Come Long Way

This is a story set in the future, in a hotter world that has almost forgotten us.
It follows the fortunes of Sula, a girl from the Belt Mountains who finds herself torn from the life that she knew and set adrift in the vast continent once known as Eurasia.
Through mountain, savannah and desert, she and her companion find old friends and make new ones, encounter fire, flood and predators, love, betrayal and hope, as their quest to find the meaning of an artifact they carry, leads them down into the Dragonlands in search of the Real People.

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1. The Levee Breaks

 

(((((This is a revised second draft of Chapter 1)))))

 

I feel it with my body, with my blood. Feeling all these trees, all this country…When the wind blows you can feel it.

 

You can look, but feeling….that make you. Out there in open space.

 

                                                                                                      Big Bill Neidjie

                                                                                                Kakadu Aboriginal

 

If we can voyage to the end of the earth and there find ourselves in the aborigine who most differs from ourselves, we will have made a fruitful pilgrimage.

 

                                                                                                      Thomas Merton

 

 

Chapter 1: The Levee Breaks

 

 

“Rissa? Where’s Sula?”

Sterna straightened up from her fire, to see no sign of her eldest child. She swept her gaze around the clearing, looking among the people of Tahr Camp busy raising tents and bivouacs and lighting fires of their own.

“She went to get water didn’t she?” Rissa replied uncertainly, lifting her baby out of the carrypouch at her chest and setting him down on a leather mat in front of the tent her husband, Anthus, was erecting. She gave the baby a strip of dried meat to chew on, and stood again to scan the surrounding woodland with a frown.

“She can’t have gone far,” Rissa continued, “all the dogs are here. She’d have taken some dogs if she wanted to forage. And she’d tell us first….wouldn’t she?” 

Sterna narrowed her eyes, deeply displeased that her irksome eldest was about to embarrass her again.

“Yes,” she replied, “if she was anyone else, she would have. Fever find her!”

Rissa winced, her mother was rarely angry enough to swear.

“If she makes us late for Spring Festival, I’ll put her on latrine duty for a year!”

Crex and Rallus, Sterna’s younger sons, trotted over to them, dropping their piles of firewood and shaking their heads as Anthus asked if they had seen Sula. Sterna raised her voice and shouted into the surrounding trees “Sula? Sula!”

Several people looked over and Sterna did not miss the surreptitiously rolled eyes and shaken heads. Sterna was the Leader of Tahr Camp, one of the ten Camps that made up the Belt Mountains Kin. She held a position of high responsibility and Sula had pushed her luck too far this time. Anthus and Rissa exchanged worried glances and Sterna did not call out again. Raised voice, panther’s choice, the old rhyme said: it was not advisable to be loud in the wilderness if you wanted to come home again.

With this and other aide memoires, the Belt Mountains Kin armed themselves against the terrors of their world. At every turn of the trail there lurked a predator: a strong, quick creature with a voracious appetite that wanted nothing more than to stop up its hunger with human flesh. The Belt Mountains Kin knew how to avoid becoming that flesh, arming themselves not only with spears and dogs but also with modes of behaviour handed down from the ancestral GrandMothers who had learned the hard way.

Sterna was an experienced Leader. A mature woman who was a grandmother herself. She was not given to frivolous fancies and haunted feelings but she felt a fluttering sense of dread as she cast her eyes over the campground. Something was wrong, over and beyond Sula’s absence. The dogs moved about restlessly, sniffing the air, whining softly. Uneasy and unsure.

She breathed in deeply, analysing the mixed smells of woodsmoke and firetree leaflitter. It was the heat and not the scents in the late afternoon air that gave her the telling clue. There was a south wind coming. A south wind so early in the spring meant summer would be hotter than usual.

A white butterfly with orange tips on its wings flapped daintily over her head, weaving its dancing flight among the activity in the campground. Sterna ran through a mental list of things to do when they reached Summerhome after the festival, her gaze idly following the butterfly’s flight. Burn off the firebreaks again. Instruct everyone to double their practice of foraging and water-finding skills. Weave more hats to keep the sun off. Make more sunblock paste, and ointments for sunburn. Weave nets and cages ready to harvest locusts if a swarm arrives.

