Stone to Bind
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Ita’s eyes are yet dry as she stares at the fire. Glares at it, as though it was the thief, instead of…

I hesitate over my next words. She is already angered, and habitually does not take well to having her judgement questioned. “But are you sure it was them?”

“Yes,” she snarls. “I found footprints, Nku! Perfect, clear footprints -“ she hisses out through her teeth - “like they weren’t even trying to hide.”

I raise my hands in surrender. “Very well. But Ita, you know that either way, you were as vigilant as you could be. Do not blame yourself. You taught Yadi well how to be safe around the lakeshore, there was nothing more -“

She flings down the leg of rabbit that I pushed into her hands, still unbitten, and rounds on me with bared teeth. “Stop it! Stop trying to pacify me!” She huffs and subsides, digging her fingers into the hair above her brow. “You don’t know what it’s like. You’ll never know. She is of my body, Nku - I can’t just say such is fate and ask me to keep going, to accept the loss of my own flesh.”

I bite down on my lip. Yes, I do not say. Yes, that is what I expect you to do. Because the alternative you are proposing is madness.

“And what of Tepa?” I gesture beyond her to where her oldest son sleeps beside another fire, curled up under an aurochs blanket in the protective arms of his grandfather. “Will you leave him both sisterless and motherless, all within two days? Will you leave your father without his daughter, and me cousinless, all for this mad hope that Yadi did not drown?”

And my fear is not only for her: the Chee are strange and dangerous creatures, and vengeful in the least. There are tales told of entire clans slaughtered to the last, to the old and lame and infants still unweaned, because one of their members found strife with one of the Chee-folk. There are tales of those slain without reason at all. Some say that any people they take are put as slaves for them, and others that they feed them to the spirits that live deep under the earth, so that they might not come for their own.

If Ita goes to steal Yadi back from their clutches, she will have to ensure that they cannot track the theft back to us by any means. And knowing little about the skill of the Chee in tracking, that is far too much for her to risk.

But Ita’s will is like an erratic - even if a whole herd of bison or of elk set their shoulders against it, it moves by not even a fingers-width. It is no surprise when she sets her jaw and says: “Yes. I will.”


The blow comes before I can expect it, and knocks me backwards, jarring my elbow. I raise my arm to block out another, rolling onto my back, but she takes advantage and throws herself onto me, knees digging into thighs and stomach and her forearm set over my throat. Not choking. But just at the edge of it.

“Then stop me, Nku. If you can.” Spit flecks my cheeks and chin, and I have overstepped my bounds. How badly I have miscalculated the overstepping of them. “Do you think you can?”

She pushes harder; all the muscles in my throat tense up self-defensively. Her weight digs pebbles into my spine. “Do you think you can?” she asks again, solid and severe and dangerous. The kind of tone that says if I continue challenging her she might move on to more physical punishments, and of those not only temporary.

I squeeze my eyes shut and shake my head as slightly as possible. Ita relaxes and sits back onto my legs. “You’re an accursed coward, Nku.” She shakes her head, rolls to her feet, and stalks off behind the firelight.

I wake early the next morning, even before the disk of the sun has clambered her way above the horizon. The morning is quiet, and fringed with dew - it slides out onto my ankles and shimmers grey and gossamer on the grasses as I ease myself up and stretch out my shoulders.

I look over towards the other fire. Ita always sleeps with her father and her children - if she returned, she would be there.

No Ita. But there is a large crushed space, empty of dew, on Tepa’s other side. As though she had lain there and watched his face in sleep, even if she had not herself. I get up and go towards it. Although we have trampled down much of the grasses at this campsite and scraped most of the lichens off nearby rocks, the grass always begins to rebound in the night.

I tilt my head and squint. The dew brightens until it is nearly white - except in a few places, where I or others have already trodden. There. A fresh use-trail, leading from the patch towards the burned-down remnants of the fire. It stops there, presumably to allow her time to squat and warm her hands over the ashes and the rocks settled around them, and then juts off towards the edge of the woods.

Oh, Ita. You do not trust me in the slightest, do you, to leave thus while all the rest of the clan slept? You do not want to face them and tell them how much danger you put them all in, antagonizing the Chee for one girl not even eight years of age yet.

