Category Archives: 1.01
The boy rode at a measured stroll, a practiced pace to conserve energy. It wasn’t as if he knew which way to go. The plains stretched on before him, and whichever way he turned all he could see was brown gold grass, a hundred waving hands that could trick him into thinking he was moving even if he stood still.
The camelopard the boy rode walked on, black tongue rasping over flat teeth as he bellowed to the silence. Not even an echo answered him; the endless plains swallowed the sound, heedless to the protests of the hungry creature.
With luck, the two would find a grove soon. Tree leaves for the camelopard, budding greens for the boy, water and bush onions for both of them. And if they weren’t lucky…
Well, luck had kept them alive for four years. The alternative was obvious, if not preferable.
The camelopard bellowed again, and the boy leaning on his long neck shifted. “Shut up, big guy,” he muttered, eyes closed. “Nobody cares.”
They walked on, as the sun crept across the sky above them. The camelopard stopped, looking around like a guard in a tower, surveying his surroundings. The boy on his back sat up straight, his voice high and indignant. “What are you doing? We go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
The beast turned a baleful eye the boy’s way and snorted. Clip-clop, clip-clop. The camelopard’s hooves crunched on the dirt and the dry grass as he kept walking.
“I know,” the boy said, slumping. He traced one of the beast’s brown spots with a finger, his face half-buried in his fur. “Yike, we need water, yeah? Two days, no water, no good.”
Something hot and wet splattered his face, and the boy jumped back.
“You spit on me?” the boy said, wiping it away. He paused, and then for good measure rubbed it on his elbows and forearms to keep cool. Water was water, no matter where it came from. “Tricked me, big guy. Thought it was raining.”
The camelopard made a noise that could have been a snicker.
“Wasteful,” said the boy, reclining on the animal’s back. Anyone else would have slipped off the camelopard had they tried to ride him like that, but the boy was small enough, skinny enough, and experienced enough to stare at the sky while the camelopard marched on. “You’re really wasteful.”
The boy rubbed at his face with the bandages wrapped around his hands. They were rags at this point, but he doubted he would be finding anymore soon. He had stolen them six months ago from a campfire of people, and the walking trees knew people were something that didn’t show up often in the grasslands.
“You know something, big guy?” said the boy, talking aloud. “I can count the number of people I ever meet on my fingers.”
The camelopard ignored him. Between the two, this was an established fact.
The boy wiped his nose with the back of his hand as he tried to remember. “There’s that guy who tries to steal my food. I find that big horse thing sleeping and I bash its head in with a rock, remember that? And while I eat it, this guy tries to take it but I don’t let him.”
Flicking its tail, the camelopard strolled through a particularly dense thicket of grass, although most of the waving stalks were still too short to reach the boy. The beast made a sound indicating that he hadn’t really cared either way what had happened to the dead horse thing. Or at least, that was what the boy thought the big guy was trying to say. He was never quite sure.
The boy sat up. “Why don’t you eat meat, big guy? It’s tasty.”
No response. The camelopard kept walking, although for the good it did to the change of scenery they might as well have just stood still for another hour.
“But anyway,” the boy continued, lying back down, “I kill it and I eat it but before I’m done the guy comes and tries to take it, so I throw my rock at his face and run away.”
Satisfied with his story’s ending, the boy turned over. “Now the second guy I ever meet I think is trying to bash my head in while I’m sleeping, so I throw a rock at his face too and run away. You think he was going to eat me?”
The camelopard bellowed. Unsure as to how the animal had responded, the boy took it as a cue to keep going.
“There are a bunch of people the third time, but I count them as one person because they all move together anyway,” said the boy. “And this time I remember the first two so I don’t say nothing to them, I just take their clothes. Not the clothes they’re wearing! Just the clothes they had in a bag on the side.”
The boy picked at his ragged shirt. By this point it was so stiff with sweat and dirt that it crackled as it moved. “Comfy clothes, too. Wish I had more of them.”
The camelopard stopped to give the boy an accusatory look.
“Oh, and my mommy and daddy, I guess,” said the boy. “I count them as one person, too. I don’t remember much about them. You remember your mommy and daddy?”
The camelopard snorted and kept walking.
“Yeah, me neither.”
The boy fell silent. The camelopard made not a sound. Clip-clop, clip-clop.
“I don’t remember a lot of things,” said the boy. This, too, was an established fact. “Like my name. I think I had one, once, but I don’t remember it. I should give myself a new name.”
He sat up, and stuck out his skinny little chest. “I like Nighthunter. Or- or Doomeye. Or Death. Yeah.”
The camelopard spit at him again.
