Smoke rose from the clay chimney of the small cottage. Goats barked from behind a wooden fence. Naltu stumbled to the small hut, finding the construction strange, made of stacked logs in place of the usual leather of the tribesmen. He wondered if the hut belonged to Northerners. No tribesman would build a home from which he could not follow the seasons and forage.
He found the answer to his question quickly as a man in brown leather rushed towards him, brandishing an old carbine. The crest of his head was bald, and thin hairs were braided and tied behind his neck in a knot. His eyes were wide and round, and his skin was once darkened from the northern sun, now mottled in the southern light. The man shouted in a strange language. Naltu shook his head and pointed to his ears. The man spoke halting words, that Naltu should not move. The door opened and Naltu looked over his shoulder. A woman and a child peered at him with dark eyes through the crack in the door. Naltu raised his hands in a friendly gesture, and the man saw the blackening hand and gaunt face and raised the gun to the sky.
Naltu released the air in his lungs and relaxed. The man patted a knife at his belt and pointed to a small stool near the hut.
"Rush," he introduced himself, and pointed to his wife and daughter. "Molly, Stanah. Keep away from them."
Naltu bowed, and did not understand the words, and gave his name and patted his stomach. Stanah laughed and Molly gave him a bowl of cold soup filled with boiled roots and the stringy meat of birds. Naltu missed the pungent flavor of the mushrooms, but smiled and emptied the bowl. Naltu rested on the stool for hours and then slept behind the cabin.
In the night, he pressed his mind into his wrist and felt the cotton fibers where the bones had broken. The flesh shifted and knit and began to harden, but Naltu was exhausted before the bone was firm. He woke tired, and his wrist remained purple and bruised, but his hand moved freely.
When the sun came, he returned to the front of the house, and Rush was surprised to see him there. The northern man was as thin as Naltu, and worked unsteadily with an axe, splitting logs. Stanah laughed and rushed outside and gave Naltu a stale cracker, which the tribesman devoured.
Naltu rolled logs for Rush, setting them in place with his good hand, and gathered the split wood. Rush swung the axe, smiling with appreciation. The pile of wood was split by the time the sun was overhead, and Molly and Stanah returned and fed the men with more bread and stewed bird. Naltu felt the strength return to his legs. Rush tended to the goats, gathering milk. Naltu left his pack and moved into the woods.
He found vines growing from the soil and tore them out and tied them into rough snares, slowed and hampered by his injury. He pushed deeper into the woods and chased a young doe. The deer bolted, jumping over the tall roots, and exhausted itself in moments, slowing. Naltu came close enough and smashed the deer's hindleg with a throw of his axe, and then cut the doe's neck. He carried the animal over his shoulders and retrieved a squirrel trapped in one of the snares. He brought the game back to Rush, who seemed surprised at Naltu's prowess.
Molly was pleased. She squealed with delight and cleaned the kills. Naltu and Rush filled their bellies with venison. Stanah asked for more, and Naltu served her, and she responded. He turned to Rush and repeated the strange words.
Rush grinned and clapped Naltu about the shoulders. Molly opened a cold-chest and placed the remaining meat inside. Rush filled a pipe with blackened herbs and smoked, and then retreated to the bedroom with his wife and daughter. Naltu erected his tent behind the hut and slept.
Naltu's strength grew and he hunted twice daily, filling the woods with snares. He ate with Rush and ate alone, and his muscles began to fill out the furs even as the sun warmed the ground enough that he shed them. Rush still wrapped his family in leather, but Naltu began to hunt bare-chested. Molly's meat-chest was full after two weeks, and Naltu's body was healed and doubled in weight.
He learned words from the others and took to tending Rush's goats and cutting trees with the northman's axe. Even though the season of growth came, the nights were cold enough to freeze a man, and the chimney always steamed. Stanah grew to like Naltu, and would sit on his knee and babble in the strange lyrical language of the northmen. Rush was kind enough to allow this.
