Tomorrow he was going to be a man.
Yet Dirffen felt almost as he had yesterday. Maybe the transformation would come with tomorrow’s dawn. Today’s sunset – his last as a boy – was nothing different to the one he’d watched last night, or the night before. But he paid closer attention – to everything – half-hoping, half-fearing that it would all look different when he woke up in the morning. Someone had told him once that he must sleep tonight, if he cheated the magic, if he stayed awake, the transformation would miss him, and he’d be a boy his whole life. He didn’t believe them, but he knew he’d try earnestly to sleep all the same, and he worried – in the back of his mind, the small, child part – that his excitement would keep him awake, and his transformation would never come.
The sky knew nothing about that. The sky was the same red and brown as it always was this time at dusk. Against it, the further hills were dark – bluish, ebony, traced with gold – and the stone plains were patchworked in red, rusts, duns and deep browns – white veins took on the sunset’s colours, almost blending into the surrounding rock. Against the north-east horizon the cities rose like mushroom caps – filmy, white, transparent – strange buildings sealed in fuzzy, inpenetrable domes. Warp magic. “Go nowhere near it. Never. It’ll seep into your soul and leave you dead inside.” Those had been his grandmother’s words.
But his father had given him a steel knife on this 14th birthday. “It’s stronger than stone, and sharper, harder” But lighter. His father believed the curse was in the warping of the world, not in having contact with things already warped. He said that by way of justification: but Dirffen’s grandmother had been dead two years by then, so he would never hear what her answer might have been.
The knife kept a very fine edge, and if he ever caught himself wondering how he might reproduce such an item, he quckly put the thought aside.
“Here they come.” Herel said behind him.
The wind-mites rose up into the skies about this time every night. More warp magic. They fascinated Dirffen – not beast or man or thing. They rose out of the cities, and out of positions in the hill or along the plains – willowy, glittering tendrils propelled them; an ethereal, circular wing embraced the flat, circular body of their evening form. They were a little too transparent to be properly white, not unlike the great domes, and there was a hazy, liquidy silver inside them, and silvery dust. They used the air currents to soar quickly, rising up out of their beds and into the brightness of the sky – lost there quickly, enveloped in the sunset as it reached its red apex. They would follow the currents down later, ending up in far flung places, changed, still changing.
Dirffen tried to track one with his eyes, but he lost sight of it as he always did – it flew too high to follow.
Kion sat on his other side, he put his palm down against the ground. “He’s waking up.”
Dirffen pressed his own palm down – Kofen, the great worm, stirred beneath the ground. In the hills were the first lights of the tingalae, and the air carried the first howl of black wolves. It made Dirffen aware all at once of his unprotected back. A row of sleeping figures, still only boys, a world that went on hunting, around them, while they slept.
Darkness came quickly after redness – the air was a brief, muddy brown, then the sky blackened, stars blazed, so that the sky was bright, but the world – too far, far beneath them – gathered darkness over it like a blanket.
After that the boys tried to sleep, sharing only the briefest current of whispers beforehand; none wanted to risk being unable to sleep, to lie awake all night and find themselves cursed to a life of eternal boyhood.
Dirffen wakened to a red morning. He opened his eyes as soon as the light touched them, and glanced around at his companions; there were still seven others, the night had kept them all safe. He stood up, shaking his arms, drinking a few sips of water from his flask; he rubbed his skin with titin oil, and smoothed more into his hair.
Over that time the red morning became a gold one.
He’d been told once that he was good looking. He’d not been quite eleven yet and hardly cared for such things. It was his father’s sister who’d told him so, who’d prophecied that girls in villages from one horizon to another would be begging their fathers to seek him out for them in marriage. When he’d told her he didn’t care much about marriage, she’d only smiled that smile, kissed his forehead and stroked his hair, telling him that he’d understand it all in good time.
His forehead, now, was high and clear, his hair was a warm red, infused with colours of bark. His eyes he knew to be dark, almost black, to supposedly leap from his head. He was older now, and knew that girls did turn his way. One, Ogliota, did more than turn: he’d seen her staring, seen her watching him from the cookfires, distracted from grinding roots or grain by his presence. He couldn’t pin down his own feelings: she was blond, wide in her face, and freckled; her long, speckled arms, her bare shoulders, drew his eyes in, but he didn’t think it was any more than that. Any anyway, Kion was all moon-eyes over that one.
