Ha'Cre barked the order and on the instant, the sky filled with whistling bolts, spears, and slingstones. The West River raiding party was surprised - not as familiar with the local terrain, they had not expected their pursuers to circle in front of them - but they were experienced, quickly diving for cover and bringing their own ubiquitous crossbows to bear on their North Hills enemies.
The rain of projectiles became an enthusiastic exchange, and the young white-furred adventurer from the Ice Tribes tackled Ha'Cre, hauling him out of the way of a half-dozen bolts, one of which nicked the Hills Chief's upper left arm. Another creased Gl'Dek's leg, drawing a yelp, more of surprise than pain - the Ice Tribes were known for their toughness.
By now Ha'Cre had learned not to waste time thanking his self-appointed bodyguard - or to waste more time giving him orders or discussing a plan of battle. Without a word the two split, creeping quickly on all sixes around either side of a dense growth of kitra bush, seizing extra crossbows from the fallen, pausing only a moment, one in each hand, to cock and load them with their mid-limbs.
The West River raiders had numbered about three hands - eight and four - but had lost at least two when the outlying settlement they had chosen for plunder turned out to be not as soft a target as they had hoped. Ha'Cre took some small comfort in that; though each Clan, each village, still squabbled with its neighbors, they were at least temporarily setting smaller grievances aside to deal with the invaders, and actually paying attention to their Chief for once, actually obeying his orders to mount regular guards, even patrols.
Now if only they would stay at peace with one another, after each raiding party was driven off.... Ha'Cre silently lamented. Short sight, long - and selective! - memory, that's the North Hills Tribe. He would have sighed.
But he was suddenly too busy. Seeing a glint of white through the fringe of kitra to indicate that Gl'Dek was moving, he popped up from concealment and leveled his crossbows, quickly acquiring his targets.
Twungg, twungg. Two raiders went down, at least one to stay. Ha'Cre dropped his crossbows and drew from his harness, with his left hand, the wooden mace of his father's father; with his right, a terribly expensive, but terribly effective, copper-bladed hatchet given as a diplomatic gift by their new-found trading partners of the Green Sea Tribe, sleek gray-furred artisans, philosophers and explorers.
Gl'Dek, previously ingratiated with the Sea Tribe, had been recently gifted by them with his personal crossbow - it had two prods, one above the other, and two triggers, and curious protrusions on top that the visiting Green Sea trader-explorers had used to demonstrate the weapon's remarkable accuracy when using bolts of consistent design and weight. Thus the young white-furred male had easily dropped three of the West River raiders. He, too, dropped his crossbows, even the expensive one - it was stoutly-, as well as finely-made; marvelous craftspeople, those odd-looking gray folk, even if they literally couldn't swing a hatchet to save their lives - and drew a pair of copper-tipped short-spears. The Chief and the adventurer prepared to charge the remaining raiders.
But there was no need. Only three were left, and had rolled to their backs with all six limbs straight up in the sign of surrender. -Well, all available limbs - all three were wounded to various degrees. It was only luck - which Ha'Cre decided he must call good - that the Chief himself was inspecting this particular settlement when the raiders attacked. The North Hills pursuers numbered more than eight hands, including his own handpicked, and highly disciplined, Chief's Guard.
But that Guard only numbered the traditional two hands, plus Gl'Dek; the rest were locals, furious at the West River raiders for attacking their homes, livestock, mates, cubs. Several surged forward, weapons raised, to dispatch the survivors.
Forewarned by Ha'Cre's knowledge of his people, the Guard, Gl'Dek, and Ha'Cre himself quickly placed themselves between the raiders and the settlers. "I want prisoners, Pl'Kek take you!" the Chief bellowed. Kill and kill some more, that's all they know, the Chief thought. If Westies or Blues aren't available they'll happily turn on each other, over a strayed thamma beast, a stolen kaka, a trampled lowet crop, an ancestral insult.
Reluctantly the settlers halted, though they did not step back. That will have to do, at least for the moment. Half the Guard remained on guard, the rest turned to binding the survivors wounds, while Gl'Dek, fluent in more Tribal tongues than Ha'Cre had known existed, began questioning the prisoners. Location. Strength. Movement. Though the Chief had only known the adventurer for a single season, the old mottled-brown strategist and the young white tactician had quickly become inseparable, each having a firm grip on one or the other end of any problem the North Hills Tribe had recently faced.
