In the depths of my despair, your words bring light and hope.
I feel so often the weight of the burden Ra gave me.
To bind together the Northlands, to save Livila…
Sekhmet, my dearest, I am afraid, our Dynasty will die doing so.
Whenever your words whisper through the crackling com-link,
Yes, the Dragon took our life-giving, but he never took my creations.
They will live on.
Will sing until the Key begins a new symphony.
Private Communications Link. Utillian Time 18:03PM. Signal: Strong. Upload: Completed.
Do you wish to send? Yes. Yes, I want to send it! You useless machine.
The ground of Utillia was terrifying. Even the islands moved constantly to an offbeat that made Ki’b uneasy. She had tried to hide her discomfort from Khwaja Denvy and even Jarvis. Even though the long, golden horizon was before her, and she knew it was reality, a part of her was unable to comprehend what her eyes saw as truth. There were no trees. Bare. Barren. Not a tinge of green to match her skin. Was it the lack of roots that made the land unstable?
And yet the Kattamonts were so strong, thrusting through the burning-sea on their sand-ships of silver, surging over the dunes with fulsome ownership of all that lay around them. Ki’b tried to even out her breathing as she strove to keep pace with the wheelchair-bound female who rolled across the gravelled shoreline of the small island. It was no easy feat. Despite the wheelchair, the Kattamont was intimidating with her thick, muscled arms, covered in rosy fur. Her hands looked as though they would crush the wheels she manoeuvred with elegant ease.
Could she trust her saviours? Was there a possibility they were Twizels, tricking her into false hope and taking her back to a dark box? Ki’b frowned. If it was so, she did not believe they would have been so kindly, especially to Khwaja Denvy, and despite the discordance of the soil between her bare toes, there was a trusting thrum from the surface gravel. Even if she had never had the chance to grow up amongst her Kelib Sisters, and had been cast so far from the roots of her ancestors, she hoped that she could read the earth well enough to know they meant her family no harm.
She wiped aside a stray tear. Penny cried openly beside her, soft sobs of worry for Clive who lay in the lap of the wheelchair Kattamont. Reaching out, she took her sister’s hand, squeezing it. Brown eyes sought hers, wide with fear. Ki’b hated that fear. It was crushing.
“There she is. Home.”
Ki’b stirred at the voice of the wheelchair Kattamont and looked up. Home. It was a word Khwaja Denvy and Titus used when talking about the House of Flames. Penny used it often in reference to Tempath. None of them had ever said it with such honesty and conviction as had the Kattamont beside her. Ki’b covered her mouth against the gasp, her eyes drawn to the beautiful sight lying just off the beach.
Banked on the shoreline, gleaming under the last rays of the Sun, a sand-ship bobbed against the swelling waves of the burning-sea. She had seen the magnificent vessels before, in the distance, gliding along the tops of the dunes, but this one was within reach and overwhelmingly huge. Its hull appeared patched together with Zaprex metal of different gradients and strengths, shining spectra of light across the sand like coloured flowers over a meadow. The wings and the masts were transparent until creased and fluttered by the wind. It reminded her of a dragonfly, sitting upon the surface of a pond.
“It’s so beautiful.”
“She’s called the Lawless Child. A nyhot. Medium class vessel.”
Ki’b scrubbed back her hair. If the sand-ship before her was ‘medium’ sized, she could not begin to picture anything larger. As if guessing her thoughts, the Kattamont beside her laughed and ruffled her hair.
“You do not ever want to meet the giant navy sand-ships. But it is the cargo-ships that are the biggest. They are slow and huge. Oh. Their engines sing the most magnificent songs, though.”
They started down the soft, grass-covered hill towards the Lawless Child. Ahead of them, the queen carried Khwaja Denvy. Crew from a small camp on the beach ran to meet them and Ki’b was entranced by the multicoloured array of Humans, Kelibs, and Kattamonts. Some of the Kelibs had tails, and some of the Humans had Kelib skin, and some of the Kattamonts had Human hands. She blinked at the strangeness of it all.
“We’re a bit of a blended bunch.”
“You’re half-breeds,” Ki’b murmured. Now the eerily Human hands of the lady beside her, rolling along in her wheelchair, were no longer a mystery. She looked different because she was.
“We’re the castoffs no one wants.” The Kattamont tipped her head to one side, shrugging.
