Note: Soch is Simon's big brother
So here's that tale I was going to tell… how long ago? It was the harvest after I didn't die on Molokh's table, and there I was out in the heat and the haze on the family plot, the one we keep up the hills a ways, whose bounty isn't recorded at tax time and that no one else is supposed to know about, though they all have their own. Usually everyone works together, singing songs as we hack merrily away, but today it was just me and my aching back, bent right over like Jechiah's granny, slashing at the tough stalks of barley with my flint-edged sickle. Grab a bunch, slash, grab a bunch, slash—sort of like rowing, without the pain to keep it interesting. After an hour or so I was exhausted, and sat me down for a gulp of wine and a nap.
I looked up. It was a funny looking little fellow, naked, with big ears and… was that a tail? I knew right away who he was: the Lord of the Space Between; I'd sensed His presence that time I met You all down under Mot's Mount. I also thought I knew why He'd come. You had generously waited until the Romans weren't looking, and… I should have known You'd get Your due in the end. It seemed strange that He'd be the one You sent to collect it, though. Surely… Well it hardly mattered now; I'd have plenty of time to ask You when I was gone from here. I slowly stood up and put my head down and waited for the divine chop.
He laughed. "Shim lad, don't tremble before Me. Yes, We were disappointed thou couldstn't join us that day, but thy boar was delicious. A lot more fat than some scrawny kid. Too bad about the blood though..." and I felt that same blood pulsing in my veins, and knew He felt it too and hungered for it.
"Anyway. We bear thee nor thy folk ill will. Look at this fine harvest we gave thee."—Actually it wasn't that fine—" No, I'm here to help thee out."
No offence, but You aren't in the habit of offering unsolicited aid to us unworthy mortals, and I confess I wondered what it was about and why You were being so generous. Not suspicious or anything, just… You know.
He held up his hands like You do, then reached out to me.
"Can I see that?"
All I had was the sickle and the wineskin, so I offered them both. He took the sickle and ran his finger over the blade, then looked at what I'd cut so far.
"Could be easier."
"If I had some help."
He took a half-hearted swipe at a cluster of stalks, but only managed to sever a couple; the rest slid off the blade and popped right back up again. I jumped up and took the sickle from his hand, grabbed the top of the stalks, sliced them off clean, and dropped them on the ground.
"Hmm," said he. "That's one way."
"Show me a better."
He took it back and waded deep into the crop, then squatted down and spread his arms. Somehow my sickle had become two, one in each hand. He gave a little hop, and started spinning, faster, faster, and those stalks of grain didn't stand a chance. They flew through the air like startled plovers, landing at my feet in a neat heap. He moved slowly through the field mowing down everything in sight, then suddenly stopped. About a sixth of the plot was bare, a perfect circle of stubble right in the centre. It was twice what I'd managed all morning and I was impressed.
"Don't stop there," I said. "You're doing great."
"Thy MaMa was right," said he. "Thou'dst rather slack than eat. Dostn't know work makes a man of thee? Wouldst rather sit on thy arse all day?"
"Or put in a little work now, then never work again?"
"Maybe more than a little. But it's not cutting corn. Quite the opposite."
"Hmm." I tried to think what the opposite of cutting corn might be. He saw my thoughts.
"I told thee. It's not cutting corn." He laughed out loud. I managed a half-hearted chuckle; sometimes Your divine wit eludes us humourless humans.
"Thou sawst what I did. Thou couldst do it too. Look."
He laid His hand on my head, and I saw Him, but not Him. His body was now like a low wheeled wooden box, and His arms were the spokes of a great wheel, set sideways atop that box, each holding a reaping blade right at barley stalk cutting level, and His head was the axle of that wheel, and His hair was two ropes, and the end of one of those ropes was in my hand.
"Pull me," it said, and I did. And had to leap out of the way when the wheel on the top started spinning, so fast I couldn't even see it. And it gave little hop and started moving through the field, and that barley just flew; in no time at all the whole lot was clean, and all the cut stalks in a pile at my feet, and the Lord smiling proudly.
"Thinkst thou could make something like that?"
I wasn't sure, to be honest.
"Come, boy, have faith in thyself. Imagine the world's gratitude when thou succeedest. Thou'lt be famous forever! And o so rich…"
And he gave me a push, just a touch, but it knocked me right down, and when I looked up and around, he was gone. And all the sheaves he had mown were back on their stalks, as if he'd never been there at all. He'd even reattached what I myself had spent half the morning reaping. I confess that as I recommenced my grabbing and slashing, my thoughts towards You were not as adoring as is proper, but on further reflection, the vision of the spinning Lord, and the promises he'd made, filled my mind. Could I indeed make such a thing?
The next month was occupied helping with the real harvest, and with every grab and slash I pictured how different it was going to be this time next year. A month's work done in a day, and I the hero of that day! So as soon as all the sheaves were in and someone else was milling it, I started on my grand project.
