N. Eileen O'Neill


~~Part One~~


It was a long journey up the mountain to Borderville-by-the-trail, the little town that sits below the high reaches but above the bigger, more civilized towns and cities. My home, for the moment. I had to make the trip down to Varnirr every month, but this was the first time my lovely Shayla had elected to accompany me. I was pleased but not surprised to find that she bore her heavy pack without complaint, nor did I have to slow my pace to accommodate her. Each of us carried more than our own weight in supplies as we traveled up and up, across barren rock on a trail that sometimes gained altitude at a faster rate than its horizontal progress.

As we walked, Shayla worked at another of her stones. It was rare to see her without one. She started with an ordinary smooth rock such as anyone might find alongside the trail. I often saved a likely rock for her when I happened upon one, and sometimes she found my choices suitable for her art. It took her several weeks to complete each one, and during that time she carried it with her wherever she went, worrying at it with her metal file or another stone or, toward the end of the process, a rough bit of cloth.

The results were like Daimon-fire, beautiful and strange. There was a dealer in Varnirr who paid well for them, and probably reaped a handsome profit when he sent them on to the larger cities to be resold. Shayla did not attach much importance to being one of the better-paid citizens of Borderville, which is not an affluent town. She is from the mountains, and has never attached the importance to money that is taught from a young age to those of us raised in the lowlands.

We did not talk much as we neared the end of our trek. Both of us were looking forward to the familiar sights of home, and in particular, the Trailside Tavern where we would be able to rest and enjoy a cool drink.

As we approached the tavern, however, we were subjected to the arrogant gazes of four junct Simes and a rather scroungy-looking Gen, all sitting on a bench like a row of temegrants with their feet propped on the porch railing. My Shayla has a gentle nature, and her desire to go inside ebbed considerably at this greeting. I put my hand at the back of her waist, the closest I could come to putting my arm around her given the cumbersome packs we both wore, and urged her to keep walking. This was my town, and these were strangers. It would take more than a challenging look to drive me off.

As we passed, I projected a menacing air at them. Shayla took courage from this and followed my example. She has a powerful nager, typical of true mountain renSimes (Borderville, despite the half-day climb we had just made, is not considered an actual mountain town). And my own field is substantially stronger than hers. These four Simes were of the more ordinary variety, and while none of them took their feet down or moved away as we passed, I could tell three of them would have liked to. The exception was a tall, thin woman who zlinned more as if she wanted to attack me. I had her pegged as the leader of this sorry crew. Her field, though not particularly formidable in strength alone, carried an unmistakable ring of dominance.

Shayla tightened her grip on the metal file she held. It had not been manufactured with a terribly sharp point, but over time, the stones she slowly altered through its use had worked their changes on the tool as well. It now formed a wicked, irregularly shaped weapon, though I had never thought of it as such before this moment. As I said, Shayla was a gentle person, but she was prepared to defend herself. Living in a place like Borderville, one had to be.

As we crossed the porch, she kept her cautious attention on the Gen in the group, since unlike the others he would not even have to rise from his seat in order to attack us. Not that I would have allowed him to harm her. As killer Gens went, he didn't impress me very much. If he tried any such tricks on me, he'd learn that he was dealing with a Sime who was able to deflect his nageric attack—and also capable of paying him back in the same coin.

Inside, we found another half-dozen of the same sort. Three Simes were playing at peridottle with another Gen every bit as disreputable-looking as the one outside, and two more of their Gens were seated at the bar, gazing into each other's eyes in an infatuated manner. A handful of local farmers were there as well, and their fields brightened with welcome when Shayla and I walked in. These were people who normally could not bring themselves to treat me with any hint of civility whatsoever. But their antipathy to me was overshadowed by their suspicion of these strangers.

Borderville, and the Trailside Tavern in particular, was a regular stopping-point for all manner of travelers. Farmers, merchants, vacationers… and more than a few that were on the wrong side of the law. But this group was different. To me—and to my fellow townspeople, unless I missed my guess—they looked like a pack of Wilders.

The obviously junct condition of all the Simes in this group, taken alone, would not have been held against them. Some of the locals were junct as well, in one sense or another. Technically, the term could even be applied to Shayla, though she had never killed anyone. In her case, it was the result of the unrestrained transfer practices of mountain Gens.

