The Price of Pride
"If you are of the Warrior Caste, step out of line!"
Tehl stepped away from the misshapen line of Workers she'd been standing with, causing them all to back away in shock. She wasn't dressed as a Warrior, she never did. Just moccasins, doeskin leggings, and a belted poncho. Though now looking at her Moch Mark and tomahawk hanging from her belt it was clear to everyone what she was. A Chiefling at the front of the line waved her forward. Tehl walked slowly the dozen meters or so past the hungry, huddled masses of workers who'd spent the day waiting. Their jagged glares told her that they all knew what this meant - The Depot was running low on food, and Warriors always received their due before any others.
At the front of the line stood the squat stone tiered mound with the Depot building atop it. She climbed the steps and stopped at an oak countertop carved from a single ancient trunk. A pudgy Chiefling sat across the block-table from her with arms crossed. She didn't recognize him, which made sense - she barely recognized anyone in this wretched Mec.
"Food or Chits?" He asked. Tehl thought she could hear his disdain for having to hand out more food, especially since it was evident he'd used his position to sneak more than a little for himself. "Whats the Tide Rate for Warriors now?" Asked Tehl.
The Chiefling narrowed his eyes, double checking the validity of her Moch Mark. No doubt he considered the possibility she had drawn on a Warrior Mark to get food. But anyone could see her muscled frame, her multitudes of scars, and of course her Warhawk - albeit she kept hers cut close. "Two Hundred Chits at twen-tide." He said slowly, still not wholly believing she was a Warrior, but too craven to question it. Tehl nodded, counting the days she'd been on campaign in her head. "I'll need thirty twen-tides worth to accommodate my time fighting in the Ghostwood." She said, causing the Chiefling to recoil as if he'd been struck. He quickly regained composer and donned a slow, wicked grin. Tehl sighed preemptively - She knew what was coming. "The requisitions of active Warriors has been canceled in this most lean of times by the Bloodchief himself." He said. Smiling, he added: "My apologies."
Fuck the Bloodchief.
Thought Tehl, thankful she hadn't blurted it out. She stood staring back at the Chiefling, matching his gaze and hoping to will this unfortunate reality away. It didn't work. She sighed again. "Give me the Two Hundred."
The man nodded and retreated inside, having to turn sideways to fit his girth through the archway. "Wait!" Called Tehl. "Subtract whatever is required for Peanut Butter. A jar." The request earned her another look of suspicion, but the Chiefling nodded all the same. "I'll check to see what we have, Warrior." He said as he entered the darkened building's basement.
Two Hundred Chits would last her only a few days with the shortage driving food rates up so high - and she refused to find food at The Trough with the Slaves and Workers. The thought made Tehl turn to look down the stone tier, down at the crowd of gathered Workers. Mothers, Children, Fathers… She felt no pity for them. They chose this life, shackled to the Moch. Any of them could leave at any time if they weren't terrified of life outside the shadow of a Mound.
The Chiefling coughed and Tehl turned slowly back to him. He had a sack and a small green jar. "One Hundred and Six Tens of Chits." He cleared his throat, setting the items down on the counter. "And one Jar of peanut butter." Tehl took the package and departed without speaking, heading off to the edge of the tier and half climbed, half slid down the side. The Workers grumbled, but at least they could see she didn't take any of their precious Cricket Dust or Maize Oil. Tehl slung the pack over her shoulder and made her way through the Mec. She crossed several plazas and bridges, each one more grand than the last as she got further into the heart of the city.
As Tehl slipped through the crowds of the inner city she kept one ear open. It was always wise to know what the people were gossiping about at any given time, especially in these disparate days - The people both understood none of the power that they wholly wielded. A power that Sipowae, that rutting oaf, didn't understand either. She passed alongside a dancing circle of workers and artisans that spanned an entire plaza. They hopped in a pattern of interchanging circles, chanting in a language she didn't know about some ritual she knew even less about. At the far side of the plaza she heard a voice that left her stopped midstep. She perked an ear as she drew closer to a gathering of artisans. "-And she told her she was Harboring! It's true. The Blood of Tioteche will live on!"
