Unedited, unadorned. First chapter of The Manipulator's Knock
One - Raise the Sparks
A solitary mote of light broke the plane of the black, boggling night. Holis had not realized her eyes were open until the first spark flew upwards, illuminating Dormir's face and his long thin fingers as he leaned over a triangle of kindling, and then not, like he had never been there.
It was the steady strike of the flint on stone that had wakened her. Her hand moved to the whip on her belt without thought, the memory of its hardened handle touching her palm before the actual thing, and then she traced the coil to the tip where three threads were woven in a knot. The knot was flat with the countless iterations as she'd driven her heard. The whistle before its snap was always in her mind, droning underneath everything. The knot touched the pommel, where the iron ball kept the balance. This was cold as the ground she laid on, despite the tongue swelling moisture in the air that still held yesterday's heat.
Dormir struck the stone again and a trail of sparks lifted like a snake. Some arched onto the cone of crushed bark and dry weed that he'd piled over the dead embers from dinner, and finally the fire was lit.
"What's wrong?" Holis asked. There were no stars, they'd been trapped for ten days under the vast purple cloud that covered the Unfinished Lands, so she couldn't tell the time.
"I heard something, Drover. From behind us." He whispered, but then he couldn't manage much more. He'd had the infection since she'd found him laying naked on the shores of the sea. He'd cough himself to a ragged husk when he tried to raise his voice at all.
"Nothing can come from that way. You know that." She sat up against her pack, resting the curve of her back against it, sore from the hard earth. "That's all gone now."
Dormir watched the flames grow intently as they coalesced into a single petal of red slapping against the impenetrable fog of night, a smile touching his razor lips that curled his spiralling moustache around his cavernous nostrils.
"Still," he said, "I heard them out there, ringing their bells. At least, that's what they sound like to me." He straightened his back and his hood fell off over his ears, revealing his shaved head. He held up his hand to insist on silence. "There," he said, extending a finger to his ear.
Holis leaned into her pack, turning her eyes southward. If there had been wind she'd have heard it in her ears like through a hollowed gourd, or felt its breath on her face. She shook her head, and nearly told Dormir he was crazy and should try to get some sleep. A ringing, way back, like the tin pan alarm at the edge of her ranch had been tripped. Flat, sharp tinkles, gone as quick as they'd erupted from nothingness. Dormir was still smiling, but the slant of his eyes became grim and weary. He dug inside his cloak, perking perked immediately when his hand touched the skinning knife she'd given him, smile going to ready-grin.
She scrambled to her feet, forgetting she'd removed her leathers before bedding down until Dormir snorted at the sight of her bare legs. She didn't care. She faced the darkness at the edge of the growing firelight. Waiting. Her whip hung half unwound at her feet, the knot heavy and reassuring on her toes. She listened and watched.
Her shadow darkened as the outline of her body became defined with the emergent flame, her slim long legs lengthened even further, the top of her head blending into the black. Dormir shuffled his cloak behind her, the silhouette of his squatting form like a boulder or a sleeping dog at her side. She closed here eyes – she could see nothing. She almost fell asleep again, right there where she stood, but another noise, different, jolted her to awareness. Dormir came to his feet with the blade drawn and ready.
"Cattle," she said. A graveled whine, the moaning vibration of a sow crying for her calf. She knew it well. She wound the whip in her opposite hand as she stepped forward into the dark beyond their camp.
"Drover!" he rose his voice in warning, reaching for the drooping collar of her undershirt. But it was too much; he collapsed in a fit, wheezing between gut-wrenching, explosive hacks.
"Quiet, fool!" She came to him, covering his mouth. There'd be blood on her hand, she knew. He wrenched himself away from her violently, swallowing with the sound of creaking boards.
"Stay away," he whispered, lips wet. He pointed into the night with the knife, wiping his chin. "From me . . . and that."
"But I hear them. The herd. If they're alive somewhere out there I have to find them. They could lead me back."
"There is no back, Drover. You know this as well as I do. We can never go back." He hiccuped, almost like a laugh, except his torn-up throat couldn't manage that.
She spun away from him, looking back into the bleating, flowing darkness, deeper than any well, blacker than blackest dye on burning cloth. Shapes revealed themselves to her in that space, forming from her inability to reconcile the truth she'd seen: no shape, no being in life, there was nothing back there. Back home. She saw the side of her barn, the stone feeder Bill had made into a vapor bath. She saw the eaves of the roof when they looked up at the stars.
She saw the window of her house and the colorless, bleaching flames within.
She heard the warbling moan of the sow again. She heard the snort of a bull, and she unleashed her whip into the air, not snapping it, but wary of what lay beyond the darkness.
"I . . . I see the ranch. I saw my husband." It wasn't true, not exactly, but she'd felt him like he was holding her hand.
"You remember?" he said with the tremor of shock.
She looked back at him, arms limp at his sides, fire behind him throwing a sliver of light on his face. Even that bare touch showed her his confusion. The blade in his hand was shaking. Was he afraid too? Did he not remember? She set her gaze south again. There had to be something. "Don't believe it," Dormir said. He came close behind her. His whisper filled her ear like the absent blowing wind. "Those are dreams – bait - they can't be real. All you need to worry about is what is on that list. Nothing else matters."
She put her hand over her breast where she kept the slip of torn paper in her pocket.
"You're a drover. You must drive on."
She felt her heart beating, its force begging her forward, thrusting towards the shapes from her memory.
"If the herd is truly gone, then I'm no such thing. I'm useless. I'm no-one."
Still, he insisted: "You know this land. You know the catastrophe awaiting the people to the north. I'd say you're the furthest person from nobody in this whole damnable, dying world. They'll be erased right along with everything else."
"I cannot stop it."
"You can warn them." He wheezed a little. His breath was labored. Something worried him, something he wouldn't say. After she'd nursed him to health, he'd told her he was a tailor. She'd even seen him stitch a tear in his leggings once, and offered the same to her when her canvas long coat had split at the seam in the shoulder. But that wasn't all he was.
"Who are you, Dormir?"
"I'm just a man who has lost anything. Just like you." His fingers went to his goatee, but this was just to catch a small cough in his hand.
"Not everything is gone. Not yet." She was still clutching the paper. "Something might be saved. I don’t know how I know. I don’t want to. But I believe they aren’t all gone for good." "
She retreated into the circle of light, wrapping the whip around her elbow. Dormir took this cue and sheathed the skinning blade, huddling close to the fire again to salvage some meager heat. "We'll have to keep watch," she said, "We can't risk the fire going out. And you can't let me fall asleep again."
She returned to her bedroll, slipping her leathers back on and affixing her hat over her graying hair.
"And call me by my name," she said, looping her whip through her belt, "Or nothing at all."
He nodded, and was silent. Holis sat next to the fire, facing east. She dug into her pocket for seeds and popped a handful in her mouth. She crunched through the salted shells, spitting them out in wads at the edge of the fire. Together, they waited for dawn.