Fall (Chapter 3 Part 11)
The largest city in the largest nation in Albumere screamed for blood. As if thunder and lightning had struck the Libraries, now the riots spread like wildfire from all sides of the Gammon, and just like wildfire in the plains, everything that lived sprinted to escape the heat.
Chaff hauled Lookout up with him onto the big guy, who reared to avoid the screaming, charging crowd racing after the fleeing fieldmen caravan. “Where now?” yelled Chaff.
“Rendezvous with the rest of the crew!” shouted Lookout. “We can come up with a plan once we’ve consolidated our forces!”
“Ran-day what the what?”
“Just find them,” snarled Lookout, kicking at an urchin who had gotten a little too close for comfort. The scrawny urchin made a face at them and slipped into the crowd.
“Come on, big guy, let’s get out of here,” said Chaff, and the camelopard leaped forward. He moved with the path of least resistance, striding over the heads of many of the plainsmen running forward. “You got to give me directions, Lookout!”
“Give me a second, Sinndi can only fly so fast,” snapped Lookout, eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Chaff cast his eyes upward, looking for Lookout’s owlcrow, but the bird had already flown so far it was only a speck in the night sky.
“Keep moving forward,” said Lookout. “The caravan’s been caught! We—other plainsmen, I mean—are tearing them down, but they’ve made this sort of defensive barricade out of…” She paused. “Out of the slaves.”
The slaves of the fieldmen meant Veer. Veer was fighting in the frontlines against the bloodthirsty, violent, and generally pissed off mobs of Shira Hay. They might not have her tabula yet, but that didn’t stop them from shoving the girl in front of them as a human shield. “Remember how I said we had one last race today, big guy?” said Chaff. “I lied. We got to move fast now! Come on!”
“For once in my life,” said Lookout, burying her head in her hands. “I wish I could have one hour where I’m not in crisis management mode. Just one.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, holding his tabula with one hand to make sure they didn’t slip. “Yeah, I know the feeling.”
The streets were so clogged with people that Chaff was forced to turn back. The big guy snorted and gave a questioning glare to Chaff, pacing around the edge of the roaring crowd. “I know, big guy, I know,” said Chaff, so soft that he doubted the camelopard could hear him. “Got to find some way through, yeah? Can’t just run through, no.”
“I see Bull,” said Lookout. “He’s trying to get out of the way of the mob. I don’t know if he’s seen the caravan, yet, and I can’t find Hurricane or Tattle.”
“Can you tell if he’s angry?” asked Chaff.
Lookout blanched. “How the hell could I tell that?”
“Look at his face!”
“OK, why would I need to know that?”
“’Cause, depending on the answer, I go see him or no,” said Chaff.
The girl rolled her shoulders, and closed her hands around the tabula. “Let me see, let me see…” she said, and far out over the clay buildings Chaff could see a dark blur dive from the sky. “Well, he definitely looks surprised now. That’s it, Bull, come on, come on, come this way.”
Chaff pulled on the big guy’s mane. “Where now?”
“Shit, give me a second,” said Lookout, pinching her nose. “Left. I’ll give you more directions as we go. Bull, where the hell are you going?”
As the big guy turned to go, something shattered in the street. Had the duarchs planned to throw the city into such chaos with such a violent and unexpected move? Chaff shook his head. It was politics, all politics. He would never be able to understand it.
In the back alleys, along the smaller, weed-ridden roads, there were significantly less people. All the slum-dwellers had left to see what the fuss was about. Lookout occasionally gave Chaff a direction to go as they rode, but for the most part the boy tuned her out as she continued to mutter to herself.
An incongruous thought floated across Chaff’s head. He was hungry. Come to think, the big guy was probably hungry, too. Hadn’t they just eaten lunch a couple hours ago? The fact that they had eaten a meal today was not something to be taken lightly, but no matter how grateful Chaff felt he couldn’t shake the gnawing feeling in his gut. There would have been food in those wagons, Alswell grains and fruits…
Chaff squeezed the big guy’s sides, egging him on a little faster. If he was hungry, the rest of Shira Hay was too. One little Alswell slave girl wouldn’t stand in their way.
