Born (Chapter 4 Part 3)
He poured the mead into the hole in the ground, and once it had all dribbled away he put the jug in as well. Chaff watched as Al Innai began to bury the jug with his crude shovel, and couldn’t help but squirm as it was covered in dirt.
“A token to the Lady Fall,” said Al Innai, at Chaff’s semi-horrified expression. “So she will give us good fortune and guide us safely through the plains.”
Chaff was not entirely sure how the Lady Fall would get the mead if they just dumped it into the dirt, and surreptitiously reminded himself that he would have to dig that jug out later before they left. He said none of this aloud, though. He just nodded and let Al Innai continue burying his jug.
There were no words said, no complex entreaties or prayers. Al Innai simply covered the hole as best he could, smoothed it over with his foot, and then tossed the stick he had been using as a shovel aside, wiping his hands in a satisfied sort of way.
“Come on, let’s get moving,” he said, gesturing for Chaff to follow. Scrabble and Clatter were absent, having gone to get water from the river, but for some reason Al Innai had kept Chaff with him. The boy still did not know why, although he had his suspicions.
Granted, most of his suspicions involved him being killed and eaten, and as much as Chaff felt uneasy around Al Innai he was fairly certain the Kennya Noni fighter would not go that far.
Al Innai put his arm around Chaff’s shoulder again and Chaff flinched. Fairly certain, at least.
“Chaff,” said Al Innai, giving him a friendly pat (although Chaff couldn’t shake the feeling that Al Innai was either looking for where he kept his tabula or checking if he had any weapons), “I’m going to be honest with you. Usually, I don’t travel with people I don’t know. Scrabble and Clatter, Royya and Parsaa, I know. You and your girl? I don’t.”
That hardly sounded like a bad thing to say, and Chaff said so. “That’s smart, yeah? Better safe and all that, yeah?”
“Yes, exactly.” Al Innai paused. “Now, Hadiss vouched for you, and that’s good enough for now, but I want to get just one thing straight.”
Chaff wasn’t looking. He was trying to remember where exactly Al Innai had buried the jug. It wouldn’t be too hard to find, not with the fresh dirt right on top of-
And then Al Innai had pinned him to the ground. Chaff gasped as Al Innai pressed hard against his throat, and pulled in vain against the man’s grip. It was like beating his fists on a rock; Al Innai would not budge. Desperately, Chaff reached for his tabula, to summon the big guy, but Al Innai pinned his hand down easily as well.
“Listen here, you dirty, dumb wild child,” he growled, and he bent down until he was breathing in Chaff’s face. “Fuck me over and you die in those plains. It might be in ten seconds or it might be in ten years. Doesn’t matter. You will never get out without my help. Clear?”
Chaff did his best to nod, but he could barely move his head with Al Innai’s arm pinned against his throat.
“Good,” said Al Innai, getting off and wiping his hands off on the side of his tunic, as if he had done nothing more than trip on top of Chaff. “As long as that’s clear. Come on, let’s go see how your girl is doing.”
Chaff rubbed his neck as he rose, and glared at Al Innai’s retreating back. He might not have been able to fight him off, but all those years practicing in the street races had not been for nothing. He was fast enough to get onto Al Innai’s back, get his arms around his neck, and squeeze…
His gaze flickered to the other tents, and he saw someone duck out of sight the moment he looked. He straightened, and followed behind Al Innai at an even space, his hands loose and relaxed by his side.
Better to play it safe. Al Innai had someone watching his back, although Chaff had not seen who.
“If you always walk this slow, it’s going to be a problem,” said Al Innai, as Chaff jogged to catch up.
Chaff shook his head. “No problem. I got a big guy, yeah? Got someone to ride with.”
“Speaking of, how much does it take to feed that thing?” asked Al Innai. “We can only carry so much with us, and I for one am not lugging around six bales of hay to keep that thing alive for a couple days.”
“He don’t eat that much, yeah? Don’t worry about it.”
“Oh, no, you can’t shit me like that,” said Al Innai, spinning around and standing in front of Chaff. “I had something like that once. Spring antelope. Thing didn’t do anything except shit and eat. If your beast’s going to need food, that’s something I need to know.”
“He don’t,” said Chaff, and he meant it. “We eat what we find. We done it before.”
Al Innai snorted. “Alright. If it starves to death, we’re eating it.” And he turned and kept walking.
“Ain’t nobody gonna eat the big guy,” Chaff muttered, under his breath, but only when he was sure that Al Innai was out of earshot.
