Born (Chapter 4 Part 1)
Chaff woke to Lookout’s owlcrow screeching and flapping its wings, as the girl herself groggily sat up straight. He felt his side, made sure all his tabula were still there, and then stumbled upwards.
“Lookout!” shouted Chaff, scrambling to his feet, nearly tripping over her as he wiped the dream-sand from his eyes.
“That is my name,” said Lookout, testily, making a face as she rubbed her forehead. “By the Lady Winter, my mouth is dry.” She looked around her, and her hand tightened reflexively. “Chaff…where are we?”
Chaff looked around too, at the patchwork tent tarp and the soft bed rolls. He could see the shadow of the big guy, curled up outside, and in a corner lay Hadiss’s precious gifts: the book that had told him where she was, and a red scarf of the electors.
Lookout groaned before Chaff could answer her question, holding one hand to her head and one hand to her knee. “This is shit,” hissed Lookout, falling back down. “My head hurts. My knee hurts. My fucking tongue hurts. Trust me when I say I know what it feels like when my tongue hurts.”
“You was out for a long time,” said Chaff.
The owlcrow’s neck extended and it hissed. Chaff flinched instinctively, reaching for his own tabula, but the owlcrow just started to hop back and forth like it was pacing. Lookout’s eyes widened. “How long?”
“Six or seven…”
“By the Ladies Four, Chaff!” Lookout fell back down, glaring at him incredulously. “Are you kidding me? Are you actually being serious?”
Chaff squinted to see if Lookout was angry or not. Eventually it became too difficult, so he gave up. “Yeah,” he said, simply.
“Burn it all, you are,” snorted Lookout, covering her eyes. “Chaff. You’re dumb.”
“Yike,” muttered Chaff. That was a serious problem.
“Made me think I had fallen into a fucking coma or something,” grumbled Lookout, turning over. “Made me think I had slept through the thrice-damned war or something. And where the hell are we? Sinndi, go on, go outside, shoo!”
The owlcrow hopped until it had passed through the tent flap, and then leaped into the sky, wings spread out to embrace the early morning gloom.
Chaff rubbed his eyes. The owlcrow took some getting used to, and as much time as he had spent with it he still didn’t like birds.
“The outskirts…” Lookout muttered, as her tabula began to hum again. With Lookout, Chaff realized, it would be constant, never-ending, always on. She never seemed satisfied with her own eyes. “What are we doing in the outskirts? How did I get into the outskirts?”
“You was out the whole time then, yeah?” asked Chaff. “You don’t notice what happened?”
“I notice everything!” Lookout snapped, immediately, and this time she definitely looked angry. “I just…I know what happened. Know more about this place than you do, even.”
“If it makes you feel better,” Chaff muttered, under his breath, too soft for Lookout to hear.
“You know where the rest of the crew is?” she said, after a pause. She seemed unwilling to look Chaff in the eye when she asked.
Chaff stared at the ground. He had practiced the lie all last night until he had fallen asleep, but now the time had come to tell it he found himself suddenly lost for words.
“Chaff?” Lookout slid off her bedroll and put a hand on the boy’s shoulder. “Did we get Veer out?”
“They kills everyone,” said the boy, not looking up. “I can’t find Tattle or Hurricane afterwards. I find a friend after and he brings us here.”
It was more words strung together than Chaff had said in a long time and he couldn’t help but feel they had come out wrong. The longer the silence stretched on, the less he dared look up into Lookout’s eyes.
“Everyone?” she said, hoarsely, after a while.
Chaff just nodded.
“All of them? They didn’t spare the slaves or- or…”
“All of them,” said Chaff. “Veer gone, yeah? She better off now. Better dead than an Alswell slave.”
“And better free than dead,” snarled Lookout, and she tried to stand. She gasped in pain as she put weight on her injured knee and collapsed back onto the bedroll, clutching her leg, blinking back tears from her eyes.
“Free’s not an option, yeah?” said Chaff, hugging his knees. “Ain’t nobody free.”
Lookout didn’t answer. She just stared at the tent, the tabula humming in her hands. Chaff’s stomach dropped as he realized what she was doing. If she found Veer alive—if she knew Chaff had been lying…
Chaff’s gaze flickered across Lookout’s prone body. He would be able to escape easily enough, but he’d never get Lookout on his side after that, and he needed those eyes.
The boy reached for the book, with half a mind to shove it in Lookout’s face to distract her from her search, but it was too late. Lookout gasped, a single, short, sharp breath.
Then she closed her eyes and turned her head away. The tabula stopped humming.
