Earthborn

Homecoming Saga (Volume 5)

Orson Scott Card

Tor Books

EARTHBORN (ONE CAPTIVITY)

Akma was born in a rich man's house. He remembered little from that time. One memory was of his father, Akmaro, carrying him up a high tower, and then handing him to another man there, who dangled him over the parapet until he screamed in fear. The man who held him laughed until Father reached out and took Akma from him and held him close. Later Mother told Akma that the man who tormented him on the tower was the king in the land of Nafai, a man named Nuak. "He was a very bad man," said Mother, "but the people didn't seem to mind as long as he was a good king. But when the Elemaki came and conquered the land of Nafai, the people of Nuak hated him so much they burned him to death." Ever after she told him that story, Akma's memory changed, and when he dreamed of the laughing man holding him over the edge of the tower, he pictured the man covered with flames until the whole tower was burning, and instead of Father reaching out to rescue his little boy, Akmaro jumped down, falling and falling and falling, and Akma didn't know what to do, to stay on the tower and burn, or jump into the abyss after his father. From that dream he awoke screaming in terror.

Another memory was of his Father rushing into the house in the middle of the day, as Mother supervised two digger women in preparing a feast for that night. The look on Akmaro's face was terrible, and though he whispered to her and Akma had no idea what he was saying, he knew that it was very bad and it made Akma afraid. Father rushed from the house right away, and Mother at once had the diggers stop their work on the feast and start gathering supplies for a journey. Only a few minutes later, four human men with swords came to the door and demanded to see the traitor Akmaro. Mother pretended that Father was in the back of the house and tried to block them from coming in. The biggest man knocked her down and held a sword across her throat while the others ran to search the house for Akmaro. Little Akma was outraged and ran at the man who was threatening Mother. The man laughed at him when Akma cut himself on one of the stones of his sword, but Mother didn't laugh. She said, "Why are you laughing? This little boy had the courage to attack a man with a sword, while you only have enough courage to attack an unarmed woman." The man was angry then, but when the others returned without finding Father, they all went away.

There was food, too. Akma was sure there had once been plenty of food, well-prepared by digger slaves. But now, in his hunger, he couldn't remember it. He couldn't remember ever being full. Here in the maize fields under the hot sun he couldn't remember a time without thirst, without a weary ache in his arms, in his back, in his legs, and throbbing behind his eyes. He wanted to cry, but he knew that this would shame his family. He wanted to scream at the digger taskmaster that he needed to drink and rest and eat and it was stupid for him to keep them working without food because it would wear out more people like old Tiwiak who dropped dead yesterday, dead just like that, keeled over into the maize and never so much as breathed out a good-bye to his wife and even then she kept still, said nothing as she knelt weeping silently over his body, but the taskmaster beat her anyway for stopping work, and it was her own husband.

Akma hated nothing in the world the way he hated diggers. His parents had been wrong to keep diggers as servants back in the land of Nafai. The diggers should all have been killed before they ever came near to a real person. Father could talk all he wanted about how the diggers were only getting even for the long, cruel overlordship of Nuak. He could whisper late in the night about how the Keeper of Earth didn't want earth people and sky people and middle people to be enemies. Akma knew the truth. There would be no safety in the world until all the diggers were dead.

When the diggers came, Father refused to let any of his people fight. "You didn't follow me into the wilderness in order to become killers, did you?" he asked them. "The Keeper wants no killing of his children."

The only protest that Akma heard was Mother's whisper: "Her children." As if it mattered whether the Keeper had a plow or a pot between its legs. All that Akma knew was that the Keeper was a poor excuse for a god if it couldn't keep its worshippers from being enslaved by filthy bestial stupid cruel diggers.

But Akma said nothing about these thoughts, because the one time he did, Father grew silent and wouldn't speak to him for the rest of the night. That was unbearable. The silence during the days was bad enough. To have Father shut him out at night was the worst thing in the world. So Akma kept his hate for the diggers to himself, as well as his contempt for the Keeper, and at night he spoke in the barest whisper to his mother and father, and drank in their whispered words as if they were pure cold water from a mountain stream.

