Call (Chapter 5 Part 1)
Chaff’s foot sank into the marsh, and he shuddered and gagged. He was almost certain something had crawled past his ankle beneath the mud. He decided he didn’t like mud. Grass was straightforward and direct, but mud was invasive and clinging.
“No, no,” muttered Lookout, twisting around as her bare feet splashed through the muck. “This doesn’t make any sense.”
Chaff finished rolling his pants up to his knees and turned around to look at her. “What don’t make no sense?”
“Look at this, Chaff,” said Lookout, backing up. She took a few steps back and began dripping mud onto earth that was dry as bone and cracked like porcelain. Dust accumulated on her wet feet as she paced. “You can see where one part stops and the other part starts.”
The boy exchanged a look with the big guy, and shrugged. “This the border to Kazakhal, yeah?”
Lookout put her hands on her hips. “Yeah, so what?”
“Kazakhal a weird place,” said Chaff, dismissively.
Lookout gaped at him incredulously. “Chaff, how does that explain any of this?”
“Kazakhal a weird place.” Chaff’s stomach grumbled. “C’mon,” he said, waving his hand. “Water means food, yeah? Big guy’s hungry. I’s hungry.” The boy slapped the big guy’s leg, but the camelopard seemed too busy lapping up the muddy water to get moving.
“It must be so peaceful, living inside your head,” said Lookout, wading back into the sudden marsh. Sinndi squawked and landed on her shoulder, the warm updrafts of the Redlands no longer so readily available. “You don’t question anything.”
“I question some things,” said Chaff, indignantly. “When’s Al Innai gonna come back to beat us up? That’s my question.”
“Mister Kennya Noni and all his goons would have to be crazy to chase us all the way out here. I know how far we came, Chaff, and I know how hard it would be to get here without the big guy.” Despite her cavalier smile, Lookout glanced over her shoulder. “They’re not coming after us. I know it.”
Chaff trusted her. He adjusted his scarf and his book and slogged on.
His chest was already drenched with sweat and Ladies knew what else by mid-morning. The marsh seemed to boil under the high sun, bubbles swelling and popping on its surface. Tangled reeds clung to Chaff’s feet and legs, and disturbed bloodsucker flies buzzed into the air as he passed. It was such a stark contrast that even Chaff began to feel the unease Lookout had described; he looked back at the parched wasteland, and then at brackish water he stood knee-deep in.
Ever since Fallow, Chaff had not once left the borders of Shira Hay, but even he could tell this was not how geography was supposed to work.
“How you feel about this, big guy?” he asked, his voice a little hushed. He didn’t want Lookout to hear that he was scared.
The big guy tossed his head and snorted. Walking for him seemed laborious; the mud sucked at his hooves with every step. He seemed more annoyed than spooked, though, and plowed on regardless of Chaff’s misgivings.
Chaff braced himself. If the big guy wasn’t scared, why should he be? “It’s you they always spot anyway,” said Chaff. “Anything out here gonna be your problem.”
He looked over his shoulder at Lookout. She was lagging behind, her face drawn and her hand on her leg.
“Hey, Lookout!” Chaff shouted. “You good, yeah?”
Lookout jumped, and shook her head. “Yeah, I’m fine,” she said, letting go of her leg. “I just…I’m good.” She waded through the water after him, taking wide steps to keep up. “Come on, let’s go see if we can find somewhere to dry off and rest.”
Chaff nodded. “Your leg OK?” he asked, eying it. It was whole and healed, but Chaff was wary that something was still wrong with it. Lookout had long ago taken her tabula back, and Chaff had checked it over twice to make sure there were no cracks in it before she did, but all the same he wanted to make sure he had done nothing wrong—whatever it was he had done.
“My leg’s fine,” said Lookout. “Fit as a fall hopper.”
Chaff rubbed his shoulder. He wasn’t sure how to say what he wanted to say. “I’m just worried, yeah?”
Lookout gave him a wry smile, tinged with sadness. “Yeah. I know.” She sighed, and looked ahead. Chaff followed her gaze. The further they went into the marsh, the more the Redlands seemed to have simply never existed. “Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout. “Does it ever get…tiring?”
“Leaving people behind. All the time, no matter where I go or what I do, I just have to leave people behind.” Lookout scrubbed her eyes. “I don’t know. I liked Parsaa. I wish she hadn’t done that.”
