"Hssst," Gwawl said, drawing Kelyn's attention from the bright cave entrance. He lurked in a dark nook, hunched over a sputtering, smelly fat candle.
"What?" Kelyn's voice echoed loudly in the cave. Unimpressed by his dramatics, she propped her staff against the entrance rock, but took only a single step inward. Her toes and her nose told her well enough what they'd find here. Bats. Stinky bat guano. Nothing to keep their voices limited to hssst and whispers. Now, if there had been small bones crunching beneath her toes, that would be something else. Rock cat, from which to run, or holed-up nightfox to stalk. Catching the fox in its lair was the easiest of the many difficult ways to obtain nightfox pelt.
"Come look," Gwawl said in normal tones, but tinged with disappointment at her unwillingness to turn the moment more exciting.
Any regret Kelyn might have felt dissipated with the substance squishing between her toes as she joined Gwawl in his nooka set-back with an unusually flat surface for the back wall, a solid slab of upthrust rock with enough air currents playing around it to keep the candle on the verge of snuffing out.
In the wildly uneven light, Kelyn saw what had drawn Gwawl's attention. She crowded in close to himshoulder to adolescent shoulder, thigh to thigh, unself-conscious about it as were they all. Gwawl, Iden, Mungo, Frykla, Huon . . . and Kelyn. A hunting pack, a training pack, living the mountain summers together to learn survival, to forge the bonds of trust that would carry them through life in the tremendous, craggy Keturan mountains.
"Someone's been here," Gwawl said in grand pronouncement.
Kelyn looked at the roughly sketched creature on the cave. "Grant me more of your wisdom, Gwawl."
He scowled, and gave her a far from gentle shove. Even prepared for it, Kelyn still found herself sitting in bat guano. She kept her curses silent. Gwawl would regret it . . . later. For now she was just as intrigued as he by the discovery, and she carefully climbed to her feet, wiping her hands on the rough knit of his sleeveless tunic.
He ignored her, and pointed at the creaturesmeared, it seemed, in a paint made of blood and ash and charcoal. "Do you think it was him? Doesn't it look like a wolverine?"
It did. "Maybe," she said.
"It makes sense, why there's only the one. They say he hunted alone, never trusted anyone in his pack."
That's what they said. Kelyn relieved him of the candle, suddenly disinterested. Or perhaps too interested to trust herself. When it came to her father, she was never sure just which it was. "Let's go."
"NowaitKelyn! Let's get the others!"
Kelyn moved past the nook and deeper into the cave, having found the steep slanting passage that caused the air current. "We'll get them," she said. "But give them a chance to find rockrabbit first, if you want evening meal. Besides . . ." she hesitated, giving her concentration over to her toes as she negotiated a sudden drop. "Besides, maybe that's not a wolverine at all. Maybe it's an ugly turtle, and we'll find what's left of the painter just down this way. Maybe it was his blood in the paint."
Ridiculous, he might have said, or absurd. But he didn't, because he was just as curious as she, in a land where learning every aspect of one's surroundings could mean the difference between life and death, and learning a cave meant the potential discovery of gold or silver nuggetsand an escape route if a hunt went bad at its end. So what Gwawl said was, "Wait for me!" and Kelynpossessor of the candlesmiled. Time to explore, and never mind the wolverine.
Turtle, she reminded herself. Ugly turtle.
Kelyn's eyes flashed open at the soft scuff of calloused foot against rock; her hand closed around the sturdy, familiar grip of her staff. With its padded grip and its securely wrapped and mildly weighted ends, it was far from the walking staff her mother had carried from Rema. Reman ironwoodnearly impervious to blade, unaffected by magic. A good weapon to have to hand when she was being stalked in the middle of the night.
The fire, some distance away, had died to a mere glow of coals at the corner of her vision, and showed her nothing. She breathed slowly and quietlylisteningand pinpointed another pair of soft footfalls; a prickle of anticipation ran down her spine. More than one creature stalked her, then, and yet left her hunting group unaware. She was on her own, at least for the first crucial heartbeats of the struggle that loomed before her.
Another stepfar too close! Whooping her ululating cry of challenge, Kelyn snatched the staff and rolled away from the creature, only to run into the bony legs of another. Sweeping the staff along the ground, she tumbled the second creature from its feet and bounced up to her knees, jabbing the weapon into the dark shadow of the first creature, a glancing blow. The creature yelped, a noise that sounded far too familiar.
