They came down the river on antigravity sleds and the warning songs of the itiji soared ahead of them. The sleds were moving twelve times faster than an itiji could run, but sound traveled faster and watchers had been posted all along the river.
They came from the great plateau in the mountains, high above the forest. Harold the Human had told the itiji and the tree people about the settlement the humans had established there. The strange young itiji called Golva Arn Letro had climbed the cliffs—higher than any itiji had ever gone—and seen the settlement with his own eyes. And escaped from torture and captivity.
The humans on the sleds peered into the shadows under the trees and searched for glimpses of the dark, four-legged creatures who were surrounding their progress with a chorus. The humans couldn’t understand the languages of the itiji but they knew the itiji’s big round heads were producing words, not animal howls, and they knew the words relayed information along a chain of voices.
They ride on three of the sleds that glide on the air. There are five humans on each sled. They all carry guns. They do not look afraid.
To most of the itiji, Harold Lizert was the hero of their latest epic—The Song of Harold and Joanne. He and Joanne had come down out of the mountains, the story ran, after they had been cast out of the human settlement, after a quarrel among the humans. Tree people from the city of Imeten captured them. Harold and Joanne saw how the tree people turned the itiji into slaves and their minds revolted. Itiji slaves helped them escape and in return they led the itiji in a war against the Warriors of Imeten. They made weapons for the itiji—weapons that four-footed creatures could never have made for themselves. They assaulted the city of Imeten with towers fitted with ramps so the itiji could climb into the trees of the city and fight the Warriors on their own territory.
And then came the greatest miracle of all. The great assault failed. Warriors and itiji faced each other across battle lines neither side could break. And Harold made a decision that would be praised as long as there were itiji who could raise their voices in song. Harold declared that the Goddess who ruled Imeten had decreed that itiji and tree people were equals and the itiji must be accepted as full citizens of the city. He would deliver her decree, he announced, in the place where the Warriors of Imeten received her commands—in the great grid, at the base of her statue, where a fight to the death would determine her will.
And Harold had gone into the grid. And fought a Warrior who was fighting in a place where tree people could swing from bar to bar and humans had to cling and hope they wouldn’t slip. And transformed Imeten into a city in which tree people and itiji fought against a common enemy, the conqueror King Lidris of Drovil.
It was a good story. It was even true, in the sense that all the facts were accurate. If you wanted to believe Harold the Human was a warrior hero out of the Iliad, nothing in the facts could contradict your fantasy.
Harold passed the grid every day, as his business took him along the walkways that connected the houses and public buildings the Imetens had constructed in the trees, and he still had to fight the impulse to look away. Had he really gone into that thing? Had he really balanced on one of its crossbars, left hand clinging to an upright, war hammer in his right, and faced a creature who could move through the trees like an acrobat?
The memory of the last moment of the duel could flash through his brain at any moment. He would be eating dinner—he might even be making jokes—and Joanne would rest her hand on his arm when she saw him wince.
Harold had indulged in a few warrior fantasies when he had been a child. The videos stored in the human settlement’s databanks had included the achievements of the three musketeers, Conan the Cimmerian, and most of their mythical colleagues. He had even pursued a boyish fascination with the long, hypnotically dramatic saga of human warfare. But his personal dreams of glory had centered on exploration and scientific research. He had dreamed of discovery, not mayhem.
Who had ever heard of a nearsighted warrior?
Harold the Weak Eyed?
Harold Fog Vision?
The humans on the sleds were looking for Imeten and Harold knew they would find it. They merely had to race down the river until they picked up a signal from the locators implanted in the arms of every human on the planet.
“They will find us,” Harold advised the High Warrior of Imeten. “We have to prepare a reception.”
“And they are your enemies,” the High Warrior said. “They killed your father.”
The High Warrior of Imeten was not, by human standards, an impressive figure. Stretched out to the best height he could manage, Jemil-Min Mujin would have come up to Harold’s shoulder. He looked even less impressive lying on his stomach on the tree people’s version of a bench—a padded, three legged log with a chin rest on one end.
A human who judged Jemil-Min by human measures would be making a serious mistake. The tree people might look vulnerable when they stretched out on logs but Jemil-Min’s underlings received a message that was significantly less comforting.
I am so powerful I can relax in your presence and regard you as the tense, weaker creature we both know you are.
Jemil-Min could scream nine words in his high tree people voice and condemn an adversary to blindness and a lifetime of labor in the baths.
Harold tensed his vocal cords and shrieked a reply. The Warriors of Imeten did not trouble themselves learning the languages of other communities.
“We should be prepared to fight. We should place eight Double Eights of dartblowers in the trees around the landing dock. We should assemble eight Double Eights of Warriors and eight Double Eights of itiji where they can be thrown into battle on a word of command. We should greet the humans with the same ceremony we would grant a visitor from another city. But we should be prepared to fight.”
