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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2. Life Stripped Bare

 

            The Sick Ones could speak?

            Blank with surprise, Sula stared at the girl. She had blue eyes, a fact that stood out even set against baldness and ragged clothes. Blue eyes were rare amongst the Kin and the Forest Peoples.

There were sores on her cheek and she scratched absently at what Sula presumed to be other sores underneath the frayed bits of pelt and leather that served as clothing. Her thin form was slightly twisted, not quite symmetrical, and she was not as young as she had first appeared either. There was a swell of breasts beneath a wide leather band and a widening of the hips below the waist. She might look barely eight years old but she had come of age. This girl of the Sick Ones had achieved womanhood, which was more than Sula had managed.

            Bewilderment gave way to rage.

            With a shriek that was part scream and part roar, Sula launched herself at the girl but found her legs were still tied and fell short into the fire where her shriek took on an edge of panic. She rolled clear, batting at her smouldering garments. The girl had already removed herself from Sula’s trajectory, and she now hung back, apprehensive of her former captive.

            Sula thrashed about, flapping and cursing, made even angrier by the indignity of her situation. The girl did not laugh, however. She merely gazed steadily with an expression that could have been curiosity or patience. It was hard to tell. Sula finally kicked off the leg bindings, pulled herself to her feet and brushed ash from her leggings and tunic.

            She didn’t notice the girl approach but suddenly she was there, holding out a round, flat stone of some kind, like an offering or a placation. Sula started, then frowned at the stone without interest and removed her gaze to the sky and the surrounding environment. Where exactly were they? Which direction was home?

            The girl moved closer and waved the stone to get her attention. “Please?” she said, “Pictures? What mean?” Sula backed away, the sores on the girl’s cheek making her want to avoid all contact.

            Spying her packbag next to where the girl had been sitting, Sula strode over, crouched down and emptied out the contents. Sorting through the objects she found her tahr horn, fishing line and hooks, two flint knives, a coil of horse-hair twine, spare waterskin, ointments for wounds and sunburn, tinder stones, various metal and flint awls and needles and spare clothing. Nothing seemed to be missing except her long knife. Even the dried deermeat strips were still in their woven cotton wrappings. She quickly stuffed everything back in and put the clothing on top.

            “Where’s my metal knife?” she demanded, rising to her feet again. “Give it back to me, now!”

The Sick girl took off Sula’s belt and knife sheath and handed it to her. “Please, no go?” she asked. “Please, see?” She waved the stone disc again.

            “Never mind that!” Sula held the belt at arms length, reluctant to put it on. “What happened to my family? Did you attack my people?” She unsheathed the long knife and raised it in threat, dropping the belt on the ground.

The girl shook her head. “No attack. Me, no. Others raid, mountain-people, food, no kill.”

            “What does that mean?!! Did your people attack mine or not?!” The knife was pointing at the girl’s throat now.

            “Food, no kill!” the girl repeated, nodding again.

            “You raided for food? You really are one of the Sick Ones?” The knife was getting closer to the girl’s skin.

            “Sick Ones?” the girl tried to keep eye contact with Sula but shot anxious glances at the blade nearing her throat. “We Round Lake Tribe!”

            “Round Lake Tribe? I’ve never heard of you! Why did you take me? Am I food??” Sula swung her arm away from the girl, sweeping her knife blade through the air, looking around in sudden panic that other people would appear, dragging a very large cooking pot with them.

            The girl gasped and shook her head quickly. “No! No! Speak, want speak only. Show stone picture!”

Sula stared hard at her and slowly picked the belt up to sheath the knife again. “You stole me….to show me a picture?”

            The girl nodded emphatically, greatly relieved the knife was away and that she had at last made herself understood.

            Sula cackled hysterically. And then lunged.

 

 

*

 

 

            Spitting out a mouthful of leaflitter, Sula pulled herself to her feet again. How had she ended up on the ground? She had lunged forward to attack the girl and the girl had not appeared to move but Sula had hit the dirt like a sack of potatoes.

            The girl backed away from her now though, because Sula had drawn her knife again. They stared at each other, brown to blue, for a long moment, and then Sula took a breath, sheathed her knife and let Kin basic schooling take over.

            She dug in her pack for the small pottery jar of wound ointment and beckoned for the girl to approach. The girl stayed still, unsure what Sula meant. Sula pointed at her own cheek, then at the girl’s cheek. The blue eyes blinked in understanding and she cautiously moved closer. Sula picked up the waterskin, gently tilted the girl’s head back and rinsed the sore with a dribble of water, careful not to let the bone nozzle touch the infected flesh. She then took a fingerful of ointment and spread it over the sore, rinsing her own fingers off with another dribble of water, then rubbing them in the soil under the leaf litter. The girl must have sores elsewhere on her body but she did not point any out, so Sula decided that was enough of a start. The girl had a powerful smell of bodily neglect and Sula did not want to get any closer than she had to.

            “You need a good wash,” she said, matter-of-factly, and stood up to get her bearings.

            They were still in the foothills but nowhere that Sula was familiar with. Vegetation was sparse, and the ground rocky. Beyond the small woodland of ragged firetrees she could see low hills with the mountains behind them.

            She turned her attention back to the girl who held out the odd stone disc again.