Except one. Fiercest warriors in the world, my North Hills Tribe, Ha'Cre thought in proud frustration. If only they would think past the next turn of season, the next crop or herd or raid! West River, Blue Hills, and Flowered Plains together wouldn't break us then!
One of the Guard unrolled a map, drawn on thamma hide, for the prisoner to indicate his force's position, but the West River primitive apparently couldn't read the thing. Again Gl'Dek spoke of disposing him to the locals' mercy, this time without effect. Finally another prisoner, identifying himself as the first's brother, displayed more intelligence and started pointing. The third, outraged, lunged at the second to silence him and was subdued by the butts of the Guard's short-spears.
Having determined their target, Ha'Cre called up all the warriors in the village and formed a punitive force, setting out after a short delay to deal with the prisoners. They were locked in a hut hastily emptied and strengthened for the purpose, with the old or less-than-fit set to guard them; these were not so old or unfit as to not be able to skewer the prisoners on their spears should they try to escape. "We should be back by mid-day after next," Ha'Cre told the guards and Village Elders, assembled outside the prison hut. "If so I want those prisoners unharmed. If not, do with them what you will." Noting no hasty revisions in the prisoners' stories at this loudly proclaimed sentence, Ha'Cre led the band out.
Numbering nearly two eights-of-eights, all healthy and strong and heavily armed, the North Hills party fell upon the West River raiders' camp like a pack of chi-orak. Outnumbered nearly three to one, the Westies quickly surrendered and were led back to Six Hills with what little plunder and few thamma beasts they had made off with. Pelted by the villagers with stones and offal they hurried to join their comrades in the relative shelter of the prison hut. After conferring with the Village Council, Ha'Cre sentenced five of the raiders to death, four more to servitude in Six Hills for no less than one full season, released the youngest with a written warning to the West River leadership that further trespasses would be dealt with even more harshly (for all the good it would do; West River did have a written language, but Ha'Cre and Gl'Dek both doubted anyone who counted would read the message, or heed it if they did), and led the rest, bound and under Guard, back to Grayhill, the Chief's home settlement, and servitude there.
So did the war drag on, attack and counterattack, raid and reprisal, with the oraks the only beneficiaries. So it had been for longer than anyone could remember, longer than the Scrolls told of, even the oldest and most fragile parchments. So, with typical Eyani under typical Chiefs, would it always be.
But Ha'Cre was not a typical Chief.
He was known to think.
That was the key, and the problem. It took money to buy weapons, food, other supplies; money to bribe this Clan-Chief or that Village Elder to go this way instead of that - money to keep warriors from drifting away to their homes and families, herds and crops. Money to end generations-old feuds. Money to keep everything going more than a few hands of days.
Metal was money, and money was metal, and there was never enough. So much time and energy was required to find it, separate it from the rocks, refine it to a useful quality. Is there no better way?
But there was. The Green Sea Tribe was fantastically wealthy. The isolation of their island homes had sheltered them from the endless tribal warfare ravaging the mainland; in their long peace, they had time to think, discover, learn, grow. There were easier ways to extract and refine metal, so much so that they had begun using "mere" copper and iron for tools, weapons, using instead for currency even rarer metals, silver and gold - and precious stones, of course, which they had also learned very well how to extract and process.
But for all their intellect and technology, the Green Sea Tribe was weak. Long unmolested - long believing there were no other Eyani in the world (their language, for example, bore no relation to any known mainland tongue) - they had no warrior tradition, and pitifully small skill at arms. Setting out in their remarkable ships to seek new resources, their existence became known on the mainland. Word of their wealth and weakness drew the rapacious West River Tribe like thamma blood drew oraks. A few smaller islands near the mainland had already been brutally sacked, and there was very little Frasto, the Green Sea Chief, or any of his people could do about it.
But, as in all things, they adapted quickly, seizing opportunities as they arose. When crazy, wandering Gl'Dek, fleeing in his kayak from a marauding West River longboat, blundered into a Green Sea fishing party, he and they both leapt to the obvious conclusion: The enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Together they - barely! - drove off the marauders, Gl'Dek doing most of the fighting but the fishers not lacking enthusiasm, only skill. While recovering from his wounds and basking in the attention of the exotically-attractive gray-furred females - awed by accounts of his martial prowess, and by his exotic coloring and sheer size - Gl'Dek learned their language, befriended their Chief, directed the creation of a local arms industry and defense establishment, and then set off in search of allies.