Crex and Rallus stacked the firewood beside her and Rallus tried to scare his younger brother by working his saliva into a foam and baring his teeth. “Maybe the Sick Ones took Sula!” he cried and, spit flying, chased a giggling Crex across the campground.

Grus, the Healer’s husband, picked up on Sterna’s unease. He hushed the two boys and peered up at the surrounding trees, wondering if they had missed a panther hiding there. He reached for his longspear but did not raise it yet.

The feeling spread. Several people put hands on spears and the dogs milled, more agitated than before. The Sick Ones had not been seen in the Belt Mountains for many years but there were other dangers out there.

The butterfly alighted on a fallen tree at the edge of the clearing, opening and closing its orange-tipped wings in a last patch of evening sunlight. Sterna became aware of a low growling starting in the dogs as she stared at the butterfly and then she changed focus to something beyond it: a hideous face stared back at her from the trees. She only had a moment to scream “ATTACK!!” before the dogs went wild and the owner of the face broke from cover and leapt over the trunk into the campground, tumbling the butterfly over and over in the wind of its movement.

 

*

 

The Belt Mountains arose in the Great Northern Forest that sat at the very roof of the world, where half the year was dark and half light. With wooded skirts and bare peaks, they marched impressively south through the grasslands for eighty days travel, while dark and light flowed together and intermingled like the stripes on a hoopoe’s wings. Eventually they lost their grandeur and sank into the arid soil as if exhausted from the heat, at the edge of the desert country known as the Dragonlands.

Travelling traders and storytellers called the range the ‘Dragon’s Back’ because it looked from a distance like the long backbone of a huge dragon, with the head buried in the green forest and the hot dusty tail pointing the way to its living brethren in the south.

The people of the Belt Mountains Kin did not roam often enough from their homes on the western side of the range to gain this perspective. And anyway, they did not believe in dragons. The very real threats posed by large predators and the Sick Ones were more than enough to worry about. They thought the tales told by travellers were inventions designed to shock and delight the children and secure a free meal from the Kin. If the Kin had a reputation, it was for practical natures and straightforward temperaments. They were friendly but they did not suffer fools.

Except for Sula.

There is always one who falls outside the norm, and a glimpse of a strange creature through the trees was all it had taken to lure Sula away from the others. Her curiosity piqued, she had drifted off the road to the right, just as the others poured left into the campground. Still wearing her heavy pack-bag on her shoulders, she had crept quietly off down through the woodland, so focused on the creature that she failed to notice the quiet descending around her as she walked out of earshot, without even one dog to protect her. 

Curious people prospered at home in the safety of the Camps: they often found new or better ways to do things, but outside in a landscape stalked by predators, the curious did not live long.

Were he still alive, Sula’s father would have railed at her for going off without protection. It was something he used to teach to the Tahr Camp children from the moment they could walk: “Take dogs with you wherever you go! They are your circle of protection – a ring of living meat standing between you and the predators. This is why we feed them, why we put up with their noise and filth – so the predator eats them and not you!”

Sula had failed to notice the lack of escort. She was sixteen but remained as easily distracted as a six-year-old, and almost as naïve. The fact that her younger sister was already married with a child did not concern her. Rissa was a woman – her body had matured in the normal way, while Sula’s had not. She had filled out into a slightly more womanly figure but she had never bled, and that meant she had yet to go through her Coming-of-Age rites. In two more years, if nothing changed, Sula would have to declare herself barren.

Despite knowing how important it was for Tahr Camp to build its numbers again, Sula was not unhappy about her situation, as she thoroughly disliked babies. She was good with small children though, so she often minded the young ones for her cousins, when they could find her: human activities were of little interest to Sula and she preferred to spend her time watching the animals with whom she shared the landscape.

And here was the strangest creature she had ever set eyes on. It was taller than a horse and looked vaguely like a large antelope. Its wide, cloven hoofs made little noise in the litter of leaves and bark beneath the firetrees. The sloping body and long neck were dark brown, as were the stripes on the white, slender legs that moved with grace as it wove deftly between the stringy-barked trunks. It kept stopping to raise its pale head and extend a long tongue to draw a sprig of the dangling, narrow leaves into its mouth. Each time, it would blink its eyes, flick its deer-like ears and release the bitter leaves without chewing them.

