Sow (Chapter 1 Part 7)
“Up here, Jova girl!”
Jova bit her tongue, concentrating as she clambered up to the next branch. The further south they went, the more flexible the trees got, and Jova had already fallen once when a whippy branch bent a little too much.
“Look at you two,” said Rituu, smiling, his head craned up to watch. “Like little mothmonkeys.”
Sri just swung her knees from her perch on high, while Jova turned to look at Rituu. “Mothmonkeys?” Jova was as familiar with his tall tales as Gopal and Sri by now; unlike them, she still liked them. It was a game between her and Rituu to see if she could tell the fibs from the truth.
“Scary things,” said Rituu, with a straight face. “Big eyes, white fur all over, wings under its arms. I saw a couple in a marsh forest in Kazakhal called Sorzova.”
“Truth for the mothmonkeys,” said Jova. She clambered a little higher. The branch bent precariously as she grabbed it, but held as she hauled herself up. “Lie for Sorzova.”
Rituu cocked his head. “Oh, really? Are you sure? I’ve never mentioned either of them before.”
“Absolutely positively,” said Jova, a wide grin on her face.
“What do you think, Sri?”
The dark-haired girl looked up, shielding her expression from view. “I agree with Jova girl,” she said. Jova snorted. Sri had picked up “Jova girl” from her dad- well, Jova thought of Rituu as her dad, although Sri never called him or Gopal that.
“Why do you think that, Sri? Don’t say it’s just because Jova thinks so. I want you to think for yourself!”
“Don’t I get to explain myself?” said Jova peevishly.
“Shush, you. Sri?”
“I’ve seen winter moths before,” said Sri. She spoke so quietly. Jova had no idea how Rituu managed to hear down on the ground; she could barely hear Sri and they were almost on the same branch. “And you’ve talked about monkeybears before.”
“Educated men call them gorillai now,” said Rituu. “But do go on!”
“I think mothmonkeys make sense,” said Sri. “Even if they do sound a little…weird. But you never talked about Sorzova, and I’ve never heard about it either. And it sounds like a made-up Kazakhal name, not a real Kazakhal name.”
Jova stared. She had just picked at random. Even though they were the same age, Sri was so much smarter than her.
Or, perhaps, Jova reasoned, she just had the patience to think things through.
“Well done, my little Sri,” said Rituu clapping. Jova began to clap too but stopped when she nearly fell off her branch. She stopped, and looked around. Rituu had told them to climb, but to what end?
“You are correct on one and might be correct on the other.”
Jova laughed and glared at the same time. “Might be? You don’t remember?”
“They say plainsman memories are like leaky pots, which is why we write everything down,” admitted Rituu. “But that is not the reason. No, you might be right because I never knew in the first place. Fib about Sorzova, yes.”
“A-ha!” Jova couldn’t help herself. She pumped a fist in the air. She liked winning.
Rituu’s face crinkled in a smile, as did Sri’s. “But mothmonkeys, I don’t know.”
“So that was a lie too?”
“A lie, a truth. I do not know. I have never known!” Rituu looked happy about that, for some reason. “But after listening to little Sri’s profound argument, which, must I say, would rival the greatest debates of all the electors of the Twin Libraries, then I am convinced that perhaps there are some mothmonkeys in the world, flapping around with their big wide eyes.”
“But you’ve never seen one,” said Jova.
“Knowing without seeing is believing,” said Rituu, sagely.
“Sounds like lying to me.”
“We always believe. You would think everything I say is a lie if you did not believe! We believe that there is more world to Albumere even though we cannot see it, we believe that the stars are still there even when we cannot see them for the light of the sun, we believe that there is tomorrow even if we cannot see the future.” Rituu’s voice became grand and mighty, and his chest puffed out with self-importance. “We believe because we are men, the children of the Ladies Four and the most superb of animals!”
“You’re lecturing again,” said Sri’s soft voice.
Rituu just grinned. “And you believe that there is something up there and I didn’t send you to climb a shit- a stupid tree for no reason even though you can’t see anything, right?”
“My Da says that we always get paid for our belief,” said Jova, raising an eyebrow. What she didn’t mention was that he always said that when the pay was not apparent, so personally Jova found the adage a little difficult to swallow. Rituu’s reasons for leading them up there, though, were hopefully a bit more concrete.
