22.) It is a tradition with the force of law in the Thirteen Principalities that one does not bring a weapon when invited to a meal. Nevertheless, I took aside Favory, Tomber, Marston, and Toug and told them to secrete a knife on their persons.
Toug grinned and removed his meat cleaver from his pack mule. “I don’t go anywhere without my tool.”
Tomber took his sword and sheath and shoved it down the leg of his pants. His legs were so long, he only had to limp a little. Farvory wore a long dress and gave me a wink. And Marston, well, he always wore his long knife no matter where he went.
I wore a coat, with my knife tucked into my belt at the back.
Viccare stood behind Favory, so quiet that you wouldn’t know he was there. From somewhere, he’d produced a blue cloak again. He apparently thought he was a Blue Pilgrim once more. I gave him a questioning look.
“I have no need of the weapon. What I possess, I give freely.”
I stared into Viccare’s weather beaten face, so different from the callow young man I’d first met. There was fervor in his eyes that made me uncomfortable.
“They who are weak, shall also be strong,” he added.
Favory rolled her eyes, but put her arm around him protectively. He didn’t shrug her off. Apparently, he’d forgiven her—or she’d forgiven him—I wasn’t sure which was the more likely.
All my people owned weapons of course; knives, staffs, bows, and a few old battered swords handed down through the families. Since whatever bands of brigands we were likely to confront on a expedition were not any better armed, our caravan was left alone. I’d learned the hard way that any party of less than a dozen was vulnerable, under twenty-five might be attack by surprise, but over about thirty armed caravaners and most ill-doers thought better of attacking.
But I saw no way to warn the rest of my people without the secret getting out, so they went to meal dressed in their finest, excited to be in civilization again, even if merely a rude village, and they went as guests, unarmed.
I immediately had second thoughts upon reaching the village center. There were at least twenty of the foreigners, all of them men, and all of them rough looking. They were openingly carrying swords and bows. I caught Marston eyeing the bows, for they were like nothing he’d have ever seen—nothing he’d have ever dreamed of, made of materials he wouldn’t recognize, more powerful than any bow made of natural materials.
But I’d still bet on Marston in an archery contest; especially if my life depended on that bet.
I was angry with myself. We weren’t in the Thirteen Principalities, or rather, Moregone seemed to have forgotten—these strangers neither knew nor cared about our traditions.
A large boar was roasting on a spit at the center of the square and crude tables were set up around it, some just planks of wood set at varying levels of support. Toug immediately broke off from the rest of us and approached the cooks pouring seasonings over the meat. He pulled out his cleaver and the two men backed away; Toug was a menacing sight at the best of times.
Whatever Toug said to them seem to placate them.
Carter was at the biggest table and motioned me and my immediate circle over.
As we took our seats, I noticed that none of the Moregonians would look us newcomers in the eye. In fact, only a few were sitting down—most were moving about slowly, occupied in the tasks of preparing and serving the meals.
A loud clatter, followed by an angry shout, came from one of the homes surrounding the square. A woman came flying out of the doorway, landing in the dirt and rolling. One of the Outsiders came out and stood over her yelling, his fist clenched.
It was as if the entire village of Moregoneians tensed at that moment, most of them staring at the ground, picking up the pace of their chores.
They’re slaves. None of the Outsiders are doing anything but standing around or sitting and talking.
Tomber gave me a long look from across the table that told me he was thinking the same thing.
It all added up. The neglect to the village, the downcast demeanor of the Moregoneians, the need for the poppy fields to be harvested.
Four more of Carter’s companions came over and sat at our table. As our meal was served, our talk was stilted at first, and it was clear that both sides were holding back, both feeling out the other. The pork slices began showing up, cut cleanly by Toug’s cleaver, his special ministrations obvious from the taste.
Carter whistled and gave me a look. “Is this the fat guy’s cooking?”
I nodded. “Toug is renowned throughout the principalities.”
Carter gave one of his men across from him a strange look and nodded slightly. Something was decided, and though I wasn’t sure what, it made me nervous. As the meal progressed and wine was consumed, the tension relaxed; though both the Outsiders and the caravaners spoke mostly to their own kind.
I tried to bridge the gap. “How did you find Moregone?”
“Prospecting,” Carter said, “in the most inhospitable place on earth. Could only get to it with lamas, which then died on me. None of my stuff would work, so I stumbled around the deep gorges of the mountains,” he waved vaguely toward the Shield Mountains. “I was on my last legs when I found a narrow crevice and found my way here. The people nursed me back to health. As soon as I recovered, I went back for help. Damned if I could find this place again. It took me years. Finally stumbled on it, but the path seemed completely different. This time I made sure I marked the path.”
I nodded. As the Thirteen Principalities forgot Moregone, a breach was made to the outside world. Moregone was in-between. While decades appeared to have passed since I’d been here, it had been the opposite for the Outsiders—from their perspective, little time had passed. It made me wonder just how much had changed in the world I’d come from since I’d left.
Perhaps, if I returned, it would be as if I was never gone.
“Took me years to bring my people,” Carter continued, “but when I returned, it was as if nothing had happened here. Took me some time to figure out how to make use of the land and labor available, but then I realized that if I couldn’t find this place then neither could the authorities. This land grows the best opium poppies I’ve ever seen. The potency is off the scales.”
