Born (Chapter 4 Part 12)
The boy stared at the night sky, the tear streaks cold and wet on his face. The stars winked overhead, mocking him with their freedom. The boy turned his head away. He did not want to look at them.
His prison stretched on around him, the endless plains of this strange grassland. Despite his best efforts to follow, the walking tree had long ago left him. He was alone.
The four disks in his hand went clink, clink, clink. They glittered, amber-gold, in the weak starlight. Four disks. As the boy had tumbled out of the tree, he had thought it was a good number to take.
He stumbled over a snag of twisted grass, and sprawled in the dirt. He rapidly blinked his moistening eyes, clutching his skinned knee and doing his best to brush away the dirt and gravel. It burned and stung when he touched his raw skin, and he whimpered as he stood shakily back on his feet.
One disk, the special one. When he held it, he felt a warmth stirring inside his chest. He slipped it into the heel of one of his fraying shoes, separate from the others. The other three, he clutched in his hands.
He kept walking.
They had dressed him in fine clothing. Golden threads hemmed his tunic and pants, and a pouch of dried fruits had been tied around his wrist. They seemed to have known it was coming. The boy did not know why his parents had sent him away; perhaps they had never been real at all. Even now, his memory of them was fading like a half-forgotten dream.
At first, he had thought this, these grasslands, was the dream. He had thought he would wake up soon enough from this terrible, surreal, endless expanse.
It had been four days and four nights and he had not yet woken.
Perhaps his so-called old life was the dream, a pleasant dream that had just ended. Perhaps he had spent his whole life inside that tree, slumbering until it was time to wake.
What was it time to wake for? Why now?
Clink, clink, clink went the amber disks. The boy stopped, his short legs incapable of taking him any further. He knelt in the grass, catching his breath. Weakly, he untied the bag around his wrist, and pulled out a slice of dried apple. He ate it greedily, barely even stopping to swallow, but as he began to dig around in the bag again his fingers only scraped across coarse fabric.
It was empty.
He chewed what was left slowly. Eat it slowly, whispered a voice in his head. Save it. Find more food now. The boy furrowed his brow. It felt like advice from another fading memory, even if it didn’t sound like it.
The boy turned over the golden disks again. He dug in his shoe, and pulled out his own; it was warm from the heat of his feet, but it had not scuffed or scratched. Its surface was flawless but for the natural ripples and imperfections.
He wiped his thumb across it. If he squinted, he could just barely make out his own reflection on its surface, a barely visible dark shadow lit by the starlight.
The boy stared at it for quite some time, as the disk gradually grew colder. It was stiff and still and inert in his hands. The boy put it away. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting.
As he got up to walk again, though, he could not stop fiddling with the other amber disks. They were the only things he had to play with, after all, and as he stared out at the lonely horizon ahead of him tears began to well in his eyes.
He shed none, though. What was the point of crying if no one was there to see or hear?
The boy exhaled, a shuddering release of emotion and energy, and nearly dropped his disks in shock when they began vibrating in response. The bottom two he let slip, and they rolled in the dirt for a second before falling at his feet. He held one, though, and his fingers still tingled from its movement.
He exhaled again, breathing slowly and heavily, and did his best not to drop the disk when it began to shake violently. Push it further. Give it more. More.
Sweat began to break out on the boy’s forehead. The blood rushed up to his head, and his knees wobbled underneath him as, even as his lungs felt like they were out of air, he kept breathing out, kept all his attention on the disk in his hands and the waving plains around him.
There was a crack like thunder as the boy fell to the ground, gasping for breath. White spots danced in his vision, as he struggled to sit upright, and it was several seconds of clutching his head and blinking his eyes before he noticed the shadow standing over him.
The boy let out a strangled yelp as he turned to see the behemoth standing over him. Its yellow fur was patterned with dark brown spots, and its long, spindly legs were matched only by its long, spindly neck. “Big guy,” the boy breathed, craning his head all the way back just to see its head. To his surprise he saw that its black eyes were wide with fear and shock.
