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The Settlement by Graham Stull
SUMMARY: The maiden Edwina is too timid and far too intelligent to become a householder in her own right. But her love of learning and curiosity about the past will put her on a dangerous and unexpected path.
Graham C D Stull (7,878 words)
Edwina climbed the stone steps up to the wall's rampart and looked out at the Outside. A scorched perimeter ran like a line along the outside of the wall, and beyond the charred remains of trees and bamboo shoots the forest began. She was awakened from idle thoughts of the forest's vastness by a movement from within the trees, right at the edge of the perimeter. Instinctively she brought her crossbow to bear, while at the same time ducking behind the battlement's thick merlon in case of an arrow attack.
The savages didn't attack often anymore; and then usually only in retaliation for a successful marriage sortie, which had not happened yet this spring, but Edwina was still wary. She remained crouched for what seemed like an eternity, listening and peering at the spot from whence the sound had come. It was probably nothing more than a fawn or a badger stirring from its winter dormitory to greet the verdant New Year.
Why am I so afraid? It's really not that dangerous. When was the last time someone was even killed by savages while guarding the wall? She couldn't recall it happening since she was a little girl. I am a coward, she thought in disgust and forced herself up to her feet. If her dread of guard duty was so great, how could she ever successfully complete a marriage sortie?
The wall around the Settlement was old. Parts of its foundations, it was said by the Elders, were built in the Last Age, and by ancients who knew architectural secrets that had long since been forgotten. Each generation had done its part to maintain and expand the wall, making the Settlement ever more secure from the Outside, even as the threat of attack diminished.
But as the attacking savages grew fewer, so too did the stock of potential husbands. There was a time not too long ago when you could claim yourself a husband just by standing guard on the wall. They would attack, storming the wall in their primitive armour, their beautiful muscle-bound bodies streaming with war paint, their hairy fists clenched around the shafts of great axes or mauls. You could shoot them dead, of course. But a skilled guard would choose her moment carefully, wounding the attacker in the leg and in the right arm, then casting a net around him and, as his energy was sapped from futile thrashing about, reel him in like a fish.
Nowadays you had to go Outside. Sometimes travel for miles through the unbeaten wilderness; to the great river the savages called Misspia or even beyond. They were often at the river, which they saw as the great giver of life and from which they could hunt a great bounty of salmon and catfish using their carefully crafted spears. You could catch a female easily enough. With or without child, they were so docile you could hold them as bait until the man arrived. Such an adventure was risky, and not just because of the savages attacking. There were lions and panthers and snakes. In the summer there were scorpions and in the spring hungry bears.
Edwina thought about herself actually doing that.