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Out of Steam, Part 4   1520.09.29  
Creators: Ellen Million (Writer)
Malaamig meets more of the northern people.
Posted: 03/25/13      [3 Comments] ~ 1655 words.
 

Birka's reaction to Malaamig's scar was past in a moment, the horror and disgust she must have felt quickly masked, and she strode forward with the blanket to dry him quickly, and rub at his shoulders and hair with it until he firmly took it from her and resumed the task himself. The three exchanged many words, and if Malaamig thought he occasionally recognized one, it was fleeting and lacked context. Anler rose from the water and joined them, dressing swiftly, and Tiren stayed behind, calling orders as he lounged back in the water.

Malaamig was handed clothing similar to the woman's, and clumsily put it on. "My clothing -" he pointed. "I have my own." They insisted that he dress, but Birka seemed to understand, edging cautiously past the dogs and going along the edge of the pond in the direction he pointed. The dogs found that alarming, and swapped the direction that they sat, heads alternating quickly between himself and the disappearing woman. He hadn't put them on guard of the supplies, so they stayed with him, only occasionally voicing their uncertainty with a shallow whine. "All's clear," he reminded them. "It's all right."

Anler was particularly curious about the dogs, and offered them a hesitant gloved hand, palm flat. It was sniffed with curiosity, and Jem's tail wagged slowly.

When he had successfully managed to don the clothing and boots - perhaps Tiren's as the larger of the two men, but still snug and far too short in the arms - he followed Anler, who insisted, "Something far." 'Not,' Malaamig suspected by the encouraging tone. It was the same word that Birka had used when leading the way to the landing.

They climbed a cleared trail up to a shallow ridge above the springs, and then down to a collection of odd, round lumps in the snow. They couldn't have been more than waist-high, Malaamig thought, and he was surprised to see narrow tendrils of smoke from them - real smoke this time. He could smell it now, though it was weak enough to be overpowered by the still-strong odor of sulfur from the hot springs. Tiren called out as they approached, and there were curious calls in reply as a handful of people looked up from tasks they were doing while daylight lasted. Many of them left those tasks to meet them, and Malaamig was an uncomfortable center of attention. He tried not to squirm as they crowded up close - touching him in an unexpectedly familiar fashion, stroking his shoulders and exclaiming to each other in wonder. He ordered the dogs to sit, and several of the people were brave enough to stroke them, as well. Jem remained suspicious, but Obi began panting in approval. Several of the people scurried off to disappear around the snow lumps, and more seemed to bubble up from hidden places. Some of the words jumped clearly out of the jumble of speech, but more did not.

Finally, a child - the first one Malaamig had seen - pushed forward with a scolding speech, and looked up into his face with concern. Not a child, he realized, but a Duurludirj - dwarfish in stature but fully grown. She directed the others away with some authority, and they left him with reluctant touches and speculative chatter.

Anler, obedient to the diminutive woman, led him around to the far side of the mound and she followed, haltingly - was she injured? - to a place where steps had been carved out of the snow down into a hole. A snowcave? But at the bottom, there was a real door, and he was led into a tiny, smokey, dim room. Anler gave him directions he didn't understand, and there was a moment of confusion while he was helped out of his coat and boots. Then a second door was opened, spilling out light, and Malaamig followed Anler up several short steps. Jem stuck close to his side and Obi was at his heels; Anler didn't seem to object to either of the dogs coming in, though he was suitably cautious about crowding them.

The room beyond was arched high, and full of warmth, larger than he expected and spacious compared to the snowcave he had been living in the past month or more. It was dimly lit with a few shallow lamps of what looked like grease, but Malaamig could make out the basic architecture of the place. It was not only part-buried in snow, but actually half-buried in earth as well; the lower walls of the room and the floor was some mix of rock and packed dirt. The upper walls, where they were exposed, were mostly wood; thick logs of it stacked up to a roof that was timbers supported by a center column of what looked like hollow concrete, which acted as a fireplace as well. Between those roof timbers, it looked like woven grasses, maybe sod, and he eyed them hesitantly, trying to figure measurements from what he'd observed coming down the steps. Several feet of snow and grasses would make good insulation, he decided, and the timbers looked sturdy enough to take that weight and more. The room was ringed in sleeping alcoves, sheltered by woven curtains that were drawn away to reveal plump-looking mattresses draped in thick furs.

