Sample Chapter: "Scourging of the Village" Pax Humana, Book Two
O Gurca was a fat, squat little human. He had been tax collector in the Imburka region since his father died seventeen years ago. Bera province was his territory, and in addition to his own village of Ghun three other small settlements fell under his control.
This afternoon was Gaml, a sleepy place with more gardens than buildings. There was an obligatory temple, of course, but it was really just the focul point for several outlying farms, a communal space where the farmers would meet to discuss matters of municipal importance. The death of the head of a family, for example. The parceling and distribution of his land afterwards, if necessary. Or, such worries as one farmer notifying the others about a sickness in his stock. A virus among the ipen could spread to other farms, and the residents of Gaml depended on the little domesticated fowl for their subsistence and their tax payment. Every month the farmers would travel into town with their stock.
Gurca and his deputation rode in at midday, the dust from their turuk clouding up around them. He hated his job. It was sweaty and dusty and he had to deal with the stupid prosien barbarians. Every month there was some problem, some complaint of theirs that required his extra effort to resolve.
The arch of the village gate passed overhead. Gurca looked back at his four mounted human guards and the group of wagons driven by natives. They began lining up to pass through single file. Already a coterie of the farmers was coming out to greet them, a few fathers but mostly the eldest sons, their wives, some children bearing trays of food and drink. Gurca dismounted in front of one of the open warehouses and went to meet the farmers, as behind him the wagons began the complicated process of backing up into place.
“Jeso Tweir.” The prosien man standing in the first warehouse was early middle-aged, the equivalent of a human of about thirty years, though he had probably spent no more than fifteen in this world. “Agent Gurca.” Jeso bowed his head appropriately. “All is well with you, I hope.” Gurca stopped just close enough to Jeso for his height to be intimidating. “How is your family.” Jeso ducked his head again. “My father died a few weeks ago. A sudden pain in his chest at the dinner table. I am head of the household now. It’s why I traveled with my stock this time, to tell you this.” Gurca accepted this silently, processing the information. His bulgy eyes squinted as his slow mind worked. “On my next round of collections I will bring my seal to legitimize you and ratify the transition of lands. Let’s get this loaded up.” Jeso’s younger brothers came forward and began carrying the cages of squawking birds up the wagon’s ramp. Gurca retrieved his walking stick from his turuk’s saddle straps, a heavy knotted cane that helped support his shiftless bulk, and waddled off to get a drink.
Thirty minutes later the commotion outside was settling down. The last of the cages had been loaded onto the last of the wagons and the families were cleaning up, preparing to leave. Children were playing in the well-trampled dirt, chasing flying insects and laughing. Gurca sat on a bench outside Jeso’s warehouse. He was quite drunk. Free food and drink was one of the few benefits of his job, and he had partaken heavily of both. Leaning on his cane, he heaved himself to his feet.
Jeso was talking to his brothers. They stood in a group but dispersed as he turned toward Gurca. Jeso waited obediently until the tax agent had finished inspecting the shipment. Through the slats of the wicker cages, stacked ten high, he could see the birds peering about in fear and defecating on each other. “Everything is in order,” Gurca said, dropping the heavy curtain covering the back of the wagon. The two men turned to go their separate ways.
A metallic drone floated down from the roof of the warehouse. Its flat-black body did not glisten in the sun; it was powered by no visible source of propulsion . It hovered in the air behind the wagon. Gurca and Jeso were both walking away, the wagon driver sat staring blankly forward, oblivious to its presence. He raised the reins to rouse the turuk into motion.
A spindly arm extended from the drone. Its many elbows maneuvered a grasping hand with machine precision. The hand moved aside the curtain. Another arm came out of the drone, this one ending in a slender silver wand. A gray beam of light emanated from the tip of the wand. The drone turned slightly in the air, sweeping the beam across the stacks of cages. The collective chattering of the birds was silenced and the wagon got lighter by half. The driver was jostled as it rose on its axles. Startled, he sat up and looked around. The drone dropped the curtain and flew away, disappearing into the sky.
