Category Archives: Chapter 4 (Born & Bred)
He stood in the amphitheater next to the chained traitor, listening to the wind whistle through the silent city. It was the largest crowd he had ever rallied: they stood shoulder to shoulder, jostling and shoving in a claustrophobic mass, but every single one, even the most unruly of the wild children, was silent as the Lady Spring. He breathed deeply. They were packed in tight in-between the pillars done in the marbleman style, but even though the Seat of the King bore their mark, the marblemen owned the city no longer.
Beside him, the hounds growled. The three needed no leashes, and he needed no tabula. Their bond was deeper than that. Aurudos, fire leaking from her panting mouth, patrolled the floor of the amphitheater; the crowd, packed though it might be, did not dare intrude on his or the hounds’ space. Viridos, thin and lanky, kept watchful eyes on the assembled, ready to at a moment’s notice sniff out the assassins and spies and traitors in their midst. Finally, Candidos stood by the traitor’s side, still as ice, keeping the air around him so cold that the manacles had stuck solid to his frigid skin.
He took one last look at the traitor, then turned to his people. He had kept them waiting long enough.
“Citizens of the Seat,” said Banden Ironhide. “I speak now as one of you.”
Stony faces and closed lips greeted him. It did not concern Banden. It was a chilly autumn morning, yet these people had attended of their own volition. They would listen. If they didn’t want to, at least they needed to. The revolutionaries inside all of them did not yet slumber.
“There are those who say I am not, those who say that I am a from-Fallow elite, those who say I have simply inherited the mantle of Albumere’s long line of bloody, usurper kings. They say I grew up in the shadow of the palace, as a pampered favorite of the man I killed three years ago.” Banden took a deep breath. “They are partially correct.”
“Once I worked in the palace of the king, first as a servant, then an advisor. This man, this king, was the third marbleman general to bear the name Cecis. He dined daily on fresh fruit from Do Yash and succulent boar hunted from Sivnag. He was given the best of pleasure-slaves from Jhidnu every night to entertain him. He had the staunchest marble soldiers to protect him, and could claim the tabula of any man or beast on Albumere. I stood by his side and watched as he dined, and supped, and celebrated, and as I watched I realized this man, this king, was the poorest man I had ever known.”
Banden remembered Cecis, his thin blond hair and his sallow skin. He remembered the shock in the old king’s eyes when Banden commanded the hounds to hold him down. He had been a pathetic man, a weak man, and a foolish man: never, however, a bad man.
“Why was he poor? Because he was a slave. He was slave to neither a man nor a woman. He was not even slave to the realm. This man, this king, was slave to a system, and that system had been infected by complacency. It was a system who had lost the blessing of the gods, whose heel crushed the souls of hundreds daily, whose hands dripped with the blood of children. Of children.”
Banden held his arm up, hand poised as if he gripped a human heart, and cast his gaze over the entire crowd.
“Who denies it? Who denies the horrors committed on Albumere under the rule of this man, this king? And yet, for all the atrocities done in the name of King Cecis the Third, there was no sin greater than complacency. I grew up in the palace of the king! I was as much one of them then as I am one of you now! For years, I thought the system could be changed within the system; for years, I sang the ditty of reform into the ears of his councilors and advisors; for years, my sweet little ladybird’s song was silenced.”
There was silence again now. Banden’s eyes roamed over the breathless masses, just waiting for their deliverance.
“Eventually, the king grew tired of the twittering of his caged bird. He stirred just once from his indolent slumber to lock me away and silence me. I was too valuable to them, though; they could not kill me. They locked me in a pit so deep and so dark that no one would hear me scream. In that pit, lesser men mistook the echoes of their own thoughts as the voices of the Ladies. I heard something different.”
“I heard a song: in the dark of a cell, in the depths of the night, a song from the day when man first laid hands on a tabula and said, ‘This is mine.’ It is a song of lament. It is sung in the dry, dusty fields of Alswell, by the slave worker. It is sung in the polluted, criminal streets of Jhidnu, by the slave watchman. It is sung in the stifling, roiling galleys of Da’atoa, by the slave sailor. It is sung in the slums and the ghettoes and the tenements, by babes in their cribs and old men on their deathbeds. It is the song of revolution, and it grows louder every day.”
He could see them whispering to each other now. A low buzz surrounded him, and Banden knew he had them. He felt their energy, and rode it upwards, his voice growing in power and strength.
“In that cell, I realized that our masters had grown complacent. I lifted my nose to the air and smelled the fetid scent of a city infected with corruption and decay. And when I saw my warden next, I promised him: his complacency would be purged. His idleness would be punished. His necrotic flesh would be gouged out with a hot knife. I saw in the darkness of that cell a world brighter than any Albumere has ever been graced with, and it began here, in this city, the city at the center of the world.”
Banden opened his arms wide and paced around the edge of the amphitheater floor.
“Who are we? Are we towermen, who huddle in dim forges and sew their lips shut to keep the secrets of a forgotten myth? Are we clansmen, who worship false gods and dance like brutes under the treacherous stars? Are we marshmen, who lace their mud-smeared faces with false smiles and empty promises? No! We are the citizens of the Seat of the King! We are our own people, and we will no longer host twelve bickering nations who see our city as the battleground for their petty squabbles!”
The buzz was rising. The people were talking. The people were thinking.
“I heard in that cell the song of revolution, this revolution, for this is the revolution of the free! This is the revolution of every man, woman, and child who refuses to participate in the daily harvest of a field watered with blood. This is the revolution of a thousand singular voices that demand independence from a world that hates them! This is the revolution of the individual who will not let some indolent aristocrat decide how he will burn! This is the revolution that BEGINS WITH YOU!”
They needed to be reminded. They needed to remember why this rebellion had begun in the first place, why they had taken this city for themselves, why they needed to pass to Albumere the spark they had ignited before the cruelty of the world snuffed them out.
“Citizens of the Seat! Citizens of Albumere!” shouted Banden, his arms held out to the crowd, and fervor seemed to run through them like wildfire. “No kings! No queens!”
“NO KINGS,” echoed a chorus that rang throughout the whole city. “NO QUEENS.”
“We will never be slaves again!”
“NEVER AGAIN,” they chanted in unison.
“This is the revolution that begins with you!” Banden repeated. He turned to the man in chains, kneeling next to him. “And this is the revolution that ends with him!”
And the crowd roared for the traitor’s blood.
“This man served under the old king, the last king. He witnessed what I witnessed. He knew what I knew. And he. Did. Nothing. This man’s sin is not violence. It is not greed. It is not lust. It is complacency.” Banden turned as he talked, so he could face the whole amphitheater. “Citizens of the Seat! The time for judgment has come! Mercy? Or death?”
It began softly, and slowly, but the more people took on the chant the quicker it spread. Banden almost did not bother listening. He knew people. He knew what they wanted, and he knew what the world demanded of him.
“Death it is,” said Banden, circling around to the traitor. He held the frigid handle of the official’s old hammer. It was fitting, to do the deed with the man’s own weapon.
“M…m…” the man stuttered through chattering teeth. Banden paused. He motioned to his hounds to take a step back, and they did.
“Murderer,” the man whispered, as the color returned temporarily to his cheeks. He did his best to meet Banden’s eyes. “You murderer.”
Banden met his gaze coldly. “Better to take a man’s life than his freedom,” said Banden, and he swung.
This first swing didn’t do it. Banden aimed directly for the pedestal in front of him, but even as the hammer landed squarely on the tabula, the disk barely budged. A spasm of pain crossed the traitor’s face, but he still glared at Banden defiantly. Banden drew the hammer back and swung again.
A noticeable crack appeared on the disk, and the traitor bent double, gritting his teeth to hold back a scream. His face stony and immobile, Banden drew his sweating arms back for a third swing. He did not enjoy this work, but it had to be done.
The man really did scream out loud this time. Banden flexed his fingers. Four swings to kill this man. One for each Lady. It was a good omen.
The hammer came down for the fourth and final time, and the tabula shattered with an audible crack. The man was thrown backwards as if hit by some invisible force, and Banden planted his feet and swayed as he absorbed the same unseen impact. Not a leaf or a scrap of cloth even twitched at the shattering of the tabula, though.
He looked at the corpse on the ground, and felt a cold in his chest. His hands were clammy with more than just the exertion of holding the hammer.
But as Banden let the hammer drop from his hands, the people cheered, and he knew he had done the right thing.
He whistled for his hounds as he walked away, while volunteer assistants cleared the body and took the weapon away for storage. There was no blood to clean, no mess and no fuss. All they had to do was sweep away the corpse and the shattered tabula. Banden’s preferred method of execution embodied all the principles of the revolution: cleanliness, efficiency, and utility.
The assistants had also prepared a palanquin for him, and while it would be helpful to keep him separate from the crowds, Banden feared it would encourage idolatry. He waved them away as they opened the curtains to the box for him, and just to make his point clear Aurudos barked and snarled at them, lips curled back to reveal prominent fangs. They backed away without another word. No, he would walk in the streets as equal as any other man.
All the same, as he walked past the gathered crowd, they parted deferentially to him. Banden wasn’t sure if he was supposed to be proud of himself or disappointed in them. Perhaps both. He had grown used to it by now, though. There was no point in fighting it, only directing it.
His leather boots had long ago been worn down to the soles, and he could feel the street stones beneath his feet as he walked. It made him feel closer to the city somehow. The hounds padded along beside him, their claws clicking on the cobblestones. His fellow citizens bowed their heads as he passed: “Banden,” they muttered. “Ironhide, sir.” They took care not to call him king within earshot, but he knew they all said it.
He was not their king. Kings were slaves, and now, in the Fifth Age of Kings, in the new city that was once called the Seat of the King, there would be no more slaves.
Banden closed his eyes as he walked. He knew where the streets led. He knew this city as intimately and closely as he knew his own soul. He, like all the others that had been stirred to revolution, belonged to this city.
There was no name for a citizen of the Seat. Those from Da’atoa were saltmen, those from Mont Don were mountainmen, and those from Shira Hay were plainsmen, but there was no such name for those from the Seat of the King. There had never been a need. Albumere had Thirteen Great Cities but only twelve nations; the Seat of the King had always really been twelve cities melded into one, ethnic and factional lines drawn clearly in the streets. The ones that had never belonged to one of those factions were ostracized, ignored, and brutalized, and the old regime had done nothing about it. The King had been so intent on juggling the wants and needs of the rest of Albumere that he forgot about the people living beneath his nose.
Banden flexed his fingers. Cecis had paid for that in the end.
He looked around him as he walked. Flags of the revolution, green and white, dangled from the roofs, stirring slightly in the brisk autumn wind. An overcast sky loomed over the Seat; Viridos sniffed and growled as she looked upwards. A storm was coming.
The street was empty as Banden walked towards the Pale Temple. It was one of his favorite haunts, and the city knew it; few came to the temple to pray to the Ladies anymore, and many more came to the temple to pray to him. Today, however, it seemed that his services were not needed. He would be alone.
Banden traced the pillar, carved from marble, as he walked inside. Once the Pale Temple had been a place for both the politicians and the pious, but that had ended with Banden’s revolution.
“Behave yourselves,” said Banden, as he went into the temple. The three hounds whined but bowed their heads and obeyed.
His footsteps echoed under the high-vaulted ceiling. Twelve banners, one for each of the nations, dangled from the ceiling, and at the center of the temple stood four altars, one for each of the Ladies.
There was no pontiff in attendance here anymore. Banden was alone as he knelt before the statue. It was not so large; the statue could have just been a woman frozen in stone. Her chiseled features were high, haughty, and proud, and even when she was carved from stone her body appeared smooth as silk. She stood with her feet firmly planted, her arms by her sides, her hands balled into fists, her ladybird wings splayed out like a feathered mosaic.
She was the Lady Spring: the Beauty on High, the Unbowed and Untouched, the Ever Silent. She was goddess of perfection, control, chance, and appearances. She was the oldest and most terrible of the Ladies Four.
Banden knelt on the stone floor and prayed to her.
“We have turned towards Alswell,” said Banden, clasping his hands together. “That place of slaves, of pain, of misery. It shall be the first nation to be cleansed. The other nations are scared of us, of what we have done.” Banden blinked. “No. Not the other nations. Those who claim power in the other nations. The duarchs, the White Table, the plutocrats, the thunder chieftains. The old regime. The people are with us. The people yearn to be free.”
He waited for an answer, but of all the Ladies, the Lady Spring was the worst to wait for. She never spoke to any mortal.
“The city is afraid. The city is…hungry.” Banden rubbed the bridge of his nose. “It has been a long three years. The world turns slowly, even when it is turning over.” Banden sighed. “I was prepared for this. I knew the revolution would not happen in one night.”
There was no answer. Candidos slumped onto the floor and whined.
“I have done the right thing. I have done the right thing. Bad blood must be spilled before Albumere can be cured of its sickness.” Banden looked up, his eyes watering. “I have lost so many, Lady. Their bodies have left us. Their hearts have left us. I have had to bury so many of them. All this suffering…it shall be worth it, won’t it?”
The silence was torturous. Banden bowed his head. He remembered the pit, and what he heard in there. Lesser men mistook their own thoughts for the voices of the gods.
Banden, on the other hand, knew the difference.
He heard footsteps.
Banden looked up, and he felt warmth welling up from inside his gut. The hounds whined and backed away as the Lady approached him. Banden’s mouth was just slightly open, but his eloquent tongue had been arrested by a warm fog that seemed to envelop his mind.
Her hips swayed as she walked; her body shifted with a sensual elegance that came only with complete and total confidence in who she was and what she was meant to do.
“You came back,” he croaked.
The Lady Spring, in full flesh and blood, considered Banden. Her features were still proud, but the stone orbs where her eyes had once been now had pupils and irises. Her gaze was hard but not cold.
Banden rose shakily to his feet. He took a step toward the Lady Spring, but before he had even lifted his foot off the ground the Lady put a hand on his shoulder and forced him to his knees.
“Shall it be worth it?” whispered Banden, tears in his eyes. “Have I done the right thing?”
The Lady Spring leaned in close to him. His breath caught in his throat. He could feel the heat of her breath on his cheek, smell spring flowers and fresh grass and a heady perfume he could not identify. Her hair was crowned with four lilies, and the wings on her back hummed, an iridescent collage of moving colors.
She raised her arm, and her bare shoulders shone in the dim light. The shawl that draped her forearms rippled like water as she pointed upward. Banden was loathe to tear his eyes away from the perfect vision before him, but he followed her finger towards the banner she pointed to.
“Alswell,” he whispered, staring at the emblem of the shield with crossed scythes. “You want me to-.”
He didn’t get to finish, as the Lady Spring held his chin and turned his head to face her. She stroked his cheek with one finger, and Banden shuddered, closing his eyes and opening his mouth at the electric rush. Her lips just barely grazed his forehead, the ghost of a touch, but where she touched him his skin tingled and his pulse pounded. Her fingers were silk whispers as they traced their way across his face, down his neck, and onto his chest. His tunic felt like a paltry thing, to stand in the way between him and such majesty.
Then he opened his eyes, and the statue of the Lady Spring stood before him, cold and still and motionless. It had not moved, although Banden was flushed and breathless. Nothing held him anymore.
The hounds emerged from their hiding places, as Banden gripped his fist. The revolution would continue. The song would grow louder. He would free the souls of Albumere.
“I will come back,” he said, as he walked away.
He could only hope she would, too.
Blood was in the air. He could feel it and taste it; it was in his lungs and on his skin. An iron, metal taste, one that made his heart quicken and his nerves tingle.
The fall toad crawled out of his hiding space, puffs of air swirling around him as he cleared the air of the foul stench. The sac on Fosen’s throat dilated quickly, although not too much for fear of making too loud a sound.
A transparent membrane slid over Fosen’s eyes, as he crawled out from beneath the decomposing log. It had been moist and dark and safe under it, but Fosen couldn’t stay in there forever. All the movement had stopped and the danger seemed to have passed, but Fosen still moved with extreme caution. His steps were light and gentle; the leaves barely bent as he walked across the mulch on the forest floor.
Movement! Fosen froze and twitched, as a mass of humans marched past to his side. He dove into the matted vegetation, eyes unblinking as they came past. They were the new humans, the ones that made Fosen nervous; he did not know what to keep track of, with all their clothing that jangled and rattled and shook as they moved. Perhaps it was not so safe to move.
Fosen continued to crawl, always on wary of something that could hurt him, harm him, kill him. Everything else—food, rest, shelter—was a tertiary concern. Secrecy was paramount now, secrecy and security, and in secrecy he would find security.
A nervous croak escaped Fosen’s throat as he moved through the mulch. He stuck to the shadows, beneath the bushes and verdant ferns, but here the litter had decayed to the point that Fosen had to wade more than walk.
Another wave of humans marched past, and Fosen sunk into the underbrush to watch and wait. They carried with them a limp body, an arm dangling over the makeshift stretcher: a thin line of red traced delicately down the arm, around its hand, and off its finger. Fosen’s heart quickened. Blood was never a good sign.
As Fosen watched, the body was dumped unceremoniously into a nearby ditch. He could taste the foul stench even from here, and though rot was often perfect bait for food, now was not the time.
It was not as if he could have caught prey if he even had the opportunity. Being fed slugworms and winter crickets all his life had not exactly honed his skills as a hunter, and Fosen knew it. The fall toad was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated.
But even he knew what fear felt like, and right now he was afraid.
He crawled on, little puffs of air clearing a path for him as he walked. It drained his essence, but the speed was worth it. He had to get away from this place. Distance was key. Distance and secrecy, then security.
More movement! No matter which way the fall toad seemed to turn, there seemed to be more of the rattling men around him, dragging bodies both dead and alive around the jungle, snapping the long leather tongues they held in their hands. Fosen retreated once more underneath a decomposing log, the bark flaking away as he pushed himself into the small crack between wood and ground, and held his breath as the men passed.
To his horror, the man sat down. He was joined by two others, all sitting in a circle, and Fosen had no way of getting out without falling in their line of sight. He kicked his back legs in vain, hoping against hope that he could somehow dig his way out the other side, but there was no such luck.
“Dal Ak Gan,” said a voice opposite him. The pitch was high, a tone that Fosen recognized as a human female, like mistress. Mistress was good to him, but somehow Fosen did not think this human would be as charitable. “What are we doing with the young ones?”
“How many are we having?”
“Two boys, migrants and vagabonds. And a girl, barely past Fallow. There are others, older, ten years or so, but we have dealt with them.”
“Chain them and sell them. The pyramid lords will be buying children for a high price.”
It did not sound the same as the language mistress and her people usually spoke (although Fosen could barely tell the difference between the human’s sibilant hissing and clicking at the best of times), but the fall toad understood well enough. All human speech had been open to him since he had first touched the golden disk, before mistress had taken it away.
Perhaps another might have wondered why that was, but Fosen did not waste his time with idle thoughts. It let him understand mistress’s orders and intentions, and so long as he could keep it that way he would not question why.
The woman rose, and her curved blade flashed in the sun. It dangled loosely from her hand, but Fosen could not help but fixate on it. “Others hold the children’s tabula,” said the woman. “One boy we are holding now until he speaks, the other swears his owner is dead. The girl does not cooperate.”
“You have searched them?”
The woman scoffed. “Hollow-born foals are blind and weak, but even they know to stumble towards the sun. Of course I have searched them.”
Fosen saw the man’s feet shift in front of him, but the man did not rise from his position. He was still far too close for Fosen to make his escape without being caught. “I am meaning no offense, La Ah Abi. Many things are easily forgot when the blood runs battle-hot, no?”
The woman stomped over and Fosen quailed. She punched the man in the shoulder, although her face was too far up for Fosen to see her expression. “Even when your heart is cool as winter you are forgetful, Dal Ak Gan.”
“And yours runs as the summer always, blood-sister mine.”
The man rose to grip the woman’s wrist, and Fosen saw his opportunity. His squat legs could only take him so far with a single hop, but the fall toad summoned a small gust to propel him forward, out into the open. He just need to move fast, get around the leg and out of sight, before…
“Dal Ak Gan! See here!”
