Archive for January, 2015

Storytime: First Impressions.

Wednesday, January 28th, 2015

First impressions count. I mean, what happens afterwards MATTERS, of course, but they really do change how you look at all that other, later stuff.
Take these two, for instance.
It’s back a long ways and you’ve got some primates wandering around. Hairless (mostly) intelligent (partly) bipedal (badly) apes, just loping through the grasslands and forests and valleys and hills. Checking things out, taking a look around, getting their shit together and taking a peek at the planet to see what peeked back. Sometimes they got chewed on, but they’d learned a bit and they could chew back, small teeth though they had. They were problem-solvers, and good ones, and they knew it.
And one day, as a bunch of them were sitting down by a river murdering fish with clubs, one reached into the water and smacked at it and hit something that was a lot less slippery and a lot more furry than she was expecting.
She pulled it out, and was puzzled to see it was also breathing more than was usual.
“Huh!” she said. “Well now! What are you, hmm? No fish – no fins on tail or legs, and not a scale to be seen! No fowl, you’re not full-feathery enough. Certainly hairy enough for a mammal, though. What are you, some sort of overgrown water-rat?”
“I am a beaver,” said the furry, fatty thing, with the special kind of mumbled you get when half your mouth is incisor, “and I would like it very much if you let go of my tail. I am busy.”
“Sure, whatever,” said the human. She dropped the beaver head-first. “Busy with what? Not busier than we are, I bet. Nobody’s a busier body than us folks. All day and all night we busy ourselves. Whatcha busy with?”
“Building,” said the beaver. “Beavers build.”
“Hah!” she said. “Build? We’re builders too! Here, check out this club – check the heft, check the handle. See that handle? That’s a wrapped grip of leather thongs around a fire-hardened wooden shaft. That’s some mother-fuckin-multi-material-toolmaking right there, that is, it’s no lie. Even the chimps and crows don’t pull this shit off! We build like crazy, you know it!”
“So do we,” said the beaver. “So do we! I bet you we build just as good. I bet you that.”
The human grinned, and its teeth were much smaller than the beavers and sparkled like damp pebbles inside its pink mouth. “I bet you back we’re better, sure. I bet you we can out-build you like crazy. Go on, name a thing, and we’ll outbuild you at it. Go on, go home and get all your relatives and go for it, get it done.”
“Then we will build a means to store dinner,” said the beaver.
“Great,” said the human. “I can do that dead-simple.”

So they both went home, and they both talked to their relatives about the bet, and everyone chipped in on both sides, and the next week the human walked up to the river where she’d been fishing and found herself up to her waist in water.
“BEAVER!” she yelled out. “You out there? This place is a damn mess!”
“Here,” said the beaver, bobbing to her side like a cork in a creek. “I have finished building.”
The human looked around. Nothing but water, water, water. “Right,” she said. “Here, I got this sack. Check it out: tanned leather taken from deer stitched together with sinew using a bone needle cut with flint and fire-hardened, with resin to caulk it up good. I can carry it by this loop on the top or string it on my back. I can hold all sorts of dinner in here, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“That’s nice,” said the beaver.
“That IS nice,” agreed the human zealously. “Now, whatcha got?”
“I chewed down trees and piled them up and flooded this entire creekbed, then hid branches on the bottom covered in mud,” said the beaver.
The human looked at the beaver.
“What did you do with the branches?”
“I ate them.”
A still closer look, an attempt to see if sarcasm exists outside her species. Big brown eyes looked back at her.  Her own itched gently, as if ants were crawling on them.
“What’d I win?” asked the beaver.
“Double or nothing,” said the human. “That’s a nice trick, I bet. But look: I bet you can’t make yourself a good solid place to keep safe, eh? I bet you can’t make yourself a home that’ll stand against bear, breeze, and winterburn. I bet I can build a better house.”
“Okay,” said the beaver. “I bet you that.”
The human hurried home fast that night. She had big plans that needed big talking.

So they both talked to their relatives again and they worked hard, hard, hard. And the human came back to the edge of the beaver meadow, and she found that the new edge was a lot farther away than before. She had to wade in up to her neck this time.
“Look at this, fuzzy!” she yelled, brandishing her prize.
“That’s what you brought last time, isn’t it?” asked the beaver.
“Yeah, but guess what’s inside!”
The beaver considered this. “Food?” it inquired, suspiciously.
“No! A HOME! I tanned leather from all sorts of bits and took poles by chopping down saplings and drying them out and I waterproofed it with tar and I can put this down anyplace and if anything rustles it in the night I can grab up my spear and give them a poke in the posterior! How’s that, stumpy? What’d you do?”
The beaver blinked in confusion at the wordtorrent, then shook itself, gathered its thoughts. One. Two. There they were.
“I chewed down trees and piled them up and flooded this entire meadow, then piled up more trees into a mound and burrowed into them for shelter.”
The meadow was silent, but for the quiet, flat grinding of human teeth. The beaver, a rodent by trade, figured this was just normal behavior.
“A third time,” she said at last. “That doesn’t count anyway. You cheated. You used the same trick twice. I’m sure that’s against some rules.”
“One trick works pretty well,” said the beaver. “I think so.”
“Well here’s one last thing to build,” said the human. “Because I don’t believe you. I don’t believe you one bit. How about this: you build a way to relax. To kick back. To have fun. I don’t think you can do this because you can’t even kick with those stubby legs. You’d fall over. Deal?”
“Okay,” said the beaver.
That night the human not only walked home fast but stayed up the whole night ruthlessly canvassing every member of her family, hyperextended family, and practically-part-of-the-family on what precisely might count as fun, frivolous, humorous, or amusing.
In the end, everyone was a in a bad mood, but she damned well had it.