A year later, and two days after the conclusion of the Six Hills affair, the Ice Tribe Eyani lay in private conference with his friend and Chief - the first he had ever sworn allegiance to; his wandering days were done. Gl'Dek summarized: "So, Ha'Cre, it's simple. We protect the Green Sea Tribe from West River's expansion with our warriors and experience, and they provide all the money and weapons we could possibly need for the job, without getting their own admittedly-delicate hands bloody. Eventually the two Tribes become one - a High Tribe, as from the old legends. Let West River break their teeth on us then!"
"Yes...." Ha'Cre lay on his couch, belly-down on the hide-covered log, considering. "Yes. A High Tribe...."
"Think of the possibilities, Ha'Cre!" Gl'Dek exclaimed.
The Hills Chief raised his head and locked eyes with his friend and advisor. "Possibilities? For what? North Hills to do the raiding and burning and plundering for a change? You're not so short-sighted, Gl'Dek, hrr?"
Gl'Dek blinked in atypical confusion. For two hands of years he had been wandering, far from his icebound homeland, seeking adventure, excitement, new and different experiences. Through all that time, of all the people he had met, he had been called many things - many things - but never short-sighted!
But that was why Gl'Dek had finally chosen North Hills for his home. The people were no better, and in some ways worse, than any others he had found in his travels - but they had potential; and their Chief, ah, their Chief! Finally Gl'Dek had found someone whose vision matched his own.
Or even exceeded it.
Ha'Cre went on, "Ever since you first told me, moons ago, of Frasto's proposal I've been thinking of little else but the possibilities. North Hills' fighting strength and vast resources - hrf! Why else has West River been raiding us, their crops and herds aren't a shadow of ours! - combined with Green Sea's knowledge, tools, instruments. Why, just yesterday Collip was describing to me ways we could double our crop yields. Double, Gl'Dek, think of that! And Bintel has been going on about breeding programs since the moment he got a good look at our herds. Eifar describes new methods of building, Kloris is making Healer Tu'Gir feel like an ignorant cub, Loront describes a system of law vastly superior to our bloodthirsty old traditions, Reenah and Wise Ad'Tef can hardly be pried apart with spears and only they understand a word they've been saying to each other for the past hand of days-
"Possibilities? By Hr'Gen, Gl'Dek! This is no petty Tribal alliance, no advantage of a single season, ganging up on some tribe only to switch sides again when the snows melt! Possibilities!"
Ha'Cre slid off his couch - some silver showing now, in his mottled brown fur, and Gl'Dek knew the Chief was beginning to slow, but Ha'Cre still moved like a warrior. The Chief stepped over to a small, crude table, simply a section of log chopped more-or-less flat on each end. From there he poured two cups of lian wine, cups and pitcher both fashioned from dap gourds, brought one to his friend and resumed his couch. Quaffing a good third at once, he set the cup down and stared at Gl'Dek, eyes blazing. He spoke again, his voice filled now with the eagerness of a much younger Eyani. "Calpar - he made that double crossbow of yours - has been going over our scrolls. He told me that most of his people considered him crazy, or sick, for his constant experimenting with weapons, with tactics, strategies - before West River discovered them. Now his critics are falling over themselves to support him. He's been studying our history, past battles, examining our methods.
"By Hr'Gen, my young friend! With his genius, your skill and my - er - experience- ‘Let West River break their teeth on us,' you say? Why wait for them to strike again?
"It wouldn't even be an act of aggression on our part," Ha'Cre went on, half to himself, eyes unfocused, thoughts outpacing words. "They've been raiding us for two seasons straight now, much worse than Blue Hills ever has. No Tribe, no Chief could say we hadn't the right."
Gl'Dek, struggling to keep up with one of the few minds he'd found which could outrun his own, could no longer contain himself. "The right to do what?"
The Chief's eyes snapped back to his friend's. "Why, to break West River completely, of course. To bring them into this High Tribe, on our terms. And then Blue Hills - hrf! Won't that be anticlimactic! And then Flowered Plains - Whitewood - Golden Forest - Orakshome - Black Mountain - Lakeland...."
"Unite the Tribes?" Gl'Dek whispered. Short-sighted! "Not even Hr'Gen...!"
"Hr'Gen was Eyani!" Ha'Cre exclaimed. "Brilliant, mighty, yes, but still bone and blood like ourselves, the legends make that clear. Why not? Why must Eyani kill Eyani season after season, hands upon hands, why? Is there no better way?
