Born (Chapter 4 Part 5)
The stars shone like a hundred thousand glimmering eyes, winking out when they turned away and flaring bright when they opened. Such was the night sky of Albumere: always changing, never constant, the constellations swirling not so fast as to be noticeable but just fast enough to be disorienting.
Chaff tried looking up, and then he tried looking down, but no matter which way he looked the world seemed to shift around him. He clung to the big guy’s side and closed his eyes, trying not to look as he walked, but that only served to dizzy him further.
The constellations, he had heard some of the city folk say, were the plains of the goddesses, upon which all four of the Ladies walked endlessly. It was easy enough to believe: the stars in the sky seemed to sway as much as the grass on the earth.
He hoped Al Innai knew where he was going.
The boy held the tabula of the girl in his hand as he walked, and after looking surreptitiously around to make sure no one was watching, waved his hand over the surface and whispered, “Show me.”
None of the other nomads seemed to notice as the tabula began to hum. They had begun the day’s journey energetic and ready, but when Al Innai had called for them to make camp the bruised clouds overhead had chosen that moment to split. Chaff hugged his still damp clothes, and felt his feet squelch in the mud. They hadn’t been quite so energized after that.
Chaff could barely see the amber shadows in the dark, but as he held the tabula up to his ear he could hear nothing under the hum but a vague, rhythmic beat, like a hundred footfalls all happening at once.
“What’s that you got there?”
A violent clash of emotions surged through Chaff so suddenly he nearly dropped the girl’s tabula. It hummed so loud that Chaff heard one word, one crystal clear word that rang in his head for the rest of the night.
He hardly had time to process it before he stuffed the tabula in his belt, his fingers shaking. Fear was what he felt most of all, fear that someone was going to try and take her away from him again, and then anger at being interrupted, and then dread as he turned around to see the beady eyes of the owlcrow, glinting in the night.
Lookout smirked, peering over from her perch on the big guy. “You look like I caught you on the shitter or something. What were you looking at?”
Chaff shook his head. “Nothing, yeah? Is nothing.”
Before Lookout could say anything, Al Innai shouted, “No straggling, you two! We’ve got a long way to go, let’s keep moving.”
Chaff sped up his pace just a little, almost wading through a particular puddle that had grown in the sodden grass. It was good that the soil was so loose; most of the water had drained away already. All the same, Chaff could hear the big guy’s hooves suck at the mud as they walked faster.
The word echoed in his head as he walked. Jova. Jova. What did it mean? Was it a word he did not know? The place that she came from? Jova. Perhaps the book would tell him.
“I know you have a third tabula,” Lookout whispered, as she clung to the big guy’s mane. She seemed to have basic knowledge of how to ride (one of the seemingly infinite things that Lookout just knew), but even so her injured leg made it difficult for her to keep astride the big guy. She had to quickly lean back on the big guy, breathing heavily, and the camelopard cast an annoyed look behind him before turning back forward.
“I see you with it,” continued Lookout, as they forged onward. Chaff squinted. How did Al Innai know which way to keep going? As far as Chaff could tell, they were just…walking. “And there’s a little crack running down in it, which your other two don’t have. Most people would miss it, but these eyes spot everything.”
“Congratulations, Lookout,” said Chaff, distractedly. The book in his belt, which he had so painstakingly protected from the rain, shifted as he looked around, and Hadiss’s scarf hung heavily on his neck. The stars overhead continued to dance still.
“So what gives, huh? I’ve never seen you with another animal before. You holding onto a slave’s tabula or something?” Lookout looked indignant that her smartness had inspired so tepid a reaction from Chaff. “You got a butterbug or a beetlegnat hiding in your shirt? Come on, Chaff, you can tell me.”
Chaff tightened the belt around his waist and made sure that her tabula was safely tucked away. “It’s nothing, yeah? No worries, no problem.”
Lookout harrumphed and looked away, dissatisfied. Chaff didn’t know what to say to her. Bringing her tabula up again with another person was not something he was going to do lightly.
“If you’re going to drag me out of my way while I’m sick and injured,” said Lookout, crossing her arms. “The least you can do is trust me enough to-.”
“Watch out for her, big guy, OK?” said Chaff, patting the camelopard on the back, and the big guy rolled his eyes but snorted in acknowledgment.
“Where are you going?” hissed Lookout, as Chaff ran to join the rest of the troop.