Another one? Fosen bunched into a ball and tumbled back into the safety of the shadows, throat dilating in frustration. He had barely made four bodylengths of progress before the second man hopped lightly off his steed, an eelhound that began to sniff at the ground the moment the man dismounted. Fosen curled even further into himself, holding the air tight and still around him to keep his scent from traveling too far into the air.
This second man was dressed in a prodigious number of furs and skins, and flybeasts buzzed around his face, which was shiny with perspiration. A necklace of bone charms hung around his neck, as did a number of braided strings around his wrists. Smudged face paint streaked his cheeks, although Fosen could not tell what color, and he had pale scars running up his bulky forearm.
A black bird with brilliant scarlet plumage around its eyes and a massive bill streaked with yellows and greens hopped and squawked on the man’s shoulder. The translation was less precise here, but Fosen could still tell the general feeling from the animal. Joy. Triumph. Celebration.
“Dep Sag Ko!” said Dal Ak Gan, embracing the man fully and giving him a hearty thump on the back. “Good hunting, friend?”
“As good as the Lady Summer’s,” said the man with the beasts, smiling and revealing chipped teeth.
“And does your quarry still breathe?”
Dep Sag Ko shrugged. “Most do. Lo Pak was hasty with one, though. We shall be eating mule meat tonight.” At the sudden slump in Dal Ak Gan’s shoulders, he quickly continued, “Worry not, Dal. The staghound will more than make up for what was lost in trade.”
Fosen had more pressing concerns than the cluster of humans, though. The eelhound’s sniffling and rooting was bringing it closer and closer to Fosen’s hiding spot, and unless he moved soon he would find himself inside the jaws of the lanky, serpentine beast.
Its slick, pointed head swung dangerously close to the fall toad’s location. Fosen held back a nervous croak. The eelhound’s skin had an odd sheen to it, like slime, and while Fosen was no stranger to warty, mucus-covered skin, the eelhound also had a coat of thin, greasy fur that made Fosen nervous somehow. It had a prominent underbite, filmy yellow eyes, and a saddle with a carved marble handhold on its back. Occasionally, gills on the side of the eelhound’s neck would flap uselessly when it drew breath.
The eelhound drew closer, a soft growl in the back of its throat. Try as Fosen might, he couldn’t keep all the air around him still forever. Some little scent had to leak out, and the eelhound was starting to catch it.
Fosen waited, as the searching snout drew closer and closer. He began to fill his lungs with air. A powerful enough gust would both blow him away and slow the eelhound down, if he aimed right. All he had to do was wait…
The bird on the man’s shoulder screeched loudly, and the searching snout, bare inches from Fosen’s face, pulled away. The eelhound barked and hissed at the bird, which had started to hop back and forth on Dep Sag Ko’s shoulder. Snarling, the eelhound padded away, sometimes leaping up to snap at the bird with its serrated teeth.
With a great sigh of relief, Fosen relaxed. He had forgotten, though, about the essence charged winds building in his lungs, and so when he breathed out he found himself propelled backwards immediately, tumbling over the leaves as he skidded to a stop in the jungle floor.
He rolled over slowly, each movement precise and deliberate. Had they seen him? Did they see him moving?
No one and nothing had noticed. He was safe.
As Fosen began to crawl away, he noticed the same little clusters all over the former camp: the new humans stood casually, talking, nursing their wounds, while the old humans were nowhere to be seen, and always the stench of the corpse-filled ditch followed him. Fosen wondered where mistress was. He hoped she was still alive.
Fosen paused, right at the border of the trees. Freedom was so close; he could escape into the jungle and never be afraid of these men or any men ever again. Food was plentiful, as where places to hide, for a fall toad. He could just leave.
But Fosen was fat, pampered, and thoroughly domesticated. He wouldn’t make it a day without mistress.
The fall toad crawled back into camp, his wide eyes constantly panning to see if he could find where all the old humans had gone. New tents were being erected already over the still burning embers of the old campfires; they could almost have been the same tents, except these were more patchwork, more dirt-smeared, more primal in a way. Like Dep Sag Ko’s necklace, bones hung over the entrances of the tents, except these were much larger. Femurs swayed like wind charms and skulls leered at Fosen as he made his way further into the camp.
Fosen had only just ventured into the interior of the camp when he heard the sound of a person being struck. His bulging eyes rolled as he searched for the source, and he saw motion next to the smoking remains of the old fire.
The legless man did not cry out or yell as he was struck across the face. He sat on the ground, his hands resting almost peacefully across his stubby legs, as the other man slapped him across the face.
“You are still insisting you are one of us?” snarled his assaulter, pacing in a circle around the man. “A cripple does not carry the name of the Hag Gar Gan. Never make the mistake of thinking you are still one of us. Now, what is your name?”
The legless man looked the slaver straight in the eye and said, evenly, “Rho Hat Pan.”
The slaver hit him so hard this time that the legless man keeled over, a line of blood oozing from the side of his mouth. Fosen could see him coughing and struggling to rise, but the slaver put a foot on the legless man’s back and forced him down. “Tell me your name again, cripple.”
As Fosen drew closer, he could see that the legless man looked barely conscious. Still, he managed to mumble, “Rho Hat Pan.”
He didn’t rise this time, knocked to the ground by the slaver’s blow. The legless man groaned and rolled over, but could not seem to get up, and the slaver, to his credit, scoffed and walked away. Fosen made his way onward.
There was already a collection of the captured around that smoking pit, and Fosen inspected each of them carefully. One had a missing arm; another seemed to have no tongue in her mouth. Many more had much more recent injuries, gashes in their sides that had been clumsily bandaged and bruises swelling around their faces. None of them, however, were his mistress.
Fosen heard footsteps behind him and dove into the midst of the gathered slaves. None of them seemed to notice the little toad in their midst, and so Fosen hid among them as the slaver returned, with company.
Dal Ak Gan, the man from before, was with him, looking authoritative. Fosen recognized an alpha when he saw one, even a human alpha. Dal Ak Gan was in charge here. It was good to remember that.
The blindfolded girl, that came trudging quietly along, Fosen remembered. She had been with mistress a scant few days ago, and had filled mistress with feelings of happiness and nostalgia. And there had been something about her essence, something that had Fosen paying attention. He wasn’t sure how to describe it. Her essence seemed strangely…
The blind girl knelt with the others, and Dal Ak Gan looked over them and crossed his arms. “These are the unfit?” he said, in the guttural other language, to the slaver. The slaver nodded. “You have searched them for tabula?”
The slaver rolled his eyes. “Who would trust a cripple with tabula, Dal Ak Gan? It is not worth my time.”
Dal Ak Gan looked as if he was about to say something sharp in response, but as his eyes flickered between the crowd of slaves and his subordinate, he seemed to decide against it. “And where is the one you say is causing trouble?”
Before the slaver could respond, the legless man croaked, “I am here.”
Dal Ak Gan’s eyebrows rose. It was a human response, Fosen knew, of surprise. “He speaks the imperial tongue. How has a son of the steppes become so lost, hmm?”
The slaver put a hand on Dal Ak Gan’s shoulder and whispered something in his ear. Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly.
“Not this one. I see.” Dal Ak Gan surveyed the crowd again. Then, he said, in a much more familiar language, “Give me the one who is called Janwye.”
While none of the slaves pointed fingers, there was a noticeable shift in their stances: the slight edging away, the subtle turning of their heads. Fosen shrunk back as Dal Ak Gan followed those signals, walking amongst the crowd without a care in the world, until he reached a woman bound with so much rope that she could scarce budge an inch.
“She knew,” said the slaver, in the coarse, other language. “She was having a summer elk with her, too. Almost burned us to death.”
Dal Ak Gan did not acknowledge him. He knelt in front of the woman Janwye and held up her chin. One side of her face was so heavily bruised it did not even seem human anymore.
Fosen knew Janwye. He knew she was one of mistress’s friends. He hoped nothing bad happened to her, but even as he watched he knew he could not do anything to prevent it.
“How is it that you are knowing we are coming?” asked Dal Ak Gan. “Were we clumsy? Or did one of my own alert you? This is a perplexing secret to me, fieldwoman.”
Janwye jutted her jaw out and did not say a word. She was silent and defiant.
Dal Ak Gan stroked the bruised side of her face, and Janwye flinched. “You are noble, fieldwoman, but the time for that is over. Go on. Tell me how you are knowing.”
Janwye turned her head to meet the other man’s eyes, and for just a moment held his gaze. She opened her mouth slowly…
And spat right in his face.
Dal Ak Gan rose, wiping his cheek with the back of his hand, and Fosen could not see his expression. The feelings radiating from him were that of anger, contempt, indignation.
“She probably just saw our tracks. Nothing to worry about. There is no traitor in our midst, Dal Ak Gan,” leered the slaver, staring at Janwye. “Why don’t we just kill her?”
“No!” shouted the legless man immediately. “Forgive her, rider-lord. She is- she is sick in the head.”
Dal Ak Gan looked from his slaver to his slave, his lips pursed in thought. Suddenly, Fosen wanted nothing more than to be away from this. He needed to know where mistress was.
The legless man struggled to sit upright, and then began to crawl forward to Dal Ak Gan. “I supplicate myself to you, rider-lord. Son of the goddesses, free-as-the-wind lord, true heir to the lost empire. She is not well in the head. I- I can speak with her. She knows things, I am sure. She will tell you what she knows.”
Fosen watched as Dal Ak Gan circled around behind Janwye. The legless man did his best to follow, as the other slaves cleared a wide space around him, but he could only crawl so fast. He was like Fosen in that way, the toad supposed.
“She will fetch a high price in the shadow markets!” shouted the legless man. He was almost crying now. “Let her face heal. You have not seen her at her best. She is beautiful! She is beautiful, rider-lord!”
A twinge in essence drew Fosen’s attention. It might have just been his imagination, but he thought he saw a sad smile flicker across Janwye’s face.
“Imagine what she will buy you! Gorgeous silks, or the best blades that Irontower can forge. Or- or you may keep her for yourself! But she must live for that, rider-lord. She must live.”
Dal Ak Gan nodded slowly, putting his hand on Janwye’s shoulder. “Speak with her then, brother lost. Tell her to comply.”
“Janwye,” said the legless man. “Janwye, you must-.”
And then Dal Ak Gan wrapped his arm around Janwye’s neck and squeezed, hard. The legless man roared and leaped forward, but the other slaver caught him and pressed him down.
Janwye convulsed and flailed, a strangled choke escaping from her throat as she fought against the ropes binding her. Fosen could tell that the air was no longer moving in her lungs, that her breath was slowly running out. He summoned his essence and pushed, trying to help her, blowing tiny gusts of air into her mouth. It was an exertion from such a distance, but it was all he could do.
It was not good enough. Janwye’s face reddened as Dal Ak Gan, his expression unmoving, continued to strangle her. Her twitching eventually subsided. Eventually, Dal Ak Gan let her go, and she fell to the ground, eyes glazed, staring at some fixed point ahead of her.
“Janwye…” the legless man sobbed, reaching out for her. Dal Ak Gan stepped on his hand and the legless man slumped, crying into the ground. “Janwye, Janwye…”
“This is what happens,” said Dal Ak Gan, in his thick accent, “When any of you think to cross us. Nothing and no one can save you.” He twisted his foot on the legless man’s hand, but the legless man did not even seem to care anymore.
The two slavers walked away, leaving the body among the crippled and the injured. Fosen crawled away. He needed to find mistress.
Although now, he did not see the point. If the humans could not save each other, how could he?
The red brand steamed and hissed as it was dipped into the water, flakes of dead skin peeling off the mottled iron. Hook stood, watching, his eyes shining, but he shed not a single tear, nor did he move a single inch. His internal screams drowned out his own thoughts, even as his face remained passive, immobile, almost bored.
The old man tapped Hook’s jaw with his knuckles, and squinted. Hook could do nothing to stop him, as he was inspected like a piece of meat. “This is what you brought me?” the old man said. “He looks fit for fertilizer.”
The alsknight named Fisk didn’t say anything. He just watched as the man with the brands proceeded down the line, and the old man followed along behind him. Hook watched with his eyes, as he could neither turn his head nor his body to see them.
“Mm, a small one for her,” said the old man, clicking his tongue. “The other farmers like their girls unblemished. On her foot, there you are. Fisk, raise her foot.”
Hook didn’t even hear the buzz of the tabula, the command was so easy and automatic for the alsknight. It was a terrible power, one that Hook had severely underestimated. He realized now how foolish his dreams of easy living on the border between Shira Hay and Alswell had been. How could he have ever stayed out of the grasp of that kind of power? If only he could go back to warn himself. If only he could go back to warn anyone.
They had tried to warn him—him and all the boys—but Hook, and therefore Hook’s crew, had never listened.
To them, the alsknights had just been another kind of inferior racer. They were supposed to be clumsy and slow, easy to trick and outwit. Any plainsman worth his wits could outsmart an alsknight, or so they thought, but in the riots of Shira Hay, Hook had seen firsthand their training: their speed, their discipline, their precision.
Hook watched out of the corner of his eye as the bent-backed old man snapped and barked at all of his attendants. The row of human beings lined up before him were completely and totally his property. Hook almost could have laughed at himself, and a part of him, a shattering, tenuously sane part of him, wanted to. He had thought himself the pauper king of a peasant kingdom, but right here, right now, he saw what true power was, and how far he had been from it.
“They’re mangy vermin,” said the old man, as he came upon the last person in the line. “No better than ratbeasts. This is what you bring me?”
“My lord Greeve, with all due respect,” said the alsknight, Fisk. “I am fortunate to have left the plains with my own life.”
“Your life? As if your life is worth anything.” The old man’s voice was rising. “You return with not even a quarter of the force I sent to Shira Hay. You have not only failed to gain an ally in the duarchs but you have also made an enemy in them as well, and you think to compensate for your failures by dredging up the filth of the plainsmen gutters. Where is the help I sent for? Where are the men I sent to fight this war? Where is my son?”
Fisk stuttered. “Your son, my lord? Engers? He was not-.”
The line of slaves did not move as the old man struck Fisk squarely across the face. The other attendants froze, watching, as Greeve advanced on the alsknight. He put his cane to the quivering man’s throat, and said, in a low, husky whisper, “Finish that sentence, survivor Fisk, and make the loss of my forces in Shira Hay total and complete.”
The silence stretched on, as the cloying air grew hot in the dimly lit slave’s hut. Fisk did not finish his sentence. No one said a word.
Greeve took a deep breath and looked around, as if he was about to give some sweeping command, but no command came from his lips. He hobbled away without saying anything, and the line of slaves was left to stand and sweat as Fisk picked himself up.
Hook heard whispers behind them as the other fieldmen prepared the slaves’ new home for them. “We are lost,” whispered a balding man with ruddy cheeks. “Have you heard? The outer fields have already begun to burn.”
“And where’d you hear that?” hissed an old crone, sweeping away the soiled straw in front of Hook.
“Refugees, Gomora,” said the bald man. “The ones that flee into Alswell, anyway. The smart ones sneak out past the enemies, go out into the rest of Albumere, away from here.”
The woman grunted, but said nothing.
“I’m not staying. I’ll go to the coast, take a ship out to Farsea, and make my living in the wilds. If a wild clanchild of four springs can make it out there on their own, why can’t I?”
“What do you know of being wild, Saxdon?” The woman clicked her tongue and Hook marched forward to sit on the newly swept patch of dirt. Even if she did not hold his tabula personally, he did not dare disobey her. “The Ladies won’t be there for you in the wilds. It’s hollow magic, savage magic that rules out there.”
“Superstition and nonsense,” said Saxdon. The woman did not look convinced. “Either way,” he continued. “Wherever I am, tabula will work. I’ll just take one or two from the amber box and-.”
Hook flinched instinctively when Fisk appeared directly behind the fieldman servant. “I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that, friend,” said Fisk. Though his face was bruised and purpling, the cold light in his eyes made both servants pale. “We all need to bond together in these difficult times. Now I understand if recent events have demoralized you, but we need discipline more than ever now.”
Both servants bowed their heads deferentially, and Fisk walked away, but the moment he was out of earshot the woman named Gomora muttered, under her breath, “Coward.”
“That Fisk is a Summer-burnt coward and he knows it,” spat Gomora. “How was he the only alsknight to survive the plainsmen riots? He did it by skulking and hiding, that’s how. No wonder he brought nothing but rats here, he’s a rat himself…”
They drifted away, and Hook was no longer privy to their conversation. He sat, rigid and stiff, until all the fieldmen had left and the slaves were left to tend to themselves. Only then did he at last relax, slumping, and groans and winces stirred across the hut as the other slaves also became at ease and felt the new scars on their bodies.
They didn’t even have the courage to scream anymore. Hook was silent as he flexed his shoulders and back, even as the pain burned like lines of fire there. Once, in what seemed like a long time ago, he would have been angry. He would have been plotting terrible, terrible revenge.
Now he was just praying that they would leave him alone for the rest of the night.
Hook stared at the ground, his face not moving. Even when he could, now, he found it hard to change his expression. He wondered where Penna was, now. The kestrelgull had been there the whole time when Hook had been captured, but there had been hardly anything she could do as the alsknight nearly strangled Hook from behind. Of course, they hadn’t let Hook keep her tabula, and she had disappeared when they dragged Hook away.
Wherever she was, even if she was dead, she was freer than him. Envy crawled in Hook’s gut, but just as soon as it reared its ugly head he suppressed it. Hook hadn’t felt much of anything since he arrived in Alswell. It was better that way.
Slowly, gradually, so that no one would pay attention to the movement, Hook clamped his hands over his ears. It didn’t help to block out the buzzing. Even when his tabula was not active, Hook heard its humming, like the whine of a small insect inside his head. It was enough to drive a man insane.
Hook stared blankly at the ground, his hands so tight on his head that he imprinted red pressure marks on the side of his face. Even as his eyes began to dry, he didn’t close them.
When he had run his gang in Shira Hay, he had often giggled at the loons and fools that sometimes begged near the Twin Libraries. He and Scrabble, or Shimmy, or on some days even Stink, would laugh at the demented madmen, mock their odd manners, and after that had bored them, throw rocks at the beggars to get them to clear their turf. That kind of madness, the giggling, constant mirth, Hook would have now welcomed.
This madness was humorless. He could not think anymore. He seemed to hear everything, but the words drifting over his head he could barely process, while the constant, ceaseless buzzing inside his mind never seemed to stop.
As the other slaves settled in, Hook tried to summon his old anger. He remembered it, that blinding rage, but he could not seem to feel it. He traced the scars on his back, and the fresh wounds where the brand had been pressed into his skin.
“They ruined you,” he said, to himself. “They takes you away. Hurt ‘em back. Hurt them back. Hurt them.”
He stared at the ground, muttering to himself, waiting, but his heart only felt cold and clammy with fear. If they heard him saying that, they would take his tabula out again, and what little humanity Hook had hoarded to himself would be burned away. He couldn’t risk being anything other than perfectly obedient.
The air was starting to grow musty around him. Even though the stench made Hook light-headed, he didn’t move. He hardly moved at all, nowadays, unless someone told him to.
The alsknights, he had discovered, could do things with tabula he had never even dreamed possible. For him, the tabula had just been a means of mobility; he had prided himself on how he could sling Penna towards any of his enemies in the city with that old rod of his, but now Hook was learning how much of that power had gone wasted. He had never imagined the potential a man had if he could make someone do anything, feel anything, be anything.
The first time Hook had disobeyed, out in the grasslands as the escaping Alswell caravan wound its way back to the fields, he had been commanded to feel pain. It had been, without a doubt, the worst experience Hook had ever had in his life, for his mind had summoned all of his worst experiences and pushed them all just a little further in that one instant of pain.
