Category Archives: 1.06
The big guy danced and nickered, swinging his massive neck from side to side. The boy clung onto his back, just barely holding on. Both were jittery with pent-up energy.
The sun set slowly behind them, as Loom reared on her ox. “You’ve got no chance, kid! Give up! You’ve got no power, you won’t cover any ground before I get you!”
“Long legs, long stride,” the boy shouted back. “We’re fine, yeah? You and Pash have the problem! Big fat thing can’t beat us, no way, no how.”
“Your pet’s got a long something, kid, but it ain’t legs,” said Loom.
The camelopard bellowed, impatient, and the winter ox bellowed back. “No more talk!” said the boy. “Any longer and I can’t stay on.”
“Well, you got to stay on your beast if you want to win,” said Loom, bending low.
“Big guy wins without me, yeah? No need for me to slow him down.” The boy scratched his mane, even as the camelopard shook his head and stamped his feet on the ground. “Go big, big guy. Go big, yeah?”
“On my mark,” said Loom. “Mark…GO!”
The big guy pounded forward, legs a yellow blur across the golden grass. They made a stark silhouette against the red sun slipping into the horizon: the gawky beast and the boy standing on his back.
Any sane rider would have at least sat down for the race, but not this boy. He whooped and shouted, clinging for dear life onto the camelopard’s mane while he rode the beast’s undulating back and shoulders like he was a Da’atoan surfer, the wind flapping at his new shirt and pants.
Long legs, long neck, long stride: there was no denying that when the big guy moved fast, his entire body moved with him, stiff rods swinging around greased joints. The big guy’s neck swung like a pendulum, and it took all of the boy’s concentration just to hold on.
“To the wagon, big guy! Beat her to the wagon!” the boy shouted, over the wind and the pounding hooves. He doubted the big guy could hear him; he could barely hear himself.
The boy’s senses blurred. Hearing, sight, touch: there was nothing but raw speed, as he pummeled on without any regard for what was around or in front of him. It had never been this way before. There had always been a chase, some prey to catch or some predator to escape. Loom’s “race” made the boy’s heart pump even more. It made his hands shake, his fingers quiver, his soul tremble.
He liked it.
Loom raced towards him at equal speed, her ox trampling the grass to flattened paste. The boy squinted, trying to keep his eyes open in the rushing wind. Was that ice?
The two converged on the wagon, which Loom had left in the middle of the field. The boy had been wary to leave such a valuable thing alone, but Loom reasoned that if anyone or anything tried to hijack it, then they’d be racing towards it already.
“Faster, big guy, she’s getting close!” the boy shouted. He couldn’t believe the speed at which Loom travelled; Deppash did not so much run as slide, hurtling forward like a meteor, a massive weighty thing that fell horizontally.
The big guy roared even louder, and sparks seemed to fly. The boy tumbled back, gripping onto the camelopard’s haunches as it chased down the wagon; there would be no more standing up for him, not at these speeds.
The two collided at the center, careening past each other and sliding across the ground until they came to a stop. The boy fell and rolled at least ten body’s-width away from his original destination, but when he sat up he was grinning from ear to ear.
“We get there first!” he shouted. The camelopard brayed his agreement, even as the lanky beast tried to untangle its legs, neck, and tail.
“How could you tell? You were upside-down half the time,” said Loom. She put a hand on her ox to steady herself, gasping for breath, until Deppash summarily keeled over. The boy swore he felt the vibration through the ground.
“We get there first,” he repeated, clambering up onto the back of the wagon as if to bask in his victory. “We win!”
“No, you didn’t, I did,” said Loom, pushing him off. “I won’t let you tell people that a dumb kid beat me in a race. I’ll never hear the end of it.” She wiped her running nose with the back of her hand, her cheeks red and eyes watering. “Now will you stop jumping around? It’s uncomfortable enough as it is.”
The boy turned to make a smart comment, but before he could his knees collapsed under him and he sprawled face first in the dirt. He hadn’t even ran and he felt exhausted. “Yike,” he mumbled. “Yeah. I stop jumping. You help me stand now?”
