Donte dipped the quill into the ink and paused over the blank sheet of paper. He glanced up to see if the guard noticed that his hand was trembling. The guard was turned away, probably trying to give him some degree of privacy. In spite of what he had done, he was being treated with the respect any mascot might expect from humans.
He was not being forced to write the letter. In fact, it was his idea. He understood and accepted the consequences of his decisions – all of them. Thirty years ago, if one mascot had killed another, the decision about punishment would have been left to The Parliament, but the experimental colonies on Purlieu had been abandoned and the mascots were left to rule as best they could. Whether or not they should continue to rule was debatable. Since Donte had killed the ruling mascot in Nyumbani, it was up to a council of humans to decide whether their colony would continue as a monarchy or reform with another kind of government. If they chose to form a government where humans ruled, they would be the first colony on Purlieu to do so. He’d like to see how that worked out, but that wasn’t going to happen.
He lowered the quill and began writing to his grandfather.
"I murdered Farasi today. I did it with the full knowledge that I would be executed. I came here with the intent of killing those responsible for the death of Liana and our children. Those men were executed at the orders of Farasi within two weeks of my arrival. Tomorrow I will be executed for my crime. This is something they must do. I bear them no animosity and I ask that there be no retribution from you or Dad. The Nyumbani need time to reform their government so that they can live in peace with other colonies.”
Farasi was dead now and his raiders had been scattered. It was Farasi who had ordered the raids on other colonies. One of those raids had been responsible for the death of Donte’s mate and children. Donte had agreed to Farasi’s terms and came to Nyumbani six years ago partly to stop the raids. Farasi vowed no more raids would take place on Bergen, her sub-colonies or Libertad in exchange for an heir. Donte didn’t care if Farasi ever had an heir, and Farasi was in no position to make terms. Libertad and Bergen were ready to march into Nyumbani and subdue them. That would have cost more lives on both sides. All that aside, Donte agreed to Farasi’s conditions so that he could get into Nyumbani and terminate the men responsible for killing his family. The heir was a moot issue, as he figured Farasi would execute him for his crime before he fulfilled his end of the bargain. Farasi was no fool, even if he was insane. He had executed those men in front of Donte as a token of his resolve to right a wrong – even though he was the instigator of that wrong. Donte was left in a foreign colony with no purpose except to fulfill the vow he had made. A mascot did not renege on a vow.
Being a mascot didn’t exclude him from human emotion. He was frightened - more so than he had ever been in his life. If they executed him the way it had been done under Farasi’s rule, his hands would be tied behind his back and he would be forced to kneel and place his head over a wooden post. With one swing of an axe, they would remove his head. He must not move. That could result in a grisly prolonged death. Almost as much as death itself, he dreaded the public execution. The execution of the only fertile mascot in Nyumbani by humans and in the presence of the entire colony might give the humans ideas about eliminating all mascots. Halisi and his children were mascots.
The original purpose of the mascots had been to guide and protect the human colonists. Donte had discovered that information in the library on the spaceship Moeder when he was only twelve. In the last thirty years since the plague, Farasi had certainly guided the human colonists. He had guided them back three hundred years to the time when The Parliament first placed them on the planet. All mascots were not like Farasi. Donte’s father, Quade, was the president of Libertad Colony. His grandfather, Pieter, was the ruler of Bergen. Both mascots had been leading their colonies successfully for nearly a century. In spite of having survived the plague, their sanity was intact.
The Parliament had made a rule that the colonies would not contact each other. It was a rule that Libertad, Bergen and Nyumbani had violated long before The Parliament left. In recent years, Farasi had gone back to the no-contact rule – with the exception of the raids, of course. Two other colonies still observed that rule, even though The Parliament was no longer there to enforce it. No information had officially come from Anialwch and Lochfowk since The Parliament left. The only information available was word-of-mouth from people who ventured into their territory to trade.
