The Watcher on the Walls
The world laid out before her, the people and the animals and the naked trees all perfect pieces on a board that she shared with only the Ladies themselves. She soared through the fog bank, watching as the marsh radiated out from the poltergeist’s haunt. The great root snaked, fat and sluggish, through the marsh, until it disappeared into the earth farther north, but the bloated creature was nowhere to be seen.
A distant prod touched Lookout’s shoulder, but she paid it no attention. She was flying now. She was free.
To the west, the marsh broke off into the parched Redlands, like a faded scar on the horizon. Even with an owlcrow’s eyes, she could only just see the border of Shira Hay, and it grew ever smaller as she flapped away. In a way, Lookout was glad to leave the plains behind. Too many memories.
To the east, the marsh melded into Kazakhal proper, which, to Lookout’s great relief, looked substantially less wet than the marsh. She missed having dry feet.
Something shoved Lookout so hard she nearly fell off her perch, and her concentration broke.
It took her a moment, as always, to get her bearings again. She clutched a hand to her head, waiting for the nausea to subside. She knew she shouldn’t have pushed Sinndi so hard, especially not so soon after Al Innai had hurt the owlcrow, but the bird healed fast and Lookout needed to know that none of Al Innai’s friends had followed them.
Plus, she needed something to get the image of Al Innai, bleeding into the mud, out of her head. What better than the daily vision of the gods themselves? Up there, she felt more than safe. She felt indomitable.
She opened her eyes to Chaff’s face grinning at her, and although she always felt like her human vision was blurry and inadequate, she could still make out the boy’s crooked teeth, his matted hair and his mud-spattered skin.
“What,” she said, slowly, swaying as the boy’s jarraf walked underneath her. “Do you want?”
The boy looked away. “Just checking to see if you OK. Innai-Innai did bad on you. You got to take it easy, yeah?”
“I know that,” said Lookout, and she did. There was a difference between knowing and doing, though. She didn’t say that to Chaff, though; she just looked at him, waiting for him to say more.
Chaff met Lookout’s eyes for just a second before he ducked his head and scurried away, returning to a rather animated conversation with Sri.
Lookout bit her lip. Had she been too harsh on him? Arrogance and aggression were forces of habit by now.
Once, a long time ago, Lookout had tried to submit. She stayed out of the way of the bigger children, never looked them in the eye, and obeyed every order they gave her. That, she had realized, and Walls had taught her, was the quickest way to get hurt in the streets.
Flowers had fragrant aromas, and within hours their petals were crushed to paste. Cactus plants had spines and needles, and no one dared touched them. She wouldn’t be crushed. She wouldn’t be an easy target.
All the same, sometimes Lookout regretted how lonely the thorns made her.
She touched Sinndi’s tabula again, and it hummed to life. In the skies, she was free.
While on the ground the trees shaded her, like oppressive titans with hands outstretched to block the sun, up in the air they couldn’t even reach her. They grasped for her like children, the last of the autumn leaves shedding from their now skeletal frames, and Lookout danced above them, untouchable.
Lookout held back, just a touch. She couldn’t tell what Sinndi was feeling, or how much the flight was taxing her, but she knew it must have been hard. With a little mental nudge, she pointed the owlcrow back to their little party, and gratefully the bird began to fly her way back.
The girl let go, after that, trusting the owlcrow to find her own way back. If any of Al Innai’s friends really were hiding in ambush, it would be up to Wozek and his spiderwhale to catch them, not her.
She picked at the scab on her forehead, even though she knew she shouldn’t. Now that she had started, though, she couldn’t stop. She scratched at it three times, before she let her hand fall. Three was a good number. It was her number.
Her fingers began a nervous tap on her leg, and she did that three times, too, before she stopped. Then, since she had already started, she scratched her nose three times. Three by three. A good number of times to do things.
She regretted it immediately. She wanted to shake her head or run her fingers through her hair, but she knew that would just start the cycle all over again, and once her brain started to obsess over the numbers and the patterns and the sequences and the way she absolutely had to do things, it would never stop.
Enviously, she looked at Chaff. For a boy so troubled, it still must have been so much more peaceful to live inside his head.
