Ka’harja’s Journey (DLH #1) – Chapter 3


Glif 6th, Grada

Year 10,053 AE

(The Nigelle Farm; Okatako)

The air outside was a lot warmer than the night before, though it was still cold. Flying bugs narrowly avoided eyes and crickets chirped somewhere in the damp grass as Ka’harja and the girls made their way across the field.

They were going a different way than before; it was a little longer, but it avoided the Heck’ne boarder completely, which made everyone much happier.

‘The Har’py religion is something else,’ Ka’harja flicked the morning’s dew from his tail. ‘I’ll never get over the fact that it’s named after the harpy species that started it. They could have called it anything else; but no. They had to make things confusing for the rest of us.’

‘I know!’ Stars exclaimed as she sprinted around the field. ‘It’s so hard to tell which one people are talking about! You can think they’re talking about the religion and think that you’re going hunting with another nurlak, and then you get actual harpies with sharp feet and teeth and wings that take your food and call you hakalika, and it’s stupid and it sucks! Mup mup.’

‘Calm down, carrot,’ Dena caught her daughter as she ran past. ‘You’re going to upset the baby running around like that, let me hold them.’

Stars’ personality changed completely as she gently passed her baby over to Dena. She kissed Little Demon on the nose, checked that they were still asleep, and then started her erratic sprinting around the field again. She stumbled once or twice but it didn’t deter her from her fun.

‘Be careful of hills and holes!’ Ka’harja called after her as she passed. ‘She’s full of energy, isn’t she?’

‘She’s usually like this after eating,’ Dena smiled, then realised who she was talking to and frowned. ‘She’s gotten overexcited because of how much you gave her.’

Ka’harja shrugged. ‘Alahk bwob, Kekik. Let her have her fun.’

‘It’s alik bwab,’ Dena grumbled. ‘And I am not being unreasonable! She’s going to hurt herself— Oh Zen’efay where is she now?’

Ka’harja shrugged and looked around. They were in a hilly part of Okatako so it wasn’t surprising that Stars had disappeared from view. ‘She won’t be far, stop stressing—’

‘—KEKIK! KA’HARJA!’ Stars’ shriek cut through the air and both Ka’harja and Dena’s ears shot up to pinpoint the direction of the shout.

Dena was the first to move; she bolted over a nearby hill, calling out to her daughter.

Ka’harja hesitated, swallowing the lump of anxiety that had blocked his throat before he followed Dena.

As they came to the top of the rise Ka’harja spotted Stars. She was backing slowly away from a pair of foxen women.

Koko, Ka’harja remembered from last night. The bad-tempered foxen woman who’d gotten into a fight with one of her fellow guards because he’d tried to flirt with her. Ka’harja didn’t recognise the other woman, but she looked terrified and was hiding behind Koko with wide eyes and a fluffed-out tail that looked too pink to be real. Ka’harja stopped for a moment, taking in the woman’s unfortunate magenta hair, before he shouted to her and Koko, ‘HEY! Leave her alone!’

‘What are you doing here, scum?’ Koko snapped at Ka’harja as he came to a stop between her and Stars. She looked even more threatening than the night before, now that Ka’harja could get a good look at her. Her half-healed bruises were barely visible on her dark skin and her irises were such a pale grey it looked like she’d rolled her eyes all the way around and drawn on new pupils. She held up a fist when Ka’harja didn’t respond. ‘Har’pies aren’t welcome here!’

‘Do I look like a Har’py?’ Ka’harja replied. He tried desperately to stop his voice from breaking, but heard it tremble and had to swallow the lump in his throat. ‘I’m Ka’harja Nigelle, and I should be asking you what you’re doing here, and why you’re telling people if they are or aren’t welcome! I mean, seeing as my mother owns this part of Okatako I think it’s me and her who should be deciding who can and can’t be here!’

‘This part of Okatako is—’

‘—Three kilometre’s inside the Nigelle farm boarder!’ Ka’harja interrupted. His voice was higher than he would have liked it to be but he pushed down his fears and continued, ‘The fence by the river marks the stop to our land, and you’re on the West side. Ergo, on Distro Nigelle’s land! And if Distro Nigelle wants to let Har’pies on her land, then you have no right to be kicking them off.’

Koko frowned. ‘And does this Distro Nigelle want these Har’pies on her land?’

‘She gave us breakfast!’ Stars blurted. ‘And told us to meet the caravan and ask for help. Do you know where the caravan is?’

‘We are the caravan,’ the second foxen stepped out from behind Koko. She flicked her tail nervously and twitched an ear as she continued. ‘Koko, I think we should talk to Sken about this.’

You are the caravan?’ Stars turned the thought over in her mind. After a moment of confused silence, Stars jumped back in a sudden panic. ‘Ka’harja, I don’t like the caravan! They’re lenta! I want to wait for the other people! Please let us stay with you! I don’t want to be with these people!’

‘Now look what’s happened,’ Dena hissed to Ka’harja. ‘I knew we’d have been better off just going our own way.’

Ka’harja ignored her. ‘Stars, you can’t stay. You’re not safe here and you know that.’

‘Lah’kort will be looking for us,’ Dena grabbed her daughter’s hands in her own. ‘You know what he’ll do if he finds us…. If he finds Little Demon. Lah’kort zi’kaf tarr.’

Lah’kort will kill him.

The thought sent a shiver down Ka’harja’s spine, but not as much as Stars’ mournful cry as she put her face in a hand and doubled over.

It was then that Koko’s companion dared a step towards Har’pies, who both took two steps back.

Ka’harja smelt, as she stepped past him, the two distinctive smells of onions and oil. It was an unbearably strong scent, as if she’d rubbed onion powder in her hair and drunk nothing but vegetable oil for six months, and his eyes watered slightly.

He realised this must be Coborn, and understood why Lif and Trat had ungraciously nicknamed her “onion girl.

‘You have a baby,’ it was a statement, not a question. ‘They’re very cute….’

‘Yes,’ Stars pressed her ears down and gave a growl. Then she bared her teeth and snarled, ‘If you try to hurt it I’ll hurt you back!’

Coborn flinched and edged behind Koko again, obviously shaken by Stars’ tone. She rubbed her neck anxiously and Ka’harja saw she had a tattoo on her collarbone, though he couldn’t tell what it was past her thumb. ‘I would never hurt anyone, especially a baby.’

