400BFR – 400 years before first Arruvvian Calendar
It hadn’t been her fault about the goat. She knew that. But she knew no-one else would believe her. Which wasn’t fair – just another unfairness heaped on top of all the other ones – and all because she’d been born with one tiny bit missing. Who even needs to pee standing up? And they hadn’t been there, they hadn’t seen the wolf, and so they wouldn’t know…. For all the good that would do her.
Kithua stopped for just a moment to rest. The hills were steep, but she was used to them. She’d been born in the Segon’s Eye – she’d lived her whole ten years here – she knew nothing in life except for the hills, and the plains: sheep, goats, wolves, wild grain and wild mushrooms, the White Horse river when it was in full flood. She’d learnt climbing while she’d learnt walking. Her horizon knew nothing else.
Not any more. And they were never going to find her. Serve them right if they thought she was dead and drowned in the river. Their fault that they wouldn’t have believed her. A whole world out there was calling her.
She’d been sent to mind the goats. That was how it had all started. She was always given minding of the goats to do. Today she’d grazed them on the Pearl Blanket slopes, where the grass was pearl-green and grew to her waist’s height. There were tori flowers there to pick, winkles, tongue-primrose, and she knew where to find her share of nettle-berries; she ate kek beatles when she found them in their nests, and perched on top of the big rocks, looking out over the grasslands. Her eyes followed flower-coloured paths: snakes of red or purple, white, ash-wheat, silver that flowed through the grass and into the horizon.
The goats were her task, and she could choose where to take them.
It was usually safe. Certainly in the daylight. Clouds were overhead, grey-marbled, but not yet promising rain, not darkening the earth very much. Wolves would never usually come this close, this light. But one of them had. It was stalking with the silence of its kind, so that she didn’t see it until it was only a few yards away from the goats.
The grass hid much of the wolf, but Kuthia could see it was a large one. She knew what her father had told her: that the wolf feared man more than man feared the wolf. And yet…. It was big, a giant of its kind, and she couldn’t help knowing that she was only small; a skinny rag of a thing if you wanted to believe her brothers; she only had arms like sticks.
While the wolf circled and the goats panicked, Kuthia scrambled down off her perch and searched the ground for a stone. She found one that was three times the size of her fist. “You! Wolf!” Now she had its attention. She ran forward, projecting anger into her mind, hoping it would project into her scent, into her stance, her charge: and she hurled the stone at its head. The stone struck just below the shoulder. Not as hard as a man could throw, but hard enough to warn this wolf it would face a fight. She allowed herself a grunting, screaming shriek of victory – a war cry to send the beast running.
She’d not even thought about the chance that it wouldn’t run. And now it came steadily toward her, making a low growling in its throat. She found herself reaching for her knife, holding it up so the wolf could see the blade. Advance on it. Eyes up. Show it who’s master. But her legs were unwilling; she hesitated, trying to see its face. And when she saw it she knew she was lost. This was a bigger wolf than she had ever seen, it’s shaggy fur was all mixed with grey, white, clay-brown, its eyes were charcoal-black, and its teeth: bigger, sharper, than her knife. “Get away from them!” she knew that she had to protect the goats – her father would have her whipped for letting it take one – but its teeth…. and its face: that was what really snagged in her heart – there was something about its face, the stare, the leer, that was loaded with malevolence, something above animal… something….. personal…. murderous…..
“Get away from them!”
But she was backing away. She snatched another stone up, she threw, but missed the wolf. And she knew, it was smelling her fear, smelling her youth….. and tender flesh, an easier kill…. tastier than some stupid goat…..
She backed three more steps, then turned and ran. She kept her knife in hand, ready to roll and duck and slash, not sure if she remembered how she’d have to do it, not sure if she could get the blade through its thick fur and skin, into its warm throat. She heard it behind her, she heard her own ragged breath, and she scrambled for a rocky pillar, just steep enough she thought maybe a wolf might not be able to scrabble up there after her…..
And it pounced. But not at her. At a space somewhere to the right, to where a couple of goats had fled and sheltered. She heard the goat cry, she smelt its blood.
Like that she’d lost the goat. And in her own mind she was almost certain that she would have lost herself instead if she’d tried to fight. But noboby would believe her. Her brothers would never have been scared away by a lone wolf. So they’d punch and kick her, and her father would kneel her down against the wall and take the whip to her back.
