by Ryan Morini
It was said among the Jenta people that if a man could not remember his dreams, either his future or his past was grim. Rojak woke up remembering he had dreamt, but no detail would make itself clear to him. So had it been for days upon days. He did not wish to attract attention, so he told no one.
Outside of his head, it was a time of peace. Eikle blew her cold breath in from the north, and blanketed the ground with snow. Rojak could not fight to expel his fears, nor could he work the fields. He did not wish to spend the day in his great-house, surrounded by his family, but rather to be alone. It was said among the Jenta that if a man who was not grieving went off by himself with no mission, he would soon find he was looking for a place to die, like an animal.
Many things that the Jenta said lurked in the corners of Rojak's mind.
But the fire of the great-house began to burn him, and the smoke tore at his eyes, and the familiar smell of roasting winter tubers turned his stomach, and he grabbed his furs and said he would check the snares for fresh kills. He remembered little of what his father said, but had a vague recollection of suspicion or worry in the old man's eyes. Or perhaps understanding. But even that piece of a memory melted away like a snowflake into nothingness. The trek into the snow was no clearer in Rojak's mind than the breath that escaped his lips in the cold.
When Rojak returned to himself, he was standing still in thin snow. Great spruces and firs shaded the forest floor, though when Rojak looked up he could see sunlight piercing the canopy with the same bright coldness that reflected off of the on sunnier days.
"It is Eikle's season and the sun will not last long," Rojak reminded himself. All he could do, though, was watch the nebulous patterns his breath burned into the air. Like ephemeral phantoms. "Are you what a soul looks like?" he asked, watching for the answer as he spoke. The vapors curled and trailed and dissipated, revealing nothing, and he wondered if it was because the answer was "no", or if he was just blind to the wordless speech of the world.
He owned no sword, and instead pulled out his knife to examine. The blade was carved from the tusk of a mammoth out on the steppes, and the flat sides were decorated with split twigs. Mammoth hairs and sinews wrapped the base of the blade to a long wooden handle, which itself was wrapped in more of the same for grip.
Bone is not strong, Rojak thought, not by itself. Hair grows frail, and sinew is good for thread, but not weapons. But give them to a Binder, and he will talk to them for many nights and make them grow together. He can speak the speech of the world. He can tell bone to be harder than rock, and sinew to be tougher than leather, yet softer to the touch, and they do so.
Rojak continued to look at the knife, studying its curves, its edges, the inscription, the joint of the blade and the handle. When that grew tiresome, he examined the boles of the trees, and the snow on the ground, pausing occasionally to examine his breath again. The light was fading quickly.
Sated but unfulfilled, he made his way back to the great-house, along the way checking a couple snares. He found that little Onein's trap, which all the family had smiled at as a child's toy, had actually caught a hare. It was one of few things that could have incited him to laugh as he walked back to the village.
The great-houses stood higher than a man, but far shorter than the trees they were made of. Snow had bound itself to each roof, the effects of the wind adumbrating the mats of tree bark and moss underneath that Binders had crafted. Rojak knew that unbound wood, even bark, could soak through with water, but once Bound, even the moss was all but waterproof.
Each great-house was slightly different, but all were formed by stacked logs sealed with mud on the outside. Occasionally, attempts would be made to Bind this, too, but Binding soil was far more difficult than more solid things, and it was more a consecration than genuine effort. Or so Rojak suspected. He closed his eyes before the entrance, took a deep breath, and pushed aside the thick furs keeping the heat in.
"Behold the wrath of Onein!" he said, holding the hare aloft. The rowdier parts of the family cheered, some of the uncles broke into a jocular rendition of a song of might and virility, and the child beamed at Rojak. Or more accurately, at the thing dangling from his hand.
Leaving some toy weapons behind, the child weaved his way between the bedrolls and scrambled over to Rojak. "Wh - Did you - wh - Did...where you..."
Excitable boy. Rojak smiled. "Yes, it's from your snare. The one you set just a few days ago." He lowered the thing into the boy's hands. "Now why don't you walk over to your father and learn how to prepare it, so you can have some tonight?"
Onein, beaming bright as a full moon, seized the prize and shot a quick glance at his younger sister, Aine, before rushing over to Guldtodr to learn the ways of the paring knife. As he neared his father, he shrieked, "I am a provider!" which sent the uncles into a rush of laughter.
