There is no place more blessed than the five hills of Father’s clan. The very gods led Grandfather here, the very spirits welcomed us. Envy and hatred followed us, and Father taught us always to be wary and look for signs that the weak and lazy were thieving from us. And I hear the men coming, on the very slope of the most holy hill, and run back up through the woods and tell Father.
He calls everyone into the great house—brothers and cousins run from their work, the women stop their chores, and the hounds raise up from the cool shadows of the house. Father and Uncle stand at the door, the dogs eager around them. It is hot, mid-summer, and the rest of us gather near the fire-pit, sweating under the thatch roof.
Past Father and through the door I see a man step out from the trees and into the bright sun.
“Get away!” Father yells. “Or I’ll set the dogs on you!”
The hounds strain, Father’s strong hand holding their ropes. The one tied in the yard sets up a mad barking.
“I need to talk to Alebeg!” the stranger shouts. He almost sounds merry!
“Bah!” Father says, and lets loose the four hounds. They charge out into the yard and from the small round window I watch them bound toward the stranger. Then other strangers melt out of the trees. Strangers with bows and spears. The dogs yowl and founder in pain as the arrows and spears gleam bronze for a moment before finding homes in their bodies. The first stranger never moves; he has no bow, he has no spear. I can see he has a sword hanging from his hip like the one stolen from Grandfather.
Then the six of them, four men and two women, walk to the house, five of them forming a rough wedge behind the merry-sounding man. At a nod from him, one of the women draws back an arrow and kills the dog tied in the yard.
“Have you got any more hounds?” the stranger, the stranger from the outside, shouts. “Or will you honour the laws of hospitality and let us in?”
Before Father can answer, the biggest of the men, who wears a gleaming coat of bronze scales and carries a socket-axe, walks through the door of the house. He stands, seemingly unafraid of Father and Uncle and my brother, looking over their sharp flint spears and Father’s great club.
Father’s club is studded with the teeth of wolves who have tried to molest our stock, and at his hip he carries the bronze dagger. “What are you doing? Why are you here? Get gone! You cannot do this!”
Behind the big man the other stranger enters. “I wanted to come and see this paradise in the hills.”
Father doesn’t yell, he says in his worst voice, “You can’t—”
“A place,” the man says as he eases into the doorway, “so magnificent that you do not soil it with foster-sons or go to the gatherings at the chieftain-stones, or go to council in the judges’ ring, or send fighting men when the chieftains call.”
The very spirits of the hill, blood-brothers to Father, have remained silent so far, but I know from my learning that sometimes their blessings and gifts and favour can be hard to see.
The other four begin to come in. The late-day sun and the weak fire glint off bronze spearheads and copper ornaments.
“The chieftains,” the stranger says, “have become curious, but having important things to do, they’ve sent me instead.” The man touches his own chest. “Sonhilol is my name.”
By now, all are inside. Uncle fumes, my brother seethes, and the women quail. Father is quiet, deadly deadly quiet. He gathers himself and stands tall, places a hand on the hilt of his bronze dagger and his great voice explodes. “I don’t care who you are! Your chiefs, and Chief Gawinol especially, have thick boots but treading on a serpent will get you a poison fang.”
The man, Sonhilol, smiles a lopsided smile. “Do you not know what a man will do to a serpent that tries to bite him?”
Then the stranger does a feat: he twitches his hand and there is the sound of a distant splash as of water in a deep cave and there in his grip, out of thin air, is a sword.
Father and Uncle Walhinil often speak of Grandfather’s sword, which he lost fighting off our greedy and stupid neighbours—that it was a leaf-shaped blade as long as a man’s forearm, looking something like the sword hanging off the stranger’s hip. But the blade that appears in Sonhilol’s grip is nothing like that. It is longer and brutishly simple, perhaps as wide as a hand at the hilt and narrowing to a point.
Sonhilol catches me looking at it. “Quite a thing, isn’t it, lad? Much bigger than your father’s.” He holds it up and appraises it. “It is very old. Used by one of my ancestors in times long past. I suppose he’s in a tomb somewhere, somewhere underwater because it’s always wet when I reach in to get it.”
He smiles and drops the weapon. It disappears in the air before it hits the ground and again there is a splash as if in water far away.
“Get out,” Father says, his knuckles whitening around the hilt of his dagger. “Get out, you have no right to come here. This is my land, my ancestors were guided here by the gods—”
“Since the chieftains keep the Tulhal tribe at bay every year, they have every right to ask why you set the dogs on their messengers.”
I remember that! Last spring, Father set the dogs on another stranger. But she was alone and ran off.
The blood drains out of Father’s face, and out of his pale visage of rage he hisses: “We have no dealings with the chieftains! With their corruption! With their greed! That they can come and take what they want at the point of a spear.”
Sonhilol’s face is expressionless and he says, very quietly, “There are a dozen homesteads like this, reduced to ash by the Tulhal. Brave men keep them beaten back and punish raid for raid.”
“What do I care about fools too stupid to leave the lands to the east?” Father says. “Let them deal with their own problems.”
