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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3. Worm Stew

 

 

Chapter 3: Worm Stew

(((First draft)))

 

 

The heat of summer could be felt even up in the high meadows of the Belt Mountains where Tahr Camp made their Summerhome.

Summer had always been Sula’s favourite time of year. Long days when the land swelled with life: hummed and pulsed with it. Flower scents tangling in the shimmering air with birdsong curling through them.

Summer was a time for relaxing, as much as Tahr Camp ever relaxed. Gatherings for meals were more common and work tended to stop in time for a swim in the lake followed by enjoyable evenings of music, song and stories.

Spring Festival brought all of the Camps together but each Camp also celebrated their own Midsummer, Autumn and Midwinter festivals too, with much exchange of people attending them. Anthus had family and friends coming to visit from Horse Camp for Summer Festival this year, while some of Rissa’s cousins were going down to Bee Camp for the same.

“Rissa? Are you listening?”

Rissa jumped and dragged her gaze away from the mountain meadow to focus on her cousin Netta sitting beside her on the bench.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “what did you say?”

Netta shook her reddish curls back from her face and looked exasperated. “I asked if you’re coming to Gavia’s tonight. She’s cooking that huge taimen salmon she caught this morning.”

Rissa’s gaze became vacant. “Maybe,” she answered, turning back to the meadow. Food and company did not interest her these days.

 

Upon reaching Spring Festival, Tahr Camp had lingered in a tight huddle on the edge of the festival ground while Sterna sought out Otus, the big-framed broad-shouldered leader of Mountain-roo Camp. He had called an urgent meeting with the other Camp Leaders and very quickly after that a mass meeting had been convened in Mountain-roo’s huge communal roundhouse.

Rissa remembered crowding into the high-roofed building, hugging Morus and being jostled by bodies. She had become separated from Anthus and the others and felt her fear and anger rise by degrees.

Otus had climbed up onto the raised platform usually reserved for musicians and storytellers and called for quiet in his deep sonorous voice – his wide shoulders and massive ribcage gave his voice an authority like thunder.

Quiet descended and he introduced Sterna who cleared her throat and tried to sound calmer than she looked.

“Tahr Camp were attacked at a campground by the North Road three days ago. It was a band of the Sick Ones.”

The room erupted with fear and Otus used every bit of his commanding volume to quiet everyone down again.

“The Ritual of 3 has been performed!” he stated. “There is no danger of infection!”

Sterna stood with her head down, fighting for composure. Otus put a hand on her shoulder. “Go on, Sterna.”

She raised her head and breathed deeply, straightening her shoulders. “The Sick Ones were after food and tools. Some of us were injured but no one died, and we killed three of them.” She paused again then went on “We did lose one person though. My daughter Sula went missing just before the attack. We hoped she would find her way here, but...”

A lean wiry man with grey eyes and grizzled hair pushed his way to the platform. “I’m willing to lead a tracking party,” he said. “We can look for Sula and find out where the Sick Ones are hiding.”

Rissa recognised him as Pernis of Gazelle Camp. A famously brilliant tracker. She saw her mother nod gratefully to him as murmurs of agreement sounded through the crowd.

Anthus had found her in the press of bodies. She handed Morus to him, and slid behind him as he turned to face the platform. She put her arms around his waist and leaned her cheek on his shoulder blade, listening to the discussions, worrying about her sister lost out there somewhere and silently thanking the GrandMothers that she still had her son and her husband. She tightened her embrace, remembering how she had killed to protect Morus and accepting the fact that she would do so again if she had to.

Pernis and his tracking party, which included Asio and Loxia from Tahr Camp, had left early the next morning and were gone for five days while Spring Festival carried on as close to normal as could be expected.

Rissa had tried to enjoy the festival but she danced very little and spent most of her time in the company of friends from other Camps catching up on news and gossip. Dancing reminded her too sharply of Sula, especially Strip the Willow – Sula’s favourite dance. Rissa felt choking tears creeping up on her every time she tried a turn on the dance floor.

When the tracking party returned everyone crowded into the huge roundhouse again which nearly burst at the seams, despite its size, with close on five hundred bodies vying for space. Rissa had stayed outside by the door this time, close enough to hear but away from the suffocating crowd, feeling sick at the thought of what the trackers might or might not have found.