Tell smiled wide and jaunted forward down an adjoining street of orange and cyan tiles. Word had already spread of Kaiao's pregnancy, and much sooner than Tehl anticipated. In celebration, the Warrior cracked open the jar of Peanut Butter and sniffed. She was hit with a torrent of piqued despair so potent that she clenched her jaw tight enough to threaten cracking teeth. The unmistakable stench of Cricket Butter pervaded from the open jar. She briefly considered returning to the Chiefling but shoved the thought aside as she revealed the jar - she would visit him another day, perhaps.
She had almost reached the Grand Promenade when she spotted a child walking up the street towards her. He wasn't moving fast or intently, didn't carry a weapon, he appeared as any other scraggled Slave boy except for his Moch Mark. It was filled in with black ink, marking him a slave. Three Diamonds though, so he'd been Third Caste before then. Artisan. None of this was unusual, but it was the arrangement that caught Tehl's eye. The three diamonds were touching points, end to end like linked chain. There was only one thing that could mean. The boy became agitated as they drew closer, he must have seen her studying him. Just before they met he darted left towards an alley, but all he found was Tehl's hand lashing out like a viper. She grabbed the boy's face and dragged him back to her so she could study the slave mark. The boy struggled until she hooked a finger into his eye. "Be still." She ordered. "You won't be the first Slave boy I kill today for disobedience." Tehl nodded as the slave child went still, neither of them paid attention to the traffic parting around them and flowing down the street. Still though, she kept alert for any Rickshaws coming their way. "Where are you from?"
The boy mumbled something unintelligible. Tehl removed the hand holding his face and gestured for him to speak. "Chetiwimoch." He said again, this time with a hint of defiance. Tehl laughed loud enough to draw attention from passerby. "Chetiwimoch? The Jewel of Three Storms? Better a slave in Chetiwimoch than a Chief in Kaiaomoch, these days." She wiped wetness from her eye and pulled the boy to the edge of the street. "Why are you here now? Kaiaomoch doesn't free runaways."
The boy looked up at her with sunken eyes, not dull like so many others of his cursed caste. These had an intensity when he spoke. "I'm here to find my Brother." Tehl laughed at his answer and threw her hands wide, gesturing to the stream of people heading towards the Grand Plaza. "Where is he now?"
His measured gaze fractured at that, looking away from Tehl for just a moment. "He fled our Moch for this one. I haven't seen him in a year."
Tehl stared at the boy, chewing the inside of her cheek. Surely this slave knew what happened to his sibling. "One year? Your brother is dead, or worse. I'd wager worse." She winced at the boy's quickly melting defiance upon registering what she'd said. Sighing, Tehl rummaged through her pack for the tainted peanut butter. Eyeing the boy for a moment she pulled it out and handed it to him. "Eat this, then find your way out of the Mec. I'm more lenient than most, but if another Warrior spots you then you'll be hauled off to the fields and sold to some Artisan. Hopefully one that wants you to work, rather than one that just wants a boy around." He cradled the jar and took a few steps back. Tehl shrugged a goodbye and continued onward towards the Plaza, though she didn't go more than a few steps before noticing two other Slaves flow around her going the opposite direction. She followed their jagged gaze to the Boy, still cradling the peanut butter in full view as he ducked into an alley. The two older Slaves pointed and followed him in, stalking him like starving Grass Lions.
Its not your problem Tehl.
That little voice inside her repeated over and over, even as her feet carried her to the alley. She peered around the corner of some stone terraced longhouse and saw the children. The two newcomers pressed the smaller Boy's chest and face hard against the wall as they went through the mangled sack he was carrying. One held a copper trowel he'd no doubt stolen from some previous work assignment. She stood there leaning against a wall at the entrance to the alley. The only entrance, she noted. It was bad luck for the Boy to choose this offshoot to duck into. She watched, still trying to decide if she should intervene. The Boy saw the contents of his sack upended and pushed back against his assailants.