That the Sick Ones could speak was a revelation, but it wasn’t making Sula less angry at having been snatched away from her people like a tool or a pack bag. Staring northwards, as far as she could judge by the sun’s position, she remembered her earlier calculations that she was probably five days south of the most southerly Kin range. A long journey for someone alone, but not impossible. Vigilance, courage and a lot of luck would see her back up the mountain chain, and she may as well start now.

            “See?” the Sick One said again, still holding out the disc.

            “Do you mean ‘look’?” Sula asked, as curiosity got the better of her once again.

            The girl nodded. “Look,” she repeated, although it sounded more like “luk!”

            Sula took the polished stone disc for closer inspection. It wasn’t stone after all, it was pottery. A well made ceramic of rich red clay with a thick clear glaze. It was better than anything the Kin or the Forest Peoples made. Some of the Flatlands people were said to make beautiful ceramics but Sula had never seen any.

            The disc was solid and heavy, its diameter a little longer than her hand length. It had pictures on it. There was a hand, palm outward as if gesturing ‘stop’ and below it a black circle with three odd shapes around it. What did it mean? The shapes put her in mind of the sun’s rays, but like the circle, they were a solid black against the red colour of the disc. Surely the sun would be depicted in light colours? Yellows or oranges? There were other markings too, odd collections of lines and curves around the perimeter. They were indecipherable to Sula, but she wondered if the marks were writing. She had heard of the idea of writing. The Belt Mountains Kin knew that the Belsamecs had invented it as a way to speak when not present. The Kin were uncomfortable with that concept.

            If the marks were indeed writing, did that mean that the disc was a thing of the Belsamecs? Sula felt suddenly thrilled and equally afraid. The disc might be cursed – indeed, if her kidnap was anything to go by, the disc might be working its will on this girl of the Sick Ones. How else could such a young, thin, sick little thing steal away a strong young woman of the Belt Mountains Kin? She winced inwardly at her own pompousness. Examine your own actions before putting the blame on others. The truth was, she had made a bad choice in going off by herself and the Sick girl had taken her completely by surprise. After that, bindings and a hood were all that were needed to keep her disoriented and afraid.

            Sula stared at the girl. The ointment glistened on her thin face, framed by sparse tufts of pale hair. Her blue gaze was intense. Was this piece of ceramic really the reason the Sick One had kidnapped her? And if so, why just the girl by herself and why run so far before showing her the disc?

            Sula’s thoughts were cut short by a sudden rumbling in the earth that grew in intensity. Earthquake? A piercing nasal shriek sounded in the distance and the trembling increased.

            “Stampede!” Sula cried, as Kin schooling took over again. She snatched up the girl’s pack, crammed the disc inside and threw it over to her, slung her own pack on her shoulders and grabbed her knife belt and longspear.

            “RUN!!”

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

Sula found a tree with branches low enough to climb and practically threw the girl up into them. They climbed as high as they could, then clung to the trunk and waited.

            There was a thudding of hooves as several antelope of different descriptions raced past below them. The nasal roars were still sounding, closer but somewhere off to the west and despite her fear, Sula hoped the creatures making them would pass this way. She thought they might be elephants: enormous tusked creatures called thunder-bison by some. Elephants were almost a myth but travelling traders spoke of them. They were creatures of the south, rarely roaming far enough north to be seen by the Kin. Sula quailed at the thought of how far south she must be.

            Antelope and various roos continued to run and bound past the tree. The Sick girl studied them with interest and Sula realised she was sizing them up with a hunter’s eye. The nasal calls were louder now and far off through the trees, Sula could glimpse immense grey forms moving swiftly. She badly wanted to see them properly and she got her wish when several elephants burst through the trees and passed close to the base of their own. Three huge adults and a little one frantically trying to keep up. The smell and the sound were overpowering.

“They’re enormous!” Sula shouted in delight, above the noise. “And they do have long noses!” She leaned right out of the tree in excitement. “And look at those tusks!”

The Sick girl clung tightly to the tree and didn’t answer, her face a mask of terror: the most emotion Sula had seen her display.

            Flapping their huge ears, swaying their heads from side to side, trunks curled underneath their long, white tusks and small, thin tails erect, the elephants continued their rapid running walk away from whatever had frightened them. 

            Sula saw smoke in the distance. Wildfire! That explained the stampede. It wasn’t even fire season yet but wildfires could ravage the land at any time of year. Anything could set them off. Lightning, campfires running out of control, even sunlight concentrated through pieces of Belsamec glass, turned up from the earth by burrowing animals.

            They could not hide in the tree any longer. They had to get to water or barren rock. Staying in the tree was not a way to live. The elephants had passed on through, and the other animals were lessening now. Sula climbed quickly down and motioned for the Sick girl to come down too, half expecting her to be too frightened to move. The girl surprised her by climbing down competently, however. She seemed to be over the shock completely.

            Sula headed at a run deeper into the foothills towards the mountains, and the Sick One kept pace.

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

            Sula filled her waterskins at a gravelled bend in a small but welcome river, all the time scanning the area for predators. The girl too, was wary. Predators liked to hunt around water courses. The woodland was thicker here, still dominated by firetrees but with more birch and willow mixed in. 