When he obeyed the next time, he had been commanded to feel pleasure. It had been the polar opposite, a soft cloud to ride high into the sky of ecstasy and bliss, and as much as Hook didn’t want to admit it, the pain made the pleasure all the sweeter. It was…
It was addicting.
A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched.
“Hey-hey, Hook,” said a boy, his face dirt-smeared, his skin cut and bruised, but his eyes bright. “It’s me! It’s Shimmy!”
Hook squinted. Was it Shimmy, his old crewmember? If so, what did it matter? They were both slaves now, both powerless.
“Come on-and-on,” said Shimmy, and his voice was so energetic that Hook had to look up. What did Shimmy have to be so happy about? “We all Shira Hay here, right? We all together! Now they say we gon’ get split up-and-up soon, but we ain’t gon’ let that happen, right, boss?”
“Who say what now?” said Hook, suspiciously.
“Get up,” said Shimmy, pulling on his hand. “Quiet now. I show you!”
Hook trudged along behind the fellow slave, his sore legs protesting as he rose to his feet. He edged his way around the cramped floor, around other captured plainsmen sleeping or resting or simply staring at nothing like he had been, following Shimmy towards wherever they were going. Perhaps, Hook mused, Shimmy had also gone insane.
“Right here. See him? Don’t make no fuss now, he’s a hidin’,” said Shimmy, pointing, and Hook followed his finger towards the near grown-old sitting with his back to the wall. He was nursing a girl that Hook almost recognized, tending to the new scars on her foot.
The near grown-old looked up and met Hook’s eyes, and Hook felt a cold flash as he realized who it was.
“You wit’ him?” asked Hurricane, gesturing with his head toward Shimmy.
Hook nodded slowly, not trusting himself to speak.
Hurricane grunted in approval. “You helpin’ us get out of this shithole, then.” He stood, rolling his head and cracking his neck, and as he shifted his stance Hook saw something glint gold in his hand: a tabula. Whose was it?
Shimmy grinned widely and nodded when Hook looked questioningly at him. “He ain’t no slave,” said Shimmy, in an excited but hushed whisper. “He come to break us out!”
“I come to break her out,” said Hurricane, putting an arm around the girl’s shoulders. “You two comin’ if you can pull your own weight.”
“Wait-wait,” said Hook, shaking his head. It didn’t make sense. “How you still got your tabula? What you do, huh?”
“Followed y’all. Snuck in. Never caught in the first place,” said Hurricane. He was constantly looking to the side, although what he was watching out for Hook did not know. “Tattle got some sort of a plan. Gon’ do what she says to get Veer out, is all.”
“You go and get yourself branded just for her?” asked Hook, incredulously.
Hurricane’s arm tightened around Veer’s shoulders. “They ain’t branding you if you already branded,” he said, and his eyes dared Hook to ask another question. Hook didn’t.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Shimmy, eagerly. “How you getting us out?”
“You want spe-ci-fics, ain’t none. Ain’t no plan ‘til Tattle make one. She working on it, now. But we thieves, and we gon’ steal you out.” Hurricane sniffed and gave the hut a long look. “Anyone else here feel like making free, you find them. We gon’ need all the help we can get.”
Shimmy was nearly bouncing on his feet with excitement, but Hook remained more skeptical. The girl, he noticed, also looked subdued.
Hurricane let the girl go. “I go now. Meet up with Tattle, see what we can do. We gettin’ you out, I promise.”
“Why can’t we go with you now?” asked Shimmy, a pleading look in his eyes.
“How you gon’ get out of here without you tabula? No way, no how,” said Hurricane. “Gonna take the amber box, first. That’s the only way to do it.”
With only a curt nod, he walked away casually, through the opening of the hut, into the deepening night. No one made any attempt to stop him. No one made any move to hold him back. Why would they?
The girl shuffled away to a private corner, and Shimmy did as well, after a lengthy pause where Hook did not speak to him. Hook did not feel like talking now, too busy pondering the possibilities in his head.
Escape. As Hook considered it, his thoughts immediately turned to the potential punishment. It would hurt if they were caught, and they would be caught. The alsknights had demonstrated that. It was simple: they had the power, and the slaves didn’t. There was no way this would ever end well for Hook. Unless…
Hook realized with a sickening twist in his gut that he would be given the pleasure again if he ratted these people out. Was Hook really going to sell out their last chance for freedom for some temporary high?
Of course he would. He was doing them a favor: their last chance was no chance at all. They would never escape. The power of the alsknights was absolute. Hook laid down to sleep, betrayal already on his mind. The old man had called them all rats, and Hook wasn’t about to deny it.
The boy stared at the night sky, the tear streaks cold and wet on his face. The stars winked overhead, mocking him with their freedom. The boy turned his head away. He did not want to look at them.
His prison stretched on around him, the endless plains of this strange grassland. Despite his best efforts to follow, the walking tree had long ago left him. He was alone.
The four disks in his hand went clink, clink, clink. They glittered, amber-gold, in the weak starlight. Four disks. As the boy had tumbled out of the tree, he had thought it was a good number to take.
He stumbled over a snag of twisted grass, and sprawled in the dirt. He rapidly blinked his moistening eyes, clutching his skinned knee and doing his best to brush away the dirt and gravel. It burned and stung when he touched his raw skin, and he whimpered as he stood shakily back on his feet.
One disk, the special one. When he held it, he felt a warmth stirring inside his chest. He slipped it into the heel of one of his fraying shoes, separate from the others. The other three, he clutched in his hands.
He kept walking.
They had dressed him in fine clothing. Golden threads hemmed his tunic and pants, and a pouch of dried fruits had been tied around his wrist. They seemed to have known it was coming. The boy did not know why his parents had sent him away; perhaps they had never been real at all. Even now, his memory of them was fading like a half-forgotten dream.
At first, he had thought this, these grasslands, was the dream. He had thought he would wake up soon enough from this terrible, surreal, endless expanse.
It had been four days and four nights and he had not yet woken.
Perhaps his so-called old life was the dream, a pleasant dream that had just ended. Perhaps he had spent his whole life inside that tree, slumbering until it was time to wake.
What was it time to wake for? Why now?
Clink, clink, clink went the amber disks. The boy stopped, his short legs incapable of taking him any further. He knelt in the grass, catching his breath. Weakly, he untied the bag around his wrist, and pulled out a slice of dried apple. He ate it greedily, barely even stopping to swallow, but as he began to dig around in the bag again his fingers only scraped across coarse fabric.
It was empty.
He chewed what was left slowly. Eat it slowly, whispered a voice in his head. Save it. Find more food now. The boy furrowed his brow. It felt like advice from another fading memory, even if it didn’t sound like it.
The boy turned over the golden disks again. He dug in his shoe, and pulled out his own; it was warm from the heat of his feet, but it had not scuffed or scratched. Its surface was flawless but for the natural ripples and imperfections.
He wiped his thumb across it. If he squinted, he could just barely make out his own reflection on its surface, a barely visible dark shadow lit by the starlight.
The boy stared at it for quite some time, as the disk gradually grew colder. It was stiff and still and inert in his hands. The boy put it away. He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting.
As he got up to walk again, though, he could not stop fiddling with the other amber disks. They were the only things he had to play with, after all, and as he stared out at the lonely horizon ahead of him tears began to well in his eyes.
He shed none, though. What was the point of crying if no one was there to see or hear?
The boy exhaled, a shuddering release of emotion and energy, and nearly dropped his disks in shock when they began vibrating in response. The bottom two he let slip, and they rolled in the dirt for a second before falling at his feet. He held one, though, and his fingers still tingled from its movement.
He exhaled again, breathing slowly and heavily, and did his best not to drop the disk when it began to shake violently. Push it further. Give it more. More.
Sweat began to break out on the boy’s forehead. The blood rushed up to his head, and his knees wobbled underneath him as, even as his lungs felt like they were out of air, he kept breathing out, kept all his attention on the disk in his hands and the waving plains around him.
There was a crack like thunder as the boy fell to the ground, gasping for breath. White spots danced in his vision, as he struggled to sit upright, and it was several seconds of clutching his head and blinking his eyes before he noticed the shadow standing over him.
The boy let out a strangled yelp as he turned to see the behemoth standing over him. Its yellow fur was patterned with dark brown spots, and its long, spindly legs were matched only by its long, spindly neck. “Big guy,” the boy breathed, craning his head all the way back just to see its head. To his surprise he saw that its black eyes were wide with fear and shock.
Camelopard. The boy blinked. That was its name, he was certain of it. That was what it was. But…
How had he known that?
The camelopard tossed his head, eyes rolling as he began to back away. The boy rose hurriedly to his feet, clutching the disk in his hands. “Don’t go!” he shouted, his voice high and reedy. He wasn’t even sure if the giant had heard him, it stood so tall above him. “Please don’t go.”
He didn’t go. The camelopard turned his head this way and that, prancing in circles, legs shaking as he walked. The boy could make out a barely audible bass hum from the creature’s throat, as the big guy surveyed the vast plains.
The camelopard sank to the ground, his legs folding underneath him even while he kept his neck upright and outstretched. The animal bleated, a low, morose sound that carried far around them.
Edging forward, the boy gulped, trying to calm his raw nerves. Who was this creature? Who had sent him? Who had brought him?
With a hesitant hand, the boy stroked the camelopard’s fur. It was delightfully warm and soft, and despite himself the boy drew a little closer.
“I’m tired,” said the boy, sitting next to the camelopard. He met the animal’s gaze: the camelopard had not stopped looking at him since the boy had approached the beast. “You tired?”
The camelopard snorted and flicked an ear.
The boy wrapped his arms around his knees, and before he knew it the tears were flowing openly and freely again. “I’m so tired,” the boy sobbed. “I want to go back to sleep. I want to go back to my dream.”
And he cried into the long night, until he had exhausted everything that still longed for home inside of him. He had no dreams that night. But for the echo of his own thoughts, it was only darkness and silence.
He woke up in the morning with his face in the big guy’s fur, warm and soft. The boy must have tipped over sometime in the night, but as he blinked bleary eyes and looked up, it seemed that the camelopard did not mind. The big guy still had his head up and his eyes open, as if he had not moved at all since last night.
The boy wiped his nose with the back of his hand. He felt…empty. A good empty, a complete empty. Empty of grief and fear and worry. Empty of everything.
He used the camelopard to support himself as he stood up, and methodically picked up his four little disks. Perhaps each one was a wish, and this was his first. The boy smiled. He would save the next two, then. He didn’t know what his, the last one, was supposed to do, though. He supposed he would find out later.
The boy furrowed his eyebrows as he looked at the empty pouch dangling on his wrist. He was supposed to find food, wasn’t he?
Before he began to walk, though, the boy untied the string that held the pouch to his wrist. It was uncomfortable, dangling there like that. He considered it for a moment, his last reminder of wherever home was or had been, and slowly he let it slip out of his hand. It landed in the dirt, a sad, faded thing.
The boy turned away, just as the big guy stood up. “You coming with me?” asked the boy.
The big guy didn’t say anything.
“Let’s stick together,” said the boy. “You want to stick together?”
Not a word, but as the boy began to walk the camelopard followed.
“Let’s go.” The boy looked around, not knowing which way to go, which way was the right way. “Let’s go forward.” He paused. “Yeah?”
The boy smiled. “Always forward. That’s right.”
Twisted shadows snaked around him as the boy sat under the shade of the thorntree. The big guy stood nearby, browsing the rubbery leaves. The boy had tried to them once, but he had been sick the whole night after and decided it was better to just let the camelopard have them.
The boy stared out at the horizon, the taste of onions in his mouth. The water was clean, the food was wholesome, and the air was cool. What more could he ask for?
Company. The boy flipped the golden disk in his hand over and over. If the boy could ask for anything, it would be company. The big guy was his friend, yes, but sometimes the boy wanted more than one friend. It couldn’t be wrong, to have more than one friend.
The boy looked out at the horizon, searching for anything out there that looked like…well, that looked like him. His hands and feet, his arms and legs, his face. It had to be somewhere out there. He was sure of it.
He stared long and hard at the horizon, but nothing moved except for the swaying grass. There was nothing out here.
He looked at the amber disk again. He had promised himself it was for emergencies only, but it had been weeks and weeks and he had not yet run into an emergency that neither he nor the big guy couldn’t handle on their own.
The disk glinted in the sunlight, enticing him, tempting him. What could go wrong? There was enough food for all of them; an extra pair of eyes would help find more. The boy wondered what kind of friends he’d get. Would they be as big as the big guy? The boy doubted it, but he was ready to believe anything.
He hopped off of his branch and sat at the base of the tree. The sun was climbing and soon it would be too hot to keep moving. “I’m sleeping now, big guy,” said the boy, still fiddling with the disks. “You can too if you like, yeah? We don’t go nowhere ‘til night.”
The big guy flicked his tail but otherwise did not acknowledge the boy. The boy left him to his own devices; the camelopard could sleep when he wanted to sleep.
As the hours passed, the boy realized he couldn’t sleep that well either. His hands kept tracing the rim of his disks, and his mind was racing with the possibilities. As the sun climbed higher and the air grew hot and dry, the boy could stand it no longer. He sat up straight and held one of the disks in his hands. His hands tingled with nervous energy.
And to his surprise, with something else, too.
The disk hummed ever so softly, so lightly that the boy could barely even feel it. The boy squinted. It was hard to see in the shadow of the tree, but through the molten, smoky colors of the amber disk’s surface, he thought he saw something moving.
The boy leaned closer, his curiosity building. What was that? He saw gold and white and green in the disk, and when he angled it just right, his heart beating just fast enough, he saw something that took his breath away.
A human face. Fair hair, tied in braids behind her head. Two eyes, crinkled in a happy smile. A mouth, wide open in laughter.
The boy stared at the picture for the longest time, until his head spun from the effort of powering the disk and he had to stop and lie down. He would do it tonight, the boy decided, as he curled up at the base of the tree and closed his eyes. He would make a new friend tonight.
When he woke up, the tree was gone. The watering hole had disappeared, and the ground and grass was unblemished. It was as if the grove had never been there at all. The boy yawned. It didn’t worry him; the trees walked, and there was nothing he could do to stop it.
He looked up at the swaying stars, and around him at the swaying grass. He thumbed the amber disk, and bit his lip. This was no place to do it. It had to be done just right.
“Come on, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy’s side. Perhaps one day he would ride the beast, but for now he could barely hoist himself on the camelopard’s back without running out of breath. “Let’s find somewhere better, yeah?”
As they walked through the grass, the boy’s mind buzzed. What was he going to say? How was she going to react? “Hi there,” rehearsed the boy. “Do you want to play?”
There was something missing, something he had to add…
“Hi there,” tried the boy again. “I’m…I’m…” He paused. He started over. “Hi there. This is the big guy. He’s my friend. Do you want to be my friend?”
The big guy snorted and spit on the boy’s head. Evidently, he wanted no part in this.
The boy decided he would figure out what to say later. What about actually bringing her here? With a sinking heart, the boy realized that perhaps things would be different than from the big guy. What if all her disk could do was show her face? What if he broke it somehow when he tried to bring her here?
So preoccupied was the boy with his thoughts that he didn’t realize that he was beginning to walk on dirt, not grass. He looked up. “You see that, big guy?”
The camelopard turned his head placidly, as if savoring the view.
Dark canyons snaked their way around them, their pits and crevices near pitch black in the dim light. It was a spider’s web of shadows, set against the near unbroken horizon and flat plateaus around them. It was stunning.
“Here, yeah?” said the boy. “Here.”
He looked at the amber disks, and he felt his heart racing again. He would practice first, he decided. He had two disks left, after all.
After quickly double-checking which was hers, the boy took the one that wasn’t and braced himself. “You ready, big guy?” asked the boy. The big guy said nothing. The boy took that as a yes.
And he focused. With a twisted grimace of concentration, the boy grit his teeth and put all of his attention on the amber disk in his hand. His hands were shaking from the effort, his muscles so stiff and tense they were quivering.
He held this position for at least half a minute before he loosened his grip, perplexed. Nothing had happened.
The boy wiped the sweat from his forehead and tried again, but no matter how tight or tense he grew nothing happened. Frustration building inside him, the boy stamped his foot on the ground. How was he supposed to get this thing to work?
It started to vibrate.
It stopped as soon as the boy noticed, and he snarled, shaking the disk to try and get it to move again. He needed this to work tonight! What if the canyons moved away like the groves, slithering away like snakes? He would lose this perfect opportunity.
The disk began to hum, even as the impatience and frustration built up in the boy’s gut. In-between those hot, heady feelings, though, the boy felt a single drop of cold fear. The disk was almost thrashing in his hands now, its steady hum interrupted by violent and erratic screeches, but it was too late to let go. The boy felt his vision clouding as the air was squeezed out of his lungs and the strength bled from his body.
And then it was over.
Like with the big guy, the boy found himself on the ground, with a shadow looming over him. The big guy was tossing his head nervously, and realized that yes, there could be something taller than the camelopard. Well, “taller” wasn’t exactly it.
The giant bird flapped its wings once to stay aloft as it wheeled in the air, and the boy could feel the sheer force of the wind. Its talons were long and sleek; its head was noble and proud; its eyes were gold like the amber disks glinting in the boy’s hand. The boy gaped, even as the corners of his mouth began to curl up in a wide smile.
“Hey!” the boy shouted, waving his arms. “Hey!”
The boy saw the bird’s eyes flicker from him, to the disks in his hand. There was a moment’s pause, as the bird dipped one wing to turn around and face him.
And then the eagle tucked its wings in a dive.
Before the boy could react, talons as long as his arm closed his waist. Wings that could have smothered him in an instant began to beat at the air, and the gales ripped the screams out of the boy’s mouth and scattered them to the winds.
The bird took off, and the boy’s stomach lurched as the world shrunk under him. He was too afraid to struggle, his eyes growing wider and wider as the wind whipped at his hair and the ground sank further and further away. They passed over one of the shadowy chasms, and the boy felt bile rising to his throat as the bird dived again.
The boy began to focus on the bird’s disk again, panic welling up in his gut, but his focus was broken when the bird slammed him into the cliff face. The impact shuddered his bones, the rock tearing deep cuts in his skin, and the disk fell from his hands as the boy cried out in pain.
“No!” the boy shouted, reaching for the falling amber glint, but the bird smashed him against the rock again and when the stars had cleared from the boy’s eyes the disk was lost.
The eagle landed on an outcrop on the far side of the canyon. The boy was pressed against the ground, arms splayed out and chest open, and he stared in abject terror at the bird pressing him to the ground. It stretched its wings out and screamed, hot breath rushing over the boy’s face as the high-pitched keening noise pierced his ears.
His eyes met the bird’s golden ones, and the boy found no pity or understanding in them. The bird’s eyes darted from the boy, to the sky, and it screeched again: a lost, angry sound.
How long that bird sat on that perch, screaming for the home it had just been taken from, the boy did not know. Every time it looked at him, the boy could feel the malice and hate in its eyes, and he shrank further into himself, awash with not only fear but guilt.
The bird did not kill him, but some part of the boy died in that canyon that night. When morning came at last, the eagle flapped away, still screaming for whatever it had lost, leaving the boy alone on the outcrop. He lay there, feeling his bruises and cuts, and when at last he had recovered the will to get up he began the long climb down.
It was a dangerous trip, one that his little hands and feet had only just enough strength for, but he could see the big guy waiting for him at the bottom of the canyon, pacing and bleating. That gave his spirit just a little more hope.
They walked out together, the boy limping as his bruises began to turn purple and swell. The entire time, the boy did not speak. Not to the big guy, not to himself, not to anyone. It was only after they had left—only after they had struggled their way out of the canyons—that the boy said, very quietly, “Not here. I’m not bringing her here.”
The boy remembered very little, but his night in the Redlands he never forgot.
Chaff fell. He clutched his tabula to his chest, and to his surprise he was not afraid.
He was angry.
The tabula exploded to life in his hand. Faster than he had ever felt before, he felt them vibrating and shaking and then, out of thin air, crackling and buzzing and snapping with raw energy, the big guy materialized.
