The Stone Heart's Lament

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I'm not eating that

“I don’t know what that is but I’m certain I don’t want to eat it.” Rashari said keeping well away from Madame Chimera and the...thing she carried slung over her shoulder. “What in the name of all the Seraphim is it? I’ve never seen a pig with antlers before or...foot long spines for that matter.”

They’d been walking in a roughly westerly direction for what seemed like hours, although it was difficult to tell out here. Sunlight and shadow didn’t seem to fall in the usual patterns and despite the hours they must have walked and the miles they must surely have travelled by now the sun still rode high and proud over head. The sun’s rays, pleasant and welcome before, had intensified throughout the trek and now Rashari was in the unenviable position of being both damp and too hot all at once. His clothes were not really any dryer now than when they started out. He felt like someone had wrapped him in steaming hot towelling so tight he couldn’t breathe. The terrain didn’t help. The flower meadow had eventually faded into a completely flat sun-dried plain of short, stubbly yellow grass and bold reddish coloured earth interspersed with squat bushes with dark green leaves clumped together in bushels. The plain was very like the one the glider had come down in, and Rashari had eyed their surroundings suspiciously at first, half convinced they’d ended up going in a circle and would stumble onto the wreckage at any moment. A ridge of purple shaded hills rose in the distance and it was toward those hills they now marched. The hills were something of a rarity, according to Madame Chimera, in that they were a fixed part of the landscape and therefore could be used to navigate by. Apparently a number of ogdegre tribes used the steppe-land beyond as hunting grounds. She was confident that they would be able to find a hunting party before long, and either barter for the things they needed with the hunters directly or beg an escort back to the nearest encampment.

“The ogdegre are a people with strict rules of courtesy to travellers,” She had told him when he’d asked how she could be so sure the ogdegre would help them when they had nothing to offer in return. “Their honour dictates that they give aid to those who need it, not merely those who can afford it. Ogdegre have little interest in material wealth. They will trade for goods in kind, or money should it be offered, but this is more a concession to other cultures than a point of necessity on their part.”

Rashari had said nothing in response to this, primarily because he doubted Madame Chimera would like what he had to say. The little she had said of the ogdegre indicated that she held them in high regard as a people, and Rashari was not so much a fool as to have failed to realise that Madame Chimera’s respect was a commodity as valuable as it was hard to obtain. All the same he couldn’t help but think that the ogdegre spirit of charity was hardly conducive to living among humans. No wonder most of the ogdegre who left the Steppes ended up working as bodyguards or low-rent thugs for the lowest bidder (there were a large number of ogdegre working for the different raider sects, perhaps unsurprisingly). He supposed the ogdegres reputation for brutishness and violence in the human world might well be a reaction to the exploitation they received. Gods only knew how easy it must be to fleece the poor buggers for everything they had if they were essentially honour bound to give it away anyway.

“It is called a Yammik’a’lim.” Madame Chimera said in answer to the question he’d completely forgotten asking. She held the bizarre creature up by its long rodent-like tail. “And you will eat it because if you do not you will die.”

“There are fates worse than death, y’know.” He said, eyeing the Yammi-whatchamacallit with extreme prejudice. The creature was about a foot long and while its head looked vaguely porcine its body had a reticulated platelet shell and four legs that looked more rodent-like than pig. It also had wide, fan-like antlers rising from the top of its head. All in all it was one of the most ridiculous looking creatures he’d ever seen. And it certainly didn’t look the least bit appetising.

“One such fate may well await you should we fail to get an antidote in time.” Madame Chimera pointed out in somewhat tart tones. “Yammik’a’lim are plentiful in the Steppes and provide an excellent meal. Armour and weaponry can also be fashioned from the hide, antlers and spines.”

“Marvellous,” Rashari couldn’t stop the sneer that curled his lip. “Not only do you want me to eat that thing now you want me to wear its flesh too? Forgive me, Madame, but I think I’d prefer petals to spines, if it’s all the same to you.”

I would like spines, Smith, who had spent the entirety of the journey riding on either Rashari or Madame Chimera’s shoulder (the novelty of having legs to walk with had clearly lost its lustre) piped up uninvited at that moment. Rashari, descending swiftly into the foulest of foul moods, swatted Smith off his shoulder out of sheer spite.

Ow! Smith hit the ground on his back, eight sharp legs kicking uselessly at the air. A wave of affronted dignity and aggrieved pride washed through Rashari’s thoughts.

“Grow up. It’s not like you felt that. You’re a robot. You don’t have any pain receptors.” He knew that wasn’t completely true. Smith could feel pain, but not physically. Smith’s ability to feel and his concept of pain was based on what he had learned from Rashari. Smith was therefore able to imagine pain to such a degree that he could replicate the sensation without actually having soft tissue or bones to damage. This had nothing to do with Smith being an automaton, or a synthetic consciousness, but it did have everything to do with the fact that Smith, or at least part of him, used to be a Seraph. The Seraphim were perfectly capable of feeling pain, despite the fact that they were spirits without their own physical forms.

