If only he wouldn't be so blame blasted Independent!
Zeth often found himself thinking that, angrily, in the days that followed. Ever since that day of the raid, he had given all his strength to making Owen fend for himself.
But as the days passed after Owen left Fort Freedom, Zeth began to realize what that meant. His friend, an adult Gen, had to leave him behind just as a Sime left his childhood friends behind. Zeth finally let the unthinkable thought surface. Will he stay in Gen Territory?
One day when Owen had been gone for two weeks, Zeth encountered Marji after lunch, sitting on the back porch. She was depressed, caught up again in the teachings of her former spiritual leader, Mr. Bron, who held that Simes were possessed by demons.
"Marji, it's turnover depressing you," Zeth told her. "I've seen Simes possessed by evil—those two who cut off Owen's arm. If you'd seen that, and compared them to people like your grandfather—"
A stern voice interrupted from the top of the steps. "What's going on out here?"
It was Kadi Farris. She came swiftly down the steps and sat on Marji's other side. "What's wrong, Marji? Turnover?"
Marji jerked her head in a reluctant assent, then began visibly relaxing as the field of a skilled Companion did its work. She asked in wonder, "How can you tell?"
"Gen secret, as Hank likes to say." She smiled the radiant smile Zeth loved. "Actually, Marji, I haven't the least idea how I do it—I just let it happen. Now, what has my insensitive son been doing to upset you so?"
Marji shook her head. "It's not Zeth. I expected to hear from home by now. I guess I'm afraid of bad news."
Zeth's mother said positively, "If Owen had been thrown out, he'd be home by now."
"If no one got him along the way," said Zeth gloomily.
His mother frowned at him. "I'd stake Owen against the Border Patrol any day!"
As his mother took Marji into the house, Zeth decided to take his new horse out for some exercise. He whistled for Patches and went out to the barn to saddle up.
The bay filly had been a birthday present from the Bricks, although it was Jana who had presented her, saying, "She's from Owen, too, you know." But Owen had missed Zeth's eleventh birthday party, and the surprise party for Abel Veritt, too.
Zeth had named the horse Star, thinking, Now I can keep up with Owen wherever he goes! And then he remembered Owen was an adult, and he was just a kid. It would be that way forever!
Zeth remembered how he had felt just before Owen left– the irrational, total conviction of his imminent changeover. That conviction, more than anything, had sustained him as Owen struck for independence. Now that certainty of impending changeover had deserted him, and he felt lost.
He walked Star out of the barn, then turned onto the road and gave her an easy warmup until they were cantering breezily along the road. Patches ran ahead or behind, darting off to chase rabbits, barking joyfully.
Zeth was deep in his own thoughts. This is why Dad always says it's bad to get too dependent on a certain person. Of course, Rimon Farris was referring to the dependence of a Sime on a certain Gen, or vice versa. But this is how it must feel. I'm afraid of losing Owen. In changeover class, they'd taught him that that was the way a Sime in need felt about a Gen he'd fixed on. It was what made a Sime attack, strip selyn by force from the Gen—and kill.
The specter rose before his eyes—Owen dead, white and drained falling from Zeth's own hands.
No! I won't.
The walls of Fort Freedom loomed before him, the gate lookout hailing him with a friendly wave. Unable to think of anything else, he said, "I came to talk to Mr. Veritt."
"He's at his house!" called the lookout, and Zeth walked Star on into the circle of clean, white houses. Mrs. Veritt was on her front porch, hemming a dress.
"Hello, Mrs. Veritt," said Zeth, getting down from his horse. "Is Mr. Veritt home?"
"Yes, but he's about to go into town," she replied, just as her husband came out.
"Hello, Zeth, can I help you with something?" Abel Veritt appeared completely recovered.
"I ... just wanted to talk."
"If it's something we can talk about on the road, how about riding into town with me?"
Zeth accepted eagerly—children were not allowed to go into the town across the creek except with an adult.
Slina, Mr. Veritt explained, had a Gen she didn't want killed. "It's getting harder on her every year," he said sadly. "Someone has to run the local pen, and Slina does it as humanely as possible. I suppose she can manage as long as there are those who have need of it." He abruptly changed the subject. "Well, Zeth, what did you want to talk about?"
If it's Marji's turnover, thought Zeth with sudden insight– "It's your turnover day! I'm sorry, Mr. Veritt!"
The old man smiled. "You're very sensitive, son. Usually no one notices but the channels. Let's talk about you, not me."
"But that's just it. Turnover. Need. I ... I don't think I want to be Sime!" It was out before he thought. If any Sime hated being in thrall to his selyn system, it was Abel Veritt.
As if reading his mind, the old man said, "Your father will see to it that you don't kill, Zeth. Then you'll learn control. Look at Del—not even your father notices Uel's turnover. Hank always knows, but I'm certain he just keeps count, as part of his job."
Hank and Uel. All his life Zeth had heard the two spoken of in one breath, like bread-and-honey. "But what if Hank died or something?"
