by David McLeod
Trial by Combat
Phillip was afraid. The final test was to be trial by combat. He and Japura were naked; they stood at opposite sides of a circular dirt arena on the outskirts of the village. The arena was surrounded by what appeared to be all the men and boys from the village. There were also many Phillip did not recognize. They must have sent out flyers, he thought nervously. No, market starts tomorrow. I remember. These people must have come for that. Oh. . . that's a knife!
The Smith had given Japura one of the broadswords that everyone seemed to carry. Phillip had learned that they were not only weapons, but tools. Like the machetes that the soldiers used in the Asian jungles. They are used to clear a path through the jungle and for harvesting grains. The machete was about two feet long. It did not come to a point; rather, the end was curved. Only one side and the curved end were sharpened. The one Japura held was so sharp that the edge seemed to catch and concentrate the sunlight. The Smith walked across the arena and offered a similar knife to Phillip.
"I can't!" Phillip said. "I could never harm Japura!"
The Smith slashed the blade across his hand, and then held the unharmed hand out for Phillip to examine. A red line across his palm glowed, and then slowly began to fade.
"The machetes are spelled not to cut," he said. "They leave a mark for scoring, only. It is still possible to cause injury. Deliberate blows above the chest are forbidden. It is possible to cause death; that is a risk you and Japura take. You may not step outside the arena. If you wish to yield, call Pax. If no one calls Pax, I will declare winner the one who makes what would be a killing blow, or sufficient other blows to cripple his opponent. Those are the only rules."
Phillip nodded and accepted the machete. He did not hear the Smith's words. His thoughts were far away, and eight years in the past.
The Athabasca who served in the Hispanglo army in the Second Global War had brought respect and glory to their people. Those who did not return were honored as heroes by both nations. The Athabascans who served in the first of the so-called police actions in Pan-Asia had brought back oriental martial arts. This fighting technique became popular among the youth. It was exotic, and something in which the Hispanglos did not seem interested. Martial arts–adapted by the Athabascans to their own culture–became a part of every school curriculum.
Phillip had been twelve when he first participated in a taekwondo competition. The team had left before dawn for the ride to the Hispanglo high school in the Gallup enclave.
The Athabascan school district had first offered a small school bus, but the coach had been adamant. "Hispanglos use the short bus to take the special needs kids to school. I'll not have my team show up in one." The long yellow school bus had many more seats than passengers, and Phillip–the new kid on the team–had a seat to himself and his thoughts.
I can do this, he thought. I can spar with any of the older boys. I can hold my own even with the black belts. Phillip thought of the red belt he'd just earned. The only reason I'm not black belt is because I'm half-breed. Phillip had long ago stopped feeling sorry for himself, and this thought was more pragmatic than self-pitying. I can win. That was his last thought until the bus lurched across the railroad tracks that ran through Gallup. The heat and the early summer morning had claimed Phillip, and he slept.
Phillip's first round was disastrous. He and the boy against whom he was matched were unseeded. The boy was about Phillip's height, and he was stockier. Phillip knew he'd have to rely on speed and agility, and planned accordingly. The plan collapsed when it met the reality of the boy's attack. Phillip was constantly on the defensive and, although he successfully blocked most of the boy's blows, Phillip's opponent easily won the round on points.
This is not going well, Phillip thought. He walked behind the bleachers to find a water fountain. I've got eight more rounds before the meet is over. I don't know what I'm doing wrong!
"Nice going, half-breed," Jake Paloma's voice came from behind Phillip. "If you cost us the trophy, I'm going to wipe your ass with sand."
Phillip whirled around and lashed out at Jake. The older boy blocked Phillip's first blow, but Phillip's follow-up caught him completely by surprise. It caught Phillip by surprise, too, and he pulled the punch just before it landed. If I had hit him, I might have killed him! Phillip thought. His anguish imprinted itself on his face.
Jake took advantage of Phillip's hesitation, and put his arm around the younger boy's shoulders. "That's what it's going to take, squirt," he said. "You were just defending. This isn't an exhibition or a drill. You have to attack. Oh, yeah, being half-breed–well, it's not a bad thing. My father was Hispanglo, too. It just doesn't show so much. I've never told anybody but you."
Jake hugged Phillip tightly, and then walked away, leaving a stunned and somewhat puzzled, but very happy boy.
There was no miracle. Phillip won only one more than half of his matches, but the team did take a trophy. Jake sat with Phillip on the trip home, and the boys talked of inconsequential things until Phillip fell asleep with his head on Jake's shoulder.