“How dangerous are the human guns? How many times can they throw their missiles?”
“They can kill six times further than most dartblowers. They can throw four missiles while a dartblower throws one.”
“But warriors blowing darts from the trees could get close enough to kill them. We could lose two Eights for every human we killed. But we could kill all of them.”
“They can be defeated. Warriors in the trees and itiji on the ground could defeat them.”
“I think their sleds are more dangerous. How fast can they move when they leave the river and float through the trees? Can they outrun us then? And attack us where we’re weak?”
Harold hesitated. The High Warrior had never seen a gun or an antigravity sled but he had already grasped that high speed mobility could be more threatening than a limited increase in range and rate of fire.
We’re inexperienced young people trying to plot the future of a planet, Joanne had said once. We must look like clumsy children to people like the High Warrior and the older itiji.
“They can move faster in the forest than most itiji can run,” Harold said. “Faster than Warriors can leap through the branches. Warriors and itiji can defeat them. But we would have to move fast.”
“And fight well.”
“We may not have to fight, High Warrior. They may return to the plateau. I plan to tell them they should return to the plateau. And stay there until we invite them to visit us again. I think most of the humans in the settlement want to be friends. Most of them will believe our visitors should return to the plateau.”
“But some won’t. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Some of them may not agree.”
“And one of them may be the man who killed your father.”
The Five Master Harmonizers who led the itiji raised the same question. “Can you talk to someone who has done such a thing?” the Third Harmonizer asked. “The man who killed your father is the ruler of the humans now, as we understand it. He rules the humans the way the High Warrior rules Imeten.”
The Third Harmonizer was the oldest member of the Five—the second oldest itiji in Imeten, according to the itiji who had developed a preoccupation with statistics. Two of her grandchildren had died in the assault on Imeten. Her first husband had been captured by Imeten slave hunters and ended his life pulling a sledge along the road that connected Imeten with the iron mine that maintained its military and economic power.
“Every itiji in Imeten has been injured by the tree people,” Harold said. “If you can put aside your memories and learn to live with the Warriors, I can learn to live with Emile.”
“But this is more personal, Harold. You will be facing an individual who killed one of your closest relatives. The stories Golva has told us indicate he may be someone who likes to inflict pain—someone who could make anyone who met him angry.”
Harold lowered his head. He had learned to pick his words with care when he spoke to the Five Harmonizers. They could goad you into a frenzy of impatience with their endless talk. Itiji were like that. But you couldn’t let the fog of words screen the power of the brains housed inside their big skulls.
“He respects force. He has weapons we don’t. But we have numbers. Overwhelming numbers. And we can attack from two directions. From the ground. And from the trees.”
“So you are telling us we should be prepared to fight,” the First Harmonizer said. “And you believe that will convince him he shouldn’t.”
“And if it doesn’t—we’ll fight them and win.”
“You’re willing to fight your own people, Harold? Your own species?”
“I think most of the people living on the plateau would feel we’d done them a favor if we killed Emile.”
The Fifth Harmonizer had been listening intently, without saying much, as she usually did. She had been one of the leaders in the war and she seemed to be one of the few itiji who preferred to express herself through action, rather than words.
“So why don’t they kill him themselves?” the Fifth Harmonizer said. “Is he that frightening?”
Harold frowned. “That’s a good question.”
“I thought it might be.”
The other Harmonizers let out short barks—the itiji equivalent of a chuckle.
“Do they think he’s been appointed by the gods?” the Second Harmonizer said. “Do your people have beliefs like that, Harold? You haven’t told us much about their religions.”
“They’re afraid of him,” Harold said. “Him and his friends. He probably keeps the weapons on the plateau under his control. But that’s only part of it. The other people have his gang outnumbered. But they’d have to organize. Someone has to get things started. Emile could hit them while they were still getting organized. And make them sorry they’d tried.”
“That wouldn’t happen with us,” the Fifth Harmonizer said.
The Third Harmonizer’s tail fluttered impatiently. “It isn’t the same. We didn’t have weapons before Harold and Joanne helped us make them. We can always slip away into the forest if someone starts acting like that.”
“But we have a new situation now,” the First Harmonizer said. “We have weapons now, thanks to Harold and Joanne. We have allies.”
“And we are willing to die for our friends and kin,” the Fifth Harmonizer said.
The sleds stopped in the middle of the river, opposite the landing dock for the ferry that connected the city with the opposite shore. A loudspeaker blared across the water.
“Is this the city of Imeten? We are humans. We are looking for the city of Imeten. And the humans who live in it.”
