"The Adventures of Reur" — Part VI — July 5, 2012
Despite her name, Raven had light-colored hair, which normally would have been tightly braided and carefully wrapped underneath the feathered hat of the Vagal's raptor keeper. As the traitor Pinion had named her, though, she now wore the nearly shaven scalp of a person with an undecided fate.
Her honor, more than anything, held her prisoner. At any time, she could use her magic to break the thick, hemp rope binding her. Whenever she desired, she could smash the low walls of the fence holding her in. If she so chose, the single warrior set to guard her — Hornbeak, a good friend of hers in any case — would topple like a tree with a rotted trunk.
The continuing story of Reur, the first mapmaker.
It is a actually a collection of shorter stories that have been arranged chrono-
logically into a saga. It is an example of the Mar mapmaker tradition — any story about the adventures of a reckless and foolish explorer who survives trials through a combination of cleverness, stubborness, and dumb luck.
Of course, doing any of this would force Hornbeak to sedate her. Not to mention everyone else in the tribe, and she knew that her skills in training hawks were far greater than her skills in multiple-foe magical combat.
Most of the rest of the reason she stayed peaceful was Hornbeak himself, who told her the chief and eldest remained undecided about her fate, despite Pinion's and the guider's efforts to have her killed. The Vagal did not take prisoners, the new keeper argued. Letting this lying traitor live only drains the tribe's resources more. The chief or the eldest must have some love for Raven, the keeper they rejected, for something stayed their hand.
The final part of the reason she stayed quiet was her desire to find Pinion and murder him. In his sleep would be all right, though she dreamed of meeting him face to face.
She was furious with herself for having misread Pinion. His companionship had been excellent, his grasp of training and feeding almost perfect, even though he was not her apprentice. He anticipated her needs and more often than not was prepared for what would happen next. The instant she had heard the call of the raptor so many days ago, he had called for Talon. Even as she sought the warrior to prepare the expedition, Pinion had gained the chief's permission. Before she told her apprentices they were leaving, Pinion had commandeered supplies and canoes.
Then, out near the fens, he was the first to voice everyone's fear about where the hawk lived. He was the first to see the stranger, whose mud-covered face still haunted Raven's dreams. He was the one who kept Raven at peace despite Talon's fall and death. She would have killed the stranger then, but Pinion was the one who reminded her he was already dead.
So many times, Pinion had been a step ahead of her. Even to the point of drugging her tea. To the final, despicable level of accusing her, before the entire tribe, of killing Talon, while she slept off his drugs. And when she woke, Pinion had stood before her, already wearing the keeper's feathered hat and eyeing what would be his tent.
If even once she had thought about why he might care about raising raptors when he wasn't an apprentice, she may have known. If she had listened to her feelings when he took words out of her mouth, she would have known. All he wanted was to take her power, such as it was, to have influence in the tribe. Now he had it, and the debate wore on whether she was to live.
Her pen had a hole where she could relieve herself, and Hornbeak could reach over the top of it to give her a food. He gave her encouraging smiles and talked to her a lot, and she tried not to be bitter with him or the tribe. Her anger focused on Pinion, whom Hornbeak said was doing a well-enough job, though he didn't know anything about the keeping of raptors. They were fed and flown, he said. They brought back their share of food and trade goods for the next gathering. As far as he could tell, all was well with the world.
Raven knew the tricky part would come when the tribe was on the move. Guiding a hawk, keeping it from eating too much or tiring out, tracking the tribe and the prey, all of it required constant attention. Surely, Pinion would mess up there. Maybe he would be exposed as a liar himself.
She squatted against the tree in her pen. Sooner or later, someone would come to tell her the chief's decision, for the chief would reserve that right for herself. Sooner or later, she would be told if she would live.
She grasped that thread as night fell on her second day in the pen.
I will live, she thought. I will see Pinion dead.
* * * * * *
Reur ghosted through the trees in the night lit by a sliver of Fraemauna and a good quarter of Niminth. He wasn't silent, because he had to cross leaves and mud and rotten branches, but he wasn't exactly loud, either. No more loud than, say, a tribe of snoring people and a handful of crackling fires and three guards playing some game in the light of one of those blazes.
