See the introduction for more information.
This story © Keenan Cross, 2022
[gcp, 3bfm, 13yo]
After a year as a member of Do-yath’s crew, whatever about Dandec it was that frightened the animals had become so severe that he could not come within twenty paces of one without it panicking and bucking. After another year, he was as comfortable walking indefinitely as they were. Most of the crew spent some of each day afoot, even Do-yath herself sometimes fell back to carry a burden for a few miles. Dandec, though, strode behind the main body of the caravan, packs on his back, from sunup to sundown every day.
He was older now of course, and taller. Gangly, but not quite the way full-humans could be at his age. He fancied that it was his walking that made his limbs long; others laughed at this when he mused it aloud, though it seemed evident to him.
The Great Common Plains was still an unimaginable world to him. When the caravan traveled in one day almost Alu Hechak’s breadth, and would do so ten more times before so much as a lone hut appeared above the infinite grass, he was not sure it was real. He had known about this place, had seen maps and drawings, but it was very different to be there within the grass universe.
Sometimes it seemed that he walked the same stretch of road, lived the same day over and over. Maybe between two towns his pack may be filled with blankets, and between the next two with cutlery. Aleroi may ride the horse farthest nearest him one day and have parted ways with Do-yath the next. The day remained the same, though. But he liked his day, and his stretch of road.
In part, it was because Dandec knew that there was nothing truly monotonous about the landscape. When he considered the trouble the grasses and weeds had taken to grow in the empty plot at home, he knew that made the prairie a veritable megalopolis of life-giving factors, of competing roots and cooperative insects. Even when the road was overgrown and there was no choice but to roll over and crush it, it was not sad or annoying but operatic.
With Do-yath’s permission he had taken some paper and charcoal for himself and he was filling the sheets with drawings of the grasses, shrubs, and trees they passed. He rarely kept those drawings, shedding the oldest and most primitive of them whenever he revisited them. He was learning, though.
The forerunner, one of very few other demihumans on the caravan, came back after visiting the next town ahead of the rest. He would have a report for Do-yath, regarding its affairs, what was being sold in its market, and other news. It had, after all, been six years since the caravan had last visited it. After speaking with her, he jogged back along the train, on his double-long and needle-thin deer’s legs, shouting:
“We go south at the crossroads!”
There was a great deal of groaning and cursing, as there was at any change in plans that prolonged the crew’s time away from market. Most considered the habitual four days they spent in a town and selling in its market to be much easier than the travel inbetween. Dandec liked towns, he liked to see the differences between them, and he even liked to quietly assist behind a market stall when allowed—but his preferences ran generally opposite.
Dandec picked up his pace so that he could catch up with Vek-ir’r, who guided one of the walking carts at the back of the caravan.
“Do you know why?” he asked.
The nigh-human shrugged sourly.
“I only know what the fore said,” he muttered, scrunching the halves of his characteristic split nose. “But it’s more miles. Watch this for a minute, while I piss.”
Dandec took over the walking cart, and watched for the forerunner to make his second pass. The cart took only a light touch to keep moving on its myriad complex legs, but it could scarcely turn and it would come to a stop quickly if let go. And a light touch was all one could give it, without risking a jam. Do-yath did not generally trust Dandec with them, because, as she said. he was “too dreamy.”
When Gerok, the forerunner, came back around, Dandec waved to him from behind the walking cart to stop him. Gerok stalked over—it was easier for him to run than to walk—and leaned down the best his legs let him. He did not like to be in Dandec’s presence, whether because of his eyes or some other personal put-off. The boy accepted that, but he did want to know.
“Why are we going south?” Dandec asked. He had to ask twice, because his Plainstongue, while improving, was still very thickly accented.
“There’s a pixie colony,” Gerok pointed to the east. “The road is cordoned off.”
Dandec gave a fascinated “Oh,” and then hurried to keep the walking cart’s pace.
A pixie colony had sprung up in the entrance to another turbine station several years earlier. There was a great deal of argument over what to do about it, since it paralyzed one of the propellers by preventing its staff from entering. Some of those had come to work in Dandec’s station while a second entrance was cut. He had never had the chance to see the colony before it vanished.
When Vek-ir’r returned, Dandec informed him.
“Those are pests,” the nigh-human scoffed. “They should remove it, not protect it and make us go around.”