Harold squinted at the sleds through the leaves of a blind built into the lower branches of a lush riverside tree. In the trees on both sides of the blind one hundred and twenty-eight dartblowers trained their weapons on the sleds.
“Is Emile there?” Harold said.
The young itiji sitting beside him had dropped into a crouch. His tail thumped against the floor of the blind.
“In the middle sled,” Golva said. “On the left. It’s hard to tell with those big hats they’re wearing. But that one stands like him.”
Harold had been living with nearsighted eyes since he was ten years old. The colony could have provided him with glasses, but his father had insisted he had to learn to do without. They were totally isolated from human civilization. An unpredictable catastrophe could wipe out databases and critical assets.
He could see the sleds and the blurry forms of the human passengers. He could have put an arrow into most of the humans. But he couldn’t make out their faces.
“Do you see any other weapons?”
“They’ve got things on their belts. Like holders for pain sticks.”
The city behind them had dropped into the closest approximation of quiet it could achieve. Normally, it would have clamored with the shrieks of thousands of tree people voices. Hundreds of Imetens would have bustled in the trees around the loading dock and scurried along the ground in the awkward four-limbed stance the tree people adapted when they descended from their natural habitat.
The loudspeaker blared again. “Is this the city of Imeten? Can anyone understand what I’m saying? We know there are itiji who understand English.”
“That’s Emile,” Golva said. “That’s his voice.”
“It didn’t take him long to grab the loudspeaker.”
Golva’s tail thrashed. “I’d have every dartblower in the trees give him a puff if you put me in charge of this welcoming ceremony.”
“Will you ask the caller to tell them we’re assembling all the leaders of the city, Golva? Tell them we’ll call them again when we’re ready in . . . make it an hour.”
“An hour, Harold? With the High Warrior already in place?”
“Half an hour.”
Golva raised his head. His voice floated through the trees, relaying Harold’s message in one of the languages the itiji used for precise communication. The caller on the riverbank raised his voice in turn and Harold heard his message repeated, almost word for word, in clear English.
Harold backed toward the ramp that connected the blind to the forest floor—a convenience that had been added for the benefit of humans and itiji. “It looks like it’s time you and I joined the reception party, Golva. And I stopped putting off the moment when I actually have to talk to that sociopath.”
Emile came ashore alone. The sleds retreated to the other side of the river, but they could cross the water in seconds.
The High Warrior and the Great Priest occupied the center position in the front rank of the greeting party. They had descended from the trees on ropes to which they were both clinging while holding themselves upright. The Five Master Harmonizers sat on their haunches on the Great Priest’s right. Harold stood on the left with the other two humans in the local urban population, Joanne and Leza Sanvil.
Two Double Eights in full leather battle armor crouched behind the Great Priest and the High Warrior. Two itiji warbands in armored blankets sat behind the Harmonizers, in the best simulation of military discipline the itiji could muster.
Harold had worked out the arrangements with the Harmonizers and his two human companions. They had all agreed the leaders of the tree people should take the center position. Imeten was, after all, the High Warrior’s city. He had been forced to accept the itiji as citizens, but no one claimed the Goddess had removed him from his primary position.
Leza’s advice had been especially helpful. She had joined them after she had helped Golva escape from the plateau and decided she would stay in Imeten for the time being and see if she could tolerate life outside the human colony. She was six years older than her human hosts and she seemed to have a natural ability to grasp the essence of a situation.
Emile stopped about six steps in front of the group. He had left his rifle on the sleds, but he carried a pistol and a shock stick on his belt.
“The High Warrior of Imeten extends his greetings,” the Second Harmonizer said. “He welcomes you and your band as his guests. He offers you all the courtesies the Goddess requires.”
The High Warrior raised his free hand in greeting. The Second Harmonizer introduced the Great Priest and the Harmonizers, one by one, and the Harmonizers responded with head nods and brief, carefully nuanced tail flicks.
“You already know the human members of our community, of course. We all join with the High Warrior in welcoming you as our guest.”
Harold resisted the impulse to rest his hand on his sword hilt as he met Emile’s glance. He was wearing his bow slung on his shoulder and he had decided to carry a knife on his belt along with the sword. He was wearing his last set of light weight human fabrics instead of the clumsy native leathers he normally wore.
They had decided they would let the Second Harmonizer do most of the talking. We should put off a direct confrontation between you and Emile as long as we can, Leza had said.
Emile studied the three humans before he turned back to the Second Harmonizer. “I take it I’m supposed to talk to you?”
“I have given you a translation of the words the High Warrior would have spoken if you could understand his language. I will translate for him and his people.”
“I came here primarily because I want to speak to the human members of your community. Is that allowed?”
The Second Harmonizer turned to the High Warrior and shrieked at him in his own language. “He says he wants to talk to the three humans. He says that’s the chief reason he’s here. He wants to know if he has your permission.”
