7280 words, short story
Witch of the Weave
Skink changed direction toward a knot of weave that loomed ahead. She sailed easily between the withies dangling from the tunnel ceiling, moving with a speed and agility I could never hope to match.
“Go around,” I protested as I stumbled along the fern-choked floor after her. “It’s easier!”
As usual, she ignored me.
It had been days since we abandoned the Motherman. Days since his vast body had collapsed into the sea of flesh-eating mist surrounding the plateau. Days spent getting used to the wide-open spaces around us and the strangely solid ground beneath our feet. Fortunately there was still weave scattered upon this new landscape; giant tubes that served both as shelter and passages through which Skink could swing.
She paused before the huge knot, a dense tangle of withies easily twice my height that hung suspended in the middle of the tunnel. It reminded me of the Motherman’s heart, though it was tiny in comparison to that great organ, and motionless. As Skink delved through its outer folds, I called up to her, “What you looking for?”
She didn’t answer, face crinkled in concentration, but it wasn’t long before she gave a cry of triumph and her hand reappeared out of the tangled weave, clutching what looked like a huge black spider. It was a weaver. Similar to the ones in the Motherman, and just the same as those, it appeared dead, or so deeply comatose it might as well have been. I frowned up at her. “You know we can’t eat those, right?”
“Not eating, Percher. Testing.”
But she was done communicating with me. She slid down a ropelike withy to the floor and leaned over her prize, pushing and pulling and squeezing until there was a loud crack. A circular plate split from the weaver’s knobbly carapace to reveal a shiny compartment within. I edged closer to get a better view.
“What is it? What’s inside?”
But Skink was not looking at the opened weaver, but at her hand. She hissed. The weaver tumbled from her grasp like some hairy-legged, poisoned fruit. I saw a bright splash of blood. A sharp edge on the weaver’s body had caught her palm and forefinger.
“Are you all right?”
Despite the blood, the cut seemed slight to me, but Skink cradled her hand, all earlier cheer erased. “Can’t swing. Not until this heals. It’ll keep splitting open, get infected.”
I eyed her skeptically, but the more I thought about it the more I realized she was right. She needed her hands to be able travel, as well as for everyday tasks. Her weak and twisted feet were useless over any distance.
“I’ll carry you.”
Skink’s face hardened. “No more carrying, Percher.”
I glanced through the tube’s woven wall. It was late. Outside, night was gathering. It wouldn’t be long before it was dark, sooner within the weave than without. “Time to stop and rest, then. Hand will be better in the morning.”
I ignored her injured tone. I knew she was more upset with herself than anything else, and not usually one to dwell on hardships. I concentrated on collecting fronds of weave and fern suitable for tonight’s bedding.
When I came back with the last armful, Skink was already crouched in a makeshift nest. She nodded toward the tunnel snaking beyond the knot. “There is something out there. Waiting. I can sense it in the weave.”
“More dead weavers. More dead everything.” I could no longer hold back my own growing sense of despair. I had been trying to ignore it for days, for Skink’s sake, but the deepening gloom, her injury, the constant hunger and discomfort we endured—it was taking its toll. Yes, we had survived the Motherman’s collapse. Yes, this strange new land allowed us a meager existence. But what were we heading toward, and why? As far as I knew, Skink and I were the only living people left in the world. How long could we expect to survive? Sometimes it felt like we were traveling for no other purpose than to distract ourselves from the grim reality of our situation.
“No. Something out there. The weave . . . it has a direction.”
“There is . . . intention. Grown stronger the more we have come this way.”
I frowned at her serious expression, no clue what she what was talking about.
She picked up the dropped weaver with her uninjured hand and began to inspect it again.
“Why break it?” I asked. “There’s no good meat in those things.”
She didn’t answer, but carefully placed the tips of her fingers inside the weaver’s exposed, iridescent cavity. She closed her eyes and stayed like that, silent and still, for many moments.
“No good, Percher.” She cast aside the broken weaver, her expression unreadable in the growing dark. “Test failed.”
I woke, bewildered, to screams. I had been dreaming of long hair dangling over my face, lithe arms around the back of my neck. But reality was quite different.
Skink was clutching her head, her fingers frantically combing her mop of hair.
“Get it out! Get it away!”
By the faint glow of the predawn gray light penetrating the weave around us, I could tell it was past the darkest part of the night, but I could still barely see in the gloom. “What? What is it?”