"Iden!" she cried, anger quickly finding its way to her voice. "What in Ketura's name are you"
Iden, still doubled over, waved a frantic arm before him, though she'd abandoned attack posture as soon as she'd recognized him. Then two hands clamped down on her shoulders and she knew he'd been trying to wave off whoever was with him. Her anger doubled, and she shifted her grip and drove the staff back into the ribs of the boy behind her, freeing herself. His initial grunt of pain quickly turned to a cry of fear, and the sound of feet and fingers scrabbling over rock.
"Mungo!" Iden screamed. Kelyn whirled to see Mungo sliding over the rounded edge of the granite outcrop she'd chosen for her bed. Ketura's balls! She lunged for him, fingers barely closing around his wrist before he slipped away from the stone.
"Got him!" she shouted, then added her own short shriek as his weight dragged her forward. Iden's weight came down on her legs, stopping them all.
"Kelyn," Mungo said, a mere whisper. He hung free and clear, dangling above a drop that would kill him several times over before he reached bottom; Kelyn herself was halfway to following him, her black hair streaming down below her head to mingle with his own. In the light of the stars, his pale face shone up at her, and the look in his eyes was easy to read. Oh, Ketura, my life depends on Kelyn the clumsy! "D-don't" he stuttered, as another pair of hands joined Iden's on her legs and yet another on her ankles; they both jerked backwards, Kelyn's skin grinding against rock. "Don't d-drop"
"Shut up!" she hissed. Assured that she no longer needed her own clawhold on the rock, she twisted, adding her other hand to her grip on his wrist. Her fingers sunk into his flesh. Mungo's face was a rictus of pain and fear as his elbow scraped up the outthrust curve of granite, and then Kelyn jerked back again, pulled to solid ground. A pair of hands left her ankle and settled instead on Mungo's arm, reaching for his shoulders, and finally, in one last concerted heave by all involved, pulled him up with a firm grip under his arms.
They sprawled together in a sweating, fear-reeking pile of bodies, ringed by the few who had kept their feet and were demanding to know what had happened. Kelyn glared meaningfully at Mungo and Iden.
"We were just" Iden started, but the sudden, out-of-place guffaws of one of the others cut him short.
"I know," Gwawl said, pointing at Mungo in evident glee. "You took all that talk at the fire too seriously!"
"You tried to sneak up and kiss her!" Huon said, catching on. "I bet you were gonna try to"
"Shut up!" Mungo growled, but Kelyn already knew. She shoved Mungo's leg off her own with evident disdain.
"Don't be like that," Mungo said. "You should be glad we even think of you that way, considering"
Little Frykla snapped, "Mungo!"
But Kelyn knew what he'd been going to say, too. Everyone knew. She was a parody of her mother's beauty, her legs and arms unceasingly gangly and perfectly matching her reputation for clumsiness. Her features themselves were lovely enoughstriking green eyes, so unlike the normal Keturan hazel, and only echoed in her Reman mother's own green-tinted grey. They were tilted up on the outside edges and would have been breathtakingif only they weren't set so wide. Her mouth was her mother's as well, shapely and . . . and too wide for her face. And her nose sat in the middle, a strong nose that must have come from her father, for it was nothing like Lytha's.
The overall effect was as if someone had set perfectly nice features upon a face that was slightly too small for them, and then pulled the skin tightly back. Kelyn had seen enough pond reflections to know, and seldom bothered with the polished bronze mirror her mother owned. Combined with her tall gawkiness, it hardly made her the sort of woman men longed for.
As if it mattered. After all, which was more importanta comely face or the ability to survive in this world?
She shoved Mungo's leg again, hardly necessary since it wasn't even touching her anymore, and disentangled her staff from where the group had communally fallen on it. "Whatever you were after, I trust you've learned you'd better ask first." She didn't wait for a response, but got stiffly to her feet, doing her best to reinforce her point with body language. Then the staff stubbed against someone's hip as she was bringing it upright, came free with a jerk, and clunked her on the side of the face.
She turned so fierce a glare on them all that they didn't dare laugh. "Move off," she demanded. "I'm going back to sleep."
They did as they were told, muttering amongst themselves, a combination of muffled amusement and sharply aimed jibes. Frykla hung back, as though she had something to say, but in the end remained silent and trailed the others back to the fire.
Kelyn settled back into the moss-filled hollow she'd been sleeping in, her face burning and her fingers not quite ready to release their light grip on the staff beside her. The boys' stupid attempt to fondle her upset her far less than the pointedly public reminder that she could never forget herself, never be less than perfectly aware of what she was doing, no matter how distracted, or she'd pay a price for itusually out of her own skin.