Camelopard. The boy blinked. That was its name, he was certain of it. That was what it was. But…
How had he known that?
The camelopard tossed his head, eyes rolling as he began to back away. The boy rose hurriedly to his feet, clutching the disk in his hands. “Don’t go!” he shouted, his voice high and reedy. He wasn’t even sure if the giant had heard him, it stood so tall above him. “Please don’t go.”
He didn’t go. The camelopard turned his head this way and that, prancing in circles, legs shaking as he walked. The boy could make out a barely audible bass hum from the creature’s throat, as the big guy surveyed the vast plains.
The camelopard sank to the ground, his legs folding underneath him even while he kept his neck upright and outstretched. The animal bleated, a low, morose sound that carried far around them.
Edging forward, the boy gulped, trying to calm his raw nerves. Who was this creature? Who had sent him? Who had brought him?
With a hesitant hand, the boy stroked the camelopard’s fur. It was delightfully warm and soft, and despite himself the boy drew a little closer.
“I’m tired,” said the boy, sitting next to the camelopard. He met the animal’s gaze: the camelopard had not stopped looking at him since the boy had approached the beast. “You tired?”
The camelopard snorted and flicked an ear.
The boy wrapped his arms around his knees, and before he knew it the tears were flowing openly and freely again. “I’m so tired,” the boy sobbed. “I want to go back to sleep. I want to go back to my dream.”
And he cried into the long night, until he had exhausted everything that still longed for home inside of him. He had no dreams that night. But for the echo of his own thoughts, it was only darkness and silence.
He woke up in the morning with his face in the big guy’s fur, warm and soft. The boy must have tipped over sometime in the night, but as he blinked bleary eyes and looked up, it seemed that the camelopard did not mind. The big guy still had his head up and his eyes open, as if he had not moved at all since last night.
The boy wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He felt…empty. A good empty, a complete empty. Empty of grief and fear and worry. Empty of everything.
He used the camelopard to support himself as he stood up, and methodically picked up his four little disks. Perhaps each one was a wish, and this was his first. The boy smiled. He would save the next two, then. He didn’t know what his, the last one, was supposed to do, though. He supposed he would find out later.
The boy furrowed his eyebrows as he looked at the empty pouch dangling on his wrist. He was supposed to find food, wasn’t he?
Before he began to walk, though, the boy untied the string that held the pouch to his wrist. It was uncomfortable, dangling there like that. He considered it for a moment, his last reminder of wherever home was or had been, and slowly he let it slip out of his hand. It landed in the dirt, a sad, faded thing.
The boy turned away, just as the big guy stood up. “You coming with me?” asked the boy.
The big guy didn’t say anything.
“Let’s stick together,” said the boy. “You want to stick together?”
Not a word, but as the boy began to walk the camelopard followed.
“Let’s go.” The boy looked around, not knowing which way to go, which way was the right way. “Let’s go forward.” He paused. “Yeah?”
The boy smiled. “Always forward. That’s right.”
Twisted shadows snaked around him as the boy sat under the shade of the thorntree. The big guy stood nearby, browsing the rubbery leaves. The boy had tried to them once, but he had been sick the whole night after and decided it was better to just let the camelopard have them.
The boy stared out at the horizon, the taste of onions in his mouth. The water was clean, the food was wholesome, and the air was cool. What more could he ask for?
Company. The boy flipped the golden disk in his hand over and over. If the boy could ask for anything, it would be company. The big guy was his friend, yes, but sometimes the boy wanted more than one friend. It couldn’t be wrong, to have more than one friend.
The boy looked out at the horizon, searching for anything out there that looked like…well, that looked like him. His hands and feet, his arms and legs, his face. It had to be somewhere out there. He was sure of it.
He stared long and hard at the horizon, but nothing moved except for the swaying grass. There was nothing out here.
He looked at the amber disk again. He had promised himself it was for emergencies only, but it had been weeks and weeks and he had not yet run into an emergency that neither he nor the big guy couldn’t handle on their own.