Bits of stone and some carving tools? Why risk it for something so worthless? Tehl didnt have time to ponder his actions, she saw the trowel flash as the older boy held it up to strike. Her training took over, drawing her tomahawk and letting it fly before she'd thought it through. The axe struck the trowel-swinger in the head with such force that his face smashed against the stone wall before he slumped to the ground. His friend stood there in shock, his grip loosening just enough for the slave boy to throw his head back, cracking it against the older boy's nose. The assailant jumped back, hands holding a gushing nose, but there was no time for him to react - the slave boy turned and leapt on him. The two landed in a heap on the hardpacked dirt, with the slave boy on top and reaching for the copper trowel. Tehl walked forward slowly, watching that glistening trowel rise and fall many more times than necessary.
She stopped a few steps from the boy, now drenched in blood. He had already tossed his improvised weapon aside before looking up at her. He stood on shaky legs, eyes locked on her's. Tehl extended a hand, palm up. The boy tilted his head and knelt to retrieve something from the ground before placing the jar of peanut butter in her waiting hand. Tehl scowled at him and smashed the jar against the alley wall. "My tomahawk." She said, holding her hand out again. The boy shook away his shock at watching the food be wasted and jumped to retrieve the axe. He had to leverage his foot on the dead boy's neck to wrench the axe head until it at last broke free with a squelch. He returned it to the Warrior and bowed his head.
"First kill?" Asked Tehl, cleaning the blood from her tomahawk.
"No." He replied, shaking his head.
Tehl paused, staring him down while her mind raced. "Good." She said at last, eliciting a questioning look from the blood soaked slave boy. "Come with me, Slave. There may be a life for you besides being worked to death." She said, turning and striding away from the scene of death. Though she couldn't hear footsteps following her. She turned back and saw the boy trying to gather his stone carving tools from a pool of growing crimson. "Leave them!" She snapped. "The boy that those meant something to is dead. The only thing that matters is this moment, and every moment that follows." She set her gaze on him, eyes narrowed. "I will not ask again." The Boy took one last look as his things lying between the two crumpled corpses, then followed her. They didn't speak as they wove their way through the inner city complex and across the Grand Plaza and its immense mosaic depicting the Chief Caste Mark and hundreds of Catahns. Soon they stood at the foot of the Warrior Mound - the tallest Mound in the Mec. Flowing from the distant top was a set of narrow alabaster stairs. Tehl eyed the boy carefully as the pair climbed the first steps. Could he make it? These steps had claimed the lives of many unwary Warriors. One misstep meant a long fall with your demise at the bottom - if you were lucky. Or a life as a crippled slave if you weren't.
Near the top of the ascent, the Boy began to tire. Tehl sneered at his labored breath and began taking the steps two at a time - if he couldn't ascend the Mound then he had no future at its peak. She reached the top long before the Boy. Tehl watched him from a seated position at the highest step. He was practically dragging himself with hands and feet up the last dozen steps. Disinterested, the Warrior turned her gaze to the Mec, now far below and dizzyingly expansive. She could see all the Chief Mounds, the tribal boroughs, the foreign markets, the Garden… Her eyes lingered there at that walled Grove of trees, thankful she was too far away to hear the screams of the condemned.
Tehl rose to her feet as the boy finally reached the final step. She beckoned for him to follow and strode out onto the Moundtop without a word. A shrill tiquini whistle ripped through the air when she approached a series of fighting rings with Warriors locked in practice duels.
-Tehl is coming.-
The whistled warning set the Warriors and the gathered Wakes on edge, each of them stopping to watch her as she picked her way through the rings. Any of them she passed touched their Mochmarks in the traditional sign of respect - a sign she didn't return. There was no love lost between her and the others of her Caste. At the far end of the Mound she was approached by an elderly man who had emerged from a longhouse at the edge of the training yard.
"What have you brought with you now, Tehl?" He said after touching his Mochmark as she drew near. "Epoiche. I bring a Slave who shows merit." She responded. Tehl reached back and dragged the Boy up in front of her, letting loose a scoff when she realized he was still winded.