And then one day a new boy appeared in the village. He wasn't thin and sunbrowned like all the others, and his clothing was fine, bright-colored, and un-patched. His hair was clean and long, and the wind caught and tossed it when he stood on the brow of the low hill in the midst of the commons. After all that Father and Mother had said about the Keeper of Earth, Akma was still unprepared for this vision of a god, and he stopped working just to behold the sight.

The taskmaster shouted at Akma, but he didn't hear. All sound had been swallowed up in this vision, all sensation except sight. Only when the shadow of the taskmaster loomed over him, his arm upraised to strike him with the length of the prod, did Akma notice, and then he flinched and cowered and, almost by reflex, cried out to the boy who had the image of god on his face, "Don't let him hit me!"

"Hold!" cried the boy. His voice rang out confident and strong as he strode down the hill, and, incredibly, the taskmaster immediately obeyed him.

Father was far from Akma, but Mother was near enough to whisper to Akma's little sister Luet, and Luet took a few steps closer to Akma so she could call softly to him. "He's the son of Father's enemy," she said.

Akma heard her, and immediately became wary. But the beauty of the older boy did not diminish as he approached.

"What did she say to you?" asked the boy, his voice kind, his face smiling.

"That your father is my father's enemy."

"Ah, yes. But not by my father's choice," he said.

That gave Akma pause. No one had ever bothered to explain to the seven-year-old boy how his father had come to have so many enemies. It had never occurred to Akma that it might be his father's fault. But he was suspicious: How could he believe the son of his father's enemy? And yet . . . "You stopped the taskmaster from hitting me," said Akma.

The boy looked at the taskmaster, whose face was inscrutable. "From now on," he said, "you are not to punish this one or his sister without my consent. My father says."

The taskmaster bowed his head. But Akma thought he didn't look happy about taking orders like this from a human boy.

"My father is Pabulog," said the boy, "and my name is Didul."

"I'm Akma. My father is Akmaro."

"Ro-Akma? Akma the teacher?" Didul smiled. "What does ro have to teach, that he didn't learn from og?"

Akma wasn't sure what og meant.

Didul seemed to know why he was confused. "Og is the daykeeper, the chief of the priests. After the ak, the king, no one is wiser than og."

"King just means you have the power to kill anybody you don't like, unless they have an army, like the Elemaki." Akma had heard his father say this many times.

"And yet now my father rules over the Elemaki of this land," said Didul. "While Nuak is dead. They burned him up, you know."

"Did you see it?" asked Akma.

"Walk with me. You're done with work for today." Didul looked at the taskmaster. The digger, drawn up to his full height, was barely the same size as Didul; when Didul grew to manhood, he would tower over the digger like a mountain over a hill. But in the case of Didul and the taskmaster, height had nothing to do with their silent confrontation. The digger wilted under his gaze.

Akma was in awe. As Didul took his hand and led him away, Akma asked him, "How do you do it?"

"Do what?" asked Didul.

"Make the taskmaster look so . . ."

"So useless?" asked Didul. "So helpless and stupid and low?"

Did the humans who were friends of the diggers hate them, too?

"It's simple," said Didul. "He knows that if he doesn't obey me, I'll tell my father and he'll lose his easy job here and go back to working on fortifications and tunnels, or going out on raids. And if he ever raised a hand against me, then of course my father would have him torn apart."

It gave Akma great satisfaction to imagine the taskmaster--all the taskmasters--being torn apart.

"I saw them burn Nuak, yes. He was king, of course, so he led our soldiers in war. But he'd gotten old and soft and stupid and fearful. Everybody knew it. Father tried to compensate for it, but og can only do so much when ak is weak. One of the great soldiers, Teonig, vowed to kill him so a real king could be put in his place--probably his second son, Ilihi--but you don't know any of these people, do you? You must have been--what, three years old? How old are you now?"

"Seven."

"Three, then, when your father committed treason and ran away like a coward into the wilderness and started plotting and conspiring against the pure human Nafari, trying to get humans and diggers and skymeat to live together as equals."