Phillip pushed the memory away. He found himself naked, in an arena surrounded by Elves, and holding a sword. A man Phillip did not know was talking. He was addressing the crowd. Japura wasn't listening, and neither was Phillip. He remembered the lessons from that first taekwondo meet, and all the others that followed. Go in fast, hard, and on the offensive. Watch his eyes, but don't waste time trying to learn his style. Depend on your own skills.
The match was over only seconds after it started. Even the Smith did not see what happened. Phillip and Japura were facing one another a few feet apart when the Smith signaled the start. Phillip dropped his machete, blocked Japura's tentative, exploratory thrust, and had the Elven boy disarmed and pinned in an instant. "Pax?" he whispered to Japura.
"Pax," Japura called loudly. The boys scrambled to their feet. Japura grabbed Phillip's hand and held it aloft. Then he turned and kissed the Human boy. The crowd cheered.
Japura's cohort clustered around the two boys. Argon held Phillip tightly around his waist. "Phillip, will you teach me how to fight the way you did?" Japura asked.
"Japura, I am sorry, but I cannot," Phillip said. "It is something that I have studied and practiced nearly every day for. . . almost 10 years. What's more, although I know how to fight, I do not know how to teach fighting. There is a big difference, you know."
The Elven boys expressed their disappointment. One looked to Jurua. "Does he speak the truth?" the boy demanded.
Jurua replied, "He does. And he does regret that he cannot teach us."
"Jurua," Phillip asked, later. "Why did the boy ask you if I spoke the truth?"
"Because he knows that I am a Sembler," Jurua said. "You look puzzled. Do you not have Semblers?"
"I don't know," Phillip said. "What is a Sembler?"
"One who knows the truth, of course," Jurua replied. "It's something a few boys are born with."
I can never write all that I want to write, nor can I write all that I must write, for I have too many things to say. Perhaps someday I will come back to these pages and complete them, but not today and not tomorrow.
I have passed the tests to become a tween, but Japura's father has not yet declared me one. He said he would talk to me more, tomorrow. I hope it's not another test.
I learned new things about magic today. I don't know if it's part of boy magic or the great magic, or if it's something else, entirely. Jurua is a "truth teller." Only that's not the best word, and there's more to it. He can see if someone is telling the truth or lying, and he can also see, perhaps feel a person's emotions. I'd call it telepathy and empathy, but those words don't exist except in their root forms in these Elves' version of Latin.
Today I had a chance to kill a boy who has become a good friend to Argon and to me. He's also the chief's son. (They don't call the man their chief. I don't know if he has a title. Japura called him the "head man" but it sounded descriptive rather than titular. But, the people defer to him, and seek his advice. He's also–according to his son Japura–the only person in the village who could declare me tween. The other person who might, a Cleric, is not around.)
I faced Japura in mock combat using a sword that resembles a machete. The Smith–the same one who said my bracelet was a masterpiece–said the swords wouldn't cut. (This is the second thing about magic: he said the swords were spelled not to cut!). I could not take that chance, even if it meant losing to Japura. I honor Jake Paloma and the lesson he taught me at the taekwondo meet so many years ago. I honor all my teachers and coaches and opponents, and all they taught me. I honor them for giving me the ability to win without harming a friend.
Japura's father sat on the wicker bench in front of his house. Phillip sat on a mat beside the man. Japura's cohort, including Argon, were across the square, playing a running game. In another corner of the square, a group of girls played a game with shaped stones. The laughter of the boys and girls rang from the stone facades of their homes. Phillip and Japura's father were alone. "Japura told me you wanted to talk about dragons," the man said.
"The Shaman–wise man–who made it possible for Argon and me to be here, intimated that dragons were real," Phillip began. "Although since our people have lived in many worlds, it may be that he knew them to be real only in another world, and not in his.
"He and you both suggested that my name, Spartus, was not the name of a soldier grown from a dragon's tooth, but the name of a dragon rider. I do not understand, and I do not know of any story or myth that would explain that. I ask you to explain why you think my name means dragon rider."
Japura's father nodded his head. He sipped his mug of tisane, and spoke.
"A thousand lifetimes ago, our people lived in a place called Elvenholt–which means, simply, Elf-home. Our people served the Light, although they were a simple people–farmers and fishers, for the most part. Our crafts and our magic were limited to those appropriate to farmers and fishers: weaving, animal husbandry, boat building, and such. We knew that in our deep past, we had escaped or survived a great war between Light and Dark. We knew that such a war might occur again. We feared that we might not escape the next war.
"Our king was concerned that the Elven race could not survive such a war. We were not then a warlike people. He conceived a plan, and divided our peoples into two groups.
"Actually," Japura's father broke his narrative, "I suspect that he divided our peoples into several groups, but that's another story." He resumed the narrative.
