The Mayor looked now as if he hadn't realized Ardam was injured. "My God. Please, tell me what I can do."
He didn't know how to respond. Ardam could feel the heaviness in both their hearts. He glanced behind him. The townspeople were tending to the pale one who was still lying on his back. Ardam saw his own severed arms on the ground. He stared at his burned side where his arms had been. The reality of his mutilation sunk in and he was horrified. But he would bear it like a Paramount should, even if it was one of his last acts.
When he looked toward the town he saw his children on the other end; they had continued on as they were told to do. The song for the Birthing Ritual ended and the children turned. He huffed loud enough to recall them.
Ardam glared at his friend, Mayor Toumani Shaw. They were still united in this effort at peace, but there was blood between them now. With Kaliff's daughter in his arms and pain shooting through his side, Ardam was not feeling generous. "Move your people, or I will."
Toumani's eyes shied away from him and through the Barter, Ardam knew he was seeing grief and regret. The expression was all-encompassing and he couldn't read whether it was for what had happened or what was to come.
The two-leg doctor approached but he didn't know how to help Kaliff's daughter, had no idea if their medicines would help or hurt. The Family's healer arrived shortly after. She wanted to tend Ardam first, but he refused and insisted she tend the little one. He had promised that the children would be safe, and he had failed. Whether he would be alive come dawn remained to be seen. No sense wasting the healer's efforts.
Ardam's children gathered around him. The Mayor stood with most of the townspeople behind him.
"I will not let you harm our seedlings," Ardam said.
"Are we still friends?" the Mayor asked.
Ardam stared out to where the Nemek stood, stalled in their attack. Then he looked back to the Mayor. "If we weren't friends, I would not have stopped them. But I am an angry friend right now. And if I'm not alive come tomorrow, I doubt my successor will be as generous as I have been."
The Mayor frowned. Ardam turned and staggered toward the ridge. The children followed. He was going to have a slow, painful climb and he was not looking forward to what he had to face at the end of it.
The caucus stood in its circle with the Family surrounding them close behind. Moonlight was the only illumination. There would be no branflee sticks to separate them. Ardam would face his Family.
He told what happened in the town, emphasizing the bravery of the children. They were silent as he spoke, until he described the pale one shooting at the children. Then they howled and grunted outrage. Ardam was not proud that he had allowed the Mayor to protect him. If the pale one had not been deprived of a target he might not have attacked the children. He let them know this in a waffled sigh from his throat pouch.
When he finished the story, there were murmurs and chitters of consternation. He could hear some that felt he should not have stopped the Nemek and others that said he should have killed the pale one. There was no consensus. This was why the Paramount needed to be certain in their actions. The only thing Ardam felt certain of now was his next act.
He ran his fingers over the hilt of the stone knife in his hand. With all of his hearts prepared, he stepped in front of Kaliff.
"Though it was Raychit that issued the Ferrago challenge, it is your child who was injured because of my failure. I am truly sorry, my friend." Ardam held out the blade. "I offer you First Right. My life is yours."
Ardam did not expect Kaliff to be the one to take his life. The healer had said that her daughter would recover and Kaliff was not one for rancor. It was simply not her way.
Before Kaliff could respond, Raychit stepped over and took the knife. "It was my challenge. I claim the Right."
Huffs and ruffled exhalations emanated from the Family, nervous twitters too. This is what Ardam expected, but not that Raychit would be so eager. He turned and opened his four remaining arms. They locked eyes and all was still.
Raychit spoke loud enough for all to hear. "You promised our children would be safe. In that you failed. And you stopped our warriors before retribution was achieved. We need our Paramount to be vigorous in his convictions." She pressed the blade against Ardam's gut where a deep thrust could pierce his two smallest hearts. At least his death would be quick.
Then, with a deft flip, Raychit turned the knife and held it out to Ardam hilt first. "Your sacrifice has been great enough and your bravery undeniable. Your wisdom has kept us at peace. I am proud to follow you, Paramount Ardam."
The Family howled and whistled its support. Even those with doubts wanted someone strong to follow. Raychit's response made him strong in the Family's eyes.
Having been prepared for his own death, this turn of events stunned Ardam into silence. He accepted the knife with disbelief. Raychit curled her right ear with some mirth to his response. Her friendship and loyalty obviously outweighed her ambition.
He shifted his gaze to Kaliff and then to each member of the caucus and to his Family beyond. Their support made his third heart light. It seemed that in being Paramount he was not as alone as he thought.
Maybe there were no perfect solutions. He still had a lot to learn about leadership. It was evident now that learning could come from all directions. He wondered what Mayor Toumani Shaw had learned today.
Fatigue tugged at Ardam. From atop the ridge he watched the two-legs fill their meeting hall when the cool mist of morning still clung to the ground. With his fourth eye he noted that the Mayor now held a blaster, as did several others that stood with him. The pale one limped to the proceedings, his face bruised and swollen. Ardam looked down at the place where his arms had been and didn't feel sorry. The healer's balms only calmed the pain on the surface; they could not erase his deformity. A deeper pain lanced through his torso with the reminder.
