By Eric Zawadzki and Matthew Schick
The shock alone made Butu's half-risen head plummet to the ground again. He closed his eyes to keep out the sand as his three playmates ran around him faster and faster, jeering and kicking up a tiny whirlwind, all but obscuring them from sight.
It should have been simple — a complete circuit along roofs of all the tents on the perimeter of the town beginning and ending at the top of Sentinel's Finger. No one ever had questioned his ability to run up the side of the fifty-foot granite column that marked the south edge of town, a crooked finger of a colossal golem encouraging enemies to come and fight.
I fell, Butu thought again, disbelief and shame sliding into anger. He didn't even listen to the taunts. The simplest of routes, and I couldn't complete it. I've done it a hundred times!
In the dance of a race, Butu thought of himself as water carving its way through rocks in a rapids, shaped by the route but still its master. Or as very fine sand caught in the wind, able to fly. He could run up walls, walk on ceilings and stand on water. He could feel everything and everyone around him before they came close enough to touch him — even on the darkest of moonless nights. He had never tripped or crashed before. He hadn't imagined he could fall. The thought was unthinkable.
I fell. He thought it with a finality that ended his shame and rage, just as the scuffs on his knees and hands had faded.
When you fall, you get back up again. They were his foster father Mak's words, and they had never made sense to Butu before. In the shock that followed the fall, though, Butu clung to them like a miraman talisman. He leapt to his feet amidst his friends' taunts and joined their whirlwind until it rose above the tent tops.
Butu was short for his fifteen years. The long-lived Turu grew tall and lean in their desert home of Turuna, so maybe he would grow someday. His skin was darker than most of the clan members'. Old Pater's blue-black was certainly the darkest, but Butu was close. His shaven head, bare chest and feet and pryud wrapped around his waist were common enough among boys near his age.
Behind their curtain of the growing whirlwind, the boys sensed their foster mother coming toward them. The same magic that kept them from colliding or falling down also kept them from getting caught doing things that would get them in trouble with the adults. Most of the time.
Zasbey was thirty years old, but she could still somehow tell when her arrival would be most unwelcome. She and her husband had no children of her own, yet. She sometimes said that it was enough trouble watching the four clan fosterlings, in order from oldest: Butu, Paka, Remi and Hatal.
They stopped abruptly, and so did the whirlwind. As Zasbey appeared, the fine sand rained down on them in a glistening shower. They dusted themselves off quickly under her approaching glower.
“Well, is he alive?” Zasbey called loudly from two tents away. Her stride caught up to them quickly.
Looks passed between the boys, warning each other to stay silent. Zasbey waited with a look that could draw the truth out of them as easily as a small child could draw pure gold from ore.
“He's fine,” Hatal said in his small voice as Zasbey's gaze settled on him. His face turned purple in embarrassment. “He fell.”
“Fell?” The word came out flat. Her gaze shifted to Butu, brown eyes boring into his forehead. He felt his face heat.
“From the roof,” Hatal said, dodging Remi's outflung foot. “We were racing.”
“From up there?” Zasbey asked, pointing with a tiny tilt of her chin.
All four boys looked up at the sand-colored tent behind them. It was a supply tent, and therefore one of the largest in Jasper. The canvas wall blocked out half of the sky and all of the sun. At the edge of the sky and the tent, what felt like very far away, was where Butu had fallen from.
He turned back into the full force of Zasbey's grim stare. He gulped, suddenly very thirsty. With one quick movement, she grabbed at his arm. Reflexively he dodged — into her open hand, which grabbed at his ear. He was loose in a second, scowling at her, but her expression had lightened, from furnace to bonfire.
“Back to your play, Butu,” she said, patting his cheek with one sun-weathered, brown hand. “You'll be fine.”
Butu touched his ear. He had felt no pain — a small patch of mud-like armor had formed from the air to protect him — but something about her reaction disconcerted him. Maybe it was her tone of voice. She sounded concerned — as if at some point he wouldn't be fine at all. She left, then, not back the way she had come but around the side of the supply tent.
Butu stared after her with a puzzled frown, his hand drifting down from his ear. He looked back at the tent roof, from where he had fallen. If all four boys stood on each other's shoulders, they would just reach it.
“He'll never be fine, he'll always be coarse,” Hatal taunted.
Remi laughed, and Paka and he joined the chant.
“Fine then coarse, coarse then fine, come and make our swords all shine! Coarse or fine? Fine of course! Polish, polish, ‘til it hurts!”
The boys' laughter interrupted Butu's musings. Hatal and Remi pounded their fists into their hands in a game of rock, sword, cloth — probably to see who would race next. Paka gave Butu a tight smile, which the older boy forced himself to return. Of all them, Paka was his closest friend. He couldn't stand to see his shumi — his foster brother — worried.
Movement in the shadows of a tent entrance nearby caught his eye. Someone else had seen. A girl's head appeared but quickly vanished. Not back into the tent. Butu could see Jani, the kluntra's niece, clearly, though he knew Zasbey would not have known she was there. She gave him a broad, cheery grin, and he returned it full force.
Hatal gave a shout. He had beaten Remi.
“Of course, I'm fine,” Butu said. “Fine enough to try again!”
He walked up the side of the tent above Jani, and flipped backward onto the supply tent.