Akma said nothing. That was what his father taught. But he had never thought of it as treason against the purely human kingdom where Akma had been born.

"So what did you know? I bet you don't even remember being in court, do you? But you were there. I saw you, holding your father's hand. He presented you to the king."

Akma shook his head. "I don't remember."

"It was family day. We were all there. But you were just little. I remember you, though, because you weren't shy or scared or anything. Bold as you please. The king commented on it. 'This one's going to be a great man, if he's already so brave.' My father remembered. That's why he sent me to look for you."

Akma felt a thrill of pleasure flutter inside his chest. Pabulog had sent his son to seek him out, because he had been brave as a baby. He remembered attacking the soldier who was threatening his mother. Until this moment, he had never thought of himself as brave, but now he saw that it was true.

"Anyway, Nuak was at the point of being murdered by Teonig. They say that Teonig kept demanding that Nuak fight him. But Nuak kept answering, 'I'm the king! I don't have to fight you!' And Teonig kept shouting, 'Don't make me shame you by killing you like a dog.' Nuak fled up to the top of the tower and Teonig was on the point of killing him when the king looked out to the border of the Elemaki country and saw the hugest army of diggers you ever saw, flooding like a storm onto the land. So Teonig let him live, so the king could lead the defense. But instead of a defense, Nuak ordered his army to run so they wouldn't be destroyed. It was cowardly and shameful, and men like Teonig didn't obey him."

"But your father did," said Akma.

"My father had to follow the king. It's what the priests do," said Didul. "The king commanded the soldiers to leave their wives and children behind, but Father wouldn't do it, or at least anyway he took me. Carried me on his back and kept up with the others, even though I wasn't all that little and he isn't all that young. So that's why I was there when the soldiers realized that their wives and children were probably being slaughtered back in the city. So they stripped old Nuak and staked him down and held burning sticks against his skin so he screamed and screamed." Didul smiled. "You wouldn't believe how he screamed, the old sausage."

It sounded awful even to imagine it. It was frightening that Didul, who could remember having actually seen it, could be so complacent about it.

"Of course, along about then Father realized that the talk was turning to who else they ought to burn, and the priests would be an obvious target, so Father said a few quiet words in the priest-language and he led us to safety."

"Why didn't you go back to the city? Was it destroyed?"

"No, but Father says the people there weren't worthy to have true priests who knew the secret language and the calendar and everything. You know. Reading and writing."

Akma was puzzled. "Doesn't everybody learn how to read and write?"

Didul suddenly looked angry. "That's the most terrible thing your father did. Teaching everybody to read and write. All the people who believed his lies and sneaked out of the city to join him, even if they were just peasants which they mostly were, even if they were turkey-herds. Everybody. He took solemn vows, you know. When he was made a priest. Your father took those vows, never to reveal the secrets of the priesthood to anybody. And then he taught everybody."

"Father says all the people should be priests."

"People? Is that what he says?" Didul laughed. "Not just people, Akma. It isn't just people that he was going to teach to read."

Akma imagined his father trying to teach the taskmaster to read. He tried to picture one of the diggers bowed over a book, trying to hold a stylus and make the marks in the wax of the tablets. It made him shudder.

"Hungry?" asked Didul.

Akma nodded.

"Come eat with me and my brothers." Didul led him into the shade of a copse behind the hill of the commons.

Akma knew the place--until the diggers came and enslaved them, it was the place where Mother used to gather the children to teach them and play quiet games with them while Father taught the adults at the hill. It gave him a strange feeling to see a large basket of fruit and cakes and a cask of wine there, with diggers serving the food to three humans. Diggers didn't belong in that place where his mother had led the children in play.

But the humans did. Or rather, they would belong wherever they were. One was little, barely as old as Akma. The other two were both older and larger than Didul--men, really, not boys. One of the older ones looked much like Didul, only not as beautiful. The eyes were perhaps too close together, the chin just a bit too pronounced. Didul's image, but distorted, inferior, unfinished.