Kion was of an age with him bar two days. The two of them born so close together they’d been given to the tribe on the same winter night. It was no wonder they had always been close. As close as brothers – since neither one had a brother of his own blood.
Kion clapped a hand on his shoulder, “Are you a man now?”
“So am I.”
But it didn’t feel as manifestly different as it should have. The transformation was supposed to take place in the soul, it wasn’t supposed to leave any special mark on the body – that transformation happened more slowly, and for most of the boys was already more than half complete. But Dirffen had been sure there’d be something, some way of telling himself apart from what he’d been just last night. I feel almost the same. But he didn’t think he should say that out loud, not even to Kion.
Below them, the music was starting.
The village came to view its new men, to send them off. Their procession was lead by the children – some of them less than a year younger than Dirffen, some bigger in their bodies, their faces already hairy. Those ones came behind the others, as if trying to associate themselves with the men – men-in-waiting rather than children. The smaller children rang bells – they didn’t keep their line, scampering instead all over the place, scrambling over things, jumping up and down on rocks. The men came behind them, beating on their own flesh with their palms. Behind them the women were clapping and singing, they wore long coloured threads in their hair and their faces were painted with ash and berry juices – it made some of them look quite alien; others strangely beautiful; some both.
They were there to see the village’s new men, and the boys made sure to put on a show. They wore their chests bare, painted with old symbols; and thorned vines coiled around their necks. Blocks of colour on the chest and stomach marked their ancestry, while symbols drawn in black showed their hopes and their family’s. Dirffen saw his mother amongst the women, and his twin sisters. They weren’t quite old enough to be scanning the assembled new men for future husbands, but they seemed to be singing with all their strength, clapping wildly: surely for their only brother. And his mother’s eyes seemed to shine for him.
His father: many years dead. But he lived in his widow’s heart, and she’d brought him down here with her, his memory still warm and encased in her flesh. Through her eyes he was watching Dirffen, knowing that his son had lived to manhood, against so many chances, that his memory would be carried in the blood of future generations.
It gave Dirffen a moment of doubt. If he didn’t live to breed, what became of his father’s memory, whose blood would he live on in? It was dangerous, what he had planned for today. And for himself, with no wife to nurture his memory, no son to carry it on in his blood, he risked fading all out of time.
But there was Kion, posing beside him; and Herel just nearby. His father was glittering in his mother’s hazel eyes. Whatever else came: he could not let them down, he had to make them all proud.
A swell of blue-feathered birds took off from a cliff-face. The sky shared their colour now, so that their high flight was quickly absorbed by it. Dirffen knelt on the ground to watch them fly past. The echo of his sendoff still filled his ears. He’d felt like some famed warrior of old, returning from a great quest, felt the equal of men he’d yesterday obeyed. He may have shared the centre of attention with seven other boys – no, men now – but it had still been his. Big, muscle-bound men, twice his age, had stepped aside for him as he’d set out.
They had until the next dawn to return with proof of themselves.
We’ll do that, and more. Dirffen scanned the ridgeline for a glimpse of either friend. He was confident that they’d meet him as planned, but all the same it would have been good to see at least one of them heading up there.
It was traditional that each new man should take his trial alone, but there was nothing that forbid, as such, two or more of them working together. That was the plan he’d hatched with Herel and Kion. They would walk away, each in their own direction, just as the other boys did. Then, when hillside shrubbery and thick trees had them hidden, they would meet at Claw Rock, and head off together, towards the Great Fall. Dirffen didn’t think that anyone would care that they shared a prize amongst three, not once the villagers saw what the prize was.
There was danger in it enough for the proving of three men.
Claw Rock had been named long before Dirffen was born, but he had no doubt at all that it was named for an eagle’s claw. The white and grey stone looked for all the world as if a giant eagle’s foot had been severed and fallen to ground, petrified into glassy stone, with its claws curled, trying to grasp some unknown prey. Moss, ferns, flowers had all grown around it, a small tree’s roots had slid in around the stone, and now held it in a steady embrace. But for all that, its origins still seemed to blaze out over the hillside. A landmark nobody could miss.
