“You know, I loved the Rocky movies.”
“I swear to every god anyone has ever prayed to, I am going to punch you in the throat.”
“Loooot of good punches thrown in the Rocky mov-HUU!”
The Captain’s shadow had fallen over the campfire, and the quiet chuckles came to a quick cease-fire.
“I understand,” her voice rumbled across the space, “that the air is tense. I acknowledge Sergeant Teak and those she took with her have been gone longer than usual. However, we have been schooled in the unusual for the past several centuries. And our best healer is among her crew, not ours. I expect you all to act accordingly.”
Captain Collins’s dark eyes scanned each of her pack. The fire flickered over their familiar faces; shoulders were low, spirits were low. She and Teak often played off each other with the Called as authority and cheerleader, but for the past several months, she’d been on her own with both roles. She knew in the morning, she would have to rustle up a good training to reenergize them as well as herself, for her own worries had crept in.
Teak would never go so long with no contact without good reason. She seemed to always find a way to get a message back to the Called, even if it meant training a set of migrating hummingbirds to carry a note together, or leaving an inside joke in some famous moment in world history for them to hear, Teak found a way. She’d never figured out how Teak had managed the jelly-donut speech mixup, but when Private Arrowood stopped laughing, he confirmed to the Captain that the radio’d speech meant Teak’s company was well and on the way home. Collins often joked that this was Teak’s extra talent while others had the Sight or Healing.
“There’s no such thing as having ‘the Talk’, Captain.” Sergeant Teak had rolled her eyes.
“Maybe it’s like speaking Tongues.”
“Could you take that back please, Captain? I see clouds and I prefer not to be struck by lightening.”
Yes, Captain Collins was worrying. But that came several counts down the list from keeping the Called organized and in line. It would keep them all sane… ish.
“Private Darluth, after you lend Private Elmer the energy to heal Private Jones’s neck yourself, the two of you will be on night duty together for the rest of the week. We will remain in camp here for another moon change in anticipation of Sergeant Teak’s return. Understood?”
“Yes, Captain,” Darluth nodded, red in his cheeks. From fury or embarrassment, it was hard to tell.
Jones merely nodded, one hand still on his neck.
“We have been called?!” the Captain growled.
“And we will answer!” the Called responded, with much more fervor than any of them were feeling.
I stared into the stew pot in front of me. Steam rolled slowly to the top of the hut, but it wasn’t enough to warm the ice that had settled between my shoulders. I was tired. And cold. And sick of stew.
The strange but kind villagers had been happy to add us to their small trading route when we showed them how adept we were at hunting the quick mountain deer, once we got used to the snow. So for the past past serval weeks (maybe months? the sun didn’t seem to move here) our pattern had been thus: follow my gem’s hum into the mountains, get lost in a snow blizzard, head back following the ropes and notches system the villagers taught us, grab a couple deer on the way back into town, eat stew and mountain booze until it was our turn for night-watch, and repeat.
The villagers thought we were interesting, and we felt the same about them. McKoi was having an excellent experience exchanging medicinal knowledge with the village’s herbalist as well as their medicine woman. Genile got a little exercise trying to learn a type of slalom with the kids where they’d race and throw an etched stone. I tried it a few times to placate my crew; it was okay. Fendoialin was pouring over the many tomes in his pack constantly. No wonder that thing had been so heavy.
I, personally, was going to lose my mind! If we weren’t immortal, I’d think we’d died and gotten stuck in a frozen purgatory with oddly polite captors.
Genile sloshed the ladle around the pot. “We could eat with the village, they have offered many times.”
McKoi glance at me, then back at his bowl.
I sighed, “I know you all are bored with hearing this: but we cannot get too comfortable here. They have been very gracious, and I know they said they see travelers like us get stuck many seasons, but I’m sure it’s clear to them now with our excursions and everything that we are not the usual kind. No. We make our own meals, we eat only what we’ve seen cooked with our own eyes.”
“Then damn, I wish one of y’all knew how to make dumplings. Those things the kids eat look GOOD.”
“…Darluth knows how to make dumplings.”
Without looking up, I knew there were three sets of eyes on me. Despite how close the Called is, and the glances we occasionally got, neither of us had ever confirmed the minor romance between Private Darluth and I. But I was so exhausted, and tired of snow being on everything. and everywhere! and this damn gem just making shit up and damn it I missed him. And I was tired of this stew too!
But no reason to make myself the center of attention. I glanced up at Fendoialin, “Are the old rumors about you true?”
The angry caterpillars he called eyebrows shifted slightly over gray eyes. He seemed mildly irked, but settled himself back down before answering, “There are many tales of those that have seen my years, young Sergeant.”
