Sallow

Humans are an endangered species in the frozen wastelands of Anien.

Rae Sallow is one such human. Torn from her family and enslaved by a Clan of Ice People, the humans' better-adapted cousins, each day is spent maintaining the Ice Peoples' roaming caravans and having her body-heat siphoned away by her masters' greedy hands to keep them alive in the freezing climate.

But her brother is out there somewhere. Freed from her slave life by the human raiders her brother had been travelling with before his violent disappearance, she and her new friends do everything in her power to find him, and soon discover that his capture at the hands of an unknown Clan is only a thread in a decades-old web designed to bring humanity to a withering end...

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2. ONE

Small wisps of snow curl upwards like smoke from the charred remains of Rabbit Clan. Lumps of splintered wood litter the snow, scraps of peeling green paint still clinging to the edges. Smears of red stain the ground. It is difficult finding enough white space between the pools to step around it.

       “A battle, I should think,” Emris mutters, straightening from his inspection of what looks like a shattered axe head just poking out of the snow. His white curls are engaged in a vicious battle with the wind, and I’m still surprised he doesn’t trip over the flapping hem of his rich red coat more often. He must have had a lot of practice, being raised in it and all.

      To my right, my slave sister, Poppy, shoots me an exasperated glance. Emris is only a young Ice Person, barely a year older than us at seventeen, but he seems to have made it his mission to be the best tracker of any Clan ever to have roamed the Plains of Anien. So when scouts returned to our Lord of Scorpion Clan bearing news of a destroyed Clan only a mile or so out of our way, he was determined to lead the investigation into its destruction and possibly even deduce the identity of the culprits.

      Emris turns to Poppy and I, whose arms and backs are loaded with the heavy cloth bags of supplies he insisted on bringing. We could be helping him with his deductions, as living in the mountains surviving on nothing but what we could catch and kill has given us both excellent natural tracking skills. But we are in the Plains, the enormous rolling fields of white stretching from the Northlands to the frozen coast, slit only down its right-hand side by a thick range of mountains. No Ice Person would ever sink to the level of asking a lesser specimen of life to help them.

      “You two,” he says, and his shiny black boots crunch deeply into the bloodied snow as he makes his way towards us. “I need a jar.”

       Poppy and I don’t ask questions. We immediately dump the cloth sacks cutting into our shoulders onto the bloodied ground and start rummaging through them for his precious jars to store his findings in. I find one frst and pass it to him 

      Poppy’s petite shoulders slump slightly. Everything about her is small. Her face, her stick-thin body. Her scruffy yellow hair is cut herself with a dagger, swinging in uneven, grimy bangs around her small ears. Only her eyes are large, and such a clear blue as I’ve only ever seen on Ice Peoples’ fancy clothes.

      Omma used to say the sky was once blue, back before our ancestors left us with this infernal grey world. I sometimes find myself wondering if they would be proud of us, the last dregs of a proud race that conquered nature, who turned the very rules of animalistic survival on its head. A part of me doubts it. The other part, the part that carries Omma and Parker and Mother and Papa locked tightly in the part of me usually shadowed by what I suppose is my soul, says that they’d be glad we managed to linger as long as we did. “Do not underestimate human nature,” Omma would whisper to me at night, as we all tucked up tightly against one another in the freezing blackness of the night fog. “Nature itself could not claim us. Neither can our enemies, whichever form they may happen to take.”

      We pack up and trudge over to where Emris is once again hunched over the axe head. Wisps of snow swirl around our feet as we move, dancing with the all-encompassing fog, and secretly I am annoyed with it. No doubt it’s long since buried any clue of the culprit’s tracks, and judging by how covered this debris is, with only the sharp edges and the tips of long, unidentifiable objects emerging from the snow, they paid their final visit to this place at least a couple of days ago. Soon even the blood will be buried again beneath the white.

       “Are you sure it’s Rabbit Clan, Master Emris?” Poppy asks now, breathing heavily as she plods up behind me. The trek here from the Clan took at least fifteen minutes and involved crossing a frozen river, and even my legs, with seven years of forced labour behind them, are burning with the effort.

