Reap (Chapter 1 Part 8)

The boy tried to get up, but before he took even one step he felt lightning.

Pain like nothing he had ever felt coursed through him, and he was powerless to stop it. He seized up, twitching with violent spasms.

Suddenly the pain was gone. A sore aftershock remained, making his entire body one aching bruise.

And then the big guy screamed.

While before his friend had screamed in fear or in shock, this hoarse, animal sound was infinitely more horrible. The boy could barely stand, let alone help. His dizzy mind groped for rational thought. Where had the pain come from? What was happening? Did the slaver have another tabula-bound creature?

The slaver. The boy’s mind slogged through a bog of pain, reaching in the dark. The slaver. He was the source. He…

He had his tabula.

The boy charged, reaching out, but his whole body crumpled into itself as the pain surged back. He fell onto the ground, laboring just to breathe. His brain was shutting down, incapable of functioning any longer under such conditions.

His body had other plans. The boy moved like a puppet on strings, each one slowly being cut. He staggered forward blindly, an array of confusing and conflicting thoughts ricocheting through his head.

The slaver had hurt the big guy. The slaver had hurt his friend. And he didn’t have just their tabula in his hand, he had hers. He could hurt her just as badly. Worse, he could bring her here, and the boy still did not know how to send her back.

He couldn’t let that happen.

“What the fuck?!” the slaver shouted, as the boy’s hand found his throat. He beat him away, shouting, as the lion roared and leaped forward. The boy gasped. In a sudden blissful moment, the pain was gone. Had the slaver been too distracted? Had he let go?

And then darkness swallowed him.

It was worse than shadows, worse than blindness. It was empty. He stumbled backwards, chest heaving, not knowing anymore, too confused and too scared to move. The big guy, Loom, the wagon- it had all disappeared. He was alone in a dark space. Completely, utterly, totally alone.

He reached for his waist, for his most precious belongings, but of course they weren’t there. Tears streamed down his cheeks. He didn’t even have her face, anymore. There was no escape, no fantasy to believe in, no wild hope to entertain. The emptiness of Shira Hay yawned around him, moving ever so slightly that it could trick his mind into thinking that he was moving, even when he stood perfectly still. It was enough to drive anyone insane.

And then the emptiness broke, and the boy was back, back among the burning grass and the gloomy dusk and the pain. He tried to move, but found that he couldn’t. Nothing held him down, nothing restrained him; he just couldn’t, like the connection between his brain and the rest of his body had been severed.

“Hey, asshole!

Who was that? Who was shouting?

“Get the fuck away from him!”

Loom. It was Loom.

She had a rock. It was almost funny.

Loom punched the slaver in the gut, knocking him over so that she could raise the stone in her other hand and beat down, once, twice, three times, until the boy heard bone split and saw red splatter onto the grass.

The summer lion roared, the fires of its mane swelling to nearly twice its own size. It snarled and leaped- and found itself on the receiving end of Deppash’s horns. Hot steam sizzled from the wounds in its gut as Deppash shook it free, and louder than the crackle of fire was the crackle of ice, slowly spreading over the punctures until the flesh was raw pink and white and frostbitten.

Deppash pawed the ground, snorting, as the lion moaned and died.

“Come on,” said Loom, trying to drag the boy to his feet, but his legs could not, or would not, support him. “Come on, kid, do you want to get burned alive?” She pressed his tabula, all three of them, into his chest. “You’ve got them, let’s go!”

The boy stuttered incoherent words, sweat beading down his forehead.

Loom slapped the boy across the face as the fires continued to spread around them. The lion may have died, but his fires certainly had not. They leaped from dry brush to dry brush greedily, burning hot, bright, and large. “You can do it, come on. Do it for her! Do it for the fucking girl in the fucking tabula! Do it for the freak horse, do it for your friend! By all the Ladies Four, damn it, do it for me.

The boy’s eyes widened. He was not alone. Not anymore.

He stood with Loom’s help and staggered to the big guy’s side. The camelopard looked at him, nostrils flaring, but he seemed calm enough at least to ride. “Over and out, yeah?” the boy muttered, hugging his neck. “We get out of the fire.”

The camelopard might have nodded. It was hard to tell with all the shaking as he started to run.