“Yeah, you’re right. Names are stupid.” The boy put his chin in his hands, fluttering his lips in boredom. “You ever have a name, big guy?”
The big guy did not respond, at least not in a way the boy could hear. The boy leaned back. “Yeah, you probably have your own camelopard name. ‘Tail flick, ear flick, spit’ or something. How do camelopards talk, anyway? What are they like? Actually, I don’t think we’ve ever met another one. Have we? Have you ever met one while I’m asleep? What do you do when I’m asleep?”
Tail flick. Ear flick. Spit.
He rubbed it on the back of his neck. “I don’t remember a lot of things,” the boy began again, and sniffed. “But I remember ending up here. In a big tree with a giant space in the middle. And there are a bunch of the little disks around me and I’m scared I’m going to break all of them but they’re actually really hard, and there’s all this sap on the walls and little disks that don’t look like they’re finished yet.”
The sun crawled just a little further up in the sky.
“So I grab my disk and a bunch of others and I fall out, and it’s in the middle of the night but I can see because there’re so many stars, and I feel so tired that I fall asleep for a long time and when I wake up the tree walks away. And I know it walks away because trees don’t just disappear!”
The camelopard’s head bobbed, as if in agreement. The boy nodded, feeling justified. Obviously, a walking tree made much more sense than a disappearing one.
“I still got them!” said the boy. “Well, most of them. I lose one, you remember. But I still have mine, and yours, and hers.” He dug in the folds of his dirty shirt and took out three amber disks just small enough to fit in his palm. “I bring you here. Do you remember?”
The camelopard gave him only a cursory look of acknowledgment.
The boy paused. He looked down.
“Do you hate me for it?” he asked, staring at his hands. “Did I take you away from your mommy and daddy, too? Because I’m just so scared and I can’t find anybody after walking for days and days and I’d send you back if I can but I don’t know how…”
The camelopard twisted his long neck and nuzzled the boy riding on his back. It was not the act of someone who hated him.
“OK,” said the boy. “OK. Thanks, big guy.”
He sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “So that’s why I’m not going to bring her here because she’s got a mommy and daddy and I’m still not sure how to send her back,” he said, rubbing the disk with the frayed ends of his shirt. It did not so much clean the disks as spread the grime around, but it comforted the boy as he tucked them back into the cloth belt around his waist.
After a pause, he pulled out the last disk again and considered it: the disk of the girl he had never summoned, the one he had carried for the last four years. He waved his hand over the surface and gave the only command he had ever given it. “Show me.”
The amber disk hummed, vibrating ever so slightly. The way it reflected the light seemed to change, as the shadows underneath its surface flickered. First, the hint of a shape, then colors, then depth, and then if the boy angled it just right he could see a picture under its surface.
He saw a girl, surrounded by green and gold, colors the likes of which he had never seen before or at least could not remember seeing. Bright dye was on her fingertips, and a brighter smile was on her face.
The boy stared. He wished that smile would never stop, that it could just keep on going forever and ever. It was beautiful. It was all he had.
At last, he stuffed the disk away in his belt. That slight exertion had left him out of breath, as it always did. In the beginning, summoning the camelopard had nearly knocked him out. “We find her one day, yeah?”
The camelopard snorted his agreement.
“Good. OK.” The boy licked his lips. “But water first.”
And the two walked on. The sun inched higher.
The noon heat grew oppressive, and the camelopard staggered. “Want me to get off?” yawned the boy, rubbing his eyes. “We walk a little more, see if we find some shade, sleep until night-time. Keep going after that. Good plan, yeah?”
The camelopard stopped and brayed an agreement.
His legs weak from disuse, the boy’s knees buckled as he slid off his mount. His bare feet wriggled in the dirt, delightfully cool in the shadows of the long grass. “Come on, big guy,” he said, patting the camelopard on the shoulder. “We got to go where the grass is taller.”
The beast had already folded his back legs under his body. He tossed his head, irritated.
“That’s not walking a little more, big guy!”
The big guy glared.
“Why? Cause you too big! Your head too close to the sun,” said the boy, laughing. “Let’s go over there, see? Good, tall grass. Might even find a drink if we dig down deep enough.”
He didn’t look happy about it, but he rose, slowly and laboriously.
The grass reached all the way up to the skinny boy’s chest, bristly seed-heads scratching and clinging at his shirt. He brushed the long stalks aside as he walked, even as the camelopard strode serenely over them. Buzzing fallhoppers and brown butterbugs cleared a path as the boy moved through them.
