Fall (Chapter 3 Part 6)
The food was, despite Chaff’s most extreme misgivings, good: a stew that was rich and creamy, with chunks of white meat and wild mushrooms. Tattle watched him, grinning, as he ate. On his part, Chaff did not look up. He took his food very seriously.
“Gobble up,” said Hurricane, carrying a hefty stone the size of a watermelon into the hut. He looked at Chaff, and shook his head ruefully. “The best we got and you go on and feed half it to your horse out there. What you, boy, crazy or somewhat?”
Chaff didn’t answer. The big guy got his half first, and then him. It made sense, in case they took the food away.
Another boy walked in behind Hurricane, this one carrying the brick fragments of some old and broken Shira Hay building. He was a couple years Chaff’s senior, with a thick, heavyset face and a single golden piercing on his lower lip.
Of the three of them, he did the trick. Chaff looked up and stared as the boy walked past, and the boy’s lidded eyes glared as he passed.
“Just put it over there, with the rest. We’ll have to move them soon, anyway,” said Tattle, pointing towards the slowly growing stack in the corner of the hut. “Bull, Chaff, I don’t think you’ve been officially introduced.”
The boy with the lip piercing glared at Chaff, as if daring him to explain why he was worth the time.
“Bull doesn’t talk much,” said Tattle, helpfully.
Chaff put the bowl down and met Bull’s steady gaze. He coughed, once, the movement sending waves of pain through his bandaged sides, but he met Bull’s eyes with a glare that was just as cold.
“And neither, apparently, does Chaff,” sighed Tattle. “Alright, break it up, you two lovebirds. Bull, outside, come on. We’re not even halfway done. You, Chaff? Finish quick, I need to get you up to speed. The complete tour, as it were.”
At the prospect of a tour, Chaff stiffened. He remembered his last tour guide through Shira Hay. He didn’t need another one.
“Don’t look so pensive,” said Tattle, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’ll be fun.” She stood and walked outside, stretching her arms behind her back as she shouted, “Lonwal! Stop playing with your dick and get out here!”
Hurricane passed by Chaff, his face dark. Chaff watched him kick aside a straw bedroll as he walked outside, and made a mental note never to cross the big man. Well, another mental note.
Chaff ate furtively, like a cathound in an alleyway. He kept looking over his shoulder, hunched protectively around his meal. It was a good thing he ate like that, too, or else he never would have noticed Veer as she crawled in through the windows.
The skinny girl was light on her feet; she landed on all fours, lithe, like a fall lion. The crack in the window she had slid through had been tiny, and yet despite that and the shards of sharp glass bordering the opening Veer was unscathed. Chaff supposed that was all part of being a “door maker.”
Veer glanced towards the open door, but no one was entering. She grinned at Chaff. “Told I told you that we ate good. Tattle and Hurricane, they watch out for us.”
Chaff wiped a bit of stew from the corner of his mouth and licked it off his finger. “So long I does as I’m tell’d, yeah.”
“So it ‘ficial now? You our runaway guy?”
“The big guy your runaway guy, yeah?” said Chaff. He looked out the window to where the big guy was browsing on a stack of stolen hay, and then glared at Veer. “Dunno why you needs me at all.”
Veer stuck her hands in her pockets and rotated on her heel, starting to walk towards the door. “Well, hey, hey, if you don’t want to do this no more, I’ll go tell Tattle…” She looked back at him and grinned through the hole in her teeth.
Chaff looked aside and picked up his bowl again. With a start, he realized he was smiling. He screwed his face up into a scowl immediately. He would not let his guard down again.
“Watch it, watch it, you got your grouchy face on,” said Veer, bending down to look Chaff in the eye. She got so close to him that Chaff had to lean back to get out of her face (or, rather, get her face out of his).
“It’s my face. My grouchy face is my face, yeah?” said Chaff, huffily.
“Naw,” said Veer, leaning even in closer to Chaff, clearly enjoying how uncomfortable he was. “It look like-a-like it don’t fit right. You gotta smile side to side, like this!” She grinned, her lips stretched wide, her teeth a dirty yellow but her eyes bright and wide.
