See the introduction for more information.
This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[gcp near has asel, 2bfm, 14yo]
In the years he had traveled with Do-yath’s caravan, Dandec had harbored many visions of the border. At times he had imagined a wall, guarded by students as a form of civic labor for the university. Other times he had imagined a sudden and harsh change in the landscape: the grass on the side of the Great Common Plains tall and green and thick, that on the Esor Asel side lower and yellower, growing in rocky soil. When the forerunners reported that the border should be in sight, Dandec had eagerly studied the horizon, and seen nothing. The grassland that was the entire universe of the GCP continued infinitely into the southward haze. Lower here than in other places, but still identical on either side of whatever line divided the territories. It seemed almost unfair.
Even so, there was electricity in him. It was three years now since Dandec had departed from Alu Hechak, three years carrying traders’ wares and sleeping in the grass under a sky so vast that it could not escape his wandering eyes. Once the caravan approached Esor, however, that life would vanish, and he would be a student. Once it crossed the invisible line at the border.
However close it was, it may not be so soon. Do-yath ordered the caravan along until the east-west road intersected a north-south one, which would take them to a border checkpoint. She then gave the forerunners a pair of codices—her manifest of wares and crew—and then commanded that the wagons be stopped at the crossroads to await approval.
Dandec was in the second of those. Demihuman, prospective student.
Like many crossroads along the ancient imperial roadways, this one had sprung up with a tiny settlement, more than a simple outpost but far from a town. No permanent buildings, but a few tents and houses made from canvas and skins hung from poles driven into the ground. The caravan snaked into it, lungers and horses to the stables, wares to a safehouse, crew to lodging.
Dandec waited patiently just off the side of the road at the back, eyes wandering. Three years of trotting behind the caravan had made him adept at managing with his ever-shifting view, much moreso at least than he had ever been living in Alu Hechak. By now he could walk a straight line on sloped ground while carrying an uneven pack, whereas he might have been made dizzy and turned around if he did not plant his steps carefully. Writing was still a chore, but he was sure that he could keep his letters in line well enough for the university.
So close to the border, he could not keep his mind from always turning that way.
His right eye turned to the outpost long enough to show him two shapes jogging through the grass, away from the wagons and lungers waiting for entrance. The two forerunners were both crowfolk children, probably siblings. Of that, Dandec was still not sure, even though they had been with the caravan longer than he had. Kurik and Atot bounced through the grass, and to his surprise approached Dandec.
“Do-yath says to tell you that the door to the lodgings is directly beside the stables,” Kurik said. Their voice was soft but harsh, like brittle twigs.
Dandec sighed and nodded. He could see only the crown of Atot’s head in one eye, one of Kurik’s feathered shoulders in the periphery of the other. Both waited impatiently for his response so they could return to the front.
“Of course,” he gave it to them, and they bounded back off. One of Dandec’s eyes swiveled to watch their vestigial wings and tails go.
When the cheaper goods were secured in their trunks and crates within the caravan’s wagons, those were moved to a field of grass stunted by decades of use for this purpose. Dandec would spend the night in one of them, well away from the animals that panicked at his scent. And further nights, should Do-yath’s passage into Esor Asel not be expedient. This was not uncommon. And Dandec liked to sleep under the stars.
At fourteen, Dandec was probably as tall as he would ever be. After a prolonged and early puberty, he seemed to be following typical human development, which was something few demihumans could rely upon. His hard skin had been briefly oily but he seemed to be past that. Do-yath had ordered him examined by physicians periodically—he didn’t know why himself alone, among all the crew—and each time the boy had been declared quite healthy. Within the range of what could be anticipated for his kind, at least. Early on, those had predicted that his eyes would come under his control in adolescence. Watching the sky and unable to see any quadrant of it for long, he hoped they merely estimated that too early.
When Dandec lay alone in his wagon, he found that he could not sleep. The closeness of his longtime destination was like a buzzing in his ears that did not let him rest. He wondered if he should simply hop down from his de facto bed and walk the rest of the way, enter the checkpoint alone on foot and introduce himself and his intent, name the professors to whom he had written. Though he did not know what could be more alarming to the border guards than a strange, bulbous-eyed boy approaching them alone at midnight.
