He ripped another sheaf of dlenarc from the earth. Alan shook dirt from the bulbous roots and slid the sheaf into the bag, the silky red sleeves of their slender blossoms trailing out.
The noise of silence filled the open plain, sounds of the distant shore and the tiny breeze blending into nothing. Stripping another sheaf from the earth, he felt the air cool and the ground darken as a cloud moved over the sun, then moved away again, flushing the world with hot, clean sunlight. The distant tseer of a hawk pierced his ears, but he didn’t look up. He tucked a strand of hair behind an ear as it fell in his face.
A vole scuttled through one of its corridors through the stems of the grass, an old, familiar sound. An alarmed chitter, a thrash, and airy seed-fluff jettisoned skyward two body-length’s away. Alan paused, watching, still. Rustling, heavier, and the vole appeared, carrying a tiny, mottled buff and brown wing in his sharp teeth, sinew danging from the end. Alan let his breath still. The vole disappeared into another tunnel. Alan pressed the earth away from the base of another dlenarc. As he worked through the patch, the vole reappeared, carrying the bird’s little brown head, the orange-streaked beak a bright point against the grasses.
Something made him look up.
A sensation settled over him, as of being watched. He saw nothing above the waist-high grasses. He did not hear the vole. The world seemed denser, brighter, a gentle throb in his bones. Alan saw nothing on the horizon where the hill dropped off, hiding the shore. Scanning the soft roll of the land toward where the sun lifted from the plain, he noticed the tiny curl of smoke lacing the air in the distance.
He ripped two more sheafs from the ground, then resettled the bag against the small of his back, standing. He moved in the creases between the hills, losing sight of the smoke but not his direction. The throb in his bones followed him, sometimes fainter, sometimes close, so close he felt he should have seen something. The heads of the hills blocked the wind as Alan stepped around the bright, creeping things growing in the damp seams in the rumpled landscape. He caught another glimpse of smoke, more a waver in the air than a smudge of color.
Alan kept his body low as he crested the slope, and his eyes found the husk of a planter village hidden in a deeper hollow of the land. Crouching on one knee, he let the wind blow his hair across his face, watching. The small figures scattered through the naked frames of huts and grainsheds moved heavily, compensating for mail, and anyone standing wore a lhir. A mutter of distant shouts, and the heavy, unmistakeable threads of moaning reached up the hill. A few figures in mail and surcoats pointed, gesticulating, and others hoisted stretchers and limp bodies.
Alan watched one man tuck his shoulder under the armpit of another, stripped to the waist and bloody, and gently haul him up, carrying him step by careful step across the dusty center of the village.
Ashur squatted beside him, making only the barest noise among the grasses. The beat of the sun and the golds and thin greens of the plain turned his skin richer, redder in Alan’s peripheral vision, almost irridescent.
“Omdi-Shov is here.”
Alan glanced at him, not moving his head.
“She saw Kimfen and Shenele. I doubt she didn’t recognize them.”
Skimming the moving figures below, Alan found a small, spare form in the shadow of a tall lean-to, holding down a thrashing body on the dirt floor. He watched until her head twisted, revealing her narrow, pointed profile.
He could feel Ashur looking at him, undeterred by recieving no answer.
“Were the soldiers hostile?”
“They’re too focused on the Drifalcand to care about wanderers. Some of them talked to Shenele. They fought two days ago, soldiers on foot. No limbihte.”
Finally, Alan told him, “I’m going to talk to her.”
“I’ll watch your back.”
Perched on the frame of a woven barrow, its wheel shattered, the perimeter guards took in his face, hair, cloth, his bare feet, and barely did more than glance at him as he passed into the village. He had left his bag and his lhir with Ashur, and kept the knife in one long sleeve. The moaning was louder here, muddying the barked orders, the scuffled of boots. Above it rose a string of sharp, high cries, then a scream. A young soldier slumped on the ground, still in mail, staring into the dust, flinched into himself. All the faces he saw were Secled, no one standing taller than his chin.
A soldier wearing the insignia of a cadegh stopped in the middle of an order to give him a hard look as he passed. Alan dropped his eyes and skirted him. No voice called out to him, no heavy tread came up behind him.