"From stories brought back by fishers blown across the sea by storms, we knew that a fair land lay to the east. One group was to sail to that land, and settle it. They–we, their descendants–were to preserve the peaceful and non-belligerent culture."
The man digressed from the story for a second time. "You see that we carry machetes. We teach our sons to use them first as tools, but also as weapons. We also teach them to use the war bow. That part of the king's plan was not a success.
"The group that remained was to prepare for the next war against the Darkness. They were to build fortified cities. They were to make alliances with Human kingdoms to their north, south, and west. They were to create an army of soldiers and Mages. They were also–he lowered his voice and looked at Phillip–they were also to train Sparti, the name given to certain boys who would become dragon riders.
"The dragons lived in the mountains west of Elvenhold. Like the mountains, the dragons breathed fire. We believe that they were not–despite legends to the contrary–intelligent, sapient creatures. We believe that they were wild animals with perhaps the intelligence of a dog.
"Of course, we do not know whether the other Elves were successful. We do not know even if they are still alive. So much time has passed–" his voice trailed off. Phillip remained silent, knowing that the man had not finished speaking.
"Some children are born with a form of magic that is different from boy magic or the Great magic. I know that you have talked to Jurua about his innate magic that makes him a Sembler. This inborn magic can take many forms. One of those forms is an uncommon ability to train animals; some say even to communicate with animals. It is not often recognized among our people, for we have few animals save the oxen that plow the fields; the dogs that provide companionship; and the sheep and goats that provide wool and milk.
"I believe that your Shaman recognized that talent in you when you saw the dragon during your vision quest. I believe that you may possess that talent, and that it will become apparent to you in due course."
Japura's father talked to me of dragon riders. So much of what he said is lost in the mist of his people's history I am not sure even he believes all he said. At one time, long ago, lived dragons who did fly, and who did breathe fire. Some boys are (or were) born with a talent for animal training. This is a magical talent that may allow someone to communicate–at some level, he was not sure–with animals. The talent is rare, and he does not know how to determine if I have it, but he thinks the Shaman thought I had it. He thinks so, too. This is one more thing I will have to–what? Explore? Find out? There is so much to do!
I asked Jurua about their king. He said they still swore fealty to the Elven king, even though they'd been separated for many, many lifetimes. "We must believe our kin still live in Elvenholt," he said. "We must."
I did not pursue the issue, which is a very emotional one for him.
"Japura, your father said that you learned to use the machetes both as tools and as weapons. He also said that you were taught to use a war bow." Phillip gestured to a longbow and a quiver of arrows with barbed metal heads that hung from the wall. "Against whom do you prepare for war?"
Japura propped himself up on his right elbow, and brushed the fingers of his left hand over Phillip's stomach, evoking a quiver from the muscles. "I am ready to share," he said. "And, it would appear, so are you. Yet you want to talk?"
Phillip took Japura's hand in his and brought it to his lips, kissing the palm. "Japura, I do want to share with you. But I must know more about this world! Argon and I have a long journey to make–" A long journey in both space and time, he thought before continuing "–but we are so poorly prepared! He knows only his village, and a little about the sea and the people with whom his people traded. I know almost nothing about this world and its dangers. I must learn!"
"I understand," Japura said. "I was wrong to think you were a boy when we met. You think deeply and responsibly." He retrieved his hand and sat up. "What you see is not the way it always has been.
"You know that our people came to this island a long time ago, and that we were charged to preserve a peaceful life and eschew war. The king who set us to that task had good intentions. He, and our ancestors, believed that if we remained isolated, we could do this in safety. They were wrong.
"A hundred lifetimes ago–" Japura paused, and then started over. "Less than one lifetime ago, long after our people had settled this island, a ship landed on the western shore. The ship had been blown off course by a great storm. Many of the crew had died. Some had been washed overboard. Others had died of hunger and thirst. The remaining crewmen were barely able to sail the ship into a small cove and onto a sandy beach. The cove was near one of our people's villages, and was the place at which they collected shellfish.
"The buttons on my shirt," Japura gestured, "are made from shells which they collect, even today, and trade to us for wool." He continued the story.
"The villagers found these people–who were Humans–and offered them food, healing, and shelter. The sailors accepted this assistance, and asked for more. They asked for help repairing their ship and stocking it with food and water for the voyage home.
"The people of the village agreed. They made barrels, caulked them with the sap of the rubber tree, and filled them with sweet water from the streams. They fermented breadfruit, which contains a specific against scorbutus."
"I'm sorry, scorbutus?" Phillip asked.
"An illness that sailors suffered because their food lacked something. . . I don't know what," Japura said. "But it made their teeth fall out."