I rolled my eyes. Here I thought we were all having a moment around the cook-fire and he had to be annoying as usual, “Yeah, I’m talking about the magic ones. The oracle ones. The Pythia-got-nothing-on-me ones. The why-you-were-chosen-to-hold-the-prophecy ones.”
Fascinating. In all my years. All of them, I’d never heard Fendoialin stop at just the one syllable. The only sound in the hut was Genile choking on her stew, probably in similar shock, and then McKoi patting her on the back.
“Well?” I prompted again, swirling the cooling mush with my spoon.
But the wrinkled man did not look back up at me. In fact, it appeared he had dozed off.
“Gods help us,” I muttered, taking my still half-full bowl to empty and scrub in the snow, and maybe a walk to relax would be good too. I didn’t like being in the small hut for so long, and apparently Fendoialin’s new game was if he couldn’t irritate me by talking too much, he would do it by not talking at all.
I passed through the village heading towards the trail into the mountains. It was quiet, as strong winds had sent most villagers inside their family huts for cover. The paths to and from each little building had been beaten down from centuries of booted feet, and the warmth left behind from those shuffles seemed to keep most of the flurries from obscuring the aged routes.
Just as I was leaning over to grab a pack of leading ropes, I felt a presence join me in the rising gusts. I turned to see an approaching shape, gliding easily over icy walks.
“It’s not time to go out,” came a smokey voice under the deerskin hood.
My shoulders dropped, I didn’t feel like arguing with anyone right now, especially an innocent old village person, “I know it’s not a good time, with the wind rising, but I’ve got work to do.”
“Your work can wait, it has waited all this time, hasn’t it?”
Starting to sound a bit like Fendoialin, this one.
“Come. Get warm with me, give your companions a break.”
Give my companions a break? From ME?! Well I never-
And yet, the wind picked up again. And if something went sideways, I could defiantly take this man with one arm cut off at my shoulder. Hell, I’d fought off a ThunderKishi with less.
So I followed the fur-covered shadow back to the open flap of his hut. I didn’t even hesitate to go inside. I sensed no one else within, and if this hunched being was truly wishing to ambush me- I was in the mood for a tussle.
“You can ease yourself, old hunter.”
Loooot of people judging my age this evening. Would love for this guy and Fendoialin to square off whether I was ‘young sergeant’ or ‘old hunter.’ I feel like it would be a very heated, yet very slow, conversation.
Also pretty rude to call me old when it sounded like this one had stoked one too many pipes. I hadn’t aged in centuries! But maybe it was a cultural thing.
“Bring the fire back up so we do not freeze while we cook.”
I wasn’t used to taking orders from anyone other than Captain Collins, but nothing in the past serval… months (really, how long had we been there?) had gotten me anywhere. I wished Darluth were there to give me a little Sight-nudge. I pretended to scratch my chest to feel for my gem, see if I got any hints from that. Nothing. Alright I was on my own, and my instincts said that I hadn’t finished my boring bowl of stew and he said the word ‘cook.’
So I worked on the fire, as spookily instructed.
Keeping an eye on the being in my peripheral, I brought the fire up from small embers to a soft roar. As I did so, I saw my new companion shuffle off their outer coat and unwrap a long shawl to reveal auburn hair in bundled-up braids and a deep blue kurta. It flowed still lake water over woolen pants that led to very small booted feet. I glanced quickly around the room, with shelves of jars and dried plants hanging from the elevated ceiling.
Oh, excuse me, I was dealing with the herbalist.
She knew who I was the moment we met, and it’d taken me this long to figure her out. All this time in isolation with an unsuccessful Champion hunt had gotten me off my game. It was no wonder the privates were sassing me.
“That’s warm enough, now you will help me mix,” She was pulling jars and bright clay bowls from various shelfs, and one bundle from the ceiling.
We sat across from each other over a short table, with various packages nearby I recognized from sectioning out the mountain deer we caught.
I finally ventured, “what are we making?”
“You and yours are quite lost. Me and mine have enjoyed your company, but it’s time you found your way again. Together we’ll make the Feast of Fortune so you can find your next steps.”
Help from outside The Called was… damned unusual, but as Sergeant it was my job to get my small crew back to everyone safely, and with a mission complete. And I hadn’t gotten very far by our usual methods. So if I was the one risking it tonight, I was willing to take a little chancing.
“Okay, but first- how do you know we’re lost?”
Finally her face lifted enough for me to see it in the fire light- and she laughed! Her skin was both sun kissed and wind-torn, and I found it immeasurably beautiful. Her dark eyes were bright with humor, surrounded as they were with age and wisdom. I could see the elaborate bronze earrings that sang slightly when she moved her head, no longer muffled by her hood. She reminded me so much of the Arrowood privates, I ached again for the full company.