The thatch of the tall lean-to was spread thin, bundles of grass blown away and scattered. One corner offered the most shade, where a small woman crouched over a prone, half-naked man. Protected from the wind, the smell of bile and sweat and earth that had not been allowed to grow for too long was stronger here.
Her arms were bloody to the elbows, fingernails grimed black. The dark of her hair was pulled back severely into a knot at the crown of her head, thinned with grease, a flaking smear of brown across one temple. He studied the sharp angle of her jaw, the aging slackness of her skin over her severe, almost delicate features, the flex of her sharp shoulders under a coarser fabric than he remembered.
“If you’ve another bad one I said to send him to Haellith.” Despite the even measure of her voice, every word was a crack against the air. The wide vowels of the Lum dialect were strong, but there was also something else underneath, older.
“I am not here for your services.”
Her body revealed the slightest pause, before her bloody hands continued in motion. She did not turn to look at him.
“I saw your men,” Peloe said after a breath, maybe two, pulling red sinew through the mangled scraps of the man’s side. “I’d wondered, if they’d survived.”
She did not ask the question.
A sucking, burbling noise leaked out of the soldier’s slack mouth.
“I suppose you’re going to say you didn’t rape the girl.”
“I did confess to it,” Alan pointed out.
“Yes. Colorfully. As I remember.”
He had no response to that.
“Why are you here?” he asked finally. There was no hesitation in her answer except as if to gather her thoughts.
“Abuerin told me to get out. I may be past child-bearing, but there were still soldiers who would have taken me. I have something of a curious status to them.” She paused as a cloud of grey flies swooped in, beginning to swarm over the wound. She made a sweeping, rolling gesture with her hands, welcoming them in, pausing her iron needle to let them lay their eggs. “The young soldiers found me quite desirable, in a way Secled men would not. I might have found it flattering in other circumstances. And Abuerin thought me too tempting a target for Oloss. Our ambassador,” she said with a thick twist in her voice that did not show in her face.
“Every now and then, one of Abuerin’s men will disappear. We find rooms slathered in blood. Never bodies. Sometimes we hear them. He does it to bend Abuerin’s mind.”
It was a few breaths before Peloe spoke again, pushing her needle through skin.
“Belut disappeared before two harvests past. No one knew how. Oloss never took credit for it.”
He could feel her watching him with all her attention, her eyes never seeking him out. He said nothing.
“They never let me examine her, after. Just sentenced both of you. Do you think that strange?”
“What will you tell Delyn?” he asked. Peloe did not react to the evasion.
“We agreed that maintaining contact would endanger both of us.”
“And if chance should prove otherwise?”
“I promise only that I will not seek him out.”
He waited, watching her.
“You have my thanks.”
Her brown-caked fingers found the man’s pulses.
Alan eyed the perimeter of soldiers around the village, crudely judging the direction where the throb in his bones seemed strongest. He found the cadegh in the scatter of armored bodies, giving harsh orders to two soldiers, gesticulating, half turned away. He turned to slip around the back of the lean-to and into the grass.
“Tansh.” Alan turned his head back toward her, and found her dark, sharp eyes on him for the first time. “Turn around.”
Slowly, he did.
For a long time, she looked at him. It was a ruthless, deeper study than the one she had given him the first time, more winters ago than seemed real. He felt she missed nothing as she searched him with her eyes. Whatever she searched for, she found. Without another word, she returned her eyes to her work.
Weaving between two hills, the grass changed, leaves becoming thinner, greener. He found a faint trail, no wider than the width of his hand on the ground, a few leaning grasses, a doe and a fawn who had passed her once. If he kept walking against the sun’s arc the plains would flatten, and he would find the herd. It was the season to graze here, on the ygelcandtsho the grasses just starting to fruit.
Ashur met him half a league north, passed Alan his lhir, then ducked out from beneath the leather strap of the bag and handed it to him. Kimfen kept watch, his belly against the crown of the hill watching toward the planter village.
“Did she give you anything?”
“More than I expected.” Alan retied his belt around his hips, the leather worn and creased where the knot always folded, the weight of the long blade now familiar and strange.
Ashur looked at him with expectant curiosity, not quite lifting his brows.
“Delyn is still Jueden, and he is not well,” Ashur gave a sharp breath through his nose at that. “The Drifalcand have an ambassador in Lum.” At that he did raise his eyebrows.