The big guy did not leap over the fire; he galloped straight through, screaming at the top of his lungs, a desperate forward motion. The boy thought might have actually been dying as they burst through the inferno, but then they were clear, clothing and fur alike singed hot red. If it hadn’t been for the pain the slaver had brought on him, the boy might have felt it.

Deppash’s icy breath washed over them as they ran clear of the fire, and the wind and the cool night did the rest. The boy felt his breathing slow, and when it did his chest ached like nothing else. He slumped, and exhaustion claimed him.

He woke from his not quite sleep to the sound of Loom swearing. Somewhere in-between riding the big guy and getting here, wherever here was, he had fallen to the ground. He lay in the soft grass, waiting for the hurting to stop.

“Fucking bandits,” snarled Loom, stomping around the wagon. “Ruined my shit.”

The boy groaned. “Your carpets, yeah?”

Loom held a hand to the back of her neck, surveying the damage. “Yeah. My carpets. These won’t trade for shit.”

“We made it,” pointed out the boy, still waiting for the aches to go away. His head started to pound.

“Yeah,” snorted Loom. She stared at her carpets, stained with blood, torn from the fight, and blackened with soot. “Yeah, we fucking made it.”

“Why did they attack us?” asked the boy. “Why did-?”

“Kid,” said Loom. “Shut up.

And the boy fell silent.

Loom slouched, her hand in her hands, and sighed heavily. “Fucking shit. Fucking dammit.”

She had been angry at him for not getting up, but now she seemed angry at him for just being there. The boy hugged the big guy close. It was only a day, the boy reminded himself. A day in four years did not make him an expert with people. He did not want to do anything wrong.

He huddled in the grass, rubbing his tabula with the edge of his new shirt, which Loom had given him. The fire had scorched the edges and blackened the soft fabric. It was still far nicer than his old rags, although they did just about as good a job at cleaning his tabula.

It was a nervous habit. The familiar action helped soothe the boy’s nerves, and its repetitiveness pushed his headache away. “You OK, big guy?” he asked, as he scrubbed the big guy’s tabula, inspecting it for damage. “He hurts you bad, yeah?”

The camelopard flicked an ear. He did not make a sound, just stared up at the sky, letting starlight wash over him.

“Don’t worry,” said the boy. “I check. No bleeding, no bruises. Hurts a lot but it doesn’t leave anything behind.” Except memories. And even though his collection of those was paltry, the boy wanted nothing to do with the pain of a few hours ago.

“I don’t get it,” the boy said. “We were strangers. Why’d he want to hurt us so bad? We don’t do anything to him. We never did.” He huddled close to his friend. He didn’t like the idea of a world full of strangers who hated him.

Loom was still taking full scope of the damage, pulling her carpets out of the back of the wagon, inspecting each of the weaves in turn. “Fuckers probably didn’t even want these,” she muttered, under her breath. “One slave would have been worth more than my entire fucking inventory.”

“Is not so bad, yeah?” ventured the boy. “They’re just carpets, yeah?”

“Just carpets,” echoed Loom, shaking her head as she inspected yet another, so burned that parts crumbled to soot in her hands. She tossed it aside with a scoff and glared into the night. “They’re my living, kid. This is what I do. Electors, baymerchants, posh people, they all trade for the carpets. Good deals, and I needed them. You understand? I needed these trades.”

The boy searched for words. Trade was unfamiliar territory, a concept that Loom had barely been able to explain to him. “You can get other carpets?” he suggested. “From the same place you got them before?”

“Traded supplies for them,” said Loom. “Even if I did my circuit with the weaving villages, I wouldn’t have anything to give them. I’d have to go back to Shira Hay, resupply, wait out the worst of the summer, travel back around…and by then I’d be out of time.”

“Well, maybe if you-.”

“Your fault,” said Loom. It was whispered, but in the quiet of the night it seemed to ring.

The boy stuttered to silence, hoping against hope that he had misheard. “What?”

“I knew there were bandits the closer you got to the city, I knew it,” she whispered, her head hanging down. The boy could not see Loom’s face beyond the veil of hair hanging around it. “The fucking race. We got carried away, made too much noise. And you and your fucking freak pet, you’re just too easy to spot.”