“So I can go back and tell the chieftains that the poor refugees from the burned homesteads are welcome here? The ranks of the blind and the maimed can come to your paradise on the hill?”
“Your chieftains are so wise, let them take care of their own.”
Nobody stands against Father. Not the wolves, or our weakling and greedy neighbours. But this stranger, Sonhilol, who carries one sword and can call upon another, he seems only mildly concerned. For the first time I am afraid.
“Oh, it was discussed,” the man says, looking past Father and Uncle and to the women, and even to me. “That perhaps the Tulhal should just be allowed to come here and take what they wanted, but that would be unfair to your neighbours. They already suffer from your presence, why subject them to heartless raiders?”
“My neighbours! Bah! Alnowi the greedy! Balniwan the foolish! Culnimal the stupid! Cowards! Is it they who have summoned you with their lies and their jealousies?”
Sonhilol, the new messenger of the chiefs, opens his mouth like he would answer but instead he gives Father a hard look. Father begins the recitation of the crimes and wrongs committed against us by our neighbours. He tells of their luck, surely bought by sorcery, against us, of their thievery of our game in the woods, of their poaching of fish from our streams, and of their jealousy of our divine heritage.
At that Sonhilol speaks so low that his silent words seemed to devour the sound like the night devours a rush-candle. “I have settled issues with a dozen descendants of gods, Alebeg. Let us see if you are any wiser than they have been—will you join your neighbours at the judges’ circles and the fairs, and send your children to be fostered as is common and proper?”
At that word, us, I am reminded of the others, the men and women whom Sonhilol has brought with him. They stand silent and tense. None of them looks at me, but at my aunts and uncles and cousins. One, the big one who first came through the door, he mostly watches my brother, who is the fiercest of our fighters.
“Or what? You’ll summon your ancestor’s sword again? We don’t all have great gifts from the otherworld to make our lives easy,” Father says.
“Easy?” Sonhilol says coldly. “Then you are a fool. I reach into that drowned crypt and always hope to get my hands on the throat of whoever thought this would be a fine gift for his descendants. Just enough of a feat that we can’t give it up, but not so great that it makes any real difference. Trapping them forever to be the living blades of chieftains and kings.”
They stand, staring at each other for a moment, and few people can meet my father’s eye and fewer can hold it. Then the stranger grabs for the sword at his belt and my father lunges forward with his club. Sonhilol slides aside and the thin sword of the otherworld splashes out, slapping down on the club. The leaf-shaped sword he slips out of its sheath and across Father’s chest and arm, and as Father stumbles the long rapier blade plunges into his chest.
It all happens so fast! Uncle Walhinil yells and rushes, his spear down, and Sonhilol nearly catches it in the ribs as he struggles to free his blade from Father’s body. Instead he lets it go, barely manages to parry the flint-headed spear-point with the other broadsword, and then the rapier re-appears in his hand a moment before it is buried in Uncle Walhinil’s chest.
Then the strangers explode forth, like Father’s hounds on a hunt after one of the neighbouring thieves.
The two women move like they are tied together, one cocking back a javelin as the other pulls back her bow, then both missiles fly through the smoky air, one finding a home in my mother’s neck, the other in my aunt’s stomach.
“Come on, boy!” the big one says to my eldest brother. The man’s socket-axe is as wide as a hand and he holds it low as he approaches Gowenig. “For your family and your ancestors—”
Gowenig screams and hefts his club and the big man seems to flick it away with the thick haft of his axe before bringing the weapon up and then into Gowenig’s head.
One of the fighters catches my cousin Walon in the leg with a thrust from his bronze-tipped spear. As Walon fumbles by the firepit the man pulls the spear out and then jambs it into my cousin’s side. He lets go of the weapon, stepping up the haft and after an awkward struggle manages to hold Walon’s knife-arm down and draw a bronze dagger across his throat.
“Scalnen,” Sonhilol yells to one of his thugs, looking at my aunt as she struggles with the javelin sticking out of her, “do something about her!”
And without a word the woman crosses the small space and dashes Aunt Chanawt’s head in with a wedge-shaped club.
The archer woman puts an arrow into my cousin Mawlluns’ back, and a second into the back of her neck.
“I thought you were going to spare that one,” Sonhilol says, holding both his dripping blades.
“She would just spread it,” the woman answers, drawing her knife.
Sonhilol looks about the room, drops one blade into the otherworld and begins to count the dead grownups. The children, like me, they pay no mind to.
There are eight of us, eight children too small to share in the crimes of our elders. These awful strangers debate for a bit about me, because I am the oldest of those who are left. Which of them want to add me to the corpses on the floor and which of them don’t, I can’t tell. These awful strangers are not like Father and the uncles, they do not yell when they debate.
Father Father Father Father. He lays dead where he fell. What magic, what sorcery, what power must these outlanders have to bring down such a man? Father, blessed by the gods, granted wisdom by the gods, who led the select few to these hills in days before I was born and held it against the takers. Dead without so much as a swing.
