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Colors of Change   1512.04.06  
Creators: Ellen Million (Writer), Edward Cammarota (Patron)
A routine trip to clean out pipes turns into much more...
Posted: 10/17/12      [1 Comment] ~ 4179 words.
 

"There's more color in the summer," Kativa said with a sigh, dropping her load of wood with a clatter on the growing stack at the edge of the village and sinking to rest next to Tolnam in the waist-high grass.

"Nah," Tolnam said, using the sharp edge of his knife to split a blade of grass and make a mouth reed. "Just more sunlight to see it with." He sheathed the knife and made a rude noise with the grass reed.

Kether offered, "It's the same thing." He dropped his own armful of wood over Kativa's with more control, despite the fact that he had several rounds more than she had. "Color is caused by reflective light, but it's also a property of the object." He crouched down where Tolnam was sprawled, rolling feeling back into one numb shoulder.

The three had learned about reflection, light, and the tedious equations that the Ancients said defined it the summer before. Kativa and Tolnam had merely memorized the strings of letters and modifiers that they were supposed to know, but Kether was genuinely interested in the idea of tiny measurements that no one could even see. He had even dragged his age-mates outside in a thunderstorm, to watch for lightning strikes and count for the thunder, once a raiser had explained the speeds of sound and light.

"You sound like an Elder," Kativa groused, and Tolnam made the blade of grass squeal in agreement. She was ready for a change, felt like one was hanging in the air waiting for them. Would they qualify for the age-set tests this year? She was the youngest of the set, which was more spread out than usual, and she knew that they were all watching her and waiting anxiously for her to mature physically so that they could all finally become adults. She was ready for the change, she thought fiercely.

"Are you guys done?" Kimero asked, coming out of the closest house wrestling a heaping basket of dirty laundry with Slarath.

"This was all they had cut," Kativa said, gesturing to the neat stack of wood rounds. The birch logs would be dried through this summer and into the next, then peeled and used for firewood, to supplement the chunks of peat that warmed their round houses through the long winter.

"Then you can come help the rest of us with the laundry," Kimero said firmly, and she left the basket at Kativa's sprawled feet before turning to flounce back into the house with Slarath who chuckled back over his shoulder at them.

"Uuuuugh," Kativa moaned. "I hate domestic work!"

"Being stuck in Itadesh during the summer means it's all domestic work," Tolnam reminded her, making one last squeak with his grass before tossing it aside. "Come on!" He rose to his feet and offered Kativa a hand while Kether unfolded himself to follow. Kativa took the offered hand where she might have insisted on standing herself just a year earlier, and thrilled at the feeling of his fingers in her own.

They lugged the basket to the water-house, an open structure with a sturdy roof where water was sluiced from far upstream along the river, whenever the season allowed, and spilled into open concrete troughs for use in laundry, crafting and cleaning. The waste-water traveled through open concrete channel downstream far enough that it didn't get into their source, and a pump driven by a big snow-unicorn gave the water some additional head. A series of open pipes took the water other places; to the fields to water the snowies, and to periodic wash stations further into the village. Clever barriers opened and closed to allow water only to where it was being used - very young children were usually dispatched to do this, since it involved several places being opened, and a cleaning run along the pipe to take out any fallen debris or contaminant. Water was heated for various uses, though very little of it was actually warm, just heated enough to take the ice-chill off of it.

The creak of the snow-unicorn in its massive harness was muffled by the music of the falling water and the cheerful chatter of the domestics who were making use of it. The water-house could only be run during the short summer, and after a long winter of moving water solely by hand, it was a welcome relief.

As the domestics directed Kativa and Tolnam to put the contents of their heavy basket into the appropriate trough of water, there was a cry of dismay from across the water-house and the snow-unicorn was whistled to a halt. Kativa took the commotion as an excuse to leave the laundry station and find out what was happening, Tolnam and Kether at her heels.

"There's barely a trickle," Srena was saying in frustration, as two others glared into the pipe coming from the river.