Being isolated had not made those colonies impervious to Farasi’s raids. The raiders had become bolder with every raid. In previous raids they had only brought back food, equipment and equines. This time they brought back a captive – a woman mascot. They had raped her repeatedly last night and brought her out for a public execution this morning, as though she were a criminal. Farasi had finally gone over the edge of insanity, into full tyranny.
It had not been Donte’s intent to free the Nyumbani colonists by assassinating their King. As a captive mascot, he had stood by and watched for six years, silently praying for a revolution. There was no telling how much longer he would have refused to become involved if Farasi had not decided to execute the captive. Donte had been unsuccessful in convincing Farasi that holding a captive would make other colonies turn on Nyumbani, but he had been successful in preventing her execution…at least for the time being.
This morning the woman had been kneeling, her hands tied behind her back. Her head was turned to the side, resting on the post. Her beautiful red hair had been pulled back from her neck. Her eyes were open wide, her face white. She was terrified, but she wasn't struggling or begging for her life. Hopefully he would be that brave when it was his turn.
Donte had stood only a few feet from Farasi when the ruler turned to give the kill instructions to one of his raiders. There was no time to think, other than the certain knowledge that those orders could never leave his lips. Donte took one quick step closer. Balling both his fists and putting every ounce of his mascot strength into the blow, he hit Farasi on the chin. He heard the vertebra crack and Farasi fell limp, his neck broken beyond repair. No amount of medical assistance could have brought him back, and he wouldn't have wanted to live in that condition. In those final seconds of life, Farasi's eyes had implored Donte, as if searching for a reason.
It had all happened so fast and it was so unexpected that at first everyone was stunned. They stared at their fallen leader for a few moments. Finally, one by one, they all looked at Donte. He didn't try to run. Perhaps that fact delayed their reaction further. Finally the senior council member stepped forward and grasped Donte's arm. His grip was surprisingly gentle.
"Come," Kafil said.
Donte walked beside him, fearing his weak legs would collapse under him. He felt nauseated. He felt no remorse for killing Farasi - no sympathy for Farasi at all. And yet, he felt shame for his betrayal. Farasi had trusted him. Everyone trusted him. The fact that he had been allowed to be so close to Farasi was proof of their trust. One other thing troubled him deeply. It was bad enough that he had killed a person in front of his children, but he had killed their grandfather - Halisi's father. He had tried to teach his children by example, rather than simply his words. What example had his actions given them today?
He glanced at Kafil. "Don't let them kill the Lochfowk woman. It will bring disaster on your colony. You must set her free."
Kafil frowned. "This is all you ask?"
Donte hesitated before responding. "And that you don't let my children watch my execution."
Kafil stopped; his expression a mixture of surprise and confusion. "You do not ask that we spare your life?"
Donte met his gaze. "Would it do any good?"
Kafil shook his head. "I suppose not, but this is certainly not something I will enjoy."
Hopefully no one was going to enjoy it. Kafil said nothing more until he put Donte in a room with no windows.
"The Lochfowk woman has been spared for now. Halisi and her children will be hidden in a safe place until we know who will be in control. I must even hide you to assure that the council decides your fate instead of those loyal to Farasi. It is difficult to determine which members of Farasi’s raiders can be trusted."
Donte considered his words. Farasi's death didn't assure a sudden shift of power. In fact, things could likely get worse before they got better. While Farasi was alive, he maintained control over the raiders. At this point, power would go to the strongest. Although Kafil was only in his early twenties he had the backing of some influential people. While he had often sided with Donte on issues, he had never given Farasi reason to regard him as an enemy. In fact, Farasi appeared to admire him. With Halisi, it went a lot deeper than admiration.
Kafil pulled the door shut and bolted it.
Donte dipped the quill again. Grandfather and Dad had a right to know about his children.
"I have a daughter and son here. I hope one of them will eventually rule and bring peace - and that my death will eventually have some value.