In the country that flanked Tahr Camp’s winter range, the Great Northern Forest gave way to a more open, grassy land with patches of firetree woodland. Firetrees kept the biting insects down by sucking up standing water after heavy rain, but they were worth little else for people except as firewood. Their bark sloughed off in strips, creating fuel for wild bushfires, which they alone could survive. This trick not only gave them their name but also allowed them to push out more and more of the other trees. Only towards the Forest and further up the mountains did they cede their dominance to oak, hazel and pine.

Large, grey roos and rufus horses were the big grazers most often seen but other sorts of animals showed themselves occasionally: bison and deer came down from the Forest while mobs of red roos, taller than people, came up from the south during the hotter summers, along with a squat, bald, ugly cousin of the boar with curved tusks and bony lumps on its face. Pigeons and finches roamed the landscape in big flocks. Plump ground birds scratched a living down in the grass with sweet-songed larks, while hawks and vultures rode the winds above in the hot blue sky.

The richness of prey attracted predators such as wolves, jackals and eagles, which were all mostly timid around people, in addition to big yellow panthers and spotted half-wolves, which were not.

The people of the Belt Mountains Kin had grown accustomed to instability in the plants and creatures they shared the landscape with: different kinds appeared and disappeared without apparent reason and every year there seemed to be more varieties of roos and less horses. Some years, huge, noisy flocks of small, green and white birds with rounded heads would fly in and stay to breed – using every available nook and cranny in tree and bush. The following year they might come again or not be seen for nearly a lifetime. Insects too, might be unobtrusive for years, and then suddenly erupt to cover the land like smoke from a wildfire.

It was as though the plants and creatures had been stirred up like a wind-blown drift of fallen leaves, and that they were trying to untangle themselves and find their accustomed positions once more.

As though the land was struggling to know itself again.

Sula stared at the strange, beautiful animal in the failing light and felt a pang of sympathy. Its ribs were showing because it couldn’t find anything to eat.  She also noticed claw marks on its haunches and realised that running from a panther attack was how it had ended up here, in this bare unfriendly place. It was another wind-blown leaf that was not where it was supposed to be.

Screams and shouts burst suddenly through the trees, alarming Sula and the creature both. Sula turned to hurry back the way she had come but a ragged figure moved to block her way, and a blow to the head dropped her abruptly into the leaf litter, where from a canted angle she saw the creature galloping off, striped haunches flashing pale in the gathering dark.

 

*

 

 

“ATTACK!! ATTACK!!” Sterna bellowed, both a warning to Tahr Camp and a command to the dogs, which leapt at the screaming, rushing figures erupting from the woodland. Rissa swept up her baby, ignored his protests, and quickly crammed him back into the carrypouch.

The lead dogs fell quickly for all their fierceness and the ragged Sick Ones leapt over the bodies to swing their clubs and jab their spears while Tahr Camp hurriedly formed a circle around the younger children. Howling insanely, the Sick Ones were after supplies – they ducked and dodged and snatched at packbags and tools, whipping into retreat in ones and twos as they snagged a prize. 

Holding her longspear defensively, Rissa snapped her head from side to side, ready to strike if an attacker came close. Anthus whirled to face off with a Sick One behind them, knocked a spear aside and caught a grazing blow from a club on his temple. He speared the attacker and fell on top of him. 

A screaming female rushed at Rissa, all gaping mouth and stumps for teeth. Leather scraps bound together with rope were all she wore for clothing and her sparse hair stood out from her head in stiff matted cords. The woman made a grab for the baby and Rissa shrieked and stabbed wildly with her spear, plunging the point into the Sick woman’s throat by happenstance rather than intent. The Sick One fell heavily, gargling and thrashing at Rissa’s feet. Rissa tugged the spear free in a spray of blood and whirled around to jab another yelling attacker with the butt end. His cry cut off abruptly as he doubled over. Anthus struggled upright and clubbed him to the ground.

Rallus and Crex fired arrow after arrow, wounding as many as they could with their short bows, while the adults spun their spears like quarterstaffs to protect the very young ones. It would have gone badly for Tahr Camp if the Sick Ones had worked together in any logical way but their complete lack of cohesion, their utter disregard for each other resulted in an attack as ragged as their appearance: almost as fast as it started, it was over. The Sick Ones left their own dead but took the bodies of the dogs they had killed, disappearing into the woodland, whooping and screaming like rabid half-wolves.