The camelopard was too late to catch Chaff’s fall, but still Chaff did not hit the ground. He had been caught in someone else’s arms.
Lookout planted her legs—both of them—and grunted as she caught Chaff. Her arms were like tree boughs, stiff and strong, but while she managed to slow his descent, she could not stop it entirely. Chaff collapsed on the ground, groaning, even as Lookout hopped back up to her feet. As Chaff’s concentration on his tabula broke, she stumbled suddenly, looking dazed.
Chaff rolled on the ground. Hadiss’s gifts had tumbled out of his grasp, and, pushing past the pain and aches, he tried to pick them up.
“What the hell is going on?” shouted Al Innai, running up to Chaff. He looked back up to Parsaa, who was still making her way down the cliff. “Did I tell you to do that?”
“Smart of her to get the jump on him like that,” said Royya, the only other person to have made the descent. “We’ve only got so much food and water, Kennya Noni boy. Parsaa is more intelligent—and more ruthless—than you give her credit for.”
“Yes, but…” Al Innai froze. His face colored red as he saw what Chaff was grasping for. “The book?” he breathed.
A cold sweat broke out over Chaff’s entire body, and he stumbled forward, trying to both recover his things and mount the big guy. Lookout, noticing Al Innai’s livid expression, bent hurriedly to help Chaff to his feet. “Now would be a good time for that mystical healing bullshit,” she said, pulling him up.
Chaff had only just got to his feet when Al Innai grabbed him by the collar and pulled him in close. “What was my one rule? You fuck with me, you die in these plains,” snarled Al Innai. The muscles bulged in his arms, and Chaff’s most desperate struggles could not budge him an inch. “You want to explain yourself before I finish what Parsaa started?”
The boy’s eyes rolled, and he looked up, struggling for breath as Al Innai’s grip tightened. He stared at the sky, sucking in air, and managed to wheeze one word. “Up,” Chaff said.
Al Innai’s eyebrows furrowed, and he automatically glanced upwards- just to have Lookout’s owlcrow land on his face, screeching.
He let go of Chaff, yelling and batting away at the bird, and despite all of his training there was very little that had prepared him for an aerial assault. Every time Sinndi screeched, Chaff felt his old phobia flare, but it was masked by relief. The bird was on his side, now.
“Up, up, up,” said Chaff, clambering onto the big guy’s back and extending a hand to Lookout. “Go big, big guy!”
As the big guy broke into a sprint, Chaff turned to look. Royya made no move to stop them; she only watched, arms crossed, a smirk on her face. Lookout’s owlcrow had broken away from Al Innai and was now flapping behind them, which meant that the Kennya Noni fighter was free to pursue.
Chaff had to admit, the Kennya Noni fighter was fast. But Chaff was a child of Shira Hay. He was a racer.
The big guy was much, much faster.
“I don’t think,” said Lookout, breathlessly. “That’s the last we’ve seen of him. Any of them.”
“Yeah? So what?”
“They might cause some problems, later.”
“Nothing we can’t handle, yeah?”
Lookout grinned. “Sure. Nothing we can’t handle.”
Chaff gripped the big guy’s mane, and Lookout held on by wrapping her arms around Chaff’s waist. The canyon stretched on ahead of them, a long and unbroken path that the big guy ran quickly and easily. When and where they would emerge, Chaff did not know, but it was plenty of ground to lose the rest of the nomads in.
Behind him, Lookout flexed her leg. “You want to explain what happened back there?”
“I don’t know,” said Chaff, and it was the truth. He didn’t know why he said it with a smile. Perhaps it was just the rush of the chase getting to him. “I’m dumb, yeah? I don’t know a lot of things.”
Lookout sighed, but she did that with a smile too. “Lucky for you,” she said. “I do.”
And they rode through the Redlands. It had taken him seven years, but Chaff finally left the canyons with another friend.
Janwye began to shout out, but Roan covered her mouth quickly, muffling the sound. Jova tensed, and her hand gripped Alis’s so tight she worried she might hurt the girl, but she did not dare emerge from her hiding place and speak out.
A low whispering came from where Janwye and Roan were speaking, so soft that not even Jova could hear.
Her knuckles loosened slowly, and Jova just realized that she had been breathing heavily. Her brow furrowed. What had happened between her and Roan? Before, Roan had been like another parent to her, someone she could always rely on to protect and guide her. Now…now she was scared of him.
The pit in Jova’s chest seemed to open a little wider. How had things gone so wrong?
“What are you doing?” hissed Janwye. She was trying to keep her voice down, Jova could tell, but her temper was flaring, too. “If the Hag Gar Gan are coming, I have to go back and warn lady Bechde! The rest of the group! We must arm ourselves!”
“Remember yourself, Janwye,” said Roan. “Remember why we are here.”
“I am here to save my people! I am here to prevent the deaths of those I care for!” shouted Janwye. “You are here because you could not control your apprentice and let the girl kill a man when you pushed her too far!”
A cold rush ran over Jova’s skin, and a sick wave of nausea began to build in her stomach.
“Let the dead rest,” said Roan, and he sounded more tired than offended. “Janwye, please. Let the dead rest.”
“Only after they have died, Roan,” snarled Janwye. “And my people are not dead yet.” There was silence. The jungle air pressed in around them, hot and humid and stifling. “I’m going, Roan,” said Janwye. “Just try and stop me.”
Jova heard Stel take a single step, and Roan beginning to speak, when there was a sudden, heavy impact. Janwye let out a choked yell—a frustrated, angry sound—and then Jova heard her storm off, her boots thudding heavily on the ground.
Stel was padding around the jungle floor, her hooves kicking up leaf litter, as Jova heard something scrape across the undergrowth.
“He’s on the ground,” said Alis. “How’s he going to get back up?”
Jova raised her head. She heard Roan’s soft grunt, another impact on the ground, his tired sigh. “Come on, Alis,” she said, tugging on the little girl’s hand. “He’s one of my friends. Let’s go talk to him.”
Jova could feel the mid-morning sun starting to creep through the canopy as she trudged hesitantly across the path to Roan’s side. Alis followed close behind her, although her steps too were hesitant and uncertain.
“Do you need help, Roan?” asked Jova, after his customary silence.
“I am not thinking so,” said Roan, as he grunted again. Stel snorted and Jova heard her hooves trot, and then Roan fell back onto the ground again. It sounded like he was trying to lift himself up.
“You’re on the ground,” said Jova, pointedly.
Roan sniffed. “The truth, I admit. Another truth, then, I must be saying, is that a blind girl cannot be helping me now. It is very hard, what must be done.”
Jova was not about to contradict him, and so stood waiting with Alis, as Roan grunted and sweated and heaved himself up onto Stel’s back. It took him several minutes, long minutes of silence and waiting that only served to make Jova’s pounding heart beat faster, but when he was done he seemed to be in full control of Stel again.
“You should let her take a break,” said Jova, reproachfully. “You ride her too hard. All the time, every day. Let her rest for once.”
“I am lending her my strength, and she is lending me hers. She will be fine. She has been fine.”
“Even when she has to run? To escape?”
She waited for Roan to finish thinking, for all the pieces to fall into place in his head. “How much did you hear, Jova?” he asked.
Jova did not give a real answer. “When were you going to tell me?” she retorted.
“Sooner than you are thinking,” said Roan. There was a weariness to his voice, a resigned sadness and fatigue. “You should be going too, Jova. Find the animals, and hide somewhere far from here, before it begins.”
He did not sound nearly as urgent as he had when he was talking to Janwye. Jova scratched her chest. “Where do I hide?” she asked.
Roan didn’t say anything. He wasn’t moving, either.
“Where do I hide, Roan?” Jova repeated. “I left Jhidnu to hide in Temple Moscoleon. I left Temple Moscoleon to hide among the fieldmen of Alswell. Now I am leaving the fieldmen of Alswell to hide somewhere else. Where do I hide, Roan?”
“Ladies guide you, you will find a place.” Stel stamped her hooves on the ground, as Roan began to move away. “I must be finding Janwye, now. Be safe, Jova.”
“Roan, you promised-.” Jova began, but he was already gone. She stood, alone, holding a lost girl’s hand and listening to the murmur of the jungle.
It was now of all times that she wondered where Ma and Da were. How had Zain explained it to them? Were they worrying for her, even now? Wouldn’t it have just been better for them to come with her? Now more than ever, she felt angry at Roan for tearing her away from her family so suddenly.
She wasn’t angry that Roan had never told her all the secrets he had promised to tell, that he had never let her into whatever clandestine society he served. She was just angry that he had left her. He had promised to care for her, to protect her, to watch out for her, and even if he was doing that, it didn’t feel like it. It felt like Jova had been left to fend for herself.
For the first time in what must have been her whole life, Jova had no one to care for her.
She felt the grip on her hand tighten. Jova braced herself. She had someone to care for herself, now. People to watch out for. Responsibilities to shoulder. She did not have the leisure to sit by herself and mope.
Jova raised her head and listened. She needed to find the animals, but she had no idea if Roan had brought them with him or if they had been left back in the camp.
“Lady Fall give me clarity,” she muttered, spinning around, as if that would help. She could feel Alis stumbling beside her. “Where, oh where, does Roan want me to go?”
The pressing sense of urgency had left with Janwye; now Jova felt only an oppressive unease and foreboding, a tingling in her gut she could not shake. Her stomach clenched even tighter when she heard a strangled sob beside her.
“Alis?” she asked, and she felt the little girl’s shoulders shake. “Alis, please don’t cry.”
“I want to go,” said Alis, quietly, in-between sobs. “I want to go, I want to go, I want to go.”
“Come on, then,” said Jova, pulling the girl along as gently as she could. “We’ll go, see? We’re going. We’re going.”
Jova walked into the undergrowth, going as she promised she would, but not knowing where. She held Alis’s shoulders and smiled as wide as she could. “Smile with me, Alis,” Jova said. “Go on, it’ll make you feel better.”
Alis did not reply.
“Are you smiling, Alis? I can’t tell if you are, but you must,” said Jova. Keep smiling. Pretend long enough and it might become real.
“Mm-hmm,” Alis said, although it sounded like she was lying.
Jova wasn’t sure what else to say. She wished Ma or Da was there, or even Mo. They always knew how to cheer her up. Jova gave Alis a quick hug, feeling the warmth of the little girl’s body against her, and patted her on the shoulder.
As they walked, Jova clicked her tongue. She didn’t want to walk headlong into a tree or something silly like that, and besides that she needed some way of finding Roan’s animals. Uten wasn’t exactly the most vocal of companions.
When the sound bounced back, Jova froze. It was like there was a line of rocks in the foliage, but as Jova clicked her tongue again, she realized with a shudder down her spine that rocks didn’t move.
If she concentrated hard, she could pick out the sound of whispering from the undergrowth.
“Alis,” she said, very slowly and very softly. “Turn around. Don’t say anything. And don’t…don’t look scared, OK?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova did not know what Alis looked like, though.
As she listened closer, Jova began to make out the whispers, although it did her little good. They spoke in Roan’s foreign tongue—the imperial tongue, the language of Hak Mat Do—and Jova could not understand a word. Once or twice she heard snippets that she could understand, in voices very different from the guttural growls of the sandmen, but she was so nervous she could not process what they were saying.
Jova clicked her tongue one more time. If the slavers were lying in ambush, she did not want to alert them as to her knowledge of their presence; if she was fast, she could get away in time. But she had to know where the enemies were, and what they were doing.
The Hag Gar Gan sandmen had not moved. They were still and silent now, so still that Jova might have once again mistaken them for stones or logs if she did not know better.
“Walk faster,” she muttered to Alis, and they sped up their pace. If they could make it back to the camp in time, amid the safety of grown-olds and alsknights and zealots, then there was a chance…
Something snapped behind her. A dry leaf, an old twig, it did not matter. Before Jova could help herself, she turned her head to listen.
“Ilo ya gek! Zat! Zat! Zat! She is knowing!” The underbrush around Jova exploded with activity, and Jova stumbled over her feet as she fell into a sprint.
“Run, Alis, run!” Jova shouted, but she could barely keep pace herself with the little girl without fear of tripping and sprawling over a root or a bush. She stumbled her way through the foliage blindly, hands groping at the air as she tried to get away.
The voices were still shouting. “Dep Sag Ko, La Ah Abi! Rally the mercenaries, the attack is starting!” More voices carried from further down in the jungle. “One of them knew! That fieldwoman knew! Attack now!”
Alis began to wail, her little legs incapable of keeping up the headlong sprint, and Jova collapsed, chest heaving from the zigzagging path she had taken through the jungle. She crawled forward, struggling weakly to get back up on her feet.
And then a whip snapped above her head.
Alis screamed, but before Jova could rise to help her, a searing line of pain blazed across her back. Jova gasped, her body tensing, as the barbs on the whip ripped out of her skin, and she felt hot blood oozing down her back.
She heard the crack of the whip snapping over her head and rolled to get out of the way, leaf litter and mulch clinging to her wounds as she tumbled over the forest floor.
Jova felt panic rising within her, the same panic that she had felt in the house of Copo, the same panic that had caused her to beat into the man’s face over and over and over, and Jova felt so wretched that she thought she might be sick if she wasn’t already scared witless.
And then the Hag Gar Gan man above her choked and gurgled, and something fell heavily to the ground. “By the light of the Lady Summer!” shouted a familiar voice. “You! Will! DIE!”
The horror of what had just happened was only matched by an overwhelming sense of relief. That man is dead, Jova thought, breathing heavily. Dead. I shouldn’t feel happy. But it was either him or me. Him or me.
“Fang! Hold the others back!” shouted the zealot, and Jova heard the pigwolf pawing at the ground, snorting and snarling.
Gentle hands turned her over, and Jova cried out as the zealot tried to wipe the dirt from the wounds on her back.
“It hurts, Izca,” Jova muttered, doing her best to sit upright, but every time her back moved it flared with pain. “Where’s Alis? Is she alright?”
“She’s fine,” said Izca. “You, on the other hand…”
Jova cried out as something was wrapped tight around her back and chest.
“I’m sorry, I’m being rough,” said Izca, hurriedly. “But I have to get you patched up quickly so we can get out of here soon.”
“What’s- what are- augh!” Jova grit her teeth as Izca continued to bind her wounds.
“These are the bandages of the zealots,” said Izca, misinterpreting her question. “We all wear them, as a symbol of- well, there’s a long story behind them, but we really don’t have time for that now.”
Jova’s head spun as she rose, but Izca’s steadying arm held her up. “Come on, up we get, that’s it. You, too, little one. I’ll get you out of here.”
The sounds of fighting were breaking out all around them. Shouts and screams rang through the forest, and Jova shuddered at the sounds of nets and whips and cages. She shut it out and kept walking. Them or me, Jova thought. This is the real world. It’s either them or me.
But am I worth it?
“There’s a barricade back at the camp,” said Izca, leading them along. “Don’t worry. I know you’re tired, but we just need to get a little further. Keep up, Fang! We’ve got to watch out for our little ladies.”
Jova would have laughed if she had the strength for it. Even when she wasn’t trying to think about it, the past found ways to keep up with her.
“Izca, where’s Janwye? Where’s Roan?” Jova asked. The pain was receding to a dull throb in the back of her head now. If she concentrated on something else, it wasn’t so bad.
Izca drew breath to speak, but no speech came out. His breath was cut short so abruptly and so suddenly that Jova did not realize what had happened until Izca tumbled to the ground.
The second and third arrows zipped through the air and from the sound of the impact hit Izca squarely in the back.
“Izca!” shouted Jova, trying to turn the man over, get his face out of the ground. The shafts of the arrows in his back snapped as Jova began to turn him, and Jova paused, her heart beating in her throat. What if she forced the arrows deeper into his body when she turned him over? What if she needed to keep the wound facing up to keep the blood from flowing out? She couldn’t just leave him with his face in the dirt, though! She had to move him.
She dragged Izca on his side, but the man was too heavy for Jova to move more than a few inches. He began to shudder and shake, and when he tried to speak a sick gargling noise came out.
“It’s going to be OK, Izca,” Jova said, reaching for the bandages around her own chest, which were already slick and stained with blood. She winced as she began to peel them away. They had never been hers in the first place.
Izca made no move to stop her, but he made no move to do anything else, either. “Ladies…” he muttered, his voice oddly infantile. He could barely speak, his whole body shuddering as Jova tried to put pressure on his wounds. “Ladies, no…please…mama, mama…”
What mama? Jova thought, bitterly. To her knowledge, she was the only one who had ever had a mama in all of Albumere.
Fang whined as the bond between animal and owner was severed, although Jova heard no tabula crack. It must be in some pontiff’s house somewhere, with the little hole drilled through it to mark his service to the Ladies Four. Where were those Ladies now? She let her hands fall to her sides, slick and hot with blood, and bowed her head.
Izca died without last words. Jova did not know how to save him.
“Alis, get away,” she said, rising unsteadily to her feet. Izca’s spear, the one he had used to kill Jova’s attacker, had fallen out of his hands. Jova picked it up and braced herself. There was no running anymore. She could only hope that whoever had fired those arrows didn’t have any left.
She turned her back, keeping her ears pricked. Even with the screams and shouts, Jova could hear the footsteps coming up behind her, trying to sneak up on her. Every step was like a drum beat to Jova, impossibly loud, and every beat of her own heart likewise. She was aware of every part of her body except the parts that hurt the most.
Perhaps that was the point.
Jova shed no tears as she stepped over Izca’s corpse, her heart hard and numb. She had barely known him. He was not important to her.
Her fingers tightened on his spear, even as the little voice in the back of her head whispered, “Lie.”
“Alis,” she said, to the little girl, as she heard the man get closer. “I said, get away!”
At that moment, Jova twisted and lunged, catching the slaver just as he was about to toss his net over the two of them. Soft footsteps Jova could only hope were Alis’s faded away, and Jova turned towards the man. There was something cathartic about putting all of her focus into one thing.
The man snarled, swearing in that savage tongue as Jova stepped on the net that had fallen out of his hands and swept it away. Jova heard acutely the sharp metal scrape of a weapon being drawn, and readied herself.
At the sound of the first step, Jova twisted, cutting a shallow wound in the man’s side but failing to pierce flesh. His weapon’s reach was short: it was a dagger or knife of some sort, and he seemed intent on closing the distance between them. Jova couldn’t let that happen.
She stabbed forward, trying to push the man back, but he was nimble and sidestepped her easily. Her spear became an impromptu staff as she beat at his shoulders and arms, just barely staying out of reach of the blade slicing through the air.
It was too little. She was not strong enough to keep a fully grown man at bay. Jova found her arms growing weaker and weaker as the pain on her back grew and grew. One blind swing later, and the man had grabbed her spear and tossed it contemptuously aside.
Jova breathed deeply, hoping only that Alis had gotten away, that Ma and Da would not grieve her long.
And then Fang, Izca’s pet, Izca’s cowardly, bumbling pet, slammed into the man’s side and began to show just how much of a wolf he was. The murderer’s screams were drowned out by Fang’s baying and howling, and Jova heard approaching shouts and yells as other people were drawn by the sound.
Jova crawled forward, and after patting down Izca’s body she found Fang’s tabula. She slipped it in her pocket, right next to Alis’s. Jova was about to crawl away, when she stopped. Before she left him, Jova held Izca’s hand tightly. “Lady Winter come quickly,” she muttered, her voice breaking. “He served you as faithfully as any.”
Jova made no move to pick up Izca’s spear again. Arms shaking, legs weak, she sat and waited for whoever was coming to come, not knowing whose side they were on or what they were going to do to her.
She was alive, but she was tired. And she could fight back no longer.
The makeshift flag flapped in the wind, pointing southwest, deeper into the Redlands. Chaff hugged his bundled book and scarf to his chest, sweating in the heat. It was a hot wind, and it seemed to blow sand and grit in Chaff’s face wherever he turned. He huddled in the shade of the big guy’s body, and watched as Al Innai stripped off the bandage. The Kennya Noni fighter left the bone in place, though, as he turned in the direction the wind was blowing.