"Something upstream must have clogged," Reqem said, shaking his head. "We'll have to send someone up to clean it out." He looked around abruptly and saw Kativa staring at them from the circle of gawkers. "You, child, run quickly and bear a message to the rangers. They were planning to send out a herd of snowies south this morning, so they'll be saddled and ready to go if we haven't missed them altogether. They can walk the pipe on their way off and clear any debris."

Kativa sprang to obey, and Kether and Tolnam pelted behind her. Tolnam passed her as they ran up to the snow-unicorn pens, to her disgust, and she wasn't quite sure if Kether was letting her stay ahead of him or not; the boys had shot up over the last winter, and Kativa couldn't match their long legs any more. They were all panting by the time they found Birka and Anler, with their snowies already saddled and loaded. Beqash was fussing over some tack next to an unsaddled snow-unicorn.

After several gasping breaths, she explained the situation, Tolnam chiming in where she forgot details. "You'll never be a messenger," he teased her, and Kativa found that stung much more than it ought to; it wasn't as if she had any particular desire to be a messenger.

"You two go ahead," Beqash said gravely to the two younger rangers. "I don't like the look of the strain on this strap. I'll get some new gear and meet you by the southern entrance of the valley."

Birka caught Kativa's eye, and smiled. "Do you want to come with us?" she offered. "You'd have to walk back from the edge of the forest, but it's not far out of the way to bring you back there, and you could walk that in a few hours." She didn't condescend to calling them children, though she could have; Birka and her age-mates had graduated four summers ago, but she remembered what it was like to be not-quite-a-grown-up. Kativa had always liked her; she was almost as amazing as her age-mate Fala, and twice as approachable. Kativa grinned at her and nodded enthusiastically as Tolnam and Kether chorused their delight.

Anler laughed a little ruefully but didn't protest the addition.

Some rangers could swing into a snow-unicorn saddle just using the hand-holds at the edge of the saddle, but Kativa could not hope to reach it, and even Kether and Tolnam were not strong enough yet to pull up that high, so Birka clipped the ladder on, and the age-mates scrambled up behind the young rangers, Kether behind Anler and Tolnam and Kativa on gray Pumice with Birka.

The saddles were not built for multiple riders, but the broad blanketed backs of the snowies gave plenty of space for them to sit close and hold onto the saddle. Kativa and Tolnam sat back-to-back looking off the sides of Pumice between saddlebags, while Kether sat cross-legged behind Anler looking forward. Kativa knew better than to let go, even when Pumice's gait settled into a smooth, ground-eating walk where the trail was wide and level; a fall from a snow-unicorn was not a trivial thing.

The pipe to the water-house did not follow the river at first, but yawned across a field and through the forest in places. Sometimes it was an open wooden pipe suspended on a framework of logs, sometimes a trough lined in stones - sometimes not more than a glorified ditch, and sometimes it was built up on a berm of earth so that it was nearly as tall as a snow-unicorn. In a few places, it was even a closed pipe, punching through a ridge to emerge from the other side.

Kativa could hear snatches of Anler's voice, explaining to Kether the reason the pipes didn't simply follow the river, or come from the river further down, and why they were sometimes tall and sometimes short, but she didn't hear enough of the conversation to make sense of all of it. She was grateful that Birka didn't feel like she had to turn the trip into a lesson, and let them ride quietly and enjoy the early summer breeze and the joy of being out of the village. It was a beautiful day, with the sun high in the sky, and they rode fast enough to leave the bugs behind, but not so fast that the breeze was cool. Kativa tipped her head to the sunlight when they weren't beneath trees, and relished the sound of the snow-unicorn's tack and the feeling of the thick blanket beneath her. She was particularly and unexpectedly aware of the feeling of Tolnam's back against hers.

None of the points in the pipe that they checked held any clogs, though they stopped and removed token amounts of debris a few times.