Unless they never saw her again.
That was Kuthia’s plan now. She had already reached Dartmoen’s Ridge and she could see the eastern plains spreading out grandly before her, speckled all over with wildflowers, and little wild horses, with the bright, prickly bushes that grew on that side of the world. She squatted for a moment, resting, admiring, dreaming. There was a whole world out there. She’d listened at the fireside to her mother telling her stories. She’d heard about the great, slow Mulliand river, all full of strange riverweed, frogs that made popping sounds, irridescent mermaids no bigger than cats. There was a place where the Mulliand intersected with its alter ego: the Keeliash – a river all white froth and anger, jagged with rocks, and heralded by the bright birds that fed off it. It was, for all its ferocity, no match for the size, age, grandeur of the Mulliand, all of its fury emptying into the void of Mulliand’s depths. She, Kuthia, she could go to that place.
Or she could go to the flat top mushroom rocks. Or to the south-east, where the volancoes lined the horizon and pumped it full of coloured ash. She could see where the Hecon people lived, in their caves, where the ground was broken only by their crater-like chimneys. Or she could go to the city her own mother had seen – the great cystal edifice called WhiteOrder. She remembered her mother telling her of first impressions – the way the city just rose up out of the plains, and depending on time of day and weather, it might be red, rose, gold or delicately silver. Her mother had seen it when it had been silver: blazing filigree lines and gleaming bulbs.
And when I’ve seen that I’m going to the Long Duke’s Palace. And after that, the ocean…
Kuthia bounded to her feet and set off again. Her plans gave her energy. Along the way she stopped when she saw a crop of nettle-berries, or a few early strawberries, some mushrooms that could be trusted to eat. She sang to herself every now and then.
It would be after sunset before they were sure she’d gone.
She was sorry that her mother would have to cry, but she thought her father would be glad she was gone, and her brothers, huh! she didn’t care if they cried.
It took a few hours for dusk to begin its approach in earnest. And in that time the clouds had darkened, they were nearly black right above her, and there was a wind picking up. It only occurred to Kuthia then that she’d run without thinking to take anything with her – not shoes, or a sheepskin, or even a bottle for water. Her bare arms and bare legs felt the wind. She’d found things to eat along the way, so she wasn’t quite hungry, but she wondered how long a few roots and mushrooms would sustain her. Soon she’d have to hunt or set traps. And once night fell there’d be things up in these hills that might want to hunt her…..
There’d only be a worse beating now if she went back – one for the goat, another for running away. A part of her thought she should endure it, get it over with. But then…. where was her courage? All the places she’d promised herself she would see. She was ten years old now, not a little child, old enough to be out on her own. She’d even heard her father talk about the time she would be married. Too old to be afraid of the dark.
And so she pressed on. The horizon was dark, with a subdued, bloody sunset emerging behind the clouds. The air had a feeling of rain. So what? I’ll take shelter.
Then she saw it. She didn’t think a heart could stop beating, not really, in a still-living chest. But it felt as if that was what happened in hers. She stood, her ribs strangling her, staring into the face of the same lone wolf. Kuthia knew it for the same one – her whole soul told her it was. And she recognised that face, the dark eyes, the patchwork of its thick fur. There was a scar along it’s nose – old and hard, and once deep – and patches of dun-brown fur beneath its jaw, which faded into a pale tan, and then into white. The very same wolf.
It was a big, muscular thing, that probably weighed twice what she did – more, with all that fur. Its glare was raw anger – not a wolf’s predatory hunger, not its instinct for killing. There was something in it that conjured up the word ‘evil’. It was what a monster was. And it was coming for her.
Kuthia stood her ground this time. Not because she had any less to fear, but because she knew there was nowhere to run. The wolf would be on top of her before she made more than ten paces, it would be tearing her throat out a few seconds later. She was miles from help. They’d find her body after all, torn to pieces by teeth and claws, they’d know how she died: and never once catching a mermaid, or seeing WhiteOrder rise above the plains.
The wolf came towards her, circling, seeking out its moment. Kuthia dropped to a crouch, knife in hand. Even if there was nobody out here to see her, she was going to die fighting. The wolf paced around, looking for a weak spot. She wondered why it should bother when she was one big, gangly weak spot, just waiting to be torn apart. When it found its moment, it sprang. Kuthia waited on shaky legs – she wasn’t sure if she could time it: roll, duck, slash. She dropped on the ground, collapsing neatly and turning her head away, hunching over her weak throat as she slashed wildly with the knife. She should have been aiming for the throat or face, but all she aimed for was fur. And she struck something, she felt the knife almost wrenched from her hand as it bit flesh. Her blade came away hot and red with blood.