Herel had arrived there first. He was the least certain amongst them that this was a good idea. It had taken Dirffen and Kion two or three days of persuasion before they’d convinced him to join them. He stood by the rock now, his mouth pressed into a worried frown.
Dirffen said, “Don’t. We can do it. Us three.”
“Is there even a plan?”
Well, no-one had ever done this exactly before…… “We just have to lure it into a trap.”
“Who says it’ll come?”
“I do. Kion does. You do.”
“I don’t know…”
“When was the last time a man returned new to the village with a wind-mite?”
“Never. Their eyes will fall out of their heads.”
“Or never. Because you can’t take one. Who says it’ll follow?”
Who says it’ll follow? Dirffen didn’t know much – how a wind-mite was warped into being, what origin it was warped from. He knew that it would chase a human, but he wasn’t sure he understood exactly when. He didn’t tell it to Herel – he hadn’t to Kion – but he’d tested this hunch.
Windmites normally left men alone – they went along with whatever tasks had been enspelled into them – building, mending, patrolling, gathering for the strange Nay-faerr people – coming and going from the cities at dawn and dusk.
But there were times when they didn’t, when the windmites attacked men. And when they did, they were lethally unstoppable. The hunted man was a dead man, everybody knew that. Windmites didn’t get tired, they didn’t get frightened off, they had steel skin.
He’d seen this.
Five years old, in the company of his best friend. Three families had been at the river when the mites came. Their daylight colours were like bright tailfeathers. The girl had been hardly any older than he was – clapping her hands at the pretty colours; her mouth had been a mixture of teeth and gaps, her eyes had been blue. As the mite transformed, unsheathing its claws, the families had tried to run. The mite set its sunlight eyes on the girl, it flew her down, blasting its warped firelight out of them, burning her dead, burning her all the way through from her back to her tiny chest. His best friend’s sister.
It had touched no-one else. Transformed again. Rode a current back into the blue.
Nobody knew why mites attacked. But Dirffen was determined to provoke one today.
His best friend of then had only lived to be ten years old. He had still cried for his sister, from her death until his. Tyvon had been his name. His sister had been Alibet. Dirffen was old enough to know that not all children lived to be full grown – mothers expected to lose nearly half. What lingered in his mind was seeing how his friend had changed, how a bright, fearless boy had become a little shadow. Death had seemed to stalk him from that day on – its face had been Tyvon’s face. I was afraid of you by the end – that wasn’t a thing he could easily forget.
“It’ll follow because we’ll make it,” Kion had come from the east, had jumped up on top the rock, and was crouching there, grinning, “if it doesn’t, we’ll beat it into the ground, right there, and we won’t even need the trap.”
“And if it flies away?”
“Or if the sun don’t come up tomorrow?”
“I said I was in,” Herel mumbled, looking at the ground, “I won’t back out. I won’t run.”
Dirffen cackled, “We’ll all run, it’s part of the plan.”
They encountered the Nay-faerr when the first sun was near to full height. Kion saw them first, and gestured to the others to stop. Crouching against the trees they moved closer.
The cities were linked by a network of wet, glassy roads – their crisscrossing, ever-straight lines shone like molten silver when the sky was this fierce. Sometimes the tribespeople would see them travelling along the roads – gliding, in their unlikely, oddly shaped carts.
This cart wasn’t gliding. It lay straddling the road, tipped on one side, while its occupants stood around it in a semi-circle. The sun caught its polished side, every now and again, winking almost as if it were using the sun’s rays to send a message.
Kion said, “We should go help them.”
Herel stared, “We should, why?”
“You don’t leave a man stranded in the wild, that’s why. Next time it could be you that’s helpless.”
That was old lore. But Dirffen thought: they’re not helpless. Far from helpless. The Nay-faerr could fly through the air on their warp-work, they had magic that created fireballs, that knitted broken bones or closed gaping wounds with a touch. Rumour told taller tales – there was nothing helpless about them.
Kion insisted, “we should make sure they’re all right.” And he didn’t give them time to argue, he was already threading his way at a run down the hill, through the trees, towards those strange people.
Liar. You just want a closer look at them. But what were he and Herel going to do except follow? They couldn’t let him go out there alone.
