Chapter 1: The Djulid
Ikram sniffed the late autumn air. The surrounding brush of the mid-Afterlands rustled little, but the familiar scent lingered amongst the petrichor: human.
His eyes narrowed. Why would a lone human follow an orcish warparty through disputed territory? It didn’t smell scared, or angry, or hurt.
Kren noticed too, a halo of auburn red framing his face. Still short, his hair had grown in the months since his father had sliced off his three-foot mane. “It followed us,” Kren muttered. “Your quarry. Must’ve lived.”
Lived? Yesterday, they’d left the little human bleeding from its ribcage, near dead. While its companions fought, that human found Ikram, faced him, stared at him with its round, brown eyes. Trusting. It had no weapons, like a wizard might. Its hand reached toward him, and Ikram’s reflex sunk a knife into its torso. But the human’s fingers had no glow, no buzz, no whiff of magic. An un-threat, like a cow. A baby cow. Ikram hadn’t let their shaman slit its throat or take its ears, as it bled silently into the earth.
And now, it followed them.
Their shaman may not have noticed yet, with the incenses that clouded his nostrils, but the others watched them warily. As the Leader’s second, Kren would give the command, until Leader Djakka woke. If he ever woke again.
Still unconscious, Djakka wheezed on the gurney of sticks, his stomach splayed open after their skirmish yesterday. His air was thick with fever. They’d carry him, until he could walk, or until he died. Gods help them if Djakka died. They’d never be whole again.
Ikram breathed deep. No musty iron fog, unlike during the skirmish. “I don’t smell its blood.”
Blixtek brandished her curved blade, teeth bared. Her ropes of hair hung down, brushing the spikes on her shoulder armor. Ikram didn’t know how she always overheard him and Kren, but she’d been listening in since before Ikram could pull a bow. “Want I should kill it?” she said.
“No,” Ikram said, too fast. Too obvious. He’d let the pale little creature live, if barely. Kren knew. “It doesn’t smell wounded anymore. It could be a djulid. I will ask.” If it was a healer, it might be able to help Djakka.
“Ask? You’ll try to mewl Westish?” Kren asked.
“Maybe it studied Orcish at its djulid academy.” Blixtek mimed a human priest’s lecture. “Today, we waste valuable time learning the language of our enemies.”
Ikram shrugged. “Maybe. Blixtek, you restrain the shaman.”
Kren said, “I’ll handle the boys.”
Ikram stepped back from the party as Blixtek moved near Shaman Hatk. Terribly useless shaman, Hatk. Used yesterday’s healing on himself. Today’s healing could not help, and he could not even craft a poultice to prevent Djakka from contracting fever. If Djakka died, they might as well stop their late travel home and burrow into fresh graves instead. The Radzad, Chieftess Gax, had told Ikram as much before they left. Come home with my son, or don’t come home.
Some paces into the brush, the human hid behind a tree, its large eyes peering forward. It smiled as Ikram approached. Teeth too close. Lips too pink. No noise. It hadn’t uttered a sound as Ikram’s knife had sunk into its side yesterday either.
Ikram displayed his bare hands. “Hello, Humie.” It let him get close, an arm’s length away, closer than any person should let an enemy. Ikram prodded the human’s wound, lifting the tunic upward to display its ribs. The human wriggled.
Ticklish? How weak.
Ikram prodded the human’s healed wound—not even a scar to prove it battled—and furrowed his brows. A mortal wound, now nothing? This was a djulid, for sure. He grabbed the human by its wrist and led it forward.
It pulled back as they left the brush, but Ikram outweighed it by far more than half. The djulid watched Blixtek and Shaman Hatk anxiously.
The shaman whirled, finally aware, his eyes flung open wide in battle ire. Blixtek grasped both his biceps from behind and pinned Shaman Hatk in place so that Ikram and the human could approach Djakka’s gurney.
The human absently tapped its icon, a pale-yellow stone hung around its neck, with the tips of its fingers.
“Heal him,” Ikram commanded. The human looked up. Why in the hell did every look from its brown eyes throw a dagger through his? They were the color of dirt. Mud. Excrement. Why, why, why?
He should kill it just to stop that happening. He jerked the human’s arm and asked with his eyes. Fix him. Fix my friend. Orcs didn’t beg, not easily. But to save Djakka, Ikram might. “Heal him,” he said. And Ikram let go of the human’s wrist.
The human prodded at Djakka, who shivered anew. The human’s fingers found Djakka’s gut wound, a slash through his liver. Black blood seeped forward from graying puffy skin. Djakka moaned weakly.