Loom’s laughter was harsh, vindictive, and oddly comforting. “Glad to see that we burned the energy out of you. I want to cover a lot of ground tonight, but you can sleep on the carpets if you want.”
He yawned. He wasn’t about to turn down an offer to rest, but the idea of moving and sleeping at the same time made him reconsider. How would he know where he was when he woke up?
The boy rubbed his eyes and clambered to his feet. “I stay up, yeah?”
“Tough kid,” said Loom. There was a hint of approval in her voice. “Dumb, but tough.”
“Are all Shira Hay races like that?” asked the boy. While Deppash found his feet, the big guy lay prone. He didn’t seem like he was getting up anytime soon, which was a relief for the boy. Even a few more seconds of rest while they were still stationary was much appreciated.
“That’s the gist of it,” said Loom, nodding. “The more people you can get, the better. And sometimes the kids get off and do a little running themselves.” She snorted. “That’s the easy way out, of course.” She tapped Deppash’s tabula. “Running takes only your stamina. Riding by tabula will take everything you’ve got.”
The boy looked down. Running himself? Easy? It could have easily joined one of the most exhausting things the boy had done by choice, but the idea that sprinting that hard and that fast was the beginner level was somewhat daunting. The other option, the one using tabula, must have been infinitely more tiring.
He felt an odd desire to try it out.
“Is that what you did?” asked the boy. “Is that how Pash managed to move so fast?”
Loom clapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry about it. Just know that you’ll be able to tell all the kids in the city that you’ve been in a Shira Hay race, and that’s good enough for most of them.”
“What else do kids do in the city?” asked the boy, watching the last few orange flares flicker away under the horizon. They had out-sped the setting sun: a little achievement, but one that made him proud nonetheless.
“Kids? I don’t know,” said Loom. “Run around and get under your fucking feet, I guess. Don’t worry about them, all they do is play adult games and lose. I wish I had my dice, I could show you Wwa Ta.”
“Wwa Ta?” The boy giggled, stretching out the curious word. “Wwa. Waawaaa.”
“You look like a fucking pigcow chewing cud,” she snorted. She shook her head. “What am I saying? Wwa Ta is a betting game. You won’t have a coin to your name to even buy in, so you can forget about that. But Kennya Noni, now, you could play that.”
“Kennya Noni?” So many new words. The boy had no idea there could be so many things in the world that had a name.
Loom gave him a solid whack on the shoulder.
“Ow!” The boy recoiled. Had he said something wrong?
“That is the basic premise of Kennya Noni,” Loom said. She seemed unapologetic about punching the boy so hard. Perhaps she did not know her own strength. “It’s a fighting style, see? Gutter boys are always practicing it. The trick is to hit your opponent in the side, where they’re not expecting it, and then duck away and run fast. Well, faster.”
“Like racing?” asked the boy, cocking his head.
“Like racing,” said Loom, nodding. “I’m shit at it myself, but maybe you’ll see a Kennya Noni fight or two. It’s not so impressive if you’re not running with them, you’ll just see two scrawny men chase after each other in the street. The best ones go for the roofs, though, and that’s fucking spectacular. The electors hate them for it, but what can they do? You can’t catch a good Kennya Noni fighter.”
Roofs. The boy was still having trouble with that concept. Apparently they were a kind of elevated floor that people could also live under, except when they did that it was called a ceiling. It was difficult to wrap his head around. He would have to see it for himself.
“Maybe I’ll show you a move or two,” said Loom. She winced, though, as she straightened her back, and rolled her shoulder with a pained expression. “Not today, though. Later.”
The big guy had found it in himself to stand up. They both paused to watch.
“It’s like…timber,” said Loom, staring. “Falling backward.”
The boy didn’t ask what timber was, but he had to admit the process was spectacular.
“Are we far away from Shira Hay?”
“Two days of hard travel, I’d say,” said Loom. “Assuming nothing happens and we don’t get lost.”
“I thought you knew the way!”
