Saturday, July 24, 2010

A short story

Here, have a hastily written short story based around the book I'm writing.


“She rode a horse.”

Je’Sorto smiled, showing sharp, white teeth. I wasn’t used to seeing him like this yet, in his real body. I was used to him being a skinny and pale guy, awkward and skittish, not an eight-foot tall, grey-furred shapeshifting monster. His ears, long and broad like a desert fox, were settled back and low, the tips brushing the back of his shoulders, facing toward me in a way I was told meant contentment. The low light caught his delicate fur, the UV reflective hairs showing brightly, making his massive, torso-covering tattoo stand out starkly.

“You have to understand,” he continued, looking at me with those acid-green eyes, lacking both white and pupil. “We’re true hermaphrodites, so we don’t use words like ‘sissy’ or ‘pansy’ to discuss weaklings. None of our insults are inherently gendered, because we don’t even have that concept. Instead, when you want to say someone can’t pull their own weight, or that they’re weak, you say that they ride a horse. Only the very old and very weak ride horses, the rest of us can run almost as fast on four legs.” His face lost some of its humor. “Most of us, at least.

“Cavalry was a relatively new concept. We’re primarily carnivores, herd animals get nervous around us, so we got on the domestication train a lot later than you guys. The ones who lived out on the plains figured it out way before we did. By the time Mau Sithren, the capital city, got the idea, the nomadic clans of the plains were doing it for hundreds of years.

“They were our enemies and our ancestors. Before Dineruk, that was where I was born, was settled, there were the nomads. Clans Ritu and Denu, who would feud and bicker for centuries, were both born out of the Denairiij, the clan of the Red Dust. There’s an interesting story about that too, actually…” His voice trailed off. He looked out the window, resting his chin on one clawed hand.

“Anyway. I was a potter. I liked to make things that were pretty as well as functional. My gift, the control of fire, was very useful at this time. To be able to control the heat in your kiln to a fraction of a degree… it was good. It made me a good potter.

“It was early fall, just before mating season. I was male that season, which meant I had to put together a dance, a display for the females. I was practicing my dance when someone sounded the alarm.

“I kind of expected it, really. Raiders hit pretty much every year just before mating season, when everyone was just crazy with sex hormones and the least able to fight coherently. So I ran, first on two legs and then on four when my body caught up with my brain, and, without pause or thought, ran directly into a horse.

“If you ever have the opportunity to clothesline a horse with your face, don’t do it. It hurt. It hurt a lot.

“I don’t really know how I got up there, I must have shaken something loose in my head, but the next thing I knew I was on a roof. It was good, dense thatch, made by my mother as a matter of fact, and it held my weight.

“Raiders were streaming through the town on horseback. They were headed for the grain silos next to the temple. I watched three raiders pass under me, all painted with red and white clay. I crouched, determined to tackle the next one who passed, to get him off of his horse and to rip out his throat with my teeth. That would impress everyone, I thought then, and make me one of the most attractive mates in the village.

“It was a terrible plan, but it turned out to be the best one I ever made, because it introduced me to Si’Toa, father and mother of my children.

“I hit her like a wrecking ball, my teeth and claws were buried in her side before we hit the ground. Her horse screamed, panicked, and ran away. I’m sure it ended up someone else’s dinner, but I couldn’t even think at the time.

“You’ve heard the term ‘bloodlust’ before, right? You’ve probably not ever felt it. This was my first mating season, my first experience being male, and while I knew that the raiders usually hit during mating season, I had not been aware that they generally only sent out females who were in heat.

“To give in to desire would mean death, I knew that, distantly. Still, it made me pause, I delayed the killing stroke, my teeth grazing her throat, her pulse hot under my tongue. She was breathing hard, and I made the mistake of pulling away and looking into her eyes.

“Si’Toa’s gift was a subtle one. As I manipulated flame, she manipulated emotions. That eye contact was all she needed, and a flare of lust surged through me. I reared back, my stupid, adolescent brain focused on a single goal.