Through their first night, Tread and Mucker had scouted the camp — far more silently than Reur. They had identified the chief's tent and the guider's tent. They had discovered the eldest, which wasn't a role in Totanbeni tribes, but this person seemed to be empowered. They had eyeballed the pen with its prisoner with contempt. Such a thing would never exist in Totanbeni culture. Prisoners were killed.
And they had seen Pinion wearing the feathered hat of the keeper — though they didn't know he was Pinion — and eventually reported this to Reur, along with where the keeper's tent and the mews were.
"The keeper was a woman," Reur had said worriedly.
Tread shrugged. "The keeper is now a man. This means nothing. He will know where your tablet is." Inwardly, Reur had rejoiced. How many days had it taken to explain that write was a verb and tablet a noun to these two who didn't care to learn his language?
Even now, in the dim light of the two moons and crouched behind a kalysut a stick's throw from the darkened edge of the camp, Reur worried over this change. In his homeland, such changes amounted to a regime change. Someone had knocked the raptor keeper from her perch — for what reasons? To seek power, in such a poor tribe? Tread was sure the keeper's position was below this eldest's, and certainly below the guider's and chief's. Maybe not much more, because of how specialized it was.
Then again, Reur thought, perhaps because of the warrior's death, the tribe had tried her and found her guilty. He shook his head immediately. She wasn't at fault for that accident. If someone had to be blamed, that someone was Reur, who had tossed the man from the branch and landed on him. Even then, the man wasn't dead, he was just mud-covered — now Reur rubbed his face with his gloves to make sure no mud was on it. Mud wasn't necessarily a death sentence, but the man had still drowned himself.
Reur slid out from behind the tree and crab-walked to the shadow of the nearest tent, catching himself with his hand as he slipped. Water and mud clung to his glove, and he stared at it for a moment before moving on. Around the side of the tent, he glanced to make sure the flap was closed, then hustled across the pressed ground to the edge of the keeper's tent.
A light shone inside and a shadow moved across the wall. Reur assumed the light was magic. He considered what little he knew of Totanbeni magic, since the Vagal were cousins of a sort, and compared that with where the shadow was. Noting the lack of interfering objects, he made a mental map of where the man would be in the tent. Waiting until he was sure the man's back was turned to the opening, Reur dodged around the corner and into the tent. He was in the light of the fires only briefly, but he heard a cry behind him.
What Reur had not seen in the shadow, because he was on the wrong side of the tent, was the woman sleeping on the floor, her red hair short and disheveled. She woke and stared at Reur with piercing blue eyes, and the keeper whirled rapidly, the light at his shoulder sparking in his fury.
"Who dares ..." He stopped mid-roar, the light suddenly flickering. The woman screamed.
Reur held up his hand, trying to shush them, as a guard reached the flap and tackled him. Reur grappled with the man on the rugs on the floor, rolling over and over. Finally Reur found the man's eyes with one hand, and gouged at them. The man started screaming, then his face creased in horror, and he leapt up and ran out of the tent — gratefully through the flap. The two guards at the tent flap held their ground. Reur was trapped.
He wondered why the man was so terrified. The pain of eye-gouging was certainly not so great to break off an assault entirely and run away. Then he saw the woman's eyes staring at his hand, and he looked at his glove. Mud dripped from it and hit his shirt.
He jumped to his feet, waving the hand in front of him. "Don't move! I've got a muddy glove, and I'm not afraid to use it!"
They stared at him blankly, watching his glove warily, and he realized he had spoken in his native tongue.
"Um," he said.
Then the keeper struck, his magic rooting Reur to the ground. None too gently, the spell lowered Reur's arm to his side. The guards, seeing that things were under control, came in to seize Reur, but the keeper waved them back.
"I want to question him," he said. Reur understood, "I want (something) him." Not kill, Reur knew kill. And death. And murder. So it couldn't be that bad. The guards left.
"You were at the kalysut," Reur said, stiffly. The magic holding him still crushed against his chest, but he could breath. Almost. Luckily, his hands were near his belt. Now, if he could get his finger near the catch ...