The Nay-faerr looked up at the sound of them approaching. They were people of the cities, there was no mistaking them. Although the two peoples had an origin in common, time had set them apart. The Nay-faerr had skin that was pale, shaded with grey; their eyes were narrow, as pale as their skin, although sometimes lightly blue, lightly green, faint gold. Their cheekbones sat higher than an ordinary man’s, making their faces seem taller than than they needed to be. Fine, bleached hair was cut close against their heads.
“Peace! Peace!” Kion called, waving his arms. It was said that Nay-faerr spoke the true language, almost.
“Peace!” Dirffen joined in, waving his arms, palms open, to show they held no blades.
The Nay-faerr exhanged glances. Dirffen saw them leaning to speak amongst themselves. There were five of them, three men, two women, all dressed in the stark, hard-edged clothing of their people. After a few seconds of hesitation, two of the men broke away and came forward.
“Peace!” Dirffen called to them.
There was uncertainly amongst the Nay-faerr. They glanced at each other as they approached. They carried no weapons, but Dirffen reminded himself not to be complacent – it was well-known after all that the Nay-faerr had weapons grafted against their bones. Tall tales told about threads of steel, or of other, even more exotic metals, of these things being braided with lighting or fire, boiled down into some bizarre kind of liquid and infused into the bones. Dirffen wondered how these people – who seemed delicate this close up – would have survived such an ordeal.
“Tollean.” It was what the Nay-faerr called his people.
Dirffen held his hands high, “We are. I’m Dirffen, this is Kion, this is Herel,” it was important to know names, “we saw the cart overturned.”
Perhaps names didn’t hold the same value for these folk, they didn’t choose to share any. The tallest and oldest of them said, “We’re all right.”
Kion persisted, “We can help you turn it upright again.” None of the Nay-faerr seemed to have thought to do that themselves.
The man shook his head, “There’s no need, it’s being done.”
Dirffen hoped his face didn’t look as blank as Kion and Herel’s, but he suspected it must.
The Nay-faerr smiled suddenly, “Come and see.”
Something moved inside the smashed cart. A wind mite shuffled out of the dark. Not the kind Dirffen was used to – this one was spherical, spiked all over, beautifully shaped out of warp-steel, with coloured tail-feathers running along its back. Bright spots of colour flared in its armour. It’s cry was sudden and melodious.
Are you a pet? It seemed to respond to the man who reached and touched it. And now it was rolling in a circle in the air, spidery legs sprouting out of its body as it did so, a filmy wing opening up as it floated over the wreck. Knives sprang out. It landed softly on the metal shell, beginning to move slowly over it.
“What’s it doing?” Herel whispered.
Dirffen just shook his head.
The man said, “it’s repairing the transport,” his face had on a mask of pride.
Do they know their love of warp magic is eroding away their souls?
One of the others bent closer and whispered something to the Nay-faerr man.
“I’m Olaph,” the tall one said, “these are Dev, Brinton, Tish and Sollis.”
Dirffen noticed then that one of the women, the one who’d been introduced as Tish, had a broken arm. She stood cradling it against her chest, with hints of pain flickering over her face. Dirffen didn’t mean to stare, but he could see something moving on her arm – like a jar of rough, red sand being spilled from her flesh. He whispered, “Is she all right?”
Olaph said, “Sure, it’s a clean break.” He delivered Tish a quick smile, “She’ll be fine.”
The woman beside Tish stepped forward, “He means the ants.”
The woman, the one called Sollis, took another stop towards him. Dirffen turned to look at her. It turned out, up so close, that she was quite beautiful. Not in the way he would have found a woman of his own people attractive, she was too strange for that, but there was something about her, something startling, captivating. Her face was delicate, very pale except for her lips, silver freckles looked as if a mist had settled, her eyes were green, a stronger green than the injured woman’s, and her hair was a white blond, cut short all around her head. She had the jutting, high cheekbones of her kind. On a girl in his own tribe the features might have added up to a deformity, but here, on her – he was dazzled.
And he’d stared. A red blush flared in his cheeks, he quickly looked away.
The woman said “You’re…. Dirffen?”
He risked looking up, “I like it. It’s a Nay-faerr name?” Of course it is, of course it is, what other kind of name would she have? She thinks you’re a simpleton.
“Is that what you call us, Nay-faerr?”
“My people are known as the Sorithi. I’m a Sorithian. Dev’s” and she gestured at one of the men, “he’s a Keok.”
