Category Archives: 1.09

Sow (Chapter 1 Part 9)

Jova fell back, screaming, covering her face with her forearms. She gasped as the beast withdrew claws from her side, and rolled over, struggling to reorient herself.

The beast paced around the forest clearing, bristling in agitation, screeching at anything and everything that moved.

One hand clutched her wound, trying to stem the bleeding; the other scrabbling forward on the dirt, Jova tried to drag herself forward. Somewhere in the midst of the dizzying pain, she found room for a plan. Who was closer? Rituu and Sri, or Da and the camp? There was no way she could out-speed that thing by crawling. She tried to stand, but her entire torso seemed to have gone numb.

Could she hide? That didn’t seem an option either. She was too clumsy, wounded, a trail of red already dripping into the dirt. She had lost a lot of blood. That should have worried her.

Options. Other options. The thoughts came in fragmented bursts, now, difficult to string together in coherent ideas. She cast her eyes about, and something glinted from the underbrush.

The tabula! She had dropped it when she had fallen over. If she could just reach it, there was hope.

She hauled herself up on her elbows, crawling forward to get the tabula. Her fingers scrabbled at the edge, and she tried to give it the same energy she had before. Was there some kind of unsummon command? Some way to send the creature back?

The tabula did not even budge. It stayed still to the touch, and Jova felt her heart leap to her throat. She didn’t know how else to use a tabula. She had just wanted to bring the animal here and show it to Ma, she was never supposed to do anything else. Her hand pressed on the tabula so hard that she forced it into the earth. A dismissal command, a pacifying command, anything at all that could help her.

Nothing happened.

The screeching thing had finally turned its attention back on her. Jova blinked, taking it in. A colorful bird’s head, streaked with long feathers, on the body of some lithe predatory cat, sleek and black. The contrast was stark, almost beautiful, if it had not been for the crazed, angry look in its yellow eyes.

“Ea-easy there,” Jova stuttered. It was what she said to Mo when he was upset, although she harbored doubts that it would work on this one. Mo was twisting curves and docility; this was sharp lines and anger. “Easy, now. Don’t be afraid.”

The creature opened its mouth and shrieked, louder than the bathawk, a more brutal, razor edge to its voice. Jova shrunk back, breathing hard. The advice was more meant for her than it, in a way.

She clutched her stomach again. The pain in her gut was growing too large to ignore. She looked up at the creature, wordless, pleading.

It paused, pacing, considering her. That was good. Any time at all it spent not killing Jova was time someone could hear, someone could come and help. It was making enough noise, surely someone had heard. Da would be worried that she hadn’t come back yet, or Rituu would be heading back to camp, or Ma would have-

And then the creature leaped forward and grabbed Jova’s skull.

She screamed. It was the only option left to her. She pushed and shoved and screamed, but despite all her efforts there was nothing she could do. She felt her head jerk backwards as the creature closed tight claws around, felt blood drip from wounds that felt like hot knives sinking into her flesh.

Pushing the creature back was like trying to push back a boulder; no matter what Jova did she could not seem to even make the creature budge.

It looked at her, its eyes intelligent and malicious. Its claws traced Jova’s face, slowly, purposefully.

She moaned, her struggles faltering, as the claws came to a leisurely rest over her eyelids.

“Please,” she gasped. “Please, no…”

She shut her eyes tight, as the pressure over them increased.

And then the claws pierced.

She lurched, her screaming coming to an abrupt halt, her mouth frozen open as a soundless gurgle came out. Blood like hot tears streamed down the sides of her face. In that moment, Jova wanted to die. She should have died.

But she didn’t.

It was not a blessing. Jova did not want to think, did not want to feel. She prayed to each of the Ladies Four for an end. And for a moment, it was there, a painless, sweet bliss. For once in her life, Jova just felt like falling asleep.

And then it was as if someone lit a fire inside of her. The pain flared inside of her, pain that hurt so much it went out the other side into numbness. She felt her heart pick up speed, felt strength return to her muscles.

Her hands found the creature’s neck. It snapped and shrieked, but she would not let go. She pushed. There was no hidden reserve of strength in her body, but this time she ignored the pain. She kept on pushing, and pushing, and pushing.

With a wet squelch, Jova felt the pressure removed from her eyes, to be replaced by a dull, hot throbbing. She choked, her stomach turning over, but somehow she kept the nausea at bay. Her whole body hurt, not just her face: the beast had torn her belly, shoulders, and legs. Yet the pain, as insurmountable as it was before, somehow seemed manageable.