"Quiet," the keeper said.
"Pinion," the woman said. "He is walking dead!"
Which was exactly what Tread, Mucker and Reur had hoped the reaction would be, but as Reur's eyes gazed back and forth between the two Vagal's, he realized something had gone wrong. Terror did not fill the keeper's eyes. They pierced him with intent to harm.
* * * * * *
When Red Feather showed up at Pinion's tent that night, he almost threw her out. Fresh blood trailed down her hands, where the chicks had taken to feeding on flesh more than their food. She didn't seem to mind, saying training chicks took some time, but Pinion could see the tightness in her eyes and hear the strain in her voice. He guessed that in a few more days something would have to be done about her.
In a few more days, then, he would have to deal with the chicks himself. If the apprentice was having problems, then Pinion would have no better chance, and he knew it.
After they made love, he paced the tent. If he removed Red Feather because she couldn't train the hawks, then the chief would reinstate Raven. He had to keep the apprentice. They could get rid of the chicks. Truthfully, the chicks were probably too old or addicted to human flesh by now. He looked at her scarred arms with distaste.
Suddenly, the flap opened with no wind.
"Who dares ..." he roared, whirling to face the flap, and the words died mid-sentence.
Pinion didn't often forget faces, and this one stood out in his memory. The only difference was that this time the face was clean. But that height, curly hair and dark skin could only be one person, and as Red Feather shrieked, Pinion's mind screamed in shock at seeing a walking corpse.
Then a guard rushed into the tent and tackled the stranger. Pinion stepped back to stay clear of their brawl on his rugs.
The last time, mud had covered this stranger — Pinion was sure he was from those tall ships the Darstein had told them about — from head to toe. Everybody knew that the gloopy mud held worms that would burrow into your skin and eat you alive. Get some mud on you, and you could scrap it off and burn your arm and maybe be all right. Wallow in it, like the stranger seemed to have, and you certainly had killed yourself. Talon had landed face first in it, and he had known what it would do. His self-sacrifice had saved the tribe from watching the worms eat him alive.
So, Pinion's mind screamed at him as the stranger held back the guard's knife hand with both of his, how had this stranger survived? What kind of magic did these invaders have that made them immune to the perils of the swamp?
The guard screamed, dropping his knife. He clutched at one of his eyes, mud dripping from his face, and ran from the tent. Red Feather crawled even deeper to the back corner of the tent. Neither one of the other guards at the flap moved.
Pinion stared at where the stranger lay on his back, one gloved hand strayed out toward the flap. Something dripped off the glove.
Mud. Again with the mud.
The stranger leapt to his feet and babbled incoherently in his own tongue, waving his muddy hand before him. Everyone moved, but Pinion had a better idea. He used Tight as Ropevine, and the stranger was bound where he stood.
Seeing things under control, the guards came in, but Pinion waved them off. Intrigue had replaced fear. If I had this stranger's magic, he thought, I could be the guider.
The guards left, and Pinion was ready to question the stranger, when Red Feather reminded him she was still there.
"Pinion," the woman said. "He is walking dead!"
Disgusted, he turned to her. "Dress, Feather. Leave for the apprentice's tent. I will deal with this stranger."
As she dressed, she kept babbling about death and mud and worms and water. Pinion wished she would shut up and hurry out. The stranger seemed uncomfortable around her.
Maybe I should keep her here.
Finally, she left, and Pinion looked at the stranger again.
"What is your name?" he said, keeping the bonds tight around the man's chest.
A name that made no sense. "She is right," Pinion said finally. "You should be dead. What are you doing here?"
"I came for my tablet," Reur said, mostly in Totanbeni but partly in a different tongue. Pinion stared at him, trying to figure out what the last word was. Then it came to him.
"Your slate?" Pinion said after a moment. He glanced down. "You wear Talon's boots. That is very resourceful of you."
"My boots, I came for my boots, too. And gloves."
Pinion's eyes narrowed. "Your slate," he said at last. "Is it magic?"
Reur rolled his eyes. "No?" he said.