“Not talking to you, yeah?” said Chaff. “Not gonna answer no more questions.”
Lookout sat, fuming, on the big guy’s back, but she had no way of speeding up while the big guy continued at his placid, unconcerned pace.
“There you are, boy,” said the woman, Royya, nodding with an approving grin on her face. “Grow a spine, put your woman in her place. That’s it.”
Chaff paused, shifting his stance so that he was ready to run. He was not talking to Lookout, yes, but that didn’t mean he was ready to start discussions with strangers.
“Looks like you’ve already learned your other lessons,” said Royya, adjusting her pack and rolling her shoulders. She was a lanky woman, with a sun-browned face and stained teeth. A simple shell earring dangled from one ear, and while Chaff had to squint to see them in the gloom, her hands were large and calloused.
She walked a distance apart from Al Innai and the woman Parsaa, who seemed to follow the Kennya Noni fighter wherever he went, and the urchins, who kept to themselves mostly, as they marched onward. (Scrabble, Chaff noticed, looked quite at home in the plains, but Clatter kept staring at his feet. The frizzy-haired boy walked a circular, weaving path, stepping around patches of grass Chaff couldn’t see: a city boy, evidently, who was afraid of getting his feet dirty.)
“Learned all your lessons already,” continued Royya, picking at her teeth. “Learned them the hard way, I bet. Lots of crying and screaming involved, no doubt.”
Chaff stiffened. He wanted to walk away from Royya now.
“Oh, it’s alright to admit it,” said Royya. “Everyone’s gone through it. It’s one of those dirty secrets no one acknowledges, like jerking off or something. You’ve gone through hell, haven’t you? Made it through the wilds, probably had a couple run-ins, maybe even got blood on those tiny little hands of yours. Guess what? So has everyone else. It doesn’t make you special. It just makes you a survivor. Every damn person on Albumere’s a survivor. If you aren’t, well…you don’t know how many kids’ skeletons the grass has buried.”
The boy stared open-mouthed at Royya. She spoke so frankly and matter-of-factly that she didn’t even bother to look at him as she talked.
“Sorry,” she said, after a stretch. “Guess I forgot my manners again. It’s what the plains do to you, don’t they? You spend years out here and you sort of lose touch with people. Can’t figure out what expressions mean anymore. Can’t figure out when they’re lying or telling the truth. Can’t figure out if they hate you, if they want to hurt you, if they’re going to kill you.”
Royya turned to look at Chaff, and her grin, which at first had seemed smug, now appeared eerie and empty. It flashed in the darkness, a glowing gash in her dark silhouette.
“That’s Shira Hay’s special challenge,” she said, staring at Chaff, her grin unwavering even as she talked. “All the other nations got their own flavor of wild children. The land breeds them. A wild child in Shira Hay can go years without meeting another living soul. They just…wander. Death or life catches up with them eventually.”
“You look like a city boy to me,” Royya continued. “Look like you made it there early. Lucky you. I didn’t see the city until I was grown-old. Eighteen, nineteen winters, maybe. When I was a kid, I stumbled and stumbled all the way to the coast, until I reached Farsea and the Cove. Saltmen found me there.”
Chaff had only dim knowledge of the oceans of Albumere. Farsea was to the north, Oldsea in the southeast, Lowsea all the way on the other side of the continent. Da’atoa was in one of the oceans, Chaff couldn’t remember which, although the saltmen pirates spread out and sailed all of them.
“They have it different in Da’atoa.” Royya stopped looking at Chaff and turned her head up to the stars. “Only a couple hollows there, walking in circles on their islands. Wild child there either swims out into the sea or goes crazy. Most of ‘em go crazy. Start chanting and dancing, shouting to whatever gods they think are up there, eating each other. The sea buries a lot of skeletons, too. The land breeds them.”
Chaff shivered. The only boats he had ever seen were the barges, owned by powerful slavers and merchants traveling up and down the Gammon. To have that power, combined with that madness…
“Can’t think of anywhere on Albumere where Albumere won’t break you,” said Royya, staring vacantly into the sky. “Can’t think of it. Can’t think of anywhere at all. Seat of Winter will freeze you to the bone. Wild children there stop feeling. Pain, emotions, everything, they just stop feeling. Everything in Moscoleon is poisonous. Wild children there get paranoid. Half-starving, no idea what’s going to kill them or not, everything’s a gamble. The marblemen in the Stronghold will kill you on sight. Wild children there hate everyone. All they know is fight, fight, fight. The land breeds them.”
