A buck stared down the sun-stained hill, the palms and fingers of his antlers twice as wide as Ashur could reach. He chewed cud for a few heartbeats, then disappeared over the lip of the land.
Ridiath kept threading them through the low, flat places, out of sight.
Crazy had taken Kimfen from Ridiath, one of his arms pulled over her shoulders; Ashur could keep his feet when Ridiath periodically climbed a slope, lay flat on her belly at the crest, and adjusted their course.
They startled a doe and her fawn in a gully, the doe bigger than a limbihte, and the two bolted, zig-zagging through the grass and out of sight. The sun had ridden halfway to its peak, the song of spiders winding through the warm, clear air, when they walked past two herder men perched on a pile of baskets and hides.
One sat between the other’s knees as he braided his hair, and glanced up as they approached. He touched the other man’s leg, and the man fiddled with a strand, then picked up a needle and started sewing off the end of the plait.
Crazy and Kimfen had just limped past them when one of the men lightly jumped down from the pile started walking alongside them, moving to the front. Ashur could only see his naked back, his neck bare from the braid that started at the base of his skull and wove over the crown of his head, the hair in back almost brown, as if it never saw the sun. He was wearing pants, loose cloth, not hide leggings.
A young herder woman looked up at them curiously from unpacking a travois as they passed, almost naked except for a small leather apron, her long body lean and wiry. The main herd was out of sight, and two dozen animals scattered across a long slope stomped at flies, browsing as they wandered.
Ashur wasn’t sure if the herder was leading them or accompanying them, his vision narrowed ahead. Ridiath kept walking, his hand braced on her shoulder, until they reached a roughly cleared patch of ground. The grass had been cut, and lay loosely stacked in fluttering piles. There was a flicker of orange still licking a dung fire in a circle of black, and that was where Ridiath finally stopped, holding his arms to brace him as he lowered himself painfully, exhaustedly, to the ground.
Alan crouched down in front of him, and smiled. The ends of his yellow hair where the braid ended at his forehead had been trimmed above his eyes to lay like the end of a fish’s tail. He helped Ashur struggle out of the soldier’s clothes, muscles freezing awkwardly, scabs breaking, his eyes already roaming, taking in what eyes could perceive.
Alan reached for his face, feeling around the back of his skull, down his neck, and Ashur closed his eyes. He was locked so tightly into himself it was nothing but touch. He could feel nothing of Alan, nothing beyond the reach of his body.
Alan’s hands wandered down, exploring everything without regard to any illusion of modesty, a practical intimacy. He moved behind Ashur to reach his chest and stomach rather than make him straighten, holding his broken ribs, the aching bowl of his pelvis, his testicles.
Alan examined the bloody lashes last, draping a buckskin soaked in milk over his back to soften the crust of the scabs as he moved on to Kimfen. There were few things Ashur wanted less on his wounds than rotting herdbeast milk, but he was still blocked too tightly in his body to argue with him. Kimfen braced his elbows on his thighs, leaning over his lap, hair hanging in his face, his exhaustion finally showing through as Alan traced each block of his spine, trailing his fingers along the shape of every rib. The bruising around his kidneys looked the worst, solid and black, purpling around the edges. Alan’s hands lingered there, palming his back. He probed gently, and Kimfen flinched.
The soldiers hadn’t brought in the doctors to torture them. They were lucky. The worst was probably Kimfen’s feet, the damage almost invisible. If they were broken Ashur couldn’t imagine how he had walked this far. Alan stayed there for a long time, holding each foot in his lap, held firmly between his palms.
Crazy was sitting crosslegged on the ground, looking around with naked curiosity. She had pants again, and had tucked her hair into the back of her tunic, the breeze tugging at it. Ridiath had sat nearby, also fully clothed, staring into the fire but not going near it. A herder man approached Ashur with a small hide, the hair still on, and draped it without asking over the front of Ashur’s body, tucking it carefully around the soaked buckskin on his back. It was surprisingly supple for its size, likely a fawn. He didn’t realize until the warmth started to build that he had been cold.
