Wednesday, July 22, 2020


Dimitri Luchnik drifted in a row boat alongside the cliffs. The boat had an oar but he didn't see the point of rowing--he didn't know where he was and didn't have any destination in mind.  He could have told the troop captain that a sea voyage to Krepnyikk during hurricane season was a bad idea, but he wasn't highly-ranked enough to even have opinions, let alone share them aloud. He'd lost his voynasouchastnik, his battle buddy, when the ship broke up, so both of them were as good as dead if either turned up at home alive.  He felt like an arm after the amputation. Dimitri let the current take him southward so far that the air became intolerably warm at midday, and then further south still until the air became mild again. Even growing up in a costal town--before the military took him--and liking seafood, Dimitri never wanted to eat another fish again after the third week in the rowboat.

The cliffs loomed off his starboard side, pale tan rock occasionally striated with darker colours. The ocean threw itself against the bottom, birds circled the tops, Dimitri was stuck. He didn't mind not being in camp anymore, but the enforced time to do nothing but sit and think didn't go well with him.  It rained nearly every afternoon, he spread his cloak in the bottom of the boat to catch as much as possible. One day towards evening, just after the daily shower, he thought the cliffs were getting shorter but dismissed it as a probable trick of the fading light.  Once the sun dropped behind the cliffs it got dark in a hurry. The next morning there was no doubt, as the sun sparkled across the wavelets, that the cliffs were shorter.  Dimitri estimated they were only two bowshots high. He paddled a little closer to the base, taking care to keep out of the bigger waves right at the rocks that would throw him around.  By just after midday he could see a beach.  

With a joyful shout he plunged the oar in the water.  The boat bottom scraped against the sand and he leapt onto the shore, eager to stand up again.  His legs gave out and he fell half in the boat, he knelt until he felt strong enough to try again.  Struggling to his feet, he almost let the boat drift back out to sea but thought the better of it and wrestled it ashore.  The sand was warm under his hands but not hot enough to get through his boots. The air smelled fresher than the endless salt spray he'd been out in.  The beach curved away out of sight to his left and broke up into large rocks to his right, almost immediately becoming cliffs.  The wall of stone sloped down in front of him, he could see trees at the top. Dimitri secured the boat above the waterline and strode up the beach toward the trees.  He took only the water flask and his bow and arrows, the better to travel light in this strange country.  His goals were, in order of priority, fresh water that did not taste like the inside of his cloak, and something to eat that walked on four legs. Maybe a bath. 

Before he reached the treeline he found himself confronted by a circle of people. None of them wore a smile, though nobody reached for any weapons that he could see.  They all looked alike, men and women both with black hair and tan skin, in loose clothing of grey or brown.  Some of them had designs on their shirts, patterns in green and orange and yellow.  One man had a repeating design of fish along the hem.

Fish-hem spoke. "Hua! Momosaki atae ta ulo?"

Dimitri said "I do not speak your language," with a small shake of his head. 

This caused much consternation and babbling amongst the people.  

"Ere tana tako ricana ula." Someone wearing feathers braided in her hair pointed at one of the others, who left up the path away from the beach.  The rest closed ranks, not taking their eyes off Dimitri. Not having anything better to do, he waited. The sun shifted two hand lengths closer to dusk. Some of the people would leave the circle, in ones or twos, and return. None of them spoke to him, nobody left a gap in the circle.  Dimitri stood where he was.  His legs were sore but he didn't want to sit in front of them and show weakness.  He'd endured worse in training, it would be fine, he simply shifted his weight every so often. 

Finally, the person returned with another woman who had lighter hair.  It was still a deep brown, about the same colour as Dimitri's but in contrast to the others it looked noticeably lighter. 

"Asoko aniriena lena takuose a. Bah haran ata emew rana pulolen di." Light-hair pointed at Dimitri as she said it.  Everyone looked to each other and back to Dimitri, and murmured among themselves.  

"Olo emew di?" someone said, pointing.  

Light-hair nodded, rattled off a few long sentences and gesticulated while she did it.  She ascribed a curved line in the air with a flat palm, pointed her finger a few times, mimed shooting a bow, and then moved her pointer finger in a little arc to smack into her open palm, making a squealing sound as she did so.  Dimitri had little trouble figuring out the woman was talking about his bow and arrows, though he was astonished that the rest of the people seemed to need an explanation.

Fish-hem said "Horose mana e?" 

Light-hair glanced at Dimitri and scoffed. "Pu. Nana puno ve a."

