Writing: With What Rules …

Whales by Rita de Heer, embroidered with Colourstreams Silks
on silk scrap background

After I was involved in a discussion on what constituted clangers, and disagreed, I decided to write a story in the mode that was held to be okay. See what it felt like more than anything. See if any sense could result …

Aile cast her eyes across the inn room. Hoping to catch the thief at his work, she aimed them for his face. Twould be good if at least one forced a couple of his teeth to spring for the relative safety of the steak sandwich he’d stolen.

Gusting with laughter, the rest of the patrons sent their hands a-clattering on the tabletops. The applause was that strong, that long, that numbers of armless hands rolled from the table entirely disenchanted.

They had to be rescued, sorted, relieved from dustballs picked up from under the furniture, and restored to their rightful owners. The work of fae. Lordy lordy, do expect a few misses. They’re not paid near enough.

The thief laughed unbridled and so lost his gains … a sandwich that was still only crammed into his gob, not swallowed, not masticated, not yet bitten off or even partitioned. Fearing his pretty teeth might lose their battle with Aile’s eyes, he sent her a thought by way of his ear-jacked aerial. Would she hear his by talk? The way his eyes talked of love with his eye lashes batting shyly and his head cocked just so?

He got his eyes at the smithy, cheap rubbish his mother said. How will you ever get a girl’s unbridled interest? I need you off my hands. His eyes took offense and went back to where they came from.

His second set he worked for all the night hours of six days at the dove house. The girls, as always, were utterly enamoured with his technique. But their hearts were not what he wanted, he told them. Go on. Out with the rubbish, said the madam, throwing her eyes after him for she enjoyed a strongly-built back.

He tried his best to make her eyes work for him. But his lashes would’t have her lashes, and those eyes ended up being glanced back into the dove house, through an open window, for old time’s sake.

His third set must be made to last, he knew. Everybody in the town had lost their patience, lots of broken bits, patents, patterns, cowpats and patty cakes to fall over if he wasn’t careful. Being eyeless as well, don’t you know? He applied to the cloisters with his desperation in tow, having had to dig deep within to find it.

With him wounded in mind as well as body, the monks laid him in a cell to be assessed by the head himself. Calm yourself, oh sightless sinecure, they said. The head has worked here many a year without its body incorporated. It’s a choice you too can make though we will find it difficult to perform our miracles from a blind. Still, we are a charitable institution and will always work with a given.

Meanwhile, back at the hostelry, Aile reeled in her eyes by hand. Their thin-stranded wires coiled by her feet. She fished their control unit from a nearby soup. So much for their reputed flight. Of steel and ebony her eyes were made in a cave where the dwarves weren’t all that fussy about their justified desserts. They cared more about how they were paid.

That ‘how’ became Aile’s target. She grabbed an ill-conceived idea, with wings barely longer than a falconet’s and sent it to the breakfast table to sort her thief’s unregarded losses. Fleeting back to her in numbered send-packets, she swept them into her snood and slipped out the door. The monastery stood downhill, a slide not too hair-raising.

Her beloved thief heard her coming, glorious, victorious. I’m on my way-ay-ay!!!

Would he welcome her with a hair-flick tossed randomly into the crowded cloister for every mad monk to scrabble up from the floor or would his cowlick long enough to torque around her finger do her justly?

I don’t know, he cried. I suffer from malaise, inept-time-management and lassitude. I wish she would just carry me off. The sunset beckons for it captured that clause. Different to when the red coat lived in the Arctic and it still had ice and he still had his elves and missus. He gave out presents when you needed it and I’ve run out of mine. First I lose my eyes, then my nous, then my presence. What will I do?

Yoo-hoo, my love. Let’s be about it, thief of my heart. Aile waltzed into the cell and sweeping the thief from the bed—she plucked a round-eyed gaze from the attendant—she set her lover on his feet. Come with me my torquing clown my glaze-eyed gorget glass-eyed geegaw. The world is oysterishly beautiful.

The monkish eyes fit the thief remarkably well. He stared owlishly into the future she described so eloquently. Oysterishly? I think not, my aileron. My work is here, with my ineptitudes taken care of by management. I understand that they will whip me if I so much as drop a bundle. Apparently, I’m better at cards than every-other sharp in residence.

My new home’s clangers will control my torpors, lassitude, laze and make them episodic. Permutated with episode, epistle and episo they will finally give me an epilogue. Look for me in the cemetery, my love, on the day when you too come a-burying.

.

Just Thinking 1: Why Write

In the Fields embroidered by Rita de Heer

It’s useless to be thinking about the future when you are starting out, on anything. You start your working life putting up signs, you have no clue that one day you might be working on high rises installing in glass walls with the help of a robot.

People starting out as writers are the same. I started with writing poetry. I had no idea then that one day I’d take on an sf trilogy.

