Born (Chapter 4 Part 10)

The makeshift flag flapped in the wind, pointing southwest, deeper into the Redlands. Chaff hugged his bundled book and scarf to his chest, sweating in the heat. It was a hot wind, and it seemed to blow sand and grit in Chaff’s face wherever he turned. He huddled in the shade of the big guy’s body, and watched as Al Innai stripped off the bandage. The Kennya Noni fighter left the bone in place, though, as he turned in the direction the wind was blowing.

“Let’s get moving then,” he said, hoarsely. “The faster we get out of here the better.”

Chaff clutched his book closer to him. Perhaps, when he had a spare moment, he could get Lookout to read it for him and see if there was an answer somewhere in there.

His gaze flickered to Lookout. Could he trust her enough to share his secret with her? What if she ratted him out to Al Innai? She certainly didn’t seem to be the reverent type, but Chaff could never tell with religion and gods. He didn’t want to risk it.

From her seat on the big guy’s back, Lookout had apparently noticed him looking, and met his gaze questioningly. Despite the hot sun, she looked pale, and there were dark bags under her eyes. The skin around her leg was blotched purple and red, and the flesh seemed to sag to her bones.

Chaff looked away immediately, and rubbed his thumb on the girl’s tabula for good luck. He hoped Lookout would get better soon. There were no healers out in the grasslands, no medicine to be found and no sick bay to rest.

“You two, get moving!” shouted Al Innai, and Chaff patted the big guy’s side. The camelopard snorted, and walked on unsteadily. He didn’t look so good, either. The fur was hanging loosely on him, and his black tongue seemed almost swollen. Chaff hadn’t heard his stomach grumble in hours, and truth be told it was days since the camelopard had last eaten. A creature that big needed food in him, and fast.

“We find something to eat soon, yeah?” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side as they walked. “Gonna do it, no worries.”

The big guy flicked his tail, as an even stronger wind blew at Chaff’s back. It should have cooled him off, but all he felt was the sharp prick and sting like little needles on his bare arms and legs.

They had walked for barely a minute when a sharp crack rang out across the shimmering Redlands. Chaff froze, tense, but it was close; Clatter was on the ground, whimpering feebly as Royya drew her fist back for another punch.

No!” shouted Parsaa, and she leaped in Royya’s way, grabbing her wrist and shielding the frizzy-haired urchin with her body. When she grabbed Royya’s arm, though, it was like watching the thin woman try to snap rock with her bare hands. Royya barely moved, although she did stop to give Parsaa a once over.

Royya’s grim expression seemed to spasm momentarily, before her mouth split in a wide, cold smile. “Sorry,” she said, and her voice was hoarse, too. Dry, Chaff thought. Everyone’s voices is dry. “Sun made me do it.” She offered no other explanation. She just stood straight, adjusted her pack, and kept walking.

Al Innai made no comment, and so no one else did either. As Chaff walked past them, he saw Parsaa dabbing Clatter’s bleeding lip with the hem of her shirt, and heard Scrabble commiserating with Clatter, arm around his shoulder. “Don’t feel no bad nothing ‘bout crazy Royya,” said Scrabble. “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”

Chaff looked Royya’s way. She had wandered off separate from the group, and from what Chaff could hear seemed to be humming tunelessly to herself. He squinted. He had to know if she was volatile enough to be a threat.

“You see why she do that, Lookout?” asked Chaff, craning his head to get a better look at Royya’s face. As far as he could tell, she was still smiling.

“No,” croaked Lookout. “But I know why.”

“How-?” began Chaff, but then he remembered who he was talking to and said, under his breath, “Never mind.”

“She’s scared,” said Lookout. She sniffed, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She looked nauseous, and Chaff put a steadying hand on the big guy’s side, a sign for him to walk a little slower and a little more smoothly.

“She doesn’t look scared,” said Chaff, unable to shake the image of Royya’s frozen smile from his mind.

“She’s more scared than any of us.” Lookout opened her eyes. “See the way she keeps looking over her shoulder? She doesn’t think this is the right way, but she has to stay with us if she wants to survive. She’ll do anything she needs to, to survive.”

Chaff could appreciate that line of thinking, although just because he appreciated it did not mean he sympathized with her. That just made Royya all the more dangerous.

He hugged his book tight to his chest again. He had more of a mission than just to survive.

The sun began to set as they walked on, and Chaff welcomed the coolness. Long shadows danced with the orange tendrils snaking across the arid badlands, which at this point had devolved from grass to sunbaked dirt, cracked like porcelain. In the fading sky, he could make out the faint outline of the moon, full and round. The eye of the Lady Fall, Hadiss had called it, watching over all of them.