“I don’t know if that’s actually possible.”
“Peloe says he is slowly murdering Delyn’s men. I assume they occupy the city and this is their pretense.”
Alan watched Ashur consider before he said, “How did she react?”
“With characteristic composure.”
Shenele’s stocky figure appeared around the curve of a golden hill, moving quietly, watching the ground. He had braided his hair, leaving the heavy roundness of his face more obvious.
“You ready, Juele?”
“Sicka land already?” Ashur said dryly.
“I sneeze more when I’m grounded,” Shenele said.
Directing his attention back at Alan, Ashur said, “Three days, at least, up to half a twelveday, half and one. It could take us that long if the river’s swollen.” He paused, and Alan found himself on the receiving end of a considering stare. “Don’t do anything extreme while I’m gone.”
Shenele just laughed.
“Blondie, this is touching. You have flowers.”
He looked up, noticed her, went back to what he was doing peeling apart long, flat green leaves into wet strips. They made her think of tulips. Which was weird, because she had never really noticed tulips before. They’d let her out again. Hannah pretty much had it pegged down that whenever they locked her up it meant “Land ho.” It was completely overcast now, and still depressingly hot.
“Dlenarc is astringent.”
“… Isn’t that like makeup?” When he lifted an eyebrow, with that weird, barely-there smile, she said, “Look, you don’t have to be ashamed. Man, I haven’t talked to you in forever.”
Hannah sat down, hooking her fingers together, arms around her knees. It was a little refreshing to sit next to someone who wasn’t obviously shorter than her.
“Okay, this is going to sound weird.” She took a breath, braced herself. “But all this time, and I don’t remember your name. In my head I just think of you as ‘Blondie.'”
He finished peeling apart another not-tulip leaf, before he looked back up at her. Under his fingernails was green.
“Most call me Alan.” The smile seemed to be in his eyes even though his face was straight, and made her think that maybe he thought she was a little retarded. Which was ironic, because Hannah thought he might be a little retarded.
“Alan? You act like you’re from frigging fantasy-land and you come up with Alan?” She felt like she would have remembered Alan for fuck’s sake. At least she would have remembered her reaction to how ridiculous it sounded. He carefully laid out another wet strip on the deck.
“It’s a trimmed name.”
“What like a nickname? I thought your nickname was ‘Juele.'” She leaned forward, hands clasping her ankles. “Oh yeah, your name-name means like second son, right? So you got gypped out of the inheritance, huh? Was there drama?”
“Inheritance is a planter thing,” he said. Hannah wasn’t sure what to say to that. She looked around, searching for a response. Nada. She couldn’t tell if he was completely uninterested in the conversation, didn’t care either way, or was just really, really mellow. And maybe stupid. Okay, he seemed to be in some position of authority no matter what he said, so she assumed he wasn’t stupid.
“Here’s the thing I haven’t figured out: Where’s the moon? I mean, I know I get put away at night, but it’s usually around in the day sometimes too.”
Blondie looked at her blankly.
“You know, big round white thing in the sky, like a big nightlight, made of cheese? Makes the tides move?”
“Do you mean kydele?”
Hannah rolled her eyes.
“Fine, whatever. You have your own name for it. How original. Where is it?”
“Kydele is dark now. It should pass soon.”
Hannah started finger-combing her hair, as per Odul’s orders.
“So, can I get a bunk outside of the basement anytime soon?” Blondie, Alan, whatever, didn’t make a sound, but his ribs hitched, almost like he had laughed. She couldn’t tell for sure, between the shirt and the way he was leaning over. “Because I honestly don’t think I’ve gotten a decent night’s sleep since I’ve been here,” she went on hurriedly, “and that shit can drive a person insane.” But they already pretended she was kind of crazy. Unless they were right.
“I doubt Ashur will agree to that.”
“What, so you’re gonna let him be the boss of you?” It sounded straight out of second grade, but it just popped out, and she had this crazy idea that it just might work.
He looked up at her under his blonde eyebrows, visibly fighting the smile. He didn’t answer.
Tight breath and tight hips, hard to suck in stifling air, the dim, lips sucking, tongue pushing and then it broke.