"A poor lie. It is magic! How does it work?" Pinion leaned forward eagerly. Maybe too eagerly. The stranger seemed to put his guard up more. Or maybe he didn't understand something. "How do you make the slate do magic?"
"You were at the kalysut," Reur said, almost over the top of him. "Where is the feathered hat one? The keeper?"
"I am keeper," he said quietly, but with barely contained rage. "Answer my question!"
But Reur spoke again, more quickly. "Where is the woman who ate the keeper?"
"I will ask the questions!"
Reur shook his head, and Pinion only had time to register the painful grimace on the stranger's face before Reur leapt for him.
* * * * * *
Reur struggled against the magic wrapped tight around his body. Luckily, the magic had manifested like cords and not a full-body sheath. He could move his fingers the hair's breadth he needed to activate his belt. Maybe not a hair's breadth, and Pinion was watching him like a hawk. He almost laughed out loud.
So Reur grabbed control of the questioning at the first opportunity, and he watched as Pinion flailed to get it back. His fingers strained, his wrist shifted. Almost there. Then he hit a stumbling block.
How do I say "the person who used to be keeper?"
"Where is the woman who ate the keeper?" he said, knowing the words were wrong.
Pinion responded violently. "I will ask the questions!" Reur guessed at the last word subconsciously, but more importantly, his wrist snapping, his fingers grazed the catch on his belt. As the bonds disappeared, he stumbled toward Pinion. Pushing with his back foot, he turned it into a lunge.
The keeper wasn't caught entirely off guard, and Reur had very little force behind him. So they didn't tumble to the ground where Reur could grab for the guard's knife. He could tell, though, that Pinion was still shaken up.
Freeing himself had used up most of what was stored in his belt. Recharging it would take some time, but he could walk around and keep a trickle going. He didn't know how much magic Pinion could yet use. He had to press his advantage.
Reur punched the keeper in the face with his muddy glove.
The blow wasn't strong, but it had the desired effect. Immediately, Pinion's hand shot to his muddy cheek to check if that moist sensation was really mud. Reur caught his hand and slid a magic shield between Pinion's skin and the mud.
"I don't think we have a lot of time," Reur said. "I can keep the worms from your skin, but you shouldn't touch it."
Pinion had barely nodded before Reur released the hand. Reur started pacing. Magic trickled into the shield, barely enough to keep it solid.
"I want my ... slate," he said, using the Vagal word for his tablet. "I want my boots. In return, I will let you live."
The keeper's face, somehow, paled more than it had, except for the smudge of mud on his cheek.
"The guard who ran out, he will tell someone. The woman, she will tell someone. Your time is almost up," Reur said. "Give me my slate, or you will have no way to explain yourself."
"I will trade you," Pinion said, rallying.
Reur scowled. Time was running out, all right, but mostly for him. And Pinion must know it. "You get your life for it."
"Your magic, it would help us."
"Magic?" Reur fretted. "All right. This belt," he touched it. "Magic. It is what protects you now. I give you belt and life, you give me slate, and ..." he thought. "The raptor chicks." Reur knew something about training them. It couldn't be hard, right? And it would limit the Vagal's ability to follow them. Tread would be proud of him. The trade was still in Reur's favor.
Pinion stood up, more confident. "You will need someone who knows care of chicks."
"I can do that." Reur pulled the belt off and shook it in his hand to keep it charged.
"No. Did you see the woman's arms?" Pinion rubbed his arms. "The scratches? She is untrained to train them."
That made little sense to Reur, but he did remember the gouges. "What do you want?"
"You take Raven, the former keeper."
"The woman I replaced," Pinion said. "We would kill her anyway, so you can save her life."
Reur frowned. They would kill their former keeper? Why? Another internal power struggle. But she shouldn't die, when she could still be used to train raptors. Reur would have two chicks that were fairly violent, so this woman could help out. This was a bonus to an already lop-sided trade, too.
Finally, he nodded, holding out the belt. Pinion dug out the tablet and handed it to Reur, who clutched it like it was his first child. He almost walked out with just that, but Pinion led the way out, wearing the belt. Reur followed him to the mews, where they gathered the chicks. Along the way, Pinion beckoned to the two guards.
