Monday, May 17, 2010
Here is Chapter 18. Total word count for the book so far: 36,700.
Lakhoni tucked the wrinkled apple under his arm, allowing the folds of his tunic to hide it. With his other hand he lifted a speared piece of roast venison to his mouth and tore a chunk off. He knew the meat tasted good, that the hot juices were supposed to fill his mouth with pleasure, but his stomach was already so full of meat that he could no longer taste anything. He eased into his hut and crouched on his sleeping mat, moving the hidden apple from his armpit and putting it under the small pile of clothes to the side of his mat.
He had to catch two other apples that tried to roll away and shove them back under the clothes.
Forcing himself to chew, he stood again, looking over his hopefully discreet preparations. Nobody had said anything, and he felt confident that he wasn't getting any unusual looks.
And why should he? He had been with the Separated for several months. He had trained with Anor and Corzon, had been Groomed and participated in the murder of a young boy. He had helped the newest Consecrated complete his journey to join with the Bonaha's cadre of special servants.
He was one of them.
He stepped back out of the hut, taking another bite of the meat.
Lakhoni turned and grunted at Corzon, nodding.
"You've eaten half a haunch yourself," Corzon said.
Trying not to grimace with discomfort as he swallowed, Lakhoni nodded again. "Yeah. I feel like my stomach is a bottomless pit. It's like I can't get full."
"You're probably going through a growth season." Corzon paced toward the fire, his hand filled with his eating utensils. "Just be careful you don't let the growth go to your nose."
"Don't want to end up like you," Lakhoni said, shoving the last of the venison on his small knife into his mouth. He felt like he had actually eaten an entire deer. But he wasn't finished. He had to fill his stomach full, get every bit of food into his body tonight that he could.
"That's right," Corzon said. "Too skinny so the girls worry they'll break me in bed."
"No." Lakhoni followed Corzon to the fire. He sliced another piece of meat off the haunch that dripped steadily into the glowing coals. "I thought they were worried you would put their eyes out in the heat of passion."
"You see," Corzon turned to Lakhoni, a sad expression on his face. "I can't win!"
"Well, maybe it's better to stay away from the girls than to be like Anor."
"Anor is doing his manly duty," Corzon said. "It's about time you got to it as well."
Corzon smiled and raised his eyebrows. "What? You don't think the girls are interested in the newest addition to the Separated? You don't think they would swoon if they got the chance to wrap their loving, very shapely, arms around the poor lad who's the lone survivor of a tragic attack?"
Lakhoni fought down the sudden desire to leap at Corzon and slam his knife into him. How could he talk like that? He gritted his teeth and forced a smile. "But that would be taking advantage of their pity."
"And what's wrong with that?"
Lakhoni opened his mouth to offer a retort, but found he had none. Instead he took another bite of venison.
"See? Nothing at all. You get your pick of the lovely young ladies, let off some steam, and maybe you'll find one you like." Corzon lowered himself to sit on one of the large stones surrounding the fire.
Lakhoni snorted, now fighting off an entirely different urge—this one to agree. He had to admit he had noticed some of the girls of the Separated. Their glinting eyes, shapely legs and smiles had certainly left an impression. But he had never actually believed that they would be interested in him that way. He dropped onto a wood stump near Corzon.
Besides, his village had gone about things much differently from the Separated. Here it seemed like, until you were joined to a single mate like Gimno and Vena, you had your pick of partners. In his village, the young men and women were expected to save themselves and then offer themselves as a gift to the new marriage.
"I've got you thinking, don't I?" Corzon grinned wide. "You're probably thinking about Hana or Jasnia right now, aren't you?"
Jasnia's wide smile flashed through his mind. He shook his head. "No. The time's not right."
"Lakhoni," Corzon intoned. "The time is always right."
Lakhoni laughed. "Or never, in your case."
Corzon adopted a wounded expression. "Joke about such a sensitive subject, will you?" He glanced around, then leaned in with a conspiratorial glint in his eye. "Truth is, me and Melana are promised to each other. But you can't tell anyone."
Shock hit Lakhoni like a ball of snow in the face. How? How can they go about a normal life when they murder and won't let anyone leave? He realized that he must look like a dying fish. "Wow. That's amazing, Corzon. Congratulations."
"You have to keep this quiet." Corzon cast a quick look about the circle of huts. "Her father doesn't know yet."
Melana was not much older than Alronna—maybe fourteen years old. Lakhoni wondered what his father would have done had one of the village boys courted Alronna. A twinge of pain flared, but he paid it no mind. It was becoming easier to fight back the grief. He wondered if he should be happy about that.
"Of course," Lakhoni said. "I won't tell anyone."
"Especially Anor. He would take pleasure in ruining this for me."
"Especially Anor," Lakhoni said. He realized he hadn't taken a bite of venison for a few minutes. He eyed the dark meat on his knife. He felt as if he had swallowed a wet sleeping mat. He let out an uncomfortable breath.
"Not hungry anymore?"
"No," Lakhoni said, flicking the meat into the coals. "I guess not."
* * * * *
He had struggled to keep himself awake, even as he made his breathing even and kept his eyes closed. He had counted the stones making up the wall next to his sleeping mat three times after the last sound of activity had faded.
Now he carefully turned, trying to make it appear as if his sleep was restless. Unless they were feigning sleep as well, Anor and Corzon were out too. Corzon's nightly chorus of snores was just warming up.
