Empty Belly

Rushes swept past Dao’s knees in a manner that might have been pleasant had his heart not been demanding an exit from his chest. He looked over his shoulder and saw the lights bobbing after him. If only she’d said she was the daughter of the village headman. Perhaps it wouldn’t have stopped him — she was, after all, the most beautiful woman he’d seen in a month — but he would have been warned at least. Might have had a longer head start on these vengeful villagers.

The ground beneath his sandals shifted with every hard step he took but he didn’t let that stop him. In his mind he fell each time, but somehow in reality he kept his strides going. Ahead, the rushes and tall grasses marched out to the riverbank, morphed into the lightly undulating water which threw a pale imitation of the moon’s light back up at its origin. He didn’t look forward to crossing this river. It would be an hour of swimming if he made good time.

Of course, it was not as if he had much of a choice. The spear that slotted noisily into the loam behind him told him that for however difficult the escape might be, it was better than capture.

Like that spear he flung himself headlong into the river, hands in place of flint tip, body arcing like yew, straightening as he sliced into the water and out of their sight. Rather than give them a target, Dao swam under the water, his light morning-gold skin rendered dark by the night and the depth, tunic billowing out as bubbles rushed underneath and against his chest. He slapped back at the water, kicked with both legs, frantically swam out from the riverbank. He could hear the splash of objects around him, faint as if they were quite far away. Dao saw a head-sized stone hurtling from surface to ocean-floor not two armslengths from him. Oh no, he was not quite safe yet.

His head broke the surface of the water and he gasped, blowing out the last of the air in his lungs. He inhaled deeply and quickly. Black hair whipped against his forehead when he turned to see the figures on the coast, four at least. One of them pulled his arm back and launched another spear. Dao sank under the surface again rather than watch it.

Opening his eyes in water like this was a terrible idea, but again, he had few options. His eyes burned as he tried to figure out just where he was at this point. It was all near-black at best. He could feel the thong of one sandal slipping further from his feet. He curled his toes, trying to keep it, but it caught something and drifted free. No chance to stop.

‘Keeper’s bones!’ he gasped as he surfaced again. He turned around, kicking backwards so that he could watch the tiny torchlights in the distance. He grinned. Either they’d given up, ran out of weapons, or simply couldn’t throw that far. Regardless, he’d got away from them. For the moment. If he tried back on that same riverbank he’d be caught in the morning, doubtless. The villagers were fond of their hunting dogs and he’d given the headman’s daughter a little ribbon to remember him by.
Stupid thing to do, anyway. The barmaid who’d given it him was barely worth remembering. He should have burned the thing weeks ago.

Turning around again, Dao resolved to keep pulling himself along through the water. Soon enough the ache in his arms and legs was almost unbearable. He’d have to keep going, he knew it, but he wanted nothing more than to rest. Now that he felt safe, the heat of excitement slowly leeched away, leaving him to feel the evil chill of the water fully. It should have spurred him on but it made him lethargic.

The darkness shaped a roof, walls, and a patch of solid dirt in the center of the river. Bridgeless, boatless. Isolated entirely. Dao squinted to make sure he was seeing it right, this new island. He knew how a starved and desperate mind could conjure up phantoms. But it stayed, not swaying, not fading, in fact growing more opaque. A little house upon a river isle. At the very least, a place where he could rest, sleep, and continue on in the morning.

If those villagers didn’t have boats of their own. It was a chance he had to take. Once he’d decided that the island was real, he knew that he was not making any further effort tonight.

His fingers dug into the mud on the islecoast. They scored lines in it as he pulled, getting no purchase, but he tried again, again, until he was dragging himself up onto the little island. He spat water out and flopped onto his back. Above, the stars twinkled, faraway, single spots of light that he imagined were wishing him a good rest, congratulating him for the effort. His belly was tight with hunger. At least he was safe.

The voice came to him through a formless and plotless dream. Dao hadn’t even realized he was asleep until he found his eyes opening, staring up at a pillar of hair which bore a flickering candle in its left hand. It took him a moment to decide that this was indeed something to be feared, then all at once he scrambled to his feet and nearly splashed back into the water.

‘Wait!’ cried the man-beast. Dao couldn’t tell if those glossy black eyes could see his hand drifting to his belt, the hilt of his back-knife. ‘Friend, wait. Do you need shelter?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Chang Wu,’ said the beast. His voice seemed to come from far away, as if speaking was not the primary function of that muzzle mouth. ‘You look tired, wet. Please, come. I have no extra clothes for you, nor a bed, but there’s shelter.’