He watched for hours. The two-legs had their own type of chaos, a chaos that even through the Barter he did not understand. More than once the hall filled with shouts and uproar so loud it seemed as if the structure would fall from the sheer volume of the riot. Cranthers certainly had their arguments but nowhere near the capacity to sustain them as the two-legs did.
The sun crested midday when the seedlings started their protracted assault. Black roads bulged slowly with pressure from underneath. The ones that appeared at seams broke through effectively, as Ardam had hoped, but the rest were fighting a tougher battle.
When the two-legs realized what was happening, they hurried out of the hall. The Mayor was quick to start dismantling tiles to ease pressure on the seedlings; his closest supporters did the same. The arguments grew louder and more physical with pushing and shoving. Divisions became obvious as the Mayor's people coalesced behind those with the blasters, still working at freeing the seedlings. Verbal assaults flew back and forth. The Mayor's group was outnumbered two to one. Toumani Shaw was not going to be able to help the seedlings on his own.
It was time to act.
Ardam whistled and the caucus arrived, lining up behind him. The command whistle and three huffs and the Nemek gathered around him. He gave very specific instructions as to how and when they were to apply their weapons. If he handled this correctly, they might avoid further bloodshed.
The Nemek followed Ardam and the caucus down the hillside. He set a brisk pace but kept it short of a charge. A pace his wounded self could maintain without revealing weakness.
At the edge of town, the Mayor's people hurriedly stacked the materials they removed, working against the constant press of the opposition. Ardam could hear some of the shouts. Words like
came through. The two-legs had lost faith in the Mayor; he was on the verge of losing his power.
Two blaster shots squealed into the air and the opposition group fell back. The Mayor's supporters took over the ground that was relinquished and continued their work. It was then that members of the opposition noticed Ardam and his army. Their movements stilled. A few moments passed before their attention caused the Mayor's group to turn and look. Ardam was close enough now to feel Toumani's concern. He had never seen so deep a crease over his friend's eyes. From the strength of his emotions it was an important expression to remember, but not a good one.
Ardam approached Mayor Toumani Shaw and extended his hand. The Mayor hesitated at the offer, looking over his shoulder at the opposition before turning his gaze back to Ardam.
"I still want peace, my friend," Ardam said. "But the seedlings must be born."
The Mayor nodded and shook his hand. He could feel doubt in the Mayor's heart. "Please do not hurt my people."
"A great deal will depend on their actions. Do you consider those who stand against you, your people?"
"Yes," the Mayor said with certainty. Ardam wondered why the Mayor held to such loyalty when his people didn't. Disagreement was one thing, rebellion another. Ardam wondered if he would ever fully understand the two-legs.
The Nemek stepped forward, their numbers spanning the length of the town. Ardam used his remaining hands to motion them forward. They approached the crowd with grumbles and weapons at ready. The two-legs moved back.
With a whistle, Ardam signaled the Nemek to begin. They used their spears and knives to hack at the seams that held the town together. The false black ground came apart quickly.
Riotous objection rose from the two-legs, even those that stood with the Mayor.
"You're damaging our town."
"We're saving the seedlings."
"Let us show you so that our town may be rebuilt elsewhere," the Mayor said.
Ardam paused and read yearning from his friend's heart. In a moment of empathy he let out a ceasing howl that stopped the Nemek. Without asking, the caucus fell in line beside him. The Mayor and one of his supporters knelt at the edge of the road closest to them and showed how the pieces fit together and how they could be disassembled without damage. With four chuffs, he told the caucus members to quickly spread out and instruct the Nemek fighters.
"And what of your people? The ones you give your protection even though they disobey. Will you ask anything of them?"
The Mayor stopped and stared at Ardam. His expression was strained, his heart conflicted.
"My people don't trust me," the Mayor said quietly enough that only Ardam could hear. Then his voice rose. "They seem to have forgotten who guided them through the harsh rains and our first days here."
Ardam looked to each side at the rows of Nemek warriors that stood ready to support him and the Mayor. "I believe you are in an excellent position to make demands. Are you their leader, or not?"
One of the two-legs from the opposition yelled from deep in the crowd. "Why should we follow him when you control his words? You're not in charge of us."
So the Mayor
in a precarious place. "Then let the words be mine," Ardam said.
Ardam turned to the two-legs. "I do not control Mayor Toumani Shaw. You must realize that it is his honor and friendship toward me that has kept you alive. I have shown you nothing but peace . . ."
"Peace?!" a voice bellowed from the back. The pale one limped forward through the crowd leaning heavily on a walking stick. "You undermine our town and then come to destroy it with your army. That is not what I call peace!"
All of Ardam's hearts clenched at the sight of the two-leg who maimed him. In the moment they started beating again, his anger rose. The pale one was not armed this time. Ardam strode toward him.
"I gave you the opportunity to leave, even offered to help, and you repaid me by attacking my children. Amongst Cranthers I have the right to retribution. Shall I take it out upon your child?"
The pale one's face contorted, showing teeth in a manner different from Toumani Shaw's smile. It did not take the Barter to recognize this as the threatening expression he originally thought it to be.