June 30-31, AD 2581, Scotian Calendar
Clenched in the grip of a fateful vision, the black web of Tazhret’s nightmare suffocated him, paralyzed him. While his heart pounded in terrified denial, the ensnaring net grew dense, and tight, cutting off all light, all sound…every breath of air. The nightmare shifted, and the web became chains, chains of red fire burning into his skin, binding him, crushing him in nameless enslavement to an evil will while his soul cried for freedom.
One thread of light, an answer to a desperate prayer, shone in Fate’s grim weaving of a dark future.
She was beautiful. She gazed at him, her luminous amber eyes sorrowful in a pale face framed by dark hair. She insisted against all evidence, You have a name. A good one.
He knew he loved her. His heart ached for her.
He wondered who she was.
A sharp poke in his side shook him awake.
“Roust about there, tazhret, and give me your name.”
Face down on a thin, lumpy mattress smelling of strong antiseptics and faint, sour odors he didn’t want to name, he pried open gluey eyelids and squinted against the light. “Hunhgn?” Through the haze of hangover and vertigo, it took him a moment to make out the red-haired deputy crown constable leaning over him. He was in jail. Jail?
“You’re not singing any more, tazhret?” There was humor in the deputy’s condescending tone.
“Sh-Singing?” No. No singing. Just talking hurt. Thinking hurt.
“An izzy found you stark naked in the waste reclamation area, fueled up on whisky and scoot. She was about to hit the processing button when she heard you yowling about a maid with nut-brown hair,” the deputy said with a grin. “You didn’t have an identbead. So I need your name.”
He struggled to sit up, scrubbing his beard-stubbled face with dry hands. He opened his mouth to answer—and nothing came out.
The deputy tsk’d at him, while his world collapsed, soundless, into the silent well of amnesia. But…tazhret? “Nameless,” in the Tormin tongue. I have to have a name.
“Well and, laddie, it seems the scoot’s taken your memory. Let’s try the question if I mindspeak it. That sometimes breaks something loose. If not, maybe the healer-adept can help. You look like you could use one,” he added with reluctant sympathy. For a good five standard minutes, Tazhret sat still, gritty eyes latched onto the three-stranded blue braid of a Water master clipped behind the deputy’s badge, listening hard for the sound of a mindcall. But he heard nothing, and the deputy sat back with a troubled sigh.
“It seems you’re mindblind, as well. We’ll have to see what the Identity Archives have to say about you.”
The Scotian deputy took a swab from his cheek and left with a DNA sample. The door clanged shut behind him and a confinement field settled into place—taking no chances on his lack of talent—leaving Tazhret reeling with impossibilities.
He’d been rocketed on scoot? Vile stuff. Someone must have slipped it to him, and the powerful hallucinogen had violated him. Burned through his nervous system, ransacked his mind for his name and his talent, taking the valuables and leaving only disordered debris behind. He’d never touch scoot.
Dark doubt asked, Or would I? Had he really destroyed himself, destroyed his talent?
Mindblindness was virtually unknown among Scotians, just as talent was virtually unknown among the extees. Clutching the edge of his cot, Tazhret didn’t hope for the uncommon powers of a master—able to see and use the energy of non-life—or the rarer, greater powers of a noble adept, who could do the same with the energy of life itself, the most extraordinary among them able to heal. But even elementals and affinities could still work with an Element on the level of its physical attributes. Could mindspeak their kin and close friends. Could make a valid oath of fealty or service. Cut off from society, shut out from service, the mindblind were the pariahs of Scotian society.
During the anxious wait for the results of the DNA test, he tried to access his talent. Not knowing which Element would answer him, he set aside his universal aches and cleared his mind of panic, fear, and anger, calling up a talent glow, the simplest of trials. Scotian children could….
He collapsed to the cot, back arched against the lightning bolt of pain impaling him from his head straight down his spine to his tailbone. When the spasm passed, he tried again to access the talent he knew he must have. And again. And again, and again. Until his jail-issue orange coveralls were soaked with sweat, every limb trembled in exhaustion, pain knifed into his eye, and the hammering in his head threatened to crack his skull and spill his useless brains upon the dirty floor, along with the reeking contents of his stomach. And still he tried. And again.
Until the cell door slid open with the faint pop of a confinement field’s collapse. The chief crown constable, a Tormin, stood on the threshold. Flanking him were two deputies, the red-headed Scotian and a Xern with a garish, scaled hide. Sick, panting, he looked up at the Tormin with panicked hope.
The chief’s eyes were hard and cold. “You’re ta-zhret, a-yeh? Identity wiped from the archives. I wonder what you were trying to hide.” He glanced at his subordinates. “By the evidence, he’s vagrant, no means of support. The usual sentence applies. Do we have a consensus?”
“No trial by justiciar and jury for scoot? Public nakedness? Drunk and disorderly?”
“Eh, why bother? The public advocate would just get him off….” The Xern answered the Scotian’s objections.
Their voices rattled on, fading into Tazhret’s stricken horror. He was mindblind. Mindblind as an extee. No healer-adept would be able to restore his memory, his talent, his stripped-raw nerves. Or his name. His name was lost, lost, lost—
Rough hands hauled him off the cot. Dizzied, he stumbled between the deputies, his steps dragging out of the cell, across the back of a large room crowded with desks, toward an oversized, dull-metal armchair, covered with straps. He stopped short on a hard gasp. The deputies pushed him forward.
