“Good morning, Chegan,” he said. “Your mother said it was okay to come to you.”
His name was Joustan and he was two years younger than my mother. He was of medium height, had thick black hair, a small beard and he was handsome, though he had the shortened arms of some of the locals. Humans had reacted genetically in different ways to radiation. In my own case, the mutations involved webbing of four of my toes and of course, enhanced empathic ability.
I dipped my head in what I considered a regal manner. Being so young, I still had a heightened sense of my own importance. “It’s fine,” I said.
“I need your aid, if you are willing.”
The if-you-are-willing was only polite pretense. Born an Empath with all of my other senses in full working order, I was destined to serve the community without question.
“Of course, I’m willing,” I said.
“Your mother will accompany us. She’s packing your supplies and will join us shortly. I’ve brought horses for each of you.”
“Who will take care of the goats?” I asked. “Father is on the trail with the sheep.”
“One of my men will stay to handle those things,” Joustan said.
“But does he understand goats and about the cat and her kittens?”
“Rolwen is a kind man who loves animals. Whatever he sees, he will take care of.”
I looked at him hard and gleaned what I could from his general emotions and character. “All right,” I said.
The ride to Joustan’s destination was long and in some places, hard going. Mama and I, Joustan and his three guards crossed streams and rocky stretches not easy on the horses’ feet. Mama, not being a risk taker, was anxious, and at the first opportunity for our horses to saunter side by side, I laid a hand on her arm.
“Fear not, Mama. These are superior animals with old horse soul and much experience. They know what they’re doing. Relax and enjoy the adventure.”
Mama wrinkled up her small face. “I worry about your father. What will he eat when he returns? And who will wash the clothes?”
“I’m sure that Dada can figure out something,” I said. “Has he not gone on missions himself? Surely he must have had to take care of such things.”
Mama nodded, though clearly unconvinced.
That evening, we camped by a stream and Joustan and his men jovially fished for our dinner. Soon we were all wolfing down tin platefuls of crispy fried trout. Joustan pulled from his bag hunks of hard cheese and apples for dessert.
“This is delicious,” I said with strong feeling. Used to eating mutton and yogurt most of the time, the fish was an exotic treat. “Fish is my absolute favorite food!”
“Mine too,” laughed Joustan. “That and peach pie.”
I looked at him and at the other men and understood why he was their leader. A good leader possesses an understated power and this was exactly what Joustan displayed. I’d heard that his wife had died from nirii, one of the radiation sicknesses still around and I thought that if I were old enough to take for myself a husband, he was the sort I would choose. Of course, being that he was so old, he would not consider such as I.
“I tasted chocolate once,” I dared to say.
“Now, Chegan,” warned Mama.
Joustan laughed. “Don’t worry, fine lady. I’m not one for enforcing frivolous laws. If some good soul managed to smuggle in a piece of exotica for this valuable girl to taste, who am I to object? And I have to admit that I too have tasted that item and have never forgotten it.”
I approved of him even more after that comment and hoped fervently that he had sons around my age, but then remembered that he had no children.
In two days, we came to a village consisting of twenty houses with one community residence in the center. My own village did not boast a community house, but my father had described them to me. “Unmarried people often prefer the camaraderie and comfort of shared housing. They can come and go without parental observation, though of course gossip is rampant.” He had laughed. “Our village is a bit too sedate.”
But most people wanted things sedate. Though it had been one hundred and sixty years since Before, they had not forgotten. And they taught the children, though with each passing generation, the memory dimmed.
“Did you see that?” Mama suddenly exclaimed.
I looked in the direction she indicated. Two tiny people were trying to pull a wagon with a larger person inside it. A six-legged dog accompanied them. “They are really small, aren’t they?” I said. “Surely no more than one meter tall.”
“I have never seen such small people,” agreed Mama. “Though of course we have never traveled this far from home.”
Joustan rode up beside us. “That is the Village of Rinnah. The land around it give off higher radiation than other places, at least all the places we know.”
“So the people -“ I began.
“Have more and different variations than what you are used to,” he finished. “Small size is only part of it.”
“Why didn’t their ancestors just move?” I asked.
“People are stubborn,” said Joustan. “You know that.”
“Is this where we’re going?”
“No. We have two days more of travel.”
We had left the mountainous region with its rocks, ponds and trees and entered a great plain. As we stopped to rest, Mama commented. “I don’t like this much. There is nowhere to hide.”
“I understand,” said Joustan. “But not to worry; I have been here before and at the present time, nothing unpleasant is predicted.”
I understood this cryptic statement, but Mama might not. “That’s why I am here,” I commented under my breath.
Apparently, Joustan’s hearing was sharp. He shot me a look and imperceptibly nodded.
“What was this called Before?” Mama asked.
