At first, the only unusual thing about the pack train was that the person leading it was female. Trader Leesha was one of the few women they knew of who had managed to free herself of the restrictions of the man's world outside the Matriarchy. She earned her own living, managing to survive and even prosper in an occupation which most men found dangerous and difficult. Then Guard Captain Trella noticed that the man riding at the rear of the pack train wasn't a man at all... and that he wasn't riding, but walking on four hooved feet.
"Greetings, trader Leesha," said Trella, as the other woman dismounted. She tried not to stare as the strange creature - which had a man's torso attached to equine shoulders - walked the line of pack llamas, checking their harnesses and lashings as he moved forward to join Leesha.
"Good afternoon, Captain," said Leesha, cheerfully. "This is my new partner, Burrtail, of the Plains Folk."
Well, strange he might be, but Trella had seen stranger, and he was a male, and new to the Matriarchy. Duty came first; curiosity could be satisfied later.
"Greetings, Burrtail," she announced, looking up at his deep brown eyes. "I am Guard Captain Trella, of the Parland Matriarchy. I am required by law to inform you of our ways, and to ask you to swear an oath that you will follow them while you are in our land."
"I understand," he said, nodding, his voice deep and calm. His human portion was well-muscled, his equine body that of a large, finely-figured stallion. His only clothing was a loose-fitting tunic, a belt holding his purse and knife, and laced-up boots.
"All males must defer to females, and treat them with politeness and respect. All who have not given birth must defer to those who have. No one is compelled to obey an unreasonable or malicious order, but in all other ways males must obey females, and those who have not given birth, those who have, without complaint or protest."
"I won't have any trouble with that," said Burrtail, with a chuckle.
"His people were created by a female," Leesha put in, as she saw that Trella might take offense at her companion's laughter. "She still runs their society."
"I see," said Trella, smiling. "Well, he should do fine here."
She led him through the formal oath and received the impression that he meant it. It wasn't binding, as a true spell administered by a wizard would have been, but it would serve to record infractions.
"Now, for our records, what are you carrying?"
"Mostly hand crafts from the Plains Folk, plus jewelry from Tellura and Bluegrass, and some seeds, including a new type of rye," Leesha told the Captain. "No hi-tech, no magic items, except what we are carrying for our own use."
The young apprentice Guard member by Trella's side obediently noted this on a form. A cursory inspection by other Guards, which included using a charm to seek magic and tech, followed. The trade goods registered as clear. There was one other duty required of the Guards. The station wizard stepped forward at Trella's gesture, and cast the spell for the maternity test. Some of the llamas glowed briefly, as did Leesha. Burrtail, to no-one's surprise, didn't. The traders were then formally declared free to pass.
"Well, duty's served," said Trella, relaxing. "Now, my friend, please tell me about your new partner."
"His people live north and west of here in the Fairy Ring, near the Great River," she explained. "They were created by some of the Ancient Gifted, most notably Marian Holst, who was transformed into a centaur during the Gifting. She tired of being one of a kind, so after the Fall she and some friends created an entire race of centaurs."
"Fascinating," said Trella, looking Burrtail over with a frank curiosity that made him blush. "I hope you two will share our evening meal. Oh, and does Burrtail need anything special in the way of food?"
"I can eat anything a human or a horse can eat," he replied, smiling.
"Even meat?" said Trella, surprised.
Burrtail laughed and reached around to pat himself on the flank. "You don't get this big on hay."
There was an inn at a small village about an hour's travel further down the trail, but given that they had been on the road since dawn and that the supper invitation included staying the night at the border station, they decided to stop early. Leesha took advantage of the amenities to have her first hot bath in several days. The long soak felt good after washing in cold streams. As she finished dressing in her room, she reflected on how glad she was that border duty was considered onerous enough that extra effort was made to include such comforts as hot water and bath tubs. Now, if only she could make saunas popular here...
Her reverie was broken by a polite tap at the door.
"Come in, Burrtail, I'm decent," she called, smiling.
"How did you know it was me?" he asked, as he pushed the door open and walked in, ducking under the door frame.
"Someone from the Guard would have knocked harder, and lower down," she replied.
Burrtail nodded. This was just one more example of how much more woods-wise and streetwise his partner was than he.
"I overheard some of them talking earlier," said Burrtail, grinning. "They seem convinced that we are lovers."