"I can see it, Gl'Dek!" Ha'Cre breathed, tapping the side of his head. "Look at our new friends. They don't slaughter each other for a few sacks of grain or a handful of thamma, they don't live in the same mud-and-stick huts that get washed away by every spring rain, their cubs don't die, one out of three, before their first season."
"Their outlying settlements don't drive off West River raiders," Gl'Dek answered. "They don't recover their livestock and goods, their females and cubs taken from them. Brilliant they are, yes, but far from mighty, and in this world, here and now, we need might-!"
And then it struck him. The vision, Ha'Cre's vision, so clear and full, so suddenly he dropped his cup, the Chief's personal stock of lian wasted untasted. Jaw hanging, eyes bulging, the vision coursed through Gl'Dek's brain. North Hills. Green Sea. Brilliance. Might. Together! More war, yes, seasons' worth, but with a purpose, a goal....
Gl'Dek whispered, "...Peace!"
Ha'Cre answered, "And the strength to keep it so. Peace and plenty for all Eyani! Green Sea tribe has shown us the way - partly. They send no raiders because they are already wealthy; they want for so little they've no need to steal it from others. They lack only the strength to keep what they have built. Frasto's proposal that you yourself spoke to me only breaths ago - but more, more!"
"Yes...! I see it, Ha'Cre, I see it! Possibilities... possibilities!" He raised his hand to drink, only to discover the dropped cup. Ears flapping in embarrassment, he picked it up and went to the table to pour himself another, drinking it down with a hand uncharacteristically unsteady. "By Hr'Gen...! Where would it end?"
The young white-furred Eyani turned to his old brown Chief and Ha'Cre answered, "Who says it has to? Reenah says Eyan is round, like a lian. He says there are other lands beyond the Great Sea, their explorers bring tales of them. If I understand him, he says there are other worlds, the stars-that-move. He has even suggested that the stars that do not move may be other suns, with worlds of their own...!"
Gl'Dek huffed a nervous, awed, laugh. "I left home because I wanted to see the whole world," he said. "Now I'm learning there's more than one?" He laughed again, refilling his cup. "One thing's sure," he muttered as he walked back to his couch. "I chose the right Chief!"
Gl'Dek resumed his couch, sipped, spoke. "Ha'Cre, you've seen Green Sea's ships. Even I had never imagined such a thing before seeing it with my own eyes.
"So the Great Sea can be crossed, and the world continues on the other side. Ha'Cre... do you think....
"Could the night sky be just a different kind of sea?"
Ha'Cre nodded, slowly. "It could be, my friend. It just could be. -But we'll never find out while West River keeps stealing our mates and cubs and herds! First things first, my friend. Here is my plan-"
He had worked so hard, for so long - and accomplished much! There was a North Continent High Tribe, North Hills leading, Green Sea supporting, Blue Hills and Whitewood now sending envoys - but it was all taking so very long, and West River never seemed to run out of warriors, and Flowered Plains was sending envoys to them. Orakshome and Lakeland were forming their own High Tribe and nobody knew what they were going to do with it-
Ha'Cre despaired of ever uniting the Tribes, of ever ending the constant slaughter of Eyani by Eyani. He felt sorrow that his dream would remain only that; he felt terror that, rather than ending war among his people, he may only have invented a way to make it more terrible. He was getting old, now, and knew he had not many more seasons. Not much more time.
His son, Gr'Chut. Young, strong, thoughtful Gr'Chut, reading, exploring, searching, always asking, "Why, why, why?"
There was not enough time left for Ha'Cre to bring peace to his people.
But my son....
Ha'Cre gazed into the night sky, at the stars. Other suns? Other worlds? He wondered.
Movement caught his eye - a star was moving. Not so slowly its travel could only be seen from one night to the next, one of those other worlds that Reenah spoke of; nor streaking down as they did in herds every few seasons - Reenah said those were only rocks, and moved so fast that when they hit Eyan's sky they burned away, like the point of a firemaking drill, except the few largest ones which made it all the way down; his people had found and studied a few. No, this one was moving steadily, smoothly in a straight line across the night, from northwest to southeast, crossing the sky in only a few breaths, disappearing below the horizon.
Hrr. Must ask Reenah about that, next time I see him, Ha'Cre thought.
On the very eve of their renaissance, the Eyani would be plunged into nightmare.