“I thought you did, too,” said Loom dryly. “I do. Problem is, it’s a hard enough even if you do know what you’re looking for. See all this?” Loom gestured to the plains around her. “Damn hard to find your way through here. Everyone thinks Shira Hay is the biggest damn place in Albumere but the truth is they’re all just walking in fucking circles.”
“We’re not walking in circles, are we?” asked the boy, quickly.
“I have absolutely no idea,” said Loom, with a straight face. “And if we are, I’ll spend the next few months begging for the Lady Fall to put us back on the right path.”
They did not speak for several moments. The boy watched, as the sky turned dark and the first stars began to glimmer in the sky. The pale shadow of the moon, dim in the blaze of day, became a bright disk, hanging low. The boy’s hand traced his own disks in his belt.
“Is that all it takes?” he asked, after a moment.
“All what takes?” Loom had been lying on the side of the wagon, eyes closed and body limp: not quite asleep, but resting.
“All it takes to find the right path,” said the boy. “You just beg?”
“Well, no,” said Loom, shifting. She looked uncomfortable. “It’s got to be to the Ladies Four. It’s how civilized folk do it. It’s called praying.”
“What’s the difference?”
Another stretch of silence.
“Ask a fucking priest,” said Loom, gruffly. “Hell if I know.”
The boy cocked his head. “How would a priest know?”
“Look, kid, it’s not my fucking job to-.”
“You know so much about everything already. No priest knows more than you, yeah?” The boy looked up at Loom, genuinely curious.
As she looked down, her hair fell around her face. Loom looked suddenly old, her back slouched, her forehead wrinkled. She gave a sidelong glance to the boy. “Oh, fuck me,” she muttered, and slid off of the wagon, pacing around to the front to grab Deppash’s harness.
The boy stared at her until the tarp blocked his view, and then looked at the big guy, and smiled. “Hey, maybe I get a wagon for you when we at the city. That’d be good, yeah?”
A hot ball of spit in the boy’s face summarized the camelopard’s thoughts on wagons.
“OK, OK, no wagon,” said the boy. “Too big to steal anyway. Hey, big guy, you got any idea on how we take the stuff in Shira Hay?”
The camelopard chewed placidly. What he had found to chew, the boy had no idea, but the big guy showed a blissful apathy about “the stuff” or means of acquiring it.
“You look like a pigcow chewing cud, big guy,” said the boy, snickering. “A fucking pigcow,” he repeated, lowering his voice, and then checked over his shoulder just to make sure that Loom was still tying Deppash back into his harness.
The boy laughed, for no reason at all other than he wanted to. His toes curled in delight. “Yike, big guy, you remember how today started? I remember. I remember every little teeny tiny thing about today for the rest of my life.”
His hand drifted back to the disks around his belt. “I tell her about today when I find her. Loom’s so smart, she can help me, yeah? All the people in the world live in the city, she has to be in there somewhere.”
The boy pulled the girl’s tabula out. He could tell which ones they were just by touch at this point; having only three possessions for four years did that for him.
“How does she makes it work so fast?” asked the boy. “Show me,” he said, and the disk hummed for just a moment before the energy bled away. “Show me!” said the boy, louder, and a cold sweat broke out on his forehead. Exhausted from his run, he could only make the disk shake slightly in his fingers before he ran out of energy.
How loud did she say the command? Did she even say it? The boy wiped his forehead with the back of his hand. Maybe that was a secret of civilized folk that he could ask her. He poked his head around the wagon canvas. “Hey, Loom, can you-?”
A rough hand grabbed his mouth and grappled him to the ground. Reflexively, the boy lashed out and kicked, trying to yell out for the big guy’s help, before he realized that it was just Loom. His fist had nailed her in the cheek, and she reeled back, swearing.
“OW! Fuck! Shit!” she hissed, hands cradling her face. The boy squirmed back. Would she forgive him? Would he have to run? His heart pumped like he was racing again. He had only just met her today, but maybe she would forgive him…
Except when she looked up and glared, it wasn’t at him. Her gaze was focused on the distance, on the waving grass. The boy squinted. His first instinct was that it was a predator of some kind; he reached for the big guy, ready to leap onto his back and start running at a moment’s notice.