I worked on it all that summer, in our little plot up the way where nobody went. There was a cave nearby where I stored the materials: wood, sickle blades, rope and leather… If people asked where I was going, I just made Your sign, and since they all knew about my conversation with You, and had no desire to meet You themselves, they left me alone.
It took quite a few iterations, and the tip of my left thumb, to produce something that might cut grain faster than my MaMa. A couple more, and it could slice any stalk in that field—I practiced on fast-growing wild weeds which were twice as tough as anything we'd ever have need of—and by planting time it was a thing of terrible beauty indeed. Just looking at it made me fear it; if ever I was caught in the path of that sharp-edged wheel, I'd wish I'd perished on Molokh's table instead. So then I applied myself to making it safe, and by the time it was done, a 5-year old child could mow an acre in 10 minutes with that thing. And only then did I see fit to reveal it to my little part of World.
It was high noon on a bright fall day when I trundled my beautiful device down from the mountain meadow and into the centre of town. Everyone looked up curiously as I stopped in front of our cave.
"Ma!" I called.
She stuck her head out and stared at my creation.
"It's a reaper. Like it?"
She eyed it warily.
"It's very nice, dear. But thou knowst thou'lt have to give those blades back come harvest time."
"No, I told thee, it's a reaper. It'll cut the crops for us so we won't have to."
She didn't know what to make of this, and nor did any of the others who had gathered to gawk. I took the one of the ropes attached to the axle on top and handed it to her.
"Pull. Hard as you can." She did, and the bladed wheel started whirling just like the Lord did that spring day. Everyone leaped back and watched as it slowly slowed down, and when it stopped, she pulled it again, and kept pulling it whenever it showed signs of stopping, staring at it entranced, like everyone else. I'd seen it before, though, and after a few pulls I took the rope from her hand and flipped the brake. It stopped suddenly, and the trance was broken.
"What… what is it?" she asked in a dazed voice.
"A reaper. Look."
I pulled the rope again and used the steering stick to aim it at a clump of wild grass across the way. That grass didn't stand a chance. I looked back triumphantly, to see my fellow villagers staring at me suspiciously like Rachal, what's thy crazy son up to now? Spending all that time with the Lords, he thinks he's one now? I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. After all, such a thing hardly seems, well, Gittite. If thou didstn't earn it, thou dostn't deserve it, say the old people. By You, I think I deserve it! And if these dolts don't, to Mot's with the lot of them. I'll take it someplace they'll appreciate it.
I never got around to doing that, though, and that was the winter I became Khain's apprentice, so I'd almost forgotten my great creation until someone mentioned harvest time coming. And as soon as there was a patch of barley tall enough for the mowing, I was there before dawn with my Lord-in-a-box to await the harvesting party.
It was a group of several men and women, some of whom had witnessed my original demo, and they looked at me like Lords, not this again. But they didn't try to stop me as I revved it up and started pushing it through the field, sending the grain flying. I made a round, then stopped and offered the rope to the oldest, feeblest woman there. She pulled, and started mowing. She hadn't done more than a few steps when someone else demanded a turn, then someone else, and by the time everyone had had a try, that field was clean as a Roman's cheeks.
There was no stopping it after that. Everyone for miles around wanted a spin, and harvest time that year was even more joyful than usual. Until one day a passing Roman got off his horse, took a close look, made some enquiries and rode away again without a word.
When harvest was done for the season, I put it away and forgot about it. Until some weeks later when a messager appeared at our door with an official-looking piece of paper addressed to me! I have not retained it, but the gist was that I, Semonus of Gittae, was to be honoured with a visit from Chief Assessment Officer Burrus Scaevolius of the Bureau for the Evaluation of Innovations.
And O the excitement then! I spent hours tinkering and greasing and shining the thing up in anticipation of Scaevolius' visit. There was a patch of hay-grass up Pirhah's mountain, and I guarded it jealously, that I might have something on which to demonstrate my wonderful device when he arrived.
And at last he did. We boys were dicing at Father Tree when we heard hoofbeats, and three Romani came riding round the bend from the Tyre road. Two were guards, big and burly, of a type we knew well. The third was a small man in a bureaucrat's robe. He was a little plump and seemed ill-at-ease. They stopped at the sight of us.
"Boys!" he called.
We scrambled to our feet and hailed Caesar, but he ignored that.
"I seek Semonus, son of Adonis."
I hastened to confirm my identity.
"Scaevolius," said he. "Is it ready?"
Of course it was, and I proudly led the three of them up to the demonstration place.