Phillip nodded. Scurvy, he thought.
"They also dried fruit, and baked hard bread so that the sailors would have enough to eat. The villagers worked very hard, and sacrificed, for the sailors did not know how far away their home was, nor how long the voyage would last. They insisted that the ship be filled with food and water. After weeks of effort, the ship was repaired and stuffed with supplies. The villagers prepared a feast on the evening before the sailors were to depart on the early morning tide.
"The next morning, the villagers woke to find that the ship was gone, and that so were a dozen of their children. The people understood at once that the children had not run away. The sailors had stolen them. The villagers could not pursue. Their small boats were not seaworthy. They sent runners to other coastal villages with a warning; those villages in turn sent runners farther along the coast, and then inland, until every village on the island had received the word. The Human sailors from the west are not trustworthy. Safeguard your children should they appear again.
"This was a hard message and a hard lesson for our people. It was hard to accept that some people could not be trusted. It was hard to accept that some people were Evil," Japura said. Then he continued.
"No one knows where the next ship appeared; however, we do know that it was not driven here by a storm. It came with soldiers. It stood offshore and sent small boats filled with soldiers. The soldiers were armed with swords and knives, and they attacked as soon as they landed. They killed adults and tweens, and captured children. Again, messengers were sent to all the villages. The message not only warned but also called for a council.
"Leaders from all the villages traveled to this village. They met, and agreed that the king's injunction could not stand in the face of these events. When they returned to their villages, they began training boys, tweens, and Men in the arts of war."
"They had not lost these skills?" Phillip asked, remembering what Japura's father had said about the Elven king's plan.
"No," Japura replied. "For generations, the Clerics had trained in the arts of war at monasteries throughout the island. It seems that the ancient king had given them secret instructions. They became the cadre. Even today, it is the Cleric who teaches the machete and the bow.
"The next ship was met with resistance. It was not enough, and more children were taken. The sailors were warned, and the next ship contained more soldiers. However, our people, too, had learned.
"I cannot tell the rest of the story," Japura said. "Our strategy and tactics are secret, even from you, Phillip. Please do not think ill of me. . . but you know, now, why we were so cautious when we first met."
"Of course I do not think ill of you," Phillip said. "Please, however, do not think that all Humans are evil."
"Oh, no," Japura assured him. "I know that you and Argon are not evil. We believe–we hope–that our king was successful in forming alliances with Good Humans on the Western continent. Now, about that boy magic. . . "
Later, Japura and Phillip sat on one of the mats outside Japura's house. Japura used a whetstone to polish the already sharp blade of his machete.
"Where do you get the metal for your machetes, and other things?" Phillip asked. "Do you mine it?"
"We trade for it," Japura said. "It's mined by Dwarves–" He paused. "What's wrong?"
Phillip shook his head. "After learning that Elves were real, I shouldn't be surprised to find that Dwarves exist, too. Please, go on."
"Dwarves mine iron and other metals under the old volcanoes," Japura said. "They trade metal for wool and cheese, mostly, and a few other things they don't grow for themselves. I mean, even though they live underground, they do have farms. They don't raise sheep or goats, and no one can grow breadfruit like we do in the caldera."
"Um," Phillip said. "Argon said his people called this Troll Island because Trolls lived here. I told him that the Trolls were probably merely a story to frighten children. Are Trolls real?"
"No!" Japura said. "Not on the island, anyway. They are said to exist, but here they are nothing but–as you said–a story to frighten children."
"Phillip! The Cleric is back. He and my father would speak with you." Japura interrupted the impromptu relay race between the boys' cohorts. They were in the clearing where Phillip and Japura had engaged in their brief mock battle. The boys ran for fun, but also for wagers and prizes. Japura's cohort had already won something–Phillip wasn't sure, but it had something to do with the bathhouse.
"I'm filthy!" Phillip said.
"So is he," Japura said. "My father was waiting for him, and drew him aside when he reached the square. They're waiting!"
As he hurried past the fountain, Phillip ducked his head into the water falling from the basin into the drain, as he had seen others do so often. The water was cold, but it did little to settle his racing thoughts.
"Phillip, please tell the Cleric what you told me about your vision quest, and about your spirit guide," Japura's father asked.
Phillip frowned, and Japura's father continued, "You seem reluctant, but I would not ask you except that it is a just thing, and an important one."
Phillip nodded. Addressing the Cleric, he retold the story he had told Japura's father. He concluded with, "My people, and many others, have legends of dragons. Once, they may have lived on our world. Now, they do not. I believe that these legends have their root in reality–in worlds in which we lived before."
