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.

1Likes
2Comments
1516Views
AA

4. Meanings & Tellings

First draft of Chapter 4

 

“Why…not dead? …Why….make well?”

A frown dinted the girl's forehead and her voice shook slightly.

Sula sat up on her bed and shrugged. “I am Sula of Tahr Camp of the Belt Mountains Kin, and the Kin do not let people die if we can make them well again.”

The girl seemed more frightened than relieved. Her eyes were so large in her thin, starved face, that she looked more like a startled owl than a human being. She tried to sit up too but was still very weak and only managed to raise herself on one elbow.

She looked down at the bedframe beneath her as though she had never seen one before and then swept her gaze slowly around the room and refocused on Sula.

“Jynx….” she breathed. “Name…Jynx. Have….debt,” she frowned again, as though trying to remember the correct words, then gestured towards Sula. “You.”

Sula gave her a broad smile. “I didn't look after you just so you could owe me something. And you still have some healing to do. We'll talk about it when you're better.”

From her expression, Jynx did not fully understand what had been said and Sula mentally admonished herself to speak more slowly with fewer words until the girl's language skills improved. It was a mark of how much Sula's perception of the Sick Ones had changed, that she did not doubt for a moment the girl possessed the ability to learn better speech.

A few days later, Sula decided her charge was well enough that she could head off for an extended foraging trip.

Weak and dangerously thin Jynx remained, but the shakes and vomiting had subsided and her sores were finally healing nicely. The summer landscape was now full of young birds and mammals that were easy to hunt, so Sula hoped.

She built up the fire early in the morning and made some more pine needle tea for both of them, while Jynx sat in the open doorway, wrapped in Sula's spare cloak, making friends with Rana.

Sula pulled on her hide leggings which were looking a little ragged now, tied the spiky waistcoat on over her tunic and settled the eyed headband over her hair, pulling a few strands back from her face. The spikes on the back of the waistcoat made it hard to wear the packbag in the usual way, so she had altered the straps to hang it from one shoulder instead.

Jynx pulled herself unsteadily to her feet and walked slowly back inside to sit on her bed, pulling the cloak more closely around her shoulders. Sula scooped a cup of tea from the cauldron and handed it to her. That, and a bowl of cold moths, roasted the night before, was all there was for breakfast. Sula laced up her roo-hide boots and picked up her waterskin and longspear.

“I'll be back before dusk,” she said. “We need more than moths and worms to eat.”

Sula waited a heartbeat. A Kin or Forest person would have replied “Be safe” or “Hurry back” or “Good hunting” but Jynx simply nodded. A tiny dip of the head. Nothing more. Strangely, Sula liked it. That tiny nod seemed to imply that Jynx had complete confidence in Sula's ability to go out and return unharmed with food for them to eat. ...Or it might mean that Jynx simply lacked the ability to care. Sula preferred the first interpretation.

She filled her waterskin in the stream, tied it to her bag and set off down the gully with the young raven flying ahead of her. The trees and bushes were alive with songbirds of all descriptions singing, tussling, fluttering past with beaks full of insects for hungry chicks. Some she recognised but many she didn't. A few seemed to be the same types of birds seen further north but with different colours or markings than she was used to.

It was further to the arched stone Belsamec bridge than she remembered and there was a ruined house next to it that she didn't recall seeing. Only two walls still stood and there was an elder tree growing inside. The bridge must have been very well made, to still be whole after all the years that had passed since it was first constructed.

The Kin did not build bridges except for dropping the occasional log across a stream but the Forest Peoples created beautiful living bridges by training tree roots and branches to span rivers.

This Belsamec bridge was not alive, but mosses and other plants had found rootholds between the stones, giving it the feel of life. That, combined with the sweep of the arch gave it an undeniable beauty of its own. Sula crossed it much more warily than the first time when she had been distracted by carrying Jynx, tapping ahead with the butt of her spear to check its solidness.

Once across, she could see a distinct trail heading west through a thin woodland of mixed pine and broadleaf trees. It was an animal trail but a wide one that meant there was probably a Belsamec track beneath it, hidden by leaves and pine needles and clumps of tough grass. She stood a moment to listen to the sounds around her and did not detect any alarm calls within the endless clamour of birdsong.

Rana flew into the trees and Sula followed, scanning all around with her spear at the ready. She stopped frequently to twist her body around, showing the many spikes to whatever predators might be watching her. She turned and showed the spear too, pointing it out at differing angles to further demonstrate her protection. Whether the deterrent worked, or there were simply no panthers in the area, she did not know, but she went her way unmolested and that was the goal.

Amongst the birdsong and the constant peepings and chirpings, Sula heard the chakera-chakera-chakera! call of a chukar and the loud yaffle of a woodpecker. Up ahead on the track, a small roo hopped into view and gazed at her for a moment, ears flicking and nostrils wrinkling. It washed its face with its front paws and hopped away into the trees again.