“Get back, kid,” snapped Loom, and the boy froze. “Don’t get up. Let them think we’re still in the wagon. We can surprise them.”
Them? And then the boy realized what- or, rather, who– they must be, with a sinking feeling in his gut.
This many people in one day was too much. He still didn’t have any rocks.
He saw with a little relief that Deppash wasn’t tied to his harness yet. Loom put a firm hand on the ox’s head, pushing him down so that his stiff ears and bright eyes did not alert the bandits or robbers or whatever they were.
The boy tried to do the same for the big guy, but the camelopard was just too tall to even try to hide. The big guy still looked at the world with half-hooded, lazy eyes, but the nervous flicks of his tail gave him away. He knew what was happening, but was doing his best to follow Loom’s instructions.
“Good guy,” the boy whispered, getting close to him, careful not to disturb the grass as he crept close to his friend. “Smart guy.”
The boy watched for the robbers’ approach. He hoped that they were as bad thieves as he was.
He held his breath. Perhaps Loom had just been paranoid. Maybe it was just some big cat or other animal, parting the grass as it moved. Perhaps they were safe.
And then the grass around them exploded.
A grown man dove out of the cover, a tabula thrumming in his hand. He wasn’t the only; two others on opposite ends of the wagon charged forward, all screaming. As the man roared, something leaped out of the grass, a mass that had no right to be there as it barreled out of nothingness.
The man hadn’t seen the boy; he was attacking the wagon. The thing from the grass though…
It sunk sharp claws into the camelopard’s side, too fast for the big guy to react. The boy screamed, pummeling his scrawny fists on the thing digging into his friend’s side.
The lion slipped off, not so much out of pain but annoyance. It had left long red gashes in the big guy’s side, and now turned its attention on the boy. The boy realized that he had just tried to attack a fully grown male lion with his bare hands.
“Yike,” he muttered, a little shocked. “That was stupid.”
And then the lion had knocked the air out of his lungs, pinning him to the ground. A claw traced lightly over the boy’s chest, and the lion growled, a low deep sound that rumbled through the boy’s entire body. A smoldering intelligence burned behind its yellow glare.
Through watering eyes, the boy saw the big guy raise his hooves. A well placed kick and-
And the lion’s mane burst into flame with a deafening whoosh, causing the big guy to stumble back, screaming hoarsely. The lion did not even spare the big guy a glance, still intent on the boy.
As the grass began to blacken and burn around them, as heated air billowed in his face, the boy took comfort in the fact that if the lion wanted to kill him, it would have done so already. Some comfort, anyway. It was hard to ignore the fact that the cloth wraps around his pinned feet were starting to smoke.
“There they were,” said a voice, over the crackle of the flames. “Pyrr, get off, he needs to be alive if I want to sell him.”
The lion snarled, but backed away, as the man stepped lightly out of the wagon.
“Don’t bother fighting, boy, your master’s already down. Just come quietly and I promise not to hurt y- ugh!” The slaver’s talk was interrupted as the boy ran headfirst into him. He didn’t even bother to punch or kick; he simply shot from the ground and slammed into the man’s gut with whatever part reached him first.
“Fucking-.” The man didn’t finish his swear, as a rock-hard hoof hit him in the head. His skull snapped back with a crack. The boy didn’t know if the man would get up after that. It didn’t matter. He had to run.
The big guy fell into stride beside him as the boy dashed away, but his progress was impeded by a sharp tug around his midsection. His belt! The boy turned around. The robber looked dead on his feet, but his hand was locked around the boy’s belt and there was a manic expression in his eyes.
The poorly tied knot came loose, and the boy tumbled forward, skinning his knees and elbows as he fell onto the dirt.
He heard a low chuckle, and his hands immediately went to his waist. The tabula- her tabula, where had it gone?
“Got you now, you little shit,” said the man, grinning.
Three amber disks glinted in his hand.