“Didi! Are you not lost?!”
Okay, well, she did have me there. But I thought we were doing a better job of pretending we were just mildly inconvenienced travelers rather than super wayward scouts. Guess not. I was going to try to play it off a little better though, still had to keep appearances. Still wanted to get back in one piece.
“We are indeed looking for something we haven’t found yet,” I nodded, focusing on the spices she was pouring into the muddler before me, “I’ll say that much.”
“Mmm, and you feel guilty because you’re their leader.”
I didn’t remember signing up for this therapy session. “I am frustrated.”
She slid the muddler over to me. I began to grind the small multi-shaped seeds.
“Your healing companion thinks very highly of you.”
I snorted, “Well that’s good to hear, if they’re talking behind my back it might as well be good things.”
She laughed at that too, and it felt nice to not be sniping with someone.
As I was rolling thin dough sheets out, as strictly instructed, over and over again, I let out, “I know my duties. I’m good at them. But sometimes things just don’t work out. And because I’m in charge, that feels like I let them down.”
“Mmm,” she nodded, “and each time you think you’ve let them down, you allow doubt in. And doubt alone is like dry sand. Nothing can grow within in. Yet, with a little water, even the cactus flower blooms.”
I stopped my floury restorations. “You’ve seen a cactus flower?”
“You are in the mountains yet you were not always here. Can I not be the same?”
I was beginning to wonder if all older people talked in such phrases. Would I talk like that if I got wrinkly and propheqierical? I certainly felt old with all these years, so I made a short prayer to any gods listening that I would never talk like that to the younger Called.
After mixing the minced deer meet with the spices, she spread the mash over the sheets. She showed me to dip my finger in a bowl of slowly melting snow to wet the edges of the dough, “water of the mountain, it flows from Saraswati and seals your fortune,” she whispered.
And then how to make exactly seven folds for the Seven Sisters in the stars, daughters of Atlas and followers of Artemis, “they know both the sky and the hunt, hunters like you.”
I nodded and folded. My calloused fingers were not coherent at pinching the dough in the delicate pattern as hers, and often I pulled too hard or added not enough water and had to start again or else lose a fold or watch the pastry slide open- but I’d been around too long to question someone about gods and stars.
With the herbalist successfully stuffing many more dumplings than I, she told me to hook a pan into the chain above the fire and pour in some oil.
“Shall I put these in?” I offered.
“No, no, they need one last touch!” She shuffled to her shelves and back, seeming alight with glee. In between her hands was a small clay jar with a glass stopper.
The hair on the back of my neck raised. Perhaps I had gotten too comfortable here, “what is in that?”
“The Dust of Destiny!” She pulled the glass stopper out with a flare, taking in a deep inhale, “Oh didi, this traveled a long a way to get to our Feast of Fortune tonight.”
She hummed as she sprinkled it over the pale crescent pouches on the table. It was a tune that sounded so familiar, and yet for the many lives of me, I couldn’t place it.
“What will it do?” I whispered.
“The Dust of Destiny will ignite the heat inside you! You will be filled and all we have done tonight will not be lost again once morning comes.”
I couldn’t help it, I slid a finger across the plate where a little gold powder had landed and lifted it to my lips “…this is cumin.”
“Yes, they are the same.”
When she looked up and saw my glare, she burst into another round of very joyful laughter.
We sat in easy conversation as we steamed and folded and ate many, many destiny-dusted dumplings. I told her about my favorite travels deep into steamy forests where colorful creatures dwelled, and she regaled me how these quiet people had come to live in the mountains, how she too had traveled to cities when she was young but had been happy to return and be a part of the village’s simpler steady life.
When I was near full to bursting, she told me it was time for rest, and sent me away with a large satchel of dumplings, and a few collections of herbs for McKoi.
“They may come of use to him, they may not.” She mumbled, patting my heavy laden arms.
“Can’t he come get them in the morning?”
She gave me a knowing look, “Rest well, didi. I enjoyed your company this evening.”
“Same to you, and thank you for the dumplings. They’ll be so pleased.”
After fighting with the wind again, I made it back to our own little gray hut. I realized how long I’d let us stay in such a colorless place, compared to the herbalist with all her dried flowers hanging and bright pottery.
I held a dumpling in front of Genile’s nose until she woke up, “FOR MEEE-MPHFF?!” she squealed, the savory pocket halfway down her throat before I could even answer.
McKoi was already pawing the jars and wraps of herbs he’d been sent, but still managed a “I assume the ban has been lifted on village food then?” between bites.
“Wha- what’s all this about?! Waking up an old man in the middle of the-” Fendoialin grumbled to a state of consciousness, but was also quickly placated with warm food-that-wasn’t-deer-stew.
