Monday, August 2, 2010
All he saw was the flame dancing. The orange-gold-red, like living spears, swept up to the sky nearly as high as he was tall. He imagined the heat before he felt it.
Bumping into the stone of a hut, he stumbled into the light cast by the fire. He heard noises, saw movement to both sides, but paid it no heed. The fire, huge and powerful, blazed and drew him in. At its edge, Lakhoni dropped his bow, barely registering its clatter on the frozen ground. He pried his hands off of his cloak and stretched them forward.
Perhaps he had died and this was the world of spirits. Some said the world of spirits was paradise and others said it was for the damned. He didn't care which one he was in, or even if he still lived. The entire front of his body seemed to be melting into the glowing heat of the fire. When he felt his hands could move well enough, he reached up and pulled his cloak off his head, and untied the leather mask from around his face, letting them both drop to the ground. He wished he could remove all of his clothing and bathe in the flame.
As his face thawed for the first time in what felt like years, Lakhoni began to understand the noises around him. Voices raised in question and anger. A baby crying. Deep voices. Dogs barking. He turned to allow his back to get some heat.
"Who are you?" A man, shorter than Lakhoni and with narrow, sloping shoulders stood in front of him. His voice carried anger and suspicion. "Why do you invade our circle?"
Lakhoni opened his mouth to answer. He tried to speak, but his throat felt as if he had swallowed a live coal from the fire behind him. A cough tore through him. He tried to speak again and failed again.
"Speak or be cast out!" The man took a small step forward. He was certainly smaller than Lakhoni, but his sloped shoulders belied the strength that was evident in the man's chest and the rest of his body.
Lakhoni coughed again. "I-" he said, trying to swallow to create space in his throat.
Another man's voice, sharp like a knife, cut through the darkness. "Mibli! This boy is clearly sick!" Scuffling sounds followed.
Lakhoni blinked. He was surrounded by people. Men, women, children, even some dogs were there. And they were all looking at him.
"He must answer!" the slope-shouldered man, who must have been Mibli, said. His protective posture didn't change.
"Let me through, curse your ancestors!" the second voice protested. "He is sick!" A bear pushed two people aside and entered the circle of firelight.
Lakhoni wanted to turn back to the fire to work on his hands again, but realized this might be a rude thing to do.
"And he is probably hungry! Can't you see he's nearly dead?" The bear was actually a hugely thick man with his body covered entirely by a bear pelt.
"This is not your place." Mibli glowered at the enormous man.
"This is exactly my place," the other said. He turned from Mibli and faced Lakhoni.
A shudder slammed through Lakhoni. It was as if the warmth of the fire at his back had reminded him how frigid the temperature around him was.
"Boy. Can you speak?" The bear man's eyes glowed with the gold of the fire.
Lakhoni opened his mouth, but knew nothing would come out. He shook his head. Another spasm of coughing tore out of his chest.
"Get some soup!" The bear man's voice carried through a strange haze that had begun to settle over Lakhoni. Soup was food. Lakhoni wanted to listen, to understand what more the bear man had to say, but the haze grew thicker.
How had he gotten to the ground? The hard thing under him: was that his bow?
He laughed through his nose, or more of a snort, at the contrast between his front and back. His rear-end felt as if it was cooking, while his front was already frozen again.
Lakhoni moved to turn around, but found himself falling to his left.
Darkness consumed him.
He opened his eyes when the first hot splash touched his chin. A shape moved above him, making some kind of noise.
Blinking and drawing in a deep breath, Lakhoni tried hard to focus. He was lying on his back, something soft between him and what was probably a hard dirt floor. A bundle of something that was also soft held his head up somewhat. The roof above him was mostly in shadow, but it looked like it was made of reed and river clay tiles. Like Salno's house back in his village.
"Please, drink this."
Lakhoni turned his attention to the shape—a young woman—that was leaning over him.
"My father says you must have this or you will die," the young woman said. Her skin was the color of scraped and cleaned deer hide, her hair a glistening black that glowed in the light of a small fire behind her. He couldn't see her face very well with the shadows on it, but he felt he could sense some tension.
"I-" the croak that came out sounded like an animal of some kind. He tried again, this time with worse results. His throat felt scraped and raw, like a fresh deer hide.
"Just open your mouth and I'll pour it in," the woman said.
Lakhoni complied, licking his lips. The thin soup, or whatever it was, tasted of meat, some kind of earthy, sharp root, and many vegetables. It was good, but unusual and strangely spicy. Not in a way that hurt though. He opened his mouth for another sip. No, the spiced flavor seemed to be soothing his throat somehow.
"It won't really fill you, but he said it should help you fight off the winter sickness."
He wanted to answer, to say thank you or something, but he didn't want to kindle the coal in his throat again.
"You have to drink it all."
He nodded. She lowered the clay bowl to his lips again. He felt ridiculous, as if he were a baby being fed by its mother. He tried to reach up to take the bowl, but the motion caused violent twinges of pain all over his body. His vision spun.
"That was stupid. Don't move."
He sucked in a breath, trying to stop the spinning in his head.
"You lie there and I give you soup. It's simple," the woman—or was she just a girl?—said.
In response, he opened his mouth.
