Confederacy Sample Chapter
The first sign that something was wrong came when the saddle-maker’s boys ran back to camp before their hour as lookouts was up.
Nasan dropped the arrows she’d been fletching at Temujin’s cry. He pointed, and the clanspeople followed the line of his arm – past the edge of the camp where the water canisters lay and the horses pulled at the dying grass, up the side of the mountain. The boys were still far up, two dark specks zig-zagging down the mountain where the rocks were too steep to go down straight. But it had to be them. There were no other people around until Freeholder City.
Trouble. Her kinsmen were already rushing to the base of the path to receive the lookouts’ news, but Nasan wavered. She’d only been made a warrior last spring, and she was still so bad at it that she felt clumsy and slow in the blue wool jacket that was her new uniform. What if there was going to be a fight? What should she do so she wouldn’t get in everybody’s way?
In their haste the boys’ feet threw up pebbles that ran down the slope in tiny avalanches. They clattered into camp with so much momentum they almost knocked over the old gas tank that was their best water can. Odger doubled over, catching his breath, but Koke was able to speak.
“Gliders!” he choked out. “From the west!”
Nasan just stood there. All around her, the clan fighters went into action. They lashed the flaps of the tents to the ground and set the horses free. Better to have to catch them later than let them become glider food. It was fall, the beginning of the hungry time of the year, when the gliders would try to pick off livestock or even people who weren’t dead yet.
Come on, you’re supposed to be a fighter, do something! She looked around on the ground for her bow. It wasn’t there. Idiot. Always keep your bow with you, that was the cardinal rule of the warrior class. And she’d gone and left hers in her father’s safe box.
She dashed for her family’s tent, keeping one eye to the sky in case the gliders came. She flung aside the flap and went straight for the safe box against the far wall. The noise woke her brother Bat, who was curled up in the story blankets on the floor. He sat up.
“What’s going on?”
“Glider attack! Get to the ravine!” She didn’t turn to face him, focused instead on getting the heavy lid of the box open. Hurriedly she grabbed the bow inside and swung the quiver over her shoulder. Then she looked back to Bat. He struggled to get up. That made her stop with a pain to her heart. He looked terrible, like all the blood was drained from him. She held out her arm for him to lean on and tried to give him a reassuring smile. But she didn’t feel reassured herself.
Outside, the untied horses had picked up that something was wrong. One of them came charging at her from across the fire pit, and she had to shove Bat out of the way so they didn’t both get trampled. The old people and mothers were herding the children into the ravine running along the north side of camp. Bat, who still counted as a child, belonged there. Nasan gave her little brother a nudge in the right direction. One of the mothers took Bat under her arm and met eyes with Nasan a moment. There was a reproach in that look, maybe. It was the mothers’ job to look after the children, the job of the childless ones like Nasan to help fight. She had to let Bat go.
The warriors got into position, using whatever they could as cover – tents, water canisters, bits of sheet siding. No trees this far from the city. She spotted her father there, back against a low rock. He acknowledged her with a nod, then nocked his bow and aimed it at the sky.
She had to do this right. She wasn’t just picking off deer this time, now her aim really mattered. She slid on the hard earth into a spot behind the tinker’s tent, skinning her knees in the process. The last of the fightless would have made it over the edge of the ravine by now. They’d hide there in the brush until it was over. There was a silent tense moment, a held breath.
A moment later they came. The glider pack screamed down from the mountains in a whirl of dark wings, like birds and yet not birds, with those stone-gray bodies and leather flaps for wings and eyes hard as plexiglass. And they were hungry.
The first pass the leaders just skimmed over the top of the camp with their talons out to rake the tops of the tents. Nasan nocked an arrow and shot. Good Stars, it worked! One of them screeched and stumbled in the air, struck in the pectoral, then it righted itself and kept on flying.
She spun around on her behind and leaned her back against the tent pole, breathing hard. Shit. She wasn’t ready for this. She’d never been on anything more than a hunting trip before. Something crashed like a glider had knocked over their sheet siding. There were maybe two dozen of them out there, too many for her clan ever to handle.
Polaris, help me now. She swallowed, got up and took aim again.
The clan was losing. All around her the warriors were doing the best they could, lancing arrows and fire khipus up at the beasts. Two of her kinsmen were already dead. One of the gliders was winged, thrashing about on the ground while the warriors kept a wide berth, but they hadn’t managed to kill any of them yet.