‘Of course you wouldn’t, you don’t have the guts to do anything,’ Koko grumbled. ‘This is exactly what I was talking about! You’re too damn soft!’

Coborn pressed down her ears, but didn’t make a retort. Instead, she looked Ka’harja up and down as if she’d only just realised how unusually tall he was. Ka’harja looked back at her and flicked his own ear, trying to seem casual and confident; though as he met Coborn’s eye he knew he must have looked as terrified as she did.

‘Soft is good. I like soft things,’ Stars said with a distracted sigh. ‘If you fall on something soft it doesn’t hurt.’

‘Coborn, why don’t you go do your usual thing and burn some more fish?’ Koko gave her companion a shove. ‘I’ll deal with them.’

‘But Koko I—’

‘—Grease fingers! Go!’

Coborn’s mouth snapped shut as she looked from person to person. Ka’harja saw she had tears in her eyes before she turned and hurried away.

‘Aren’t you lovely?’ Ka’harja snorted. ‘Do you treat everyone like that, or just your friends?’

Koko smiled the least genuine smile Ka’harja had ever seen in his life. She was obviously trying to make her disdain of the trio clear as she continued, ‘So what kind of help was it that you wanted from us? You said something about not being able to stay? I don’t know if our caravan would be very welcoming of the idea of bringing Har’pies with us on our travels. None of us are fans of cannibals, you see?’

‘Of course, but that would be up to your boss, wouldn’t it? You don’t really get a say in the matter,’ Ka’harja fake-grinned back. ‘I think grease fingers mentioned talking to someone called Sken?’

‘Sken doesn’t like to be bothered,’ the fake-grin slid off Koko’s face and she glared at Ka’harja with a look so fierce he instinctively turned away; only to be met with Dena’s own hateful stare that convinced him to turn back to Koko as she spoke. ‘And I doubt she’d enjoy being disturbed so some stranger could ask her a favour.’

‘And I doubt the Okatako guard would like to hear about trespassers assaulting the guests of the local potion-maker.’

‘Local? The closest town is two months away!’

‘Everything in Okatako is two months away! I demand to speak to your boss, or I’ll send a complaint to Kokakota and have your trespassing stopped! Forcefully, if need be.’

Koko looked Ka’harja in the eye and slowly let go of the bow on her belt, while Ka’harja tried to not let his anxiety get the better of him. He was sure his fear was showing —he’d never been good at hiding his emotions— but he met Koko’s gaze as best he could and stared her down.

‘Are you okay, Ka’harja?’ Stars asked in a half-whisper, breaking the tense silence and making Ka’harja jump. ‘You look upset.’