The news was not encouraging. The Sick Ones had gone east into the mountains after travelling several days south and setting a brushfire going. No sign of Sula had been found. It was as though she had vanished off the face of the earth. If she had been caught in the fire there was scant hope that she might have survived. Rissa really had been sick then, rushing off around the back of the building she had retched until she felt turned inside out. Anthus had found her kneeling down with her face in the dirt, sobbing uncontrollably. He had picked her up and held her tightly until she calmed enough for him to clean her face with his sleeve.

Tahr Camp left for Summerhome the following day, travelling with Horse Camp for safety in numbers.

Rissa had made the journey in a daze, wrapped in sadness and wondering if the hole that Sula left would ever heal. Sterna had handed over leadership to Grus, knowing that she needed time to grieve. A Camp Leader lived for others but she or he was always mindful that on occasion the self was more important and time must be allowed it.

 

Netta’s face softened and she stroked a strand of Rissa’s light hair. “I’m so sorry about Sula.”

Rissa drew in a breath and shifted on the bench, laying aside the fox hide she had been scraping. “It’s been more than a moon-cycle now,” she said quietly, her eyes still fixed on the far side of the meadow where the track disappeared down the slope. She watched it constantly, ever hopeful that Sula would appear over the rise. Alive and well, and home at last.

“All those survival skills your father taught us when we were small,” Netta went on, “they were exactly for this kind of situation. Finding yourself alone and cut off from family. Sula has the skills to get herself home again.”

Rissa nodded. “I feel that she’s alive,” she admitted, “but I also think she would be home by now if she was free to make the journey. So that makes me think the Sick Ones took her. And the trackers said the Sick Ones crossed the mountains to the eastern side. I said this to Mother but she won’t send anyone to look for her. She says it’s too dangerous, that there aren’t enough of us to take the risk.”

Netta put an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close.

“You can’t keep coming out here every day, watching and hoping. Anthus is very worried about you and Morus misses you.”

Rissa sighed in resignation. She had been leaving Morus in the care of Picus and Sabini, her grandparents, while Anthus worked on repairs and maintenance of the lodges and roundhouses and she kept her lonely vigil from the bench, working on small tasks and saying very little to any who approached her.

“Come to Gavia’s tonight,” Netta insisted. “Be with others.”

Rissa looked up at the sky, a gorgeous blue with high white clouds, and thought of the many times her sister had come home in the evenings with tales of wolf cubs playing amongst summer flowers, of gangly young roos taking their first hops outside the pouch, of fledgling songbirds perching on her outstretched arms and eating seeds from her hands. However far she roamed, Sula had always come home again.

“We’ve abandoned her, Net,” she said sadly, “we’ve given up on her.”

“No, Riss, your mother still asks all the traders and Forest People for news of her – and of the Sick Ones too. She’s looking for Sula in the only way she can. She’s not been forgotten, not by any of us.”

Netta was right and Rissa knew it.

But if I stop waiting for her, it’ll mean that I’ve abandoned her. That I don’t have any hope left that she’ll come home.

But she couldn’t continue this way. She had responsibilities to her family and the rest of Tahr Camp. Her son needed her and so did Anthus.

It’s up to you, dear sister, to get yourself home.

Rissa picked up the hide and scraper and rose to her feet.

“Morus hasn’t tried taimen yet,” she said.

Netta smiled and stood up too.

“Let’s find some fresh garlic bulbs and take them to Gavia. Taimen is always better with garlic.”

Rissa nodded, “I’ll pick some rosemary too.”

She took another look at the empty meadow.

One day.

 

*

 

A moon-cycle ended and another one passed before the Sick girl showed signs of improvement. The sweats and vomiting gradually subsided and the groaning abated as the pain lessened.

             Sula awoke one morning to bright shafts of sunlight coming through the door chinks and clamouring birdsong filling the gully. She had slept right through the night and well into the morning.

            Sitting up in sudden dread she looked over at the Sick girl, heart pounding in fear that her patient had died during the night. Relief washed over her when she saw the girl’s chest moving normally and she collapsed flat again with her hands on her forehead until her breathing slowed.