“I thought… you were all….”
“We all come from Tranium 5. If you want to call us by that.”
“It’s the city nearest the crater.”
“Is Tranium 4 beside it?
She smiled softly, “That’s the one.” Sollis beckoned the other woman forward. She was shorter, a little bit darker, both strange and attractive, exotic: but she didn’t stir something in his blood the way Sollis had.
A spell? But he couldn’t find it in him to be wary.
Sollis said, “The ants. They’re just machines.” she searched her vocabulary, “something we make. They sink into her bones and regrow them, straighten them out. It takes just a few hours.”
The ants only looked like ants at a distance – up close they seemed more like tiny red crystals, seeming to move in opposition to each other, as each one pushed the other away from it, into another, which pushed back, and then another. But in the process of that dance it did seem as if they woman’s arm was straightening, what had been a gash on her arm – maybe where they bone had come through – was a red, puckered scar, fading and flattening.
The windmite was working as well. Dirffen watched it – and he watched Kion and Herel watching it too. He thought he could read their minds. The creature worked methodically, moving up and down the cart, hammering dents out with almost silent beams of focussed light. It’s knives moved around against its skin, its feathers narrowing and spreading as it went from one section to another. It would take off a couple of yards into the air, run a thin beam of light over the cart, and then drop lightly back down to its surface.
Of course, they were thinking: what if we could bring this one back home to the village?
Think again. They’ll kill us. We wouldn’t reach cover. Whatever the windmite was to these people, it was theirs, and he doubted they’d let it be taken. He did wonder, though, if they’d be able to give him any advice. He thought about asking – about asking Sollis – but he held back: maybe their quest would seem like thievery to people such as these.
Sollis was asking, “Do you want something, to eat?”
Dirffen shook his head.
“It’s all right. It’s safe.”
He’d heard that even their food was warped. If he ate it the magic could reach into his soul, it would leave him dead inside, ruined. And yet…. he was sure there was no sign of ruin in Sollis – a corrupted soul couldn’t look so…. perfect, and as far as he could tell she was kind. The food hadn’t taken that out of her….
“Go on.” She held a loaf out to him – it was crisp around the edges, a whitish colour, flecked with something a little like gold dust. She broke a chunk off herself and ate it before she offered the other half to him.
Be rude not to……
It tasted like meat, and had a stringy texture, at the same time it was a little bit sweet, and slightly spicy. Sollis offered him a steel flask. The liquid inside it was white and thick, tinged a pale blue: it eploded in his mouth as he drank it – tingly, making the surface of his tongue tighten and fizz. It was startling at first, but then warm and sweet.
“See, we’re not monsters.”
Then why did your creatures kill my friend, little Alibet? Why did they kill a child? What about all the times you’ve attacked our villages, and melted them into the ground? But in the old times, hadn’t his ancestors killed the Nay-faerr ambassadors when they’d come to the villages thinking to trade or share their magic? Hadn’t they killed and burned them, and fed their bones to the wolves? I wasn’t there when that happened. Sollis wasn’t there that day on the riverbank.
He asked her – because he wanted to keep talking, because he wanted to hear her talk back: “Where do the wind-mites come from?”
“Wind-mites?” Sollis pursed her lips in confusion, then: “Is that what you call the drones?”
Dirffen gestured at the crawling wind-mite, the rebuilder.
“Wind-mite. I didn’t know that.” She was looking towards some of the others.
“We build them.”
Dev said, “Yes. That’s what you call it. Anything more advanced than a stone knife and that’s what you’d call it.” He was the one who seemed to like the three of them least. He kept the greatest distance, and the looks he gave them were of powerful distrust.
Sollis said, “Yes. That’s it. They’re crafted out of hot metal,” she seemed to be choosing her words thoughtfully, “wires, hold them together. Warp magic tells them what to do.”
Even kill us.
She looked at him deeply, “we’re not a bad people, but… we don’t always make the right choices. I guess…. The drones – the mites – they’re like tools – a knife or an axe, only cleverer, they build things, repair things, guard us… keep us safe.”
Tish spoke softly, “they keep him safe too.”
Dirffen wanted to ask her what she meant, but his attention was caught by a movement within the cart. Before his eyes he saw the thing tilt, incrementally righting itself until its elongated wheels were embedded firmly in the road. The road: viscous, shimmering – Dirffen had no idea what it was made of, or how it interacted with the cart to let it fly across the ground – outdistancing even birds.
