Part I: Halafyd
“Welcome to Salt World.” Halafyd kicked her heels, rolled her eyes and sighed a long, fed-up sort of sigh that was becoming more and more the norm for her.
‘Dizzy Topplepots’ nudged her. He wasn’t really named ‘Dizzy Topplepots’, but ever since that… she didn’t care about narrating their backstory, even in her mind. He was Dizzy Topplepots, or Dizz-Pots for short, and that was that. She eyed him, taking in the squat feathered hat that capped his handsome(?) features. At least, she was told he was handsome. She didn’t see it, but that was mostly because she chose not to. She could’ve made a mean comment about his nose, but what was the point? She rubbed salt onto her own, feeling irritated at that one particular spot that just would not go away. It was red, and not quite ready to burst. Pus was disgusting, much like boys, but not in the good way, if Dizz-Pots caught her drift, which of course, he didn’t. He was a Salt Seller, so he really had no excuse not to, except that he was an aforementioned boy. She scanned the near and distant horizon.
“Salt, salt, everywhere,” she sang, muttering to herself at the end of each line. “Sun and salt, seas of salt, oceans of salt, and salt cities. Salt is life!”
“Salt is life,” Dizz-Pots agreed, then nudged her again.
She idly contemplated the different reactions that would occur if she either thumped him, or snogged him. He wouldn’t be expecting the second, and she didn’t even feel like trying out her first kiss, but the thought kept pestering her. Instead, she turned and looked up at the looming sun. It was flickering blue today. That in itself was annoying. The sun should be bright white with just a hint of yellow. But the purple-blue dusks were pretty, she supposed, in their own, odd sort of way. At least, the salt pillars were pretty, in their shimmering, sparkling crystalline sort of way; which reminded her…
“Did you get it?”
“The crystals, Pothead.”
“Uh… yeah. And don’t call me that.”
She shoved him.
“Fine, okay, okay.” Dizz-Pots pulled out a small pouch. Within it were a number of various sized salt crystals. Finally, magic. He was too polite to ask for payment. Shrugging, she reached around and locked her lips on his, her blue eyes pressing right up close to his own slightly lighter blue. Then she felt her spot go. Yuck.
“Halafyd!” Dizz-Pots pulled back.
“What? Do my lips taste… salty?”
“No, not that!” He flushed crimson.
She didn’t care, and shook her hair out. It’s not as if she kissed him with that wagging pink wet thing that all words came from. Slimy warmth was something that was utterly disgusting… and somewhat intriguing.
“Oh.” Now she remembered. They were going to practice magic together. Then she pushed him off the salt wall, and stood both her feet on top of his belly.
“Ow! What’s that for–”
“Jerk.” She pressed her heel down. “That’s for not liking my kiss.” She stepped off him, and squinted from the corner of her eye as the dusk band formed of layers of cloud and salt dust. “Not that yours was any good. You should work on it.”
“Not with me, spittle-lick.” Of course, there’d be salt to pay if he ever practiced locking lips – or more! – with anyone else though.
“Okay, okay.” Dizz-Pots pushed himself up, then kissed her cheek. She almost hit him, then let her hand drop. At least he showed some interest. She shrugged.
“Now?” His eyes widened.
“Sure.” Grabbing his hand, and one of the crystals, she lifted it high above their heads and chanted some weird sound that really meant nothing, but was apparently meant to focus their wills and make something happen.
She stepped on his foot.
The look she fixed him spoke volumes. Then he repeated the unmentionable noise. Colour flashed before their eyes.
“The history of the world.”
“Shut up.” Halafyd shoved Dizz-Pots off her. “You can think about it while you do my chores. I’m not farming any more salt until you get me out of this.”
They were standing outside her family home, an igloo of salt slabs. The magic had drained the little moisture from the surrounding air for miles and brought it to a single point: her clothing. Her salt clothing. The messy puddle had been more irritating than embarrassing, and she had to think of an excuse, but she couldn’t find any, so he was going to have to deal with it. Scooping up salt and plastering it over herself as paint had repaired her modesty somewhat; Dizz-Pots having already thought of it rather than stare at her sleek figure, which was both a relief and an insult, because why wouldn’t he look? Wasn’t she attractive? Of course, she’d have knocked him into the salt, but that was hardly the point.