"Merciful God!" said Veritt, pulling his horse up short, whitelipped with shock.
"I'm sorry," Zeth said hastily. He didn't know where his manners had gone. Things just came blurting out. "It's just that I don't see how anyone can be sure of anything in life." That wasn't what he meant to say, either. He bit his tongue, afraid to make it worse.
With studied calm, the old man urged his horse up beside Star. The hot summer sun glared down from a cloudless sky. A lark took flight and Patches ran off, barking merrily.
"I understand how you feel, Zeth," said Veritt quietly. "It's a feeling no Sime can escape save for a few blessed moments after—a transfer."
"It doesn't mean I'm going to be Sime, though."
"No," agreed Veritt, more readily than Zeth wanted him to. "There's no way to know that until the first sign of changeover, or establishment." He sighed. "You tempt me to my worst fault, son—presuming to know God's will. Yet He has allowed me to know it at times. He allowed me to recognize your father. Our community must have other such channels, and you may be one. My granddaughter is also a channel, though. She will require—and need—a Companion."
"She's getting along fine with Trina."
"For now. But if you should establish, Zeth, you'll inherit your mother's abilities. She brought your father to his current capacity. There is a direct relationship between capacity and sensitivity—ask Rimon to explain it."
"You think maybe I was meant to be Marji's Companion?"
"Perhaps. Or perhaps you'll both be channels. God does not act without purpose—even if it's sometimes difficult to discern that purpose. He does not offer us certainty, Zeth, but observing His moves, we can find confidence and security in the goodness of His purpose. Whatever happens, it is for the best—when you've placed your trust in God."
But have I? Zeth always felt uncomfortable when Mr. Veritt spoke of his God. His parents respected the strange beliefs of Fort Freedom, but taught that the Creator of the world required nothing of man but to know Him through His works, and gave nothing to man but the capacity to gain such knowledge.
"I think I placed my trust in God when I prayed for Owen to be Gen. But I don't see what good it's done him—or me. I know you've placed your trust in God-I tried to tell Marji that when she was going on about you being a demon. But—I don't see what good it's done you. You still—oh, shen!" He's in need. Why can't I remember that!
Veritt didn't even admonish him for his language, though. "What's this about Marji?"
Zeth recounted his brief conversation with her after lunch. "You're not possessed by any evil spirit!"
"Yes, you are right. The need to kill comes from within me—not from any outside entity. I alone am responsible for the fact that despite years of effort I remain joined to the kill."
"While I've been recovering these last two weeks, I found it hard to zlin. The nerve-burn made me hypersensitive and it was like coming out of a dark cave into bright sunlight every time I went hyperconscious. But when I did zlin other Simes, I found a ... thread ... a characteristic binding all of us who have been unable to turn wholly to channel's transfer."
"How come my dad never noticed?" asked Zeth.
Veritt shook his head. "He took it for granted. He's zlinned it all along; when I pointed it out to him, his reaction was, so what? Perceiving a common characteristic in the nager of all Simes who kill is no help in teaching them not to kill."
"I don't understand."
"Other Simes say we are unnatural. Surely the purity of the nager of Simes who have never killed is the natural state. The mark of the killer is the mark of corruption—it unites all those who bear it, from the most vicious of Freehand Raiders to those who struggle to kill only once or twice a year.
"To be a killer is to be joined to the kill. Junct. Each of us must break free of this bond, Zeth. We must become disjuncted! Yes, that's the right word for it."
"But why make up a new word?"
"The word is the symbol for the thing. Most Simes can't perceive the thing itself. I could not until my injury left me oversensitive for a while. I—" He glanced over at Zeth and seemed to come back from a far distance. "Zeth, what I want you to understand is that our faith doesn't claim to make life easy. But by putting our trust in God, we find the effort of living becomes tremendously worthwhile. Owen is a treasure in our community. Thanks to your efforts, he has found a purpose in life. You did this for him, and for our whole community, when you put your trust in God."
They were crossing the wooden bridge to the road through the small town, riding toward Slina's pen with the crisp green flag flying above its buildings.
The town had changed, even in Zeth's lifetime. There was still a saloon, but it was no longer part of a ramshackle row of buildings. Now there were neat shops, a bank, and the magistrate's office at Slina's pen. Three years ago they had succeeded in getting this end of the Territory declared a county, so there was now at least nominal law and order. The transients who used to gamble and carouse here, and raid across the border, had been driven to find a new stamping ground.
Nonetheless, it was a community of killer Simes. Feelings toward Fort Freedom ranged from sympathy to grudging respect. Either community would rally to support the other, but the feeling here, even to a child, was entirely different from the easy give-and-take of life at home.
For these Simes had no Gens living with them in day-today camaraderie. Slina's Gens were all drugged into complacency, their nagers neither irritating nor soothing.
Slina was irritated anyway, nervous and edgy even though Zeth could not see any symptoms of actual need in her. "Well, I'm glad you finally got here!" she greeted them.