It went perfectly! I pushed my reaper one-handed through the field of hay, and those stalks came down in even rows and practically stacked themselves on either side of me. Only one hitch: a wheel hit a stone, and a flying blade ripped into my robe, missing me by a quarter-inch. If it had been spinning any slower, or spent less time on the honing-stone, it would have pulled the tough cloth into its deadly orbit and I'd have lost a leg or worse, instead of a mere triangular tatter off the front. I continued as if I had not noticed, till the field was shaved as clean as the Roman himself, and I stopped and looked around to rejoice in his awe and wonder.
His reaction was not quite as anticipated. He was looking at me with what looked like a combination of amusement and sadness, if you can picture that. After a moment, he called me over.
"That's some thing thou'st got there. One of the better I've seen."
I was a little crestfallen. Was I not then the first to think of such a thing? All this time I'd been chuckling to myself, "Those idiots in the rest of the world! Only I have the wits..." and here this fellow was telling me I was not first after all! That some otherwhere others had done like me.
"Now I have seen some wonders. Yes, I surely have. I saw in Peraea an urn containing a certain liquid—at room temperature, mind—into which one had only to dip any object of metal, along with a silver ingot, and it became plated with purest silver.
"A man of Krete made a strange-looking thing indeed, all wheels and levers; but if one positioned them just so, they could not only trace the movements of any star, but sum or multi-sum any two numbers before a scribe could even write them down.
"In Tarsus, a woman—canst credit that?—devised a most interesting loom, upon which any pattern could be reproduced with absolutely no effort, simply by punching out that pattern on a small plate and inserting it into the frame. Quite a boon to the weaver, wouldstn't thou say?"
"Not only she!" I said excitedly—as strange new possibilities unfolded before my mind's eye. "Combine her concept with the Kretan's, and one might..."
He raised his hand.
"Stop right there," he said. "I always do that, and I always regret it. When will I learn to shut up? But to get back to thine own device. Nice, quite nice indeed; the design is fairly common, of course, but certain features are not badly implemented. May I comment?"
"Go ahead," I said bitterly. By the sounds of it, he saw a new autoergic device every week. But we were hardly an isolated backwater (ha!) and if such a thing had been devised elsewhere, the design must surely have spread via the viae to every corner of Imperium. Why had we not heard of anything like it before?
He squatted beside the reaper and pointed beneath..
"This blade here... if it were at such an angle, it might not present such peril to the operator. And surely the chute would be of infinitely more use pointing thus..."
In spite of myself, I looked where he indicated, and instantly saw that he was right. I was excited again.
"I shall make the adjustments immediately," I cried. "Return in a week's time, and I shall show you such an improved machine as you will never..."
His face grew sad again.
"I'm afraid that won't be possible," he said. He beckoned to the guards, who immediately came over and picked up my device. This was better than I had hoped! He was going to send it to Roma, maybe to Caesar Himself. I would be a celebrated Citizen...!
Not exactly. The Guards raised my reaper up high and, before I could cry out, smashed it against a great boulder that stood nearby. Tears of rage filled my eyes as the blades upon which I had lavished such care crumpled like foil. They raised and smashed it down again, and the harness ripped loose and all the delicate segments flew into the air or rolled into the tall grass. One of the Guards pulled a large sack from his belt, and together they carefully retrieved every piece they could find and stuffed it in.
I rushed at him and grabbed the sack, trying to wrest it from their grip. The larger laughed and gave me a shove, and I toppled backwards and fell at the feet of the Assessor. He reached out and took my hand to pull me up; I shook him off and stood up by myself, blood pounding in my skull, fists clenched in impotent rage, then burst into hot mad tears. He watched me for a time before speaking kindly:
"I am sorry. Truly I am. Th'art an intelligent lad; that thing showed that, and thou might'st do worse than to pursue a career in the Engineering Corps."
I turned my streaming eyes up at him and tried to speak, but could only manage a string of sobs.
"Thou wert going to ask me," he said, "why? Several reasons, of which two will probably suffice. Primus, it smacks of sorcery. People dislike that. Secundus, they like even less being deprived of their livelihood. Because really, why are we here together on this Earth at all, thou and I? Thou to till the land and bring in the crops, and I to ensure that thou keepest on doing it, and that Roma receives Her fair share of thy efforts.
"Think on it. Thy device allows one woman to do the work of, say, five. But can it then multiply the land to be tilled by five also? No, only Caesar and his armies can do that. And like as not, any new land worth Caesar's effort to bring under the Peace is already tilled by someone else. The net result? Wherever such a device is introduced, one woman works and four sit idle. And what, pray, possible use to Caesar are four idle women?"
"But..." He ignored me.
"Remember the cyphering device I mentioned? Its deviser imagined, thou seest, that he was acting in the tradition of the great philosophers. He thought he could bring about something new and wonderful, and would listen to no argument to the contrary. In vain did I place before his stubborn eyes the spectre of thousands of unemployed scribes, of a world where any rustic dolt, uppity slave or silly woman might possess—and use!—the same power as those born to rule over them; where, in short, it's Saturn-days all year round. A lad like thee might enjoy it, but it's no way to run an Empire."
