Born (Chapter 4 Part 7)
The grass was dying.
Chaff first noticed the long grass shrinking as they walked onward, until it reached only his knees. It was brittle and yellow, and cracked underfoot as Chaff walked. The soft loam of the plains became gravelly and dry, and the land itself seemed to bite at Chaff’s feet as he walked.
Although a storm had just broken over the plains, Chaff found his mouth lined with sores and dust. The sky was a clear unbroken blue, with not a cloud in sight, and the sun beat down mercilessly on the nomad group as they walked.
Chaff remembered coming to a place like this only once, one night long ago. It was not a memory he was fond of.
A tired owlcrow landed on Lookout’s shoulder, and Lookout groaned and shifted. She looked half-dead already, slumped against the big guy’s neck, and her swollen knee was wrapped in so many bandages that she could not even sit astride him properly. “Pass me that water skin, will you?”
“Drink sparingly!” shouted Al Innai, the consummate survivor, as Scrabble sycophantically handed the leather water skin to Chaff. Chaff glared at the urchin, remembering how close Hook had let Scrabble to get to him and all the good that had done the old crew leader.
“We won’t be meeting any of the walking groves soon,” said Al Innai, as Lookout dribbled the water into her mouth. Chaff took a drink too, the water comfortingly cool on his cracked lips. “Not here, not in the Redlands.”
“The Redlands,” Chaff repeated, under his breath, as he passed the skin back. “So that’s what this place called.”
Lookout laughed and muttered, “You been here before Chaff?”
Her acute hearing had evidently been unaffected, and her propensity for eavesdropping likewise. Chaff looked away and said nothing. In three years, he had told no one about his trip into this place, these Redlands. He wasn’t going to start now.
“What? You not talking to me anymore?” said Lookout. She sounded almost happy that Chaff had not yet acknowledged her. Chaff, on his part, did not respond. It gave Lookout something to do, and seemed to fill her with a little more life.
“I can’t see why you’d be angry at me.” Lookout shifted, taking short breaths as she moved her leg. “Seeing as you were the one who dragged me out here in the first place. You say you need me? What good are my eyes now? Sinndi’s too tired to fly and when she gets some air all I can see is grass and grass and grass.”
“Different kinds of grass,” said Chaff, feeling the spines and bristles of the short, yellow grass they now walked through. This kind wasn’t good for much except perhaps bedding, if he was desperate, and he had watch out for viperbugs and rattlerats hiding in the underbrush.
“Oh, yeah? What do you know about grass?”
Chaff considered answering, but decided against it. Lookout didn’t appreciate people knowing more than she did.
“Hey, Lookout,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “What does Jova mean?”
The thin girl brushed sandy hair out of her face and pursed her lips. “Sounds like gibberish to me. Why, where’d you hear it?”
“Nowhere,” said Chaff, absently. If even someone as smart as Lookout did not know what Jova meant, how was he supposed to figure it out?
“Fine, don’t say it,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow on her shoulder ruffled its feathers huffily. “Although I’ll tell you now, the aloof and mysterious angle doesn’t work for you, Chaff.”
It seemed such an odd thing to say that Chaff had to repeat Lookout’s words under his breath. “The a-loof and…the what?”
“The aloof and mysterious angle. You know, the look. The attitude. Doesn’t work for you.”
Chaff scratched his chin. “Why not?”
“Because you’re dumb.”
The boy looked down. He adjusted the scarf around his neck, which was starting to grow hot under the heat of the sun, and wondered if it was supposed to make him any smarter. He continued to stare at his feet, when he noticed something odd.
The grass had been growing shorter and shorter as the troop had walked, and here, where weeds and shrubs dared to stretch out of the parched cracks in the earth, the grass stopped.
It was unnerving.
Al Innai had noticed too. He waved for the group to stop, turning slowly as his sharp eyes took in the terrain around him. Chaff followed his gaze. If they were to continue on the path they were on, they would go into a vast scrubland that stretched just as far as the grassland into the horizon. It may have been just Chaff’s imagination, but the very air seemed to shimmer in the distance on the unbroken flats.
They could turn back to the grass, but Chaff could see that no matter which way they walked, short of retracing their steps entirely, the plains broke into small shrubs and patches, nowhere near the size and abundance of the old grasses Chaff used to walk through.