The edge of the forest was a fast-murking swamp, but the human was in such a rush she practically skipped from stump to stump, hopped snapping turtles with a cackle, made rude gestures at passing bears.
“Who is the finest builder in all the world!?” she demanded of the world, who ought to have known. “I! I am! I have done it! I have done it! I have done this! Behold!”
“Okay,” said the beaver. “Didn’t you bring that before?”
The human tore the sack open and held up her prize, arm quivering with excitement. “BEHOLD!”
The beaver sniffed it. “It doesn’t look like food to me,” it said, “but maybe you eat things I don’t.”
“This is not food!” yelled the human. “This is purest entertainment! Behold! The string is connected to the thong for maximum bobble! The shiny object beckons to the eye while the squeaky one harkens to the ear! It smells nice because I rolled it in a berry-bush! It tastes okay too! It is the ultimate in amusement value!”
The end of the ultimate in amusement value squeaked and fell off.
“It’s very nice indeed!” said the beaver. “Good job.”
“And what,” whispered the human, “did YOU come up with for a good time, oh fuzzy, dumpy, nibbly little barkbiter?”
“Umm…” said the beaver, and it scratched itself. “Wellll. Weeellllll. Well.”

“Well WHAT?!”
“I chewed down trees and piled them up and flooded this entire forest.”

The beaver’s tiny brow furrowed. “It was fun? I think? I’m not really sure. It’s just what I do, you know?”
The human’s eye twitched.
“That looks funny,” said the beaver. “You know what I do when I feel badly? I chew down-”

The coat was indeed comfortable enough to soothe anyone’s spirits, all agreed on that – wonderfully warm and it kept out wet like nobody’s business. And hey, what could be more comforting than one for everyone?
That said, first they’d have to find them. Hey, daughter of mine, cousin, friend, pal, wife, mother, you know how you’d go about finding these little coat-makers? Got any idea what sort of thing you’d keep an eye out for.
And the human smiled, and the human’s eye twitched again, and it said:
“First you go and find some chewed-down trees…”

Storytime: Karkharos.

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

And as she moved, without the need for something as unsophisticated as a thought, she let the world trickle through her nerves and into her brain. Scent motion sound taste sight snatched out of the water live and wriggling and helpful.
She heard a splash.
She felt the thrash of flailing limbs.
She smelt blood.

Just a little baby oh what a nice baby.
Go on hold her! Well I think I will why hello there look at you look at the world isn’t that nice!
Oh she’s lovely such a nice quiet baby-
-doesn’t cry at all won’t keep you up at night eh haha
-already learning to walk bless her. Teething yet?
No but soon enough-

Carcharodon carcharias, an unprompted stranger’s wish
a fin in the water, grows to strong from weak
the smile so nice they named it twice
(it means ‘sharpen,’ from the greek)

It’s not proper for a young girl to spend so much time with fishermen-
-well her father’s a fisherman it’s near enough-
-yes she’s much too interested. Prudence! You’ve got to teach her to be-
-can’t fault the dear for trying not like she hasn’t made her mark on the girl. Thrift is a virtue and you see her practice it she’s up all evening cutting up-
-yes the coupons from the day’s papers they’ll wrap fish in it but it’s a wife’s job to save the important bits.
And she’ll be a lovely wife I’m sure. Just so long as she keeps in mind her future and-

Carcharodon carcharias, shaded and anonymous
grey body in a bright blue world
dark from beneath given form with teeth
white against the belly, tightly furled

-Out for blood she was! My Jenny never so much as-
-No words for it! She won’t set foot back in that school until we hear-
-not so much her fault if she’d cried what with what the others said about her but to go and-
No excuse for it! None at all! A lady would have turned up her nose a pig would’ve stooped to words but only a-
-let her stay down by the docks if she’s not fit for humans rot with the salt and brine and keep company with-

Carhcarodon carcharias, cool-headed deadliness
warm heart cold to the seal-pup’s bleat
mouth meant for killing, with flesh ever-filling
but there’s more to life than meat

Well it’s a shock and a shame what she’s done and been a wonder she’s still in town. Knew she was that way since birth well that family who can blame her but-
-It’s no wonder he left. Oh she flaunted it were any of them really his? Or his! Or his! Mark my words she brought it upon-
-And she wouldn’t hear a word of it! As if I were talking to a stone when all I said was common decency and she just gave me that look that horrible awful look-
-like her eyes are baring teeth I swear-
-not so much as a speck of remorse! Doesn’t shrink to meet your eye and in the street she holds her head straight as if she weren’t-

Carcharodon carcharias, honest or over-brisk?
don’t ask the old and infirm!
either way, well who’s to say?
too busy swimming to confirm

Who’s that-
-don’t point don’t ask-
-does she have a family I haven’t seen her in-
-lives on that boat don’t ask again let her cut her coupons in peace there’s no-
-ought to be a law against it homeless kinless vagrants make this town-
-she’s got kids-
-oh and where are they eh where are they all over town in whose houses huh?
-can’t believe any of them found matrimony can’t believe anyone was willing to wed a-a pup of that creature.
-bet she couldn’t name a dad for all the wine in-
-shhh shut up she’ll hear-
-she hears she doesn’t care shut your mouths anyways-
-yeah but what happened to that one girl eh? And Harry last week he said she didn’t care and where’s he gone?
-You’re crazy she’s crazy she’s-

Carcharodon carcharias, older than blood and piss
scarred as a cobblestone wall
takes a nipping and keeps on clipping
they’re only love bites, after all

Don’t throw that! She’s got eyes in the back of her-
-heard the last boy to foul her lines was never seen again you say that now and I swear my friend’s brother’s friend said-
-she’s got special scissors y’know and she never stops sharpening them and she’ll snip off your-
-not natural. Spends more time on salt than shore she’ll end up-
-never talks never shows an interest no friends no business beyond a dock and a catch to sell what kind of person is-

Carcharodon carcharias, mistress of true bliss
same prey, same tricks, same hunt
can sense the world just fine running up your spine
it’s omniscience for the things that count

The boat’s empty.