The shaman lurched forward, but Blixtek held tight, muttering seductive little curses in his ear. As was her way.
The human leaned down to smell the wound, and after, Djakka’s breath. Its nose nearly touched the prone leader’s. Ikram’s heart skipped. It’s not a threat. It’s a djulid.
The human’s brown eyes bulged, and its bottom lip sucked into its mouth. Its hands dove through its pack, dumping the contents on the ground—jars of paste and wraps of leaves and barks. The human combined them with fury, in a small mortar. The pestle worked tirelessly, while the human considered the other jars. It stopped the pestle, and moved the jars around, turning some over, then snaked out one long leaf from a bundle. It coated the leaf in the paste, and popped open a large skein of—
“Liquor!” Kren said. Alcohol scalded their nostrils.
“A drunk healer,” Blixtek said. “Nice find, Ikram.”
“I’ll flay it. I’ll eat its skin,” Shaman Hatk said.
“Please,” Blixtek murmured into his ear, “we’ve seen your pathetic appetite.”
“Then I’ll smoke the rest into jerky.”
Kren turned. “Quiet.”
“Who died and made you Leader?” Hatk snapped.
“Djakka, unless this pink thing can save him,” Kren said. “Set the gurney down.” The two carriers lowered the stretcher. These two were younger, newer warriors, twins in Djakka’s year, but they didn’t have his sharpness. Or his mass. Or his mother.
The human stared up at Ikram with worried eyes. Big, brown, worried eyes. Ikram knelt and put his hands forward like he might with a child. “Shh, shh. Go on.”
The human poured the clear liquor over Djakka’s middle, flushing the black blood until it ran nearly clear, tinged with red. Djakka’s muscles shifted, in pain, but the human put a hand on his shoulder and pushed down so he wouldn’t writhe. Alcohol stench stung Ikram’s nose, harsh. The human covered the leaf in paste that smelled like spices and oil and clean magic. Tense fingers attached the bandage to the surrounding skin, the leaf’s dark green off-color with Djakka’s new ashen hue. The human pressed its icon to its forehead, and the yellow stone glowed. The human’s mouth formed soundless words as it ran its sun-freckled hands over Djakka’s middle.
Bright light entered the wound through the leaf.
Djakka’s face gained color, enough to make his rank scars stop blending with the rest of his face.
“Did it work?” one of the twins asked. “Can we go home?”
The human was still working, its thin fingers shaking potions and listening to the rattle. It chose one, unscrewed the top, and sniffed. Mint and a tinny bark and elderberry. It closed the top and chose another, ginger and mint and cinnamon. It scooted closer to the gurney and lifted Djakka’s head.
“What are you doing?” Ikram asked.
“It’s going to poison him!” Shaman Hatk shouted.
Even Blixtek looked worried, her cheeks sucked in, her knife-hand tensed. “Kren?”
Kren tried pulling backward on the human’s shoulder.
It hissed, like a beast. A wildcat, a marsupial, a snake. Kren frowned.
“Kill it!” the shaman demanded. His arms worked free from Blixtek’s grasp and started to form the signs to cast fire. Magic wove around his fingers, summoned from the Garden Realm.
“You’ll hurt Djakka!” Kren shouted.
Ikram’s knife flashed before he knew he’d decided. The curved blade slid through the shaman’s fingers, severing three at their knuckles. The fireball fizzled.
Ikram turned back to Djakka, whose eyes slowly opened.
The human stared back, the first thing the waking orc saw.
Djakka panicked, his green irises surrounded by white sclera. His shoulders tensed, and his mouth widened to yell. “A—”
The human tossed in the cinnamon potion and covered Djakka’s mouth with its hand. Its leg pinned Djakka down and braced against the gurney sticks. Djakka’s hands flung upward, trying to hit the human. Three blows hit as it ducked forward over Djakka’s head. It winced, eyes shut, but it didn’t let go.
Ikram turned to grab his friend’s flailing, muscular arms. “No, Djakka. It’s helping us.” Djakka’s green skin was feverish. Too warm. He wouldn’t make the trip. The human clamped down, its hand and body pressing to keep the potion in Djakka’s mouth.
Shaman Hatk still wailed at his lost fingers. Blixtek took him into a choke-hold. “Be a good boy, Hattie. Maybe the humie will fix you next.”
Under Ikram’s fingers, a shudder rippled across Djakka’s prone body, followed by a sudden cool. The human lifted its head and shuffled backward to its bag. It gathered its jars and re-situated them in its pack, rubbing its head where Djakka hit.
“A humie?” Djakka asked. “What’s a humie here for? Ikky, didn’t you kill that one?”
Ikram blushed at the nickname.