Madame Chimera dropped the Yammi-whatsit’s corpse on the ground almost on top of Smith, who flipped over onto his legs rather sharpish and scuttled away. Smith was no more impressed with the Yammi-kakki-whatever than was Rashari.

“Sulking does not become you.” She told him, her tone hinting at strained patience.

“Of course it does. I’ve been told I have an excellent pout. I have the mouth for it, see?”

Madame Chimera skewered him with a look harsh enough to peel varnish from wood. “Do you know how to start a campfire?” She asked him her tone intimating strongly that no further attempts at sardonic humour would be appreciated – or advisable for his continued wellbeing.

Dropping down onto the ground a good half foot from the Yammi carcass Rashari shook his head. “Arson has never been a hobby of mine.” He started to work a small stone loose from out of the tread of his boot. Like a chastened child he did not look up at her. He heard her sigh all the same.

“Wait here. Don’t move. I will not be long.” She started to rise to her feet.

Rashari looked up. “Where are you going?”

“Food is only part of what we need to continue. I do not know if I can find water, but I saw some Nasri stems a short way away. The nectar of the Nasri blooms will slake our thirst for the time being.” She frowned at him, somewhat severely. “How is your butchery?”

Rashari blinked. “I’m going to assume you meant that in regards to cutting up meat and not anything more sinister.” He shrugged. “I know how to skin a hare and I can dismantle a chicken carcass well enough. But this,” he nudged the Yammi with the toe of his boot. “I don’t even know where to begin hacking this thing up. Not that I have any tools to do it anyway.”

Madame Chimera sighed and sank down onto her knees in front of the carcass. Rashari was not sure her ire was entirely warranted. After all if he’d had any knack for hunting and gathering out here in the Battlan wilderness he would hardly need a guide, now would he? He wasn’t the one who’d been born out here. Nor had he ever claimed to have any affinity for the great outdoors. He’d travelled a lot in his short life, but that travelling had generally been of the means to an end variety, travelling from point A to point B via the most expedient route (and also usually at altitude). He’d never had any great desire to wander the world just for the sake of it.

“Here see,” Madame Chimera did something to the carcass he didn’t want to think too hard about and managed to wrench out one of the long, flexible spines from its shelled back. “If you cut along here you can peel the shell off its back.” Using the spine like a particularly fine scalpel Madame Chimera made a long incision at a point on the creature’s flank where the shell gave way to a seam of thick, leathery hide. “Try to take the shell up whole. It is useful, and prized among the ogdegre. Once you have flayed it try and get cuts from the flank and back. The best meat is there.”

Rashari nodded to show he was listening but frowned. “I thought you said the ogdegre would help us without inducement?”

“They will,” she said. “But that is no reason to take their kindness and offer nothing back in return.” She glanced at him. “You can manage this?” She gestured to the carcass.

Rashari smiled and reached out to snatch at Smith, who had foolishly crept closer while the butchery lesson took place. “Positive.” He said brightly brandishing Smith in one hand, holding him upside down so his legs kicked uselessly yet again. “And it turns out I won’t even need to waste any of the spines either. I have a nice set of sharp implements right here.”

Oi! No put me down. Smith yelped, indignant and completely helpless. If I had spines of my own you’d be sorry right now.

“You are like children,” Madame said clucking her tongue in approbation, but Rashari could see the smile in her eyes threatening to quirk the corners of her mouth as she rose to her feet. “Behave. I shall be back soon.”

“Be careful.” Rashari called out to her, watching as she strode confidently away. She turned back to look at him over her shoulder, the sunlight painting her in shadow. He saw her nod once before she started walking again.

She will be safe, you think? Smith asked him a little worriedly after she’d vanished into the same patch of bushes from which she had flushed out and killed the Yammi-pig. They should have been able to see her, even if she was knelt down to forage. The bushes were low and the plain all one level, but as with the miasma shrouded mountain he’d fallen off and the drowned forest, should-haves didn’t really apply out here.

“This is her home turf.” Rashari pointed out, as much to reassure himself as Smith. “She’ll be fine. It’s us I’m worried about. Want to take bets on how long it will take for something nasty to jump us while Madame Chimera’s back is turned?” He was only partly joking. His first day on the Steppes had been a spectacular disaster. Still Madame Chimera had obviously been caught unawares by whatever had happened with the river. Maybe he wasn’t the only one in danger out here, after all. He frowned out across the plain, shading his eyes from the endless sunlight. “Count backward from one hundred slowly. If she’s not back by the time you reach zero we’ll go look for her.”

And why am I the one who has to count? Smith asked a little snottily.

Rashari grinned. “It will give you something else to think about while your legs are stuck in Yammi guts.”