Manageable in the loosest sense of the word. Manageable in that Jova was no longer frozen to the ground.

She had something to prove.

The beast snapped and bit, stretching out its head to get at Jova’s vulnerable neck and chest, but she kept it at arm’s length. She did not let go. If she did- and this thought came with a crushing feeling worse than any pressure the physical world could put on her- if she did, she would not know where the beast was any longer. She would be blind.

She was blind.

Claws raked against her thighs, as Jova felt the animal thrashing under her hands. Something inside her swallowed the pain, pain that seemed somehow separate from her. She could almost see it in her mind, white hot, compressed into as small a space as possible, waiting.

The animal stopped shrieking, its voice descending into a reedy whistle, gasping for air. How odd, that suddenly every other one of Jova’s senses felt more acute. She could feel the silky whisper of the feathers under her hands, could hear the thump-thump-thump of her heart in her chest. Jova’s hands twisted, and she felt the pop of every bone, muscle, and sinew.

And with a crack, the beast’s neck snapped in her hands. It was not sudden, but slow, slow like the waves beating at the shores or the wind eroding the sea-side cliffs. It seemed to take ages.

When it was done, the pain returned. Jova slid to the ground, her body crying out for rest. The blood on her face, was that from her eyes? Or her mouth? Was it even her blood?

She heard screaming distantly. You did this, the voices seemed to say. You did this.

She had done it, to herself. Ma needn’t have worried. The bad people would never get a chance to hurt her if Jova kept this up.

She dreamed of open spaces. She saw more stars than she thought could fit in the sky, and when she reached up to touch them they whirled and rippled like leaves in a pond. Constellations formed and galloped, strange creatures she had never seen before: bulls with long tusks and wide, fan-like ears, engorged monkeys with silver backs and stern faces, horses with necks as long as she was tall. She looked around her and saw no trees, no roads, no looming cliffs or stoic ocean. She could go anywhere she wanted, anyway she wanted. No more hiding, not even if she wanted to.

Then the fires came. They leaped up and roared around her, consuming the dry brush in an instant. Jova raised her hands and screamed, and heard her mother and father shouting at each other, running through a burning door, fighting their way out of the flames, until they emerged in a crowd of children with leering faces, each waving their tabula in front of them in some kind of toddler’s game.

The flames surrounded her, a crackling heat beating at her face. The rest of her body felt oddly cold, but her face felt like it was burning. Jova reached up to it, but found that her arms would not move, as if they were pinned down with leaden weights. She struggled, immobile, while her face kept burning, swelling up with heat, inflamed, distorted, twisted.

Jova woke to the most complete darkness she had ever known.

She turned her head, and heard the rustle of the fabric under her, felt the rough scratch of her clothes. The sound felt somehow wrong, too sharp, too detailed. It was textured in a way Jova had never noticed before. The dissonance made it feel both close and far away.

Jova breathed deep. She was outside; that she could tell from the smell of the air, crisp and fresh. She was in the shade, though, lying on her sleeping roll. Occasionally spots of heat danced on her skin. Under a tree? The breeze was gentle, but to Jova’s too sensitive skin she could feel it coming from her right, a susurrus, a whisper. It felt so odd to feel the breeze, but to not see anything move.

There was cloth over her eyes. It itched. Jova avoided the other thought. She felt as if a great pressure was pressing against her from every side. She reached up to the bandage, her fingers slipping under the cloth but not pulling it away.

Something clattered on the ground. Hollow, like wood. The splash was probably water. “Oh, by all the Ladies,” whispered Ma, and the rustling became louder. “Jova. Jova, dear, are you awake? How do you feel?”

Jova croaked. Her mouth was dry.

“Here, here, here,” said Ma, and Jova swallowed greedily. Ma held her head up as she drank. When she was done, Jova felt suddenly guilty. Coddled, like a baby, like a cripple. She reached up, trying to find the cup, but her hands grasped at empty air.

Ma pressed the cup into her hand, and as Jova took it she felt her mother’s hand shaking. She drank it all in one gulp, water dribbling out of the corners of her mouth. Jova tried to hand the cup back, but found that she did not know where to offer it.

Her mother took the cup back, just as gently. Jova let her hand fall. She hung her head, staring at nothing. The pressure was in her chest, now.

She choked back a sob.