The discarded weaver, miraculously reanimated, was scuttling over Skink’s head. Its exposed interior cast an odd, silvery light on her distraught face. Before I could reach her, Skink managed to scoop the creature away. It flopped and jerked where it landed, trying to right itself in a bed of weave.
I snatched it up, ignoring the prickle of revulsion as its spiky limbs clenched tight around my fist. Too late to worry about whether it could sting or bite. For something the size of a child’s plaything, the little weaver was surprisingly strong. It twisted and bucked in my grip, struggling to pull itself away. I searched for something to smash it with; a rock, or a stick—but there was nothing. Only my hands. I lifted it up, ready to throw it as far into the tunnel as I could, but Skink grabbed my arm. “Percher, wait!”
She thrust out her hand, the one with the cut, palm upright. “Look! Look what it did.”
It was a moment before my eyes could refocus in the gloom, and at first I didn’t understand what I was meant to see. The wound on her hand was still there, a dark gash extending from the base of her thumb to her forefinger . . . but something about it was different.
I peered closer, the weaver still struggling in my own hand.
Skink’s wound was neater.
A caterpillar trail of stitches left in the flesh.
We slept fitfully for the remainder of the night. When the light from the sky became too bright to ignore, Skink rolled her back to it and declared she had a headache. She held the weaver protectively in her hand—it had crawled back to her earlier and she had let it—where it lay motionless apart from an occasional spasm of its long legs.
I resigned myself to a day or three anchored around Skink’s curled up body. She had always had headaches, even back in the Motherman; it’s just that I could ignore them whilst she holed up with Ma or Da. They had always protected her from the worst criticisms of our tribe. If Skink had one of her debilitating headaches, Da would order out foraging parties or give some other excuse to hold up climbing for a day or two. We hardly noticed, glad enough to stay in one place for a time. But now it was just Skink and me, and her condition was impossible to ignore.
The first time I had woken, ready to go, and Skink had instead rolled over and covered her eyes, groaning, I had thought she was just tired. I had felt momentary triumph, that at last I wasn’t the one lagging behind for a change, the one complaining about sore feet after hours of stumbling over rolling hurdles of weave, Skink gaily sailing above me. But my feeling of superiority quickly turned to guilt and worry. She tried to speak but instead only vomited. It was obvious she wasn’t feigning or being lazy; she was truly ill. I worried she might have eaten something she shouldn’t, something that had infected her with dark rot, poisoned her, but she was hoarsely dismissive of my concern. “It’s the same as always, Percher, all my life. Just leave me be. In darkness. Silence.”
So on those days she was ill I would forage for mushrooms and snails and water amongst the tunnel’s dank floor, groping through its undulating landscape of weave and mud and broad-leafed undergrowth. Sometimes I would find a gap in the tunnel wall and look out into the unobstructed sky and open spaces beyond, feel the wind and sunlight on my skin. Until it became too much and I would feel sick myself. Retreating, shuddering, back into the welcome confines of the weave. I couldn’t understand my fear. I used to sit on the Motherman’s skin, it seemed miles above the mist and within the sky itself, the hazy horizon arching before me. How could it be that openness filled me with such terror now? It made no sense, but knowing that didn’t help my queasy stomach settle or my thumping heart race any less.
It was on those days, absent of Skink’s company, with the weave feeling at once like a cage as much as a protection, that I especially missed the others in the tribe: Ma, Da; Wren, Feather, and Dart, all of them. Even, sometimes, my brutish eldest brother Broc, who had almost killed us when we tried to escape the burning Motherman. Sometimes, even more than the people, I missed the silent, hard-edged company of the library; Da’s book collection that I used to carry in a great sack upon my back, and in whose moldering pages I used to immerse myself, transported to a world long lost to the mist and the weave. But the books were all gone now, as were all the people of the tribe. Victims of the fire, of the swarming razorbugs, of the rot and the mist. I told myself I would have to get used to it. Adapt. Survive.
Such days were bad.
Today was worse. Every natural rustle and crunch around me sounded suspicious, jarred my nerves. What had Skink meant, that something was out there? Were we unintentionally trespassing on some other tribe’s territory, like we had with the clevers in the head of the Motherman? Was some strange, hostile face about to break out from the bracken and scream at me? Eventually I shook off the feeling, and after spending most of that morning foraging in the tunnel bottom around the knot, I returned with a handful of mushrooms, slugs, and fleshy tubers rooted out from the dark wet soil. It was tough trying to find enough to eat, especially as we had no means of starting a fire or any way to store what little we managed to find. We had fled the Motherman with no time to grab any equipment—only the clothes we wore, and even those were ragged now, and torn.
