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Authors: Piers Anthony

Neq the Sword

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Neq the Sword
Piers Anthony

CHAPTER ONE

"But you are too young for the circle?" Nemi cried.

"If I am, then you are too young for that bracelet you've been eying! You're fourteen--the same as me." His name was the same as hers, too, for she was his twin sister. He refused to use that name now, for he no longer considered himself to be a child.

In fact he had already chosen his manhood name: Neq. Neq the Sword--as soon as he proved himself in the battle circle.

Nemi bit her lip, making it artfully red. She was full-bodied but small, like him, and could not term herself adult until she had borrowed the bracelet of a warrior for at least a night. After that she would shed her childhood name and assume the feminine form of the warrior she indulged. Between bracelets she would be nameless--but a woman. And twice a woman when she bore a baby.

"Bet I make it before you do!" she said. But then she smiled.

He tugged one of her brown braids until she made a musical trill of protest. He let go and walked to the circle where two warriors were practicing: a sticker and a staffer. It was a friendly match for a trivial point. But the metal weapons flashed in the sunlight and the beat of the weapons' contacts sounded across the welkin.

This was what he lived for. Honor in the circle! He had taken a sword from the rack in a crazy hostel four years ago, though it was so heavy he could hardly swing it, and had practiced diligently since. His father, Nem the Sword, had been pleased to train him, and it was excellent training, but he had never been allowed in a real circle.

Today he was fourteen! He and his sister were no longer bound by parental conventions, according to the code of the nomads. He could fight; she could borrow a bracelet. Whenever either was ready.

The sticker scored on the staffer, momentarily stunning him, and the two stepped out of the circle. "I'm hot today!" the sticker cried. "Gonna put my band on someone. That girlchild, maybe--Nem's kid."

They hadn't noticed Neq. His sister's challenge, "Bet I make it before you do," meant nothing. But though they were close as only twins could be, their rivalry was also strong. Neq had a pretext to act.

"Before you put your band on Nem's girlchild," he said loudly, startling both men, "suppose you put your stick on Nem's boychild. If you can."

The sticker smiled to cover his embarrassment. "Don't tempt me, junior. I wouldn't want to hurt a nameless child."

Neq drew his sword and stepped into the circle. The weapon looked large on him, because of his small stature. "Go ahead. Hurt a child."

"And have to answer to Nem? Kid, your dad's a good man in the circle. I don't want to owe him for roughing up his baby. Wait till you're of age."

"I'm of age today. I stand on my own recognisance."

That silenced the sticker, because he wasn't familiar with the word. "You aren't of age," the staffer said, looking down at him. "Anybody can see that."

At this point Nem approached, trailed by his daughter. "Your boy is asking for trouble," the staffer told him. "Hig don't want to hurt him, but--"

"He's of age," Nem said regretfully. He was not a large man himself, but the assurance with which he wore his sword suggested his size in the circle. "He wants his manhood. I can't deny him longer."

"See?" Neq demanded, smirking. "You prove your stick on me, before you prove anything on my sister."

All three men stiffened. That had been a nasty jibe. Now Hig the Stick would have to fight, for otherwise Nem himself might challenge him to keep Nemi chaste. It was no secret that the sworder was protective toward both his children, but particularly toward his pretty daughter.

Hig approached the circle, drawing his stocks. "I gotta do it," he said apologetically.

Nemi sidled near. "You idiot!" she whispered fiercely at Neq. "I was only fooling."

"Well, _I_ wasn't!" Neq replied, though now he felt shaky and uncertain. "Here is my weapon, Hig."

Hig looked at Nem, shrugged, and came to the white ring. He towered over Neq, handsome and muscular. But he was not an expert warrior; Neq had watched him fight before.

Hig stepped inside. Neq came at him immediately, covering his nervousness with action. He feinted with his blade in the manner he had practiced endlessly, emulating the technique of his father. The sticker jumped away, and Neq grinned to show greater confidence than he felt. It had actually worked!