"He seems a bit old to begin training..." Began Epoiche with a shrug. Tehl waved a hand dismissively, already irritated this conversation had lasted this long. "Put him through The Crucible. If he dies, he dies. If he doesn't, train him. I dont care." She said, feeling the Boy's shoulders tense suddenly at her words. She smiled slightly at that, maybe he wasn't so meek as he seemed. Epoiche eyed the boy critically, as a chef might eye a questionable cut of meat. "He has no attachments, Epoiche. No family, no belongings, no Moch." Tehl said insistently, taking a step back from the boy as the old man reluctantly nodded his head. "Very well, Tehl. I will train the Slave."
Tehl turned and walked back towards the fighting rings, satisfied that her conscious was now washed clean. "Wait!" Said the Boy. "Don't you wish to know my name?" Tehl halted at that but didn't turn back to him. She paused for a brief moment before continuing on without answering.
The Moundtop was pulsing with activity. Groups of croplings gathered with elderly Warriors for third tide's instruction, Warriors gathered around fighting rings to watch practice duels, Wakes running back and forth with messages for various masters. Tehl watched it all with a bittersweet lense. She would never be a part of this Caste like they were. Most of these Warriors had followed Tioteche in the Exodus. A few were deemed capable from absorbed tribes, herself included, but other than those few inductees this Caste was made from bonds forged long ago and far away. Her gaze fell on the Wugum. A Healer's Longhouse at the edge of the moundtop.
Dont do it, Tehl.
That little voice inside her insisted. She knew who was in that Wugum. And she knew she shouldn't see him. The voice repeated itself when she reached the leather curtained entrance. She shook the shakes out of her hands, suddenly nervous, and cursed herself for it. Pushing through the curtain and stepping inside the dark interior, she was hit with the cloying stench of Puogi that drenched the room - The substance gleaned from the captured swellfish known for it's medicinal and toxic properties. As her eyes adjusted to the damp gloom, she saw him. Huini lay in a bed of stained linens, skin moist and clammy in the dim candlelight. He wore the same clothes from a few days ago at the amphitheater when she… her thoughts trailed off when he opened his eyes and looked at her.
He smiled. That white toothed smile anyone else would be grateful to have directed their way. It filled Tehl's mouth with the stale taste of guilt. The moment stretched to the point of awkwardness and she realized she was expected to say something - Anything.
"Who's pipe did you smoke to be admitted to the Warrior's Wugum, Chiefling?" She said with more callous than she intended. Huini's smile faded slightly. "I'm not accepted among the Chief Caste. And now Warriors turn their back on me." He sighed, pulling himself up to sit against the wall bordering his bed. Tehl chewed the inside of her cheek, understanding too well what he was saying. "I…" she began, her confidence quickly deflating.
"Have you come to insult me then?" Asked Huini. Why was she here? What had drove her to this Wugum? "I came to see how you were healing." She answered finally. It was the truth. Or, partially. The part she could put into words. In answer, Huini threw aside the patterned blanket and lifted what was left of his right leg. Tehl took an involuntary step back at the sight - Stark white bone sprouted from a stump of weeping red flesh and bandages stained with fluids she couldn't name. Huini watched her carefully as she approached him for a closer look. "Its infected." She stated. Huini nodded solemnly. "The Medicine Man says he may need to pare away the flesh and remove more bone. He seems… Confident." Tehl looked from Huini to the wound and back again in rapid succession. "I wish I were half as confident." Said Tehl, taking a seat at a bedside stool next to Huini. He seemed to relax at that, like some dreaded hurdle had been cleared. The two sat there for a long while, sharing a silence the way only certain people can.
When the ebon calm was broken, it was with a question Tehl wasn't expecting. "Will you leave the Mec so soon again?" Huini asked quietly, as if unwilling to ruin their shared reverie. Tehl fiddled with a carved decorative fish on the bedpost. She could feel herself withdrawing again, both willing and unwilling to let it happen. "We all have our part to play. Mine isn't here." She said without looking at him.
Huini rolled his eyes. "The world is not a stage, Tehl… And your life is not a play."
