With Brazen Tongue
“Oh, God!” The cry was not blasphemous, but a prayer. It had come at last, and I knew it.
“What does it say, It can’t be, not for us, not for Wildhey.”
I opened the letter slowly as the rest of the council sat dumbly, knowing what it had to be. Only THAT kind of letter nowadays came on paper.
“It is. The lot has fallen on us.”
“But – all of us?”
I nodded slowly. Upon us, our husbands, our children, our whole isolated village. It was the way things were done now that Earth’s population was grown too great for the lands to support. Each country in turn cast lots based on map reference points. From that point one thousand of those people nearest were chosen to go to a new world. Some would choose instead to go to the House of Sleep. Others, a very few, might apply for exemption and recieve it as too valuable to be lost to Earth. The rest would go to the next ship in line, to be carried across the ocean of space to a new home.
Now the lot had fallen on Wildhey. They would have few problems here. There would be no exemptions. We were a community too, we had within our boundaries everything we would need in abilities and knowledge. I looked around.
“We have to tell people but we are permitted to hold the information as much as a week while we make plans.”
“What plans?” Joe Truscott was sarcastic. “We’re goin’ that’s what the letter means. Going out to a new world where the Skeen’ll be waiting to kill the lot of us. There’s no plans to make.”
I snorted. “Oh, so you know exactly what the community should take, what you’ll be packing, and who gets your house. You know what weapons the Government will give us and how to use them all, you know…”
“All right, all right. I get the idea. Plans.”
We broke the news in a public meeting. It was the quietest I’ve ever heard my village. They listened, understanding the decision and knowing there was no appeal. Other places earlier in the scheme had tried every appeal there was.
I knew there could be none for us. In a way we might be more fitted to survive. We were used to the isolation of our village, we were almost self-sufficient. If a disaster had struck us we could have rebuilt, and what was this but a disaster requiring a rebuilding.
There were twelve hundred of us and only a thousand required, but that wouldn’t matter. It took days of talk, of tears, and protests against fate. Those who could not endure what would come went to our small House of Sleep and were lovingly laid in the graveyard by our ancient church. I was surprised at some of those who chose that path. Most were middle-aged. Old enough to be set in their ways, but not so old they’d learned the inner toughness, to endure and survive. There were few of the very old amongst them. Here and there a baby went to relatives. In the end, there were the thousand demanded by lot. We were the stronger for the winnowing.
Officials arrived, the first staggered by our choice of community baggage.
“Bells? They must weigh a ton. You can’t take bells.”
“With the Halpirson boost we’re told there’s little limit. They fall within weight restrictions for community baggage.”
“But the size of them.” He was still stunned after I’d shown him the bells where they hung.
“There’s room.” I became serious. “Listen. I daresay you’re used to moving random groups of people. We aren’t like that. this is Wildhay. We’ve been here over a thousand years, we’re in the Doomesday Book. All that time there’s been at least one bell here. For warnings. We grow up listening for it. For the past four hundred years, there’s been more than the one. The village took a vote. We take the bells.” I grinned. “You should be grateful they aren’t the monsters some places have. Ours are quite small. We know how they were raised and we can take them down. Just agree we can take them.” There was a hint of threat in my voice.
The official eyed me and I nodded without speaking. Other places like ours had staged protests. Not the ordinary kind but actions which had moved others in turn to violence. It was years since the last, nor would any official want it to happen during his turn. I saw him register possibilities and cave in.
“You may take the bells so long as they fit all limits, and so long as you understand this is a dispensation because of the unique character of Wildhey.”
“I understand,” I said carefully. “I’ll let the people know.” I did, and when the ship landed in Mary Knowles’ hay paddock, the bells were the first things loaded. The Government workers loaded the ship all week while we learned weapons. I’d used a gun all my life for rabbits or vermin, as had most of our people, but I wasn’t sure about using it on strange creatures who came killing out of space.
“What can you tell me about the Skeen?”
The weapons instructor shrugged. “Very little. They only hit small groups. Either kill everyone and vanish again. Or if they look like losing, grab their dead and injured, and scram. Here ‘n there, we’ve collected a body, but no prisoners.”
“Why do they attack us?”
“Dunno. No one knows. First couple of times they seemed okay. Turned up on Ashlane, traded, stared at everything, poked into corners, left again. Third time they came back killing.” His explanation was terse.
I lowered my voice, half turning so none would hear. “If they strike us, just how much chance do we have?”
His face smoothed to blankess. “Learn the weapons, set up a warning system, and you might have some.”