“Let's go, Hatal.” Butu jumped down and jogged toward the Sentinel's Finger's redstone bulk. “I'll beat you this time.”
The younger boy grinned at Remi. As he caught up to Butu he said, “Same route. Over-under, right? Edges and corners.”
Butu nodded, feet crunching the pebbles at the base of the Finger. “Direct or roundabout?”
“Sunset or sunrise?” Halfway up the Finger, he could see the sun just at the tops of the mountains.
Butu shrugged. “If you want the easier route, you can have it,” he said, nonchalantly. “You don't have to give it to me just ‘cause I'm older.”
Hatal snorted. “Brag later, if you win.”
The four paused at the top of the Sentinel's Finger to stare down over Jasper. Hatal and Remi had their heads together, pointing and checking their routes. Paka stood attentively near Butu.
Most of the clan lived in or near Jasper, which was easily the largest town for a hundred miles in every direction. A cluster of stone and clay buildings formed the town's center. The first Ahjea children had raised those buildings hundreds of years ago when the founders came down from Pophir. Permanent structures and landmarks like the Sentinel's Finger mixed with the dozens of tents that made up the rest of the town.
Power started from the center: the kluntra, or clan leader, and his family and advisers, as well as all the youngest children and their families. Single men and childless women, orphans like Butu, fosterlings like his friends, and the elderly lived in the rest of the town. Most of the adults were herders or miners, though a few did what they could to farm the hard, dry soil surrounding Jasper.
Southwest, just at the range of sight, the Ahjea's army made permanent training grounds at Gordney. The cavalry and sordenu there guarded the only road leading through the clan's territory. At one end was Pophir, the largest of the clan's mining towns. At the other was the shanjin, a burning wasteland of shifting sands. Legends claimed the children of the fallen Urgarun clan cursed the once fertile river valley, sinking the river and raising the sands into mountains. It was one of the best-known miramani — a longlasting magical feat — in history.
The Sentinel's Finger represented another miraman. A great guardian golem had protected the Ahjea from invaders in the dark centuries before the Time of Kings. In order to defeat his rivals, though, King Dinal pi'Kanjea and his sword, Pisor, had buried the golem. Only its finger rose up now, stricken testament to the former might of the Ahjea.
Butu hopped on his feet a bit, relaxing his body. He could sense a new fountain up here, where one would never form without help.
Probably a second-cycler, he guessed. Who just had a birthday?
A cycle was six years — how long it took for the three moons to match their orbits. Though a six-cycler and a nine-cycler looked nearly the same age, a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old were visibly different ages. Turu could live twice as long as people of other lands, or so Butu had heard. Some famously ancient Turu lived 30 cycles or more.
The top of the Finger changed often. A first-cycler's golem — her guardian and protector — might not let her climb its dizzying height. An adult would need ropes or ladders. But every Ahjea child whose golem was gone came here during her third cycle to play. Everyone left their mark.
Butu had come up here first with Jani, whose older sister had left a pool and garden. Zhek, Jani's cousin and the kluntra's son, had transformed it into an arena, complete with clay gladiators to fight. Jani and Butu had made it into a palace with granite thrones. Butu and Paka had cleared it except for a small hut where the boys sometimes came to talk all night. And now, another fountain was the central figure. Hatal and Remi drank from it with a shared grin.
Butu grinned ruefully. There's the birthday. It would have happened at some point. He was fifteen years old now, and Remi and Paka were fourteen. Jani was nearly a year older than Butu. Hatal had just entered his third cycle at twelve.
How old were Jani and I when we came here the first time? he thought as he approached the fountain.
Thinking of Jani made him look for her, down at the edge of the tents. She could disappear into anything, but she had not climbed the Finger for several months.
Butu felt his cheeks warm. We used to spend a lot of time together up here. They had kept that secret from everyone in Jasper, and for good reason. She was the kluntra's niece, and he was a tem, an orphan. One day I'll be a sordella and prove myself to the clan. Then her uncle will give his consent.
“Are you two ready?” Remi said. “Quick, now, before the sun sets!”
Butu glanced at the sun, kissing the mountain tops. Their shadows just touched the edge of the tents. He wondered if he could keep Hatal waiting until the sun disappeared.
Jasper bustled with late afternoon activity. Mule handlers hauled the stubborn beasts down from the mines at Pophir. Women readied fires to toast bread and meat for dinner. Children, almost all younger than even Hatal, played around their tents. A patrol of cavalry rode out to Gordney, in a hurry to get to their own homes.
He pointed out a particularly stubborn mule to Paka, but Hatal wouldn't let him get away with it.
“Come on, Butu, before Zasbey comes looking for us!”
Butu grinned and pulled out a strip of thin cloth, which he tied low over his eyes to block the sun. He and Hatal pressed their backs together. The sun was in Butu's eyes now, but it would be in Hatal's eyes when he reached the end.
“Over roofs and under ropes,” they chanted the rules. “Chase, chase and stay afoot. Race round the corner, race round the edge. Don't cross the top or you'll be dead. Go round, go round, roundabout, edge of town, the farthest route!”
“Ready?” Butu asked, eyeing his first rope and corner almost fifty feet below.
“Ready,” Hatal responded.
“Go!” Remi and Paka shouted.
With two quick steps, they leapt off the Sentinel's Finger.