Gurca had turned back, sensing something was up. There had been a strange sound, the sound of an absence being created. The wagon was still bouncing, as if a large rock had just been pushed out of its bed. He looked to the driver for an answer, found the man blinking back at him. Jeso was far enough away that he had not noticed the activity. Gurca clumped over like an angry duck and pulled back the curtain. A sickly burnt smell wafted out. He gasped. The cages were empty. “Hey!” Gurca spun around to face Jeso. The prosien froze in place as the voice of human command seized him. “You!” The tax agent had become instantly furious. “Come back here!” Gravitated by fear, Jeso forced his body to obey. “What is the problem, Agent Gurca?” He said as he approached. Gurca sneered. “What is the problem. Where are my ipen?” Jeso worked the muscles of his throat, but words refused to form there. He was confused and afraid. His hand jerked up, gesturing to the wagon. “There, lord.” He had slipped into the deference of the peasant, all veneer of equality washed away, exposing the real relationship between human and prosien. He looked around nervously for support; saw his brothers coming back into the warehouse. They kept a wary distance. Some of the other families had begun to gather outside. Gurca swept back the curtain. “Where!” He yelled, the word echoing, slapping off the walls. “Where are my birds!” Jeso gaped at the empty cages. His head began shaking, no, no, over and over again in a little loop, refusing to believe what he was seeing. Gurca dropped the curtain, advanced on Jeso until once again he towered over him. “This is some trick? Eh? Speak!” He raised his cane as Jeso cowered and was about to strike when he lost balance and fell, landing in a ridiculous heap at Jeso’s feet. Jeso reflexively reached out to help him up. Gurca was making an inarticulate gurgling noise of rage and humiliation. He struggled back to his feet, swatting Jeso’s hands away in irritation. “Get your hands off me!” He screamed, and swung with the cane. It connected with Jeso’s head, making a muted cracking sound. The prosien slumped to the ground. Two of his brothers started forward, were restrained by a third. “You dare cheat me!” The cane rose again, came down on Jeso’s chest. His unconsciousness body took the blow like a piece of meat hit with a mallet. “You dare!” Gurca was frothing in his madness. He lashed with the cane, again and again, pummeling Jeso’s torso, breaking his arms, pulpifying his face. His family stood aghast at the sudden horror.
Gurca was panting, heaving, looking down at the mess he had made. Jeso Tweir was clearly dead, his body now more a collection of mismatched parts than anything resembling something that had once been alive. His arms protruded at obscene angles; his features were mashed and unrecognizable. A girl shrieked, a chilling wail that was cut off by her mother’s hand over her mouth. The silence returned, lasted too long. Gurca looked up at Jeso’s family. He looked at the prosien holding the reins. He looked back at his guards, shouldering their way through the people to protect him from nothing. He calmed his breathing. “I don’t know what kind of trick this was,” he said, eyes locked onto those of the oldest brother, who had now become the head of household, “but this is a serious crime. Gaml will be scourged, your tax payment doubled for a year.” He walked away, his guards falling in behind. “For all of you!” He indicated the families lingering on the fringe of the gruesome scene. With some assistance from a guard, Gurca mounted his turuk. He and the wagons rode away into a screen of dust.
A month had passed. The Tanor moon had completed its full circuit around mother Geshiah, and now hung above Gaml village like a great marbled eye; too beautiful to be indifferent, too far away to help. It was midday.
The contingent of palace soldiers occupied the road ahead of O Gurca and the wagons. They had marched all the way from the capitol and they were tired, thirsty, ready to ravish any female they encountered. Their bronze armor gleamed in the sun. O Gurca rode atop his turuk with the fearless indignation of one who has found other people, stronger people, to do his fighting for him. The mighty fist of the god king was about to smash Gaml, and he was looking forward to the show.
They had rounded a curve in the road, passed by a cluster of trees that blocked their view of the village. Ten minutes’ ride would take them to the little open gate. A low-ranking soldier broke off from the front of the column, trotted back to match pace with Gurca’s weary mount. He saluted. “Agent Gurca.” Gurca acknowledged him with a discourteous nod. “Sir. There is smoke coming from the village.” Gurca started in his saddle, peered through the swirling dust kicked up by the ranks before him. He could see it, barely, a dark smudge rising up and dispersing in the higher wind. A faint twinge of fear shuddered through him. He dismissed it. “Double time,” he said to the soldier, and as the man rode away he called out: “Be careful.” He motioned his guards to a forward position and dug in his spurs.
The village was empty. No friendly faces greeted him with treats selected from their own pantries. The village temple had been destroyed; its foundation was still smoldering, the stone façade bearing the likeness of the god king laying face down in the dirt. Gurca sat atop his turuk, the fear growing in his stomach like he had eaten a poisonous mushroom. “This is an outrage!” he called out, his voice carrying across the town square. A few scavenger birds lifted off a fence and performed aerial stunts above his head. “An outrage,” he repeated. The words fell flat, their strength sapped by his uncertainty. He caught the eye of the troops’ commander. “Find them.” The captain nodded and began issuing orders; soldiers spread out around the buildings, wary, swords drawn. “Four sentries on that treeline,” he called out, and men split off, jogging nearly out of sight to the trees that bordered Gaml’s eastern side. Gurca spurred his mount, waving his guard forward. He cursed the prosien under his breath. Now he would have to send out search parties into the various farms and bring in the heads of household one by one. It could take several days to collect the tax payment. He would have to sleep in a tent. Well, in the meantime the village would be punished. He would see to that.