Sula approached the edge of the woodland beyond which she could see an expanse of gently rolling grassy foothills dotted with small stands of trees and bushes. The track carried on down to a cluster of Belsamec ruins not far away. She could see horses around the ruins and distant small herds of grazing antelope along with scattered mobs of large grey roos.

Remembering her father’s advice again, Sula chose a tree just inside the woodland, checked its branches for lurking panthers and then sat at its base and became very still and quiet, allowing the land time to speak to her. A warm wind sighed through the branches above and a stag beetle seemed to make a thunderous amount of noise as it pushed its way through the leaf litter which was chaotic with small coppery-coloured lizards hunting insects. A lizard popped up onto her boot, lay still for a few seconds soaking up the sunlight and then dropped back into the litter to continue hunting, while another one popped up to take its place.

The grazing animals were vigilant but seemed generally relaxed and content. The horses were especially interested in a cluster of trees close to the Belsamec ruins. Some were scraping in the grass beneath them with their front hooves while others were reaching up to pull at the branches for leaves and twigs, or possibly apples? Sula wondered if the trees might be an old fruit orchard.

A small hawk flew over the ruins and a flock of pigeons rose up in fright, circled the area a few times and settled back in the same place. Possibly a patch of grain or some other crop. Sula noted the position where the pigeons had gone down and decided the ruins were definitely worth a closer look.

Rana flew ahead again and Sula kept an eye and ear out for him while she walked, trusting him to tell her if there were yellow panthers hiding in the long grass. The roos and antelopes saw her and drifted off a little, wary but not frightened enough to leave the area. The horses were so interested in whatever fruit they had found, they didn't notice her until she was halfway to the ruins. The mares flung their heads up in fright and plunged off through the trees while the stallion charged at Sula with his teeth bared. Sula gave an involuntary squeal and brought her spear up but the stallion veered off before he was close to her and doubled back to find his mares.

Breathing like a bellows, Sula lowered her spear slowly. That was supremely stupid of her. She should have let the horses know she was there before she was close enough to panic them. Panicked herbivores could be as dangerous as predators. The stampede should have taught her that, even if she had forgotten all her father's lessons.

Rana landed on a nearby bush and cocked his head at her.

“Yes, yes, I know!” she said irritably. “The stallion could have killed me and then you wouldn't get any more food out of me!”

She resumed walking and then stopped to look back at the raven, adding “Well, not after you've picked my bones clean anyway!” Rana rukked as though he was laughing and flew up over her head, gliding down towards the ruins.

Sula approached the cluster of trees and found a mix of ripe apples and pears. It wasn't even midsummer yet, so these must be early-ripening trees like those growing close to Tahr Camp's Summerhome. Their fruit spoiled far more quickly than the usual ones which ripened in autumn. Rather than fill her bag, she picked only enough for a couple of days' eating. Rana pecked happily at a windfall the horses had missed while Sula studied the other trees. There were other apple trees with fruit still growing, as well as cherry, plum and apricot. Come autumn this would be a place of abundance if the horses didn't eat everything first.

Emerging on the other side of the orchard, Sula saw the horses had not gone far. They had joined a mob of roos and were staring alertly in her direction. Some of the roos sat upright and studied her too, their heads on a level with those of the horses. Once they were satisfied she was alone and not chasing them, both species resumed grazing.

The ruins were rich with food. Sula discovered grape vines growing rampantly over the remaining walls, many of the bunches ripe enough to pick. Silvery leaved olive trees grew in a thick grove, their branches clustered with green olives. Sula stared at them longingly but decided not to pick them. Green olives were very bitter unless you had the means to cure them. Mulberry trees and raspberry canes were bursting with fruit inside the remains of a walled garden where she also found oyster plants and dug up lots of the long thin roots. There were young potato plants too and she dug some out for replanting closer to home. She filled her bag with as much as it would take, and tied extra bunches of grapes to the spikes on her waistcoat.

Biting into a pear, Sula realised how hungry she was and sat beneath a handsome branching firetree in front of a house which had collapsed inwards in a jumble of rubble, watching the grazing animals while she ate.

Since she was old enough to talk, Sula had pondered on the names of the animals and plants that shared the landscape with the Belt Mountains Kin. To her, there seemed to be so many lost words and so many strange ones. 'Horse' and 'roo' for example. What very different words they were, and what very different creatures the two were, even though they ate much the same thing. Horses ran smoothly on four equal legs while roos bounced on hind legs that were many times larger than the front ones. And odd though the bouncing seemed, it was effective: people had often seen them outstrip horses for speed.

There were many different types of firetrees too. Some had stringy bark, some patchy, some were pure white, others were red. But they were all collectively known as firetrees. The Kin were vaguely aware that the spotted half-wolves had once had a name, and the big, yellow panthers too, but any large cat was now called a panther by the Kin and the Forest Peoples. There were big yellow panthers out in the open grasslands, big buff-grey panthers in the Forest, spotted panthers everywhere and huge striped panthers out in the eastern Forest.

