Reductionism Roleplaying

I think about often because I see a great many systems that are lists of stats and weapons, and while that is useful, (and of course guides about culture and stuff), a lot of players can get hung up on designing the character and optimizing it.  I don’t think this is necessary or desirable, and over the years I have designed some systems that seek to do away with that idea.

CoActionDrama (CAD) Is designed with freedom in mind, but was supposed to be quick to set up, in practice it is as slow as any other system, and discussions with friends recently led me to think about the minimum possible nuanced system.  that’s an important idea, nuance, because any fool can come up with a system than just punches numbers.  I want something that I can run with thought and discretion, but is genuinely quick to set up and easy to run.

The reader will find the following, which draws on some34 years of Roleplaying experience to be similar to many things and nothing.

Reduced_Game

This is the character sheet.  you can see it devoid of almost everything, which does mean you can make note on it.  You need a single D6 to play.

The scores for each set are scribbled inside the circles, preferably rolled, but assigned as the GM sees fit.  Total to be, I suggest 10.  Could be more, maybe as much as 12.

Each category is a paradigm for those kind of activities.  Doing is not just about doing, it is about strength, agility etc.

Keep that D6 because it is the testing die.

So How would I use this as a character and a GM?

Say climbing a fence is a task the player and the GM are not sure about, will the character make it.  There’s time, not being chased, so the character has time to Think and Do.  The GM assigns a difficulty out of a 3-18 range, 3 dead easy, 18, hardest thing ever.  Average 9 or 10.  Gm sets a difficulty/challenge of 9, players has Thinks and Does of 3 and 4 respectively, rolls a 2, adding for a total of 9.  Same score.  The GM can decide that the wall required more Thought and less brawn, and fail the task, the thinking component was lower.  OR the gm can simpl decide that this is good enough.  If the player had rolled a 3, for a total of 10, the GM has to describe the event as happening, a success, if the die roll was only a 1 for a total of 8, a failure is described.

What happens if the pass is a pass automatically?  Well in all fairness there has to be a chance of failure, so the die is still rolled, if a 1 then it is rolled again, if it’s a 1 again, then the task is failed.

 

With this approach and some creative thinking, there needs to be no skill list, (the GM can provide a bonus or penalty of up to 2 for a declared expertise or incompetency), and a game can proceed with the smallest of setup and interference.

Now I need some people to test it with.

Out There

This is a story I wrote in response to a little competition, (no prizes, just creativity) my friend ran on his FB wall.  Although it is set in the Mission universe, it stands alone and isn’t related to any story-lines currently going on.

Out There

Noises like rarely bode well.  I was used to the creaking of the craft by now, but that shearing sound sent a shiver down my spine.  The essential urgency of it striking fear into me.

I was used to noises off by now, some clank as a ship’s system broke down and it halfheartedly attempted to fix it.  Most of its mind was gone, and a lot of the ship’s avatars roamed around aimlessly, corrupted by the sudden death of their Mind.  The few that were more or less fully operational strode purposefully through the ship, repairing and jury-rigging what was left.  Their stated aim; to keep me and the baby alive, the only living beings out of a ship of maybe a million people.  I knew that noise.  The shearers were back.

I’ve made a few stupid decisions in my life; rock climbing without a harness, that lava flow boat trip, Rick.  Now, now I was here listening to the shearer decimating the boat again, I knew that the number one stupidest decision I ever made was to give birth naturally.  No nanobots looking after us, feeding and repairing our bodily systems, no delaying the birth for sometime convenient, no pain relief – oh how I regretted that the first time the shearers came!

That noise.  It’s like listening to paper tearing, or the thin tin of an aluminium can.  It signals that another bit of the ship has been lost, and probably some avatars with it.  I’m hoping that it isn’t the last of the propulsion, looks like I’m giving birth out here any how, but to raise a child!  No.

I don’t know WHY this is happening, so I have no power to stop it.  Any kind of communications technology is like a beacon once activated, if we act a like a piece of debris, we pretty much get left alone.  I had to look out the window to see that we were going anywhere, great chunks of the massive craft floating nearby with a cloud of bodies spreading oh so slowly away.  Rick.  I could have just generated the pregnancy, but oh no I had to have the “whole woman experience”.  Can’t change back now.

Something is happening, I know it when three of the smarter avatars grab me, one hand behind my neck hands in my back, and we’re running a lot faster than I could possibly manage alone, they slam a bulkhead behind us impossibly fast, and we hear the shearing next to us, where I was standing.

That was the last control room, we’re boxed in now, and effectively debris, like it or not.  There’s no propulsion at all, and finally, the gravity cuts out.  I have never experienced null-gee and I am horribly sick. I feel the baby kick me in distress, and for a while I curl up and leave the universe.

___

When I wake up the avatars have cleaned up, but none of them say anything, they just stand and watch.  I ask for some water, and this request in instantly granted, but again silently.  I’m inquire about this and they spread their hands helplessly.  I’m not sure what it means, but they seem to understand without being able to communicate.  They are the most advanced ones, all I can is wonder what has happened to them.

I realise, by look out of the window again that we are drifting away from the rest of the debris.  It takes a long time, but some open space appears between us and the rest, we’re not surrounded by the bloated frozen bodies of the other passengers and crew.  I feel a sense of relief at this, looking at the macabre display day after day was making me crazy, as if having no-one to talk to wasn’t making me crazy enough.

The avatars float around doing things, food isn’t a problem, keeping it down is.  I realise that one of them is spending a great deal of time out of the quarters, and after a while, a matter of a few weeks, the lost bulkhead opens.  There is a song and dance by the avatars, something about the ship, but I don’t understand it.  Baby is close now, and my thoughts are turning inward.  I have spent a lot of time crying, wondering about our future, but this, stepping out into the slight gravity and seeing the stars spin, it is astonishing.

They have built a new environment from the remains of the ship.  It is large, I realise that the rotation is entirely for my benefit.  We get to the edge of the drug down ladders that seem redundant at first, then essential, then precipitous.  We’re at three-quarters of normal and after weeks of null-gee it’s both painful and welcome.  There are living quarters quite as luxurious as the ones on board the main ship, a birthing pool and everything we will need.  It’s all ready.  There are also plenty of strange packages attached the walls, I see what is happening with these the first time there is a breach.  They have some sticky, expanding substance in them that plugs holes.  It saves our lives more than once.

There is a day before my due date and I have already taken the decision than inducing the birth is far better than waiting for some arbitrary time and having the shearers come back in the middle of birthing.  The avatars agree, obviously, because they get the drugs ready.

The birth is terrible and bliss.  I know I tore mightily, but I was drugged hugely and my daughter, she came out of me with a huge head, which the avatars laid upon my breast with a strange tenderness.  She fed immediately, while they did things to me that I couldn’t, thankfully, see, and repaired me with the utmost sensitivity.