            Now that they were relatively safe from the fire, Sula could turn her mind to her abduction once more, and it fanned her anger. She didn’t know how to cope with the fact the Sick One was still with her: didn’t know why she had helped her get to safety. If Sula had run off by herself, the Sick girl and her mysterious disc would be safely disposed of beneath the tree-trunk sized legs of the elephants by now.

Follow a horse long enough and it will start to follow you.

That was a saying of Horse Camp. They had ways of hunting horses that involved walking, not running or trapping. The hunted horses eventually became so used to the following hunters that when the hunters changed direction, the horses followed. Sula wondered if something similar was happening to her but then reminded herself that people were far more complicated than horses.

            She finished filling the waterskins and stood up to gaze at the smoke in the sky. The fire seemed to be travelling straight south at the moment. Birds and smaller animals were still fleeing the flames. The larger animals seemed mostly to have passed by. The smell of burning was insistent on the wind.

            Sula shuddered and was glad they had found the river. Horror stories were told about wildfires. It was one thing to train for avoidance of fire, quite another to be caught out in the landscape when one was raging. Wildfire moved weirdly through firetrees too. It behaved differently, burning in two layers – the ground and the canopy. The firetree trunks were rarely even scorched after a fire passed through. Other trees did not fare so well, and animal life always suffered. Roos and horses found sparse pickings amongst landscapes turned to ash and the lack of cover was bad for small creatures. Mice and lizards and snakes were exposed on the burned earth and picked off by jackals and crows.

The new shoots that broke through the ash attracted ground birds and small roos, though, so for people at least, hunting became easier for a while, after a wildfire had passed through.

            Wide firebreaks around the Camps gave some protection to the Kin, but they needed constant maintenance. They had to be burned off regularly in a controlled way to get rid of the tinder fuel: starve a fire and it would soon burn itself out. Part of the reason Tahr Camp moved every spring to Summerhome, higher up in the mountains, was to escape the worst of the danger during fire season.

            The Belt Mountains were lower here, Sula realised, and the foothills flatter. There were many Belsamec ruins, more than she had ever seen. The Belsamecs must never have occupied the north of the Belt Mountains in any great way. Down here, the ruins were everywhere: crumbling angular shapes covered in ivy; winding stone roads, cracked and overrun with weeds. She found the shapes disturbing and badly wanted to start for home but the fire stood in her way. Even as she thought, the wind veered and now the fire was heading towards them.

            Sula waded into the water and found it too shallow. It only came up to her knees. She set off downstream, wading fast, keeping her pack dry while she still could. The Sick One hesitated on the bank.

“Get in the water!” Sula yelled.

            The girl didn’t move and Sula carried on into deeper water. It was up to the Sick One now, whether she wanted to live or die. When the water came up to her shoulders, Sula felt safer. Her pack was wet now, as her arms were too tired to hold it clear. She studied the woodland on either side of the river and chose a place where the canopy did not extend all the way over the water. The river was flowing quite fast now but it was not strong enough to sweep her away. She planted her feet on the riverbed, bracing them against a solid rock, and leaned into the current.

            The fire was closer, roaring and crackling in the canopy, racing through the bark litter on the woodland floor. Panicked animals - raccoons and foxes, even a wolf, were jumping into the water too now. Several horses galloped into view, bounded into the river close by, surged across to the far bank and disappeared into the trees. They were followed a moment later by a band of large grey roos that leaped the entire river bank-to-bank, sailing high over Sula’s head. Her mouth fell open in wonder and she shut it quickly, coughing and spluttering and chiding herself for gaping like a small child.

            The Sick girl bumped into her with a muted shriek, having lost her footing and her pack. Sula tried to catch her arm or snag her clothing but the girl swirled around her and was carried off further downstream. She would have to take her chances by herself though, because the fire had arrived. Sula took a huge breath and ducked under the surface as the fire leapt canopy-to-canopy across the river. Water pushed into her ears, blocking out the roaring of the fire and replacing it with a strange, creaking, gulping sound, as orange light from above lit up the river.

            The Sick girl’s pack tumbled towards her through the water, and she snagged a strap successfully this time but the leather was so old and worn that the pack tore open and emptied its contents, the heavy ceramic disc sinking swiftly. Sula’s chest was caving in from lack of air. The strap came off too and the empty bag somersaulted and was swept onwards. She fought the current to reach forward and clutch the disc, then raised her head for a quick breath, feeling the heat even in that split second, and ducked under again.

When she came up for air a second time, the fire had passed on. Fierce and fast was the nature of burning firetrees. A brief intense burst of heat and flame, then nothing but black, smouldering ashes, with untouched trunks rising out of them.

            Sula moved, little by little, back to the bank, trying not to fight the current. Sad corpses of small drowned animals floated past. The death toll of a wildfire always went far beyond the lives lost to the flames and smoke. Sula grabbed a couple of rabbits and a sand grouse as they floated towards her. The grouse’s wings were burned. The poor thing must have tried to fly through a wall of fire. Sula liked grouse, they were easy to pluck.

            Creeping out of the river onto the shore, Sula laid the disc and her salvaged meat on the bank and coughed up water. She didn’t attempt to wring the river from her clothes, despite the weight of them. Stay wet if you can, even after the fire has moved on. Kin survival schooling was drilled into everyone from the moment they could walk.