He folded the paper and placed it in the envelope. Dipping the quill one more time, he addressed the envelope to Pieter, Heerser van de Bergen. He stood and handed it to the guard. "Please make sure Pieter gets this."
The guard nodded. "We will send someone tonight." He left the room.
It wasn't the first time Donte had sent a letter, but this time it was in the best interest of the Nyumbani to make sure the letter was delivered to his grandfather. In the six years that he had been in the colony, he had sent letters, but received no word from either his father or grandfather. Contact was not part of Farasi’s deal and he probably figured the less they knew about what was happening, the safer it was for Nyumbani.
After the guard left, Donte sat on the cot and cradled his chin in one palm, his elbow resting on one knee. He imagined the look on Pieter's face when he read the letter. A lump grew in his throat. He had failed them. Pieter and Quade had begged him not to go. At the time Donte was so full of anger and grief that he didn't care about his own fate. He wanted to get the men who killed his mate and two children. That was all that mattered at the time. The raiders swore the death of four-year-old Bjorn was an accident. They had been sent to capture the young mascot because they had been unsuccessful in capturing Donte.
Bjorn was not so easily captured either. Unfortunately, in his struggle, he fell from the equine, hitting his head on a rock. Donte had no doubt that they meant his son no harm, but what they did to his mate was unthinkable. He had found Liana first when he came back from hunting. She was lying in the yard, their lifeless infant clutched in her arms. They had held her down and cut her open to remove the full-term baby. When they discovered it was a girl, they placed it in her arms and left them there to die. Liana lived long enough to tell him what had happened.
Donte shuddered, as he always did when he thought of her death. At the council meeting where the men were sentenced, they confessed to being terrified to go back without Donte's offspring. Thinking the unborn baby would satisfy Farasi, they had removed it. But a baby girl would not satisfy Farasi. Out of time and fearing they would be discovered before they could get away, they left Liana with the baby.
Donte had carried Liana and the baby to the house and placed them on the bed. He found Bjorn a few miles from their house, and took him back to his mother. Stopping by a neighbor's house, he told them what happened and requested that they inform his father and bring help. He continued to track the men. He lost the trail several days later at the river where the raiders took a boat.
The raiders were spotted several times by people living close to the river. It would have been difficult not to notice they didn't belong in Libertad. The colony of Nyumbani was founded with people whose skin was so dark that it was almost black.
Six years had only partially dulled the pain, and none of the guilt. Liana had asked him not to leave that day, but he had made the choice to go hunting instead. They didn't need the meat. He thought he needed to escape for a while. Liana's pregnancy had not been easy and she snapped at him all the time. If he had been home, he would have sensed the presence of the Nyumbani raiders. Even if he had not been able to defeat them, he would have surrendered before they could hurt his family. He would carry that guilt with him until he died – which would be tomorrow morning.
In a way, the idea of execution was a relief. He was emotionally and physically exhausted. No matter what he did, it seemed to result in suffering for others. He had been unable to reach Liana and Bjorn in time to save them and his actions today would result in abandonment of his children. He was a mascot, supposedly created to be stronger, more intelligent and possessing the power to protect and lead humans. He couldn’t even protect his children. As with Farasi, everyone would probably benefit from his death.
When Donte agreed to come to Nyumbani, he knew the colonists had started from nothing. He knew the Nyumbani had been one of the first to contact other colonies, even when they were forbidden to do so. What he didn’t know was their motivation to raid.
Unlike other colonies, the Nyumbani had been given nothing in the beginning and they had nothing now. When their colony was created, the land had provided all they needed and they had the knowledge they brought with them. In the last generation Farasi had given them all he thought they needed and taken away anything he thought they didn’t need. Many of the colonists had not learned to read because there were no books. Farasi had ordered them all burned because they gave the humans ideas about rebellion.