Skink had stirred by the time I returned. I hoped it was a good sign; perhaps we’d only lose that day instead of the next couple too. She was sitting up, inspecting her cracked-open weaver. It lay on its back on her injured palm, and its legs were, one by one, gently curving in to touch her other hand, as if in obeisance. I shook my head, unable to fathom her interest in the thing.
“Stop playing with it,” I said. “Get rid of little creeper.”
She glanced across at me with a glint in her eyes. “Pet.” She upturned the weaver and placed it on top of her head. Creeper used its legs to hold itself in place atop her hair. She laughed. “Hat!”
“You mad.” I turned away, shuddering.
Something landed on my back. Sharp-tipped legs scuttled toward my skull. I seized the thrown weaver and hurled it away.
Skink’s laughter followed me as I marched away in disgust. “What you afraid of?”
She was still laughing when I stopped, heart leaping in my chest, at the sight of a line of people standing on the tunnel floor only yards away. The sharpened sticks in their hands pointed toward us.
“You.” An old man at the front jabbed his spear at Skink. “Like Meghra. Patternmaker. Witch!” His words were heavily accented, but unmistakable.
The others murmured in agreement and shuffled back warily. I made a quick count: three men, two woman, three I could not tell. Was it the whole tribe, or were others hiding in the weave? They looked strong and well fed, dressed in tanned and stitched fur. Elaborately painted marks swirled over their faces and shoulders, skillfully executed bright patterns of blue and green and yellow.
Skink slowly stood, unsteady on her legs. Creeper had clambered back onto her body and now balanced on her shoulder. “Who’s Meghra?”
“Witch! Witch!” The old man waved his hands, fingers spread like claws. His rheumy gaze could not decide between settling on Skink, or me, or scanning the undergrowth around us.
He seemed terrified.
I made a step forward, my hands raised and open. “We don’t mean to trespass on your land. We are lost. Hungry.”
The man raised his spear and I took a step back again. He was too far away for me to rush and grapple, but too close for him to miss if he had any strength or skill at throwing.
“Where you from?” He jabbed—but did not hurl—the spear toward me.
“From the Motherman. Of the heart tribe.”
Skink elaborated when the old man showed nothing but further confusion, “From the mist. We used to live out . . . ” she waved vaguely in the direction we had come from, the edge of the plateau, so many days ago “ . . . there. Beyond the land. In a giant made of weave.”
“No one survives the mist. No one. Only the patternmakers.”
I backed further away. I did not know how to ease the man’s bewilderment and fear. “We will leave.”
“No.” A hurried, whispered discussion between the man and the others. He advanced. “Are there others? Like you?”
I shook my head. Images of Ma and others falling into the mist. “Only us.”
“Then you stay. You and witch. Food for news.”
I hesitated, exchanged a glance with Skink. “Food?”
The man nodded, lowered his spear. “Yes, come. Tell us about mist, how you survived. Please, you stay. Food for news.”
The old man replied to me, his hand outstretched. But his eyes kept shifting—with barely hidden fear or desire, I could not tell which—always back toward Skink.
The man said his name was Idran, and his village was not far outside the tunnel. Skink managed to stagger the short distance, though she leaned heavily on me for support. I knew it pained her, knew that she was still suffering from her headache, but her face was set in its familiar determined way. I doubted if Idran or the others realized how difficult it was for her.
The village was nestled in a small valley between the weave tunnel sprawled across its western border and a saddleback ridge dividing a line of high hills to the east. It bustled with more people than I had ever seen before, more than the most populous tribe in the Motherman; possibly over a hundred villagers or more. They had stripped weave from the tunnel and braided the torn withies into globular, nest-like dwellings with circular entrances and windows. These pods clustered in circles and rows and stacks around a communal space into which we were led. We were quickly surrounded by children and yipping little fur-covered creatures I was unfamiliar with. At the center of the space, a pond and a series of firepits, at least one of which was in use.
I was immediately attracted by the warmth of the flames and the smell of meat roasting. The skinned and gutted carcass of some large, four-legged animal was being roasted on a spit near the piled embers.
“For us?” I asked, meaning it to be a joke, as it was obvious the meat had been cooking for hours. But Idran nodded and motioned with his painted hands. “Yes, yes. Come. Eat.”
