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Mother Feral's Love
By Lawrence Barker
Swimming Kangaroo BooksCopyright © 2006 Lawrence Barker
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBy the time the small second sun rises, the air shimmers so that from the distant hills the city of Vrantum's ancient stone towers seem to tremble like reeds. Soon thereafter, the dusty wind makes you feel like one of the desiccated saints that the priests carry in the Shrine's rituals. By mid-day, contact with the black brick streets can blister human flesh. Since Holy Law forbids me from wearing shoes, that would be a real problem if I were human. I'm not. I'm a Feral.
I answer to the name Evrandal. I've been told it means 'flower in the wasteland' in the language of one of the cities by the southern ocean. I've also been told it means 'disgusting creature that spreads parasites.' I wouldn't know.
People call on me when a venomous lizard moves into their house's foundation or when they lose a valuable ring or pendant down a well. Most would probably spit on me otherwise. That's the best that I - that any of Vrantum's handful of Ferals - can expect. As long as the Ferals suppress most of their flesh-hunger, take the dirty, dangerous jobs that no one else wants, dress in rags, and stay out of the Shrine, they get grudging tolerance. Vrantum offers a better deal than most cities, though. Sure, Vrantum has laws against giving a Feral dead flesh, but those laws are rarely enforced. And some cities pay the same bounty for a severed head, whether it comes from a Feral orfrom one of the Ghuls that haunts the mountain passes.
Ferals have the Ghuls' scooping hands, big nocturnal eyes, and flexible, stretchable bones that let them fit through any hole big enough for their heads. Ferals have jaw muscles just like Ghuls, designed for cracking heavy bones to extract the marrow. Like the Ghuls, Ferals crave decaying human flesh. Only one taste of it, decayed or not, treats us like a jug of fermented palm sap treats humans.
Well, not exactly. Palm sap makes humans clumsy and weak. Human flesh, particularly flesh dried to leather, magnifies a Feral's strength, speed, and flexibility.
But, unlike the Ghuls, Ferals can reason. And, most of all, Ferals know Holy Law. Or at least that's what most of us consider most important.
Nobody knows why human women sometimes birth Feral children. Most Ferals die before they even learn to walk. Nobody complains much when a normal girl baby dies. When she's a Feral and she dies-and all of us Ferals are female-parents usually leave an offering of thanks at the Shrine of the Four Mothers. That's how happy they are to get rid of their Feral child. My guess is if it weren't for parents' fears of angering the Mother of Life we would probably all be abandoned in the desert.
If a Feral baby lives, the family keeps her until she is eight or nine. Then they toss her out, forgetting she was ever their child. I don't see how people can be that way, but they are. My parents certainly kicked me from the nest at an early age. I can't say I cried too much when the yellow fungus got them both a few years later.
Well, maybe a little.
Anyway, getting kicked out on the street is just the start of a Feral's sorrow. Ferals can have children too. Usually, sometime between moon spans four and six, Ferals' pregnancies end in blood and a dead baby's agonizing delivery. Sometimes, though, a Feral births a live child, almost always human.
The day a Feral births a normal child is her happiest day. It's also the saddest. Unless some kindly soul who will keep secret the child's origin intervenes, a Feral's offspring is condemned to the life of a Taint. Taints don't have many Feral features, sometimes even none at all. But Taints occupy an even lower rung on the city's ladder of position than their Feral mothers. You sometimes see Taints begging on Vrantum's streets; Holy Law doesn't allow them to do much else. But Taints, unlike their mothers, can't squeeze through rabbit holes, can't dig disposal pits with their bare hands, and can't live on street-scavenged dead animals.
I was lucky. A year before my completely human looking daughter Broglin came along, I had done Damel, the healer, a big favor. Just what, I won't say, and Damel should be grateful for that. Damel told everyone that Broglin's mother was her half sister from Tuscum, a mining town in the mountains to the north. She said that her half sister had died in childbirth, and she had taken Broglin to raise as her own. Broglin has her father's northern pale hair and thin nose, and there's enough northerners in Tuscum for the story to be believable.
Sure, Broglin called someone else 'Momma.' Broglin thought of me, if at all, as that frightening, skulking shadow that came around every so often to collect the severed fingers and limbs that Damel had saved for me. Broglin's ignorance of me was a price I was happy to pay. Broglin was growing up and learning what herbs bring down fevers, how to extract stomach-soothing salts from desert ponds, and what muds ease the scarlet pox's pain. She was on her way to being a healer, not a pariah.
At least that was what I thought. Then everything fell apart.
Chapter TwoThe walled courtyard of the alchemist Furnandus echoed with the cries of the caged chickens in the corner. The whole place smelled of the chicken manure piled against the wall. The shovel handle that protruded from the pile said that Furnandus had just been digging there. His lab's choking sulfur and burning ammonia smells surpassed the chicken reek. A stench has to be memorable to catch the attention of an animal-corpse eating Feral, as this one did.