"Zlin me, Slina," said Veritt. "I'm now technically in need and can legally claim the boy. Yesterday—"
"Shen, I'd've fixed the papers! I wish you'd've took him yesterday. I don't want that sort of thing here!"
"What sort of thing?" Veritt asked.
"Come on—I'll show you."
Slina led them to a holding room where one boy sat alone on the bench. He jumped up with a smile when Slina entered.
The boy was twelve or thirteen, a head taller than Zeth and as sturdily built as Owen. He had curly dark brown hair and bright brown eyes—obviously undrugged and alert. He looked them all over curiously, but his engaging smile was for Slina. It was easy to see why she could not let him be killed.
"He seems completely recovered," Veritt observed, and Zeth realized this must be the boy the channels had cured of an intestinal infection.
"Yeah—he was tearing up the infirmary, so I put him in here till you came. This morning I thought I'd give him one last dose of fosebine. Watch." Slina filled a wooden bowl with cloudy fluid and approached the boy. He backed off, then tried to push the bowl away, screwing up his face.
"Come on, drink it," said Slina. "It's good for you." She grasped the boy's hands, twining tentacles about them.
"No!" exclaimed the boy, shaking his head. "No, no!"
Slina dropped his hands and backed away, trembling. "That's what he did this morning. Shen and shid! Ain't never seen one come to life right here! And I never want to see it again—take him out of here, all right?"
"God be praised!" said Mr. Veritt. "He's been undrugged only—how long?"
"Nigh three weeks now, but he was so sick the first week he was unconscious most of the time."
Zeth wasn't surprised. He'd seen a number of pen-grown Gens learn to talk once released from drugs. " 'No' is always their first word," he said.
"So it seems, Zeth," said Mr. Veritt, "but it's usually months before they speak. Has this boy had special treatment?"
"Not till he took sick," Slina replied. "Just get him out of here, will you, Abel?"
But the boy wanted to stay. "You've been kind to him," said Veritt as he pried the boy away from the Gendealer.
"Ain't kindness—just protectin' my property. Your property now, and your problem."
Zeth held the chain attached to the boy's collar while Slina made over his papers to Mr. Veritt. Ill establish, I'll have to come here for papers that say I'm someone's property. That say I'm not a person. Owen had such papers, sealed with Slina's dagger-shaped mark.
Such legalities meant nothing to the people of Fort Freedom—but they did to the Territory Government. So if I'm Sime, I'll be dependent on Gens. And if I'm Gen, I'll be someone's property unless I want to cross the border.
As they took the new boy out to the horses, Zeth remained buried in his own thoughts. But the words "Freehand Raiders" caught his attention.
"... over in the west part of the Territory," Slina was saying. "Militia chased 'em over the border—they come back across beyond Ardo Pass, but the Wild Gens, they don't know Freehand Raiders from any other Simes. They come swarmin' across 'long about where the Raiders first crossed. Word is, Farris was hit real hard.''
"Oh, he's all right. We'd've heard if anything'd happened to Syrus Farris."
As they tried to get the Gen boy up onto a horse, he began to fight them. Slina and Mr. Veritt had to overpower him with sheer Sime strength.
"You don't know when you're well off, kid," Slina said, turning to go back inside. Suddenly, she froze, and Zeth saw Mr. Veritt stiffen at the same time.
Both Simes looked off beyond the western edge of town. Veritt's face crinkled into a delighted smile. "Owen!"
Sure enough, a large well-laden farm wagon came down the trail as fast as the big draft horses could pull it. Flash was
tied behind the wagon. Zeth let out a whoop of pure joy, kicked his horse, and galloped to meet his friend.
Owen hit the wagon brake with one foot, and hauled back on the reins. Zeth dived from his horse onto the wagon seat, hugging Owen and demanding, "Where've you been? I thought you weren't ever coming back!"
Owen wrapped the reins around the brake and hugged Zeth. "It took longer than I expected. At first nobody would listen to me, and then everyone wanted to send presents, and I went to see my uncle—" He broke off as Mr. Veritt rode up. "Abel! What're you all doing in town? Am I glad to see you! I've got to tell someone! You won't believe what those people think!"
Then he took in the Gen boy with Veritt, still wearing the plain gray pen smock, and the collar and chain. "I'm sorry. I didn't think you'd—but why'd you bring Zeth?"
Veritt smiled. "This is a new adoptee, Owen. Now come along home. Everyone is anxious to hear your adventures."
Owen was as full of news as the wagon was of presents. Stacks of letters answered the ones he had carried across the border. The Old Fort was full of tears that evening—many of joy, but some of sorrow to learn of deaths or disappearances. Some who had been sent from Fort Freedom in Farewell Ceremonies had never reached the Gen community on the other side of the border.
Later that evening, Zeth's family gathered with Owen's and the Veritts around the Veritt kitchen table. Owen sat beside Zeth, his fingers wrapped lovingly around a glass of trin tea. The talk swirled over Zeth's head while he reveled in his friend's return—the relief leaving him sleepy.
