Light on Shattered Water
Chihirae kept me close at her side on that first day. Snow creaked under my black boots and our breath frosted in the morning air as we walked the route to the barn. There were already cubs there waiting for her.
Nervous? Of course I was nervous. Chihirae had warned me about it, but it wasn't something I could do much about. The same kind of feeling I'd had on the first day of high school or my first job interview. I glanced at Chihirae stalking along beside me, swallowed, and settled the laptop where it was slung at my hip.
The cubs saw us coming and small furry figures scurried out over the snow to meet us. The cubs who knew me were effusive in their greetings, their claws catching at my clothing as they closed around me, a gabble of voices:
"My [something] said not to touch it."
"Hai! Mikah, they have let you out!"
"You still haven't grown fur"
"Can I see that game again?"
"Alright, enough for now. Inside, go on. Move," Chihirae pinched at ears as she got them moving out. "Mikah, try not to be too much of a distraction. You can do that?"
She hissed and took a swipe at my own ears. Fortunately, they aren't as big a target as Rris' ones.
Inside, although in my memory it was larger, the barn hadn't changed. The rough desks and benches, the small stove. As Chihirae led me through to the front I saw the dark stains across a bench and desk. Someone had tried to clean them up, but the stain had soaked into the grain of the wood, turning patches and spots almost black. I stared and shivered, feeling hairs standing on end.
"I didn't know."
I looked down at Chihirae. Her ears were down and her eyes studying my face. I swallowed, nodded, "I understand."
A bench near the fire that creaked under my weight. I had my notepad, pen, and my laptop on the desk before me, stark contrast to the cubs who only had the few slates Chihirae could distribute. She continued her lessons in much the same way she'd done it when I'd been watching from the loft. I'd missed a lot, but her lessons in the evenings helped, also the fact that now I could ask her for help when I needed it; mostly in the language and grammatical areas.
And I tried not to be too distracting to the cubs, but whenever I touched the keyboard to check something in the database heads would turn and voices would pipe up in curiosity until Chihirae restored order. She didn't play favourites: she treated me just as she would any of her other students, calling on me to answer questions, say words. Cubs snickered.
"Something funny?" Chihirae asked one of them after an outburst of giggling.
"Ah, he can't say 'riding'."
"It sound funny," another hissed.
"He can't help that," Chihirae growled. "His mouth is different. He has trouble with words we find easy. Be [something]."
"What was that word?" I asked. Cubs chittered their laughter.
And Chihirae had a couple of other questions for me as well, slightly more curly. Where does snow come from? Why is the sky blue? The snow one, that wasn't too bad. It would've been a great sales pitch for the multimedia encyclopedia, I mean, let's face it: if a software program can present an explanation of snow in a manner that cubs who've never even conceived of evaporation and global weather patterns can comprehend then it must be a useful tool. Chihirae stood near and watched with wide eyes as the children gathered close around to watch the screen, always asking questions I tried to field as best as I could.
Yeah, I guess I was coming to think of them as children. As these Rris were becoming people. I don't know when it happened; I can't pinpoint the exact moment, but somewhere along my twisting, bizarre road, that's what they became. People.
Those mornings went quickly.
It was fun, and a vast improvement over huddling in that cold little room. I was learning a hell of a lot from the cubs, all the important little things: slang, vernacular, their swearing. They tell you little things about a culture that books don't cover, but they don't always explain themselves. For example, why was it considered rude to call someone 'red tied'? or 'clipped'? 'Shaven' that I could understand, and it did explain why neither Chihirae nor the Mediator liked it when I'd wanted to shave off my growing beard. We'd compromised: I kept the beard, but trimmed back to something approaching what I considered a respectable and comfortable length.
Along with my vocabulary, my pronunciation improved. The cubs gleefully corrected me every time I mispronounced a word. Even those words I'd never be able to pronounce properly. Chihirae spent time with me in the evenings, going through her books together. I could read the most basic of childrens' stories: slowly, haltingly, but I could read them. Some days she'd have me read for the class, the equivalent of 'Spot has a ball. See Spot run'. The cubs chittered and hissed, but they enjoyed themselves. There was that afternoon when class was dismissed and I stepped out of the door to catch a snowball across my chest. Chine and Feher chittered and launched another volley, missed me and spattered Rikya behind me. She joined me in returning fire and it kind of grew from there into a free-for-all. I could throw further and harder, but they were damn fast on their feet. Like trying to hit the proverbial butterfly with the proverbial hatchet. Seriously, they were only cubs, but they could probably run as fast as I could, even on thick snow. It eventually ended with everyone covered in snow and ice and having had a ripping good time.
