The Wild Girls
By Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Bisson
PM Press Copyright © 2011 Ursula K. Le Guin
All rights reserved.
THE WILD GIRLS
Bela ten belen went on a foray with five companions. There had been no nomad camps near the City for several years, but harvesters in the Eastern Fields reported seeing smoke of fires beyond the Dayward Hills, and the six young men announced that they'd go see how many camps there were. They took with them as guide Bidh Handa, who had guided forays against the nomad tribes before. Bidh and his sister had been captured from a nomad village as children and grew up in the City as slaves. Bidh's sister Nata was famous for her beauty, and Bela's brother Alo had given her owner a good deal of the Belen family wealth to get her for his wife.
Bela and his companions walked and ran all day following the course of the East River up into the hills. In the evening they came to the crest of the hills and saw on the plains below them, among watermeadows and winding streams, three circles of the nomads' skin huts, strung out quite far apart.
"They came to the marshes to gather mudroots," the guide said. "They're not planning a raid on the Fields of the City. If they were, the three camps would be close together."
"Who gathers the roots?" Bela ten Belen asked.
"Men and women. Old people and children stay in the camps."
"When do the people go to the marshes?"
"Early in the morning."
"We'll go down to that nearest camp tomorrow after the gatherers are gone."
"It would be better to go to the second village, the one on the river," Bidh said.
Bela ten Belen turned to his soldiers and said, "Those are this man's people. We should shackle him."
They agreed, but none of them had brought shackles. Bela began to tear his cape into strips.
"Why do you want to tie me up, lord?" the Dirt man asked with his fist to his forehead to show respect. "Have I not guided you, and others before you, to the nomads? Am I not a man of the City? Is not my sister your brother's wife? Is not my nephew your nephew, and a god? Why would I run away from our City to those ignorant people who starve in the wilderness, eating mudroots and crawling things?" The Crown men did not answer the Dirt man. They tied his legs with the lengths of twisted cloth, pulling the knots in the silk so tight they could not be untied but only cut open. Bela appointed three men to keep watch in turn that night.
Tired from walking and running all day, the young man on watch before dawn fell asleep. Bidh put his legs into the coals of their fire and burned through the silken ropes and stole away.
When he woke in the morning and found the slave gone, Bela ten Belen's face grew heavy with anger, but he said only, "He'll have warned that nearest camp. We'll go to the farthest one, off there on the high ground."
"They'll see us crossing the marshes," said Dos ten Han.
"Not if we walk in the rivers," Bela ten Belen said.
And once they were out of the hills on the flat lands they walked along streambeds, hidden by the high reeds and willows that grew on the banks. It was autumn, before the rains, so the water was shallow enough that they could make their way along beside it or wade in it. Where the reeds grew thin and low and the stream widened out into the marshes, they crouched down and found what cover they could.
By midday they came near the farthest of the camps, which was on a low grassy rise like an island among the marshes. They could hear the voices of people gathering mudroot on the eastern side of the island. They crept up through the high grass and came to the camp from the south. No one was in the circle of skin huts but a few old men and women and a little swarm of children. The children were spreading out long yellow-brown roots on the grass, the old people cutting up the largest roots and putting them on racks over low fires to hasten the drying. The six Crown men came among them suddenly with their swords drawn. They cut the throats of the old men and women. Some children ran away down into the marshes. Others stood staring, uncomprehending.
Young men on their first foray, the soldiers had made no plans — Bela ten Belen had said to them, "I want to go out there and kill some thieves and bring home slaves," and that was all the plan they wanted. To his friend Dos ten Han he had said, "I want to get some new Dirt girls, there's not one in the City I can stand to look at." Dos ten Han knew he was thinking about the beautiful nomad-born woman his brother had married. All the young Crown men thought about Nata Belenda and wished they had her or a girl as beautiful as her.
"Get the girls," Bela shouted to the others, and they all ran at the children, seizing one or another. The older children had mostly fled at once, it was the young ones who stood staring or began too late to run. Each soldier caught one or two and dragged them back to the center of the village where the old men and women lay in their blood in the sunlight.
Having no ropes to tie the children with, the men had to keep hold of them. One little girl fought so fiercely, biting and scratching, that the soldier dropped her, and she scrabbled away screaming shrilly for help. Bela ten Belen ran after her, took her by the hair, and cut her throat to silence her screaming. His sword was sharp and her neck was soft and thin; her body dropped away from her head, held on only by the bones at the back of the neck. He dropped the head and came running back to his men. "Take one you can carry and follow me," he shouted at them.
"Where? The people down there will be coming," they said. For the children who had escaped had run down to the marsh where their parents were.
