"What the hell else can we do?" cried a man sitting on one of the middle benches. "They's not human!" At this there was a general (and miserable) mumble of agreement.
One of the Manni stood up, pulling his dark-blue cloak tight against his bony shoulders. He looked around at the others with baleful eyes. They weren't mad, those eyes, but to Tian they looked a long league from reasonable. "Hear me, I beg," he said.
"We say thankee-sai." Respectful but reserved. To see a Manni in town was a rare thing, and here were eight, all in a bunch. Tian was delighted they had come. If anything would underline the deadly seriousness of this business, the appearance of the Manni would do it.
The Gathering Hall door opened and one more man slipped inside. He wore a long black coat. There was a scar on his forehead. None of the men, including Tian, noticed. They were watching the Manni.
"Hear what the Book of Manni says: When the Angel of Death passed over Ayjip, he killed the firstborn in every house where the blood of a sacrificial lamb hadn't been daubed on the doorposts. So says the Book."
"Praise the Book," said the rest of the Manni.
"Perhaps we should do likewise," the Manni spokesman went on. His voice was calm, but a pulse beat wildly in his forehead. "Perhaps we should turn these next thirty days into a festival of joy for the wee ones, and then put them to sleep, and let their blood out upon the earth. Let the Wolves take their corpses into the east, should they desire."
"You're insane," Benito Cash said, indignant and at the same time almost laughing. "You and all your kind. We ain't gonna kill our babbies!"
"Would the ones that come back not be better off dead?" the Manni responded. "Great useless hulks! Scooped-out shells!"
"Aye, and what about their brothers and sisters?" asked Vaughn Eisenhart. "For the Wolves only take one out of every two, as ye very well know."
A second Manni rose, this one with a silky-white beard flowing down over his breast. The first one sat down. The old man, Henchick, looked around at the others, then at Tian. "You hold the feather, young fella -- may I speak?"
Tian nodded for him to go ahead. This wasn't a bad start at all. Let them fully explore the box they were in, explore it all the way to the corners. He was confident they'd see there were only two alternatives, in the end: let the Wolves take one of every pair under the age of puberty, as they always had, or stand and fight. But to see that, they needed to understand that all other ways out were dead ends.
The old man spoke patiently. Sorrowfully, even. "'Tis a terrible idea, aye. But think'ee this, sais: if the Wolves were to come and find us childless, they might leave us alone ever after."
"Aye, so they might," one of the smallhold farmers rumbled -- his name was Jorge Estrada. "And so they might not. Manni-sai, would you really kill a whole town's children for what might be?"
A strong rumble of agreement ran through the crowd. Another smallholder, Garrett Strong, rose to his feet. His pug-dog's face was truculent. His thumbs were hung in his belt. "Better we all kill ourselves," he said. "Babbies and grown-ups alike."
The Manni didn't look outraged at this. Nor did any of the other blue-cloaks around him. "It's an option," the old man said. "We would speak of it if others would." He sat down.
"Not me," Garrett Strong said. "It'd be like cuttin off your damn head to save shaving, hear me, I beg."
There was laughter and a few cries of Hear you very well. Garrett sat back down, looking a little less tense, and put his head together with Vaughn Eisenhart. One of the other ranchers, Diego Adams, was listening in, his black eyes intent.
Another smallholder rose -- Bucky Javier. He had bright little blue eyes in a small head that seemed to slope back from his goateed chin. "What if we left for awhile?" he asked. "What if we took our children and went back west? All the way to the west branch of the Big River, mayhap?"
Copyright © 2003 by Stephen King.
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