To trust a weird was never expressly wise. It was something that Dao knew from an early age. And this one, taller than most men, with limbs meant for rending and teeth meant for ripping, seemed one of the more dangerous sort. But despite his fearsome appearance, Chang Wu seemed friendly enough. Besides, it was either this or swim, and Dao was not sure that he could make his arms work well enough to cross the rest of the river.

‘Alright,’ Dao said. He stood up then. In the darkness, his slight form was likely even less impressive than it was in daylight. He came up to this creature’s chest and no taller. He tried not to show his intimidation and hoped those keen eyes could not detect the trembling in his knees. ‘Let’s go inside. Have a fire?’

‘No,’ Chang Wu said, stepping aside and gesturing for Dao to walk first. ‘I have fur.’

‘Food?’ Dao walked now, keeping at an angle so that he could watch the weird.

‘Some fish that I could not eat.’

Dao stopped then and all at once collapsed into a cross-legged sit. ‘Bring them, then. We’ll see if we can’t start some fire.’

The weird watched him curiously for a moment. Then, wordlessly, he went inside the crude shelter. Tales told him that both men and weird were creatures of nature and magic, but while men could harness magic, weirds had it infused into their being. They distrusted each other for their cross natures. There was nothing for it, though. Dao must have at least a little fire if he was to eat.

With the back-knife, Dao described a circle in the mud, and then a pentagon inside it, and inside that dug a small and shallow pit. He looked upwards at the stars and tried to find the star-sign of the Thinkers, which must be high tonight. His magic was not advanced by any measure, but with the right alignments he might just light the nothingness.

Chang Wu returned with one huge hand full of filleted fish. Dao was still busy waving his hands in a practiced pattern over the shape in the mud, intoning words in a language his people used only for this art. The bestial weird watched him carefully as a mongoose might the snake.

Dao could feel the beginnings of heat at his fingertips but no more. A spark was born, wailed, and died in the center of that little pit. He frowned. The Thinkers might have been an adequate sign for someone more tutored than he. If only this had been summertime. His hands fell to his thighs and he sighed heavily.

‘You should still eat,’ Chang Wu said, extending the bunch of fish to Dao.

‘It’ll make me sick,’ Dao said. ‘Have to cook it.’

‘Oh.’ Chang Wu tried to copy Dao’s posture. It took him a bit of effort, his legs not being made to fold the way that Dao’s were, but he eventually managed it. ‘It has been a long time since I’ve seen a human. I forget what you need.’

‘It’s okay,’ Dao said. He stuck the back-knife into the center of the circle, breaking the arcane pattern. ‘I’ll survive.’ Chang Wu was already eating, covering his jaws and lips in the mashed gore of dead fish. Dao stood then and turned away from the creature. He was slightly apprehensive, of course. Disrobing in front of someone he didn’t know was always a bit nerve-wracking, especially if he had no carnal goals with them. Still, if he stayed in these clothes he’d catch a cold. Besides, the weird was naked as well. Perhaps they found it odd that humans felt the need to wear clothes at all.

‘You came from the coast,’ Chang Wu said. Dao could hear the creature licking his hands jaws, cleaning them of the excess fish guts and muscle. He was out of his tunic and trousers by now and he squatted, beginning to wring them out.

‘Yes. Not my idea, of course. Sorry to disturb.’

‘No.’ Chang Wu stared out the way Dao had come. Or at least Dao assumed so. It would take a bit of squinting for him to make out any direction over any other in this darkness. ‘They harry me as well. Those villages, I think only evil of them. You’re not the first to flee them.’

‘At least I’m not alone,’ Dao said.

Dao continued to wring out his clothes. The splatter of water flecked his legs and dropped idly into the water that stroked the coast. It seemed that no matter how much he twisted and torqued, there was always still water inside. He had to be satisfied eventually. The tightening of his limbs and the yawn forcing his mouth open and tumbling out towards freedom marked the deadline.

‘I’d like to sleep,’ Dao announced. He stood up and gathered his clothes. ‘Can I go inside?’

‘Please,’ Chang Wu said. When Dao looked, he saw that the weird’s shaggy head was turned skyward, towards the twinkling stars. ‘I feel a song. It won’t wait. I hope my voice will not disturb you.’

Dao was sure it would, but he told the weird it wouldn’t. He was in no position to refuse hospitality after all. He picked up his knife and crossed the doorless entrance into the little hovel. There were no furnishings inside. He could just make out a spear leaning against a wall, driftwood with a bone tip. He didn’t care to think about just where Chang Wu had got the bone. Instead, he spread out his clothes on the floor and laid down next to them on his back. Hopefully sleep would come soon. He’d like to forget this whole escapade as quickly as possible.

What started as a moonward howl was modulated, falling in steps and slides, rising like a squirrel bounding up branch to branch. The sound was not that of an animal. Chang Wu’s howl was abrasive to Dao’s ears, but for some reason, he found it relaxed him. Perhaps he had heard such a thing in another dream and now, hearing its cousin, he was being beckoned back to familiar sleep.