The most dangerous to people were the spotted panthers because they were sneaky and stealthy, lived absolutely everywhere and seemed to have an active liking for human flesh. Fortunately, they also liked dog meat so many a person had been saved by having dogs with them. Out in the grasslands the big yellow panthers were the most dangerous, although they paled in comparison to packs of half-wolves.

The Forest Peoples lived alongside the buff-grey Forest panthers but reported them as accustomed to people and rarely a threat as they preferred the meat of boar and deer and bison. Further east lived the huge striped panthers that had legendary status as the most beautiful and the most powerful of all the predators. They were said to be coloured orange and white like fire, overlaid with deep black stripes. Very occasionally, if a Forest Hunter was injured too badly to survive, they requested their family to carry them into striped panther territory so they could be eaten by the magnificent cats and become one with their beauty and power. The Kin found that quite raw and alarming but they would never say so. The Kin often hunted but they were not Hunters in the way the Forest Peoples were. For the Forest Peoples, hunting was their life and love.

Bears were differentiated into brown or black ones and there still lingered a legend that pure white ones had once lived on the roof of the world but Sula found herself doubting that as she grew older. 'White bears on the roof of the world' was how children described clouds and the legend had probably grown out of that.

So many names had been lost: the long-tailed ground birds that made fine roasts, the tall, whiskered birds with orange backs and grey heads that turned their feathers white to attract females and a myriad of small mammals and birds that were seen only occasionally. The Kin had known their names once, but did not know them now.

A loud chucking and churring from above made her look up. A mammal of some sort was scolding her for being too close to its home in this tree. She did not recognise it, and Sula knew at least the description, if not the name of every bird, mammal and reptile in her patch of the Belt Mountains. It was another indication of how far south she was, of how displaced she had become.

The animal was about the size of a tahr lamb. It had rich, lustrous brown fur, a wedge-shaped head with round, black eyes, large ears, a pink nose, a long bushy, almost squirrel-like tail and stout limbs with formidable-looking claws on the end. It came closer, still scolding her. It did not seem to be at all afraid of her and this oversight on its part, meant that a moment later it was spitted on the end of Sula’s longspear.

Sula bled and gutted it quickly, pulled lots of long grass stems and wrapped them tightly around the creature to stop as much blood dripping from it as she could. The smell of blood was a sure way to attract bears and half-wolves. She tied the animal to her pack, wiped the blood from her spear with another fistful of grass and set off for home immediately. Rana was feasting on the pile of guts so she left him to it.

Walking quickly back up the trail, she stamped her feet in horse dung as an added precaution and kept both hands on her spear. She breathed a little easier once she was back over the bridge and heading up the sandy track into the gully. The sun was getting lower. It must be late afternoon now.

Jynx was asleep again when Sula returned. The girl started awake and tried to sit up properly, shielding her eyes from the light as Sula pulled the door open. Shutting the door, Sula unwrapped the animal, threw the grass into the fire and held it up to show her.

“I don't know what it is,” Sula confessed.

Jynx slid her legs over the side of the bedframe to sit upright and get a closer look. She shook her head. “Not see before. You think good for eat?”

“Let's find out!” Sula replied and laid it on a mat to skin it. Once spitted and roasting over the fire, it smelt so good neither cared that it had no name.

Dusk was falling when Sula went out to the stream to wash the earth off the oyster plant roots and she wondered where Rana was. She carried the roots back inside and set them to roast at the side of the fire.

The girls shared some of the fruits and berries and Sula scraped all the fat she could from the skin and wrapped it around the carcass as it cooked.

When the plant roots were roasted, Sula cut into the meat to check it was cooked through. There was no pinkness so she cut out a small piece and tried it. The meat was delicious. It tasted like a darker version of grouse meat. She cut several pieces onto a woven plate for the two of them to share. It had a slight greasiness to it, but both girls were craving fat by that time. Sula had kept them both fed with proteins and vitamins but their bodies were ravenous for more energy, Jynx especially, after her long illness. After one bite, Jynx began to bolt down the meat like a dog.

“Stop it!” Sula cried. “Slow down and chew it properly or you’ll throw it all up again!”

She had to get up and take the meat away from her in the end. Jynx protested but was too weak to press the point. Sula pushed her away as easily as she would a tiny child, and fed her small pieces at a time.

“Don’t eat like a dog!” Sula admonished, licking her fingers while Jynx did her best to chew slowly.

They ate most of the animal that evening then picked the bones clean and cracked them to get at the marrow the next day.

Full stomachs were a new experience for both of them, especially Jynx, whose body decided that it could function properly again. Sula had to help her outside to the latrine, not something that either of them were comfortable with.

Jynx awake was an entirely new dynamic for Sula, and not one that she was prepared for.


