Half a Savage — Part 1

"Lights, Lord. Lights in the sky!"

The small boy struggled up out of sleep into a world of sudden voices. Smoke from the freshly-kindled torches trailed shadows across the painted designs on the walls.

"What kind of lights, you say?"

The deep voice of Movo his father from behind the curtain, reassuring, in command as always. Ro scrambled to his feet, slipping through the clumsy grasp of the young priest who guarded his bed, and darted through to the royal couch.

Even waked without warning from his rest — stripped of his plumes and the heavy jade at ears and throat — his father had more presence than most men. None of the other boys' fathers could have sat as he was sitting, half-sprawled up beside his wife on one elbow just as he had roused from sleep at the first sounds of alarm, without losing a shred of dignity; without betraying anything but calm, and a sure authority that made of the cloth-tented alcove a royal audience chamber, with the covers that had slipped to his waist as lordly robes.

High Priest, Leader of the Kin, Lord of the Caves. Ro, too, had been born to those titles — some day they would be his — but first they must be earned. Earned as this man had earned them, by years of training as the humblest of warriors and of priests, side by side with the men he would some day lead in sacrifice and in war.

For now, the only status he had was the priestly guard on his sleep — a boy named Porah in his first training, barely two or three years older than Ro himself — and the run of the caves. Even the Lord's private quarters.

The guard by the entrance swung round sharply as the hangings billowed apart, the black stone of his spear-point glittering in the unsteady light, but as the familiar little figure pushed through, he relaxed. The boy barely even registered the levelled spears. His eyes were all for his father's face.

The High Priest had glanced up in turn. His face had been a grim copper mask beyond the torch-flames, but at the sight of the child it softened a little. After a moment he smiled, pulling back the covers at his feet. Ro slipped into the offered warmth, quick as a snake between the rocks, and his father pulled the cloth back around the boy's bare shoulders, where his loose hair spilled over the bright geometric weave.

It was an absent gesture. Every drop of the Lord's attention was focused on the handful of men from the night-guard who had thrust their way into his presence, raising the alarm — at the panic in their voices that threatened to rouse the whole cavern.

Ihtalpa, the foremost guard, was babbling, despite the grey in his braids. "It came down on a tail of fire like the Great Serpent, Lord. And fire came from its belly in the place where it set down its feet, until the rocks themselves quaked and ran—"

Big Uamec interrupted from behind. "It is true, Lord, all true. I saw it myself — I who saw the Fists of the Gods fall last winter—"

"The Fists do no harm," the Lord said quietly. "They fall in flame but once or twice in a man's lifetime, as our fathers tell, but that very fall burns them away. There is nothing to fear."

He was High Priest. He had his mystics. He knew these things... and yet a touch like a cold breeze flickered across his bare flesh. He had not looked to see the sky-rocks fall again before he was an old man. It was not unknown in lore for the Fists of the Gods to streak the sky in a second year — but the lore told also that such an omen foreboded only great evil.

In the last such year, in the time of his fathers' fathers' mothers, war had come upon the people of the caverns from beyond the Sunset Peaks, and they had been utterly defeated. Not one adult male of the Kin had been left alive.

He shook off that memory, shivering. Conquerors and captives alike were one people now, the rulers and the priests of mingled blood, and there was peace among the peoples of the mountains — but the memory of that slaughter still lay like a shadow, even upon the descendants of those who had inflicted it.

We have grown since that time, Movo told himself. We no longer sacrifice our enemies to feed our gods... But there was a cold knowledge also: we are no longer the warriors we once were. What we have gained in ritual, we have lost in savagery. And sometimes... sometimes it is necessary to be a savage to survive.

But Uamec was shaking his head. "I have seen the Fists, Lord. This is different. This is the end of the world—"

The big man's voice held absolute conviction, and at the High Priest's side a tiny gasp escaped from Elaya. Even that indrawn breath was enough to choke her now. His wife turned away from him under the coarse-woven covers, her body shaking as she fought to conceal both her fear and her struggle for breath. Movo reached out, pulling her face against his shoulder, her frail bones all too clear against his arm. At his feet, he could sense the boy, too, stiffening, alert as ever to his mother's pain.

Elaya would not live out the coming winter in the caves. No-one spoke of it — least of all those who loved her best.