Borderville is a very easy-going community, far less restrictive than most of the lowland cities. Juncts and nonjuncts live side-by-side in relative harmony. This tolerant attitude does not extend to channels, of course. I suppose that even those who are willing to accept active juncts as their neighbors have to draw the line somewhere.

But their dislike of channels is nothing to their hatred of Wilders. Before they were exterminated—for the most part—these bands used to range across the lower reaches, descending on farms to slaughter the Simes and kill the Gens if they could. Their own Gens were said to enjoy eating the tender flesh of young children from these farms. To be named Wilder was a death sentence. The citizens of Borderville were fair, in their way. They would suspend judgement. They would wait and watch.

I walked over to the bar and took off my pack. Omrey, the owner of the place, had tall glasses of beer ready for myself and Shayla without our having to say a word. I smiled at her in thanks. Omrey is in the minority of local folk who are willing to treat me like a human being.

The beer was tart and delicious, which was no surprise to me, having brewed it myself. That is one talent of mine which the locals do not despise. I began taking things out of my pack, heartened by the knowledge that it would be far lighter when I continued up the trail. Omrey runs a kind of general store out of the tavern's back room, and many of the items we'd carried from Varnirr had been at her request.

Shayla began to take things from her pack as well, spreading them across the bar for Omrey to inspect, but none of us entirely took our attention from the strangers. Being Gen, Omrey took care to position herself so that the larger group of them was within her field of vision, even as she looked over the wares we had brought.

My back was to the ones who were tossing at peridottle, but I observed them carefully all the same. The Gen in the group kept compensating for the superior dexterity of her Sime companions by giving them a nageric nudge whenever they went to throw. Two of them thought this was hilarious. These two men were both in the early part of their cycles, and in a mood to appreciate the flirtation she was using to further distract their aim. The other Sime was a woman, and past turnover. Every time the Gen used her nager to spoil a throw, that one edged a little closer to violence. I resolved that I would do nothing to interfere, even if it came to a fatal confrontation between the two. Let their friends step in and stop it, if they were of a mind to do so. It was not my concern. I knew the local farmers would follow the same policy. At most, they might assist Omrey in throwing the strangers outside to settle their business elsewhere.

Before Shayla and I concluded our own business with Omrey, a larger group of locals came in, dampening the spirits of the peridottle players. They played more quietly for short while before loosing interest in the game and going off to drink in a back corner of the room. I wasn't surprised. Their type will almost never stir up trouble when they are outnumbered.

And perhaps they'd never intended to do more than enjoy a loud game of half-drunken peridottle. But they looked like trouble to me. It was worrisome that the Simes in the group had outnumbered the Gens. Unless I missed my guess, they were truly junct, though I would have had to zlin them more closely to be sure. Of course, it was not far to the local pen, just a short walk downslope from the trail. With any luck the strangers would move on before long.

After finishing a second glass of beer, Shayla and I took our much-reduced packs onto our shoulders and headed farther up the mountain. We began to see more greenery as we got closer to the fertile land that had given birth to this little community. At first, it was just the occasional small hollows known as kettles, which had developed soil over the years and now boasted a luxuriant growth of wild plants. A pair of goats was munching at one of these, and blocking the trail, so that we had to shove them out of our way. One of them kicked at me halfheartedly, and I slapped its hindquarters in retaliation. I was already starting to feel cheered. It was hard for me to stay unhappy for very long, so soon after a better-than-average transfer. In Varnirr, there are quite a surplus of lower-TN level Gens; even though it is not a large city, I can go down there and be guaranteed a variety of transfer opportunities, without any prior arrangement. I'd made a good choice this time out. And Shayla, not far past transfer herself, had allowed me to show her the local countryside for a few leisurely days afterward. It would take more than a pack of would-be Wilders to spoil my mood.

We crested a gentle rise in the trail, and acres of rolling farmland lay before us. We were noticed immediately by the very young Sime atop the watch-rock, where a bell hung within easy reach so that he could warn the farms below of danger. The little shelter at the top of the watch-rock was unoccupied more often than not, but in the time of these people's grandparents, a Sime was stationed there day and night.