“Here, here, here,” said Lookout, gesturing to the right. A screech overhead confirmed that Lookout’s owlcrow had arrived as well, and a bedraggled Bull was waiting for them in the small plaza.
Chaff’s heart caught in his throat when he saw Bull sitting on the edge of the dry fountain. He recognized the statue behind him. Three years later, Fra Henn’s stone features had not changed, her outstretched arm as implacable as ever. Lookout’s owlcrow sat on its shoulder, preening her feathers, and for some reason it seemed almost sacrilegious.
“Where the hell are Hurricane and Tattle?” shouted Lookout, sliding off of the big guy’s back. “Bull, what happened?”
The tanned boy turned his head away and refused to look. There was a thin red line running down his cheek, and despite how still he sat his chest was heaving.
“That bad?” said Lookout, hesitantly. “If they’re dead-.”
“Sick of you people.” Bull snorted, nostrils flaring, eyes wide. “Sick of all this. You crazy? You want to get yourself killed? Fine. Leave me out of it.” He stood and walked around the fountain, running his hands over his head.
“He looked angry,” muttered Chaff, edging the big guy closer to Lookout.
“He looked scared,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “And that’s worse. Come on, Chaff, let’s go. Let him be. We’re not getting any more out of him.”
“Just a little more, big guy,” said Chaff, soothingly, as Lookout mounted him once again. “Just a little more, I promise.”
“Come on, Chaff, let’s go. That way,” said Lookout, as the familiar buzz of the tabula picked up again and the owlcrow took off into the sky.
The big guy stepped back a little as Lookout pointed to a street with a tattered red flag flapping over the entrance. “Not that way, yeah?” said Chaff, slowly. “We don’t like going that way.”
“Why, do you know this place?”
Chaff coughed, and didn’t answer. “Let’s go another way, Lookout.”
To her credit, the girl wasted no time on prying. “Alright, sharp right then.”
Nodding gratefully, Chaff turned the big guy’s head and pressed him on. They passed Bull as they walked, and Chaff could not help but notice the haunted, tired look on Bull’s face. Chaff bit his lip. They didn’t have the time. He shouldn’t.
“Hey, Bull,” said Chaff. The other urchin looked up, the ring on his lip glinting in the emerging starlight. “It’s going to be okay, yeah?”
Bull looked slightly taken aback, and then said, slowly, “No, new kid. No, it won’t.”
Chaff bowed his head and whispered into the big guy’s ear for him to keep running. They didn’t have the time. At least this way he could say he tried.
The night clung to the cobblestones, and echoed with the shouts and chants of the nomads of Shira Hay working themselves into a frenzy. They rode past a bar where Hadiss liked to drink, and Chaff saw a man in fieldman garb being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the street. He didn’t even look like he was associated with the emissaries, but a fever had gripped the normally placid plainspeople.
A building blocked Chaff’s view as the big guy ran on, and he looked away and shivered. He hated the night.
As the murky gloom grew deeper, the big guy began to slow. “We’re not there yet,” hissed Lookout. “We need to go farther.”
“Big guy can’t see anything,” said Chaff. “And he tired, yeah?”
The big guy snorted in agreement, head drooping.
“Owl eyes,” said Lookout, tapping her tabula. “Trust me, Chaff.”
Chaff flinched. He didn’t like when people used that word. He egged the big guy on forward, though, all the same. It was for Veer, he reminded himself. They had to save Veer.
The looming question of how still lingered in his mind.
The next alleys did something strange to the sound. The roar of the city faded to a dull buzz, and the silence gnawed at the edges of Chaff’s patience like some locustbeast. He gripped the big guy’s mane so tight his knuckles were white. He was so tired, so tired, so very tired…
Chaff felt it in his chest a second before the big guy collapsed onto the ground, a twinge that seemed to shake his very essence. The camelopard had come to the end of his endurance; there was simply nothing left in him to keep moving.
The landing was painful, but numbed by the fact that Chaff was at this point too tired to feel anything. He didn’t move from his place on the ground, while Lookout rolled over and groaned beside him. The big guy’s gargantuan form blocked out the weak starlight, and lay slumped across the entire alley.