The Cleric nodded, and then said, "Your people have lived in other worlds?"
Phillip gulped. Again, I reveal the creation story, he thought.
Japura's father saw Phillip's consternation. "The Cleric should know," he said.
Phillip acceded to Japura's father's words, and told both men–in considerable detail–the Athabascan Origin Story, and the role of the sipapu in each kiva. He also described his meeting with Argon, and subsequent events.
"You agreed to leave your world after only knowing this boy for a few days?" the Cleric wondered. "How did you make such a decision?"
The three sat in silence. Phillip understood that the two men were waiting for him to speak, but that they would not hurry him. How do I say this? he wondered. His mind went back to the Athabascan reservation, less than a year earlier.
"What's the matter, Phillip Windrider?" Jake Paloma's voice came through the darkness. Phillip stood, naked in the soft summer evening of the high desert. His arms wrapped tightly around his chest, his hands stuffed under the opposite arm. The volcanic pipe the Hispanglos called Shiprock eclipsed the full moon. In the remaining light, Jake could see that Phillip was shaking. He walked down the steps of the trailer and rested his arm on the younger boy's shoulder.
Phillip and Johnny Two-Horses had separated two months ago. The parting had been amicable. The Council had assigned tasks to Johnny, tasks that took him away from the reservation for weeks at a time. Phillip has been moody, pensive when Johnny was away. They had agreed that Phillip should seek other companions. Phillip had moved back to his trailer–at least, to the one he thought of as his.
Without Johnny, Phillip threw himself into taekwondo. One afternoon after practice, Jake Paloma had approached Phillip. "Hey, Squirt," Jake said, throwing his arm over Phillip's shoulder. "Good workout, huh?"
Phillip shivered a little under the older boy's touch. He remembered that first meet, and how good he had felt when Jake had put his arm over his shoulder and told him that Jake, too, was a half-breed. He blushed when he remembered that he'd fallen asleep on the bus with his head on Jake's shoulder. No one had said anything about it, though. Jake was a tough dude. No one would ever tease him about something like that.
"Hey, Jake," Phillip said, softly. "Yeah, good workout."
"Want to hang out after showers?" Jake asked.
"Uh, sure," Phillip had said. His heart was pounding.
Jake took Phillip to the Navajo Taco in Tuba City. It was a long trip over deserted highways, and it was nearly 2:00 AM when they arrived. Jake kept saying, "It's worth it, trust me."
The eponymous Navajo taco turned out to be a huge, soft, blue-corn tortilla stacked with peppers, lettuce, maize, cheese, beans, squash, and clotted cream. The Ute girl who was the night waitress offered them "red or green."
"The green, please," Jake said. "You'll like it," he promised Phillip.
Phillip leaned back in the vinyl-covered seat and watched Jake finish his own taco, and the second half of Phillip's. Jake burped rather inelegantly. His finger casually traced a design in the puddle made from the condensation from his soda glass. Phillip gasped when he realized what Jake had done. It was the first recognition sign of the Third Mystery.
Phillip sat up. In his haste, he slopped root beer on the table. His hand shook when he traced the countersign in the brown puddle.
"That wasn't very subtle," Jake said. He whispered the third sign–a nonsense phrase that sounded like an Athabascan witticism badly pronounced. Phillip replied.
"Your place or mine," Jake asked.
"Mine's closer," Phillip said.
Phillip had thought that Jake would approach sex the same way he approached taekwondo: fast and full of energy. He was surprised. After nearly two months of abstinence, Phillip was eager, even anxious, but Jake had been slow and languid. Phillip had tried to hurry him, but Jake would not be hurried; nor would he allow Phillip to rush. When the two boys finally reached their climaxes–nearly simultaneously–Phillip understood for the first time why orgasm once was called the little death.
"Jake, do you remember my first taekwondo meet?" Phillip asked.
"Sure, Squirt," Jake whispered in the pre-dawn darkness. "I remember every second."
"I never thanked you," Phillip said.
"I never thanked you, either," Jake said.
"Thanked me? For what?" Phillip asked.
"For not killing me, for one thing," Jake said. "For not telling anyone I was a half-breed for another. For falling asleep on my shoulder for another. I was very happy when you. . . that you did."
Now, two months after their first night together, Phillip stood naked and shivering in the warm air of the desert. Jake stood beside him. The older boy's arm wrapped around Phillip's shoulder, and pulled their bodies together. "What's the matter?" he asked again.
"Something wrong at Window Rock," Phillip said.
"Did someone call? I didn't hear your phone," Jake said.
"No," Phillip said. "No call. I just know it. I felt something.–"
"Then let's go," Jake said.