At the base of the central concrete column, a fire of wood and peat was producing delicious heat; even after the hot soak in the pool it felt like pure bliss, and Malaamig felt exhaustion begin to sink in.

It was the smell that hit him next; a delicious, meaty, spicy smell that turned his mouth into a swamp at once. His stomach growled, and Anler gave a warm laugh. Inside the fire was a thick, earthen pot; Anler reached into this and dipped him out a bowl that steamed and promised chunks of things. Malaamig took it eagerly. No eating utensils were forthcoming, so he drank straight out of it, and was relieved to see that Anler did the same with his own bowl as they sat down on the floor, leaning against the furs hung along the wall. With some hesitation, the very short woman offered bowls for both dogs, who lapped eagerly at them, even as they flinched at the temperature.

It was a delicious soup - floating with meat and things that weren't meat - and it tasted balanced, as none of his own mostly-meat soups had tasted in a very long time, and for the first time in that same very long time, Malaamig ate until he was stuffed, as encouraged by Anler and the tiny woman who introduced herself as Kalitelm. Jem and Obi settled together at one side, at full alert at first, but gradually relaxing enough to chew melting iceballs from their feet and lick each other's ears. By the time he had finished his soup, they were drowsing, though movement from the strange humans would open their eyes.

Kalitelm pressed more water upon him, which Malaamig recognized as wise, and also offered a bowl of a warm white liquid that a sniff identified as some kind of strong milk. Cows, in this climate? Perhaps they had swine; the Mruuna people had a type of large, furred dairy pig that provided them milk. It tasted vile, but Malaamig choked it down anyway, not wanting to give offense. The aftertaste was oddly comfortable.

Several people, including Birka and Tiren, came in while he was still eating. Kalitelm shooed some of them away, and let others stay. Waves of cold, frosted air crept in through the door for as long as it was open, and swirled along the floor for several seconds after the door had been shut each time.

Malaamig tried to explain to them that he had friends he had to go back for as soon as possible. "Friends," he said as clearly as possible, and he pointed the way he thought he'd come from. "I have to go back to them. One of them is sick." He might have been pointing the wrong way, turned around indoors.

Tiren nodded and said something short and reassuring, but Kalitelm frowned.

"Sick?" she repeated, and she said it again in a different way.

Malaamig nodded slowly and half-shrugged, not certain it was the same word. "She sometimes has a fever," he tried to explain, pressing a hand to his forehead.

Kalitelm frowned, and asked more questions he was too tired to figure out, though he was able to communicate that he wasn't sick, and he thought she understood that he had left companions behind. He guessed she was their equivalent of a medic, and had to shrug as her speech grew too complex to follow. She was alarmed by their conversation, and gave sharp orders to two of the strangers in the room who looked equally grim and scurried out. She stood, as tall as he was while sitting, and patted his shoulder before pointing imperiously to one of the sleeping benches along the wall. Malaamig sagged in relief at the very idea of lying down. The hot soak, nourishing food, and warm room were a perfect storm to steal what remained of his energy after his long journey on foot. Jem and Obi stood when he did, but were equally tired and happy to lie down again on command. Obi was snoring already when he lay down on the bed after resisting Kalitelm's efforts to undress him, and he was already drifting off as she stretched on her toes to draw his curtain shut. He remained awake for several moments, listening to the flow of quiet conversation that continued in the room. He thought he picked out the word 'quarantine,' which seemed distantly a sensible idea, and he was struck with the sudden hope: maybe they had horses. Then inevitable unconsciousness took him at last.


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