At least there was no one else around, which was just as well given magic was generally considered a myth to be frowned upon. Besides, it was almost nighttime now and every sane person was already indoors. Her sweeping glance confirmed they were alone; it never hurt to be absolutely sure. If anyone else had seen her… well, they better not have. She checked again. All was as it should be. The distant stars were making the salts shimmer in a different sort of way to the rising blur from the daytime sun. Everything was alight with a twinkling glow.
“But it showed us everything…” He began without realising that was probably not the best phrasing, and by ‘probably’, she meant ‘definitely’. Boys. She’d give him ‘showed everything’!
“Yeah, and that was boring.” Halafyd scrunched up her nose as she tasted the salt on the breeze. It wasn’t even good salt.
“But – but we have a responsibility!”
“No we don’t.”
“I thought you didn’t want to be stuck here forever?” Dizz-Pots tried to sound reasonable; to anyone else, it might have been reasonable, but reasonable wasn’t something she felt like when he used that tone.
“I don’t. You do.” Elongating her face to punctuate her words, she wasn’t sure how to make it more obvious.
“I’m a salt trader! I travel the salt routes.”
“Blah blah blah. I don’t care if this world really is some giant shroom floating in space and it’s imprisoned in salt to stop it from seeding spores throughout its long journey to the golden whatever.”
“You did listen!”
“Gipson can go suck on some salt.”
“But he’s bringing water to this world! Everything will melt!” Mirroring her, Dizz-Pots planted his fists on his hips.
“If you care so much, you go stop him.” She flopped onto the fence gracelessly. Part of her had a different answer: like her clothes; but why wouldn’t Dizz-Pots want that, other than it would be his clothes in a puddle too. And that was an interesting image. Staring up at the stars to keep from giggling, she could just picture his face if all his clothes drizzled away.
“I will! But the crystal chose you! It chose us!” Marching over, he stopped right in front of her.
“No, the crystal was probably laced with ash salt or something. It was just a stupid dream.”
“Then why are your clothes– ow!”
Halafyd ignored him, choosing not to stick her nose up in the air. There were more important things than going on some idiot quest to save the world. She didn’t even care about the world. She had her own plans, her own dreams…
“You could become a Shadow Salt Sickle.” Dizz-Pots examined his nails, not looking at her.
How did he know her dream?
“Oh shut up.” She shoved him again, and strode into her house. She needed to salt her hair; it was too tangled by far. “And go and till the salt fields. Patch. Whatever.” She shut the door.
“What about dinner? You promised–”
“After my salt bath.”
“Salt is life.”
“Salt is life.” Halafyd muttered, and inclined her head. Dizz-Pots gave her a slightly odd look, then took a draught from the salt-ware pot and slid it to her. One swig later, and the salt liquor was warming her innards. It burnt her throat, but was smooth against her lips and tongue, which meant it was doing exactly what it was supposed to, and there was a light, slightly metallic spice to it, which meant Dizz-Pots had spiked it the way he was supposed to. By spiked, she meant ‘seasoned’. It felt good; at least, that’s what Dizz-Pot’s look said. Her gaze thinned. Who said things like that anyway?
“Sunwarmed.” He nodded with a stretch. “Since the equinox.”
“Yeah, you would know.” She didn’t need to comment; a mere eye roll would have done, but he had waited, and the bath salts had cheered her mood somewhat. Slightly. Probably. Maybe a little. She stood up. The table before her had been carved from a single slab of salt, and veined with a pinkish-red orange that broke off into purple. That same veneer covered the rest of her floors. “What’s the plan then?” Halafyd fixed him with an ‘I dare you’ squint-glare.
“Uh… well, we should go on this quest, I guess.”
“You guess.” She made her tone as flat as her look.
“Well, yeah. You got a better suggestion? Stay here and farm? I suppose it might be safer.”
“Do you know how crazy this sounds? You sound like you’ve been baked in the sun.” Frustration replaced flatness, agitated by his calmness.
“It’s my destiny to travel and roam the roads.” Amusement traced his words, but his features offered no sign of anything but grandiose acceptance.
“You have spent too long out in the sun.” Halafyd almost laughed; he was just off smug. She also wanted to shake him, flop backwards, and get a massage. She was being difficult, but so was he. How direct of him.
“Do you want to stay here?”