The moon grew new and full again, and Naltu felt calm and peaceful, hunting and roaming within a day of Rush's hut. The spring turned to summer and the forest was empty of men. Rush traded with other northmen who passed by on horse-drawn carts, and Naltu remained hidden. Naltu learned enough of the tongue to know that the past winter had been the family's first in the south, and that Molly had shared the last of the family's meat with him, and that Naltu's hunting had kept the hunger at bay.
Molly read to Stanah and Naltu and Rush from a book of poems, stories about the cities of the north. Naltu asked why she did not read from half the pages, and Molly blushed and told him the words on those pages were not for children and tribesmen.
Naltu came from the forest as the crops began to sprout, and beckoned Rush to follow him. They traveled deep and the sun was low when Naltu stopped. Rush grew frustrated until Naltu showed him the reason for the trek. Naltu pointed at a large carapace, an insect the size of a fox, with a spiked mouth large enough to take a man's hand in a bite. The shell was brown and jagged and thick, with a gash made by Naltu's machete. Rush yelped and ran. Naltu chased after him. The sun was setting and another of the creatures appeared. Naltu killed it with his machete, but ran with Rush through the night back to the cabin.
"What is that?" Rush asked.
"Beast," Naltu replied. "Bad beast. Swarm soon, coming. Eat the fields. Eat the goats. Eat us."
"How do we fight it?" Rush questioned, slamming his fists together.
"Tribesman no fight. We move when beast. Tens and tens," Naltu offered, spreading his fingers wide.
Rush looked at the walls of his cabin. Two carbines hung from hooks, and Rush handed one to Naltu.
"Twenty? We can kill that many with these guns, you and I. We'll lie on the roof when they come, and kill them all."
Naltu shrugged. "Tomorrow, hunt beast carbine?"
Rush shook his head. "No. Wait here, above."
"No," Naltu said. "Hunt. Hunt before swarm."
"When do the swarms come?"
"When warm enough. Soon. Days."
Rush frowned and pushed a large horn into Naltu's hand and showed the tribesman new things. He showed Naltu how to tie the slow match to the rifle's lock, and to fill the bore with powder and lead. He showed Naltu the proper amount to sprinkle into the pan, and demonstrated how the carbine could make death when the trigger was pulled.
They stepped outside and fired at trees in the moonlight. Naltu enjoyed the stroke of thunder when the carbines fired, though his ears rang. Naltu enjoyed the smell of the matches and the whiff of sulfur when the powder in the pans ignited. He tasted the black powder, spat, and Rush laughed.
A trading caravan came through and Rush told them of the massive insects. The driver was incredulous. Naltu met a Ghislail tribesman in the group who knew of the insects. The tribesman told Naltu that he should leave, that the winter was too short and the deer had fallen, and that the insects would be large and hungry. Naltu knew this already. But the days passed without sighting the creatures, and the family grew hopeful that the things had passed them.
The insects came while Stanah was in the field, playing in the early morning. They skittered from the woods faster than any man could. The goats bleated as they died and warned the family. Stanah screamed and ran away from the forest and away from the house. The insects were only four at first, and hurried towards the sound and warmth. Rush charged into the field behind Naltu, though the tribesman was faster.
They were not fast enough, and thick pincers grasped Stanah's foot above the ankle and crushed and tore. Stanah screamed and was held standing for a moment, tethered to the insect as the last of her flesh refused to release her ruined foot. She fell and scrambled back while the monster devoured its prize. Rush's carbine cracked and Naltu swung his machete. More bugs were coming from the forest to replace the few that had been killed. The insects ignored the men, and Naltu walked on the insect that had injured Stanah, and felt the carapace shift and crack under his weight. He grabbed Stanah's arm and hoisted her high and over his shoulder.
Rush saw his wife climbing to the roof, and he pointed, and Naltu ran. Rush followed, trying to reload his carbine while moving, and struggled.