            She stood on the riverbank streaming water, and realised with a sinking heart that she had lost her longspear. She had forgotten to pick it up from the bank when she waded into the river and it would be a piece of charcoal by now. Sighing heavily, she unslung her pack bag and dug into it for a piece of cloth to wrap around her mouth and nose. She pushed the disc into the bag, tied the rabbits and grouse to the outside and straightened up, still wary of predators. She drew her long knife and held it ready to use as she settled her bag on her shoulders and set off reluctantly downstream, the bird and rabbits swinging as she walked.

            The river was flowing south, and Sula wanted to go north. But the girl was potentially injured and the Kin did not ignore things like that. If she was dead, then Sula could set off home with a clear conscience. If she was injured, then Sula must do what she could to help.

            The Kin had very clear ideas about their fellow people. While they would not hesitate to kill someone they thought was infected with a deadly disease, they would also not hesitate to help someone who was starving or injured. The fact that Sula could set off home right now, and tell whatever story she wished, to make herself as heroic or victimised as she wanted to be, did not even enter her head. Well…it did not stay there long, anyway. 

            And, Sula being Sula, she had yet another impediment to setting off for home without looking for the Sick girl: curiosity had raised its ugly head once again. She wanted to know more about the disc and why the girl had kidnapped her. These things she could not find out if she left now.

            So she squelched off along the riverbank, bedraggled and weighed down by soaked clothing, clutching her hand knife for protection and mourning the loss of her spear.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

            Several days after they set out, the remnants of Round Lake Tribe made it through the mountains as dawn appeared ahead of them in the eastern sky. As the darkness lifted, they limped and stumbled into the low foothills that would soon give way to the flat country where many different peoples lived. Peoples that their King assured them were ripe for raiding.

            Torgos stood with his arms outstretched as the sun rose and they turned towards him and hailed him as a great leader even though most of them were still coughing from smoke inhalation.             

            Gyps hung back and turned his face away, a terrible sadness weighing on him that the Tribe was so easily fooled by this nightmare of a King.

           

            They had been driven over the mountains like hunted boar.

When still camped on the western side, they had been reluctant to move, arguing amongst one another and beginning to disrespect Torgos’ Kingship.

Torgos had walked off into the darkness beyond the campfires one evening. He was behaving strangely and had been ever since Jynx had disappeared. Gyps was worried, and feeling totally alone with Elanus dead and Ardea gone. Ardea had taken his advice and run off with her man Neophran and a few others. Gyps hoped they would find a new tribe out west somewhere, that were not so weak and sick and badly led.

            He sighed inwardly, got up from the warm fire and silently followed Torgos into the scrub. Out beyond the firelight he didn’t see Torgos again until a bright flame leapt up in the scrub, illuminating that small-eyed, hook-nosed face. The flame rapidly turned into many flames and Gyps went cold all over as he realised Torgos was setting a wildfire going.

            “No!” he yelled, rushing forward. “Torgos! Why you set fire?” Torgos stood up and danced backward, keeping the flames between them. He laughed at the fear on Gyps’ face and it was then that Gyps knew for certain there was something seriously wrong with Torgos’ mind.  

            Gyps had turned and run back to the campfires and bellowed “Fire! Run! Fire! Run!” He had headed off into the wind hoping it would slow the flames enough for escape. The rest of the Tribe had grabbed packs and weapons and flailed after him in the dark and they had straggled up the mountainside away from the smoke and flames, while Torgos laughed and whooped and danced behind them until it seemed that the Isan Valg had come back to haunt them and nothing would ever be the same again. 

 

            How quickly they forgot. Now they were through the mountains and looking at Torgos as though he had saved them. Gyps pushed his feelings down deep inside and became hard as stone.

Torgos would be the death of them all, unless someone killed him first.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

            It was late afternoon by the time Sula found the girl. She was lying on the bank with her feet still in the water and two crows were beginning to take an interest. Sula shooed the birds away, crouched down and put two fingers to the big vein in the neck. There was a pulse. Her breathing was shallow but it was regular. She was weak, but she would live.

            Sula sat back on her heels and sighed heavily. The Sick girl was now completely her responsibility. She closed her eyes in resignation and spoke aloud in a quiet voice, “GrandMothers, I am sorry for going off alone. You have given me a more than just punishment. I hope I prove worthy enough to return home one day?” She couldn’t keep the biting sarcasm out of the last sentence.

“You learned the hard way, GrandMothers, and now it seems you want me to do the same!”

            Sula stood up and assessed the situation. It was late afternoon and they needed shelter. Predators would soon begin to converge on the burned area to feast on the carcasses and hunt weakened survivors. Half-wolves and yellow panthers would be especially dangerous as they had little fear of people.

            The girl was a problem. She couldn’t leave her without risking predator attack and she couldn’t stay with her and find shelter at the same time. There was no choice but to carry her.

            Sula dragged the girl fully out of the water, checked her breathing again and then attempted to hoist her up over her shoulders. Immediately she gagged and choked and coughed uncontrollably. Despite the dunking in the river, the girl smelt so ripe it made her nauseous.

