Sweating, Derrick gave up and swung his wooden practice sword back and forth blindly, hoping to hit her sword, wincing as it smacked sharply him in several places as a result.
“Stop,” Gabriella commanded, panting herself, as she put her wooden sword down on the ground.
“Come, sit down, rest,” she patted the grass next to her and sipped some water from the ladle in the bucket they’d brought.
Derrick ran a hand through his hair, wishing profusely for deodorant. And how he wanted a razor! He’d grumbled how much he hated the chore of shaving at least once a day over the last two years or so, and that he wished he was like other guys who rarely had to shave, or better yet, that he wouldn’t have to shave at all.
And now, here he was, unable to shave at all, though that hadn’t quite been what he’d envisioned when he’d pleaded with the Gods That Be not to have to shave. This damned beard ITCHED. Just as it had grown thoroughly intolerable last week, Gabriella had tapped him gently on the shoulder as he was preparing for bed. Gabriella had surreptitiously handed him a tiny knife barely bigger than the length of his hand and without a word, patted his bearded cheek gently and withdrew to her bedchamber for the evening.
A careful test of the thin blade the next morning revealed its exceptionally sharp edge. Having no shaving cream or anything else to lather his face with, this naturally ensued in several small lacerations. He’d felt like a boy again, shaving for the first time, when he’d emerged again from the lavatory, clean-shaven but bloodied.
Derrick had passed the blade on to Rick and Andrew, but Andrew had returned it to Gabriella and Derrick had been too embarrassed to ask for it again.
Itching his neck, he decided that there must, like the Greek Gods for Love and Wine and War, be a god for Irony, and that god was in the shape of a dog running after him, biting him in the butt.
Now he cupped his hands and, heedless of predators that would be alerted to the noise, splashed the refreshing cold creek water on his face. They had been here about three weeks - he had lost track of the days and didn’t know whether it was Tuesday or Saturday; all the days, all the long days, blurred into each other. Andrew claimed that the days here were longer than the days at home, and Derrick believed that.
But their red-haired taskmaster kept their days filled with activity. In the mornings, she instructed them in her language... you called a young girl yendra, but if she was married, you referred to as her yestra. But you used those only if the woman was a commoner, of no special importance: different forms of address existed for the poor and the elite of society, which Derrick found shocking, not to mention unfair. If the female was of a high status, you called her kestra if she was a little girl, kelendra if she was unmarried but grown, and kelestra if she was married. Why bother, fumed Derrick. A girl was a girl, was a girl. One term of respect each for a married woman and an unmarried woman was all that was needed, why did station have to enter into it? Although, he considered ruefully, it probably eliminated several complications for the men when it came to wondering whether or not a girl was attached or not. And how, he had protested, were they supposed to tell the difference between a girl who was of high status and a girl who wasn’t? You’ll know, Gabriella had replied firmly. Well, I sure hope so, Derrick mused, because he was lousy with names, and thus certain to offend someone.
That had been yesterday morning. This morning, she taught them the masculine forms of address - which, naturally, were far less complicated, even with the station-in-life factored in. An important little boy, a prince for instance, was kerin, an important man was Ker. A common little boy was merely known by his name, though his father, when referred to by a superior, was called Den. All of these prefixes were followed by the first names, not last names.
And a perfect stranger was, respectfully, a tevner, or tevnera. Romantically, once you were dating one person regularly, you were referred to as courting each other and you didn’t call each other chelritevni unless you were sworn or almost sworn to be married. Did it really matter, wondered Derrick in frustration. It was so meticulous, though Andrew likened it to the society of royalty and nobility. But, Gabriella warned, while these descriptions distinguished people Landwide, within each separate culture swirled webs of unique social intricacies.
Personally, Derrick found it difficult to believe he’d ever have to use all of this; it was odd to think people resided outside this purgatorial forest, but he supposed it was just like at home, with people living in cities and towns. And he still felt as if he were living in a dream, as if this wasn’t quite happening. All that confirmed that they were in another world was Gabriella here, though in regards to her, far more could be proven than disproven.