She was wonderful, wonderful.  A miracle out here in deep space, with our enemies just a few kilometers away, and the raw cold of space on the other side of a thin skin of fabric and metal.

I thought I was still drugged up pretty well, because after a while they came and tidied her up, weighed her and calculated instantly her mass, checked her fingers and toes, scanned her for the so many things that can go wrong in natural childbirth.  She grew tired of their attentions after a while, I know it.

I know it because she made a noise, an noise unfamiliar now to me from our months of isolation, and she made it from her position just next to me, riding on nothing, supported by nothing, just floating serenely.

She made a noise I knew wouldn’t bode well, for anyone.

“Hello mother, what have you gotten yourself into?”

The next two months are the happiest I can ever remember, not just because I was frequently in the intimate company of women, but because we operated as a coherent group in a way I would never have expected had anyone explained it to me beforehand. The Wolves pulled all our gear, and somehow explained to Sam that they needed their coats cutting somewhat as we went to warmer climes. The ladies of the group were all very attentive to Garain, and showed him how to be more genteel in appearance, binding his beard and plaiting it with bows, bestowing on him the chunkiest of their jewellery, and incidentally the most deadly, and showing him how to conceal himself in a crowd of ladies. Eventually he shaved, an operation I regarded as intrinsically dangerous, because he did it with a sharpened dagger, but it improved his concealment abilities tremendously.

I remember particularly the first night I spent with someone because it was with Ellie, she insisted that this was the case. She said that she had “promised to show me what lovers do”, and this almost unmanned me with the memory of it, but she took me in hand and showed me bliss. We talked afterwards.

“You should master your magic if you think that was good.” I rolled over towards her.

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” I asked, amused. She smiled and tickled me until I grabbed her arms and pinned her down again. “Have you not had enough?” She grinned and tried to knee me, but I was too quick.

“Hum, Garain’s lessons are paying off. Has he taught you anything else?” I looked thoughtful.

“Only that you’re here to please me.” I said laughing.

“Oh you ARE becoming embedded in the culture!” She said squirming around.

“Anyway, I don’t know the magic words.” She sat up, the furs falling away. She looked more pert than I have ever seen her.

“You can learn them. He can’t hear you, me either for a while, and never if I catch.”

“What?” I said unsteadily.

“I’m not protected, Jessop. Sally and I, we’re going to be the mothers of your children.” I don’t know quite what happened next, but it was the morning and I woke up next to Ellie, still in bed, and Sam, still fully clothed, on the other side.

__________

We sat there in the furs looking at each other.

“Look at it this way John, it’s better than dropping dead. And it’s not like we don’t WANT children. It’s just that we might have made different choices if we were home.” I shook my head.

“Can’t I just magic away the fertility?” Sam shook her head in turn.

“No, we don’t know that it will protect us. We’ve got to have it integrated into us. For that, you need to get us pregnant.”

“What about Garain? I can hardly get him pregnant.” And I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the whole process with him anyway.

“He, and you’ll have to get used to using the female pronoun soon, is a woman. The King can’t kill him, her, without losing face. If he, it, she, they, damn it! If she drops dead, the King will be blamed. Even he can’t kill everyone, and everyone will turn on him instantly if he magics her to death.”

“Oh, right then.” And that was that.

___________

Gerain’s skill at navigating kept us from meeting any one serious, some peasants with only one woman, and a pretty poor show at that, and a few farmhands working fields. This meant that they were all women, and they varied from demure to dismissive to tart, and universally, if we had a complaint, we were to take it up with the men. I finally realised that ownership actually stopped a great of abuse, and land ownership, the exclusive right of women, gave them a great deal of power. It was this idea that finally made me be more at ease with what was going on.

Garain also proved to be very skilful a teaching me to fight. He likened it to learning a sport, which surprised me. He was taken aback.

“We’re not complete heathens you know, we have sport. [I’m having to translate somewhat]. We toss the caber, play Raquet Ball, we have Football and Golf and Football.” He scratched his bald chin. “That itches still. Anyhow, if you play golf, you have to learn to swing with your arms not your head. If you swing with your head, you’ll miss.”

We carried on fighting every day. As we carried on I became aware that any injuries I gained healed very quickly, usually within the hour. Garain commented on this. “That’s going to make you reckless. Treat every injury like it matters, because someone could chop your head off, and then where would you be?”

He carried on, teaching me to use forms used by all the fighters he knew, then how to counter them. Every day, I seemed to pick up something new. “You’re a fast learner right enough.” And so it went on.

This bucolic break lasted just up until the time we encountered our first “Lord.” By this time I had done my duty by all the ladies, and they all seemed satisfied with my performance; and seemingly it cemented their trust in my prowess.

We were attending to the wolves and setting up camp when the rag tag entourage came to a halt on the road beside our camp. Kate was outside our little circle and greeting the Lordling. I could hear her quite clearly, greeting him in the right fashion.

“Good day My Lord,” she said, curtseying. “May we assist you in any way?” he looked her up and down from the vantage point of his horse, who was shying a bit nervously at the sight of the gigantic wolves.

“I doubt it, child.” he said haughtily, looking down his nose at her, and incidentally not letting her up for her curtsey. “You could fetch your Master though, he might be able to help.” She rose and came to fetch me. Curtseying carefully, she said in a loud voice,

“John, beloved, a Lord who is unknown to me desires to speak with you. Are you ‘in’?” I wasn’t quite ready for this, but I got the message immediately. I turned my eyes to the wolf, and clipped her a bit more closely, she shrugged a shoulder.

“I’ll just pretend then for a moment if I may.” I whispered. She relaxed. I spoke louder, not looking at Kate, “Just a moment, dear, I’m not quite finished here.” I looked over the wolf, well, around the wolf, and held a finger up for a second, then bobbed back behind. Garain came up from the other side fully shrouded.

“Are you trying to annoy this man?”

“He looks the type to be easily annoyed.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Alright.” I said. I went out from behind the wolf. The Lord had got down from his saddle, I noticed one or two people looking out from the carriages.

“John Jessop. Are you lost?” The man stopped stock still.

“Do you know where you are?” I shook my head.

“We came off the ice a month or two ago, and we haven’t got our bearings yet.” His lips became very thin.

“Well I can tell you that you are on MY land, and you haven’t sought permission to be here. I do hope you haven’t taken any deer.” We HAD as a matter of fact had some rather nice venison the last evening, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I said, cheerily, even though I knew that the main body of the beast was still turning over the fire.

“I see.” The man said with a steely glare. Well as you are on my land, without my permission, you should tithe me.” I looked at him all over. He had a rapier, which seemed a like a very slight weapon for a noble-man from what Garain had been saying over the weeks. I noticed that a couple of very burly men had got down from carriages. No women. Other than this he was wearing a doublet and hose, which looked very effete to my eye. His codpiece was certainly exaggerated. Or a cricket box gone mad.