The laughter soon faded, but Rojak realized that it still carried on. His head began to hurt behind his eyes, and his muscles burned and began to quiver. He sat down on the nearest bedroll, resisting the urge to curl up there on the ground and close his eyes. And then everything began to fade...
"Rojak!" Sunande was looking at him with a wry expression on her face, and her hand loosely curled toward herself in a sign of confusion. Sunande is always alert. She likes to keep in-house watch at night, so she and Haljek sleep closest to the.. .oh. "Rojak, do you intend to spend all night on my bedroll? I'd share it with you, but I share it already."
"No... All night?"
Sunande snorted. "Might as well spend it there, you've been there long enough. You missed first call for meal, you know. All the good meat is gone." She rubbed at her brow, and then pulled her hair back over her shoulders. Then she looked at him. "Something is wrong. Isn't it."
Your eyes say that's how you've always felt about me. How we all have, even before you knew my brother. But maybe things are worse now than they once were.
Rojak coughed. "Yes. Ah, no." Haneir burn my impetuous tongue.
"Mm." Sunande made it clear that she was unconvinced. Looking past her legs, Rojak saw that various other members of the family kept an eye on them. Have you been delegated to speak to me? Sunande sighed, and she looked older than her twenty years. "We are all worried. Your father does not approach you because he knows not what to say, and Haljek will not because... because neither does he. Your family scarcely understands you or what to say to you, Rojak." Some things have been Bound to my head, and do not need words to aid them.
Sunande looked over her shoulder, and some of her hair fell back over her shoulder. Spread out, it glowed with the faint splendor of the torchlight, the dark strands burning gold when they parted ways. She turned her head back and her hair returned to its darkness. "You like walks, Rojak. Walk with me."
"In the night?" He raised an eyebrow.
She shrugged. "You often walk at night."
"Sometimes, yes. But not far. And no one else ever goes."
"Well, now I will go. And if that displeases you, I'll go alone." Her eyes glittered mischievously as she lifted her small spearaxe. "I'm sure I can handle myself if I don't stray far from camp."
Rojak smiled, nodded, and rose. He had not yet taken off his heavy robes, but he added layers now to keep out the winter night, and wrapped furs around his boots and stuffed some inside. When Sunande was ready, they pushed aside the entrance furs and walked into the night.
Immediately, Rojak felt Eikle's cold, withering breath on his face. Both of them had masks to deal with this problem, but it was not windy enough to require them. Eikle breathed gently tonight.
"So," Rojak prompted. Sunande nodded her head, but said nothing for some time. The air smelled of burning wood, and of roast meat and winter-plants from all the great-houses in the village. With every step, the snow creaked out small screams, and now and then a wind would come to set Rojak's face aflame and drown out the smell of everything but the cold itself. He couldn't see it in the darkness, but he could feel his breath congeal into thick clouds of vapor as they walked.
"I have paired myself with your brother, and we intend to remain as one." Sunande took a deep breath. "And that makes you my brother as well. I fear for you, Rojak."
Rojak said nothing, trying to conjure the right sort of reply from the crunching snow and the repetition of his own breath. They had not walked far from the great-house, but he knew from experience that once they felt too cold to go on, the walk back would seem very long. As if to heighten the sense of distance, a pair of wolves howled somewhere in the darkness, beyond the trees.
"I have seen you when it happens," Sunande continued.
"When what happens?"
"You know," she said. He could feel her eyes on him even in the darkness. "You know better than I."
"But I don't."
Rojak shook his head. "Things..."
Sunande waited for a long time, her breathing and Rojak's in staggered rhythm like a heart as stealthy as the soft approach of an owl. Rojak could feel it focusing on him, seeing him in the darkness as only owls can, swooping in perhaps now - or now - to seize him and tear from him his thoughts.
"Tell me," she enjoined.
"I don't know." He reached under his furs in pursuit of itches that had not bothered him before. "There is nothing to tell. I don't remember things in words." He paused, waiting for Sunande to prod him further, but she said nothing. "I... They are images. Not images. Images in the brain, not in the eyes."
Sunande seemed to contemplate for a long time. "What do you mean?"
Rojak shook his head. "Nothing. Childish foolishness."