“Yeah,” said Chaff, staring at the water. “I know the feeling.” He adjusted his scarf. It was growing hot around his neck. “But you got Sinndi, yeah? And I got big guy, and we got each other. We ain’t leaving each other behind.”
“Sure, we aren’t, but no matter how long you live or how far you go, if you keep leaving people behind, the world is just so full of…strangers.” Lookout’s gaze was distant. “I never know what to do around strangers.”
“I thought you know everything, yeah?” said Chaff, smiling.
“Shut it, you,” said Lookout, and from what Chaff could tell her spirits seemed to have lifted. (He still, to his eternal dismay, wasn’t very good with faces, but she was smiling and that was always a good sign.) “I was being facetious.”
“Far-see-what? What’s that mean?”
“Oh, you don’t know? Pity, I do,” said Lookout, sticking her tongue out at him.
Chaff kicked water at her in reply, and Lookout gasped in shock and indignation as everything from the waist down was drenched in dirty marsh water. The corners of her open mouth quickly turned up in a wide grin, and she splashed water back, laughing. Chaff was about to retaliate and engage in an all-out war when he remembered the book.
“Wait, wait, wait,” he said, giggling. “Lookout, stop! I gotta keep this safe.” He held the book up in the air, out of reach.
“Here, gimme that, I got a place to put it,” said Lookout. She took the book from Chaff’s hands, and the moment she had it, she kicked a wave in Chaff’s open chest. The boy reeled, coughing and spluttering and laughing, and clung to the big guy for support.
“By the Ladies, Chaff,” said Lookout, chuckling. She shook her head. “You’re so dumb.”
He unwound his sodden scarf and tossed it over the big guy’s back, while he wiped bits of fern and floating detritus from his face. “Yeah? Yike. That’s a problem,” said Chaff, stumbling forward. “Give it back now!”
“The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man,” read Lookout, dancing ahead of Chaff as they walked. “You know, we never got around to reading it.”
Chaff waded his way to Lookout’s side. “Read it, then, yeah? I want to know what’s in it!”
“Ahem,” said Lookout, adjusting her beige scarf (although it, too, was sodden and dirty). She coughed like some pompous elector, flipping the cover open delicately and holding the book out at arm’s length in front of her.
Chaff stared wide-eyed at the book, then Lookout, then the book again. Lookout didn’t say anything. He waited.
“You can read it, yeah?” asked Chaff, hesitantly.
“Of course I can,” Lookout snapped. She pursed her lips and furrowed her eyebrows, reading slowly and disjointedly. “Erm. Let’s see. Hear…hear me, the world-honor gained by the line-age of Raggon and Gahhay oft…oft?” Lookout shook her head. “Chaff, this book is dumb, it’s full of fake words.”
“Keep reading, Lookout!”
“I can’t, Chaff.”
That seemed a little far-fetched. Lookout could read! She’d read the title. “You can’t?”
Lookout blinked. “No,” she said, immediately.
Chaff shook his head to get any water out of his ears. “But you just said-.”
“I don’t feel like it,” said Lookout, handing the book back to Chaff. “I’ll read it to you later, when we’re not wading through the piss pot of the Ladies.”
Tucking the book under his arm, Chaff looked glumly down. He had been looking forward to getting to the part about Moscoleon.
“Oh, cheer up,” said Lookout. “It was probably all a made-up story anyway. Who needs that? It’s never going to help you find food, or shelter, or…where the hell you are. Where the hell are we?” She looked around, and whistled. Sinndi flapped up into the air, and Lookout held her tabula in her hands. “Just taking a quick look around,” she muttered. “No use walking in circles.”
Chaff craned his head up to see, shielding his eyes with his hands to stare into the sky. “How do you do that, Lookout?”
Lookout blinked and the humming stopped. “What’d you say?”
“How do you do that?” asked Chaff. “See through her eyes like that?”
“I’ll let her get some altitude,” Lookout muttered, under her breath, and she relaxed her arms. “It’s all about knowing how this thing works,” she said, flicking the tabula with her finger.
Chaff stared blankly at her. He looked questioningly at the big guy for help, but he appeared to be ruminating. “How does it…how does it work?”
Lookout scratched the back of her head. “Well, I don’t really get all of it, but the explanation I made for myself is that it works like, um, like this.” She held the tabula out like she was holding out a shield. “This disk is a conductor.”
“Something that…other things…go through.” Lookout coughed. “Anyway, the tabula conducts my energy, and I’ve only got so much energy to give. That’s why I can’t use it all the time without getting headaches and pains and tired, right?”