Ki’b relaxed, sinking her feet deeper into the clover rich soil. The half-cast Kattamont was right. Home was the right word. Utillia was home.
“By the way,” the Kattamont smiled, “I’m Nixlye, Princess of the Misfit Pride.”
Heat tinged Ki’b’s cheeks. “Ki’b…ah…Just Ki’b. This is Penny, and you are carrying Clive.”
“And the old Kattamont?”
“Is our caretaker, Denvy Maz.”
Nixlye nodded. “Mother should introduce herself, but it is unlikely she ever will; she tends to forget such formalities.”
“Term of respect. She is the birth-mother of my alpha-mate.” Nixlye pointed at the shorter, silvery-toned Kattamont, firing orders at the crew ahead of them. “She is Zafiashid, Captain of the Lawless Child, Queen of the Misfits, Outcast of the Silvertide Pride.”
Ki’b crinkled her nose. “That is a lot of titles.”
Nixlye laughed. “I am sure she will add a few more to her name before she dies heroically in battle. Come, come. Let’s get you all on board and checked out by the doctor.”
Ki’b bounced on her heels. “Hear that Penny? Everything is all right. They have a healer!”
“But…Clive?” Penny bit her lip.
Ki’b hugged her tightly around the waist. “It will be all right. You will see.”
She tugged on the Human girl, dragging her down the small knoll after the wheelchair’s grooves. Khwaja Denvy might have a chance to live if they had a real healer on the sand-ship. She clutched at the hope rising within her, holding it tightly. She could always hope. Khwaja Denvy had taught her that.
If she had thought the sand-ship was huge from a distance, it was far bigger by the time they had climbed aboard. With no soil between her toes to feel the vibrations and drumbeat of the land a dizziness beset her on the metal and wooden planks of the deck. She swayed, a sickening pit forming in her stomach, bile threatening to rise to her mouth.
A hand steadied her and someone knelt by her side. He was a half-breed, skin wrinkled and old, but tattooed with pretty patterns from his cheeks, down his neck and arms. He draped a dangling chain, laden with rocks, around her neck. It took moments for the unsteadiness to settle and the distant drum beat to return. It no longer leaked through the soles of her feet. It echoed around her disconcertingly, seeming to resonate from rocks about her neck. She frowned, staring down at the necklace before looking up in confusion at the man kneeling beside her.
“Any better, love?”
“Yes, thank you,” she muttered. “I thought the wood…” she stared down at the deck and curled her bare toes against the hardened surface.
He shook his head. “Long dead wood, Little Mountain Flower.” The half-breed rubbed the banister sadly. “There has been no drumbeat in this wood for a long time.”
He smiled, giving her head a pat. His hand was heavy but reassuring, the pressure steadfast like a mighty trunk, reminding her of Khwaja Denvy. In the dim evening light, his half-breed skin showed the touches of Human hair. That was the difference, she realized. He was hairy. A hairy Kelib man. Then she noticed his eyes. They were far too Human—warm, inviting, and a pale silver like Clive’s. She bit her lip, hiding her giggle at the thought that he looked like Clive.
“Here in Utillia we Kelibs wear our soil around our necks. The princess tends to forget about it.”
Ki’b looked up at the sound of Nixlye’s wheelchair. The princess looked ashamed, with a flush on her Human cheeks. “I apologize! I am so used to thinking as a Kattamont.”
The half-breed chuckled. “Well, we all choose one part of us to affiliate with. The sapling here is a pureblood, though, Princess. We’ll need to keep an eye on her. They do tend to stick to islands more. If she’s going to be on a sand-ship we might need to get a few more rocks around.”
Ki’b touched the small stones on the chain. “Thank you, sir.”
“Little Mountain Flower, if you need anything else at all, come see me. I’m first mate on this vessel.” He waved her off. “You can make a rock-chain yourself when you get a chance.”
“I will!” Beaming, Ki’b ran after Nixlye and Queen Zafiashid.
Strange buzzing lanterns lit the dark corridors of the sand-ship’s interior. The smell was different to the oils Ki’b had once known, and she stared at the faintly burning liquid as she passed. Eventually, so deep down it seemed, the queen shoved open a door into a large cabin and heaved Khwaja Denvy inside. Ki’b quickly scurried through, dragging Penny behind her. She watched anxiously as the queen placed Khwaja Denvy’s limp body onto a large bed. Queen Zafiashid groaned, rolling her shoulders.