Chaff bared his teeth in what could have been interpreted as a smile before gulping down the rest of his stew and pushing the bowl away. It was clear he wouldn’t be able to savor his meal in peace, but Chaff would have to have been just plain stupid if he let food go to waste.
“You get off me now,” said Chaff, trying to push Veer out of the way, but she wouldn’t budge. She was still grinning like a loon. “Or I fight you off, yeah?”
“Ooh, Chaff, Chaffy-Chaff, he big and strong,” said Veer. Her eyes darted to the bandages around his wrists. “Aw, you Kennya Noni?”
“That’s right,” said Chaff, puffing up his chest.
Veer pushed him down with ease. “You wraps all white and pretty, like you done did wash ‘em four times today. Holy hollows, they could be the wraps of the king he-self.” She bent down and whispered in his ear, “They ain’t Kennya Noni wraps, though. Kennya Noni wraps is dirty.”
Chaff gulped. “Yike,” he muttered, as Veer pressed close against him. He wasn’t sure what else to say.
And then Veer decked him in the face. Chaff’s head hit the floor, and he clutched his cheek, his head spinning, as Veer hopped off him and danced away, guffawing. She hadn’t hit him that hard; after Hook’s beatings, Chaff could definitely tell a friendly punch from an unfriendly one, but all the same his jaw stung.
“You Kennya Noni or not, Chaff?” shouted Veer, and she ducked under the arms of a protesting Tattle as she ran out the door.
Veer was moving too fast for Chaff to think. He jumped up, dashing to keep pace with Veer as she raced out the door. Oddly enough, Tattle stepped aside and let Chaff run past without comment, although Hurricane looked substantially irritated as Chaff blew past him.
With a flick, Chaff took the big guy’s tabula from his belt. A brief twinge of nausea surged through his head, but the fresh air and the wind racing past him did more than make up for it. The big guy crackled out of thin air, in a flash of light blinding enough that Chaff had to avert his eyes. Seeing the boy running, the camelopard began to sprint immediately.
Before he could stop himself, Chaff laughed. He jumped! Onto a rotting wooden crate, off its splintering frame to the sill of the nearest window, and then once more onto the big guy’s back. His momentum threatened to send him tumbling over the big guy’s side, but the camelopard turned as Chaff jumped and the boy ended up sprawled but secure on him.
“Tricky, tricky!” shouted Veer as she looked over her shoulder. She did not pause for a second as she ran backwards. “Can Chaffy Chaff catch me with his tricks?”
Chaff, clambering into a sitting position, gave the big guy a hard squeeze. “Come on, come on, big guy,” he said, breathless but more exhilarated than he had felt in years. “We’re not gonna let her beat us, yeah?”
As if she had heard them, Veer stuck her tongue out at them and began to scale the sides of the nearest building. They were nearly out of the slums: any farther and big guy would have to run through the main thoroughfare of the city. Chaff steeled himself, his sides still aching but his heart racing. There was a fire in him that kept him awake, alert, and alive.
He stood on the big guy’s back, balancing precariously as the camelopard pounded forward. Chaff’s eyes darted from the eaves to the windows to Veer. At last, he found something that might work: a low-hanging clothesline, only a few seconds away. His fingers curled and uncurled. He would only get the one chance.
“See you, big guy!” shouted Chaff, laughing uproariously, and he jumped. His hands caught the clothesline, and the string pressed so hard into his fingers that he thought it might cut them off. The torque sent his feet flying while he stretched the string taut, and just as he swung upwards he let go.
For a second, Chaff flew. There was nothing but air above him, air below him, air on all sides. He was freer than he had ever been in his whole life.
Then he started to fall down. He wheeled his arms, gasping for breath as he sailed through the air, and then with a heavy crunch he landed on the roof, his feet nearly folding underneath him.
Chaff did not stop. He kept running, whooping and shouting as Veer turned to look in amazement. “You see that?” Chaff shouted, in-between breaths as he practically fell across the roof. “Big guy, you see that?”
The camelopard brayed his approval.