The boy’s hands moved to part the grass, but found nothing to part. He paused, his arms waving through air. The grass had been crushed flat in a straight line intersecting the boy’s path; the neighboring foliage had obscured the tracks from view from above, but the boy could hardly miss them now that he had stumbled onto them.
Instinctively, he dropped to his knees, shifting his stance so he could run at a moment’s notice. “Big guy, get d- oh, there’s no point.” The camelopard was too tall to hide. The beast, and by extension the boy, stuck out like lightning in the sky.
The tracks were recent. Even now, the springy grass was rising back up, but the boy could still see where they lead. What could have created lines like those? Nothing with feet, that was for certain. It was manmade.
One, two, three, four, and with this, five. The boy would have to start counting the number of people he had met with two hands soon.
“Yike, let me up, big guy,” said the boy, hauling himself once more onto the camelopard’s back, despite the animal’s protests. “I know, I know, we’re all tired. But we can’t let them get away, see? They might have stuff. Good stuff, yeah?”
Gripping onto his mane, the boy clung to the camelopard’s back as he egged him on. At first they moved at a slow trot, but the impatient boy pushed his steed on to a faster canter, then gallop. As the camelopard pummeled forward, the boy’s heart began to pump. His lips were dry from more than just thirst.
There was no chance that he could hide the big guy, but the boy himself was small enough to escape notice. Whoever they were after would be too busy watching the strange long-necked beast to pay any attention to the boy climbing off his back.
Or so the boy hoped.
He squinted, clinging close to the camelopard’s neck to avoid detection. He saw a tan shape moving through the grass, pulled along by a single winter ox, the two of them bright against the backdrop of dull grass. The tracks had been made by several wooden circles attached to the bottom of the vehicle, that helped the fabric-covered box trundle along as it moved forward.
“That’s new,” muttered the boy, as the camelopard slowed to a steady walk. The winter ox swung its white head to the side at the sound of their approach, and the boy slipped off and landed lightly.
“Shh, shh, he doesn’t see me,” he said, as the camelopard grumbled. “You stay here a bit, big guy, I go look at that thing.” He crawled forward a couple paces, before adding, as an afterthought, “You pull me out if I get in trouble, yeah?”
A grunt, as the beast turned away. It stared placidly at the sky, not paying attention to the boy.
“Good. OK.” The boy crept through the underbrush. His fingers traced the disks in his belt. Perhaps they could serve as weapons, but the boy couldn’t risk breaking a single one of them. Not his, not the big guy’s, and definitely not the girl’s.
Vainly, the boy paused to see if there were any handy face-hitting rocks to throw around him, but it seemed that he would be going into this one weaponless. That didn’t bother him much. In and out, quick as a prairie snake, that was his style.
The caravan plodded, despite the girth and strength of the ox pulling it. The boy paused and watched the ox’s muscles shift, rippling under its white coat. There must have been some great weight in the covered box for the bulky creature to be slowed so. The boy grinned. They wouldn’t miss it if he took just a few scraps, then.
With a jump and a grunt, the boy leaped onto the rear end, his foot finding purchase on the wooden base of the box and the axle on which the circles spun. Chest heaving, the boy anchored himself with one hand on the back of the vehicle, then looked over his shoulders and to his sides. There was no one in sight.
He parted the canvas just an inch, with one finger, and peered inside. Dim light filtered through, but he could see in the darkness heaps and rolls of furs, and what looked like cloth. His hand poked through the curtain and stroked one of the piles. He sucked in a sharp breath.
It was so soft.
The boy was inside before he had given himself a chance to think, his hands brushing over the fine fabrics as his toes curled with delight. He set to looking for clothes, but the bundles and rolls were far too heavy to pick up.
He stuck his lip out and pouted. What was the point of cloth all bunched up like this? He flattened out one of the rolls: it was soft on top, but underneath it was rough and coarse. Tassels hung on the end that the boy could weave his fingers through.
He gave that one roll an ineffective tug, but gave up. Even if he did manage to get it out, he wouldn’t be able to carry it away. Perhaps there were lighter materials that he could find and take…
A harsh bump in the trail tossed the boy up. The fabrics cushioned his fall, but compact as they were he still felt a sharp jolt through his bottom. He rolled to the side, groaning, and fell in a heap of thin sheets.
His face brightened, as he moved to pull the sheets closer for examination. Now, these he could use…
Then the sheets moved, and the boy froze.
A sudden rush ran over his body. He felt hot and cold all at once, and scrabbled backwards to get out, but before he could move any further a rough, gnarled hand grabbed him by the wrist.
“And what the fuck,” growled the voice under the sheets, “Do you think you’re doing?”