“Where the Authority Lies” by Nathanael Green
“Nobody has to listen to you,” Jake said when he pushed you away. You stumbled backward, your heel caught against a rock, and you fought as gravity yanked at your body.
After an awkward three steps, you righted yourself and felt your chest harden with anger. He was right. No one did have to listen to you. You didn’t have the authority.
Still, you rushed forward and punched him. Your fist connected with his nose. You heard a slapping, cracking sound, and he staggered and lifted his hands to his face.
“I don’t have to listen to you, either,” you said.
“Sam told me to tell you to do it!” Jake yelled through the blood. The roiling anger in your chest subsided to a nervous simmering. What Sam said was law. Everyone obeyed Sam.
A voice came then, thin and frayed. “What’s happening here?”
You looked over your shoulder, but you already knew the voice. Sam had the authority, and he held it aloft in one hand, as if its rays would spray out over the crowd and drench everyone in obligation. Except it didn’t radiate anything visible. Instead, it just rested in his palm, a hard, jagged lump. The authority seemed so confident that it needn’t cast light or make a sound or do anything but simply be.
Sam stood for a moment with a frown on his pale face before his arm started to tremble and he lowered it. He cradled the authority in both hands at his belly.
“You were fighting,” said Sam.
You nodded. “Yes, Sam. Jake told me I had to give him my new furs. He said that you said so. I told him that if you really said that, he had to go with me to see you to prove it. He pushed me and I fought back.”
Sam frowned, a petulant, beak-like expression. The crowd was silent as Sam tested the weight of the authority before him and glared at you and Jake.
“You’re guilty and will both pay,” he said, “for lying about what I said and saying something I didn’t say.” He turned to you. “And for not doing what he said I said to do.”
“But—” you started to say before Sam yelled again.
“Take them to the fire!”
You frowned and turned to see the rest of the village facing you both. They moved on shuffling feet toward you. Your brother stepped from the crowd and took your one arm.
“I’m sorry.” Your brother’s whisper was sad, forlorn. “He has the authority.”
“I know,” you said and let the crowd herd you toward the center of the village. Sam rushed to stay close behind with shuffling footsteps.
Your stomach fluttered and your breath came with difficulty. This wasn’t fair. Why should you be punished with Jake? How harsh would your punishment be? You looked ahead to where a grim circle of stones enclosed a flaming heap of branches and dead ash at the village center and wondered whether Sam would change his mind and spare you.
As you took another, slow step, you heard a sudden rustling. Sam’s arms and legs flailed as his toes smashed against a rock. He tumbled to the ground and rolled once to lie on his belly. The authority scraped across the dirt and stopped when it jabbed you in the foot.
Sam’s bony little hands scrabbled at the dirt, but couldn’t reach the authority. You breathed for a moment, then bent and lifted it. It was heavier than you’d imagined, but also less solid, more gelatinous than it appeared. Like a leaden, jagged lump of fat.
“I have the authority,” you said.
“Shit,” said Sam.