"Don't I wish!" said Leesha, leering at the centaur. It was an old joke between them, and it still made him blush.
"Don't they understand that isn't feasible?" he countered, his uneasy shifting working squeaks of protest from the wooden floor. "Oh, I've occasionally been curious, and I know you have, but that's the extent of it. Ignoring the practical difficulties, you're just not attractive to me, nor I to you. We are different species! Aside from novelty value, there's no basis for..."
"I know, I know," said Leesha, sighing as she cut off one of his lectures. Such speculation had caused troubles in other places. Some of the religious fanatics in Tellura had accused Burrtail of seducing her and holding her in thrall. Fortunately, they didn't have nearly as much influence these days as they had wielded a few decades back. Still, she and Burrtail had left early. "People naturally wonder about such couplings, but feel uncomfortable about picturing themselves as participants, and maybe guilty, so they imagine us doing what they can't imagine themselves doing. Then they accuse us of committing the sin."
"You would have made a good psychologist, back in the old days," said Burrtail, grinning.
"And what do you know about the old days?" countered Leesha.
"A lot more than you."
There was considerable truth in this. Like most of his people, Burrtail was a scholar and philosopher. These weren't professions among the Plains Folk, but parts of their daily lives. The big centaur's trade was actually animal breeding; however, he had a good dose of wanderlust, and some useful skills and knowledge. Leesha enjoyed intelligent conversation; it was one of the reasons she was so welcome among the Plains Folk, and had even been made a citizen, one of the few two-leggers thus honored. It was also why she had been willing to take Burrtail as her new partner after her previous pair had decided to settle down.
One of the other reasons she liked Burrtail was that he knew when and how to be silent. This was one of those times. They were both already dressed - she in dress and light boots, he in a clean tunic - and it was time for supper. Without needing words, they left the guest quarters and began a leisurely walk to the mess hall. They were halfway there when she noticed something.
"What, no boots?" she asked.
"My Mother used to tell me I'd ruin my hooves, running around barefoot," he told her. "But the ground here is dry, hard and clear of objects, and after so many days on the trail wearing those things my feet need to breath. Besides, I'd want to take them off before going into the dining hall, anyway. The steel soles would be hard on our hosts' floor."
He did have a point. Not only were the heavy leather and metal boots awkward for him to put on and take off - especially the rear ones - but the "horseshoes" on the bottoms could gouge woodden floor or scratch stone ones.
The meal went well, the more so because those stationed here were anxious for news. Burrtail proved to be quite popular. To those on the far side of the table it was easy to pretend that he was simply an unusually large man. Leesha appreciated his good manners; she knew he must be uncomfortable laying on the hard floor like that. She had found eating while standing, during her visits to with the Plains Folk, quite comfortable, once she had gotten used to it.
"And what is your folk's opinion on this Emperor of the East?" asked one of the senior officers, as the meal drew to a close.
"We are quite worried," said Burrtail, frankness in his voice and manner. "He is a bigot; he feels that all non-human creatures are meant to serve humans, and that women are meant to serve men. He has repeatedly vowed to destroy all elves and other Gifted, and enslave any other intelligent non-humans."
"That makes him our enemy, as well," said Captain Trella. "While most of our citizens are human, we do have some non-humans residing here. Also, I doubt that he would approve of a kingdom run by women."
"Like other conquerors down through history, he distrusts anything and everyone but himself," Leesha put in. "The more something differs from him, the more this holds true."
"Right now, he is consolidating his capture of Caroline and the Virgin Lands." Burrtail shook his head and sighed. "I can't believe that the rulers of Roan just gave up like that."
"They had little choice," said Captain Trella. "They held out as long as they did only by digging in and enduring great hardship during the siege. I can understand the City Fathers deciding to bargain rather than fight."
"He'll never get past the Mountain Elves," the same senior officer who had started this train of conversation opined.
"Right now, the Mountain Elves are ignoring him, hoping he'll go away," said Leesha, anger in her voice.
"That's neither fair nor accurate," countered Burrtail. "They discount him, figuring that they can prevent him from even finding their cities. They may be right."
"Even if they are, they are doing nothing to prevent him from subjugating the lands to their east," said Trella.