It’s what?
It’s empty.
I heard it floated back in, what happened?
I don’t know. No body. Fell over, maybe? Too old to get back in.
She never wore a jacket. Maybe that’s it.
Well, good riddance. We won’t see her again.
No. We won’t.
Feels strange, been around since my granny was a little thing.
Now she’s in the locker, and your kids won’t have a devil to scare them anymore.
Neither will the catch. You’re just jealous. Never did like that she could triple your haul on a sick day.
Shut up!
Well, either way she’s fish food and now there’s nothing for them to be scared of but-

Carcharodon carcharias, gentle as a mother’s kiss
can’t even feel the touch
watch the land as it burns while the wide sea turns
they love little, but fear so much
Carcharodon carcharias, Carcharodon carcharias
sharp and quiet and clean
there is no spite when you take your bite
black eyes on a calm shagreen

Storytime: Cold Forged.

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

“I’m hungry.”
The taiga stretched front and behind, back and forth. A great grey ghostly sea of trees and snow and whatever animal life was too stubborn, slow, or tough to leave. It sneered at rainforests; it could swallow deserts whole. To find a larger landscape you had to travel to a shoreline.
There hasn’t been any rain here in six months and twelve days, and it isn’t coming anytime soon.
“I’m hungry.”
The sky was a calm, cool grey that didn’t quite feel ready to be blue. The colour of freshly cooled corpseskin, of a kitten’s eyes, of-
“I’m hungry.”
Couldn’t keep too much of an eye above, though. Not with the snow underfoot taking al-
“I’m hungry.”
Crunch like bones under every st-
“I’m hungry I’m hungryI’mh-”
Lun removed the spoon from the cook-pot and inserted it into Naddabas’s face, and silence returned to the larch and spruce for some six appreciative seconds.

“Was that done cooking? It didn’t taste like it was done cooking…”
Lun returned the spoon to the cook-pot. Once upon a time, it had been a helmet. Once upon a slightly earlier time, it had been a cook-pot. It had not taken the return to its roots gracefully.
“It wasn’t done cooking.”
“You were hungry.”
Naddabas sighed, wriggling in her own guilt, in her little body-sack against Lun’s broad back. It would’ve tickled if Lun had any nerves back there. “True. True. And true a third time. Damn and noise, it almost didn’t hurt the taste. What’s in there again?”
Lun swirled the spoon, half-glancing at the effect produced. “Pine nuts. A bit of bark. Some sort of songbird.”
“Was it the one with the red throat that goes chee-chee?”
“Was it the one with the blue throat that goes he-saw-me?”
“Was it the one with the yellow back and grey wings and black tummy and bright red eyes that won’t stop following us and never makes a sound?”
“Rackets. I was hoping you’d finally got it.”
“It’s smart; hides whenever I pull the sling out. I don’t know where it is.”
“Hope it gets lost. Hope it gets lost into a bear’s belly. That’d serve it right.”
“Mmm. It’s done cooking.”
“You eat first. I can see you’re burning low there. How much did you use to light that fire?”
“Not so much.”
Naddabas’s smile settled into place on her face like a cat in a well-worn cushion. “Liar, liar, liar,” she sang. “I can see your eyes guttering. Go on. Take your meal. And do it fast, before you become even worse company. I can’t chat with a friend who’s gone cold and stiff as a board, can I?”
Lun got to her feet with an annoyed grunt, and she knew that Naddabas knew that meant ‘oh fine.’ Only one in ten things her talky little friend said might be worth the air they used, but that was still a lot of truths at the end of the day.
She reached into the fire with her big rough hands wrapped in their charred leathers, yanked out the two least-crumbled logs, and carefully slid them under her coat. It accepted them with the smooth ease warranted by something that could’ve passed as a large tent, and she leaned back with a sigh. Then she coughed.
“Too far gone?” frowned Naddabas.
Lun’s shut her eyes. One. Two. Three big slow breaths. Then she opened them again and the campsite was just a little bit brighter than before. “No. Just got sapstuck. Trees are gummier than a glue factory.”
“Too hollering right. We should head south.”
Lun sat down again, but smoother. She spat out a little cloud of smoke and watched it wander away. “No.”
“Come on, come on, don’t be stubborn. He was probably lying anyways. We don’t need to come all the way out here, we can go back home! I’m sure they’ve forgotten about me anyways, and I can show you all the best places to eat, maybe introduce you to a boy or two I know with the most amaz-”
“Can’t go back ‘till we find it. You know that.”
Lun returned the spoon to Naddabas’s face, removed it, and repeated the action at a practiced pace that just barely allotted time for breathing until it clanged against bare and empty metal.
“I’m sorry,” said Naddabas. “But you know this won’t work. We ran out of potatoes two days ago. We ran out of meat two weeks ago. A little bit farther north and we’ll run out of trees, and then what’ll you do?”
“Burn bracken and lichen,” said Lun.
“It’s not that I don’t want to help – I know all this is my fault – but we really have to think about fixing the problem in a way that doesn’t kill us. Understand? If you drop dead and fall over and squish me out here, we might as well have stayed home.”
“And I’m sure you’ll do us all a favour and explain why you haven’t done just that,” said a third voice.
It was a very polite voice, a very proper voice, a voice that would’ve fit right into the fifth quarter tidily – as a statesman, or perhaps a statesman’s uncle.
It was also altogether wrong. Some syllables seemed to have been produced by rubbing together bristles. Others had been replaced by near-identical copies that fit into place as well as a two-year-old’s jigsaw.
Lun’s eyes flickered. Naddabas tried to stand up, forgot she didn’t have limbs, and fell over.
“I’m sorry?”
“She’s ecclesial echoes,” said Lun.
“Lapsed!” hissed Naddabas. “Lapsed! I don’t believe a word of that nois-that NONSENSE anymore, but the language STICKS to you, it reall-”
“Names, please,” said the voice. “Names, homelands, business.”
“Lun. Tioloon, third quarter. Mining.”
“Naddabas, Tioloon, fifth quarter, and I suppose assisting a suicide. And yourself?”
The speaker stepped forward. All forty of him.
“Ujj six-through-forty-six,” he said. “Broodlands. Conquest.”