“There! Take that! Take that!” She was on her hands and knees, screaming at it.
The wolf lowered its head, growling. Intimidated? Please yes. She’d cut it on the shoulder, deep, she thought, from the oozing red blood. But she hadn’t scared it off. At least it knows I’ve got claws.
The wolf came at her again. Her roll was too slow and it landed on top of her. She threw her arm up in time to protect her throat, and the teeth sank in. She used her other hand to pull the knife out of her limp fingers, and she lunged forward, burying the blade as deep into its shaggy throat as she could manage. For half a second she thought she’d killed it, but in truth she’d struck mostly fur and skin. She stabbed again, to the limit of her strength, her knife punching below the throat, sinking into flesh and catching on bone. She couldn’t pull the blade free, but the wolf’s teeth loosened on her arm and she pulled it away, scrabbling along the ground to be out of reach. Thunder rolled and a massive burst of lightning painted the hills.
The wolf turned and fled.
Kuthia didn’t know if her knife or the skies had saved her. She wanted to believe that she’d bested the animal, but she wasn’t sure she had. At least she could tell her brothers how she’d fought it off. Except she wasn’t going back to them – not now. She’d made up her mind. But she’d made it up before the wolf had found her again, before its teeth had raked the flesh off her arm. She looked the wound over, it was deep and bloody, hanging with ragged flesh. How far would she get, wounded like that? Kuthia realised that she didn’t know what she should do – all her plans seemed faint and unreal against the blossoming pain, the growing darkness, the cold.
And then it started raining. It was sudden and torrential, plastering her dress against her body, and her hair to her face. Whatever choice she made tomorrow, she’d have to find shelter now. I’m just a stupid little girl, I’m not going anywhere, I never was. She was cold and wet and struggling against the urge to cry. Shelter. Just find that first. She staggered down a couple of hillsides before she saw a low cave at the bottom of one. It looked too low to be home to any bears, so she crawled inside.
Lightning came again, thunder right after it.
The lightning revealed a lowceilinged cave, not quite tall enough for her to stand in, growing ferns and mushrooms, dry, leading back into absolute darkness. Kuthia was too old to be afraid of the dark, she reassured herself of that every few minutes, but she didn’t want to – didn’t need to, she told herself – go any further back into the cave. She was as dry here as she was likely to get, so what was the point? She lay where she’d crawled, cradling her arm, staring up at the cave’s roof.
She may have slept a little – she wasn’t really sure. She lost herself in a sensation of weightlessness, of endlessly falling, a mist of red-blackness settling all over her, her skin prickling and shivering, while the pain in her arm became a focal point of her world. It’s gravity drew everything else into it. And maybe in the midst of all that she dozed a bit, waking up to a mouth full of wool, and disorientation that left her thinking she was still in her blankets in her father’s cottage in Hendaglen.
Then why was she so cold? Why did this huge pain glare out of so thin an arm?
Kuthia sat upright. She knew better than this – if she let herself she’d die from cold, or from a fever in her arm. She gathered together sticks and ferns, building what she could of a fire and stripped her wet clothes off, staking them over her small fire to dry. She was cold, but she liked the way the firelight played over her white skin – her stomach was warmed by the flames, even as her back felt like ice. She turned for a while to warm her back, and when the worst of the cold was gone, she hunted around for roots and mushrooms she could heat over the flames.
It was a small, rudimentary dinner, but her stomach craved it. Her dress – stiff with blood, torn, heavy – smelt like smoke by the time it was dry enough she could put in on again. But she felt better: maybe she’d have the strength to continue her journey tomorrow. If not, she would have to go home, face her father, take her punishment, cry silently while her mother stitched her arm. She felt calm about it all – if she didn’t make it out tomorrow, she’d do it one day, she’d see all those sights, she’d take in the whole world, she’d sell herself to a sailing ship – why not, couldn’t she climb? – and then she’d see all of the world there was to see.
First, she should look for something for her arm. In the morning she’d need to find water to clean it with, the right leaves to bind it closed. For now she could only hold it as close to the flames as she could bring herself to do. She hunted the cave floor for plants that promoted healing, or could seal her cuts against infection.