Chaff nodded. He understood that much.
“And then I use that energy to take things away. So, usually, when people use tabula, they take away control. But other times, when they’re summoning, they take away distance. Or- or when they’re descrying, saying ‘show me’ and all that, they take away privacy.”
“So when you use Sinndi for seeing,” said Chaff, slowly. “You takes away her…eyes?”
“Her vision, yeah.”
Chaff rubbed his forehead. Thinking about it made his brain hurt. “That’s…really abstract, Lookout.”
“Well, it’s the best explanation I got, Chaff. You got a better one?”
The boy shrugged, and looked down. It may have been Lookout’s best explanation, but there seemed to be something wrong about it. Too many details seemed to contradict. “So can I take away something that’s not really there?” asked Chaff.
Lookout raised an eyebrow. “Like what?”
“Like a wound,” said Chaff, staring at Lookout’s knee. “Like a cut.”
For a long time, Lookout was quiet. “Maybe,” she said, finally.
Chaff scratched his head. “And do you give it back after? ‘Cause slaves can still do what they want when nobody hold their tabula. And Sinndi can still see after you done. But…but the ones you summon don’t go back home, yeah?”
“And what about all that energy? Where does that go? ‘Cause they don’t get it, except when I’m trying to make the big guy stronger or something, and then I don’t feel tired at all!”
“Chaff, I admit it,” said Lookout, talking over him. “I don’t know. It made sense to me in my head, and it helps me do some useful things with this piece of tree shit and that’s all that matters, OK?”
“OK,” said Chaff, looking down. His head still buzzed, trying to make sense of it all, but he knew that if Lookout wasn’t smart enough to figure out how it all worked, he certainly wasn’t.
“Jeez, we’re a bunch of old electors, aren’t we? Look at us, talking about books and tabula, scarves and everything,” said Lookout, clapping Chaff on the back. “Let’s get somewhere dry, my feet are killing me. I know where to g-.” Lookout froze, as she began using the owlcrow’s eyes again.
And she began dashing through the marsh, splashing water everywhere as she ran.
Immediately, Chaff hauled himself onto the big guy’s back, his sodden pants dripping. “Let’s go, big guy,” he said, yanking on the big guy’s mane, and the camelopard did his best to run. It was slow, painstakingly so, but they made better time than Chaff would have alone. “Lookout!” he shouted, as she waded through the marsh ahead of them. “Lookout, where are you going?”
Dry land was ahead of them, a copse of thin, straight trees ahead of them with branches like long needles. Lookout’s feet seemed to be taking her there, but her head was turned straight upward. Chaff followed her gaze.
He saw one shadow in the sky. It was small and dove this way and that, silent as the Lady Spring. That was Sinndi.
The other shadow was much, much larger. It had enough wings for two birds and made enough noise for ten. It must have been some kind of predator, because it was circling and twisting, looping in the air around the owlcrow, a lethal dance high above the treetops. Chaff felt a familiar cold rush of fear, and he tried not to think about it. It was not the same bird. It was never his fault.
“Sinndi!” Lookout shouted, waving her arms. “Sinndi, to me!” As Chaff watched, Sinndi plummeted, wings tucked in as she dived straight down. The thing behind her circled once, and then followed, like an arrow from a bow.
Chaff and the big guy had reached solid ground. Immediately, Chaff dropped off, and began throwing whatever he could at the creature pursuing Lookout’s owlcrow: rocks, handfuls of mud, anything he could reach for. Most of his shots missed, but one clump of mud splattered the beast’s side and it threw out all four wings to come screeching to a halt, hissing and spitting.
Its long talons tore grooves in the soft ground, and it bared long fangs at them. The big guy reared and kicked, holding it back, but it was driving them towards the swamp in return, flaring its wings and pushing them backward with every step.
Chaff was so intent on driving the beast back that he did not notice movement in the forest beside him. He did notice the figure dart out from the trees, did not notice it reach down to the ground and pick something, did notice as it ran straight towards him, but he certainly noticed when something clubbed him on the side of his head so hard he saw stars.
He rolled on the ground, mud sticking to his back and arms, and saw blearily a girl who could be no older than he was holding a branch like a hammer over her head. A wild marshchild? An ambush! Chaff kicked the girl’s feet out from under her and struggled to crawl away. The beast, whatever the hell it was, was still screaming like mad, and unwelcome memories were beginning to flood Chaff’s brain.