He wanted to lay down, except it would hurt, and getting up would hurt again. Two herder women sat by the fire, carefully positioning new chips of dried dung. They spoke and laughed together so softly he could barely hear, pounding something with a mortar, indistinguishable to him with their leather aprons and braided hair and the woven grass bands around their elbows and calves.
One of them moved forward with a boiled leather pot of milk, offering it to them. Alan drank deeply, his upper lip streaked with a foam of white when he gave the bowl back, grinning.
When offered, Kimfen drank enough for courtesy, carefully hiding any sign of distaste, and Ashur refused altogether. Ridiath drank and seemed to have no opinion at all, her eyes blank and hard as she stared at the dusty stubble of grass. Crazy took the bowl warily, her unguarded expression as if she expected to endure something unpleasant, and when she sipped her eyes widened. Tipping the bowl back further, she kept drinking.
“Damn. That shit is good. Like, better than whole milk.” She gave the herder two fists with her thumbs sticking up, reminding Ashur vaguely of the bidding sign in Zhang-Dansas. He wondered if it meant anything to the herders other than whatever she meant.
“Milk mustache,” she said, pointing at Alan’s mouth as she wiped the foam away from her upper lip. He glanced at her with a faint smile.
The woman came back with a bowl of blood for Ashur, and he drank it all. He desperately wanted water, and remembered that he had heard once that herders never drank water, only milk and blood.
“Hadatsidemiruapethert-totokiabiamiynbco?” the woman asked, squatting by Alan as he delicately massaged Kimfen’s ankles, her braided hair as yellow as his, utterly unconcerned with her nakedness.
“Ibiweramiyetanshcal,” he said, eyes still on his task. She used a fingernail to flip open the leather case with Alan’s copper needles.
“Laalce-mtgoscupelsahadid-diishu. Jahaliswigileceloub. Iswisahadigotego.”
Crazy was watching Alan as the woman left, considering.
“English as a second language,” she said slowly, sounding satisfied. Alan glanced at her, then back to his work. He moved back to Ashur to peel the drying buckskin off his back, leaving the whip cuts stinging in the air. He began gently picking off the scabs, rubbing out dirt and crust with a thumb wetted in milk.
“There was an olane nearby, too close,” Ashur told him, the barest, most essential information the only thing worth saying. “She would have felt me, so I had started to pull back. Then we were spotted by scouts, and there was nowhere to run.”
Ashur winced as Alan sliced one of the lash marks open deeper with a chert knife.
“We’re still too close. I can’t risk it.” He felt Alan’s fingers massaging the hot, puffy flesh, wiping away pus.
A woman and a man in leggings and loin cloth came with baskets and leather pots on their hips. One was a pot of some viscous, fermenting milk that nearly made Ashur gag when the man offered to him.
“Hadachre,” Alan told them.
“Oh, wow, thanks,” Crazy said when they offered her a basket of cold, cooked strips of meat. His stomach cramped even at the thought of it. “Oh God, red meat. Thank you, thank you, thank you. Mmmm. Mwhat? Oh.” Between her fingers she experimentally squeezed a squelching white curd the woman offered her from a pale, soupy mixture. She put it in her mouth doubtfully, chewed twice, swallowed, mouth tightening. “No thanks.” She held up her hands, palms out. The woman laughed, and the man wandered off toward the fire and returned with a heavy lump wrapped in leaves. Unwrapping one end, he broke off a dense, crumbly chunk of aged cheese and pushed it into Crazy’s hands. “Okay. Okay. Hm. Oh! Cool. This’s pretty good. It needs salt. Yeah, I’ll take some more, oh man, what we need is buns and some ketchup.”
Ridiath took everything that was offered to her, and ate none of it.
“Aren’t they afraid the Drifalcand will retaliate for sheltering us?” Ridiath said to Alan, her voice devoid of the concern her words implied. “They were so close. It’s almost too obvious.”
Alan said something long and incomprehensible in his language. A hand cupping the back of Alan’s neck, the herder woman said something short, rolling one lean shoulder.
“She says, ‘They’ve already killed us.'”
It took Ashur a while to realize he didn’t see any children.