            Calming down, Sula got to her feet and stretched, feeling rested for the first time in longer than she could remember. She scrubbed a hand through her hair and huffed at its stiff, greasiness. Looking down at her tunic she noticed it was filthy and full of holes.

            She built up the fire and dropped some flints into it to heat. A rigorous scrub with pine needle tea and a rinse in the stream would do both her and the tunic a lot of good. She wished she had something to wash her hair with and pondered whether fire ash might help. Or mud? She ran her fingers through the matted tangles. Didn’t the GrandMothers wash their hair with mud before they learned how to make soap? It was worth a try. It wasn’t as though she could make it much worse.

            Once the tea was steeped, she opened the door a crack and whistled softly to the young raven who glided down to land near the doorway. If a predator was about the raven would be hanging back and rukking alarm calls. Sula was beginning to rely on the bird’s vigilance and fervently hoped it would stay around until she was able to begin her journey home.

            She scooped a bowlful of tea from the waterskin cauldron, picked up her longspear and walked down to the stream bank, scanning all around despite the raven’s nonchalance.

            It was late morning and very warm: hopefully the kind of heat that made panthers drape themselves along shady tree branches and doze languidly until the cool of the evening.

            Sula scrubbed herself down and soaked the tunic in the last of the tea, laid her spear to hand and stepped into the knee-high water of the stream to splash herself off and rinse the tunic. Ringing it out, she draped it on a bush to dry, dunked her head and then grabbed handfuls of mud from the streambed to work into her wet hair, smiling as she imagined her sister’s reaction. Rissa was so clean and neat she’d be horrified at the thought of rubbing mud into her hair.

            Sula sat down in the stream and rinsed the mud out thoroughly. It was the first time in a long while that she’d thought about Rissa. The first time she’d really thought about anything beyond the daily grind of foraging and caring for the Sick girl.

            Her hair really did feel cleaner now and she used her fingers to ease out the tangles. Her forehead wrinkled as she remembered putting her bone comb in her pack when Tahr Camp set out for Spring Festival. Was it still in there? How long had it been since she had thought about combing her hair?

            The tunic dried quickly in the heat and she shrugged it back on over clean skin, feeling refreshed and invigorated. Walking back to the house, she searched through her packbag and found that the bone comb was indeed still inside it. It had fallen into a fold near the bottom. She pulled it out and went to sit in the sunlight in the open doorway, teasing out the knots in her hair as best she could and resorting to her knife for the worst ones.

            With the Sick girl now sleeping deeply for long periods, Sula was able to roam a little further from the house and spend more time foraging. Flocks of finches and doves let her know where grain was growing. Tracks in the dusty earth spoke of rabbits and the young raven often led her to hidden places where squirrel or ground bird nests could be found.

            She discovered a stunted Carob tree, squatting on a rock like an old wise-woman, and took to sitting in its company most afternoons, chewing on the sweet seedpods and throwing seeds to the young raven who caught them out of the air every time. The twisted old tree was across the gully from the house and a little further upstream. From her position Sula could see up and down the gully a good way, and keep an eye out for any scavengers or predators approaching the house.

            The young raven tired of Carob seeds and moved off to forage along the waterside. It pounced on a frog but did not get the grip right, and the amphibian popped out of its bill and plunked into the water.

The raven rukked in indignation and flapped back up to Sula, who laughed and threw some more seeds.

“You found your name, raven! I name you ‘Rana’, which means ‘little frog’.” The raven rukked again and flew up to perch in the Carob tree, where it began to preen its feathers.

“I used to have a friend called Rana,” Sula said, wistfully. “He was a Forest boy.” The raven launched itself from the branches above her and flew over to the house to look for scraps around the doorway.

            Bands of the Forest Peoples often came to Tahr Camp’s Summerhome to trade their fine metalworkings, along with salted seafish, deer and bison jerky, pure salt, hazelnuts and dried berries, for milk and cheese, potatoes and woven fabrics. The Forest Peoples kept no animals except hunting dogs, so they needed the milk for their children. Sula’s mother said it made them grow stronger more quickly and the women did not have to feed them at the breast for so long.

