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↤ THIRST ↦
(that is, necessities)
There were only three people who knew the contents of the black-laced handcart being pulled by two of the Boonesh: Dallam Latas, Dallam Jel, and Kolt himself. He had managed to keep the intricacies of his plan secret to all but them, his trustworthy companions and co-conspirators.
The cart was unassuming and resembled an especially large bassinet, except the curved wooden cover over the top was sealed with an iron lock, its key hanging from Kolt’s neck. The Blackened Man had stated that the weapon would be inert until lit once encased in the dried concoction of materials, but he was not taking chances.
The interior of the cart was lined with wool that had been washed for ten days in the River Savas, whose acidic waters treated the fabric until it was softer than any other blanket or item of clothing. The weapon was similarly wrapped in the wool and placed in a wide-mouthed crystal jar sealed by dense cork. It was strapped down into the cart with more treated wool hugging the jar and preventing all but the most troublesome vibrations from reaching it as the cart moved. Even the wheels were iron instead of wood, lubricated by the expensive but long-lasting Prizeman’s Oil.
Latas had been charged with the security of “the precious cargo,” as it was called with a vague and ominous respect. He was convinced of the safety of the cart, but had his doubts about its usefulness as the Trail wore onward to its appointed destination. All would not be dirt and sand and flattened terrain. Not far from here was the steep stone cuts that formed natural stairs in the hillside, winding around the inner Valley and cutting close to the Tree. The cart was designed such that the wheels could be removed and the poles jutting from the front could be joined with two others at the rear and carried on shoulders. Two more Boonesh would join their brethren while the wheels were carried separately.
Despite his care and consideration, this was not his way. He was a master of sword, a man of military wisdom, not a custodian of some unspeakable weapon. He remained loyal, but troubled by Kolt’s pursuit. The man he had more than once called Feni Dal — Savior of the Dal — had become inscrutable to him.
He quietly hoped that the weapon was just an expensive and useless con or fantasy, given to his Dal by a crippled madman in a swamp. They would know soon enough, probably within the next two days if fair weather held them in comfort. He was too occupied by his concerns to notice Jel.
Her mind was warm candlewax — shapeless and vague. The tugging she'd been experiencing had only grown worse, but that was only when she was conscious. There were now increasingly large periods of vacancy where her memories should be. Like torn pages from a book, whole sections of her waking life were void, an absence she couldn't fill.
The last thing she remembered before that moment was entering the Trail at the end of the crowd — inconspicuous and perhaps genderless as far as the rest of the journeymen were concerned. Then she was there, looking out over the widening dirt path as the steady clink of the cart's wheels made melody of their aching turns.
Certainly she had spoken with Kolt between then and now. She was not in shackles or dead, so no one must have sensed anything amiss. She must have appeared to be herself.
Yet she couldn't recall a single conversation or action she'd taken since starting her climb up the stairs by the World Rake. What treacherous horrors had been inflicted on her that she was so cursed? A dark, sinewy dread curled around her like vipers, suffocating her with anxious terror.
Even now with her continuity returned, she felt distant and aloof, like she was fast becoming a passenger in her own body, the reins taken from her by unknown hands.
"Jel." It was sharp, firm, like the clap of hands. She spun to find Kolt glowering at her.
"My Dal?" Even she could hear the thinness of her tone, like her voice had been shaved down.
"Your mind is a haze."
"No, Dal. I'm just —"
"You're not where you should be up here," he interjected, pointing to her head. "Find yourself soon, I have no use for you otherwise."
He turned away before she could respond. He was right, she knew it. But how long had he known it? And what even was this fracturing of her psyche? She couldn't let her weakness demean her in his eyes, but she also didn't know what to do without help. She’d been in service to him since he was a boy, but he was never one for sentimentality. If she were a burden to him, she would be excised.
These thoughts troubled her unsteady mind as they emerged to find the river ahead.
It was far wider there than where Arteo, Kessa, and Ilis had crossed, though shallower. The sandy banks were buttressed by impassably dense forest, the trees there so tall that they seemed to dwarf the width of the river. The only way to cross was to wade through the waist-deep current or walk over the uneven spread of logs that had been laid down. Easy enough for the group, but impossible with the cart.
The sand gradated from diffuse blonde dirt to a metallic black as it reached the water, and the shore itself was spacious. If they so chose, they could settle there for a night if there weren’t so many hours left to travel. As long as the sun lit their way, they would be on foot.
Kolt spoke with his usual booming voice when he said, “We eat and rest for a time.” The men all looked relieved as they went to their sacks for sustenance. Latas sidled up to Kolt.
“We could lift the cart above water, carry it over,” he suggested. Kolt shook his head.
“Too uncertain. We need something stable and even.” His mind churned as he looked over the water and
surrounding treeline. “Fetch the axes.”
Arteo wasn’t sure when he’d forgotten to fill it, but the water bladder was empty. A quarrel of drops existed within, but true relief was gone. As with all else, he hadn’t accounted for sharing his needs with another person.