“No.” She scrubbed her hands through her hair. He knew it. They both did. That was the problem: life here was so boring. But life was boring. She would have shoved him, but he was at the other end of the table, and pushing him off the bench wouldn’t really give her any satisfaction. She slumped down in the carved salt throne. Its high back and arms caught her, just as it had for her father, and his father before him, if her mother was to be believed. Not that any of that mattered. “Farming salt… in a world full of salt… where salt was life… and could be traded for… more salt. Riveting.”
“You do realise you’re thinking aloud, don’t you?”
“Oh shut up.” She hurled the seasoning at him, which just so happened to be a saltshaker. How infuriating when he caught it.
“So when do we leave?” He set the shaker down in perfect alignment with the edge and corner of the table with effortless precision.
“Tonight. But you’re getting the floor.”
“There’s enough room for two hammocks.”
“I’m not sharing.”
“It’s my caravan.” Tracing the shaker’s holes with his forefinger, he angled his face slightly. An older man might have stroked his chin.
“You realise how unreasonable this sounds?”
“I’m a girl.” Wait. Had he just mirrored back her words from earlier? He had! She could have kissed and shoved him. Boys!
“I’d never have noticed.” Dizz-Pots managed to keep his tone low enough that she was meant to hear.
“Hey!” Halafyd planted her hands on the table and leaned forwards. She was not going to give him the satisfaction of a glare.
“Besides, there are two wagons to this train.”
“You… can have the carts.” Reclining, she wound her finger through her hair airily, and crossed one knee over the other.
“Those are for salt.”
“I need one for clothes.”
“Oh now you really sound like a girl.” Half turning on his seat, he took in the view from the upper arc’s window; her eyes followed. Indigo and onyx skies held a belt of stars; a light breeze distorted the whisper-thin clouds. Only the stars were free of salt, or so most folk believed.
“That’s the point.” She took another swig and shoved the liquor back to him. “You might make them melt. Again.”
Dizz-Pots coloured slightly.
“Don’t tell me you didn’t enjoy it.”
“Are we done playing now?”
“Hey, no need to get all… whatever this is.” Both palms rose with his words.
He passed the half-empty pot. “I guess we should think about what we need.” Reclining, then shifting himself into a more comfortable position, he settled in for what he expected would be a long list, if she judged his expression right. At least he was sensible enough to ask.
“Clothes. Smelling salts.” She ticked them off on her fingers for emphasis.
Incredulity coloured his expression.
“It’s going to stink out there with you.” Halafyd stated as though it were the most obvious thing in the world, which of course, it was.
“That’s what bath salts are for.” Dizz-Pots answered with the same matter-of-fact voice.
“Do we have a tub in the caravan?” She gave him ‘the look’, the one that wondered in depthless disbelief how he could be so oblivious.
“Good point. We could fix up a sheet and cordon off one of them.”
“Sure, when we stop. What about during the day? It gets hot out there.”
“Okay. What else?”
“You tell me, mister Salt Seller.”
“Cooking salts, I guess.”
“What else do you guess?” She aligned her gaze with the tip of his nose. It always had the desired effect. Only, this time, he ignored it. How vexing. Choosing not to sigh, she tapped the table.
“Salt crystals. It might help us.”
“Do we even know where we’re going?”
“Uh… actually… maybe, kind of. Yes.” He didn’t look away or blink.
“We need to cross the ocean of salt.”
“Right, to the Pillars of Salt. But not the eastwards ones, but the south western ones, near the Peak of Snowsalt, besides the ash salt hill plains.” Her eyes found the ceiling.
“Right. Then we go south, southeast. And take a northerly turn. I think.”
“You don’t know where we’re going!”
“We follow the stars, okay? That’s what the crystal showed. We’ll find ‘the Shaker’. You do remember, don’t you?”
“This is so stupid.” Tossing her hair back, she stared out towards the stars again. Drizzle-Pots, Dismal-Pots, Doting-Pots… some small corner of her mind conjured variations. Holding back a yawn, she stretched out the muscles in her back, Dizz-Pots pointedly ignoring her rising chest. Then her neck clicked. Why did that always feel so good?
“You have anywhere better to be?”
“Better pack a bra–”
“Hey!” She made a fist.
“Brazier!” He stepped back from the chair. “It gets cold out on the plains.”
“I know that. We could just bring some heated salt crystals.” Sounding reasonable was his usual tone; she could sound just as reasoned. He looked as if he were about to object, so she used the word: “Fine. Anyway, you’d better pack some pants. And two, no three spares.”