The ground shook beneath him abruptly, setting the hangings that walled off the chamber into a quivering dance that made their jagged patterns flow like rain. A moment later came a deep roar, almost too low to perceive, like a bellow from the earth itself. Like the pattering of counterpoint above it, wails of children and cries of fear began to swell throughout the cave, and a trickling of rock fragments showered down from the roof above.

He sprang to his feet. The guards were clutching at one another, speaking across and among themselves too fast to follow. Uamec's howl rose over them all. "Again — and closer! This is the end of the world, I tell you—"

"Enough!"

He used the High Priest's voice, that filled the cavern. Beyond the woven walls that marked out every hearth, families shocked out of sleep huddled together, and all eyes turned unthinking to the Royal Serpent that writhed in paint high on the cavern wall, guarding and proclaiming the Lord's presence.

Movo took a deep breath. For the moment, he had them. One moment, to calm and to hold...

"If it is the end of the world, then we will meet it as befits our fathers' sons. I shall go out myself to offer sacrifice; and every man of the Kin will follow bearing gifts, bedecked for full festival. We shall offer what is most precious — and pray that will be enough."

A second of utter silence; and then the voices began again, a low murmur. But the edge of panic was gone. Light began to dance across the ceilings, as more and more torches were kindled and hearth-embers stirred back to life.

"Lord?" The guards were shuffling from foot to foot, and he nodded, gesturing them to go. Young priests hovered at the door, sleepy-eyed, bringing forward the festival regalia. He let them dress him, covering his brief sleeping-cloth with formal skirts and binding the golden serpents and other treasures around waist and arms. There was a sheen of sweat across his face. Elaya dabbed it dry.

She brought the priestly mask herself, and he saw for the first time that she had donned her own robes, the feathered cape and necklace that were hers to wear as High Priest's consort. He frowned, turning his head aside as she tried to seal his lips with one finger.

"Elaya, no. You will stay here — here, in the safest place we have—"

"I am coming with you," his wife said softly. One hand went to her side as a spasm of coughing took her, but she thrust away the support of her attendants impatiently. "I am coming with you, Movo. If this is the end, then I will be there."

She laid her cheek briefly against his breast, dark hair shrouding her face. "Would you have left me to go alone, love — when winter came?"

"No." He admitted defeat on a broken laugh. "No. You know I would not..."

Curled small and forgotten at the foot of his parents' bed, the boy watched them leave. The plumes at his mother's slender throat caught in the curtained folds of the door as she stooped to pass through, and the High Priest's arm slid further around her shoulders, as if to guard her.

It had always been like that, for as long as his childish mind could remember; his mother frail and failing, only her steel will carrying her fragile body on, his father as quick to protect her as to guard his people — and Ro himself a distant third. When your mother was Elaya and your father was Lord of the Caves, it was sometimes easy by comparison to be overlooked.

Sometimes it was useful. Ro lay coiled and still, like a snake beneath a rock, until the last of the attendants had gone, swept up into the growing excited crowd outside. Then he slipped back the other way into his own chamber and caught at Porah's arm.

The older boy jumped; then grabbed hold of him with some relief. "Ro! There you are! I thought I'd lost you — tonight of all nights—"

He swung the child round to face him. "What's going on? Did you find out?"

Ro shrugged, with a little regal air. "You heard, like the rest of them, priest. The world is coming to an end — and my father's going out to stop it." This last was said proudly. "And you're going to take me to see."

Silence.

Ro looked up as the young priest choked, caught between temptation and horror.

"Come on, Porah. All the men are going, and you're almost a priest and I'm the Lord's son — and we're going to get left behind again with the women and children." He tugged on the other boy's arm. "You want to go, you know you do..."

Porah shook his head in stubborn refusal. "If your mother knew—"

"My mother's going," Ro retorted.

"The lady Elaya? Out there?" The young priest looked round fearfully, then blinked. "Are you sure you understood?"

"I saw them go, I tell you. She's going to be at the head of the procession, with my father, and we're going to join the back. No-one will know." He was almost dancing with impatience. "Oh, come on!"

~o~o~

"A pretty benighted planet, wouldn't you say?"