“Never seen one of you this far north,” said Lun.
“I could say the same,” said Ujj three. He was smiling, Lun thought. Naddabas would know for sure. Lun had never taken any of the social classes, and didn’t know how to read expressions through all those emptied eyes. She kept trying to meet his gaze and failing as the bright little orb switched from one eyesocket to the next. “Tioloon is nearly four thousand miles away. I’ve heard some of the first quarter don’t even believe in snow. How did you plan to survive up here?”
“Potatoes,” said Lun.
“And how well did that work?”
“Pretty good until we ran out of potatoes.”
The Ujj’s eyeball danced from socket to socket, and Lun guessed that meant laughter maybe. She glanced at Naddabas over her shoulder for support, but the serpent was already halfway through her second bowl of actual, honest-to-toneless potato soup without any bark at all, and didn’t seem to be in the mood to notice much of anything.
“As humorous as your optimism is, miner-to-be Lun, I suspect that you didn’t plan for that at all. You don’t eat, do you?”
Lun thought about that. “Sort of.”
“Sort of. You haven’t so much as glanced at the meal since you walked in, and you gave your companion the entire pot of your own…food… and then there’s that little bit of business I saw with the firewood. Miner Lun, would you kindly remove your coat?”
Naddabas looked up sharply and shook her head, but by then Lun was already working her way through the buttons and didn’t notice.
The room glowed red.
“Ah,” said Ujj-three. “That explains how you haven’t frozen to death yet, at any rate. May I touch it?”
Lun shrugged, and the Ujj leant forwards and carefully traced his long, barbed fingers over the seam between flesh and metal. He hissed as they approached the mouth of the furnace that sat where her belly should be, and withdrew them in a languid huff that made her think of a cat.
“Ah! Well now. That’s not a common sight. Tell me, is it fully-functional?”
Lun knew the entire rest of the conversation, but she decided she’d have it anyways. “Yes.”
“And do you have the tools to operate it at full capacity?”
“Most of them. The basics.”
“I can provide you with better. Tell me, miner Lun, are you by any chance smith-qualfied?”
“Can work all the way up to fifth quarter. Specialize in heavy machinery, have a bit of war-crafting training.”
The Ujj’s eye throbbed in its latest roost – a beetled, furrowing pit made for thinking and frowning by Lun’s guess. “Impressive. Why not sixth?”
“She’s hopeless with people,” chimed in Naddabas. “One minute she won’t talk to save your life from boredom, the next she says all sorts of nonsense that-”
“Interesting.” The Ujj wrapped his fingers around his fingers around his wrists. “Smith Lun, then. I have a proposal. You need food – and, I suspect, fuel. We are mere miles from the treeline, and once you pass it you will find nothing to sate the fire in your belly. I have food, and fuel, and an army that is in pressing need for a smith. Do you see my idea?”
Lun held her hand out.
The Ujj’s eye positively sparkled with glee. “Ah. I appreciate the gesture, smith, but you don’t want a handshake. It’s the barbs, you see – I’ve had them compared to fishhooks, but considerably sharper.”
“No shake, no deal. Mind the gloves.”
Ujj-three shook and the deal was set.
Set dead fast. Lun helped him disentangle.

“You idiot. You PHENOMENAL idiot. Do you have any idea what you’ve just done?”
“Not really,” said Lun. She was watching the bobbing legs of Ujj-fourteen (thirteen?) in front of her, trying to place where he put his strange long feet in the wandering hollows of the knee-deep slush that infested the sprawling clearing the Ujj had claimed for his barracks. “Tell me.”
“Do you know anything about the Ujj?”
“Not really. Tell me.”
“Do you know what our chances are of getting out of here alive are now?”
“Not really. Tell me.”
“We’re both going to end up deader than daddy’s dear-”
Lun placed a finger to Naddabas’s lipless mouth. “No, really. Tell me.”
Naddabas bit her. Lun let her chew on her finger for a minute, then took it away.
“That tastes AWFUL.”
“You knew that. Still bit it.”
“Go shout yourself. Listen, you can trust an Ujj as far as you can throw them.”
“Pretty far? Can’t be more than a hundred and ten pounds wet.”
“I-you, not YOU-you. They’re – they’re sneaky. And they’re treacherous. You live your whole life as a little brood of a mere few thousand bodies surrounded – literally surrounded – by your elders and knowing that you’re only alive because they don’t feel like crushing you with a fifty-to-one numbers advantage, and you learn to be paranoid, trust me. Then they get kicked out into the world to make a name for themselves, and oh look, it’s full of people that don’t have thousands of bodies, and they do what bullied children do to people smaller than them. And they’ll always know more than you do because one of them knowing something means the whole brood does! We’re surrounded by more than two thousand soldiers all of which are the hands feets and EYES of a single evil little backstabbing barbpawed skinhunting bastard who’s likely out here on a crazy gloryhunt, and if any one of him thinks we’re up to something he’ll all come down on us at once!”
“Yes, yes, REALLY! And he WILL come down on us, because we’ll try to get away once we realize that he’s never letting us walk out of here because why would he let a perfectly good smith trek out into the snow to freeze to death when he could have her right there at home making mechanized death for him!?”
“Hmm.” Lun squinted into the gathering dark. There was a misshapen blob ahead that was supposedly a tent. “Well, we’ll think of something.”
Naddabas’s swearing was only interrupted by sleep some ten minutes later. A full belly always took her that way.
Lun carefully removed the bodysack from her back, stripped off her coat, and made a little nest for the serpent. Then she set about checking her tools. The Ujj had some real nice steel here – good stuff, maybe even blade-quality – but his forge was barely-there. Damaged supplies? Procurement mistake (no, not when the procurement officer was literally part of your own head). Who knew.
She reached down to her belly and unlatched the handle. Red light glowered.
Coal, too. Nice.
Lun fed a measured set of lumps through the hungry steel maw in her torso, felt the heat glaring inside her. It wanted out. It wanted to make things.
So she took it and pointed it and she made it so.