‘Fine,’ Koko turned away from the group. ‘Alright! If you demand to meet Sken, so be it!’

~~~~

The caravan was different during the day. All the times Ka’harja had seen it had been at night when it had seemed grey and menacing and big. Now it was bright and lively, and seemed more compact and lived-in. All but the newest of the caravans were made from stained off-white fabric with coloured trims that seemed dirtier and more homely than Ka’harja had originally thought.

It was obvious the caravan had been packing up to leave until Coborn, who stood crying in the middle of four or five more caravaners (who were attempting, but failing, to comfort her), had returned and burst into tears.

Coborn pointed as the group came over a hill and the caravaners that crowded her stared anxiously. At their guests, or at Koko, Ka’harja couldn’t be sure.

Koko strut straight towards them and they all stepped back to let her and her guests through.

Ka’harja recognised four of the six; Baku, Trat, Lif, and Felelor. He assumed the jittery man clinging to Felelor’s arm and whispering “oh good Goddess oh good Goddess actual real life Har’pies Felelor what do we do,” was Naranako. He had no idea who the last man was, but he had what looked like a dragon bite-mark on his shoulder.

For a moment Ka’harja took in the group. They were all so… average. So normal looking. He’d never really wanted to think of them as people before. He’d always tried to push the idea that they were living, breathing Sentients out of his head…. But now he could see it all too clearly; from Trat’s dark birthmarks to Lif’s beer gut to Naranako’s twitching tail. They were just so normal.

Quickly glancing around Ka’harja realised the only person he couldn’t see now was the man who’d been groaning over the medical scrolls. He assumed that he was asleep after such a long night. Or studying more scrolls. He seemed like a busy person.

‘Be polite. Be respectful. Do not speak out of turn…. And for the love of the Goddess, whatever you do, don’t upset her wife.’

Ka’harja didn’t really care for anything Koko had to say and just rolled his eyes as she listed the rules for meeting her boss. He wanted to stop Stars from nodding along and agreeing to everything she said but he figured that if Stars did end up going with the caravan she’d need to understand what was expected of her, so he bit his tongue and followed obediently.

Koko made a beeline for the red-accented caravan and rapped on the door several times.

A few moments later the door was opened and a half-dressed seces stared down at the group.

She was very intimidating, Ka’harja thought. Her skin was a night-sky blue that was dotted with white freckles and sliced with deep pink scars that made her look like a tiger…. At least on the left side of her body. Her entire right side was scarred strange pink and blue, like her skin and fins had been scraped off and grown back wrong.

She flicked the dangerous-looking barb on her tail and frowned. ‘Koko, who are these peop—’

‘—I thought it was rude to be naked around strangers!’ Stars blurted loudly to Ka’harja. ‘Why does she get to be shirtless if I can’t? That’s not fair at all!’

There was a moment of tense quiet before the seces started laughing. ‘I’m wearing as much as any seces needs to wear,’ she said with a shark-tooth grin. ‘Come in.’

Stars was the first to go inside; she didn’t hesitate to follow the seces and disappeared through the door. As Dena followed her, Ka’harja heard Stars exclaim loudly: ‘That’s not fair either!’

He hurried in and saw another seces, bright green like mint leaves with deep blue freckles pulling on a tight pair of pants and giggling. Her cheeks were flushed and her tail waved behind her excitedly as she reached for her belt and turned to the newcomers.

‘I’m Annanyn,’ she greeted happily. Her eyes fell on Little Demon and her gills lifted with a loud squeal of air. Her too-close freckles brightened and blurred together, making her skin look spotted as she covered her mouth and bobbed up and down with excitement. ‘Is that a baby?! Can I hold them? Oh, please can I hold them?’

Ka’harja blinked dumbly at her. He’d never actually seen a seces up close…. His mother hadn’t been joking when she’d said that they talked through their gills. He was having enough trouble understanding Annanyn as she rambled on as fast as Stars could respond without her hiss-like voice echoing through her gills.

He frowned at her as she tightened her belt —which he didn’t think she needed, what with her pants being so tight— and watched as she ever-so-gently took Little Demon from Stars and cradled them in her arms.

‘You’re so lucky,’ she said with a wistful sigh. ‘Such a beautiful little baby—’

Ka’harja’s eavesdropping was interrupted by a giant, slime-coated dog that saw fit to tackle him to the ground and lick his face; Ka’harja heard himself scream far too late to stop himself and tried to roll away from the beast.

‘TUCKER! SIT!’ Sken shouted. The beast hung its head, letting out a squeak-like whine from its fish gills, and retreated to the corner of the room. ‘Sorry, you know how incarahs are!’

‘I didn’t even know there was such a thing as an incarah,’ Ka’harja tried not to slip in the slime as he got to his feet. He wanted to scream; he was coated in disgusting, snot-like goo from the dog-fish. He hated slime more than anything else in the world!

‘So what’s your business here?’ Sken asked. ‘Are you looking to trade? And what’s with the Har’pies? You hire them as your personal guard or something?’

Ka’harja turned to Sken and stared at her. After meeting Koko, he hadn’t expected Sken to be so friendly. More than that, it was surreal to finally talk to someone who could look him in the eye.

Sken was barely an inch taller than he was, and Annanyn stood at almost the exact halfway point between her and Koko. It threw him off, to say the least, and he blinked; taken aback by the oddity. Then he looked around the room dumbly, as if expecting her to be talking to someone else. When he realised she was talking to him his mind went blank and he couldn’t remember why he’d come to meet her, so he tried to find something to talk about.

He couldn’t help but notice that Sken was leaning on a smooth wooden tub of murky water; grinning as she dipped her hand in and out and rubbed it on her gills.

‘Is that your bed?’ he blurted.

‘Yes,’ Sken chuckled. It was genuine —if not a little shrill through the gills and more like a nasal squeak than a laugh— and Ka’harja relaxed a little. ‘It’s not for sale.’

‘No, no!’ Ka’harja grinned back. ‘I’m Ka’harja and I, uh… well—’

—Apparently his mother owns this land, and they’re wanting to file a formal complaint to Kokatoka officials about trespassing,’ Koko interrupted with a hiss. ‘Although I can’t say I’ve ever heard of this “Distro Nigelle” before. I think he’s lying.’

Sken nodded to Koko and raised an eyebrow. ‘This is Empire land, isn’t it? Free for all to roam?’

‘Not on the West side of the fence,’ Ka’harja explained, feeling a little more confident as his memory was jogged. ‘By the river.’

‘I don’t remember seeing any fe—’ for a moment, Sken paused. Then her gills flared up and she let out an ear-piercing screech that sounded like some sort of horrible demonic laughter. ‘Do you mean to tell me those rotted wooden poles by the river are supposed to be a fence?

‘In my defence; there’s only two of us maintaining a thousand acres,’ Ka’harja shrugged.

Sken crossed her arms and grinned. ‘That’s a lot of land, how’d you afford that?’

‘Land is cheap here, nobody wants to live near the Heck’ne,’ Ka’harja pulled Dena close and rested his elbow on her head. ‘Not even Har’pies want to live near the Heck’ne!’

Slowly, Dena reached up and moved Ka’harja’s hand off her shoulder. She held his limp wrist for a second before twisting it behind his back and shouting.

I WARNED YOU! I warned you not to touch me!’

Ka’harja heard himself squeal loudly as Dena let his wrist go and kicked him to the ground. He was immediately slobbered on by Tucker, who Sken yanked away and dragged to the caravan’s door.

‘Oh, I like her,’ Koko grinned. ‘What’s your name, friend?’

Stars crouched down beside Ka’harja, blocking his view of everything except her legs. ‘Are you alright, Ka’harja?’

‘I’m fine,’ Ka’harja grumbled as Stars helped him to his feet. ‘Your kekik is VERY HATEFUL WOMAN!

Dena turned at his shout and glared at him, and Ka’harja hid behind Stars.

‘Kekik, please don’t miita my friend,’ Stars said sadly. ‘I really don’t want two people I love to fight with each other.’

Dena sighed and shook her head sadly before turning away. ‘I’ll be nicer to your next friend, I promise.’

‘You better be!’ Stars exclaimed. ‘Because she said she’s going to help me raise Little Demon! And I don’t want you to be mean to her because she’s going to help us and let us go with her, and it would be really ungrateful of you to be mean to her like you are to Ka’harja when she’s being so nice!’