Owen had brought a book for Mr. Veritt from Mountain Chapel's spiritual leader, Mr. Bron. Abel held it between his hands, idly gazing at his tentacles gracing the cover. "Owen, I understand this Mr. Bron's problems very well. It took great courage for him to allow you to speak of Simes as human beings with souls capable of salvation."
"Well, he did ask me not to talk about souls and salvation, but when I insisted I'd donated selyn, and Mrs. Carson told him she had, too, he said it was better to speak freely than to have it pass in whispers."
Mr. Veritt nodded. "A wise man."
Owen's eyes fixed on Veritt's tentacles. Zeth, too, was
fascinated by the old Sime's display. In Fort Freedom, it was impolite to unsheath tentacles except for work.
"Abel," said Owen shakily, "you're not going to teach from this book the way Mr. Bron does? I read some of it along the road—what it says about Simes– That's where they get all their sick ideas! It's all twisted!"
Mr. Veritt shook his head. "There is great wisdom in this book, Owen—along with much unintentional error. It belongs in our library. I'm pleased to have a copy again, after all these years. I wish I could thank Mr. Bron."
Zeth knew how precious books were to Mr. Veritt. Everyone who traveled away from Fort Freedom kept an eye out for volumes to add to the growing library—but how could Mr. Veritt be grateful for one such as Owen described?
Owen took a deep breath, and Zeth thought he would voice the protest. Instead, he said firmly, "I'll tell him—or you can write to him and I'll take the letter. Next time I go."
So bloodyshen independent! Owen's casual announcement sent chills up Zeth's spine, dispelling his contentment.
In the months that followed, Zeth experienced that same shock each time Owen left again for Gen Territory. He was the only boy anywhere near Zeth's age, so when he was gone there was just nobody to talk to. Life slid down into a slump; it wasn't worth getting out of bed in the morning.
Zeth's lackluster attitude did not escape notice for long. One day he was called to his father's office. Rimon was alone. "Sit down, Zeth. We've got to have a talk."
"Yes, sir," said Zeth, heart racing. He didn't have to hitch himself up onto the chair seat anymore, and for the first time he noticed his heels touched the floor.
"Your mother is upset—partly because you've been doing only a halfhearted job with your chores lately."
"I promise I'll do better."
"I rather expect so. But that's not what worries me. Your behavior has been erratic lately. I want to know why." The note of challenge faded from his father's manner as he added, "Might it have something to do with Owen?"
Zeth gasped. Was he that transparent? "I don't know."
"Look, Zeth, we're all proud of the job you did, helping Owen get back on his feet. Even if he can't work as a Companion, he's found himself a job only he could do for us. We couldn't spare a working Companion; we couldn't send a Sime, or a child. Only someone like Owen can do the courier's
job—and Abel and I agree it has to be done if our way of life is to have any meaning. We owe that to you, in a way."
"Zeth, you're on the verge of growing up. You may not have realized it, -but you're the heir not only to my position here but perhaps to all of Farris. We can only hope you'll be full-grown before you have to step into my shoes."
He reached to take both of Zeth's hands into his own. "I don't mean to frighten you, son, but you've surely heard the talk of the Gen raid on Farris in response to a huge swarm of Freehand Raiders that's moved into the Territory."
"Yeah, I heard about it."
"There's no telling where they'll strike next—or what the out-Territory Gens are going to do. If Owen can bring Mountain Chapel to understand the difference between Freeband Raiders and law-abiding citizens—that will be only your first contribution to the dream we're living here. Sometimes I'm so proud of you, I don't know how to express it!"
"I didn't do it to make you proud of me. I did it to make it up to Owen."
"Yes—and you have done so. But that is in the past. Recently, there are moments when I can't believe what I learn about Zeth Farris could concern any son of mine. Like yesterday, when you 'helped' feed the chickens at Fort Freedom, and left the gate open so they spent the rest of the afternoon chasing birds all over the common! Or last night, when I found Star hadn't been unsaddled. Or this morning, when—''
"Yes, sir, I know," said Zeth in his quietest voice.
"Zeth, one day lives will depend on you. If you're irresponsible in one thing, it will undermine your sense of responsibility in others. That's not the way Farrises behave."
"I understand that you miss Owen. But that must not interfere with your responsibilities. If you're going to be a channel, Zeth, you've got to learn to put aside personal desires. Now is a good time to learn that lesson."
"Yes, sir. I'll try."
"Actually, it could turn out to be good that Owen is gone so much of the time. If he's not here when you go into changeover, it will be a lot easier on him. Since he's your friend, that should matter to you."
Stunned, Zeth said, "I'd never thought of that!"
"Well, think about it. Today ends this nonsense. Saddle Star and take a ride, think it through. Next time I see you, I don't want three people following you with complaints!"
The joy of a whole day free to ride was tarnished by the admonition. Zeth went to Fort Freedom, but Abel Veritt was busy in a meeting with most of the other men, making battle plans against the Raiders. All the children were in school, and everyone else was working.
