Twenty-four

Jalar’s thick, roughened hands framed the mast like he was holding someone’s waist.

How can you tell?

Just, can,” he said, running one ocean-tanned hand down the trunk. It reminded Ridiath of the way Alan felt a wound.

The mainmast was cracked. The forces of the storm had twisted something inside the length of the tree, making it crack from the core outward. Ridiath couldn’t really see it. The stone-burnished face of the wood seemed unchanged. Around one side she thought she could detect a minute bulge, as if the mast above the distortion might bend forward the slightest degree too far, but she couldn’t be sure if her eyes invented it. But everyone who knew anything about shipwrighting and some that didn’t had declared it cracked, and that they were lucky that it hadn’t crashed into the deck.

There was already a splint of boards encircling the mast farther down, wenched tight with rope, and Jalar was evaluating how high the crack ran.

Wish the kid had asked somebody ‘fore he climbed up there,” he muttered. “F’we can swap the spare in here on the water I’ll give my fish to old men for a year,” Jalar said again, as if by repeating it he would make it more likely to happen. It was a very Endon thing.

Do I get to help prepare the next spare?” Ridiath asked dryly, arms crossed over her stomach.

Spend a dozen more years flyin’ the waters and maybe I’ll think about letting you touch metal to my mast.

Pulling his searching hands away, Jalar tilted his chin up and scratched vigorously at his jaw through his wiry brown beard.

Clisand must have called the turnover from the helm, because Aaric and Tande came up to the mast and climbed into the hold, a loose line gathering behind them. Ridiath’s eyes played over the deck. She wasn’t tired yet, and it was sweltering. She spotted Alan, Nemasd and Ecrembl in a knot near the cabin.

Alan’s hair was already braided down his back in a style she’d come to associate with northern Endonsárre. Lying on his stomach stripped to a breechclout, he was carefully teasing out Nemasd’s nappy hair with a pick, so that one side of his head was twice as big as the other. Ecrembl was sharpening his knives, bandolier draped over his lap. The three glanced up at her as she crossed her legs and sat. Her eyes skimmed the long line of Alan’s body, then returned to Ecremble feathering a stone down the bronze edges.

“Jalar says I only have a dozen more years before he thinks about letting me work on a mast.” No one replied with more banter, so she let the silence stand.

Ridiath settled into a blank mind, aware of the men filing in and out of the hatches, feeling sweat gather into droplets that finally slid down her skin. Something dragged against the deck, close enough to made her look up to find Ob standing over them with a blanket under his right arm, weight on his good leg.

C’you pop my back?” Ob said to Alan, a hint plaintively. Alan worked a few more strokes into Nemasd’s hair, then curled two fingers and gestured Ob to the deck.

Ob squatted, pushing his club foot into position when it folded awkwardly, and dropped the rolled blanket to the deck before lowering himself onto his belly. Alan moved up beside him, running his hands lightly down his back as Ob adjusted the blanket to support the shoulder that wouldn’t lay flat from the extreme curve in his spine.

Sitting up, Nemasd reached back to feel the size of his hair, and shook his head, grinning. Gathering the mass, he cinched a long cord around the base, turning it into a giant black cloud behind his head.

“Not gonna fit in my hammock like this. Or I’ll suffocate you.”

Alan gave no sign he had heard, but Ridiath could tell he was still listening.

Ob cracked his bulging eye. “Stop. Distracting him.”

Nemasd flicked his lip at him, a flash of bright pink against this slate face. Ob flicked one side of his cleft lip back, and Nemasd grinned. Ridiath glanced back at Alan. His eyes were still open, but he was lost, somewhere else. He moved to straddle Ob’s hips, keeping his weight off him as he ran his paired thumbs up the bow of Ob’s crooked spine, spreading the muscle. Alan would never pop a bone back into place without first loosening the body around it.

Hey Ridiath, Crazy’s got an eye on you.” Nemasd pitched his voice low, tinged faintly with amusement. He chewed lightly on his hair pick. Following his gaze without moving her head, Ridiath caught sight of the woman just glancing away. She tended to be around for both shifts since the pattern seemed to be to take her out at first light and put her away at dark. She signed a thanks to Nemasd.

It was still too hot to go below, and Ridiath thought furiously as she climbed to her feet. She could feel the woman’s eyes, then caught a glimpse of her pretending to watch something out on the water. The woman wandered closer, pausing casually. Ridiath avoided eye contact, passing her eyes over her has if she didn’t notice her, and made way to Gerril by the railing.