Lookout adjusted her seat on the camelopard’s back, and tried to block out the fact (again) that with Wozek, they were now five people traveling together. Three was a good number. Four was a holy number. Five was a bad number. It was so close to being a good number, but not quite.
She assured herself that there were four animals—Sinndi, the camelopard, the bathawk, and the spiderwhale—and that with five made nine. Three by three. That calmed her nerves for now.
The camelopard stepped over a particularly large puddle, and Lookout gripped onto his mane for support. As he lifted his long legs over it, the beast shot Lookout a disdainful glare, and Lookout let go apologetically. She rode with her hands holding ever so gently to the sides of his neck, doing her best to keep her balance.
It was like riding the winds with Sinndi; it was all about minor adjustments. It wasn’t so bad, though. Lookout decided that with all this practice she was getting the hang of riding the big guy.
She looked to Chaff again. Lookout was honestly grateful to the boy; he had a kind of generosity she never would have expected from a street urchin of Shira Hay. At the same time, though, he knew the wild laws. He knew what he had to do to survive.
Lookout watched the skies. Sinndi was due to arrive soon.
Twiddling her thumbs, Lookout wondered if she should say something to the boy. Thanks for lending her his animal, maybe. Or an apology for being so brusque. Lookout wondered how to word it. Sorry for being rude. No, that was too many words. Sorry for talking badly- sorry for- sorry I was- I am sorry.
I am sorry, I am sorry, I am sorry.
Three by three. A good number, even if Lookout wanted to say so much more.
She was rehearsing in her head when she spied a glance towards Chaff again. He was still talking with Sri, a wide smile on his face, clearly enjoying himself. He didn’t need to be bothered now. He didn’t want Lookout spoiling the mood.
Chaff, noticing, glanced to make eye contact, but immediately Lookout turned aside, a bored and disinterested expression on her face.
The girl rubbed the bridge of her nose when Chaff turned away again. Was he or wasn’t he angry with her? Was she supposed to apologize or thank him? She could read the facial expressions of a bird better than that of a boy, and that was saying something. Lookout had never been good with people.
Maybe she had just spent too much time around Sinndi. The subtle cock of the bird’s head, the glint in her beady eyes, even the harshness of her screech all carried meaning for Lookout that human faces simply didn’t. Even Jiralla, the bathawk that followed Gopal, was easier to understand than the marshman himself.
She had never told anyone this. After all, who would understand?
Beside her, Chaff was regaling Sri with tales of the marsh. “And then everything just stops, yeah? The man made of wood, he as creepy as a creeper, he walks up to the poltergeist. Poltergeist just walks away, feet going boom-boom-boom. Then the man comes for us…”
No, they definitely didn’t want Lookout interrupting them. She bowed her head and kept her distance.
She didn’t want to admit it, but that might have been the reason why she wandered away in the first place. Just so Chaff, who seemed to like Sri so much, could have his space—and so she wouldn’t have to watch.
How was she supposed to know a murderous psychopath had been waiting to pick her off when she split from the group?
Well, she was supposed to know. She was Lookout. She knew…everything.
She knew facts and dates and little useless pieces of information that stuck in her head like grit. She didn’t know people, but she knew names and reputations and territories and everything else there was to know about people except who they actually were. She knew how to read. She definitely knew how to read. Slowly, yes, but she knew how to read.
Lookout knew how to read Chaff’s book.
She knew where it was, too, tucked away inside the scarf that now hung around the camelopard’s neck. “Excuse me, elector big guy,” she said, drawing the leather-bound book out and flipping through its damp pages. Though the ink had blurred and the fringes all had dark stains, it was legible enough.
Walls had always loved books, and therefore she had loved books because…well, the reasoning wasn’t important.
He had broken into the Libraries once. She didn’t even remember the name of the book he stole, some thin pamphlet that had fallen apart a week after it was taken out of the libraries. At first they had thought the electors had put some kind of decaying curse over any book that left their shelves, but then Lookout had realized it was just bad paper and shit glue.
This book wasn’t like that pamphlet. It carried a certain portent to it, a certain weight that no loose scraps of paper could ever carry. It felt knowledgeable.