Naltu gave Stanah to Rush. He carried her in his arms onto the roof of the hut. Naltu brought the other rifle and fired at the creatures with the carbine. Rush howled in pain as his daughter bled on the straw thatch, though she remained silent. Molly held her daughter close, covering the child's eyes and ears with her blouse and hands.
Naltu touched the flesh below her knee and the bleeding stopped. He took the carbines and loaded while Rush shot. The field was littered with a hundred brown shells when the bag of metal balls ran empty. Naltu watched as more of the creatures came from the woods and cannibalized their siblings. Dark clouds moved overhead, and the rain came, and the roof sagged. The water washed away Stanah's blood and Molly's silent tears. The insects devoured even the shells and moved south.
The clouds retreated and the sun fell low in the sky. Rush was silent, holding his daughter, and Molly turned to Naltu.
"Is this how you people live?"
"Tribesmen strong," Naltu replied. "And hurt. We know the land. We leave when not safe."
Molly sniffed. "Will Stanah die? My daughter's a cripple. How can a cripple grow in this foul country?"
Naltu shook his head and took the girl onto his knee. "Tribesman strong."
He put his fingers to his lips and Molly quieted. Rush watched, in shock, and Naltu's hand glowed. The girl cried out, and the bone extended from her stump, forming a joint. Rush turned away as tendons grew from the joint. More lumps of flesh appeared, and Naltu's face grew gaunt. Small bubbles boiled, tiny muscles rippled past a torn skirt, and skin formed until the girl's leg was whole.
Exhausted and dizzy, Naltu fell back. Stanah squealed excitedly, wiggling her toes. The family fell asleep on the sagging roof. The morning came, and Rush was surprised at the ease in which he carried Naltu's body down the ladder. Molly made more soup, and Naltu ate.
Rush was fearful. "The tribesmen have magic. Like the Magisters."
Molly laughed at Rush. "You wanted to chase him away. If you had, our daughter would be a cripple, if we hadn't starved during the winter. He said we should leave."
Naltu shook his head and touched Molly's face with his finger. "Go home. This place for tribesmen and green men. Not for northern. Soft."
"We were given a grant to this land, Naltu. I thought the military would have come, is all. They should have, with supplies and a garrison," Rush said sadly. "We only lost the goats. We'll survive."
Naltu shook his head. "Earth not yours. Earth belongs to earth. Man come when earth calls, man leave when bid. Naltu leave. North."
Rush bobbed his head. "You're leaving? You've been a good friend. When will you go?"
"Soon, now that beast gone," Naltu replied.
Naltu hunted for two days to stock his own pack and fill Molly's larder. The cold-chest was broken by the scavenging things, but the small stone that formed the core was undamaged. Rush repaired the machine with rough wood. The time came for Naltu to leave.
Molly huffed and handed a small black bundle to Naltu. "It's not much, but it's a first print. It's worth something. You should learn to read the songs I never did. If you're in a taverns where they drink and sing, you could hear them."
Naltu did not understand. He opened the pages and recognized the strange letters, but they held no meaning for him. "Thank you."
Rush laughed. "He won't know what to do with that," he scolded.
Naltu held the book to his chest and bowed. Rush gave him the older carbine and told him to keep the weapon. Naltu was thankful, and slept in the tent while the others retreated to the bedroom. When the sun rose, he was gone.
The trip north was brief. Naltu had not realized how close to the ocean shore he was. He came to the northern port and his pack was still full of food. The city was contained, surrounded by trees that had been cut, with points sharpened like spears stretching to the sky, high enough that the roofs of the buildings beyond were hidden, and tilted away from the city to make scaling difficult. The wood was, as Ychatl promised, covered in thick black mess dredged from the swamps, and portions of it were burned. The men were skilled in repairs, or the tar did not alight as Naltu had imagined, because the barricade was intact.