 

*


 

An early morning mist lingered in the trees as Certhia left the roundtent she shared with her family to see if Athene wanted to work on some more beading. They were both getting married at the Summer Festival and Certhia was anxious to finish decorating her new dress with some of the colourful topshells that Athene had collected last summer from the shore of the Sea. Crossing the clearing, she heard one of the dogs bark and looked in the direction of the noise.

There were creatures coming up the track between the trees. She stopped and stared, trying to make out what they were. Bison? No. Bison wouldn't come near a human settlement. But the shapes were too bulky for people. Another dog barked, and Certhia's mother, Parula, emerged from the roundtent. Like Certhia, she stood and stared in puzzlement. Others of Silverbark Band appeared. Everyone stood quiet and still, watching the approach of the creatures which moved slowly but steadily closer.

People, not creatures, Certhia realised, as the shapes detached themselves from the mist. They were people pulling wide travois with large bundles on them.

Regulus, Silverbark's Leader, strode forward to meet them and the lead figure stopped and raised her hood. It was Master Redunca, who should have been far to the south at the Trade Fair with the band of apprentice metalworkers.

The metalworkers should have been away a few more weeks and as Certhia scanned the group of exhausted foot-weary people entering the main clearing, her heart beat faster and faster as she looked at face after face, none of which was Castor's.

“Where's Castor?” she demanded, grabbing at Master Redunca's arm so hard that the woman wrenched it free with some violence and shot her a glare that would have fried anyone with thinner skin. Certhia was unfazed, though she wisely did not attempt to grab the arm a second time.

“Where is he? Where's Castor? Tell me!” Certhia's voice rose in pitch and Parula appeared at her side.

“Certhia, stop it!” she said, urgently, her gaze fixed on the travois cargoes, as the metalworkers laid them down gently all in a line. “They need food and water first!”

Redunca smiled grimly. “We can wait,” she said emphatically, and turned to Regulus. “We need runners sent to gather all the Bands together. But firstly, Hazel Grove, White Willow, Tall Oak and Old Yew.”

Regulus nodded to Cisticola, his second in command, who hurried off to organise it.

“Are Sylvia and Athene here?” Redunca asked. Athene pushed through the crowd with a worried frown, joined a moment later by her mother Sylvia.

Redunca took them to one side and spoke very quietly, and Master Sylvus approached Parula and Certhia to do the same. Athene gave a sudden wail and fell sobbing across one of the travois bundles. Sylvia knelt beside her daughter and hugged her, sobbing too. Certhia stared at them, eyes wide with shock, barely able to hear Master Sylvus' voice over the blood pounding in her head. Castor was missing, somewhere in the Flatlands. Missing. Possibly dead. Possibly captured by the Sick Ones.

Certhia watched while several people helped drag the travois with the body of Master Cinclus on it off to the burial preparation lodge. Sylvia and Athene would grieve in private for a day and then Cinclus would be buried with silverbark seeds in both hands. This was the custom among all the Forest Peoples, the dead were given back to the earth with a nut or seed of the tree of their birth-Band clutched in each hand. That way, the dead gave life. They were reborn as trees. This was also why the metalworkers had gone to the effort of bringing the dead home with them. Nobody ever wanted to be buried away from the Forest. Castor was away from the Forest. Castor might be dead and he was away from the Forest.

Certhia suddenly couldn't breathe and her legs buckled beneath her.


 

Silverbark Band scurried about, bringing platters of cold venison, apples, cheese and berries, along with waterskins and cups of wine for Redunca and Sylvus.

“Thank you,” Redunca said, gratefully. She gestured at the group of youngsters. “We've been pushing hard to get home and we're all a little footsore.”

Benches were brought out and set up in a circle close to the travois. Everyone sat down and as they ate, the Masters recounted what had happened.

A sudden wildfire had split them up and sent them running for the river. The other two Masters, Cinclus of Silverbark and Cardulis of Hazel Grove, had become lost in the smoke and flames looking for the four apprentices who had not made it to the river.

A search the next day found their bodies, along with those of Arvicola and Sitta of White Willow Band.

Of Castor of Tall Oak and Ondatra of Old Yew, no trace had been found.

A scouting group from the Trade Fair had appeared later that day. The fire had also ravaged the site of the Fair and killed two from Shouting River Kin.

Madoqua, a Healer of the Sandhill Folk, had advised them to return home. The Fair could not go ahead this year.

 

“Was it natural, do you think?” Sylvus had asked her, “or deliberately lit?”

Madoqua had shrugged her shoulders. “We don't know, but it's very suspicious for one to start so early in the year and with no visible lightning to spark it.”

“Like the one three years ago,” Sylvus mused.

Madoqua nodded slowly and narrowed her eyes in thought. “You say you have six deaths but only four bodies?”

Sylvus nodded.

“So, four dead and two....missing?”

“Yes,” Sylvus narrowed his eyes too, “and three years ago, didn't Shouting River and Belt Mountains Kin each have one dead and one missing?”