“It followed us,” Kren said. “Good too. You would’ve died.”
The human edged behind Ikram. Djakka’s nose crunched, eyebrows raised. “You can’t keep it,” he said.
“I’m not going to—”
“You remember the bunny?” Djakka interrupted.
“I remember the bunny,” Kren said.
“You hid it like a pet, but Ma found it and made you kill it.”
“And eat it,” Kren added.
“Delicious. Seared to perfection,” Blixtek added. She kissed the air and had to tighten her grip on the struggling shaman.
“It’s not a bunny,” Ikram said.
“It’s a thief!” the shaman wailed. Ikram turned to find the human plucking Hatk’s fingers from the foliage. It brushed them off, examining them. Its big brown eyes glanced up, bright, at Ikram, and it smiled.
Ikram reached forward to take the fingers. “No. You can’t have those. They aren’t yours.”
The human snatched away. Ikram grabbed its wrist and took the bloody severed fingers by force, knocking the human on its back. It scrambled. Leaves scattered. Leather-covered feet slipped in the undergrowth. Its mouth opened like it wanted to say something, but it couldn’t.
Its tongue was missing.
Ikram leaned forward and grabbed the little human’s chin. He pried open the pink thing’s mouth and inspected the cavern of teeth, the scarred stub where a tongue should be.
“What are you doing?” Djakka asked.
Ikram let go. “Nothing.”
“If you’re going to rut with it at least warn us,” Blixtek said. “I’d rather not need my eyes removed.”
“My fingers!” the shaman cried. “I’ll kill it. Bring it over here.”
“Nobody’s going to kill it,” Ikram said.
“It’ll just keep following us,” Kren said.
“I’ll strangle it with my good hand,” the shaman said.
“Do you want to lose the rest of your fingers?” Ikram growled. The human stood, grabbed its pack, and slid behind Ikram again. It used him like a shield.
“Why does it keep hiding behind Ikky?” Djakka asked. He stood, squatting and testing his limbs. He bent at the middle. From the pained expression, the liver wound still pinched.
“It likes him,” Kren said. “Maybe it’s a human thing, to fall for the one that stabs you.”
Blixtek grinned. “I think I’ve heard of that.”
“Why won’t you kill it?” the shaman said. “You had no issues before, gutting it.”
“Because it healed me,” Djakka said. “Healing your leader earns one extra day of life, don’t you think, Hatk?”
“We’re a warparty!” Shaman Hatk spat. “We kill humans.”
“You used your healspell on a scratch.”
“A dagger wound.”
“On your arm.” Blixtek tapped Hatk’s bicep. “Shallow too, I think.”
“It would have infected. I can’t heal anyone if I’m dead.”
“Of course not,” Djakka said.
Hatk’s eyes raised at what sounded like forgiveness. Ikram knew better; he’d grown up with Djakka. Two years younger, the Chieftess’s son attached to Kren, Blixtek, and Ikram from their sixth summer onward.
“Blex,” Djakka commanded, “kill the coward.”
Blixtek drew an atrocity knife over the shaman’s throat. Blood spilled, spurted, splattered onto the foliage below.
The human lurched forward, icon in hand, already glowing. To heal Hatk? Ikram grabbed its shoulder and forced it back, pulling the skinny thing all the way off the ground. It kicked and bucked, its eyes locked on the dying orc shaman. Hatk clutched and reached as Blixtek let him fall to the ground. Spells flickered along the shaman’s seven remaining fingers, but never succeeded.
“May this body feed the Garden,” Kren whispered a reflexive prayer.
As he waited for the shaman’s writhing to stop, Djakka disinterestedly prodded at the leaf bound to his wound. After, he nodded to the two gurney-carriers. “Gather the spoils. Our tribe awaits.”
Ikram didn’t ask about the human. Better for them to forget about it. Pretend it didn’t exist. What human?
Djakka forgot nothing. “Kren. You said it will follow us anyway?” he asked.
Kren resituated his thick ponytail. “I think it’s got a kismet.”
“Kismet? With Ikky?”
Djakka pointed to Ikram. “That Ikky? The one who pets bunnies?”
“Delicious bunnies,” Blixtek said.
Ikram tried not to blush and failed. The reddish tint colored the tips of his ears. The human’s brown eyes were still stuck on the dead shaman, and the three green fingers dropped in the foliage.
“Do you think it’s an assassin?” Djakka asked.
Ikram’s eyes shot open. There was no way this strange little djulid was an assassin. Far too skinny. Too meek. And those trusting eyes…
Blixtek shook her head. “Can’t be. Look at its build. It’d get torn apart out here.”
