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...

3Likes
2Comments
648Views

3. TWO

 

Emris’ caravan stinks. I can smell the results of his newest bitter mixture even as I approach it, and see the smoke curling out from under the door, caught up in the thick fog swirling quickly through the Clan.

       The red paint streaked across the wooden caravans, marking them as belonging to as the cunning Scorpion Clan, presses against the grey of the air. Ice People in thick red and yellow coats sit on the caravan steps, discussing mundane things like supper and their children, while around me my fellow human slaves bustle to get their jobs done before our masters tire of waiting. In the middle of the Clan, protected somewhat from the wind by the encompassing caravans, I see Poppy and a handful of others painstakingly piling snow into a big metal cauldron buried in a pile of already charred logs that a couple of older slaves are attempting to light.

      All Clans are like this, so far as I know; we pass enough of them as we journey in endless circles around the Plains. Large families of Ice People crowd together to form a Clan. Unlike humans, for whom our ultimate pride is our family, Ice People view themselves as Clansmen, and it’s rare that an Ice Person will leave for another. Of course, this leaves them very stubborn in their pride for their Clan, and most Clans are at war with each other.    

      Emris’ door opens silently on leather hinges, snapping shut just as silently behind me. Everything in the caravan is stained by smoke: his low bed, pushed into the far corner, the sheets tangled; his wooden trunk filled with clothes; and, most importantly, the shelves stacked with jars and pots, the labels staining black in the smoke. He doesn’t see me enter as he hunches over his work table; the smoke is too thick. But he hears me choking on it.

      “Silence,” he snaps, not glancing up from a scrap of parchment he’s scribbling on with a thin, nibbed pen. I do my best to quiet my coughing fit. He doesn’t beat me like the others, but I suspect that’s because he’s usually too caught up in his studies, and if I disturbed those studies the Ancestors only know what would happen to me.

       I muffle my coughs in my baggy sleeve, moving towards him. He wrinkles his nose. Somehow, he can smell the clothes I’ve had since I was twelve years old through the reek of his failed experiment.

     I peer carefully down at the table, making out shapes through the smoke. Shards of pottery litter the scratched and stained surface, and puddles of an oozy black substance hiss on the wood. I struggle to read Emris’ upside down, spiky letters.

     Result of mysterious powder substance found at scene: highly explosive.

     “What does that last word mean?” I say. His grey eyes find mine, as disbelieving as they are every time I dare ask him a question. But I can always count on his arrogance to teach me things about his studies through the guise of showing off.

     “It means that it went off with a blast.”

     “Oh. I’m sorry, Master Emris. I didn’t know.”

     “Obviously you didn’t.” And he returns smugly to his work, as I turn to mine one word smarter.

     I start with his bed, straightening the sheets and tucking the edges of the thick, slightly worn blanket under the mattress. Then I open the door, letting in a shock of cold air, but also letting some of the smoke escape. Apologising to a muttering Emris for the sudden change of temperature I find an old cloth and start scrubbing clean the pots on the shelves. I don’t dare touch anything on his table. I did once, when his own Master, Kayle, to whom he’s apprenticed, had stepped outside in the middle of an experiment. I’d thought he’d want the mess on his table cleared up so he could focus better. Instead of praise, I got gloves and pens and empty pots thrown at my head.

     As I clean, I think. That black powder is likely the cause of Rabbit Clan’s fiery destruction. But where did it come from? I’d never known such a thing existed, which means neither did Emris. Perhaps only one other Clan has the supplies to develop something like that, Owl Clan, but so far as I know they were reasonably civil with Rabbit.

      Eventually, most of the smoke dissipates and I go to close the door. Just before it clicks shut, I hear two of the Clan girls, almost identical with their long, straight white hair, big grey eyes and irritating giggles whenever any Ice Person of the opposite gender approaches, laughing up at the caravan.

      “I think he’s finally going to do it,” one giggles, her hand over her mouth. “I think he’s finally going to destroy the Clan.”

      The other gags and hurries them past, somehow managing to giggle around it. “He’s all serious about his studies, and he’s got no time for any of us. I think he’s pretentious.”

       They pass Poppy, still sniggering at each other about Emris apparently, because she turns to follow them as they pass her, her blue eyes narrowed. I shake my head. How long has this been going on? And, for her sake, will it ever end?

       “Shut the door, will you?” Emris says. I see he’s trying to light a flame under a small bowl with more of the black powdered substance in it, but the light keeps going out because of the breeze.

       “Sorry, Master Emris,” I say, deciding to be on the other side of the door when the inevitable happens. I close the door and am just heading in Poppy’s direction when a second blast goes off behind me. I can smell the smoke already.

      “That Emris,” a voice says close by my ear. “He’ll be the death of us one day, I’m certain. No good can come of dabbling with things the Ancestors themselves buried under the snow.” I turn to see Lady Olwyn, wife to Lord Aeden, staring up at the caravan, her grey eyes narrow. Almost all Ice People have grey eyes, and hair in some shade of white. Lady Olwyn’s hair is a white bordering on silver, though she must be only ten years older than me, currently tucked up neatly atop her head in a heavy bun. The silver trimmings on her elaborate red coat set her apart as the wife of Scorpion Clan’s leader. Her little son, Ada, who seems to favour me out of all his parents’ slaves, is nowhere to be seen.