“Excuse me,” I said, as carefully as I could. “I have no wish to offend you, but are you officially a woman?” The two men stopped, stock still. Our camp became silent. “I ask, because, well, only women own land.” The chap had become very, very red in the face. I could see the veins clearly standing out on his forehead.

“How dare you!” He managed to strangle out, struggling to pull out his tiny sword. “I inherited this land from my mother you heathen! I have not found a woman worthy of me to pass it on to yet!” He managed to yank the sword out of the scabbard, and wave it in my face.

“I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s death.” I said placatingly. “And I know that it can be hard finding a woman sometimes.” This made him pause. I noted that in order to count above three, he was moving his lips.

“Well perhaps I shall have yours!” He shouted, and stabbed at me, thrusting full at my body with his arm extended. I had time to see one of the very burly men put his hand over his eyes. It was hard not to laugh.

The vital thing, Garain had taught me, was never to over extend; by the very nature of a manoeuvre such as stabbing someone with a flexible sword, one over extends, and since all my training about telegraphing movement was still fresh in my mind, I stepped smoothly to one side, and grabbed his wrist. I had a pretty good lock on it, and so when I ducked under his arm, it twisted mightily, and he had no choice but to follow it. He tried to jump in the air to stop his arm breaking, and ended up on the floor, without his toothpick, and with my foot on his chest. I decided that this was beneath me, so I took my foot off him. Then I decided that he needed a bit more winding up.

“Isabella.” I called as politely as I could. She came over, quite slowly, and looked down at this man sprawled in the dirt, and then did something I could have kissed her for. She tutted.

The petty lordling sprang up and tried to slap her. Too bad for him, I was standing close, and I didn’t even make an effort. I just punched him in the face, and he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes.

“Would you gentleman mind removing this man?” I said to the two men waiting behind. They nodded. “What’s he called by the way?” One of them bit his lip. I shook my head questioningly. The other one opened his mouth.

“He’s called Lord Nancy. We’re his cousins.” I nodded at this. um, would that make you…?”

“Yeah, but we’re big blokes and we got all the women we want. Why should we care? His old Mum though, she said to try and take care of him.” I nodded. “He’s typical now though, arrogant little shit. Thinks he owns the place, as long as they ain’t no women. Ain’t no crops bein’ grown either. That’s why we’re leaving. We’re hungry.”

“Never let a man do a woman’s work.” Said Isabella, tartly.

“S’right.” said the speaking one. He looked Isabella up and down. “I’ll fight yer man for yer.” he stated, dusting off his jerkin and furs. “If yer want.”

“Can’t afford me, eh?” she replied with aplomb.

“Bet you’re worth a lot, doubt anyone can afford you.” He looked sheepish as he said this. I was feeling a bit appalled. But Isabella was smiling dazzlingly.

“What a nice boy you are!” she beamed, and she went up to him with her hand outstretched.

“Er, aren’t you supposed to ask permission?” I said. She turned slightly back to me and arched an eyebrow.

“Are you going to deny me this beautiful moment, John?” I rolled my eyes up and said,

“No, no, just wondering if you were going to observe the niceties.” She laughed and allowed her hand to be lightly kissed.

“I’m Nigel, Lord Nancy and this here’s my brother, Leonard, Lord Nancy.” His brother wiped his nose on what passed for a handkerchief.

“S’right.” He said. “We’re gonna take the biggest Nancy away now alright? Got places to go, people to upset.” And with this they dragged him away. The whole entourage took a little while to get going and some time to pass; by the end of which I could hear the little chap screaming obscenities as he’d been tied to his saddle bow. They told him to shut up before he was gagged.

_________

A little later as we sat around the fire eating the forbidden meat, Isabella and Garain were reflecting on this incident.

“Garain is a right, if that sort of thing is happening a lot, then law and order is breaking down.” He nodded and tore off another piece of meat. “If that little chap is becoming typical, or even just more frequent, then we’re in for a bad time. Did you notice?” We all shook out heads. “No children around.” I looked askance at this. Ellie’s face had a dawning realisation look on it.

“No children, because they’re too afraid to come out, or the women are too afraid to let them out.” Isabella nodded.

“That’s a change in culture.” She said. Garain looked puzzled. “Men don’t do a lot of the work dear one, where do you think bread comes from. Have you ever tilled a field?” He nodded.

“That’s woman’s work.” He reflected a moment. “Peasants work the fields, all hands on deck.”

“Yes, and in this respect, women are in charge.”

“That sounds wrong, even from you Isabella.” He shifted uncomfortably, “We’re in charge.” There was a moment of consideration about this, and I could see Isabella and the others waiting. “He’s in charge.” he said pointing at me, “I have taken the robes of a woman, I’m not in charge of anything.” Gefina spoke up. I think this is the first time I’d heard her speak in company. She is a raven haired woman with quite a pointed nose, a long neck and fine features. As with all Garain’s crowd, she is intelligent and forthright, but she tended to go a long time without speaking, so we paid attention when she did.

“You’re not really a woman Garain, so you don’t know about woman culture.” He looked a bit hurt, and she laid a hand on his arm. “It’s not a secret culture, largely, but you must know that there are a lot fewer men than women.” He nodded. “We have to do the majority of the work, because you can’t be wasted on everyday things when there have been wars to be fought. Outright war has always been a disaster, so you’ve spent your life training up for tourneys and such.”

“What has that to do with culture?”

“I wouldn’t offend you for the world Garain, but have you noticed that most men are not too bright?” Kate nodded, and he looked from one to the other in bewilderment. Gefina carried on, “For generations we’ve been breeding men for muscle and women for intelligence and beauty. That’s going to have a certain effect don’t you think?”

“We’ve always known that there’s women’s work and we probably shouldn’t interfere with it.”

“Precisely. Why do you think we own all the land?”

“So you can farm it. Oh.” A rather frightened look crossed his face.

“Yes,” continued Gefina relentlessly, “we own the land you build things on. We own the land that you get a lot of your food from. We spend all our time managing that while you spend all your time training for war. Even the peasants. We outnumber you five to one at least. There are few women on the earth who can stand up to a man physically, so a balance has been struck. You own us, we own the land. We provide food, and sex, and you protect us from other men. What happens to a rapist?”

“Woman runs away to a stronger man and tells him.” Said Garain promptly. “And he kills the rapist, if he’s any good.”

“And if he’s not.”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s pretty poor for the woman.”

“Yes.”

We were all quiet for a bit after that. We ate and drank, and somehow took some time to let everything just go down a bit. A thought occurred to me.

“You ladies said two inconsistent things a while ago.” I started. Kate held up her hand.

“Hang on, John. Garain, you should know that you’re not dumb. You’re really smart and considerate.”

“For a man.” Kate waved her hands.

“No, Garain, for a person. You’ve been on a mission for a while, you haven’t interacted with the real world properly for a good long time. You haven’t seen what it’s really become.”

“I know about the King.”