Then she caught a flicker of movement out in the hills. A dark shape against a dark sky. It was too dark too see anything properly, but she was sure it had a wolf’s contours, as big as the wolf that had attacked her. The same wolf. What if it was? And still hunting her? Why me? But she knew that it was. There was only one meal it wanted, and here she was, cornered. The shape moved closer.
Kuthia felt for her knife, only then remembering she’d left it in the wolf’s flesh. She cursed at herself. She should have spent those hours lying on her back, sharpening a stone instead. Kuthia scrambled back into the cave – its absolute darkness held no terrors now. She stifled a giggle as she sensed the roof getting lower above her head. Too low for it to follow? Out of its reach? And she crawled on backwards, shaking, panting with effort and fear. She crawled until there was no light from her fire, until it was all darkness and she wasn’t sure she knew which way to go to get out again. But that was fear for later – for now, there was no sign of the wolf, no sign of movement anywhere – she could lay where she was, flat against the ground, she could breath again. That was enough.
Some minutes later she became aware of a sound. It was faint and thready, a kind of music. Its melody put in her mind the sound of rain when it fell in deep water: but other sounds as well: a high sound like bone pipes, coupled with a soft, drumming thunder, a hum like swarming bees. Vibrations ran softly over her skin. Kuthia held her breath to listen. It seemed as if it were coming from somewhere below her. She could hardly imagine what breed of elf or fairy might be making such music beneath the earth. Surely she had to find out. Kuthia started to feel around, trying to find the shape of her surroundings, she shuffled slowly backwards, arms and legs splayed, waiting to connect with a wall.
When she found one, she crawled along it. It was hard to keep the music ahead of her, it was faint, often cutting out, and it seemed to come from so many sides at once. In nearly pitch darkness she might not have seen the steep drop in front of her, except that a faint light shone up from somewhere a long way below it. On her stomach she inched closer, carefully peeping her head over the edge.
She wasn’t sure she knew what she saw. It was as if the cave beneath the cliff had been covered in giant spidersilk – whitish, greyish, luminous threads were wound across everything, over floors and walls and ceilings, in a pattern of spirals. It could almost have all been spun from one impossibly long thread. A finely combed white mane – and pale, silverish crystal winked beneath the few slender gaps.
That was the source of the music, she could hear it down there, echoing magically around the walls. Her chest moved with its vibration, her skin did too, the ground shuddered gently under her. And I found this. She’d never heard anyone tell a story like this one – no boys or old men boasting about it. I found this.
She tested her arm, pushing hard agaisnt the wall. A burst of pain answered, which she gritted her teeth against. She experimented with clenching her fingers on that hand – clumsy and without strength, but manageable. And she looked down the cliff-face. It didn’t go straight down, not quite, there was a slope, and there were stones and protrusions that would do for handholds. Even with her injury she thought it was possible.
Kuthia eased herself over the edge, found solid holds for her feet, and then reached with her bad hand for a stone. It feld solid, and her grip survived the pain. She reached cautiously with other hand, latched on, and moved her right foot. It was going to be slow going, but she could do it if she was patient. She’d no idea what she would do when she got down there, maybe just explore, maybe just fill her head with sights that no-one else in the villages had seen.
Maybe bring home a treasure.
If I go home.
She was over halfway down before her torn hand gave out. Her fingers slid from the jagged rock she clung to, and when she reached for it again they wouldn’t bend. Kuthia gasped in pain, flattening herself against the cliff, she could feel drops of blood trickling down her arm and pooling at her elbow. She was able to get something like a straight-fingered grip on a lump of stone, but when she moved her other hand the weight was too much; she tried to recover, but it was already too late, and she was already falling.
She waited for the hard landing that would probably kill her, but she landed more softly than she’d expected. It still left her winded, in suffocating pain, consciousness wavering amidst an army of encroaching shadows. She thought the strangling sounds she could hear, the grating pain in her throat, might be her own attempts to scream. She wasn’t sure, she didn’t know if the pain she felt was hers or someone else’s.
My name is Kuthia. I’m the daughter of Rogo Hethweed. I’m the daughter of Nonnitin, Rogo’s wife. My brothers……. Did I fall from a cliff…..?