Gurca spied something inside the warehouse where Jeso Tweir had died. He rode forward slowly, stopping at the entrance. There was an arrangement of flowers over a pool of dried blood. Gurca swallowed his gorge and snuffled back a tear. The first stone hit his face.
A bright flash of pain was his first sensation. Then the dread settled in and he knew what was happening. Stones began raining down around him; each one finding its target, he knew by the cries of his guards behind him. He dug his heels into his turuk’s stomach and darted inside the warehouse, its hooves trampling the flowers. He pulled up to a halt in the middle of the open space, not sure where was safe, but sure it was better than out there. For his guards had not made it to safety.
Three of them lay where they had fallen, obviously knocked out of their saddles while coming to his aid. Their turuk still trotted forward, reins slack. The fourth was crawling, bruised, broken, fingers digging into the dirt to pull himself under the cover of the warehouse roof. A stone hit him in the back, near the base of his spine. He took the blow with a deep silent shudder, dragged himself another inch. Gurca stood looking at him, absorbed with the terror on the man’s face. He felt a surge of courage, suppressed it. It was what the guards were here for. To protect him, to die for him if necessary. Another projectile sliced open the back of the man’s hand. A delayed-reaction moan issued from his mouth. Another few feet. It seemed he would make it. But then several more rocks fell, finishing the job. The guard lay twisting into himself like a bug, stepped on but not quite dead. Gurca shouted for the soldiers. “The roof!” He pointed up, over and over, to where he could now hear the scrabbling of many bodies moving about. Shadows flickered above his head. It was obvious where the attack was coming from; the soldiers largely ignored his frantic noises. They had raised their shields and were moving in lockstep toward the warehouses. Stones bounced and pinged off the metal. A few found an arm or a sandaled foot. Here and there a soldier would drop out, be dragged out of range by his comrades, and another would take his place. They reached the walls of the buildings and began to climb, taking more hits as they were forced to expose themselves. ‘They will run out of rocks soon. They must,’ Gurca thought hopefully. But there was no sign of the bombardment diminishing. The residents of Gaml had spent much of that month stockpiling missiles. It had become the game of little boys, to see who could collect the most rocks per day. The men’s final task after their regular chores was to haul dozens of baskets up out of sight with creaking ropes. They had one hundred stones for each soldier down there, and they had practiced throwing them at moving targets.
Gurca was demanding that the captain come and rescue him, even though it appeared he was already in the place of greatest safety on this sudden battlefield. However, a few of the wounded soldiers actually went back and got him, escorting the blubbering fat bureaucrat out through the fray under their shields. They took hits that were meant for him. Then he stood and watched the spectacle with wide eyed fascination.
It was not clear how many prosien were up there on the rooftops. The upper hemisphere of a head would appear briefly then an arm would flash out and a stone would whizz down to crack a skull. The warehouses were four stories tall, and an object only dropped from that height would knock a man unconscious. The soldiers were scaling the uneven walls, finding purchases for hands and feet in the loose rough masonry. They were continuously pelted with rocks about their shoulders and faces, and some dropped off screaming to break their backs on the ground, but others fiercely dogged on. It was the most amazing thing Gurca had ever seen. Then what looked like huge bags tipped over the sides, drenching the soldiers in a torrent of stinking offal, for the villagers had slurried the feces of their ipen with water into a thick mud. This was too much for the soldiers it fell upon and they dropped to be punched by their denting armor. A giddy cry of joy and defiance rose up from the rooftops.
Gurca was calculating the cost of his guards and some soldiers versus the expense of building five new warehouses. He tried to imagine what would look worse on his report. Warehouses took months of labor. Soldiers were…expendable. He looked over at the captain, caught the glare of fury on his face. “Send more men,” he said in what he hoped was a tone of command. The captain snapped his head around, stared at Gurca. “No. We’ll burn them down.” Gurca started to object but the captain cut him off. “Agent Gurca. With respect, you do not give tactical orders. You have given me a job to do; I will do it the way I know how.” He dismounted and ran to assist with the casualties, shouting: “Fall back! Fall back!” His men complied, some more reluctantly than others. They had been humiliated by these native barbarians, and they wanted their due of blood. But collectively the men pulled each other out of danger. As soon as the last had gone out of range, the rocks stopped falling. A head popped up here and there. The raucous of the fight subsided into an aftermath of groans and curses.