And judging by how lightly the stems are bent down in her wake, she did not leave heavily laden of food or of warm garments, either. Not even now, at the end of the summer, when the nights grow cold so rapidly. Fool.

A fool who forces my own hand, too.

It takes me until the sun has risen more than one palmsbreadth to prepare. I fill a paunch with dried meat, pine-nuts, and mushrooms and fling an extra shawl over my shoulder. The weight of it falls over my chest, down to the base of my ribs, and that is some comfort - another layer of protection against the Chee’s spears. I check three times that my knife is safely at my belt, and then take up my spear in my left hand. It is only middling in size, not enough to stop any creature larger than myself. Hopefully, I will not need to. Hopefully, she will subside against the reality of her quest, made clear in the bright morning-light.

I turn my path towards her trail, and take off to follow her.

Ita mocked the Chee for not making any effort to conceal their tracks at the lakeside. She ought to take her own advice. Her use-trail took me under the edge of the forest, and from there on, broken branches and scraped moss lead me directly to where she is seated underneath a beech, tying a snare. The sun has not even started falling when I step out of the bracken onto the carpet of dropped leaves.

We meet eyes.

She speaks first. “Nku. Come to drag me back to the clan?”

I shake my head.

Her nostrils flare. “Well, I doubt I managed to convince you to my perspective, so…”

I throw the paunch of meat at her. It lands heavily beside her feet. “Were you intending to slow yourself down with hunting and trapping?”

She glares, but picks up the bag and stands. “I’m serious, Nku. What do you think you are doing?”

“I think to show you what you are risking, since you seem unwilling to see it elsewise.” I plant my heels down into the dust and pull my shoulders back. “If you would not drag me into their clutches along with you, then turn back now.”

“And if I do not?”

“Then my death is on your head, and I hope you witness it.”

She frowns, then steps closer and takes the spear from my hand with a yank. Then she turns and strides off in the same direction along the trail.

I sigh, and curse, and chase after.

The first sign of them appears not long after that - a tree carved with great slashes, sharper than a bear’s claws and weeping with amber blood. It is Ita who points it out, who sets a hand on my shoulder as I nearly step right past it.

I swallow, hard. The tree’s pain seeps out from its wounds into the air like silt into water. There is no telling what magical doom might have befallen me had I simply stridden past a sign like that.

So we go around it in a wide semicircle, ears open. Every trilling of a waxwing makes me start - every needle that falls becomes an imagined monster, jaws open wide to seize us. Ita shoots me a disdainful look once the doom-sign is no longer within sight, but her knuckles are white on the spear-shaft just the same. Fear, too, has finally seized her, and I wonder if it has granted her as well the painfully-sharp awareness of every slight movement of frond, every scrape of branch, the agonizing loudness of our soles against the dirt.

And voices, up ahead - low, rolling, deep. Unlike any others I have ever heard. And here we are, exposed on the trail.

Ita’s eyes go wide with the same realization that mine have. No time to flee, and they would follow our tracks - we must hide. I stare around for wide trees, fallen logs, anything that might offer some concealment. There - ahead, closer to the sounds, a fat boulder squats by the trail. I point, and grab her hand, and we hurry to it.

Yes - a space, barely wide enough for a person to slide through on their stomach. I thrust Ita down into it, then dive down myself, landing prone on a bed of slimy leaves in a hollow in which even a badger would have been cramped. A wide crack beneath it looks out towards the trail, and I almost curse - much weaker a concealment than I would have hoped. Let us hope the shadows are dark enough to hide us.

Beside me, Ita struggles and twists. “Nku -“

“Shhh!” I push a hand on her back to hold her still, and freeze not a moment too soon. Then they are upon us.

Never before in my life have I seen one of the Chee, although I have seen signs of them: tracks through the woods on routes that none of our clan takes, piles of dead snail shells that are called Chee-middens. The older people in the clan have more lore about them - Tepa’s father’s mother even claimed to have seen some, once, making their way along a ridge in broad daylight.

“They were just as the stories say,” she had whispered, even so many years later afeared of the close contact. “Tall, so tall, and more slender than a man could ever be. Thin like young ash-trees they were, and their hair was raven-black even in the bright sunlight. It is a wonder that they did not break simply from walking. But they walked like gravity could not touch them, and I thought I heard one laugh -“ and there she had broken off, the same place as every time she had told that story.