            Laying her down on the bank again, Sula stripped the girls clothing and threw it to one side. There were large sores on the girl’s body. One on her chest and several around her waist. It looked like allergic reactions to a necklace and a belt. The one on her cheek and ear might have been from an earring. There was a hole in her ear lobe but the earring itself was gone.

            Sula rummaged in her wet pack and found a soggy bar of soap in leather wrappings. She splashed water on the smoking ground to cool it and scooped up handfuls of ash to add to the soap lather and scrub the girl clean. Anything to get rid of the stink! The girl coughed and came to. Sula helped her stagger back into the water so she could rinse her down. Back on the riverbank, she wrapped her in the wet spare cloak from her pack.

            “Can you walk?” she asked. The girl nodded emphatically and then fainted. Sula squeaked and managed to catch her before her head hit the ground.

            GrandMothers! This is not funny any more!

           

            She left the girl’s disgusting, tattered clothing where it was, shouldered her pack then lifted her in the way she had been taught at home, resting the pelvis on her shoulder, and holding the legs steady. The girl was so slight and thin that Sula was confident she could carry her for days if need be. The wet cloak almost weighed more than the girl did.

            ‘Days’ was not her goal though. She needed to find shelter nearby where she could tend to her just long enough to make her well again. After that, she was going north to Mountain-roo Camp, where she could ask for food and weapons, and then she would travel back to her home and her family.

            Dripping water and moving awkwardly with her cargo, Sula stumbled off over the blackened, smoking ground. The Sick girl’s dangling arms swung in synchrony with the grouse and rabbits as Sula trudged onwards. She continuously scanned her surroundings, wary of predators, and listened out for running hooves too. She didn’t want to be knocked down by some panicked herbivore. That would be such an indignity.

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

            Castor woke just before dawn and smelled smoke that was not campfire smoke. He felt a rush of panic and scrambled out of his sleeping blankets, calling “Hai! Hai!” The rest of the camp began to stir immediately. “Wildlfire!” Castor yelled. “Back to the river!”

            People grabbed packs and spears and moved quickly. The smoke was thickening and worse, there was an orange glow in the distance. The metalworkers and apprentices shifted quickly in the direction of the river. Nobody messed about when fire was threatening.

            Castor soon lost the others as the smoke reduced visibility. Only the short boy, Ondatra was close by and Castor threw him a cord to tie them wrist to wrist so they at least did not lose each other. Sounds were muted in the smoke. They ran on, coughing in the direction they thought the river lay, but could not find it. Someone yelled “This way!” and they turned towards the sound.

            Abruptly, Castor blundered into what he thought was a tangle of vines and crashed to the ground. Ondatra went down too and they both thrashed about, striving to untangle themselves, coughing madly. Castor realised it was a net they were caught in and Ondatra tried to scream as he came to the same conclusion.

“Help us!” Castor rasped in relief as human figures materialised from the smoke.

            Relief gave way to shock and then he felt no more.

 

 

*

 

 

 

            Firelight danced and flickered on the walls as Sula tended her small fire and gazed at the unconscious girl stretched out opposite. 

            Finding an old stone Belsamec bridge, Sula had crossed over the big river and moved upstream along a small tributary into a high-sided gully where she had found a long-abandoned Belsamec house that was little more than three stone walls with large angular window holes in them, built against the steep gully side that formed the fourth wall. Several stunted blackthorn trees had taken root high up and now formed a tangled, thorny substitute for a roof. The floor was jagged and uneven from years of neglect, part packed earth and part roof remains. The litters of small bones here and there told her it had many times served as an animal den

            Upon finding it, several days before, Sula had scraped an even space in the floor and made the Sick girl as comfortable as she could.  She had then worked quickly to gather bundles of thorny vegetation, which she wedged into the window holes to discourage predators and scavengers, and had used up all her horse-hair twine lashing pieces of dead branches together to make a crude door.

            There was a spring near the house, trickling out of the rock face into a small bowl that looked hand carved. Sula had cupped her hands in the bowl to taste the water and found it delicious.

            Above the gully on the house side was a scrubby plain that sloped upwards towards the higher peaks. Opposite, sheer vertical rock faces rose up high, capped with stunted trees and shrubs, the mountain summits rising higher still in the distance beyond. Down below the house, the tributary gurgled its way through the gully. It was a sparsely vegetated, sandy place, much drier than she was used to.

           

            Feeding more sticks into the fire, Sula wondered if she had travelled further south than any Kin before. She knew some people went over east of the mountains to attend trade fairs and festivals with the Flatland peoples but she didn’t know exactly how far south they went.

            Maybe this was where the Dragonlands started? They were said to be very dry and sandy. Sula felt her heart quicken in fear at the thought of dragons. What if they were real? It was easy to scoff at travellers’ tales when you were safe in the green landscapes of the north. Down here, where green gave way to greys and yellows as the vegetation thinned and showed the bare bones of the land, it was easy to imagine that every rock was a dragon.

            Sula breathed in deeply and made an effort to calm herself. Running facts through her mind helped belay her imaginings. Before coming into the gully, she had seen a flattish plain to the south, covered in the remains of Belsamec dwellings and roads, with more mountains rising in the distance, which she thought must be the most southerly part of the mountain chain. More mountains to the south meant that she was still north of the Dragonlands, as they began only when the Belt Mountains stopped. Therefore, if she and the Sick girl were still north of the Dragonlands, that meant they were safe from dragon attack.