It did sound rather enjoyable. I didn't say so, though.
"Where," went on the Assessor, "in such a world, where is Wisdom? What can a father impart to his son, if all his experience is out of date before he can pass it on? And when that same son looks on his senior and sees only a drooling dotard, full of useless knowledge from a bygone age, why should he keep him around? Might he not put him out of his house, or—more likely—simply poison him, when he starts to become a burden? The horror is too much to contemplate!"
The horror of listening to these tedious speculations was commencing to equal that which I had felt on the destruction of my pride and joy. But he had almost done.
"So of course I asked his (the inventor's, you understand) assurance that he would not persist in his evil experimentations. And of course he ignored me. So now the squid nests in his ribs, and his infernal device rusts away on the sea-bed beside him... Sorry, thou wert going to say something?"
"Nothing." Nothing he wanted to hear, as he well knew.
"Good," he said, "and I've probably said enough myself. I was just going to say, though: hast ever noticed how the smartest people tend also to be the stupidest? Funny, no?"
"Hilarious." Fuck off.
"I thought thou'dst think so. But fortunately thou'rt nowhere near as smart as that fellow, so I dare hope that thou'lt not repeat his folly. Here."
He reached into his carrying-case, and pulled out and passed me a parchment bearing the seal of the Bureau, and bade me make my sign thereon. Which I did, of course, thereby swearing on my life that I would indulge in no development of any device which might replace more labourers than would be normally required for the job at hand. I was obliged also to report all inspirations for non-existent devices to local authorities, for forwarding to his attention. He then took me down to town and made it clear to the elders that I was to be discouraged from future tinkering, and they vowed to keep an eye on me. Khain tried to comfort me with "More than enough's too much, my lad!" and then no one ever spoke of it again, except once. Even now, writing of it, I find me looking about me for informers. Though I know none could read this next part, except You O Lords, who may notice that I'll be writing it in Your tongue.
Was that the end of the reaper? Not exactly. One day Soch approached me for assistance.
"Shim," says he, "Thou'rt into magic and that, right? Now me and the lads, we're having a rumble with the Schechem boys in a couple of weeks…"
I was immediately interested. My brother was obviously referring to his and his friends' favourite leisure-time activity, which consisted in the main of going over to Shechem by night and putting a good beating on the Samis. Or getting one; Soch and company didn't give a particular shit who actually came out the winner, as long as it was a nice rumble and some good hits landed where they should have, or could be remembered and reported as having done so. These scraps were rarely fatal, though the only one at which I attended—the one I am about to describe—was.
I had never before been invited on one of these forays. As both weakling and coward I would have felt somewhat out of place at any event requiring either strength or courage, and no doubt would have embarrassed my brother no end by disappearing at the first battle cry. But I had always listened with keen interest to Soch's tales of battle with the devils over there, the slaves of the evil God, and the many eyes he had gouged out or throats he had slit. He had Ba's knack of making even the most incredible events sound perfectly plausible, and it took quite some time before I started wondering how it was that there was still a sighted man standing in Shechem to face my brother's self-celebrated blade.
Yet Ba took me there once, while doing his rounds of the neighbouring villages. I was so excited, for I had never before left the environs of Gitta in my life. The first town we visited was Jennin—well, I'd been there, since Ma was a Jenn—and the next, though I knew it not before we were well within the gate...
"Shechem," said Ba.
I looked at him amazed, and then around at the daemons-made-flesh that infested it, all the while trying to make myself invisible.
The scene about me was almost familiar; the houses were square instead of round, and the inhabitants wore oddly-cut robes and red turbans, but still appeared of essentially the same kind of being as myself. I looked at them as closely as I dared, but could detect no greater incidence of empty eye sockets than was the case at home. Which in turn brooked of only two possible explanations: as preternatural beings, they had the power to regenerate their body parts as soon as they lost them; or—maybe likelier—they knew exactly who I was and where I was from, and had cast a spell upon me to make me see what could not be. Or both! I shivered in fear and covered my head.
"Problem, little Sign?" he asked (he called me Semeion, he couldn't say Sh).
Was it possible he didn't know about this place? I tried to explain, but my words got mixed up and I couldn't convince him, so that he started to laugh. At mention of Soch, however, he become serious.
"Don't listen to his stories," he said. "I doubt not he believes them himself, and I would never seek to disillusion him. But as you see, thy brother tends to fertilize the field a little too thickly..."
"Exaggerate. Say things that are not true in order to amplify his own importance—a vice to which I have never found it necessary to stoop—and make himself feel that he is in fact accomplishing something of some worth by his pathetic scraps. Which of course he is, and some day thou'lt know what that is. Come here."
I moved close to him and he put his big arm about me protectively.
