The Day the Small Ship Flew Over the Sea
This is a scrap of story which was found in the archives on Fremont during the research trip that sister Mary Martin Moss commissioned even before she started the academy. Because it was found then – and on Fremont which has no sophisticated nets or Wind Readers of its own – it is deemed to be authentic without the detailed vetting that occurs for other stories. The roamers on Fremont were partly an oral society: they told each other stories. This is a first-person journal entry from the viewpoint of Sasha, the girl with the white streak in her hair who Joseph eventually named his companion dog after. It is highly polished, so we think this version came after it was told and re-told around campfires under the many moons of Fremont.
It was the summer migration, and we were fat with the bounty of our three days in town and many of the wagons pulled new yearling animals behind them, goats and hebras and dogs just barely trained.
The cool morning breeze smelled of spring flowers. I sat alone on Chelo’s wagon-seat, minding my own business, which was being watchful. Even though the dust and noise of our passage had surely scared game or predator alike away, I watched the trees along edges of the road for djuri sign or the yellow eyes of paw-cats. That is what we did, we roamers. We watched. What I would see, of course, was far worse than a tall cat with fangs as long as my fingers.
My parents were near the back, and one of nicest things about that morning was being able to ride by myself with no well-meant lectures from mom or teases from the twins, Kyre and Loma. Chelo’s wagon rolled near the middle of a long line, rocking its way ever-so-slowly up the High Road behind Stripes. The hebra made it look like work, even though I knew it really wasn’t. Stripes stood tall for a hebra, her head taller than the top of the wagon. She was generally well-mannered if a bit vain. She kept her head up and pulled the hard way, as if still insisting she was too good to be harnessed. Or maybe she was just too proud to dig in like the other beasts, head down, haunches straining. She, too, watched. Always.
We had already made it to the part of the High Road where the cliff is more a steep hill, a jumble of rocks that didn’t come down in the rock fall the night Chelo and Joseph’s parent’s died, but which looked like it might fall on us at any moment, even without an earthquake. Some rocks appeared to be balanced so lightly that a summer breeze might send them down to crack our fragile wooden wagons open like bird eggs.
Indeed, when Chelo and Liam scrambled up the steep hill an hour earlier, rocks the size of small dogs had bounced down into the road and startled one of the young hebras being walked beside the wagon behind me. But still Chelo and Liam made the ascent look easy, the high tinkle of their laughter the last real sign I had of them. If I’d been climbing that, I would have been too winded to laugh. Of course, they were not tired, and sounded like they always did, happy and strong and in love.
I didn’t expect any sign of them until dusk. They did this every year, a ritual they shared with me since they needed a wagon driver and Chelo had no family. That year, I was still so young I thought they were simply sneaking off to make love in some private place.
If Chelo weren’t my best friend, I’d have been terribly jealous. Chelo was everyone’s friend, of course, but I was the one she’d picked to drive her wagon and keep her hebra. Mom had tried, as usual, to keep me from it, but dad had reminder her rather gruffly that I would be old enough for my own wagon in two years and so the day’s practice would do me good. They had glared at each other for a long moment, then kissed, and they hadn’t even insisted I make sure the wagon was near theirs.
It felt good to be so adult. I didn’t want to screw up.
Everything seemed fine until Stripes turned her head all the way around stared down at me. Her eyelashes and beard stood out like silhouettes as the sun haloed her head, and I couldn’t quite make out the look in her eyes.
“She’ll be back later,” I reassured her.
Stripes tossed her head, still walking forward while looking backward. Her tack jingled as buckles scraped against each other.
I had taught her how dangerous that was myself, forcing a fall. I snapped at her. “Pay attention!”
She turned her head back around, her displeasure evident in the way she kept her long neck stiff and shook it from time to time, as if a swarm of flies had settled on her skin.
Stripes had a reputation for being as stubborn as her master. She started prancing. She’d never misbehaved like this for me – I had helped break her to harness and shown Chelo had to rub her down and feed her and watch for sores and thorns. I shifted my weight and gathered the reins closer in my hands, holding them just tight enough to signal that I was in control.
Akashi rode by, glancing at Stripes, who had started prancing. He pulled up his own mount and narrowed his eyes at the fractious hebra before looking at me in that way of his, all intensity focused entirely on me. Although we were lucky to have him in the West Band, I still didn’t like being under his regard. “Can you handle her?” he asked.