He hoped, with a poignant twinge of homesickness and a lump in his throat, that his parents were taking his disappearance well. And if.... Derrick sighed. If he never made it back, well, he hoped they knew that he loved them. Dad would be able to pass the business on to Derrick’s younger brother. And he would miss seeing his thirteen-year old sister grow up. Derrick had been amused to find himself assuming the role of the protective older brother, quietly but firmly dissuading any boys he knew were only pursuing the physical aspects of dating.
Gabriella’s tanned hand on his arm jolted him back to the here and now.
“You have a family?”
Now how did she know what he was thinking? How did she know? It was uncanny.
“A sister and a brother,” Derrick replied, using the words that she’d taught them. Gabriella nodded, pleased.
His curiosity overcame him. In a moment of bravery, he met her jade gaze squarely.
“You... um.” Oh, that sounded good. “You know what we’re thinking, don’t you.” It wasn’t a question.
-- Yes,-- she responded gravely, though no sound escaped her lips.
Gabriella unrolled a long scroll and, with two knives, pierced both ends to the table. Upon further fascinated examination, Derrick saw that the scroll was made of thick, meticulously treated parchment. Each of them sat down in the chairs they occupied at mealtimes.
Dinner’s remnants (dinner had been windit pasties) had been cleared away by Fiona and Andrew. Gabriella fixed most meals but assigned two of them to clean up. She alternated pairing Rick and Andrew together some nights, Fiona and Andrew together others. Derrick suspected that Gabriella always matched him and Elise together intentionally in hopes of alleviating the tension that so palpably hung between them. Tonight, their chore had been to chop enough firewood to cook dinner and warm the cabin for the evening. Elise took a while to get the hang of the hand-ax, stubbornly refusing his assistance. He offered to help her with the huge chunks of wood she struggled to heft, but with a chill flash of her eyes, he backed off with his hands raised placatingly in the air.
Derrick contemplated the girl across the oaken table from him. Engrossed in the map on the table, excitement animated her. Elise sported the brightest, bluest eyes he’d ever seen; they made you wonder if they glowed in the dark. He grudgingly admitted, short hair or not, she was a lovely girl. And while she manifested a sustained aloofness toward him, he recognized how hard she labored at providing for the group and at adapting to the customs of this new land. Elise was almost as adept with the bow as he was, had mastered as much of the language Gabriella had taught them, and probably surpassed each of them at preparing fresh game. Derrick couldn’t help admiring her loyal perseverance, but questions as to the odd origin of her avid dislike of him since their very arrival assailed him.
“Are those... how do you say ‘mountains’?” Rick lapsed back into English, delivering Derrick from his reverie back to the map.
“We are here.” Gabriella pointed to an isolated forest at the southeastern most part of the map. “Illyth.” Flicking a jade eye about the table to ensure their attention, she proceeded. “This is Rumeth, this Verivon, this Umsellon. Umsellon is a peaceful land which of recent Cycles has been plagued by bandits and the like because of its bountiful harvests. Being farmers, they are not by nature a fighting people.” Gabriella paused pensively, fingering aside a lock of fiery red hair from her face.
“Why don’t they fight back?” asked Rick as he leaned causally back on two legs of his chair.
She sighed and lifted a graceful palm face up with a sad shrug. “Even in the best of times, with ideal political leadership, they are a poor people, who don’t produce the excess in monies to keep fighting men throughout the Cycle, nor do they have people of their own population to spare for training. Indeed, it would be likely that you yourselves know more of swordplay than do they.”
“But - but,” Rick was personally affronted by the notion of a people so cavalierly being wronged. His reaction was admirable, mused Derrick as he itched his neck vaguely. Derrick liked such loyal devotion to a cause in a person.
“If they’re just losing their crops and their money, or whatever, wouldn’t it be worth it to pull a few people from every village and establish a guard to fight bandits?”
“If they did that, they’d have to pay the guardsmen, or at the least compensate the families. Plus they’d have to feed them. And then they’d have fewer people to help in the fields, so they’d still lose some of their crops and their money, too, which would be defeating their purpose. It’s six on one hand, half a dozen on the other,” replied Derrick, surprising himself with the sense it made.