"I have met very few true devils in my travels. I doubt this place holds more than two—even Gitta has more—and neither makes a habit of meeting thy brother on the field of skirmish. Lucky for Soch."
Now all this had happened a little before what is happening now, which is, you will recall, Soch's asking for my assistance in a forthcoming battle. So I was not so reluctant to join in as I might have been, had I still believed we faced daemonic foes.
Anyway, he thought it would be a great idea if I could rig up a new autoreaper to use as a real weapon of war. "Cut 'em off at the fucking knees!" was how he put it, practically jumping up and down in glee.
"Come on, Soch, thou knowst I can't do that. If the Romans found out I'd be dog-meat."
"I won't tell if thou dostn't. It doesn't have to be as fancy, just the basics. They fucked us up good 3 fullMoons past and it's time to get them back."
"I don't know..."
"Yes thou dost. It'll be great. Pretend it's that Roman bastard thou'rt slicing. Anyways it's not for me, it's for the family, for Gitta, for the Lords! Thou canst not refuse!"
Well he had me there, so I said OK, and spent the next few days whipping up a new reaper. Pretty basic, but I knew it was up to the job, set all round with whatever sharp things Soch and his buddies could come up with: scythe blades, daggers, woodsaws, razors...
Soch wanted to try it out first, so we covered it up and smuggled it out of town to his gang's secret place--a great honour for me, he assured me, though of course I had spied it out long ago-- and his friend Magatames brought along a goat he was supposed to slaughter for his brother's wedding. He tied it to a stake, and I cranked the rope and pushed it towards our victim. And the next we knew there was a terrible squeal, and a SPLAT! as bits of the poor beast showered us and everything in the vicinity with hot gore. Magatames' brother would have to find another main course, for this one had in a blink been reduced to unrecoverable shreds.
We stared horrified for a moment, then burst into whoops of ferocious joy. Soch and pals thumped my back and said I was really one of them now, a real man, and would have the honour of leading them into battle with the daemonic Shechemites. I had committed, for Gitta, for You! What could I do?
What I could do was what I did. After hiding the terrible device in a cave nearby, Soch and I headed home to ready ourselves for battle. All the way he chortled in sadistic glee at the thought of his final victory over those fucking barbarians, devils, baby-eaters. "They'll crawl on their bloody stumps before me, the worms!" Now Soch has never been much good at planning any further ahead than his next bowel movement, but I have. When my machine first proved itself on Magatames' brother's goat, I was filled with a gleeful exhilaration at seeing it exceed all expectations in its sheer killing power. But with each step on the road home, this whole plan seemed a worse and worse idea. Indeed, I couldn't imagine anything good coming of it at all. Surely any advantage my device gave in a first encounter would only provoke even deadlier ingenuity from the enemy in the next? Plus even if Soch could keep his mouth shut, which for him would be like… well, not too damn possible, there'd be plenty quite willing to open theirs. Did he really think the Romans wouldn't hear of it in basically no time? They don't generally get involved in local squabbles, but they'd have to do something about this one, especially if it involved a forbidden contraption:
"Oh yes sirs, I seen it, there was a demon in that thing, sirs. A dead child, sirs, my own sister's son! They killed him and chopped him and ate him up, and now his soul's running that wicked reaper. He didn't want to take his brother's legs off, sirs, they made him do it! Please crucify them, please kind sirs, only leave them with me an hour first, if you don't mind, sirs..."
"They, sayest thou?"
"Them Gitta lads. Soch and Shim. Rachal's boys. Their Ba's a message man, you know, sirs, even when he's home he never whips them, and now look! If you could just do to Gitta what you did to Carthage, please sirs, just spare the salt, that's all, if you don't mind…"
Yes, scores would be multiplied and settled in rivers of blood. Did Soch really want that? Short answer: Yes. Even if the Romans didn't get him, he'd be swimming in gore, whooping it up until they—who? doesn't matter—did him in, and the rest of us would be stuck avenging him. Maybe he just wants to die, and he's too cowardly to do it himself. Maybe he thought they'd let him choose his death: "Cross, noose or the river today, sir…?"
This line of thought was not exactly fruitful, though it occupied most of the walk home. It was only when our cave came into site, and Soch put his arm about me, pointed and said, "Look, that's what we're fighting for!" that I suddenly knew the true horror of the occasion. What he was pointing at was our family, our home, everything we knew and loved, and he wanted to doom it all.
"No, you fucking dunce," I didn't say, "You're going to kill us all. Are you stupid?" I didn't say it because it would just have made him more determined to carry through with his fatal design. And the worst of it was, everyone would know it was me that made it. Didn't he care about his own brother at all? Short answer: I can't even write it. But it was on, and nothing could stop it.
The rumble was set for Moondawn three days thence. On the morning of the agreed-upon day, Soch was up before Sun and shook me awake.