Nearly everybody here in the Discord’s Writing Cartel has a world/universe that they are either writing into or using as scene setting for any number of creative projects. Yesterday I watched a short film on Youtube, there are people developing games, writing novels, short stories, you name it, it’s being written.

Every one of these worlds/galaxies/universes are huge. Many of us have spent every spare moment of our boring work lives thinking up detail. There will always be areas in any of these worlds that will stay private to their creator, and other areas that will see heavy traffic of stories.

We’re all doing it for the love of it. World building is one of the most satisfying mind games we all engage in, relaxing and psychologically uplifting. Next comes the harder thing. Convincing other people to put their own worlds aside for an hour, and engage with us in ours. So we write stories, develop adventure games, produce visuals, film about our worlds.

The Discord Writing Cartel community is all about sticking our toes in the waters of our worlds, writing though the shallows, and finally committing ourselves to writing fully fledged stories to share first with each other, then with the world.

Only then, with that last word, can you start thinking about how much money you might make.
Though, of course, these are just my own thoughts. Take them well salted.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 16

Walking …

There’s jogging and there’s jogging, I think. The second kind is when a pair of people jog with a stretcher on their shoulders. The person on the stretcher jounces mercilessly and indeed must jounce to help the joggers keep their pace. Which is what I discover when I try for a change to sit with my back straight.

Wren and Meerkat, my bearers for that stretch, slow to a walk. As we’re approximately in the middle of the line everyone behind us also slows. What’s worse, the line breaks. The fast front continues jogging. The rear slows to a walk.

Limber drops back from the front to discover the wherefores. “You two tired already?” he asks my bearers.

“Only been at it a couple of hundred paces,” Meerkat says. He sounds offended.

“It’s the way she’s sitting, straight as a maul-handle,” Wren says. She indicates up with her thumb, steadfastly refusing to name me. “Without give in her, she bounces, comes down hard. The sticks bend deeper. They want to spring off from our shoulders.”

“Show me,” Limber says.

We advance the few paces needed to illustrate Wren’s explanation. “She wants to ride, she’s got to move to the rhythm of the ponies,” Wren says.

“Wren has a point, Shaman Jeb,” Limber says. “It’s important we don’t split the group. Easier for Lotor to take out a small group than a larger one.”

“I apologize, Wren. Meerkat. Limber.” I try to catch their eyes to show that I mean it. I force myself to relax into the cross-legged jouncing posture and my bearers resume their labor.

Limber springs ahead to warn the fast front about the gap and the need to allow the rest of us to catch up.

I wonder whether the rules Puma has set for this stage are really necessary. Keep the line unbroken. The pace is a slow jog. Follow in the footsteps of the person in front.

As in, keep exactly to the single-file trail. “Who leads?” I ask. I’m guessing Meerkat will answer.

“Every thousand paces, the leader of that stage falls back,” Meerkat says.

“Funny how she hasn’t noticed them checking their way to the rear?” Wren says. “What Limber just did, didn’t he?”

Oh. I continue the conversation silently. This is my first time traveling by stretcher. I sneer at myself. That’s just an excuse. There’s a lot to see. Another excuse. But none of my conversational gambits will solve the reason for Wren’s dislike if I don’t open my mouth. “This is my first time traveling the desert. Lame excuse, I know.”

“Limber was at the end of the front,” Meerkat says. “I never heard about anyone being born on a platform. Everyone else will have had a first time in the desert too.”

“All you boys are smitten with her, and for what?” Wren says.

“Oh!” I can’t stop myself bursting out. “I suddenly see why you persist in speaking about me. It allows you to do exactly what you just did.”

I’m not totally sure what I am accusing Wren of, just that it suddenly made sense for a moment. The effect of my outburst is total silence in our little group. I have time to notice that the wind from the south is picking up. Its searing soughing hits the cavalcade side-on. Everyone’s clothes flap northward.

I see Limber skipping back down the line from the front. The person he needs to pass sways to one side, Limber sways to the other. Both manage to keep their feet on the single file path.

Very clever I’m sure, I think grumpily. Why couldn’t I have noticed that before?

Limber reaches us.

“Wren is done here,” Meerkat says. “But I will need a hundred thousand paces to work off my rage.”

Limber looks to me. I shrug helplessly. I feel as hopeless as ever about my chances to fit into the society of my age group. I used to pretend high and mightiness and that their resultant dislike was because of my totem. “I’m sorry.” For being what I am.

“I am so fucking angry,” Meerkat says conversationally. “I’ll probably strangle someone if I get loose. Get Ant.”

“I am so fucking angry I could burst,” Wren says. “That ugly bitch up on the sticks takes both my boyfriends and I’ve got to carry her like she is an Earth-born princess?”

Limber signals to the rear.