“Lookout?” asked Chaff, hesitantly.
“They burned him,” she whispered, quietly. “They hung the body over the bridge.”
Him? If Lookout wasn’t talking about Veer, who was she talking about? Chaff dug deep into his head, but his memory, as faulty as ever, came up blank.
He decided to ignore it. They both had secrets. They would both keep them.
“Who owns this tent?” Lookout asked, hoarsely, breaking Chaff from his thoughts. She had recovered so quickly, from desolation to cold business in seconds. “And how do we know they won’t kill us and take our tabula first chance they get?”
“We already slept in here one night,” said Chaff, although he felt a familiar twinge of fear seizing his body again. “They would’a already taken it, yeah?”
“No reason to push our luck.” Lookout forced herself up. “Chaff, answer the question. Who owns this tent?”
“Friend of a friend,” said Chaff, thinking of how Hadiss had introduced the man to him. “Takes all his stuff outside, says we can sleep in here while he keeps watch.”
Lookout stared at her knee, and then the open tent flap. “I didn’t see him outside. He left us?”
Chaff shrugged. He hadn’t checked.
“Think you can take him?” asked Lookout, picking gingerly at the bandage tied around her knee.
Immediately, Chaff shook his head.
“Oh, come on, have a little faith in yourself. You’re Kennya Noni, right?”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, looking at his bare, unwrapped wrists. “And so’s he. Real Kennya Noni. Grown old Kennya Noni. Scary Kennya Noni.”
Lookout looked down. She was no Tattle, and neither was Chaff. A single Kennya Noni fighter was enough to scare both of them off, while the entire armed forces of Alswell hadn’t even stopped their old crew leader. Perhaps, Chaff thought to himself, that was why he and Lookout were safe, sitting on soft beds on the outskirts of the city, while Tattle and Hurricane were lost somewhere in it.
“Don’t worry, Lookout,” said Chaff, clenching and unclenching his fists. He looked at the shadow of the big guy behind the tent again, slumbering peacefully, and smiled. “I don’t think we in trouble.”
“Really? Why not?”
“Just a feeling,” said Chaff.
Lookout groaned, falling back down. “You feel that little tickling in your skull? That’s your brain. It’s trying to think. Let it.”
Chaff watched Lookout, not convinced by her casual demeanor. She kept looking away, like she needed a moment to herself to hide her face before turning to Chaff with exaggerated expressions, as if putting them on display for him to see.
He wondered if he should say anything, but, in the end, he didn’t know what to say. Perhaps Lookout’s owlcrow could help her get through it, just like the big guy had helped him. He would give them time to be together later.
“He helps me,” said Chaff, finally.
“The guy who owns this tent. Al Innai. He helps me, when I run from the river,” said Chaff. He clenched and unclenched his fingers again. “Remember? Big guy got hit real bad, and somebody bandages him up? Helps me out, fights off the alsknight. That’s him.”
A look of consternation flashed across Lookout’s face. “Coincidence?”
“Sure,” said Chaff, not looking up. He wasn’t quite sure what those were.
Lookout rolled her eyes. “Accident?” she said.
“Yeah, it’s an accident. Pretty bad accident, yeah? Big guy getting all beat up like that. But he heals fast enough, if I hold onto his tabula like this and concentrate real hard.” Chaff held the big guy’s tabula in both hands, tongue poking out between his teeth.
“I mean, Chaff, what was this fighter doing there?”
“Hadiss, the elector who helps you, my friend, he says he hates Alswell,” said Chaff, trying to remember how exactly he had described the Kennya Noni fighter. “Says he hates Alswell and loves Shira Hay. Says he’s got a bad case of jingoism.”
The dirty urchin girl snorted. “Why wasn’t he rioting with the rest of them, then?”
“Hadiss says he loves Shira Hay but hates the people in it,” said Chaff. “S’gonna leave. Might take us with him.” He paused at that point, looking to Lookout for some kind of reaction.
She didn’t move.
“Hadiss says it’s dangerous to stay here. Says there’s going to be a lot of fighting soon, because of Alswell.”
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout, and she sounded thoughtful. “You know something?”
“I hate Alswell too.”
“Yike,” Chaff muttered, under his breath. Everyone seemed to hate Alswell so much, but Chaff had seen the duarch make the first move, had seen the electors draw weapons first. The fieldmen were annoying, but they hadn’t starting anything.
It was Shira Hay that had done that. Chaff’s home.
“Did this Hadiss say anything about where he wanted to go when he left?” asked Lookout.