"They are as bad as the Emperor, when it comes to valuing themselves above others," added Leesha, her tone indicating some personal experience with this. "Their cousins, the Bluegrass Elves, are decent folk, much like Burrtail's, but their taller kin set themselves above everyone else. They are content to sit in their polished stone palaces, and ignore the rest of the world."
"We can beat him," said the senior officer. Leesha remembered now that her name was Kirkla. "I've seen some of the Gifted and the Bluegrass Elves in combat. It will be a hard fight, but at worst he will be stopped in the mountains."
"The problem is," said Burrtail, gently, "that the battle will devour and destroy important resources. That loss will greatly hamper the already slow recovery of civilization."
That shifted the conversation to a new, if related, area. Some didn't know what Burrtail was talking about. Of those who did, many were of the opinion that civilization was just fine the way it was, thank you. After nearly an hour, Captain Trella announced that she was calling it a night. Burrtail, Leesha and a few others left as she did, the rest trailing off to their beds as the conversation wound down.
* * *
The next day the two travelers said their farewells and resumed their southward journey. Once they were well out of earshot, Leesha turned to her partner.
"What was all that business last night, about the Emperor and the recovery of civilization?"
"You know that the majority of the Gifted, as well as many others, are trying to guide this world back to a technological society," said Burrtail.
"Yeah, the Illuminati committee," Leesha replied, mentioning a group known to exist but secretive in its actions. "But you seemed to stress the part about the Emperor wasting resources."
"Well, he is," said Burrtail, almost petulantly. "There is little doubt that he can be defeated, but doing so will use up or destroy many of the ancient artifacts remaining. Those could better be used for other purposes. Without them, the plan could be delayed for centuries."
The trader thought about this for a while, as they continued walking. During these trips they often fell silent for long periods, only to resume talking at the point where they had left off. Leesha was about to make another observation, when a disturbance in the underbrush ahead alerted her to trouble.
Several men jumped out onto the trail in front of her, just beyond melee range. A glance to the rear showed the same thing there. She quickly mumbled a nonsense phrase, and her mail shirt was replaced by a full armor of elfin chain. Behind her, beyond the llamas, Burrtail spread his arms in a dramatic gesture and shouted "Shazam!" to similarly summon his own armor. Meanwhile, the llamas, being sensible beasts, crowded together facing outward, staring at the strangers. A lama can chase off a bear; their determined manner was at least as unsettling to the attackers as Leesha's and Burrtail's responses.
They were dirty men, unkempt and wearing an assortment of mismatched clothes. Their weaponry was likewise mismatched, but in good enough condition to do their work.
"Leave yer pack animals here and we'll let you go," ordered one of the least scruffy men.
"Run away, and live," said Leesha.
Her armor was heavily enchanted, and had cost her much, both in trade goods and in personal effort. It was proof against nearly anything likely to be used against her. Her sword, while non-magical, had been made by a friend who had access to old technology, and was light, well-balanced and very well shaped for killing, even someone in light armor.
Burrtail's armor, except for the storage spell, was strictly technological; a heavily-modified version of the ancient Mark II Wizard Wear. It had been his reward for finding a miniature factory which made such things. It provided even more protection from mundane damage than Leesha's, and while it had little resistance to direct magical effects, that was fine with Burrtail. He could handle that himself.
There was a long, nervous impasse. Then the leader turned away, as if to talk to the two behind him. Leesha began hoping that the brigands would lose their nerve and leave. Then he spun back around and threw something at her. Leesha swatted it aside with her sword, and received a heavy shock. She yelled and dropped to one knee, the tip of her sword touching the ground.
Burrtail's armor had already been told that the strangers were potential hostiles. Now it responded automatically, the two coil guns swiveling into position, one pointing ahead, the other behind, and each began firing at the first man to come into line with the barrel. Burrtail, meanwhile, cast a general protective spell around the trading party.
"Leesha!" he called, as man after man had his internal organs pulped by the tiny, high-velocity needles passing through his body, "are you all right?"
"Y-yeah," she gasped. "The armor took most of it."
The leader and another of the brigands abruptly ran at her; they smashed into the protective field. Just as Burrtail was beginning to feel a bit smug, the leader slapped something against the barrier. It flared and expired. They were too close for the armor to fire at them without hitting a llama, and it was programmed to consider those friendly. Still, the ward had lasted long enough for Leesha to get back to her feet.
