In small type because it's a rather long short story and I thought a smaller font would keep the blogger page from being stretched too much. If this is a problem, I can change the type size upon request. The scene with the gravestones - that was inspired by the cemetary across the street from where I live. It is in current use, but there are some very old graves / limestone markers there that are like that. There are some where I can make out "1885," but not the name and some where I'm lucky if I can make out anything. Whitt's horses are an homage to a pair on the farm I work for, often referred to as "Dumb and Dumber," but their real names are Jackson and Phoenix.
The Static-Lands Saga
The moon rode high this afternoon, a waxing crescent against a deep blue sky clean of clouds. The trees were deep green with specks of limey yellow to a pair of eyes accustomed to the perpetual night enough to see them as the people of the day-land would see them in their native daylight. Whitt sat upon the round stone altar in the middle of the woods.
The platform was circular in shape and just high enough for her to sit on the edge and still have her feet touch the ground. It was engraved with abstract designs and the simple forms of animals. The well around it where Whitt’s hooves touched was rust-colored from many years of spilled blood, but the altar hadn’t been used in decades.
The Panzau used to sacrifice lambs, goats and horses here to the abstract object of their worship – the Energy. It was what some might term a “god,” but it was largely thought of as a creative force, or life or “soul” itself. Somewhere along the way, the Panzau felt that the Energy no longer required sacrifices. Whitt was glad she’d not seen any horses slain here. A sacrifice in those days usually consisted of leaving behind or burning the skin and entrails of the beast while feeding the community with the meat. People in the tribe still ate meat (although vegetarianism was on the rise), but only a few of the old people ever ate horse – and that rarely.
Whitt’s family kept two horses, but they were for riding and considered treasured companions. Whitt was one of the few who knew how to ride. That was not only uncommon for Panzau, but for all Ilkhan. Few of them rode due to having swiftness like that of deer on their own two legs and the difficulty those legs presented while mounting. Oro told her that the slight speed-and-power advantage provided by a horse could be the deciding factor in survival and victory on the battlefield.
Whitt’s parents had cried when she’d told them what she wanted to do with her life. Her father had been especially distraught.
The Panzau were a peaceful people, to the point that pacifism was the prime spiritual virtue in their culture. When other tribes had sought their destruction or assimilation, they’d simply retreated further and further into wild places, uprooting their villages. They’d been deep in the mountains for a very long time, living on an island of green woods and soft earth surrounded by jagged rocks like shards of dark glass. The “
” as they called it was frequently ice-locked in winter, but the Panzau depended upon nothing from the outside, anyway. Last Land
A new threat had been sweeping the lands around them, soldiers without antlers from the Land-of-Always-Day. The nation of Vale had been overtaking all of the tribes in The-Land-of-Always-Night.
Although the Panzau were strict pacifists, they made an allowance: To defend them from various enemies, there was an order created long ago. This order of warriors sprang from the tribe, though, of late, some individuals from friendly surrounding nations had been joining it. The Lambs guarded the Panzau and were ready to go to battle if war were ever brought to doorstep to defend their friends, their families – their people. This little army was called the “Lambs” in reference to the ancient sacrifices no longer performed. The Panzau considered doing harm to others – especially taking the life of a “high souled” creature (a fellow humanoid), to be damaging to one’s own soul – even if it was necessary to save one’s own life or many lives. The Panzau realized that they lived in a broken world and that, sometimes, a sacrifice of soul was necessary just to live.
Whitt’s parents acknowledged necessity, but they still didn’t want her to join the Lambs. She, however, had decided that her strongest pull was “to protect.” She was by no means a violent youth, she just wanted to protect her family and knew that they were so concentrated upon “spirit” that they would fail to protect themselves if something terrible came their way.
Whitt’s sensitive ears picked up the breaking of a twig.
“Oro…” she said. A tall woman bearing a sheathed sword strode to the altar and sat down beside Whitt. The two were a picture of rare things. Whitt’s hair, ears and lower legs were white. This was rare in Ilkhan, which mostly were shades of brown in the legs and ears and with various hair colors. Oro was blond. Her ears and her legs were a bright golden color. Some in the tribe considered her a reflection of the old legend about the golden stag that took care of the dead.