The owlcrow landed beside them momentarily, ruffling its wings and squawking. The dull throb of Shira Hay screaming seemed almost unreal now, distant.
“I can’t move, Chaff,” mumbled Lookout.
With a pained grunt, Chaff put his hands under his chest and pushed. One step at a time. He paused, and then slid his knees under him, going from lying to kneeling. He closed his eyes, letting his vision swim back into place. “Did you break something?”
“I don’t know.” Lookout raised her head, but then fell back down. “It doesn’t hurt, but my legs won’t move.”
Chaff crawled to her side, hands hovering over her leg. A bloody gash had been torn into it, a flap of skin dangling open above the knee, raw red and white. Chaff closed his eyes, and for a moment at least was glad for the gloom.
A jagged corner of brick glimmered beside him, a red streak on its jagged edge. With so much rubble in the city, it was bound to happen eventually. But, for it to happen to Lookout, who saw and heard everything…
Chaff felt his skin crawl, and tried to block out the voices of doubt and fear growing louder around him.
Hesitantly, he put his hands over Lookout’s knee and pressed. She winced, but said nothing as he applied pressure to the wound, his own hands growing sticky and slick.
“You OK, big guy?” he asked, as he began to unwind the bandages from around his hands and wrap them around Lookout’s knee. That was what they were for, after all, although it was usually for the Kennya Noni fighter who had missed his roof jump and had fallen to the ground, not for a fall from a mount.
The big guy flicked his tail and snorted, although he did not get up. He was at least well enough to sound indignant.
Chaff tied the cloth around Lookout’s leg as tightly as he could, and rose. He had to lean on the alley wall as the blood rushed to his head, and stood like that for a few seconds, winded from just standing up.
“Look at us,” said Lookout, bitterly, pushing herself up into a more comfortable position. She looked to the side, slumped against the wall. “Who’s going to be saving anyone, the way we are?”
Chaff didn’t answer. He wasn’t sure how to.
“I look for help, yeah?” he muttered, and he began to stagger away. Lookout made no move to stop him. She didn’t say anything either.
The boy rubbed the big guy’s neck. “You watch out for her, yeah?”
The big guy gave him a lazy glare, and seemed to nod almost imperceptibly. At least, Chaff hoped he had nodded. It was hard to tell in the night.
The camelopard’s prone body blocked the path out, and he didn’t look like he was moving anytime soon. Chaff walked out back, the way they had come, away from the sound of the mob in the street. He wondered what gruesome spectacle they were preparing now, to stoke up passions even further.
As Chaff left the alley behind him, he looked down. He wasn’t leaving the mob behind. The mob was all around him. There was no escaping it.
He jumped when he heard the patter of feet in front of him. He readied himself, shifting into the fighter’s stance, and looking up saw a man approaching with the red scarf of the electors billowing behind him. For a moment, Chaff saw the electors on the bridge again, leaping out, pulling iron death from beneath their cloaks, hidden strength in such unassuming bodies…
“Young master! Young master, are you alright?”
“Hadiss?” asked Chaff, incredulously. He blinked. He had not seen the man’s face in the dark, but upon hearing his voice he immediately recognized the silhouette. “Hadiss, how-?”
“You are an easy boy to find, young master,” said Hadiss, breathlessly. “Or, rather, your bestial friend is. I saw him in the assembly at the bridge and feared you had been caught in the violence.”
“Hadiss, aren’t you- aren’t you…” stuttered Chaff. “Aren’t you supposed to be fighting them?”
“Ex-elector, young master, ex. If the duarchs no longer want me, then their decisions can no longer bind me, either.” Hadiss gripped Chaff’s hands and shook them firmly. “It’s good to see that you are alright. I was worried that…” He stopped suddenly and trailed off.
Chaff suddenly became aware of the blood on his hands. “A friend,” he said, quickly. “A friend of mine has been injured. Quickly, Hadiss, she needs help.”
