Earthquakes are not evil. The destruction caused by a volcano is not intentional. The world has been shifting and spewing and killing since before there were any creatures here to see or feel and it will continue long after people have disappeared.
Astrig’s mind actively wandered as she lay on the pallet while the boy moved his body in quick bursts over and over again. He was rough, but not the roughest he had ever been. She didn’t mind; she knew he would be done soon and it was worth it to her. He was their leader’s son and might have power when he was older. He has some power now, she thought, and that was why she liked being his choice. She was fifteen.
He wasn’t the reason she was angry that night. She thought about that stupid cow, Muriel, back in the kitchen, with access to all the leftover sweets that came off the tables, with nothing remaining for her by the time the trays came back to the cookery. She should have what she wanted because she was the one who knew how to do the things the men liked. As she thought on it she became angrier and she just wanted to smash the other girl’s face in.
She shifted her body some to keep Kerr Ammon thinking she was interested and she looked over at the dusty floor. The structure she slept in was a semi-permanent lean-to at the back of the kitchens with splintery scrap wood for the flooring. She noticed a black cricket against the wall. It was a good two feet away from the corner where an old stool sat gathering cobwebs. Kerr pushed into her harder; drawing her attention back to him as he grunted and she thought again that she was not going to get the sweets anyway. That was when Astrig found out that her power could push as well as pull. She couldn’t send her anger into the boy. No one knew what she could do and she didn’t want them to find out, though some suspected. Instead, she sent it out across the floor and pushed the cricket into the corner. She could see the creature try to hop away, but its body kept turning back the way she wanted it to. It hopped right into the newest web; that of a big brown spider which shot out like lightning and grabbed the cricket and bit. Astrig pretended that she could see the fangs of the spider as they sank into its meal. She felt better. But Muriel would still pay.
Astrig was born to a woman of the Savik tribe in the far south of the continent. Her father had been thrown out of Mer Segarra years before and had tagged along with the tribe as it migrated for much of the year; following game. He did not have the typical powers of the Mer Segarra so the tribe didn’t want him, but he maintained a small amount of favor with the leader by providing small bits of knowledge that helped the tribe. When not engaged in semi-nomadic travels they set up camps and traded with other tribes. They were related to sea-going people of the coast and outer islands; but never stayed put long enough to master shipbuilding. Astrig didn’t know why her father hadn’t stayed with the tribe, whether he left on his own or was thrown out, and she didn’t spend much time thinking about it.
Astrig thought of her father only when she considered whether her small magic came from him or somewhere else entirely. Of her mother, she thought even less. She was left to herself much of the time and her mother had little control over what the girl did or didn’t do. There was a story Astrig had heard hundreds of times growing up – that when she was born into the world the midwife looked into her eyes and she stopped crying. She said ‘this baby is evil and should be left for the wild dogs.’ Astrig learned early that she needed to be careful in her behavior. She had to avoid any controversy or the tribe members would talk of ‘evil’ and about what the Mer Segarran might have brought it into their midst.
The boy finished leaving Astrig to her thoughts about evil and the nature of the world. She figured evil was like the volcanoes that dotted the southern lands. They didn’t care where they were or how much molten rock was pulled out of the deep vents when they exploded.
The cricket in the corner was already entirely encased in silk now.
Then again, she thought, maybe evil is self-aware and waiting for a chance to move from time to time and place to place. Perhaps it seeks out the best vessel to express its nature and find its way to the deepest vents – the wells of hate and fear and malice that lie deep within the boiling consciousness of the world.
She never misbehaved; always did her work and was always found in the right place at the right time. She was a master of deceit at a very early age. Her favorite part of her birth story was the part about the midwife dying on her way back to her own village. As she grew older, Astrig liked to think that she accomplished that.
The Savik had stayed in their temporary camp longer than usual that year. The hunting in the area was good, and there was a steady supply of grain to trade for. Some of the men were anxious to move; but the women liked the site and enticed their men with bread and things they would not have on the move. It was late winter, almost spring, but the sky was held in the grip of a grey mood.
“Kerr Ammon, you are the strongest of all the boys your age. You shouldn’t let that oaf D’Alton think he can best you.” Astrig was butchering and cleaning a deer carcass that had been brought in that day. She was strong and could do most of it herself; though she thought she would be able to get one of the other girls to do the dirtiest part of the work, and she was aiming to get Muriel to clean up that day.