A slice was cut from the creature’s haunch with a sharp stone knife and the steaming hot meat was passed to me by a wary looking boy. I tore the hunk easily in half and shared it with Skink. Rich yet lean meat, of a kind I had never tasted—not as tasteful and as textured as heart meat, but delicious all the same after so many days of only raw river meat, bugs, and tooth-achingly tough roots.
“Please.” Idran squatted on a richly-patterned woolen blanket on the ground near the firepit, indicating we should do the same. The other villagers kept their distance, fearful or disdainful, I could not be sure. “Tell us about yourselves.”
Skink did most of the talking as I greedily ate. It was odd, hearing her like that, the villagers and their children gathering around. She had a clear, beguiling voice, I hadn’t really noticed before. Perhaps the children in the audience brought it out in her, their greasy faces rapt. She spoke of the Motherman, how the lightning had set him on fire, how we had nowhere to escape but to keep climbing toward his clever-haunted head, how there she had made the giant walk, and how we had found this land rising from the all-encompassing ocean of mist. Her hands were in constant motion, adding emphasis or effects or occasionally becoming transformed wholesale into characters. I was as fascinated as the children.
Eventually she came to us escaping the Motherman, and the current point in our journey. “I tell you about us,” she said, leaning back and straightening her arms, cracking her knuckles. “Now you tell us about you. About Meghra the witch.”
The villagers glanced amongst themselves and shifted uncomfortably. The children were ushered away. Idran stood. “Is late. You rest. Tomorrow we will talk again.”
Skink bristled. “Not fair!”
The old man hesitated, then sat again. The other villagers, however, quickly drifted away, with many a wary backward glance.
“Meghra used to be like us.” Idran jabbed a grease-slicked thumb at his chest. “But different. Even when young.” He pointed at Creeper, still mounted on Skink’s shoulder. “She was always interested in weave and stories of the patternmakers. For days she would be lost in the tunnel there, exploring and playing with the withies, bending, shaping, making shapes. Then one day she was gone and did not come back. Perhaps she had gone to the old city.” He waved beyond the pass that loomed above the village to the east. “We thought her lost, and that was that.”
“But then she came back. And she was changed.”
An old woman who had still been listening nearby leaned forward. “Meghra takes.” She made a circular gesture above the top of her head and nodded. “She feeds. Feeds on us, now.”
A man beside the woman pulled her back, obviously unhappy she had spoken. He glared at me with such an intense mixture of fear and loathing I had to look away. When I glanced back up, he and the woman were gone.
I asked, “Where she now, this Meghra?”
Idran pointed back toward the pass again. “Stays in her cave, weaves her strange patterns. Until she hungers.” He stood. “No need to worry. She does not come to the village anymore.” He nodded at a weave pod nearby. “This yours tonight. You safe. Tomorrow we talk more.” He joined a huddle of villagers that looked like they were determined to strip the last remnants of meat from the roasted carcass.
We squeezed through the round opening of the pod Idran had indicated. A straw mattress lay on the floor, surrounded by stacked empty baskets that stank of river meat. But it reminded me of the nests we sometimes built in the Motherman, cozy and private. Skink collapsed on the bed.
“World is bigger than we thought.” Her voice was soft.
“Too big.” I eyed the wide-open horizon from the doorway. Night had long fallen, and the stars and a sliver of moon glittered in the clear sky. I shivered. Despite the firepits and the shelter of the pod, the air here was cooler than in the tunnel. I bent down to investigate a pile of blankets in one of the baskets.
“I have to meet her,” Skink said.
“Who?” But I knew who.
“This witch. Meghra.”
“Why?” But I knew why.
“She’s what I’ve been sensing in the weave, I’m sure of it. Or if not, she knows what it is. Perhaps she found the patternmakers.”
“They’re just a story.”
She arched her eyebrow. “Like the clevers? Like this land we stand on?”
I knew from the determined set of her mouth there was nothing I could say to change her mind. And . . . probably she was right. So far we had been crossing the weave without aim; only to move away from the cliffs and the mist and to find enough to eat, surviving day to day. But now we had new purpose. Or at least Skink had, and I knew better than to argue. At the very least it seemed that this new tribe—with its intricately woven pods and penned livestock and plentiful food and water—were ready to tolerate us. Yet it seemed odd, the strange mixture of celebration and revulsion I had seen. Hushed whispers, furtive looks, children pointing. They seemed glad of our arrival, or at least curious, but many also seemed to turn away from us. Too soon, I guessed, to understand the internal politics of this tribe . . . and perhaps we would have treated strangers much the same, back in the Motherman . . . another pair of mouths to feed, a burden until we proved ourselves otherwise.