"It must be at the source," Anler said thoughtfully, as they came out of the forest into dense scrabble that thinned out into alpine uplands. They rejoined the river as it flowed, smaller and scrappy, out of foothills of the mountains to the south. A thread of Others hung low above them, and all five of them looked at it thoughtfully before determining without words that it was a safe distance away. It was pretty, at this range, but not threatening. Kativa found herself half-hoping they could watch one make a landstrike - she had never seen an Other touch ground, and thrilled at the idea of having the story to tell her other age-mates.

They had to leave the snow-unicorns at the base of a bluff and scrabble on foot up the narrow path where the big animals couldn't pass. Birka hobbled Pumice; the other unicorn wouldn't wander far from him in the time that they were gone.

Kativa struck off first, full of energy and desire to prove herself, and skittered along the path at the head of the group defiantly. Kether and Tolnam were at her heels, rough-housing good-naturedly as the path narrowed to permit only a single person.

It was harder going than Kativa liked to admit, but she kept ahead of her age-mates by sheer stubborn will and the advantage of being more nimble through the steep areas. Glancing back, she saw that Kether had let Tolnam go first and he was panting several lengths behind her. Birka and Anler were much further back, pacing themselves more sensibly along the steep trail. To one side, the bluff dropped away to the river below, which threw itself in a roaring fall from the hilltops ahead. The open pipe that mimicked their path and should have been taking water to the village was free from debris but had barely a trickle of water; their problem still lay ahead somewhere - probably near the top of the waterfall.

It was cooler as they climbed, and the path fell into the shadow of the opposite face of the tiny canyon rather abruptly. Kativa looked ahead, blinking in the change of light, and saw a nestled patch of early summer ice ahead, sheltered from the sun and nearly invisible on the path. She turned to warn the others, even as her foot found another patch, and it betrayed her.

Startled, slipping, Kativa windmilled, and in the tenthtick it took her heart to beat, she was falling. For a horrified moment, she was sure she was going to fall down the face of the bluff they had just climbed, killing herself for certain, and just as the idea of death filled her mind, she struck a shelf of rock just below the path, landing on one out-stretched arm. She sucked in a shaky breath, and looked up gratefully to find she had only fallen a few feet from the path - Tolnam and Kether were looking down at her in alarm and Birka was calling a frightened question as she caught up with them from below.

"Watch the ice," Kativa called ruefully, when she had breath for it. She was stupid beyond belief. Clumsy. Oafish. She was probably going to have ugly purple bruises for a tenday. But least she wasn't dead. Kether and Tolnam were reaching down to help her up, and she thought she might finally be able to move again, breath in her lungs again.

She sat up completely before the pain caught up with her, shooting through her left arm like a hot brand. Dizzy with agony, she managed to say, "I've broken my arm," feeling more stupid than ever.

She had to repeat herself; though the words sounded loud in her own ears, the rush of the river nearby and the wind snatched it away.

Birka blew out like an impatient snow-unicorn, and then Anler was there, too, frowning down at Kativa like she was a misbehaving infant. "We'll have to splint it until we can get her to Dlameda to set it," Anler said grimly, and Kativa was mortified. He and Birka would never let her tag along on a trip out of the village again, probably. The young ranger sent Kether and Tolnam scrambling down the bluff to cut appropriate sticks, and he and Birka carefully crawled down onto the ledge with her, testing its sturdiness as they came.

"Definitely broken," Birka confirmed soberly. Though she probed the break gently, it still brought stars to Kativa's vision, and she felt sick. She bit back the nausea... the last thing she needed to do now was spew all over them to seal her indignity. She looked up instead, focusing on the Others that trailed overhead, nearer now that they had climbed up towards them. They moved so slowly, like drowsy clouds, that it was difficult to see which way they traveled, and they matched the sparkles in Kativa's vision. She'd always thought of them as white, or glittering white, but this close, they were like oil, with many colors swirling in them. One of them had peeled away from the main stream and was much closer than the others from its stream, but it was still a safe, lazy distance away, and appeared, after some study, to be moving away and up.