The disk glinted in the sunlight, enticing him, tempting him. What could go wrong? There was enough food for all of them; an extra pair of eyes would help find more. The boy wondered what kind of friends he’d get. Would they be as big as the big guy? The boy doubted it, but he was ready to believe anything.
He hopped off of his branch and sat at the base of the tree. The sun was climbing and soon it would be too hot to keep moving. “I’m sleeping now, big guy,” said the boy, still fiddling with the disks. “You can too if you like, yeah? We don’t go nowhere ‘til night.”
The big guy flicked his tail but otherwise did not acknowledge the boy. The boy left him to his own devices; the camelopard could sleep when he wanted to sleep.
As the hours passed, the boy realized he couldn’t sleep that well either. His hands kept tracing the rim of his disks, and his mind was racing with the possibilities. As the sun climbed higher and the air grew hot and dry, the boy could stand it no longer. He sat up straight and held one of the disks in his hands. His hands tingled with nervous energy.
And to his surprise, with something else, too.
The disk hummed ever so softly, so lightly that the boy could barely even feel it. The boy squinted. It was hard to see in the shadow of the tree, but through the molten, smoky colors of the amber disk’s surface, he thought he saw something moving.
The boy leaned closer, his curiosity building. What was that? He saw gold and white and green in the disk, and when he angled it just right, his heart beating just fast enough, he saw something that took his breath away.
A human face. Fair hair, tied in braids behind her head. Two eyes, crinkled in a happy smile. A mouth, wide open in laughter.
The boy stared at the picture for the longest time, until his head spun from the effort of powering the disk and he had to stop and lie down. He would do it tonight, the boy decided, as he curled up at the base of the tree and closed his eyes. He would make a new friend tonight.
When he woke up, the tree was gone. The watering hole had disappeared, and the ground and grass was unblemished. It was as if the grove had never been there at all. The boy yawned. It didn’t worry him; the trees walked, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
He looked up at the swaying stars, and around him at the swaying grass. He thumbed the amber disk, and bit his lip. This was no place to do it. It had to be done just right.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy’s side. Perhaps one day he would ride the beast, but for now he could barely hoist himself on the camelopard’s back without running out of breath. “Let’s find somewhere better, yeah?”
As they walked through the grass, the boy’s mind buzzed. What was he going to say? How was she going to react? “Hi there,” rehearsed the boy. “Do you want to play?”
There was something missing, something he had to add…
“Hi there,” tried the boy again. “I’m…I’m…” He paused. He started over. “Hi there. This is the big guy. He’s my friend. Do you want to be my friend?”
The big guy snorted and spit on the boy’s head. Evidently, he wanted no part in this.
The boy decided he would figure out what to say later. What about actually bringing her here? With a sinking heart, the boy realized that perhaps things would be different than from the big guy. What if all her disk could do was show her face? What if he broke it somehow when he tried to bring her here?
So preoccupied was the boy with his thoughts that he didn’t realize that he was beginning to walk on dirt, not grass. He looked up. “You see that, big guy?”
The camelopard turned his head placidly, as if savoring the view.
Dark canyons snaked their way around them, their pits and crevices near pitch black in the dim light. It was a spider’s web of shadows, set against the near unbroken horizon and flat plateaus around them. It was stunning.
“Here, yeah?” said the boy. “Here.”
He looked at the amber disks, and he felt his heart racing again. He would practice first, he decided. He had two disks left, after all.
After quickly double-checking which was hers, the boy took the one that wasn’t and braced himself. “You ready, big guy?” asked the boy. The big guy said nothing. The boy took that as a yes.
And he focused. With a twisted grimace of concentration, the boy grit his teeth and put all of his attention on the amber disk in his hand. His hands were shaking from the effort, his muscles so stiff and tense they were quivering.
He held this position for at least half a minute before he loosened his grip, perplexed. Nothing had happened.
The boy wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried again, but no matter how tight or tense he grew nothing happened. Frustration building inside him, the boy stamped his foot on the ground. How was he supposed to get this thing to work?
It started to vibrate.