“Says he’s going east and north. Different way than us, cutting through the plains and around the Seat to reach the Marble Stronghold, or Irontower.”
“Not the elector friend or whatever, you dolt, the other one. The one that’s supposed to be watching over us, but he’s not here, so either he’s really stupid or he’s setting us up.”
“Setting us up for what?”
“Fall like the Lady?”
“Fall like—oh, forget it.” Lookout turned to massage her knee, ignoring Chaff. “You’re a lost hope, kid. A lost fucking hope.”
Chaff grinned. “Hey, hey, I’m not that stupid, Loom.”
And it was Chaff’s turn to fall silent. He stared at Lookout, trying to bite back the words, trying to find a way to un-say them. “She’s nobody, yeah?” he said, after an expectant pause. “She don’t matter no more.”
Lookout didn’t ask further. She knew better than that.
She tensed suddenly, and looked up. Chaff saw movement beyond the tarp of the tent, and behind him the silhouette of the big guy moved. “Friends?” he asked, getting up. The aches of the past few days still throbbed in his muscles, but even Loom- even she had admitted that Chaff was a tough kid. A night’s rest was all it took.
“Don’t recognize them,” said Lookout, shaking her head. “Wild boys, skinny, scrawny, dirty. Kind of look like you, actually.”
Chaff pulled the flap of the tent just far enough to peer outside, and immediately let the flap fall. He recognized both of them.
Scrabble he had last seen just a few days ago in his last race with Hook. As far as Chaff could remember, the urchin boy had been beaten soundly, and had stood by and watched as Hook had laid down his punishment. Clatter, on the other hand, Chaff hadn’t talked to in months. The gangly boy had always been clumsy and awkward and ridiculed, and if Chaff had learned anything from the child gangs of Shira Hay it was never to show weakness by associating with the weak.
“What they doing all the way out here?” Chaff hissed, ducking down as if he could somehow burrow into the ground and hide himself from view.
“How the hell would I know?”
“You say you know everything!”
“Well, yes, I do, but this doesn’t count!” Lookout craned her neck, as if she could somehow get a better view through the eyes of the owlcrow if she adjusted her own angle of vision. “Do you know these people?”
Chaff nodded. What if Hook had sent them? Would he really have gone that far out of the way to track him down, especially with everything that was happening within the city? Shira Hay was going to war and the street boy could think nothing more than settling some psychotic grudge.
“He’s insane,” muttered Chaff, lying as low as possible.
Lookout raised an eyebrow. “What did you just say?”
“Nothing, just talking to myself,” said Chaff, distractedly. He dared another peek out under the tent again. If he stayed inside until Scrabble and Clatter left, they would never be able to find him.
“Hey, hey, look-see over there! It’s Stink’s horsey thing!”
Chaff buried his face in his hands and asked every Lady, every hollow, every power that was why the big guy had to be so big. There was nothing for it, he had to go outside. He couldn’t let anything happen to the big guy on his account.
“I’m going outside,” said Chaff, standing straight again.
“If you die I’m looting your corpse,” said Lookout, her expression bored and contemptuous as she looked off-handedly to the side.
Chaff paused, and traced the rim of his three tabula again. “Why do you do that?”
“It’s a joke, Chaff. I made a funny,” said Lookout, staring at him. Her deadpan glare met Chaff’s bemused one, and they didn’t speak for several seconds. “Fuck it,” Lookout muttered, breaking eye contact. “We’re both terrible with people.”
“I’m going outside,” Chaff repeated, and this time Lookout didn’t say anything.
He almost felt it was still night when he stepped outside. Evidently this year’s rain festival had appeased the Ladies: the bruised clouds threatened the worst storm Chaff had seen in a long time. He remembered miserable days in the plains huddled by the big guy’s side, the sodden grass clinging to his skin as thunder cracked the sky into pieces.
Hopefully he wouldn’t be caught in the open in this storm, as well.
Clatter looked altogether too happy to see him. “Hey, hey, look Scrabble, that Stink!” he shouted, his smile wide and overeager.
Scrabble sauntered away from the big guy, who he had been inspecting closely, and gave Chaff a critical look as he passed. Chaff did the same, and noticed bruises on his face and forearms: punishment, no doubt, from Hook for trying to race ahead of him.
Chaff slid along the side of the tent, keeping his back to what little cover he had as moved closer to the big guy. The camelopard had not healed fully yet, either. He walked with a limp and his knees buckled with every step, but the glint had returned to his eyes and he stood by the boy, tall and strong, as Scrabble joined Clatter’s side.