“He might look like a sack of bones but he weighs as much as a baby usks carcass,” she griped. The queen crouched beside the bed and glanced back at Ki’b. “He must have been something to look at when he was healthy.”
Ki’b frowned. There had never been much light in the box that had held them all. It had been hard to know what any of them had looked like in the beginning. Jarvis, Clive, and Penny’s appearances, when they were all freed, had surprised her. She had known them for two sol-cycles but never seen their faces, only their voices that had soothed her fears in the darkness.
Queen Zafiashid snorted at her inability to reply and stood, approaching to scoop Clive from Nixlye’s lap and settle him in a smaller cot.
“See what you can do about these pathetic things, Jythal. I will be top-deck.”
Jythal? Who was Jythal?
Ki’b gasped as the queen brushed past and left the room, revealing the silent presence that had appeared in the cabin while her attention had been on the queen. Penny was gaping at the tall Kattamont that rivalled Khwaja Denvy in height. He was beautiful, but not in the way she thought Jarvis was handsome. Jarvis was broad, growing stronger and harder like a Kelib bone-blade being tempered by fire each day. The Kattamont looming over them was like her Mor-Mor’s white silk scarves. She was taken back, spinning in the distant memories of the crackling firelight from the Family Halls, when her Mor-Mor and Sisters had danced with grace, their soft, flowing gowns rippling with the movement of water. It had been a long time since she had felt so much at home so quickly, and her bare toes curled against the wooden floor. The Kattamont smelt like the herbs that were bottled throughout the cabin, and the tip of his paws were stained with their sap. While Khwaja Denvy had layers of colour through his air-gills and fan-tail, this Kattamont was colourless, almost like a glittering apparition, one of the wandering spirits of the woods her Sisters and Mors had whispered about, like the white stag Kelib men always hunted but could never catch.
He stepped past her, toward Nixlye. Ki’b shrank back, feeling small beside the two giant creatures.
“What happened?” The male’s voice was calm, vibrating with a low purr that rattled his air-gills.
“Mother and I found this old prince and these cubs being attacked by poachers. The prince has lost a lot of blood and the boy is badly bruised. You had best check his neck; his breathing is quite laboured.”
Ki’b found her courage, moving to Khwaja Denvy’s side.
“You have to help Khwaja Denvy! He is dying.”
But the white Kattamont ignored her, speaking softly to Nixlye. “Poachers: Kelib or Human?”
“Hmmm, the worst kind. No offense, little one.” He patted Ki’b’s head with a large paw as he passed her to crouch beside Clive’s cot. The breath in her chest held fast. He fished through pouches attached to the belts around his waist, pulling out small stones and shells. He flung them out and they held their place, suspended over Clive, beginning to form a chain. Jythal netted his paws together in a series of movements.
Ki’b stepped back as a glow wrapped itself warmly around Clive’s neck. Penny gasped, covering her mouth.
“Runes,” she heard her Human sister mumble.
Runes? Clive had used, albeit rather poorly, the Old Way art several times. He claimed it was a skill only Sun Monks knew, and he had been training as a Sun Monk before the Twizels had sacked his Temple and taken him. How did a Kattamont know a Sun Monk art? Was it more than Humans tinkering with things they did not understand? She had been wrong, then, in her assumption. Perhaps it was more; perhaps it was a language—one she did not know. After all, it had taken her some time to learn the Human tongue inside the box to be able to talk to Jarvis, Clive, and Penny.
“You know of it?” Jythal gathered his sticks and stones in a paw.
“Not entirely. But…” Penny took Clive’s hand. “Clive was going to be a Sun Monk. His father was a travelling bard, and could not look after him, so he left him at a Temple. But then…everything…went wrong…”
Ki’b caught the narrowing of Jythal’s lips as he stood, shifting towards her and Khwaja Denvy. She had to wonder what his Runes had told him about Clive, about his other injuries from captivity. Whatever was she supposed to tell these people, to explain their escape, and the reason they were even in Utillia? She rubbed her sweaty hands together, wishing for Jarvis and Master Titus.
Jythal’s head turned her way, though his eyes stared over her, at nothing in particular.