I stared at Creeper, huddled obediently beside Skink. It munched on spare weave shards. Was it my imagination or had it grown? The creature’s knobbly thorax was bigger than my fist now.
“You are a witch,” I said, as I threw Skink a blanket from the pile.
She glanced at me sharply. “Been called worse.”
Spurned by most of our own tribe, and abandoned as a child by her original one. She must have heard plenty of insults in her lifetime. I immediately regretted my words.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean it that way . . . ”
“I meant, I wasn’t serious. I . . . I’m sorry.”
She glared at me and snapped the blanket in the air before letting it settle over the mattress. Creeper bunched its legs as if it were about to launch itself at me.
There was no room in the hut other than to sit or lie down beside Skink. I considered leaving but she patted the straw next to her. “Come on.”
I watched the light of the fires dying outside through the weave of the blanket covering the entrance. Enjoying the warmth of Skink’s stiff body beside mine. Slowly, sensing her and myself relax.
I tried not to think about how much a fool I was. Tried not to worry about Idran, and Meghra, and being at the mercy of total strangers. To think about the unyielding ground beneath me and the wide-open sky and blazing stars pinwheeling directly above. I would have to get used to leaving the weave behind, I knew that. Just . . . not quite yet, surely.
Just as I was finally drifting off to sleep, Skink nudged me.
“They’re right, you know,” she whispered.
Confused, half asleep, “’Bout what?”
“I am a witch.”
We slept in, both of us, strangely comforted by the sounds of the village awakening around us: children playing, shouting, crying; animals barking and braying, chickens screeching, adults chiding. The sounds of family. The sounds of life, and of belonging.
I didn’t know how I felt about becoming a member of another tribe. It’s not something I had ever thought of before. Would these villagers, with their painted skin and dour manners, even want us to join them? Or would they only usher us on? It seemed they had plenty to eat, and plenty room. Perhaps we would be welcome, once we got to know each other.
Drowsing beside Skink, her hand inadvertently on mine, not wanting to move and wake her even though painful tingles spread through my arm from it being in one position too long, I felt a confusing mixture of contentment and melancholy. The world and the people we had known had been brutally stripped away, and yet here we still were, alive and together, survivors of it all. If only Ma and Da had been able to see us now.
There was the sound of running footsteps and rapping on the side of the hut. A young boy’s sweaty face peered around the entrance blanket. “Breakfast?” He offered a pair of stacked bowls and made pouring motions with an earthenware jug trembling in his other hand. I took the bowls and held them as he poured a pale liquid from the jug. “Drink, drink,” he urged. “Is sweet.”
I took a suspicious sip. Sweet and sour, fermented milk mixed with honey, perhaps. “Is good,” I said to the boy, who smiled in what seemed like relief. He ducked his head and quickly ran from the hut. I handed the other bowl to Skink, who stood and gulped its contents down.
“Today we find out more about this Meghra,” she said.
I sighed and finished off the last of the milk. Despite the initial sweetness, there was a bitter, chalky aftertaste and the inside of my mouth and my lips tingled. “Thought you might say that.” I stumbled suddenly, and looking down I saw I had almost trodden upon Creeper.
“Skink, you need to stop feeding him,” I said. The weaver had grown bigger overnight. Its body was almost the size of my head, its legs as long as my forearm.
“There’s something they’re not telling us,” Skink said, frowning. She swayed, unsteady on her feet. “I think,” she passed a hand over her eyes. “I think . . . ”
“What?” I blinked. “What d’you think?” She seemed to blur before me.
“Think they lied.”
Her legs crumpled beneath her. I tried to catch her, but my arms seemed heavier and larger than the Motherman’s. I could not move, could not turn, even as the hut’s straw-covered floor tilted upward and slammed me in the face.
I watched, an observer trapped in the cave of my own skull, as Creeper jumped upon Skink’s fallen body. She twitched but otherwise did not move, as its legs and feelers danced over her flesh.
The hut’s entrance blanket was pulled aside. Light and then shadow spilled over us. A sandaled foot kicked Creeper into the corner, where it fell into one of the baskets, curled up as if dead.
Unable to move, every moment sinking deeper into a sickly darkness, I was helpless as we were seized and dragged out of the hut.
My lips and mouth, still numb, slowly returned to life.
Idran’s swirl-covered face hovered into view. Fat black flies circled his head. He avoided looking into my eyes as he checked my bonds were tight. (They were.)