Her gaze snapped back to his. "Then why are you always The Fool?"
"Me? Foolish?" He Scoffed. "You would choke on your hypocrisy, if it ever stopped dripping from your mouth."
The silence grew between them again, this time alongside a palpable tension that filled the room. Not a violent tension, or even one of anger - this was Frustration in it's most omnipresent form.
"What is my Tribe, Huini? If you think to know me so well, then name it." She asked, leaning forward to block him from looking anywhere but at her. "You are Khrote." Answered Huini. "Can you name mine?"
Tehl recoiled, her mouth falling open in surprise. How had he known? Noone had spoken the name Khrote since the Founding. "I…" Her mind raced for an answer. "I… You have no Tribe - You gave it up for this Moch!" She shouted, letting more emotion leak into her words than she meant to. Huini studied her for a moment. "I didn't. My Tribe is still remembered, even in Saskitchemoch." He reached out then and took her fiddling hand in his. It was cold and slick with sweat, yet filled her chest with a warmth not unlike the desperate screams of the prematurely entombed. She froze, breath caught in a throat that wanted too badly to whisper and scream all at once. Huini gave her hand a gentle squeeze. "Dont go, Tehl. Stay. Enjoy what you fight so hard for, just once."
Tehl's mind raced like a flooded river after rain. But there was a Boulder in that flow, one that no amount of water could shift. An inescapable truth. There was always a thumb on the scale of Duty and Desire. She opened her mouth to speak, closed it, then finally spoke. "My Course has no partner. You know that. I told you that." She said, standing up and staring at her hand clasped in his. "I will never be what Xaliti was to you..." She whispered, pulling her hand away. Huini let it go reluctantly. "I never asked you to." He said with a voice thick with enough emotion to make Tehl wince. She took a few steps back towards the door. "Always the Fool, Huini." she said before turning away into the daylight outside, leaving behind the strangled emotions and the cloying stench of the Wugum behind.
She stormed off across the Moundtop, grateful that the gathered Warriors were too craven to meet her eyes - or else they'd see the tears welling there. Tehl wiped away her eyes with her flapping poncho as she mounted a platform at the corner of the Mound. There she strapped a hooked gauntlet to her hand and latched it to a rope above her. She lept forward and let the taught line zip her along to the Promenade Tower far below. From there she wandered the Mec in a fit of emotions she could never put into words, blindly walking from street to alley to burough and becoming more and more exasperated each time she had to wipe her eyes.
Finally she stopped at a large brick archway covered in flaking black paint. Tehl stared at that black Arch and set her jaw. How had she got here? The wind whipped her poncho around her, bringing with it the smell of filthy bodies pervading from the forest beyond the Arch. Distantly she heard the irate screams of some poor soul within. It was answered by a chorus of similar screams sounding back to the first, creating a haunted cacophony of insane grief and suffering. The Garden… She knew why her blind emotions had brought her here.
Taking a few steps forward, Tehl passed under the Arch and walked into the walled forest beyond, following a sunken tiled path that she knew well. It didn't take long to reach the first Wretch, this one a Woman. Her limbs were removed like all the others, her torso hanging from a harness attached to a tree. She swayed in the wind like a rotten fruit filled with maggots. The woman's eyes shot open and she screamed at the Warrior, that same noise of unknowable pain that they all echoed as they hoped to die. Tehl picked her way down a side path as all the Condemned around the Woman took up her scream alongside her, sending a shiver down The Warrior's spine. She quickened her pace and put some distance between them.
After some time she arrived at her destination. A secluded part of The Garden where a single man hung alone. His hair was patchy and unkempt, his eyes seemed to be crusted closed. A stabbing fear that he was dead shot through Tehl. She stood there staring at his limbless body, swaying gently in the crisp breeze. Her pack clanked to the soft ground, forcing his eyes tear open upon hearing her. His mouth opened wide enough to split his cracked lips, sending rivulets of blood down his chin. She didn't move when he started screaming incoherently, his cacophony joining the echoed chorus around them. She didn't move when he pissed himself in excitement, liquid streaming from what was left of his bug-eaten crotch to spatter into the growing pile of waste on the ground below him. She only stared, committing every weeping rash and oozing sore to memory.