As the sounds faded into the distance, Tahr Camp looked to their wounded and took a head count. No one had been killed but many were injured and Sula was still missing. Rissa, pale with fright and spattered with blood, clutched her screaming baby tightly and insisted on going to look for her sister immediately.

“No!” Sterna forbade her. “No one leaves the group. Calm the children and gather up the waterskins. We need to wash the blood off quickly and then perform the Ritual of 3.” The risk of disease was now uppermost in her mind.

The Healer Limosa used Rissa’s medicine bag while she checked injuries and dressed wounds, as her own had been taken by the Sick Ones.  Rissa was an apprentice Healer, and she went to help Limosa as her baby calmed down. She was a little hampered by him but still too frightened to put him down again or hand him over to Anthus. While they worked, Sterna insisted the others take an inventory of the tools and supplies they had left. 

Once the Healers’ aid had been given, Sterna formed everyone into a tight huddle bristling with spears and marched them smartly away from the bodies that littered the campground. The surviving dogs limped awkwardly after them.

 

*

 

Sula woke up unable to see. She rolled onto her side in what smelt like firetree litter, and was noisily sick. Head pounding, she rolled quickly away before the smell made her sick a second time. She could feel a blindfold over her eyes and when she tried to wipe her mouth she realised that her hands were bound at the wrists. A tug at her ankles when she tried to raise her hands told her that her feet were tied too.

Cold dread seized her. She lay quiet and listened, trying hard to control her rapid breathing. Was it the Sick Ones who had attacked? Was it they who had captured her? Had they captured all of Tahr Camp? The Sick Ones had not been seen for several years. The Kin had begun to hope they were all dead. But surely no one else would have hit her to sleep and tied her up? Only Sick Ones did that. Other people talked.

Her head was throbbing painfully and movement made it worse, so she continued to lie still and listen. There were only woodland sounds, and few of those due to the type of woodland. Not many creatures found a home in the firetrees. No voices, no footsteps, no human activity of any sort. In fact, it was so peaceful that despite her best efforts to stay awake, Sula drifted off to sleep again.

 

*

 

Standing in the river early the next morning, Sterna dunked her head to wash the last of the soap from her hair, and threw her head back to let the cold water cascade down over her shivering body. The others were doing the same. Sterna would have preferred to do the cleansing straight away, but the threat of attack from predators at night was many times greater than in daylight and she had also been worried about the Sick Ones coming after them again in the darkness.

Everyone learned the Ritual of 3 in childhood: if you think you’ve been exposed to disease – Move. Cleanse. Wait. It was taught along with basic cooking and foraging skills but in times of high fear and stress it took a good Leader to insist the ritual was followed.

At first light, Tahr Camp had unravelled its defensive, wakeful huddle, and headed off downstream to begin the work of cleansing.

Asio and Loxia, the best trackers, washed first and set off to scout for signs of the Sick Ones and to look for Sula.

Grumble about the cold water though they did, every last person washed their hair and body and every scrap of clothing they owned. Weapons were washed too. Raw garlic was rubbed over tools and utensils, packbags and footwear. It was important to leave nowhere for a disease to hide. Along the riverbank, several small fires were lit, and wet clothing strung out around them on hastily constructed racks.

Once everyone was clean, the remaining dogs were washed too, by repeatedly throwing sticks into the river for them to fetch.  After the animals had shaken the water off, Rissa swabbed their wounds with a stinging antiseptic of garlic and comfrey, while Anthus held their mouths shut with rope.

Cleansing done, the next step was simply to wait. Some diseases took months to appear but medicinal lore said the worst diseases made themselves apparent very quickly. Two days and two nights was the norm. Tahr Camp would have to delay its arrival at Spring Festival but if anyone did show signs of getting sick, Tahr Camp would not attend the festival at all. No Camp would ever risk mingling with the others if an unknown sickness had appeared among its people.

By midday, the trackers returned and washed again, reporting they had found the deserted remains of a Sick Ones campground but no sign of Sula. It was a subdued Camp that moved off to find somewhere comfortable for the next couple of days.