The muskets they once used to hunt had been replaced with bows, arrows, knives and spears. In Farasi’s eyes, there was too much violence between the colonists. In reality, the muskets had given the colonists a way to protect themselves from the tyranny of Farasi’s raiders.
Farasi hadn’t always been this way. He had ruled for over 200 years before the plague. It had only been the last 30 years after the plague that he had gradually become insane. He claimed he was the only true King in all five colonies. He said all the others were imposters. In fact, there were now seven colonies, though Bosvrouwen and Vlaktes were actually sub-colonies of Bergen. Of the seven colonies, only two other colonies were Monarchies – Anialwch and Bosvrouwen. The rest had either rulers or presidents. Not that it really mattered. It had been the ruling of The Parliament that all the colonies would not contact each other. It only followed that one colony leader had no jurisdiction over another. It was difficult to determine how much Farasi had forgotten and how much he simply disregarded.
The failure of the colony couldn’t be placed completely at the feet of Farasi, though. The Parliament had assigned no domestic animals to the colony of Nyumbani because indigenous wildlife was so abundant. The colonists were expected to domesticate the wild animals and plants of Purlieu. That was how farming began on the mother planet, Oriel, thousands of years ago. Even after years of selective breeding, the wildlife of Nyumbani was not productive enough to feed the people. The colonists had supplemented by hunting until even the wild game had been depleted. Farmers were poor and starving – especially so because Farasi collected so much to assure that his raiders lived in comfort. If it had not been for the Nyumbani fishermen, the colonists would long ago have died.
As frightened as the colonists were of Farasi, they were even more frightened of the prospect of retribution by other colonies for what Farasi had done. Hopefully that fear would lead to the release of the Lochfowk woman. She had done nothing to them.
The Nyumbani were not bad people. They were simply conditioned to obey their leader. Even now, when they had the opportunity to change the laws, they felt morally bound by them. The law of their colony dictated that violence was punishable by death. He had committed a violent act, even though he had done so to prevent more violence.
That evening the guard brought him food, but he couldn't eat. Later Halisi and the children visited him one last time. Donte knelt on the floor and Heri and Chiku darted across the room into his waiting arms.
"Baba!" They both screamed.
He took each of them in an arm and stood, uncertain what to say.
Halisi met his inquiring gaze. "I told them you were going away."
He nodded, a lump growing in his throat. They would think he had abandoned them. What else could they think? Heri would be confused, but he'd get over it. He probably wouldn't remember who his father was. It would be different for Chiku, though. At five, she was unusually aware - even for a mascot. He had a strong bond with Chiku. They often understood each other without words.
Chiku put a hand on each of Donte's cheeks and turned his face to hers, searching his eyes. "Please don't go away, Baba."
He closed his eyes and held her close, enjoying the softness and warmth of her little body one last time. "I love you, sweetie." He whispered to her. "I don't want to leave you, but I must." He released her and pulled her back so he could look at her tear-stained face.
"I want to go with you," she said, her large brown eyes begging him to relent.
He gazed into her eyes. "I need you to be strong. Mama needs you."
"Will you come back?" She asked.
He shook his head. "I cannot come back. I have done something bad."
She sniffed. "You hit Babu and knocked him down?"
Some day she would know he killed her grandfather, but right now it was best that she thought he only knocked him down. Hopefully, she would understand when she was older.
Halisi came to his rescue. She held her hands out to Chiku. "Come to me now so Heri can say goodbye to Baba."
Chiku reluctantly went to her mother and Donte hugged Heri close, kissing his cheek. Heri's eyes were not quite brown and not quite dark blue. Farasi had been delighted that he favored Donte. Heri had everything his grandfather could provide, but as far as Farasi was concerned, Chiku had to settle for life.
Donte released Heri and let him sit on his arm as he turned to Halisi and Chiku.
"Thank you for bringing them to see me. Are you being treated well?"
She met his gaze. "Kafil sees that we have everything we need - and more. We are safe and comfortable."