Chaff thought nothing of it, even as the eye stared unblinkingly at the little party as they trekked across the dusty, broken badlands. The walk was becoming harder; his muscles were sore from his sprint from the slavers around the city, and tired from lack of rest. They burned as he walked, a slow fire that ate away at the fringes of his strength and stamina. The path seemed to be leading uphill, too. It was a hard climb, but Al Innai led point, marching straight forward in the direction the wind had pointed him.

If Chaff remembered correctly, he knew why the land was sloping upward. He knew where they were going. He didn’t say anything out loud, but as the big guy began to toss his head in nervousness, Chaff put a comforting hand on his neck and whispered soothing nonsense up to his ear as he held the camelopard’s tabula.

As they walked, Chaff kept his gaze up, looking straight at the orange and blue sky. Sinndi, Lookout’s owlcrow, was too weak to fly, so the skies were clear, but all the same, Chaff looked out for birds.

Lookout sucked in a sharp breath. Of course, she would be the first to see it. As they crested the hill, Chaff could see it with his own eyes, and his suspicions were confirmed.

The long canyon cracked this place, these Redlands, in two. As the group finally ascended, a long flat stretch of stone and dirt lay before them, broken only by the dry riverbed that snaked through the canyon. Chaff could only imagine what force had carved the great stone plateaus and cliffs ahead of them.

Up ahead, Parsaa had put a warning hand on Al Innai’s shoulder. Al Innai had paused, and when he turned to look at where the canyon led, in both directions, Chaff saw a pained grimace on his face. The path ahead was not so straight and easy—not, Chaff reminded himself, that it ever was.

“You said you’ve been here before, Chaff?” said Lookout, and Chaff started. He looked around. His face must have given it away. Everyone else was surprise or startled, but he had not jumped up or gasped or swore. He had simply been…disappointed.

Chaff nodded once. There was no use lying about that.

“You know how to get out?” Lookout coughed when she said that, and Chaff’s eyes darted from her leg to her eyes. He knew what she meant. If this wasn’t the way out, then Lookout was never leaving Shira Hay.

He remembered standing on the edge of those cliffs, staring at the canyon below. Some of the canyon walls were sloped and smooth; one could almost walk down them if they were careful. Others were straight, steep shots downward. That was the one Chaff had stood on, staring at the long fall downward.

The wild child shuddered. It must have only been one winter, at most two, after his Fallow. He was not proud of that moment.

“Last time I is here,” said Chaff. “I turn back. I don’t know how we goes forward.” He nodded his head slowly. “But we go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”

Despite her obvious fatigue and the pallor of her skin, Lookout smiled. “That’s right,” she echoed, and looked ahead at the great canyons. The strata of the rock glowed in the light of the setting sun, russet to bone white to an orange red that almost looked like the surface of a tabula. “You know,” Lookout said. “If you take a moment to just…appreciate it, it really is beautiful.”

“No water, though,” said Chaff. He didn’t care how beautiful the Redlands were if they were going to kill him. “No hollow ever comes here. Nothing lives here, yeah? No good, no good.”

He paused, staring at the great crack on the face of Albumere. He scratched the big guy’s side, but the camelopard did not move, the scene reflected in his black eyes.

“It is beautiful, though, yeah?” said Chaff, nodding. “The view’s…pretty.”

And they stood there, their backs to the setting sun, and watched the light paint the Redlands as night fell and the stars began to emerge.

“We don’t got much water left,” said Scrabble, shaking both the water skin and Chaff from his reverie. What was left of their water sloshed around pitifully in the skin, and Chaff knew that one more drink was all he got before he went thirsty. “If we make camp here, Innai-Innai…”

“We’re going to keep moving,” grunted Al Innai, waving them on. “Down into the canyon, then back up and over. That’s the way to go.”

Chaff gulped. Climbing down into the canyon would not be easy. Climbing up and out of it would be near impossible.

“What about the water?” shouted Clatter. “We drink-a-drink ‘fore we go!”

Al Innai looked over at them. Chaff knew what he was thinking. He would not waste a precious drink on someone who might fall to their death in the next hour.

“You drink on the other side,” he said. “Now suck it up, let’s get moving.”

Chaff caught Scrabble leering at him as they walked ahead, and felt a crawling in his gut. Scrabble could not lull him into the same sense of false security as Hook. Chaff resolved to keep as far away as possible from the urchin on both the climb down and the climb up. He would make sure to do the same for Royya, too. Except…

The slope was steep, but Al Innai insisted on marching straight ahead. He climbed down easily and swiftly, his muscles rippling as he swung from handhold to handhold like some gorillai from the Jhidnu wilds. Royya was less sure-footed, but as she began to clamber down she was agile and confident. Parsaa’s footsteps were careful and cautious, but she seemed in no danger yet.

But as Chaff watched, he realized that no matter how careful and cautious someone was, hooves could not grab those handholds. He looked up at the big guy, the lanky, cumbersome animal, and knew that a camelopard had always been designed for horizontal distances, not vertical ones.

