Heir to Power – Chapter 7

The canyon was alive with activity the following morning as people prepared for the first celebration of spring. Jettena and Kairma met with a small group of men who had just returned from the hunt. Once Kairma described the location of the wolf sighting, the men hurried away, hoping to return in time for the celebration. The Awakening was a religious celebration held each spring to thank the gods of Nor for seeing the Survinees through the winter. It was a joyous occasion filled with song and dance and lots of food.

The warm kitchen of the Chancery smelled of frying meat and baking breads. Jettena added wood to the stove and checked the biscuits once more. The center table was littered with baskets, stoneware bowls, and baking pots, leaving little room for Kinter to work as she stirred flour into the bowl of sticky dough.

Concern flickered across Kinter’s pretty face. “Mother, are you sure this is sweet enough? Maybe we should put a few more berries in the next batch.”

“Kinter, you’ve made these biscuits dozens of times and there are certainly enough berries in the batter. Now hurry up and fill those baking dishes. We don’t want to be late for your first competition.”

Jettena dumped luscious blackberry biscuits from hot clay dishes into a beautifully crafted basket and covered them with a hand towel. She placed the basket in a large box with several other provisions and called up the stairs. “Tames! Taren! Tadya! Are you boys ready to go? I need you down here right now, and get your sister while you’re at it!”

Taking the heavy pans from Kinter, Jettena placed them in the stone oven. “You had better get changed now. We wouldn’t want folks to see you all covered in flour. I laid out the yellow dress you like so much. Now hurry up! I’ll watch the biscuits for you.”

“Thank you, Mother. You’re the best!” Kinter started up the stairs then turned back to her mother. “What is Kairma bringing to the Awakening? I haven’t seen her all morning.”

“She’s entering the blackberry preserves she made last autumn.”

Kinter groaned. “How could she? She knew I was going to make blackberry biscuits.”

Jettena gave her daughter a sharp look. “Kinter, I am most certain no one will notice that you each made something with blackberries. Now go get dressed.”

“I just hope they don’t put her preserves on my biscuits,” she spat, and then ran up the stairs.

Jettena shook her head and went back to cleaning up the kitchen.

At the top of the stairs Kinter saw Kairma coming down the hall toward her, towing three little boys behind her.

“I hope you’re happy with yourself!” Kinter shouted. “You know, two can play this game!”

“What are you talking about? What game?”

“You know what you did!” Kinter shot back as she stomped into her sleeping room.

Kairma stared after her, wondering what she had done this time.

Rounding up the boys, who were more interested in playing than in getting downstairs, Kairma tried to think of a reason why Kinter would be so upset. When she walked into the kitchen, she saw Jettena wiping off the table.

“Mother, Kinter’s mad at me again, and I haven’t a clue as to why.”

Jettena shook her head. “She thinks you planned to enter your blackberry preserves in today’s contest because she was entering blackberry biscuits.”

“Nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t even think about what she was going to enter.”

“I know, dear, but you know how sensitive she is.”

“Do I ever!” Kairma let out a long sigh and plopped down at the table. “What can I do now? It’s too late to make anything else.”

“Well, that is very sweet of you to think about entering something else. You do have some apple preserves you could enter.”

“They aren’t as good as the blackberry preserves, and everybody knows Theonia makes the best apple preserves in all of Survin. I might win with the blackberry preserves.”

“I trust you to make the right choice, dear. I know how much this means to you and Kinter. It would be nice to have one of my girls bring home a prize.” She smiled at Kairma. “We might be good at taking care of the sick, but the Healing family has never been known for their cooking. I’m going to go freshen up a bit. Will you watch the biscuits for a minute?”

“Yes, Mother.”

Tears threatened as she watched her mother walk out of the room. It’s just not fair. Why did Kinter have to choose to make blackberry biscuits? She could have made something else. The right choice? The right choice? What is the right choice? Should I let Kinter get another one over on me and maybe give up a good chance of winning today? Should I do the nice thing? I’m really tired of always being the nice one.

While arranging the dishes in one of the boxes, Kairma sipped on a steaming cup of terrid. She was trying hard not to be angry. When Kairma saw Kinter standing at the bottom of the stairs in her pretty yellow dress, she set down her cup and grabbed a box, calling to her mother as she led her brothers out the door, “I’m taking the boys to the festival now. I’m taking one of the boxes too. I’ll see you there. ”

The Awakening and Harvest feasts were always held at the base of the Gathering House. Like the hospital, the north opening of the Grand Hall was about twenty feet above the valley floor. Large stones had been brought from the temples to build the massive stairs to the entrance. The structure itself was made of two large, square tunnels through the huge cliff face. A gap of two to eight feet separated the two tunnels. Over the annums, the Survinees had walled in the space between the two tunnels, leaving the roof open. Here in its center, they built a massive fire to warm the room in winter, allowing the smoke to escape upward. The opening also helped to cool the room in summer. Around the edges of the Gathering House were tables and chairs and a small dais for entertainment. It was from this great hall that several young men were hauling furniture outside in preparation for the afternoon’s celebration.