            For as far back as she could remember Sula had sat with her mother while she traded with the Forest People whose speech sung about the edges and flowed like a young river in spring. Sula would stare entranced at the tall, strong women and men who moved so gracefully and smelled so sharp and wild and wore colourful hides decorated with nutshells, seashells and beads. Skilled and undaunted, the Forest People hunted animals as big as the huge bison and it was said that they did not fear even the biggest predators. Sula’s brother Crex had shyly asked them once if they had ever hunted dragons, to which the reply had been gales of laughter. They said that dragons were just a made-up story, like those tales that spoke of lands where no rain fell and no trees grew or the bizarre claims of western Bands of the Forest People that they had seen tall forests of stone scattered with the remains of metal beasts.

Bands in the far northwest even said they had seen rain turn white and float down like falling blossoms into cold drifts that covered everything. The Forest People laughed even louder then, and said that northwest Bands made a potent drink from potatoes and juniper berries: no one could really believe things that the western Bands said.

One trading day, when she was five years old, Sula had asked a Forest child of similar age where the bright, pretty shells that adorned the Forest People’s tunics came from. He had taken his finger from his mouth and turned his wide-eyed gaze away from the activity among the tall roundhouses of Tahr Camp – the milling, noisy Tahr flock heading out to pasture; the children and puppies racing about with sticks and scraps of leather; the skins of milk being taken into the cool-house for cheese-making; the people digging potatoes, picking herbs, working wood and sewing cloth – and tried to focus on Sula who had had to repeat her question.

“Sand,” he finally replied.

“Sand?”

“Shells in the sand, on the beach.”

Sula had solemnly processed the information for a moment, before saying: “What’s a beach?”

The boy had thought hard. “Sandy beach, by the sea,” he had said, and moved his fingers in memory of dry sand pouring through them.

“Sea?”

He had then spread his arms wide and run around in a circle laughing, “Big lake, big, big, big, big, BIG, BIG lake!”

Sula had shrieked with laughter too and joined him as he rushed forwards and backwards to demonstrate waves, imitated the calls of seabirds and mimicked their undulating flight above the waves.

            His name was Rana of Tall Oak Band, and they became friends who sought each other out at each trading visit. They often exchanged little gifts of bright feathers or interesting stones and their respective mothers indulged the friendship for a few years until they became worried about a more permanent attachment. Tahr Camp and the Forest Peoples did not intermarry. This was not due to formal taboo but from past experience.

            Forest people had tried to live with several Camps of the Belt Mountains Kin but could not get used to the wide-open spaces and had been frustrated by the limited seasonal movement. Feeling at once too exposed and too trapped, the Forest people had nearly driven themselves mad and had to be escorted back north to their own country. Over the years, a scattering of Belt Mountains Kin had tried to become Forest people but had eventually walked out of the trees in search of just that settledness and openness that had driven the others back in.

            As they passed the age of nine, Rana began learning to hunt and to work metal, so his mother took to leaving him behind when she went to trade. Sula cried a lot at first, but she soon found her attention distracted by the need to constantly catch her determined younger sister Rissa who was adamant that she was going to find this ‘sea’ that lay north of the Forest.

            Sula had not seen Rana for nearly seven years now. During those years, she had often daydreamed about going north to find him and marry him when she became a woman: indulged the idea that she could become a Forest woman, when no others of the Kin had managed it before.

Such was Sula’s determination when she formed an idea in her head, that she might very well have carried out her plan had womanhood not eluded her. Her thirteenth year passed without blood or Coming-of-age rites. Her fourteenth and fifteenth years likewise. Now that her sixteenth year had arrived, she was fast losing hope of ever becoming a woman, and thoughts of finding Rana again had faded away years before.

            Shifting her shoulders against the rough Carob bark, it occurred to Sula that her failure to bleed made her marginally safer from predators out here. Bears in particular, were attracted to the smell of blood. It was a small piece of consolation. Perhaps she would survive to make it home after all. Certainly no one would find her here, if anyone was looking, which she doubted.

            She felt a sudden wave of longing for the noise and bustle of Tahr Camp. She hoped the Sick girl’s words were true: that her tribe had only raided for food. Whatever had happened, Tahr Camp would have carried on to Mountain-roo Camp, as that was closer than going home again.