He contemplated what his studies might be in Esor. He imagined himself walking the paths of royal gardens and orchards, examining and testing. Knowing the trees, knowing the flowers, knowing the grasses. He thought, perhaps, he would write a schema for their classification. Perhaps he would revolutionize the discipline.
(When Dandec imagined himself, he saw a greenish-skinned human, with black hair and large eyes, much like his but not so strange. In his imaginings, those eyes moved like the eyes of others, under their owner’s control and with eager concentration.)
Dandec was imagining thus, when he heard a noise amongst the wagons, very close to him. It was a quiet night, and every slight creak of settling wood or shuffle of a scurrying animal made its way to him, but this was different. It was the sound of someone moving deliberately between the wagons.
The demihuman threw a blanket over himself, back stretched flat against the wooden boards. Do-yath normally appointed guards to watch the train, but there had been no sign of one tonight, not yet. If a guard were here, Dandec did not want to be the one to startle them. And if it were an intruder he heard, he did not want to be a witness.
After a long period of waiting, Dandec felt the wagon shift as someone climbed into it. At first he was relieved, thinking it was one of the caravan, come for something from one of the trunks. They said nothing, though, to indicate that they knew Dandec was there, even as they heaved themself aboard the wagon and crept to its back.
Worse was the faint clicking of picks in one of the locks. Dandec choked on his bated breath, both frightened and frustrated. He carefully lifted the edge of the blanket. The eye closest to the opening he made, however, would not look behind him, at the thief. He caught glimpses of a dark shape in the moonlight, but he could recognize little more than a cloaked figure hunched before the trunk.
With a strained sigh and a thought for what Do-yath would say if he reported the thief in the morning, Dandec pulled the blanket away from himself and crept to his knees. He reached for the thief’s arm, and stopped when he had to wonder what he would do if they turned.
But it was enough for the thief to detect him. They turned suddenly—not defensive, but panicked. Dandec only saw them in the edges of his vision, a pale face framed by a hood, frightened eyes.
Dandec backed away. If the thief had a knife, he had no chance to see and avoid it. He could only crawl back and shrink himself against another trunk.
To his surprise, the thief did not attack or flee. They seemed equally paralyzed, cowering where they had been spotted.
“Don’t report me,” they said after some time had passed.
By now Dandec had relaxed somewhat, and one of his eyes had moved so that he could see the thief more clearly, as much as the moonlight allowed. A pale-faced full-human girl, a little older than he, wrapped in a flowing cloak that must have been miserable in the midworld heat. Her eyes were shrouded but the set of her jaw betrayed frustration and shame.
“I won’t,” the demihuman agreed. Genuinely, insofar as he was thankful she had not attacked. When she did not make her escape but only sighed deeply and hunched where she sat, he said, “Anything valuable is inside.”
“Anything is valuable when it is all you can reach.”
The thief relaxed, apparently content that Dandec was not a sentinel. One of the demihuman’s eyes was on her sleeve when she secreted her lockpicks back in it.
“I have such a long way to go,” she said. “I have to sit.”
Dandec settled on his haunches, bewildered. Why had she not fled?
“These merchants are bold, having you,” she had her picks out again already, fiddling with them. “Where did they take you from? I don’t know your accent.”
She did not speak Plainstongue quite like anyone Dandec had heard, either. Dandec shrugged.
“Alu Hechak,” he answered. “I have been with Do-yath for three years.”
The girl shook her head at that. Little as Dandec could see of her, he sensed puzzlement in her reaction.
“They’d fight to get you back if I tried to take you with me,” she mused.
“Why would you take me with you?”
“Obviously I cannot, if they held on to you for three years.”
Dandec was quiet for some time. His eyes turned away and he leaned forward to aim them at her.
“Are you a long way from home, as well?” he ventured asking.
“Not as far as you are. But close.” She played with a lockpick still. Now she rested its tip against the lock of the trunk she had tried before. Two slight metallic gleams in the dark. “Anything I take from this Yath will help me see my home again. Will you cry out?”