When Chaff looked back, he saw that Veer had already stopped. His feet, on the other hand, seemed to have no intention of slowing down. He twisted his body, trying to decelerate, but that only seemed to make his reckless skid worse as he crashed headlong into Veer.
Chaff’s stomach dropped as the two of them tumbled off the roof.
The big guy caught the back of Chaff’s shirt in his teeth just as Chaff grabbed Veer’s hand; there was a brief lurch as the camelopard pulled both of them up, before Chaff’s old shirt gave and ripped. They tumbled in a heap on the ground, bruised but not broken.
“Thanks, big guy,” said Chaff, breathlessly, massaging a battered rump.
“Chaff,” said Veer, flopping over onto the ground and laying her arms wide. “You dumb.”
“I catch you,” said Chaff. “I ain’t that dumb, yeah?”
“Yeah,” said Veer, and she giggled.
Chaff started to laugh, too, which made Veer laugh even more, too, and suddenly both of them were rolling on the floor in fits, tears in their eyes, for absolutely no reason whatsoever. Chaff didn’t know how long they laid there, laughing, only that it was far too short a time.
A shadow suddenly stood over him. “You look like you had fun,” remarked a dry voice, and suddenly all of Chaff’s humor vanished. He leaped to his feet, hands on his tabula, but Veer putting a steadying hand on his wrist. She stood, too.
“How you doing-a-doing, Lookout?” she asked. “Chaff, this is Lookout. She our point man.”
“What’s that on her head?” asked Chaff, glaring at the strange second pair of eyes on Lookout’s forehead. They were like Hadiss’s spectacles, but with frames of leather and not wire.
“Goggles. I filched them from someone you don’t know,” said Lookout. She whistled, and a feathery shape dove out of the sky and onto her shoulder. Chaff flinched. “I visited the hideout and you weren’t there. Tattle didn’t know where you were. I did.”
Veer stuck her tongue out at Lookout. “Congratu-atulations. I take him back now.”
“Oh, no, no,” said Lookout, putting hands on Veer’s shoulders and turning her around as she started to walk away. “Tattle’s got a headache now. You show him the caravan, we’re already out here anyway.”
Veer pouted. “I don’t even know where it is.”
“I do,” said Lookout, smugly.
Veer looked to her side. “You okey-dokey with that, Chaff?”
He blinked. Honestly, he hadn’t been paying very much attention to the conversation; he was too busy looking at the scarf around Lookout’s neck. It had the same golden inlay and weave of the elector’s scarves, but was beige-white instead of red. He had never seen anything like it.
“Are you one of them?” asked Chaff, unable to keep it to himself.
Lookout smirked. “No, though I should be. Shame on you, new kid. The scarves are Shira Hay tradition; all nomads should wear them, even those who aren’t part of the Libraries.” The owlcrow on her shoulder squawked as if in agreement, and Lookout shushed the bird and shooed it away with her hand.
“If they tradition, then why does nobody else wears them?” asked Chaff. It was an honest question.
“Because they’re all dumber than me,” snapped Lookout. She sounded irritated. “Are we moving on or what?”
“We moving,” said Veer, pulling Chaff along. “Come on, Chaffy Chaff. You see the full caravan, what they got inside, your brain gonna go booshhh.” She moved her hands around her like her head was exploding.
Chaff looked back to the big guy, grinning. He heaved himself on, swinging himself lightly onto the big guy’s back and adjusting into a comfortable, familiar position. From on high, he was taller than even Lookout. He looked down at Veer, grinning. When she looked back up to him, his grin faded slightly. His stomach churned.
He paused. His voice cracked when he spoke. “You wanna ride?”
Veer looked at him, a look of genuine surprise on her face.
Chaff babbled and stuttered on. “Cause we need to see if there’s room for two, yeah? I’m part of the crew, yeah? We gotta…we gotta test it out.”
With a light hop and a skip, without another word, Veer swung herself onto the camelopard, just behind Chaff. The big guy shifted at the new weight, glaring around at Chaff and trying to shake Veer off, but the girl grabbed Chaff around the waist and clung on for dear life, whooping.