From the top of the stairs, Zedic called, “Here, help me with this table, Collin. I’ve only got three more to set out.” Collin sprinted up the stairs, and the two young men struggled with the long wooden table.

Wiping the sweat from his forehead with the hem of his russet vest, Collin asked, “Do you think Naturi had a chance to talk to Trep last night?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him this morning. I’m sure he’ll be here before long. He always tries to get in some practice shots before the bow contest.” They set the final table in place creating a large square around a raised platform.

Collin harrumphed. “Isn’t Naturi getting a little old for the games?” He adjusted the table to the left and gave Zedic a wry look.

“Yeah, but until he takes a mate, he’s still eligible to compete. Everyone knows he’s waiting for Kairma to come of age.”

“I’ll bet that’s got his father in an uproar.” Even as he said it, Collin felt a surge of resentment for the ever-popular Naturi. Collin tried to be nonchalant, but it irritated him that Naturi and Siede were still waiting to take mates.

Haphazardly placing chairs in front of tables, Zedic said, “Toric used to want Naturi to mate with Kairma, but I guess that was before she was bitten by that White One.”

“Still, it gets old seeing him win the bow contest every annum.” Uneasy with the direction of the conversation, Collin motioned for Zedic to help him adjust the rest of the chairs. “Come on, if we don’t leave a little more room in here the musicians will never be able to get to the stage tonight.”

Once they had made sure there was enough room between the two tables on the south end to walk from the Gathering Place stairs to the dais, they started setting the torches in place. “Zedic, are you gonna play your flute tonight?”

“I guess that depends on how much I have to drink. A little bit of wine will give me courage; too much wine and I’ll be more interested in other things!” The two boys laughed heartily.

Collin winked. “I know what you mean! I can’t wait!”

Seeing Naturi come up the path carrying a load of targets for the games, Collin ran to give him a hand, asking, “Did you talk to him? What’d he say? Does he know anything about the things we found?”

“Slow down, Collin. Of course I did not show Trep the items you found. I need to learn more about him before we let him see those things.” He handed a bundle of targets to Collin.

Collin frowned as he started setting targets out. “You said you’d ask him!”

“I will remind you,” Naturi said, glaring at Collin, “that I said I would meet with him and assess the situation. I am in no hurry to share the secrets of our mountain with this stranger.”

Naturi had flushed when he replied, and Collin thought it odd for a moment but said, “Come on, Naturi. What is there to assess? We don’t even know if the Healers are gonna let him live.”

“Yes, there is that possibility, but …”

“You’re gonna waste this chance to get some real answers, aren’t you? I don’t believe it! Well, you had your chance. I’m tired of always depending on the Ogs to tell us what we can and can’t do.” Collin set the target in place with a little too much force and it fell over.

“Collin! Watch what you say!”

“No, Naturi! I’m not gonna to let you ruin this, no matter what you and Zedic think. This is a real opportunity to learn something.” Collin reset the target and stormed off.

Naturi looked around nervously to see if anyone had overheard the conversation. Luckily, the other young men were outlining the course for the races on the far side of the banquet square, and boasting loudly of past achievements and claiming future honors. Naturi was relieved.

Naturi looked at the nonjudgmental Zedic. “I do not know where he gets these outrageous notions. And really, someone should tell him he sounds ridiculous when he mimics Trep’s accent.”

Zedic shrugged and walked away with the remaining targets.

Each side of the banquet square was dedicated to one of the four gods of the mountain. Bowls of berries, apples, and assorted greens of every type filled the west tables. Cheeses, milk, and creamy sauces were laid out on the south side and mountains of breads and cakes were stacked on the east tables. The north tables were a little over three feet from the base of the Gathering Place steps. On them lay sliced meats, stuffed birds, and hearty stews.

On the stairs of the Gathering Place sat a small table dedicated to the god Nor. Here Kairma sat carefully tending the peyotel, a strong mint-flavored, alcohol-based drink that when ingested might cause mild hallucinations. Most of the adults would partake of the punch before the night was over and would dance and sing until nearly dawn.

Kairma watched the people filling the festival area. The women had put on their best dresses and the children were clean and trying desperately to find ways to change that. Every once in a while she would catch a child trying to steal a cake or roll. She would turn away, pretending not to see him or her approach, and then quickly spin around just before they could snag the prize. The children would scream and run away laughing, only to try again moments later.