“This prince—he is your guardian?”
Ki’b bit her lip. “Kind of. We have another with us: Master Titus. He and Jarvis are away at the moment.”
“The poachers were after his fur, no doubt.” Jythal was speaking to Nixlye, over her head.
“Whatever do you mean?” Nixlye snorted. “You cannot see him, Jythal. How do you know his fur colouring?”
Jythal smirked, rolling the Rune stones, sticks, and shells between his claws. “Tah, you have no confidence in me, dear heart.”
“Is he special?” Ki’b gripped the arm of Nixlye’s wheelchair.
A kind smile soothed her anxiety and she was drawn to Jythal’s side as the large Kattamont knelt beside Khwaja Denvy, throwing his stones, sticks, and shells into the air once more. Nixlye settled both hands on her shoulders as they watched the light emanate from the old Kattamont’s wounds.
“We have legends of a Gold Lion but we have always thought of them as just legends. There has never been a gold prince known amongst the Kattamont Prides.”
Ki’b studied Khwaja Denvy. He had said nothing about his fur being different, or about being special to his people. Perhaps that was why he had not wanted to return to Utillia—because he was different.
“Interesting.” Jythal settled back on his hind-legs, removing his paws from the yoke. “This metal appears to be quite lethal to him. Do you know what it is made of?”
“It is just metal,” Ki’b told him, “but it is the enchantment on it that makes it dangerous to Khwaja Denvy. He is…” She covered her mouth.
“Khwaja Denvy is an Ageless One.” Penny piped up from behind them.
Ki’b gasped, turning sharply towards her, where she sat on the cot that held Clive.
“We have to tell someone. Master Titus isn’t here. Khwaja Denvy needs help! They saved us from the poachers and they’re obviously not Twizels.”
“How do you know that?” Ki’b stamped her feet.
“Messengers?” Nixlye’s hand squeezed her shoulder gently. “You’re all Messengers.”
Ki’b ducked her head, wishing she could hide behind her hair, but it had not grown out long enough yet. “We do not come from the House of Flames. Only Khwaja Denvy and Master Titus do. Twizels captured us in Pennadot. Khwaja Denvy was with us for a long time in a box. Until Master Titus saved us.”
“How long?” Jythal’s voice was soft.
Ki’b nibbled her bottom lip. “We’re not really sure, but Khwaja Denvy thinks it might have been about two sol-cycles.”
“There were more children.” Penny hid her head in her hands. “And more boxes, but they didn’t survive the journey. Khwaja Denvy kept us alive.”
“Then in return,” Jythal was tucking wads of heavily- scented, herb-encrusted pouches around the yoke, “we shall do everything we can to keep him alive.”
Ki’b relaxed slightly, noticing Khwaja Denvy already looked far more settled than he had in months. “Thank you.” She breathed out in relief.
“I may not be able to remove the yoke, little one, but a skilled Rune Wielder, I am. I should be able to dampen the effects of the enchantment enough to give him some peace.”
“But the Twizel curse?” Penny slid down from Clive’s cot. “Not even Master Titus could do anything about it.”
Jythal dipped his head. “Know this, little Human—the power of something is in what you, yourself, give it. The best thing you can do for your guardian is trust that this foul thing has no grasp on him and, then, it no longer will have.”
Penny’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Indeed.” Nixlye wheeled closer to Penny, leaning forward. “Why, Zaprexes often used this very concept to protect their artefacts. It’s a trick.” She spread her strong, scarred hands. “If you think something dangerous will come, then something dangerous is likely to appear. But if you are a friend, and you believe you will come to no harm, then so it will be.”
Ki’b smiled. “We know all about that.”
“Must be an interesting story.”
“Oh, it is, but it isn’t my story to tell,” Ki’b murmured shyly, thinking of Jarvis and the blue tinge to the skin of his arms as his body became metal. She often wondered if he thought he was cursed, too. It did not matter. She thought him brave, for he never complained about the gradual change beneath his skin, even though she could see it in his fingers whenever he touched her.
Jythal shifted back to Khwaja Denvy’s side, casting out newly gathered stones of many colours and shapes. Ki’b noted the little leaves that danced amongst the circle haloing the old Kattamont.
“What are they going to do?” she queried.