Sterna hugged Rissa and the boys and finally allowed herself to cry a little. They paused a moment, in a huddle of grief, the boys asking again and again if they could go to look for Sula. Maybe the trackers had missed her? Sterna shook her head. Loxia and Asio would not have missed any signs and the boys were too young to understand that losing only one person was an amazing victory after such an attack.

She sniffed and wiped tears away and whispered “Sula knows the way home, and she knows the way to Mountain-Roo Camp too. If she’s alive, she’ll find us again.”

Crex, who was only seven, screwed his face up as he considered that.

“But she’s all alone,” he said eventually, and Sterna felt her chest cave in and her vision turn over and over like the butterfly.

Sula was gone.

 

*

 

As the people of Tahr Camp threaded their way further into the foothills on the western side of the Belt Mountains, a mixed group of Forest Peoples were gathering over on the east, within the Great Northern Forest.

Castor of Tall Oak Band finally pulled himself away from Certhia of Silverbark to whom he was promised in marriage. He laced up his pack bag and joined the other apprentice metalworkers waiting impatiently for the Master Metalworkers to declare it time to leave.

A short boy standing with the Old Yew apprentices grinned at him and said: “You’re not her husband yet, but one more kiss and you’ll be parents!”

Certhia shot him a sneering look. “Kissing doesn’t make babies!” she snapped. “Not that you’ll ever be a father, even if they did!”

The boy hung his head and Castor messed his hair up, knowing Certhia could be hurtful without realising it. Other people knew she realised it full well. He didn’t notice one of the girls giving Certhia a filthy look.

There were a lot of things that Castor never noticed. He was dark of hair and skin like most of the Forest folk, with a friendly, caring nature and a pair of huge brown eyes that radiated a gentle melancholy, melting the heart of every girl who met him. The fact that snippy Certhia with her foul temper and sneering mouth had landed his affections caused many a young woman to cry herself to sleep at night. The world just wasn’t fair sometimes.

“One day, Shorty,” he said to the boy, smiling widely. “There’s someone out there for you.” The boy smiled shyly back. Certhia snorted dismissively and tossed her hair. She threw a glare back at the girl and turned to watch the three Masters approaching, with most of Silverbark Band accompanying them to say goodbye.

The young apprentices shifted restlessly as parents fussed with clothing and last minute instructions. They were all dressed for travelling in tough, roo-hide boots. The girls wore light leather leggings and tops and the boys, loose loin-wraps. Pack straps criss-crossed chests and longspears doubled as walking sticks with leather handgrips added. The best archers among them carried hunting bows to feed everyone on the journey and one of the Masters was bringing along her two long-legged hunting dogs to help. Various short knives and digging sticks were secured on belts and the Silverbark girls had worked on all those with long hair: braiding it and weaving in charms. They all wore dark paint around the eyes to cut down glare and large waterskins were strapped to the outside of every pack. Cloaks with hoods and various kinds of leather and woven grass hats were stowed in their packs for when they left the Forest.

The Master Metalworkers had told them what to expect further south in the flatlands where the enormity of the sky was matched only by the endless flat landscape stretching away to the horizon on all sides, marked with occasional stands of trees like dark stitching on buff leather. Out there, the heat beat down relentlessly, undiminished by tree canopy or mountain cloud.

Castor smiled as he looked around him, feeling the excitement build. It was a good day for a young man who had his health and the favour of a strong, young woman. He was at the start of a journey, eager for new sights, new landscapes and new people. A journey into the unknown: an exploration of the southern lands where all kinds of different people lived. Visiting the Trade Fair would be Flatland Peoples; Herding Folk; Belt Mountains Kin; Shouting-River Folk; Great River Valley people; eastern Bands of the Forest Peoples and maybe even some Black Sea Folk or Northern Land people – anyone close enough to be part of trade.

The annual Metal Trade Fairs had begun during Castor’s lifetime.  It was not even one generation since the various Peoples had overcome their fear of disease enough to begin trading again. Some tribes and clans still hadn’t and probably never would but these were fewer and fewer now. Small groups of people did not last without fresh blood and fresh ideas. They dwindled and became afraid and began to lose their place in the landscape.

