by Kaas Baichtal
Chapter 5: August
(read chapter 1) (read chapter 2) (read chapter 3) (read chapter 4)
In August, the sun brought a withering heat. Stormclouds built daily but no rain ever reached the earth; it vanished instead, leaving pale virgas stretched against the sky.
In the beginning, Johehna was gripped by an excitement she had never known before.
Her last nights in the Vale were spent twitching like a dog in the darkness, reliving the moments of seeing him in the vision of her mind: his huge gaunt frame like a spring bear's, his beard dark and tangled like a bull moose. His arm, long and powerful, lifted toward the Wolf's mountain and pointing straight at it without a trace of fear.
During those last days she crouched peering into still pools trying to see if that light that burned in him had caught hold in her as well. For his eyes had gleamed with a fervor unlike anything in Johehna's experience. This was power!
The house-raised were skittish, keeping a guard watch for strangers day and night. They drove the wild back from their borders, forcing them to the edge of the Vale. The wild would be allowed to return, of course, eventually, when the housed had recovered enough from their scare to allow them near again. They'd sidle in like feral dogs around a campfire, grinning and cowering, because they had no where else to go.
But not Johehna.
Since the big man had come, she was filled with the strength of the puma, the fierceness of the eagle. The Vale could no longer contain her. One day she simply broke free, blown like the seeds of the thistle over the scree slopes of the boundary.
The land above the Vale was dry and studded with big sage and mountain ash, honeysuckle and cinqfoil. They were in their autumn glory and pollen covered everything with a sticky yellow dust.
In the mornings, when the air was cool and the big man was mostly likely to be on the move, Johehna crouched under cover in a high place and waited for a chance to sight him. During the long hours of her waiting her eyes traced mazes of rock and greasewood, of goldenrod and shale and twisted aromatic scrub, over and over until they were burnt into her mind. Her patience was infinite. She could outlast enemy and prey alike.
But in the Vale, her emotions had been tempered by a need to protect herself from the others, to make herself inscrutable by descending into a frozen animal uncaring. Now that she was alone, they were beginning to break free.
As her eyes memorized the road to come, so too her mind traced over tangles of emotion: anger and hostility and loneliness and fear and the perverse contrasts now of hope and desire and bravery that the big man had engendered. She did not know how to interpret them, nor did she even know to try. She only lived them, and looked upon them with the uncomprehending wonder of a savage looking upon nature's fury.
Late in the day, when Johehna finally spotted the big man picking his way over rabbitbrush and silver sage high up on a distant hill, she marked her target in her mind's eye and start running, her feet consuming the distance between them as surely as if they'd always known the path.
Her oldest brother, Jack, had died the year before Johehna was born.
Jack was almost a man and already helping Gevard with the still and the plantings, learning the trade so that one day when Gevard passed on Jack could take his place. But much sooner than that Jack turned on his father with bloodied arms and tried to take him as a kill, and Gevard nailed him point-blank with his shotgun.
They made no grave for him, no memorial. Johehna wouldn't have known he'd existed except that one day she'd asked her oldest sister Marissa why they called it Jack's Field.
At the mid-elevations, fleabane formed mounds of daisy flowers, starting white and lavender and turning orange-brown against sun-bleached duff. Scarlet gilia dotted the arid landscape with pink-red trumpets, nearly mesmerizing in the searing sun. Parry's silene and common yarrow offered up their less ambitious blossoms to the palates of the flies and bees, along with asters and goldenrod.
In the early mornings, as the sun first touched the horizon, the wind in the pines seemed to speak like the wind in the grasses of Jack's now-fallow field.
The second brother, Mahathew, was nearly four years younger. But when he turned Sime he was the same age as Jack had been to the very day.
Mahathew had been their mother's favorite and Johehna had vague but insistent memories of lying clutched in her mother's arms while her mother sobbed her heart out over his loss.
And later, of her mother saying she looked just like Mahathew, had she only been a boy.
Years of old hurts pricked at Johehna's back and thighs, like a distant church chorus. But she did not consciously dwell on these, any more than she dwelt upon what she'd done before she left the Vale. They were as meaningless now as the bodies of the ones who'd hurt her in the past. As meaningless as a Sime caught forever in a barn in a ravine, with no one knowing it was there.
Marissa should have been next, but instead it was Elevea, who was younger. It happened at school and she managed to kill the teacher, Mistress Conway, before Father Barnes gunned her down from the doorway of the church across the road.
Elevea had been Johehna's constant playmate. She'd dressed Johehna up and put flowers in her hair, and they'd held little tea parties on tables of stumps and stones.
None of the beloved told Johehna what had happened to Elevea, and when she finally found out it was at the hands of the wild. They cornered her alone in the woods and tormented her with rhymes and sing-song until finally she understood. Understood that Elevea was gone forever and that the same thing would happen to her, one way or another.
She hid under the covers in their bed for days, and when she finally came out she had forgotten how to speak.
Jo, Jo, talks so slow.