The smell was not my main concern-a poisonous well-spider was. Furnandus had seen a well-spider dart into the depths of his cistern, and he wanted it out. That spider was costing me money. Last night, another band of Falsepaths, heretics who reject the Shrine and Holy Law, had entered Vrantum. The officials of Vrantum figured that denying the Four Mothers in the name of the Dark Ones, and getting reincarnated as lizards or desert rats for their trouble, wasn't enough for the Falsepaths. For some reason only Falsepaths could understand, so the city assured us, the Falsepaths were out to serve Vrantum as much the misery as they could.
The Falsepaths had somehow removed the head from the city square's main statue of Hron, the city Overlord and absolute ruler. I couldn't imagine how. A hammer's racket would have brought the Keeppeaces. Behead the statue they did, though; a smooth cut without a sign of a crack. They dumped the head in the communal well at the statue's base.
Hron rarely sets foot outside of the Overlord's Tower. This time however, I was told, he appeared in public. He ordered the Keeppeaces to find the non-believers that had defiled his statue. Although I would never claim to know how someone as exalted as the Overlord thinks, he probably did it more to remind the Keeppeaces that he ruled them than from anger over his defaced image.
Would the Keeppeaces find the guilty ones? The Holy Law decrees that only the chief Keeppeaces can practice sorcery. The Keeppeaces can make any miscreant they happen to catch very, very sorry. The key phrase is 'happen to catch.' Find a band of desert-dwelling infidels, much less bring them to justice? Hron might as well have ordered the Keeppeaces to sprout wings and fly to the town of Tuscum, or to swordfight on the backs of the horses without falling off. Or so I would have said at the time.
Anyway, since slaves couldn't possibly recover the stone head, the city had offered a silver coin apiece to the four Ferals who clambered down the smooth sandstone well and recovered the head. I wondered if Hron planned to hire the Stonecutters' Guild to replace the head. Or maybe he thought that it could be replaced by sorcery instead of the stonecutters. Maybe it could. I didn't know-and, despite all that has happened since, I still don't.
But I did know for certain that, had I not been busy with Furnandus, one of those silver coins could have been mine. That would have made the difference between roast chicken and rotting horse for dinner. But no, I had already agreed to save Furnandus from his spider. A deal is a deal, even if it's with an alchemist better known for stiffing the charcoal burners than for reshaping metal. So, instead of the city square, I found myself in the Bronzepit, the section of Vrantum reserved for businesses that neighbors find objectionable. I had always wondered how Vrantum managed to get the alchemists, pottery kilns, palm sap fermentation, mortuaries, and the like separated into Bronzepit. The Four Mothers know that the city's other districts-Stoneland, the Flows, and the Vines-don't want them. Maybe the city was once better at organization than it now is.
"Are you waiting for something in particular?" Furnandus snapped. The time I had spent musing about the silver I was missing had irritated him. The alchemist's brassy voice made me want to rip out my eardrums and throw them at his feet.
In the distance, the city's bagpipers growled out the strains of 'Vrantum Endures Forever.' Just as the image of the flying spread-winged eagle denotes Hron and his property, 'Vrantum Endures Forever' denotes the city. I hate that song; it's the sort of growling, whining music that just tears at your gut. Worst of all, the music reminded me of just who I wasn't working for at that moment and what I wasn't getting paid for doing.
"I promised you a third of a silver," Furnandus continued, as though he had read my mind and wanted to increase my misery by reminding me of what I was missing. "You're not thinking of raising your rates, are you?"
I turned toward him. Furnandus had a round little middle that displayed his fondness for honeyed dates. A tight-fitting cap covered his bald head. His eyes, small and dark, resembled those of a desert rat. Blisters, probably from the hot metal that his trade requires him to work with, covered his fingers. Something black had tattooed itself on his hands and arms, much like dust tattoos itself into the skins of the miners of Tuscum; those that live long enough for tattooing to happen, anyway.
"I'm not raising rates," I answered him. "A deal is a deal." Furnandus' obnoxious behavior had no bearing on me. All I cared about was keeping my promise and getting my cash. I chewed my wad of betel, enjoying the warm, aromatic taste, sweet but not like honey or sweet-cane. The feeling of warmth, of standing straighter and of just belonging that betel nut gives you washed over me. Then the wash of saliva that betel brings came, and I spat on the pavement.
A look of disgust covered Furnandus' face as he stared at the red-tinted sputum. I knew why. Hardly anyone in Vrantum but Ferals and beggars chew betel nut. Now that I had stained the courtyard's tile, the red discoloration would remind him of my presence until the stain faded. That would take a while. Furnandus scowled as though about to object to the betel nuts, but then seemed to change his mind. "The chicken coop needs washing," Furnandus snorted.
