Authors: Jack Lasenby
‘We climbed to our fort and watched the white island drift between us and the moonlit peaks of the South Land. A floating island of ice. Perhaps the stories were true.’
PURSUED by the hateful Salt Men, Ish flees south with his friend Taur, the mute Bull Man. But nowhere is there refuge from the brutal Squint-face, who wants his greenstone god back, and wants Ish’s life. Across the ice loom the mountains of the South Land. Is there a future there, in the land of the mountain that ate the sun? Is there escape from the relentless pursuit?
Here is the riveting sequel to award-winning
Because We Were the Travellers
by master story-teller, Jack Lasenby. In a future where the elements have scoured the land, and the sun turned enemy, Ish’s dream is simply to find peace, a place, and a people to call his own.
“Garawgh aw garaw urf, Urgsh, Gawk, Garph, Gaur!”
Taur’s “Song of the Travellers”
is the second book in a trilogy about Ish the Traveller.
is the first. It is about a nomadic tribe, the Travellers, who, because of the killing sun, can travel only during the early morning and late afternoon hours. Their annual Journey is south from the Whykatto – a near-desert – east across the mountains, north beside Lake Top, and back into the Whykatto for the sparse winter grazing.
Ish is a motherless boy, the son of Hawk, the Travellers’ leader. Hawk dies, and lame Ish is left behind. He finds Old Hagar also cast out. After the tribe is massacred, Ish and Hagar survive with a few animals and dogs as the Travellers themselves.
Following the ancient Journey, racing against her death, Hagar teaches Ish the nomadic skills of survival and how to trade their weaving for metal tools. She encourages his will to survive.
Ish falls in love with Tara, a girl of the Metal People. As the Whykatto becomes more arid, he plans to settle at the Hawk Cliffs, near Lake Top. Hagar insists they keep on with the Journey. She dies. Ish proves he and the animals can survive at the Hawk Cliffs. He sets out to bring back Tara, her father – Dinny, and her two brothers – Sim and Petra. They are going to farm and garden and replant trees all the way north into the Whykatto. Besides being in love, Ish is delighted because he is going to be part of a family again.
Face amazed, huge eyes staring. Clawing air, she comes running around a bend of the track. Sees me. The scream throttles in her throat. Another girl running behind. Springing around the bend after them, two naked Salt Men thunder rape. The girls run faster. The first man props. With a curious overarm action he flings a spear. Thud. The girl behind Tara knocked face down.
I leap aside, seize an arrow, notch, aim, shoot. Bellowing obscenity, the murderer runs to meet his whistling death. It penetrates his throat, cuts off his voice, severs his spine. He drops. And Tara is running, arms towards me, eyes fixed on mine. “Ish! Ish!” I jump clear to sight the second man levelling his bow. Tara glances behind, veers to shield me. I leap sideways, fire past her. The man shoots back.
My arrow takes, spins him. Another thud, and Tara still runs towards me, crying my name, an arrowhead budding scarlet between her breasts. Blood trickling from her mouth, she collapses into my arms. In my mind today Tara still runs towards me, arms outstretched, my name on her lips, the thud, the arrowhead.
She dies in my embrace, and I kneel and keen for all the lost and dead. For Old Hagar, my mother and father, my sister, the dogs and animals who died along the Journey.
We were going to live at the Hawk Cliffs, have children, be a family with her father, her brothers. We hoped for children who would grow up beside Lake Top.
A grunt. Turning, I see Tara’s killer writhe, knees hunching to the gay-feathered arrow through his belly, straightening, hunching again. Let him die slowly in the pitiless
sun. The other girl lifts her head, croaks, blood-crusted lips wincing gibberish. “The green stone!” she seems to say. Her eyes lose focus, stare past me; her face drops in the dust.
Down a slope I carry both girls to a hollow, close their wide-open eyes so the sand will not fall upon them. A leather cord around Tara’s neck disappears under her tunic. Something heavy, a fish carved in green stone. I shove it down the neck of my own tunic. Then I am scooping, undermining the sandy bank. It slides. Tara’s face. Eyes closed. Gone.
Any moment the other Salt People will come back. I climb to the track, freeze. Already there, one searches the dead man. My hand drops to silence Jak and Jess. The Salt Man throws the corpse aside, runs shambling to the other man.
He snaps the feathered end off the arrow, wrenches its shaft out of his back so the blood gushes. “The green stone?” He shakes the dying man who groans, conscious. I gape, hand rising to my neck, and Jak growls. Still bending over, the Salt Man flings something. I see a cruel, leering face distorted by a squint, throw myself sideways. Where I had stood, his knife scores the air. Scrambling on my knees, I nock an arrow, but the squint-faced man scuttles out of sight. He will be back with others.
Tara’s killer writhes still, darkness oozing from the ragged hole between his fingers. Perhaps because Squint-face used him so callously, I finish him with the knife, run back along the track.
Before reaching the shambles of the Metal People’s village, I turned off. Tara’s father and her brothers were dead. I had seen their bodies. Except for the young women and the men they took as slaves, the Salt People had slaughtered everyone. Shoving through the scrub, I almost stepped into a boiling pool, pulled myself up, grasping a handful of the twigs, smelling the crushed white flowers, their sharp scent. The short-cut brought me out on the Swapping Ground. I ran, whistling.
The donkeys and sheep had followed the scent of water to a spring, but Tek and Trick held them there. Het had kept up with her pups. As usual the goats had wandered, but they came running at my whistle. All the animals nickered and bunched, pleased to be found again.
