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If I still lived, the ghost eater thought wryly, they would turn my name into a chant. Though for misery or courage, I can't guess.
Half-frozen rain slashed down from the darkening sky, forming icy puddles in the dirt and stinging exposed flesh. The ghost eater hunched his shoulders beneath his stolen coat, skin shrinking at the alien touch of the fabric. The cold was bone deep, and he guessed that the rain would change to snow once it reached the far-off mountains of his home.
Mud, greasy with horse manure and trash, squelched under his bare feet. He winced at the sound and glanced about uneasily, wondering if anyone would come to investigate. The foul weather had emptied the streets, and clouds hid the last rays of the sun. A passerby might only notice the charcoal coat and ragged black trousers, might miss the brown cast of his skin and the waist-length fall of his crow-dark hair. But here in the heart of this alien Enemy town, discovery seemed all too likely.
"Scared, ghost eater?" Rabbit asked. "Better hope your ancestors are too busy dancing in the Darkening Land to see you now. All dressed up like an Enemy yourself, skulking through the streets like a thief."
The ghost eater bit back an angry word. Rabbit deserved respect like any elder, even when he wore the face of mockery. "I am the ghost eater. I have no ancestors."
"The old one trained you well. You sound like a parrot."
The ghost eater had never heard of a parrot and suspected Rabbit was trying to pull some trick. You couldn't believe what Rabbit said, not all the way at least. He was always looking to get something for himself, even when it hurt other people. The ghost eater glanced at Rabbit outof the corner of his eye, wondering. Rain beaded on Rabbit's sleek pelt and splashed out of puddles as he hopped along. A handsome mica gorget swung from a leather cord around his neck. His animal face revealed nothing of his intentions.
The ghost eater sighed and turned his attention back to his surroundings. The buildings were odd, reinforcing the sense of alienation he felt. Every one of the structures was square, as if they were all summer houses. They were made from stout wooden planks, and their walls were regularly pierced with windows, most of which were covered against the cold. Some of them were tall, like two or three houses piled one on the other. And they smell, he thought with a fastidious sniff.
The town itself was strangely laid out, with the buildings butted up right against each other. The paths in between were bare mud in most places, though one or two were lined with stones. Several wagons lay to one side of the street, most of them empty.
"Is she truly here?" he asked wearily, not expecting a clear answer. Please, let her be here. I want to go home. I want to see Siska-init?
But what would be the point of that? Siska-init had married his body's brother and borne a child. He was the ghost eater and had no love.
A door swung open down the street, distracting him from his gloomy thoughts. A plump woman, her skin the ugly corpse-white of the Enemies, peered out into the rain as if looking for something. Panicked, the ghost eater glanced at Rabbit, only to find that he had transformed himself into an elderly Enemy man. Rain dripped off his wide-brimmed hat, and a heavy stick swung from one hand. He abandoned the shape once they passed beyond the woman's line-of-sight. "How uncomfortable," Rabbit remarked mildly, shaking himself and flinging rain off his fur.
The ghost eater peered around at the too-tall buildings. They all looked the same to his eyes. "How can I find her if you don't help me?"
"Why should I help you? This is all Little Deer's fault. He's always held it against me that I tried to, ah, ease my way when we were racing for the antlers. He's too serious. Besides, he won the Kani-cursed things in the end."
"Because the other animals thought it was cheating to gnaw down all the trees and underbrush in your way and make him run through a thicket."
"It was," Rabbit admitted cheerfully. "But still, you wouldn't think he'd hold such a grudge. Certainly not enough to make me come here, when someone else could have watched you just as well."
Then he must have quite a grudge against me as well, the ghost eater thought. He didn't say the words aloud--to antagonize Rabbit would be stupid, not to mention disrespectful. Even so, Rabbit hadn't been much help, leaving him to flounder through Enemy territory alone, trying to survive in a land where he knew neither the language nor the customs. Where he had seen not a single other person with normal skin tones and proper black hair.