“Move along, Tazhret,” the chief constable ordered. “This is your simplest path to a fresh start—”
Tazhret erupted into sudden violence, twisting out of the deputies’ grasp, jamming his elbows into their guts. They doubled over. A right cross to the chief’s jaw rocked the Tormin back.
Tazhret ran. Ran toward the exit, almost flying in light gravity. Must be on a lunar transfer station—
The electric hammer of a hurled shockstick hit him in the back of his head, fried his nerves, and plunged him back into darkness. Chains waited for him there, and an evil master. And a woman with nut-brown hair, who whispered, “You have a name.”
A low, ominous hum penetrated the dark. The sinister drone cranked to a shrill whine, and the nightmare faded into dim consciousness of vertigo, nausea, a pounding head, spastic tremors, and the pain of a vise—too hot, too tight—clamped around his left wrist. Slitting open his eyes, he blinked down at heavy straps securing him to his seat. A thick, metallic cuff fastened his left forearm to the chair arm, smaller bands around his fingers and thumb. For a single instant, the ascending whine pierced his eardrums, the heat seared his wrist…and were gone.
The cuff snicked open, revealing a gleaming yellow servband, two inches wide, embedded in his flesh. It itched. His stomach heaved. He tasted sour vomit, but he’d already emptied his abused belly into the holding cell’s toilet and had nothing left to retch. The servband reduced him to indentured servitude for a term of seven years. And he didn’t know why.
What did I do? But not even the beautiful woman had an answer.
“Awake, are you, Tazhret?” The question, punctuated by the prod of the shockstick—unpowered this time, thanktrin—brought him back to the present, the yellow band itching in his wrist, and the depth of his loss.
Tazhret. His hands fisted in reflexive insult. The word was almost a curse among the three peoples—who all knew the value of a good name.
Clenching his jaw, Tazhret raised his head and met the gaze of the crown constables. For all the physical differences among them, their eyes held an identical scorn. Resisting them on the way to the processor had been an act of consummate stupidity. And sheer, mindless panic.
The Tormin nodded toward his fists. “That’s the kind of discord that got you into this mess, a-yeh? You’ve only made a bad situation worse, Tazhret. I’ll leave it to the master of the service pens to teach you an izzy’s humility. But I won’t have you harming anyone else until you learn.”
Rubbing his bruised chin, the Tormin nodded to the Scotian deputy, who fetched down a set of chains from the wall next to the processor. They didn’t need talent-lock chains to bind a mindblind Scotian. But the deputy also bypassed the simple wrist chains of an indentured servant, selecting instead the heavy hobble-chains of a violent crimserv, lacking only the collar and talent reservoir of TLCs.
Glittering in the jail’s harsh light, the restraints clanged and rattled, shackles for wrists and ankles, short chains between them leashed to a chain for the waist. Tazhret’s breath jammed in his throat. Sweat broke out on his brow. A chill swept over his skin. His empty stomach heaved again. Trinity, no.
But the Scotian Deity didn’t answer his plea. Neither did the Great Harmony of the Tormins, nor the Xern gods of light and dark, the Sxa-Te. All the gods of the three peoples turned a deaf ear while the constables chained him, replacing each strap with a heavy shackle, first wrists then ankles, until they at last released the restraints around his chest, waist, thighs, and shins.
“Stand up, izzy,” the Xern deputy ordered, shockstick at the ready.
Tazhret still hadn’t recovered from his first experience of the baton. Swallowing fury and bile, he forced himself to stand erect under the onslaught of their contempt and his own pounding, howling misery, rejecting the shame they saw in him.
You have a good name, her whisper ghosted in the back of his mind, his lifeline in a sea of despair. This was wrong, wrong. Trin-damned wrong. Shutting out their condemnation, Tazhret stared at the tri-dee starmap on the far wall. The shared world of Forge stood at the crossroads of the domains of the three peoples of the sixteen planets: the Scotian Realm, the Tormin Accord, and the Xern Cluster.
While the Scotian locked the chain about his waist, limiting his reach to the length of his forearm, the Tormin constable eyed him, pity mixed with his contempt. “This isn’t the rest of the Scotian Realm, Tazhret. Forge is a Scotian protectorate, and our Constitution draws upon the common law of all three peoples.”
Tazhret pulled his gaze away from the starmap, and tried to focus on the constable’s rasping voice.
“You Scotians don’t have indentured servitude,” the Tormin said. “But izzies are common on the extee homeworlds, and the laws regarding them can be cruel. Forge law is still harsh, but here, most izzies survive their sentence and establish themselves as free citizens if they act in harmony with their station.”
The Scotian, busy encoding a new identbead, snorted a laugh. “What the honored constable is trying to explain is, on the planet below, the contract-owners have whips, Tazhret. If you look them in the eye, they’ll take your insolence out of your hide.” He threaded the identbead on a clip, securing it on the waist chain out of Tazhret’s reach.
