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Book Three of the Darklands Trilogy
By Anthony Eaton
University of Queensland PressCopyright © 2010 Anthony Eaton
All rights reserved.
The day Da Janil died, Dara had expected to be let off hunting duty. Salvaging was to begin the following day and this time – finally – Dara had a feeling she'd be allowed to go along. So when Uncle Xani told her to collect her hunting kit and get out into the forest, she protested.
'Da said I could go with him to the Eye!'
Her uncle fixed her with a hard glare, just as he always did when he thought she was being disrespectful.
'Da hasn't spoken to me about it, and it's your turn to hunt.'
'But today ...'
'Is just the same as any other day.'
'Then why doesn't Jaran have to go out, too?'
'Dara!' Her uncle's voice grew sharp, 'We've got enough to worry about without you making a fuss. Now go!'
It wasn't a request and so, her lips set in a pout, Dara trudged towards the mouth of the meeting cave, retrieved her spear and thrower, and stepped out into the glare of the late-morning sun. Her skin tingled.
'Shi!' she muttered. It was so unfair. They all knew today was different. And Jaran was just as viable as her. He should at least be made to help, if nothing else.
'You going out?' Eyna appeared beside her, as if from nowhere.
'Hunting. Xani says I have to.'
'I'll come. Let me get my stuff.'
Dara waited, hefting her favourite absent-mindedly while Eyna dashed back inside. When her cousin returned, the younger girl's eyes were bright with curiosity.
'Have you heard anything about the salvage?'
'No.' Dara shook her head. 'Nothing. As far as I know, Da hasn't even been out to the Eye yet.'
Eyna glanced up at the sun. It was already high.
'He'll most likely leave it until tonight then. He's not going to risk it this late in the day.'
Her words, intended to pacify the older girl, had just the opposite effect. Dara shook her head vehemently.
'He'll probably use the suit. He's done that before.'
'He might.' Eyna's tone betrayed her doubts. 'But probably not. Last time he used the daysuit he said it was getting too perished to be reliable.'
'I know. I was there, too, remember?'
'Sorry.' Eyna went quiet and Dara sighed.
'Come on. Let's get on with it.'
The two girls set off down the slope. The tribe's caves were set high in a granite escarpment which rose, monolithic, above the surrounding landscape and from which, on a clear day, you could see south all the way to the distant saltwater. As they reached the bottom of the cliff path and stepped into the shade of the forest, it was a perfect morning. A warm breeze stirred the canopy of the treetops and, despite herself, Dara felt her mood start to lift. Eyna evidently felt the same, because after just a couple of minutes walking she skipped ahead lightly, her sulkiness forgotten.
'Where to?' she asked, and Dara stopped, considering.
'How about the rockfall? We haven't been there for ages.'
'We never catch anything worthwhile there.'
'Yeah, but we can swim.'
'What about Xani?'
'He doesn't have to know.'
'If we don't come back with a decent feed ...'
'Relax, cuz. We'll get something after we swim. Anyway, if Xani's that desperate for food, he should send Jaran out too.'
'Jaran went yesterday.'
'So did I.'
They wound their way along the path between a couple of thicktrunked trees. Eyna sighed. The rockfall was a long way off and she knew her cousin well enough to know it was quite possible she'd do the entire walk without saying another word. She decided to change the subject.
'Do you think you'll be allowed to go on the salvage?'
Dara shrugged. 'Hope so. Da told me I could. That's why I wanted to go to the Eye with him – so he can't back out.'
'What about the clan? If you're salvaging, who'll hunt?'
'Jaran can do it. Or you.'
'I'm not good enough yet. I can't reach like you.'
'That's because you don't let yourself go. You just need to practise.'
'Pst!' Eyna spat. 'It's more than that. Everyone says so.'
'Yeah, well everyone speaks shi, most of the time. Anyway, if I'm not allowed on the salvage it won't matter.'
'I guess not.'
While they chatted, their path meandered back towards the base of the escarpment, then turned along parallel to it. In no particular hurry, the girls followed it until it curved out around the base of an enormous rockfall, down which cascaded a stream of fresh, clear, icy water, falling into a deep pool. A couple of birds chirped in the surrounding trees, but otherwise the morning had become very still.
'Going in?' Dropping her hunting bundle on a flat rock, Dara pulled her tunic over her head and headed for the pool.
'You go ahead. I'm not hot.'
The water was, as always, freezing and as she waded in above her hips, Dara felt her breath tighten and her skin prickle into a million tiny bumps. From the flat rock, Eyna watched, grinning.
'Go on, then!'
'When I'm ready.'
In truth, the water was so cold that had Dara been on her own, she would probably have backed out. Eyna was watching, though, so after giving herself a few more seconds, Dara took a deep breath and plunged below the surface.
The cold gripped like a vice and her breath fled – a swarm of silvery bubbles driven from her in a whoosh.
'Cold?' Eyna enquired.
'Nah. Warm as.'
'Dare you to stay under, then. Count of a hundred.'