The Kennya Noni fighter took off his pack, and Chaff could see the sweat on his shoulders and biceps as he stretched out his arms. His face was haggard, and worried.
“I need water,” he said. “I need something of value. And I need something to dig with.”
No one seemed to question this strange request. Scrabble handed the skin to Al Innai, who drank only a mouthful, while Royya and Parsaa put down their packs and began searching them for…something, Chaff did not know what.
“Come on, Stink,” said Clatter, leering at him as he passed. “Let’s dig-a-dig for some diggin’.”
Chaff followed him slowly. Did Al Innai intend to bury something? The boy looked over his shoulder to the Kennya Noni fighter, and saw that he had knelt, tracing a circle over his forehead again.
It was like the buried jug, Chaff realized. It was a token to the Lady Fall. It was prayer.
It was begging.
“You stay here, big guy,” he said, patting the camelopard as he passed, and the big guy snorted and flicked his ears as Chaff began to search the short grass for some stick or stone that Al Innai could use to break the hard earth.
Sweat was beginning to drip into his eyes. Chaff took off Hadiss’s scarf and slung it over his shoulder; he didn’t care how smart it might make him if his neck lit on fire. He kept his back to the sun, searching the grass in the shade of his own body.
His foot bumped against something and Chaff, intrigued, bent down to inspect it. Most of it was buried in the dirt, but as he began to sweep away the loose topsoil with his hands, he began to uncover more of it.
It was long and white and sleek, and Chaff had to tug hard to break it out of the earth when the dirt below, which had sucked up most of the rainwater from the storm, became too compact and hard for him to dig at. It cracked, and Chaff fell backward with a shard of what had been buried in his hands.
It was bone.
From the leg of some large animal like (and Chaff shuddered at the thought) the big guy, the bleached white bone sat heavily in Chaff’s hand. He turned it over, wiping the dirt away, and stared at the odd patterns playing on its surface. It seemed almost warped in parts, unnatural ripples and waves on its surface like it had been held too close to some intense fire, melting and then solidifying again.
“Yike,” muttered Chaff, scraping off what mud he could with his fingernails. “What can do that?”
“Wazzat, wazzat?” said Clatter, and Chaff nearly speared the boy as the urchin bent to inspect Chaff’s find. “Hey, hey, that’s a digger!”
Chaff tapped it experimentally on the ground. It didn’t break, which was good enough for him.
“Looks like,” said Chaff, tossing it to Clatter, who nearly dropped it as he stooped to catch it. “Give that to Al Innai, yeah?”
Clatter ran off, shouting, “Innai-Innai, see what I found!” Chaff rolled his eyes, but said nothing. It was too much trouble to argue.
Al Innai nodded approvingly. “It fits,” he said, and spun it in his hefty hand. He looked around. “Now I just need something to bury.”
Royya stood up, putting a foot on her pack, her grin unmoving, her eyes grey and cold. Parsaa knelt by both her packs and Al Innai’s, anything they could spare laid out neatly on the ground in front of him. As for Scrabble and Clatter, they had nothing but the grime on their skin and the rot in their teeth.
Al Innai passed over Parsaa’s offerings, lips pursed, and shook his head at each one. He gestured with a hand, and Parsaa immediately began to pack the knives and trinkets and utilities away. Not a word was exchanged between them.
And then Al Innai began to walk towards Chaff.
Lookout raised her head, her hair once again a tangle mess in front of her eyes, and this time she did not bother to swipe it away. Al Innai looked to her, and then to Chaff, his eyes slowly scanning over the both of them. Chaff did not dare meet his gaze, hoping against hope that he would just walk away. He didn’t know what Al Innai was looking for, but whatever it was Chaff didn’t what to give it.
“The book,” said the burly Kennya Noni fighter, and dread became replaced with horror. Hadiss’s book, the book with the coza in it? It was his ticket to finding the girl, his promise to Hadiss that they would meet again. He could not just leave it to rot in the ground, for the winter worms and maggots.
Al Innai held out a hand, and his voice was as cold and hard as iron. “She favors books, boy,” he said. “Give it to me.”
And as Chaff looked up to meet the fighter’s gaze, he knew that this was a struggle he could not win. He pulled it from his cloth belt and gave it to Al Innai without looking, and Al Innai took The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man with a curt grunt.