      “Hm?” Emris glances up at us, like he’d forgotten we even existed. “Yes, of course I’m sure. We rendezvoused with Rabbit Clan once, to discuss an alliance. These are their colours.” He pushes himself upright, popping a wood cork in the top of the jar to seal whatever he’d scraped inside. Then he pulls a clunky ink pen from the satchel draped over one shoulder and starts to scratch letters onto the side of the jar. The look of concentration on his face is hilariously beautiful. All he has to do is look around and he could figure out what he needs to now right now.  I’ve only had time for a glance, and I’ve already deduced that raiders, humans who’ve escaped from slavery and who hide in the Plains or the mountains raiding, as their name suggests, Clans for supplies and food, had been involved. Spearheads, a weapon no civilised Ice Person would tough, stick like broken teeth from the snow, and boxes, locked and unopened, little the ground far enough away from the wreckage to make me think they’d been carried there by somebody who’d been forced to drop them.

       “You remember Rabbit Clan,” I said softly to Poppy. “That was the Clan with the Lord who ate all our supper and told us those stories of the machines of the Ancestors.”

      Those stories still tickled my mind, like a vague shadow of a world barely glanced at and only half remembered. Flying machines, he’d told our Lord, along with machines designed to carry a person about on its own power and machines that could talk to one another no matter the distance between them, had all existed, and could – no, would – exist again. All ours, should we ally. The part a brave warrior Clan like Scorpion could play in the second rise of the era of machines would be invaluable.

      Needless to say, our Lord was unimpressed with his stories and ordered the immediate forward movement of the Clan before any of his slaves starved. He’s thoughtful that way, the man who drained me that first terrifying night of my captivity.

     “There’s enough red around here it might as well be Scorpion Clan,” Poppy whispers back, her boots shifting uncomfortably as the snow marked with the lives of about seventy five Clansmen chafed at her shins.

       Emris, who has finished admiring his penmanship on the jar and is in the midst of turning to hunt for his next piece of evidence, whirls sharply back to us.

      “You will not speak of the Scorpion Clan as if it could be defeated,” he tells her. “If the Lord had heard you…”

      He stares at her distraught expression for a moment, then frowns and turns away.  

     Poppy visibly sinks, her eyes filling with tears. I am confused.

     “What is it?” I say. She ignores me and stares after Emris’ retreating back.

     “I didn’t mean to make him mad, Rae,” she says.

      “None of us ever do. What’s wrong, Poppy?”

       But she just shakes her head. “It’s nothing.” Her feet begin to move again. I can see her hands trembling. Realising this, she clutches the straps of the bag weighing her spine down, apparently in the hopes this will stop them. It doesn’t.

       “’Nothing’ is what you do around them,” I mutter. I’m curious now, as well as a little suspicious. “If you were thinking what I think you were thinking…” She is quiet, moving steadily away from me, towards the far side of the ruins. I let out a low breath as my suspicion is all but confirmed. “By the ancestors, Poppy, the dangers involved… Not to mention the stupidity of such a notion to begin with. And for what?”

      “It’s nothing, Rae,” she hisses, and stops dead. Her back is to me. I can see the tip of her brand crawling around her neck, poking above the frayed collar of her coat. A budding flower sits atop a stem that reaches across her right shoulder and curls down to her right wrist. Flowers in varying states of bloom dot the stem. There are no secrets about our bodies in a single caravan of slaves; after ancestors’ know how many years combined of sharing that cramped living space, we know each others’ bodies about as well as we do our own. My own brand, that of the family Sallow, is safely hidden beneath my many layers of tattered sleeves. A thick branch of some ancient tree not seen by human eyes for more generations than I dare think twists up my arm, absolutely dripping with long, lush green leaves. Warren, my brother, used to tell me they went nicely with my green eyes— a rarity in this blue-eyed yellow-haired land, to be sure. Still, the commonness of my own yellow hair, currently tied in a thick tail tucked down the back of my coat, negated any chance my green eyes would be too easily noticeable.

      I stop too, only a pace behind my slave sister. I wonder what to say. ‘Sorry?’ Or perhaps, ‘you’re out of your mind?’ Those would both be the truthful options. And I am nothing if not truthful.