“It’s not the only thing that’s going on, society is changing. We know, we talk to the women. They’re not happy. The men have started to treat them badly. You don’t do that.”

“Don’t I?”

“No, not generally. John, what were you saying about two inconsistent things?” The thought had almost slipped my mind. I considered for a moment.

“You all said that I had to get you pregnant to protect you from the King’s magic. Then you said that Garain wasn’t in any danger the because all the nobles would gather up against him if he killed a woman with his magic. Which is it?” Everyone looked shifty. “What?”

“Um.” Garain looked up. “I’m probably a sacrifice, or more likely they wanted your magic because they’re going to fight, or they wanted to protect their children.” I looked at him and gestured to the pot of food, he nodded and passed me his bowl. “You can’t protect me in the same way. So we work with what we’ve got.” He took the bowl and dug into it with his spoon.

“I’m sorry.” He looked at me.

“I’m not. All this is wrong. We’ve had this talk. The King has got to go. You’ve come here because he broke your law, we’re helping because he’s an arse and ruining the earth and our culture. That’s worth a lot. He’s bought winter to our world, and now he’s bringing winter to our culture, we’ll all die. That’s how he broke your law. You’re so far in advance of us that we call some of what you can do ‘magic’, because it isn’t any different from the old tales of magic. that’s what he does, it’s not right. He’s got to go.” Gefina nodded vigorously, and the others joined in.

“It’s a noble cause.” “It’s right and proper” “Garain is right.” and other noises of support came from them. Sam and Ellie nodded too. Ellie spoke up.

“Garain knows this is right.” He nodded.

“He is my friend,” I said, “I don’t want him to die.”

“Childish.” he said. Isabella woke up from her partial doze.

“Garain! You know better than that!” I looked from one to the other in confusion. “She’ll get you into a spurious fight if she talks like that. We can hardly afford that.”

“Sorry Isabella, the point is made though.” She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

“Yes, but none of us want to lose you.” He just shook his head.

“This is morose, I’m going to sleep.” And this prompted us all to seek warm furs and settle down for the night.

It was some time later, and Garain and Isabella, just them, had joined us in the yurt.

“So, you’ve travelled far I take it, and you have strange companions,” he indicated the three wolves lounging in the yurt. “Have you been troubled by the ice?” I went to answer, but Ellie raised her hand. I nodded.

“The ice has been our friend and provided meat, and these noble companions,” she used a word, ‘amösti’, which really means ‘strange companions of my trusted tribe’, “we have travelled far from our range. We go to reclaim what is ours lying on the land of a Noble Lady.”

“Bought a castle eh?” asked Garain with a wry smile on his face. “Good job you’re not dead before you can enjoy it.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Um…” Isabella rescued me.

“John, I’m truly sorry for my attitude, I really shouldn’t have been that rude, it wasn’t fair on you or your ladies. I’m getting a bit crotchety in my old age.” I waved this away. “No, no, John. There are other implications too.” I looked askance at this. She took a deep breath. “Life has become brutal and short in the last years; we’re calling them that now because we cannot see any way of usurping the King. He seems to know everything, so even this conversation is dangerous.” Garain brings his hand down low while this is being said. Isabella sees and nods slowly.

“I’m with a civil society, which respects authority and civility.” I said very slowly. “I respect and revere the King, and if the judgements seem harsh, then we shall await the judgement of history.” Garain scowled.

“Kings usually only wait on the judgement of the gods.” The scowl deepened. I passed over a large chunk of meat on a piece of leather. This bought a smile to his face for a moment. Then, carefully, he took out a knife and a crudely beaten fork and a little tin plate, cut the meat in half and spent several minutes cutting up the meat into very small pieces before reheating it over the fire. I noted in passing that he just put the plate into the fire with his bare hand and held it there, before placing a rag on Isabella’s lap and placing the plate there. “Truth is,” continued Garain, “we’re going out on to the ice. It’s more than a man’s life is worth to challenge the King, and the ice is the only place I know of he doesn’t fully influence us with his magic. I need some time away from him to think. So do many if only they knew it.” He bit into the remains of the meat, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Supposing,” I said, carefully, “supposing there was someone who could get rid of him. Could you do without a King? Is there succession?” Garain swallowed the meat carefully, and took a good long look at me before replying.

“There would be a tourney. There are no heirs. A tourney would the only thing to decide it. There would be many deaths.”

“I don’t like to be callous, but would that matter?” Again, a long look.

“You halve yourself. There would be deaths, it matters not.” He frowned and picked up another piece of meat. “Why speak like a woman, and then a man. Women’s words are for women. If you must speak them, then be a man and commit to them.” I looked confused. Ellie put her hand up. I nodded.

“If I may have a word?” We left the yurt.

“I don’t understand what he just said; was he insulting me?” Ellie shook her head.

“He was expressing confusion. When you said that you didn’t like to be callous and then asked if it would matter, that was halving yourself. You might hear it often if you do that.” I looked more confused. “You’re a strapping great warrior. Well, you look like one, you just lack a few skills. You’re not supposed to care if they die, you’re only supposed to care if you win. But every man has a son or cousin he cares about, being concerned about that is womanly. You might have to fight if you express those emotions, so you have to man up and express them, commit. If you commit you might have to fight about it less and you might get insulted less, or choose to ignore it.”

“Got it.” We went back in, where Garain was having a long conversation with Sam about fighting, and how an unarmed person could still take on a sword. It stopped when I stood for a brief moment. I sat.

“I am sorry if I divided myself and it was confusing.” I began. Garain laughed.

“You’re a very strange man. It is done, you did it. Only women regret, it is their way, you speak like a woman, but you are a man, and you have the commitment of a man. Choose who you are!” He frowned briefly, but laughed again. “I’m not trying to insult you friend, but you are strange. I do not understand your purpose.”

“To bring peace.” I said firmly. He stopped laughing. I could see him working his brain, like a clockwork, as he mulled this over.

“That is the goal of a woman.” He held up his hand as drew breath. “it is a laudable aim, but men want war. It is our chance for glory!”

“And yet you run away to think.” Isabelle put her hand firmly on Garain’s arm. I could see his muscles bunch and clench. After a moment he patted her had lightly and she withdrew it after an extra squeeze.

“Yes, it shames me. And yet I would rather have this shame than the fainting death the King’s magic brings, or the drunkenness of so called Lords and Ladies who can barely keep a civil tongue in their heads and sword in its’ sheath. It used to be a countryside that had a reputation for quick tempers and quicker deaths; now those places as a bucolic peace.” Actually, I did translate there some-what. The world he used was ‘hardapga’ which would take a month of Sundays to translate. “There used to be a civility in a town, but now there is one town, and no civility.”

“Were there not matters of honour all the time?” I asked curiously.