The Xern holstered his shockstick and snapped a lead to the chain between Tazhret’s wrists. “Hurry up, izzy. You’re late for the cargo shuttle to Forge.” He jerked the chain, and Tazhret stumbled after him in a half-running skip.
Strapped to the bulkhead with the rest of the baggage, Tazhret endured minimal heat and less light while the zero gravity of the cargo hold played hell with his inner ears and belly. At last they landed, but no one came—for a long time, by the standard of an overfull bladder. No one came until it was too late, and raging thirst and strident hunger became his newest problems. He twisted his wrists in their shackles in wordless fury and mounting fear. They had forgotten him. He would die there, an insect trapped in a spider’s web of safety straps and chains.
Tazhret’s bleeding wrists had scabbed over by the time the hatch opened, waking him from one nightmare into another. A Scotian freehand came to release him from the bulkhead, her nose wrinkled in disgust. His cheeks heated in helpless shame. But she handed him a day’s ration of water. Grateful, he sucked it down. Without a word, she picked up his leash and led him through the tailend of chaos. In the dim light of the secondary red dwarf’s rising, they waded through constables, datapad-wielding officials, and a crowd of extee medical personnel, healer-adepts among them, cleaning up medical equipment, directing traffic, attending to the minor injuries of low-priority victims. Bodybags lined the street.
But the freehand gave him no opportunity to ask what had happened. She gave him a leathery ration bar and loaded him aboard a lorry full of extee izzies who eyed him with vague hostility. The short trip ended at the service pens before he’d finished his rations. The induction processing passed in a wretched blur of shouting, pushing, pulling, and an aggressive strip-and-sanitize. He learned his hair was brown when it fell from his shorn head.
An extee dressed him in an izzy’s thin yellow shirt and trousers. Another dragged him to a room. A clinic’s waiting room, by the smell of it. He waited in a miserable huddle, heart harrowed by the realization of his new status. He was little better than chattel now, to be bought and sold on the labor-hungry colony planet of Forge.
But even now, his love insisted, You have a name. A good one.
An orderly barked an impatient command, and hauled him to his feet by his chains. The scabs under his shackles broke into fresh bleeding. Trinity, his arms ached.
The physician was an undersized Tormin woman, almost slender as a Xern. She walked into the room with the hunched posture of weariness. Sitting on her exam table, Tazhret could empathize, wondering what the extee medic had seen in the day’s tragedy. Despite her fatigue, the physician was thorough in her examination. Breathing through gritted teeth, Tazhret wished she were a little less so. Her webbed, three-fingered hands probed the singed nerves of his spinal column while she rattled off medical statistics. By Scotian measure, he was six feet, two inches, and 207 pounds in Forge gravity. He had perfect teeth and no identifying scars. He was thirty standard years, plus or minus two. He was fit, surprising in a scoot addict. Tazhret, catching sight of himself in a glass-fronted medicine cabinet, tried to match her description with the stranger’s reflection.
The physician shared his gaze in the glass and unbent enough to speak to him. “Whatever you have done in the past to merit this fate, Tazhret, the Great Harmony has seen fit to give you a second chance. Minutes after your departure from Anvil, an ore shuttle crashed into the transfer station, destroying—” The physician took a hard breath. “—destroying the main passenger lounge, the waste reclamation facility…the jail where you were detained. Hundreds died yesterday while you walked unknowing in the Great Harmony’s way. As Scotians say, you are lucky to be alive.”
She gave him an analgesic for the pain of his scoot-burnt nerves, wrapped his bloody wrists in the painful mercy of quick-heal tape, cleared him for all work, and sent him to the service pens.
There, the attendant marched him to auction block. “The seven years begin with the sale of your service, Tazhret,” he warned. “So keep your eyes down, and your mouth shut.”
He complied with the harsh advice, until a potential buyer tried to pry open his mouth, demanding to see his teeth. Tazhret raised his head and glared into the Xern’s eyes, lips sealed shut.
Arms stretched up and wrists chained to the crossbar above his head, blood ran down Tazhret’s back where the whip had clawed him open. Twenty stripes from a lash able to rip the hide off even a reptilian Xern or Tormin amphib had made short work of human flesh. He stood under the scorching heat of Forge’s binary stars, thirst a live coal in his throat. He twitched with the erratic shocks of misfiring nerves, sparks flashing behind his eyes.
Trinity. Seven standard years. And this…this was only his second day.
The nightmare of nameless slavery, foretold in his scoot hallucinations, was now terrifying reality. His one solace rose up to comfort him. She was beautiful. As beautiful as only a scoot dream could be. She kept him sad company.
You have a good name, she told him again. A worthy life.
He found himself arguing with her. Oh, aye. Then why can’t I remember it? Would I even want it back, the name of an honorless scoot addict…? He bit down harder on the stick between his teeth. Whatever his sins, he wouldn’t add to them by whining at her, even in his own mind.
No. Not honorless. You have a good name. A good life.
He wondered again who his beloved was. Was she a scoot hallucination, or was she real? Was she waiting for him somewhere, brokenhearted? The thought of failing her shamed him as nothing else.
Released from the discipline post at the end of the day, Tazhret sank to his knees. Before the attendants could pull him up, he shook them off and forced himself to his feet. Whether the maid with the nut-brown hair was dream or reality…he would not fail her again.