Fantel felt the weight leave her shoulders as soon as she was far enough away from her companions that she could no longer hear Rashari’s one-sided conversation with Smith. The last several hours had been difficult and she had longed for some time alone with her thoughts. Rashari had been fairly quiet during their journey, giving her some privacy, but she’d still been very aware of his presence, and that alone was enough to put her on edge.

She did not know if she believed what he had told her. She didn’t know if she believed he’d seen and heard nothing of the battle with the forest spirit. He had no reason to lie, at least none that she knew of. That was the crux of her dilemma. She did not believe that he would lie for a trivial or frivolous reason, or even that he would necessarily lie to her out right. He would obfuscate, evade and commit sins of omission. He might choose to deceive her through some amalgam of the three, and had in fact done so any number of times since she had met him. Yet if he had witnessed the other presence take over her body and speak through her lips she could not imagine he would keep quiet about it. This worried her perhaps more than the thought that he might lie. If he was telling the truth, if he had seen nothing except a sudden tide of miasma sweeping in, then what did that mean? Had Fantel imagined the other presence? Had she killed the forest spirit on her own? She didn’t want to believe that. Not only because she did not have that kind of power anymore. The death of the forest had been a crime against Mother Aldlis; a crime punishable by death. Had she still been Chimera her own kith and kin would have hunted her down and slain her for this one act. No bonds of blood or friendship would stand against such a travesty. That Fantel had not been in control of her own actions would not matter. She would have no opportunity to defend herself. Her exile from the Chimeri was a cold comfort under the circumstances.

She might almost have preferred to drown when the waters swallowed her. The other presence that had so completely controlled her during the fight was not gone completely. She could feel it like a sore; dark spot in her thoughts. It had retreated into the depths of her mind the instant the forest spirit died, leaving Fantel alone to survive the consequences with only her own native resources and, she realised in hindsight, the courage and resourcefulness of her companions. She owed Rashari her life. This she knew only too well. He had risked life and limb to drag her out of the river. She owed him gratitude also for his lack of judgement. He was ignorant of the full magnitude of what had happened, but he was still very well aware that her actions could have killed him and Smith just as readily as it had almost killed her. Guilt and shame added to her burden and she found it difficult to be near him because of it.

Bending down she broke and twisted free a few sprigs from the C’aan bushes sprouting close to a patch of Nasri flowers. The C’aan sprigs would serve as kindling for the campfire. It had been a relief to see the Vay hills rising in the distance. Unable to trust what magic remained to her Fantel had worried about navigation. There were so few honest landmarks out on the Steppes the only way to navigate was through divination and communion with the spirits of the land. Fantel had no intention of attempting to do that again. When she had seen the familiar ridge of the Vay hills she had silently sent her thanks to the Mother.

The Vay hills were part of the Great Wound, a series of volcanic mountains that ran outward across Battlan like the spokes of a bicycle. The Great Wound itself was a tremendous crater far to the north-west. Her people believed that when Mother Aldlis was young, long before the Chimeri or any other creature lived upon the land, a star had fallen from the sky and crashed into Adlis, lodging deep in the Mother’s heart. The Chimeri believed that Mother Aldlis was still recovering from that wound, the impact of which caused the ground to buckle and split, creating raised scars in the form of mountains and festering volcanoes, and giving the Steppes its layered terrain. The Great Wound also contained the largest concentration of pure, natural, phantasma ore in all Aldlis. The Chimeri, to whom phantasma was toxic, believed that the ore was evidence of the severity of the wound Mother Aldlis suffered, like an infection spreading across the wound site. For this reason no Chimera would ever willingly go near the Great Wound, yet every child of the Chimeri could use the various scars running out from it to navigate even through the densest miasma. The Vay hills, because they were a scar across the face of Aldlis, were immune to the capricious whim of the miasma.

The Vay were also the most easterly of the mountain ranges and from the shape of the hills she could see in the distance Fantel was finally able to give a name to their location: the H’malium plains, within twenty miles of the lowest of the Vay peaks, H’mati-vy. The ogdegre named this region for the beginning of human controlled Aldlis to the east. They still had a great deal of travelling to do to reach the Adaline Fault to the north, but interestingly not as much as she might have imagined. H’malium was vast, yet through sheer luck they seemed to have arrived at the edges of the plain already. Fantel was not sure if Rashari had flown them as far out as he could before finding a place to land (or possibly crash) the glider, or whether the miasma had carried the two of them deeper out onto the Steppes before she awoke in the forest. She decided that she did not much care which. Their luck had run poorly for so long she was willing to accept a little good fortune now. Once they made it over the Vay hills they would leave H’malium behind and enter Olim’g, part of the united Og’de territory – the land of the ogdegre. Fantel had high hopes that their journey would only get better from there, especially if she could beg or barter suitable provisions from one of the tribes.

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