The Leader of Silverbark Band began to give a farewell speech but Castor’s thoughts turned to the master piece he would make. Something beautiful, he decided. Not a weapon. When he married Certhia at the summer festival they would both live permanently with Silverbark Band who did not travel as much as Tall Oak. They would have a semi-permanent roundtent, which meant he could make something to adorn it without worrying about size and weight. He had a sudden mental image of himself hauling a huge fire grate with arching pot suspenders all the way back to the Forest, and hastily revised the size downwards.

The speech was over and they were underway. Castor blew a kiss to Certhia and breathed deeply as he took the first step southwards. He smelled privet blossom and Forest earth, and felt that the future was full of possibilities.

 

*

 

The smell of roasting meat woke Sula again. The sharp coolness of the air told her it was night and the smell of the meat, some sort of lizard, made her stomach growl with hunger. There were no sounds from her captors. She was lying on her side, on a cloak or a groundcover that reeked of badly cured leather. The bindings and blindfold remained but her mouth was still free.

The dread returned in force as the full implication of this hit her for the first time – if her mouth was unbound it meant her captors did not consider noise a problem.

It meant that no one was close enough to hear screaming.

Sula felt the air had been crushed out of her. Every muscle turned rigid and she wanted to scream without stopping, but her throat tightened so much only a low moan escaped. Her breathing quickened and her head swam. She struggled into a sitting position and concentrated on calming down, whispering a phrase to herself: “What will you do when the levee breaks? What will you do when the levee breaks?” over and over and over

She gradually slowed her breathing and regained control, assessing her situation in the limited way available to her. She had no idea where she was, or who had taken her, but she was alive and uninjured beyond the blow to the head and the chafing of the ropes. She could not lose hope. She needed to survive at all costs. Survival and escape were the only things that would allow her to find out what had happened to her family and the rest of Tahr Camp. 

The levee was broken and it was time to be strong.

 

*

 

The effects of war drink finally dissipated and they calmed enough to regroup, butcher the meat and set it roasting.

Gyps stumbled into camp as evening fell and sat at the nearest fire. A few heads inclined his way and that was all the reaction given, or indeed, expected. They had thought him dead but it turned out he was alive. The fact was now known and to react further was unnecessary. The people of Round Lake Tribe thought much, but communicated little.

Gyps picked up a woodsplitting axe and used it to hack a haunch from the roast. Ripping off the charred fur and skin and tossing it aside, he bit hungrily into the food. The bounty of dog flesh was a welcome treat but Gyps was sure as a half-wolf smelling death that it was not making any of Round Lake Tribe think Torgos had been right to order the raid on the mountain people.  Gyps had lost his wife in the attack but he couldn’t express his rage and hurt to Torgos because Torgos was King.

He bit off another chunk of meat and stared into the fire as he chewed. Elanus had wanted a child more than anything, and she had died trying to take the mountain girl’s baby. Torgos would be uncaring of that because he had ordered a raid for supplies only, not kills or slaves. Gyps had leapt to attack the mountain girl and received the rear end of the spear in his stomach and a club to the head. How far had they fallen, that a mountain girl could best two grown warriors?

He had woken to find everyone gone. It was just him and the dead, and the sounds of approaching half-wolves. He had taken a last look at Elanus and then struggled upright, and lurched off into the woodland. The Tribe had been easy to track even in his addled state.

Torgos had brewed up war drink because no one had felt strong enough to take on the two tens of mountain people the Tribe had been tracking. But war drink was for war, and a raid was not a war.  Elanus would not have tried to take a baby if war drink hadn’t been clouding her mind. Torgos maybe want start war with mountain people? But mountain people many camps!  Big fight, Tribe all dead. Torgos all big speak, false heart.

Gyps continued to pack food into his belly and his thoughts were interrupted by Torgos himself, approaching. Torgos loomed over him and demanded “Where Jynx? Jynx not killed! You see Jynx? Where Jynx gone?”

Gyps looked up at him and shrugged. "Not see Jynx."

Torgos turned away and barked to the tribe as a whole: "First light, find Jynx!" He went back to sit with Larus and Corax, the two men that pandered to his ego the most, and began talking to them in a lowered voice.