August 12, AD 2583, Scotian Calendar
Col’s horse-drawn wagon followed the silver ribbon of the moons-lit road winding through the ochre dust of the rolling Dry Lands. He glanced up into the night sky, where Anvil had risen ponderously in her leisured orbit, golden in the reflected light of the double suns. Hammer, small and silvery, had emerged from behind her larger sister. In the last dark before tomorrow’s dawn, she would complete her orbit of the larger moon, in the part of the sky where meteors often streaked.
Many folks started their day when Hammer struck Anvil’s face against the backdrop of the meteors’ flashing sparks, just to watch the celestial pageant. But dawnstrike was long hours away, and Col sighed with the weariness of a long day on the road. By the light of the moons, he looked ahead to where a dirt track turned off the road, leading to a farmhold. Late night had settled in, and he considered the decision—stop and ask after a meal and a bed for a night’s rest or continue on to the next holding, a couple more long hours down the road, where he could count on kin-welcome.
Following the odd prompting that often guided his actions, Col headed down the track toward the farmhold. A little further on, another, smaller track forked off across the field. The shortcut. Col took it.
The irrigated fields were greenly black under the moons, the close night air filled with the pungency of the taytos crop. The dusty white mushroom cap of the farmhold’s dome sat behind the rectangle of its raised porch, the entryway built off the ground to keep out slithers and scorps. As he neared the hold, Col spotted a Scotian laboring at the arm of a well pump on the far side of the dome, treading the circle that would fill the irrigation works for the thirsty fields, long after most folks would have gone to their supper and their rest.
“Hello the hold,” Col called.
There was no response. In the silence, he realized the rattle of chains and panting effort followed the man around the path. An izzy, then. Col turned the team toward the farmhold’s front gate. The izzy slipped from view.
Col pulled up at the gate and called again, “Hello the hold!”
A boy—a Tormin tad—sat in a rocker on the dimly lit porch. “Mehza! Relz!” he yelped, calling for his mother and father. “Here’s a Scottie. Come quick!”
The door flew open with a squeak of unoiled hinges. Two Tormins stood backlit in the entry, the light bouncing from the large, smooth scales of their bald heads. The tad’s parents, squat and blocky, filled the doorway. Tormins tended toward square, but these were near cubic in form. The woman held an electric lantern. The man, an old-style laser rifle.
Col gave them a respectful bow. “I ask hospitality of the tel and rest from the road for myself and my horses. I have means to offer thanks.” The formulaic courtesy informed them he was no vagrant come a-begging.
He stood easy in the lantern light, knowing he looked the part he played. His clothes were of good quality under the dust of the road, neither stained nor torn. His sidearm rode on his right thigh, the thong peaceable over the grip. His appearance, likewise, was nothing out of the common way. Extees were still chary of Scotian talent, especially of masters and noble adepts, but his brimmed hat sported the red, double-stranded cord of an ordinary Fire elemental, almost as harmless as a low-level affinity talent. Nothing to fear, really.
As the Tormins studied him, breath whistling nervously through the gills running down the sides of their throats, Col gave them his most innocuous expression under the day’s growth of dark beard. He could look a fool when he wanted to, and did.
“What’s yer business here?” the tad’s father slurred, his voice grating on the ear in a hostile gravel. But he’d avoided the rude demand of a name.
Col bowed again, cleared his dust-clogged throat, and pitched his voice to carry only courtesy. “I’m a traveler, honoreds, come down from the Green Mountains. Came through Invershin Pass with samples of timber, herbs, and handcrafts on a holding run.”
“Thas’s a long way by horse-drawn wagon.” The farmholder’s voice held more suspicion than courtesy. “Can’t ya afford a ground truck?”
By the look of the hold, the holder couldn’t afford one, either. Col waited out the holder’s reluctance to allow a stranger—or a Scotian—into his kinhold, his tel. The nearest settlement, Furnace, was two long hours behind him. Out in the holdings, people still talked about those who turned travelers—Xern, Tormin, or Scotian—from their door. And inhospitable holders still lost status in the talking. More than most, Tormins didn’t take to losing status. The farmholder shrugged a grudging bow.
“Zheb, take the traveler’s horses out to the stable. We’re jesh…just finishing up dinner, traveler,” the farmholder said with a care for his diction. “Be welcome to the tel.”
Col bowed yet again, hand over heart. “I am glad and grateful for the hospitality of the tel, honoreds.”
Entering the dome, he removed his hat, rolling it up to stuff into one of his weatherall’s capacious pockets. The atmosphere in the dome had been set for Tormin comfort, warm and humid. He followed the Tormins through the front room, past the basking pool tucked away in an alcove. Judging by the reek of old algae the farmholder and his mate hadn’t been on good terms for quite awhile. The spacious kitchen served double-duty as a dining room. The layout was typical of the cheap dome kit most Tormin izzies bought with the release fee given at the end of their service.
As he entered the kitchen, the holdwife hurried ahead to twitch the window curtains closed over the view of the backyard—and its izzy-driven well pump. Disorder met Col’s first glance—a layer of dust, pots in the sink, most of the horizontal surfaces covered by haphazard piles of random odds and ends. He sat down to dinner and found his impression confirmed by the crumbs of past meals littering the table’s sticky surface, in defiance of the Tormin reputation for harmonious neatness and order.