Jettena came to relieve Kairma. Setting the blackberry biscuits on the table beside the other young women’s entries, she kissed Kairma on the cheek. “Go watch the games,” Jettena said. “I’ll tend the peyotel. You’ll have to be here most of this evening. Enjoy the games while you can.”

“Thank you, Mother. I was hoping to see the sling contest. Do you think Zedic will win again this annum?”

“I wouldn’t count on it. There seems to be a lot of competition today.”

“I’ll bet he does win. He’s pretty good.” Kairma waved good-bye to her mother and hurried off to watch the games.

A large semicircle of people had gathered around the competitors. Finding a place as close to the front as she could, she watched the men throw a knife at various targets. The competition was tough. People were taking bets on the winners and each time a contestant did better than expected the crowd roared. Zedic was out of the competition early and came over to stand beside Kairma. She nodded to him but kept her eyes on the next player. “Sorry to see you out of the match so soon. I hope you do better at the sling contest.”

“Yeah, me too. I’m usually good with a knife. I don’t think my heart was in it today.”

They watched Dillon throw. The young boy fared well, but Naturi edged him out by two higher marking throws.

After a while, Kairma looked around. “Where’s Collin? I thought for sure he was going to enter the match.”

“I don’t know. I saw him talking to Naturi earlier and then he took off toward Roak’s house. I’m sure he went to find Trep.”

“Do you think Naturi showed him the things we found?”

Zedic paused for a long while. “I don’t think so. Naturi is very cautious. He probably just asked Trep a lot of questions and didn’t tell him anything.”

“You’re probably right.” She became quiet as she watched the rest of the knife contest.

Siede was the last to compete. He was accurate and extremely fast, taking first place easily. As Siede accepted the medal, Kairma saw Naturi watching him closely. Although the older man had never said anything that would lead one to believe he was interested in Kairma, the man had skills that would make him a tough competitor.

Collin hurried down the winding canyon. The snowmelt had come early this annum, and the creek that flowed through the center of the narrow canyon was almost overflowing. Here and there, little bridges had been built across the swift water leading to homes of varying sizes. The steep, stone canyon walls were slowly disappearing under the new leaves of spring. The air was fresh and the sounds of meadowlark and red thrush filled his ears, but Collin wasn’t noticing anything except the old wood and stone home. He knocked on the doorframe.

A deep and strangely accented voice called to him. “Come on in! Door’s open! Help yourself to some terrid.”

Collin made his way to the hearth and filled a cup.

“Oh, it’s you!” exclaimed Trep. “I thought Naturi would be here this mornin’. We had a great discussion last night.” Trep came from the back room wearing only a pair of close-fitting pants and his socks. He was drying his thick dark hair with a towel and looking like he had just woken up. Collin noticed that there wasn’t an ounce of fat on the older man. His chest was covered with thick, curly hair, and his hairy arms were thick and strong.

“Really? What all did you talk about?”

Grabbing a cup of terrid, Trep sat down on a long black bench. Reaching under the bench, he picked up a pair of sturdy boots and pulled them over his red woolen socks. Collin noticed, not for the first time, the close cut of the leather and the solidness of the sole. “Well, we talked about his drawin’s and we talked about the city.” He was struggling to pull on the well-worn leather boot. “We talked about the White Ones and about the Healin’ Family.”

“What? You talked about the Healing family?” Collin’s eyes darkened. That lying, no good…

“Sure, that some kinda crime here?” Trep said, looking concerned.

“No. No, it’s nothing. Just something Naturi said this morning, that’s all.”

“Well, did he tell ya about the karrack?”

“The what?”

“The karrack. It’s used for huntin’—like y’all’s bows, only much more efficient. I could show it to ya if ya’d like.”

“Sure. I’d love to see—what’d you call it again?”

“A karrack. I’ll give you a demonstration, but first I have to tend to my horse.” He disappeared into the back room to get a shirt.

Collin sat quietly at the table, noticing for the first time the shear strangeness of everything Trep was—his clothes, his manners, and the way he spoke. Even the man’s eating utensils were different. Collin tried to picture Trep’s world and found himself hungry for more knowledge. He vowed to himself he would one day leave this mountain, law or no law.

Trep came into the room carrying a small satchel and an oddly shaped instrument of wood and metal. Trep set his wares down on the table and went over to check the fire. There were a few swallows of terrid left in the pot so he poured the remainder into his cup and downed it quickly. “This drink of y’all’s is pretty good in the morning. Hope I can take some of it back to the city when I go.”

The casual comment took Collin off guard. He always knew Trep would want to leave some day, but Collin had never explained just how difficult that might be.

Trep picked up the karrack, checked it over, and then put it into a leather holster on his belt. The satchel was stuffed into one of the many oversized pockets in his jacket. “Come on, boy. Got to check on Belle. Makes me kinda nervous leavin’ her outside of town like that.”