Gyps carried on eating. Jynx belonged to Corvus but Gyps had seen him take a spear through the chest so that made her a widow now, and as King, widowed women belonged to Torgos. Gyps had never paid much attention to Jynx. A man of the Tribe did not look beyond his own woman if he wanted to avoid a spear in the stomach from another man, or from her.  But Gyps knew hate when he saw it, and Jynx had hated Torgos. She was also the best tracker in the Tribe and if she had run away, there would be no tracks to follow.

He reached for more wood with one hand and threw it onto the fire. The flames leapt up, licking and hissing around the spitted carcass. Ardea got up from her fire near Torgos and came to sit her thin, wiry frame beside him. She knew healing lore and he continued to think while she explored the wound on his head and searched through her bag, sniffing at the various new salves and ointments. The raid had at least been good for her medicine bag.

Elanus, Pernis, Corvus and Lanius. Those were the ones who had stopped fighting today. Did Torgos even know all their names?

All wrong since earth move, ducks die, summer last, thought Gyps. He winced slightly as Ardea rubbed an ointment into his head wound.

In the spring of the year before, the lake from which the tribe took its name had changed. A bad ground tremour had diverted the river that fed the lake, and the water level had begun to drop. Worse than that, by late summer, evil spirits had made the water poisonous: flight after flight of ducks had come in to land on Round Lake and died even as they were folding their wings.

Round Lake Tribe had upped and left, but many succumbed to the poison that was beyond Ardea’s lore to heal, and the survivors were weak. Garrulus the King was one of those who died and Torgos had replaced him after fighting every other male in the Tribe.

Torgos might be the strongest fighter but he was not a good King and they had been wandering aimlessly ever since, stealing kills from half-wolves and panthers. They were too weak to think about raiding settlements but they had been getting better, the further they moved from the poisonous spirits. The women still could not carry babies to term and Gyps had worried that the Tribe was dying. Now that he had lost Elanus, he felt certain it was.

Ardea finished with his injury and stowed the ointment away. “Ardea miss Elanus friend,” she said.

He nodded. “Gyps miss Elanus wife.”

It was the Tribe’s way of honouring a lost one. They had never had much command of language or sentiment, even before the sickness arrived.

“Torgos move us,” Ardea went on. “We go for over-mountain place, morrow-day. Torgos say many peoples there. All big easy raid for Tribe.” So that was what Torgos was talking to his pets about.

Torgos think Jynx run for over-mountain place, Gyps thought. Torgos came King, all big want Jynx, not proper. Corvus dead, all proper now.

“Morrow-day,” he nodded to Ardea but he squeezed her hand surreptitiously, and said in a barely audible whisper “Leave. Run. Find new Tribe”

Ardea did not betray how startled she was at the contact. Except for herself in her role as healer, adults did not touch except to fight or copulate. That, more than his words, conveyed the seriousness of the situation. She gave a barely discernible nod and went back to her fire.

Gyps finished eating and lay down beside the flames. Torgos was leading them all to their deaths but with Elanus gone, Gyps no longer cared.

 

*

 

Tahr Camp grouped around several cooking fires, sharing small amounts of food and murmured conversations.

Rissa sat in a huddle beside her mother who was talking quietly with Limosa. She hugged her knees and gazed at her son’s smiling face in the firelight while he played with Anthus. She had killed to defend him, and so had his father. The fact that they had killed Sick Ones who attacked them first had meant something at the time. Now she just felt…wretched.

Rissa was fourteen years old and had seen the Sick Ones only once before, at the age of nine, when they had raided Winterhome, taking a lot of food and tools before they were beaten off. To a nine-year-old’s eyes they had been just like the tales – ragged, savage animals that ran on two legs and were cunning and sly. They had no language or learning. They growled and snarled like beasts and captured real people to do the work of survival for them. They liked to capture young ones, setting no store in wisdom, perhaps unable to recognise it. It was said they killed and ate the older ones. Some said this was why they could not do anything for themselves: because they had eaten their own elders and excreted the accrued wisdom from their bleeding behinds into the dead soil of their desolate land.

But the Sick man…the one who had rushed to attack her after she killed the woman, he had shouted something that sounded like lann-uuuuuussss...the second syllable drawn out and upwardly inflected, as of horror or disbelief. In the same way that she might shout “Anth-uuussss!”

Lann-uss. Lanus?