“Tents,” said Al Innai, as he jammed the long bone into the ground. Parsaa scurried to obey. “Sleep if you can, don’t move around much if you can’t. Get in the shade if it’s too hot, but don’t all crowd in at once. Try not to drink too much. We’re going to be here a while.”
Chaff watched as Al Innai threw the book aside onto the ground and began to dig, his eyes smoldering. Behind him, the big guy was starting to snort and stamp, and Chaff realized too late that he had been gripping his three tabula ever since he had given away the book.
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout, and her voice betrayed her nervousness. “You might want to calm down your friend here.”
Chaff gave him a pat on the side. “Easy, big guy. Come on, get down, let’s break a little now, yeah?”
The big guy rumbled, flicking his tail. Lookout’s owlcrow began to twitch its head neurotically, as Lookout licked dry lips and failed to look casual.
“Because your head too close to the sun, big guy!” said Chaff, tugging at his fur. “Now, come on, let Lookout off.”
“Yes, let me off, please and th- ow.” As the big guy sank down, Lookout’s leg hit the ground and she winced in pain. She continued to hiss and gasp and occasionally swear as she got off the big guy, with Chaff’s help, and slid onto the ground.
“Just let me into the shade, that’s it,” said Lookout, her forehead shiny with sweat, and it was from more than just the heat. Chaff stared at her knee, and felt apprehension crawling in his gut. The bandages were stained a sickly purple color, and Chaff could see blue veins running along Lookout’s calf.
Lookout didn’t seem to notice, or if she did then she didn’t call any attention to it. “Lady Summer and Spring, how do the Hag Gar Gan do it? Just let me walk next time, Chaff. Oh, by all the Ladies, just let me walk,” she said, massaging her thighs.
Chaff decided not to ask who the Hag Gar Gan were, and instead sat next Lookout in the shade of the big guy’s body, as Al Innai continued to dig. With every thrust of the bone shovel, the sun seemed to jump a little higher in the sky.
The shimmering was definitely not in Chaff’s imagination any longer. The air itself rippled and bent, and Al Innai’s figure became an indistinct blur as the earth baked beneath them like clay. Perhaps, Chaff thought as he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the heat, that was what had caused the warping in the bone, but in the back of his head he knew that wasn’t true.
The more Chaff thought about it, the more it seemed like the bone had been fused. The ripples had originated from some point at the center, and while the upper half (the one that had cracked) had been thin and delicately built, the lower half was thick and bulbous. It was still one continuous bone, no doubt, but Chaff couldn’t help but feel it was a little odd.
He scooted himself deeper into the big guy’s shadow and wondered what could have done that.
Chaff’s stomach rumbled. It felt almost too hot to eat, but the boy saw wraps of dried bush meat and tubers near Parsaa’s pack and knew he wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity for a meal.
“Hey, Lookout, you wants anything?”
Lookout did not respond.
Chaff poked her in the shoulder, and the girl slumped, but otherwise did not move. He held a hand in front of her face; she was breathing, but shallowly. “Lookout?” he said again, shaking her, and with a screech (well, the screech was from her owlcrow), Lookout opened her eyes.
“You wants anything?” Chaff asked again, cautiously.
Her eyes were glazed and unfocused, and it seemed to take her a moment to recognize Chaff. Her mouth moved, but she made no sound, until finally she said, “I, um…I…say again?”
“Getting food, yeah? You want somewhat to eat?”
“Yeah,” said Lookout, distractedly, and she wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Yeah, sure.”
Chaff wondered if he should say anything, but Lookout did not seem to want to talk to him. He squeezed her shoulder just once before he rose. It didn’t look like she had noticed.
Eying the food, Chaff wondered if he would have to argue Parsaa to get it, but the woman waved him over as she saw him approach and Chaff decided that perhaps Parsaa was not so bad.
“Hungry?” she said, and she gave him a tired smile. “Now’s as good a time to eat as any. Have the phaan first, the salts in the meat are no good when it’s this dry out.”
Chaff took the flatbread cautiously. “Thanks,” he said, and the look of surprise on Parsaa’s face was so comical that he had to smile.
“A gentleman, I see.” As Chaff began to fold the phaan into a bite-sized piece, Parsaa took his hands gently and tore a small shred off. “Eat it like that,” she said. “It lasts longer that way.”