“You have decided, Whitt?” the woman asked.
“Are you certain?”
“I have something to show you.”
Oro placed the sword on her knees and unsheathed it. She gently placed it before Whitt. Whit held it cautiously.
“Ouch!” the teenager exclaimed, watching a line of red appear on one of her fingers.
“Careful of the edges!” Oro cautioned. “You only brushed it lightly. Now you know the feeling of being cut by a sword.”
Whitt pondered her reflection in the blade. It glimmered like a mirror in the late afternoon moonlight.
“That sword has taken life,” Oro said. Whitt gasped and almost dropped it. Oro took it back by the hilt and slid it back into its scabbard. Whitt looked up at her.
“I want you to think about what you are getting into,” the older woman said slowly. “Being a Lamb is a serious thing. You will never be as innocent as the rest of our people ever again. Our current ranks are lucky. Only a few of us have seen real combat. We are usually able to drive off our enemies with scare-tactics, but I have known battle. I suppose I am fortunate, as well. I have only ever had to kill once, but once is enough for me to never be a true Panzau again.”
“With this very sword?” Whit asked.
“Yes,” her mentor replied. “Valien soldiers marched along our southern borders. We met them in a meadow. They intended to scale the southern pass to our land, but the Lambs went down to stop them, which we did. That was four years ago. I had injured many, but was caught unaware by a man charging me with a small axe. I reacted by instinct. I thrust my sword out straight through his middle. The soldier dropped his axe and just looked at me so intensely. He was suffering, so I arched my right hoof up and kicked him off the blade and then swung around and cleanly took his head off.”
Whitt looked down, too afraid to ask the question that was on her mind, but Oro sensed it. “If you want to know what it felt like,” she said, “it felt like a premonition of my own death.”
“I may have to kill someday.”
“I knew that. It is why my father cried. Even if it means seeing my own death mirrored, I want to protect my father, my mother… my friends. My people.”
“Then meet me in the east clearing when the horizon is lighter.”
In the Land-of-Always-Night, especially in the wild reaches, the measurement of time was rather strange. In the cities, the old system that was leftover from the days when the night and day cycles were regular was still in place. People talked of mornings, afternoons and evenings in the perpetual . Watches and clocks were kept running and Whitt had her own pocket-watch to mark the hours, but the Panzau, for the most part, began to measure time by the most subtle differences in the sky. The sky was slightly lighter at the horizon during the hour that used to be sunrise in bygone times.
Some people kept birds that were trained to sound to mark that hour and a few other times of day. They were not chickens. Chickens were unreliable and would crow, sometimes, when the time should be the middle of the night. (As a person living in a place with a normal night and day cycle, you should know this if you’ve ever lived anywhere near roosters).
Whitt appeared for training along with several others. Young men, a pair of young women… and a few older fellows came to the clearing, eager to learn the arts of fighting from the seasoned warrior-Lambs. Whitt was the youngest among them. Oro had been a friend of hers for a long time. She was a friend of her family and saw her father for prayers and rites. Whitt thought that she might be given a practice-sword on the first day, a weapon of wood. She was given nothing. The next few weeks consisted of learning to march, to keep one’s clothing neat and other excruciatingly regimented and banal behaviors. These were designed to instill coherence and discipline within the group. Whitt thought she might go mad.
She was given a practice-sword eventually and Oro took a special role in her training. While the rest of the trainee Lambs learned the “proper” techniques from their elders, Oro took Whitt aside at the end of each day and taught her how to brawl. The woman did this with others who were interested, but away from the eyes of the other senior warriors.
“Etiquette means nothing in a real battle,” she said. “You do what you must to survive.”
After dinner one evening, Whitt sat in her family’s home threading a thick, curved needle through leather as her father sat serenely and watched her.
“They’ve elected me to care for their horses,” Whitt explained, “and to teach those that do not know already how to ride. Most have trouble with the stirrups so I thought that maybe I could design something that fits the feet better.”