The sixth major battle (Naddabas called it a skirmish at best) of the Taiga War took place the next evening. Scores of Ujj on skis rushing down a sloped gully on one side, and some sort of strange, loping things that were mostly fur and teeth on the other, hurtling out of burrows in the snow. They screamed as they fought, and given the amount of punishment that they took before going down, there was an awful lot of screaming.
“If I wasn’t already damned to cacophony by doubt,” muttered Naddabas from Lun’s shoulder, “this would sure do it.”
Lun nodded, and watched as the battle began to work itself out under their eyes. The Ujj were swinging axes in two hands, great thin sweeping things halfwhere between scythe and timbersaw that moved like silk through air and limbs.
Well, in theory.
“I can’t believe you did that,” said Naddabas. “Giving them decimators – even if they’re knockoffs? Your masters would have your hide tanning in a tub.”
“They’re not.”
“Not fakes. Did the best job I could. Not shop-quality, but still.”
Naddabas’s voice dropped into the register she called ‘threatening’ and Lun called ‘funny.’ “You gave. These polite little. Psychopaths. TIOL DECIMATORS?!”
“Near enough as I could. I’d have tossed most of these out. But look – see down there?”
Naddabas craned her neck. “Where?”
Lun pointed. An Ujj (fifty?) had swung his blade, struck true, and was now being spread at increasing velocity over the nearby snow by his angry opponent.
“Should’ve cut it in half clean, or near enough. But it sticks in the bone – see the ribcage is still all in one piece? – and it doesn’t kill fast enough. They just get mad and maul you while the blade’s stuck. Close quarters, two hundred pounds of muscle and bone beats one hundred ten pounds of barbs no trouble.”
“Fascinating. If I could still throw up without putting my life at risk, I would.” She glared up at the calm gray sky. “I bet this is that stupid bird’s fault. Do you see it? I haven’t seen it since we got here. It’s never around when something like this happens. Probably hopes we’re dead.”
By now the fight was over. Most of it. Some of the wounded were still thrashing, and the Ujj put them down with long quarrels that seemed more needle than anything.
“Not bad,” said Ujj-three. He bore no decimator at his side, just the finely-serrated sword that composed the brood’s more standard armament. “Better than before at least. Not good, of course. Smith, I am somewhat disappointed.”
“Go and do better yourself then,” snapped Naddabas.
The Ujj spread his arms wide in what was probably meant to be a disarming gesture in a species less pointy. “I am interchangeable, of course, but I am well aware that outside the broodlands this is not a…commonly grasped fact. Protocol dictates a specific body should be kept as liaison for dealing with specific outlanders. It puts them more at ease.”
Naddabas stared at him for an insultingly long time. The Ujj’s body language showed a cheerfully insolent lack of impact.
Lun nodded, and turned from the battlefield. “Right. I can see what the problem is. First things first, I’ll need more supplies. Do you have any better steel?”
“Then we’ll make do with extra.”

Naddabas hung from Lun’s left arm as she worked, swinging the tip of her nose perilously close to her friend’s furnace and back again, in and out with the rhythms of her heart.
“Watch it.”
“I can’t help it. I like the warm.”
Lun carefully maneuvered a red-hot bar of metal around her snout. “Go and eat something.”
“No. If I do that I’ll fall asleep, and I need to talk to you. We need to think of a way to get out of here.”
Naddabas’s tongue tickled against the seam between Lun’s flesh and metal. “I’m entirely serious. If you win this fight for him, he’ll never let us go. If you lose it, he’ll kill us if the nasty little fuzzies don’t. And if it turns into a stalemate he might try to get persuasive. I know Ujj persuasive. They can do amazing things with those fingers.” She peered into Lun’s stomach, leaning her farthest yet. “What’re you making, anyways?”
“A way out of here.”
“Oh,” sighed Naddabas. “That’s nice.”
Six minutes later her head was limp, and Lun set up the coat-nest again before Naddabas could slide loose and fall into her furnace.