It stopped as soon as the boy noticed, and he snarled, shaking the disk to try and get it to move again. He needed this to work tonight! What if the canyons moved away like the groves, slithering away like snakes? He would lose this perfect opportunity.
The disk began to hum, even as the impatience and frustration built up in the boy’s gut. In-between those hot, heady feelings, though, the boy felt a single drop of cold fear. The disk was almost thrashing in his hands now, its steady hum interrupted by violent and erratic screeches, but it was too late to let go. The boy felt his vision clouding as the air was squeezed out of his lungs and the strength bled from his body.
And then it was over.
Like with the big guy, the boy found himself on the ground, with a shadow looming over him. The big guy was tossing his head nervously, and realized that yes, there could be something taller than the camelopard. Well, “taller” wasn’t exactly it.
The giant bird flapped its wings once to stay aloft as it wheeled in the air, and the boy could feel the sheer force of the wind. Its talons were long and sleek; its head was noble and proud; its eyes were gold like the amber disks glinting in the boy’s hand. The boy gaped, even as the corners of his mouth began to curl up in a wide smile.
“Hey!” the boy shouted, waving his arms. “Hey!”
The boy saw the bird’s eyes flicker from him, to the disks in his hand. There was a moment’s pause, as the bird dipped one wing to turn around and face him.
And then the eagle tucked its wings in a dive.
Before the boy could react, talons as long as his arm closed his waist. Wings that could have smothered him in an instant began to beat at the air, and the gales ripped the screams out of the boy’s mouth and scattered them to the winds.
The bird took off, and the boy’s stomach lurched as the world shrunk under him. He was too afraid to struggle, his eyes growing wider and wider as the wind whipped at his hair and the ground sank further and further away. They passed over one of the shadowy chasms, and the boy felt bile rising to his throat as the bird dived again.
The boy began to focus on the bird’s disk again, panic welling up in his gut, but his focus was broken when the bird slammed him into the cliff face. The impact shuddered his bones, the rock tearing deep cuts in his skin, and the disk fell from his hands as the boy cried out in pain.
“No!” the boy shouted, reaching for the falling amber glint, but the bird smashed him against the rock again and when the stars had cleared from the boy’s eyes the disk was lost.
The eagle landed on an outcrop on the far side of the canyon. The boy was pressed against the ground, arms splayed out and chest open, and he stared in abject terror at the bird pressing him to the ground. It stretched its wings out and screamed, hot breath rushing over the boy’s face as the high-pitched keening noise pierced his ears.
His eyes met the bird’s golden ones, and the boy found no pity or understanding in them. The bird’s eyes darted from the boy, to the sky, and it screeched again: a lost, angry sound.
How long that bird sat on that perch, screaming for the home it had just been taken from, the boy did not know. Every time it looked at him, the boy could feel the malice and hate in its eyes, and he shrank further into himself, awash with not only fear but guilt.
The bird did not kill him, but some part of the boy died in that canyon that night. When morning came at last, the eagle flapped away, still screaming for whatever it had lost, leaving the boy alone on the outcrop. He lay there, feeling his bruises and cuts, and when at last he had recovered the will to get up he began the long climb down.
It was a dangerous trip, one that his little hands and feet had only just enough strength for, but he could see the big guy waiting for him at the bottom of the canyon, pacing and bleating. That gave his spirit just a little more hope.
They walked out together, the boy limping as his bruises began to turn purple and swell. The entire time, the boy did not speak. Not to the big guy, not to himself, not to anyone. It was only after they had left—only after they had struggled their way out of the canyons—that the boy said, very quietly, “Not here. I’m not bringing her here.”
The boy remembered very little, but his night in the Redlands he never forgot.
Chaff fell. He clutched his tabula to his chest, and to his surprise he was not afraid.
He was angry.
The tabula exploded to life in his hand. Faster than he had ever felt before, he felt them vibrating and shaking and then, out of thin air, crackling and buzzing and snapping with raw energy, the big guy materialized.
The camelopard was too late to catch Chaff’s fall, but still Chaff did not hit the ground. He had been caught in someone else’s arms.