“Another one of your friends, another one of your problems,” mused Hadiss, but he followed as Chaff led him back towards the alley. “And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not, young master?”
Chaff didn’t honor Hadiss’s philosophy with an answer. He didn’t have time for it.
“Lookout! Lookout, I found an elector,” said Chaff, running back to her side. The big guy stirred as Hadiss approached, but Lookout did not. “He’s going to help you out. Hadiss, can you help her out?”
With a grunt, Hadiss bent and picked her up. Lookout’s eyes had closed. She did not move as Hadiss carried her away. “I’ll get her to a sick bay, but then I have my own people I have to watch out for. Chaff, I came to tell you-.”
“Can’t you fix her?” asked Chaff, desperately.
“I am a scholar, not a doctor,” said Hadiss. His voice was not unkind, but it brooked no argument.
Chaff bit his lip and nodded. He whistled for the big guy. “Come on, big guy. No carrying anyone no more. Just walking. Come on.” The camelopard struggled to his feet and began a slow, fatigued limp to Chaff’s side. The owlcrow screeched and flapped its wings to catch up with them, circling overhead like the Lady Winter’s omen of death.
As always with Hadiss, questions bubbled to Chaff’s head as they walked, but he did not know which ones to ask. He settled for the first one that came to mind. “Did you know?”
The ex-elector paused. He shifted Lookout in his arms, and looked down uncomfortably. “I had heard rumors. Some of my acquaintances still with the Libraries tried to convince me to join. Got me nice and drunk before asking, but all the same I refused.”
Hadiss turned from side to side, as if afraid someone was eavesdropping on him, and then said, quietly, “This war will not end soon, young master. The duarchs and the electors are short-sighted. They think only of the plunder to be won now and not the months if not years of bloodshed waiting beyond that.”
“How do you know?” asked Chaff, in hushed tones as well, even if he did not know why.
“Because it has already happened. The War of Whispers, the War of Broken Chains. And the endless cycle thus repeats, does it not?”
Chaff was quiet. Hadiss seemed to be leading him farther and farther from the city center, and the boy realized with a pang that every step he took was leading him farther and farther away from saving Veer. He would go back, he told himself. Once Lookout was safe. Once he was ready. He would go back.
Was it even worth it, for all the good it would do?
“I fear for Shira Hay,” said Hadiss, as they approached the outskirts of the city. It was deserted now, all the doors and windows shut, all the gawkers and gapers already gone to see the…festivities. “I fear for us all. War is coming, young master, and all of Albumere will be consumed in the coming fire.”
“So what do we do?” asked Chaff.
“I do not know what you will do,” said Hadiss. “But I will find the people I call friend and speak to them at least once, before it is too late. I will go where I must, and prevent what harm I can. I will survive, Chaff, as I always have.”
The boy nodded, slowly. As plans went, it was one of the better ones. “That what you doing then, yeah?” asked Chaff. “Talking to me…before it too late?”
Hadiss shifted the girl in his arms and sniffed. “Yes, young master. Before it’s too late, for either of us.”
And as they kept walking, Chaff felt very cold.
“Where we going, Hadiss?” asked Chaff, hugging his shoulders. The shadow of the big guy dipped and rose around him, as they passed buildings lit by sparse firelight.
“An encampment on the outskirts of the city.” Hadiss twitched, looking over his shoulder, which made Chaff twist and look, too. After a moment, Hadiss turned around and kept walking, his pace casual. “I am not alone among those who wish Shira Hay would not join this war, but even among them tempers flare high. Your friend can rest and recuperate there, but then I must leave.”
Chaff did not speak for several seconds. Then, he said, softly, “Like you leave me?”
The burly man sighed. He did not stop walking, or in fact pause to look at Chaff at all. “I have made no pretense, young master. I must keep myself distant. There are others I must guard, others who are, I’m sorry to say, more important to me than you.”
“Like who?” blurted Chaff, and he bit his tongue. “Sorry, if you don’t want to answer-.”
“No, it’s fine,” said Hadiss. “I have a wife. Married six years, back when I was still a full elector. We have lived in the east quarters for quite some time now, making a living where we can. She is a knowledge keeper at the Libraries, and information is something that can be sold easily enough.”
