Methven - Day Twenty-one - Part Five
The coat was the same brown color as Grrawth-h's--except for the deep, nasty, black burn that slashed diagonally from what had been its left shoulder to its right hip.
Grrawth-h held it shoulder-high while he did a slow piroutte, letting everyone present get a good, long look, before he spoke again.
"Thith wath the pelt of my litter-mate, Grrowlth-h. The dethpoilerth took hith head with them, ath a trophy. Thith they abandoned a day'th walk from where they left hith thkinned carcath--to rot where they murdered him."
He turned his gaze on Læ. His voice was calm, his tone almost helpful--but his body trembled with barely-suppressed rage and his eyes were slits of hatred.
"If, ath you thay, I am mithaken, Læ of Thentra, then pleathe ecthplain thith. Am I mithaken to believe thith burn ith from an energy weapon? Pleathe, I am eager for you to tell me how my litter-mate mithplathed hith head--in fact, I think we are all eager to hear your ecthplanathion. By all meanth, pleath tell me how have I mithinterpreted the trail of carnage--and the Thentran bootprintth--that led thtraith from hith body to your prethiouth Portal?"
All the color had drained out of Læ's face. She shook her head sadly and spoke with regret.
"I cannot explain it, Ambassador Grrawth-h."
Grrawth-h's fists balled. Blood began to trickle from his palms.
"I am mithtaken--yet you cannot ecthplain how. And what other mithtaketh can you not ecthplain, Læ of Thentra?"
Wordlessly, she shook her head.
Grrawth-h turned to face the crowd and motioned to the row of furry crones on the benches behind us.
"If you cannot ecthplain the murder of my litter-mate, then perhapth you can ecthplain to all thethe reprethentativeth of Clanth from the Thouthern reacheth of the Vomitha Mountainth how they are mithtaken about the murderth of their own thisterth and brotherth?"
For a fleeting fraction of a second, Læ's shoulders drooped. Then she drew herself up straight and spoke, not to Grrawth-h, but to the Khasim Clan Mothers.
"Mothers, I cannot explain any of these things, because this is the first I have heard of them. Until now, until just this moment, Ambassador Grrawth-h has pressed me repeatedly to shut down the Portal near your common border, but he has never before spoken of these awful crimes against his people and yours."
Her voice rang like steel.
"But I promise you this: I will find those who are responsible--and when I do, I will return them here for your Judgement on them."
"She's gonna have that sonofabitch Marfæ's ass for a hatband."
"Tacid Administrator. Never mind--I'll explain later."
Grrawth-h's tone was pure sulfuric acid.
"Fine wordth--or merely empty promitheth? And, even if we acthept your promithe, how long mutht we wait?"
"I do not know, Ambassador."
"You do not know! Meanwhile, how many of our people will be thlaughtered becauthe of your ignoranthe?"
He turned to face the dais.
"Motherth, you mutht not permit thith thtranger to perthuade you to leave open thith unwelcome hole in our world, while--without knowing who they are or where they come from--thee promitheth to bring to Judgement the dethpoilerth who kill our kind for thport!"
Grrawth-h brandished his brother's empty skin with one hand, while he pointed directly at Læ with the other as blood dripped, unheeded, from his palm.
"Læ of Thentra, it ith your kind who have brought thith evil on uth! It ith you who are rethponthible for the murderth of thethe innothentth!"
Læ's eyes flashed.
"However grevious the loss, Ambassador, you cannot hold me responsible for crimes about which I have only now learned!"
"I can and I do, Læ of Thentra. The hole through which the dethpoilerth enter and leave our world ith the creation of your kind. The dethpoilerth, themthelveth, are of your kind. And you, yourthelf, are a reprethentative of the Thentran government, are you not?"
"Ambassador, you mischaracterize my.."
"You have the authority to clothe thith hole in our world, do you not?"
"I have..as a field agent, I have a certain amount of latitude, but I.."
Grrawth-h spun back to face Akavasi and her peers.
"Then I thubmit to you, Grandmother, that the withe dethithion, the jutht dethithion, the dethithion you mutht make, ith to order Læ of Thentra to clothe thith hole in our world--not thimply until thee findth thethe dethpoilerth and bringth them here before you for Judgement, but permanently, tho that never again will our kind fathe the terrible thight of our beloved relatives thlaughtered, flayed, beheaded and dithcarded like tho much garbage by thothe of her kind!"
Læ raised her open hands in supplication.
"Grandmother, please, I beg of you--do not do as Ambassador Grrawth-h suggests!"