"Shim, Shim, wake up!"
"We're going to set it up. Come on."
I rubbed the sand out of my eyes and followed him out of town and… down the road towards Shechem?
"What, aren't we getting the reaper?"
"No, that's tonight. Right now we got to set the ground rules. They'll try and fuck us, but at least we'll get the measure of them. Thou canst do Star-lines, right?"
"Yeah, can'tst thou?"
Probably not; as long as he can find someone else to do it for him, he sees no point in learning how to do anything himself. Or in answering questions we both know the answer to.
"Where's She tonight?"
"Growing, third quarter…?"
"Three days to full."
"So we'll get a good look at each other. They'll see their doom coming and they'll be shitting their cloths! Gods, what a day! A hundred years from now they'll still be telling the tale!"
"Soch, we can't do this…"
"Sure we can, little brother. Don't lose heart now. A hundred years, man! Wherever, whenever they sing of heroes, my name and thine'll be right up there!"
It did sound good phrased like that, and in sooth I would love to lauded by one and all after I'm gone, but I didn't think this would do it.
We walked along in silence (save for the occasional whoop of delight from my brother) for an hour or so, until we came to a gap between two hills. This we entered, to emerge onto the surface of a dried-up lake, a natural arena for a gladiatorial spectacle for the Gods. There was a third hill on the other side of it somewhat higher than the others, and this we climbed. At the base of it was an… altar? Maybe, but it was kind of small for that, unless you were offering up chickens or something. More like a marker stone from the fields, and it looked like it was pointing due east.
From up top we could see Gitta behind us and Shechem about the same distance before us and there, on the road leading from the home of our enemies, a tiny puff of dust announcing the arrival of someone. I turned to Soch, expecting him to take cover, but he just watched as the dust was revealed to be raised by the feet of two of our sworn foes, sporting red turbans that made them visible for, it seemed, a mile. When they were almost there, Soch turned and strode back down to the lakebed. I followed. A few minutes later, our enemies too entered the arena from around the hill. But neither we nor they drew any weapon, nor indeed gave any indication that we were determined to do as much damage to each other as we could that very night.
One was about Soch's age and build, and would probably have made a better brother to him than I, for he had the same swaggering air about him. He matched Soch's eye with a long scar—scar-to-be; it was relatively new—down his right cheek. The other was an older man, at least 30, hair going fast, but with him I felt an immediate affinity. He was no fighter, that was clear, and I wondered why the both of us were here.
Soch and his counterpart growled and turned their backs on each other. The other fellow beckoned me, and I came up close. He pulled a pack off his back and opened it.
He handed me the end of a long cord, then started walking towards the marker stone at the base of that third hill. He went round back of it, pulling the cord so that the angle it made on his side was equal to that on mine, then stopped when he was directly beside me, we being equal distance from the marker, making a triangle with two equal sides, the marker at the apex… I'm having a hard time describing it but hopefully you get the picture. Anyway, the idea was to determine where two parties might face each other at, say, about a hundred yards, both seeing Moon's first ray over the peak at exactly the same moment.
Which would of course be the signal for battle to begin. My fatal engine would be pulled out of its hiding place and set to death-dealing. Loath though I was to admit it, that Roman may have had a point. Once people start making things like this, they're not going to stop till everyone is either dead or too maimed to carry on.
Having set the initial position, the Shechemite pulled out a Star-day chart, and we calculated how far to pull my end of the cord to adjust for the time of the season. This put his side in a ditch, however, so he moved me to a new spot and tried again. This seemed to work, for him anyway, until I pointed out that a small gap in the peak would probably allow his people to see Her just a little before we did, allowing them to start the attack with a decided advantage.
"Hmm, let me see," said he innocently, and he checked both angles. "Thou couldst be right…"
He smiled at me, and I smiled back (of course he'd try and fix it for his side; that's why we were both here) and a sudden wave of sadness swept through me. At another time, another place, we could have been friends, he and I, discussing geometry and astronomy and the absurdity of inter-community hatred. Yam knows there's little enough chance to talk about anything halfway interesting in Gitta. Instead, he could well be one of the victims of my misplaced ingenuity, though I suspected that if he was anything like me, he'd be staying well out of the action when the real shit went down.
This time we both did the calculations and checked the sightlines, and finally came up with starting positions agreeable to both of us. These we marked with lines of stones, spat on them and reported back to our respective leaders. Soch and his counterpart—I never learned either of their names—carefully examined the positions we had calculated and grunted, I guess affirmatively, for the two Shechemites turned and walked away without further word. Shim looked down at the lines we had marked, obviously sore tempted to shift them ever so little, or have me do it. But they were sealed up now: if any dared touch them, all the Gods on both sides would be coming down hard on the mover. So back we went home, where I had some last-minute preparations to make before the terrible festivities.