This youngster, still in first year, recognized us and gave me a hostile glower, which I answered with a friendly wave. He'd doubtlessly picked up the attitude from his parents, who probably would have been a little more subtle about expressing it.

Shayla flared indignation on my behalf, but then her attitude turned mischievous. "I think he wants something from you, Meechi." She did her best imitation of a channel's enticement to transfer, which I have to say was not very good. Particularly dense Simes have sometimes mistaken Shayla for a channel, because of her field strength, despite the small detail of her having no secondary system.

"Careful with that, they'll start to treat you the same way as they do me." Among the local farmers, the Gens are far more willing to accept me than their Sime counterparts. They are sometimes a little scared of me at first, when it occurs to them that their normal Gen defenses would probably not work against me, in the unlikely event that I took it into my head to attack one of them. But once they get to know me a little better, most of them realize what a harmless creature I actually am.

The suspicions the Simes hold against me are a little more valid, perhaps. They are afraid I want to lure them into unnatural practices. In fact, I would like that very much, but I know better than to try. Bad enough, in their view, that I've been trained to do that sort of thing at all. If they knew I wanted to, they'd probably run me out of town altogether.

There is another channel, of sorts, living in the area. Dee, proprietor of the local pen. Which is a profession that even the nonjuncts hereabouts consider to be more respectable than offering secondary transfers. Occasionally, even without any training, Dee does her best to practice the channel's art on some desperate customer who doesn't have the price of a kill at the end of the month. I've encountered a few of them afterward, and they zlinned as if they would have gotten about as much satisfaction out of a selyn battery. But most of them would still rather go to her than to me, if it comes to that. Once in a great while, someone will show up at my door in the dead of night, when they hope their neighbors won't notice what they are up to. But I really only have one steady channeling client, and she is dying. I've done everything I can for her, and it isn't going to be enough.

As we approached the farm of Hran and Lurah, my good mood did begin to recede more than a little. That was our next stop, since it was on the way to the trail that led to my home, and to Shayla's. We climbed a steep flight of stone steps between two levels of cultivated land, and saw Hran working the fields with his grown son Tetham, who was also his transfer partner. I saw no sign of Lurah. I wondered for a moment if she had died in my absence, but there was no grief in the nagers of her husband and stepson, both of whom loved her well. They left off their work as we approached, and accompanied us to the house.

Lurah was in the kitchen with her two young children and a Gen named Rikka. Having seen our approach, she had already set out some sweet tea and biscuits. I zlinned her more thoroughly than I'd have dared to do with any other Sime hereabouts, and found that she'd grown no worse in the few days I had been gone. Which wasn't saying much. I'd given her transfer before I left, so it was still early in her cycle, but you wouldn't have guessed that from her tired, dispirited nager or from the dark rings below her eyes.

I made small talk about the sights Shayla and I had seen on our trip, and at the same time, dug a few small bottles of tea-dark syrup out of my pack. This was the main reason I'd stopped by, besides checking up on her to see how she was doing.

Lurah was junct, but had not killed for some twenty-odd months. Much younger than her nonjunct husband, she made the decision to stop killing a few years after they married, and before I came to Borderville. She began taking some drugs that Dee sold to her to keep her desire to kill under control. Disjunction drugs might seem an odd side-line for a pen keeper, but Dee is a person of business, and will provide her customers with whatever they desire if she can.

The drugs she bought from Dee were of decent quality, though I've found a better supplier down in Varnirr, but they were never meant to be used as a palliative. Though she is far from the first one to misuse them that way. My aunt Petra, who trained me, did not teach me any disjunction techniques. Since I began working with Lurah, I have researched the matter, and I can take some small comfort in knowing that if I ever have another patient with the same goal, I will be able to help more effectively. Especially if they come to me when they first arrive at the decision to disjunct.

Who knows what makes one junct decide to stop killing, but not another? I once spoke to a man who was over a dozen years past turnover when he made that decision, rather abruptly, after a pen Gen spoke just three words to him. He was in hard need, and killed the Gen anyway—and then went home and attempted suicide. After he was prevented from this by his family, he enrolled in a formal disjunction program, from which he had graduated nearly a decade earlier by the time I talked to him. He told me all this rather matter-of-factly, but would not say what the three words had been, and something in his nager told me not to inquire any further into that question.