"Hello Chief." She whispered, causing the hanging man to jerk sideways so he could point an ant-encrusted ear at her. He stared sidelong, brow furrowed as he tried to puzzle out who she was. Tehl watched a line of ants exiting his ear and travelling back up the leather harness he hung from carrying tiny specs of flesh. She shuddered. The Hanging Chief burst into motion, wriggling his lower half in an excited motion. "Blackwren!" He screamed at her. The name sent cold water down Tehl's back. She shook her head slowly at the limbless gyrating man. "No, my Chief. Thats not my name anymore, remember? They gave me a new name now."
The Chief continued to wriggle about in his harness, raining down ants and flaking skin onto the pile below, where another host of insects reveled. "Blackwrreeeennn! Blackwren Blackwren!" He babbled over and over. Tehl clenched her fists at the sight, it always wrenched her to come see him, but his condition had worsened in the months she'd been on campaign. "No. I am not the Blackwren. Chief - Please remember." She pleaded, choking back tears before trying again. "Chief Four Hawks." She said, waiting for a chance to be heard between his screaming.
Four Hawks stopped gyrating abruptly, leaving himself swaying side to side as he stared open mouthed at Tehl. She could see his bloodshot eyes slowly come to realization - what little there was left. The man looked her up and down, his filed teeth clenched. The same filed teeth that she had. "Where is Blue Winds? Where is my Son?" He asked, a hint of desperation creeping into his gravelly tone. Tehl let loose a long sigh.. "He… He's dead. They're all dead, My Chief. When you - we - refused to assimilate." The Chief seemed perplexed by that. His eyes didn't register anything as far as Tehl could tell. The hanging man's eyes went wide suddenly, like some thought had just struck him. "Where is Blue Winds?" He asked again. Tehl shook her head and rubbed her eyes before turning away to walk back down the sunken path. Why had she come? It always ended the same way. There was nothing here aside from the tortured memories of her past that so desperately wanted to be forgotten.
She froze midstep and whirled around, heart erupting in her chest. She couldn't remember the last time Four Hawks had said anything other than his usual questions. Tehl bounded back in front of the Chief. "What did you say?" She asked, not confident that she hadn't imagined it. The man looked down at her, a strange look of clarity on his bird-eaten face. "Kill me, Blackwren. Flee this place. Go home and live with our cousins on the plains." He said in a too-calm voice. Tehl winced at his words, she didn't have the heart to tell him that their cousins, the Taowaho Tribe, were gone as well. Eradicated by Saskitchemoch for helping the Exodus - Another forgotten casualty in this contest of Men and Mochs.
"Blackwren. Look at me! They keep me alive, but I am dead already. You will be the last of us now. You will be Chief!" He said with a cough that left a dribble of brown saliva on his chin. Now it was Tehl who stared with mouth agape. She never expected to hear a coherent sentence from him again, let alone one like this. "If you can speak the words, I'll do it." She said, forcing the response from her throat like so many sands through an hourglass. Four Hawks jerked his head from side to side as if he were trying to knock thoughts loose from his half-eaten mind. "Khovawiyo…" he intoned, clearly having trouble remembering. She shifted from foot to foot as he began again. "Khovawiyo Attiwitialwa Unkhroteoialtio." He finished. Tehl flinched instinctively, looking over her shoulder and cursing herself for the habit. She had been savagely beaten upon Assimilation nearly every day until she finally stopped using the Khrote language. But he had spoke it, free under the Endless Blue Sea - the ancient whispered words of Death. Tehl drew her knife and a breath at the same time, feeling her chest tighten with a sudden obligation. She pressed the knife to his sunken chest even as he went back to screaming "Blackwreeeenn!" Over and over in an endless drone. "Khovawiyo Attiwitialwa Unkhroteoialtio." She whispered through her own sudden strangled sobs.
Do it, Tehl.
That little voice inside her insisted, and this time, she listened.