"And why should we not?"
"Yeth, why not, indeed, Læ of Thentra?"
"Because, if you do, you will merely be trading one danger for an infinitely greater one, Grandmother."
"Explain this greater danger."
"I will try, Grandmother."
Læ turned to face Grrawth-h and spoke as much to him as to the nine Khasim Mothers.
"Among the vast number of worlds that circle the stars in the sky, there exist those that harbor forces of great evil. One such evil force has set its sights on this world and, because of that, there soon will come a time of war--a time when that otherworldly evil will descend to contest for possession of your world--and more. For this particular evil takes not just the land and possessions of those it conquers, but their very souls. The despoilers, of whom Ambassador Grrawth-h has so eloquently spoken, are as wayward children by comparison to an evil that will take from you your very essence--your thoughts, your feelings, your beliefs and customs--and leave you as mere husks; as enslaved bodies without minds. If this evil force succeeds, it will strip you of your dreams, your future, your very selves.
"My kind has fought its depredations wherever we have discovered them. Never once have we been able to take back from it a world it has conquered, but we have successfully kept it from enslaving many of the worlds it has coveted. When the evil comes for this world, you will be its final line of defense. As has happened to the blue men so many times in the past, the evil's forces may founder against the redoubt you have made of your mountains. Or, instead, it may smash your defenses and sweep through your mountains like a scourge--for this evil is far stronger than the blue men will ever become and it will spend the lives of its soldiers like water."
She turned to face Akavasi again.
"Grandmother, I beg you not to give up what will be your people's last, best hope to keep your world from the hands of the evil that coming! For it is coming, and it is coming soon! If the Portal remains open, my people will use it to bring you supplies and weapons and reinforcements against the evil. If it is closed, we can do none of these things--and your world will fall forever into hands that will take from you everything you treasure and leave you with nothing. Nothing! Please, please, as you value your children's future, I beg you, do not make this mistake!"
Atanami's scornful voice broke the deep silence that followed.
"Mothers! How can you listen to this..this drivel? This stranger would frighten us into doing her bidding--and with what? Tales of some mysterious 'evil' that will soon descend from the sky! Do you not see how preposterous this is? Where is the proof that this menace of which she warns even exists? Nowhere! Are we children, that we grant these foolish tales the power to dictate that we close our eyes to mutilation and murder? These are real crimes, Mothers, not some outworlder's fanciful stories of faceless conquerors from the stars. Will you close your eyes to them? Will you trade the lives of those who will fall victim to the depredations of the despoilers in exchange for a stranger's vague promises of support against a phantom enemy for whose existence there is no evidence? Will you abandon your duty to our people for the benefit of her people?"
Atanami smacked the flat of her staff against the top of the dais with a sound like a thunderclap.
"Well, I WILL NOT! The S'lynth has the right of it--we must punish both the child and this stranger. Exile for him! Banishment for her and her kind! Mothers, I tell you, any other Judgement is a betrayal of our people! Fail in your duty to them and you will soil both your name and your office--and force me to resign from your ranks! There is nothing more to be said--Judge them now and Judge them harshly!"
Akavasi's voice was calm, deliberate.
"We will not be rushed to Judgement by anyone's words, Mother Atanami. If there is further evidence to be heard, we will hear it first--and only then will we render our Judgement. That is our duty."
Atanami glanced first to one side, then to the other. It was pretty evident that the Mothers' decision would go against Læ and Mantami--but, from the subtle headshakes and irritated glares she received, it was also clear that they were unwilling to let Atanami stampede them into rendering it prematurely.
With a snort of disgust, Atanami flung herself back into the recesses of her chair.
"Is there anyone else who has evidence to present in this case?"
A murmur from the audience prompted me to half-turn in my seat, just in time to see a particularly wrinkled old Vomisa woman get up and walk stiffly to stand beside the S'lynth diplomat.
"I do, Grandmother."
"Speak, then, Mother."
The old woman surveyed the dais for a long moment before replying.
"I am Apanati, Grandmother of the Takhnim Clan. I have journeyed here to attest that what this S'lynth says is true. Two of our Scouts have fallen victim to the despoilers since Winter broke. We found only their skinned and beheaded carcasses--and bootprints that led to the strangers' hole into our world."
"Thank you, Mother. Have you anything else to add?"
The crone shook her head.
"Only this, Grandmother--that the Mothers of Clan Takhnim desire that we force the strangers to close this hole between our worlds."
"Thank you, Mother. We shall consider your Clan's wishes in making our Judgement.
"Is there anyone else with evidence to present?"