She was utterly silent as her hips bucked into the air, pushing against his face, jerking, her mouth twisted eyes clenched as the heartbeat of intensity turned to deep, wilting contractions. Megars moved his tongue minutely, just enough to help it keep going, to not drop her while they were flying, not enough to hurt. Ridiath’s hips dropped back to the blanket, her shoulders still curled upward, her face still contorted as it faded.
Megars gently disengaged his mouth from that bright point of sensation, a tiny flash of pain as he brushed against suddenly sensitive flesh, his mouth and cheeks and chin smeared with the wet of her. She fumbled down the blanket until they were side by side, wrapped her lean body against the rounded fat and muscle of him, the curve of his belly a comforting pressure against hers, against that still sensitive point as she hooked a leg over his hip. She was still breathing hard, pressing herself against him, gluing their skin together. And when the impulse came she crawled down, licked the hard thickness of him, taste of yeast and salt, until he jerked, breath turning sharp, high.
They ended with him over her, Ridiath boneless and heavy as he kissed her stomach, treasured the shape of her breasts, the head of his cock pressed against the nub between her lips that mirrored him. Someone walked by the cabin door, a voice, passed by. He moved to kiss her mouth and her lips explored his face as he rubbed himself against her belly, clutching her, kissing her as if she were the only way to get air. He gave a choked grunt a breath before the warm stickiness spread across her belly. For a few gasps of air he managed to prop himself up above her, then he half-fell to the side. Ridiath squirmed until she was molded against Megars’ back, her nose pressed into the familiar, warm smell of his hair, finally allowing the languor to drag her eyes closed.
With a twist of his wrist, Ashur plucked another ripening gourd from a stalk, dropping it into the netted bag over his shoulder. The fruits were the size of his palm, dull yellow and hard-shelled. Roasted under the ashes of a fire the flesh was firm and meaty, the seeds tender. Parts of the plains almost seemed like the floodlands around the River, when the ground grew richer, less stony. The grasses were still green here, not turning golden with the season. Ashur jerked another hard ball from the stalk, leaving the rest to seed.
Kimfen followed the base of a brief hill just to the east. The gourds were sparse, but picking them along their route was no extra effort. They had walked across no trampled scars from caravans or the army camps on their way toward the Sobath. The Drifalcand seemed to have remained north and east of the river.
The wind was warm, but cooler than the air, bringing the feeling of harvest. It was less than a smell, more than a texture. The sky spread above the plain fiercely blue, cut by tall, bulging clouds that would become someone else’s thunderstorm.
He caught himself, slowing his step as he noticed the sod hut in the damper valley between two hills. Ashur saw the sag of one wall, the sparse thatch, and nearly overlooked it, until he noticed the wilted garden, a rake, a yoke with two tarred, woven grass buckets. Scanning the hills, he found the telltale smoke of the village, not yet bothering to reach beyond his edges.
He was already moving away when he heard the feet pacing through the grass. Out of the corner of his eye he saw a woman making her way toward him slowly, something on her back, arms crossed over her chest. He didn’t stop, but he didn’t keep moving away. The village was too far for her to call.
When she reached him Ashur halted, plucking another gourd, and looked over at her.
She was in her middle age, old for a farmer woman. She would use up the rest of her body in hoeing and childbearing, and then she would die of doing one of them. Farmer women always had so many children. The baby slept against her back in a grass pack, head lolling. Her face was tired and empty. She held out her thin hand, palm up, fingers curled limply.
Ashur studied her, the sharpness of her bones hidden by brown cloth that fell to her wrists and ankles, the lines that a hard life had given her, her hair greased but uncombed.
Kimfen had wandered over, and stood watching a few paces away. The woman looked over, took him with a steady gaze that focused on no particular part of him, seemed to think nothing of his Crec features. Ashur glanced at him. Kimfen jutted his chin, and walked off, grass shushing behind him. Ashur slipped the netted bag off his shoulder, and held it out to her. She accepted it, and Ashur looked in the direction she turned, saw a tangle-headed child standing near the sod hut.
“Shmam lutu-ai!” she called. The child was still for a heartbeat, then ran into the dark, mishappen door.