He drove at Hig's middle while the man was catching his balance. He knew that thrust would be blocked, and the next, but it was best to maintain the offensive as vigorously as possible. Otherwise he'd be forced to the defensive, which did not favor the sword. Especially against the quick sticks. But he scored.

Adrenaline had made him swift. The sword thrust inches deep into Hig's abdomen. The man cried out horribly and twisted away--the worst thing he could have done. Blood welled out as the sword wrenched loose. Hig fell to the ground, dropping his sticks, clutching the gaping mouth in his belly.

Neq stood dazed. He had never expected it to be this easy--or this gruesome. He had intended the thrust as another ploy, braced to get clipped a few times while he searched for a genuine opening. To have it end this way-- "Hig yields," the staffer said. That meant Neq could leave the circle without further mayhem. Ordinarily the man who remained in the circle longest was the victor, regardless what happened inside, since some were clever at feigning injury as a tactical ruse, or at striking back despite wounds.

He was abruptly sick. He stumbled away from the circle, heedless of the spectacle he made. He retched, getting vomit in his nose. Now, calamitously, he understood why his father had been so cautious about the circle. The sword was no toy, and combat was no game. He looked up to find Nemi. "It was awful!" she said. But she was not condemning him. She never did that when the matter was important. "But I guess you won.

You're a man now. So I fetched this from the hostel for you."

She held out a gold bracelet, the emblem of adulthood. Neq leaned against her sisterly bosom, crying. "It wasn't worth it," he said.

After a while she took a cloth and cleaned him up, and then he donned the bracelet.

But it was worth it. Hig did not die. He was packed off to the crazy hospital and the prognosis was favorable. Neq wore the invaluable bracelet clamped around his left wrist, proud of its weight, and his friends congratulated him on his expertise and assumption of manhood. Even Nemi confessed that she was relieved to have had her liaison with the sticker broken up; she hadn't liked Hig that well anyway. She could wait for womanhood--weeks, if need be!

There was a manhood party for Neq, where he announced his name, which was duly posted on a hostel bulletin board for the crazies to record. There was no eligible girl in this group, so he was unable to consummate his new status in the traditional fashion. But the truth was that he was as leary as was his sister of the actual plunge. Man-man in the circle was straight-forward. Man-woman in the bed... that could wait.

So he sang for them, his fine tenor impressing everyone. Nemi joined him, her alto harmonizing neatly. They were no longer technically brother and sister, but such ties did not sever cleanly at the stroke of a sword.

A few days later he commenced his manhood trek: a long hike anywhere, leaving his family behind. He was expected to fight, perfecting his craft, and to move his bracelet about, becoming a man of experience. He might return in a month or a year or never; the hiatus would establish the change of circumstance, so that all nomads would respect him as an individual. Never again would he be "Nem's kid." He was a warrior.

It was a glorious moment, this ceremony of departure, but he had to hide the choke in his throat as he bid farewell to Nem and Nema and Nemi, the family he had set aside. He saw tears forming in his sister's eyes, and she could not speak, and she was beautiful, and he had to turn away before he was overcome similarly, but it was good.

He marched. The hostels in this region were about twenty miles apart--easy walking distance, but not if a man tarried overlong. And Neq tended to tarry, for many things were new to him: the curves and passes of the trail, unfamiliar because he had never seen them alone before, and the alternating pastures and forests and the occasionally encountered warriors. It was dark by the time he found his first lodging.

And lonely, for the hostel was empty. He made do for himself, using the facilities the crazies had provided. The crazies: so-called because their actions made no sense. They had fine weapons that they did not use, and excellent food they did not eat, and these comfortable hostels they never slept in. Instead they set these things out unguarded for any man to take. If everything were removed from a hostel, the crazies soon brought more, with no word of protest. Yet if a man fought with his sword outside the circle reserved for combat, or slew others with the bow, or barred another from a hostel, and if no one stopped him, the crazies cut off their supplies. It was as though they did not care whether men died, but how and where. As though death by arrow were more morbid than death by sword. Thus there was only one word for them: crazy. But the wise warrior humored their foibles.