I pull my hood over my eyes and close them for good measure. I try not to take any notice of the changeover. I hear Wren and Meerkat take the loads given them. I hear Meerkat sent to the front. I hear Limber order Wren to the rear. Was Mongoose one of Wren’s recent boyfriends?

“There now, my pretty,” I hear from a way to the front.

The old shaman strokes my soul and my eyes almost overflow. I imagine the Totem Reality. It has slopes of lush grasses, stony outcrops and a blue sky. Sunlight beams down.

I spread my wings and hunt down a rabbit. Just when I’m about to crush its life, I notice it has Wren’s face. Out of shock I release her and she escapes down a hole. I press my hood against my eyes to soak up my tears. 

Fiction: Half Shaman, 15

New Chief, Old Shaman

Uncle flaps a hand. The red-tailed woman and one of the men, both of the guard squad, step through the seated crowd. With soft encouragements that I don’t hear, and without touching him, they direct Simmon to the edge of the platform.

Where he sits down. The guards stand either side of him. Not at their ease.

Uncle must have signaled that there is something more about the prisoner than the mere inconvenience of his presence? I feel a bit better.

“So here we are.” Uncle’s tone says that he will not accept any nay-saying. “What’s not to protect?”

People meet Uncle’s glare or they don’t. It’s a good way of discovering his, and so my supporters. The way people accept Uncle’s leadership surprises me.

Ant jumps into the opportunity both feet first. “So I was thinking back along the road a bit that Puma should be Chief?”

Uncle narrows his gaze.

“A boy talking,” Simmon calls from his place. A lot of people bristle.

“Sez you,” Ant says. “You’ve been with us for how long? Got a loud voice when you don’t even know if we’ll keep you.”

“What is it with you doing all the talking suddenly,” Jackdaw says. “Usually it’s your mate.”

Ant takes a deep breath. “I figured my role in the Great Project could be to liaise between the young Shaman and the group?”

“Why bother with that when you’re set on picking me as Chief?” Uncle says.

“Often Shaman Jeb won’t be able to talk with everyone separately, when separate is needed. She doesn’t know people the way Thyal knows everyone from birth practically. And by the time we have forty in the troop, say, even Thyal will have a problem getting to everyone’s individual concerns. I can help with that.”

Everyone is sitting there slightly agape, it seems.

Ant continues. “And we should always have a singing group on standby. It doesn’t have to be the same people all the time. I can help organize there. Jeb isn’t accustomed to the kind of life we lead, always on the move, I’m already helping with that. I’m pretty sure more things will come up.”

Then Ant repeats what he said to Mongoose and me, adding in a few encouraging words. “Much less confusion with a separate Chief. What the Ark-Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what an experienced Chief will recommend. Better to have a discussion, with a Chief’s final vote than Jeb being advised by all and sundry and worrying alone.”

“Ha!” Simmon says. “There’s that worrying again, Jeb. Everybody is onto you.”

Despite that Simmon should be a person of no consequence to me, I think back. Was I worried while I was in the white cell? Only when people were doing things to me, or when I wasn’t in control of my life. Was I worried escaping through the black cell? Didn’t have time. Was I worried walking away from the old man in the chapel? I was walking away. So … maybe I worry when I’m not in control?

“I see that you don’t merely choose a chief,” Uncle comments, “but that you also expect him to be open to discussion. Is that your idea or Shaman Jeb’s?”

Ant and I both stay silent.

“It’s the love-struck loon’s idea?” Uncle says.

Lithe grins. Mongoose grins.

“It’s the idea of all of us pack animals,” Meerkat says. “We’ve been brewing it. And we’ve decided we need just one person giving us our instructions, not fifty all wanting their own stuff carried in as many quirky ways. And, most of all, we need someone who realizes that if we carry all day every day, we won’t be much good carrying nights as well.”

Now everybody young enough to be a pack animal, grins. “Meerkat for chief!” says a girl.

Limber is the next to agree. Which he does quite sneakily? “So when shall we start the next stage, Chief?” he says.

Uncle thinks. “Tonight is too soon.” He smiles a fleeting glance toward Ant with approval and gratitude mixed in it. A chief-in-waiting can’t take the position no matter what the need as he sees it. He has to be chosen.

“Got a couple of pack animals needing a night off,” Uncle says. “The next stage is twenty-five kilometers. We’ll be crossing several regions of the carnivorous sand.”

I’m sure I grow pale. I feel the skin of my face constricting.

“This platform is higher,” Uncle in his Puma-guise says. “So we’ll pare some longer staves from the stem. Make a stretcher so we can all help carry our young shaman. Pair up according to shoulder height. Nobody carries more than a thousand paces at the time.”

“Is a chief really necessary?” Simmon says from afar.

I hear how he makes his voice sound bored. If he thinks he’ll influence people that way, he doesn’t know us at all. And why is he even trying to keep people aware of his presence? I grin. Answered that myself just then.