“Don’t,” Dandec said.
“At the least, they will know I let it happen.”
The thief shrugged. Her hooded eyes lingered on the demihuman.
“I have to go,” she said suddenly, her voice low and thick.
She was over the wall of the wagon in an instant, undetectable amongst the others. Dandec’s eyes swiveled uselessly and he did not try to follow her. He wondered whether he should even try to sleep, or if he should assume she would come back as soon as he did.
When he had promised not to report the attempt, he had known well that he would decide in the morning whether to hold to it. His heart racing but his excitement dampened, Dandec lay back down where his eyes would eventually turn to the stars.
Word came in the morning that the border checkpoint would not admit the caravan into Esor Asel for several days. No explanation accompanied the message, only the instruction not to bother the border officers with protests.
Do-yath was furious. Though she was stolidly courteous with the messenger, privately she spat accusations at the checkpoint, of accepting bribes or exercising power over a merchant train for their own amusement. Esor Asel was too important a market to turn away from for the perceived insult, though, so she had no choice but to wait. And pay the caravansaray more for each night. She ignored the proscription on protests, nonetheless, and sent the forerunners several times a day to ask for updates.
Dandec was frustrated, too. The longer he had to wait before reaching the university, the more agitated he grew. Spending each night and most of each day in or near the wagons, the endless quiet reminded him of his later years in his home, idle and beset by the painful droning of the city’s magicomechanism. He could enter the caravansaray with circumspection, avoiding the stables and other mounted travelers coming and going, but the tenor of his now longtime companions was sour and made him uncomfortable. Otherwise he could wander the premises with paper and charcoal to mindlessly observe the grass, the insects, the occasional mushrooms.
His previous fretting over the end of his time with Do-yath simmered like vegetables caramelizing in a pot, turning from pleasant to beatific to sour to charred. At times the thought of taking up study in Esor seemed ridiculous; at other times he was desperate for it. At times he was satisfied with his place at the tail or Do-yath’s train; at times he thought of the strange look the trader gave him when he entered the caravansaray and was filled with unease.
It was most bearable when the forerunners came to be bored with him. When not being sent to the border, the corvid children meandered about the fields and talked between themselves, and when their wandering brought them near Dandec they anchored themselves to him for a while. Their endless chatter, while bothersome in itself, quieted his own apprehension. For a while each day they followed him while he studied the border’s flora, both curious and dismissive, before moving on.
They thought his sketches were a waste of paper, and he agreed. The crows because the subject was ubiquitous and uninteresting; he because he had no artistic knack. He still stuffed the drawings into his pack each night.
On the fourth day of waiting, the forerunners did not happen upon him amidst their own drifting, but came to him directly from the caravansaray.
“There is something happening,” Atot declared, surreptitiously as though it were a secret.
“People are gathering,” Kurik elaborated slightly.
Dandec had been seated in the grass, examining a cluster of mushrooms he had no name for, as much as his eyes would let him. He stood immediately at the news.
“In what building?” he asked, while his eyes stared into the cloudless sky.
There was no answer, because the crow children had already turned back. Dandec gripped his loose pages tightly and trotted after, full of cautious excitement.
He circled around to enter the outpost from the northwest, opposite the stables. The dirt paths between the several small buildings and large tents that comprised the crossroads were empty. A page, possibly employed by the caravansaray, tended to the animals, but everyone else had converged in the meeting tent.
Dandec was first hit with disappointment when he saw Do-yath among the crowd within the tent, rather than speaking or meeting a border officer on the dais. The trader stood with her arms crossed, the activity around her rustling her deep blue coat. She was stone-faced, but had an air of satisfaction to her posture. Dandec avoided her, sour as she had been lately, and edged along the back, craning his neck to aim an eye at the platform.
A nigh-human man stood on it, clad in a coat that bore what Dandec could just barely identify as the insignia of a Plains marshal. Beside him stood the thief from the other night, her hands bound and her eyes down.
Dandec found where the forerunners had wedged themselves into the crowd, near the back but with a clear view if he crouched to their height.
“What is going on?” he asked them.