The holdwife filled a plate and set it before him. Col cast an experienced eye over the meal with a dismay not even his hunger could conquer. Scotians could eat taytos-and-krell without harm. But in appearance, taste, and texture, they bore a strong resemblance to Dry Lands dust mixed with piss and baked into pellets. He bent his head over the food to grace it, and perhaps to offer up to Trinity the trial of cleaning his plate. With the first bite, the light and crispy red shells burst in an explosion of creamy, savory spice. The holdwife poured a mug of homebrew and set it next to his plate. Col’s first cautious sip washed the dust from his throat and left a clean tang, with just a hint of bitterness on his tongue. Taking up his fork again with real appreciation, he had new insight into his host’s unusual stoutness—he enjoyed his mate’s cooking maybe more than was good for him.
“This is very fine eating, honored ma’am,” Col complimented the holdwife.
Nodding abrupt acknowledgment, she topped off his mug with homebrew from the pitcher on the table.
“Not many can cook like my Sarvy. Sarvy Paggett, people say, is the besht…best cook in the Dry Lands. You’ll want dessert,” the farmholder said with a fool’s grin, displaying square, rotting teeth with receding, blackened gums. He gulped at his homebrew, the fine gill slits along both sides of his throat working with the effort.
Tormins reminded Col of Scotians in close-fitting, green body armor, right down to the helmets of their bald, oversized heads. But this Tormin’s armored hide had been hard used. His cracked, brittle scales were mottled with yellow, especially around the gills, and his fingernails were split and peeling. Signs, in a Tormin, of too little water and too much dry. Or too much alcohol—as popular a poison among extees as Scotians.
Paggett burped, long and loud. The stench rose up from the depths of his digestive tract and rolled across the table in a sick-sweet miasma of ill-health that killed Col’s appetite for the tasty food before him. The farmholder finished off his brew with another gulp. At his peremptory gesture, his mate wordlessly emptied the last of the pitcher into his tankard.
Her teeth clenched in her lower lip, Sarvy scooped the cheap tin dishware together, clumped to the sink, pitched them in with a clanging rattle, and turned a rigid back to her mate while she did the washing up. Col wondered what words she bit back to hear her mate take such liberties with her name, her ta, in casual, careless conversation with a stranger. Ta’mak’tel—name and home—were held sacred among the Tormins. Farmholder Paggett, draining half his homebrew in a single, large swallow, seemed to notice neither his error nor Sarvy’s reaction.
Their tad clattered in from the stable, kitchen door rattling shut behind him. “Horses are taken care of, Relz. You want I should bring in Tazhret?” he asked with a tilt of his head in the direction of the izzy laboring outside.
“Alrea—?” The farmholder stopped mid-word, slanting a look at Col. “No, Zheb, you stay away from him. I’ll put him away for the night.” Paggett lurched to his feet. He tottered outside, laser rifle and lantern in his hands.
As Col rose and followed the Tormin to the door, Sarvy’s breath whistled through her gills behind him. Of the two, Col thought she had more wit about her. He kept her in the corner of his eye while he stood on the back porch.
The drunken farmholder staggered a few steps across the yard toward the well pump. Still at a distance, he threw the key for the chains to the izzy. Unlocked from his labors, the chain-hobbled izzy shuffled toward the cistern.
He was tall, broad across the shoulders, and gaunt. Starved, more like. As he bent to draw a bucket of water, the light of the moons fell across his bare back. Col winced at the old, ropy scars of brutal whippings under the fresh cuts from the lash. The izzy slipped the full pail inside an empty one, for slops. When he straightened, he swayed, and Col thought he might collapse. But he took a slow breath, his spine erect in a soldier’s posture, so much at odds with the down-bent neck of an izzy.
Farmholder Paggett and his rifle chivvied the hobbled izzy across the small yard to a shed. The light from the open kitchen door illuminated a windowless box, ventilated only by a triple row of holes drilled around the top, each no bigger than the width of a man’s thumb. In the middle of its half-size door was a dish-sized slot with a sliding cover latched over it.
The air had become stifling with the day’s heat and the humidity from the irrigated fields. Col took a gulp of the close night and held it while the izzy obeyed the farmholder’s pointed rifle and bent low to enter the airless shed, taking care not to spill water from his bucket, and sat on the bare ground. At Paggett’s indistinct growl, the izzy locked the chain between his wrists to another anchored in the solid polycrete of the shed’s wall and tugged on the fetter, showing it was secure. Light reflected in a dull sparkle from the servband embedded in the shackle-galled skin of his left wrist. The Tormin holder stepped back, and the izzy looked out across the yard, his face framed in ragged brown hair and beard, his eyes glittering with hate and despair.
Farmholder Paggett set his rifle down to shut and bar the shed’s door. Retrieving his gun, he staggered back toward the dome.
“Sarvy,” he called across the yard to his mate. “Get a plate of grub and have Zheb slot it through the door to him.”
Col noted none of the food from the table graced the izzy’s plate. Instead, Sarvy served up a ladle of raw taytos-and-krell with a lump of black bread and handed it to the tad.