"You believe me?" Phillip asked while Jake chivvied him back to the trailer and started throwing clothes at him.
"Well, yeah," Jake said. "We're half-breeds, but we're Athabasca, and our people have always been prescient."
Jake drove. His Mustang was not only faster, it was also a great deal more reliable than Phillip's rattletrap pickup truck. And a lot safer at highway speeds, Jake thought.
Phillip gave Jake directions as they approached Window Rock. Jake rolled to a stop at the door to the Tribal administration building. Phillip recognized his uncle's truck. The brake lights had gone out and the backup lights flashed when Phillip's uncle put the transmission in park. He'd just arrived.
"Ya-ta-hey, Uncle," Phillip said.
"Ya-ta-hey, Phillip," his uncle replied holding out his arms. "I'm so sorry, boy." He embraced Phillip.
Phillip returned his uncle's embrace before asking, "What's happened?"
"You don't know?" his uncle asked.
"Only that something's wrong," Phillip said.
"Your father," the man said. "Your father was killed in Afghanistan. The telegram was delivered to your mother. I came here to make some calls before going out to tell you. Why are you here?"
"I knew. . . something," Phillip said.
Phillip shook off the memory. "Um, this may seem hard to believe," he told the Elven Cleric, "but my people–some of us, anyway–have a gift for, well, farseeing is perhaps the best word. We may not know what will happen or has happened, but we sometimes know that something has happened or will happen. I experienced this before, and knew what it felt like. I agreed to come with Argon because I felt–no, because I knew–it was right. It was almost as if–as if it had already happened."
"We do not find this at all hard to believe, Phillip," the Cleric said. "Among our people, some are born with a talent for what you call farseeing and for foretelling. We call it scrying. It is also possible for people without the gift to channel magic to do these things.
"These arts are rare in our people and are held closely at the monasteries."
"Phillip, Spartus," Japura's father said. "You agreed to stay here for one tenday. That has passed, yet much remains to be done and questions to be answered. . . will you stay longer?"
"But we must not overstay our welcome," Phillip said. "It is our custom that a guest is a guest for only a day. After that, he must earn his keep. Argon and I have already been your guest for much longer than that."
"But Japura says you and Argon have helped them in the fields," the man said. "And that you did other work with them. What more would you do?"
"It hardly seems enough," Phillip said.
Phillip's Journal: Utopia
One of the books we all had to read–part of the socialization the Shaman talked about–was "Utopia." It's too bad that the author–Butler, I think his name was–never saw this world. (Or, perhaps he did! I'd not thought of that!) Even with the possibility of slave raids, and the knowledge that there may be a great war against Evil forces, these people seem to live a utopian life. The climate is mild and the growing season could be year-long, even though they follow a tradition of planting after the spring equinox. The soil is fertile, and they keep it so by crop rotation, composting, and fertilization.
I asked to help with the work of Japura's cohort, and learned that the few simple chores we had done were all the work needed. No one seems to work more than a couple of hours a day, although Jurua told me earlier that planting and harvest kept everyone busy for a couple of weeks.
We did get to do some "dirty work," however. Japura's cohort (of which we are members) lost a contest with Padraig's cohort. The prize? The loser had to perform an annual chore: moving composted sewage from the place where it accumulated into the fallow fields. I did not learn much about the process, but there are two sewage fields well downhill from the village. For one year, sewage is diverted into one field; for the next year, it is diverted into the other. The sewage is treated–somehow–so that it is not unpleasant (unless you know what it is, which I did–the others did, too, but it didn't seem to bother them to be shoveling shit). In any case, we had to load the treated sewage–which really wasn't too bad–it was like the loamy soil in the Animus Valley where the Athabascan farms are–into carts and then unload it onto the fields. We had been at work for two solid days before Padraig's cohort felt sorry for us, and joined in. Together, we finished the task on the fifth day.
Phillip once again sat alone with Japura's father.
"Phillip, it is customary for a new tween to take an oath to his Guildmaster or his king," the man said. "It is also customary to renew the oath he made to the Light when he became a boy. It would not be right for you to take any of these oaths. You do not know what such oaths mean, and to take an oath without understanding is not only futile, it is wrong. You have said that the boy, Argon is under your protection. You have also said that you love him."
Phillip blushed. He was still a little uncertain, a little reluctant to talk to an adult about boy sex, and especially about loving a boy. "Yes, I have promised to protect him and to help him find his home. I have also said I love him, and I do."
"Then that shall be your oath, Phillip Spartus Windrider," Japura's father said, smiling. "An oath of fealty shall mark you to be a tween. The ceremony will be tomorrow, at the noon gathering that ends Market. Now, let me tell you about your oath."