            Sula released her breath in a rush and pressed her fingertips to her forehead. Of course they were safe from dragon attack. Dragons did not exist! They were a tall tale, and nothing more. Panther attack was a far more real possibility. That was what she should concentrate on. She hugged herself and looked at the light coming in through the gaps in the driftwood door, feeling very afraid and alone.

 

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

            By the eighth day, the fresh meat and the deermeat jerky had run out, and Sula felt her empty stomach clinging to her backbone every time she breathed in.

            There were a few birch trees and stone pines further along the gully. The birch trees she tapped for sap, which she mostly fed to the girl, trickling it drip by drip into her throat from the tahr horn drinking vessel. The Kin knew birch sap as a healthful tonic and always gave it to anyone who was ill. Sula drank some herself to stave off hunger pangs. The stone pines had long needles, which she collected and cut up to make pine needle tea, their sharp scent making her nostrils tingle.

            She had constructed a pot by opening out one of her waterskins and tying it to sticks next to the fire. Having no metal pots to cook with, Sula reverted to the ‘hot rocks’ method: she heated the water by adding hot pieces of flint to it while giving silent thanks to her father for all the Kin survival lessons he had made her sit through as a young child. 

            She had boiled up the deermeat strips to make a protein broth for the girl and bathed her every day with water and needle tea, trying to keep the many sores clean. The tea was cleansing, and a good substitute for soap. She kept turning the girl, so she didn’t rest on any part of her body for too long, and spread the wound ointment on the girl’s many sores. It had garlic and comfrey in it, and it seemed to be doing some good.

           

            ….But now that the meagre food ration had run out, Sula would have to explore the area for food and this she realised, she was afraid to do.

The nights had brought the sounds of many predators in the surrounding hills. Roaring panthers, howling wolves and screeching jackals. Various snufflings and gruntings sounded every night outside the door, inspiring her to reinforce it during daylight hours by weaving in sprays of thorny scrub and whittling sharp stakes to wedge in it, point outwards.

            She must go outside and forage or they would both starve.

            She sat on her outspread cloak, which also served as her bed, staring at the door, sunlight stealing through its gaps and casting rays on the floor of the house, in which insects and drifting dust swirled like stars.

            She must go outside and forage.

            The rays moved as the day wore on. Eagles cried from up high. Elephants sounded their vibrating nasal roars further to the south. She was glad that some at least, had survived the wildfire.

            She must go outside.

            The girl breathed the quiet breath of the unconscious and Sula’s own breathing swirled loudly in her ears.

            She must go outside.

            Night fell again. Sula hugged her rumbling, complaining stomach and tried to keep from sobbing. She had to find a way to be in the landscape again. She must take her place or die of starvation.

            This wasn’t her landscape though, and she felt so displaced, like the creature with the striped legs that had lured her away from the campground. How long ago now? Days had turned into weeks. She did not know how long she had been away now, but it was more than half a moon-cycle.

            She felt the familiar rage building again as she switched her gaze from the doorway to the prone figure of the girl. Sula drew her belt knife and looked at the blade shining in the firelight.

            She could cut the girl’s throat and leave.

            She stared at the blade and her breathing became faster and shallower. Why not? Who would know? And even if they found out….well, the girl had stolen her! The worthless little Sick One had taken her away from everything she knew! She should cut the big vein in the neck and bleed her out. That’s what she should do.

            But Sula was of the Belt Mountains Kin, and the Kin did not do that sort of thing.

What you do when nobody is watching, counts more than what you do when they are.

            It was more than Kin morality that stayed Sula’s hand though. The simple fact was that if she killed the Sick girl, she would be completely alone in a strange place, a long way from home.

            Follow a horse long enough and it will start to follow you.

            “I am not a horse!” she shouted at the night, scaring herself with the sound of her own voice. But it was close enough to the truth and it made her admit a furious defeat and put her knife away again.

            Before she could settle in for a night’s angry brooding though, another thought struck her and she pulled the knife out again. It was an iron blade made by the Forest Peoples, attached to a handle made of deer antler. She could take some of the horse-hair twine off the door and use it to lash the knife to a suitable stick, turning it into a longspear. Of course! She fell back on her cloak and put one hand over her face.

Fever find you, Sula! Maybe you are becoming a horse because you should have thought of that, days ago!

            She put the knife down and got up to feed the fire and shift the girl into a different sleeping position.

            Returning to her cloak, she drove the point of the knife into the earth floor, to be handy if a predator gained entrance, then rolled herself up in the cloak as best she could and tried to get some sleep.

            Eventually she drifted off and her dreams were filled with happier times in Tahr Camp.

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

 

 

When Castor came round, it was bright daylight. His head throbbed painfully and there was no smell of smoke.

A rocking motion beneath him made him think he must be on a boat. Blinking rapidly to clear his vision, he saw Ondatra lying nearby, bound hand and foot as he was too. It must be a boat, the floor was made of wood and pooled with water and he could see the hide-bound feet of people standing on it, moving as it moved.