Ashur searched for the telltale crimping of mourning braids in their yellow hair, but he couldn’t tell. When they mourned they grieved like nothing else existed, and when it was over they were done. He could find no anger in them, as they churned butter, tanned hides, spoke to each other in low voices, and kept the dung fire burning.
As midday faded to afternoon, he spotted a little girl up the slope, probably no taller than his hip. She was the only child the Drifalcand hadn’t taken. He watched her shadowing a flock of sharp-beaked geese as they strutted and pecked through the herdbeasts rangy legs, her arms tucked behind her like wings, mirroring their waddling bodies and bobbing heads. One goose flared his wings at a herdbeast, beating them furiously and she flung her arms out, flapping. The doe’s nostrils flared, eyes showing white even at a distance.
Alan was examining the perfect, bloody imprint of a man’s teeth on Ridiath’s belly. It cut deep enough for Ashur to see the change from skin to fat. Alan cleaned the wound with milk, and sealed the skin with the sticky sap of a broad, succulent leaf. Rubbing charcoal into powder between his fingers, he dusted the sap until it didn’t stick, Ridiath staring to the side.
“Help me lay down,” Kimfen said, crooking his scabby, nailess fingers at Crazy. Blinking at him, she suddenly popped up and took careful, barefooted steps through the sharp stubble of grass to take his shoulders as he painfully shifted his position. He pulled the thick hide Alan had draped over him up to his chin and dozed.
Sprawled and yet somehow upright, the woman considered Kimfen, then announced, “Naptime.” Climbing awkwardly to her feet, she returned to her spot near Ridiath and stretched out, face pillowed on her arm.
He wanted to sleep, and for some reason he didn’t lay down, so he stayed awake, eyelids gritty and heavy. The smell of the milk-soaked buckskin scratched at him, invading his senses no matter which way he turned, a sour stain in his nose. It was driving him to distraction, and he finally pushed past his stiff muscles and reached behind him to tug it off, the breeze icy on his damp back. Alan crouched beside him.
“The milk will help soften the scarring.” He smoothed the damp hide against his back again, sealing the cool wet against his skin.
Still laying down, Kimfen tossed a little stone from the grass at him.
“Relax and shut up.”
Ashur glowered at the dirt.
A spurt of running hooves drummed up through the earth, and Crazy popped upright, looked around sharply, then dropped again. None of the herders had even glanced up.
Alan sat in front of him, and took his hands.
“I need you for Kimfen.”
Ashur closed his eyes, felt his breath hitch.
They might still be too close. He had no idea where the olane was, what she would sense.
He gave himself those breaths to decide, to convince himself to reach.
He had to open, had to open, had to open there was nothing to open, just smooth, hard surface, no cracks to pry, inside, from the inside, push out. Like fighting a wall of stone, of water. He had to open, just open, let go—
He made a sound something in between a grunt, or a gasp, and suddenly he unfurled and there was Alan, that bright, dense knot, there was the living earth, the roots tiny crawling, chewing things, and something larger on the edge of his perception, a life so large that in that single, expanding heartbeat it was beyond what he could understand, a walking, eating, running, rutting life that ate the grass and died in the grass and fed the grass.
Ashur rebounded into himself, compressed into his body, sealed so tightly nothing could escape. Alan kept holding his hands, the only sensation that told him he was there, and said nothing. When his breathing had evened, Alan let him go, and got up. He went and squatted by the fire.
He came back with raw, waxy fat and a bowl of hot blood. The blood warmed him immediately, and when that faded, the fat started to warm him from the inside.
Alan pushed himself to his feet, and as he passed Ridiath he leaned down to massage her shoulders. She flinched, so violently he almost jerked his hands away. Her empty expression never changed, she didn’t look at him. Alan’s hands hovered for a few breaths, before he pulled away, some emotion lining his face that Ashur had no story to match. The expression stayed with him as he helped the women around the fire, twisting and sewing grass into a coiled basket.
The two herders who had brought them food came down from the hill concealing the main herd and spoke with Alan. The woman didn’t wear a leather apron, but leggings and a breechclout like the man beside her, her right nipple pierced with a curved sliver of bone. Both the man’s nipples were pierced, framed by his arms crossed over his chest.