They walked out of the small home and headed north, toward the hospital.

“This is the first town I’ve ever been to where jess to get in, you had to scale a forty-foot cliff or walk through a buildin’. Don’t that annoy the Healers to always have folks walkin’ through their house?”

“Well, they don’t really live in that part of the Chancery, at least not anymore. Besides, most folks don’t ever leave the village. They have everything they need here except for hunting and fishing and they only do that a few times a moon.”

“It still feels a little strange to have to leave my horse outside of town. Hope she’s still there this mornin’.”

“Sure she is. How’d you catch her anyway? I’ve seen wild horses around here and even tried to catch one. If I hadn’t seen someone riding one when I was little, I’d have never thought of it. I don’t think most folks believed me when I told them about it, at least not until you showed up riding a horse.” His perfect white teeth gleamed as he smiled widely.

As the two comrades walked northward, they passed several people who were on their way to the Awakening meeting place. Uncomfortable with the presence of the stranger, the village people stepped to the other side of the path and tried to avoid catching Trep’s eye. Trep had to stifle an overwhelming urge to shout “Boo!” at a particularly timid group of older women.

“I’m not gonna hurt ’em, you know,” he said.

“Yeah, I know. It’s our way, I guess. No one wants to change the order of things. Change is often the prelude to trouble.”

“That’s how folks grow, develop new ideas—become stronger. No offense, but y’all are kinda behind the times when it comes to modern conveniences, and y’all look like you coulda had the same father.” He chuckled at the thought.

“You might say, we don’t get a lot of new blood around here. Maybe you could mix it up!” Collin laughed now.

It was true. The Survinees people were extraordinarily tall and well-muscled. Their thick hair was very dark and their skin was a deep reddish bronze. They had little or no facial hair, and from what Trep had seen they had no chest hair either. Oddly, most Survinees had blue eyes. They reminded Trep of his mother’s master, and that thought made him almost as uncomfortable as he made the Survinees.

When they reached the door of the hospital, Collin gave three short wraps on the doorframe and a brief high-pitched whistle before going in.

Whistles are an important part of y’all’s language, ain’t they?” Trep ducked through the doorway behind Collin.

“I guess they are. Never gave it much thought before. It’s a good way to say something from a great distance.”

“That’s what I thought. Somethin’ else to take back to the city.”

Collin could feel the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. He looked cautiously around the large room, and hoped no one had overheard Trep mention leaving.

To one side, they passed by an assortment of cots and bedrolls and to the other side a huge table lined with chairs. In front of them the north doors stood open and a beautifully carved archway framed a majestic view of the Survinees’ gods.

Collin stopped for a moment. “I love to stand here and look at this view. It can make you feel small but, somehow, taken care of.”

“It’s a priceless view. In fact, one of the pictures Naturi showed me last night was drawn from this very spot. Folks in the city would pay good money for that picture.”

Collin’s jaw tightened. “Naturi said you could trade his drawings to people in the city?” He was incensed.

“We talked about tradin’ with folks in the city, yeah. Thought y’all would want to buy karracks. Whatever has got you so anxious today?”

Looking around, Collin grabbed Trep by the arm. “Let’s get out of here. We can talk outside.”

Walking over to the tiny creek that led to the lake, they found Trep’s russet mare, Belle, munching on tufts of needle grass. As Trep pulled out a brush to groom his horse, Collin prepared himself to explain things to Trep. He was torn between being totally honest—running the risk of having Trep disappear in the middle of the night—or making up a grand story that would convince Trep not to mention leaving the mountain again. He opted for something in between. “You might say I’m a little upset about your conversation with Naturi last night. You have to understand, no one leaves the mountain with information that could compromise our location. This has been law for centuries, and no one knows this better than Naturi.” Collin began to pace nervously. “I don’t understand how he could even suggest we trade ideas with people from the city.”

Trep stopped brushing Belle’s mane and looked thoughtfully at Collin. “He didn’t suggest it, I did. He was so thrilled ’bout the karrack—and I guess we had quite a bit of wine—he jess fell into the conversation. Cain’t say he actually said he’d go with me, but it sounded like he might be thinkin’ it.”

It wasn’t like Naturi to let his defenses down like that, wine or no wine. “Your karrack must be pretty impressive. The law forbids us to even talk about leaving the mountain.” He stared off at nothing. Maybe Naturi isn’t happy. Now, wouldn’t that beat all? The proper and pompous Naturi just as eager to leave the mountain as me. After a moment he said, “Maybe I ought to see what gave Naturi such a change of heart.”