When Sunande grabbed him by the shoulders, staring him in the eyes, he was taken by surprise. Her breath was a muted warmth on his face. Despite the cold, despite her position in his family, he found himself somewhat aroused by her closeness and her strength. "Tell me," she repeated.
Rojak closed his eyes, trying to block out her proximity without forcing a break in the contact. He tried to summon something resembling memory to his mind, and then there was a tingling, and nausea, and unnatural warmth.
"Rojak! Wake! Wake yourself!"
"White people, white like the snow, breathing feeling, peeling envious pulsing with our thoughts."
He somehow saw, or imagined he saw, Sunande's features twist into confusion and unease in the darkness. "What are you speaking of?"
Rojak blinked. "I... don't remember. How long...?"
"Only a few moments."
There was a pause. "You're not - " Sunande began.
"No, just thinking now."
"It is cold. Think quickly."
Rojak grinned. "All your boasting of the might of your father, the might of your clan in the north, and here you shiver like a plucked jene bird."
He couldn't see Sunande's face well in the dark, but he heard a good-natured snort. "And who's boastful now?"
"Here," Rojak mocked, "would you like some of my furs to keep you warm?"
"Hm... Kindly or crude of you, I wonder." Rojak knew that she was smirking, her one eyebrow raised. "Besides I've already got someone to give me his furs," she said, tapping the side of his nose with her finger.
"I - "
"Which reminds me. You need to mate. You haven't yet passed yourself on."
Rojak's face flushed in the darkness. It was customary among the northern clans to be far more blunt than the southern ones in some respects, but both highly valued the idea of passing on one's seed, creating new life for the clan. Life was power. Power was survival. None could be separated from the others.
"And," Sunande continued, "I think that might help you in many ways."
"To have sex?"
She snorted. "To find a mate. That's part, yes, but I can see you're wise enough to know that there's more value in a mate than just mating itself. Not like Gamtaitr, who spreads himself about so readily but won't share his bed otherwise."
"I don't know if that's entirely fair to say of him - "
"No, it's not. But you hear what I'm saying." Sunande paused. Not a sound came out of the night, and it only served to build pressure in Rojak's head.
"It's not as easy as needing and finding."
"No. It's not." Eikle yawned, briefly, and the pair crouched low to fight the chill. The wind made dampened rustling sounds through the furs Rojak was wrapped in, and then it stopped. Sunande continued. "But you cannot tell me you have no ideas. There are many pretty girls in this village, and strong ones too." Rojak said nothing for some time. "Come on, Rojak."
"These are not things that men speak to women of."
"A korva's ass! Where I come from it's what men don't speak to men of!" Sunande shook her head slowly under her furs. She exhaled hard in frustration, glowing breath fading upwards into nothing. Rojak saw his purported objection fade with it. Unsatisfied, Sunande continued. "Besides, going into the forests alone to think is not something men do, and yet I still catch them at it. So..."
Rojak's skin felt like it was packed with snow, the sort that burned with cold, searing light at sunrise. "I... I've wanted to see Kaveil."
Without being able to bear looking, Rojak knew an eyebrow had raised. If not both. "You don't take your fruit from the ground, do you?" she asked, half a jibe and half incredulity. "But I suspect that if a man here can climb that tree, you are him."
It felt almost painful to Rojak that Sunande was so vague but encouraging. After his confession, and its aftermath, his throat stuck with anxiety. He began to long for the forest again, though he was not fool enough to go at night.
"Rojak, go to her."
"I - No! No, not now. Although... with one like her, perhaps now would be as good a time as any." Rojak could hear her shaking her head again, making a soft abrasive sound against the fur lining of her hood. "Sleep now, and then go when you wake. I think, perhaps, that she can help you more deeply than another might. After all, she has the wisdom of the people of the tarns, and a strong healer."
"Would you know?"
"Well... no. She is a strange one, that red-haired woman. Or, at least," she amended, "one who keeps to herself, both her thoughts and her time. Not unlike another whom I know." Rojak could feel her coy smile through the chill in the air. He noticed that he'd begun to shiver.
"I...Y - ... I'll go when I wake, then." He hardly believed that he was agreeing, and then it was too late.
design ©2001 by Cindy Rosenthal
Rojak ©2001 by Ryan Morini
What is copyright?