The hostel itself was a thirty-foot cylinder standing as high as a man could reach, with a cone for a roof. Somehow the cone caught the sunlight and turned it into power for the lights and machines within. Inside there was a fat column, into which toilet facilities and food-storage and cooking equipment were set, and vents to blow cool air or hot, depending on the need.

Neq took meat from the freezer and cooked it in the oven. He drew a cup of milk from the spout. As he ate he contemplated the racks of bracelets, clothing, and weapons. All this for the taking without combat! Crazy!

At last he pulled down a bunk from the outer wall and slept, covering his head from the stillness.

In the morning he prepared a pack with replacement socks and shirt, but did not bother with extra pantaloons or jackets or sneakers. Dirt did not matter, but the items that became sweatsoaked did need changing every so often or discomfort resulted. He also packed bread and the rest of the meat: waste was another thing the crazies were sensitive about, despite their own colossal waste in putting this all out for plunder. Finally he took a bow and a tent-package, for he intended to do some hunting and camping on this trek. The hostels were fine for occasional use, but the typical nomad preferred to be independent.

The second night he camped, but it was still lonely and he had forgotten to take mosquito repellent. The third night he used a hostel, but he had to share with two other warriors, a sworder and a clubber. It was friendly, and they did not talk down to him though they had to "be aware of his youth. The three practiced in the circle a bit, and both men complimented Neq on his skill: meaning he still was a novice. In serious combat no compliments were needed; the skill spoke for itself.

The fourth night he found a woman. She prepared a meal for him that was immeasurably superior to his own makings, but did not make any other overtures, and he found himself too shy to proffer his bracelet. She was as tall as he, and older, and not really pretty. He took a shower in her presence so she could see he had hair on his genitals, and they slept in adjacent bunks, and in the morning she wished him good fortune in a motherly fashion and he went on. And cursed himself for not initiating his bracelet, at the same time knowing he was even more afraid of somehow mishandling it and being ridiculed. How could a man feign experience in such a matter?

The fifth day he arrived early at a hostel set near a beautiful small lake, and a man was there. By his fair, unblemished features he was not much older than Neq, and he was not substantially larger, but he had the bearing of a seasoned warrior.

"I am Sol of All Weapons," he announced. "I contest for mastery."

This set Neq back. Mastery meant the loser would join the tribe of the winner. Because it was a voluntary convention, it did not violate the crazies' stricture against deprivation of personal freedom, but a man honor-bound was still bound. Neq had only fought once and practiced some, and didn't trust his luck in serious combat. Not so soon, anyway. He didn't want to join a tribe so soon, and had no use for a tribe of his own.

"You use all weapons?" he asked, putting off the implied challenge. "Sword, staff, sticks--all?" Sol nodded gravely.

"Even the star?" He glanced at the morning star maces on the weapons rack.

Sol nodded again. It seemed he wasn't much for conversation.

"I don't want to fight," Neq said. "Not for mastery. I--I just achieved my manhood last week." Sol shrugged, amenable.

About dusk a woman showed up. She wore the sarong of availability, but she was if anything less young and less pretty than the one Neq had met before. She must have borrowed many bracelets in her time, yet no man had retained her. Sol paid her no attention; he was without his own bracelet, showing he was married. So it was up to Neq again--and again he did nothing.

The woman prepared supper for them both, at this was the function of the available distaff. She had the same assurance about her cooking that Sol did about his weapons. This must be her territory, so that she was used to catering to any men who came here, hoping that some would prefer capability to beauty and would leave the bracelet on her. No woman ever took her bracelet directly from the rack; it had to come from a man.

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