And as for looking for her...even if everyone were alive and unharmed after the attack, someone would have to happen upon her trail by accident given that she had wandered a good way off into the woodland before the attack started. And if someone did find it, presuming the Sick girl had not hidden it and that it was still readable, the trail would end where the brushfire had begun and she would be presumed dead in the flames.

Every scenario that Sula played out in her head ended with one or other conclusion – either she was dead, or she was alive but nobody had the first idea where to start looking for her. And both conclusions produced the same despairing end result: that nobody would ever come looking for her.

Sula had been looking forward to Spring Festival more than ever this year, as Limosa’s husband Grus had devised a brand new dance that he was going to teach everyone at the festival. Sula missed dancing and felt quite despondent that she hadn’t been there to see Grus perform a new one. She longed for a rhythm again. A chance to move and spin and laugh at the boys and wonder if this year her body would mature and she would be eligible to marry.

Rissa had been looking forward to Spring Festival too and Sula wondered idly if she’d had a good time. She caught herself and clapped a hand over her mouth in sudden shame. Did Rissa have fun at the Festival? How much fun would Sula herself have had if Rissa had been the one to go missing? How much dancing and feasting would she herself have indulged in? Her mother was right. Sula did not give enough thought to other peoples’ feelings. She was selfish in a society where selflessness was prized.

Sula wrapped her arms around her head and mumbled “I’m so sorry, Riss! I’m sorry, Mother! I’m sorry, Rallus! I’m sorry, Crex! I shouldn’t have gone off by myself!”

Spring Festival was long over and Tahr Camp would be at Summerhome by now. Up in the high meadows, cleaning out the lodges and roundhouses to make them habitable again. Planting potatoes, gathering up the shaggy, goatlike Tahr flock that had been living wild for almost a whole moon cycle, taming the creatures again, drawing milk from them to make cheeses and pulling hair to weave into cloaks and groundcovers. 

Life for Tahr Camp would carry on the same way it had for 198 years. That was what the calendar keepers in Bee Camp said. 198 years since the GrandMothers had come to the Belt Mountains from far away. From south and west and east. They had led and carried their children, fed them, fought for them and protected them from predators. The GrandMothers had kept going even after the GrandFathers had all died from lack of hope. The GrandMothers had stayed strong for their children.

            And Sula’s mother and sister and brothers and cousins would stay strong without her there. They would mourn her and carry on. Her disappearance might be painful at first, but as time passed, they would think of her less and less.

            Sula felt the hollowness again. What was she at home? What status did she have? How respected was she? Well, nothing, none and not at all, in answer to those questions. Her penchant for shirking chores in favour of watching birds fly or horses gallop did not endear her even to her own mother.

            Perhaps they would look on her more favourably if she survived and made it home? She felt a thrill of pride, imagining her homecoming. Walking out of the wilderness to a shocked and delighted welcome.

            There would be feasts and dancing, and probably a tour of the other Camps to pass on what she had learned of the southern part of the mountains, and how she had survived against all the odds, with no dogs and no others to help.

            The afternoon waned into evening and Sula left her Carob companion to leap back over the narrow stream and return to the house.

This strange adventure could be exactly what a purposeless girl needed. A chance to be someone: to accomplish something. If the Sick girl pulled through, Sula could take her home and present her like the living equivalent of a prize kill – Look! I have made a Sick One well again!

            Her resolve to return home to Tahr Camp hardened into a certainty. She imagined it as an event in the future, fixed and waiting for time to catch up to it and make it real. It gave her something to hold on to during wakeful nights, when panthers roared in the hills and darkness blanketed the gully.

What will you do when the levee breaks?

She would stare into the muted glow of the fire and murmur over and over:            

“The levee breaks but I do not – the levee breaks but I do not – the levee breaks but I do not.”

 

*

The heat of the forge and the ring of hammer on metal allowed Castor to forget his surroundings and imagine that he was back in the Forest again. Ondatra worked the bellows, keeping the charcoal hot for each return of the iron rod that Castor was using to make door hinges.