Lithe leans toward him. “Earthborn, how long do you think I will tolerate you in the troop without a totem? Puma is the right man for the job. Always before, he was Puma-in-waiting as I was Lithe-in-waiting, as Limber was Limber-in-waiting.”

Limber smiles and expands on his brother’s comment. “We waited for trouble and jumped in according to need. But we two,” he salutes his brother. “We are also of the Black Swan Totem. Which comes with its own and entirely different role.”

 “We welcome Puma’s leadership,” Lithe says. “Him taking the lead will enable us to spend more time on our Black Swan work without worrying things will fall apart in the organization of the troop.”

He glances at me.

Why?

 “That’s right,” Limber says. “But don’t think to play up, anybody.” He glances round maybe at the known troublemakers. “We’ll still be Puma’s lieutenants. As the Ant said, much less confusion.”

Everyone laughs.

I guess because of the confusion of a pair of identical twins telling how it is as if they are one person. I want to know more about the Black Swan totem and why Lithe looked at me just then.

“So. Simmon,” Uncle Puma says in the slightly ponderous way he has always had, but which now suits his role. “To stay with us, my lieutenants feel you ought to adopt a totem for real.” He stared at Simmon, maybe daring him to tell us he already had a totem, the Sea Eagle. To prove it, he’d have to shuck his shirt for us to see his Sea Eagle tattoo.

Simmon stares back and stays put. Therefore no Sea Eagle tattoo, or totem. More likely in my opinion Simmon hopes to keep us ignorant of the skin disease.

“Thyal and you won’t be carrying,” Uncle says. “You’re the wrong size. Thyal is old. In return for you backpacking Thyal’s swag, he’ll teach you your totem. Twenty-five kilometers gives you plenty of time to pick it up.”

Thyal laughs old-man-style. “Huh huh huh. He’s a Grey Wolf if I ever saw one. Got some of the character already. Can grow into the rest, the way we all do.”

Simmon perks up.

Though I worry about Simmon’s infection passing to Thyal, I laugh into my hand. Everybody wants to be a Wolf some time in their lives. Usually when they are kids.

 “I guess the Earth-born contains information that hasn’t yet been extracted,” Mongoose says. “Learning the totem will be enough of a distraction, maybe, that they can pick his brains while he doesn’t realize.” He ends doubtful. “Maybe. He could be smarter than people realize.”

****

The dome of the sky overhead is studded with stars.

I don’t sleep. Not enough exercise, I expect. The Ark-Ship passes regularly along the arc of its orbit. The stars along the edge of the platform become red pinpricks. They are wild little eyes above hungry little mouths waiting to eat me alive …

“Come to me, young Shaman.”

A voice like a soft paw pummels aside the little things with eyes and mouths and nattering teeth. “We will practice a vigil together. Many are the nights that a vigil is all that I achieve.”

The paw speaks to me? I see a flash of sandy brown fur. A long back striped with black.

“Old Thyal, seated to your north.”

I see him now. A shadowed triangle shape breaks the pin-pricked rim. Everywhere else lays the troop, restless or still according to the quality of their sleep. All their heads near the dangerous rim, feet toward the middle. Left and right of me sleep Ant and Mongoose.

“Take the inner road, young Shaman. The Earth-origin gadget will not bother you again.”

I can’t sleep anyway. Trust him about the gadget? Why am I so scared about everything? Been dallying on the low road, I answer myself. Despite that I already worked out what happens when I do.

But, is it because I don’t know how to love and live at the same time? How will I learn that? I slip from between Ant and Mongoose, both near but courteously far enough not to be touching. Although Mongoose manages to keep a big toe so near to my shin, he might as well be. Lithe called him a love-struck loon?

I tiptoe through the central depression, expecting at any moment to feel pain shirring up my feet.

Nothing.

I breathe out in relief and take a great gulp of air before sitting myself cross-legged in front of the old Shaman. The shine of his eyes catches the starlight until they are themselves twinkling stars.

“There now,” he says. “There now. You get no peace from your vigils, I think.”

He waits, it seems.

“I’ve always used them for deep thinking, to try to solve problems,” I say. “The Head Shaman …”

He takes my left hand with his right hand. His left arm is missing to above his biceps. “I remember the Head Shaman,” he says. “He’d bonded with the Tarsier Totem when I knew him.”

I’m shocked. This old shaman knew my mentor and calls him mischievous?

“There now, my pretty.” He rubs the back of my hand with his thumb.

I don’t pull away. He’s old, half-blind, and pretty is just a word.

“Your eyes are very beautiful,” he says. “Your loon fell in a heartbeat, did he not? Unfold and flower, my pretty. Look on him with love and he will never leave you.”