“Oh, sometimes our faith is not always rewarded,” said Rituu, and he walked away down the trail.
“Hey! Hey, wait, no!” shouted Jova, moving to clamber back down. Sri just shook her head and sighed.
Rituu popped his out from behind the bend in the path. “And other times, Jova girl, we just need to believe a little longer.”
Jova crossed her arms and leaned back against the trunk of the tree, her patience wearing thin. “You talk too much, Rituu.”
“I thought you liked my stories,” said Rituu, feigning hurt. He still didn’t seem to be approaching the point of their excursion anytime soon.
“I do,” said Jova. “But this isn’t one of your stories, this is one of your lectures. And I hate those.”
When Rituu laughed, Jova wasn’t surprised. Sri’s quiet chuckle made her look up, though. Was it something she had said?
“You are both very forward for a stranger, Jova girl,” said Rituu, “And very earthy for a pilgrim. Your reason to go to the Temple, I feel, is not the same as your, er, guardians’. What business does a girl like you have in Moscoleon?”
“The tree, Rituu,” snarled Jova. “Tell me why I’m in a tree.”
Leaves fell in a sudden shower around Jova. She tensed instinctively, but it was just Sri. Her mouth was open in surprise, her arm outstretched as she reached for something on the other side of the tree. “Whoa!” she said, balancing precariously as she leaned over. “Look at this!”
“One asks for a reward for her faith,” said Rituu. “The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.”
“You act really differently from how I first met you,” said Jova. “You were angry and swearing and stumbling through the dark. Where did this philosopher come from?”
“One should never be too quick to judge,” said Rituu. “People are like onions. You must peel away layer after layer-.”
“I’m going, I’m going!” Jova hauled herself up to the next branch, trying to get a vantage on whatever Sri was looking at. She looked at the girl. “Is he always like that?”
“He’s gotten better,” said Sri. She paused. “Or maybe I’ve just gotten used to him.”
Jova sat on the edge of the branch, and peered. Sri was reaching inside a hollow indentation in the center of the tree, her hands reaching into the dim shadows.
Jova’s heart skipped a beat, her squabble with Rituu forgotten.
There must have been hundreds of tabula stacked in the hollow. Jova hadn’t realized how high up she was; the canopy was just above them, and beyond that bright, unbroken sunlight. It played on the tabula, bright beams shining through gaps in the leaves.
Jova bent forward, reaching out nervously. Her grip so high was tenuous at best, but the veritable hoard of tabula held a kind of magnetic appeal. She just had to touch it, had to know that they were real.
Her fingers brushed against the disks, causing several to slip and slide off each other like a small avalanche. Her heart jumped. If one fell out and shattered…
But none of them did. She drew her shaking hand back. Her fingers were numb, and from more than just nerves. The piles and piles of tabula had vibrated softly to her touch, the effect compounded a thousand-fold as the vibrations spread throughout the collection.
Jova looked closer. Shattered fragments peeked out of the disks: the remains of wild animals that had passed the Fallow and left their tabula behind in the hollow. Sap lined the walls of the tree, and some patches had even begun to harden in half-formed ovals and circles. Jova’s hand drifted towards the walls, but she pulled back. It felt somehow sanctimonious to disturb the forming tabula; her impure hands would probably somehow taint the nascent disks.
“This is a hollow?” whispered Jova. It was the first one she had ever seen.
“I know,” said Sri. “Mine was so much closer to the ground.”
Jova’s mouth went dry. This was one of the things that her parents had warned her so many times about talking about. Bad people would hurt her if she mentioned her hollow- or, more specifically, the lack thereof. But Sri spoke freely and openly of it. What could be the harm?
“I thought the ones in Jhidnu were smaller than this,” said Sri. Wonder had apparently loosened her tongue. “But I guess that we aren’t quite in Jhidnu anymore, are we? Maybe they grow taller in Moscon…I wonder if hollows even know the difference between the bay and the peninsula. Maybe the soil is better here…”
“Or- or maybe…” Jova said, trying to join the conversation. Her knowledge of plants was limited to the fact that most were green. “Maybe it’s old,” she said.
Sri looked at her, and Jova felt her cheeks turn red. It seemed like a reasonable thing to say at the time.