"Follow the river back," Bela said, snatching up a girl of about five years old. He seized her wrists and slung her on his back as if she were a sack. The other men followed him, each with a child, two of them babies a year or two old.
The raid had occurred so quickly that they had a long lead on the nomads who came straggling up round the hill following the children who had run to them. The soldiers were able to get down into the rivercourse, where the banks and reeds hid them from people looking for them even from the top of the island.
The nomads scattered out through the reedbeds and meadows west of the island, looking to catch them on their way back to the City. But Bela had led them not west but down a branch of the river that led off southeast. They trotted and ran and walked as best they could in the water and mud and rocks of the riverbed. At first they heard voices far behind them. The heat and light of the sun filled the world. The air above the reeds was thick with stinging insects. Their eyes soon swelled almost closed with bites and burned with salt sweat. Crown men, unused to carrying burdens, they found the children heavy, even the little ones. They struggled to go fast but went slower and slower along the winding channels of the water, listening for the nomads behind them. When a child made any noise, the soldiers slapped or shook it till it was still. The girl Bela ten Belen carried hung like a stone on his back and never made any sound.
When at last the sun sank behind the Dayward Hills, that seemed strange to them, for they had always seen the sun rise behind those hills.
They were now a long way south and east of the hills. They had heard no sound of their pursuers for a long time. The gnats and mosquitoes growing even thicker with dusk drove them at last up onto a drier meadowland, where they could sink down in a place where deer had lain, hidden by the high grasses. There they all lay while the light died away. The great herons of the marsh flew over with heavy wings. Birds down in the reeds called. The men heard each other's breathing and the whine and buzz of insects. The smaller children made tiny whimpering noises, but not often, and not loud. Even the babies of the nomad tribes were used to fear and silence.
As soon as the soldiers had let go of them, making threatening gestures to them not to try to run away, the six children crawled together and huddled up into a little mound, holding one another. Their faces were swollen with insect bites and one of the babies looked dazed and feverish. There was no food, but none of the children complained.
The light sank away from the marshes, and the insects grew silent. Now and then a frog croaked, startling the men as they sat silent, listening.
Dos ten Han pointed northward: he had heard a sound, a rustling in the grasses, not far away.
They heard the sound again. They unsheathed their swords as silently as they could.
Where they were looking, kneeling, straining to see through the high grass without revealing themselves, suddenly a ball of faint light rose up and wavered in the air above the grasses, fading and brightening. They heard a voice, shrill and faint, singing. The hair stood up on their heads and arms as they stared at the bobbing blur of light and heard the meaningless words of the song.
The child that Bela had carried suddenly called out a word. The oldest, a thin girl of eight or so who had been a heavy burden to Dos ten Han, hissed at her and tried to make her be still, but the younger child called out again, and an answer came.
Singing, talking, and babbling shrilly, the voice came nearer. The marsh fire faded and burned again. The grasses rustled and shook so much that the men, gripping their swords, looked for a whole group of people, but only one head appeared among the grasses. A single child came walking towards them. She kept talking, stamping, waving her hands so that they would know she was not trying to surprise them. The soldiers stared at her, holding their heavy swords.
She looked to be nine or ten years old. She came closer, hesitating all the time but not stopping, watching the men all the time but talking to the children. Bela's girl got up and ran to her and they clung to each other. Then, still watching the men, the new girl sat down with the other children. She and Dos ten Han's girl talked a little in low voices. She held Bela's girl in her arms, on her lap, and the little girl fell asleep almost at once.
"It must be that one's sister," one of the men said.
"She must have tracked us from the beginning," said another.
"Why didn't she call the rest of her people?"
"Maybe she did."
"Maybe she was afraid to."
"Or they didn't hear."
"Or they did."
"What was that light?"
"Maybe it's them."
They were all silent, listening, watching. It was almost dark. The lamps of the City of Heaven were being lighted, reflecting the lights of the City of Earth, making the soldiers think of that city, which seemed as far away as the one above them in the sky. The faint bobbing light had died away. There was no sound but the sigh of the night wind in the reeds and grasses.
The soldiers argued in low voices about how to keep the children from running off during the night. Each may have thought that he would be glad enough to wake and find them gone, but did not say so. Dos ten Han said the smaller ones could hardly go any distance in the dark. Bela ten Belen said nothing, but took out the long lace from one of his sandals and tied one end around the neck of the little girl he had taken and the other end around his own wrist; then he made the child lie down, and lay down to sleep next to her. Her sister, the one who had followed them, lay down by her on the other side. Bela said, "Dos, keep watch first, then wake me."