“Oh yes, but we were forbidden to fight in towns by the old King’s order. he said that there were too many warriors lost in incidentals. The other monarchs agreed. But now there is one monarch in this long winter, and no need for armies. Just Barons bickering amongst themselves.” He said bitterly. “And I am but one man. I go to think.” He turned to Isabella. “Would you ask Tatty to bring some string drink? My friends here have none, or they would have offered it up.” I nodded, and stood as she rose. “Ah my friend, you give yourself away with so many little gestures.” He smiled, “How long have you been on this world?”

_______________

There is, as they say, nothing like when a plan comes together. And this was nothing like a plan coming together. We had been on the ice for a total of four months at this time. So far, that was two and a half months longer than we had anticipated. We had been on the ice too long, and even Ellie and Sam had become too used to our own company, and so we gave ourselves away in a thousand little ways.

Our company saw straight through us, and he was of the opinion that anyone else would too, and therefore our plan was hopeless.

“You’re off-worlders, that’s obvious now. I didn’t get it at first. Some men can be too long on the ice, and they turn a bit weird. You’re more than weird.”

We looked at him, a little aghast. Isabella leaned forward.

“It’s not unknown, there are a few places in the world that are confused with other worlds; and sometimes people come through.” Garain nodded. “We have ben to most of the portals,” she continued. “Some of what comes through has to be dealt with.”

“Your current King is one of those things.” I was tense, I didn’t know how they would take this. Garain and Isabella shrugged in unison.

“We suspected as much. We couldn’t prove it. And he has bought magic with him.” Ellie leaned forward.

“I would argue with you for the world, Garain, but it’s not magic, it’s tech. And we are policemen come to end him.”

“I do not know those words you used, ‘teche’, ‘pleaseman’, but if you are here to end him, then I am with you.”

“Hang on, hang on,” I said, “what are the odds of meeting someone willing to help us more or less first bat off the wicket?” And then I saw it, I saw what had been going on all the time. Sam was looking sad.

“Yes, John. You’re right, I see it in your face. Isabella is my entangled double.” Garain looked up, first at Sam, and then carefully at Isabella.

“I see it now. Had not before.” He rumbled. “It is obvious now, you are sisters.” Isabella put her hand to her mouth, clearly shocked. “I am more committed now.” He paused. “If you are Isabella.” She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Since when did a man ask permission from his women to do anything?”

“Their ways are not our ways; you need to be certain of this course, it may end your life for a futile cause. As do the other women. Everyone must be certain. I have a responsibility. If I must, I will don the robes and furs of a woman and be this man’s creature, but everyone must consent.” And standing abruptly, he left the yurt and disappeared on to the ice sheet.

There were a few moments of contemplative silence. Eventually Isabella made to get to her feet, and I got up and lent her a hand. She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement and stood for a moment regaining her composure.

“I have things to attend to now ladies and gentleman, and I must see to them, because the head of my household may be no more.” She looked me up and down. “I hope you are equal to this task, because you do not know the enormity of what you have done.”

“I have an idea, Lady.” She frowned and became very thin lipped.

“I think your idea is a faint reflection of what you will see happen when we encounter the town. Manhood is prized here, more than anything. We ladies own what we own to relieve men of the responsibility, to allow them to think and fight. He will not fight again. His punishment of me is nothing. He will disgrace himself and his line for you. Don’t fail him.” I bowed as low as I knew how. “I am honoured, but it is more important that you don’t fail. More than anything.” And she left the yurt also, sweeping her train behind her with a flick or her hand.

“What did I just do and is this sort of thing going to happen all the time?” I said, “And is there any of that drink left?”

We got pretty drunk that night, all of us, on Garain’s mead and rum. Isabella was the only one who showed any restraint, and even was tipsy. The other ladies, Tara, Kate, Helena and Gefina, joined us, demurely robed and suitable chaste, and we told them of the so called plan so far, and what was happening. They all wanted a hefty dose of the mead after that.

It was morning when I was woken by Garain gently rocking my shoulder. Everyone else asleep around me and the brazier was low. He gestured to me to come outside. I groggily got up and followed. The world was hard to resolve, I was clearly hung over, and I felt and urgent need for some water. I began looking about, but Garain handed me a waterskin, by the expedient of grabbing my hand and shoving it into it. I took a long draught, and splashed a bit on my face. Garain waited patiently.

“I have a plan,” he said, “A new plan.” I nodded. “You are clearly immune from Kings Geas, he cannot kill you dead with his magic, or you would not be here.” I nodded again.

“That’s the theory.” He looked grim.

“It had better be more than a theory, or we are all dead for nothing.” He took a deep breath, there was something more. “I might be dead anyway, but I think you can save the women.” He looked off into the distance.

It was while he was doing this that I noticed that his clothes had changed from the dark rough furs of his battle dress, to a lighter linen type robe in many layers, and cream, almost white furs, wrapped around in the same style the women wore, rather than just hung loosely and carelessly as his others had been.

“I think that whatever makes you immune is within you, and you can pass it on to your sons and daughters. I think that act will protect the women too, but not me.” I looked at him, gaping. “You must father all my firstborn. Then I will train you to fight. Then you will be ready for battle.”

_____________

I had a good sense of why Garain would spend the night on the ice, naked, as it turns out. He is hugely hardy; that would have killed me even with all the additional bulk. I gathered later that it was a test of his destiny. If he died on the ice, no problem, as the man on the scene I automatically inherited everything moveable, so not houses and such, but the cart, the women, all that. He had said this in the discussions with Isabelle that amounted to his will. But, as he had come back, he was bound, he thought to take the robes of a woman, and serve me, at least, on the surface.

“Tell them I owed you a gambling debt and couldn’t pay. They will believe it, and it will not be an unexpected disgrace. I’m known for a gamble, it will give amusement to my enemies. They need some amusement since the last tourney.”

“Um, what did you do to them?”

“Broke the leg of every single challenger as he fell off his horse. And Lord the Madam Lissom.”

“Sorry what?”

“She killed her husband and challenged her accuser to hand to hand combat. Woman are not allowed to fight, but it would have been a dishonour to refuse. It would have been a bigger one to kill a weak, defenceless woman in combat, and a disgrace to lose. As it turns out she is neither weak nor defenceless, and she doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of men, so we have to let her get on with it.”

“Let her get on with it?”

“I have taken the robes of a woman, she has taken the robes of a man; unless one likes to get one’s head chopped off, or sawed off more likely, one just accepts that sometimes the cart goes the other way. She’ll have a bit more humility now though. I told her that lance was too heavy for her.” He shrugged his robes around a bit. “This will take some getting used to, ah, My Lord.” I was a bit taken aback. The ladies had been calling me this for the last two days as we rearranged camp and packed it up again. But Garain?

“I am your ‘woman’, you are my Lord. That is how it is, get used to it.”

“Huh. I’ve been thinking about this impregnation thing.” He shot me a look.

“You have done nothing so far. You have not even talked about the matter with your women, what is the matter with you?”

“I’m a bit shy about it to be honest.” He glowered.