They had smelted the iron from ore and poured it into forms to make rods ever since they had arrived over a moon-cycle ago. There was a lot of iron ore piled in a heap in a shed beside the forge. Castor didn’t know how these people had recognised it. They didn’t seem to know about anything other than oppression and cruelty.

However, someone had been working this forge before he and Ondatra had arrived: someone with knowledge and pride in their work. Tools hung neatly on finely made wall brackets. Charcoal was piled in a large pottery urn, ready for use. The stone anvil had been shaped and smoothed with care. Whoever the previous metalworker had been, Castor had the impression that he or she had been experienced and methodical, maybe even a Master. Which begged the question – where was this metalworker now?

            He wanted to ask Nesolagus but he and Ondatra had been worked so hard that time for talking with the others was impossible to find. Meals were brought to them in the forge and they were shut up separate from the others at night.

           

Nesolagus had managed to sneak out and speak to them the first night after they had been marched, bound and hooded into whatever settlement this was. The hoods had only come off when they were shoved into a storage hut amongst baskets of potatoes and left there with no food or water.

            He and the younger boy had used their teeth to free themselves of the bindings on their wrists and fruitlessly searched the dark, windowless hut for a way out.

            “What’s going to happen to us?” Ondatra had whispered in fear. Castor felt a need to reassure the younger boy even though fear and dread coursed through his own veins.

            “They knew we were metalworkers,” he whispered in reply, “I think they set the wildfire going to catch us – any of us. They must have a need for metalworkers here. Wherever ‘here’ is.”

            “They wanted to ‘catch’ us? Like animals? Are they the Sick Ones?”

            “No, they spoke and they had a boat. I’ve never heard of Sick Ones speaking or knowing how to sail. Or building huts like this,” he added, thumping the plank wall.

            “But nobody ‘catches’ people any more,” Ondatra whispered in puzzlement. “Nobody takes people away against their will. Are these new people? Ones we’ve never heard of?”

            “They must be,” Castor admitted uneasily.

Ondatra began to cry and Castor put an arm around his shoulders in the gloom. The light coming through gaps between the planks faded as night fell. Ondatra tried to stifle his sobs and gulped out a whispered: “Will anyone come and save us?”

            “Of course they will,” Castor lied, “but it’ll take them some time to find us.”

Ondatra’s breathing became more even as he took comfort from the older boy’s words. Castor remembered the boat ride and the long walk afterwards. He had no idea where they were but he was sure it was a very long way from the place where the wildfire had scattered them all. Both of them would be presumed dead in the flames.

No one would ever come looking for them.

The boys remained silent and wakeful as darkness deepened outside. Late in the night they were startled by a gentle tap on the wall of the hut.

A woman’s voice whispered: “I am Nesolagus of the Lowland Kinfolk of the Mountainland Islands. What are your names?”

Her voice had a slightly exotic accent that Castor had never heard before. The Mountainland Islands were likewise unknown to him. He was silent for a beat then whispered back: “I am Castor of Tall Oak Band of the Forest Peoples.”

Ondatra drew a shaky breath and added “I am Ondatra of Old Yew Band of the Forest Peoples.”

            “Good,” the woman said. “You must remember that. It’s hard to hold on to who you are in this place.”

“What is this place??” Castor asked, urgently.

            “There’ll be time enough for you to learn that. I cannot stay long. There’s a hole beneath the wall at the back here. I’ll push some food and a waterskin through it. Hide the waterskin and cloth back in the hole when you’ve finished.”

They felt their way towards the sound as Nesolagus pushed a cloth-wrapped bundle and the waterskin into the hut.

            “Thank you!” Castor said hoarsely, not knowing if he could trust her but willing to take a chance.

            “Be strong,” the woman replied. “Do what they tell you to avoid beatings but hold on to who you are inside.” Then she was gone as silently as she had arrived.

            Delicious smells arose from the bundle: it contained several strips of dried meat and some slivers of dried apple along with four round flatbreads. Fumbling a little in the darkness, the boys ate quickly and drank gratefully from the waterskin before pushing it back into the hole with the cloth. As dreadful a situation as they were in, the boys took some comfort from this act of kindness. It seemed they had an ally here.

