This story appeared in Warp & Weave, a literary magazine published by Utah Valley University, in spring of 2018. It is about 5000 words. It is about a lost toy, among other things.
Lightness (part 1)
They had gone at least three miles before Irla realized Taka was missing.
Irla thought he must have misplaced him in the camel’s luggage, but a surreptitious pat-down failed to find him. Taka had not been his usual chatty self this morning, but Irla had assumed that was either because Zholeg was talking plenty for all three of them, or because Taka had been sulking. Taka had begged to go to the neighboring polity of Mapangz, where he had been born, to see the rock formations. Irla had told him quite firmly that they could not. They had never got closer than about eight miles to the Mapangz border, and they left it farther behind with every step.
Refusing to admit that Taka could be missing, Irla thought through the night before and found his memory blurred. The cozy cabin, Zholeg’s voice, the caretaker’s fiddle, a good supper and a few games of cards . . . he was sure he had held Taka close while he slept, as always, his back turned to the others so they didn’t see, but after waking up? Somewhere among breakfast and packing he had failed to secure Taka, but he could not remember exactly where or how.
He took a deep breath. They could not turn back: adding another two hours to the day’s walking was out of the question. For a while he kept pace with the camel trudging along in ignorant bliss and Zholeg to the other side of it, strolling along happily on this dazzling winter morning. Zholeg was in his twenties with a thick black beard and was a highly respected Jackrabbit, carrying letters and packages between towns and remote villages with reliable promptness and good cheer. He set a good pace, and it was lucky that he was short: Irla was only thirteen and had barely begun to grow. People might think that, because he was shy and quiet, he didn’t have the strength to walk all day for four days in a row—in fact, he was sure his father had volunteered him for this to try to toughen him up. Other Kits from town could have filled in better for Zholeg’s sick partner. He wished one of them would have.
His legs were having no trouble keeping pace, so maybe he could check his sling once more . . .
“Looking for something? Do you need to stop for a moment?”
“No.” Irla barked the word out and hoped it hadn’t sounded rude.
“It’s all right.” Zholeg reined in the camel. “What are you looking for?”
Irla squeezed his eyes shut. “Just a keepsake.” Boys his age weren’t supposed to be talking to their toys still. “From my brother.”
“Oh, right. Well, if it isn’t here—where did you see it last?”
“At the post last night.”
“Well, that’s fortunate. The caretaker will hold onto it and I’ll pick it up my next time around.”
Irla swallowed. Of course, it was the only thing they could do. But . . .
“Positive you don’t have it here with you?” Zholeg asked.
Irla replaced the flap and sighed. “I’m sure,” he said, keeping the panic from his voice.
“Well then.” Their footsteps crunched on the snow. “I’ll bring it back for sure. What does it look like?”
Irla put on a nonchalant voice that he hoped was convincing. “A figure of a cougar, carved from wood. About a hand span long.”
“A cougar? That’s appropriate. Like your older brother! Did he carve it then?”
“No, one of his comrades.” But Irla had given him his name.
“Is it painted?”
“Just polished . . . somewhat. It’s cottonwood.” Irla was glad he was speaking Zholeg’s Fús tongue instead of his own. At home he was careful not to refer to Taka as “he” in case his father might suspect a lingering childish attachment to an inanimate object.
“Well, I’ll be interested in seeing it.”
Just what Irla hadn’t wanted.
“It’s good to have something to help keep your brother close, eh?”
“Right.” He forced a nervous laugh such as one might expect from a boy merely concerned for his brother on the front lines.
“Your father was talking about him. His squadron’s in Okenadema now?”
“Just took Kefan.” The Cougars were the mightiest and sneakiest fighters in the world. If anyone could pry hostile occupying armies out of those mountains, they could.
“That’s right! Any day now.” Zholeg chattered on about the inevitability of victory, the blessings of open freedom and travel to the south, one or two new constitutions . . . Irla gave minimal responses, mostly to keep the man talking. It was usually wearying to be with someone who talked so much, but now it actually helped—like putting numbing ointment on a cut.
Taka was really the only friend he had at home now, besides his volatile little sister. Since Taka only spoke Thuss, the federal language, conversing with him was the best way for Irla to keep his own command of it sharp. His name was from that language; it meant ‘lightness.’ Irla had named him for the wood he was carved from as well as his expert stealth in guarding Irla’s bed at night.