I guess their elders weren't as amused. Later that evening a trio of the older Rris came calling, not so happy.
"It is filling his head with ridiculous ideas," one of the females complained. "He wants to go to the place where that," she gestured at me, "comes from."
"Not the only one," I muttered.
The three Rris stared at me and Chihirae said, "Mikah, not now."
"She was covered in snow. She said it threw a snowball at her when they were playing. Plague take it, Teacher, it might hurt them. Look at it!"
"It isn't just that," another added and their tails writhed violently. "Some of the things it is saying, can you believe them? They believe him! Ehanirih wanted me to boil the water! Said there were things living in it!"
"There are," Chihirae said.
"You believe him also? Why are we talking to you?!"
"Not just Mikah. Have you heard of Rethkin? He is well known in [something] areas at Hillvale Between. His book talks about them."
"Probably where your pet heard about it."
Chihirae chittered. "I can just imagine him walking into the [something] to discuss [something]."
The other Rris set their ears back and Chihirae continued, gathering steam, "Mikah is not hurting anyone. He has never tried to hurt anyone. All he wants is to live his life, something you seemed to be determined to deny him. I was also afraid of him to start with, but he has never done anything to hurt me, he is [something] and [something]. I am afraid I can't say the same about other people."
Rris stared at her, as if they couldn't believe she'd said that. I looked from one to another, worried for Chihirae. She was employed by the town, wasn't she? Insulting the townsfolk could get her into trouble. Finally one of them hissed, "I think the Mediator might be interested in hearing about this."
"I will be sure to mention it to him," Chihirae retorted then drew a deep breath. "Kenth agreed to let him have a chance. Mikah hasn't hurt anyone or broken [something]. He has been friendly and [something]. You can't just [something] him. If Kenth tells me to remove him, I will do it. But until that day, I stand by him."
They steamed, but Chihirae stood her ground: If I was to be kicked out of class, the order would have to come from Kenth, the mayor himself. They left shortly afterwards and I just sagged down onto my sleeping mat. "They really don't like me."
"It is only a couple of pebble-brains" Chihirae snorted and sat down beside me, then batted at my arm with the back of her hand. "Don't worry about them. I doubt Kenth will [something] them."
I just nodded.
She cocked her head, then leaned to the side, against me, lowering her head to rest against my arm. A warm, shifting presence against me. "Pebble-brains," she said again.
"Should be shaved," I said.
"You are a good one to talk," and I felt her start laughing at that.
Not much clear sky that day, heavy grey cloud over much of it. Snow crunched under my feet, a chill wind sent flurries dancing around my feet and tried to steal the sack I was carrying.
"Hurry up," Feher called back as he scampered ahead with his two friends, "A, you are slow!"
I made a rude noise and they chittered laughter.
"Do that again," Chine urged me.
So while we walked the cubs tried to see if they could imitate a Bronx cheer. It was a bit of a walk across the fields and the stream behind Chihirae's place before you hit the treeline. The stream was frozen over in places, not thick enough to walk over so we crossed at one of the places it was wider, but only about ankle-deep. My boots are waterproof, but the cubs' feet weren't; still, they weren't too heavy to carry.
I guess I shouldn't have let them come along. With the aid of hindsight, I definitely shouldn't have let them tag along, but Chihirae had asked me to go and collect some deadfall to use as kindling and the cubs showed up just as I was leaving and they said their elders didn't mind and ... and I believed them. Anyway, what could happen just picking up some dead sticks?
The cubs were enjoying themselves. Chine and Feher were firm friends and always seemed to be together. The other was Ithi'tsa, a female classmate who was only a little less raucous than the two boys. They scurried through the drifts and up into the trees like two-legged lynxes, hurtling back down the slope in clouds of kicked-up powder, a snowball flew and Chine went chasing off after Ithi'tsa.
"Hy," a clawed hand caught my jacket and I looked down into the bright eyes of Feher, panting clouds of mist. "Mikah, how long are you going to be here?"
He waved a hand back toward the village, "Here."
"I don't know."
"They said you were going away soon."
"Who? CHINE! Get off her!"
"The outsider. The Mediator. Him and Kenth, they were saying you were going to Lying Scales. Why?"
I shook my head. That was something I didn't know about. "I don't know," I told him.
He turned away, seeming disappointed, then looked up at me again. "Do you want to go?"
"Feher, this isn't my home. I cannot stay here... all time."