“Something ending in ‘stan.,’” said Joustan. “There were many places whose names ended that way.”
On the fifth morning, we stopped atop a hill and looked down over a wide valley. To the south on the great expanse, we saw a city. Around it, outside a great wall, several villages clustered. Even from that distance, I could make out herds of animals.
“That is our destination,” said Joustan. “The city is called Komandiry and it is home to over five thousand. You will see people of many types. Look straight ahead when we ride into the town. If your eyes meet the eyes of anyone, nod politely, then lower your head. Don’t smile or laugh. It’s not a long ride to the residence where we’re going to stay. Don’t speak unless I tell you.”
My heart fluttered. I shot a quick glance at my mother and could sense a rush of fear from her. I hated when Mama suffered. For that matter, I found it difficult to endure anyone’s pain, but worst of all hers.
“I’m here, Mama,” I whispered, but she quickly shook her head.
I turned my attention to Joustan, though he had ridden on ahead and now all I could see was the back of him. I shut down my other senses to only what was needed to remain on my horse and directed my concentration towards my Leader. He was a good man, that was a fact, but he was human and like anyone, full of conflicting information. Was he, as I was, frightened? Yes, he definitely was, though he kept it subdued.
At the gate to the city, four armed guards blocked our path. The largest barked something in a strange language. He seemed to growl while he spoke.
This did not faze Joustan, for he answered the guard in the man’s own tongue. As they spoke back and forth, I observed the physical characteristics of the guards.Three of them had skin the color of a certain wood that carpenters in my village used. Their eyes were almost black as mine though their hair was curly. Two of these would have been reasonably appealing if it weren’t for their excessive hairiness, odd lengthening of forearms and protruding foreheads. The third had bulging eyes and a cleft palate.
The guard speaking with Joustan was a different color entirely and fascinating with his pale, spotted skin, russet hair like that of our neighbor’s dog and eyes the color of water. Not only that, but the man had four ears. I wondered if he could hear twice as well as others or if the extra ears were just skin and served no function.
Joustan trotted back to us and handed Mama and me pieces of cloth. “Tie these over your hair,” he said. “Make sure that none of it shows.”
“How weird,” Mama grumbled as she covered her thick tresses.
I had a hard job since my own hair was like silk and kept slipping out. “Tuck it all in,” ordered Joustan, watching us. Allowing himself the slightest of eye rolls, he whispered, “This clan has a ridiculous fear of feminine power.”
I had never heard of such a thing. Did hair signify female power?
After Joustan climbed back on his horse, the russet-haired man raised his arm while two of the other guards opened the city gate.
We tried to make a stately procession as our horses clumped on the stone and cement road. People gawked at us from the sidelines. All of the women wore head coverings; you could not see a single strand of their hair.
In my village, hair was a woman’s prized adornment and they took great care with it. While working, they tied it on top of their heads but when socializing, let it down decorated with flowers, feathers and other ornaments. Already, one tick against this clan, I thought.
We arrived at what was the main government building, a rambling, two-story construction covered in white stone. The exterior was painted with intricate yellow, black and blue designs. I had never seen anything like it. After dismounting, we were led to a long front hall that opened into a grand room with a high ceiling and tiled floor. And at the far end of this room, three men sat on ornate chairs. The chair in the middle was higher and larger than the other two and so was the man who occupied it.
I had a sudden influx of Joustan’s emotions, including his rage at the pointless rigmarole. But he was skilled at covering annoyance. He bowed to the men and began to speak.
I did not understand Joustan’s words, nor did I pick up on any of his meaning. But this absence of meaning informed me that he was mouthing only polite introduction. He backed up, laid an arm around my shoulders and gently pulled me forward. I understood that he was telling the strange men that I was an Empath.
All three stared at me, but the reaction of the man in the middle, obviously their Leader, was intense. His emotion hit me hard. For though he was a giant of a man and looked strong enough to lift a small cow, I saw that something in his soul had been crushed.
His companions sized me up as if I were the cow and emotionally dissected my value as if deciding whether to purchase me or not.
Joustan tightened his arm around me before lifting it off and in spite of my unease, I felt myself blush. My growing feelings about our Leader were inappropriate, considering our age difference. I could only entertain such thoughts and feelings since the gravity of our current situation had not fully sunk into me yet.
Joustan spoke at length to the other Leader, using his name of Demyan. I knew from my one earlier experience with Joustan when he spoke to the Leader of a neighboring clan, that the gist of his speech was this: “We have come to negotiate and hopefully prevent your attacking the villages of our clan, Nongmin. We are a contented, quiet people who keep to ourselves, farm our land and cause no trouble for anyone. We would like to be peaceful neighbors with you. Good trading between peaceful neighbors results in prosperity and pleasure for both.”