What their laugh might have been I always wondered. Because the voices of these that approach are musical as a snowmelt-swelled river, and it is said that they can sing with not only their own voices but the voices of birds and bees. And their spears fly by magic, needing no hands to support them, and the heads of them pierce deeply into the marrow; they can pull life out of stone, it is said, and are magical in all their ways.

And there is no reasoning to their desires - at least none that can be fathomed by the minds of mundane men. Though the tales of their vengeance and cruelty far outnumber the others, it has been said that the most beautiful of men have had pity taken upon them, and the female Chee are willing to lie with them, and that if a male Chee should hear a woman singing alone in the trees and find her voice wonderfully sweet, it may bring her away to live as one of them.

They love and they hate us in equal measure. Whatever relation we and they may have had in the beginning is long since lost, but it is said that there was a time without Chee once, when the hills were fearless, and when the darkness of the night held no threat.

Would that I lived in such times. The footsteps come closer and closer still, cracking twigs and rustling leaves. I press tighter against the ground, hardly daring to breathe. Every beat of Ita’s heart I can feel through my palm, and they seem to echo like a rockfall in my ears.

A foot appears in the crack beneath the stone. So close I could seize upon the ankle without even stretching to reach. Slim and fine as bird bones, almost childlike in the curve of the sole - but what almost makes me gasp is the tone of it, here contrasted with the bright green of the moss. Like ground charcoal with water, drinking down light - dark-bruised like a dead body that has been left a day unburied. There are thin raised streaks on the upper surface of the foot, and it takes me a moment to realize what they are: the bones, skin stretched over them.

The first Chee pauses right before our hiding place, and seems to turn back towards its companions. And then its ankle begins to bend, in the way a man’s does when he goes to kneel down.

It knows we are here. It knows. I squeeze my eyes shut, unable to conjure up any words of hope that we might be saved. Will their hands, too, be cold as corpses’ when they drag us out? Will they put us to torment or to slavery before killing us? I seize a fistful of Ita’s shawl, realizing how I can feel every strand of it pressing against my skin. My body, exulting in being alive even in the very last moments it has that privilege.

But there is no shout from the Chee to its companions. There are no hands cruelly closed upon my arms, or spear-points thrust into my face. I lie, and wait, and do not count the time until Ita whispers against my shoulder, “I think they’re gone.”

Do we dare leave? Or are they only waiting out of sight, ready to leap upon us and give chase, hunt us as prey? But before I can retrieve my voice, Ita has already wriggled out of my grasp and crawled out from the hollow. “Nku, they’re gone. You can come out.”

And somehow, though my bones have gone soft as silt, I climb after her and drag myself to my feet, drawing great gasping breaths. We are not captured. We are not dead. The knowledge is dizzying, giddying as flybane, and though there is no mirth in it I laugh, and Ita joins me, and we are clutching each other and shivering and laughing as though driven mutually mad in our own survival.

Eventually, she sits back onto her heels, swiping at damp eyes. “That was close,” she breathes. “That was close. Come on.” And she seizes up my spear and turns in the direction the Chee came from, and she manages two steps before I lunge and seize her arm.

“Ita! You can’t possibly think - that trail probably leads straight to their camp!”

She pulls away. “Yes. I know. And that’s where Yadi will be.”

“So you’re just going to run in and seize her, in broad daylight?”

She rounds on me, snarling like a trapped hyaena, but before we can fall to fighting again a sharp, hard sound makes us both jump, and we look down to see a shaft trembling in the leaf-litter just beside us.

One of the magic spears. They have espied us after all. I spin, staring wildly at the trees, but see nothing. Of course. They need not be close to attack.

“Ah!” Ita screams behind me, and I whirl back to see another spear strike, embedding itself in her shoulder. She staggers in shock and pain and clutches at the injury, only to cry out again when her hand knocks the shaft.

“Ita!” I reach for her shoulders to steady her. A trickle of blood makes its way down her chest, loosed from her veins. It will loose more to pull the shaft out, but she is nigh-immobilized if I do not, for every step will only pull worse on the wound. But there is another whish and slash of bracken, the thud of a head sinking into the dirt, and another, and another, and she pushes me away. “Run, Nku!”