The more she thought over the events, the more sure she was that the Sick man had been shouting the Sick woman’s name. The Sick woman had had a name. And the Sick man who had shouted that name had done so out of shock and grief and horror.

If the Sick Ones had names and emotions then they had language and learning. Ragged, diseased and aggressive though they were, they were people, no matter how different they might be to her own people. And if they did have language, then there was a way to understand them, and for them to understand others.

Rissa struggled with the enormity of her thoughts and felt the loss of Sula acutely, as a sudden thickening in her throat that made it difficult to breathe. Her older sister was a deep thinker, no matter what the rest of Tahr Camp thought, and Rissa knew that if anyone could make use of this sudden theory, this new understanding of hers, if anyone could shape a better future out of it, it was Sula.

“She’s not dead!” Rissa said aloud. Her mother and Anthus both looked at her questioningly. “Sula’s not dead,” she went on, “She isn’t dead. She mustn’t be dead!” Her voice became a wail and she felt tears on her cheeks. “She had a name!” Anthus put an arm around her and pulled her close. She wept and repeated over and over “She had a name! She had a name! She had a name!” not knowing if she meant Sula or the Sick One or both.

 

*

 

Sula sat miserably on the ground near the heat of a small fire. It was dawn, judging by the birdsong around her. The leather blindfold had been replaced by a hood, which although it stank, was better than the constant pressure on her eyes.  Her wrists remained bound and were tied to a tree, with a second short cord fastening them to the hobbles on her ankles.

Her captor was not within earshot and she was now certain that she had only one captor. So many days without sight had sharpened her other senses and she was sure there was never more than one person near her. She didn’t know if she should consider that good or bad.

Exhausted and foot-sore, she was at a loss to understand her situation. She smelt abhorrent even to herself because she was unable to wash or to relieve herself cleanly.  Her captor fed her by roughly shoving food or pouring water into her mouth with no warning. She would be harbouring a murderous hatred by now, if the daily forced march didn’t sap every scrap of energy she had. When they stopped at night, Sula collapsed and did not move until forced to her feet again the following morning.

Normally by now, her captor would be dragging her along at a fast trot, with a rope around her neck. Sula welcomed the respite however, no matter the reason for it.

The ruk-ruk-ruk call of a raven passed high overhead and she shifted in the dry leaf litter, tugging on the cords for the hundredth time, desperate to remove the smelly, enclosing hood. She dropped her hands in exasperation and tried again to calculate how far from home she was.

Tahr Camp has been five days south of Winterhome when she had been captured. The Sick One, if that’s what her captor was, had been pushing her for at least that long again, so she was now perhaps ten or twelve days south of Tahr Camp’s range and at least six days south of Mountain-Roo’s range, the most southerly Camp of the Belt Mountains Kin. If they were indeed moving south. Sula could not be certain with her head covered, but judging by the birdsong and the occasional distant scream of an eagle, they were still in the foothills and the heat was increasing slightly. South was her best guess. But why south if her captor was a Sick One? The Sick Ones supposedly lived far to the west, out in the scrub country, although no one was really sure.

Sula turned her head at the sound of footfalls, suddenly alarmed that a panther might be approaching. After a second she recognised the footsteps as her captor coming back, and was annoyed at the relief she felt.

“Where are you taking me?! Why are you taking me?!” she snapped, the anger lending an authority to her voice that she didn’t usually have.

Her captor had never once replied, or in fact said anything at all, but Sula felt compelled to keep asking. Every morning, as she was pulled to her feet, she asked question after question to no avail. The silence had been sinister at first but as the days and nights passed it had become merely frustrating.

Unexpectedly, today Sula felt her captor approach closely and swiftly cut the bindings on her wrists. She was motionless for one astonished heartbeat then her hands flew to the hood and whipped it from her head, flinging it away as she rubbed and scratched her hair and face with relief. It was a minute or so before her eyes adjusted to the morning sunlight but when she finally focused on her captor, a small grunt of surprise escaped her and she looked about quickly, thinking there must be someone else. But no. There was no one but the two of them. Sula’s jaw dropped open.

Her captor, squatting opposite and gazing intently over the fire at her, was a thin, ragged, bald, little girl.

“You big speak all the time,” the girl said, irritably. “Now you no words?”

 

 

 

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