One name stuck out to Chaff in particular. Moscoleon, where wild children were paranoid. Paranoid, Hadiss had told him once, meant always afraid.
Chaff had to admit, sometimes he felt a little paranoid. It kept him alive, didn’t it? He didn’t see what was wrong with it.
Royya sighed heavily, and shouldered her pack again. “Well, it was nice talking to you,” she said, absently. “Don’t let the girl get the better of you. Lay down the rules, that’s it.”
And she walked away, leaving Chaff confused and more than a little disturbed. “She crazy, yeah?” Chaff muttered to himself, as he watched the woman speed up her pace until she was even with Al Innai. “Crazy Royya.”
“Yeah, she crazy alright,” said a voice beside him, and Chaff felt very, very paranoid indeed as he twisted to see Scrabble walking right beside him.
“Where you people come from?” hissed Chaff, looking over his shoulder just to make sure that Clatter wasn’t standing behind him with a gag and a shiv. “Always sneaking up on me. No good, no good.”
“Aw, sorry, Chaff,” said Scrabble, not looking sorry at all. “Just want to hang tight with my friend, yeah? Make sure he doing OK and all that.”
“Yeah, well,” Chaff began, ready to follow Royya’s advice and lay down some kind of rule about personal space, when the owlcrow screeched. It wasn’t just for Chaff or Scrabble to hear; it was loud, harsh, carrying as far as it would go, and in the great plains of Shira Hay it carried far.
Chaff whipped around to face Lookout. Had something gone wrong? Was she hurt? But no sooner had he turned when voices from behind him started to shout.
“Ambush!” shouted Al Innai. “Slavers!”
“They seen us!” shouted another voice, harsh, unfamiliar, and out of the long grass dove at least half a dozen shadowed silhouettes, racing to surround the nomad group.
Without hesitation, the big guy galloped forward. Scrabble forgotten, Chaff dashed for his friend and leaped, clambering onto the camelopard’s back behind Lookout as the big guy dashed for safety.
“Thank me now,” said Lookout, gasping for breath as the big guy’s movement caused her injured leg to swing violently back and forth. She was red in the face, and sweat beaded down her forehead from more than just riding exhaustion.
“Why now?” screamed Chaff, doing his best to direct the big guy from behind Lookout’s frame.
“Because I want to hear you say it before you’re dead!”
The big guy reared, suddenly, and Chaff nearly fell off the camelopard’s back as the beast twisted to avoid the lunge of one of the slavers. Beside him, he saw Clatter, running for safety, towards the biggest ally he could find, and the big guy had to step over the urchin as he evaded the slaver’s attack.
They infested the borders around the city, Chaff knew, but he thought that Al Innai could have at least guided the troop past them. Chaff remembered a similar problem upon entering the city, a ring of fire surrounding a broken wagon, and the fury of the merchant who owned it. They had been easy to spot then because of the big guy’s size. Chaff felt his stomach lurch. Had it been the same problem this time, too?
Chaff grabbed the big guy’s tabula, the vibrations already beginning to numb his arm, ready to give the big guy any boost he needed to get away. Before he could even shout at the big guy to run, though, something dashed in their way.
Al Innai was faster than any fighter Chaff had ever seen, and more than that he seemed to be in the midst of more than one fight. His outstretched palm caught the slaver ahead of them on the back of the head before he twisted around the slaver’s back and gave him a solid shove into the ground. Al Innai ran after that, bounding away to wrestle a man off of Scrabble and Clatter while the slaver he had just dispatched stumbled to his feet.
The big guy reared and kicked the slaver in the head. With a sharp crack, the man fell over, sprawled on the ground.
Chaff’s throat dried. Of course, the last time he thought that…
The camelopard walked on top of the man as he ran, and Chaff made sure the big guy stepped as hard as he could onto the prone slaver before running away.
It was just one, though, and as fast as Al Innai was he was not fast enough to beat six people. The howls and hums of summoning were beginning to ring through the clearing, and the ground under Chaff was beginning to rupture from the effects of some spring animal.