“It was not originally our way to ride horses,” her father said, “It was always more of a practice for those lacking antlers… with their big, flat feet. Some good comes from all people, I suppose. Many of them may be infected with hateful spirits, but I am glad that some beasts are not merely food for us anymore.”
“I will protect our freedom – from the hate. To be who we are.”
“You’ll give up your peace so your mother and I can pursue ours. I really wish you weren’t a Lamb, my little one. There have to be other ways to protect ourselves, without such sacrifices of soul.”
“You said it yourself,” Whitt said with another stitch, “demons of hate infect them and such things are not easily gotten rid of. They want our land. They want to change us. They want to subjugate us. Eliminate us. It is not just our ways, but our very beings that they hate, father. With our antlers and hooves, we have the right to exist, even if some of us have to fight for it.”
“The question is… in defending our people, have you become not one of us?”
“I’ve not gone to battle yet. I’ve not killed yet. Maybe I will be lucky and not have to. It all depends upon how aggressive others are.”
“And what you must do to survive. It doesn’t matter to me, dear-heart, if you stain yourself. I want you to survive. What I fear is you not surviving. This is the true reason I am upset with your choice. Your mother and I worry about you.”
There was an urgent knock at the front door. “Elder!”
“Oro,” Whitt gasped. She got up and opened the heavy wooden door. Oro came in, ducking her head, along with three other elder Lambs and a man the village did not know.
“Sit down! Sit down!” Whitt’s father urged. Her mother came in from the back bedroom. “What is going on?” she asked.
Oro motioned to the stranger dressed in red robes. “This is Vinchinte Lapaz. He is of the Far West Tribe and the keeper of the
. He is trying to unite the tribes to repel the invaders from the Land-of-Always-Day.” Old Tower
“I need your help,” Lapaz said humbly.
“Not my tribe!” Whitt’s father proclaimed, “Not the Panzau! We are a people of peace. Do not ask us to commit to a war!”
“That is not what I ask of you, Elder,” Vinchinte Lapaz explained calmly. “I am trying to unite all members of our race peacefully. Sadly, I’ve only seen the tribes previously at enmity unite when they’ve found a common threat, but even that may be a start. I am here on business from the Far West Tribe and the Cold Creek People. Although the Panzau are a people of peace, I have heard of your Lambs. I would like to borrow them for a small mission.”
“That is not up to me, it is up to their leaders. I lead only the common members of our tribe.”
Vinchinte continued. “My group has been intercepting the supply lines for the latest battle at Cold Creek. We’ve been capturing wagons loaded with weapons. The Valiens have been developing some devices that make use of explosive powder. Dreadful, dreadful weapons! It may give you comfort to know that our activities are not one-sided, Elder. We’ve been interrupting weapons-supplies on both sides of the conflict. Some of my group have been captured and executed for treachery by their own tribes for the sake of trying to keep people from killing each other. In any case, the Valiens have started a supply-trail through a pass at the base of your mountains. I would like to minimize the destruction that is going on.”
“That sounds completely foolish!” Oro exclaimed.
“I’ll go,” Whitt said, standing up tall and straight.
Vinchinte Lapaz looked up at her from his seat upon the floor. “Are you sure, young one?” he asked, “This task is very dangerous.”
“I have recently become a Lamb, sir,” she answered. “I accepted the idea of putting myself in danger to preserve peace some time ago. Besides, I am currently the swiftest rider of my entire tribe. I know horses better than most in the village.”
“It is true, sir,” Oro spoke up. “She is the Elder’s daughter and he knows the beasts better than anybody, but he cannot fight. I’ve trained Whitt personally and I believe her skill is up to a first mission.”
“This is a capture-mission,” Lapaz went on. “My men and women are warriors of peace, soldiers of mercy. We shall not slay the men who drive the wagons. We must not hurt them if we can avoid it. We always treat our prisoners well. Some, even Valiens, have joined my little movement.” At this, the man in red laughed. “Maybe we can save the Ilkhan tribe and the Valiens, too.”
Whitt knelt down and looked him in the eyes. “Will this save the Panzau?” she asked.
“I hope so.”