Sken, who had shut Tucker out of the caravan and turned to watch the argument, tapped her chin and shook her head. ‘Annanyn, I thought we agreed to make these sorts of decisions together.’

‘I thought it would be alright,’ Annanyn shrugged as she passed Little Demon to Dena. ‘Besides, she’s willing to work in return for food and a place to sleep.’

Ka’harja was shocked. He didn’t think Stars would have suggested something like that…. He wasn’t sure she fully understood what work was, but he tried to shrug it off. If she could survive being a slave in the Heck’ne, she could handle a seces caravan with good intentions.

‘I’m not very good at many things,’ Stars warned. ‘But I’ll try and learn and help with whatever you want me to do. Kami mip kimpt, even if I’m hakalika.’

‘We can’t leave her, Sken,’ Annanyn took Sken’s hands in hers and tilted her head. It took a lot for Ka’harja not to laugh at her deliberately over-the-top, supposed-to-be cute voice as she continued: ‘Pwease, kelp knot? Pwetty pwetty pwease can she come?’

‘Alright, alright, you win!’ Sken untangled her wife’s tail from her waist and nodded to Stars. ‘I will expect you to make good on that promise, though.’

‘Thank woo, Skenny-kins,’ Annanyn wrapped her arms around Sken and kissed her chest.

‘I said you won,’ Sken put an arm around Annanyn and returned the kiss by nipping her firmly on the cheek. ‘So stop using that awful voice!’

Annanyn broke into a fit of giggles and winked at Ka’harja as Sken shoved her away.

Ka’harja felt himself smile. Sken and Annanyn looked really good together. He hoped he could find a guy he could be that happy with one day…. Although, that would involve meeting people. And he didn’t really like doing that.

‘So, call me curious,’ Sken’s voice made Ka’harja jump. ‘But I have to know, what’s your backstory?’

‘Our backstory?’ Stars blinked. ‘Do you mean why we’re here?’

‘Yes, what happened? Why are you leaving the Heck’ne?’

‘Our troop doesn’t like crossbreeds,’ Dena explained. ‘When Neg— Um…. When Stars had her baby we had to leave or it would have been killed—’

‘—He,’ Stars interrupted. ‘Annanyn said Little Demon is a he.’

‘We had to leave or he would have been killed,’ Dena corrected herself. ‘And even if we went back now and let them kill him, I don’t think I’d be allowed to live, either.’

‘Why not?’ Sken asked.

‘She kasa Kay’oten on the head with a rock so she couldn’t follow us!’ Stars blurted happily.

Ka’harja inhaled so sharply he choked on his own spit.

Kay’oten?’ he gagged. ‘Kay’oten as in Pert’ana and Kay’oten?

Stars pricked up her ears with excitement. ‘Have you met them?’

‘I— They’re my parents,’ Ka’harja’s mouth went dry and he could barely speak.

That’s where I know you from!’ Dena gasped and pointed at Ka’harja threateningly. ‘You’re Kay’oten’s son! How did I not realise? You look exactly like her! You didn’t even change your name how could I— How could I have forgotten?’

‘I don’t think he looks like Kay’oten,’ Stars said plainly. ‘His smile is too big. I think that’s why we didn’t recognise him! He’s changed a lot. Last time I saw him he was crying and covered in blood and had a bone in his leg. His voice has gotten better, too! Just like mine has.’

A sudden wave of realisation washed over Ka’harja and he let out a loud shout. ‘YOU! You’re the girl who let me go!’

‘I think we’re missing something here,’ Sken sucked her gills down and elbowed Koko.

‘Context, maybe?’ responded Koko. ‘Hey, Ka’harja! I thought you said your mother was called Distro! I knew you were lying.’

‘I wasn’t lying!’ Ka’harja snapped. ‘Ever heard of adoption before? Or do you just stuff your unwanted spawn back in?’

Koko started to argue but was cut off by Sken’s screeching laugh.

‘Now that’s an image!’ Sken exclaimed as she doubled over. ‘Stuff it back in! Annanyn did you hear that?’

‘I heard it,’ obviously unimpressed, Annanyn rolled her eyes. ‘It was crude.’

Sken punched Annanyn’s shoulder. ‘You mean hilarious!’

‘Disrespectful little shit!’ Koko snapped, her blush matching her bruises. ‘I should— I’m going to— FUCK YOU!’

‘You can’t fuck him, he’s gay,’ Stars said, seemingly oblivious to the situation. ‘He doesn’t like girls.’

Koko turned to snap at Stars but stopped when she saw Stars’ face. Stars looked proud of herself… but in a nervous way; as if she wasn’t completely sure she’d said the right thing but was hoping she had.

Ka’harja was reminded of a time in his childhood when he’d been desperate to prove to Distro he was ready to be her thieving apprentice. He’d stacked chairs in order to reach a high shelf in the kitchen where Distro kept a small supply of gold coins. He’d almost had the coins when Distro walked in. He’d held his breath then and pulled a very similar face to the one Stars was pulling now; he’d been hoping for praise and compliments on how smart and resourceful he’d been, instead of being scolded for ignoring Distro’s orders. Ka’harja was never sure what Distro had opened her mouth to say that night, as he’d promptly lost his balance, fallen, and knocked himself unconscious.

He wasn’t going to let Stars be scolded for something as trivial as misinterpreting an insult. He couldn’t.

‘She’s right, I’m gay,’ Ka’harja tried to laugh. It was obviously fake but it made Stars smile from ear to ear.

‘Yes! He’s gay!’

Koko shrugged and turned to Sken. ‘So… apparently he’s gay.’

‘Are you okay?’ Annanyn put her hand on Dena’s shoulder and she jumped.

Until Annanyn had disturbed her, Dena had been staring at Ka’harja with wide, terrified eyes. Her mouth still hung open now as she looked around nervously, her jaw trembling. She twitched an ear and turned back to Ka’harja. ‘Good for you,’ she finally managed.

Sken smacked Ka’harja on the back. He nearly fell over with the force of her slap. ‘Yeah, good for you!’

‘Thanks,’ Ka’harja’s cheeks flushed red. He really wished Stars hadn’t blurted out his sexuality but there was no way to take it back now. He tried to change the subject. ‘And thanks for agreeing to take the girls.’

‘No worries!’ Sken gave a terrifying grin and Ka’harja tried not to imagine how much it would hurt to be bitten by those sharp, sharp teeth. ‘The way I see it, as long as the girls are willing to do a little bit of work there’s no reason we can’t give them a hand!’

‘What kind of work will we be doing?’ Stars asked. ‘I’m not very strong or fast, but I have a lot of patience and I like to learn things! I’m very good at building hovels out of sticks and mud and fur! Mine always last the longest when we travel, everyone else’s always fall down after three or four weeks, but mine can last months! Although, you have these nice big wooden things. They seem very strong and don’t look like they’re going to fall down anytime soon. How do you move them? They’re too big to carry. Your troop must be very strong. You are at least, Sken! You have big muscles! I think you’d even be able to beat Reak’nak in a fight! Do you move everything yourself? You look strong enough to carry one of these things around! I don’t think I’d be able to carry much around. I’m not sure what I’ll be able to do for you, because I’m not very good at much. Maybe I could help burn Coborn’s fish! I’m very good at burning things. Whatever you make me do though, I promise I’ll try really hard. Also is it okay if I sometimes do Kekik’s work? She gets very tired and sometimes she has trouble doing things. I’ll work extra hard if it means Kekik can rest—’

For the first time since they’d come into the caravan, Sken wasn’t smiling. She looked horrified. She turned to Koko and mouthed: what the fuck?

Koko’s ears were flattened down as she tried to block out Stars’ voice. ‘Is this normal for her, or should we be worried?’

‘Nah, she does this all the time,’ Ka’harja grinned. His gaze met Koko’s and he felt almost victorious as he watched Koko suffer. She deserved it for insulting his mother.

Stars hurried over to Sken. She was in the middle of a sentence, but nobody seemed to be listening… except for Annanyn.

‘STARS, NO!’ Annanyn shrieked as Stars planted her palm firmly on the scarred side of Sken’s face.

‘—it’s very pink,’ she finished. There was an awkward pause before Stars pulled away with a shout. ‘It feels like spit! It feels like really awful spit from the back of your throat when you’re sick! Are you sick?’

Sken looked at her blankly. ‘No that’s… that’s how all seces skin feels.’

‘It’s disgusting,’ Stars said simply. ‘Is it uncomfortable?’

‘No, but the racism is,’ Sken frowned and rolled her eyes.

‘Well, uh, I guess I’ll head off then,’ Ka’harja flicked his tail. He was anxious to get out of the crowded caravan and back to his mother. ‘Try not to be too offensive, Stars.’

Stars waved happily to Ka’harja as he hopped out of the caravan. ‘Bye Ka’harja! See you tonight!’

