Tribute     Bevan peered through the window overlooking the waterway. He couldn’t see the waterfall pouring into the narrow lake. The river split at the ends of the lake and circled around the noble houses before rejoining. Bevan watched a man push a raft with a long pole toward the lesser houses.

f     Sometimes he thought about what his father’s life might be like in the free lands, beyond the Cliffs of Keeping that defined the home of the Rimround people. The high cliffs surrounded the land completely, a gigantic gorge, making it a safe haven. Other times his mind drifted to memories of Lyselle.

     “Bevan!” Dregor burst through the door into his family’s manor. Spotting his younger brother by the window, he bounded over, excitement gleaming in his dark eyes.

     Bevan jumped up, mistaking the look for trouble. He’d trained with Dregor at the Peace Officer Academy. All first and second born male children belonging to a noble house did. If a riot broke, he’d help his brother, but he wasn’t duty bound like Dregor. 

     “You’ll never believe it,” Dregor continued. “You’ve won the lottery! In a week’s time, you’ll be free.”

     “The lottery?” Bevan released the tension in his arms. There was no riot. With the rising complaints about the distribution of goods in the Commons, it was only a matter of time before one.

     “Yes! Isn’t it wonderful? It almost never happens to someone under twenty five years old, and so rarely to someone twenty, like you.” Dregor smiled, delighted, and hugged his younger brother. “And I can’t think of anyone better.” 

     “But I was only eligible for entry this year.” Bevan looked doubtful as he withdrew from the embrace. He didn’t expect to leave the Cliffs, or the Hole as it was sometimes called in the east sector, until he reached at least the age of twenty seven, and only then because more men were chosen than women. “It couldn’t possibly have been my name drawn.”

     “It’s you. I heard it myself, Bevan the III of House Ten.”

     Numbness sunk in with the news. The lottery was compulsory to all, save the King. Most were sad to leave family behind, but understood the need to protect civilization. Lottery winners never return. He hadn’t thought much of going, and didn’t know how he felt about leaving his siblings. Yet there would be family in the lands of free men, aunts and uncles, his father.  

     Thoughts of adventure and the danger that lurked everywhere outside of the Cliffs and outside of their protectors’ keeping, trickled in his mind like the happy days before his young wife, Lyselle, and their first offspring died during childbirth. He’d carve out a new life away from the places that haunted him, but he’d always hold her and the baby in his heart.

     The giants saved the frail race of humankind from being wiped out by the horrible monsters that lurked all across Aleria, and from their greatest threat, the barbarians. The giants were thoughtful. They didn’t want this gilded cage, The Cliffs of Keeping, to be the only life for humans.

     The days following the lottery were full of rejoicing and parties. House Ten basked in the notoriety, and Bevan’s excitement increased. The unknown crept closer, begging to be explored. After saying his goodbyes on the last day, he joined the others summoned to the High King’s Castle in the city’s center. The traditional audience gave the final details of what lay ahead.

     Sitting on one of the plush sofas in the receiving room, Bevan awaited the High King’s arrival. He listened to the others’ whispers and shrill laughter, full of fear, tension and excitement. The room, filled with heady enthusiasm, silenced as the grand doors were thrown open, and the King, flanked by two castle guards, entered. Those gathered rose and bowed in respect. The King took his seat on his elaborately carved, raised chair, and motioned for the chosen to resume their places.

     “Welcome to my home.” The gray haired king wore a dark red robe with gold embroidery along the edges. Around his neck hung a large medallion of a spiral inside a winged triangle, the sign of Rimround. 

     “Tonight, you’ll begin your journey to join the free men outside of our protective home. You have been bestowed a great privilege, to strive to create a place in the wilds, to leave loved ones behind and live in danger, and to prepare for the time when we are strong enough to all be free. You are providing a great service to our people. I bid you well and wish you luck on this honored venture.” The King smiled.

     Bevan stilled his twitching hand, wishing the King would get on with it. He was surprised with the short speech that followed. Pomp and time consuming ritual usually accompanied the High King, the heavy chains of office.

     “After being lifted over the cliff walls in the basket, one of the giants will take you to a cave. There, the giant will leave you to enter and meet your escorts.” The King looked at Bevan. “Leave all weapons behind. Take as little as possible. We must conserve what we have here. The giants give what they can, but material goods are in rare supply."

     “Who are the escorts?” a man asked. The guard next to the King shifted, but the King waved his hand at him.

     “They’re humans, like you, who once lived within the Cliff’s protection.” The High King sat forward. “The place inside the cave where you’re to meet your escorts is filled with gold and treasures the free men send in tribute to the giants, though the giants aren’t much interested.” The King laughed, softly. “The free give what they can in thanks for the giants’ kindness in saving our race. Thus it is written and handed down in the King’s Law. 

     “These are your last instructions. Please, enjoy my home. My staff is at your service. I’ll return for the lowering of the basket.” Everyone rose with the High King and watched him exit. 

     Every full moon, a group of 9 were chosen to leave and survive in the wilds. This is the way it had always been, for thousands of years if not longer. The giants received treasures in return, but gratitude was the preferred offering. They’re truly, a good people.

     That evening, Bevan watched the tiny dot in the sky come closer and closer to the ground. The roomy basket had wooden poles over the upper half, which kept its passengers from falling out. The others shied away from Bevan. They were from the Commons, and felt intimidated by his expensive traveling garments. It reminded Bevan of the sword missing from his side. He obeyed the rule to leave all weapons behind. Even with escorts, they were headed for a far more dangerous world, but if they all took weapons, there’d be none left to stave off rioters and criminals.