In the evening, Alan came back, and took his hands.
Ashur closed his eyes, and didn’t think, didn’t try.
He didn’t know how much time passed, except that it seemed too long. It was getting cooler as the sun dropped, the breeze picking up.
He pulled his hands out of Alan’s, turned them into fists, pulling his arms and legs tightly to his chest, mirroring with his body what he felt in his self. Head bowed, he clenched the muscles of his face, eyes squeezed shut, he couldn’t breathe his stomach was so tight, eyes, toes curled shoulders hunched, tightened every aching, torn muscle until he was almost shaking.
He held it, his perception buried in the darkness behind his eyelids, the bounds of his fiercely fetal body. He couldn’t breathe. He held it.
His body let go all at once with a sharp, gutteral noise, exhausted, burning muscles suddenly limp, almost melting him into the ground. It was quiet, like there was nothing outside of himself. But he could feel Alan, could feel the turning gyre of the life of the herd, could feel the rumble of the ocean farther away than he could see. There was no presence on the edge of his perception, no inverted flame, no dense absence to tell him an olane was near.
“All right,” he breathed, mouth hanging slack. “I’m ready.”
Kimfen was asleep when Alan’s tug on his energy ebbed, and Ashur opened his eyes. He realized he hadn’t entirely been awake. The sun had sunk into the ground, leaving a warm glow on the hilltops. Alan still held one of Kimfen’s feet firmly between his palms. Through the last threads of their connection, he could feel a subtle texture, strands and webs and streams he couldn’t quite understand, warmths, densities, structures, layers, shapes of an interlocking whole. Alan gently placed Kimfen’s foot on the ground, and the vague, grey lens flickered out. The healing wasn’t done. Alan never did it all at once if he had the time, rarely did more than absolutely needed except to help it heal more cleanly.
The herder women had built up the fire, the hot, smoky smell of roasting meat and fat hanging in the air.
Movement caught his sluggish eyes as Crazy stood and stretched up on her toes, fingers splayed in the firelight. As she settled back on her heels, she found herself eye to eye with a bemused young herder man. Ashur hadn’t seen anyone older than Alan. Kill the old, take the young.
They’ve already killed us.
Soft voices and laughter by the fire, hands and sticks reaching to flip strips of meat and fat. A herdbeast snorted in the night, answered by a burp and a stomp. Ashur drank blood when it was offered to him. The meat was still too heavy. Crazy enthusiastically ate enough for someone twice her size.
Alan sat between the herder man and woman who had spoke to him earlier. The man traced Alan’s ear with his fingertips, and fed him a bite of meat dipped in thick, fermented milk. Alan ate it from his fingers with a laugh, the woman’s hand cupping his thigh as she reached for another sizzling strip of fat.
As the herders drifted away, Ashur watched the two invite Alan to their blanket. He couldn’t tell if it was the first time, or a continuation of something still new. Kneeling by the fading fire, the woman carefully teased a coal into a chip of dung. Alan left with them into the dark. A few breaths later, a tiny fire bloomed a little farther up the slope, and Ashur caught the impression of someone being gently pushed to the ground.
The next day, the herd began to move.
At dawn the herders were packed, all their hides and pots and leaf-wrapped lumps of cheese lashed to travois. Alan squatted around the fire with them, drinking fresh milk. When the herd started its slow, ponderous wandering before the dew burned away, they were ready.
Alan wouldn’t let Kimfen walk, so he lay bundled in a hide in a travois. Alan pulled the lashed poles behind him, the two shafts polished by hands and fat and years. Crazy elected herself Ashur’s crutch, while Ridiath hefted the small store of gear they had brought with them from the ship, her lhir slung across her back.
Alan wasn’t built for walking the plains anymore. Years training with a lhir had made his shoulders and chest broader than the other herder men, and there had been little opportunity to run in the walls of Lum, and even less on a ship. But he pulled Kimfen’s travois and held a half-shouted conversation with a trio of herders walking ahead as if he had never left.