“Cut down some of those trees!” The captain pointed and those that could, ran to obey. The others helped each other bandage up and fashion splints; the wounded tending to the wounded. The sun began its afternoon arc, and shadows crept out from the men and the turuk and the wagons. Soldiers started coming in with arms full of firewood. “”Make five big piles,” the captain ordered, “we’ll make concentrated runs.” For a few hours it was nothing but this and Gurca contemplating the feeling of his career sliding down a cliff. The shadows had grown long when the five piles of wood were complete. “Two to carry, four to block.” The soldiers began making runs to the warehouses, stumbling under loads of kindling, huddling beneath the shelter of another man’s shield. For another hour at least they performed this task, further depleting the villager’s supply of ammunition, but managing the most of it without any further injuries.
Now the five warehouses had stacks of fuel built up around their bases. A final raid into the bruising rain allowed each squad time enough to light their pile on fire.
Gurca sat on his turuk and watched the blaze begin. This was not what he had wanted, not at all. This was bad. If the damn prosien had not resisted their village’s scourging, it would not have been taken to this level. How was he ever going to explain this to his superiors.
The fire rose about the walls of each building, growing in strength, its heat radiating back onto the men who stood observing, wary and hateful and proud. It provided a welcome warmth to those huddled on the ground, broken or bleeding, as the sun began to set and nature’s cold took over the world. No more heads appeared on the rooftop. Gurca wondered what the people up there were thinking.
A crack sounded from one of the warehouses, echoing out of its open bay, turning every head in the camp. A wall shuddered, collapsed in a heaping mound of stone chunks and flame. A portion of the roof above it caved in, and Gurca saw several bodies tumble down into the carnage. Screams rayed out into the night. The hair on the back of Gurca’s neck perked up, in fear and sinister pleasure. He hated himself but loved this moment.
As if the first had been a sign to the others, as one the rest of the warehouses crumbled. A cry like no man present had heard before burst out of the blossoming hell. Gurca looked around at the soldiers. Some were exuberant, leaping in the air and yelping; others sat stoic, too hurt or too shocked to celebrate. But at the captain’s call of “Move in!” they all stood, drew swords, and marched methodically toward the destruction they had created. The slaughter began. Torsos protruding from the rubble were stabbed, limbs sticking out were hacked. A moment before Gurca would have told you he could not imagine a person suffering more pain.
“Count the bodies!” The captain squinted into the glare of the fires until one his men ran up. “Sir, there’s only five adults in there, near as we can tell. Near as we can tell, it was mostly children.” He was dismissed. The captain absorbed this, carefully controlling his emotions. ‘It was mostly children.’ The thought disturbed him. He turned to Gurca. “How many people live in this village?” Gurca fumbled in his mind for the figures. The captain saw this and tried to make it easy for him. “How many adult males.” Numbers began manifesting in the tax collector’s head. “Gaml village has eight farms,” he began, rote reciting the basics of his job, “two families per farm, most have a father, all have at least three full grown sons…” The captain was doing the math. “So there’s about fifty of them.” He surveyed his troops. They had arrived at Gaml this morning a force twenty five strong, weary from the road, but tough and ready to fight. Now about half were wounded, some very badly. Four sentries on the treeline. In all he had about ten left who were realistically combat effective. Ten well-trained, armed and armored human warriors against fifty prosien farmers. Fairly even odds; he had faced worse.
The captain spoke to the man nearest him who was still standing. “Bring back the sentries.” The man nodded and trotted off. “Someone go with him!” he added and another joined his comrade. “Load the wounded onto the wagons!” He turned to Gurca. “We are leaving this place.” Again Gurca protested and was overridden by the captain’s tone of experienced command. “We will return, with more men.” He swept his gaze across the fiery wreck of the village, the light of an obscene horror dancing upon his face. “Not now. Not like this.” He was moving to join the activity when a noise caught his attention. It was someone yelling from out by the trees. A man had burst through the treeline and was running towards them, staggering, barely keeping himself erect. As he got closer they saw that he was naked, had something sticking out of his side. The troop froze in its various motion and prepared for action, but one of the soldiers recognized the flailing figure. He called out his name. It was one of the sentries, and he was impaled by a tree branch in his abdomen. He reached the camp, tripped, skidded to a halt in the dirt. He was dead. The captain, Gurca, and all of the men looked up at the trees. There, catching the furthest reaches of the firelight, was a long row of glistening eyes. Far overhead, that same little drone hung in the air, silently watching it all.