“Parsaa!” he shouted, before she had gone too far. “The big guy can’t make this climb!” Chaff’s look was pleading. Perhaps she could get through to Al Innai, if they were so close…

Parsaa pursed her lips, and looked from the big guy to the canyon floor. Finally, she said, “Climb down here alone!”

Chaff shifted closer to his friend. “I’m not leaving-!”

“You won’t have to,” said Parsaa, cutting him off. “Climb down alone, then use his tabula to summon him. He won’t have to lift a hoof.”

“Clever Parsaa,” Chaff breathed, and he nodded. “See you on the other side, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy on the leg.

“Wait!” said Lookout, and her face was, if possible, even paler. “Chaff, I can’t make that climb either.”

Chaff met eyes with Lookout, and the same thought passed through their heads at the same time.

Shaking his head, Chaff looked around, trying to think of another way. “Could- could your owlcrow fly them down to me?”

“No,” said Lookout, weakly. “Her talons aren’t big enough, and the tabula are too heavy.”

Chaff was silent. He didn’t know what else to suggest. He wasn’t the clever one.

“Fuck it,” said Lookout. Chaff looked up. “Fuck it. Yeah, fuck it. Alright, I’ll do it. I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do it.” Aggressively, Lookout dug behind her own scarf and pulled out her tabula. She flipped it over in her hand, staring at it. “Whatever. I have to do it. No choice.” She gripped it tight. “Lady Summer, fucking burn it all, I got no choice.”

Chaff could not bear to meet her gaze.

“I trust you,” said Lookout, breathing deeply. “You get me down there, alright? You get me down there, and then you get me out of here, you hear me?”

Still not looking at her, Chaff nodded. It felt almost sacrilegious, to touch Lookout’s tabula, like he was violating some intimate and private part of her. But, slowly, hesitantly, he took the tabula from her hand. He stuffed it in his belt at once; he didn’t feel right touching it with his bare skin.

But when he did, he saw the momentary shudder. “I won’t keep it, Lookout,” he said, as the girl hugged her own shoulders. “I’ll give it back as soon as I can.”

Lookout just nodded.

The other two urchins, with him, were the last to go down. “I don’t know ‘bout you,” said Clatter, as they scraped and slid their way down the hill, clinging to the rock face. “But my hunger getting’ hungry.”

“We gotta eat somethin’, yeah?” said Scrabble, affecting Chaff’s speech again. Chaff sped up his pace. He did not want to be caught near this two without any of his own allies to protect him.

Clatter licked his lips. “You know what-what I got a craving for? Meat. Aw, meat.”

“Not so much meat to find out here, yeah?” said Scrabble. “Not never gonna find something living. Gotta make do with what we have.”

Chaff had had enough. He almost leaped down the rock face, doing his best to get as far away from the two as possible. As long as he held the big guy’s tabula and his tabula and Lookout’s tabula and the girl’s tabula, they would all be safe. He could—he would—make sure of it himself.

Hands slick with sweat, Chaff could feel his arms shaking as he grabbed the tiny cracks and juts in the canyon wall that he could hold onto. The book and the scarf wrapped tight around his waist, he could only hope that the others were too busy climbing on their own to notice.

Chaff made the mistake of looking down. All of a sudden, the wall seemed to be sloping in, like he was hanging from the rock with nothing to catch his fall but the ground. Chaff could feel his heart palpitating, feel bile rising up to his throat.

He choked it down and kept climbing. He could rest when he made it to the bottom, and he would make it to the bottom. Chaff was a survivor.

He kept a weather eye out for both the urchins Scrabble and Clatter, and Royya of the Cove. Of all the things in the canyon, they were his biggest threats. He had no doubt that at least one would kill him, just for an extra drink of water.

His gaze flickered from foothold to Royya to the skies to Clatter to Scrabble to the next foothold. There were too many things to track, too many to keep all in his head. He closed his eyes, doing his best to let his mind rest even as his body shook from the effort.

Then he felt a foot on his hand.

His head snapped up. Royya and the urchins were both whole body-lengths away! They would never have been able to get to him so fast!

That was the first thought that ran through his head before he saw Parsaa right over him, her tired, motherly face somehow more tired than ever. “I’m sorry, Chaff,” she said, softly. “There’s just not enough for all of us.”

And she pushed his hand away, sending Chaff grasping wildly for support as his whole upper body was thrown off-balance. His heel struck the rock and began to bleed even as he tumbled over and began to fall down, down, down. There was nothing left to hold now but air and hope.

The boy clutched his precious things, closed his eyes, and waited for the ground to catch him.

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Posted on January 5, 2014, in 4.10, Chapter 4 (Born & Bred) and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Chaff looked Royya’s way. She had wandered off separate from the grip
    grip -> group

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