The expert I had consulted regarding Lurah's case had told me that having misused the drugs as long as she had, her only real hope was to kill one more time to strengthen her system, and start over. Then she might have some chance of true disjunction. But the channel who told me this, who was disjunct himself, warned me that she might refuse. In that case, he said, continuing to use the drugs as she had been would prolong her life at least a little while.

Neither Hran nor I believed, at first, that she would really be unwilling to trade the life of one more mindless pen Gen for the chance to see her children grow up. Even after she said she would not do it, Hran went to the pen and bought a Gen to take home and tempt her with. It had been three months now since he had done that, and the Gen—Rikka—was still living in their house. She did not show any signs of developing human awareness, as some pen Gens will do when they are cared for as if they were children. At best, she was learning to be a well-behaved house pet. She was no help to Lurah with household tasks at all, but instead was an additional burden, sapping her limited strength and constantly demanding her attention. But Lurah continued to care for the girl as if she were a handicapped daughter. At this point, the psychological backlash of killing her pet would have outweighed any benefits, and even returning her to the pen was out of the question. Hran would have been happy to buy another Gen for his wife to kill, but saw no point in spending the money, because he had come to accept that she was entirely serious. When she'd said she would never kill again, she had meant it. When a junct does make that decision, they can be horrifyingly inflexible about it.

I have to say that if it were my life hanging in the balance, I don't think I would make the same choice. If I had to, I could live with whatever shame I felt at becoming a customer at Dee's establishment—the point being, I would live. Hran told me privately that he felt the same, bearing out something that the channel I consulted in Lurah's case had said. He told me that no nonjunct Sime can ever truly understand the meaning of such a choice.

Since she had made that decision, and evidently meant to stand by it, there was no way she could survive if I administered the drugs to her as they were meant to be used. She would have to stop taking them and allow her system to reach a crisis, at which point I would have given her a massive dose of the stuff, many times what she now took on a daily basis. And there was no guarantee that it would work. But it was a moot question. She had now required the drugs just to stay alive. Without them, she would die before reaching that necessary crisis point. With them, she might live another year or two… or she might enter a sudden decline at any time. When that happened, I'd been advised to give her that larger dose of the stuff, not with any hope of helping her survive, but simply to ease the pain of her death. I would leave that up to her.

After we left the farm, Shayla and I sought out another steep trail beyond the shelves of arable land. Before we reached the point where the trail split, I asked her, "Do you have to go home right away? Come up and visit me for awhile." I truly did not want to be alone just then. Sometimes I can distance myself from Lurah's situation, and other times it is harder.

"I had better go up and see Tayv and the others at least for a little while. Maybe I can come by later." Shayla knew I wanted her company, but she was eager to see Tayv. She could not bear to spend much time apart from him, even early in her cycle. Not that I had any trouble understanding that. He's the sort of Gen that has that effect on a Sime. What did bother me was the anxious way she seemed to crave his approval. I know they practice some odd customs, higher up in the mountains. Simes are the property of their Gens, and despite having walked away from that environment, Shayla did not seem able to shed all the habits she'd learned earlier in life.

"He can do without you for a little longer. He's got two other Simes."

She smiled, but I could tell I was not going to be able to lure her up to my brewery, at least not now. When we reached the place where the trail branched, I decided to follow her home, instead.

I was still feeling melancholy over Lurah, and I found myself wondering once again how much longer I would stay in Borderville. I could go somewhere else, where channels were not treated as if they suffered from some genetic deformity compounded by loathsome personal habits. But in addition to my responsibility to Lurah, Shayla was here, and I had come to care for her a great deal. And I knew I could not coax her away from her mountain Gen.

I had tried offering her transfer, and she had not been offended by the idea. Unfortunately, she hadn't been much tempted, either. I found myself wishing, once again, that she would at least give me a chance. It would be hard to compete with a Gen like Tayv, to be sure, but she might be surprised.

Sometimes, when she was in the later part of her cycle, my longing to do that for her was so strong it was painful. It wouldn't have meant that much to me if I didn't care about her so. I hoped that she would try it, at least once. But when I'd tried to entice her, she'd thought it was funny. The culture she comes from is very different from the one here, but channeling is not practiced there, either.