'Easy,' Dara scoffed, before drawing a deep breath in through trembling lips and letting herself slide under to lie on the rocky bottom. There she rolled onto her back, opened her eyes and stared up at the surface, only a metre or so above her face. The sunlight, filtering through the canopy and then refracting through the stirred water, seemed to sparkle around her and she held one hand in front of her face, close enough that she could study the dancing interplay of light through water.
She'd forgotten to count, so she simply lay there until her breath was burning in her lungs, then flipped off the bottom and burst back into the air.
'How long was that?' she gasped, and her cousin clapped excitedly.
'A hundred and twenty! Almost as good as Jaran.'
At the mention of her brother's name, Dara's grin faded and she strode out of the pool, flopping on the rock beside Eyna and drawing the warmth of the dark stone up into her to push aside any residual chill. Slowly, warming, the tension slipped out of her muscles, and she felt her heartbeat returning to normal. She closed her eyes and gently reached, almost without being aware she was doing so.
Beside her, the familiar, warm spark that was Eyna filled her perception and she had to consciously ease aside from it to allow herself to fall a little further, extending out, into the Earthmother.
As usual at this time of day, there was nothing worthwhile nearby. Just the sparks of insects and a few small lizards. Certainly nothing worth chasing down. With a sigh, Dara opened her eyes.
'Anything?' Eyna enquired.
'Swim was good, though.'
'Tell that to Xani.'
Dara glanced at the sky. The sun was well overhead, the day bright and hot. Even suited, there was no chance of Da risking a visit to the Eye now.
'We've got plenty of time. Let's head towards the saltwater and see what we can find, eh?'
'That's too far.'
'We're not going all the way, silly. Only until we find somewhere to hunt. There's no point getting back to camp too soon, or Xani will just find more work for us.'
'I guess.' Eyna's doubt was obvious in her tone, but Dara chose to ignore it. Her cousin always worried too much about stuff like this.
'Come on, then.' Dara pulled her clothes back on and stood. 'There's nothing to worry about. You know I can always find the way back.'
Without waiting for an answer, she picked up her gear and headed between the trees, away from the pool.
They walked without conversation. There was no need. The two girls had known each other forever and each could sense, almost without being aware of it, even the tiniest change in the other's mood. Before long, they'd fallen into the slow, silent swing of what Ma referred to as 'hunting walk' and in this fashion they wandered, seemingly without direction but always roughly nightwards. Effortlessly, subconsciously, Dara tracked their path through the increasingly dense forest, a million tiny signs fixing their location in her memory: the position of the sun in the sky, the moss growing on tree trunks, a particular birdsong, an oddly shaped boulder. After this walk she'd be able to find this path again, even in the dark, any time she chose.
Finally they stopped at the deeply shaded base of an enormous, ancient tree.
'Wow.' Eyna craned her head back, peering up through the canopy to where the sky was an interrupted smear of distant blue.
'There're bigger ones closer to the saltwater.'
'Have you seen them?'
'Once. With Dad. He took us out and showed us the giant forests down south. Pretty amazing, but Dad reckoned they were nothing compared with the skydomes in the old cities.'
Eyna's eyes dropped back from the sky and her gaze, perturbed at having such a taboo subject raised so casually, met Dara's briefly.
'Shouldn't we start hunting?' she asked, and Dara nodded, disappointed that her cousin hadn't risen to the bait.
'Yeah. Hang on and I'll reach.'
Here in the deep forest the soil was cold and moist, a layer of peaty humus into which Dara curled her toes as she closed her eyes and drew up the earthwarmth. She let her mind flow out. Below, the roots of the enormous tree burrowed down, through the layers of dirt and soft limestone and into the very bedrock of granite, seeking out the tiny fissures of moisture and nutrients that kept it alive. Above, in its branches, the hot shadows of a couple of warmbloods – climbers of some sort – slumbered through the daylight hours. Slowly, Dara let herself slide out a little further, probing gently until she found what she was looking for, sheltering under a clump of undergrowth a couple of hundred metres downhill from where they stood. Quickly, she slipped back into her own mind.
'This way,' she whispered. Eyna nodded and, moving slowly and silently, the two girls eased forward, carefully planting each footstep lest they so much as break a twig underfoot. Dara gripped her spear loosely in her right hand, its barbed and fire-hardened point nosing ahead, ready to fling it at the slightest sign of her quarry.
It took a few moments until they were close enough. They had to creep around and past the bush to stay downwind, but eventually Dara could make out a solid grey shape, deep in the shadows, slumbering and unaware. A rockhopper. A big one, too. They weren't dangerous, unless you accidently cornered them. And this one was alone, so probably a male which was good – no does or joes to worry about.
Carefully, she moved aside so her cousin could have a look, and once Eyna had nodded to indicate she'd seen it, Dara raised an eyebrow at her companion. You do it.
The younger girl's forehead wrinkled in consternation and she shook her head, but Dara simply raised her own spear, pointing it at the sky until her cousin got the message.