He didn’t have the heart to tell her that was very, very unlikely. Instead he gave her a friendly wave and walked away.

Ka’harja hoped to get home before too long. He hated the idea of leaving his mother half-sober. Perhaps he could put all the drink on the higher shelves so she couldn’t reach them…. No; she’d find a way to get to it. And probably hurt herself while doing so—

‘Afternoon, my friend! I heard you and your friends were talking to Sken? What about? All good news I hope!’

Ka’harja nearly jumped out of his skin when he heard Baku’s voice calling out. He forced himself to smile and turned to face the guard. ‘Just asking for a bit of help for the girls. No need to worry, Baku.’

As soon as the name escaped his mouth Ka’harja’s chest tightened and he felt the uncontrollable urge to backflip into the sun and die. He couldn’t believe he’d let that slip!

Baku just stared at Ka’harja and frowned. ‘Have we met?’

Yes!’ Ka’harja lied. His voice broke with fear and he gave a quick cough, which he pretended was a badly-timed sneeze. ‘We met last year. Don’t you remember me?’

Luckily Baku seemed to think Ka’harja had been offended and not terrified. He glanced at his feet and apologised. ‘I’m usually good with faces. I can’t think of how I’d forget yours; it’s very unique.’

Ka’harja shrugged and tried to laugh. ‘You were pretty drunk, I’m not surprised you don’t remember.’

‘Ah! That would explain it,’ an uneven grin spread across Baku’s face, squashing his scars until they looked like age lines on his otherwise young face. ‘I wouldn’t have thought I’d forget a man like you! But I suppose I wouldn’t remember forgetting, would I?’

Ka’harja laughed.

‘I have to get back to work —the caravan’s leaving soon— but I hope we see each other again next year.’

Smiling back awkwardly, Ka’harja gave Baku a nod. He figured Baku was the sort of guy to draw attention to himself and in a panicked attempt to make his story more believable, he took a gamble. ‘Right, and you can do that party trick again.’

‘The one with the two bottles and the chikchik? Sure!’ with a wave, Baku turned and strutted away.

Ka’harja walked as calmly as he could until he was out of the caravan’s sight…. Then he sprinted away as fast as he could in the direction of his house. He ran until he tripped and fell into a hole. Too exhausted to pull himself out from the small incline, he instead opted to sob into the grass and call himself an idiot.

How could he have been so stupid? He nearly got himself caught! He felt like he was going to throw up.

He closed his eyes and could see the entire scene unfold in his mind; with a different ending where he’d said the wrong thing and been stabbed on the spot. Different outcomes played in his head over and over like some anxiety-inducing vision of his could-have-been death.

He sat trembling in the hole for what could have been anywhere between five minutes and five hours before he was finally able to calm himself down. He rolled over onto his back and took a deep, relaxing breath.

Now that his panic was starting to ebb, he couldn’t help but wonder: what sort of party trick could you do with two bottles and a chikchik?

He was staring up at the sky, wondering what Baku could have possibly meant, when he saw dark clouds of smoke start to float overhead.

Ka’harja sat up. Was the smoke… coming from the direction of his house?

Oh Great Star no! All of Ka’harja’s exhaustion was replaced with panic. He jumped to his feet, his aching body forgotten as he raced home. Mum!

It was the fastest he’d ever run before. The land around him was a blur as he sped towards his house. The blur got darker and more smoke-coated with every step and Ka’harja’s panic continued to rise.

When he saw his house he let out an explosive shriek and was so shocked he forgot to stop running. He would have slammed into the door if it had been on its hinges; instead he flung himself into the burning building and started calling for his mother.

‘Mum! Mum are you alright? Where are you?’

He jumped over bottles and dodged flames as he searched for Distro.

He found her on the floor of the kitchen. She was unconscious, barely breathing as she lay in a puddle of her own blood. There were deep wounds down her side, like she’d been attacked by an angry gryphon, and her face was bruised.

Ka’harja was scared to move her but he had to get her out of the fire. He picked her up as quickly as he dared and carried her out of the house, moving her over a nearby hill, upwind of the fire. Carefully, he put her down in the grass, then he pulled off her shirt and pressed the clean side of it against her wound to stop the bleeding.

What happened? Ka’harja’s mind was racing over the possibilities. Had he left the fire going after making porridge? No, that wouldn’t explain the scratches! Had Distro tried to get to a high shelf and fallen? But then why was there fire?

He pressed the shirt firmer against Distro’s wound and grit his teeth. There was one possibility that made sense but he didn’t want to believe it. Naranako’s words from the night before echoed in his mind.

Har’pies never come this far into Okatako.

Yes, they do.

A tear rolled down Ka’harja’s smoke-coated cheek and he tried to wipe it off, only to leave a smear of his mother’s blood under his eye.

It couldn’t have been Har’pies, could it? Ka’harja argued with himself. They’ve never dared anything like this before! Why would they do this now?

Ka’harja knew why, but didn’t want to think about it. He distracted himself from the thought by focusing on helping his mother.

By the time Distro’s eyes flickered open, the smoke was thinning and the crackle of the fire was dying down.

‘Ka’harja?’ she questioned quietly. At first her rasping didn’t sound like words, but she became clearer as she continued. ‘Are you alright?’

‘I’m fine, Mum,’ Ka’harja dared to take the pressure off her wound and let out a relieved sigh when he saw it had stopped bleeding. ‘Don’t get up! You’re hurt.’

‘Don’t tell… me what to do,’ Distro groaned, ignoring Ka’harja’s protests and lifting herself to her feet. Her wound began to ooze slowly but she pushed Ka’harja away. ‘I have to…. Where did they…. Where did they go?’

‘Who?’ asked Ka’harja.

‘The Har’pies!’ exclaimed Distro. ‘They…. They’re looking for Stars. I think. They called her Neg’an.’

Ka’harja nodded. He couldn’t seem to speak. He looked at his smoke-coated mother and then turned to the house. He felt his heart wrench sideways. The house that had been his shelter since he’d run away from the Heck’ne; the house that had withstood floods as high as the roof, survived storms that picked up trees and blew them past the horizon… and even kept standing after falling stars shook the planet…. It was gone. Reduced to ash and a few half-walls.

No, Ka’harja closed his eyes. He hoped that it was a dream. He’d close his eyes and wake up and he’d have fallen asleep at the table while talking to Stars and this nightmare was just because he’d eaten too much at breakfast.

Deep inside he knew it was hopeless, but he tried anyway.

‘It’ll be alright,’ Distro put her hand on Ka’harja’s shoulder. ‘It was just stuff. Nobody got hurt.’

‘You did,’ Ka’harja whispered.

‘Scratches heal,’ Distro sighed and leant against her son. ‘As long as you’re alright I’ll be okay.’

Ka’harja sniffed sadly and put an arm around his mother. They watched as smoke rose from the ruins of their house. Even though the fire had burnt itself out, the air surrounding the house was distorted by the remaining heat.

‘They must have done something awful to piss the Har’pies off,’ said Distro. ‘I’ve never known Har’pies to care this much about runaways.’

Ka’harja sighed. ‘They may or may not have killed their leader. With a rock. A big one.’

Shocked, Distro stared at her son. Then she laughed. ‘Explains why they had two troops with them.’

‘They had two troops?’ Ka’harja swallowed anxiously. ‘Are you sure?’

Distro nodded. ‘A foxen and nurlak troop, and a jutt-jaw family.’

Ka’harja put a hand over his mouth. ‘We have to do something….’

‘We can’t do anything. There were at least fifty of them.’

‘Exactly! The caravan isn’t that big!’ Ka’harja gripped his mother by the shoulders. He almost shook her in frustration but managed to control himself. ‘They’re going to need all the help they can get fighting them off!’

‘We’ll never catch them in time,’ said Distro as she hung her head.

‘No! We can get to them in less than ten minutes if we hurry!’ Ka’harja pointed away from the setting sun. ‘I didn’t track that caravan’s route for five years to not know how to catch up to them! If we head straight and cut through the river we’ll catch them!’

Distro looked to Ka’harja. Her gaze followed his finger to the horizon and she sighed. ‘Okay. Let’s get going, then.’

Ka’harja pushed his anxiety to the back of his mind and helped his mother limp across the blackened field.

They had to get to the caravan before the Har’pies did.

They had to help them!