I feel my heart jump. I hear its glad thudding high in my chest. I wish I wish I wish. Thump. But how will I be independent as well?

“Come back, my pretty.” The old shaman turns my hand in his and rubs my palm. “Now,” he says. “The planet progresses along her path. Do you see the Ark-Ship?”

I locate the ship. “A point of light in the northeast quadrant.”

“I trust you. My old eyesight doesn’t reach that far. Two hundred and fifty kilometers above us …” He shakes his head at the wonder of it. “Do you know what our Ark-Ship looks like?”

“No.”

“Neither do I,” he says. “It must stay a point of light in our minds for now. But reaching it is the Great Project of our hearts. Track its journey for me, down through Lotor’s sky sphere.”

I kneel up. “With your hand?” I lift his hand and pointing finger, and trace the Ship’s path along its arc until it disappears behind the planet. “It’s gone now. Behind the planet.”

 I sit back down.

“Let’s think now about the Ark-Ship’s interior,” Thyal says. “How things might be arranged inside it. I hope there will be a Totem Reality where we may harness ourselves into our Totem animal’s skins, to live their lives for a time, so to learn their wild ways for the sake of understanding our totems the better.”

He looks at me. “What will you imagine?” His voice fades while he still instructs. “Don’t tell me … think it … dream it … practice your shamanic arts.”

Can I still be the Harpy Eagle? I need her strength. Can I integrate the two people I am becoming? I spread my wings. Time stops while I soar up the thermals. A green grass and grey stone mountain-scape unfolds beneath me. Goats and smaller prey animals live and breed on the slopes. I hunt and give thanks for my existence.

“Come back, young one.”

I wake to the old shaman stroking my hand.

“Go back to your loon now,” he says. “We’ll practice our arts again another night.” 

I am mesmerized. I don’t feel the glassy platform under my feet, maybe I’m still soaring. I subside between Mongoose and Ant.

“Took you long enough,” Mongoose mumbles.

I don’t laugh because I don’t want even a breath of my lightness-of-being to escape me.

Fiction: Half Shaman, 14

The Automatic Transponder

By the time I climb up onto the new mushroom-shaped platform, about twice the diameter of the previous one, Ant has organized a couple of people to stand by at the top. One of them smiles gently. One of them smiles fiercely. The gentle one is big, older than us. A twin, all the way to his smile, stands behind him. “Lithe and Limber we are, Shaman.”

The fierce one is as young as Ant and Mongoose and me. They help me to my feet, gentle and fierce, and I walk toward the center of the platform. About a dozen and a half—I count quickly—quite a lot more than the four more people that Ant said there would be are camped around a central depression.

The fierce one and the gentle one release my arms and I, feeling hemmed in by being suddenly among so many, make for that space.

Set foot on it. A knife hacks into my arm! “Aa-eeehhh!” My arm screams. Knife blade worries at my bone. Pain! Pain! I scream. Jerk back. Too late. I fall.

Men, women, boys, friends surround me. They reach for me. Hold me. Shout. I see their mouths move. There’s pandemonium in slow motion. I do not hear. Pain only is talking and I didn’t even sing for it.

But it all reminds me. I sob. Yes. There’s a patterning in the pain. I clench my jaw. Be quiet. Use your senses. The stabbing repeats stab, stab, stab.

I gasp. “Signal,” I press out between my teeth.

I see Lithe, his face near mine on the glassy ground. “There’s letters! I gasp. Sob. Scream into him. “There’s a signal!”

Lithe shouts behind him. His twin pulls someone forward. “A signal. Ready to write?”

I blurt dashes and dots into the dark between Lithe and me, and the other inking her arm writing them there. Each of the elements—is what the Head Shaman called them—draws a blade down a screaming nerve or stabs me to my arm bone. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dash dot, dot dot dot dot, dot dot.

It seems finished. I start to relax.I gasp.More ….”

Knowing what’s coming I swallow my screams. Just gasp. Sob, maybe. Dash dash dash dash dash, dot dash dot dot, dot dash, dash dash.

Slightly different than the first sequence.

At the end I feel broken inside. Though there’s no blood. No torn skin. No wounds except for my pride again. I’d hoped to be a normal person. My hopes, gone again. A spectacle I will be.

“Ha!” Simmon says. “She’s a sensitive? It’s probably the transponder niggling her.”

“And you know that how?” Uncle says. He sounds dangerous.

I want to crawl away. Hide.

Ant steps in the way of all the interested onlookers. Mongoose lets me cry on him for a minute. They both help me to sit up, crossed legs. Ant stays on his feet. His leg is a tree I lean against. Mongoose sits half in front of me, my knee against his back. I cradle my poor left arm. It throbs, so sore still. Mongoose gives me the corner of a sarong-wrap to blow my nose. 