“Well, you are a Kelib, so it is likely that the language of Runes would come naturally to you. You should be able to hear their songs and see what they are doing, with some study.”
Ki’b brightened and joined the white Kattamont as Jythal knelt once more. “Runes act as a bridge between the Realms, a language we cannot speak, but one we can see. I believe it may be part of what the Zaprexes called the Song of Eternity, made into a physical, written language.” Jythal tapped his nose. “The best way I can describe their work is that they stitch and knit bits of the Primary Realm with bits of the Secondary Realm.”
“Make them whole again?” Ki’b whispered.
Jythal nodded. “Here they will deal with the lung infection and clear his air-gills.” He started combing the matted bundles of Khwaja Denvy’s mane.
“How do you know they will help?”
Jythal did not turn from his work. “Because I trust the Song of Eternity from which the Runes come. He will be fine. You’ll see.”
Ki’b bit her tongue. Was this the same thing Khwaja said when he told her not to give up hope? She squeezed her cheeks, wanting to tell the Kattamont he was attempting a silly task trying to brush Khwaja Denvy’s mane. She had tried so often to deal with the wreck of the elderly beast’s hair, but to no avail. He finally settled back with a scowl over his brow.
“I’m going to suggest that Mother shave his mane. It is causing considerable pain to him due to the yoke. It will be a shame but the skin is becoming inflamed and his air-gills infected. It caused his respiratory infection.” Jythal set his utensils aside. “I do not want to do it, and I do not think you should either, Nixlye.”
“Why not?” Ki’b looked from one to the other. “Can’t you do it now?”
“I am a prince,” Jythal scratched his chin, “but I am not part of the brotherhood of this elder. It would be inappropriate. Nixlye is my queen; she shouldn’t be shaving any male’s mane but her princes’. It tends to be a form of punishment, or humiliation. To make an unruly prince obey the Pride.”
“Oh…” Ki’b shuffled on her feet. Unwillingly the foggy, blurred features of her Mor-Mor drifted into her mind. She recalled so little about her, but the distinct pattern of the woman’s beautiful glowing tattoos stood out against the darkness of the home she had lost. Even so young, she knew they had not been for beauty, despite how beautiful they were to her innocent eyes.
“Don’t worry.” Jythal smiled. “It doesn’t take too long to grow back, and it will make him look a bit younger. And it will definitely improve his health.”
“You’re right,” Nixlye agreed. “It should be Mother. Technically she has no official pride and therefore no princes. She is an abnormality in the Prides. She should be able to help.”
“She also doesn’t believe in curses,” Ki’b offered, trying to reassure herself.
“That’s right.” Nixlye laughed. “She doesn’t.” The princess clapped her hands together. “Now, I think you young ladies need some calming tea.” Nixlye wheeled backwards, skilfully manoeuvring her chair around the tight room. Ki’b sank back against the bed. Tea sounded delightful.
“It is likely that we will stay docked until the scavengers return. We can go and search for your friends then. My mate will also be back and he is a great tracker.” Nixlye put a pot to boil on a small stove.
Ki’b blinked back tears. She could not comprehend the relief that washed over her. Her head felt heavy and she rubbed her cheeks, pausing as she smudged blood from her cut hands over her skin. A tender paw caught her far smaller hand. Jythal crouched beside her. She wondered if he ever got tired of kneeling, but then remembered that she was actually very small, and she had to be unusual on the sand-ship. Everyone else around her was just huge.
A glow formed over the gooey wounds and shimmering Runes gathered, gradually sealing shut the cuts across her skin. The pain she had not, until now, noticed throbbing up her arms faded, and a tension in her shoulders eased. She looked up at Jythal, into the pink eyes that stared blankly over her in a glassy gaze. Ki’b frowned. They were not at all like Clive’s silver Retenna eyes that had a clarity to them, full of blazing life. They were eyes that stared without seeing. Now she knew why he looked without looking.
“You are very observant. Yes, I am.”
“I am so sorry.”
“Whatever are you apologizing for?” Jythal chuckled. “It is something people do tend to notice eventually. I don’t mind.” He rested a paw on his knee.
“I should not have been so rude.”
“Everyone is rude.” Jythal shrugged. “Even I am rude.” He bent closer and whispered. “You are short.”
Ki’b bit her lip, holding in a giggle.