Slowly, Eyna drew back, her knuckles white with concentration. Dara was aware of the other girl trying desperately to control her breathing and to pull up earthwarmth to calm herself and become part of the forest. But, as usual, the younger girl was trying too hard, almost fighting against the energy she was trying to tap into. From where Dara stood, her cousin's reaching felt as insubstantial as the touch of a moth battering itself against the lens of a handlight.
'Steady,' she whispered, but too late. Eyna flung her spear awkwardly and it twisted in the air, slapping harmlessly against the foliage and waking the slumbering hopper, which instantly crashed off into the bush. Sighing, Eyna trudged out to retrieve her spear.
'Why didn't you do it?'
Dara shrugged. 'You need the practice. I don't.'
'But I always miss.'
'Not always. You got that lizard the other week.'
'That was a fluke. Now we have to start again.'
'Doesn't matter. I didn't want to lug a hopper that size all the way back up to the camp, did you?'
'Hmph,' Eyna snorted.
'You try too hard. When you're reaching, you gotta do it softly – just let it flow into you. If you try to beat your way down into it, you'll never get anywhere.'
'Easy for you to say,' Eyna mumbled.
Dara laughed and reached across and ruffled the other girl's hair. 'Don't sweat it, cuz. You'll get there. Probably when you aren't expecting it, eh? Now come on. Let's see if we can track down something for dinner between here and home.'
A couple of hours passed slowly by as they made their way back towards the camp, stopping here and there for Dara to reach. On one occasion they found another large hopper, but this one was heavy with a joe in her pouch, so the two girls simply slid back into the cover of the trees and left it to its own devices.
By mid-afternoon, with the escarpment looming over them and nothing to show for their efforts, they stopped at the bottom of the home path and considered their options.
'I guess we can keep going a bit longer, see if there's something further along,' Dara mused.
'You should have taken that first one. Then we'd be fine.'
'Hey, it's not my fault you're a lousy shot.' Dara grinned to show she was kidding, but her cousin was in no mood for jokes.
'I'm serious, Dara. If we'd got that first one, then Xani'd be happy and we could just go back. As it is, now we'll have to keep hunting, and I'm already exhausted.'
Dara thought about this for a moment. 'Tell you what, Eyn – you head back up. It's not your hunting day, anyway. I'll go on a bit on my own.'
Indecision flickered across Eyna's face. 'You certain?'
'Go.' With her elbow, Dara give the younger girl a nudge. 'I'll catch up with you later.'
"kay then. Seeya.'
Dara watched her cousin begin the trudge up the slope, and when the younger girl disappeared around the first curve in the path, Dara turned daywards and continued alone.
At first, she concentrated on the task at hand – scanning the game trails for any telltale signs of recent activity, fresh tracks or scat, and occasionally reaching gently and probing outwards for any decent sparks. On a pile of dark boulders she bagged a couple of landrunners, coldbloods too slow to evade her quick hands, and on one occasion she lobbed her spear half-heartedly after a fleeing hopper, but it was long gone by the time she let go and her spear fell harmlessly into the ground.
As the afternoon wore on, her attention swung away from hunting and back onto more important things. She wondered if Da would make good his promise to take her on the salvaging. She hoped so, because people were saying that this would probably be the final one. The last few salvages had been increasingly less successful; it had been years since they'd returned with any ferals or shifties and, after the most recent trip, when Da and the others had returned almost empty-handed, the old man had been heard muttering darkly that perhaps it was time to give up on salvages altogether. 'Too much risk for too little return', he'd said.
Still, yesterday Da had announced that he'd be checking the Eye again, which seemed to suggest that there'd be at least one more chance for Dara to go salvaging. She hoped so. If nothing else, she knew it'd drive Jaran crazy if she got to go and he didn't. That brought a smile to her face. And, of course, the prospect of actually seeing the skycity – that in itself was enough to make the effort of salvaging worthwhile, even if Da no longer thought so.
Finally, when the sun was drooping low towards the nightwards horizon, she managed to bring down a decent-sized hopper as it grazed on undergrowth at the edge of the forest.
'That'll do.' It was much later than she'd intended to stay out and she knew she'd be in trouble, but right at that moment she didn't care. It took a few minutes to gut and clean out her kill, and then she hoisted the carcass onto her bony shoulders and set off, walking purposefully now, back towards the escarpment path via the quickest route possible.
As she hiked, the forest grew dark around her and the evening chorus gradually burst into song. A million tiny voices – chirps and grunts and squeaks and rustles – greeting the end of the day and the onset of cool night. As her hunting ended, so much more began.
Without being aware of doing so, as much by habit as anything else, Dara let herself slip out into the Earthmother as she walked, enjoying the sensation of the cooling land through a thousand tiny, transient contacts and sparks of animal consciousness. Behind her neck, the hopper she'd killed was still warm, and a little blood dripped from it, soaking into the rich earth and leaving a speckled trail behind. She gave the hopper silent thanks for its sacrifice, and was almost at the base of the home trail, about to slip out from the lulling earthwarmth and concentrate on the climb, when something awful ripped through the land and into her.
Excerpted from Daywards by Anthony Eaton. Copyright © 2010 Anthony Eaton. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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