The seventh battle of the Taiga War took place three days later and twenty miles north, on the very cusp of the greenline, where the tundra began to plant its feet – the only grayer land. Tiny, withered trees strained grumpily under the weight of flying bodies living and dead, and the wind set in halfway through the day, whipping snow into even the most deeply-set eyesockets of the Ujj and clearing the way for the eighth battle of the Taiga War, which arrived quite suddenly.
“Shh,” said Naddabas, her mouth barely moving. “Shh.”
“I am shh,” said Lun quietly. She was sprawled flat on her stomach, and already the snow had half covered her. A few more minutes and they’d be invisible.
“No you aren’t. You’re breathing too much. You’re noisy.”
Lun grunted noncommittally and tried to keep her airways clear; her face had already tried to ice to the snow.
“See, there you go again. So noisy. It’s those big lungs. There’s one of them four paces away – yours, not mine – and he’s almost found you. Two more steps and you’re done.”
Lun breathed out and spoke, got ready to hold the inhalation. “Where.”
“Right. As in, not-left. He’s there in one, two ohracketshe’sfasterthanhe-”
A blurred mass of angry darkness hurtled at them through the snow, then reversed itself in midair with a meaty thud. Lun stood up and brushed herself off, then began patting down her coat.
“What are you DOING?”
“Looking for my hammer,” said Lun.
“Right pocket second from the top – honestly, I can’t be your memory all day and all night. And why should I? You’ve practically turned that thing into its own filing system!”
“I’ve been busy. I forget things.” Lun pulled out the hammer, made her way towards the sound of snarling, and found the thing pulling itself out of a snowdrift with its one working arm. It really was as much teeth as fur – they erupted from its chest, its…face. Even its knuckles were grimed with molars, and the claws that were sliding loose from their sheaths were more canine than talon.
It swung at Lun one-armed. She leaned back, then swung forwards. It went down again.
One more swing.
“I hate it when you do that,” muttered Naddabas.
“Wasn’t going to stop until we did,” said Lun.
“I still hate it.”
“True.” She reached down and disentangled the snapper from the thing’s limp arm, checked the grip on the thing for wear and tear.
“I hate those too.”
“Not nice,” Lun agreed. “Blunted, though. The teeth are hard.”
“What sick bastard thought a noose and a steel-toothed trap needed to be crossbred, then jammed on a heavy-pull quarrel?”
“Ti the mastersmith. A noble wanted a safe bear-hunting tool.”
“Did it work?”
Lun pocketed the snapper and leaned in closer, ruffled through the fur and fangs. “Until he got careless, yes.”
“Should’ve carried a hammer.”
“Most people should.”
Naddabas retreated farther into her bodysack. “Are we escaping now?”
“Shh,” said Lun, straightening up quickly. She felt her friend’s body swell to protest, then immediately deflate as Ujj-three emerged from the swirling whiteness.
“On the run,” he said. “I’ll sit tight and wait for this little piece of vexation to pass us by, then push forwards.” He patted the haft of his crossbow, adding to the maternal air he already cradled it with. “Fine work on the ammunition. I lost several hundred, of course, but that was during the counterattack. I trust you’ll have a better plan for next time?”
Lun tapped at her side, finger tickling at the base of Naddabas’s bodysack. “We will.”
“Good,” said Ujj-three. “Excellent. And as a little extra motivation to add a little extra swing to your hammer, smith…”
Lun waited politely, allowing the sentence’s tail to collapse without grace.
“… I believe that we will find ourselves at the object of your quest within the week.”
Lun stopped tapping.
Ujj-three’s attempt at a smile was earnest. The eye twinkled, it really did. Naddabas could barely look. “Oh yes. How many things are there of value out here after all, at the end of the greenery? We seek the same substance, smith Lun. Why, you are far from the first lone prospector we have found on our little expedition!”
“Lone,” said Naddabas irritably. To Lun, the single other person in the midst of the Ujj.
Lun thought for a minute. Then she thought for four more seconds than that. “Stardrops,” she said at last.
“Precisely,” said Ujj-three. “Precisely! And what good luck that we found each other!”
And he clapped her on the back hard enough to bruise and walked away.
Lun stood very still and tried not to panic. “Naddabas?” she asked.
“Here,” said a very small voice. “Just missed me. Not quite barbed enough, it seems.” A long, slow hiss slid out. “I swear, that bird’s bound to show up again any minute. It might run from trouble, but it’ll want to watch us go down squirming, mark my words. It wants to eat me.”
Lun began to breathe again. “I could kill him.”
“No no no bad idea do whatever your other idea was. They’ll know what happened.”
Lun’s hand was at her pockets again. “Not if I’m fast enough.”
“No! No. You had a plan, and we’ll do that. You DID have a plan, right?”
The smith stared into the white. “I did. Maybe.”
“Then go to it. And that’s not the right pocket.”