Her vision was starting to settle. She forced herself to stop her attempts to scream. She held her breath until her voice obeyed her. Then she gingerly tried to sit up. There was a whole new world of pain and dizziness that came with that idea. She regretted it, but she persevered. Not a little child anymore. Not a weakling. Kuthia sat for a few moments, staring around her. She could feel now – and see – the thick web of threads that had saved her life. She was surrounded by them, frozen whirlwinds, and they ran deep, soft and sticky, about as thick as a dandelion stem. Her arm was bleeding again, it was wet with blood, and a new, wet stain glistened on her dress where her forearm had rested. She hurt all over, but she could find little more blood, and all her limbs seemed to move – even the stiff, swollen fingers on her wolf-bitten arm.
Amongst the hillocks of thread she saw movement. Kuthia stared as a thin arm came out from under one of them. She knew right away that it belonged to something not human: the arm was white, thin, with four fingers all set apart at right angles, there were no fingernails, but they ended in fine points, not unlike thorns or claws. There were tiny, goldish veins in the arm, and a coating of rectangular, overlapping scales.
Kuthia sucked in a breath. Friend or foe? But if it was the latter she didn’t see any hope of escape. There was nothing to do but watch.
The creature that emerged wasn’t human. Its head had an insect’s shape, rounded at the top and tapering sharply away to a small, pointed chin above a little, un-lipped mouth. The white face showed eyes like jewels, big and bright – a colour of old dark blood inlaid with a fierce gold – great, bulging, segmented eyes – eyes that a giant insect might have. Below it all, a thin, humanish body, except that it was much thinner, all stretched in the limbs, chalk-white and patchedworked in shades of grey and gold.
A match in weight and size for Kuthia – but she guessed she was too hurt to fight it.
“Hello.” she whispered instead.
It probably looked at her. How did you tell? And it crawled towards her, its bony little rear end sticking up and its head bent down.
“Hello,” she said again, “who are you?”
It came to squat right in front of her.
“I’m Kuthia. Kuthia.” She pressed her hands up against her chest.
“Kuthia.” Its tiny mouth mimicked.
“Yes. Are you….?” She gestued towards the creature, wondering if it would understand.
A name? She widened her eyes.
“Din.” she wasn’t sure she’d remember the rest of it.
“You don’t speak, like people, you don’t speak our language? Do you?”
It only tilted its head, only waiting.
“I’m lost. I….. hurt.” She held her arm up.
Its face was so alien, but it seemed it could still show expressions, the mouth pinched into a frown, the impressive eyes sagged. It gestured at her arm, “Sonil-tag.”
It gestured again, “Sonil-tag.” It held its fingers out over Kuthia’s shredded forearm, flickering just above.
“I don’t know….”
In reply it lowered its fingers a little, stopped, waited. When Kuthia didn’t pull her arm away it proceeded, laying all four fingers lightly on the wound. Kuthia watched in fascination as white threads grew from Din’s fingers, they were dry and sticky – spiderweb-like – and they squirmed around Kuthia’s arm, binding themselves to the damaged flesh, melting in, as more threads came to cover them. They wove themselves into a soft, white bandage – an itching, moving sensation beneath it.
“That’s healing? What you’re doing?”
Din leaned forward, stroking Kuthia’s upper arm with its pointed fingers.
“I wish you could talk.”
Din might have felt the same, it spoke its own words, they were a sing-song collection of sounds and clicks. Their echo amongst the walls made Kuthia realise that the music, which had drawn her down here, had stopped.
“Are there others? A family?” She guessed that this one was a child like she was, that there were others who were bigger, stronger, maybe less friendly. She didn’t think she had anything to fear from Din, but she wasn’t so sure about the rest of its kind.
It held its hands out, palm up.
“You want me…? She hesitated, what did she know about what she was being asked to do? But Din only waited, it moved its head a little bit, as if trying to see Kuthia from different angles. Maybe it’s never seen a human before. She lay her hands down, palm to palm, on top of Din’s.
It wasn’t really talking, or words, or images – not even thoughts – but there was some sort of shared understanding that went between them. Threads burrowed from Din’s hands into her own – it tickled more than hurt, left her skin itching the way her bitten arm did.
“Sonil-tag,” Din said again, and Kuthia knew it was referring to the wolf that had attacked her. It was more like remembering something than being told or shown – as if she’d always known about a legend – a wolf that had killed the baby of a witch, a witch who’d taken painted warriors and hunted it down, cursing it instead of killing it, cursing its descendants for all time: to know humans, to understand, to hate, to envy them, to crave the intellect and civilisation given to them and not to wolfkind. She remembered that the wolf’s sons and daughters were born knowing the witch, knowing her bloodline, and hating them for all enternity.