<>

The first sensation Dao felt, before even the need to open his eyes, was of metal digging into his wrists and hands. He tried to sit up and realized quickly that he was vertical. Not standing, as his big toes barely reached the floor. He opened his eyes and looked up to see that he was trussed like a butcher’s project, once a pig, to be pork. He could move his legs, lift his knees, but no matter how he kicked he couldn’t swing away from the wall.

Morning reigned outside. Despite the pillar of light flung in through the shed entrance, it gave him no hope. Brightness couldn’t erode these manacles. As much as he struggled, he was getting nowhere. He flexed his fingers to keep the blood flowing through them.

It was only in times of desperation that a man would direct his prayers to the Blood God Azkythiir. An evil power such as he scarcely had an equal, which was fine, for his terrors were feared almost intrinsically. And yet for some terrible reason, Dao’s soul was ultimately his to ransom, so he found it in himself to promise that soul for Azkythiir’s eventual devouring if only he’d save him from whatever fate approached.

All at once, Chang Wu’s head swung into the room. Beady yellow eyes fixed themselves on Dao and the canid weird’s tongue lolled out of his mouth. The beast-man’s body followed the head in then, hunched forward as if now he saw no reason to pretend at civilization. In his hands he cradled a thick root like a mace.

‘Oh, come now,’ Dao protested.

‘I must admit,’ Chang Wu said, ‘you are a bit skinny for what I would prefer. But humans are always a better find than fish. Might make you last for the week at least. It has been quite a while since I’ve had a proper meal.’

‘I treated you decently,’ Dao said. ‘More than those villagers have done, at least!’

‘And I’m to believe that if you weren’t running for your life, you’d still offer your politeness?’

‘I’m not a false man, I’m cordial and pleasant to everyone.’

Chang Wu was clearly not listening. His demeanor was now equal to he who’d trussed the pig up for the purposes of cleaving, cooking, and eating.

‘Shoulders first, likely. Wonder if I can pull them all the way out of the socket. Do hate gnawing on you all together.’ The weird hefted that makeshift club high. ‘And scream, if you would. Much easier for me to know when I’ve broken a bone.’

Before the weird could begin his swing, Dao started one of his own, curling his body up and kicking Chang Wu hard on the underside of his muzzle. Two voices cried out. One was the strangled groan of the monstrous creature. The other was Dao shrieking at the pain that had now taken the place of his foot. He was sure he’d broken toes as the end of his right foot was just a throb, just the sensation of pain.

Chang Wu woofed, barked, and lunged in again. Somehow Dao swung his body up again, legs scissoring out then clamping around the weird’s neck. The beast thrashed frantically. It was as if it had the memories of its distant cousins having their paws snapped in steel traps, caught away from their packs and prey, left to starve and die. Determined not to endure that himself, Chang jerked backward, twisted, did whatever he could to free himself, but Dao had locked his legs tight. He cried out awfully when the weird’s struggles made those manacles straighten out, the cuffs sawing into his wrists until they bled. He refused to let go, though. After all, what had he to lose?

There was little time for him to appreciate the sound of splintering wood. Less than a second, really. Without the support to keep him tethered to the wall, Dao’s upper body slumped down sharply, and he unlocked his legs to allow himself to drop heavily to the floor. He came to his knees, barely able to make sense of the world in front of him in his daze. Somehow the dancing and gyrating colors formed themselves into the evil form of Chang Wu just in time for Dao to throw himself out of the way of the beast-man’s club.

Like a rabbit, Dao scampered out of the house. The sun highlighted the blade of his back-knife with a blinding aura. He caught up that knife by the hilt and swung it up like a talisman before the emergent weird, hoping that in daring the beast to fight he would actually be causing him to think again. Of course, the creature could see that Dao was injured, barely able to fight. He advanced with blood on his mind.

The sound of a sharp impact just near Dao’s feet caused him to spring back. An arrow. He glanced up to the right and saw a tiny flotilla arriving, three small rowboats with men standing and slinging arrows to the little island with little regard for the safety of the two on the island. Chang Wu stared in that direction as well. He swept his club through the air as if he controlled some magic that would ward them off. Instead, an arrow lodged itself in his bicep, drawing a piercing howl of agony.

Dao turned and flung himself into the water. He was not sure if his muscles had gained strength in his horrible sleep or if he was simply too afraid to care about their fatigue. What he knew was that he was escaping, however undignified, from human and weird alike. He hoped his luck would be better on the other bank, though he had to admit, he’d find it a trifle difficult at first without any clothes to show he was a decent man.

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