            The next morning a squat, bald, well-muscled man wearing a close-fitting leather vest and loose cloth leggings had opened the hut door. He wore a long knife on each hip and two large boar tusks on a leather cord around his thick neck.

            “Out! Both of you!” he barked, in the same churring accent that Castor remembered from their capture.

            Eyes blinking and smarting in the sunlight, they had stumbled outside to find themselves in a village of sorts. To the left, a stone building and various wooden and cob ones with thatched roofs formed a ragged square, in the centre of which stood a tall, bare wooden post. To the right, just beyond the square, was a high wooden pallisade fence surrounded by a sparse woodland of conifers. A thatched roof peeking above the fence showed there was another building behind or within it. Castor could hear a river somewhere behind him, while flat, open grassland behind the square to the left marched right up to a steep slope coated with scrub and dotted with trees. They were in a deep river valley somewhere but that was all Castor had time to learn before the squat man began bellowing at them again.

            “I am Scrofa and you will listen to me! You were caught trespassing on lands that belong to Lord Varanus!” The man called Scrofa paced up and down before them, knives glinting in the sunlight.

            “So you will work for Lord Varanus,” he went on, “until he decides that you have earned your freedom.”

            Eyes fixed on the knives, Castor and Ondatra remained warily silent.

            “If you try to leave, we will hunt you and catch you, if the desert ghosts outside Water Valley don’t get you first!”

            The way he said ‘Water Valley’ made Castor sure it was the name of the settlement. Desert ghosts...he had heard that term during their capture.

....we’ll feed you to the desert ghosts, you and the little boy too....

“You will work in the forge,” Scrofa’s voice lanced through his thoughts, “and you will make only what you are told to make. You will speak to no one else until Lord Varanus allows it. If you work hard you will be fed. If not, you will go hungry!”

Scrofa had then taken them into the square to the stone building, which housed the forge. He gestured at a pile of iron ore lumps on the floor and snapped: “Get the metal out of that today and you’ll earn a feed!” then turned and left without another word.

Bewildered and disoriented, the boys set to work immediately because it was a relief to do something familiar.

Scrofa came back after a little while, with a pottery jug of water and two cups. Barking a curt order to follow him, he showed them a latrine pit out behind the forge, where they urgently relieved themselves. He had then herded them back inside the forge and left again.

 

Castor finished hammering the final hinge and used a pair of tongs to plunge it into a wooden bucket of water to harden and temper it.

He and Ondatra had discovered they worked well together. The younger boy was skilled at smelting and was eager to learn from Castor’s greater knowledge and experience of working the iron.

Currently, Ondatra was sitting on a low bench resting from the bellows work. Looking thin and weary and unkempt, he scrubbed a hand through hair that was stiff from lack of washing.

“They’re not coming to save us, are they?” he said with resignation.

Castor laid the finished hinge on the anvil and stood staring down at it.

“I’m sorry, Ondie,” he raised his eyes to the younger boy, “but no. No one’s coming to save us.”

 

*

 

“Rana!” Sula exclaimed at the young raven, “do I have to rescue you again?

!

            The bird hopped and flapped about in distress outside the doorway, trying to dislodge a tiny young snake that had wound itself around the raven’s bill to avoid being swallowed.

            Sula steadied the bird with one hand, unwound the reptile and pulled its head from the fearsome beak, flinging the little snake into the bushes before it could bite.

            Rana pecked her on the wrist and flew up to the lintel above the door where he ruffled his feathers and rukked in indignation.

            “You’re welcome!” Sula said huffily, rubbing her sore wrist.

            The young bird had a knack for getting into trouble, whether mobbing eagles twice his size or grappling with unsuitable prey. Only a few days before, Rana had turned up at the door with some kind of twine wrapped around one leg, which had taken Sula a while to remove. It was the first time she had touched her wild companion, an uneasy experience for them both. Examining the twine, Sula had found it to be a smooth, single strand, neither rope nor leather nor sinew. It was strong under tension but could be cut through with some effort. She remembered the Belsamec ruins she’d seen before bringing the Sick girl into the gully, and wondered if Rana had been foraging amongst them.