“I know what you boys are like when it gets cold. So don’t even think about snuggling.” She flicked an imaginary speck from her nail. “And bring some salted crackers.”
“Okay. You can bring the oil. And salt soup.”
“If it gets you to stop talking, sure. I’m going to bed. You can have the couch.” Halafyd interlocked and stretched her fingers. “Just because we’ll be sharing close quarters, don’t think you get the bed tonight.”
“I was planning on going home, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Well it isn’t. You’re staying here, before that mind of yours changes, or you knock some pots over. Again.”
“Thanks.” That one word was dryness incarnate.
Another shrug. Then she paused from the doorway. “And take a bath. Salt is in the pot, and… don’t make a mess.”
“How old do you think I am?”
She blew him a kiss and winked. Her step carried her out of range of his mutter. With a stretch of her arms, she yawned; she was looking forward to her bed tonight. She paused and tested the air with her tongue. She probably wouldn’t mind too much if he wanted to snuggle. It was rather chilly.
“Time is salt. Wake up.”
“Oh yeah, like we’re going to be even richer than we are now.” Halafyd grumbled, pushing off the covers. The night’s chill had already faded. “Dizz-Pots!” She threw the pillow at him, “What’ve I told you about sneaking into my room?!”
“I wasn’t sneaking.” Dizz-Pots caught the pillow and set it on the bedside alcove. There were a number of alcoves carved into the walls, and the long, wide bed filled most of the circular chamber. Light poured in from the vaulted roof’s thin panels. His blue eyes ran over her choice of sleep-ware: shorts and a chemise. “You were wearing less yesterday.”
“Oh sunblast to modesty.” Halafyd pulled herself up, and legs dangling over the edge, groped around for her slippers with her toes. Then her brow furled. “What’s that you’re wearing?”
“Slacks. Trouser-top shawl-robe.”
“I can see that.”
“Did you turn into me?” She grumbled, then fell forwards, springing up as she landed in one slipper. Suspicion gripped her nostrils. “Did you bathe last night?”
“Yes. I stank like lavender all evening.”
She nodded, feeling oddly satisfied. “It’s an improvement.”
“Yeah, I thought you’d say that.”
“Make breakfast yet?”
“Shall we save the bickering for later?”
She hugged then shoved him. “You’re using this stupid quest to fulfil some daft romance with me, and since we’re going to end up together anyway, and one or both of us might die, I’m going to get in all the shots I can.”
“That’s what you saw in the crystal?”
“That’s what I saw on your face.” Then she smiled.
“Uh… should I be concerned?”
She kissed him lightly, then pulled a face. “You taste like salt.”
He turned around.
“So. Are we?”
“Are we what?” His expression revealed nothing.
“Going to end up together?”
“Doesn’t that… kind of spoil the whole quest thing?”
“I don’t know about you, but hammocks aren’t exactly my idea of a comfy bed.”
“You didn’t want me in your bed!”
“That was last night. It needed all the love it could get, since it’ll be so cold and lonely without me.” She drew a breath. “Besides, why did that stop you? I left the door open.”
“Did you forget how quickly the salts lose their heat this time of year? Weren’t you cold?”
“Weren’t you?” His inquiry was mild.
“It won’t do to catch a chill out on the flats.” Halafyd looked out the window.
“I’m used to it; just bring plenty of blankets and warm socks. Sharing a hammock might be a little awkward.” Rubbing his nose, Dizz-Pots clearly remembered the last time they tried and her elbow had caught him. That had been an honest accident. “Anyway, we need to take it in turns to sleep.”
Her cheeks flushed bright red.
“Are you… okay?”
“Oh for sunburn– are we making love or not?”
“When you put it like that, Hala…”
“Then not, I see. Stupid crystal.” With a roll of her eyes, she pushed past him and descended the stairs.
“You are going to get dressed, aren’t you?” Dizz-Pots called after her.
“Shut it. I’m hungry.”
“Were you serious about us making – making love?” His voice echoed down the spiral steps.
She didn’t answer.
Breakfast was a torrid affair of more salt liquor, only this time, dawn-warmed and baked by more salt crystals. It didn’t take Halafyd long to down her portion, and after cobbling a few kitchen bits together in a haversack, she felt ready to go. Except she was missing something: clothes. “Hey, Dizz-Pots…” Then she stopped. “On second thought, I’ll bring my own – oh.”
Dizz-Pots arrived in the doorway, her clothes draped over one arm. He shrugged.