But she had bigger problems, she realized as she looked up. It was that glider she’d hit earlier. Now that she’d broken her cover, it swerved towards her. I can’t do this. She shot it again, but it didn’t even slow down.
Time for a khipu. She fumbled at the breast of her jacket where she always kept a good handful of the cords tied in a loose knot. When she didn’t get anywhere, she had to risk a quick glance down. There – the red and yellow one, knotted in a diamond pattern. Fire. She yanked it free.
The glider dove for her, hissing with beak open wide. She threw herself down, almost too late. The dirt ground itself into her hands and almost made her lose the khipu. She wrapped the loose ends of the cord around and around her fingers and rolled onto her back.
The glider was getting ready to have another go at her. It rose, hissing. The air from its wings buffeted her; her arrow-ends sticking out of its chest didn’t even seem to be hurting it. She forced herself to wait. To leap up and run away now would just get a pair of claws into her back. It dove.
When the glider seemed about to snatch her head off with those talons she pulled the khipu’s tie cord and flung it upwards. For a moment it seemed it wouldn’t work. Then the khipu started unraveling itself, accelerating, and all the power that had been bound into it with the knotting of the wool was released at once. The flames caught the glider in the face. It screamed, beating at itself with its wings, as it crashed to the ground.
Nasan just stared at it. I took down a glider. That thing’s twice as big as I am. The wrecked animal was starting to blacken and smoke and give off a smell like burning tar. There was something wrong with gliders, the way their meat would burn and wasn’t any good to eat. There wasn’t any water in their blood. The arrows. She shouldn’t waste precious wood by letting them get burned away. She had to take them out.
She took a step towards the beast, but a human scream tore her away. The fight was going badly for them. Now her kinsmen were doing the best they could just not to get themselves killed. Where was her father? He’d been by the rock just a moment ago. Her cousins? One of the tents was in flames from a misfired khipu, the tinker was wounded, and Temujin was fending off two of them at once with khipus and arrows.
“We have to take cover!” he cried. “Get to the ravine!”
“No!” growled Gurban.
Who were they going to obey, Gurban, the chieftain, or his son Temujin, the clan’s princeling? Many seemed all too willing to follow Temujin and ran for the edge of the camp, though they did fire parting shots over their shoulders. Nasan decided it was time to run, too. She stumbled around the glider’s smoking carcass to get to the ravine.
“Stay where you are!” Gurban held his arms out as if that would keep them back. Finally he was forced to run, too, as the gliders swept down on them in a wave.
The ground at the northern edge of camp was steep. Nasan slipped on the scree with the other warriors as they made for the cover of grass at the bottom. Some of the other new kids lost their balance and rolled. Nasan managed not to be one of those people, and she even managed to keep hold of her bow as she ran.
The grass was a little thicker in the low places than up top. The snowmelt collected there and lasted even until May some years. She couldn’t see the fightless but they were there, their bellies pressed to the earth in the hopes the scrub would be tall enough to hide them.
Nasan crashed to the ground. She spat out pebbly dirt and coughed. It had gotten into her knees, too, where she’d skinned them earlier. She had no idea who she’d landed next to. She rolled over so she could see the sky.
Through the gaps in the grass blades she could see the slate-gray forms circling, and everybody could hear the hungry cries. Like lost souls. She tried to stop breathing so hard, sure they’d be able to find her by the sound alone.
Then she turned her head. That form beside her was somebody she knew.
“Temujin?” she whispered.
“Nasan!” He pulled himself forward on his arms. The grass parted, and there was his so-familiar face. It made her feel stronger just looking at it.
A glider passed low overhead and they both froze. Then it flew off, wailing, and they could breathe again.
“I took down a glider today,” she whispered.
A hand reached out, clasped her own. “Told you you’d make a good fighter, little girl.”
The rest of that afternoon and most of the night were miserable. They could not move. Though her limbs cramped up and the stones dug into her flesh, Nasan had to lie absolutely still and wait while the gliders circled. In time they lost interest in the ravine and drifted back to the abandoned camp in search of food. She couldn’t see any of it flat on her back, but she could hear, all right. The listening was awful. Crashes as they tore the camp apart to get at the clan’s dried meat. Shrieks, crackling. The gliders would be feasting on the horses that didn’t get away now and their two dead kinsmen, too.
It wasn’t quite as bad when the gliders came to eat the nomads who were already dead. Tumen Cara the khipucamayo said that was their role in nature, like it or not. But in the fall, at the end of the dry season, when they came down out of the hills to hunt people like they were game animals… She wanted to get up and run away and make a disgrace of herself in front of all the other warriors. She couldn’t even roll over.