He found Mrs. Veritt canning tomatoes. She gave him a new hat she'd knitted, saying, "It's getting chilly already. I'll warrant there'll be an early snow this year!"
He was on his horse and riding before he remembered he'd meant to apologize for the chickens.
Zeth took the back trail out of Fort Freedom, up around the hills and over by the Old Farris Homestead. They still grew mushrooms in the tunnels his parents had built, but there was nobody there today. Before long he found himself on the border overlook. The last time he'd been here, Abel Veritt had told him the adults' secret—and Marji had come.
Star grazed happily and Patches chased rabbits while Zeth climbed onto a rock and stared morosely out into Gen Territory. Somewhere out there Owen was adventuring, and here Zeth sat, tied to within an hour's ride of home in case he should go into changeover. Shen!
"Shen!" He said it aloud. He'd been such a silly child to think he was really that near changeover. He'd probably be Gen after all, and the Companion Owen could never be. Then how would Owen feel about him? Whether he became Sime or Gen, he was losing his only friend.
He let himself cry, until he felt Star's nose nudging his wet cheek. Reaching up, he buried his face in her warmth, apologizing over and over for leaving her saddled and uncombed. Patches came back from his rabbit chase and added his licking to Star's attentions. "I'm all right," Zeth assured them. "I won't forget my responsibilities again. Honest."
A few days later, news reached them that two of the largest bands of Raiders had joined forces with a band from some other Territory. The three bands had picked one section of the Territory clean, and were now heading this way.
Furious activity sprouted up—last-minute attempts to get in the late crops, hammers reinforcing the stockade at Fort Freedom, windows being boarded up, troops practicing battle formation on the green.
Zeth overheard his mother and father coming home late that night. "We'll just have to stand them off alone," said Rimon Farris grimly.
"I just don't see how they could refuse our request for troops," said his mother. "We're a county and we pay our taxes—it's got to be illegal, what they're doing to us."
"Probably, but that doesn't change anything. Tomorrow we move valuables and crucial supplies out to the Old Homestead, and prepare shelter for the children there. Everyone else is to meet at the Old Fort at the first sign of Raiders."
So Zeth found himself ignominiously herded with all the little kids into the tunnels that honeycombed the hill under the house in which he'd been born. Jana, Owen's sister, was the oldest child in the group, but ever since Zeth had thrown her out of Owen's room, he'd felt more grown up than she was. And he was finally as tall as Jana.
Mrs. Veritt was lookout for the children—someone had to do it, and her love of children made it acceptable to her to be away from the fighting. Zeth knew she feared for her husband. So did he. His own parents, and the other channels and Companions, wouldn't be fighting—they'd be healing the wounded. Abel Veritt, though, would be right out in front, wielding his whip with that astonishing skill he'd learned in his days as a Freehand Raider. Old as he was, he'd never let younger men fight without him.
As Mrs. Veritt's tension communicated itself to Zeth, he thought for the first time of a future without Mr. Veritt. When Marji had almost killed her grandfather, Zeth had felt sheer terror, and then intense relief when Uel was able to revive him. The possibility of Fort Freedom without Abel Veritt had not been forced on him then, as it was now.
It wasn't that he had not known death, even among people close to him. The first time Zeth could remember was when Willa Veritt, Jord's wife, died. Then later, Owen and Jana's mother, Carlana Erick.
But some people seemed . . . immortal. His father would always be there, and his mother, and Abel Veritt. Without them, how could there be a Fort Freedom?
As tension mounted with waiting, Zeth felt more and more restless. Mrs. Veritt spent most of her time atop the hill above the old sod house, scanning the trails. In direct charge of the children was Wik, the Gen boy Mr. Veritt had taken from the
pens the day Owen returned from his first trip out-Territory. Wik was an astonishment to everyone. Only four months free of the drugs that inhibited the mental development of pen-grown Gens, he had already learned to talk and to ride, and just before being assigned this task he had given transfer for the first time. Therefore he had to stay inside the heavily insulated house, lest his strengthening field attract scouting Raiders.
Wik took his first leadership assignment seriously, scolding the children if they climbed the hill or wandered into the tunnels. He couldn't seem to understand childish energy and curiosity—well, he never had a childhood, Zeth told himself as he tried to be patient with Wik.
When the bell from Fort Freedom sounded through the cold air one bright morning, Zeth's heart gave a painful leap. If only he could zlin! If only he were grown up, and could be down there fighting!
He avoided Wik and Jana and followed Mrs. Veritt to where they could see the Old Fort. It was so far away that only the fact that people were riding in from both the New Homestead and the town could be discerned. In the rising clouds of dust, it was impossible to make out individuals.
Watching the gathering, Zeth didn't notice the yellowish cloud on the southeast horizon until Mrs. Veritt whispered, "God help us!" Then he realized storms never came from that direction. The cloud was the dust of the largest alliance of Freeband Raiders the Territory had ever seen.
