Wednesday, February 29, 2012

"The Breaking" (Part Four)

Firelight flickered over Moses' face.

"You move quickly," he said. "That's good."

Not only did the flight delay our departure, but my added load slowed our pace further. When we reached the veld we found scores of new krim, and I didn't have time to hack them all up before night fell.

"Why?" I asked, hardly hearing. My mind lingered back at the village, wondering at the extent of the damage to Itai's hand, at what the healer would say of it, at what everyone would say of me. Moses' ambiguities held little interest for me.

Moses fixed me with a glazed stare. He reeked of mampoer. "We held little hope when there were four of us. Now only you and I remain, and I cannot dig. The krim know. They will grow faster. The fire will come. It will not be long. But you -- you might succeed. As I did. Only keep your spear near."

That drew me back, made me look at him, awoke the wondering. What happened to Moses? He once held status for something he'd done, we all knew that. But what made him love the fiery liquid? I didn't know. No one seemed to. Some posited a calamity that transpired before his disfigurement. A woman, a horrible loss on a trade, the slow sundering of age -- I could count as many theories as I had fingers. But the old ones hinted at an accident out in the veld, the one that cost him his arms, and from what I knew of the labor this seemed closest to the truth. Even now, though, I knew nothing of the accident itself.

The words seemed to spring unbidden from my lips: "Moses, why do you drink so much?"

At first, I thought he hadn't heard. Then tears rolled down his cheeks. He lifted the bottle, caught himself and put it back down.

"I must," he said in a slow, thick voice. He held out a scarred stump. "The fire, the other fire, cost me these. But it did not burn me only on the outside."

* * *

The krim spread like a rash. I discovered why by accident. Digging beside the rough border we established, I brushed against one of the large bushes and, in an instant, found myself enveloped in a pale, dusty powder. It stung my eyes and burned my lungs, and the next day I found a host of new growths rooted in that very area.

"Conserve your strength," Moses told me. "Let them grow up around us."

They did and quickly. Their multiplication troubled me less than an uneasy conviction that I'd never seen the pollen before. Also, from the south there arose an unseasonably cold wind that sifted sheets of the powder from lines of krim and bore them in the direction from which we came. If it continued (and I no longer doubted that it would), the krim would soon grow right up to the village itself.

This did not appear to trouble Moses. As days passed, he only instructed me to clear a space for us fifty paces wide and deep and to always attend to my spear. Neglecting the latter would still bring him to anger, although I did not understand why -- nor did I care. My caring went into the poisoned, strength-sapping soil.

"Everything hangs on the work of a moment," Moses insisted. "Everything."

Then six days after we had arrived, Moses ran out of mampoer.

With only two of us, the food and water lasted, but Moses had drunk steadily since our arrival. His demeanor showed little change at first. But then the tremors began, and he would babble, recoiling from imaginary things. When darkness fell, I built a fire, fed him as best I could, helped him squat and cleaned him afterwards.

"You are very sick," I told him. "I must take you back to the village." Even as I said it, I understood that such a trip would be almost entirely under a silent canopy of krim, a thought that chilled my bones.

"There will be no village if you take me," he said, eyes rolling. "Only ash. The southern cities have burned. Everything will burn."

"Even so," I said, trying to sound reasonable, "you must go."

I bent to lift him, wondering how far we could get before my strength failed.

He lashed out at me. "You don't understand!" he cried. "And those who understand don't believe! Do you think they grow blindly, that there's no intelligence behind them? The Breaking brought more than krim and silence. But whether it brought it or woke it, I don't know. It seeks what it may devour -- the world, if it has the chance."

I muttered assurances and gave him small sips of water. But he refused to be calmed until I promised we would stay until morning. If he didn't improve, he would go back. That consoled him. He relaxed and soon slept. I curled up, exhausted, and closed my eyes.

* * *

Go to Part Five ...

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