To that Dandec could only shrug. Much was made of the bad luck come from disturbing pixies in their homes. It also seemed to him, well, cruel.
Some half a day later the caravan reached the juncture with a north-south road, but it stopped. Do-yath stepped out of her wagon near the front and waved everyone forward to meet.
“There has been a lot of complaining,” she said, from around her pipe. “I’ve decided we will go on. But we have to respect the cordons.”
That meant spending much of a day forcing through the tall, thick grass. It would be easy for the wagons, the horses and lungers, and the crew, but the walking carts would have to be carried. Do-yath commiserated with new complaints about the new hardships, but Dandec thought she might also be amused.
According to Gerok, the cordons extended half a mile to either side of the road. That meant that it was either a gigantic colony, or that the GCP took much more care to protect them than did Alu Hechak. The entire stretch of road was closed as well. Do-yath took the caravan off it straight from the crossroads.
It was more superstition than anything else that made leaving the road in the GCP frightening. The people of the Plains insisted that their land was alive, that it was a being unto itself with a single will and spirit. Dandec had heard it said that the Plains dictated the passions of sapient peoples living upon it, urged them to crave war or to shy from it. That it had grudgingly allowed the ancient kings to carve their roads into its flesh, knew and wished ill on any who trod off them. The former tales he had heard Plainsfolk repeat themselves; the latter only the foreigners he traveled with. He laughed those away, though privately he harbored images of city-sized rolling eyes and toothy maws hiding in the distant grasslands.
The reality was that it was trouble because the going was a little slower, and the walking carts had to be carried by four people each to avoid the patches of tall grass, the stone outcroppings and the shrubs. Maybe in the past there had been kings who resented foreigners stepping into their territories. There was plenty of sign that Do-yath was not the first to take her wagons off the road here, anyway.
The caravan stopped for one more night along the way to this next town. It had made enough of a pace not to put them an entire day behind schedule. Though the merchant would still find places to make that time up.
At dusk, the crew rolled the wagons into a circle and situated the animals around it, their bedrolls and shelters around those. There would be constant watch for bandits and other hazards, especially off the road. There would also be revelry beforehand. At a firepit left by another impatient traveler, they set up a blaze that would last into the night, and opened their stores of spirits and pipe leaves. It was Aleroi’s easy life.
Dandec could not come too close, since the firepit was near the outer ring of lungers, but he could sit within earshot and, when his eyes allowed it, watch. Do-yath sat crosslegged, still in her blue captain’s coat and wide-brimmed hat, smoking and grinning at the proceedings as two workmen brawled for reasons Dandec could not know. Her inner core of officers checked over the numbers she had put in her ledgers during the day—behind her back, because she hated it—and the rest talked and drank and made token bets on the fight.
Someone who had been working near the front came urgently to speak with Do-yath. The merchant uncurled herself to listen, first with annoyance but then with great interest. Dandec could not hear, but when he looked in the direction the messenger had come from, he could just see somebody there.
It was too far to make anything out about the newcomer, but Do-yath’s response was telling. She turned in her seat before she stood, emptying her pipe into the fire as she did so, so she could pack it again while conferring with her officers. Others near her became quiet, someone split up the fight.
When the merchant began to approach the figure in the dark, Dandec risked moving a little closer. He strained his slit ears to catch the gossip being spoken now that Do-yath was away. He couldn’t hear anything. He crept all the way to the circle around the fire, though he could hear the lungers begin to rumble nervously in his presence.
“What is it?” he asked one of the crew.
“Do-yath is dealing with the Swamp Witch,” was the response.
“That’s what she’s been told,” another contested. “I don’t see a big, moss-backed monster.”
Dandec’s eyes were focused on the ground between him and the fire right now, but he wanted badly for them to show him this meeting. When they turned, one straight up and the other painfully across the bridge of his nose, he watched as best he could. Do-yath, a shape in blue against the growing dusk, was flanked by two of her officers and one of her muscle, as she spoke up to a spindly silhouette that stood much taller than her. That figure stood with a slight stoop, arms limp but angled out from their trunk, knees bent just a little. Dandec had to look away because the cross-eyed gaze made his head hurt, but before he did he caught a faint flicker of eyeshine.
Do-yath issued an order, and the officers ran back, ushering everyone away from the fire. The merchant was going to deal at it, in private.