We followed the rivulet down to a clearing. Watered, cropping grass, the animals settled for the night, ringed by the other dogs, while I returned through the gloom with Jak, Jess, and one of the donkeys. For a long time we watched before moving in to the Metal People’s village.
Jak and Jess kept guard. In the murk, amongst still-glowing embers and foul smoke that shrugged close, I found a spade and buried Sim and Petra either side of Dinny, their father. “Tara, too,” I told them, crying. I collected some of the beautiful iron tools the Salt People had not stolen, the spade, a couple of knives, cooking pots, shears, loaded them on the donkey.
A picture came to mind, my first meeting with Tara, when she fell out of the tree. Without warning. Hitting the hard ground with a grunt, winded, unable to speak. Memories swept back: that first visit to the Swapping Ground with Hagar, setting out our woven goods for trading with the Metal People, retreating to allow them their secret barter. Sad ghosts. It was too much to understand. Jess thrust her muzzle into my hand as we hurried away from the reek and mire of massacre.
Travelling by night, we returned to the Hawk Cliffs in roundabout ways so it took ten days to sight Lake Top, and my lame leg was dragging. The animals fed and watered, safe from the raging sun, the dogs on watch around them, I babbled the story to Old Hagar’s picture looking down from the wall of the Painted Cave.
“I wanted to see Tara so much, I didn’t unload the donkeys. I left the animals with the other dogs, and we ran across the
Swapping Ground. I remember grinning down, at my feet, thanking them for carrying me to Tara. In a moment I would see her. I grinned at my hands because they would soon be holding her. My lonely winter was over.”
Jak’s nose had wrinkled, tasting the air. “What is it?” He and Jess led along the narrow track through the tea-tree as Tara called the scrub. There was the usual smell of sulphur and something else from long ago, pungent, cloying, a stink that made my nose wrinkle like Jak’s. No time to stop and think. All I wanted, all I could think of was Tara! Tara!
Jess stopped suddenly so I tripped. I went to growl, but she whimpered. Hackles up, ears back, scared, ready to fight or run. I tried to shove Jak out of the way, but he snarled and growled, keeping between me and the source of that stench. From the boiling pools of the Metal People, steam ghosted. And – black against its white – smoke shouldered, a noisome, greasy smoke. It must be the Metal People’s forges that Dinny had described, that I had never been allowed to see. I didn’t know red-hot iron stunk so.
Prompted by the reek a memory returned of that same smell, the same fatty smoke. On the first Journey I made with Old Hagar after our people, the Travellers, left us behind. How, following them, we came to the place called Tayamoot. The massacre. Hagar’s son, Karly Campy, dead. His wives dead. The Travellers dead. The animals dead. Bodies, carcasses half-burned among the ashes of the tents. Plundered by the monsters out of the Western Hills.
Without looking further I knew what had happened to the Metal People. To Dinny, his sons, Sim and Petra. And Tara whom I loved. “Tara?”
I ran to the animals at the Swapping Ground, trotted them back out of sight, swishing a tea-tree branch, hiding their tracks. Left the other dogs to hold them, Tek, and Trick. Het was busy with her pups. Seized my bow from a saddle and ran back to the Swapping Ground with Jak and
Jess, keeping to one side of the track, leaving no footprints.
This time when I passed a broken arrow, I picked it up as I had another years ago. A pattern made for trading with the Salt People. Jak led across the white sand of the Swapping Ground, between boiling pools. Through the belt of scrub I crawled thinking how last time I had followed Dinny and Tara, upright, unarmed, in love.
The thatched roofs – ashes, the working sheds – smouldering ruins. And the bodies. As at Tayamoot, charred among embers. That was the reek I remembered, oily smoke, fatty flames.
Dinny had died protecting the boys. His body lay over theirs. Running now, I saw them but was already turning over untidy mounds of clothes, looking for Tara. They would have taken the young women. That was what the Falcon People did at Tayamoot.
We followed the tracks of the Salt People, the deep footprints of the slaves they used to carry the salt. Now they would be loaded with stolen metal goods.
Among the many footprints I could not find Tara’s, so she must be to the front. No tracks of dogs – the Salt People never kept them. A larger group always moves slower; Jak and I could overtake them. We ran on, reading what we could. Spots of dark blood, small but regular. A deep wound that would not be stanched.
A slave was the first we found. Already the terrible sun had swollen his belly. Discoloured blood seeped from a tear in his side. The Salt People had stripped the load off his back and carried on. The footprints of a doubly-burdened slave were clear.
There was booty thrown aside. I wondered why they were discarding it, then realised it was the slaves trying to lighten their loads. There was blood again, so the Metal People must have injured more of their attackers before being killed.
I kept seeing Tara, her face, prayed she was uninjured.
My mind raced faster than my feet. When they made camp they would tie up their prisoners. I would sneak among them in the dark, rescue Tara. Better to catch up while they were strung out along the track. Get past – single out Tara – kill her captor – hide in the scrub – let the rest go by. If she was in the middle of the band, I would wait my chance.
Stripped of his load, another slave lay dead, shoulders and back calloused where burdens had cut into the flesh. I hurdled his scarred legs.
“And she came running around a bend in the track,” I told Hagar who looked down from the wall of the Painted Cave. “Arms raised to me as she ran. Then another girl, with two men chasing.” My voice broke as I told the rest. “Killed for this!” I held up the green stone fish to the painted old eyes.
Something like a cold hand brushed my head, rested lightly there. A sigh floated through the cave. My leg buckled, and I dropped to the sandy floor and cried, fingers burrowing its sand, shaping it like a body, pressing myself against it, aching, as if it was the living flesh of Tara I tried to hold there. Tara dead.