            When Ondatra came round he yelled in shock and this caused laughter in the owners of the hide-covered pairs of feet. Derisive laughter and a kick in the ribcage. Ondatra made no more noise after that, he breathed in quick shallow breaths and stared at Castor in shock.

            Through the thumping pain in his head, Castor tried to remember what had happened. They had run into nets and been struck on the head during the confusion caused by the wildfire. How many more were also captive? Had the Master metalworkers been overpowered too? He hoped not. If they were still free then he and Ondatra stood some chance of being rescued. If the Masters were captive or dead then he and the boy were not getting away any time soon.

            Wading birds called overhead as the boat headed fast downstream. It had to be downstream because no one was expending any effort to make the boat go against the current. Castor felt a terrible foreboding. What had happened to everyone? Who were these people who had taken them captive? No one did that anymore. Not in the Forest or the Belt Mountains or out in the Flatlands. Apart from the Sick Ones in the west, all the Kins and Clans and Peoples were at peace and no one attacked or forced themselves on others.            

Apart from these people: once they realised he was awake, they began to taunt and tease him and kick him, not hard but not gently either. Castor felt his rage building. No one was ever treated like this. Not even in the dark times back when his grandparents were young and all the different Peoples were still terrified of disease. This was unacceptable treatment, which told him a lot about the people that held them both captive. They were undisciplined, unenlightened, and unendurable. He closed his eyes and tried to shut them out of his consciousness somehow hoping that would remove them from his world.

In later months he would remember that moment and shake his head at his own naivety. These people were not like anyone he had ever met. They were like the tales of the Belsamecs that Castor had heard as a child from hunters of the western bands. But the western bands made a potent drink from potatoes and juniper berries that addled their minds and make them talk of rain turning white and drifting down slowly to cover the land with a cold, white blanket. No one could believe what the western bands said.

Castor was jerked back to the present when the boat hit the riverbank and rough hands hauled him to his feet. He was shoved onto the shore, with Ondatra close behind. Leather hoods descended over their heads and thin ropes settled around their necks. Castor gave a wordless cry and grabbed for the neck rope but harsh laughter sounded all around him and his feet were kicked from beneath him. As he lay on the ground, breathing in sharp bursts, one of the men leaned down towards him and spoke in the North language, with a strange, churring accent, almost a dog’s growl made into words:

“You belong to Varanus, Lord of Water Valley now, boy. I hope your metalworking is up to scratch because we’ll feed you to the desert ghosts if it isn’t. You and the little boy too.”

Castor was silent with shock. They knew he was a metalworker? What else did they know? Had they set the fire?

Desert ghosts….

Castor heard a panther roaring in the distance and shuddered.

 

 

*

 

 

 

            Sula awoke in the early dawn, feeling light-headed. She must look for food today or she would become too weak to forage at all.

            The fire was almost out. Sula coaxed it to life again, trickled some water into the girl’s mouth and turned her onto her side, then went to the door and deftly removed enough twine for the longspear. She found a stick amongst the firewood stack that was a little short but would do for now, lashed the knife securely to one end, shrugged on her packbag, turned to face the door and drew a deep, steadying breath.

            Her courage wavered again and her feet would not move. She closed her eyes and fought down the fear that was rising like bile.

            A little peal of birdsong snapped her eyes open, her attention caught. She recognised it. It was the song of a wren. She stepped to the door and peered through a gap. The song came again from a patch of gorse scrub not far from the house. She stared hard and saw it – a tiny brown bird with a cocked tail, flitting about in the spindly branches. It fluttered up to the top of the gorse and sent its song out again. It was an incredibly loud song for such a tiny bird. Sula was suddenly ashamed of herself. If a bird that small was brave enough to take its place in the landscape, then why couldn’t she?

            She had a sudden memory of her father talking about the land while making a fishing spear, about how a person must form a connection to the landscape, must let it into their minds. “The land will tell what you need to know,” he had said, working the spear-straightener – a flat stone with a round hole in it – up and own the shaft of hazelwood. “Be still and listen. Let it speak.”

            With renewed courage and a hardened resolve, Sula pulled the makeshift door open just enough to squeeze through, then stopped under the overhang of the lintel. The wren dropped back inside the bush and began ticking an alarm call.

            There was a panther on the wall above the door. She was certain of it, even though she could not see it.  A pungent tinge stole into her nostrils and she felt a tension in the air, a tension as of muscles poised to spring, as of precisely focused attention. Rage and frustration filled her again. Act fast! her instincts yelled.

            Anger lending her speed, she shimmied her shoulders to slide off the packbag, threw it out from under the lintel as far as she could manage and then started backward, almost impaling herself on one of her own door spikes as a spotted panther dropped from above in a blur of motion and pounced on the pack.

            Given pause only for a second, Sula bellowed as loud as she could, hurling every scrap of pent up rage and stress and hate at the cat. Screaming and roaring she rushed at it with the shining point of her spear ahead of her. Surprise was all she needed though. The panther leapt in the air in shock and fled before she was anywhere near it. Sula flung a few stones to reinforce her outrage but none came close to hitting the panicked big cat, which careered along the gully with its ears flat and its tail whipping. It turned suddenly, leapt straight up the cliff-face, and disappeared over the top.

 

 

 

 

*

 

 

           

            Sula foraged with confidence after the panther encounter: the more so after she found a better shaft that turned her knife into a decent longspear.