Sentries posted at the gate stopped him. They were dressed much as the slavers, with carbines, but these carried slender swords, and the hairs had been plucked from their faces. They were clean and smelled of pleasant smoke, and smiled even as they feared conflict.
"Welcome to New Odrin," said a man. "Do you have business in the town?"
The second man shifted. The skin tone of the savage was close enough to that of the northern settlers, though his pelts identified him as a tribesman.
Naltu shifted his sword away and untied a leather pouch from his hip. He poured a few of the coins into his hand, and the silver glinted in the sunlight.
"Naltu trade with northmen."
The first man grinned. "Naltu? That's your name?"
"Yes," Naltu agreed.
"That gun's not loaded, is it?" the second man asked, and moved behind. Naltu let the strap fall from his shoulder and the man inspected the gun.
"Hmm. An old matchlock. Nalinese, actually, from the war."
He turned the gun over and saw an engraving on the metal butt of the stock. "This is Rush Kinson's gun. Where'd you get this?"
Naltu smiled. "Rush friend. Gave Naltu."
"He gave you this? Why?"
"Stay with Rush for season. Protect. Hunt with. Naltu go north. Rush give."
The man returned the gun. "We'll let you in, but we're going to keep our eyes on you. Don't cause any trouble, and don't be near these walls at sunset. We've been raided recently. Understand?"
"Naltu friend," he said, bobbing his head.
The two stepped aside and Naltu entered.
Outside, the fields had been empty, but the city was bustling, late in the day, and hundreds of pink men scuttled about on errands. Women laughed and stared at Naltu. The buildings were built much like that of the farmer Rush, but were made more sturdy by the thicker logs chosen. Iron straps bound the doors in place. Many came to and from a particular building, and Naltu recognized the location as a place of rest. Cheers came from beyond the wooden door.
He followed a group of men into the tavern and took a seat. Though the last remnants of the sun were warm enough by his reckoning, a fire burned in a trough in the center, and a hollow column made of clay blocks rose above the trough and through the roof, where the smoke escaped. Still, the odor of fire permeated everything, and it was not an unpleasant odor like that of the tribal fires.
"Haven't seen you before. Welcome to the Yellow Grouse. Two drops for ale, boiled fish dinner will be up later." a woman offered.
She wore leather wrapped loose around her waist and legs, tied in place with rough laces. Linen spotted with grease covered the rest of her. Her eyes held a cheerfulness he saw in Stanah, and never in the women of the south.
"You drinking or just warming the stool?"
Naltu shrugged and offered her a single clay coin. She replied with a mocking laugh.
"We're not hagglers like you savages. Two drops or hit the streets."
Her words were harsh, but her tone was jovial, so Naltu gave her another bit of enamel-covered clay from his pouch. She returned with a tall cup filled with foamy ale. He found the cup remarkable, with the shape of the clay the tribesmen pounded over stones, but worked from metal by the northmen.
He sucked the foam off and then swallowed the liquid, finding it to his liking. It was brown and tasted of the trees. Others joined him at the table and told stories that he did not understand. Naltu bought more ale, and was given bread and boiled whitefish seasoned with onions and the remnants of a fragrant herb. He listened to the words and the boasts. Women in tight clothes circulated through the tavern and teased the men. Naltu watched purses empty as men drank and ate.
The men straggled outside or into the hall as the conversation dimmed. The woman who had sold him ale earlier came. She eyed the leather purse that hung at his waist, that it sagged full, but she knew men who placed small stones into their purses to appear wealthy.
"What're you doing here, hon?"
She giggled. "No, I mean, we don't get many people like you here. Mostly they don't let 'em in. How'd you learn our language?"
Naltu turned. "Worked with farmer. Teach Naltu."
"Oh," she nodded, interested. "You're Naltu?"
Naltu's mouth opened wide. "Yes. Naltu. You name?"
"Gayl," she replied. "Where you sleeping? Here? I have a room if you want, twenty drops or two small silvers. Cheap. No haggling, though!"