“The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man,” read Lookout, flipping open the cover. “A book of moral instruction.” She pursed her lips. The Wandering Man was a concept that only the electors talked about. He was the perfect plainsman, the epitome of what it meant to be from Shira Hay. He was thoughtful, curious, quick-witted, and male. “That’s me disqualified,” Lookout muttered, under her breath, as she kept reading.
It was hard work. She was not overly familiar with the letters, and the smudged ink only made it harder to read. Lookout had learn literacy the same way she had learned arithmetic: by stealing it. Tattle and Walls and even Hurricane had always said that education was the way to a better life, and she had believed it even when they didn’t.
The book began slowly, and even slower for Lookout, who had to decipher each word and letter in turn.
Mazzia, it said, was the first disciple of Raggon and Gahhay, the founders of Shira Hay. That made Lookout pause. She didn’t know how much of this book was true, but it had to be a very old book indeed if it was telling stories of the time before kings, when the empire of the Hak Mat Do was still strong. Perhaps it was all just one big fib. Lookout read on.
There was something in there about a quest, an epic journey that the Ladies themselves sent Mazzia on. They spoke to him, it said. They answered his questions. At that point, Lookout knew it was all a lie.
The goddesses never answered anyone’s questions.
Familiar talons wrapped lightly on Lookout’s shoulder, and she looked up, closing the book. That was enough reading for today.
“Hey,” she said, stroking one finger along the side of Sinndi’s face before tucking the book back away into Chaff’s scarf. She didn’t need to say anything else. Words only ever seemed to get in the way, for Lookout.
The owlcrow ruffled her wings, her wide eyes staring inquisitively at Lookout. Her feathers shone like black bronze in the dim light.
“Nothing’s the matter,” said Lookout. She made sure it was she said just three words. The tic got worse when she was nervous or flustered. “Go away, shoo.”
Sinndi knew when to leave her master alone. She glided away silently, keeping low to the ground and hopping on occasion when her wings would not support her. Lookout watched her go, her head pounding, her body aching, and not entirely sure what her heart was doing.
“That’s enough!” shouted Wozek, and Sinndi wheeled as the marshman held up his hand to stop. “We’ve gone far enough. Food, now, then sleep. The village is just a day’s more travel away.”
Almost automatically Lookout reached for Sinndi’s tabula, but she stopped and held herself back. Sinndi needed her rest.
“Goodman Gopal! You have supplies?”
“Enough for Sri and I,” said Gopal, raising a leather satchel. “Would you like bread, Wozek?”
“All is well, I have enough,” he said. “Goodman Chaff? Goodwoman Lookout?”
Lookout turned her head away. She knew they should have taken the time to gather supplies, but where would they have taken it from? They had no time at all. “We left under…pressed circumstances,” said Lookout, and it was true.
“Come then,” said Wozek. “Sit. Eat!”
Lookout dismounted slowly, wondering why Wozek would take the time to be so kind to them. Obviously Chaff had done him quite a favor in…doing whatever he did to the spiderwhale, but that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Wozek owed them nothing. He knew this marsh, and thanks to Chaff, he had the beast that could rip any one of them to shreds if he wanted to. He was the one with power, and he was the one in control.
So what did he want?
“Come on, Lookout!” said Chaff, tugging on her sleeve, and she nearly tumbled off of the boy’s camelopard. He did not seem to have a care or fear in the world as he sat in the little circle the others had formed.
At first, there was no room in the circle for her, but then Chaff asked Gopal to budge aside and make space.
“We have dark rye bread,” said Wozek, pulling the food out from a pack slung over the spiderwhale’s back. “Peppers, salted chickenbeef, some red onions…”
“Can I have some of that?” asked Chaff, suddenly.
Wozek held up a raw reddish-purple bulb. “The onions?”
“No, no,” said Chaff, pointing. Lookout followed his finger, and raised a quizzical eyebrow. “That.”
“This?” Wozek laughed. “This is animal feed. Raw fish for this big old lug.”
Chaff looked down, his eyes drifting as if he was confused himself, but then he shrugged. “I kind of want it though, yeah?”