~~~~

Ka’harja and Distro hurried towards the caravan. Their pace was slow, as both were exhausted and sore, but Ka’harja thought they’d made good time. He could see people in the distance gathered in front of the caravan. There were a lot of people; almost five times more than had been at the caravan before…. Two troops.

Ka’harja swallowed as he and his mother crept closer. They used the uneven ground to their advantage and slipped from ditch to ditch, careful not to be seen as they got close enough to hear the argument.

‘We only want the runaways!’ hissed a foxen woman. She lashed her golden tail angrily and stepped towards Sken and Dena, who stood bravely before the Har’pies. ‘Give them to us, and we’ll leave peacefully.’

Peacefully?’ Sken scoffed. ‘What, before or after you murder them?’

The foxen hissed like a cat and Ka’harja thought if he could see her face she would have been baring her teeth. ‘What do you care about a couple of nurlak breeders? They’re worthless scabs! That one—’ she motioned to Dena. ‘She’s too old to bear children! All she does is waste food! And that one—’ she pointed to Stars, who cowered at the back of the caravaners, hugged defensively by Annanyn. ‘Is as dumb as dirt and twice as useless! Bearing children is all she’ll ever be good for!’

‘Unlike you, we tend to define someone’s worth by who they are and what they choose to do,’ Sken’s own hiss was twice as loud as the Har’py’s, and spittle sprayed from her gills as she screeched unhappily. ‘Not by what we can get out of them!’

A second Har’py stepped forward; a nurlak. Ka’harja saw Dena stumble back and realised with a start that this was Lah’kort.

‘They’re not your kind!’ he growled. ‘Tarr farfah tirr!’

‘Anyone with a smile and a wanderlust is our kind!’ Sken spat back. ‘And we will protect them; no matter what!’

Lah’kort scowled, as if Sken’s words had been offencive, while the caravan sent up a cheer of agreement.

‘They are mine!’ Lah’kort screeched, stepping past the first Har’py and coming nose-to-nose with Sken, who didn’t even flinch. ‘They are my blood! My property! My kekik and our zelkin; and my new berr!’

Dena inhaled deeply, setting her trembling jaw, and growled at Lah’kort, ‘You think so, but the child is farfeh yalfit! A dassen yalfit! It denies you!’

Lah’kort lifted a hand to his mother, threatening to strike her. ‘Neg’an would never betray me and do what I have forbidden!’

‘I have!’ Stars screamed over the crowd. Annanyn hugged her tighter, flaring her gills at the Har’py as Stars continued. ‘I am in love with Fabecutt! And I love our berr! Tarr is not yours! Farfah berr is made from kosson!

Face twisted with rage, Lah’kort forgot his mother and lunged in Stars’ direction; he threw Sken aside and charged at the caravan guards, who cut him off. He looked about them nervously and stepped back before he took a deep breath and grinned. ‘That’s alright, Neg’an. I forgive you. Come back now, and I’ll let the child live…. If it’s a zelkin. I could do with another daughter.’

Ka’harja felt his stomach churn and he gagged. He couldn’t believe what he’d just heard; he’d only half-believed Stars when she’d talked about Lah’kort but… seeing him in person….

‘I’ll punch your dick in so hard you’ll become your own daughter!’ Sken grabbed Lah’kort from behind and threw him back towards his troop. ‘Then you can go fuck yourself!

‘YOU FISH-FACED KAKA’LI!’ Lah’kort scrambled to his feet and lunged at Sken. His hand almost met Sken’s cheek— Until he was thrown to the ground by Dena. Lah’kort’s angry shout was cut short as Dena’s teeth met his neck, and blood gurgled out of his mouth and into his lungs as he tried to scream. He pushed against his mother, desperately struggling to get her off as she pinned his stomach down with her knees and held his arms down with her own. Dena pulled on his neck so viciously that he was forced to sit, until a horrible spray of blood and a rush of air escaped him and he hit the ground with a thud; his throat half-hanging from his neck, oozing blood onto the damp grass.