And now it was night. We were back in Your arena, the last light of Sun almost gone in the west and the Stars just starting to show. We were on the south side, about thirty of us from the Gods-fearing villages about Gitta, and somewhere in the preMoon gloom to north was an unknown number of our enemies. We could see them vaguely about 100 feet away, but they maintained silence, even when Soch and the rest of our warriors jeered out aspersions on their selves, families and Gods—God in their case. But both sides honoured the borders and awaited with growing tension the celestial signal.
Soch and I had wheeled out my reaper, and it sat bristling with points and blades, awaiting its evil mission. We all watched the sphere of Stars turn so slooowwly. The Maiden's left ear had already cleared the top of the marker hill, whose peak was already surrounded with the penumbral glow of the rising Lady. Within a couple of minutes, She would peek forth to initiate the slaughter. Her eye-Star was next…
"Look!" I whispered to Soch. He looked where I pointed, to the top of the north hill, where
"Who the fuck is that?"
It was someone for sure, standing motionless, surveying the scene below. Soch squinted, to get a better view when a stray Moonbeam suddenly illuminated the figure. It was caped, but on its head was gleaming gold. Bronze to be precise, as might be found on a Roman soldier in full battle gear!
"Shit… who told?" he grabbed me by my robe-front. "You! You never wanted this! And now you sell out your own brother?"
"Yeah," I snapped, "I ran all the way to Caesarea and back while you were having your siesta and told the Governor I was going to use my forbidden device to murder a bunch of taxpayers."
"No, you idiot. Maybe the Samis found out and told them. But you can't use it now."
He weighed glory against prudence for a moment. Alas, no contest.
"Like hell I can't!" he cried. "We'll kill them all, kill him too. Enias, see that guy up there? Sneak round and stab him in the back. Shim, get that thing going right now!"
But Enias was staring up at the signal peak, and the first tiny gleam at the very top. There was a mighty cry from the enemy side. Soch flung me aside, leaped for my machine, grabbed the rope and gave a mighty pull.
Now in our testing, a tug like that were enough to set the great wheel spinning at a terrifying speed, liquefying anything in its path. This time, though, the rope came away clean in his hands, and the wheel gave but a couple of feeble turns before stopping dead. I have not often seen Soch speechless, but they say anything can happen in fullness of time. He stared at the useless pile of wood and metal like it was the worst thing in the world. As did all of his crew, then at their own empty hands. They had been counting on my thing to do their slicing for them, so had neglected to bring along much in the way of weaponry
and they're on us, at least twenty of them brandishing hayforks and pruning blades and harvesters, twenty red-topped howling daemons from the deepest Hell of ever. And in the forefront… not Soch's even eviler twin but, to my disappointment, the man with whom I surveyed the battlesite that noon, eyes wide, teeth bared in hatred, wielding a nasty-looking hook and bearing right down on me, I sidestep and try to run and that hook hits me luckily just the round of it on my head OW! Down in the dirt I go and down I stay, as my countrymen put up a futile fight around me. They fought bravely at first, I'll say that, but were totally outclassed and within a minute or so took the prudent way out, leaving their dead behind. Including me.
The victorious Samis raised a lusty cheer. Then, ignoring my lifeless body (by the etiquette that governs these occasions, our boys could come back tomorrow to pick us up) they gathered around my engine, exclaiming at its horrible aspect and what it could have done to them had it actually worked. Finally, after some discussion, they decided it was of no use to them in its present form, so they stripped it of all its useful components (including half the sickles and ploughshares in Gitta) and went their way singing and praising their God for stalling it before it could do any damage. Actually their God's little helper was rather closer to hand, though I didn't think it wise to try to claim the credit at that precise moment. Not to mention Elios, who had thought it a great lark to polish up the middle-sized cookpot and stick it on his head while watching a real battle.
When they were gone, I crept round on my belly to survey the damage. Two of ours were dead, friends of Soch's from some other village I barely knew, one stabbed in the belly, the other in the throat. One of our foes too... but as I watched, he twitched, then coughed, dark blood running down his front. He was certainly almost at Mot(or Whoever rules their dead)'s door as he gasped and gaped like a grounded grouper, trying to breathe through the bubbling hole in his chest. I went over and knelt by his side. His eyes widened to see one of his sworn enemies looming over him; he tried to roll away from me but he couldn't, just lay there. I pulled him back and offered him a drink from a skin of wine someone had dropped in the fray. He couldn't hold it, so I held it for him; he couldn't drink either, so I did that for him too, polished off the whole skin in fact, and held his hand as he said a final prayer to his God, then passed him my dagger and helped him finish himself off. Another devil down, Soch would say. Fuck him.