A thought hit me, and with it sudden knowledge. The place chosen for us was on a world far out from Earth. Isolated in a corner of space where there were few habitable planets. “Our world, the one we’re going to, they said we’d be the first to settle there. That isn’t true is it? There’s been other groups. The Skeen wiped them out.”
He mumbled something.
I seized his shoulder, my fingers digging in hard. “How many groups. How many before us were wiped out.”
His gaze met mine, a sick shame in his eyes. “Six.”
It hit me like the hooking horns of a bull. Six! Dear God. How much chance would we have? I lay in bed thinking about it that night. Slowly, very slowly my mood lightened. I’d seen the vidcasts of other groups who’d gone. City folk, or a jumble of half-families, with few of the old, all still stunned with grief and confusion. Wildhey was different. We were a sturdy people, those who hadn’t the resilience had already chosen Sleep. Already, many of the younger folk were regarding it as a great adventure.
I must give the people something to hold to, a reason to meet, a way to have a community the moment we touched down. I went to sleep still considering. I’d talk to Joe Truscott in the morning, he was a difficult man but no fool. All that week, as we worked to oversee the transport of our belongings, Joe and I talked. At last, we had a workable plan, or so we hoped. The ship lifted, and we began to sell the idea to those with us. When at last we landed, we had a general agreement.
“We’ll erect the buildings where you wish. You have fifty hours to make the decision.”
We went out, me, Joe, Nancy Weaver, and old uncle Ponsonby. The old man was nearly ninety but he had an eye for the land.
“There.” his finger pointed. The four of us looked over the site. It was on a large flat area like a small plateau. Above the wide shallow river, with hills rising behind but not too close. He stumped along the site, nodding as he talked. “River isn’t likely to ever rise this far. Not with the land flat along the course. It’ll go over the banks down there and spread before it comes too high.”
“What about the hills?”
“Far enough away, any flood comes down them will follow the riverbed. But we can have the bank built up. They gotta do work for us. tell them that’s what we want.” So we did.
All the buildings they’d brought, prefabricated and ready were, erected on the plateau. The river bank where it curved around our new village was built up high and wide. The workers protested of course.
“It’s crazy. You need houses out where you’ll be making farms.”
“We can build those later, once we’ve shared out the land and everyone knows what they want. Right now we need a village again.”
“You won’t have us. Or the heavy machinery.”
“We don’t need you. How do you think houses went up before heavy machinery?” My voice was a little scornful. “You’re leaving extra prefabricated houses. We have our own builder, and we’re farmers. People in Wildhey have been putting up barns for generations. Just get the church built, and the bell tower. Then you can go.”
They worked hard and fast right through the nights. Machinery thundering, the clang of hammers, lights blazing, as our church with a solid bell tower rose. Around it they set out the council and town hall. Shops, a smithy, several long buildings we would initially use as dormitories, and eventually convert to warehousing. It was laid out in the pattern of old Wildhey. Like a cross, with buildings running four-square, a green, a pond, and streets paved half a mile out in all four directions. We built for the future while all the time I remembered that number I had never shared. Six!
The day before the ship was due to leave, we installed and raised the bells. None had been damaged, all should be tunable. We rang them as those who’d brought us here filed back into the ship. I was captain as I’d been for fifteen years, calling the strokes, laying them back and hunting the strikes up and down. Bobs major we rang as the ship lifted, its landing lights flashing acknowledgement.
Then we were alone on a new world.
So many, many years the great bells had rung. They had been torn from the earth as ore, given back to it in moulds that formed our bells. Then they were raised above the earth, to swing and ring in patterns which reflected life and death. And it maybe that all the love the ringers gave to them birthed in the end, souls in brazen metal, simple love of those who looked up and rejoiced at their song. Their smaller grandchildren had come to another world. But here too was life and death, love and laughter, and the patterned singing of the bells. Here to were the people for whom they sang.
When, half a year later, the Patrol landed again, it was to find a circle. Within, the Skeen rang their handbells slowly and carefully, while without the circle, the humans listened, nodding approval now and again, as the silvery sound shimmered in the sunlight. A sound that wrought friendship into new patterns. To the Skeen, our patterns made us people even as they were. To us, they came humbly, wishing to learn the precious new weaving of sound. We taught and they learned – in friendship woven to the soft sound of handbells.
We were changed as time slipped by. Changed into new patterns as two peoples learned together. Only the bells did not change. There was no need for that. Their pattern was already perfect.