Chaff trailed behind Al Innai after that. He didn’t want to get within striking distance of the Kennya Noni fighter, and even if the man was faster than him at least Chaff would have a chance to run away if things got violent. Why or how things would get violent, Chaff wasn’t sure, but the precaution was hardwired into his brain. He needed to keep himself safe.
The sun was starting to crawl up over the horizon, orange light casting long shadows over the grass. Chaff could see the brick buildings and the great libraries of Shira Hay in the distance; they weren’t that far away, but compared to the vastness on the other side of the outskirts they seemed absolutely tiny, little outposts and islands in a sea of emptiness.
The outskirts struck an odd balance between wilderness and civilization. Trash and scorch marks stained the flattened, brown grass, and the numerous tents that dotted the area each looked as if they could be torn down, rolled up, and carried on one’s back in the matter of minutes. As the sun rose so too did the nomads of Shira Hay, wrapped in as much clothing as they could fit on their bodies, with bags under their eyes and spots on their teeth. They had browned, sullen faces, thin arms and long legs, and overwhelmingly seemed to be living alone. Chaff could understand that.
The smell of grease from the cooking fires began to drift Chaff’s way, and his belly rumbled. If this was any ordinary morning, he’d be scouting the stalls and the shops around this time, looking for scraps to scavenge or meals to steal. Instead, he had to rely on the generosity of Al Innai.
If he had been given the choice, Chaff probably would have gone with the former. At least theft was something he could control, while Al Innai had whims and moods that Chaff would never be able to predict, no matter how long he lived with people.
A sudden scream made his head jerk upwards. He tensed, looking around. Where was Al Innai?
He saw, opposite him, the big guy clambering to his feet. He had evidently been resting, letting the wounds on his side sit, but now the camelopard’s eyes had grown wide and a distressed bleating began to rumble from his throat.
The scream began again, from inside the tent. Lookout.
Chaff ran, diving inside to see Lookout, eyes red and hair disheveled, backing away as best she could from Al Innai, who had held his hands up in a placating gesture but whose face read as pure anger.
“Will you shut up, girl?” barked Al Innai, as Lookout paused to draw breath.
“Lookout, Lookout, it’s OK!” shouted Chaff. “He’s frien- he’s with us.”
Lookout closed her mouth, looking from Chaff to Al Innai, taking it in. Beside her, the owlcrow ruffled its wings and twitched, beady eyes glinting, although Chaff did not hear the hum of any tabula.
Then Lookout shook her head and rubbed her red eyes, trying to straighten into a more dignified position. “I knew that,” she muttered, not looking up. “I was just…taking precautions.”
“It seems like we’re all the cautious type here then, aren’t we?” said Al Innai, annoyed. “Boy, get your stuff and your girl and clear out. We eat while we walk, we’ve taken too much time as it is. I’ll explain the rules to you as we go.”
There were more rules? Chaff had assumed don’t fuck me over was the only one.
He scooped Hadiss’s scarf and book up in one arm, and patted himself down to make sure everything else was still on him. His three tabula, his cloth belt, and the bandages he still wore around his ankles: those were all there.
“Come on, Lookout,” he said, putting her arm around his shoulder. “Let’s get up.”
Lookout hobbled to her feet, planting her injured leg gingerly on the ground as she walked. The effort seemed to take more out of her than it should have; she was breathless by the time they had stumbled out of the tent, and needed to take a breather while leaning on the big guy’s side.
“You’re right,” she muttered, as they watched Al Innai’s silhouette work inside the tent. “He is scary.”
“Mm-hmm,” said Chaff, although to be honest he wasn’t paying much attention. He eyed the road, wondering if it was worth it to go back and dig that jug out again. In the end, he decided against it. He didn’t know how offended Al Innai (or the Lady Fall) would be, and he wouldn’t have any way to sell it or hide it for quite a while.
All the same, it hurt to leave it buried.
Chaff looked down at his sparse belongings, which were starting to feel heavy in his arms. He had no pack to carry them in, and he definitely did not want to carry them for the whole trip.
“The scarf yours, big guy,” said Chaff, tossing it over the big guy’s back. The camelopard did not seem to mind, although when he started to use the scarf to tie the book to the big guy’s side he started to snort in protest.
Chaff shushed him. “Carrying books around make you smarter. That’s why all the electors do it, yeah?”
