|excerpt courtesy of Pyr|
Amberline sat on a rocky outcrop at the crown of the hill, bare toes playing with chalky fragments. She stared down at Flint from under thick chestnut hair, her eyes at once fixing him and focusing dreamily in the distance, it seemed.
When Flint sat by his sister, her head barely reached the level of his chin. He gestured to the sky, the sun. "You should cover up," he said. "You'll have Granny Han popping cysts from your skin again if you're not careful."
Flint knew how much his sister hated the healings, when Granny Han excised the little brown sun-blisters from her skin. He knew she would ignore him, too.
The dry breeze carried a soft whimpering sound to their ears. A pup in the last throes of exposure, perhaps. Probably just a herd of hogs, scavenging somewhere on the hill. Down below, the jungle hummed with the soft trumpetings of courting dawn oaks, wooing the birds with their calls, their promises of dark nectar.
"What if they were human?" asked Amber, softly, turning a bone in her hand. It was cupped, curved, barely the width of her palm. A collarbone, Flint thought, from a pup barely days into its short life.
"They are not," said Flint. "That's why they're here."
He and Amber came here occasionally, usually on whim, as they had done today. Flint felt that the Leaving Hill had more of a pull on Amber than it did on him, but it was indeed a special place, a place with a powerful grip over all True people.
"All of them?" she persisted. "Every last one of them Lost, corrupted, changed...? No one ever makes mistakes?"
"People are careful," said Flint. "A pup would never be exposed unless a parent is certain that it is Lost. Human life is too valuable."
"Then..." Amber dropped the collarbone and shook her long hair in the sunlight. "Then people must err in the other direction. Some of the Lost must pass as True. What if that happens, Flint? What if I were not human? What if you were not human? Do you think that ever happens?"
Her eyes were fixed on him now. Eyes stained piss-yellow by childhood illness. Eyes that both entranced and scared, hinting at corruption, at change. This was Amber's big fear: in a world where illness can steal humanity, where change is prevalent and feared, at what point does a damaged human cease to be True?
Flint, in his ever-steady way, gave her questions serious consideration. He met her look and nodded. "It's only natural to wonder," he told her. "Only natural to fear the change and to question your own status." He paused and spread his hands wide, palms upwards.
"But don't worry," he concluded. "If you were not True we'd just sell you to the mutt trade."
A flash of anger quickly transformed into a wild, mischievous grin, and then Amber hurled herself at her brother.
She struck him in the chest, and together they tumbled from their rocky perch.
Flint cried out as bones and rocks broke his fall.
Wrestling, they rolled down the slope a short way before coming to rest.
Amber held him in a headlock.
"Okay, okay," Flint gasped. "I won't sell you yet!"
She released him and he turned his head to one side, gasping, spitting grit. A handspan from his head, a small body lay naked in the dirt. A pup, dead several days, he guessed. Pale flesh clung in tatters to its tiny body, where scavengers had feasted.
No: not body -- bodies. A double body, joined from chest to hip; two legs, three arms, two heads -- one skull grossly distorted, twice the size of the other.
Sometimes it was easy to distinguish the True from the Lost.
Overhead, vultures soared patiently on a midday thermal.
On the way back down to Trecosann from the Leaving Hill they met the Tallyman.
"Mister Flintreco Eltarn," he said. "Mistress Amberlinetreco Eltarn." He lingered over Amber's fullname, caressing the syllables with his tongue.
The Tallyman was a tall, attenuated figure, stooped under heavy robes, face shaded under a capacious sunhood. There were not many occasions when Flint had to look up to meet someone's gaze, yet the Tallyman, stooped as he was, stood a good handspan taller.
The Tallyman comesChildren's rhymes, stories told on dark winter evenings, schoolyard rumours and gossip. Never trust the Tallyman!
"Tallyman," said Flint, his tone civil. Everyone had their function, he knew. Even tallymen. The Tallyman was a money-lender, a purchaser and collector of debts, a gatherer of favours and promises, used by everyone from Clan Elder to the lowliest bondsman. Universally used, universally despised.
Now, the Tallyman stood in their path where the jungle wrapped its lush green fingers around the base of the Leaving Hill.
Flint took a step down the path, pausing when the Tallyman stood his ground. "We..." he gestured along the path, indicating that the Tallyman was in their way. Now he could smell the Tallyman's animal odour, mixing with the damp earthy scents of the forest.
In the shade of the Tallyman's hood, Flint could see the old man's eyes peering out at Amber. Flint was aware again of how much his sister exposed of herself, depite the midday sun: bare arms, bare head, bare legs below the knee.
The Tallyman's eyes roved, lingered.
"We wish to pass," said Flint, his tone more brusque now.
"Do as you like, young sir," said the Tallyman, eyes never leaving Amber. "Be free to leave the young miss with I, though. I can look after she." The Tallyman spoke in a rough hybrid of pidgin and true speech -- for effect, Flint was sure.
"You talk about me as if I'm property... livestock," said Amber aggressively.
Again, the Tallyman's eyes roved the length of her body. "What Jesckatreco Elthom says is true," he mused. "This one has spirit, all right."
"Jescka?" asked Flint. "You've spoken with our mother?"
The Tallyman nodded. "A fine woman. She done ask I to come looking for sir and young miss. Done say they might be up with the bones. Done give I a message for 'em."
Amber was glowering at the Tallyman, but Flint saw clearly that she enjoyed his attention. She was four years younger than Flint and it was only now, in this instant, that he realised she was on the brink of maturity, feelings both adult and childish at play. For a moment he saw her as the Tallyman must see her and he felt immediately angry and protective.
"A message?" he asked.
The Tallyman shifted his gaze reluctantly to Flint. "You're to stay with Callumtreco Elthom and his family tonight," he said. "They need help at the dipping baths and your mother done offer you out to them."
"Thank you," said Flint stiffly. Offered out like mutts...
"Tallyman trades favours," said the old man, finally stepping aside. He leered at Amber from beneath his hood. "What favours you got in return, eh?"
"I'm sure Jescka has paid for your services," said Flint frostily. "You can expect nothing from us in return for your message."
"Sir can do as he likes," said the Tallyman, menacingly close as they passed. "But young mistress... Young mistress can come with Tallyman, see the world. Tallyman can show young mistress far more than she's ever dreamed."
The two hurried past, Fling squeezing Amber's hand.
Soon the Tallyman was lost behind them in the twists and turns of the track. Maybe he still stood there, maybe he had gone up to the Leaving Hill for whatever nefarious purpose he may have, maybe he was following them, even now.
Amber started to giggle, the child in her winning over the woman. "You're so straight, big brother Flint," she said. "You should have seen your face."
She pulled free of his grip and used both hands to push her breasts up and together. "You saw where he was looking, didn't you, Flin'? All the time, he was talking to these."
Flint felt his cheeks burning. "Come on, little sister," he said. "Let's go to Callum's."
There would be a feast tonight, after the dipping and the cleansing, a gathering of Clan Treco from all around. A time of celebration, a time to rejoice in the gennering arts that made the Clan renowned throughout the region.
It was a time Flint dreaded, a time that haunted his darkest hours.
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