The uncles and my older brother and cousins, too. Those who went into the great dark woods to hunt and fight away the thieves and bandits that infest the hills, all dead. And the women as well. They had borne children to those who listened to the wisdom of Father, and kept a fine house, and now they lay dead, each and every one.
Yet more strangers, three men and another woman, come in from outside.
“You,” Sonhilol says to me, “I don’t know how your gods and ancestors demand you deal with the dead. Nor do I care. This house is to be their pyre. If you have any words or songs or such, now is the time.”
Father could summon the voice of the gods and boom it out in song, as could Uncle, and on a good day my brother Gowenig. But the gods have not touched my tongue yet. I can barely keep up with my chores and have only memorized sixty lines of the two hundred of Father’s blessing.
I just stare at him, at this monster who has ruined everything. Finally he shrugs and they are about it. They herd us to the largest outbuilding and then leave us, not caring if we want to flee or not. And I do not, I do not want to run out into the dark woods without fire or a knife or a firebow. Father and the uncles kept the wild dangerous world at bay—what hope do I have?
The men, the fists of the chieftains, they kill our animals, they pull down all the outbuildings, they pull down the house, and sometime late into the black night they light all but the outbuilding we are in on fire.
They don’t eat any of the meat from our animals. The strangers brought dried meat and dried persimmons and what may be acorn cakes. In the blaze of the burning buildings Sonhilol also burns down the small shrine dedicated to our strong and just gods who sired Father. After that sacrilege, they sit and say almost nothing.
Sonhilol sits among his folk and summons his strange sword and in the light of the fires he holds it close to his face and runs his fingers over it.
After a moment he catches one of the children looking at him. “Strange thing,” he says. “I have broken this blade twice, bent it three times, and yet when I reach into the otherworld it always comes out whole and unchanged.” He pauses. “Mostly unchanged. This,” he runs his fingers along a nick halfway up the edge. “This is new. I caught a sword on it two years ago at a place called Mag Siln.” His face grows hard. “Your kin, your brother and uncles should have been there. The call went out, but you could not be bothered. Your father and uncle, they left as little mark on this blade as they have left on the world.”
He lets the sword go and it falls away into the flooded tomb.
In the morning they pull down the remaining outbuilding and set it alight as well. Then we go into the woods. By mid-morning I have gone farther than Father would ever allow, and we go up and down the three ridges and finally come down to Nesp Creek. On the other side are the thieves and cowards who live around us, whose envious eyes and gossiping tongues have led to this waking horror. Although I’ve not seen them I recognize them, I recognize their softness, their decadence.
And they are on our side of the creek.
“It is done,” Sonhilol says. “Do not bother looking for any of their stock, it is food for crows and worms. Do not bother looking for any bronze or copper, that is ours for the work.”
I can see Alnowi the greedy, he is disappointed at this news.
The strangers divide us children up among our neighbours. It is, they say, part of the arrangement.
I go to stand by Balniwan the fool and Sonhilol asks me if I know how such things are done—the schedule of the bondsman and captive.
“Of course you don’t,” he says in answer to my silence. “Such common law is beneath those self-described descendants of the gods holed up in the high hills. Well, no longer. For a year this man,” he points to Balniwan, “holds your life in his hands. He may hang you like a thief for any reason he wants. On the second through the fifth year he can banish you from his holdings for any reason he pleases. At the end of the fifth year, you are free to stay or go.”
He looks around at us, at our neighbours. “The chieftains expect them to be taught the common laws, the basics of civility. They are also to go to the muster with your own sons, not in place of them, when the chieftains call.”
Little else is done or said. The neighbours take my surviving kinsmen by differing roads and I, Balniwan and the strangers share the trail for a part of the day before the killers turn off to go back to the chieftains.
Balniwan and his folk say little to us, save: “It is customary after a funeral to say nothing of the dead for a week. We shall say nothing of Alebeg and what has happened for this first year. Do not let me or mine catch you telling your lies or it’ll be the noose for you.”
Then we come out into a break in the woods where the hill flattens out into a great bench where Balniwan has his house.
For a fool, he has a very big house.
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Story copyright © 2016 by Adrian Simmons
Artwork copyright © 2016 by Gregory St. John
Adrian Simmons is a Norman, Oklahoma-based reader, writer, and editor. His non-fiction has appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction and Strange Horizons. His short fiction has been published in James Gunn’s Ad Astra Magazine, Strange Constellations, the post-Cthulhu-awakening anthology Apotheosis, and No Sh!t There I Was, an anthology of improbable tales. He is still waiting to live in a centre-left nation. He is one-third the editorial team of Heroic Fantasy Quarterly.
Gregory St. John (artwork) is an artist and fiction writer living in Gainesville, Florida. If he is not painting or sculpting, tending to his gardens and chickens, studying history and science, reading while walking his four dogs, cooking, or building something, he is hard at work at the family perfume business, Solstice Scents. He is currently drafting his first novel and editing a collection of his short stories titled The Short and Curlies, featuring “The Presence of Hell,” “Servant of Stone,” “A Helping Hand,” and “The Dare.”