“You said what?” He began to bunch his fists. I grew noticeably nervous, this did not seem to improve his mood.

“Little bit shy.” I said recklessly. This as too much for him.

With a great roar he threw off the robes and swung a great roundhouse blow at me, not the gently telegraphed blows with the coshes, but massive blow of a man fully enraged. It connected and I saw stars as I flew across the clearing. He was roaring incoherently, and stamped across the grown before I could find my feet or my wits. He pulled me upright with one hand and swung again, but this time instead of hitting me with his fist, he opened his hand, saving all my teeth, and slapped me across the clearing again. It didn’t feel any less hard than the punch and I was dazed again. I saw that the women had come out and formed a rough circle, including Ellie and Sam. No-one seemed inclined to do anything about the beating I was getting. He seemed less incoherent now, but just as angry.

“I,” he said, lifting me up again, “have given up my manhood for your plan, so you will fight!” he punctuated this with a punch to my stomach. I doubled over and he kneed me in the face. I fell over backwards. “I will never mate!” He went to stamp on me, but I managed to roll out of the way in time. He had to turn a little, and I managed to scythe my legs into his. He fell over heavily, but bounded up again before I had a chance to do any more. Enraged he went to punch me in the face again, directly into the ground and I had to move my head suddenly to avoid it. He drove his fist deep into the earth. I looked directly at Ellie, a mute appeal in my face, but she shook her head and I realised, as he kicked me in the ribs, that I was on my own. I rolled over and over but he kept walking towards me and I realised that he really wasn’t going to give up until he killed me, or I reacted. I changed tack.

I rolled instead towards him, and while he looked marginally surprised he instantly stopped walking and pulled his foot back for a kick. I stopped and put my hands up to catch it, but I was far too slow. I cursed in frustration and stood up as he regained his balance from his missed kick. I took advantage of this to hit him in the face.

Now, I must relate something here. I haven’t done much fighting, and what I have seen has been on the television. Yes, I’ve boxed a little for exercise, but what no-one will tell, no-one, is that hitting a very large man with a very large neck trained practically from birth to fight is almost pointless. Also, you are quite likely to break a knuckle on his face. Unless he has a glass jaw. Garain did not have a glass jaw, but rather one that seemed to be made or granite or some other, harder, material.

I cursed again and retreated rapidly across the ground that was open. He rubbed his jaw, and smiled nastily. Although we were fighting in a small area, I can only describe what he did next as a charge. He developed in a few paces a sort of implacable run that looked as if only some sort of natural disaster would stop it, a mountain falling on him, that sort of thing. I looked at this for a brief second and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and ran off onto the ice.

I didn’t know until that point that I could run really fast, and I easily out- paced Garain and he cursed and shouted and called me a coward. I knew I’d have to answer that, and probably with a challenge, except I didn’t know if that was allowed now. I did know he wasn’t supposed to fight with me.

I was sweaty, and this was not a blessing as night fell out there on the ice. I grew bitterly cold, and as I felt it seeping into my bones I knew a growing warmth that told me frostbite was coming deep within, as the tingle took me and I shook and shook. After a couple of hours the shaking stopped and I was in the pitch black walking on the pack ice. I was lost and in the dark and alone. I kept moving, my only instinct to keep my body moving as long as possible and keep it warm. Anyhow, didn’t lost people walk in circles? Maybe I would come across the camp again, eventually.

The night was darker than anything I had ever experienced outside at night. There was no moon, and no Milky Way, and it struck me how far from home I really must be. I might be anywhere, in a different galaxy for all I knew, and then the truth hit me like a hammer; I wasn’t just in a different galaxy, I was in a different reality, and my way home was up there orbiting the planet, with currently, no way to get back to it, because my quantum double was right here on the planet with me. I was more lost than it would have ever seemed possible to be, before I left Earth, came to this desolate place and acquired a new body.

I fell over in the ice and snow, and just lay there, not caring if I lived or died, frozen cold and lost, and then I did a very stupid thing. I fell asleep.

I was at the tea party again, but this time I wasn’t a five year old girl, I was me, and the rest of the grotesquery were around me, as well as the little girls. My knees were practically around my ears as I sat on the small plastic chair.

“Well,” said a little voice, “you took long enough to get here.” I just looked at her as if she was an alien. “Don’t know who I am?”

_____________

I’m a in a garden with four little girls and a bunch of shot in the head teddies and dolls, sitting, crouching at the table with little cucumber sandwiches on it, and slices of cake. I recognise Natashia, Katie and Samantha, but not the little girl talking to me. So when she asks me if I know her, I shake my head.

“I’m Ellie, silly. I meet you or the first time here. You’ve shared my dreams before though.” I just gape. “You’re supposed to face up to it here, what you’ve done. A lot of it is pretty awful, don’t you think?” She picks up the teapot and pours thick black coffee out of it, and offers it to me. “Drink this, it might wake you up in a minute, before you freeze to death.” She thinks about this while the other delicately eat cake with little plastic forks. “Actually, you have the Nanites now don’t you? You’re magic, so you won’t die.” She takes a big slurp of the black coffee with every sign of satisfaction. “Oh well, Sweet Elephants Track me Down.” She says, smiling, a hint of her grown up self showing in her face as it fades. “Come and see me again when you need another hint.” She smiles as she fades and I wake up.

I’m in a hot spring as far as I can make out, steaming away. The others arrive after about half an hour, and after Ellie and Sam making some fuss about wearing mittens, they pull me out. There are many admonitions not to touch me at all. I find out why when after about two minutes my clothes are dry, but my feet are wet, because I sunk into the ice.

“Start walking Jessop.” Ellie says, before the effect wears off and you have damp and cold feet.” It’s dawn, and Ellie remarks. “You’ve been out all night.” Sam looks over.

“Yes, all night and you left us with that angry lunatic. And we were worried about you. And him. He chopped up a boulder after you left. A bit one. Have you any idea what t’s going to cost to repair his sword?” I mumbled something. “What?” she asked, crisply.

“I said, ‘I got bit tired of being hit in the face.’” Sam slid to a stop.

“That’s what you get paid the big bucks for! You should have put him down, that’s your job! That why you have the big muscles! Do something about it!” She stamped on again back towards the camp, where she sat on a little stool, and sulked.

When we got back to camp, Garain was in clean clothes and furs and deep in conversation with Kate. He was looking earnest and Kate was just laying her hand on his shoulder. He looked up as we approached. I must have looked wary, because he held his hands up in the universal gesture of peace, and walked towards me. What he did next was quite hard to see, not hard to see, but hard to witness.

He went down on both knees and prostrated himself before me, arms outstretched and completely vulnerable. He turned his head to one side, so I could hear him clearly. I glanced up, Kate was openly crying, and the others were holding back tears. Garain spoke.