“Alright, alright,” I eased onto my own sleeping satchel, which felt cold as the snow beneath it compared to the herbalist’s fine rugs and pillows, “settle down crew, my heart hasn’t grown three sizes or anything.”
“You look better though-“
I shot McKoi a look.
“Healthier, I mean, Sergeant. A healer’s opinion, is all,” he put his eyes back to organizing his new dried tid bits, “Are you going to tell us of your evening adventures, Serg?”
“Yes, but not now, Fendoialin is right.”
I took pleasure in Genile choking on her 10th dumpling in shock. McKoi lost count of his jars.
Even Fendoialin looked at me, eyes as shocked wide as I imagined his cumbrous brows would allow, “Pardon?”
“Well it’s quite late, as you said. And I’ve decided we’ll be leaving here in the morning. I expect you all to be packed and ready before the villagers rise, and I plan to get some rest before that.”
Cowardly, I played with the drawstrings of my sack for a moment, pretending to stuff some tools in, before I looked up. I’d been expecting a where are we going?, or why are we leaving now? or did you get a sign from your gem then? Any or all of the above.
But when I did, I was met instead with determined nods, a chorus of “Yes, Sergeant”s. And Genile’s cheeks puffed out like a squirrel’s.
I smiled at her, nodded back to them all, and settled down for a quick doze. We were going, and I knew the way.
Lost (Adj): 1. Unable to find one’s way; not knowing one’s whereabouts. 2. Denoting something that has been taken away or cannot be recovered.
Have you ever been stuck somewhere? *Laughs in 2020*
No but really. I guess we all have now, but really stuck. Side of the road with a blown tire and no phone, or walking through a new city and yep- that turn looks exactly the same as the last, or you went off the trail for just a moment to get a pretty picture and now the sun is going down a bit quickly?
Well The Called have been up on that mountain for a long time.
No really. In real life these 4 Called have been up there almost six months! I put them up there in August of 2020!
I’ve been a little lost myself with my writing. I’m proud of the words I’ve put out, but it’s been some really chase-and-tackle work with my muse during this pandemic, and LOTS more deleting and rewriting than I’ve ever done before. It was like I kept marching up that path with Sergeant Teak, only to lose my way and have to follow the breadcrumbs back.
I’m sure the whole world is feeling that in at least a couple points of their lives. I don’t have any answers. But sometimes it’s nice to know that we’re not out there alone, wondering in the snow. If we bump into each other, we can at least huddle for a bit before going on our way.
Although I have tried eating lots of dumplings too, and it does help. Sergeant Teak found her way, so here’s hoping we all find ours.
Happy hiking, and happy reading 🙂
Things I ‘Borrowed’ From Other Cultures for My Story (Not stuck on this name for the section)
As you may have noticed, The Called travel a lot, and their world is sometimes like ours, sometimes kinda like ours, and sometimes very much not like ours at all. As my growth as both a writer and a human person, I know that just throwing in words from other cultures just to spice up your writing isn’t cute. I do try to use context clues as to where The Called are or what their kinda-world-location can be most related to, though. But I think in not giving any sort of definition in these stories, it sounds a lot more like me trying to claim or re-define those words as my own, rather than the context clues I mean them to be. So I’m going to try this little section below- and I would love feedback (via the Connect page) on how readers feel on this.
Pythia – Highly regarded oracle of Delphi, said to channel prophesies directly from the gods
Didi – Nepali word meaning ‘auntie’ as in older female family member, term of endearment or respect
Saraswati – One of the Tridevi in Hinduism, the goddess of learning, wisdom, music, and aesthetics
Atlas – Greek god who held up the sky, father of the Seven Sister stars
Artemis – Greek goddess of the hunt, wild nature, and (hilariously)* chastity
Hajur ama – Nepali respectful word for Grandmother; often affectionally shortened to “Ama”
(Thunder) Kishi – Angola mythological monster, said to have two heads, one of a man and one a hyena. [I added the thunder part for The Called cause why not make them dodge lightening too]
*it’s hilarious that she’s the goddess of chastity because really this can only be a stiff-collard patriarchy’s opinion on things. She’s often referred to as “Appollo’s virginal sister” yet to her women priests she charges they bring in the wild animals, the “women driven mad” (coughRUN AWAYScough), demands her worship have “dances wild as waves”, the daughter of a TITAN, has all these nymphs and ladies-in-waiting with tales Dionysus would be jealous of. She doesn’t refuse to take lovers, she refuses to take lovers of low quality. And just as the neckbeards of today, men of history decided that if she didn’t pick everybody, she must be the virgin queen, so thank goodness her only big myth with a male is that of her being super picky, or she’d be stuffed into the back pages of mythology as a monster… #justiceforMedusa