The plaza in the center of the village was crowded. For the past two days, it had been full of vendors' stalls that were little more than a cloth stretched between four poles to provide shade. Most of these pavilions had been struck, the cloth rolled around the poles, and the bundle tied with rope. A few of the village residents still displayed wares on rugs spread in front of their doors, but trade was light.
The Cleric strode through the crowd to the center of the plaza. Phillip watched him touch the outstretched hands of the people he passed. He stepped onto the stone platform beside the fountain. The crowd became silent. The Cleric stretched out his arms. "The Blessing of the Light to you," he said. His voice was preternaturally loud. Phillip felt something–a feeling of wellbeing, a wave of energy. The man was speaking again.
"You will be pleased to know that the giardiasis at Rim-Rock Farm has been dealt with, and that they will bring cheese to the next market." He paused while the crowd applauded.
"I understand that there has been no illness among the people or flocks of the village, and that we have several oaths to administer today, including one very special oath for boys from far, far away."
The Cleric, Japura's father, and Japura's cohort knew that Phillip and Argon had come from another world–and another time. The conclusion drawn by the other people of the village was that the boys had been shipwrecked. Japura's father had made it clear that they were not of the ilk of the slavers who were their enemies, but were of another nation. That Phillip and Japura were soon to travel north, to a fishing village where they might find a boat to take them home, served to reinforce that belief.
It's a wedding, Phillip thought. It's more like one of ours than the Hispanglos. I remember when Sarah Silverhand married that Anglo. They invoked their god to bind her as a servant to him. Love, honor, and obey, they required of her. But not of him. Love, only. And that bit about a woman not having authority over a man. Wouldn't Oona Wolfrider have laughed at that! Oona Wolfrider was the High Chief of the First Peoples of the American continents, a woman more powerful than any male leader of any country in the world. Oona and Phillip's aunt had been roommates at the college in Fort Churchill, and had remained friends. Phillip had met her when she visited the Athabascan nation and stayed with his aunt and uncle.
Phillip turned his attention back to what was going on at the fountain. People sat on the plaza or stood by the houses that surrounded it. Phillip stood with Argon, Japura, Jurua, and others of their friends at Japura's house.
The Cleric asked the couple if they would live together in harmony, if they would cherish one another, if they would share responsibility for rearing their children, and how long they intended the bond to last. Phillip did not hear their answers, but the Cleric spoke to the crowd. "They have pledged troth rightly and properly for this lifetime. Will you witness and support this pledge?"
The people in the plaza answered in one voice, "We will."
The Cleric rested his hands on the couple's heads and spoke a few words that Phillip could not hear. The couple stepped down and joined their families.
Two boys–tweens Phillip thought–were next. Phillip knew what was to happen. He and Argon had rehearsed with Japura and his father until late in the night. Japura had told Phillip that two boys would pledge brotherhood, and what it meant. "It's not the oath you will make to Argon, and quite different from his to you."
The Cleric asked the boys a single question, "Do you declare brotherhood one to the other for this life or beyond?"
The boys' answers were inaudible.
"How can we hear the Cleric?" Phillip asked Japura.
"Magic," that boy answered. "Shhh."
"Macapa and Marajo have declared brotherhood for this life and forever more," the Cleric intoned. "Will you witness and support this pledge?"
"We will," the crowd answered.
Again, the cleric touched the heads of the participants, who then stepped from the platform to the embrace of their friends.
"Come on," Japura urged. "You're up."
Japura and his father led Phillip and Argon to the center of the plaza and helped them step onto the platform. The whispers that had run through the crowd quieted. Japura's father stepped beside them. The Cleric nodded, and Japura's father spoke, his voice amplified by the Cleric's magic.
"I have examined this boy and found him to be properly a tween. For good and sufficient reasons, he will not swear the traditional oaths, but will accept his new state and responsibility by swearing fealty with the boy, Argon." The man stepped down from the platform.
The Cleric looked at Phillip. His voice echoed across the plaza and through Phillip's mind.
"Phillip Windrider also Spartus, do you swear to lead the boy, Argon, to the Light; to eschew Evil; and to protect and cherish him until such time that you both may rightly be released from this oath?"
The whispers that began when the Cleric said, Spartus were hushed. The people waited for Phillip's answer. It's a simple oath, he thought_, but each word is important. I know what protect means–it means that I would give my life for Argon. I know what cherish means–it's so much more than love. And Japura's father explained what "rightly released" might mean: when Argon becomes a tween, when he is returned to his parents, or when he accepts a new. . . not master but, whatever._ Aloud he replied, "I swear."