Whit took Jax and Pheo, her family’s horses, and left with the Lambs when the horizon was subtly lighter. Vinchinte Lapaz’s people knew that three wagons were to take the pass that week – at least, that is what informants had told them. After the interception, the combined group of Lapaz’s people and the Panzau Lambs planned to use some of the explosive weapons they would confiscate to destroy key sections of the road so that the supply-trail would be cut off completely.
Whitt followed Oro to scout out a section of the newly-cut road. It ran near an ancient graveyard. Little tombstones jutted out from among the undergrowth in the thick forest, white and nubby. The names that had once been engraved into them had long been worn away by more than a century of weather. No date in any reckoning remained, either. These monuments pre-dated the Panzau’s presence in this land. These were the nameless heroes of some forgotten war.
Whit braced a hoof atop one of the worn nubs of stone and stared out at the scar of dirt and stone highway visible between the trees. “I don’t want to die,” she said suddenly. There was no fear in her voice. She’d spoken calmly and flatly, as if stating a simple fact rather than making an emotional plea.
“Few do,” Oro replied, adjusting the bow and quiver on her back. They rested against the scabbard of her sword, also strapped there. Whitt had weapons, too. She’d just been given her first real sword, which rested upon her back and a dagger, which she wore on her hip. The sword was as long as her arm, simple and double-edged.
“Our people believe in some silly things, don’t we, Oro?” she sighed. “My father believes that the Energy will take care of us all, in its own good time. He also thinks that peace will eventually win and that a person can win a battle without fighting. What if he’s wrong – and if we’re all wrong? What if we’re fighting the people who are right?”
“There are many peoples that have tried to subjugate and destroy the Panzau, not just the Valiens. They’re just the latest and some of those they fight used to be our enemies. Right, wrong… it doesn’t matter. Even if we are wrong and they are right, they are trying to take away peoples’ right to be wrong.”
“Not everyone in the tribe believes in the Energy or the spiritual realm. Mother and father say that more people believe now than when they were children. All the Panzau used to believe and do the old sacrifices. It tapered off for a while, and now, though we don’t do flesh and blood sacrifices anymore, there are more believers than there used to be for a long time. It all came back again because folk tried to tell us we couldn’t. At least, that is what the old ones say. It’s interesting – the idea that people can believe something out of sheer defiance.”
“The people of Vale do not see us as equal beings, anyway,” Oro muttered. “Physically, we look different. We have what they see as animal-traits. Sometimes, I’ve wondered if they are more animal than human - if they were truly among the ‘high souled.’ Your father thinks they are. Most of the tribe thinks they are. It would assuage my guilt greatly if they are not. Maybe I never killed a man. Maybe I merely killed a beast, like our butchers do, or like the priests of old used to do in making sacrifices. Maybe the hate-demons in them have taken over and have made them only monsters.”
“That sounds so cruel, Oro.”
“It would be nicer to think that I had killed something that was unlike me than something that was like me,” Oro replied, “but I feel our concept of soul-sacrifice. I am hoping I’ll not see the Barrens when I die, but I think I probably will, or the Shade at least, since I’m not entirely at peace. Still, I’m a fighter and I’ll die for our people if it comes to it, but I do not long for death.”
“Especially since there may be nothing on the other side of it,” Whitt ventured, taking her hoof down from the tombstone she had it rested upon. “I don’t like to think about it, but maybe what I’ve believed in all my life is faerie stories.”
Oro walked around the area, looking down at the stones and shaking her tail over the back side of her loincloth. “We all tell ourselves faerie stories when it comes down to inevitable things.” she mused. “There is little material evidence for the beliefs of our people. What we believe isn’t based on nothing, though. All strong faith has some basis, especially if it persists many generations and centuries. Still, it stands that we could be right, our current enemies may be right, someone else might be right… we do not know for sure. Maybe we tell ourselves fantasies for comfort, but they do, too. Look at these graves.”
“Yes? They are so white and pretty under the moonlight, even on a dark day like today, with the moon at a sliver.”