Rabbit hopped ahead, long bounds that splashed mud onto the ghost eater's frayed trousers. The ghost eater followed, hoping Rabbit had some purpose behind the direction he was going. They moved down the street, drawing closer to the enormous wooden structure that dominated the town.
Rabbit didn't look at the building. "It's called a fort. Don't go near it. That's where the Enemy warriors are, mostly." He stopped and raised up on his haunches, his nose twitching. "Here we are."
They stood near one of the smaller buildings. A tin-roofed shed leaned up against it, and the stink of metal and heat filled the air. The ghost eater's stomach quailed a little, remembering his one painful encounter with Enemy metal. It had taken the bullet half a day to work its way out of his brain.
Uncertain, the ghost eater crept closer to the structure. The wall had a window in it, and he cautiously stopped and listened for any sound from within. The scrape of metal on wood drifted to him, accompanied by a soft intake of breath. Moving silently, he eased closer to the window and chanced a peek inside.
It was her.
She sat in the center of the room, her profile turned slightly away from him. Honey-colored hair, tangled and wild as a thicket, billowed down around her shoulders and back. She was older than he had realized, perhaps near her fortieth winter, if he could judge an Enemy face. She dressed like a man in trousers. "A Changed One?" he asked, surprised.
But rabbit shook his head. "Enemies don't do things the way Ahkan--it do."
The woman's eerie green eyes stared intently at a wooden statuette before her. She reached out with a sharp tool and added another shaving to the pile collecting about her feet. All of her attention focused on the carving, tension radiating from her body to it, as though her very life depended on completing it correctly. Although it was difficult to see from a distance, the sculpture appeared to be that of a human figure. Its arms were raised above its head in either entreaty or escape, and its mouth stretched wide in a silent scream.
The sound of hard Enemy shoes came from inside, and the ghost eater quickly flattened himself against the wall, well away from the window. "Gwendith?" called a masculine voice. Her name?
He found his courage and looked inside again, albeit cautiously. Gwendith had stopped her work on the carving and sat poised like a doe startled by a cougar. For an instant, the ghost eater thought he saw real desperation in her eyes.
An enormous Enemy man with a tangle of dark brown hair and beard came into the room. He spoke, but the ghost eater didn't understand what was said. The only Enemy words he knew were the ones Rabbit had given him, things like "trousers," and "cart," and "window," none of which seemed to have any place in this conversation.
The man's voice was gentle but with an odd undertone of pity, like a healthy person speaking to an invalid. Gwendith looked away, as if his words made her feel ashamed. The man pulled out a small pouch, reached into it, and offered her what appeared to be a fragment of dried root. She accepted it from him, put it in her mouth, and chewed. After a few minutes, all the bright vitality drained out of her eyes, and her mouth went slack. Moving gracelessly, she stood and shuffled out of the room. The man touched her shoulder briefly before she left, as if to reassure her of his presence.
When she was gone, he turned to the carving. The ghost eater ducked out of the way so that the Enemy would not see him. There came a long moment of silence--then the carving suddenly hurtled out the window, landing with a splat in the mud.
Footsteps receded. After several minutes of stillness, the ghost eater cautiously picked up the statuette. Although rough and unfinished, it was clearly meant to represent a man, his body stretched and twisted as though in agony. Across the unfinished features, she had scratched shallow lines in the shape of a skull.
He touched his face unconsciously, where the black lines of tattoos followed the curves of his skull, drawing a death's head over flesh.
"What did he give her?" he asked quietly. "Was it a sedative of some kind?"
Rabbit stood on his hind legs to peer in through the window. His nose twitched again. "Crippleweed."
"Crippleweed. Can't you smell it?"
The ghost eater frowned. "But crippleweed--it was used to suppress a captive's Way, when we fought other peoples in the time before the Enemies came."
"But Enemies don't have Ways. They don't walk in the world like we do."
Rabbit only looked at him out of one dark, round eye and made no answer.