The Cleric turned to Argon. "Do you, Argon, swear fealty to Phillip Windrider also Spartus, to obey him, and to cherish him until such time that you both may rightly be released from this oath?"
Phillip had been unaware that Argon was holding his hand until the boy squeezed it, tightly. "I swear," Argon said.
The Cleric turned to the crowd and asked, "They have rightly sworn fealty. Will you witness and support their oaths?"
The people answered, "We will."
The Cleric put his hands on Phillip and Argon's heads. "Remember your oaths and this Blessing," he said. Phillip felt something akin to the shock he got the first time he and Argon had sex. It seemed to run through his body from his head to his toes. He knew, without knowing how he knew, that he would remember this scene for the rest of his life: not just the words, but also the sounds, the smells, the color of the sky, and the moisture in the air. Moisture?
The first drops of rain began to fall.
Phillip sat with Japura's father. Argon and the other boys in Japura's cohort sat in the shade of a building across the square, playing a game that Phillip had not yet learned. "You must watch!" Japura insisted. "You must learn this game." He grinned. "So that I can win back the token you took from me, yesterday."
"You and your people have been very kind to Argon and me," Phillip said. "Despite the dangers you told us, this is a wonderful place. Peaceful and idyllic. We cannot stay."
"I am glad you have come to this realization," Japura's father said. "When you and Argon swore fealty, it was as if a day had passed, and another day had begun. Yet this new day is not fulfilled. You are no longer in harmony with this place and this time. It is as if you had come here for a purpose and having fulfilled that purpose, must move on."
"You have said what I felt but could not find the words to say," Phillip said. He looked across the square. Argon was playing the game, but Phillip could see that his heart was not in it. He kept looking at Phillip.
The Cleric, Japura's father, and Jurua were the only people who had traveled more than a few days walk from the village. The Cleric had come to the village from a monastery some two ten-days away, and had visited other monasteries across the island. Japura's father and Jurua had attended several convocations of village elders, although Jurua laughed at being included with the elders. "I'm scarcely a thousand years old," he said.
Those three had agreed that the most likely next stop on Phillip and Argon's journey would be a fishing village on the northern tip of the island. From there, it was hoped, they might be able to sail to Argon's continent. Phillip could offer no other plan. "I can but hope that once we are on Argon's continent, an answer might suggest itself."
Japura's father nodded. "The jungle outside the caldera extends from here to the fishing village. Paths like the one you took from the sea to the caldera lead also from village to village; however, it is dangerous and difficult to travel through the jungle. It is difficult, because the paths are seldom used, and are usually overgrown. It is dangerous because the paths that exist lead to villages of people who may not recognize you to be Good."
"There are no villages along the coast between here and your destination," the Cleric added. "You should follow the coast."
"You will have to ford small streams, but you will be able to wade through them. They will also provide fresh water," Japura's father added.
"Even though they may not encounter our people," Jurua said, "they may. If they do, they will be in danger. I should go with them–"
"Japura has said the same," that boy's father interrupted, "as have other members of your cohort. Padraig came to me, and insisted that his cohort share the honor of escorting these boys. But it cannot be. Phillip and I have discussed this, and we are agreed. This is a journey that he and Argon must take, themselves."
Jurua tried to speak, but the Cleric stopped him. "It is Right," he said.
"I have seen it," Phillip added. "It is a magic of my people with which I am gifted, as Jurua is gifted as a Sembler. I understand my gift no better than your people understand Jurua's; but I know it to be true and good, as you know Jurua's gift to be true and good."
"If you will look," he added, continuing to address Jurua, "you will see it, too."
Jurua nodded. "I have seen it. I do not like that which forbids me to accompany you, but I acknowledge its power and that it is Right." He sighed. "I will miss you, Phillip Windrider Spartus."
The Cleric interrupted the silence that fell after Jurua's words. "You still may encounter our people–people who will not know you to be slavers," he said. "Show them this." He handed Phillip a medallion. It appeared to be made of silver, and bore a symbol.
"An arrow," Phillip thought until he saw that there was no fletching. "A spear," he said.
"It is a symbol from our past, and yet one that will be recognized by any you meet," Jurua said.
"Won't they think we're slavers who have stolen it?" Phillip asked.
"Unlikely," the Cleric said. "Only ten of these came with us to Solimoes, and none have been reported stolen."
Phillip was stunned. Besides the intrinsic value of the silver, the medallion had a huge symbolic value. "But I cannot take this," he protested.
"Yes," Japura's father said. "You can, and you must."
"We must then leave it with someone at the fishing village when we depart–" Phillip began.
"No, you must keep it," the Cleric said. "I have seen this, too. It is Right."