"I would not want anyone to get confused about what is happening here," Pinion said.
Reur nodded, impatient. This was taking too long.
They went to the pen, where a woman with light-colored hair slept. Reur looked around him nervously. The two guards from the fire grinned maliciously at him, or so he thought. The lighting was very bad.
"Hurry up," he said, louder than he intended.
This woke Raven, who rolled out of the way of Pinion's raised foot. Reur's eyes widened. He was going kick her awake? But she was a prisoner, so what respect was she due from him? Regime change was never a good thing for the person deposed.
"You have your freedom, Raven," Pinion said, a small smile playing on his face. He had never wiped the mud from his cheek. "You are leaving with this stranger."
She put her hand to her cheek in shock, seeing the mud. Pinion smirked, touched his cheek himself. Then she looked at Reur for the first time, and somehow, her eyes got wider.
Yes, I'm a ghost, hurry up, Reur would have said, but she spoke first.
"We'll need food for those chicks."
"No," Pinion said easily.
"And a canoe, and provisions for me. I assume he has some."
She looked at him casually. "That hat is still too big for you." Reur understood the words, but not why they were said.
Pinion flushed, Reur thought. His face did change color. Reur considered the light from the moons against the paleness of the skins of the four Vagal represented here. He wondered about shadows and complementary colors. He had painted briefly in his past, and he thought that some of the plants around here may be used to create colors to match these native's faces. They were within proportion of him, though all were much larger, which still surprised him.
He came back to the present very rapidly when Raven sat down again.
"Then I will stay here," she said. "And take my chances." Her smile was pleasant, but it never reached her eyes.
Pinion shifted where he stood, clearly uncomfortable. He glanced at the two guards, who averted their gazes.
This could not be going well for him, Reur thought. Out loud, he said, "Hurry up. The sun will rise soon."
"All right," Pinion said, finally. "Only because I have an agreement with Reur."
She shrugged. "I don't care why. I care that I'm getting out of here."
So they snuck out, via canoe, with extra food for Raven and the chicks, who were somewhat sedate. Raven checked them once and hissed in annoyance at someone named Red Feather. When they managed to get everything back to Tread and Mucker, somehow unseen, the two Totanbeni stared at him in shock.
"And all it cost was the belt?" Tread said.
"Yes." Then Reur stared back after him in consternation. "Oh, I forgot to tell him how to use it."
Tread looked at Mucker, and Mucker looked at Tread, and Raven stared at all three of them in fear and shock. Then the three of them laughed out loud, Raven loudest of all. Reur looked at them, not quite understanding what had happened.
* * * * *
The next day, Pinion, wearing his new magic belt, woke to screams from Red Feather, whom he had invited back to his tent. After all, he had gotten rid of all his problems and found this new magic to play with, that would protect him from the mud. He had washed his face, made love to her, and fallen asleep.
So he was surprised to feel the burning on his cheek. He touched it, and it was pocked and raw. Worms, he thought, and immediately grabbed his knife and scraped the flesh away from his face, then called magic to burn his face. It was painful, but necessary. More people should do this, he thought, as Red Feather ran from the tent at his self-mutilation. When he found her, she healed him as best she could, but he would always have the scar.
He was able to explain Raven's disappearance, the chicks vanishing, and the stolen canoe and food away by the three missing guards, who were obviously of traitorous intent. No one questioned him when the three were found, two hung from a tree and the third eaten by worms.
Not too soon after, they moved camp to head to a gathering in the south. The two keeper apprentices did their best, but by the fourth day of doing double-duty, delegated by their keeper who had no idea what he was doing, one of them had lost a hawk. With the chicks gone, this put them below a critical number of birds, which would never get replaced.
Following a poor showing at the gathering, the chief replaced Pinion with Red Feather, finally realizing what Pinion had done. The longer term effects had started, though, and it was only a matter of time before the Vagal faded into history with their god, becoming little more than stories told by other members of the Hundred Tribes of yet another tribe to fall to the Totanbeni Empire.