The group devolved into conversation, glancing at Dimitri occasionally but mostly talking to each other.  Someone else was dispatched away from the beach and another standoff occurred. Dimitri wasn't forced to wait as long the second time.  The sun shifted only half a handlength. He was starting to feel light headed and, more concerning, he'd stopped feeling thirsty. The newest errand-runner returned with another man with light hair and an old woman.  They must have been quite close, judging by the way the old woman leaned on her walking stick.  Then again, she didn't hobble, and she made good time across the sand to the waiting group.  The light haired man spoke.

"Kik tlesch iiminic?" he spoke carefully, as though wanting to be as clear as possible.  It still made no sense to Dimitri. He wondered if that was tradespeech, it sounded so different from what he'd heard so far.  Dimitri shrugged and shook his head. The light-haired man said something to the crowd and walked away.  Everyone started talking again. Dimitri swayed slightly on his feet.  The old woman noticed and called for silence. Everyone stopped talking at once as she stepped into the circle directly in front of Dimitri.

She asked a question and then brought a fist to her mouth while tipping her head back, then for good measure she pointed to the strap of his flask. Dimitri inclined his head in affirmation.

"I am thirsty, yes." After a moment, he repeated the fist-to mouth gesture that looked like drinking and held his hand out, looking hopeful. The old woman spoke. A command, maybe? Dimitri didn't understand.  She said something to the lighter-haired woman, who mimed shooting an arrow and then exaggeratedly mimed putting the bow down.  Dimitri got the message and disarmed his bow and arrows, putting them on the sand, bow still strung and within reach but no longer on his person. The old woman looked satisfied and said something to the group. Fish-hem produced a leather bag with a very narrow top.  Dimitri could see it was obviously a kind of soft-sided flask. Fish-hem took a couple steps closer but not within reach and tossed the soft flask gently into the sand at his feet. Dimitri picked it up.

"Thank you." He inclined his head at the old woman and at fish-hem. The stopper gave him a bit of trouble but once he got it open he thought he'd never tasted water so sweet. He drank most of it before he could stop himself and immediately almost vomited.  Too much water on an empty stomach.  He held himself together.  

The sun was nearly to the horizon.  Three people disappeared up the beach and returned with wood, blankets, a cooking pot, and several more people bearing food and more water.  Some of the watchers who had stood guard all afternoon left while the newcomers settled into their places in the circle.  Someone tossed a few pieces of wood at Dimitri.  Clearly they meant to spend the night there, cutting him off from the village or whatever they had up there. A blanket landed at his feet, tied at the corners.  The blanket was scratchy but seemed like it would be warm enough, woven with what looked like leftover scraps of yarn--all different colours in no particular pattern that he could see. He untied it to find another soft flask of water and some food.  Meat, some flat breads, a fruit. He thanked them. 

Dimitri weighed his options.  Sleep on the beach with these people or get back into the row boat.  Or fight his way out of them, but he sensed that he would run out of arrows or be killed before that happened.  He wasn't sure why he was still trying to live but he did still want to. The rowboat was not appealing.  He spread the blanket on the sand, then walked away from it.  Two of the people started to follow.  

"Ah. I need to make sod." Dimitri mimed taking his trousers down and squatting.  They understood and laughed, letting him go.  He buried his waste in the sand--already so much better than hanging his rear off the side of the boat. The food was strange but filling and none of it was fish, which made him very happy.  He couldn't get the fire started--he lost his flint at sea--but curled up in the blanket and was warm enough for the night. 

The next morning all the women in the group vanished.  Someone with an orange bird embroidered on his shirt stepped forward with a cream coloured ball of something in his hand.  He said something, threw the ball to Dimitri, then gestured to the waves coming up on the shore.  Dimitri hesitated and the man mimed scrubbing himself under the arms while jabbering away at him.  Dimitri got the point. The men stood guard while he washed himself and his clothes in the surf.  They'd dry stiff from salt but it was probably better than the way he smelled now.  

By the time everything was dry and they got back to the beach a group of people all with the lighter brown hair stood ready.  They encircled him and waited politely for Dimitri to pick up his bow and arrows again. Someone threw him a shoulder-strap pack and conveyed that the blanket and the soap, as well as the two soft flasks were to go into the pack.  The brown-haired group started walking, still completely surrounding Dimitri.  He didn't feel like a prisoner but he was also unwilling to test their kindness.  

Over the next week he was guided through the forest and up onto the cliffs as they crumbled to their lowest point, then along the cliff top through the grassy plain.  He never saw a village, nor any other people beyond his captors-or-hosts. They provided him food and water, time to relieve himself and time to rest, but they never tried to communicate beyond mime and never left him alone. The group came to a large trampled area on the plain and waited another full day. At dawn on the third day came a group of men on horseback with an extra horse.  One of the people made them quite a little speech in the harsher language and then the entire group turned around and headed for the cliffs.

Dimitri was left staring up at a man on horse who eyed him like he was a recalcitrant trainee.

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