It was a message to her, as well, that things were changing in her life, a reinforcement of the thoughts she'd put herself to sleep withfar more than her usual final review of her staff's location and the defensive points of her chosen position, both of which Mungo and Iden should have considered before they started their stupid game.
Earlier, she'd settled into the mossy spot, secure in her perch despite the fact that an arm's length away, the massive granite outcrop fell away in a precipitous drop, long enough that the sparse treetops below looked like mere puffs of green and were not visible at all in the dusk. Such were the mountains of Ketura; it was what she knew. Besides, with her belly full of roasted rockrabbit and sweet roots baked to mushiness, there was little to do but think contented thoughts in a cushion of moss and darkness.
But contentment had refused to come. Not far from her, her foster cousins still sat around the fire, making it spark and crackle by tossing in bits of fat and bone. Waste of good food, Kelyn called it, but their first hunt of the season had gone so well that they certainly had plenty. She hoped it was a good omen for the summer to come, and especially for her annual harvest of rare mountain plants.
Usually Kelyn and her mother Lytha dried and sold the precious herbssome were medicinal, some offered delicate seasoning for the most sophisticated paletteto the Orrickian traders that veered toward their tiny village at the end of each summer. This year, Kelyn thought they would set aside the larger portion for Lytha's use, for her mother had fallen ill over the winter and had never quite come out of it.
One of the boys at the fire made a loud comment, and the others responded with raucous jeers. Kelyn made a face at them through the darkness. Since she'd been old enough to walk any distance, she and her foster cousinsall boys, except for Frykla, who was several years younger than Kelynhad been taking this summer trip into the mountains, going deeper and deeper each season, honing skills of survival common to none outside the beasts of deep Ketura. By the time they'd started the growth spurts of adolescence, they knew each other well despite the sometimes long absences over winter, and were bound together by the extremities of life and death in an unforgiving land.
Twice the group had returned home smaller than it had left. Kelyn had watched her best friend Sigre plunge to her death after setting a careless foot on a crumbling trail, and seen young Fiacre die under the vicious claws of a giant snow panther, his guts trailing the story through the late spring snow of a high peak. Kelyn herself had touched death several times, and to the wonderment of all had prevailed. For Kelyn was, she had to admit even to herself, prone to awkwardness and the worst of luck. She stumbled on clear paths and barked her shoulders on widely spaced trees; she bore more scars than any of her peers. She'd never handled a sword because her mother was afraid she'd cut off her own foot, she had to practice hunting skills more often than any of her peers, and all of the stunted trees around the village bore the marks of her Reman ironwood staff. What took nonchalant competence for her friends often took fierce concentration on her part, and it seemed all the more notable when Lytha told herand the othersstories of Kelyn's warrior father. Thainn. Kelyn had heard far too much of Thainn for a man she'd never even seen. Thainn the Wolverine. The man who'd left Ketura young and blazed through the outer lands, leaving tall tales behind.
Leaving Kelyn's mother behind. Leaving Kelyn behind, to teach herself what skills she could, striving impossibly to live up to her father's reputation.
But despite it all, she survived when others did not, and she hardened into one of the most dependable members of their closely knit group. Yet . . . this year, something seemed different. Although Frykla was as stocky and girlish as ever, Kelyn had come to her woman's courses, and her body reflected the change. And since she'd joined up with the summer hunting band, she'd come to realize that the boys had changed as well. Cracking voices were the least of it, she thought with some disdain, though the boys made much of such moments among themselves. A certain . . . witlessness seemed to pervade them, and at the most annoying times.
She certainly had better sense than to sit noisily around a fire drawing the attention of every territorial flesh-eater in the vicinity, especially now when the creatures were insanely protective of their young.
Kelyn checked that her staff was at hand and wiggled deeper into the moss, ignoring the furtive giggles from the fire ring. Probably just another crude breast or balls joke. Not that normally she wasn't up for as much pranking as the rest of them, but this year . . . this year, all she seemed to be able to think about was her mother, and gathering the best summer harvest of plants and dried meat that she could.
Starting tomorrow. Kelyn had drifted into sleep, secure in her ability to again come instantly awake at the slightest out-of-place noisethough she'd never expected to use that skill against someone in her own hunting pack.
Now, looking back on those thoughts and the events that had followed, she knew. This year . . . things were going to be different.
|Copyright:||© 2000 by Doranna Durgin|