Witches were a favorite subject among the Hechaki. They dwelled in dilapidated homes on the terra firma, it was said, and in the service tunnels under the ground. Hags, seductresses, and shapeshifters. They snatched those who came too close, or lurked in shadowed places. Their presence and their unclean magic did damage to the Great Machine and thereby brought misfortune wherever they went.
Having heard a great deal of that talk, Dandec had been intrigued upon passing into the Great Common Plains, to hear the similar stories told there about the Swamp Witch. Something was said about her in every third town the caravan passed. She was a beast who had preyed on the Sable Fens, had been cast out and wandered miserably across the GCP searching for children to eat. Or she was a killer, prolonging her life through blood sacrifice. Or she was a shark that took humanoid form and climbed out of the acid ocean to continue feeding on land. Or she was the mother of all demihumans, drifting worldwide in search unborn children to feed with her cursed blood and cause to mutate. A reason to bolt windows at night; an explanation for misfortune. The profusion of conflicting stories made Dandec doubt that any were true. He had never even considered that there may be any single person at the heart of them.
What he saw when he snooped upon the private meeting was no shaggy, murderous animal, but a woman. A strange woman; definitely demihuman—though he could believe that she was perhaps of the mysterious native species of the Sable Fens. She was a full head taller than Do-yath, who was not small. Skin gray, muscles taut. Hands and feet that bore cruel talons, a slack-jawed mouth that never hid sharp, sawblade teeth. Most unnervingly, her eyes were like those of a fish, distorted and expressionless but alert.
Part of her stoop had been natural, but it had been exaggerated by what she carried. When she sat she removed these from her shoulder and placed them in her lap. Though he watched from far away, Dandec could recognize a stack of tanned animal pelts.
She was no Swamp Witch, she was a fur trader.
The ledgers came out, and they negotiated. Even enhanced in so mundane an activity, the so-called Swamp Witch was still frightful to look at. Her wide-eyed yet heavy-lidded glare was unwavering; the slight movement of her lips and teeth when she talked invoked the image of flesh being torn in crushing machinery. Her hands were somehow mutilated, Dandec could not see how, but something about them was odd when she demonstrated the quality of her furs and gestured to Do-yath’s book.
Dandec’s eyes turned away, and he gave up eavesdropping. His imagination was abuzz, re-analyzing the stories he’d heard and wondering if this woman really had inspired them, and which ones had any grain of truth to them.
When he slept it was not very deeply, nor for very long. He awoke again, asleep on his single blanket, the lights of one half and one sliver moon on him. Deciding that he would not sleep easily again, he pinned his blanket down with a rock and stood to look over the supposedly treacherous off-road Plains.
It was Gerok’s shift on watch. The tall demihuman stalked a circle around the encampment, fidgeting as he always did. Dandec approached him when he was not too near the animals.
“Was that the Swamp Witch?” he asked.
Gerok gave him the same look he always did, of vague distress. It was masked by moonshadow at least.
“That was Chidurin,” he said in a hush. “She is called that sometimes. I don’t know if she is the Swamp Witch.”
The lookout shrugged broadly.
“She is wanted everywhere. She is demihuman. Do-yath would be punished if anyone learns she aided her. But she sells excellent furs.”
“She is on Plainswalk,” Dandec hazarded.
“She has been on Plainswalk for all of my life, at least.”
“Did she leave?”
Dandec considered. He hoped Do-yath had agreed to buy the Swamp Witch’s furs.
“Where is the pixie colony from here?” he asked.
Gerok pulled his peacoat tighter against a breeze.
“You aren’t going to disrupt it?” he scowled, not quite in the boy’s direction.
“Of course I’m not.”
“It is just off north,” Gerok gave him a suspicious look, as if he had ever seen Dandec so much as swat a mosquito. “One mile. Split the moons.”
The center point between the wet and dry moons was indeed just west of due north. Following it a few quiet minutes, Dandec found the cordon and ducked it. Beyond was the road, and the spot on it where the pixies had settled.
The one that had been on the entrance to the turbine station was perhaps the size of the palm of Dandec’s hand, when he had caught a glimpse of it. This one was indeed much larger, probably an entire pace across. In the moonlight it looked like little more than a circle of reflective texture lain over the stones and dirt of the road. The temptation to come close, lay on his belly, and observe it in detail was immense.