“And ten years before that, five children, including my son, were never accounted for after a wildfire on the last day of the Trade Fair.”

They stared at each other with rising dread.

Madoqua took a shaky breath and said “We may be reading too much into random events but it's always the panther you don't see, that kills you.”

“We should put the idea to everyone,” Sylvus agreed, “I'll spread the word amongst the Forest Peoples and the Belt Mountains Kin.”

Madoqua nodded, “I'll call a Leaders' meeting for the Flatlands people.”

She looked at the bodies laid in a row and put a hand on his shoulder.

“We'll fetch you wrappings and travois poles. Your sorrow is ours.”


 

It was a disquieting notion that some of the accepted deaths through wildfires might be kidnappings instead. That the Sick Ones may have been slyly stealing people for years.

Certhia cried and screamed for days over Castor's disappearance, convinced that he was dead. Her mother stated over and over that his body had not been found, but even she knew that if Castor was now a captive of the Sick Ones his remaining years could be counted on the fingers of one hand.

In the end she gave in and let Certhia grieve.


 

*


 


 

Jynx took over a few of the many chores as she convalesced, weaving more mats for the floor and tending the fire.

Sula had set many more traps in the surrounding area and these gave them more meat than they could eat before it spoiled. With some initial direction from Sula, Jynx had quickly become proficient at slicing up the meat for smoking, scraping the pelts and making new leggings and tunics with them.

Rana had turned up at the door a few days after Sula's trip to the Belsamec ruins and Sula had been grateful for his return.

Inspired by Sula’s spiky waistcoat, Jynx had an idea for the wall above the lintel where the spotted panther had lain in wait for Sula. She wove some small tight mats and pushed long thorns through them. Sula tied the mats together in a long line and then climbed up and arranged them point upwards along the wall top, weighting them at either end with stones. Any panther climbing up there now would find its sensitive paws jabbed by spikes.

Sula was impressed with the innovation and smugly considered it a product of her own good influence.

“Predators are tricky,” Sula explained to Jynx, ignoring that Jynx probably knew as much about them, if not more.

“You want to hurt a predator so it runs away. You don’t want to kill it because a body will attract more predators. The trick is to make yourself too much trouble to eat. Be awkward! Be frustrating! Be difficult!”

Jynx was working on another thorn mat and patiently nodded along with Sula's chatter.

“Eyes in the back of your head are a good deterrent: that's why I made the headband. And try never to bend over if you're alone. When you bend over, even just to look at a track, that’s when you present a back to leap on: that’s when a person looks like a four-legged animal.”

They distributed more of the thorn mats around the outside of the house, behind rocks and patches of scrub that could hide a hunting panther. This gave them the confidence to sit outside in the daylight, rather than hide away in the darkness of the interior.

During these times, they would build a small fire, sit together and work on weaving or curing hides or tool maintenance. Sula would also teach Jynx better speech and tell her about the many customs of the Belt Mountains Kin. She taught Jynx some of her childhood rhymes like the one that kept them quiet on journeys in the wilderness: Raised voice, panther’s choice! And the one the younger children preferred: Shout loud, bear chow!

The little house in the steep-sided gully felt like a hidden place of safety in an uncertain world. When she had first found it, Sula had worried about smoke from the hearth attracting unfriendly people, but the hope that it might attract friendly and sympathetic people had won out. Now, however, nearly three moon-cycles had passed and it seemed there were no people of any kind, friendly or unfriendly, in the area.

One morning, Jynx asked about the sentence she had overhead Sula using all that time ago when she was still hooded and bound. Sula had repeated “What will you do when the levee breaks?” over and over to herself. Afterwards, she had been calmer and less afraid. Jynx felt there was power in those words.

“When the levee breaks?” Sula came out of the house and handed Jynx some pine needle tea in one of the woven cups. “It means that a barrier to danger has fallen and the danger is now free to come and get you.”

She sat down on her grass mat, putting her own tea down beside her and looping some willow twine around her bare feet to begin weaving rope.

“It’s an old saying,” she went on, “so old that no one really knows what a levee is, except that it’s some kind of barrier. But it’s a mark of respect for a person’s goodness or bravery to say to them ‘I know what you’ll do when the levee breaks.’

Jynx paused her mat weaving, fascinated.

“The Forest People use it too.” Sula leaned back to maintain tension on the rope, hands working deftly. “It’s one of the reasons that the Belt Mountains Kin trust them and trade with them. We feel that we were all one people once. They’ll be there for us when the levee breaks, just as we’ll be there for them.” She pinched the end to stop the rope unravelling, then took the loop from around her feet and walked over to put it on a snapped off branch of the gorse bush in which she had first heard the wren sing. The bush was robust enough to take the tension, and Sula carried on with her explanation as she slowly backed away from the branch, weaving as she went.

“The question is used in many ways: if you’re working hard to build something in an unsuitable place, say, a lodge that’s too close to a river. What will you do when the levee breaks?