“My master. I am sorry for my inexcusable actions. My life is forfeit, my body yours. I am yours for pleasure or work. I have my place and have taken it at your feet, where I stay, to stir only by your command, or starve, as you wish.” I gestured to Isabella, who looked utterly miserable. As she came to my side I held out my arm, and she took it. I walked some little distance away, Ellie and Sam went to follow, but I shook my head, and surprised, they stayed, and comforted the other women.

I spent some time explaining, with Garain lying in the dirt a little distance away, what I wanted to Isabella. The return explantation took a long time.

When we had finished she was crying as well, and put both hands on my shoulders, and kissed me briefly on each cheek. “Truly,” she said, “as I love and revere Garain; there has never been a man such as you.” I shook my head.

“I am just a man, but I do what is right.” And gently kissed her on the lips, hesitating just slightly. She was firm about completing the act, and then pushed me back and turned me to face again the man on the ground.

I took a deep breath.

“Garain. You will stand up when I have finished speaking. Until then you will contain your feelings and listen carefully. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my master.”

“You will from now on instruct me in the usages and methods of battle when I demand it. You have taken the robes of a woman, and you will wear them and be disgraced, but you will use the skills of a man to instruct me in fighting.”

“That is most irregular, Master. Women are not allowed to fight.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear you say, Garain.” I said firmly. “I wanted to hear you say ‘Yes Master.’”

“Yes, Master.”

“If you are worried that you will offend a Man, be assured that I will deal with him, firmly.” I said, hardening my voice as much as I could. “Very firmly indeed.”

“Yes, Master.”

“As to the women. I will accede to your request and advice, but only if they expressly agree, if they do not, we will find somewhere safe for them to stay. Understood?”

“Yes, Master.”

“When this time is finished, I will go home. Any offspring you will raise as your own. You will make every effort to have more children with these women, and be a family. You will never tell anyone of the true lineage of your first born. They will be yours. When this affair is over, we will restore your honour by whatever means necessary. There is no choice, you will cooperate or you will die. And one more thing.” He turned his head up a bit more. “You are all to call me John. It is my name. I want it used. Now get up and stop grovelling in the dirt. Never do that again.” When he got up the big man as crying freely and all the women gathered around us as I gave him a great big bear hug.

The next few weeks were hard. Ellie was in no condition to help and I learned leather-craft and woodcraft as practised on the planet under force majure, Sam mercilessly bullied me every time I got it wrong, as well she might, our lives depended on it. Her relationship with the wolves grew deeper and deeper, although even in their tiny pack there was a leader, it was clear that they deferred to her. This deferral was not entirely will on the part of all three participants. The bigger one, Sam called her “Kit”, kept the other two in line; although when I say this I really mean the other “one”, because the other female was the difficult one. Sam explained it.

“You see normally the pack leader is a male, and they don’t hunt much, but protect the pack.”

“Lions,” I said nodding.

“Yes, but unlike lions the males don’t come and kill the young of other males; in fact as far as I can make out the females have no problem being in charge, and will direct the whole pack to kill an invading male if they don’t like him.”

“You’re implying that they might like him.”

“Yes, or they might take pity on him if he’s been abandoned of left behind. Or he might just want a change of scene.”

“They get bored?”

“Approximately, yes. I think it’s a mechanism designed to prevent too much inbreeding, they’re not very faithful over a long period of time, but in the pack they’re all right on board.”

“Oh.”

“And they all protect the cubs.”

“I didn’t see any with that pack.”

“I think they hide them.”

“How did you persuade them to come with us?” Sam looked shifty. “What am I missing?” I asked, suspiciously. She waved her hands indeterminately, uncertain.

“I think they think I’ve got a lot of, of, uh, moxy, and they like that in human females.”

“Um why?” I asked, thoroughly confused.

“The men hunt them for sport, the women don’t.” That seemed reasonable. “Why are they helping us?”

“Well, again, approximately, they can smell the altered nano-tech on you, and a few of them seem to think you might be able to change it back to the way it was. The planet I mean.”

“They’re pretty intelligent for wolves.”

“They’re pretty intelligent, full stop. They’ve been around for a long time. They have thinking parties. No-one will teach them to read and write though.”

“Wha…?”

“They’ve been around a REALLY long time, but; no opposable thumbs and no written culture.”

“Oh.” One of the wolves raised its’ head.

“Human say ‘Oh’ too much. Not think.” I spat my coffee out at speed. It was hard to understand, but it was definitely speech.

“You can talk!?!? Animals can’t talk!”

“Parrot talk. Crow make stick. Wolf talk, little. Sam teach us. ‘nuf now.” And Kit lay her head down and closed her eyes, and feigned sleep.

“They think, John, and they’re pretty damn intelligent. They’re alien to us though.”

“Like, ‘from another planet’ alien.”

“No, John, like aliens among us. They still see you as food, and have no problem having a conversation with you and eating you. Possibly at the same time. They’re alien. They think, they just don’t think like us.”

“Right. Ok.” I said, unsure what to make of it. All I know is that the wolves never spoke to me again. I think it, she, was making some sort of point.

So the wolves pulled the sleds and a week turned into a month and Ellie recovered. She had, strangely I thought, no scarring, eventually, and seemed as chipper as ever, but she was a lot quieter.

__________

We had our first sight of grass about four months after our landing, and a week after that our first encounter with people. Well, our second, but this time we didn’t kill them and take their stuff. Naturally they were willing to trade, and thus, it was the women who came to talk to us first.

They looked at us strangely. It wasn’t until a good while after that I worked out why. They were wearing while bear furs, and their face were covered with scarves and scarves and a kind of plate over the eyes. Ellie and Sam came and curtseyed to me.

“What are you doing?” I hissed, though there was really no need, the wind hadn’t really died down.

“We’re asking permission to talk to the other women, and possibly the men.” Said Sam looking at the ground. I stood there like a lemon for a bit.

“You’re doing what?” Sam’s head snapped up,

“Don’t mess this up Jessop,” she said crisply, “remember this is an entirely different culture we’re dealing with, you’ve been briefed now, so go along with it.” I nodded, and as I did so, they both looked up and went to the yurt, returning almost instantly to us, and perfunctorily showing me the wares, none of which I recognised, they turned to the women. I know I said I was going to do any translation, but there are a few terms that English doesn’t have, so bear with me. The oldest woman spoke first.

“You have a fine man.” She said pointing slightly off to one side of me. “Are you happy?” Ellie and Sam dropped a curtsey before the old woman. Ellie, to my surprise, spoke.

“Yes, Domat, [Head Grandmother], we are happy, and our man respects us.”

“And does he service your needs?”

“Our needs are few at this time, Domat.”

“Few, and yet you are not with child.” She prodded a gnarled finger at their bellies.

“No, Domat, nor have we any desire to be so. We have been on the ice for some time, contemplating, and we are happy.” The old woman looked from them to me. I knew something was missing. There was a pause, and then she started to unwrap her headscarves and take the faceplate off.