“That might be right,” Sri whispered, her voice lowering again. She sounded like her ordinary, quiet self, but there was an excitement in her expression that Jova had never seen. “Could you imagine? A hollow this size could have lived for hundreds of years, since the age of High General Desdon. It could have been around when Keep Mist was alive, when the First Army marched on the Temple!”
Jova had absolutely no idea what Sri was talking about but the imagery was vivid nonetheless.
“How is it, girls?” shouted Rituu. “Enjoying the view?”
Sri nodded, although Jova doubted Rituu could see her head move from all the way down there. Jova chose the more direct method of shouting, “How did you know this was a hollow?”
“I can see you’re not from the south, then,” said Rituu, smugly, and Jova gulped. Had that been the wrong thing to say? Ma and Da probably would have been mad at her if they heard her ask that question. “The hollows of the coastal region never stop growing! They get taller and taller, and some would swear that they have seen them walk.”
“Lie!” Jova shouted.
“Truth,” Rituu replied. “This is about more than just admiring the hollow, though. There are things you have to learn, Sri, things I’ve neglected from teaching you. My eyes were opened last night, when goodman Ell gave me this little gift.” He rolled his shoulder and winced. “It’s about time you learned to defend yourself.”
Sri sat bolt upright, her eyes wide with surprise.
“What about me?” Jova shouted.
“Little Sri needs a sparring partner, doesn’t she, Jova girl?” Rituu clapped his hands together, his voice somewhat hoarse from shouting so much. “I could give you a couple lessons too.”
“I’ve had enough of your lessons!” shouted Jova. “But I’ll take a tabula!”
“Then take one! Who am I to give or deny you permission?” Rituu raised a warning finger. “But only one! This is a law of the Ladies, not men. Take just one from the hollow tree. It is bad luck to do otherwise.”
Sri’s hand darted out, quick and nimble, taking one disk without even disturbing the rest. Jova, on the other hand, groped in the hollow blindly, searching for a disk even though they all felt the same. “Do I just pick one randomly?”
“They say in the darkness of shadows, the Ladies Four will guide your hand-.”
“I don’t care what they say, Rituu, just tell me how I’m supposed to pick one!”
“Randomly is fine,” said Rituu, his laughter barely held back. “Just make sure it isn’t another person! We don’t need slaves for our lessons. Those we shall leave for their Fallow.”
Jova’s hand found a disk. She held up to her face, trying to see what kind of creature it was bonded to in the dancing reflections within, but all she saw was her own reflection staring back at her. Sri had already given her tabula the appropriate command; what it was, Jova had no idea, so she pretended she had said the right words and stuffed the tabula in her pocket so as not to be embarrassed.
The two clambered down the tree slower than they had ascended, stepping carefully on the bending branches. With the tabula on their person, it was as if they were escorting some precious treasure back down to the ground, where Rituu waited.
“Have you claimed them?” he asked.
Jova looked up in time to see Sri nod. She ignored Rituu, hopping down from the last branch and squatting to absorb the impact. “What’ll you teach us first?” asked Jova, a wide smile on her face. She imagined a fierce companion like Mo: friendly at times, with its own little quirks, but always strong and always dangerous.
Rituu took a deep breath (no doubt to launch into one of his monologues), but before he could speak a familiar shape came through the bushes. Ma looked from Rituu, to the girls, to the tree, and back to Rituu. “Just wondering where you had gone off to with the children,” said Ma. Jova watched her face closely. She could see by the furrowed eyebrows, the slight pursing of the lips, the narrowed eyes that Ma was worried. Jova’s stomach sunk. She would be receiving a lecture later, no doubt, and a full debriefing on what she had said to Rituu and Sri.
“Ah, goodwoman Anjan,” said Rituu. “I was just showing them a hollow I found on the path! Perhaps I should have asked for your permission first, but I meant it to be a surprise.”
Lie, Jova thought, automatically. Rituu had had no intention of telling her parents where she had gone, she was sure of it.
“Consider me surprised,” said Ma, laughing airily as she took Jova’s hand and tugged her away. “I need to talk with my d- with Jova now, though.”
Jova waved a little goodbye to Sri as she stumbled away. Sri’s hand waved from her waist, which was about as good as Jova was going to get, even as Sri’s bright eyes followed them as they walked away.