“And then she stabbed me.” He lifted an arm. “You can still see the scar, under the fur.” He showed me a tiny white line just underneath one of the black stripes of his tattoo. “That bitch! We don’t value scars the way you people do, marks that we can’t change are shameful, hence the use of tattoos to mark criminals. Whenever I accused her of riding horses later, she would jab me in the side where she stabbed me.” He shook his head, smiling sadly.

“I was losing blood quickly. I was still quite young at that point. Later, when we went to war, I learned how to move my blood vessels around, to isolate a damaged area. It’s a useful trick for a soldier, but a potter shouldn’t need to know how to do that. So I bled and bled while she kicked me away and laughed.

“Shows what she knew,” he said smugly. “I got up, still bleeding, and tackled her again. She was ready for me and got loose again. Her fur was matted with blood from both of us, and I was struck suddenly with how beautiful she was, like an angry god.

“She was as tall as me, which was rare to see, and where I kept my hair short and in a mohawk she had hers long. She didn’t have much of a nose, she told me later that she felt it was just something more to break, and her mouth was wide with thin and supple lips. Her eyes were blue like a robin’s egg. Her face was painted stark white with a single diagonal slash of red. I wondered if it had been paint of if I had messed up her face with my blood.

“She was ready for me to tackle her again, and she spat on me as I tried to stand. That was more insult than I was willing to bear, even from an angry god. So I set her on fire.”

He flinched, his ears swiveling back, discomfort written on every line of his face. “I heard her screams in my sleep for months. Fire is a terrible way to die, and a harder thing to live through. My last thoughts before I lost consciousness were those of regret for killing something so beautiful.

“I thought that maybe I’d paint her likeness on a wine amphora, in memory.

“I woke up the next day. Someone had cleaned and dressed my wounds. I was in the temple. I was very weak. Someone was standing over me. It was Juth, a priest of the storm god. I liked him, he kept secrets well. I’ll tell you the story of him and my friend Sef’Teral some other time. After welcoming me back to the world and giving me water, he asked me what I wanted done with the one who had tried to kill me.

“’She’s not dead?’ I was surprised. I put everything I had into that blast of flame. ‘What did you do with her?’

“’Well, we took her to the judge and he said that it was up to you. You stopped her from getting to the grain stores, and she wounded you. As a citizen it is your right to decide what to do with your attacker.’

“I asked him to take me to her. He had to let me lean on him, which was an awkward thing since I was easily a foot taller than him. He brought me to her bed.

“Her feet were burnt badly, but the rest of her was barely singed. I had burnt off that beautiful, stiff hair, but even in pain and unconscious, she was the most lovely thing I had ever seen. Juth cautioned me against thinking with my sex. ‘She’s beautiful, but she tried to kill you and will do so again as soon as she wakes up. Kill her now and save yourself a lot of trouble.’

“This was good advice, but how could I obey? I was an artist and she was so beautiful. It would be easier for me to destroy my kiln than it would be to destroy her. Instead I decided to personally tend to her injuries.

“Everyone told me I was being an idiot. My mother especially. Our people aren’t typically monogamous, we don’t marry, and we’ll mate with several people over the course of a season. Sometimes, though, we’ll meet someone who just fits, and we pair bond with that person. My mother had never pair-bonded with anyone, and thought that I was wasting my time. She was in my house every day that I was at Si’Toa’s bedside, yelling to me that I was being an idiot by not practicing my dance. She didn’t want me to shame her when I danced, to be reduced to forcing myself on someone to breed.

“Si’Toa thought I was being an idiot too. When she woke up she was confused, she thought I was her raid leader. When I disabused her of that notion she spat at me again, called me a moron, and vowed to try to kill me again the second she was able.”

He laughed then, a deep and rich sound, utterly unlike the laugh he had in his human form. “That came sooner than I thought, actually. She had taken a length of bandage and tried to strangle me with it. I had been keeping my claws sharp for just such an occasion. I cut apart her weapon, knocked her out, and put her back to bed.

“Her feet, as I said, were badly burned, and the floor of my house was swept dirt. Her feet had cracked when she moved, and she got dirt into the cracks. She developed a very bad infection, which made her delirious. I kept her wounds as clean as I could for weeks.