Oro brushed a headstone with the fingers of her left hand. “You cannot see any names on them. I cannot even feel a name here – that is how worn down they are. No one living can provide names to the corpses we’re walking over, let alone remember their hearts, the way they spoke, or smelled, or the ways they each laughed… People with nothing to look forward to after the inevitable like to tell themselves that they’ll be remembered long, that they were important, that their memories will live. Not for long, my friend. Eventually, everyone ends up like this – like these graves – forgotten. If any of these people had children or even grandchildren, they are dead by now, too. Maybe someone famous is buried here, some magnificent hero. Given enough time, that mountain beyond the trail over there? Even that will become a plain.”
“Oro,” Whitt said firmly, her ears perking.
“Get on Pheo. I’ll take Jax. Everyone else should be in position. I hear hoof beats.”
The capture was executed beautifully. Riders whooped and hollered, pressing in upon the wagon. The Lambs unfurled their standard, a triangular green flag with a stylized white lamb emblazoned on it. This left the wagon-driver confused, as he was not used to such a gentle and weak animal used as heraldry.
Oro rode up beside the front of the wagon on Pheo, a white horse so large it made the tall Ilkhan woman seem petite. She stood up in the saddle, utilizing a pair of the special stirrups Whitt had made. The man looked at her. He was wearing a device over his face – something people had been calling “cat’s-eyes.” They were like eyeglasses with green-tinted lenses and allowed for people from the Land-of-Always-Day to see in the Land-of-Always-Night in a way similar to the natives. Colors, however, were washed out with the cat’s-eyes. The man grit his teeth and snorted.
Oro aimed an arrow at him. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll stop the wagon. Don’t test me. I am a killer.”
As he stared slack-jawed at Oro, Whitt rode up the other side, jumped off her steed onto the seat and kicked the man in the head. He slumped over and Whitt was quick to take the reins of the wagon-horses. Although they were excited, she was able to calm them to a stop. Jax, however had gone off the trail.
Vinchinte Lapaz’s people made quick work of binding the man. Whitt worried that she may have given him severe damage, but he talked without slurring and spat at them, so they stopped worrying and gave him over to the custody of those that had volunteered to be guards and was taken to one of the camps the group had set up along the trail in the woods. Lapaz came to inspect the weapons-load while Whitt and another young Lamb named Katto rounded up stray horses.
Oro inspected one of the swords that was in the back of the wagon. “I like this,” she said. “A well-tempered blade… nice and new. I’m taking it.”
“Um… go ahead,” Vinchinte said.
Another branch of the combined group took on a wagon on another part of the trail. Whitt and Oro were called upon to take the last one. The had both performed so well along with fellow Lambs, Katto and Shin that they were the obvious choice of interception-team. This wagon, like the others, was covered, but its covering was red instead of white.
As the team of four thundered alongside the wagon and Whitt brought out her sword to make an empty threat (while her mentor took out her own in a not-so-empty threat), the wagon lurched. The seat broke off its fixtures. The driver was pulled off the wagon by the reins; the wagon rolled over him, veered, and came to a skid on its side in the dirt. Katto and Shin rushed to the man. Whitt stopped her horse, watching the wagon-horses speed off in most of their trappings.
Vinchinte rode out of the woods on his little black mare, followed by a pair of his men. “Red-covered?” He exclaimed upon seeing the wagon, “Oh, no.”
Katto helped the groaning driver up. He screamed upon moving his right arm. “Easy,” Shin said. “Believe it or not, we do not want to hurt you. We just want what’s in your wagon.”
“I suppose you would need medical supplies,” the man grunted.
“Medical supplies?” asked Oro, her ears perking.
“I didn’t know one of the wagons coming through was red,” Vinchinte said, dismounting. “Red wagons are medic’s wagons.”
Oro, Whitt and Lapaz looked inside the overturned wagon. Katto kept his sword out, eying the wagon-driver warily as Whitt passed Shin some specified items scavenged from it to create a splint for the driver’s arm. More of the Lambs and Lapaz’s men rode or strode out from the forest.
“Get this wagon up!” Vinchinte commanded. “Find the horses and fix the seat! Hurry! Hurry!”
“You aren’t going to kill me?” the driver asked.
“That’s not my style,” Vinchinte Lapaz said, “and I have sworn all I am working with today to go by my style.”