“Let’s get moving then,” he said, hoarsely. “The faster we get out of here the better.”
Chaff clutched his book closer to him. Perhaps, when he had a spare moment, he could get Lookout to read it for him and see if there was an answer somewhere in there.
His gaze flickered to Lookout. Could he trust her enough to share his secret with her? What if she ratted him out to Al Innai? She certainly didn’t seem to be the reverent type, but Chaff could never tell with religion and gods. He didn’t want to risk it.
From her seat on the big guy’s back, Lookout had apparently noticed him looking, and met his gaze questioningly. Despite the hot sun, she looked pale, and there were dark bags under her eyes. The skin around her leg was blotched purple and red, and the flesh seemed to sag to her bones.
Chaff looked away immediately, and rubbed his thumb on the girl’s tabula for good luck. He hoped Lookout would get better soon. There were no healers out in the grasslands, no medicine to be found and no sick bay to rest.
“You two, get moving!” shouted Al Innai, and Chaff patted the big guy’s side. The camelopard snorted, and walked on unsteadily. He didn’t look so good, either. The fur was hanging loosely on him, and his black tongue seemed almost swollen. Chaff hadn’t heard his stomach grumble in hours, and truth be told it was days since the camelopard had last eaten. A creature that big needed food in him, and fast.
“We find something to eat soon, yeah?” said Chaff, putting a comforting hand on the big guy’s side as they walked. “Gonna do it, no worries.”
The big guy flicked his tail, as an even stronger wind blew at Chaff’s back. It should have cooled him off, but all he felt was the sharp prick and sting like little needles on his bare arms and legs.
They had walked for barely a minute when a sharp crack rang out across the shimmering Redlands. Chaff froze, tense, but it was close; Clatter was on the ground, whimpering feebly as Royya drew her fist back for another punch.
“No!” shouted Parsaa, and she leaped in Royya’s way, grabbing her wrist and shielding the frizzy-haired urchin with her body. When she grabbed Royya’s arm, though, it was like watching the thin woman try to snap rock with her bare hands. Royya barely moved, although she did stop to give Parsaa a once over.
Royya’s grim expression seemed to spasm momentarily, before her mouth split in a wide, cold smile. “Sorry,” she said, and her voice was hoarse, too. Dry, Chaff thought. Everyone’s voices is dry. “Sun made me do it.” She offered no other explanation. She just stood straight, adjusted her pack, and kept walking.
Al Innai made no comment, and so no one else did either. As Chaff walked past them, he saw Parsaa dabbing Clatter’s bleeding lip with the hem of her shirt, and heard Scrabble commiserating with Clatter, arm around his shoulder. “Don’t feel no bad nothing ‘bout crazy Royya,” said Scrabble. “Don’t worry ‘bout it.”
Chaff looked Royya’s way. She had wandered off separate from the group, and from what Chaff could hear seemed to be humming tunelessly to herself. He squinted. He had to know if she was volatile enough to be a threat.
“You see why she do that, Lookout?” asked Chaff, craning his head to get a better look at Royya’s face. As far as he could tell, she was still smiling.
“No,” croaked Lookout. “But I know why.”
“How-?” began Chaff, but then he remembered who he was talking to and said, under his breath, “Never mind.”
“She’s scared,” said Lookout. She sniffed, closing her eyes and breathing deeply. She looked nauseous, and Chaff put a steadying hand on the big guy’s side, a sign for him to walk a little slower and a little more smoothly.
“She doesn’t look scared,” said Chaff, unable to shake the image of Royya’s frozen smile from his mind.
“She’s more scared than any of us.” Lookout opened her eyes. “See the way she keeps looking over her shoulder? She doesn’t think this is the right way, but she has to stay with us if she wants to survive. She’ll do anything she needs to, to survive.”
Chaff could appreciate that line of thinking, although just because he appreciated it did not mean he sympathized with her. That just made Royya all the more dangerous.
He hugged his book tight to his chest again. He had more of a mission than just to survive.
The sun began to set as they walked on, and Chaff welcomed the coolness. Long shadows danced with the orange tendrils snaking across the arid badlands, which at this point had devolved from grass to sunbaked dirt, cracked like porcelain. In the fading sky, he could make out the faint outline of the moon, full and round. The eye of the Lady Fall, Hadiss had called it, watching over all of them.
Chaff thought nothing of it, even as the eye stared unblinkingly at the little party as they trekked across the dusty, broken badlands. The walk was becoming harder; his muscles were sore from his sprint from the slavers around the city, and tired from lack of rest. They burned as he walked, a slow fire that ate away at the fringes of his strength and stamina. The path seemed to be leading uphill, too. It was a hard climb, but Al Innai led point, marching straight forward in the direction the wind had pointed him.
If Chaff remembered correctly, he knew why the land was sloping upward. He knew where they were going. He didn’t say anything out loud, but as the big guy began to toss his head in nervousness, Chaff put a comforting hand on his neck and whispered soothing nonsense up to his ear as he held the camelopard’s tabula.
As they walked, Chaff kept his gaze up, looking straight at the orange and blue sky. Sinndi, Lookout’s owlcrow, was too weak to fly, so the skies were clear, but all the same, Chaff looked out for birds.
Lookout sucked in a sharp breath. Of course, she would be the first to see it. As they crested the hill, Chaff could see it with his own eyes, and his suspicions were confirmed.
The long canyon cracked this place, these Redlands, in two. As the group finally ascended, a long flat stretch of stone and dirt lay before them, broken only by the dry riverbed that snaked through the canyon. Chaff could only imagine what force had carved the great stone plateaus and cliffs ahead of them.
Up ahead, Parsaa had put a warning hand on Al Innai’s shoulder. Al Innai had paused, and when he turned to look at where the canyon led, in both directions, Chaff saw a pained grimace on his face. The path ahead was not so straight and easy—not, Chaff reminded himself, that it ever was.
“You said you’ve been here before, Chaff?” said Lookout, and Chaff started. He looked around. His face must have given it away. Everyone else was surprise or startled, but he had not jumped up or gasped or swore. He had simply been…disappointed.
Chaff nodded once. There was no use lying about that.
“You know how to get out?” Lookout coughed when she said that, and Chaff’s eyes darted from her leg to her eyes. He knew what she meant. If this wasn’t the way out, then Lookout was never leaving Shira Hay.
He remembered standing on the edge of those cliffs, staring at the canyon below. Some of the canyon walls were sloped and smooth; one could almost walk down them if they were careful. Others were straight, steep shots downward. That was the one Chaff had stood on, staring at the long fall downward.
The wild child shuddered. It must have only been one winter, at most two, after his Fallow. He was not proud of that moment.
“Last time I is here,” said Chaff. “I turn back. I don’t know how we goes forward.” He nodded his head slowly. “But we go forward, yeah? Always go forward, that’s right.”
Despite her obvious fatigue and the pallor of her skin, Lookout smiled. “That’s right,” she echoed, and looked ahead at the great canyons. The strata of the rock glowed in the light of the setting sun, russet to bone white to an orange red that almost looked like the surface of a tabula. “You know,” Lookout said. “If you take a moment to just…appreciate it, it really is beautiful.”
“No water, though,” said Chaff. He didn’t care how beautiful the Redlands were if they were going to kill him. “No hollow ever comes here. Nothing lives here, yeah? No good, no good.”
He paused, staring at the great crack on the face of Albumere. He scratched the big guy’s side, but the camelopard did not move, the scene reflected in his black eyes.
“It is beautiful, though, yeah?” said Chaff, nodding. “The view’s…pretty.”
And they stood there, their backs to the setting sun, and watched the light paint the Redlands as night fell and the stars began to emerge.
“We don’t got much water left,” said Scrabble, shaking both the water skin and Chaff from his reverie. What was left of their water sloshed around pitifully in the skin, and Chaff knew that one more drink was all he got before he went thirsty. “If we make camp here, Innai-Innai…”
“We’re going to keep moving,” grunted Al Innai, waving them on. “Down into the canyon, then back up and over. That’s the way to go.”
Chaff gulped. Climbing down into the canyon would not be easy. Climbing up and out of it would be near impossible.
“What about the water?” shouted Clatter. “We drink-a-drink ‘fore we go!”
Al Innai looked over at them. Chaff knew what he was thinking. He would not waste a precious drink on someone who might fall to their death in the next hour.
“You drink on the other side,” he said. “Now suck it up, let’s get moving.”
Chaff caught Scrabble leering at him as they walked ahead, and felt a crawling in his gut. Scrabble could not lull him into the same sense of false security as Hook. Chaff resolved to keep as far away as possible from the urchin on both the climb down and the climb up. He would make sure to do the same for Royya, too. Except…
The slope was steep, but Al Innai insisted on marching straight ahead. He climbed down easily and swiftly, his muscles rippling as he swung from handhold to handhold like some gorillai from the Jhidnu wilds. Royya was less sure-footed, but as she began to clamber down she was agile and confident. Parsaa’s footsteps were careful and cautious, but she seemed in no danger yet.
But as Chaff watched, he realized that no matter how careful and cautious someone was, hooves could not grab those handholds. He looked up at the big guy, the lanky, cumbersome animal, and knew that a camelopard had always been designed for horizontal distances, not vertical ones.
“Parsaa!” he shouted, before she had gone too far. “The big guy can’t make this climb!” Chaff’s look was pleading. Perhaps she could get through to Al Innai, if they were so close…
Parsaa pursed her lips, and looked from the big guy to the canyon floor. Finally, she said, “Climb down here alone!”
Chaff shifted closer to his friend. “I’m not leaving-!”
“You won’t have to,” said Parsaa, cutting him off. “Climb down alone, then use his tabula to summon him. He won’t have to lift a hoof.”
“Clever Parsaa,” Chaff breathed, and he nodded. “See you on the other side, big guy,” he said, patting the big guy on the leg.
“Wait!” said Lookout, and her face was, if possible, even paler. “Chaff, I can’t make that climb either.”
Chaff met eyes with Lookout, and the same thought passed through their heads at the same time.
Shaking his head, Chaff looked around, trying to think of another way. “Could- could your owlcrow fly them down to me?”
“No,” said Lookout, weakly. “Her talons aren’t big enough, and the tabula are too heavy.”
Chaff was silent. He didn’t know what else to suggest. He wasn’t the clever one.
“Fuck it,” said Lookout. Chaff looked up. “Fuck it. Yeah, fuck it. Alright, I’ll do it. I don’t give a fuck, I’ll do it.” Aggressively, Lookout dug behind her own scarf and pulled out her tabula. She flipped it over in her hand, staring at it. “Whatever. I have to do it. No choice.” She gripped it tight. “Lady Summer, fucking burn it all, I got no choice.”
Chaff could not bear to meet her gaze.
“I trust you,” said Lookout, breathing deeply. “You get me down there, alright? You get me down there, and then you get me out of here, you hear me?”
Still not looking at her, Chaff nodded. It felt almost sacrilegious, to touch Lookout’s tabula, like he was violating some intimate and private part of her. But, slowly, hesitantly, he took the tabula from her hand. He stuffed it in his belt at once; he didn’t feel right touching it with his bare skin.
But when he did, he saw the momentary shudder. “I won’t keep it, Lookout,” he said, as the girl hugged her own shoulders. “I’ll give it back as soon as I can.”
Lookout just nodded.
The other two urchins, with him, were the last to go down. “I don’t know ‘bout you,” said Clatter, as they scraped and slid their way down the hill, clinging to the rock face. “But my hunger getting’ hungry.”
“We gotta eat somethin’, yeah?” said Scrabble, affecting Chaff’s speech again. Chaff sped up his pace. He did not want to be caught near this two without any of his own allies to protect him.
Clatter licked his lips. “You know what-what I got a craving for? Meat. Aw, meat.”
“Not so much meat to find out here, yeah?” said Scrabble. “Not never gonna find something living. Gotta make do with what we have.”
Chaff had had enough. He almost leaped down the rock face, doing his best to get as far away from the two as possible. As long as he held the big guy’s tabula and his tabula and Lookout’s tabula and the girl’s tabula, they would all be safe. He could—he would—make sure of it himself.
Hands slick with sweat, Chaff could feel his arms shaking as he grabbed the tiny cracks and juts in the canyon wall that he could hold onto. The book and the scarf wrapped tight around his waist, he could only hope that the others were too busy climbing on their own to notice.
Chaff made the mistake of looking down. All of a sudden, the wall seemed to be sloping in, like he was hanging from the rock with nothing to catch his fall but the ground. Chaff could feel his heart palpitating, feel bile rising up to his throat.
He choked it down and kept climbing. He could rest when he made it to the bottom, and he would make it to the bottom. Chaff was a survivor.
He kept a weather eye out for both the urchins Scrabble and Clatter, and Royya of the Cove. Of all the things in the canyon, they were his biggest threats. He had no doubt that at least one would kill him, just for an extra drink of water.
His gaze flickered from foothold to Royya to the skies to Clatter to Scrabble to the next foothold. There were too many things to track, too many to keep all in his head. He closed his eyes, doing his best to let his mind rest even as his body shook from the effort.
Then he felt a foot on his hand.
His head snapped up. Royya and the urchins were both whole body-lengths away! They would never have been able to get to him so fast!
That was the first thought that ran through his head before he saw Parsaa right over him, her tired, motherly face somehow more tired than ever. “I’m sorry, Chaff,” she said, softly. “There’s just not enough for all of us.”
And she pushed his hand away, sending Chaff grasping wildly for support as his whole upper body was thrown off-balance. His heel struck the rock and began to bleed even as he tumbled over and began to fall down, down, down. There was nothing left to hold now but air and hope.
The boy clutched his precious things, closed his eyes, and waited for the ground to catch him.
The shouts to raise arms faded quickly. Jova tensed, an electric buzz in her arms. It wasn’t as if the conflict had been violent and brutal and ended quickly; the conflict hadn’t happened yet. An eerie silence hung over their corner of the jungle, and the thick foliage around them seemed to muffle the interference of the outside world.
Jova’s hands tightened around the wooden pole, and she edged towards the wagon entrance, keeping one hand to the floor to make sure she didn’t accidentally fall out.
“We are merely passing through!” shouted a voice from outside, one unfamiliar to Jova. His accent was neither that of a templeman nor of a fieldman; it could have been a mountainman’s, but Jova couldn’t be sure. “We mean no harm!”
“Prove it,” came Janwye’s angry growl.
“Janwye, you are being rash,” said Bechde’s voice, soft but close. “Lay down your arms.”
“Only if they lay down their weapons first.”
Quietly, Jova slipped out from the wagon tarp, turning back and putting her finger to her lips for just a second before sliding out. She hoped Alis understood. More than that, Jova hoped it was the right advice. The cautious plan was to stay still and quiet, but perhaps Alis was safer if she went to find help, or found something to defend herself with…
Jova shook her head. The girl was four years old. The idea that she would even stand a chance if things got violent was ludicrous. It was Jova’s responsibility to protect her, and Jova’s alone.
“You understand if we hesitate,” said the perhaps-mountainman. “We are weak from travel and you outnumber us five to one. We have cause to fear, not you.”
“Words from a snake,” hissed Janwye. Jova heard venom in her voice, thought, not in the stranger’s. What had these people done that had angered her so?
“Janwye!” shouted Bechde, aghast. “You forget yourself!”
“I am a free woman, now, Bechde,” said Janwye, and she sounded so angry that for a moment even Jova was afraid. “You cannot command me as you once did.”
Jova heard a sharp intake of breath, and then she heard Bechde’s deadly whisper, “Free you may be, Janwye, but this is still my caravan. My envoy. My people! You will lay down your weapon, or I will teach you the consequences of freedom.”
A pause, and then Jova heard the clatter of a lance thrown onto the ground. The girl relaxed, straightening, although she did not let go of her own weapon.
“Quele! Cropper!” Bechde shouted, raising her voice again. “Tell the men to put their weapons down, there is no cause for worry.” To the strangers, she said, “My apologies. I don’t know what caused my friend such a conniption, but please, let us amend ourselves to you. Something to eat? Drink perhaps?”
“No, Bechde!” shouted Janwye, angry again. “I draw the line here! Leave them alone, fine, but we shall not waste one second wining and dining them when we have places to be, friends to watch out for.”
“Your temper is still quick, Janwye,” said Bechde. “Has the Lady Summer touched your tabula? What could they have possibly done to offend you?”
“They lie,” was all Janwye said, and she stomped away, her boots thudding heavily on the jungle floor.
There followed a helpless silence, and then the man said, “We just told her that we were from the Seat. The draft’s come again, and Banden’s men have come kicking down doors and taking our tabula. We, all of us, traveled to get away from that. Nobody wants to fight a war in Alswell-.”
“War? In Alswell?” And suddenly Bechde’s voice was tense, too. “There is no war in Alswell.”
“There is now, friend,” said the refugee, hoarsely. “The plainsmen turned. A survivor from Shira Hay, he came back, he told us all—the duarchs slaughtered every fieldman in the city. Now they’ve marched on the fields, pillaging and burning and Ladies know what else. I didn’t think they had it in them.”
Bechde didn’t say anything for quite some time. Then, she said, very softly, “Find the woman alsknight named Quele. She’ll get food, water, anything you need. Thank you for the news.”
“You’re all from- oh, Ladies, I didn’t realize. I’m sorry! I’m sure everything…” The man trailed off into silence as Bechde walked away.
There was a little laughter left in the lady’s voice as she came back to the wagon. “Our little protector,” she said, patting Jova on the head. “Thank you for keeping us safe, Jova. We’ll get you a proper weapon soon. You’ll need- you’ll want it, I’m sure.” And she plucked the wooden staff from Jova’s hand.
“Proper weapon?” echoed Jova. “What was I holding?”
“In Alswell, we call these parasols. They’re for keeping the sun off your face, but I’m sure you could have skewered a bandit or two with it,” said Bechde. Jova recognized the exhaustion in her voice, the attempted mirth: it was the sound of someone who was doing her best to smile when inside she was breaking.
“Bechde,” said Jova, slowly. She rubbed her shoulder, trying to find the right words to say. “It’s OK to be sad.”
Bechde choked back a sob, and Jova heard her sit heavily on the edge of the wagon. Jova sat next to her, and put a hand on hers. She didn’t say anything. There was nothing for her to say.
There was movement from behind her, and Jova said, “It’s OK, Alis. You can come out now.”
And the three of them sat together, each nursing their own little wounds. Jova held each of their hands, and took a deep breath. What was there to say, that could heal the cuts and bruises that no hand could touch?
“Lady Fall bless us, we give you thanks,” said Jova, and she felt Bechde grip her hand just a bit tighter. “May we be wise, and in this game of worlds fortune be with you.”
“Fortune be with you,” echoed Bechde.
Jova squeezed Alis’s hand. “Say it with us, Alis.”
“Fortune be with us,” said the little girl, carefully and slowly, and Jova smiled.
“Close enough,” she said, and she turned her head to listen to the camp. A buzz seemed to travel around the camp as the news of the refugees spread. Jova felt the same questions stir in her head that the people of the caravan were no doubt asking each other. Where did they go now? What came after this?
Bechde rose. “I’ll need to talk with my advisors. The other alsknights, the minor farmers. We have some…planning to do.” She took a step, before suddenly she turned around. She embraced Jova, a tender, motherly embrace.
Jova stiffened, more than a little surprised, but after the shock had passed she embraced Bechde back.
“You have been with us for but a few days, darling,” said Bechde. “And yet I feel as if I have known you all my life.” Bechde sniffed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, but you are very much like the daughter that was taken from me.”
“Thank you, Bechde,” said Jova. “You…you’ve made leaving my mother easier.”
Bechde cleared her throat, and she patted Jova’s head again. “I must be going now, before the rumors get too out of hand. I will find you later, once the talks are over!”