He gave my arm a slight nudge, which alerted me to receive the responding emotions of the Komandiry leader. Again, they hit me so hard that I had to make an effort to remain standing.
“Will you please excuse us for a moment,” Joustan asked Demyan. “I need to hear what my Empath has to say.
The Komandiry leader nodded, though his expression appeared confused and unfriendly. He stared at me fixedly.
“Tell me what you feel without using the name of the leader,” whispered Joustan. “I am sorry you can’t understand what is being said. It appears that they don’t speak our language.”
“They’re scared,” I whispered. “The underlying emotion is fear. Overtop of that, anger and bravado, but fear is the heart of it. One of the men feels stronger about this than their leader while the other man not as intensely.”
“What exactly do they fear?”
“They had to fight their way to the positions they now occupy. Their Leader knows that many people want to kill him. He trusts no one, certainly not a foreign clan. He is afraid that he will lose his position of power and he is afraid that we, though we seem peaceful, will try to take away his people’s way of life. All of his life, no one has meant what they said.” I paused. “And there is more, some great sadness coming from him; a loss of some kind. I don’t know what.”
“Do they not have Empaths of their own?” I asked.
Joustan posed this question to the Komandiry leader.
Demyan hesitated, then said, “Females are for wives. We do not currently have any male Empaths. If you wish to lessen your power by using a female Empath, what is it to me?”
For a moment, Joustan did not respond and I could guess from his feelings what he was thinking. He was easy to read, perhaps because I liked him so much. At the moment, he was considering Demyan a fool while worrying that he might be dangerous to me, his Empath.
He was right. The Komandiry leader nodded to the man on his left and that one moved forward and lifted me into the air. I kicked and cried out to no avail. As Joustan and his guards moved to rescue me, Demyan stood up, raised a hand and spoke. “I have decided that I want her. You will make this gift to me before I begin to consider allowing your people to remain as they are. I may or may not decide to annex them. It will depend on this girl.”
The rush of terror and rage I experienced from Joustan made me sag with weakness while the man tossed me over his shoulder as if I were a bag of grain.
“I will not allow such a thing!” cried Joustan, but really what could he do?
“It will be to your interest to align our two clans for the purpose of peace. She will come with me now and we will see how things go,” declared Demyan as he stood up.
Joustan and his guards reached for their weapons, but from both sides of the chamber, Komandiry guards poured out and I was carried aloft while Joustan and his men were subdued.
I could feel my Leader’s distress no matter how far they carried me from the grand chamber. It was suddenly clear to me that he revered me and possibly even loved me. But I did not have time or opportunity to examine what form this love took since terror had overtaken me.
The man carried me into a large, ornate bath chamber and barked orders to three women there. The women emitted different emotions, which further confused and frightened me. One was jealous, another angry and the tallest and prettiest, desperately sad. This one took one look at me and fled the room. I did have the presence of mind to notice that she resembled people from my own clan. Like me, she had straight black hair and her eyes had epithelial folds.
The other two stripped off my clothes, which by now were in need of washing. The women were neither cruel nor kind. Once I was naked, they directed me to a bath large enough for two where they washed me thoroughly, including my hair. After drying me off, they applied perfume, combed my hair and dressed me in a white and gold gown that fit as if designed specifically for my body. As their fingers worked the various fastenings, I thought I might vomit. But with great effort, I managed not to and after some moments, the feeling passed.
I assumed, when I had brief moments of being able to think, that they were Demyan’s wives and resented me for being someone new that he might add to his harem. But I was wrong. This had nothing to do with future wives.
One of them led me through a door out of the bath and into a hall. She stopped when we came to a large, open door and gave me a gentle push into the room. My heart pounded. The chamber was dimly lit. I could see an ornate tile floor, a large bed hung with drapes, and a long couch. Upon it sat Demyan. A large man, he now looked strangely small.
“Come to here,” he said in my own tongue. So all this while he spoke it, at least in a rudimentary way, while pretending not to in order to force Joustan to speak his. A typical power play.
With trepidation, I slowly approached. This was not how I’d hoped my awakening into womanhood would go. I had dreamed that it would occur with a handsome male of my own choosing, but now it would be akin to rape. And I expected it to be painful; older girls had told me stories. This put me in a terrible bind – if I didn’t please him, what would happen to Mama and Joustan? And how could I possibly please him if I was in a state of panic and pain?
On the other hand, if I did please him, all hope of returning to my beloved home and animals would be lost and I’d be forced to live as prisoner with a clan I did not know and probably everyone would despise me.
But as I approached him, my fear diminished. All emotion coming from him consisted of intense sadness and nothing at all resembling lechery.