Elbows propped on the side, he took his eyes away from the water to glance at her curiously.

She’s stalking me. Look like we are in deep conversation.

Gerril laughed, silently, and turned, bracing his hips against the railing.

Anybody ever tell you about when our Old Man made Ashur tarry in port to pick up a cargo of half-fermented canda beans?.”

Ridiath eyed the woman were she stalled in the middle of the deck, leaning her own hip beside Gerril’s. “Rie told me once, but he didn’t make it long. And Rher said a little.

Rher can remember how many beans there were and how many black hairs Hessher had left, but he can’t tell it better than me. But if you really wanna hear the good version, you gotta ask Ashur.

I’ll take your version over having to take one of Ashur’s looks.

~~~

Another day done. Heigh ho, heigh ho, protestant work ethic, et cetera. Which Hannah thought was bullshit. She was sore, and apparently she could still get sunburned.

She’d been kinda horny. Which was weird. Because she hadn’t been horny in years. It seemed like a dangerous piece of information to volunteer when Colae –the Overseer– kept giving her weird looks when she spaced out.

She hadn’t really stared at all the shirtless guys. Only a few of them were really hot anyway. But through the rose-tinted glasses of libido, a lot of them seemed, a little, more.

Given that she was not going to ask one of them for help, that meant waiting until they locked her back up in the bilge, which was the least sexy or sanitary place on earth. Lying on the beam, barely as wide as her body, staring into the pitch black, Hannah figured she could probably sleep it off.

If she ever fell asleep.

Which didn’t seem to be happening.

Godammit.

She jerked at the ties at her waist, slipped her hand down her pants, across a coarse thatch of pubic hair, rubbed her clit, and something happened, a little zing. An image came in the blackness, catching a glimpse of that guy she’d barged in on jacking off, hand stroking up and down. It disappeared as quickly as it had come, but the feeling from her clit spread, becoming a tightness. She started breathing through her mouth, rubbed faster.

It had always taken her forever, and she hadn’t done it in fucking years. Her fingers went lower, found moistness, dragged it back up to her clit, put more pressure on one foot to give her hips a better angle. The humidity was smothering, like swallowing steam, but she couldn’t stop, hips bucking, had to make it happen, make it happen.

It wasn’t happening, and in frustration she pushed her two middle fingers into herself, slippery, and god knew what was under her fingernails which were too long, rubbing with her other hand, and she was close, had to be close.

Her legs started shaking, and Hannah had to stop, gasping, it was so intense. She waited until her legs felt more like legs than jello, and started again, tilting her head back against the beam Jesus Christ just make it happen

It wasn’t happening, wasn’t even getting as intense as it had been, and finally she just had to stop, because there was just no fucking point except making it worse. Her hand stopped moving, and she let her breathing come back down, clutching her groin. Pulling her hand out of her pants, holding it away from herself awkwardly in the dark as she felt the sticky, slippery wet on her fingers, and there wasn’t a sink or soap in five-hundred miles.

“Fuck,” she said, and banged her fist against the hull. “Fuck.” She pressed the heels of her palms against her forehead, careful not to touch herself with her dirty fingers.

~~~

The waves nibbled at the bluff, filling his ears, the immensity of the ocean still just visible past the drop of the scarp through the trees.

The Secled called them windcombs for the line of branches that fingered the sky so high above the plains. In the camps he had heard them called glrasil, after a tiny, bone-colored meadow plant that gave blue flowers when the snows melted.

Efeddre watched Jalar and Wemir inspect a sapling almost as thick as a man’s waist, their discussion a drone that blended in with the surf. Wind scoured the towering branches, leaving their party untouched in the lee of the steep hill rising from the scarp. Efeddre’s gaze followed the trunks up to the sky. The earth felt powdery between his toes, the skycombs sucking the last moisture from the surface for the dry season ahead.

Cosag was trying to convince the others to help him encircle one of the elder windcombs, slate-dark arms stretched almost straight out as he hugged the bole. Alan sat among the others, legs crossed, listening, watching the forest. Cosag’s enthusiasm and Trich’s distracted responses turned to chatter in Efeddre’s ears, unassimilated.

The cold was dull and deep inside him, fraying at the edges. He barely registered when he went cold anymore. And the mood his chill kept him in did not allow him to care. He waited, not patiently, not restless, hard.

Toney came up behind him and wrapped his arms around Efeddre’s waist, propping his chin on his shoulder. Efeddre kept his arms crossed, adjusting his knees minutely so that the curve of Toney’s belly filled the curve of his back.