He didn’t know what to say.

Loom’s hand clenched and unclenched. She scraped her hands against her head, her entire body stiff. In the starlight, the boy just noticed how much blood had dried on her arms.

“I…I could….”

“Kid,” Loom whispered, and her voice broke. “I need to think. Just go away. Please.

The boy backed away, and nodded. “OK,” he said. “OK, I go.”

And he clambered onto the big guy’s back, whispering encouragement into the camelopard’s ear even as he felt his own heart sinking. He looked at Loom, but she didn’t even notice as he began to ride away.

Perhaps it was better, for the both of them. People like them had spent far too much time alone to enjoy the company of others. The boy bit back tears. He wanted to be with people, he had wanted to think that he wouldn’t be alone anymore, but every experience in the past four years and especially this last day reinforced only one thing: people brought him hurt. The boy had survived for this long by avoiding things that hurt him. It was a hard instinct to shake.

He reached for his tabula, but just the thought of them made him draw back. He had been going to ask Loom how to use them. He had been going to ask Loom to help him find her. Who was going to help now?

Your fault. The words rung in the boy’s head, try as he might to forget them. Why was it that the bad memories always stuck? Why couldn’t he remember the warm grove, the shared meal, the exhilarating race?

The boy tugged the camelopard’s mane, and they came to a stop. They hadn’t gone far. No doubt he could have seen Loom and the wagon if he looked back, but he didn’t want to.

He did remember. And somehow, their parting made his sweet memories bitter.

“What’s the plan, big guy?” the boy asked, egging the camelopard to walk on. They moved at a measured stroll, a practiced pace to conserve energy. It wasn’t as if he knew which way to go. “What do we do now?”

The big guy said nothing. He never did. He just walked on. Maybe…

Maybe the camelopard was just a dumb beast, after all, his entire character dreamt up to keep him company, an imaginary friend that could never disappoint him.

The boy shook his head. It was a treacherous thought, one he did not even dare contemplate. He didn’t think he could handle the outside world if his own head worked to destroy him, too. Thinking that way brought the slaver’s emptiness just a step closer.

“Does he show it to you, too?” asked the boy, hugging the camelopard’s neck. It was warm and soft. “Do you see it?”

The camelopard grumbled. The boy could feel the vibrations, and looked up as he felt the big guy’s neck tilt under him. He had turned his head, bending back to give the boy a doleful gaze with his wide, black eyes.

“Yeah,” said the boy, and despite himself he smiled. He shouldn’t have when he was so miserable, but it was hard to stay that way with a creature as ridiculous as the big guy staring at him. The boy flicked one of the bone nubs on the camelopard’s head. “He doesn’t leave anything behind. He can’t hurt us.”

The big guy yawned, lips pulling back to reveal square teeth and a black tongue, before turning back and facing forward.

“It’s all in our head,” said the boy. “It shouldn’t matter if it’s in our head. It’s only…it’s only the real stuff that matters.” Even now, Loom became a memory. She wasn’t real anymore. She would slip away, like the rest of them. She didn’t matter.

The boy held his tabula close to his chest, and couldn’t help but feel that he was wrong.

“It can’t change anything,” he said, looking at the big guy, justifying himself. The big guy flicked a dismissive ear. “The stuff in our heads is fake. It’s all imaginary. It doesn’t…”

And he hugged his tabula even closer to himself. That wasn’t true. It couldn’t be true.

“Where to now, big guy?” he asked, changing the subject. With it came a palpable relief. It was good not to think about things that hurt him. If he avoided them, he would stay safe. “Where do you think we should go now? Want to go back to the grove? We see if we catch up with it, yeah?”

The big guy snorted, and shook his neck. Hair rippled in the boy’s face.

“Yike, don’t be like that,” said the boy. “You think we can’t? Trees are slow, big guy. You slower than a tree? I don’t think trees are faster than Deppash and Loom, and you sure beat-.”

The boy paused. The big guy stopped. It took several moments for the boy to compose himself.

He took a deep breath. “Yeah, maybe we don’t go after no trees. Think we find water? Think we find a river? A big, big river, just like the one she- we just find a big, big river, is what I say.”