Simmon chuckles. “This platform was made by glassing, meaning a starship fused the sand into a landing pad before touchdown. I believe the girl was hit by the automatic transponder cached in the pad’s center. Lotor, because she will always be hungry for alien machinery, wears away at the foundations. Hence the undercutting.”

“Why?” Uncle says. 

Simmon doesn’t hear or he ignores Uncle. “I’m amazed that the transponder still works. It signals the geo co-ordinates out into near-space where any arriving spacecraft can read them, and organize their touch-down accordingly. My mates and I dropped dozens all over the planet just after we arrived. This one will be one of the fixed points along the Great Parallel.”

Uncle snarls. “Give us the scientific detail.”

That gets Simmon’s attention. He stares round the circle.

“Scientific detail,” he repeats as if he doesn’t believe the Earth-born know anything about science. He proceeds to tell us in simplified ship-speak. “Tells us where we are on the planet’s surface. Zero Phi stands for Zero Latitude, another word for the Equator.”

“An equator is an equalizer?” Limber says. Rumble from a couple of other people wanting to know, too.

Simmon smiles like he is vindicated. Like he knew we’d not cope with science.

I feel he belittles us with his attitude. “In Shaman School we had a ball on a stand to look at, with a map of the Continent and the Ocean painted on it.” I tremble with all their stares on me.

Mongoose squeezes my hand. I continue. “Over the top of land and sea were lines that help us navigate, which are imaginary out in the field. The way Simmon tells it, all along the widest part of Lotor runs an imaginary line called an equator. The signal names it Zero Phi. Simmon calls it an abbreviation.” I snort. “With fifteen elements? That’s double the ship’s call sign.”

“You learned your lessons well, Little Shaman,” Simmon says.

Now I’m furious. I rise to my feet.

Straightaway all around me there’s a physical shifting that I ignore. I trust Mongoose and I trust Ant. “Who isn’t little compared to you? A long end of rope to hang yourself with, my father would’ve called you.”

A couple of people snort, possibly recognizing the saying from their own fathers. I bite my lips to stop there. Before I tell my people what he is, he’s got to be made to tell us why he follows us.

“How can she be a shaman with all that screaming and crying?” someone says.

I don’t know his voice.

“She has a hurt we can’t see. Are we fools to continue with her when it is a matter of life and death? Will she even live long enough herself?”

Ant laughs. “Listen to the Jackdaw! If somebody gave me in my childhood that totem to learn from, do you think I wouldn’t have earned another by now? You think it isn’t a matter of life and death to her? Do you even know what she had to do to join us?”

I sit down and tune out.

Ant starts to tell how I escaped before he and Mongoose could rescue me.

I plan what I will say next.

When Ant is finished, I kneel up to get a little height. “Yes. I cried and I screamed. You all heard me,” I say. I stop. I’m telling them what they already know.

Mongoose squeezes my hand again. He gets me out of my nerves.

I plan what else to say. “First the Ark-Ship talks into me. Then, apparently, an Earthborn gadget talks into me. They both have signals with many elements that have got to fit into the little amulet in me.” I massage my arm where the amulet still throbs.

“It feels like I get burnt, stung, stabbed and cut all at the same time. My nerves scream at me. I scream at you. But look, no wounds.” I bare my arm and show them my harpy eagle tattoo. “No blood. I’ll probably get used to it. Maybe even to the point of not screaming, so I don’t frighten people.” I look at Jackdaw. “And maybe—I won’t know till I ask—the Ark-Ship can fix its signal so it doesn’t hurt me.”

The fierce one who greeted me springs forward and slides to me on his knees. “I’ll gladly help with the singing for that, Shaman Jeb. I’m Meerkat, forever honored that you sang my totem to discover the ship.”

Someone in the people-shadows sneered. “Pff. Meerkats. Always the song and dance.”

“Thanks, Meerkat,” I say. I take a deep breath. Might as well get it all out. “I am only half the Shaman you need. But I… I thought I’d come along because I worked out how to talk to the Ark-Ship and …”

Simmon cuts in at that point. “You heard her, she’s only half the Shaman you need. But Lotor … Lotor needs all of her. I followed you to offer you a whole job, Jeb.”

His interruption is so preposterous that I am not the only one with my mouth hanging open. The only sound is the soughing of sand in the wind scouring at the base of the platform. Both Mongoose and Ant also rise, and move nearer. They squeeze me between them.

Small protective moves, but I see people taking notice. There’s a murmuring to and fro. I know so few of these people, I can’t see who thinks what. Are there really people here who think I should take Simmon’s offer?

“Thyal?” Uncle says. “You have some words on this?”

I don’t believe it. Uncle is one of them? But he came to fetch me!

An old man with just one whole arm rises from the group seated to Uncle’s left and seats himself between Uncle and me.