The big guy spat at him, but Chaff pushed on regardless. “My neck too small, big guy,” said Chaff, petulantly. “I do it if I can, but I can’t so I won’t.”
Lookout limped over, snatching the book out of Chaff’s hand as he tried ineffectually to slot it in the space between the scarf and the big guy. “What are you trying to put on his neck anyway?” she asked, turning it over and looking at the cover. She gave a long, low whistle, and the owlcrow on her shoulder cooed.
Chaff watched, unsure of what to make of her reaction.
“You, shoo,” snapped Lookout, waving the owlcrow away. “Go eat a mouse or something.” She turned to Chaff. “Where’d you get this? Did you steal this? The electors are lax about a lot of laws, but if they see that you’ve stolen a book, you could be in some serious shit.”
“It’s from a friend,” said Chaff, snatching the book back. “He gave it to me!”
Lookout leaned on the big guy’s side, grinning. “I don’t mean to be offensive, Chaff, but can you even read?”
Chaff glared at her. “Can you?” he said, finally, by way of answer.
The girl tossed her beige scarf over her shoulder. Her eyes were still red, but she seemed to have recovered some of her old cockiness. “Sure, I can. Smart people have to know how to read.”
“Then you gonna teach me how, yeah?”
“Hell no!” said Lookout, and Chaff wasn’t quite sure if she was faking her surprise or if she was actually taken aback. “What, you think I can just sprinkle some magic hollow dust over you and you’ll learn your letters? It’s not that easy, Chaff. Anyway, why would I waste my time teaching you something like that?”
“Cause I won’t stop bugging you if you don’t?” offered Chaff, holding the book out to Lookout.
“Just try,” said Lookout, smugly. “I know who’s going to break first.”
Chaff pursed his lips. He met Lookout’s gaze and patted the big guy’s side just once. The camelopard stepped aside, taking Lookout’s support away from her, and the look of shock on her face was matched only by the violent wheeling of her arms as she tried to find her balance. She winced when she had to put weight on her injured leg, and glared at Chaff as she wobbled on one foot.
“You teach me,” said Chaff. “Or you don’t get the big guy.”
“You evil little boy,” hissed Lookout, trying to grab him, but Chaff took just one step back and he was out of reach. Lookout’s gaze flicked up to the skies, and her hand reached for her tabula, but from the concern in her face she seemed to be deep in thought. She glanced at over the tents, and wobbled in their direction for just a moment, but in the end she sighed, and opened her arms in surrender. “Fine,” she said. “Now will you just give me something to lean on? My leg is starting cramp up.”
The big guy stepped forward, and though he showed no teeth, he met Chaff’s gaze and his eyes were smiling.
“Tents,” spat Lookout, in disgust, as she hopped over to the big guy. “Flimsy fake buildings. By all the Ladies Four, I hate tents.”
Chaff held the book back up to Lookout. “What does the front say?”
Lookout squinted. “The…The Song of…Mazzia, the W…Wandering Man,” she read, slowly. “The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man.”
“Who’s he?” asked Chaff, cocking his head.
With a tired shrug, Lookout said, “Dunno. Guess you’ll find out once you read the book, won’t you?”
Chaff opened the book to the page where he had seen the coza, and traced the ink. Had the Wandering Man gone to Moscoleon? What kind of traps and perils had he met on the way?
“What does this part say?” asked Chaff, holding the page up to Lookout.
“It’s a book, Chaff, you have to start from the beginning.” Lookout flipped a considerable amount of pages back to the first. “Right…here. Only proper way to read stories like these, from the beginning.”
Chaff’s eyes widened. “But then it’ll take so long to get to the part I want!”
“Oh, I know,” said Lookout. “But the journey’s what makes it worth it.”
“Yike,” Chaff said, feeling just how many pages he had in-between the beginning and the picture. There must have been tens—no, hundreds—well, maybe not hundreds—a lot of pages in-between. “OK,” he said, holding up the first page. “Then what does this say?”
“Chaff, I’m not going to read the whole book out loud to you right now.” Lookout pointed to her knee. “My head hurts and I am injured. Wait, or bother someone else with it. Actually, don’t: knowing you, you’ll probably walk straight up to an elector and ask them to read your stolen book. Put it away, before anyone sees.”
“Don’t matter anyway,” said Chaff, tucking the book into the cloth belt where he kept his tabula. It wasn’t exactly comfortable, but it fit. “Won’t be dealing with electors for a long time now.”