“Rather you than us, my unlucky friend.”
The journey had been a blur of rough jolts and hard, ever-changing grips upon my body; chattering voices, half-snatched conversations—“Such a blessing”—“Andar will be relieved”—“Still think we should save one ’til later.” Bright sky and dark ground lurched before my eyes and only served to sicken me more. Eventually the movement and sound reached a crescendo and then retreated, and only then, when I could only hear a single set of crunching footsteps and the soughing of the rotten-smelling wind, did I manage to turn my head and look around me. Then I wished I hadn’t.
I was tied upright to a thick pole or stave of some kind. Skink similarly bound a little ahead of me. We were outside the village, up the cinder slope toward the pass. Sharp-ridged, bare hills rose to either side.
Around us, bodies piled carelessly in the dirt. Crows and worms rooted amongst the sticklike bones and leathery bags of skin. Teeth-lined gaping mouths, slitted nostrils and eyes. The tops of heads missing, sliced open, empty as old eggshells, lined by blowflies.
“Meghra will come soon,” Idran said.
I struggled to find words to express my rage and fear. Only a mewling, groaning sort of noise emerged.
“Do not think too badly of us, stranger.” Idran remained impassive. “If we do not offer tribute, then twice as many are taken. If we run, we are hunted. We have no choice, as you see.”
Skink squirmed in her ropes to look over her shoulder. “No worry, Percher.” Her words still slurred. “Not afraid. Me witch, too.”
Idran gave a sad nod. “Maybe so. Who knows? If we could stop Meghra we would. But we cannot.”
With a final vicious tightening of the knots around my wrist, he walked out of my field of vision and was gone.
I shouted after him. Cursed him and his tribe. It was as futile as insulting the brainless dead at our feet.
It did not stop me.
Skink hung limp upon her post. Silent. Waiting.
Only wisps of cloud scarred the brightening sky, but the earth was dark here, the rock-strewn soil densely packed, with little vegetation. I still found the sight and sensation of the flat, nonwoven surface fascinating and disturbing. Such binary distinction between ground and sky, with hardly any degree of ambiguity or complexity; you were either on the ground, or, with vastly greater difficulty, above or below it, nothing in between. No opportunity to burrow down, shimmy into crevices, find shelter. It made me queasy, thinking about how exposed I was, how far I would have to run to hide from any threat . . .
The burn from my bound hands reminded me even that was no longer an option.
Skink’s next words only deepened the sick feeling in my stomach.
As one, the crows and flies swarming over the abandoned flesh of the dead rose into the sky and circled away.
A dark sun rose over the crest of the ridge. At first I could not properly resolve its shape or understand its scale, as it writhed and lurched upon its many-jointed limbs toward us. Then I realized it was a face, a head, carried upon giant, insect-like legs that splayed from a trunk-like neck. As it crawled closer its size became clear: easily four times my height, more if you counted the huge mane of snakelike, writhing weave atop it. I frantically pulled and twisted my hands and feet, but Idran’s cursed bonds only cut deeper into my flesh.
“What have we here? New treats?”
To my surprise, the giantess’ voice was that of a frail old woman’s, and no louder. The strange dissonance between the scale of the body and the sound she made only terrified me more. A woven forelimb, like a giant crab’s claw, easily shoved aside the piled corpses. Meghra reared over Skink’s bound form. A huge mesh face peered down at her, all swiveling eyes and cavernous horror of a mouth, cackling, “Different, different, that’s what you are.”
“Leave her alone!” I shouted.
Meghra immediately shifted her attention to me. It was then, as she became my entire darkened world, that I realized her great mass was nothing more than a ghoulish mask, a giant intricate contraption within which the real Meghra lay buried, a hunched old woman deep in the chest of the giant puppet she wore like a costume around her.
She cackled again, a gleeful, evil sound. “No, not you.”
I woke with such a pain throbbing in my shoulders and neck; the oblivion of death was preferable. There was no sign of Meghra, and no sign of Skink. The rope that had tied her to her stave had fallen to the ground, torn and bloodstained. Only the brain-scourged dead surrounded me.
With growing despair I realized my own bonds remained intact, that I was still tied firmly to my pole. I must have passed out, or been hit by one of Meghra’s tentacles. Was she behind me? Was I about to be snatched—or worse, my head peeled open? I twisted and turned, ignoring the pain of moving my neck, but there was only the open sky above me. Eventually I dared to cry out—barely more than a croak, really—but there was no answer.