“Don’t dawdle,” she snapped. “You got studies, yet, before you get to bed.”
“A-yeh, Mehza.” The boy trotted the short distance across the yard. He pushed the plate through the door slot then latched the cover. On his return, his father waved him toward the front of the dome. A moment later, the front door banged shut with a pained squeal of hinges.
Col backed into the kitchen, giving way for Paggett to puff, slow and weary, into the dome. The Tormin stood, clutching his rifle, and Col realized he was the sole focus of two sets of wary Tormin eyes, pupils slitted on the vertical.
Holdwife Sarvy divided her gaze in equal parts between her mate and his rifle and Col himself—not that Col took any comfort from Sarvy’s fear of her mate.
Of all possible solutions to this problem, the best would be a quiet one.
“Seems like,” Col said in a conversational tone while easing into a chair at the table, “you’ve got yourself a handful, there. Is he crimserv or izzy?”
Paggett snorted and wiped clotted mucus from his gills. He slumped in the seat across from Col, rifle across his lap. “Tazhret? He started out izzy. He’s crimserv now. One more bit a trouble outta him, the justy’ll slap a permanent servitude on him. Oh, after a trial, a’course,” he said, his wide-eyed innocence at odds with Col’s intuitive sense of the man. “Six standard months past, he killed my other izzy!” Paggett’s raspy voice rose in outrage, but Col didn’t buy the performance. “And near-killed me when I tried to stop him. The constable out in Furnace gave him another fourteen years—seven to replace t’other izzy and seven for the killin’ of him. Can’t keep a crimserv in a barn, so he sleeps in that shed. He doesn’t exactly take to it.”
“I can see that.” Col agreed with the last statement, though the rest of Farmholder Paggett’s tale struck his talent for truthken—for knowing when one told truth or lie—with all the force of a stinkcat’s spray. Col swallowed down his genuine outrage, and tsk’d with concern for the farmholder’s plight. “Must be hard, keeping a crimserv like that on the place.”
Paggett gaped at him. Taken aback, no doubt, by Col’s unusual empathy, cross-grained to the common Scotian attitude of contempt toward indentured servitude in general—and contract-owners in particular.
“It gets wearin’,” the Tormin sighed and set aside the rifle.
Sarvy, who had watched from her rooted position at the sink, took a deep breath, perhaps the first one in a standard thirty minutes. She refilled the pitcher of homebrew from the tap of a barrel concealed beneath the counter, and placed it on the table. Taking off her apron, she hung it on a hook inside a dish closet and bowed her way out of the room with a murmured wish for a harmonious night. Col stood and gave her a bow of his own. Paggett saved his attention for the pitcher of homebrew, refilling first his own tankard, then Col’s.
Sitting again, Col picked up the conversation where he’d left off. “Always on the lookout for the safety of your mate and your tad. You have a good-sized holding here. Is he the only ’hand you have about the place?”
“A-yeh, he’s that. Can’t afford to buy another to replace t’one he killed. So, he does his own work and then some.”
“But not,” Col suggested, “as much as two whole izzies might do. Especially as you’ve got to keep him hobbled all the time.”
“Oh, a-yeh, I do. If I let him out of those chains even one short minute—why, it don’t bear thinkin’ of.”
“Seems bad, you paying the price for his killing. But he’s a strong worker?”
The Tormin emitted another poisonous belch and scratched his stomach through the thin fabric of his faded houserobe. “A-yeh, he’s that. Eighteen long hours a day of pumpin’ water, diggin’ ditches, haulin’ pipe will make a man strong.”
Or kill him. Col did the math in his head. Eighteen long hours. Twenty-one standard hours out of every twenty-eight. And precious little food on the plate at the end of it. It’s a wonder he’s on his feet at all. He kept his concern for the izzy, his scorn for the farmholder, off his face. The odd prompting came to him again, confirming his intent.
“I mentioned I was on a holding run,” Col said, and the farmholder nodded. “The holding I’m with—we have mines and forests that need to be worked by ‘hands with strong backs. The holder is always looking for muscle and has the kind of set-up to make sure they don’t do anyone’s kin any harm.”
Col took another sip of homebrew, assessing the Tormin over the mug’s rim. “If he’s as strong as you say, I could take him off your hold. This is the last leg of my circuit, and I’m heading back for the Green Mountains. I can pay you coin now for, say, fourteen of the nineteen standards left on his service contract. You could replace this izzy outright, and get another to replace the izzy he killed.” He paused to let the offer sink into Paggett’s drunken stupor, turning his mug in its thin ring of condensate on the sticky table.
“Or maybe just buy one of the agri-pumps coming in from the homeworlds, now. You wouldn’t have to worry,” he added with a nod toward the shed, “about a pump breaking out and harming you and your kin in the night.”
The Tormin gave him a black-and-yellow grin, his pupils round with anticipation.
Avarice looks about the same in any of the peoples. All he had to do was let the holder drive a hard bargain, and the sale was made.
August 13, AD 2583, Scotian Calendar
Her smile warmed his soul against the night’s chill. She laid her hand along his face, along the scar left by his master’s whip, and the pain left him—
The muzzle of Farmholder Paggett’s laser rifle prodded him awake in the dark before dawnstrike with an insistent command—“Get up! Get up!”