“Sure, let’s go over there, by that clearin’.” Trep loaded the karrack while Collin watched intently. Trep explained how the small projectile would penetrate the skin of the target, much the same as an arrowhead, but from a greater distance. After searching for the proper target, a small rabbit, Trep took aim and fired. Kaarraaaaccckk! The thunderous noise echoed off the canyon walls, and the rabbit jerked a couple of times before lying still.

Collin stared at the rabbit and then looked at Trep. “Well, if the alloy slug doesn’t kill you, the noise will probably scare you to death.”

Trep laughed. “Guess I’ve gotten used to it.”

“I remember hearing that noise last night. I knew it was too early in the annum for heat lightning, but I didn’t know what else might have made that kind of noise.”

Collin went over to examine the rabbit. “We should dress it out before we go to the Awakening.” He took out his knife and slit the throat. Holding it up by its back feet, Collin let the blood run out onto the ground. As he did, he looked closely at the hole where the alloy ball had entered and the place where it had come out the other side of the rabbit’s head. He shuddered at the thought of being the recipient of one of those deadly projectiles.

“I see why Naturi was impressed. Your karrack could be used for hunting and defense.”

“It’s y’all’s for the askin’. All ya gotta do is come to the city with a few things to trade and y’all are on the way to the next level of progress.” Trep wrapped the rabbit in a piece of leather to keep the blood from dripping on the floor as they prepared to walk back through the hospital.

“It’s not that easy. I told you—no one leaves the mountain.”

Trep stopped, deep furrows forming on his forehead in frustration as he almost shouted, “Why?”

“We can’t let anyone know we’re here.”

“I know that, but why?”

“The Healers won’t allow it. It’s been the law for centuries. You can’t expect them to simply forget everything they were taught. It’s just our way.”

“What if I showed this here karrack to the other folks in the village? If they saw how useful it could be, would that change some minds?”

“Yeah, right after they changed their leggings.” Collin had said that with such seriousness that Trep burst out laughing.

Kinter had been scrutinizing all of the entries for the cooking contest. She felt pretty confident. Someone had entered a pastry of sorts. The crust looked tough. All of the bowls were exactly the same to ensure the judges wouldn’t know who’d entered the dish. She saw the blackberry preserves, and Kinter felt her heart pound.

Gently stirring the peyotel at a table near the contest entries, Jettena said, “Looks like a good contest, doesn’t it?”

Kinter nodded. “Yes, it does. We even have some new entries this annum. I think this must be a black bean soup.” She uncovered a wooden bowl of what looked like it could be mud. “Yuck, that looks awful.”

“Looks aren’t everything. Squash doesn’t look like much, but it’s pretty good to eat.”

Kinter disagreed—looks were very important.

As Kinter inspected the rest of the entries, Jettena said, “Could you watch this a moment? I need to relieve myself, and Kairma is watching the games.”

“Sure, Mother. I’m not interested in the games. Take your time.”

Kinter took her mother’s place stirring the punch. The constant stirring kept the heavier fruit juices from settling to the bottom, but it was more tradition for a member of the Healing family to tend the peyotel than it was a necessity.

As she stood there, an idea crept into her mind. Finding the blackberry preserves, Kinter added a little ingredient of her own. She quickly stirred it in and recovered the dish. That will teach her a lesson!

There were only three contestants left for the final and most difficult round of the bow contest. A leather strap had been tied between two young aspens. A round ball, roughly a foot across and fashioned from dried branches, was placed in the middle of the strap. Pulling down on the strap, the supple aspens bent toward each other and when released they catapulted the ball into the air. Each contestant would try hitting the flying ball of twigs with an arrow. The man who could shoot an arrow into the moving ball the most times would be declared the winner.

Dillon took his stance and aimed his bow. There was a whoosh of air as the ball flew across the clearing. Zzziipp! Dillon’s arrow as it found its mark. The ball fell, and the crowd roared.

Siede stepped into position and readied himself. There was a whoosh and a zzziipp, and Siede scored a good hit. With fists in the air, the crowd howled like wolves.

Now Naturi took his place. Whoosh! Zzziipp! Again the crowd howled.

It was a splendid contest. Dillon returned and brought down another lifeless ball, as did Siede, and Naturi once again. More betting had started with Naturi clearly the favorite.

Silently, Dillon stepped into place. Whoosh! Zzziipp! Another hit, and then more howling from the audience. Siede was three annums older than Naturi and had been the best bowman until Naturi passed his Seridar at the tender age of fourteen. He took his place. Whoosh! Zzziipp! A miss! The crowd groaned, and Siede bowed to the two remaining contestants. “A good match,” he said. “May the best bowman win.”

Naturi took aim. Whoosh! Zzziipp! A hit. More trinkets switched hands as the crowd applauded.

Dillon nervously wiped his hands on his vest and picked up his bow—another hit!

