By Ruth Walker
2014 Winner: Young Adult
One: Outside Main Station
Keep low, tight to the ground.
Lesser sun is still high but soon prime sun will set and I haven’t enough to fill my tell. I stop. Listen. Lift my nose just high enough to catch what’s on the air.
Undeserving animal. Close by. The sweatstink as clear as Blessed Leader’s vision.
I hold my breath. Wait. And then I hear it. Breath of one in a struggle. Trying to keep still, knowing something’s near.
Truetell, I’m coming anyway.
I sight the territory in front and to the sides. The old blast here was really big. Dirt kicked out in a wide circle, rocks split, their edges jagged and raw. Just ahead, a fallen tree tilts its twisty roots toward the sky, stones and clumps of grey dirt caught in its grasp.
A tree in this part of the Territory? Cloudfall almost never wets the ground this far from Main Station.
I blink. Nothing of life here.
Except there. Past the tree roots and inside the blast hole. Movement —just one, I’m sure of it. And I keep low but circling in. Slip between rockfalls, dirt piles. Skirt the hollows where flesh strippers have already been. The whiff of drying bones in the air. On my blade side, prime sun is edging closer to ground. I remember to listen, ready to race back to my track and the gates of Main Station.
Flesh strippers sometimes come before full sunsset. But if I leave this animal, I’ll have no truetell for Sub-leader Callan. I’ll be shamed in the quad.
I rub the raw skin at the back of my neck. I don’t know how I’ll keep from crying this time and then they’ll all laugh and call me useless.
Cryface female. TwoEyes.
Send me back to OldCook’s kitchen, to killing crawlies and pulling weeds from the pantry grounds. I won’t go back there. I will prove I can be a Teamer. A female, yes. But a strong and true female. Doesn’t matter if one eye is black and the other a weak blue. One TarkTrue eye is all I need. I’d gouge out the other one if only—
Gallo’s voice fills my head. Use your nose, ears. Your eyes can be false. Make you feel safe even sometimes when—
Don’t think about Gallo. Grip the rocks and pull through the dirt.
Be an animal.
On the far side, the ground moves. I press forward until I am so close to the edge, I could almost reach out and touch it. And truetell! It’s an undeserving Therrien. I hold my breath and risk a smile. I will not return, my picking sack empty and my tell full of dull and barren words.
My blade slides silent from its sheath, like Gallo taught me. “Nothing weaker than dropping your blade. Warns them that you’re coming. And—” he grinned before going on “—it makes a clean blade filthy. They shit out there. Drop their shitty leggings and drop their loads. Animals.”
I put my blade between my teeth. Keeps it from the ground while my hands are busy but I also like the taste of it. I get to remember each kill. Like giving the tell to Sub-leader Callan.
I’m closer to the ground that moves. Careful. Sometimes they are more alive than they seem. Like my first one. I pat my honour vest and then squint to see better against laterday sunslight. The twinned shadows stretch across the dirt.
The animal’s trying to dig deeper. It knows the flesh strippers are not long from coming out.
Stupid, stupid animal. It turns around and is now trying to crawl out of the hole. Away from its hiding place, from burying itself deeper. Where would it go? The last attack pushed their line so far back that it wouldn’t get to them before sunsset. Gallo said you can’t depend on the animals to make any kind of Tark sense. It made them dangerous.
I squint past the sweat in my eyes, to shape what can’t be made sense of. And then it crawls farther up the crater and I see. It’s bad. One leg is shredded enough that bone can be seen. Already primed for the flesh strippers. It couldn’t dig itself deep enough that they’d miss that treat.
Enough waiting. Before my legs can cramp or lose strength, I scrabble quick along the outside curve. It barely turns to the sound of me before I land on its back.
The animal screams. It bucks but I have its dirty yellow hair tight in one hand and the other grips one of its ears. My legs wrap around its middle and I ride it. This animal is mine but not willing yet to give over. It reaches behind with one hand and that is when I have it, taking advantage of the shift in gravity, the tilt of the crater wall, knowing its filthy undeserving legs can’t hold on. I kick at its ribs, release its ear, grab my blade and plunge it into the base of its neck.
The animal falls on its side, spine severed, eyes wide and its mouth opening and closing, lips trembling. A squealing, squawking sound fills the air. Then gurgles. Wheezing.
And then silence.
I get low again, my back pressed against the rocks and blasted pieces in the crater, scanning the area for signs of any others. Listen. Widen my nostrils. It is only death here now. Only death.
About this story
I am a character-driven writer but recognized that 72 hours of following the meandering of a character wouldn’t get me close to a decent draft. I needed something a bit more plot driven that could offer me a one-page outline to at least start from. I’ve always enjoyed science fiction and fantasy so I decided to focus on that genre. I was shocked and delighted to be named winner of the Young Adult category. An early version of this Muskoka Novel Marathon draft secured a $12,000 Works In Progress grant from the Ontario Arts Council. After lots of rewrites, edits, false starts and revisions, The Last Battlewipe is seeking a publishing home while Book II of the duology, The Keeper, is in progress. I’m still a character-driven writer and my Garnet–the title character–kept me following her journey from feral, illiterate teen to a wise leader on a planet that sits on the razor’s edge of environmental disaster.