The other man-sized boy was as unlike Didul as could be imagined. Where Didul was graceful, this boy was strong; where Didul's face looked open and light, this one looked brooding and private and dark. His body was so powerful-looking that Akma marveled that he could pick up any of the fruit without crushing it.

Didul obviously saw which of his brothers it was that had drawn Akma's attention. "Oh, yes. Everybody looks at him like that. Pabul, my brother. He leads armies of diggers. He's killed with his bare hands."

Hearing his words, Pabul looked up and glowered at Didul.

"Pabul doesn't like it when I tell about that. But I saw him once take a full-grown digger soldier and break his neck, just like a rotten dry branch. Snap. The beast peed all over everything."

Pabul shook his head and went back to eating.

"Have some food," said Didul. "Sit down, join us. Brothers, this is Akma, the son of the traitor."

The older brother who looked like Didul spat.

"Don't be rude, Udad," said Didul. "Tell him not to be rude, Pabul."

"Tell him yourself," said Pabul quietly. But Udad reacted as if Pabul had threatened to kill him--he immediately fell silent and began concentrating on his eating.

The younger brother gazed steadily at Akma, as if evaluating him. "I could beat you up," he said finally.

"Shut up and eat, Monkey," said Didul. "This is the youngest, Muwu, and we're not sure he's human."

"Shut up, Didul," said the little one, suddenly furious, as if he knew what was coming.

"We think Father got drunk and mated with a she-digger to spawn him. See his little rat-nose?"

Muwu screamed in fury and launched himself at Didul, who easily fended him off. "Stop it, Muwu, you'll get mud in the food! Stop it!"

"Stop it," said Pabul quietly, and Muwu immediately left off his assault on Didul.

"Eat," said Didul. "You must be hungry."

Akma was hungry, and the food looked good. He was seating himself when Didul said, "Our enemies go hungry, but our friends eat."

That reminded Akma that his mother and father were also hungry, as was his sister Luet. "Let me take some back to my sister and my parents," he said. "Or let them all come and eat with us."

Udad hooted. "Stupid," murmured Pabul.

"You're the one I invited," said Didul quietly. "Don't embarrass me by trying to trick me into feeding my father's enemies."

Only then did Akma understand what was happening here. Didul might be beautiful and fascinating, full of stories and friendliness and wit--but he didn't actually care about Akma. He was only trying to get Akma to betray his family. That was why he kept saying those things about Father, about how he was a traitor and all. So that Akma would turn against his own family.

That would be like . . . like becoming a friend to a digger. It was unnatural and wrong and Akma understood now that Didul was like the jaguar, cunning and cruel. He was sleek and beautiful, but if you let him come near enough, he would leap and kill.

"I'm not hungry," said Akma.

"He's lying," said Muwu.

"No I'm not," said Akma.

Pabul turned to face him for the first time. "Don't contradict my brother," he said. His voice sounded dead, but the menace was clear.

"I was just saying that I wasn't lying," said Akma.

"But you are lying," said Didul cheerfully. "You're starving to death. Your ribs are sticking out of your chest so sharp you could cut yourself on them." He laughed in delight and held out a maizecake. "Aren't you my friend, Akma?"

"No," said Akma. "You're not my friend, either. You only came to me because your father sent you."

Udad laughed at his brother. "Well aren't you the clever one, Didul. You could make friends with him, said you. You could win him over the first day. Well, he saw right through you."

Didul glared at him. "He might not have till you spoke up."

Akma stood up, furious now. "You mean this was a game?"

"Sit down," said Pabul.

"No," said Akma.

Muwu giggled. "Break his leg, Pabul, like you did that other one."

Pabul looked at Akma as if considering it.

Akma wanted to plead with him, to say, Please don't hurt me. But he knew instinctively that the one thing he couldn't do with someone like this was to act weak. Hadn't he seen his father stand before Pabulog himself and face him down, never showing a moment's fear? "Break my leg if you want," said Akma. "I can't stop you, because I'm half your size. But if you were in my place, Pabul, would you sit down and eat with your father's enemy?"

Pabul cocked his head, then beckoned with a lazy hand. "Come here," he said.