      I settle, in the end, for “Just be careful. You’re the only one in seven whole years…” I pause. My words – or lack of them – suddenly fail my quick burst of courage. How best to explain? The crushing loneliness of smallness, of anonymity. How I felt utterly alone despite the fact I was surrounded every night for six years with the reek of human un-life. How she was bought small and pasty and permanently wide-eyed with all the wisdom of a life lived too young to our caravan, and, for reasons neither of us can quite explain, was drawn to my corner, my rough spot against the wall—while I was still sitting there. She said nothing. I said less. Yet we were never alone again.

     She turns slowly now. Her eyes are watering, their colour a vivid blue through the tears. The red rims clash with eye sockets shadowed purple with exhaustion.

      How long has it been this way for her? I think distractedly, taking in her defeated form. And, perhaps a touch cruelly, but entirely logically: Does she really believe she has a chance?

     “You’re welcome,” she says above the ever-present whistle of the wind. She knows what I want to say, even when I don’t say it. And we say nothing further. Mostly because of what I’ve just spotted over her shoulder.

      Something glitters in a snow bank, half covered by the snow and the mangled remains of an entire Clan’s existence. The thick grey fog swirls across it, trying its best to hide it from me, but it’s too late. I’ve seen it, and my heart is thumping, though I’m not entirely sure why.

      It could be…

      Seven years, my logic snaps. Be reasonable.

      But it looks like…

     Noticing my stare, Poppy turns, following my gaze to the ground.

     “What is it?” she asks. I don’t answer. A quick glance over my shoulder proves that Emris is busy holding up the remains of a half-torn glove up to the sky and peering at it sternly, as if hoping the sky can provide answers for him. A small lantern is in his left hand, its oil-light flickering up at the tattered fabric. I wonder briefly what he’s looking for, what clues it holds for him. It’s colourless, a dull grey; possibly belonging to a slave.

       Poppy is still staring at me.

       “It’s probably nothing,” I say softly, edging my way past her.

       “What?”

        But I don’t reply. My knees slump to the snow; the bags quickly follow. I dig through random bits of Clan life, pulling aside twisted hunks of metal, cutting my fingers in their pitifully thin gloves on shards of pottery. I can see it winking at me under the rubbish, its flat metal surface reflecting the light of the lantern, no doubt.

        Finally, I feel my fingers close around it, and I sit back. A small amulet rests on my open palm. Its metal face is smeared with dust and a liberal streak of red blood, but I’d recognise it anywhere. It swings forward on his chest in my memory,  winking in the light of the the fire that swallowed our last safe place.

      My fingers tremble as I look up at Poppy. “It’s his,” I whisper. “It’s Warren’s.”

      Her eyes widen, fall on the amulet. It is perfectly round, a solid circle of metal pressed flat with worn indentations carved around the outside spelling out words in a language neither of us can understand.

        My fingers close around it. Poppy’s eyes find mine. The implications are both awful and wonderful.

       “My brother was here. He was standing right here. After seven whole years… He was so close…”

       “But if he was here,” Poppy says quietly, “was he one of the attackers, or one of the slaves?”

        Of course, there is no answer to this question.

        “Hey! You two!” Emrus shouts from behind us. “What have you found?”

        I can’t show him my brother’s amulet. Personal items are not allowed to slaves; I would be beaten for thievery faster than I could blink.

       “Nothing, Master Emris,” I call. I rummage in my bag as he comes closer, pulling out a jar and dropping the amulet inside it.

     “What are you doing?” Poppy hisses. I don’t answer. Instead, my hands shaking with the cold and the worry that Emris will get here before I can finish, I draw a shaky picture of a scorpion and a mountain range, putting a cross about a third of the way to the left of it.

      We are here, the picture says. Find us.

      It’s a risk, to be sure. If Warren really was here as a raider, then perhaps his group would be back, and they’d find it. If not.. then I’d just left behind the last tangible piece of my family to buried under rubble in the snow.

    I stuff the jar back in the debris, just in sight of later passersby but hidden behind me as I push myself to my feet. I sense Poppy tensing as Emris gets closer, but when he sees we really haven’t found anything, he looks disappointed and orders us to follow him.

      We examine the place for another hour or so, but when no more new evidence is forthcoming, we begin our slow trudge back to Scorpion Clan.

       

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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