Jova nodded, and waved in Bechde’s direction. She stood, holding Alis’s hand—the little girl was too short to let her arm hang while she stood hand-in-hand with Jova and had to hold her arm higher to meet Jova’s—and clicked her tongue to get a better picture of the state of the camp. Her concentration was broken when she felt Alis flinch beside her and heard her whimper.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” said Jova, immediately. She had forgotten how scared it had made Alis the night before, and hurriedly bent to hold Alis’s hand between hers. She gave it a comforting squeeze, like Ma used to do. “Look, it’s just a noise. See?” And Jova clicked again, right in front of Alis’s face.
The girl said nothing. A pensive silence stretched between them, and Jova licked dry lips. How was she supposed to read the girl’s emotions if she wouldn’t say anything?
Just to drive her point home, Jova clicked one more time, exaggerating her expression on purpose. Her face drawn long, her lips pouting out in a ridiculous circle, she clicked a few times in Alis’s face, and to her delight the girl let out one small giggle. “See?” said Jova. “Nothing to be scared of! Are you scared, Alis?”
Alis didn’t say anything. Jova waited for a response, but none seemed to be coming.
“Did you just shake your head?”
Again, no response.
“Don’t just nod your head, say yes.”
“Yes,” said Alis, and it amazed Jova how the girl could say a one syllable word that slowly and carefully.
“Well, you have to say that out loud from now on, OK? Say yes or no, don’t just shake or nod your head, OK? Because I can’t…I can’t see all that well, so I need you to say these things out loud for me. Can you do that, Alis?”
There was a couple seconds’ silence, before Alis remembered herself and said, “Yes.”
Jova smiled. “Thanks.”
As Jova stood, Alis took her hand once more and asked, “What’s under that thing around your eyes?”
“Why, my eyes, Alis,” said Jova. A little white lie couldn’t hurt, could it?
“Can I see them?” asked the girl.
Jova paused. “I’m afraid you can’t.”
“Because my eyes hurt right now, Alis,” said Jova, in her best placating voice. “And I can’t take this blindfold off or else they’ll hurt even worse.”
“How’d your eyes get hurt?”
Jova, who had once wished that Alis would talk a little more, was now beginning to wish that the girl would stop. “In an accident, a long time ago.”
“What kind of accident?”
“I don’t really remember all the details,” said Jova, vaguely.
“Was it like the accident my friend had?”
“The friend I left behind!”
And the smile vanished from Jova’s face. She remembered a child’s corpse, face swollen, flesh distended, lying in that clearing while Alis cried over the body. It was hard to stay jovial after that. “I don’t know, Alis. I don’t know what kind of accident your friend had.” She paused. “Do you feel OK talking about this?”
“Yes,” said Alis, although she didn’t say any more after that.
Jova squeezed her hand. “Come on, Alis, let’s go talk to some of my friends.” As they walked away, Jova couldn’t help but wonder if ignoring the issue was the best way to deal with it. She was just a kid. She didn’t know how to talk about things like death and loss to another child. For the first time, the unfairness of the situation dawned on Jova. Any other child her age would have been teasing and taking advantage of this little girl, not caring for her. If Jova was like any other child her age, she would have done the same, but she had grown up in the company of adults that had always watched out for her.
Jova wondered what would have happened to little Alis if she hadn’t found her. Like Bechde had said, the wilds were a dangerous place for a child. What might slow, thoughtful Alis have become out in the jungles of Moscoleon? Who else would have found her? Hag Gar Gan slavers, that roamed the jungle borders?
She shuddered. Jova promised herself that she would never let the little girl live either of those lives, slave or wild. She had seen the effect it had on her parents, the phobias and fears that had rooted in them. Most people thought one was mandatory, but Jova knew that there was a better way to live. She had lived it herself. It was what made her take Alis under her wing, instead of leave the girl out in the wilds to die.
But to be honest, Jova wasn’t sure if this was a crusade she could accomplish.
“Who are your friends?” asked Alis, her questioning only dissuaded momentarily.
“We’re looking for Janwye now,” said Jova. “She-.”
“What does she look like?”
Jova sighed, long and deep. “I don’t know, Alis.”
“How can she be your friend if you don’t know what she looks like?” Despite the way she said it, Alis didn’t sound accusatory at all. She sounded genuinely curious. It was an innocent question.
“My eyes have trouble like that. I know what she sounds like, though. She talks very fast, and very loud, and asks all these questions, all the time- kind of like someone I know,” said Jova. She poked Alis in the side, and to her surprise the reserved girl shrieked and giggled. “She’s not all that ticklish, though,” said Jova, grinning, and she ducked under Alis’s defenses to prod her again.
Alis tumbled over, laughing, and Jova mock-wrestled with her in the leaves, glad that she at last knew for certain that Alis was happy.
They twisted and rolled on the jungle floor, until Jova bumped into something hard and sturdy. At first, Jova thought she had hit a tree, but that thought was quickly disproven when the “tree” yelped and shouted, “Ow!”
Jova rose to her feet immediately, brushing off her coza. “I’m very, very sorry,” she said, quickly, and beside her she heard Alis mumble something like an apology as well.
“Not to worry, not to worry,” the man said, gruffly, and Jova recognized his voice as the refugee who had talked to Bechde. “Children will be children.” He paused. “Children. I didn’t realize there were children here…”
You don’t realize a lot of things, it seems, Jova thought, but she didn’t say it out loud.
“There’re children here,” muttered the man, under his breath, at a volume Jova had learned people thought she couldn’t hear them at. “Ladies Four, if we didn’t lose them…”
“Is something wrong, sir?” Jova asked, hesitantly.
“No, nothing’s wrong,” said the man, far too quickly to be true. “I’ll be off. Erm. Mind your step in the future, child!” And he stomped away, hurriedly.
“Strange man, wasn’t he, Alis?” said Jova, and Alis, breathless, said something that sounded like a yes.
They kept walking, taking the time to recuperate. Jova walked in the direction she had heard Janwye go, keeping her ears pricked as she passed through the camp. Janwye could not have gone far. Jova wanted—needed—to see how she was taking the news. Knowing Janwye, the volatile fieldwoman might do something drastic.
As they walked through camp, Jova’s keen ears caught snippets of conversation. People were worried; people were afraid. Jova just hoped that worry and that fear wouldn’t touch Alis. It was strange, how having something to protect gave her such purpose.
Inevitably, Jova’s thoughts turned to her eyes, to the blindfold. What would happen when Alis found out? Jova knew she could not keep it a secret forever; she would be caught, while she was sleeping or washing the blindfold or simply didn’t have it on. Perhaps Alis would leave someway, somehow, before Jova ever had to tell her secret.
Jova realized with a shiver that this was how Roan must have thought when he first met her. She found herself holding Alis’s hand so tight it must have hurt, and shakily let go. She missed Roan: the old Roan, the guardian Roan, not the missing and aloof and absent Roan.
And just as she was thinking of him, she heard his voice.
“Janwye, I am trying to warn you! We must leave now! There is no further to go,” snapped Roan, angrily. “The journey was a noble effort, but it is over. What are these things to us and our order? They mean nothing now.”
“You don’t mean that, Roan, I know you don’t mean that!”
Jova did not dare approach them. She took Alis’s hand and skulked away, her back pressed against a nearby tree. She did not know if she was in sight or out, but she did not want to get any closer.
Roan took a while to answer. Stel reared underneath him, screaming and nickering. “Perhaps not. But even so, there is nothing left for you to do. How can you prevent something that has already happened?”
“If I cannot stop the war, then I can help win it!” shouted Janwye. “We won’t go to the Seat, anymore. We’ll go to…to Hak Mat Do! The pyramid lords will help us! If they won’t, then you can rally the clans again! You are one of the Hag Gar Gan, Roan!”
“You are speaking foolishness, Janwye,” said Roan. “Please, listen to me! We must go now!”
“Why, Roan? What are you so afraid of?”
“In your anger, you were blinded,” said Roan. “Did you really think that a man would not notice he was talking to a fieldwoman, when he was surrounded by alsknights, by slaves, by western wagons and the finery of Alswell, unless he had something else to worry about? His words, however true or false they may have been, were bait, to let himself in under your protection. He has more immediate concerns than Banden Ironhide and his conscriptions in the north.”
Janwye’s voice had lost its edge, to be replaced by confusion. “What are you talking about, Roan?”
“When I rode ahead—when I strayed off the path—I am seeing them with my own eyes. I know their strategies, their tactics. They have sent their bait out, and now they lie in ambush.” Roan began to talk very fast, as if he had planned this part out. “I will find Jova, the animals, whoever else can escape without notice, but you must leave now, alone. If the whole camp moves at once, they will be alerted, and strike, and we shall all be lost.”
“Who’s going to strike? What do you mean, Roan?”
“You do not need to find the Hag Gar Gan, Janwye,” said Roan. “Their slavers are already here.”
Jova did her best to wipe the girl’s face with the lace handkerchief, although the child squirmed and twitched as she sat, and Bechde kept fussing around over Jova’s shoulder. “Fallborn can be fickle,” the lady said, and Jova’s head spun as she tried to keep track of where Bechde was standing. “But they’re ever so quiet about it. It’s so hard to tell what a fallborn is thinking sometimes, isn’t it?”
However hard it may have been for Bechde to read the quiet girl’s emotions, it was nothing compared to how hard it was for Jova. She sighed, letting her arms fall as she let the girl go (and the girl was, contrary to Jova’s initial guess, a girl).
“What will you name her?” asked Bechde. “It’s very important, the name. She can’t run around with some Wilder name like Stick or Stone or River or Brook. It’s very lucky, really, that you found her. A nice civilized name, that’ll do it.”
“Anjan changed her name when she grew up,” said Jova. “I don’t remember what her name was first, but she changed it.”
Bechde sniffed, and patted Jova on the head. “Yes, well, it’s much easier if you start with a civil name, dear.”
“Do I have to name her?” asked Jova.
“She is yours, darling,” said Bechde, kindly. “I’ll help if you like. A good Alswell name, what say you?”
“I don’t want her to be mine, though,” said Jova, and she hung her head. “Bechde, why can’t you take her?”
“Where are you taking me?” said a soft voice, suddenly. Jova jumped. She had almost forgotten the girl was there. The girl spoke slowly and deliberately, and sounded almost too articulate for someone so young.
“Nowhere, dear,” said Bechde, quickly. The lady’s dress rustled as she moved past Jova, and the girl squeaked as Bechde picked her up. “Quele, come here! Get the child food and water, anything she wants.”
With nothing but the rustle of her chainmail and a curt “yes, m’lady,” the alsknight Quele picked up the girl and walked away.
“And now to talk in peace,” said Bechde, resuming her seat next to Jova. The lady had special travel cushions, just for sitting, and while it was still morning they could sit and talk by the fire, uninterrupted.
Jova could feel a light mist on her fingers and cheeks. The sun would burn it away soon, but the humid air still clung to her skin, and made her breathing short and shallow. She hadn’t slept much the last night, holding, for the first time in her life, a tabula in her hand.
“You can sell her in Hak Mat Do, if you like,” said Bechde, and even though Jova knew the lady was trying to be kind, she couldn’t help but shiver. “The markets beyond the Barren Sands thrive with the odd trade.”
Even under that pseudonym, Jova recognized what “the odd trade” was. Slavery had never agreed with her, even when it was such a natural facet of everyday life. It came from having a slave father, perhaps—a slave father who, unlike all other slave fathers, could tell his child stories of his servitude. All Jova said, though, was, “I don’t want to sell her.”
A comforting arm wrapped around her shoulder. “Then you’ll just have to keep her, dear girl. You’ve done so much good already! She could have died out here, or met Hag Gar Gan slavers next, or run in with a crowd of wild savages. You’ve given her a chance for a real childhood, Jova. That’s a very precious thing.”
What about the chance for freedom? Wasn’t that precious too? Jova didn’t say it out loud, though; it was too hard to articulate what she was feeling. She scratched her chest again, pensive.
“Just imagine if she had been found by the horse riders.” Bechde paused, and lowered her voice. “By Rho Hat Pan’s people. Imagine! The brutality of the Hag Gar Gan! Oh, I don’t dare to think it. No, it’s much better this way, honestly.”
“What do I do, though?”
“You clothe her, you feed her,” said Bechde. “She won’t be good for much work until she’s older, but I find that they are most excellent companions even in their younger years if you treat them well.” Bechde must have noticed Jova’s expression, because she said, after, “Oh, don’t look so unhappy, Jova. It will be a treat, honestly.”
“If she’s mine,” said Jova, hugging her knees, “Don’t I have the right to give her to you?”
“Then I have the right not to take her, dear. I’ll help, but Ladies know I’ve got too many of my own to look after.”
“But you will help me?”
“Yes, Jova, now stop worrying.” Jova felt a thumb press against her forehead, and move across it as if it was smoothing out the wrinkles in her skin. “Smile! There’s no need to have your face all scrunched up like that.”
Jova reached up to touch Bechde’s hand, not sure if she was going to hold it or push it away, but Bechde withdrew quickly.
“I’m so terribly sorry, Jova, that was far too forward of me,” said Bechde. “All this talk of children and mothers, I suppose it’s gotten to my head.”
This was the first time Jova had heard talk of mothers, but she didn’t inquire further. “It’s alright, Lady Bechde,” she said, smiling. “I don’t mind.”
Bechde sighed. “I hope you don’t mind my saying this, darling, but you are truly…open. It is something I have never seen before, and I think I am not alone in saying it is something I want to protect.”
Jova had to admit there was a pattern: Roan, then Janwye, and now Bechde. All the same, she could not help but feel that Bechde was not being entirely honest. It was her faults that marked her, not her strengths: it was pity she inspired, not care.
“For all your smiles and your laughter, you have known suffering,” said Bechde, her hand hovering just over Jova’s face, where her bandages were tied. “That takes real character, dear. Honestly.”
“Thank you, Lady Bechde,” said Jova, bobbing her head. Bechde sounded so sad, that Jova felt she had to say something else. She thought hard for a minute. “May I be forward too, Lady Bechde?”
“Why not,” said the Alswell lady, and Jova could tell she said it with a smile.
“Were you a mother once?”
Jova could almost hear the smile vanish. “I pray that I still am,” Bechde said, and her tone was resigned. “They are lost and gone now, Ladies take them wherever they may be. I haven’t had child in many years, though, old crone as I am.”
Jova scoffed. “You don’t sound very old, Lady Bechde.”
“Why, thank you, little darling, but I assure you I am.” She lowered her voice. “I am going on fifty summers, and there’s silver in my hair.”
“You’re young on the inside, though,” said Jova. “I think you might be younger inside than I am!”
Bechde laughed. “Oh, darling, you make me blush. I dare say you’ve got a little youth left in you yet, though.”
Jova was about to answer, when a horn sounded so suddenly and so loudly that she flinched. Bechde yawned.
“We really did spend the whole night talking, didn’t we?” Bechde’s dress rustled as she rose, and she patted down the cushion to wipe off the dirt. “Well, up we get, Jova, we’ve got a long way to go. You’ll ride with me today, how about that?”
Jova tensed. “What about Roan?”
“If the sandman wishes to be alone with his beasts then let him be,” said Bechde, dismissively. “If he needed you, he would have sought you out, but as it is you have no obligation to be with him.” Her voice softened slightly. “There’s plenty of room in the wagon, and the bumping’s not so bad. We could have pomegranates again! Wouldn’t that be nice?”
Jova nodded her consent, just once, all while wondering where on Albumere Roan could be and why he had suddenly become so distant.
“Oh, marvelous!” Bechde trilled, taking Jova’s hand. “There’s so much left to discuss. We simply must find a good name for the girl, Jova. I was thinking something with an ‘m’ sound, Methila or Makenna.”
“Bechde, can I ask you a question?” asked Jova. She was thinking back to the last night, of all the strange things that had happened then. There were things about that glade she wanted to forget, and at same time things that she wanted to know so much more about.
“As the Lady Fall listens, ask away,” said Bechde, unperturbed by Jova’s interruption.
Jova hugged her own cushion to her chest as they walked away, her ears pricked to the sound of the camp coming to life. Things were quieter on the Alswell side of things, the slaves breaking up camp almost mechanically, the other fieldmen’s morning exertions lazy and gentle. “Do you have many hollows in Alswell?”
“A fair number.” Bechde helped Jova up as they stepped into her personal wagon, nestled comfortably in shade on the jungle path. “Just as much or as little as any other nation, I would think.”
“And you keep them walled in, you said?”
“The great wells of Alswell, we call them, yes. Poets say we draw from them the sap of the world. Beautiful, don’t you think?” said Bechde. She made a sound as if she was going to say more, but then fell silent.
“And these hollows,” said Jova, feeling as if she would regret the words the moment she said them. “Do they…do they walk?”
“I would certainly hope not,” said Bechde, and her laughter made Jova’s face turn red. “The ones we’ve caught certainly don’t go anywhere, and if we lose them out there in the wild, well, there are quite a few trees in the woods, now, aren’t there?”
Jova nodded and did her best to laugh, all while wondering what the thing in the glade was last night if it wasn’t a hollow. She had already been wrong about the girl; if she could mess up something so simple, who was she to say that the thing she had heard was truly one of the walking trees? It was preposterous. There had to be another explanation.
Another question drifted across Jova’s mind unbidden, and before she could stop herself she asked, “Bechde, do the hollows have tabula? Tabula of their own, I mean?”
“What a clever little girl you are,” said Bechde, as the wagon rose and began to trundle away. The bumping was bad, even as they rolled over soft jungle mulch, and Jova could swear that her behind was beginning to bruise as they rumbled on. Bechde and her voluminous dress suddenly seemed rather practical now. “I don’t think I’ve ever really thought about it before,” continued Bechde, unfazed by the wagon’s movement. “There must be some philosopher out there I’m sure who’s looked into this, but I’ve never seen a hollow with one. Perhaps it is buried somewhere under all those other tabula, dear, or perhaps one must simply be able to move to have a tabula.”
It was true, plants didn’t have tabula, but if moving was the only rule, then Jova was either an exception or the rule was wrong.
The tarp parted suddenly, and Quele said in her gravelly monotone, “She has been fed and watered, m’lady. I can’t carry her the whole way, though.”
“You’ve done excellently, Quele, thank you. You may leave.” The tarp closed, leaving the three of them in their comfortable little world. “Come here, little one. Did you eat well?”
“Yes,” she said, curtly. Again, there was an earnest dedication to the words that made it hard to imagine them coming from a mouth so young.
“We were just thinking of what your new name will be,” said Bechde, in a kind voice. “Jova, what do you think of Methila?”
Before Jova could respond, the girl said, “My name is Alis.” It wasn’t an argument or an assertion; it was just a practiced statement of fact. Her parents must have taught her that, Jova thought. They had taught her to protect the one thing she could bring with her, her name.
“Why don’t we let her keep her name?” suggested Jova.
“Oh, that’s not such a good idea,” said Bechde, quickly. “Best to start fresh, don’t you think? Whenever we take new ones in Alswell, we always give them new names.”
“I’m sorry, Bechde, but I think…” Jova reached out and took the little girl, Alis, by the hand. It was small and hot, and only squirmed slightly when Jova touched her. “I think we’re not in Alswell. I think she should keep her name.”
“Well…well, alright then,” said Bechde, and she sounded more disappointed than angry or upset. “Alis is a good name.”
“A holy name, too,” said Jova, patting Alis on the head. “Roan would approve.”
“What’s Roan?” asked Alis. She took a seat next to Jova and asked in her prim, directed voice. Who had this Alis been, before the Fallow took her away?
“Roan was the man on horseback, remember?” said Jova, holding Alis’s hand still. “You’ll talk with him more soon. He might seem harsh, but he’s really very nice.”
“What’s that on your face?” asked Alis, and Jova had to change tacts just as quickly to figure out what she was talking about.
“This?” Jova asked, indicated her blind fold.
There was an expectant pause, and Jova realized Ali must have nodded. “It’s called a blindfold,” she said, nodding back even though she wasn’t quite sure how far up or down Alis’s face was in the silence.
Alis continued with her interrogation. “Why do you have it?”