It was for everyone, hence the cordons.
A book Do-yath had been bartered in one town and sold in the next had shown a great deal of research done by enterprising illustrator, full of meticulous drawings that must have been done at very close range. It had revealed minuscule houses and stables, built from pebbles and fragments of twigs, thatch roofs made of tiny bundles of blades of grass cut to the length of a fingernail. Well-trod roads, buildings that had to be communal gathering places. The observer had picked them apart with metal tongs to draw the inside, scraped away the earth to find cellars and in one case catacombs. Never the slightest sign of a pixie. Not even though the towns seemed to be repaired, and even to evolve as though being used. Not even dead ones. This author had concluded that pixie colonies were not the towns of tiny sapients at all, but the result of metaphysical forces causing natural detritus to collect in the shape of a real town elsewhere in the world. That had not prevented them from including several pages of proposals of what the creatures might look like: two-legged ants, wisps of living water vapor, miniature humanoids identical to known sapients in every way but scale.
So, while he was fascinated and yearned to know more, Dandec knew what little came of terrorizing the minute town-builders. He still watched their city as long as his eyes let him, though.
Until he became aware of someone else with him. In the moonlight, Chidurin’s face was even more spectral, pupils brightly reflective. If she stood a head taller than Do-yath, it was half-again that over Dandec.
He blinked and took a step backwards.
“Don’t touch it,” the Swamp Witch said. In Plainstongue she said only one word, but it was enough to hear that her voice was dark and gravelly.
“I would not,” Dandec shook his head, faced suddenly with how close had come to doing just that. In a hushed voice he asked, “Are you the Swamp Witch?”
He thought she bared her teeth at him, until he realized that this was the effort it took for her to make a somewhat-convincing smile.
“They call me that in the Plains,” she said. “Tell me, you are demihuman?”
“I am,” any explanation of her seemed to make it safer to admit.
“You were with the traders?”
“I’m one of them.”
“You are not one of them.”
Dandec had heard that said before. He was hesitant to contradict those teeth and that reputation, but—
“What is your name?”
She addressed him in Hechaki. Startled by that, he could only answer.
“Dandec,” her pronunciation of his name was perfect, though by the rest of her words he would never mistake her for a native speaker. “Why do you travel with three dozen fullkind who do not let you near them?”
“They let me near them. Animals panic near me, so I walk behind and sleep away, but the fullkind are good to me. And there are other demihumans.”
“The tall one.”
“And one of the record keepers. Cho’reko.”
“They won’t remain indefinitely.”
“Are you a witch or a…naysayer?”
The smile again.
“You are Hechaki, do you know what a ‘witch’ is?”
“An evil woman who lives in an old house and causes misfortune,” Dandec found himself more able to taunt her by the minute. “Or eats children.”
“That is what they say. And they are old and ugly?”
“Unless they want to seduce someone, then they become beautiful.”
Chidurin came a little closer to the pixie colony and crouched on her haunches. If she had really been stalking the Plains for a century, she was quite limber.
“In Alu Hechak,” she said. “Everyone works. They have to. Or else the city falls into the sea. Except for the nobles, but there are always nobles and they always do nothing. The work is physical. Working and building machines. Climbing masts to maintain the sails. Or it is expert: designing machines, diagnosing their problems. The work of strong, young bodies, and of fresh, young minds.
“Think of someone who cannot work. Someone who is too old to work the machines. Or who cannot afford training, or who can but never becomes skilled. In Alu Hechak they call the infirm demihuman, too. You have noticed that they do not, elsewhere. The nobles are preoccupied with beauty. They are everywhere. They dictate what it is to be beautiful and they will countenance nothing else.
“To all of Alu Hechak, this is a witch. It is someone at odds with what they wish her to be. They say of a poor woman: ‘She lives far from the turbines, she does not aid in working the turbines, and she is not beautiful.’ But they do not say it, and they do not think it. In their hearts they are assured that they know it.
“I do not walk the imperial roads. I am not compliant and beholden to the fullkind of the Plains. I do not owe them my story and so I do not tell it. I hunt to feed myself, and I have killed. They say, ‘Chidurin is large and she is fearsome and she is unknown to us, she is demihuman and she does not thank us for not enslaving her. We want to be unthreatened, we want to know, and we want to be thanked. Clearly, she is a witch.’”