Ka’harja’s nearly fainted as Dena turned her predatory stare to the foxen Har’py, who stumbled back three steps and shouted with fear and surprise.

‘How did— How did you learn to— You’re kizza kiita!’

‘I was only three when my yalfit stole me and my kekik and brought us to the Heck’ne,’ Dena spat her son’s blood on the ground and rose to her feet. She held the Har’py’s gaze while she did, and Ka’harja was glad her dislike of him was as small as it was; he was sure if she gave him that look he’d drop dead just from the force of it. ‘It’s been fifty-two eclipses… do you think I’ve survived this long by being weak?

The Har’py troops stepped forward, preparing for battle, and Ka’harja felt panic rise in his chest; there were so many Har’pies! The caravan was outnumbered three-to-one. He couldn’t bear the thought of watching them die, and without thinking he rushed out from his hiding place.

‘Hey! Har’pies! Or should I say, uh…. Oh I didn’t think this through!

The woman who had been heckling Dena turned abruptly, shouting in surprise, and stopped when she saw Ka’harja. They stared at each other for a brief moment. Ka’harja realised that it was Kay’oten at the same time she seemed to realise who he was. She rushed forward, so angry Ka’harja thought she might burst into flames as she came at him.

He didn’t even realise he was screaming until Distro slammed into Kay’oten and sent her tumbling across the ground.

‘Touch my son,’ Distro growled in a tone that made Ka’harja shiver from his ears to his tail. ‘And I will rip your face off and shove it so far down your throat that you’ll have to give birth to get it out again!’

Kay’oten didn’t move from her spot on the ground as Distro continued to threaten her. She stared at the woman’s oozing wound with wide, terrified eyes, as if she couldn’t believe Distro was still standing with such an injury.

Almost a full minute passed after Distro stopped shouting before Kay’oten was able to compose herself. She rose to her feet and faced Ka’harja’s mother with a sour face. ‘He’s not your son! I don’t remember you being there when he was born! I’m pretty sure it was just me and Pert’ana there when I shat the little hal’kaka out!’

‘So you’re Kay’oten?’ a wave of realisation washed over Distro’s face. She stared for a moment before letting out an unearthly shriek of rage and lunging forward. She punched Kay’oten in the nose and spat on her as she hit the ground. ‘You’re the bitch who hurt my boy!’

‘Don’t you dare hit me!’ Kay’oten staggered to her feet, ignoring the trail of blood that rolled down her lip. ‘Do you have any idea who I am? I’m Kay’oten! I’m the troop leader—’

‘—You’re a stupid bitch with an ugly face, that’s what you are!’ Distro interrupted. ‘I’m going to rip out your fucking teeth and stab you in the eyes with them!’

‘What kind of threat is that?’ exclaimed Kay’oten. ‘What’s wrong with you?’

‘Mum, stop!’ Ka’harja grabbed his mother’s arm and tried to pull her away from Kay’oten, but she tugged out of his grip and stepped closer to the Har’py.

‘You think you have more right to my son than I do?’ Distro growled. ‘I know how you Har’pies do things! I challenge you to Gra’gahoo da!’