“What are we going to do with the wagon?” Oro asked as she watched some of the strongest among the group right the wagon with great heaving. “We can take it to the Cold Creek front lines, to the Ikhan soldiers. I’m sure they could use it.”
“No,” Vinchinte said, shaking his head. “The Ilkhan camps are far from here. The Vale lines are closer. This man’s people are in need of it.”
“Urgently,” the man added.
“Oh, you can’t be serious,” Oro huffed.
“People are going to die.” the driver insisted.
“Yes, your people. Not ours,” Oro said.
“Oro!” Whitt whined.
Someone behind them led the captured and calmed wagon horses back and hitched them up. Whitt craned her neck, staring back at it.
“Listen,” the driver said, “I’m just a medic. My name is Ezo. I was conscripted. The reason I don’t desert the lines is because people need me. I just don’t want people to die, okay? The word is that my army is suffering heavy losses. It should be good news for your people, but it’s not to me. My brother is a soldier, so are most of my friends. I’ll be glad to give this wagon over to you for your casualties, but my first duty is to my own. And now…I cannot drive the wagon. A wheel rolled right over my arm and, trust me, it’s broken.”
Whit had slipped away and was seated upon the seat of the wagon, reins in hand.
“What in the? What are you doing?” Oro demanded of her.
“Come on, Ezo,” Whitt said with a twitch of her right ear. “We’ve got some medical supplies to deliver. Help him up, will you?”
Vinchinte Lapaz smiled and helped the medic into the seat next to her.
“You’re going to die…” Oro gasped. “What do you think the Valien army will do when they see an Ilkhan come ridin’ into their midst?”
“Hopefully, they’ll understand and let me go,” Whitt replied. “I am doing them an act of goodwill. Besides, horses – I know them. I am the best qualified for this and you know it.”
Oro made her way to the back of the wagon. Whitt slapped the reins and it rolled forward before she could climb in. “I don’t want you to die,” the girl called back. “I’m sorry!”
It was many hours into the endless night when Whitt and Ezo made neared their destination. She had talked with the Valien man the whole time and they’d found a lot of things in common. Ezo wasn’t a bad fellow at all, just a person caught up in circumstances beyond his control and as loyal to his people as Whitt was to hers.
“I guess I am a true Panzau,” she said softly. “I’m doing something my father would approve of – something crazy for the sake of peace… saving the lives of my enemies.”
“You wouldn’t need to do this if your group hadn’t ambushed me,” Ezo pointed out.
“True, but we only waylaid you because we thought this was a weapons wagon.”
“I won’t be good for surgery quick enough as I’m needed, but there are others and an apprentice that I’ve been training in our camp. This is better than nothing, but I still think you’re insane – very risky. People don’t usually help the people who are trying to subjugate them.”
“I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, either,” Whitt sighed. “Maybe it’s a step in the right direction. All I really ever wanted to do was to protect my people and I may be doing the opposite. My parents say that it the world isn’t changed as much by people in power – even Elders – as it is just by ordinary people doing the right thing at the right time. Maybe that’s just a faerie tale that ordinary people tell themselves to feel better about life, one among the countless. I don’t know. Even if it’s a lie, I like it – I like that idea.”
“I think I like it, too,” Ezo said. The wagon rambled into his camp. There were many shouts as they rolled in and many swords were pointed Whitt’s way.
“No! No!” Ezo insisted. “She’s friendly! She’s helping! Commander, don’t!”
A soldier held him back, none too gentle with his injured arm. The commander, a man dressed in shoulder and chest armor, grabbed Whitt by an antler and forced her to her knees in the dirt.
“Just what are you about?” he sneered.
“I am Whitt of the Panzau,” Whitt replied. “I am among their protectors, the Lambs. My people are a people of peace and we are to seek peace whenever possible. Your medic needed help, so I helped him.”
“Are you a spy?”
“I am not. I wanted to help. I want no one to die needlessly.”
Ezo yelped as the commander raised his sword. The medic closed his eyes and heard the sound of a body dropping onto the dirt. He opened his eyes again to see his commander holding a shaggy, white-haired head aloft by one of its antlers.