The Fort had been preparing for weeks. The walls were strong and well defended . . . but Freeband Raiders berserk with killust would swarm over them, not caring if they died . . . and some would get through. As the cloud grew, Zeth's heart sank.
So many—ranks upon ranks of killer Simes, headed for the border—for Gen Territory—destroying anything that aroused their lust for pain and fear. When they finished with Fort Freedom, they'd plunge across the border—and find Mountain Chapel . . . and Owen.
As the dust settled around the Old Fort, Zeth saw the futility of their preparations. They had to wait for the Raiders to come to them. If only they had Gen guns, to cut them down at a distance—
"Zeth, go inside with the other children," said Mrs. Veritt
distractedly. The worry in her voice cut through Zeth like a knife.
And in that instant, his plan came to him, full-blown. "Yes, ma'am," he said meekly, and started back toward the Old Homestead, not daring to look back to see if Mrs. Veritt followed him until he approached the open door to the old house. From inside, he heard Wik call, "Zeth?" For a moment, he thought he was trapped, but when the Gen didn't come out after him, he realized he was searching the tunnels for him.
He had to hurry, before Wik got Mrs. Veritt to zlin for him. He ran down the hill and across the trail, then along the creek to the old threshing floor. There, out of sight of the trail, was an old barn housing the horses and wagons that had brought the children out here.
Zeth saddled Star, and led her through the creek, angling through the brush to meet the trail. Then he swung into the saddle and urged Star up the hill to the border.
All Fort Freedom's children knew the way to Mountain Chapel—but Zeth's heart pounded with trepidation as he kicked his heels into Star's sides. As he passed irrevocably beyond the point where Simes could safely follow him, doubts rose. He had never felt so alone in his life. Although he was dressed warmly, his woolen cap pulled down over his ears, he shivered in the crisp air.
I'm going to Mountain Chapel, he instructed himself firmly. Then out loud to Star he said, "We're going to get the Gens with their guns to come and drive the Raiders from Fort Freedom." If not for their relatives, he figured, they'd do it to keep the Raiders from reaching their own homes.
It was so simple, so obvious. Why hadn't the adults thought of it?
When he reached Mountain Chapel, Zeth quickly found out why. He'd crossed rugged uninhabited terrain, and begun wondering if perhaps he'd lost his way, when suddenly he came around a rocky hill to look down into a small valley, still green from the summer, as if the frosts had missed that pleasant and protected land. Nestled in the bend of a winding river was a town, the homes surrounding a large stone structure exactly like the chapel in Fort Freedom. Zeth knew he had found Mountain Chapel at last.
He wanted to gallop down there and shout out his news, but the mountainside was steep, the trail hardly more than a
track. He rode into shadow, shivering. Night fell before he reached the town.
As Star's hoofbeats clattered on the bridge across the river, people came out with lanterns—and guns.
Zeth found himself facing a semicircle of men studying him suspiciously. "Who are you, boy?" one of them asked.
"Zeth Farris—from Fort Freedom."
The tension relaxed a little. "All right, son, get down from your horse, and let's have a look at you."
Zeth dismounted, saying, "I'm looking for Owen Lodge Erick. It's important. I mean—" as it dawned on him that although he personally longed for Owen, his message had to be delivered at once to the town's leader, "I've got to talk to Mr. Bron."
One of the men handed his gun to another and approached Zeth. "You're safe here, Zeth. I'm Lon Carson. I have a great deal to thank you for. You come on home with me—"
"No, you don't understand!" Zeth protested. "I came for help—"
"You'll find it here," said Mr. Carson, putting his arm around Zeth's shoulders. Then he whispered, in Simelan, "Come in the house with me before you say anymore!"
The other men parted to let them pass. Zeth let himself be led into one of the houses. When Mrs. Carson saw him, she cried, "Zeth!" and enveloped him in a warm hug. "But what are you doing here? Have you established? Surely you're not old enough—"
It was happening again. No one would take him seriously because he looked so young. "No," he said impatiently, "but Marji and everyone at Fort Freedom are in terrible danger!"
Mr. and Mrs. Carson looked at one another in shock. Then Mr. Carson said, "What's wrong?"
"Freehand Raiders!" Zeth spilled out his story, ending breathlessly, "And if you won't bring your guns and help, the Raiders will destroy Fort Freedom and then come right across the border and attack you here!"
Mr. Carson nodded. "You've done a good job, Zeth. I'll get the other men with family at Fort Freedom. Hope—"
"I'll take care of Zeth," she said. "You must be hungry."
He hadn't eaten since breakfast. He wasn't hungry, but he had been brought up on a strict regimen. "Yes, I should eat something. But where's Owen?"
"He was supposed to be back in town this evening. Mr. Bron always insists that Owen stay with him. Zeth, you must understand how difficult it is for people who did not come from Fort Freedom to believe there are Simes who don't kill. Mr. Bron is ... much like my father. He sincerely wants to do God's will, but until I returned from Fort Freedom with Owen, he was positive it was God's will that all Simes be destroyed on sight."