“It thinks I’m descended from her?”
When did it learn nodding?
“It’ll keep coming after me?”
Din nodded again.
It understands? Does it? It was hard to be sure. And the thread-link between their palms was becoming painful. The soft thread seemed to burn.
There were others of these creatures now, starting to creep out from within the web, or to come scuttling quietly along tunnels that lead into darkness. Some of them crawled the way Din had done, some of them walked, almost like men would walk, but with a gait matching their long, narrow legs.
Some of them got down into a squatting position, they waved their arms about over their heads, making flickering gestures with their fingers. Their faces contorted in ways Kuthia would never have imagined they could.
Din stared hard at her. “Sonil-tag.”
“Wolf. Sonil-tag.” It gestured with its head towards its kin, as they pantomimed this strange dance.
An idea – or a memory – flowed over the threadlink – it came with a throbbing, electric pain: this was the way she could keep Sonil-tag away from her. These gestures, this dance – there was a old spell in that, a ritual, that would compel the wolf to turn and run. She could imagine it outside the cave still, standing guard, just waiting for her to emerge – and this dance might be the only weapon she had against it.
“See?” Din’s mouth contorted to make human speech. It seemed to pick gingerly through the word, not sure if it was understanding properly.
“Yes. I see. Who are you all?”
Din’s language, its link, seemed to have no way to teach that.
The other creatures drew closer. Most of there were bigger than Din, a couple of heads taller than a tall human man, although thinner. And they were beginning to sing again. As they did, Kuthia saw spines flip up from their backs. These had been buried, flat, against their scales, but now they stood up, just slightly bent, wavering, bone-white, but red along the tips – a swaying line that went from their heads, all the way to the small of their backs. The spines seemed to alter the music, which was made only from voices, the sound seemed to flow along them, being warped as it did.
Kuthia’s palms were burning now in earnest – it felt as if she was holding them against hot embers. She didn’t want to, but she had to pull away. It was only then that she knew Din’s strength – the creature’s hands gave no ground, the link stretched but held.
“Let me go.” she tried to say it calmly.
Din just looked at her.
“Please. It’s really hurting.”
Din bent closer, still struggling to adopt the sounds of human speech. “Stay.”
She looked up again, beginning to understand too late. There were about eight of them, all converging on her. Something was changing in the tone of their music. An undercurrent of thunder became stronger, the high notes stretched out, the part that was like rain on water seemed to turn all at once to a downpour. The tips of the spines were glowing.
“Stay. Stay.” A memory of someone else’s, a coccoon of soft thread, hardening….
Kuthia scrambled for her feet, she tugged her hands away from Din. She could feel her flesh tear before the link gave way; springy white threads came away bloody. Din fell back, making a whining sound. But its kin advanced steadily.
She’d been so naïve…. so… trusting….. The hands of these creatures were starting to spill threads, they twisted there like thin worms. A few of them had their arms stretched out, a few others, behind them, were playing out the Sonil-tag dance, a little bit more urgency in them now. There was emotion written over all of their faces, but she didn’t think she could read it. The faces seemed gentle, but the reaching hands, the spinning threads…..
She’d thought she saw friendship…. but I’m not, I’m dinner, I’m something to put in the cellar to eat over winter. Din was rolling up to its knees again, holding its hands up, staring; big eyes wet and bright with gold. But Kuthia didn’t want to listen any more. She looked up at the cliff-face behind her – steep, and she’d fallen from it once, but there were handholds, she could see her way up….
They could probably climb better and faster than she could. Almost certainly they could. But Kuthia climbed for her life. She didn’t dare let herself think about falling, or her hands that were slippery with blood and blisters. She waited for threads to shoot up and grab her, tangle themselves around her body, and pull her back down. She waited to hear the sound of these things scrabbling up the cliff after her. But she heard only singing: a more lilting, delicate version of the same song. They were all singing it, and the vibration carried into her bones through her skin. There was magic in it, she could feel it running through her – a bright, bubbling torrent of energy. Her breath sparkled as she breathed it out.