I had been abandoned, rejected by Meghra. Skink hadn’t been so lucky.
I dangled there for what seemed like an age, alternating between rage and despair. There was no answer to my increasingly desperate cries; only the mocking calls of the returning crows and the soughing of the wind. There was no sign of Idran or the villagers. The cowards.
I spotted dark movement from the corner of my eye and for a moment I feared that Meghra had returned, or perhaps the crows had summoned enough courage to approach me . . . but it was a familiar mixture of jerky and smooth motion.
The weaver crawled over the piled bodies toward me, one limb not working quite right, but still capable of climbing. I was surprised by how glad I was to see this creature. A friendly, familiar presence despite its completely alien nature. The weaver reached my bound feet, and began to climb my legs. I had a sudden moment of doubt. How big and heavy it had grown. What was it doing?
Strong, sharp legs gripped my knees, my thighs, pincers closed round my back—snick, snick. My numbed fingers immediately began to tingle as my hands came free. Snick, snick, my legs, too.
I immediately stumbled down the mound of bodies, my feet catching bony ridges and squelching in unspeakable cavities. When I reached the bare ground I fell to my knees and retched up the remnants of that morning’s treacherous breakfast. The wide-open sky reeled above me, pressed me down into the hard, unrelenting wall of dirt beneath me. I felt crushed between the two. Insignificant, as helpless as an insect.
Swallowing hard, I forced myself to my traitorous feet. Was that how Skink felt, all the time, feeling like the ground would rush up and punch her at any moment?
How long was I out for—surely not long? But there was no sign of anyone on the saddleback ridge apart from Creeper and me. The cowardly villagers had at least the decency not to witness our fate.
Where was Skink? Where had Meghra taken her?
Was she even still alive?
The panic and confusion that threatened to overwhelm me quickly faded. Right before my feet—clear tracks and furrows left in the dirt.
Creeper was already leading the way.
There was a canyon-like depression just over the pass. Not really that far, though it felt it as I staggered beneath the glaring sky. Was it the residual effects of the poison the villagers had fed us that made my head swim so?
Creeper skittered before me, surprisingly fast even with its damaged leg, eager to find its lost mistress.
As we approached the canyon I slowed. My heart pounded. I thought I would be sick again as I crept toward the edge and leaned over, fearing I would peer down and find Skink with her skull already torn open. Expecting to see her, desperately hoping to see her, I was still shocked by what I saw.
At the bottom of the long dried out, half-collapsed gorge, she was there. Upright, swaying, her arms outstretched before Meghra’s giant, hollow face. At first I thought Skink’s hair had grown hugely and billowed out from her head. But it was tendrils from the giantess that were swarming around her skull. Pushing deep into it. Skink’s eyes were shut, but I could see their lids trembling. As if she were dreaming.
Floating up, Meghra’s manic cackle. “What’s in there? What pattern do you hide? Now let me in, child.”
I didn’t stop to think. I ran shouting down the scree-littered slope toward her, no idea what I would do. Would it damage her if I simply tried to tear her free? I didn’t care. Anything to stop her brain being lifted out of her head.
Meghra’s tentacles reared up before me. Before I knew what was happening they had curled around my arms and waist and tightened. My feet were lifted from the ground as if I were no more than a doll. From deep within Meghra’s complex, animated construct of weave, came the old woman’s voice, “There is nothing you can do! She’s mine now.”
“No!” I shouted, even as the grip on me tightened and the breath was crushed out of me. Skink’s eyes flickered open, closed again. Maybe she could still hear me. “Fight her! I know you can!”
Laughter from the old woman and a wordless groan from Skink. Her head lolled beneath the dark crown of tendrils and a suffocating wave of fear and despair swept over me. I was losing her, and my own life was in equal danger.
“You’re stronger than her!” It had to be true. Everything we had been through together, Skink always smarter, always tougher than anyone I knew. “Remember! You moved the Motherman. You made the mountain walk! This—” I waved a temporarily free hand at the grinning giantess. “This is nothing!”
Another moan. But this time Skink’s eyes fluttered open.
“That’s it! Show her!”
A skittering movement across the canyon floor. Creeper, limbs flailing at Meghra’s weave. I didn’t know what it could achieve, but it was at least trying to distract the witch.
The giantess lurched. The ground shook, and the tentacles holding Skink swung wildly. A mewling sound of frustration and fury emerged from Meghra’s mouth, as it twisted in new effort.