Clatter picked his teeth with a grimy finger, his stance slouched and casual. A chill breeze swept through the nomad encampment, and it made the frizzy shock of hair on Clatter’s head sway. He sniffed, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and leered at Chaff.
“Hook angry?” asked Chaff, falling back into the broken phrases of Shira Hay street slang. For people like Lookout and Tattle, the pidgin tongue would have been offensive, but Chaff knew from experience that many urchins hated any pretense of superiority.
Clatter’s sniggering wasn’t unexpected, but Scrabble’s smirk was. “Yeah,” Scrabble said. “He fucking pissed. So what the what? What that to you, Stink?”
That gave Chaff a moment’s pause. He looked from Clatter’s hands to Scrabble’s, and said, slowly, “He doesn’t send you then, yeah?”
Scrabble shook his head. “Oh, no-no, Hook ain’t sending nobody nowhere for a long time.”
“Fieldmen got him. He get in their way, they snatch him up, they stab, and I hears his tabula crack like that,” said Clatter, clapping his hands together delightedly. There was a vindictive anger to the boy that Chaff had never seen before, and Chaff wondered just how long Clatter had held his grudge against their old crew leader.
“The others?” asked Chaff. “Shimmy? Crook? Spill?”
“Fuck ‘em,” sneered Clatter. “Goods as dead.” Scrabble looked away when he said that, but Chaff did not press either of them further on the subject.
He put his hand on the big guy’s side, and surreptitiously moved in front of the tent flap. Overhead, he saw the owlcrow wheeling silently, its bright eyes watching them. “So what you want from me?” he asked.
“We don’t want nothing, Stink,” said Clatter, a nasty grin on his face. “We-.”
“Shut it, Clatter,” groaned Scrabble. He crossed his arms and straightened his back, and Chaff straightened his back a little too. Even outside the city, with Hook gone the children of the street had a power vacuum. Chaff would not be the one to submit this time.
Scrabble rolled his neck and stepped forward. The big guy pranced slightly out of nerves, but the street boy made no overt moves. “We leaving now, Stink, and-.”
“Don’t call me Stink,” snapped the boy. “My name is Chaff.”
Their eyes met, and Chaff saw Scrabble’s brow furrow slightly, as he re-evaluated timid, submissive, weak Stink. It only lasted for a moment, and after that Scrabble’s face became a cold mask, as illegible to Chaff as Hadiss’s book.
“Chaff,” he said, finally, and he bowed his head a little. Chaff nodded. Technically, it meant he had won, but Chaff did not like the dark look in Scrabble’s eyes. It reminded him of Bull, of the quiet anger and malignance lurking in his face. “We thinking of leaving. You coming with?”
“Anywhere. Outta here. Go back to the plains, live free, no electors bitchin’ at us, no crew leaders yellin’ at us. Hunt when we wanna hunt, sleep when we wanna sleep. We watch each other’s backs. Doesn’t that sound nice, Chaff?”
It sounded nice, but it was honey laced with poison. Chaff had no doubt that Scrabble and Clatter would watch his back—up until the point they shoved a knife in it. All the same, as long as he could keep them under control, traveling partners out in the plains would be nice…
Moscoleon, out east, past the Seat of the King, past Kazakhal, past Hak Mat Do. He could not get there without leaving the grasslands first.
“I gots a friend,” said Chaff. “Hurt. She coming too, yeah?”
“A girl? Fuck her,” Clatter began, but then Lookout’s owlcrow dove towards his head and he fell down, yelling, covering his face with his arms.
“No can if she don’t come.” Chaff crossed his arms.
“Yeah. Yeah, alright,” said Scrabble, staring with wide eyes at the owlcrow as it took off into the air again. Clatter was waving his arms and yelling in surprise and shock, but Scrabble seemed smart enough to have made the connection between what the owlcrow had done and what Clatter had said. “We going with some grown-olds. They take care of her, then we leave. Yeah?”
Chaff hesitated, staring at Scrabble, whose face was the picture of innocence. He had not missed how Scrabble had adopted Chaff’s way of talking, but before he could comment on it Clatter shouted, “Yeah, you sleeping in one of them’s tents! How come you don’t notice, huh, Stink?”
Chaff looked over his shoulder at the tent, thinking hard. “The Kennya Noni? You going with him?”
“Yup yup, Chaff,” said Scrabble, grinning helpfully. Chaff couldn’t help but stare. The sudden change in his demeanor scared him.
“You know where he is?”
“Yeah yeah.” Scrabble walked away, beckoning to Chaff. “He playing Wwa Ta with some other grown olds, come on! I show you.” Clatter followed close behind Scrabble, dragging his feet on the ground as he walked.