This only occurred sometime after they’d emerged from the cover of the forest and into midday. The gentle rise of the trail over the ground layer of trees gradually made the size of the Valley that much grander. Though the scraping tops of the Tree were always visible, the twisted, hulking mass revealed itself with each step, closer than before and more frightening still.
A pale of clouds from the west were threatening the light, but only a few had drifted into the path of the sun. Underneath those distant tufts of unshorn rain, the Glass Sea was mere idea, hidden under cover of stormy dark and behind the cresting mountains of Vima Canyon that coveted the only known Immensity in existence — Aiolam, the stone giant.
Arteo had read of the creature, if it could be called that, in A Kindly Way in the World, and was endlessly fascinated by its existence. But he knew even Erod’s painterly text couldn’t do proper reverence to such an ancient enormity. Most recollections of the Valley mentioned it only in passing, as only the entrance of the canyon was crossed on the way to the northern terminus. He knew of no travelers that went west into Vima, at least none that survived.
While pondering something the size of a mountain that moved and lived for time unknown, he pulled the leather water pouch to his mouth and was rewarded with a trickle. He upturned it entirely, but was left wanting.
“Lis, do you know if there is water nearby?” he asked. Her ears perked up.
“What did you say?”
“I asked if there was any water —”
“No,” she interrupted and faced him, “what did you call me?”
“Do not call me such.”
“That is my concern.”
“Alright… Do you know any nearby sources of water though?”
“Unprepared as usual, I take it?” she pecked at him.
“Forget it,” he replied sourly.
As they turned a switchback, the path inclined sharply, the hot midday light finding its way through the scattershot of clouds in the sky. The heaviness of its glare punctuated his thirst, the energy in his muscles aching for relief that he couldn’t give them.
He focused on his steps, like he had during the more laborious tasks on the farm. It was a musical step, a beat going left to right, left to right, endlessly. If he kept the rhythm, he was centered and distracted from his desires.
The sandy absence of moisture in his throat made every swallow empty and harsh. He realized how spoiled he’d been to the presence of fresh water, as even during the occasional droughts, the well that had been on his family land for generations — hidden in a unassuming shed towards the edge of the property — was an everlasting source of it. His father had been right to keep it secret, as it would have been drained dry by the rest of the village when the drier seasons hit.
He was even clever enough to have reduced crop yields to make it seem like he was suffering too, even though there was more than sufficient water to make the lands lush throughout the planting. On his trips into town to sell their harvest, my father would shake his head and say how lucky he was to get what they had, commiserating with the shopkeepers who paid increased fees for the only farm in town to be able to raise such fat hogs and provide robust grain besides.
He did ask him once about the morality of hiding their underground wealth from others who suffered. He said to Arteo, “If I were to feed every man who starved, every woman who thirsted, and every child who had no milk, then our family would be the ones to hunger and thirst and suffer. Charity is a moral good, but stupidity isn’t.”
Arteo was sure there was a balance between foolishly sacrificing your family’s health and miserly hoarding what could help the less fortunate, but he was already the least favored of his children and didn’t feel like belaboring the point.
“I need a moment,” Arteo said, the words barely escaping his lips for want of air as they crested a switchback and found some flat ground beneath a dither of shade underneath some emaciated trees.
“What’s wrong?” Kessa asked, that worried expression clouding her features. He thought how little he’d seen it aside from the year of the plague, and how frequently it was recurring now.
“Nothing, I just have to take some time to get my air back,” he replied softly, returning a gentle smile to soothe her. And so it did.
Ilis didn’t comment, but for her usual annoyed glower.
A tremendous clamor as an old growth tree was felled. The snap of ancient wood was as loud as it was sorrowful. The three rushed to the edge of the path and caught a glimpse of a massive trunk falling across the river in the distance below. It seemed Kolt and his contemporaries had found a way to move their burdensome supplies.
“Is that the bearded man’s party?” he asked to no one in particular.
“It is,” Ilis replied.
“I’m glad we stayed away from them,” Kessa said, walking away from the sight and sitting on the dirt path. She pulled her legs up and hugged them against her chest, resting her chin on the divot between her knees. Arteo, wanting something sturdier, sat on a rock nearby. He didn’t have any comforting words for her, so he stayed silent.
As he sat, he spied an overgrown but unmistakable path, laid with scattered stones, hidden behind a few rows of crippled bushes. It led on a more treacherous and disused wind down the mountain.
“Wait, is this Yullinin’s Folly?” he remarked with some excitement as he caught his breath. Ilis turned and squinted.
“I believe so, yes,” she replied impatiently as her attention returned to the vista. Indifferent to the beautiful waves of wind through the trees, moving them as an ocean of forest, she was keenly focused on Kolt’s men as the dozen or so of them traversed the river over the trees. They had managed, all in the space of an afternoon, not only to cut them down, but remove the most troublesome branches and angle them over the river.
