Authors: J. Boyett
Tags: #zombie apocalypse time-travel
or Mary Sheridan.
Also for Chris Boyett, Pam Carter, Dawn Drinkwater, and Andy Shanks.
hanks to Kelly Kay Griffith and Rob Widdicombe, who read versions of this book and gave valuable feedback.
And thank you for reading! Please consider signing up for my mailing list, at
t was customary among the People to always keep a slave-woman like Gash-Eye. (Gash-Eye was what they called her—in her own tongue, in her girlhood, she’d been named Petal-Drift.) The People believed that, because Gash-Eye’s race was closer to the earth and the dirt, she could see more clearly into the secret spaces as well as the spirit world. Gash-Eye believed that, too. It was definitely true that she could see better in this world than her captors could. At night, she could see a bat against the sky, where they could at most see a patch of black darker than the rest.
The name Gash-Eye came from the thick scar which ran down her forehead to her jutting brow, then resumed down her cheek below her eye. It was there to remind her that, if she didn’t use her greater sight to serve her masters, she would be left with no sight at all. Every time the People took a new seer-captive, they named her Gash-Eye.
The threat of being blinded and left to die in the forest was one way the People held her in check. The other was by fathering upon her a child; if she disobeyed too egregiously, they told her, then her son would be killed, and his eye sockets, nostrils, mouth, and anus would be plugged with packed mud so that his spirit would be unable to escape, and would be forced to feed on itself throughout all the wheels of eternity. And sometimes they would invent still other fates to threaten him with, if inspiration struck.
It was her son that held her; many were the days that being blinded and left to die in the forest didn’t sound so bad to Gash-Eye. Because her son held her, he was called the Jaw. The child fathered upon the Gash-Eye was always called the Jaw. This one had been fathered by Chert, one of the People’s best hunters, a strong man who kept his own counsel. Since fathering the Jaw upon her, Chert had rarely spoken to Gash-Eye. He prided himself on his tracking abilities and didn’t wish the aid of her eyesight; as for what she might see in the spirit world, he had no interest in that at all.
One night in spring Gash-Eye was sitting in the dark beyond the People’s fires, keeping watch. The fires were over the top of the small hill, on the opposite slope. This was just after the weather had turned sweet, and she let her mind wander, her thoughts reminding her of her old name she’d not heard since the People had killed her band and captured her, years ago.
The People had been at this site for several moons. Usually they would have moved along by now, but this soft grassy hill surrounded by rich forest was such a fine spot that perhaps they would stay till someone or something more dangerous came and drove them off. On the slope of the hill were several boulders—Gash-Eye was looking down into the valley from behind one now—and higher up was the mouth of a cave where the People had kept warm through much of the winter.
Night had almost completely fallen, but there was a big bright moon. Gash-Eye saw movement in the distant trees below. She gave the signal, a sound that would be taken by the uninitiated for birdsong.
Instantly young Pebble was by her side. “What is it, Gash-Eye?” he whispered, enjoying the game of secrecy. It wasn’t fair that Gash-Eye had to keep watch so quietly, always acting as if they were being tracked and hunted, when on the opposite slope of the hill the People were talking and singing softly at the fires.
They were quieter than usual, true, because about a quarter of the men were still recovering from the Mushroom of the Inner Eye, which sent the hunters on brief tours into the underworld; it was a way to make sure the underworld was calm, so that the animals they sent there would not become agitated and come back seeking vengeance for their deaths. After returning from the voyage, the hunters felt nauseous and lazy, which was why no more than a quarter ever took it at once.... Of course, when they wanted Gash-Eye to check on the state of things in the spirit realm they made her eat twice as much, since her whole purpose was to see into secret places, and they only ever gave her half as much time to recover. Such was her lot in life.
“Something moving,” she whispered, in answer to Pebble’s question. No matter how many years she spent with the People, she would never be able to pronounce their language correctly—the shape of her mouth wouldn’t allow it. Meanwhile, she felt the sounds of her girlhood tongue slipping from her memory as years passed. Squinting into the trees, she said, “People.”
Pebble turned his face uphill and gave a quick whistle; the talking and singing was cut short. Turning back to Gash-Eye, Pebble hissed, “How many?”
“I can’t tell from up here.”
Some of the lead hunters came racing from the other slope, Chert among them. They hid behind Gash-Eye’s boulder. “What did she see?” asked Chert, not bothering to look at her.
“People,” said Pebble. “She can’t see how many.”
“Where are they, Gash-Eye?” Even speaking directly to her, Chert didn’t bother to look at her.
She pointed at the spot in the trees where she could still make out some movement. The others stared, and finally shook their heads.
“Too far,” said one. “Too dark.”
Chert slipped noiselessly down the hill to reconnoitre. Gash-Eye knew that he would be able to get close enough to see them, without them ever hearing. Gash-Eye felt little affection for Chert, but she did harbor a grudging respect. And the hatred she’d once borne him had been mitigated by the way he treated the Jaw. She was sure that past fathers of past Jaws had not cared enough even to spit on their spawn. But Chert protected the half-breed from many torments that would otherwise have been his birthright.
They sat watching. Gash-Eye looked closely, ready to let her masters know if she saw anything else worth reporting. She could make out Chert’s progress down the hillside, though she doubted the others could. Soon he would disappear into the trees and hide himself as he crept closer to the band of strangers.
Suddenly Gash-Eye, Pebble, and the hunters gasped as a green light appeared in the stand of trees.
“I see the people!” said Pebble. All of them could see them now.