They had probably walked less than a league, and it felt like hot wire was being dragged through his lungs with each step. Crazy caught him when he rolled his ankle on a hidden divet, and a couple of the herders ahead glanced behind them. Tapping the youth’s shoulder, the young woman stopped and started tugging at the lacing on her travois. He took what she handed him and added it to his own load, and as Ashur and Crazy came even with them, patted the hide she had rolled out. Crazy had stopped, and Ashur glowered at the travois.
“Lkmi.” she said, patting the hide again. He looked to Alan, but Alan wasn’t looking at him, still dragging Kimfen behind him. He stared at the travois, feeling his face crease, and felt capitulation overtake pride as he thought of climbing the next hill, and however many after that. He loosened his grip on Crazy’s arm, fingers clutching hard as he wobbled trying to lower himself.
“Dude, give me a little warning,” she blurted, turning to give both her arms for him to grip. He closed his eyes as his back hit the hide-padded harness of the travois.
“Ou-retgyh-cnawepioshefr,” the herder woman said, adjusting the tension between the poles. He heard Alan’s voice, the pitch, the timbre so familiar, the words alien.
“Lalera-tghynumafimialmycha-hk?” she laughed, hefting the poles, the sudden sensation of being lifted.
They stopped around late afternoon, cresting a rise to find the herd spread before them, a multitude so thick Ashur could barely perceive them as individual patterns. The herders stomped down the grass in a small ring at the ragged edge of the herd and built a fire of dried dung they had carried with them, but didn’t unpack most of their gear.
The man who had taken Alan to his blanket pushed a boiled leather pot into his hands. Hefting it, Alan half-lifted an eyebrow at the man, with the closest thing to a smirk Ashur had ever seen. He wandered off through the scattered herdbeasts.
Ashur watched him approach a lone doe from the side. Her ears flicked up, and she blew gently through her nose, then went back to grazing. Alan stepped casually closer, almost as if it were only a coincidence, and let his arm drift up to brush the tips of is fingers against her shoulder. Her skin twitched, as if shaking off a fly, and he stepped softly toward her hindquarters, fingers trailing with the grain of her hair. She stomped in irritation when he reached under her belly to her teats, tugging as he squatted, gently, bowl cradled between his knees. His hands worked fast and the doe stopped grazing and held herself taut, back legs rigid. She was huge, taller than he was at the shoulder, but for some reason she didn’t trample him. When Alan let her go she bucked, kicking him squarely in the thigh before he could jump away, laughing.
The man said something to Alan as he came back to the fire, the women laughing at him, and Alan flicked milk at his face.
For the next three days the herd wandered. Alan spent the daylight trading Kimfen’s travois with one of the herders, sitting with Ashur to work on Kimfen’s feet in increments, making butter and speaking little besides Ekkednar. His nights he spent with the couple.
The woman was telling him something as they crouched by the crude hearth, deftly weaving grass into crisp braids. She never wore an apron, always the leggings and breechclout. She was the only woman with a pierced nipple. There were no men and women who followed the herds, Alan had told him once, only herders and gatherers, and he was neither. She had not followed the usual role, he guessed. She spent her days scouting the herd, milking and bleeding the animals who tolerated their camp. Bending the grass band above Alan’s elbow, she wove it closed.
Ashur felt his mouth tighten, and he tore his eyes away to find Crazy staring at Ridiath. Her long, rounded face was stripped of her usual childish stupidity. Ridiath wasn’t paying attention, or was ignoring her. Eventually she stood and left, disappearing a short ways into the grass. Crazy caught him looking at her, and glanced over her shoulder at the tall, grassy perimeter.
Not finding Ridiath, she turned back to him and said, “Your girl’s a little killer.”
- Like my mother's. ↵
- Can you drain the pethert? ↵
- It will be easier with needles. ↵
- Melting rock's bad for a body. Gilece has bone. Bone's good for a body. ↵
- Blood. ↵
- Lay down. ↵
- He balks like game fawn. ↵
- He flies like a toeless hawk. ↵
- And he tells you when the herd will wander? ↵
- He has good fingers, for other things. ↵