‘A fight to the death? Alright; that’s fine with me. Winner gets the runaways,’ Kay’oten wiped her bloody lip, and her eyes darted from Distro to Ka’harja. ‘All of them.

~~~~

The sky was deep red and black from the early sunset struggling to shine through the thin layers of smoke in the sky.

Ka’harja anxiously fussed over Distro as she prepared to fight Kay’oten. He didn’t want her to do it. A fight to the death. What if she lost? Kay’oten had fought in hundreds of these battles and won; Distro had never even punched someone before…. At least not since Ka’harja had known her.

The rules of Gra’gahoo da were simple: no clothes, no weapons, no help. The fight must rely completely on the strength and skill of the two sides, with no outside forces interfering.

‘Please, Mum, don’t do this!’ Ka’harja begged his mother as she tugged off her skirt. The long, deep scratches in her side had leaked blood that soaked the fabric and made it stick to her skin; it peeled off with a disgusting trail of brownish-red following it. ‘We can fight them together! You don’t need to do this!’

‘He’s right,’ said Sken. ‘The Har’pies outnumber us, but we have weapons. And Scara’s blessing.’

‘The Goddess is a fairy tale! I’d rather rely on my own strength; I know that’s real,’ snorted Distro. ‘If I die, you can do as you want… but you’re already doing enough favours for those two and I don’t want anyone risking their lives! This way it might be resolved with only one death. Her death.’

‘You’re brave,’ Sken bowed her head and flicked her tail. ‘It’s admirable…. I just hope you know what you’re doing.’

‘Of course I do!’ Distro snapped. ‘I’ve been ready to get revenge on her for nine years!’

Sken stared at Distro, confused.

‘I expected her to come sooner,’ Distro explained. ‘After Ka’harja told me what she did to him. I’ve been wanting to break this bitch’s neck since she broke his leg!’

Sken glanced to the scar on Ka’harja’s leg, then looked up with awe. ‘You really care about him, don’t you? Even though he’s not really—’

‘—That sentence better finish with “very bright,”’ Distro hissed. ‘Because if anyone else dares to imply he’s not my son, I’ll kill them, too!’

Sken’s gills pressed down in shock and she gave a curt nod.

‘Mum, I’m scared,’ Ka’harja gripped Distro’s arm. ‘Please, don’t do this!’

‘It’s Heck’ne tradition, especially considering they have actual harpies with them; even if they are just jutt-jaws,’ Distro put an arm around Ka’harja, but continued talking to Sken. ‘If I win they’ll leave. Har’pies never break the Gra’gahoo da oath.’

‘And if you lose they’ll take me and the girls away,’ Ka’harja whispered. He swallowed. He was on the edge of another panic attack but he had to stay calm.

‘No, they won’t,’ said Distro. She glared out of the corner of her eye at the Har’pies, who stood in a half-circle around Kay’oten. ‘If I lose, Sken’s lot will fight them. Har’pies may honour Gra’gahoo da, but that doesn’t mean we have to!’

With that, Distro let go of her son and walked over to Kay’oten. The caravaners slowly surrounded her, completing the circle.

‘Are you ready to die?’ Kay’oten hissed through her grin.

Distro shrugged casually. ‘Eh.’

Insulted by Distro’s dismissal, Kay’oten gave an angry, bird-like screech.

‘Caw caw,’ Distro replied flatly, sticking her hands in her underarms and flapping them like wings. ‘Tweet tweet…. Cluck.’

The jutt-jaws screamed at the insult, flashing their wings and lifting their tails— But they made no move forward, and Ka’harja flinched. That hadn’t been an insult to Kay’oten, personally— It had been an insult to the entire Heck’ne! What was his mother thinking?!

Kay’oten’s muscles twitched eagerly as she tensed. She wiggled like a cat as she crouched down and prepared herself to spring at Distro. Her tail was puffed out and her ears were pressed back.

Distro just stood in place, staring. Her face was blank and her expression unreadable as she watched Kay’oten, who stopped and waited for Distro to move first.

When Distro didn’t move, Kay’oten licked her teeth, seemingly unsettled. ‘Aren’t you scared?

‘No,’ said Distro. ‘What about you?’

‘Not at all!’ Kay’oten hissed.

‘Could have fooled me,’ Distro grinned, calmly stepping towards Kay’oten so she was within an arm’s length. ‘Come on then! If you’re not scared, come and get me!’

Kay’oten hesitated. Only for a second, but it was enough; Distro saw her chance and kicked Kay’oten in the groin.

Kay’oten fell to the ground and Distro began to beat her.

‘YOU BITCH!’ Distro screeched, her voice ringing out over the shocked silence. ‘HOW DARE YOU?! YOU THINK YOU CAN JUST COME ONTO MY LAND, AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, AND TRY TO TAKE MY SON AWAY FROM ME?!’

Ka’harja watched in shocked silence as his adoptive mother began to kick the shit out of his biological mother. It was merciless. Ka’harja wondered if the fight would end like this; with the renown warrior Kay’oten screaming on the ground and begging for mercy as she got kicked to death by a naked drunk.

‘I’LL KILL YOU!’ Distro leapt at Kay’oten, but slammed into the ground as Kay’oten finally managed to away.

Kay’oten struggled to her feet, coughing. She was winded and her nose was bleeding again, and one of her eyes was already starting to swell. She hissed and turned to Distro, but her angry screech became a panicked scream as Ka’harja’s mother charged at her.

‘COME BACK AND FIGHT ME YOU COWARD!’ Distro shrieked as she chased Kay’oten around the circle. ‘I’LL RIP YOU APART! GET BACK HERE YOU COWARD!’

Kay’oten was running like she was trying to escape a stampede of dragons, and the circle scattered as Distro jumped on her back and tried to strangle her from behind.

‘GET OFF ME!’ screamed Kay’oten. She began to flail about wildly, desperately trying to shake Distro off. ‘If anyone dies today it’s going to be you!

As threatening as the words were, the tone was laughable. Ka’harja felt a strange, morbid pleasure when he heard Kay’oten’s voice break and he was transported in his mind to the times she and his father had laughed at the weakness in his own voice.

Then he jumped in shock as Distro landed with a thump on the ground and Kay’oten turned and ran at her.

Kay’oten aimed a low kick at Distro’s face, but Distro leapt into the air with amazing speed and circled behind her adversary. Kay’oten kicked again as she spun, higher this time, but missed as Distro ducked. Kay’oten screamed and stumbled back, hissing angrily.

MUP BALAK HAL’KAKA!’ Kay’oten shouted. ‘What is it with you and hitting me in the vagina?!

Distro grit her teeth shook her out her hand, reeling from the punch she’d thrown. ‘Come on baby, it’s not like anyone else has been touching it lately. I know all about Pert’ana!’

It was the wrong thing to say. With a burst of rage Kay’oten lashed out and kicked Distro in the side. Distro gave a shout as her wound reopened and blood gushed out. She managed to block Kay’oten’s next kick but the woman had gone as savage as a rabid dog. She sunk her teeth into Distro’s hand and the two collapsed in a heap.

Distro managed to put her knees up before she hit the ground and Kay’oten landed on her heavily. Kay’oten gasped and Distro was able to wrench her hand free, but the Har’py was still on top of her and pinned her arms down easily. Distro tried to kick her off, but Kay’oten leant her weight forward and Distro found her knees pressed tightly between their stomachs.

‘He’s mine,’ hissed Kay’oten. ‘I squeezed the tisi’maar out! I own him!’

‘MUM!’ Ka’harja shrieked. Sken had to hold him back as he desperately tried to get to his mother.

Distro’s gaze snapped to her son. His face was tortured with fear. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he struggled against the caravaners.

‘Mum!’ he screamed. ‘Please! I need you!’

‘Aw, what a pity,’ Kay’oten breathed into Distro’s ear, too quiet for the spectators to hear. ‘Let me share a secret with you, woman to woman… kekik to kekik: I’m not going to kill him when I take him back. Oh, no…. I need to replace Pert’ana. And besides; it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had my way with him—

—I’LL KILL YOU!’ Distro’s dry-throated screech exploded out of her throat like an animal screaming for its life and Kay’oten jumped back in shock. She stumbled and fell to the ground, hands over her ears, as Distro screamed at her.

Then Distro rushed forward and, out of nowhere, a dragon took her place on the battlefield. It was as if the creature had burst out of Distro’s skin to defend her.

It gripped Kay’oten by the face and bit down, crushing her skull as its long serpentine body twisted and contorted in its frenzied mauling of the foxen woman. Blood splatted over the spectators as the dragon shook Kay’oten’s corpse by her neck until the flesh severed and her now-headless torso was flung across the field.

The Har’pies screeched in panic as the black-and-green beast gave an unruly roar and hissed in a voice all too familiar, ‘You bitch!

‘M-Mum?’ Ka’harja whispered as realisation washed over him. He swallowed his fear and shouted to the animal. ‘MUM! STOP! YOU’VE WON!’

The dragon turned to him and, as suddenly as it had appeared, Distro took its place on the blood-soaked ground. She looked… different.

There was no time for Ka’harja to notice the changes as he rushed forward and caught his collapsing mother.

‘What… happened?’ Distro asked weakly.

Ka’harja’s mouth was dry, but he smiled proudly and squeezed her hand. ‘You called Klict.’