“You living with a woman?” asked Chaff, incredulous. “Hadiss, I never know!”
Hadiss shrugged. “I tell few. It is something that is too easy for those who wish me harm to exploit.” He paused. “We…we had a daughter. The Fallow took her three months ago.”
Chaff looked down. He didn’t know what to say to that.
“Three months, one week, and four days ago, to be precise,” said Hadiss, and his voice was hoarse. “It’s easy to see why so many eschew marriage in Shira Hay, after that, but she is and remains that best thing that has ever happened to me.”
Their footfalls formed a synchronized beat on the street. A man’s boots, a child’s bare feet, a beast’s hooves.
“You know,” said Hadiss, and his voice lifted slightly. “That Shira Hay is unique among the many nations of the world in its lack of formal marriage traditions?”
“Really?” said Chaff, feigning interest. Hadiss seemed to be happier when he talked.
“Oh, yes. Yes, yes, yes. In Da’atoa, the couple must be humu akani, sea-forged: they must spend three days at sea, alone, for the bonds to be true. They say the fiercer the storms are on those days, the greater their love is. In Jhidnu, the marriage rites are completed by exchanging tabula, a sign of complete and total trust, and in Moscoleon, they must be overseen by one of the many pontiffs. Even in Alswell, they have elaborate courtship rituals, where the man must prove himself both chivalrous and gentlemanly while the woman is chaste and virtuous. Remember, Chaff, that even though we call them enemy, they are still people like us. We must empathize…” Hadiss stopped talking. He looked at Chaff. He sighed. “You don’t know what marriage is, do you?”
Chaff shook his head. “Is it like slavery?”
Hadiss barked a laugh. “Like slavery,” he said, chuckling so hard that Chaff feared he might drop Lookout. “Yes, for some it is, oh, yes.”
Despite himself, Chaff laughed, too. He kept on laughing, until suddenly tears were in his eyes and Hadiss was practically guffawing. Even the big guy joined in, a few deep, wheezing grunts.
“I think I shall add that to my plan for the future,” said Hadiss, lifting his spectacles and wiping his eyes delicately. “Laugh a little. At ignorance, at cruelty, at pain. It is the only way, I think, to defy this world and its malignities, no?”
Chaff smiled. “It feels good, yeah?”
“It feels good! Most eloquently put, young master,” said Hadiss. The last huddle of clay buildings they left behind them, and Chaff stepped out off the street and onto the grass. He wriggled his toes in the grass, and for the first time in a long time it felt like home.
Chaff looked out at the outskirts of Shira Hay, at the vast rows of tents and colorful banners splayed like a rain festival circus in front of him, at the scrubs whose shadows seemed to dance in the light of the campfires, at the nomads with honest faces and simple garb. He looked out, and he remembered a promise a long time ago for a tour of this place.
He closed his eyes and sighed. This was as good as he was going to get.
Beside him, Hadiss sighed. He stood, staring at the tents too, and his eyes seemed a little moist from more than just laughter. “I will miss this place. And you, young master. As much as I speak of distance and priorities, I will miss you.”
Chaff cocked his head. “Why? Hadiss, what’re you doing?”
“With this war, Shira Hay is not safe for me, or for my wife. I am leaving, and I think I will not be returning for quite some time. I told you, young master, I will do what I have always done.” Hadiss looked at him, his eyes glinting. “I will survive.”
Behind them, the light of the bonfires in the city still flickered. Chaff wondered how many of the fieldmen had survived the massacre that had just happened, and how many would survive the massacre to come.
“In…in more cultured circles of Shira Hay, there is a tradition. A departure gift, given in the name of the Lady Winter and Fall.” Hadiss set Lookout down gently, and reached into his robes to pull out a thick, leather-bound book. He pressed it into Chaff’s hands, gently, and Chaff’s jaw dropped. He had only ever seen the things in the hands of the electors, mystical items of power that whispered and rustled whenever the wind blew.
“What happens is…oh, how do I explain?” Hadiss pursed his lips. “It is a promise. I give something to you, and you give something to me, and we promise to meet each other again to give our gifts back.”