A rhythmic rattle dropped through the trees, as if from a height, and Efeddre glanced toward it, not turning his head.

The imitation was well done. There was a giant caterpillar that bored galleries under the bark of the skycomb. The season was past the height of its feeding frenzy, but they could still be heard.

Several of the men had looked up at the call, still. Efeddre caught a glimpse of Kimfen moving down the incline in a sloppy glide.

Cosag fell silent, and Mirea and Kol stood as he jogged up. Toney moved toward them, squeezing his shoulder, and Efeddre followed him, more slowly.

“Past the hills there’s a foot trail winding north,” Kimfen reported, directing his attention mostly at Alan, black eyes skipping around the group. “Least a hundred, with children. Found their camp. Trampled, but they weren’t there long, but they were there recently. No bodies. No other sign of Drifalcand. No smoke or hoe scratches or village plants.” Kimfen glanced at Efeddre around the hook of his nose. “No sign of your people, least’t I’d know to look for.” He looked again at Alan, cocking a black eyebrow. “Herd came by yesterday, nearly into the hills. Trail not even dried out.”

The sun climbed to late morning when Idishe returned, padding softly around the other side of the hill.

There’s two-footed trails moving along the ridges, sometimes detouring down,” he said, wiry arms crossed over his chest. The ends of his scarf were wound around his head and tucked under to not snag, disguising the brightness of his pale yellow hair. “Always in pairs, at least two or three days old. Soldiers, my guess. Little messy, like they don’t know the land.

“‘Detouring‘?” Alan asked.

Like detouring,” Idishe told him, using the Seclednar word. Alan looked enlightened.

“Are we cleared to leave?”

Efeddre felt the abruptness of his voice shift the mood of the gathering. He kept his eyes on the scouts, and Alan. Kimfen and Idishe looked at each other.

“Clear’s I can tell the caravan already passed by,” Kimfen said. Idishe didn’t add anything.

“I want to see what the herd left,” Alan said, drawing everyone’s attention. “I’ll go with the hunt.” Kimfen nodded.

“We’ll be busy gettin’ our spare down, now that we can make some noise,” Jalar said, lifting his chin to point his beard at the sapling.

Kol grinned, his teeth big and bright in his dark face. “Meat that runs,” he said cheerfully, brushing the fletching of an arrow along his lips. Efeddre’s mouth watered, and he swallowed it back.

Toney threw his arms around Mirea, then chucked his shoulder. “Save me some.”

I will not be played, you hoarding old man. Gonna be with a bunch of knife-teeth prey-eaters…” He smacked at Toney’s ear, and Toney knocked his hand away, laughing.

Fuck a woman for me, Toney,” Cosag called, raising his hand. Wemir was helping Jalar position an iron wedge, and the first ring of the mallet was like a strike against the inside of Efeddre’s ear. He turned to leave, waiting in the periphery as Toney bantered, clasping Trich’s arm.

The spike of iron against iron shot through the forest as they traced the base of the hill. Efeddre let Toney lead, eyes following the shift of the light, and the dart of half-seen wings. There was little movement here, among the mammoth skycomb. The trees didn’t allow anything else to grow beneath their canopy, the ground bare except for the matted skeletons of generations of leaves. Efeddre saw no sign of hooved things, no underbrush to feed them.

Toney picked their path thoughtfully, watching everything around them, taking them into slopes of smaller, younger skycomb. They crossed two of the trails Idishe had described, two non-Limdri men, graceful and sharp, following what cover the forest had to offer. Soldiers, scouts. The trails were days old, the scent marked into the planed bark of a skycomb giving him only the impression of urine tanned leather.

They didn’t know exactly where the camp would be, or if the methala even still lived here. They could only follow the land like the methala they were trying to find would, try to find the place that made the most sense for them to be. When the sun rode at its peak they had yet to find standing or running water, but they had drunk deeply in the morning from the ship’s stores.

Toney paused to study the junction of two inclines, a line of sweat collecting to run between his brown shoulders. He glanced back at Efeddre, but it wasn’t quite a question. He chose to climb this time, finding a seam in the slope where rainwater carved its way down. Efeddre followed him up, picking slightly different ground as Toney’s stocky form hopped up on an eroded ledge.

A thread of scent filtered into his awareness, woodsmoke, and Efeddre stilled. He had a sudden image of cookfires, Lridrisy, Limdri. The wind shifted, taking the smell away, but the air was suddenly drier. He had never stood in this forest before, never lived among these trees and these hills, but the shock thrummed through his body.

Fire.

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