“I don’t want you running off like that all the time,” said Ma immediately once they were out of earshot. “And I don’t want you spending time with him, either.”
Jova felt a protest rising, but she bit it down. “He showed me the hollow,” said Jova, instead. Not quite an accusation, but nevertheless accusatory.
“I know,” said Ma, distractedly. She kept looking back over her shoulder.
“He let me take a tabula,” said Jova.
“I know.” Ma hurried Jova along, as they made their way back to the little glade where they had made camp. Da was preparing food over the fire, while Gopal was nowhere to be seen.
Jova fell silent. If Ma wasn’t going to listen to her, then she wasn’t going to say anything. The tabula in her pocket was like a glowing ember in Jova’s chest. It kept her spirits just a bit higher, to know that she had that kind of secret power in her pocket.
Ma turned Jova around and sat down with her. “Now I want you to promise me that you won’t do any more things with tabula around them, OK? Not any of the big ones, or even the little girl, OK?”
“They have names…”
“Promise me, Jova,” said Ma, and her voice grew firm.
Jova mumbled something that could be interpreted as an affirmative.
“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she drew her daughter in close, hugging her tightly. “I’m doing this to protect you. You understand that? I’m doing this because I love you and I want to keep you safe.”
The words rang empty in Jova’s ears. Rituu had said that Sri would learn to protect herself. Why couldn’t Jova do the same? Perhaps Ma would need a shock like last night to let her know; perhaps Da would be more willing to let Jova continue lessons with the other family after what he had been through…
Jova was horrified with herself. Manipulating her father when he was injured? What kind of person would do that?
Ma let her go and stood up. “You be a good girl, now,” she said, trying to be gentle. Jova could tell when Ma was making a conscious effort not to be harsh with her; her voice softened to a near whisper even as it climbed an octave or two. Her expression seemed genuine, though. “I’m going out with Mo. You help your father with the rest of lunch.”
Jova nodded, as Ma whistled for the weaseldog to come. Mo padded along to Ma’s side, giving Jova a friendly nudge with a wet nose as he passed. She traced the burn scars on his face. He looked fierce, but Mo was kind as could be. Perhaps if Mo approved of the beast in Jova’s tabula, Ma would be more willing to accept.
After a moment, Jova decided she felt a guilty for manipulating Mo, too. He was, after all, part of the family.
With all the guilt and the frustration and the anticipation pent up inside of her, Jova felt like she would burst. Her fingers tapped inside her threadbare pockets, but ultimately it would have been foolish to ask Da for help with a tabula now.
Da caught her eye, and waved her over, a large smile on his face. Jova drew her hand out of her pocket and skipped over to her father’s side. The tabula could wait for later.
He was bent awkwardly around the simmering pot, the wound on his chest making it hard for him to maneuver. Jova took the wooden ladle from his hand, as he sat gratefully back down. “Thank you, Jova dear,” said Da, eyes closed, although from relief or pain Jova could not tell. His hand rested against his heart, and he breathed heavily. “What would I do without you, eh?”
Jova’s brow furrowed, as she stirred the broth. It bubbled golden-brown, and smelled so savory that even if Jova wasn’t hungry already she would have begun to salivate anyway. This, here, was good. And yet…
“Sorry, Da,” Jova muttered.
Da looked up, his eyes open. He put a hand on Jova’s shoulder. “Sorry for what? You’ve got nothing to be sorry for.”
“Sorry about running out during the night,” said Jova. “Sorry about getting you hurt.”
“Getting me hurt? No, no, no. Little Lady, it was a big tough old bathawk that got me hurt.” Da thumped his chest, despite the rawness of his wounds. “Do you have talons, Jova? Do you have wings and fangs? You didn’t do this to me, an animal did.”
“But you couldn’t sleep and you tried to help some people,” said Da, cutting her off. “You can’t blame yourself for that. You didn’t mean to do anything wrong, did you? You didn’t mean to do anything bad, did you?”
“But I still did it!” Jova said. She felt more frustrated, now, not less. Would her father just stop talking and let her admit that everything was her fault?
“No, you didn’t.” Seeing that she wasn’t stirring, Da took the ladle back. “If anything, it’s my fault that I went rushing in headfirst like that. If you’re sorry, then I’m sorry, too.”