The High Warrior stared at the alien creature standing in front of him. Harold had known Emile Ditterman wasn’t the most diplomatic individual in the human settlement, but they had all been assuming they would engage in some kind of group discussion, with members of all three groups present at all times. Could the High Warrior let two aliens with unknown powers huddle together in private?
“Ask him what he wants to discuss,” the High Warrior shrieked.
“The High Warrior wishes to know what you would like to discuss.”
Emile gestured at the three humans. He was eyeing Harold with the irritating half-smile Harold had hated as long as he had known him. “I have messages and other matters from their friends and relatives.”
Harold threw back his head and screamed at the High Warrior in Imeten. “We will keep two itiji where they can hear everything. He won’t know they can hear us. Put a Warrior listener as close as you can. I’ll pick a spot beneath a tree.”
“So what are you?” Emile Ditterman said. “The warlord of Imeten?”
The last time Harold had seen that jocular little smile he had been looking at the world through a fog of rage. He had been sitting in front of a screen, studying for his advanced exams in Euro-American political history, when Emile and his gang had fired the shots that left his father and his best friend lying on the floor of the main barn. There had been no warning, no threats, no attempt to take prisoners. Dr. Lizert had been the acknowledged leader of the community ever since he had led his little band of exiles away from Earth. Remove him, cow everybody else, and the settlement would have a new set of masters.
“The Imetens have their own government,” Harold said. “So do the itiji.”
“The cat that tried to spy on us said you and Joanne had joined a peaceful little society in which everybody works together and gets along just like we humans always have. That’s the first story he gave us anyway. I don’t know what he told Leza before she decided to load him on a sled and join your utopia. He didn’t mention that the tree people—that’s the ones that walk around like chimpanzees, right?—carry blades and head bashers. Are you wearing that bow and that chunky little sword because you like to feel fashionable?”
“He’s an itiji named Golva Arn Letro. He’s young and brash but he would probably check out close to the genius level if you gave him a math aptitude test.”
“And what about the monkeys? You told them you and Joanne were peace loving visitors from another world and they waved their swords and hammers and added you to their utopia?”
“We’re building a society in which the itiji and the tree people live together as equals,” Harold said. “The tree people have been hunting the itiji and turning them into slaves for generations. Dragging sledges. Serving as pack animals. Pulling rafts across the river. The tree people can’t use their hands as well as we can. They don’t have the advantage of a full upright stance. But they can make tools and weapons. The itiji are just as intelligent—maybe more intelligent—but they’re still basically carnivores who hunt in packs. Imeten is the first city in which the two species work together. As equals.”
“And you persuaded them to make this great advance in their relationship?”
Harold stared at him—the same stare he had learned to use when he found himself facing over-aggressive Warriors.
“We fought a war. A revolt by the itiji. The itiji can’t build weapons themselves but Jo and I can build them weapons they can use. We were captured by a band from Imeten a few days after we left the plateau and some captive itiji helped us escape—in return for me promising to help them free their relatives and their friends.”
“That’s very impressive. You beat the Imetens in a war and they decided you were right and they shouldn’t run around the woods enslaving helpless itiji. That’s quite an accomplishment, Harold.”
Emile had stuck his hands in his pockets. He was listening with the total ease of someone who spent his days surrounded by people who knew they had to treat him with caution.
I am so powerful I can relax in your presence and regard you as the tense, weaker creature we both know you are.
“The Imetens have a religion,” Harold said. “They believe their city is ruled by a goddess—the big wooden statue that rises above the trees. They believe the goddess communicates through combat. They have this big grid at the base of her statue. About thirty meters on a side. Crossbars every couple of meters. Every year all the young men of the right age fight it out in the grid. The winners get to be Warriors. The losers—that survive—become slaves.”
He paused. He had to get this right. He couldn’t let Emile see the emotional turmoil Joanne saw when they were alone.
“They settle individual disputes that way, too. We invaded the city and the situation turned into a stalemate. I challenged the Warriors to a one-on-one duel in the grid—to prove that the Goddess wanted them to treat the itiji as equals. And they accepted the decision.”
“I think you’re trying to tell me something, Harold.”
“I went into that grid—into an environment where the Imeten Warrior had every advantage. I won because I took some terrible risks. Because I couldn’t let them destroy the thing we were trying to create.”
“I’ve been hoping you and I could work something out. There are possibilities here. I can see some of them already.”
“I think you should go back to the plateau. I’m going to show you around. I think the people on the plateau should understand what we’re doing. Sooner or later we’re going to have to build a society that integrates our species with the itiji and the tree people. But for now you should stay on the plateau. And let us lay the foundations.”
“Just like that?”
Copyright © 2013 by