The Sick girl’s illness dragged on, even though the worst seemed to be over, and Sula was ever more desperate for food. The fishing line rarely yielded catches of any decent size. The smaller birds and mammals were avoiding her traps and she had foraged out most of the bulrush, thistle and burdock roots in the area. There were still plenty of pine needles, which added some nutrients to teas and broths, but they were unpleasant to eat directly.

            Rana flew off down to the stream bank and Sula went back inside the house.

The girl was still sleeping but her thin face seemed to have a hint of colour and her breathing was deep and even. She now reclined on a low bedframe that Sula had made from scavenged driftwood and fallen branches. A mat woven from bulrush leaves, lashed to the outer frame with willow twine, substituted for wooden slats. It wasn’t as grand as the beds at home, but it was better than the floor. Sula had collected almost enough wood for a bedframe of her own now, too.

            Sula picked up the pot of wound salve next to the girl’s bed and spread a little on the peck mark even though the skin had barely broken. She didn’t want to take any chances with infection.

            Back outside again, she saw Rana pecking about on the bank of the stream. The raven reared backwards and pulled a long worm from the soil, gobbling it down with far less resistance than the snake had shown.

            Sula sucked in a breath in sudden inspiration. The Sick girl needed meat to fight this strange illness and help her sores mend, and meat came in many guises. She scouted about for a suitable stick, drew her knife to cut a point on one end and began to use it to dig in the soil where Rana had found his worm. Finding plenty more, she dropped the stick and hurried into the house for a bowl. Rinsing the earth off them in the stream water, she threw a few worms to an appreciative Rana, took the rest into the house and set them out on a hot stone at the side of the fire, grabbing and replacing them each time they made a bid for freedom.

Perseverance paid off and soon she had a good amount of dried worms, which she ground up with a smaller stone and added to a broth of pine needles, juniper berries and the last of the thistle roots in the waterskin cauldron. After simmering it for a while, she dipped a woven cup in the stew and sipped it warily. Not bad! Worm stew, she decided, while not something she would cook for a Kin festival, was certainly palatable enough for the desperate.

 Moths became another welcome addition of protein as the spring turned into summer and more and more of them were on the wing. Sula had known moths were edible from her early schooling, but only when her hunger was acute enough did she overcome her squeamishness and try one.

            The eating of insects was very familiar to her, as the Belt Mountains Kin considered locusts to be a great delicacy, but locusts were smooth and simple in appearance, with blank heads that betrayed no emotion. Moths, however, were fluffy and animated, with pretty faces and beautiful wings.

            Hunger has no respect for beauty, though. One night, Sula picked up a moth that had fallen and roasted itself at the side of the hearth, plucked off the head, legs and charred wing stumps, opened her mouth, closed her eyes and ate it.

She was stunned.

            Baked moth, it turned out, was delicious. It was full of flavours reminiscent of eggs and mushrooms.

Pretty faces meant nothing after that. Sula often leaned out the doorway of the house at night, waving a flaming brand from the fire to attract them. They would fly straight into the flames and burn their wings, dropping to the ground where she gathered them into a bowl. She tried adding them to broths and soups but the texture became unpleasant when wet, so she baked them in the embers at the side of the fire instead.

Worm stew, baked moths and pine needle tea had been their staple diet for several long weeks by the time the Sick girl recovered enough for Sula to leave her for any extended length of time. She had even pulled the bark from trees to harvest grubs: nothing was too wriggly to eat.           

            Full summer was ablaze with chattering fledglings and buzzing insects when Sula woke one morning to see the Sick girl’s blue eyes gazing at her across the embers of the hearth.

            Clear eyes, with no fever.

            Still lying on her side, cosily wrapped in her cloak, Sula blinked and her face broke into a wide smile. She heaved a big, satisfied sigh and felt pleasantly languid. Felt a sense of contentment in the last warm moments before starting her day. A contentment that came with knowing from today onwards she was nursing someone who had at last turned the corner and would live.

            Sula didn’t know if the Sick Ones ever smiled but the girl made a good attempt at copying her expression. Her thin mouth turned up at the corners and her healing sores moved slightly as her cheek lifted.

            “Welcome back,” Sula said, gently.

 

 

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