“Lookout, stop staring!” shouted Veer, when the big guy finally settled down.
“OK,” said Lookout. She didn’t.
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s side and prompted him to follow as Lookout started to walk away, but the camelopard stayed put. “Come on, big guy,” said Chaff, pushing his neck. “We gotta go!” He was about to turn to Veer and apologize when the camelopard spat in his face.
Glaring, Chaff wiped the spit off with the back of his hand. “What? You too lazy to go with two people or something?”
The camelopard tossed his head and looked away.
“Just walk, big guy!”
“I can get off if you want me to,” said Veer, hesitantly, as the big guy began to fold his legs under him and sit down on the street.
“No, no, no,” said Chaff, distractedly. “Big guy, move!”
The camelopard did not budge. Instead, he cast an annoyed look in Chaff’s direction and pulled his lips back again.
“You stubborn sometimes, you know that?” growled Chaff.
They sat, staring at each other, both of them refusing to budge until Veer said, “Hey, Chaff, why ain’t you just use your tabula?”
Chaff began to speak, but paused. He didn’t know what he was going to say. The thought of using the big guy’s tabula like that had never occurred to him.
He met Veer’s questioning stare, and his mouth went dry. Would she take it as a sign of weakness if he didn’t? What would she tell Hurricane and Tattle when the crew’s runaway guy couldn’t even control his own steed? What would they do to him then?
“Yeah,” Chaff croaked, finally. His hand closed around the big guy’s tabula while the camelopard, oblivious to their conversation, flicked his ears and sunned himself. “Yeah, OK. I do that.”
His palms were sweating as he held the tabula. He looked once more to Veer, and saw only impatience and expectation in her face. Chaff closed his eyes and sighed. He didn’t know what he had been looking for.
“Big guy,” Chaff said, softly, so soft that he doubted the beast could hear him. His breath caught in his throat. “Get up.”
The world dissolved. It was nothing like the descrying or summoning; it was a thousand times worse. Chaff felt a pit open up inside his chest, eating into his heart, threatening to suck away everything he was. A chill snaked through his gut, and Chaff could see nothing but a blinding light. His whispered words echoed until they were deafening: get up, get up, get up.
And then it was over. The big guy was standing, his eyes wide, not moving. Chaff had fallen to the ground, and could only stare at the terrified expression in his friend’s face.
Veer dropped to the ground and touched his shoulder hesitantly. “Chaff, you OK?”
He raised his head and looked at Veer, mouth dry, as his thoughts came back into alignment. Then he groaned and let his head fall back onto the ground. She had definitely taken that as a sign of weakness.
“You go on and walk,” mumbled Chaff. “I catch up.”
Veer took one long look at him and then nodded, jogging away to meet Lookout. Chaff watched her go, his insides turning over inside of him.
“Big guy,” he said, and he heard the camelopard move. Chaff stood, the blood rushing to his head. He stumbled to the beast’s side and hugged one leg tightly, shaking. The big guy flinched. “I’m sorry,” Chaff said. He looked up at the camelopard, blinking rapidly. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”
The big guy lowered his head and touched Chaff’s shoulder gently. The boy hugged the beast closer, and for a moment they stood in silence, as the cold drained from Chaff’s gut.
“Come on, big guy,” Chaff said, after a moment. He took a long, deep breath, and smiled. “I promise to never ever ever do it ever again. Let’s go now. Go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
He walked down the street, leaning on the big guy, trying to ignore the twisted feeling in his chest. Veer and Lookout were waiting; Veer waved, a wide smile on her face, and Chaff smiled back. She was kind to him, he knew, and when she smiled he couldn’t help but feel happier. She had made no move to take advantage of his weakness, and from the looks of it Lookout did not even know about the incident.
But, as he join the pair and walked down the street with them, Chaff couldn’t help but wonder what she was going to make him do next, and how much he might regret it.
Posted on October 31, 2013, in 3.06, Chapter 3 (Rise & Fall) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Bull, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Hurricane, Lookout, novel, original characters, Sinndi, story, Tattle, Veer, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.