Akma felt the threat receding as Pabul calmly awaited his approach. But the moment Akma came within reach, Pabul's once-lazy hand snaked out and took him by the throat and dragged him down to the ground, choking. Struggling for breath, Akma found himself staring into the hooded eyes of his enemy. "Why don't I kill you now, and toss your body at your father's feet?" said Pabul mildly. "Or maybe just toss little bits of your body. Just one little bit each day. A toe here, a finger there, a nose, an ear, and then chunks of leg and arm. He could build you back together and when he got all the parts, everybody'd be happy again, right?"

Akma was almost sick with fear, believing Pabul perfectly capable of such a monstrous act. Thinking of the grief that his parents would feel when they saw his bloody body parts took his mind off the great hand that still gripped his throat, loosely enough now that he could breathe.

Udad laughed. "Akmaro's supposed to be so thick with the Keeper of Earth, maybe he can get the old invisible dreamsender to work a miracle and turn all those body parts back into a real boy. Other gods do miracles all the time, why not the Keeper?"

Pabul didn't even look up when Udad spoke. It was as if his brother didn't exist.

"Aren't you going to plead for your life?" asked Pabul softly. "Or at least for your toes?"

"Get him to plead for his little waterspout," suggested Muwu.

Akma didn't answer. He kept thinking of how his parents would grieve--how they must even now be filled with terror for him, wondering where this boy had led him. Mother had tried to warn him, sending Luet. But Didul had been so beautiful, and then so friendly and charming and . . . and now the price of it was this hand at his throat. Well, Akma would bear it in silence as long as he could. Even the king finally screamed when they tortured him, but Akma would last as long as he could.

"I think you need to accept my brother's invitation now," said Pabul. "Eat."

"Not with you," whispered Akma.

"He's a stupid one," said Pabul. "We'll have to help him. Bring me food, boys. Lots of food. He's very, very hungry."

In moments, Pabul had forced open his mouth and the others were jamming food into it, far faster than Akma could chew it or swallow it. When they saw that he was breathing through his nose, they began to jam crumbs into his nostrils, so that he had to gasp for breath and then choked on the crumbs that got down his windpipe. Pabul let go of his throat and jaw at last, but only because, coughing, Akma was now so helpless that they could do whatever they wanted to him, which involved tearing open his clothing and smearing fruit and crumbs all over his body.

Finally the ordeal was over. Pabul delegated Didul, and Didul in turn assigned his older brother Udad to take the ungrateful, traitorous, and ill-mannered Akma back to his work. Udad seized Akma's wrists and yanked so harshly that Akma couldn't walk, but ended up being dragged stumbling over the grassy ground to the top of the hill. Udad then threw him down the hill, and Akma tumbled head over heels as Udad's laughter echoed behind him.

The taskmaster refused to let any of the humans stop their work to help him. Shamed and hurt and humiliated and furious, Akma rose to his feet and tried to clean off the worst of the food mess, at least from his nostrils and around his eyes.

"Get to work," demanded the taskmaster.

Udad shouted from the top of the hill. "Next time maybe we'll bring your sister along for a meal!"

The threat made Akma's skin crawl, but he showed no sign of having heard. That was the only resistance left to him, stubborn silence, just like the adults.

Akma took his place and worked the rest of the daylight hours. It wasn't until the sky was darkening and the taskmaster finally let them go that he was finally able to go to his mother and father, tell them what happened.

They spoke in the darkness, their voices mere whispers, for the diggers patrolled the village at night, listening to hear any kind of meeting or plot--or even prayer to the Keeper of Earth, for Pabulog had declared that it was treason, punishable by death, since any prayer by a follower of the renegade priest Akmaro was an affront to all the gods. So as Mother scrubbed the dried-on fruit from his body, weeping softly, Akma told Father all that was said and all that was done.

"So that's how Nuak died," said Father. "He was once a good king. But he was never a good man. And when I served him, I wasn't a good man either."

"You were never really one of them," said Mother.