I glanced over at the filthy chicken coop. I wondered if I would be doing Bronzepit a service if I caught some desert foxes and released them near Furnandus' home. That would take care of the chickens fast enough.
"I don't dare draw water until the spider is gone," Furnandus continued. He gestured widely, the two suns casting twin shadows of his action. Maybe he decided that getting access to his cistern was worth a few stains on the tile.
I could understand his attitude. Well-spiders, their orange-furred legs as broad across as a human hand, have mouthparts as long as a finger joint. Most spiders leave you alone if you pay them the same courtesy. Well-spiders will go out of their way to sink their mandibles into you. A bite will leave a human hallucinating about serpents crawling under the skin for days. Of course Ferals are tougher. The bite wouldn't serve us so. Or so I've been told. I don't know any Ferals who have taken a well-spider bite and really didn't care to become the first to do so.
I shook my head. No point in wandering off into fantasy. Furnandus had said that water would help dampen the chicken reek. Anything that might help there was good with me.
I sidled over to the cistern and looked down. The stones that lined the walls fitted together so well as to barely leave room for a fingernail. That meant that the cistern dated way back, because you only find such work in structures built many generations ago. Possibly no one had been able fit stones together with such precision since the days before the wasting sickness; and that was a long, long time ago. The absence of gaps between the stones also said that climbing would stretch my abilities, especially with a well-spider to watch out for.
I tied my skirt around my waist; it was too hard to climb with it in the way. I tied a spider-crushing stone inside it. I reached over the cistern's edge and felt my way around. The coolness provided welcome relief from Vrantum's heat. Still, something about the cistern made me queasy, almost the opposite of the peaceful feeling I was used to getting when I stood outside the Shrine of the Four Mothers. It was almost as if something worse than any well-spider lurked in the cistern's depths.
I heaved a sigh. I couldn't let vague feelings spoil a deal. Uncertain which prayer was most appropriate for this circumstance, I whispered quick prayers to the Mothers of Stone, of Life, and of Water. Hoping that they had heard me, I searched the cistern's walls. I found a place where I could wedge my fingertips and started crawling, headfirst, into the depths.
Ferals can see better in dim light than humans. But somewhat further down the cistern than where I was, everything faded into solid black, as beyond my vision as any human's. With any luck at all, I would find the spider before I reached that depth.
I moved at half my normal speed because I kept having to search for holds-places where time had undone some of the cistern craftsmen's work. I had almost reached the dark zone when I spotted the hole in the cistern's side. A half-dozen stones had given way. Maybe whoever had done the stonework had put more effort into appearance than into quality work. Maybe the tremblors of three moons ago had shaken some stones loose. In any case, a gap in the wall the size of a fat chicken's body yawned in front of me. I glanced into the gap. Two ceramic jars of an unfamiliar but obviously superior grade of workmanship lay there. Elaborate, raised designs covered the jars; perhaps someone had scratched the designs into the clay before it hardened. Not only that, but the jars swelled in the middle. Few living potters could manage work like that, not even Willus, who had the reputation of being Vrantum's best. Even the stalls in Vrantum's market where they sell luxury goods brought from the cities by the southern ocean didn't carry such pottery.
One jar lay in fragments, although scraps of parchment said that it might have once contained some text. I never learned to read much. 'In', 'Out', 'Latrine', and 'No Ferals Allowed' about covers it, so I didn't pay much attention to the parchment. A lead seal closed the other jar, still intact.
Then I noticed something stranger than the jars themselves. A red stain, the unmistakable color of betel nut, covered the stones near the gap. Betel nut stain fades after a while, maybe a few moons. That meant that an other Feral-a human beggar couldn't have made it down that cistern-had come this way not too long ago. I spat atop the already colored stone. What did I care if Furnandus had, at some time, hired some other Feral to work on his cistern? It wasn't as though I even wanted to be there.
In a crack in the wall just below the jars perched the well-spider, its orange legs so thin they could barely support its swollen body. The light from above turned its multitude of eyes into a green fire. Its dagger-jaws opened and closed in defiance of the threatening, looming giant: me.
Under most circumstances, I would have flattened the spider and then been gone. Only it had a family; a dozen or so young rode the spider's melon-round abdomen. I didn't feel right about just exterminating the spider, even though it was poisonous vermin. After all, how many people considered me poisonous vermin? Instead, I reached into the opening, grabbed the sealed jar, and twisted the lid. The seal broke, releasing a scent like a long-dead fire's ashes with a tinge of rotten egg. I glanced inside, fearing that I had released some trapped spirit of destruction or (more likely) triggered some ancient booby trap.
Excerpted from Mother Feral's Love by Lawrence Barker Copyright © 2006 by Lawrence Barker. Excerpted by permission.
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