Jian never liked heights, but as the head workman in charge of this section of the Great Wall, he ignored his personal inclinations. Duty ruled his will. He managed seventy slaves in turn. What they did with their wills was of little consequence—as long as they obeyed him, and he lived to see another day.
His gaze roved across the incoming bank of clouds. The wind sent his thin, dark clothes rippling like a banner on a high tower. He sniffed. The scent of rain permeated the air. Biting his lip, he marched along the outer edge of the western bank. A solid wall of earth rose in a sharp incline. Amazing what desperate men could do when enough pressure was applied.
His stomach rumbled as his gaze flickered back to the sky. The sun, obliterated by thick clouds, still offered enough light to see clearly. A fierce gust blasted across the valley nearly tottering the men on the top edge. As the strongest struggled for balance, an old man staggered and fell to his knees.
With a commanding frown, Jian marched over and stared the slave back onto his feet. The old man’s shaking limbs refused the order.
“What’s wrong with you, old one?”
A young man, thin to the point of emaciation with a mop of black hair, stepped forward, swiping a rag from his head and bowing from the waist. “He’s ill. He needs rest or the wind will carry him off.”
Jian rubbed his chin as his gaze swept from the watching assembly to the rising cloud. “A storm is coming. It’ll stop work—for a week maybe.”
The young man nodded. “When we start again, you will have all your workers. Or one less—maybe.”
A glinting smile acknowledged the clear logic. With a quick thrust, he jerked his hand in the air and barked his order. “Clear out before the storm.”
With haste and relieved chattering, the men gathered baskets and tools and began a straggled march to back to camp. The old man, assisted by the young man, began to limp down the incline.
Jian halted the assistant. “What is your name, audacious one?”
The young man froze; his gaze fixed on the ground. “Hung.”
The glint reincarnated into a challenge. “The name means courageous—are you?”
Hung slid a glance to the old man and released his grip. Another man stepped forward and took Hung’s place, helping the ancient along. The two hobbled away.
Jian’s searing gaze narrowed on Hung.
His head bowed, Hung remained calm, like a pond on a still night.
Hung lifted his face a fraction. “My mother always said—it is not the name that makes the man but the man that makes the name.”
“Slaves are like insects—they live but a brief season.”
Raindrops splattered on Hung’s face, the driving wind hurling its fury against him.
“Insects have no names. And no will of their own.”
Jian crossed his muscled arm over his chest, ignoring the swirling tempest growing in his midst. “Slaves live to obey their masters.”
Hung’s shoulders hunched lower, his head dropped like a battering ram against the wind. His words, driven by the wind, raced like a message from one elemental force to another. “Who do masters obey?”
With a lifted hand, Jian took one enraged step. And slipped. The conquering wind carried him down the mud-slick incline.
Never raising his eyes, Hung plowed through the soaking rain, following the course he had traveled every day for years.
Rosella tapped her stylus against her lips. The Bhuaci classroom, empty now, except for a cooing pair of turtledoves that perched on the windowsill, echoed the faint sound of chattering children just released from a long day of Alien-Life Studies.
Rosella closed her eyes and laid the stylus on her datapad.
“Stealing a little peace and quiet?” The most handsome Bhuaci this side of the Divide sauntered into the room, twirled the teacher’s chair ninety degrees and leaned in, his gaze not ten centimeters from Rosella’s blinking eyes.
“Not stealing.” She leaned just out of reach. “Just thinking.” Her gaze roved over the male in front of her. “What do you want, Lutein? Here to say goodbye before you head off-world on another intriguing adventure?”
Lutein’s bright eyes dimmed as he slammed a fisted hand against his chest. “I’m staggered! Just stab me in the heart why don’t you?”
Rosella’s eyes widened in mock confusion. “I—stab your heart? I’d much rather cut it out—if I could find it. At least then, it might feed the wildlife and serve some noble purpose.”
Dropping his head to his chest, Lutein’s shoulders drooped in melancholy grief. “I just returned from an intriguing adventure. One I was going to share with you.” His gaze peeked up. “But now—”
With a weary shake of her head, Rosella nodded to the edge of the desk. “Be quick. I have to come up with a scintillating lesson tomorrow, or my students will revolt and feed me to the doves.” She flicked a finger at the cooing specimens of purity and innocence.
Perching on the desk, Lutein rubbed his jaw. “Your mind has taken a dark turn since I left. Now let me see if I can brighten your spirits. Later, I’ll feed you something besides my heart.” He grinned. “Maybe.”
Rosella’s face remained impassive, her hands clasped.
“You see, I observed the newest find—the ones Song calls humans. I toured a beautiful green land where the inhabitants build an enormous wall—to keep invaders out.”
Rosella’s chin jutted forward. “There are many walls, Lutein. Everyone has one.”
“Ay! That’s just what I discovered. You see; I saw another wall, but this one was inside a man, a wall that poverty and injustice could not climb over or break down.”
Rosella’s leaned closer, her eyes widening. “You saw—”
“A wall built—of a man’s will. A wall like none other.”
Rosella stood and stepped near, peering deep into Lutein’s eyes. “Are you the same Bhuaci that left me crying on the beach?”
Lutein stood and bowed his head; his hands hung limply at his side. “I am—and I am not.”
Rosella turned away, covering her face with her hands. “That’s no answer.”
Lutein lifted his head. “You’re right not to trust me. But—” He strode over to the wall map and pointed to a distant star cluster. “I’ve learned that a man who holds his head too high is likely to fall off his feet.”
A sneer curled around Rosella’s lips. “Your head has ever been held high, Lutein. It is one of your greatest charms. And most deceiving lies.”
“So, I have learned.” Grasping Rosella’s hand, he led her back to her chair. “The man with the unbreakable wall kept on his feet by bowing his head.”
“Can you learn to bow your head, Lutein?”
Peering at the star cluster, Lutein’s gaze roamed over a vast distance. “The man with the unbreakable will loved an old man—” He swiveled around and stared at the schoolteacher. “If the will obeys the heart—it holds true—even when it is bowed.”
A smile—like the morning sun—broke over Rosella’s face.
Novels by A. K. Frailey
Last of Her Kind http://amzn.to/2y1HJvg
Newearth Justine Awakens http://amzn.to/2pq0vWN
Melchior—Vengeance Is Mine http://amzn.to/2taeW2r
Coming in 2018…
OldEarth ARAM Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Ishtar Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Neb Encounter (In production)
OldEarth Georgios Encounter (In production)
The Adventures of Tally-Ho http://amzn.to/2sLfcI5
The Road Goes Ever On—A Christian Journey Through The Lord of the Rings http://amzn.to/2lWBd00