Nixlye wheeled over, passing her a large cup of tea and throwing a blanket around her shoulders. She noted that Penny, too, was snuggled up warmly. She offered thanks and sipped the brew. Finally, after so long, they were safe. Khwaja Denvy was not going to die today, or tomorrow. She could breathe without a lump in her throat.
“Were you…born blind?” Ki’b played with the rim of her tea cup.
Jythal raised an eyebrow. “Were you born short?”
Ki’b pouted. “Yes. I’m a Kelib. And I’m not that short. You’re just huge!”
He laughed at her. “I suppose I must be. But in answer to your question, no, I have not always been blind. My blindness is the result of forced exposure to the Sun.” He held out his wrists and Ki’b stared. The fur had been rubbed back, no longer able to grow, revealing scars like her own, the ligature markings of shackles.
“I know what it is like to be kept in a cage.”
“Poachers?” Ki’b choked out.
“He would be dead if it were poachers,” Nixlye said. “Let me tell you, little one, that not all queens and princesses respect their rare princes.”
“Rare? You’re rare?” Ki’b twisted back to Jythal.
“I have no colour in my fur, my air-gills, or my fan-tail. It is a bit odd, yes?” Jythal smiled. “Also, it is horrible to keep clean.”
“Very few princes are born amongst the Prides, let alone ones without colour.” Nixlye took one of Jythal’s paws and carefully placed it around a cup of tea.
“I have heard that I am rather like the Human Kimwyns, though we never get any of them across the Border.”
“You would be right,” Penny piped up. “They also have no colour. My father often said he thought the Sun stole their colour from them because they had slept with the daughters of the Stars.”
Jythal guffawed. “I like that story. You’ll have to tell me more.”
Penny beamed. “I’d love to. Father had wonderful stories. I know so many of them!”
Ki’b treasured the smell of the bitter tea. It was reassuring and relaxing, though it could very well have been the presence of the tall Kattamont sitting beside her. “I am a white lion.” He held out a paw. “The Zaprexes created the sky-sea not to harm our kind, but, with the destabilization of the Borders and the collapsing of the Secondary Realm, even here in Utillia we are not welcome any more. My eyes were taken from me by the Sun.”
“But then…the Kimwyns…” Penny looked up from Clive’s side. Ki’b knew what her Human sister feared. Coltarian’s eruption was coming, and not even the sky-sea would survive. Her sister feared for her pale cousins.
“Be glad for the coming of the Long Night.” Nixlye sighed. “The Sun will be less harsh.”
“Indeed.” Jythal smiled. “I do miss the outside world. My dreams are truly not enough. They are just dreams.”
Ki’b blinked. That was a strange thing to say. It sounded rather like something Khwaja Denvy would say because he was a dream master. Was it possible? Had they found other dreamathic Kattamonts? Were all Kattamonts dreamathic?
Perhaps if they were dreamathic then she had found her way to safety.
Ki’b felt the warm tears begin to trickle down her cheeks, collecting under her chin. She could no longer hold them in and wear the brave mask she had so hoped to hold for Khwaja Denvy’s sake. Was it too much to hope that they were finally safe, or was it a fool’s hope?
“Oh, no, no, no, don’t cry. Really, it is fine. I’m quite all right.” Jythal touched her shoulder, but she shied away, shaking her head.
“No, it is not…it is just…I was so scared…and Khwaja Denvy told me it would all be all right and I did not believe him, and now you are here and it is all right but I am still scared.” She sobbed against her dress sleeve.
“I think you have known only fear for such a long time. You may not even believe me when I tell you that you are safe now, Little Mountain Flower.” Jythal wiped aside her tears with a large paw. “Of all the lands in the North, Utillia is the one place orphans will find a home.”
Ki’b curled against his large arm, wondering if he truly meant his words—for would not all of her people become orphans when the sky-sea collapsed and Pennadot’s forests burned?
Would they find a home in Utillia too?
 Usks – magnificent, large burning-sea-dwelling creature, rarely seen, but said to be good luck to sailors. Sometimes they get beached on islands, and their bones are used for building homes of island-dwellers.
I really wanted to have uploaded - or to have kept working on the audiobook version of Orphans & Outcasts - alas - I've had a really nasty and persistent case of strep throat which has just made it impossible to do any work that requires a voice. ^_^;;
So, thank you for your patience.