“This marshal has caught a thief,” Kurik said.
“People say she is going to be put to Plainswalk,” Atot added.
The invocation of the harshest sentence allowed by the Plains made Dandec suck in a sharp breath. He crouched for the best view, hoping he was mistaken about the identity of the thief. He had only seen her in the moonlight, after all. What little he could see of the girl on the dais, though, only made him more sure.
“Yet-taye no-Who has been accused of larceny on numerous counts, in numerous regions, by incontrovertible accounts,” the marshal was reading from an order in the hand opposite the one with which he held the thief’s wrists. “The Plains abhors this. She has been apprehended and warned several times, and has continued to transgress. The Plains abhors this. Additionally, she has consciously evaded apprehension and fled custody, which compounds her legal disesteem. As a marshal of the Great Common Plains, I am
authorized to issue sentence upon capture.”
The low murmuring of the crowd halted in anticipation. Dandec’s eyes looked directly at the thief. Her face revealed nothing.
“Lawkeepers of Esor Asel have demanded custody of her, because much of her activities have been conducted in their region,” the marshal continued. “I refuse, for fear of the Plains’s wrath.”
Someone, probably a Lawkeeper come to take the girl, sneered at that.
“In respect to the Lawgivers’ desire for harsher punishment, I place Yet-taye on Plainswalk.”
An electric buzz filled the tent as the marshal detailed the sentence. Talk among the crowd was low, but loud enough that Dandec could not hear what the cloaked man said. He watched the thief a while longer: there was no change at all in her face.
He could not see Do-yath’s face when he backed out of the tent and passed her blue coat, but he knew her expression. If Yet-taye had stolen her wares, she would be quite pleased. Or else disappointed that the far harsher Lawkeepers had not gotten the thief.
Dandec tried to avoid her, but she stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.
“We will be headed south soon enough,” Do-yath assured him. “Once the girl is sent walking, they will clear us. You’ll not have to wait any longer to get to your studies.”
Dandec nodded hastily. For a brief moment he was totally certain the trader knew he had spoken with the thief, and within that moment he was adrift for an eternity, fruitlessly seeking his memory for something illicit in the late-night encounter. The thought was not resolved before he was returned to consciousness by the slight shove Do-yath gave him when they parted.
At night, Dandec lingered outside the holding tent, where Yet-taye was in custody. The marshal and the border men were lax with it, evidently satisfied with the measures they had taken to keep the girl inside. Dandec had only to ask, however sheepishly, and he was permitted to see her.
The thief within was bound at the wrists with rope, and tethered to the frame of the simple cot that was the only furnishing. She glanced up when the demihuman entered, but registered no surprise at the sight of him. He was sure she recognized him, though. Even in the dark, he knew the impression his eyes made.
Up close and beneath a faint magelight, Dandec could see that she was a bit older than he had thought, still youthful but with hardly a trace of childhood about her. Her hair was a reddish black that fell straight around her tapered face, which was shockingly pale. Except for her forehead, which was an angry pink around the symbols freshly tattooed upon it. That redness ringed her eyes, which were dark and filled with something that was almost hostility.
“Oh,” she said, glancing back away.
“I did not report you.”
“You did not need to. I was stupid myself.” She shifted where she sat. “I should have left days ago. The border is a stupid place to steal.”
“You said you have a long way to go.”
“I was going home, back north. I suppose I shall be going the same direction now, at least, on my Plainswalk. Why do you want to know?”
“I am curious,” Dandec admitted. It was not all of it, but it was true.
“You can continue to be curious, then. I’ve just been told that I am going to walk north until I starve, so that a merchant can feel avenged for some little trinket I tried to take.”
“Plainswalk is survivable.”
She gave him a look.
“Do they just let you move freely?”
“As long as I avoid the animals. I frighten them.”
Dandec’s eyes moved in different directions, so that he saw only canvas and dirt. He stood still, hands clasped at his waist, resisted the urge to roll his head and try to find Yet-taye’s face.
“I suppose so.”
“You could cause panic then, whenever you want. Just by moving upwind of the lungers.”