“If you’re in denial about something, like an argument with someone, you need to deal with the problems, not turn away from them: don't store them up behind a barrier, because what will you do when the levee breaks?

“And it’s used as a way to be honest with yourself, to give yourself courage: how brave are you? How strong and courageous a person can you be? Ask yourself what will you do when the levee breaks?

She tied off the end and walked back to the bush, coiling up the plaited rope as she went. Jynx sipped her tea.

“It’s used to declare love too,” Sula went on. “Real love. People say “I love you” all the time. It’s become almost flippant now. It doesn’t mean as much to us as it may have done to our ancestors. Now, the most profound declaration of love is: ‘I’ll be there for you when the levee breaks.’ It’s only used when it’s truly meant.”

“Anybody say to you?” Jynx asked.

Sula sat down on the mat again, her gaze on the coiled rope as she fiddled with it.

“No,” she replied.

“Your husband not love you like that?” Jynx looked surprised.

“No husband,” Sula sighed.

“You not have husband?” Jynx looked shocked now. “But you are so old!”

“Old?” Sula snapped, “Sixteen is not old! How old are you, anyway?”

Jynx did not understand what ‘sixteen’ meant, and said so.

“It’s a number. Don’t you know how to count?” It was Sula’s turn to look surprised as Jynx shrugged her thin shoulders and looked blank. Jynx had an idea that Ardea the Healer and some of the men of Round Lake Tribe knew numbers, but she herself had never learned to count beyond ten.

A new thought struck her. “You teach?” she asked Sula, “learn me count numbers?”

Sula stared at her. You really think you can learn, don't you? Your people are just animals in our eyes. But you have names and you can talk. You're speaking better every day and now you want me to teach you numbers and counting. But you ripped me away from all that I knew and loved and then fell so ill that I had to spend every moment of every day nursing you, and we are a very long way from my home.

“Yes,” she said, “I'll teach you. But I have a price.”


 

*


 

Jynx was a terrifically fast learner. In only a few days she had mastered counting to fifty and even understood basic addition and subtraction. Her speech had continually improved since waking up from her long illness too, although she sometimes grumbled about the sheer amount of words Sula seemed to think were necessary for conveying the smallest amount of information.

After an evening meal of roast grouse one night, Sula asked Jynx to tell her more about the mysterious disc with the pictures on it.

They sat on their bedframes, facing each other across the hearth and as the story unfolded Sula realised what a totally different world this small, thin girl came from.


 

Jynx began by telling her about Round Lake from which her tribe took its name. An earthquake had diverted the river that fed the lake and the water had become hot and poisonous. The rents in the ground had exposed the disc and Jynx found it one day when walking to check some traps she had set. She had pulled the odd thing from the soil, cleaned it off and become immediately fascinated by the markings on it. She had wrapped it in a rabbit hide and kept it hidden in her packbag.

In the months that followed, Round Lake Tribe, never very robust at the best of times, had become ever more lethargic and sleepy. Some had wasted away and died.

Jynx had become the wife of Corvus on her ninth birthday.


 

“Nine? You were NINE?!!”

Jynx shrugged. “Nine was late. When a girl bleeds she is a woman. Most of Round Lake Tribe are ready to marry at eight.”

“Did you have a 'Coming-of-Age' rite or ritual?”

“I don't know what that means. When a girl comes of age it is made known to the tribe so the men can consider the girl for a wife.”

Sula could not hide the fact that she was appalled but Jynx did not think it an issue. Of course she would not, it was the way she had grown up. For her, it was normal.


 

Jynx had been given a belt and a pendant, made of metal smelted from the rocks close to Round Lake. They signified her husband’s ownership of her. Unusually, Corvus had also given her an earring made of polished stone collected from the shore of Round Lake.

So, Corvus had become her husband, and he was a good husband. He very rarely hit her, and he mated with such energy that Jynx was with child after only a month.

The whole tribe was getting more and more sick and many talked about leaving. Garrulus, their King, had taken ill quite soon, so they were leaderless while he was looked after by Ardea the Healer. But Ardea did not know enough about the affliction to make him well again.

As Garrulus got weaker, he had croaked out a few words, telling the tribe to leave him and to leave Round Lake. The place was infested with bad spirits now. They must find a new place before they all died. He would stay and try to keep the bad spirits interested in him, so they would not follow the tribe.

This was a supreme sacrifice and not one that Ardea would ever have made herself. Not one that any of the tribe would ever make for each other. Relative to the others, Garrulus had been a man of great understanding and deep thinking. He had many children, one of them being Jynx...


 

“He was your father? Jynx I'm so sorry. I know what it's like to lose a father.”


 

...but none of the male children shared his talent for leadership.