It bothered me that he thought so little of my opinion that he told me of these things. I could almost see the challenge in his eyes.
The last of the servings was apple pie, which melted upon the tongue.
“Apple pie again?” one of the Outsiders complained.
“It’s the last of our sugar,” Carter said. “So you’d best enjoy it.”
“It’s too bad we can’t get any machines to work,” an Outsider said to the man next to him. He wasn’t bothering to lower his voice. “Martin got a generator working for about five seconds this morning, so maybe that’s changing.”
“Yeah, I’d feel a lot better with a few guns,” the other mans said. There aren’t enough of us to watch them all the time. If they should ever decide to band together—well, I wouldn’t bet on our chances. Knives against knives, bows against bows—numbers tell. But a nice rifle would even the odds.”
I couldn’t help it—I turned and gave them a look.
Someone slapped me on the back, and I looked over my shoulder in shock. It was the man they called Martin, who I’d judge to be second-in-command.
“Did you see that, Carter? This fella seems to understand what we’re saying.”
“Does he now?” Carter turned in his seat to look me up and down. “What do you know about machines, Evard? Or guns?”
I shrugged as if I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “Castle Bernan in the Fifth Principality has a clockwork knight who rides a clockwork horse,” I ventured. “I’ve heard it described as a “machine.”
“Bullshit,” Carter said.
For the third time in my life, I heard Marston laugh. The gravel sound was threatening somehow, and all five of the Outsiders at our table glanced at him. I wasn’t even sure if Marston had ever heard the expression, but he sensed it was disrespectful. He pulled out his long knife. “I’ve had enough of your bullying ways. Why are the villagers not sitting with us?”
As one, the rest of us caravaners rose from our table, drawing our weapons.
Belatedly, I realized how inadequate my plans had been. While my nearest companions had weapons, none of my other people did. If we fought, the others would suffer.
From out of nearby houses, more Outsiders emerged, swords and bows in hand. I’d underestimated how many of them there were. There were at least as many as were of my party, twenty-five or more, though this was nowhere near the number of villagers.
The inhabitants of Moregone had never been in a war, not so much as a skirmish as far as I knew. They held to the old democratic ways, voting on changes. Violence was almost unheard of, what little there was sparked by the hard cider they made from their main crop.
I’m not sure what would have happened then—or that I could have stopped the fighting even if I wanted, but at that moment, I heard a loud, quavering voice from behind me. I turned in surprise to see Viccare standing on top of the table, declaiming as if he was in school.
“They who are first, shall also be last.
They who are stern, shall also be kind.
They who are cursed, shall also be blessed.”
By the third stanza his voice grew strong. Everyone stood frozen. It was clear the Outsiders didn’t know what to make of it.
“They who are mistrusted, shall also be believed.
They who are foolish, shall also be wise.”
It was clear that the Blue Pilgrim—for that was what he was—planned on reciting all thirteen of the Oaths of the Covenant. I glanced at Carter, who had a frown on his face, but didn’t look like he was planning to do anything yet.
“They who hate, shall also love.
They who are innocent, shall also see the truth.”
They who are weak, shall also be strong.”
The villagers stirred at the words, gathering together, staring at the pilgrim as if remembering the Covenant for the first time in a long time. This was why the Mirror God had sent Viccare, I realized. The villagers were being called back, their memories restored.
“They who are low, shall also be high.
They who are scorned, shall also be honored.
The villagers began to look around them. Some were reaching for the blunt knives on the table, others were fashioning clubs. Viccare’s voice was rising to a triumphant shout.
“They who are far, shall also be near!
They who forget, shall also remember!”
I looked around at the tableau as if I could see the coming fight—the villagers looking suddenly resolute, my own people starting to realize they were in a fight—and no matter how the possibilities played out, I couldn’t see us winning, even with the help of the villagers.
“They who are last, shall also be…”
Viccare voice stopped suddenly. For a few seconds it was eerily quiet. I turned to see a red flower blooming from Viccare’s blue robe, him staring down, his voice trying to find air. A large knife protruded from the center of the red bloom.
Martin’s chair was kicked back, his arm still extended. “Shut your mouth.”
Viccare gasped his last words, which were only audible because of the absolute silence.
“The Covenant is fulfilled.”
His legs went out from under him. He folded, almost neatly, landing lengthwise along the table as if it was his coffin, and stopped moving.
Favory jumped up, threw her body over his. Her movement disguised her drawing of a long sharp knife from under her dress. Tomber also stood, fumbling with his trousers, trying to extract his sword.
But surrounding us were Outsiders, their arrows nocked and bowstrings already drawn.
I put both of my hands up, palms out, to signal to my people. “Lay down your weapons,” I shouted into the shocked vacuum. It was probably the only time I would have have a chance to stop the carnage. Whatever happened from here on, I knew that we could not win this battle.
Even my own people resisted for a moment, then one by one, they threw down their makeshift weapons. Then, shoulders slumping, tears flowing down their faces, the villagers joined them.
I turned to Carter, who only now did I realize had a knife just inches from my throat.