Lakhoni rolled back, this time to face the wall. He pulled the leather bag he had found two days previous out from under his mat. He didn't know whose it was, and to tell the truth he didn't care. After tonight, they couldn't do anything to him. Moving as quietly as possible, he pushed a tunic into the bag, then all of the apples. Next he pushed his second pair of breeches into the bag. This was a pair that one of the Separated who had gone with him to his village had found. Since then, nobody had seen any more signs of the Usurpers.
Next, he shoved a pouch full of smoked meat into the bag, then followed that with the two loaves of bread he had hidden over the last three days.
He would wear his last tunic, his boots and the breeches he had been wearing during the day. He would also take his blanket to help ward off the cold.
For this first night, he would not have to worry about finding a protected place to sleep; he would be on the move until well into the next morning.
Still moving carefully, Lakhoni got dressed, leaving the boots off for now and tying them so he could drape them over his neck. He picked up his bag, gripping it tightly in his left fist and stepped toward the door Almost forgot! He padded back to his sleeping mat and grabbed his knife in its sheath. He slid it into the tight waistband of his breeches.
He peeked out the door. Nothing. Breathing slowly through his mouth, he stepped out of the hut and quickly departed Gimno's circle. As he padded in bare feet along the wall of the cavern, he wondered if he should feel… sorry or sad to go. He looked inward.
Nothing. He had always known he would never feel at home here. Even with someone like Corzon who was almost a friend. And Gimno who treated him like a son. Vena who had been so concerned about him when he first came.
As he thought about each person, he found that there was an undeniable feeling of warmth and affection for them. Even for Anor, despite the young man's gruff treatment of him.
But he had no concern about leaving. They might miss him, but he was sure they would happily kill him if they knew he was planning to go directly to the king's city.
Keeping to the darkest shadows in the nearly-black cavern, Lakhoni quickly made his way to the entrance corridor. He knew that there was usually a guard on duty to make sure that nobody stumbled into the cavern by mistake, but since that never happened, it was common knowledge that the guard usually went to sleep in one of the alcoves next to the shaft leading to the surface. Lakhoni had seen the blankets there.
He knew he could get out of the cavern without being seen. As long as Corzon and Anor slept soundly and nobody else happened to discover he was gone in the next few minutes, he would get out of the lair of the Separated. The next issue was getting far enough away in the snowstorm that had begun the previous day.
He crept along the corridor, pausing with each step to listen for any noise. As he rounded one turn, he began to hear the soft song of the winter wind. Many careful steps later, he found himself at the bottom of the shaft. He hung the strap of his bag over his shoulder, check to make sure his boots were still tied tightly, and reached up for the first handle.
Lakhoni had climbed up and down this shaft so many times that before he noticed any effort, he was already outside. Wind blew hard against his face, the snow on the ground scraping with frozen claws at his feet.
But no snow fell.
He looked to the sky. No stars were visible. Merely a heavy, gray mass could be seen. Should I go back and wait until a night that I know it's snowing? His heart beat loudly in his chest. After all of his preparation.
Surely it would snow more tonight, or at least in the early morning.
He couldn't imagine going back. Didn't want to wait again, worried that he might never get away. He found a nearby tree and leaned on it, his feet already freezing. He pulled his boots on, drew his second tunic out of his bag and put it on, and turned east, thankful he had been out enough to be able to know the direction without depending on the stars.
He began to walk. The tall, dark shapes of the trees hinted at watchers hiding behind them, firing Lakhoni's imagination. Could they have guessed what he would do? Were Gimno and other warriors smiling to themselves at his folly as they waited behind those trees?
Lakhoni shook his head against the worry. They had no way of knowing.
His lips began to stiffen in the cold, his fingers as well.
The wind would be alright if it brought snow. For now, it only made Lakhoni feel he was taking two steps for every step of progress he made.
The icy gusts cut through his tunics.
He had to get to that hide and wrap himself in it. He regretted not stealing one of Anor's warm cloaks.
I could run back, steal one and be back out here without anyone knowing.
But if the snow never came, or came too late, he would be that much closer to being found.
Lakhoni began to jog, hoping to warm his body with the movement. After what felt like an hour, he finally felt like he had enough body heat built up. He kept up the pace, his hands tucked into his arm pits and his head ducked against the wind.
Please First Fathers! Bring the snow! He glanced behind, easily seeing in the gloom of the night his footprints in the snow. The wind was helping somewhat, blowing snow around a little and softening the pits he was leaving in the snow, but he knew it wasn't enough.
After another hour of jogging, his face felt like a block of river ice. He had taken to cupping his hands on his face every few minutes, allowing his breath to warm his lips and nose. But the effect didn't last long.
As he moved, he made sure to follow the path to his stashed meat in the hide. The split tree there, the rock formation that looked like Corzon with his huge nose that sat under the skinny birch.
That was it. The pale light of the winter night illuminated the marker he had left. He had placed a pile of rocks on top of the hole he had dug, not wanting to take chances with scavengers. He moved the rocks, placing them in what he thought looked like natural positions on the ground. He pulled his tunic sleeves over his hands and dug through the snow, quickly finding the loose, frozen dirt underneath. With his knife, he dug into the earth, stopping at regular intervals to breathe on his hands.
The hide was cold and hard under his finger tips. His breath came quickly as he freed the package from the ground and tucked it under an arm. He would keep it out of the bag so that if it began to thaw, the blood from the meat wouldn't destroy his food and clothing.
Lakhoni looked up at the sky again. Everything was going according to his plan, except for the most important part! Where was the snow?
He threw a look down the path behind him. His trail was clear, easily seen by even a child.
But there was no going back. There was only east toward Lemalihah. East toward Alronna.