“It’s fixed?” He was disappointed. The Nay-faerr would go on their way. And we should be on ours. We’ve got things to do. But he didn’t want the moment to hurry.
Sollis told him, “it has to do checks…. the drone. It’ll know soon.”
He didn’t know why he did it, but he reached over his back, pulled an arrow out, and broke off the head. He pressed it into Sollis’s palm.
“So you’ll remember me.”
“I’ll remember you.”
“With this you will. When you see it. If you keep it.”
The windmite was changing shape again, lights flashed on its skin.
Sollis explained, “It’s ready. We have to go.” She was younger than he’d first thought, younger than the other Nay-faerr, maybe only a few years older than he was. Her flowing, air-light voice, her strange features, disguised it.
“I’ll think about you.” He hadn’t even meant to say that.
“The same. But we can’t stay…” the others were already getting into the cart, Tish was touching her arm, sympathetically.
“Walk under only blue skies.”
She smiled again – a small, heart-melting smile, “I don’t know that one.”
“Keep safe from the butak when you sleep at night.” He’d made that up, he did it just to see that delicate smile – it did things to her face, even to her eyes – eyes, a face, like he’d never seen before.
And they were barely out of earshot before Kion was nudging him roughly, “I saw the way you were looking at her.”
“At that woman. Sollis.”
Kion made a face that supposedly demonstrated.
“I couldn’t look at someone like that if I tried. My face isn’t ugly enough.”
Herel grinned, “That’s a nerve you struck, Kion, it must be true.”
The other two grinned. “Dirffen’s in love.” Kion sang as they marched along.
“I am not!”
“I was there. I saw those eyes. I know it. Dirffen’s in love.” And he ducked in anticipation of the swipe from Dirffen’s fist.
You could hear the Great Fall some time before you could see it. Its roar was a steady thing, and you could taste the mist in the air, feel it on your skin. The trees and bushes changed as you approached
It was nestled in amongst the Tanglefoots – hills that faced east and were laced with coiled, knotting vines, and with narrow, smooth cliff-faces bursting out of the bushes. A river named Henecarna aggressed its way through them; at its steepest, longest drop was the Fall. It was a powerhouse of water pressure, smooth, white, thunderous. It hurt to put your hand under it, and was death to swim over.
Dirffen scanned the sky as they got nearer, he’d already seen one wind-mite buzzing around up there, and he knew he’d see more when they got to the Fall. They only needed one; in fact, one was probably better – three boys against one mite would leave the odds against them.
“So, the plan again?” Herel said.
Dirffen looked around at the surrounding forest, “Right here. We’ll set the trap here.”
“She was pretty.” Kion said.
“Who?” As if he hadn’t been thinking about her for the last two hours.
“The Nay-faerr girl. In a weird kind of way. They’re not exactly human are they?”
“They used to be.”
The Great Fall stood in front of them like a vast monument of distant centuries, at first sight it seemed still, frozen in place, then in the second glance its tonnes of moving water could be seen against the surrounding rock. A halo of mist clung to the deep pool where it fell, and below that the water churned, thick-white, bubbling like a pot of milk soup. The ground shuddered a litte under the soles of Dirffen’s feet.
Halfway up was the Nay-faerr warp-work. Dirffen had no idea what it did – a red and grey box set into the middle of the water, with filigree wheels descending from it on cables. The water smashed through the wheels, spinning them endlessly, but never breaking them. The warping that made them had left them stronger than anything he knew of – stronger by far than his knife.
There were two mites working on the box. Dirffen thought it was their task to keep it spinning, keep it doing whatever was its magic to do. One of them was in its winged form, hovering over some of the lower wheels, the other had grown its spindly, bright legs, and was crawling along the box.
Herel said “How do you suppose they even got that up there?”
Kion said, “Maybe the mites did it.”
They were enspelled to defend themselves. Dirffen’s people had learned that the hard way. And in the last couple of moon-turns Dirffen had been studying them. He knew that he could get their attention briefly – dangerously – had taken a burn or bruise proving it. He thought he could provoke a sustained attack – but a live experiment might have been fatal. He’d watched them preening – grooming each other, healing, comforting, repairing each other – he’d seen them at their work. Not man or beast or thing.