It was a long time before the parade of women from the bench behind us ended. Some were terse, some long-winded, but every one of them had losses to report and every one of them wanted the Portal closed.
Once the last of them had spoken, Akavasi turned her attention back to Læ.
"Læ of Centra, have you anything left to say before we pass Judgement in this case?"
"Only this, Grandmother--I have promised to bring the despoilers before you for Judgement and I will fulfill that promise, regardless of your decision. For the sake of your people and of your world, I hope that, when I do so, you will permit me to present to you proof of the existence of the coming evil--and that, if you now Judge that my people must close the Portal between our worlds, you will reconsider that decision once you have seen my evidence--and have rendered Judgement on the despoilers. Other than that, I merely ask again that you Judge the child, Mantami, wisely and fairly, for he bears no responsibility or blame for the actions of the despoilers."
Akavasi allowed herself a faint smile.
"We shall strive to uphold our reputation, Mistress.
"As is our custom, you and the child will remain standing while we deliberate. I ask that our other guests return to their seats."
When they'd done so, Akavasi addressed her peers on the dais.
"In the case of the child, how say you, Mothers?"
"He has sinned! Exile him!"
Akavasi pulled a wry face.
"You have made your position more than clear, Mother Atanami. How say the rest of you? Mother Itarani?"
"Clearly, the child is guilty--by his own admission that is so. Still, there are extenuating circumstances. I am of two minds, Grandmother. Ask your question of the others and I shall give the matter further thought."
"Mother Itakani? How say you?"
"He is guilty and must be exiled."
"The child has already been punished for his sin. I say it is enough."
"I, too, wish to give this matter more thought, Grandmother."
"This Judgement is a difficult one, Grandmother. The child has sinned--on that we all agree. I am of the opinion that his sin was unintentional--and that there are other circumstances that lessen his guilt. It is also clear that he has suffered greatly--although I think most of his suffering had little to do with his sin. I feel he still must be punished, if for no other reason than to serve as an example to other children that they cannot sin without consequence. Even so, exile seems inappropriately harsh. My thought is that, somehow, we must seek a middle way."
"I agree with Mother Otakari--but I cannot say what that middle way should be."
"I, too, agree with Mother Otakari. My thought is this: that the child, Mantami, be exiled from these Mountains only until mid-Winter, at which time he may return to undergo his Ordeal. If he survives the Ordeal, his sin will be forgiven and he may take his place among us as an adult."
She looked first to one side, then to the other, at her fellow Mothers.
"Is this Judgement satisfactory to you, Mothers?"
Atanami and Itakani objected. The rest, including those who'd asked for more time to think about it, approved.
Akavasi pointed her staff at Mantami.
"Mantami Khasim. For your sin, you are hereby exiled from these Mountains. You may return on Midwinter's Day for your Ordeal. If you survive that, your sin will be forgiven and never mentioned again."
"Thank you, Grandmother. May I ask a favor?"
Mantami's gesture took in Læ, Carleton, Bruno, me and the rest of the Berkeley gang.
"For the sake of my friends, I ask that you postpone my exile until tomorrow at noon, so that Mr. Drew and Mr. Pith may properly take leave of Mr. Mahatna."
"Impossible! Your Judgement has been rendered, child! You must leave this place immediately!"
Akavasi waved her back into her seat.
"We owe our guests hospitality. Your request is granted, child."
"Grandmother, I object!"
Akavasi ignored her. Instead, she turned her attention to Læ.
"As for the hole your kind have opened in our world, Læ of Centra, our will is in accord with that of our distinguished guests. We cannot and we will not abide the murder and casual butchery of our people. You will see to it that this hole between our worlds is closed--permanently and swiftly."
"It will be ten days or more before I am in a position to do as you have asked, Grandmother--but I will honor your Judgement."
"See to it that you do."
"And, when I bring the despoilers before you for Judgement, will you reconsider your decision?"
"If you bring them to be Judged, we will, of course, carefully examine any evidence you present. I can promise no more than that."
"It will have to do. Thank you, Grandmother."
Akavasi's face grew stern.
"The child must now leave this chamber, Mistress Læ. You and your employees may also go."
From behind us came an earsplitting ululation, filled with anger and loss. I turned in my seat to see Grrawth-h, his head thrown back and his tentacles lashing furiously as he yowled again and again--a noise so primitive and unearthly that it made the hair on the back of my neck stand straight up.
It didn't sound much like laughter to me.
(Copyright© 1997, 1998, 1999 by Thom Stark--all rights reserved)