Then she was at the top, crawling over the ledge, and lying, panting, staring at the lines of colour as they ran over her skin. She edged her head over the edge to see if any of them were coming. But they weren’t. They all crouched at the bottom of the cliff, singing to her, maybe calling her down. She could recognise Din from amongst them, fixing her with a stare that seemed rich in emotion but inscrutable.
Did I hurt it? He? She?
Kuthia crawled away. She could hear the song getting quieter behind her, fading to silence. She stopped to listen, but there was no more sound. She had a feeling that if she went back to the cave there would be no sign of the creatures she’d seen. I can’t have dreamt a thing like that. And when she felt her hands they were wet, and they felt as if they’d been burnt. She touched her bitten arm, the thread dressing was still there, clinging and tightening. Reluctantly she pulled it away – no longer sure if it was healing her or changing her.
When she reached the cave entrance again there was sunlight streaming through. It was the middle of the day, although she hadn’t known she’d been down there so long. Perhaps she’d been more stunned at first than she’d thought. She found the ashes of her fire, found them cold, grey-and-white. She sat beside them, examining her arm. It seemed as if the strange bandage had healed her – her arm showed little more than new scarring, although her palms were now grazed and blistered, red with congealing blood.
Kuthia had no more doubts. She was going home. She wasn’t sure if this was her courage failing her, some belated love for her family, or if it had just been what she would have done all along. But she would. She would take what punishment was due to her, but she’d be back at home in her father’s cottage, eating her mother’s fresh soup, listening to her songs when they sat at the fireside combing fleeces.
Mid afternoon, she guessed, late in the following day. There might be people out looking for her, angry for the time she’d wasted them. She wasn’t sure who she’d sooner run into – a neighbour, a stranger, or family.
It was family she saw first: her father was walking with one of her uncles and a white-haired man from two villages away. That one was known to the children as Snowhawk – said to be nearly a hundred, to have outlived four wives. But he walked as easily as a man of half his supposed age. Kuthia heard her father’s voice, calling out her name.
She broke into a run.
“Kuthia!” He was standing still, staring.
Kuthia ran to him. She was on the brink of throwing herself into his arms to be hugged, but she remembered that she’d run away, that she’d lost the goat, that she’d caused all these men to leave their fields and come out looking for her. She came to a sharp halt in front of him.
“Kuthia. Is it you?”
She nodded. She didn’t turn away – that would only make him madder – but she braced herself inwardly for the blows.
“Where has she been?” Her uncle was saying, looking Kuthia over, “Her hands… You tell me where you’ve been all this time, girl!”
Her father was saying, “She’s safe now. We’ll have to send someone out to tell the others. I’ll have to be feasting them for the next five days to make it right.”
“I’m sorry, Papa.”
To her shock he scooped her up in the hug she’d been sure wasn’t her due. “You’re never to go off like that again, you hear?”
“Where were you?” Her uncle persisted.
“In a cave, I sheltered the night.”
“The other three?”
“Don’t you know you were gone four nights?”
“I…. no…. I wasn’t…”
Snowhawk raised an eyebrow. “Is there magic about you?”
Afraid, she shook her head.
“You mightn’t even know it, child. Show me your hands.”
“Just burns and grazes.”
Her uncle burst in “How did you come by those?”
“Climbing. I made a fire. I….”
“You made your Mama cry, do you know?”
But her father only said, “We’d best get her home, make Nonnitin smile again.”
Kuthia wanted it all to be over with, “I let the wolf take the goat.”
“Yes, that we know. Is that why you ran?’
“It was a huge, wolf, Papa. It was huge… mean….” Sonil-tag. No ordinary wolf. And she might never know if the dance would work against it. In daylight the things she’d experienced beneath the ground seemed like milk-tales such as a mother told her baby when it was too young even to crawl.
Her father said nothing else about the wolf; just to her uncle: “We’ll be home before the sun sets full, Nonni might just welcome me under the blankets tonight.”
Her uncle grinned, he laughed and shared a half smile with Snowhawk.
Snowhawk winked at her, “Be sure and sleep sound tonight.”
By the fire, with a bowl of soup in her hands, she looked over her arms, there were bruises just starting to come up on them, and more on her legs. She’d have to explain that in time. But it wasn’t the homecoming she’d braced herself for, there were no recriminations, no beatings; just tears and embraces. Even her brothers were kind – they teased her about getting herself lost, but had nothing to say about the wolf, or the goat, or her tattered, blood-stained dress.