“I don’t have nothing to give, Hadiss,” said Chaff, shaking his head. He licked his lips. He wanted to keep the book, but…
Slowly, he unwrapped the remaining bandages around his other wrist, and proffered them to Hadiss, a little sheepishly. He had never been much of a Kennya Noni fighter, anyway.
Hadiss took them, grinning. “A fine gift, young master. I will remember you whenever I use it.”
His hand drifted to the red scarf around his neck, and he closed his eyes and sighed. “I suppose…I suppose it will be a boon to have a flexible ethnicity in the days to come.” With a sharp tug, he pulled it off, and the scarf lay limp in his hands, its rich golden threads glimmering. Hadiss walked up to the big guy and draped the scarf around his long neck. “You always did fancy the thing, master jarraf. My departure gift to you.”
The big guy rumbled, his face a look of extreme consternation, and a moment later something wet splattered onto the ground.
Hadiss started to laugh so loud that some of the nomads looked up in suspicion. “I suppose I did ask for a sample,” said the ex-elector, and Chaff turned in a hurry to see a fetid pile of camelopard dung steaming on the grass. “But to think you had the memory to keep that in mind all these years! Oh, by the Ladies Four—young master, you must take good care of this one, he is a unique specimen indeed.”
Chaff met the big guy’s eyes and grinned, and the big guy just looked up, a little smug.
“You may keep the thing itself, although its spirit goes with me, master jarraf,” said Hadiss, shaking his head. He bent down to pick up Lookout again, and when he rose, but for his spectacles, he looked like any other dirt-worn, weary traveler. “Come, come, come. I shall get her to the common grounds and then I shall be taking my leave.”
Chaff followed, as he flipped through the book. He did not know his letters, and most of it was a cramped, incomprehensible scrawl, but the pictures stood out in particular. Beasts even stranger than the big guy, oddly shaped weapons in all sizes, foreign and exotic clothes. Chaff squinted, trying to make out the ink sketch in the dim light.
And, suddenly, everything seemed to go silent.
“Hadiss! What is this?” he asked, nearly tripping over his own feet as he ran to show Hadiss the picture.
The ex-elector stumbled, Lookout jostling precariously in his arms, and he blinked rapidly. Peering through his spectacles at the picture, he said, slowly, “That? Well, it’s a coza. People in Moscoleon wear it. It’s-.”
“Where is Moscoleon? Where can I find it?”
Hadiss looked like he was about to laugh again, but Chaff’s face, despite its eagerness, was also dead serious. “Moscoleon?” said the big man. “Well, it’s hard to miss, it’s a very big place. Out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do.”
East. Chaff closed his eyes, muttering under his breath, trying to put the names into his leaky memory. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“If you want to go east,” said Hadiss, hesitantly. “Go by day. Follow the sun, not the treacherous stars. Once you have made it out of the great grasslands, there will be others to show you the path. Indeed, many will walk it with you.”
Chaff was still muttering the names under his breath. Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do…
“OK,” said Chaff, after a moment. “Just…curious.”
Hadiss nodded, although Chaff could see the questions forming on his lips. Ultimately, the ex-elector did not ask any of them.
They walked on, talking sometimes, mostly silent. Chaff’s mind was buzzing.
He had seen her wearing it. What had Hadiss called it? The coza. He had seen her with it! He knew where to find her!
Lookout dangled in Hadiss’s arms, the bandages around her knee soaked red. Would he abandon her? Would he have to?
No, Lookout was…useful. She would see. She would help.
But the others?
Chaff rubbed the big guy’s side for comfort, and then traced his thumb on her tabula to soothe his nerves. He would have to. It was the only way.
Like Hadiss, he had to keep himself distant. He closed his eyes and whispered an apology to Veer, to Hurricane and Tattle, to everyone. This was the way it had to be. Chaff would do anything, give up anything to find her.
Posted on November 17, 2013, in 3.11, Chapter 3 (Rise & Fall) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Bull, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Hadiss, Lookout, novel, original characters, Sinndi, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.