“Let it be, Astrig.” The boy replied as he watched her work. He was really a man; and was allowed most of the privilege that men had in the small society. He looked at the girl as she worked and he could feel himself getting hard. He wanted to take her away again, but he would be in trouble if he interfered with her work. Also, bad things always happened if Astrig herself got in trouble when he kept her from her work. “He’s nothing. I’ll get to go with my father the next time…”
“If you think so, Kerr, I just thought that since you’re the son of Naas Ammon you would be bolder about such things. He thinks that he is higher than you just because he’s older by a year. You have the best opportunity now; while he’s gone. I can’t see how your father or any of the other men would blame you; they would do the same.”
Astrig had been urging Kerr Ammon to take D’Alton’s woman, Muriel. While it didn’t happen often, occasionally the men would assert their pecking order by taking another’s woman. It was petty, but still accepted when the lines of leadership were in flux. Astrig sensed that a change in leadership was coming – she wasn’t certain, but she felt it. Muriel was not like Astrig and didn’t like to go with the boys; except for D’Alton.
“Besides, I heard Muriel talking about how important her D’Alton was to the tribe; that was why he was selected to go with them this time.”
That got Kerr Ammon’s attention. If the women were talking about who was positioned over whom, maybe it was time to step in and remind them who he was. Astrig could see the thoughts crossing the young man’s face. Maybe she could send a little push to set her plan in motion. She had to pause in her work and concentrate for a few seconds - she struggled only with the subtle use of her power.
“She shouldn’t be so loose with her tongue” Kerr was becoming angry. “D’Alton’s a fool and only gets selected because he carries his father’s pack. I’m not expected to do that. Where is Muriel now?”
She had him.
“She’s not even working! I heard she was resting because she stayed up late after the big meal.” Astrig changed the tone of her voice then and continued. “I’m sorry I can’t be with you now, Kerr; I shouldn’t say it, but I can see… you are interested. It makes me want to touch you.” She looked down with mock shyness as Kerr’s face turned red for something other than anger.
“Maybe this is timed as it should be. You can have Muriel satisfy you today since I have to finish this.”
Astrig’s voice, to Kerr, sounded so practical that he simply nodded and left to find Muriel and teach her that he was just as important as D’Alton. More so, even. Astrig was observant and always let him have little bits of information that made him look good. This was one of those times, he thought as he entered the small shack that served as kitchen and quarters for several of the girls like Astrig – too young to be married, too old to be considered children, just right for many of the men.
Astrig watched Kerr walk away. She had done a good job of propping him up. He was the leader’s son, but he was so stupid; he needed all the help he could get. In this world, who you were born to only took you so far. If you didn’t fight for your place and couldn’t provide for the tribe, you would be pushed down. She had been watching D’Alton’s father for some time and felt he was working to take the leadership for himself. So, recently, she had been giving more help to that boy. D’Alton was shrewd and would eventually question why she was helping him, so she made it seem like unimportant pieces of information. Several times it had helped him be in the right place at the right time. Father and son were turning into a formidable team that the current leader probably couldn’t match with Kerr.
Astrig also had a score to settle with Muriel. The bitch was watching her too closely lately and she didn’t like the feeling. That and the fact that she was a hog with the food and always managed to scoop up the best things before Astrig could get there. She knew the other girl was only interested in D’Alton; not the least because she had also seen the possibility that father and son would soon be in a position of power. She would not appreciate Kerr – the boy was used to getting his way and Astrig had indulged him with things that perhaps Muriel would not like. She let a single laugh pass her lips and then leaned forward with her weight to split the deer’s backbone in half.
It was not much later – she had only just removed the ribs from the spine - that she heard yelling coming from the old sleeping quarters; and then she heard swearing and something crashed and then it was quiet.
When the men came back to the camp later that day; they found that Astrig had made quite a lot of progress on the deer without any help from the other girls. D’Alton found Kerr and the crying Muriel together and hauled them out to explain themselves. It did not go well for Kerr Ammon and it was the beginning of the end of his status as the leader’s son. He put up such a fuss and blamed everything on Astrig; still bloody and sweaty from her work that day, and standing innocently watching the scene. Kerr was beaten by his own father for making them look bad, and Muriel was told to clean up for Astrig.