“Quiet,” ordered one of the men, but then he himself said, “What is that?”
It was green and bright, like a pale green star come to earth. As they watched it grew brighter, much brighter.
Gash-Eye suddenly clasped her hands together tightly to keep from crying out. For an instant she’d glimpsed the shape of one of the strangers in the ominous illumination, his paleness, she’d caught a flash of the person’s gait, and she was certain: they were her kind. She hadn’t seen a living member of her species since the People had killed her band. In the years since, the People had killed a few more, but she’d only been allowed to see the corpses.
The next moment it struck her as strange that she should react so. In her girlhood, her band and theirs would probably have either avoided each other or fought. It was only her years spent with the People that now tricked her into a familial feeling about these strangers.
Someone else was approaching from behind. Gash-Eye held herself perfectly still; from the rhythm of his steps she knew who it was. Once he arrived, she heard the Jaw say, “What is it? Strangers?”
“None of your concern, half-breed,” growled Spear, one of the hunters.
“How brave Spear is when my father is absent,” said the Jaw.
“How brave the Jaw is, even in the presence of its mother.”
“Quiet,” ordered Stick, the eldest of the hunters, a man of nearly fifty summers. “Look at the green light. Try to think of what it might be, not new ways to insult each other.”
“The one insult is more than enough to shame a purer man than the Jaw,” said Spear. But his heart wasn’t in it, and all the Jaw’s attention was on the light, so that he seemed not even to hear the jibe.
They continued to stare at the distant glow, amazed. Then all of a sudden it winked out.
“What happened?” demanded Stick. “Gash-Eye, what happened?”
She was almost certain she had seen them toss something over the light, maybe a fur. “I couldn’t make it out,” she lied. Though it was mad, she couldn’t help but see her old, long-murdered, half-forgotten family in these strangers’ gestures and bulky, pale forms.
The hunters broke from behind the boulder, creeping downslope to meet Chert. To a member of the People, their dark-skinned lithe bodies would have been nearly invisible in the darkness, but Gash-Eye could still see them. “You stay here, Gash-Eye,” ordered Spear. “See if anything more happens.”
The Jaw was the last to leave. Before he did, she grabbed him by the wrist, wondering if he would consent to being restrained.
He did, reluctantly. Theirs was an unstable and fraught relationship. Sometimes he loved and pitied her. Sometimes the shame of being her son would overwhelm him and he would shun her even more assiduously than the rest of the band did. Now, as usual when he’d been included in the life of the People by his father’s favor (because he had been allowed to partake in the ceremony of the Mushroom), the Jaw was reticent and shame-faced before his mother, as if he resented her as a reminder that he wasn’t
a human, and was suffered to live like one only at his father’s whim. “What is it?” he grunted.
“Your father has always protected you,” she said. “Stay close to him tonight.”
“What?” His light-brown, medium-sized brow, halfway between hers and his father’s, twisted in confusion. “Why? What’s going to happen tonight?”
“Go. Go back with the others. I don’t want them to remember that we talked for long tonight.”
“Why?” With his next words, his voice grew more anxious: “What are you going to do?”
Chert was upon them without their having heard his approach. He paused and looked them over; Gash-Eye thought he was going to question them, but instead he curtly said, “Come.” Gash-Eye pretended to believe she was included in the summons, not just the Jaw, and as they walked around to the opposite slope Chert didn’t bother to correct her.
They rejoined the rest of the People. Some were naked, but most wore skins to protect against the night’s slight chill. The hunters were waiting for Chert near the mouth of the cave, the curious women and children ranked behind them. Gash-Eye waited, apart from either group. “What is the bright thing, Chert?” asked Stick.
“I don’t know. A ball, that glows like a soft green moon. But they can control it. You saw how it grew brighter? I was creeping upon them just then. In that pale cool green fire I saw them take a dog whose neck had been broken. They dangled it over the green ball and put its head inside it, and as they did so it glowed brighter.”
“What do you mean they put the dog’s head inside the ball?” demanded Spear. “What does that mean?”
Rarely did Chert allow anyone to hear him sound as uncertain as he did now. “I don’t know,” he confessed. “There were people between me and the thing, and its opening was facing away from me. But it moved jerkily as they put the dog’s head in. And there was a crunching sound, almost ... almost as if it were eating the head.”
“Eating it!” sneered Spear.
“I said it was as if it were eating it, fool. I make no claim to know what it is or what exactly they’re doing with it.... But I say we can take it from them. They’re Big-Brows.”
He said this without so much as a glance at Gash-Eye. But many of the People grinned her way and hissed their jeers at her.
Chert ignored this. It was only the women, children, and old men who hissed, anyway—the hunters, even Spear, kept their attention upon the question at hand.
Stick weighed the news. “If they’re Big-Brows, the night will favor them,” he said.
“Their magic light will help
,” said Spear. “The Big-Brows are the ones who can see in the dark.”
“What do we need with a magic green light, anyway?” asked Antler, calmly. “Can’t we make a fire when we need light? The Big-Brows need the light, they have no fire.” Antler’s caution, care, and steadiness had won him a reputation for wisdom among some members of the clan.
Then there were those like Spear, who liked to accuse him of cowardice. “It’s treasure!” he snarled. “Who knows what other powers it may have? Why let the dummies prance away with it, especially after they dare enter our territory? And we should take it now, before the Overhills get wind of it.” The Overhills were what they called another local band, not Big-Brows but humans like the People. They weren’t exactly friends, but they had sometimes exchanged meat, skins, weapons, women.