So the night passed. The children did not try to escape, and no one came on their trail. The next day they kept going south but mainly west, so that by mid-afternoon they reached the Dayward Hills. They children walked, even the five-year-old, and the men passed the two babies from one to another, so their pace was steady if not fast. Along in the morning, the marsh-fire girl pulled at Bela's tunic and kept pointing left, to a swampy place, making gestures of pulling up roots and eating. Since they had eaten nothing for two days, they followed her. The older children waded out into the water and pulled up certain wide-leaved plants by the roots. They began to cram what they pulled up into their mouths, but the soldiers waded after them and took the muddy roots and ate them till they had had enough. Dirt people do not eat before Crown people eat. The children did not seem surprised.
When she had finally got and eaten a root for herself, the marsh-fire girl pulled up another, chewed some and spat it out into her hand for the babies to eat. One of them ate eagerly from her hand, but the other would not; she lay where she had been put down, and her eyes did not seem to see. Dos ten Han's girl and the marsh-fire girl tried to make her drink water. She would not drink.
Dos stood in front of them and said, pointing to the elder girl, "Vui Handa," naming her Vui and saying she belonged to his family. Bela named the marsh-fire girl Modh Belenda, and her little sister, the one he had carried off, he named Mal Belenda. The other men named their prizes, but when Ralo ten Bal pointed at the sick baby to name her, the marsh-fire girl, Modh, got between him and the baby, vigorously gesturing no, no, and putting her hand to her mouth for silence.
"What's she up to?" Ralo asked. He was the youngest of the men, sixteen.
Modh kept up her pantomime: she lay down, lolled her head, and half opened her eyes, like a dead person; she leapt up with her hands held like claws and her face distorted, and pretended to attack Vui; she pointed at the sick baby.
The young men stood staring. It seemed she meant the baby was dying. The rest of her actions they did not understand.
Ralo pointed at the baby and said, "Groda," which is a name given to Dirt people who have no owner and work in the field teams — Nobody's.
"Come on," Bela ordered, and they made ready to go on. Ralo walked off, leaving the sick child lying.
"Aren't you bringing your Dirt?" one of the others asked him.
"What for?" he said.
Modh picked up the sick baby, Vui picked up the other baby, and they went on. After that the soldiers let the older girls carry the sick baby, though they themselves passed the well one about so as to make better speed.
When they got up on higher ground away from the clouds of stinging insects and the wet and heavy heat of the marshlands, the young men were glad, feeling they were almost safe now; they wanted to move fast and get back to the City. But the children, worn out, struggled to climb the steep hills. Vui, who was carrying the sick baby, straggled along slower and slower. Dos, her owner, slapped her legs with the flat of his sword to make her go faster. "Ralo, take your Dirt, we have to keep going," he said.
Ralo turned back angrily. He took the sick baby from Vui. The baby's face had gone greyish and its eyes were half closed, like Modh's in her pantomime. Its breath whistled a little. Ralo shook the child. Its head flopped. Ralo threw it away into the high bushes. "Come on, then," he said, and set off walking fast uphill.
Vui tried to run to the baby, but Dos kept her away from it with his sword, stabbing at her legs, and drove her on up the hill in front of him.
Modh dodged back to the bushes where the baby was, but Bela got in front of her and herded her along with his sword. As she kept dodging and trying to go back, he seized her by the arm, slapped her hard, and dragged her after him by the wrist. Little Mal stumbled along behind them.
When the place of the high bushes was lost from sight behind a hillslope, Vui began to make a shrill long-drawn cry, a keening, and so did Modh and Mal. The keening grew louder. The soldiers shook and beat them till they stopped but soon they started again, all the children, even the baby. The soldiers did not know if they were far enough from the nomads and near enough the Fields of the City that they need not fear pursuers hearing the sound. They hurried on, carrying or dragging or driving the children, and the shrill keening cry went with them like the sound of the insects in the marshlands.
It was almost dark when they got to the crest of the Dayward Hills. Forgetting how far south they had gone, the men expected to look down on the Fields and the City. They saw only dusk falling lands, and the dark west, and the lights of the City of the Sky beginning to shine.
They settled down in a clearing, for all were very tired. The children huddled together and were asleep almost at once. Bela forbade the men to make fire. They were hungry, but there was a creek down the hill to drink from. Bela set Ralo ten Bal on first watch. Ralo was the one who had gone to sleep, their first night out, allowing Bidh to escape.
Bela woke in the night, cold, missing his cape, which he had torn up to make bonds. He saw that someone had made a small fire and was sitting cross-legged beside it. He sat up and said "Ralo!" furiously, and then saw that the man was not Ralo but the guide, Bidh.
Ralo lay motionless near the fire.
Bela drew his sword.
"He fell asleep again," the Dirt man said, grinning at Bela. (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Wild Girls by Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Bisson. Copyright © 2011 Ursula K. Le Guin. Excerpted by permission of PM Press.
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