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By the Sword

by Greg Costikyan

Copyright © 1993 by Greg Costikyan

This is the first chapter of the novel.


The world is wide and high and young: unbounded steppe. The early morning sky is tinged with blue and rose; green vegetation ripples in the breeze. Out there are herds of antelope, mastodon, wild horses, aurochs. Of all its inhabitants, only the humans know this world is bounded, and they only because they raid and trade with the settled lands of the north, where the people are tiny and quick.

High soars the eagle; low creeps the snake; but the true master of these plains is not the lioness, nor yet the mastodon. The masters of the world are men and women, bow-legged with lives ahorse, herding cattle, hunting, warring. They are hardy, well-nourished on cheese, animal flesh, and blood. For the nonce, their manner of life is secure, for no hoe nor ox-drawn plow will cut the sod of these great plains.

Atop their hardy, hairy mounts, they roam the wide world at will, and none may stay their path; for as they are bred to the horse, they are bred to war. The northlanders call them Vagon, barbarian; for they are the terror of the north, who sweep out each generation, to plunder and burn. To themselves they are merely the Vai; the People. Among them did Nijon come to manhood. This is his tale.

The encampment was at peace, though the people were not. About it were scattered the horses and cattle of the folk, each marked with the symbol and color of its owner. Young men and women tended the herds, lest animals stray or a predator strike. Women worked at curing leather, mending tools, smoking meat, but always with a sense of anticipation that centered on the north. They awaited word.

Led by Dikon Khan, the warriors of the tribe, all men save the youngest and oldest and those who voluntarily surrendered the warrior role, had ridden north in search of booty. The wind might bring back word of triumph or tragedy. No metaphor, that: One of the Council of Women sat always by an oddly-shaped pot that hung by horsehair from a post, listening to the whistle of the air as it passed through the pot's mouth. This was the compact that Tsawen, the tribal sorcerer, had made with the North Wind: that it would bear tidings.

A gray-haired woman sat there now, head cocked to listen to the whistle. Above, the sun crept toward the meridian.

At precisely noon, the North Wind spake; "Victory," whistled the pot. "Triumph."

With a shriek, the woman sprang up. Glad cries rose skyward.

They built a great bonfire at the camp center, and brought forth three white calves to sacrifice in celebration. The liver and lights they would offer to the North Wind in thanks for its assistance, but -- "Where is Poai?" the women asked each other. For she, wife of the sorcerer Tsawen, must preside over the rite.

It was nearly sunset now. Flagons of kumiss had been brought forth and a great feast prepared. Women, children, the few men still present, even the dogs seemed flush with exhilaration. But none had seen Poai since the morning.

She was not missed long. "Here she is," a young boy cried, and half-dragged her into the circle of light about the fire. Poai was smiling dreamily.

"Good evening, friends," she said. "Why do you gather thus?"

Could it be she had not heard? The news was quickly imparted.

"At noon, you say?" she said. "It must have been at the same instant that I cried out."

"Cried out?" inquired the chieftain's wife. "Where have you been, Poai?"

Poai looked outward, into the gloaming, across the wide plain. "I lay with Mongoose," she said.

There was a moment of silence.

"The god," she clarified.

Giggles passed among the women. "You spent the afternoon in the arms of a god?" asked the chief's wife, somewhat skeptically.

"It is so," said Poai, smile beginning to falter.

Consider the conundrum facing the chieftain's wife. Poai's story was simply ludicrous; such things happen only in legend. She must have been seduced by some smooth-talking stranger, as unlikely as that might be: She was a large, stocky, muscular women, quite unattractive by the standards of the Vai; and she was normally hard-headed, making it hard to understand how she might have fallen for so absurd a claim.

The penalty for adultery was ostracism from the tribe. That was bad enough; but if Tsawen's wife was ostracized, the sorcerer would lose so much face that he would be forced to give up his magic. And if that were so, the tribe would be left without protection, as Tsawen had not yet taken an apprentice.

There was only one thing to do. "She has lain with a god," proclaimed the chief's wife grimly. "All honor to Poai!"

And with smirks and snickers, the women of the tribe did her obeisance.

Poai lay exhausted amid piled skins, in the tent she shared with Tsawen. The infant sucked at her breast, as yet without success; her milk had not yet come in. Tsawen, nearly as exhausted behind his spirit mask, slumped on the earth nearby.

"Have you chosen a name?" asked Mo'ian, the Va-Naleu chief.