“That’s true,” agreed Andrew. “In both cases, they’ll lose about the same amount of money and harvest. The only advantage to establishing some kind of guard would be saving a few innocent lives.” Derrick was glad Andrew concurred; if Andrew adjoined his support to your convictions, then you knew you were right.
“Oh heavens, no. We wouldn’t want to do that. Yeah, that’d really suck if we saved a few lives,” Rick retorted sarcastically as he flung his chair back onto all fours. “If the ruler of Umsellon doesn’t have the money to keep permanent troops, then why doesn’t the ruler of the whole Land step in and give Umsellon a hand? I mean, it’s not like they couldn’t work out some kind of trade agreement. Umsellon has assets. They could trade troops for first pick on harvest,” Rick pressed on doggedly.
This serious, humanitarian side of Rick intrigued Derrick. Normally Rick styled himself as the self-elected comedian presiding over the group, and even when he contributed his viewpoints toward resolving an issue or situation, they were typically submitted under the guise of humor. But now Rick sat in solemn contemplation, more than a little outraged that as yet, a feasible solution for the farming peoples of Umsellon had not prevailed. He had presented a sound argument, too. Derrick swung his attention back to Gabriella for an answer to this inquiry.
Gabriella laughed merrily in reply. Probably at a couple of kids who were so forthcoming in imparting remedies for the quandaries of a country that, until five minutes ago, they had never known existed, Derrick reflected wryly.
“Your earnestness is admirable. But no one rules all the Land. To be sure, there have been rulers, but long has it been since one person governed over all of the Dominions, for all of them together would prove are too fractious, some individually too bellicose in nature, to agree upon one person to rule the entire Land.” Gabriella leaned back in her chair more comfortably and laced her hands together as she regarded them.
Derrick’s mouth dropped as he attempted to absorb the concept of no central leadership. No President? No King? Not even an Emperor?
A maelstrom of questions succeeded Gabriella’s answer.
“What about a governing body?” asked Fiona, who evidently was experiencing the same trouble as Derrick.
Gabriella shook her head, an amused smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.
“Then these are all separate countries - Dominions?” Rick gestured with a circular, sweeping motion that encompassed the map.
“In and of themselves, yes.”
Andrew had also been studying the map. “What about this land here, and these lands, why are there no boundary lines?”
“Those are the Freelands, mostly inhabited by Keltoi and mira’setzu, who, as I have mentioned previously, tend to dwell separately from the other races.”
Still amazed that other intelligent forms of life besides human beings lived here, Derrick avidly awaited the day he would encounter one in person, even though Gabriella had displayed for them by means of illusion what Keltoi and mira’setzu resembled.
“Then everyone rules their own Dominion, and no one works together?” Fiona questioned.
“Surely they have alliances with each other,” Andrew added.
“Most Dominions participate in treaties with each other, but each Dominion rules itself. Umsellon’s ruler is elected as the current one steps down or dies. Verivon, Rumeth, Kheldegar, Sharingseld, Pendymonon each have ruling families. Faryssum in the south has a Council, Triador’s rulers are female only, Danyon in the Northeast is a familial holding with a council as well, and Danyon’s neighbor Brillabar is a greedy country who relentlessly invades Danyon in hopes of expanding its borders. Brillabar’s ruler holds his position as long as other aspiring would-be rulers consent to that status and do not overtake the throne.