“By bunnies,” Kren said.
“Will you guys shut up about the bunnies!” Ikram burst.
Blixtek smacked her lips. Her eyes glinted with mischief.
Ikram crossed his fist at her, middle finger over fore, in the rudest gesture he could come up with. She laughed.
The human copied the gesture, its skinny, round-tipped fingers mangling the execution. Its thumb poked out awkwardly. Blixtek laughed harder, doubled over. Her still-bloody atrocity knife hung loosely from her fingers as her arms clutched her heaving stomach. Her thick braids swayed.
Djakka pulled at the crude twine on the unmade gurney, releasing a length, and passed that to Ikram. “Leash it.”
Ikram stepped back. He couldn’t. “Orcs don’t keep slaves.”
“Not a slave. A prisoner.”
Blixtek waved her arm. “Eh, eh, just let it go.”
Kren said, “It’ll follow us.”
“Won’t after I pin it to that tree.” Blixtek ran her thumb over the edge of her knife. Her eyes flicked to the human, and she smiled. An evil little smile, a hint of tusk on the right side. “May I, Leader?”
Ikram put his arm out. “You said it could have a day.”
“A day on a leash. Refuse, and it dies now.”
“The bunnies’ll eat it,” Blixtek added.
Ikram stared at the rope for half a minute, before he took the length and tied a neckhole. The human watched from behind Ikram’s arm, fascinated, until Ikram turned and tried to grab its shoulder. His fingertips brushed its tunic.
Its eyes widened, from Ikram to the rope and back.
A human running through the Afterlands, from orcs? Was it stupid? Its bag bumped the brush as it wriggled through, snagging sharp little branches. He could smell its sweat for a hundred yards, and he wasn’t anywhere near their best tracker.
“Run, little bunny!” Blixtek said. She looked to Djakka as she cleaned her knife of Hatk’s blood. “Do I get to chase it now?”
Ikram launched after the human, knives out, prepared to slice his way through wild brush. If Blixtek chased it, she’d kill it. Whoops, she’d say.
He found it halfway up a tree. Not too far away, but out of easy listening distance of Kren and Djakka. “Here, little humie,” Ikram called. “Come on down.”
The human snapped off a small branch of the evergreen and threw the needles at him.
“Hey!” Ikram covered his head with his arms as needles and cones and bark rained down. “Do you wanna die? Because Blixtek is gonna murder you.”
The human blinked at him. Of course it wouldn’t suddenly understand Orcish. And he couldn’t speak but a few words of Westish, mostly threats. He didn’t want to climb up.
“You’re not coming down, are you?” Ikram asked. The human blinked again. Ikram knelt, clearing the fallen leaves and needles from the surrounding area until he found dirt. Gross brown, like the little human’s eyes. “That’s probably best. You’ll do much better if you go back wherever you came from.”
He picked up a branch and sketched lines in the dirt—not orcsigns, just pictures. The human peered down, leaning forward from the high-up branch.
Where had it come from? There wasn’t a human settlement for fifty miles. What had this little thing been doing with those adventurers? Humans knew better, unless they were orchunters, scouting for nests. Or idiots. And this human knew its medicine, so it wasn’t simply stupid. It didn’t seem to care that Ikram’s warparty had killed its companions.
No tongue. Who’d done that?
He drew the human, sketched, with lines radiating from the semblance of its icon. He used his fingers to shade and smudge, until he had a likeness. “You’ll die out here, you know. Blixtek or not. Djulid or not.”
The human dropped from the tree and squatted to watch the sketching a few feet away. It pointed, first to Ikram, and then to the stick.
Ikram grinned and drew himself too. He drew his knives, his armor. His hair, trimmed short around his ears and tied up top. His wide nose, his middling tusks, and the three scars on his cheeks from pissing off his sisters, his mother, and Djakka respectively. The human watched, enthralled.
Ikram shaded himself, his drawing standing next to the human’s. Taller by a head. Bigger by twice. The human crept closer.
Ikram raised his brow. “You’ll really just follow us, won’t you?”
Its cow eyes quizzed him. It still didn’t understand.
“What’s taking so long?” Kren called.
“Nothing.” Ikram shoveled leaves over the drawings and grabbed the little human’s tunic. It didn’t struggle much this time, as Ikram looped the leash around its neck. It just huffed.
Ikram and the leashed human started back toward the others. The human dragged its feet, leaving tracks in its wake. Unacceptable. After a quarter mile, Ikram picked up the human and carried it on his shoulders.
Its body warmed his neck in the near-winter air, and though Ikram wouldn’t admit this ever ever ever, he liked it.