“Fine. But if you’ve been through my underwear–”
“You wanted to travel without?”
“Oh shut up. What are you doing with my clothes anyway?”
“You told me to pack, remember?”
“Yeah, I was thinking about that. If we are to be together, then your clothes are my clothes.”
“Don’t get any funny ideas. You’re not wearing – well, we’ll see.”
Much to her grim pleasure, concern flashed across his features.
“Everything’s ready whenever you are, Hala.”
“I guess you are being sweet.” She shook her head. He must have assembled the caravan-wagon train while she slept. “Before I kiss you, how far do we have to walk? You did get it from your place, right?”
“And miss out on a kiss?”
“Yeah, well, just for that, smarty-pants, I won’t kiss you.”
“Thanks for breakfast though.” She slid the bottle across the shelf-counter. “Drink up, lover-boy.”
“We’re not lovers yet.” Dizz-Pots mumbled.
“Yeah, and if you don’t hurry, we never will be.” Halafyd walked out of her igloo and into ‘her’ caravan, still in her pyjamas. “And bring my clothes so I can get changed.”
“Yes your majesty.”
“And don’t you forget it.” She laughed lightly, smiling as the sunshine poured through the window-drape’s flap. Maybe if he hurried, she’d flash him her ankle, or even her calf.
The hills are gnarled and twisty, with caves that look like igloos that have been blasted by the sun and melted into deformed mounds. Halafyd is really working on becoming a Shadow Salt Sickle, but so far, it just seems to be her tongue that’s sharp. Her wit too. She keeps looking outside and noting how rolling the hills are and how flat the flats are. At least, I think that’s what she’s doing. Earlier, she was painting her nails in red salt shine, and before that, we shared a salt lick.
I can’t tell if she’s serious about this whole romance thing, but she’s talking about others joining our quest. I’m not sure if I’m okay with that. The salt lizards are happy enough dragging the caravan train and I’ve got enough mined salt and salt liquor to make the journey a success even if we don’t achieve our quest. I put away the crystals and hid them under her pillow in a pouch. We saw some really huge bones earlier, all crusted over and sparkling in the sun. It’s taken me hours to heat-carve this, and it’s almost time for my watch to be finished. It’s night time right now, and the star cloud is really pretty. It reminds me of her eyes. I think I really like her. Maybe that’s just the crystal. I’m going to wake her in her hammock in a bit. The wind’s blowing now.
For a first day, it hasn’t gone too badly. I’m sure we’ll have lots to talk about tomorrow. Everywhere is so empty. We left the igloo and the mines behind just after dawn, but it feels like we’ve been out here for days. She’s really pretty and smells nice. Except for when she’s reading this, and that’s why I put a dead lizard skull inside the salt she’s probably holding right now. I found it on the road.
“No goodnight kiss for you.” Halafyd growled. It had been a quarter of a season and the scenery had barely changed at all. They had passed a few more igloo encampments, with their circular walls, and paltry salt fields, their waving children and glowering adults. So what if two young people were taking a long voyage together across the ocean of salt? Or was it simply that they would become filthy, stinking rich once they traded their salt for different salt? It didn’t matter.
She turned and prodded Dizz-Pots who had fallen asleep beside her.
“I said no goodnight kiss for you.”
“But why?” He mumbled as the ceaseless sun beat down on them.
“You forgot to put the laundry out.”
“I did that three days ago…”
“Yeah, that was three days ago.” She rolled her eyes. “How hard is it to hang up clothing for the wind to salt-clean it? Although…” Licking her finger, she held it up. “Barely a breeze out there.”
“There, see…” Dizz-Pots was still mostly asleep.
“Oh – go and sleep.” A shove pushed him into the caravan. “And change your socks. You stink.” Not that her own were much better. Muttering to herself, she applied more smelling salts between her toes. “And use this.” She tossed the small vial over her shoulder; there was a subsequent ‘ow’. “Jerk.” She grumbled under her breath. “So I’m ‘pretty’ enough to leave a lizard skull for?” She flapped the reins and the eight-legged lizards obediently trundled along. It was time to come up with new names for the lizards: the one on the right looked like he could be ‘Biffy’. That other one could be ‘Lizpot’; now she thought of it, its head did look a little like Dizz-Pot’s… and the third one could be… she’d decide later.
A small smile tugged at the corner of her mouth.*