Just have to do it.
Dirffen picked up two rocks, hurled one, waited. The mite sprang to attention. Its wings creased and shrieked, changing shape, its knives sprang out all over its body. Dirffen threw the next stone. It struck the mite a glancing blow against its left wing, not enough to damage it, but he was sure he had its attention.
“Now, right?” Herel was poised like a bird ready to take off from a clifftop.
Herel and Kion flung their rocks. They aimed at the flying one – it would have been madness to provoke two at once. They were doing no more than scratching it, but the wind-mite recognised an attack. All three of them turned and ran.
The mite’s chase lasted only a few yards, before it twirled around, sheathing its knives to return to its work.
Dirffen sprang from the cover of thistles and bracken, he had two more stones, and he fired them in quick succession. We’re not going anywhere. Was the magic clever enough to understand that?
The mite revolved in the air, knives shooting out, eyes on its shiny surface started to glow.
“Down….” Dirffen started to warn, at the same time that its lightning jets blasted towards them. It shot two of them at once, one at Dirffen, one at Herel. Dirffen felt the heat from it flare along his shoulder, almost scorching him, even though he’d been ready. He heard a cry that he thought came from Herel.
Kion shouted – sounds more than words – standing just long enough to throw the next pair of stones.
Herel’s breath was harsh, somewhere in the undergrowth nearby. Dirffen called to him in a half whisper, “Are you hurt?”
Lightning bursts fired again. They struck close to Kion who dodged behind a tree. Dirffen took the moment to stand and throw more stones.
We’re not going away.
The mite swivelled, it turned its eyes on him. The lightning seemed to take a few moments to charge, the eyes began a faint, whitish glow, which warmed and bloomed into a fierce, fire-ish light. Two streaks of lightning sprang. Dirffen twisted and threw himself into cover. He felt the heat from one blast against the side of his shoulder – close, not connecting – felt the other one strike against his leg.
There was nothing but pain. There was nothing except his leg expoding into white hot flames, burning away in seconds into less than ash, while the heat rushed up over his whole body, burning the life out of it. He was screaming inside, but his mouth couldn’t move, nothing could.
He landed hard, sucked in a breath of thick, cold, cutting-sharp air. For half a second his chest was weighted with stone.
His leg was still there. It was the centre of a world of bright pain. He could see a red cluster of blisters where the wind-mite had injured him. Dirffen rolled to one side only with difficulty, “I’m all right.” But he had to be able to move.
Herel was starting to say “I don’t know….”
But it was too late for that anyway. The windmite had decided to do battle. It was all knives as it advanced on them. It’s lightning bolts blasted away the flimsy forest-floor cover.
Could he ever stand, much less run? But he had to. Men of the stone plains were trained to push pain down into the darker parts of their minds. He’d seen his father, so long ago, chasing down a deer with his leg twice broken, grunting, but not letting himself slow. Dirffen felt his first step buckle underneath him, fire-pain surged through him, but his good leg touched the ground before the other could give out. He ran for his life.
Lightning flashed past him. Four strides ahead it caught the edge of Herel’s shoulder. His friend yelped in pain, but he didn’t falter.
Faster than a bird flies.
Faster than a stone falls?
The cliff’s edge was only yards away – the longest, hardest, he’d ever run. Dirffen’s hand found the loop of rope more or less of its own accord. He screamed as he jumped. Kion, Herel screamed beside him. The mite flew after them, all whirring knives, and brightening lights. Falling, looking up at the sky, Dirffen watched the net closing around it.
“Yes!” Kion whooped, the only one of them not hurt.
The river hit hard. It struck Dirffen’s leg as if breaking it; burnt flesh gave away against a strong current.
Can you swim? He watched the mite dragged under the net into the water.
If the eyes could shoot underwater…..? There was no reason to know if they could or couldn’t. Maybe the water would drown it, maybe it wouldn’t. Dirffen was fairly sure he couldn’t chance finding out. He was the only one upriver from it, and he swam with the current. As he swam he saw the knives whirling, getting a grip on the net, ready to cut it. The eyes had dulled to almost nothing as the mite had struck the water, but they were beginning to build up their strength again.
“Hurry!” Kion yelled at him.
