Why We Fight

by Elaine Graham-Leigh


part 1 of 4

The village was called The Place of Ham’s People, though no one knew any more who Ham had been. In stories for the children he was an ancient hero, one of the leaders of the first colonisation of Teyro 4,000 cycles ago when they drove out the old people.

His figure was painted above the temple door, holding a staff and gesturing to a village house perched out of perspective behind him. Years of weathering had given him a surprised expression, as if he hadn’t expected this to be where his success would bring him.

Vinal, the priest, gave him his usual salute as he went down the temple steps. He hadn’t meant to be here either.

The Gargarin raid hadn’t been as bad as it had sounded last night from his refuge under the bed. Vinal followed the trail of trampled ferns. Here was where they must have stood to kick the panels in, snapping the fronds beneath their boots, and there was the trail where they’d rolled back to their shuttle, the branches still reared back as if from an echo of alien laughter.

On the back wall of the temple, Gargarin graffiti marched in illegible squares across the story of the village. The villagers in the scenes were drawn in the old style, all long faces and strange, mournful eyes, and they regarded Vinal solemnly. He swallowed, feeling the dryness in his throat from last night’s herb beer.

The damage should have been unimportant — once his new temple in the village was finished, the old one would be abandoned anyway — but the villagers would expect him to have it repaired, would wonder how he had let it happen in the first place.

The morning light was making his head ache. He hoped he hadn’t finished the beer cask, but suspected that he probably had. What should he have done? Charge out to die in the temple’s defence? The villagers didn’t fight the raiders, so why should he?

He kicked the broken panel pieces into the ferns. He should be making his report now, as well. They were always sarcastic in the great temple when he was late. The painted eyes followed him as he trudged back round to the front door. Despite himself, he felt they knew all about the great temple and the herb beer.

* * *

The old temple stood on a rise outside the village, high enough to have been above the water line when the flood tides came in the days before the new Chi’me governor had put the climate stabilisers in. The front porch looked out over the path down the slope, to where a clump of trees marked the village green.

Above the leaves, the rafters of Vinal’s new temple rose like bones waiting for skin, unharmed but hazed with smoke from where some of the houses were still smouldering. Beyond the green, fishing boats dotted the channel between this and the next island, and over the quay a mob of skeemas flapped and screamed. The Gargarin must have broken the fish cache again.

Vinal pushed open the temple door and winced at the morning smell of bedding and spilt beer that coiled out to greet him. He waved the lights on low, shuffling through the main room to his sleeping cell at the back. He kept a screen on the wall by the door for the villagers to use, although they seldom did, but what was good enough for them was hardly sufficient to be his line back to the world.

He set up the newer screen on his bed and pressed the combination for the great temple. It took a long time for them to answer, and the swirls of the holding pattern were beginning to make him feel sick by the time they resolved themselves at last into a face.

It was a long, smooth face, gathered around a sharp nose, and it managed to combine disdain and ennui into one, economical expression.

‘Yes?’ it said.

It was always worse when it was someone he recognised. This one had been two years behind him, all through training, one of those boys that Vinal and his friends had looked down on as not likely to amount to much. He tried not to let it show in his voice.

‘Vinal, from Ham’s Village, Teina Cluster,’ he said firmly. ‘We had a raid last night. I have to make a report to Brother Lintud.’

‘Ah, I see.’ The scorn was overlaid now with condescension: our village priests, so worthy. ‘He’s here somewhere. I’ll tell him you’re waiting.’

The face disappeared, leaving Vinal with a view of the corridor. At this time of the morning it was full of priests, striding from one meeting to another, or gathered in small groups to plot and gossip. It was one of the approaches to the third garden, he thought; he remembered the wall frieze, green leaves curling on gold, and the sky-blue floor. On the shore side, beyond the screen, would be a niche with a fountain in the shape of a winged serpent while to landward a door led to an outer courtyard, where if you listened hard you used to be able to hear the mumble of Olbe’Se city beyond the walls.

As always when he saw it, the memory was so clear to Vinal that he could almost still be there; as if somewhere among all those weaving figures was another Vinal, a Vinal who had not misjudged, who had kept silent, who had not been banished, but who had glided through the temple politics so smoothly that nothing had touched him, like walking on the sky.

Vinal thought his double looked a little taller than he did, that under his scarlet robe, Alternative Vinal carried his shoulders straighter. He watched Alternative Vinal hold court, laughing and successful amongst the crowd of his acolytes, until Brother Lintud arrived.

Lintud, he remembered, valued brevity in his charges, so he kept it succinct.

‘We had twenty Gargarin, last night. Seized supplies, burnt a few houses, the usual.’

Lintud nodded, as if he knew all about it. He always had to pretend omniscience. Vinal remembered that as well.

‘That’s three raids this season, it’s getting so there’ll be nothing left to steal. Can the fleet really not give us any protection? Just a couple of shuttles on patrol? That’s what the villagers want.’

Lintud sighed. ‘You know the fleet can’t protect the outer planets, not if they’re going to hold the line against the Gargarin. If your villagers don’t like being raided, they could try fighting back. I assume they didn’t, again? What happened to those hydro-rifles we sent?’

Stashed under his bed, so close he could kick them, Vinal thought. He had tried to offer them to the villagers; had called the clan heads up to the temple and laid them out for them. He remembered the look that had gone round the semi-circle, before Teris, who was the nearest the village had to a headman, had answered for them.

‘Thanking you for the offer, Ser Priest, but we won’t be taking ’em.’

He’d even argued with them. With weapons like these they could resist the raids, they could fight the Gargarin without the deaths they feared. They wouldn’t be powerless, they could do their bit in the great war effort against the Gargarin. He remembered Teris’ expression, heavy with patience, as if Vinal were a child who had not understood.

‘We don’t have no use for ’em, see. They bain’t no good for hunting.’

Fortunately, Lintud had gone on without waiting for Vinal’s answer. ‘Look, we know it’s difficult. Some of these villages, it’s as if Chi’me didn’t exist, as if we’d never been recontacted or given a governor. They’re simple, peaceful people, that’s the problem. They don’t believe in fighting, not even in their own interests. So we know you have a difficult job to do, but it’s also a vital one.

‘Look, I’ll tell you what I’ll do. There’re some new dramas out, very good, some of the best I’ve seen. They should help you win your people round. I’ll flick them over to you now. I’ll send you some banners as well, if I can find a carrier going out your way.’

‘Thank you.’

‘But you can tell your villagers, every time they don’t resist a raid, they’ll find themselves with an extra tax assessment.’

Vinal tried to imagine explaining to Teris that he would be taxed for not fighting the Gargarin. ‘They won’t like that.’

Lintud waved an airy hand. ‘It doesn’t matter whether they like it or not. What can they do about it? They’ll pay it, or fight. Just keep a record of any troublemakers. And, Vinal?’

‘Yes?’

‘It’s been, what, almost a cycle since you left us? You’ve haven’t been forgotten, you know. Quite a few people think it would be nice to see you back here, where you belong.’

Whether or not Lintud was one of those people, it was impossible to tell.

‘The strait from the village to the capital might be a narrow one, but it’s not unknown for a village priest to be called here. In cases of distinguished service, of course. So you should remember, what your people do reflects on you. Either way.’

He waved his hand again, and Vinal was left staring at a blank screen.

* * *


Proceed to part 2...

Copyright © 2009 by Elaine Graham-Leigh

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