“In the North lies the desert and Avrez-Kar, which long ago was a brother country to Brillabar. The elder brothers of Sammestet were angered that their father favored Sammestet for the throne. Their father had anticipated his older sons’ mutiny and so persuaded his political followers to ensure that Sammestet would hold the throne after his own demise. Sammestet, with the backing of both his and his father’s supporters, managed to exile his older brothers after half a generation of civil war. His brothers formed a Dominion made up of two states, Avkar and Rezkar. Those two states waged war upon each other for generations before finally joining as one Dominion, and in turn named the Dominion Avrez-Kar. Its citizens clamor for self-rule and persist in grisly internecine, ever feuding politically among themselves. A jealously private and militaristic country, its ruler is elected if he triumphs in armed combat over other contenders, much in the tradition of Brillabar, its father country. Avrez-Kar remains today, an avaricious country and often endeavors to expand its borders, by plaguing not only Brillabar and Danyon, but often the Central Forests, the desert peoples to the north of the forests, and even so far west as Triador beyond the desert. Seldom do any of the other Dominions involve themselves with Avrez-Kar, not only because of the distance, but because it is not an honorable Dominion. Over the Ages, they have radically deviated from the teachings of their father Dominion,” Gabriella finished.
An idle misgiving whispered that she was slightly too impartial, but Derrick was unable to detect the source of that impression and so dismissed it.
“In what way?” Rick leaned his arms forward on the table with interest.
Gabriella reclined quietly for a moment on the dyed green cushions adorning her chair, her eyes thoughtful as she stared afar, collecting her thoughts.
“Throughout the Land, the slave-trade has ever proven a profitable enterprise. Over the Ages, Dominions have attempted to abolish it, or regulate it, but while it is mostly frowned upon, there are yet cultures that practice it still. Slaves are typically well treated, if still slaves, for they’re considered prized investments. Avrez-Kar goes beyond this.” Here, Gabriella paused, and a moment of disquietude stole over her as swiftly as a fleeting shadow, leaving Derrick to doubt if he had witnessed it at all. “In that Dominion, women are not slaves to be possessed, but lower forms of being, essentially animals. Few are permitted clothing, except in very extreme weather. Women not pleasing to the eye are sent to training camps to be trained in armed combat. After they complete their training, they are brought to the sport arenas to battle other women to the death for the entertainment of the men of the Dominion. This is considered a very great honor,” she added with heavy irony.
Her eyes round, entranced, Fiona asked, “Why is it an honor?”
“Because they are dying for the men of their Dominion,” Gabriella replied flatly.
Derrick discovered after a moment that it was necessary to close his mouth, which had ostensibly fallen open of its own accord during this discourse. He shifted restively in his chair and glanced at the rest of the group, whose countenances evinced varying degrees of absorption and revulsion. Taking a breath, he returned his straying attention to Gabriella. Derrick could see that Gabriella was struggling to remain objective, but he thought he saw her jaw clench before she resumed her commentary.
“Those women who are pleasing to look upon are considered to be of lower station than the dirt upon which we walk. Their sole purpose is to see to men’s needs - and to bear children. They do little work, for work would promote some expansion of their minds, though small. Perpetual idleness is a far worse punishment than work. The only labor these women of Avrez-Kar are permitted to perform is sewing and cloth-work, and that in chains. Even cooking is reserved for men only.”
Shock silenced them. A cool breeze drifted through the cabin, enticing the flickering flames of the sconces into shifting the shadows on the walls.
“Boy, don’t you gals have it good back at home,” remarked Rick genially, breaking the awed silence. Fiona swatted him, while Elise drew in a deep breath, her face stunned.
Derrick crossed his arms on his chest and stared at the Dominion on the map pensively. His misgivings had arisen again not to whisper this time but to nag, for was it not contradictive that Gabriella should be so well acquainted with Avrez-Kar if it was as private and isolated in the North as she had implied? In fact, in speaking with such reserved fervor, it was as if she knew the culture directly. If the credo of Avrez-Kar was that women were base life forms, then how was Gabriella, a woman, so well-versed in its customs? Surely in an entire Land where most people considered the slave-trade alone barbarian, the countrymen of Avrez-Kar would not permit these cultural practices to be knowledge for the mundane, particularly if they were as fanatical in guarding their privacy as she had implied.
Curiosity killed the cat, Derrick knew, and it certainly won the battle over tact.
“How,” Derrick chose his words carefully, “do you come to know so much of Avrez-Kar?”
All eyes snapped back to Gabriella.
“It is not important,” she responded impassively with a raised eyebrow, and while her tone would brook no dissembling upon the subject, her green eyes issued Derrick a personal reprimand.