of the locked door.  As the door was opened outward, the commander stood in his armor, flanked by two gunmen who pointed their weapons into the room. 

“You,” he barked, pointing at Arnled.  “The king wants you brought to him.”  Arnled rose slowly, fighting the stiffness in his back and legs.

The commander led Arnled back to the outside of the pyramid.  They ascended the outdoor stairway to the top.  With the two gunmen behind them, they made a small procession.  Although Arnled kept his eyes on the ground in front of him, he could feel the enemy watching as he took one despondent step after another.  He was escorted into a large archway at the top of the stairs.  The bare, gray room beyond was large, and lit by an elaborate lamp that hung from the ceiling and bathed the room in flickering firelight.  Ten figures stood at attention, lining the walls.  With their helmets over their faces, Arnled wondered if they were people, or only suits of armor on display.  At the far end of the room, a large, bald man reclined in a raised chair, waiting.  The man was tall and powerful, dressed in a cloth robe, but his face displayed a weather-beaten elderliness.  Arnled was brought to him, and the commander and gunmen backed away respectfully.

“I am king Marquas, ruler of the Rodrangis,” the man in the chair introduced himself.

“King,” Arnled snorted in disgust.

The man rose, grinning maliciously.  “Yes, King,” he declared with defiant satisfaction.  “And I will show you why.”  Marquas turned and placed one hand on the chair.  “This is now the seat of power, but you do know what it once was?”

Arnled looked the chair over.  It had the sleek oddness of an artifact.  It had no legs and rested on a stone block.  The seat and armrests were padded, smooth and without visible stitches.  The back was on a hinge that allowed it to be adjusted backward or forward, with a concave headrest on top.  Arnled simply looked at the king with a question in his eyes, not wanting satisfy the heretical ruler by displaying his awe, although he knew full well that this throne was made by the Gods.

“It is a seat from the vessel that the Gods used to travel between worlds,” Marquas told him, standing by his side and speaking softly.  “It was once kept and preserved by a shaman of another tribe.”

Arnled tried not to cringe.  No shaman would give up such a treasure willingly, and Arnled did not want to know what the Rodrangis had done to acquire it.  Marquas reached under the seat and pulled on some unseen device.  The throne clicked, and he picked it up and placed it gently on the floor.  There was a concealed opening in the stone block, just wide enough for a man to fit into, between two metal tracks that had held the chair in place.  A ladder was attached to the near side of the opening, and Marquas gestured invitingly for Arnled to descend.  Arnled climbed down the ladder, lowering himself carefully into the darkness.  King Marquas followed, and did something behind him that made a loud click.  A small, white sphere set in the belly of a nude female statue glowed, flooding the chamber with unnatural white light.  The cramped vault was lined on all sides with shelves that displayed a wide variety of artifacts.  Arnled examined the treasures from where he stood.  He knew many of the devices from his shaman’s books, such as the small camera that caught his eye, or the boxy can opener displayed at shoulder height.  The lower shelf in front of him was lined with books.

Marquas pushed passed him in the confined space and reached into the corner, pulling out Arnled’s staff.  He held the device and made a show of looking it over.  “This lasergun is a fine new acquisition, and I am certain that my assistants will figure out how we can make these ourselves,” he contemplated.  “An army of my people armed with these could do much.”

Arnled swore contemptuously.  “You Ignorant frog!  That is not a ‘lasergun’, or known by any other heretical name you make up for it.  It s a shaman’s staff, a gift from the Gods.”

Marquas chortled.  “And you believe that I am the one who is ignorant.  Hmm.  That must be the reason I now have your lasergun, and that lovely helmet with low-light, gamma and infra-red visual capabilities.”  Marquas spoke the technical words with boastful satisfaction.  “My books tell me everything.”

Arnled calmed himself.  “The Gods will punish you for what you have done,” he declared with confidence in the inevitable.

Marquas’s face changed, dropping the facade of friendly instruction.  His eyes burned with bitter intensity, and his mouth thinned with spite before he spoke with quiet contempt.  “The ‘Gods’ are long dead, and cannot punish anyone.  They founded our tribes and said what is forbidden because they wanted us to live like animals, not like men and women.” 