If he thought about this much more he might start crying. He had to keep his mind elsewhere and his feet moving to avoid such humiliation.
But his mind insisted on calculating how many days it would be until he could be with his friend again: nine–almost a full week. He sent a mental call back to the post. He thought he might have heard a faint “I am well,” but it was clear that they couldn’t converse over distances. Taka wasn’t one of the Divine.
Eight nights without his brave friend’s swift, silent step and swishing tail, alert and on patrol?
The first of these nights was something he had been approaching with mixed feelings already: it would be his first time sharing a bed. At least this way he wouldn’t have to explain why he still slept with a toy.
He cleared his throat. “Can you tell me more about our hosts tonight?”
Zholeg chuckled. “You want to know what the girls are like? They’re good girls, well-behaved, don’t snore.”
Irla didn’t respond. Zholeg peered at him over the camel’s neck.
“Are you still worried about it? My partner hadn’t bundled either when he started this route. He’s a city boy like you.”
City? Even in a region less sparsely populated, Útíma would have been counted as a small town.
“You shouldn’t worry. Like I said, they’re all well-behaved, honest girls. Eh, Hímaúz might come across as a bit aloof, but once you get to know her, she’s nice.”
Irla didn’t want to get to know Hímaúz. He didn’t want anything more to do with this whole ill-advised venture. How long until lunch?
“Isn’t this lovely weather? I don’t know what it was doing in Útíma five days ago, but out here the clouds were low and we had flurries coming and going the whole time. It was hard to see for half the day. The worst is being out here when it rains.”
No, the worst was having those you loved taken from you. What could Zholeg know about any of this? Maybe it would be better after all if he would just shut up.
Irla was proud of his brother, but the whole family lived in fear of losing him. Their father was an orphan (and wouldn’t talk about how). How he could stand having a son in harm’s way Irla didn’t know—and his father never explained that either.
After a long time, Zholeg finally said words that mattered, “We’re almost at our midday stop. You keep a good pace. As calm as it is, we should be able to stay decently warm, have a good meal, and still get to Kossiekh well before dark.”
They stopped in a little dell between two hills dotted with junipers where they cooked pancakes in a rough log booth. While they ate, Zholeg started talking again.
“Winter and summer are the peaceful times along this road. In spring and fall, some of the Kits from Kossiekh, about your age, they try to hide up in these hills—ha!—and then they swoop down on us and do silly things like demand tribute or a contest of some kind before they let us pass.” Seeing Irla’s widened eyes, he grinned. “Usually it amounts to a wrestling match and some foot races, maybe some stone throwing, and then we have lunch together and they send us on our way with a lot of whooping and hollering and trying to see how far they can tail us without being seen. It’s actually a pretty old tradition in these hinter parts. I’ve never wanted to fight, never dreamed of joining a Red order, but I always bedeviled the Jackrabbits around my hometown when I was younger. Your brother never did that? Well that makes sense. It’s more of a hinterland thing really.”
Like bundling. Irla knew that his people were a minority, but he hadn’t realized how little he knew about the customs of the region.
Soon they were on their way again. The snow and ice stayed solid, but Irla soon felt warm keeping up a steady walking pace in the sun. Zholeg stayed surprisingly quiet and Irla distracted his mind by surveying the landscape. They were heading east toward a mountain range high enough to be forested. The whole world was almost entirely reduced to blue and white: in this valley, snow covered the sagebrush and only patches of pinkish dirt peeked through here and there to break it up. Irla thought of his brother Fersak’s squadron up in the mountains down south. There must be an awful lot of bright red blood against whatever snow was there.
Against that image, Irla imagined brown wool, whole and untorn. He envisioned the brown of polished musket stocks and the glint of bright steel, white puffs of clouds chasing the oppressors out, the warm glow of a victory bonfire.
The wind picked up and began to bite. Irla plodded along, no longer feeling strong or proud of his stamina for walking. He paced his steps to the rhythm of the silent prayer he often chanted for Fersak’s safety, to cover the hole left by Taka’s absence.
[end of part 1]
I write under the pen name Gerrit Stainer. I am a Utah native, descended from Mormon pioneers, Dutch settlers in Sleepy Hollow, Salem Witch Hunt victims and even some Varangians way way back. Writing since adolescence, I also play drums and make walking sticks.