“I am Thyal, Shaman Jeb,” he says, nodding at me. “Forever studying the Thylacine totem. I assign totems in this troop, and teach their recipients the way to carry themselves as Totems.”

He lifts the stump of his arm. “Ihave no amulet. I’m a one-armed Shaman useless for what you’ll be good at. Together we are well-suited to the task.” 

Oh. I break out in smiles from the relief. “I’d like that.” Thyal has put my worries to rest on a couple of counts.

“Jeb, these people live in the past.” Simmon says. “How many have they lost due to that fatal flaw? You don’t want to be among them when Lotor starts to take an interest in nomads now that she has finished with the towns. If we leave now, I can have you in the laboratories by daylight. New set of friends. People who’ll appreciate you for being of your mother’s line.”

I want to be scathing. Why would I listen to him? But … how does he know about my mother? What does he know about her? What does he mean, the laboratories? I clench my hands together in my lap. I don’t want eye contact with Simmon and I stare beyond him to the back of the crowd.

Out there where a raised hand waves to and fro. A woman there is trying to get my attention? She’s got it.

She pulls her black hair, plaited in one long braid, forward over her shoulder. A red ribbon is threaded through. She points my gaze to another woman, nearer to Uncle and Thyal, dressed all in black. Then she points out two men standing quite near to Mongoose. All have their hands resting on killing knives worn cross-wise in their sauger-hide belts.

I understand that she heads the guard squad and is showing me them at the ready. I smile a little.

The woman winks.

“Earthborn laboratories tend to be underground,” Thyal says, confirming my suspicions about Simmon’s offer. “The wisdom for that, it is said, are Lotor’s frequent re-arrangements of her landscapes.”

“You’ve got that right, old man,” Simmon says. “The very reason you’ve just lost seventeen shamans. The remaining Shaman School has fallen, I’m told. Have you noticed how often Lotor re-arranges its surface when the shamans are near to solving the problem of reaching the Ark-Ship?” He laughs. “What do you say to the fact that you’re the only one of your kind remaining, Jeb?”

He gets up. He stands swaying from side to side. He could be drunk or he could be trying to hypnotize me. Won’t do him any good. I’m not susceptible.

“A pretty packet of news that lit a fire cracker under me,” he says in a dreamy tone. “Wherefrom will you learn the rest of your tricks now? It’s clearly useless even thinking about it. Better to say goodbye. We won’t have far to go because Lotor will open a door anywhere.” All short statements delivered in that same dreamy tone, timed to coincide with the swaying.

“Don’t even joke about it,” Uncle says.

“I was joking?” Simmon says. He looks at me and takes in my awareness of his strategy. “Oops,” he says. “Of course I was joking. Though I do believe that about the Shaman Schools. And I believe this puma already knew it too. That must be why you and your buddies came to fetch her? You went away without her, what was that about?”

He describes Uncle with the puma-totem. Did he hear us talking? I don’t at that moment recall when Mongoose and Ant and I discussed the chieftainship. Whether Simmon had already caught up with us and we didn’t hear him.

Simmon scratches his forearm. Quite a large flake of skin springs loose and falls to the platform, from where the breeze picks it up. Uncle sees it too. He sees that I watch him track the flake over the side and away.

He remembers what I remember. But he shakes his head. It’s too soon, he mouths.

I hope he means it is too soon to tell anyone about Simmon’s affliction because Simmon hasn’t yet said why Lotor wants me.

Mongoose strokes my arm to stroke my worries gone. “The bastard will get what’s coming to him.”

I’m afraid. Simmon suffers from the Earthborn disease. Whoever touches him will die, the settler-born the quicker. My father died not long after he lay down with my sick mother. How many will Simmon try to take with him?

Fiction: Half Shaman, 13

Ant’s Idea

I can’t make a mistake on this. Simmon’s forearm skin is a mosaic of skin flaps, which when shed, become the infectious flakes fluttering from the doomed person every move they make, if they are not fully contained by their clothes.

The settler-kind die within days, and though Simmon’s DNA pattern is straight from Earth and the Earthborn believed themselves to be immune to the skin-sloughing disease, they just take longer to die.

Simmon seems to be following us. Why? And he carries a rolled up, darker-than-night life-suit in his bag, with its insides likely littered with skin-flakes and so as infectious as he is. Though it needn’t be that he intends to hide the life-suit from us.

“Yon Earthborn is in a hurry to catch up with Uncle,” Ant says while he and Mongoose reorganize my seating.

“Alliances … change,” Mongoose says between paces, when we get going again. “How come … he doesn’t know …. that?”

“Ha!” Ant explodes a little. “Haven’t they just? Good … that tonight … we are … with eight.”

Does he mean four more people waiting? The group doubles.

“Let’s walk a bit, Ant,” Mongoose says.

“Suits me, brother.”