Donte nodded, his throat constricting so that it was difficult to speak. "Tell him I am grateful."
Her dark eyes implored him. "Why, Donte? You didn't even know her."
For a moment he looked into her eyes. After six years, had she learned nothing about him? He sighed. "I felt it had to be done, Halisi. I'm sorry for you and the children, but I still think it was the only way. At least now Chiku will be safe."
She glanced at Chiku. "He wouldn't hurt her now. He loves...loved her."
He didn't argue. Let her think of her father in any way she wished. Farasi was gone now and was no longer a threat to any of them. He set Heri on the floor and took Chiku from her arms. Putting Chiku on the floor, he turned to Halisi and reached out his arms for her. For a moment she hesitated. She had never hugged or kissed him and it was clear that she wished things to remain that way. Finally she shrugged, probably unable to refuse the last request of a condemned man. She took a step toward him and he pulled her into his arms. He didn’t want to leave her thinking she meant nothing to him, even if he meant nothing to her.
"I admire you, Halisi. I'm sorry I came between you and Kafil."
She studied his face for a moment before responding. "You gave us time together. It was more than we could expect from you. You have been a good father to…our children."
He pulled her close and kissed her lips. At first she was stiff in his arms, but finally her lips responded and she hugged him. He released her and stepped away.
"Goodbye and good luck," he said.
"Goodbye." She lifted a hand, paused, and dropped it in an awkward gesture. She was probably going to wipe her lips with the back of her hand but thought better of it. It was the first time he touched her that she didn't cringe. No doubt she would be glad when he was gone.
He stared at the door after they left. Halisi and the children left him in a vacuum. Everything he had lived for in the last six years had walked out that door. At the moment, he welcomed death as an escape. He was almost 30 years old and his existence amounted to nothing. Ultimately, his life had cost that of his mate and children. In six years, Halisi had developed no feelings toward him and tomorrow he would abandon his children in death. He had robbed his father and grandfather of their only opportunity for future generations. He was a dismal failure for a human, much less a mascot.
He had been only seventeen when he exchanged vows with Liana, and she only sixteen. By the time she was seventeen, she had a baby to look after, and a mate who wasn't yet a man. She was only twenty-one when she died. Donte was only twenty-two when he came to Nyumbani. A person did a lot of growing up in hard times, and he hadn't really known any until Liana died.
He sat on the cot, his thoughts returning to his arrival in Nyumbani six years ago. At first he had agreed with the term Farasi had used to describe his daughter. "Ice Princess" seemed appropriate. She had made it clear from the beginning that Donte was there for only one purpose, and she permitted that only because her father demanded it. He wasn't permitted to kiss or caress her. Their mating was awkward and humiliating for both of them. Their only saving grace was the fact that her father didn't dictate how or when it would happen. He simply wanted a male heir. They had to work out the details as best they could. Medical knowledge had been limited on Purlieu. The Parliament had done all the creating of life up to that point and there was only one method of doing it now that they were gone.
Halisi had figured out how to get along with her father - she avoided him. She had taken over an abandoned house and started farming on her own. She had a small garden and a wild bovine that she milked morning and night. It wasn't much, but she managed to eat regularly, which was more than he could say for many of her neighbors.
When it became obvious that Donte was going to be staying with her for a while, she gradually allowed him to help her with some of the chores. That was when he discovered that Farasi's little "ice princess" was feeding her starving neighbors - generally at her own expense. She ate enough to stay healthy, and she made sure Donte had enough to eat, but the rest of the food went to the neighbors. He knew, because she sent him to deliver it.
Donte had never known hunger until he arrived in Nyumbani. He was an experienced hunter, but the wildlife in Nyumbani had been depleted by excessive hunting. The remaining animals had learned to avoid the hunters. Donte had a unique advantage in hunting. He had been born with a strange sense. He knew when animals were around him. He could sense their presence and often what they were. He could sense people the same way and knew if their intent was benevolent, malevolent or indifferent. No one could explain it. It simply was.