It seemed like a ridiculously long time before Kether and Tolnam came panting back with fresh willow branches trimmed to the right length. Anler approved of their handiwork, to Kativa's envy - why couldn't she be the one doing something right for once? The two rangers bent carefully over the task of wrapping the arm to Kativa's chest, utilizing two scarfs, Anler's sling and Birka's long-sleeved over-tunic. Kativa concentrated on not being sick, gritting her teeth until her jaw ached with it. At some point, Tolnam had to stop watching, and Kether's face looked decidedly ashen when Kativa could focus her eyes again. Her neck ached from trying not to cry out and to stay still.

Scrambling the short length back up the bluff to the path was agonizing, and Kativa tasted blood by the time they had wrestled her up to the footpath, though she wasn't sure what she'd bitten.

"We have to go finish clearing the pipes," Anler said. "It's not far to the source from here, so it won't take long. Will you be all right sitting here?"

"I'll stay with her," Kether offered. For once, Kativa was glad that Tolnam, looking decidedly ill, didn't offer to stay. Once the other three had trotted up out of sight, she sagged against Kether's shoulder. He didn't say anything, only put an arm gingerly around her and gently kept her upright.

It wasn't a sound that startled Kativa some time later, nor a smell, exactly, but something changed in the air around her as she gritted her teeth against the throbbing pain in her arm. She ignored it at first, but it built up in her head like the pressure before a storm, or the way the air in a house changed when a door was opened. She looked up, finally, half-expecting to see a storm cloud, and fixed her eyes on the Other that was still drifting above them.

"It's changing direction," she blurted, without really understanding why. Something about the way it winked at her, or the way the light around it changed, the way the light had changed when she stepped into the shadow where the ice lurked.

"What do you mean?" Kether asked, puzzled in his placid way.

"The Other," Kativa struggled up, and Kether quickly gave up trying to keep her still and helplessly assisted her to her feet.

"It's not doing anything," Kether said, after staring up at it a long moment. "It's going that way," he finally decided, pointing away.

But panic was rising in Kativa's throat, and an icy terror with no rationale was driving her. She grabbed, one-handed, for her sling, and couldn't twist enough to pull it from her belt. "Give me your sling," she demanded of Kether.

Kether looked back blankly. "Kativa," he said haltingly. "You should sit down. You might have hit your head..."

"Give me your sling!" Kativa repeated, more forcefully, and Kether did, even as he tried to calm her.

"Look how far away it is," he said soothingly. "It's not a threat," he insisted. "I'm not even sure you can shoot that far. You don't want to waste metal..."

Propelled by pain and fear, Kativa awkwardly went through the process of fitting a metal pellet into the pouch of the sling one-handed and stepped back to get room to swing, only remembering at the last moment to look down and watch for the patch of late ice that had first caused her fall.

The pain of the motion was a surreal cascade of sensation, and Kativa found a calm center to the storm in her head as she spun the sling into action. It was so far away, such a tiny target in the sky, with no trees or rocks to provide scale and depth of vision. Adrenaline gave her single useful arm more strength than she expected, and the little shot of metal went spinning away towards her target. It was a wild shot; her balance was precarious, with one arm strapped to her midsection and her feet too close together on the narrow path. Kether's sling handle was odd in her hand, and she despaired of hitting the glittering Other... even as the metal shot slipped right through the center of it and destroyed it in a crazy wash of unworldly sound.

"You hit it!" Kether said in astonishment. A cry from above made Kativa look around and see that Tolnam and the rangers had witnessed her shot as well. Her momentary feeling of triumph was washed away in the nausea that followed, and she fell to her knees to be ignominiously sick over the edge of the trail.

"A strange time to be practicing your sling," Anler said, clambering down the path to them. "I would have called that a waste of metal, to be sure."

Kativa righted herself again and wiped the worst of her indignity away, wondering if he sounded disapproving.

"It was an amazing shot," Birka said peacefully. "I'm not sure I would have tried it."