The idea was appealing. The boy had never seen a big, big river. He was sure it would be wonderful. He knew there was one in the city, but at the moment the thought of the city didn’t appeal to him. There would be too many people, and all those people weren’t worth all the stuff in the world.

They were forced thoughts, thoughts that were trying perhaps a bit too hard to be true.

“Yike, big guy,” the boy muttered, lying against the big guy’s neck. “How long do you think it’s going to take to forget?”

The big guy turned and stared at him.

“I don’t want to wait another four years neither.”

The boy felt a rumble, the big guy no doubt sighing in agreement. But the rumbling continued even as the big guy walked on, showing no signs of heavy breathing, no change of pace or extra movement. The boy moved his arms from his chest, and saw that one of his tabula was quivering. It wasn’t his, or the big guy’s. It was the girl’s.

The boy’s entire world seemed to dim around him. He shouted at the big guy to stop, grabbing the tabula, fumbling with it with both hands. He looked at it from every angle. What was wrong? What had he done?

The shaking was becoming more violent, more extreme than ever before. This wasn’t just his tabula responding to a simple command, it was something else entirely.

It was breaking.

The boy shook his head, trying to figure out what to do. He squeezed the amber tight, as if he could somehow hold it together, but when a thin crack appeared along its surface he immediately eased the pressure for fear of breaking the already fragile disk. What could he do? What was there to do?

And so the boy did the only thing he had ever known how to do with the tabula, and he concentrated.

Perhaps it was the fatigue from his escape through the fire, or perhaps it was the disk’s unnatural behavior, but the weakness from pouring his energy into the tabula hit him harder than it ever had before. He felt like a sledgehammer had just been pounded into his chest. He collapsed, sliding off the big guy’s back and falling on the ground with a heavy thud. But he did not stop concentrating. At that moment, right then and there, the girl’s shattering tabula was the only thing that mattered.

The boy tried to draw in breath, but he couldn’t. It was as if his lungs were deflated, collapsing in on themselves. He held the tabula even tighter, his grip stiff but as gentle as it could possibly be. The camelopard ran circles around him, rearing and screaming in distress. The boy could barely make out his friend’s silhouette. His eyes were watering, yes, and his focus was elsewhere, yes, but there was something else. Like a black and red shadow, flickering over his face.

A bout of nausea overcame him. He fell onto his knees, retching onto the grass.

And then someone picked him up.

His first instinct was to run, but with all of his focus on the tabula he could barely tell where the ground was in relation his feet, let alone try to escape. “You’re easy to track,” snarled a voice, and the boy’s heart jumped. A slaver had survived, and tracked him down.

Except, it wasn’t a slaver. It was Loom.

“What the hell did you run off for? What’s wrong with you, kid?” snarled Loom, but as she took in his frozen expression, his stiff body, her expression turned to concern. “Kid? Kid, what’s wrong? Hey, freak horse, what’s wrong with him?”

The boy forced in a shuddering breath, all of his effort still focused on the tabula. It shone in his mind. Everything else was dark, and the amber disk, always cool to the touch, suddenly felt like hot coals, like a glowing ember in his hands.

Confusing imagery flashed through his head. He saw treetops, long talons, and then the night sky of Shira Hay again, and then different talons, belonging to a beast from an even more terrifying night so many years ago, and then a watery mixture of white and red and black that whirled and spun until it was a single bloody color.

“I’m not always going to be looking out for you,” muttered Loom, and the boy felt her pick him up in her arms. “By every single fucking Lady, how the hell did you survive out here so long without me?”

The boy writhed. He felt his arms grow weak, felt phantom scars all over his body.

The big guy followed him, bending down to rest his neck over the boy’s chest. It was meant to be affectionate.

The boy continued to pour every ounce of willpower he had into the disk. He would have given up long ago if not for the same simple fact that had pulled him out of that fire.

He was not alone. It gave him strength.

And right now, the girl needed it.

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Posted on August 29, 2013, in 1.08, Chapter 1 (Reap & Sow) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Dude, this is beautiful. I really like this.

  2. This is perfect.
    Both this chapter and this story
    characters, setting, conflict, interactions, descriptions…
    I think I might have a new favourite

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