“That would make Do-yath angry.”
A long pause.
“You puzzle me,” the thief said. “I’ve not met a demihuman so eager to be enslaved, and so gracious about it.”
“Do-yath is taking me to the university at Esor to study. That is not slavery.”
“I am going to study botanical philosophy. I have sent letters to scholars already.”
Yet-taye took a deep breath. Dandec searched for her in his vision, as subtly as he could.
“I was wrong,” the girl said. “You don’t puzzle me. You are just very stupid, too.”
Dandec was too confused to be indignant.
“I am not,” he managed, and felt like a child.
“You know that they are selling you into slavery?”
The demihuman scoffed. That was ridiculous and unfounded. If he could have found any words, he would have made Yet-taye understand that.
In the place of the words, he could only think of the discomfort he had felt under Do-yath’s gaze today.
“They are taking me to Esor,” he said softly. “I’ve paid my way with labor. And I have been one of them for years. They wouldn’t.”
“You cannot come near the animals, so you must walk in the back. Do you ever talk to her crew? They have no loyalty to you.”
“Then they will not be distressed when I stay behind to become a student.”
“They do not have demihuman students in the university cities,” she said. “Demihumans can be nothing in Esor Asel.”
“That isn’t true. Esor is ready to take me in.”
“Have you been honest about your species when you write with your scholars? They do not know.”
Dandec was quiet. The thought that the kindly words he had received from botanists in the university cities could be disguised disdain was truly unnerving.
“The moment you cross the border,” the thief said, more gently. “You become a slave. A demihuman in Esor Asel who is not owned by a fullkind can be freely claimed. Do-yath knows this. You should know it.”
Dandec could not say anything. He struggled to retort, to disprove the girl’s warning, the moments in these three years, the flashes of sincerity in the trader’s and her crew’s faces, everything he needed for evidence was sand running through his fingers. He shook his head and left the doomed thief to her captivity without a word.
Yet-taye the thief was put to Plainswalk the next morning. In accordance with the laws of the Great Common Plains, she was taken south to the Esor Asel checkpoint, where the marshal turned her north and planted her heels at the border. From there she was to walk the length of the Plains. The symbols tattooed on her forehead indicated her path and what aid was forbidden her—the worst offenders were not to be fed, watered, or housed; Yet-taye was allowed some limited assistance. Should she survive the walk to the opposite border, she was to cross it and be exiled.
Dandec did not attend the minor spectacle. He did not want to come so near the border. He waited to the north of the outpost, beneath a lone fir tree beyond the caravansaray’s grounds. When in the distance he could just perceive the dark-cloaked figure trudging sullenly northward, he intercepted her.
Yet-taye glanced at him when he approached but said nothing. She walked quietly with him in tow for a long time before saying, sourly:
“Are you on my Plainswalk with me?”
Dandec had thought he would have many things to say to her, but now that he was walking behind her, he did not. He remained quiet and kept to her pace, first for a short stretch and then a long one.
He had not returned to the wagons after he had spoken with the thief yesterday. Instead he had braved the outpost, had drifted about as Do-yath’s crew ate at the mess, re-took inventory, rested edgily. Thinking he might try and sit with them, join in what merrymaking there was, be useful. But he had only kept to their fringe. He had talked to no one, least of all the trader herself. Only grown more and more certain that what Yet-taye accused was true.
He had stood near the entrance to the lodge, where the horses and lungers could see him. Even from a dozen or more yards away he had watched their eyes fix on him. He had taken a step towards them, and another. Close enough to frighten them into silence, so that they turned broadsides to him and became still. But he had stopped there, and let the animals be.
That was the moment, he supposed, that he had fled the caravan. Though he had remained nearby that night, lingering in the outpost’s orbit. It was not until he had followed the new Plainswalker for most of an hour that he felt himself decoupled from it. A strand of flesh tethered him to the caravan that had been his home for a quarter of his life, but it stretched and thinned with distance. He never felt a snap, but a heavy emptiness grew over him, an absence that was both saddening and thrilling.