"A lucky shot," Tolnam said, but what sense Kativa could spare from the agonizing pain was pleased to note that he said it admiringly. Maybe it was only jealousy - only a few people ever got the chance to kill an Other!

"She heard it change," Kether said soberly, and there was a surprised silence that made Kativa want to kick him in the ankle. She wasn't sure enough of her balance yet to try it.

"I think," she amended. "I don't know. It was... maybe I hit my head."

They were all looking upward then, everyone but Kativa, trying to decide if the slow-moving stream of Others was moving in any new direction.

"It doesn't look like it's changed," Birka said reluctantly, after they'd all stared at the sky long enough to put cricks in their necks and Kativa was trying to decide if she was too proud to beg that they could just go back to the village now and get something to stop the pain that was burning through her whole arm.

Anler murmured agreement with her, and Tolnam shrugged.

"It was probably nothing," Kativa muttered.

Kether didn't say anything - he rarely did, and they all turned to make their way back down the bluff and return to the village.

The trip down the face of the hill was agonizing. Kativa found that one of her knees was burning, though not as badly as her arm, and her hip was sore from the fall. Every rough step was another log on the fire of her arm. By the time she had gotten to the bottom of the bluff, she had completely forgotten the excitement of the Other and only longed to get back to Itadesh, lie down and not move for a while.

It was getting late in the day already, but the sun remained high along the horizon, and Kativa knew it would be bright through the entire night. She stood at Pumice's feet while Birka and Anler debated the efforts of rigging her a travois, or trying to lift her up on his back. Finally, she said wearily, "I'll just walk. It won't hurt less to ride anyway."

So they walked back towards the village, Anler riding ahead. Tolnam and Kether walked on either side of her, Birka just behind, whistling at Pumice to keep him from crowding them too much. Kativa was barely aware of them and the cheerful conversation they tried to keep up for her sake, muffled in a haze of misery. They took a more direct route back than the pipe traveled, but when they crossed its path, she was mildly pleased to see that water was cheerfully flowing in it again.

Long before they should have expected Anler to return, there was a commotion through the trees and the greeting cries of snowies to Pumice. Pumice returned the calls, threatening to deafen the walkers, and before Kativa could so much as blink at the oncoming crowd, she was the focus of a small group of villagers, clucking over her arm as Birka was gravely explaining her fall and the clearing of the pipes. Tolnam, bursting with the news, finally interrupted her, blurting, "She killed an Other! Shooting with a broken arm!" Kativa was still wondering why the villagers had come out so far to meet them and it was a blurry moment before she realized that Tolnam was talking about her. She blushed.

"She thought she heard something," Kether said quietly from her side, and the ripple of amazed silence that caused seemed rather more significant than his statement ought to have caused.

"Why were you out this far to meet us?" Birka chose that moment to ask Beqash. "We weren't that late to our meetingplace."

Grimly, Beqash said, "Marda heard a change in Otherweather. We're gathering up everyone who was outside Itadesh and warning them."

Kativa felt a chill creep up in her throat like a hoarfrost crept down the outside of the sauna in winter. Beside her, she could feel Tolnam and Kether both startled. Anler gave a low whistle and Birka laughed lightly, the way she sometimes did when she was surprised.

Otherweather made currents in the streams of Others like wind made in clouds, but it couldn't be felt like wind, or heard - unless you were gifted with the talent. Old Marda had that gift, but no one else in Itadesh did.

Except, perhaps now, Kativa.

It wasn't just the pain in her arm or her staggering exhaustion that made Kativa feel sick and made all the colors of the forest seem to jump in intensity. She didn't like the way the other rangers looked at her, or the stiffness of her age-mates at her side. She let Beqash hoist her up onto Pumice with defeat, barely noticing the pain that seemed a deep part of her now.

Everything was changing, she thought, and Kativa wasn't ready for it at all.

Author's Notes

I boxed myself into this story through a series of references, mostly in Mushrooms, which was the first Torn World story I ever wrote! This was enormously fun.


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