Lookout planted her legs—both of them—and grunted as she caught Chaff. Her arms were like tree boughs, stiff and strong, but while she managed to slow his descent, she could not stop it entirely. Chaff collapsed on the ground, groaning, even as Lookout hopped back up to her feet. As Chaff’s concentration on his tabula broke, she stumbled suddenly, looking dazed.
Chaff rolled on the ground. Hadiss’s gifts had tumbled out of his grasp, and, pushing past the pain and aches, he tried to pick them up.
“What the hell is going on?” shouted Al Innai, running up to Chaff. He looked back up to Parsaa, who was still making her way down the cliff. “Did I tell you to do that?”
“Smart of her to get the jump on him like that,” said Royya, the only other person to have made the descent. “We’ve only got so much food and water, Kennya Noni boy. Parsaa is more intelligent—and more ruthless—than you give her credit for.”
“Yes, but…” Al Innai froze. His face colored red as he saw what Chaff was grasping for. “The book?” he breathed.
A cold sweat broke out over Chaff’s entire body, and he stumbled forward, trying to both recover his things and mount the big guy. Lookout, noticing Al Innai’s livid expression, bent hurriedly to help Chaff to his feet. “Now would be a good time for that mystical healing bullshit,” she said, pulling him up.
Chaff had only just got to his feet when Al Innai grabbed him by the collar and pulled him in close. “What was my one rule? You fuck with me, you die in these plains,” snarled Al Innai. The muscles bulged in his arms, and Chaff’s most desperate struggles could not budge him an inch. “You want to explain yourself before I finish what Parsaa started?”
The boy’s eyes rolled, and he looked up, struggling for breath as Al Innai’s grip tightened. He stared at the sky, sucking in air, and managed to wheeze one word. “Up,” Chaff said.
Al Innai’s eyebrows furrowed, and he automatically glanced upwards- just to have Lookout’s owlcrow land on his face, screeching.
He let go of Chaff, yelling and batting away at the bird, and despite all of his training there was very little that had prepared him for an aerial assault. Every time Sinndi screeched, Chaff felt his old phobia flare, but it was masked by relief. The bird was on his side, now.
“Up, up, up,” said Chaff, clambering onto the big guy’s back and extending a hand to Lookout. “Go big, big guy!”
As the big guy broke into a sprint, Chaff turned to look. Royya made no move to stop them; she only watched, arms crossed, a smirk on her face. Lookout’s owlcrow had broken away from Al Innai and was now flapping behind them, which meant that the Kennya Noni fighter was free to pursue.
Chaff had to admit, the Kennya Noni fighter was fast. But Chaff was a child of Shira Hay. He was a racer.
The big guy was much, much faster.
“I don’t think,” said Lookout, breathlessly. “That’s the last we’ve seen of him. Any of them.”
“Yeah? So what?”
“They might cause some problems, later.”
“Nothing we can’t handle, yeah?”
Lookout grinned. “Sure. Nothing we can’t handle.”
Chaff gripped the big guy’s mane, and Lookout held on by wrapping her arms around Chaff’s waist. The canyon stretched on ahead of them, a long and unbroken path that the big guy ran quickly and easily. When and where they would emerge, Chaff did not know, but it was plenty of ground to lose the rest of the nomads in.
Behind him, Lookout flexed her leg. “You want to explain what happened back there?”
“I don’t know,” said Chaff, and it was the truth. He didn’t know why he said it with a smile. Perhaps it was just the rush of the chase getting to him. “I’m dumb, yeah? I don’t know a lot of things.”
Lookout sighed, but she did that with a smile too. “Lucky for you,” she said. “I do.”
And they rode through the Redlands. It had taken him seven years, but Chaff finally left the canyons with another friend.
Posted on January 26, 2014, in 4.12, Chapter 4 (Born & Bred) and tagged adventure, Al Innai, Big Guy, Chaff, Clatter, creative writing, fantasy, Lookout, novel, original characters, Other Guy, Parsaa, Royya, Scrabble, Sinndi, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.