How they’d done this was ingenious. Near as she could see, the end of each tree nearest the water was lifted onto the raised valley between two boulders. The tree was then gradually pushed forward, jutting higher and farther out over the water, until its weight pushed it downward, hitting near the far shore. The backend of the trunk was rolled off the stones and the process repeated for the other two trees. The final makeshift bridge was a spectacle of resourcefulness and engineering, one she couldn’t help but admire.
Yet she also feared the power of such a ferocious and dedicated intellect. She wondered what was so precious to require such extraordinary measures at keeping it safe from even getting wet.
“What’s Yulli— Yullins—” Kessa fumbled with the name.
“Yullinin,” Arteo began in his most professorial tone, “was a contemporary of Erod.”
“He lived during Erod’s time.”
“He was part of the Krunnu Fealty, I think? They live in the Shadowhills in the northwest.”
“I’ve never heard of them, I think,” she said, her eyes veering upward to aid her memory.
“I don’t really know much about them. They’re known for being isolated. And their gray skin.”
Ilis abruptly turned to Kessa.
“Quite a disgusted reaction for someone from as maligned a group as you,” she chided. Kessa slumped down and tried to look small. Ilis felt a twinge of guilt, but that quickly dissipated.
“I knew one once.”
“A Krunnu?” Arteo asked.
“Mmm,” she said, winding around to witness Kolt’s men as they finished crossing the river. “I never knew his name. Krunnu don’t give names much. To them a name is a source of power — to know something’s true name is to know how to hurt it. Even among their own people, they’re very selective about who they tell.”
“Do you believe that?” Arteo asked.
“Plenty of hurt to be done without needing to know a man’s name.”
“What did you call him then?” Kessa wondered aloud.
“They take names from nature, a representation of themselves — their ‘kaētet,’ they call it. His was Kivi, which means stone in Krunnuni. He was a stonemason, most of his work was in architecture, but he specialized in grave markers. He could do things with some of the hardiest materials that others could barely polish, make them look like works of art. I suppose that is what they were, as I think on it.”
Kessa’s eyes lit up at this new world of culture and people. “How did you know him?”
“He… he did me a great service once,” she replied, her gaze falling to the ground with uncharacteristic wistfulness. “He saved me from a place both strange and terrible.”
Arteo and Kessa had known her long enough to not press further. Whatever sufferings she guarded were best left to their burrows in the way down deep of her heart.
“Have you tended to your needs?” she asked Arteo, shifting away from the doldrums of the past.
“Yes, I believe so.” He stood up, flexing as he hoisted his satchel strap across his chest.
“Good, not long to go.”
So they trudged on.
Tastes evolve over time. He remembered when he was a child, being taught to read by his mother — a very matronly and generous woman — and how entranced he was by the way language excited the mind. Like a special key unlocking unseen caverns of thought, the right combination of words could enrich and extend anything to new ventures and wild imaginings.
It was almost the kind of thrill he had when blood spilled from his first victim — a farmer’s lamb. It wasn’t his to slaughter, and he had played with it many a time before. But he was fascinated by the possibilities of what made it work. How did it move? Why could it make those baying noises? And was there a chance to understand the makings of a thing through its viscera?
He learned some of what he wished one night, ten summers after he was born. He nicked a garden trowel from his mother’s tools and wandered in the fading light to the farm down the way. The lamb, whom he called Bep for the sound it made when it trotted up to him, was nibbling at the edge of the field behind the fencing. The man who ran the farm with his two burly sons and buxom wife was nowhere to be found, a perfect opportunity for his experiment.
Bep was happy as usual to see him, bouncing with joyous anticipation of seeing his friend. He patted its head and stroked under its chin, enjoying the feel of the dense fur that covered it. As he delicately tussled its fuzzy head, he reached behind his back and removed the trowel from its tucked away place. The end was unusually sharp, an alteration his mother had made to penetrate the dense groundcover of dirt around their home.
It went into the lamb’s skull with a slick crack of bone shatter and blood. Bep jerked back, tugging the tool out of his hands, and seemed to shiver for a moment, gurgling the most delightfully terrible noise, before falling down in a heap.
He didn’t move for a time, his hands still reaching between the fence boards, one splattered with clumps of red matter. He had no thoughts per se, it was more like listening to beautiful music. He felt humbled and powerful at once, a giver of love and taker of life. Perhaps, he thought, this is what the gods felt as they dealt their morality to lesser beings.
It was also the beginning of his desire for the flesh of the young. The innocence of immature things gave special pleasure to him. Their unmaking by his wont was lively as the final movement of a symphony. Not enough to merely slice and cut and hear their curdled yelps as they faded, he had to have time to play with them. To make their care and concern with him, even give him love or at least fondness.
To watch the betrayal they felt as he gutted them was more than pleasure, it was ecstasy in triplicate. It was joy unbounded. It was his truth.
And he was growing ever closer to tasting it again, as he did that day with the lamb who loved him so.
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