      She turns, doesn’t recognise me as the slave girl always hanging around the caravan. “Who gave you permission to stare? If you’re just standing around uselessly, you might as well go and help get that fire going. Ada needs his bath soon.”

       “I’m sorry, Mistress Olwyn,” I say, curtseying in the hopes she doesn’t send me off with a thwack for idling.

       Poppy grins tiredly at me when she sees me approaching. Sweat is freezing to her cheeks as she scoops handful after handful of snow into the cauldron. Our last shovel snapped the last time we stopped to make camp, and we haven’t yet come across another Clan in the meantime who might be willing trade theirs for something of ours.

     “Did you hear what those girls were saying about Master Emris?” I mutter, and her grin fades. “You can’t keep on like this, Poppy. It’s not healthy. He doesn’t love you. He can’t love you.”

      “I know,” he words are whispers above the wind. She drops to the snow again, scraping more of it into her fingers shaking with the cold. “I know, Rae. What am I supposed to do? I catch myself thinking of him, his nose all smeared with soot or some stinking mixture, and I just…” she sighs, glances up at me. “He’s not like the others. You’ve noticed. You hang around him the most.”

      She sounds bitter about that. I duck down to her level. The slaves around us aren’t interested in our conversations; our dead eyes and yellow hair bind us together in a reluctant group. “Only to learn from him. You know that. He only asks for me because I keep coming back, because he has someone to show off to. He’s not interested in me, because I’m a human, and I’m not a danger because I’m a slave. Poppy, they all but kill us every time they drain us for our body heat.” My eyes travel to her neck, where swollen blue veins surround a withered patch of purple skin. She’s been drained only recently. “Please, Poppy. Just try to stop thinking of him that way. You’re the only friend I have here; the only friend I’ve had since… well, since I was enslaved. I don’t want to see you disappointed.”

     She looks up at me, tears making the blue in her eyes shiny. “Alright, Rae. I’m sorry. I’ll… I’ll try.”

      “Besides,” I say, helping her to her feet, “you’re free to marry another slave. Rogan has been keeping a close eye on you lately.”

     But she shakes her head. “I overheard Lord Aeden telling Lady Olwyn only this morning that Stalwart have started banning their slaves to marry. Since most of the Clans have started allying with them, they’re doing the same. Lady Olwyn said it would be nice not to have human brats getting under her feet anymore.”

       Stalwart Clan are banning humans from marrying? I can’t see why, but I don’t think Poppy’s lying either. Stalwart Clan is the biggest and most powerful Clan in Anien. It’s also the only immobile one. With close to a thousand Ice People living there, it’s become a completely self-contained Clan of stone and clay bricks, mingling only with others when they come to it. The stories say it was founded only two generations ago, by the grandfather of the current Lord. He had wanted to found the greatest Clan since the days of the ancestors, and so he had. Now, with more and more Ice People leaving their Clans to join Stalwart, it’s made many enemies amongst the Plains Clans, and even more allies. Scorpion is somewhere in between, distrustful of their prosperity and also envious of it at the same time.

     My Omma had had many stories to tell of its people; a place where they can live out of the wind thanks to the high stone wall around the Clan, were they can walk on solid ground without crunching through snow, where their clothes are rich and dogs could pull sleds without runners. It all sounded too good to be true, but I never doubted that they were very powerful and had the smartest Ice People coming from all over to study in their Spire, their centre of learning.

       A spark goes off finally under the cauldron, and suddenly, I see my Omma around the fire again, but this time, it catches in her hair. She doesn’t scream; she simply smiles at me through my memories as she always does while the fire seizes her and burns her and spreads through the clearing where I last saw my family.

      I shudder, pushing the image away, and trying not to look at the fire again. My chest feels empty where it should have Warren’s amulet hanging around it.

 

Emris stays up late that night, working on his experiments with the explosive powder. He permits me to stay with him, and I permit him to call me ignorant, though we both know I’m learning just as much from this as him. His pride will never let him admit it though.

       I’m scrubbing out a pot filled with a sticky, green substance when a thought strikes me. “Do you suppose they weren’t the only ones there?”

      “Hm?” He doesn’t look up.

     “Do you suppose perhaps it wasn’t just Rabbit Clan fighting off the raiders? I think one of them may have had help. No raider could ever make something like this, and Rabbit wouldn’t be interested. They were merchants, transporters for the other Clans. It makes sense that the raiders should be targeting them. But not destroying them. Most of Rabbit’s supplies were still lying around the place; if the raiders had won, they would have taken them with them.”

     My impertinence in even suggesting something like this is overlooked by the fact that I raise a good point. He stares at the ceiling, thinking.

       “Why destroy both of them, Rabbit and the raiders?”

      I shrug. I’m just a stupid slave. He glares at me.

     “What is it, Sallow?”

      He’s the only one of his kind ever to call me by my family name. It makes me uncomfortable, but also slightly proud that an Ice Person might bother to learn the name of an insignificant human slave, and it happened to be mine. So I answer.

      “I think there might have been something Rabbit had that the Raiders wanted, and someone else entirely wanted neither of them to have any of it.”

      He stares down at the powder. He’s good with the materials and the mixtures; the logic is my area of expertise.

      “You could possibly be right, Sallow,” he says. “I’ll present his Lord with the theory tomorrow.” Meaning he would get all the credit, of course. “In the meantime, come clean up this corner of the table and then you can sleep on the chair over there. The slave caravan will have been locked by now.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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