Naturi fired, hitting the ball. Dillon fired, and again the ball was pierced. Naturi. Dillon. The crowd had grown strangely quiet, intently watching. It was Naturi, and then Dillon, Naturi and then Dillon, and then a miss.

The crowd roared with excitement when, for the first time in six annums, Dillon, a boy of only fifteen, won the bow contest.

No one was more surprised than Naturi. He was used to achieving every goal he desired, and for a moment he felt angry for letting a child strip him of the honor he had carried for six annums. He thought about the match and decided his mind had been preoccupied with thoughts of the stranger. Walking over to where Dillon’s friends and family were congratulating the new winner, Naturi smiled, graciously bowed, and placed the ribbon-clad medallion in Dillon’s hand. “It was a good match and you beat me fairly.”

“I can’t believe I did it!” the excited youth shouted. “I practiced and practiced. I beat you! I can’t believe it!”

Naturi couldn’t help feeling cheered when seeing the joy on Dillon’s face. He remembered the pride he’d felt when he won the match the first time. “Do not get too attached to that prize. I will take it back at the Harvest Seridar.”

Dillon’s face fell. Then he saw the twinkle in Naturi’s eyes, and he laughed. “Okay, but you’d better start practicing!”

Trep and Collin returned in time to see Dillon win, and Collin whistled through his teeth. “I can’t believe Naturi lost. He always wins at least two out of the four contests, and his knife skills aren’t that good. He’d better hope Zedic decides not to press him in the sling challenge or the mighty Naturi will lose his place as our boy wonder.”

The toughest competition of the day was the hand-to-hand combat. No weapons were allowed, and often the man with the most strength was the victor. The names of all unmated males over the age of fifteen were entered, and then drawn by twos to select combatants. Other men often competed for fun, but the contest was implemented as a rite of passage for young men. In order to be invited on the monthly hunts, a young man must win one of the four competitions. Since most men were mated by the time they reached the age of eighteen, the competition was usually evenhanded. In recent annums though, the available women had not selected any of the eligible men and now at least three of the men competing were over twenty.

Efram’s and Zedic’s names were drawn first and everyone gathered around the grassy meadow reserved for the contest. The two boys squared off, crouching as they circled, looking for the right moment to strike. Efram whispered, barely loud enough for Zedic to hear, “You know that if your sister weren’t heir to the Crystal, Naturi wouldn’t be interested in her at all.”

Zedic ignored Efram’s taunts and focused on the contest, keeping his anger in check as was his nature. He feinted to the right and Efram struck out, but Zedic was able to twist away and come up from behind the older boy. Annums of wrestling with Collin had taught Zedic how to use Efram’s own momentum to pull him over. Zedic placed his knee between Efram’s shoulder blades, and grabbing Efram’s right wrist Zedic was able to lock his thumb over Efram’s little finger, bending his hand backward, forcing Efram to stay down. The crowd cheered as Zedic whispered to Efram, “You’ve been able to mate for five annums now and I don’t see a line of girls accepting your offers. Maybe if you were pale …” Zedic grinned as he got up.

Efram jumped to his feet and pushed Zedic backward, only causing Zedic’s grin to widen into a full-blown smile.

The next two names drawn were Dillon and Siede. Murmured objections could be heard slithering through the crowd. Dillon, only fifteen annums old, was competing for his hunting rights for the first time, while Siede was almost twenty-five. Like Efram, Siede had placed his name in the ring to mate several times, but the three girls of mating age, Alyssum, Ember, and Rose, weren’t accepting any offers. When Trep asked why everyone was grumbling, Collin explained. “Rumor has it all the girls are waiting to see what Naturi will do when Kairma comes of age. It’s common knowledge that Naturi will be competing for Kairma. If he’s taken, the other girls will likely accept offers from Siede, Efram, or Zedic. Since Jared lost his wife two annums ago, one of the girls will probably mate with him. The elders have allowed the girls to wait this long, but once Naturi is taken the girls will have to choose. The Harvest Seridar should be very interesting because Rossi and Dessa will come of age as well.”

Trep studied Collin out of the corner of his eye. Collin’s usual light tone held a hint of anger. Trep asked, “Are you gonna mate this fall?”

Absent-mindedly toying with a lock of hair as Dillon and Siede took the field, Collin said, “I’m not interested in taking a mate right now.” He was suddenly uncomfortable talking to Trep about the Seridar. Luckily the contest between Siede and Dillon was over quickly and Naturi’s and Collin’s name were drawn before Trep could press him.