Lookout furrowed her eyebrows. Her owlcrow returned, flapping noisily as it slowed to land on her shoulder. “What do you mean?”
“We leaving, Lookout! We going away from Shira Hay!”
The girl straightened, but almost immediately her knees buckled under her and she collapsed onto the big guy, breathing heavily. “You already decided? When did this happen, Chaff? By the Ladies, did you even think to tell me?”
Now that Chaff thought about it, he realized he hadn’t. He opened his mouth, trying to think of something to say, and then said, meekly, “We leaving Shira Hay, Lookout.”
“Dammit, Chaff,” snarled Lookout, gripping the big guy’s fur so tight her knuckles were white. The big guy tossed his head, bleating in distress as Lookout hobbled forward. “You thought I could just uproot and leave? I got people to watch out for here! Friends! You know what those are, Chaff?”
“I thought you were one of mine,” said Chaff, hoarsely.
“Well, listen to the news crier, Chaff, but you’re not my only one. I can’t just leave my life in Shira Hay to run off…wherever the hell you and your Kennya Noni nomad are running to!”
“But you say it isn’t safe in Shira Hay no more!” Chaff clasped his hands together. “I need you with me, Lookout.”
Lookout stiffened. She stared at Chaff, her gaze as hard as granite, and after a moment rubbed her eyes. “What’d you just say?”
Chaff blinked. “I say I need you with me!”
The girl looked aside and took a deep breath. Her eyes were starting to shine again. “Chaff?”
“Don’t ever say that again.”
Al Innai stepped out of the tent, the bed rolls stacked neatly on top of the pack that he carried on his back. He set to work taking the stakes of the tent out of the ground, and looked over to Chaff and Lookout. “We got a problem?”
“No,” said Lookout, not looking away from Chaff. “No problem.”
A wide smile split on Chaff’s face. “So you coming?”
“Not going to turn down someone who needs me.” Lookout punched Chaff on the shoulder. “Not this time, anyway. When we leaving?”
Lookout slapped her palm against her forehead. When she let it slide off her face, she rolled her eyes very pointedly at Chaff. “Of course we are,” she muttered. “Who else? Just us three?”
“More on the way,” said Al Innai, from behind her. “Seven total.” The tent wrapped up and stuffed inside his pack, he stood and held his hand over his eyes as he squinted at the sun. “Come on, I want to move fast. Don’t want to get stuck in the sun at mid-day.”
“I thought we is supposed to travel by day,” said Chaff, slowly. “I thought we wasn’t supposed to let the stars…something about stars…”
“If you want to get roasted into a shriveled bean of a wild child, sure,” said Al Innai, snorting. “Where’d you hear that?”
Chaff rubbed his head. “I don’t remember.”
“It’s people like you that make everyone think plainsmen memories are shit.” Al Innai picked up his pack, the large muscles on his shoulders and arms moving visibly as he shouldered it. “Come on, let’s get moving.”
As he began to walk away, Chaff looked to Lookout, whose head was hanging, who looked pensive. “Big guy, get low,” he said, patting the camelopard’s side.
The camelopard knelt, but Lookout did not move. Chaff gave the girl a gentle nudge on the shoulder.
Lookout started, but caught on rather quickly as she looked from the kneeling camelopard to Chaff. It took a bit of maneuvering to get her onto the camelopard’s back, and she yelped as the big guy stood again, but riding seemed to come easily to her.
The tent where Al Innai had been gambling had already been torn down. Chaff walked beside the big guy as they approached it, and saw Al Innai greeting Scrabble and Clatter, who both had multiple skins bulging with water from the Gammon.
One woman, Royya, had rolled up the tent and had a pack like Al Innai’s on her shoulders. The other, head bowed, seemed to be carrying far more, bags and bags of supplies for the journey slung over her back.
“You gave the Lady Fall her dues?” asked Royya.
“Would never forget,” said Al Innai. He gestured to the party. “Come on, let’s get moving. We’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
And that was all the ceremony they had. Chaff trailed behind the group with the big guy, stroking his fur absently.
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout. She was trusting Chaff to steer the big guy, looking back instead at the retreating cityscape of Shira Hay.
“Promise me one thing,” she said, and the owlcrow on her shoulder rose high up, up into the sky, as if trying to get one last clear look of the city. “Promise me we’ll come back.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, staring at the endless grasslands ahead of them, deceptively empty. “Yeah, OK. I promise.”
Posted on December 5, 2013, in 4.03, 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. 4 Comments.