“Don’t be sorry!” Jova said, immediately. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry…for…” She paused, biting her tongue.
“How about this, then? If you promise not to be sorry, then I promise not to be sorry either.”
Jova opened her mouth. Then she closed her mouth. She felt like she had lost a game she hadn’t even known she was playing.
“So no more apologies,” said Da. “Now help me with this, your new friends seem to take their food very seriously.”
They sat together over the bubbling pot, as the forest whispered around them. Jova found herself tapping the tabula in her pocket again, despite herself. Perhaps now she could broach the subject with her father? How?
Jova spent a pensive minute mulling her plan of attack over in her head, but she had not yet even opened her mouth when there was a rustle in the path. Da turned suddenly, tense, but Jova was a bit calmer about it. It was just Gopal returning from wherever he had gone when they had made camp. He held one large bag over his shoulder and another smaller one in his hand.
“Lunch?” he said, nodding approvingly. He looked slightly breathless. “I found some herbs in the forest, they’ll be good for seasoning. And I’ve got some dried biscuits, too.”
“Ah, no doubt foraged in the forest as well,” said Da. “I didn’t know they had biscuit bushes in the south. Are they all dried here, or do they come sweetened and glazed like they do in the mountains?”
Gopal indulged him a smile. It seemed somehow false, though. There was still tension between them.
Jova looked down, trying to ignore the sudden quiet that had fallen over the camp. Da did not blame her for his wounds, she knew. But, then, who did he blame?
About as distant as he could get from them without being rude, Gopal laid down his bags. He did not explain where he had gotten them, nor why he was out of breath. “Will it be ready soon?” asked the burly man.
“Soon as soon comes,” said Da. “Jova, be good and see if you can fetch the others? We don’t want it getting cold now. I’d do it myself, but I think it’s best if I don’t move around so much.” He laughed and rubbed his chest, but he looked at Gopal as he said it.
He doesn’t trust him, Jova realized, but out loud all she said was, “OK. I’ll be back soon.”
She rose and jogged away, back down the little split trail where Rituu had taken her with Sri. Perhaps she could catch the tail end of a tabula lesson, she realized, with a smile. The smile vanished quickly, though. That would be going against what Ma had told her to do, though…
Her hand crawled back down into her pocket, where the tabula waited, warm and enticing. Jova looked over her shoulder. There was no one around, just the forest, its constant susurrus enveloping her comfortably. It couldn’t hurt, just to try it herself- just to prove to Ma that Rituu wasn’t bad, that Jova could watch out for herself, that she didn’t need to be worried.
Jova took out the tabula, and cupped it in her hands. She licked dry lips. What was the next step? Ma always closed her eyes when she summoned Mo, like she was concentrating hard. Jova did the same, concentrating with all her might on the amber disk in her hand.
It hummed, just slightly. Sweat broke out on Jova’s forehead, and she stopped, gasping. She felt so drained. The humming stopped as soon as Jova opened her eyes.
Jova blinked. She couldn’t stop now. She had to prove to her mother that she could do this.
The frustration and guilt and anticipation swelled up inside her, and Jova shut her eyes tight again. The tabula hummed fiercely in her hands, making her arms numb from the shaking, but she did not stop. She thought she felt something like a breeze around her, but with her eyes shut so tight they hurt Jova could not tell if it was real or imagined. She felt a prickling on her skin, became intensely aware of the trees and the wind and the noises of the forest.
It felt like eternity, but finally it was as if something broke. The tabula stopped shaking very suddenly, and Jova drew in a great gasp of air. She had forgotten to breathe the entire process, but now that it was over she felt her knees weaken beneath her. She opened her watering eyes, and her vision swam. She saw something, an indistinct blur of shapes and colors, but it was hard to tell after the summoning. She hadn’t expected it to be so tiring, and yet, she felt strangely elated. It hadn’t been that hard at all.
“Hey,” she said, rubbing her eyes. “I’m Jova. We’re going to be fr-.”
And then she felt claws sink into her belly as the thing attacked.
Posted on August 25, 2013, in 1.07, Chapter 1 (Reap & Sow) and tagged adventure, Anjan, creative writing, Ell, fantasy, Gopal, Jova, Mo, novel, original characters, Rituu, Sri, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.