He carefully kept his body still as she administered to him. Long minutes passed as small sips of the strong broth slid down his throat, warming him from the inside. He realized at some point that he was covered in several heavy blankets or pelts.
"That's all," she said.
Forgetting, he tried to reach for the bowl to tell her he was still hungry, but nausea stopped him. He drew in a slow breath.
"No, that's all. More later." She turned. "Sleep now."
Lakhoni lay there, knowing the hunger growling in his stomach would not let sleep come.
Sunlight streaming through cracks in the doorway told him he had been wrong. He didn't even remember closing his eyes. No dreams of his village had come. No dreams of a terrible funeral pyre had assaulted him. No dreams, but plenty of hunger.
And he felt hot. Sweat seemed to pour off his body, sliding down his neck, over his shoulders and dropping onto the mat he lay on. A shudder passed through him, bringing pain and hunger.
He groaned, trying to turn onto one side and curl up.
Now he felt cold.
A soft noise came from the doorway. Carefully keeping his head still, Lakhoni glanced in that direction. Someone came in, a blinding flash of light behind them obscuring their features. Lakhoni blinked rapidly and regretted it. His head pounded and he realized that he was very thirsty.
"Good, you need more soup." The same voice from the previous night.
He watched as the young woman approached, then knelt at his side. As his vision returned, he realized something he hadn't noticed the night before.
She was beautiful. Her long black hair framed an oval face with even, perfectly shaped features. Eyes the shape of an elm leaf, a straight and strong nose, and a lovely mouth. Lakhoni knew he was staring and didn't feel inclined to stop.
"Good, you remember. Just keep your mouth open," she said.
"Y-" he still couldn't speak. All that came out was a noise that he wouldn't have believed he could make if he hadn't just heard it.
"No, don't talk. Give it time."
Lakhoni didn't want to blink. She looked like—like a messenger from the First Fathers. Her hair dipped as she leaned closer.
"By the stones! You have to swallow!"
The moisture running down his chin and neck brought him back to the present. He closed his mouth, swallowing the small amount of spicy soup that hadn't dribbled out. Blinking at the heat of the liquid, he pulled his thoughts back together.
"There. Father says you must drink it all again, so let's go," she said.
Beautiful woman or no, he had to get back on his feet. Alronna had to be in Lemalihah.
Looking up at the woman—no, she had to be the same age as him; she was a girl—he found his eyes getting tired. They felt strained and dry.
He dropped his eyes to her hands. This was better. He and the girl quickly found a rhythm and only minutes had passed by the time the clay bowl was empty.
"Okay. Now sleep."
It cost him a moment of dizziness, but Lakhoni forced his hand to move. He tried to grab her wrist, but succeeded in only brushing it with his finger tips. Fingertips that he only just now noticed were wrapped in soft cloth. He had to get up, get moving again.
The girl's eyes flashed for a moment. She gritted her teeth. Seeing him open his mouth as if to talk, she said, swift anger in her voice, "No. Don't try to talk. Just rest. We will make you better."
Frustration welled up in him. Alronna had waited long enough.
The anger in the girl's eyes seemed to dissipate. She unclenched her jaw with a visible effort. "Listen. You are very sick. We don't know where you've come from, but we have traditions that we must obey." Her reddish-brown eyes met his. "So we'll make you better. We have questions, but you can’t answer them so we will wait. You wait too."
The girl sighed, glancing around the hut. Something in her face looked pained. Lakhoni instinctively followed her gaze as it traveled the walls. The home looked almost exactly like those of his village. Stone walls, sleeping mats, a small table, wooden shelves with trinkets, hooks sunk into some of the rocks of the wall. It was all the same, except for the tile roof. Like Salno's, because Salno had been important in the village.
"I'm sure this is hard. But we will help you get better. I can't promise Mibli won't throw you out or do something awful to you once you're better, but my father has claimed a duty to you."
Her hand rested briefly on his arm. A shock went through him at the spot she touched—it felt cold and hot at the same time. "My father is Neas. He is the healer of our village." The girl stood. "We will bring you more soup soon. As your throat heals, you can eat other things. But you have to rest now."
Lakhoni blinked, wary of moving his head.
She turned to the small fire in the middle of the hut. Bending slightly, she fed a small log to the flames. Straightening, she looked over her shoulder. "Soon you'll be able to tell us your name, and your story. For now, I'll be your healer. My name's Simra."
She turned and left the hut.
Urgency to move toward Alronna prodded Lakhoni, but he could not deny the weakness and pain in his body. Alronna probably thought everyone in the village was dead. She was alone. Had she known about whatever it was beneath our mother's bed?
He would find out. He would heal fast and waste no time getting back on his journey.
On his back, sweat pouring from his skin, the sight of deep brown tiles not far above him, Lakhoni thought back to the cavern of the Separated.
First Fathers, please don't let this be the same, he thought. The memory of his journey through the frigid winter, the wind that was sharp as swords, was still fresh, but it seemed that someone else had experienced it. He already felt distant from those days. Images of Gimno and Sana and Corzon flitted behind his eyes.
They had cared for him and treated his injuries too. Were Simra's people going to do the same, then try to keep him captive? Am I even close to Lemalihah?
His bones ached with exhaustion; his muscles still trembled periodically.
I'm free from the Living Dead. And I'm alive.
That means I'm closer.