Chaff looked up at the owlcrow, and it screeched once in acknowledgment. He put a hand on the big guy’s side and craned his neck up to look him in the face. “Coming, big guy?”
The big guy nodded: a tired nod, but a nod nonetheless. They walked slowly, passing blackened fire pits and scattered piles of old bones. One nomad, breaking his fast early in the morning, turned a haunch of bush meat over the fire, and eyed Chaff suspiciously as he passed. Chaff looked away, but his belly rumbled. Whatever Scrabble’s plan included, he hoped it included food.
“You see, you see? Up there, they playing,” said Scrabble, pointing the way.
Three nomads sat in the dirt (to Chaff’s disappointment, they had no food), rolling triangular four-sided dice onto the ground. They passed around a jug with a rye grass straw, and laughed louder than they should have as they drank. While Chaff did not know the other two women, he recognized Al Innai, and evidently, so did the big guy.
“Whoa, whoa, you’ll make me spill!” shouted Al Innai, as the big guy nudged his nose into his back. He looked around. “Well, if it isn’t all my little lads. Woke up, then, friend of Hadiss? How is your girl doing?”
“Fine,” said Chaff. He didn’t mention how she couldn’t stand on her own yet.
Al Innai nodded his head, and continued to nod as he passed the jug to his side. He stood up, and had to lean on Scrabble for support. Scrabble whispered something into his ear, and he pursed his lips. The Kennya Noni fighter looked Chaff in the eye. “We’ll take care of her,” he said.
“What’s in it for you?” asked Chaff, before he could stop himself.
One of the women, a lithe grown-old leaning back as she sat on the ground, smirked. Al Innai smiled. “I like wild children,” he said. “Good eyes, good ears, good hands. You’ll do fine.”
Chaff walked to the big guy’s side and kept his hand on the camelopard’s tabula as the other nomads rose. “Where we going?”
Al Innai sniffed. “Where the Lady Fall takes us. Perhaps we will pay old Ironhide a visit at the Seat, or we will brawl with the saltmen at Farsea Cove, or we will drink beer and eat snails in Kazakhal.” He snapped his fingers, and the woman standing next to him gave him back his jug. He offered it to Chaff. “Rice mead, all the way from the Maw. Have some, friend of Hadiss!”
The boy took a sip, and made a face, gagging and coughing on the tang and spice of the drink. It burned the back of his throat as he swallowed, and tears rose unbidden to his eyes. Al Innai laughed, and took the jug back. “Strong, isn’t it?”
Chaff nodded as he wiped his eyes, and when he looked up he did not miss the derision in Clatter’s eyes and the satisfaction in Scrabble’s. Chaff’s fists tightened. That had been weak. He would not fail like that again.
“Parsaa! Go, get my things ready,” Al Innai said, shoving the jug back in the woman’s hands. She bowed her head and ran off, struggling a little to stay upright. The Kennya Noni fighter turned. “You’ll be prepared in the hour, Royya?”
The woman that had smirked at Chaff nodded, and ducked into the tent behind them.
Al Innai put his arms around Chaff’s and Scrabble’s shoulders, and walked them away as Clatter straggled behind. “We leave today, before Shira Hay wakes. Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to sleep. We rest when the sun rises, travel when it sets. Boys, stock up by the river, say your prayers, and we leave.”
Hasty for any excuse to get Al Innai’s beefy arm off of his neck, Chaff nodded and ducked out of his grasp, but the fighter grabbed his collar and pulled him back easily. “Not so fast, lad! Let me get the water skins at least.”
Chaff looked up at the big guy for help, but the treacherous camelopard just nudged Chaff a little closer to Al Innai, snorting.
The boy held the girl’s tabula for luck, and looked out past the tents of the encampment towards the long, unbroken horizon ahead of them. Even as he stared, the grass swayed, a hypnotizing rhythm in the gentle wind.
The last time Chaff had been in the grasslands, he had been lost in them for four years. He could have counted the number of people he met in that time on one hand.
This time would be different. This time, he was ready for anything the grasslands had to offer.
His gaze flickered to vindictive Clatter, to conniving Scrabble, to forceful Al Innai, and did his best to keep his expression from changing. Truthfully, it was never the plains he had been scared of.
It was the people.
Posted on November 28, 2013, in 4.01, Chapter 4 (Born & Bred) and tagged adventure, Al Innai, Big Guy, Chaff, Clatter, creative writing, fantasy, Lookout, novel, original characters, Parsaa, Royya, Scrabble, Sinndi, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.