And as I was coming up the road, whom should I spy but big brother himself, limping ahead of me with his surviving pals. They'd stopped running, and were now walking as fast as the slowest among them, some guy from Nasim who'd got a bad gash in his leg and was supporting himself with a hayfork crutch. I didn't have too much to say to them, so I crept up close behind to listen to their take on the battle. Surprisingly, they weren't exclaiming how the greatest thing in the world is cutting the bellies out of the folks next town. In fact they weren't saying too much at all. But I knew at least one for whom the terror of the recent rout was nothing beside the unimaginable horror he'd have to face when he got home. This was going to be fun.
The walk wasn't, though. The knock on my noggin was the size of a goat patty, not bleeding too much but throbbing painfully (actually not too painfully, more urgently?) along with my heart. My left eye was blurred and I was a little dizzy too, but I was in better shape than the guy from Nasim, and easily managed to keep up.
The other boys split off for their own homes one by one, so by the time he got home, Soch was all alone with his terrible task. How would he handle it? I was dying :) to find out. He himself was in no hurry to get it over with, but finally, after some agonized pacing, he stopped outside our cave, drew a deep breath, and went in. I crept up behind and peeked in as he squatted to rouse Ma.
"Ma, you awake?"
He shook her shoulder.
"Ma, wake up! Shim's dead!"
She snapped bolt upright.
"I'm sure, Ma, saw him go down. Skull bashed right open."
She stared at him.
"Bring him to me."
"I can't. He's back at the place, they could still be there."
"Thou tookst him there and watched him fall, and didn't even stop to carry him back?"
"But Ma, there was throngs of them, we had to get out fast…"
"So how'st thou know he's dead? He could be bleeding out there, and his mother not there to hold him and kiss him and…"
"Trust me, Ma, he's done. I'm really sorry. We'll go get him tomorrow."
"Take me to him."
"I told you..."
"Thinkst thou they'll attack a grieving mother? Take me now."
"Shit, Ma, really?"
She didn't answer, just sank to the floor and curled herself into a tight ball, sobbing hysterically.
"Fuck. All right, sure. Stay here, I'll get the boys."
He burst out of the cave and headed up to Echomias', and Ma started wailing and tearing her hair. I ran in and grabbed her.
"Ma, it's me!"
She looked up at me through tear-red eyes, which grew wide with wonder.
"Shi…" she started to cry joyfully.
"Sshh," I said, finger to her mouth. She jumped up and we hugged each other fiercely, she like she'd never let go again. "Shim, Shim, my darling baby Shim..." she wept, and considerably more like that, till I started feeling downright unworthy. But at last she loosened her embrace and I was able to make my escape.
"Got anything to eat?"
But she just stared at me wonderingly.
"Soch said thou wert…"
"Soch says lots of things. Don't tell me you still believe any of them."
She kind of laughed and sobbed at the same time.
"That's the last time, I think. Let me see thy head."
I knelt and she examined my wound.
"That looks sore." And she touched it softly.
"Aiii!" A burning spear pierced my skull, and the past few days overwhelmed me and I started sobbing, heaving, wanting to throw up, but trying to suppress it in front of Ma. In Gitta, we don't hold with unnecessary displays of emotion, especially when their cause is done.
"Iron up," she said. "It's not that bad. Here, I'll kiss it."
And she did, and it really did feel much better. In fact that throbbing pain was gone, in its place only utter weariness. I didn't feel a thing when she got water to wash my head and salves to anoint it. I was safe home, that's all that mattered.
As she dressed my wound, I told her the whole sad tale. I tried to gloss over the part where I betrayed my village, my people, by sabotaging their glorious engine of victory, but she didn't seem to care about that.
"As long as my boys are back safe, praise be to the Lords!"
She started to raise a hymn of thanksgiving, but I shushed her.
"Don't let him know just yet. Let him stew a bit."
No need, for at that moment Soch and the gang burst in. When my brother saw me, he went even paler than I felt. I couldn't resist. I waved my arms at him and moaned,
"Thouuu left me to die! Thouuu must pay for thy crimes!"
and came up close and touched his nose. His whole body went rigid, eyes popping, but he knew what he deserved, and he put his head down slowly to receive whatever phantasmal payback my vengeful spirit was about to deliver... then Ma and I both burst out laughing. He looked around in consternation. His friends started laughing too, so he had to as well.
"Thou little..." he chuckled nastily. "I thought thee a goner for sure."
"And so did I," said Ma. He hung his head in shame for a second, then brightened up.
"But thou madest it. I knew thou wouldst. Wasn't that a scrap? Ma, you should've…"
She flashed him a look and he backed out of the cave fast, then popped his head in again.
"Say Shim, was there anyone else...?"
He ducked out again. All that night, Ma held onto me like I was like two years old. Soch slept outside. The next morning, they went and picked up the dead ones, and it was a while before Soch picked another fight with a Sami. In fact, there was only one other from then to now. It was the time he got his own head bashed on the road to Tyre, and you've heard all you're going to about that.More!