He himself had helped train me to train hebras, so his words stung. “Of course I can.”
A trace of worry or doubt touched his eyes. Maybe he was like Stripes, worried about Chelo and Liam. Maybe he knew where they went. But if he did, he didn’t pass it on to me. He just nodded and went on, riding the line like a dog, offering help, encouragement, or admonition as required.
No sooner had he truly gone a few wagons past, when Stripes reared up in her traces. I tugged her down, almost standing myself. I smelled the fear on her then, and her nostrils quivered.
She bugled, a high ululating call that rose up the cliff wall and bounced out into the clear over the valley to our right. Surely even the people in Artistos, far below, heard her. And if they didn’t hear her, they heard the others, as first Brown Bead and then Girl-of-Grass and then Nix and Star and Moon-face and eventually all hundred or more hebras bugled together, as if they were all watching and all of them had spotted a pack of predators.
I tensed, hoping they wouldn’t run.
Dogs began to bark.
A high-pitched whine touched my ears even over the calls and stamping feet of the frightened animals. Stripes had stopped in her traces, feet planted and splayed, looking up.
So I looked up.
A silver cylinder floated above our heads. It was bigger than our biggest wagon, and smaller than the silver ship Joseph had stolen from the plain. Not quite round, but as if a round thing had been stepped on and squished just a bit. Two flat wedges came out the sides, like a mash between fins and wings, widest at the back.
It wiggled, as if it were waving.
The noise it made grew until it was louder than the hebras and the dogs, until it stilled them all. The silver cylinder seemed to hold in the air, to float for just long enough that I was scared it would fall down into void below and land on the town or in the Lace River.
But then it – simply left. It moved so fast that it became quickly small and quiet, a silver bee going away from us over the ocean and then nothing.
In its aftermath a silence fell. No barks. No bugles. Just the whisper of breeze in the trees. Everywhere I looked the drivers and walkers and handlers looked at the empty sky.
A child cried.
People began to call to their dogs and to settle the hebras.
Stripes let out a long low moan, a sound I’d never heard from a hebra before. I immediately knew what she was telling me. Chelo and Liam had gone. There had been no sign they meant to leave. Chelo could have spent an extra moment with me, or given Stripes an extra treat. She hadn’t even taken her clothes.
Akashi rode up and down the line, calling orders to move, to keep going, to gather, to focus. The inside of my chest felt cold and empty. Stripes walked ahead of me with her head bowed.
After a hundred steps and a hundred more, I noticed the day warm. Sweat fell down my face, mixing with tears on my cheek, and I looked up at the sky over and over.
It remained empty.
Once, when Akashi rode by, I swear I saw tears on his face, too.
Liam was his son, and Chelo my friend.
The next time he came by, the tears were gone, but they had left faint tracks in the road-dust that coated his cheeks. He couldn’t take my hand while we were moving, but he held his out in a gesture of support and his voice rose over the sound of the turning wagon wheels and the breath of dogs and the clop of hebras hooves on the hard road. “I knew about the skimmer. It’s called The Burning Void. It isn’t ours.”
Of course it wasn’t. The invaders had brought it, and that was where Chelo and Joseph went – to wherever their parent’s left things like The Burning Void. To a secret place. I looked away from him, and spoke loudly. “Did you know they would leave?”
“They can’t fly it.”
I looked up at the sky, light blue so the middle above me was almost white. I knew who it had to be, although she was only a face and a set of rumors to me. “Kayleen?”
“Only she or Joseph could fly it.”
Joseph had flown away seasons ago, and never returned. A fear seized my stomach. “Can the skimmer go to the stars?”
“Do you think they’ll come back?”
He swallowed, looking both angry and lost at once, like the two emotions warred in him. He almost never looked that vulnerable, not to me. “I hope they do.”
“I will hope with you.”
In that moment, Stripes snorted and looked at up both of us, as if she understood. Perhaps she did. Hebras understood it when we gave them commands, after all.
Akashi rode on up the line, his head bowed.
I wished Chelo and Liam were back and that mom was lecturing me about staying in her sight when we got above the High Road.
At that moment, I had no idea how much would change before I saw them again. I only knew that the place on the bench where Chelo often sat beside me felt cold and empty.
stream created August 29th, 229.