The young adjutant studied the data on the pocket reader over his senior officer's shoulder. "Shocking, sir. Wouldn't believe the place started off as a Federation mining colony—"

"Oh, not Federation," the Commissar corrected him. "Not in those days. No, this planet was settled from Arcturus Five, back in the Old Calendar"—he paused to pull off his gloves—"pretty far out even in those days, of course. And the inhabitants weren't the most cultivated of citizens, judging by what records we have. Most of them came from a small community on one of the inner moons known as Huancavelica. The colony must have been cut off around the time of the Atomic Wars — and I'm afraid it looks as if the miners went native."

He flicked dismissively at a charred fern that tapped against his boot. Behind the two Colonial Service officers, uniformed troops were forming up on the flattened surface created by the assault craft's landing jets.

The adjutant glanced over the data again and shook his head sadly. "Shakes your faith in civilisation, doesn't it, sir? Two and a half thousand years of culture — and after a few generations on Silmareno they're back to stone spears and blowpipes." He sighed again, then frowned, pointing at the screen.

"Where did all this come from, anyway? I had a go on the trip out here, trying to pull up the gen on this planet — I couldn't get a thing. It's as if the place was so obscure they forgot all about it for a few hundred years..."

The older officer studied immaculate fingernails. "Not at all. I suppose it can't hurt for you to know now — after all, you'll be the liaison officer here after I leave... The data on Silmareno was ordered wiped. I arranged the order myself."

"Sir?" Discipline struggled with curiosity, and won. "Yes, sir."

A laugh. "Don't worry, you'll be told all about it — you'll need to know, to do your job. For the moment — well, let's just say that I came across an old mining survey when I was searching for records of minerals with certain very specific properties..."

The young man's eyes widened; and widened further as the Commissar laid out the full implications in detail. "You mean — these savages are sitting on the future of Federation space-flight?"

"In the long term — yes, very probably. They won't appreciate that, of course. We'll have to get a few of them educated first — get them to see things in a more civilised way. Then we can put a local man in to keep a lid on the primitives; standard Colonial Service practice, that, you'll have covered it in your second year at the CEC. They always work better for one of their own kind — makes them feel more in control, I believe."

The adjutant nodded. "You can leave that up to me, sir. And may I say what an honour it is to have been entrusted with a project so vital to the continuing—"

"You may not." The senior officer cut him off coldly. After a moment, he let out a harsh breath. "Believe me, I'd give my eye-teeth to be doing the job you'll be doing. And right now, I could do it better than you can — don't let's either of us fool ourselves on that one.

"But it's a young man's task — I'll be retired long before the first native ruler takes his seat under the aegis of the Federation, fresh-graduated from the CEC. You'll learn on the job, and later on you'll have help." He clapped his subordinate on the shoulder, suddenly jovial. "Play this right, young man, and you'll make Commissar yourself before you're done. And what's more, you'll have the ruler of a whole planet dancing to your tune. How does that feel?"

The adjutant allowed himself a nervous grin. "Good, sir. It feels good."

"That's the spirit." A frosty smile. The other man swung round. "You there — Section Leader! Are your men ready?"

"Ready sir. What about the other assault craft, sir?"

"I don't think we'll be needing them — do you?" The officer glanced briefly once more at his tablet. "The preliminary survey showed that this was the least dangerous tribe, and once we offer them our alliance against their neighbours, it should be simple to take over the whole place with only a couple of sections of men..."

"Yes sir. But there's more up in the cruiser if you want them, sir."

The Colonial Service man sighed, raising an eyebrow. "Army types... always wanting to go in with overwhelming force..." He traded a brief heavenward glance with his subordinate. "Still, they're excellent fellows in their way. Can't blame them for getting a bit nervy at the thought of a massacre, can we? You can't be too careful with primitives."

"I'll remember that, sir," the adjutant promised, and the Commissar turned on him with surprising force.

"You mind you do, young fellow, or you'll lose us this planet. Never — never trust a primitive! Even an educated savage is a savage under the skin. Remember that. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking they're the same as us. Let them think it — but don't let yourself get fooled. Do you understand?"

A gulp. "Yes sir." He endured the glare for another moment before the other man turned away to scowl at the troopers.

"All right, Section Leader. Get those men moving!"