            Inspired by an old Kin saying – Those who walk among panthers must sprout spikes from their shoulders and grow eyes in the backs of their heads, she wove bulrush leaves into a vest and pushed sharpened stakes through it. She wove a headband too, and used charcoal and red soil to paint eyes on it.

With a spiky body and eyes in the back of her head, Sula felt safe enough to forage up and down the gully, although she was anxious not to be gone long from her charge. The Sick girl seemed to be getting worse instead of better.

            She roamed further upstream one morning and found a patch of long, wiry grass that would be perfect to weave sleeping mats from. That meant she could wash the spare cloak at last. Whilst collecting the grass she spied some willow trees further on, among some birches. It was worth the extra time to collect some bark, so she approached the stand of trees cautiously, longspear at the ready in case there were predators among them. A couple of small roos were nibbling at the lower leaves and twigs of the willows. They bounded off when they saw her and she relaxed a little. Their presence among the trees meant it unlikely there were predators in the vicinity. She stripped some bark from the willow to boil up for a pain relieving tea. It wasn’t much in the way of medicine but it might help.

 

            Sula got to know the area well, around the stone house and its little spring. She put out food scraps for the crows and jays and ravens, cultivating a relationship with them. They were the surest eyes to watch for predators and by befriending them, she could use their vigilance for her own safety. One young raven in particular, became her constant shadow.

            She set traps and caught the occasional small mammal or ground bird. She set up a fishing line in the stream and hunted in damp places for snails. She gathered thistle and burdock roots and found sparse crops of carob seedpods and juniper berries. She kept herself fed, and made nutritious soups to feed to the Sick girl whose condition was deteriorating. The girl was having nightmares, sweats and bouts of vomiting. Sula kept bathing her, feeding her small amounts, keeping her hydrated and putting ointment on her sores. She wove sleeping mats from the wiry, yellow grasses to keep herself busy, changing them and discarding the old one every few days. She boiled up pine needle tea continuously, both drinking it and using it as a solution to wash with in place of soap.

            She spent many long, lonely nights staring at the girl as she moaned and writhed in constant pain. She had no medicine to give her. The willow bark tea had helped a little but not enough for Sula to think it was worth taking the time to get more.

            She could only keep the girl clean and fed, and hope that it would be enough. She rinsed out the cotton cloth, which had been wrapped around the deer meat jerky, soaked it in pine needle tea to sterilise it and then dipped it in cold water to bathe the sweat from the girl’s face.

            Sula talked to the girl when the writhing and groaning were at their worst. She would ramble on about inconsequential things: the antics of the young raven; good things she had found them to eat that day; memories from her childhood; musings on what they would do when the girl was well again. She spoke because she knew the sound of a voice was soothing when you were very ill.

            Through every childhood illness, Sula’s parents had sat by her bedside and told her stories even when she was too ill to understand the words. The sound was everything. When you were lost in the darkness of pain, the sound of a voice was something you could focus on and cling to. It made you feel loved and it gave you courage. It lent you strength to make it through the illness. Well, sometimes it did. She remembered sitting up many nights with her father through the long Fever that had eventually carried him off, along with half the population of Tahr Camp, four years before. That had been a bad year, with Fever signs tied on trees to keep traders away and no contact with the other Camps.

            The memory pressed in on her like darkness pressed on the walls of the house. She held the girl’s hand and talked and talked, while tears ran in unchecked rivers down her cheeks and she felt as if they were the only two left in the whole world.

           

            The girl’s frequent vomiting and groaning disrupted Sula’s sleep patterns. If there had been someone else, she could have handed over responsibility and sunk into a welcome sleep of rest. But there was no one else, and dark circles appeared around her eyes, her shining black hair grew dull and matted and her movements became slower and clumsier. The girl needed strong medicine but Sula wasn’t sure that even Limosa the Healer could have done anything for her. She sensed that it was beyond anything the Belt Mountains Kin could deal with.

She missed Tahr Camp so much at times that she felt it as a physical thickening in her throat. Tears would swim in her eyes and she would find it hard to breathe. It wasn’t only that she missed the familiar security of family around her, but the most basic comforts too: cosy, raised beds instead of a draughty floor; warm cob and thatch roundhouses that kept in the heat, instead of cold stone walls that seemed to suck the warmth straight out of the fire; metal pots and pans that heated water quickly for cooking and washing. She longed for soap and toothpaste and clean, dry clothes.

           

            Day by day, unable to cure the girl and worrying more and more that she might become infected too, Sula retreated into herself. Felt as if layers of herself were being stripped away until she was bare of anything that had made her who she was.

            Only by turning her gaze outward could she endure.  She wasn’t Sula. She wasn’t anyone. She was a wind-blown seed husk, hollow, empty – spun out to the edges of herself. Existing only in her senses, reacting only to external pressures. Never looking inward. She moved by rote memory through each day, finding and preparing food, weaving mats, collecting wood, feeding the fire. Several times, it was only the young raven’s cry of alarm that stopped her treading on a snake or tumbling over a precipice.

            Days blurred one into another and she stumbled along the edge of survival, less and less aware that at any moment she might fall.

 

 

 

End of Chapter 2

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