She met the leader with the point of her sword. It punched partway through, then stopped short of a killing depth. The man gasped in pain, and Leesha swore. This was rapidly turning into something very different from what it had first appeared.
These two were the only attackers still alive. Burrtail reared, giving his guns a better angle. They fired, each at a different man. It was over.
"Larg, Dortman and Bresht!!" yelled Leesha, "What is going on here?!"
"I have a hunch," Burrtail replied.
He went to the man nearest him, turning him over with an armored hoof. Leesha came to join him as he examined the brigand.
"Look at this," Burrtail said, pointing. "The dirt is cosmetic. I mean that it's not ground-in, it's freshly applied. The same with the clothes. They aren't worn and torn, they're cut! And there's good-quality armor underneath!"
"And they had gadgets of some kind, and better training than you would expect from the average highwayman."
"Think we should go back to the border station and report this?"
"No." Leesha thought for a moment. "You go back there. I'll stay here with the llamas and wait for you to get back with some of the Guards."
"You sure you'll be all right here, alone?" Burrtail asked.
"No problem. We've probably scared off anything dangerous within a dozen klicks. Go!"
Burrtail started off at a gallop, putting the armor back in storage as he went. The dramatic stance and shout he had used earlier were pure theatrics. All he needed to do was subvocalize the nonsense word, and he could summon or store the armor, even while running.
To his surprise, he ran into a mounted Guard party led by Captain Trella before he got halfway back. The camp wizard had detected some of the magical effects the brief battle had generated. Burrtail gave a quick explanation of what had happened, and then they all returned at a somewhat slower pace.
Trella's people spent the better part of an hour examining the bodies, collecting the dead men's possessions, and searching the area. They found nothing more than what Burrtail and Leesha had already discovered.
"A raiding party," said Guard Kirkla. "Has to be."
"Raiding and scouting, more likely," said Trella. She looked at Leesha and Burrtail. "You two are very lucky. Not to mention better equipped than we are."
"The people who equip you are concerned about their budget," Leesha dryly pointed out. "The people who equip us are worried about our lives."
Trella decided to accept that. She sent two of her people back to the station to bring wagons, then moved over to some shade with Leesha and Burrtail, and her scribe.
"Now, tell me what happened, in detail."
The two traders looked at each other; then Leesha sighed, and began. She didn't hold anything back. Burrtail followed her example, adding details. When he mentioned casting the protection spell, Trella perked her ears up.
"You can work magic?"
"A little. Most of my people can. We have a knack for it."
He was being both modest and circumspect, to avoid revealing an ability which might come in handy later, especially if unsuspected. In truth, he was nearly a master at magic, and what he lacked in polished skill he more than made up for in power, due to that "knack" he had mentioned. All the Gifted and their descendants had an added ability with magic, something which was common knowledge. If the Captain questioned his claim, though, she did it internally.
"Well, however you did it, you did it," she announced finally, as the wagons she had sent for arrived. "You have a large reward coming. You're going on to Capital? Good; I'll send word ahead, and they'll decide what to give you."
* * *
It was some time later, still on the same trail. Burrtail, growing tired of the silence, broached a subject, mostly to get their minds off the attack.
"Did you know that 'Parland' is a corruption of 'Patriarch's Land'?" Burrtail asked, without preamble.
"What!" exclaimed Leesha, startled as much by the sudden break in quiet as by the question.
"It's true. A couple of centuries after the Fall a fellow who became known as the Patriarch came to power here. He was the head of a large and influential family, and expanded his influence over other families to organize them for mutual defense and benefit. He was a dictator, but a benevolent one. The settlements in the area consolidated into a group which called itself 'The Patriarchy.' That eventually was changed to 'The Patriarch's Land.' Centuries later, when Ledella's movement succeeded in taking over, everyone had forgotten what the name originally stood for. The place was known simply as Parland."
"How do you know all this?"
"My Great-Grandmother Marian told me," Burrtail explained. "She not only lived through those times, she often visited here. 'Often' in this case meaning every few decades."
"How ironic," said Leesha, with a wry laugh. "'The Parland Matriarchy' actually means 'The Patriarch's Land Matriarchy.'"
They continued on into Capitol, discussing the history of the region.
This work is Copyright 1998 by Rodford Edmiston Smith, who can be reached at: email@example.com. Please contact the author for permission before reposting or reprinting. Thank you.