"Nijon," Poai said. "Nijon Oonitsaupivia." The patronymic meant, 'Son of the God Mongoose.'

Mo'ian sighed. He had half-hoped she would opt for the more conventional 'Ootsawen,' even though Tsawen was clearly not the father. "The birth was attended by signs and portents," said the chief.

"Of course," said Poai contentedly.

"A cow gave birth to a two-headed calf at the very instant that your water broke," continued Mo'ian. "And a hawk was seen to circle the encampment thrice, flying widdershins."

"How do you interpret that?" Poai asked Tsawen.

"Very favorable," said Tsawen tiredly. "He will live long, and is favored of the gods."

Poai smiled. "Thank you both," she said. "Is the tribe still so skeptical?"

Mo'ian and Tsawen exchanged glances. Mo'ian sighed. "People prefer scandal to credulity."

Poai considered this. "Well," she said at last. "It is of little account. At least we three know the truth."

As he left the tent, Mo'ian rolled his eyes.

"Perhaps you should sleep now, dear," said Tsawen, pulling a skin over her torso. She murmured thanks.

Tsawen soon joined her in slumber; she might be tired by the labor of birthing, but he no less exhausted by his magical exertions. He had spent hours and considerable power, breathing the sacred fumes, sending forth his spirit. The hawk had been no great feat; a simple compulsion laid on a bird. But the two-headed calf had been the very devil to arrange.

Ten-year old Nijon peered from behind a boulder at two other boys, Vauren and Dowdin by name. They labored over a fire. Nijon did not envy them; they had been given a hard task, largely in punishment for tormenting Nijon himself.

Several large stones sat in the fire. Using sticks as levers, Vauren and Dowdin were rolling one now, out of the flames and toward a pit. The pit, lined with hides, was filled with water. In the water floated skeins of wool and several splits of wood from the tsaemol tree.

Laboriously, the boys rolled the hot stone into the water. It hissed as it met the liquid. They rolled another stone into the pit, and a third. As the water steamed, a green tint infused it, the hot water cooking dye out of the tsaemol wood. The wool would pick up the dye and turn green; then, the women would spin it, and weave blankets and coats from the richly-colored yarn.

At present, Vauren stood between Nijon and the pit, bending over to pry at a hot stone. "Hyaah!" Nijon yelled, springing up and bounding down the slope. He gave Vauren a strong shove -- and the boy tumbled into the pit, green water splashing everywhere.

Nijon stood laughing as Vauren sputtered up. Vauren stood in the pit, examining his limbs; his tawny skin now had a definite viridian cast.

"Why Vauren," Nijon taunted, "you look positively green. Nauseous perhaps?"

"You bastard," Vauren said between gritted teeth. There was murder in his eyes, but his parents had been quite clear there were to be no more fights with Nijon. Nijon only laughed.

Dowdin, standing to one side, smiled faintly. "Yes, bastard," he mused. "Has Poai told who your true father is yet, Nijon?"

Nijon lost his grin.

"Rumor has it it's Doowaien," Vauren said nastily, naming the tribal idiot. He stepped out of the pit and shook his legs.

Dowdin cackled. "A likely candidate," he agreed.

"My mother does not lie," said Nijon, advancing on Dowdin with balled fists

"True, true," said Dowdin hurriedly, backing away. "She's an honest woman -- eh, Oonipivia?" He omitted the '-tsau-' in Nijon's patronymic, turning it to an expression of contempt: not son of the god Mongoose, but son of a mongoose -- a deadly insult.

Nijon snarled and struck out at Dowdin, who dodged aside and circled behind Vauren.

"Yes," said Vauren, "who could doubt Poai's veracity? It must be true; Nijon's father is a mongoose. Have you been growing claws, Nijon? How about your teeth? Prominent incisors, perhaps?"

Nijon turned to face Vauren, hands clenching.

"That must have been quite a sight," said Vauren, "Poai and the mongoose."

"Yes, yes," laughed Dowdin, keeping the pit between himself and Nijon. "Can't you see it? 'Oh, darling,'" he said in a falsetto quite unlike Poai's deep voice. "'A dead snake? For me? How precious, my pet. Let me smooth your pelt. Oh, yes! Yes, there! And now -- "

With an inarticulate roar of rage, Nijon charged Dowdin.

Vauren put out a leg. Nijon tripped over it -- and fell, face-first, into the dye pit.

Vauren and Dowdin took off for the camp, giggling hysterically.

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Copyright © 1993 by Greg Costikyan.