Collin made his way to the grassy circle and met Naturi’s hard stare. Naturi was an inch taller and more muscular than Collin, but Collin was quick and cunning. Collin leaned forward in a crouch, making slow pawing motions toward his larger opponent. He launched the first strike, spinning Naturi off to the left, but Naturi recovered quickly and pulled Collin to the ground. Before Naturi could pin him, Collin rolled over and jumped back to his feet. Collin landed a blow just above Naturi’s middle and was awarded the sound of a grunt as he quickly blocked Naturi’s right hook. Naturi paced the younger boy and when Collin’s eyes darted to the sidelines, Naturi attacked, but the momentary distraction was a ruse, and Collin capitalized on Naturi’s self-assurance, locking his leg behind Naturi’s knee, tripping him easily.

Before Collin could find the center of gravity and pin him, Naturi found the pressure point between the thumb and forefinger on Collin’s hand. The look on Naturi’s face was something close to hatred, and Collin was amazed by how much it hurt when Naturi pinched the nerve. The pain woke him up and he began to think of Naturi as a truly dangerous man. Through all the annums growing up together, he and Naturi wrestled often, but never hurt one another. He had a shot at Naturi’s groin but didn’t take it. If this were truly a fight to the death, he wouldn’t have hesitated, but on the contest grounds, it was frowned on. He rolled off quickly, jumping up and pulling his hand away.

His fingers felt paralyzed, but he had no time to think about that because Naturi was on him again in seconds. Collin twisted away, spinning Naturi backward over a small shrub. With all his strength, he threw Naturi face down on the hard field. Naturi pulled Collin along as they fell and hit hard enough to knock the wind from Naturi’s lungs. Collin scrabbled to his knees and pulled Naturi’s right arm up behind his back.

For a moment, Collin thought he’d pinned him, but Naturi kicked with the force of a mule, throwing Collin off his back. The two men rolled in the dirt and the sweat on their copper skin turned the dust to dark umber mud.

Naturi’s hands closed around Collin’s neck, cutting off Collin’s air. It was pure adrenalin laced fear that gave Collin the strength to break Naturi’s grasp.

They were rolling once more across the grass, with spectators moving quickly as the two men approached the sidelines. As they neared a large juniper, Collin was able to break free and put the shrub between them. A wolfish smile crossed Naturi’s face as Collin backed away. They were among the trees now at the edge of the field. Collin was repositioning to place a thick aspen tree in front of Naturi. Naturi ran at the tree, grabbed it with both hands and swung his legs out. Coming around the tree at chest height, his feet planted solidly into Collin’s torso. The younger man went down hard and out of breath. Before he could catch his breath, Naturi had him pinned.

Cheers erupted and trinkets exchanged hands. Naturi got up gracefully and offered Collin a hand, all animosity forgotten.

Collin got up, rubbing his chest. “I’m going to have your footprints on my chest for weeks now. What made you think of using the tree like that?”

Naturi’s voice was noncommittal. “It just came to me. Remember that.” He smiled, but the warning in Naturi’s eyes was clear. You’re no match for me, Collin.

As the word spread that Naturi had won, Collin pulled Trep over to the bow field. Collin hadn’t won any matches today, but there was something he could offer the village. Collin stepped up on a withered stump and called to the crowd gathered there. “I would like all of you to meet my friend, Trep. As you may have heard, he comes from the village of Peireson Landing. I’d like to show you the wonders of his world. He can teach us how to make many things we’ve never seen before.” He motioned to Trep to stand next to him. “Hold up your foot, Trep.” Trep’s face crinkled in confusion, but he held up his foot. “See these. Look at the leather workmanship.” Trep, now understanding what Collin was doing, began to model his boots. “Look at the tough soles. Imagine walking through snow with these.” Collin pointed to Trep’s coat and his pants. “These are but a few of the things Trep’s world has to offer.” He nodded his head for Trep to take it from there.

Trep offered the formal greeting of right hand to right eyebrow. A few Survinees returned the gesture, while others merely looked warily at the stranger. “Could I have y’all’s attention, please? I’ve seen what y’all can do with a bow and arrow. Must admit, it’s some fine marksmanship, but if y’all’d give me a minute, I’d like to show ya what we hunt with down on the plains.” Trep smiled at Dillon. “That was some right fancy shootin’ you did.” He nodded to the crowd. Trep stood there some time waiting for a reply. Whispers could be heard as the Survinees wondered what this stranger was doing.

“I’d jess like to give y’all a little demonstration.” Since no one told him he couldn’t, Trep motioned to Collin for help. “Set this small log on top of that large gray boulder way over there. Thanks. Now step back.”

The sound of the karrack startled the tightly knit group of Survinees who had gathered around him.

Collin picked up the log to show the crowd. A large hole through the center showed them that Trep had hit his mark. The crowd stared in wonder.

Trep reloaded the karrack and fired again. He missed. Twice more he reloaded and hit his mark fast and true.