The boy nodded, tearing small pieces off and sticking them in his mouth. The phaan was good, if dry, and his mouth felt sticky and tacky after just a few bites. He coughed, smacking his lips together to moisten his dry tongue. “Can I have some more?” he asked. “For my friend,” he added, quickly.
Chaff could understand Parsaa’s hesitation. He had never known when his next meal was going to be in the plains, too.
“Please?” he added, smiling.
Parsaa smiled and gave him one more strip of flatbread. Chaff glowed on the inside. He was good with people! “If she’s sick, feed her slowly,” said Parsaa, peering at Lookout’s prone figure. “One bite at a time, don’t rush her even if she wants more. And if we find a grove, give her sambuu or make her suck on thorntree leaves to stop the swelling.”
Chaff nodded. He was about to leave when Al Innai walked over, clapping his hands together to brush off the dust. His heart clenched when he realized the book was gone, although he could still see the patch of dirt where it had been buried. Al Innai had stuck the long bone into the ground as straight as he could, and tied one of his bandages around the end like a flag.
“Give me some,” said Al Innai, snapping his fingers, and Parsaa bowed her head and handed him more flatbread than Chaff and Lookout’s pieces combined. “Anyone in the tent? I need to get out of the sun.”
“The boys are doing their best to share,” said Parsaa, looking over her shoulder at the tent she had just set up, one Chaff recognized as the tent he himself had slept in. “And you know how Royya is about her things.”
Al Innai grunted, and marched off to his own tent without another word. Chaff stared at Parsaa.
The boys. The way she said it made him think twice about what exactly Scrabble and Clatter’s relationship with Al Innai was, and re-evaluate the servile woman called Parsaa.
Parsaa yawned. “You best get some sleep now, child. There’s precious else to do while the sun is up and you’ll need the rest.”
Chaff nodded. As he walked back to Lookout and the big guy, he heard shouts from behind him and saw Al Innai shove Scrabble and Clatter out of his tent. The urchin boys grumbled and muttered, but made no move as Al Innai wordlessly slipped inside. Scrabble went his own way, trying to find what shade he could in the pathetic patches of grass on the border of the Redlands, while Clatter curled up just outside the tent, bending his long legs awkwardly to fit in its weak shadow.
“Here you go, Lookout,” said Chaff, handing the roll of phaan to her, and Lookout took it in her hand. She didn’t eat it, though. Occasionally, she would feed a scrap to her owlcrow.
“Sorry, big guy,” Chaff said, rubbing his friend’s side. “I don’t think they brought much camelopard food.”
The big guy snorted, but Chaff knew he could handle it. They had gone far longer both in the city and out of it without meals before.
Chaff watched as Parsaa laid down, right out in the open, watched as Scrabble finally stopped rolling around, watched as Clatter’s fits and twitches ceased. He watched the openings of Al Innai’s and Royya’s tents, and neither of them moved. He watched Lookout as she dozed off again. He watched, and he waited.
The air grew so hot that Chaff felt it almost impossible to move. It was so hot that he could not breathe, so hot that he could feel the sheer weight of it all pressing against every part of his skin. No one would have even wanted to be awake in this heat.
So, when the sun was its highest, Chaff rose and walked to the mound where Al Innai had buried his book, unafraid of being interrupted or caught. The cracked earth actually scalded his feet as he walked; his hands burned as he began to dig away at the now loose dirt that covered the hole.
The hole was actually quite shallow, but as Chaff was digging it felt impossibly deep. When he found at last the corner of his book, though, a wide grin split his face. It more than made up for it.
He wiped the dirt off the cover and hugged it to his chest. It was his way to find her. It was his promise to come back. He couldn’t let go of it.
He covered up the hole as best he could, and stuck the long bone back into the ground as straight as possible. No one would ever know that he had taken the book back. He could bundle it in Hadiss’s scarf, he could hide it, he could keep it. It was his.
And on the chance Al Innai found out? Well, Chaff had dealt with grown-olds before. He could deal with Al Innai.
It never occurred to Chaff, as he was digging, that perhaps it was not Al Innai he should have been worried about. It was not Al Innai he was cheating.
A lone wind blew against Chaff’s face, and Chaff reveled in the coolness even as the Lady Fall whispered silent retribution into his ear.
Posted on December 19, 2013, in 4.07, 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. 2 Comments.