Years later, when Johehna attended the school herself, it was old Master Burquist come back from retirement to teach the classes. There simply wasn't anyone else left to do it.
Johehna began to lose sight of her quarry for days on end, so great were the slopes and so deep the valleys between them.
At the highest reaches of their climb, it was cold even in daytime. High up in these inhospitable places, flowers were rare and unexpected treasures: rose willow tucked at the base of a south-facing cliff. Tiny pink-flowered pygmy bitterroot alone on a broad gravel field. The burrs of forget-me-not, mysteriously found clinging to moccasins and clothes.
This was a place where a human being could lose connection completely with what it meant to be self or someone.
When Marissa did finally turn Sime, she attacked their mother in the kitchen. The mother tried to defend herself with pots, pans, and finally a knife, but died anyway. Gevard came home from the fields to find his wife lying in the wreckage of her once tidy kitchen, the fire died to ashes in the hearth.
When the dogs were brought in to track Marissa she was found dead in the woods nearby, and nobody ever figured out how she died. She only had small cuts from the kitchen-knife, nothing that looked like it should have killed anybody. There wasn't even much blood.
Gevard drank for a week, then smashed the stills and set fire to the house, threw six-year-old Johehna out the door and told her never to return.
The fire burned itself out before serious damage was done, and in the following weeks Gevard pieced together one of the stills and tried to carry on alone.
But Johehna was never allowed back. Not until many years later.
By late August Johehna was travelling downward, through wet mountain meadows lush against the stark grandeur of their surroundings.
She had lost sight of the big man completely now. Proof as to his trail could be found in the form of an occasional footprint preserved in dried clay or a thread caught by rough branches, but most of her time was now consumed in searching out false paths and then abandoning them.
Along streams and frigid clear lakes, a profusion of vegetation grew: wild hay, reeds, sweetgrass and wildflowers. The bell-shaped blooms of willowweed. Long-stemmed grass-of-parnassus. White bistort and sticky purple-veined geraniums. Vivid blue gentians, and dwarf pinks and yellows.
Wild horses fattened themselves on the grass, and this year's foals cavorted among the flowers, as yet unknowing of the deep snows that would render these places inaccessible come winter.
When the blizzards came, their leaders would take them down to lower country, following the same cycle as the deer and birds. When spring came again and the horses returned, the yearlings would discover this paradise anew.
And discover also that when their pregnant dams bore the next generation, some of them would be cast out to live in fear of the beloved of the herd. Skulking on the fringes, hoping to steal what they needed. The first to die when predators came.
Johehna first learned that she herself would never become Sime the day she was attacked by one.
She was twelve years old and had run with the wild children for six years by then. Her attacker was Johnny Woodman, youngest son of the logger. He'd grown up small and fine-boned, a sure sign of a Sime. He was cast out on his eleventh birthday and it was his first winter among the wild.
One night the abandoned shack they were sleeping in was taken by fire. Horribly burned, Johnny Woodman lived long enough to turn Sime and seek prey. The wild scattered like rats, each left to survive or die as they could, and Johehna was the one he singled out.
She ran, staying out of reach only because he was hideously wounded and because desperation had given her a strength she had never known before.
In the heart of the Vale, the bells were clanging.
Sheriff Lanower rode forward on his pony, raised the shotgun aiming, and all the people behind him were shouting.
Get down, they were yelling. Get down.
But it was Jans Lanower she saw, behind his father, his mouth moving in unheard encouragement as his arms beckoned. In those moments she understood. She had survived the test. She was a woman now, was proven human. You belong with us, the lips were saying, and we will protect you. She hurled herself to her hands and knees in the dirt between them and Sheriff Lanower fired once, a tremendous bang that echoed forward and forward through time and still rang in Johehna's ears six more years later.
Strangers came to catch her in the last days of August, on a cold misty morning that softened the dead grasses so that their steps were near-silent. It had been weeks since her last sighting of the big man.
Johehna awoke to the sound of a rifle being cocked, and came fully alert in one cruel jolt. She leaped to her feet to find herself face to face with several men.
They were sturdy, well-built, healthy. Not so huge or broad-framed as the man she had followed here, but clearly the beloved of whatever place this was, with warm well-made clothing and weapons in their hands.
Before any of them could speak she turned and ran. Ran like the wind because she could outrun any house-raised and had proven it many times when she'd stolen to survive in the Vale.
But she had not counted on them having Simes.
Just as Johehna had kept her Killer as a means of revenge against the beloved of the Vale, and just as the house-raised had kept their hunting-dogs, so these people kept their Simes.
Or so it seemed, because as she ran, Simes began to flit like ghosts along the ridges and ravines, just on the edges of her peripheral vision. When she finally saw them clearly she stumbled and went crashing down, terror making her stupid.
They closed in on her, and though she clawed and screamed and fought them there was no escaping their inhuman strength.
The law required Gevard to take Johehna back after Johnny's attack. It required him to re-educate her as to how to live in a house, and to keep her safe and fed until she was old enough to marry and bear children.