I dared to sit down beside him. He did not move. Risking more, I lifted his hand and held it in my lap. He shocked me by silently weeping for what seemed a long time before he spoke.
“She was thirteen years,” he said. “Beautiful girl. Everything to me. As she was born, when first looked at her, love of my life. And only a girl, she cannot be Leader after me, but I do not care. I try to change law for her. You look very much like her.”
“What happened to her?” I asked.
Demyan’s face grew red and his eyes dark as a storm. “Dog belong to cousin attack her, no reason, and ate her face and neck. She was dead right then. She never cried out, said nothing. Dead in front of us all.”
“I am so sorry.”
“I killed dog with my own hands and feet. Kick him till he was dead. Then I had his owner thrown into a bear cage. The bear was hungry.”
“I understand,” I said.
“She was number eight of my children but loved her most.” He paused. “You look like her very much. I want you stay with me.”
So that was it. Not as lover or wife, but as daughter. And now I understand the sadness of the woman who resembled me and ran out of the bathing room. She must have been the mother.
I was silent.
“I make you happy. You have everything. One day, you have best husband in clan. I choose him for you, best in our land.”
I bit my lip. He stopped talking and looked into my eyes. I still held his hand. “Dear Leader,” I said, “if you want me, your daughter’s look-alike, to grow into a happy and healthy woman, please let me stay with my family and clan. I take care of many animals there and they depend on me. I love my home and my parents and am used to the way our clan lives where women have more power than in your clan. As an Empath, I am important to the safety and happiness of many and when I grow up, will serve in that capacity much more than now. If you believe you love me, please let me do as I ask. But I assure you, that I will visit you and you are welcome to visit me. My home is your home. It will be as if our two clans are married and much good trade will develop between us.. I will call you Dada as I do my own blood father.”
He flooded me with feeling, including his anger at having his idea rejected. He was not used to anyone rejecting his desires.
“Women do not make rules,” he said.
I had to consider how to word my response. Everything depended on it. “You might look at women as a clan resource - just as you would livestock, minerals, plants and the talents of men. Since half the people are female, it is a good idea to use what they can offer. Not just baby making and child rearing. Women may have secret talents you don’t know about. It might be difficult to believe, but some little girl might have the brain of a great warrior or builder. These are things that can make your people stronger. Our clan knows this, though our aim is not to conquer others but to make life good for everyone.”
He looked at me as if a lion had just emerged from my mouth. “A clan resource,” he repeated. “But women not as intelligent as men,” he said.
“You only believe that because your girls are trained to limit their minds. If girls, like boys, are allowed to be educated, you will soon discover that is not true. Come visit our clan and you will see. My aunt builds houses and my cousin Marla irrigates the fields.”
He regarded me thoughtfully and I saw that this was his true demeanor rather than how he had first appeared to me in the great hall. I could feel within him a change in focus.
“I am needed by my clan,” I repeated. “It’s my duty.” I still didn’t know what he would do.
“I could get you the best of husbands,” he reminded me.
I took a great leap. Lowering my head, for this was the first time I had admitted this even to myself, I said, “I want to marry our Clan Leader. He is who I plan to marry.”
To Demyan, the age difference between Joustan and myself would mean nothing, and there was no way for him to know that no such marriage was on the agenda. But he nodded and removed a gold and ruby ring from his finger. Handing it to me, he said, “This makes you my daughter now.”
It was too large for any of my fingers, but I slipped it onto my thumb as I watched him stand and leave the room.
Some time passed before I was given my own clothing and permitted to dress. The women carefully folded the gown I had been wearing and placed it in a gilded chest before accompanying me back to Joustan and my mother.
They, having been held in what appeared to be a banquet room, looked at me in surprise, having no doubt expected never to see me again. Mama’s face was swollen and streaked from tears.
“I believe we can go,” I told them.
My face burned when Demyan appeared and beckoned for Joustan to join him. I had a strong feeling that what I’d said about marriage was going to come up in conversation.
We left the following morning, our horses laden with gifts and with the promise of a visit from my new Second Father. If there was one thing we’d gained After, it was to understand before attacking. Would this way of thinking endure or would things revert to what they’d been Before? Eventually, we would learn the answer to that.
Two years after our trek to Komandiry, Joustan and I married and he, being of excellent constitution, lived happily with me till he died at eighty-eight and even then, not of natural causes. For humans being humans, though they may often look different from how they used to in pictures from Before, inside they are the same.
Demyan kept his word about being Second Father and honored the peace between our clans as long as he lived. But the moment he passed, war prevailed and our peaceful farmers learned to be warriors. My beloved Joustan, old as he was, went down in battle.
I live alone in the woods and await my own time and may it be soon. Even from here, hidden as I am, I see the fires and smoke of war. Before has become Now.