Ardea had told the others and the men had got the tribe ready to leave. Ardea had then fed Garrulus a potent drink that would both relieve pain and make him sleep. She had added enough that when he slept, he would not wake up again. That was the kindest thing she could do because without the tribe around him, wild animals would eat Garrulus before he was even dead. The ravens would pluck his eyes while he still breathed. So she gave him the drink and the tribe left and Jynx said a silent goodbye to her father who had been King, leaned on her good husband Corvus and put a hand on her stomach where the new life was beginning. She had hoped that they would find a good place and that her baby would be born into a healthier world.

Jynx had noticed the sores developing on her body, right where the new belt and pendant sat. She also found that her ear and cheek itched constantly, on the side where she wore the stone earring. She contrived to ‘lose’ the earring one evening but she could not discard the belt and pendant without making Corvus angry. She put the sores down to the bad spirits and hoped fervently that now the tribe was on the move, the bad spirits would not be able to track them, and her sores would heal up.

 

During the very first stop to make camp for the night, a tall and hard-muscled man with small eyes and a great, downward-curved beak of a nose in a narrow face, had stood to declare himself King of Round Lake Tribe.

As was the custom, he had fought every male in unarmed combat. He had won every fight. A fire burned in his grey eyes, a flame that would not let him rest or give in. He was brutal and strong and quick in his movements and most of the other men were feeling the effects of the bad spirits and could not put up the fight they might once have given him.

His name was Torgos and when he was declared King, Jynx stared at his narrow, hook-nosed, sweating face in the firelight, and shuddered with fear and foreboding. She did not like him or trust him and her instincts were right because almost immediately that Torgos was King, he became self-satisfied and demanding of others. He commanded that his meals be brought to him, that men and women both should kneel when they wanted to speak to him. And he demanded from Ardea that she teach him the secret of brewing war drink. Ardea was dismayed at the request because it was always the Healer who brewed the drink. But Torgos was King and a King could change the rules. So she instructed him in the proper brewing of the potent drink and felt as though she was letting down every Healer back through time to the beginning of the world. She did what she must though, to stay alive. Better that Torgos knew the drink, than him kill her for not telling him and then make the secret lost forever.

They needed food and here, Jynx could help the whole tribe with her tracking skills. She had a knack for following a trail. She could see the tiniest signs and make the right decisions. She found panther tracks mixed with antelope, read the trail correctly and led the tribe to a yellow panther kill.

The panthers were two young males and they fled when they saw the number of people approaching. The tribe dined well on antelope meat that night and Torgos nodded approvingly at Jynx while he was handed the first cooked portion.

Jynx found herself an unwelcome recipient for Torgos’ attention soon after that. Torgos would find excuses to have her brought to him or he would ‘encounter’ her by accident away from the others. Jynx turned away from him every time she encountered his ugly, lascivious face. For the moment she was protected by the laws of the tribe. A woman who belonged to a man could not be mated by any other man unless the husband gave permission, and even then, it would be seen as strange.

Corvus did not know about Torgos’ fixation on Jynx and she did not tell him for fear that he would give permission to the hated Torgos. She would rather die than mate with that man. Torgos backed off when Jynx announced her pregnancy to the tribe but the bad spirits must have followed them from Round Lake because half way through the term, Jynx lost the baby. Corvus was angry with her, as was his right, but not for long. Other pregnant women were losing their babies too. The tribe implored Torgos to find them a settled home range, as was the task of a King.

Torgos led them north and east, saying he knew where to find a good range with lots of meat to hunt and people to steal. So they came into the savannah land that flanked Tahr Camp’s mountain home. They attacked any travellers they encountered. Sometimes taking them alive as slaves after plundering their food and weapons, but not always.

Torgos had taken a wife but his fixation on Jynx remained. Jynx was mystified as to why he seemed so obsessive about her. She was no more attractive than the next woman and she had never made any sexual advances towards him. The more Torgos stared at her while thrusting into his wife, the more apprehensive she became. Corvus did not seem to notice anything going on but the women of the tribe did and Jynx found herself shunned by all of them. As if it was her fault, as if she had asked for it.

The strange disc became the only thing in her life that she could think about without all the badness pressing in on her. It was her own secret, special thing that no one knew about, and it helped her through the uncertainty.

The day that two scouts came back to report a tribe of the mountain people on the move south, was the day that Jynx knew Torgos was going to do something very bad. He was either going to take her despite the taboo, or he was going to kill Corvus, which would give him free access to Jynx because any widowed woman by custom became an extra wife of the King.

Torgos ordered an attack on the mountain people and brewed up war drink to make sure that it happened. It was just a raid for tools and food and weapons he said, soothing their collective anxiety. The tribe knew they were in no shape to attack a group of healthy people. A raid for snatching supplies was different though. Their appearance was usually enough to scare other tribes of peoples, and then the taking of food and tools was easy.

Jynx was not fooled by the smiles of the hook-nosed man. She knew he planned something dirty and asked Corvus not to go on the raid. Corvus had slapped her in irritation but Jynx had grabbed his arm and pleaded with him. Torgos was going to kill him, she was sure. But she could not say that outright, not without being banished from the tribe. No one could accuse a King of murder or crime of any sort. Corvus had shaken her off and walked away, still not completely forgiving her for the loss of their child.