"But there are lots of people here from Fort Freedom—"
"Not even a third of the town," she replied. "And what could we say before last summer? Our own parents killed someone every month. Now we say they don't anymore . . . but how can I persuade anyone that it's real? If it weren't for Owen, I might think I dreamed it myself."
Mrs. Carson took Zeth into the kitchen, where she fed him while they talked of Fort Freedom. "So the real drive of the Raiders in our direction started after Owen left," he concluded, dabbling with his soup. It tasted funny, although he recognized the recipe as one of his favorites that Mrs. Veritt often made.
When Mr. Carson returned with a dozen other men, Mrs. Carson tried to herd Zeth off to bed. ' 'But I have to explain what's happening!" he insisted.
"We all know about Freeband Raiders," said Mr. Carson grimly. "We're all going. What we have to decide right now is, who we dare ask to go with us."
"But it has to be the whole town!" Zeth exclaimed.
"You don't understand, son," said a swarthy man with thick black hair. "We have to think of our wives and children– especially our children. Right now that means heading off the Raiders. But when we get back—"
"We'll worry about that when we get back, Joe," said a man in a plaid shirt. "I think I can talk Cord Ashley into helping. He's allowing his son to court my Nancy."
"Webb Simmins lost his boy to changeover two months ago," said a grizzled, bent-over man so thin he might have been Sime. He coughed, then went on "He said to me next day he wished he could've sent him to—'that Fort Freedom place,' he called it. If he won't come along ... at least I don't think he'll try to stop us."
At an imperious knocking on the back door, silence fell. The men glanced anxiously at one another, and Mrs. Carson pulled Zeth against her protectively. Lon Carson opened the door.
For one incredulous moment Zeth had the impression that it was Abel Veritt at the door. Then the man moved, Zeth's eyes focused on him, and he didn't know why he should have thought it. This man was much younger, a tall, slender Gen with dark hair untouched by gray and grave brown eyes that swept over the men in the Carson kitchen with a sad bewilderment that did nothing to undermine his authority. In another reversal of impression, Zeth realized that that was what reminded him of Mr. Veritt: the ability to acknowledge his feelings without losing his dignity.
"So," he said in a tone of disappointment without accusation, "the children of Simes counsel together in the night."
Zeth's hackles rose. "They're here because of me," he said. As the man's eyes evaluated him, he added, "And I'm not a child of Simes. I'm the child of a Sime and a Gen, and if you want the only place in the world where that can happen to survive, you'll get your gun and join us in driving the Freehand Raiders from Fort Freedom."
Out of breath, his charge of adrenaline abating, Zeth plunged into acute embarrassment as the man stared at him in silence before he said, "You must be Zeth Farris. Mountain Chapel welcomes you, and thanks you for preserving the life of Mrs. Carson."
At the man's completely reasonable tone, Zeth wished he could sink through the floor. Then he remembered why he was here, and forced himself to say politely, "You must be Mr. Bron. I'm honored to meet you—but Fort Freedom needs your help." He stumbled over the English word "needs," but knew it was the right word to convey his meaning.
Mr. Bron's level gaze swept the assembled men. "Is that what you were counseling about? Whether you dared ask my help? Are you afraid to confide in me?"
The thin, bent-over man rose. "No, we're not afraid. We are going to help our friends and families on the other side of the border. We'd welcome your help."
"To go to the aid of ... Simes?"
"Simes who don't kill," said Lon Carson, "under attack from Simes who do. Freeband Raiders, Mr. Bron. It's not a moral issue from what Zeth tells us. It's a plain practical one: either we join forces with Fort Freedom and stop the Raiders there, or we risk their destroying the Fort and then descending onus."
Mr. Bron nodded slowly. "I see. On the 'plain practical'
side, if we ride in force across the border, can we hope to avoid detection? Or will we be branded Sime sympathizers, and have the militia down on us?" At the murmur of protest, he raised a hand. "I understand fully that that question is academic if we are attacked by such a huge band of Raiders. I've seen those monsters of depravity—and I share your desire to fend them off."
At the common sigh of relief, however, Mr. Bron shook his head. "Can you not see that this is not a secular issue, but a high moral one? God is testing us. Listen to me!" he urged as the men began to mutter again. "Each time young Owen has come here, he has brought an invitation to me to visit Fort Freedom, to see for myself Simes who have overcome the kill. Has God become impatient? Is this a test? Are we being asked to show charity to those we wrongly thought of as inhuman?"
A chorus of yeses echoed around the room.
"You may be right," said Mr. Bron, "or this may be the Devil's work drawing us into sympathy with demons, to lead us to our deaths in that sin. Tell me, Zeth Farris, why would Fort Freedom send a child for help? To play upon our sympathies?"
"I wasn't sent," said Zeth. "I came by myself. Now I see why my dad or Mr. Veritt didn't send someone: they knew you'd refuse. Mr. Veritt knows all about the Church of the Purity. He must've known it'd be no use asking you for help!" Frustrated tears stung Zeth's eyelids. He felt hollow. "D'you think they'd refuse to help you?"