I reckon this hardy old woman was about seventy-five, but she looked good for it, brown skin, wrinkled a little, but plaint and fresh. A shock of white, white hair that cascaded down her back, she was quite shapely as she stepped out of her robes. She looked at me archly.

“Like what you see, Man?” I was taken aback, despite the extended briefing. I just nodded, hoping this would pass for politeness. I got a thin smile in return. “Shy, is he?” She looked me up and down a bit. “Or just a bit thick.” I perked up.

“I say, steady on!” There was a cough from the covered wagon and a huge man, and I mean huge, massive, broad shouldered man, jumped down. All the women except the Domat, Ellie and Sam immediately grovelled.

“Too cold for that, get up and just do.” He looked at the Domat sternly. “Did you just insult this man?” She looked up, inevitably, into his face.

“Yes, I believe I did.” He rolled his eyes.

“Isabelle, what have I said about this?” She looked right in his eye, no less defiant than a few seconds before.

“You said I have a quick temper and it’s going to get me in trouble. I doubt that as long as you own me.”

“Missing the point.” She just looked at him with a gimlet eye. He turned to me. “I will not apologise for this woman and I guess you won’t back down from a fight therefore I challenge you to a duel and as the challenger you get the choice of weapons.” He reeled off quickly, while one of the other fur clad women rushed up with a medium sized box. “I’m Garain, please to make your acquaintance,” continued more slowly. The lady opened the box with a little bob. In it there are a number of sharpened knives, very small I thought, knuckle-dusters, some things I didn’t recognise the look of, and two very large coshes. I wondered about this arrangement. I passed my hand over the knuckle-dusters, thinking that I could maybe put him down quickly before he killed me outright.

Then he did a very peculiar thing. He coughed and shook his head ever so slightly. I looked at him, noticing that I was almost eye level with him, when had that happened? I passed my hand over one of the small knives, and the same thing happened again. I looked around. Everyone else as looking the other way.

No I’m no fool, but I was a little confused and I tried again with something else that looked as though it could be slightly lethal, and Garain, coughed again and shifted uneasily, and then, blow me if the girl didn’t move the tray and raise it up. My hand touched a cosh.

“Excellent choice!” Bellowed Garain. “Well done that man!” He leaned in toward me, and spoke, sotto voce. “You’re not feeling terribly abused by Isabell are you?”

“Er, she could have been a little nicer.” I said. “But er, no.”

“Excellent!” He bellowed again. “I think someone around here needs a little lesson, don’t you Isabelle?” He looked over to her, where she was beaming like a school girl with a crush. Ellie and Sam both had entirely unreadable looks on their faces.

We moved to an area of grass that was mostly free of snow, and Garain shrugged his furs off. I saw exactly, in detail, how well bulked out he was. His muscles were a study in high end physical development and rippled under his shoulders, and he loped to the centre of the area with an easy pace. I shed my furs as well, and was surprises to see appreciative looks on the face of the women, including Ellie and Sam. It was this that made me try to put on an air of brash confidence. I fell over on the piece of ice I had not seen. Everyone instantly turned their backs. Getting up and dusting myself off, I coughed a little, and the audience turned around again slowly.

We faced off over the little patch of grass, Gerain swinging his cosh easily in tight little circles, and me, just letting hang limply in my hand, waiting. He approached and gave an enormous overhand swing of his cosh, far bigger than required, and I dodged it easily, giving him a slight whack on the leg. I would have sworn that it was a very slight hit, but it seemed to bring him down, and he rolled upright expertly and came at me again, this time with a huge side swipe, which again I easily dodged by moving backwards. I slipped in the ice again, but this time I rolled backwards and springing up, I saw that Gerain had retreated and was inviting me on to the grass again. I moved forward. What I didn’t understand was how this massive obviously fit man was such a terrible fighter. I thought about it as I approached him. Somehow I could see everything he was doing. Had the Nanites educated me? Had they somehow made me faster? He could see me being distracted, and whipped in with something I didn’t see coming at all, and I took his cosh to my arm, and he was behind me. It all happened so fast. I turned to look at him and he was just standing there. He sort of rubbed his arm a little bit, as if I had hit him. Then I cottoned on!

I clamped my arm on the place he had hit me, which barely stung and rubbed it vigorously, then I rushed at him, swung my cosh. I missed but somehow our feet got tangled and he tripped and rolled up again into his normal place. He rushed me arms out stretched and hit me on the head. I dutifully went down and rolled backwards and he pressed his advantage, but as I stood up again from my roll I whipped him full in the face with my cosh, unplanned, and he went down like a poleaxed ox. And didn’t get up again despite the ministrations of his women, for nearly two minutes. I gave the cosh to the box lady and returned to Ellie and Sam. I noticed Isabelle was with them. They clapped politely when I approached. Isabelle said,

“Well done, Domor, (apparently this means ‘chief’). You acquitted yourself well and I am glad to join your household.” Ellie, standing behind Isabelle, shook her head just the tiniest bit. I knew what to say.

“I would not take you from your favoured and avowed, and I fought only for the dishonour I perceived in your words.”

“But I am yours,” she replied, “save my life and my hastina, (everything she has that belongs to women), I am yours to do with as you please.”

“In all humility I could not please one so proud as you, and I return you to the greater honour.”

“But you have bested him, how can I return?”

“It was only the animal within that bested him, not the pleasure of woman or the warmth of love.” Her lip was trembling now, and I saw, at last, the part where this was serious. I decided to give her something.

“Go with honour, for I was mute and seemed ignorant. Your man has satisfied my honour, and I require nothing more. If he will allow, I will take your company over meat, and his too. We will discuss matters of commerce and trade, and then go with honour.” She brightened considerable at this, and bowing, she put on her robes again, and went to join Garain, who had been looking on with interest. He nodded, and went to the wagon to repair himself. Ellie, Sam and I retired to the yurt.

“That was all show,” I said quietly as we sat around the fire drinking what passed for coffee around here, “and he needed it for some reason. I’m assuming the entire point was to tell Isabella off.” Sam nodded.

“Isabella went well past what is considered polite because she thought being on the ice so long you wouldn’t challenge it, so it was a bit of a surprise when Garain did. He was definitely reprimanding her.” I thought about this.

“Garain seems a lot more civilized that I would have thought, given everything you’ve said about the culture. Wouldn’t he have just given her a slap?” Ellie shook her head.

“You’re right, Garain is civilized, but make no mistake he can be savage. He’s clearly been here before, he must have had lifetime partners.” I looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“Partners?” She nodded.

“Think about it. She owns all the land, the goods and the chattel. He doesn’t actually have any rights to her goods, her body or her mind, though many behave like they do. She’s his partner, and she gets half if she’s sold. If she’s given away, that’s her honour gone, even if she is rich. To answer your question, he wouldn’t hit her, because she is old, she might leave, or die. He wouldn’t want that.”

“You never said the part about her getting half.”

“I didn’t want you to get any ideas.”