Their existence in Nyumbani was meager at best. Halisi didn’t hunt, but she had used ingenuity on her farm. When it was time to breed the Bovine, she staked her out where the wild bulls could find her. That gave Donte an idea. In Bergen, he had learned how to make a rope from braided tree bark. He waited until a bull came to service the cow and then tracked it back to more female bovines. Catching the female bovine proved to be simple compared to avoiding the bull and getting it back to Halisi's farm. By the time he returned, Halisi was probably convinced that he had escaped. With two bovine females, they had more milk to feed the neighbors. He built a fence strong enough to keep the bovines in, and when a bull came calling, he let it in with the females. So it was that in the first year, he tripled her stock.
Donte captured some wild fowl and built a pen for them. He gathered grain and planted it so that they would have feed, and he tended the vegetable garden. By the time Halisi's stomach began to swell, they had enough stock to keep him busy tending the farm.
At first Halisi tolerated his endeavors as one would accept the inevitable antics of children. To her, he was a child of twenty-two and she was a woman of thirty-five. As his methods began to put more food on the table, she gradually treated him with more respect.
As she became heavy with child and he was taking on more of the chores, evenings were often spent in conversation. Halisi had an insatiable hunger for knowledge and she was willing to share what she knew.
Halisi was only 5 years old when the books were burned, so she didn’t know how to read or write. Only males of high standing were taught to read, so Donte taught her. Together they secretly made paper from lint and pulp. They found wild berries to make ink and he fashioned quills from large feathers he found. They wrote books and bound them with glue that he made. They taught neighbors to read and write. To that end, they became partners in crime.
By the time Chiku was born they had cultivated a guarded friendship. They respected and admired each other, but that was the extent of their relationship. As he gradually began to understand Halisi, his eyes were opened to the cause of her distance from him. Halisi loved someone else. Their love was forbidden, though, because he wasn't even a mascot.
For Donte, anything that displeased Farasi became a passion. It was no different with Halisi's love life. He arranged meetings for Halisi and Kafil and cared for Chiku while they were together. In retrospect, it was a good indication of Halisi's trust in him. He could have taken their daughter and escaped. He wanted to escape and he wanted to remove his daughter from the suffering in Nyumbani, but he couldn't hurt Halisi that way.
Of course, Halisi had every reason to trust him with their daughter. Two weeks after Chiku was born Farasi arrived in a rage because she had not informed him of the birth. When he discovered the baby was a girl, he was livid. He had contracted for a boy. Farasi ordered one of his men to kill the baby.
Donte defended Chiku with the only weapons he had - his physical strength and his fertility. He stood between Farasi and Chiku and told him that there would be no more children if Farasi harmed Chiku in any way. At that point he had already decided to terminate Farasi if need be. He knew it would result in his own execution, but at least Chiku would be safe. Now he wished he had done it.
Perhaps Farasi knew he had no chance, or maybe it was the idea that Donte was basically promising to stay long enough for a second child that caused him to reconsider. Little Chiku was safe until Heri was born. Then the fear began all over again. Farasi would never permit a female to succeed him in power. If Farasi had known he was going to die today, he would have ordered his men to kill both his daughter and granddaughter so that Heri would rule. Halisi would never believe him capable of it, but Donte knew better. In any case, the incident with Chiku formed a closer bond between Donte and Halisi. Three years later, when she came to him for another baby, she was more responsive. Little Heri was born one year later.
It had not been Donte's intent to stay for more than a few weeks after he gave Farasi an heir, but here he was; one year after Heri was born, unable to break the bond he had formed with his daughter.
He stretched out on the cot, hands behind his head, thinking about Liana and Bjorn. It startled him to realize he could not picture either of their faces. Instead he saw Halisi and Chiku. It had only been six years. How could he forget?