One week later, they reached the stardrop crater.
It wasn’t an easy fight, when you saw the terrain. Uphill to the rim, then downhill to the burrows. They had to seal those with rocks in the end just to slow them down, furry limbs heaving and shoving and gouging clawmarks through the stone.
It wouldn’t have happened without the smith, the Ujj assured them. A good job, that. They would’ve had to clamber uphill to the crater’s lip through a hail of splintered sling-stones without the smith. A massacre.
But as the smith was there, they had their armour filled with padded bark where it squeaked, and they had a thick, dark tarry oil spread over their blades where they shone, and they each held a strange shield of beaten metal which shone back everything around it – and here that was snow, whiter than a worm’s heart.
And behind those mirror-polished shields they simply walked uphill. By the time the fight started, half of it was over, without so much as a scuffle.
After that, out came the spades – once decimators, now forged into a less formal, noble shape. Half-shovel, half-rake, half-crowbar, half-halberd. They kept what you fought at arm-and-a-half’s-length while they just tried to figure out what all the bits were supposed to be, and by then they were usually dead. And once there was nothing near you, why, there was nothing for it but to shovel scree, scree, scree. The edge that bit into bone and failed to pierce it still carved through permafrost like an avalanche through furry bodies, which was precisely what it caused.
Lun and Naddabas walked well at the rear this time. They couldn’t help but notice that Ujj-three never left their side.
“Down there,” he said. “Down there is a treasure fit to raise a brood from numeral to alphabetical in a single year. To ransom a king. Oh, smith, you have delivered it to me as surely as if you’d done so on bended knee!”
“You’re welcome,” Lun said. And Naddabas didn’t say anything.
“Let’s take a look, shall we?” And the walk became a jog, then nearly a sprint. There might not have been much to the Ujj, but most of that was limbs. By the time Lun had caught up with her steady pumps, Ujj-three had stopped running.
The stardrop was smaller than she’d expected. A little over half again her height, and twice as long as that. But she knew just looking at it that there was weight there. Something so heavy it fell out of the sky and left a mark this size in fragments was a mass you used mathematics to measure, not scales.
“Beautiful,” murmured Ujj-three. He scraped at its surface with a barbed finger, watched in happy awe as it snapped in half and fell away like a pine needle. “Beautiful. That would have left a mark in granite. Beautiful.” He turned back to Lun. “Have any of Tioloon been privileged to work with stardrop before?”
“Ti the mastersmith,” said lun. “Made a decimator with it.”
“Of course, of course, of course,” the Ujj whispered. “Tell me, how did it play?”
“It took three men to lift for six seconds. They never found it again. The cleft’s still visible in the sixth quarter.”
Ujj-three laughed at that, long and loud and altogether not right. There were pitches, sounds, entire cadences in there that were not proper to hear, however personable the intent behind them. “Oh, ah me,” he said. “Ah! What fools we all become, when such wealth is at our fingertips!” Then he shook his head. “Which is why precaution is necessary. Thank you, smith.”
Lun’s hand was in motion before the last word was finished, but the Ujj was faster. However, Lun’s hand contained Naddabas.
Naddabas was considerably faster.
The noise that came out of the Ujj was the first genuinely real thing she’d ever heard from him, as it vibrated up through her fangs and out her spine. But it had one thing in common with all he’d said: it just wouldn’t stop.
“FUT UP!” she yelled past the mouthful of – flesh, possibly? – she’d embedded her teeth into. “FUT UP!”
Needle-fingers came up to tear her away, but Lun was still moving, with her other hand now, and there was the hammer after all.
One moment the eye shone with fear, the next it was gone, and Lun picked up Naddabas from the ground.
“I missed you. Don’t fuss.”
“You almost shook my teeth out.” She peered blearily up the slope, which was beginning to run downhill towards them with certain angry goals in mind. The Ujj brood had spent almost a thousand of himself to reach the skydrop, but the loss of a single one at such a juncture seemed to have made him particularly sore. “Please tell me this was part of your plan.”
Lun shrugged. “Sure.” She’d replaced her hammer and was absently rummaging through her pockets again. “You remember which pocket I kept my polish, oils, and tars in?”
“Fifth from the bottom left side,” said Naddabas. “I don’t think fluids will help.”
“No,” said Lun. “So I used them all up this morning. Had to make room.” She extracted her prize with a grunt. “Found it.”
The big sack was worn, grimy, and seemed to have been made from an unpleasant sort of leather. But Naddabas, after having spent seven years as Lun’s friend and the last two snugged into the small of her back, recognized the stains on it as familiar and comforting.
“You’ve been burning hot all this time, haven’t you?” she said.
“Been ramping up,” the smith admitted. “Just needed the kicker.” She began to open the sack, then shook her head and began to yank at her buttons instead. “No time. Get behind the skydrop. Hurry up.”
Naddabas was already on the move, world-still-spinning though it was. The big boulder whirled in and out of either side of her vision, then upside down, and then she was corkscrewing her way underneath it. From the corner of one eye she saw Lun stuffing the sack into her gut with both hands as the frontrunner Ujj began to close with her, then her vision was filled with nothing but dirt and stone.
Then it went white and black and she woke up again, slightly singed. Lun was calling her name.
She worked her way out. It felt like someone had pan-seared her spine.
“There you are,” said Lun. “Why weren’t you behind it?”
“No legs,” said Naddabas. “Can’t move that fast. You almost got me. You almost got me! You almost SHRIEKING GOT M-”
Lun picked her up and hugged her.
“Fine,” said Naddabas. “Fine. Why didn’t you explain this part to me?”
“You hate metalworking minutia.”
Naddabas looked around the crater.
Six hundred Ujj lay flattened, crumpled to the ground by the blastwave.
“Minutia. Right. Tell me what happened.”
“Skydrops heat up fast and harden up when they heat. They get hot when they fall, it’s what makes them so heavy. Ti the mastersmith performed tests in-”
“Tell me what happened in a brief, useful, and exciting way.”
Lun shrugged as she began to walk upslope, jiggling Naddabas’s crisped tailtip in a painful way. “The fuzzies were metal caps on their teeth. Skydrop caps. Kept them sharp. The Ujj saw it and wanted to take their source. I saw it and knew the source was going to be well-used. Look at the slopes. Most of that scree is full of skydrop flakes.”
“So when you popped your doors-“
“Don’t call it that,” said Lun. She was
“Sorry, sorry, sorry… so when you popped your doors-”
“PLEASE don’t-”
“-you spontaneously superheated the entire surface of the slope they were running down.”
“Forged,” said Lun. Naddabas heard very little satisfaction in it. They were walking through the Ujj corpses now; each body reddened on the surface, seared to white and yellow fat on the underside. Wisps of steam were gently billowing from wounds surrounded by quietly re-cooled stone and cooling flesh.
“That was human skin you put in your furnace, you know,” said Naddabas.
“I know,” said Lun.
“They would’ve used you to hold coal and me for a swordhilt if you hadn’t-“
“I know.”
Naddabas sighed, a very little sound in a very large space. “Thank you again. And don’t feel so badly. Remember, this whole trip is my fault.”
“No,” said Lun. “And it was necessary. No avoiding it.”
“Well, I think that all could’ve been easier if we’d just gone home still. But at least we’ve gotten one good oh NO!” groaned Naddabas.
Lun turned around.
There, an all-too-visible blot in the distance now, perched on the heaviest of Ujj-three’s brows, crouched a large bird with a yellow back and grey wings and black tummy and bright red eyes that seemed to glare right through you. Dangling in its beak was the tiny shape of Ujj’s eye. The fires seemed to have spared its twinkle.
“Too good to be true,” muttered Naddabas. “Rackets. Let’s go home.”

Storytime: Snowfort.

Wednesday, January 7th, 2015

It’s a white day for Peter, his favourite kind. The only thing that comes close are the grey days, the days when the sun and the sky and the world all fade into one long wheeze of a smudge that smears away all difference between noon and night. They don’t come outside on days like that; they stay indoors and complain to themselves in strange deep voices, muttering words he doesn’t know, snarling insults at who knows who. They leave the outdoors to him.
White days are like that, but there’s more snow falling down from up high. More to work with, to build with. White days are even better.
On white days, Peter starts shoveling early, and stops late. Real late.

Peter’s shovel is a composite, another word he didn’t use to know. A wooden handle, a plastic scoop, and a metal blade at the tip. It’s angled just so, and it will scoop the snow just like that – there, close to the cold hard ice that’s hiding the dirt away ‘till spring – and that’s just fine. It doesn’t bend, not even when he lifts up a real heavy shovelful that makes his knees wobble and his eyes pucker in their sockets. It stays straight and true and it does what it has to do, and Peter does what he has to do. And that’s why they stay safe.

