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THE DESERT AND THE BLADE

by S.M. Stirling


 

PROLOGUE:

 

David the Gutter—in the dialect of the Cut-Nose tribe of Loz’altos it sounded more like Daf’teh-Gutrr—wasn’t insane, strictly speaking; not in the common run of things, that was. But right now his thoughts weren’t as clear as usual while he stared at the bottom of the canoe and waited for the time to attack. He listened to the buzz of insects and the breathing of so many fighters, smelling their stink and the heavy silt-and-decay scent of the salt marsh.

His parents and grandparents had been mad, until his father met a Mud Hair band who flayed and ate him over days, and his mother stepped out from the fifteenth story of the ruined Palo Alto Office Tower because she heard voices telling her to. Daf had taken Mud Hair heads to stand on spears and watch his father’s funeral feast, though their meat had been rather stringy, even baked underground in a pit full of embers and heated stones and lavishly dressed with one of the last precious sealed jars of scavenged BBQ spice rub. Apart from the bloodpower, he actually preferred venison or wild pig.He had buried his mother’s body by collapsing a leaning wall over a hole in the cracked concrete, and squatted brooding for hours, inchoate thoughts for which he had no words trickling through his mind. He’d gripped the haft of his ax hard enough to make his fingers ache, wishing there was an enemy he could smash down, and then he’d howled and slashed the air until the feral macaques had fled chittering up the vine-grown ruins.

The squat, heavily-muscled Cut Nose was at home in the world the Change had left him, and he’d never believed much of the stories of the Old Time. Partly that was the fact that the thick gobbling variety of English he’d grown up with had a severely limited vocabulary; the founders of his folk had deliberately avoided thought as much as they could, to keep despair and self-loathing at bay. Mostly it was because his world was the overgrown ruins of what had once been Palo Alto and its neighbors, the little clans of the Cut Noses, and the endless game of stalking and feasting that gave their lives meaning.

He was the most feared of all the chiefs, the one who’d extended the sway of those who bore the three horizontal scars on their noses over all the southeastern part of the peninsula. It was he who’d seen that the new enemies north of the Bridge, the ones with the stars and tree on their frighteningly subtle gear and the dirt-pushers they guarded, were not just a new tribe. They were a threat to all the tribes. It was he—puzzling endlessly over a captured Ranger bow—who’d whittled out a duplicate from lumps of wood and the tips of skis. His people valued him so highly they’d nursed him through the injuries he’d sustained when he avenged his father, tempting him with morsels of grilled Mud Hair liver during his illness.

As he waited bent over in the ancient aluminum canoe he was still puzzling over why he’d listened to the talks-in-head Meat who’d led them here; his dialect also used the same word for outsider and food. He was silent and still; all his folk could be silent and still, or they would have died young. Even children who cried out of season had to be killed, despite the constant, desperate need for more fighters and mothers. It was not good to talk much.

It had just seemed... good to do what the Meat who could walk in your head told them to do. The way it felt good to rut and eat and kill and sleep and wake. The way things should be, always would be. But when he tried to think why it was good his mind stuttered, like his step did now in cold weather, or when he was very tired.

One reason he’d stayed a chief was that he could think himself inside the heads of others, imagine how they spoke to themselves in the place behind the eyes where they lived. He could remember when he was a Little how he’d started to do that, and the realization that most couldn’t, that they were slow and stupid and like dandelion fuzz inside their heads, while he was sharp like the edge of a carefully honed knife.

Now he felt that way himself when he tried to think about why he obeyed the Meat.

Feel... dumb, he thought.

Almost he whimpered, there in the dappled shade of the tall reeds. A flush of fear-sweat trickled down his flanks. He was the most feared of the Cut-Noses, but a half-dozen blades would have pierced his hide if he’d lost control on an ambush.

A ripple broke the surface of the water in the little inlet. Not a Fur, not the big flipper-foot kinds or the fine meat kind or any of the others. Heads turned towards it, eyes glaring in utter quiet. It was one of the Sharp Teeth. The man raised his face a little out of the water and spoke in their nasty hissing way, tongue flickering between the blackened filed points:

“They come,” he said, and swam away again through the dozen or so canoes in this inlet to the next, where more waited.

Daf’ raised his eyes. Not long after sunup. Hideously exposed if they attacked now; fighting was for the dark, or where there was dense cover. But they must.

Gegown,” he said softly, and dipped his paddle. “Mowv.”

All around him the warriors of the Eater tribes of the Bay followed suit.

 

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Copyright © 2014-2015 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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