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.”

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