Higher in the mountains, most Simes have only a little more intelligence than Rikka. And nobody knows why. Unlike pen Gens, they are not drugged. They are the children of the mountain Gens, but after changeover, they seem to lose track of their wits. It's considered entirely normal there.

Intellect is not a highly praised trait in the mountains, but the Gens are not stupid. Various theories are bandied about as to why the Simes usually are. Perhaps it has something to do with the Daimon, who interact with humans on a daily basis in the higher reaches. Or perhaps something in the Sime physiology cannot tolerate the low oxygen content of the air up there as well as Gens and children do.

Shayla was an unusually bright child, and thus considered unlikely to change over. When she did so, it was a disappointment to her family—just as it was a mystery to them when she continued to exhibit intelligence that was not just normal, but well above average. In her village, cases of this sort were handled by declaring the Sime to be an honorary Gen. But of course she was not really treated as such, and decided to try her luck in the lowlands. Her confidence, already low because she was a Sime from a culture that equates Sime with imbecile, was further shaken when she was refused entry into the city of Amabruto on the basis of being junct.

Amabruto, of all places. Of all the Tecton towns, I have never understood why she would want to go there. I'm sure they wouldn't let me in either. A renSime with my history might be admitted, on a probationary basis, but I doubt my approach to channeling would meet with their approval.

I grew up in the little town of Callai, which is not much different from a thousand other such towns scattered across the surface of Freysea. I was sent to live with my aunt Petra when I was very young, because my parents figured she would know how to handle me, being a channel herself. And my mother, who had never quite recovered from the strain of my birth, was happy to have someone else do the work of raising me.

Aunt Petra had no children of her own, and was at somewhat of a loss as to what to do with me when I was little. She left my care mostly to her Gen, Navarra, who was also childless. But my aunt developed more interest in me after I changed over, and did a fine job of teaching me all the basics of ordinary channeling, along with a few special tricks handed down to her by her mother.

The channels in our family tend to be relatively low-capacity but high in sensitivity, and excellent natural mimics. I am no exception. The fact that Lurah had lived this long was due largely to my own modification of the techniques Aunt Petra taught me. Popular wisdom has it that a nonjunct channel such as myself can never offer true satisfaction to a Sime who has tasted the kill. Lurah has experienced transfer from both myself and Dee, who is herself as unabashedly junct as the Hordes of Hagarath, and she would take issue with that idea.

I don't have to enjoy pain to replicate it. Working as a healer, I have zlinned pain many times, and even death. I've experienced pain myself, and fear, and can amplify those memories and transmute them into Gen pain and fear simply by creating the illusion of selyn production. And of course I have felt the normal Sime attraction to those darker emotions, though I honestly believe there is deeper satisfaction in joy.

Secondary transfer is an art form, in some ways not too different from brewing beer out of all the varied ingredients I use (also an old family tradition, taught to me by my uncle Stev). I'm sure the APC would agree with me that far. But they take an unfavorable view of simulated kills. They feel that the only answer for any junct Sime is enrollment in a certified disjunction program. I'm sure that neither my somewhat informal training, nor some of the practices I've developed over the years to meet the needs of my clients, would satisfy the standards of a place like Amabruto or Quissa. This has never caused me much in the way of angst.

As for Shayla, after being turned away from the gates of Amabruto, she found herself in rather of a bind. Unfamiliar with the customs of the lowland towns, she had no idea how to earn the price of the TN-level transfers she requires. Imagine the depth of her relief when she happened upon Tayv, a mountain Gen who had also chosen to abandon the high reaches for reasons of his own. He'd brought his two Simes with him. In the mountains, Simes are generally kept in pairs. But he had enough selyn to support Shayla as well, and was willing to do so, not that she has exactly been a burden to him. Unlike the other two, she more than earns her keep.

When we reached the sprawling stone complex where Tayv lived with his three Simes, we took off our packs once again and leaned them against a low wall. Alye-ki came running to greet us, augmenting for the sheer joy of it, and tried to put his hands under Shayla's clothes. She pushed him away twice before loosing patience and striking him moderately hard in the face with one hand. He desisted without any ill-feeling and then turned and tried to kiss me on the mouth. Not very particular, that Alye-ki. I twisted out of the way and gave him a fruit chew I'd been saving for later. This distracted him for the moment.