And I am an accursed coward. Because I run. Crashing through bracken, stumbling through roots, I run without any direction in my mind but away and hardly seeing where I am going. Trees loom up, and I dodge. The ground rises and falls in hillocks and hollows, outcrops of limestone, pine-seedlings that whip against my legs. I stumble down a slope of alder into a dry creekbed and fall onto clattering stones.

A hard substrate. No tracks. I pick my right hand at random and follow the bed in that direction, ducking under overhanging brambles and dodging fetid pools, no larger than a palm, that send up whining clouds of mosquitoes. My shawl slides down below my shoulder, pinning one arm, but I daren’t stop and adjust it. Nothing matters but putting as much distance between myself and the Chee as possible.

The stone begin to grow larger, and before long I am forced to slow down before I twist an ankle or trap a foot between them. The bed has been rising steadily, and now its slope increases until I need to clamber from rock to rock, pulling myself upwards with my hands. The small crystals in them stick out, tearing at my skin, and as the panic begins to fade the pain becomes sharper in its absence. A stitch stabs in under my ribs.

I pull myself up over a final crop of boulders and stop, panting. The air tastes strange, and it is as I lift my head to try and gain my bearings that I realize with horror why that is.

The taste is smoke. My flight has not brought me farther - it has brought me right to the edge of the Chee’s encampment! This creek must in winter join with the river further south, and so it snakes up through and above the river terrace, which from my vantage point spreads out flat and green and pockmarked with fires and tents. A sheer wall of rock hangs over its western edge. And all between Chee stride, in clusters or singly, sometimes calling out to one another. Wolves lounge at their feet, maws gaping open; a Chee tosses a carcass towards a group of them, and they all fall to snarling, bloody feeding.

I crouch lower among the boulders, hoping I am too far to be scented or espied.

A loud whistle from the rim of the trees, and below a larch another group of Chee emerge into the encampment. The foremost lifts an arm above its head and shakes its fist, and it is received with more whistles and cries, evidently of pleasure. It says something and steps aside, and then I see a flash of red among all the raven heads, and have to press my hand over my mouth to stifle a cry of my own.

It is Ita, walking as though her hands are bound, held by two male Chee. They cannot have hurt her too much, though, if she still stands by herself.


As though the thought reached them, the Chee shove her forward, and she stumbles, nearly falling. A chorus of jeers arises. The Chee from the encampment close in, laying hands on her, tugging at her hair. They peer in at her eyes, pluck at her garments with exaggerated disdain. They are baiting her like a young bear, and tears of pity prickle up. Oh, Ita. This is exactly what I feared for you.

There is a flicker of movement much closer to me, and I start in alarm, looking down. The bright flash resolves itself into another Chee, standing at the base of the rock wall, barely ten paces from me as a bird would fly. Its garments are red and liquid as blood, and they slide, too, like blood along its arms as it raises them to the stone.

I can barely breathe, bound in horror and rapture as it begins to do the unimaginable. The stone bleeds, where those long, thin fingers touch it - bleeds in red and yellow, like man and tree as one. Long, dark trails dribble down its face and fall into the grass below, staining it as well. And it seems suddenly that I can see through the surface - that where there once was solid grey there appears the image of a plain, and where the Chee’s fingers pass over it there come into existence creatures of all kinds. A herd of horses, flanks heaving and dark with sweat, appear midstride; before them, aurochs toss their heads and spook. A solitary rhinoceros glances up as the herd passes, its horn standing out mountainlike against the background.

Life out of stone. Before my very eyes, the Chee draws it forth in all its shivering multitudes. A river spills forth from the touch of its palms, and the stars peer into existence above, though it is still daylight. The Chee-magic burns my eyes, so fascinating, so deadly in its marvels. Tears swell, and spill and through the wavering around the edges of my vision I see the red-garbed Chee lift up its hand once more and press it against the rockface, which tears into an open wound in scarlet about it. And I know, in that moment, that wherever the Chee may have come from, there is no power we can hold against them - for the rock holds that handprint, slim and alien, long after the palm is drawn away.

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