Marquas moved suddenly, making Arnled draw back as if he were about to be struck.  He yanked a book from the shelf, leaving the staff propped against the shelves behind him.  It was not like the other books.  The pages were loose, bound together by metal rings, and the cover was crude leather of the sort the wild people made.  Marquas opened the book.  Many of the pages were written in a blue, swirling language that Arnled did not recognize.  Marquas found a page and held it in front of Arnled’s face, as if he wanted the shaman to smell the old paper.  The text of the page was printed in the book-language, stamped neatly onto the paper in the way that only the Gods could write.  Arnled could not doubt that it was real.  It gave the names of the tribes and their founders, as well as a recommendation of what should be forbidden, in order to create a “social experiment”.  Marquas turned the page and showed Arnled pictures of a dozen men and women, along with their names and a description of the territory that each tribe would use.  Marquas tuned the page again, showing a picture of George Benson, and a description of Bensteni territory.  The king also pointed out Carla Rodriguez, founder of the Rodrangis, and Song Li, founder of the Songis. 

Arnled’s knees buckled.  He said nothing, his mind was unable to accept this king’s faithless ideas, but he could not find a way to deny them either.  “The Gods will punish you,” he said at last, under his breath.  His mind sought a way to salvage some of his righteousness.

“Why?”  Arnled growled the single word.

“They thought that keeping us ignorant would make us morally pure, somehow,” Marquas commented.  His voice took on an alluring tone as he tried to seduce Arnled away from his faith.

Arnled snorted with frustration.  “Why are you king?” he clarified.  “Why are you killing and stealing and attacking other tribes?  Even if everything you have told me is true, I do not see any commandment ordering you to do these evil deeds.”

Marquas spoke with condescending annoyance, as if instructing a disobedient child.  “The forbidden ways make us strong, and the strong prey on the weak, just as a dog eats a rabbit.  If my tribe does not do the eating, someone else will eat us.”  The king’s voice rose, echoing off the walls of the vault.  “That is why your way of life is doomed!  You might even have found the moral purity that the founders sought, but as long as you are ignorant, it will not last.  Progress is inevitable!”

Arnled waited until his captor was finished shouting.  “Simple selfishness,” he declared.  “You want power, and you are twisting all you have discovered to justify your selfishness.  You truly are a hungry dog!”

“I know what I am!” the king snapped.

Arnled reached for a device on one of the shelves.  It was a gun, but unlike the ones the Rodrangi gunmen carried.  It was shorter and had been precisely crafted out of metal and wood parts, and was equipped with a bolt that opened a chamber behind the barrel for easy loading.  “I know what this is,” he declared as he aimed the weapon at his captor and held down the trigger.  The empty automatic small arm made a hollow, mechanical rattle.  The king took it from him.  Arnled lunged forward, grasping for his staff, and Marquas knocked him down with the butt of the gun while calling sharply for his soldiers.  Two gunmen hustled down the ladder and subdued Arnled, while an armored commander waited at the top of the entrance with his sword drawn, watching to see if he needed to use the blade.

“Contemplate what I have told you,” the king ordered, when Arnled had ceased to struggle and was forced to his knees, panting from his bought of enraged exertion.  The Rodrangi gunmen hauled him up the ladder, dragged him out of the throne room and forced him to walk back to the room where he had been imprisoned.  One of the gunmen opened the locked door and then the other shoved Arnled inside.  A young Bensteni caught him before he fell, wearing a shocked look as his captors locked the door behind him.

“They beat you?” asked the young man.

Arnled sat despondently by the door, fingering his bruised forehead.  “They have broken my spirit,” he explained.  “As a shaman, I cannot tell you how.”  The other captives shared looks of horror.

“What are we to do,” asked a seasoned hunter.

Arnled was silent as the other prisoners waited for a response.  “We must do what we can for our tribe and ourselves,” he confided, finally.  “Change is coming, and we must make the best of it.”  His voice cracked with a sob on the last word.



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