Why indeed. Why couldn't I stay here? Live my life here? I sighed and stopped dreaming. "I'm not a Rris. They think I can tell them a lot."
"Like you tell us in class?"
"Like that, yes."
"The Mediator would be angry if you didn't go."
"I think so. And many Rris in the town don't like me. They do not want me to stay. I think it would be better if I go with them. Yes?"
His ears went down. "I don't want you to go."
"I can come back to see you," I smiled. "It won't be too long. Now, do you know a good place to get wood?"
He seemed to deliberate for a second, then brightened, his previous depression cast aside. "Over here," he called and I heard the other cubs shouting as he scurried up the hillside between the denuded trunks, occasionally dropping to all fours. A flash of gold fur between black and white snowscape.
"Hey! Wait up," I called in English.
"You are too slow," a taunting voice drifted back down the slope. I made a rude noise back.
Well, it wasn't a bad spot: a weather-worn gully just below the crest, a nick in the hillside where a couple of trees had come down in a slip, plently of deadwood. The cubs made a game of grabbing twigs, occasionally playing pretend swordfights with a couple of sticks. All in all I think they spent more time chasing each other around than actually working, but what the hell: you're only young once and growing up is a one-way street.
I took my own time, finding larger branches and breaking them into manageable pieces to carry in the sack. It'd been maybe three quarters of an hour when I looked up to see three adult Rris at the head of the gully. Standing, staring at me. Parents looking for their cubs? No, I didn't think so. I couldn't recognise them, but they didn't look like villagers. "Feher?" I called and pointed at the newcomers. "Who are they?"
Feher and the other two stopped their game and looked. "I don't know," he said.
Three of them, all wearing long stockman-like coats similar to the Mediator's, save these were a grubby white that blended in with the snow and trees. They looked at each other and started moving down the hillside toward us, spreading out. I got a bad feeling in my gut. It reminded me of a film I'd once seen: wolves fanning out as they stalked a deer.
"Feher, Chine, Ithi," I called the cubs with unease growing to fear, "come here."
Thankfully, they did so without argument, watching the newcomers. I herded the cubs behind me, moving back. The three approaching Rris had spread out, a wide arc coming down the gully, a coat swept back and I saw a long sword sheath hanging from the belt, one with a pistol. This wasn't good. I'd almost been mugged once, several punks in a park. They'd used the same kind of moves but couldn't run quite as fast or far as I could.
"Get out of here," I hissed to the cubs. "Go home."
"Home! Go! Now!"
They did, slowly, then turning to run and one of the newcomers called out: a name or something, I'm not sure, but there was movement in my peripheral vision and I turned to see a fourth Rris downhill from us, moving around behind us in a position to head the cubs off and they saw him also, slowed down as he drew a sword, glittering as cold as the snow.
Too fast, it was all happening too fucking fast. I just screamed at the cubs to run, started down the steep bank as fast as I could, kicking snow, stumbling in the drifts, slipping but staying upright. The Rris howled, the one going after the cubs hesitating and turning and looking up at me and I saw amber eyes widening, narrowing, his stance shifting to bring the sword around in a slash at my legs and I dove headlong.
Impact almost broke my neck. A tangle of limbs and leather and fur and snow, slipping and tumbling down the hillside, claws raking my hands, sliding off my jacket, flashes of grey sky and trees and whiteness like a roulette wheel that stopped on freezing white.
Ice on my face. I lifted my face out of the snow. Feher through the trees, hesitating, watching with wide eyes and ears down. "Run!" I screamed with what breath I had and he pointed. The Rris I'd hit, not a metre downhill from me, was on all fours reaching for his sword. "Heads up bastard!" I snarled, rolled and kicked a heavy boot right into his chin as hard as I could. His head went back with a sharp crack, a spray of spittle and blood and he tumbled away. I struggled to my feet, my left shoulder, my whole left arm burning. Feher cried out again, a tawny blur scurrying down the hillside, another Rris bounding past me as he pursued the cub in clouds of snow with sword in hand. I gritted my teeth, stooping to pick up the fallen sword as I half-slid, half-ran past, running for the cub's life, for my life as I heard the snarls and grunts of the other two close behind me.
Any other time, any other place, I wouldn't have had a proverbial snowball's chance in a race against Rris, but there and then I had an edge: bushes and drifts I bulled through, boots were better protection and traction than their pads. Somehow I managed not to trip and impale myself on the sword or slam into a tree or trip on a buried root as I took a suicidal pace through the trees, unable to stop if I'd wanted to, legs wavering and lungs heaving.