The ramparts are a real walk now. He’s made a ramp – he tried stairs once and they just turned into a ramp anyways – and it’s a nice shallow one but even so, even so. He stops and takes a breath too often, too much, and it costs valuable time. These days are short right now, and they won’t let him keep going after dark. They’re afraid of what might happen, and they’ll stop him cold.
Peter finishes his last breath (for this trip, anyways), and he takes himself and his shovel up to the top battlement. It’s as high as the world can get out here, and he looks down, down, down the hill over the dead quiet and muffled air. He’s wearing a thick hat and it’s sort of like earmuffs, but he knows even without them he’d be hard pressed to hear a shout two feet away, or dynamite at twenty. An atom bomb at fifty paces would be a whisper. Snowfall has a voice all its own. Subtle. Soft. And completely enveloping.
He dumps the shoveful, and barely hears the soft whud as it lumps itself. Skilful shaping takes over – mittenwork. He’s had practice.
There. A battlement. His thirty-fifth.

Peter’s mittens are modern mittens. They are somewhere between plastic and cloth, filled with strange white fluff that looks like teddy-bear guts. They insulate and protect and wear really thin at one side where they start to leak and make it look like you’ve got a little polar bear shedding in there. Peter knows that polar bears don’t shed, but it looks like it all the same. The snow creeps in through that crack as the fluff leaks out and it gets his leftmost littlemost finger cold, but he’s used to it. If it gets real bad he’ll just curl his hands into fists. He knows how to stay warm. You need to know that.

The trip down’s easier for Peter. He half-scrambles, half-slides down the ramp. A little red clot slipping through a blue-white body, fleshless and nerveless and bloodless, but nearly alive. It keeps growing, building, and dividing. Walls go up, barricades slip in, divisions are made.
Here is a smooth round bowl of a chamber. It is filled with iceballs, diamond-hard and deadly; every fifth has a specially pointy stone at its core, for insurance. The armoury. For weapons, not armour. His snowsuit is all the armour he needs and he’d need to take it off to store it. That would be a terrible idea.
Here is a little cave, dug into the base of the thick rear wall. The bedroom. He can curl himself up in here, under snow with snow at his back, and turn himself into a little ball of warm. That’ll keep him okay. He’s never slept through the night yet, but if he has to, it’ll happen here.
Here is a bulge in the thick rear wall; from the other side, it’s a recess. The emergency exit. This snowball is held in place with only the barest touch of surface packing, and he hasn’t trickled any water on it. It’s a weak link in his defence, but whatever’s breaking in will be bigger than him. It won’t be able to push through easily or quickly, and by the time it’s inside the walls he’ll be outside them and heading for the hills. That hill – there, that one – it’s going to be his emergency hideout. There’s a big pine tree with low-hanging branches, and he can dive through the drifts and hide in a space as warm and dry as any tent. He just has to figure out how to hide his footprints…
Here is the pantry. It’s got icicles. You learn to eat icicles out here. It’s not food but it fills you up and you can’t go wandering. They’ll find you fast. Better to stay hungry out here than to go in there.
And THERE is the wall, as he passes through the front gate,
(it’s too low for them to come through quickly, and a stomp up above in the right spot will crumble it on their heads)
thick and iced. He made it by packing an empty garbage can with snow and upending it more than sixty times. It was a struggle, but it was worth it. Nothing can get through here. Nothing will get through here.
The front of the fortress is barren. The ground here has been trampled and scraped and shovelled until the dirt is visible here and there, and it’s all as slippery as only almost-ice can be. A clump of bushy grass is exposed, startlingly naked and probably unhappy about it. Peter walked past it, bent his knees, straightened his back, and added another square foot to the barren stretch.
He wonders if he should spread a little snow on the bare grass but by the time it occurs to him he’s halfway back and too tired to change course.
Besides, he has to watch his footing on this ground. He made it that way on purpose; it’ll slow them down. They’ll slip and fall and that’s when the iceballs come into play.

Peter hasn’t had to throw an iceball yet. He doesn’t think it’ll stop them. Not if they’re determined. That’s what the walls are for. The iceballs (and maybe the stoneballs, if things come down to it) are for discouragement. Go away. Go away and leave me alone. I’m too much trouble. I won’t come out and you can’t make me. Go away and fight with each other. I’m too much trouble.

Peter raises his head above the walls, holds his shovel to the fresh battlement, and freezes like a stone caught glacier-riding without a permit.
Light. Light in the darkness, guttering from the black hulk of a house down the hill.
Oh, this is bad. How had the long night snuck in so close so quick? And here he is, head above the ramparts, still holding his shovel like an idiot, exposed and highlighted with his stupid red snowcoat and his stupid black snowpants and his stupid red hat sticking out against the white-blue snow
(turned purple with evening – really, how HAD he missed that? Not the same colour at all)
like a bullseye.
Slowly, carefully, he moves by trembles and starts sliding downward. Out of sight. Down low. Maybe it’s just chance. Maybe they’ve mistaken him for a coyote or a deer or something else lost that shouldn’t be here. Maybe they
Something moves, shoulders past strained springs and through a door made out of creaks and groans.
And then it calls.
Peter feels the hair on the back of his neck rise up. Now, that didn’t mean anything. It’s a full moon, but their eyes are bad. Maybe they can’t see him up here. Maybe they were just trying to spook him. Maybe maybe maybe can’t build a fortress with maybes you build it with snow and you stay safe and
The voice calls again.
Twice. That’s worse. And they haven’t moved. They’re sure he’s here. He can play mum, he knows they hated the cold. Just a few more minutes.
Oh damnit. It’s got the edge in its voice. Must have been a bad day.
Three times. He’ll have a worse one if it has to say it a fourth.
He holds his shovel, looks at the ramparts. Half-finished at best. Days of work to get them done yet. Hours and hours. He has three seconds.
So again, as it every evening, the fortress falls without so much as a shot fired.

Peter looks back as he approaches the light on the porch. The long night’s flowing in, giving the snow hello and how-do-you-dos. The world’s wrapping itself up to be fresh for tomorrow, white and black planning the morning grey. If he squints his eyes to snow-slits, there’s a rim. Is that his battlements? Unless it’s his flag tower. Maybe it’s his walls. His walls are big now. He spent all day on them, all last day, all the day before that.
From here it’s like they’re not even there at all.