Jova’s breath caught in her throat. For a moment, she saw a glimpse of it what it felt liked to be unrestrained, unjudged, and realized how tempting it must have been for Roan. Jova hesitated, wondering what truth she had for little Alis, when at last all Jova chose to say was, “There’s something wrong with me.”
The little girl seemed to accept that, and asked no more questions.
The wagon jerked suddenly, and Jova nearly tumbled out of her seat. “What’s going on?” muttered Bechde, as she opened the tarp.
As Jova picked herself up, there was a fevered muttering between Bechde and one of her attendants, and as the attendant left Bechde whispered, “Three years and there are still refugees on the road from Ironhide’s revolution…”
There was a rustling of fabric as Bechde slid out of the wagon. “I’ll be back in a moment, Jova dear. We’ve met some people who want to talk to us. You two stay in here, and get to know each other!”
“Bye,” said Jova, meekly, as Bechde left. She was left alone with Alis in the wagon, wondering what to say. “Are you OK?” asked Jova, hesitantly. “After last night? Do you feel…better?”
Alis did not respond for quite some time. Then, she said, “Where are we going?”
“Very far away,” said Jova. “To Alswell, and to a place called the Seat of the King. You’ve probably already gone a far way, to here. This place is called Moscoleon.”
Jova felt the bench shift as Alis began to swing her legs. “When are we going home?” she asked.
It was like a hand had clenched around Jova’s chest. She felt sudden moisture around her eyes, and she shook her head to clear it. Her hand gripped Alis’s tighter. “I don’t know,” said Jova. “Not for a long time, I think.”
There was a sudden weight on Jova’s shoulder, and Alis mumbled, softly, “Will you be my sister?”
“OK,” Jova said, and she adjusted herself so that she could lower Alis’s head gently into her lap. “I’ll be your sister.”
She wasn’t sure what being a sister meant, but, as Alis’s little body leaned peacefully on her, Jova figured it couldn’t be so bad. Jova felt her own head begin to droop, as the warm air in the wagon and the trials of last night began to lull her into her slumber.
Jova did not know how long she had slept, or if she had even slept at all, when shouts from outside made her jerk upright.
“Lances up, tabula out!” shouted a voice from the outside, one that Jova recognized as Janwye’s. The shout echoed all the way down to the end of the procession. “Draw weapons! Lances up, tabula out!”
Jova tensed, and began to pat down the floor of the wagon, looking for something she could use as a spear or a stick. Alis stirred next to her, yawning and smacking her lips together. Her tabula felt heavy in Jova’s pocket.
Jova’s hand closed around something that would do, and she felt years of morning practice with Arim return to her. It was time to prove that she could make it in the real world, time to prove that she was no longer just a scared little blind girl.
It was time to protect the one that the Ladies had sent to her. It was time to find faith, once again.
Jova tensed, crouched in front of the tarp opening, and waited.
The grass was dying.
Chaff first noticed the long grass shrinking as they walked onward, until it reached only his knees. It was brittle and yellow, and cracked underfoot as Chaff walked. The soft loam of the plains became gravelly and dry, and the land itself seemed to bite at Chaff’s feet as he walked.
Although a storm had just broken over the plains, Chaff found his mouth lined with sores and dust. The sky was a clear unbroken blue, with not a cloud in sight, and the sun beat down mercilessly on the nomad group as they walked.
Chaff remembered coming to a place like this only once, one night long ago. It was not a memory he was fond of.
A tired owlcrow landed on Lookout’s shoulder, and Lookout groaned and shifted. She looked half-dead already, slumped against the big guy’s neck, and her swollen knee was wrapped in so many bandages that she could not even sit astride him properly. “Pass me that water skin, will you?”
“Drink sparingly!” shouted Al Innai, the consummate survivor, as Scrabble sycophantically handed the leather water skin to Chaff. Chaff glared at the urchin, remembering how close Hook had let Scrabble to get to him and all the good that had done the old crew leader.
“We won’t be meeting any of the walking groves soon,” said Al Innai, as Lookout dribbled the water into her mouth. Chaff took a drink too, the water comfortingly cool on his cracked lips. “Not here, not in the Redlands.”
“The Redlands,” Chaff repeated, under his breath, as he passed the skin back. “So that’s what this place called.”
Lookout laughed and muttered, “You been here before Chaff?”
Her acute hearing had evidently been unaffected, and her propensity for eavesdropping likewise. Chaff looked away and said nothing. In three years, he had told no one about his trip into this place, these Redlands. He wasn’t going to start now.
“What? You not talking to me anymore?” said Lookout. She sounded almost happy that Chaff had not yet acknowledged her. Chaff, on his part, did not respond. It gave Lookout something to do, and seemed to fill her with a little more life.
“I can’t see why you’d be angry at me.” Lookout shifted, taking short breaths as she moved her leg. “Seeing as you were the one who dragged me out here in the first place. You say you need me? What good are my eyes now? Sinndi’s too tired to fly and when she gets some air all I can see is grass and grass and grass.”
“Different kinds of grass,” said Chaff, feeling the spines and bristles of the short, yellow grass they now walked through. This kind wasn’t good for much except perhaps bedding, if he was desperate, and he had watch out for viperbugs and rattlerats hiding in the underbrush.
“Oh, yeah? What do you know about grass?”
Chaff considered answering, but decided against it. Lookout didn’t appreciate people knowing more than she did.
“Hey, Lookout,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “What does Jova mean?”
The thin girl brushed sandy hair out of her face and pursed her lips. “Sounds like gibberish to me. Why, where’d you hear it?”
“Nowhere,” said Chaff, absently. If even someone as smart as Lookout did not know what Jova meant, how was he supposed to figure it out?
“Fine, don’t say it,” said Lookout, and the owlcrow on her shoulder ruffled its feathers huffily. “Although I’ll tell you now, the aloof and mysterious angle doesn’t work for you, Chaff.”
It seemed such an odd thing to say that Chaff had to repeat Lookout’s words under his breath. “The a-loof and…the what?”
“The aloof and mysterious angle. You know, the look. The attitude. Doesn’t work for you.”
Chaff scratched his chin. “Why not?”
“Because you’re dumb.”
The boy looked down. He adjusted the scarf around his neck, which was starting to grow hot under the heat of the sun, and wondered if it was supposed to make him any smarter. He continued to stare at his feet, when he noticed something odd.
The grass had been growing shorter and shorter as the troop had walked, and here, where weeds and shrubs dared to stretch out of the parched cracks in the earth, the grass stopped.
It was unnerving.
Al Innai had noticed too. He waved for the group to stop, turning slowly as his sharp eyes took in the terrain around him. Chaff followed his gaze. If they were to continue on the path they were on, they would go into a vast scrubland that stretched just as far as the grassland into the horizon. It may have been just Chaff’s imagination, but the very air seemed to shimmer in the distance on the unbroken flats.
They could turn back to the grass, but Chaff could see that no matter which way they walked, short of retracing their steps entirely, the plains broke into small shrubs and patches, nowhere near the size and abundance of the old grasses Chaff used to walk through.
The Kennya Noni fighter took off his pack, and Chaff could see the sweat on his shoulders and biceps as he stretched out his arms. His face was haggard, and worried.
“I need water,” he said. “I need something of value. And I need something to dig with.”
No one seemed to question this strange request. Scrabble handed the skin to Al Innai, who drank only a mouthful, while Royya and Parsaa put down their packs and began searching them for…something, Chaff did not know what.
“Come on, Stink,” said Clatter, leering at him as he passed. “Let’s dig-a-dig for some diggin’.”
Chaff followed him slowly. Did Al Innai intend to bury something? The boy looked over his shoulder to the Kennya Noni fighter, and saw that he had knelt, tracing a circle over his forehead again.
It was like the buried jug, Chaff realized. It was a token to the Lady Fall. It was prayer.
It was begging.
“You stay here, big guy,” he said, patting the camelopard as he passed, and the big guy snorted and flicked his ears as Chaff began to search the short grass for some stick or stone that Al Innai could use to break the hard earth.
Sweat was beginning to drip into his eyes. Chaff took off Hadiss’s scarf and slung it over his shoulder; he didn’t care how smart it might make him if his neck lit on fire. He kept his back to the sun, searching the grass in the shade of his own body.
His foot bumped against something and Chaff, intrigued, bent down to inspect it. Most of it was buried in the dirt, but as he began to sweep away the loose topsoil with his hands, he began to uncover more of it.
It was long and white and sleek, and Chaff had to tug hard to break it out of the earth when the dirt below, which had sucked up most of the rainwater from the storm, became too compact and hard for him to dig at. It cracked, and Chaff fell backward with a shard of what had been buried in his hands.
It was bone.
From the leg of some large animal like (and Chaff shuddered at the thought) the big guy, the bleached white bone sat heavily in Chaff’s hand. He turned it over, wiping the dirt away, and stared at the odd patterns playing on its surface. It seemed almost warped in parts, unnatural ripples and waves on its surface like it had been held too close to some intense fire, melting and then solidifying again.
“Yike,” muttered Chaff, scraping off what mud he could with his fingernails. “What can do that?”
“Wazzat, wazzat?” said Clatter, and Chaff nearly speared the boy as the urchin bent to inspect Chaff’s find. “Hey, hey, that’s a digger!”
Chaff tapped it experimentally on the ground. It didn’t break, which was good enough for him.
“Looks like,” said Chaff, tossing it to Clatter, who nearly dropped it as he stooped to catch it. “Give that to Al Innai, yeah?”
Clatter ran off, shouting, “Innai-Innai, see what I found!” Chaff rolled his eyes, but said nothing. It was too much trouble to argue.
Al Innai nodded approvingly. “It fits,” he said, and spun it in his hefty hand. He looked around. “Now I just need something to bury.”
Royya stood up, putting a foot on her pack, her grin unmoving, her eyes grey and cold. Parsaa knelt by both her packs and Al Innai’s, anything they could spare laid out neatly on the ground in front of him. As for Scrabble and Clatter, they had nothing but the grime on their skin and the rot in their teeth.
Al Innai passed over Parsaa’s offerings, lips pursed, and shook his head at each one. He gestured with a hand, and Parsaa immediately began to pack the knives and trinkets and utilities away. Not a word was exchanged between them.
And then Al Innai began to walk towards Chaff.
Lookout raised her head, her hair once again a tangle mess in front of her eyes, and this time she did not bother to swipe it away. Al Innai looked to her, and then to Chaff, his eyes slowly scanning over the both of them. Chaff did not dare meet his gaze, hoping against hope that he would just walk away. He didn’t know what Al Innai was looking for, but whatever it was Chaff didn’t what to give it.
“The book,” said the burly Kennya Noni fighter, and dread became replaced with horror. Hadiss’s book, the book with the coza in it? It was his ticket to finding the girl, his promise to Hadiss that they would meet again. He could not just leave it to rot in the ground, for the winter worms and maggots.
Al Innai held out a hand, and his voice was as cold and hard as iron. “She favors books, boy,” he said. “Give it to me.”
And as Chaff looked up to meet the fighter’s gaze, he knew that this was a struggle he could not win. He pulled it from his cloth belt and gave it to Al Innai without looking, and Al Innai took The Song of Mazzia, the Wandering Man with a curt grunt.
“Tents,” said Al Innai, as he jammed the long bone into the ground. Parsaa scurried to obey. “Sleep if you can, don’t move around much if you can’t. Get in the shade if it’s too hot, but don’t all crowd in at once. Try not to drink too much. We’re going to be here a while.”
Chaff watched as Al Innai threw the book aside onto the ground and began to dig, his eyes smoldering. Behind him, the big guy was starting to snort and stamp, and Chaff realized too late that he had been gripping his three tabula ever since he had given away the book.
“Hey, Chaff,” said Lookout, and her voice betrayed her nervousness. “You might want to calm down your friend here.”
Chaff gave him a pat on the side. “Easy, big guy. Come on, get down, let’s break a little now, yeah?”
The big guy rumbled, flicking his tail. Lookout’s owlcrow began to twitch its head neurotically, as Lookout licked dry lips and failed to look casual.
“Because your head too close to the sun, big guy!” said Chaff, tugging at his fur. “Now, come on, let Lookout off.”
“Yes, let me off, please and th- ow.” As the big guy sank down, Lookout’s leg hit the ground and she winced in pain. She continued to hiss and gasp and occasionally swear as she got off the big guy, with Chaff’s help, and slid onto the ground.
“Just let me into the shade, that’s it,” said Lookout, her forehead shiny with sweat, and it was from more than just the heat. Chaff stared at her knee, and felt apprehension crawling in his gut. The bandages were stained a sickly purple color, and Chaff could see blue veins running along Lookout’s calf.
Lookout didn’t seem to notice, or if she did then she didn’t call any attention to it. “Lady Summer and Spring, how do the Hag Gar Gan do it? Just let me walk next time, Chaff. Oh, by all the Ladies, just let me walk,” she said, massaging her thighs.
Chaff decided not to ask who the Hag Gar Gan were, and instead sat next Lookout in the shade of the big guy’s body, as Al Innai continued to dig. With every thrust of the bone shovel, the sun seemed to jump a little higher in the sky.
The shimmering was definitely not in Chaff’s imagination any longer. The air itself rippled and bent, and Al Innai’s figure became an indistinct blur as the earth baked beneath them like clay. Perhaps, Chaff thought as he closed his eyes and tried to ignore the heat, that was what had caused the warping in the bone, but in the back of his head he knew that wasn’t true.
The more Chaff thought about it, the more it seemed like the bone had been fused. The ripples had originated from some point at the center, and while the upper half (the one that had cracked) had been thin and delicately built, the lower half was thick and bulbous. It was still one continuous bone, no doubt, but Chaff couldn’t help but feel it was a little odd.
He scooted himself deeper into the big guy’s shadow and wondered what could have done that.
Chaff’s stomach rumbled. It felt almost too hot to eat, but the boy saw wraps of dried bush meat and tubers near Parsaa’s pack and knew he wasn’t about to turn down an opportunity for a meal.
“Hey, Lookout, you wants anything?”
Lookout did not respond.
Chaff poked her in the shoulder, and the girl slumped, but otherwise did not move. He held a hand in front of her face; she was breathing, but shallowly. “Lookout?” he said again, shaking her, and with a screech (well, the screech was from her owlcrow), Lookout opened her eyes.
“You wants anything?” Chaff asked again, cautiously.
Her eyes were glazed and unfocused, and it seemed to take her a moment to recognize Chaff. Her mouth moved, but she made no sound, until finally she said, “I, um…I…say again?”
“Getting food, yeah? You want somewhat to eat?”
“Yeah,” said Lookout, distractedly, and she wiped the sweat from her forehead. “Yeah, sure.”
Chaff wondered if he should say anything, but Lookout did not seem to want to talk to him. He squeezed her shoulder just once before he rose. It didn’t look like she had noticed.
Eying the food, Chaff wondered if he would have to argue Parsaa to get it, but the woman waved him over as she saw him approach and Chaff decided that perhaps Parsaa was not so bad.
“Hungry?” she said, and she gave him a tired smile. “Now’s as good a time to eat as any. Have the phaan first, the salts in the meat are no good when it’s this dry out.”
Chaff took the flatbread cautiously. “Thanks,” he said, and the look of surprise on Parsaa’s face was so comical that he had to smile.
“A gentleman, I see.” As Chaff began to fold the phaan into a bite-sized piece, Parsaa took his hands gently and tore a small shred off. “Eat it like that,” she said. “It lasts longer that way.”
The boy nodded, tearing small pieces off and sticking them in his mouth. The phaan was good, if dry, and his mouth felt sticky and tacky after just a few bites. He coughed, smacking his lips together to moisten his dry tongue. “Can I have some more?” he asked. “For my friend,” he added, quickly.
Chaff could understand Parsaa’s hesitation. He had never known when his next meal was going to be in the plains, too.
“Please?” he added, smiling.
Parsaa smiled and gave him one more strip of flatbread. Chaff glowed on the inside. He was good with people! “If she’s sick, feed her slowly,” said Parsaa, peering at Lookout’s prone figure. “One bite at a time, don’t rush her even if she wants more. And if we find a grove, give her sambuu or make her suck on thorntree leaves to stop the swelling.”
Chaff nodded. He was about to leave when Al Innai walked over, clapping his hands together to brush off the dust. His heart clenched when he realized the book was gone, although he could still see the patch of dirt where it had been buried. Al Innai had stuck the long bone into the ground as straight as he could, and tied one of his bandages around the end like a flag.
“Give me some,” said Al Innai, snapping his fingers, and Parsaa bowed her head and handed him more flatbread than Chaff and Lookout’s pieces combined. “Anyone in the tent? I need to get out of the sun.”
“The boys are doing their best to share,” said Parsaa, looking over her shoulder at the tent she had just set up, one Chaff recognized as the tent he himself had slept in. “And you know how Royya is about her things.”
Al Innai grunted, and marched off to his own tent without another word. Chaff stared at Parsaa.
The boys. The way she said it made him think twice about what exactly Scrabble and Clatter’s relationship with Al Innai was, and re-evaluate the servile woman called Parsaa.
Parsaa yawned. “You best get some sleep now, child. There’s precious else to do while the sun is up and you’ll need the rest.”
Chaff nodded. As he walked back to Lookout and the big guy, he heard shouts from behind him and saw Al Innai shove Scrabble and Clatter out of his tent. The urchin boys grumbled and muttered, but made no move as Al Innai wordlessly slipped inside. Scrabble went his own way, trying to find what shade he could in the pathetic patches of grass on the border of the Redlands, while Clatter curled up just outside the tent, bending his long legs awkwardly to fit in its weak shadow.
“Here you go, Lookout,” said Chaff, handing the roll of phaan to her, and Lookout took it in her hand. She didn’t eat it, though. Occasionally, she would feed a scrap to her owlcrow.
“Sorry, big guy,” Chaff said, rubbing his friend’s side. “I don’t think they brought much camelopard food.”
The big guy snorted, but Chaff knew he could handle it. They had gone far longer both in the city and out of it without meals before.
Chaff watched as Parsaa laid down, right out in the open, watched as Scrabble finally stopped rolling around, watched as Clatter’s fits and twitches ceased. He watched the openings of Al Innai’s and Royya’s tents, and neither of them moved. He watched Lookout as she dozed off again. He watched, and he waited.
The air grew so hot that Chaff felt it almost impossible to move. It was so hot that he could not breathe, so hot that he could feel the sheer weight of it all pressing against every part of his skin. No one would have even wanted to be awake in this heat.
So, when the sun was its highest, Chaff rose and walked to the mound where Al Innai had buried his book, unafraid of being interrupted or caught. The cracked earth actually scalded his feet as he walked; his hands burned as he began to dig away at the now loose dirt that covered the hole.
The hole was actually quite shallow, but as Chaff was digging it felt impossibly deep. When he found at last the corner of his book, though, a wide grin split his face. It more than made up for it.
He wiped the dirt off the cover and hugged it to his chest. It was his way to find her. It was his promise to come back. He couldn’t let go of it.
He covered up the hole as best he could, and stuck the long bone back into the ground as straight as possible. No one would ever know that he had taken the book back. He could bundle it in Hadiss’s scarf, he could hide it, he could keep it. It was his.
And on the chance Al Innai found out? Well, Chaff had dealt with grown-olds before. He could deal with Al Innai.
It never occurred to Chaff, as he was digging, that perhaps it was not Al Innai he should have been worried about. It was not Al Innai he was cheating.
A lone wind blew against Chaff’s face, and Chaff reveled in the coolness even as the Lady Fall whispered silent retribution into his ear.
Izca was so helpful sometimes that it irked Jova. The zealot apologized profusely even when he hadn’t done anything wrong, and hardly seemed to be the staunch warrior Jova imagined one who had earned his feathers to be.