“I thought you liked onions,” Lookout quipped, staring at him.
“The big guy can have the onions, he likes them too,” said Chaff, shaking his head. “I just…want to eat some fish.”
Wozek, with his mouth slightly open and his eyebrows furrowed, looked slightly taken aback. With no one else to turn to, he met Lookout’s eyes, and she shrugged. “He wants fish, let him have fish,” she muttered. “Long as the big beast doesn’t mind.”
The marshman shook his head, as he continued to pull food from his pack. “And the rest of Albumere thinks kazakhani are strange,” he said, and Gopal and Sri laughed. “For you, goodwoman Lookout?”
“Just the bread,” she said, hugging her knees to her chest. She didn’t want to ask for anymore. Sharing a full meal’s worth of food with Wozek would make him fully her friend.
She took the half-loaf of bread with a curt nod, and broke off a few crumbs to feed Sinndi. Of course, the owlcrow would have preferred meat—mousefrogs or grubs dug from the dirt—but here bread would have to do.
Three pinches of bread, just to be safe.
“If you are heading east,” said Wozek, as they ate. “Then you could take a boat from the Maw. Sail around Oldsea, dock somewhere along the peninsula. Better and faster than walking, if you have the stomach for it.”
“Where’s the Maw?” Chaff asked, and Lookout rolled her eyes at his ignorance even if she wasn’t quite sure herself.
Wozek smiled. “The bay of Kazakhal. The city itself lies along its shore. I can guide the way, if you are planning to go there.”
“Where are you planning to go?” asked Lookout, suddenly. She turned straight to Wozek, her brow furrowed. (Had she been too harsh? Too sudden? Too rude, again? Lookout couldn’t tell.) “Where are you planning to go?”
There was a moment’s silence. Behind him, Wozek’s spiderwhale rumbled. “I’m sorry?”
“Were you going somewhere, before you met us?” asked Lookout. She wanted answers. She wanted explanations. “Are you going somewhere? Or do you just have the time on your hands to show us the whole way there?”
Wozek cleared his throat. “If you do not want me-.”
“No!” said Chaff, immediately. He shot Lookout something between a glare and a confused plea. “If it’s quicker, we go that way, yeah?”
Chaff turned to Lookout, as if waiting for her confirmation, and suddenly all eyes were on her. She rubbed her elbow, looking down. If just one of them stopped looking at her, the number would be good again…
“Sure, yeah,” said Lookout, not making eye contact with any of them. “Just curious, was all.”
Wozek nodded, looking satisfied. “To answer your question, goodwoman Lookout,” he said. “I am keeping my land safe. I am keeping my people safe. Now that the winter is near upon us, some shall be fleeing south, also to the Maw. Food is easier to come by, there, and the journey is not so long if the snows have not set in.”
That seemed to be good enough for Chaff, and who was Lookout to say otherwise? She ate her bread slowly, piece by piece, considering if maybe she should store it somewhere and eat it later. She did not feel like sharing a meal with Wozek. He was the fifth. It was a bad number.
“We are both very grateful,” said Wozek, patting the spiderwhale’s side. Its eighth leg dangled limply in the air, and its eight-eyed expression was unreadable. “We just want to do our fair share in kind.”
He smiled, then, a disarming and charming smile.
Almost unconsciously, Lookout’s fingers drifted to her tabula. It hummed ever so slightly, but that was all she needed. Lookout’s vision blurred and shifted, until she was seeing from a space just a few inches from her head, with eyes that could count the number of hairs on Wozek’s lip. She ate her bread mechanically, as she saw through the eyes of the owlcrow.
The smile was lost on Sinndi. Birds didn’t have lips or teeth. And perhaps she was just seeing things, but when she looked at him—at the cock of his head, the glint in his eyes, the lilt of his voice—all Lookout saw was a liar.
Posted on April 3, 2014, in Chapter 5 (Beck & Call), The Watcher on the Walls and tagged adventure, Big Guy, Chaff, creative writing, fantasy, Gopal, Lookout, Lug, novel, original characters, Sinndi, Sri, story, web fiction, web serial, webfiction, Wozek, writing. Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.