At a more dignified pace, Tayv strode down the path from his drying shed. Watching him, I hovered at the brink of hyperconsciousness. That field of his can affect me at almost any point in my cycle. Most of the local Simes are wary of him. I've heard them describe his nager as bizarre and unnatural. It's certainly different from that of a lowland Gen of similar power, who would probably be trained as assistant to some high-level channel. But I can't imagine Tayv letting any Sime tell him what to do.

His nager speaks to me of the high reaches, where the thin air produces extremes of temperature, and cold winds blow across the ridges with such force that the unwary are sometimes shoved to their death by the force of the air alone. But it is a place of beauty, as he tells it. By night, dozens of small points of light can be seen in the sky, each representing a far-away sun. I can't imagine that I will ever see these places, but he talks about them sometimes, and makes me feel as though I have.

Not everyone would agree, but I happen to feel he has the most desirable nager of any Gen I have ever zlinned in my life. Unfortunately, he tells me he already has one Sime too many. Sometimes I can't help myself, and try to convince him to give me transfer, even knowing from experience that he will say no. Between that and the hold he has over Shayla, I sometimes resent him—when I am out of zlinning range. Standing face to face with him, I couldn't seem to summon any such feeling to combat the yearning that I felt—even then, not quite halfway to turnover.

"Meechi. Shayla-ki. How was your journey?" He clapped me on the shoulder and gave Shayla a fatherly kiss on one cheek.

"It went well enough," I told him. "We were able to get most of those elixirs you wanted, and the plants you sent down with us fetched a good enough price that you have some cash due you as well."

He acknowledged this with a nod. Tayv is a healer and an herbalist, and has always treated me with respect. Lurah, who thinks I should stay away from him, told me once to watch out that he doesn't start calling me Meechi-ki. He never has, though Shayla sometimes does. I might not mind if Tayv did the same, as long as it meant he'd changed his mind about providing me with transfer.

"Here, girl, your energy pattern is all out of balance. Turn around." He began rubbing Shayla's back. I couldn't zlin anything wrong with Shayla's field, but she was obviously enjoying the attention. I began to feel very glum again. I didn't see any way I could ever convince her to leave him and come away with me to live in Varnirr or some other such town, where I could practice my craft again instead of supporting myself as a brewer. I had done surprisingly well at that trade, but it just didn't offer me the same satisfaction.

At least there was no cause for sexual jealousy, where Shayla and Tayv were concerned. Neither of them had abandoned their mountain roots enough to find sex between the larities even remotely acceptable. If I felt any jealousy at all, it was based on the fact that he was unlikely to offer me any backrub. Not due to gender discrimination; he'd have been happy to do the same for Alye-ki. But it wasn't as if I was one of his Simes.

"You might want to look in on the Garreth farm, Meechi. They've had chest fever there. I left some concoctions, and did what energy work I could, but your methods work better with Gens."

"I'll offer, but I don't know if they'll want me there or not." Tayv had some odd ideas when it came to field-manipulation healing. He had a whole different vocabulary for it than the one I'd been taught, and the ideas did not translate exactly. There was no convincing him that he couldn't do nageric healing on his fellow Gens, but he would admit I seemed to have more of a knack for it. And while I could heal Simes, if they'd let me, I had to concede he had an edge on me in that area.

"I spoke to them about it, and they would be grateful to have your help. No-one there is in serious danger, but they are eager to be on their feet again so that they can return to their work."

"I'll stop by, then." Tayv and I frequently call on one another's talents when it comes to healing, because our skills complement the other in just the way that the two larities were meant to do. And he has begun teaching me something of his mountain herb-lore, as well.

"There's another matter…" Tayv turned suddenly, his attention diverted to the open crawl-space beneath his herb drying shed. Kora-ki, his third Sime, had been hiding there since she'd first spotted me coming up the trail. Alye-ki had joined her there, and after sharing his fruit chew, had started unfastening her clothes. He was finding her much more cooperative in this matter than Shayla. "You Simes stop that, now! Go somewhere else and do that." He mimicked throwing a rock at them, and though his hand was empty, I could almost swear I zlinned a fist-sized rock in his grip, similar to the ones Shayla uses for her carvings. They both stared at him as if unable to comprehend what he wanted. He made another throwing gesture, and Alye-ki got up and augmented away behind a tall formation of rock that formed the back wall of the compound's main building. After looking at Tayv for another long, puzzled moment, Kora-ki pulled up her pants and went scrambling to catch up with her playmate.