His help wasn’t even the standard charity of a templeman, who was bound by the Lady Winter to be generous and giving. Jova knew the people that gave that kind of charity: they were more concerned about themselves than her. It was a generalized, almost self-righteous kind of charity, as if they still expected something in return. But Izca seemed like he was actively seeking Jova’s forgiveness for something, like he wanted to make amends for something he had done, although what it was Jova could not tell and he would not say.
Jova held Uten’s reins a little tighter, her ears pricked as she kept track of where Izca was, his footsteps mingling in with the march of the Alswell caravan, and where Roan rode, Stel’s hooves ahead a ways in front of her.
It had taken some explaining on their part to justify their presence. Roan, evidently, did not have the same flair for the dramatic Zain had: the way he had explained it, they were not saviors. They were simply friends of the fields, bringing mounts and supplies and support in the difficult journey ahead. With Janwye to vouch for them, Bechde had allowed them to travel with the group. (“And I would be fool to let such a delightful young girl slip away from me so easily,” she had said, patting Jova on the head.)
Jova still had difficulty framing it in her head. The way she understood it, the caravan was split into two groups: the fieldmen who had come originally from Alswell, and now the small contingent of zealots that were escorting them back through the jungles.
Roan and Jova (and a few merchant hopefuls, Jova had not failed to notice) seemed to fall outside those categories. Some pilgrims had emerged from the city to travel with the caravan for the safety of numbers, and the alsknights agreed to protect the civilians in return for much needed supplies. With them, the caravan numbered perhaps four or five score in total.
They were headed for the Seat of the King, where the simple travelers would split off and go their own separate ways while the official retinue would try to negotiate a peace with the new king, Banden Ironhide, before war began in earnest. It seemed simple enough, in theory.
And, yet, the politics of the process continued to evade her. No one knew whether war had yet even begun, with Moscoleon so cut off from the rest of the world and Alswell so far away: Janwye was convinced that disaster had happened in Shira Hay, and dark mutterings circled through the travel-weary and homesick fieldmen. The number of zealots Keep Tlai had sent was nowhere near a real fighting force; they were symbolic, an indication of the Keep’s support, but if so then they symbolized only a tentative alliance. “Not enough,” Jova kept hearing, as the alsknights managed their slaves, as Janwye talked with Bechde. “Not enough.”
Jova flinched as long jungle fronds reached out at her, and ducked down so that she was a little closer to Uten’s bulk. Only a few had brought riding animals; the winding jungle paths were no place for majestic riders on galloping steeds, and more than once Uten had stumbled or tripped through the thick creepers and foliage.
The caravan, for the most part, was silent as it walked. A few pilgrims had tried to start a traveling song, but the thick jungle air had quickly taken away their breath and the natural chorus of the peninsula drowned them out easily.
Jova remembered her first journey through the Moscoleon paths as an almost surreal dream, the unnatural strength that had graced her in the days following her accident giving her the ability to forge through what would have otherwise been an impossible route.
It was only later, on her more frequent trips between the city and the Teeth, the caves where she had trained, that Jova had realized how taxing the thick air, the hot sun, the heady perfumed flowers could be.
“We’ll want to stop soon,” said Izca, walking beside Jova. Jova sighed internally. It sounded almost like he was trying to force a conversation. “It’s getting dark. Find a sinkhole, get some rest, light some fires. Not enough light gets through the trees during the day as it is. Once it’s nightfall we won’t be able to see a damn thing.”
“No, we won’t,” said Jova, scratching an itch under her blindfold. She decided not to comment.
“Big beasties start waking up at dusk,” the zealot continued, and Jova could hear the clack of Izca’s spear as he used it to sweep something aside from the path. “Pantherapes, spring tigers, that kind of thing. Definitely don’t want to mess around with those when it’s pitch black out.”
“Mm,” Jova grunted. She really didn’t have much to add to what Izca was saying.
Izca cleared his throat. “Funny, how this whole system works, isn’t it? We call him the king, but really what does he rule except a league of nations that hates him? I mean, I- uh, sorry, I was just- I was thinking about it, since we’re going to the Seat of the King and all that…”
Why was Izca trying so hard to talk to her? Jova could understand if the zealot was just a naturally friendly person, but from his tone of voice and his constant stuttering it seemed a great effort for him to just come up with small talk. Jova shifted on Uten’s back, pulling on her reins as she heard the caravan diverge to the right.
“I mean, he doesn’t have much authority, does he?” Izca babbled on. “We watch out for ourselves. I don’t think we even really need a king. He doesn’t do us much good, does he? And this one- well, we didn’t even choose this one, did we? Assassination and revolution, it’s really all just out of control…”
“Izca,” said Jova, and she tried to think of something to say that wouldn’t offend him. “You don’t have to talk to me if you don’t want to. I’m fine on my own.”
Izca fell silent for a moment. His feet made little stomping sounds as he trudged through foliage, clumsy and loud. “The Lady Summer demands that we are brave. The Lady Winter asks us to embrace that which we fear the most, and the Lady Fall wishes that we look to our past, so we may perfect our future. I must do what the Ladies ask of me,” he said, and his voice had a kind of quiet fervor that took Jova by surprise. That’s what it means to be a zealot, thought Jova. Not a fluke like me, not looking for opportunity like Arim. You have to actually believe.
She wasn’t sure if she was ready to believe, again. Not after what Roan had done, not after the fate that the Ladies had strung her along. What did they mean, to dangle so many opportunities and answers and hopes in front of her, only to snatch them away? How was she supposed to worship goddesses that were so cruel?
“I’m sorry,” said Izca, suddenly. “If you want me to leave you alone, I’ll leave you alone.”
Jova raised her head, letting the sounds of the world wash over her. Perhaps her prayer had not yet been fully answered. Perhaps she still had a path to walk. One asks for a reward for her faith, said a distant voice, in a sunlit grove from what seemed like a lifetime ago. The other has faith to sustain her, and understands that it is its own reward.
“One of my friends—his name is Ell—once told me that the zealot tests can happen at any time because they symbolize that we’re always being tested,” said Jova, before Izca could leave. “That it’s not just one hour of one day that we have to prove ourselves, but every hour of every day.” She turned to Izca’s direction, and gave him her best friendly smile. If the zealot thought it his religious duty to befriend a blind girl, then who was she to say otherwise? “I like it when you talk about the Ladies.”
“They saved me,” said Izca, and the stuttering had faded from his voice. “The drink promised it could, my wild brothers promised they could, hatred and fear and anger promised they could, but it was the Ladies that saved me. I’m not proud of who I was. Of the people I hurt, loved ones and strangers alike.”
There was a long pause after that, as Uten stepped over some obstruction in the path and the caravan continued its lonely march through the jungles. Jova wondered who Izca was thinking about, in the silence.
“This is my way of making amends. Of recovering. And if you don’t remember me, then…then that’s good. I don’t want to remember that person, either. But all the same, I have to ask for forgiveness. I’m sorry, Jova. For what I was. What I did.”
Jova took a deep breath. It still ate at her, tantalizingly close to the light of recollection, but the mystery of Izca and Fang, she decided, was one that she would leave alone. She didn’t have to remember.
It took her a moment to find Izca’s shoulder, but when she did she patted it gently. “I forgive you,” she said. Jova did not move her hand. She felt as if there was something more she had to say, but she didn’t know what. “Everyone deserves a second chance,” she said, finally, and she pulled away.
Izca sniffed. It was a prolonged sniff, as emotional as sniffs could be, and Jova couldn’t help but smile a little as Izca said, gruffly, “Thanks.”
They didn’t say any more as they continued walking, but this time the silence did not feel quite so uncomfortable.
Uten rumbled underneath her, shifting the furry hump that Jova sat on. The molebison walked close to the ground, and Jova could almost feel each step as Uten’s paws dragged along the ground. Jova tightened her grip. She had never ridden this long and her legs were sore and chafed. She doubted Uten had ever walked this long either, and she rubbed the back of Uten’s head, gently so as not to disturb her sensitive skin. “There now,” she whispered. “We’ll rest soon.”
“You control her so well,” said Izca, appraisingly. “She’s not yours, is she?”
“No, she’s Roan’s,” said Jova, wondering how Izca had known. Had he been an old client of Roan’s, somewhere in those three odd years? Jova shook her head. She had promised herself not to pry.
“Hmm,” said Izca. Jova sensed an air of disapproval from the man, but he said no more on the subject. There was a snuffling to the side as the pigwolf, Fang, returned to him, and Jova brushed down Uten’s fur and whispered comforting gibberish into her ear as the molebison smelled danger.
For a long time, Jova just rode. The temperature dropped rapidly with the sun: although the air was still thick and humid, moisture still beading on her cheeks and forehead, a coolness tinged it now that made it easier to breathe. The night reminded her of the walks she used to take in the Jhidnu wilds, peaceful and unbroken, listening to the chorus of the Lady Spring. The twitter of the birds, the background hum of the Moscoleon insects, the waking cries of the animals of the dusk: the jungle pulsated around her.
Uten came to a sudden halt, and Jova gripped the molebison’s back tightly. “They’re signaling to make camp,” said Izca, putting a reassuring hand on Jova’s arm. “We’re stopping for the night.”
Jova grinned. She was glad of it; she did not know how Roan managed riding for so long, when her legs were raw and aching from only a couple hours on Uten’s pondering back. She swung herself over the side and slipped off easily, using Uten as an anchor as she felt her way forward. She clicked, but there was so much background noise in the jungle it was difficult to concentrate on the echoes.
She did hear Fang whimpering again, though, and Izca said, his voice betraying his nervousness, “It sounds like some kind of batbeast, doesn’t it? I’ve got to admit, it’s a bit frightening.”
Jova scuffed her foot on the ground. “Sorry about that,” she muttered, biting her tongue. She forgot how much the clicking unnerved people sometimes.
“No, don’t be! Fang’s a coward, that’s all,” said Izca, quickly. He cleared his throat. “Well, it was nice- it was nice talking with you, Jova. And walking with you. I’ve got to go with the other zealots now, but, erm…”
“We’ll see each other tomorrow,” said Jova, nodding in Izca’s direction. “Bye now! It was nice meeting you.”
Izca coughed and mumbled some kind of reply, but even Jova could not make out what he had said before the zealot stumbled off to some other group in the caravan.
Jova stood next to Uten, listening to the relieved chatter of the travelers as they made camp, to the dull whoosh and crackle of fires being lint by flint and summer animals. The molebison beside her grunted, and Jova wasn’t sure how to comfort her. Who would she break bread with? Whose fire would she sit beside? Izca’s company had alleviated it, but Jova was just beginning to realize that Roan had not approached her once on the march through the jungle.
Was she no longer useful to him now that she knew? Jova felt a cold tingling in her gut. Roan had always been distant and reserved, but there had been a protectiveness to him that made Jova feel safe. Had she fled her home with a man who simply no longer cared for her?
“Roan?” Jova said, hesitantly, to the darkness, but no one answered. She trudged forward, trying her best not to run into people as she navigated the camp. “Roan, where are you?”
Beside her, Uten snorted and snuffled. Roan still had her tabula. Perhaps she would know the way.
“Come on, girl,” said Jova, rubbing her side. “Let’s go and find him.”
Uten did not move. She swung her snout Jova’s way and gnawed a little at Jova’s hand; she was hungry. “Sorry, Uten,” whispered Jova. “Roan’s got all the feed. That’s why we have to find him.” She tugged at the molebison’s reins and reluctantly the creature began to walk.
She kept her ears pricked for Roan’s voice, but the sandman rarely raised his voice when he spoke at all and she had little hope on that front. After she was sure she had walked the length of the camp and back searching for him, Jova gave up.
“Change of plans,” she said, to a disgruntled Uten. “We’ll find Janny, and eat with her tonight.” Even as she began to walk where she knew the Alswell emissaries were set up, worry crawled in her gut. She was sure she made an obvious sight, a blindfolded girl tugging around a clumsy, blind brute of an animal back and forth through the camp. Where had Roan gone? Why hadn’t he tried to find her?
Jova missed Ma and Da.
As she was walking towards the head of the camp, where she had heard the fieldman slaves making their cooking fires and the alsknights laying down their lances, she heard something in the underbrush. Not some chirp, or twitter, or snarl. It was high-pitched, single cry.
It was human.
Jova froze. What was she to do? Her first thought was to find Roan, but, well, she had tried that already and to no luck. Janwye or Bechde, then? Maybe even Izca? But the crying grew louder and more fervent and Jova knew that if she ran away now she might never come back.
With Uten as a pillar of stability and safety beside her, she walked away from the warm fires into the chittering, seething undergrowth of the jungle. Dark possibilities danced in her head. What if it was not a human, but some animal skilled at mimicry, luring her away to be eaten whole? What if it was a demon of the deep, taking the form of a child and even now was planning to steal away Jova’s face and set her blood boiling?
But as drew closer to the source of the crying, and as the crying grew closer to her, it sounded so plaintive and pathetic that Jova had difficulty imagining it as anything dark or scary or dangerous.
“Hello?” she said, tentatively, to the muffled darkness. “Is anyone out there?”
And she heard footsteps on the mulch, right in front of her. Jova bent low and clicked, trying to place the person.
Immediately, the crying became screaming. Jova clapped her hands over her mouth, and cursed herself. The toddler, for it evidently was some kind of toddler, had a high-pitched, grating scream, and Uten stamped her feet and moaned at the ear-splitting sound.
Jova cursed herself as she reached out blindly to find the child. What must it have looked like to the child, to see the great lumbering hulk of Uten accompanied by the clicking, blind-folded form of Jova? They must have seemed like demons of the deep themselves.
“Shh, it’s alright, I’m not going to hurt you,” said Jova, holding her hands up to show that she meant no harm, having no idea how old the child was or if it even understood a word Jova was saying. She did her best to smile, but that only seemed to make the crying and screaming louder.
And now the demon is reaching out to grab the kid and is showing all its teeth to eat it. Great job, Jova, whispered a voice in her head, and Jova put down her hands quickly and sealed her lips. She had no idea what to do, until she felt Uten move suddenly beside her.
“Uten, wait!” she shouted, fearing the worst when she heard something hit the ground, hard. The decaying jungle mulch deadened the sound of the impact, but it was still loud enough that Jova feared someone had been hurt.
The crying stopped. For a moment, Jova feared the worst.
Then the child hiccupped and sniffed, and Jova’s palpitating heart slowed. She gripped her hair. Things were going too fast, she needed a moment to process what was happening.
Who was this child? Where had he or she even come from? By all the Ladies Four, was it a boy or a girl? Jova staggered over to Uten’s side, and then shuffled her way forward until she came into contact with the child.
He (Jova was guessing) had been pinned down by Uten’s large paw, and he whimpered slightly whenever the molebison moved. Jova put what she hoped was a comforting hand on the boy’s arm. “We’re not going to hurt you,” said Jova, gently. “We’re not going to hurt you.”
She felt, suddenly, a swelling in her chest, one she could not quite place. It was parts surprise, parts fear, parts anger, and she gripped the boy’s hand tightly. “I’m Jova,” she said. “Jova.”
From his voice, he sounded young, far too young to be out in the wilds alone. Jova’s mind shuffled through all the possibilities. Farmers lived out in the jungles, she knew, but never in areas so dense and thick with foliage. Some of the wild zealots lived out here as well, but how could a wild zealot be so young unless-.
And then it came to Jova.
“You came from the Fallow,” she whispered, and the child whimpered as Uten shifted her weight. Jova traced her hand down the child’s arm, until she found, grasped in his tiny little hand, a disk-shaped object. He let go of it quickly, and Jova cupped it in her own palms, not knowing what to do with the tabula.
“Get off, Uten,” she said, softly. “He’s no harm to anyone.”
The molebison snorted and backed away, and Jova heard the leaves crunch as the child stood shakily. He seemed too terrified for words, and stumbled away almost immediately once he was free.
“Wait!” Jova shouted, rising from her crouching position. She held out the child’s tabula. “This is yours!”
The child had not gone far. Restraining herself from clicking, Jova edged forward until she found the kid, sitting on the ground, sniffling to himself. It sounded like he was crying again, although not as loudly.
“Here you are,” said Jova, trying to push the tabula back onto the child, but he wouldn’t take it. Jova knelt, ready to shove the tabula into the child’s lap and be done with it, when her knee bumped against something on the ground. Curiously, she felt it. Clammy, and pliable, but with a hard surface underneath…
Jova felt hair and realized she was holding the head of a corpse.
She felt as if she was going to puke. She reeled away, gagging, her lungs seizing up. The corpse’s skull had been small and round, barely large enough to be more than a toddler, and the skin had felt oddly swollen and distended. There had been no smell, although the body was cold, and for the first time in her life Jova realized what it meant to be wild.
Jova traced the sign of winter over the base of her throat, and prayed to the Lady that this child’s death had been merciful and kind. She had no idea what to make of the living one, left to cry over the corpse. Did he even fully understand what had happened?
“Let’s get away from here,” said Jova, pulling on the child’s hand. “Come on, let’s go.”
The child would not stand, no matter how hard Jova pulled. She could not just leave him here. Whatever might have killed the first child might come back. It might, to Jova’s horror, still be here. They had to go.
And as she tried to coax him to leave, the second shocking thing happened that night.
She heard a great thump, and every tree overhead rustled: a wooden creak, like the bending of falling timber, except this creak went on and on and on and never seemed to stop. The child’s crying went completely silent, Uten bellowed and backed away, and Jova heard the rhythmic impacts slowly getting closer, like footfalls.
The walking tree passed, and though Jova could not see an inch of it, she could feel its power reverberating through the ground, feel its sheer weight and age with every step. She stood, frozen, as the hollow marched away, having deposited its young burden, the branches rusting and whispering in some ancient tongue that Jova could not hope to begin to understand.
It seemed to last both an age and no time at all. The hollow’s passing somehow demanded respect, a quiet, a reverential pause, like standing when a pontiff entered the room. Jova stood in that clearing for quite some time after it had passed, and wondered how many people in Albumere could truthfully say they had witnessed something so arcane and so eternal.
Then she heard the galloping of hooves, and knew that Roan had, at last, found her.
“Jova!” he shouted, rearing Stel in as the horse whinnied, and it was as if the spell of the hollow’s passing had been broken. The boy began to cry again, even louder than before, and the normally quiet Uten snorted and bellowed. “What are you doing, so far from camp?”
“Did you see it, Roan?” said Jova, unable to keep the amazement from her voice. “Did you hear it?”
“Was I seeing what?” asked Roan. His voice straddled the edge between concerned and suspicious.
Jova shook her head, not knowing how to say it. It must have made footprints, it must have made echoes, it must have made some kind of after effect. “A hollow, Roan,” whispered Jova. “I heard it! It was right in front of me! One of the hollows, and it was walking!”
“Many things can be mistaken for another in the dark,” said Roan, flatly. “We must not be letting our imaginations get ahead of our realities.”
“No, Roan, I swear I heard it!” said Jova, but even as she said it she felt a twinge of doubt. What had truly made those shuddering footsteps? No one had ever seen the hollows move before. Who was she to be the first?
Roan hissed suddenly, and Jova realized what she had been standing next to. “The dead child, Jova. Is this your doing?”
Jova shook her head mutely.
For at least a minute, Roan did not speak. Stel paced around Jova as he assessed the situation, and finally he said, “Come, Jova. We must be returning, now.”
As Uten began to shuffle away, the boy began to whimper again. “What about him?” asked Jova.
“We shall leave him be,” said Roan. “Such is the way of wild things.”
Jova felt a pit in the bottom of her stomach, and remember the cold clammy face she had just touched. “He’ll die out here,” said Jova, holding the child’s hand tightly.
“He may yet survive.” Roan said it with the weariness of one who had resigned himself to the way of the world long ago. “He has been claimed by the Ladies. It is his fate to be wild.”
“I’m not going to leave him to be killed out here, with no one to care for him,” said Jova, staunchly, and she knew in her heart that she meant it. No one deserved the fate of the corpse on the ground.
Roan did not speak for some moments. When he did, his voice was cold, and harsh. “You hold his tabula, then, Jova,” he said. “You now own your first slave.”