Dandec was quiet.
“I am ninety-three years old,” Chidurin said. “I look at myself in the water and I am unchanged for sixty of those. I may look tomorrow and find I have aged the rest overnight. Come.”
She gestured for him to approach, which he did cautiously. She showed him her hand, the one that had seemed wounded from afar. In the moonlight he could just see that the last two fingers on it were not fingers at all, but twisted tails of flesh that did not bend with the others.
“I lost these fingers,” she explained. “In the next months, these grew from their stumps.”
Dandec risked reaching for the lizard tails, but Chidurin retracted her hand.
“What physician can treat me?” the shine of her eyes glistened when she gave him a pointed look. “My body is unlike any other. It cannot be learned. Neither can yours.”
“I am mostly human,” Dandec argued.
“Maybe. I doubt you have been cut open and studied, to know for certain. Does your caravan know what food is the best for you? It is not the same as for them. Do they know how to treat you if you become ill? They may try, but if your needs are not forthcoming, they will return their focus to the ones they know. You are not one of them.”
Dandec took a step back away from her. His eyes were sweeping the woods to the south and the stars above him.
“Do you mean that I should walk away from them?” he challenged her.
“No. Your path is only for you to find.” Chidurin looked to the pixie colony again. “A demihuman life is the most beautiful life this world can produce,” she said. “It is a flame that catches, comes to know itself as nothing else can, and vanishes. You will learn yourself with your caravan. You do not have to be one of them to do that. I have done a lot of learning myself.”
“What is your path, then?”
Chidurin twisted her lizard tail fingers between the remaining three.
“If I do not find myself suddenly too old, then someday I will go to the badlands.”
“In the east?”
“It is a place without kingdoms or laws. Because the winds come down from the tornado corridor and blast everything away every few days. So what is built lives only so long, and is always new.”
“It’s a violent place.”
Chidurin squared on him.
“I am violent,” she said.
He couldn’t do much but nod. The reminder of whom he stood next to came to him heavily.
“I don’t understand the ‘swamp’ part, though,” he admitted after a pause, in part to turn the topic away.
“There was a time that I claimed to be of the fenfolk, from the Sable Fens,” Chidurin growled, as much as her monotone voice would allow. “I do not anymore.”
“Every demihuman has done that,” Dandec agreed.
“Because no one outside of the Fens knows what its -folk look like. I have been there. They do not look like me.”
“Is it true they are demihumans who breed?”
“If they breed, then they are not demihumans.”
“I still think it is wise to lie, if you are at risk.”
“Of course. But what is better is to keep the company of other demihumans, not fullkind.”
“I keep no company. I am also never at risk. But if a demihuman has a place for me to sleep when it rains, I can pay. And I can silence their detractors, if they need.”
Dandec finally sat, hugging his knees.
“Why are you talking to me?” he asked.
“Do you have detractors?”
“To make sure a flame knows to know itself.”
“I know myself.”
“And I know my path. I do not think I will be with Do-yath forever. I will be a—”
“Do not tell me. We will not cross paths again. Your path is sacred as your life is sacred.”
Dandec threw up his hands, but he was not untouched by Chidurin’s sentiment. He imagined the lives of every demihuman, little flames flickering briefly outside the bonfires of the unified and continuous species. Each one illuminating a circle of land touched by the light of no other flame. It put a hitch in his breath to think of it.
He talked with her the rest of the night. She told him of places he did not think he would ever see, such as Hilland, the three cities of Bel Ato, and Goldenhill. About the importance of the place of one’s birth: you are summoned into being from its soil, and you deposit some of it everywhere you go. About the myriad languages she knew, and how it was impossible to truly describe a place in a tongue other than the one that had emerged in it indigenously. In everything, she seemed to say although she did not say it, there was something luminous.
From her hoarseness, he thought she must very rarely speak so much at once. Maybe not in a month, given the distances she traveled alone. It seemed a blessing, in that case, that it was to Dandec that she would say so much. The boy thought he had something to tell her in exchange, but when he thought of her age and his, it seemed impossible to interest her. Next to the breadth of her travels, he had scarcely left the threshold of the turbine plant. And obviously she had been to Alu Hechak; what could he tell? But he was happy to only absorb.