     After the basket landed roughly on the grassy slope, Bevan boarded last behind the other five men and three women. Most of the passengers sat on the wooden floor while Bevan and another man looked out as the buildings of their city shrank in size. 

     “I don’t know how you can watch that,” one of the women said as she dared to peep out briefly. “It makes me feel sick. Tell me when you can see the giant. I’m dying to see one in real life, more than a mural.” She closed her eyes.

     The basket rose above the cliff edge. Bevan looked out onto the city of the giants, and was surprised by the squalor. Shacks and lean-tos, haphazardly build, dotted the countryside. “Giant,” he called to the woman.

     She clutched the edge of the basket and marveled at the size of the hefty giant, twice the size of the nearby trees. The smell hit the basket like a rock. “Smells awful, like…”

     “A refuse heap,” Bevan said.

     The ground trembled as the giant removed the rope from the pulley and carried the basket along like a string toy. Several passengers screamed in surprise as they were knocked about by the swinging motion of the giant’s arm, with each stride. Bevan stumbled, then caught hold of the bars. 

     The basket swung forward, bringing forth the expansive sky with a full moon and tiny pinpricks as the stars twinkled in the last light of day. Then it swung back, showing all who cared to look the worn ground covered in sunken manor-sized footprints draped in the silvery shadow of moonlight and dusk. Forward again. Bevan closed his eyes. Then back. Someone vomited on the floor. As everyone adjusted to the jostling form of transport, a rough drop shocked them with the sudden lack of movement and impact of the ground. 

     Bevan’s head spun. They’d arrived.

     The giant knelt down, carefully unbound the top of the basket, and tilted it over. The passengers’ arms and legs tangled as they fell, crawled and rolled onto the solid, still earth. Bevan rose from his knees. Before him loomed a large cave, the opening tall enough to admit the giant if he crawled on hands and knees. 

     As a trained peace officer, Bevan would have taken the lead, but that life was behind him now. He let the others go first. Several times he reached for the missing sword at his hip. Bevan lagged behind in the maw of the cave, trying to get his bearings. If only he saw a sign of their escorts, he’d relax. Instead he found a rather large tunnel leading deeper. He made out the silhouette of the other eight in a blue glow cast by magical lighting mounted too high along the side of the rock wall to have been placed there by humans.

     The tunnel dropped, then rose. When the other chosen ones crested the rise, Bevan heard laughter.

     “Look at that,” one man’s voice echoed down the cave. “There’s gold in here. It must be our escorts’ tribute vault!”

     “We’ve made it!” called a woman. 

     The party raced forward and out of sight. Bevan quickened his step, lighthearted. They’ve found the escorts. He wondered briefly if his father would be among them. 

     Bevan’s musings stopped dead. Screams rang out. 

     He slowed, heart racing. The screams and shouts cut short, one by one. Bevan crept forward, careful to keep quiet. He crawled to the rim along the edge of a wall, and peered into the vault.

     Four large dragons lay on piles of glimmering golden coins, jewels and treasure. 

     The white one lifted his enormous head, and swiveled his long neck to face his three companions. “Was there a ninth? That was to be mine.” Blue light slid along his scaly wings. “Giant!” The dragon grunted.

     Bevan froze in terror. He dared not move. He scarcely let in a breath, and willed his heart to stop pounding in his ears.

     “No, Baltas,” said the dragon with blue-green scales, a larger version of the first. It spoke in common. “It must have died in the transport.”

     “Stupid, clumsy giants,” the smaller blue-green grumbled. “If only they tasted good. What a feast we’d have.”

     The orange spoke, but Bevan couldn’t understand the dragon language.

     “The game is Common,” the large blue-green said. “Remember?”

     “Napping is as good as food,” said the orange. The dragon turned, climbing over piles of gold, sending a cascade of coins to the edges of the mounds. He retreated to the side of the cave, and then disappeared over a lip along the chamber’s wall. The others followed.

     Bevan overlooked the scene as the lights faded. Still he dared not move. His mind raced with possibilities. The dragon’s must have eaten the escorts. It was the only thing that made sense. He should run back to the giants’ town, make them understand what happened. Yet, Bevan’s legs refused to move. Doubt tickled in the back of his brain. Somewhere, back in the deep dark, a thought festered, unbidden. 

     What if this was intentional? 

     What if the giants meant to, and always had, fed the humans to the dragons, like tribute? Appalling! Monstrous! Unbelievable. Bevan must know for certain. He climbed over the edge and scooted down into the coins on the floor. Each clink made him wince. He prayed the dragons were too far away to hear. 

     Bevan froze when the blue light slowly filled the room, but the dragons didn’t return. He reached for his sword, angry as his hand brushed his empty hip. He searched the room as quietly as possible, skirting mounds of coins. Among the bones and gold, he found shed dragon scales. He had his truth. This place had been used for a long time, a feeding room. Before he turned to leave, Bevan took a jeweled sword from one of the piles.

     He climbed the opposite slope from the dragons’ exit, and peered across the chamber. Beyond columns of dripping stalactites, he saw the faintest outline of a cavern opening. Bevan walked along the edge back the way he’d come, and left the dragons’ altar. 

     Not seeing the giant, Bevan stepped into the dark forest. Both the giant and basket were gone. Bevan leaned against the side of the opening to think. On both sides of the cave, he cut into the rock with the sword, etching out a warning. XXX. He wished he could reach the top of the entrance, where the marks should go, but it was too high.

     At first light, he made his way opposite the sunrise, wondering if his father escaped his fate as tribute. He clung to his last hope, the thing that might be another lie. Bevan went west, perhaps the first from the Cliffs of Keeping, toward the lands of free men.

References: Bevan, Barbarian, Human

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