Akma wanted to ask his father if everything else Pabulog's sons said was true, too, but he dared not, for he wouldn't know what to do with the answer. If they were right, then his father was an oathbreaker and so how could Akma trust anything he said?

"You can't leave Akma like this," said Mother softly. "Don't you know how far they've torn him from you?"

"I think Akma is old enough to know you can't believe a liar."

"But they told him you were a liar, Kmaro," she said. "So how can he believe you?"

It amazed Akma how his mother could see things in his mind that even he himself had barely grasped. Yet he also knew it was shameful to doubt your own father, and he shuddered at the look on his father's face.

"So they did steal your heart from me, is that it, Kmadis?" He called him dis, which meant beloved child; not ha, which meant honored heir, the name he used when he was especially proud of Akma. Kmaha--that was the name he wanted to hear from his father's lips, and it remained unspoken. Ha-Akma. Honor, not pity.

"He stood against them," Mother reminded him. "And suffered for it, and he was brave."

"But they sowed the seed of doubt in your heart, didn't they, Kmadis?"

Akma couldn't help it. It was too much for him. He cried at last.

"Set his mind at rest, Kmaro," said Mother.

"And how will I do that, Chebeya?" asked Father. "I never broke my oath to the king, but when they drove me out and tried to have me killed, then yes, I realized that Binaro was right, the only reason to keep the common people from learning to read and write and speak the ancient language was to preserve the priests' monopoly on power. If everyone could read the calendar, if everyone could read the ancient records and the laws for themselves, then why would they need to submit to the power of the priests? So I broke the covenant and taught reading and writing to everyone who came to me. I revealed the calendar to them. But it isn't evil to break an evil covenant." Father turned to Mother. "He isn't understanding this, Chebeya."

"Sh," she said.

They fell silent, only the sound of their breathing filling their hut. They could hear the pattering feet of a digger running through the village.

"What do you suppose his errand is?" Mother whispered.

Father pressed a finger to her lips. "Sleep," he said softly. "All of us, sleep now."

Mother lay down on the mat beside Luet, who had long since dropped off to sleep. Father lay down beside Mother and Akma settled in on the other side of him. But he didn't want Father's arm cast over him. He wanted to sleep alone, to absorb his shame. The worst of his humiliations wasn't the gagging and choking, it wasn't the smearing with fruit, it wasn't tumbling down the hill, it wasn't facing all the people in tattered clothing, covered with filth. The worst humiliation was that his father was an oathbreaker, and that he had had to learn it from Pabulog's sons.

Everyone knew that an oathbreaker was the worst kind of person. He would say one thing, but no one could count on him to do it. So you could do nothing with him. You could never trust him when you weren't there to watch. Hadn't Mother and Father taught him from earliest infancy that when he said he would do a thing, he had to do it, or he had no honor and could not be trusted?

Akma tried to think about what Father said, that to break an evil covenant was good. But if it was an evil oath, why would you swear to it in the first place? Akma didn't understand. Was Father evil once, when he took the evil oath, and then he stopped being evil? How did someone stop being evil once he started? And who decided what evil was, anyway?

That soldier Didul told him about--Teonig?--he had the right idea. You kill your enemy. You don't sneak around behind his back, breaking promises. None of the children would ever tolerate a sneak. If you had a quarrel, you stood up and yelled at each other, or wrestled in order to bend the other to your will. You could argue with a friend that way, and still be a friend. But to go behind his back, then you weren't a friend at all. You were a traitor.

No wonder Pabulog was angry at Father. That's what brought all this suffering down on us. Father was a sneak, hiding in the wilderness and breaking promises.

Akma started to cry. These were terrible thoughts, and he hated them. Father was good and kind, and all the people loved him. How could he be an evil sneak? Everything the sons of Pabulog said had to be lies, had to be. They were the evil ones, they were the ones who had tormented him and humiliated him. They were the liars.

Except that Father admitted that what they said was true. How could bad people tell the truth, and good people break oaths? The thought still spun crazily in Akma's head when he finally drifted off to sleep.

EARTHBORN Copyright 1995 by Orson Scott Car