“Oh, my little Lady,” said Ma, and she hugged Jova close. The sudden movement made Jova’s wounds twinge, but the warmth of her embrace more than made up for it.

Despite herself, Jova began to cry. Tears streamed from empty eyes, and she began to gasp for breath as she hugged her mother close. “I’m so sorry, Ma,” she managed to say. “I’m so sorry.”

“No, no, no,” said Ma, rocking her back and forth. Her voice was steady, even as she pressed a wet cheek against Jova’s forehead. “Don’t be sorry. Don’t be sorry. It wasn’t your fault. You were so strong. So strong, my little Lady. You don’t have anything to be sorry for.”

But Jova couldn’t stop. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

She heard a gasp behind her, a strangle intake of breath. “Jova,” Da said. “Anjan, is she…? Jova, are…”

“Our Jova is just fine,” said Ma, still rocking her daughter. “She turned out just fine, didn’t she?”

Jova felt a second pair of arms wrap around her, and she began to cry even harder. “Our little Lady’s just fine,” Da repeated. He kissed her on the head. “You made it. Oh, Jova, you made it. We thought you would die. You- you should have, but now we know you’re made of stronger stuff, eh?” The cheeriness in his voice sounded forced to Jova’s ears.

They sat there for a long time, until Jova found she could cry no more.

“Rest now, Jova,” said Ma. “We’ll take care of you, don’t you worry.” Jova nodded. She let her hands guide her back down to the ground, and lay there, not moving. She didn’t sleep, though. Some old habits, it seemed, died hard.

“How long has it been?” Jova asked.

There was silence. What were her parents doing? What were they thinking? Not knowing was frustration beyond belief. “Four days,” said Ma, finally. “Four days and four nights. We watched over you the whole time.” She whistled, and Jova flinched. She heard soft padding on the ground. It was just Mo.

“You must be hungry,” said Da, and Jova concentrated. There was a very low crackle. A small fire? “Do you want to eat now? We’ll wait, if you don’t. Just tell us when, Jova.”

Her throat was still dry. “I’ll eat now,” said Jova, and it surprised her just how weak her voice sounded: it was thin and feeble. Like she was, she supposed.

“OK,” said Da, and the cheeriness had faded. “I’ll tell you when it’s ready.”

Jova nodded, although she did not know if Da could see. She curled up on her mat, trying to listen. Her eyelids kept opening to see only darkness, and the bandage itched around her face. It more than itched, it felt wrong.

It was no great mystery what was wrong, but Jova had no context to describe it. She doubted many people did.

Of course, there was pain, and that pain became more apparent as she lay there. It was whispering in her wounds, in clumsily bandaged scratches and cuts. Jova concentrated, trying to focus on anything else besides herself.

She heard a low whine, felt the heat of the weaseldog’s body. “Hey, Mo,” she said, although she did not reach out to pet him as she normally did. “How you doing?”

A wet snout found its way under her palm, and she did her best to smile. “Good Mo,” she whispered, brushing his snout. He was part of the family, too.

It took only a short time for the meal to be ready, and Jova felt her stomach rumble.

“Mushroom broth,” said Da, smiling. “It’s your favorite. And we have bread, too, and cheese. There’s not much, but we’ve been saving it for when you woke up.”

Jova felt hands on her side again. “It’s just me,” Ma said into Jova’s ear as she helped her up. Again, Jova felt that surge of guilt, guilt for being useless, a burden.

“Careful, it’s hot,” said Da, putting the chipped wooden bowl gently in Jova’s hand. “Doesn’t it look- smell good?”

His little slip of the tongue made Jova’s heart sink even lower. She had meant to prove herself stronger to her parents. This was the opposite. She held the bowl carefully in her lap.

“Do you need any help?” asked Ma, her concern evident in her voice.

“No!” Jova took a deep breath. “No, Ma, it’s OK.” And she brought the bowl up, shaking, to her mouth. A little soup sloshed out of the sides as she did, and a little more came out of the corner of her mouth. Was that because of her disability, or was she simply noticing it now?

She ate, her parents huddled in pensive silence around her. They seemed at a loss of words to say.

And finally, Jova worked up the nerve to ask something that had been bothering her since she had woken up. “Where are the others? Where’s Sri?”

Again, the long silence that Jova could no longer read. She sat and waited, as the possible answers slowly grew worse and worse in her head.

“I sent them away,” Ma said, finally. “They shouldn’t have done what they did to you.”

They didn’t do anything to me, Jova thought, morosely.

This was all my fault.

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