Scowling, Toric approached. “I can’t see that your noise maker is any better than our bows. A hole is a hole, and with that thing making that much noise, you would have certainly run off any other game around.”

“True ’nough, my good man, but can ya do this?” Running to an oak tree, Trep grabbed a branch with one hand and pulled himself up off the ground. Firing the karrack an instant later, he hit the log just off center. “Ever been chased by a bear? Try to do that with bow!”

Toric chewed on his lower lip. “Animals are not always sitting still. It wouldn’t be useful if you can’t kill a moving animal.

Trep agreed. “True, but I could kill a deer on the run at a hundred feet. Think that would be about thirty meters by y’all’s reckonin’. Birds are my favorite sport. Go ahead, throw somethin’ in the air.” He reloaded the karrack. “I’ll show ya what I mean.”

All eyes were on Toric as he looked around for something to throw. He picked up a stone and launched to into the air. Trep took aim and fired. He missed. Toric laughed. “So it seems your karrack isn’t all that useful.”

Trep reloaded again. “Well, I’ve never seen any game worth huntin’ quite so small. Give me somethin’ a bit larger and I’ll show ya it does have possibilities.”

Toric, feeling a little cocky, threw his hat up.

Karraack!

The hat fell to the ground with a hole large enough to put a thumb through. Trep smiled mischievously. “There ya go. That’s one very dead hat!” He picked up the cap and handed it back to Toric. “I guess you’ll be needin’ a new one. When Naturi and I get back to the city, I’ll get ya the finest cap available.”

Toric glared at him. “You will not be taking my son or anyone else to the city. A fine cap will not replace a son!” Taking his hat, he briskly strode away.

Naturi gasped. Trep thinks I will go with him to the city. I cannot leave. No one can leave. Collin should have made that clear to him. Maybe Collin plans to go to the city. Bringing back these weapons and new clothing would be beneficial to the colony. Those boots he wears are very fine. I should like a pair myself, but the elders would never allow anyone to leave.

An agitated murmur swept the crowd as they watched Toric leave. Naturi followed close behind his father.

Watching Toric and Naturi leave the clearing, Collin felt his heart sink and whispered harshly to Trep, “Why did you mention going to the city? I was foolish. I should have been more adamant about our laws. We’re as good as dead now.”

Grimly hissed something about the Law of Fontas, loud enough for the small group of men who had gathered around him to hear. They solemnly watched for Comad Tamron’s reaction. After a moment a woman shouted, “Take him prisoner! Don’t let him leave the mountain! We must protect the colony!”

Diakus joined the commotion, protesting loudly. “Can’t you see he’s dangerous? He will only bring death and destruction! Institute the Law of Fontus now!”

Soon the crowd was pushing toward him and Trep became frightened. Collin stepped between the stranger and the treacherous crowd. The villagers huddled and the shouts returned to agitated whispers of fear and condemnation.

Comad Tamron held up his large hand to hush the crowd as he approached Trep. “I think it would be best if you do not show us anymore demonstrations. You have clearly upset my people.” Taking both Trep and Collin by the arm, he pulled them to the side. “Things may be different where you come from, but here it is customary to ask permission before disrupting our tournaments. Collin should have explained our customs to you better.”

Collin looked down at his feet for a moment, and then looked up, meeting Tamron’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Sir. Trep really does have some very valuable things to offer us, but we should never have suggested going to the city to get them.”

Trep cursed himself for being so brash. “Forgive me. I was hopin’ to make a better impression than this. It’s jess like me to stir up the bees when I’m tryin’ to show someone where to find the honey.”

Tamron nodded. “Yes, the bees are stirred up altogether too well. Let us hope that no one gets stung.” He looked down at the karrack in Trep’s hand. “That’s a unique tool. How do you come by it?”

“Down in the city, lots of folks have these. Cain’t hardly get along without one. We have lots of other useful things too.” Trep pulled the karrack up and aimed toward the tree. “I’d be right happy to show ya how to use it. Come on, we can go outside the village.”

“No!” The venom in Tamron’s voice startled Trep. “Put it away! Now! This is not the time or the place for another demonstration! We must discuss the matter first.”

When Trep nodded and moved to follow, Comad Tamron clarified himself. “No, we, the Healing family, will discuss the demonstration and decide what is to be done. Do not leave the canyon!” He waved to three burly men standing to the side of the crowd. “Hamond, Loren, Joel, see to it that this man does not leave the gathering without an escort.”

Tamron walked away, but then stopped and turned back to Trep. “Do I need to take your weapon?”

Trep assured him he meant no harm to anyone.

Tamron nodded curtly and joined Miral Isontra, who had been observing from a short distance away.

 


Read more about The Healing Crystal trilogy


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