Yet-taye, apparently not used to the kind of foot travel Dandec’s life had required of him, stopped some short hours into the first day of her sentence. She stood amidst the endless grass, arms slack at her sides and head thrown back. Dandec stopped behind her. She peered at him only briefly, her eyes shaky with exhaustion and hurt.
There were streams and ponds from which she grudgingly drank, but she did not eat at all that first day. The several times that she stopped to rest protesting legs, she lay in the grass or sat against a tree, forlorn and nervous. The plains teemed with animals, mushrooms, berries, but it was clear that she had no room in her for hunger. Dandec felt the same. An image of Do-yath lived within his stomach, and when he thought about eating he thought about her.
In the quiet between him and the thief, he thought on moments in his tenure with the caravan. He thought on times he had eaten with the other traders and porters, around fires in the open plains and in the mess halls of inns. Memories of their faces, friendly and jolly most of the time, presented themselves to him in jittering bursts. All of those times, every one of them knew. They knew the ambitions of their young Hechaki demihuman, and they carried on the lie that he was on his way to pursue them. They smiled happily, joked with him, and carried him a few miles closer every day to the slavers to whom they would sell him. Some may be looking for him now, preparing to mount a search to retrieve him and drive him by force over the Esor Asel border.
Maybe some were earnest, maybe some
had assumed he knew the law himself, and that he must have his own reasons to indenture himself there. Maybe some even intended to rescue him, claim him as their own slave until he saw that the university would not take him, and protect him until they returned to the Plaines. It did not matter, though. They had all taken him there. They had all let him trust them.
“Why don’t you let me just walk?” Yet-taye groaned when she was resting by a creek in the evening. “Why do you have to follow me?”
Dandec did not have an answer. He was on Plainswalk, too.
“You cannot help me,” she tried to catch her reflection in the water, but it moved too quickly. She unfolded a slip of vellum from a pocket, on which was drawn the sign tattooed on her forehead and a description of her sentence. Rested her fingers on the symbols making up her sign as she read. “‘Must walk alone except when chaperoned by Plainskeepers.’ ‘May be fed by non-lodging eateries and religious institutions only.’ ‘May not carry weapons or travel gear.’ ‘May not be sheltered except in imminently lethal weather.’”
Her sentence was light; not one intended to cause certain death. Dandec did not think she wanted reassurance right now, though.
“I trust in the World Heart,” she said. “that I will see my home again.”
“In the north,” Dandec confirmed.
“Farther north than the Plains. Above the Belt Plateau, in the wind band.”
That put her at a latitude near Alu Hechak, though she could be thousands of miles east of it. The winds circled the world in that band.
Just the thought of his city shot a pant through Dandec. He really was stupid, as the thief called him, for leaving it to come here. For leaving it at all.
He wanted to close his eyes, and open them to see the propeller field and the sails. Or even the familiar corners of the ceiling above his cot in the engine station. Even if the sound of it all made him ill.
“People imagine there is nothing north of the GCP,” Yet-Taye stared into the stream. “I thought the same, even living there. But there are many things. It is cold, not empty.”
She drew her knees in to her chest and sighed. Dandec was quiet; after all, he himself had rarely considered the lives of people in her region, in the permafrost.
“What I would have liked to see,” she looked up at him. “is the northeast forest, north of the delta.”
“I don’t know it,” Dandec admitted. He had heard of the forest but nothing more.
“The trees grow ten times the height of the tallest you or I have ever seen. The wind curls back to blow westward, and it makes them grow.”
“The wind does not make them grow.”
“I would like to see it. But if I ever do…I will at least be too tired of walking to tour it.”
She did not smile, but there was some humor in her voice. Dandec said nothing.
They both slept when it grew too dark to walk, in the shade of a lone oak that sheltered a wide area under its leaves. When Dandec awoke, Yet-taye had already gone.
He walked for most of a day in pursuit of her, headed due north as she was required to. Despite her unpracticed pace and with legs and hips that must be in pain, she had outpaced him. In the end, he sat in a field of tall grass, alone much like the oak, and thought.
He thought about a great many things, mostly the same that had occupied him since leaving the crossroads. Most of all, he thought about the tall trees in the northeast.