A figure in white in front of me and out of sheer desperation I threw the sword and - Christ only knows how - hit him. He stumbled, recovered and I careened into him, crashing into his back with an impact I felt in every organ and bone, grabbing him, something snapping and both of us skidding headlong, tumbling and he was on me with claws tearing at me and his legs came up to rake down mine, ripping through the denim and skin and I screamed in pain and struck out, grabbing an ear and ripping, hand around throat and rolling. Like wrestling with a threshing machine, claws flashing and tearing with blurring speed. A gaping mouth of needle teeth and a shockingly-pink curled tongue lunged at my face and fangs caught my cheek, punctured under my chin and scraped against bone, skin and muscle tearing as I yanked away and red washed across my vision and the pain grew like a starburst across my face. I screamed a spray of red and swung an elbow, punched. No thought, just terror and pain and desperation driving me and the Rris yowled through a blood-stained muzzle, squalled fought back and ripped me again and again as we rolled through red-stippled snow and the skeletons of bushes until I was on top and drove my fists down again and again...
An impact across my side, under my arm, my ribs. It threw me sideways and I sprawled into snow. Couldn't move. Tried to get up and couldn't move, couldn't feel the cold, just an agony in my face that was a bright spike through my senses, dimming everything else into obscurity. Something caught me and rolled me and I was looking up at skeletal fingers laced across leaden grey. White flakes. Blinked and red washed across my vision and my arm hurt when I tried to wipe my eyes.
A shape moved above me, raised a glittering sliver of steel and thunder clapped and the sky was empty again. Another peal of thunder, echoing, jarring snow from branches.
It was very quiet.
I don't know what I was trying to do. Somehow I managed to get to my feet, I don't remember how. Everything seemed so remote, like my head was stuffed with cotton. I remember the light was painfully bright, blurred. I tried to wipe my eyes and my hand was red, the snow was pink, two Rris bodies didn't move.
I stared at them for a while, looked at the redness dripping from my left hand, felt it running down my side and face. My clothes were soaked. I touched my face and felt pain and something like raw meat and my fingers came away red. The shaking was starting, a numb feeling stealing over me as I tried to move, putting one leaden foot in front of the other.
Water. Light scintillating from trickling water, from the ice crystals congealing along the banks. Beyond it the fields were glaringly white, shifting light that hurt my eyes, and I saw Rris there: shapes running toward me. Noises sounded faintly, shouting that competed with the roaring in my ears.
It hurt to breathe. It hurt to move. Shuddering violently and not just from the cold. Pink streamers swirled from my sodden jeans, tendrils of crimson whipping off into the water burbling around my boots. I stumbled as an underwater rock turned beneath my feet and somehow my legs held until I reached the far side and only then folded face-down into the snow, half-in half-out of the water. Next I remember there was a Rris voice shouting and something grabbed my shoulder. The world rolled and a Rris face came into view. The eyes going shock-wide.
Another figure crouching over me, propping me up, shouting at me:
"Mikah! Sah, no! Shave you! You [something] drowned-rat! Can you hear me?"
Hard to keep my eyes open and the pain was everywhere, worst in my face and along my right side - like the worst paper cut you can imagine. Noises throbbed through my head, prickles of heat washed over me, consciousness ebbed in and out. I remember there were more Rris around me, the sound of their voices, then hands were holding me. I tried to speak, coughed a spray of blood. My left cheek and jaw hurt like nothing I can describe: the whole side of my face swollen and ripped open. Rris called out and fussed around me, cloth wrapped around my face. Someone caught my left arm and I screamed as it was sharply yanked and I felt something grate and click through my bones.
The pain brought me back, back to more pain, pain from everywhere. I tried to move but hands held me while I quaked and kicked feebly and slowly sank into the dull haze of shock.
Memory of Rris holding me, half-carrying me across a frozen snowscape. A crowded, dimly lit room with a soft bed and a heat that burned at me. A hellish vision of a Rris, face distorted by reddish light, leaning over me, doing something with a small sliver of metal. Distorted, inhuman hands reaching for my face and I couldn't move away, couldn't flinch in any direction. A small noise like an animal in pain filled the air as I felt metal and thread pulling through my skin and I dimly realised it came from me.
There was a lot more pain. A point came where shock and exhaustion and overload just pulled me away to a remote place inside. Rris moved around my body, doing things with knives and needles and things I couldn't identify.
Enough is enough. There was a point where I just don't remember anything any more.
End Light on Shattered Water 6