Naltu patted his pack. "Tent."
"Outside? The sentries won't let you camp in the town, and the goblins raid near the walls, so you'll have to walk for awhile. We have a fire and more sweet ale. Don't you want to stay here?"
Naltu laughed. "Warm is good."
She smiled and took his money, though she did not leave his side. "This is my father's tavern," she offered.
"Good place. Good drink. How I go north? How I cross blue water?"
"You want to go across the sea? Well, you need to take a ship."
Naltu nodded, face full of excitement. "Ship. How?"
Her eyes widened, surprised by the question. "Well, uh, I don't know. We took a ship here. There are boats at the harbor. I guess you ask someone for passage?"
"Passage?" Naltu repeated, learning the word.
"Yes. They take you across the sea. It took us a long time, a month. We didn't have enough food, because the winds were slow. We had to eat the sheep we were supposed to bring here."
The tavern-keeper appeared and tugged on his belt. He was stocky, fat, but strong enough for trouble. Grease stained the linen apron that covered his front, and ragged leather covered his hands. His face was round and hairy, and his mustache wiggled as he spoke.
"Young man, I hope you don't have intentions on my daughter," he scolded, laughing. "I'm the tavern keep as well as the security, so I'll not have it, not from any man who won't buy her gold."
Naltu shrugged. "I go north."
"I heard. You don't like it down here? The air is free."
"Free? The earth has a price. Too high for northmen. Too high, perhaps, for Naltu."
The tavern-keeper laughed again, nervous, and tapped the carbine at Naltu's shoulder. "We'll pay the Earth's price with lead and steel. Gayl, clean up in the kitchen, would you?"
"I've sold him a room, papa. And another pitcher of ale," she giggled, winking.
The man sat. "What do you think of our people, then?"
Naltu flashed his teeth, and remembered Sijhi's scent. "Good smells. Better smells. Not like mountain, but better than tribesman fires."
"Ha! I've heard the savages burn droppings to stay warm, and you eat your food frozen. Is it true?"
Naltu shrugged, not quite understanding. "Mountains good. Warm food good. Not like south. Huts smell goat," he continued, making a disgusted face.
The keep laughed, amused. "I'll show you to the back."
"His name's Naltu," she offered, spinning as she returned to the kitchen.
The keep led Naltu along the wood floor to a narrow hallway. The wood bowed and creaked under Naltu's feet, like Rush's roof, and he wondered if anyone would fall through, and what was below. The man took Naltu to the last room at the back of the hallway. The door was strong, Naltu checked, and locked with an iron latch from the inside, though it could be opened easily enough with any sort of thin tool.
A stack of fresh straw lay piled high in the corner. The keep lit a stubby brown candle and handed it to Naltu. The tribesman bobbed his head thankfully and entered the room.
Gayl appeared after a moment, creeping, with a pitcher of ale and two mugs.
"Is it alright?" she questioned.
Naltu stripped his furs from his waist and laid out his pack. He patted the pile and she sat.
"Sorry, I've just never talked to one of you. Most of you can't speak our language."
Naltu nodded. "Why do you come south?"
"Greed, I guess. I shouldn't say that, but the military promised my land to my father and the men. They built this tavern for him, gave it to him, and he owns it."
Naltu bowed and produced the small black book. "You can read?"
Gayl giggled. "You want me to read love stories to you?"
"Love stories? Friend gave me this. I want to hear."
Gayl laughed too loud and then blushed. "Alright," she said, and then she sorted through the pages. She cackled as she found a particular poem. "I know this one. You'll hear it in the taverns on busier nights than this one."
Naltu moved and watched her finger over her shoulder as she spoke. She read the sonnet ten times at his insistence, and explained the words. Many, he did not understand. These she explained with gestures and touch, blushing red with anticipation. Naltu moved to kiss her, and she returned the gesture, though she smiled and backed away after. She bid him goodnight, and retreated from the room.
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