He’d been climbing for hours. Fortunately, he’d trained for it. Seth Minstrel was the first to get this far. He could see the tops of the jagged peaks just above him.
“I’m going to make it. I’m going to be free.”
The air was hot and humid in the valley below, the valley Seth had lived in all his life. It was the valley where generations of his people had toiled as slaves to the ruling MacGregor clan. The people grew the food, and the MacGregor’s and their thugs took half. But without the MacGregors, water wouldn’t fall down the cliffs to the south, allowing their arid valley to produce and sustain life.
The MacGregors said they should be grateful.
“Yeah, right. Grateful. You MacGregor’s have freedom and steal our food, barely allowing my people enough to eat.”
Each person in their village rationed their food for over a month so that Seth would have provisions for his journey. It was said that if someone could make it to the top of the peaks, there would be other human habitations. Maybe one would help. It was their only hope. Seth Minstrel was their only hope.
Seth was nearing the top. He hoisted himself up, pulled himself to the flat plateau.
Exhausted, he lay panting for a few minutes.
Then he became aware of the presence of others, all on horseback.
“I see you’ve made it to the top, Seth. Well done.”
The young adventurer looked up. It was Marcus MacGregor, oldest son of clan elder Ian MacGregor, accompanied by three of his enforcers.
“What the hell are you doing here?” Seth was incredulous.
“I might ask you the same question, but I think I know the answer. You thought you could escape and go for help. Silly fool. Who do you think owns these lands for a hundred miles around in all directions?”
“Then the rumors…”
“…are just rumors, Seth. Designed to give your people hope so they’ll continue to work, all the while believing there’s help if they can just reach it.”
Seth stood up. “Then there’s no help for us.”
Marcus let out a great laugh and his guards chuckled as if on cue.
“Help? What makes you think you need help?”
“We’re slaves. You take our food.”
“You take our water, without which you’d die of thirst. Without which, you couldn’t grow so much as a weed.”
“Let me tell you a little tale, Seth. Long ago, there was a war. To preserve our people, a group of farmers was hidden in the valley while the warrior clans protected the land above. The war made the lands above infertile, but our steady source of the water is fresh; the snow melt from the High Mountains. We had water but no food.
“You farmer clans had food and water because we always supplied you with water, but we need to eat in order to survive. We’ve protected our lands for nigh onto three-hundred years, but there’s no telling when or if the enemy will strike again. We take food in exchange for water and protection.”
“Now why would I do that? You’re in my power. I can tell you the truth and there’s nothing you can do to change it.”
“So why not tell us? Why let us go on believing we were slaves?”
“I admit it. The MacGregors have learned to love power. When we don’t have enemies to fight…well, we have to have someone to keep down, don’t we?”
“What happens to me?”
“I tell you what, Seth. I’ll give you a choice. You’re obviously much more than a farmer. Your presence here proves that you aren’t a sheep like the lot down below. Why not join us?”
“And treat my own people like slaves?”
“They’ll never know. We can train you in the art of war. You can patrol the outlands and never set food in the valley. Our lives are no easier than the farmers, but our labors are different. You might enjoy them.”
Seth thought he hated farming for the same reason the rest of his people did, because he wasn’t free. Now he was starting to realize there was another reason.
“C’mon, Seth. What do you say? You can’t seriously want to go back to working the land now, could you?”
Seth’s face twisted in disgust, both at the idea of putting his hand to the plow, and for his obvious thoughts of the betrayal of his own clan.
“They’ll think you died among these rocks. None of them has the steel to come looking for you.”
Seth lowered his head. “Can I think about it?”
Marcus sensed success. He would soon have another man at arms. “Of course you can. Pull yourself up behind me on my mount. I’ll take you back to our compound, introduce you around.”
Seth Minstrel had been climbing for a long time, and now he climbed just a little higher and sat himself behind Marcus MacGregor. As the group turned and headed back to their lands and their property, the former farm hand considered whether he had climbed to freedom or fallen into his final defeat.