A key fell next to his shackled wrists.
Blinking awake, Tazhret fought free of his tangle of chains. Aching, weary, he rolled out of the patched, cast-off blanket Sarvy had snuck past her mate. The last time Paggett had woken him at dawnstrike…. He couldn’t remember when Paggett had last been awake before Stokerise, much less before little dawn. The farmholder had an established practice of sleeping off his hangovers until scorch.
The Tormin leaned in, prodding harder with the rifle. “Get up, I tol’ ya! Lazy egg of discord….” He coughed the slurred words, still more drunk than hung over.
Tazhret scrambled to free himself of the tether chain, even though Paggett didn’t seem angry, not really. By now, he’d learned every nuance of Farmholder Zinderz Paggett’s moods. This morning, the Tormin read more like…anticipation. With an edge of fear. An odd combination.
The Scotian traveler. A tall and wiry Scotian, who had stood on the back porch and watched, uncaring blue eyes in a long face of stone, while Paggett locked his izzy in the shed for the night. No help there, he’d decided before the shed door had shut, killing the first hope he’d had in…. No, true said, hope died hard, and he’d sent up a prayer anyway—angry, bitter, even defiant, but still a prayer of sorts—to the Trinity who had forgotten him. And now, Paggett was up beforetimes….
Tazhret crawled out of the shed. Paggett backed away and tossed a short chain on the dirt before him.
“There. You get your wrists fastened up to your waist, Tazhret, and do it quick.” In the Tormin’s mouth, ‘ta-zhret’ was always loaded with scorn. Nameless.
He threaded the chain through the one at his waist, caught the ends around the chain between his wrists, and locked it. Eighteen inches of reach remained. He chewed on bitter ignorance, guessing his future. The stone-faced Scotian traveler means to buy me—my contract. Hope hadn’t died after all, but fear snarled and snapped at its heels.
Tazhret stood, obedient to the rifle’s jerked command, and Paggett bent behind him to shorten the chain between his ankles to a bare twelve inches with yet another lock. A hard muzzle in his back sent him hopping toward the tel. Tied to the high porchrail was a leash, a simple snaplock on the free end. Paggett backed him up to the porch and snapped the lead to the chain about his waist.
“None of your discord, izzy,” the Tormin muttered. “Or I’ll mark your hide for ya, again.” Paggett cuffed him and grated, “Stay there.” He coughed, waiting.
“Aye, master,” Tazhret sighed the expected answer. No, I’ll just nip into the kitchen for a bite to eat. Trinity, having a master at all was bad enough, much less a stupid one. He kept his head down and his back straight until Paggett stumbled up the porch stairs into the kitchen.
Tazhret stood outside, his leash too short to let him sit or even kneel, except among the razorscrub growing around the tel. The razorscrub—unnatural offspring of barbwire, knives, and thistles—was powerful motivation to stay upright. Tazhret, swaying on his feet, longed for the scant breakfast Sarvy brought him when she let him out of the shed in the morning. She often supplemented the standard leathery hardtack with a lump of hard cheese or the heel end of a loaf—all bits her mate wouldn’t miss. But Tazhret missed it, just as he missed his chance for a drink of water.
Noises on the porch told him Zinderz Paggett had clumped out to jam his bulk into the creaking rocker, thumping the butt of his laser rifle on the floor. The cruel aroma of Sarvy’s cooking floated on the air. Paggett took a noisy slurp from his mug. Smelled like kava, which argued for the Tormin’s serious effort to sober up for…whatever was happening. Tazhret’s nerves, drawn tight over the hollow drum of his empty stomach, vibrated between hope and fear.
At dawnstrike, the Scotian traveler strode down the steps, right past Tazhret without a pause on his way into the barn. By little dawn, he had his team out in the yard and hitched to the wagon. Tazhret kept his head down, but his gaze followed the traveler, who worked with the ease of long practice. His team pushed their heads into his hands for a welcoming scratch, and he patted their smooth, gleaming coats.
Hope spoke. He cares well for his horses, at least. Fear snarled along the back of Tazhret’s mind. He wouldn’t be the first Scotian who cared more for horses than izzies.
The traveler finished with the horses and returned to the tel. This time he stopped at Tazhret’s side, startling him with a quick, callous examination—pinching his arms, poking his chest, opening his mouth to peer at his teeth. When the Scotian lifted his head to check his eyes, he searched the traveler’s face for some sign, some signal, to feed his hope.
The traveler, however, dropped Tazhret’s head and dusted the dirt from his hands. A small silence ensued, the traveler glancing from him to Zinderz Paggett, who sat in his rocker huffing though his brittle gills. Probably afraid this traveler will decide I’m not worth the price he’s paying.
“He’s fit enough, if a little scrawny,” the traveler declared, composed in the face of the Tormin’s agitation. “He does look like he’s been a rare handful, though. He won’t give me any trouble, now?”
“No, no, honored. I’ve got him chained up tight for travel.” Paggett lumbered down the steps, carrying his rifle in his right hand. Tazhret’s identbead dangled from his left fist.