He ground his teeth in frustration. If only he was the only one on the big guy, he could have maneuvered so much more easily, but with Lookout sitting there as well, it was nearly impossible to just hang on. There were tears in the girl’s eyes now, too, from the pain and stress her damaged leg was causing her. She looked about ready to faint, but her hands, knuckles white and veins pronounced, still clutched tight onto the big guy’s mane.
Royya dashed past them, towards the hole Al Innai’s fighting had made. She wasted no time in helping Clatter to his feet, no effort in beating the slavers back down: she just ran. Parsaa was close behind her, but she waited long enough to wave to Al Innai, catching his attention.
They were not going to fight this battle. It was not one they had to win.
“Go big, big guy!” Chaff shouted, and the big guy bounded forward. The storm had broken and he had been unleashed; torrents of water flew with every step as the big guy galloped away. The stars overhead became streaks of light as the big guy ran, and nothing could stand in their way.
Except, suddenly, the mud splashing in the big guy’s wake began to move with purpose. Chaff watched in horror as tendrils of water began to snake their way around the big guy’s ankles, and the camelopard had to strain just to break through the sudden quagmire. Chaff heard the distant hum of some tabula, but he couldn’t believe it. This was not the work of any winter animal: none of the beasts touched by the Ladies could manipulate mud and muck like this. What was going on?
Al Innai stamped his foot onto the crawling muds, pushing the big guy out of the puddles as he shouted, “Go! Go! Get out of range!”
There was no time to wonder why, to question anything. Chaff focused, and the big guy bellowed to the skies as the boy felt a shared warmth surge between them.
Chaff bit down on the scarf under his chin, gritting his teeth as he felt lightning crackle through his veins. It was for her. Everything he had done, he had done to find her. He would not be stopped here, not by some anonymous group of slavers out in the featureless expanse of the grasslands. Not here. Not until his work was done.
The big guy pulled free and galloped away, Al Innai running at impossible speeds beside them, the rest of their troop dashing alongside them. Chaff did not know how long they ran. There was nowhere to hide in the grasslands. Only speed could save them. The battle-fever pushed him on, his blood pumping quick and fast through his head, demanding that he go faster, faster.
When he stopped, though, all that energy seemed to leak out of him. The big guy made it a few paces before he had to stop, and as the humming of the tabula ceased Chaff slipped off the camelopard’s back and landed in the grass, his vision spinning.
“Did we lose them?” he heard Scrabble ask, as the urchin stumbled to a halt as well.
“Yeah,” gasped Al Innai. “Yeah, I think we did.”
Chaff grit his teeth and slowly, painfully, rose. He would not be seen lying down when Scrabble was still standing. He had to prove himself strong.
His knees buckled and he fell onto the big guy’s side, his head still spinning. Chaff sucked in long, slow breathes, his eyes closed, trying to soothe his jittery nerves.
When he looked up, it was to Lookout staring at him with wide, almost fearful eyes. Her owlcrow hopped back and forth on her shoulder, its head twitching in agitation but its beak clasped tightly shut.
“What are you, Chaff?” she whispered. “What did you do?”
Chaff could not find the energy to answer. He stared at Lookout, his eyes asking his question for him.
“I felt it,” breathed Lookout. “Between you and- and him.” She twisted around and patted the big guy’s side, as the camelopard slowly folded his knees under him. “When we were running, it was like…the Lady Summer’s fire. More than that, it was…it was…indescribable.”
Chaff didn’t know what to say. He just looked away, his hand tracing the girl’s tabula in his belt. The stars danced overhead and the grass swayed underfoot. Chaff’s mind was filled with one purpose, burned with a single, overriding purpose, even as the tingling in his fingers faded away.
Find her. He had to find her. In Moscoleon, out east, past Kazakhal, past the Seat of the King, past Hak Mat Do. East. Except…
He looked around him, and the featureless, endless plains seemed to sway with him as he turned. He raised his voice. “Al Innai,” Chaff said. “Where are we?”
The nomad looked up from his pack; items had been lost as they ran and he had been surveying the damage. At Chaff’s question, though, Al Innai looked up immediately. He turned slowly, just as Royya and Parsaa looked up too, and the more he took in the tenser he seemed to get.
Al Innai bowed his head, and traced a small circle on his forehead. To Chaff’s understanding, it was a prayer of some sorts, although he did not know to which Lady.
“We,” said Al Innai. “Are lost.”
Posted on December 12, 2013, in 4.05, 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.