Dirffen’s hand clamped on the mite, it was sharp in too many places to avoid cutting himself. And he didn’t even know if this would work: the small hole in the mite’s skin was the size of Dirffen’s finger – he jabbed his finger into it, held his breath, turned. A flap of metal skin slid to the side, revealing innards of coloured wires, tiny lights, sheets of green metal. Dirffen took a fistful of wire and yanked.
The mite whirred. The lights in its belly died. The eyes faded into the dull metal of its skin. All its knives froze.
Dead. Dead or dormant.
“We’ve done it.” Kion sounded stunned.
Herel, beside him, looked white.
“You weren’t scared?” Kion teased.
“Can we get to the shore, can we get this thing out of the river?”
Herel was hurt more badly than Dirffen had realised. The first shot had struck him along the back of his thigh, the second had burned into his shoulder and upper arm. He looked now as if he could hardly move either, and the burns seemed deep. Kion, uninjured, found wormroot for both of their injuries. Dirffen sat winding it around his leg, packing it with mud, wincing as he pressed it into place.
Kion helped Herel, who was lying pale on the riverbank, eyes wide. Dirffen imagined his pain was worse again than his own, but he’d run just as hard as he had. His friend wasn’t soft.
“Stay with us.” Kion bunched moss and leaves under Herel’s head.
“I won’t die. Have you forgotten I’m a man now?”
By firelight they kept a close watch on the mite. It seemed to be dead, or at least drained of its magic. But the warp was something beyond any of their understanding. Perhaps it could come to life again, maybe it had called to its friends for help. A pair of silverfish roasted over the flames. The smell of them was making Dirffen’s mouth water, but the dusk was bringing out the black wolves, their howling kept his hand close to his knife. Up in the hills, lean, red bears would be slinking out of their caves. In the earth Kofen was rolling over.
A couple more new men were drawn to their fire, and their food.
“There’s plenty.” Kion offered.
“That’s a wind mite? You catch that?”
“Us three.” Dirffen felt he had to explain.
The oldest newcomer, Fendel, lay a bear’s head down by the fire. “There’s none of us can beat that at dawn.”
They walked by night, Dirffen with a limp, Herel with Kion’s help.
“But wasn’t it worth it?” Kion insisted.
“We’ll be heroes.” At least for the morning.
“And then?” Kion asked. Each new man needed to know where he was going, he should be able to tell the people of his village what direction his life would take, what quest or amibition was going to shape his life. A man should travel, or he should build something. How else could he grow?
Herel said, “I think I’m going to head into the snowlands. Maybe bring back a wife.”
Kion said, “There, they let you have two.”
“But I want to come home. I don’t want to have to choose between them.” He looked over at Dirffen.
It had been circulating around in his head while he walked, “I’m going to Tranium 5. I’m going to find Sollis again.”
“Are you mad?”
“Don’t say in love.”
“No. Just. Just something about her. I just know.”
“The Nay-faerr are as likely to kill you as not.”
“But I have to.”
Kion seemed to understand. “Come back. That’s all.”
They timed their journey so that they’d arrive near dawn. That way they wouldn’t have to wait too long. Dirffen could see the villagers gathered at the high point. It was just like he’d imagined it would be, with painted banners hoisted to recognise all the families, with trails of flowers strung between them, and small fires kept going to await their return. Behind the fire, cloaked away in the comparative darkness, there were the figures of his people; men, women and children all sitting with bowed heads, with their faces painted, waiting for sons and brothers to come home.
When the sky turned red, the music started up. It began with the children ringing bells, and then with the men beating sticks agains the ground. The women joined in with their singing and clapping. One by one, he and his friends, came out from the treeline, each of them carrying whatever they’d claimed from the world: a bear’s head; a glittering kist-stone; a spined serpent from below the river. He, Kion, Herel walked with the windmite held between them. The music faltered a little bit as the villagers saw what they had – what if it burst into life and started tossing lightning around? Dirffen hadn’t thought of that until now. But then the music picked up even stronger, the singing peppered with cheering, the sticks beating harder, faster on the ground. It was a noisy swell of approval, acceptance: Dirffen felt his cheeks redden knowing it was for him. Just as he’d always imagined.
So he knew, as well, wherever his life took him – maybe to Sollis, maybe to a life with her – that it’d take him home again too.