Note to readers from the beginning: After some editing, I discovered that the Earth-born Thayne’s name was too similar to that of another, more important character. One of them had to be changed. So, he that was Thayne is now Simmon.
What I Know
“We’ve done five kilometers,” Ant says from behind. “More than a third of the stage.”
I guess he is trying to be encouraging.
“But we will need to speed up,” Uncle says.
Straightaway I’m even more conscious of my feet. Raspy snail teeth are grazing over them. No! It’s the carnivorous sand! I almost stumble at the feeling of my foot-coverings worn through.
I swallow a sob of fear. “I need two … two … squares of cloth, bandanna-sized, folded arm-sling style.” A demand, not even a please or thank you. “Sorry. I … I meant to say please.” I’m almost in tears.
Then I’m ashamed. I did so much yesterday without any childish emotions. I pull my hood up over my head and stump along without looking at the men or my feet. But I feel the sand-creatures advancing over my ankle-bones.
“Use the priest’s cloak,” Uncle says.
I feel faint at the thought. “He lay down on the creep as I left the chapel. He said he was letting me go to make up for all the people he led to their end.” I want to keep in mind that I did what I did. Be strong. None of what I did was handed to me.
“I have the squares ready, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says.
Mongoose stops me with his hand on my elbow. He drops his pack behind me. “Sit on that, Jeb.”
Ant stops too. He kneels to help, sees what I dreaded, Lotor’s liking for the skin of my feet. I catch my lips between my teeth. Ant helps by pulling the new cloths tight around my feet, while I knot them in front. I keep my eyes on my work.
Mongoose and Ant pull me to my feet. Ant scoops up the shredded cloths then helps Mongoose shrug back into his pack. They exchange a meaningful glance while I high-step in place.
I walk on, hiding my face and staring only at the next place to put my feet.
Uncle exclaims. “There! See it?”
“Yes,” Ant says. “The damned planet is re-arranging the landscape as we approach. Changing hard sand to soft sand. It knows us.”
“Not good for Jeb,” Mongoose says. “Uncle old man, you will need to lug the luggage while Ant and I shimmy the shaman.”
The way he grins at his own joke helps me swallow down my embarrassment. I walk my usual fast sprint on the spot while he and Ant tie one of their packs crosswise over the top of the other.
Mongoose takes over Uncle’s pack and they both help Uncle into the double pack’s harness. Uncle jogs into the soft sand. I get that he can’t waste a minute of his strength standing around waiting for Mongoose and Ant to organize me.
Ant slides the sticks that were used to prop up the screens back at the platform from Uncle’s pack. He and Mongoose help each other loop a rope each from the back of their belts and pass it over their shoulders. They tie the ends to the front of their belts.
“To stop us losing our pants, Shaman Jeb,” Ant says straight-faced to my interest. A side-flung grin tells me he joked.
They each thread an end of one of the sticks through the back of the other’s rope loops. Then thread one through the fronts. Ant has a folded cloth ready to rest over the resulting two-bar seat. They sidle up behind me and take my arms.
“Hup,” Mongoose says.
I am jumped backward onto the sticks so that I’m sitting between Ant and my loon. I study Mongoose’s face. Faint flush along his jawline, faint smile in the corner of his mouth.
“Best foot forward, brother.” Ant slings his forearm onto Mongoose’s nearest shoulder. “So far the planet doesn’t care who we are.”
“Don’t feel shy about holding on, Jeb,” Mongoose says.
Ant looks past me, and laughs. “Don’t feel shy about holding on, Shaman Jeb. Or you can lean back against our arms.”
The flushing along Mongoose’s jawline deepens and makes me feel shy, so I don’t lean anywhere. But I find out straightaway that for them to jog and for me not to fall, I do need to hold on. What a problem to get into a tizzy about.
A capital-L Loon is a totem. Mongoose wears a Mongoose tattoo on his arm. They’re both wearing long shirts, Sauger-hide belts. I take a good handful of cloth above their belts. Rest the back of my fingers on the belt. Try not to touch Ant’s side through the cloth.
Uncle is a long way ahead. Well out of hearing. “The next thing you know, brother,” Ant says. “Is that our elders will start cleaving you to the Loon Totem.”
“It’s useless to tease, brother,” Mongoose says. “Jeb and I already discussed it.” He winks at me. Not angry. I feel almost weightless. “I’ll refuse to hear them,” he says.
A long while later Ant says, “Four kilometers more. When we get there, there’ll be ointment. For her feet,” he says over my head.
I do a little vigil. Do such words hurt anybody? I’m a bossy-britches, always wanting to be a part of everything. In a minute the group will double. Later it will be huge. Then what? Can one person be part of everything that goes on in a large group? How good was I ever at ignoring what isn’t my own business?
It doesn’t feel like a vigil when I’m just worrying. What happened to the rest of the shamans? My teachers? The whole Shaman School? I’m too scared to ask. In the three years, I only learned enough to sing the totems and signal the ship.
Then I worry about Ant and Mongoose having to carry me, for pity’s sake. I never wanted to be that kind of person.
Carrying physically is different to the other sort of carrying. That’s my crow talking, I realize. I feel better.
How can I thank Ant and Mongoose without making them embarrassed? Remember how good it felt back in school when the lesson of the day began with my totem? It’s my crow again, telling me how to be a shaman. It’s what they got me for, isn’t it?
Time will tell. I push back my hood and I clear my throat. Start with the Ant Totem song. “Ants together carry their towns … a stone at the time …
Ant grunts surprise, then joins in with grunts on the strongest words. We make a fine rhythm. “… Ants together carry their country … a heart at the time. … Together we live, singly we die.”
I follow it with the Mongoose Totem.
“Mongoose strides into the unknown, untrammeled by fear … He fights through unenviable risks to rescue what he holds …”
Slof slof slof is a sound coming through the sand behind us. “You pack animals really get off on the little fucker singing? He’s got such a tinny little voice, you’d think he’s a girl in drag.”
Simmon skips as he passes us to be out of the way of any kick Mongoose might aim at him for his insults.
Mongoose and Ant laugh so hard and so totally out of sync with one another, that they shake the contraption and I almost fall through.
On Simmon’s uplifted arm, I see the nightmare to come.