When his breathing is back to normal, Mongoose jiggles his end of the front of my seat. “A lot to think about, Jeb.”

“Yes,” I say. More than anything I want to be me for a minute. Simmon has joined Uncle. They are way ahead. “If you could’ve heard the times at the school someone told me to mind my tongue, you would be laughing now to hear me so silent. What I mean to say …” I collect my thoughts. “It’s hard being around friendly people while trying to be someone else.” I hurry on. “When I haven’t had any kind of practice being a shaman.”

“When I heard you trying out the different voices up in the white cell,” Ant says. “I thought, there’s a girl my age still learning her place in the Great Project, the same as I am still learning my place. That’s when I decided to stick around in the group around you, Shaman Jeb, to help you. Like, be part of your support group. If you’ll have me?”

I don’t know what to say. Again. “Umm. Thanks. That’ll be good. Because I …”

Mongoose interrupts. He’s blushing again. “When the damned Lotor-born threw you out and you lay there crying and laughing, I would’ve jumped through the fence and picked you up if Lithe hadn’t held me back.”

I blush because he blushes. 

Ant laughs. “Look at the pair of you. Tsk. Tsk. Good thing Lithe was right there, Mongoose, my friend. You would’ve been slaughtered and where would Jeb be then?”

I shudder. I care about them so much already. How can that be good? 

“That danger is past,” Mongoose says. “Let’s sing. We’ll need teach you some words too, Jeb. You probably having had a fairly sheltered upbringing.”

We all laugh, probably about different things.

“This song is a rhythm for running, Shaman Jeb,” Ant said. “Pick up your left foot, right foot … is always the first part of a line. Here we go, running.”

Pick up your left foot, right foot, step high through the sands of Lotor’s hell,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step low over stone and mountain,  

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step wide through gelid waters,

“Pick up your left foot, right foot, step narrow along the Great Meridian.”

“What’s the Great Meridian?” I say, jouncing in time to their beat.

Mongoose passes the question. “Ant?”

“Mm-mm. I just sing it,” Ant says. “I’m nearly always carrying a load. Pardon me, Shaman.”

“Only if you’ll pardon me for being what I am.”

“Has you there, brother,” Mongoose says. “I hereby decree … no more pardoning among us three. Jeb, your uncle is a Puma.”

A Puma? My feelings speed faster than light into an idea. I tremble. “He is a Puma-in-waiting?”

“I think you nailed it,” Mongoose says.

“A Puma will be a better chief than a shaman who is also the Ark-Ship’s Mouth,” I hear myself say.

“I see that,” Ant says.

“What?” Mongoose’s voice is scor with saw-edged emotions. He clears his throat. “I mean, why?”

“Much less confusion,” Ant says. “What the Ship says, not knowing the conditions on the ground, might be a lot different to what a chief would recommend?”

Mongoose doesn’t comment.

I don’t comment because I don’t trust my feelings not to overflow. What I know about a certain shaman, who also was a chief, was that he had a lot of advisers. What I know about these advisors is that they thought they were right about everything to do with the man’s life. The advisers had no kind of patience for the chief to have any kind of private life. And which meant that he hadn’t.

Mongoose grins with the corner of his mouth because I stroke his side with the back of my knuckles where I’m holding onto his shirt. I do not want to live the way that old shaman lived.

Ant continues. “Better to have any compromises made by way of discussion and a chief’s final vote than by Jeb alone, and her worrying.”

“I see what you see,” Mongoose says with unsteady breathing.

Ant chuckles. “Thought you would.”

Ahead of us, the new platform is now near enough that we can see a rag-and-rope ladder hurtling down the sloped cap of the mushroom-shaped formation.

“They lower the ladder to inspire us to speed,” Mongoose says.

“Such a way with words your Mongoose has, oh Shaman,” Ant says, laughing. “The mongoose goes chittering … oops … goes glittering to his … to his …”

Mongoose thumps Ant before he has a chance to finish. Probably good if I ignore all that. Don’t know what to do with it. Hints of … innuendo? If I go there, I’ll blush again.

Instantly business-like, Mongoose says, “Ant, you go first. I’d love it if you could break the mirror of expectation and old habits. I’ll be up as soon as I’ve picked up after the damned uncle still in his noble patrician mode.”

Ant glances over the pack and swag at the base of the ladder. “Yeah, we’ve got to train everybody out of that. I’ll talk with a couple more of the pack animals.”

I don’t see the Earth-born’s swag. He considers the life-suit is too precious to be left lying about?

Ant and Mongoose set my feet on the first rag-plaited rung of the ladder. My hands on the twisted rope sides. “Only one at the time climbing, Jeb.” Mongoose puts his hand over mine to hold me back.

Mm. Nice. Can’t call it accidental. But, realistically, who am I to hope? I saw five beautiful girls in the Yellow City dream.