The sun set. For a while Nasan and her kinsmen were bathed in the faint orange glow from the burning tent, then that light died out too as the fire burned itself out. Even then it wasn’t completely dark. It was a skyglow night, overcast. Scattered light from the Dead Places far out on the plains turned the sky dirty gray and kept them all in a twilight. The destruction of the camp went on for hours and Nasan numbed up from the waiting, the chill of autumn night seeping into every inch of her. A child whimpered and a mother shushed him.
All at once, there was a cry and a susurration of wings rising. The pack of gliders passed overhead as a unit, then the sound faded away.
A blue light flared up from somebody’s light khipu. Somewhere she heard the voice of Tumen Cara.
“It’s all clear.”
Moaning, the people of the clan hauled themselves to their feet. Nasan rolled over and pushed herself up. Just that much movement sent a jolt of pain through her stiffened-up muscles. She was covered all over in little scratches, and she realized there was a burn on her hand from the fire khipu. Her knees reminded her they were skinned when she tried to kneel.
Temujin came over to help her up, putting an arm around her waist. That was a jolt of a different kind. Sometimes the girls of the clan giggled to each other about which of them he would eventually choose. Nasan was sure she didn’t know, but … he certainly was a handsome princeling.
“I have to go check on my brother!” She pulled away, and Temujin let her go.
Bat was standing in a clump of scrub not too far away with his hands on his knees. At least he was alive, but he looked paler than ever. She ran over to him.
“Are you all right? Do you feel sick?” She clutched his hand.
Bat, the sickly one. Even Tumen Cara didn’t know what was wrong with him. Whenever he got the tiniest cut, he’d bleed and bleed and just never stop. The Stars had taken a disliking to him and nobody knew why.
Before he could answer, the light khipu went out and plunged them all back into skyglow light. People cried out, and there was a leafy crash as somebody fell into the brush. A minute later, three new light khipus had flared up to replace it: one from Tumen Cara and a couple from the warriors.
Nasan’s mother Sarangerel appeared in front of her.
“Go follow the warriors,” she told Nasan. “I’ll help Bat.”
Nasan unwillingly let her mother throw Bat’s arms around her shoulders to support him. When she kept standing there, Sarangerel shooed her on.
Nasan joined the warriors, who were hiking as a group back up the side of the ravine. Their feet crunched in the gravel. She kept to the back, not eager to see the wreckage of the camp. They’d just crested the edge of the ravine when the second set of khipus went out.
One of the warriors found some torn-off canvas, wrapped it around a tent pole to make a makeshift torch, and lit it with a quick blast from a fire khipu.
There was almost nothing left. Most of the tents were ripped open and snapped. All the peoples’ things, their bowls and tools and prayer flags, lay in drifts on the ground like dust after a snowstorm. The fire that started in one of the tents had spread to two others before burning out. The tents’ charred skeletons grasped at the sky in the blueing dawn air.
She and the warriors walked through the camp, surveying the wreckage. Nobody seemed to know what to do next. It was just too awful. Temujin looked grim. Nasan ran into something hard on the ground with her foot. The tinker’s old-make glass bottles, every one of them broken. And it was so hard to find the old things anymore, maybe a thing or two in the ruins, but they just didn’t make bottles like that since the curse.
Like she’d expected, the gliders had attacked their stores. Barley and dried mutton were everywhere. She passed the corpse of a horse that wasn’t lucky enough to escape – what was left of it. She knew the remains of her two dead kinsmen were around here somewhere, but she didn’t want to find them.
“Mother Sol preserve us!”
That wasn’t just a shout of alarm, that was mourning. Nasan wanted to put her hands over her ears and pretend she hadn’t heard it. Please, just let it be that he’s found the dead men. Not something new. The other warriors ran to look while she hung back.
Grizzled men twice her age were dropping to their knees around her. The women warriors started keening like at a funeral. They’d all crowded around something at the back of the camp, and there were too many of them for her to see what was wrong. Her own father covered his face with his hand, and whether he was crying or not she couldn’t tell. More than ever she wanted to leave, because as soon as she saw what was there it would become real and there would be no way to go back.
But inevitably the warriors drew back, stricken, and she saw. The gliders had gotten into the water canisters. It must have been madness that possessed them to do that, they didn’t even like water. They’d knocked them over and the canisters had cracked open on the ground. Already the precious water was sucked into the earth and there was nothing left but a dark stain on the ground.