But Gevard had Narita now, and the two young boys Narita had borne him. The home and family Johehna had known as a child no longer existed and had not for a long time. Part of Johehna understood that it did not actually need to exist anymore. After all, the house was valuable as a shelter from the elements. And whether Gevard was her father or not, his gun would defend her from the Simes. On that basis, she had all that she required.
But the greatest part of Johehna, the part that was unthinking and unspeaking as a beast, still bled from having home ripped from her half a lifetime before.
For Johehna, there was no analysis or conscious rememberance of history, any more than a true animal might perform them. But her years of banishment had forced her to turn brute to survive brutality, ruthless to avoid starvation, and inured as stone to being unwanted. Loss of home had turned her less than human as surely as turning Sime would have done. And that one towering betrayal overshadowed all, shaping her more surely than anything else.
At the end of the second day's march, Johehna and her captors descended into a narrow canyonlike valley with steep stony walls and lush green at its floor.
And there, she beheld farmlands. Farmlands like nothing that had happened at the Vale in Johehna's lifetime, farmlands that even Neidham's first brave summers would have disappeared beside. As far as the eye could see, all the way to the valley walls, there were crops upon crops, perfectly tended in laboriously dug raised beds.
Some distant memory educated Johehna's eye, and she recognized the fertilizer scents of pigs and goats and chickens, recognized the signs of winter rye and soybeans and buckwheat having been plowed under to enrich the soil.
Fall crops planted at summer's height were now approaching harvest: turnips, arugula, lettuce, spinach, fennel, cabbages, kohlrabi, carrots, radishes, bok choi, and even sugar-beets.
It was as they passed the beets, a great shimmering field of them enough to feed a hundred Vales, that numb trails began to slip down Johehna's face and cloud her eyes, making her stumble.
She relived the deaths of her family repeatedly as visions, or as imaginings, as unreal and yet as persistent as simple heat mirage. So too she relived brief spurts of other events in her and other people's lives, tokens and tidbits of knowledge or experience that had no context, no reason for racing through in her mind again and again and every reason to simply vanish forever instead.
Over the years of her banishment they become a source of comfort.
But after she returned home it could no longer be her mother at the stove, fat and sweating and red-faced with flour on her apron, because Narita was there to intrude upon the illusion. The spot she left next to her when she slept in case Elevea ever returned could never be filled, because now the bed her sister had slept in was gone and that room was taken by Narita's boys.
In the beginning, Narita's weak skinny face and faltering voice made Johehna's tongue grow thick with rage and her fists clench with an instinct to protect the dead. Her ears turned deaf to Narita's attempts at teachings, her eyes blind to them, and only time and Gevard's lash caused the visions of her true mother to reluctantly, and imperfectly, fade.
Master Burquist had taught them tales of Ancient cities of shining glass, places of wealth and wonder beyond anything the modern mind could dream up. Places where every man rode on the back of a steel horse, and the most powerful flew on the wings of steel birds. Where there were no Simes, and the parents would never cast their children out.
And now it seemed to Johehna that she had been brought to such a place, for the walls that rose from the moat in the center of the fields were constructed entirely of stone, as steely and untouchable as time itself.
And above those walls, thousands of pigeons flew in great circles, an army of messengers.
In the Vale, when a messenger flew high and hard over the village toward the Wolf's mountain it was said that it traveled to whisper news of the damned into the ear of the Lord of Wolves, that he might walk upon the earth and visit his vengeance upon those who deserved it.
And that is how Johehna knew exactly where she'd been brought.
They took her through a massive gate and deep into to the walls, to a place where stone buildings with glass windows almost blotted out the setting sun. A single shaft of light found its way between, to shine upon the door of the house they stopped in front of.
Over the door's arch, a statue of a messenger poised in the act of retribution, stooping like a hawk with its long wings swept back and its head curled under like a fist.
When the door opened and the Wolf stepped out of the shadows, Johehna saw that he had taken the form of a man.
Slanting gold light fell upon the planes of his face, his body. His face was narrow as a fox's, his eyes pale and arresting framed by feathery gray hair. At first Johehna was prepared to trust him, because he had made himself to be old and the old were safe. But though the others were drawn to him they also cringed from him, like gawkers in the intense heat of a burning house. And when he lifted his hands, she saw that his forearms were knotted with the shapes of tentacles under the skin.
Sime. He was old, but he was Sime.
She fought her captors again now, hard as she could. Grunts of effort burst from her lips as she struggled madly, futilely, against their powerful grips. The Wolf's pale eyes seemed to gaze right through her, weighing her heart and judging it as tentacles flowed from his wrists and wound like serpents around his gaunt hands.
"The Pen," he said, his voice creeping in on the edge of her perception, sighing almost inaudibly through the muted sounds of her desperate struggle. "Take her to the Pen."
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Chapter 6: September (still being written) | The Secret Pens | Vale Index | Kaas Index