The rest of the child’s crew had to be close. Hook had never once gone anywhere alone, and he had certainly never robbed anyone with no back-up. Chaff lunged for the girl, intent on keeping her down and forcing the rest of her crew to come out into the open.
“Stop, STOP!” shouted a voice. “Jiralla, get down! Get down!”
The girl scrambled to her feet and ran away, and Chaff backed up next to the big guy as the grown-old man held the creature back. Lookout quickly joined Chaff’s side, stroking a shaking Sinndi in her arms.
“I sent her out to hunt, that’s all, I swear,” said the man, holding his arms up, palms out. “I didn’t know. I’m sorry.”
Neither Chaff nor Lookout responded, and a tense silence stretched on between them. Lookout was still nursing her owlcrow, and the girl did not seem intent on talking. That left Chaff. “I don’t like birds,” he muttered. It was all he could think to say.
“Yes, well…she’s only half. A bathawk,” said the man, and he did his best to smile. It looked painful. When it became clear that no one was going to attack anyone else anytime soon, the man turned around and said, in a hushed voice that nevertheless carried through the silent bog, “What were you thinking, Sri? Rushing at them by yourself?”
“I needed to protect Jiralla,” whispered the girl.
“Jiralla can protect herself just fine. You need to stay safe.”
As their conversation grew quieter, Chaff’s eyes darted from the man’s bag of supplies to the girl’s pack. Both looked full, and inviting, and he was hungry.
The man turned back around. He held out his hands again. “Look, we meant no harm. None of us are bandits, here. None of us are robbers.”
“How do you know we aren’t?” spat Lookout, as she held Sinndi. There was murder in her eyes.
“I’ve been on both sides,” said the man. Chaff wasn’t sure if he was supposed to laugh; it sounded like a joke, but the man’s face was humorless. “I know a killer when I see one.” His eyes lingered on Chaff for a moment, before moving on.
There was silence again. The only sound was the big guy, stamping his hooves to shake the mud off his legs.
“I’m very sorry.” The man brushed back his dirty hair, to reveal a sun-browned face and dark eyes. His arms were large and well-muscled, and he seemed healthy, if tired. The same applied to the girl, whose disheveled hair hid a watchful gaze. “My name is Gopal, and this is Sri. That, over there, is Jiralla,” said the man. “We’ve seen two winters here, and lived to tell it, so I suppose you could call this place our home.” Again, he tried to smile, but his serious face, with its thick brows and square jaw, just didn’t seem up for it. “We don’t get many visitors in the Quiet Marsh.”
Lookout seemed to have gathered herself. “Well, we’re just passing through, so…”
“You two are from Shira Hay, aren’t you?” asked Gopal. There must have been a surprised look on either Chaff or Lookout’s face, because he pointed to their necks and said, “The scarves.”
Chaff folded his arms. “We just crossed the border. No problem, though, yeah?”
“No, no problem,” said Gopal, hastily. “I just…again, I’m very sorry. Let me make it up to you. We have plenty of food; eat with us.”
Lookout and Chaff exchanged a glance. Chaff was never one to turn down food, but to eat with a man whose company had been seconds away from trying to kill them…
“We’ll eat on our own, thank you,” said Lookout, although she didn’t look very grateful.
Gopal’s shoulders slumped. “Of course, the plainsman custom. The shared meal, the sign of trust. Well, if you don’t want to eat with us, I understand…”
“How do you know about that?” asked Chaff, before he could stop himself.
As Jiralla shuffled to his side, Gopal put a hand around Sri’s shoulder. “We knew a plainsman once,” he said, and his voice was suddenly hoarse. “He was very close to us.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to eat? We just got fresh bread from the village down the way,” said Sri, the girl. “And we caught spring snails this morning. They’re crunchy.”
Chaff was about to shake his head when an idea crossed his mind. He paused, thinking it over. “You two live here long?”
“Two winters, coming on three,” said Gopal, nodding.
“You know the fastest way out?” Chaff turned to Lookout, and could see that she understood what he was thinking.
The two exchanged a look. “We know the safest way out,” said Gopal. “The fastest way out will get you drowned in summer, spring, winter, and fall.”
Chaff nodded. It was all he needed to hear. “Lookout,” he said. “We all hungry. Let’s have some fresh bread, yeah?”
Posted on February 11, 2014, in 5.01, Chapter 5 (Beck & Call) and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Gopal, Jiralla, Lookout, novel, original characters, Sinndi, Sri, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.