“Good. A traveler alone on the road with a killer can’t take any chances.” He nodded toward the door. “While we transfer his service contract, you think the honored holdwife could make up some handmeals? I’d be grateful for the good eating while I was on the road.”
“My Sarvy can cook, all right,” Paggett said in relieved tones. “And we’ll have a mug of homebrew after signing the transfer. Sarvy’s just made up a fresh batch.”
Tazhret emitted an almost soundless snort. Sarvy had been trying to kill her mate with her finest homebrew for most of two years, just as she’d been trying to keep her izzy alive. Until this morning, he’d believed the life-and-death race would result in a dead heat—and Sarvy would be out both useless mate and useful izzy. And still be ahead in the game, with Zinderz gone.
The farmholder waved a hand at the traveler’s horses. “You’ll want feed for them, too, a-yeh?” Opening the tel’s door, he shouted for his tad. “Zheb! Get some fodder for the traveler’s horses!”
His shout set off more coughing. The Scotian traveler followed Paggett into the musty dome, stepping aside in the narrow entryway to let the tad dart by. Zheb led the horses to the barn, but, with a wary eye on his relz, left Tazhret tethered to the porch. Tazhret seethed in a stew of impatience, ignorance, anxiety—and a growing fear that his rubbery legs would fail him, and he’d drop into the razorscrub before the Scotian traveler let him off his leash.
He waited an eternity or two, while Stoke burned off the morning cool, before light steps led lumbering ones down the porch stairs. The Scotian stood in front of him, the Tormin at his side. The farmholder untied Tazhret’s leash from the porch and handed it to the traveler, along with an izzy’s identbead and the key to the chains. When the traveler stuffed bead and key into a pocket of his weatherall, Tazhret gasped. Trinity. He’s taking me out of this Te-cursed hellhole. Tazhret’s eyes strained upward in blazing hope, trying, in vain, to read some sign of intent in the man’s ungiving face.
Zheb led the horses out of the barn. “I threw a sack of feed in the back of the wagon, Relz,” he called.
Caught up in the hope of leaving the dark gods’ hell, the sudden jerk on his leash caught Tazhret unawares. He fell to his knees—almost into the razorscrub.
But the traveler caught his shoulder and steadied him. Glancing up in surprise, he eyed the Scotian, who pressed his right thumb against the servband and spoke nonsense syllables, taking ownership of the service contract. The farmholder back-stepped, whistling hard in real alarm. Probably afraid the traveler will renege on the contract if I fall dead at his feet.
But perhaps Paggett had other concerns, because he raised his rifle in a drunkard’s aim that included the traveler as much as Tazhret.
“I’ll keep ‘im covered for ya, a-yeh?”
The Scotian nodded in calm agreement.
“Zheb,” Paggett snapped, “you get on out to th’ field in the northwest corner. Check to see that pipe Tazhret repaired in’t leakin’ again. You can take the twincycle.”
“A-yeh, Relz.” Zheb sounded pleased at this rare treat. Soon, the wheezing cough and sputter of a light-duty motorized two-wheeler faded in the distance.
“Let’s go,” the traveler ordered, with a sudden yank on the leash that brought Tazhret to his knees. “Get a move on, izzy! I don’t have all day!”
His new contract-owner hauled him up and along by his chains toward the wagon, snatching the horsewhip from the passenger compartment in passing. Paggett followed, watching the show. Tazhret caught a glimpse of his black-gummed, yellow grin just before the traveler grabbed hold of his snarled hair and waist-chain and heaved him into the wagon, prodding him into a small space in front of the cargo with the whip’s handle. Tazhret clenched his jaw in silence while his master locked his chains—wrists and ankles—to the sturdy steel ring bolted to the wagon bed.
“So, you think I’ll give an order twice?” the Scotian demanded, emphasizing every word with a jab in Tazhret’s ribs. “You think you’ll look me in the face?”
The whip came up, tight under Tazhret’s jaw, stretching his neck, cutting off his air. Clenching his fists, he kept his eyes down, his blazing hopes collapsing into bitter ashes.
“N-no, master,” he squeezed out.
“Keep quiet and don’t give me any trouble, izzy, if you know what’s good for you,” the traveler growled, giving Tazhret’s ribs a last poke before he flipped the canopy closed and tied it down. “Pleasure doing business with you, honored sir.” The traveler spent all his courtesy on the farmholder. “If I come back this way again, can I count on the hospitality of your table?”
“You mean Sarvy’s?” The Tormin wheezed a chuckle. “Oh, a-yeh, traveler, anytime. Anytime.”
The wagon compartment was hot, dusty…and far more cramped than the shed. Tazhret sagged in the grip of his chains, too weak even to laugh at his delusions of hope. Even she was silent, although he felt her presence like a prayer for mercy.
He twisted his wrists in his shackles. Apparently, Trinity didn’t listen to her prayers, either. The dark gods of the Xern, the Te, were toying with him. Or Trinity’s angels were visiting new punishment upon him for the depravity of sins he couldn’t remember. Oh, Trinity….The wagon trundled forward, taking him away from the Paggett Farmhold. Away from Zinderz Paggett—and away from Holdwife Sarvy. The frying pan looks pretty good when you’re in the fire. The depth of his despair swallowed even his bitter prayer.
Find out what happens next. Buy FORGE.