“It took two weeks for her to get over the fever. Her wounds had healed, but the fever from the infection had made her weak. She had kept trying to kill me, but that had almost become a game between us. Once she had a knife to my neck, ready to cut, but she paused, just like I paused, and I was able to take it from her. When I told her to go back to bed that day she just… went. It wasn’t a submissive thing, she hadn’t lost any of her spirit. It was like she has just decided that she was going to stay here and let me take care of her.

“It was during this time that she told me her name. ‘Si’Toa.’ A common name, for someone so extraordinarily beautiful.” He paused. “I guess that doesn’t make sense. ‘Oa’ means ‘grain.’ When you add a T to that it basically means ‘Gold Grain,’ like the grasses of the plains. She didn’t like to hear me talk about how gorgeous she was, and was more inclined to attack me right after I made mention of her beauty.” He looked back out the window, intentionally avoiding my gaze. “Gods,” he whispered. “I miss her so much. Even when she hurt me, reopened the stab wound in my side, I loved her. I would rather she stay and fight me than have her gone like this.”

He shook himself, and returned to the story. “Before I knew it, it was mating season and I had not practiced any dance. I was a wreck. Part of me wanted to stay and keep watch over Si’Toa.

“But the other part of me didn’t want to take care of her. It wanted sex. We’re all slaves to our hormones at some point. Mine beat me up and dragged me out the door to the field outside of Dineruk.

“Gods above, if it weren’t heresy I’d love to show you those dances. The males were all dancing, those of us with flashy powers were using them. Sef’Teral, my best friend and later one of my generals, was calling down lightening to dance alongside him. The females were lining up for it, and I mean that literally. Eventually they’d stop lining up and start fighting, and that would be fun to see too. God, when I was female I knocked out someone’s teeth. I had to make them new ones from ceramic when the season was over.

“I only had a few dance steps worked out, but I was lucky. Pyrokinesis is a pretty rare talent, and I’m really tall, so whenever I stumbled I just stood up tall, hollered, and let loose a blast of flame. I wasn’t doing as well as Sef, who had put thought into his dance, but I wasn’t exactly shaming my family.

“My heart absolutely stopped when I saw Si’Toa, staggering and weaving her way into the frenzy of women in front of the field. She wouldn’t be able to fight them, I knew it. But gods help me I couldn’t go down there and stop her. All I could do was jump higher, spin faster, hope to distract them from her.

“Imagine my surprise when she grabs someone by the ears and hauls them off their feet, throwing them to the side like chaff. I said she was as tall as me, but it was easy to forget how tall we are when we weren’t around others. She was a giantess, and even weakened she was strong.

“And her eyes were fixed on me. She opened the second lid, like so,” He slid aside the acid-green eyelid to reveal his naked eye, with its wavy m-shaped pupil. “This is a challenge. It’s like saying ‘my eyes don’t need to be protected, I am so much stronger than you.’” He closed his eye again, setting the lid back in its normal place. “No one challenged her. It was like a sea parting.

“Whenever I think of home, whenever I think of joy, I remember her walking toward me, feet still scarred, fur still growing back, her eyes naked. It was… impossible to describe. You humans do things so differently. It was beautiful. I bit her when we came together, on her throat where I paused weeks ago. She had her hand on my side where she’d stabbed me, her claws digging into my flesh.”

He went silent then. I had to prompt him to continue.

“And then.. life happened. In the spring she had my child, Je’Temis. The next fall I was female and she was male, and I gave birth to twins, Si’Riath and Si’Muirin. Nine years later, Si’Riath was run down and killed by a warrior from the ruling clan, and we went to war. I committed a grievous blasphemy in my quest for revenge, and Si’Toa and I were imprisoned, tattooed, and exiled. I’ve been here now for fifteen hundred years. I haven’t seen her for more than a few minutes for the past five hundred. It hurts to live here. It hurts more to live without her. We can’t die here, and it hurts even to breathe. There’s a reason we thought this place was hell for so long. I…” He stopped talking, and looked out the window again. “I miss her desperately.”

I took his hand then. His huge, black-clawed, terrifying hand. He gripped mine, taking whatever small comfort I was able to give.

We sat together until the sun went down.

1 comment:

Free Hit Counter