Eventually she dared to ask him, “Papa, why aren’t I being whipped for running off, and for the wolf taking the goat.”
He looked over her, a big man, bearded almost raven black, his hair only a little bit lighter. “Maybe I oughtta, but we’re all too glad to have you home ‘n living. If you run like that again, I’ll have you so bloody you can’t sit up.”
“I’m sorry. About the goat.”
“That’s what you ran for?”
“Uh-huh.” She steeled herself for a sudden slap.
“That wolf, that weren’t any ordinary wolf, my girl.”
“I know. It was so big… and hateful… I didn’t think anyone was going to believe me.”
“That’s Longorth’s kin you met that day. Have you heard the tale?”
She shook her head.
Her father leaned back against his chair. It creaked a little as his weight settled into it. Her mother looked at her, a warning with just her eyes to keep drinking the soup. Her father took a roundbread out of the fire, he screwed it up in his fist before eating it. “Longorth. He was a man, no different from me, or your brother, Hegget. He tended the fields in a land so far off I don’t think you ever heard of it. Gashsukkialand.”
She shook her head.
“Way west. A long way west. He kept flocks there, and fields. The grain grows golder and taller in them parts. He found a wolf, just like you did, coming after his flock. It was a she-wolf, and he fell in love with her. He could no more understand it than he could prevent it. He allowed her to take one of his prized rams. He killed a new lamb for her less than a moon later.
“The villagers whispered that he was mad. And they feared him for the way he dreamed of her night after night, the way he called her a name, in his sleep, pleading with her to return to him. There were many that wanted him cast out. Longorth, himself, thought of leaving – though he’d a young wife and younger children to care for. He never did, because his she-wolf: how would she find him?
“People said he was witched.
“Perhaps he was. One night he went into the forest – a real forest, not like what you’ve seen around here. Like my grandfather walked through when he was a boy. I told you he did, didn’t I?”
“Over and over,” her brother, Reddosh, chimed in, “so many times I could recite the trees back to you, and draw ’em all in the dirt.”
“Watch your mouth, or I’ll make you do just that. Now, Kuthia, you remember too?”
She nodded. She wasn’t going to give any cheek, not while her luck was holding so good.
“Longorth walked out into the forest, until he came to the Glade of Thorns. There he knelt, being scratched by the bushes, all night, while they tested him. As the sun rose, he took one such thorn and buried it in his flesh. He made a wish, that he might be turned into a wolf, and thus be able to be with his love.
“But the villagers had not been idle. It was that same night that they took to the woods, hunting down this she-wolf, thinking that she must be a beast-witch of some kind, that killing her would end her ensorcellment.”
“They killed her?”
“They did. And left her skin hanging before Longorth’s house. When he saw it he was filled with grief, he fell down on his knees sobbing. And when his sobbing turned into howling, he was transformed into a wolf. But there was no woman for him now, the wolf he’d loved as a man was dead. Longorth fled the village, into the wood, where he subdued the pack and made himself its master. In time he learned to love again, to mate with she-wolves and father a dynasty of cubs.
“So there.” He looked at Kuthia, who wasn’t sure she did understand, “through all these years Longorth’s kin never forgot the wrong that was done to them by men. They’re big, fierce, and when they encounter humankind they look to have their vengeance. That’s what you met out there on Pearl Blanket slopes. That’s why it came after you, even in the daylight. Longorth’s blood don’t forget. And that’s why you’d no need to run off.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Hah, well you know now. Keep drinking too, your Mama looks like she wants to have my eyes out distracting you like this.”
“Are they going to hunt him down?”
“Maybe. If he’s making a problem of himself.”
Or if he comes for me again. If he’s not Longorth’s kin at all but Sonil-tag. If she’d ever thought about telling her people what she’d found in the cave, the intention melted all the way away now. She was sure she couldn’t prove it, unsure what they’d think of her even if she did. Cast out like Longorth might have been? She told herself that one day she’d go back and find them again, more careful, older, bigger, wiser. But even thinking it now, she doubted the intention would live long – there’d always be herds to mind, ground to dig in, food to be found for winters ahead. A few more years and there’d be a boy for her to marry, children of her own after that. She knew that. She wasn’t a little child anymore.
But in the meantime, if Sonil-tag found her again, alone in the hills somewhere with the goats, she would dance for him, and she knew he would turn tail and run.