Tayv looked at me apologetically and shrugged. "As I was saying. There is another matter of some concern. I don't know if the two of you happened to see that pack of Wilders that's been hanging around the tavern for the past few days?"

"That's a strong word to use, Tayv. I've heard of people literally pulled to pieces by a mob after someone shouted that in the heat of anger."

"I've seen their kind before, and that's what they are. Not in the old sense, maybe. As for pulling them apart, well, it may be better than they deserve. I think the folk here are reluctant to believe there's any real danger. They've seen no true violence here in over a generation. I'm pleased to see the watch-rock occupied, but I'm afraid they've done that more as a matter of form than from a true understanding of the situation. I don't think the local folk are prepared to do what may need to be done. Though I am sworn to harm none, I may have to step in if things go much farther."

Sworn to harm none? It was the first I'd heard about that, and it certainly didn't fit with what I'd always heard about mountain Gens. He'd chosen to come down from there, true, but he still kept many of the customs. He carried the odor of the aromatic vegetable paste he rubbed on his skin before dressing, and always wore voluminous folds of cloth that were not really called for in the mild climate down here. But they served to hide the locations of no less than seven knives than he kept on his person, concealed from Gen eyes at least, though any Sime could tell where they were. Mountain Gens don't care about that. They carry all those knives to fight with other Gens, and are said to do so with little or no provocation. Though I had never seen any sign of such behavior from Tayv.

"It's an oath I may have to violate, though. I can't just look on while the villagers here are victimized. If it comes to that, will you stand with me?"

"I'm sworn to mind my own business, personally, and to avoid trouble." Even as I said it, I was ashamed of myself. I could tell he was in the grip of a moral dilemma which bothered him a great deal, whereas I was just trying to keep my head down.

But that's how people get by, here in Borderville. And why should I risk myself for people who treated me as if I had the weeping disease? Or for Tayv, the one Gen hereabouts who could have given me transfer—with plenty to spare—but didn't care to?

"It's Omrey I'm the most concerned about, Meechi. She has no trouble dealing with the general run of unruly drinkers, and the local farmers will help her out if they happen to be there, but I just don't think she understands what people like that are capable of. I went down there one day to find the place empty except for her, the Wilders, and old Villi. Somehow I don't think the two of them could have handled all eleven."

"I'll try and stop by from time to time and keep an eye on things." I thought it possible that he was exaggerating the danger from the so-called Wilders, but I would hate to think of Omrey being in any danger, since she's one of the few around here who treats me with any decency. She was willing to sit next to me for awhile when I simply wanted some Gen companionship. This was particularly helpful at turnover, an event that had gotten much harder for me since I'd been living in Borderville. Perhaps it was something in the water, but I suspected the lack of access to trained field technicians was probably the cause of it. She didn't have that training, but I'd begun teaching her how to help me, and she was willing to do that in exchange for my running errands for her in Varnirr once a month. It was a good arrangement for me, because I had to go down there anyway.

I knew Tayv's concern for Omrey was on a more personal level than mine, and yet he was up here and she was down there, which would not have been my response had I felt Shayla was in danger. That, too, is part of his mountain ways. Every Gen must fend for themselves, and no-one from that background is any stranger to sudden death, or shocked by it in quite the same manner as lowlanders.

I reached for my pack, suddenly anxious to be gone before he tried to talk me into a more specific commitment in this matter. Before I could put it on, he laid his hands on my shoulders, not asking permission in any form—not that I would have withheld it. Normal Gen etiquette does not apply to people like Tayv. I was not about to try to instruct him in such a matter, not when he was stroking my back like that, affecting me in a way that Omrey would never have been able to do. Which was just as well, because there was no real danger of my developing a transfer fixation on her.

"I appreciate that, Meechi. And please keep me informed if you see the situation start to deteriorate further. Because I intend to do whatever I feel is necessary in order to protect the village."


Part Two

Eileen's Index

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