She took him a few paces away to where the grass was lower, younger, and loosened her pack. She laid the baby on its back, one thin fist curled by a tiny ear, and spread her shawl. The baggy skirt and tunic were tied at her waist and above her breasts, and she unwound the cord expertly, shedding her skirt and adding it to the shawl. Ashur stripped his tunic over his head and watched her as each piece of her body was revealed, pointy hips then ribs as she turned her back, lean calves and shoulders wiry with muscle, her breasts disproportionately full, heavy with milk. He untied his belt with his dirks, shucking his pants as she lay down, offering one hand and her solemn face to invite him down. The grass blocked out the rest of the world.
She could have wandered the plain and gathered the gourds herself. What she was trading for was time. Time to plant her struggling vines and roots, to carry water, to make or grow something she could trade for something else. For whatever reason she lived outside the village; she belonged to no people to care for her. She and her children might die of it.
Tracing a hand down one side of her body, he felt her cooling skin, the warmth underneath, breast and ribs, side and hip and thigh, and what she offered between.
The skin around the hair and lips and folds of her was unbroken and smooth, no boils or foul-smelling weeping. You couldn’t always tell from that, but when he reached outside himself and in to her there was no strangeness in her that he could find, nothing hidden in her with an agenda different from the rest of her body. He had learned about disease in the ports along the Ribbon. He had been lucky, until he understood there was something to look for. That was why Kimfen had let him go first.
She rubbed his shoulders, rhythmic, obligatory, just enough so that she wasn’t lying there, seeming dead. He accepted it, savored it when she rubbed his neck and into his hair, and focused on exploring her body with fingers and lips.
He would have liked to have used his mouth on her cunt, but he didn’t. The first Secled woman who took him broke a crock on his head when he had tried. Felghaim had laughed for years. Instead he pressed his thumb against the pearl of her, feeling it move beneath the soft hood of skin. He stroked his fingers, lightly, barely touching, along the length of her lips, over and over, as he breathed warm and wet over her broad nipples.
She didn’t expect pleasure from him, and half his pleasure was in defying her expectation. She barely moved, her eyelids barely twitched, she did not make a sound. Her breathing quickened a little, and that was all. But he knew. It had nothing to do with reaching beyond himself, it was simply listening.
He slid two fingers between her lips, rubbing, kneading, dragged his mouth across the bend of her neck and shoulder. When, eyes closed, she reached down and pushed his hand away, he rested it on her hip, and watched as her hand replaced his. She was quick, methodical, rubbing her palm up and down, up and down, two fingers of her other hand pinching one broad, brown nipple. Then she jerked minutely, the only sign, and he let himself reach into her to feel the small, piercing beat of her peak, her womb and her cunt contracting, slowly, receding.
His breathing was faster now, his heart a little quicker. He was completely hard now, throbbing faintly.
When she spread her bent knees he moved between them, pressing his hips into the backs of her thighs, holding himself over her, the hard length of himself pressing into her belly. He let his chest and stomach press into hers, just let himself feel the sensation of being body to body with a woman. He let himself do that until he could feel her impatience, the impatience she wouldn’t express, then moved back and used his hand to guide the head of his cock.
It had been so long since a woman had been around him that when their bodies were joined he had to hold completely still, had to close his eyes lest any small thing tip him over the edge. She didn’t move, gave no indication that she was there except he could feel her so intensely. He had to fight to hold himself back, not spill beyond the edges of himself, not let the charge fill the air around him.
He kept his eyes closed as he began to move. Her face would give him nothing. So instead he soaked in her skin, the smell of her, the feel as she lightly held his hips, riding the long wave until he couldn’t hold it back anymore.
When he spilled himself in her, he convinced the life that would try to bind to her that it did not want to, only wanted to exist, then die, and that was all. He would not leave her with another child to sap her strength in the womb, nurse it away until she was bones.
His face was buried in her neck and hair, breathing hard, jagged. If she had someone waiting to crack him on the head with a mallet to steal his clothes and his weapons, now would have been the time. But Kimfen was watching. He heard the baby squirming, half asleep, and pushed himself off her. She was already reaching for the child before it woke, sitting up and pulling it by an arm into her lap to nurse. He sat back, watching her for a few breaths, waiting for his breathing to slow. He wiped himself off with a corner of his shirt, then dressed, pouring the gourds into her shawl to reclaim the bag.
He wasn’t surprised when he saw no one when he cleared the tops of the grasses, and gave a two-part whistle for Kimfen.
- Wait for me at the hut! ↵