His rejection of her had changed Jynx in that moment as she watched him walk away from her in the morning light and accept a cup of war drink from Torgos. In her mind, she equated the act with Corvus handing her over to the despicable new King and she made a decision right where she stood. She decided “No.”

Turning away, she walked as casually as she could to her pack bag and sat down beside it. She took a knife and whetstone from the pack and made a show of sharpening the blade. It was good iron, taken from a group of people travelling south from the Great Forest.

Jynx ran the whetstone in a soothing rhythm up the length of the blade. Sccccccrrrape. Scccccccrrrape. Scccccrrape. And as she scraped, she formulated a plan.

The more of war drink the others drank, the more chaotic became the campground. People were milling about and staggering, starting fights and throwing up.

Jynx used the confusion to sidle quietly away into the trees on the edge of the campground. Once inside, she slung her pack over her shoulder and began to move much faster, disappearing quickly into the woodland. She stopped to remove the pendant and the belt, burying them deep under the leaf litter and covering them over to leave no trace of disturbance. It was an incredibly rebellious act and it would get her badly beaten or possibly even killed. Jynx did not care. She had truly had enough. She had lost her baby through no fault of her own. She was being hounded by Torgos, through no fault of her own. The belt and the pendant were causing her real physical pain on top of the deep-seated irritation she felt about belonging to Corvus, as though she was just a tool. The other women, instead of offering her help, were shunning her because of the Torgos situation.

Jynx needed to get away from all of them. Her thinking was that if she could find someone who could understand the markings on the disc, it might give her a way to banish the bad spirits that were affecting the whole of Round Lake Tribe. If she could just get away from them for a while, maybe she could return triumphant: chase away the bad spirits and allow the tribe to prosper again?

As she started walking, a large lizard started up from the leaf litter and tried to run clumsily away. Jynx speared it quickly, taking it as a good sign that what she planned was the right thing to do. She put it in her pack as a welcome meal for later.

She scouted the area and found what she now knew to be Sula’s people, Tahr Camp of the Belt Mountains Kin, walking south in a cheerful and unhurried way. Walking with the confidence of knowing the landscape and knowing they had good weapons and good numbers.

Jynx shadowed them, careful to keep away from the many dogs and stay downwind. As the day moved towards evening, the people found a suitable campground just off the wide trail and spilled into it like a river finding a new course.

One girl did not. One girl looked to the right and saw something, and moved to follow whatever it was. Jynx had been way over on the left of the campground, so she had looped out widely and tracked the girl’s footsteps, finally catching up to her just as the tall animal with the striped legs had glided into view. It was a very odd animal, the strangest she had ever seen.

She moved towards the mountain girl as silently as she could but the girl was so focused on the creature that Jynx felt she could have snapped every dry twig and still not been noticed...


 

Sula winced and shifted position with an embarrassed cough.


 

...And most of the rest, Sula knew. Jynx had been just as startled when the noise of the attack started. She had hit Sula quickly because she was desperate for her not to return to the others, desperate that Round Lake Tribe should not know about this girl.

The rush of fear had lent Jynx enough strength to drag Sula away. She had gone as far as her strength allowed, then sat quietly and listened as the night deepened. She had heard the noises of Tahr Camp moving downstream but they were far enough away not to worry her. Of Round Lake Tribe she heard nothing and that made her breathe a little easier. Eventually, she had got a fire going and tried to make her captive more comfortable. She gutted the lizard, laid it in the side embers of the fire to roast and settled down to wait for the mountain girl to wake up.

Then came the days of running. Jynx hated treating Sula the way she did but it was important for both of them to get far away from Round Lake Tribe. It was also important that Sula should not be able to run home the moment Jynx released her.

Jynx needed time to get her to understand what she wanted. Without the constant pain of the belt and pendant, Jynx felt a lot better and part of the running may have been a need to leave those objects far behind her.

Each time she made camp, she would leave Sula there and check back up their trail, hiding it and creating false side trails and listening for pursuit.

After a few days...


 

“A few? It was more than five days!”


 

...Jynx had decided it was time to release her captive. The constant angry questions and mutterings that came from the mountain girl made Jynx more than a little apprehensive about setting her free. She knew the girl was going to be absolutely furious, so when she cut her wrist bindings, she left her feet tied together to slow her down a bit.

After that had come the stampede and the wildfire, and Jynx had virtually no memory at all of what had happened since she went into the river. She had been lost in a nightmare world of pain and terror from which she had at last emerged to see Sula’s sleeping face across the hearth from her.

When Sula opened her eyes and smiled at her, Jynx had felt as if she were a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis.

A fresh new creature shaking off the husk of the old one.

 

End of Chapter 4

 

Join MovellasFind out what all the buzz is about. Join now to start sharing your creativity and passion
Loading ...