"Son," replied Mr. Bron, "surely you know I have no way to answer your question." He turned to the assembled men. "I must pray for guidance. Tomorrow I will gather the elders—''
"You do that," said Mr. Carson. "We're going on ahead. I got a brother and a daughter over there. Last summer I didn't have the courage to help Marji—she's alive only because my wife dared risk her own life. You want miracles? Take a look at Hope. I'm going to go help my daughter, and afterward, I'm going to beg her forgiveness."
"Mr. Carson—Lon. Give me time to consider."
"But the Raiders are attacking now.'" said Zeth, his head spinning as he tried to make these men see him as more than a hysterical child.
Mr. Bron ignored him. "Don't be impetuous, Lon. A few
more people for the Raiders to kill will not help Fort Freedom. I will pray for a sign from God this night. If He indicates that we should help Fort Freedom, we will attack as a concerted force. If He reveals a trick of the Devil . . . then I fear if you go, you cannot return to Mountain Chapel."
Only then did he turn to Zeth. "You look tired, son. You are welcome to stay at my house. Your friend Owen may have arrived by now. I thought he was the one I would find here, not you."
Zeth wanted to see Owen the moment he arrived. "All right. Thank you, sir."
Despite Mr. Bran's lantern and the smooth, well-tended path, Zeth stumbled like a small child clumsy with sleepiness. Although he was "dreadfully tired from the long, hard trip and the letdown after pleading his case, he didn't feel sleepy, but his stumbling gait felt like one of his nightmares.
When he actually fell heavily to his knees, Mr. Bron helped him up, saying, "You're out on your feet, child." Zeth wanted to escape, to crawl away into a hole somewhere, he was so ashamed.
As Mr. Bron helped him up his own porch steps, the front door opened and a woman stood silhouetted against the light. "Maddok? What did they want you for? Oh—a child escaped from the Simes?" The woman closed the door as Mr. Bron led Zeth to the couch, then joined them, saying, "But surely he's too young—"
"I think he's ill, Sessly," said Mr. Bron, and the woman placed a cool hand on Zeth's forehead.
"He's feverish. Poor little boy. Don't worry—we'll take care of you."
"Zeth," said Mr. Bron, "this is my sister. Sessly, this is Zeth Farris." Zeth wouldn't have had to be told the two Gens were brother and sister—it was the same face, as if he were seeing double, but while the high forehead, deep-set eyes, and determined mouth and chin spelled strength in the man, in the woman they formed a face that at best would be called "plain" or "homely."
The woman was almost as tall as the man. Zeth felt small and frightened. He knew they meant to help him, but their proximity grated on his nerves. If they'd just go away—
The woman held out her hand to Zeth in a Gen gesture of friendship. Some people said it went back to the Ancients, but Mr. Veritt said it was more probable that it had developed
as a way of displaying the forearm to show the absence of tentacles. Whatever the motive, Zeth knew he had to touch her—and he had no idea why he desperately wanted to refuse.
When he lifted his hand, a dull pain, like sore muscles, spread from wrist to elbow. He'd been hauling on Star's reins all day,
guiding her through the rough terrain. There were spots of soreness on his hand, too, which might have been blisters if he hadn't
Telling himself to be grateful for being treated like an adult, Zeth shook hands, ignoring the faint twinges of pain and the illogical
sense of revulsion.
"I think I can find pajamas to fit you. A good night's sleep and you'll be fine. Zeth Farris," she added thoughtfully. "You're Owen's
friend. He should have been here by now."
"Perhaps he decided to stay over with the Mortons," Bron suggested. "I think he's seriously interested in Eph Norton's daughter."
Zeth fought down panic. Was Owen planning to stay this side of the border? "Can't you send for him? His pa's at Fort Freedom,
and his sister's hiding with the kids. Owen has the right to know what's going on."
"Of course," said Bron. "In the morning I’ll send someone. If he were coming tonight he'd be here by now. Sessly, you take care
of Zeth. I must go to the chapel and pray for guidance."
"Guidance? Maddok, what is happening?"
He explained briefly. Sessly looked back to Zeth. "Oh, you poor, brave child! No wonder you're exhausted. Come along and get ready
for bed now, and I'll bring you some hot milk."
She showed Zeth the bathroom and the guest room, and gave him some pajamas. It seemed to take every ounce of his strength to change
in the cold bathroom. Chills shook him, followed by a sudden sweat. Nausea hit so fast that he barely managed not to vomit on the floor.
Trembling, gripping the cold stone appliance for support, Zeth felt the ache in his forearms again. He could no longer deny the facts, the
unconscious knowledge that must have been with him for hours.
Fever. Exhaustion. Pain in his forearms. Nausea.
This time you've realty done it, he told himself, fighting tears of weakness. Disobedience has finally brought you into
Gen Territory, into the house of the Spiritual Leader of the Church of the Purity . . . to go into changeover!