Skink’s eyes gleamed with sudden triumph. I knew the look, same as the one when she had made the Motherman walk. The tendrils stretching from Meghra whipped and swayed, as if they were trying to retract but were unable to.
The sound of whip-snapping tentacles and weave tearing filled the air. Meghra was trying desperately now to reverse away from Skink, to release her, but it didn’t seem she was totally in control of her extended body. Withies curled and swung and trembled. The old woman was crying out.
“Stop it! Stop it!”
Waves and ripples, the air cracked with sudden motion. Skink still hung suspended in midair, held by the surging weave, no longer captured so much as borne aloft. A mass of dark withies descended upon Meghra’s head, easily puncturing the fragile outer skin, crashing through to the frail human core.
I could not look as the weave bunched and curled and squeezed . . . until the screaming stopped and the only sound that remained was Skink’s breathing.
All around us Meghra’s mass of weave sagged to ground, as if in relief.
I couldn’t wait to escape the desolate canyon. But Skink kept rummaging amongst the listless weave, ignoring my questions about how she was, whether she was hurt. Briefly I approached Meghra’s crushed body, to check if she were alive or dead, but I quickly retreated when I glimpsed the mess of jutting bones. I kept looking at Skink. Was she damaged? Had Meghra changed her? Physically, apart from bruising that could just as well have been caused by the villagers, she appeared uninjured.
But she kept avoiding my gaze.
Creeper bounded amongst the collapsed withies like a crazed thing, spinning and biting off sections, curling and splaying its limbs as if in excitement. Eventually I lost it as it disappeared beneath the densest mass, its presence only visible as a disturbance on the surface layers.
Confused by Skink’s behavior, fearing that the villagers could return at any moment and become vengeful that their feared witch had been defeated, I climbed back up to the pass.
At the top of the ridge, a glimpse into the large, bowl-shaped valley beyond to the east. Just visible, I thought I spied distant spires and domes clustered on the far side. The view was fascinating, apart from the growing dizziness and sickness as the sky crowded down upon me again. I shielded my eyes, and tried to calm my breathing.
I jumped as I heard Skink’s dragging footsteps behind me. She had finally emerged from Meghra’s wreckage. She squeezed my shoulder as she leaned for balance against me. I tensed and my stomach seemed to flip-flop as she touched me.
“Thank you,” she said. “She had me. I would have been lost.”
I hung my head and shrugged, not knowing what to say. Shoulder tingling. What had I done, really?
“We have to go,” she said, pointing. “To the city. Find the patternmakers.”
“Believe that story?”
“Saw it in her mind, Percher. In her memories. She went there. Learned how to control the weave.”
I frowned. Had a sudden memory of Skink in the brain of the Motherman, exultant as she first made the colossus move. Saw her lifted on Meghra’s weave tentacles, eyes turned back into her head as she probed a way to crush the opponent before her. Truth was, Skink frightened me sometimes. Actually, quite a lot.
“Is that what you want? Control? Like Meghra had?”
“She too hungry. Too . . . damaged.”
I sighed. I didn’t understand her. Couldn’t. “Maybe we should go back to the village. Poison their wells.” My bitter words surprised even me.
“They betrayed us.”
“Wouldn’t we have done the same?”
But I remembered my brother Broc. How often he had called for Skink to be thrown into the mist as an offering to the gods. She was the slowest of us, the weakest, he said. Abandoned by her own tribe and not even a proper part of the family. Ma and Da had always resisted his call, but there had been more than a few of us who had looked at Skink with hard eyes.
Perhaps she was right.
She was still staring at the eastern horizon. “I saw books there, Percher. Many books. A . . . ” She struggled to find the word. “Library. That’s where Meghra went.”
I eyed her twisted leg, her obvious state of exhaustion. As far as I could see, the land between us and the distant city was a flattened, grassy plain. There were only occasional odd struts or stalks of weave; no big hollowed-out tubes or interwoven corridors through which Skink could use her arms to hoist herself.
“It’s a long walk.”
She released her hold on my shoulder and stood alone, wobbly at first. I moved to support her but she pushed me away. “Don’t need to walk.”
A shadow fell over my back, and I turned.
Emerging out of the canyon, a giant, spiderlike creature. I fell back, immediately fearing a reassembled Meghra. Skink’s laughter barely reassured me.
It was Creeper, grown giant, bigger than Skink and I put together.
Skink quickly hoisted herself onto a saddlelike protrusion on the creature’s ridged back. When I hesitated, she stretched down her hand to me.
“Space for two,” she said.